Thursday, November 25, 2021

My Life in Scotland's "Wine" Episode 22

Cutting the peat

When I was much younger, my adult beverage of choice was Bourbon.  Then, I discovered wine.  My wine epiphany probably happened in Germany in the early 1950s, when I accidentally found there was more to drink than beer. 

With this new discovery, my interest in Bourbon began to fade as I started to find and taste German and French wine. The unspoken rule, among my new wine friends held that if you were a wine person, you didn't drink any of the hard stuff.  

Wine was for savoring and appreciating, they said, while Bourbon whiskey and other spirits were for getting a buzz on. Of course, that may have been true in the '50s, but today, Bourbon is a more interesting and varied tipple.

At the time, I considered myself to be the luckiest man alive.  I was  stationed in Bavaria, where some of the best beer in the world was brewed.  So naturally I continued to enjoy the occasional beer, but exploring German white wine proved to be more interesting. 

Eventually, I wondered if I had graduated to wine or was I just fooling myself?  The move to wine sounded about right, so Bourbon was set aside.  

Then, I discovered single malt Scotch whisky and the whole no spirits thing was resurrected.  Back in my Bourbon days, Scotch did not have the same appeal as Bourbon whiskey, but my occasional dram was blended Scotch; single malts were just starting to make a comeback in Scottish distilling. 

Sidebar:  There is a slight difference in the spelling: The spirit distilled in Scotland and Canada is spelled "whisky," while the United States and Ireland prefer "whiskey."

Single malt whisky is different from blended Scotch, as different as a Bordeaux wine is from Burgundy.  Blended Scotch (think Dewars, Johnnie Walker) is a base spirit and a selection of various single malts, blended to create a house style.   A single malt is the product of a single distillery and may sometimes be used in a blend.  

Blended Scotch has a sameness, while each single malt shows a different personality that come through in its layered flavors.  The nuanced differences I found in a Highland single malt compared, for example, to a peaty Islay malt was a revelation.

It was this personality that I found much closer to wine than it was to any other spirit.                              

View of copper whiskey stills in a distillery Large whiskey distills in a whiskey distilery in Scotland. scotland distillery stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Swan necks on copper pot stills

I wanted to know more, like why Lowland single malts are lighter than Highland malts (it has to do with climate and terroir differences), why the source of the water used to ferment the barley is so important (distillers claim the mineral content and whether the water is soft or not, influence the flavor) and why the shape and age of the still defines the character of the whisky (that's a long explanation that is part science and part local whisky lore). 

The more I learned about single malt whisky, the more I realized there are numerous parallels between whisky and wine.  Here are a few examples:

* Legend and lore play a big role in the story of both wine and whisky.  As  mentioned above, back in the day, the shape, style and maintenance of the pot stills used to distill single malt whisky was based on lore. Today science explains why the shape of a still is important to the desired character of the spirit. If a copper panel wears thin, because of the continuous high heat in the still and must be replaced, the exact duplicate of the panel, including any dents in the old panel, is hammered into the replacement part.  

* Both are made from a single natural crop: barley into whisky; grapes into wine.

* The environment (terroir) where grapes are grown defines the character of the wine.  With whisky, the variety of barley and where it is grown, plus the source of the water used in the fermentation of the barley is the "terroir" of whisky making.  

The malting floors at the Glendronach distillery
Classic malting floor

* Malting is a process where the barley is infused with smoke from a peat fire. The length of time the barley is malted depends on the style preferred by the distillery and the style of the region (i.e., island malts versus Highland malts).  In general, Islay single malts are "peatier" than most other malts, but individual distillers may prefer more or less of the smoky character.  As a process, malting is similar to the way grapes are processed in preparation for fermentation.

* The use of oak is an integral part of single malts as well as red wine and some white wines.  The difference being that single malts are aged mainly in American oak, while red wine may be aged in a variety of oaks, including American.  (This "oak rule" is changing as some whisky distilleries are experimenting with French oak.)

* Finally, there is a symbiotic relationship between single malt Scotch and wine. In recent years, single malt distillers began maturing their whiskies in barrels used previously to age wine.  The Highland distillery Macallan has for years used ex-Sherry casks to age single malt; the Macallan 12-Year-Old, matured in Sherry wood, is a classic example of this practice.  

Other single malt distilleries opted for barrels that previously held Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Bordeaux, Marsala and other oaks.  Glenmorangie, a popular Highland malt whisky, offers a line of single malts aged in various ex-wine barrels, plus a selection of other aged single malts.

The trend to find a unique whisky and wine marriage has taken on many variations. The Dalmore Highland "Cigar Malt" starts the wood aging in American oak, then into former oloroso Sherry casks and is finished in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.  Auchentoshan "Three Wood" Lowland malt is aged in a mixture of Bourbon, oloroso Sherry and PX Sherry woods.  

This brief essay has just scratched the surface of the pleasures of single malt  whisky, Scotland's "wine."   

Next blog: Light Reds

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Shiraz Comeback

Shiraz, aka Syrah, is making a comeback and it is about time!

Grape Bunches on Old Vine in Vineyard Large bunches of grapes on a gnarled old vine in French vineyard. L'Hermitage area of the Côtes du Rhône region of France. syrah grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Old vine Shiraz

Syrah, the big red with loads of personality, from the northern Rhone, never attained the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.  But as Shiraz, the Australian name, Syrah became a favorite of consumers who preferred their red wine big and bold.  

According to the latest market trends, Australian Shiraz is making a comeback and the Aussies couldn't be happier.  Over the last two years  exports have been down, a problem exacerbated by rising prices for Aussie wine, at least in the U.S. Market.

In the American market, thanks, in large part, to a group of California winemakers that created the Rhone Rangers, the popularity of Syrah and other Rhone varieties, took off in the late 1980 and into the '90s.  

Wine drinkers were looking for red wine alternatives to Cabernet  and Syrah filled the bill and California Pinot Noir had yet to attract a lot of attention. Conveniently, Syrah was midway between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir: Cabernet strength and structure supporting layers of ripe-berry Pinot fruit.  

 Australian Shiraz

If you were to fly across Australia, the first thing you would notice is how barren and arid it looks, mile after mile.  Unlike the interior of the United States, mostly covered with cities and towns and large green farms, Australia appears from the air to be vacant and uninhabitable. 

For that reason, most of Australia's 25 million people live along the coasts.  Few of country's wine regions are beyond the reach of coastal influence.  Australia is such an ancient worn-down continent that there is little elevation, so growers must reply on the cooling benefits of ocean air to counter the heat.  But the marine influence is not as noticeable in Australia as it is in California.

Sidebar:  In 1985, a handful of American wine writers was invited by the Australian government to come down under and see what their wineries were doing.  I had always wanted to see Australia so this was my chance, even though the trip turned into a forced march: Sydney, Hunter Valley, Perth, Margaret River, Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Canberra, and Sydney.

We saw a lot of wineries and vineyards, but what we saw most was wine, wine and more wine, everywhere we went.  At a Sunday luncheon at one of Sydney's famous harbor side seafood restaurants, there was at least one bottle of wine on every table in the sprawling two-story restaurant.  

Easing my lower jaw back into place, I thought, why are we not doing this in America? 

Shiraz is grown just about everywhere in Australia, save for a wide hot corridor in the north that spans the vast continent.  Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, both in South Australia, are generally considered to be the best examples of "big and bold."  

More tempered fruit focused Shiraz comes from the Hunter Valley, New South Wales; Margaret River, Western Australia; Tasmania and in various parts of Victoria, like Heathcote and Yarra Valley.

Large basket press in a traditional winery of the Barossa Valley of South Australia Large basket press used to press red wine grapes in a traditional winery of the Barossa Valley of South Australia Barossa Valley stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Basket press in Barossa winery

Australian Shiraz has a reputation for being big and full-blooded, but there are other styles of Aussie Shiraz worth looking at.  These are the main regions for Shiraz: 


Barossa Valley:  The Barossa style is full and dark with layers of cherry and raspberry, hints of dark chocolate and mint or eucalypt.  Penfolds Grange is the premier Barossa Shiraz, but there are scores of others including St. Hallett, Grant Burge, Yalumba and Peter Lehmann.

Sidebar:  People often confuse "mint" and "eucalyptus" when smelling and tasting certain red wines.  The two are not related but their aromatics bear some similarities. Tasters describe eucalyptus as "minty and faintly medicinal," while mint is a clean clearly defined component.  The mint-to-eucalpytus spectrum includes peppermint, spearmint, basil, menthol and eucalptyus. 

Eden Valley:  Near the Barossa but at a higher elevation, Eden Valley Shiraz shows more plum and black cherry, than black pepper.  Henschke's Hill of Grace ranks second only to the Grange.  There's also Heggies and Pewsey Vale.  

McLaren Vale:  The McLaren Vale style is lighter and smoother, with a rich velvety texture and a focus on fruit and good acidity.


Yarra Valley:  Not far from Melbourne, this cool verdant valley is known more for white wines than big reds.  Yarra Shiraz is deeply colored, with hints of spice and pepper and cherry.  Look for De Bortoli and Yarra Yering.


Heathcote:  This is big mint country and Shiraz shows it in spades, whether its peppermint or eucalyptus.  Heathcote Shiraz has strength and longevity.  Notable are Balgownie and Jasper Hill.


Lower Hunter Valley: Hunter Shiraz is legendary in Australia, even thought it has been eclipsed by the Barossa in recent years.  Hunter Shiraz are angular when young, but become smooth and supple with bottle age.  Look for Rothbury Estate, Brokenwood, Mount Pleasant.


Margaret River: Wild and beautiful, Margaret River is Cabernet country, but there are parts of the scenic country making distinctive Shiraz, such as great Southern (Plantagenet) and Geographe (Capel Vale).

Of course, there are other areas in Australia were Shiraz stands out.  Join the crowd and re-discover, or discover for the first time the pleasures of Australian Shiraz. 

Next blog: My Life in Scottish "Wine" Episode 22

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Thursday, November 11, 2021

South of Beaune

One of the unfortunate things, for the wine consumer, is as wine popularity grows, so too does demand and price for coveted wines.  And no where is this more noticeable than in Burgundy. 

White Burgundy, made from Chardonnay (and if you go back far enough a little Aligote), has always been a popular white wine, but that fame took on a new dimension in the 1990s, when Chardonnay surged ahead to become the most popular white wine in history. 

Upstart Chardonnays from new world regions like California were stylistically different from French Burgundy and they were less expensive. The standout feature in California Chardonnay was the use of oak. For Burgundies like Le Corton or Beaune Greves, the oak was an integrated component; there but not too noticeable.  For California Chardonnay, a list with too many brands to mention, the oak presence was often ripe and pungent; more in your face than subtle. 


Burgundians continued to use oak with an even hand, but It would be years before California dialed back the use of oak; a handful of wineries went so far as to release no-oak Chardonnays.  

What to do, then, if you wanted reasonably priced Chardonnay with a level of oak that didn't mask the bright mineral character of the wine?  Head south of Beaune to the regions of Maconnais and the Cote Chalonnais, known  primarily for producing moderately-priced Chardonnay, that has some of the same character as its more expensive neighbors to the north. 

For help in sorting through the complexities of Burgundy wine, consult the official classification.  Not as well known as the Bordeaux Classification of Medoc and Grave of 1855, the Burgundy system rates top white and red Burgundy, listed as Grand Cru (Great Growths) and Premier Cru (First Growths). 

Sidebar:  Following the evaluation of the terroir of each estate vineyard, plus wine making philosophy and how conscientious estate owners were of the operation and maintenance of their property, there was the politics, in determining what place on the hierarchy the property would rest.  

Every decade or so, a small group, usually of dissatisfied estate owners (Burgundy uses the term "estate," the equivalent of "chateau" in Bordeaux) would lobby to have the official classification changed, with hopefully the elevation of their property.  Few challenges succeeded, although Baron Rothschild's tireless efforts in 1973 resulted in the elevation of his Ch. Mouton-Rothschild from a Second Growth to a First Growth, in the 1855 Classification. 

While not a gauge of wine quality, the classification is an account of history and performance of those estates that have maintained a consistent high level of quality.

Cote Chalonnais 

A "cote," in French, is a slope or a hill and that aptly describes the lay of the land throughout the Chalonnais, although the slope is not continuous as it is to the north in the Cote d'Or.  Still, the limestone-based soils are similar and it is this sameness that lifts Chalonnais Chardonnay closer to those of the Cote de Beaune. 

There are five village appellations that usually stand on their own: Only Montagny produces solely white wine; Rully makes both white and red wine, plus small quantities of sparkling wine in the style of Champagne; Mercurey, arguably the best of the Chalonnais, and Givry are both known mainly for red wine, but also produce whites from Chardonnay; finally there is Bouzeron, a small area known for white wine made from Aligote, not often seen in the United States.

There are no Grand Cru vineyards in the Chalonnais, but a range of Premier Crus including in Mercurey, Rully and Montagny.

A small quantity of Pinot Noir is grown in the Chalonnais.  A Mercurey rouge, made from Pinot Noir is sometimes mistaken for a more famous Cote d'Or red.


There was a time when Americans went nuts for Macon Chardonnay, a wine with Burgundy character but at half the price.  Then, the cost of a decent Macon rose  to a level where consumers opted instead for California Chardonnay at half the price.

Large quantities of Chardonnay are bottled as Macon or Macon-Villages.  A few of these better known villages make white wine under their own names, like Pouilly-Fuisse and St. Veran.  

Pouilly-Fuisse, sometimes referred to as the "poor man's Cote de Beaune," is the richest and fullest Maconnais white, often commanding high prices.  

St. Veran gained its appellation in 1971 and picked up vineyards that were previously Beaujolais Blanc.  St. Veran Chardonnays are stylistically bigger and richer than Macon-Village, often representing good value. 

The output of the Maconnais is approximately three to four times that of the Cote Chalonnais.  There are no Grand Cru vineyards in the Maconnais.

Small quantities of red Macon are made from the Gamay grape, drawing comparisons with nearby Beaujolais.  Bottled as Macon or Macon-Villages, the reds are scarce in U.S. markets.  


Next blog: Rise of Shiraz 

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Correction:  In "My Life in Wine Episode 21," the date of the Loma Prieta Earthquake was incorrect.  It should have been 1989 not 1979.



Thursday, November 4, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 21

After the Wine Spectator, my life in wine alternated between free lancing, an editorial run with a small struggling Australian-owned wine magazine and then back to free lance, including a long and satisfying time as a columnist with Wine Review Online. 

                     seismograph showing earthquake activity - earthquake stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This is not, thankfully, another story about Covid.  Rather, this is my attempt to connect this MLIW episode with one of the unforeseen side issues of the pandemic lock downs.  Namely, how thousands of people found themselves coping with the oddities of working at home and how that relates to wine writing.

There are a few dozen full time wine writers who work at a magazine or newspaper. But the majority of wine writers do their thing from an alcove or special area in their home, or if they're lucky (as am I) from a home office.

For the free lancer being able to work at home means no commute, no need to shave and you can pound your computer keyboard in your PJs or even your underwear; really, who's going to see you? 

If that sounds like an ideal work environment, it isn't, unless you're disciplined and can keep to a set routine and not be distracted.  Unfortunately, that didn't always work for me. in 1979.  

In 1979, I was just finishing writing an opus on California Chardonnay when the San Francisco earthquake struck and everything in my office began to jump and shake.  It was like a giant had our townhouse in its grip and was giving the building a good shake.  

Books fell off the shelves over my desk and wines rattled out of a wine rack.  It was temporary chaos, with bottles crashing to the floor on top of a mound of books.  Miraculously, only two bottles broke and, of course, one of them was an expensive white Burgundy.

The free lance environment can be as quiet as a monastery cell or as noisy as an earthquake environment. Some writers need the quiet, while others, like myself, think and write better with a little music in the background. Classical music  stimulates my thinking and concentration, except for those times when it's disrupted by a daily outside distraction.

My office in the townhouse faced a tiny fenced entry courtyard.  Our mail carrier, a man who was passed his time to retire, worked hard at finding ways not to exert himself, like getting you to help with his mail delivery. 

One day, while typing a wine note, I heard Don coming up our short walk.  "Hey, Jer!" he yelled until I came to the front gate and took the mail.  If I wasn't home or didn't come outside, Don would leave the mail on top of the gate, annoying to say the least since our mail box was just inside the gate.

On one occasion, the antics of Don the Mailman broke my chain of thought about a visit to Bordeaux where the winemaker demonstrated an innovative way to get wine from a barrel.  The trick involved a special hammer with a long pointed sharp prong where the claw would be on a standard hammer. 

Using the pointed end of his tool, the winemaker swung hard whacking the head of the barrel, opening a small hole.  Fortunately, the barrel was tightly bunged creating enough internal pressure, so the wine didn't leak out. 

Then, he hooked the pointed end of the hammer behind the head brace and pulled down on the handle. The light pressure against the head caused a narrow stream of bright red wine to spurt out of the barrel into a waiting wine glass.  After dispensing wine into four glasses, the winemaker inserted a small wooden plug into the hole and hammered it home.  

It was all a bit of winery theater, performed by a French winemaker and his Portuguese assistant, for the amused visiting wine writer and his wife

Of course, you don't need to travel to Bordeaux or any other world wine region to sample the wine, but you'll understand and appreciate wine a lot more if you go to where it is made.  In the next few episodes, I do a bit of traveling, starting in Scotland where a spirit is distilled that comes as close to wine, for style and variety, as anything I've tasted.  


Next blog: South of the Cote de Beaune

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Wine's Turning Point

   California Vineyard at Dusk with mountains (P) Temecula vineyard, wine country, looking over, mountains, low hanging clouds vineyards california stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images


Tracing the history of modern wine making in the United States is difficult, mostly because the definition of what is meant by "modern" is unclear.

Some observers claim that the modern era of U.S. wine making began in California in the 1970s, following the so-called wine boom. They will tell you that wine stumbled along in the American consciousness until "The Judgement of Paris," a 1976 taste off of French and California wines, staged by an English wine merchant.

But setting the date a mere 50 years ago ignores the planting of grapes by Franciscan padres at the first California mission in 1769.  And it would be minimizing the efforts by European immigrants to grow grapes and make wine in New York, Missouri, Ohio and other eastern locations early in the 20th century.  

Of course, history and circumstances meant that the compass arrow would eventually point to Northern California and especially the verdant valleys of Napa and Sonoma.  Italian and German immigrants had already plowed the vineyards and built the wineries with venerable names like Sebastiani, Beaulieu Vineyard, Pedroncelli, Inglenook and Beringer.  These became established wineries making solid wines, that formed the basis for the flood of wine to come.

Post WWII wines from Napa and Sonoma may not be recognizable to today's wine consumer.  Red wine, mostly blends, dominated then and what little white wine there was likely didn't come from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Grape and wine names like Alicante, Golden Chasselas, Carignane (Carignan), Charbono, Emerald Riesling and Flame Tokay, were common then and it would be years before varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay would be on the tables of wine drinkers.

As technology changed the way grapes were grown and wine was made, it was only natural that the character of wine was approaching a turning point. When wine began to change is hard to say.  But I noticed a sameness creeping in during judging some wine types at wine competitions, as early as the mid-1980s.  

Wine competitions generally group wines by varietal types and sometimes by price and vintage. At large wine competitions this might mean that any group could have hundreds of wines, all from the same vintage or price range.

However, while the industry was preaching dry, especially for white wines, increasingly what I was tasting was off dry.  This was especially noticeable with Chardonnay that seemed to be getting sweeter with each new vintage.

                  Vineyard in Provence Vineyard in Provence. french vineyard stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Then, there was the touting of terrior, a French term that encompasses the entirety of a vineyard environment. Problem is, the very terroir signs that are supposed to distinguish a vineyard or region, making it different from other sites, were being erased from the wine by wine making. 

Escalating alcohol levels was another sign that the character (and maybe the soul) of wine was changing.  As recently as the 1970s, the majority of red wines were finished at 12.5% alcohol by volume, or the number claimed on the label.

Sidebar:  In the United States, "table wine" must by law be between 7% and 14%, with a 1.5% fudge either way.  Thus, a stated alcohol of 12.5%, may legally be 11% or as high as 14%.  A wine between 14% and 24% qualifies as a "dessert wine."

Also, there is something called the "International Palate," a profile of character and flavor, to which all wines for sale in the international market, supposedly conform. This "homogenizing" of wine is most often seen in lower-priced "commodity" wine.  However, I waffle a little on this because the sameness is not present in all wines or markets. 

Finally, wineries change wine makers and the grapes change from vintage to vintage, possibly altering the "house style."  Then, some wineries want to make the best wine possible and not stick to a house style.  

The list of factors changing the character of wine is unlimited.  Any changes I've noticed have been slow and subtle.  If you only buy a bottle of wine now and then, you're not likely to see the changes that have occurred over the years.

So, enjoy each wine but be conscious that change is happening.

Next blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 21

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Red Wines of Oregon

It could be said that Oregon's reputation for world-beating Pinot Noir owes its success to the dissatisfaction of a small group of California wine makers.  

Let me explain.  A few pinot missionaries, led by David Lett, decided that the Golden State was not suitable for their grape, so they headed north.  By the 1960s, "Papa Pinot," as Lett would become known, planted pinot vines near Dundee and opened the Eyrie Vineyard.  Dick Erath, Erath Vineyards (formerly Knudsen-Erath) led the next wave, mostly from California, settling in the Willamette Valley. 

The background to this vinous diaspora is that grape specialists at California's UC-Davis told Lett that Pinot Noir, or for that matter any Vitis vinifera grape, would not survive in Willamette's cool climate.  Lett and his colleagues persisted, proving that the experts are not always right. 

Willamette valley vineyard in autumn rows of grape vines in Autumn colors in the Willamette valley willamette valley stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Autumn in the Willamette Valley

Today, the Willamette Valley is the epicenter of arguably America's best Pinot Noir. The valley boasts more than 200 wineries, most of which make Pinot Noir and is host to the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, that attracts a sizeable contingent of Burgundian vintners, from the birthplace of classic Pinot Noir.

Anecdote.  There is another story about Burgundians anointing the Willamette Valley (not California) as a place, outside of Burgundy, worthy of growing great Pinot Noir.  In 1979, the French staged a comparative tasting between French wines and their North American counterparts.  The 1975 Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir placed second, besting some of Burgundy's finest pinots.

Robert Drouhin, head of the Burgundy wine company, Joseph Drouhin, did not agree with the results, so he held a re-match. The results were the same.  Drouhin decided that Oregon Pinot Noir was worth a look, so he went to the Willamette Valley with his daughter Veronique and in 1987, Drouhin bought vineyard acreage, built a winery, with Veronique as winemaker.

The most important thing to be said about Oregon Pinot Noir is that it is not Burgundy.  The grape may be the same, though some will argue that variations in terroir and other factors, illustrate the differences between the two wines.  The flavors of Pinot Noir are elusive but at its base Oregon Pinot Noir has a deep berry richness with subtle earthy notes and above all, a complexity that varies with the local area and terroir.  

Beyond the Willamette 

When Oregon wine first became known, spurred mostly by Pinot Noir, critics sniffed that Oregon was a one-trick pony.  Fact is, in 1961 Richard Sommer, a California transplant, planted Pinot Noir at Hillcrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley, in what today is considered (at least in wine terms) southern Oregon. 

The two million acre vineyard region runs just south of Roseburg to the California border and includes a number of AVAs (American Viticultural Area), ranging from the small Applegate Valley AVA, part of the larger Rogue Valley AVA, to the large encompassing Southern Oregon AVA.

Autumn in a Rogue River Valley Vineyard

Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley are the best known and have the most wineries.  The other AVAs are Redhill-Douglas, Snake River Valley and Columbia Gorge. Two regions, Walla Walla and Columbia Gorge are technically a two-state AVAs, with vineyards in both Oregon and Washington. 

Southern Oregon is warmer than the Willamette Valley, making it a good spot for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo.  Still many of the vineyard sites in Southern Oregon are cooler than northern California, and reds like Cabernet are leaner and with more earthy notes. 

Oregonians are proud of their wine and they want consumers to know that there is a vibrant wine industry operating from just over the border from California to just south of Portland.  

Next blog: Wine's Turning Point

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Thursday, October 14, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 20

My association with the San Francisco Chronicle lasted 12 years, the first four as a contributing wine writer and then eight years as staff wine writer.  Those last eight years were productive, covering the wine scene, starting a wine tasting panel and recognizing excellence in wine making with the Winemaker of the Year.  In 2018, Janet and I moved to Santa Rosa and I moved into the next stage of my wine writing career.

                        Free Writing' Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here's How

Free lance writing about wine and spirits, mainly single malt whisky which I had developed a fondness for, kept me busy during the transition after the Chronicle.  

Building a free-lance business demands a high level of self discipline and sacrifice.  While it sounds noble, anyone who has decided to go it alone knows what I mean. To be successful, a free-lancer must establish a regular schedule and stick to it.  No slacking off to watch television or putter in the garden.

Things moved slowly at first because, as a free lancer, you are competing for assignments with other writers and it takes time to build associations with editors.  For me, getting back in the game was going slower than I expected, so the lure of another editorial position was tempting. 

Although my re-entry as a free-lance writer was moving along, my experience as a former editor became of value and the fact that I was no longer with the Spectator held some interest in a narrow field that was constantly looking for that rare writer/editor with wine knowledge.  

So it wasn't long before I got a call from the Wine Enthusiast, the main competitor of the Wine Spectator. Would I be interested to meet the owner about an open editorial position?  The offer was tempting, but it meant a return to the pressures of managing a magazine and I was just beginning to relax. 

It is an on-going surprise to me how the word circulates, even in a small field like wine writing, that there has been staff changes at a magazine or newspaper.   Then I got a call from Peter Simic, owner and publisher of Wine & Spirits Buying Guide, a low-circulation wine magazine intent on raising its value and image in the U.S. market.  WSBG was not even on my radar but Simic was looking for someone to edit the magazine while helping him to develop a better understanding of the American wine market and he heard about my change of employment.

He was persuasive, so I signed on with the understanding that my stint would be 12 months and no longer.  Peter Simic and I hit it off and we are still friends, but the magazine was struggling and having financial trouble, so Simic sold out and moved back to Australia, where he owns a very successful wine magazine. 

After the ownership change, I decided to return, again, to life as a free lance writer.  Assignments began to pick up from diverse publications like Advertising Age, Restaurant Hospitality, Robb Report, Decanter, Peter Simic's Winestate Australia, and others. 

Then, another offer came out of the blue.  Robert Whitley, a writer in California who I knew only by name, emailed me to ask if I would like to be a contributor to a new online site he was starting called "Wine Review Online."  I had been avoiding writing for the internet, but Whitley's invitation would open a new area of writing for me, so I started writing a monthly column on any aspect of wine I wanted to write about. 

Robert Whitley 1950 - 2021

An unexpected bonus of being a WRO contributor was an invitation to be a wine judge at Whitley's "Critics Challenge" wine competition.  It was an opportunity to join some of my WRO colleagues, like Mary Mulligan MW, Michael Franz, and Paul Lukacs, as well as taste a variety of wines that I might not see otherwise. Robert Whitley passed away in February 2021, followed in June by WRO contributor and Critics Challenge judge, Paul Lukacs.

Living in the beautiful Sonoma Valley was a respite from the hustle of the Bay Area.  My association with Wine Review On line continued and I began a busy time of travel to many of the world's wine regions.  Then, fully adjusted to life in wine country, my life in wine took on two new adventures. 


Next blog:  The Red Side of Oregon Wine 

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Wiine in the Holy Land

Kosher Israeli Wines

In 1986, I had occasion to go to Israel to observe first-hand a wine industry that, while not new, was struggling to establish an international presence. Except for Carmel, then one of Israel's largest wineries, few small Israeli wineries, kosher or non-kosher, had made a mark in the growing U.S. wine market. 

Thirty years ago, if you wanted kosher wine in America, your choices were Mogen David, Manichewitz, Kedem and you might find Carmel in major markets. The image of kosher wine was sweet and innocuous and that's not what wine consumers wanted.

Aside: Kosher means "pure" and is central to all Jewish religious and family events.  At the winery, the wine making process must be supervised by a rabbi and only kosher items, such as yeasts and fining agents may be used.  Fining agents like isinglass, made from animal products, can not be used. Kosher wine is suitable for vegetarians and if egg whites are not used for fining, it can be vegan.

So things changed, thanks in large part to the Israeli wine industry.

Israel is such a small country (about the size of New Jersey), that you can easily get around it in one day.  It is a mind boggling, for an American in Israel, to hear that records show evidence of wine being made 10,000 years ago, perhaps on the very land where you are standing.

My first stop was at the Golan Heights Winery, not far from Syria and the site of a major tank battle in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Imagine standing on an overlook, with a vineyard below you, sprawled along a flat plain where Israeli and Syrian tanks once faced off in battle.  

"This area had to be cleared of derelict tanks and unexploded shells, before the vineyard was planted" explained our guide, a former major in the Israeli Army, who fought in the '73 war.  

Today, most Israeli vineyards are planted to international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the mainstays of Israeli red wine. Carignan is also a popular red grape, both as a varietal and in blends. The best white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. There are a few native grapes, like Argaman, used mainly for blends that are sold in local markets. 

The Golan Heights Winery is in the Galilee, one of the countries five wine regions.  The others: Shomron, which includes Mt. Carmel; Samson, covering Tel Aviv and parts of Judea; The Judean Hills, in the foothills west of Jerusalem; and the Negev, in arid southern Israel.  

                      Golan Heights Winery: Irresistible Israeli Wines – XOXO SHOSH

On the day I visited Golan Heights winery, the Israeli Defense Force was running maneuvers, with army vehicles and tanks racing along the road beside the winery.  Inside the modern structure, a small cellar crew was tending to the wines.  The winemaker then was a young Californian named Peter Stern who provided a perspective on kosher wine. 

"To be a kosher wine, all of the practices of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) must be observed," said Stern.  "Only religious Jews may handle the wine and the winery equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery."

Aside: Stern admits that the story of his hiring as winemaker was a little confusing and dramatic, but thinking back, he says it now seems amusing.   "When I interviewed for the job (as winemaker), the requirements of kashrut in the winery were explained and I was asked if that would be a problem for me. I said no, but then I mentioned that I am not a Jew. The assumption was since my last name is Stern, that I was a Jew." 

Despite the name confusion, Stern was hired as winemaker, but his appointment took some adjustment on everyone's part. In the early days, Stern says it was awkward at first having to tell his cellar crew, who were all religious Jews, what he wanted done and how to do it. " But in time we all got used to the routine."

Today, Golan Heights Winery, which sells wine under the Yarden brand, has an internationally trained Israeli winemaker and is one of hundreds of small and medium-size kosher and non-kosher wineries in Israel. 

Availability of Israeli wines in the United States is spotty, mostly sold where there are large Jewish communities, live like New York.  Golan Heights, Carmel and Barkan control the Israeli market today and are the brands mainly seen in export markets.  Other Israeli wines to look for in your local stores include: Barkan, Binyamina, Domaine Herzberg, Ella Valley, Galil Mountain, Gush Etzion, Shiloh, Shiran, Tabor,  Tulip, Yarden, Yatir. 

Kosher wine is made in many countries and the quality rivals that of non-kosher wine.  While it may take some effort, the search for kosher wine will pay tasty dividends. 

Footnote.  Wine tourism is not big in Israel but visiting Israel is high on the bucket list of those Christians and Jews wanting to see the Biblical land of Judea, walk the path of Jesus along the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, mingle with the devoted at the Western Wall, visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and just revel at the opportunity to stand on the site of so much history.  Of all the many countries I've visited over the years, Israel is the most memorable...of course, there's always Italy!


Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 20

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Thursday, September 30, 2021

Changing Vineyards

                   Photos Show the Devastation of the Glass Incident Fire on Wine Country
There's a lot of talk in wine circles today about climate change and how it is affecting vineyards and the types of wine grapes to be grown in the future. Climate change deniers are vocal and persistent but the evolving vineyard environment tells a different story.
Changes taking place in vineyards around the world is happening is nothing less than a revolution that bodes well for the wine consumer.
Environmental problems that have been affecting grape growing are numerous, but growers are finding ways to cope.  Smoke taint, once a rarity, is something that growers and winemakers deal with now almost every year.  Persistent drought dogs grape growers who are facing increasing competition with other farmers for evaporating supplies of water.  
These natural hazards  are mostly beyond the control of growers and winemakers, but many of them are are spending sleepless nights worrying about loosing a harvest. 
According to a flood of articles in the wine press, sustainable practices in the vineyard has surfaced as a positive answer to these persistent problems.  As I see it, growers and winemakers, in all major wine regions, are not just looking at sustainable vineyard practices, but are becoming pro-active about sustainability.  
In the near future, that means the types of wines you see at your local wine shop may be changing.   And the changes promise to be mind-boggling.  Imagine a different red wine from Bordeaux, made from grapes other than the Bordeaux five, that will cause a shift in the long-standing rules governing which grapes are legal in the Medoc or St. Emilion.
Here are highlights of just a few of the articles I have read recently.  Keep in mind, that grape growing and vineyard development are dynamic, so what you read here now may soon change. 

Sustainable growing:  This is more than just a buzz phrase.  Liz Thach reports in Forbes magazine that the Napa Valley has "Napa Green," a sustainable certification program addressing environmental stewardship.  Sonoma County has a "Climate Adaption Certification Program."

And there are similar sustainable growing programs elsewhere in California, as well as Chile, Portugal, Italy (with Europe's largest organic growing area), South Africa (where 95% of growers and vintners follow a sustainable program), and Washington state (where growers and winemakers have been dealing with smoke taint).
Smoke Taint: The topic of smoke taint has growers and vintners lining up on both sides of the argument.  Some say that vineyards close to large fires will have tainted grapes and thus tainted wine. Others are saying the claim is over blown and not as wide spread as reported in the media. 
Winemakers analyze grapes for effects of smoke taint from wildfires
Smoke taint on grapes
Meanwhile, the issue of smoke taint on grapes and in wine, has gone to court.  A Sonoma County grape grower has been denied by a Lake County judge to force a Lake Co. grower to release 45,000 gallons of wine alleged to be tainted by smoke from recent fires. (CHECK THIS)

Different grapes: No matter where one stands on the effects of smoke taint and the definition of sustainable grape growing, the undeniable fact is that these problems are forcing growers and vintners everywhere to look at different grapes that are better suited to handle the ravages of climate change. 
Hybrid grapes are getting a new look, especially in eastern U.S. vineyards.  In Vermont, vintners are applying the same care in the vineyard for hybrids as they do with Vitis vinifera, such as Marguette (a Pinot Noir hybrid), Louise Swenson and La Crescent, both white hybrids, plus Arendell and Rougeon.  
And the grape experiments are even happening in conservative Bordeaux, where growers are looking at different grapes, including once ignored hybrids. While climate change is impacting the growing of standard varieties (Cabernet, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.), hybrids and old, mostly forgotten, native grapes are proving to be more resistant to climate change.  

Bordeaux vintners have been running a test of 52 different varieties, selecting a small number, including the Portuguese Touriga Nacional red and white Alvarinho (Albarino in Spain).
Aside:  Touriga Nacional is Portugal's top red wine grape that shows its real character when combined with other grapes like Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Franca, Tinta Cao and others to make Port, the great fortified wine.  Rich in berry flavors, with a hint of pepper, Touriga Nacional can be aggressive, a fault that is tamed when blended with other grapes.
Elsewhere, in California, the tongue-twisting Greek grape Assyriko is being experimented with in the Lodi region and growers near Calistoga are making room for new varieties such as Touriga Nacional.

Concern on Santorini as Assyrtiko grape prices rocket - Decanter
Assyriko  grapes on a traditional vine
Vineyard experiments aside, reports are showing that wine output in France is predicted to be down by 29% for 2021, below the levels of 1991 and 2017, all three years hit by heavy spring frosts, and growers are wondering if this is due to climate change.  
A positive aspect of climate change is warming temperatures will allow grapes to come to full ripeness more often than just the one or two years out of a decade.  And while traditional wine grapes, especially in strict AOC ruled Bordeaux and Burgundy, will not disappear any time soon, changes in the vineyard are coming.  
To fight the impact of climate change, wineries are working toward zero carbon emissions, by incorporating such diverse practices as using horses in the vineyard instead of tractors and by using lighter-weight glass bottles in the winery. 
Change is good may be a tired cliche, but the changes taking place in the vineyards can only mean good choices for consumers in the future.  Stay tuned. 
Next blog: Wines of Israel   
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