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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
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

Less is more: DOs and DON’Ts for winetasting events

August 12, 2015

I’ve been to my fair share of wine tastings: large scale and international (ProweinVinexpo), smaller with a more local reach (Pinot on the River, San Francisco Vintners Market), and new to the scene (Oakland Wine Festival). My concluding observation? No matter the category, all wine events have a common basic formula that must be followed to be successful. The following list covers most of the essentials and points to steer clear of when planning and executing a wine tasting event.

DO…

Supervise volunteers: A great way to get the support you need for an event of any size is through volunteers: They lower the overall cost and also provide opportunities to involve more of the local wine industry, including sommeliers, retailers, chefs, and restaurateurs. However, be wary: Some volunteers may take their tasks lightly as they will not receive payment for their efforts. The solution? Supervisors. Indispensable to ensuring the success of an event, they may offer guidance to even the most dedicated, industry-savvy volunteers, who often find an event they are not familiar with to be difficult to navigate.

Set up information point(s): Whether in the form of a map, signs pointing guests in the right direction, or event staff/volunteers stationed at a table, having information at the ready for attendees is an absolute must. Otherwise, the show could end in guests running about with no idea where to go except for the next table that will pour them a glass of wine—not a desirable ambience. Though going digital—offering maps and schedules via phone apps—is a bonus, it is not (yet at least) essential to success.

Keep everything as tidy as possible: I have frequented too many wine tastings where spit buckets full to the rim inspired gag reflexes of tasters passing by and abandoned cheese platters morphed into fly havens. Even if it means spending a little extra money on staff, this is one area that if done well will ensure that people stick around and maybe return next year with their friends.

The spitoons are festive to be sure, but they got messy very quickly.

These spitoons are festive to be sure, but they got messy very quickly.

Provide plenty of ice and water: Always err on the side of too much. There is nothing worse than dehydrated wine tasters and winemakers looking for something, anything to keep their whites chilled. Though some winemakers are savvy enough to carry a cooler with them, the organizer should assume this responsibility if they hope for participating wineries to return.

Offer variety: Wine tastings usually attract a wide range of consumer types and a large scope of palates, so set a goal of including something for everyone. Even if the event doesn’t yet have a large scope of potential winery participants, make sure that a variety of wine styles and price points are represented.

DON’T…

Leave it to the last minute: Whether they’re to do with timing or locations, last-minute changes are to be avoided whenever possible. Winemakers get upset and guests just get confused. A disgruntled winemaker at an event can cause quite a bit of harm to their own brand as well as the event on the whole. Happy winemakers mean happy guests and make the event worthwhile. Sometimes adjustments to the program are unavoidable, so in these cases event organizers should try to anticipate what effects the change may entail and ensure that any transitions, re-locations, etc. happen as seamlessly as possible.

Happy winemakers = happy guests.

Happy winemakers = happy guests.

Overdo it: It is always advantageous to take the “less is more” attitude when planning events, especially one as volatile as a wine tasting. This may include but is not limited to: the amount of participating wineries, guests, and sponsors, as well as the size of the venue. An overly large space with not enough people to fill it could lead to lost, dazed, and confused attendees.

Make false promises: If table linens, spittoons, etc. will for some reason not be available to those pouring, say so prior to the start of the event. Winemakers/winery representatives know what they need for a tasting, and will pull items from their own stock if not provided by the venue. Though it is preferable to provide these to participating wineries (see “DOs” above), it is not obligatory so long as the representatives know what they will need to bring with them.

This guideline also applies to the expectation of the number of guests that will attend the event. The event organizer should have a good idea as to how many guests that will attend prior to the start in order to manage winery participants’ expectations. Be honest, and if attendance is lower than originally anticipated, find other incentives to offer participating wineries.

Be honest with the expected turnout. This is not what a winery representative, ready to give a masterclass, wants to be greeted with at the start of an event.

Be honest with the expected turnout. This is not what a winery representative, ready to give a masterclass, wants to be greeted with at the start of an event.

Leave tables unattended: After registration, which should be comprehensive and informative for the winery representatives arriving and looking for where they need to set up, the work is not over. Whether in the form of volunteers or event organizers, backup should always be on hand to stock the pourers with whatever they need, relieve them from their station for breaks, and direct them when they are unsure of what they should be doing. It’s a safe bet that none of the winery participants have read the preparation packet sent out the week prior.

The bottom line is that with experience comes knowledge: with each event completed another lesson will be learned. Following the above set of standards from the start, however, will increase the probability that people will return for a second edition … and allow opportunities for improvement.

Behind the mind of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen

July 12, 2015

It is not everyday you get to have lunch with one of Californias’s most influential and unorthodox (dare I say eccentric?) wine producers. Though there was ample discussion during the 2-hour lunch at the winery in Santa Maria Valley, I believe we only got a small glimpse of Jim’s compelling, at times radical, views on winemaking and the state of the California wine industry today. As it was, it took 2 of us — @mattswineworld and I — to put into print what we did cover with Jim, which you can read here.

Vineyards planted to Pinot and Chardonnay and neighboring avocado trees surround the Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley.

Vineyards planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and neighboring avocado trees surround the Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley.

Jim prepares lunch almost daily for his employees, always paired with some special treats from the wine libraries.

Rhône Rangers put a bridle on rosé

April 6, 2015

rrangersRosé is certainly an appealing wine style for consumers, mostly for its affordability and, now more so than ever, its quality. With the style’s recent boost in popularity, producers are taking production of rosé wine more seriously and for some, especially those who are more experimental in the cellar, it has become a key component in their portfolios.

Point Richmond was invaded last month by the Rhône Rangers, a California based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Rhône varietal wines produced in the US, for their annual seminar and tasting event. These rangers were armed with not only stellar examples of red and white Rhône blends from their respective wineries, but also a slightly less intimidating yet often underestimated wine style – rosé.

The first of the event’s seminar series explored rosé wines made from a wide range of Rhône grape varieties. The panelists included winemakers from as far south as Tercero Wines in California’s Santa Barbara County to the more northerly Quady North winery in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, and each provided a different view on rosé production and what having a pink wine in one’s portfolio can do for business.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard admitted that when he set out to make rosé for the first time in 1981, he was not as clear about how it should be done. He, like many others before him, made rosé in order to make his red wines more concentrated. “I started making rosé for the wrong reasons,” he said. “This was misguided.”

Though the term “Vin Gris” was always stated on the labels, it was only later that Grahm began producing rosé in the Provençal style true to the name. “It was a happy accident,” he said. The success of the Vin Gris de Cigare Réserve (en Bonbonne), which commands a high price for the category ($40/bottle), is most likely due to its distinct character: savory quality from lees aging and monthly battonage for 18 months, making it a very “labor intensive” endeavor. Nonetheless, for Grahm greater efforts produce a much more worthwhile wine: “At a party, if you are subtle and slightly mysterious, you are much more interesting.”

Moving the focus from production to sales, Quady North owner and winemaker Herb Quady praised rosé as a way to gain a foot in the door to retail outlets and restaurants, creating the opportunity to show his complete wine range. “Rosé is a way to get in front of a bunch of wine stewards in markets that I never would have made it into otherwise,” said Quady.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Quady sticks to the status quo in his rosé winemaking program. The Applegate Valley Rosé is made with 80% Counoise, an indigenous Rhône grape variety that does not generate much interest outside of its region of origin. Still, by creating something that stands out, Quady fills a need for restaurateurs and retailers in certain markets. “Counoise has a high geek factor. It works well in Seattle,” he said.

The seminar included a tasting of eight rosés, all made from Rhône varieties.

The seminar included a tasting of eight rosés, all made from Rhône varieties.

Tercero Wines’ Larry Schafer added another interesting varietal wine to the mix with his Rosé of Mourvèdre. The grape variety is no stranger to making quality rosé, and Schafer considered Mourvèdre as an ideal choice for the wine style, especially when it is paid special attention in the cellar. “It has some funky qualities that are more apparent when fermented at higher temperatures,” he said.

Schafer also pointed to the emerging threat of the trend towards lower-alcohol wines, which can be detrimental to rosé. “There are rosés out there that are quite thin,” he warned.

Now that rosé has firmly established itself as a quality wine category, producers are finding ways to push the envelope and come up with more interesting and complex options for consumers. As demonstrated by the success of the Rhône in terms of quality rosé wine production, there is no better way to achieve this than by working with the region’s prized varietals.

Whining on the Wine Train

November 17, 2014

Only one arm made it out of my coat before a glass of wine was offered to me by a very eager member of the waitstaff. While trying to maneuver without upsetting our neighboring diners in the rather cramped train car, I quickly shrugged off what remained of my outerwear and gratefully accepted the welcome offering that was waiting impatiently for me. My companions and I then attempted a cheers to the fact that we had finally made it on the famed Napa Valley Wine Train; however, our waitress had already returned with our plate of Hors d’Oeuvres before we were able to clink our glasses. As we could not possibly complain about such prompt service, we obliged the waitress as she spoke about the different elements on the plate before us. The explanation was brief and she was off again before I was able to lower my gaze to examine the food. Three minutes later came the starter, seven minutes after that came the Intermezzo (whoever was responsible for the construction of the menu was apparently fluent in multiple languages), and within the next five minutes we had our Entrées ready and waiting. We had to be quite diligent about keeping the anxious waitress from pulling the plates out from beneath our still poised utensils; however, our efforts were futile and the dishes were cleared the moment I speared the last morsel of salmon.

Next, we were herded to another train car where the dessert was served and we were given the option to purchase coffee, tea, or choose a wine flight. Apart from the food and the complimentary glass of wine at the start, everything had a price. We were assigned seats along the window facing outward, in stationary chairs that disallowed movement in any other direction. We were only midway through the train’s journey and yet there was nothing left to do except stare out into the darkness. Attempting to remedy the situation, we purchased a couple of wine flights to share among the group and were in very positive spirits for the remainder of the journey, though perhaps aided in part by the trainee waitress who over-poured our glasses (she was reprimanded publicly by her supervisor for her error).

Overall impression: The quality of the food was stellar, as was the bottle of Grgich Hills Chardonnay that we purchased for dinner; however, the structure and performance of service was severely lacking. For a ticket price that commanded three times the amount that one would typically pay in the finest up-scale restaurants of the Napa Valley, it did not meet the expectations for what would be a potentially luxurious meal and memorable occasion.

Touring a Spaniard through Napa Valley.

When visiting the Napa Valley, a picture with this sign is essential. Robert Louis Stevenson gave Napa its first slogan for tourists as far back as the 1880s.

The Napa Valley Wine Train is just one example of what the Napa Valley is lacking in terms of wine tourism. As most visitors to the wine region will attest, the quality of the wine, food and related activities is there and they can—and do—demand premium prices. Where the offering falls short, however, is in the sophistication of the service.

Over the past decade, wine tourism has gained an increasing amount of attention in major wine growing regions around the world. The ideas are there: wine trains, winery/restaurant/hotel compounds, bike tours, food pairings, wine education, etc.—all with the idea to motivate and excite potential visitors. Though other new world wine regions have allocated huge amounts of attention and funding to ensure that their tourism offerings can compete on the global scale, the Napa Valley has not invested this same amount of effort, most likely because they don’t need to. The Napa Valley already boasts a captive audience of domestic and international tourists who are willing to pay; however, the potential for growth is lost if they do not increase their attention to detail in service and the like.

That said, Napa is still a rookie in the wine tourism industry. The Napa Valley has long been considered a tourist hub in California and only in the last few years has the town of Napa begun to establish itself as a principle tourist destination: New restaurants and tasting rooms have popped up, as well as new operators for wine and city tours.

The best customer service manifests in places that stop competing for the Michelin rating and start concentrating on their customers. ZuZu is a Spanish-style tapas bar that, despite being booked nearly every night of the week, keeps its cool and seats you in any fashion they can. This may not be a table with a view; nonetheless, they offer a comfortable atmosphere, attention (but not too much so) by the waitstaff, and delicious food and wine selections. Napa’s first urban winery and brewery St. Clair-Brown is another example: Their offering includes wine tastings, as well as wines by the glass or bottle to pair with their eclectic food menu featuring fruits and vegetables from their on-site garden. The waitstaff is comprised of more than just servers. They are individuals who take part in a conversation and entice the large majority of their guests to visit again, or at least join the wine club.

Sometimes simplicity of service beats forced formality. Finding the right balance in hospitality is vital, and hopefully the trends set by new Napa restaurants will influence their established counterparts.

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