Monday, May 11, 2015

Thanks, But No Tanks -- A Word About Media Trips & Winery Tours

I’ve been all over the world in search of wine and the best wine tourism experiences. I’ve visited hundreds of wineries and toured countless tank rooms. I feel like I’ve seem them all: short tanks, tall tanks, round tanks, square tanks, indoor and outdoor tanks, and in a few places some truly enormous tanks.

Do I need to see more tanks?


What I’d like to see, and rarely get to see up close and personal, are the vineyards. I like to walk the vines, see the soil, notice the light, smell the air, and get a feel for the land on which the grapes are grown.

Sure, some places don’t necessarily have their own vineyards, and in some locations it may be dangerous {think land mines in Croatia} or inconvenient to tramp through the vines due to weather or workers -- but still, I’d rather see the vineyards instead of tanks or any crushpad equipment that is not in use at the time.

Same goes for the concrete eggs. I’ve seen quite a few in the last few years, and expect to see more as the trend continues towards concrete as the new stainless.

But why do people feel so compelled to show you the tanks? Mostly I’m talking about media trips here, where in one day you may see more tank rooms than most civilian wine tourists will see in a lifetime. I guess in some instances it gives a view to the size of an operation, but unless there is some truly awe inspiring or special quality about the tanks like the mosaic embellished tank room at Juvé Camps in the Penedès region of Spain; or the tanks at Raymond Vineyards with half naked manikins hanging from them...well frankly, I don’t care.

It’s kind of like someone showing you all the features of their fabulously designed house and then taking you to a closet and saying grandly--“And here’s our water heater!” 

All I really want to do is when I visit a winery is learn about the vineyards, hear about the winemaking methodology, history of the winery, taste the wine, and make my own conclusions. I want to get a sense about the winemaker as a person and get the general ambience of a place. I don’t need to see the tanks.

Thanks, but no tanks.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Winemakers of Change: Four Advocates of the 7% Grapes

Clockwise: Mahle, Allen, Rorick. Photo credits below

Note: This piece was originally set to run as the cover story in Sip California but due to a publishing delay and the timing of 7% Solution tasting event, I’m posting it here now.

As you drive across the wine-growing regions of California, the majority of vineyards you pass will be planted with the big eight-- Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc. According to the USDA’s report on California’s wine grape acreage, these eight varietals are the most widely planted grapes; roughly 93%.

The remaining 7%* of the acres planted are rare and obscure grapes that many consumers have never tried or even heard of before. For growers, decisions on what to plant are based primarily on economic viability, not necessarily on terroir or for what grows best where. Yet for a small cadre of maverick winemakers it’s that seven percent, the uncommon and rare varieties, such as Aglianico, Grenache Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, St. Laurent, Tinto Cao, Friulano, Verdehlo, and Trousseau Gris, that are most appealing. *{It’s important to note that the 7% calculation applies primarily to the acreage of California’s North Coast.}

By focusing on the unusual, lesser-planted grapes, these forward-thinking producers are establishing an important knowledge base on Californian wine with regard to soils, climate, and farming techniques. Their efforts may predict the future of what’s in your glass, and herald a significant turning point in California wine.

Four of the most passionate advocates for the 7% grapes are Duncan Arnot Meyer of Arnot-Roberts, Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope, William Allen of Two Shepherds, and Pax Mahle of Wind Gap Wines.

If, as the saying goes, wine is fashion, then these winemakers are the avant-garde designers of the moment, sending Arneis, Counoise, Vermentino, and others down the cat walk with a strut of attitude.


“I think we are just beginning to explore the inherent valor of light-bodied red wines in California,” says Duncan Arnot Meyer. His standout wine, the Arnot-Roberts Ribolla Gialla, is fermented in clay amphorae. He also makes a Rosé of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao that’s dry and light as parchment with a fresh scent of strawberry and spice.

“Much focus has been spent on making hearty, extracted wines over the past twenty years and the other end of the spectrum deserves more attention,” he says. “We are in the midst of a very exciting time to be growing grapes and making wine in California and the potential is being further revealed to us every year.”

Chasing the tough-to-grow, hard-to-pronounce, and at-times-persnickety varietals rather than follow the tried and true is not necessarily the path to riches and glory. The common denominator among the winemakers is the compulsion to follow their own tastes while pushing the prevailing expectations of what makes wine great. If it pays off, so be it.

“We make the wines we want to drink and love first, then find a following,” says William Allen of Two Shepherds. “I can’t tell you how often I heard in my early days, if I didn’t make Pinot Noir, how much I would struggle.”

Instead of making wine to fit a business/marketing plan, Allen makes wine to suit his palate. His love for Rhône varietals grew from a hobby into to a full-blown label, and his Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc, from Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez, has gone on to achieve near-cult reverence.

“Our wines are appealing not just because of the variety, but for those seeking wines of restraint, lower alcohol, higher acidity, and finesse over brawn,” Allen says.

Pax Mahle’s focus on wines with a sense of place is reflected in his label name--Wind Gap—in reference to the Petaluma Wind Gap a viticulture sub region of the Sonoma Coast where the grapes are influenced by cool coastal winds and “…taste like where they are grown.” His old vine Trousseau Gris, an aromatic delight from Fannuchi-Wood Road Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is fermented in concrete and available on tap at his grange-chic tasting room in Sebastopol.

Many 7% varieties have an ardent following by wine consumers looking for something new, but the masses have yet to embrace the full range of varietals. “People are more intimidated by a $26 bottle of California Vermentino that’s terrific with food than a $75 bottle of Chardonnay that’s so oaky and mass produced it tastes like it could have been grown in a lab,” says Mahle.

“The lesser-known varieties that the 7% is shining a light on are made to be enjoyed with ease and not put on a pedestal,” he says. “Not every obscure variety will become a favorite, but that’s the joy of tasting and experimenting and taking the journey of discovering what you like.”


These winemakers draw inspiration not just from the grapes. Diverse and esoteric sources including art, music, and literature informs their winemaking methodology. Matthew Rorick finds Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence an ongoing inspiration, and two of his wines, Suspiro del Moro and Sogni della Speccia, bear names from Rushdie’s writing. Meyer cites Frank Herbert's Dune as an influence, and compares a great wine to “the epic crescendo in a good version of 'Terrapin Station' by the Grateful Dead.”

A minimal approach to winemaking and willingness towards experimentation is a calling card of the avant garde, with many using "old world" techniques like native yeast, neutral vs. new barrel, concrete, no fining or filtering, and picking at lower ripeness levels. Indeed, many of the 7% wines exhibit an inherent lightness of being, alive with an energy that practically bounces in the glass.

For Rorick, a minimal approach applies to both winemaking style and case production. The Forlorn Hope wines are labeled as “rare creatures,” and made in lots of less than 2,500 bottles. His Que Saudade Verdelho, from the Sierra Foothills, is full of flavor and vibrant acidity—a veritable poem to the Portuguese provenance of the grapes.

Rorick was drawn to the less commonly grown grapes in California out of curiosity. He began to wonder, “How does Verdelho behave in the vineyard and winery? How would the approach to producing Alvarelhão differ from how I'd made Cabernet?”

It's not dabbling as much as purposeful experimentation with old vines and forgotten vineyards in a concerted effort to learn from the grapes and what in time may reveal what's truly California.


“What might our vineyards look like today if Verdelho, Trousseau noir, Riesling, Chenin blanc, Tinto Cão, Arboriou, and other 'lesser-known' varieties had continued to be cultivated in diverse locations and larger plantings over the past hundred years?” Rorick asks. He would be delighted if all of the work being done with fringe varieties in California continued to deepen the understanding and relationship between site and vine, and forge a link between the state’s viticultural history and its future. “Continuing the exploration of this history is irresistibly compelling,” he says.

Are the 7% varietals destined to become just a passing fashion trend? The equivalent of wide-legged palazzo pants of the late 1960s? One day you’re in, the next day you’re out. Or will they become generally accepted and long lasting?

In the end, the change and shifts in wine culture may not come from the growers and producers, but from the new breed of wine drinkers, that once they get a taste, will drive the demand for more.

“These lesser-known varieties offer wine aficionados a much broader world of possibilities and palate experiences, and a chance to appreciate the benefit of old vines and historic vineyards,” Allen says. He sees it as an opportunity for California to distinguish itself, and believes the number of small wineries producing lesser-known varieties will continue to increase.

Mahle definitely believes the interest by growers and producers in 7% varieties represents a significant turning point in California wine. Rorick’s take, on the other hand, is more restrained: “Culturally significant? Absolutely. Turning point? Ask me again in ten years.”


The 7% Solution tasting event was the brain child of Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts and Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines, who wanted to showcase the varietals made from the lesser-known varieties planted in only 7% of the acreage in the North Coast of California. 2015 will mark the third year of this not-to-be missed event. Details on locations and tickets below.

SAN FRANCISCO / Wednesday, MAY 6, 2015 / 5pm-8:30pm
FOLSOM ST. FOUNDRY, 1425 Folsom Street, San Francisco / 415-795-3644

HEALDSBURG / Saturday, MAY 9, 2015 / 1pm-4pm
BERGAMOT ALLEY, 328A Healdsburg Avenue / 707-433-8720

Tickets available here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Blissed Out on Portuguese Wine

It’s no secret that I think some of the most fascinating, knowledgeable, interesting and out-right fun people, are wine importers. (Frank Dietrich of Blue Danube Wine is perfect example of this.) In spite of the inherent risks, wine importers seem to possess some kind of plucky can-do attitude, compelled to carry on when others might give up. I find it inspiring to be around people who love what they do and there’s something very appealing about their enthusiasm for a region and their zest for bringing the story of the wine in their portfolios to life. Yes, I realize that a wine importer’s main job is to sell you on the wines. But the best importers seem to transcend mere sales talk and it becomes personal. The wines become a part of them and the level of excitement they generate for their “babies” is contagious.

I don’t remember how @BlissWineImport  got on my Twitter radar, but once I followed, I became instantly engaged with Alleah and Erin’s International Adventure in search of wine and their quest to become wine importers. Last year I followed along on their journey as they tweeted and blogged and made videos about their discoveries. It was like reality TV, but without the fake plot lines and bad commercials. It was fun, seat-of-the-pants, honest and un-pretentious.

So when I saw that Erin and Alleah had finally settled back in California I tweeted that we should get together. They agreed and graciously offered to bring samples of their latest imports from winemaker João Tavares de Pina of Quinta da Boavista in the Dão, Portugal.

What started out as a “come by for an hour” -- turned into a wine fueled odyssey of conversation, connection, and confessions. Well, I was the only one with the confession-- I admitted that I really wanted to back out of the invite an hour before they arrived because I’m actually a introvert of the highest order and I began to panic at the thought of hosting total strangers for an hour.

But 8 hours, 6 bottles, and 2 broken glasses later, I realized, I need not have worried. We had a blast, and carried on a non-stop conversation over our shared interests and belief in the connective power of great wine.

I’m already a big fan of the wines of Portugal and I was very impressed with the selections Alleah poured--three reds and a white all from Quinta da Boavista in Dão, Portugal. I did not take formal notes, but I found the wines tasted like pure Portugal to my palate. Hearty, rustic, full of spice, earth, red fruits, and dazzling minerality with a great depth of flavor that continued to open and evolve in the glass. The tannin profiles were robust and suited my preference for a taut backbone and structure, but were never overpowering.

First we tried the 2012 Rufia Red blend of -- 40% Jaen, 30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Pinheira -Full minty mouthful with lots of red fruit and robust tannins.

Then we tasted the 2006 Terras De Tavares -- 50% Jaen, 50% Touriga Nacional -- Hearty, earthy flavors with a plusher mouth feel.

Followed by the 2003 Terras De Tavares - 60% Jaen, 40% Touriga Nacional. -- Deeper, more developed flavors with long lingering finish.

And finally, the 2008 Torre de Tavares 100% Encruzado that was love at first sip for me. This wine was a big OH YES! Not technically a true orange wine, but in the style I like to call the White Unicorn. Meaning it’s a rare and magical beast. Catch one if you can.

After tasting each wine, it occurred me that all together they were very much like a chord progression, a perfect harmony of flavors and structure that created a melodic sense of place. A wonderful riff, it was as if I could hear the sound of the terroir as well as taste it.

As Alleah poured the wines I could not help but notice the odd little fabric wraps around the necks of the bottles. They looked like mini ankle weights or leg warmers circa 1982 Jane Fonda ~ “Feel the burn!”~ but it turns out they were drip catchers called DripTeez. A product conceived, designed and marketed by Alleah’s mother. What an entrepreneurial-minded family! Anyway they worked great and nary a drip escaped down the bottles.

Check out the stunning Bliss Wine website designed and engineered by the talented Erin. There you can learn more about the wines, watch videos with the winemakers, and place an order for your own selections.

Bliss Wine Imports

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rhone Rangers 2015: Sipping On the Dock of the Bay

This past Saturday, March 28th, the Annual Rhone Rangers Weekend took place dockside at the Craneway Conference Center in Richmond. This is the second year the event has been in Richmond, but it was my first time there. What a venue! Bight and spacious with outstanding views of the bay.

My favorite part of the Rhone Rangers events are the seminars. I always come away from them with a greater perspective and deeper understanding regarding the many aspects of winemaking. This year the morning seminar topics were on Roses Made from Rhone Varieties and the Age-ability of American Rhones. Both were excellent.

Below is the list of the panelists and the host with quotes from the Rosé seminar. Can you match up who said what about Rose? This may prove easy for true wine geeks, and challenging for others. But give it a try.  {ANSWERS BELOW}

1. Patrick Comisky, Wines & Spirits Magazine
2. Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vineyards
3. Larry Schaffer, Tercero Wines
4. Ranko Anderson, Kale
5. Herb Quady, Quady North
6. John MacCready, Sierra Vista
7. Craig Camp, Cornerstone Cellars
8. Jason Robinson, Field Stone
9. Steve Anglim, Anglim Winery

A: “It started out as a way to concentrate the Reds, but evolved to a become a Rosé.”

B: “Rosé not something you really want to talk about, you just want to drink it. Talking about Rosé is like discussing the semantics of Scooby-Doo.”

C: “I am in search of getting to the ‘truthiness’ of the wine Rosé.”

D: “I make it to please my wife, to capture a happy memory.”

E: “We planted the vines specifically for Rosé. It was a marketing objective. The magic loss leader we put in front of buyers, Somms, and Wine Directors. Our grape is obscure but it has a high geek factor.”

F: “I want to approach all our wines, Red, White, and Rosé with equal respect and serious consideration to making them the best possible.”

G: “Our first Rosé started out as a Red but I did not think it was good enough as a full Red, so we made a Rosé and the customers have loved it ever since.”

H: I don’t think there is just one wine that can be called a true Rosé. There is no such thing as a true Rosé  My focus is on food wines and the acidity of Rosé pairs so well with food.

I: “Rosé --it's part of our line up!”

The line up of Rosés included:
Anglim 2014 Rose: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier
Bonny Doon Vineyard 2012 Vin Gris de Cigare Reserve En Bonbonne: Mourvedre, Grenache, Cinsaut
Cornerstone Cellars 2014 Corallina Rose Artist Series Rosé: 100% Syrah
Field Stone Winery 2014 “Heritage Block”Rosé: 100% Petite Sirah
Kale Wines Sonoma County Rosé: 85% Whole Cluster Pressed Grenache, 15% Saignée of Syrah
Quady North Rose Applegate (OR) Rosé: 80 % Counoise, 20% Syrah
Sierra Vista 2014 Rosé of Grenache
Tercero Wines 2014 Rosé of Mourvedre

{ANSWERS: 1B, 2C, 3H, 4A, 5E, 6G, 7F, 8I, 9D}

Stay tuned for next post on findings from the second seminar on the age worthiness of American Rhone wines.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Five Best Wine Tasting Scenes on Film

From the absurd to the sublime, wine so often plays the straight man in movies. Here are the five best wine tasting or wine related scenes on film.

1. Sardine Liqueur -- Alan Arkin and Peter Falk with Italian subtitles no less.

2. No F***in Merlot!

3. This is pretty much what happens during speed tasting at WBC. (Wine Bloggers Conference)

4. There’s always “the one” on a press trip. Or “the two"...

5. Inspector Jacques Clouseau: Master Sommelier!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cuscó Berga: Transformed by Cava

This past October I was in Spain visiting Cava producers as part of the sponsored 50 Great Cava's Tour. One of the wineries we visited, Cuscó Berga, has been on my mind ever since.

Located in Les Gunyoles d’Avinyonet in the Penedès wine region of Catalonia, Spain, Cuscó Berga is owned and operated by three brothers—twins Joan and Lluis, and their younger brother Jordi.

From the back balcony of Cuscó Berga views of the countryside are expansive, but there were no vines to be seen.

“Where are the grapes I asked?”

No sooner had I asked the question, we were off in a vintage Land Rover for a tour of the vineyards. As we drove down the narrow street, gears grinding loudly, I noticed three women give us the eye as we whizzed by. I imagined their conversation: There go the village winemakers! Again!

We drove for about fifteen minutes and then abruptly turned off the main road onto a dirt road. The Land Rover lurched and heaved over a deeply rutted track that snaked through dense wood and shrub filled land and past blocs of vines, some more than 40 years old, planted in a rocky mixture of sand, gravel, and clay soils. Lluis drove the Land Rover with absolute joy and abandon. I’ve never met anyone with a greater sense of glee behind the wheel.

We stopped to examine a few of the vineyards and look through a refractrometer to gauge the brix (sugar content of the grapes), while at the same time, enormous mosquitoes tested our blood sugar content via our exposed skin. 

As the light began to fade, we drove past more vines until we come to a fork in the road. In the distance we could see a clochán perched up above the dirt path. The clochán, a stone hut used as shelter from the elements, was hand built by the brothers' grandfather.

We pulled up in front of the beehive shaped structure and the brothers hurried in telling us to wait outside. A few minutes later, we were beckoned to enter. Inside we found sheets of newspaper carefully laid out around the perimeter for seating, along with several bottles of Cava, and bowls filled with chocolate pieces. It was like a clubhouse, albeit a very tiny one, for Cava Connoisseurs. The cool air inside smelled like petrichor--earthy and damp with a hint of limestone, and was a welcome relief from the muggy heat outside.

The ten of us squeezed in hip-to-hip, kneecap-to-kneecap and I began to feel claustrophobic. I mentally tallied a list of all the things that could go wrong and tried to dismiss each one in turn as I ticked them off. Spiders? None that I could see. Bats? Not yet. Snakes? Let’s hope not. Sudden earthquake and hut collapse? Well, that was a possibility. But I could not shake the feeling that a bear, out gathering berries, might return any moment and not be thrilled to find Goldilocks drinking his Cava.

Fortunately, I was snapped out of my fears when a bottle of Cuscó Berga Brut Nature Reserva Eco, was popped and our glasses filled with a blend of Macabeu, Xarel•lo and Parellada.

I watched the bubbles race to the rim of the flute in the flickering light and tasted the Cava’s fresh mineral notes of limestone, peach and touch of pineapple.

After my third glass of Cava I was no longer claustrophobic. I detected a powerful harmonic vortex around us and sensed the pulse of the land as it emanated up from the earth, a singular vibration coursing through my Cava addled brain, and I liked it.

I’ve tasted wine in rustic places and very swanky places but never in so magical a place. Outside the hut I felt transformed, spiritual like, and it wasn't just the fresh air. I emerged from the hut with an incredible lightness of being, positively buoyant. I don’t know what the others in the group experienced, but they seemed less gobsmacked than I was. Oh well, some of us have more finely calibrated sensibilities for the energy of the land I guess.

Back at the winery we enjoyed more Cava including the Cuscó Berga Brut Rosé made of 100% Trepat, the Brut Nature Tradition Reserva Cava DO, and Brut Gran Reserva both made of Xarel•lo, Macabeo and Parellada. The wines reflected the brothers unpretentious zest, sincerity and enthusiasm, giving each Cava an inner sparkle.

If you are planning a trip to the region I highly recommend you put Cuscó Berga on your list. I dare say I’ve never had more fun fending off claustrophobia, swatting away mosquitoes, or getting thrashed around in a Land Rover.

I’m not sure if the vineyard tour is available to all visitors at the winery, but if you find yourself there and hear the jingling of keys, ask if you can ride along. It may just be the most transformative vineyard tour you ever take.

Here is a short video slideshow of the visit:

*NOTE I delayed this story way too long while awaiting some photos from one of the photographers on the trip, but I never got the pictures he took, so you’ll just have to imagine how beatific I appeared emerging from the Cava hut. 

Cuscó Berga
Esplugues, 7
08793 Les Gunyoles (Avinyonet)
Alt Penedes, Barcelona, Spain

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Wines of Croatia in NYC February 24th

If you are a regular reader of this blog you are well aware of my obsession with the wines of Croatia. And slowly but surely the country and their wines are getting noticed and receiving more coverage every year including a listing in the February edition of Wine Enthusiast as one on the top wine travel destinations for 2015. But heck, I told you Croatia was the happening place to visit and one of the top emerging wine destinations back in 2011. {You heard it here first friends!}

Anyway, if you’d like to learn more about the wines of Croatia and you are a member of the trade or media (especially if you live on the East coast)—you are in luck!

On February 24th, at the Astor Center in New York City, Vina Croatia will host a presentation of Croatian wine with over 24 wineries represented including my beloved Bibich. In addition to the walk around tasting there will be two seminars:

Taste Croatia (11:00 am - 11:45 am)  - Discover Croatia and its diverse range of terroirs. Learn about the leading grape varieties and taste selected wines representing the characteristic styles and flavors of  Croatian wines.

American Winemakers Who Fell in Love with Blue Adriatic  (12:30 pm - 1:15 pm)  - Meet the successful Americans who invested in the Croatian wine business and are standing behind Grgich, Korta Katarina and Benmosche Family Vineyards.

Registration is complimentary and exclusive to members of the wine trade and press. For more information please email Tatiana Reif at


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