Thursday, February 24, 2022

My Life in Wine Episode 26

Episode 25 (Feb 4) was all about the joys and disappointments of wine travel, such as rounding a corner in a Barcelona neighborhood and finding a fill-it-yourself wine shop or watching a young couple in a restaurant outside Florence, rely more on a magazine's wine ratings than the recommendations of a local sommelier.  

 Wine Glass Bottle

Winery visits can be instructive or boring.  But the inquisitive visitor seeking information not part of the tour spiel, should beware.  Most winery tour guides have a script and when asked a question not on that script usually sidestep the question and continue with the prepared tour.

As a writer, I always entered a winery hoping to learn something new and most times I did.  But there have been disappointments, such as the obligatory viewing of the bottling line. 

Bottling lines are usually Italian-made and expensive, like a precision Italian sports car. During a visit to a winery, the tour would always veer off  as the owner or winemaker would proudly say, "We want to show you our bottling line." Always  gleaming and beautiful, like the sports car, but one bottling line (well, maybe two) would hold you for a long time.

As a rule, wine writers and people in the wine trade, have an advantage when it comes to winery tours (we can say no to viewing the bottling line).  Winemakers, gregarious or not, are hoping to get a retailer to carry their wine and a wine writer to say something nice about the wines.  So, winemakers put their grumpy face away, smile and try to answer questions in non-technical language.

Okay, grumpy may be an unfair generalization, but after talking with hundreds of winemakers around the world, my experience is they are either extroverts who enjoy explaining things to people, or loners who don't relate well to people and are unhappy at being interrupted from the business of making wine to answer questions.

Then there's this: Winemakers often look at the visitor experience as being like an artist showing his contemporary work to someone only to have them quip, "I could do that!"

I've been at tastings in winery cellars when some self important visitor, who apparently was trying to impress anyone within earshot, made such a pronouncement.  The winemaker would usually resist commenting, but from the grim look on his or her face, they wanted to shout, "Really, well step up here and give it a try." 

Unless a winemaker intentionally pours a wine that is flawed to test a visitor, they already know the wine is sound and, in most cases, like what they made, so they don't want someone telling them what they already know about the wine. They are looking for honest opinions, good or bad. 


Many years ago, I had an appointment to interview Barney Fetzer, a retired lumber executive and father of 11 children, who started one of Mendocino's best known wineries.  After visiting the winery in Redwood Valley, Fetzer invited me and my wife and youngest son to a tasting and dinner at his oldest son John's house in the valley. 

Before we sat down to eat, Barney and John poured a few Fetzer Mendocino Zinfandels.  I expected Barney to ask me, the wine writer, for my opinion, but in stead, he turned to my son Sean, who was then 11 years old, handed him a glass with a little wine and asked, "What do you think, Sean?" 

After looking at me for permission, Sean (now a Washington state winemaker) took a small sip, thought about it for a moment and then said, "It tastes like peanut butter."

Barney and John both laughed and I started to say something, but Barney said, "That's very good, Sean."  Adding, "I have my kids taste our wines all the time.  They have an unbiased opinion, not influenced by prior knowledge and experience." 

Many years later, while living in Colorado and writing about wine for the Rocky Mountain News, Janet and I were invited to dinner at the home of Mel and Janie Masters; he then the sales director for Jordan Winery, she a chef.

The Masters were a talented couple, born and raised in England, who somehow settled in Denver.  We were among other guests of the Masters, including a flamboyant French friend who worked in fashion design and changed outfits between each course.   

Mel had plenty of wine on the table and between courses, he poured a Chardonnay and asked for opinions from his guests.  But, before anyone could reply, Mel summoned his young son, Charlie to the table, gave him a glass with a little wine and said, "Tell us about the wine, Charlie." 

Leaning his one arm on his father's knee and swirling the wine in the glass with his other, Charlie proceeded to describe the wine's bouquet and flavor.  Both father and son beamed as Janie brought the fish course to the table.

The point of this rambling stroll down memory lane is to offer a reminder that wine always seems to taste better in the place where it was made and with good food and company.

Next blog: A Different Sauvignon Blanc

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Thursday, February 17, 2022

An Argentine Resurrection


In Argentina's Mendoza Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, a resurrection in the vineyard has been taking place, breathing new life into a grape that was slowly losing favor. 

Malbec in France

For years in France, Malbec struggled to be a part of the Bordeaux blend.  Known by the Bordelaise as Cot, the Malbec grape played a minor role in Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

While it was losing ground in Bordeaux, Malbec held on as the principal grape of the famous "black wines" of Cahors, an ancient region about 120 miles southeast of Bordeaux. In Cahors, Malbec was called Auxerrois, until the grape's success in Argentina, then growers and wineries in Cahors changed the name to Malbec.

In 1851, a Frenchman exiled from his homeland, came to Argentina and began importing grapevines, including Malbec, from France.  The timing was crucial for the Argentine wine industry, since the vines left France before the phylloxera scourge, first noticed about ten years later, destroyed many of the vineyards.

Malbec bounced back and became a favored grape by some Bordeaux chateaux until 1956, when a severe frost damaged many of the vineyards.  But Malbec never recovered and the grape's  soft juicy fruit and deep color where replaced by Merlot, a grape more likely to survive poor fruit set (The French call it coulure) and rot, than Malbec.   

Fact is, Malbec never accounted for more than 15% of a Bordeaux blend and growers were not planting more Malbec vines.  That didn't deter wineries in the southwest regions from preferring Malbec's plummy richness as a blending component.  And in Cahors, where a Malbec must contain 70% of that grape.

Malbec in Argentina

The evolution of Malbec from France to Argentina is an impressive story.  But it wasn't by chance.  In 1852, French immigrants from Bordeaux brought vine cuttings with them to Argentina and planted the first Malbec in the Mendoza Valley. 

A snowy Andes backdrop to Mendoza Vineyards

Mendoza growers and winemakers like Cabernet Sauvignon for its structure and age ability, but the variety they chose as a prime blending partner is Malbec and not Merlot as it is in France.  In fact, Malbec, which accounts for about 18% of the total wine grape plantings, is Argentina's most popular grape today.

Aside: Before the middle of the 20th century, Argentine (and Chilean) growers sold their grapes on weight.  On my first visit to Argentina and Chile, I was told by Miguel Torres, the Spanish scion who had established a winery near Curico, Chile in 1978, that the most resistance he encountered when he first set up shop in Chile, was from old growers who wanted to flood the vineyards before harvest to get the weight of the grapes up.  The vines sucked up the water, plumping the grapes and jacking up grape cluster weight, while the growers grew richer. 

These four wine regions are the most important in Argentina for their size and scope of wines produced:

Mendoza, in the far west of the country, against the eastern Andes, is the largest and most important wine region in Argentina. The sub regions of San Rafael, Lujan de Cuyo, Valle de Uco and Maipu, are prime locations for Argentina's best reds such as Malbec.

San Juan is the second largest region and while it is not known for Malbec, I mention it here because Syrah and Bonarda do well in this region.  More to the north and hotter than Mendoza, San Juan is known for table grapes and raisins.

Salta is the most important wine region in the northwest.  Many of Salta's best vineyards are at high altitudes. Colome Altura vineyard, owned by Donald Hess, of the Hess Collection in the Napa Valley, is at 10,000 feet.  Red varieties like Malbec and Bonarda do well at these altitudes.

Rio Negra, in the south, is a cooler region, better known for pears and apples.  A lighter version of Malbec is produced from Rio Negra grapes.  Also popular are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as fragrant whites like Torrontes and Riesling. 

Aside: Regular readers of this blog are aware of my interest in wine grape names, especially the many synonyms for the same grape. For example, Torrontes is known by three names in Argentina: Torrontes Riojano, Torrontes Sanjuanino, Torrontes Mendocino. Not only are the names different, but so too are the grapes, although all three produce an aromatic, Muscat-like wine.  In Spain, Torrontes has four different names and is known by a variety of names in Portugal.

There have been big changes in the culture of Argentine wine making as well.  Old timers didn't talk much about how they made wine amongst themselves.  But today's young guns taste, evaluate and comment on each others wines, improving the breed and appealing more to the international taste for fine wine. 

And young winemakers are often trained abroad, usually in France or California, and they travel extensively, observing how grapes are grown and wine is made in other regions.  Its all being part of the international wine community. 

Catena Zapata

Argentine Malbecs are priced between $19 and $40, with a few special bottles hovering around $100.  Here are a few Argentine wineries representative of their regions: Trapache (Mendoza), Zuccardi (Mendoza), Catena Zapata (Mendoza), Wapina (Rio Negro), Bodegas Bianchi (San Raphael), Colome (Salta), Salentein (Vallle de Uco), Susana Balbo (Valle de Uco).

Argentine Malbec shares some of the characteristics with its French cousin, but is probably more like Bordeaux Malbec than the bigger more rustic wines of Cahors. 

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 26

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Thursday, February 10, 2022

Washington's Promising Reds


There was a time when New York state was second, behind California, in U.S. wine production.  But then Washington state vaulted up the list, to unseat New York and claim second place. 

It was an impressive accomplishment by a wine industry that for years was over shadowed by apples, hops and mint and seemed more satisfied growing hybrids than vinifera grapes.  

Washington's first grapes were planted in 1825 and for the next 112 years growth was slow.  By 1937, there were 42 wineries in the state. Today, that number has soared to more than 1,000 wineries and more than 80 varieties.

 Aside:  In the 1930s, the native variety Concord, was the most planted grape in Washington.  It was reported that Welch's, known for its juices and jellies, made from Concord, had more Concord acreage in Washington than it did in the east. 

As of 2021, the numbers show Washington contributing 5% of the total U.S. wine production, while California still claims first place with an impressive 84% of the total.  According to a recent survey, the total world production in 2021 was 800 million gallons, with California ranking fourth behind Italy, France and Spain.

Although the difference in production between California and Washington is likely  insurmountable, Washington wines continue to impress critics and consumers for their unique style and character. Especially promising is the Washington take on such classic reds as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.                                  

                                     Washington Vineyards


The majority of Washington wine grapes is grown in the Columbia Valley, in the eastern part of the state, where the environment is arid to semi-arid, with warm to hot days and cool nights. Natural rainfall, lower than most other wine regions, is limited by a rain shadow created by the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. This consistent weather phenomenon means Washington vineyards are mostly irrigated. 

The most widely planted of Washington's 80 varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. And there are small plantings of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir among others.

Varieties like Sangiovese and Pinot Noir do best in select microclimate pockets, where growing conditions are more suited to cool climate varieties like Pinot Noir.

Washington's wineries are scattered throughout the state, from the Yakima Valley to the Puget Sound.  The largest concentrations are in Woodinville, northeast of Seattle, with 130 plus wineries and Walla Walla, east of the Tri Cities, with 107 wineries spread through a large area.  

Moving grapes from the eastern vineyards to Woodinville wineries, requires trucking the ripe grapes across the Cascade mountains. This unique feature sets Washington apart from other regions where most of the vineyards are next to or nearby the wineries. 

General appellations for Washington red wines you'll likely see on labels include Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain and Walla Walla Valley.  Smaller appellations include Columbia Gorge, Snipes Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Lake Chelan.  

                                               Washington Wines


One of the first things you notice about Washington red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, is the bright bracing acidity and pure, not overripe, berry flavors, with just a trace of minerals.  

Stylistically, Washington reds stand alone, but are closer to Cabernet-based Bordeaux reds than California varietal wines.  The association with Bordeaux has some precedence.  At one time, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington's largest winery, had a compressed map at the top of the back labels of their wines, showing Washington state and Bordeaux on the same latitude.

The idea was to distance Washington wines from the warmer California style and closer to the Bordeaux style that most American wine drinkers were then used to.

While varietals are common in Washington, many of the wineries excel at blends, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, or the same two varieties with the addition of Cabernet Franc.  Although Syrah is most often seen as a pure varietal, there is a movement in Washington, to blend Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 

Washington wines are widely available today, but of the more than 1,000 wineries in the state, most are small.  These smaller wineries do not have the same distribution as do the large wineries, so you should ask your local wine merchant to order the wines you want. 

Washington red wines are good choices when you want something different, so isn't it time you tried a Washington wine?


Next blog:  Argentina's Malbec Resurrection

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Thursday, February 3, 2022

My Life in Wine Episoode 25

The last episode had MLIW veer off the path for a quick look at "A Winemaker in Training."  A directional correction is made in this Episode 25, putting the narrative back on course. 


One of the many advantages of getting off the couch and traveling is travel takes you out of your comfort zone, exposing you to new experiences and unexpected encounters with strangers.  

The enriching value of travel made an impression on me when I was an international wine judge in Sydney.  I was asked to do an interview with a local radio station, describing my impressions of being an American judging Australian wine in Australia.  

Turns out, the interviewer was an American ex-pat who had moved to Australia years ago, becoming then, as she put it, "part of the woodwork." 

While she was asking me questions, I was going over in my head: American or Canadian? Even listening to the accent, it's not easy to know unless you ask, and that's what I did when the interview was finished.  

Travel gives you that advantage, even when the waiter in a Paris cafe notices immediately that you are not French (there's no fooling the French about the use of their beloved language) when you order a glass of vin de pays. 


Travel has always been in my blood, so when I left the Wine Spectator, I began to travel.  My goal was to learn more about wine from the people that made it and how the local customs and environment had an influence over these practices.  

Wandering the streets of Barcelona one evening, I spotted a wine shop.  Not a wine shop as I knew it, but one that, as it soon became apparent, sold more bulk wine than bottled wine.  Behind the counter were two large vats, painted green and red, each with a shiny brass spigot.  

I found a place inside the shop, out of the steady stream of coming and going traffic and watched as locals brought their own demijohn or container to be filled with a fragrant red or white wine. 

I'd never seen anything like it before and if I had not been in Barcelona on that day and at that time, when Barcelonians did their evening shopping, it's likely I never would have known that wine was sold that way. 


Seeing young and old Barcelonians get their wine in just about any container, reminded me of an evening in a gasthaus (tavern) many years before in Bonstetten, Germany.  While enjoying a beer, brewed on site, a young girl came in carrying an aluminum lidded container.  She handed the container to the gasthaus owner who filled it with foaming beer and the girl disappeared into the night to deliver the brew to her thirsty father.

Given the rigid U.S. laws on selling wine in open containers and to underage children, it's not likely that the Barcelona and Bonstetten scenarios would take place in the United States.

Small point?  Maybe, but it all adds to the wine experience and helps round out your wine knowledge. 

Then there was another wine event in another country and time.  I was having dinner at a pleasant restaurant outside Florence, when a young couple, looking very American, was seated at the table next to me.  

She pulled a copy of the Wine Spectator from a large tote bag and placed it on the table.  He began reading the wine list that had an impressive selection of Brunello di Montalcino, quietly reading the wines to her.

The waiter/sommelier, a man I had learned earlier who knew his Brunellos, came to their table and asked if they had made a wine choice.  

"A Brunello," said the young man without looking up from the wine list. 

After asking about their food choices, the waiter suggested a few appropriate Brunellos.  The young woman checked each suggested wine, with what I guessed was a list of Brunellos in the Spectator, whispering the rating to her companion.  

I wanted to shout at the couple for ignoring the waiter's knowledgeable suggestions and for losing an opportunity to immerse oneself in local knowledge and learn something new from their travels to Italy. 

Perhaps no other experience I had in my travels to learn about wine, unfolded one sultry evening, as the sun was setting, at a small cafe by the water in Sanlucar de Barrameda, in the Sherry region of Spain. 


The setting: A small table in the shade of a sun-bleached umbrella, facing the sun as it disappeared below the horizon, flashing a kaleidoscope of colors.  On the table, a bottle of slightly chilled Manzanilla Sherry and a bowl of fresh shrimp. The briny-sweet shrimp and the dry, faintly salty and bitter, Sherry, was the perfect match. 

Was it the place, the shrimp, the day or the wine that brought the occasion to near perfection?  I don't know but it was a sublime wine-travel experience!

Next blog: Washington's Promising Reds

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