Monthly Archives: June 2014

Comparing Sherry and Champagne

Just prior to the opening of Sherryfest West, Martine’s Wines and Valkyrie Selections hosted a Sherry and Champagne event at The Battery in San Francisco. The event included several flights of grower champagnes, followed by flights of grower sherry, all accompanied by a panel of experts.

The panel included Baron Ziegler of Valkyrie Selections, and Gregory Castells of Martine’s Wines to introduce champagne, and Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias of Bodegas Tradicion, and Jan Pettersen of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla to discuss sherry. Peter Liem opened the event with a discussion of the ways in which champagne and sherry unwittingly resemble each other.

The Houses Poured

The wine flights included Champagne Gonet-Médeville, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Champagne Saint-Chamant, then Fernando de Castilla, and Bodegas Tradición.

Champagne Gonet-Medeville offers a focus on refined freshness, rather than opulence. The wines carry delicacy, purity, and beautiful subtlety throughout.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier gives a center line of salinity and freshness through a body of texture and fruit presence. The wines are all made with only native yeast ferment, a condition quite unusual in Champagne, and sparkling wine more generally. With the exception of their rosé, their wines are all 100% Chardonnay. The house is also one of the biggest proponents of bio-dynamic farming in the region, a recommendation that proves challenging as Champagne suffers high mildew pressure. Biodynamic farming, then, requires far more hands on viticulture in the region.

Saint-Chamant Champagne delivers a wine of opulence, with incredible complexity, while at the same time maintaining freshness. The wines open with age offering an easy balance of opulence and mineral freshness. Current release vintages from the last decade are still quite young and would do well with time in the bottle before opening.

Fernando de Castilla could be considered a boutique bodegas, or grower sherry house. It developed through a focus on only the highest quality sherry, wines made for the best of the local market. More recently Fernando de Castilla has begun to export these unique styles of sherry outside the Spanish market. As an example, Fernando de Castilla offers one of the only remaining examples of Antique Fino, a wine made through the older approach to sherry rarely possible today. To read more on the heritage of Antique Fino: http://www.crushwineco.com/crush-library/fernando-de-castilla-antique-fino/

Bodegas Tradición, another boutique level bodegas, seeks to create the finest quality sherry by avoiding or reducing filtering, and additives, and hand selecting the best lots for bottling. The result are wonderfully pure expressions of the wine. They also succeed in delivering beautiful older examples at small production levels.

The Discussion

The coupling of champagne and sherry appears at first an unusual choice. The two wines are thought of rather separately with bubbles from the cool Northern reaches of France seeming unlike fortified wine from the warmer areas of Spain. As Liem explored, however, in terms of methodology and production there are actually numerous insightful comparisons to be made between the two wines.

Following are thoughts from Peter Liem, during his introduction to the event.

Peter Liem introducing Sherry + ChampagnePeter Liem (right) discussing the commonalities between Sherry and Champagne
Sherryfest West, San Francisco, June 2014

“Champagne and sherry are two wines very dear to me for personal, and professional reasons. On the face of it, sherry and champagne look like disparate things.

“Champagne is the epitome of cool climate, from Northern France, delicate, and low in alcohol. Sherry is fortified to be above 15% in alcohol, from one of the Southern most growing regions in Europe, and is low in acidity.

“There is a spiritual element common between the two, as well as commonality in the production processes. Both are very much about where each is made. They come from calcareous soils. We often say “calcium” for short.

“In Champagne, we have chalk. The rock, you can break it off. It is very old from the Cretaceous period. In Sherry, we have albariza. It is a younger soil, around 35-million years old, and is much more crumbly in structure than chalk. It is more akin to sand, than the rock found in Champagne.

“In Champagne, you find actual physical rocks. In albariza, when dry, which is 5 months of the year, the soil can be compact, dry, and very hard. When it rains, it turns to mud. Albariza is like a light, calcareous sand.

“The affect of both soils is to create a distinctive minerality in both of these wines. When we think about the minerality of these wines it becomes interesting to compare them. When we compare them, we can compare their processes.

“In the past we would say both come from rather neutral grapes. No one would say that anymore. Producers as recently as 10-years ago, champagne producers would say they were looking for neutral base wines because the character of champagne comes from aging.

“In general, the base wines of sherry and champagne are not wines we want to drink. Both of these wines rely heavily on yeast. In champagne, the secondary ferment, and lees aging contribute greatly to the wines’ character. In fino and manzanilla, the layer of flor affects wine in important ways. Both are aged for a long time.

“For champagne, 10-years is nothing for aging. Many of the best need 15 years to show their best. Sherry is very long lived. It undergoes very long aging processes.

“In terms of perception, there is also a lot in common. Both wines are largely misunderstood. Many people don’t even think of sherry as wine. People often think of champagne as apertif only. In actuality, sherry is a very complex wine. It is also the most food friendly wine on the planet, bar none. In terms of perception, there is a lot of work for us to do.

“Both wines are a product of blending. In some cases, these wines are the result of extremely vast blends. Non-vintage champagnes can be comprised of hundreds of base wines. A sherry solera can be 200-years old and encompass, for all intensive purposes, hundreds of base wines.

“Finally, both champagne and sherry have been sold, or marketed as brands. In both, the brand of sherry, or the brand of champagne is the defining element for the beverage. Sherry bodegas are known for giving a consistent product. A champagne house develops their blend early in the process, and is often known for it.”

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For more from Peter Liem on Champagne, check out his site: http://www.champagneguide.net/

For more from Peter Liem on Sherry, check out his site, also carrying his book on Sherry, co-authored with Jesús Barquín: http://www.sherryguide.net/

Peter Liem discusses his work on ChampagneGuide.net in an I’ll Drink to That podcast with Levi Dalton, episode 11: https://soundcloud.com/leviopenswine/peterliem

and his book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, written with Jesús Barquín in I’ll Drink to That podcast episode 38: https://soundcloud.com/leviopenswine/peterliembook

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Thank you to Noah Dorrance.

Thank you to Baron Ziegler, and Gregory Castells, Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias, Jan Pettersen, and Peter Liem.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Google Video Hangout with Brice Jones and Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones

Emeritus Vineyards Google Video HangoutMari and Brice Jones on Google Video Hangout
with Dezel, James, Luke, Alex, Kimberly, Steve, Rosie bird and I

As you can see, we had fun.

Emeritus Vineyards, along with Charles Communication hosted a Google Video Hangout that brought together writers from around the country to taste and talk Emeritus wines together online. Brice Jones, president and founder of Emeritus Vineyards, and his daughter Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, director of marketing and direct sales, led the discussion of Emeritus Vineyards farming practices and philosophy. Also participating in the video hangout were writers Luke Sykora, Dezel Quillen, James Melendez, and Steve McIntosh.

Thinking About Balance in Wine

Crediting his philosophy to time with winemaking friends in Burgundy, as well as Emeritus founding winemaker Don Blackburn, Brice discussed what he views as the three elements that combine in wine. As he describes it, soil contributes the character of a wine, climate its personality, and the people behind it its spirit or style. The trifecta earns mention on the Emeritus website as well, but through the video conversation we were able to probe deeper into the idea.

As Jones describes, soil, character, and the people behind a wine work together to create the final wine itself. Also essential to Jones’s idea is the point that, like a three-legged stool, balance is achieved through the way these elements work together. Too much or too little of any one of them and imbalance forms.

Through the course of the conversation, Jones invited me to help him explicate the role these three elements take, according to his model. Following is my response to that suggestion.

Personality as Climate

The idea of vintage differences gives insight into recognizing the notions of character versus personality or style in Jones’s concept. As Jones described, if we assume the winemaker and his or her practices have essentially stayed the same from one year to the next, wine made from a particular vineyard will retain its character from growth in the same soil, as well as its style from the winemaker’s approach. Importantly, the only things that have changed from one year to the next in this case are the climate conditions, and the age of the vines.

In this model, personality of a wine, then, would seem to show through the sorts of climate differences apparent through vintage variation. A cooler year might offer earthier flavors on pinot noir, for example, or fresher green elements on cabernet. Acidity may also be higher on a cooler year, as another example. Wine from a particular vineyard, then, may show as lean and less fruit driven on a cooler year, or broader and more fruit driven on a warmer. When the vineyard and winemaking crew chooses to pick its fruit, and how the clusters and canopy is managed, however, can also influence how these climate differences show up in the final wine. It is also understood that vine age plays an important role in the vines ability to regulate its quality and quantity during vintage variation.

Soil as Character

Importantly, the soil of the wine essentially does not change year to year. However, vineyard management choices affect the way in which soil character is able to impart itself to the wine, or not. As Jones describes, winemakers such as Aubert de Villaine, have it that irrigation changes the signature of the wine. The more reliant a vine proves to be on irrigation, the shallower its roots. Irrigation draws smaller root hairs towards the soil surface as drip irrigation clusters water within surface soil. As a result, root depth tends to remain abbreviated, and vines rely on drip irrigation for its water needs. Surface soils dry quickly between rain falls thus not offering vines water without irrigation. Part of Jones’s point is that in the case of shallower roots, vines are unable to express significant or distinctive soil character. As a result, such wines are more expressive of climate personality than of soil character.

California predominately relies on irrigation, seeing the lack of water through summer as detrimental to vine health. It is the case that vines need water to be established, demanding watering during the first two years to assist in the development of the vine. Vines that have been irrigated beyond that initial period also cannot simply be moved straight to dry farming. The shallower roots of irrigated vines need assistance over several years to grow towards seeking water at deeper levels.

The contrast between the character presence of dry-farmed versus irrigated vines defines heritage regions such as Burgundy in France, or Montalcino in Italy. For California, however, the reliance on irrigation rests partially in the climate differences from the state and pivotal areas of the Old World. Rainfall during the growing season in many Old World viticultural areas differs from its lack during that stretch in California.

Jones asserts that he was initially resistant to dry farming his vineyards. However, he credits Villaine with pushing him to reflect on the idea further. After long consideration, Jones recognized that even in California, where summer rains are scarce, vines flourished in pre-Prohibition when irrigation would not have existed. He chose then, along with his vineyard crew, to shift Emeritus’s Hallberg Ranch to dry farming over a five year period. 2011 was the site’s first fully dry farmed vintage.

Looking at 2011’s vintage profile serves as interesting example of the impact of dry farming, which then gives glimpse into the notion of soil character in wine. The 2011 vintage in California proved excessively cold, leading in some cases to sheer lack of ripening for later harvested varieties. To make matters more difficult, intense rains came near the end of the season. The effect, then, was that vineyards across the North Coast of California suffered delayed ripening, leaving fruit on the vines when severe rains (and therefore mold and mildew) hit. As a result, sites across the Northern part of the state simply had no viable crop. As Jones describes, however, with dry farming the Emeritus vines were fully ripe a week before the rains hit. All of their crop was picked before the rains, then, and the rains were not a problem.

Dry farmed vines must be self regulating in a way simply not possible with irrigation. With the luxury of irrigation, vines tend to increase crop size, and relax their pace of ripening. Without the stress of seeking water, vines signal to disperse seeds is less clear.

The choice of irrigation impacts root depth, and as a result vine regulation as well. The role of soil character, then, becomes more clear with older vines, deeper roots, and dry farmed sites. In the case of younger vines, and vines with shallower roots, soil character offers less apparent presence allowing climate to play a stronger role.

As Jones explains, dry farmed vines, with deeper roots in comparison to younger vines or vines with shallower roots, offer deeper color, fuller and more refined bouquet, and richer flavor with an ultra long finish, all with greater balance of expression to the wine as a whole. In the case of North Coast vineyards, the diurnal shift of the region’s climate gives ample acidity to the wines thus carrying the soil character of the wines through with a juicy personality.

It is clear that different soil types, and slope of vineyard (a way through which soil is presented) provide differing character to a wine. Where limestone, for example, puts incredible tension down the backbone of a wine, granite feels nervy, or Kimmeridgian offers the tension of limestone with the open palate of clay.

The Role of the Vineyard and Wine Team: People as Spirit and Style

Considering the effects of climate and soil, the role of the people involved in wine production are left to consider. As Jones describes, the people offer the spirit of the wine. Over time, he has come to understand that spirit as the winemaking style.

The people behind a wine make numerous important choices from where to establish, and then how to plant the vineyard, followed by what sorts of viticultural approach will be used, and then when to pick, and what winemaking will be employed in the cellar. The choices made along the way mitigate the effects that soil and climate can offer but also establish the style of the wine.

One of the most obvious places that people impact the expression of the wine is through variety and clonal choice in the vineyard. Matching grape type to soil profile marries the human element with the character of the vineyard site. Clonal choices too can be used to bring together climatic tendencies with the varietal flavor chosen. In the case of Pinot Noir, for example, Dijon clones are often seen as more fruit-and-flower expressive compared to some of the heritage clones, which can vary widely. Over time, as a vineyard gets older and adapts to its site, clonal differences become less apparent, just as vintage variation becomes less noticeable on older vines with deeper roots.

While the winegrowing team cannot reasonably change either soil or climate for a particular site, they can lessen their influence. Choosing to irrigate, as already discussed, changes the way in which soil expresses in the wine. Other choices like choice of root stock, or training style impact how the vine uptakes nutrients from the site, and helps to determine the vines overall vigor. To put that another way, the farming practices employed, including the way in which the vineyard is established, influence the fruit expression of the vines.

Within the cellar, winemaking choices arise from the type of wine the winemaker wishes to emulate. While any winemaker may have innumerable tools and techniques available to them, which they choose depends upon the winemaking philosophy that guides their methods. A winemaker that wishes to amplify soil and climate character, for example, might strive to lessen their own intervention in the cellar. A winemaker wishing to make a reliable expression from year to year irregardless of vintage differences may increase aspects of their cellar intervention as well as diversify their blending practices.

For Emeritus, the style of the wine arises, as Jones explains, from the approach of their founding winemaker, Don Blackburn. Blackburn’s training occurred in Burgundy. He went on to champion Pinot Noir, arguing that a proportionally higher number of the finest wines in the world originate with the grape. For Blackburn, cellar techniques learned in Burgundy were essentially to bringing subtlety to the wine.

As Jones explained, it is not that he is trying to make a Burgundian wine at Emeritus. In California we don’t have the climate, nor the soils that would allow us to do that. He has no desire to emulate wines of another region, no matter their quality. Instead, his goal is to make the best wines available from his site. With his long standing connections to Burgundy, Jones established Emeritus first with Blackburn, then bringing in Nicolas Cantacuzene (raised and trained originally in Burgundy) as assistant winemaker under Blackburn. Cantacuzene has since become head winemaker for Emeritus. In working with Blackburn, and now Cantacuzene, Jones has seen that utilizing cellar techniques cultivated in Burgundy works best for generating Emeritus’s style of Pinot Noir.

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Thank you to Brice Jone, Mari Cutrer-Porth Jones, Kimberly Charles, and Alex Fondren.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Considering Robert Parker Jr

One of the most controversial figures today in wine proves to be writer-reviewer Robert M. Parker, Jr. After his appearance at this year’s Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium criticisms of his speech raced around the internet. Even Parker’s positive statements there were often framed by others as problematic. He seems in many ways a man others love to hate.

Parker’s own occasional rants have contributed to the phenomenon. Two months prior to his appearance at the Symposium, an online missive hosted at his pay-to-read site, eRobertParker.com, criticized what he sees as movements currently occurring in wine. The movements referenced included what he described as low-alcohol wines that prove under-ripe, and pursuit of uncommon grapes to the detriment of quality in well-known ones. Though the piece opens as thoughtful, and carries too his vast knowledge of wine, many of his comments there do also deserve blunt critique. It is writing that falls into rant.

Criticism of Parker, however, often seems to outpace its subject, verging into such harsh territory as to not only remove humanity from its account of Parker, but also unwittingly from the author of the critique itself. Denial of the historical importance of Parker’s work also proves common, as if simple erasure of his work would be better.

But context must be kept. Parker has contributed immeasurably to the world of wine. His voice brought consumer interest to wine in a way that had not existed at such a level before. The accessibility of his rating system translated wine to consumers otherwise unfamiliar with wine’s language. Parker’s ability to enlarge consumer interest in wine previously has benefited all of us in wine today. Such benefit is true even as many of us now wish to dismantle such rating systems, and seek wines outside those most closely associated with Parker’s palate.

In public criticism, Parker’s palate is often reduced to a thirst for brute ripeness, or hugeness in wine. Talking about the man with winemakers, however, it becomes clear far more subtlety follows his tasting abilities. His love for wine too from houses like Rayas, most famously, would seem to illustrate an obvious appreciation for delicacy. Reading through tasting notes from Parker, especially earlier ones, his passion for wine is infectious. It becomes clear how he brought so many consumers to wine rests not just in his rating system, but also his enthusiasm.

One of the downsides of influence is its incredible power to act as mirror to all those looking towards it. Projection on leaders, or those with fame proves rampant as people end up speaking less about the actual person within the fame, than about the ideas they’ve cast upon him or her. More frustrating, finding people invested in listening beyond such preconceived ideas proves rare. More profiles written on such figures, then, don’t necessarily offer more insight into who they actually are.

With all of this in mind, in the last year I became interested in learning more about the man behind the Robert Parker phenomenon, that is, Robert Parker himself. In seeking the possibility of sharing an interview with him, I was lucky enough to discover my colleague and friend, R.H. Drexel, of the celebrated wine journal Loam Baby has known Parker for years. Conversation ensued.

Drexel’s slogan for Loam Baby proves apt here, “No haters.” The idea, no haters, doesn’t mean no critique. It means something closer to a notion at the core of Spinoza’s Ethics, “hate is never good” (E4P45). Because it blinds us. Because it keeps us from seeing how to escape the problems within what we’re hating. Because it keeps us from loving how much there is to love, and according to Spinoza, hate reduces our health, and our strength. Only love increases it. To put that another way, the clearest critique, or brightest insights can only ever come from a love for the truth.

After conversation back and forth with RH Drexel, and with Parker on his willingness or not to be interviewed, the following conversation was finally conceived. My interest has been in hearing from Parker himself, to see what it’s like to meet the man inside the mirrors. The idea finally came, then, to get to know Robert Parker through his conversation with a friend, here R.H. Drexel. The advantage of this approach is in removing the filter of my own interpretation, to let the man speak for himself. The opportunity means witnessing more of Drexel as well.

In keeping with the idea of gaining a less filtered perspective, what follows is an unedited transcript of the conversation between Parker and Drexel. The transcript offers a candid view of Parker, as well as a revealing sense of Drexel. The photos throughout were requested specifically for this interview, and have been provided courtesy of Robert Parker.

RH Drexel talks with Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Age 4 or 5Robert M Parker, Jr, age 4 or 5

RH Drexel: I have known you for years, Robert, but I can’t seem to bring myself to call you Bob. I guess I’m old-timey that way. It bugs me when I hear young celebrities on talk shows say they’ve been working with “Bobby” or “Bob” DeNiro. DeNiro probably doesn’t even care! I realize that this is my hang up. Anyway, you actually have 3 names: Bob, Robert and your nickname, Dowell. Which one do you prefer?

Robert M. Parker, Jr: I actually prefer Dowell, because my middle is McDowell, and Dowell was the name everyone called me from birth (although my father called me “Butch”) until I was in law school, and the professors started calling me “Robert” or “Bob.” I should have put a stop to it then, but for sure, Dowell has always sounded better to me than some common-ass name like “Bob” or “Robert.”

RHD: Okay, before we get to the fun stuff like discussing Breaking Bad, music, movies, Rayas and other stuff, I just want to get an important question out of the way.

So, as you and your wife, Pat know, on December 14th, 2012, I had a severe mental breakdown. I had not been sleeping at all well for the five days leading up to that day, and working too hard, so when the story broke of the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, I didn’t have the emotional resources to know how to process that tragedy. I guess the simplest way to put is this: I just broke…I was heartbroken, exhausted and mentally incapable of understanding what had happened. I was placed in a psychiatric ward in Southern California where I remained through the Christmas holidays and into the New Year.

Since then, I’ve had great therapy and am now back to my old self. But, I often think, if I, a 49-year old with a really great family, a wonderful circle of friends and a good job, fell apart in the face of that tragedy, how must young people have felt when that happened?

I mean, I was a quirky, sensitive kid. If something like this had happened when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d ever want to leave the family house again.

Which brings me to these talks that you and I have about children and technology. I think parents pick on their kids way too much about how they’re always looking at their phones. If I was growing up in this crazy, messed up world, I’d want a tiny, magic little screen that I could stare into, too, where I’d share smiley faces and silly stuff with my friends. I think that might very well be where I’d feel safest…there and the family home.

As a society, we seem to have made it safely through the Era of the Atari Console, so we should be able to guide our children sensibly through the Era of the Smart Phone.

I mean, in a parallel universe, if the Atari Console and the smart phone became animated and stepped into a boxing ring together, the Atari Console might very well kick the smart phone’s ass, if you’re the kind of person that measures the threat posed by your enemy in terms of size and foreign-ness. So, I think all the adults out there need to CHILL OUT about their kids and their phones. I mean, they’re just tiny little boxes they hold in their hands.

You’ve always given me good advice. What advice do you have for young people who are confused when their parents are always saying, “Put that thing down! I’m trying to talk to you!!!!!” but they think it’s the “coolest thing in the whole wide world.”

Age 6Robert, Age 6

RMP: I think conscientious parents are always trying to do what they think is the right thing, but they have to remember that they are usually at least 30 or more years senior to the kids they’re trying to keep on the straight and narrow path. I have a 27-year-old who’s moved back into the house. She was adopted when she was three months old from Korea, and while I’ve tried to be a loving father, building her confidence and, at the same time, a degree of independence, I’ve been somewhat laissez-faire in terms of some of the behaviors I would consider excessive, self-indulgent, or just not all that responsible. On the other hand, if I’m the good cop, my wife tends to be the bad cop. She leans toward being a strict disciplinarian trying to mold our daughter in her image – which, of course, I think is a great one, since I married her – but one size doesn’t fit all, and I think parents need to let kids find their own way. Try to give them guidance and hope that through a process of osmosis they absorb the very basic fundamentals of life – knowing the difference between real right and real wrong, and learning that life is nothing more than a one-way ticket, a journey where there’ll be ups and downs, you’ll get knocked down and kicked in the face, but if you’ve got some degree of confidence and a fighting spirit, you will bounce back. Just take the bad times with the good times, but cherish those good times, because that’s what it’s all about in the end. Whatever turns you on, turns you on, and most parents don’t really have a fucking clue about a kid’s private life or their inner likes or dislikes.

I went to a high school where only about ten percent of the students were considered “college material.” (These were the old, politically incorrect days, where the classes were arranged A, B, C, D and F, and you can imagine that the students in D and F were basically those with extra Y chromosomes and several years older, since they had repeated a few grades.) Moreover, I lived in a farming area, where the population was high-density redneck. I live in the same area today, but the demographics have changed 180 degrees, the rednecks just can’t afford to live here anymore, and the farmers have largely been pushed out of business by giant industrial conglomerates, so now the demographics of the high school I went to are basically all college-bound and impressive. The rednecks used to hang together and try to intimidate any of us who were considered college material, but as an only child, my father taught me to fight back, and fight I did. I got my ass kicked several times, but I always made sure that they didn’t get away with any bullshit, and after a while they stopped bugging me, largely because I was physically bigger than them, and even though they outnumbered me, they were essentially cowards. I have no idea why bullying would have increased in our society except that I think it reflects a certain insecurity among kids, and to try to pick on others is a sign of cowardice, weakness, and really is intolerable. No kid should have to experience that while they’re growing up with so many other pressures and demands, just trying to get through junior or senior high school and prepare themselves, if they intend to go further, for college.

Why do you think bullying is on the rise?

RHD: You know, when I was a little kid, my family and I watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. He always seemed so calm and like the kind of grandfather you’d like to have. We were going through some scary times then, too, but after watching the news, I could tell that my mom and dad were pretty calm. That made me think everything was going to be okay. I remember praying every night for Walter Cronkite and Mr. President. At that naïve age, I thought they ran the whole country.

Now, I’ll visit with friends and they’ll have one of these 24 hour news channels on. And, adults will just be yelling at each other in the most uncivilized of ways. If I were a kid, I’d just surmise that our country is in deep shit if our adults don’t even know how to talk to one another with decency. And, if I were a kid with parents that maybe weren’t that tender-hearted with me, and if I felt neglected, I’d probably react to the world the way the adults act on television. I’d probably think, “if they can talk to each other that way, why can’t I? Seems like that’s how you get attention!”

University of Maryland, 1968Robert (on right) while attending University of Maryland

RMP: The 24-hour news cycle is something that drives me nuts as well. I love it when I’m traveling abroad, where the news consists of five minutes of headlines, thirty seconds of weather, and that’s it for the day, so why not go out to dinner or listen to some music and chill out. I’ve pretty much tuned out all of the talking heads from the major media to the cable channels, because it seems all scripted, all screaming, yelling, and shouting, just appalling incivility. All of it is unnerving, it promotes social disharmony, and it creates an impression that the whole world is completely fucked up – which it probably is. I’m answering this just as Iraq is collapsing, after the United States spent billions of dollars there and had nearly 5,000 young soldiers killed. Moreover, only God knows how many more were maimed and physically destroyed for the balance of their lives. I think it’s part of this new culture of anger, showoff-ism, and just rude-ass behavior that I don’t need to support and I have the option of refusing to observe it.

Okay, let’s lighten up and talk about some of our favorite things.

University of Maryland, 1968at University of Maryland

RHD: So, both of us are THE BIGGEST “BREAKING BAD” FANS EVER! I think what makes us giggle about this is that the show itself contains some pretty dark subject matter and characters, but whenever you and I talk about it, those discussions end up bringing out the best in us. We get animated. We laugh. We philosophize. Why do you think “Breaking Bad” became such an iconic show?

RMP: “Breaking Bad” is an iconic show and was great because it reminds us that, no matter how good our intentions may be, we’re never that far from the abyss. Here we have a teacher who’s totally dedicated to providing for his family, who learns he has terminal cancer and wants to take care of them. He’s smart enough and has enough connections in the neighborhood to begin producing state-of-the-art crystal meth. The show reinforces that essentially this guy is a good guy, but becomes evil through the noble intention of wanting to take care of his family. In the process, his power, his corruption, his moral fiber deteriorate to the point where he is as sinister as the assassins sent over to New Mexico from Mexican cartels to try to take over the meth market. It’s the classic good vs. evil sitcom fairytale, but it’s so well done, because you have a very likeable guy, a wonderful family, and in the process of wanting to provide for them, he becomes evil personified. I suspect it fascinates us all because none of us are really that far from “breaking bad” either.

RHD: Have you found anything to replace it? I mean, not replace it; it’s irreplaceable! But, have you found any other series to abate the Breaking Bad jonesing? And if so, why do you like it?

I myself have discovered “High Maintenance” on Vimeo. It’s a free little series that I love, but I’m already through the whole thing because each episode is pretty short.

RMP: There really is no other series even remotely similar to “Breaking Bad.” There have certainly been other cable shows that I’ve enjoyed immensely, “The Sopranos” and, more recently, Timothy Olyphant in “Justified,” set in Harlan County, Kentucky. In its own way, “Downton Abbey” is a masterpiece of classic British television and a look at a long-gone era. And who the hell doesn’t love an actress like Maggie Smith? By the way, a series I’m just beginning to get into, which is pretty kinky but I like it so far, is “Banshee,” but since I’ve seen less than one full season, I’m not sure where it’s going to go and whether it can hold and build interest, as “Breaking Bad” did.

RHD: I’ve watched two awesome movies lately. The first is called, “Mile…Mile and a Half.” It’s a documentary about a group of artists that hike the John Muir Trail. I simultaneously smiled and got choked up through the whole thing. And, I also liked “Frequencies,” though some of it went over my head so I need to watch it again. How about you. Any good film recommendations?

RMP: I haven’t really seen any good movies that have excited me recently, but I can share with you some of my favorite movies of all time. They would include, in no particular order, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Simon Birch,” “Alien,” “L.A. Confidential,” “True Romance,” and “Schindler’s List.”

With Pat, age 19Robert and Pat, both age 19

RHD: So, the first real spiritual experience I had with a wine was with Rayas, a 1998 bottle that you recommended to me. While drinking it, over the course of several hours, I remembered the smells of a church I used to love to visit in college: cold marble floors, frankincense, candles burning, the wet wool coats of old ladies who’d spend hours there on rainy days. Anyway, that wine transported me. What’s the first time a wine really took you some place different and can you describe that sensation?

RMP: It’s funny that you mention the 1998 Rayas. That entire estate has always produced a sort of “heart and soul” wine under medieval conditions, from old vines, microscopic yields, and it walks the tightrope without a safety net between something quite vulgar and weird to something incredibly sublime, magical and complex. It’s always been one of my favorite wines in the world. The 1990, 1989, 1985, and the first two that really blew my mind, the 1978 and 1979, will always be among those cherished liquid memories that just take you to another world. Of course, the now-deceased Jacques Reynaud, who managed Rayas during the time I was visiting there (1978-2006) was a single man who had to endure an incredible number of the wackiest rumors and stories about him, but I found him compassionate and well-read. Once you gained his trust, he was a fascinating guy to taste with, and to talk with about wines or any other subject you chose. I had actually convinced him to leave his little, bucolic area of Châteauneuf du Pape and come to New York, and I promised I would come up and be his guide, but just several months later he dropped dead of, I believe, a massive heart attack while shoe shopping – a fetish of his – in Avignon.

RHD: You’re an avid reader, as am I. A few years ago, you recommended that I try buying an e-reader, which might be easier for me to travel with, rather than a heavy bag of books. Ultimately, do you have a preference between your e-reader and a real book?

RMP: I’ve been using a Kindle ever since they came out.

Gatwick Airport, 1971Robert and Pat, Gatwick Airport, 1971

RHD: Read any good books lately?

RMP: I read voraciously and always have. I tend to read two or three books at the same time, usually one work of non-fiction and at least one fiction, and I tend to jump between them trying to fall asleep at night, which is never that easy. I was a history major in college, and my interest in history has never really left me. Certainly, a lot of history is being created today and so much of it is basically history repeating itself, which in it itself is fascinating as well as depressing.

As to recently read books, the non-fiction includes “The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966,” “Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure,” “A Bright Shining Line: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (second time I’ve read this), “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945,” and a book I’ve read for the third time because I think the lessons it teaches are timeless, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.”

As for fiction, some of my favorite authors, I read just about everything they produce, include Daniel Silva’s “The English Girl,” Brad Thor’s “Hidden Order,” Lee Child’s “Never Go Back,” Harlan Coben’s “Six Years,” Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet” (a Bob Lee Swagger novel), Don Winslow’s “The Kings of Cool: A Prequel to Savages,” and “Mission to Paris” by Alan Furst.

A couple more non-fiction would be “Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879,” “Not Taco Bell Material” by Adam Carolla, Charles Krauthammer’s “Things That Matter,” and Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” And lastly, a sort of quasi-fictional book based on non-fictional events, and in real time, “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Eric Larson.

RHD: The best book I’ve read in a long time is called “Tibetan Peach Pie”, the Tom Robbins memoir. Personally, I think it should be in every nightstand in every hotel and motel across the nation, but that’s another conversation for another time.

Now, you and I (and countless people) live with the unfortunate reality of chronic pain. In a way, I think our mutual chronic pain has brought us even closer. I feel like I’ve tried everything under the sun. Lately, what seems to work for me is just watching television on my days offs, with the doors and windows in the house open, so that I’m getting plenty of fresh air and the sounds of nature, which I find comforting. You’ve been trying Hydrotherapy. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s working for you?

1971Robert, 1971

RMP: I’ve been plagued by chronic spinal pain that became debilitating and thus I chose to have a massive rebuild of my lumbar spine, with new discs on all five levels and then titanium rods and screws, so I’m somewhat pain-free now but still fighting the re-education in terms of walking unassisted. It hasn’t stopped me from doing everything I need to do since this eight and a half hour operation in late May of 2013, including four trips to California, three-plus weeks in Asia and several weeks in Bordeaux. I’m adapting, but there’s no question that the pain and disability can be incredibly depressing and you have to fight through it. For me, my dogs and music are relaxing. My wife also gave me the gift of an endless pool water well with a submerged treadmill, and while I’ve only gotten about 15 uses in on it between trips, I can walk 50 minutes on the treadmill at nearly two miles an hour without ever having to hold on to anything. I don’t have any pain when I use it, and that’s uplifting, but I will cherish the day when I can transfer walking unassisted on the treadmill thanks to the buoyancy of the water in this water well to walking on land unassisted. That day may never come, but I’m holding out hope that it will. But to answer your question, I think hydrotherapy or aquatherapy is really the future, especially as we age, arthritis sets in and we have joint pain. I’ve had one knee replacement and need another one, and I don’t have a trace of knee pain when I’m in water, which is a revelation for me.

RHD: I guess another thing I really enjoy on a rough day is just one really, really good glass of cold beer. Funny side story…I was hanging out with one of my young craft beer maker friends, and I told him, ‘You know, the best thing that came out of being in that scary psychiatric ward is that now, ever since I’ve been healthy again, every single beer I’ve had tastes about 100 times better than it did before I broke down.’

And, I swear, I saw this crazy glimmer in this kid’s eye, like he was thinking ‘maybe I should get institutionalized! 100 times better??!!!!!’ So I casually said, ‘You know, I think I exaggerated, it’s probably only 10% better now, maybe even 5%,’ and that seemed to talk him down from that tree. Those craft beer guys are a fun, crazy bunch. Though, I do maintain that every beer is 100% better than it was before the break down. What beers have you been enjoying lately? And, have you tried pairing them with food? I know you’re big into wine and food pairing.

RMP: As a product of the hippie movement of the late ‘60s, I think it’s probably natural to have an interest in all things alcoholic, and even beyond that, but the name of my wine journal, The Wine Advocate, sort of says that I’m hardly an advocate for other beverages. But I do think the boutique craft movement in the beer industry has been fabulous. You don’t need a whole lot of money to start one up, and tiny cult/craft breweries can become national success stories. Locally we have Dogfish Head in Delaware making an assortment of beers, all of them highly regarded, and many of them I find fascinating. I don’t really advertise a lot about beer, but I have tweeted about a number of unique beers. Now you’re seeing beers being fermented in old bourbon barrels, and I think sometimes they’re too heavy and too rich, but it’s funny that in the beer world, it seems like bigger and richer is what everyone wants, whereas in the wine world you have a group of hipster sommeliers who are basically advocating weird, undrinkable and deeply flawed wines. That sort of movement has not been accepted at all in the beer world, although one could certainly argue that some of the Belgian beers, with their high levels of brettanomyces and volatile acidity are indeed flawed, and that’s part of the appeal of them.

Travel with Pat, mid-1970sTravel with Pat (on right), 1970s

RHD: Okay, so let’s talk bucket list items, because one of mine involves you. I have this dream that I’d like to go to Burning Man. I want to go with wine-loving folks and set up some kind of camp in honor of Bacchus; of course, it will be weird, homey, delicious, dark, light and welcoming to all. Any way that you and Pat would consider coming out to Burning Man for a wine celebration like no other? And, do you have a bucket list item you can share here?

RMP: In response to your invitation to Burning Man, while in agreement with many of their principles (above all, gifting and self-reliance), I am also a lone wolf, and avoid any groups (lawyer and wine junkets are viewed with horror). I can’t change that.

I used to do what many people do when a new year starts – I’d make a few plans and try to improve myself as a person. But about three or four years ago, I decided I would just adopt something I call “Random Acts of Kindness,” and I’ve actually been quite good at it and consistent as well. The first episode was at a gas station where some beggar wanted to borrow money, and when I asked him what for, he said he needed cigarettes. I’m not an advocate of smoking tobacco, but I said, “I’ll buy you a pack. What do you want?” and the guy almost fainted. But of course, no good deed goes unpunished. He followed me to my car and wanted me to buy him a second pack, and I told him basically to fuck off. Apparently, even among the very poor, American greed is alive and well. But as far as bucket lists go, I’ve been one of those fortunate people who have done so many things that I dreamed of doing but never thought were possible – doing a wine tasting on the Great Wall of China in 2008 was certainly a bucket list item. Traveling the world many, many times and seeing so many extraordinary places would certainly have been on any of my earlier bucket lists, but I’ve done it. There are a few places I still haven’t gotten to that I would love to visit, such as parts of India, Cambodia, and a handful of other places, but my bucket list is pretty small. I think with the mobility issues that I’ve faced since this massive back surgery, the biggest thing would be to walk independently again. It’s amazing how we take for granted some of the most fundamental tasks in life, and then when they’re lost, you realize just how goddamned essential and important they are to you.

RHD: Okay, so we both love, love, love music. Basically, you and I will listen to anything once. Our tastes are very varied; classic rock, jazz, folk music, early hip hop, early country and everything in between. Now, most of my friends would be surprised to learn that I am a Justin Bieber fan. I really enjoyed that documentary about him, Believe. He makes his fans so happy. And, it appears that the young Mr. Bieber, at the unripe age of 20 years old, has a bigger sack than the entire staff of TMZ combined (go Justin!). What musical group or artist do you think it would surprise people to know that you really like?

RMP: Like you, I have very divergent tastes in music, from obviously the classical to rock ‘n’ roll and of course, the music that formed my early college years, the folk movement pioneered by Bob Dylan and, to a certain extent, Neil Young, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. We do differ on Justin Bieber, as I would just like to kick his ass back to Canada. I’m sorry to say that, but I’m no fan of his. But normally, I don’t really care how nuts, weird or wacky a musician is, it’s really the music that counts in the end, just like the wine in the glass. You can be the biggest jerk-off or asshole in the world, and if you make a really good wine, that’s all that matters to me. I’m a big Austin, Texas country music guy, I have been for a long time, I think it’s the epicenter for some incredible artists who write their own music, play their own instruments, yet have never really gotten a huge following, and I really don’t understand why. Maybe there needs to be a “Music Advocate.” I’m talking about guys like Gurf Morlix, Danny Schmidt, and beyond Austin, singers and groups like James McMurtry, the Heartless Bastards (man – their lead singer, Erika Wennerstromon, has a great voice!), Todd Snider, Jackie Greene are all fabulous, still relatively young songwriters who may be writing the best lyrics since Bob Dylan’s classic years in the early and mid-1960s. Others that have their origins in Austin are the late Blaze Foley, Erika Gilkyson, Butthole Surfers, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleeves, and Gary Clark, Jr. Anyhow, a lot these people just don’t seem to get much commercial attention, and I’m at a loss to understand why, but hey, that’s the way it is. I’ll buy ‘em and support’ em and tell as many people as possible about them and that’s all I can do.

Travel with Pat, 1970sTravel with Pat, 1971

RHD: You’ve been married to your lovely wife Pat for a long time and I really admire the relationship you both have. Any advice for couples who want to have a lasting marriage but find it tough sometimes?

RMP: Obviously, the best decision and the most fortuitous event of my life was meeting Patricia Etzel, who I first met when we were both twelve years old. We didn’t really go on a date until we were 15, and dating through high school and the early years of college was, at the very minimum, quite turbulent, largely because of me and my rather irresponsible attitude toward things. But when push came to shove, so to speak, I was relentless and got the girl and love of my life. We’ll be celebrating 45 years of marriage soon, probably by the time this interview is published. She’s my best friend, my lover, my confidante, and yes, no marriage can endure that long without a lot of compromise and back-and-forth, but at the end of the day, she makes me laugh, has a great sense of humor, loves good food and wine as well as music, and it’s always shocking how our interests are so similar. That’s not to say we haven’t had some pretty loud shouting matches over 45 years, but I don’t think we’ve ever gone to bed without kissing each other, no matter how pissed off I was at her for something. An interesting thing I can tell young couples is that most of the biggest fights you will ever have are over the most fucking ridiculously trivial things. Now, of course, you could always betray a partner, but I haven’t done that, and neither has she (to my knowledge), but I’m talking about stupid things. It’s amazing how something totally irrelevant and unimportant can cause fireworks. I think the key is, don’t stay mad and make sure you kiss each other before you go to bed no matter how mad you are at each other.

Enjoying a meal Summer 2014Enjoying a meal, Summer 2014

RHD: I really enjoy that television show, The Actor’s Studio, with James Lipton. I like when he asks his guests something like, “If there is a God, what do you hope to hear Him say when you get to heaven”, or something like that. What do you hope to hear?

RMP: Just getting to heaven would be a worthwhile accomplishment, and if God were there, I would probably try to get through the so-called pearly gates as quickly as possible in case he decided to change his mind. But if he was going to ask me a question, I suspect it would probably be one he asks many, and that’s “Were you good to people? Did you treat them as you would have wanted them to treat you?” And he might also ask if I thought I left earth a better place than when I entered. I think I could say yes to all that, and even pass a lie detector test on those questions.

But if God said anything to me, I would prefer the following: “Are you ready to see your parents and all those who you loved who predeceased you? And, by the way, all the dogs you’ve loved and lost since age four are here as well.”

What would you like to hear God say?

RHD: Well, I think everyone I know hopes they’ll have a little more money when they grow old and die than they do now. And, I don’t think it’s so that they can buy a fancy sports car or something like that. I think they’d just like to have some money to give to their kids and their grandkids, to make their lives a little easier. So, hoping that is the case for me, I’d like to hear God say, “Hey kid! You have some mad, moral ninja skills!…I mean, once folks with money transform themselves into the camel to undergo the great test, most of them can’t even find the needle. And, if they do, they kick it aside because they think it’s of no use to them. But, you walked right up to it and managed to fit your big nose and ears right through the eye of the needle. And, then the way you navigated both humps through the needle, without it ever breaking, and then flicked it off your tail with a little flourish and a not-too-bad pirouette….well that was just good old fashioned entertainment! Come on in, kick your shoes off, let me pour you a glass of wine!”

RMP: Well, Elaine, thank you and thanks to R. H. Drexel. In 35 years in the wine business, I have rarely had the chance to express myself candidly and be asked a series of questions that didn’t include anything about power – it’s so refreshing.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to “RH Drexel talks with Robert M. Parker, Jr.,” WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

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This write-up appears as a follow-up to a previous article on Santa Barbara County wine growing.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

For more information on over-arching growing conditions for the region, such as climate and weather patterns, please see that article, which appears here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/05/20/understanding-santa-barbara-county-wine/

Santa Maria Valley

Driving South through California on Highway 101 the sand dunes begin to appear as the road comes closer to the ocean. By San Luis Obispo (SLO) county (home to Paso Robles, San Simeon and its famed Hearst Castle, as well as Morro Bay) ocean succulents, and cypress dot the roadway, growing from sandy loam of the seascape. The highway hugs ocean through Pismo Beach, then cuts inland again lifting over a slight climb in elevation, through the drop on the other side. You’ve arrived in Santa Maria Valley.

Santa Maria Valley proves the second oldest appellation in California, after Napa Valley, and includes some of the oldest contemporary vineyards in Santa Barbara County (SBC), as well as some of the most distinctive Chardonnay plantings in the state. However, the area has received historically less attention for wine than its Southern siblings such as the Sta Rita Hills.

The Agricultural Richness of Santa Maria Valley

The Northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County, the land formation as well as the appellation of Santa Maria Valley include sections of San Luis Obispo county. From the North, it is the San Rafael Mountains that circumscribes the Valley floor, and the intersection of the Santa Maria River with the water flowing through North Canyon from Twitchell Reservoir that marks the SLO-SBC border. Bien Nacido Vineyards, for example, sits just inside the North-western edge of SBC while its strawberry fields on the flats sit just inside the South-eastern rest of SLO.

Santa Maria Valley proves one of the most agriculturally diverse, and active regions of North America hosting a range of berries, avocado, spinach, beans, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and even a cactus nursery. With avocado entering the region in the 1870s, this section of California quickly became the primary supply for North America. It still hosts (one of) the largest groves in North America.

Grape growing through the region reaches back to the 1830s, with more contemporary vineyards being established beginning in the 1960s, many of those early own root vines still giving fruit. As a result of such agricultural diversity, the area includes one of the more residential farming communities in the country, with farm workers able to remain year round as they rotate between crops.

Local cattle ranching and indigenous beans find focus through the tradition of Santa Maria BBQ. It appropriately claims the title of Best BBQ in the West, offering a local-oak fired tri-tip that proves more spice-rubbed than sauced, coupled with a side of pinquinto beans. The beans stand as a reminder of the relevance of land formations in agricultural development. The small pink morsels originate from and grow only within this area of the Central Coast.

Winegrowing Santa Maria Valley

SMV map

click on image to enlarge

Santa Maria Valley AVA offers the only valley in North or South America with unhindered ocean influence. No hillside formations rise within the center line of the appellation to shade or shield portions of the valley floor. The mouth of the valley opens to the Pacific, with the West-East narrowing funnel of the region cut by the San Rafael Mountains to the North, and the Solomon Hills to the South squeezing together near Sisquoc. The center of the valley is defined by the open pull of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc river bench.

The shape of the valley generates a clockwork regularity of fog at night through morning, then wind by afternoon. It is the wind that balances disease pressure from the ocean humidity. Open valley floor also means temperatures average one Fahrenheit degree warmer per mile driven East. Some slight nooks along the river bench, or canyon formation along the Northern mountain and Southern hills offer variation.

Considering Soils

Soil variation within the valley can broadly be cut into four types. Along the Northern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River colluvial soils cover slope sides giving rocky freshness to grapes grown throughout. Moving towards riverside, soils become unconsolidated as mixed alluvial soils appear from old wash off ancient mountain rains.

Bien Nacido, for example, grows vines from hilltop, through slope-side, and into the rolling flats approaching Santa Maria Mesa Road. The absolute flats they reserve for other crops. Walking the midslope vineyards of Bien Nacido offers a mix of rocky soils rolling into Elder Series, and then finally sandy loam near the bottom. Bien Nacido, and Cambria (growing directly beside Bien Nacido to the East) both contain a mix of colluvial and Elder Series soils, with some dolomitic limestone appearing near the tops of slopes, and shale in mid-slopes further East in the Valley. By riverside, soils are entirely unconsolidated giving a mix of some Elder series, and some sandy loam.

Across the street from Bien Nacido, the soils change, becoming unconsolidated alluvial soils. Rancho Viñedo grows in entirely unconsolidated soils, Pleasanton Clay Loam. In broader context these sorts of unconsolidated soils are often treated critically when it comes to grape growing. After rains soils like Pleasanton Clay Loam act like cement, as the soils do not absorb water easily crops grown in such ground tend to flood. However, in a region where rain is rare, thanks to the rain shadow effect of the San Rafael Mountains, such concerns become almost irrelevant. The rare cases when flooding does occur in the region come from ocean storms hitting so hard and fast the question of soil has little to do with the result. Flooding would have happened anyway.

On the Southern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River soils dramatically change. The Western portion of the appellation rises from ancient sand dunes, once part of the sea floor. Sections of the valley, then are almost pure sand mixed through in areas with silt from mountain erosion. The South-western quadrant of SMV moves from almost pure sand, into sandy loam as you travel North-east, or silty loam as you move into the Solomon Hills.

Sections of the newer Presqu’ile Vineyard, for example, appear as incredibly sandy giving a sense of suave tannin to red wines. By the time you reach the Dierberg planting a touch closer to the river, however, it has become more sandy loam. On the plateau of the Solomon Hills North of Cat Canyon, overlooking the valley, Ontiveros Ranch grows in unconsolidated silty soils.

Moving East along the Southern side of the river, the valley squeezes closer to the river bench, and the ground changes to predominately mixed cobbles and rocky loam. Riverbench Vineyard, for example, includes blocks on rocky clay loam, approaching Foxen Canyon, or more rocky plantings approaching the riverside.

While the North-eastern section of Santa Maria Valley contains a predominance of colluvial soils and Elder Series from the Mountains, sandy soils appear mixed throughout Santa Maria Valley with some sections of these vineyards including sandy loam.

Though the valley’s soils can be described through four major types, and the region’s climate has an overall sense of regularity, throughout the appellation there are subtler distinctions within sites that must be expected. As examples, thanks to the ocean influence salinity plays unexpected while sometimes significant role in vine vigor. Slight rolling character in what might seem an otherwise flat vineyard site can create slight air pools that change growing temperatures for vines in those sections. Individual vineyards, then, have significant internal variation.

Establishing Santa Maria Valley Wines

Modern day viticulture appeared in Santa Maria Valley in 1964, with the planting established by Uriel Nielsen in what is now the Byron Winery and Vineyard facility. The area benefits from the cool climate of SMV while hosting the slightly warmer day time temperatures that give darker red fruit in comparison to plantings on the Western side of the Valley.

In 1972, Louis Lucas and Dale Hampton would establish what would become the famous Tepusquet Vineyard, simultaneously pronouncing the great viticultural promise of the region shown through the cool climate, the ocean influence, and the water availability even in desert conditions. The Tepusquet Vineyard now stands in the Cambria Winery and Vineyard facility at the Northern side of the Sisquoc River.

Soon on the heels of the Nielsen and Tepusquet plantings, in 1973 the Miller brothers would begin one of the most influential vineyards of the valley, Bien Nacido. The site would establish itself as what was at the time the largest certified nursery-service-plus-vineyard in the state. By maintaining soil testing on a regular basis and ensuring the health of the vineyard through FPMS certification, Bien Nacido could not only generating crop for area winemakers, but also vine material for future regional vineyards.

These three early vineyards served as what were essentially viticultural test plots surveying what grape varieties, clonal types, and rootstocks could prosper in the region. Figures such as RIchard Sanford, while known more for his original plantings in Sta Rita Hills, also played key roles in helping to identify the appropriateness for Pinot Noir in the region, the valley’s signature variety.

Other vineyards, such as SIerra Madre originally planted in 1971, would prove influential for their later replants. Santa Barbara County includes a long history of influence on the more well-known Napa and Sonoma counties. Well established winemakers known for their North Coast wines utilized grapes grown in SBC to blend and bring added dimension to their North Coast wines. Off paper, then, SBC’s grape quality has been long established.

In the 1990s, however, that reputation was backed up by a series of purchases from big name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, and Jackson Family. In the 1990s, Robert Mondavi took interest in the Sierra Madre site, and decided to use portions to graft newer Pinot and Chardonnay clones in order to study their viability. The unique quality of the site became inspirational force for a range of winemakers both within the region and without. Mondavi’s clonal changes predominately remain within Sierra Madre, some of which offer fruit unlike that seen anywhere else in the state.

Newer vineyards such as Solomon Hills, or Dierberg both planted in the 1990s, and Presqu’ile in the 2000s, expand insight on ripening in SMV. Set near or on the Western boundary of the appellation, each receives cold air, and afternoon ocean wind bringing ultra cool climate focus to their fruit development.

Pinot Noir of Santa Maria Valley

Pinot Noir proves Santa Maria Valley’s signature grape. The valley’s signature marks its Pinot with red fruit character integrated through with the classic blend of Chinese Five Spice and tons of juicy length. The subtle complexity of this flavor study, coupled with the region’s mineral tension, and juiciness give it a profile distinctive from its Pinot Noir neighbors to the North and South.

Within the appellation, soil and temperature changes give fine-tuned distinctions to wines grown from different vineyards. Fruit from the South-western quadrant, for example, consistently carries the suave tannin of sandy soils, and a brighter red profile than the wines of the warmer North-eastern section. The sandy soils have also shown the ability to manage a high portion of whole cluster during fermentation to good effect.

With older vineyards such as Bien Nacido still showcasing own-root original plantings of Pinot Noir, now inter-planted with comparatively younger grafted vines of the same vine material, SMV also offers unique opportunity for winemakers to experiment with fruit from older and younger vines grown side by side. At Byron, sections of the original clonal and rootstock experiment planting are maintained allowing winemakers there the opportunity over decades to separately vinify fruit by clone-to-rootstock combination.

The best Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley has also proven its ability to age well. The subtlety of the valley offers its Pinots what is an almost brooding even while red fruit character, that turns outward again as it ages giving slightly older examples a beautifully surprising energy and lift.

Chardonnay of Santa Maria Valley

While Pinot stands as Santa Maria Valley’s best known variety, some of the most distinctive Chardonnays of California herald from the region. Unique clonal material grows through SMV offering distinctive flavor profiles from vineyards such as Sierra Madre.

The underlying Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay character shows up as Meyer lemon curd on toasted croissant with a long ocean crunch finish. Depending on area of the valley you can imagine that profile dialing down towards more mineral at the Western-reaches, or up towards riper in areas like Cambria. The ocean influence often gives a distinctively pleasing saline crunch or slurry to the white wines, in some of the cooler and sandier vineyard sites it verges into olive.

The mineral presence plus ample juiciness of the fruit give a lot of room for successful oak integration, and/or more reductive character. The two techniques give breadth and length of presence to the juiciness of the region’s fruit without having to dominate its flavor.

Other Varieties of Santa Maria Valley

Rhone varieties appear in small but successful portion through Santa Maria Valley. Most famously, Syrah has done well through the Northern-middle portions of the appellation with producers like Qupe bringing attention to the quality possible from the grape grown in the valley.

At the furthest Eastern side of SMV, Rancho Sisquoc grows a range of grape types successfully producing the range of Bordeaux varieties in warmer pockets near the close of the SMV funnel, as well as unexpected successes such as Riesling and Sylvaner.

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Maya Angelou Rest in Peace

As a Native person in Alaska the first question is always, who’s your Grandma? There it’s your family, and the place you’re from that decides who you are.

My great grandparents are Paul and Anna Chukan of Bristol Bay, Alaska. My grandparents are Gordan and Anisha McCormick. My Grandmother is Emily Ivanoff Ticasuk Brown of Norton Sound, Alaska. My parents are Melvin and Katherine Brown. I am the youngest of three daughters. I am Elaine Chukan Brown.

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I grew up a mixed race girl in Alaska. My mother’s family was Aleut. My father’s Inupiat. Because of World War II neither knew their fathers of European descent. Instead, both were simply raised Native. For Native families, blood quantum is less a question than how and with whom you grew up. As a result, my sisters and I were raised Native too. In my guts, my head, my understanding of myself, I am simply Native.

I also know growing up mixed meant much of the time we passed. My fully Native friends were often mistreated, called “muks” by other kids in school. At times, overhearing the slurs, I’d demand those same kids I’d thought were friends call me “muk” too. They’d be shocked by my insistence. The point for me being, what do you mean by such a dirty word that applies to people you also love? The difference was I had a choice my more clearly Native friends did not. They had no mixed kid ability to disappear.

In adulthood, I found philosophy, literature, and creative writing as refuges from the confusion of slipping between cultural or racial norms. They were for me expressions of the complexities of humanity that gave room for my experience as perhaps not normal, but surely acceptable.

Still, Native populations across the United States are small, most isolated on reservations away from more mainstream populations. Worse, knowledge of Native life, whether contemporary or historic, by citizens of the United States is even rarer than the Native population as a whole. Mainstream media somehow fails to recognize the existence of still-living Native groups even with pertinent news events occurring daily.

Searching for mentors, or models to guide me forward, then, proved difficult. In my struggle to find exemplars for success beyond Alaska, the women I found, besides those of my family, turned out to be the non-Native writers Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. My undergraduate education was filled with their language. I was lucky enough too to work with Lucille Clifton in 2003 over a summer poets’ intensive.

Between the three of them, I was able to find voice for racialized womanhood. In a world where life as a woman of color proves an invisible struggle, Walker reminded that happiness must come from yourself even as others might deny it. Clifton celebrated the vibrant sensuality of survival in the midst of almost unbearable challenge. Angelou demanded we recognize our own phenomenal body, femininity, and lives.

Maya Angelou died last week. In high school, her work found me. It was my best friend at the time, Ginny Gallup, that introduced Angelou to me long before Clinton’s inauguration. Through it, Angelou demanded I see myself as not only valuable but beautiful, and vibrant. She also demanded that I must recognize such beauty because through it I could make others see themselves, not by pushing them, but by seeing them, by listening. In her work was the realization that by loving myself, I could better love others.

In 1993, for her to stand at the Inaugural celebration for a U.S. President was a revolution. This morning, the first African American First Lady of the United States gave one of Angelou’s eulogies, another sort of revolution.

Listening to the eulogy I find it hard to explain how much it moves me except to say, gratitude makes me who I am. Please listen. Amen.

With gratitude that family loves me, and mentors found me.

With gratitude too to Katherine.

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Santa Barbara Wine

As some of you know, I’ve worked on a series of maps looking at growing conditions of Santa Barbara Wine Country. (the first of these SBC map can be found here: http://bit.ly/1nLhy1m ) There has been a delay getting back scans of some of the other maps so I’m not able to post those yet.

In the meantime, cdsavoia sent me their video interview of Greg Brewer. (You might recall they released a video of Abe Schoener here in the Fall. Here’s that link: http://bit.ly/1kAlUFq )

Cdsavoia produce short documentaries on work done in design, fashion, wine, and art. Their series is brilliantly done, offering several minute glimpses of the thought behind peoples’ work. Be sure to check out their site if you haven’t. Here’s that link: http://www.cdsavoia.com/

They read my work with Greg Brewer posted here previously and asked if I’d like to share their interview with him as well. It’s embedded below.

Talking Wine with Greg Brewer

Greg Brewer is one of the more fascinating winemakers I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with. His views of wine are synthetic, seeing thematic links between wine and other arts. He also brings a wonderfully open view of how style interplays with quality valuing difference more than dogmatism while maintaining refinement. It’s a view that proves refreshing.

Sitting down to listen to Greg Brewer inevitably includes discussions of art, light and space, music, and if you’re really lucky saké and food in Japan.

Brewer’s work both with Chad Melville at Melville Winery, and Steve Clifton at Brewer-Clifton brings admirable focus to social sustainability. Both wineries keep vineyard and winery employees year round, a reality that is uncommon in California. Their commitment is to making wine in a manner that allows not only the wineries to succeed, but their employees to comfortably subsist.

The film of Brewer made by cdsavoia gives beautiful glimpse into the complexities of Brewer’s approach. Check out it out below.

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Cheers!

***

Thank you to Miguel De La Torre.

To read my previous writing on Brewer’s work in wine:

Diatom: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/02/07/escaping-convention-calibrating-to-stark-conditions-a-conversation-with-greg-brewer/

Melville: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/29/a-glimpse-of-sta-rita-hills-highway-corridor-melville-estate/

Brewer-Clifton: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/02/19/the-taste-of-sta-rita-hills-tasting-with-over-200-years-of-winemaking-experience/