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Around the “new” wine world

May 23, 2017

Twenty-two wine regions, six countries, three continents, nine weeks. During our travels through the principal wine regions of the Southern Hemisphere, I found little free time to document my personal experiences – or maybe that was due to a shared laptop and lack of decent Wi-Fi (not naming names, South Africa). However, with my husband and travel partner Matthew Gaughan (whose insights about the trip can be read on his blog, Matthew’s World of Wine and Drink), we managed to complete one article on each of the countries we visited – highlighting trends and attempting to understand the current climate of the wine trade in their respective wine regions. Those articles can be accessed on The Buyer – an online publication dedicated to the on-trade in the UK. Now (months later), sitting in front of a new computer with unlimited and high-speed internet, my excuses are exhausted and so I will recap my top takeaways of each stop with links to the already published articles.

The start of our trip was for me a long overdue return to the country where I first decided to start a career in the wine industry. Eight years later, the capital of Santiago was very much how I remembered it, though I was looking at it with a very different perspective. During my previous stay, still at University, my approach to the bar and restaurant scene was much different. Piscolas (pisco and Coke, especially popular among University students) and discotecas were not on the agenda this time around, but Pisco (solo), wine, and a bit of fine dining were. The stand-out wine bar/restaurant was Bocanaríz, with nearly 400 Chilean wines on the list and an outstanding food offering to match. Santiago is branching out beyond the norm, creating experiences of real quality, much like the country’s emerging wine regions in their quest for cooler sites.

Read more: On the road: Chile re-invents itself for premium buyers

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Julio Donoso of Montsecano shares his knowledge with another winemaker cultivating a new vineyard and business in Casablanca, Chile.

One regret: not renting a car. Had we done so, we would have been able to navigate the extensive sub-regions of Mendoza much more efficiently. As it was, we relied on public buses and bicycles, neither of which was able to get us to our appointments in a timely manner, much less allow us time to explore other wineries we spotted along the way. Nonetheless, what I did see was a wine and food scene so integrated, that it would give the French a run for their money. Plus, the attitudes towards the tourists seems much more agreeable than those of the locals in France’s prized grape growing regions.

Read more: Argentine wineries using restaurants to showcase offer

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A start to one of many scrumptious winery restaurant meals in Mendoza (Norton Estate).

The first unfamiliar stamp in my passport, and I had very few preconceptions of how the country and the wine scene would be. A ferry took us from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, not a particularly intriguing touristy town, but one that is home to Casa de los Limoneros, a true gem of a “casa rural.” I could have been easily convinced of staying there the three days we had in Uruguay, but there was Tannat to be scouted. So we traveled on to the capital of Montevideo, where we found our second home: Montevideo Wine Experience. I knew at once that we were in the right place as they had Alto de la Ballena wines on the shelves, along with other notable and some lesser known producers from this small but proud wine-producing nation.

Read more: How Tannat is Uruguay’s answer to Malbec in gaining listings 

South Africa
Another new stamp for the passport, and a number of new wines and regions for the palate and the notebook. An extremely diverse wine community, South Africa has a lot to offer beyond the renowned (and rightfully so) region of Stellenbosch. Areas such as Tulbagh – where I tasted an outstanding example of the often unfavored Pinotage made by Rijk’s Pierre Wahl – and Elgin Valley have some vinous treasures that are not yet on the global radar. Again, the future is bright but difficult to predict: South African producers are obviously keen on moving towards quality; however, pricing in international markets presents an issue as most consumers aren’t willing to pay premium prices for South African wine, even if the quality warrants it.

Read more: Decision time: how South Africa needs to face up to some big challenges

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In very good company tasting the cool climate wines of Elgin Valley at Paul Cluver.

I could not classify our travels as a New World wine trip, especially since I witnessed healthy clusters growing on some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world, planted a mere 157 years ago.


Old Shiraz vines, Hill of Grace Vineyard, Henschke (Eden Valley)

The contrast of old and new down under is impressive. Modern cities are surrounded by wine regions that have made bold statements across the globe for cheap and cheerful booze, yet the tales surrounding the beginnings of lauded brands like Henschke and Penfolds are almost biblical. The other major contrast of the country that is its own continent is, understandably, geography. Western Australia is especially isolated, yet producers have been successful in producing and marketing small, yet high quality amounts of wine. For South Australia and Victoria, it seems as though change is imminent as producers discover new sites for new varieties.

Read more: Australia’s exciting restaurant scene drives growth in food friendly wines

New Zealand
From Kumeu River on the North Island to Waiheke Island to the South Island’s Central Otago, I got a fairly broad (though by no means complete) overview of how varied the country’s wine offering is. The one commonality, however, is a very important one: the commitment – whether done consciously or not – to sustainability. In other parts of the New World, the words green, sustainable, organic, and biodynamic are aspired to for vine growing. Even producers with no business associating with sustainable viticultural or winemaking practices will find some loophole that will give them some street cred in the eyes of the consumer who is concerned with these ideals. For the Kiwi vine growers and winemakers, it’s simply the status quo. The high quality of wine being produced in this country is undeniable, and I am anxious to see what the future holds.

Read more: Does New Zealand stick with Sauv Blanc or twist with new varieties?

In nine short weeks, my eyes and taste buds were opened to the rich history that these New World wine industries have to offer, and how much energy is being invested into a quality-focused future. The product is there and from what I’ve observed, better than ever. Now, the challenged that face each of these regions is price, placement, and promotion.

The view of Rippon’s vineyards overlooking Lake Wanaka in Central Otago, NZ.



And then, harvest was done

November 17, 2016

It’s hard to believe, a few weeks ago, I was in a daze of pumpovers, drain and presses and inoculations. It was what the winemaker, Julianne, warned us of in our initial days of orientation: “Harvest is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. Only a few of us interns had experience working in the cellar—and even fewer at a winery as sizeable as Cakebread at 150,000 case production per year—so we nodded our heads amicably and with naivety.


Rain clouds on the horizon.

Julianne’s words eventually became clear, though perhaps not as soon as in other vintages. The cooler weather kept us in blissful ignorance until about mid-October, when the rains came. The craze began in the vineyard, as picking crews rushed to get the last of the fruit in before the first drops fell. Shortly thereafter, nearly all the tanks in the cellar were filled with reds, and the low hum of juice saturating the top of the pommace cap became white sound. It was a little over two weeks of seemingly endless work: 12+ hours a day with any free time dedicated solely  to eating and sleeping.

As quickly as it started, however, it was done. Rack and returns were fewer and fewer, tanks were drained and pressed, quieting the chorus of pump-overs, and soon there was nothing left but the slow, methodical work of mixing tanks and barreling down the young wines. Work days became shorter and there was time to catch up with coworkers after work for a beer or a meal. Although I regained a social life, I already miss the chaos. The feeling is close to that which I have for traveling: a sort of high that, as soon as it is over, I am in pursuit of again.


Unloading new French oak.


Testing for TCA.


Back to barrel downs.

Whether or not this experience will spur a career shift into the world of wine production is not yet clear, however, it has opened my eyes to a part of the industry I never truly understood (even though I thought I did). For example, I often read that cleanliness was a priority for winery operations. What I did not take away from my books was that sanitation in one form or another takes upwards of 85% of day-to-day winery activities. Regarding sulfur, I knew that it was commonly used in wine production (exceptions being the “natural” wine proponents), but how, when, and in what quanitities it was added was not made clear until I was making the additions myself. Above all, it was the importance of clear communication—between viticulturist and winemaker, winemaker and cellar master, and cellar master to harvest intern—that proved to be paramount in successful production operations and is a skill that I will take with me whatever my next move is. What I do know is that I am more intent than ever on building my career in the wine industry. And what an industry it is, where gaining experience in different sectors only contributes to one’s success, the network of individuals involved are as diverse as the product, and the opportunities for growth are endless.


Post harvest lunch closes out the season at Cakebread’s Dancing Bear Ranch on Howell Mountain.


Director of Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovitch giving the run down on the soils of Howell Mountain.


A view of the Napa Valley.

The insiders: harvest 2016

October 8, 2016

“That takes balls. Harvest is hard.”

One bartender’s comment sums up well what the reactions were among local friends and acquaintances upon learning about my shift in career path. I suppose it makes sense that people in the Napa Valley, and in wine producing regions around the world, would have an opinion about cellar work, whether they work in the industry or not. After all, once harvest time hits, it’s hard not to take notice of the sudden change of pace in the vineyards and in the cellars. If the sight of tractors on the road, flood lights in the vineyards guiding grape picking teams at all hours of the night, or endless stacks of macro bins on flatbed trucks transporting grapes to and fro doesn’t give it away, then the pungent smell of fermenting must that penetrates even the thickest wall will. Not too long ago, I was an outsider looking in, creating my own picture of what cellar life was really like based on books, tours, and first-hand accounts from those who live it day to day.

On the inside, I soon discovered my mental picture fell short of capturing the complexity of the cellar in many ways. Namely, the people, who are of a peculiar sort.

At the start of harvest, the cellar master recommended an article by Santa Barbara vintner Matthias Pippig to help prepare the “green” interns for what to expect during the tumultuous months to come: The Pirate Life of Winemakers During HarvestNow, two months in, I can see how one could draw a likeness between a pirate ship crew (or at least my Hollywood-influenced perception of one) and a harvest team, though with slightly different jargon: the cellar worker’s “what?, pump off!, pump on!, are you free?” replacing the “arrr” of a pirate. 

Pirates aside, how the harvest team must work together day in and day out continues to amaze me. No one is really above the bitch work. Of course, as seasonal workers, the interns do get the brunt of it, however, cellar masters clean out the drain next to the pomace bin, full-timers rinse bins, and even the assistant winemaker will jump up on the conveyer belt and start sorting grapes. Why? Because it needs to be done. As an intern, just when you think you’ve graduated from rinsing bins to activities with seemingly more cloutinoculating grape must or doing a rack and returnyou’re back on the bins. Why? Because it needs to be done and you’re the one who’s free. 


A drain and press needs all hands on deck.


My fleet of squeaky clean macro bins.

There is a strange comradery that exists, despite the continual onslaught of work that every member faces 12 hours a day, six days a week throughout the harvest season. Friendships blossom, but are primarily (if not solely) based in the workplace as the main pastime off the clock is sleep. At the end of day, week, month (what day is it again?), everyone shares a common goal: to make great wine. And they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to achieve it.

A time to pick, a time to wait

September 5, 2016

Timing is everything in the wine world. From a sales and marketing perspective, it might be when to launch a new label or when to release the portfolio’s rosé—a highly seasonal wine style. For the end consumer, it is often the question of how long to keep the wine after purchase in order to enjoy it during the optimal drinking window. In viticulture and winemaking, timing is of the essence from before the start of the growing season to long after, as the wines hibernate in barrels.

Every year, wine production teams face a long list of “whens”: when to prune, when to pick, when to rack, when to blend, when to barrel down, when to bottle. All of these decisions are essential to the success of a harvest, however, perhaps the most imporant of all is deciding when to wait.

This year’s harvest in the Napa Valley has been an interesting one. The first few days in the cellar with my fellow harvest interns were packed with presentations on cellar policies and procedures so that we would be equipped to hit the ground running during the second week of August, when Sauvignon Blanc started rolling in to the crush pad. A few days of endless pressing, cleaning, racking, cleaning, inoculating, and cleaning made it seem as though there would be no rest on the horizon. Chardonnay was already on the schedule and then we would move right in to the reds. Or so we thought.

chardonnay ready to go

Chardonnay finally hits the presses.


The temperatures during the last two weeks have been a clear reminder that Mother Nature does not abide by our calendars. A streak of cool nights and mornings followed by warm (not hot) days hit the Napa Valley and left vineyard crews sitting in their trucks, waiting for winemakers and vineyard managers to give the go-ahead to start picking. The delayed ripening that is resulting from the cooling trend may throw a wrench in work schedules, however, the grapes will benefit from more balanced acidity and sugar levels, potentially leading to a higher quality end product. And so we wait, but rest assured that no one in the cellars of Napa Valley is simply twiddling their thumbs. We carry on with everything else that needs to be done: sorting those Pinot Noir grapes that are finally trickling in, cleaning, racking, cleaning, barreling down Chardonnay, cleaning, fixing hoses, cleaning … did I mention cleaning?

pinot grapes!

Destemmer sees first red grapes of the season: Pinot Noir

barreling down

Barreling down Chardonnay to new and used French oak barrels.




The line of winemaking

August 17, 2016

Winemaking is all about the line: you make it, you sanitize it,  you walk it, you check it, you prime it.

What is the line exactly? Physically, it’s the hose that transfers precious juice or wine from press to tank, tank to barrel, barrel to tank, and back again. Metaphorically (in my mind anyway), it’s finding that perfect blend of wines that will eventually be bottled—consisting of different grape varieties, plots, vineyards, or barrels—over the course of a year more or less.

I’m fairly well-versed in winemaking practices and techniques thanks to WSET studies and the like. However, it’s only been during the last couple of weeks that I’ve actually started work as a harvest intern in a Napa Valley winery. Now I can say I’ve lived and breathed the repetitive and tedious, yet also very rewarding, daily routine of cellar work. It may go without saying, but reading about and being tested on the theory of a task and actually executing it are completely different beasts.

Now, back to the line. Mornings start with it and days end with it. At 6:00 or 7:00 a.m., before the fog blanket lifts from the Napa Valley, the line is being prepped for racking.File Aug 16, 7 07 54 PM

1) Sanitation, when done properly, is no simple task and takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to accomplish.

2) Coffee.

3) Walk (a.k.a carry) the line to drain out the water from the rise.

4) Check that all clamps are secured along the line. However much one respects a colleague, in this case they can’t be trusted. All parties involved in a project are responsible if something goes wrong—so you better check it yourself.

5) Priming the line with nitrogen will ensure the wine is protected and, when filling a 2,500 gallon tank that’s already half-full of wine, priming the line with wine will keep from any unecessary air getting in.

The practice of making the line is a whole other can of worms, involving a great deal of patience that I hope I can exercise. That chore is in my forseeable future; for now, I’ve only observed.

Through I’m now familiar with the physical version of the line, I still have much to learn about it’s metaphorical counterpart. It takes pulling  samples, tasting and analysis, and numbers to create a consistent blend from year to year. To get to that point, I may have to consider a couple more years in school, but for now, I’m content with observing how the process unfolds and being able to contribute to the end result.


Where Washington State wines go from here

March 3, 2016

Despite certain challenges — from the geographical disconnect between winery and vineyard to the overwhelming choice of varieties planted — Washington wineries are proving successful in their advancement of the young wine growing region’s national and international reputation.

The City View at the Metreon in San Francisco played host to over 75 Washington State wineries last week for an educational seminar and wine tasting event, inviting Bay Area media and trade to taste and see just how far Washington wines have come since their beginnings in the 1970s.

Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth, Matt Stamp, and Greg Harrington offered a “Masters’ Perspective on Washington State” for the seminar: While all three agreed that viticulture practices have improved drastically since the early 1970s, they also emphasized that the region will continue to evolve over the next couple of decades. Harrington, owner and winemaker at Gramercy Cellars, predicted that producers will continue to become more precise in matching vineyard site to grape variety. “That’s the real change we will see in the next 10-15 years in Washington,” he said. Harrington also noted that vineyards will be planted at higher altitudes, pushing elevations of 2,100-2,200 feet versus the current “sweet spot” at 1,500 feet.

The eleven wines tasted in the seminar effectively illustrated the tremendous diversity of climates and soils that Washington State has to offer. It is the size and location of the vineyard sites, however, that act as a blessing and a curse for many of the state’s wineries, which are primarily based around the city of Seattle — a 3- to 4-hour drive from the principal AVAs, across the Cascades mountain range.



With diversity in the land comes the ability to produce wines of many different expressions. Stamp pointed to chardonnay, a variety that is planted in nearly every wine region of the world, as an example. “No one wants to talk about chardonnay, but Washington makes great chardonnay,” he said, primarily due to the versatility of the wines produced from different sites.

The negative effect of these vast yet isolated vineyards is apparent in the “disconnect between the vineyards and the wineries,” which Stamp referred to when speaking about Sparkman Cellars and their winery in Woodinville, just outside Seattle. During the grand tasting, this became a clear trend among winemakers as they pulled out their maps and indicated where they sourced their grapes and where they actually made the wine. Estate wineries exist, though in small numbers, and do not represent the status quo for the Washington wine industry.


Map of Washington State AVAs

Andrew Will Winery, with its winemaking facilities on Vachon Island in Puget Sound and vineyards all over southeast Washington, is a perfect example of this “disconnect.” Still, the site-expressive wines have earned an excellent reputation, which suggests that the separation between winery and vineyard is not wholly bad. What’s more is that winemaker and owner Chris Camarda doesn’t just buy grapes from his long-standing grower partners, he co-owns the Champoux Vineyard (Horse Heaven Hills AVA) and owns out-right the Two Blondes Vineyard (Yakima Valley AVA), which he purchased and planted in 2000.

At Andrew Will and most other wineries based around Seattle, grapes are brought over the Cascades in refrigerated trucks, some privately contracted and others that pick up grapes for a group of wineries, cutting costs but limiting flexibility with when and how quickly grapes are transported. Others, like Kim Brady at Brady Cellars, prefer to crush the grapes nearer to the harvest sites. He and around 200 others operate wineries in Walla Walla. “Fruit doesn’t travel as well as people say it does,” says Brady. Though Walla Walla doesn’t boast the same direct-to-consumer sales that wine regions like the Napa Valley does (the town falls well beyond the Washington state tourist track), winemakers are allowed to manage the grapes immediately after harvest, rather than having them traverse the width of the state first.

Those behind the wines of Force Majeure disagree: “The grapes arrive just as intact as if we were right next door,” says winemaker Todd Alexander, who previously made wine at Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyard.

Chris Peterson, winemaker and partner at Avennia in Woodinville, says few wineries are seen in Washington grape growing areas because they are secluded sites where most owners and employees would not choose to live full-time. “Eastern Washington is a very specific place to live,” says Peterson. With a 270-mile drive from Seattle to Walla Walla, commuting daily or even weekly is not an attractive alternative.

Despite the many miles of land between them, Peterson feels that the relationships between growers and winemakers are strong: “We have such an opportunity to work with fantastic growers,” he says. “We all work together to reach our own vision; it’s a creative ferment.”



A tour of Napa Valley dining: Restaurant Week 2016

February 2, 2016

The Napa Valley is in the midst of a very uncharacteristic lull in tourist traffic. For the local, this is good news: less congestion on the highways, fewer pedestrians darting out in the street. For businesses, however, rainy days coupled with “dry January,” low season for wine country getaways, leave proprietors struggling to get people through their doors. The solution it would seem, at least for eateries around the Napa Valley is Restaurant Week.

As soon as I discovered restaurants from Calistoga down to Napa were offering deals on multi-course meals and wine pairings, I began booking tables. At the top of my list of “Napa Valley restaurants to try” is The Restaurant at Auberge. However, the 5-star Michelin restaurant’s special for the week was a lunch. I would have happily taken advantage if my workplace allowed 2-3 hours for lunch; alas, another time. Here is where I did manage to get seats, forming a 4-day gastronomic tour:

Tuesday: CIA’s The Bakery Café by Illy, “The Greystone Market Lunch,” $20
My menu:
Mixed Green Salad
Croque Monsieur: Dijon Mustard, Morney Sauce
Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie (still warm from the oven)
The wine: Greystone Cellars Merlot 2011
No reservation required, and not so extravagant that we could manage it on our lunch break. The food was fantastic, given that those in the kitchen were chefs-in-training at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. The morney sauce drizzled over the grilled sandwich was delicious, and made the egg (of the also offered Croque Madame) unnecessary.

Wednesday: Siena at The Meritage Resort & Spa, “Special Three-Course Winter Dinner,” $35
My menu:
Napa Valley Salad: White Frisée, Caramelized Yogurt, Pear, Sun Dried Strawberries, Pumpkin Seed, Citrus Vinaigrettesiena salmon
Market fish: Salmon, with Kabocha Purée, Baby Winter Vegetables, Green Apple Sauce Verte
Apple Cake: Apple Terrine, Vanilla Gelato
The wine: Flowers Chardonnay 2014
The food was very good: the salmon was blackened on the top and the squash was cooked beautifully. The service was, sadly, close to a zero. The bottle of wine was poured, nearly entirely, into our three glasses, only just shy of the brim. If we hadn’t been mute with surprise we probably would’ve been able to stop the pourer in his attempt to empty the bottle in one round. Another server lifted the plates from under our still poised utensils as we were rushed from course to course, and though I realize it was with good intention, do you need to ask “how is it?” twice during every course? It was all a bit too reminiscent of my Wine Train experience.

Thursday: Torc, “Contemporary Dinner at Torc,” $46
My menu:
Violet Artichoke Soup, wild herb royale, crouton, taggiasca olive
Quinault River Steelhead, celeriac, wild mushroom, apple, black truffle vinaigrette
Pyrénées P’tit Basque cheese, piment d’espelette marmalade, pickled mushrooms
The wine: Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese Trocken, Pfalz 2011
Rarely the case for my hearty appetite, I felt the dishes were slightly large for a multi-course meal. Still, the quality on which the downtown Napa restaurant has built its reputation was definitely there. The artichoke soup was top-notch, and paired very nicely with the wine — finding a German riesling on a Napa wine list was a real treat.

Friday: Harvest Table, “Charlie Palmer’s St. Helena Restaurant Week Menu,” $36
My menu:
Steamed Mussels: Piquillo Peppers, Garlic Aioli, White Wine
Mushroom Ravioli: Pomegranates, Chestnut Purée, Brown Butter Sherry
Mandarin and Cream: Vanilla Bean Sponge, Mandarin Mousse, Cream Anglaise
Chef Charlie Palmer’s new restaurant obviously dedicated more time to curating the menu then the naming of its restaurant week special. From start to finish, this was by far the best experience of the Restaurant Week outings. The food was exquisite, portions were adequate yet manageable, and the service was polite but never domineering. I would happily pay $36 for a meal like this any day of the week.

mussels harvest table

The special menu offered wine pairing of St. Supéry wines with each course for $15; however, we opted for a “Blind Vine” wine from their impressive, and unusual, wine list. Alongside a lengthy selection of Napa Valley wines that listed the standard notes— wine, producer, appellation, vintage, and price — were international and U.S (if from regions other than the Napa Valley) options marked with asterisks — the “Blind Vine” wines. Short descriptions of the wines were written; however, though the vintage was stated, neither producer name nor appellation was included. Our “mystery wine” was served wrapped in tin foil and the cork was kept hidden so as not to give the producer away.

Our Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cotes du Jura Savagnin 2008 was easy enough to guess from the description, yet tasting “blind” did add a fun aspect to the meal. A great way to get people to venture away from only drinking local; our server said about 30% of the people who buy wine from the list will choose a “Blind Vine.”

Third time’s a charm. As far as the prix fixe menus went for this year’s restaurant week, Harvest Table was an easy favorite all around with the key elements nailed down: efficient, unobtrusive, and friendly service; quality ingredients for creative dishes, and a varied (in styles and price points) wine list.


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