Too Much Wine in Your House? Throw a Clear the Cellar Party

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Clearing the cellar meant we opened a lot of wine! (Photo by Berg Atkinson)

When you enjoy wine and start to acquire or collect it, it’s easy to fill up your space pretty quickly. And if you’re like me, you often save a bottle or two to share with specific people, or a specific occasion. But then those opportunities don’t quite come the way you imagined, or a bottle gets pushed to the back and you forget about it or your tastes start to change and all of a sudden your favorite wine is just meh.

Chances are, that’s happening to your friends, too. So now that shipping season is here (the few months a year when the weather won’t ruin the wine on the back of a delivery truck because it’s too hot or too cold), it’s not unthinkable to admit that you may have gotten a bit carried away and now have nowhere to put your wine, unless you like making cardboard box towers in your living room.

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Too many boxes full of wine with no place to put it. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

To combat this purely first-world problem, some friends decided to throw a Clear the Cellar Party and invited about a dozen (plus or minus) wino-s to bring a random assortment of wines they wanted to get rid of, but didn’t necessarily just want to pour them down the drain.

We had close to 100 bottles of wine open and probably another 20 that we failed to uncork. The results were nothing short of epic, not so much because the wines were amazing — in fact, many turned out to be just so-so (and there was at least a case of undrinkable wine) yet the diversity of wines and curiosity it provoked made the tasting that much more fun.

Not to mention, there was an absence of stress that often comes with wanting to impress others with the bottles you brought. So, what’s usually a gathering of fun, super laid-back people, was even more relaxed. That translated to more laughs, more fun and an evening to remember.

Want to throw a similar party for your friends? Here are some tips based on what contributed to our success:

* Give guests several weeks notice so they can really dive into their cellars and pull the bottles they want to bring (or maybe locate bottles they are curious about trying — we really had no definition of what “clearing the cellar” should mean).

* Find the right kind of space to throw the party. This is not an event to combine with a restaurant or seated meal. Somebody’s home or backyard will do. My friends reserved the community room in their condo building, pushed several long folding tables together, and it was perfect.

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So. many. bottles. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

* When the wines arrive, don’t try to organize the bottles too much.  Loosely group them in order from light whites to deep, dark, brooding purple. Don’t push the tables against the wall. Having space to walk on either side of the table meant there was never any crowding.

* Plastic utility buckets make wonderful spit and dump buckets. Our host was diligent about dumping the buckets when they were about halfway full, too. That insured no splashing and no accidental spilling. (Oh, and come to grips, you’re going to dump a lot of wine, and that’s perfectly okay! In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do.)

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* Food. You need food to ensure your friends don’t over indulge. We had two big plates of cheese and charcuterie to snack on right away. Then, later on in the evening, some other goodies were served: pulled pork, a chicken dish, brisket and a bunch of sides and salads. We did everything pot-luck style. There was room to sit and eat, but it wasn’t a seated dinner.

* Find a corner of shame. It’s inevitable, there will be some duds. And it will be sad. So once a couple people have tasted the offending the wine and agreed, we banished the wine to a far corner of the room. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to see these bottles here — especially the ones with significant age. But it allowed us to pay our respects, and helped others decide what not to taste.

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The beginning of what became the “corner of shame.” Many more bottles joined this group before the night was over. (Photo by itswinebyme.)

Be really fabulous hosts. I can’t thank our hosts enough for all the hard work they put into planning and keeping things running smoothly throughout the night.

Natural Discoveries at Raw Wine New York

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Some of the delicious producers who shared their wines at the Raw Wine Fair.

What happens when you put 145 wine producers from all over the world inside a Brooklyn warehouse who all share common winemaking (and growing) values? You get 145 different points of view, often with wild flavors and textures to match. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the Raw Wine Fair. And neither would the hundreds of wine professionals, industry insiders and enthusiasts who eagerly made their way from table to table, tasting a handful of wines from each producer, using the well-placed spit buckets and overwhelming the winemakers who were proudly pouring and answering questions.

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The calm before the storm as people begin to arrive for the second day of Raw Wine.

When I interviewed Raw’s founder Isabelle Legeron about a week before the fair, she told me, “Growers have felt very confident to showcase their wines with us because they knew it wouldn’t be an event where people would be getting  rowdy and drunk. They’d be appreciating the wine.”

She was exactly right. Those attending Raw weren’t hogging the stations, or elbowing each other to get in. At busier spots, people patiently waited their turn. Often times, if you approached a crowded table and just motioned your glass nearby, someone would let you in.

These kinds of events are full of discovery and it is not uncommon to discuss with other strangers which producers they find interesting. Toward the end of my time on the first day, I wound up chatting with someone from Boston who took me on a mini-tour of his favorite producers — all of whom I had missed during my own rounds.

Here are a few of my discoveries (and observations) from the two-day natural wine fête:

* As others have said about natural wine — there’s a lot of really beautiful wines. There’s also plenty of not-so-great natural wines in the world. But then again with taste as the ultimate subjective experience, take those words with a shaker full of salt.

* This was a good reminder to throw what I think I know about wine out the window. For example, there were some beautiful wines from Chile — usually a region I shy away from (just personal taste preferences), whereas I was disappointed by what I tasted from Northern Rhone (usually one of my favorite regions).

* It’s possible to grow grapes, and make age-worthy wine in Texas. Unfortunately if you want any of the wine, the only choice you have is to visit the winemaker’s tasting room.

* Fun celebrity sighting: Aziz Ansari. Not completely a surprise as he’s already noted for enjoying natural wine, but as a “Master of None” fan, it was a bit of a thrill to see him up close.

* The power of spitting during an event like this can’t be stressed enough. It’s the only way to actually enjoy all of the wines and be able to leave standing straight and in one piece. Taking breaks to get a bite to eat helps not just with keeping you from getting drunk, but also with palate fatigue.

* I wish I remembered my Spanish, or knew French, Italian, German or any other language. For those producers who didn’t speak English well, it would have been wonderful to converse with them in their language. You could see in their eyes and from the genuine smiles on their faces the love they had for their craft, and it would have been wonderful to indulge in more conversation with them.

So now the fun begins — trying to find these wines in the wild via retailers or restaurant wine lists. Until then, I can at least remind myself of how much excitement and happiness surrounded me in this Instagram I accidentally photobombed while leaving the Gut Oggau tasting table.

#gutoggau #demeter #realwine #rawwinefair #nyc here we go again!

A post shared by Gut Oggau (@gutoggau) on

Cheers!

Raw Wine Fair Returns to New York, Expands to Los Angeles

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Last year’s catalog from the Raw Wine Fair.

Looking for a way to understand what all the natural wine hype is about? Hundreds of these wines from all over the world will be featured under one roof as the Raw Wine Fair descends on New York and then Los Angeles this month. The tasting brings together more than 100 winemakers from around the world who produce what’s considered “natural” or “low-intervention” wines.

With all the quibbling about what it takes to qualify as a natural wine (and whether that really matters), this event is a good place to learn, ask questions and make your own judgments. (You’ll also be able to keep up with trendy wine conversations after meeting such producers as Sicily’s Frank Cornelissen, Austria’s Gut Oggau and Slovenia’s Movia.)

Conceived by Isabelle Legeron, the first woman Master of Wine in France, Raw began in 2012 in London as part industry-trade show — and a chance for small wine producers to market and introduce themselves to importers, distributors and other wine professionals — and part consumer tasting (last year,  was its first visit to the U.S.).

Isabelle says her goal for both audiences is to promote transparency in wine.

“I want people to start thinking about wine the way they think about food,” she told me last week. “I realized very early on that we have this idea that most people think that wine is natural regardless. People have this idea that wine is grape juice fermented and bottled. And that’s because there’s no ingredient labeling requirements for all of wine.”

The reality is that most wines are filled with enzymes and other additives that are used to help preserve the wine, enhance the flavor, and some — with names like mega purple  — can manipulate the color of the wine.

“For me, it’s very simple. A natural wine is made with 100 percent grape juice and nothing else. Not even use of sulfites,” she says. But “for the purpose of the fairs, we’re not exclusively a natural wine fair. Not very many people make purely natural wine.  For the fair, growers who are natural, it’s a two stage process where everything has to be done organically: cleanly in the vineyard and nothing added in the cellar.  We also welcome low-intervention, biodynamic, permaculture principals. [The winemakers are] not allowed to add yeast or enzymes, except small doses of sulfites.”

The use of sulfites — which helps prevent wines from decomposing as it ages — is usually at the heart of the “what’s a natural wine” debate. Consumers tend to understand it the most, because it’s something they’ve heard of. The chemical is often blamed for causing headaches (that’s a myth!) or causing allergic reactions. Yet, sulfites appear in many foods, and doesn’t quite get the same bad rap.

Producers attending the fair who use minimal sulfites are required to list that information on the Raw Wine website, underscoring Isabelle’s transparency values.

“Because even people who work in a very low-intervention way are way, way more natural than the vast majority of wine producers out there. Somebody who uses a little bit of sulfites, but farms organically, ferments naturally, doesn’t fine, doesn’t filter, is actually on the spectrum of a natural wine producer,” she says.

In the year leading up to the fair, Isabelle tasted wines from hundreds of winemakers all around the world who submitted their bottles for possible entry into the fair. She estimates that only about 20 or 30 percent get chosen.

So what’s the best way of tackling the Raw Wine Fair — especially with 145 producers attending in New York, and 112 in Los Angeles? Remember, each producer could have up to five or six different wines to try. Isabelle stresses it’s about interacting with the growers more than anything else, and of course spitting.

If you’re a consumer, Isabelle suggests this:

“People need to come in and really enjoy the experience and make sure you spit, that’s the first thing. Make a whole day of it. Take breaks, have a bite to eat, have a coffee and maybe not view it as a marathon. More look at it as an opportunity to chat with growers. Even when you’re  trade, it can feel a bit daunting … It’s not technical. We’re not here to score wines or anything. We’re really here to communicate a way of living. A way of somm’ing, a way of making wine. Don’t taste with your head, but taste with your stomach and your instinct.”

And for the winemakers:

“For the growers, my advice is always to be super friendly and super smiley. Because I think sometimes producers come from very far away, some people speak not the best of English, they’re a bit shy, they’re a bit worried about are they going to say the right thing, but I always say to them, they’re just here to meet other human beings, and not get too bogged down on the technicality unless people specifically ask for it, because what most people want is to meet the grower … it’s the human interaction.”

The 2017 U.S. fairs will take place Nov. 5 and 6 in New York, and Nov. 12 and 13 in Los Angeles. Thanks to a growing excitement for natural wines in the U.S., the group has planned smaller events across the country, too. For more about natural wine, Isabelle Legeron has also just released the second edition of her book, Natural Wine.

Assessing the Aftermath of the Wine Country Wildfires

Damage from Sonoma wildfires in Santa Rosa
Burned-out cars and charred homes in Santa Rosa, Calif., after wildfires spread across wine country. (Capt. Will Martin/ Army National Guard)

As if 2017 couldn’t be a crazier year, and right as Harvest was ending in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, wildfires roared through the hills and mountains and down through some of the valleys. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Scores of people lost their lives. Many, many more were counted as missing. It took more than a week to contain some of the fires. But even now that blue skies are replacing the smoke, and the fires are no longer threatening the land, it’s still difficult to understand the extent of the damage or how this will impact California’s wine industry.

A lot of friends have recently asked me what this will all mean, and while I’m far from qualified to give a definitive answer, here’s what is known, and what we should be paying attention to:

* A vast majority of the wineries and vineyards were spared. The San Jose Mercury News has detailed nearly two dozen that were either damaged or destroyed, while Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association for more than 500 Napa wineries, says 47 of the 330 members who responded to their outreach reported damage; and a handful had significant damage. Fortunately, the majority of the fruit has already been harvested — in Napa, which accounts for only 4 percent of wines made in the state, 90 percent of the fruit was already picked.

* As Dave McIntyre reported early on, it’s the people, not the vines, that are suffering the most. In fact, as the LA Times wrote, the vines acted as a natural fire break, and perhaps protected the vineyards and wineries. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other nascent industry in the region.)

* Like most of the agriculture community, the wineries — especially this time of year — rely on immigrant workers for harvest and other important winery jobs. So not only were these workers not able to earn their wages because evacuations forced wineries to close and harvest activities to stop, but many of these workers lived in Sonoma County, where their homes were either damaged or destroyed. Of particular concern is the large population of undocumented immigrants that make up this community.  As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The lack of assistance for undocumented immigrants troubles advocates and attorneys who worry about the futures of these residents, some of whom are agricultural workers central to the economy of Wine Country, as they navigate an already expensive, housing-strapped region.

* There are still a lot of questions swirling around how the 2017 vintage will fare (But there seems to be some optimism). Smoke taint — where the smoke penetrates the grape skins and causes the wine to taste overly smokey or ashy — is usually the biggest concern when wildfires approach the vines during the run-up to Harvest (see this Wines &Vines piece about the 2008 vintage). But because a majority of the fruit had already been brought in, it may not be as much of a concern as expected. I’ve also heard people explain that because of the ripeness of the fruit (and variety of vines) still hanging, the grape skins were thick enough to protect the juice inside.

* It’s bittersweet that as with many tragedies, these horrific kinds of events, often bring out the best in humanity. So it’s no surprise, considering the strength of the wine community and the inherent respect and love for its land that bonds them, that ways to help with recovery were swiftly organized.  There are well-curated lists here and all across the Internet. But the biggest plea, is to continue drinking California wine. To continue with any plans to visit Napa an Sonoma. Or to plan a new trip to see the hard-working and kind souls of California wine country.

Scholium Project Debuts Its Natural ‘Commentary’ Into a Growing Market

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
Stacey Khoury-Diaz and Janine Copeland of Dio Wine Bar hosted Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project for a wine tasting and discussion of natural wines.

It’s a Monday night at one of the city’s newest wine bars and more than 20 locals have gathered around a bar with a renegade California winemaker to discuss spoilage and microbes in natural wines. If you think we’re in Brooklyn or Berkeley or even an international city like Copenhagen, Paris or London, you’d be wrong.

We’re here in Washington, D.C., the city not less than a decade ago where those selling wine were more intent on engaging clients like lobbyists or politicians who would seek out the most expensive Napa Cabernets or Bordeauxs as a means to impress.

But in the past few years, as D.C.’s food and dining scene grew (and as the lobbyists’ rules and bank accounts tightened), it makes sense that more diverse wine options would soon follow. A few key sommeliers started changing up their lists and introducing new regions and orange wine to the mix. Then in the past year, the momentum multiplied.

So on a Monday night, Dio Wine Bar – which is also D.C.’s only wine bar focused solely on natural wines – became home for Abe Schoener’s D.C. debut. His wines have popped up in the city here and there, and he’s visited D.C. before (he’s a former professor from St. John’s College in Maryland), but this was his first sales trip to actively promote his Scholium Project wines.

Rather than just tasting the three wines he brought, this was a nerdy discussion in the context of eight additional wines. (The line-up included wines by Spain’s Celler Jordi Ilorens,  Beaujolais’ Julian Sunier, Loire’s Clisson from Jérémie Huchet & Jérémie Mourat and Champagne’s Charles DuFour.)

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
Eight natural wines from around the world were poured along side three Scholium Project wines.

This was a smart move. I’ve seen other wineries – like RdV Vineyards in Virginia – provide tastings against similar wines from other regions. Not only does it give the tasters something to compare, but it’s a good teaching method and lends to a more memorable experience.

Several years ago the only people who may have attended something like this in D.C. were industry. Instead the sold-out event was comprised of enthusiasts, including those just learning about natural wines, and a few super-geeky types, like me.

While it’s certainly a sign of D.C.’s wine transformation, some of the participants noted it’s still difficult to find many of these wines throughout the city. Stacey Khoury-Diaz, Dio’s owner, suggested if consumers start asking for more of these wines, local shops and restaurants will begin to respond.

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Abe Schoener listens to some questions at the start of the chat.

Capitalizing on the growing geekdom that’s here, this tasting was all about spoilage (and not necessarily in the negative sense of the word). Abe wanted to discuss the natural yeasty microbes which fight each other to eat the sugars and turn grape juice into wine during the fermenting process. He says that when the right microbes win, delicious wine is the result.

So when he was asked several times for his definition of natural wine, the closest he came to answering it was to suggest that the discourse in natural wine should not be focused on the means of production (everything from how to farm the vineyard, to more industrialized ways of winemaking), but rather on the chemistry of winemaking. For example, he’s placed his grapes under high pressure and used electromagnetic forces to create cross-flow filtrations in his winemaking process.

The more common answer from natural winemakers is usually about their yearn to translate the terroir (sense of place) into the bottle, their trials in avoiding filtering wine (not necessarily through scientific methods) and an argument over whether or not to use added sulfur.

But “scholium,” means “commentary,” and that’s what Abe was seeking to do when he first created the Scholium Project in 2006 after learning about winemaking during an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and later from famed Napa winemaker John Konsgaard.

He says his wines can even been seen as his own commentary on some of the wines he enjoys, such as Cru Beaujolais and Edmond Vatan Sancerre. His wines are not supposed to be what you expect from California, yet they showcase some of the beautiful fruit coming from key vineyards and microclimates.

The three Scholium Project wines we tried included:

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2015 Scholium Project 1MN

The 1MN Bechtold Ranch, a red wine made from 140-year-old Cinsault vines in Lodi, Calif.  This was a fresh and vibrant wine exhibiting beautiful and tamed fruit. A light-bodied wine  that indeed reminds you of something from Beaujolais.

Scholium Project tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2014 Scholium Project La Severita Di Bruto

And two Sauvignon Blancs – La Severita Di Bruto and the Prince In His Caves – which both come from Farina Vineyards on the east side of the Sonoma Mountain.  The vineyard sees very little sun – only around noon – so the resulting wines are more in line with what you might expect from cooler climates.

The first had a very distinct smell of rotting produce – much like the spoilage Abe brought us here to discuss, but it eventually blew off and the palate revealed amazing acidity underneath a crisp minerality. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Vatan, you’ll understand and adore this wine.

The second wine, which spent more time on its skins during winemaking was a lusher wine with green vegetal flavors like asparagus and artichokes.

Scholium Project wine tasting at Dio Wine Bar
2016 Scholium Project The Prince In His Caves

All three maintained significant structure and were well balanced – values Abe strives for in everything he makes and are not necessarily a hallmark of many natural wines.

While some like to define natural winemaking as a throw-back to past methods, Abe actually sees this kind of winemaking as post-modern and a way of looking to the future. The traditional methods still used sulfur or as industrialization came along, took advantage of what was offered. But today’s natural winemaking, he says, points away from the traditional and away from what’s expected.

It’s those expectations that Abe’s wines have successfully avoided. And thats what makes his wines absolutely fascinating to taste, and even more enjoyable to drink.

WineAmerica Unveils the First National Economic Impact Study of the American Wine Industry

This week, WineAmerica – the industry trade group for American wineries released its first ever report showing the economic impact wine has the U.S.

(Read all about it here:WineAmerica Unveils the First National Economic Impact Study of the American Wine Industry)

Similarly, the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers, also released an economic impact report for their industry.

While pitting the two reports against each other wouldn’t be very fair – as one accounts for an entire industry, and the other is only a slice, plus the data is from two different years – I thought it was still worth noting the highlights in a single post to provide perspective on the gigantic size of these two industries.

When it comes to WINE:

  • The wine industry’s total economic impact to the U.S. for 2017 is $219.9 billion (California accounts for  $71.2 billion. To see more state data see the chart on this Wines & Vines story, or you can individually look up each state’s details here. Pssst… journalists…  this is an amazing resource to give context to your future stories).
  • There are 10,236 winery facilities in all 50 states.
  • There are 677,629 acres of vineyards across every U.S. state, except Alaska.
  • The wine industry supports 1,738,270 American jobs, with wages exceeding $75.7 billion.
  • A total of $36.5 billion in taxes is generated – more than $19 billion for the federal government, and $17.5 billion to states and localities.

In the world of BEER:

  • The craft brewing industry contributed $67.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016 – a 21.7 percent increase from 2014.
  • There are 5,301 breweries in the U.S.
  • The industry accounts for more than 456,373 full-time jobs (a 7.5 percent increase from 2014).
  • Just like wine, the state with the highest economic impact is California with $7.3 billion (see all the state data here and here).

Cheers!

 

Eating Through California Wine Country …

A quick post to highlight three of the delicious stops that helped fuel last December’s trip. I try to keep It’s Wine By Me! wine-centric, but these were too good not to mention. As a solo traveler, these were also perfect for dining without a plus one, or two or three…

FOR BREAKFAST OR BRUNCH: Boon Fly Cafe. Located on the edge of the Carneros Inn, on Sonoma Highway as you start to escape Napa, this is one of those places that on a weekend morning, you’ll be sure to see a line waiting outside to be seated. Fortunately, there was a single spot at the bar which I seized immediately. The food came out quickly, which is always appreciated when you have a full day of activities planned. More importantly it was delicious!

Boon Fly Cafe
Fresh melon mimosa with mini donuts. Coffee for good measure, too.

 

Boon Fly Cafe
If I hadn’t already splurged enough, the Corned Beef Hash with spinach and jalapeno hollandaise was amazing. Note: they didn’t even blink when I asked for scrambled eggs instead of a poached one. In other words, the dish as prepared is probably much prettier than this pic.

FOR LUNCH: Redd Wood. This is the more casual outpost of the popular Redd in Yountville. Redd Wood is known for their wood-oven pizzas, which I’ve had before and are delicious, but a friend recommend stopping here for their pasta. On a rainy cool day after touring cold caves, how could I resist warm comfort food. I sat at the bar, ordered a glass of an Italian rosato, and began talking to the woman (a winemaker!) next to me. I was so busy chatting, enjoying the ambiance and the wine, that I didn’t realize it had taken longer than it should have for my pasta to arrive. The only tip-off was when the chef sent out a beautiful chopped salad I didn’t order as a “we’re sorry.”

Redd Wood
I’ll let the picture of this beautiful chopped salad speak for itself.

Not very long after, the pasta appeared. Again, I’ll let the picture speak for itself. It was everything I wanted it to be and more (and so were the leftovers the next morning!).

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Gemelli with bolognese.

FOR DINNER: Glen Ellen Star. One of the things I adore about this restaurant nestled in the tiny Sonoma County hamlet of Glen Ellen is that it’s perfect for a quiet meal with someone you love, but also has the perfect counter for the solo diner. You’re up-close enough to the open kitchen that asking a question of the chefs is a little too easy to do. Known for its beautiful wood hearth, I had heard good things about the vegetables, so I immediately ordered the cauliflower and then selected the brick chicken. Both were as amazing as they look. I topped the meal with some of their homemade ice cream and swore up and down I’d be back on my next visit.

Glen Ellen Star
Cauliflower, tahini, almonds and sumac straight out of the wood oven.
Glen Ellen Star
Brick chicken, also from the wood oven.

Recapping Napa/Sonoma in December

There’s never a bad time of year to jet across the country to visit California wine country, but one of my favorites is right before the holidays. Most harvest activities are over. The holiday craziness has yet to commence. It’s super quiet and if you’re lucky, the winter rains bring bright green cover crops in the vineyards just as the leaves – in their vibrant yellows, oranges and reds – start to fall to the ground (yes, there are seasons here!).

Without a particular mission (except any and all effort to escape my D.C. life), I set up shop at the bottom edge of Napa Valley – allowing easy access to downtown Napa, the length of Napa Valley and the roads leading to Sonoma (city, county and coast). By the time I turned in the rental car at the end of the week, the odometer had 626 extra miles on it.

Rental Car in Napa
My trusty rental car was perfect for traversing highways and dirt roads. Here it is parked at Chateau Boswell

Here are just a few highlights:

My first stop after checking into the hotel, was a brief visit to  Cadet Wine Bar where local winemaker Rory Williams of Calder Wines was pouring flights. (Read more about Rory and his wines here). The small label focuses on local Napa varieties that have been there for decades but tend to get lost among the dense plantings of Cabernet, Merlot and more popular grapes. I tasted his Dry Reisling, Chenin Blanc and Charbono. All three were a nice a diversion from what’s typically expected in Napa. The Charbono was especially interesting. A bit brooding with dirty anise and dark fruit chased with black olives.

Complete with a “celebrity” sighting of one of the stars of the documentary Somm, Cadet was the perfect start to this trip.

In Napa Valley, I had only one formal visit set up – and that was to see Chateau Boswell, just off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. While this boutique winery has been making wine since 1979, in the past couple decades it’s seen the addition of a beautiful cave and facility to make and store its bottles. It also recently added a new winemaker – Phillipe Melka (Food & Wine has a nice profile of him here). The winery was stunning. Behind big iron gates and beautifully landscaped grounds, the cave was cut into the bottom of a hillside that featured its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc plantings.

Chateau Boswell
When Chateau Boswell’s cave was built under the vineyards, the owners ordered the builders not to disrupt the huge tree on their property.

I sampled their Russian River Valley Chardonnay and 2014 Estate Cabernet out of bottle, and tasted a few 2015 Pinot Noirs out of the barrels. With a new winemaker now calling the shots, Chateau Boswell’s 2014 Estate Cabernet has pivoted a bit. Unlike previous years, the latest vintage blends in much more of the Cabernet Franc grown on the property (about 40 percent), giving it an elegant backbone. These wines work to strike a balance between having something that’s pleasurable now, yet can keep a structure to let it properly age.

Chateau Boswell
Inside Chateau Boswell’s cave.

My next set of visits, spanning a couple of days, were with winemakers I’ve come to adore during the past several years.

In Glen Ellen, a tiny town in Sonoma County,  I visited Chris Cottrell of Bedrock Wine Co.  He first took me into the famous 140-year-old Bedrock Vineyard. The old gnarly vines were absolutely stunning, and with the cover crops blooming on this fizzy gray day, the experience just standing there left me nearly speechless.

Bedrock Vineyard
Bedrock Vineyard’s gnarly vines – some still with a bit of dried-up fruit on its vines – are especially stunning on this misty December day.

I’ve been buying wine from Bedrock for a few years now and always appreciated their approach to seeking out old vineyards to make their wine. But what I didn’t realize is that they’re not just seeking good fruit. It’s a mission to help change the farming culture so that these vineyards don’t disappear or get replanted with some other crop (recently going so far as to buy a vineyard). Using science as the basis for sustainable farming techniques, the Bedrock team is eager to help these old vineyards become prosperous again. Along the way, Bedrock creates 30 or 40 different wines. We tasted through a half a dozen – each one expressing beautiful California fruit with a balance of all those earthy morsels that transport you back to the vineyard.

Bedrock wine bottles
Inside Bedrock’s original tasting room next to Bedrock Vineyard. The team also recently purchased a historic building to build a new tasting room.

While being outside in the vineyards is wonderful, it’s just as invigorating to meet with winemakers in their other natural habitat: inside the winery. That’s why visiting with John Lockwood at Enfield Wine Co. is always a treat. (to learn more, read this profile or listen to this podcast). He makes his wine at Punchdown Cellars in Santa Rosa, a custom crush facility which leases out space and equipment  to winemakers. This is my second visit to Punchdown and it’s always fun to see the racks of barrels, the fermenting tanks and to taste wine surrounded by people getting their hands dirty and doing the work.

Punchdown Cellars
Fermenting tanks at Punchdown Cellars, including some concrete eggs way at the end of the aisle.

John set up his wines for me in a quietish corner and we went through most of his line-up. Whether it’s his Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Cabernet, his ability to translate each vineyard into elegant wines, made it difficult to not guzzle through each bottle right then and there.

Enfield wine bottles
Tasting through Enfield’s wines at Punchdown Cellars.

From Santa Rosa, I drove to Sebastapol – which also meant guzzling through Enfield was not a viable option. But the restraint was worth it so I could visit with Katy Wilson. And while she was named a winemaker to watch in 2013, four years later, I’d argue, she’s still important to pay attention to. I’ve met her a few times at tastings here on the east coast, where she often pours her own label with the help of her dad. We met inside Claypool Cellars’s tasting room – a renovated train car inside a business and shopping center.

She makes wine for several labels including Banshee and Claypool, but it’s her own label, that I’ve always found swoon-worthy. Named for her grandmother, LaRue’s Pinot Noirs are some of the most delicate I’ve had from the Sonoma Coast. Katie creates wines that can still retain their power, yet showcase layers of refined complexity.

Katy Wilson of LaRue
Katy Wilson of LaRue wines mostly focus on Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

Its having these personalized tasting opportunities which make visiting wine country in December so special. The winemakers are generally relaxed and have the time to answer questions and discuss their passion. It doesn’t matter that the vines aren’t lush with leaves and bunches of grapes, or the sun isn’t shining, or if I’m standing in a tasting room with shoes still muddied from trampling through wet vineyards. That one-on-one attention creates the ultimate oasis.

Now that it’s nearly October, it’s time to book my next December trip! Cheers!

Crushing the Kronos Reveals Beauty of Consistency

Corison wine bottles
All 16 vintages of Corison Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon, with a few extra bottles thrown inf or good measure.

Right around the time my friends and I were sobering up from our 16-year verticle tasting of wines from Cathy Corison’s Kronos Vineyard, Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post, wrote in his weekly column, he, too, had recently tasted through 16 vintages of a particular wine. He said the wines in the tasting were “postcards from time,” and as one of his fellow diners told him: “I enjoy each wine less this way, but I learn more.”

Those are easy assertions to agree with and capitalizing on the learning and the understanding of time, is exactly why a year after my tasting group wrangled 21 vintages of Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, we challenged ourselves to do it again, this time focusing on the Cabernet Sauvignon she made from her Kronos vineyard. (Ok, we may have did it for some bragging rights, too!)  

Corison Kronos tasting
A semi-demolished flight of Corison Kronos wines.

The Kronos Cabernet comes from 45-year-old vines that are grown on Cathy’s St. Helena property. She and her husband farm the land, and since 1996 they have produced the single vineyard bottling of Corison Kronos Cabernet. The wines are more powerful than the Napa Valley Cabernet she blends from other nearby by vineyards. But true to her style, Kronos maintains her delicate signature style of winemaking, keeping the wines elegant and at a low alcohol level (about 13%). If you visit the winery for a tour and library tasting (which I strongly recommend), you’ll exit the back barn-like doors and step immediately into the Kronos vineyard, located on the Napa Valley floor, stretching about 8 acres back to the Mayacamas Mountains. Unlike many of Napa’s vines, this vineyard survived the 1990s phylloxera epidemic because the vines are on St. George rootstock, which is resistant to the tiny bugs. (For more on the vineyard, take a look at this profile Kelli White wrote in 2011.)

Corison's Kronos Vineyard
The Kronos Vineyard is literally in Cathy Corison’s backyard. This is the back of the winery.

Corison's Kronos Vineyard
Standing in the Kronos Vineyard looking out to the Mayacamas Mountains on a misty day in December, 2016.

We modeled this year’s tasting after last year’s. There were a handful of flights with all 16 vintages of the Kronos Vineyard from 1996 to 2012. Each wine was poured blind, but each flight was loosely in chronological order from oldest to youngest. A few ringers were included in the mix including two pours from the same vintage – one from the top half and other from the bottom half of a magnum, and a few of the Napa Valley Cabernets were compared against the Kronos. We had two separate bottles of 2004, so those were poured in separate glasses, as well, making for an interesting lesson in bottle variation.

Just like last year, there were no clear favorites, but together, the 16 vintages told a bigger story – a consistent beauty was strung from bottle to bottle. It’s impossible to escape the violets, dust and undertones of herbal mints that at times mixed with some chocolate (Junior Mints, anyone?).

I hit palate fatigue before the final flight. Despite my best efforts to spit and snack on the cheeses and charcuterie we prepared, by the last flight, there was nothing but the violets, dust and herbal mints coating my throat (which is certainly not a bad thing!). But there was something magical going on in the early parts of the aughts. We were told that Cathy’s favorite Kronos vintage was 2001, but 2002 and 2003 were slightly lifted from the pack for me. Whether that’s because those bottles had the right amount of age on it for my personal liking, or it was something within the vintages themselves, it’s hard to say.

It’s worth noting, however, that thanks to a very cool and rainy year – and what Cathy has called a challenging year in the vineyard – the 2011 bottle was the very definition of letting a wine speak for its vintage. It tasted significantly older – maybe by a decade – than its actual year. A bit darker and more savory than the others, but still elegant and restrained. Emanating from some of the darker more savory notes were dusty violets, which reminded one of my friends of Choward’s Violet Mints.

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Having the opportunity to taste through almost all of the Corison wines – both the Napa Valley and Kronos bottles – is truly an honor. While it’s obvious that aging these wines only brings out more complexity, more structure and more textured flavors, the trouble will always be not popping the cork too early, as they are certainly just as enjoyable now as they will be in years to come.

Discovering Maryland Natural Wine

Earlier this week, Pineapple D.C. – a networking group for women in the food community who want to connect with the “good food” movement – hosted an interesting talk on natural wine with Lisa Hinton, the winemaker for Old Westminster Winery in Maryland.

That’s right. I said Maryland. And I said natural wine.

I must admit, despite knowing that wineries exist in Maryland, it’s not something that I’ve actively explored. Not to mention, I’m a bit skeptical when someone mentions natural wine in a region not heavily experienced with vineyards and wine. Good natural wines rely so heavily on its terroir.

(While there are a million definitions of natural, and much controversy within the industry, we can probably all agree that with “minimal intervention” – no matter what the definition of minimal may be – the wine must rely heavily on the quality of the grapes, which comes from the right kind of land and climate, right?)

Does that really exist in Maryland?

At the end this two-hour discussion and tasting, Old Westminster Winery convinced me the answer is Yes.

Old Westminster Winery is a bit different than other small wineries I’ve been introduced to so far. It wasn’t so much a love of wine that sparked the three twenty-something siblings to start making wine, but a love and loyalty for family. When their parents threatened to sell the farm they grew up in, the trio searched for a solution to hold on to the property in Westminster, Md., (about an hour northwest of Baltimore) and grow it into a viable business.

Lisa graduated college with a chemistry degree, while her siblings focused on business and marketing.  After a bit of research, winemaking seemed like a  logical use of their combined talents.

While they’ve planted and harvested grapes on their own property since 2011, Lisa said about 60 percent of their fruit comes from other Maryland vineyards. In the future, that may change a bit thanks to the purchase of the Burnt Hill property in Clarksburg, Md. The land was sought out for its particular slope and soil composition.

Lisa said they’re planning on farming the land using biodynamic methods, in part because they believe in giving as much to the land before starting to take from it.

The winery has focused on making natural wines since its inception. Lisa said she defines that as low intervention wines that express both the place and time that they came from. She believes both natural and added sulfur are necessary in making wine to ensure it doesn’t turn to vinegar, and acknowledges other winemaking techniques are needed from time to time to combat mildew, mold or other issues that can vary vintage to vintage.

Wineries in Maryland have existed for decades (I even once wrote about one for The Washington Post almost 14 years ago), but it’s really been this century, when the numbers have increased significantly (take a look at the  Maryland Wine Association website, which counts about 70 established wineries between 1945 and 2014. You can see in this historical timeline, how the numbers of wineries have grown).

Perhaps the growth is hinged on the increasing success of Virginia wines? Lisa noted that the mid-Atlantic has similar climate conditions as Bordeaux, which makes growing varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon viable. Old Westminster Winery has also had luck Alberiño (a white Spanish grape) and even bringing Barbera (an Italian variety) into their red blends. The Maryland Wine Association also noted Maryland can be compared to the climates of Portugal, Spain, Southern Italy and Greece (that would make sense why the Alberiño and Barbera do well!).

In Old Westminster’s quest to make natural wines, its break-out stars are the pet nats. Wine writer Jon Bonné recently called their Albariño version an outlier among America’s great pet nats.

During the talk, we tasted one made from Syrah grapes. The cloudy peachy pink juice’s fruit rose above its effervescence backbone, making it a little too easy to drink. The other two wines poured that evening were the 2014 Anthem red blend, with a mix of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and the 2014 Channery Hill, which blends the same three grapes, with some Barbera. Both wines had a nice amount of dark fruit, a bit of anise and some slight minerality if you paid really close attention to what you were sipping. Channery Hill was slightly lighter with a bit more acid (I’m guessing we can thank the Barbera for that).

Old Westminster’s production numbers per variety are low: No more than 100 cases of each wine are made. And most are sold through their wine club or people or visit their tasting room. Experimentation remains a top value for the young winery. For example, this coming vintage, they plan to leave their wines unfiltered. If it doesn’t work the way they like, Lisa said, they’ll go back to using filters next year. Their mission is to learn how to best express the Maryland terroir.

I asked Lisa if there are any winemakers or wineries that inspire their work, but she wouldn’t answer with any specifics. She said while there are many wines she enjoys drinking, she knows attempting to mimic any of those traits would be futile to creating wines distinctive of time and place.