Home Blog Page 3

The Irreplaceable Listener: the importance of listening and self-doubt

illustration from 2011 when I was first getting started in wine
I am riddled with self-doubt. By now it’s developed its own personality. I imagine it an ethereal presence, more aura than substance, but it does have a voice. It speaks in whispers. When other people describe me, they often say I am confident, but inside that doubt is whispering.

When I work the whispers disappear. It’s a paradox, it seems, to lose the voices while doing the very thing the voices talk to me about. But there it is. Work for me is a kind of peacefulness. There, I live in a space of simple joy. Joy for me is a kind of surrender to the action.

Much of my time, I travel the world tasting wine and interviewing winemakers, walking vineyards and listening to those who farm them. There is a moment when something in these interviews shifts – the other person begins to share more freely and my self-doubt falls away. It is a moment when a level of rapport between the two of us clicks on, and how they share their work feels like not just a glimpse at the work they do but them. In those moments the whispers stop, as if even the self-doubt is fascinated by whoever I am there to see.

Elsewhere in my work I also spend time speaking or leading seminars, and writing but it is when listening to people I love my work best. When listening what I am doing seems to have little to do with me. Instead, by being fully present, absorbed in the other person – the insight they are sharing, the way their mannerisms and ways of speaking may reveal their inner world – my life becomes a mechanism for witnessing and absorbing them.

The joy of listening remains long after as I drive away. There is such intimacy in sharing that individualized space with whomever I am interviewing, of stepping into the world they are offering me, that much of me for long after feels stimulated and fulfilled. Excited by what I’ve gotten to witness. It’s an experience where in the joy afterwards I feel surrendered to some grander plan, as if the main reason I live this life is for these moments between me and one other person when I am there listening.

illustration done in 2011 of my birthday wine that year, when I was first getting started in wine
It is later, when the joy calms, that it begins to appear otherwise, that self-doubt returns. It is difficult to translate those shared moments, so small in their scope, to a larger world, or to turn such work into income. Reflecting on that, my work begins to seem irrelevant. From the perspective of broader reach, it largely is. There is no way to commodify and sell the act of listening. Counselors, psychologists, I suppose are a sort of listening profession. They have found a way to sell the time they spend listening to people share their sorrows or confusion. Priests through the confessional have done something similar. They are not paid by confessors but by the Church. Beyond such examples, it seems silly to imagine listening as relevant work worth paying for.

In the 1970s, Studs Terkel proved an exception. Today, some podcasts do as well. But in 1974, Terkel’s collection of transcripts, Working, from conversations with people discussing their work across almost every profession and level of fame – movie actor to garbage man, famed writer to house wife – was a kind of revolution. The transcripts were inspired by the radio show Terkel had interviewing both regular and famous people. Working was not the first or the last in his series of books compiling such interviews but it was the first to become a best seller and focus entirely on working life. Before it he’d compiled interviews with jazz performers, with regular people about their life in Chicago, and a more historical text on surviving the Great Depression. Terkel spent most of his life gathering interviews and transcripts in this way. Over time, his vocation gave him insight into the values and choices of everyday people. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, Terkel offered the then-President elect advice based on Terkel’s own lifetime of listening. Listening had given him insight befitting of a President.

In my early twenties, I did two and a half years of professional actors’ training, primarily in Meisner Technique, though I also studied on camera acting, took a community college intro to acting class, and was a student actor for the same college’s directing class. I never had interest or the intention to be a professional actor and instead was trying to grapple with my own fears of being seen, and of speaking in public. It was there in the Meisner training I was introduced to Terkel’s work. In the second year of the program, we were asked to select from the collection Working to perform one of the transcripts as a monologue. I have no idea which one I selected. For me, the collection was far more fascinating as a sort of stained glass display of human life, each transcript a colored pane in the larger window. In truth, the extended study of acting did little to assuage my fears of being seen. I still feel skin crawling discomfort in getting attention. Instead, it shifted my perspective on both sides of the process – performing or speaking in front of others, and watching or listening to those that do. In either case, what I found through the training was an experience of great surrender, a way to give myself to the project at hand whether it is public speaking, or listening to others, to surrender even to discomfort and to move with it.

That sense of surrender is what I struggle to find in my moments of writing. The longer I have gone between writing sessions the more it feels like agony. Everything in me wants to avoid the work and the whispers feel more like screaming but instead of coming from some ethereal presence they feel like they come from the center of me. I rarely release actual sounds, though admit I sometimes do. Instead, it is as if I’ve learned to wrestle with myself, as if there really are two of me. And then eventually, if I keep at it long enough, the fatigue of wrestling gives way to surrender and I simply write. When I finish a piece, the relief is radiant and I move again into a similar joy I get from listening. It feels as if I’ve really accomplished something and witnessed a moment so intimate it is irreplaceable. By the time a piece is published, the joy has usually returned to self-doubt and I avoid thinking about it. If I let that shift to self-doubt hover too long I go back into a cycle of too much time between writing sessions and the process again becomes agony. It is from this experience I’ve learned the importance of wrestling. Agony is the doorway that can take me back to joy if I go ahead and wrestle through it. If I want to avoid wrestling, I can instead practice writing every day. But often, I don’t want to, and so I value wrestling.

illustration done in 2014 when I fulfilled my dream of drinking Salon by tasting every vintage made back to the 1970s side-by-side
Many writers I know describe a similar process of agony and retreat, of advance and exuberance. Then there are writers that seem to never have that experience. I think of them as journalists, invaluable hunters of facts and information. Even as they also reveal incredible insight into current events, and startling portrayals of human experience, somehow journalists seem guided more centrally by trust in their training than agony of the unknown.

For me, exploration of the unknown is what fascinates me about listening. It is in those moments, when two people have really found their rapport and speak with each other as people through their professions, rather than merely as two professionals doing their work, that that exploration begins. It is here that whoever is speaking seems to be discovering themselves and their work anew, even as they are sharing subjects they would seem to already know. The excitement of that discovery, or rather, of re-discovering the fascination we have with our chosen profession is what triggers my excitement for listening. It’s the same reason I like to listen to people re-tell stories of how they fell in love with their life partner or loved one. It’s like witnessing the spark of them falling in love all over again. Or, in interviews about work, the moment when new intimacy with the very thing the person has given most of their time to working on emerges. Besides the very subjects being discussed, what fascinates me about these moments is how the person listening helped inspire them, even as from another angle it seems to have almost nothing to do with who is listening precisely because it is about the person speaking.

Listening in this way becomes a sort of paradox – simultaneously creative and yet invisible, a profound intimacy that disappears in a moment, the moment in which the person listening becomes an irreplaceable audience rather than a simply exchangeable one. The particular listener is irreplaceable because it is their rapport with the speaker that helped the speaker re-discover their own story in just that way. And then the moment passes. The intimacy shared closes and the two people go on again about their lives.

If the self-doubt I suffer made me insecure – self-doubt and insecurity are importantly not the same – here is where I would bring in some kind of defensiveness. I could claim the moment never really disappears, that the intimacy matters, and becomes infused into whatever the person does afterwards, that they somehow imagine their lives differently after the experience, and that makes the listening important. In some cases, something like that might be true. In other cases it is simply not. Avoiding the trap of defensiveness matters. It won’t make the experience any more or less important than it happens to be anyway. And without it the self-doubt can offer a subtle lesson.

Self-doubt serves me partly because it is right. What I do is irrelevant from a large-scale perspective even as it also fascinates me for its specific moments. But it also serves me because my intimacy with self-doubt makes me, on the other side, acutely aware of those moments when I have surrendered to the action and helped foster something new.

Copyright 2019 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.


Wine Industry’s Most Inspiring People 2019: A Wine Communication Artist

A Wine Communication Artist
by Barbara Barrielle

Image by Rick Vyrostko Photography, 2018

I first had the pleasure of meeting Elaine Chukan Brown when we were both invited to a harvest lunch at Jordan Winery. This traditional feast, orchestrated by the lovely – and tireless – Lisa Mattson, brought me in contact with someone who inspired me immediately by the fact that she was a successful writer who had raised her college-age daughter, Rachel, on her own and had a grace and intelligence that I got to experience more intimately after being asked to write about her.

Brown is a native Alaskan… really and truly a native with parents from two different Alaskan tribes. She grew up in a fishing family and has been on the water since the age of nine, starting her own salmon fishing operation in her teens. Brown has always worked with a dedication that puts those of us who follow a traditional path to shame. She fished the season tirelessly, sleeping very little, and experiencing the highs and lows of what nature delivers. If the season was June 1stthrough August 15th, Brown would keep fishing after the crew left picking up the late season catch. “I am not necessarily driven,” she says. “I do what’s in front of me.”

As one gets to know Brown and follows her unconventional life to where it has led her now – to the top of the wine writing heap – it becomes evident that this simple belief, or really practice, has been the reason her life has been an adventure. Not an adventure of extreme sports or pushing the limits, but an adventure of exploration. She chooses a path and excels, then may choose another path and give that avenue her full attention.

Having a successful fishing operation, Brown chose to attend college a bit later, but when she did, she did it with gusto. Quickly ripping through college at Northern Arizona University, then earning a McGill University ….

I am so grateful. The Wine Industry Network has selected me as one of their nine Wine’s Most Inspiring People for 2019. The rest of the article about it by fellow writer Barbara Barrielle appears their on the WIN website. Thank you very much to everyone at the Wine Industry Network, and to Barbara for her thoughtful article. I am deeply touched, and so grateful for the recognition, and for the opportunity to work in such a fantastic industry with so many incredible people as we have in wine.

Here is the link to the rest of Barbara’s article at WINhttps://www.wineindustryadvisor.com/2019/01/21/elaine-brown-wine-communication-artist?fbclid=IwAR0wjr0lfyXYN0aatnbsoXyyBV1XDSsGNaRTlCO7fU8kcPS6NqbI21f4Rp4

Raising Arizona Wines

Maynard James Keenan handed me my second espresso. To meet, I woke before dawn and drove over two hours across the Arizona desert. The town where he lives is remote.

We met in his Caduceus wine shop and tasting room at the top of the hill in Jerome to walk vineyards throughout the region. Mornings, the tasting room also serves the best espresso in town and, indeed, it’s among the best I’ve had anywhere.

Keenan explained that, when his favorite local coffee shop went out of business, he decided to buy the machine and beans to serve his own. It guaranteed he’d have a place to hang out in the mornings, and other locals would still get the coffee.

Keenan farms vineyards throughout the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona, as well as a heritage site in Willcox – the Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard – in the Southwestern part of the state. The vineyards serve as the basis for Caduceus and its sister winery, Merkin, and provide fruit for a few other top producers.

Keenan is better known, however, as the lead singer for the internationally celebrated rock bands Tool, Puscifer, and A Perfect Circle. The following for Tool is so rampant that, later in the day, we had to leave a local wine bar earlier than expected when a fan wouldn’t stop pestering.

The fanaticism doesn’t end there. A few years later, Keenan and I attended an Arizona wine tasting together in Napa, California. When news came out about the event, a winemaker friend spent the evening berating me in text for not inviting her to meet him. Tool, she told me, changed her life.

While Keenan’s reputation in music precedes him, people fail to recognize the quality possible for Arizona wine. In a wine world that fetishizes unicorn wine, oddball varieties and undiscovered regions, people still imagine Arizona as only a desert.

They also don’t realize that, unlike other celebrities who just attach their name to winery brands, Keenan actually makes his own wine. Spend time talking with him about wine, and his seriousness is obvious.

Now with more than 15 years experience growing in the region, Keenan has focused on continuously pursuing quality farming for the sake of quality wine. His efforts have been inspired partially by pioneers in the industry who farmed in Arizona first. Al Buhl, whose original vineyard Keenan now owns, first planted malvasia, discovering one of the state’s hallmark varieties. Today it’s one of Keenan’s favorite grapes, planted in steep, sloped terraces beside his home.

Other small production vintners who labor in the effective obscurity of Arizona wine also inspire Keenan. Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wine Works are among the oldest continuously producing wineries in the state. Both started vineyards in the first half of the 1990s. Their efforts have helped determine which varieties can genuinely succeed in the unique growing conditions of a high elevation desert. More recently, Sand-Reckoner has helped bring attention to the state through several acclaimed wines.

Though Keenan has been able to do the most to promote Arizona wine internationally – he often plans his tour schedule to line up with potential wine visits – he recognizes others were making wine first.

These four wineries have also recently banded together. Kent and Lisa Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wine Works, and Rob and Sarah Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner, along with Keenan and his wife Jennifer, founded the Arizona Vignerons Alliance. It’s dedicated to securing the quality and long-term reputation of the region’s wines by certifying those made with Arizona-grown fruit (rather than juice trucked in from neighboring states). The alliance has also helped shine a light on other small producers making quality wine.

Keenan and I begin to drive. Our day will include walks through Verde Valley vineyards, from the lowest to highest elevation. Here, Keenan farms a collection of smaller sites, each devoted to a mix of mainly Italian and Spanish varieties. Sangiovese and tempranillo in particular do well.

Though Arizona is known for heat, cold is the greater challenge in the vineyards. In viticulture, Arizona’s spring frost and fall freeze are among the biggest concerns. One of Keenan’s own vineyards was replanted four times in just over ten years. The joke is that with every big freeze he has to go back on tour to afford the new vineyard. Yet, with each replanting, they’ve improved the site, choosing smarter cultivars, honing the training methods, and adjusting the landscape to protect from freeze.

At the same time, the cold also offers advantages. Arizona hosts the second largest diurnal shift of any growing region on the planet. That is due partly to its incredibly high elevation. In the Verde Valley, vineyards begin around 3,800 feet and reach as high as 5,000 feet (1524 meters). The area includes the lowest elevation vineyards in the state, but also, until recently, the highest.

Near Willcox, newer sites are climbing into the foothills of the Chiricahua Highlands and successfully growing vines around 5,300 feet (1,615 m). Sites of Sonoita hover a little below 5,000 feet. As a result, throughout Arizona, even on days that reach over 100 degrees Farenheit (38 Celsius), nights can fall below 50 (10C), cool enough to slow vine respiration and thus also retain ample acidity. At its best, that means freshness for wine.

Land vs Water

Keenan’s arrival in the Verde Valley coincides with the start of modern vineyards in the area. It’s the youngest growing region in the state. He began planting his Judith block in Jerome in the early 2000s, only a few years after the first vines went into the region.

Modern vineyards were first established in Arizona in the early 1970s, southeast of Tucson near the town of Sonoita. Within a decade, they had moved further east into Willcox as well. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that people began planting vines further north.

As its name “green valley” suggests, the Verde Valley has plenty of water thanks to one of the state’s largest year-round waterways, the Verde River. Flowing between the dramatic red rocks of Sedona to the northeast and the rugged escarpment of the Black Hills to the south, the Verde Valley defies the desert stereotype. The rich vegetation of the river’s riparian zone includes plants as varied as walnut and sycamore trees, box elder, cattails, wild buckwheat, and desert sage. Vineyards here can even be dry farmed.

But where the Verde Valley has water, its land is limited. Thanks to the health of the river, sections of land are protected for wildlife conservation, while others are reserved for public recreation. The water has also meant its history of agriculture.

Ranchers have owned most of the Verde Valley for generations. For older landowners, the advent of wine growing seems an unwelcome upstart. Most are uninterested in the economic advantages of a swiftly growing wine country. Their lives have rested in cattle. But as ranchers age, they are faced with land to be split among adult children with differing motivations.

As wine country in the Verde Valley has grown, so have other cultural opportunities such as an improved food scene, tasting rooms, and wine bars that give locals a place to relax after work, as well as art shows, farmers markets and music events.

Younger generations have begun taking interest, and it’s changing the local economy. In the last five years alone, Cottonwood, in the heart of the Verde Valley, has gone from virtual ghost town to epicenter of food and wine. Halfway up the main street, Keenan’s Merkin Osteria includes an Arizona-only menu complete with produce from Keenan’s own gardens and pasta made onsite from the state’s own grain. The project is designed to support other local farmers and promote the state’s unheralded crops while also pouring Keenan’s wines.

Interest in wine has proved substantial enough that the area now hosts a two-year viticulture and enology degree through Yavapai College. The first graduates of the program have begun launching their own wine brands. To support the efforts, Keenan donated a vineyard for students to farm, and also opened the region’s first co-op where winemakers share equipment.

Success has some downsides, however. The strength of the region’s cultural interests has also meant increased land prices. Those boutique winemakers just out of their two-year degree are unlikely to afford vineyard land or their own winery space in the Verde Valley. But changes in potential land use of the Verde Valley could prove essential to the long-term health of Arizona wine. The state’s other two growing regions are thirsty for water.

Today, vineyards grow mainly in Willcox. Land remains affordable there, and the growing conditions in the area readily support vines. It is also home to more small wineries, and the quality of the region has attracted uniquely experienced winemakers.

After making a name for himself in Oregon, Dick Erath established vineyards in Willcox, bringing attention to the vineyard potential of Arizona, before selling them to Todd and Kelly Bostock. The Bostocks also farm land in Sonoita.

More recently, after earning his master’s in viticulture and oenology in Adelaide, Rob Hammelman and his wife Sarah moved to Willcox. They simply liked the area, but more importantly they were also able to afford a house on plantable acres to launch their bootstrap winery, Sand-Reckoner.

Not far from Sand-Reckoner’s home vineyards, the Pierce family owns and farms their Rolling View Vineyard, which provides fruit for two family-owned brands, Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars. Son Michael Pierce also serves as the director of enology for the two-year program in the Verde Valley.

The success of these wineries has depended at least partially on land prices and availability. None of them could have started in the Verde Valley. Even so, the long-term growth of Willcox hits a limit when the region runs out of water.

Sonoita too has a limit on water, but its soils also slow growing potential. Uniquely high bicarbonate levels give wine the same palate-squeezing tension and innate concentration found in sites planted to limestone. But, like limestone, too much means vines are imbalanced, unable to capture enough of their other mineral needs.

In places that work, the spindly power and mouthwatering character of the wines is impressive. As a result, sites in Sonoita tend to be managed as a sort of ongoing experiment, looking for just the right spot and just the right planting. Vineyards are often established to a field blend-style melange of varieties. It provides both insurance against vintage variation and the chance to see what works.

Many of the best wines of the region too, from producers like Dos Cabezas Wine Works and Callaghan, come from the co-fermented mix of varieties grown in these sites. The approach offers texture and balance to the concentration and intensity innate to the region.

Back in Jerome

After a full day of driving the Verde Valley, Keenan and I finish back in Jerome, tasting vintage verticals of his hallmark wines. The most striking for me comes from his Judith block. It’s the highest elevation site in the Verde Valley, set on the side of what locals call Cleopatra Hill in a series of steep-sloped terraces at 5,000 feet. Earlier that morning, we’d started the day walking the Judith block just after finishing our espresso.

There, when we step into the vines, the morning light across the valley glows at a low angle, rising over the Black Hills behind us. The hills cut the light into fingers reaching across the Verde Valley, emblazoning the red rocks on the other side of the river. We step carefully from terrace to terrace. Everywhere there are chalky white stones. As we walk, the stones release a faint, powdery chalk smell, all mixed through with chaparral. I am struck by it. This feels like one of the most iconic sites I have seen anywhere, as if it was simply made to grow wine. Yet, here we are in Arizona.

At the end of the day, when we return to taste the wines, there it is again. I recognize the Judith block in its smells. With every vintage and variety grown in those soils, I can smell powdery chalk mixed through with chaparral, the smell of the desert, the scent of growing Arizona wine.

Words and illustrations by Elaine Chukan Brown, aka @Hawk_Wakawaka.
This article was original published in Sommelier 2017, a magazine published in partnership with Texsom, and Texsom International Wine Awards

Publisher’s Note: TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2017 demonstrated the heights to which Arizona wines are rising and the engagement of which producers in marketing their wines to a wider audience. TEXSOM IWA received enough entries for Arizona to qualify as its own single state category (along with California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and last year’s addition Virginia). Nineteen wines from Arizona won medals under the stringent judging standards of the competition. – James Tidwell

Post Edit: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Dick Erath had previously owned Dos Cabezas. That error has been removed. 

The Story of California Chardonnay – part 4

The final instalment of this four-part history of California’s most popular grape variety. See also part 1part 2 and part 3

Broadening the range of styles: 2000 to today 

As the ABC movement took hold, wine lovers turned away from California Chardonnay, and restaurant wine lists throughout the United States reduced by-the-glass selections largely to only one key Chardonnay. Rombauer and Kendall Jackson Reserve became benchmarks for more generous renditions of the state’s number one variety. Kendall Jackson Reserve was launched in the mid 1980s and by the 2000s had become the standard for a rich style of Chardonnay with a bit of residual sugar. It filled a previously untapped spot in the market selling as a mid-priced wine, neither as expensive as boutique wines, nor as cheap as mere jug wine. Kendall Jackson was marketed as a wine for anyone. While its style of relying on residual sugar was less common upon its release, by the end of the 1990s it had been copied the world over.

Interestingly, in the case of Kendall Jackson Reserve, the residual sugar came not from Chardonnay itself but from blending in a small amount of unfinished, so sweet, Gewurztraminer. The wine was a multi-regional blend. While the everyday consumer couldn’t get enough of it, the specialist wine drinker turned away from Chardonnay because of it. Although higher-end customers and wine geeks criticised the variety, the state’s acreage did not significantly decrease. Sales of lower-priced Chardonnays remained strong. Premium producers whose style was championed by collectors seeking wines recommended by Parker and Wine Spectator directed sales towards this sort of collector, while producers of the more classic style relied on long-standing devotees as sales slowly decreased. The backlash of the ABC movement failed to distinguish between the different styles of Chardonnay.  As wine lovers turned away from California wines, interest in the fresher styles associated with Old World producers took hold. In California, even some of the celebrity producers of the riper styles began to consider bringing greater freshness to their approach.

Gaining acclaim for generous wines in the late 1990s, DuMOL winemaker Andy Smith (pictured above right) was already beginning to reconsider his approach in the early 2000s. By 2003 when the winery began planting their own estate vineyard in the cool-climate part of Russian River Valley known as Green Valley, Smith made the decision to establish the vineyard in a manner that would support not only greater freshness but also more nuance in the wines. The DuMOL estate was established with California heritage clones.

Smith decided on the innate complexity of California heritage selections, rather than nursery clones, or heat-treated material from UC Davis. He selected budwood from the ….

To keep reading this article, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where it appears free-for-all to read. You will also find there each of the first three installments of the article, all of which Jancis published free-for-all as a Christmas present to readers. Here’s the direct link to the fourth installment: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-4

Part 1: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1

Part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

Part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

The Story of California Chardonnay – part 3

See part 1 and part 2 of this four-part history of California’s most popular grape variety. 

The globalisation of California Chardonnay: the 1980s to the 2000s 

With a few exceptions, by the end of the 1970s much of California Chardonnay was made with some period of skin contact after being run through the crusher, followed by cold fermentation with cultured yeast in temperature-controlled tanks, no malo, and ageing in new oak barrels. The result was a plethora of wines full of flavour upon release, and plenty of impact. But it is worth noting that during this period the wines were not as alcoholic as later California Chardonnays and were more commonly around or below 13%. Even the richest examples were below 13.5%.

In 1981, Frank Prial wrote an article for The New York Timesthat would help begin a shake up of California’s newfound Chardonnay style. Without naming any producers beyond generally noting ‘a famous North Coast winery’, and referring to Chardonnays of the region more broadly, Prial described his issue with the wines. His critique seemed exactly counter to the goals of immediate flavour sought by many of the trend-setting producers of the time. As he explains, he brought two wines to dinner, one a California Chardonnay and the other a white burgundy. ‘Both were Chardonnays, from optimum vintages and in the same price range. At first the California wine was impressive and the French wine seemed weak and bland. Twenty minutes into the meal, however, the American wine was clumsy and overpowering while the charm and subtlety of the French wine was only beginning to emerge.’

David Ramey told me that Prial’s article had an important impact on California wine and caused producers to begin rethinking their approach to winemaking. The timing was significant. For the first time in recent history, the North Coast of California had a plethora ….

To keep reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the rest of the article appears free-for-all to read. Part 1 of the piece appeared there Monday, part 2 Wednesday. The 4th, and final part, will publish Friday. Here’s the direct link to part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

Happiest of Holidays to everyone!

Part 1: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1

Part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

The Story of California Chardonnay – part 2

See part 1 of this four-part account of California’s most-planted grape. 

The building of California Chardonnay: the 1950s to the 1970s 

It was in the Stony Hill vineyard, at between 1,000 and 1,600 ft (305–490 m) elevation in loamy volcanic soils, that the first Chardonnay was knowing planted in Napa Valley. The first wines were released from the 1953 vintage after an unfortunate mishap with contamination of the first, 1952 vintage. The McCreas were friends with many Napa Valley winemakers and so learned how to make wine from their neighbours. Although it was the wines of Europe that inspired them, there was little communication between wine producers in Europe and California and so there was little knowledge of, for example, Burgundian winemaking techniques. Varietally specific winemaking was not yet developed so the approach they took to making Chardonnay was consistent with what was simply white winemaking.

In 1972, Mike Chelini (above right) became first the Stony Hill vineyard foreman, and then also winemaker alongside Fred McCrea. When McCrea died in 1977, Chelini took the lead in both roles. Currently Chelini is both the longest-tenured winemaker in Napa Valley, and also the longest tenured Chardonnay winemaker in North America. Just this month Stony Hill announced that at age 70 Chelini is retiring after the completion of the 2018 vintage. During my interviews with Chelini, he explained that he has consistently made Stony Hill Chardonnay exactly as McCrea taught him, and that McCrea also claimed never to alter the approach. The equipment even remains largely the same. On further questioning, Chelini admitted the one thing that has changed is that he has  reduced his sulfur usage.

Having remained largely unchanged, Stony Hill Chardonnay stands as an important window into the history of California winemaking. According to Chelini, the style was meant to offer very little flavour to the wine in its first few years. Instead, McCrea believed the wine began to show itself after around 10 years in bottle. The fruit was harvested at around 23.5 ºBrix in the interest of preserving natural acidity. After harvest, the Chardonnay was run through a crusher and directly into the press. (Originally this choice would have been largely logistical, depending on the equipment available at the time, and was common throughout the region.) As the juice came in, sulfur was added to keep the juice from oxidising, and then after settling the juice went to old barrels and/or wooden tanks (depending on what was available in the winery) for fermentation. The wine was kept there for 10 months before bottling through sterile filter, without either bâtonnage or malolactic conversion (ML).

As Peter McCrea explained, it was common for wines of the region in the 1970s not to ….

To keep reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article is free-for-all to read. Part 1 of the piece appeared Monday of this week, also free-for-all. Part 3 will appear Thursday. Here is the direct link to this portion, part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

Happy Holidays!

Part 1: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1

Part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

Part 4: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-4

The story of California Chardonnay – part 1

This is the first of a four-part account of California’s most-planted vine variety.

Today Chardonnay is the most widely planted, and successfully-sold, grape variety in the state of California, and occupies a similar position in the rest of the world, but its rise to such prominence is relatively recent.

It was not until the 1970s, by which time three key events had occurred in the United States, that plantings of Chardonnay in the state really took off. Sales of table wines finally surpassed those of dessert wines; the price of grapes finally surpassed the cost of farming them; and clonal selections increased average yields. At the start of the 1960s there were only 300 acres of Chardonnay planted in the whole of California (Pinney 1989). The results of the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 in which Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay famously ‘beat’ some top white burgundy helped increase public interest, but on its own would not have offered enough momentum had yields, grape prices, and interest in table wine not already been established. By 2000, Chardonnay secured its position as the most-planted variety in the state. Today, more than 100 clonal selections of Chardonnay exist in California, with the diversity of plant material derived from a mix of treatments, supplemented by heritage selections and newer imports from around the world. This will be discussed at more length.

The following four-part history looks primarily at premium wine, although the historical information also gives some insight into how Chardonnay became such a commodity wine as well. The research includes my own extensive interviews with vintners throughout California, reading of transcripts from historic oral interviews of vintners throughout the state, relevant California grape harvest reports, and various books on wine. Some of the books relevant to this material are listed at the end of each instalment. As always, even more producers could be mentioned along the way. This is meant to give an overall narrative of how the variety grew to its stature and how its styles and interests evolved over time, rather than to cover every producer, which would demand a book rather than just a very, very long article.

The subject is something I find fascinating as it serves as an interesting lens into the world of wine. While Chardonnay certainly originates in France, its popularity as a varietal category starts in California. Before varietal labelling began in the United States in the late 1930s, Chardonnay had never ….

To keep reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the entire four-part piece will be published free-for-all to read as a Christmas present to readers.This is the first of the four-parts. The next three will publish Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of this week. Here’s the direct link to the first installment: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1 

Happy holidays to everyone!

Part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

Part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

Part 4: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-4

Van Duzer Corridor AVA now official

President Trump approves another official wine appellation.

The Van Duzer Corridor AVA in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has been officially approved by the TTB, the US regulatory body. The announcement came on Friday after seven years in the TTB approval process. While the application for the new AVA had been all but signed, Trump’s policy of reducing new regulations had severely slowed the final approval process for not only this AVA but all AVAs within the United States (see, for example, Petaluma Gap – Trumps first new AVA). The proposal was originally submitted in 2011 and was close to completion before Trump took office. However, immediately after becoming President, Trump announced he would forego creating any new regulations without having first eliminated others. Since an AVA is a legal designation, the TTB approval process fell within Trump’s de-regulation tactics.

With the new Van Duzer Corridor AVA, the larger Willamette Valley AVA is now home to a total of seven nested AVAs including Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge McMinnville, and Eola-Amity Hills, all of which were approved between 2005 and 2006. The original Willamette Valley AVA was recognised in 1983. See this map.

The new Van Duzer Corridor area has long been recognized as one of the coldest and most wind exposed portions of Willamette Valley. The planted area within ….

To continue reading this article, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where it appears free-for-all. Here’s the direct link: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/van-duzer-corridor-ava-now-official


Rebuilding Wine Country Eight Cottages at a Time

The lead story over at Wine & Spirits Magazine … 


Rebuilding Wine Country, Eight Cottages at a Time

It happened in a matter of hours. When the Wine Country fires started in California the night of October 9, 2017, they rushed over 30 miles of canyons, from Calistoga west into the hills, exploding in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa just after midnight. By morning, the neighborhood was gone, all but two houses burned by the fires.

Much of Coffey Park, Mark West and Larkfield Estates were also destroyed in the fires. In Santa Rosa alone more than 2,800 homes and 5,100 structures were burned, creating a housing emergency in a city that already had a housing crisis.

Within days, Chris Strieter, Max Thieriot and Myles Lawrence-Briggs of Senses Wines in Occidental created Rebuild Wine Country, partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build and repair structures after the fires. This October, their efforts began to turn into homes.

On the one-year anniversary of the Wine Country fires, Rebuild Wine Country and Habitat for Humanity held a groundbreaking ceremony in the Fountaingrove neighborhood to install the first of what will be eight to ten Sonoma Wildfire Cottages. Congressman Mike Thompson and designer Marianne Cusato were also on hand for the ceremony. Medtronic, a medical equipment company, donated a portion of its Fountaingrove campus for the community of cottages. The project is just the …

To keep reading, head on over to Wine & Spirits where the article appears free-for-all. Here’s the direct link: https://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/news/entry/rebuilding-wine-country-eight-cottages-at-a-time

US Master Sommeliers Shrink and Compensate, updated

Congratulations to the 6 new Master Sommeliers recognized just this morning!
(here 5 of them – photo courtesy of the Court of Master Sommeliers)

Once more Elaine brings us bang up to date on a scandal to have hit the American Master Sommelier organisation. 

6 December 2018 The Court of Master Sommeliers has welcomed six new Master Sommeliers to their ranks today. The tasting portion of the rigorous three-part exam took place yesterday, 5 December, in St Louis, Missouri, and the results were announced this morning. In total, 30 sat this round of the blind tasting exam. The six who passed – Andrey Ivanov, Douglas Kim, Mia Van de Water, Maximilian Kast, Steven McDonald (pictured below), plus Dana Gaiser – had previously passed in what turned out to be September’s breached exam. Yesterday’s blind tasting was the first of three possible special tasting exams offered by the Court following September’s breach. The second special tasting will occur in the new year, and the third alongside the regularly scheduled Master Sommelier exams already planned for next year. Each of these additional exam opportunities is proctored in the same manner as any other Master Sommelier exam. However, the Court’s board has also made clear they have increased their already strict security protocols around the blind tasting preparation procedures following September’s incident.

The press releases sent in October from the Court’s board regarding September’s security breach (see below) state that it was an exam proctor that violated the integrity of the exam, rather than any particular candidate who cheated. It does not state that any particular candidate sought to gain such …

To continue reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article appears free-for-all to read. Here’s the direct link: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/us-master-sommeliers-shrink-and-compensate