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World of Fine Wine Feature: Strange Synchronicity

Look! That’s me there featured on the cover! 

World of Fine Wine Issue 49

A peculiar thing happens for those of us who spend all our time tasting with winemakers: The wines begin to taste like the personality of the man or woman in front of us. It’s a strange moment to find synchronicity between the character of the wine and that of the winemaker, but there it is. More often than not, they match. “That’s why I love Burlotto wines,” Ceri Smith tells me. Together we are drinking, and talking, Italian wine. She’s begun to tell me about the work of winemaker Fabio Alessandria of Piedmont’s GB Burlotto, and to compare his wines to his personality.

Ceri Smith owns the respected Italian-focused wine shop Biondivino in San Francisco and she created the wine list at the reboot for famed Italian restaurant Tosca, in the same city. In her decades of work with Italian wine, Smith has gotten to know a range of Italy’s best winemakers.

She continues describing Alessandria’s character, and his work in wine. “Fabio is quiet, shy, and introverted, and his wines are these beautiful floral expressions. They feel just like Fabio: quiet, delicate, and strong.”

Later, viticulturist and winemaker Steve Matthiasson describes a similar experience. Matthiasson manages esteemed sites throughout Napa Valley such as Araujo, Chappellet, and Trefethen, while also making wine for his own eponymous label.

As Matthiasson explains, several years ago a group of Napa Valley winemakers were able to taste a range of wines from Burgundy with the Domain de la Romanée-Conti co-gérant and winemaker Aubert de Villaine. The group had gathered a series of paired wines. Each pair was made from the same vineyard but by two different winemakers. De Villaine knew the sites and the winemakers well. Throughout the tasting, Matthiasson relates, the wines from each vineyard set would share some core flavor commonalities but have a starkly different sense of character. One wine would seem flamboyant and lush compared to its sibling’s reserved austerity. One wine would feel edgy and intellectual, while the other was more immediately pleasurable. Tasting through all the wines, Matthiasson says, de Villaine consistently explained the contrast between the paired wines with reference to the personality of the winemakers. The flamboyant wine always matched the effusive winemaker; the reserved wine, the more reticent one.

This experience occurs with American wines as well. In one of my strangest tasting experiences, I tasted a California Tempranillo from a winemaker I’d never met and knew nothing about and discussed the wine with her assistant. While tasting the wine, I described aloud what I saw as the character of the wine. It drank with a sense of sophistication and rusticity simultaneously. I said, “as if she’d been raised in a fine family with all the lessons of etiquette but in adulthood went on to become a rancher.” In describing the wine, I was speaking of if like a person. I went on, “She still carries herself well in a dress but works hard in the dusty outside.” Looking up from the glass, I realized the assistant had fallen quiet. He explained that the winemaker had been raised in an upper-class family in the southern United States and then moved to California to grow grapes in the Sierra Foothills. Though the winemaker wasn’t a rancher, she did spend all her time farming grapes in the dusty mountains. The similarity of my description of the wine with the winemaker’s life stunned both of us.

It seems unlikely that a science of personality in winemaking could ever develop. Go too far, and it starts to sound like blind tasting winemaker personalities, or the vague generalities of horoscopes. Even so, such strange synchronicity often occurs. So, let us begin to explore the phenomenon. And to start, let’s consider how personality develops. …

To continue reading this article you’ll need to pick up a print or electronic copy of Issue 49, September 2015, of World of Fine Wine.

I couldn’t be more thrilled than by being the cover feature for an issue of this magazine. My admiration for it runs deep. It’s a must have subscription for any passionate wine lover, regularly showcasing writing from the finest wine writers in the world including Andrew Jeffords, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Jasper Morris and others. The magazine also strives to seek out and find fresh new voices. Additionally, the magazine reviews fine wine from around the world via a multi-taster panel. The advantage of this rests in its multiple perspectives. The tasting panels print reviews from each of the (usually three or four) tasters so that you can get a more in-depth view of each wine from three differing, respected palates. If you’re interested in high quality long-form wine writing taking in-depth profiles of region’s and producers, plus regular reflections on wine like mine on personality and craft in winemaking, look into subscribing. Here’s the info. 

The cost of subscription is not inexpensive, but the mass of writing you get, the independent reporting and tasting, is comparable to none.

To subscribe electronically: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/world-fine-wine-magazine/id894045101?mt=8

To subscribe in print: http://finewinemag.subscribeonline.co.uk/print-subscriptions/finewine

You can also purchase individual issues singly: http://finewinemag.subscribeonline.co.uk/back-issue


In Gratitude, For Tom, with thanks to Karen

“The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard

Paul and Anna Chukan, my great grandparents

Paul and Anna Chukan, my maternal great grandparents. Photo by my sister, Melanie Brown

I’ve spoken before about my life change. In 2010 I won a year long research fellowship at Dartmouth College. I’d done doctoral work at McGill University in Montreal and had a professor position in philosophy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Dartmouth paid me to work in residence on the projects I already had in place. My presence there was meant to support my own work as much as it was to enlarge the already vibrant conversation occurring at Dartmouth through outside influence. While there I contracted pneumonia. At its worst I couldn’t stand and speak at the same time. I visited the emergency room three times, and went through three rounds of antibiotics before recovering two months later. In the midst of it I realized it was time for me to leave academia. I’d devoted my entire adult life and a doctoral program to that career but recognizing the need to leave, I gave myself a year to get out gracefully. I assumed I’d have a new career in place by the end of the year. I returned to Northern Arizona University to do one more year teaching in a town I loved.

The day I turned in the keys to my office and my final grades, thus closing my contract at Northern Arizona University, my daughter, Rachel, was in Alaska visiting our family. The house was empty. I returned home having left academia for the last time and sat on the couch. The house was silent. It was winter so the light was low. And I was alone with no plans before me. I had begun drawing my wine illustrations but did not yet know that would become the basis of a strange new career. At Dartmouth I recognized a path of academic life blazing before me clear and bright. I’d established myself in that profession in a way that delivered clear options before me. Now, it was as if I stood in an open field. No path or trail cut of direction reaching to the horizon. Nothing leading before me. No others standing beside me. No guidance. The terror of that moment was profound. I felt there was nothing to do but let the terror come. Everything in me felt still and quiet while the immeasurable mass of the unknown crashed over me and then crashed over me again. I had walked away from a career I’d devoted myself to and done well in, given up something I was good at simply because my intuition said it was time. It was clear the best thing for me to do was sleep. So I went to bed and slept 14 hour nights for a month.

Tom Wark posted yesterday about Karen MacNeil‘s recent keynote address at the Wine Blogger’s Conference in the Finger Lakes. Karen spoke at the Wine Writers’ Symposium here in Napa Valley in February. There she shared a story about the challenges of beginning her writing career – how long it took to have even one article accepted; how little money she had in the meantime. The contrast between her clear success now and the starkness of her writing roots then was inspiring. There is power in such perseverance. In telling the story of her path it was as if she shared that power with all of us.

In Tom’s article on Karen, he admires her resilience and then also considers a conundrum. How do we invest in a job that seems so unimportant as writing about wine? How do we find our inspiration?

Stephan and Malquay Ivanoff, my great grandparents

Stephan and Malquay Ivanoff, my paternal great grandparents. Photographer unknown

My work as a philosophy professor was something I believed in utterly. My doctoral dissertation investigated the question of what it means to be indigenous. The inspiration came entirely from my own family. I am an Aleut and Inupiat woman from Alaska that was lucky enough to be raised with extended family, our traditional foods, and a multi-generational blanket of family stories. During my doctoral program I discovered I was likely the first Aleut to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. The relevance of that was clear. In doing any of my work I felt my great grandparents, my grandparents, my late uncles, my distant cousins, and generations of ancestors I’d never met standing quiet and strong behind me. Their spirit was there to help push my work forward because I was there, in a sense, doing it for all of us. Any time I sat at my desk to write they were there. If I spoke in front of groups or when I was teaching they were there. Their presence gave me a power to do my work. The most difficult aspect of leaving my career rested there. I had, without meaning to, become a metaphorical conduit for my people. Whether I wrote about my family or not, my family in some way saw my work as about them. For me too, it was. They were a reason for me to invest completely in what I was doing. In leaving my career I was also choosing to leave that role as a sort of intellectual elder, and to risk losing that sense of all my ancestors beside me. When I closed my contract I walked away from work that was for all of them and for the first time stood in that open field alone.

It took time for me to recognize I’d begun a career in wine. In the meantime, it was simply something I was doing because I am a person built for projects, and wine gave me one. I poured all of my energy into building that project. For two years I visited as many vintners as possible for intensive one-on-one tastings and conversations at least five days a week without a break or pay, sharing much of what I was doing online. Posting my project online via this blog and social media was in its origin simply a means for me to circumscribe my own work. I wasn’t attempting to build an audience. Instead, I needed a way to recognize progress. In graduate school I’d developed a process of researching a subject then writing an in depth summary for my supervisors as a way of maintaining a conversation. Without a supervisor in wine, sharing an account of my vintner visits online gave me a way to imagine something like that conversation and see an accumulation of work. It was a way to hold myself accountable. Eventually I looked up and realized I’d built the start of a new profession. My blog writing eventually spread into writing for magazines both online and in print, as well as giving talks or leading panels. In a sense those aspects of the work I do look very much like what I’d done before in academia. My new career has depended very much on the online sharing I’d been doing initially only for a sense of perspective.

In responding to Karen’s key note address, Tom considered the idea of family and how they can serve as an inspiration for our work. In leaving my career one of the things I left behind was the weighty sense of obligation I’d carried for my extended family. I didn’t lose the dedication I have for them, and in a sense the drive I have for excellence (in whatever form) rests deeply in that dedication to them. What I let go of was the expectation that I could ever do something that would fulfill the path of my ancestors. I would no longer be the only Aleut in philosophy. I couldn’t carry my ancestors with me there. It’s hard for me to explain the sorrow of that for me except through that image of for the first time standing alone.

5 generations of my family, photo by my sister

Five generations of my family five days after the birth of my niece, photo by my sister Melanie Brown

Unexpectedly, it is precisely there, in the starkness of that change that I now find my inspiration. Leaving a career I’d invested everything into, including my imagined ancestors, was a moment of erasing all expectations. I could no longer rely on a prescribed path of a recognizable career, nor on the sense of feeling generations beside me. I had no promise of the future. Though my perspective on such change has continuously shifted, in a way that sense of standing in an open field without a promised future hasn’t. The gift of such bareness has been that every wine visit, every written article, every magazine connection has arrived as an unforeseen bonus, an unexpected delight found in an open field. For me, it is there I find a source of immeasurable gratitude. Still with most visits I count myself profoundly lucky to simply listen to their stories, as if they are sharing their ancestors with me and I can see those ancestors standing strong and quiet beside the person I am listening to. Sometimes their ancestors have as much to tell through what the person doesn’t quite say as the person through what they do.

Over time, I have also found a different source of power, one much like I felt in Karen sharing her story. Her being willing to share so honestly the challenges of her upbringing in wine stands as a way of sharing a new form of freedom. New because her path of challenge and success is one different than our own but reveals through its details new insights any of us might choose to continue forward ourselves. Freeing too because of the humanity witnessed through storytelling. In admitting to her own difficulties, Karen offers us a way to see we are like her. That someone we admire has challenges too, so our challenges perhaps are not so unusual or so insuperable.

In writing about Karen’s keynote, Tom concludes with the point that he found the story of her path inspiring, that it makes him want to do better work. I would say that what I find in Tom’s post is the sense that through Karen’s speech he has found a new strength. Ultimately, it is there too that I find my inspiration, the discovery that in persistence and vulnerability we have the opportunity to share strength with each other.


Karen MacNeil has just completed the 2nd edition of her groundbreaking book, The Wine Bible. The new edition will be available October, 2015. It reflects over five years of work traveling major regions throughout the world, tasting over 10,000 wines, and doing thorough research to then write a fully updated book. The new edition is an invaluable reference for any wine lover.

For more information on the new edition you can visit Karen’s site herehttp://www.karenmacneil.com/product/the-wine-bible-2nd-edition/

To read Tom Wark’s blog post on Karen’s talk: http://fermentationwineblog.com/2015/08/karen-macneil-inspiration-and-art-of-wine-blogging/

With thanks to Tom Wark.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

The Essence of Wine: A Book by Alder Yarrow

The Essence of Wine

image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow’s book, The Essence of Wine, brings together striking photographs of 46 iconic wine notes — cherry, lime, honey, paraffin, among others — with alluring prose of the same element — photographs of strawberry coupled with writing on the same, for example.

While the series at the core of the book appeared originally on Alder’s highly regarded wine blog, Vinography.com, holding the coffee table book in hand changes the experience for the reader.

Side-by-side the photographic representation of the note with Alder’s writing offer the reader an opportunity to feel the visceral impact of the writing and imagery more directly. That visceral experience is at the heart of the book’s strength. Together, the thought of tasting notes becomes a sensual experience unexpected from mere print.

The Essence of Wine offers the reader a unique opportunity to enliven their experience with wine. Ultimately, it’s a chance to become a better taster. For the connoisseur, reflecting so singularly on one wine element at a time brings greater clarity. For the newer wine lover, understanding.

To read more on, or purchase The Essence of Wine here is the link on Alder’s site: http://www.vinography.com/essence_of_wine.htm

I asked Alder if he’d be willing to meet to discuss ideas implicit in the book more throughly. The transcript from our conversation is below.

Together, we discuss how the book took shape, the role that visual representations — photographs and illustrations — of wine notes have in understanding wine, and the experience at the core of wine appreciation.

Imagery and text blocks from The Essence of Wine appearing below are all courtesy of Alder Yarrow.

Tasting the Visual: A Conversation with Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna, April 2013, image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Elaine: Can you tell me about how the three of you – the photographer, Leigh Beisch, the food stylist, Sara Slavin, and yourself – worked together for your book, The Essence of Wine?

Alder: I approached Leigh with the idea. I would run across people, as I am sure you do too, that say, I read these tasting notes, and I have never tasted something like, you know, lychee. Is that some kind of metaphor, or do they really mean that they taste lychee in the glass? And I’m like, no, really! there are wines that taste like that! So, that is something that I wanted to help people with.

Early in my wine tasting and appreciation that was something I wanted and needed. I’d see these tasting notes that talked about wines that taste like chocolate but I’d never had a wine that tastes like chocolate, and I wouldn’t have known where to start if I wanted to. So that was the idea. And Leigh was great. She said, I have an art director that I think would be perfect for this. She works with Sara on her more commercial shoots.

Elaine: Yeah, I was looking through her site, and it looked like they work together a bunch.

Alder: Yeah, and Sara was on board with it. So, she said, give us a list. What should we shoot? So I made a list. I wasn’t sure how many of these they were going to be willing to do, so, I started with some core flavors and aromas, and I squished some together. So, rather than do raspberries and pomegranates and strawberries separately, I decided, okay, well, we’ll just do red berries.

E: Right. Or, like, tropical fruits I saw you put together.

A: Yeah. Exactly. And so they would just come up with a vision and one of two things would happen. At first I was in the studio frequently with them just sort of watching them do their thing, and, when they wanted an opinion, offering it. Occasionally, they would ask for clarification. They would say, okay, Alder, you gave us raspberry, pomegranate, cranberries, red currants… is one more important than the other? And I’d say, oh yeah, raspberry is the more important here, focus on that. Then they would shoot, and I would get 3 or 4 candidates from Leigh’s shoot, and I would select the one I wanted. Often there would be only minor variations. With the lemon shot, the variations I got were, like, one drop of lemon juice, or, two drops of lemon juice on the mirror. I can remember the green bell pepper I was like, these all look like the same images? And Sara’s all, oh no! One of them definitely has more water drops than the other!

Green Bell Pepper without water dropletsGreen Bell Pepper with water droplets

two examples of Green Bell Pepper images chosen between for use in The Essence of Wine
(Alder selected the image with water drops)
courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: That’s so funny. Really specific and subtle.

A: Yeah!

So, most of the time they needed very little direction from me. And I was content, as a beggar that can’t be a chooser, to let them express themselves. And they understood from the beginning that the idea was to create an archetypal image of this fruit, or foodstuff, or flavor that was not clichéd.

E: The thing that struck me about the book is how well the two work together – the language and the imagery.

A: The imagery always came first. They would create the image. They had a long list of flavors and aromas, and I never knew what they would be shooting on a weekly or biweekly basis. It was just a matter of what Sara found at the market or whatever.

E: Right. They did it seasonally, and the writing was inspired by the image?

A: Yeah. Basically, that week the image would be strawberry, and I would ask myself, well, what have I got to say about strawberries? Sometimes I would take cues off the image. A lot of times it was just trying to get myself into a particular mindset. When we say something tastes like strawberry, what does it really taste like without using the word strawberry? Or, what are the associations or connotation that these fruits, and flavors, or foodstuffs have for us? And then, where did they come from? How do we have limes, and where do they come from, and how long have they been around, and do they have meaning beyond their flavors? Then other things were just research. Like, is there cultural significance to mint? and where did that come from? and that sort of thing.

E: I really like that in both the photography and the writing there are a lot of textural elements. The one that comes to mind is blueberry, and cherry too. In both you talk about the feeling of the skin, but then as you pop through that, that creates this flavor. Then, immediately, there is the flavor of the meat, the fruit inside, and that’s a different flavor. There is this real visceral feeling to the writing rather than just flavor notes.

A: That was me really trying to think about actually experiencing one of these fruits. But there is also an analog to that experience in the world of wine. For me, plum is a great one. There is such a distinct difference between the flavor of the skin, and of the fruit for me, and wine somehow manages to capture both. There is that really distinct sour flavor of the skin, and that sort of snap to it as your teeth go through, and, then, the rushes of sugar and sweetness, but also acidity as you get the flesh and the juice in your mouth. That experience, I think that is why fruit appears so many times in tasting notes. The experience of eating fruit like that and the texture, and flavoral journey that you go through just in taking that first bite, wine does the same thing on our palate. You get astringency at a certain point, and you get sweetness at another point, and you get that kick of acidity inside your mouth at another point.

E: Yes, that makes sense. I feel like the more you read the book the better taster you can become. Elin McCoy’s review said it was the perfect gift for a connoisseur or a newbie. I really agree with that. There is such a crisp clarity to each note that I found myself better understanding what it means for me to claim I taste or smell that in a wine. It was this really nice opportunity to really take in the imagery and the writing, but also to more deeply understand what it means to talk about wine in this kind of way.

A: That’s great. I take that as a huge compliment. I think the book for me was a little bit of a journey in trying to tease apart, to puzzle out my own sensory appreciation for wine. Why it’s so magical to me.

It’s not just that this wine tastes like these individual flavors. It is that this wine also evokes cherry. I mean, there is a difference between perception and evocation, and there is a difference between pure sensation and the meaning that that sensation has for us. As you saw, I had a great deal of fun with some of the nostalgic aspects of some of these flavors, like, watermelon. For anyone growing up in the United States watermelon is summer, and the freedom of childhood. It is just unabashed pleasure. For many of us, that is as much what watermelon tastes like as the greenness of the rind that moves to the bright berry sweetness of the flesh, and all that stuff.

Graphite for The Essence of Wine

Perhaps if you were well-behaved or maybe just lucky, your teacher sent you to the edge of the classroom with a tightly clasped fist of yellow, where you had the pleasure of producing those wavy ribbon-like curls of beige and gray that litter many a school day memory. There may come a time when, like the clack of a typewriter or the stutter of a rotary phone, children do not recognize the smell of a freshly sharpened #2 Ticonderoga or FaberCastell. But for now, the scent of shaved or pulverized graphite brings instant recognition.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: Your book helped me think more too on something that I do – the difference between writing about versus drawing about wine, because it parallels in some ways the presentation of your book with photographing a flavor note and writing about that same note. For wine lovers reading about wine can be so alienating. There is an immediacy to tasting wine that reading about the same wine just doesn’t have.

A: Right. Writing about wine is never better than the real thing. You can never write anything about wine that surpasses the experience of the wine itself.

E: Yes, I so agree. I would love to hear your thoughts on the challenge of writing about wine. My thought is that wine lives in the senses, so to speak. The experience of drinking a glass of wine is visceral, and immediate, all about flavors, aromas, texture, and even the color of the wine. But when you are just focusing on the writing side of it, you take wine out of the senses, so to speak. Philosopher Merleau-Ponty talked about how analyzing something alienates you from it. Writing about wine alienates it from the senses. I think that is part of the challenge of writing about wine. That you have this visceral, lived, sensory thing, and now we are pulling it into the abstract to write about it, trying to make it live there in abstraction, but it doesn’t.

Something people tell me about my illustrated tasting notes …I bring them up just to reflect on the experience of your book’s photographs… I have had people say, when I see one of your drawings I know if I’ll like the wine or not. When I read a tasting note I can’t tell. I think that because drawings are visual, or, our reception of drawings is visual, there is an immediacy to them that parallels the immediacy of the nose and mouth when we taste wine. So there is a way in which a visual representation of the notes of wine keeps wine in the place wine belongs – immediate sensory tactile experience. Does that make sense?

A: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that operates probably in a number of levels. I am just speculating here. I think as organisms we are still triggered by things in our external environment that are matters of survival for us, or used to be. Like, when you are learning to appreciate wine, figuring out what you taste is very difficult, and there is a physiological reason for that. When we smell, that sensory stimulus bypasses the language centers of your brain. So when you smell something, it goes right to your amygdala. When we were apes roaming the savannah we needed to be able to smell something and know instantly if we were going to die because we ate that meat, or be fine because we ate that meat. There are lots of other environmental cues for that too, and those sorts of cues are encoded in the physical structures of our brain and our physiology.

I think we have archetypal information in the structures of our brain about food. Like, a ripe piece of fruit triggers us in a way that is non-verbal, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if representations – photographs or drawings or otherwise – did the same thing for us. If being able to see in one of your visual tasting notes thyme, and tobacco, and graphite, and cherry, and licorice root didn’t conveniently, and helpfully bypass conscious narrative thought, and reinforce whatever else we may be doing in the process of appreciating those aromas and flavors in wine in ways that are very helpful to us as organisms. That’s my way of agreeing with you. That I think there is probably real power there that is very different than the spoken and written word.

E: Your book helped me think through that, but it also made me realize that by putting your writing and the photographs side-by-side it changes the power of the writing, and the imagery too. In your book, there is such a marked relationship between the imagery and the writing that together they become something more than they are on their own. The writing is lovely on its own, and the photographs are beautiful on their own, but there is a way in which something else happens when you put them side-by-side. You have the book open and there is this full page, full-blown image, and, like I said, the imagery is very textural because of how they’ve treated the materials that they’re photographing. Then, on the other side there is your writing, talking about the visceral feeling of breaking through the skin, and the bitter taste that comes to the mouth, and then a wash of flavor and juice. There is an immediacy in the imagery that then somehow, makes the writing feel not so abstract. It kind of allows the two to live together in a relationship that enriches both. The photographs, that already have a life of their own, take on more life, and the writing pulls you in even more. It feels more visceral too. The combination, it’s a way of bringing life back to wine.

Cherry from The Essence of Wine
Biting into a perfectly ripe cherry represents one of life’s perfections of flavor and sensation. The firm skin parts under a modicum of pressure, and a gorgeous melody unfolds on the tongue — high notes of juicy acidity, rich baritones of velvety sweet red fruit, an earthy alto bitterness of skin, and a tangy tenor quality burst in the mouth in a way that makes it all too easy to overindulge.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow & Leigh Beisch

A: For 20 years I have had this quote on my personal website by one of my favorite photographers named Frederick Sommer. The quote is, “Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones that put life into the stones and pebbles.” I guess I thought of that because what I hear you saying is that the image on its own… I mean, it’s over simplifying to say the text tells us what to look for in the image. I know that’s not what you’re saying, and I wouldn’t say that either. There is something more dynamic going on there, but I guess maybe one way of thinking about what you’re describing is that what the text does is force you to look not just at the image, but to look at the image in your mind’s eye of that thing. It makes a connection between those very real visual stimuli, which is like, look there are some cherries there, but then it also asks you to use that image as a jumping off point for your own memories, sensations, and appreciation for that thing. For me, the question would be, how does that work when there is a fruit or flavor you have never experienced? Like if you’d never had a lychee before would that additive quality still be there or does that only happen when you are accessing your own sense memories of the thing?

E: There is such a richness to the images in your book, and I think that is why the number of water drops, or the number of lemon drops are so important. It is aesthetic, but it is also about, how ripe do you want this to seem? Like, you can feel that even if you don’t exactly know the flavors.

Have you gotten comments or feedback from newer wine lovers, from people that are taking the book up as a first foray to learning about wine?

A: Yeah. I know people in the wine industry that have given it to their spouses, and I have subsequently run into their spouse and had their spouse say, thank you! I finally fucking understand what he or she is talking about! I get it now. That’s been really gratifying. And I have people I know from my day job that have said, I am really enjoying this. I am understanding better where these flavors come from.

E: That’s great. It’s an interesting way to approach it too. Focusing in on just a specific taste, and expanding how we think about each individual one, it’s a flip from how we normally think about this sort of thing. In the wine industry, we tend to start from the wine, and then come up with a list of notes about that, but your book reverses that, and says, no, let’s start with this single note, just cherry, just chocolate.

A: Honestly, isn’t that how we all start wine appreciation? If somebody hands you a glass of pink wine for the first time you’re like, uh, okay, and you taste it and you’re like, this is really good, it kind of tastes like strawberries. That’s always first I think. But we don’t often do enough to honor that aspect of wine appreciation. I mean, it’s funny how in the world of wine we very, very quickly leave that very sensorial world of flavor and aroma, and move into the idea that now you have to know something about who made it, and where does it come from, and what grape is it, all that stuff, when really most people are just like, oh! It’s dark and rich. I like that.


Vinography: http://www.vinography.com/

Alder Yarrow’s The Essence of Winehttp://www.vinography.com/essence_of_wine.html

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.


The Challenges of Natural Wine

One of the criticisms regularly leveraged against the so-called Natural wine movement is its lack of definition. Critics of the phenomenon repeat the point as a central proof of the movement’s lack of legitimacy.

Some writers, however, have also asserted that lack of definition could be an advantage. Eric Asimov takes up the subject through an article in 2012 and describes the lack of definition as “one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans” as they “refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” Part of the advantage means they can pursue what techniques best suit their motivations within the reality of what’s available to them.

In her book, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring considers a key trouble with Natural wine lacking definition. There she says, “The danger lurks in the word’s being legislature resistant and therefore easily commandeered by commercial wineries looking to keep their market share” (2011 31). Such an event would work against the roots of the Natural wine movement, which places itself against such commercial wineries.

Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming, and additives used in the cellar.

While organic and less-interventionist wines have been made for centuries, Natural wine as a movement took form precisely at the point industrialized farming and winemaking began to dominate entire regions. As Feiring describes, chemical farming took hold in France from the 1960s, with serious changes seen in the health of the land by the 1970s (2011 38). By the end of the 1970s, winegrowers in France were beginning to assert a position in viticultural politics. By 1982, the political position had expanded from producers to sales with Natural wine bars appearing.

Natural wine as a project moves outside France as well. It takes similar form in Italy, for example, where, like France, Natural winemakers tend to also grow their own grapes.

In the New World, it becomes more difficult to carry forward a comparable model of Natural wine. In California, for example, of those that assert themselves as Natural wine producers, few also control their own farming, though there are exceptions. It is simply a different sort of grape market. In such cases, an implicit gap between cellar and vineyard changes the politics of the movement, but also the reality of what winemaking activities a producer controls. While winemakers that source fruit may retain control of their fermentation, élevage, and bottling, many enjoy limited input on viticultural choices that produce their fruit. When possible, they can of course choose to work with farmers they trust.

Motivations and needs differ between origins as well.

Influential in the difference is a contrast in regulatory board. In France, regional control groups demand particular farming practices, rather than just claims of origin, as in the United States. For producers in France, then, a Natural wine movement arises from very real need to protect against what proponents see as legally enforced ecological damage. There Natural wine proves an actual fight, with producers facing court battles, and substantial fines.

In the United States, ecological damage also stands as a real concern but without such direct legislative weight. That said, Natural wine doesn’t belong to a particular region. It’s a global phenomenon that happens to take strong form in some areas thanks to specific laws and regulations.

At the same time such politics take place, many other producers have continued to make wine through essentially organic and less interventionist means without claiming to be part of a movement. The range of wines that eschew industrialized technologies proves, then, to be broader than those claiming membership in a cause.

It appears, then, difficult to find a cohesive idea of what Natural wine is.

Still, Feiring finds the word useful for how it gives the public “a general word to indicate the kind of wine it is looking for” pointing out that while there may be issues with natural as a concept it “is good enough” (2011 13).

While many critics of Natural wine would target Feiring at exactly this point, seeing such hand waving as exactly where the illegitimacy they keep repeating shows up, her point here, I take it, is precisely made. Natural gives us a general word to get at an idea. For any of us discussing the issue, whether we’re for or against or agnostic for Natural wine, referencing Natural wine as an idea is good enough. We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely. When we want and actually need to be more careful, we can do that.

What Being More Careful Looks Like

In truth, any definition of Natural wine does have a certain vagueness to it. The point, however, is that such ambiguity is not inappropriate to the subject, nor a lack of legitimacy. Further, we can do more to resolve it.

Winegrowers farming organically and then using less interventionist cellar techniques; winemakers reducing cellar input but purchasing grapes; and producers refusing the subject while using methods appropriate to the title of Natural wine — they’re all relevant to the discussion.

(In grape buying markets, there are also organic and/or biodynamic grape growers but the discussion of Natural wine seems defined by its product — wine. So, while these growers are crucial, they’re a different piece of the puzzle. Strictly speaking, I’m not excluding them. My point is only that organic grape growers not making wine are precisely that — growing grapes but not making wine. We need and want them. However, winemakers can purchase organically farmed grapes and then chapitalize or acidify, as examples, thus not making natural wines. When we discuss Natural wine, we’re discussing what’s in the bottle, even if also what got us there. So, I am not excluding the growers but in a grape sourcing market, the winemakers choose to use such grapes or not and they can clarify that for us in discussing their wines.)

Which of these you’re getting at, and how you’re considering their activities depends on what motivates your point to begin with. That is, what is your purpose or focus? The specifics, in other words, are provided by you.

Let me explain. There are various types of definitions. (For the sake of clarity, I do need to address what might seem like a purely lexical point, but I’ll be brief.)

For example, in discussing wine, located as I am in California, I often reference wines from this state. In doing so, it’s (basically) easy to understand what I mean as the boundaries of California itself provide my definition. I mean wines made from within the state of California, and let’s assume from grapes within the state as well.

In cases where an Arizona winery, for example, is making wine from California fruit trucked across state lines it doesn’t really make sense anymore to call such wine simply as “from Arizona”, nor only as “from California.” Boundaries have gotten mixed. The wine comes from California fruit made into wine by an Arizona winery. We have a specific idea when we say “from California.”

As an example of a different sort, I might refer to Napa Cabernet. In one sense, such an idea is rather straightforward as I could simply point to every example of a wine made by a California winery using and bottling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Any one of them would count.

However, it is common these days for people in wine to refer to Napa Cabernet as a stylistic point referencing the riper, big boned, more extracted styles associated with the 1990s. Not all Cabernet made from Napa Valley during the 1990s fits this genre. However, whether we’re for or against this type of wine, we all basically know what we’re talking about when we refer to Napa Cabernet in this way, even if the edges of the category get a little smudgy.

In which of these two ways we intend to use the idea of Napa Cabernet usually gets cleared up by the context of our conversation. When it doesn’t, our point might get confused. That’s when it’s our job simply to clarify.

In the case of Natural wine, something else is happening. To sum up before I illustrate my point: we do generally know what we’re talking about when we talk about Natural wine; that is, there is a definition already. We just haven’t quite recognized it, partially because it’s just not the same sort as either of the previous examples.

In his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein puts forth a now famous account of what he calls family resemblance. He’d actually begun developing the idea decades prior, but it is in Investigations that it becomes well-known. The basic idea is simple. One of the key implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas is relevant here. It is this.

Wittgenstein pointed out that sometimes we expect things of the same type or definition to be joined by one common feature, all from California, for example, or, all of the same style, for another.

However, in many instances, a group of things or an idea are instead defined by overlapping similarities without one single feature common to all. Even so, however, we do still recognize and understand these overlapping similarities as a connected group. In such cases, asserting the group has no definition is a misunderstanding, rather than a genuine assertion of illegitimacy.

Here’s how it works.

Game Playing with Wittgenstein and My Family

When Wittgenstein discussed his idea he would often refer to the notion of similarity in families.

For example, my parents, my sisters, and I are all of the same family. My sisters and I have in common that we are each a daughter of our two parents. But my parents don’t share that similarity. They have in common that they are both parents of their three girls. My sisters and my dad share the trait of being obstinate, while my mom and I have in common often being right. (Just kidding. I thought we could use a laugh at this point.) There is no one common element that all five of us have in common, yet it is quite clear we are all from the same group.

As another of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, he looked at the notion of games. His point here was similar. That is, different games have a lot in common, but there is not one feature shared by all games. Wittgenstein describes games as a type of family.

We can take Wittgenstein up on this idea (as the entirety of Western thought has since) and consider too types of games, or parts of a family as a notion of subgroups.

Certain types of games might share more in common than another type of game. Card games are played with cards, while board games require a playing surface, for example. Similarly, my sisters and I have in common being the children of the family, while my parents share their being the parents.

In other words, there can be subgroups that share a resemblance not shared by all of the larger group, yet the subgroups together are parts of the larger group. Card games and board games are still both games, just not the same type. The children, and the parents are both part of the same family.

We can apply this idea to Natural wines.

Types of Natural Wine

As already discussed, there are different types of Natural wines.

(1) There are Natural wines made by grape growers that practice organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices, that then go on to practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives.

(2) There are winemakers that practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but that purchase their grapes.

(2a) We might want to add that they purchase organically and/or biodynamically farmed grapes but of those producers that have been included in the Natural wine community so far this is not true in every case. There we’ve been willing to allow Natural winemakers less defined by viticulture. It might be this forms two subgroups.

(2b) Some will likely want to exclude any wine made without essentially organic and/or biodynamic grapes all together.

(3) Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine.

Natural wine as a category includes each of the three types of wine. There is no one element shared by every single instance of Natural wine. However, that does not mean there is no definition, nor does it mean we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the concept. We do. When we need more clarity, we can simply be more specific.

“I would like a grower-Natural wine,” for example, that is, like a grower Champagne, one made by the person that grew the grapes. “Let’s make a list of California’s Natural winemakers,” as another, that is, a list of Natural winemakers (of whatever subgroup) that make their wine in and from California. “Who is making Natural wine but not touting it as such?” as a third. In each case, we’re using that general term Feiring explains that gives us an idea of what we’re looking for, while also being just a bit more specific because we have a more specific need or sense of what we want.

Within these types of Natural wine we can also get more rule driven, when desired or appropriate. For example, organic and biodynamic viticulture have specific guidelines that are generally followed on principle for those that believe in such views, and must be followed for certification. In the cellar, Natural wine using few additives generally means nothing added to the grapes but sulfur, and being less interventionist doesn’t mean doing nothing, but does often include approaches like no invasive filtering, as examples.

For some critics, here is precisely where more rules should be drawn. It is not clear, however, that Natural wine is a rule driven category in that sense. It is in rules, rather than just definitions that the lawyerly argument takes hold, to reference Asimov’s point. There are ways to defend a demand for rules, but those are more case by case than general so I’m not going to get into it here. Further, there are many categories in wine and elsewhere simply assumed as legitimate without being subject to precise rules. It’s not clear rules are strictly necessary, in other words. Instead, I’ll point out that there are already some implicit guidelines in place in Natural wine, and guidelines are likely good enough. We do know what we mean when we say something like no additives besides sulfur, for example.

As an example, Jenny & Francois offer a list of general guidelines on their website that they believe help steer Natural winemaking. They then offer the following point that seems relevant to the spirit of Natural wine, and so is relevant here in relation to the question of rules.

For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.

The point is this. What we have, and in fact have already had for a long while, is a definition of Natural wine, even if the edges get a little smudgy. It is one that we can better recognize thanks to the idea of family resemblence we get from Wittgenstein. This definition of Natural wine is good enough, as Feiring says, and avoids the lawyerly argument that worries Asimov too. In this discussion, we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.

Remaining Controversies

For critics of Natural wine, showing we already have a definition of the category doesn’t undo other problems. It does remove the commonly made claim that the category is illegitimate because it lacks a definition, but other issues still remain. Some of those are problems for proponents as well.

Many critics will still have issue with how Natural wine is marketed. In some cases, that depends on the marketers. In others, misunderstanding.

Implicit to many discussions around Natural wine there will still likely be hard dichotomies placed, with Natural wines on the one hand, and Industrial wines on the other. Looking at fights like those occurring in portions of France, such a view begins to make sense. In other regions, more fine-tuned accounts are better suited.

The idea of Natural wine is still not legislated. In parts of Europe, that has proven a legal problem for wine shops that know we know what we’re talking about but whose relevant legal systems don’t think we know it well enough.

The lack of legislation around the concept could put more work on the side of the consumer, but it should put more work on the part of the retailer and restauranteur to know what they’re selling and serving. The consumer’s job is to recognize whose views they trust.

People that don’t like use of the word natural itself have likely already lost the battle. In relation to wine, the category seems to have already chosen its name.

Problematic uses of the word reach back at least to the early local food movements, and health crazes of the last century. None of the claims that the word is misleading have too much weight when the truth is we all have to chose words to make our point, and the point is really made in the rest of the conversation, not just one name.

To make that last point another way (and borrowing from the late Leslie Feinberg), we can care about what word is used, but we can treat the subject (and each other) with respect using the wrong word, and we can be disrespectful using the right one. What matters is if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation.

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


A Day with Tyler Thomas, Winemaker Star Lane + Dierberg

Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas, January 2014

Winemaker Tyler Thomas stepped into leadership of the wine program at Star Lane and Dierberg in Santa Barbara County during Summer 2013. Prior to his new position he headed winemaking at Donelan Wines in Santa Rosa, after having assisted winemaker Stéphane Vivier at HdV in Napa.

During his tenure at Donelan, Thomas and I were able to taste and interview on multiple occasions. I have been impressed by his thoughtfulness as a winemaker, and his attention to vine physiology as the root of his winemaking. His background in botany under girds his thinking. One of my interests, then, in visiting Santa Barbara County was in returning to Star Lane to see it under Thomas’s leadership, and to speak with Thomas about his work in the new-to-him vineyards and winery.

After tasting extensively through the cellar with Thomas and assistant winemaker, Jeff Connick, I am excited to keep following their development. Thomas spoke gratefully about his work with Connick. As Thomas explained, Connick’s knowledge of and attention to the wine program at Dierberg and Star Lane significantly advanced the process of getting to know the unique expression of the vineyards for Thomas as the new winemaker.

Thomas and I were also able to taste some older vintages of wines from the Dierberg and Star Lane vineyards. While the winemaking style was different from that expressed through the barrel tasting with Thomas and Connick, a distinctiveness and age-ability showed through. Thomas credits that sense of site expression with age worthiness as part of what convinced him there was something well-worth investing his time in at the Dierberg and Star Lane properties.

After touring the Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, and Star Lane Vineyard sites, we spent several hours in the cellar tasting through wines from both locations, as well as the Dierberg Santa Maria vineyard. Thomas and I spoke extensively about how he’s approaching his new position. Following is an excerpt from our conversation considering how Thomas thinks about and explores ideas of site expression in the context of various varieties, and also the controversial topic of ripeness levels.

Tyler Thomas

near the top of the mid-slope of Dierberg Sta Rita Hills, with Tyler Thomas discussing block expression, January 2014

“Part of our focus is on capturing opportunity by capturing variability. For example, how do we make a Cabernet Franc that is representative of Cabernet Franc of Star Lane, and then find a way to work with that. We work a little harder to capture variability in the vineyard so that we can add a little more nuance and complexity to the wine.” Thomas and Connick vinify small vineyard sections separately as a way of getting to know particular site expression. “We want to make Cabernet Franc as Cab Franc, rather than as the Cabernet Sauvignon version of Cab Franc so that we can see what Cab Franc from here is all about, while also recognizing it might later add to the complexity of our Cab Sauvignon. I don’t mind embracing ripe, rich flavors, but I don’t believe in doing it artificially by picking late and then adding water back.”

We taste through a wide range of Cabernet and Cab Franc from a range of picking times, and vineyard sections and then begin talking about what the unique character of Cabernet at Star Lane is about. “There are some ultra early picks on Cab from here that still don’t show pyrazines [green pepper notes], so I think the conversation, at least in this area, around Cab expression is on texture and mouthfeel rather than on pyrazine level.”

Thomas explains that we are tasting through the range of barrel samples around the cellar to show off the diversity of Star Lane that he is excited about. “This is all to show off the diversity of Star Lane. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a conversation you and I had before [referencing a conversation Thomas and I had previously about asking yourself what you want to love in your life through how you choose to spend your time].

“I’ve been thinking about how we can ask, what do you want to love in wine? There is a question of how elements play out in a wine, rather than if wines taste of terroir or not. There is a lot of conversation around how a wine best expresses terroir. The truth is, riper wines can still show terroir or site expression. Of course Chardonnay raisins and Cabernet raisins still taste like raisins so one must admit there is a limit. Conversely, underripe grapes all taste like green apples so you can pick too far that way too.

“I don’t know if I can elaborate on it more than that. Sometimes you’re standing in a site and you feel like trying something but you don’t know if it’s just because you think you can or if there is something about the site that asks you to. But other times you can taste something there in the wine that you can’t explain, but at the same time can’t deny.

“In thinking about overly ripe wine, just because something is veiled doesn’t mean you can’t know what it is. On a good site, a riper style winemaker can still show site expression, the winemaking won’t completely obscure the site, even if it veils it some. Sometimes things are more veiled in a wine than others. Sometimes our role as winemaker ends up being unveiling the terroir.

“To put it another way, if everyone was picking at the same level of ripeness shouldn’t site be the difference that shows? Ripeness doesn’t necessarily obscure site, it just changes our access to it. In the end, it becomes a matter of what we value, of what we want to love in wine.”


To read guest posts from Tyler Thomas that consider his winemaking philosophy, and views of wine further:

A Winemaking Philosophy: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/29/a-winemaking-philosophy-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/

The Humanness of Winemaking: Faith, Hope, and Love: Guest Post by Tyler Thomas: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/01/28/the-humanness-of-winemaking-faith-hope-and-love-as-the-core-of-life-and-wine-guest-post-by-tyler-thomas-donelan-wines/


Thank you most especially to Tyler Thomas.

Thank you to Jeff Connick. Thank you to Sao Anash.

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



Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.” -Charles Baudelaire

Last night in the midst of a Paris Popup dinner at Penrose in Oakland I unexpectedly found my nose in a glass of Domaine Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre Chablis. The profundity of the experience proved quite simple. In the grapefruit, forest musk of the glass I smelled only joy.

A particular explanation of philosophy remarks that the philosopher’s work is to notice the strangeness of the ordinary. Such a view forms a sort of paradox. That is, the ordinary is in its nature strange, in other words, not really ordinary at all.

In what are known as the Kallias Letters, German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller gives an account of beauty. “A form is beautiful, one might say, if it demands no explanation, or if it explains itself without a concept.” Within Schiller’s idea of the beautiful is the point that it transcends us — what is truly beautiful is not a matter of our own personal preferences (our preferences are fickle), but instead a characteristic of the beautiful thing itself. In saying that the beautiful needs no explanation, Schiller is pointing out that what is beautiful is simply complete — it needs no supplement. It is beautiful. A kind of straightforward aesthetic truth.

Schiller’s account of the beautiful seems to present an example of the very thing it works to define. It too needs no further explanation. That is, for any of us that have encountered moments of beauty in wine, his definition of beauty feels right. In the nose of Raveneau, there was nothing to say. I could try to describe aromas for the wine but the truer point was that the wine smelled of joy. It had no other explanation.

It must be said too, that for those of us that haven’t witnessed a moment like this of the beautiful (whether through wine or anywhere else), there is nothing to understand in Schiller’s point either. He can give no explanation because there isn’t one. You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.

Schiller’s account of beauty forms a sort of paradox as well. In his account, he shows that beauty is not a matter of personal preference. There is nothing fickle about the beautiful. Our tastes may change, but a beautiful form is in itself a beautiful form. Our recognition of it (or not) does not impact the truth of the object. Yet, there is a kind of problem.

The idea of beauty is an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is, by definition, a study of the principles behind beauty, but it is also a study of our sensory experiences, or that which we can witness about the world. The point is that, something like Raveneau may be beautiful in itself, but it can only be recognized or exist as beautiful because as humans we have the capacity to witness it. This point is tricky, and almost circular, so let me restate it.

Because beauty is an aesthetic concept, it is necessarily subjective — we are the sensual creatures that seek it — and yet, the beautiful thing exists in and of itself as beautiful, whether we recognize its beauty or not. We are the creatures that generate the very concept (beauty) that we then find in the world regardless of us.

It is here, then, that we discover the gift and strangeness of encountering beauty. We are struck dumb by the beautiful. In encountering beauty, we in a sense escape ourselves. Yet, we are always implicated in its form. Precisely because beauty is an aesthetic notion, it links necessarily to our senses. The experience of sensing something beyond ourselves at the same time gives us strength — we have the capacity to access, witness, and experience something beyond our own limits. Here, the intertwined nature of beauty — that it transcends us and yet we are implicated in it — reveals part of its power. The thing that transcends us roots us more fully in ourselves, precisely by its pulling us beyond ourselves, another paradox. In doing so, beauty reveals to us how much more is possible. It becomes a kind of motivation for us to be more than we thought we were.

Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.

In smelling my Raveneau last night, I had no words and only smiling. The wine changed remarkably over the course of the evening, yet always carried that initial experience of my being struck. In as much as I gave myself to the wine, there was little I could say about it. To write any sense of typical wine description, I would have had to take a stance of analysis that necessarily would remove me from the very thing I sought to describe. As a result, what I find to say is this. (It is both utterly inadequate, and in itself complete. Forgive me. I can only hope the people for whom it’s meant will recognize the statement for its intended truth.)

Last night I drank Raveneau. All I can say emphatically is, Thank you.

Copyright 2014 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.

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.


Interpreting Doctor Schoener: A Video by cdsavoia

Earlier this week I got an email from Miguel de la Torre. He helps generate the cdsavoia video project, which creates short films presenting the work and personality of creative individuals in five fields — music, fashion, fine art, wine, and design.

As many of you already know, winemaker Abe Schoener and I have kept a sort of on going conversation. Both of us originate as professors of philosophy that somehow left that world to enter the world of wine. The trouble and promise of philosophy, however, is that it never leaves you. The on going conversation, then, has been based partially in Schoener and I sharing the compulsion of purposefully choosing sensual (that is, bodily) life with thought, of educated pleasure, of unbridled but directed curiosity.

Because of previous write-ups I’ve done on Abe, Miguel wrote to share the new video cdsavoia has just produced on the work and world of Abe Schoener, and offered me the chance to release the video here on my site as well. I took a watch before accepting, but it’s worth the view — charming, smart, well made, and a bit irreverent (the combination I look for in anything I do).

Check out the video here:

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Or, you can watch it directly over at cdsavoia here:


If you’ve got time, take a look at their other video interviews too. They’ve got another recent one on winemaker Matt Dees of Jonata, the Hilt, and Goodland Wines too.


Thank you to Miguel de la Torre.

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

A Conversation with Sergio Hormazábal

Traveling in Chile we were able to share lunch with the President of the Chilean Association of Winemakers, Asociación de Ingenieros Agrónomos Enólogos de Chile, and winemaker for Viña Ventisquero, Sergio Hormazábal. Working for Viña Ventisquero, Hormazábal is responsible specifically for their Root: 1 brand. Hormazábal advocates for the quality of Chilean wine, noting that the goal rests in encouraging consumer desire as quality is there and continues to grow. We asked him to express his views on the idea of making wines for the consumer. Following are some of the thoughts Hormazábal had to share.

Sergio Hormazabal

Sergio Hormazabal, president, Asociación de Ingenieros Agrónomos Enólogos de Chile, and winemaker, Viña Ventisquero, climbing the steep slopes of Apalta in the back of a truck

“People talk about making the wine the consumer wants. To me talking about the consumer is like trying to capture the rainbow. Who are you talking about? If you want to talk about the consumer, show me faces and names.

“People like to look at statistics to predict the future. This is always a mistake. If you look at statistics you are always looking in the mirror to the past, to what is behind you.

“How to predict what will sell? What is the future? It is very complicated but I think the only way is not to look at the numbers but instead to be in places and talk with people. You do not experience the future through the numbers but by being in a place, by talking to people, by looking at the street to see what’s there. It is not scientific. It is a feeling. But you need time in the street, in a place to catch a hint of what is to come.

“We talk as if people know already what they want. People do not always know what they want. Instead, give them a taste of something. They like it? A moment before they had not had it. They did not know they would like it.”

Thank you to Sergio Hormazábal.

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Meeting Randall Grahm

Barrel tasting with Randall Grahm

The first time I met Randall Grahm, he began discussing chi within a few minutes of my arrival. We’d stepped into Bonny Doon‘s winery cellar in the Mission district of Santa Cruz. “The ability to tolerate oxygen is the chi of a wine.” He went on, “wine needs oxygen, but it is also affected by oxygen.”

We were standing next to the upright wooden tanks for the label’s signature red blend, Le Cigare Volant, and he wanted to explain the connection between a wine’s chi and it’s contact with lees. The puncheons Grahm uses for aging his blend contain multiple levels of shelving, creating what Grahm calls “a lees hotel.” The wine’s lees settle on different levels, giving “more surface area for the lees to get digested.” As the wine breaks down the lees, they produce savoriness, but the also give the wine a greater ability to withstand the negative effects of air.

But it isn’t lees that Grahm is focused on. The discussion is meant to raise a different point. “One of the main mysteries of wine,” Grahm tells me, “is why some wines live and some wines die. Like good Burgundy, that wine is good for a week.” Asking him to explain further what he means, Grahm refers to the liveliness of a wine after it’s been opened, the way some wines resist oxidation and stay beautiful for days after opening. “We should all be focusing on answering one question, what are things we can do to give wine life, to help wines live?” Grahm says.

The Life of a Wine: The Role of Minerality


Half a year later, Grahm and I are talking over the phone for an article I wrote on the idea of minerality. In the article, I was able to reference Grahm’s point that a useful place to start would be to simply assay mineral levels in wines themselves. But his discussion went further. He offered a unique account of minerality I didn’t have the word count to share.

In the phone conversation, Grahm returns again to the question of oxidation. “What is the mechanism that leads some wines to resist oxidation?” Neither of us had referenced our previous conversation at this point. The question of a wine’s life is simply central for Grahm. “There are wines whose phenolics,” he tells me, “are not off the charts and yet they don’t oxidize.”

To put it another way, there are wines with obvious characteristics that we know resist oxidation–they are high in sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative; they are low in pH, or rich in tannin. “But subtract these factors out,” Grahm emphasizes, “and there is still a class of wines that do not oxidize, and that is not explained by those physical variables. What is at work there?” It’s the same question Grahm called wine’s greatest mystery as we tasted his signature blend.

Wine’s Mystery Class

Randall Grahm

For Grahm, the class of wine’s that do not oxidize and yet do not carry the understood mechanisms–excess sulfur dioxide, low pH, rich tannin (or perhaps have only one of them in a non-explanatory way)–are the mystery class. He lists examples that seem to produce a higher number of such wines–Haut-Brion, wines from the Saar or Mt. Etna, Chablis, many Rieslings, but his paradigm case is Lesona (an Italian wine incredibly hard to find information on). “Lesona,” he tells me, “you could leave those wines open for a month and they don’t oxidize.”

I ask Grahm if he finds anything in common between the wines he listed as examples, and he does. “Lesona wine, this appellation in Italy, is textbook mineral city.” For Grahm, it is a very particular account of minerality that the mystery class shares. In his experience, Grahm tells me, wines that stay alive after opening always also carry “a sort of experience on the palate.” He describes that experience for me.

“There is a persistence on the palate.” He says. “A savoriness, or saltiness, and,” he pauses to think. “What I call dimensionality to the wine.” He trails off for a second then returns. “Forgive the lapse into synthesia. The wine just seems to have some sort of multi-dimensionality, a non-linearity.” We discuss the shape of it for a while, and I recognize the sensation as a kind of echo on the palate.

“Yes,” he responds. “there is a doubling of the sensation, a kind of secondary aspect to it” as if you catch a scent or flavor in the wine “and then immediately after follows a relief, or accompaniment in the wine,” not another flavor exactly, but an echo of the initial flavoral experience.

The description from Grahm seems to resemble the French account of minerality from Master of Wine, John Atkinson, I discussed in the article. As Atkinson explains his understanding of the French notion, minerality operates as a kind of “organoleptic action of mineral-bitter-salts element” that hinges flavors and structure together. Minerality operates, then, in this account as not just a flavor but a link between taste and acid or tannin, as well as a physical response from the mouth itself. As Grahm describes it, the echo seems to correlate with a kind of overall tension on the palate, as if the wine is directed and the mouth must follow.

Soil and Vinification Correlation

Talking with Randall Grahm

Beyond the sensory commonality Grahm sees in his wines of interest, there is also a correlation with mineral rich ground. He recognizes that current science denies a direct line from the mineral ions in earth to literal mineral content in wine, but the point is moot. Even if the ions don’t literally appear in the wine itself, who cares if such ground so often does generate quality wines? The calcium rich marl of Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Collio I add to the list. He agrees, but he wants to discuss a more ready example in limestone.

What Grahm notices is that the kind of experience he described occurs very often with wines from limestone soils, but most especially in whites. “White wines from limestone soils are more transparent,” he explains. “It can be easier to blind limestone soils on whites because they’re simply less encumbered.” There are fewer elements, such as tannin or anthocyanins, to block the palate expression of the soil. But Grahm points something else out. With limestone soils, such wines “are often very closed when [the bottle is] first opened up, both in whites and reds.”

But the source of a wine’s life doesn’t rest only in its soils, the role of vineyard care, and the winemaker is also clear. I ask Grahm what he’d recommend to winemakers wanting to create wines full of minerality, that last after opening. The answer is straightforward. “Buy some land in a mineral rich area, find soils rich in minerals, then farm in a way that is maximally expressive of those qualities.” For Grahm much of what that means is inspired by the work of Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who emphasize the importance of micro fauna, and micro floral life in the earth. Supporting the longevity of old vines is also important.

The role of reduction early in the winemaking process also seems relevant. By giving wine a shot of oxygen early on, it seems to become more resistant to its negative impacts later. In Grahm’s view such an approach also adds an additional layer of complexity ultimately to the wine. “The reduction aroma initially occludes things present in how you farm. But as it dissipates, it adds another dimension,” giving room too for the terroir to show again. This process of reduction is another way in which a wine closes, then opens up over time.

Atkinson too describes a correlation between this sort of reductive fermentation process in making champagne (though not in the sulfidic sense) and the experience of minerality in both the vin clair and final sparkling wine, as he has studied for years at the shoulder of Billecart-Salmon‘s Chef de Cave Francois Domi. Current thought suggests a likely correlation between this sense of reduction, and the later presentation of minerality in wine. Hildegaard Heymann, of UC Davis, and winemaker Clark Smith are both examples of people that have shared such an account in interviews, or written on it.

Finding the Life of Wine with Air

Bonny Doon wines

It is this point about certain wines beginning closed, then opening up with time that finally makes Grahm’s point. “These wines are changeable.” For Grahm, the idea gets to the heart of appeal for his mystery class. “They move. They start out closed, and then they move and change in the glass.” The description of wine’s movement circles us back finally to an idea Grahm shared when we first met. “A wine that lives,” he tells me, “is responsive to oxygen. It breathes.”


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