Archive for New Discoveries

Nov
17

Alto Piemonte–the introduction

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I had dreamed of visiting Alto Piemonte since my first glass of Gattinara back in the late 1970’s.  It was a old crusty bottle, which had only a partial label with no apparent vintage date to be seen.  The cork was also old school looking & weathered as was the bottle.  The wine poured was very brick-ish/orange hued & one could easily see through it & read a written page.  The perfume was glorious, majestic & VERY haunting, which is why I remember it still today so vividly.  Yes, it was an aha moment.

It has taken almost 40 years, but I finally was able to go & visit the area. 

Alto Piemonte is today a relatively “under the radar screen” wine growing area, roughly 100 miles from the Alba, the epi-town of Barolo, Barbaresco & the more famous Piemontese wines.  Historically, however, Alto Piemonte was more famous than Barolo for their red wines back in the old days.  At its peak there were roughly 40,000 hectares planted.  Today, there is maybe only 1,000 hectares of vines & the wines have since fallen into the shadow of both Barolo & Barbaresco.

The sharp decline of planted acreage started with the phylloxera devastation in the mid to late 1800’s, which wiped the slate clean.  Many chose not to continue because of the extremely high costs of replanting the steep hillsides.  Adding to the decimation was the departure of many of the work force who chose to instead work in the growing industrial industry, specifically in nearby city of Milan, where the work was less back breaking, strenuous & paid much more.

The benefit of being 100 miles northeast of Barolo country, means a closer proximity to the Alps & specifically Mount Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe.  This of course can at least partially explain the myriad of volcanic type soils, BUT, one should also consider the overall much cooler microclimates.  (If you believe the regional old adage–closer to the mountains, generally, the cooler the temperatures).

I was so interested & ready to delve into this very different & unique Nebbiolo world.  (I would have loved to also have explored Valtellina, but will save that for a different trip).  The grape mixings are different, as are the soils & microclimates–all generating a VERY different perspective on what Nebbiolo can be AND at much lower pricing than most Barolo or Barbaresco.

There are 7 main municipalities of Alto Piemonte–Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Sizzano, Fara, Ghemme & Gattinara.  Each have undulating, rolling hills, the highest being around 1650 feet in elevation.  The base of the soils is volcanic with a plentitude of varying porphyric soils. 

The crown jewel native grape variety is Nebbiolo to which there is also lesser amounts of Vespolina, Croatina & Uva Rara planted.  Historically, it was the Nebbiolo of Alto Piemonte which shined, even over the southern neighbors of Barolo & Barbaresco.

Each municipality has by law a different % mix of the permitted grape varieties.

So, off we went, in search of adventure & new wine “finds”.

We left Alba originally wanting to take a slight detour to Carema, an hour & a half or so out of the way hoping to visit Ferrando, but could not get an appointment there.  It was harvest for goodness sake, so totally understandable.  (We had a bottle of their wine later & I was sorry to have missed this opportunity).  Maybe next time.

Though I was somewhat disappointed, nixing Carema off of our travel list meant we could drive directly to Alto Piemonte & thereby saving ourselves at least 3 hours.

Cheryle decided, after much digging around, to make our base in the town of Cureggio at an agriturismo named La Cappucina.  Located in a small field, it seemed more like a farm in locale, with all of the animals & the remote setting.  It was so peaceful, tranquil & it was truly a GREAT place to stay & enjoy the countryside serenity.  Interestingly, it also had, as we soon found out, the finest restaurant of the whole area by chef/owner Gianluca Zanetta & his lovely gracious wife Raffaella (who was the front of the house person).  Such incredible gracious service & attention to detail.  In addition, as we soon found out, Gianluca is also one of the foremost wine experts of the region & its wines.  He kindly gave us hours of insight & advice AND his wine selection was all of the notable wines of the area.  It really turned out to be the perfect place to stay.

I should thank my cousin Mike for his gracious, good fun company, his doing all of the driving & researching & selecting dining experiences.  And, to my wife Cheryle for her incredible searching out & plotting all of the travel courses, hotel reservations & directions.  I am so thankful also because they both have passion for seeing these kinds of vineyards, visiting & talking story with such incredible wine people & braving the vast amount of miles we drive every day in our search.

In Alto Piemonte, I also need to thank–Gianluca & Raffaella Zanetta of La Cappucina; superstar winemaking consultant Cristiano Garella & Marina Olwen Fogarty & Gilberto Boniperti for responding so quickly to our pleas & helping us open the doors to so many fantastic wine artists.  And, to all of the wineries who wholeheartedly welcomed us & took the time, at harvest, to tell us their story & share all of their insights & wisdoms.

It was a truly a most memorable trip.

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Nov
15

Alto Piemonte–Day 1 Bramaterra

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Alto Piemonte can be subdivided into 7 main denominations–a cluster of Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme, Sizzano & Fara–roughly 2 hours drive northeast of Langhe.  (from there, thankfully each destination is only about 15 to 30 minutes or less from each other).

As our planned visit to a producer in Lessona fell through at the last moment, we started our first day in Bramaterra.

One of the serendipitous perks to our pre-trip planning was “hooking” up with Cristiano Garella, who happens to be the top winemaking consultant of the whole region (at least 21 projects).  I believe it was partly because of star winemaker/Tres Bicchieri awardee Gilberto Boniperti of Fara & partly because of Oliver McCrum, a prominent San Francisco based Italian wine importer.  How it really came to be, I am not sure, BUT, Cristiano paid so much attention to us & opened up so many doors & opportunities for us & we are forever thankful.

Looking back, I wonder if our trip would have been nearly as insightful & fulfilling without Cristiano & Gianluca?

Bramaterra is the largest denomination of the cluster with at least 7 municipalities/towns within.  The aspects, microclimates & soils therefore can differ greatly.  Our first stop was Colombera & Garella, located in Masserone, & a joint project between Giacomo Colombera & Cristiano Garella.   This estate has 2 hectares in Masserano, 1 hectare in Lessona & 5 hectares in Roasio.  What immediately caught our attention was the dark, reddish, iron rich soils of their Masserano vineyard–1 hectare of 70 year old vines & the other 1 hectare was more like 25 year old vines, at our first stop.  This is quite different from many of the other Bramaterra vineyards & their porphyry-sand mixed soils we saw & walked.  The Colombera & Garella 2016 Bramaterra (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) has more dark, base notes with a “blood” like nuance to its core & aroma.  Their wines were very impressive–more civil, balanced, well textured & sultry.  I would also say, this estate will be producing wines worth seeking out as they will only be getting better & better moving forward with the inclusion of Cristiano Garella’s expertise.  Their special soil is a GREAT start.   

Cristiano made a quick stop, still in Bramaterra to show us how different the soils can be in the DOC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our next stop was to Le Pianelle, yet another Cristiano Garella project.  There are actually 5 partners–Dieter Heuskel, Peter Dipoli, working partners–Fabio, Andrea & Cristiano.  They vineyards are mostly in Bramaterra, one in the town of Brusnengo–porphyry-sand soils, replanted in 2007 & one in Roasio–50 year old vines in the vertically remote hills (closer to the mountains & therefore much cooler) at 1600 feet in elevation & red porphyry & gravel soils.  Their 2016 Bramaterra red (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) was so intriguingly savory–more base notes of earth, roasted chestnuts, worn saddle leather, with a light touch of smoke & musk.  It was very masculine, virile yet still so well balanced & surprisingly polished.  This is certainly another estate on the rise & worth keeping an eye out for.  It was a terrific, memorable opportunity to be there at harvest, so we could try grapes still on the vine, different grape juice as they were fermenting & some from other vintages.

 

Our next stop, thanks again in kind, to Cristiano, was at Antoniotti, also in Bramaterra.  It was not originally on our pre-trip radar screen, but with HUGE endorsements from Cristiano Garella & Gianluca Zanetta at La Cappucina, we were so thankful Cristiano made a visit possible, eventhough it was harvest.  This truly iconic estate was founded in 1861 & is currently run by Odilio (father), & his son Mattia who has recently joined his father full time..  They own but 5.5 hectares of vines, including Martinazzi Cru” a breathtaking, steep, rocky (volcanic porphyry–low organic matter) Bramaterra hillside plus 1 hectare of another steep hillside of 70 year old vines across the way.  (His latest vineyard addition is 1 hectare planted above on the steepest, rockiest site.  The vines are only 2 years old & I am really anxious to taste what this parcel will produce).  Odilio, now 77 years young in age, is undeniably from the old school of the region–its grass roots thoughts, philosophies & traditional minded ways, both in the vineyard & the winery.  I was totally taken by this wise, very thoughtful wine “yoda” & his young, energetic, uplifting son Mattia.  (It thankfully seems, we always seem to run across such a wine maestro/vigneron like this in every Old World wine region we visit).  Although he prudently uses stainless steel in his winemaking, he seems to prefer old concrete (1901) totally underground & older, large oak (1250 liters, & 1700 liters) for his aging.  (His Bramaterra, for instance, is typically 70% Nebbiolo, 7% Vespolina, 20% Croatina & 3% Uva Rara, aged for 30 months in such vessels!).  Odilio Antoniotti produces glorious Bramaterra–something truly special, personal & soulful.  Stylistically, this wine reminds me of those from but a small handful of Barolo-meisters back in the 1960’s & 1970’s.  This is definitely a wine to search out!  I left Odilio with a most touching memory.  While I asked Mattia all of these questions about the vineyards, the vines, the winemaking, while we were in the vineyard, Odilio was off to the side, trying to break open one of the rocks in his vineyard.  He finally succeeded after 20 minutes or so of working it.  He then proudly showed us the core of the rock, which showed some kind of red quartz & smatterings of limestone, which was unlike anything else I saw in Alto Piemonte.  He beamed as a father would when showing his newborn baby.  I will always remember this special moment, as it will remind me how it was this soil, HIS soil, which this 77 year old true wine master treasured & proudly showed us.  Incredible!

Yes, what an incredible day this really was.

In the planning of our latest trip to Italy we set our sights on two specific & unique winegrowing niches of the country’s western coast–Dolceacqua on the northwestern extreme of Liguria & Alto Piemonte to the northeast of Alba.  Just a short time previously, I was really taken, bordering entranced with several of the Rossese di Dolceacqua wines I tasted from this DOC (officially recognized in 1972), including bottlings from Tenuta Anfosso single parcel designated–Poggio Pini & Luvaira and the single parcel bottlings–Beragna & Galeae–from Ka’ Manciné.  They were a far cry from Rossese based red wines I had had from other parts of Liguria AND VERY different from the Tibouren (supposedly the same grape variety or somehow related) from Provence, right around the corner in southern France.  In short, they were like NO other red wine I had previously encountered.

I then started researching more into this appellation & its wines.  Dolceacqua is located in the far reaches of northwest Liguria, only 10 to 15 kilometers or so away from Monaco & a bit farther from southern France.  It was tucked away in the hills & valleys 15 kilometers or so away from the coastline, but still greatly influenced by the cool ocean winds, because of the channeling running hills configuration.  I read once there were roughly 3000 hectares planted pre-phylloxera & today only 70 to 90 hectares remain.  The steep, labor intensive hillsides, the vertically remote locations, the imposing lack of water & the shocking, increasing plight of wild animal issues (eating of plants, vine leaves & grapes), bordering maniacal, have made many give up on their vineyards.  Who, after all, would want to work so hard with so little return in the end.  Still, pictures of the almost mythically steep vineyards, then convinced me that this is where we needed to go, in lieu of our originally thought of Bierzo & Ribera Sacre of northwestern Spain.

 

Off we went on our next wine adventure with my cousin Mike & my wife Cheryle. 

The first stop was to Ka’ Manciné & his Beragna vineyard.  We met down in one of the small towns below in a parking lot.  As we soon discovered, there was NO way, we would ever find these remote vineyards up in the mountains ourselves.  It was a pleasure to finally shake hands with Ka’ Manciné owner/winemaker Maurizio Anfosso.  Joining him, in an effort to make our Dolceacqua visit more convenient for us, was his cousin Alessandro Anfosso of Tenuta Anfosso, our next scheduled visit.

Maurizio is the 3rd generation of his family to run this small 3 hectare estate.  His 1.5 hectare, single parcel, Beragna was planted in 1864 & many of the vines still on their own roots.  Breathtaking steep, this venerable site is unusually north facing.   While so many of other sites we could see were south to southwest facing to capture a more full sun exposure, I think Beragna’s seems to be better suited for today’s increasing sun warming & allows a more necessary, longer hang time. Seeing the flysch/schist influenced soils & from the 400 meter elevation, feeling the continual cooling coastal breezes AND tasting the grapes as we walked the site gave us a much more complete understanding of the resulting wines AND what its takes to grow & produce these wines. 

The 1 1/2 hectare Galeae parcel, on the other hand, was planted in 1905, with significant replanting done in 1998.  Equally high in elevation, southeast facing & with some limestone to the flysch soil mix resulted in wines more ethereal in the nose & more structure & masculinity on the palate.

Here in Hawaii, I was really taken with the Ka’ Manciné wines, especially their Beragna & Galeae single parcel wines.  Each were so wonderfully & intoxicatingly savory in their core with a faintly similar kind of earthy pungency one experiences with porcini mushrooms & even truffle, at least to a certain degree.  On this visit, interestingly, I discovered that Ka’ Manciné, in comparison to the others, stylistically produces red wines (roughly 20% whole cluster) with more transparency, refinement & delicate nuance than the others we visited & tasted during the 2 days, as well as the wines we purchased at the local restaurants & town wine store.

We were also quite taken with Maurizio Anfosso.  He was jovial, good fun & had a very outgoing, welcoming charm & was very & seemingly unassuming passionate about his vineyards & his wines. One could also readily see the respect that both his cousin Alessandro Anfosso & later Erica of Perrino Testa Longa reverently had for him.  It was a great & truly memorable visit! 

The next stop was the at Tenuta Anfosso.  This 6 generation run estate is currently operated by Alessandro Anfosso.  Alessandro is much more reserved than Maurizio but quite charming & welcoming nonetheless.  He was the straight man & Maurizio the character of the duo.  He owns & farms 5.5 hectares of incredible, steep, hillside parcels–Luvaira–2.5 hectares planted in 1905 & some in 2004, Poggio Pini–2 hectares planted in 1888 & Fulavin–1 hectare planted in 1977 & 1998.  The vineyards also feature flysch soils (“flysch is a sedimentary rock consisting of alternating strata of marl and sandstone; proportions of clay and sand vary between each vineyard, and within each vineyard“).  The common practice here is roughly 50% whole cluster with fermentation & aging in stainless steel & bottle–Fulavin–12 to 13 months in stainless & 4 to 5 months in bottle & for Poggio Pini & Luvaira–more like 17 to 18 months in stainless steel & 7 to 8 months in bottle before release.   The wines in comparison to Ka’ Manciné are much more masculine with more “flesh on the bone” & more vehement structure.  The Poggio Pini was wonderfully savory & gloriously vinous–impressive to say the least.  The Luvaira bottling was much more showy–Burgundian/compost like funk, mega savory, rounder, fuller with a pillowy middle.  Alessandro also produces a small amount of Rossese Blanc (150 to 170 years old, own rooted, intermittently scattered throughout the Poggio Pini vineyard).  He insists that the Blanc is not directly related to the red Rossese–showing us how the leaves, stems & grapes differ in sight & taste. 

We were so thankful for all of the time these two generously gave us & patiently they explained & shared all of their knowledge.  It was so immediately evident they are entirely all about the vineyard & how they cultivate what these special, unique vineyards want to say.

 

Both of these vignerons highly recommended that we go to visit Perrino Testa Longa, another standout producer of the DOC founded in 1961.  Run by (uncle) Nino & (niece) Erica, this is a truly garagiste with 2 hectares of vineyards (60% Rossese & 40% Vermentino) & a typical production of 300 cases of wine.  The soils are also flysch with every small parcel having some slightly different.  The vines are grouped–70 to 75 years; 40 to 45 years; 20 years & the newest parcel, but 3 years in age.  They produce but 2 wines–a Rossese di Dolceacqua & a Vermentino–foot pressed, 100% whole clusters for the red, fermented & aged in 6 to 7 year old barrels using native yeasts, with NO temperature control & fermented dry.  There is a small amount of SO2 used from November to June to stabilize the wines AND none used at harvest or bottling.  Upon first whiff, one can immediately identify, these are done in the more natural minded genre, really growing in popularity amongst the world’s sommelier community. 

Their one white wine was quite “orange” in style–full of orange character but still quite standout in quality.  The 2018 Rossese di Dolceacqua red was quite macho/masculine, wild & wooly reminiscent in style of Giovanni Montisci of Sardegna (quite the compliment) though with more funk & VA.  We were really taken.  The 2011 was more about roasted/savory character with chocolate, humus & spice nuances.  At 8 years old, it was still so youthful in the core, along with the remarkable development in the nose.  The 1983 was quite the adventure–still VERY fresh & alive in the core with a resounding savory, stony base–lean in the fruit department ( as opposed to juicy in the younger versions), a firm acid structure & moderate, intricate tannins in the finish.  I loved the wine & was quite surprised it was 36 years in age.

During our 2 day visit to the area, we were able to taste several “other” wines from the area as well.  One, which we purchased from a small, very good wine store in the newer part of town, had a production was but roughly 360 bottles (30 cases) & yet another which we thought was quite delicious & charming Terre Bianche (at a restaurant in the old medieval, hillside town of Aprecale) was very delightful.  It was undeniable however, to me that Ka’ Manciné, Tenuta Anfosso & Perrino Testa Longa were the real standouts.

Our visit to Dolceacqua though brief, provided us with much more insight than I could have ever wished.  The wines were solid, so very unique, interesting, savory & truly unlike anything else I have experienced.  I was really taken with their grass roots authenticity & character. The vineyards & vertically remote countryside, as well as the people is something I will treasure remembering forever.

What a visit!!!!!!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

The final morning of SOMM Camp Paso Robles 2019.

For the Finale, there were 9 different activities to choose from, each offered by one of the 9 different wineries.

  • Alta Colina Vineyard: “Four Wineries/One Vineyard” tasting at brunch at the Trailer Pond (Alta Colina’s vintage trailer campbround). Join Alta Colina owner/growers Bob and Maggie Tillman, Booker’s Glenn Mitton, Caliza’s Carl Bowker, and Paix Sur Terre’s Ryan Pease as they present their wines sourced from the high elevation (1,800-ft.) Alta Colina estate blocks, with brunch prepared by Chef Julie Simon
  • Booker Wines: Owner/Grower/Winemakers Eric and Lisa Jensen (alumnus of both Saxum Vineyards and L’Aventure Winery) are offering an “ultimate geek-out” experience examining Biodynamic farming and their process of harvest decision-making based upon science driven data of everything from color to Brix
  • Brecon Estate Winery – Walk through three vineyards to do “call the pick” grape harvest samplings and field tastings with master winemaker/owner Damian Grindley and Brecon viticulture manager Hilary Graves
  • Cass Winery: Horseback ride in the vineyard, followed by a charcuterie board and Cass wine flight (limited to 4 participants)
  • Epoch Estate: Drop in on multiple vineyards (including Epoch’s York Mountain Vineyard in the cold climate York Mountain AVA, west of the Paso Robles AVA) for harvest grape samplings and sugar readings, followed by lab analyses/tasting with winemaker Jordan Fiorentini and vineyard manager Kyle Gingras
  • Law Estate: Join winemaker Philipp Pfunder in this elaborate tasting experience examining the impact of barrels on grapes and clones – an exploration of multiple coopers, aging vessels and oak age (from new to neutral), broke down by variety/clone and vintage blocks
  • Linne Calodo: Private plane aerial tour of Paso Robles flown by owner/grower/winemaker Matt Trevisan (limited to 3 passengers)
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard: Study of use of sheep, alpaca, llama, donkey, herding dogs and guard mastiffs in Biodynamic winegrowing, led by estate shepherd Nathan Stuart
  • Villa Creek Cellars: Study of combination Demeter certified Biodynamic/CCOF certified organic viticulture with vineyard walk and field tastings with owner/winemaker Cris Cherry

Our brave, fellow Hawaii representative, Michael Winterbottom of Senia Restaurant, chose to fly in a 4 seater plane with pilot, Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo.  Yes, he chose the plain (plane) route.  Here are a couple of pictures he forwarded to me from his experience.

San Andreas Fault

 

Glen Rose Vineyard

As one can readily see, it must have been a truly unforgettable experience!

Several of us chose to instead visit the Alta Colina Vineyard, of the Adelaida District.  It was one I wanted to know more about. What a spectacular looking vineyard this truly is!  Amazing, to say the least.  Plus, I saw Glen Mitton, Carl Bowker & Ryan Pease would also be there.  In addition to the wonderful banter, we tasted through a series of wines from different winemakers–Bob & Maggie Tillman (Alta Colina, our host); Glen Mitton (Booker); Carl Bowker (Caliza) & Ryan Pease (Paix sur Terre).  We also had a most enjoyable brunch at the Estate’s trailer pond with REALLY good foods prepared by Chef Julie Simon.  What a great way to end out 4 day journey.  Thank YOU all very much.  It was a most enjoyable morning.

 

SOMM Camp was a great way to meet & talk story with so many people.  I absolutely loved the new friendships that were developed, the camaraderie, the sights, the smells, the tastes & the wealth of insights, experiences & information openly offered.  AND, I am always most thankful to the open arms, welcoming & graciousness of the Paso Robles community.  Also, again, thanks to Meredith May, Randy Caparoso, Ryan Pease, the winemakers, the vineyard-ists & the whole team for making this all happen.  Much Mahalo to all.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

We again got an early start, as we leave the hotel at 7:30am to go & visit Syrah pioneer/legend, Gary Eberle out in the Geneseo District of eastern Paso Robles.  We actually meet Gary out in the Steinbeck Vineyard, where he shares his insights into the beginning of his journey into grape growing, winemaking & spearheading the Syrah grape variety in California.  As was duly noted while the vine he made famous is today referred to as the Estrella clone (after the winery he was working at), it rightfully should have been named the Eberle vine, because of all of his efforts bringing it to the forefront, even to this day.  Joining Gary was iconic owner/grower Howie Steinbeck.  The stories & insights were amazing & broadened all’s knowledge of how it all came to be.  How often do opportunities like this come around?

After kicking around the dirt & tasting nearly ripened Syrah grapes for a while, we then headed to the Eberle winery & specifically down to the cellar underneath, to taste more wines & attend a panel of top Syrah meisters from various parts of the Paso Robles appellation.  The Syrah panel, moderated by Randy Caparoso, included Austin Hope (Austin Hope); Jeremy Weintraub (Adelaida); Bob Tillman (Alta Colina); Damian Grindley (Brecon); Gary Eberle (Eberle); Neil Collins (Lone Madrone) & Justin Smith (Saxum).  The discussions were focused & full of insight.  We also had the opportunity to taste a Syrah from each of them, while they provided color commentary–2016 Adelaida Syrah “Viking Vineyard”; 2016 Alta Collina Syrah “Old 900 Estate”; 2015 Austin Hope Syrah; 2017 Brecon Syrah “Reserve”; 1997 Eberle Syrah “Library selection” (yup, you read that right–1997); 2016 Lone Madrone Syrah “Willow Creek” & 2016 Saxum “Booker Vineyard”.  As a side note, I thought Randy did a really excellent job moderating the panel.

We then adjourned back upstairs to the deck/patio for a walk around tasting to taste even more Syrah reds–2017 Booker “Fracture”; 2017 Brecon Syrah “Haggis Basher”; 2015 Cass Syrah “Backbone”; 2016 Clos Solène “Hommage a Nos Pairs”; 2016 Denner Syrah “Estate”‘ 2016 Denner “Dirt Worshipper”; 2017 Eberle Syrah “Steinbeck Vineyard”;  2016 Epoch “Authencitiy; 2017 Jada “Jersey Girl”; 2017 Law “Intrepid”; 2016 Saxum “Broken Stones”; 2015 Torrin “Akasha” & 2016 Vina Robles “Terra Bella Vineyard”.  My palate was stained & colored, BUT, it was well worth it.  Thank you all. 

We had but a short time afterwards to say good bye & pay our respects to all who made this special opportunity happen before we had to again board the vans & head off to our next stop–Denner Vineyards.  We had a 25 minute ride, just long enough for a quick power nap, before we pulled into the back gate heading towards the top of their vineyards blocks.  It was dusty & quite hot, as we jumped out to see & hear Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards, who along with their vineyard manager gave us much insight into what Denner is all about in their vineyards.  At one point, they even showed TWO sets of 3 grape bunches each.  One set, were grapes from the lower…..the middle…& the top of that specific hill.  They couldn’t have been more different in sight–from green to ripening/colored–& taste.  The other set was yet another hill–the same grape, but each grown on a different root stock.  Amazing!!!!!   Yes, on this trip, I was definitely tasting as many different grapes from all of the sites & varieties I could.  It really is amazing how different acids, tannins, grit & taste can be.  How often do opportunities like this come around? 

We then broke for lunch & a much needed break from all of the information/insight deluge.  The food really hit the spot (thank you Denner) & the casual conversations with everyone was kind of a relief.  Then the headlining winemakers for the next seminar–A Grenache Panel– started trickling in & the greetings & conversations changed back to the focus of why we were all there.  It all certainly started to ramp up, as it should considering the all star panel coming up next on the schedule.

Which brings us to the next seminar/tasting–A Grenache Panel–with a time limit of 1 hour, featuring 8 winemakers & 8 wines to taste.  Joining in for this one included–Eric Jensen (Booker); Carl Bowker (Caliza); Anthony Yount (Denner); Jordan Fiorentini (Epoch); Philipp Pfunder (Law); Justin Smith (Saxum); Scott Hawley (Torrin) & Cris Cherry (Villa Creek)–moderated by yours truly.  The question I was asked by a long time wine friend a short time ago–“when are we going to start speaking & sharing about terroir, rather than being so grape variety centric”.  While the seminar was named Grenache, we asked each of these top winemakers of the Paso Robles that same question.  Thankfully many of the insights shared were really insightful & most were engaging.  The bottom line, is Paso Robles has come a long way, not only with the Rhone styled grape varieties such as Syrah, Mourvedre & in this case Grenache, but also identifying where it could excel & why.  The wines presented clearly showcased how special & individual they can be.  We also wanted to remind attendees, that these kinds of red wines can fill a much needed opportunity on the restaurant floor, which lies somewhere between Pinot Noir & Cabernet Sauvignon, in terms of weight, density, structure & drama.  And, to grow that opportunity, we need wine professionals who understand the hows & whys & to then champion the thought.

To further the insights we tasted 8 Grenache based wines–2017 Booker “Ripper”; 2016 Caliza Grenache “Willow Creek”; 2017 Denner Grenache “Estate”; 2016 Epoch “Sensibility”; 2016 Law Grenache “Nines”; 2015 Saxum “Rocket Block”; 2015 Torrin Grenache “Willow Creek”; & 2017 Villa Creek Garnacha.  Yes, quite a line-up & quite the tasting!  WOW!  Thank you to all. 

The vans then took us to our next stop–the iconic Glen Rose Vineyard in the Adelaida district.  I clearly remember my first visit to this vineyard when only the bottom section had just been planted.  I was astounded at the meager soils, the high elevation & the breadth of what was happening in this spot.  A few years later, I remember a tasting at Hospice de Rhone, a line up of Paso Robles Syrah, BLIND.  I was really taken by glass number 15.  It was a Syrah from Glen Rose Vineyard.  I was back on the road the next day to go & again see the vineyard because of the character the wine displayed in the glass.  What I saw on this later visit has stuck in my mind since.  Glen Rose Vineyard is really something to marvel.  No pictures I have seen ever does it justice.  Furthermore, pictures certainly don’t capture the feeling of awe I get standing there & feeling the relentless winds & the smells of the desolate, remote, untamed surrounding countryside.  So, it was with great anticipation for me to go back & again visit on this trip.

Joining & actually hosting this visit was Ryan Pease (Paix sur Terre)/ Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, a major sponsor & organizer of this SOMM Camp.  (Our Hawaii gang had made it a point to visit his winery/tasting room, when we arrived a few days before, since we had been hearing so much about Ryan & his wines recently.  I just wanted to better understand his wines & his winemaking genius, before SOMM Camp actually started). Let’s just say, he is one you should keep an eye on moving forward.  After a talk about the vineyard & its various parcels, Ryan poured us 3 of his Paix sur Terre Mourvedre wines to sample–2016 Paix sur Terre “The Other One–Glen Rose Vineyard; 2016 Paix sur Terre “Comes a Time–Alta Colina Vineyard” & the 2017 “Been Away Too Long–Denner Vineyard“.”  The differences were astounding & memorable.  Thank you Ryan Pease & Don Rose for another memorable stop.

I should also take this moment to thank Ryan Pease for helping put together & organize this event, the vineyard tours & corralling all of the mega-talent who joined in to make this event so special.  While it takes an army to detail the logistics & scheduling, it also takes a well respected insider to huddle the team together to put their best forward.  Kudos to you.

Okay, it was time to load up the vans again….& head to Saxum.

There is no doubt that Saxum & winemaker/owner Justin Smith is the most ballyhoo-ed out of the Paso Robles appellation.  AND, deservedly so.  The wines perennially get such high, world-class acclaim & accolades.  Quite remarkable when you meet Justin & see how humble & down to earth he still is.  Furthermore, he is truly a man of the vineyard.  Completely. 

I also have found it so incredibly remarkable how his father, Pebble, chose to purchase & plant his James Berry Vineyard where it is still located & farmed today.  It is Grand Cru, if there was such a thing in Paso Robles.  It is also the benchmark others look to replicate.  It just has something extra.

After a vineyard walk up to the Bone Rock parcel from their cave down below (I told him I needed an elevator installed if he wants me up there) we tasted 2 barrel samples–2017 “Bone Rock” (Syrah blend) & 2017 Hexe (Grenache blend), each from his oldest & most unique parcels of the estate as the base.  (I wanted to add to all, now try & see if you can get some.  LOL).

Rather than make that climb up to the top of Bone Rock with the entourage, I instead sat outside, off to side, smoked my stogie & talked story with a couple of winemakers who had trickled in.  From my vantage point, I soon saw more & more winemakers intermittently arriving & parking their cars before walking by me & saying hello.  I thought it so interesting that each knew the code to enter the gate, where to park & unload & each knew the passcode to get into the cave.  It was like this was their home or hangout.  Yup, it was very apparent, this was kind of like a frat house–Paso Central.

The walk around tasting was all set up & ready to go when the event attendees came back down off the reverent hilltop.

Here is what we tasted–

2014 Austin Hope GSM; 2015 Austin Hope Grenache; 2015 Austin Hope Mourvedre/Syrah blend; 2017 Booker Oublie (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah); 2017 Booker Vertigo (Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache); 2017 Brecon “Forty Two” (Mourvedre, Syrah & Petite Syrah); 2016 Clos Solène “Harmonie” (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah)’ 2016 Clos Solène “Fleur de Solene” (Syrah, Grenache & Cabernet Sauvignon); NV Clos Solène “Sweet Clementine (Grenache & Syrah); 2017 Denner “Ditch Digger” (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Graciano & Cinsaut); 2016 Jada “Hell’s Kitchen” (Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre); 2017 Jada Hell’s Kitchen” (Syrah, Grenache, Graciano, Viognier & Tannat);  2017 Jada “S+GT” (Syrah, Graciano & Tannat); 2016 Law “Audacious” (Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan & Syrah); 2016 Law “Sagacious” (Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre)’ 2016 Law “Beguiling” (Grenache & Syrah); 2017 Linne Calodo “Sticks & Stones” (Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre); 2017 Linne Calodo “Rising Tides (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah)’ 2016 Linne Calodo “Overthinker (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre & Carignan); 2016 Paix sur Terre “Songs of Its Own” (Grenache, Mourvedre & Cinsaut); 2017 Saxum “G2 Vineyard”; 2017 Saxum “Heart Stone Vineyard”; 2016 Torrin “The Banshee” (Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache); 2016 Villa Creek “Avenger” (Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache)’ 2015 Villa Creek “High Road” (Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache) & the 2015 Vina Robles “Syree” (Syrah & Petite Sirah).  WOW!  –power packed, teeth staining, but all well worth it!  Thank you all for sharing.  Yet another incredible opportunity & one I will remember forever!

I would also like to add a side note here.  During our travels in the vans & at the various meals throughout the 4 days, one of the queries/opinions I shared whenever asked was–“while many wines may age, the question for me always is, does it get better with age.”  And, specifically with very ripe, opulent, lavish red wines, the question looms larger in my opinion.  I remember having a 2002 Australian 99 point rated Shiraz again 5 to 6 years after it was released.  The wine had greatly changed with the additional, though relatively short bottle age, from BIG, black, decadent & powerful to a dull shoe polish sheen & highly distracting nuances of prune juice.  I wondered what had happened.  I experienced similar awkward changes over the years time & time again & always found it perplexing & questioning.  I know, for sure, it doesn’t happen all of the time & might be in fact a very infrequent occurrence.  A couple of years back, because of my lack of experience with aged Paso Robles born “trophy” wines, Justin Smith of Saxum popped open several of his “library” wines, just to show our group what is possible, at least with his wines.  The wines were so WOW-inspiring, I will remember this experience forever.  It clearly showed what could be.

With this thought in mind, on this day & this tasting, Justin then opened a 2005 Saxum “Heart Stone Vineyard” bottle just to show attending sommeliers a very different perspective on what his wines can be.  Crazy good!!!!  Thank you again Justin for sharing.

What a day so far!  So much to see & experience AND so much to taste.  OMG.  Wearily, we all boarded the vans to head back to the hotel to freshen up before the night’s dinner.  I thought it would be a power nap opportunity, but my mind was still racing too much from all of the information, sensory intake, so it ended up gratefully being a “take a shower” opportunity & some quiet time instead.  I thought, what the heck, we are in the down stretch for this golden learning opportunity.

The vans departed again at 7:00pm.  We were off to revisit Cass Winery in the Geneseo District for another walk around tasting with dinner to follow.   What a difference night time is in this neck of the woods.  The stars were out & it was so peaceful & quiet with a light cooling breeze.  The walk around tasting was held in the foyer of the stylish Cass Winery, which was way larger than I had imagined.

The wines we tasted–2016 Adelaida “Anna’s Signature” Red (Syrah, Grenache & Mourvedre); 2016 Alta Colina GSM; 2015 Caliza “Azimuth” (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah); 2015 Caliza “Cohort” (Petite Sirah, Grenache & Syrah); 2015 Cass GSM; 2016 Cass “Rockin’ One” Red (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah & Petite Sirah); 2016 Cass “Rockin’ Ted” Red (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah & Petite Sirah); 2017 Cass Grenache; 2017 Cass Mourvedre; 2015 Cass Syrah “Estate”; 2017 Eberle Cotes-du-Rhone Rouge (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah); 2015 Epoch “Ingenuity” (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre & Petite Sirah); 2015 Epoch Estate Blend (Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache & Tempranillo); 2016 Epoch “Veracity” (Mourvedre, Grenache & Syrah); 2016 Epoch Mourvedre; 2016 Lone Madrone “Oveja Negra” (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah & Counoise); 2016 Thacher “Constant Variable” (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre & Counoise); 2016 Thacher “Oddly Natural” (Grenache, syrah, Counoise–Glen Rose Vineyard); 2017 Thacher Grenache; 2016 Thacher Cinsault & 2017 Thacher Valdiguie.  Wow!  So many wines & so many styles.

The dinner was casual & the food & wine really tasty & hitting the spot.  It was surprisingly sedate.  It had been a long 2 days & it was therefore so wonderful to eat & hang out in such a wonderful, calm setting.  It was truly a night dining with friends rather than peers, ones you got to know over the past 3 days.  Thank you to Cass Winery for a wonderful evening & being such gracious hosts.

Monday, August 26, 2019.

We were up early & off to our first stop at Tablas Creek, also located in the Adelaida district.  After a very informative & insightful walk through their estate vineyard by General Manager/Managing Partner Jason Haas, we retired to one of the barrel rooms where Jason led us through a comprehensive tasting of what they thought Paso Robles could be.  It was very enlightening & I must add to that, Jason is a marvelous, engaging, very articulate speaker/presenter & his presentation was truly eye opening.  The tasting consisted of 11 of the Rhone grape varietals they pioneered & grew in the area– WHITE–2018 Picardin; 2018 Clairette, 2018 Picpoul, 2017 Grenache Blanc, 2018 Viognier, 2017 Marsanne, 2015 Roussanne; RED— 2015 Terret Noir, 2017 Counoise, 2017 Grenache, 2017 Mourvedre & 2017 Syrah, PLUS FIVE of their blends–2018 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne & Clairette Blanc), 2016 Espirit de Tablas Blanc (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc), 2017 Patelin de Tablas Rouge (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre & Counoise);  2016 Espirit de Tablas Rouge ( (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah & Counoise) & the 2002 Espirit de Beaucstel Rouge (Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache & Counosie), just to show us what can happen with some bottle age.  What a truly memorable experience!  Much Mahalo.

Off we were then whisked to Epoch‘s Paderewski Vineyard & a vineyard walk with winemaker Jordan Fiorentini.  Standing at the top, it truly was a breathtaking, panoramic view of the stark, whitish/gray limestone/siliceous undulating hills they call home.  We ended up in their Block 13 (nicknamed Block B), the home turf of one of their single parcel designated wines.  There, we sampled the 2015 Sensibility (96% Grenache & 4% Syrah)–534 case production–95pts-Jeb Dunnuck & 96pts by Vinous & The Wine Advocate………& their 2015 Block B (100% Syrah)–315 case production–96pts by Vinous, 97pts by Wine Advocate & 98pts by Jeb Dunnuck.  Yup, we got to taste & experience a sense of place in the vineyard, tasting two wines born out of its vines.

Continuing with our very brisk pace in an effort to see & experience all that we could, off we went to Linne Calodo, in the Willow Creek AVA.  After a daunting walk up the center hillside of the estate Trevi Ranch, we were treated to taste a whole slew of their wines with color commentary from winemaker/owner Matt Trevisan–2018 Pale Flowers Rosé (100% Grenache); 2018 Contrarian (Grenache Blanc, Picpoul & Viognier); 2017 Sticks & Stones (Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre);   2016 Overthinker (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre & Carignan); 2016 Perfectionist (Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache); 2017 Rising Tides (Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah); 2017 Problem Child (Zinfandel, Syrah, Graciano & Carignan); 2017 Outsider (Zinfandel, Syrah, Mourvedre, Graciano) & 2017 Cherry Red (Zinfandel, Graciano, Syrah, Carignan).  It really was quite evident these were each TOP Shelf wine.  WOW!

After a wonderful lunch at Linne Calodo (thanks Matt & Maureen), we then boarded the vans & headed out to Cass Vineyard in the Geneseo District on the east side of Highway 101.  It was a Paso Robles winegrowing area I had visited only once prior.  I watched the temperature gauge on the van dashboard, as we drove, rise from 97 degrees in the Willow Creek district to 103 by the time we hit the town of Paso Robles to 108 a few miles from Cass Vineyards, back down to 101 degrees when we arrived there.  Keep in mind, this is at 2:00pm in the afternoon.  While it may have read 101 degrees, when we stepped out of the van, it was not blazingly hot.  There was in fact a cooling breeze that mitigated the heat somewhat.  It also helped that we were strategically all standing under a large tree & its shade during our talk & tasting with Steve Cass.  The 2 wines we tasted were the 2018 Cass Rosé (Mourvedre & Grenache) & their 2017 Cass Grenache.  One could readily sense the genuine passion Steve had for the region AND especially for his vineyard.  As my wife duly noted while we drove off, “all of these Paso Robles wine families really try hard at what they do & give it their all“.  Thank you Steve & to your team.

 

After a really brief stop back at the hotel to freshen up some, we again boarded the vans & headed to Epoch Winery up on York Mountain to the south.  I have been an avid fan since early on of this winery & its vineyards.  I, in fact, went to visit the land as they were clearing it. It also helps greatly that Paso Robles superstar Justin Smith was the founding consultant & one could see things were being set up well thought out.  I found it so interesting, for instance, that as I was shown, the slant of limestone/siliceous layers is much more diagonal & therefore is much easier for the vines’ roots to burrow down in search of water & nutrients.    We were met at the door & escorted down to the barrel/winemaking cellar, where winemaker Jordan Fiorentini led us through a tasting of THREE vintages of their Epoch white wine (typically a blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier & Roussanne).  What an incredibly eye opening opportunity.  It certainly shed light on what can be in Paso Robles AND from avery different perspective.  Thank you VERY much to Jordan & her team.

After that, we were then led to yet another room, where we tasted wines at a “White Rhone Mixer” with other guest winemakers.  The wines poured–2018 Adelaida Picpoul Blanc; 2017 Alta Colina Viognier “12 O’Clock High”; 2017 Booker White; 2017 Brecon Conviction (Grenache Blanc & Viognier); 2018 Brecon Viognier;  2018 Caliza “Kissin’ Cousins” (Viognier, Roussanne & Grenache Blanc); 2018 Cass “Mr Blanc” (Roussanne, Marsanne & Viognier); 2017 Cass “Rockin’ One” Blanc (Viognier, Roussanne & Marsanne); 2018 Cass Marsanne; 2018 Cass Roussanne; 2018 Cass Viognier; 2018 Clos Solène Hommage Blanc (Roussanne & Viognier); 2017 Denner “Theresa” (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul & Vermentino); 2018 Eberle Viognier “Mill Road Vineyard”; 2018 Eberle Côtes-du-Rôbles Blanc (Grenache Blanc, Roussanne & Viognier); 2018 Epoch White (Grenache Blanc, Viognier & Roussanne); 2018 Jada “88” (Grenache Blanc & Viognier); 2017 Law “Soph” (Roussanne, Marsanne & Clairette Blanc); 2017 Lone Madrone “Oveja” (Picpoul & Grenache Blanc);  2018 Paix sur Terre Clairette Blanc; 2018 Paix sur Terre Picpoul Blanc; 2017 Tablas Creek Côte de Tablas Blanc (Grenache Blanc, Roussanne & Marsanne);  2017 Thacher Viognier; 2016 Villa Creek “Bone White” (Clairette & Fiano); 2018 Vina Robles Viognier “Huerhuero Vineyard”.

Then dinner was a very lovely evening out on the patio of their new building–really good food, a bevy of wines & great conversations.  Thank you to all.

The SOMM Journal is a publication specifically created for wine professionals.  The articles, specifically written by Randy Caparoso & Jessie “Jabs” Birschbach are very informative & quite illuminating.  I find myself waiting for the next issue to see what new topics/perspectives will be featured.

Owner/publisher, Meredith May & her team also create a SOMM Camp once or twice a year, which brings together an impressive list of wine professionals from throughout the country to take a comprehensive “field trip” to a selected winegrowing region.  For August 2019, the selected region was Paso Robles, California.

Having never been to one of these Camps before, I tagged along for this one in support.  (Since The SOMM Journal is such a big supporter of our Wine Speak event in January, also in Paso Robles, I thought to support their efforts & hopefully color commentate some along the way).

Yes, Paso Robles is meteorically growing in popularity, especially over the last 5 years.  The timing for SOMM Camp was right, as these attending wine professionals from all around the U.S., could see, walk vineyards, taste wines & talk story with a noteworthy selection of the region’s finest winemakers…..all BEFORE the mounting wave in popularity actually breaks.

I should also mention here, that host/editor at large Randy Caparoso did a superb job on selecting vineyards, people & wines to be showcased, as only he can.  I also hope all of the visiting somms & wine professionals understand how detailed & organized the 4 days were AND how much depth of knowledge Caparoso has.  It was all so amazing.  Kudos to you, young man!

Randy Caparoso

Paso Robles has recently been split into 11 different AVA’s.  This trip showed all, there is good wines to be had from each.

While the region has been historically thought of as hot (it is!  106 to 108 on some of the days we were there), the night time temperatures were often in the 50’s & 60’s.

The most compelling aspect however, touring the region for 5 days this go around, is the soils.  Yes, there is so much marine based soils seemingly everywhere, which can innately create minerality in the finished wine AND buoyancy (where the wine though ripe, opulent & lavish, seemed lighter than it actually was).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also must add that this event nurtured tremendous camaraderie–between sommeliers from around the country, many whom may have known each other by reputation, but these 4 days created a much stronger bond with each other.  This memorable time also created the sharing of knowledge, insights & experiences, which is not common normally, simply because of how busy each are in their life & their real jobs.

Furthermore, we as a group were able to discuss & better understand all of the incredible amount of information & insights presented by the winemakers & the walking of vineyards.  Wow!  For this, a BIG mahalo to Meredith May (of the host–The SOMM Journal),  Randy Caparoso, Ryan Pease, the winemakers, the vineyard-ists, the Paso Robles community & the whole team who made this happen.  This truly was a very special opportunity.

 

Opening Night was Sunday, August 25, 2019.  We left the hotel & headed to Law Estate.  We jumped out of the vans, after what seemed like an eternity of perversely winding, narrow roads & walked the breathtaking high elevation (1400 ascending to 1900 feet), steep hillside estate vineyard in the Adelaida district with winemaker Philipp Pfunder.  To bring what we saw in the vineyard to what’s in the bottle, Philipp tasted us on a 2018 Roussanne from their estate.  We found it to be a classy, mineral driven, elegant, suave & refined belle, & at least one of the true standouts we have had of this grape grown & produced in California.   Philipp then popped a bottle (or 2) of the Law Estate Sagacious, a very classy red wine blend of Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre, again all from the estate we had just walked.  As one of the attendees noted, “there is GOLD (as in Gold Medal) to be found in them hills”.

After being officially welcomed by Paso Robles RHÔNE Camp organizers Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal) and Ryan Pease (Paix Sur Terre), Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles Rhône Rangers & Travel Paso, we then moved inside to partake in a walk around rosé wine tasting featuring a who’s who list of region’s top winemakers.  Here is what was poured–

2018 Adelaida (Grenache/Mourvèdre/Carignan/Cinsaut/Counoise); 2018 Booker, Pink (Grenache blend); 2018 Caliza, Pink (Grenache/Mourvèdre/Syrah); 2018 Cass, Oasis Rosé; (Mourvèdre/Grenache); 2018 Clos Solène, La Rosé (Grenache/Cinsaut/Mourvèdre); 2018 Denner (Cinsaut/Grenache/Carignan/Mourvèdre); 2018 Eberle, Côtes-du-Rôbles; Grenache/Syrah/Viognier); 2018 Epoch (Mourvèdre/Grenache/Syrah); 2018 Jada, 1149 (Grenache/Graciano); 2018 Law (Grenache/Graciano/Syrah); 2018 Lone Madrone, Paso Robles Willow Creek District (Mourvèdre); 2018 Tablas Creek, Patelin de Tablas Rosé (Grenache/Mourvèdre/Counoise); 2018 Tablas Creek, Dianthus (Mourvèdre/Grenache/Counoise); 2018 Thacher, Cinsaut Rosé & 2018 Vina Robles, Huerhuero Vineyard (68% Syrah/Grenache/Viognier).

Then a sit down dinner was served.  Yes, an opportunity to talk story & create more camaraderie.  Thank you all for making this happen.

Mar
18

Finding Wines

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There are so many different ways of searching out & finding good wines for one’s wine program.

The most consistent source is of course wine importers.  Iconic standouts, for me, include Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants (French & now Italian) & Cellars International (German wines).  The list should also include the no longer existent Wine Distributor (a wholesale spin off of Draper & Esquin of San Francisco)–who introduced us to Andre Ostertag, Angelo Gaja, Laurel Glen, Qupe & Ravenswood just to name a few AND Empson USA–who introduced us to many fine Italian wines over the years, such as Silvio Jermann & Poggio Antico.  There are, as one would imagine, so many more to be thankful for.

While traveling to wine country, another way is to check out the more progressive retail wine shops of the area you will be or are visiting.  I can immediately tell what level the shop is playing on after scanning their shelves.   If it is in fact top level wines, I then will ask the store manager or buyer what “new wine discoveries” they would recommend.  Those that I don’t know, I will do further research on them.  Or, I will then buy some & try them.  We found such a store in Athens, Greece, for instance.  Run by husband & wife (Dimitri & Sofia Athanassopoulou) I will remember this wine store forever.  Their selections were fantatic & their knowledge & passion for searching out such wine treasures was so contagious.  Yes, we bought several bottles & each was soul stirring.

Another way is to ask the winemaker I am visiting of others in his area which he feels are shaking the bushes.  That’s how I found Enrico Esu down in the Carignano del Sulcis appellation of Sardegna (recommended by Giovanni Montisci of Mamoiada) & Pero Longo of Sartène, Corsica (recommended by Jean-Charles Abbatucci of Ajaccio).  Vigneron recommending another vigneron.

Sometimes, it is about first finding a vineyard that has the potential for something extra in the finished wine.  The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard is a fine example.  Located in the western reaches of what is today called the Santa Rita Hills appellation, the old vines of this now iconic Chardonnay & Pinot Noir vineyard was planted back in the early 1970’s by Richard Sanford & Mike Benedict.  The earliest & most memorable bottlings of this single vineyard for me included–Au Bon Climat Chardonnays (& Pinot Noirs) from the mid 80’s & on; a 1992 Babcock Pinot Noir, some Whitcraft Chardonnay–’94, ’95 & ’97 & some Chardonnay from Ojai.  Each had something really interesting to say in the finished wine.  This was the start.   Subsequently, other wineries using Sanford & Benedict fruit which later also caught our attention included Cold Heaven (Viognier), Sandhi, Chanin, Tyler & The Hilt.

Yes, there are many ways to find interesting wines.

Here are 2 of the most unusual & unique introductions, over the years for me.

EDMEADES WINERY–early on in the 1990’s, I had not heard of this winery.  My experience with wines from the Anderson Valley up to that point included Roederer Estate, some single vineyard designated Pinot Noir from Williams & Selyem & the release of the 1993 Littorai wines.  There were also some encounters with Greenwood Ridge Zins, Lazy Creek, Handley, Navarro & just a few others.  With the Mendocino Coast Ridge, later simply named Mendocino Ridge I had tasted & was somewhat aware of some of Jed Steele’s Zinfandels under his Steele label.  But, that’s about it.  Then one fateful day I received a call from Michael Hopkins, a good friend, who was the local representative for the Jackson Family wine empire.  Quite candidly, the phone call blindsided me & I did not know what to expect….at all.  Michael said he had 3 wines for me to try–1995 Zinfandel “Mendocino”, 1994 Zinfandel “Zeni Ranch” & the 1994 Zinfandel “Ciapusci Vineyard”.  In short, I was absolutely blown away.   These wines were truly not like any other I had previously had & I found each really mesmerizing.  I think we both agreed, the wines were not for everyone’s palate because they were so rustic, wild & wooly (most professionals would say flawed), but they had vinosity, great texture & were deviantly spellbinding.  I was hooked.  The winemaker was “mountain” man–Van Williamson–who was affectionately referred to as Vanimal.   I was so taken with the wines, I was on the road shortly afterwards to visit Vanimal, the vineyards he worked with & taste through his many wines.  In addition to his Zinfandels, I was also quite taken with his more masculine styled, wild yeast fermented, unfiltered & unfined Chardonnay & Pinot Noir…….a masculine, explosive Gewurztraminer & a sensational Petite Sirah.  These were curious, VERY idiosyncratic wines, but I really liked them.  I saw Michael the other day.  I thanked him again.  It’s not often opportunities like this come around.

ART SPACE–The story actually really begins, when we landed in Athens, Greece.  (Greece was at the top of my wife’s bucket list, so in 2017, off we went).  Being this was her trip, we of course did the walking tours–all of the historic sites–some with guides, other walks just by ourselves.  For whatever reason, as we headed back to our hotel after each walk, we passed by the “Vintage Food & Wine Experience”, a brightly lit, very snazzy, modern looking restaurant/wine bar.  Despite being somewhat disappointed at previous wine bars in the city, we finally went in one afternoon.  There, we met Effie Anastopoulou, who served us 6 Greek wines (out of the 600+ they offer by the glass via Coravin) of her choice to give us a glimpse of what Greek wines can be, from her perspective.  Each were terrific.  She was so upbeat, warm & very professional.  We found out she had worked previously at Sigalas on Santorini & she then actually helped us get an appointment there.  Once we were on Santorini, we did visit several wineries, including the 2 island winemaking superstars–Hatzidakis & Sigalas.  (please check out our previous posts on Hatzidakis & Sigalas–October 2017 for more information on the visits).  Because of Effie’s introduction, we had a great visit at Sigalas & our host at Sigalas then suggested we visit Gaia on the other side of the island, because they produce very good wine, in styles very different from their own.  Gaia also received quite a bit of attention/press because they would submerge 500 bottles of wine in cages in the sea, 4o to 50 meters below & its ideal storage temperatures.  Our tasting host was Melina, another upbeat, charming, very informative professional, who made our visit quite memorable.  Her whole attitude/demeanor however changed when she discovered that Effie had sent us to Sigalas.  They had apparently worked together at Sigalas previously.  A fiery passion in her now became clear.  She excused herself & we found out she went to ask a friend to drive us to another winery, which she later said we must go to.  Her friend took us to a small, gravel parking lot & dropped us off.  There was but a small sign which simply said Art Space.  (Please check out our previous blog–October 2017–on Art Space).  In short, it was one of the most “chicken skin”, memorable wine visits of my 40 plus years in the wine business.  Owner/winemaker Antonis Agryros is truly something special & our visit was game changing!  All of this because of 2 very savvy, dedicated, passionate wine professionals–Effie & Melina.  I am so thankful to have met such special wine people.

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Mar
08

A Quartet of Portuguese Wines

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We have been digging around for some time in search of tasty, interesting wines from Portugal.  We literally stumbled upon a Santa Monica wine importer named D’Ouro Vino Selections.  Here is your opportunity to try four of their selections–each from a different appellation and their finest resident producer. Each well represents a very different slant on wines and they should show tasters the vast potential of what this relatively undiscovered wine niche is capable of producing……way beyond fortified Port wines and large commercial wineries. I suggest you jump on the bandwagon now and beat the crowds, the inevitable long wait lists and escalating prices.

2017 Quinta de Linhares Loueiro “Vinho Verde”–A light, fizzy, crisp Portuguese “country” white wine—Vinho Verde–predominant grape varieties are Loureiro, Avesso, Azal and Arinto—fresh and alive as can be. Toast!!

2011 Herdade do Mouchão Alentejo Tinto–predominantly Alicante Bouschet (red colored grape juice), 80% or more, the rest being Trincadeira, perhaps more famously known as Tinta Amarela in the Douro, where it is used in Port production. It is aged for 24 months in large oak vats (foudres) and then aged for a further 24 to 36 months in the bottle prior to release.  The gang really loved this wine, largely because of its wonderful savoriness.

2004 Rio Bom Douro Grande Reserva “Mario Braga”–30% Touriga Franca, 30% Touriga Nacional, 20% Tinto Roriz and 10% each of Tinto Amarela and Barroca. These are some of the mainstay grape varieties for the fortified Port wines, but this is one, however, is a standout still RED Grande Reserva, which was fascinating to try!  This is a very intense, dense, packed, vinous, vehemently structured, macho stud with lots of oak framing. And, it was still remarkably youthful, eventhough it was 14 years old.   If you have the patience, I would suggest cellaring this wine for 20 more years before opening.  I think you will be quite thankful you did!

1991 Luis Pato Bairrada “Vinho Branco”–yes, you read the vintage correct…..1991….in all its glory…produced from the indigenous Bical, Maria Gomes and Cerceal grape varieties, grown and crafted by superstar winemaker Luis Pato.  We all agreed, this wine was “otherworldly”.  I’ve never had anything like before AND it was seamless, complete, wonderfully nuanced & VERY captivating.  What a terrific ‘find”.

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Dec
10

A Carignan Tasting at SommCon (San Diego)

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SommCon is an en masse gathering of sommeliers & other wine professionals.  The one held this past November was in San Diego, California & featured 3 days worth of panel discussions, presentations & educational seminars.  One of the most interesting presentations I attended was– “Carignan–it’s just not for blending any more“–by Geoff Labitzke, Master of Wine & Brian Lynch of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants.

My fascination for the Carignan grape variety has really grown over the years.  As the title of the seminar suggests it was typically used as a blending component rather than a featured, stand alone bottling.

The first Carignan based red wine that caught my fancy was from Domaine de Fontsainte & their Corbières red in the late 80’s/early 90’s.  I found it to be so delicious, tasty, food friendly & gulpable.  Shortly thereafter, when tasting other Corbieres red wines from their neighbors, I was rather put off by the over use of Syrah to their blends & I was thankful to have experienced the Fontsainte rendition first.  Subsequently I also took a fancy to their “Réserve La Demoiselle” bottling (the Carignane planted in 1904).  These 2 wines opened a whole new thought for me on what Carignane could offer.

A short time later, my next Carignan experience was produced by the Pellegrini family (California) back in the early 1990’s.  I found it to be tasty, interesting & quite food friendly though very unique, rambunctious & virile.  It was also quite a great value for what one got in the bottle.  This wine showed me what was possible in California, especially from the Sonoma & Mendocino wine growing areas.  (I have since found 2 other interesting Carignane based red wines out of California worth checking out–Folk Machine “Parts & Labor” & the Neyers Carignan “Evangelho Vineyard”)

In both cases, I found Carignan not to be showy or as outgoing as those wines produced from Syrah, Grenache or Mourvedre grape varieties.  It had its own set of characteristics.  I especially liked old vine renditions as Carignan seemed to be quite a conduit of character & vinosity from the old vines to the wine in the bottle, at least in certain cases.  It really was those cases that greatly peaked my interest.  After Fontsainte, I discovered that importer Kermit Lynch added other Carignan driven wines to his fabulous portfolio, including old vine Carignan dominated bottlings from Sylvain Fadat at D’Aupilhac, Maxime Magnon, Leon Barral, Vinci & Les Milles Vignes.  Each offer something special & compelling.

With Carignan, there were also some to be found out of Spain’s Priorat region that are also interesting.

So, I was quite anxious to see what Geoff & Brian would offer at this tasting seminar.  They did NOT disappoint.  Geoff sought after & collected some interesting renditions from Mexico, Sonoma, San Diego, Chile, Spain AND Tunisia of all places!  Brian brought & shared 4 true Carignane superstars from his portfolio–Maxime Magnon “Campagnes”; Domaine D’Aupilhac “Le Carignan”; Vinci “Rafalot” &  Les Milles Vignes “Dennis Royal”–each wine featuring 80 to 100 year old Carignane vines, their fruit & very masterful grape growing & winemaking. It was quite an insightful gathering of wines & tasting & I was overjoyed.  Thank you guys for this fabulous opportunity! 

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