Saturday, April 29, 2006

James Cahill, Soter Vineyards


See this stellar photo? James Cahill wasn't sure if I should take it or not. "The building is a mess right now," he insisted. I guess he meant that orange construction fence in front...see it? Yeah, neither did I. I was too busy taking in the bucolic splendor of the Yamhill-Carlton district. A bit of farm equipment, an old car or two, and an orange fence aren't close to distracting.

James is the associate winemaker for the Soter family, and Beacon Hill Vineyard is his charge. As we ascend the hill from which the above photo was taken, he tells me about every square inch of the land. We cross a large patch of soft, knee-high grass and milkweed and James builds an 8x10 in color for me of the sheep that are summoned for mowing it every so often, and how it will eventually support more Pinot Noir vines. He points to an area nearby: this is the place for a future tasting room. We stand on the edge of the hill and look down on rich farmland, and he tells me everything about the history, both ancient and recent, of this district. And that's before we've even gotten to the vineyard. This is a guy who clearly loves what he does and where he's doing it, and his enthusiasm is refreshing. It's also clear that he's got a great deal of admiration for Tony Soter, the master and commander of the family label. He speaks about Mr. Soter's vision as often as he does his own, and the two seem perfectly suited.

Beacon Hill is the flagship Pinot Noir producer for Tony Soter, a beautiful 22-acre spread with blocks of vines planted as recent as 2004 and early as 1988. The original Pinot Noir vines are Pommard clones on their own rootstocks (non-geeks read: kickass French vines chosen for maximum goodness), and there are other "heirloom" clones as well. There's also a block or two of Chardonnay from '89, which goes into their sparkling wines.

The buds are just barely starting to break, and as we go along, Jim shows me what kind of detail work is done. "Human hands have to touch every vine," he says, pointing to the tiny buds at the base of the vine. These have to be shorn away so that the plant focuses on the buds above, and it's not something that can be done by a machine.

James is easy to talk to, and helps me put together a picture of sustainable farming. I'm still chewing on Allen Holstein's opinions from earlier in the day: that so-called 'organic' farming is often more of a marketing ploy than something that leads to the best possible wine. Part of my trip is to put aside anything I've learned or read about viniculture, shut up, and pay attention to what everyone says. It's really the only way to get the real picture.

James and the Soter family are dedicated to the sustainable practices on their land, and have received certification from L.I.V.E (Low Input Viniculture and Enology, Inc) for their practices. Does this mean they don't use a single wee drop of herbicide ever? No. It does mean that they do not use persistent herbicides, ones that linger for years in the soil. Sustainable farming practices are different from strict organics, but the idea is the same: make choices based on minimizing the enviornmental footprint you leave on the land, and your land will produce great fruit for decades to come.

We visit the cave after our hike through the vines, a structure built into the hillside for resting bottles of bubbly and barrels of Pinot. Then it's off to taste some of the finished product. Chris Poulos, the Soter sales and marketing guy, takes over as James excuses himself to attend to some business. Chris tells me about the two vineyards, the Beacon Hill and the Soter's newest Mineral Springs Vineyard, and pours me some vino.

I tasted five wines, all of which lived up to the stories, methods and care about which I'd been told. The 1999 Brut Rose was billed by Chris as the "best sparkler in America". I don't know about that, but it was fantastic. It's big and intense with fruit, creaminess, spice and superfine pearlage. Damn fine stuff. Grab it if you see it.

The Pinots were silky and busting at the seams with aroma, spice and personality. And none of the wines, to my delight, were way up high in alcohol. Even the ultra hot (and therefore, ultra ripe) 2003 vintage came in just a hair's-breadth over 14%. These are Pinots made by someone who loves the elegance of Pinot, and it shows. My fave was the 2004 North Valley Pinot Noir: killer structure, silkalicious, and only poised to improve with age.

The 2002 'Little Creek' Blend, mostly Cab Franc did not suck either. Juicy and earthy at the same time, big without shouting, great balance.

James Cahill spent several years living in Austin, and when he returned, we chatted about all the people we knew and where'd we go eat right then if we were there. It was good to talk to someone who knew Austin; homesickness is creeping up on me gradually and making visions of picadillo tacos and migas and margaritas dance about in my head. As I bade James goodbye, I wondered if I could leave that all behind to live in the lush green landscape of Willamette.

Tempting. But nah.

Next up: Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem uses a chunk of his rare time to chat with me at a coffee house. Such a nice guy. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Quick Post: Ponzi Tasting Room and the Dundee Bistro

When I realized I wasn't going to get a chance to meet Luisa or Dick Ponzi, I was disappointed, but thought I'd at least swing by the Ponzi tasting room to check out the current lineup. Plus I was super hungry, and had been told that the adjoining Dundee Bistro was not to be missed.

A quick power tasting before lunch allowed me to try the lineup of the least bombastic Pinots I've had to date. Vinted at the more traditional 13.5%, they were of a much more agreeable style to me than some of the ones whose alcohol shoved up against the 15% mark. My favorite of the bunch was the 2004 Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, an unfined and unfiltered little number with a lot of the smoky signature of the Valley. I thought she was a sexy thing, but the $35 price tag threw me a little bit. Still, good stuff for the Pinot lover in you.

Okay, after several sips, I needed chow, and off I was next door to the Dundee Bistro. I was offered a seat at the Chef's counter and couldn't resist. I love restaurants, and I love watching the dynamic. The Chef's counter is a front row seat for watching how well a restaurant functions between front and back of house. First thing I noticed was a jovial rapport between Chef Jason Smith and his waitstaff, who traded good-natured jabs while remaining attentive to the window.

My lunch was the Muscovy Duck leg, roasted with little fingerling potatoes and served with creamed leeks and sugar snap peas. If I just had to bitch (which I do), it would be that the duck itself was pretty salty and that the leek sauce was kinda thin and broken, both of which are boo-boos that I find all the time. These are not the most heinous of oversights, but enough to make an otherwise special dish mediocre. It was not enough to dismiss them entirely, however, and there were several other dishes on the lunch menu that I hope to try sometime when I'm back that way again.

Alright, that was a quick post. My next is a don't miss---James Cahill of Soter Vineyards and the wondiferous green grass at his part of the world. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Allen Holstein's Chunk of Willamette

From just about anywhere in the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley, you can see a vineyard that depends on Allen Holstein's care. The wineries that source from them include some pretty big names in Willamette---Stoller, Domaine Drouhin, Argyle. Most of the 450 some-odd acres he maintains are Pinot Noir and various clones of Chardonnay, both of which adore the cool climate and sun. Even Allen's house atop a hill is surrounded by his own personal vineyard, one from which he once made his own label. He seemed skeptical about whether he'll ever make his own label again. He's more comfortable with his hands in the dirt than with gladhanding marketers and buyers.

Allen invited me to join him on his vineyard rounds. I climbed into his truck at the Argyle tasting room, stuck my digital voice recorder back in my bag, and pulled out a pen, meaning to take notes instead. This proved impossible, both because of the sheer density of his knowledge and the fact that it was so freaking GOR-geous outside that pointing my eyes downward was out of the question. The Willamette Valley ('Willamette' rhymes with 'Dammit', dammit) is as idyllic and visually stunning an agricultural area as you can imagine. Do not go there if you're allergic to the color green. Besides grapes which are relatively recent, the hills and valley floors are fat with apple trees, nut trees, Christmas pines, blueberries, grass seed fields and enormous commercial nurseries.

Allen believes that his formal education--a Masters of Horticulture from the University of Kentucky--is an indispensable tool for problem solving in the vineyards he manages. As we bump along on a dirt road that runs around a vineyard, he tells me about a mysterious ailment that's screwing up a line of his vines. In an affected plant, the buds closest to the trunk of the vine suddenly looked burnt and withered, while the buds farther away seem fine. He's had experts from all over the world offer their theories, none of which have panned out. His own theory is controversial, and while he admits it has holes in it, reflects meticulous research, curiosity and expertise. Although I don't know squat about the inner workings of a vine's system, I find myself able to picture clearly why he's arrived at his conclusions. It occurs to me that he's probably the guy whose discoveries will make a big difference in the practices of viniculture in the Willamette. Just a hunch.

There's something big going on in each vineyard. At Knudsen, a man on a John Deere rips out an acre of vines that are to be replaced with new, better clones. At the Lone Star vineyard, Allen and a team from the University of Oregon are conducting experiments with the effect of different methods of ground cover cultivation (i.e. the "grass" between the rows of vines) on the vine's productivity. I hang back and watch as he pulls out a tape measure to take the width of a strip of green, then give directions in fluent Spanish to his vineyard manager. He's in touch with every last detail of these properties, but also knows how to trust the managers of each.

I asked him about the newly appointed Dundee Hills AVA, and it led to a discussion of all things area-designate: appellations, soil, vineyards, organics, the big terroir question.
Allen's skeptical about all this stuff. Even as he knows very well how the elements of climate and soil play into fruit quality, he thinks the whole appellation thing is a big line of marketing talk. "There's enough problems getting people to recognize Oregon as a wine producer, why make it more difficult?" Likewise organics: Allen expressed his concern that the marketing bonus on the label wasn't worth the trouble and expense. For him, growing grapes is about well thought out choices--location, clone selection, property management. He sites several situations where claims of the impact made by certain chemicals on the soil turned out to be false. Regardless of my own opinion on the subjects, I realize this is a man with a great deal of experience who obviously isn't tossing deadly chemicals around willy nilly, but with thought, planning, and respect for the land. Watching him in action all day was fascinating.


After talking to Allen Holstein, I tasted through the line of Argyle wines at the tasting room in Dundee. The Pinots are forward, have good balance, but are a little oaky for me. Now the sparklers...those are worth writing home about. I really dug the 1998 Knudsen Vineyard Brut (70% Pinot, 30% Chard), thought it was a fine, complex bottle o' bubbles for the money.

I was hungry after all that flawless scenery, and so I walked across the street to the Ponzi tasting room and Bistro. That's up next.

Clinkies, y'all.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sonoma Coast Vineyards

After a spill in Napa that caused a minor concussion, I wasn't sure if I had it in me to drive all the way out to Sebastopol, about ten minutes west of Santa Rosa. It seemed so far removed from I-5, the ostensible route north for the next leg of the tour in Portland, but the day was bright and relatively clear after many days of gloom, and you just can't waste those kinda days laying around reading at the Motel 6.

Turned out to be a great idea. I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by Barbara Drady. After a chat, hubby John Drady whisked me away to tour the snug, pastoral valleys where an interest in Pinot Noir grows.

This area is the kind of place that immediately sets your internal iPod to Anton Dvorak's New World Symphony: flawlessly verdent and dotted with lazily roaming sheep, cool winds and winding roads, and these days, an increasing amount of vineyards. One set of hills forms a sort of bowl where fog gathers and lingers, having no wind to carry it off. John explained how this causes headaches for those who have tried to plant vineyards within the fogline. "You have to plant either above or below it," he says, pointing to areas that might work better. Eventually, we drive down a rough dirt road, past an oblivious llama and out to a vineyard spot that he and his associates have chosen. These vines are better situated because there is an entry in the valley for the wind to blow off the fog.

John's philosophy (and presumably that of his winemaker, Anthony Austin) is that grape ripeness is different from grape maturity, and that the latter offers more of the subtler flavors and nuance for which Pinot is loved. Because of the cooler climate, the grapes ripen more slowly and are able to acheive a full maturity of skins, pulp and seeds before they're bursting with sugar ripeness. This lets the growers pick at slightly lower sugar levels, making for a Pinot that doesn't whap you upside the head with gobs of fruit. This is a good thing in my book, and by the way he's talking, I'm thinking I'm gonna like the juice. I've been through many Pinots on this trip, and many of them are what I call Jerry Bruckheimer wines--heavy on the (fruit) explosions and very dull structure---and a leaner, more focused Pinot is what I crave.

Once back at the house, I learned that this high-energy pair are far from retired. Barbara, who is bringing out plate after plate of nibblets she's made to pair with the wine, owns a large wine education company called Affairs of the Vine, which has a rather impressive list of Big-Boy clients. John is still a firefighter for the county and answers his pager several times as we talk.

"Wine is a kind of bond," John says. "You come into our house, and we don't even know you, but because we understand each other about wine, you aren't a stranger anymore."

The wines, as I suspected, were lean and aromatic. Yes. My favorite was the 2003 Pinot Noir, 100% Pinot, a mix of seven clones the Dradys and Anthony Austin chose for color and style. Still high in alcohol (14.6%) but with deep color, great balance and lots of pretty florals on the nose. The Dradys make another wine called 'Fire Station Red', of which they often donate cases to charity events. It's labeled as a 'Shiraz', and I asked why. The answer was what I expected--these days, consumers respond to the word 'Shiraz' better than 'Syrah', plain and simple, and it's intended to appeal to those looking for an inexpensive burger-and-bbq wine. Fair enough....I guess.

As with so many turns in this road trip, if I follow a seemingly off-the-path destination, it leads me to another branch of road that ends up being even better than the obvious one. Since I was already this far west, I took the 101 instead of I-5, which in turn led me to some of the most fabulous scenery since Big Sur. I'm so glad I rallied from my post-headslam daze and got back out there right away. Carpe-freakin'-diem, man.

I'm in Portland now, and the Willamette Valley is beeeyootiful. Stay tuned for my posts on Argyle, Ponzi, and my chat with James Cahill of Soter Vineyards.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Steve Rogstad, Cuvaison Winery

I have a special place in my heart for a winemaker with a classic Pixies concert flyer framed above his desk. It tells me a lot about the guy. For instance, I now know that while he has built a successful career, he's still in touch with his inner slacker, which in turn means to me that he's not all caught up in the silly world of ego-stroking that one can easily find in the Napa Valley. Somehow, if you're still friends with your fave band of your youth, it ensures that you won't forget why you started doing what you do in the first place.

Carneros is beautiful, especially in the fog for which it's famous. I met Steve Rogstad at his office overlooking the Cuvaison vineyard in Carneros. In stark contrast to a certain faux Chateau nearby, the Cuvaison building, which Steve designed, is sleek and functional. Even the breakroom of the offices has a breathtaking view of the vines.

Interview with Steve Rogstad, Cuvaison Winery

C&D: Can you give me the Reader’s Digest version of how you got started making wine?

Steve: Hmm…the condensed version. I studied Literature in Seattle at the University of Washington. I moved to France…I was dating a girl whose parents owned a place in Paris and that sounded like a lot of fun. While I was living there I got very very interested in wine because I’d never been introduced to it before and the French were drinking it all day long, and it seemed like a good idea. So I started off getting to know the guy downstairs, he had a wine shop down there, and I got a good introduction to the wines of France. And I decided then that’s what I wanted to do, get into winemaking. And I’d gone to school in London with some people from the University of Washington as an exchange student and one of their families owned vineyards in Washington State, and he was going to go to UC Davis and study winemaking. So I found out through him all about the program at Davis, and I moved to California, and that’s what I’ve done.

Do you like the ‘Old World’ style of wine, or the ‘New World’ style better?

I was introduced to wines from the wines of France and I still love the wines of Burgundy and the Loire… I will say I’m not a huge fan of the wines of Bordeaux. But most of the other regions of France I like, and of Spain and Italy. But I’ve also come to appreciate the New World wines, not just California, but New Zealand and Oregon, I think, are really terrific.

What are the characteristics you appreciate in a wine, whether it’s one you make or enjoy yourself?

For me, I like wines that are aromatic, and that have what I call ‘tension’. They seem to have a nice sense of both tannin and acid, and even white wines that can have a kind of nerve or something about them that makes them not flabby, a little more structured and interesting in that way.

What was the most successful wine that you’ve made?

Well, I’d say…prior to Cuvaison, I was making some vineyard designated wines when I was at Clos Pegase called Graveyard Hill and Palasaides that were both successful commercially and I thought they were wines that got that winery out of the necessity of always having to blend wines and make some wines that were really unique and individual, and I like wines like that most, because I think what’s intellectually interesting about drinking wines is that you can drink them over several years and it’s always the same place that you’re drinking from. And I think that’s one area where the New World is catching up, but has kind of lost out, especially to Burgundy where you have that sense of drinking from, you know, the same vineyard every year. And I’ve always been attracted to working at estate wineries that have their own vineyards, because I really want to be part of the growing of the grapes and making wines from the same property every year.

What’s the Cuvaison production level right now?

We’re at about 55,000 cases, and it’s all estate grown. We actually grow more grapes than we use. We sell grapes to a few other wineries as well.


Next up: a couple who find a special spot in the bucolic Sonoma Coast just right for food-friendly Pinot....


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Welsh Stewart Wines

One of the things I dig on this trip is having people contact me and invite me to talk to them. Although having them within twenty miles of my epicenter is nice. Jeremy Bivins was out near Davis, roughly an hour's drive east from where I was, and I realized it would be a trek. But what the hell, I thought: I can go walk around the UC Davis Campus and make faces at the law students.

Before the drive, I checked out his Welsh Stewart website to see what he was up to. There was a statement therein that made me raise a brow: Who says you can't have high alcohol and balance? Not us!

Hmm...'cause see, I'm that person who says that. At least, most of the very high alcohol reds I've come across lack the kind of acidic structure that I think is necessary to hold up the front end, so to speak. So I was gonna need some proof of that.

Jeremy met me at a bustling crepe place in Davis, and I liked him immediately. But I thought, this guy doesn't look like a wine guy. This guy looks like a beer connoisseur to me: young, stout, handsome and bearded, the kinda guy who could tell you the finer points of porter rather than Zinfandel. Interesting...

Interview with Jeremy Bivins, Welsh Stewart Wines

C&D: Tell me how you got started.

We moved here in June of 2001, and I started making beer as a hobby. I was at a beer supply store one day picking up grains and saw a number for a grape grower in Dixon, he'd over picked 750 pounds of Zinfandel. So I thought it would be cool to make the jump from beer to wine. My cousins were growing wine. So he offered me the use of his farm and his barn. Over the next six months he showed me everything I needed to know, my crash winemaking course. For six months, I'd go out and taste it, see how it was doing. Then we had a big wine bottling party that next summer...we bottled thirty cases...

How many did you drink?

We probably put away a case or so. But it was an all day thing because we'd never bottled before and it took us three hours just to set up the stainless steel bottle filler. Competent people, it would've taken them an hour to get that done (laughs).

We were talking earlier about ratings chasers and all do you see yourself as a winemaker?

Part of me thinks that winemakers who really hold tight to reviews also take whatever criticisms they read in those mags about wines and then alter their style accordingly so that they insure that they'll always be considerable to that publication. I don't like that. I think you focus on the fruit, you make the best wine with the fruit and the year that you have, and if it turns out to be a 17% alcohol Zin, that's what it turns out to be. So for me at least, if I worry during the fermentation process about how this wine's going to look to somebody like Spectator, who doesn't like high alcohols, they don't like small production head would explode. I'd rather just focus on the process and do the best that I can do.

Right now, making wine isn't currently your primary source of income.


What do you do for the money?

I design online training for corporations.

Is wine something you would like to be your primary income?

Yes. If I could make the same amount of money making wine that I make working with computers, I do it in a heartbeat.

What's your take on the common manipulations of wine, like color?

My philosophy is that I want whatever goes into my bottles to be something that I made. I don't ever want to get into a situation where I buy bulk wine...other people's wine to blend. So that makes fruit selection important to me and it makes being really attentive during fermentation really important. I don't ever want to get into the Mega Purple trap, but fortunately, it's not such an issue working with the Rhone varieties.

Will you always buy your fruit, or do you have aspirations to buy some land and do it all yourself?

My goal is always to become self-sufficient. I've had to search for new Zin sources every year...and every year they're different. So yeah, I'd like to rely on myself rather than other growers.

How would you characterize your wines?

The Zin is definitely a "I'm going to sit down and drink a bottle of wine, maybe with a little food, maybe not" kind of wine.

A sipper wine.

The Zin definitely is. I don't think of the Zin as a food-friendly wine. The Rhone blend is much more food-friendly, I think. It's a totally different style of wine.

What comes to mind with this word: 'terroir'?

I don't think about that word too much, because then I have to remember how to pronounce it. I go by appellation...Russian River, Dry Creek...I know what those appellation are going to give me. I know Russian River's going to give me higher acid, bigger fruit and darker color, and Dry Creek's going to give me lighter color, more spice, more red fruit flavors than black fruit. And so that combination I really like.


So the question remains: high alcohol and balance, together at last? I'm gonna say this: it is a BIG, JUICY Zin. Can't use the word subtle anywhere in its description. But it had nice weight to it, and was powerful without being jammy. Definitely a sipper wine, lest one feel inclined to pull one's pantyhose off over one's head. I'd recommend it to the Big Young Zin lovers for a try.

I have Steve Rogstad up next, who spoke to me about wine and the Pixies while we watched the fog cover the Carneros. After that, a fabulous couple of Pinot pioneers from the Sonoma Coast. Don't act like you aren't staying tuned.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bucklin Vineyard

As Will Bucklin, Tom Wark and I slogged through the thigh-high mustard, rye grass and legumes, Tom teased Will: "He's given every one of these vines a name." I asked Will if that was true and he said no, not all of them. I told him I was going to call this one Miss Bertha, and he said, "She?"
"Yeah, she," I said. "Look at those curves. You're gonna tell me that's a boy vine? Please."

God, I love old gnarlies. These guys (and girls) look like hell, but they're just gorgeous, all twisted around, stuff growing in, on and out of them. Lizards and mice reside inside their hollowed bases, and Tanner, the vineyard dog, circles one madly trying to get to whatever varmint scuttles within.
This is the oldest vineyard in Sonoma, founded 155 years ago by William McPherson Hill, the first guy to plant something other than the Mission grapes favored by the Spanish Missionaries. It's a field blend vineyard, meaning there are several different varieties growing together, seemingly willy nilly. Will Bucklin undertook the task of creating a vineyard map (do check this out, it's fascinating) to help illustrate its uniqueness. Perusing this map, I found myself making up theories about why grenache was planted here and the table grapes there, all within a sea of Zinfandel. It's a great bit of California history that surrounds these vines, and one that helped me tie in so many other bits and pieces of that history I'd been picking up on my travels.

Interview with Will Bucklin, Bucklin Vineyards

C&D: So tell us about your family and the Old Hill Ranch Vineyard.

Will Bucklin: My stepfather purchased the vineyard in 1983, and it was in disrepair, a polite way of putting it...grown over with blackberries, there were old toilets, truck engines, drums of stuff. He was told he wanted to rip the vineyard out because it was worthless, and much to my pleasure, he didn't do that. He ended up farming the vineyard and selling the grapes to Ravenswood and others, and it's been remarkably successful as a single vineyard designate. The vineyard was established in the 1850's, then phyloxera came in in the 1880's, and stretched through the 1920' of the arguments I've heard about why this vineyard is probably the oldest in Sonoma is because it's founder, William MacPherson Hill was one of the most advanced agriculturalists, so he would have been one of the first to try and use rootstock (to discourage phyloxera).

How did you come into winemaking, originally?

I went to a community was one of those serendipitous little moments. I was planning on being an engineer, but I don't know what I was thinking because I couldn't do calculus to save my life. So I had this chemistry class and the teacher was an oenofile and all the labs were done around wine, so when we did the pH measurement, we'd use wine, we'd do titratable acidity and use wine, we're doing volatile acidity, we'd use wine. So he loved wine, and I told him about my stepfather, how he had this vineyard and that we lived in Sonoma and I had friends who'd gone to Davis, and he said, "I'll get you into Davis!" And my head just started spinning. So I graduated from Davis, and my stepfather said, you gotta go to Europe, learn not how to make wine but to taste wine, drink wine. So I went and had a great job interview with Baron Phillipe Rothchild, and much to my amazement, I got hired. Met a guy there from Australia, went to Australia to do harvest there, came back, worked at Navarro...worked at King Estate in Oregon for eight years.
We were talking earlier about some of the assumptions we make about old vines...some of those characteristics you might attribute to old vines are actually because of the makeup of the field blend?

The reason that I made the map is that I was out selling my first vintage 2000 and noticed, when I tell people about the age of the vineyard, they get very excited. I tell them about the field blend, and they weren't that impressed. And the wine...the comments were overwhelmingly positive, but they were often critical that it didn't reminisce of Zinfandel. And I thought, how am I going to explain to people how this vineyard is unique, and so that's where the map came from.

And terroir?

Terroir seems to be some of the unchoosables. The things you can't change. I could argue, or not, that (the field blend) is part of this terroir. I guess I could choose not to blend in the other varieties. But, for the sake of argument I could say they were unchangeable, because I'm going to make the wine however that vineyard is.


I got more coming...


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mayo Reserve Room: Seven Wines for Seven Nibblers

In the Sonoma Valley, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a Mayo Family Winery tasting room. There are four total, and I passed two on my way to their latest venture: the Mayo Reserve Room. Open for about a year now, the room sports an in-house chef who serves tasty little bites that pair with seven wines, a nicely put together atmosphere, and as you can see, fancy pointy dishware.

I was greeted cordially, if a little stiffly, by both the tasting room wine director and the Chef. I kept wanting to poke them in the ribs, get them to drop the act and chat with me. While the wines were being poured, I got what was probably the usual explanation of the typical characteristics of the varietal, what I could expect to taste, and why it worked with each pairing. I'm not a fan of this. Lemme 'splain.

This tasting room is designed to bring a sense of how the flavors of wine and food work either together or off each other, and the pairings are done very well. However, see--maybe it's just me, but I really dislike being told what I'm about to taste before the wine hits my lips. I understand the idea behind it, which is to help folks who might be trying to train their noses and palates to catch all the hints of white roses and candied apricots and supple leather or whatever, but ultimately, this pre-explanation isn't really working toward that goal. If you've been in the wine biz, you know well that if before you smell a wine, I tell you it smells just like bananas, you're gonna smell bananas. It's like trying not to think of an elephant. I'd suggest to the guys that they let people taste the wine and the food first without all the explanation, then answer questions. The best way to teach people about wine is not to tell them what they're going to get, but rather to ask them, "What do you taste?" That gives people confidence in their own palates.
And that will make the tasting room a really special experience.

I would still recommend catching it if you're toodling around the Sonoma Valley. Skip the other Mayos and drive to Kenwood for this one. For $25, you get seven wines and seven carefully and successfully paired nibblets, which is a nice deal.

Awright, road trip fans...I've got lots coming down the pike: Will Bucklin of Bucklin Vineyards, a rouge winemaker from Davis, and plenty more where that came from. Stay clinkified.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Casa Nuestra Winery: Off the beaten Silverado Trail

Allen Price and I arrived at the front of the little yellow tasting room at Casa Nuestra winery at the same time, both in rain gear, and both probably equally annoyed at the persistence of this unseasonable downpour. "This stuff is supposed to be over British Columbia this time of year," he says as we quicken our pace toward the cellar. "It's a fluke. Some think it's global warming, but that's only part of it. I've seen it happen before."

This guy is both a dyed-in-the-wool farmer and a bonafide Napa townie, so I'm guessing he knows what's up with the weather. During my entire trip, I've asked if this early rain will have much of an effect on the vines, and only Price has said anything but "Nah, they're dormant". He takes a moment to explain that many of the vines, like some people, take a look at the cold rain and think, "To hell with that," and stay asleep until things look less nasty. This can shift the growing season to a later schedule, and while it doesn't bother the vines now, it can cause harvest to get pushed dangerously close to the October rainy season. Now that can be bad.

We moved it inside to the tasting room, which is of itself worth the stop. It used to be open on a regular schedule, but has now been moved to appointment only. Price and I sat down at a table surrounded by posters and chatted while a passionately affectionate black lab demanded her share of attention.

Interview with Allen Price, Casa Nuestra Winery

C & D: You've been here most of your life, and you were talking earlier about some of the changes you've seen, economically and so on, that have gone on in the Napa Valley. Can you talk more about that?

Price: Yeah. Used to be a depressed area, used to be grape farms all around the valley floor, into Rutherford, where it gave way to pear orchards and apple orchards and prunes. I worked that as a teenager, to begin, and there wasn't much money in it, wasn't much money in grapes either. My grandparents just about starved on forty acres in St. Helena.

What year was that?

In the fifties. The area always made good wines, from red varieties, especially. The area got involved in the revision, the urban revision, and people started moving into the area, replanting what were seen as "better" varieties...Chardonnay and Cabernet. And that trend continues to evolve, into the present.

How long have you been here with Casa Nuestra?

Four years, but I helped assemble this place in 1979. Spent most of my life working for Hess Collection and other wineries before that. In Sonoma.

So you've been making wine for how long?

Oh, off and on for...thirty five years? Off and on. I've had other jobs. I've been a plant engineer, outfitted equipment for wineries...

What appealed to you about making wine?

To me, making wine is like low temperature baking. It's food preparation, except you're working through seasons. Your vineyard block is like having a new baby. You nurture it all year long and then you harvest it, vinify it in the winery, it's a whole process, you can track every step of it.

Casa Nuestra is sort of an anomaly on the Silverado Trail. What sets it apart?

Part of it is that we use older varieties that are well attuned to the site and well suited to the district. That helps a lot. We also know what we're doing with these, have a lot of experience with these particular blocks. And they're properly mature. We have very little under ten years old, some go out to sixty, seventy years. And it takes that long to stabilize the production and to get the best quality.

You've got those old Chenin Blanc vines out there...what happened to Chenin Blanc? Why did it fall out of favor?

So much bad wine was made out of it over many decades, without any attention, made sweet and at the bottom of the cost scale. What we do here is we have a dry-farmed old block that has a small production level, and if we get it right, then it makes really nicely perfumed wine.

What does really good Chenin Blanc taste like to you?

It has a melony mouthfeel with a floral nose, mostly.

Talk a little about what terroir means to you, how it expresses itself, why it's important.

Starting with the ground, the earth...with its water holding potential, and to a certain degree, its mineral composition...we try to set the crop level, or the pound of grapes per vine (to that). The other half is the climate at that site, and also the exposure, these factors all make it unique. If you grow tomatoes, it's the same thing. If you withhold production, if you have properly ripened with good sunlight...if you pay attention to what you're doing, then you can get better wines.

Allen Price also makes wine for the David Fulton winery, a family owned operation recently brought back by the retired grandson of the original nineteenth-century owners. They are very small production outfit and specialize in big fat petit sirah. If you're a Cal-style knife-and-fork petit sirah fan, check 'em out.

I've been fortunate since in Napa to meet some very cool people and hang out in their very cool houses. And by cool I don't mean rich. I mean intelligent, witty, fun-loving and ass-whippers at hospitality. Gahd, I love this trip.

Stay tuned, more Napa, Sonoma and outlaying areas to come....


Friday, April 07, 2006

Bonny Doon: Is the Magic Gone?

Hell no.

It seems like every time I mention Bonny Doon, someone's got to moan about them "going corporate", as though they've sold out completely and the magic's all gone.

Aw, c'mon, what if they pump out all that Big House juice? It's not horrible stuff, and I can think of a lot of other shite in that price range that people could be drinking. And yeah, it's a little spooky, the fact that the whole marketing of Doon seems so...irresistible to a certain group of wine folks (myself included). And also that they have a disturbingly corporate "Join Our Team!" recruitment video on their site.

Okay, all these things are creepy. But look: as long as they keep producing the joyous, boisterous, often dark humored art on the bottles and keep putting smile-inducing, interesting, biodynamic wines within, they can do all the selling out they want.

I made my pilgrimage to the tasting room outside of Santa Cruz this week, and despite that fact that it was positively pissing outside the entire day, I couldn't have arrived at a better time. A group of restauranteurs were present to check out all the current releases, so there were several bottles open that aren't normally shown to the unwashed masses. So despite my unwashedness, the cheerful Tasting Room Associate let me sample some of the exclusives. Yay! My fave was the 2004 Cabernet Franc (first photo above, on the right side). How shall I describe it? Normally, Cab Franc from California seems big and oaky and dusty, but this one is more like the Chinon style, leaner with pretty high floral stuff going on. Fabulous color somewhere deep in the shades of magenta. I likey very much.

Also on the exclusives list was the 2004 Chenin Blanc. Have you ever had a wine a wine that from the first whiff to the back end of the palate tasted exactly as if you'd taken a bite out of one particular fruit? This wine was all white peach. Maybe a touch of floral, and nothing close to sweet, but it was crying out for some Thai food. Yum.

Alas, I could buy neither, but was glad to have tried them. And I'm kinda glad they're exclusive, and that Mr. Graham makes something new and wacky every year. As long as he lives and breathes (fifty more years, please) the magic of Doon will be there.

I've been in San Francisco for the many days? Whew, I have never in my life done so much walking. All over Japantown, all over the Mission and Castro, all up into the Muir Woods. I'll catch up on all the highlights when I get to my next stop: Napa.


Monday, April 03, 2006

Annette Hoff, Cima Collina Vineyards

Have you ever heard of Mega Purple? Me neither, but I just read about it on Annette Hoff's wineblog. It's a color additive that some winemakers add to jack up the hue and body of their wines. Now, that's just nasty. What if you found out that your porterhouse had been soaked in Mega Brown or your allegedly fresh 'n' healthy broccoli in Mega Green? Yack. That is some serious cheating, people. If you can't make a lovely wine without adding a bunch of stupid stuff, perhaps you should go work for Coca-Cola.

Winemaker Annette Hoff not only refrains from using this kind of added crap, but advocates truth in advertising for those who do. She believes consumers have the right to know what's in that bottle just as much as they have the right to know what they're eating. She's tinkering with the idea of putting that information on her own label, along with a disclosure of every varietal used.

As you may know, California only requires that 75% of a certain varietal be used to place the name of that varietal on the label. Way more often than not, that "Pinot Noir" consumers buy has 25% syrah or some other grape in it. Annette doesn't do things that way: if her Cima Collina label says 'Pinot Noir' than that's what it is, 100%.

Interview with Annette Hoff, Cima Collina Vineyards

C&D: Can you give me some background?

I started in 1994, took my first job at a wine laboratory at Rodney Strong vineyards, worked there for eight months, it was an internship position. I've always been interested in wine...I ended up going to UC Davis, but I have an international economics degree. They have an onology and viticultural school there, and I took a few classes, sort of fell into hanging out with the onology/viticulture crowd, and really got interested...

Are they a wild set?

Yeah, but you know, for college students they had access to some really interesting and unusual wines and it was all very compelling and a lot of fun. And a lot of was like a second career, basically, they were in their late thirties and had been out in the world quite a while and had developed gourmet tastes. So it was college students eating truffles, and I'm thinking, I like this life, this is very cool. And in the early nineties the economy was still kind of slow, and it was hard for a college student to find a job, but the wine industry was really starting to boom, so I got a job pretty easily at a wine laboratory, and fell in love.

Talk about what style of wine you like, what you'd put on your own table.

Well, it seems so trendy to say, but I'm so tired of oak...

I think there's a reason it's "trendy" to say that. Because everyone's tired of it.

(Laughs) That's exactly it. But I want a wine that has more subtle flavors, that's intriguing and interesting, and not so, "Here I am!" fruit forward, that type of thing. I love Pinot Noir, I love making Pinot Noir.

Can you think of a wine that really blew your mind, crystalized for you the style you like?

There's a wine that Saintsbury made in 1996, it was their very first vintage of their own estate vineyard called Brown Ranch, up in Carneros. I tasted that bottle a number of years later, and really had no expectations of what it would be like. I had been there when we made it, but it had been a while, and I had no idea what it would be, and it absolutely blew my mind, in terms of Pinot. And there were a few New Zealand wines when I was there that suprised me...

Pinot as well?

Pinot, from little vineyards...I said yeah, this is where I want to be. I want to acheive this in my own winemaking style.

What does the word 'terroir' mean to you?

Here in Monterey, it doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot yet...ask me that in five years, I might be able to tell you. The vineyards are so know, I could say, well, Pinot planted on glacial soil is very fruity and full bodied, as opposed to Pinot grown on decomposed granite, which tends to have a more mineral characteristic. But most of the vineyards I'm getting fruit from are still relatively new and it really takes, I think, eight to ten years for the fruit to really start to express what that site and microclimate can produce. So ask me in five years.

2004 Cima Collina Chardonnay (100%), Chula Vina Vineyards--This is an unfiltered golden colored wine that is ever so slightly cloudy. Rich and creamy tropical nose, with full tangy pineapple...but here's the good part: minerality. There's a smooth minerality that adds a great note to the fruit. It's a big one, but it's balanced and tasty.

2004 Pinot Noir, Salinas Valley--again, unfined and unfiltered, yet it doesn't look like it. It's surprisingly bright and clear. Annette acheives this with a very careful racking process. Big again, but well balanced with all the floral and tealike characteristics I hope to sniff when I've got my nose in some Pinot. Soft tannins.

Alrighty. Wow. I'm halfway up the damn coast now. And a month into it. What do you guys think?

If you've got half a sec, leave me a comment and tell me what you think of my journey so far...what you'd like more of, less of, you know, all that kinda stuff. Ta very much.

I'll do a wrapup of my short visit to the Carmel Valley next, then I'm off to Bonny Doon, and from there, a couple days respite in The City.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Paso Robles...West Side Story

Okay, to be fair, I spent my time in the west side of Paso Robles, the uppity side; from what I understand, they're trying to break away into their own appellation. As you can see from this loverly picture, it's bee-yotiful country, disected by windy roads, dotted through with orchards, farms and (my favorite) spotty moo-cows.

You know, I'm a little sheepish about even posting a "roundup", because there were several places with stellar recommendations I missed in lieu of checking out Hearst Castle. I apologize profusely. Semi-profusely, anyway. But here's a few wines I managed to taste that were worthy of C&D stamp 0' approval:

Is Tablas Creek too pricey? Maybe, I dunno, it depends on your value system. Pros: they are well made, ageworthy, and beautifully structured in the traditional French style. Cons: I suppose you could get a lot more for your money if you bought an actual French Rhone. Maybe. Whatever. They're damn good. Decide for yourself.

I tried three vintages of the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: 2002, 2003, and '04. They're all slightly different blends; but mostly Roussane with varying degrees of Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. I liked the '03 the best. It's an ageworthy blend with great lean treefruit, almonds, florals and minerals, all well focused with a long mineral finish. Yummers.

The 2003 Cotes de Tablas Red, mostly Grenache with Syrah, Mourvedre and a whiff of Counoise made me very happy. Forward spicy strawberry Grenache fruit with great minerality; a Rhone style juice that a body just don't normally find this side of the pond. Nice.

Fond of a good brooding Mourvedre? You likey this one: 2003 Mourvedre, with dark wildberries, leather and spice, great structure, and good long length.

Awright, enough with the idol worship of Tablas Creek. Go throw down the money for one and see if you think they're worth it.

I was a little rough, maybe, on Carmody McKnight? I'm a Southern gal, see, and anything approaching criticsm makes me squeamish. I wish to be fair and say that their 2002 'Cadenza' Blend (half Cab, half Merlot with a touch of Cab Franc) was right decent. Really good structure to hold up a lot of dark, extracted fruit, and a nice tannin grip to it signaled to me that it could go a few years.

For an Italian wine buff like myself, Caparone was a great stop. Unfined and unfiltered for the people, the wines are lean and made for the table, just like I like 'em. My favorites were the rich, savory, leathery 2002 Aglianico and the spicy, well balanced 2002 Sangiovese. Molto buono!

I really enjoyed what I tasted on the whole, and wish I'd had the time to taste some of the others I'd heard about. But a girl's gotta make decisions.

I'm in Monterey now, home of a stellar Aquarium and a totally tourist-trappalicious Cannery Row. Next post: I chatted with Annette Hoff, winemaker for Cima Collina. Keep on checkin' in...I'm watching you people. I know if you've been unfaithful.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Pit Stop in Big Sur

I know, I know, I promised I'd set y'all up with a Paso Robles Roundup. And I shall. But a girl cannot live by wine alone. She must have the Ocean, the Redwoods, the distant sprays of whale spouts.

In the meantime, how 'bout checking out Cocktails With The Noonday Demon, for a wrapup of my Hearst Castle and Big Sur adventures? I think you should.