Book Review: Wines of the Finger Lakes, by Peter Burford

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-16-2017

WOTFL Book CoverPeter Burford’s Wines of the Finger Lakes is a straightforward guide to New York’s most famous wine region and frankly the only one you need.

Burford—no “expert,” but whose credentials as a resident of Ithaca and genuine appreciator of the region prove more than adequate—organizes his work logically. He begins with some Finger Lakes history, then proceeds to the region’s grape varieties and winemaking processes, and ends with an extremely useful catalogue of key producers. Each section is well researched and limited to the essentials.

Having minimal historical knowledge of the region beyond the name Dr. Konstantin Frank, I found the first section helpful. Burford takes it all the way back to Reverend William Bostwick, who made sacramental wine from labruscas on Keuka Lake in the 1820s. Also featured are the stories of winemaking pioneers like Charles Fournier, Dr. Frank, Walter Taylor, and Hermann J. Wiemer. The Farm Winery Act of 1976 figures prominently, too, having been the kindling for so many winemaking ventures in upper New York.

Part two of Wines of the Finger Lakes is a rundown of prominent vinifera and hybrid grapes in the region. The major players you’d expect are there—Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Riesling—but so are rarities like Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Rougeon, Aurore, Marechal Foch, and Elvira. Novelty and pure variety are clearly reasons enough to visit the Finger Lakes.

For my money, the book’s final section, which covers key wineries, is its greatest asset, and why it’s worth consulting.

Burford prefaces the section, which is organized by the three major lakes, Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, with an explanation: “The wineries profiled . . . are a subjective list of those that the reasonably serious wine enthusiast will want to learn about and explore.” I appreciate that Burford is keen to give readers a highlight reel and save them the trouble of wasted tasting fees.

The winery profiles are concise, at only a few paragraphs, yet comprehensive. For each, Burford covers history, land and winemaker information, and a lineup of offerings. He gives you everything you need to know about a winery to decide whether or not you’ll taste there.

There’s not much to criticize about Wines of the Finger Lakes. It’s a pretty basic guide, written in plain English. I do however take issue with Burford’s repeated praise for the wines at Lamoreaux Landing, which on my recent visit I found far from spectacular.

The best recommendation I can give the book is that it has inspired me to start planning another trip to the Finger Lakes, because evidently, on my first go round, I missed so many gems—like the single vineyard Pinots and Rieslings at Bellwether, the award winning sparkling wines at Atwater Estate, or the red-only endeavors of Shalestone.

My Recommendation
Wines of the Finger Lakes is “well worth” your time (you’ll get that joke after you read it) and almost a requirement if you’re visiting the region. Make the most of your trip, as I didn’t, by consulting Burford’s quick and easy guide.

Tulip Winery: Israel’s Altruists of the Vine

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-02-2017

lovely-package-tulip-2Kfar Tikva is a small community in northern Israel, home to some 200 individuals with special needs. It’s also home to what has to be the most admirable winemaking pursuit in the world—Tulip Winery.

I recently had the privilege of viewing a documentary about Tulip called WishMakers. While it’s well worth the 35 minutes of your time if you can find a screening (check the website), in lieu of a traditional review I feel compelled to tell you a bit of this amazing story.

As far as I know, Tulip is one of a kind. It’s owners, the Yitzhaki family, have made it their mission to bring dignity and purpose to the residents of Kfar Tikva, who are employed by the winery and involved at every stage of operation, from vineyard management and grape sorting, to winemaking and sales.

“Labels should be put on wine. Not on people,” says Ro’i Yitzhaki, who founded Tulip in 2003 and currently serves as CEO. As the film bears out, Ro’i is the true heart behind Tulip.

From its inception, Tulip has flown in the face of naysayers who questioned whether wine made (i.e., handled) by people with special needs would sell—if people would be turned off. Tulip has gone as far as to contractually bind itself (via founding documents created in accord with Kfar Tikva) to employee Kfar Tikva residents, pay them a set amount, and not work them more than a certain number of hours.

Kfar Tikva is a community that values work, and each resident (depending on his or her limitation[s]) has a job to do. For them, Tulip represents a sort of pinnacle of personal achievement. Positions at the winery are coveted, and the residents who attain a role there derive a tremendous sense of self worth and personal accomplishment. As do the residents who contribute to Kfar Tikva in other ways—including those who work in the ceramics shop or the elderly woman, featured in WishMakers, who makes papier mache giraffes for sale in the winery store.

“These are amazing people, who give and don’t ask for anything in return.”

Tulip’s charitable endeavors don’t end at Kfar Tikva. The winery has partnered with several local nonprofits. They’ve even teamed up with the Make a Wish Foundation, helping to make the dreams of sick children come true. One little girl, Neta, aspires to work in wine, so Ro’i invited her to Tulip where she toured the grounds, met the residents, and put her blending skills to the test with some Merlot, Cab Sauv, and Petit Verdot. These are some of the best scenes in WishMakers.

There’s a lot of love at Tulip. As for the wine—“wine that loves people,” as Tulip’s motto goes—I can only say that Ro’i and his team are dedicated to making the highest quality wine possible in Israel, at a good value, while remaining a constant contributor to the Kfar Tikva community. I trust that a winery as thoughtful and with as much intentionality as Tulip puts just as much care into the actual winemaking.

If you can, hunt down WishMakers, then head over to Tulip’s website, where you should be able to snag one of the 220,000 bottles they produce annually.

Movie Review: Wine Diamonds: Uncorking America’s Heartland

Posted by | Posted in Movie Reviews | Posted on 01-17-2017

Wine DiamondsThere are wineries in all 50 states. Lest we forget, Wine Diamonds, a new documentary set to hit festivals in 2017, is here to remind us with a look at winemaking in the Midwest.

Yes, the Midwest.

Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are apparently making some good wine these days—capable, says one winemaker in the film, of standing up against the likes of Champagne.

Winemaking in the Midwest is no new thing. At the turn of the 20th Century, states like Iowa were among the largest producers of grapes and wine. That all changed with Prohibition and the advent of harsh herbicides used to support cheaper and more-efficient crops like corn and soybeans.

Today, thanks to a cadre of private grape breeders who took to hybridizing in the 1940s and 50s, Midwest winemaking is seeing a resurgence. Wine Diamonds paints the region as a new frontier full of rugged pioneers who take pride in the harsh climate and unconventional grapes.

“The world,” after all, “is much bigger than Chardonnay and Cabernet.”

The film goes to great lengths to call out the uniqueness of the Midwest. Contrasts are drawn with California, which is repeatedly criticized for being too accommodating of winemaking. “Any gorilla can make wine in California,” says one winemaker. There is heavy investment in this juxtaposition of Midwestern brawn and West Coast privilege. It’s sincere but not always astute.

I can appreciate the trials and tribulations of the men and women featured in the film. The risks they take are in fact greater than other winemakers. They battle rough and variable weather, rigid state laws, chemical drift from neighboring megafarms, and a market with a strong preference for beer and whisky over wine. On top of that, they’re making wine from grapes few have heard of, with limited winemaking tradition from which to draw.

Pioneering and laudable? Absolutely! But is the wine any good?

While I’m intrigued by the great variety available in the Midwest—roughly 40 winegrape species, many of which were created at Cornell and the University of Minnesota—I can say that the film gives reason to be skeptical about quality. The wine looks at times more like fruit punch and a poorly timed shot has the narrator comparing Midwest winemaking to that of mid-twentieth-century France while the camera pans across a bottle of “Chocolate Reserve.” Cringe.

What did pique my interest, however, is what the Midwest is doing with sparkling wine. At least one winery, Illinois Sparkling Co., is making Champagne-style wines from grapes that do well in the local soils, like St. Pepin and Chambourcin. Now that’s something I want to try.

Wine Diamonds is a beautifully filmed and well-produced documentary with a large cast. It accomplishes much in its 76 minutes, but most importantly does great service—much like Idaho Wine: From Bud to Taste Bud—to a little-known region on the rise.

My Recommendation
Wine Diamonds (see website for screening info) continues the drumbeat for regional novelty and unpretentiousness in wine. But it can’t tell you whether or not Midwest wine is actually good—and to me that’s all that matters. While I enjoyed learning about a new region, I’d rather just go find a bottle and taste for myself.

Book Review: Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Darren Delmore

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-03-2017

Book-CoverTo judge a book by its cover, Darren Delmore’s Slave to the Vine is yet another tale of wine, drugs, and sex.

That was my impression, even once I started reading.

But at some point in the book’s 196 pages Delmore’s direct, flowerless prose won me. I began to look forward to my daily read and marveled at the ease with which I could escape into his Sonoman world.

Slave to the Vine is a work of nonfiction, with Delmore as first person narrator and protagonist. It chronicles, in truth and self-deprecation, his experience working the harvest at Hirsch Vineyards on the extreme Sonoma coast. Supporting Delmore is a dynamic cast featuring David Hirsch, the Zen-like proprietor, Mick, the irascible winemaker, Barbara, the kind-hearted coworker, and a lineup of Delmore’s various friends and ladies.

The book’s success rests squarely on Delmore and his ability to carry the story forward. Likeable, with enough shortcomings to be believable, his shoulders prove broad enough. As Delmore tells it, he married young, got separated, and dove into winemaking. He surfs, plays a mean guitar, smokes weed, drinks good labels as often as he can, and tries his best to work hard and endear himself to the crew at Hirsch.

Delmore’s vices are relatively mild, but I’ll admit I was repeatedly confronted with the urge to get judgmental. His relationships with women, however mutually cavalier, and episodes of stoned driving were frustrating. But then I realized that my visceral reaction as a reader is actually to Delmore’s credit as a writer. He got me invested in the story and its characters—enough to care. I grew to respect his raw candor, like when he confesses to accidentally slicing into his scrotum with buzzing clippers. Damn!

Slave to the Vine is a relatively even tale, with few peaks and valleys. The stakes never get as high as Delmore does when he hotboxes the Hirsch’s guesthouse. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book’s many characters, or from simply going along with Delmore on his journey to find meaning and purpose—or at least his next gig.

In the vein of works like Eric Arnold’s First Big Crush, Delmore’s Slave to the Vine is a look at winemaking in all its gritty glory—another dent in the romantic façade.

My Recommendation
Slave to the Vine reads like fiction. It draws you in. I’d recommend it to anyone who prefers Sonoma to Napa, has read Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, or needs a primer on how wine is really made.

Movie Review: Bitter Grapes

Posted by | Posted in Movie Reviews | Posted on 12-12-2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.47.45 AMIn recent weeks, there has been great disruption in the South African wine industry thanks to a bold new investigative documentary called Bitter Grapes (trailer here).

The film, which runs just short of an hour, exposes the horrible conditions of workers on South African wine farms, notably Robertson Winery. While it has so far only aired in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the impact has been substantial: five wine farms in South Africa have been served non-compliance notices and at least one Danish supermarket chain has pulled Robertson’s wines.

The film’s premise is simple enough. South African wine imports to Nordic countries have been on the rise in recent years (up something like 78%). But while consumers have been reveling in cheap wine, they have failed to see the crooked path that brought the wine to their shelves.

Danish journalist and filmmaker Tom Heinemann exposes a form of modern slavery that’s long gone either unseen or ignored on South African wine farms. He visits the farms, speaks with the workers, and is mindful to get the other sides of the story, interviewing reps from the Nordic wine industry as well as a South African workers union. Not surprising, Heinemann is unable to get anyone from the wineries themselves to speak with him on camera.

What unfolds is a tale of ignorance, corruption, and racial divide. The majority black workforce is powerless to effect change, the white farm owners do all they can to maintain the low wage status quo and prevent union intervention, and the organizations who are supposed to be overseeing it all are, as one worker puts it, toothless.

Upwards of 100,000 workers live on the grounds of wine farms in South Africa, far away from the public eye. They live in slums, use disgusting open-air outhouses, and cook over fires built on piles of anything flammable. Deductions are taken from their already illegally low paychecks for these accommodations. In the vineyards, they spray dangerous pesticides and use little or no protection, apart from a thick paste that the women apply to their faces. South Africa actually has laws in place to protect workers from these conditions, but the laws are just not being enforced.

The most shocking scenes in Bitter Grapes are of young, pregnant women drinking heavily. This, the narrator explains, is largely due to a form of subjugation and control perpetrated by farm owners, who have historically paid their workers in alcohol. This practice only further enslaves the workers, forcing them to depend on the farmers for provision of the alcohol they crave.

Bitter Grapes is an emotionally captivating documentary. But if there’s one shortfall, apart from the absence of testimony from the farm owners, it’s the film’s call to action. In the closing scene the director of an organization called TCOE (Trust for Community Outreach and Education) urges viewers to only buy wine from South African winemakers who treat their workers with human dignity and don’t deny them their rights. Yet the whole film is an exposé on how the organizations regulating these winemakers are themselves negligent and corrupt, and how even the “Fair Trade” stickers on South African wine bottles can’t be trusted. So what’s the prescription here? What are consumers to do, short of visiting the wine farms themselves? It’s unclear.

My Recommendation
Bitter Grapes is worth the hour of your time. It’s eye opening and human. I’m not sure where else it will be aired, but do check out the website if you’re interested.

Book Review: Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, by Mark A. Matthews

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-05-2016

Book CoverMark A. Matthews’s controversial new book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, will force you to reconsider everything you know (or thought you knew) about winemaking.

In it, Matthews, Professor of Viticulture at UC Davis, masterfully deconstructs the most popular and longest-held beliefs about how fine wine is made — including the ubiquitous terroir – and reveals them to be built on little more than intuition and anecdote.

Terroir and Other Myths is compelling, expertly researched, and just may prove to be one of the most disruptive works of wine literature ever written.

Matthews’s basic contention is that much of the conclusions about wine in the collective mind and popular press today do not jive with scientific study. As a scientist, he demands empirical evidence, and the book is largely an examination of the data and history behind various wine “myths.” Don’t be confused by the clever title, this is academic work, with footnotes and back matter. That — the limited nature of the book’s target audience — in my view, is the one thing that might inhibit Terroir and Other Myths from turning the world of wine on its head. Which is sad to say, because it needs to be read widely. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review: Sour Grapes

Posted by | Posted in Movie Reviews | Posted on 11-07-2016

dc2f55b84cb0c4180e0d94b09305cdc9_500x735Sour Grapes is the first feature-length documentary about Rudy Kurniawan, the enigmatic wine forger who duped collectors out of millions of dollars. In 2013, when Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years in prison, many questions were left unanswered, about the fraud and about Kurniawan himself. Sour Grapes doesn’t have all the answers, but it does give those of us who followed the story closely some closure regarding the nature of the man.

Hands down the best thing about Sour Grapes is the ample footage of Kurniawan. We get to hear him speak, see him interact with others, and even bid on wine. At one point, mid-auction, he chuckles, “Dude, I just opened that bottle on Thursday. Can I refill it? Put the cork back in?” (Seriously! He actually says that!) That’s something no amount of Wine Spectator articles can give you.

But the film isn’t just about Rudy. It’s a drama with a full cast. There’s Bill Koch, the billionaire wine collector who fell victim not only to Rudy but also Hardy Rodenstock, the villain forger with the punchable face featured in Benjamin Wallace’s 2009 book The Billionaire’s Vinegar. In Sour Grapes, Koch comes across as an endearing lover of wine and likeable crusader against wine fraud. Then there’s John Kapon, CEO of storied auction house Acker Merrall & Condit, who plays the unwitting accomplice in Kurniawan’s ruse. Kapon is a parallel to Michael Broadbent, the Christie’s auctioneer from the Rodenstock story. Sour Grapes does, however, allow Kapon to redeem himself, noting that Kapon has refunded many of the Kurniawan victims.

Rounding out the cast is Laurent Ponsot, proprietor of Burgundy’s Domaine Ponsot and the man credited with discovering Kurniawan’s fraud. Like Koch, Ponsot is an impassioned crusader. He did some serious traveling and investigative work before finally outing Kurniawan. He’s even been lionized for rising to his feet at an auction and publicly withdrawing a lot of Ponsot bottles he believed to be counterfeit. You root for him too.

Sour Grapes is a highbrow version of the television show American Greed’s coverage of the Kurniawan case (which I also recommend highly). But what makes Sour Grapes so much better is, again, the footage of Rudy. More than anything, it’s a fascinating character study. Kurniawan isn’t just an ordinary guy who had an “elegant hustle,” as it’s called in the film; he actually has a preternatural ability to taste wine. His friends describe him as fun, generous, and genuinely gracious. It’s simply a case of a talented and likeable individual choosing to use his talents selfishly.

My Recommendation
Sour Grapes is a must watch for anyone who followed the Kurniawan case, and just as much so for anyone interested in modern scandals of the upper set. And hey, it’s coming to Netflix this month!

Mead: Wine, Beer, or Something Else?

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-20-2016

Larsen MeadworksMead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, with lineage back to 7000 B.C. It predates wine and beer by thousands of years. But it’s only now gaining favor among American consumers. The American Mead Makers Association’s inaugural Mead Industry Report showed mead to be the smallest but fastest growing segment of the American alcohol industry. In the past decade, the number of commercial meaderies in the United States has increased nearly tenfold, from approximately 30 in 2003 to now close to 300 in 2016.

Mead is growing. But it has yet to solidify its identity with the drinking public. Part wine, part beer, but not wholly either, mead is a strange beverage. Those who know it as honey wine are shocked to encounter something dry or even hopped, instead of something viscous and saccharine. It’s perhaps mead’s resistance to classification that has turned off drinkers for so long. But it’s also what’s fueling its current momentum, especially among novelty-craving Millennials.

I recently encountered mead in an unlikely place—Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. That’s where Larsen Meadworks is quietly producing some of the freshest, most creative and delicious concoctions I’ve ever tasted (see my brief notes below the fold).

Nate Larsen, who opened his Mechanicsburg tasting room in late 2015, has only been making mead for three years, but in that short time he’s become proficient at achieving balanced and brightly nuanced meads. He uses only the freshest local ingredients—no concentrates and no evident backsweetening—and brings together techniques from winemaking and brewing. Fermentations are done completely in open-top containers, lasting anywhere from two to four weeks, with different ingredients added in stages. This incremental approach imbues the mead with distinct layers, which unfold almost sequentially, allowing you to taste every bit of each ingredient. The rapidity of the process says beer, but the complexity and alcohol level, which ranges from 10 to 15 percent and is dangerously imperceptible, says wine.

When it comes to ingredients, everything is intentional. As a former bartender, Larsen knows the difference between a lime that is juiced and one that is pressed—and chooses the latter in his mead making because of the rind essence that it produces. And for anyone who knows what it’s like to eat a fresh stalk of rhubarb, the Larsen Meadworks Aura is just about as close as you can get to the real thing.

The lineup of meads at Larsen is long, but each is interesting in its own way, not least for the backstory. You’ll want to read my notes below, but to list some of the ingredients that come into play: strawberry, rhubarb, cascade hops, ginger, mango, passion fruit, peppermint, peach, turmeric, saffron, maple syrup, and almond meal.

Larsen meads are now available for order nationally on Vinoshipper.

Somewhere between wine and beer, mead is carving a niche all its own. There is great pressure, say some, to turn mead into something wholesale and sugary, sold in six packs. Thankfully, mead makers have yet to acquiesce.

Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review: A Year in Port

Posted by | Posted in Movie Reviews | Posted on 08-29-2016

A Year in Port ImageA Year in Port is a delightful primer. Like its predecessors, A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne, it’s a glimpse of a prominent wine region, complete with all the best views and David Attenborough-esque narration. This third and final installment is a fitting capstone to a series that never pretended to concern itself with downplaying wine’s pretentiousness—something admirable, in a way, given today’s obsession with inclusivity.

The documentary opens, appropriately, with port’s connection to what some might consider the epicenter of pretentiousness. Britain.

British roots run deep in the Douro. The Symington family, who own several port houses in the region, is a prime example. Paul Symington looks and sounds like a Brit, but was born in Porto and grew up in the Douro. In fact, his family has been in the Douro for five generations. As Paul shares, his father had a great fear of dying in England, and asked to be returned to Portugal if that should happen.

Port is a “curiously British drink,” and according to Paul, you can be both British and Portuguese.

Elegant sequences and aerials are hallmarks of the A Year in series, and the Douro is a perfect subject. It’s a mountainous land, described as strange, tough, and remote. Electricity didn’t reach much of the region until the 1970s. But what most captivates me are its staircased, granite hillsides, which the film does a wonderful job of capturing. These steep hillsides, though beautiful, require continual re-fortification, an added cost for winemakers trying to make it in one of the most expensive wine regions in the world.

I was struck, at one point, by the odd juxtaposition between worker life and owner life in the film. In one scene, rows of stone-faced villagers stand stomping in place in giant, cement-walled pools of fermenting grape must—this after picking in the fields all day. In the next, port house owners are racing sailboats down a river and participating in opulent ceremonies. While I understand the necessity of the stomping process in port making, and don’t begrudge the owners their indulgences, nor overlook that they create jobs for the local economy—it just unsettles me, to see such contrast.

The Douro isn’t entirely polarized though. A younger set exists apart from the old money, making brilliant table wines. Port is simply too expensive to get into, so young winemakers instead choose to tap into the unfortified possibilities presented by the country’s over 400 native grape varieties.

Other highlights of the film include a look inside a cork factory, where quality assurance is religion—every cork is digitally analyzed and sniffed by an expert. There is also a demonstration of port’s version of sabrage, which involves a red-hot pair of fire tongs and a damp napkin. The port blending scenes are incredible to watch as well.

A Year in Port is a documentary perfect for PBS. It’s staid, but pretends to vivacity. Like if your grandmother said to you “let’s party”—it never quite gets properly kicking. Ultimately, however, it’s educational, well produced, and visually stunning.

My Recommendation

While A Year in Champagne remains my favorite installment in the series, A Year in Port is time well spent. You’ll learn about an important region, where patience is paramount and family history runs deep. You can watch the trailer here. It debuts on iTunes September 6.

The State of Wine in a Can

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-01-2016

red-600Wine in a can is on the rise — and at this point, it’s definitely here to stay.

Nielsen reports that canned wine saw 125.2 percent dollar sales growth during the 52 weeks ended June 18, 2016. Total sales were $14.5 million, up from $6.4 million the year before. The uptick it seems has much to do with an increasing thirst for wine amongst millennials, who consumed 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015, almost half of US consumption.

Wine in a can holds manifold appeal for millennials. It’s trendy, unpretentious, and convenient. Cans are portable, hand-held, don’t require a corkscrew, and can be consumed by one person in a single sitting. The price is attractive — and significantly less than a bottle.

Plus, there are more choices than ever before. Not too long ago, the only options were sparkling. Today, though, still red, white, and rosé is readily found — and some brands even have the support of millennial hipster meccas like Whole Foods.

But what remains is the question of quality. Sure, I can drink a whole can sans corkscrew, but would I want to?

Enter Winestar.

Canned wine is a niche full of quirky labels and trying-hard-to-be-different names like Infinite Monkey Theorem. And now big name table wine producers like Barefoot are moving into the space. France-based Winestar is taking a different approach, trying to make a mark in higher-end wine in a can.

Winestar differentiates itself by offering “AOC grade” wine from “some of France’s greatest wine regions,” oaked (the red at least) and then canned at the time of maturity and preserved with a special coating that lines the can. The Winestar cans themselves, at just 187ml, or one-fourth of a standard bottle, are also unique. Currently, the brand features a red, a white, and a rose—all three from the Corbieres AOC in Languedoc-Roussillon.

I was recently sent a pair of samples by Winestar and had a chance to check it out for myself. Here are my thoughts: Read the rest of this entry »