another side of napa at the 2012 wine festival.

california wine, cheese, colorado wine, food pairing, Uncategorized

I admit. I went in with my biases at this year’s 21st Annual Wine Festival of Colorado Springs, put on by our sister store Coaltrain with the Fine Arts Center. Every year they knock it right out of the park with incredible speakers, winemakers, demonstrations and pairing seminars. This year’s focus was Napa. I assumed they might cater towards an audience who was seeking to glorify their beloved Cabernet, a varietal that is so inextricably linked to this American viticenter’s image. But I was wrong. And that shouldn’t surprise me. Year after year, whether women winemakers, South African wine, Spanish or whatever the theme might be, never do the organizers for this event shape it around a collective imagination of what a region, grape or style should be. They quite intentionally push the limit of a region’s character and emphasize its diversity, intrigue and potential, exposing evidence of a truly influential and great wine region.

And so, this time it was Napa.

In the two seminars I attended, I was able to taste through an array of grapes and sub-regions within Napa. From the floor to the high points of Spring Mountain, we tasted the difference a stone’s throw makes in the land of milk and honey.

Bright and early, it began with a wine & cheese seminar–without a doubt one of my favorite seminars they put on if you think to go next Spring. Whereas many tasting seminars expose you to tons of components and flavors, making it difficult to discern a direct connect between elements, this tasting is just you, the wine and the cheese. The influence of one on the other compounded by winemakers there discussing their viticultural and vinification techniques on each particular wine while a cheese expert does the same for each selection really allows you to sit and get to know your tastebuds in depth.

We tasted through a Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc with a classic chèvre, a Chardonnay from Keenan with a Triple Creme, a rose from Bouchaine with some salty year old Manchego (an excellent pairing, as the wine really had some Spanish rosado flare), a hearty Bouchaine Syrah, a Keenan Zinfandel and a Cabernet paired with a blue. The most charming red we saw had to be the Flora Springs Sangiovese. Had I been blinded, I may have gone Tuscan, but that ripe forward fruit really is Cali’s thing. The most stunning and surprising red I tasted was Keenan’s Zin. It had the finesse, balance and complexity to force me to throw everything I thought I felt about Zin out the window. I thanked him for that. I come across people daily that get fixated on hating particular wines or grapes (Merlot and Riesling come to mind immediately). There are good versions of just about everything out there! Or, I should say, a version that you are more accustom to liking. That’s what I learned Saturday morning. I was not much different. Even I can get a little judgey. This wine reminded me to just keep an open palate…

The next seminar was a luncheon I had been excited to sit in on for weeks. Chef Soa Davies from New York’s Le Bernardin was there to lead each exquisite course. And so, below is a synopsis of each memorable bite…

#1 ’10 Robert Sinskey Abraxas: sashimi-style salmon, green apple, jalapeño cream sauce, micro green salad

When Sinskey took the floor, he kind of lit up the room. Here he was in a nice flannel shirt, thick black frames, and white hair. He had an air about him. A confident yet humble presence. A calm demeanor. A kind smile. His success has come from hard work, patience and a very calculated intention. I realized this when he spoke.

His Abraxas, named for the Egyptian god whose letters stood for the 365 days in a year.  In the same way, each day that went into this wine was weighted and meaningful. He pulls from four Alsatian varietals: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Blanc–an ode to his wife in a way, though both are fond lovers of this French region. His fear was that Napa might be too warm to grow these grapes independently, when it occurred to him, he didn’t have to. Though harvested and fermented separately, they share a bottle and meld together beautifully. Faint orange blossom on the nose, lime zest on the palate. Bone dry. Sensational white. It was good with the salmon, but slightly too dry perhaps for the heat. It kicked up a lot of citrus on the palate.

#2 ’09 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: Caramelized Endive, Caramelized spicy shrimp, bouillabaisse

The winery that helped put Napa on the map in a big way back in 1976 when their Chardonnay took gold at the Judgement of Paris tasting against some of the finest burgundies in the world, Chateau Montelena was an incredible addition to this event. Vineyard manager Dave Vella has been at the winery since the early ‘80s keeping it honest and consistent. Even in the height of buttery oaky blockbusters, they have chosen to remain true to their style. This wine shined with the dish, complimenting its richness and inherent acidity, elevating notes of lemon curd, pineapple and caramel.

#3 ’08 Robert Sinskey 3 Amigos Pinot Noir: Roots Vegetables

This was my favorite course hands down. The flavors Davies teased from these roots had me liking parsnip (and that never happens). Though earthy veggies seem like a logical match for lighter pinot, I didn’t realize just how incredible they could be. The carrot lit up the spices, the parsnip pulled out a creamy texture to the wine, and the beets turned up the volume when it came to that earthy, cherried sandalwood one seeks in a Cali Pinot. It is a grape that mesmerizes but is possibly the hardest to articulate. Sinskey likens it to a marriage… you never quite figure your partner out, but they will always have you happily guessing.

#4 ’09 VGS Chateau Potelle The Illegitimate Red: Chicken deboned and cured, herbs

Jean-Noel is perhaps the most fascinating winemaker I have ever met! He stands today with one kidney and one lung. He recently climbed Annapurna. He is French. Incredibly French. But he absolutely LOVES California wine. Not long after the 1976 Paris Tasting, while he was working as a critic in Bordeaux, sniffing around to be sure quality was up to standards, he was sent on assignment to America as a spy of sorts. He was to report back what they were up to in Napa. As he says, he called them and stated simply, “It’s good. I stay!”

Illegitimate is a throw-back to his French roots, when you couldn’t mix your Bordeaux grapes with your Rhones and slipping in a varietal that wasn’t French might have you arrested! He is exploring the wild west attitude of blending with this red, combining Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Zin. On the nose, Syrah wins with its peppery, floral, wow factor. On the palate the Cab fights to dominate. It is a fun wine, intriguing and bold.

#5 09 VGS Chateau Potelle Zinfandel: Braised short-rib, pickled onions

For too long, Jean-Noel feels Zin has been treated as a second class citizen. I think he said this about five times. Insisting on its relevance, he has dedicated himself to making some incredible, food-worthy wines of the Zinfandel variety. Though Croatian-born, this grape has become, in many ways, the ‘American’ red. Here it gained recognition, much like the French-born Malbec in Mendoza. Just before we were left to enjoy the spot on pairing, his final words were, “If you like it, I was responsible. If you don’t, you have bad taste.” He was such a treat with his thick French accent and smiling eyes.

#6 ’09 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon: Bittersweet chocolate mousse, sea salt, caramel puff, brandied cherries, ice cream

In Soa’s words, to pair a dry acid Cabernet with such a decadent dessert, it was the brandied cherries that for her bridged the two worlds. I was impressed, I admit. No offensive, bitter flavors arose. It was smooth and enticing. More than anything, surprising and bold. Were I to have this heavenly dessert again, I think I would reach for a tawny port, however, to really elevate the caramel undertones, play with the saltiness and magnify the mousse.

Two Cabernets out of twelve wines. That’s it. That’s Napa. With every passing year, innovative folks and adventurous vignerons see the potential beyond Cabernet in this exquisite region. Don’t get me wrong. I just sipped through a vertical of Mondavi Reserve last year form 1991-1996, and they are nothing short of breathtaking right at this very moment. Those age, man. They have guts. But tasting everything from Sangiovese to Alsatian blends, I was convinced there is so much more to wow the world from this corner of the world.

Keep an eye out just after Christmas for next year’s lineup. There are a number of events and seminars that range in price. Whether a wine newbie or a wine nerd, you are certain to learn something new with every sip.

Best is Best: A reflection on 2011’s best wines.

california wine, colorado wine, french wine, Lopez de Heredia

Every year, I am amazed at the wealth of new wines that find their way to the market. It opens my eyes to the potential of so many regions and varietals. This past year, so many wines made an impression on me. Some, new vintages of old friends. Others, brand new kids on the block making their way into my radar. What follows is what I feel were the best of their category (in my ever so humble opinion). They are the ones that stick out above the rest in 2011. (I have kept a somewhat realistic price point in mind, as I am honestly more impressed by lesser expensive wines that over deliver… It’s more of a challenge to be best when you are under $50+ per bottle.)

Best Overall: 1990 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Gran Reserva ($175)–I mean, come on. Give me any wine in the world right now within reason, this is the one I will want to drink this one. Why? This winery always manages to beat everyone else, for it has the power to transfer you to another place and time. Wine is no longer made like this anymore. Like time stopped in 1889, these wines are haunting, saddled with stories, mysteries and family legend. They have a most unusual, identifiable aroma to them. I am at once nostalgic for what I cannot articulate. Sensational and moving, these wines evade a clear definition. They are the most memorable I have ever experienced. These wines, in fact, are an experience in themselves. I guess that’s the definition.

Best Old World Red: 2003 i Clivi Merlot ($26)–If this doesn’t redeem the ever-fallen Merlot varietal, I don’t know what will. I craved this wine often this year with a variety of foods, as it went perfectly with game, duck, rustic casseroles, pot roast, or simple cheese plates. Ripe, concentrated red fruits, spice and a respectful nod to the great wines of the right bank of Bordeaux, this Friulian find has been in the front line of recommendations for me. Rustic and wholesome, an uncompromising wine in its focused agenda to please yet be taken seriously.

Best New World Red: 2007 Bonny Doon Cigare Volant ($35)–A tired choice to some? Perhaps. But in all seriousness, trying it again this year a couple of times reminded me that it is truly an outstanding wine in so many ways. Incredibly complex for the price and indicating that bottle age will only unravel more facets, this Rhone blend is an outstanding wine from one of our country’s most gifted vintners.

Best Old World White: 2010 Patrick Piuze Petit Chablis ($21)An absolute rockstar to keep an eye on, Piuze is like the soil whisperer. He has a way to take a region that already enjoys fame for its minerality and take it to an ever more pronounced level in his wines. No better way to prove it than with his entry level Petit– a region that is greatly overlooked for its lesser glorified Portlandian soil, he manages to give it an admirable face lift.

Best New World White: 2008 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Riverbrooke Riesling ($29)–I seldom bring in New Zealand Riesling, let alone higher end selections. They are a hard sell. This one had to, though. It is hard to put into words. I don’t worry that it might sit. It will only get better with time.

Best Champagne: 2002 Gaston Chiquet Special Club ($72)-How people can drop $175 for Dom when a 1er Cru Vintage can be had for more than half the price less is beyond me. A simply superb buy from a true farmer, from the vine to the bottle.

Best Bubbles: Camille Braun Cremant d’Alsace Rose ($25)– A remarkable new addition to the Denver market, this rose has provoked more of a response from my customers (and myself) than any bubbly ever has. It is stunning. Near flawless. Only 300 cases made. And that is evident on the palate.

Most Eccentric: 2008 Penalba Cruz Bianco of Tempranillo/Sauvignon Blanc ($21)–An incredibly intriguing wine, for they remove skins from the red Tempranillo grape, blend it with Sauv Blanc then leave it in barrel to become a most unusual, profound substance. Delightfully rich and multidimensional.

Best Value: 2008 Chateau Valcombe Cote du Ventoux ($15)–An old favorite, this red has the rusticity of the Rhone with the finesse of Burgundy. Delicate layers and hidden aromatics will have you sniffing for hours.

Most Surprising Gem: 2004 Crooked Creek Meritage ($13)–Wow. Blindfold me, and I was guessing a well made, mid-priced ($25ish?) aged Cab from California, only to find it had a fair amount of Cab Franc from where else but Creede Colorado! Outstanding little blend.

Best Conversation Starter: 2008 Casalone Freisa ($17)–A winery that has been elevating every varietal in Piemonte other than Nebbiolo since the 1700s, including the rare Freisa grape. A light froth on this purple liquid might have you thinking sweet lambrusco, but you will find a savory sensation that is dying for cured meats and cheese to really shine.

Best Weekly Standby: 2008 Damiano Ciolli Silene Cesanese ($20)–Anyone who had me to dinner this year has probably tried this fascinating varietal from just outside Rome in the region of Lazio. This grower is bringing Cesanese back and showing everyone that it can be extremely complex. I cannot get enough.

Best Label Design: Lini 910 Lambrusco Bianco ($17)–If this were a place, it would be Williamsburg. Hip and edgy, it is pushing the envelope by refusing to be confined to a predictable definition. Dry, crisp, white and complex, this bubbly will have you scratching your head if you ever beheld Reunite.

Best Book on Wine: Reading Between the wines by Terry Theise ($20)–It doesn’t even take a wine lover to slip into this memoir. Terry Theise is a lover of language and his ability to arrange it in beautiful shapes is both refreshing and inspiring. A different way to consider wine.

Best Wine List in Town: Table 6–Best is Best. Whether I recommend them all the time or not. Come on Denver. Give them some competition. Bigger is not better. It’s the thoughtfulness that counts.

Best Night Cap: Vajra Chinato ($80)–An old recipe from Piemonte, it isn’t difficult to imagine this was an apothecary liquid to cure winter born illness. Christmas spices will warm you from the base of your body on up to your brain. A soothing voice manifests itself in this Barolo kissed digestif.

Best Aperitif: Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth ($35)– On one massive rock with a twist of orange, and you just might start to hear an old jazz standard playing in the background of each sip.

Best of the Eco-Friendly: 2009 Nikolaihof ‘Hefeabzug’ Gruner Veltliner ($24)–2010 still a little too jazzed. This vintage is drinking perfectly from the oldest estate in Europe, first to be Demeter biodynamic certified.

Best of the Boxes: Caves de Pomerols Picpoul de Pinet ($22)–This is just one of those gems I will never tire of, as it proves that a wine need not be pricey to impress an entire room of novices and know-it-alls alike. Fresh, zippy and playful.

bootcamp diaries, day 3: mother nature’s rotten ways.

california wine, Wine Blog, Wine Education, Wine Travel

My final full day on Spring Mountain I woke up early and followed my nose to the Schweiger’s home just across the road from Paloma. Coffee and a delicious homemade breakfast awaited me. I, along with a few others from the group, sat around and talked shop. One guy runs a Wine Styles store near my hometown in Wisconsin. I was happy to hear the industry was beginning to boom in the midwest.

I admit, a little jealousy set in when I learned that those who were staying on at Schweiger for their morning group project might be harvesting grapes. No one was really picking at this point anywhere else, but knowing I’d be spending my morning at one of my favorite wineries: Pride Estate, I couldn’t get too green with envy. Especially when I learned, that we too may be crushing a few…

Pride had received a shipment of Chardonnay from Carneros for their base tier label. While they have a one-acre block they devote to their 100% estate grown Vintner Select Chardonnay, they source fruit for their other label– I believe the only wine they source fruit for, in fact. But as the bunches rolled in, gasps began to fill the autumn air. The grapes they had checked up on just the week prior—grapes that were beautiful, golden and only days from peak ripeness—were now rotten and botrytis-affected. Heaps of them, all sad and ugly.

In that moment, I realized that I don’t think I could quite handle being a winemaker.

All that time that went into pruning the vines in winter, cultivating the soils in spring, praying through budbreak, holding one’s breath through fruit set, trimming the canopy, dropping the fruit in order to get your babies to the day when they could be transformed into wine. And then, to see them all decay after a few days rain.

We went through the motions, picking through the masses of mold on the sorting table, chucking pound after pound of bad grapes until finally we were told to stop. They had to make a decision if this was worth the time or not.

Alas, it was not. The grapes were refused.

Just like that, profit margins change, allocations change, wineries lose money, farmers retrace every step and wonder if they should have picked a week from ideal ripeness. It all changes with a little rain.

Harvest is all about letting go of control. You can cross every T and dot every I but still, in the field, it’s up to the almighty Mother Earth if a grower is going to have a stressful harvest or not. On that mountain, though, I was explained something that I will always remember. A ‘bad’ vintage does not mean you will necessarily have bad wine. A bad vintage means that a farmer will really have to exercise his/her knowledge when it matters most—throughout all the stages. Good vintages lend themselves to novices. Fruit set and harvest are crucial, though, and if rain, hail or frost occurs, you need to have about 10 backup plans and the confidence to execute them at the right time.

What separates the boys from the men (or the girls from the women) when it comes to viticulture, is truly knowing what is best for those vines.

For Pride, it was about making a difficult call with grapes they hadn’t nursed along the way, but they had picked from an excellent source. That they had lost them to rain was no one’s fault. Chardonnay in particular is a very small berried, tight clustered varietal. Once excessive water gets in there, good luck. The best thing they could have done at that point was turn them away. Bad wine will only compromise the integrity of an estate. To sell wine at prices that don’t meet their quality standards is not something an honorable winery would do. I had great respect for Pride that day. I saw how hard that decision was. And I thought of the source of their grapes as well—a very reputable winery. What would they do with the loss?

I believe around Napa and Sonoma in general, there will be a bit of shared loss this year. But I can assure you, the wine that comes from this vintage will be terrific if you trust that the grower knows how to bring it full circle from the bud to the bottle. This vintage will draw a line between hobbyists and true artists of the vine. And I witnessed the latter everywhere on Spring Mountain—blow drying wet grapes each morning, sacrificing fruit so berries had a better chance of ripening, training the canopy differently, etc. But once that mold comes… man… there’s just nothing anyone can really do. You pick and hope for the best. Or you let them go. A season’s work. Done.

We did some other things that day at Pride, learning how to add nutrients to barrels that were undergoing fermentation already, keeping the yeasts sustained with additions. On the mountain, some were more focused on natural yeast fermentation, while many still believed inoculation was really best for the full maturity and control of product. ‘Divergent in thought’ should have been the subtitle of this trip, so many of the winemakers held tight to their way of thinking. And the funny thing was? No one was right or wrong. Not to be kindergarten teacher about it, but really, you could taste their various philosophies and methods in each and every wine.

After a really great afternoon at Terra Valentine, all our groups convened at Vineyards 7 & 8 for an eye-opening formal tasting of 16 wines from different Spring Mountain producers. Many were from the 2007 & 2008 vintages, so we could truly ‘taste the terroir’, as it was so uniquely expressed in each individual wine. These wines were so different from one another, but one thing they shared: a deep minerality that just can’t be found in most California reds to this point. It was this rocky note, this undercurrent, which spoke to them all and gave the region a distinct flavor. Spring Mountain contains over 25 different soil types (of the world’s 34), not to mention each vineyard describes a totally different typography and geologic feature, whether river, sun exposure, aspect or soil series. It’s not too surprising they built an entire program to demonstrate just that: their variant timbres. Some were very earthy (Cain Five and Guilliams), powerful and rich (Fantesca and Vineyards 7 & 8), fruit forward and elegant (Paloma), classic and stately (Keenan and Pride), amongst so many other personalities. None of these wines were heard over the rest, rather they all spoke with intention and integrity.

My time in Spring Mountain was unforgettable. It was my first taste of Napa…my first taste in a vineyard. And though I am not sure emotionally I have what it takes to give it all up for the secateurs, I more than ever desire to work on the farm for a true harvest start to finish. Or longer…

more bootcamp diaries on spring mountain: day 2

Biodynamic, california wine, organic wine, Wine Travel

It’s been a few days now since my return from Spring Mountain… but I just can’t stop thinking about my short time there. It was actually more idyllic than I imagined it could be. Rolling vineyards, clear afternoon skies that relentlessly pushed past the contemplative morning fog, a slight breeze to raise the hair on my arm and remind me it was real. Incredible this was all just a quick plane ride away. No jumping across ponds and walking with a French translation handbook. I could ask whatever I wanted and be answered in Fahrenheit, acres and tons.

Thankfully, every hour of our day was pretty well planned out, or I y have curled up on the nearest hammock and become compost in a few months time. That second day—really my first ‘in the field’—began with a seminar atCain Vineyards with the entire group. The vineyard managers at both Cain and Spring Mountain Vineyard were there to discuss the history, climate and general viticulture of the AVA.

It was a very chilly morning, but already I sensed the sunny, warm forecast would pull through. My caffeine-free host dug through a few now probably petrified pieces of meat at the base of his freezer to retrieve some forlorn beans (thank God!), and I could fulfill my wish of having a cup in hand while my warm breath cut through the morning air.

We heard again what we had already heard so many times since arriving to this mountain: 2011 has been a cool, rainy season since the start, and the grapes just aren’t where they typically should be at this point. Many Cabs are barely breaking 21 brix, and they have several weeks, maybe even months until they can achieve their desired sugars and phenolic ripeness. And it only gets rainier as we exit summer in Cali.


Rain in June during budbreak. Rain in the past couple weeks. The two times that rain is the last thing you wish for: the beginning during fruit set and harvest. Alas, the theme of the week: Mother Nature has her own plan. All you can do is work with her and hope for the best.

So what is a farmer to do?

These were not your average farmers. That’s one thing I learned real fast. They made a cognitive decision to move up the road from the Napa Valley floor—a place that grows world class fruit just by spitting out a seed—up to the hills. A place that has much shallower soils ( a few feet vs nearly 40 feet on the floor), twice as much rain (60 vs 30 inches), erosion, mildew, not to mention lower yields due to problems at budbreak and harvest. Paloma, for example, loses half their crop every 2-3 years to shatter—a problem that occurs when a vine is not self-pollinating and blossoming when it should be due to rain or other stress.

Spring Mountain may be a terrific environment for grapes to grow…but it’s not the easiest to place to be a grower. In order to get the grapes to where you want them to be, you have to understand a lot more than just giving the plant some water and praying that the sun shines. You must learn how to manipulate the canopy, when to drop fruit (in order to concentrate more energy on the still hanging clusters), how to deal with lethal pests without highly toxic chemicals, how to taste a grape’s ‘doneness’, how to keep the soil not too wet and not too dry, but also sometimes the most important? How to leave it all alone. Sure, this is something any quality winegrower must know. But some places are just more challenging than others…consistently.

After discussing all the ways they different in management, they did manage to come together on one thing: organic farming. Though Spring Mountain Vineyards is less likely to take it all the way to certification (though they could), Cain is well underway. Both feel they have gleaned more ‘terroir’ through highly sustainable methods and their grapes and soils seem healthier and happier than ever.

Pests are a problem in any garden, and certainly no exception here. Dealing with it organically was fascinating to learn about. My favorite was hearing about how they have dealt with mealy bugs by unleashing another similar looking pest to lay larvae in the female mealy bug. Before long, the eggs hatch inside her, and she is eaten by her own offspring. Lovely. They have also been combating sharpshooters with bluebirds! Spring Mountain Vineyards have specifically tackled this problem head on by building over 800 boxes in the past couple years due the dramatic decrease they have witnessed.

Organic and responsible sustainable farming demands patience, money and a commitment, for sure, but rarely do growers go back when he or she sees the results of being a good steward to the land, as both vineyard managers agreed.

My next stop was the impressive Vineyards 7 & 8—a very stunning winey with a polished, modern tasting room. After entering the grand doors, I was immediately in an open room complete with a wrap-around panoramic window overlooking the valley. A long wooden table with nearly 25 chairs sat in the center with a path of water stones traveling up the middle. We clanked our glasses of Pierre Morlet Champagne (a distant relative of Luc Morlet—their winemaker at 7& 8), threw on some rain boots and headed to the vineyards. We learned how to taste the grapes for ripeness (Chardonnay was possibly harvested the day after I left!), and we actually pulled grape samples for the lab. When we got to the lab, we learned how to test the pH and brix levels.

We then toured the caves and barrel sampled. It was really interesting to try the same clones of Cab from the same plot of land treated in different barrels. I could finally wrap my head around the influence of barrel toasts. Medium toast allowed more fruit, floral and pepper to come through while heavier toasts provoked a smoky, chewy, cedary side.

We then ended our day at Paloma, where we learned about the history of this hard-working estate that has made it now for almost 30 years on not much more than a few people. For a long time, it was just Barbera Richards tending 6,000 vines alone from January through October, while her husband Jim made sure to keep his day job and pay the bills back in Texas. I wanted to meet her so much, but I didn’t get the chance. Understandably, she had a lot going on with harvest, visitors, the ’09 release, shipments, etc. After all, it’s still a two-person show for the most part.

In their second vintage, they were at the top of Wine Spectator’s annual top 100 list—their 2001 Merlot was Wine of the Year. An incredible feat to say the least. They pick in small lots and make wine in small lots, a detail that is palpable on the palate. They don’t mess around much with the formula, as each vintage shows notable consistency, even in mediocre years. In the vineyards, my group gets a good look at Paloma’s unique way of trellising—a Geneva Double Curtain that has been revised 4 times over the years in order to get it right. While the majority of his neighbors stick mainly to Vertical Shoot Positioning, this is what works at Paloma. So, as Sheldon points out, why mess with it? I couldn’t agree more with this down to earth operation.

We headed back and made some dinner with a few other participants. Sheldon is a terrific cook and has clearly passed it on to his son who is climbing fast up the ladder in Canada as an aspiring chef. We had smoked chicken, roasted squash with egg and parmesan, bacon wrapped green onions and watermelon salad. Along with this delicious meal, we enjoyed 4 vintages of Paloma Merlot (2006-2009). Right now, my favorite is 2008—so open and eager to engage with my taste buds. It had finesse, minerality and a very integrated, supple mouthfeel. Though 2007 may have shown the most promise from its heralded vintage, it was still quite buttoned up even after a long decant. That puppy is for ageing. 2006 showed wet leaves, mustiness, ripe plums and a savory note. I loved the nose. And as for the 2009, it was just a baby—promising but just too young to get it to say much more than ‘I have a lot of potential, I swear!’

And so, I ramble on… This was such a loaded trip, and I hope to get one more out to summarize my final day there in the next week. It was phenomenal. Every estate tasted so damn different from the next. I just couldn’t believe it. Phenomenal. Stay tuned, and I will do my best to wrap this up!

bootcamp diaries on napa’s spring mountain: day 1

california wine, travel, Wine Travel

Driving through the curtain of fog from San Fran to Napa, I was determined to swallow my car sickness and enjoy the view. But miles of industry and slum made it difficult. So I focused instead on breathing and staring at the rubber panels on the floor of the bus, until someone yelled, ‘Napa!’ No sooner did I look up when I saw before me one vineyard after the next of producers I have only seen on the top shelf of stores I’ve worked in–Nickel and Nickel, BV, Sattui, Heinz…

This was my first meeting of ‘Napa’, with a capital ‘N’ (and quotes no less). ‘N’apa is almost more than a place to me… it’s a concept, a model of excellence, a symbol of our nation’s ‘best.’ Even my customers who buy Pabst by the 24 ounces ask me if I’ve been. To which I’ve said no, and made change on a $1.50. And quite honestly, I’ve never understood it. Well, at least, not totally…until tonight.

I was of the fortunate 28 who were given an opportunity to participate in this year’s Touch the Terroir put on by the Spring Mountain District. This is a little teeny area–only about 8,000 acres–where just over 30 producers call home. It is off the beaten path, just past St. Helena, and up a windy road lined with dense forest and old redwoods. Magical doesn’t begin to describe it. As my nauseous self peered out the window into the thick, mystical fog bathed trees, I was smitten.

I was taken to Paloma Vineyard for shelter–an incredible 3 person operation (no joke–actually often just two: Sheldon and his ma Barbera) that resides on one of the highest plots–roughly 2,500 ft in elevation. They are known to produce Cab and Syrah… but they are famous for their Merlot. A Merlot that has been put up against Petrus… and won.

After unloading our sacks, we washed our faces and headed over to Terra Valentine for a reception dinner. Dozens of bottles were spread on a table for community sipping and comparison, while a local chef slowly braised steer and threw together a lovely garden fresh pasta salad. Spring Mountain winemakers, vineyard managers, sales people and the rest of us (an assortment from all over the states who ran restaurants, shops and wine lists) raised a glass to a few great days ahead.

Already I sensed that there was something very unique about this mountain community. It was evidence in their wines, their fleeces and their unmanicured hands. These were true farmers. Actual people who farmed the land they owned. And I learned quickly that rather than share a thumbprint of the region’s universal ‘terroir’, we were about to learn instead about each individual’s expression of terroir.

So often it is my complaint of California wine, not just Napa, that they all kinda taste, well… similar. Unlike so many wines of Europe that I have built a passion on, my experience of California wine has been fairly lukewarm overall. Sure there are producers I have raved about over the years–Jonata, Bonny Doon and Sinskey to name a few. But really, so many wind up tasting like big, luscious red wine or whites that represent a varietal well, but not a place, style or producer. Under massive oak treatment and/or knee jerk reactions to trends and fads, so many winemakers are quick to abandon the search for their own voice–their vine’s own voice–and opt instead for the formulaic style that sells.

Unfortunately, that makes a region’s wine homogeneous, and therefore…uninteresting.

But I digress.

What I found last night in that breathtaking cellar room at Terra Valentine was that every producer sang in a slightly different timbre. Cain had a way of fusing all five Bordeaux varietals whilst giving each representative identity on the palate. Andesite shocked me with their herbaceous, upright demonstration of power and elegance. Keenan just tastes handcrafted to me. I mean, it is–most of these wines are. But Keenan tastes it. It comes to epitomize what I have always imagined as a good, solid mountain Cabernet. I can come to depend on it no matter the vintage. Pride, as always, makes a statement and gets everyone a little excited ’round the room (last night no exception). Juslyn Vineyards had a most intriguing Perry Blend that smelled of musty, Bordeaux earthiness–everyone knows I am a sucker for a hint of funk in my juice. Fantesca blew everyone away with their massive reds. But last night, in all honesty, what tasted most wonderful at the moment (for taste is subject to change with the passing of a day, meal or ambience) was the lesser heard of Guilliams. They make a mere 1,200 cases of 100% estate bottled Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab Reserve. There is a stately backbone to these wines that break out of the oak with ease and show integration that causes me to want to describe these wines as somehow stoic and humble.

It was the perfect start to an incredibly exciting 3 day ‘bootcamp’, and I shall blog on in the next couple entries…

More bread please: Eating our way through San Fran

california wine, Wine Blog, Wine Travel

It has been years since I have traveled with a friend anywhere. I have visited some for sure. But that is not the same thing. I recall reading once in letters between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf that it was important they meet somewhere aside from each other’s homes–Paris or the like. For when two people are outside of their familiar environment, they can express their truest selves. They are vulnerable to change, spontaneity and adventure.

It is also for this reason, traveling with another can be scary, therefore I have avoided it with women for about six years (what if it all falls apart!). But it didn’t at all. No, this trip reminded me just how fun it is to explore with someone whose travel style is similar to mine. If I hadn’t consumed so many calories in wine, I may have gotten a six pack from all the laughing.

San Francisco is a marvelous city, in every sense of the word. The steep hills, the urban feel set to a bohemian pace, the bay, the hundreds of teeny tiny shops that line the diverse neighborhoods all work to create a wonderland for the curious. I have been several times, but this was the first time I was determined to ‘find’ San Francisco, for every other visit there was simply no time to meander.

Lucky for me (and you!), I did.

It all began with a bobble head. A huge, live head that wouldn’t stop moving and squirming in front of our seats in the plane. It wasn’t particularly notable, but it set the silly mood for the trip that followed, as we wiped away the tears and took a deep breath between laughs.

When we arrived to the Marina Inn Saturday afternoon, we were reminded of just how great a find it was. Both of us have stayed at this quaint, clean hotel before on separate occasions and agreed it was like shacking up at grammy’s for the weekend. At $30 night each, it really is too good to be true. After we lined up our shoes and hung our dresses, we took a long walk, knowing we were going to have a total eat-a-thon ahead of us. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and the marina district was the perfect brisk stroll.

Our first stop that evening was Heart–a hip, funky wine bar on the edge of the Mission. It was a long, thin room with high ceilings a lot of open space. Modern meets rustic. The walls were lined with wine bottles and art; the tables were rustic yet polished planks of wood. The floor remained cold concrete. The HVAC exposed. It was not tacky, but it was not interesting either. If it were circa 1995, this would be a progressive build out. Knowing they opened about a year ago, we were less than impressed by the lack of creativity. That’s the problem with being ‘cool’–you gotta keep up the image. That’s why I am not cool. I have a lot of black, brown and gray in my closet. I am not a total fashion loser, but I am no trend-setter. Just too much energy.

The wine list was probably the best I have ever seen with creative descriptions of each wine such as ‘El Maestro Sierra Amontillado: Maldon, almonds, ham, butterscotch and sex’ or ‘2007 Salmon Riesling: For the kids who ate rocks.’ However, they served up Meursault and bubbly Vouvray in mason jars. Okay fine, it was cute, sure. I actually even knew this before going. I was determined, however, to suppress my (fine… snobby) suspicion. But it turned out to be another aggravating detail that didn’t quite work. The glasses were thick; the bouquets obscured. It was a disappointment.The most noteworthy wine we had was an orange wine from the republic of Georgia. It was literally orange with maceration.

The bites they offered were decent, and one was particularly obscure: a pureed cauliflower panna cotta with tomatillo compote on top. It was unlike anything I have ever had. You expect ricotta on site, but then you taste it and a strange savory sensation occurs followed by nutty butter pecan ice cream on the finish. Even that, though, was a little overkill after a couple bites. We walked away spending more than we should have all things considered. Plus, we had to keep asking for bread. To which they would give us about one standard slice sliced even thinner into four equal parts. We were hungry and over it. We moved on to the next spot!

Terroir on Folsom (South of Market) was everything I hoped a wine bar with a name like that would be. It was dark, cozy, and laden with wood–wood floors, wood counters and wood crates filled the candlelit room, absorbing the beat of the dreamlike, electronic jazz fusion that hung in the air perfectly in place. The walls were lined with the most terroir-driven bottles, some empty, some full. Names like Rayas, Paolo Bea, Clape, Lopez and Raveneau were just a start… We watched as a man and a woman stared at each other, gazing affectionately, for nearly 32 painful minutes without saying a word. They couldn’t have been 5 feet from us. My friend and I were amazed (and weirded out). Nevertheless, it was amusing.

We had some geeky Dressner Follador Casa Coste Piane NV Prosecco that was unfined, unfiltered, stirred in its lees, left on its skins and fermented with its own yeasts. And while that was chilling, as sip of an ’02 Huet Vouvray that was absolutely singing! We proceeded to get blinded on all sorts of wines and work on our future hangover. They gave us some bread but had not much more than cheese for a meal.

Four glasses later and still really no substantial dinner, it was 11pm, and we were starving. We grabbed a spot at Nopa in, yep, Nopa. After perusing a menu that was peppered with quaint, inventive small plates that would have probably been outstanding, our near-belligerent selves  ordered a burger with fries to, in our words, shut us the f*%@ up. Oh man, we thought we were hilarious. We also had a glass of Lebanese ’09 ‘Juene’ Musar (their table red) and an ’01 Jasmin Cote Rotie. The list was really creative and catered to the adventurous. The burger, at that point, inspired speechlessness. The scene was a little weird, but it was a Saturday night. What started out as paranoia (are those people starting at us??), turned out be, well, people staring at us. Two separate ambassadors from two different social groups actually came up to us and apologized for staring. Really. ‘Sorry if it seemed like we were staring. We were. But we don’t mean anything by it.’ That’s pretty much how it went down. Awkward.

Moving on…

Sunday was an afternoon party at Martine’s home in Marin County– a cute space that overlooks a marsh. Last year you could hear so many birds. This year was raining. Nonetheless, it was a charming affair–an opportunity to really get to know the winemakers a little better in a casual environment. I will always have a soft spot for Cyril Audoin–a Burgundian winemaker who has a 5th generation vineyard in Marsannay. He is 32, funny, youthfully cute (every other winemaker kept walking by him to ruffle his hair) and a total flirt. By Monday night, over Guinness, I heard all about his recent breakup. So ladies, if you have ever wanted the dream of running off with a French winemaker, you can find him on Facebook, I am sure.

That evening, my friend and I had a quiet dinner at a restaurant near our hotel: Alegrias, an old-fashioned Spanish restaurant that specializes in tapas and paellas. We insulted them by getting the Paelle Verduras, but we really needed some veggies at this point. Two refills of a bread basket later, we washed that, paella and some baked goat cheese down with a crisp, young Albarino. Here, we didn’t even need to ask for more carbs. He knew we were serious. It was perfect.

The next day was the actual Grand Tasting at the Presidio Golden Gate Club. They did it right. It was a gorgeous space that, on a clear day, has a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The wines were sensational–truly another blog of their own. But since I did that last year, I will spare you the details and just cut to some of my favorites: Gonet-Medeville Rose Extra Brut 1er Cru, 08 Clos de la Briderie Clos de Volagre Montluis Sur Loire Blanc, 06 Herri Mina Irouleguy (seriously, for $12 and such a hard to find region), 08 Clos Uroulat/Charles Hours Jurancon Sec ‘Cuvee Marie’, 08 Brocard Les Clos Grand Cru Chablis, all the Rayas line (though the concentration of ’07 was evident and not as appealing to me as other vintages which have proceeded in the decade, like ’04, ’05 and ’06), Audoin’s ’07 Fix ‘Le Rozier’ and ’06 Marsannay Favieres, Rion’s ’08 Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Clos Prieur’, all of Clavelier’s Burgundies (so damn awesome), and last but not least, my favorite of the day: ’97 Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs Champagne–riveting.

We followed the tasting up with Thai at the highly recommended Thep Phanom in Lower Haight. I am quite certain it really was some of the best Thai I have ever had. It didn’t matter that the wine list was mediocre. I had an $8 nondescript Mosel Riesling, a $5 salad and shared a $10 Panang Curry with Chicken. We were accompanied by 70s and 80s love ballad covers of Air Supply, Chicago and Diane Warwick. I mean, really…could you ask for more?

The night ended with Guinness and car bombs (of which I wussed out). Enough was enough. My body had reached its limit. I had finally found San Fran. And I realized what it took was a friend, a plan and a little cab fare.

Where have I been?: Jonata wine.

california wine

They’ve done it again.  California has gone and compelled me to take up the pen and write about my newfound love for one of its producers: Jonata, owned by the famously sought-after Screaming Eagle of Napa.

A couple of days ago, my rep walked in with the manager of this estate, Armand de Maigret—a Frenchman, originally born in Champagne.  I did not learn this until the end of the tasting, but it suddenly made sense that a man born in a world of some of the most complex liquid in this world would come to California only to work with and represent one of the finest vineyards.

Tucked in the Ballard Canyon of Santa Ynez Valley—a Central Coast appellation in California—are the vineyards of Jonata.  A sub-region that excels in Rhone varieties (Syrah being the most prominent) as well as Burgundy (Pinot and Chard), Santa Ynez has given producers such as Beckman,Vogelzang, Margerum and Paul Lato great success.  Many have turned to sustainable viticultural methods, not the least of which Jonata.  No herbicides.  No pesticides.  Water conservation to the point of dry farming when possible.

Ballard Canyon is quite a bit warmer than, say, its nearby neighbor Santa Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley—sometimes by as much as 15 degrees.  It is set apart by this slightly more warm climate as well as its soil: a land of limestone, gravel and sand.  Rarely have winemakers in Santa Ynez desired to work with Bordeaux varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, because, quite honestly, it is not easy to grow here.

Some will not settle for that as an answer.

It is precisely the work of Matt Dee—winemaker at Jonata—that has taken me aback and brought me to attempt the impression upon my palate.

Not to be mistaken, the 2006 La Sangre Syrah and 2007 La Poesia Pinot Noir were exquisite—truly wonderful representations of California style wine at its best.

But it was the 2006 Jonata el Desafio Cab Sauv and especially the 2006 El Alma Cab Franc that simply made me weak in the knees.

They were not akin to the usual suspects seen woven throughout my blog.  They were not delicate, light-footed, notably low-alcohol, old world style bottles…  They were big.  Modern.  They were substantial on the palate.  They demanded beef.  They demanded a choir of angels (haha, kinda kidding).  But mostly, they demanded my attention.

These were seriously structured wines that achieved that oh-so-perfect balance of severe strength and enviable elegance.  Forceful finesse.  A paradox.  My favorite.

The Cab Franc was not ‘green’ as so many can be.  Maigret explained that this is due to the winemaker calculating just the right amount of leaves in order to fully ripen the grapes by harvest.  The most striking characteristic about this wine lies less in the myriad of fruit: the dark blueberries and blackberries I’ve grown a bit tired of describing (you know?).  Rather, the illumination comes from the structure itself.  It is so supple.  So smooth.  A rocky, mineral element permeated the background as well.  It’s hard to believe such a broad-shouldered wine can pull off such a graceful, dainty dance—like a quarterback in a tutu.

The Cab, too was lovely.  Actually a blend of Cab (84%), Franc (9%), Petite Verdot (6%) and a drop of Merlot (1%)—how they make these decisions, I sometimes just don’t know.  But it worked.  All the predictable cassis and dark fruits wore their Sunday finest while, again, a terroir-ish graphite came through on the nose and palate.  A true diamond in the rough of Rhone wine.

These wines aren’t cheap, but if it’s for a special occasion or you just want some honest to goodness solid California Cab, you can be sure your money will be well-spent here.

I may never be a self-proclaimed California wine junky, but hell if I don’t give this country credit when it is due.

Ghostwriter: Damn good Pinot.

california wine, Wine Blog

Meeting up with a few friends tonight at Table 6—my favorite eatery in Denver—the owner/sommelier, Aaron Foreman, introduced me to a wine I have never had: the 2008 Ghostwriter Pinot Noir out of the increasingly popular Santa Cruz hills.  He knows my palate, so I always trust his selections.

I was blown away.

It’s not everyday that I can say I love a California Pinot.  In fact, it may be the first time in the past couple years.  But this was sensational.

Although the nose certainly intrigued me—a symphony of strawberries, cherries, cranberry, rhubarb (?) and cinnamon—what struck me most was the balance it maneuvered on my palate.  It was soft, silky and effortless.  It felt like a melody you could swallow.  The acid, tannin, length, and alcohol harmonized.  No one tried to sing above the next.

There was a mineral element this particular Pinot had going for it… a trait I don’t often with new world Pinot, let alone one from Cali.  It was a mixture of wet stone and earth, an almost peaty soil smell just after the rain.  It was fresh and youthful.

A modest 12.9% alcohol didn’t miss me.  It was incredible how much this allowed me to break down the layers.  Sometimes I find that Cali Pinots actually burn the roof of my mouth—physically leave sores, so scorched by the sun are the grapes that reach 14+ alcohol by volume.  The fruit it loud, and the subtleties are lost in translation.  The wines are without character or birthmark.

How did this particular Pinot achieve such distinction from the masses?  Like any great wine, it is a combination of several factors.  Ghostwriter is the product of winemaker Kenny Likitprakong who has one singular focus: to grow Pinot and Chardonnay in some of the best soils of Santa Cruz (north/northwest facing vineyards) with little to no interference.  Most of the work is done in the vineyard.  He took over farming a magnificent plot of 10 acres owned by the Woodruff Family.  He has devoted 4.5 acres to Pinot and 3.5 to Chardonnay.

He doesn’t wow his consumers with technical notes on clone types or the age of the vines.  Quite frankly, he doesn’t even know!  But he knows how to farm and tease the fullest expression from his grapes.  I dare say he has cultivated a ‘terroir’ from these hills—a feat I rarely see accomplished by new world wineries.

The formula is simple.  The Pinot is destemmed, keeping a few in whole clusters, and punched down twice daily.  No cold soaking, inoculation or temperature control is used to stimulate to fermentation process.  The ‘must’ is the source for the speed at which it occurs.  Wines are pressed directly into the barrels (30% new oak) and take on malo in their own time.  They sleep upon their lees until it’s time to bottle.  Unfiltered.  Unfined.  Voila.  Near perfection at $40 a pop.

If you can find it, get it.  It’s difficult to locate, but worth every drop.

all ambience, with a side of nostalgia.

california wine, food pairing, Italian Wine, Wine Travel

Contrary to my last entry, I went with my family to a restaurant in Milwaukee when I was home for the holidays that was very much about ambience, and though the food and wine was not by any means gourmet Michelin star-rated, it was wholesome, tasty, and served Midwest-style (meaning, you had to roll yourself through the suddenly narrower door by the end of the meal).  The place?  The one and only Pizza Man on North and Oakland on the quaint and quirky eastside, where the streets are lined with independent grocers, used bookshops, and coffee houses.

Scrolling their wine list, it was clear that they favored California.  I do believe there was not one Italian wine on the menu, though there may have been a couple that escaped my eye.  Always craving the perfect pairing, slightly disappointed I couldn’t find a Chianti or similar high-acid Italian to pair with the dominantly marinara-based entrees, I was forced to go domestic.

Ahhh, but what was this?  A 2006 Palmina Dolcetto from Santa Barbara County (note: this wine was under Sangiovese Selections—Wisconsin is still a little ways from becoming the center of the gastronomical universe, but it’s getting there).

Well, I was thrilled.  I had the chance to meet the winemaker of Palmina, Chrystal Clifton (yes, the wife of Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton Winery), last year in Colorado Springs during the 18th Annual Wine Festival.  Their theme, “Women in Wine,” included such women as Diana Snowden (SnowdenVineyards, co-winemaker and wife of Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac), Whitney Fisher (Fisher Vineyards), Lynn Penner-Ash (Penner-Ash Vineyards), Joy Sterling (Iron Horse Vineyards), and Chrystal Clifton.  Needless to say, it was a phenomenal event and a great opportunity to get to know these winemakers in a much more intimate way.  I was able to get a sense of their hopes, fears, ambitions, struggles, and triumphs with the vine.

For Chrystal, her captivation with rosé and turbulent love affair with Nebbiolo seemed to set her apart.  I had never met a winemaker as genuinely enthusiastic as she.  Chrystal was a natural storyteller, a master of the senses, a purveyor of passion.  Her rosé sales go to benefit research in Breast Cancer, whilst her Nebbiolo stands as a personal nemesis.  No other grape gets under her skin or has the potential to deliver such redemption as this thick-skinned little devil in disguise.  No other grape requires so much patience, coercion, science, prayer, and outright physicality.  To date, she cultivates the finest American Nebbiolo wine, in my  humble opinion.

But, Dolcetto, well that’s a bit more forgiving.  The Cliftons even explain, “’Dolcetto’ translates to ‘sweet little one’—not because it is a sweet wine (it is perfectly dry)—because it is a friendly and easygoing grape to work with and so pleasurable in the glass.”  Soft, sensuous spices along with agreeable tannins made it a true table wine, in that everyone at the table benefited from its accessible, well-communicated personality.  Black fruit and plummy goodness were generous on both the nose and palate.  Most distinctive, though, was its old world acknowledgment.  This wine didn’t flex California muscles or new world volume.  It was a bit mellower, a bit more down to earth in both taste and temperament.

At $20 retail, this bottle selling for $28 on the list was an absolute steal.  It didn’t break the bank for a table of six, everyone loved it, and I was able to sate my old world hunger.

Not to mention, I had a Ratatouille moment.  Remember that scene in the movie when the curmudgeon of a critic places the rustic ratatouille in his mouth, transporting him back to a time when he wasn’t such a jerk?  A time when this peasant dish was on par with Per Se?

Well, I had my meeting with nostalgia that night as well with a Marsala-bathed Portabella Ravioli dish.  It wasn’t until I constructed the perfect bite, including the Parmesan toasted crustini, that it hit me.  I fell silent.  I almost cried (trust me, it was intensely metaphysical).  For whatever reason, I was six years old again at this little restaurant called Froehlich’s in the middle of the forest in northern Wisconsin.

Talk about a paradox.  Froehlich’s was nearly impossible to locate, but once you did find it buried deep in the dense northwoods, among only black bear and lumberjacks, you crossed the threshold and stumbled upon fine dining (at least, I remember it being the fanciest place ever, though it probably was not).  I used to always get a petite filet mignon with red-wine mushroom sauce on a little crustini (I was a pretty picky eater, but this managed to make the cut…There is a reason we went here only about once a year…).  Whatever the combination of flavors, I have never been so close to my culinary past as I was that night.  Star-eyed and stuffed, I finished every last bite and rolled myself home.

getting to know…charbono.

california wine, organic wine

Recently wrote this for a local distributor.  It was fascinating what I learned about this lesser known varietal, Charbono.  I thought I would share the findings…

Many people, in fact many wine connoisseurs even, might wrinkle their foreheads and cup their ears for a second try if they heard the term ‘Charbono’.  And that is understandably so.  This obscure, black-skinned varietal is nearly extinct, though it has found security in a very small, devoted population of growers, sellers, and consumers who salute its unique style and will do everything they can to ensure that the enchanting Charbono grape will not be laid to rest.

In fact, this varietal has been taken under the protective wing of the Slow Foods movement’s ‘Ark of Taste’ program, which is designed to promote awareness and the continued production of select endangered foods that meet a specific criterion.  These foods must be ‘outstanding in terms of taste,’ ‘at risk,’ ‘sustainably produced,’ ‘culturally or historically linked,’ and ‘produced in limited quantities’[1].  The Slow Foods movement began in 1986 by an Italian named Carlo Petrini who took a stand against fast food by protesting the opening of a McDonalds in Rome.  Since then, chapters have blossomed around the world and include over 100,000 members.  They are built on ethical and ecological standards that systematically work to preserve and instill better health, nutrition, and sustainable lifestyle choices through food.

In times like these, education is in order.  Oftentimes, it is simply lack of knowledge, production, and availability that widdles a wine into extinction.  Trends taint taste and lesser-known varietals begin to fade on the radar.  Higher acid, tannic grapes like Charbono that can stand to use a little time in the bottle quickly fall to the wayside for more accessible, ‘drink now’ reds.  In a fast-paced world, the art of ageing is growing obsolete.  But Charbono has a fascinating history, a truly compelling story to tell.  So take a moment…and listen.

A very American grape, the ‘immigrant’ Charbono varietal travelled from Italy in the late 1800’s, which it was then thought to be the Barbera variety.  After a rather prolonged identity crisis, DNA testing finally confirmed that the Charbono was not interchangeable with Barbera, Dolcetto, or (yes, wince) even Pinot Noir (which it so mistakenly was one year in the ‘30’s by the Parducci winery).  Though Charbono was deemed independent of these other grapes in the ‘30’s, it wasn’t until 1999 when Carole Meredith of UC-Davis found its heritage to be in the Corbeau varietal of the alpine Savoie region in France, though here it is predominantly used for blending only.

Charbono has always been a ‘cult’ grape, a specialty wine that has seen production in limited quantities.  It is a varietal that was really taken in by Inglenook in the ‘70’s, which consequently influenced several other producers as well.  Inglenook was responsible for about half the production of Charbono—35 acres.  This was Charbono’s heyday.  Unfortunately, when Inglenook sold their properties, these vines were replaced with more profitable varieties that spoke to the current trends.  Charbono has since-then been in danger.

Charbono needs time—it is a slow-ripening, late harvest varietal.  Its sure-handed acidity and tough tannins allow for the wine to exhibit remarkable structure and age-worthiness.  Very traditional styles would even propose waiting 10-20 years before consumption.  It is held together by an austere, muscular framework, but the execution of its song is undeniably elegant, silky, and more feminine in style.  It has an unmatchable knack for pairing well with a variety of food, from game and beef to chicken and seafood.

The most ideal location for growing Charbono is Calistoga—the sweet spot of Napa Valley.  In Calistoga, the microclimates and soils are optimal for this tough little grape.  It’s about 10 degrees warmer here compared to the lower parts of Napa Valley.  Also, Calistoga benefits from the fog that comes from the Russian River, making the day and nighttime temperature differential significantly pronounced, allowing for the fruit to maintain its signature acidity.  Calistoga’s Charbono grapes come off more concentrated and focused.

Currently there are less than 100 acres of production.  About half are in the Napa Valley while the rest are scattered to the north in Mendocino, Monterey, and Madera.  Roughly 6,500 cases are released to market each year.  Seldom, if ever, can one find Charbono on a wine list.  Most wine shops haven’t even heard of it.  And it’s a shame.  For all its food pairing potential, intriguing history, and incomparable flavor profile, Charbono is like a great classic that gathers dust and sits abandoned on a quiet shelf, waiting to be read.

In Colorado, one of the top Charbonos left in this country from Shypoke Vineyards.  They have some of the oldest vines, planted back in 1904 by Michael Heitz, an immigrant from the German region of Alsace, which is now considered France.  He planted several ‘suitcase cuttings,’ including Charbono.  They were almost totally wiped out during Prohibition, but fortunately a few acres remained.  It wasn’t really until the late ‘80’s when Gary Heitz and his wife Ginny inherited the property, striving to bring back the Charbono before it was too late.  The family tradition continues today.  Since 2001, their son, Peter Heitz, has taken over winemaking at Shypoke, where he and his wife, Meg, now have 12 acres of Charbono, which is hand-picked, de-stemmed, and cold soaked for about 2 days.  Shypoke utilizes top fermentation methods and manual punch-downs, allowing for a Charbono that is extremely accessible in its youth, but still possesses impeccable ageing capacities due its acid and tannin levels.  It is aged for 8 months in both American and French oak.

The 2006 Shypoke Charbono wears a dark, inky outfit giving off notes of black cherries and plum in the nose.  On the palate, these aromas are confirmed along with savory spices and the essence of chocolate.  The mouthfeel is surprisingly silky and soft for its age, though incredibly full.  A lovely, lasting finish will have you pining for the next sip just to experience Charbono all over again.  This is the wine to try if you gravitate towards big, California reds.  Only 630 cases made.