Thursday, October 22, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 7

"I made wine out of raisins so I wouldn't have to wait for it to age."  Steven Wright, stand up comic


In Episode 6, My Copy Editor and I were still in France, having spent a few sleepless nights in Paris at a hot and noisy hotel.  The days were more pleasant, as we enjoyed a wine-infused alfresco lunch on the Champs d' Elysee with the owner of Chateau Greysac, followed the next day by an interesting and amusing visit to his chateau, in the northern Medoc, where we tasted wine from a barrel, removed in an unusual and damaging to the barrel, fashion. Then, it was south to Margaux.

One of  the benefits of wine travel is seeing scenic wine regions; unfortunately, the Medoc is not one of them.  The terrain is mostly flat and featureless, the monotony broken up by elegant wine estates with grand houses, set back off the road.  Heading south, we passed through St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien and Margaux, for a visit with Alexis Lichine at Chateau Prieure-Lichine.    

When planning the European trip, I got word that Lichine was coming to Denver to speak to members of Les Amis du Vin, then a popular wine appreciation organization with national chapters of wine lovers. 

Lichine's visit was an opportunity for me to interview him for my wine column in the "Rocky Mountain News."  We met for the interview in his room at the downtown hotel where he was staying, early in the afternoon on the day he arrived.  After the interview, I mentioned my forthcoming trip to Bordeaux and Lichine graciously extended an invitation to visit the chateau.  It seemed like a casual offer, the kind that's given as a polite gesture.                       


To my surprise, Lichine wrote back confirming our visit, adding that he was looking forward to seeing my Copy Editor and me.  Alexis Lichine was a man of many interests, including being married to actress Arlene Dahl.  Born in Russia, he spent time in America, an experience that helped define the way he did business in France. The insular Bordelaise didn't know what to make of Lichine's promotional business sense, especially when he erected a billboard ("Mon Dieu!) advertising visits to Prieure-Lichine.

We had a casual meal of steak grilled over grapevines, with a vintage or two of Prieure-Lichine, in the chateau kitchen. Steaks anywhere in Europe in the 1970s didn't hold a candle to an American steak, but food always tastes better when served (with local wine) in a special place.  

After lunch, our host  insisted we see the chateau, including a visit to his bedroom, which my Copy Editor and I thought was a bit unusual. 

Good wine and food encourage lively conversation, and we were enjoying our visit with Alexis Lichine, but it was time for us to get on the road. There was a long cross-country drive to the Burgundy region ahead of us and we had one more stop and tasting experience in Bordeaux.Unfortunately, we never met again, as Alexis Lichine died in 1989.

The Denver-based representative of Ch. d'Arche, a Second Growth Sauternes, invited us to meet her at an inn near the Bordeaux airport, for a taste of d'Arche.  I had little experience with Sauternes and found the complex wine's impeccable balance of sugar and acidity an impressive and eye-opening experience. 

                                     2005 Chateau d'Arche, Sauternes | prices, stores, tasting notes and market  data

But what really astounded me was the combination of savory foie gras with sweet Sauternes. Although I didn't know about umami then, it was probably that taste/texture that made the marriage of sweet and savory work. 

The following day, looking forward to changing wine gears from Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir, we headed east to the Burgundy region and the town of Beaune. 

I had underestimated how long it would take us to drive across France, on narrow two-lane roads through open farmland. The going was frustratingly slow, because just as you hit a straight stretch and got up to speed, there was another village, or small provincial town with more narrow streets and confusing intersections where the unwary could go off in any direction. 

Even more annoying, was never seeing a sign in a town, that the route you want continues down this street or that avenue. French route planners must assume that as you enter a town, somehow, without the benefit of a directional sign or two, you will, perhaps by divine provenience, emerge at the other side of town still on the same route. 

Eventually, though, we did arrive in Beaune and immediately found our way to the Hotel Le Cep, our lodging for the next few days.  Of course, there were no parking spaces anywhere near the entrance to the hotel.  By luck, I spotted one on a side street, wedged the car in, and schlepped the bags two long blocks to the hotel. Tired and road-weary, we were happy to know the hotel had our reservation. 

                     Photo 9

The desk clerk was officious, even if a bit weary looking, and we were checked in with no delay. Then, as I turned to grab our bags, the desk clerk looked sternly at me and clucked loudly, "No, no, monsieur!"  Thinking I was about to take the wrong suitcases, I turned to the clerk with a questioning look, and saw her point behind me.

There stood a tiny old woman, dressed in black, with arms like twigs, about to grip our suitcase handles. I started to protest, but she was already heading to the staircase.  "This is not going to work," I whispered to my Copy Editor, but the "bell lady" was already up one flight of stairs and down the hallway, lights switching on mysteriously as she trundled along. It was tiring just watching her struggle with the heavy bags.

We thought the Hotel Le Cep was extravagantly expensive in 1979, but when I was last in Beaune, I checked out the hotel and was glad that I was staying elsewhere. No worries, though, we were anticipating our appointment at Maison Joseph Drouhin. 

Late morning, the following day, we arrived at the winery and were met by a young woman who showed us through a spacious area full of large oak fermentation tanks and then down a narrow spiral staircase to the barrel cellar. well-worn flagstone formed a smooth pathway between the barrel racks, allowing for the easy movement of hand trucks hauling oak barrels. "The Drouhin children also use these pathways for roller skating," explained our guide. "It's better for the roller skates than outside on the bumpy cobblestone street."

At the end of a long pathway was another spiral staircase. It turns out, during inclement weather, the pathways provided a convenient route for the Drouhins to move from the office building to their residence.  The Drouhins were waiting for us at a table set up for lunch in the garden. Joining us were two of the Drouhin children, including a young Veronique, who would go on to be winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon. 

It would have been easy to spend the afternoon sipping Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches and enjoying some pleasant conversation, but business awaited the Drouhins and my Copy Editor and I had a long drive ahead of us the next day, to Spain.

In Episode 8, November 22, 2020, our travels take us to Barcelona, a side trip to Torres in Vilafranca del Penedes, then a long drive back into France and a stop to soak up the charm of Alsace before crossing the Rhine into Germany.


Next blog: Spanish white wines, Part One 

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Monday, October 12, 2020

California Pinot Noir

"The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson." Robert Louis Stevenson


The history of California Pinot Noir is spread over a number of decades, but only recently has the wine's popularity caught up with its impressive quality.  

In 1952, former ambassador James Zellerbach, planted a vineyard in the hills north of the town of Sonoma.  Zellerbach's goal was to make a Hanzell Pinot Noir in Sonoma county like those he had tasted in Burgundy's Cote d'Or. 

According to Leon Adams in "The Wines of America," Zellerbach never knew (he died in 1963) that his Hanzell wines changed the way vintners thought about the way California red wine tasted. According to Adams, Hanzell wines "would cause scores of America's leading vintners to make an important change in the flavor of their wines."

That "important change" was Zellerbach's introduction of French oak to California wine making, specifically for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Before the introduction of French oak, California winemakers mostly used American white oak.

There were, of course, other dedicated folks who believed, in the face of consumer fervor for Cabernet Sauvignon, that there was a place in the Golden State for Pinot Noir. Those that shared Zellerbach's passion for red Burgundy included: Chalone, Navarro, Beaulieu Vineyard and Sanford and Benedict.  

Aside --There is a story that Andre Tchelistcheff, long-time winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyard, admitted once that Pinot Noir was his favorite red wine, even though he became known for B-V Private Reserve, one of Napa Valley's iconic Cabernet Sauvignons. 

The pinot advocates believed that to make Pinot Noir in California that shared some of the similarities to Burgundy, a cool climate was needed.

Panoramic of Pinot Noir Grapes. Panoramic view of Pinot Noir grapes during veraison in the Willamette Valley of Oregon royalty free stock images
Pinot Noir clusters all in a row           

In many ways, Pinot Noir is the antithesis of Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir demands far more of the grower than does Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir has a sensitivity to soils, while Cabernet will grow almost anywhere. Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult in the winery, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is relatively easy to ferment.  And, an inexpensive Cabernet still tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon, while an inexpensive Pinot Noir is just another red wine.

And then there's this: Cabernet Sauvignon has a more defined and angular structure, while Pinot Noir tends to be more sensual, softer and rounder.  Think of Cabernet Sauvignon as a square and Pinot Noir a circle. 

This diversity is one of the telling features that separates California Pinot Noir, from Oregon and the few scattered places around the country where growers and winemakers strive to make a distinguished wine. It should be noted that identifying a specific location or terroir is no more noticeable than in Burgundy where red wine is identified as Burgundy and not Pinot Noir. 

Whatever the reasons why people are attracted to Pinot Noir, the fact is that an impressive number of California winemakers consider making Pinot Noir as the attainment of the wine Holy Grail. They may be making world-beating Cabernet Sauvignon, but what they want is the challenge of making a memorable Pinot Noir and the satisfaction of what has become known as "pinot envy."

 Where Pinot Grows Best

Like many things about Pinot Noir, summing up its flavor in a few words is an elusive exercise. The traditional descriptors like strawberry, black cherry, boiled beets, spice are only general, while leather, mushrooms and gamy fit more with aged Pinot Noir.  Traditionally, memorable California Pinot Noir came mainly from coastal vineyards, or vineyards near a body of water, helping to smooth the edges of climate extremes.  

The following general summary, alphabetical from north to south, may help to distinguish the pinots from one California region to another:

Anderson Valley -- The Anderson Valley, between Booneville and the Pacific Ocean, has nurtured a low-key reputation for excellent Pinot Noir. The maritime influence gives the wines bright raspberry flavors with floral accents. There are 60 wineries in this rural valley, including Husch, Goldeneye and Roederer Estate sparkling wine. Every May, the vintners hold a Pinot Noir Festival in the Anderson Valley.

Carneros -- The broad Carneros appellation lies across the southern ends of Napa and Sonoma counties, bordering San Pablo Bay, the northern part of the larger San Francisco Bay. The cooling marine influence allows Pinot Noir, for still and sparkling wines, to yield ripe fruit, with a spicy accent and crisp acidity.  A few producers: Etude, Saintsbury, Donum Estate and Domaine Carneros.  

Central Coast -- This is a catchall appellation that stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles and includes San Benito, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. With the possible exception of Paso Robles, there are noteworthy Pinot Noirs from the other areas, such as Calera (San Benito) and Belle Glos (Santa Lucia Highlands).

                                              Russian River Valley Wines | Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winer's collection of  10+ russian river valley ideas in 2020

Russian River Valley -- The wine part of the land where the river runs through it in northern Sonoma County, stretches from west of Healdsburg to where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Pinots are known for silky textures, soft tannins, dark cherry and a trace of minerals. A few producers: Williams Selyem, Hartford Court, David Ramey, Gary Farrell. 

Santa Barbara County -- Technically within the Central Coast AVA, the southern Santa Barbara County encompasses Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hill and Santa Ynez Valley AVAs. Pinots range from lean and peppery to full and berry-rich. A few producers: Au Bon Climat (Santa Maria Valley), Sea Smoke (Santa Rita Hills), Gainey Vineyard (Santa Ynez Valley).

Sonoma Coast -- This vast and confusing appellation stretches for hundreds of miles along Sonoma's Pacific coast and includes the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation.  Although the Sonoma Coast AVA includes some inland areas, many of the vineyard best sites are among the coolest in the state. The pinots are known for bracing acidity, deep berry flavors and silky tannins. Producers: Fort Ross Vineyards, Flowers, Hartford Family, La Crema.

And finally, two end notes:                                                    

Caveat emptor:  Wildfires this year have done considerable damage to vineyards and wineries, especially in Northern California. Some wineries lost grapes in the fires, some lost case goods, others saw damage to their buildings. The full impact of smoke on grapes and wines is still unknown. The prospect of less wine, though, due to smoke-taint, will obviously put pressure on present stocks, undoubtedly affecting bottle prices.  

The Holiday Bird...With Thanksgiving just weeks away, it's time to think of what wine(s) to serve with the holiday meal.  Here's a suggestion from the Petaluma Gap Alliance, a winery group in Sonoma County, that polled their members who decided that Pinot Noir  (from the Petaluma Gap, hopefully) is the ideal choice with the traditional Thanksgiving feast.  I wholeheartedly agree.


Next blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 7

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Friday, October 2, 2020

How much is enough?

"In vino veritas -- In wine there is truth."  Words from Pliny the Elder that should be on all wine labels.


How much do consumers need to know about the wine in the bottle?

That's a question that is being shuttled about today in wine circles.  And, perhaps not surprising, there is no agreement on the answer or even if there should be an agreement. 

What sparked my interest about wine ingredient labeling were a few articles I read recently that, either directly or obliquely, addressed the subject of information on wine labels, how much information is sufficient and if the wine consumer really cares.

Wine Label Template - 3pt-Blank.jpg (350×416) | Wine label template, Wine  bottle label template, Label templates
What belongs on this label?

Debating the importance of the pros and cons of what should be included on a  wine label is like arguing how many angels will fit on the head of a pin.  But that's the point say those who favor full disclosure. The more information there is on the wine label the more informed the wine purchase. 

Those in disagreement argue that endless numbers and figures like a wine's pH, residual sugar and total acidity, only increase buyer confusion.  Most people can explain and understand residual sugar and total acidity, but few winemakers I've talked with can define pH.  It's like asking someone to describe the taste of a banana.

Wine writer Dan Berger, who often writes passionately about a number of consumer-related questions, supports the idea that more information on labels the better, citing the consumer's need to know, as well as the importance of wine making/marketing transparency.  In a recent newspaper column, Berger called for more information on back labels, maintaining that it would provide the wine consumer with vital information, while helping to foster a more astute buying decision. 

Curiously, not long after Berger's article appeared, the Wine Market Council released the results of an online consumer survey indicating that the wine consumers surveyed were more interested in the type of wine and what it tasted like. 

Here are just a few of the survey's more compelling findings:
* 78% Always Want to Know the type of wine. 

* 69% Always Want to Know about the wine's flavor and taste.

* 42% Always Want to Know where the wine was produced.  

* 36% Always Want to Know the percent of alcohol content.

* 44% Rarely Want to Know how the grapes were grown.

* 41% Rarely Want to Know about Nutrition and Ingredients on wine labels.

* Significantly, 40% of respondents said they were overwhelmed when choosing and buying a wine because there are so many choices, while 80% had difficulty choosing a wine because they were not sure what the wine will taste like.

 Personal Aside -- There is a handful of old timers in the California wine business that spoke their mind and just wanted to make wine and not deal with all the bureaucracy and  paperwork. Myron Nightingale, former winemaker for Beringer Vineyards, was a man I greatly admired for his knowledge of winemaking, ability to clearly understand the wine consumer and his generosity toward wine writers.

Myron could be irascible, impatient and didn't suffer fools willingly. One of his pet peeves was the incomprehensible bureaucracy of the wine label approval process. 

We were discussing the terminology on wine labels, when Myron said, "I want to show you something." He opened a thick loose leaf binder to a specific  form and dropped the folder in front of me.

It was a BATF approval form he had submitted for "Malvasia Bianco," a new white wine that Beringer wanted to sell. "Read that," barked Myron, jabbing a purple stained finger at the Approve/Disapprove block and the typed entry: "Identify the primary grape in the blend: "Malvasia," or "Bianco"

Then, there was an interesting take on the Wine Market Council survey and the growing interest in the subject of ingredient labeling, by a fellow blogger. In a recent edition of "Fermentation," Tom Wark suggests the growing interest is because of the natural wine movement influence. Wark, no fan of natural wine, said that the movement's advocates are pressuring for wine labels to show a long list of ingredients.

Further, Wark says that findings in the WMC survey contradict articles and reports in various publications that consumers do want ingredients included on wine labels. As for the insistence on transparency, Wark warns that it "insinuates that something bad and nasty is being hidden" from consumers. 

Finally, there was this item, not directly about ingredient labeling, but more about information that might show up on a wine label and potentially cause consumer confusion. 


A bulletin from the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the Department of the Treasury (formerly, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), mentioned the approval for American wine labels of five new grapes: Camminare Noir, Passeanto Noir, Errante Noir, Ambulo Blanc and Caminante Blanc. The advantage of the new grapes, the bulletin explains, is the new grapes are resistant to Pierce's Disease, a feared bacterial disease that destroys vines and costs growers $100 million a year.  

The five new grapes were developed at the University of California Davis as part of a long-standing program to help the California wine industry with solutions to costly problems.

Any effort to control Pierce's Disease is to be applauded, yet I found the grape names odd and wondered about the likelihood of growers replacing highly valued and money-making grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon with these new grapes?  And, more to the point: Will we will ever see these new grapes on a wine label?

We are at a time when there is a demand for transparency in everything we say and do. Does that mean wine labels should be loaded down with data that may not improve the wine buying experience?  After decades of asking wine consumers what will help them make more informed buying decisions, this is what I heard over and over and what I believe: "How does the wine taste and how much does it cost?" 

Update: A new ruling from TTB, effective September 29 now makes TTB guidance on wine label ingredient more consistent with that of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) addressing nutrition information including calorie, carbohydrate, protein and fat content in wine, beer and spirits. The last time TTB ruled on nutrition labeling was 2004.


Next blog: California Pinot Noir 

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