Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Carmody McKnight

Gary Carmody believes there's a turning point coming for California wine: a thunderbolt of interest in how the whole picture of terroir--not only climate, but soil composition--works to improve the potential of the grapes.

Terroir is a hot topic, to be sure. Recently, UC Davis hosted the Terroir '06 Conference this last week, a rather large to-do with some of the big players on the California scene as well as an impressive number of participants from vineyards all over the country. Topics such as 'Expressions of Terroir in Vine and Grape Physiology' and 'Marketing the Romance of Terroir' were on the list of seminars. I, personally, find the latter rather interesting, and would've loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one. There's a lot of controversy right now over whether the whole terroir thing is truth or hype. The annoying fact is, it's both.

Gary's own Carmody McKnight vineyard, located in the gorgeous Northwestern corner of West Paso Robles, is being studied intensely by the Cal Poly Earth and Soil Sciences and Food Chemistry department.
Gary, a painter and actor, gets pretty excited about this. He spends a lot of time thinking about how the plot of land that bears his name might truly be, as his website proclaims, A Vineyard Supremely Endowed by Nature. As he talks, he holds a booklet from the conference in his lap, enthusiastically quoting speakers who have piqued his interest. His enthusiasm is infectious, and by the end of our conversation, we've established that the nascent personality of a wine coming from it's home acre has parallels in everything from Van Gogh to Pink's Hot Dogs.

As we sit in a resident living room on the property, a nicely appointed space with a Tuscan theme, Gary's winemaker Greg Cropper stepped in from the rain and offered us coffee. By now, I've heard a lot about the beauty of terroir and am interested in specifics. Can they tell me, specifically, about an element of the soil and its role in making wine better?

The answer I get is limestone. "Without limestone, you cannot have a superior wine...why else would Thomas Jefferson rave about Romanee-Conti?" Gary said. Being the little devil's advocate I am, point out that one might argue that hype, not truth, could be the answer. Gary suggests looking to history. "All the great wines from France that have sustained themselves for decades are grown in limestone soils."

Maybe so. The idea in a nutshell is that limestone, being rich in calcium, causes the vines to struggle, and balances pH, which in turn creates structure in the finished product. I was impressed with the knowledge and the enthusiasm. And the Late Harvest Chardonnay, too. That was nice stuff. The only thing missing out of all this hoopla, however, was the proof-in-the pudding. The red wines, a collection of 100% varietal Bordeaux blends, were good, but I felt like they fell short of the promise of the finest plot of land in Paso. They were fruity, had decent structure, and the characteristics of violet aromas and cocoa notes that seem to be part of the West Side, but I wanted them to...well, have more of the personality I'd been pitched.

Gary and Greg plan to "grow smaller" as they expand production by reducing yields and making wines from specific plots of land. I think it will be interesting to see how the wines are then.


Okay, I'll do a Paso roundup here in a few...stay clinkied...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Edna Valley/SLO Trail Roundup

The weather is sooo not cooperating with me. Even the locals are puzzled at this freaky late March rain and cold. How's a girl supposed to enjoy Morro Bay when it's all Scotland outside?

No matter, still tasting the vino, still enjoying the bejeezus out of this trip. I've already been through as much Edna Valley and most of the west side of Paso Robles. Before I move on to my interview with Gary Carmody, I want to run down the Edna Valley list.

The good thing about the Edna Valley is the cool climate. The bad thing about it is the humidity. Fungus is a big problem for these folks, much like it is in parts of France. They get the fog that rolls in from Morro Bay that is both a blessing and bane for varietals like Chard and Pinot.

In general, I found the Edna Valley wines had really good acid cores to them, regardless of how fruit forward they might be. My tour guide, John and I made it to five wineries last Friday.

Perbacco Cellars
These wines were a bit lush for my taste, but again, had nice acid backbone to them, so I can't complain. My favorite was the 2003 Arroyo Grande 'Dionysus' Pinot Noir, the high end one (of course). It was leaner and more elegant than the other Pinots, less forward, more tea and spice. A little oaky on the finish.

Aw, yeah. Come to Mama. A little Deutz goes a long way. This is as Champagne as you're gonna get in California. The 2002 Brut de Blanc (70% Chard, 30% Pinot Blanc) was impossible to spit. Nutty, citrusy, herby. I bought a bottle of the non-vintage Brut Rose because I just had to...think bone-dry bubbles with a strawberry bobbing on the top. Excellent. Don't miss this stop if you're in the SLO area.

Claiborne & Churchill

I've already bragged on the 2004 'Alsactian style' dry Gewurztraminer, but they also do a really nice Pinot Noir. The 2002 'Twin Creeks' is aromatic, well balanced and long finishing.

Kynsi Winery

A family of four pitch in, one and all, to make some right nice Pinots, Chardonnay, Syrahs and Pinot Blanc. Plus they use barn owls to control the gophers instead of blowing them up. Gotta love that. My favorite was the 2003 Edna Ranch Syrah--spicy and lean yet powerful.

A bit more oak and butter here than I care for, and a little too forward, but I dug the 2001 'Doceur' Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which had nice refreshing acidity to keep it from being too rich.

Okay, keep up now...Gary Carmody's next...


Monday, March 27, 2006

Claiborne & Churchill

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a firm believer that wine lovers love red and white wine. There's a whole world of interesting, charming white wines out there that're just dying to wash down that bite of tasty luncheon.

I discovered Claiborne and Churchill's dry 'Alsacian Style' Gewurztraminer a few months ago, and immediately stuck a pin in the Edna Valley map. It was a few dollars less retail in my store than my beloved Trimbach Gewurz, and had a bottle that said "We love Alsace, too! Give us a shot!" and I was not disappointed. I found a wine that showed the alluring floral/fruit aromatics that I craved, and have been a fan ever since.

The winery itself is an inspiring straw bale building, the first of its kind in California. The walls are made of 16" bales of rice straw and keep the inside a constant cellar temperature without using any form of mechanical heating or cooling.

It was an oddly dull, drizzly day in the Edna Valley when I drove out to meet Claiborne Thompson. He and I both were kinda out of it. We both secretly wondered how long it was until the cocktail hour, even as the wall clock mocked us with 1:15pm. Personally I was grateful he was as low-key as I was so I didn't look like a slacker. We had a nice chat.

Interview with Claiborne Thompson

C&D: I'm a really big fan of your Alsace wines.

Thompson: Thank you. But I've never maintained that our wines are carbon copies of Alsace. Fortunately, no one's ever come in and challenged me on that. Obviously, you can't duplicate something from another place. In Alsace they have a kind of earthiness and a sometimes a kind of oiliness that a lot of Americans don't particularly like, and in California you get this wonderful floral fruitiness that never fails because we have this beautiful weather.

How did your career in winemaking begin?

I had a career before this, I was a professor. Early in my life I got interested in languages because my parents were stationed in Germany. Spent a Fulbright year in Germany, got interested in the Middle Ages, and ended up getting a PhD in Scandanavian Languages. It was pretty far-out, esoteric stuff. And I got a job as an assistant professor, got the last good job in the country before things got really bad in academics. But I became disillusioned with academics, began to hate the politics...and there were other disappointments along the way. So during a year of soul-searching and wondering why I wasn't happy in my first career, I stumbled on the California wine industry...and got bit by the wine bug. One of the first wineries I visited was Edna Valley vineyard, it was brand new at the time...

What year was this?

1981. These two guys in their twenties took me down to their cellar and we tasted wine and I thought, wow, this could be fun, they like what they do. I talked my way into a job...I had to go to Dick Graff, who was the inspiration behind Edna Valley Vineyard, and asked him if I could get a a job as a cellar worker, and I think he thought it was a cool idea, to have a Harvard PhD working in the cellar for six dollars an hour (laughs). I sold my house, married Frederica and moved to California. It was a lot of fun, a fresh start, I was poor but happy, like being a starving student again.

We really worked hard, there was just a few of us making 25,000 cases of wine, but there was a great esprit d'coeur, the wines were good, quality mattered and quality was rewarded, everyone was mutually supportive.

A couple of years had gone by...and I told Dick I really wanted to make wine and I had this idea of a certain kind of wine to make, the Reislings and Gewurztraminers in the dry style, and I said, the reason why those wines are low on the list of bestsellers is because they're sweet and have no purpose on the dinner table. They were totally different from the wines that Edna Valley was making, so they allowed us to start our winemaking in (a little corner of) their cellar.

How do you make these wines?

One thing I learned from Dick is that there aren't any real tricks to making wine, traditional techniques work pretty well. I learned that if you start with good fruit and you don't screw it up, chances are it's going to turn out pretty well. So I concentrate on finding the best possible source for grapes.

Where do the grapes come from now?

Our main source is two vineyards in Monterey County.

What works for these varietals in Monterey?

Mainly climate. Californians believe climate is the most important thing...soil matters less. These are cool climate grapes, and the air comes down from Monterey Bay and, the guy who owns the vineyard I buy from claims it is the coldest grape growing area in the United States during the growing season. The other thing is the absolute care this guy takes in growing. He loves to grow for flavor and aromatics, he's a bit of a maverick. His goal doesn't seem to be to make a lot of money, but to make good wine from good grapes.

Has the style you've chosen caught on?

Really slow. I can't tell you how many times in the early days, we'd go to a wine tasting and people would pass by our table, see these tall bottles and just figure, no way, I'm not gonna taste those things, that's bubble gum wine, Blue Nun or something like that. It was really like pulling teeth to get people to try them. And there's this whole thing in California about, you have to follow fashion, and the fashion is to drink Chardonnay, and it's embarrassing if you have a tall bottle on your dinner table, it means you're not sophisticated or something. It's funny because, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you learn just enough to think that you have to like dry wines, that's dangerous, but if you can move past that and realize that there's a time and place for every wine...then there's so much to enjoy. But recognition began to come and consumers caught up. We're at 10,000 cases, and we sell out every year.


Next up: a fun surprise for all you Land of the Giants fans....stay tuned, people.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Couple of Mentionables in SB County

Ah, Santa Barbara County. I miss you already. Your green hills, so soft you could pull them apart like fresh bread, your Pinot Noir, your spotty moo-cows, your strange Danish towns, your pea soup.

Before I leave this grand land of butterific Chardonnay, I want to mention a couple of places I thought were damned fine:

Stolpman Vineyards has a tasting room in Solvang I highly recommend. They have a penchant for my beloved Italian varietals, including two vintages of Nebbiolo, a 2000 and a 2002, both of which had great tar & roses. The 2003 'La Croce' is also a solid 'Super Tuscan' style, half Sangiovese and half Syrah, with big front fruit and lots of spicy tobacco and good tannins. Their reds are fruit forward, but with good structure and acidity to hold 'em up.
Also doing a damned decent job was the small production house Casa Cassara, whose tasting room is part of The Olive House on Mission Street. Matter o' fact, they pair olives with their selections, and for the most part, the pairings work. Both the 2002 Burning Creek Pinot Noir and the 2004 Estate Pinot Noir had both freshness and depth, and lots of good tea-tannins. The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and stinky like a good Sauv Blanc should be.

IMG_0829Alrighty then. Time to move on down the line. Or, rather, up the line (headed north, after all) to check out SLO. I'm on the job, doncha worry. Next up: my sleepy chat with Claiborne Thompson of Claiborne & Churchill Winery. Keep checking in.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Palmina Winery: Real Italian Style in California

The first detail I noticed as I waited for Chrystal Clifton to appear was that one of Palmina's wine labels looked...well, like a real Italian wine label. A solid, simple white background with a black band across the top, the name of the winery, the proprietary name of the wine with vintage, and the seal. Period. This little touch was enough to convince me that I'd found something I'd so hoped to find: real Italian style California vino, not just a fruit forward Barbera with some Italiany sounding name.

The Cliftons are meticulous on this point. They grow in vineyards that are appropriate for the varietals they want. They make sure that the growers they work with understand the specific needs of Tocai Friulano, of Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, or Barbera, because once the grapes are harvested, all they plan to do is to let them make themselves into the wine they want to be. No malolactic fermentation, no new oak, no chemistry sets allowed.

For the Cliftons, wine and food is inseparable. The wines are acid balanced for food, and half of the tasting experience involves food--fresh breadsticks, hard Italian cheeses and meats, as well as print-outs of suggested recipes for each wine they produce.

Chrystal sat down with me at a long table that takes up the entire room. She's in a hurry; there's another interview right after me, and there's a piece of expensive equipment that has disappeared, but still she is focused and well-spoken, eager to share with me.

Interview with Chrystal Clifton, Palmina Winery

C&D: These are wines designed in the traditional Northern Italian style, for the table, in the land of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. What's the reaction you get?

It's good. We have some really unique qualities that make us stand out. We have a husband and wife you have this sense of a family winery, and we encourage everything here to be family style. As you can see, when we have our tasting room open, everyone has to either sit at this table or stand around it. So it encourages people to once again join in that ceremony that we kinda miss nowadays, which is--take a moment, take the time to meet people, enjoy what you're eating, enjoy what you're drinking.

Where do your recipes come from?

There's a couple of different places. Steve and I work together, there's Chef Lachlan (Mackinnon-Patterson) of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, the latest recipies are coming out from him, and Biba restaurant in Sacremento (Biba Caggiano), she's from Bologna, where I lived. We try to find people who are doing what we're doing. The translation of Italian food is the same as the translation of Italian wine. I've had buyers that tell me, I'm sorry, I only buy Italian wine. And I say, you know what? I totally understand---I only eat Italian food in Italy. And they look at me and they say, how is it different? Unless you're flying over the ingredients direct from Italy and making everything's still going to be different. So don't tell me that your passion and your love for taking the closest ingredients you can find and translating them into those recipes in your restaurant is any different than what we're doing, with the varietals we're doing in Santa Barbara County, and making Italian style wines.

Take that.

And it's funny because the guy said, you're right, I'll take two cases of this and a case of that. It's weird how closed minded people can get about "Cal-Ital". Cal-Ital is a really poorly created association with badly planted Italian varietals. Nobody says 'Cal-Burgundy' or 'Cal-Bordeaux', but people were looking for a way to market them because they knew in their hearts they weren't true translations of these grapes. What we're trying to do is totally step aside from that.

What are the most important things about translating the grape varietals?

Primarily proper climate, second is maintenance, how they're pruned, cared for, and third, soil. Really, in my mind, they're one. It's about finding the balance in all three and explaining to someone how that balance is important. Winemaking, when you have very well planted, very well understood varietals...there's really not much you can do wrong. Understand them, is all that they ask.

Nebbiolo is one thing the Cliftons definitely understand. Nebbiolo is their pride and joy. Three years in a row, the Cliftons have been invited to Piedmont to represent Nebbiolo from the U.S.
Chrystal realizes that this grape demands patience, both from a consumer and from a producer, and that many have given up making it because of this. "But, man, it's like that girl or guy who, once you crack their shell, and you're in, and they're worth all that crap they just put you through." She's hoping to get other winemakers to take up the grape again, and be part of actively promoting the vinification of traditional style Nebbiolos. I wished her all the luck in the world.

I'm in San Luis Obispo now, and it's so freakin' beautiful out here, I had to change my shorts. Wowza. Next up: ah, hell, I dunno yet. You'll just have to find out right along with me.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Gypsy Canyon

Over a century ago, a settler/farmer nestled himself into the snug, lush Gypsy Canyon and planted some vines, probably to make wine for his own family. Other than a few incomplete clues in local records, that's about all we know. Those vines survived, uncultivated, long after their original tender passed, under a thick layer of brambles and brush.

Deborah Hall and her late husband, William, discovered these vines when they bought the property in 1994 and cleared away the brush. Believing them to be Zinfandel, Hall sold the fruit to local winemakers for a couple of years before learning through DNA testing at UC Davis that they were actually Mission vines.

Mission vines are rare now; only about ten acres still exist in California, three of which belong to Hall. Not particularly viable for dry style wines, the Mission grape was historically used to make sweet wines, as Hall learned through her research. Following a recipe written in 1891 by Emile Vache, Hall created a "California Original Angelica" from the fruit, a rich, heady fortified wine that smells and tastes of honey, dried apricots, earth and herbs.

In 2004, she released the wine she had originally been encouraged to make--Pinot Noir. It's a true Burgundian style, unfiltered and full of great, earthy aromatics.

What's special about these wines--and what you'll pay for---is the whole package.

Hall has a vision she pursues, which she calls "history in a bottle": handmade wines, organically and biodynamically farmed, just as they would have been in the 19th Century. Handblown glass bottle with a traditional, embossed seal, handmade paper and dipped in beeswax. She is currently trying to move away from commercial yeasts back to native to complete the equation.
She considers her clientele "individuals with a sense of discernment and with an appreciation for real handmade wine."

Despite the admiration I felt for her in that she had made this vision manifest beautifully, I was troubled by the feeling that her product was intended not just for those who might be able to "appreciate real handmade wine", but for those who could afford it, as a luxury item. Even the tasting experience, complete with two cheeses from a shop in Beverly Hills specially selected to pair with each wine, is one of the most expensive in Santa Barbara County, at $25 per guest, and can only be purchased by appointment (I should mention here, to be fair, that this money goes to the local Humane Society).

The two wines themselves are quite good. But what costs so much is Hall's idea of authenticity, of historical aesthetic. I think this should be pointed out to wine enthusiasts who are curious about what they'll get for that price tag. Listening to the story of the vines and the bottle's design, holding the heavy artisan glass, the look of the label and the feel of the real beeswax are the greater part of the money.


I'm hoping for one more interview before leaving the Santa Rita Hills: Palmina Winery. Keep your fingers crossed, and stay tuned.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Morgan Clendenen, Queen of Viognier

Morgan Clendenen, Queen of Viognier

Morgan Clendenen thrives on chaos, although you wouldn't know it unless you saw her in action. Her new tasting room in Los Alamos was jam-packed on my first visit last Saturday, and still she took the time to take my card with a smile and show genuine interest in meeting with me later.

The way people praise her Viognier, you might forget you're in the smack-dab middle of Chardonnay country. She can barely keep stock around--while I was there, she had to raid her own library wines to fill demand. People like Steve Wynn can only get so much allocated to them. Some of her most beloved wines are under the label Domaine de Deux Mondes, a collaboration with Condrieu producer Yves Cuilleron. The two of them experiment together with the other's wines and styles as a side project to find different and better expressions of Viognier. They succeed.

When I called her the following Monday, she was so gracious, I felt like I'd known her for a long time. The chilly rain outside seemed to be keeping the business to a trickle, so we had some time to talk. Her knowledge of Viognier and its place in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys is exaustive. I could have listened to her talk for hours. As a matter of fact, I might have printed the entire interview were it not too long for a blog entry.

Interview with Morgan Clendenen, Cold Heaven Cellars

C&D: You're a busy, busy've got two kids...

Morgan: Yes. A boy and a girl. The girl will be eleven in a couple of weeks, and I've got a son who'll be seven in June.

Tell me a little bit about how you got started making wine.

When I got out of school--I was a psych major---I worked for a company that was very male-dominated: I sold brick for four years. I always loved wine, I went to every wine tasting I could possibly go to, and I befriended the local wine merchants so I was always kept up on what was going on. Eventually, that led to a job in wine sales.

Wholesale or retail?

Wholesale. I ended up working for a small boutique wine distributor in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. It was good because it's the highest number of PhD's in the nation, you've got the Universities there, and so there's people coming there from all over the country, and they all have a thirst for wine. So I chose a company where I got the most out of...learning about wine as I go. That was a quick education, it was intense. Every week there was somebody new coming to town, I had to study up...I tasted wines over and over again, so it really helped to develop my palate fast, without having to wade through (grocery store) gunk.

So soon after, I was hired by a winery in Napa, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, for sales, and that's how I met my husband (Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat)and ended up moving down here. Since Au Bon Climat didn't need me---it was sold out and allocated---I wanted to make my own wine. I didn't have any experience except being around cellars during harvest, doing punch-downs, I might have to take hydrometer readings...but it wasn't rocket science. I'd been around it enough. So I thought, I'd really like to start something, and I really love Pinot Noir but my husband is so well known for that, it just didn't make sense. Then the owner of the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, Robert Atkins, offered Jim some Viognier. Nobody knew Viognier was planted up there, and the ones who did know it and used it were not commercially successful with it. I thought, here's a grape that no one's doing particularly well in California...and I saw a way to create a wine that I liked, that didn't necessarily have to fit the norms of what people thought it was. But when I started asking around, no one really knew what it was supposed to taste like. So I got the sense that I could pioneer this grape. I could do something different.

What style of Viognier did you want to go for?

I wanted to create something with more acidity. Every time I tasted a Viognier out of California, it had no acidity. It seemed so big and flabby, interesting to taste but nothing I wanted to drink a glass of. Acidity is like salt to food, you have to have enough of it there to bring out the other flavors.

While we're on the subject of style, what kind of wine--white wine--do you put on your own table?

It depends on what I'm doing. If it's the daytime, I'm having lunch, I'm not looking to be intellectual about wine, I want something a little crisper. I drink a lot of Gruener Veltliner. I like Albarino a lot. Something with a little grip in it. At night, I'm having a nice dinner, I'm going to reach for something like a Montrachet, a Mersault, or maybe an elegant Chablis. And then, I drink a lot of Condrieu now. I taste everything I can get my hands on.

What's your philosophy of oak treatment in Viognier?

Cold Heaven has always been neutral oak, five to ten-year old French barrels. I have done some trials with new oak, and I've never liked it, it's always served up the oak. Interestingly, I started Domaine De Deux Mondes last year with Yves Cuilleron, as a separate company, and he uses a lot of new oak. I'm always amazed that he gets...good integration with that oak (in the palate). We have arguments about manipulating wine. have to surrender some of your philosopies and ideas to grow.

One last question, that I'm asking everyone: what does terroir mean to you?

Where you got your grapes, what the climate is, the whole enchilada, is a big deal, otherwise I could buy my grapes from anywhere and put my signature on the fruit. I've worked with a lot of vineyards...and they're all different, they're vinified the same way, practically, but they're so different. So terroir is a huge factor.


Next up: anyone for Mission grapes? I talk to Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, who makes a $120 half bottle of it. Find out why.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Kenneth Volk on Cabernet, TCA

Ken Volk and his rolling barrels

Before I visited Kenneth Volk wineries, I knew about the trouble with TCA, or "cork taint", that nasty stuff that makes your sixty dollar Brunello taste and smell like a bleach spill in a cardboard box, but I didn't know exactly what it was. Something about mold, something about chlorine. Ken Volk explained TCA me in such a way that made it perfectly clear for the first time. TCA (trichloroanisole) is a product produced by molds that are trying to survive under extreme stress. The stress is caused by chlorine, which is used to eliminate them. What mold doesn't die pumps out TCA in an attempt to survive.

He knows a bit about TCA. When he moved into the old Byron wine facility, it, and the mold that caused it, were in the walls. He invested in massive cleanup and modifications (still going strong) and has released some of the best wines I've tasted so far.

Ken was the impetus behind Wild Horse winery, which produced 200,000 cases in its heyday before it was sold in 2003. Since then, he has put his energies into rebuilding his new winery and making wines under his pet label, Aqua Pumpkin.

Ken uses a method I've never seen before: if you look at the photo above, you'll see that each of his red wine barrels is on a rack with wheels. This allows Ken and his crew to individually turn each barrel without having to move it. The first thing I thought of was: wow, this probably cost him a pretty penny. But I think it might have been worth it. His reds are lovely.

Ken's Carmody McKnight Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was the best I've had so far. Not even a smidgeon of that 'bell pepper' business, and beautifully balanced through the palate. I was inspired to whip out my recorder and ask the man about this.

Ken Volk on Cabernet Sauvignon

C&D: What is it that makes the difference between Cabs with more of that vegetal, bell pepper characteristic and ones with less?

Ken: Well the pyrazines, the methyl pyrazines (aromatic organic compounds) are what you find in both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. And those compounds, at relatively low levels, can make wines seem more leafy, more vegetal, jalapeno or bell pepper. Typically, you'll find those in cool areas where you grow the fruit, where there's not a lot of light hitting the can grow vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon in hotter climates if you're really socking the water to it and, you know, cropping too high. But basically, it's about balancing those pyrazines. You need enough to make it varietal, but too much makes it 'veggie'. It's also getting the fruit ripe enough, if you pick at higher maturity, you'll probably have less of that characteristic than at lower maturity. In general, riper picking and proper canopy management (is the way to acheive the best results).

What about the rest of the terroir equation, in relation to this?

Good draining soils...generally speaking, the heavier the soils, the more vegetal characteristics you're going to see. On really well drained soils it's easier to control vigor.

Will blogger ever download my photos again? Will I ever get to Paso Robles? Will my laundry ever finish? Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Foxen Wine Trail


Miles Traveled: approx. 1950
Wines Tasted: 154
Winemakers/Growers Interviewed: 9
Soundtrack Selections: Beck--Sea Change; William Orbit, a Selection of Seventies Roots Punk

I'm currently wrestling with Blogger, which refuses to upload all my fabulous pics, including what is the best Vineyard Dog Pic I have so far. 'Tis a pitfall of blogging, I'm afraid. So for more beautiful Santa Maria Valley photo satisfaction, please check out the Flickr Badge over on the right.

Two things convinced me to spend some time in the Santa Barbara area, and neither had a damn thing to do with what one can only refer to in the company of locals as that movie. One: my love of Syrah and all things Rhone-like, and two: the photograph of the gorgeous valley in The World Atlas of Wine. While planning this trip, I'd stare at that picture and sigh...ah, such high, rounded verdency, dotted with moo-cows, framing a valley full of grapes.

Oh, but there's way more than grapevines here (and they're dormant, anyhoo). The Santa Maria Valley is busting at the seams with strawberries, spinach, lettuce, kale, and broccoli. Makes you want to take a bottle of olive oil and a flying leap. A lot of my friends asked me why I didn't wait until the fall to take this trip, when the vines would be loaded down with fruit. Fact of the matter is: this is the best time of year to try to talk to wine growers and vintners who will be up to their sunhats in work when the grapes are photogenic.

Every Spring, the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail holds an open house called 'Wildflowers and Wine', for which you can purchase a passport rather than paying for tastings at each winery. My hosts for this tour were the Santa Barbara Wineguy and his gardener wife, who know just about everything there is to know about the area (Did you know, for instance, that the legend of Zorro is based on a bandit who once raided stagecoaches in the Santa Maria Valley? This guy did. If you need any skinny on the area wineries, btw, he's your man).

Chardonnay's the Queen here. Chard vines are the first to budbreak, and they stretch out for mile after rolling mile, crowned with their new little light green leaves. Most of Kendall Jackson's Chard comes from this area, as well as just about anyone in the state who doesn't grow their own.
In Los Alamos, a tourist standing next to me said this, as though defending himself against the world: "I'm sorry, but I love the malo thing, the butter. And I love the oak. If I wanted fruity, I'd drink something else." The proclamation reminded me of my own prejudice against fat, buttery Chardonnays, and also how the style is slowly fading in favor of leaner, more tropical styles. Most of the Chardonnays I tried fell into what I interpreted as the former category, usually baby's-butt soft treefruit and all the malolactic buttery love you could want. I realized I'm not the best person to offer an opinion about the area's Chards, so I'll stick to what I can interpret best.

To Chard's Queen is Pinot Noir's King, and while most were riper than I like, I didn't try one I'd kick out of my glass. I have my faves listed below.

Next favorites are Syrah and Viognier. Nearly all the wines I tried were vinted to be lushly fruited and showed prominent oak characteristics. Not a huge surprise, I know. This is the style people here prefer, drinkers and vintners alike, so I tuned my palate accordingly. Even so, I found myself most impressed with those that had finesse rather than intense extraction of fruit, and well-integrated oak. I shall take a moment now to geek out and lay down my list o' faves:

2004 Foxen Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley--fresh and aromatic with long, sensuous notes of flowers, tea and crushed berries.

2004 Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley--fruit forward with cola nut, smoky tea and flowers, plenty of structure to hold it up.

2003 Kenneth Volk Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmody McKnight Vineyard, Paso Robles--the first Cab I'd tasted all trip that didn't reek of bell peppers. Fruity but elegant, with well-integrated oak in a medium-long, supple finish.

2003 Longoria 'Evidence' Bordeaux Blend (57% Cab Franc, 22% Merlot, 21% Cab Sauv)--Full bodied without loading up the front palate with phat fruit before the nuances have a chance to show, and true to the style.

2003 Palmina Bianca, Central Coast (35% Traminer, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Tocai Friulano, 15% Malvasia Bianca, {gasp} 5% Pinot Grigio)--Still just a tad too fruity for my taste, but really sensational aromatics. A lovely, crisp white with big grapefruit and white blossom goodness.

2000 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo and 2002 Petit Verdot---Morgan Clendenen's label is Cold Heaven, but this label is the one she's using to help fund her daughters' college fund. She's mostly known for her lush Viognier, which is too oaky for me. These two darlings, however, are more my style: elegant and aromatic with a nice tannin how-do-you-do on the back palate. Yum.

More to come; gotta break it up in chunks. I had a great conversation with Kenneth Volk, whose wines I thought were among the yummiest in the area. Back in a flash.


Friday, March 17, 2006

Ramona Valley AVA

Finally out of the desert, thank God. Not that it wasn't lovely and all, there's just only so much vast rolling desert and Hank Williams you can handle without feeling so lonesome you could die. Then there was that snowstorm in the Cleveland Forest (damn you, Grover!). By the time I drove into the steep, granite boulder studded mountains toward the fledgling Ramona Valley AVA, I needed the color green like nobody's biz. From the back door of Bill Schweitzer's house, the Ramona Valley opens out into all the green your eyes can take. If I were a grapevine, I'd be thrilled to be in the dirt there.

The new AVA, designated finally this last January, is only the third to be designated in Southern California.
Bill Schweitzer's been a very popular man lately, as a representative of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association, and has spoken to everyone from NPR to Decanter. He's a grower rather than making wine himself ("I'm not a chemist," he says) but the tidy vines surrounding his hilltop home supply local vintners with Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others.

Interview with Bill Schweitzer

C&D: Tell me about where we are.

Bill: The Ramona Valley is at an intermediate altitude in the back country of San Diego County. The coastal lowlands are between zero and six hundred feet above sea level, and then suddenly there's a string of mountains where you have to go up another thousand feet to get up to 1300-1600 feet where the Valley is. So what we did is, we defined a string of mountains that made a circle around that geographic altitude and defined that as the AVA.

How long have you been farming?

I've been doing this about five years. This first third of an acre here of Cabernet was planted before we built the house, five years ago.

What did you do prior to that?

I'm a computer guy. I wrote programs for Hewlett Packard and other companies up in Silicon Valley.

What made you decide to grow grapes?

I had all this land, and avacadoes...they take too much water, you saw them as you came in, huge avocado groves. They take a lot of water, and are pretty much overplanted. So doesn't use much water, it's a gorgeous landscaping plant, and you meet really interesting people, working with grapes.

You were a wine lover before, as well?

Sure. We lived in Northern California, and we traveled around, and we visited all the wine regions up north, and so we knew that was kind of a cool thing. And we happened to be down here...looking for property, and there was a sign that said 'So, you want to grow grapes?'. The San Diego Vintners Association was sponsoring. So we went to that seminar, just for the heck of it. Actually met a bunch of people who are my good friends now, who were just getting started, learning how to grow grapes. So that's what we did.

Bill was right about the interesting people. He took me on a tour that covered a wide swath of the Valley and the winemakers who are working to make a name for themselves. Here's a little snapshot of the Ramona folks.

Shirley Hamilton and John Schwaesdall

Bill calls John Schwaesdall of Schwaesdall Winery "the Godfather". He's been here in the Valley since the beginning. He makes a mean Mourvedre, as well as a "white port", made of Muscat Canelli.

Frank Karlsson

Frank Karlsson loves Italian and Rhones. He dipped into several barrels for us and pulled up some deeply scented Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cabernet. He's also been doing this for a while. I enjoyed talking to him. He really loves what he does.

Beth and Victor Edwards know a thing or two. She's a graphic designer and he knows petit sirah like the back of his hand.

My favorite wine of the day was the Edwards Vineyard 2003 'Cote D'Ramona' Rhone. The Edwards like a fruit-foward style accentuated by the right touch of oak, which might normally spook an old-world lover like myself, but this wine had lovely finesse, good balance and charm. Well done.

Bill and Jennifer Jenkin

Pamo Valley winery is an intriguing operation. Bill Jenkin, a strict teetotaler, who's running for state assembly, doesn't actually taste his wines. He does smell them, though, and he asks others, as he did us, to express our opinions. I was suprised at how good his wines were. He does a Tempranillo with nice spice, and a peppery Syrah I especially liked.

So very lovely.

One of the goals of this friendly, close-knit group is to lure wine lovers from the San Diego county area to tour their loop of tasting rooms. If they can get this going, I think it will be a great destination. It's just stunning scenery, and the wines seem to be coming along nicely. If you're ever in the area, check 'em out.

Thanks to Bill for showing me around, and for lunch. Cheers and Good Luck!

Today I'm in Santa Maria with The Santa Barbara Wineguy. God, there's so much wine to try, so few hours in the day. I press on in my quest. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Bumming by the Waterside

Greetings from Corona Del Mar/Newport Beach, land of the fresh sea air, tranquil rolling waves immaculately trimmed lawns. So nice to be among The Beautiful People, the ones who remind us that you haven't really lived until you've paid eighteen bucks for a martini. Which brings me to an important point about said beverage: bartenders of the world, please learn how to make them like I like 'em. Shake the shit out of them, c'mon, put your back into it! I wanna see a gossamer thin layer of ice crystals floating atop my vodka, reflecting the orange glints of the sunset.

I'm all set to begin posting the California leg of my trip, starting with the nice people I met in Ramona Valley. That'll happen just as soon as I'm done exploring the beach. And done with my martini hangover. Stay tuned, people.

Oh, and I'd like to give a shout-out to Jim Huston of the Wine Gallery in Corona Del Mar, who let me return a corked Brunello, and set me up with a nicely priced Crozes-Hermitage. Thanks, guy! And yeah, I know...I'm supposed to be drinking California juice. And I am. Really.


Monday, March 13, 2006

The Soil Master: Dr. Gordon Dutt, Sonoita Vineyards

Dr. Dutt has an ingenious way of dealing with one of the greatest threats to his Arizona vineyard.

Ever since Sonoita vineyards lost almost everything to Pierce's disease a few years back, he's had to fight the zillions of sharpshooters--nasty little insects that spread the disease--by turning their love of fruit against them.

See, the only thing the little bastards seem to love better than grapes is blackberries. Knowing also that the bugs must have 100% humidity to breed, and subsequently follow water sources, he planted a thick barrier of blackberry bushes in between his vines and the natural source of water coming down from the mountains. These he dosed with lots of pesticide. They dine on blackberries, and then they die.

It takes a man with the decades of experience and knowledge Dr. Dutt has to come up with such a brilliant defense. The entire Southern Arizona wine growing area owes a great deal to his research in soil efficacy and water quality. In my long talk with him, he shared some thoughts about some of the vine's best friends, or worst enemies: dirt, weather and water.

Interview with Dr. Gordon Dutt:

C&D: What made you decide to do research in Arizona, to find out whether grapes would grow here?

My first job, when I got my PhD from the University of California at Davis, I came over here (Sonoita, AZ), and I was pretty well versed in wine grapes...and I was shocked that there were no wine grapes here. And...a horticulturist wanted to get together with me, as a soil scientist, and he wanted to work with me on table grapes. So we went out to Yuma (AZ) and started doing cooperative research on water quality for table grapes. And so we'd drive back and forth and have a lot of time to talk. And what he told me made no sense, whatsoever.

What did he tell you?

Well, he told me that the reason they weren't growing wine grapes was that the grapes wouldn't get sweet enough. And of course, everything I'd heard in California was that the sweeter grapes were in Southern California, where it's hot. And, of course, at that time, California was trying to convince the rest of the world that the only thing that was important was climate...that the soil was something that the grapes were just rooted in, and that's a bunch of B.S., but they were trying to convince the world of that.

What's important about soil?

Soil and climate, you cannot separate. Any good soil scientist will tell you that the soil...the climate is imprinted in the soil. You can't separate the two. They work together to make the grape what it is. Where California really made a mistake...the 20-point system (The Davis 20 point system) does not adequately account for soils. Until they came out with the...Aroma Wheel, they never had any real way to evaluate the effects of soil. The main effect of the soil is in the nose. I was over (in California), took my Cabs over there. to have some of the really great wineries evaluate our Cabs. And I was smelling all of theirs, and--ah!--you didn't have to ask which came from the flood plain, and which came from the hills.

How does the terroir here affect the grapes?

Our soil is identical to the Cote D'Or in Burgundy. It's a developed soil. It's acid at the surface...and you have a weathered clay layer that doesn't shrink and swell. Below that is calcium carbonate. The Pinot Noir...the first four or five years (we grew it), it wasn't very good. It has to get rooted down into the soil. Because when it's all up in the acid soil, it (isn't very good).


The wines of Sonoita vineyards are solid, simple wines with good balance. The whites lean in toward the sweet, por la gente, but don't snort: there's an art to creating even the tourist wines. I've tried a lot of them so far, and the main thing that separates the good ones from the really crappy ones is acid balance, just like any sweet wine. His are sweet but crisp, with nice, complete finishes that make them perfect for picnics. There are decent red blends as well, including the Antelope Red, a blend of Cabernet and some stray Nebbiolo he bought from another grower. This was my favorite of the bunch. There's also a rose Dr. Dutt makes from the Mission grape. Again, no snorting, people: it's not bad, and to boot, there's a genuinely charming story behind the wine that can really only be fully appreciated if Dr. Dutt tells you himself.

Dr. Dutt does more in the vineyard now than in the winery; he's hired a younger winemaker to help him get the grapes to bottle. He confided in me that he and his new partner butt heads on style often, the younger vintner insisting that the grapes be allowed to hang longer on the vine. But I got the impression from our conversation that, by one method or another, Dr. Dutt usually makes things happen his way.

It was a pleasure talking to you, Dr. Dutt. Good Luck to you.

Did you catch my very last post? I had to post one on top of the other. Be sure to scroll down to read about Callaghan Vineyards.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Callaghan Vineyards

There's a sign by the road, once you get close to Sonoita/Elgin, that says 'Entering Wine Country'. But there's no vines to be seen. Scanning the vast plains of straw colored dead grass, I'm thinking, okay, I see lots of country, so where's the wine?

Another turn, another country road, a bend to the left and another to the right...I'm looking for what Kent Callaghan described as "a tan building". Dude, all the buildings are tan, and set way too far from the road to assess their relative size or function. Fortunately, there's a sign that says 'winery' and points to Callaghan Vineyards.

The wind is really fierce, ruffling the golden fur of the vineyard dog who comes to greet me. It's too blustery outdoors for a picture or a scritch behind the ears, so I'm headed to the door. Sorry, pup.

Once past the homelike facade, the building is a warehouse full of stock with a tasting table set up diagonally a few yards inside. Just inside the door, the Callaghans have put a large collection of their own favorite wines: Italian, Californian, French, a wide variety of styles. All the bottles are empty, of course; a testament to their enthusiasm for the Beautiful Juice.

Interview, Kent Callaghan

C&D: It seems like Arizona wine is really set to take off. You yourself have gotten great reviews from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator...
Callaghan: Inconsistent press. Timewise, anyway. We went through a rough middle period. But, yeah. It's a good place to grow grapes.

How did you get started?

Initially, I didn't have any idea what I was doing, my dad and I really started the place. He'd been a home winemaker for a couple of years...I took several UC Davis extension courses, but we made a huge number of mistakes, although we were lucky, early on.

When you say mistakes, what sort of mistakes did you mean?

In '95, it was the result of trying to cope with a series of devastating frosts in April. We had a succession of frosts, perfectly spaced to wipe out the next wave of buds. So the crop was really small and I didn't have any experience with trying to deal with that kind of thing, so my natural inclination was to try to get a crop. So I added more fertilizer, which wasn't too bright, and watered more, which had the result of incredible vegetative now you've got these green (tasting), hideous wines...I still get people who say they love the '95's, but they were horrible wines. But we started to pull it around in '97.

Do you still have the same varietals now that you started with in the beginning?

No. Out of seventeen acres...we're getting rid of merlot next year, we're going to replant petite sirah, two and a half acres of cabernet is getting ripped out in favor of tempranillo...

Why that change?

Tempranillo's great. Cabernet's...a great blender, we used to have nine of our seventeen acres, originally Cabernet, too much Cabernet. It's not that great here, it's too warm here.

So you're basically going to varietals that are better suited to where you are.

Yeah. Yeah, that's the only thing I think we...once we figured out what we were doing...I don't care about marketing, planting things that are hot...that's the only thing I've done intelligently, is not trying to follow that. We just plant whatever we want, whatever we think's gonna work.
It's like Mourvedre. People were asking me what the hell I was thinking, people can't even pronounce the's one of our most popular wines. Mourvedre.

Lisa and Kent Callaghan

What's your yearly case production?

About 2,000. Eighty percent is sold here, the rest is distribution.

Let me ask you the question I'm asking everyone: what does the word 'terroir' mean to you?

There's no question that site is incredibly important, anyone who's ever worked a vineyard knows that. When you're picking fruit yourself, you see that.


The Callaghan's wines are quite good. They're full without being jammy, the tannins are mostly quite supple, and the aromatics are true to the varietals. My favorites:

2004 Zinfandel: big, rich, evenly balanced.

2004 'Lisa's Selection' White (60% Viognier, 40% Reisling) the whites I've had thus far have often lacked the nose associated with the varietal. This one smells great.

2004 'Back Lot' Cuvee (62% Mourvedre, 38% Syrah) Someone loves the Rhone....

I'm finding that I'm meeting more people and learning more than I can post evenly, so the next post will come right on top of this one. And on a Monday, no less. Oh well. You don't have anything better to do of a Monday, right? Right?


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Luna Rossa Winery: Nebbiolo in New Mexico

I must now back up from Arizona, where I am now, and cover one last New Mexico stop I waited to post until I got my Wine Blogging Wednesday post in on a Rhone producer.

So the story begins: an adventurous Northern Italian son decides to leave the family wine business and pursue the glorious promise of a rich future in...Deming, New Mexico.

Er, that's an odd choice, you might think. Nothing against New Mexico, but we're talking Friuli here, one of the lovliest grape producing areas in Italy. But somehow, Paulo D'Andra has managed to become one of the most important growers in the Land of Enchantment. He and his wife own a tasting room and fourteen acres of vines, and in addition, he is the manager of New Mexico Vineyards, Inc., a three-hundred acre spread which sources fruit to 14 other vineyards in New Mexico and Texas. They've sold about 3500 cases out of their own winery, a lot of which supplies several wine festivals in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. He also sells rootstock and consults for newbie growers of both wine and table grapes.

There are, as you might guess, a laundry list of varietals, being a big production sourcer. Your Chard, your Cab, your Shiraz, your Refosco, your Nebbiolo, your Sauzao...

Whoa-whoa-whoa, hold up: Refosco? Nebbiolo?!? WTF?

You're an Italian in New Mexico. How did that happen?

I moved to this area about twenty years ago. I was hired by a Swiss corporation to come here and teach the Mexican labor how to prune the vines. It was something new for this area at that time, so I came with eight friends to teach the labor...the contract was only just to stay for a month and a half, but it's already been twenty years. My family, we have been in the wine business for four generations now, just north of Venice. I was fresh from college, and I have two older brothers in the family business, so...I said I want to do something different, so I took the advantage to come here, to have experience in another part of the world. I liked it here, so I decided to stay.

What are the challenges of growing grapes here?

Ah, there are several. It's too dry, there are a lot of differences day to night in temperature...the problem they have in this area, it was the eighties, '82 or '83, this corporation, they start to put vineyards down here, they didn't know exactly what was going on here. They bought a bunch of land because it was cheap, labor was cheap, and they thought everything was like Europe, you buy something cheap and the rest goes by itself. They didn't realize that here not everybody drinks wine, so they had problems with the marketing. They had problems here with the vineyards, too, because, it's not as easy to grow grapes here as in California or my part of Italy. We're on the edge, where you can grow grapes, here.

Brand Spankin' New Tasting Room

You make a lot of your money from sourcing fruit. Who's your primary customer base for your own winery?

You know, this tasting room has only been open for eight months, so it's hard to say...people are traveling on the highway and they see the sign and want to know what the New Mexico wines are like.

I'm learning that small wineries often have to make sweet wines. Besides those, what style of wine do you, personally, like to make?

Of course, being from Italy, I like the Italian style wine, and it looks like they sell pretty good. We have one, we named it 'Nini', a blend of four different Italian varietals, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Sangiovese...

Okay, grow Nebbiolo here?


It grows here?

(Laughs) Yes.

It grows well here?


I thought the Nebbiolo grape was something that only grew well in Piedmont.

Well, I don't know that I can make a Nebbiolo as good as one from Piemonte, but I can grow it, and it does well.

The terroir of New Mexico. And yeah, those are tumbleweeds.

Last question: what does the word terroir mean to you?

Uh, a lot of things (laughs). First, I don't know if you have the terroir here, or not. We'll have to find out. You made a comment a moment ago, said that with the small winery, they're going to check for the sweet wines. It's not too much about the small winery, it's more about what the people like. In the Southwest, for some reason, they like the sweet wines. If you ask me personally, do I like the sweet wines, no. So, it's not much about me personally, what I like. I like dry wines, but I have to make the sweet wines because they pay my bills. Otherwise, it goes out of business. But there are some, like the Malvasia Bianca, that I like.

About terroir...I think that we can produce something here that is unique, especially for the red wines. Part because of the temperatures, part because of the soil, and part because of the good water we have here. The water we have here, that comes up from the ground, is magnificent.
And I think we have the potential to make good, good wines.


Luncheon after the tour. Those are New Mexican chilis rellenos, baby. Drool away.

As if sharing a secret stash, Paulo theived up a couple of samples of his straight Nebbiolo. "It has good flavor," he said, "but the color isn't very good." As it is now, he mostly uses this Nebby to bump up the mix for his Nini cuvee. After tasting it, I told him he should bottle it on it's own. He shrugged. "I might. But I don't know how much I would sell." While it wasn't as intense a wine as Barolos or Nebby blends, it still had those signature aromatics. I thought, for middle-of-the-damn-desert, it was pretty fine stuff.

Among my favorites in the tasting room included the Nini blend, the Gewurtraminer, the sweet Malvasia Bianca, and the Symphony (that wacky UC Davis cross of Muscat and white Grenache).

Much thanks to Paulo and his wife for their hospitality.

I'm still in Arizona, and planning to hit the Sonoita/Elgin winet trails next.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

WBW 19: Mourvedre in Arizona

Everyone loves birdies.

That's right. I said Arizona. And I'm not playing, no sir, no ma'am. This here's the real thing. You want Rhone? I'll give you Rhone.

Actually, Mr. Bob Johnson of Colibri Vineyards will give you Rhone. And freakin' how.

Mr. Johnson didn't tell me I'd be better off in a Ford F-1500 getting to his place, and I cursed the whole way. My little car was not built for the primitive road. It took me damn close to an hour to navigate the rocky path across a long-ass--albeit gorgeous--patch of Arizona desert. Before me the whole way was the promise of the Chiricahua Mountains, which never seemed to get any closer until I was right on 'em.

When the primitive road narrowed to a dirt road and the dirt road narrowed into a path and the path ended, I'd found one of the most stunningly beautiful winery set ups I've ever seen. Nestled in a canyon, surrounded by pinon trees, ancient rock formations and bustling with hundreds of varieties of birds was Colibri vineyards: neat rows of sleeping syrah, mourvedre, viognier, cinsault and counoise vines. Oh, hell yes. That's why I'm on the road.

Bob Johnson, wine maker and ukulele player extrodinaire

It took me a while to find Bob, but only because I honk like a girl, thinking I'm going to disturb someone. When I found him, he took me immediately on a spontaneous tour of his land and winery, pointing out all the features that made him feel like he was meant to be the caretaker of this land and all the plants and animals who thrived on it.

Except gophers. They eat vine roots and have to die.

Geronimo roamed here. Apaches died here. For the years just prior to Bob, apples grew in the field where the vines are now. The man who produced those apples passed away, and the land came up for sale. Bob, a nurse in an ICU unit wanting to find a getaway spot for his wife and kids, fell in love with it. After a stint trying to keep the apples going and having no luck because of their decline, he noticed a tree with a winding vine around it. The vine turned out to be vinis vinifera arizonica, and he took it as a sign to take up winemaking.

Long, interesting story short, he found the climate perfect for Rhone varietals, planted them, and began vinting. End result: good wine.

No, really. Damn good wine.

'Colibri' means hummingbird in the Latin languages, and hummingbirds are all over the place. Tons of different varieties. Each wine Bob makes is adorned with a different type of hummingbird.

2004 Colibri 'Black-Chinned' Mourvedre

Bob, his good friend Joseph and I drank three different wines the evening of my visit: a cuvee, a port made of syrah, and this Mourvedre, which was the one I kept asking for. As a matter of fact, as I sit here in Bisbee, AZ, I'm finishing off the bottle. It's a remarkably well put together juice for a man who's only been bottling for five years. It has all the brooding dark fruit, leather, and gamey quality of the varietal, and a sound, impressive finish that stays with you. A big wine, too, at 15%. Yum.

Bob's buddy Allen is in Iraq, and he's saving this bottle for his return.

I read an article that Bob gave me about the burgeoning wine industry here in Arizona, and after trying his wine, I believe it's possible. Mr. Erath, of Oregon Pinot fame, does too, apparently; he's buying up a bit of land in the area. I'm saying to you: you oughta watch these guys. They're not making your gramma's sweet tourist wine.
Sleep well, little vines

A special thanks is in order to Bob, who showed me great hospitality. Good luck, sir. As far as I'm concerned, you've got the makings of a great winery.

I promised to blog about Paulo D'Andra from Luna Rossa in New Mexico last post, and that's going to be next. I just wanted to get out this one for WBW, since we're doin' Rhone. Please check out the Flickr badge to the right for some really fabulous photos of Bob's place, as well as the ones I've taken along the way.

My travels across the Western United States are proceeding beautifully. I've learned more about wine and winemakers in the last week than any freakin' class could ever teach me, plus I'm having a straight-up BLAST. Stay tuned for more adventures!


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

La Vina Vineyards

So last post, I interviewed Victor Poulos from Zin Valle, and he mentioned "a guy he trusted who's been in the wine business" that told him to start small. That guy is just down the street from Poulos, who insisted I go talk to him. I wasn't sure I'd catch him on spur of the moment, but I did.

Ken Stark's La Vina Winery is an impressive spread, designed to host festivals, weddings and the like. Two of these---a Jazz and Blues festival in April, and a Grape Stomp in October, draw 6,000-8,000 people each. The winery produces about 3500 cases annually. Most of the vino he sells waters these events, while a bit of it sells at local liquor stores. The list of varietals reads like a Baskin Robbins menu: Chard, Dolcetto, Reisling, Semillon, Cabernet, Cinsault, Petite Sirah and Mocha Java. He sells surplus fruit to other vineyards.

Did I mention this place was big? Huge. The back grounds are a wide open area flanked by the crush pad and a long set of bars for serving lots o' folks at once. The front building appears to be adobe, but is actually a steel structure with a coating. Mr. Stark designed the building and it's rustic ironwork himself.

Interview, Ken Stark

C&D: How long has La Vina been here?

Stark: It was founded in 1977, the oldest continually operated winery in New Mexico. We bought it in '93. I came here in '92 to be winemaker for this that time, there was a doctor in El Paso that owned a larger winery...he owned both wineries, and so I came here to be the winemaker for both. The next year, he decided to get out of the wine business. So a lot of rich guys get into the wine business for two reasons: tax and ego. The tax didn't work out for him as well for him, so.

What made you decide, I'm gonna buy this winery and do this thing myself?
I'd been working for a winery since 1988, started at Anderson Valley Vineyards in Albuquerque as assistant winemaker. They lost their winemaker and I ended up being the new winemaker. My background was in ad production, my hobby was wine. So the guy offered me a job down here...made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And when he left, it was kinda natural to buy the smaller winery.

Happy Winery

How much acreage do you have, and what do you grow?
The farm's about 45 acres, with 24 in production and 23 varieties. We're the only estate bottled winery in Texas and New Mexico, so everything we make is from our own vineyard. To me, that's important. Our climate here is about a half degree warmer, in general, than Paso Robles, so we really feel like the quality of grapes should be about the same. There's always a learning's hard to find the expertise here that you'd find in California, but great wines are made in the vineyard...and with the vineyard being young, we think that the quality will get where we need it to be in the next year or two.

What did you do before you had anything at all to do with winemaking?
I was in farming and ranching. My hobbies were wine, and gourmet cooking.

What was your vision of the style of wine you wanted to make?

I like, almost like an Italian style. I like a lot of time in barrel. I like a little more acid. I macerate wines fairly long.

Stark has collected equipment over the years from other wineries.

Do you have plans to expand production?
Our goal in having a vineyard is to ensure our supply, primarily. Full production at a reasonable rate. We could probably crank out 12-14 tons per acre. But to make a quality's difficult to do that at more than 4 tons per acre.

What does the word 'terroir' mean to you?
I think a lot of people use it to their advantage. I think there is terroir. When you taste a wine from a limestone soil or a chalky soil, you're gonna notice these flavors in the grapes. But if you've got twenty guys in a river valley like we've got here, on really rich soils, I don't think it matters a hell of a lot, as long as it's alluvial. It matters more what the weather is, the temperatures. I do think terroir is real...but it's only noticeable (in certain places). People like to talk about terroir because they can...borrow all that panache but the truth is, that probably only half the places that grow grapes can trace those flavors to the soil instead of the weather.


Ken led me on a tour of the grounds, after which I sampled four of his wines. My favorites were the 2003 Viognier, semi-dry with a full nose; the Dolcetto, smoky cherry with solid tannins; and the Oro Loco blend, which had surprisingly rich aromatics and a solid finish.

Whew. Off to Deming, New Mexico next. I'm hoping to catch Paulo D'Andra of Luna Rossa at his vineyards.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Zin Valle Vineyards: The Farthest West Texas Goes

Miles Traveled: approx. 866
Wines Tasted: 20
Soundtrack: Air--Talkie Walkie, 10,000 Hz. Legend

Zin Valle Vineyards, Canutillo, TX
Victor Poulos, Winemaker

Before we get started, I want to say that I'm no pro journalist, so here's my disclaimer: I edit for length with the goal of preserving the integrity of the questions and answers. I might change my own stuff (i.e. a statement to a question, to make sense), but I don't change any words spoken by the person interviewed.

When I say that this winery's the 'farthest West Texas Goes', I mean literally. The western fence line is right on the line between Texas and New Mexico. To the east is El Paso; drive past Zin Valle and you're smack dab in pecan country.

Victor Poulos is a very nice guy. And I'm not saying that because he gave me a Hungarian decanter. Okay, I am. But he was also very nice. His wines were impressive in general, particularly his all-Chardonnay sparkler (made in partnership with Gruet's New Mexican winery), the Zinfandel and the sweet Malvasia. Hell, even the White Zin had a suprisingly refreshing zippy acidity, something you don't find in many. His four acres of Zinfandel and a few others produces about 1500 cases a year.

Sweet wines are the bread-and-butter of most tourist-driven wineries in states like Texas. I was suprised to find that most of Mr. Poulos' wines are relatively dry. He told me he doesn't mind going against the market, and that his goal is to make wine that is compatible with food

Interview with Victor Poulos

C&D: You're a lawyer by trade. You've been a wine enthusiast since...

Poulos: I don't know...I think it was the '80's. I remember what made me want to plant Zin was one of the Ravenswood Zins. Plus, it's the only American varietal, and I think it's fun. No one else in this area (Texas) is focusing on it.

You said earlier that this is your hobby, that you put in about twenty hours a week.

Yeah, but in the summer, when the grapes are growing an inch or so a day, literally, I bring in seasonal help to help me train. I do all the pruning myself...general vineyard work I do myself.

The Barrel Room

Are you totally self taught?

Everything I know I learned from reading and playing. I didn't go to wine school, I didn't go to UC Davis. And my neighbors have helped me.

I guess it's true what they say: to make a small fortune in wine, you have to start with a big fortune.

Well, I've heard, three ways to go broke: fast women, slow racehorses and (opening) a winery (laughs). It's been very expensive, but---and this is on the advice of a guy I trusted whose been in the wine business---he said, start small and grow. Don't build these...big ol' castles...then you have to sell a certain amount to pay for it. And I don't care if I sell or don't sell. It's not going to get to where I have to compromise quality to pay for the place.

What does the word 'terroir' mean to you?

I dug out all the dirt here and brought out a mixture of sand from the river, based upon the reading I'd done, what I thought grapes liked, really porous, really...good for drainage. So I make my own terroir (laughs). There's too much clay, there's too much...stuff in the soil here to take any chances with. And the second part of that is, I think it's overrated.

Say more about that.

I don't believe you taste (terroir). I think you taste more of the microclimate, the length of the ripening season.

First Vineyard Dawg of the Tour: Zena

So where do you see this (winery) in ten years?

The only thing I want to do---Texas Monthly had an article about eight years ago---that said Texas had a bad reputation with their grapes, and for good reason. I understood, but...I think Texas can grow as good a grape as California, and that's been my goal, to come close to a California quality wine in Texas.

Robert Carlson and Victor Poulos

Super Bonus: I met Poulos' Good Friend Robert Carlson, the artist responsible for the Duckhorn 'Paraduxx' label. Carlson did the portrait of the hills in the background (which appears on Zin Valle labels), the beautiful handcrafted table in Poulos' Barrel Room, and is now working on more labels for Zin Valle. He is also, how you say? A nice man.

Meeting wine people rules. So far.

Bear with me; I'm about to post another interview, to catch up. I'll try not to do this again.

On the non-wine front, I wasn't yet done with Carlsbad Caverns, so I went back. Check it out.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

"Blue Mountain Winery is Closed Until Further Notice"

I don't want to speculate as to why Mr. Johnson wasn't able to keep our appointment. When I arrived at the vineyard site for the interview, the gate was shut tight and an outdated message was the only answer on the phone. When I called again today, just to see what had happened, Mr. Johson's succinct proclimation that the winery was closed until further notice concerned me. I wish the Johnsons well and hope that everything is alright.

Since I have no wine to talk about on this post, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on the most famous art installation in West Texas, the Prada Marfa:

It sits, conspicuous and bizarre, just beyond the near ruins of the old railroad town of Valentine. It is such a shock to see after having driven through the dying little town that I nearly swerved off the road.

The installation was completed in October of last year by the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, whose works are often unsettling commentary on public and private spaces and socio-economic issues. The locked storefront displays real Prada handbags and shoes which are even backlit during the evening. While they'd expected that the work would deteriorate and possibly be vandalized, they didn't expect the latter quite so soon: it was busted up and grafitti-ized just a few days after the opening. They decided to rebuild and protect it from future vandals, but the natural deterioration of the building is something that adds to it's point.

While I can appreciate the social critique of the Prada Marfa, I found myself having an emotional reaction that I didn't expect: it pissed me off.

The town of Marfa, Texas, home of the famous Hotel Paisano where Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed during the shoot of Giant, has lately become a hotspot for hipness, due to its growing population of artists and devotees of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. This Prada Marfa thing is an extention of this odd artsy gentrification, and I guess that's what bugs me. One of the critiques of the piece is gentrification, but I can't help point out that it's existence is also part of that same process. After all, some elderly lady who lives in a broken down motor home in Valentine probably doesn't give a rat's ass about it. And in a way, it might be a little taunting.

My next stop is Zin Valle vineyards in El Paso, Texas. For more Road Trip postin' fun, check out the Cocktails blog for adventures in spelunking Carlsbad Caverns.