Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wine Study- "Grapes and Fizz"

"What is it about bubbles that it can transform ordinary wine from a drink into a celebration?"
 –Jancis Robinson.

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVD, Mrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995; it withstands the test of time!  If you have not purchased this DVD series yet; do so now!

Episode 9- Grapes and Fizz is a celebration of Sparkling wine!  When the bubbles are flowing we all hope, wish and are excited by the idea that the wine is CHAMPAGNE!  Associated with success and glamour more than any other wine it has earned this prized position in the hearts and minds of all wine lovers and casual consumers.

Just one-hundred miles east of Paris, just past Euro Disney; the little town of Epernay; has the richest street in France with over one billion of the world’s most expensive bottles of wine all stored under ground, improving with age. Deceptively simple are the labels of Champagne bottles, just having the house name and little other information.  It is actually a complex blend of grapes, vineyards, and often vintages.  The Champagne producers say “Trust us; keep on buying the dream.”  Like all dreams it takes effort and determination to keep it going.

Champagne had to overcome the recession in the 1990’s, some sought to revitalize and modernize.  Enter; Ricard Geoffrey, trained as a doctor, we see him here in the mid 1990s taking over the helm of Moët & Chandon (he goes on to become the face of and blending hand for their uber famous prestige cuvée- Dom Pérignon)  He was the first to add the blend of grapes and age of wine on Champagne labels.  He has proven himself as a master at blending the Champagne grapes; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Munier.  A remarkable feat because when tasting them in their pre-sparkling form they are very tart and high in acidity. He explains that they taste only twenty samples a session, and the trick is to foresee which wines will transform into creamy rich complex and delicious Champagne.

Once the blend is complete the wine is bottled with additional sugar and yeast then taken to the cellar to sleep, ideally for years.  Champagne’s unique style comes from aging with yeast in the bottle in these dark, wet and cold cellars; this is the ESSENCE of Champagne.  Moët & Chandon has over sixty-five miles of tunnels under the town. There workers spend eight hours in the mold and cold, their clothes get wet, their bodies are chilled to the bone and it can all lead to illness. Yet, it seems that the traditional method is still favored and the primary way to make world class sparkling wine.  While Jancis shows us alternative methods: Alginate Beads and a Membrane Cartridge (or basket) none are widely used today.

How much of this is marketing and how much is reality?  It is always had to say, what is know is that Champagne is all about IMAGE. Champagne is a relatively small region with a very big name to protect. They closely govern how wine is made in the region; any variance in the rules that delivers this extraordinary wine is not tolerated in Champagne. Over the years the word "Champagne" is has become so full of meaning, so desirable that it has always been a highly sought-after name. One of the Office of Champagne's missions is to recognize and protect the exclusive nature of the appellation and its namesake. In that regard, it must be stressed that attempts to replicate or mimic the process in other places around the world may produce fine wines, yet they do not produce Champagne.

That has not stopped anyone from trying, least of all the Champagne houses themselves.  While in California on business the owner of Moët & Chandon stumbled in to Wine Institute of California meeting from that experience decided to buy property in Napa and create the Chandon Winery now a focal point of valley and  the California wine country.  At the time the growers of Champagne thought they were joking, making sparkling wine anywhere but Champagne was laughable.  However in the end it has contributed to and increased the prestige of Champagne!

Moët & Chandon has since been able to reproduce the success of Chandon around the world. They went on to open sparkling wine operations in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and most recently CHINA!  They have realized their potential by making sparkling wine around the world; their presences in each wine market educates and invigorates the demand for sparkling wine making the demand for all their sparkling wine, including their Champagne EXPLODE! 

Another episode that is amazing television!  In this show Mrs. Robinson takes around the globe with Moët & Chandon illustrating how dynamic a company can become.  And she did not even cover CAVA from along the Catalan coast, in the Penedès DO of Spain, OR- PROSECCO of the Veneto region in Italy.  Both are widely successful and enjoyed more since this show was made; so they are covered in this handout which has a few notes from the video and a lot of information and links to more on the web related to the topics Jancis covers.  It is my endeavor to add to the subjects and fills you in on where the personalities from the video are today.  It is my sincere hope that you are finding this blog informative and instructional.  To check your learning experience and highlight the most important information here is the quiz.  And the quiz with answers.  And please reply to this blog; is Sparkling wine  your  favorite wine?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wine Study- "Merlot"

"Cabernet without the pain."
 –Jancis Robinson.

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVD, Mrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995; it withstands the test of time!  If you have not purchased this DVD series yet; do so now!

Episode 8- Merlot is amazing; like the previous episodes where we have seen personalities of the winemakers influencing the wines and/or the terrior of different regions in comparison.  ONLY  in this episode we see the in stark contrast the way the fashion of wine drinking has changed; it is not as popular today to drink Merlot as it was in the mid-1990's! Watch...

Jancis starts us out in the world’s most glamorous wine region; Napa Valley; making the connection here that owning vines is a lifestyle statement for those with the millions of dollars to create this wonderland AND THE BILLIONS maintain it.  Here in the 1990's Merlot was all the craze
“It is immediate gratification
 it is the one wine that sells it self;
for the moment at least.” 
-Jancis Robinson    
This video tour is great at highlighting the diversity of California and the outdoor lifestyles that inspire comparisons to paradise.  A very seductive and emotive image that draws many of us to at least visit the area and dream about it.  Those with the money to buy into paradise like Financier turned winemaker; Dan Duckhorn, filmmaker and winemaker; Francis Ford Coppola, businessman and art collector; Donald Hess, Realtor come cult winery owner; Jean Phillips, all have bought into the dream and prospered during the boom years and then have earned their place in paradise by doing what ever it takes to get through the hard times.

And the hard times do come, even to paradise, in the 1980s phylloxera struck again; this time killing vines planted on the AXR-1 rootstock which U.C. Davis recommended as immune to the devastating pest.  Real estate prices plummeted, winery income was slashed, owners were forced to make very difficult business decisions from selling off real estate and assets to going out of business entirely.  Only the strongest and most determined wineries survive.

Embodying this hard nosed determination is the farmer's farmer; Dick Steltzner, shown here bitterly pulling vines in the vineyard and lamenting U.C. Davis' recommendation for rootstock AXR-1. It turned out it was NOT immune to phylloxera for the long haul.  While 80-90% of California vineyards were planted with the roots and made tremendous wine for years only to fall victim by the 1980’s.

The French did not buy into the AXR-1 rootstock and avoided this wave of phylloxera.  Here the Mecca for Merlot is St. Emilion, east of the city of Bordeaux, it is a Disneyland version of France with ninety-four wine shops and not a single butcher.  Walking down the streets here tourist are called by hawkers to storefronts where they are implored to buy wines made from Merlot. 

This is the birthplace of the world's most famous and sought after Oenologist; Michelle Rolland.  Interviewed here Jancis get's the full display of his ego when he shares his ambition to consult with grape growers on the moon!  He does have huge success to support this grand ambition and is the most revered of only seven or eight people in the world who can do this kind of consulting.  The intervening years since this interview have proven his remarkable abilities.  
“I try to find the maximum.”
- Michel Rolland

While Michel Rolland typifys our ideal of the French wine expert it is worth noting The average Frenchman is ignorant about wine.  In contrast more and more Americans are quickly learning about wine.  Although their knowledge is often tainted by our melodramatic culture; the crime and punishment of PROHIBITION from 1918-1933 (which stunted the growth of our wine industry), the over protective Sulfite Warning on every bottle (Even though sulfites are naturrally occurring in all the produce we eat!), the Government Warning Label for health and safety which makes wine sound almost poisonous, and our laws that allow only adults over 21 years of age to purchase.  While we are embracing and enjoying wine in our daily lives we still hold on to a neurotic fear and loathing of this natural, delicious and beneficial beverage.

Jancis does highlight the civilizing role wine fulfills at the dinner table and shows us how many are working to promote this in our culture.  Featured are the Women for Wine Sense as they show young people the seasonal cycle in the vineyard.  It will take decades of work by people like these women to overcome this deeply seeded feelings held by many in North America.

Interestingly side by side in the video is Paul Dolan of Fetzer Vineyards, talking about organic wine making, with a holier than thou approach.  Mr. Dolan and Fetzer Vineyards were definitely early adopters of organic techniques and using them as marketing tools; in 1995 they had 10% of their grape production organic AND very boldly sought to have complete organic grape production for ALL OF CALIFORNIA by the year 2000!  Well, this prediction did not hold up with time, however they did make a difference and have advanced organic grape growing to the point where every winery is striving to show their customers just how very holistic they are.  Sustainability is the key concept every winery wants to be associated with in the mind of their consumer.  The question is; does every consumer want their winery to be sustainable?  I am confident that we do, only with a less sanctimonious tone about it. 

Without a doubt it takes a bit more effort to do things the right way and with winemaking's quality of authorship it brings an added pride that makes the owners want to boast about it at every level.  It is a romantic idea that one person could do it all from start to finish.  Seduces us all to dream about our own vineyard…with this one nagging question, standing in the way...

How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?
and the crushing answer...Start with a large one.

Another episode that is amazing television!  Cheers to Mrs. Robinson for calling out Merlot as a fad; this predates the Sideways movie by almost a decade however she describes the varietal with "
the one wine that sells it self; for the moment at least."  For shadowing the crash of the market for Merlot in 2004 after the Sideways.  It is stunning to consider how powerful fashion is in the wine business, while everyone is saying Merlot in this video today they are all making a fortune selling Cabernet Sauvignon and singing it's praises. This was possibly the best thing to happen to the Merlot; it caused labels that were mediocre wine to go away and left only the very best Merlot made available today.  Almost a value category today the wine is due for a comeback with the American wine drinker.  And, it will come back, it is the red wine equivalent to Chardonnay; there really is nothing to object to in the wine.  That is the one thing the casual wine drinker wants more than anything.  For you and me; we want something more challenging and rewarding. 

If you will read this handout which has a few notes from the video and a lot of information and links to more on the web related to the topics Jancis covers, hopefully it adds to the subjects and fills you in on where the personalities from the video are today.  It is my sincere hope that you are finding this blog informative and instructional.  To check your learning experience and highlight the most important information here is the quiz.  And the quiz with answers.  And please reply to this blog; is Merlot  your  favorite wine?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rosé Colored Glasses

Photo By Bonnie Walker
This past Saturday I had the privileged to sit on the panel of the Rambling Rosé event at Becker Vineyards.  It is a annual ritual we do with the CULINARIA and our host Dr. Richard and Bunny Becker to celebrate the arrival of the new vintage of Provençal!  Having participated for several years now I have a three lessons to share with you.

First; the Becker Vineyards Provençal is excellent!  Year after year we taste it blind, side by side with great rosé wines from around the world.  The Provençal is always equal to better than the other rosés.  This year there were two rosés from the south of France and it was difficult to tell them apart from the Provencal.  Kudos to the entire team at Becker Vineyards.

Second; most people do not know what to think of rosé colored wines in their glasses. "Is it sweet?" "Am I less of a man when my friends see me drinking this pink stuff."  In our culture 'pink wine' in synonymous with White Zinfandel a sweet and unsophisticated wine with a love/hate relationship with the wine community; some people love it others hate it.  In other cultures rosé wines are consumed just like light beer is enjoyed here; ice cold by the glassfuls after a long hard day at work in the sun and heat, preferably in a rowdy bar with your friends while watching sports, by men, manly men who will kick your derrière if you make fun of them for drinking 'pink wine.'

Third; Rosé wines like the Provençal are completely dry (the opposite of sweet) and when made right they have all the complexity and flavor of a red wine only with the volume or intensity level turned down.  The best will have earthyness, smoky notes, red and black fruits only in a "sotto-voce" way.  Like the definition of sotto-voce "intentionally lowering one's voice for emphasis" the winemaker is making a wine that shows you more of what the vines have to offer through a whisper rather than a shout.  There are many a occasion and meals that call for this liquid whisper.  Today; don't we need a bit less shouting?

So, chill down a bottle of Povençal for yourself, pull the cork and listen a some fine classic musicLadies and Gentelmen; MR. JOHN CON-LEE...

If you just got to have the Provencal right now come out to The Westin La Catera Resort to see me and taste the Mourvedre Rosé, Dry, Becker Vineyards, “Provençal”, Texas, 2010:  twelve
 dollars  for a six ounce glass and forty-seven a bottle.
And please reply to this blog; is Rosé  your  favorite wine?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wine Study- "Pinot Noir"

Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Vineyards

“If Bordeaux’s pleasures are above the neck, 
then red Burgundy is something completely different…”
 –Jancis Robinson."

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  We are meeting every other Saturday for the purpose of expanding our knowledge and experience with wine.  Some Saturdays we have had to miss due to high business volumes at the resort or because I was out of town.  No matter how long we take off; wine is waiting for us when we return. Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVD, Mrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995 it withstands the test of time!  If you have not purchased this DVD series yet; do so now, it is really GREAT!

Episode 7- Pinot Noir is exciting like the previous episodes where we have seen personalities of the winemakers influencing the wines and/or the terrior of different regions in comparison.  This episode we see the drama that unfolds over many vintages and a significant paradigm shift... 

The show starts in a peaceful pastoral setting in BurgundyEastern France, and Jancis warns us there are passions smoldering underneath the calm surface.  She tells us about “Queen of Burgundy” who is in exile, “Pope of Burgundy” given up earthly matters almost retired and hints at the drama surrounding the creation of these "Bottles to Die For" coming from this world famous village; Vosne-Romanee!

As dramatic as this all sounds coming from a breathless Mrs. Robinson it is nothing compared to the French Revolution.  It is brought up here to explain how the vineyard plots are carved up into smaller and smaller segments with each generation. The French Revolution, with it's overworked GUILLOTINES, ushered in the Napoleonic Code which changed the inheritance laws so that all family members shared equally.  Thus, when a person died with four children; each child received ¼ of the holdings.  For a vineyard site that was two hectares the four children would then each have 1/2 a hectare.  If each of them has only two children they will end up with a 1/4 hectare and within a couple more generations the family will be dividing up vine rows and then individual vines. Seems very fare to the families yet brutal to the vineyards and the terribly crippling to the making and selling of great wine. 

Where ever some men make problems; others will make solutions.  Out of this fragmented ownership came a robust system of  negociaints. The good negociaint assembles wines from a variety of sources and sells them to customers and exporters/importers.  Examples of negociaints are Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Jadot, Faiveley, and Jean-Claude Boisset.  While these names we see the most on the wine shop shelves and restaurant wine list Jancis devotes many minutes to the noble grower producers.  Because there are over 115 négociants who produce the vast majority of the burgundy wine; they only control around 8-10% of the area. Individual growers own 65-67% of the area, and only produce and market only 25% of the wine. Yet, when they become successful they become ROCKSTARS of the wine world! 
Pop-culture t-shirt honoring an old farmer!

“I haven’t a SECRET; I let nature take its course.  I am not a brave person and as nature does the work SO WELL, I don’t see why I should interfere.”  -Henri Jayer

Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy is still rocking!  She set the wine world on fire with sales of DRC to the Japanese market. When she was kicked out of DRC she founded Domaine Leroy which is now fierce competition to the old historic estate.  All the while she remains in harmony with nature and practiceBIODYNAMIC farming.  This is a system of organic agriculture based on a series of lectures to farmers in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, a German Theosophist.  Biodynamics uses the principles of organic farming—no pesticides or chemical fertilizers—and goes on to include practices of planting and harvesting by solar and lunar cycles and fighting pests such as moths and rabbits by scattering the ashes of their predecessors.  Sometimes looking a lot like 'witchcraft' it is often misunderstood.  One thing seems to be clean the farmers practicing Biodynamics are highly focused on their vines and their vineyard and producing some OUTSTANDING grapes!

“I am sure that it’s for the GLORY of WINE!” -Lalou Bize-Leroy

With so many of these man made obstacles and the impossibly wet and cold conditions, remarkably; Burgundy makes some of the greatest wines in the world!  You see; seventy million years ago Burgundy was underwater, this region was covered with silt, shells and bones of sea creatures that became fossils.  Then thirty-five million years ago geological activity forced up the hills and ridges making fortunately east facing slopes.  The combined effect with the people's wine making ingenuity; these breathtaking wines that can not be made anywhere else on the planet...

Then Mrs. Robinson takes us across the globe to the western coast of the USA for an International Pinot Noir Festival held in OREGON every year.  Here she interviews two men; James Halliday, wine writer and wine maker, along with Robert Kacher, Burgundy Importer.  They raise the question “What is man’s contribution to terrior?” They review the many things a grape grower and wine maker can do that influence the quality of the wine.  Things like;  lowering yields, using state-of-the-art trellising, green harvesting of fruit at the point at which grapes start to change color, hand harvesting of fruit at the point of physiological (taste) ripeness (not analytically (laboratory) ripeness) and sorting by quality as the grapes are harvested.  Just as important, if not more important than the place the grapes are grown is the care and effort by the people growing the grapes and making the wines.

Which is a very nice segue into Jancis' short interview of  the first man to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon; David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards.  He recounts a time in a class at UC Davis, our nations leading university for viticulture, when the professor said “There is NO climate cool enough for Pinot Noir in California.”  Mr. Lett took the professor at his word and searched for a region closer to the same climate as Burgundy and he found the Willamette Valley.  

Today, the world is in love with the Pinot Noirs from Oregon.  Can you imagine if everyone had ONLY gone to Oregon to plant Pinot Noir?  Can you imagine a wine world with out California Pinot Noir???  There would have been no 'Sideways Effect,' there would have been no Williams-Seylem Winery, in the Russian River Valley!  Which is Jancis Robinson's next stop to interview Burt Willaims and Ed Selyem.  Two friends who made incredible success by making Pinot Noir.  Starting in 1981 they grew to the point in 1995 when the interview was filmed they were making five-thousand case a year and selling it in three weeks!  And, in 1998 they sell their winery to the John and Kathe Dyson who by all accounts are making wines as good if not better than the founder's of the winery.  On top of that they have expanded production and built a beautiful new winery!  (Makes one wonder where Mr. Lett's UC Davis Professor is today?) 
“The Old Ways are better.” –Burt Willaims
Williams-Selyem Winery, Russian River Valley 1981

Williams-Selyem Winery, Russian River Valley 2011
That is all for this episode.  On a casual viewing I missed it.  Cheers to Mrs. Robinson and her team; they  have expertly woven into this short show all the wonder and complexity that is Pinot Noir!  A bit of mystery and intrigue, along with some earthy Biodynamic farming and sophisticated power plays in the business of wine.  Reoccurring in these personalities is a bit to a lot of contradiction and this is a quality that I find in some Pinot Noirs and can make this varietal a challenging wine drink, even more so to make. All together we see a portrait of a grape varietal, amazing television.

If you will read this handout which has a few notes from the video and a lot of information and links to more on the web related to the topics Jancis covers, hopefully it adds to the subjects and fills you in on where the personalities from the video are today.  It is my sincere hope that you are finding this blog informative and instructional

To check your learning experience and highlight the most important information here is the quiz.  And the quiz with answers.  And please reply to this blog; is Pinot Noir  your  favorite wine?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Making A Diffrence

If you spend any time at all visiting wineries, talking to wine sales people and/or winemakers you will no doubt hear them try to convince you that one percentage change in a wine blend makes a difference in the taste of the finished wine.  Having espoused this view myself it was very gratifying to have the opportunity to experience it first hand at the Raymond Sommelier Selection blending of the 2009 vintage.

When we entered the blending room we were first oriented by Raymond's winemaker Stephanie L. Putnam.  She introduced us to the five component wines that could be used with two rules. First; the wine has to be a Cabernet Sauvignon; so by law there must be seventy-five percent of the blend.  Second;  the Cabernet Franc wine was limited in the quantity available so a maximum of five-percent is all we could assign this component wine in the final blend.  We were paired in teams of two and I blessed to blend with Virginia Phillip MS.  After that we got to taste each of the component wines...
  • 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: Red scarlet in color with a wide meniscus.  The aromas are straightforward; cherry, smoke and earthy heft in the background.  The flavors are big and BOLD; juicy lush cherry and velvety vanilla with noticeable tannins and a delicious finish.
  • 2009 Napa Cabernet Franc: Red with notes of brown and purple in the highlights.  A very pretty nose; smoky up front with cranberry and tart cherry and a cedar quality in the depths of the aroma.  The taste is rich with red cherry, vanilla and a tart tannic structure in the finish. (We really liked this wine, a lot. Five percent did not seam like it would be enough.)
  • 2009 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon: Dark red in color approaching inky quality.  The aromas are a bit closed with notes of black cherry and a brooding qualities that implies a really big wine.  The promise in the aromas are delivered to the palate with a BIG TANNIC entrance with flavors of red and black cherry developing into vanilla and a long smooth finish.
  • 2009 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon: Red wine with brown highlights.  The aromas start out green with a appealing Eucalyptus quality leading to blackberry fruit.  The flavors are fruit forward with red cherry, blackberry and plum, so fruity are the flavors it implies sweetness.
  • 2009 Sonoma Merlot: Red with blueish tints in the color.  The aromas are blackberry with a tart quality, yet on the palate it tastes soft and rich with blueberries and blackberries, notes of vanilla and a hint of earth in the background.
The five percent Cabernet Franc was a no brainer.  From there we had a preference toward the Napa and Lake Cabs upping their percentage through several blends.  We did try cutting back the Cab Franc to three percent and did not like it as much.  Virginia was very thoughtful in her blending approach and was helpful in guiding the blending to the fifth blend or "Wine E." We both agreed that we really had something in this wine;  45% Napa Cab, 5% Napa Cab Franc, 35% Lake Cab, 5% Sonoma Cab and 10% Sonoma Merlot.  It was smoky in aroma with cherry fruit and a herbaceous note in the background. The flavor was fruit forward with cherry and vanilla giving way to smoky flavors and a tasty finish.  This tasted like THE WINE and it goes on to be tied with the blend from Emily Wines and Matthew Turner which wins the tie breaker.

Stephanie had recommended that when you found the blend you liked to keep blend to see if you could improve upon your success.  We blended three more wines.  "Wine G" I really liked, it had 47% Napa Cab, 5% Napa Cab Franc, 37% Lake Cab, 5% Sonoma Cab and 6% Sonoma Merlot.  The aromas of black cherry came through the smoky qualities and a hint of blueberries shows up with vanilla and richness.  The flavors are also rich with a nice tartness from black and red cherry fruit and vanilla giving way to full tannins and a complex finish.  It was destined to be voted the least liked wine by the group and I am still a little hurt about it.  It was a better wine than that; but some wine had to be last.

Emily and Matt's WINNING blend really was the best blend of the day. It was 60% Napa Cab, 5% Napa Cab Franc, 20% Lake Cab, 12% Sonoma Cab and 3% Sonoma Merlot.  The nose was lush with smoky notes up front with black cherry fruit and a pretty vanilla background.  The mouthfeel was velvety and smooth with the vanilla flavors opening the palate and giving way to juicy red cherry and earthy note in the background fading into a very long finish. In the blind tasting I rated this wine higher than my own and in the tie breaking vote I voted for this wine; it is delicious!
From Left to Right: Matthew Turner -Michael Mina, Stephanie L. Putnam -Raymond,
Jean-Charles Boisset -Raymond, Emily Wines -Kimpton.

Congratulations Emily and Matt for a great job on blending this wine.  The few percentage points difference in the blends really are making a difference in the finished wine. It will be easy to sell and very fun to drink. The experience blending with this group of Sommeliers is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Thank you to Jean-Charles, Stephanie, Peggy, Carla and everyone at the Boisset Family Estates.

If you think this sounded like fun; well hold on, because you will be able to do it too!!! When the winery renovation is complete the blending room will be open to the public and you will be able to create YOUR OWN blend which the winery will bottle and label for you while you wait!  This will be very exciting; I might go back and make another "Wine G" for myself.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Experience Blending

I am honored to be chosen to participate in the Raymond’s 2009 Sommelier’s Selection blending.  When I was first asked I did not realize the gravity and importance of the invitation.  I am one of nine Sommelier’s from around the USA to come together and work on the blending of the components to make the 2009 bottling of the Sommelier Selection wine!  (If you would like to taste the 2009 we are serving it at my restaurant Francesca's at Sunset for 16 a glass and 63 a bottle.)

I got to unwind in Sonoma before arriving in Rutherford; flew in on Sunday and made my way to De Loach Winery in the Russian River Valley.  It was a leisurely pace underscored by the quite pastoral surroundings.  Monday the relaxation continued as I road over the Mayacamas Mountain to Napa arriving after lunch and free until about four o’clock when the schedule of events with the Raymond Winery began.  We gathered in the hotel lobby; the sommeliers from all over.  Several were new faces for me, a few I had the pleasure of meeting before and one was my mentor who gave me my start as a sommelier; Virginia Phillip MS.    ( I owe my entire career to her teaching and encouragement to get into the Court of Master Sommelier’s testing and certification progress.)    Lot’s of hand shakes and warm greetings as the introductions continued with our hosts from the winery arriving to whisk us away.  We divided up into several cars; I had the thrill of riding in the winery owner’s black Maserati!

Driving up to the winey we pass the many acres of vineyards around the winery, all newly planted with tender young vines.  The Raymond Winery is a great historical property made successful by the pioneering families of Napa Valley.  In 2009 the winery was purchased by the Boisset Family Estates and the replanting of the vineyards is the first of many improvements they are making.  It is important that they begin with the soil and the vines; the Boisset Family are worldwide leaders in Organic and Biodynamic farming and this great effort, expensive and long term improvement is proof of their commitment to this venture, California wine and the people who live and work there.

We are all received at the winey under a grove of trees by the charismatic and energetic owner Jean-Charles Boisset.  We have an awkward and funny moment when this group of Sommeliers are welcomed with Raymond Sauvignon Blanc; only the wine is corked!  It seems as if everyone notices however it takes a moment for someone to say something.  And to his credit Jean-Charles is not flustered, they just get more wine to serve to us and state the obvious case for the use of Stelvin closures to avoid moments like this!  

Our host continues the getting to know you experience by sharing the vision they have for The Theater of Nature feature under construction.  It will be an outdoor path which will take visitors on a tour of the reasons Organic and Biodynamic farming is important to all of us.  The vision is grand and will be significant as an experiential way to communicate the science behind this time honored and proven techniques; as we all want to understand the best way to live, grow and enjoy our world.
The Crystal Cellar

From here we toured the winery’s newly remodeled tasting room and “red room” before retiring to the “Crystal Cellar” filled with beautiful Baccarat Crystal decanters and objets d'art, along with mirrors and chandeliers for a reserve tasting of the Raymond Cabernets.  All the reflective surfaces mentioned before in addition to the stainless steel tanks, this is the wineries’ working tank room, with special colored “mood” lighting makes this tasting experience unlike any I have experienced before.  Jean-Charles is very creative and theatrical in his “staging” of the winery experience; his efforts are effective in taking you out of the ordinary and gives you permission to dream and fantasize in a way one would not otherwise, and that can be a very good place to taste wine.

We emerged from the dark night atmosphere of the Crystal Cellar to return to the grove of trees, with the California sun still shinning brightly the feeling of the time that has passed grows and I have the impression that we have been at the winery longer than we actually have.  Here we are introduced to the JCB line of sparkling wines from France; first a Rose and then a Blanc de Blanc.  Jean-Charles sabered, or more accurately “meat cleavered” them open.  With light canapés the sparkling wines were refreshing and delicious.  

After the appropriate time of mingling and savoring we entered the JCB Lounge; a building from the outside looked like a pool house; being next to the pool.  However, once inside you have entered a world dipped in gold and lit by a thousand flickering candles, with load Michael Jackson music in the air and the flashing video images on a large projection screen.  The room is appointed with unconventional furniture and eclectic objects the affect is, as before; to transport you out the ordinary and into a different place.  It is a place where every one of your senses is being engaged and excited.  We soon sit down for a four course Chef prepared dinner paired with a wide array of wines all poured in quick succession.  Each dish is excellent and each wine is better and the getting to know you conversation is punctuated by Lady Gaga videos and Federico Fellini movie clips.  If it sounds a bit dizzying; it was, and in hindsight it seems appropriate as we are there to blend, to mix and to concoct a very special wine vintage the very next morning.

The California mornings are always slow in coming; the time zone difference is definitely in our favor because even when you have to get up early it feels like you are sleeping in.  We gather in the lobby of our hotel to return to the winery from a light breakfast under the trees before heading to the “laboratory.”  We got to work in teams of two and I was blessed to pair up with Virginia Phillip MS.  We were introduced to the five wines that could go into the blend by the Raymond winemaker; Stephanie L. Putnam.  The wines were all the 2009 vintage; Napa Cab, Napa Cab Franc, Lake Cab, Sonoma Cab and Sonoma Merlot.  With some brief guidelines and advice we were set to the task of blending wine.  It never ceases to amaze everyone the way just a percentage or two differences in the blend affects the taste very noticeably. (Read more on the blending here.)  Virginia and I worked well together and progress through several blends making minor adjustments and by the fifth blend or what we called “wine E” we felt we had it!  We kept on blending to try to push on further maybe find and even better combination.  Three more wines are blended and I think “wine G” is very good and also has a chance.  We are able to submit these two wines to the final tasting.  Which will be after lunch…
Foreground: Steven Krueger and Virginia Philip blending "wine E"
Background: Matthew Turner and Emily Wines
For lunch the winery has table set outside under another grove of trees.  It is really amazing to experience the gentle California weather; this day the sun is very bright yet the temperature is very comfortable and the scenery is beautiful to an almost dreamlike degree.  In this setting we get to meet Brian Maloney; the wine maker for Raymond’s sister property De Loach, in Sonoma.  Brian tells us all about De Loach and the many Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays they are making.  Many are single vineyards and very unique, I thought the most impressive were from their “new” vineyards in Marin County just north of San Francisco and south of Sonoma.  I am confident we will be seeing many more wines coming from here in the future.  Along with these amazing wines we had another meal prepared by the talented Chef Michel Cornu.  His extensive knowledge of cuisine and wine can be experienced in each dish.  My favorite of all was the Gilled Japanese Eggplant with fresh goat cheese and smoked tomato coulis.  The earthy notes in the eggplant and goat cheese with the smoke and umami in the tomatoes made the De Loach Pinots sing!  Very delicious.

After lunch we returned to the lab where we all have a taste of each of the eight blends in the running.  We get to taste them blind and rate them one through eight, one being the best and the blend that will make the 2009 Sommelier Selection from Raymond!  It is quite exciting.  The wines are only subtlety different.  Some are all Cab and show more structured and firmness others have Merlot and Cab Franc adding to their finesse and smoothness.  Each of us voted and Stephanie compiles the results very quickly.  Stephanie reveals them in contest fashion with the last place being announced first; it is “wine G” Virginia and I blended; it was the wine too far and was the least liked by the group.  The rest of the wines are listed off; seven, six, five…until wine two...when it is revealed that there is a tie for first place between a wine submitted by Emily Wines, MS and Matthew Turner vs. “wine E” that Virginia and I blended!  So, Stephanie conducts an instant taste off and we all vote by a show of hands…and the winner is Emily and Matt’s wine!  The wines were all quite comparable and the decisions were made by blind tasting and very difficult to make. For me it was very exhilarating to contribute.  We cheered and celebrate the winning blend and the blenders.  Gifts from the winery were given and soon everyone was saying goodbye and heading in different directions; back to reality; with very fond memories and the sweet anticipation of the release of the 2009 Sommelier Selection.  Now I know when we all came together; we blended a lot more than just wine.
From Left to Right: Spencer Cole -Boisset, Mark Drake -Boisset, Virginia Philip -The Breakers, Steven Krueger -The Westin La Cantera, Stephanie L. Putnam -Raymond, Frenchie (The French Bulldog) -Boisset, David Flom -Chicago Cut, Emily Wines -Kimpton, Steve Giancotti -Lowrys, Peggy Gsell -Boisett, Jim Gallagher -Cole's Chop House, Matthew Turner -Michael Mina, and in his space suit; Jean-Charles Boisset (Not pictured but present for the blending; Ron D'ellero -Knickerbockers Restaurant.)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Wine Study- "Riesling"

"To me; the Riesling grape makes the greatest white wines in the world."
- Jancis Robinson

We continue a series of sessions with the Francesca's at Sunset and Brannon's Cafe teams we are calling "Wine Study."  We are meeting every other Saturday for the purpose of expanding our knowledge and experience with wine.  Our guide is Jancis Robinson's Wine Course DVDMrs. Robinson poured depth and detail into this television series that aired in the United Kingdom in 1995 it withstands the test of time!

Episode 6- Riesling is a departure from the previous episodes where we have seen personalities of the winemakers influencing the wines and/or the terrior of different regions in comparison and contrast; in this episode we see the profound impact a countries The LAWS can have on wine making... 

Before we get to the legalities we start in the wee hours of the morning to see frozen grapes picked for ice wine! “The Riesling grape is the most misunderstood and mispronounced of all." Jancis says from her seat in a castle perched on the side of a mountain in the Mosel River Valley of Germany.  She quite wittily notes how viticulture is confused vertigo here and goes on to explain how the South and southwest facing slopes of Slate collects heat and makes all the difference in the world in the ripeness of the grapes. Helping with this illustration is Ernst Loosen, of Dr. Loosen fame, he passionately states how Riesling is un-comparable to all other grapes.  And he admits it is very difficult to produce and sell.

Then Dr. Loosen gets into the legalities and explains how the Mosel was enlarged from five-thousand hectars to thirteen-thousand hectars, and how the enlarged area is on farmland and not cliffs. Where one man can work ten hectars in comparison to the two hectares a man can work on the cliffs.  This leads to confusion because the flat land wines are bland and sticky compared to the particular vineyard sights on the cliffs where the wines are complex and wonderful.  Once so highly prized that they were sold for more than first growth Bordeaux’s!

To add to this Germany has confusing wine labels.  And every few years another group of vintners convene to solve the problem by creating a set of therms that will be clear and easy to understand.  These new terms get added to all previous existing one and only creates more confusion.  Causing Ernst Loosen to say; “It’s a disaster.”

Jancis figures that Germany needs a good scandal to get them to simplify and renew their laws for everyone's benifit. A scandal like the one Vienna, Austria had in 1985 when winemakers added Diethylene glycol (antifreeze) to make their wine taste sweeter.  Scandal caused strict purity laws and propelled the regions identity and fame to now the Wachau region is the source of some of the best Rieslings in the world.  Jancis interviews Toni Bodenstein of Weingut Prager.

The coverage of Riesling is not complete without discussion on sweet wines. Understand with counterbalancing acidity they are GREAT! Some are left on vine as long as possible, to freeze and dry.  Others are allowed to develop “Nobel Rot” = Botrytus (Botrytis cinerea; botrytis  [boh-TRI-tihs sihn-EHR-ee-uh], The fungus that causes botrytis bunch rot helping concentrate the sugars and juice. There on Lake Austria, which is very shallow, creating reliable conditions for Botrytus.  Alois Kracher depends upon it if he can keep the birds from the neighboring nature preserve from eating all the grapes. Jancis goes on to show us how in Austria they have the freedom to experiment; Willi Opitz seems like a creative genious invinting new ways to make complex and delicious sweet wines. “Invention does not happen on the green table
but in the heart.” -Willi Opitz

At the end of the of this episode Jancis alludes to the potential of the wine regions that were behind the "Iron Curtain." She seemed to think that they could take the world by storm with high quality and low prices. However that has yet to materialize and has me wondering if it will ever?

The most discouraging test of time comes in the middle of this episode where Mrs. Robinson clearly and succinctly makes the case for the Stelvin closure.  AND here we are sixteen years later discussing the same topic in the same manor.  Sure, there maybe more Stelvin closures in the world today, but by now shouldn't we have the majority of our wine closed with the screw cap?    Aren't you tired of one in twenty wines being bad?  We all need to support the wineries who use Stelvin closures better than we have.

 And please reply to this blog; is Riesling  your  favorite wine?