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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