Stinky Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Don’t Blame the Mourvedre

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 06-28-2016

I’d been preparing for this for a month. And here I was, finally, at Château de Beaucastel, the great jewel of the Rhone valley, makers of the archetypal Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Situated in the middle of vineyards for as far as the eye can see, the domain itself was stunning. I paused to savor how far I’d come from the brutal training I’d gone through just weeks earlier

Flashback to a cold winter night, at the Chesapeake Bay home of Washington, DC wine royalty, Knight of Madeira, and famed anti-Brett crusader Jason Whiteside. On the table are thirteen open bottles—menacing, unrelenting wines that wanted to steal my soul. Each was a bruising example of near 100% mourvedre—one of the most important grapes of the Southern Rhone—but a grape that, in this taster’s opinion, is hard to love on its own. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape is “tamed,” if you like, in blends. And Château de Beaucastel—the undisputed mourvedre king–uses more mourvedre in their Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend than any other producer. And this becomes important.

The complexity mourvedre imparts to Château de Beaucastel wines is legendary—or to some, notorious—and has been, as I’ll get to in a minute, the subject of one of the greatest and most impactful wine debates in recent memories. But the wines before me on that cold winter night were not this one.

No, what Jason set before me was something else altogether. Something much more else.

Instead of savoring the complexity of a glorious Beaucastel, it was my task to slog through a palate-bruising, mind-melting gauntlet of mourvedre in pursuit of the grape’s true character.

Far, far from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, most of these wines were monastrells, the hotter, thicker, usually oakier Spanish or New World version of mourvedre, and in order for its true essence to reveal itself to me, I’d have to be stronger than any taster had ever been before.

I’m not trying to say I’m a hero, exactly, but if that’s what you’re thinking, I’m not going to argue.

Why was I sacrificing liver, and mind, examining these wines? In short, because of science. Jason had proposed a thesis that—if right—would force the rethinking of one of the most important wine debates in history, and, in many ways, demand that most of us rethink some of their basic assumptions about wine. Read the rest of this entry »

Travels in Alsace Part 2: Trimbach

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Uncategorized | Posted on 01-21-2016

For a winery that has been around since 1626, even minor changes feel like a big deal. But for those of us that know and love Trimbach—undoubtedly one of France’s most important wineries, the “first growth” of Alsace—some recent changes don’t feel so small.

And yet, when I met with Jean Trimbach at the Trimbach estate in Ribeauville shortly before Thanksgiving, everything felt like business as usual. Classy and cool, Jean made these relatively big changes feel seamless and natural. Above all, of course, the family remains dedicated to continuing to make the world’s best riesling. Jean quipped, “After riesling, there is nothing. And after that, there is chardonnay.” He then paused before adding, as if making a difficult concession, “or Sauvignon Blanc.”

So true!

IMG_2738Everything about Trimbach, from its charming estate to its sleek wines to the family that makes them, is elegant, understated, and classic. Like Vermeer’s paintings, the wines’ colors shine brightly through sometimes stern, always elemental, backgrounds. The domain itself, directly under hills laced with vines and capped by a crumbling medieval castle, feels invitingly simple, bespeaking a sense of taste and proportion that make the monstrosities in, say, Napa, appear as shamelessly tacky as a suburban McMansion.

When my wife and I visited the domain for the first time on our honeymoon, a stork took flight from its massive nest across the ancient grain silo across the street. The nest was, of course, still there on our return some twelve years later.

Trimbach is history that never feels old; while some other classists in the region can feel outmoded or musty, Trimbach reflects the timelessness of perfection. Over the years they’ve resisted trends, such as the biodynamicism that swept through the region, for all the right reasons; why make changes when you got it right at the outset?

Instead, Trimbach has made gradual, precise changes to its vinification—changes that sometimes belie trends and conventional wisdom about quality, such as increasing yields to lower alcohol percentage in the face of climatic warming—drawing on the uniquely profound experience with vineyards and wines by a family that has studied them for generations. Seemingly old-school and decidedly untrendy practices—like refusing to hand sort grape bunches, choosing instead to pay professionals to hand select on the vine—define Trimbach’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach.

The Trimbach’s are not renegades, mavericks, gurus, earth dogs, or demagogues—they’re wine intellectuals.Alsace1

But of course, the world around them changes. In Alsace, it seems to get warmer by the year. And there have been long standing debates about the Grand Cru system first established in 1975. Trimbach, an important thought leader both in Alsace and France in general, has long been known for opting out of the system. The problem? Not all Crus are made the same.

When the politically motivated bureaucrats first drew up the Cru boundaries, they painted with broad brushes; many Grand Crus, such as the popular Hengst and Schlossberg, include parcels that are both undeniably world-class and parcels that are totally mundane. Why, Alsace2then, would Trimbach want to participate in a system that has failed to recognize the specialness of their unique holdings—especially, of course, the famed 3-acre Clos Ste. Hune in a privileged part of the Rosaker Grand Cru? The Clos Ste. Hune, reflecting the incompoerably complex terroir of Alsace, has the areas’ highest percentage of limestone, the same degraded seashell, ocean-bed character that distinguishes the finest vineyards in Chablis.

So what has changed? First of all, Trimbach has, against all odds in an area where nobody wants to sell, procured important new vineyards: the recent first bottlings from Grand Cru Geisberg will soon be joined by wine made from a 1.6ha parcel in the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg. In addition, as of ten days before my arrival, they significantly increased their Ribeauville holdings by purchasing a fully biodynamic vineyard. They’re going to keep it that way—so be prepared for Trimbach’s first truly biodynamic wines. And new family members, now in the 12th generation, are taking on expanded roles, from designing labels to making the wines. After 36 of his own, Pierre Trimbach’s son has now participated in his second vintage.

IMG_2739While Trimbach exudes class and restraint, the tasting, lead by Jean Trimbach, was downright opulent. We tasted through much of their large range of wines, beginning with the “classic” bottlings ranging from the 2015 Pinot Blanc to the 2013 Riesling—Jean corrected me when I called them “entry level,” and given their quality, I take his point. All were good or better, and many ridiculous values. If you are a wine purveyor appealing to a value-driven consumer base, why are you not selling these wines?

Overall, unsurprisingly, what stood out at the tasting were the dry wines. To make great dry white wines is no easy feat, and given their successes it’s not hard to see why Trimbach is the darling of France’s Michelin-starred restaurants. More than just dry—after all, Trimbach makes excellent, restrained sweet wines too—Trimbach’s wines are full of character, class, and, above all, balance.

The 2012 Riesling Reserve, produced from an area next to the grand cru Osterberg that will soon itself be classified, was a standout for its purity, expressiveness, and undeniable value. This is the kind of wine that I like to cellar—I’m recently drinking the 2002, which I thought would never come around. It did.

As I gushed over the 2008 Clos St. Hune, Trimbach’s flagship wine, Jean stated in his dry, understated way, that Trimbach has a “solid image for riesling.” True. The 2008 is an early bloomer, drinking perfectly well already. I doubt that this will be the one to go 50 years, but I don’t mean this as a slight to its obvious quality.

Between the excellent 2008 and 2009 Fredric Emiles, I don’t know which I preferred. The 2008 needs age to round out its sharp acidity, and was relatively closed. The 2009, on the other hand, considered by some the best wine made in Alsace that year, was far more open and can be drunk now or later. Of the two, I’d put my money on the 2008 aging longer, collectors.

In a tasting like this, the non-blockbusters can get lost in the mix. But why not point out that the inexpensive 2014 Pinot Blanc—the 2nd vintage under screw cap, another change for Trimbach—was fruity, clean, a lovely aperitif. The 2012 Riesling Selection de Vieilles Vignes, a new wine for me, juicy with blood orange and tangerine, is another worthy mention.

Of the late harvest and dessert wines, the 2008 Gewurztraminer Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre was stunning, with excellent acidity and purity—a reminder that Trimbach is far more than a one trick pony. And as for the 2007 Gewurztraminer Hors Choix SGN… my god.

After the tasting, I was in need of a nap. But why not go wander around Strasbourg instead? First, I’d have to over-pack my cumbersome luggage with some Trimbach bottles, including an awesome Frederic Emile magnum, that I could then haul all over creation for the next week.

Already looking forward to my next visit, I’m excited to see what Trimbach does—and doesn’t do—next.

Travels in Alsace Part 1: Perfectly Uncool

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-20-2016

What is the future of classic wine regions that are neither associated with the more insidious effects of Parkerization, nor with the rarefied wine auctions of aristocratic collectors, nor with, exactly, the recent trends embraced by hipsters? I’m talking about regions like Brunello, Rioja, and, the subject of this writing, Alsace. How do these regions gain a market over and above the idiosyncratic preferences of individual consumers? Can they ever become regions automatically identified with obvious collectability? Can they gain wine geek street cred?

In a recent issue of Tong, editor and publisher Filip Verheyden raves: “I love Alsace.” A recently published posthumous book by philosopher Jacques Derrida announces, essentially, the same thing. Now more than ever, after a recent, late-November trip, I know why.

IMG_2700In the wake of a difficult period marked both by Parkerization and by global warming, a period that was becoming difficult to defend as a collector of Alsatian wines, Alsace is once again demonstrating that it produces the world’s best Riesling. In my opinion, now that the region has moved beyond its slavish appeal to collectors by featuring rare and sweet wines, ironically, the wines of Alsace demand the attention of serious wine collectors.

 In the Tong piece, Verheyden speculates, “Alsace breathes the same deep history as Burgundy.” Not only this, but to my palate, it produces wines that are Burgundy’s equal. Riesling, of course, but also a handful of Pinot Noirs, such as the ones I tried at Albert Mann, that—it’s time to admit—are truly excellent and much stronger QPR wines than you’ll find in Burgundy.

Austria, don’t get me wrong, I respect you; I forgive the antifreeze incident and your wines get better all the time and your most important city is named after wine. But the beautiful villages of Alsace, characterized by the half-timbre mansions of wine merchants, speak to an even longer and even more profound history of experience with fine wine. For god’s sake, Hercules left his shield in the Rangen vineyard after over-imbibing on Alsatian wine!

Germany, you’ve got the stronger claim to my affection. But for all of your staggeringly steep slopes, even you can’t match Alsace for sheer terroir diversity (don’t be jealous, nobody else can either, except perhaps Burgundy, and maybe not even them). Plus, as much as I nod in agreement at just about everything Terry Theiss has to say, I just don’t find your pretty, delicate wines as versatile—or, I have to say, as easily likeable—as their heartier siblings from Alsace. I concede that I may be a philistine, an oaf.IMG_2715

 Yet, despite my affection, the region continues to be little more than an afterthought among American consumers, collectors (with the important exception of Trimbach and also some rare, sometimes silly, SGN wines), and the wine geek crowd. I already hinted at some of the reasons for this. Despite the celebrated innovations of thought leaders in organic wine making at wineries such as Zind Humbrecht, JosMeyer, and Marcel Diess, Alsatian wine in the oughts was often too big, too sweet, too blowsy—even among, and sometimes, perplexingly, especially among, the regions’ most innovative biodynamic producers. (One important exception: during this time, Trimbach, of course, never bowing to trends, remained a stalwart producer of predictably excellent, collectable wine.)

Indeed, even the bad times were marked by plenty of forward-thinking, cutting edge viniculture; Alsace was a, maybe the, thought leader in the organic wine movement. But great ideas weren’t enough. Blowsy, alcoholic wines were never going to win over the wine geek crowd, no matter how “honest” or terroir-driven. And, as I pointed out already, collectors—the market that likely drove the trend towards sweetness—liked the points those sweet wines got, but mostly shrugged.

For those of us that began collecting wine in the early oughts, we were already priced out of the Burgundy market and were about to be priced out of Bordeaux too. Worse, we also found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Parkerization movement. For these reason and others, the wine geek crowd, after much soul searching, began seeking out wines from less trammeled regions—Loire, Jura, even Sicily—where winemakers were producing “honest” wine from often obscure, indigenous grapes. We can say now that this movement, orchestrated New York and San Francisco sommeliers, gathering strength on “underground” wine boards like winetherapy, changed the industry.

IMG_2708Turning away from Parker and the point-driven collectible market not only opened up a world of good, affordable wines, but also made us feel like rebels. Only squares bought $300 bottles of Burgundy when you could get a $20 Arbois. We had disrobed the emperor, and, like good hipsters do, we could look down on those “pointy people” as pretentious, uninformed sheep. Sure some of the wine was good, even great, but that was hardly the point: obscure, organic producers were, above all, cool.

It’s too easy to write an article like this as a gentle rumination on Alsace’s fairy tale villages, warm people, and unparalleled history. But there’s a flipside to this. It’s true: there is nothing cool at all about Alsace. Sometimes, standing in its swirling cobblestone streets, I need to shake the image of twee Hummel figurines out of my head, images of puffy-faced white children fishing, holding umbrellas, bathing in wooden slat washtubs. I loathe those things. It’s not so much that I hate twee, exactly, as much as that I instinctively distrust it. It is too cozy, domestic and, frankly, bourgeoisie.

The type of people that like to dwell in an imagined long ago time when it made sense for white children to push carts with flowers in them without having other scary races there to steal them are no doubt the same people that want to “make America great again.” But I digress.

At its worst, Alsace seems like the kind of place meant to attract the lumbering schools of aging British and German tourists that, in fact, it does attract. And for us ever-cool, idiosyncratic, compulsively-individual wine geeks, working the oddball perimeters of wine consumption, deconstructing the industry’s dominate narrative and values, Alsace’s traditions can make it seem too stuffy, too on-the-nose, too boring.

Like so many fluted bottles precariously stacked in my cellar, waiting to leap out and crash atop my head, Alsatian wines just don’t seem to fit in. To many French, Alsace is not French enough. To many Americans, Alsace is not red enough. To wine geeks, Alsace is not cool enough. In all cases, Alsace doesn’t conform to the wine world’s vision of itself.

But I think that, among those of us that sought out alternatives to Parker’s vision of the wine world, regions like Alsace, written off as uncool, were too easily overlooked. This is because we valued cool even over quality.

But I’m ready for quality. And Alsace has what just about no other wine region does: ancient traditions that guide an unparalleled commitment to quality. In Alsace, the timeless value of quality makes our postmodern appeals to coolness seem shoal and insipid.

Indeed, I love Alsace because it frees us from the requirement of coolness, valuing excellence instead.

And the fact that its wines are both of impeccable quality, and considered uncool by many American consumers, makes me love it even more.

My most recent trip to Alsace included visits to wineries such as Leon Beyer, Albert Mann, and Trimbach. I highly recommend each. But in the next section, I’d like to take some time to celebrate my favorite winery in my favorite wine region and one of the best in world: Trimbach.

Wine At The End of History: How the New York Times (Sort Of) Saved the World From the Natural Wine Revolution

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-26-2015

(Flickr: winestem)

(Flickr: winestem)

Whether you know it or not, you’re witnessing a revolution. Being a wine drinker in recent years has meant taking sides (or refusing to take sides, which is just another version of a side) in a revolution in how wine is made and consumed.

While the battle has been waged mostly beneath the radar of the non-wine geek world, a recent article in the New York Times Magazine has changed this.

In “The Wrath of Grapes,” Bruce Schoenfeld embeds himself on the front lines where upstart winemakers and sommeliers have been fighting for balanced and “natural” wines — against overripe, alcoholic, bombastic “Parkerized” wines — in the very territory where the enemy seemed to have the surest hold: California.

The revolution took shape in all the regular ways. There was the overbearing, conservative dictator (Robert Parker) who controlled the information and, increasingly, seemingly, the means of production. There were the radical gorilla fighters (the biodynamic winemakers) getting their hands dirty while other rebellious ideologues (sommeliers, bloggers) pursued the Manifesto of Balance online and in the coolest new restaurants. Across the disputed zone, in underground wine stores and restaurants – and deep in the bunkers of certain online wine blogs and boards — weak and staticy instructions were sent out to the comrades and a counter-market of natural wines gained foothold on both coasts. And there’s been a lot of carnage; just ask the Australian wine industry.

Perhaps more than anything else, the Times article makes clear that The Dictator is all too good at playing his role. Like any good dictator, he ignored the voice of the opposition. And then, precisely at the point his power was most tenuous, he only acknowledged the counter-movement to say that it didn’t actually exist: “The jihadist movements of non­sulphured wines, green, underripe wines, low alcohol, insipid stuff promoted by the anti-­pleasure police & neo-­anti-­alcohol proponents has run its course as another extreme and useless movement few care about.”

In his inimitably gruff, paratactic writing style, Robert Parker speaks with immodest certitude, disregarding the opposition while issuing his 100-point decrees.

Admittedly, no matter which side you’ve been on, it’s been exciting times to be a wine drinker. But I’m ready to climb out of the trenches. I’m going AWOL. Read the rest of this entry »

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 2/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-28-2015

IMG_1276Before reading, please check out the first part of this piece.

Many of the agave distilleries, which are essentially farms (known as palenques), function as they have for generations. Simple, rustic structures, each unique but similar, shield the distillery operations while remaining party exposed to the elements. Here, nothing goes to waste: the bricks of the scant distillery structures are made from byproducts from the distillation.

Depending on the work happening that day, you’ll end up with very different photographs: a strangely simmering pile of dirt topped by a cross to ward off devils, under which the agave piñas bake and take on their characteristically smoky flavor; a donkey walking in languorous circles, turning a large stone (the tahona) wheel over a cement well to mash the agave, recently broken down by hand with a machete.

Getting to know the product itself involves wrapping one’s head around endless contingencies. There are at least eight species of agave used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca. Blending is common. While it used to be the case that the only single variety mezcals on the market were espadina and tobala, it’s increasingly common to see successful producers offering examples of the entire range, in addition to their blends, so that you can discover the pleasures of each through comparison. And while some plants are cultivated in rows, others grow wild; many producers celebrate this fact with bottlings of only the wild agave.

In addition to the complexity of the crop itself, there are a few different production methods, such as the common copper pot distillation and the more traditional, and rare, clay pot distillation. Add to this all of those variables familiar to wine production—differences in soil, elevation, and ripeness, as well as the vicissitudes of the native yeasts used in fermentation and, of course, age—and the potential differences increase exponentially.

IMG_1247These differences are readily available to taste, too, offering intellectual interest to the appreciation of mezcal. To really experience mezcal, just about everybody agrees that you need to drink the purer, un-oaked (blanco) varietals. And indeed, Mezcal has brilliance and the impression of a transparency familiar to wine drinkers that favor the expression of terroir. Unlike tequila, which I believe is at its best and most expressive with at least some oak regimen, oak tends to undermine mezcal. While great tequila is fruity, often oaky, and smoothly polished, great mezcal is transparent, pure, essential.

As a whole, the mezcal is complex on the nose and palate, with subtle fruit, smoke, vegetal, and spice notes. As opposed to those other spirits privileged enough to be called refined, such as scotch and brandy, mezcal, equally complex, is brazenly elemental. It’s rugged earth and explosive sunshine captured in liquid form.

My favorite example was a blend from the one traditional clay pot distillery we visited. I don’t know that this resulted from the clay pot itself, but as with wine makers that favor traditional methods, reflecting a certain sensitivity to their work, I wonder if this rare approach reflects a sensibility conducive to increased care and attention. Brightly fruity, minerally, and only slightly smoky, with a pleasing vegetal edge, this example stood out because of its transparency. It tasted just as good when I tried it back home. The worst examples had overtones of sherry—perhaps partly oxidized. In the lesser examples, I also tended to find a cheesy, lactic flavor.

Concerning the question of terroir transparency, I confess I’m of two minds. The purity of mezcal is real. But does it speak to a specific place?

On the one hand, at least painting with a broad brush, it’s clear that it does. I doubt that any spirit better reflects whether or not, for instance, the crop was grown in a more or less cool place. Therefore, there are clearly large-scale regional differences to attend to, as well as more subtle differences that result from, for instance, elevation—it’s not hard to believe that wild plants growing high up on the side of a Oaxacan mountain will taste altogether different than plants that see direct sunlight on the valley floor.

IMG_1240On the other hand, I have it on good authority that the implication made by Certain Famous Artisanal Mezcal Producers that label the bottles like wineries do, with the name of the region, village, or farm, have a lot of latitude in that labeling. In fact, those labels reflect mostly only where the mezcal is made—not where the agave is grown. Experientially this rings true. Trucks with loads filled with agave piñas were common; not that I think this settles the issue.

But it’s not just this. Again, experientially, even though I concede that, just as with mezcal, there are endless variables that eternally muddy the issue of terroir in wine, I’ve discovered in my life more than a few obvious examples of transparency to soil between varietals in a winemaker’s line that I’m left with no doubt.

In some limited sense, just about everything reflects terroir. In the end though, my belief is that the grape is a privileged vessel, almost uniquely suited to conveying subtle differences in environment.

In my experience only the oyster, which so perfectly reflects its place of origin, is comparable to the grape. And this is why both are, as we all know, favored by the gods themselves.

With the agave plant, I have so many doubts. I have doubts related to the violence of the distillation process; I have doubts related to the sheer mass of the plant. Also, there remains questions about the extent to which there is even the kind of soil variation in Oaxaca that would make it interesting to map in the first place—is there reason to think that Oaxaca has the soil complexity of Burgundy, Alsace, or even Virginia? In any event, the point is moot: as far as I know nobody has made even a basic overture towards tracing mezcal flavor to soil type.

So what do we mean when we speak of terroir in mezcal? Perhaps we mean it only in the limited sense. Yet, there seems to be more to it.

Questions remain. I suggest travelling to Oaxaca to answer them for your self.

The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 1/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-27-2015

IMG_1279Mezcal is commonly called the “next big thing” in the spirit world, largely because of its supposed ability to transmit terroir.

But because it’s produced in small batches through traditional, even ancient, farming practices — and scarce here in the States — it’s expensive. In Oaxaca Mexico, however, even great examples are dirt cheap and readily available. This is why you need to go to the source, where you’ll discover a world of cultural, environmental, and gastronomic interest that rivals even even the best wine regions.

Terroir is an imprecise word used too freely in the wine world. Of course, it wasn’t long ago that the term was actually underused here, and it’s no doubt a good, enlightened thing that the concept serves as the philosophical center of the post-Parker wine world. But as is always the case with philosophical centers, at the point they become centers, which is a kind of blind spot, there is a cost. Terroir is now omnipresent in wine marketing — now used to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting, now used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.

Indeed, the vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.

Successful marketing campaigns work across industries. The rebellion you purchase when drinking a fun, young Pepsi product is the same rebellion you purchase when you “express your individuality” by choosing a Mac over a PC.

So it was only a matter of time before terroir would be used to describe beverages other than wine. And of course, beverage experts, like Michael Jackson in his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, have long made the argument that great spirits, opposed in his formulation to those that are merely corporate products, reflect their place of origin.

They have a point. But as a wizened wine geek, it is with some good healthy skepticism that I approach the claims by the spirit industry about terroir expression. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kings of Charlottesville (Part 2 of 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-22-2014

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

This is the second post in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

On a recent trip made with a group of friends to Virginia’s idyllic Monticello Wine Trail outside Charlottesville, we arranged to visit a gauntlet of the areas best wineries and to meet with some of the areas most interesting, important, and innovative winemakers.

We quickly discovered that King Family Vineyards’ talented winemaker, Matthieu Finot was a common thread between these wineries, placing him, I suppose, right at the heart the quality revolution. Born in Crozes Hermitage in the Rhone Valley and well travelled thereafter, Matthieu typifies the ambitious, worldly, tuned-in and connected culture of the new Virginia.

But if Finot represents the future, this is in part thanks to the fact that Virginia began to attract winemakers looking for a challenge and interested in making a difference, like Claude Thibaut from Thibaut-Janneson. Thibaut, a vastly experienced winemaker who makes sparklers with the traditional methode champenoise, has succeeded in Virginia in part because of his empirical and practical approach to traditional winemaking.

Listening to Thibaut speak about the intricacies of grape growing in Virginia, from pest regulation to the advantages and disadvantages of different biodynamic methods, is to receive a master class in marginal climate grape growing. Having made massive batches of champagne for years at champagne powerhouse Nikolas Foullette, Thibaut now produces only small batches.  Thibaut-Jannesen wines are difficult to find, and even harder to come by now that the White House is snatching it up by the case, serving Thibaut-Janssen to everybody from the President of France to the Queen of England. If you get your hands on a bottle, be happy.

I’m thrilled by these wines. I can’t believe that Virginia makes sparklers of such intensity and sophistication, and in an Old World style that I’d gladly take over many vaunted California sparklers. Enjoy the look on your friends’ faces when you blind taste them on a bottle and then tell them they’re from Virginia.

If the wines of Thibaut-Janssen are worldly but traditional, the wines of King Family Vineyards have one foot in both the Old and the New World. The region’s culture fosters collaboration, and Thibaut and Finot at King Family are more than just neighbors — Thibaut makes the champagne for King Family. While Finot was away during our visit, we were very lucky to have the knowledgeable James King to tell the story of his family’s wines and explain the connections. But judging from the wines, it would seem that some of Thibaut’s practicality and precision has rubbed off over the years on Finot. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kings of Charlottesville (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-18-2014

Ankida Ridge Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

Ankida Ridge Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

The time has come to reassess the wines of Virginia. Gone are the days of weedy, green, foxy, thin and charmless wines of little consequence. In their place have emerged wines of character in a panoply of styles, many of which speak convincingly to Virginia’s terroir.

For a while now I’ve been excited by Virginia whites, and especially Virginia’s Chardonnays that, to my palate, are frequently vastly superior to those over-ripe and oaky versions from California and generally have more in common with Chablis. And I’ll take the Chards over the vast majority of “Virginia’s signature grape,” Viognier, which are too often (although not always) sweet, flabby, and cloying.

But as a rule, historically, I’ve never been a big fan of Virginia reds — with so many great red wine regions to chose from, whatever cache or advantage that was conferred by “buying local” was simply overwhelmed by the massive price-quality gap.

Sure, I’ve sometimes enjoyed Linden reds well enough (although unlike the winemaker, I’ve always preferred his whites), but I’ve never thought of Virginia reds as much more than a novelty. You might come across a drinkable one and say: “Isn’t that adorable! Virginia made a red!” You might then open it for your friends to prove that such a thing can be done, but never because you thought in earnest that the wine could compete with the world’s best.

I’m happy to have been proven wrong.

Much to my surprise, it’s clear that Virginia’s red wines now have a place at the table with the big boys. Indeed, there is now enough good red wine in Virginia that a tipping point has been reached. And some of these are downright world class and well worth of collecting.

In short, learn from my ignorance: if you gave up on Virginian wines earlier than, say, about five years ago, you are missing a quality revolution. Read the rest of this entry »

Discovering Greece’s Splendors

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-18-2014

Photo credit: Ed Comstock.

Photo credit: Ed Comstock.

When I told people I was going to Greece this summer, I received my share of odd looks. Didn’t I know that there was a financial crisis going on there? But I was going to Greek islands, well trodden on the tourist route, not even mainland Greece where, perhaps, maybe, I’d be more likely to experience problems.

Still, my interlocutors imagined mass strikes, poverty, violent protests, and worse. They seemed sure that — given their essentially “flawed” society, given that the chickens of European socialism had come home to roost — everybody in Greece must be miserable.

I saw none of that, nor, frankly, any sign at all of the economic downturn.

This is not to say, by any means, that there aren’t real problems that have befell the wonderful people of Greece, nor that many are not suffering from some very real difficulties. Rather, I’m saying that to imagine an economic collapse, or localized violence, as somehow essential to the fabric of such a great society — as indiscriminately and totally crashing across every place and every institution like a tsunami — is akin to imagining that Manhattan or Seattle are dangerous places to visit because there is violence in Flint, Michigan.

So here’s the point: if you have wanted to go to Greece, go. There is no better time. Don’t let anything stop you. Its land is still as eternal, its blue skies are still holy, and its people are still as authentically kind, unpretentious, and generous as when Henry Miller was there.

But when you do go, I suggest you be very careful in selecting your wines. For the most part, they are not good.

In fact, I’ve never experienced more science-project wines in my life. Read the rest of this entry »

Laurence Faller Matters: Wine Fetishism and Wine Reality

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-19-2014

Domaine Weinbach is located in a 16th century Capuchin monastery at the foot of the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg, just outside of the charming village of Keyserberg, resplendent with twee medieval half-timbered houses lined with flowerboxes. 

Laurence Faller.

Laurence Faller.

It was the morning following Christmas, and we—my wife, brother, and myself–were greeted by Laurence’s sister, Catherine, who manages sales. The winter scene could not have been more idyllic; I stood with my wife and brother in front of an ancient monastery that might have been of gingerbread, watching the fog roll down the Schlossberg mountain, glistening with hoarfrost. Two shutters popped opened above me—I heard a sing-songy “âllo!”

Looking up at Catherine peering out from the shutters from above, I half expected a bluebird to land on her shoulder.

With the passing of Laurence Faller on May 13th at the way-too-young age of 47, the wine world lost one of its most distinguished winemakers. But Laurence Faller’s significance to the wine world exceeded the gorgeous wines she made.

Passionate, beautiful, and immensely talented, Laurence was part of a group of whip-smart young Alsatian and Loire Valley winemakers whose biodynamic, non-interventional, or otherwise experimental techniques would resonate throughout the wine industry, forever changing how we think and talk about the relation between wine and earth.

She was a leader. She was a visionary.

And she was also a woman.

Through her actions and examples, Laurence was an all-too-rare role model for the minority of people in the industry who are not White Males.  Let’s face it: especially, perhaps, in the United States, wine collection—like other hobbies of fetish, such as collecting baseball cards; cars; cigars; coins; indeed, collecting or compulsively consuming anything, really—is largely a male enterprise.

This is not, of course, to say that women don’t drink wine. The numbers show quite clearly that they do.  However, we also know that the world and culture of “wine collecting” is largely driven by men—and a fetishization of worldly things that is, somehow, distinctly masculine in ethos. So much of the wine world is reducible to dudes lusting after and gushing over their treasured bottles, fretting and hand-wringing over what bottles to buy and how many.

Meanwhile, many bottles—especially, ironically enough, the most rare and expensive examples—may never even be opened. In wine as in sex, fetishism is mostly something men do.

And then there’s the fact that the culture is driven largely by people chasing points—those grand numbers that, through a mystification rooted in an appeal to authority, give off that sheen of objectivity that justifies the enterprise. And, of course, it’s a historical fact too that the kinds of over-reaching rationalizations involved in this kind of quantification—the kind that extend from a naïve positivism—have long been associated with masculinity.

Drinking to excess, and excess in general, is also historically tied to masculinity. One white male, Hercules, famously got so drunk on Alsatian wine that he left his shield in the Rangen vineyard (his shield is now on the Alsatian flag). Perhaps even male demi-gods, and not just Oedipus, aren’t immune to fetishization. Read the rest of this entry »