Tag wine story

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

Wine in Context: The New California Wine, a book review

Reading the New California Wine

Led Lemon on Jon Bonne's book cover

A friend recently shared with me the lesson he’d learned from a high school literature teacher. It takes close to a lifetime to write a book. When you read what someone has written, you learn much of what they know.

Jon Bonné offers through his book, The New California Wine (released today), a generous portion of his knowledge of California, but what he gives is not mere information. Through an intricate inter-braiding of stories about Bonné’s own time with the new heroes of California wine, in depth historical information about how it has arrived at this point in time, and intimate revelations about both specific people and the difficulties of actual wine growing regions, Bonné invites his reader into what is essentially a California Wine Master Class with feeling.

Bonné’s writing here is at its best when he falls into intimacy with one of the people (both winemakers and viticulturists) he profiles in the book. His love for the subject shows in these moments. But his dedication to treating it seriously shows too when he dances out of the personal, and into an explanation of phylloxera’s impact on understanding California terroir, or the problems with Russian River Pinot Noir and soil, as examples. In this way, Bonné delivers his subject matter with a fine-tuned balance showing both the rigors of a true historical critic, and the intimacy of a friend of the industry. The book reaches up to a Master Class level when you realize it is written both for the reader wishing to be truly engrossed in California wine, and also with the understanding we’re all there to learn something. He fits in, for example, quick while adequate explanations of biodynamics, of rootstock types, of specific appellations, and more.

Though the aesthetics of a book’s design might seem extraneous as reviews so often focus on textual content, two elements of this side of the book’s production are relevant to mention. First of all, Bonné’s book is a pleasure to hold (a tactical reality that assists in its reading). It carries the size and weight of a publication you are meant to sit back and drink in. The simple structure of the book itself coupled with the gorgeous (and again intimate) photography provided by Erik Castro make it a pleasure to read. Secondly, however, is the form of Bonné’s writing itself.

In telling his story of California wine — both historic and present — Bonné chooses not exact chapters as much as a rolling of vignettes, given like the cantos of a long poem that when read in succession interweave to tell the full story. The approach releases the reader from the potential boredom of what could otherwise be seen as drier moments of historical information, or technical elements of wine. The approach also highlights what I believe to be part of Bonné’s larger view.

The figures he profiles, like Tegan Passalacqua, David Hirsch, Paul Draper, Angela Osborne, Stephy Terrizzi and so many others, are heroes of a modern age. In an era of unabashed desire to make big fruit to make big money, these people stay the course out of dedication to something more elusive and more valuable–a subtle exploration and discovery of genuine California terroir. The figures Bonné selects are not only the younger hip winemakers that have grabbed the focus of the New York wine industry, for example. He writes on the people that have kept attention on the question of terroir all along, some of whom are, importantly, the people winemakers depend upon — those making the fruit in a way that can support lean balance. By choosing the rolling vignettes style, each person Bonné writes about receives their own celebrated moment.

By the final section of the book, Bonné also gives an index of wines, grapes, and regions shown through with those same people we’ve come to know earlier in the text. The book, then, becomes a reference point for this moment in California wine history — not only those figures that champion the new style, but also the wines that reflect their expression of it. The text stands as useful now for finding the wines that fit into Bonné’s Master Class, but also useful for our future selves looking back to re-learn this period later. In other words, through his book, both its content and structure, Bonné is emphasizing what many of us are excited to witness and experience. We are living a crucial moment in California wine, the full direction of which we are all yet to discover.

It is in these ways Bonné gives to us not only insight into what he knows, but with it, his own genuine regard for the new California wine. His book stands as a testament of his belief for its future.

***
Thank you to Jon Bonné and Ten Speed Press for sending me an advanced copy of The New California Wine.

For a preview of the book, check out Bonné’s excerpts at SF Gate here: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/A-journey-to-find-California-wine-s-new-generation-4947651.php

For more information from the publisher, and an excerpt: http://crownpublishing.com/feature/the-new-california-wine/#.UngJXI3D9G8

For Andre Darlington’s insightful review of the book: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4059

For Fred Swans’s book review: http://norcalwine.com/blog/most-read-articles/9-book-review/824-review-new-california-wine-by-jon-bonne

***

The New California Wine, by Jon Bonné
304 pages, 50 full-color photographs
ISBN 978-1-60774-300-2
$35.00 paper over board

***

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Generations of Gratefulness: Bringing my Family to South America

I was raised in a multi-generational family in which the strongest tradition is sharing what we appreciate, and what we have learned through stories about the history of our own and our family’s lives. In thanks for the people with whom I was able to travel Chile and Argentina, I share this story. Thank you.

***

Travel from Alaska to Argentina

I was six the first time my maternal Great Grandmother, Umma, left the state of Alaska. As a full Aleut, she’d lived her life on the Western coast in first one fishing village, and then another. The area is Russian Orthodox.

Orthodox priests were assigned regions to lead, rather than individual churches. Every few months the priest would arrive in a village, and the people would quickly get married, buried, and baptized. And confess.

Confessions occurred in the small church cabin painted with holy pictures, and maintained by my Great Grandfather. Inside, the village would gather, most standing except for seats for the elder women. My Umma would sit through the service, as I stood behind her, my hands crossed on her right shoulder.

Villagers would wait through incense and prayers, blessings till time for confession, then stand in a line to speak to the priest. But first the priest would cross to the front to give communion to Umma where she sat, then return to the back to receive all the others.

Confessions in Orthodox tradition occur in full view, rather than to the side in a small box of a room. After the people proceeded past the priest at the back of the church they would continue in a circle around the sides, kissing holy pictures, till they met Umma. Then the villagers would stand and wait to greet and kiss her too. Sometimes they would also bless me. She was an elder of the community. As her great grandchild, I received honor from her too. It was a blessing I carried with me by being her relation.

My mother was the oldest of her family. She was raised by her grandparents, while also close to her parents. It was partially tradition of staying close to her elders, partially particulars of their own family.

As the story was told, when still young enough to walk to the back of the church, Umma met with the priest. My mom was still little. He said to my Great Grandmother, “someday this one will take you much farther than you’ve ever expected.” Our trip out-of-state was the journey.

Our entire family traveled together landing in Seattle, then driving to Oregon to my Aunty for Easter. I sat in the back, on the edge of the seat between my great grandparents on one side, my middle sister on the other. In the front, my parents and oldest sister rode. On the drive we would come around corners and discover another tall building, or a greater expanse through the trees. Umma would grab my back, squeeze, and whisper, Aling-na! her surprise for everything new that greeted her. On our arrival in Oregon we shared a bedroom. She told me the story for the first time of how the priest had predicted our travel.

She told me too how after I was born she would look at me and smile, then say to my mom, I don’t know where that one came from. It was her way to say too she didn’t know how far I would go.

My parents were both raised in coastal villages. My father, Inupiat, originates further North. Their home regions were small enough both chose to board elsewhere in the state for high school. For university they studied in Fairbanks, where finally they met and decided to marry. Both remained close to their extended families but in having children they made a choice to raise their daughters outside their villages. We spent winters in Anchorage attending a mainstream school, summers on the Western coast commercial fishing with our Native family.

My parents’ wish for their children was for us to be clearly based in our Native heritage while capable of asking only what it was we wanted to do, without question of if we could do it. A life migrating between Anchorage for school in the winters, and the coast for work in the summers was part of that.

Reflecting on my recent trip to South America, I find myself overwhelmed by generations of gift. I am the only member of my family, besides my daughter, that no longer lives in Alaska. My sisters are both quite accomplished but have chosen to live their lives there in the state of our birth. In this way, I stand both as a fulfillment of my parents’ wish that we succeed in the broader world, and as the one who suffers an effect of that gift without family near by. Family for Native people is integral to who we are, and part of any accomplishment we keep. It is me that must do my work, but my family that has made that possible.

We departed Argentina recently on their mother’s day, a celebration in recognition of the generations of women that are family. Before leaving we shared lunch with Nicolas and Elena Catena. They are two people that, like Robert Mondavi for California wine, helped carry Argentine wine into the greater international presence it has today. Spending time with them was an honor.

We were asked, each of us, to speak to what we learned in tasting wine in Argentina. Alyssa Vitrano began by realizing the parallels of her Italian heritage with that of many of the people in wine of Argentina. Mary Orlin, Kelly Magyarics, and Mary Gorman-McAdams spoke eloquently about the quality of the wines we’d tasted, and the intricacies of vineyards with landscape. We all mentioned the warmth of people that received us. When it came my turn to speak I was flooded with the voice of my Great Grandmother — her story from the priest and my birth. Sitting with such accomplished, warm-hearted people there in Argentina, my family’s wishes for me had sent me farther than I ever expected.

***
Thank you most especially to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.

Thank you to Alfredo Bartholomaus, Alyssa Vitrano, Kelly Magyarics, Mary Orlin, and Mary Gorman-McAdams.

Thank you to Nicolas and Elena Catena.

Copyright 2013 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

The Glimmer of a Life: Briefly, why I write about wine

Winters ate more than half the year. In Spring, ice floats would form in the streets. I would play by making a leap in my silver moon boots from ice-island to ice-island the half mile walk from school to home. Across the street from the house there was a yard that grew pussy willows, a tree that bloomed fuzz blossoms with the first sun of spring. The rest of the world was wet from winter melt. Each day in March, I would stop the way home from school and pet the tiny bloom with my thumb, then return home.

Opening the front door, my mom would often be at the top of the stairs making food, the light still low that time of year. Sun would rush through the kitchen window and her silhouette would greet me, lit from behind with the light that would lift more for summer.

Growing up in Alaska offered a life of finding richness in deprivation. Produce in my childhood consisted only of dried up oranges, the firmest apples, and pears picked long before they were ripe. In summer, we lived on the western coast and survived mostly on canned mushrooms and frozen vegetables to accent fresh fish and wild meats. The salmon straight from water was so vibrant, its flavor made up for limp broccoli.

The ground of Alaska is barren. It offers open vistas of dramatic landscape, the tallest mountain in North America (Mt Denali) in the distance, but so far across the valley its size by contrast rests a comfortable peak, not so obviously the one that people fall from or freeze upon with regularity. The distances between such great objects make them smaller by perspective.

The earth there is made of tundra. Herbs, berry bushes, and tea grow in peat, bound together through miniaturized roots growing into miniaturized plants. In summer, walking across the tundra it is easy to overlook plantlife, leaving it unseen because of its tiny size until the leaves and bramble break beneath your feet and your world becomes awash in scents. Summers in Alaska for me were like the blind developing their other senses–walks across tundra are so rich in scent, so bare in visual appeal. It is this overwhelming flush of smells I now know drove me into wine. Leaving the Northern climes for anywhere else, I find myself in what might as well be (by comparison) city life. In such a life, there are no scents as rich as home except in a glass of wine.

The strongest lesson of growing up within Alaska, however, is the incredible mark one person makes. The land of Alaska, with all that tundra-peat, swallows history. What is built sinks into that moistened land. Untended, buildings disappear within a generation. My first trip to Boston, with all its Revolution era graveyards, and people buried four deep atop each other shook me to the core. Nothing stands so old in my frontier. That something could last so long, occur in layers and remain, moved me. In Alaska, a cut to the land shakes the landscape. Roadways appear as stark contrast to the raw earth surrounding. In a land that swallows buildings, your choices will be lost in a generation. But, because history does not own the landscape around you as it does in older cities, the choices of your generation echo much more strongly. One man’s choices change the world.

In Summer 2012, I came to Napa Valley only to meet a few men in wine. I had two days to give for a handful of meetings. In the midst of those meetings, however, I also connected unexpectedly with George Vare. He’s a man that now, in his final project — planting a small vineyard of Ribolla gialla in Napa Valley — has come to symbolize the pinnacle of wine geek accomplishment. After meeting a few Italian winemakers whose choices he believed in, he rescued cuttings of their vines in Italy and snuck them into the United States. From those he began what would be 2 1/2 acres in the town of Napa, leading now to plantings in Carneros, and the Russian River Valley. But he would also go on to impact a generation of winemakers younger than himself. How? to seek unusual varieties, to make wines under the influence of obscure talents from regions barely heard of, to experiment in wine making, measuring standards on a more global rather than simply market scale.

Interestingly, he planted his Ribolla vineyard at the same time he also dove deep into his practices of spiritual growth. The Ribolla was a commitment not of economic capital–he made no money from it–but of giving one self to a project bigger than yourself, to something you simply cannot predict and yet believe in.

Somehow in the midst of all of this, I was lucky enough to spend time with George Vare. He is only one man. He made simple, while brilliant choices. I write about wine because in the midst of all of this, if I pay enough attention, I am sometimes gifted with the glimmer of a life.

***

Inspired by Stevie Stacionis, Matthew Rorick, and Katherine Yelle; and as in all things, my mom.

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.

How a Chocolate Bar Got Me Through: A Reflection on the Value of Wine Blogging

The Architecture of the Everyday

Lyeta Elaine

It was summer on Montmarte. The cobbled streets felt cool and round in the heat. I appreciated the texture of walking the artists’ neighborhood of the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The hillside was dotted with little boutiques–a woman that hand-painted textiles, then cut them into baguette shaped handbags; a twosome that hammered pastel leather shoes hunched over a pointed toe wooden foot; another woman that had worked for Yves Saint Laurent’s design team then quit in order to create clothing made from antique silk neck ties she lifted from friends’ closets around town. The expressions of these people fascinated me.

I’d arrived in Paris on a student scholarship. During my undergraduate degree I focused on poetry writing, while also studying philosophy and literature. That year I won entry into two summer programs working with poet-teachers for writing, alongside studying literature of the regions–one in St Petersburg, the other in Prague. My scholarships covered the cost of me getting to Europe, the programs’ fees and housing, both of which included breakfast. For the two months I was abroad, breakfast was most of what I’d eat.

Between locations I was on my own for nine days. It turned out the price of getting from Russia to Prague was actually cheaper routed through Paris, so I’d chosen my break be spent there, nine days on the side of Montmarte. I arrived having pre-paid for a dorm style hostel that fed me coffee and baguette in the morning. For nine days I walked the city unable to afford the metro.

To visit Paris was such a gift in the midst of everything I didn’t mind how poor it also felt. My daughter and I barely covered our expenses through my three years of undergrad, so to find myself in Europe was stunning. I couldn’t believe I’d made my way to Paris in the midst of time in Russia (my childhood dream country. At the age of 9, my long term goal had been to make it to the Soviet Union someday.) and Czech Republic. Day 7 the feeling changed. I’d walk 9 hours a day tearing off baguette a little at a time as I went. For the week I had 5 Euro to spend.

Walking up Montmarte my body felt bedraggled. I’d woken up depressed, and spent the morning berating my attitude. To go without food in Paris in the midst of a summer of poetry was too symbolically perfect not to laugh. I was angry for feeling sucked into the negative feeling of the moment. Part of me kept saying I just needed a chocolate bar, a double chocolate ice cream bar sold from a little cart below the Sacré Cœur–the Sacred Heart Cathedral at the top of the hill. The thought was ridiculous though as the treat cost $4.25 and buying one would mean most of my money for the week. After several hours I finally gave in, gave my money away for chocolate. The seduction of suffering was too strong to convince myself I should be saving my money. I was to get another small student payment after arriving in Prague.

Half way into the ice cream I caught myself beaming as I walked. I was happy again. I was in Paris, on Montmarte, my favorite part of town, and the woman with neck ties had created a new vest from the stash she found in her boyfriend’s closet. She let me try it on. A bit down the road a local bartender offered me a glass of wine if I would fill a seat at the bar.

That evening I returned to my dorm and a new roommate had appeared. We’d actually met my first night but she’d moved out for a time, then come back. Her travels took her all the way from Australia, where she’d worked two jobs for two years, one at a pizza joint in Perth, to save money for half a years travels. She asked if I’d like to make dinner with her. My money gone, she took me across the street and bought a jar of tomato sauce, some dried noodles, and a bottle of red wine that cost two Euro. We boiled water, drank wine, and ate. The next day she took me across town to a poetry reading along the Seine. Another roommate had given her a handful of extra Metro tickets before he left Paris.

The day after that I flew to Prague. She sent me emails about getting lost on a hillside in Corsica at dark, finally sleeping in bushes till sunrise rather than hurt herself stumbling down hill. She WWOOFed in Southern France to subsidize her travels. I walked Prague, and sweated through concentration camp side trips I could barely handle visiting.

Six years later, she visited me in Arizona. It was absurdly cold that week and I gave her wool hat and gloves to travel with. We made homemade noodles and sauce in my home, and walked all over my little town. She cooked me vegetarian meals. I introduced her to new white wines. (She’s allergic now to red.)

We’d kept in contact emailing an update every few months for six years. I watched as she completed an undergraduate degree, fell in love and moved East across Australia, then closed that relationship and started a new career. She saw me advance from my undergrad, into grad school, move to Canada, and then back again to the United States, and through pictures watched Jr grow.

I’ve spent time with her in person only twice. Most of the nine days in Paris, and another ten in Arizona. Still, there is a camaraderie we share that overlaps into similar perspectives on curiosity, passion, and compassion. We’ve shared insight on friendship, spirituality, and personal growth. She’s taught me about developing community sustainability programs through her work. Even from the Southern hemisphere, she’s part of the architecture of my life. It’s a friendship made possible by a chance meeting at a hostel in Montmarte.

It didn’t occur to me in advance, but wine blogging turns out to carry a similar treasure. People like Dan Fredman, Alfonso Cevola, and Jeremy Parzen reached out and in differing ways encouraged me to keep writing. Their blogs served too as differing insights into how people engage with wine, and the way wine enriches the larger aspects of their lives–family, friends, travel, the everyday.

Fredric Koppel, Ron Washam, Christopher Watkins appeared as enthusiasts, again with outrageously different approaches but each talented and sincere in their style. Gwendolyn Alley bolsters my enthusiasm through her own. Lisa Shara Hall, and Amy Cleary (writers and professionals in other avenues that happen to also blog) I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with. I’ve been lucky enough too to connect with other blog-writers, and to learn from them about the craft of writing, the value of the everyday, and yes, too, wine. Writers that also blog, like Janice Cable, and Alice Feiring deepen the threads of information.

(All of this to speak only of other blog keepers, not to even mention the blog readers, and the people I write about that have been met and befriended along the way.)

Connecting to people through their stories online has enriched the decor on that same architecture of my life. These are a few examples of connections made through this weird practice of blogging while following other bloggers.

The experience is a lot like that Montmarte hostel. By chance, we all ended up in the same metaphorical dorm room, and now choose to keep in touch. We ended up there because we’re broke, or cheap, or just looking to meet more people. But through noodles and a bottle of wine we just might share our life.

***

Congratulations to the winners of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Awards. I’m so grateful to have been included among the finalists, and so happy for each of the winners.

Cheers!

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

The Making of a Food Wine, A Case Study: Donelan Acquerello 2010 Syrah

Donelan Acquerello 2010 Syrah w Tyler Thomas & Gianpaolo Paterlini

“Talking to other winemakers helped me understand what it means to be a winemaker.” -Tyler Thomas

“It’s not about knowing the tricks of the trade, it’s about how you’re going to use them.” -Gianpaolo Paterlini

Donelan 201 Acquerello Syrah

click on comic to enlarge

The importance of knowing your context plays behind the history of success for both Tyler Thomas, winemaker of Donelan Family Wines, Sonoma County, and Gianpaolo Paterlini, Wine Director of Acquerello Restaurant, San Francisco.

Winemaking with Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas graduated with a Master’s from UC Davis’s Viticulture & Enology program after having already completed an advanced Masters in Botany. His roots in science run deep. After finishing his work at Davis, however, Thomas recognized the importance of grounding his knowledge in experience, and in 2004 started a job at HdV in Napa Valley, with an agreement to also integrate work elsewhere in that first year.

After the 2004 harvest with the winery, then, Thomas traveled for the reciprocal harvest that New Year in New Zealand, returning North to do research on Sylvaner vines in Germany. During his time in Geisenheim Reingau, Thomas was able to take trips throughout Europe, meeting with winemakers in Burgundy, and Alsace as well.

It was through his time in Germany, Thomas explains, that he really learned what it is to be a winemaker. Thomas would sit with others in the region and simply define terms. The winemakers would discuss together their differing cultural views of wine, terroir, technique, and quality. The experience made clear for Thomas how culturally embedded views of wine, and its foundational elements turn out to be. In recognizing the importance of context, the point that you always choose how to make your wine, or what counts as quality came clear. “Talking to other winemakers helped me understand what it means to be a winemaker,” he says.

His background in Botany, and training in viticulture provided ample tools for winemaking, but as Thomas clarifies, his time abroad “was formative in shaping my philosophy. When I returned, then, to HdV, I recognized it was not what you do, but how you think about wine that makes you a winemaker.” HdV winemaker Stephan Vivier further rooted such understanding in Thomas. Vivier originates from Burgundy. In traveling abroad, Thomas was able to recognize a kinship in Vivier with other winemakers in France. Thomas’s early training with grapes, then, came from Vivier’s French sensibilities working with California fruit. The experience established in Thomas an approach defined by both patience, and thoroughness. In his approach to making wine, you sit back and wait, letting the wine takes its time, but you also keep clear track of where it’s at, and make sure what can be done early is tended to up front.

Gianpaolo Paterlini Grows the Acquerello Wine Program

Gianpaolo Paterlini grew up in Acquerello, the restaurant his father, Giancarlo, helped establish. Paterlini’s early memories, then, include his father’s work with the then-smaller Italian restaurant established in a neighborhood of San Francisco that was truly neighborhood then for all its establishment now.

At the age of fourteen, Giancarlo let his son know there would be no more free spending money, but if he wanted a job to earn cash, there was one to be had. So, Gianpaolo began working as a bus boy on weekends. At the time he had no interest in continuing his career in the service industry. Then he went to college in Boston. In summers, Paterlini’s work experience expanded to include food service, leading him to a restaurant job in Boston during the school year.

In Boston, Paterlini began work at Blue Ginger where he came to recognize a huge potential in the industry he hadn’t noticed before. He also saw how much fun it could be. Eventually, his life took him back to the Bay Area where he connected with the famed Sommelier, Raj Parr. Parr showed Paterlini what a top quality wine program looked like–it wasn’t just a great wine list, it was a wine list with an investment in wine education. Additionally, Parr helped Paterlini gain harvest experience with winemaker Sashi Moorman in Santa Barbara County, working in the Lompoc wine ghetto, side by side with many of the best labels from that region. In Lompoc, Paterlini explains, he didn’t only help make wine, but with the mass of winemakers in close proximity, he also drank some of the great wines from throughout the world. Work days would end with bottles for tasting.

In 2007, Paterlini’s experiences came together to illuminate the value of Acquerello for him in a new way. It was a quality restaurant that had never had a dedicated Sommelier. So, with his father’s blessing, Gianpaolo returned to the family restaurant focusing first simply on the restaurant’s established wines. Within short order, wine sales of the establishment increased. As a result, Paterlini was able to legitimate the value of establishing a full fledged wine program, based in what is now a 90-plus page wine list and education program focused primarily, though not exclusively, on Italian wines.

The Birth of a Partnership: Donelan Acquerello Syrah

Donelan Acquerello at the end of lunch

Thomas and Paterlini met through the restaurant. Owner of Donelan wines, Joe Donelan, had been a long time customer of Acquerello, with a friendly connection to the Paterlini family.

In his interests to stay informed and current with wine, Gianpaolo regularly tastes through California wine country (traveling as well to Italy and elsewhere). Through repeat visits to Donelan winery, Paterlini and Thomas recognized a relationship with wine that spurred both their interests. Over time, the connection bred a conversation about developing a unique Syrah together.

The focus of Acquerello’s wine list is deeply Italian, with some Champagne pleasantries, and California highlights as well. The wines by the glass, then, focus on Italian offerings that pair well with the current menu. Together the wine director and chef work for weeks to create a menu that seamlessly couples seasonal flavors with interesting wine. Paterlini had worked with wineries for a few custom bottlings before. From Italy, Sottimano created a 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo for the restaurant that, as Paterlini put it, was chosen because it “blew my mind so I bought a lot for the restaurant.”

In California, Paterlini has been able to garner two different vintages from Dan Petroski of Massican, to create first an Acquerello Chardonnay, and then in 2012 a Sauvignon. Massican is known for creating white wines from California with clear Italian inspiration. In those cases too, Paterlini happened upon barrel lots of Massican wine he enjoyed.

Enjoying Wine with Lunch

In private conversation when Thomas had briefly stepped out, Paterlini took the occasion to tell me what he appreciated about working with Thomas, “I know no one makng better Syrah than Tyler,” he tells me. “But I knew too that in working with him we’d get the experience of talking through what component parts would bring to the blend.”

The Donelan project differs from previous Acquerello wine partnerships in that when the possibility first arose, Thomas emphasized the process of partnership. Where Sottimano and Massican wines were discovered already complete and chosen for how they work well with the restaurant, the Donelan conversation occurred before a wine was made. “I wanted to make sure that the whole thing made perfect sense for Acquerello.” Thomas explained. In his view, making wine for Acquerello was exciting, but it was also a high responsibility. There was no point in doing it unless it was something the restaurant was going to love. But creating a wine they both believed in depended too on making it with the Donelan philosophy. The goal, then, became to make an Acquerello wine in the Donelan style — distinctly Syrah, strongly food focused, developed patiently over time.

Making the Wine

In order to accomplish the Acquerello goal, Thomas set about developing an abbreviated version of the Donelan teams approach–a series of blending trials over the course of a year. The first step would be to identify the barrel that would serve as the core of the wine. Together Thomas and Paterlini located a lot from the Kobler Vineyard, a site that produces friendly Syrah on the ligher side with lots of acidity and smoother tannin, flavored with elegant notes of mountain blueberry carrying frost touched edges.

Once the core of the blend was identified, the goal became then to determine what little bits from other barrels were desired. Together Thomas and Paterlini tasted and talked through the gifts and elements of other lots of Syrah in the winery. Their discussion focused on how each barrel would impact the blend, what it would add, or, detract.

The Donelan team, met repeatedly with the team of Acquerello to hone in on the restaurant’s perfect wine. At its final stage, five possible assemblages were brought to the restaurant in San Francisco where the entire staff of Acquerello blind tasted the five selections side by side. Remarkably, in the end, they all agreed on one. “At the end of the day, it was my call what blend was picked,” Paterlini explains. “But, instead, we included all 10 people [the Acquerello staff]. We all happened to agree, but the point was to act like their opinion matters, because it does.”

After the blend was finalized, Thomas performed a final test. He took a sample bottle with him to the restaurant one afternoon and sat down with Paterlini. Together they blind tasted through the red wine portion of the wines by the glass (BTG) menu checking to see if the Acquerello blend suited the overall architecture of the restaurant’s BTG program. The goal in tasting was to identify a consistency of mouthfeel between the Donelan wine, and the Italians on the restaurant’s list. “Did we get the mouthfeel to a point where it can represent Acquerello well?” Thomas asked.

Paterlini nods, “mouthfeel is the most important thing when selling wine to customers. You need to give them a texture they can relate to.”

The Final Wine

The Donelan Acquerello Syrah has the flavor of Donelan but with a more breezy pleasure. The focus is on open juiciness, the wine giving a portico of freshness to welcome the midpalate. It’s a shape Donelan wines don’t tend to have, yet it drinks like its part of the Donelan portfolio’s extended family.

Thomas addresses the presentation of the final wine, “the wine tells both our stories.”

Paterlini agrees, “we did exactly what we wanted to do. We made the wine we wanted to make.”

As the two continue talking, the relationship expressed within the wine becomes clear. It’s the approach they took to making the wine–working together, incorporating the entirety of both teams to find agreement through discussion–that showcases Thomas’s winemaking style. He values steadiness and patience housed in a path of rigorous attention, coupled with discussion with his people along the way. The Acquerello Syrah is a Donelan wine because it follows the Donelan process–similar oak regime, similar blending trial process. It’s the texture, and architecture of the wine that belongs to Acquerello.

***

The Donelan Acquerello 2010 Sonoma Syrah is only available at Acquerello Italian Restaurant in San Francisco.

Other Donelan wines are available in the Bay area through Marathon Brokers, or by contacting Donelan Wines directly.

Thank you to Tyler Thomas, and Gianpaolo Paterlini.
Thank you to Emily Kaiden.

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.