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A Life in Wine

4

Growing Arizona Wine with Maynard James Keenan

Maynard James Keenan, JeromeMaynard James Keenan in his Judith Vineyard, Jerome, Arizona, November 2014

“No one knows if Nebbiolo works here, so why not just try it?” Maynard James Keenan tells me. “If it doesn’t work, I know Sangiovese does so I can graft over.”

We are walking the terraces of Keenan’s Judith Vineyard on a steep slope side of Jerome. The terraces are edged by white limestone boulders pulled from the site’s calcium laden caliche soils, and decomposed granite. We stand in direct morning sun. In the distance, red rock formations cut through stark blue sky. It feels like walking a moon scape carved with technicolor edges.

Keenan moved to Jerome in the mid-1990s, beginning to establish vines a few years later to bottle under his Caduceus Cellars, and Merkin Vineyards labels.

Though he is known more widely for his music career with Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Keenan has dedicated his attention these last ten-plus years to helping grow the health of the Arizona wine industry. While we’re there to discuss his work in wine, he spends much of the day helping me taste the work of other Arizona winemakers, then finally helping me connect with them for interviews as well.

As we cross terraces, Keenan points out small plantings of Malvasia, Tempranillo, and Aglianico. The site was originally planted to Cabernet before it had to be pulled due to Pierce’s Disease.

Finding Inspiration Through Wine

Maynard James Keenan in Marzo VineyardMaynard James Keenan discussing AZ wine in Marzo Vineyard, Cornville, Arizona, Nov 2014

As we move through the vineyard, I ask Keenan what made him want to make wine. The conversation begins first with how he fell in love with wine.

“Everyone has that bottle of wine that opens their palate for the first time.” Keenan says. For him that bottle came in a gift from his friend, Tori Amos, a 1992 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet enjoyed alongside a steak in the mid-1990s.

Though his wine awakening came with the bottle from Amos, Keenan credits a close friend from his early 20s as preparing him to experience that moment. The friend, Keenan tells me, used to bring home wine for meals. The bottles were, in themselves, nothing special but together Keenan and his friend would do things like grill fish on the roof of a Boston apartment building, then enjoy it with wine for dinner.

The simple combination of wine with a meal established for Keenan the foundation he needed to realize the beauty of that early-1990s Silver Oak. When he tasted the Cabernet with steak, he explains, he recognized what his friend had been up to. Food and wine simply go together. Later it would prove to be Sangiovese and Bordeaux that took the experience a step further into making wine.

“It was a 1990 Soldera Reserva, and a 1982 Leoville Las Cases,” he tells me. “Those were the wines that made me want to make wine.” Soon after, he began planting the Judith Vineyard to Cabernet. Later Keenan would begin establishing other varieties.

The food and wine combination also cemented for Keenan the importance of tasting his wine with food and wine experts. “I like doing winemaker dinners,” he says. “I learn a lot about my winemaking by tasting with chefs, and somms that know what they’re doing.”

“I like approachable, ageable wines that go with food, and don’t beat me up.”

Over the last decade-plus, Keenan has been honing his approach in winemaking, and establishing the health of his vineyards. More recently he’s begun working with vineyard manager Chris Turner. The partnership clearly bolsters Keenan’s excitement for Arizona wine.

“I feel like I’m finding my way in the cellar, and finding my signature approach,” he explains. In the last few years, Keenan has honed in on using submerged cap fermentations. The technique seems to mesh well with the structural qualities of red varieties in the state giving both an intensity, and also a suppleness to the tannin. “Having Chris in the vineyard, I feel like I’m that much closer to being able to say, oh yeah, that’s who I am through the wine.”

We return to discussing the vineyard.

“I’m pretty excited about the Nebbiolo we’re growing,” he continues. “For me, my favorite bottles of wine, they’re Brunello, and then everything under that ends up being Barolo and Barbaresco. If we can get the Nebbiolo to work, I’ll feel like we won.”

What it means to win for Keenan includes surpassing what could seem like impossible odds.

Though the history of Arizona wine reaches back to 16th century Spanish monks making wine for sacrament, today’s industry remains young. Quality has been hard to predict. Many producers have relied on buying bulk wine already bottled elsewhere then labeled in state, rather than facing the challenges of winegrowing.

At the same time, a few producers have dedicated themselves to establishing quality. In recent years, their efforts have led to greater consistency found with certain wineries, and outside attention has followed.

Wines from Arizona have begun receiving recognition as more than just a novelty. Keenan’s Caduceus has won numerous awards in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Jancis Robinson showcased Arizona Stronghold while touring her book with Linda Murphy, American Wine. Jon Bonne included Arizona’s Sand Reckoner 2012 Malvasia in San Francisco Chronicles‘s “Top-100 Wines” for 2013. Just this month in Food & Wine, Ray Isle lauded Dos Cabezas Wine Works, Sand Reckoner, and Callaghan Vineyards as part of the world of wines “New America.”

That shift in perspective has come thanks to a dedicated few, Keenan included, excited by the resplendent challenges of a state with every extreme — hail, monsoons, lack of water, unbearable heat followed by freezing temperatures in the same day, intense winds, high elevation, and snow. Much of the work has rested in simply researching and testing varieties best suited to such conditions.

Growing Arizona Wine

“From 1990, when we started, until about,” Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards starts then pauses. He’s describing the trajectory of vineyard work he’s seen in the Arizona wine industry since he and his family started planting their vineyards in 1990. “Well,” he continues. “from 1990 and still, it’s just been about finding varieties that work well in the state.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Arizona’s wine industry was experiencing its first swell of growth with vineyards being established in the Southeastern portions of the state.

It was during that time one of the state’s wine pioneers, Al Buhl, purchased a 20-acre vineyard on 40-acres of land in the Elgin area. Though the site had already been planted to a mash of primarily Bordeaux varieties, Buhl’s decision to plant the remaining half to his own tastes, including both Italian and Spanish varieties would help change the state. He was the first to plant Malvasia, one of the varieties that’s brought attention to Arizona’s wines.

It was Buhl who would establish Dos Cabezas, and hire Callaghan as its first winemaker.

Callaghan’s influence too cannot be overestimated. Listening to the leaders of the Arizona wine industry, Callaghan’s name is mentioned repeatedly. Rob Hammelman of Sand Reckoner got his start doing vineyard work alongside Callaghan. Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks was inspired to start making wine after tasting one of Callaghan’s whites made for Dos Cabezas before Bostock started there. Today, Callaghan, and Bostock also pair with Keenan, and Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars to make the collaboration project, Kindred, a wine that showcased the state’s incredible structure in 2011, and its quaffability in 2012.

KindredKindred, a wine collaboration between Todd Bostock, Kent Callaghan, MJ Keenan, Tim White, Nov 2014

“The industry was small in the early 1990s,” Callaghan explains. “There was a little burst of growth when we started, and then another burst of growth in the mid-2000s. In the middle, it was pretty brutal for a while.”

What proves impressive about Callaghan’s work is not only that he started growing grapes in Arizona at a time few others did, but also that he survived the decade long economic dead zone that visited the state’s industry after his family started. In the middle, he continued to improve his winemaking.

Today, Todd Bostock owns Dos Cabezas Wineworks along with his family, and also collaborates with Dick Erath who started Cimarron Vineyard near Willcox. Erath is best known for his Erath Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon, where Bostock also made his first Pinot Noir.

Bostock stepped into winemaking in the midst of what Callaghan called the brutal period. In the early 2000s, when he started with Dos Cabezas he worked several years essentially unpaid while also commuting several hours to a day job in Phoenix.

“I would stop off in Sonoita and talk to Kent,” Bostock tells me, describing how he coped with the years of working two full-time jobs in order to step into wine.

“One time I think he gave me $40,” Bostock says laughing. “I was crying to him that I had no money. We’d talk, and trade bottles.”

Once Bostock was able to relocate full-time to winemaking, he tells me, he found alongside Callaghan a community of local winemakers that would spend time tasting and talking about wines from around the world. When I mention Bostock’s story to Callaghan he’s surprised at first, and then agrees.

“There was this core group.” Callaghan says. “People that really love wine. We were spending a lot of money on other people’s wines, and drinking it. It’s like this process of osmosis. You know when your wine is great, and when it’s not subconsciously.” He reflects for a minute.

“You know, that [winemakers tasting wines from all over the world] more than anything else has probably helped the industry improve.” Callaghan says. “That’s how you discover new varieties to try planting too.”

Nikki Check, Director of Viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center of Yavapai College in Verde Valley, emphasizes the importance of varietal choices as Arizona continues forward in wine. Check’s background rests in sustainable agriculture emphasizing soil nutrient dynamics.

“A lot of our vineyard sustainability,” she explains, “comes down to how much we can make better decisions on our varietal selections.” Varieties that are better suited to a region need less intrusive management. “Then it’s a matter of having more reasonable crop estimates,” she continues. “Because together that would then result in less water usage, less pest potential, and all those things.”

Bostock and Callaghan both are experimenting with small plantings of a wide range of varieties.

When I ask Callaghan to name a few showing well in his vineyard he immediately lists Tannat, and Graciano. They’re the newest of his plantings, but already thriving. He’s also trying Gruner Veltliner, he tells me just to see how it does.

Bostock has found Petite Sirah to be well suited to his site, as well as Rhone varieties both reds and whites. He’s experimenting now too with Picpoul Blanc.

Thanks to Keenan’s efforts, Buhl’s Vineyard is also getting revitalized with a range of both Italian and Spanish varieties.

In discussing inspiration from other people’s wines, Bostock, Callaghan, and Keenan each also mention the work being done by Ann Roncone at Lightning Ridge Cellars.

“Her new Aglianico is the best I’ve had in Arizona in quite a stretch,” Callaghan tells me.

Cresting the Wave with Quality

Maynard James Keenan, Southwest Wine CenterMaynard James Keenan discussing his acre of Negroamaro growing at the Southwest Wine Center, Nov 2014

The ground swell of quality that’s been rising in Arizona led in the last few years to establishing a two-year Viticulture and Enology degree through the Southwest Wine Center. Keenan established the first acre of vineyard, a Negroamaro block, for the Center that helped secure its status as an official program, rather than just a series of classes.

The program is also just beginning to partner with University of Arizona. With both programs already known for their work in agriculture, the partnership raises exciting questions about if they might work towards a future four-year viticulture degree.

“I think we’re at the crest of a wave where hopefully quality is taking over,” Michael Pierce, Director of Enology at the Southwest Wine Center, explains. “There is an awakening of knowledge, and [recognition of] what to do [to make quality wine].” Pierce also makes wine for his own label Saeculum Cellars, and his vineyard partnership with his father, Bodega Pierce.

After gaining winemaking experience in New Zealand, Oregon, and Tasmania, Pierce credits Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars for helping to bring him back to Arizona wine. Both White and Pierce previously worked for Arizona Stronghold before leaving for other projects. White’s work with Stronghold helped establish the quality that gained it national recognition. It was during that time, White offered Pierce a job, but it was the unique conditions of Arizona that brought Pierce back.

“There is a unique terroir here,” Pierce explains. “We get a lot of dried herbs, desert spices, the scent of palo verde in bloom. As people get a taste for it, and see quality producers are there, the attention will continue to grow both in state and out.” Palo verde is a tree common through the Southwest and unusual for its ability to photosynthesize through its bark, rather than only its leaves.

“The thing I really like about Arizona is our unique terroir,” Check, agrees. “I think it’s about low fertility soils. We get a lot of chalky, earthy tones, rather than the real fruity tones you might get elsewhere. I feel really lucky to be part of the boutique style production happening here that’s really setting the standard for quality in the state.”

Maynard James Keenan pouring JudithMaynard James Keenan playfully “somm’ing it up” as he pours Caduceus Judith, Nov 2014

Back in Keenan’s cellar Gillian Welch is playing. We’ve just tasted through some Caduceus whites, and a dry Lei Li rosé of Nebbiolo Keenan named for his wife. He’s opening now a vertical of the Caduceus Judith bottling, wine from the vineyard where we started the day, and he named for his mother.

The first vintages of Judith pour 100% Cabernet. As the vines began dying, however, Tempranillo was planted. In the middle vintages, then, Tempranillo begins to accent the Cabernet, then the roles switch and Cabernet accents the Tempranillo, until in recent vintages it disappears.

Tasting the vintages I am struck first and most by the site. I can taste the hillside we walked earlier. The fruit flavors shift with age, and as we move from the Bordeaux to Spanish variety, but more than that the site shows through. It’s a scent of chalky earth moonrock, dried herbs, and light spice, lit up from behind by the fruit of its variety.

***

This week’s article “In Defense of Natural Wine” was rescheduled to next Wednesday to allow this piece on Arizona wine.

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

1

RIP Paolo Rapuzzi

My good friend Jeremy Parzen was kind enough to let me know this morning that Paolo Rapuzzi passed on. His blog post about Paolo is here. In April 2012, several of us spent lunch and part of an afternoon with Paolo, his wife Dina, and their two sons. Paolo showered us with stories of them beginning Ronchi di Cialla, one of my favorite wineries of Italy. Then we walked the vineyards with their son Ivan, who runs things now with his brother.

Paolo and Dina together rescued indigenous Friulian varieties, some of which had been thought extinct. Most particularly, they re-discovered Schioppettino from feral vines in the hillsides along the Slovenian border. The primary clone of Schioppettino, taken from their vineyard, is named Rapuzzi in their honor. Many of the local varieties at the time were going extinct through the region largely because of the ongoing impact of wars, and the governments exclusion of them for economic regions. I could go on and on about what meeting them, and their work means to me. (If you ask my friends, I occasionally do that with them in person.) Instead, I’m going to repost Paolo’s story told to us by him during our visit that April.

originally posted April 11, 2012

Lunch at Ronchi di Cialla: Meeting the Man with whom it Began

Paolo Rapuzzi standing on Ronchi di CiallaPaolo Rapuzzi, the founder and owner of Ronchi di Cialla

“The story of the winery is very simple. I am Friulian. So, when it came time to plant, we planted the grapes of the region. The ancient varieties.

“I had been working for a very big company. But we [he and his wife] spoke. We asked, should we die as typewriter sales people? Should we live in a system we don’t like? We didn’t like having someone bossing us around. The only person that can work without a boss is a farmer. So, on January 30, 1970 we started. They talked us into buying this land.

“I am not a farmer by history of profession, and we had no land. We began looking. They talked us into buying this land. It had been abandoned for 25 years, since the end of World War II. This is only 2 kilometers from the [Slovenian] border, so life in this area was very hard during the war. When it was over the family packed up and left. The house and vineyard had been abandoned for 25 years. Inside the house was grass waist deep and badgers were living in it. But we liked it a lot because there were olive trees here. Even it was abandoned we knew it was the right place to begin our new life.

A consummate story teller, Paolo Rapuzzi“My two sons had been born already. Luckily they decided to follow my footsteps. They handle the estate now and studied farming at university and handle both the grape growing and wine making.

“When I started I had no experience. So, I had no preconceived notions in what I was doing. That is what most helped me do what I ended up doing [on the farm and with wine making]. I never studied wine making and have never had an oenologist. We wanted to make wine from here, from Cialla. Some do not agree, but the grape already has everything it needs to make wine. So, the less we try to force grapes, the more its product represents wine from the area. We are meticulously involved in the entire process from growing to wine but it is very much about what we do not do than what we do. Nature has everything it needs to make wine.

“We planted in 1970. From the beginning it has been indigenous grape varieties, native yeast, no chemical farming, low intervention wine making.”

Paolo and Ivan RapuzziPaolo and Dina’s son Ivan adds a comment: “We make truly long lived wines. All of our wines–the whites, the reds, the sweet wines–all of them age very well. That is an indication that it is from the zone. It is the land itself that makes these wines.”

Paolo continues: “When phylloxera came the farmers made a mistake. Not everyone agrees with me. They began planting foreign grape varieties. We lost over 150 indigenous grape varieties. It is an indication of how viticulture changes. Today we are getting it back. More people are dedicated to the indigenous varieties.”

Ivan comments: “Friuli is one of the places in Europe with the greatest bio-diversity. It is the intersection of the Alps, the Adriatic from the Mediterranean, and the Balkans. The Northern and Eastern Alps too come together here so you are at a real crux of the Mediterranean, with the Northern and Eastern Alps.”

Later Paolo tells a story: “In the beginning we were infested with red spiders. It was a problem. We went to a phyto-pathologist for advice. He told us, don’t do anything. If you leave the spiders another type of spider will come along and compete. So, we left the red spiders. It was a big risk. But yellow spiders came and killed the red spiders. When you use pesticides you do not just kill what you are targeting. You kill everything. But nature will balance itself if you do not do this.”

Outside Ivan walks us through the vineyards and tells us more about their low intervention views. “In Cialla, proximity to Forest is the most important. The same predators that attack vitis vinifera [grape vines] attack other species in the forest. But in the forest they have natural enemies. Nature keeps a balance. So, in being close to the forest we do not have to intervene because the same balance that is in the forest is maintained in the vineyard too.”

***

Thank you to Jeremy Parzan for translating Paolo’s story to us as he spoke.

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Paolo Rapuzzi, thank you for all you have done. Rest in peace.

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

A Visit to Noel Family Vineyards
Lisa and Michael Noel
Lisa and Michael Noel, Noel Family Vineyards, Chehalem Mountains, July 2014

We’re sitting together at the farm table looking at family photos. Michael and Lisa Noel’s oldest was married this Spring and I expressed interest in the event. They’ve kindly offered me a collection of snapshots to look through. In the album, I’m struck by the easy closeness of the now-married couple, and the sweetness of the Noel’s son. As I turn the pages I can’t help but comment on how kind he looks. In one photo he stands hugging his grandmother. It’s clear he loves her being there, and she feels comforted. When I look up, Michael is beaming. Lisa and I have gotten almost weepy, our eyes watering.

I’ve driven beyond the pavement of King’s Grade Road on the Western side of the Chehalem Mountains to visit a tiny Pinot Noir planting at the top of the hill, and meet the family behind it. The site is 3 acres, with 2 planted to 6 clones of Pinot Noir, creating what is effectively a field blend of the variety. Noel Family Vineyards relies entirely on the 2-acre site for its fruit. They source from no other growers.

Looking West from Noel Family Vineyardslooking West into Ribbon Ridge AVA from Noel Family Vineyards, July 2014

From the site, the Noel’s garner a perfect view. Facing south near the house, we look to the Dundee Hills, the first planted area of Willamette Valley. At the other side of the property, the vineyard itself slopes west. We stand firmly within the Chehalem Mountains AVA, but look towards the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and the coastal mountains that form the western boundary of the Willamette Valley. Standing in the view, a slight breeze picks up. By the time I leave, it is persistent.

Falling in Love with Wine

Noel Family Photo Album of Valpolicella, 1996a page from Michael and Lisa’s 1996 photo album, trip to Valpolicella

It was 1996 when the door opened to wine for Lisa and Michael Noel. The couple met in college at Carnegie-Mellon, eventually moving to Alabama for work. Lisa’s family, however, originates in Italy, and some still live there in Verona. The local culture of the region relies on neighborhood wineries where table wine comes from refilling the growler at your favorite cellar door.

In the midst of a visit with family, Lisa and Michael accompanied their relatives on an errand to refill the growler with Valpolicella from a local winery. Soon after arrival, however, the winemaker offered an invitation.

“Dip your glass into the vat to get some wine, he told me,” Michael explains. Michael climbed to the top of a ladder, drawing wine from the cement fermenter with his cup. “Then he asked, do you want to come inside the house?” Michael adds. He’s giddy as he describes the experience now almost twenty years old, “We weren’t even wine people at the time but were so excited to go there. I was leading the way [to the house],” he tells me smiling.

The family spent hours together tableside with the winemaker and his family enjoying wine, food, sharing stories. The experience changed their perspective. “It wasn’t even about the wine,” Michael explains. “There we were sitting in his home with him.”

The experience in Italy was a sort of first step to wine. Upon return to the United States they began exploring American wine. In the meantime, work had brought them to Oregon.

“Michael wanted to drink local,” Lisa tells me. Lisa enjoyed wine too but at first wasn’t drawn to the lighter body of Pinot Noir. She’d gotten used to the 1990s style of California Cabernet. “I wasn’t excited about Pinot Noir at first but he was persistent. So we drove around together tasting, and learning about local wines.”

Eventually the passion for learning pushed a more hands-on interest. Michael began making wine in their garage while they also started looking for affordable property they could plant to Pinot Noir. “Michael doesn’t do anything half-heartedly,” Lisa tells me smiling. By the mid-2000s the couple had found their property in the Chehalem Mountains and together cleared the land, and planted vines.

At Home in the Chehalem Mountains

Noel Family Vineyards Pinot NoirMichael unabashedly admits to liking pretty wines. In pairing with a winemaker, and vineyard manager both he sought to develop with them an expression of the beauty he sees in the place they now grow their wine. The result holds.

Noel Family Pinot are lovely wines both characteristically Chehalem while also their own — pretty, delicate with integrated, and distinctive spice elements, carrying nice tension and depth, all about red fruit, and a Northern forest aroma and flavor held in fine boned balance.

With the abundance of the 2012 vintage, Michael and winemaker Todd Hamina decided to satisfy Michael’s curiosity and work with new coopers. The result generated Noel Family’s classic Estate style Pinot Noir, alongside a special vintage bottling named, Night. Night carries a darker core, aroma and palate profile compared to the Estate, bringing in light blue and black fruit accents, with a bit more apparent tannin, and strength of presence. It’s a wine for wine lovers still finding their way into Pinot, and pairs well with stronger food flavors like truffle accents or funky cheeses.

To taste the wines, the three of us sit around the table of Michael and Lisa’s home enjoying food and family photos. They designed their table as a center piece to the home. It’s in homage, Michael explains, to their early experience in Italy. We’re surrounded on two sides by windows, some looking south to Dundee, the rest west to Ribbon Ridge. The windows were largely added to the home during renovation — the table, surrounded by windows, to be shared in appreciation for the advantages of growing local.

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For more information on Noel Family Vineyard and Wines: http://noelfamilyvineyard.com/

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Thank you to Michael and Lisa Noel.

Thank you to Jill Klein Matthiasson.

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

3

From Seashells to Vines with Mike Officer

Mike Officer taking a look at Peloursin     Mike Officer examining old vine Zinfandel from Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

The beaches of the Southern Philippines, I discover, offer some of the finest seashell hunting in the world. Mike Officer is telling me about his early desire to be a Conchologist, that is a seashell collector with a scientific basis.

Soon after my Sunday morning arrival at Carlisle Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, a mutual friend of Mike and myself has mentioned I grew up a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska. Discussion of what it means to do that sort of work launches our conversation. It winds into talk of childhood pursuits.

It turns out at the age of twelve, Officer was able to fulfill an early dream. He traveled to South Philippines and roamed those Southern beaches with a family friend, seeking unusual seashells. To make the trip Officer worked from the age of ten at odd jobs, saving all the money for his trip.

The Philippines, at the time, were under Martial law. Officer’s stories of the experience include at least one escaped car heist, and an account of a rogue sea captain taking the young but deceptively tall Officer under his wing.

The image I gain of Officer through these stories, however, proves not that of young adventurer but a man driven to collect and catalog in the midst of serious study. For a budding conchologist such study meant travel to the South Seas. At its root, Officer’s early love for seashells carries the same dedication now behind his work with old vine vineyards. For the vine lover, old vine preservation and study means life in the North Coast of California.

Launching Carlisle

Mike Officer in Carlisle VineyardMike Officer standing in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014 (I love this photo of Mike — you can see the genuine enthusiasm, and kind approachability he has here)

Officer’s love for wine showed early. He kept a wine cellar in his college dorm room.

In 1986, Officer started home winemaking. It would serve as a side project through his career as a software developer. Then, in his thirties, when Officer would suddenly realize his time was spent staring at a computer screen, it would also serve as the path away from his career and into life with vineyards.

By 1998, still working in the city full-time, Officer and his wife, Kendall Carlisle Officer, would launch their first commercial vintage of Carlisle Wines. All of Officer’s vacation, and weekends were channeled into the work it took to manage harvest and winemaking over the year.

By 2000, Carlisle Wines was producing a 1000 cases per year, the most they could manage with Officer’s day job.”We needed the money from my day job to afford the winery, but couldn’t make enough at that point to quit the day job.” Officer explains. Such an approach included five hours commute by bus between their house in Santa Rosa, and his work in the city.

In 2001, the Officers would bring in college friend Jay Maddox to help with winemaking and viticulture. The day job-winery combo otherwise proved too much. The addition of Maddox would allow Carlisle wines to slowly increase production until finally Officer was able to move full-time to wine.

Spending years on the commute, Officer describes what would be a sort of final epiphany with his day job. In the midst of a long bus ride, Officer came up with the design for what could be called, The Commuter’s Sleep, a kind of velcro head board for sleeping upright.

The idea was the commuter would wear a sort of board that extended above their back, a velcro strap would then wrap the forehead, thus holding the commuter’s head upright so he or she could sleep without suffering the problematic head-roll of sleep sitting up. The design humorously reveals the desperation that accompanies doing whatever it takes to follow life’s passion.

In 2004, soon after his design concept, however, instead of going ahead to make his own Commuter’s Sleep, Mike’s wife ran the numbers. Carlisle was finally making just enough wine for him to leave his day job.

Stepping into Old Vine Vineyards

Mike Officer next to old vine ZinfandelMike Officer next to old vine Zinfandel, Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

In 1997, having started making home wine, but not yet stepping into commercial release, Officer was biking down a private lane in Russian River Valley. He had the sense he’d like to own a vineyard someday but recognized he didn’t yet have the experience tending vines.

In the midst of the bike ride he happened upon an over grown two-acre vineyard. The site had vines grown through with blackberries, poison oak, and big trees. Big trees were the best indication of how long it had laid in rest. The site barely resembled a vineyard.

Officer decided to take a leap. He tracked down the owners and offered to renovate the vineyard for free. It was his chance to gain experience. In the midst of that first meeting, Officer explains, “I asked, by the way, what kind of vines are they? They told me old vine Zinfandel. The next spring I realized, it’s not all Zinfandel.” By 1998, Officer would discover that Two Acres proves instead to be a mixed-black Mourvedre-based planting, something not quite common in the Russian River Valley.

In 1998, the site Officer now calls Two Acres would become the first plot he would map vine-by-vine through the region. Eventually it would lead to he and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Vineyards mapping other old vine sites together as well. Today, vineyard mapping seems almost second nature for Officer. Walking a site with him he points out and names vine types as we go.

Using a simple graph paper, Officer would chart each vine by type and location. To begin, the work would depend on him researching scientific drawings of grape varieties there vineyard side. On unusual types he would send cuttings to UC Davis for identification. Officer’s work, then, would also turn out to support the work of UC Davis to build DNA-mapping for all surviving grape varieties around the globe. In this way, Officer’s early training in conchology would become his current work in ampelography, the identification and study of grapevines.

Officer’s work with Two Acres would eventually expand to work with old vine sites throughout the Piner-Olivet section of Russian River Valley. It would connect him too to others in the North Coast passionate for old vine sites.

The Historic Vineyard Society

Peloursin and Petite Sirah leavesMike Officer demonstrating Peloursin (left) and Petite Sirah differences in Carlisle Vineyard, June 2014

In discussing the vineyards he works with, Officer describes the sense of peace he feels from it. “All vine work for me is like doing bonzai. It’s almost meditative, and stress relief,” he says.

With the success of Two Acres, Officer began connecting to other old vine sites through Russian River Valley. He would catalog vines, develop the viticulture, then produce single vineyard mixed-black bottlings, most sites predominately Zinfandel. Officer’s work with the sites, however, would include personal connection to the vines survival and health.

I ask him to describe the intricacies of working specifically with old vines. “Old vine vineyards are like geriatric wards. Every vine is a patient with a unique character, and its own needs.” He tells me. “You try to sort out what the vine needs, and respond to it.”

His early work with Two Acres meant revitalizing what would otherwise be a lost vineyard, an investment into not only making wine currently, but retaining an irreplaceable link to the history of a region through vines that lived it. (The wine itself, too, proves delicious — a sleek, long lined wine with perfumed aromatics, elegant tannins, and nice cardamom spiced, rose petal fruit.)

Attachment to old vines, however, in today’s wine society proves risky. The real estate of the famed Russian River carries high value for people that can pull out lower production older vines, to plant high dollar young Pinot Noir.

Officer began losing sites to developers. Immediately after losing one of his favorite sites, Carlisle finally was talking with Twain-Peterson. The two of them, as well as Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker and vineyard scout for Turley Wine Cellars, as well as his own newer label, Sandlands, kept seeing old vine sites being lost too easily. Few people knew they existed, and even fewer understood their value in relation to the history or recognition of terroir in California. Out of frustration, and a desire to change the problem, Historic Vineyard Society was born.

Along with David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards, Larry Piggins for vineyard photography, and Mike Dildine, who helps keep the Society functioning, the Historic Vineyard Society works to catalog and register old vine sites, as well as raise awareness of their value for the sake of preserving more of them. The group also works as a sort of support group and hunting party — always on the look out for undiscovered sites, and advising each other on the best care for peculiar vines.

Carlisle Wines

Carlisle WinesFor many, of course, the ultimate point is the wine itself. For those passionate about vines, the wine simply describes an end point for a process that is the actual passion alongside the wine. Still, the love for vines means too a love for their varieties, and the wine each produces.

After tasting through a portion of Officer’s portfolio, I ask him to describe how he sees his development in wine. “I used to think let’s go for maximum flavor and aromatic presence,” he responds. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s all about texture, and how the wine feels on the palate.” We’ve tasted through a mixed-white, and a series of mixed-blacks including Two Acres’s beautiful Mourvedre.

Carlisle wines almost entirely focus on the fruit of Officer’s old vine sites, both mixed whites, and mixed blacks. It’s a discipline from vineyard to bottle that defines Carlisle. The wines offer seamless length, juicy movement with texture it makes my mouth water to write about, and ample while elegant flavor and aromatics. There is a purity to the wines that pleases.

We’re almost done with our visit. Then, in the midst of tasting, Officer mentions in passing what he calls his “one self-indulgence,” the only Gruner Veltliner planted in Sonoma County, and a small bit of younger vines he turns into wine.

The Gruner is planted at 1000-ft elevation on a site he convinced the vineyard owner to put into Gruner. They make only 100-cases, and most of it goes to Farmhouse, a restaurant in the Russian River Valley. Immediately, I am crawling out of my skin wanting to taste it. We have no bottle to try. Still, it’s another glimpse of the passion for cataloging, and work with the many varieties of grapevines that motivates Officer.

“I’m such a grape junky,” Mike tells me smiling, “I would make forty wines, if we could.” He wants to work with all of them.

***

For Carlisle Winery & Vineyards: http://www.carlislewinery.com/

For Historic Vineyard Society: http://www.historicvineyardsociety.org

Tim Fish on Carlisle Zinfandels: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/48317

***

Thank you to Mike Officer.

Thank you to Marty LaPlante.

If anyone gets their hands on a bottle of Carlisle Gruner Veltliner, please write me and tell me how it was.

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.

What follows is the unedited transcript of the conversation between Parker and 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 interview originally appeared here April 1, 2013. Because of recent events it seemed appropriate to repost it today.

***

Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre

for Annemarie, and Jeremy

Callaway_vineyard__winery-620x472

climate meter at Chateau La Barre Vineyards

It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.

My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.

His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.

Meeting the Picards

Jean-Luc_Picard_2395-620x476

inspecting the vines with Jean-Luc Picard

Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.

Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.

Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.

We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.

Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.

Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.

Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.

Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties

Jean-Luc Picard standing in his Eline Vineyard

Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.

Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.

During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.

Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.

With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir, and restart sections of his vineyard with them. It is the area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.

Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.

I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.

***

Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.

Thank you to Annemarie for suggesting the interview.

Thank you to Jeremy Parzen for having the background to hopefully get it.

Happy April 1, Everybody!

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

2

Meeting Paul Lato

In Santa Maria, Paul Lato makes vineyard designate wines — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah — from Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, and Santa Lucia Highlands. We meet to first sample his about-to-be-bottled 2012 Pinots, then enjoy his other wines over food. In the midst of our meeting, I receive a message from a friend long in the wine industry about Lato — “that guy’s cooking skills are as legendary as his winemaking.” The dinner demonstrates it. During dinner, I can’t get enough of his Chardonnays.

Lato originates in Poland during communism. He explains that while there the overwhelming passion of writer-artist Kandinsky Kosinski, who Lato was able to meet in Poland, helped inspire his willingness to leave home. After, he lived for a year in Spain, before moving to Canada. Driven by a love of food, he became a sommelier in Toronto selling the best wines from around the world.

Eventually, Lato found inspiration in the early achievements and quality of Robert Mondavi. Mondavi’s story, and wine helped spark a dream for Lato of making his own wines, leading to his move to Santa Maria, California. He arrived with almost no resources except his willingness to learn and work, and by now has created a brand celebrated by Robert Parker, Thomas Keller, and international wine lovers as well. At the hardest moments, Lato explained, he found courage in Mondavi’s philosophy that it is less important if you fail at what you try to do than it is that you go ahead and do it.

As some of you know, when a figure has a clear, and distinctive story, I prefer to let them speak for themselves. Following are portions of my conversation with Lato. This represents only a small hint at everything we were able to discuss, but gives an interesting glimpse into how Lato handled the transition of becoming a winemaker.

Becoming a Winemaker

Paul Lato

Paul Lato

“I came to Santa Maria in 2002. I was a sommelier in Toronto for 12 years, and began here [in CCWS (a custom crush facility)] as a cellar rat with a dream of making my own wine.

“In 2002, I like to say, the CCWS was the Woodstock of winemaking because of the labels that were in here making wine. Some of them don’t exist any more. But it was a bee hive in here, a happening place, with everybody making wine. I was in the best position though because there I was cleaning everything, and watching what everyone did, and I could ask all of them, why are you doing this? What are you doing? We had interns too, from Spain, Australia, New Zealand, from all over the world. They would have oenology degrees. And all I did was ask everybody questions.

“To talk to a winemaker that has been making wine for 25 or 35 years, and hear what he was doing… and to stand there and also taste, and listen to what he says, but also watch how he works… Hmm… This wine has a bit of VA and he comes in late and doesn’t clean his barrels. Or, this one tinkers his wine all the time, always adding something, and I see that. I would taste the wine, and learn what techniques.

“I started with 6 barrels, with no partners and no investors. I have 160 barrels now in this vintage. I constantly would work for the other guys. Someone would live in Fresno but have wine here and ask if I could watch it. I would say, don’t pay me, just buy me another barrel. I had about five jobs, working here, watching projects. It all added up, and then suddenly someone would buy me a new barrel or new equipment and it would build like that.

“So, now, here, essentially I have my own winery, the tanks, equipment, you see here. The way I operate, I have to have everything paid in half a year. I own everything, no leases. This is my bonded space. [We enter a cordoned off section of the CCWS space.] And back here is the kitchen space I have. [He shows me a gorgeous grill, a machine for making homemade fries, an espresso machine, and more.] Every harvest I cook for my guys every day.

We walk by the dining table of the space. Beside it hangs a photograph of a fine dining restaurant in Paris, Lapérouse.

“This is my philosophy. What we make here has to end up there (pointing to the restaurant photo). What we make here, when we take it and put it on a white table cloth environment ends up bigger there. This is a worker’s environment, it feels different here. You can forget. The picture reminds us to do our work for a wine made for that environment. I tell my guys, don’t punch down so hard. The wine is for there, not here.”

***

Thank you to Paul Lato for so generously hosting me.

Thank you to Pierre LaBarge, and Sao Anash.

***

Post edit: In my hurry to get the post up this morning I typed Kandinsky instead of Kosinski. Lato was able to meet novelist Kosinski. Please excuse the typo. Cheers!

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

1

Talking with Nicolas and Elena Catena

Our last day in Argentina we were able to spend the afternoon lunching with Nicolas and Elena Catena, of Bodega Catena Zapata. The couple helped bring Argentine wine into the International market over the last several decades, opening the door for other producers of wines from Argentina to enter the United States as well.

Catena Zapata began originally with Nicolas’s grandfather Nicola who moved to Argentina from Italy in the late 1800s. The opportunity for shifting varietal and quality focus in Argentina has greatly increased these three generations since the project began.

In taking over the company, Nicolas has been dedicated, along with his daughter Laura, to raising the focus on quality and understanding terroir. The level of influence that Nicolas Catena has carried in Argentine wine can readily be compared to that of Robert Mondavi in California. Catena in fact names Mondavi as one of his inspirations. Meeting Nicolas and Elena Catena to share in food and conversation was a genuine honor.

When talking with some people the level of experience they carry shows finely distilled through the insights they share in conversation. In such instances, I prefer to present a transcript of the conversation, rather than an article on their work–especially in a case like the Catenas, where much has been written on them already. With that in mind, following are some of the stories and insights Nicolas and Elena shared with us.

Nicolas and Elena Catena

Nicolas and Elena Catena, October 2013, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Over lunch we enjoy several wines that the group had named as favorites earlier in the trip–a 2004 Nicolas Catena Zapata Malbec, a 2001 Nicolas Catena Zapata (Bordeaux blend), and a 2009 White Bones (high elevation) Chardonnay. Sitting beside Nicolas during lunch, I turn to thank him for sharing these wines. Our conversation begins.

“We have been thinking, the wine has been so well received in the American market that we say thank you.” The conversation opens up to the rest of the table.

“With my father, there was this idea. It has been like there were two different wines [in the world], the French, and everything else. You remember the famous tasting in France when the American challenged the French. For my father, American wine winning was a shock, and also for me because my wine education came from my father. We had an inferiority complex until that moment.

So, for me, my inspiration was not Europe, but California. California in the 1970s and early 1980s, when they were trying to do wine like the French. I remember when I met Robert Mondavi he told me he was trying to do what the French do.

“I used to visit California in the 1970s. In 1980, I was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley in Economics. So, our first weekend was visiting Napa. The first winery we visited in Napa with Elena was Robert Mondavi. We went just as tourists. I was really surprised by the flavor. That started to change my perception. I was accustomed to French and Italian wines. I had never had a California wine of high quality before.

“After that I met Robert Mondavi. He was such a nice person he would answer every question. It was different than visiting France. He would tell us exactly what he did to make the wine.

“Elena and I decided to do something different in Argentina after those three years in California. Our youngest daughter, Adrianna, was born there. So, when we started this new project for Argentina for our own winery, our inspiration was California. The meaning of that was we started planting Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in Mendoza. Until that moment these varieties were only a little bit in Mendoza. The most important variety in my family [before that] was Malbec for red and Riesling for white.

“We came to the conclusion that it was about the micro-climates we were planting in to produce quality Malbec, to produce the best with French expression. So, we decided to plant in a place with lower temperatures to produce the best expression. We decided we would plant at the limit.”

The Catena’s were the first to plant at over 5000 ft elevation in the far Western portions of Mendoza at the foot of the Andes. Today the zone is recognized as producing some of the highest quality fruit for the country, and many other producers have followed suit, planting on the same plateau but East of the Catena’s vineyards.

“Everyone told me I was crazy, that the grapes would not ripen, that there would be frost. And it paid off because today we think that the best expression comes from this altitude. When we went up there and began planting, we were simply looking for lower temperatures but finally we discovered there was a factor there we had not considered–sunlight intensity.

“Such intensity [due to the change in atmosphere and decrease in UV protection at higher elevations] seems to be relevant for flavor expression of anything you plant at high elevations. At that altitude, the radiation, the UV-B, seems to be really high and deepening flavor expression. We are in the process of discovering how this works. What I can say is that wines coming from this place are really different in this micro-climate from temperature, radiation, and elevation, and they should be different.”

Nicolas and Elena’s daughter, Laura Catena, helped instigate an elevation and UV-index study looking at the impact of UV intensity differences on grape development, and variety. The winery now supports a research institute also in partnership with UC Davis looking specifically at Malbec. I will write more about Laura’s work, and the research institute in a future post.
Elena Catena

Each of us in the group are asked to speak to our last day in Argentina, what we have learned and what we have seen. Mary Gorman-McAdams MW speaks of the light, and landscape of Mendoza, Argentina. “The light reflecting in the Andes, in the snow, that purity, that freshness, now I know that is what I am tasting in the glass. The altitude is such an important part of the terroir here.” She explains. “It plays such a role in the longevity, the complexity of the wines.”

Nicolas smiles and responds. “Thank you for your comments. Yes.” Some of the other comments have considered success and work ethic. Nicolas speaks again. “For me, the most important factor influencing success is luck. Niccolo Machiavelli said, success can be explained half by luck, half by virtue. Virtue for Machiavelli means the capacity to do a lot very efficiently. Joe Gallo responded, ‘I disagree with Machiavelli–luck is 80%.’ At this moment, I think maybe, I agree with Joe Gallo. Luck is a very important factor. Today, right now, I have decided. I agree with him.”

Mary responds, “I would think a person would have to position themselves to take advantage of their luck.”

Nicolas pauses for a moment, then responds. “I received really the education, the culture of an Italian family. I started working at the winery, and I had to work from the age of seven. I took care of the chickens, and a rabbit at first.”

From across the way Elena hears this and nods. “Yes, he grew his own.”

Nicolas continues, “It was an obligation. I had to do it. After going to school in the afternoon I had particular tasks I had to do. By eleven years old I did everything at the winery. That was the Italian education, the culture it brought to Argentina. The working culture.

Elena responds. “Recently we went to Piemonte, staying in an agriturismo [housing at a winery]. We were impressed by the working culture. They told us that due to the economic crisis there they have gone back to the old ways. They have many generations living together. They made us dinner one night. You walk into that humble house and you have a professional kitchen, making pasta by hand for the whole house. There was grandfather with the baby, and a whole lot of generations, and each one doing an aspect of the over all job.”

Nicolas Catena

The speeches continue. Some are emotional. I speak of my family in Alaska, and the intensive work ethic they have. I explain that whatever I do I give thanks to my family, and that I see the Catena’s incredible work ethic, and how they honor their previous generations too.

After the speeches, Elena responds briefly to say thank you for what we shared. “If a person does not drink wine, you cannot trust them because if you drink wine, you may show your heart.” She tells us smiling.

People begin talking in smaller groups. Nicolas and I speak together first about my childhood commercial fishing in Alaska. Remarkably, they have a friend from Alaska living in Buenos Aires. He thanks me for telling him about my family. I ask him about his.

“I received an education very much like you describe.” Nicolas is referring to my growing up commercial fishing from the age of nine. As he continues, he reflects on his own childhood work, commenting on the challenge of it frankly, but not begrudgingly. “Still to this day I cannot answer why I had to work so hard. My family had money but I had to learn the work of 80 people. I learned the work of everything in the vineyard and the winery.”

He then responds to my comment about thanks and family relationships by reflecting on his own. “Originally, I was very young, my vocation was to study theoretical physics. I would have left the country to go further in physics. It is very close to philosophy, dealing with ideas. Then my mother died in a car accident and for my father it was very hard. I decided to stay with him. So, my vocation became economics, but mathematical economics, which is very abstract. I have no regrets because that is life.

“I meant what I said about luck and Niccolo Machiavelli, not just as an idea, as a practical reality too. That’s life. Growing up I had to study the intellectual in the morning at school, and the practical in the afternoon at the winery and vineyard. Also, I think, we do things for the love of our parents. It is like this. We do something important also to make our father happy.”

***

Thank you to Nicolas and Elena Catena.

Thank you to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Tasting Place with Mac Forbes

Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Australia

Mike Bennie and Mac Forbes, in the Woori Yallock Vineyard, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, February 2013

It’s February the first time Mac Forbes and I meet. Wine writer Mike Bennie has generously included me on a trip around Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, and we’re spending the second half of a day with Forbes, and his vineyard partner, Dylan Grigg.

We focus the visit on a favorite site of Grigg and Forbes in the Woori Yallock area walking a South facing slope to see the changes of Pinot at various parts of the hill. They’ve worked with the site for several years now. Forbes tells me when they started, the deep siltstone soils created grapes so tannic the fruit couldn’t stand up to the structure. The vines now reach around twenty years old and their expression has seemed to find itself — the fruit-tannin balance gives more easily. Later, we taste several vintages of the wine. It carries a lithe tension and energy that renews my previously challenged faith in Pinot Noir.

Departing from Australia, Forbes’ wines keep returning to mind so I decide to contact him. After several re-tastings, and emails back and forth, we’re able finally to talk in early November on, what I find out later, is Forbes birthday. He’s just returning from a visit to Austria, where he spent several years as a winemaking and vineyard consultant. The trip allowed him time with long-term friends.

When I ask Forbes how his Australian winter has been, he surprises me. “Since I’ve seen you I feel like I’ve grown enormously in a humbling way,” he responds. Forbes’ wines are already well-regarded among his winemaking peers, and his experience with heritage wineries in Australia, Dirk Niepoort in Portugal, and consulting in Austria, are impressive, not to mention harvest work through France and elsewhere. I ask Forbes to explain. Eventually, his answer humbles me.

The Vineyard as an Educative Force
Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes, February 2013

Forbes begins speaking about his vineyard sites, all (small) sections of land with unique soil conditions throughout the Yarra Valley. He describes a previously abandoned collection of vines in the Wesburn region that was almost pulled until the current owner asked if Forbes and Grigg wanted to try and restore it. The project demanded several years of wrestling blackberry bushes, and tackling trees before it gave any grapes, that first fruit mainly various whites. More recently they were also able to make Pinot.

I ask Forbes what about his vineyards challenged his way of thinking. “Wesburn definitely precipitated this school of thought evolving,” he tells me. “The big thing that dawned on me in the last twelve months,” he starts, then pauses, and starts again. “So much of what I was doing has been to be outcome focused, yet I was committed to making wines of place.”

Winemakers around the world recite these days how they make wines focused on site expression. Many such examples, however, are winemakers with little contact with the site itself, simply buying fruit at the end of the season. Considering what little interaction with a location such a model affords, how they could be making terroir driven wines remains unclear. Recognizing something more in Forbes’ claim, I push him to explain. Instead of naming site features, he describes the vineyard itself as an educative force.

Looking at his example, Forbes makes wine from the Wesburn site (among others), but perhaps more importantly, he works with other winemakers that also purchase fruit from he and Grigg. The community that’s arisen from the experience has changed him.

“Wesburn fruit has a unique structure totally at odds with other sites we’ve got,” he explains. “It’s quite humbling to watch. People put on a hat ready to taste Pinot, then something else happens.” The collection of winemakers that work with Wesburn fruit come from varied schools of thought. One is more inclined towards conventional uses of apparent oak, and sulfur regimes. Another tends to push on reducing (or eliminating) sulfur additions while increasing skin contact. Over a few years, however, winemaking from Wesburn fruit put in sharp relief for all of them the impact of technique.

Listening for the Voice of a Site

In circling around our discussion, Forbes speaks about the difference between what he quickly calls a shy versus a dull site. He means the names more descriptively than critically. A dull site, as he understands it, might give quality fruit but will readily take up whatever winemaking technique you ascribe to it. The fruit itself is dull when compared to the winemaking, which shows up more in comparison.

“A shy site,” on the other hand, “might just need some space to shine.” A shy vineyard, then, could have sophisticated character but need the room to show what it has without being suffocated. Such a subtle distinction emphasizes the need for a winemaker to listen.

In offering the example, what Forbes wants to discuss is how the contrast changes the attention from outcome to place. When a winemaker’s focus is on listening, he or she has turned away from an outcome question that could otherwise seem as basic as what kind of wine to make–Pinot, for example–instead to asking how he or she will make the wine. In working with vineyards in the Yarra Valley, “I used to be looking for Pinot sites. Now I’m looking for great sites. Variety has to factor in, but it is secondary,” he says.

Education from the vineyard turns the attention away from the goal of a particular wine style or type, to the process of how to approach it, driven by what the site itself needs or wants. “Making wine in relation to benchmark examples of wine,” like Burgundy for Pinot Noir, for example, Forbes explains, “can make lovely wine, but likely suffocates the fruit a little bit.” That is, with such an approach, your attention is focused on somewhere, or something else, rather than the grapes you have.

When dealing with a shy site, “you end up having to ask how to best capture the character of the vineyard and help it come to the surface,” he tells me. “With Wesburn, we were confronted with the edge of going too far in technique.” Part of what is remarkable about the example is that it brought winemaker’s with hugely different philosophies on winemaking much closer in understanding. “This site brought people together, beyond being dogmatic, to a more similar place in approach. We all found the site wanted less sulfur, and less skin contact both. It’s been fascinating to watch.”

Fascinated by Wesburn

Forbes 2012 Pinots

Tasting early release samples with Forbes

Fascinated, by Forbes point, I ask him to talk through details. The vines at Wesburn were originally planted in 1981. The site rides the edge of potential for the Yarra Valley, as one of the team’s most expensive to run, giving incredibly low vigor from compacted mudstone and clay. Five years ago, Forbes planted Blaufrankisch believing the variety would suit the characteristics of the area. It has still to produce fruit for wine. Everything moves slowly at Wesburn. There is, in other words, low incentive for growing in the location but Forbes sees something valuable and so persists.

Moving slowly “is part of the site. It doesn’t help to push it,” Forbes explains. Trying to rush the vines won’t actually grow the fruit faster. The Pinot Noir of Wesburn, even from established vines, also took time to come back from neglect he reminds me. “I believed it would get there. I didn’t realize it would take so long.” The site is unique in Yarra Valley, protected from hot North winds blowing down from the desert, and as far East as one can go in the Yarra. It receives long morning shade, and cool air, so it shows a very specific side of the Valley. It’s the specificity of the site that has Forbes engaged.

Forbes History with the Yarra Valley

Dedicated to winemaking, Forbes spent years working in wine internationally. In 2004, however, he spent a summer with Dirk Niepoort studying vineyard sites first in Portugal, then in Austria. As Forbes explains, Niepoort tends towards vineyards other winemakers overlook as too barren, or neglected for production. The wines Niepoort makes, however, are vibrantly expressive and elegant. The experience with Niepoort made Forbes reconsider the potential of his home region.

What Yarra Valley has in abundance is ready fruit assertion. By trusting the region will give fruit character, winemakers can turn away from concerns of ripeness to search instead for what will make that fruit interesting. For Forbes, the focus falls on texture, and site expression.

After his experience with Niepoort, then, Forbes returned to Yarra Valley with a thirst for studying sub-regionality, to explore the unique, and multiple voices of the Yarra Valley. “If I am going to stay in this caper, it’s got to be to get to know what is unique about our little patch of dirt,” he explains. “If you can’t find out what is unique about your dirt, then why are you doing it?” Forbes asks. It is in this question that the humility Forbes exudes becomes clear.

Mac Forbes winemaking project is not about fulfilling or showcasing his own goals in wine as much as it is based in trying to find (with his winemaking community too) a voice that is bigger than his own to contribute to. Forbes’ wines do renew my faith in Pinot Noir, but interestingly they shed light on the grape itself less than they do the character of the Yarra Valley, and what it means to make wines of place.

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Thank you to Mac Forbes.

Thank you to Mike Bennie, Jay Latham, and Lisa McGovern.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

In summer 2012, I was able to meet Jacques Lardière during the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Willamette Valley. As part of the event program, Lardière presented, alongside Alder Yarrow, a retrospective of his work with Maison Louis Jadot. The primary focus of the tasting, however, turned out not to be the wines themselves as much as Lardière’s vivid, while difficult, views on biodynamics.

His talk was intensely challenging. Having studied biodynamics, and specialized too in metaphysics in philosophy, I was asked by several people to outline what I thought Lardière was saying. The following post is my response to that request.

This post originally appeared here on July 28, 2012 as part of a series on IPNC.

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Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this write-up in the July 31, 2012 edition of The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading.”

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Meeting Jacques Lardiere, Understanding Biodynamics

“We never have the same number of wines every year. Some vintages are less. We reduce the amounts to focus only on the very good villages. We think for our customers to have only the best.” –Jacques Lardière, Maison Louis Jadot

Yesterday afforded the opportunity to listen to Jacques Lardière discuss his philosophy of wine making, as it connects to an entire system of understanding about the differences between Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village wines, via the metaphysical forces Lardière recognizes through biodynamic principles. Following is my understanding of Lardière’s discussion.

Jacques Lardiere

“On a good vintage, you work less because it matches you. It matches your stomach, it matches you.” –Jacques Lardière

Lardière explains that at Maison Louis Jadot the goal is to focus on a broad range of areas within Burgundy. The focus includes varying places to grow grapes and make wine from as a way to both support the house financially, but also to understand the life of the vine, and making of the wine from different locations. Towards these ends, then, Jadot depends upon two levels of wine making practices. First, the house farm harvests and makes wine from their own land in Burgundy. Second, however, and Lardière emphasizes the importance of this, they also have contracts with vineyards throughout the region.

As Lardière explains, Grand Cru and Premier Cru are very small portions of the area. Besides making these more developed styles of wine, he states that it is important also to “make simple wine.” One of the primary reasons includes that in being able to sell it quickly for more immediate consumption, you can support the financial base of the winery. But the reasons are greater. The other sites also offer, what for Lardière is not just a learning experience but also a spiritual opportunity. As he puts it, “we can work on it. It can reveal the mother form.”

Repetition of the word power is at the center of Lardière’s discussion of what wine can do, and where it comes from. In considering where the distinctions between Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, etc levels of wine distinction arise, Lardière describes what he calls “lines of power” present throughout the planet. The lines of power seem to fall along geologically important intersection zones, sometimes volcanic, sometimes from tectonic plates rubbing together, or from other forms of land movement and development.

As Lardière explains, in such activities the rocks warm, and more mineral molecules are released, thereby being available to the plants in a fuller way. But he says too that there is a sense in which people can feel these lines of power. As he describes it, there are times when you may be walking along a line of power feel its benefit, then as you walk away the positive effect becomes less and less, as you go back, more and more until you are on top of it, like an energetic version of the children’s game Hot/Cold/Warmer.

Jacques Lardiere

In Lardière’s view, the Grand Cru sites are directly along these lines of power. The vines are able to work less along these zones to simply receive the benefits of this energetic line, and thereby produce wine that has less undesirable flavor or sediment. But in Lardière’s view the flavor potentials of Grand Cru wine should not be seen as held only at that high level of quality. Instead, his approach to making wine is to study how Grand Cru wine best shows its potential, and from that insight to then turn to less elevated classes of wine. “We start by understanding the top, and then go to the other ones to work with them.” He explains.

In describing how Grand Cru can reveal the potential of other classes of wine, Lardière first describes his view of what impacts a wine’s potential. The place is the first most important aspect of what goes into the wine, as Lardière understands it. But what he also knows is that Burgundy itself is one terroir.

The region as a whole offers a similar sense of place. The different villages within Burgundy all live within this terroir, this unique place, but then offer their own differing potentials for aging. The Village is a fine tuning of the terroir as a whole. Then, third, there is the climate that impacts the quality of the wine from year to year. Finally, there are the Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites, which are the most subtle shifts in the development, and potential of the wine.

What happens in the growth of the vine, as Lardière describes it, is the movement of molecules from the ground, up into the plant, and finally out in the flowering. All of life is vibration, he says, as we know from physics. Vibration is how the plants grow, how they exist, what they are, how we receive from them, and what we are, as well.

“If you plant the flower, you move the star,” quoting an unreferenced poet to illustrate. The ground, as we know, is full of minerals, but in planting we release the minerality (which Lardière continually references as the power itself). Minerals, Lardière explains, are the life. The quality of the mineral that the plant is able to receive and grow from is what determines how much life the wine will have–both in terms of age-ability in the bottle, and in terms of how well the wine does after the bottle is opened. This is a distinction to be found between the wines of the Grand Cru, and those Village wines, but it is also an insight that can be taken in the handling of making Village wines.

The Grand Cru sites, according to Lardière, “match” the plants better. They simply receive what they need, and so grow with this life. Then, the wine, in turn, matches us, as humans, and we receive what we need too. Wine, in general, he reminds us, has medicinal properties. When he was growing up, he says, if a child fell and hurt themselves the parents would give them a small glass of wine. This is true of all wines, but Grand Cru helps us to better recognize it, and so then to know how to make all wines better.

As Lardière describes, it used to be that people only planted in the right places, where plants were best served by the ground. But now people plant in zones that offer not only the purer power of the minerals but also in places where the plants take up aspects that are not healthy for them or for us. What is absorbed in these areas is a denser matter that weighs the expression of the wine down in the glass. What you taste is more of a heaviness, rather than the freedom of the wine. Here one must allow the wine more time before it can be ready to show what it has to offer and, as he puts it, to release the life–the most beautiful wine.

The flavors and quality possible from a wine are the life, according to Lardière. Not all wine is treated in a way that allows this life to be released. It is easier, as he says, to make a wine that has only a couple hundred flavoral components, rather than to take the risk of allowing a wine to have four thousand.

It takes time “for the molecules in the wine to be digested, to become mature and deliver the life” of the wine. But to give the wine this time is a genuine risk. To allow it to happen depends on letting the wine close in the barrel, to turn in on itself and hide, in a way. In letting the wine close down, it has the opportunity to work through what is in it and to release the sediment that is denser and not part of the pure expression of what the wine can be. In giving the wine time to work on itself, so to speak, you are taking the risk of having to wait, of losing the wine for a time without knowledge of what it will be when it comes back after. But it will come back, Lardière claims, it will come back having found its freedom by releasing the sediment that had weighed it down. The wine’s freedom is its fuller expression–its life with four thousand flavors.

Jacques Lardiere

The process of allowing the wine to transform itself reveals to us, Lardière says, important aspects of our own mortality, and potential. We are almost entirely minerals. “When I pass away” he says, “I will be only minerals, (laughing) oh, and a few other small things. It is important to remember that.” The wine making, it is “a process of transmutation, and it could also be a process of transfiguration,” when you allow it the time to find its freedom and its full expression.

The process of the ground growing the vines, the vines then giving the fruit, the fruit then turning into wine–these are all processes of transformation, of one thing turning into something else. But our own involvement in wine making is actually a kind of spiritual training for us as well. In the earliest stages of our spiritual development we are there as the grapes turn in to wine. In this moment, Lardière tells us, “you forget the grapes.” They are no longer there as fruit, we recognize them now as wine. But this is no small thing, he says.

In forgetting the grapes, “you become something that has a name.” We recognize the beverage in front of us as a particular type of thing. But our doing so also reflects a stage of our identifying the world around us, and so too ourselves. We are no longer just beings having experiences, we are also interpreting the world around us, that is, naming those experiences. But, this, according to Lardière, is an early stage in our development. It is necessary, but we come to see it is early in our own process of finding our own freedom.

Wine, when allowed to truly go through its process of closing down, so that it can come back later opened up again in its fuller expression, points us to the greater reality of our lives. When the wine is given the opportunity to go through its full process it comes back from its stage of closing down, and has changed its molecules–sediment has settled out, and above it is a purer wine.

In Lardière’s view this is when the wine is beginning to deliver its power, and to give the life. It has become something more than we could make. We began the process but to be witness to this greater expression, we had to, in a sense, let the wine go beyond us. In doing so, the wine comes back to show us the insight of the process–it becomes something greater than merely what we have named it to be. It becomes a thing that can out live us, and that carries with it a power that extends beyond whether we, as the wine maker, or any particular individual, are even present. In Lardière’s view, this is when the wine has become even more than us.

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Thank you to Alder Yarrow for hosting Lardière’s presentation.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com