Category A Life in Wine

A Visit to Haute-Saône, France: Drinking wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre

This interview originally appeared here April 1, 2013. Because of recent events it seemed appropriate to repost it today.

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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.

Living Courage: Paul Lato Wines

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.”

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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

Listening to Nicolas and Elena Catena, Catena Zapata Wines

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

Variety, Place, Technique, A Life in Wine: Mac Forbes, Yarra Valley, Australia

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.

***
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.

Jacques Lardiere: A Life in Wine (and life in wine)

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.

***

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

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

A Life in Wine: Alfredo Bartholomaus, South American Wine Ambassador

Listening to Alfredo Bartholomaus

Alfredo Bartholomaus

Alfredo Bartholomaus, in Santiago’s Mercado Central

On our recent trip to Chile and Argentina, Alfredo Bartholomaus served as a guide and translator. His work bringing South American wines into the United States helped establish what was then a non-existent category of wine, and bring recognition to what would become not only value, but also quality wine in Chile and Argentina. Thanks to such work, Robert Parker awarded Bartholomaus “Wine Personality of the Year” in 2005, naming him “the premier importer and promoter of South American wine.”

His company, Billington Imports served as one of the primary vehicles for bringing South American wine into the United States, and launched such well respected labels as Catena Zapata into a new North American market.

Bartholomaus originates on a family farm in Southern Chile, at a time when interactions between Chile and its neighbor Argentina were minimal. His work, then, helping to establish not only Chilean, but also Argentine wine in the United States is significant.

Elena Catena, of Catena Zapata, described trusting Bartholomaus with their brand in the US market as a risk that paid off. As Elena explains it, asking a Chilean to showcase Argentine wine was unheard of at the time. However, she tells us, Nicolas Catena knew Bartholomaus was the best choice.

Throughout Argentina people greeted Bartholomaus with thanks, explaining to our group he had been their mentor. In working with brands in South America, Bartholomaus also worked to help them better understand the United States.

Operating as ambassador for South American wine in North America, however, placed Bartholomaus as a mentor for people in the US wine industry as well, with him serving as bridge to understanding wines from a then-new region to the global market.

After the closure of Billington, Bartholomaus moved with portions of his portfolio to WineBow, where he has continued to serve as a Brand Ambassador for South American wines.

At the end of this year, Bartholomaus retires. He intends to split time between his home on the coast in Northern Chile, and his home in Virginia near one of his two sons, and grandchildren.

The recent trip to South America was planned partially as a special finale for Bartholomaus. It was an honor to be selected as one of people to participate. Thank you to Marilyn Krieger, and David Greenberg for including me.

Asking Bartholomaus to share his story, following is some of what he had to say.

Alfredo Bartholomaus with Viviana Navarrete, Leyda Wine

on the coast of Chile, in the Leyda region, Alfredo Bartholomaus speaking with Leyda winemaker, Viviana Navarrete

“I knew at one time I wanted to leave Chile. I was curious. But I knew that I had to finish high school. So, I befriended the Chilotes [people in Southern Chile on the Chiloe Peninsula]. They would fish with a boat through the inside passage. That way I learned more about other people. But I wanted to learn more. So I started hitchhiking all over Chile. I was very young. In high school.

“I wanted to leave Chile, but I was one of five children, and knew my parents would not afford to send me to school, or away. I started hitchhiking when I was young to get myself used to it. Then one day I started hitchhiking North, and that’s how I got to the United States. It took six months.

“That was 50 years ago, 1 or 2 months before the march of Martin Luther King, Jr. If someday he would only know we would have a black president.

“My original plan was to travel the world for five years. But since I couldn’t hitchhike to Europe, I started washing dishes when I reached the United States, in DC. By the time I had enough money to go, I realized the incredible opportunities available in the States and decided to stay.

“For a while I was a taxi driver in DC. I was the only one that would pick up Black people and Hispanic people. There was a lot of prejudice. This was almost 50 years ago. But you must remember I didn’t know I was white until I got to the United States. It is different here [in Chile].

“I had a teacher of literature in high school who told us we should read because when someone has written a book it has taken them most of their life to write it. So, if you read a book, you will know almost as much as they do. I read as much as I can.

“When I got to the United States, I worked to raise money to go to Europe and hitchhike there. But I read Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and had to ask myself who do I want to be? I realized I didn’t want to turn into Goldmund, looking in the mirror to ask, what have I done with my life?

“I had a girlfriend in Chile when I left, so after two years I had raised money and I came back [to Chile and brought her back to the States], and she is the mother of my children.

“Then I worked in hotels for a while, and in 1978 started my first of several businesses. Eventually I started selling wine from here person to person out of the trunk of my car. And, as Paul Harvey say, now you know the rest of the story.”

***
Thank you to Alfredo Bartholomaus.

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

Harvest in Montalcino: A Life in Wine: Talking with Massimo Ricco, Il Poggione Agronomist

Harvest at Il Poggione

In visiting harvest of the Sangiovese for Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino at Il Poggione, we were able to speak with both Fabrizio Bindocci, the General Manager and Winemaker of Il Poggione, as well as the President of the Brunello Consortium. We were also able to speak with his son Alessandro Bindocci, winemaker at Il Poggione–he and his father work together.

Along with Francesca Bindocci (Alessandro’s sister, Fabrizio’s daughter) the Bindocci’s are part of a multi-generational family that has worked at Il Poggione since Fabrizio’s grandfather began in the farm and vineyards.

Fabrizio and Alessandro explained they are able to maintain hand’s on work of the large property (none of the vineyard work is mechanized) by keeping 75 full time employees, and working closely with two vineyard team leaders that survey the overall health of the property and work with the other agricultural employees.

We asked if we could also speak with one of the team leaders, Massimo Ricco. The following was translated from Italian by Alessandro.

It was quite a pleasure talking with Massimo, to hear more about his life and work, but also partially because he seemed surprised by our interest in him. He and Fabrizio laughed with each other off and on throughout the interview. Massimo was willing to give us time but also seemed eager to get back to work.

Harvest in Montalcino: Meeting Massimo Ricco

Massimo Ricco

Massimo Ricco, Agronomist and Manager, Il Poggione

“I have been in the vines at Il Poggione for 2 years and 4 months. I was working for other properties, consulting for other properties in different regions before coming here. In Tuscany, and also in Umbria.

“I am a manager of the other vineyard workers. I am an agronomist. I check the vineyards, the health and state of the vineyard. When it is not harvest, I organize different work for the cultivation of the vines and olive trees. I like this sort of work but in the winter there is not enough work to do. I like healthy vineyards and making good looking fruit. It is the best satisfaction.

“I was born in Latina, near Rome, and grew up in Perugia. My wife also lives and works here. She works in the vineyard.”

Fabrizio nods and smiles saying, “Yes, they were a double purchase.”

Massimo nods and laughs. I ask him what work his parents do. “My father is a worker in chemical industries. My mother is a housewife.”

I ask how Massimo came to Il Poggione. Fabrizio laughs, “I found Massimo on my crystal ball. I was looking for a professional level collaborator. So I made many phone calls and Massimo came up. He was consulting for other wineries in Tuscany and Umbria at the same time.”

Massimo nods. I ask him how he likes working for one vineyard now instead of many in two regions. “I like working with one vineyard instead of many very much. There are less kilometers on the car.” He laughs. “The difference working one vineyard is positive. The advantage of a single property is to be there and follow the whole production life of the vine.

“The foundation of the work I got from the agricultural university in Perugia. For 3 years after, I worked for a company that built wineries. Then, I began consulting on vineyards and olive trees.

“The growing of the olive trees is quite simple compared to the vineyard. The trees demand less time. The most important thing for the olive trees is the pruning.”

harvesting Sangiovese

In Tuscany many properties inter-plant alternating rows of olive trees and grape vines. The temperatures are warm enough to ripen olives in the region so most properties have both plants. Il Poggione has one vineyard block with alternating rows, and other areas of the property where the plants grow on their own. Alessandro explained that in a bad frost one winter the trees in the inter-planted vineyard were the only to survive. Il Poggione produces, and bottles its own olive oil.

***

Thank you to Massimo Ricco. Thank you to Fabrizio, and Alessandro Bindocci.

Thank you to Megan Murphy. Thank you to Cathy Huyghe.

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

A Life in Wine: Stu and Charles Smith, Smith-Madrone

Thank you to Eric Asimov for recommending this post in the Friday, June 21, 2013 edition of The New York Times Diner’s Journal “What We’re Reading.”

***

The History of Smith-Madrone

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, April 2013

Smith-Madrone began on a Santa Monica beach at the end of the 1960s, where two brothers, Charles and Stu Smith, grew up. It was a time when an otherwise middle class family could afford vineyard land in Napa Valley, and start a winery fresh becoming owners that produce their own wine, a phenomenon rare in the region today.

Stu Smith worked as a summer lifeguard while completing a degree in Economics at SF State. His brother, Charles, earned his undergraduate at the same institution with a focus on English Literature, also taking a lot of Philosophy classes.

In the midst of his undergrad, Stu developed the idea of studying viticulture, and buying land in the Napa Valley to grow wine. While defending swimmers, he got to know a beach regular that expressed interest in the vineyard idea, offering to help with the purchase. Though the man ultimately had no connection to the future of Smith-Madrone, never paying for any property, the suggestion of a potential investor gave Smith the gumption to move north and begin looking.

In Fall of 1970, then, Stu Smith began the Masters program at UC Davis, while also seriously looking for land. Charles had an interest in wine as well, and so began commuting to Davis, sitting in on Stu’s courses. Though Charles was never enrolled in the program, he completed a portion of the training alongside his brother.

Spring Mountain was largely undeveloped in the early 1970s. As Stu describes it, the hillside was covered in trees, mainly Douglas Fir at least 2 1/2 feet in diameter. “The land was completely over grown, but it had lots of good aspects for sun, and obviously had good soils.” Stony Hill Winery had established itself a little down the mountain from what is now Smith-Madrone, so he had a sense the region could support vines. Then, while hiking the forested property he looked down and found old grape stakes there on the forest floor. The hill had once been planted to vineyard. Though the original investor fell through, in 1971, Stu gathered support from a small group of family and friends to purchase and start what would become 38 vineyard acres.

Cook's Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone

2007 Cook’s Flat Reserve, Smith-Madrone’s inaugural reserve wine

The brothers now know their hillside property had been planted entirely in vines in the 1880s. The original deed, signed under then president Chester A. Arthur, establishes George Cook as owner on December 5, 1884. Prohibition would later end the life of the Cook Vineyard, but on December 5, 1933, the anniversary of Cook’s purchase, the Volstead Act would overturn Prohibition. In the midst of Prohibition, however, the property returned to forest until Smith-Madrone began. Though Stu instigated the project, thanks to its size and mutual interest, Charles became part of it within a year. Today, as the brothers describe, Stu manages everything outside, while Charles takes care of everything inside. The two are the sole full-time employees of their 5000 case winery.

Touring the 1200-2000 ft elevation site, the landscape reads as a history of Stu’s genuine curiosity and drive for experimentation. Its hillsides weave a range of planting styles, and rows at differing angles to sun. Asking Stu to talk me through the changes, we begin at one corner where own-rooted Chardonnay planted in 1972 has just been pulled. “In the early 1970s,” he explains, “heat treated, certified virus free plants were just coming out. We had the opportunity to get the certified vines, but we couldn’t get appropriate rootstock so we planted on own roots. We brought in non-vineyard equipment [to lessen the chance of phylloxera], and we got 40 years out of those vines.”

Moving across the different plots, Stu shares a history of viticultural knowledge. The age of the vines matches the viticultural insights of their birth year expressed through their planting style. Between plots, vines change spacing, and height, training styles, and angle to sun, all in an attempt to learn what best suits the needs of the site. After traveling the 40 years of site development, we go inside to Charles for lunch and wine.

Smith-Madrone’s Evolution in Wine

Charles Smith

Charles Smith tasting a 1983 Smith-Madrone Riesling

We turn to discussion of Smith-Madrone’s wine history from its first vintage in 1977. Today they are known for Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon but they have played with their winemaking. From 1977 to 1985 Smith-Madrone also produced Pinot Noir. “The best wines we ever made were Pinot Noir.” Charles tells me, “but the worst wines we ever made were too. Our 1980 was one of the best Pinots ever made in the United States. We just couldn’t do it again.” The grape is often referred to as a heart breaker for the challenges presented in vineyard. Finally, the brothers decided to pull their Pinot and focus on the other grapes instead.

Stu nods. “The reason we did it was to experiment. We wanted to try making Pinot Noir. If you only ever do the same thing, you get stuck in a rut, and don’t improve.” What is consistent in Smith-Madrone is the intention Stu calls “get the best of the vintage into bottle.” Their focus is less on style and more on responding to the conditions given that year.

In their view, it is Chardonnay that most readily shows the effects of such an approach. The structure and flavors shift year to year, from the ultra fresh, citrus and saline presence of the 2010, to the slightly more candied, chalky, lean-lined body of the 2011, as examples.

Charles clarifies further, “we do pay attention to style on Riesling because style in Riesling is largely determined by sugar level.” Smith-Madrone makes theirs dry. “You can’t bounce around on sugar level with Riesling or no one knows what you’re making.” Even within their dry Riesling, however, the brothers have explored the best approach. A particularly busy vintage in 1984 led to their Riesling getting left overnight on skins. “It was a blistering hot harvest,” Charles explains. “We just kept processing grapes like crazy, just the two of us. If we told our harvest guys to leave, we didn’t know when we’d get them back so we just kept going. We did 127 hours in one week, the entire harvest in one week.” As a result, they simply couldn’t process all the fruit fast enough, and some Riesling got left overnight in the bin. After vinification they liked the increased aromatics and mouthfeel of the wine, and stuck to the practice through the rest of the 1980s. However, after about 8 years they realized something.

Excited by the conversation Charles has run downstairs to grab a 1985 Smith-Madrone Riesling so we can see how it’s drinking. Stu continues to tell the story. “We did overnight skin contact on our Riesling from the mid-80s. The flavor held up well with age but the color changed after 8 years or so. The wine turned orange.” When Charles arrives again with the bottle I’m thrilled to see its darker color and can’t wait to taste it but Stu is unimpressed. The wine tastes wonderful, a fresh juicy palate with concentrated while clean flavors, drinking far younger than its 18 years. Charles and I are agreeing on the virtues of Riesling and its ability to go on forever while Stu is still facing his discomfort with the color. “If I close my eyes and pretend it isn’t orange than I agree it’s a good wine,” he finally tells us.

lunch with Charles and Stu

part of the aftermath of our lunch together

After 41 years of winemaking, to inaugurate the anniversary of the original Cook’s purchase, and the repeal of Prohibition, the Smith brothers released their first Reserve wine on December 5, 2012. We’re drinking the first Cook’s Flat Reserve vintage, the 2007, along side its sister 2009.

In 2008, smoke from wildfires in Mendocino settled into the valley North of Spring Mountain and covered the grapes in smoke taint. Going straight to press, the whites were unaffected, but fermenting on skins the reds never did lose the smoke flavor. The brothers decided, then, to sell the 2008 reds off in bulk and release only whites from that year.

Short of knowing it took 41 years before they launched the Cook’s Flat Reserve, the wine itself would answer the question of why make a reserve wine–both vintages offer the dignity and graceful presence genuinely deserving of the title. Where the 2007 offers lithe masculine presence, the 2009 flows in feminine exquisiteness. The ’07 gives impressive structure and darker earthier flavors, to the core of tension and mid-palate lushness of the 2009. Keeping to their best of vintage commitment, what changes the shape of the 2007 versus the 2009 on the palate is the success of the fruit each year. Both wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blends, but the proportions changed.

In an industry where reserve wines are common (made even within the first few years of a new winery’s inception), I ask the brothers both what made them wait so long, and why now. They explain that they started studying the reserve market and tasting through wines at different price points to make sure they understood what was available. They only wanted to make the wine if “we could do this and still give value,” Stu says.

After several years of consideration, Charles tells me, they were clear. “We resolved we could” make a wine truly distinct from their Estate Cabernet while still Smith-Madrone. To describe the intention behind their Reserve, the brothers compare it to their Estate. The Estate pays heed to old school, California mountain Cabernet relying entirely on American oak. The Reserve, on the other hand, is a nod to Bordeaux pulling only from a particular section of their property that they’ve always felt gave distinctive fruit, then aged in French oak.

The Romance of Wine

The romance of Smith-Madrone

a gift from a friend in the winery

The conversation turns finally to the change in the wine business from when Smith-Madrone began. The Smith brothers represent the last generation of winemakers in the region that could also own their own vines. Today, by contrast, getting into the industry, Stu explains, looks more like a sacrifice. “If you want to go into winemaking now and be pure, you have to give up something.” He says. Most people end up making wine for someone else because it’s such an expensive industry.

“Part of why I got into the wine business,” Stu continues, “was Hugh Johnson and his book talking about the romance and magic and business of wine.” Charles is quietly nodding. “And you know,” Stu continues, “Hugh Johnson would eat his heart out to be here today.” He’s referring to our conversation over wine with lunch. We’ve tasted through multiple vintages of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling at this point and fallen into as much discussion of my life in Alaska as their life in wine. The whole day all I’ve felt is happy.

We’re sitting at a table in the winery tasting wines with lunch and talking. Beside Charles hangs a placard that reads, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” He explains that a friend bought it off the wall of a bar in St. Louis then sent it to the brothers as a gift. Charles painted several coats of shellac over the saying written in chalk and hung it in the winery. The quotation reflects a feeling about wine that got the brothers into their profession. “As far as I’m concerned,” Charles remarks, “this is what wine is all about. It’s not all business. You sit down, enjoy conversation, and eat food.”

***
Thank you to Charles and Stu Smith for sharing so much time with me.

Thank you to Julie Ann Kodmur.

For Michael Alberty, Steven Morgan, and Fredric Koppel.

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

A Life in Wine: Frederic Panaiotis, Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

Talking with Frédéric Panaiotis

“There is a French saying,” Frédéric Panaiotis tells me. “Help yourself and the sky will help you. I like this. This is my motto.”

Frederic Panaiotis

Frédéric Panaiotis, the Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

I met Frédéric Panaiotis after arriving embarrassingly early to a private Ruinart dinner due to a mix-up with my driver. He and Nicolas Ricroque, the champagne’s brand director, welcomed me warmly and offered bubbles to set me at ease. We began with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and their dinner’s good view. Later, with food, we’d also step back into older vintages of Dom Ruinart paired with courses made for us by the talented chef Michelle Bernstein.

Ruinart began as the oldest established champagne house in the world, founded in 1729, at a time when bottling the beverage had been illegal. With its forbidden nature, so the story goes, it was desired and enjoyed at the court of Versailles, where the original Ruinart family was friendly. Over drinks one evening with the king, Nicolas Ruinart had an epiphany. His champagne would please. The Ruinart “wine with bubbles” business began September 1, 1729 with the intent of offering unique gifts to Nicolas’s fabric customers–the family owned a cloth company–but within six years of founding the bubbles venture it dominated the family interests and by 1735 they shifted entirely to champagne.

Now, a little less than 300 years later, Ruinart persists, founded on blending strategies with a focus on chardonnay. Today, Frédéric Panaiotis serves as the house’s Chef de Caves, or chief winemaker, in charge of nursing the grapes from vineyard to vin clair (champagne’s first step still blend), to bubbles, all with the intention of maintaining the Ruinart house style.

It is this willingness of the winemaker to give over to something older and longer that gives champagne its persistence and brilliance both. Panaiotis recognizes he is part of this longer tradition. “When you join a champagne house,” he tells me, “it is important to understand my name will not stay.”

Panaiotis emphasizes the importance of this history. “In California, a winemaker can make their mark on a house, and that is understandable. But, in Champagne, it is different.” He continues, “In Champagne, you should never remember who was making the wine 40 years ago. He is just one of the guys making sure the wine style is the same.” The comparison highlights two different models of success–one of persistent innovation, on the one hand, and one of established grace, on the other, both to be valued but for different contexts.

Panaiotis discusses the history of Ruinart w Morimoto's help

Frederic Panaiotis discussing Ruinart champagne at a special demonstration with Chef Morimoto, Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2013

Panaiotis strikes me as a man full of grace, and gravitas both. As much as he regards himself well integrated into a larger team–both historically and currently–he also acts as the facilitator of that team’s larger goals.

It is in listening to Panaiotis, I am struck by how the two models–California and Champagne–showcase not only different ideas of history, but also differing examples of leadership. He appreciates the value of both approaches, having resided in Mendocino for almost three years between 1989 and 1991, assisting in the production of sparkling wine for a California label.

Now as chief winemaker for Ruinart, Panaiotis emphasizes the strength of the house band. “When it comes to winemaking, a well-honed team is so much more efficient and reliable. There can always be someone that is sick, but not all of us. So, the response, the assessment of the wine has to be done by the team, not one person.”

Successful focus on the group together, however, depends on also recognizing each individual’s talents. Creating that well-honed contingent, Panaiotis explains, comes from smartly utilizing each person’s abilities. “I must understand who on the team is more competent, more sensitive on certain areas than others.” In describing his meaning, Panaiotis uses himself as example. If he is feeling off one day, it’s necessary for him to recognize who around him can be more effective. “Everyone has expertise, skill in something.” He says, “I have to recognize that. Then I can trust you. Then the team responds. Whoever from the team for each part of what we’re doing.” Panaiotis emphasizes the advantage of this approach, “it’s very satisfying and more fun when we all work together.”

Nicolas, Michelle, and Frederic

Brand manager, Nicolas Ricroque, Chef Michelle Bernstein, and Frédéric Panaiotis doing final preparations for dinner

Getting Panaiotis to discuss his time in California uncovers an aspect of his character I suspect is foundational–curiosity coupled with systematic study. His education focused on the sciences, taking him through a career that has included chemical wine analysis, years of research on cork taint, and several positions making sparkling wine, in both California and Champagne. Talking about his work in Mendocino, Panaiotis tells me about his studies. “I took Spanish while I was working in California. Wine is great. With wine, you learn something everyday.” He references an idea we both agree upon–the more you know, the less you know. “But with me, it is not enough, so I study languages.” Currently Panaiotis is getting started with Mandarin.

It is not just a thirst for more knowledge that drives Panaiotis, it is also an interest in deeper understanding. We touch on the idea of food and wine pairing, a subject common to the world of wine. But with Panaiotis it blooms into a conversation about culture, recognition of values and ideas. Panaiotis’s thinking is multi-layered throughout. To understand food and wine pairing more effectively, he studies other languages.

He explains his reasoning. “Language is a key aspect of learning how people think,” he offers. “I am always interested in food and wine pairings. Language is key to understanding a culture’s ideas.” By recognizing the ideas of another culture, you gain new insight into flavors and food relationships as well. The various forms of study, then, all circle back, even while revealing something new in themselves. It is both that are true.

In discussing Panaiotis’s wealth of experience he reveals again his blend of grace, and gravitas, coupled with what I recognize as genuine humility, a trait he already revealed through his discussion of team work and leadership–a person of genuine humility, I believe, recognizes what they are genuinely good at, while understanding too there is always more to learn.

Through the Ruinart dinner, and the next day’s Morimoto cooking demonstration, Panaiotis showed his talent for pairing food and wine, an ability clear throughout our discussion as well. But he understands the source of his own strengths. “I am not gifted.” He explains. “People think I am gifted in food and wine pairings. No. No. No. I am not gifted.” As he speaks he is utterly sincere and to the point. “I work very hard all the time to keep learning.”

The hard work Panaiotis puts into his job he also does with clear gratefulness and joy. “I don’t make champagne,” he tells me. “I make something to make people happy. Putting a smile on people’s face, that is my job. How many people can say that?”

***

Thank you to Frederic Panaiotis for including me, and taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Nicolas Ricroque.

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

A Visit to Haute-Saône, France: Drinking wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre, for Annemarie, and Jeremy

Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre

Chateau La Barre Vineyards

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 inspecting his vines

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 in his vineyards

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.