Gypsy Canyon Wine with Thai Dogs: Match Made in Doggie Heaven

A perfect recipe for the dog days of summer!

Thai Dogs

1/2 pound cups fresh squid, cut into bite-size rings

1 large onion, chopped

2 chopped garden beetles

4 ounces Việt-Huong Fish Sauce

2-3 fresh Thai chili peppers

2 Tbsp molasses or honey

1 Tbsp ground Lesser Galangal (substitute Siamese ginger)

As many hot dogs as you have people to serve

Buns for the hot dogs


Dog goes in bun, squid/beetle chili goes on top, sprinkle on chopped red onion and shredded cheese, and have at it!

Serve with Gypsy Canyon Winery ‘Ground Boots’ Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara, 2012 ($70)


Deborah Hall

Deborah Hall

Deborah Hall, Gypsy Canyon’s winemaker, hates me.  But she doesn’t know it yet, because more than likely, you’re reading this first.  That means you can hate me before she does!

Why would you hate me?  Because I am making jokes about a very humane, very sincere woman who recently began a heartfelt campaign to save Thai dogs from Thai chefs in Thailand.

If you are like most Americans, you wouldn’t eat dog meat even if you’d just thaied-one-on with several bottles of Gypsy Canyon Pinot Noir, which (price-wise) would have set you back the equivalent of a purebred Golden Retriever puppy.

Too sweet to eat; too cute for charcut...

Too sweet to eat…

We don’t eat Golden Retriever puppies in the United States and we don’t believe anybody else should either, no matter how hungry they are.  Ditto for designer cats.  Cannibalism is less distasteful to our nation of carnivores than petbalism.

Many of us feel strongly enough about this ideology to support Deborah Hall’s dog-free diet by drinking her Pinot Noir, even if we never fantasized about the bon vivant lifestyle of a vet like she did:

“As a child, I always wanted to be a veterinarian, so I went back to those roots,” Hall recently told the food columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent.  “I wanted to make an impact that wasn’t just making a donation somewhere; the next thing you know, I have a whole label with grand plans.”

soy dogsThe Grand Plan appears to be making a donation somewhere: Specifically to the Soi Dog Foundation, an ‘honest, grassroots organization’ dedicated to eradicating the illegal sale of dog meat in Thailand, and not (as the name suggests) to eradicating the sale of unpalatable tofu hotdogs—a foundation to which I’d gladly donate.

Profits from sales of her Ground Boots 2013 Pinot Noir will go to Soi Dog, and Hall maintains that ¾ of her hundred case production run has already been sold.

Soi-Dog-Foundation-TH6She justifies spending money on Thai dogs when little American dogs are going to bed hungry like this:  “You can save 10 dogs in Thailand whereas you can only save one here for the same dollar.”

For those of you who spent Economics 101 in the john smoking wacky tobacky, that’s called ‘economies of scale’.

All Dogs Go to Heaven Except Buddhist Ones: They Don’t Believe in Heaven

On paper, saving dogs is a noble cause, but before I shell out seventy simoleons for a fifth of Gypsy juice, I want a better definition of the word ‘save’.

Dangerous-Dog-Breed1Street dogs in Thailand (called ‘soi dogs’—‘soi’ is Thai for ‘alley’) are such a problem they have their own Wikipedia page.  The reason for this is that Buddhist principals forbid the euthanizing of stray animals, thus, populations grow unchecked, and many of the street dogs of Bangkok are vicious, many have been maimed by traffic and some are rabid.  They’ve been known to attack people, including those on the way to the black market butcher for a pound of illegal dog steaks for the weekend barbecue. The city has adopted a pro-life dog policy, although regulations also forbid the feeding of stray dogs in public places, which—unless I am missing something critical here—means that, thanks to government intervention, the feral and diseased alley dogs are hungrier than ever.

Let’s see how the ‘Canine Lives Matter’ movement has worked out in the United States, using a quote from a staunchly Pro-Euthanasia web site:

“It’s appalling to contemplate, but when shelters give in to pressure to go ‘no-kill’, the results are often far worse for animals than a peaceful death through euthanasia. Here’s what happens: In San Antonio, Texas—which is striving to be a “no-kill” city—the bodies of nearly 16,000 dogs were scraped off the streets in just one year. One animal control officer termed it “euthanasia by proxy.” 

'How much is that doggies in the window?'

‘How much is that doggie in the window?’

How many hungry Thai mouths would those dog scrapings have served if it was legal to make them into hot dogs (or, as they’d be technically known, ‘hit dogs’)?  According to the 2010 census, San Antonio’s Southeast Asian population numbers nearly four thousand.

And by the way—do you know whose web site I just quoted?  PETA’s.


Weenie & Cecil

L.: Cecil R.: Walter palmer

L.: Cecil
R.: Walter Palmer

There’s been a lot of smack on social media over that Minnesota dentist who popped a cap in Cecil the Lion’s trophy skull last week; big game hunters are earning the increasing ire of people who find the ‘sport’ repulsive.  When you ask them why they do not get, say, a billion times more pissed off over the billion animals slaughtered in the United States each year for food, they say that I’ve answered my own question: Food.  The fact that the bodies of these animals are going to be consumed by human beings somehow excuses the meat processing industry and all the attendant death; the fact that all Walter Palmer was after was a taxidermy mount does not.

So be it.  Then, wouldn’t the idea of Gypsy Canyon’s Ground Boot campaign being waged specifically to prevent wild animals from being eaten be in direct opposition to those Kum Ba Ya sentiments?

Of course it would.

ClipboardThe deal is, Cecil was cuddly-looking, stuffed-animal cute and entirely inedible in appearance.  For that matter, so is Fido and Spot and Old Yeller, even with the rabies.  Your average pork chop, on the other hand, grilled over an open flame and smothered in caramelized onions and Dijon butter, makes you salivate—so long as you avoid thinking about Porky Pig kissing the sledgehammer of some minimum-wage Schlachthaus pogue.

But you know, pigs are said to be even smarter than dogs, and everyone who has ever kept them as pets swears by them.  Yet…

“In order to get the terrified pigs onto the trucks bound for the slaughterhouse, workers may beat them on their sensitive noses and backs or stick electric prods into their rectums.

Crammed into 18-wheelers, pigs struggle to get air and are usually given no food or water for the entire journey (often hundreds of miles). They suffer from temperature extremes and are forced to inhale ammonia fumes and diesel exhaust. Pigs are packed in so tight, their guts actually pop out their butts—a little softball of guts actually comes out.”

I won’t ask this time:  It’s another quote from PETA.

Deborah Hall’s web page begins with a glorious observation attributed to Ben Franklin, who may or may not have eaten dog in the guise of Poor Richard:

“The discovery of a wine is a greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”

johnnyrebeck (1)Never mind that Bangkok is too filled with dogs; go ahead and support Ground Boots as your Feel-Good Gesture of the Month.  You’ll get a knock-out bottle of wine in the bargain and probably sleep easier knowing that you’ve saved some poor stray from Johnny Rebeck’s machine.

But in evaluating the timeworn human-animal love/drool relationship, I’ll leave you with another wine quote, this one from George Bernard Shaw:

“A mind of my caliber cannot derive nutrition from cows.”


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Alemany i Corrio: Fusion in Collusion

What do you get when you mix a Frenchman trained in Dijon with a Spaniard from Vilafranca del Penedès?

Alemany i Corrio, that’s what—whose Sot Lefriec is dubbed either a garagiste masterpiece or a jewel of the Penedès, depending on your source.

Either one works.

Irene and Laurent, in that order

Irene and Laurent, in that order.  Forget the dweeb in the background.

I hung around with Irene Alemany and Laurent Corrio for a bit last week as they unveiled new releases from their winery in the Alt Penedès—a Catalonian subzone responsible for some of the region’s greatest wine.  The fact that some in the Spanish press have labeled Sot Lefriec a benchmark for the area is, therefore, hefty praise indeed.

An hour south of Barcelona, the Alt Penedès is a blend of sheltered valleys and medieval villages; the terrain is rugged, the grape yields are low and subsequently, the wines are remarkably concentrated.

Vilafranca del Penedès

Vilafranca del Penedès

That concentration is a hallmark of the trio that Irene and Laurent poured—and they showed well despite being served outdoors during a heat wave north of 90 ° and humidity like rain pouring down on a sunny day. A blustery red with massive shoulders and an oaken spine is not really ideal in this weather—the tannins are exaggerated and the alcohol seems more intense.

But big, beefy Laurent—he’s a wise man—chilled his reds to the precise temperature for optimal appreciation, in this case, about thirty degrees below ambient.

Prinicipia-titleFirst, the white, which has a name to rival the best of any wine-name ever, Principia Mathematica, named not for Isaac Newton’s rather boring tome, but for gravel-voiced Àlex Torío’s experimental music.  Both the album Principia Mathematica and the wine were first released in the same year, 2010.

This was the 2013 vintage ($26), and showcase an Alemany i Corrio cultural union, a principia Burgundia: It’s made with a single varietal, Xarel-Lo.  Most wines from the Penedès, home to Cava, and in most of Spain, rely on blends; in Burgundy,  the glories of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir perform solos on center stage.



The wine opens in an aromatic blast of lee-scents, the result (perhaps) of Laurent avoiding another French technique, bâtonnage, in which the dead yeast cells and organic matter from the grapes are stirred up in wine that is barrel-aging.  Among some winemakers, it’s a method sworn by, and among others, it is avoided as introducing unwelcome oxygen and inducing off-odors while blurring terroir.

Laurent and Irene are ‘others’.  Principia Mathematica also kicks forth an earthy minerality and a bright whiff of lemon backed by fennel and toast, leading into a palate both creamy and crisp.  The wine is dry, but there are hints of sweetness huddling within, honey and ripe fig.  There is also a slight note of sulphur; acids are restrained and an appealing nuttiness carries through from beginning to end.

pas-curtei-etiquetaPas Curtei (2011; $26) is another example of France meets Spain synergy—the blend here is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot shored up with Carignan—a typical Bordeaux line-up.  The juice naps for 14 months in French barrels of varying age and wakes up to find itself compared (favorably) to a Saint-Émilion.  Like some of the more aggressive wines from that appellation, Pas Curtei struck me as too young to consume quite yet, with its striking boldness and rich plum and black raspberry intensity still boxed-in with tannins.

A softer mouthfeel, of course, is a trademark of the great estates of Saint-Émilion, and the silkiness associated with, say, a Château Cheval Blanc or an Angélus, can easily be overshadowed.

sot 2006Irene and Laurent’s top cuvée, Sot Lefriec (2006; $71) is much easier to mistake for a upper-end Right Bank Bordeaux.  The merlot content is higher, fully half of the blend, and the mouth-parching oak has had enough time to settle into the body of the wine, adding accent, not attitude; it supports rather than overtakes.  There is a lovely focus to the wine, which is rich and earthy, with some barn-scents emerging behind the extracted fresh black cherries and licorice. There’s a lushness to the fruit that avoids being jammy; the finish is long, complex, and nicely balanced with acid, fruit and wood.

‘Lefriec’ is Laurent’s mother’s name, while the grapes that go into the bottle were planted by Irene’s grandfather.  This potent alloy—family and culture and varietals and tradition—has made the couple rising stars in a galaxy studded with some fascinating constellations.

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Sorry, Boys: Brosé Sounds Totally Gé

I just read an article in The Telegraph that I mistook for an article in The Onion, because The Telegraph doesn’t go out of its way to be facetious and The Onion goes so far out of its way to be facetious that reading it can be more painful than passing a gall stone.   And often, just as funny.

real menAnyway, the Telegraph article is named ‘Forget Craft Beer, Men are Drinking Brosé This Summer’, and it’s based on the premise that rosé is a ‘deeply unfashionable and stereotypically feminine’ wine that has undergone some sort of recent, manly renaissance so that men are now drinking it instead of beer.

The piece refers to the new wave of macho pinks as ‘Brosé’.

That’s two-thousand-fifteen humor in a nutshell, Junior; clever à la mode—fusing the colloquial abbreviation for ‘brother’ with anything even vaguely girlish that masculine types are into. This is gaiety for a new millennium—when the word ‘gaiety’ probably no longer means what I intend it to mean—where ‘bromance’ means straight guys who dig each other and ‘broping’ is when the Cosa Nostra  embrace has gone on for a nanosecond longer than strictly necessary.*

mafia hug* Note that the cuteness of the ‘bro’ portmanteau is more important than whether or not the concept itself is something (like a lingering Mob hug) that anyone has previously considered worthy of a word—or, for that matter, considered at all. 

The problem, of course, is that the ‘bro’-prefix-thing hardly ever works.  The first syllable of the old effeminate word has to rhyme with ‘Bro’ and  ‘Brosé’ is possible only because ‘Bro’ fits handily into the word ‘rosé’.  I suspect that The Telegraph’s excruciating headline might be the story’s entire raison d’être, not any real evidence that more men are drinking rosé this summer than were drinking it last summer or the summer before that—it’s just that nobody thought of the joke before.

Dude Drinks Like a Lady

gandalfI submit that pink wine has always been a macho thing.  Consider saignée, the method of concentrating the tannins and color in red wine by siphoning  off a portion of wine in the early stages of maceration; the wine that is removed is pinkish and is often bottled and sold as rosé.  Saignée is a French word meaning ‘bleed’, and other than that icky part of the feminine lifestyle that we Y chromosomians prefer to minimize or ignore, bleeding has traditionally been a male-dominated occupation.  We bleed when we go to war, we bleed when we fall down on the soccer field, we bleed when we get beaten up in bars, we bleed when we bite our fingernails in the proctologist’s waiting room.  Blood and testosterone have long been inseparable companions on the rugged road of Boy’s Life.

Clipboard pink tylerTake the very word ‘pink’.
Pink the Pop-Star is nominally a woman, but nigga, please—she’s butchier than Steve Tyler, whose song ‘Pink’ pretty much summarizes the masculine appeal of the whole whiter-shade-of-red concept.

And then there’s Pink Floyd; hardly a chick band, right?

Clipboard bradOr take Brad Pitt, the beefcake star of such blockbuster Man Cave favorites as Fight Club, World War Z and Inglourious Basterds.  He owns one winery  that makes one wine.  Guess what color it is?

And speaking of color, what color is Spam?  Who but a card-carrying member of the male persuasion would consider eating a slice of that putrid pink pile of processed puke?

Lastly, what’s man-among-men Bruce Springsteen’s favorite shade of Cadillac? Or Elvis’s sport coat?  And who described the great Gatsby like this: “An Oxford man! … Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”?  Manly Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, that’s who.

I rest my case.

detailsThe article goes on to suggest that men are choosing rosé over beer, resisting the impulse to refer to ‘home brew’ as ‘home bro’, but doesn’t offer much in the way of examples.  They quote a bartender who invents a fictitious table of seven ‘dudes’ who order a magnum of Bedell instead of scotch (also resisting the impulse to refer to it as a ‘phagnum’); they quote smokin’ hot Telegraph wine critic Victoria Moore who claims that the only decent rosé comes from Provence (Bedell is from Long Island) and they quote Details Magazine saying that ‘more male drinkers are pounding pink’—forgetting that Details Magazine is written for gay men trying and generally failing to butch up their image.

But articles like this one do make waves, and people read them, and readers attract advertisers and writers who write for publications with actual advertisers and real readers tend to get paid.

Clipboard brocsI have to respect that.

Which is why I have just submitted a freelance piece to The Telegraph, Details, The Onion, Jack and Jill, Popular Douchebaggery and Fellate Me Quarterly:

‘Forget Doc Martens, Real Men are Wearing ‘Brocs’ This Summer’.


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Kickstarter: Fund MY Dreams, Not Yours

‘Doing obscure, cool shit costs money.  Why waste your own?’

If I ran a crowd funding platform—the post-modern answer to standing on a freeway on-ramp holding a misspelled sign—that’s the slogan I’d use.  And if I was marketing to donators rather than donatees,  I’d go with, ‘Stop hording for retirement. The planet is doomed anyway.’

bob_0Anything less cynical, I’m afraid, doesn’t capture the true surreal distastefulness of the crowd funding concept—essentially a phishing scam where you don’t pretend you are a deposed Nigerian finance minister, you pretend you’re you.  And by pretend, of course I mean you paint happy little Bob Ross trees all over your resumé, drape your dreams in a dress uniform and try to convince strangers that you just need a little change until payday—as much or as little as they can spare—to tide you over.  Whether or not they receive anything tangible for their pocketful of pennies is up to the dude with the freeway sign; each ‘campaign’ has its own rules.

You can be reasonably confident, though, that whatever you drop into the open palm will not be the equivalent of what you could have had if you’d just waited for the store version of whatever it is you’re funding.

bookA perfect example, and the first real-time example of crowd funding I can recall, is when Alder Yarrow, a wine blogger from California, started a tin-cup crusade to finance The Essence of Wine: Celebrating the Delights of the Palate, which by his own admission no publisher wanted to touch.  Now, I’m not saying it’s not a great book: It made the New York Times ‘Best Wine Books of 2014’ list, which is also not to say it’s a great book, but it’s saying something.  Copies of my books can be purchased on line for the price of a New York Times.

My point is that I recall that when I read the original Yarrow pitch,  the unsettling idea seemed to be that I was supposed to purchase a book before it was written.

Paying for wine en primeur is one thing; it’s already in the barrel.  You can test the waters, so to speak.  Buying a book that hasn’t been written yet is like buying wine futures before the vineyard’s been planted.

Starbucks-Neopolitan-DrinkAnd, indeed, in Yarrow’s original ‘menu’ of donation levels, a $70 dole-out bought you a single copy of the book, which today sells on Amazon for fifty.

I can get behind the idea that if I donate $70 to NPR, I will receive as my thanks some Crackerjack prize worth twelve cents, but at least I get to go to sleep knowing I’ve helped shore up the foundation of a wonderful institution. The additional twenty bucks you’d have paid for Alder’s book (along with another $8.95) buys you a cup of Neapolitan Frappuccino with a scoop of vanilla bean powder and a pump of mocha syrup at Starbuck’s.

Clark Bars and Grahm Crackers: Gimme S’More Money

SmoresI bring this up because I received two somewhat pathetic poverty pleas in my inbox this week, both suggesting that I redirect money I’d earmarked for various interesting projects of my own to uninteresting projects of theirs.  Why I would even consider doing this is moot; I wouldn’t.  Why they would even consider asking me is unmoot: In fact, it’s worth a whole column, which I’ll write as soon as you send me seventy dollars and a cup of Starbuck’s S’mores Frappuccino with a double pump of chutzpah.

Clark Smith: I’m saying toupée; what are you saying?

Clark Smith: I’m saying toupée; what are you saying?

Clark Smith describes himself as an ‘outspoken champion of the small American winemaker’ whose life’s mission is to ‘explore the possibility that California can become known for wines of style and grace, not just impact.’  In his world, apparently, wines like Kongsgaard Chardonnay (Napa) or Dunn Cabernet (Howell Mountain) don’t exist.  In our world, however, he is bankrupt.

He admits as much on his freeway sign, a.k.a. his Kickstarter web page, where he’s looking for $10,000 to bottle wines he’s had in barriques since 2007 when his winemaking operation went belly-up.

Since then, he claims, he’s paid the light bills by teaching wine basics to those who want to open wineries.

Candy is dandy, liquor is quicker, but Quaaludes are outta the ball park.

Candy is dandy, liquor is quicker, but Quaaludes are outta the ball park.

Since Smith FUBARed his own winery, I’m not sure it wouldn’t make more sense to attend a class on consensual sex taught by Bill Cosby, but nonetheless, at a $500 donation level, your personal payback from Clark Smith’s Kickstarter campaign is admission to his Fundamentals of Modern Winemaking course, offered March 12-13, 2016.  He thereupon links the course syllabus, where, lo and behold, the actual cost you’d pay if you really wanted to attend, but not throw good money after bad with some bottling pipe dream, is $300.

Some business savvy, huh?  It’s not really that difficult to understand why a moke who would approach potential investors for a specific lump sum, then link them to a site where they can see the identical investment return for $200 less, is bankrupt.

beggar smithRandall Grahm, on the other hand, is not bankrupt.  Indeed, if he’s even close that means he’s managed to fritter away the cool $10 million he made on the sale of Big House and Cardinal Zin to The Wine Group LLC in 2006, and thus, might not be the wisest yard in which to toss your altruistic bones.

Randall Grahm is a loveable roly-poly snuggle-bunny of a sacred cow among wine writers. And I like him—I really do.  When I was just starting to write about wine, he gave me long, convoluted, beyond-the-call-of-duty  interviews.  So, this is not meant as a bitch slap.  But then as now, as endearing, charming, funny and otherworldy cosmic as he may be, he always struck me as having a bat or two loose in the ol’ belfry; a Wicked Wing short of a Family Bucket.

He’s done some mighty innovative things over the years, granted, and although when I read his windbaggy, loco-loquacious emails, I roll my eyes to the point where I occasionally require emergency ocular surgery, I read it nonetheless—if for no other reason than to find out what hare-brained notion he’s come up with this month.

Of course, until now, he wasn’t asking me to underwrite him.

Popelouchum and Randallouchum

Popelouchum and Randallouchum

On Tuesday, he send out mass-mailing under the heading ‘A Modest Proposal’,  looking for $350,000 to grubstake a plot of San Juan Bautista farmland  called ‘Popelouchum’ where he’d like to develop 10,000 new vinifera varieties. Each grape, he claims, would  be genetically distinct, and would ultimately be blended into a single wine ‘such as the world has not tasted heretofore.’

‘Heretofore’, Randall; seriously?  You mean, like, ‘before’?

For the curious, ‘Popelouchum’ is not an Ohlone Indian word for ‘Batshit Crazy’; it is what the tribe used to call Grahm’s 280-acre farm HMD—Heretofore Manifest Destiny.

A Modest Evaluation of an Immodest Proposal

In the first place, Native Americans die of alcohol-related causes three times more often than the general population; thus, naming an adult beverage after an Indian village is sort of like naming a toll road after the Freeway Killer or a hospice after R.J. Reynolds.

Whispering Osmark Subdivision

Whispering Ostmark Subdivision

In the second place, just as I’m amused at subdivisions like Whispering Pines or Wildflower Village or Meadowbrook Estates, named after whatever the developers had to destroy in order to build it, so I retain the right to be amused by naming land after the very people we stole it from.  It’s like if Hitler had forcibly annexed Austria and renamed it ‘Austria’.

But, a bigger question is, if Grahm is intent on blending all of his 10,000 new grapes together in a single unique cuvée, why does he need them each to be genetically distinctive?  Wouldn’t it make better business sense to breed 5000 grapes, each with two unique characteristics—then all this hifalutin’ tomfoolery would only set you and me back $175 k.

The Vineyard of Dr.  Moreau.

The Vineyard of Dr. Moreau.

Or better yet, how about developing one varietal with 10,000 unique characteristics?  Then it would only cost a buck, and you’d be in my price rage.

Almost as amusing as the whole chuckleheaded concept is the requisite list of ‘rewards’ that Randall offers those among his willowy minnowy minions who nibble at the bait:

For five dollars, he says thank you. For $25 he sends you three posters, described as ‘Discontinued, with only a few left!  Who knows what treasures you will receive?’ which I take to mean, ‘You’re paying me twenty-five bucks so I can clean out my attic, and I’m not even sure what’s up there.’  

graham of cocaineBut here’s the ringer: For $100, my friends—a single C-note, ten tenners, the price of a Grahm of cocaine—we get to name one of Randall’s new varieties of wine grapes—a grape never grown or tasted heretofore or aftertofore and, Randall claims, without restriction.

My God, people!  Do you see the possibilities here?  For a mere hundred bucks, Randall Grahm will do all the heavy lifting in the developing and testing of a brand new wine grape we’ll then name Felch-Faced noir or Bukkaki blanc or Jiggity Jigaboo Jurançon or Dykey Diddly Butch-Buggering Sucky Fucky or…

Help me out here!  Get in on the ground floor!  I just decided to launch  a Kickstart campaign to raise that measly hundred dollars, and for any sponsorship of my personal quest to name a grape ‘Petite Give The Fucking Land Back to the Fucking Ohlone’—or whatever name we collectively agree upon—we should raise a righteous ruckus  on Randall’s rollicking ranchland.  Are we there yet?!  Are we there yet?!

Who’s in, droogies?


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Charlotte’s Telaraña

Any British woman who sends a townful of Spaniards an invitation to a Battle of Trafalgar Anniversary Party is my kinda broad.

The fact that October 21 (the date Lord Nelson defeated the Spanish Navy during the Napoleonic Wars) also happens to be her birthday is immaterial.  Charlotte Allen indicated that only in the invitation’s fine print—print so fine that some of her neighbors missed it and stayed away in a snit.

She gets a kick out of the story to this day.  And small wonder: She has been embroiled in a complicated love/hate/eat/drink/snicker relationship with her neighbors for more than eight years now.

charlotte3pgIn the early part of this century, wearied of the British wine trade, the London-based merchant set out to create a wine estate of her own.  She apprenticed in Vouvray, picked grapes in South Africa and studied in Southern Rhône, but when set out to chase her dream (with an eye on France), a friend in Rueda suggested tranquil but rugged Arribes, a new DO in Northwest Spain where she could buy a hectare of vineyards for the price of three vines in Burgundy.  Undeterred by the fact that she didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture, hadn’t heard of the indigenous grapes they grow and for the most part, didn’t know how to make wine out of them anyway, Charlotte Allen bought a French car and made the road trip to Fermoselle, a backwater hamlet on the Portuguese border.

Since then, if she’s looked back, it’s only to remind herself what a marvelous adventure life can be for those willing to grab it by the short hairs.



In 2006, she bought 14 hectares (roughly 35 acres) of vineyard in Arribes , and has spun quite a telaraña of intrigue in the medieval village of Fermoselle on the banks of the Douro River.  She produces three outstanding field blends in miniscule quantities: Her Pirita label currently includes a white and a red, and now, there’s a third—a highly concentrated and beautiful window dresser made only in years where all the viticultural stars align over her low-yield vineyards, where some of the plantings are over a century old.

Carlota’s Way

Cabecero de Lomo

Cabecero de Lomo

On Tuesday evening, I had a chance to break bread with Charlotte Allen, and literally—our baguette was ideal substrate for the Cabecero de Lomo she brought from her new home town.  This cured and marbled wonder, made from acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico pigs, was itself substrate for Charlotte’s conversation and why winemakers like her are (to schleps like me) the lifeblood of the industry:  The columns write themselves.

We couldn’t get passed a bite of the embutido, for example, without her launching a story about the drunken, lecherous, eccentric Fermoselle butcher who made it, a local crank to whom ‘pork’ is a verb as well as a noun.

Anyway, once it was established that no tale was taboo, it was off to the races, which is not a reference to chasing bulls, included in the five minute video on Charlotte you can watch if my portrait of this fascinating British expat seems in any way incomplete.  I’ll link it at the end.

Spanish mules

Spanish mules

She regaled me for an hour with tales of her learning curve, including mastering the lost art of mule-ploughing, required in her peculiar, ancient vineyards which contain no trellising and appear in photos as random, stumpy vines dotting a russet-brown plateau—her eleven parcels range from elevations of 1600  to 2600 feet, and some of it is totally inaccessible to tractors.  She convinced a local vineyard manager to train her in the art of mulery, and—in her philosophy of doing everything herself, ‘from A to Zed’—mule-ploughed the vineyards, drawing the ire of her mentor when she insisted on instructing the Spanish-speaking mule in English.

“The mule was bi-lingual,” she jokes. “Amusing, because nobody else in Fermoselle is.  In fact, most of them can barely speak Spanish.”

Carlota in the thick of it.

Carlota in the thick of it.

Descriptions of indigenous arrogance and naïvity, illogical traditions and funny, generally reality-challenged attitudes among her fellow Fermosellians forms the core of Charlotte’s conversational repartee; she loves to talk about their mendacity, their provincial pigheadedness, their steadfast self-confidence, but with the affection of one who has adopted the inhabitants of this strange, stark, hauntingly beautiful milieu as her home.

And nowhere is her ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ fatalism more evident than in the above referenced video, titled ‘My name is Carlota’.

She explains:  “Because when I first arrived in Arribes I was driving a French car, the locals referred to me as ‘Carlota la Francesa’, even though I was not French and my name isn’t Carlota.  And yet, so persistent were they, that’s how I now refer to myself.”

When In Rome…

…do as the Spaniards.



We also had a fascinating convo about the origin of the grapes she grows—seventeen varietals in all, only about three of which are likely familiar even to the most geeky wine scholar.  Conventional wisdom suggests that Spanish varieties were planted by the Romans, setting up shop after whupping Carthaginian butt in the Punic Wars.  But some of the more singular grapes on her property, Juan García, Puesta en Cruz and Rufete may be much older than that, with ancestry tracing back to the Phoenicians, who colonized the area a thousand years earlier.

Charlotte Carlota, with her deep-seated ambivalence (and perhaps subconsciously), sort of prefers this history:  “The Romans hated the Phoenicians,” she quips.  “Even as they learned from them.”

The varieties mentioned above, along with Malvasía, Godello and Bruñal form the base of her wines.  She ferments each variety separately and does the blending afterward, although when asked why a certain percentage of this grape and a certain percentage of another make up the final brew, she’s apt to say, “Because that’s all I had,” not, “That’s how I wanted it.”

Indeed, Charlotte’s approach is extreme winemaking; an ongoing experiment—with only a handful of vintages under her belt, she’s learning, vintage by vintage, how to (not manhandle) womanhandle each grape, assessing the dish that each brings to the potluck and how the interplay of organoleptics works.

Pirita White, 2011, is a wine that seems to exude the odor of mature oak and all the myriad flavors associated therein. t I was both chagrinned and delighted to discover that the wine is wholly naked—unoaked.  The predominant aroma of butterscotch, underscored by vanilla and appealing nuttiness is produced by the grapes—although which specific grape remains in question.  The wine has an unctuous quality that Charlotte says has developed in the bottle; the light oily sensation on the palate, not unlike that of certain mature Gewurztraminers,  coats the mouth and allows light green apple flavors and citrus notes to linger and mingle for a while.  Light on acid, but heavy with personality, a final unusual scent arose from the wine after it had been open for an hour or so: An unmistakable whiff of shortbread cookies.  It is, no doubt, the Brit coming out in the glass.

pirita 2012Pirita Red, 2012 offers an initial blast of licorice, something for which Charlotte credits Juan García—the grape, not the billion Spaniards who share the name.  JG is grown almost exclusively in Galicia, Salamanca and Zamora, with Arribes acting as its unofficial ground zero; it’s hugely perfumed and makes a somewhat harsh wine when vinified alone, but when blended with Rufete and Bruñal (and here with a touch of Tempranillo) the wine becomes much rounder, fatter and more interesting.

Still, the tannins in the 2012 remain tight and have not yet settled in with the fruit, making the wine massive and chewy through the finish.

her nameA better example of what bottle age does to la Francesa’s wines is seen in her eponymous label, Charlotte Allen, 2009.  It displays a similar profile, albeit more intense, but with the addition of cellar years, the rough woody edges are sanded to a silken finish.  The wine again opens with sweet licorice, this time gilded in bittersweet notes of chocolate.  Buried deeply in the complex and spicy savoriness are bright black cherry notes, roasted coffee, and an appealing scent of cumin.  An odd, but interesting note of paraffin emerges after half an hour in the glass, and the tension between the fruit  and the spices plays well through the palate in a silken vibrancy.

The tannins—with all the time they needed to integrate—wrap up the package with only a light, and entirely appealing, impact.

Embedded for nearly a decade, now, Charlotte Allen retains her English whimsy—her sense of humor is as dry as her product and as crusty as the sediment her unfiltered wines may throw.  But I believe that despite herself, she is slowly turning into a Spaniard, becoming imbued with the ancient wisdoms and irrational superstitions.

hearstKnown as Stockholm Syndrome, or capture-bonding, this is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages begin to identify with their captors.

And emulate them.

Patty Hearst had it, and I think Charlotte Allen might have it too.

She now speaks Spanish like a native, pronouncing ‘Manzanilla’ (she also has five hundred olive trees) and ‘García’ like she’s missing her two front teeth.  She forgets entire abstractions in English and has to ask our bilingual host how to explain them to me.

But most telling is her bio on the Dolega Group artisan winery fact sheet. It states:  “Allen’s wines are not filtered; they are bottled with the new moon, so this is not necessary.”

Believing that wine will or won’t throw sediment based on the lunar cycle is not a British concept, trust me; not even when they were painting themselves blue and building villages in the middle of lakes.  It is the superstition of an old and isolated tribe, the shibboleth of sharecroppers, the hoodoo of hayseeds.

podCharlotte is transforming into an Fermosellian Arribethean, like one of those pod people from ‘Body Snatchers’…

For final proof, I say we wait until November 22 and see if she sends out invitations to her family back in England:  That will mark the 420th anniversary of the Battle of San Juan in which Spain soundly defeated Sir Francis Drake and the British Navy.

If those invites show up, we’ll know for sure that she’s pulled a Patty Hearst—especially in she pronounces it ‘Heartht’.


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Spanish Nor’Wester: A Mighty Wine

Northwest Spain is a treasure trove of venerable varietals, most of which are completely unknown to American consumers and their strange fixation on the familiar.



For example, Carrasquín.  One of four grapes native to Asturias, it produces a dark, muscular wine of considerable ferocity—both acidic and tannic.  The failure to embrace Carrasquín as we have, say, Tannat, may in part be due to a relative scarcity of information—and the quality of the information that exists.  Bedi Page Wine, a Spanish website, offers this Google-translated pidgin description, verbatim:  “The outbreak is of average density of hairs lying, weak intensity of anthocyanins pigmentation, forming a border around the edge.”

Then there’s Mencía, not to be confused with the mind of Carlos, that Honduran hotdog from Comedy Central—this a fragrant, lighter-weight cultivar that has traditionally made quick-to-consume farmhouse wine, easy to swig, difficult to age.  The current crop of winemakers have begun to rediscover the beauty in the grape when yields are limited and innate shortcomings are shored up in blends.

The Tinto Twins, Verdejo Tinto, and Albarín Tinto, are the black sheep of their respective families, and they make up the rest of the Asturias homeboy quartet.

pésico labelAll four make it into Dominio del Urogallo’s ‘Pésico’, 2012 (around $30), an exotic cornucopia of scents and flavors that highlight Nicolás Marcos’ conviction that the soil, microclimate and indigenous grapes of Cangas del Narcea (a quality denomination within Asturias) are capable of delivering a world-class product.

The terroir of Cangas emphasizes the terror part; the Cántabro-Atlántica is essentially marshland punctuated by mountains, and Nico’s parcels are on hillsides so steep they seem better suited for launching hang-gliders than tending vineyards.

Nicolás Marcos

Nicolás Marcos

But here is where Nico has eked out a biodynamic nirvana; eighteen acres near the magical forest of Muniellos which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  He walks a difficult ecological walk in his damp surrounds by using holistic farming techniques while eschewing the artificial, both in his vineyard and in his cellar.

Only 700 cases of Pésico were produced.

The wine exudes a remarkable nose—a certain indefinable blend of ripe summery berries.  And I say that in all humility, because it is my gig to define aromas, and these were almost other-worldly, like a fruit bush you’d find growing in some H.G. Wells shangri-la where dinosaurs still roam.

north windIn any case, the nose is voluptuous and ripe, displaying magnificent depth and multiple extraordinary, alien flavors.  The mouthfeel struck me as a bit harsh, I admit—huge tannins that parches the mouth like one of those suction tubes the dentist jams in your pie hole when you’re bleeding.  But, that’s something a little down-time might take care of—the wine sees plenty of oak, including second-year barrels from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which is not for the feint of palate.

This is one of those greater-flavored, lesser-known Spanish reds that blusters without flattening the house; a mighty wine from a mighty tiny lot—you should try a bottle while the wind is blowing in this direction.

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Antichrist Miracle? Wine Without Water

“Damn, Sam–what happened to Napa?”

Water should not be a source of agita to me, but it is.  When I was a kid, getting a drink of water was a pain-free proposition: I got a glass out of the dish rack next to the sink, filled it up from the tap in the sink, rinsed it in the sink, then put it back in the rack by the sink.

For my children, life is not so basic.  Them getting a drink of water requires me to drive to Costco, buy a $6 case of Ice Mountain, lug it to my truck and drive home.  When they’re done, I have to toss the empty into my blue Yuppie guilt box, take it to the curb, wait for the Recycling pogues to arrive in their special diesel truck that uses more energy in an hour than all the plastic I recycle is worth in a year.

Agita and water mixed is aguata.

Bobbie Sands would have loved Ray’s and Stark Bar

Bobby Sands would have loved Ray’s and Stark Bar

Water has become too complicated.  I remember another time, as a teenager, going into a restaurant and ordering ‘a glass of water’ and the waitress asking, ‘Do you want to see a menu?’ and me replying, ‘Why? Do you have different kinds of water?’

See, back then, that was epically funny shit.  Today, she’d have said ‘Yes’ and the place would have had twenty different kinds of designer water like upscale Ray’s and Stark Bar in L.A. with a 45-page menu dedicated entirely to bottled water.

Speaking of L.A., water is even more complicated there, because California is in the midst of the worst drought in a century, with half a million acres of farmland idle and the reservoirs dry.  In wine country, the pain is obvious and people are sitting around waiting for this winter’s El Niño like los niños wait for this winter’s Santa Claus.

In Michigan, we have no such concerns.  We’re waterlogged, over-indulged with Adam’s ale, surrounded by 84% of North America’s surface water, 21% of the world’s fresh water, 6 quadrillion gallons worth of cool, clean, pure dihydrogen oxide; only Santa Claus land contains more.  We are like Aquaman and Richie Rich combined into one cartoon superstar—Aquarich—and so spoiled and spoon-fed are we that we have been known to urinate in Lake Michigan.

We piss in our water supply, Californians:  How about them apples?

The real Natasha is in living color.

The real Natasha is in living color.

I bring this up because I saw a press release from Natasha Swords—who I assure you is precisely the stone-cold stunner that her name suggests she’d be—talking about a new technology called GOfermentor, set to ( quote) ‘revolutionize the winemaking process in the areas of oxygen control and water waste’.

The GOfermentor is the result of four years of development by one Dr. Vijay Singh, who owns multiple patents and has published hundreds of papers; the invention is intended to advance wine technology to a point where  no wash water is involved.

This is not the same Vijay Singh as the Masters Champion who, on April 7, 2009, skipped his golf ball over a water trap on the 16th hole, onto the green and into the cup.


Dr. Vijay Singh

Dr. Vijay Singh

Not to take anything away from Dr. Singh the poindexter biotech whiz-kid, but that golf water trick is far cooler than either the GOfermentor or the Wave Bioreactor, another Singh thing which (quote)  ‘revolutionized the production of biopharmaceuticals by using a disposable cultivation bag supported on a rocking platform’.

So, knowing nothing about the science of commercial wineology, I am, with the permission of the lovely Ms. Swords, printing a schematic of the GOfermentor in order to solicit input from my fellows in the winemaking trade:


I will require response before I start singing Singh’s song, so in the meantime, if any bored—but stunning—public relations professionals would care to go skinny-dipping in Lake Michigan, I’m all growed up now and way past, like, lake leaks; although if I do say so, I am myself considered something of a whiz-kid and a bonafide Number One, I promise you that a real man can hold his squeege.

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