Jack Off All Wines, Master Of None

The titular pun is ‘me all over’—as immature as sniggering at the word ‘titular’.

Bob Campbell, MW, Esq.

Bob Campbell, MW, Esq.

From time to time, of course—snarky, sarkie satirical sibilance aside—those of us whose lowly role in this veil of tears and sin is wine critiquery (not wine mastery) may pause in our daily toil to ponder some odd, seemingly unsupportable statement made by one of our betters.

In this case, our better being Bob Campbell, MW, who led off a recent blog with this declarative:

“Few people would argue that Chardonnay and Riesling produce the world’s finest white wines.”

For starters, I would. But then again, I’ve always been among the few, the brave, the contrary.

But then again again, I do not presume to have mastered wine to the same mastery level as a wine master like Bob.

Bondage,_Gag_&_BlindfoldSo, when Campbell, MW, says that ‘few people would argue’, I assume he means that few people would dare argue, because if my sado-masochistic bondage fetish is actually a microcosm of reality—and I see no reason to assume that it isn’t—we are all either Masters or Slaves in a consensual, structured authority-exchange relationship, and if we don’t wear the MW after our name, we might as well attach a sheepish, submissive ‘SW’ to indicate our subjugation and obedience.

Unless one is into ménages à trois, in which case, we have crossed into kink territory that likely has its own set of rules, and thus deserves its own wine column.

thai modelFor now, let us say that what Campbell MW really, truly means is that lay people should not argue with him about which wines to tie-one-on with that may be finer than Chardonnay or Riesling; lay people should argue about which Thai model is the finest to tie up and lay.

So, back to the Bob blog.

I Ain’t Back-Sassin’, Massah Bob; Honest Injun

submissive slaveNot ‘arguing’, promise. But it occurs to me that Chateau d’Yquem, which contains neither Chardonnay nor Riesling, has reeled in perfect Parker scores for five vintages—the latest 2009—but it also occurs to me that Parker has a ‘JR’ after his name, not an ‘MW’.

Then there is Robert Voss, without any piggyback letters at all.  In Wine Enthusiast, his highest rated wines in Alsace—a region which has taken Riesling to spectacular heights—are Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2000, Selection des Grains Nobles Clos Jebsal Pinot Gris and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2000, Vendange Tardive Grand Cru Clos Saint Urbain Gewurztraminer.

Tie me to the whipping post, Vickie.

Tie me to the whipping post, Vickie.

Victoria Moore’s 2014 year-end ten recommendations in The Telegraph does indeed include a Chardonnay and a Riesling (one each), along with eight wines that are neither.  Her interesting list contained a Verdicchio,a Picpoul, a Malagousia, a Gros manseng, an Albariño, a Chenin blanc, a Pinot bianco and a Sauvignon blanc.

She may be no Master of Wine, but Moore is always a mistress of not thinking like every other wine geek.

Decanter’s ‘Top 100 Wines To Try Before You Die’ is considerably less imaginative (#1 = 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild = yawn), but the top ten is no more Chard/Riesling heavy than Victoria Moore’s.   In fact, there’s one Chardonnay, 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet (more yawn), and no Rieslings, but coming in at #4, above 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A and the Montrachet is our old pal d’Yquem 1921, an  equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc.

High-Camp Whores

Master Bob seems to be echoing the current trendy scenester sentiment; that is, that Chardonnay—once maligned by the Anything But Chardonnay hipster-dipster crowd (which nobody wants to belong to)—deserves some sort of a renaissance.

Sideways-Movie-Dump-BucketProblem is, then, as now, supermarket shelves are top-heavy with dull, mute, often sweet Chardonnays that people came to enjoy and see—since it wasn’t Blue Nun or jugs of Paisano—as sort of sophisticated. And so, in the original anti-Chardonnay movement (like the Merlot mudslingers who traipsed behind that awful flick Sideways like camp whores), it became sort of campy hip to hate the wines that the lesser hip considered ‘their’ hip.  Of course, Bob is now coming across as high-camp hip, where you decide you actually love what regular campy hip people think is non-hip.  Thus life becomes an ever expanding/contracting continuum of hippery and anti-hippery where everyone jockies for position and changes their minds while trying to crest the wave of assuming that whatever somebody thought was hip ten minutes ago cannot possibly be hip now.

And trust me, droogies, since in that cycle you want to come out on top, stick with me and I’ll see that you get there.

'Jack of tirades, master of Nun.'

‘Jack of tirades, master of Nun.’

Likewise Riesling.  For a generation Reisling was pooh-poohed by cognoscenti-ish wannabes as sweet and simple, thanks mostly to the infusion of sweet, simple sugar-water that flooded the late-last-century market disguised as Riesling.  Because the grape was then so universally associated with Germany, it was assumed by American consumers that everything that came out of Germany, including kitschy Liebfraumilch, must be some incarnation of the grape.  In fact, these wines were primarily Sylvaner or Müller-Thurgau, and even today, the Riesling that does make it into Black Tower or Goldener Oktober is of the quality you’d expect in something mass-produced for a demographic that won’t spend more than six bucks on a bottle of wine.

The Prophet

The Prophet

Now—as penduli are wont to do—the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and people like Stuart Piggott, who I respect (when he’s not referring to himself as ‘a prophet in the wilderness’) has taken the hyperbolic claptrap to an interstellar extreme with ‘The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story’, more or less breaking the first of his own educational imperatives, ‘The Five Commandments of Wine’:  ‘A wine is as good or bad as it tastes and smells to you.’

That’s a bit like rewriting Moses’ First Commandment as, ‘I am the Lord, Thy God, and thou shalt have no other gods before me—except if you don’t like me, in which case, go with one of those badass Nordic deities or that bloodthirsty Babalu that even Ricky Ricardo is afraid of.’

Look, Riesling makes some excellent wine, especially when all the stars align a few times a century; no credible wine writer would say otherwise.  Chardonnay too, provided you have the requisite Goldilocks conditions, which basically nobody does.  Otherwise, these varietals, which are not particularly difficult to grow, produce oceans of forgettable wine almost everywhere they’re planted, with a few pockets—Côte de Beaune, Rheingau, Sonoma, Finger Lakes—as the exceptions to prove the rule.

chateau-grillet-bottle-shotOf course, you can make the same claim about Chenin blanc—and devotees of Domaine Huët Cuvée Constance Vouvray do.   Try telling a Condrieu-aholic that the two hundred dollars he just spent on  Château-Grillet 2012 would have been better spent in Walla Walla or Central Hawke’s Bay.  And nobody with any number of letters after their name, MW, MS, MD, Ph.D, DScPT or OB/GYN, tells a Sauternes-o-phile that the finest white wine in the world is missing a ‘Château’ in front of its name.

I’m not a Master of Wine, but—not to be too uppity here—I have developed a certain mastery of English lexicon, and I can tell Bob, you and the wall that there’s a world of difference between saying ‘the world’s finest white wines’ and saying, ‘some of the world’s finest white wines.

Like, one can be argued and the other can’t.


‘Okay, argue-break is over; back to the lower forty.’  – Chris Kassel, SW



Posted in GENERAL | 4 Comments

Dan Matthies and Chateau Fontaine: Please Exit Through The Gift Shop

I want you to take the following statement with a grain of salt, and then I want to sell you a desalination plant:

Salesmen are born, not made—and Don Matthies was born to be a salesman.

Dan Matthies show his mettle with metal medals.

Dan Matthies show his mettle with metal medals.

Whether he is hawking real estate, cheese balls, SX 92 Equipe ski boots, wall mounted cork-holders, Who Doesn’t Drink Alone? coasters or bottles of ‘multi-gold award winning’ Chateau Fontaine Woodland Red, the pitch is the same: All superlatives all the time.

Because that’s what salesmen do.

Which should not be construed as a bad thing. It’s just sort of an unusual thing up here in backwater wine country, miles from big city lights and Zig Ziglar’s hunting grounds; up here, a lot of the attitudes are self-effacing, a lot of the winemakers are debilitatingly shy and a lot of their wares are so excellent and scarce that they sell themselves.

This is the kind of vigneron I tend to encounter, here in Michigan and all over the globe: Gruff, taciturn guys with dirty hands, planted feet and tied tongues.

And then there’s Dan; Leelanau’s answer to Dale Carnegie, Willy Loman, Ron Popeil and George Babbitt—Barnum & Bailey rolled into one. Again, this is not a pejorative: As e.e. cummings once quipped, ‘Damn everything but the circus.’

monks meadowIt is, however, a fact:  Chateau Fontaine’s tasting room doubles as a crafty country general tchotchke emporium, carrying everything from bird feeders to drink mixers, and although the space is top-heavy with remnants of the scores of prizes that Dan Matthies has won over the years (many of them remarkably prestigious), I was directed to the winery by someone who claimed it was her favorite stop on the peninsula, not for the back-to-back George Rose Awards (Finger Lakes Competition) for the Best Riesling in the World, but for the gourmet cheese ball that Matthies serves in measured, complimentary portions to guests—then sells them a pack of Monk’s Meadow Cheese Ball Seasoning Mix so they can make their own.

Creating the niche, then filling it is key to the Dan Matthies character, and you can tell that he loves every second of it.  A personality quirk that becomes obvious the first time you meet him is how he couches the comparative consequence of his conversation in body lingo:  The more important the thing he is about to tell you is, the closer in he moves toward you—spider and fly—and the softer his voice becomes.  You feel like you are party to a special marketing campaign designed for your ears only—the old ‘For anybody else, this is ten bucks. For you…”

fatThat’s the point that you know you are seeing him in top form; you can tell he’s totally, irrevocably in his element. And of course, like any successful motivational speaker, the commodity that Dan Matthies likes selling most of all is Dan Matthies.

And here’s where the plot gets thicker than the ankles on a Cedar polka princess…

But no desalination plant salesman worth his salt would get to the plot thickener without the story’s beginning, so here it is:

'So long; don't let your sugar loaf...'

‘So long; don’t let your sugar loaf…’

Four decades ago, Dan Matthies was a banker in Saginaw who was good enough on the ski slopes that world-class Sugar Loaf Mountain Resort—then the largest employer in Leelanau County—hired him to teach new techniques to affluent ski-club bums.  It was a seasonal gig, but true to form, Matthies saw the niche and filled it: He abandoned city banks for snow banks, stayed and opened a ski shop inside the Sugar Loaf lodge.

And, like Navin R. Johnson discovering his ‘special purpose’, it was off to the slalom:  “It was a gold mine,” Matthies smiles; and indeed, the string of blue ribbons that he has won throughout his career began soon enough when he was awarded Ski Retailer of the Year for selling the most equipment from the smallest space.

Alas, the resort’s ownership was operating on a lesser grade of business acumen than he was, and in 1998, reading the handwriting on the bunny slope, Matthies packed up his Rossignol snowboards and K2 twin tips and went home.

Stan Howell

Stan Howell

Fortunately, by that point home included some fertile acres of Leelanau, and when Matthies saw an ad in the Leelanau Enterprise looking for people willing to grow wine grapes, the light bulb of opportunity again went off in his eyes.  G. Stanley Howell, head of MSU’s horticulture program, came to check out the property, ran some tests and pronounced it, “Possibly the best site in the state of Michigan to grow vinifera.”

That must have been music to the ears of someone with a nose for taste, huh?  In 1987, Matthies went into the viticulture business, hand-planting five acres to Chardonnay for which he found a ready market among a growing group of winemakers looking for a group of growers.  Those were early days, and his first customers included Larry Mawby and Bruce Simpson at Good Harbor.

That saw him through a decade or so, and then—like a few growers have done since—he worked the math and saw that if he was going to stay in the business, the only thing that made even a modicum of financial sense was to go full monty and make the stuff himself.  Figure that if, in the year 2000 (when he opened his tasting room), a ton of Chardonnay grapes was worth around a thousand dollars, and that from that ton, somebody was making around 750 bottles of wine, even with the requisite overhead investment he was leaving a lot of cash on the table. To a man with his entrepreneurial savvy, it seemed to be the only way to go; the way proven out by the fact that he sold out his initial 750 case run within two months—due in part to Dan’s Salesmanship Merit Badge and in part to the undeniable fact that his wines were—and are—first rate.

merit badgeSo, back to the thickened plot.  Dan Matthies is the sort of eccentric, personality-laden, self-promoting, fun-to-write-about wine talent that forms the core of an appellation compilation such as this one:  He’s an integral part of the show, there from the beginning, consulting with the top names and providing them raw material—someone, in short, who helped define the essence of Northern Michigan wine.

And yet, despite his evident mastery of the marketing metric, the ABCs—‘always be closing’—he was mysteriously unavailable for an interview every… time… I tried.

glen arbor sunWhat I got instead was a Matthies press kit, which is cool—I suppose, in some bizarre alternative universe, I’m a member of the press.  But I really don’t hold interviews like that.  I like to sit with the subject, get down and dirty (even if half of it winds up being off-the-record), watch reactions, drive quotes, gauge personality.  After all, I write character studies more than wine reviews, and as such, I don’t care for interviews conducted over the phone let alone over puff pieces in the Glen Arbor Sun.

But, like a vineyard manager trying to lay down canes and survive another brutal onslaught from Old Man Grand Traverse County Winter, one works with the tools one is given.

French Road Cellars

French Road Cellars

Chateau Fontaine, the property, was the first significant investment Dan Matthies made in Leelanau; at 27, he stumbled across an old potato farm on French Road whose south-facing slopes were so steep that growers used to roll the harvest down them.  This was the soil of which Stan Howell became so enamored, and today, it forms the nucleus of the Fontaine estate.  Intimately involved in the estate’s management is Dan’s wife Lucie and his son Doug, who is also the owner of French Road Cellars, Michigan’s first custom crush facility.  This concept, currently booming Napa and Sonoma, allows a start-up winery access to equipment to crush, bottle, label and ship wines from a single location without investing in bricks, mortar or stainless steel.  Thus, a winemaker-wannabe with stars and dollar signs in his or her eye (along with the umbra of common sense) can create a market for their wine prior to taking out a second mortgage out on the house.  Although Dan, who also runs Dan Matthies Peninsula Properties, Inc , could probably arrange that for you.

Dan and Charlie

Dan and Charlie

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chateau Fontaine continues to rack up more ribbons than a Bavarian maypole. Most of the fifteen labels currently available have taken home prizes at some point, many of them gold, some of them double gold; beside the nonpareil Riesling two-peat at the Finger Lakes Competition, the trophy case is filled with dozens of awards from dozens of award bestowers, and no Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition would be complete without at least one Chateau Fontaine wine standing on the top tier of a category podium.  Having washed down a cheese ball with some of this year’s entries, I’m just as sure that Chateau Fontaine will continue to crest the Leelanau wine wave in 2015 as I am that this chapter will not become part of the Dan Matthies press package.

But that’s cool—Bel Lago’s Charlie Edson refers to Dan Matthies as ‘a consummate gentlemen’ and I have no reason to improve on that assessment.

dan pouringAnd speaking of consuming, don’t take my word for it: Make a point of stopping by the winery to feel for yourself Dan’s magnetic sales persona.  Allow him to draw you in; watch him as he circles closer, making you feel like you are the only taster on earth.  Only then, when you’re suitably charmed, inveigled, hooked, have you had the genuine Chateau Fontaine experience.

‘Thanks for your patronage; please exit through the gift shop.’

Posted in Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Willow Chardonnay With Humble P

cramptonWhen you reach the top of the gravelly incline that leads to Willow Vineyards, you are confronted with the most iconic view of Northern Michigan wine country that exists. Grape vines tumble down a fertile slope to a line of stately pines, beyond which the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay sparkles off towards Old Mission Peninsula. This is the visual that leads countless stories about Michigan wine; this is the background for selfies and group shots for nearly everyone who stops in; this is the ‘scenic outlook’ that makes visitors from Sonoma, from Tuscany, from Bordeaux say, “Ah, I see what you mean…”

In short, this is the money shot.

bottlesAs for precisely how much money that shot cost, John Crampton doesn’t want to say.  He tends to be a humble guy, unwilling to brag, ready to spread credit through ‘the team’ as evenly as compost in the vineyard.  That goes especially for winemaker Chris Guest and John’s wife Jo, who (he reminds me several times in the course of the morning) came up with label monikers like Sweet Rain Chardonnay and Roadtrip Riesling—and further, that if you’re thinking of nicking the names, they’re copyrighted.

He’ll also point out that thirty years ago, when he first bought the property (then Hawkins Dairy pastureland), Jo made more money waiting tables than he did renting out the handful of cottages he bought at the same time.  This was before growing grapes occurred to him, although, after spending some time working for a pre-sparkling wine focused Larry Mawby, he realized that his windswept hillside, primarily clay in an appellation that is mostly sand, might produce varietals with a unique take on Leelanau terroir.

You choose...

You choose

These were early days in the industry, and when he opened Willow in 1998, it was only the fifth winery on the peninsula.

Thus, as you might imagine, he bought the property primarily for the paradigmatic perspective, and unlike several of the wineries that have opened and closed doors since, the perspective remains.

As to how much that perspective set him back, again he obfuscates, though ultimately he points to the car I rented for the drive north and says, “Less than that Fiat 500 cost Enterprise.”

Humility is an aspect of ego that I encounter frequently when interviewing winery owners; generally, it is feigned and fairly transparent.  With Crampton, I read it as genuine.  A somewhat slightly built fellow with the big handshake of a man who’s spent his life doing outdoor labor, he’s someone who understands that in the larger flow of things, we’re nothing but workaday pogues working to put wine on our family’s table—it’s just that some of us make it better than others.

Apparently, no need to choose

Apparently, no need to choose

It may not have been wine that lured the Cramptons north, but it was certainly the north that lured them north.  John had an uncle who ran a Bible camp south of Traverse City and he spent summers here as a kid, getting a dose of Jesus and fly fishing that hooked him as securely as a Camtec in a brook trout’s maw.

“Up here,” he says with wistful reverence, “is the only place I ever really wanted to live.”

And live he does, in the sort of fantasy low-key winery existence that a lot of us dream about.  He produces about a thousand cases of wine a year, mostly Chardonnay, Pinot gris and Pinot noir, mostly around $20 per bottle and all so soundly produced that the Cramptons sell every drop they make out of the Willow tasting room.  That eliminates the need for distribution and the attendant headaches, and since he is perfectly satisfied with that output, it scuttles the need to search out expansion capital.

Vines in winter

Vines in winter

Of course, margins in that particular business model tent to be razor thin, and the genuine humility borne by the industry is in the vineyard: Two barbarous winters back to back left the eight acres Crompton has planted to grapes considerably worse for the wear.  In fact, in early May, the vines showed no sign of life to my layman’s eye, although John pointed out some vine bleeding—an osmotic process through which organic acids, hormones, minerals and sugars are forced up from the root system—and, and if you squat down with a magnifying glass and a hearty dose of optimism, the beginning of bud break.

“We’ll have to wait to see how the season unfolds,” he confessed.  “I really can’t say how well they’ll produce this year.”

For many northern winemakers, the days of 100% estate wines are gone in all but the most spectacular of vintages.  Figure that a harvest of 2½ tons of grapes per acre results in about 150 cases of wine; eight acres at that yield would be 1200 cases, which is about what Willow produces.  If yields are less, you either make less or buy grapes from somebody else.

Mother Nature Jr.

Mother Nature Jr.

To Crampon’s credit, the grapes he purchases are contracted from other Leelanau vineyards, so he remains true to the terroir he helped define.  Still, this is the point where even those overblown wine business egos must genuflect to the fickle finger of fate.  The climate at Michigan’s 45th Parallel treats winemakers like bugs in a Mason jar: Mother Nature is experimenting with men like John Crampton as much as they are experimenting with her.

“If you are going to farm up here, you’d better know your way to your knees,” he says.  “But we’re dealing with the earth, and the earth should be like that.”

True to his word, Crampton says that he’s willing to replant the whole eight acres if last winter proves to have been too much—but with lessons learned: “I’d keep the vines lower to the ground—a cover of snow insulates them against the colder temperatures that blow in from the Bay if it freezes over.”

But that point may be moot.  There’s an old saying that I just made up:  “Old winemakers never die, they just cash in the view.”

So you wanna buy a vineyard...?

So you wanna buy a vineyard…?

Indeed, Willow has been for sale for a while now, and I suspect that is one of the reasons why the tasting room lineup—which I remember as being strictly Burgundy varietals—has expanded to include Riesling and rosé (which, though made from Pinot noir, expands the portfolio as does the erstwhile mentioned, fully-trademarked mind you, Sweet Rain: slightly sweetened Chardonnay).

How much would that archetypal overlook  cost you?  Again, Crampton shies from precise numeration; he says that if you’re interested, talk to his realtor.

But if I was a betting man, I’d say that if the price he paid was less than my Fiat 500, today it’s worth more than Fiat’s North American division.

Posted in Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coach Long-Hair: Brian Hosmer and The Open Door Policy

Sometimes I think of Michigan winemakers as my children, even those who are old enough to be my parents. That’s because I began writing about Michigan wine when most of the current crop of concerns were barely gleams in some wannabe’s eye, and I followed all but about four Northern Michigan winemakers through birthing pains, watched them take tentative first steps, shadowed them through adolescent angst, tried to be kind, not cruel when they insisted on  cotton candy and bubble gum esters in their Riesling.

Now, I take great and entirely undeserved pride in seeing them mature and produce wines I can brag about to people in Sonoma and Burgundy.

Coach Longhair

Coach Longhair

Brian Hosmer is one of those kids.  When I filed my first wine story back in some other century, he was barely through puberty, still getting his badonkadonk kicked for wearing the wrong color of Starter jacket in his north Flint hood.  For those unfamiliar with this bizarre chunk of incorporated dystopia, named the most dangerous city in America by Forbes Magazine in 2013, Flint is not necessarily known as a breeding ground for winemakers.  In fact, Hosmer grew up in a teetotaling household, and outside his front door, if it didn’t come in 40 oz. bottles, his friends didn’t want to know about it.

“Malt liquor was the only alcohol I had access to,” he says.  “And since I didn’t like it, I didn’t drink.”

He stumbled into enology via the renowned MSU program—rural agriculture seemed to be the polar opposite of the horror stories of urban violence told to him by his police officer uncle and social worker aunt.  Still, he admits, when he first signed up for ag classes as a post graduate with a somewhat useless degree in environmental studies, everyone assumed he was trying to grow pot: Now there’s a career move.

Clipboard hippeAnd God bless his dear soul, Brian Hosmer looks like someone who would grow pot.  He looks like someone who would get mugged over a designer jacket, too.  In fact, he looks like that hippie teacher in Beavis & Butthead who goes on about ‘feelings’ and ends every sentence, “M’kay?”

But appearances are deceiving, and Brian is one of the most gifted winemakers in Northern Michigan.  He approaches his craft with intellectual reverence, and is living proof that winemakers on the brink of viticultural oblivion can not only be better than their fruit, they frequently have to be.

Chateau Chantal

Chateau Chantal

The day I stopped by Chateau Chantal, where Hosmer has been making wine since 2007, he dragged me down into the crypt to show off seven barrels of Auxerrois from the previous vintage.  Each one was burbling away under the influence of various strains of yeast, Hosmer’s technical and aesthetic compulsion.  When a harvest of grapes comes into a winery, a number of qualities are considered to gauge fruit quality: Sugar density, acid content, any evidence of fungal infection from the vineyard.  Several adjustments can be made at this point, and one of the most important decisions a winemaker makes is the yeast isolate which will be employed to ferment the must.  There are thousands available, and each acts upon the juice in ways that differ slightly or dramatically, depending on the final goal.  Safe to say that each one produces a wine with unique characteristics.

These are the differences that Hosmer was measuring, largely by experimentation, with his Auxerrois—a varietal which is showing striking promise in Northern Michigan.

“Yeasts are one way that I can add complexity to wine in a way that is controllable,” he says.  “The layers settle in over time.”



In fact, each of the Auxerrois barrels we sampled had profiles that were distinct and individual.  Some carried the unmistakable scent of fresh grapefruit, others drew forth tropical notes of banana and mango; in still others, the clean, crisp aroma of apple arose.  Mouthfeel was different in each of them and some, had I been blind tasting, I would never have identified as Auxerrois.  Since all the juice went into cold storage with roughly the same characteristics, this stratification of flavors is primarily due to the yeast.

And this is a fairly recent discovery, too.  For most of winemaking history, winemakers didn’t even know what yeast was, let alone how various strains would modify results.  But as it happens, these days, there are entire catalogues filled with alpha-numerical, fancy-named yeast types, each promising various repercussions.  It’s due to the fact that fermentation is a process by which yeast consumes sugar to produce alcohol, and some strains use different quantities of enzymes or esters along the way.

So while we tasted, we compared notes, as Brian explained the sort of styles he was going for in each.

One of the Hosmer’s all-pro qualities—and one that I totally admire and respect—is his earnest, almost eager solicitation of opinions about his wine, even from lowly wine writers, even if the opinions are less that complimentary.  It’s not ‘approval seeking’ he’s after—it’s the opposite: It’s a quest for improvement from a palate that accepts its own limitations.  He’s more than willing to acknowledge that you—whether you are a journeyman or a journalist, a junkie or a flunky, a Master Sommelier or one of his Flint homies sucking a forty of Colt 45—can taste things in his wine that elude him.  And thus, he can make necessary adjustments, this vintage or next.

The magnificent G. Stanley Howell

The magnificent G. Stanley Howell

That’s the way a science brain works, and indeed, Hosmer learned his mental processes from some of the wisest minds in the state.  At MSU, before he dove into the enology program, he was an Resource Development major—whatever that is—where was involved in a philosophical ‘immersion’ program—whatever that means—where he earned the duty of ‘wine procurer’—whatever one of those does.   Along with outspoken Post-Modern studies teacher Joe Natoli, he traveled to Europe with students learning various cultural attitudes firsthand, and it was there he began to understand that wine, as a beverage, was fundamentally different than either King Cobra or Vat 69 whiskey.  And more to the point, that he liked it.  For his Masters degree, he approached G. Stanley Howell with a proposal to do biodynamic research in the wine school, and was given a horticultural workload that he now describes as ‘Ph.D level’.

“But every second was worth it.  I got exposure in the research lab testing multiple samples again and again, did work in the vineyards that laid foundation to every bit of working knowledge I have now.  At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear that we could successfully grown vinifera in Northern Michigan let alone grow it biodynamically…”

The equally magnificent Charlie Edson

The equally magnificent Charlie Edson

Armed with school cred, he began to work on his street cred with Charlie Edson at Bel Lago Winery, a winemaker with a solid background in research.  He found a kindred spirit at once—both men loved to tinker, to putter, to doodle—in short, to dick around with wine.  Plenty of synergy went into these labels, some of the best that Leelanau had produced to date, and both men, with the restlessness inherent to the breed, continue to employ the same trial-and-error to their wines today.  Case in point: When I visited Hosmer at Chateau Chantal, his full-blown lab was lined with two dozen beakers filled with some purplish experimental fluid (Cabernet franc, I believe) at various stages of dicking-aroundery.

That lab door, by the way, has a name plate that reads ‘Coach Long-Hair’.  That’s a nickname given him by Patrick Rigan, a 6’5” former Spartan tight end who Brian hired for cellar work; Patrick’s hierarchy concept, at the time, did not run to ‘Chief Enologist’, but ‘Coach’ was within the realm of graspability.  Rigan, by the way, now grows the previously mentioned Auxerrois.

SPARTAN SDADIUMLike Spartan Stadium, the brainwork goes on behind the scenes, but the real beauty is on the playing field:  Chateau Chantal is a spectacular destination winery.  Perched on 56 acres in Old Mission, it houses a bed and breakfast adjacent to the tasting room, and is such a congenial, devil-may-care joint that guests from the former are encouraged to wander through the latter at any point during the night and do a self-directed wine tasting, even though they’re closed.

And true to their word, while Brian and I are polishing off samples from the Chantal portfolio, in walks several couples who casually walk behind the bar and pour themselves wine.  This, to me, is a concept so amazingly cool that I can’t find words.  Except, perhaps, ‘I will never worry about last call at any bar in Traverse City again’.

Hawthorne's tasting room closes at the regular time; sorry.

Hawthorne’s tasting room closes at the regular time; sorry.

About ten miles southwest of Chateau Chantal, on an equally scenic site where a dramatic view of West Traverse Bay broken only by an electrical utility box; looking in the opposite direction, though, there’s a distant, but unsullied view of the East Arm of the bay.  Sitting on the deck on a unseasonably warm afternoon in early April, Brian mentions the oft-quoted adage when it comes to finding work at a winery in a Northern Michigan winery: ‘Half the pay for a view of the bay.’

“If that was true, I’d be working here for nothing.”

A view of his lovely wife Cristin is also a treat—she’s a winemaker as well, and having put in similar time with Edson, earlier this year she moved over to the just-finished Villa Mari with Sean O’Keefe.

Hosmer, meantime, shifts his time and focus between  Hawthorne, where he’s been winemaker since 2010, and Chantal.

The exceedingly magnificent Cristin Hosmer.

The exceedingly magnificent Cristin Hosmer.

In my opinion, if ever a young couple needs their own winery, it’s these two.   Both have brought to the twin peninsulas a sense of integrity, energy and detail, and both have paid their dues.  The old guard is ready to pass the reins—Stan Howell is comfortably into retirement in the suburbs of Lansing and Edson’s place has been for sale for years, just not at a price their pay grade can cover. It’s folks like the Hosmers that we can look at for the new, improved generation of Northern Michigan winemaker: These are the people we don’t want to lose, especially considering that professionally, Northern Michigan has the same open-door policy as Chateau Chantal’s tasting room: Come as you are and go as you please.

Here’s hoping that Coach Long-Hair becomes Coach Long-Time; as far as Michigan appellations have come, it’s time for a new strain of yeast.

Posted in Michigan | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Orange Is The New Daughter

Something that all addicts share is a hi-tech toolbox filled with psychological denial.  This includes drawers for rationalization, slots for excuses and various compartments for blame projection.

So, were I to maintain that my approach to alcohol and its associated ‘ism’ since Intoxicology Report launched in 2011,  overloaded with flippancy and snorts, can be blamed on the fact that I used to write for humor magazines, you might assume that it is my addiction speaking.

But like all addicts, I’d rather you gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I do my best to write honestly—I have spoken about my past, occasionally chronic drug use, including heroin, with candor and some confessed embarrassment. Still, by rote and predilection, I tend to make light of subjects that I do not necessarily find to be light subjects.

It’s a coping mechanism more than a defense mechanism, and in that, I firmly believe.

CAITLINSo yesterday, when I visited my daughter Caitlin at a court-ordered rehab center, it was not the irony of the situation—feeling the pain of a parent watching a beloved child struggling with the very substance he writes about, jokes about and in many ways reveres—it was the obligation of the situation.

Caitlin’s ordeal—self-ordained, of course; most of the shit-piles drunks land in are—began with back-to-back stints in two county jails, the last of which involved sharing digs with Donna Scrivo who was awaiting trial for dismembering her son and distributing the pieces around rural St. Clair County.  Scared straight?  Not particularly:  “She is the sweetest woman you could imagine,” Caitlin says.  “But she smiles constantly, no matter what—that’s weird.”

Otherwise, her cellmates were the usual spread of armed robbers, meth dealers, child abusers, psychopaths and unmedicated bipolar Jane Does.

Not that it makes a difference, but you couldn’t imagine someone who less fits the Central Casting jailbird role than my white, blond, surburban speck of a daughter, Caitlin Grace:  She’s 4’11”, which means she missed legitimate Little People status by an inch.  She hasn’t seen three figures on the bathroom scale… ever.  People, of course, shouldn’t dodge bullets based on looking like a miniature Ashley Tisdale in a cheerleader movie, but let’s be frank—they often do.  In any case, the people with whom she wound up incarcerated were pretty universally non-suburban, non-petite and non-white.

sharkThat’s the system; that’s the way the ugly works—I’ve told every one of my kids that falling into the shark-maw of that ravenous, cold-blooded beast is the worst career move you can make.  Once it sets its teeth, it does not gladly let go.

That said, learning the beast’s rules is fairly easy, although playing the  game is often—for myriad reasons—infinitely hard.  Parental mentorship only goes so far—we can’t, alas, cover all contingencies, prepare them for every challenge.  For example, we don’t specifically say, “Avoid chopping Junior into chunks and tossing him out the window along I-94”, and in Caitlin’s case, I never said, “Don’t get drunk and break into your ex-boyfriend’s house and steal things, even if they’re yours.”

Both can be found under the generic advice category of “Don’t be a douchebag.”

flintLikewise, the theory that you shouldn’t get drunk and forget you have a court date goes along with “You shouldn’t get so scared you missed your court date you can’t mentally prepare for the next one, so you get drunk and miss that one too.”

Because more times than not, that will lead to me driving to some state-sanctioned rehabilitation dump in Flint, Michigan—a city so dark and depressing that it makes edge-city Detroit look like Seville in the springtime.

They Tried To Make Her Go To Rehab; I said, ‘Go, Go, Go’

Three months at New Paths, a prison-alternative drug treatment center for non-violent offenders (after they’ve served some portion of their sentence) is the get-out-jail-free option Caitlin Kassel was offered, although ‘free’ is a misnomer as it will cost me, it will cost her, and as taxpayers, it will cost you.  The ‘sobering facility’—their terminology—was established in 1979, primarily to separate girls who can’t handle Saturday night and a paycheck from women like Scrivo who can’t handle children and a Ginsu knife.

As for its effectiveness in treating addicts, that’s pretty much a nudge-and-a-wink joke going in, isn’t it?  These joints are pretty much rule-factories run by authoritarian cretins who are paid minimally to exercise control maximally, and if that’s not a prescription for failure among tough, self-centered, take-no-shit junkies, I’m not sure what is.

A cursory glance at the New Path staff roster shows two therapists, one named ‘Star’ and one named ‘Ebony’ and neither with letters after her name to indicate qualifications.

catAccording to Caitlin, they spend four hours a day in ‘group sessions’, which is essentially a bunch of fucked-up women sharing stories about how badly they fucked up after getting fucked up and counting the hours until they can get fucked up again—about the same way they’d be passing the time if there were no therapy sessions at all.  After that, they are confined to a dreary day room where they do little but watch a prehistoric Memorex tv and wait for hourly breaks where they stand in a fenced-in parking lot and smoke cigarettes.  Which, for the record, killed more people in a single day in 2014 than methamphetamine—the reason most of them are there—did all year.

If you grew up in relative affluence like Caitlin did, the place seems a museum diorama of how you don’t want your life to unfold: Shoddy, used-up and appointed with cheap, brutal, banal, bureaucratic bullshit.

But if you grew up like most of her fellow New Pathers did, this is no set piece—this is the universe; yesterday, today and likely tomorrow.

I walk into a bathroom-sized reception area and confront a hefty woman in purple sweats eating ribs and fries from a styrofoam container; she tells me I have to wait until she’s done eating despite the fact that all she has to do is glance at my driver’s license and despite the fact that I am right on time for the visit.  I mean, ghetto is one thing, but this woman is the entire ghetto concept distilled into a single pissed-off, pencil-pushing, pork-pounding pogue.

So I wait, along with a bunch of weary-looking people and hyperkinetic kids—it’s Mother’s Day, and every resident over the age of fourteen, of course, has children.  In time I’m hustled down some stairs into an open space that passes for a recreation/exercise/dining room.  Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had and suppose you could make furniture out of it; this would be it.  Basically, you can find couches and tables in better condition cruising any neighborhood on trash day.

Serenity-Prayer-tattoo-150979So be it; dignity is clearly not the purpose here, unless it is sheer fatalistic dignity: The walls are bargain-bin wood panel filled with kicked-in frustration holes, the drop ceiling is missing yards of tile; there is a window rod and a full curtain with no window behind it, not even a bricked-up window—no door, no egress, nothing but more wall.  There’s an omnipresent stench of industrial cleaner against decades of dirt that can never be excised, there are two Santa figures left over from Christmas, one Caucasian and one African-American (or maybe African-North Polean).  Overseeing all is a dirty magazine cutout of ‘The Serenity Prayer’, which, you’ll recall, says in part, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…’ 

Or, in prison-ese: ‘This is it, bitch.  Deal with it.’

But what do you do?  How hard it is to accept the things you cannot change?  Bitch-up and deal with it? Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your kids will grow up with a blend of entitlement and insecurity, arrogance and timidity, potency and debilitating weakness and do silly, naughty, mean-spirited things.  There’s only so many times I can ask myself how much a column minimizing the degradation that alcohol can cause while glorifying drinking as an art form has to do with it.  Ask if it is genetic, or if not, how much my casual attitude toward drugs as a sort of ‘freedom to choose’ lifestyle-decision influenced her—someone who can clearly not handle that lifestyle without ending up in a dungeon being ordered around by some skanky-looking tyrant in Geri curls and a plate of carryout ribs.

Most of these questions are not easy to ask, nor are the answers easy to come by, but thankfully, a more basic one is:

ANKLE BRACELETThere is no love that can be compared to the love you feel for your children; if you are doing it right, it is unconditional in the purest version of the concept.  It pales in comparison to anything you’ve ever felt for your parents, your spouse, your lover; I have a son who is ten months younger than Caitlin who has been on the Dean’s list for three straight years at University of Michigan School of Engineering and I have not the slightest doubt of the validity of my emotions—I hold both them equally dear, equally precious, equally irreplaceable in the flow of my life.

In the end, they are not obligated to be the kind of kids you can love; you are obligated to love the kind of kids they are.

That’s what I use for my Serenity Prayer, and if it doesn’t always help, I can guarantee you that it never, ever hurts.

Posted in GENERAL | 4 Comments

Springtime Cocktails à Go-Go!

When someone from an upscale firm in uptown Manhattan queries you regarding ‘re-creating’ some springtime drink recipes, you know they are not only going to be scenester ‘it’ drinks, but boisterously, excruciatingly, insuppressibly so.

bambiSo, if you agree (as I did) to write about them, the re-creation’s first step is not checking the sideboard to see if you have all the right ingredients—you don’t and that’s a given.  Nor is first step checking to see if you’ve heard of all the right ingredients—you haven’t and that’s another given.  The first step is to tell said firm that if they want you to write about these drinks, they have to make them themselves and send them to you in fancy little containers that you can later use in bottling rotgut applejack from your homemade still to transport across state lines.

And that’s exactly what dear Amanda Gerecs offered up, although I didn’t forewarn her about the bootleg bit of the bargain to avoid bringing disrepute to The Thomas Collection. 

A scenester in native costume

A scenester in native costume

Now, everything trendy needs a hooker’s hook, preferably something either ghetto or European, ideally something vaguely familiar to the average wannabe trend-john, but still subculture abstract.

Fundamentally, and above all else, however, it must something susceptible to Madison Avenue-style packaging.

Of course, right from the gitty-up you can raise the hipster quotient of whatever you are pushing by making it out of a whole bunch of other trendy things (whatever they may be) with the hope that such a stylin’ synergy of caché will produce a self-sustaining chain reaction of fashionability until sheer unbridled hipness exceeds critical mass and the whole thing explodes all over the jet set like a detonating nuclear warhead.

Voilà; the Spring 2015 Cocktail Collection is Born

So, I will offer you the drink recipes and drink recipe’s begetter and the drink recipe’s begetter’s home base bar, and then I will make gentle merry over the preposterous ingredients and have a wee bit of glee at the expense of the begetter and then I will evaluate the drinks.

If that formula is copacetic to you, beloved reader, onward and uptownward:

I’ll Have What She’s Having
By Ian Hardie (Huckleberry Bar, Brooklyn)

1 1/2 parts Caoruun
1/2 parts St. Germain
1/2 parts Aperol
3/4 parts lemon juice
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

*Shake all ingredients and add to a coup glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Huxckleberry Bar

Huckleberry Bar

Ain’t no huckleberries at the Huckleberry Bar, fo shizzle, ma nizzle. St. Germain is bad enough, but Caoruun? In a coup glass?  WTF raised to the power of google-plex.  For the record, Caoruun is Scottish gin, which would be the same sort of low-watermark of trendiness as Indian scotch if Indian scotch existed, which it doesn’t. But a coup glass?  Apparently a typo.  It’s called a coupe glass.

Ian Hardie

Ian Hardie

I’ll Have What She’s Having is so named because no self-respecting card-carrying member of the male persuasion would order Scottish gin mixed with Aperol, which sounds like monkey tranquilizer, but which is actually even weirder than monkey tranquilizer—rhubarb and gentian (whatever that is) and cinchona (whatever that is)  blended until it turns into one of those Infinity Mirrors, where everything I have to look up contains other stuff I have to look up, until the ingredients recede into a boundless, never-ending continuum of culinary nonsense.

The Drink:  OSHA orange in color, this is an ideal cocktail for deer hunting season, so it may have to wait until November.  It is full bore medicinal with an overlay of almost sickly sweetness—the kind of sugar-covers-bitter desperation counterpoint that cough syrup manufacturers use to mask the awful flavor of their product, but which appears to be in sudden vogue at the Huckleberry.

Sandeman Spritz
By Jim Meehan (Please Don’t Tell, NYC)

1 ½ parts Sandeman Founders Reserve Port
1 ½ parts Grapefruit juice
1 ½ parts Pellegrino Chinotto

* Combine the first two ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake with ice and strain into a Douro spice rimmed rocks glass filled with ice. Top with Pellegrino Chinotto. Garnish with half a grapefruit wheel.

Meehan in native habitat

Meehan in native habitat

You were going fine until we got to the Chinotto.  Reserve Port, check; grapefruit juice, check, Pellegrino, check.  But ‘Chinotto’?  Evidently, a Chinotto is some mongrel, mutated strain of orange that wandered too near the Enrico Fermi plant in Trino.

But hold on, Jim; I just re-read your recipe and I have a question:  What’s up with these measurements? Why, if you are dealing with ‘parts’ rather than ounces, do you need everything to be in one-and-one-halfs?  Doesn’t ‘one part each…’ amount to exactly the same thing?

The Drink: Now, this one is actually pretty good in a nostalgic sort of way.  Whenever I got stuck with a cheap bottle of red review wine, I used to mix the leftovers with Sunny Delight or whatever juice I had in the fridge to make a sort of impromptu sangria, and this brings me back to those days.  The addition of sparkling water does elevate the bevvie from the ranks of a jerry-rigged buzz-vehicle to a genuine, hallowed ‘spritz’, so kudos for that!

Day Spa
By Clint Rogers and Harrison Ginsberg (The Dawson, Chicago)

1 ½ parts Caoruun Gin
¾ part Chamomile Cucumber Syrup
¾ Lime juice
½ part Cocchi Americano
½ part Grapefruit juice
¾ part Suze
¾ part Chareau
Two dashes Jamaican #2 Bitters

*Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Strain into a rocks glass, then fill with fresh ice. Garnish with cucumber slices.

Rogers & Ginsberg

Rogers & Ginsberg

This drink is so goddamn exotic it took two people to invent it.  Not unlike Lennon/McCartney, working together until wee hours, adding a chord change here and bridge lyric there, I can imagine Team Rogers/Ginsberg brainstorming over the liquor well at closing times, an endless array of potentially lethal combinations spreading before them like a boy’s chemistry set:

“Scottish gin is a given, obviously” says one, “—this is geek grog after all; but maybe some of this cucumber syrup left over from the Holistic Lumberjack convention in 1998?”

chem setReplies t’other: “Yes!  Yes! And Cocchi Americano, as you well know, is everything Lillet is not—it’s much more ‘boutique novelty’ and can dress up a Corpse Reviver #2 like nobody’s business, but no barman worth his Himalayan Pink Flake Salt would leave out the Suze.  And the Chareau.  Both named after old ‘Pass-around Suze Chareau from sophomore physics…’

It lives!

The real Rogers and Ginsberg composing cocktails

The real Rogers and Ginsberg composing cocktails

The Drink: I confess; like most five-year-olds, I used to fantasize about drinking Pine-Sol. As my poor, old, gray-haired mammy scrubbed the cotton fields clean on hands and knees, I would totter over and sniff her Pine-Sol bottle, and by God, it just… smelled… potable.  Well,  Chamomile Cucumber Syrup and Cocchi Americano notwithstanding, this is precisely the sort of light, limey, zesty, refreshing experience I’d always anticipated!

Unfortunately, those callow days of misspent youth have passed me by, and when I tasted Rogers & Hammersberg opus, all I could imagine was drinking Pine-Sol.

Sandeman Sangree
By Peter Vestinos (Wirtz Beverage Group, Chicago)

1 ½ parts Sandeman Porto Founders Reserve
¾ parts Plymouth Gin
¾ parts Lemon Juice
½ parts Simple Syrup
2 parts Soda water

* Combine all ingredients, except the soda water into a cocktail shaker.
Shake briefly with ice. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Add soda water. Add a lemon wheel and grate nutmeg across top.

Peter Vestinos

Peter Vestinos

Finally! The good old cursed fiend with fury-fraught, mother’s ruin: English gin.  And to blend? None of this imported, byzantine, multi-layered, hard-to-pronounce complex syrups—simple syrup will do, thank you very much.  I’m not sure it needed the Port, which turned the cocktail a shade that Macbeth ColorChecker would have called ‘O.J.’s Contaminated Blood Sample Maroon’ if they had any balls, but the drink was actually something I’d drink again.  Nicely balanced, not too cloying, not too tart.  This is the winner of the bunch.

And In Conclusion…

…It should be apparent that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm as I await the Summer 2015 collection, to see if these mixologists can outdo themselves in pure ludicrous dart-board creativity.

pine solAnd yet, at the same time, I may in fact find that I have been dropped from The Thomas Collection’s mailing list altogether.

Fear not.  To the emporium I bring my own humble offering, and this I cast upon the throne of Trendopolus in the House of Hipsteria for all you wannabes and alreadyares to evaluate.

“Drink upon my drink, ye Mighty, and despair!”

(If you have trouble locating any of these ingredients, message me and I will send you samples in this cool collection of bottles I now have.)

The Ozymanias Schpritzer

By Chris Kassel (Basement Lab, Kassel Castle)

1 ½ parts Pine-Sol
¾ parts Homemade Rotgut Applejack
¾ parts Monkey Tranquilizer
½ parts Short Bus Syrup
2 parts Contaminated Blood Sample

*Mix, drink, expire.

Posted in LIQUOR | Tagged | 1 Comment

Mona Elisa’s Smile

Why are infectious smiles called infectious smiles?  I get the semantics; if you are in the presence of someone with a perpetual, ear-to-ear grin you find yourself emulating it with some sort of Zelig-quality compulsion. 

But infectious sounds so STD-ish; so ebola epidemicky 

I’m forthwith nominating an colloquialism change:

A communicable smile.

Elisa Ucar

Elisa Ucar

Elisa Úcar has a communicable smile.  It bisects her pretty face beneath owlish specs and never seems to evaporate; she is the Cheshire cat of winemakers. I’m sure she grins in her sleep, which is something her husband Enrique Basarte will have to confirm.  With some people—used car salesmen, motivational speakers, Madame Tussauds figures—a perpetual smile can be positively creepy.

But Elisa is so unstoppably bubbly and cute that it is nothing short of transmittable.

She is (along with Enrique) the owner of Domaines Lupier in San Martin de Unx, which despite a French sounding name, is in Navarra, north-central Spain.  They had both spent a number of years in the Spanish wine trade, Enrique enologically and Elisa in sales, and had a nagging suspicion that they could do it as well, or better, than many of the wines with which they worked. The search for the ideal acreage (or hectareage, or whatever you call a bunch of vineyard dirt in Spain)  was intensive; it culminated in the purchase of more than two dozen parcelles—twenty-seven tiny plots of land planted, in this case, entirely to Garnacha.


It’s a family affair

That’s their obsession; their favorite grape.  That’s all they grow and that’s all they vinify and that’s all they care to do.  They may be one-trick ponies, but they outperform many a Spanish stable.

Says Elisa, “We examined the terroirs in various areas until we found exactly what we were looking for: Black Garnacha on old vines in different soils at various orientations and altitudes—between 400 and 750 meters above sea level. Some the 27 ‘treasures’ we found were planted in 1903, which made it possible to obtain the ‘savage’ expression of Garnacha we were after.”

logoNow, that may what they were after and that may what they intend their two labels (El Terroir and La Dama) to express, or there may be something lost in translation.  Either way, to me these wines are no more savage than Elisa’s smile is pestilential.  Both wines are unique, certainly, with characters unto themselves, one showing the varietal testosterone, the other the stereotypical counterpart displaying floral notes and graceful flourishes, but neither what I would refer to as farmhouse-rustic, which are wines that I might describe as ‘savage’.

10473073El Terroir, 2008 (around $50)

A firm undercurrent of earth frames a dark fruit bouquet; the wine shows aromatics of blackberry, cocoa and tart black plum with a bit of mint.  On the palate it remains broad and deep, echoing the ripe berries of the nose while maintaining an acidic lift that works with the fruit intensity and avoids any trace of jamminess.  That, according to Elisa, is thanks to the elevation; the grapes see plenty of sunshine, but enjoy cool high-altitude evenings.  Handpicked from 12 plots with vines that average 75 years old, this particular vintage of El Terroir spent 14 months in barriques and puncheons, offering some interaction with the oak tannins, but not too much.  Thus, the wine retains a freshness that may belie its weight.

la damaLa Dama, (around $80): Explosive aromatics filled with a luscious blend of violets, fennel, strawberry and pomegranate underlayed with graphite and stones. In fact, the clay-calcareous soils of the 15 plots from which the grapes are drawn are of tertiary origin and contain what Elisa refers to as ‘mother-rock’—a trait to which she attributes the wine’s clean minerality.  I found that, but also a juicy and many-faceted array of red fruits and a pristine finish that was not overburdened with tannin, but enhanced by a judicious dusting of it.


Like Mona Elisa’s smile, her wines are somewhat addicting, and like any respectable contagion, only can be caught for a specific period of time.  As Elisa says, “Each bottle is precious”, because only 40,000 were produced.

They are masterpieces of the style—thus, the allusion to Leonardo’s most famous opus may be appropriate.  And if the original Mona happened to have a bottle of La Dama beneath that famous lace-work bodice, the smile may finally be explained.

Posted in SPAIN | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment