Why Swiss Cheese Is Holy: Raclette-Making in Sutton’s Bay

The only thing more mid-America wholesome than church-going is cheese-making, so it’s fitting that John and Anne Hoyt—after years of bouncing around temporary Leelanau digs—landed inside the defunct Sutton’s Baby Bible Church.  Although it must be said, I can understand how you could go belly-up producing labor-intensive artisan cheese in a style most Michiganders have never heard of, but how do you flop as a church?

No matter; so far, the score is God – 0, Raclette – 1.

Jesus jokes in church.  Anne and John Hoyt are lucky lightning doesn't strike.

Jesus jokes in church. Anne and John Hoyt are lucky lightning doesn’t strike.

The story begins in the pastoral hills of Valais, Switzerland, home to half of Swiss wine production as well as ground zero for raclette—the semi-soft cheese whose eponymous dish is a culinary mainstay of this small, landlocked country.  Both Valaisian traditions combined to make John and Anne Hoyt; he was an exchange student from Detroit learning French while picking up seasonal work in the vineyards; she was a cowgirl from France doing seasonal work in the alpages of the Swiss mountains.  They met in 1986 at one of the many Swiss junctions where these two culture cultures meet and, finding that he had had more interest in caseiculture than viticulture, John went to Chateauneuf School in Valais to earn his cheese degrees.

After stints at several respected Swiss dairy co-ops, John and Anne traveled to Oregon, where John’s brother had an in at Springfield Creamery (owned by author Ken Kesey’s family) and from there, to Omena, Michigan in the Leelanau Peninsula where John used his European-honed pruning skills at Boskydel, L. Mawby, Leelanau Cellars and  Good Harbor, socking away nickels and dimes and on the lookout for a stainless steel pasteurizing vat so that the couple could pursue their one and true love.

Omena, pre-Hoyt

Omena, pre-Hoyt

“I finally found one in a neighbor’s basement; original purpose unknown,” John says, “but it was a steel-jacketed vat the right size to pasteurize enough milk to make eight wheels of raclette per day—our goal at the time.  We set up shop in an unused room next to Keith Brown’s Omena Harbor bar.  It used to be a gas station bay, so we had to clean the oil off the floors and fire up the boiler in the basement for heat.  That went well enough; I paid Keith a couple hundred dollars a month for use of the stalls and a percentage of sales.”

Hoyt's ready market for the leftovers

Hoyt’s ready market for the leftovers

A workable business plan until Brown sold the bar and the new owner neglected to pay the utility bills.  Cheesemaking, besides being a sterile proposition, requires precise temperature control.  “We were reduced to bringing in propane tanks to run the operation, and that got old pretty quickly.”

Add to that the stress of hauling milk up from Garvin Farms in Cedar in the back of his Ranger, nine cans at a time, and the future of Leelanau Cheese hung in the balance.

Black Star Farms days

Black Star Farms days

It was finally tipped by Lee Lutes, who in 2000 was (and is) the winemaker at Black Star Farms.  The cheeseworks relocated to the Farm, where Anne and John acidified, coagulated and separated curds from whey in full view of a semi-tipsy crowd in the winery tasting room.  They tripled production, upping the ante to 24 wheels per vat every couple days and found retail outlets that essentially bought every pound they didn’t sell through Black Star’s lively souvenir shop.

That lasted for fourteen years—and I recall it being a mandatory stop in Sutton’s Bay for plenty of those years.  Whatever happened I am not a party to—somebody cheesed somebody off, who knows?—maybe it was just time to move on—but the new operation in the repurposed sacellum, where the sprawling ex-prayer room serves as the the place where the magic happens, is perfect.

To Brie or Not to Brie…

"Not much of a cheese shop, really, is it?"

“Not much of a cheese shop, really, is it?”

Had John Cleese wandered into Leelanau Cheese, his conversation with John and Anne Hoyt might have progressed exactly as it did in the classic Monty Python sketch; there’s no caerphilly, perle de Champagne, gorgonzola, camembert or mozzarella—certainly no Venezuelan beaver cheese—and of the thirty-seven other cheeses the customer requests in his frustrating television attempt to cheese-up, he makes no mention of raclette.  Too bad: If he had, he’d have walked out a happy man.  Like Germany and wine, Leelanau Cheese makes only one product and makes it better than anyone else.

Don’t take my word for it, though.  The American Cheese Society awarded John and Anne Best of Show in 2007 and at the Michigan State Fair, they’re seven times champions. Follow-up awards from the Wisconsin-sponsored U.S. Championship Cheese Contest must have been like a California wine winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976.

Raclette wheels

Raclette wheels

So, what is raclette?  Like most people, I thought it was the name of the 1970s melted-cheese party dish like fondue rather than the cheese itself, but it turns out that raclette day was a lazy one for people-who-name-meals.  Raclette is classified as either semi-soft or semi-hard (as riesling—an ideal accompaniment—can be labeled ‘semi-dry’ or ‘semi-sweet’ depending on the marketing strategy) and is characterized by an edible, nut-brown crust that forms after a brine bath and an inoculation of yeast and coryneform bacteria; the cheese then undergoes a period of cellar aging during which it is washed with salt water daily.

In the ideal wheel, the interior is smooth, ivory-colored and gently piquant with flavors of buttery hazelnuts, herbs and resplendent with earthy complexity.  Melted, preferably before a roaring hearth fire and requisite in serving raclette-the-meal, it becomes velvety and runny and traditionally accompanies small Valaisian potatoes and gherkins.

Unwilling to be labeled ‘one-trick-ponies’, the Hoyts produce not one, but two presentations of raclette, neither made from pony milk.  The ‘sharp’ version undergoes prolonged aging in order to ripen; up to ten months in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

Wannabe cheese cave, Sept., 2014

Wannabe cheese cave, Sept., 2014

On the day I visited, work was underway to construct a massive steel-and-concrete cellar in the rear of the property, which, when completed, will be to cheesemaking what the Large Hadron Collider is to particle physics—both inventions of the Swiss, by the way.  Age-time is always a delicate balance between spoilage and improveage; that’s why it has to be approached with such surgical precision.  Done correctly, a transformation of casein proteins and milk fat into a complex mix of amino acids, amines and fatty acids happens gradually, turning a mild, milky young cheese into a graceful oldster filled with character and depth.  The tang of aldehydes and alpha-keto acids offer a sensory experience that is often called ‘sharp’, although like ‘Reserve’ on a wine label, there is no industry standard for such a designation.  In any case, Leelanau Cellars’ aged raclette offers an array of variations on a theme: Beneath the taffy-colored rind, the pungency is more pronounced, the nuttiness nuttier and the richness redoubled in a slightly drier package; there is a savory weight to it that seems almost meat-like. For the extra two and a half bucks a pound, it is well worth it.

palinWhen asked why he has not branched out into other cheese varieties, through curiosity, if nothing else, John Hoyt gave me the same sort of puzzled stare that Michael Palin did when asked if he carried cheddar, the most popular cheese in the world—a look that said, “Not much call for it around these parts.”  In fact, cheddaring—an add-on process in cheesemaking wherein the curds are kneaded and stacked—is something requiring extra time, extra space and extra practice, none of which the Hoyts are currently able to invest.

“I would like to try my hand at Gruyère,” he admits, naming the other, similar quintessentially Swiss cheese, which is a little like a pinot blanc maker saying he’d like to branch out into pinot gris.

For now, we’ll have to settle for the raclette and the Cheesus puns; the glittery highbrow and the guttery lowbrow that makes Leelanau Cheese Co. such a Pythonesque paradigm.

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Bryan Ulbrich: Putting His Left Foot Forward

Sitting outdoors on one of those quintessential Traverse City summer afternoons that are chilly and hot simultaneously, Bryan Ulbrich pours a glass of something special.

Bryan Ulbrich

Bryan Ulbrich

At least, he maintains that it will be special; the vines are young and this is the first vintage ever bottled—the grower planted a single acre and he only ended up with 35 cases.

The wine is as much a oddball in Grand Traverse wine country as Bryan Ulbrich is an icon and Left Foot Charley a landmark: Chenin blanc.

Chenin blanc, often called ‘Steen’ in South Africa and ‘Pineau de la Loire’ in the Loire—two regions responsible for the most alluring incarnations of the variety—is a high-acid grape as suitable for a sparkle as it is for dessert wine: Sélection de Grains Nobles from the Loire’s Coteaux du Layon are potent, honeyed versions of the latter.

Chenin grapes

Chenin grapes

South Africa produces twice the amount of chenin blanc that France does; in fact, with more than 20% of all their vineland planted to this varietal, they make more than anyone in the world, although the bulk (no pun) is monumentally forgetable.  Whereas it has a unique flavor profile, showing notes of lime, green apple and especially, an odd overtone of garden shrubbery—what the South Africans call ‘fynbos’—it tends to be somewhat neutral and flat-tasting without a lot of terroir expression.  In cooler vintages, it verges on undrinkably acidic, and not only that, the buds tend to break very early in the season.

So why chenin blanc here in the Great White North and why now?  Ulbrich quickly passes the buck:

“The grower insisted, that’s why.  It was a project he believed in.  The first planting failed, and the plants refused to shut down; they were still green in November.  Next year, we had better luck, and that’s the vintage you’re tasting.”

Bryan Ulbrich has a habit of trusting his growers, which is one of the reasons he’s one of the Grand Traverse winemakers that I trust implicitly in return. Over the many years that I’ve been sampling his stock, I can say without question that he rarely fails on the delivery.

His youthful, alluring chenin blanc was no exception. Wines made from first harvests can be mono-dimensional, based in part on root depth, but the aromatics here were bright and strikingly layered, with peach, green plum, guava and—in nacent form—the herbal crunch of late summer that so distinguishes this grape in a wine glass.  As vines age, they tend to ‘wise up’, delving deeper for nuance flavors through various soil strata, and I have no doubt that this is a rising star in the Ulbrich portfolio.

Antrim County.  Odd looking grape country, huh?

Antrim County. Odd looking grape country, huh?

Same with sauvignon blanc—another cultivar that doesn’t get much airplay across Grand Traverse wine country.  In fact, he’s been using fruit from Antrim County, the northeastern corner of the region covered here. Antrim soils tend to be denser than the twin peninsulas to the left, with more clay; silt abounds, and there has been little erosion since glacial times.  It is, in fact, potato country. A 1928 survey claimed, ‘About 13% of the county is swampy or always wet’—an admotition to plant wine grapes somewhere in the other 67%.

And, despite a geological profile that is perhaps the polar opposite of the gravelly, well-drained the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux, Ulbrich has found a number of elevated pockets in Antrim with correct sun exposures where the ‘green monster’—excessively grassy, super-acidic sauvignon or it’s counterpart, over-ripe soapiness in the wine—can be fought with success.

Antrim County is part of Bryan Ulbrich’s success story—he sees it as an oasis of growth with plenty of potential.  Land prices are cheaper and the county is huge; it’s where he sees a lot of his future grape harvests originating… grown, as always, by someone else.

bryan small“We accepted early that we would not be ‘landed’ people,” he says, tipping a glass of the selfsame sauvignon blanc, where savory tropical pineapple and pink grapefruit surfaces above the fresh hay scents.  “I’m not claiming to be an artist, but I am certainly not the world’s greatest businessman either.  Owning vineyard acres has not been part of the plan.”

This allows him to utilize the marketing hook ‘Urban Winery’—Left Foot Charley is located in the heart of bustling Traverse City, inside, as it happens, a former mental asylum. I have it on good authority that there is no corrolation between that fact and the relative insanity of his 2004 decision to go into winemaking.

That story began when Ulbrich was convinced to postpone a vacation and rescue a local vineyard that had fallen on hard horticultural habits thanks to a new owner who had about as much business growing wine grapes as The Hillside Strangler has dating my daughter. Apparently, vital things like canopy management had been neglected and powdery mildew was threatening the harvest, and even with his best efforts, Bryan was only able to salvage a small crop of riesling.

That led to a eureka moment which is best elucidated by plagiarizing his website:

‘Throughout Northern Michigan there are numerous small vineyards owned and farmed by individuals who do not have wineries. The grapes were often sent to giant blends. Many of these viticulturists are excellent farmers and deserve to see their work turned into wine.’

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Turning their work into wine has been the divine mission of Ulbrich ever since.  Setting up shop in the old loony bin—the last Kirkbride Building in Michigan, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978—he partnered with eighteen local growers, each representing a specific terroir, philosophy and varietal repertoire. He produces around fifteen thousand cases of wine annually, which makes him larger than most ‘boutique’ wineries in the area, but he’s held to that mindset by fermenting in 300 gallons lots—from grapes that likewise come from small, fiercely manicured plots of vineland.

For example, take his ‘Tale Feather Vineyard’ pinot gris, 2012; perhaps the nicest manifestation of this intense and interesting variety yet produced in Grand Traverse.

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

In Michigan, pinot gris has been an experiment in progress since it was first installed by Leelanau’s Larry Mawby in 1981 after Myron Redford of Oregon’s Amity vineyard sent him cuttings; those vines, now three decades into it, are still producing.  But Larry never intended pinot gris to be a stand-alone variety, and notes that its contribution to his salubrious, celebrious sparkling wines offered a distinct ‘roundess’ of flavor that balances the pinot noir and chardonnay.  Even now, most Michigan growers with acres to pinot gris dabble rather than devote.

“I was impressed that Theresa and Gary decided to plant this somewhat exotic grape, “says Bryan, speaking of his Old Mission growers, the Wilsons.  “Plenty of farmers would have gone another way and planted a less exotic grape that might have had more face recognition, but would not have achieved greatness.”

Tale Feathers Vineyard

Gary and Theresa, Tale Feathers Vineyard

The west slope of ‘Tale Feathers Vineyard’—(which is indeed the correct spelling; I asked) is on an elevated hill overlooking Power Island.  The sandy, loamy, two-acre site winds up being ideal gris ground, with a cool bay breeze to sharpen the acids while judicious leaf manipulation draw in enough sunshine to sweeten the pot.  In the 2012, it shows a big, sweet nose of honey, melon, baked pear and lemon and delivers equal fullness and fruit across the palate, adding mango to the mélange, finishing with a clarity of pinot gris expressiveness.

A 9-iron drive from Tale Feathers Vineyard is Werner and Margrit Keuhnis’s ‘Island View Vineyard’, on the eastern side of the same hill.  The couple is Swiss, and according to Ulbrich, “The vineyard looks Swiss, too, by which I mean, it’s perfect.”

To which a true Käser would reply, ‘Not perfect yet…”

Island View fruit

Island View fruit

This is where Ulbrich sources gris’ blonder sister grape, pinot blanc. Island View (same island; Power) Vineyard covers an acre, and by the time Werner took charge in 2000, it had been through several non-Swiss hands who’d left it in dire need of some TLC.  Werner took note of each vine’s wish list and hand delivered the prescription: The vineyard is dry-farmed and has not seen a grain of synthetic fertilizer since his tenure began.

Keuhnis is  from Bryan’s school of canopy management, which is to say that the leaves must be pruned so that sufficient sunshine is allowed to reach the clusters; without it, sugars are not able to develop to optimum.  The vineyard faces inland, and is blessed with a thick layer of nutrient-rich, water-retaining loam.  The resulting pinot blanc (from vintage 2012) is dry and medium-bodied; it exhibits well-defined pinot blanc aromatics of lightly-toasted almond,  green apple and quince, nice, moderate mid-palate with a bit of peach and lychee. The acid did not appear to be exactly where it should be, and Bryan confirmed that due to warm weather and fermentation that stopped early, the titrable acid in the final wine was a little low compared to residual sugar.

Still, Bryan’s overall fermentation technique is pretty straightforward: He does not fine with agents or use yeast strains that produce a lot of esters. The result in most of his end product, and pinot blanc especially, is a non-manipulated wine that reflect what the vintage, as well as the grape, has to offer without being shoved into a costume.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling is the grape grown most aggressively in Grand Traverse, and it’s the variety which which Ulbrich has the most leeway, both in terms of style and grower.

As it is in Germany, riesling has been considered the lynchpin of the Michigan vitis vinifera industry, owing in part to the similarity in climate, but perhaps as much to the simple, sugary rieslings that were the mainstay wines of a lot of Michiganders with German roots and plebian tastes.

Where the Germans rely on steeply sloped river banks to achieve maximum ripeness, Michigan has hillsides and Grand Traverse Bay.  In both locations, grade and water allow grapes to flourish in a climate where they’d otherwise perish during the first January deep-freeze.  That said, most Michigan rieslings (and indeed, rieslings from anywhere in the United States) have generally paled in comparison to the great German estates of, for example, Rüdesheimer, Johannisberg and Winkel.

It is, of course, a misconception to suppose that German riesling is all are styled like the wines of Rheingau—big, concentrated, long-palate wines that brim with apricot, guava and spiciness. Whereas wines from Lake Michigan Shore, further south, can at least lay claim to a version of a climate that can snag these tasting notes. Grand Traverse cannot.  So, Bryan Ulbrich wisely takes his cue not from nonpareil Schloss Vollrads, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg and Künstler, but from the crisper, elegant and often more perfumed wines of the chillier German wine region, the Mosel.

proseSeventh Hill Farm is in Old Mission’s far north, probably beyond the range of the fat ripening and long hang-time that Rheingau riesling enjoys.  Tom and Linda Scheuerman work the five acre site, formerly a cherry orchard, where a southern face creates a solar array ideal for making grape sugar while it can.  Soils are gravelly and sandy, equaling drainage—one of riesling’s requisite contract riders.  And Bryan’s 2012 riesling exploits such canny care and clever conception to the max: It is beautifully crafted; light and lovely with damp stone and key lime scents on the nose, a precisely focused palate showing a core of minerality sprinkled with crisp citrus, pine, green apple and that unmistakable riesling signet, goût petrol.

Currently, Left Foot Charley has a trio of rieslings on release; beside the aforementioned, Bryan offers a 2013 late harvest version called Missing Spire (named for the architectural feature atop the asylum that disappeared along with the inmates) and comes in at a respectable 3.24 g/L residual sugar.  Also, he has begun to produce a lively riesling from the youngest block of vines from Seventh Hill Farm on Old Mission Peninsula; this one is called ‘Prose’ for reasons I don’t entirely grasp, because it is poetry in a glass.

All of these selections show Bryan’s golden touch with golden wines; a most bearable lightness of being.

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Teague Fatigue: When Wine Writers Scrape The Bottom Of The Limousin Barrel To Make Deadline

khaleesiUnlike Lettie Teague, I don’t have to come up with wine column ideas.  I am beholden to no man, woman, trannie or Murdoch meat grinding daily like The Wall Street Journal; I can write when, how and about what I choose, up to and including Khaleesi’s lovely ochre/sepia-toned nipples, and still refer to myself as a wine journalist.

Why then (might come the logical rejoinder) waste time writing a column I don’t have to write about a column that Lettie did have to write?

Lettie Teague

Lettie Teague

Easy peasy, cheesy sleazies: I have to regain face after I accidently let slip the fact that I find WSJ’s wine columnist sort of hot in a scrawny, liberal-arts-major, intellectually earnest and enologically overbearing sort of way.

Actually, what I said was that I wouldn’t kick her out of the sack for eating Aspinal of London Luxury Christmas Crackers, but whatever; I have a friend who mocks me anyway by emailing random odd things that Lettie Teague comes up with in order to fill her weekly word count for a hoary old business journal and challenges me to think with my head instead of my petrified trouser dragon.

The latest was: ‘The Pleasant Surprise of Chain-Restaurant Wines’, WSJ, August 29, 2014.  http://online.wsj.com/articles/the-pleasant-surprise-of-chain-restaurant-wines-1409328776

Ergo, thoughts on this odd article:

wall streetI say ‘odd’, but actually, long before genuine oddness sets in, you need to read beyond the column’s first exegetic, non-ambiguous clause:

‘High-end chains such as PF Chang’s and Fleming’s Steakhouse are inarguably popular.’

Right; so if their popularity is inarguable, why mention it?  This is the WSJ, not Jack & Jill in the pediatrician’s waiting room—assume that your readers do not need you to state the obvious, unless of course you are being paid by the word.  But, I digress.

mortsIn any case, the non-sexual thrust of the article is that Ms. Teague was ‘surprised’ to discover that certain upscale restaurants have upscale wine lists, even if the servers can’t engage in enlightened banter over specific vintages of Avancia Cuvée De O Godello.  Her surprise is further augmented when she learns that a white-tablecloth restaurant like Morton’s Steakhouse, where checks average $170 per couple pre-gratuity, has not one, but four sommeliers at their Midtown Manhattan location, failing to note that getting a sommelier certificate in 2014 is even easier than getting a boner during Game Of Thrones.

She also points out (correctly) that the California cabernets on the list are overpriced, and opts instead for a $70 bottle of Argentina malbec which she knows retails for twenty.

All of which is odd, granted, but the oddity that seemed oddest is that the theme of the article is Lettie’s surprise that these specific spots (Fleming’s, Houston’s and that Chinese chingadera P.F. Chang’s are also included) take pride in providing decent wines to their clientele.  Why? Because they are, after all—in WSJ biz-speak—‘chain restaurants’, that’s why.

One of these Morton's sommeliers is a real person.

One of these Morton’s sommeliers is a real person.

That’s the whole surprise-worthy factor: The chain gang, in the opinion of our favorite Wall Street journalistette, actually shows wine savvy in choosing a selection of which she approves—even if, as she quips (possibly to lend credence to her initial postulation)—“When I asked our waitress if I could speak to a sommelier, she replied, ‘You mean an actual person?’”

Her bitingly sarcastic response, not given in the article, is likely to have been something memorable like, “No, you dense twat, I want a fictitious person to recommend a Strongwine from Dorne—as dark as blood and as sweet as vengeance.”

Anyway, so far, so good.

hoosier_chick_mousepadThe thing is, though, Lettie Teague may be breaking Christmas crackers on Rupert Murdoch’s nickel and quaffing malbec with a 350% markup on Fifth Avenue, but at the close of the day, she’s a corn-fed Hoosier chick who did, in fact, attend a liberal arts college (Kenyon) and knows (I suspect) that when Midwesterners think of chain restaurants, Morton’s Steakhouse is not the first joint that leaps to mind.

In fact, the expression, ‘If he takes you to Morton’s, he’s worth a second date’ is precisely why I intend to take Daenerys Targaryen there, on the off-chance she doesn’t put out on the first one.

shineAs Lettie well knows (even if her editor-in-chief Gerard Baker doesn’t), to us vast sea of slack-jawed yokels between New York and L.A., some of whom actually read The Wall Street Journal, ‘chain restaurant’ means places like Applebee’s, TGIF, Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel, where the only ‘surprise’ is that they don’t serve white mule in mason jars.

Since I am not on any hoity-toity, fancy-schmancy New York expense account, were I to write a column on chain restaurant wine lists, the tone of the piece might be somewhat different.

For starters, there’d be no pleasant surprises.

Ergo ² :

applebeesApplebee’s: The list aims to be all-encompassing, so long as your compass points due 7-Eleven.  Classic offerings from Sutter Home, Sutter Home, Sutter Home and Sutter Home are balanced with ambrosial Barefoot and gems from Cupcake Cellars.  Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is the lone breakaway ‘Vintner’s Reserve, a wine so bland and sweet that it might as well be served from a soda fountain; considering they sell twenty-four million bottles of it a year, not sure how much the vintner could conceivably be reserving.

tgiT.G.I.F.:  Thank God I freebase; otherwise this tired, lowest-common-denominator list would turn me into a teetotaler.  What line-up of mediocrity would be complete without Beringer White Zinfandel and Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio to shore up the (again) Cupcake Cellars and KJVR?  One that includes (as its high water mark) Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, the wine that proves that Marlborough is capable of turning their premier grape into something flat and forgettable.

"Anywhere but here, Mikey."

“Anywhere but here, Mikey.”

Olive Garden: The ‘Picking The Right Wine’ comments on their menu suggest merlot with chicken and chardonnay with beef, so you know from the giddy-up that you are encountering some iconoclasts in the OG wine program.  Cavit wines form the backbone of the list; they sell for $6.50 per glass and up, while the wine retails for around $5.50 a bottle, which means that the chain is probably paying around $4.  This might be understandable if pasta wasn’t such a goddamn high margin foodstuff to begin with.  The list actually includes the semi-decent Francis Ford Coppola’s Diamond Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, but not to put too fine a point on it, if Michael Corleone chose to blow me away in an Olive Garden, I would carry the ignominy into eternity.

Cracker Barrel reject

Cracker Barrel reject

Cracker Barrel:  Hands down, Cracker Barrel—the company that drew the ire of normal people when it refused to hire gay waiters and still represents a big night-on-the-town for the very demographic that its name pays homage to (crackers)—wins the chain restaurant wine list contest by a country mile simply by refusing to have one.  They claim that serving wine would clash with their ‘family-oriented’ theme, but I suspect the real reason is that they think of wine as liquid gay.

With apologies to Ms. Teague, this is how a real Midwesterner rates chain restaurant wine lists.  Granted, it’s hard to keep you down on the farm now that you’ve seen Paree, but sometimes you have to be reminded that your roots are shiny black with good ol’ wholesome Indiana topsoil.

Plus, she still raises the mainsail in my flotilla and (as opposed to Emilia Clarke) Teague’s in my league, more or less.  No columns about her nipples, though; promise.  Whereas I imagine they are quite pleasantly surprising and chromatically balanced, in my imagination they must remain. Unlike Game of Thrones, The Wall Street Journal does not have a mandatory nudity clause in its contracts.

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Saved By The Bell: Willis Hall Winery Is Down, But Not Out

Like a lot of whizbangs from his generation, John Bell sidled into his wine compulsion via Mateus and Lancers—those primitive, popular Portuguese pots of plonk that in the prehistory of American wine appreciation were revered simply because they were wine, as opposed to being Schlitz Malt Liquor or Vat 69.

The game changer

The game changer

“The beer we could afford in college were basically headaches-in-a-can,” says John, “and cheap liquor never went down right. I discovered a taste for simple, pink and off-dry, and in those days, that meant wine.”

Armed with an engineering degree from Penn State, Bell was hired by Boeing and moved to Seattle where a ladder-climb in the aerospace industry exposed him to the more sophisticated palates of the executive class.  He recalls his watershed moment—when he shed wines which were about as complex as water—as being a single sip of Jordan Cabernet, circa 1980.

That’s when, as he puts it, “I understood what wine was all about.”

Richard Kinssies

Richard Kinssies

He found a local fellow called Richard Kinssies—a Seattle entrepreneur who started a school for local wine lovers who were just beginning to appreciate the incredible wine growing region with which they shared a state.

Over the next twenty years, Bell learned all the esoteric wine stuff he could without actually getting his hands purple, then in 1999, ready to party like it was indeed 1999, he joined a Boeing winemaking club which allowed members to buy grapes directly from the many phenomenal growers in Eastern Washington.

He’d learned his Kinssies well, and that first year, blending wine in his garage from the ton of merlot, cabernet and syrah he picked up, he produced three gold medal winners at the following year’s—and surprisingly prestigious—Boeing Wine Club Competition.

Boeing, Boeing, gone

Boeing, Boeing, gone

Although those (and most of the many awards he’s won since) are gathering dust in a steamer trunk in his attic, Bell came out of the experience a full-blown addict.  By his own admission, he was hooked on aromatics and flavors, and by 2002, he realized that his wine was good enough to go commercial.  He retired from Boeing, cashed in his 401 k and formed Willis Hall Winery, which not only sounds classy, but combines the middle name of his father with the surname of his grandmother.

Continuing to operate out of his garage, he put to use his engineering know-how and built a custom array of winemaking equipment, and the stuff he released under the Willis Hall label was so good that in 2006,  Seattle Magazine named John Bell ‘Best New Winemaker in Washington’.

But alas, gentle reader, this is ultimately a tale of woe, and unless I get my literary train back on track, you may see it as nothing more than a maudlin meander down memory lane, and not (as intended) as an introduction to the Antichrist known as ‘local government’.

Enter The Dragon…

John Bell

John Bell

“As single person without a commercial license,” John Bell explains, “I can produce 100 gallons per year which I can’t sell, offer to auctions or give away to friends at Christmas.  All I can do is drink it, bathe in it or pour it down the drain.”

In other words, the government forced him to incorporate.  By nature, Bell is not a business man, treating wine as art, just as the root of ‘artisan’ winemaking suggests.

So from the outset, the relationship between John and the feds—as well as the local Snohomish County Schutzstaffel—was strained, and not in a good, gravity-feed filtration sort of way.

Because he had no need of a growth plan and could produce his targeted 2500 cases of wine per year using equipment he had in his garage, after jumping the financial and time-wasting hoops required to get a commercial wine license, federal approvals and county permits, he remained where he was and did what he’d always done, only now with a license to sell.

He also opened a perfectly-legal, by-appointment-only tasting room, immediately allaying fears that he would be attracting party barges to his quiet, cul-de-sac Marysville neighborhood.

Hell’s Bells…

The enemy within

The enemy within

All was well until 2007, when the county suddenly decided that he was not zoned to do what they’d said for the past three years that he was zoned to do.  They gave him ten days to cease all operations or face $250 per day in fines.

All his WTF? face-to-face meetings came to naught; the cockamamie county refused to budge and quickly, panic mode set in—having retired from Boeing, Bell had already spent his retirement funds launching Willis Hall and it had become his livelihood: One he entered into specifically because Snohomish County told him he could.

Ten days later, he found his garage festooned with OSHA-orange signs declaring that he was a crook.

For Whom The Bell Toils

So, despite the ludicrosity of the whole situation, John hired an attorney and a land consultant, paid the requisite fines (including the county’s mandatory advertisements in local newspapers announcing his crookery), and petitioned all his neighbors for a thumbs up.  Most them were not even aware that he was running a commercial wine operation, and when they found out, far from being outraged, a few applied for jobs.

WH_Bottles1Tens of thousands of dollars in fees and fines and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth in wasted wine (unable to sell it or bottle it legally, $300k worth of tanked chardonnay oxidized) later, a sympathetic quintet of local councilmen took up his cause, helping him to rewrite the zoning code to permit him to do precisely what he’d already been doing.

It passed, with the stipulation that in order to qualify, the original license had to be granted before 2003, which left John Bell, Winemaker as an army of one.

Bell’s Law was not appreciated by the Snohomish jackboots, who retaliated by sending in the county Fire Marshall, who promptly decided that he needed to either set up a pumping station on his property to increase pressure from the curb-side hydrant or install a $30,000 fire suppression unit inside his garage winery—despite the fact that wine is notoriously unflammable.

With no choice, he coughed up the dough.

The cavalry arrives

The cavalry arrives

In 2009, a stroke of fortune finally hit:  The part of Marysville where he lived was annexed by the city, new regulations came into play and Snohomish County harassholes had to find other entrepreneurs to bully.

The threats evaporated like fog on the slopes of Mount Pilchuck, and the new Fire Marshall paid him a visit, giving him such a clean bill of health that he was allowed to remove his hot-shot, high-priced, utterly pointless fire suppression system.

And That Would Be That, Except…

…the money the intervening years had cost him was so staggering that neither John Bell nor Willis Hall Winery has yet surfaced from the inland sea of bullshit formed when the county’s bullshit sluice gate opened.

Bell no longer stores Mateus here

Bell no longer stores Mateus here

This year, far from his customary 2500 cases of wine, he will make a total of a hundred cases, all white, which he will sell out of quickly.

As for the thousands of gallons of inventory that remains in barrels?  He hasn’t recovered sufficient cash flow to bottle it.  Meanwhile, the fact that you can only barrel wine for so long before it becomes undrinkable is still giving Bell plenty of late-night agita and attendant insomnia.

“Recovery plan?  Survive another year, that’s it.  Succession plan?  When I die, I stop making wine.  That’s my exit strategy.”

Heads Up, Dearest Patron:

While John Bell is still alive and sleepless in Seattle, I’m going to charge any regular reader of this column to crash his website (not in a Boeing way) and consider buying a bottle or two of Willis Hall.


seattle magWhy?  Because John Bell is the best new winemaker in Washington?  Not necessarily; that’s the opinion of Seattle Magazine, which I have never read.  Because he has all those moldering competition medals in his attic? Not necessarily; like him, I place little stock in competition winners. Because his wine is truly outstanding? Not necessarily, because I, like you, have never tried it—we’ll have to compare notes once our shipment arrives.

But because he is an upstanding dude who loves wine, loves to innovate, loves to keep on truckin’ against the odds and who has been jacked nearly to extinction by a bunch of self-serving, vindictive, bureaucratic douchebags?  And because we hate vindictive bureaucratic douchebags with the sort of unrelenting passion generally reserved for the mentally ill?


It’s high time that the Bell bell tolls for them, in Snohomish County and in all counties everywhere across the planet.

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Grand Traverse Distillery: Taking Their Best Shot

It’s an interesting question in any case: Does appellation play the same role—or any role—in defining a liquor’s quality as it does a wine’s?

Or is it purely marketing schtick?

Le Montrachet

Le Montrachet

I ask because a wine’s regulated place-of-origin is intimately woven with information about that wine’s terroir, whether it is as specific as the twenty-acre vineyard of Le Montrachet or all-encompassing appellations like ‘California’. With the former, you are legally assured that the grapes in the bottle are chardonnay, grown in a tiny, mystical plot of land in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. With the latter, according to the law, a quarter of the grapes don’t even have to come from California, and those that do can be grown anywhere in the state; and as a result, likely originate in the hot, flat, cheap Central Valley.  The beautiful thing about this system is that the retail prices of each tend to reflect the exclusivity of the appellation.  A California label will likely cost you under ten dollars; a Montrachet, more than five hundred. Whether or not you get what you pay for is a subjective thing, of course—but for the most part, you do.

Landis Rabish

Landis Rabish

Landis Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery told me, with evident pride, that he buys as much grain as he can from Michigan farmers; the only stuff he brings in is the stuff he can’t get in any great quantity, like like malted rye and barley suitable for whiskey mash. But it can be argued that winemaking is a process while distilling is an art, and how much the raw material has to do with what ends up in your pony glass has little to do with terroir provided the suitable variety of the starter fluid.

Those with better palates than I may disagree, and I’d welcome the chance for them to prove it.

Not the Rabish farm.

Not the Rabish farm.

In the case of Grand Traverse Distillery, the bragging rights to Michigan produce is as much an heirloom crow as a nod to eat/drink locovores; the Rabish family has been growing grain and making moonshine since Prohibition. Landis’ great-grandfather George Rabish used to distill the excess crop from his Standish farm back in the Thirties—some of his equipment, though not used, is still around.

“A lot of the best stuff was tossed out though,” Landis says, the regret in his voice obvious. “My grandmother didn’t like the association with our family and moonshine. We lost a few antique whiskey jugs in the purge that I’d love to get my hands on right now.”

Note to Grandmother: You can extinguish the fire, but not the desire.

True North

True North

In fact, distilling seems to have skipped a generation. It was Landis’ father Kent, with a background in biology and chemistry, who happened on an artisan vodka maker a decade ago and figured he could match wits with that sort of end game.  A whole lot of expensive copper later, he distilled a couple barrels of neutral alcohol made with grain grown by the Send Brothers in Williamsburg and water from Lake Michigan.  That became True North Vodka, the distillery’s flagship spirit, which Landis maintains is distilled 37 times for ultimate purity.

More on ‘number of times distilled’—which is, in many ways, a marketing hook—in a bit.

The distillery’s growth trajectory was exponential as befits Kent Rabish’s background as a sales executive for the pharmaceutical industry.  The second year, they quadrupled output to eight barrels (in quantity; vodka is not ‘barrelled’), the next year saw 15, and this year, according to Rabish, the goal in a couple of years is to produce 250 barrels of liquor—the equivalent of 62,000 fifths, making them the largest micro-distiller in Michigan. 

‘Large micro-distiller’, of course, being an outrageous oxymoron.

Charred bourbon barrel.

Charred bourbon barrel.

Not everything they make is vodka, of course—far from it. The Rabish rabble seems to have as much, or more fascination with the browns, and produce a number of interesting variations on the whisky theme, including bourbon. 

For the record, bourbon is defined as grain alcohol potted in new, charred, white oak barrels and aged at least two years; of the grains, the law require that least 51% be corn.  The rest can be made up of rye, sometimes wheat, and malted barley, which has enzymes that break down starch chains to fermentable sugars. Bourbon is a uniquely American product; to be called such, it has to be born in the U.S.A.  The association with Kentucky is largely romantic because Bourbon County, KY—which once encompassed about half the state—can claim to be the origin of the name.

A good thing, because the Rabish regiment wants to keep the home team front and center in the beverage, claiming a ‘mash bill’ of mostly Michigan agriculture. The bourbon itself is sensational; softly spicy with notes of orange, vanilla and warm caramel; an additional year on new oak, above and beyond the call of duty and not required by law, adds an undertone of smoky charcoal.

Library of grains.

Library of grains.

The intriguing element of spice in the bourbon is likely the result of the rye content; according to Landis, rye is the traditional distillate of Colonial America, and for many years, Allegheny County, PA was the epicenter of rye production in the United States, accounting for a half-barrel of yearly production for every person in the country. Rye itself is a pedigreed grain, having been favored in Neolithic times, although Pliny the Elder wrote in 70 BC that rye is ‘a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation.’ Maybe so, but mashed, brewed and distilled, it produces a dry, spicy, fruity liquor that has more of a bite than bourbon and less of bourbon’s characteristic sweetness. Rye production the United States died out after Prohibition; popular tastes moved toward the brown sugar, caramel allure of corn-based bourbon. Not only that, says Landis, rye is pricey; he pays 50¢ a pound for rye; less than 15¢ for corn. But for those that love the unique nip of heat and rustic richness that only rye can impart, no other hooch comes close.

Old George

Old George

Rabish’s rye is called ‘Old George’ after his granddad; it’s not only an homage to him, but to old-timers of any designation who made rye before Prohibition. Bottled straight from the barrel without filtering, the unique rye flavors are perfectly represented—nosing a glass is like walking into a room where a loaf of rye bread is baking. There are provocative overtones of allspice and cinnamon and a complex floral that a basic bourbon can’t touch. This is a booze for an experienced and experimental palate, perhaps, but part of the learning curve to appreciating liquor—who liked their first snort of Scotch, for example?—is branching out from the familiar.

Take gin, for example. This botanical blend of juniper and other aromatic herbs, fruits and spices has been popular since the Middle Ages, and because of the variety of possible recipes—many kept under lock and key by those who create a ‘house blend’.  Most commonly, other than juniper—the predominate flavor—additions include anise, cinnamon, almond, citrus peel, coriander, grains of paradise and nutmeg.  The concoctions are only as limited as the gin maker’s imagination and they made spend years perfecting the recipe. Landis Rabish has not spent years ruminating (no pun; it isn’t rum), but he’s definitely spent a whole lot of months mixing and matching, and more than likely, he isn’t done yet. The one I sampled had been aged in white oak barrels and showed a slithery softness infused with a myriad of exotic high notes. One of his ‘secrets’ which is happy to share is that the neutral spirit (wheat vodka) upon which his gin is based is of the highest quality; many producers are less concerned with the purity of the base booze, believing that the botanicals will mask them or the cocktail will, since gin is one of the few spirits that is made to be mixed, rather than consumed straight. Unfortunately, ‘GIGO’ is as true for distillers as it for computer techs.

In fact, all of Rabish’s liquor is built upon the purest, cleanest of foundational spirits—one of the things that he says the multiple distillation process insures.

So, Back To That…

Landis and his stills.  Pot still left; column still right.

Landis and his stills. Pot still left; column still right.

In the distilling process, when broken down to its most basic elements, a fermented mash (called a ‘wash) is slowly heated to the several boiling points of the various liquids contained within.  Water boils at 212 °F, ethanol (the pure stuff) at 173 °F, so in a perfect world, the process should be as basic as heating the wash to the second temperature and re-condensing the steam. Problem is, the organic mechanics of fermentation produces a number of compounds other than ethanol; a few are noxious and some are toxic, and some have lower boiling points than ethanol, and so, are contained within the first ‘run’.  Essentially, these are poured off, but some remain behind, and to rid the final product of them, you re-distill. In theory, the more times you distill a wash, the purer it becomes. But again, the world is not perfect, and along with some of the bad-news congeners exist some of the flavor volatiles, so a careful balance between what you keep and what you toss is vital. Vodka, by its nature and legal definition (‘neutral spirit’) is on a Holy Grail quest for purity; whiskey, on the other hand, depends on heavier elements for complexity and depth. Rabish’s ’37-times distilled’ brag is the result of his column still (as opposed to a ‘pot’ still used in Scotch and Irish whiskey production). A column still has a number of plates, each acting as individual pot stills within the tube; the column is heated from the bottom and vaporizes the volatiles with the wash, which rise to the top (where it’s cooler) and condense against the plates and shed more of the non-ethanol every time they two. Vodka may be distilled until it is 190 proof, or 95% pure alcohol. Bourbon and rye, which also use the column still method, get held at 160 proof or less.

purus-vodkaEssentially, the ’37 times distilled’ tagline results from counting the plates and the number of times the vodka has undergone the downward trickle. Even the most exceptionally ‘clean’ commercial vodkas like Italy’s ‘Purus’ claim quintuple distillation, so at some point, it becomes obvious that number of distillation is more marketing doublespeak than quality indicator. Which is fine—Landis Rabish has a degree in Communications and plenty of retail sales experience to shore up his right to use catchphrases as long as his products lives up to the hype.

And it does. Rabish (and his father) are a true craftsman, which means that no corners are cut and the quest for perfection is ongoing. To me, it matters far less how many times they distill their vodka and even less than that they buy raw grain from Michigan instead of Wisconsin, which may in fact grow better rye than we do in the first place. What matters is that Grand Traverse Distillery processes, ferments and distills on premise.

Because, far more nefarious to the reputation of micro-distilleries in 2014 are those that do not—despite frequent claims to the contrary—actually distill all their own liquor. As much as 75% of small-batch labels may be marketed and sold by someone other than the distiller for any number of reasons, the most logical of which is that it costs a boatload of cash to open a distillery. Whiskey requires aging, and unless you have very deep pockets or a ready market for fresh vodka, the lag time between the start of production and the release of a brand may be years and years.  A new distillery needs cash flow in the meantime, and often those without the slow-growth mentality of Grand Traverse Distillery solve the issue by purchasing bulk whiskey that may not even have been made in the state where it is bottled.

Worst thing? Consumers don’t seem to mind. 

I do, though—to me, that’s misrepresentation.

Redemption could use a little redemption.

Redemption could use a little redemption.

And because I think so, I’ll name names: A single distiller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana called MGPI makes rye distillate for George Dickel, Redemption, Angel’s Envy and Smooth Ambler, among many others. And not custom stuff, either—it’s the  very same rye whiskey in every bottle. The logo is the only difference.

In my book, the true art of micro-distilling happens on premise, within the same bricks-and-mortar that bottles it, preferably by the person who pours you a glass in the tasting room. Like Landis Rabish does in his Traverse City oxymoron, Michigan’s biggest micro-distillery.

Talk about purity of spirits all you want; that level of purity is one of the essential spirit—the soul—and it outstrips 37-times-distilled every time.

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Water Bored: The Ice Bucket Challenge

A match made in Heaven.  Or was it 7-Eleven?

A match made in Heaven. Or was it 7-Eleven?

You know how when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett it just sort of ‘felt right’?  Or, ever reminisce about the warm, gushy, non-sexual feeling of utter contentment that poured over you when Gary Cherone started singing with Van Halen?  For that matter, remember how cool it was when Fonzie finally jumped that shark?

No?  Well, then you probably won’t like this idea either.

Somehow, I have thus far resisted the temptation to enter the currently popular state of cheapskate hypothermia and instead have made a dull, distinctly non-viral Facebook video of myself not getting a bucket of ice water dumped over my head.

♫  "You'll never... walk... at all..."  ♪ ♫

♫ “You’ll never… walk… again…” ♪ ♫

This mustn’t be be construed as my support  for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which I would be opposed to even if I could pronounce it.  Nor should it be read as opposition to charity as a general concept—except for that awful, annual MDA Show of Strength, which actually got worse without Jerry Lewis singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to kids that, by the nature of their disease, will never walk at all.  (As if the idea of rich people asking poor people for money is not sufficiently anathematic, it sounds more like a Ponzi shake-down when you consider that over $2.4 billion has been donated to MDA since the 1950s… and they still haven’t cured the goddamned thing…)

Ice bucket challenge my ass.

Ice bucket challenge my ass.

To the nine people left on earth, mostly in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who don’t know what I’m talking about, there’s a recent social media fad making the rounds called ‘The Ice Bucket Challenge’.  It involves filming yourself getting a bucket of ice water dumped over your head, then then ‘challenging’ friends (without viral pneumonia) to either dump a bucket of ice water over their own heads or donate a hundred dollars to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Apparently, the key lure in this nonsense is that your friends (1.2 million have nibbled the hook so far) will want to showcase their physical prowess in the face ice water yet not look like penny-pinching dingledorks afterward, so they dump the water and subsequently announce that they donated the C-note to ALS anyway—even if it seems more logical to donate it to The Viral Pneumonia Association.

"Are the cameras on?  How's my hair?  Can you film from my good side?"

“Are the cameras on? How’s my hair? Can you film from my good side?”

What’s wrong with this picture?  For starters, charity is a wonderful thing, and as the man says, it not only begins at home but should stay at home.  Otherwise, you tend to look like an opportunistic douchebag, like corporations who donate $15 k to Jerry’s Kids, then receive two hundred thousand dollars worth of free advertising when they hand over the check on national television.

Nothing seems quite so cynical as braggadocio-style giving, and yet, the idea of donating to the ALS Association and not filming it may be evident by the charity’s own figures: Since the challenge began, donations are up by approximately eight hundred percent.

What’s The Solution?

fire challengeIt is, perhaps, no coincidence that another video ‘craze’ currently going around is ‘The Fire Challenge’.  This one involves teenagers lighting themselves on fire with some arsonist accelerant like nail polish or Everclear and posting the video to YouTube.  For this stunt, you are not expected to donate anything to anybody; the thrill, apparently, is the third-degree burns and/or reconstructive surgery that invariably results, which will cost more than you would have donated anyway.

love_and_marriageSo, like love and marriage, horse and carriage, the next inevitable step is to combine these two lunatic-fringe dares into a single double dare—  ‘The Set Yourself On Fire, Then Douse The Flames With Ice Water Challenge’.

Your dauntless, charity-driven and mentally-incompetent friends will saturate themselves with lighter fluid, light themselves up like  Joan of Arc, and just as they become roman candles, somebody behind them will pour a bucket of ice water over them.

Clever, right? Safer, huh?

Yeah?  Well then, you probably won’t like this idea either:

"Where'd that human torch go??"

“Where’d that human torch go??”

Since I invented the game, I get to pick the charity, and I pick The Macular Degeneration Association, with the specific stipulation that the dude with the ice water bucket be suffering from it, and thus, be totally blind.  That way, nine out ten times, he misses the conflagrating imbecile with the water entirely.

It’s a Darwin-win, and we all get on with life.

Because, do you know what?  Like love and marriage, some things are simply not compatible, and burning yourself up on cue or self-inducing core-body-temperature-drops for any cause, charitable or otherwise, are among them.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask the local gentry: They’ll say that that much, anyway, is elementary.

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Hot Wine: Summer In The Vineyard

First of all, unless its mulled, there is no such thing as hot wine and second, other than maybe Verónica Martínez or Amy Freeman, there is no such thing as hot winemakers—but that’s a lament for a different logarithm.

Delicious Amy Freeman

Smokin’ Amy Freeman

The term ‘hot winemaker’, of course, is a sensory misnomer referring to an elevated level of testosterone in the wine writer and an artificial standard of contemporary bodily heat.  The term ‘hot wine’ is a sensory misnomer referring to an elevated ABV—alcohol by volume—and ‘high ABV’ is legally understood to mean table wines with an ethanol content greater than 14%.

At this point, technically, they become dessert wines and are subject to higher TTB taxes. Yes, Virginia, it’s a profit game.

Virginia_Santa_ClausMisnomers, Virginias and agency definitions notwithstanding, the shifting tide of trends and tastes combined with new yeast cultures and climatic readjustments have seen a public gravitation toward richer, riper, fuller wines in recent years; whether the attribution is laid to Parker or passion makes no difference to the anaerobic microorganisms responsible for fermentation: Unless it is diluted by water or mechanically removed, the higher sugar content in must results in higher alcohol in wine.

In cooler wine zones like Burgundy, it is often a struggle to ripen grapes to the point where they have reached the required °Bx (the standard scale for measuring sugar in the wine industry) for fermenting to around 13% alcohol, which fans out to a requisite °Bx of 23.  Germany has an even tougher time with ripening—one of the reasons that the German wine industry has historically focused on white wines, with ABVs in the top category of Prädikatswein acceptable as low as 7%.

A spoonful of sugar helps the tartaric go down

A spoonful of sugar helps the tartaric go down

Of course, the ease with which a winemaker may simply add granulated sugar (called ‘chaptalization’) to boost end-game alcohol is obvious, and that is why the technique remains embroiled in controversy.  Many reputable appellation laws prohibit it—others don’t.  The ‘don’t prohibit’ list includes Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chile and New Zealand.  Here in the United States, chaptalization is allowed in Long Island and Oregon, but not in California.

That’s the woe story of wines that struggle for sugar.  With a ‘hot’ wine, the problem is the polar opposite, and to the winemaker, the issue is one of either reining in the punch’s punch or—God forbid—producing a wine which successfully blends flavor, depth and acidity and embraces whatever ABV rides along.

And therein lies my problem with the term ‘hot wine’.

'Fill 'er up, Miracle Boy'.

‘Fill ‘er up, Miracle Boy… YOLO.’

A wine in which the burn of alcohol is so pronounced that it is worth a tasting note is a flawed wine.  The Holy Grail of every grail-full of wine is balance; if it misses the brass ring of equilibrium, it has pretty much jumped the quality shark and fallen floundering into the water.  Alcohol tends to presents itself negatively in wines without sufficient fruit extraction, tannins, acidity or any of a thousand organoleptic intangibles that even the most passionate Parker puppet may not be able to name and doesn’t need to.  If the wine is noticeably pushed in a direction that suggests undesirable heat to the taster, there has been a mistake made in process or in a winemaker’s appreciation of what constitutes harmony.

Or, there’s always this: The wine may simply have been served at the wrong temperature.  Full-blown, high-alcohol red wine shows best at around 62° F—a point where many folks in the tasting room are looking for their cardigans—and when served warmer, the alcohol tends to evaporate more quickly and may do a frontal assault on the nostrils you’ve just jammed into the snifter.  In that case, it make more sense to blame your host, not your vintner.

Runaway ripening, when grapes reach upwards of °30 Bx, can yield some stunning, nuanced wines, but only if the natural acid has not collapsed—a phenomenon that coincides with fruit maturation.  During véraison, as berry skins lose their chlorophyll and begin to accumulate phenolic compounds, sugars increase as acids decrease.  The trick that every successful vineyard manager and winemaker must learn is what their specific terroir can offer to their specific cultivar: Some grape varieties require more hang time to become fully ‘flavor ripe’ than others.  Once that knowledge is mastered, it’s down to the whims of the seasons in any given vintage.

Hanging around with syrah

Hanging around with syrah

Syrah is an example of a variety which often does reveal its full panoply of flavors without an extended hang-time, but whose acid must be closely monitored to hold pH at around 3.6.  Once it skyrockets past 4, the game is over and the resulting wines will be stewy-tasting, flabby and may come across as ‘hot’.  The alcohol, in other words, will be but one of several off-putting factors, and they all play a role in tossing that wine off the balance beam.

Stillman Brown of Red Zeppelin Winery is  a Paso Robles winemaker who keeps daily—and near the end of the growing season, sometimes hourly tabs on the grapes he will buy from a number of growers scattered across this broad appellation.  Paso is known for very hot, very long summers with extreme diurnal temperature shifts, allowing wine grapes maximum hang-time without pronounced acid deterioration.  As a result, Brown is often faced with decisions regarding final ABV, especially in varieties like pinot noir which may become unpleasantly aggressive at port-grade potency.  The same holds true with cabernet sauvignon, a wine that can, in California, confront the palate with fierce ABV.  Brown feels that cab cashes in some of its finesse if the numbers go much above 15%—this, despite critics like Jim Laube’s (Wine Spectator) frequent score-nod to the chocolatey, big-oomph cabs of Napa Valley.

Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown

Not so zinfandel, which Brown does not produce as a stand alone, or syrah, which he does in several beautiful show-stopping incarnations—and, at ABVs which creep toward (or, occasionally, vault over) Oloroso sherry levels—17% ABV.

He says, “I’ve never used R.O. (reverse osmosis, a technique for de-alcoholizing wine) where you pick ripe grapes, then suck out the soul.  I get tired of pseudo-complaints about getting ‘too buzzed’ on 17% wines; if that’s your concern, drink less.  Some wines are balanced at 7%, others at 17%.  In some years where I pick, syrah is not fully flavor ripe until it has developed ungodly high sugars; if I stripped out the alcohol to, say, 14%, the wine might still be good, but it wouldn’t be as full, not as luscious; not the same wine at all. If fruit extraction, tannin and acid are low, 16% is too high.  If not, it’s too low.  It’s a sin to dismiss a universe of great, higher-alcohol wines on that criterion alone.”

The late, great Robert Hughes

The late, great Robert Hughes

Unfortunately, like anything offensively ‘hot’—Kardashians, Sharknados, Brandy Melville destroyed denim shorts—wines may, on simple virtue of the wallop, become market manipulators.  For those winemakers unable to handle their alcohol, the focus shifts from judicious balance to overripe ethanol torpedoes.

To paraphrase the classic line about American figurative art by the great critic Robert Hughes, “A taste for massive but intrinsically unbalanced wines may be acquired.  But is it required?”

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