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Even a “natural” winemaker can’t define “natural wine”

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I haven’t been the most sympathetic guy out there when it comes to natural wines. My position all along has been that I care more about deliciousness than being politically correct, so if a winemaker has to do things to his wine that are inconsistent with being purely “natural,” then go for it.

I realize that a lot of people feel differently, though. Sometimes it seems like a red state versus blue state thing: the naturalists really dislike the “interventionists” (or whatever they’re called), while the interventionists pooh-pooh the naturalists as being driven by misplaced ideology. That’s why it was so refreshing and interesting to come across this article by a pro-naturalist winemaker, Fabio Bartolomei, who admits that the natural “movement” is really blurry and hard to define. It appeared online in the April 5 issue of the Organic Wine Journal.

Fabio’s winery is Vinos Ambiz, in Spain, which his blog describes as “Producers of natural, organic, healthful, sustainable wine.” We therefore can assume that Fabio is serious and genuine when it comes to natural wine, but he also is honest and humble enough to concede that “there’s a whole grey area” when it comes to defining what’s natural and what isn’t, and that any particular wine “may or may not be ‘natural’ depending on your definition.”

This absence of a proper definition, Fabio asserts (and I agree) may upset some people, but not Fabio. “I personally don’t [care]!,” he writes. “Life is short! Let’s just all get on with it and stop fretting.” This doesn’t mean Fabio doesn’t care how he makes his wine. All it means is that he doesn’t care about technical definitions of “natural” wine, as long as he’s free to make wine the way he wants to. Which he is.

Fabio’s last two lists–“It does/doesn’t contain the following” and “I did/didn’t do these things to it”–are the best short course in winemaker interventions I’ve ever seen. I salute his honesty and commitment. The question he raises- whether his statements would be legally permitted on the back label of his wines in America–is something I can’t answer. If he could, then would consumers demand to know what all other wines have in them, or have had done to them? We’ve already seen the beginnings of this, as for instance in this New York Magazine article.

I myself think it would be very stupid to carry this idea to its logical conclusion. For one, it would make for very big, clumsy back labels on bottles of wine. For another, it could startle a sizable number of wine consumers into shunning perfectly fine wines, just because they think that anything that sounds vaguely “chemical” must be bad for them. (People who get upset about chemical additives to food, such as preservatives, forget that food itself is nothing but a collection of chemicals.) I realize that, in this Age of Transparency, it’s probably inevitable that sooner or later wineries will be pressured into full disclosure; or perhaps the government will make them do it. However the question is, and always will be: What does the wine taste like? If it’s good, nobody should care what the winemaker did. If it’s bad or mediocre–despite being politically correct in being entirely “natural”–then would you want to drink it? That would be carrying ideology to the point of ridiculousness.

Anyhow, I really do thank Fabio for such a well-written and provocative article. I hope to someday taste his wines and then blog about how good they are–despite being natural!


How to get hired at Harlan Estate

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I have a great article coming up in a summer issue of Wine Enthusiast on Nick Gislason, the young (29) winemaker at Screaming Eagle. The following is an outtake–it’s too long to make it into the article, but it’s a really cool story that I wanted to share without having it die on what used to be called the cuttting-room floor. The back story concerns how Nick got hired as an assistant winemaker at Harlan, prior to his Screaming Eagle gig. He cold-called Harlan and was invited in for a “chat.”

SH: So [Harlan winemaker] Cory [Empting] interviews you.

NG: Exactly. So I go over to Harlan Estate to meet with Cory, and very first thing, right in the door, he says, “All right, so here’s the beginning of your interview,” and there’s a long wooden table in the middle of the room.

I know that table well.

And there’s 20 glasses of wine on the table, and they’re marked 1 through 20 on the glass, and a pad of yellow paper sitting in the middle, with a pencil, and he says, “All right, to start your interview, I’d like you to sit down and evaluate all 20 of these wines, and then I want you to pick out the top three, and then you’re going to come in the other room and tell all of us about it.”

Who was all of us?

Uhh, Paul Roberts [M.S., estate manager], Cory, and the assistant winemaker.

Bob Levy?

Bob Levy wasn’t there that day.

Bill Harlan?

Bill Harlan wasn’t there that day. So I said, All right, I’m ready to do that!

Were you nervous?

Oh, maybe for a couple seconds. But then, I settled down and remembered, this is exactly what I do, I’ve done it for years, this is just another day in the life of.

You had no idea what you were having?

He told me nothing. They were red wines.

Could have been Harlan, might not have been Harlan.

Might not have been Harlan. Could have been anything at all.

So when you go through there, what’s your thinking process?

So I had a funny feeling that it might have been some sort of winemaking trial. That would make sense. If you’re hiring someone for the cellar, you want them to be able to pick out various aspects of the wines: maybe defects–

So these would be like barrel samples?

Maybe. Yeah. So I’m sitting down and that’s my preconceived idea. And they wanted me to find what’s the defect, what’s the problem, what’s the sulfur levels, or whatever. Some technical aspect of the wines. I was going into it thinking it was a test, like that, but at the same time, didn’t really know. Could be anything. So I sit down and start going through the wines and taking my notes as fast as I can, and then Cory pops his head back into the room after about 3 or 4 minutes. He says, “Okay, are you done yet?” I said, “Oh, I need just a couple more minutes, if I could. It’s 20 wines.” And he says, “Okay, well I’ll give you five more minutes.”

And you’re taking notes, too.

Oh, yeah. Yeah, because he wants me to go through, evaluate everything, every wine, and then pick out the top three and explain why I picked those. So I said, Okay, that’s good, I’ll go through it. So, going through the wines, it seemed to me like a dichotomous group. There were some that seemed more Old World to me, more like Bordeaux in particular, oyster shell character, a little leaner, little more taut than I would expect in Napa. And then there’s definitely some Napa in there, big, rich fruit, larger tannin, this type of thing. But I had no idea. It could have been anything in the world. So, to make a long story short, went through the wines, they were all very good, picked out the top three for me, went into the next room, and he says, “Okay, so what do you think was number one?” I said, “Well, it was #16, and I thought it was the best because of x, y and z.” And they were all on the table in bags. So number one, he pulls out, is Futo, which is their neighboring property. So he sets it on the table with sort of a grim look on his face. He kind of purses his lips and says, “Okay, well, what was number two?” I said, “Well, okay, I thought this was second best, because of x, y, z, very gorgeous wine, a little different from number one, but I liked it because of this.” He pulls it out of the bag, it was Bryant Family. And he knew I had also applied up there, and one of his premises about hiring someone for the cellar is they needed to be very passionate about Harlan wine to work there. So suddenly, the pressure’s on. And when he sets the Bryant Family on the table, he shakes his head, and with a very serious look on his face, he says, “You’re not doing so well, son.” I thought, Oh, okay, here we go. He says, “All right, well, what’s number three?” And I said, “Well, number three, very different from the first two, I liked it very much for structure, this, that and the other. I felt it was number three for me.” Pulled it out of the bag, and it was the Harlan Estate.

Whew!

Exactly! He says, “All right, I guess top three will work.”

EPILOGUE: Later that same day, I [Steve] ran into Cory Empting and asked him about Nick’s interview. He grinned and said, “Very expensive tasting!” Half the wines indeed had been top Bordeaux, as Nick had divined.


Putting a face on your brand

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I came across this YouTube the other day of Michael Mondavi being interviewed by a guy in Italy about wine blogs. Among other things, Michael said: “… my daughter and her friends do not look at Wine Spectator, Decanter. They get emails from friends…they go to the blog…it’s interactive…and they trust the blogs more than they trust the critics and magazines.”

It’s nice to see a guy of Michael’s age give props to the blogs. It’s not always easy for a Baby Boomer to “get it.” But then, Michael is the eldest son of Robert Mondavi, and nobody in the history of wine better understood just how the intricate mechanisms of marketing, P.R. and technology mesh than Bob. I don’t know how much Robert Mondavi knew about the Internet before he died, in 2008 at the age of 94. He’d been in failing health for some time. But I suspect that, had he been physically able, Bob would have been deeply involved online today, especially in videos. He was deeply photogenic, even into old age, and he had a playful, natural way of interacting with the camera, as this YouTube shows. Michael, in his welcoming video on the website of his Folio Fine Wine Partners, seems a bit more self-conscious compared to his father’s effortless ease. Michael’s younger brother, Tim, shows more of his father’s geniality in videos; check out this YouTube as an example. At any rate, it’s probably unfair to compare the sons to the father. Robert was, literally, incomparable.

What Robert got, and what Michael was referring to, was the importance to a vintner of establishing a personal relationship with his customers. Of course, that relationship isn’t really “personal” the way I have personal relationships with my family, friends and neighbors. You don’t really “meet” anyone through the media. My 2,500 Facebook “friends” are friends only in a strictly defined sense of the word. But Robert Mondavi knew that a bottle of wine that has a face, place and personality associated with it will stand a better chance of being bought than one that floats anonymously in a vast sea of bottles. So much the better once a name becomes branded, and no name in the history of American wine has been more potently or successfully branded than that of “Robert Mondavi.” That the company over-extended its brand, leading ultimately to its demise, takes nothing away either from Robert Mondavi’s astuteness (or our appreciation of it), or from his legacy, which teaches us that branding is the essential cornerstone of business success. It’s not possible, obviously, for every winery to have a face as iconic as Robert Mondavi’s; and I suspect that most winery principles would not want their faces out there, the way Robert’s was. Robert was, in some respects, a performer. He used to remind me of a Vaudevillian, an old trooper whose philosophy could be expressed as “The show must go on.” No matter how he was feeling, when it came time for him (and his wife, Margrit) to go onstage, they squared their shoulders and rose to the occasion.

With all the talk nowadays about whether and how much a winery person should tweet, Facebook, blog and all the rest, I wonder why more winery owners and winemakers don’t become the face of their brands. We humans are above all a visual species; before we had invented reading and writing, we used our eyes to scan what was in front of us, telling friend from foe, truth teller from liar. Humans have not changed, only technology. Which California winemakers are doing the best job of getting their faces out there and symbolizing their brands? I’d like to hear your suggestions.


New Hall of Fame inductees, and a commentary

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I’m asked to nominate people every year for induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, but I never do, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s my aversion to groups, I don’t know. Anyhow, this year’s inductees were just announced, and I’d like to pay them hommage.

Peter Mondavi, Sr. Of course he belongs there, and it’s good that they put him in while Mr. Mondavi is still around to see it. He never was as famous as his older brother, Robert, but Mr. Mondavi truly is a living legend in Napa Valley, and it’s wonderful that the family has managed to retain ownership of Charles Krug Winery this long, while so many others have sold out to corporate interests or gone belly up. Here’s hoping Mr. Mondavi and his famous twinkle in the eye remain with us for many years to come.

Joe Heitz. People can quibble about what the first boutique winery and cult California wine were. For my money, it was Heitz, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the hottest wine in America for two decades; a great year, such as 1968 and 1974, set auction records. Heitz Cellars may not be as standout as it once was, but Joe Heitz, who started it all, deserves this recognition.

Myron Nightingale. He was Beringer’s chief winemaker for a long time, and trained his successor, Ed Sbragia, who brought Beringer to its highest highs during the 1990s. Mr. Nightingale less famously pioneered the use of the botrytis spore in the laboratory to artificially produce the dessert wine, called Nightingale in his honor, that is one of the best in California.

Richard Sanford. For my money, the most obvious choice this year. A Hall of Fame inductee should be a true pioneer, and Mr. Sanford is one of the most pioneering winemakers California has produced in the last two generations. He (and his former partner, Michael Benedict) practically invented the Santa Rita Hills appellation, planting its first grapes (at their Sanford & Benedict Vineyard) and early establishing its reputation for Pinot Noir. Mr. Sanford and his wife, Thekla, nowadays own and run the Alma Rosa Winery, continuing his still evolving legacy in Santa Barbara County.

John Parducci. Parducci Wine Cellars dates to 1933, the year Prohibition ended and so many new wineries sprang up. The winery has had its ups and downs, with the Parducci family eventually selling it, but Mr. Parducci has remained active in a number of ventures. He really helped put Mendocino County on the wine map.

With 2012’s five new inductees, the Vintners Hall of Fame now has 38 members. Only two of them are women: Zelma Long and Carol Meredith. I’m not smart enough to calculate that as a batting average (do you divide 2 by 38? 38 by 2?), but a major league baseball player would be returned to the minors if he was 2 for 38 (unless he was a pitcher. Timmy Lincecum AKA The Freak was 5 for 61 this year, for an average of .082). Granted that California (and the wine industry in general) has been female-weak for nearly all of its history, it’s still bizarre that the Hall of Fame can’t improve on this inequality. Maybe it’s partly my fault for not nominating anyone. Right off the top of my head, I can come up with suitable candidates, starting with Margrit Mondavi. And if a relatively young winemaker like Randall Grahm can be inducted (2010), how about Marimar Torres, Heidi Barrett, Genevieve Janssens, Margo van Staaveren, Merry Edwards? What about academics, like Linda Bisson and Ann Noble? Would anyone truly object to Julia Child, even though she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a wine person? I mean, neither was Gerald Asher (2009). While Mr. Asher was a wine writer while Ms. Child was a food writer, still, Ms. Child’s contributions to wine, via her books and T.V. shows, were stronger and more lasting than Mr. Asher’s, profound as his have been.


“Natural wine” — the latest trend

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What is “natural wine”?

Well, if you Google the term (with quote marks) you get 307,000 results, and I’m not about to go through them all the find out. Instead, I’ll quote from Wikipedia, which is the first result: “Natural wine is wine made with minimal chemical and technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wine.”

That sounds pretty good. Who wants wine that’s been degraded by chemicals and technological interventions?

Like barrels. Like sulfur. Like fining agents. Like commercial yeast. Like acidity. If you’re in France, like sugar. Yes, sugar is a chemical, last time I checked. Here’s the formula for sucrose: C12H22O11

That’s a lot of yucky carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. I don’t want no feelthy atoms messing up my wine!

I started thinking along these lines when I read this article in our local free paper, the Bay Guardian, about “the high priestess of natural wines,” Alice Feiring. Now, I don’t know Alice and I haven’t read her new book (Naked Wine) and so this is not a commentary on her but rather just my (somewhat disorganized) thoughts on reading this particular article, and putting it together with other stuff I’ve been hearing and reading about concerning natural wine.

In the wine biz, if you stick around long enough you’ll come to recognize when a new trend pops out of nowhere. Natural wine is a new trend–or, let me rephrase that. Natural wine–the actual beverage–is not a new trend, but talking up natural wine is the new trend. Actually, that’s what makes a trend: suddenly people are talking about it. Organic was a trend a while back (“natural wine” has little to do with organic wine). Then came biodynamic. There are equivalents in food. Locovore is a big trend, and possibly an important one, but there also have been silly food trends, like “beds” of this or that, and foam, and elaborate constructions that look more like museum pieces than something you’re supposed to eat. Possibly, “meat” cocktails are a new trend. Hot young mixologists as our new rock stars may be a trend, although it’s not necessarily one I oppose. So you see that trends can span the gamut from the vital to the vacuous; the one thing they have going for them is buzz, which is why God invented publicists.

But I digress. The topic is natural wine. Let us gently dispose of the concept that no chemicals or technologies should ever be allowed to tarnish a wine. Under that definition, the only natural wines are those which are created when birds puncture grapeskins on the vine, and then the juice inside ferments with wild yeasts to produce wine that those same birds sometimes get drunk on. That’s natural wine. Any wine that comes in a bottle is not “natural” because a human made it and did what he or she had to to make it taste good. And you and I won’t necessarily know what that entailed, because the winemaker isn’t necessarily going to tell us. If the winemaker says the wine is “natural” you’re free to believe whatever you want. Sometimes what winemakers say is true. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s not that they’re liars. They just human beings, and occasionally a small sin of omission just can’t be resisted.

Besides, some wine that’s made “naturally” isn’t very good. There are a few so-called “natural” wineries listed in the article. I’ve reviewed some of them; they vary from undrinkable to pretty good. But here’s the context you need to understand about this natural wine trendy thing: the reason this article is in the Bay Guardian is because anything with the word “natural” stuck to it is going to be popular with the greenie Whole Foods crowd (just as anything with the word “chemicals” attached to it will arouse their ire). If there’s a trend happening anywhere on the political/environmental left, it’s going to find its way into the Bay Guardian, whose editors like such things, and are happy to pay reporters to write about glowingly.


Winery highlight: Favia

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I met Andy Erickson when I was at Dalla Valle researching an upcoming story for Wine Enthusiast. Andy is DV’s winemaker and was, until recently, Screaming Eagle’s. He told me he and his wife, Annie, have their own personal brand, Favia, and when I expressed interest in tasting the wines, he said I’d have to check with Annie (who’s last name is Favia).

Now there’s a properly trained husband!

I did, and she was cool about it. So last week Andy and Annie drove down here to the East Bay and we had lunch at the Chez Panisse cafe, where they poured two of their Favia wines, the 2008 La Magdalena and 2008 Cerro Sur.

I don’t feature very many individual wineries here on the blog, but Andy and Annie’s story is a good one. The couple met in 1995, made a little wine together in 1996, and wed in 1998. Annie got her degree in viticulture and has had a stellar career, doing stints at Cathy Corison and Newton, with John Kongsgaard. She also did the replanting at Screaming Eagle. Andy began his wine career working at the barrel producer, Sequin Moreau, but, realizing he wanted to make wine, went to U.C. Davis, got his master’s in enology, and went on to work everywhere from Saintsbury to Spotteswood, Harlan/BOND and Staglin. Andy was, in effect, the Cabernet Sauvignon king of Napa Valley, while Annie was one of the valley’s most extraordinary viticulturalists.

In other words, just your ordinary young Napa power couple.

In 2003, Andy  left Staglin to be a consulting winemaker. His path took him to Ovid, Dancing Hares, Arietta and Hartwell, as well as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle. It was Dalla Valle, and specifically Andy’s love for Maya, the Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend off the estate, that led to the creation of Favia.

Andy: “Maya is what drew me into Cabernet Franc.” Annie: “Dalla Valle is the wine Andy wanted to make.”

The 2008 La Magdelena is 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2008 Cerro Sur increases the Cabernet Franc to 70% while reducing the Cab Sauv to 30%. The grapes come from different places–Magdalena from the foot of Spring Mountain, Cerro Sur from the valley’s southeastern hills, above Wooden Valley–so it’s not quite fair to compare them strictly on a basis of varietal percentage. But it’s fair to say that Cerro Sur is a bigger, richer, more tannic and spicier wine, while Magdalena is sexy and voluptuous. Both wines are awesomely delicious, and if I were scoring them on Wine Enthusiast’s 100-point scale, which I’m not, they’d rate well into the 90s. (Both retail for $120.)

I like it when people take creative and entrepreneurial risks to do their own thing. No doubt that Andy could do quite well continuing to be an in-demand consulting winemaker, with that roster of stellar names on his resume. Ditto for Annie, who, having trained with David Abreu, could probably develop any vineyard she wanted to, for an appropriate price. But they have their eyes on the prize: their own brand. It’s not easy, not even for these two talented young people. They still have to get out there and sell the wine. But when the wine is that good, it’s hard for sommeliers to say no. Favia is represented in some of the country’s greatest restaurants, including Per Se, French Laundry and Momofuko.


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