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 canap├ęs 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?