Sonoma County has its own wine podcast with local wine experts Sam Coturri, Bart Hansen, Brian Casey, and John Myers. They asked if I could join the show and we had a hilarious, and ranging hour long conversation about my life before wine, how I got started in wine, and how my previous career in philosophy informs what I do now. We cover everything from how smart camels are to my work as a 1-900 psychic, what it’s like to grow up in Alaska then end up living in California, among many other things.
Be sure to check out other episodes of The Wine Makers too via the Radio Misfits website. They’ve interviewed tons of North Coast California wine personalities and always with a bit of a raucous attitude.
In California wine circles we sometimes entertain ourselves with questions like, what would you argue is the most American wine? Or, which wine do you think most successfully placed California wine on the world stage? Or, what do you think is the most respected winery in the United States? Inevitably, one winery – Ridge – is an answer, if not the answer, to each of these questions.
Ridge Monte Bello is considered by many to be among the best wines in the world, and certainly among the most, if not the most famous, from California. Through its Monte Bello Cabernet-based bottling, Ridge helped show that California wine could compete with the most respected wines in the world (check out our Judgment of Paris tag). At the same time, no other winery in California has done so much to elevate Zinfandel from its early reputation as jug wine to fine wine respectability.
Ridge Vineyards began working with old-vine, field blend sites planted primarily to Zinfandel (otherwise known here in California as a Mixed Blacks vineyard) in the mid-1960s. The producer’s treatment of Zinfandel was unique at the time. Instead of treating the wine as an after thought, they made Zinfandel essentially the same way they did their top wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon that would come to be known as Monte Bello. Since then, no other winery has worked with as many Mixed Blacks vineyards in the state. As an additional stamp of respectability, Ridge also bottled them specifically as single-vineyard wines. The winery has worked with such sites the entire length and breadth of California, including many vineyards that no longer exist, and some in parts of southern California where few remember that such vineyards ever existed.
Most of these wines are limited to bottlings made available only to members of the winery’s Advance Tasting Program (effectively their wine club). The Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines, both Mixed Blacks vineyards from Sonoma County, however, are released to a broader market. Thanks to their history and status, both of these can also arguably be included alongside Monte Bello for consideration as examples of the most iconic American wine.
In the last few months I have been able to do a series of in-depth tastings and all-day interviews with the Ridge team. The first of these was in October when 50 MWs from 16 countries descended upon California for a 10-day tour of the state’s wine country. I was lucky enough to be the only non-MW to join the entire trip and its tastings. After several days on the road we arrived at Monte Bello for a special visit with the entire Ridge team. Though he retired in 2016 at the age of 80, Paul Draper helped lead the visit. (Draper remains chairman of Ridge’s board.) He guided us through….
A Purple Pager asked Elaine a question after her recent account of a vertical of Corison Kronos and the answer is surely interesting enough to share.
Peggy Baudon wrote:
I absolutely loved the article about your vertical tasting of Corison’s wines. The tasting visual (see right) is a beautiful representation of the evolution of the wines.
I have a question about your paragraph describing some wines coming out of California as having a sense of ‘compression and compaction’ despite being picked early but not having the overt ripeness and alcohol of many other wines. I have been contemplating this type of character in wines I’ve been tasting from right bank Bordeaux and have been trying to:
a. accurately express the character of the wine and
b. determine what vinification processes are being used to achieve such results.
As a description of this type of ‘stuffed’ wine I certainly appreciated your analogy of stuffing as much as possible into a rucksack. When I taste such a wine, I often feel a bit claustrophobic, as though I am also being stuffed into the glass with no air to breathe. It was a relief to read such an astute description of this type of wine style.
As a wine student though, I have not ascertained the vinification process/es that have contributed to this style. I wonder if you might have some information or feedback about vinification processes that may be used in California to achieve this effect in wine (or even in France). Thus far, I have narrowed down my guesses to reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation as ways to reduce water content in the must/wine and therefore leaving more ‘stuff’ in the wine (and therefore less ‘space’ and making it ‘feel oppressive on the palate’ as you eloquently described). However, I am also wondering if flash détenteor thermovinification might have an additional hand in the process/es. It has been difficult to find information on the vinification of these types of wines – not surprisingly since they can be described as a ‘trick’ to adjust the wine unnaturally. Not many winemakers would wish to be called out in such a way.
Any feedback or guidance about vinification methods to achieve these effects in wine would be so greatly appreciated!
Elaine Chukan Brown replied:
Thank you so much for your kind email. I am so happy to read that you appreciated the article and that that description of the wine style made sense to you. I’ve been confronted by that sort of ‘overstuffed’ wine repeatedly and had spent time thinking through how to explain the experience of tasting them. It is good to know that the description of the overstuffed rucksack I used obviously made sense to you with your own tasting experience.
In terms of how such wines are made, I can offer explanations on a few possible cellar choices that might help give some perspective. Of course there would be variations on which techniques are used depending on particular wines but here are some thoughts that could help with the overall picture. More technical information ….
Elaine Chukan Brown reports on the annual Napa Valley Premiere – a preview of Napa’s latest vintage – where buyers bid on wines made specially for the auction
WORDS BY ELAINE CHUKAN BROWN
The crowd erupted into cheers. Winemaker Aaron Pott stood on stage and grabbed the microphone. “Are you ready?” he yelled. “Let’s get it on!” More than 1200 wine trade professionals – winemakers, sales people, buyers, and journalists – filled the upstairs hall of Greystone, home to the Culinary Institute of America and one of Napa Valley’s most venerated historic buildings. Dance music burst through the speakers and the crowd cheered wildly. The annual Napa Valley Premiere auction, with Pott as this year’s honorary chairman, had officially begun.
Over the next four hours 185 auction lots were sold to raise almost $3.7 million “to help the Napa Valley Vintners and their ongoing effort to promote, protect, and enhance” California’s most renowned wine region.
Napa Valley Premiere is a preview of Napa’s latest vintage. It’s a model originated by Bordeaux and brought to a level of indulgent celebration only possible in California. The day comes with surprise musical interludes, and snack breaks of artisanal foods made in the region.
Unlike Bordeaux, buyers at Premiere bid on unique wines made specially for the auction. Buyers range from retail giants looking to score coveted brands at ….
Every year, the International Wine & Spirits Competition, one of the most prestigious wine judging groups in the world, requests nominations for their prestigious Wine Communicator of the Year award. Writers, speakers, educators, and broadcasters from all over the world are considered and then a shortlist of who they deem the top five are selected based on their contributions in wine for the previous year. The most respected wine communicators in the world have won over the last two decades. I am deeply honored, grateful, and a bit overwhelmed to announce I have been named as one of the top five based on both my writing and speaking/seminar work. Enormous thanks to the International Wine & Spirits Competition for the recognition. Thank you too to those who nominated me. I am so grateful.
Elaine was treated to the unique luxury of tasting every vintage of Cathy Corison’s very special single-vineyard Cabernet. Cathy herself was due to taste them the next day but Elaine was the first commentator ever to do so.
One of Napa Valley’s most celebrated and respected winemakers, Cathy Corison, launched her eponymous winery in 1987 with a single wine – Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine reflected Corison’s commitment to elegance and restraint, a style that would soon become uncommon in her region as the power wines of the 1990s and early 2000s took over. However, even as trends changed, Corison maintained course, focusing solely on wine made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards planted in the well-drained, gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench in what has since been named the St Helena AVA.
The St Helena AVA constitutes a particularly distinctive portion of the Napa Valley in that temperatures throughout the area are high enough during the day to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon adequately to make single-varietal wines of distinction. At the same time, in most vintages night-time temperatures drop below vine respiration levels, thus preserving the potential for freshness and acidity in the wine.
Famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff called the gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench on Napa Valley’s western side ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. All Corison Cabernet vineyards, as well as the winery pictured below, are planted ….
From Lifetime Achievement Award to a brand new enterprise.
On Wednesday it was announced that Bob Lindquist, one of California’s most respected winemakers, will no longer be making Qupé wines, and as of 1 March he will no longer be involved with the winery. Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) has taken sole ownership of Qupé and is moving its winemaking from Santa Maria to their newly purchased Laetitia winery. Laetitia is located in San Luis Obispo County, and together the two winery purchases – Qupé and Laetitia – represent VWE’s first expansion into the Central Coast. Previously VWE was focused entirely in the North Coast making brands such as B R Cohn, Layer Cake, and the cheekily named Game of Thrones wines.
Lindquist and his wife Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist will instead be launching a new project, Lindquist Family wines. The new winery will be focused on Rhône varieties, as well as Chardonnay, much as the original Qupé did under Lindquist’s leadership. Lindquist’s plan for his new winery, however, is to remain small. ‘I only want one partner this time, and that’s my wife, Louisa,’ he says. The couple will also continue making Verdad, a small-production label focused on Spanish varieties.
All Verdad and Lindquist Family wines will continue to be made in the winery tucked into the back of Bien Nacido vineyard that Lindquist and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Clendenen Family wines have shared for decades (see Au Bon Climat – lunch and more). The first Lindquist Family wine, a 2017 Grenache from the Sawyer-Lindquist vineyard (a biodynamically farmed site in the Edna Valley), will be released later this spring after being bottled in April.
Partial ownership of Qupé was originally sold five years ago as part of a long-term succession plan. Terroir Wine Fund founder Charles Banks approached Lindquist with an interest in helping to expand production of some of ….
Drinking Wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre
It’s a rare thing to find a friend with whom you can stand in the middle of a huge group of people and passionately argue (in total agreement with each other but arguing nonetheless, you know what I mean) about the importance of sci-fi as part of the mechanism for building a culture’s ethical understanding and then go straight into just as passionately discussing wines from all over the world. That level of curiosity and appreciation is a valuable gift to find in anyone. At the end of this week I fly to Texas to see a bunch of friends for work. It is one of my favorite trips of the year largely because there are more people in this group that share that innate, impassioned curiosity for all sorts of subjects in the world, as well as genuine interest in all aspects of wine. In tribute to them, and most especially to the several of whom I have honest to god love-yell argued passionately about the merits of Star Trek (and the recent horrors of Infinity War), I am re-publishing this turn-back Tuesday blog post that I originally wrote and published in April 2013. It was inspired by my friend, Annemarie, who shares my deep abiding love of Star Trek, and whom I love very much even if she doesn’t give a lick about wine.
Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre
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
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
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. The process depended on intensive plant selection to identify which of the new off spring matched the characteristics of the historic varieties. Grape seeds do not reproduce the exact same match as the cultivar from which they originated, but instead a range of possible varieties. With some genetic work, ampelographic research, and a bit of radiographic selection at germination Picard’s work was successful. With the new plants grown from the ancient seeds he was able to restart sections of his vineyard growing Savagnin and Pinot Noir. 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.
Post-edit: Since the publication of the original post Picard shared further information on his seed recovery efforts. That additional information has been added to this re-publication of the article.
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Texsom International Wine Awards (Texsom IWA) has extended its submission deadline until February 10. Entries can now be registered by Feb 10 through the Texsom IWA website. Entered wines must be shipped and received at Texsom IWA by Feb 12. The submission fee during this period is $105. The deadline was extended due to the inconveniences of the recent government shut down as well as unusually cold weather across the United States in January. Late expedited entries can be submitted and received to Texsom IWA by February 14 for a fee of $145.
Texsom IWA has been recognized as one of the most important wine competitions in the United States, with uniquely high consistency in determining quality among wines. In a study reported in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2017, Texsom IWA was considered the most selective of wine competitions examined. A smaller proportion of gold medals were awarded at Texsom IWA than other competitions, but those awarded were considered a stronger arbiter of high quality. The study also showed, that the evaluation procedures followed at Texsom IWA were more rigorous than other competitions.
Co-founder and director, James Tidwell MS, credits both the caliber and camaraderie of judges, as well as the rigorous verification process for wines entered as helping to set Texsom IWA apart.
“The goal at Texsom IWA is to present the right wine, in the right place, at the right time, to the right person, and in the best possible condition,” says Tidwell. The caliber of judges for Texsom IWA surpasses that seen from any other US-based competition. Sixty to seventy judges are selected each year from countries around the world, reflecting ….
To continue reading this article, head on over to Wine Business Monthly where the article appears free for all to read. Here’s the direct link.
The California Wine Institute interviewed me this month about how California’s efforts around Sustainability compare to other such programs worldwide. They also wanted to hear more about how such sustainability efforts showed up in the Masters of Wine tour that traveled the state late last year. They published part of the interview in brief this morning. To read the interview, you can find it here: https://us10.campaign-archive.com/?u=2cff3f94229ec1de06fa0e504&id=8d595e3e8b