euro scribbles: a visit with chave to never forget.

french wine, French Wine Travel, travel, Uncategorized, Wine Travel

Without a doubt, the hospitality and generosity we felt by the Chaves were the highlight of the trip. I have always joked that my first hard core crush was the southern Rhone. But the beauty and wonder in the steeply terraced hills of the north were mesmerizing. I couldn’t quite get enough.

It began with a family in Tain l’Hermitage that welcomed us into their home. Bruno and Julie Bradley lived in a sensational turn-of-the-century home and was careful to respect that moment in time in its decor. They ran a one bedroom B&B called La Marronniere that will forever be impressed on my mind. Each morning began with a hearty (but heart friendly) petit dejuner, much of its contents Julie bought each morning as she rode her bicycle into town. We would take breakfast in a gorgeous, room reserved for her l’Attelier–hat shop. She was the person to see in all the Rhone if you were needing a handcrafted hat for any occasion. Each one more interesting than the next, it was quite the lift of spirit in that colorful, fanciful room each morning, with the tall door open wide unto the lawn. Serenity is a drab word to describe it. We’ll just say, Erin Chave (Jean-Louis’ wonderful wife) hooked us up!

We traveled to Chateauneuf du Pape and visited an old favorite the first day: Domaine Pegau. Unfortunately, the vigneron Lawrence was not there. In fact, even the assistant who was to meet us forgot and left for Nimes! Lawrence’s mother, who spoke about as much English as I do French, would not see us leave, though. She carefully took us to the cellar and gave us the lineup.

Every year–good or bad the vintage may be– these wines manage to astound me. To prove it, we were fortunate to try both a 2008 and 2009 of their main label CdP. Both demonstrated complexity of flavor and depth. The 2008 was just more open now–it was desiring consumption. But it by no means was a grandma. The 2008 defied the stereotypes of its vintage, unraveled one aroma after the next, and did not succumb to a weak timbre as so many have that I have tried. I never could have guess on taste/smell alone.

The 2009 was simply amazing. It had all the likely suspects that the 08 had—lavender, garrigue, raspberry, chewy anise, black tea leaves and a healthy dose of wild, bramble berries– the difference was in the feel of this wine. It wrapped around my tongue and held tight using its considerable tannin and noticeable (though not terribly high) acid. It was meant to stay quiet for a few more years at least.

The next morning we went to what my friend calls the ‘DRC of the Rhone’ a lofty title that goes to a region I quite possibly have the most trouble admiring: Condrieu. The place he admires so? Domaine Georges Vernay. The thing is, I can love Viognier when handled in a very particular way. Like a high school football star, if it isn’t careful and rests on its laurels, it very well can get a bit chubby on the mid-palate, by which I mean the acid falls and the opulence of this floral, peachy grape takes over everything. It can be a walk through the pristine gardens of Versaille one moment and just as easily as that person next to you on an international flight that manages to think her cheapest perfume is a wonderful idea to share with her fellow passengers.

Vernay is, without a doubt, the best in the land. I experienced this singular winery a coupe years ago at a Martine’s wine tasting in San Francisco. They perhaps had 2 bottles of the flagship Coteaux de Cornon for hundreds of people, so it was kept beneath the table for pestering people such as myself. Georges Vernay began this project in the 1950’s. His daughter Catherine, who is the current winemaker, has not only carried the torch, she has established her skills in Cote Rotie with reds.

Though we were not with Catherine herself, we did get a rigorous tasting through about 12 wines with their tasting room manager. She was a petite, smiling French woman who was only too eager to please with these ridiculously good pours. You can tell she rarely deals with people who do not approve.

These wines have the power to change one’s opinion about Viognier. It did for me, and it did for my fellow travelers. These often flamboyant, flabby whites are kept in tight and made to produce a strip tease of wonder. One element after the next is revealed in these wines. To explain it is insane, as each one of us experienced it in a completely different way. The only thing we agreed up that day was that it danced on our palates. It lured us to try again and attempt to decipher the complex message. Mostly, this message was terroir. But terroir is awful difficult to articulate.

It was finally time for our rendezvous at Chaves–a night I have looked forward to for months since it was planned. We walked up to a humble unmarked door, unsure it was the right one. We saw in small print ‘Gerard Chave’ on the bell and gave it a go. Sure enough, a polite Frenchwoman opened the door and let us in to his winery. A small line of goosebumps crawled up my spine. I didn’t need to know one thing about this historic, important winery to feel the centuries pass through me in a flash of a moment. A smiley, blonde-haired American comes out to greet us. Forget handshakes, I was getting a large hug. Chave’s wife, Erin, was the picture of American-girl-next-door perfection. She had on a black tank top, some jeans and trusty flip-slops–sandals that I swear are never to be seen on French people. I learned quickly she was a girl from Missouri, worked for Kermit Lynch, met Chave… and the rest was one massive, 17th generation history.

They now have two kiddos: Louise and Emma. The first, a well-mannered and spoken young man at the age of 6 (?). He took his role as big brother (and next heir) quite seriously. When my colleague said to him, “How does it feel to be king of this land”, as we stood atop the vineyards looking out at the Rhone, he simply answered, “It is a very nice view.” Emma, on the hand, is a force to be reckoned with, I’m calling it now! This strong-headed, hard-working farm girl of the large age of 3 1/2 was taking me around, introducing me to plants, fish, noting problems in the garden, and bringing my attention to small details I may have never seen. I observed in her an innate connection to the soil already– the evidence of Chave DNA manifested in her every movement. She was a vineyard manager in birth. A firecracker, one might describe, I could see she was a handful–but her parents lit up when they talked about her.

We got a tour of the old cellars while we tasted several samples still in barrel and learned that it wasn’t always here that his family made wine. In fact, their famed Hermitage was a purchase in the 1860’s, when land was available and not yet devastated by phylloxera. His ancestors saw an opportunity and thankfully went for it. As he generously tried us on a 1994 Hermitage Blanc, a wine that is showing very promising and marked development, though I would have wished to hang out with it a bit longer to see its evolution, he described the general history of winemaking he was able to learn through old reports and journals about his family’s estate. He had a very real sympathy for phylloxera, as the words his ancestors wrote described the horror in tangible detail. It was as though I were hearing this nightmare of a story for the first time, his execution was so genuine. No one in Europe knew what was happening for years. They just observed a decline in production, unable to understand the cause felt ‘round the country. He then showed us an old room with bottles from the 1920’s-40’s. His family hid them from the Nazis. It was a powerful sight to behold.

Finally he grabbed an unmarked bottle, gave it a rub, and we headed to the vineyards for a final tour of his St. Joseph vines. He timed it perfectly. The sun began to soften the  color cast on the vines. I could see for miles the endless bumps of terraced vineyards in the region. I don’t even want to attempt to explain. It was an aesthetic height I have rarely ever reached.

We followed him to his house then, as he paved the way in Erin’s old Land Rover, trudging up the steep hills. Finally, at the top we pulled into his driveway. A tire swing hung on the tree. A garden was flourishing with tomatoes, squash and strawberries. And  the sun was setting behind the Alps, which formed the backdrop for the Rhone river and valley below. We all took a walk through these Hermitage vineyards that lay in his backyard. I could see why it was so varied and complex when we were shown the vast differences in soil plots left in a patchwork fashion by glaciers and deposits. Some soils had fine loess, others decomposed granite, and still other cailloux river pebbles–like small galets one sees in Chateauneuf.

As we returned to the house, I noted it was quite modern inside  yet encased in an old, preserved shell which was the outside. I loved the juxtaposition. We enjoyed an evening of excellent food, good stories, laughter and, of course, real fine wine, including the unmarked bottle of 1999 Hermitage Rouge. These moments I feel like the luckiest person in the world. And so, thank you Jean-Louise and Erin for accenting my life’s portrait with a colorful streak of fortune and felicity.

euro scribbles: so this is burgundy, part 1.

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Despite the fact that I had completely messed up our first appointment with Mugnier in Chambolle-Musigny and therefore had to cancel due to an unfortunate incident in Macon, I was not down for long. As I entered the Cote d’Or (like ‘coat door’) region of Burgundy that late morning, I felt a shift. We wound our way through the circular city of Beaune and pulled up to an inviting hotel: Hotel de Remparts. Through the courtyard we climbed the stairs to our room. I was in heaven, for I had a separate bedroom AND bathroom– unheard of around 100 euros a night for 3 folks.

I couldn’t linger long, though. We had a stacked schedule to keep, so off we went to Gevrey-Chambertin to visit with Burguet— a name that just sounds like natural born Burghound. We meet with our guide, Danielle Hammon, from Becky Wasserman Selections, to translate when necessary. She herself was an aspiring winemaker doing some training in Dijon. At first, this visit had us chasing around a very focused young man, Jean-Luc Burguet, as he took his thief and tasted us on several wines from the 2011 vintage–one that was more challenging than the high acid, classics of 2010, but nonetheless churned out some high quality reds if grapes were in skilled hands like those of Jean-Luc.

My favorite was, well, Mes Favorites, made of 70 year old vines on their property in Gevrey-Chambertin. Still in the barrel, it manages to present the most delicate reds fruits, floral petals and structure that ensured that it had all the makings of a fine wine to come.

Once he took us on a tour through the wines from his domaine as well as those in which he sources grapes from neighboring villages, he kicks back, slows down and just chats with us a bit. He is clearly an energetic guy who is only too happy to walk with his brother in the footsteps his dad started. As we sip on his Clos de Beze, I am distracted by its pronounced moldy presentation. Only then, in my stupidity, do I realize I am 2 inches from some of the largest, fluffiest, puffballs of mold that cover these old cellars. Yikes! I take a few steps, sniff again, and within the layers of cherry and cinnamon realize it would be a sin to drink this again in less than 8 years. Same goes for his Vosne-Romanee 1er cru, a wine whose youthful wit shouted at my tongue to get it back in the barrel! Alas, I will have to discover who this mouthy little toddler might become in a decade.

We eat at a little brasserie in the village of Gevrey, as we have no time to try the famous Chez Guy before our next rendezvous. It was the perfect place for an afternoon bite. They specialized in tartines with lovely homegrown salad, if you fancy a lighter lunch.

Finally, we make our way to the next town down–Morey Saint Denis–to see one of my favorite producers: Domaine Dujac. Not only are they regarded the best in this sub-region, they truly are one of the best in all of Burgundy. To meet with Jeremy Seysses was an honor. My fiancee just had to join for this, so he broke away from the Tour’s rest day for a quick visit. What I like most about Jeremy is that he is a normal dude. He doesn’t pontificate, he doesn’t try and make you think anything, really. He just casually pours one phenomenal wine after the next and you decide for yourself. Meanwhile, he wants to hear all the Tour dirt. His father and whole family, really, are hugely into cycling. I knew it would be love at first sight when JV met Jeremy.

Meanwhile, us cork dorks fell into the complexities and subtle differences of each selection, all drawn from the 2010, acid-lover’s vintage. We shifted from Santenay to Chambolle-Musigny to Vosne-Romanee and Chaume-Chambertin. He had my heart with the Morey St. Denis, though. A very faint recollection of Rayas actually surfaced on my mind. When I brought this Chateauneuf up to Jonathan, he too was amazed at the uncanny similarity. Of course, it wasn’t as broad on the palate, nor rich and high in alcohol. But it was reminiscent of one of my favorites wines on earth for its elegance, fine grained texture and brambly, musky earthiness. Fabulous!

Second only to that was the Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru. In a purely objective, professional world, this may have been the most impressive one I tasted. But you can’t control nor explain love–and I just fell hard for the Morey. That said, this lovely little parcel sits near the famed La Tache. It bouquet eagerly pushes its way to the surface of the glass with a sexy song, hitting notes of candied cherries and some alpine herbal undertones. It had this way of saturating your tongue with richness whilst maintaining a lightness. You were certain to have imagined it all, really, until you take another sip. Like every teeny spec of your palate was sated. Quite incredible sensation, really. Returning to the rim, more feminine aromas of lavender and forest lichen develop. I remember where I am, and although it doesn’t shock me that they are amazing wines, still I am mystified that soil can have such variant, haunting and impressionable personalities.

We sat on the patio with his dad and wife Diana, we shared a 1998 Domaine Dujac Les Grunchers 1er Cru from Chambolle-Musigny, a stunning portrait of a vintage that wasn’t often painted with strokes of grandeur or longevity, in part for its harsh tannins. You could have fooled me. This red was a very elegant and understated–demure, if you will. It was not tannic or disjointed; not drying or weak. It was 14 years old, and it was not taking going to lie down and simply accept any crap about 84 point vintages from any critics, including ‘certain’ high-profiled ones.

As I look out on their property, I think about their life. He and his wife are both winemakers. They travel between Burgundy, Provence and Napa to care for their vines. Their other babies are their two children. They have their hands full, but they pull it off so well. To me, they represent something important in Burgundy: they are a breath of fresh air and innovative ideas in a region that is steeped in ancient culture and practices. While maintain traditional in some respects and embrace some modern practices in the winery, they don’t get lost in their own projects so much that they are detached with the world. They talk of news articles, cycling, business, economy, what have you. In fact, Jeremy even has a very active Twitter account, which makes his life in the vines accessible to anyone who wants to hear about his day to day. He embraces that interaction with the world and allows a new way to create a dialogue with the ever-intimidating Burgundy region.

Our day came to a close, and we headed back to our cute hotel to relax and collect our thoughts. Burgundy was possibly more complicated now to me than it was before. We went to these properties, but their barrels represented so many parcels, regions, terroirs and styles. In part, I am still so overwhelmed. In part, I am more attracted though to its complex particularities. On the whole, I’ve a feeling this relationship is only just beginning. Like any great love, it will take time to really have a handle on this thing called Burgundy.

But then again, I like a challenge.

euro scribbles on the cutest place on earth: eguisheim, alsace.

french wine, French Wine Travel, organic wine, Wine Blog, Wine Travel

I have taught classes on Alsace many times, explaining this magical place from what I had read in books, seen in pictures and learned from others’ experiences. Never could I have prepared myself for what I saw with my own eyes.

The Haut-Rhin department of Alsace, south of Strasbourg and certainly the best area for grapegrowing, is stacked with cute then cuter villages, one after the next. Not a mile goes by before you enter another enchanted little town. They love their flowers! You feel immersed in them as they drip from each window box, dangle from street posts and erupt from hundreds of pots around town. The uneven two story houses glue together were off all shapes and colors, held together by hand hewn logs. As though a community of munchkins or oomp loompas conspired to create a paradise to call home, it felt I was walking through a candyland dream.

Every step inspired a genuine need to shout ‘cute!’ or ‘adorable!’. Even I was sick of me after an hour or so. We walked around the town of Colmar to get our bearings. Everyday townspeople and tourists alike filled the streets, strolled past the markets, took boats down the canal and dipped into shops. There was a terrific energy to this second largest town in Alsace. We had a little tarte flambee and continued our tour. We noticed the time, and worked our way back to the car to make our appointment with Emile Beyer in Eguisheim, not 15 minutes away.

When I say Christian Beyer was one of the more gracious and generous people to walk the earth, I fear I still underestimate him. He greeted us in his home and presented to us an itinerary of sorts. “First, I take you around the village? It’s okay? Then a walk through the winery? Then into my vineyards for a look at the various vines? Then we will come back to taste? Finally, my wife and I want to take you to dinner? It’s okay?”

Yes. Yes, that is okay. It truly is above and beyond anything I have had a winemaker offer to do. Especially when he doesn’t really know us at all.

So we were off. He took us through this old village of Eguisheim and discussed its history. He has carried the torch of a winery that has been in the Beyer family for 14 generations. You can tell this is something he values very much. Being the youngest of 4 children, it is a wonder that he was so fortunate to end up with this estate. And curious, too. Why didn’t his two older brothers or sister take it over themselves? It is a question I don’t ask, but I suspect it is to do with the French law/tax that doesn’t make inheritance so glamourous. You have to want it. And that, Christian does.

He walks us through the old church and steeple. He explains the significance of the medieval decor and preserved relics, one that depicts a picture of the fortunate souls who wait for the second coming.. and those of the less fortunate who are impatient and therefore left with empty goblets.

As we continue down the windy, cobbly roads, it is all I can do to laugh outloud. Everything appears perfect in this village. Elder women swing open their colorful windows to wash between the woodwork and shout a friendly ‘bonjour!’ Children giggle as they play hide and go seek. I even catch a teenage boy wink at a young girl as he hops on his bicycle. Seriously people. That’s the land I was in for 24 hours.

Christian points out thinks I would never have noticed–old German sayings etched in the brick, the dates of establishment above each doorway, and even the massive nest that are wedged into chimney shoots beneath large storks that represent mascots in their land. Yep. Storks.

The smiley sausage girl bids us good day, the girl next door sweetly motions to her fromage. My senses are tickled and beyond overstimulated. But sensory stimulation is a drug to me. There is a reason I went into wine, you see.

As I hear the church bells sound and observe a peaceful fountain in the town square, I go to pinch myself, but it makes no difference. It all is still there after I mentally utter: ow. This is a place where people live. I have set a new goal in my mind: move to Eguisheim one day, even if for only a few months.

After a tour of his winery, his incredibly variant vineyard sites (that are managed organically) and a sampling of his wines (all of which are far above their price in terms of quality and length), we head back to our simple, lovely hotel: Auberge Alsacienne, just up the road from the winery. We change quickly and walk with him to a little brasserie in the town square. Here at Restaurant Caveau Heuhaus you can see Chuck Berry’s old companion, Jimmy Bock, playing up a storm in their cabaret.

The menu is very traditional, the food is good, and our hosts crack open a Riesling from their Pfersigberg vineyard. The acid was incredibly fresh– a youth entering its teens, this Riesling has a way to go. Most of their single vineyard Rieslings, in a good vintage, can go well beyond 20 years. The other day we visited Zind Humbrecht, one of the region’s best (if not BEST) producers, and although we didn’t get a chance for a formal tour, it was still very apparent in their lineup that this longevity is not so surprisingly uncommon in Alsace from great growers.

Our jolly old times had to come to a close eventually, which was probably good as a little too much eau de vie ended in a colleague terribly mixing his French with Spanish–shouting ‘señor’ at the waiter… as I nearly died. Our (‘amigo’) hosts were only to quick to understand our American shortcomings when attempting a second language. I admit, it can be difficult to recall words well when your brain has been wired with one second language already. It seems I know more Spanish now than a few years ago, merely because I am exercising it to understand a third one.

In the morning I wake, breathe in the wet cobble stones on my run, and take in the scent of the dew that clings stubbornly to the vines on the the hillside vineyards underneath the threatening glare of the rising sun. I am definitely sad to leave this wonderland. Thankfully, next on the plate is a another day or two with my guy followed by the most amazing wine region on the planet: Burgundy. After an aperitif of Champagne to begin this trip, followed by remarkable whites, I am craving a little red…

By the time I am back from my run, the ever more stubborn sun consumes the remaining dew, takes the rose glass effect down a notch, and I am ready to press onward with this unbelievable ride.

euro scribbles: a final day in Champagne…

Bubbles, french wine, French Wine Travel, organic wine, travel, Wine Travel

Where terroir is written in the wine when it comes to Burgundy–each parcel of land portraying its life with meticulous accuracy–Champagne’s terroir can be a little more difficult to decipher. At least for me. That is why it became so important to pay attention to each individual winemaker’s passion here. Each emphasized particular philosophies and sources for inspiration in their ‘artisinal’ work (a common word each used to describe themselves). For Goeffroy, there was a point to discuss native yeast fermentation, with Pehu-Simonet a shift towards biodynamics, both insisting upon blocked malolactic for cleaner execution of flavor. For Chartogne-Taillet, preservation of history but very progressive in his approach to find terroir in single vineyard bottlings.

The third day, we had only one appointment with one of my favorite producers: Marc Hebrart. There was no tour, rather a seat at a very cozy table and a focused tasting. Though Jean-Paul Herbrart, the current vigneron, spoke a little less English, he communicated so much in his wines and his conversation of them. For him, blending was the way to achieve complexity. He alone owned about 85 different parcels of land, each with its own personality. To keep single might drive him mad, he laughed. A good looking gentleman, you could read laughter in his face over the years. It suited him and made us all so comfortable around him. Jean-Paul explained that for him, pieces of wine are so much greater together than the sum of its parts. Having just been on the other side of the tracks with Alexandre Chartogne, we appreciated another perspective, but nevertheless remained Switzerland in our opinion, grateful for so many styles!

Here, I really finally understood the great differences between Champagne’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the tongue. The former brought me back to raspberry La Croix water when I was young (only infinitely better!). The bramble fruit of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and even black cherry dominated the flavors. Yeastier notes were to be found on the nose. For Chardonnay, elegance was centerstage. Lemon curd, yogurt and citrus peel were the reliable traits I kept meeting. The palate carried more acid and less body. They are sort of like hearing a child with a resounding singing voice. You don’t expect power on first glance… or taste. It is felt and understood by way of experiencing it. I am a sucker for Blancs de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne. They have won me over with ease. Not the least of which, Hebrart’s 1er Cru. 

I snuck away for a night and spent a night with my guy in Reims. His race has seen very unfortunate times this past week, but it cannot be helped. These things happen. This epic, historical race sees heights and depths that range so great along the way for everyone. Sadly, their team has been given a healthy dose of misfortune so far. If there is one thing I have learned, though, about Garmin-Sharp-Barricuda, they never cease to surprise. In these coming weeks, I am certain they will come out with their heads high and their results respectful and unexpected.

We took Terry Theise up on a recommendation nearby: Le Grand Cerf for dinner. We were thrown back maybe 50 years and given very traditional service, though it seems they are attempting to modernize their cuisine. I laughed when I looked at the menu.Your choice was an 8 course meal for 75 Euro or a small appetizer and entree for nearly 100 euro to start. I guess we were to have 8 courses. Gotta love how the French make the ‘right’ decision for you if you let them. Thankfully they were a series of very small, 2 to 3 bite sensations. It gave us time to talk, catch up and enjoy a few moments in this incredible setting.

The next morning I rejoined my group and we visited Goutorbe before leaving town. They were the same folks who owned the hotel where we stayed. What we found so remarkable about this family estate was how central they were to the community itself. They had a large space where one could imagine village events taking place, weddings, lectures, seminars and community functions. They had a large movie screen where even we sat to watch a film on the history of their estate and how it began with selling rootstock and vines. The operated a lovely hotel, obviously. They seemed very involved with the local government and community happenings. We were all quite impressed!

This was certainly the most traditional of the estates we saw. Their production was a bit larger. Their formula pretty consistent from year to year: 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chard blend, 9 grams sugar dosage, malolactic fermentation. But formulas work for good reason. Tasting though the selection, I was struck by its textbook elocution of ‘traditional’ Champagne. It is precisely the kind I would use to illustrate the classical characteristics to my customers. The prices were great, too. For those trying to break out of the obvious Veuve or Moet, this would be a natural step into discovering Recolant-Manipulants, or small grower farmer fizz.

euro scribbles: a good trip starts with champagne, naturally.

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Day 3 and I am itching to report to all of you my travels so far and those that lie ahead. It is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, professional tour of France’s wine regions I have been to date. And I can hardly contain my excitement! My boss, his partner, their buddy and I are loosely following France’s more famous tour: that of cycling. As we weave in an out of the route, we will sip our way through the some of the most famous regions on earth: Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Burgundy, the Northern and the Southern Rhone. A finish in Paris will conclude a memorable couple weeks of glorious consumption: that of culture, cycling, food and, of course… wine!

The first day is always a mess. Looking back, it always feel a dream occurred. Jetlag manages to steal my soul, and I am little more than a robot, stiff-kneed and zombie-like. I meet my friends in Paris, who have just come from London and we pile in a car headed to Champagne. As I suggest a GPS rental (at the cost of the car for two weeks), they decide they have sharp enough orienteering skills to go without.

I should have known then… but I was too numb from travel to insist.

It is a sad day when four grown adults fall apart like children and resort to sand throwing when lost in the hillsides of beautiful Champagne. The ironic situation of traveling alongside the Tour de France to watch my fiancee’s team Garmin Sharp Barracuda, without I dare say… a Garmin, has been nothing short of frustrating. And so I begin this travel diary of my next 2 weeks in this wondrous country with this: get a Garmin. Fortunately, I know someone who might remedy this little mess up very soon. 😉

Alas, between numerous bouts of getting lost, blaming one another, finding our way, then laughing about it (a bipolar bunch are we), there are some incredible visits with my favorite Champagne houses. They are not Veuve, nor Pommery, Mumms or Moet, they aren’t Taittinger nor even Bollinger. Per usual, I am after something smaller. Our focus is small growers (Recolant Manipulants) on this trip, or as we like to call it: farmer fizz. We speak to Terry Theise before this trip and his folks at Skurnik imports have set us up with 5 fantastic estates. Where the top 5 big guys in Champagne are literally responsible for over 2/3 of the entire production, these growers represent a humble 5,000 case production or so. Quality is everything. Terroir is the inspiration.

We arrive to our first lodgings: Castel Jeanson, owned by yet another grower who we are to visit tomorrow: Goutorbe. This hotel in Ay (about 30 minutes from downtown Reims?) seems to be known and loved by many, as a knowing smile erupts on the faces of everyone whom we tell we are here. The women who run it are so gracious and attentive. Their English is so superb, I feel silly even attempting my clumsy French, and the rooms are massive in comparison to most European hotels. I give it two thumbs up and thank Mr. Theise very much for this perfect recommendation.

Our first winery visit the very eveining we settle in town is Geoffroy (Jeff-wah), just next door to our lovely hotel. We step into the cellars, and immediately I feel at home when that musty smell of grapes skins and vinification greets me. The town even smells as such, walking by so many wineries along the road. We join another group of travelers here, and it is a perfect start. Their novice knowledge prompts our guide to run through basic Champagne production, giving us a crash course before moving on to more technical aspects. We learn that they use all gravity, not pumps, as well as all natural yeasts and no malolactic fermentation whatsoever. This becomes important when we realize through other estates how much this affects the style.

At the end, we taste through 4 wines: the Brut Traditional Expression, the 2006 Brut Empreinte, the 04 Extra Brut 1er Cru, and finally the rose of 100% Pinot Noir. The first–their entry level blend of 10% Chard, 55%Pinot Meunier and 35% Pinot Noir has a chalky, drying effect on the palate. It is quite serious for its place in life. The Empreinte is my favorite. Though a bit slutty and forward on the nose, offering voluptuous, nutty aromas, caramel and honey, it is too generous to turn away from–its firm acidity invites another sip with ease. Too much ease… The next, the 04, is most certainly the most complex. A day of jetlag, I was definitely appreciating the easier number before this one, but I knew that with a little work and thought, this was the hardest to break down. It was tightly wound with incredible depth and conversation. Finally, the pink was a pleasure, but my least favorite. Perhaps it came too late, as my heart was sold to the two preceding it. Nonetheless, its ample cherry fruit and dark berried bliss were nice treats for my tongue.

A dinner at a local restaurant in Epernay, and I am falling in my food. As I crawl to sleep not an hour later, I sleep for nine hours.


(stay tuned! more pics and stories to come. a few technical difficulties with the photos right now!)

euro scribbles: buckwheat… a regional delicacy (and death trap).

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After fighting with sleep and losing, aboard the train back to Milan where I leave tomorrow, Jonathan wakes me to view one of the most magnificent sights in the world: Lago di Como. This tranquil mass of water surrounded by mountains is just settling in before sunset, nodding off the light and welcoming the dark. Little fishing boats near shore might make one forget it is January at all. Its sheer brilliance may also make one forget the day’s trials, when all at once the burning in my throat does not.

Aboard the Bernina Express...

Just a couple hours ago, after a most unwritable journey down the Alps of Engadin (St. Moritz) on the Bernina Express into the Italian border town of Torino, Jonathan and I strolled our suitcases about a half mile or so from the station to a little restaurant, La Botte, where we were recommended to eat just next to the grand Basilica della Madonna. Here, we would find the ‘tipico’ food from the region, their pasta specialty called pizzoccheri as well as their dried, thin meat called bresaola. A sucker for regional dishes, we were there as soon as our feet hit the Tirano ground. La Botte sadly was closed. But we went to the restaurant next door which seemed promising, Albergo Altavilla. There we saw the travelers who were on board with us down the slope. They were from northern Illinois. Jonathan called that one within 12 seconds of a sharing a panoramic view car with them on the train. He called them ‘my people’. I laughed, because they were very much like me: chatty (I swear, they couldn’t let 2 seconds pass in silence), jolly and hypochondriatic (if that’s even a word). Go ahead and listen to someone in and around northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin just once. With age, we talk about our bodies, illnesses and diseases more each year. We can diagnose better than any doctor around and suggest medicine for it as well. After a couple hours of listening to walleye fishing stories and Barbara’s inevitable looming divorce (with the obligatory ‘I hate to gossip, but…’), we had much fun imitating on the walk to lunch.

The famous Brusio Viaduct.

We sat down at Albergo Altavilla and ordered the 4-course regional lunch, which would give us our pizzocheri noodles and bresaola (like beef prosciutto). We overheard the midwesterners order pizza, extremely disappointed and shocked to hear that these (northern) Italians hadn’t caught on to what made their country such a great hit. Alas, they ordered regular pasta with red sauce–a safe alternative.

Our demi-bottle of Valtellina Nebbiolo, a wonderfully silky textured, fruity red (nothing at all like Piemonte’s version) seemed a perfect choice with what was to come. We had just seen some vineyards outside town, so the choice was a no brainer (not that there were many more to be honest). We dug into the first course: Chiscioi Tiranesi con Cicoria, a kind of fried breaded cheese patty with a side salad. There were three of them. I wolfed down two in a matter of seconds. I was starving. Meanwhile, I noticed my partner clear his throat and get that look in his eye.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask with trepidation…

‘Nothing… I think.’ He clears his throat again, heavy in thought.


‘Well,’ he explains, “There may be a little buckwheat in this breading. Probably not, but…My tongue is starting to tingle…”

See, we are both quite allergic to the black, deadly flour. I begin to panic as I look down and see my near demolished plate. We frantically google ‘Tirano buckwheat food’ and there it is. Countless sights discussing this region’s famous Alpine dishes, such as pizzoccheri and chiscioi, made with hearty, buckwheat flour: ‘For hardcore buckwheat lovers ONLY!’


First he goes to, well, rid himself of the infestation in the bathroom before it gets too bad. Then it is my turn. We cancel our order for lethal pizzoccheri and opt instead for plain, potato gnocchi with red sauce, a safe choice. The staff was wonderful and very responsive, confirming that yes indeed there is a lot of buckwheat in their cuisine and of course they would accommodate.

My throat is still suffering from the experience, the black flour having penetrated its sides and swollen it within minutes. We were so fortunate he called it so soon. Even as I write this, I can scarcely swallow well. It is the only allergy I have that is so severe. I break into hives, fall asleep, swell up. And Jonathan is arguably worse. A strange star-crossed syndrome we both somehow share.

Death on a platter.

Our highly anticipated lunch became sparkling water, Benadryl  and gnocchi, followed by a hazy train ride to Milan. But even with that, we found a way to laugh about our high maintenance, wussy allergies, complete with a backdrop of beautiful lake Como.

Old Fashioned Christmas in Wisconsin.

spirits, travel, Wine Travel, wisconsin

Something changed during this last visit to Milwaukee. It’s like it suddenly became cool. Overnight it found its stride. With mid-century modern design sweeping the nations’ subconscious collective aesthetic, supper clubs and Manhattans suddenly feel like the right thing to do. But it’s more than mere recycling of time and trends, an age old pattern that is inevitable. Right now, even such metropoles as New York and LA are embracing these midwestern traditions. My last visit to the big city, and suddenly bartenders not only knew what a Brandy Old Fashioned was, they had it at the top of their cocktail list. Comfort food is dominating chic restaurant menus. My thought would be that this speaks to a cultural desire to find community amidst chaos. Simplicity and wholesome sensibilities. Budget friendly things to do and familiar places to hang out.

We got a little taste of tradition on this past visit to Wisconsin. We hadn’t long, but here are a few recommendations if you are looking to get back to a simpler time, or at least, an approximation.

Jackson Grill: We left the supper club choice up to our friends, and they scored big. This restaurant was plopped on the corner of some seemingly random street not far from the Milwaukee Brewer Stadium in the middle of a residential neighborhood. One lit tree, golden old school block address stickers above the door and a simple sign told us we were there. Inside, the atmosphere was warm. It was dim, old Christmas carols were playing, a string of lights made the wooden bar feel festive, and we were seated in a room of about 7 tables with massive snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. The walls were some kind of wood or cork, we couldn’t decipher. Here, there is no wine list. You get an old fashioned, a manhattan, a beer, red or white wine. Everything we ordered was delicious, but my friend and I were eyeing our partner’s choices: pork chop and baby back ribs (oh my God, these were good). Never mind the bartender massaging the chef’s shoulders on your way to the bathroom. They are, uhhh, family here?

Milwaukee , Jackson Grill

(photo borrowed from:

Milwaukee Street Traders: Tucked down a Lang-lined side street in old downtown Delafield, ‘Traders’, as the locals call it, always seems to be bustling with people of all ages, no matter what time of day. They seem to do it just right for a quaint cafe. They have a lovely offering of homemade quiches, muffins, oatmeal, sandwiches and soups. The surroundings recall old school midwestern paraphernalia, books and board games. It is comfortable. It’s just the places I would go after sledding all day for a hot cocoa.

Red Circle Inn: Word has it this was where the first bar was built in Wisconsin, as it dates back to 1848. We were saddened to find that the ancient bar was removed, parceled and its remnants were to be found in the upper level for private events. Saddened at the white acrylic looking bar (this was to make customers feel it was more ‘in the now’—uhhhh, right), we ordered our cocktails. A one man show was singing old jazz standards who went by the name “Back in the Day Dan”. He was our saving grace. He had an awesome voice, and they made some tasty drinks. Overall, it was really fun, and we would go back.

LeDucs: This is my standby whenever I go back home. They make the best custard vanilla malts for miles. In my humble opinion, better than even the all-famous Kopp’s. I learned this time ’round that they have a pretty mean fish fry everyday of the week as well. Battered in beer like a good ‘sconi cod, we were happier than fat kids at Willy Wonka’s factory with this lunch.

Le Ducs Frozen Custard provides restaurants, family restaurant, desserts, ice cream, ice cream sundae, hot dogs, shakes, sandwiches for Wales, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Delafield, North Prairie, Nashotah, Dousman, Hartland, Oconomowoc Lake, Chenequa, Okauchee Lake and neighboring Wisconsin communities.

Lapham Peak: Unfortunately, we are not invincible to the calories found in custard, fish fries, baby back ribs and eggnog. We went on an awesome run at this local park run by the Department of Natural Resources. The area is noted for its deep kettles and high moraines, hence my high school was Kettle Moraine. We felt it for sure, but it was just what we needed. If you want to go on leisurely walk, there are numerous trail options, a lovely pond at Hawk’s Hollow, you can hike up to the Tower, which serves to be the higher point in Waukesha County–an outstanding view in Autumn! Also, if you like Nordic skiing or mountain biking, this region offers some of the best!

How to make a damn fine ol’ fashioned: Before heading to the supper club, we met for old fashioneds at my friends’ mid-century modern home in Wauwatosa. Their furniture fit the mold perfectly. It was one of the best homes I have seen in a while. They made me the best Brandy Old Fashioned I have ever had. Honestly. And they even shared the recipe…

4 ice cubes in a double old fashioned glass

3 dashes of bitters (they prefer Fee Brothers, made in Rotchester NY)

1 or 2 splashes or Grenadine or cherry juice from the jar

A squirt of a fresh orange slice

2 shots of Brandy (higher quality the better)

Top off with 7-up. THIS IS CRUCIAL. Not sprite. Not sierra mist. Only 7-up.

Garnish with cherries and orange slice (addition of a olive optional).

You read it correctly. No sugar my friends. Trust me on this.

Actually, I was amazed at how the olive balanced the cocktail’s sweetness. I love the addition and now find it necessary.

CC Old Fashioned

(Photo borrowed from:

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…