Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture Is a Standing Invitation to Travelers

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-30-2017

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The view from atop the vineyards of Kukkula Wines.

In early September, I spent several days digging into the Paso Robles wine scene, and I came back feeling refreshed and inspired about the future of this region. I’ve loved Paso Robles wines for many years, but it remained one of the few California wine regions still on my list to visit. So I was excited to go on a trip, sponsored by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, and it proved to be an exciting place.

It boasts a mix of geographical features, varied soils and microclimates, allowing many different grape varieties to flourish. I found a thriving wine culture marked both by experimentation and tradition, individualism and cooperation. It’s easy to see why more and more wine-lovers are visiting Paso Robles.

Paso wines have received large-scale attention, high praise, and high scores from major wine critics for a long time (Justin’s Isosceles and Saxum’s Syrahs come to mind). But another thing that’s great about Paso: there are so many intriguing wines flying well under the radar. With more than 200 wineries, and vineyards that grow more than 40 grape varieties, there’s a little bit of everything happening out here.

Geographically located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Paso winelands are intimately linked with the nearby Pacific Ocean. When I got off the plane at San Luis Obispo airport, the surfer in me grew stoked as I tasted cool, salty air streaming in from Morro Bay. In the morning it may be cool and foggy, but when the sun heats up, winds come whipping over the hills. As grapes here ripen, they get plenty of heat and sunshine, and they also receive plenty of cool, fresh air.

Onshore winds from the ocean get sucked into the Paso Robles appellation through the Templeton Gap, basically a crack in the coastal mountain range that separates Paso from the Pacific. This results in a day-night temperature swing of some 40-50 degrees during the growing season, one of the largest temperature swings in wine-growing California. While I was visiting, the mornings were crisp and foggy, the afternoons warm and windy, the evenings cool and long. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Wine in the Wilderness – Exploring Humboldt’s Lost Coast

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-29-2016

15036224_10154698717797173_6457924708238591057_nNo highways cut through here. Mountains drop precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. Everything is wet and the nights are long and cold. This mountainous coastal region of northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt Counties, called the Lost Coast, is the largest stretch of coastal wilderness in the lower 48 states.

I came here for the waves, the stoke, the mountains, the serene darkness of the forest. And, yes, the wine. They make damn good wine out here.

I visited Andrew Morris, the winemaker and proprietor of Briceland Vineyards, on a rare warm and sunny morning in November. The sun poked through after a terrible downpour that lasted all night (a local told me it rained four inches). My friend and I were forced to bail, soaked and frozen, from our flooded tent and sleep in our car. In the morning, we checked the surf, but the tide was dead high, making it impossible to reach our spot. So we grabbed some coffee and drove over the mountains to see Andrew. The drive east on Shelter Cove Road could be described using any or all of the following words: gorgeous, sketchy, stunning — holy shit, bro, you’re way too close to the edge! — mindboggling, etc.

When rainstorms come early, they can be a big threat to the grape harvest, but the grapes had been harvested more than a month ago. My brother, travelling buddies and I visited the Lost Coast in full-swing rainy season. But we lucked out, and only got one soaking wet night out of five. Even when it’s not actively raining, the Lost Coast is a wet place. The air tasted of mountain stream and I could watch individual droplets drift in the thick fog. Cold mountain streams cut through forests, waterfalls pour down rocks cliffs into the sea, dense fog packs narrow valleys, rich moss and ferns pad the ground while massive redwoods block out the sun. After a soaking wet October, mushrooms flourished in the woods. My brother is a mushroom foraging guru, so I just followed his lead and cooked the mushrooms he said were both safe and tasty. (Hand-foraged mushrooms sautéed over a campfire paired with Humboldt Pinot is an epic palate experience.)

This is an extreme place in every way, and that’s why we came. The weather swings can be extreme. Ditto for the waves, which ranged in size from pumping 10 feet to death-defying 30 feet. My brother and I, lifelong surfing buds, caught some incredible waves, but also spent too much time underwater, getting worked by the cold, chunky surf and currents. Here, the surf is sketchier, the waters sharkier, the roads hairier, and the marijuana smells much, much better. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Barbeito: Tradition Done Differently

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-22-2016

During a trip to Madeira eaIMAG3181rlier this month, I visited six of the eight producers on this volcanic Portuguese island. During each stop, I tried to conceptualize the producer’s individual aesthetic within the context of the larger Madeira puzzle.

D’Oliveiras was the wise elder of the group. H.H. Borges was the precise, focused practitioner. Barbeito was the skillful fighter, full of excitement.

Barbeito has been around since 1946, but in a land so rich with winemaking history, that actually makes it the youngest producer on the island of Madeira. (A new producer is in the works, but hasn’t yet brought any wines to market.) Barbeito is also the most innovative producer on the island, and the firm is offering up a host of options that should entice the next generation of wine-drinkers. Their wines (which total about a quarter-million liters per year) have a common racy appeal and attractive freshness. These wines scream “I’m fortified, but I’m so food friendly!” The colors are lighter, ranging from lemon rind to medium orange, and the labels are playful and bright.

The winery is located way up in the precarious hills above Funchal, a stark contrast from downtown street headquarters of Blandy’s, D’Oliveiras and Borges. This facility, opened in 2008, is steely and modern, boasting top-notch equipment like a robotic lugar (a machine that replicates the old tradition of stomping grapes by foot).

“Here we try to combine tradition with innovation,” Leandro Gouveia, Barbeito’s wine shop manager, told me during my visit. Read the rest of this entry »

Unfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-09-2016

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Vineyard views from the north side of Madeira.

Like few other wines in the world, the wines from the island of Madeira are synonymous with their distinctive method of production. For centuries, producers here have fortified their wines with neutral spirits, then aged the wines in cask for long periods of time, oxidizing them and exposing them to heat. The result is one of the world’s winemaking gems — a seemingly indestructible wine that can age for centuries and retain its exotic characteristics for long after the bottle is opened.

After a week-long trip this Portuguese island, I have a whole lot to write about these magnificent wines and the island and people responsible for them. But, first, I wanted to explore the state of the island’s still wines. Yes, they make unfortified, dry, white and red table wines on Madeira. The wines ranged from the eccentric and odd to the refreshing and impressive.

The entire island is home to less than 500 hectares of vines, which cling to unreasonably steep hillsides in tiny, terraced vineyards. And still wine production counts for a mere 4-5% of the island’s total production. So there are not a lot of bottles to go around. The still Madeira wines (which fall under the appellation “DOP Madeirense”) are made in very small quantities, and the majority of the wine stays on the island. But the evolution of the still wine movement in Madeira signifies a desire to adapt and innovate. And that’s notable for a tremendously regulated wine industry on an island typified by a stick-to-your-guns respect for tradition and history.

As a collective group, DOP Madeirense white wines are fresh, vibrant, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and laced with citrus peel and floral flavors. Like seemingly everything produced on the island, the wines exude a sense of sea salt and oceanic vibrancy. As a surfer and lover of all things of the sea, these wines excite me. And they’re perfectly matched to local cuisine like lapas and scabbard fish. The red wines (frequently blends of two to five varieties) tend to have lighter tannic structure, high acidity, crunchy red fruit and plenty of earth and spice elements to go around.

While these wine are quirky, tasty and fit well on the table, it makes little sense for producers of still Madeira wine to export them. Portugal (which everyone here calls the Mainland) produces plenty of Verdelho, for example. And the Mainland has plenty of not-so-treacherous places to grow grapes. Like any major wine category, Mainland Verdelho can be very good, but there are many serviceable wines with large production and moderate price tags, something Madeira producers simply cannot match. A wine competition between the Mainland and Madeira is like pitting a heavyweight against a bantamweight. Madeira winemakers aren’t eager to step into that ring.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to import brisk, fresh white wines that pair wonderfully with local seafood when producers have access to at least some amount of quality white grapes on the island. More than one million people visit Madeira every year, and those people want to eat and drink everything the island has to offer. Madeira already imports a large amount of the food that appears on the restaurant table. Some producers figure they can make still wines for consumption right here on the island. And I’m glad these wines exist. 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.

Sommakase, At Your Service

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 12-21-2015

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

Caleb Ganzer, Chef Sommelier at La Compagnie Vin Surnaturels

o·ma·ka·se (ōməˈkäsā,ōˈmäkəsā/): (in a Japanese restaurant) a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef.

“we had the five-course omakase”

In Japanese, omakase literally translates to “I leave it up to you.” It’s a way of turning control over to the chef, trusting that he/she will read you and orchestrate the ingredients and courses in the most sublime succession for your dining experience.

Borrowing from this concept, Caleb Ganzer, Head Sommelier of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, has introduced a cleverly named, “Sommakase” option to his wine list. Guests sit back and let Caleb and his team do all the legwork of choosing wines for them – based on price points of $30 / $60 / $90. Caleb tells me there is no set formula or prescription to follow; the staff tailors a truly bespoke experience, pulling from the ~50 or so bottles they have open or can Coravin at any moment. More details and my interview with Caleb are below.

And with that, “I leave it up to you” to visit La Compagnie and enjoy this innovative and fun concept. I highly recommend.

Tell me how this idea all came together. All the details!

Caleb: This idea has been laying nascent in my sub-consciousness for many years during my experiences in the previous restaurants where I’ve worked. I’ve been simply waiting for the freedom in a program to bring this to the forefront and shine a light on it by putting it directly on the by-the-glass menu.

It’s the kind of thing that sommeliers have been wanting for years. Essentially it’s the opportunity for (a) the guest to be given an experience at a comfortable, preordained price point and (b) the sommelier to be given the trust and control to bring the guest wines he or she will enjoy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have a stronger ally in a food & wine establishment than a sommelier. A sommelier is always & forever on the guest’s side. That’s not to say that any other position in a restaurant isn’t on his or her side, but we have a lot of face time with the guest and we have a vested interest in sharing our food & wine knowledge in such a way to ensure the guest can have as an amazing of a time as possible in our establishment.

The Sommakase opportunity helps initiate a conversation between the guest and the sommelier and immediately creates an even stronger bond of hospitality whereby the sommelier wants to go above and beyond to show the guest a truly remarkable time.

What has the reception been? Do people understand what it is?

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Bar at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Caleb: Despite the field of wine becoming ever more democratic and inclusive, there is still a lot of stress in making wine decisions for most people. We mostly just have to reassure guests that the Sommakase offering is what they think it is. They are usually pretty stoked in asking us about it and when they are finally told that, indeed, “we just bring you some wines that we know you will love based on your tastes, preferences and mood,” it’s amazing to watch the joy enter their faces and the relief they experience. To be able to relinquish control in the sommelier’s hands at a preordained price-point…it’s kind of a win-win for both parties.

Can you give me a couple examples of what you’ve served people and why?

Caleb: The beauty of Sommakase is that it’s completely bespoke. We don’t have “scripts” that we pour from.

Sometimes people want to see only the geeky stuff that we’re jazzed about at the current moment. I once brought exclusively Chardonnay to one guest who asked for this style of tasting experience. But not the typical oak-influenced Chardonnay one might expect. I started with super sharp Grongnet Blanc de Blancs Champagne from the Côte des Blancs and one of the raciest producers I’ve tasted in a long time. Then I brought Ganevat’s 100% Rien Que du Fruit, a surprisingly clean, albeit unfiltered, “glou-glou” style of white from the iconic Jura producer. Finally I brought Domaine de Montbourgeau L’Etoile – this is a very sherry-like wine from the Jura region as well. One foot in flor-aged aromatics and another foot in Burgundian texture. Three completely unique examples from one well-known, but often misunderstood grape.

Other times people leave it up to our sommeliers to put together a “full-bodied discovery red flight.” I’m happy to have a team who has the knowledge – and a list that has the flexibility – to please almost any palate. For this we started with a mineral, yet ripe Carignan blend from Domaine des Enfants, l’Enfant Perdu 2012 from Côtes Catalanes. Then we did Franck Balthazar’s Côtes du Rhône 2014, a unique Grenache-heavy blend from fruit Franck gets from Seguret in the Southern Rhône. Finally we introduced them to a Biodynamic Bordeaux by Alain Moueix at Château Mazèyres 2011 — uber-polished Merlot from Pomerol with a weight associated with this iconic appellation and a vivacity typical of the viticulture practice.

 

 

Tasting by Shape and Feel

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-05-2015

While attending a New Zealand wine seminar last year, I tweeted:

Nick describes his Rippon 2009 Pinot, “It has layered, linear feel & phenolic drive forward.” #nzwine Tasting by ‘shape & energy’ is #hard.

Nick Mills, owner & winemaker at Rippon in New Zealand, was discussing how he likes to think about his wines beyond descriptions of flavors, but rather consider the shape, feel, and energy of the wine. Throughout the rest of the tasting, I made a concerted effort to observe and think about the texture and energy of the wines I tried. I struggled. Finding the vocabulary to express the “life” of a wine in that specific way really is hard.

Like many curious drinkers, I first learned to taste by attempting to copy the flavor and aroma profiles detailed in the oft obscure language of wine reviews and publications. E.g., “Toast and brown sugar notes frame crisp black cherry and plum flavors…” is a description used to review one of Rippon’s wines in the Wine Enthusiast.

I then moved on to the more structured, deductive language of WSET tasting notes – dry with medium acidity, medium tannin, light body, and flavor characteristics of [insert WSET approved floral/fruits, spice/vegetable, and oak/other notes here].

These methods are both useful in that they provide a familiar and somewhat common language for people to use when describing wine. They also require a degree of mindfulness, which Laura Mowrey recently notes, is a beautiful and valuable thing when tasting wine.

Another important way of tasting and remembering wine is, of course, through experience. For example, when I smell a Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, I’m brought back to my sister visiting me at my first apartment in New York. Or as David heard a participant express in a seminar, wines can be likened to people or art…or to characters, music, or places. This way of talking about wine adds a memorable and personal dimension to what we taste.

However, Nick’s concept of tasting by the actual shape or energy of a wine was something foreign to me, especially when I tried to do it while removing all the other ways I’d previously learned to taste wine. And upon further thought & conversation with Nick, I realized this exercise was silly anyway. It’s about the whole, and about expanding the way we taste, vs. one prescriptive formula. So, let’s get a little geeky and expand. See my interview with Nick below the fold.
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