Celebrities Who Own Wineries: The Ego Has Landed

Disclaimer:  What follows are the bitter ramblings of a winery-owner, Hollywood hambone, Heisman-Trophy-winner, rock-star wannabe.  They are to be taken with a grain of salt—whatever that means.

And not only ‘taken with a grain of salt’—a lot of these cherished folk axioms make no sense.  To wit.: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.’  (…In which case, there is no sense in having your cake, since it’s sole worth is if you can eat it).  Viz.: ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’  (Yeah?  I can’t think of any, nor a particular reason why someone without Asian ancestry would try to come up with one.)

On the other hand, some seasoned saws are very apropos, especially to this column.  i.e.: ‘Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t do or teach become wine writers.  Those who can’t do, teach or write but still have shitloads of disposable income buy wineries.’

Separation of  L.A. and AVA,  (First Amendment , U.S. Constitution, proposed (but never enacted) 4 July, 1776)

California has offered more to this fine, Allah-fearing nation that we can ever give back, but it all can be distilled down to two paradigms: Napa Valley and Scarlett Johansson.

But it’s like Venezuela: They’ve given us oil and pabellon criollo, but I wouldn’t want to mix the two in a bowl and have it for supper.

Likewise, Hollywood and barrel wood. That idiotic, billion-dollar Band-Aid—the concrete wall that President Bush wanted to build on our southeast border—would be of more use stretching from San Luis Obispo County (just above La La Land) to Lake Havesu City, Nevada.  Forget about keeping illegal immigrants out—we need them to pick our merlot for twelve cents an hour.  Our primary duty as drink-sodden patriots should be keeping celebrities out of wine country.

Why?  Well, if you have to ask, let’s just say it’s like the legal loophole that allows Kevin Bacon to play professional guitar.

Fair to say, however, with the price of a single acre of prime Napa grapeland well into six figures, the only people who can even consider jumping into fermentation vessels these days are those with many dollars in offshore accounts.  And like it or not, this includes such wealthy wankers as Tommy Smothers, Barbara Streisand, Wayne Gretzky, Mariah Carey and Olivia Newton-Synonym-For-Outhouse, who may or may not be using start-up graperies as a tax write-off via the massive losses that generally dog the first few vintages.

Additionally, there’s the caché factor, wherein a winery uses a celebrity’s name as a marketing tool.  Seriously, could you find a better example of this than Martha ‘Jailbait’ Stewart’s E.J. Gallo partnership?  As if the diva ex-con doesn’t have her silly name stamped on enough crap, she enters the wine game with Martha Stewart Vintages, the drinking of which is punishment more cruel and unusual than watching vintage episodes of Martha Stewart Living.

(Regarding Whatever, Martha! , the FLN comedy series that relies upon those very clips, Martha said,  “Contrary to popular opinion, I do have a sense of humor…”—which if true would have compelled her to round out her portfolio of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot with ‘pruno’, the wine you learn to make in prison using fruit cocktail juice and bread yeast).

Celebrity-owned wineries are no new phenomenon, of course.  And some of them have yielded wonderful results—Fess Parker Vineyards, the Fred Mac Murray Ranch and Rubicon Estate Winery (owned by Francis Ford Coppola) have all won applause and awards for spectacular, highly-decorated, imminently-collectable wines. Profitable?  Put it this way:  Coppola claims to have made scads more from his wines than he ever did from his films.

I am afraid that these are the exceptions.  Much as I like Carlos Santana, it’s as a shredder, not a vintner.  Nor as a perfumist (Santana Cologne and Perfume), or a cobbler (Carlos By Carlos—Women’s Shoes) or a restaurateur (Maria Maria restaurants)—truly, this dude has become the Martha Stewart of Latin fusion.  Last straw was Santana DMX, a middle-of-the-road sparkler released in partnership with Mumm’s winemaker Ludovic Dervin; it appears that the extent of input that Carlos had into the actual commodity was to taste a bunch of blends and say, ‘Okay, I like this one.’  I’m relieved to report, without the slightest fear of being called out for an atrocious pun, that after a single pressing Santana DMX fizzled out.


“It’s a bodacious, cheeky little wine, filled to the brim with the spicy essence of sexy, slippery snakiness,” alliterates the former Mr. Tawny Kitaen, Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale about Whitesnake Zinfandel, 2010.  “I recommend it to compliment any and all grown-up friskiness and hot-tub jollies…”

Coincidentally, Dave, I recommend throwing the world’s collection of Whitesnake CDs into that same hot-tub, only this time filled with your stupid wine.  Now they’re ‘Deep Purple’, too, ah-ha-ha-ha-ha.  In 2005, VH1 voted Whitesnake the 85th Greatest Hard Rock Band of All Time, and I have to say, when my son’s team came in 85th place in the South Oakland Soccer League, my first impulse was not to post it to Wikipedia.  But, to each his own, Dave, and if you think ‘snakiness’ is a plus in a wine descriptor, cool—that’s your each or possibly your own—but moi, if I want my wine to taste like snake, I pick up a carafe of Chinese shéjiue–the wine with the Mangshan pit viper floating in the bottle.  Say, there’s a marketing hook for you (overdue, granted, since you haven’t had a chart-topper since the 80’s): Pack each bottle with a California King Snake.  They’re albino, as befits your band name, and frankly, without it, an erudite glass of vintage red hardly seems the appropriate sup for an evening of screechy, head-banging power ballads.


Jonathan Mortimer Smith, Esq.

Gary Vaynerchuck has been referred to as ‘a celebrity wine critic’, but it’s not clear if that means he’s the celebrity or that he critiques celebrity wines.  Either way, he came in 40th place in Decanter’s list of influential wine people, which is better than Coverdale’s 85th place, but still sort of twinkling at the periphery of wine relevance.  I mean, when my daughter’s gymnastic team came in 40th place at the… oh, never mind, I already used that joke.  In any case, Belarusian Vaynerchuck gave Little Jonathan Chardonnay, 2006—the winery owned by rapper L’il Jon—a kick-rump 89 points.  Now, at first pass, a dreadlocked homie from an Atlanta hood best known for Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album, may not seem the sort of chap that can produce wines on a level of, say, a 1990 Chateau Meyney Bordeaux or a 1996 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, but both of these wines are 89 pointers as well, and it is what it is.  And there’s also a chance that some of this L’il Jon gangsta/playa persona is more a product of management than of reality—in fact, L’il Jon’s birth name is distinctly lacking in ground-level street cred: Jonathan Mortimer Smith makes him sound more like a blue-blooded pharmaceutical heir from New Canaan, Connecticut than a thug.  Alex Henderson of allmusic.com does not believe that L’il Jon has a gangsta life-agenda, but rather ‘is conveying serious sociopolitical messages’.  I know, swallow the throw-up and don’t breathe in anybody’s face for a while.  You be the judge, though: When his ’06 Chardonnay took a silver medal in the 2009 L.A. Wine and Spirits Competition, the former Celebrity Apprentice—who followed up Get Crunk with We Still Crunk!!, Kings of Crunk and Crunk Juice—tweeted the following sociopolitical manifesto to his Twitter site:

“For all yall sukkas that were hating on my wine, check this out!!  We winning awards!!!  Get U Some!” 


We’ve watched Dan Ackroyd’s maturation trajectory from a wild ‘n’ crazy Cajzli to a bass-smoothie-making T.V. pitchman to the reserved and less self-destructive Blues Brother.  And as you’ll recall from that comedy classic, the Brothers’ taste in wine was pretty straightforward: It was the A-Train to Night Train or no train at all. As he aged and bloated and grew sort of unfunny, Ackroyd took on roles befitting a middle-aged Tinsel Town laird, holding his own against luminaries like Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Tandy—especially in his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Boolie in Driving Miss Daisy (Nuts).  Along the way, his appreciation for decent wine increased proportionately.  Having experienced plenty of gutter wines in his home town of Ottawa, he became enamored of the world-class whites being produced in Niagara, Ontario, and invested in Diamond Estates Wines & Spirits, saying,  “I could see the value of putting my name on wines because people up here, in Canada especially, trust the Ackroyd name as someone that’s honest who will give them a great experience for a good price.”

"I can pronounce, but not spell, 'sommelier'."

And his offerings are all that.  With Diamond, he produces four VQA award-winning wines as well as an ultra-premium ice wine, and his 2008 joint venture with Sonoma’s DeLoach resulted in the superb Dan Ackroyd Discovery Series.  These wines slip down the gullet with elegance and style; what sticks in the craw is Ackroyd’s marketing self-portrayal as a simple Ottowan farm-boy bumpkin by using such label slogans as ‘Made from 100% Snob Free Grapes’ and ‘We can’t pronounce Sommelier either’.  By his insistence in claiming non-pretentiousness, he actually becomes that much more pretentious—we assume that anyone who is fluent in French and casually drops names like Château Trotanoy,  Château d’Yquem and mocha dacquoise in the course of interviews can probably pronounce ‘sommelier’.  Eh?


Emilio's backyard

Like Elwood was to Jake, Emilio Estevez is to Charlie Sheen: No apparent death wish.  Rather, the eldest son of Martin Sheen has a wine wish, which’s he’s realizing in his urban vineyard in Malibu; he farms a single acre in partnership with Casa Dumetz and his winemaker wife Sonja Magdevski —80% is pinot noir, which sells out immediately.  The larger blocks of Casa Dumetz vines come from the Tierra Alta Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley where it’s warm enough for Rhône rhôck-stars like viognier, syrah and grenache. Emilio and Sonja also produce a sparkling syrah (champagne is not just for Breakfast Club anymore) and a syrah rosé which Wine Enthusiast Magazine creams all over.   There’s some of each available at pricing ranging between $25 to $35 a bottle.  Winning!!


We lusted after her in Goodfellas and bled with her in Medicine Man; then, when she hit the wall looks-wise, we admired her in The Sopranos.  Now we’ll raise a glass of  Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Bracco Wine—one of nine regional Italian DOCs hand-picked by the Brooklyn-born Lorraine Bracco—to toast her interest in becoming yet another celebrity wine huckster.  When asked by Wine Spectator about her background in wine, Bracco replied: “I lived in France for ten years…”, which is a bit like saying “I’ve seen Swan Lake a bunch of times, therefore I’m qualified to play oboe in a symphony.”  But I’ll go all Malfi and withhold judgment.  I can, however, judge Bracco Wine’s Barolo, Amarone Classico, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Montepulciano, pinot grigio, Brunello Di Montalcino, primitivo and recently, Rosato—or at least, because they are highly allocated and I am evidently not allocatable, report that reviews have been molto favorevole (that’s ‘good’). As is the Italian style, these are wines that need to be enjoyed at the dinner table, which is too bad, because the best place for a Malfi wine—obviously—is on the couch.


What’s the deal with 80’s hair-metal bands and wine labels anyway?  Now it’s Mötley Crüe’s one-octave vocalist Vince Neil and his Vince Vineyards.  Vince affirms a long-standing love of high-end wine, rivaled only by his love of high-end narcotics and high-end hookers, and created the brand in conjunction with Russ Dale and vintner Harry Parducci.

Upon release of his ’03 Napa Cabernet and ’03 Sonoma Chardonnay, Neil said, “I have enjoyed great wine for most of my life and wanted to create something that others could appreciate.”

You have the right to remain silent--and by God, how we wish you would.

You go, frontman!  Unfortunately, there’s reason to suppose that ‘others’ are not so enamored with Neil’s weakness for wine—and it also speaks to the TTB’s weird rules concerning who can and who can’t get a wine label approved.  In 1984, a totally shit-faced Neil opted to take the logical step of driving to the liquor store to get even shit-faceter.  Along for the joy-ride was Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle Dingley.  Alas, they never made it.  Neil hit an oncoming car, killing Dingley and leaving the occupants of the other vehicle with permanent brain damage.  For this silly lapse in judgment, the high-pitched screecher served fifteen nearly interminable days in jail, and lest you think that such a cruel and inhumane sentence must surely have rehabilitated him, consider that Vince ‘Can’t Change Me’ Neil was arrested in 2007 for DUI, again in 2010 for DUI, and in 2011, for assaulting his girlfriend while completely blotto.  On the plus side, Mötley Crüe dedicated an album to Dingley, which probably goes a long way to making everything hunky-dory with the drummer’s next-of-kin.

As responsible consumers, of course, we should keep an entire cluster-galaxy between us and Neil’s label, but as it turned out, 2003 was the only vintage of Vince Wine ever released.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that he dropped the project to focus on something much more gnarly and near to the hearts of metalheads: His own brand of tequila.


What could be further removed from the genteel world of double decanting and carbonic maceration than three-chord grindcore heavy metal?  Football, that’s what.  Figure that last year the annual NFL advertising spend by Anheuser-Busch, representing such brands as Busch, Bud, Labatt, and Beck’s, topped $82 million, followed closely by Miller/Coors at $62 million.  And further figure that the wine industry/football expenditure was, in the final pecuniary analysis,  a grand total of nothing.  In fact, in 2009, wine ads overall declined by 22% during Superbowl week.  It seems evident that gridirons and keggers are having a brass-bound, infrangible love affair—one that our Lady-on-the-Lees will never bust up.  Still , you never know—malolactic minx that she is…  and the following pigskin pros, even those without necks, are nonetheless up to their necks in the wine game:

Phallic? Get out--this is Mike Friggin Ditka.

“I’ve drank every kind of wine there is,” says past-participle-challenged Mike Ditka, retired NFL tight end and former coach of the Bears and the Saints.  “If I had a penny for every glass of wine I’ve had in my life, I’d be a millionaire.”  Hard to fathom that last one since Ditka has a net worth of over $44 million, but we’ll leave it alone and focus instead on Mike Ditka Wines.  In partnership with Mendocino Wine Company, he produces four varietals (cabernet, chardonnay, merlot and pinot grigio) and a flagship blend called Kick Ass Red, showing that the Hall of Famer has the same respect for the art of winemaking that he does for  biographer Jeff Pearlman, about whom Ditka said, “If I saw him, I’d spit on him.”   Fair warning, Jeff: If Ditka drinks as much cab as he claims he does, you can look out for some purple spit.


Meanwhile, back in Walla Walla, former Patriot QB Drew Bledsoe could not have found a better partner than Chris and Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellars with whom to make wine. Bledsoe grew up a mere 400 yards from the Leonetti vineyards, and the impression I get is that he is the real deal, fascinated with every aspect of winemaking ‘from dirt to bottle’.  His label, Double Back Wine, produced 900 cases of cabernet sauvignon in the premiere 2008 vintage; it was of exceptional quality and it sold out quickly.


I tried to score an interview with former University of Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson to talk about his Napa Valley winery and the release of his flagship wine TwentyFour, about which Woodson says, “It’s a wine of giving back and paying forward.”

But no luck, so I didn’t get a chance to challenge the ruling on the field by asking him how, at $150 a bottle, he figures he’s ‘giving’ back anything.  Selling back is more like it.  And the only paying forward will be the bank note you’ll need in order to afford the wine.  That said, I did try it, and it’s a hella red; its rich, chocolaty nose charges forward with multiple layers of sweet tannins,  a firm juicy fruit backbone and a mocha finish that goes well into overtime.


Bo and Cathy in 2006

As long as I’m on a U of M roll, I must mention Cathy Schembechler’s paean to her husband Bo, who is to Michigan football folklore what Paul Bunyan is to the tall tales of Michigan lumbermen: mythos.  Bo Schembechler Wines is a series of limited-edition bottlings showcased by Ann Arbor-based Studer Enterprises.  There’s a blended white and a merlot; both are perfectly drinkable, of course, but they are marketed more as a collector’s item for fans of the late, fiery ‘coach’s coach’ whose final speech, made the day before he died, was to extort Michigan players to remember ‘the team, the team, the team!’


Now, after all that puerile, occasionally mean-spirited expostulation, this may come as a shock, but in the category of superstars who have wineries but probably shouldn’t, I am giving Madonna and Madonna Wine a total Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Why?  Three reasons.  One, she’s from Michigan, the wine’s from Michigan and I’m from Michigan.  Two, I dig her father, vintner Tony Ciccone, who I happen to love hear preach—especially about wine.  And third, this is my column and I will do whatever the fork I want with it, even if, like ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’, it makes no sense.

Papa Tony with his bottles

Tony’s limited-edition Madonna series, featuring his kid on the label, is but one of many interesting wines  from his vineyards, including an edgy dolcetto—the only example of that varietal to emerge from Michigan’s beautiful Leelanau Peninsula.  I’m not really sure if Madonna herself now has a stake in Ciccone Vineyards,  but I believe she stepped up to the plate when the winery—like most businesses in hinterlands of Northern Michigan—needed an infusion of support.

After all, what good is it being a pop diva if you can’t help out Pop?

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Novemberfest, 2011: A Random Trio

What’s that?  It’s Oktoberfest?  I thought Oktoberfest was in September.  And I thought October was spelled with a gentle Anglo-Saxon ‘c’ instead of a massive, intimidating Teutonic ‘k’.

What’s up with that, anyway?  Cologne with a ‘K’, Caesar with a ‘K’, commando with a ‘k’—hell, even my own last name starts with a ‘K’ when by all rights—being a homonym for that Royal rock pile in Balmoral—it should not.  Inconvenient?  Not only do all those misplaced ‘k’s’ overwork my laptop, but I can never order a pizza without slowly spelling out my patronym, letter by letter, lest the Castle family winds up with my double cheese and green olives.

Oktobeer Fest, 1810

‘Kassel’ notwithstanding, Germans have long, funny names, and the history of Oktoberfest is soaked with them.  The chronicle begins in 1810 with the marriage of the son of Count Palatine Maximilian Joseph of Zweibrücken and Augusta Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen; the subsequent wedding party was held in a Munich field called die Theresienwiese.  So bonkers an occasion did it prove to be that the Bavarian Royal Family figured they’d mollify the masses—reeling from poverty and near-constant warfare—by holding it every year.

And that they have done, religiously—at least when they were were not unscabbarding their swords and the peasants were not dying of cholera.  Over the centuries, Oktoberfest has been cancelled 25 times—twice due to disease epidemics and twenty-three times because the uppity-ups couldn’t play nice with the neighbors.  In 1813 it was Napoleon, in 1866 it was the Prussians, and in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, it was you and me.

Short of making them give back Poland and Alsace and writing ‘I Will Not Bomb London’ a billion times on the blackboard, there seems to be no better penance for these touchy Teutons than the shuttering of the Ochsenbraterei/Spatenbräu Festhalle.  Apparently, it works: They’ve been heeding Mr. Do Bee’s gentle Romper Room admonishment ever since:  “Boys and girls? Do Bee a good Master Race and forget about world domination.”

And since 1947 (with the notable exception of 1980’s pipe bomb planted by right-wing extremist Gundolf Köhler which killed thirteen people—including Gundolf), sailing has been pretty consistent.

A Million Gallons of Beer on the Bar

Which is not to say that it’s been restrained—far from it.  Oktoberfest is the largest, most out-of-control party in the world; it makes the Mardi Gras look like Sammy Six-Pack’s backyard weenie roast.

A few stats to offer a clue as to how off the hook it can be:

In 2010, six million revelers consumed 119 oxen, 240,000 pork sausages, seventy thousand pork knuckles, half a million chickens, 90,000 pounds of Fisch am Stiel (fish on a stick), one small tin of Spam, 34,000 gallons of wine, and—envelope please—nearly two million gallons of beer.

And that was breakfast.

(The consequence of all this beer consumption, of course, is a need for Porta-Johns, and more than 1,800 were in operation in 2010—several surrounded by Faraday Cages to prevent them from being used by cell-phoners as ‘quiet spots’, thus risking blown Bavarian bladders).

Why Pitch a Bitch When You Can Pitch a Beer Tent?

The München set-up, as overseen by a whopping Amazonian statue representing Bavarian womanhood, centers around thirty-four non-permanent tents, each with a name that settles, like those of the Bavarian Royalty, as an absurdly uneconomical waste of letters: Ochsenbraterei, Armbrustschützenzelt, Wildmoser-Hühnerbraterei, Studentenverbindungen, with a special agricultural pavilion that happens every four years called Zentrallandwirtschaftsfest.

Well, at least they’ve stopped wasting all those endangered ‘K’s’.

The Glöckle Wirt

Each tent boasts some esoteric, often odd but always cool specialty: There’s The Crossbowman’s Tent, for example; the Glöckle Wirt, filled with oil paintings and antique musical instruments and the Münchner Knödelei, whose mission statement is ‘Preserve and spread the dumpling culture’—thus allowing us to sleep easier knowing that the Germans are making Spätzle instead of 20-mm antiaircraft cannons.

Naturally, the common denominator that joins these pavilions at the hop is beer.  Sure, there’s sekt sparkling wine available, but drinking it is akin to blasphemy. What, you’d drive to Hershey, Pennsylvania to pick up some Jolly Ranchers?

Beneath the canvas, Bier ist Gott.

The Beer Institute

Oktoberfestbiers, as they are called, are a unique breed, usually Märzens, brewed in March, stored in caves over the summer, and top-heavy with malt and alcohol—some a full 2% higher than standard Munich Helles lagers.  But Munich beers they are: The Beer Institute dictates that only beers brewed within the city limits  may be called Oktoberfestbier, and all others must be called ‘Oktoberfest-style’, just as the 1919 Treaty of Versailles required Germany to be re-named the Weimar-style Republic-like Reich.

€9.20 worth

As might be predicted, virtually all these toasty, nut-brown, yeasty-rich Oktoberfestbiers come from the München Big Six: Löwenbräu, Hofbräuhaus, Augustinerbräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr and Spaten.  The first three are currently under indictment from the Interpunktion-Erhaltungs-Liga von München (Punctuation Conservation League of Munich) to stop the overharvesting of umlauts, so legal fees are probably the reason that the price for a Maß (1 liter stein) of these beers is steadily increasing.  In 2001 the average price of a Maß was around six and a half Euros—this year, it was €9.20.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Beer

So, back to Septemberfest.  As nostalgic a date as October 12, 1810 is to those maudlin Münchners, autumn weather in Bavaria can be a touch squirrely, so the 16 – 18 day festival ends on the first Sunday in October, meaning that it’s held mostly in September.

My personal Novemberfest—for those interested—will be held on the Kassel Fairgrounds in my basement in about ten seconds so I can write tasting notes.  If you even superficially resemble the Fräuleins in the adjoining photo, admittance is free.  If not, you are required to provide several crockpots and chafing dishes filled with Leberspätzlesuppe, Nürnberger Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut and Semmelschmarrn mit Zwetschgenkompott along with a kegger of Franziskaner Weißbier and an experienced Oompah band. Oh, and a double cheese with green olives pizza, O.C.?

Hey, cut me some slack—I know that the last word is spelled wrong, but damn it, we just ran out of ‘K’s’.

Maybe bring some of those, too.


Tasting Notes:

Note on the notes: These beer/ales have zero to do with Oktoberfest, and everything to do with Novemberfest—they are big, bold brews that don’t need any of that late-September girly Indian Summer crap.  They want roaring fireplaces, blizzards out the wazoo and Jack Frost ripping off your nose. 

The first two are Bavarian, the third comes from North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mahrs Bräu Der Weisse Bock, around $7/500ml:  Big and boozy, this one pounds the ABV scales at 7.2%.  Weisse bock is a style that’s quickly developing a fan base—it shows the sweet raisin, citrus, tart cherry and apple of wheat beers with the caramel-honey malt of bock with its underlying cocoa and coffee bitterness.  Ultra-smooth with almost Champagne-like carbonation; bubbles stir up some sediment, giving the brew a murky character perfect for autumn.

Kapuziner Schwarz-Weizen Ale, about $3.50/500ml:  Stout beers have been phenominally successful here in the States, thanks in no small part to the Guinness advertising powerhouse, but it hasn’t really spilled over to German Schwarz (black) ales.  It should.  This ale broods with a bitter roasted coffee bean intensity that’s mellowed by pretty notes of pumpkin pie spice and the tang of orange rind.  The head is thick, khaki and loaded with visible bubbles rather than froth; the mouthfeel tag-teams between astringency and brown sugar sweetness.  It finishes too abruptly to be a world-class player, but at the price, the brew is a bargain.

Uerige Doppelsticke Altbier, around $6.50/11.2 oz:  The color of dark amber maple syrup, Doppelsticke weighs in at an awe inspiring 8.5% alcohol—and it’s priced to match.  But the buzz factor seems nicely balanced by a massive, malt-driven palate filled with mocha, pine needles, cooking chocolate and winter spices followed up by a bit of cherry and a strong, extremely long-lasting finish initially reminiscent of grapefruit rind, followed by notes of fresh hops.  Incidentally, Doppelsticke means ‘double secret’ in the Bavarian Bairisch dialect—so if you ask what’s in it, the Uerige folks may have to pull a Hansel and Gretel’s witch on you, and that, my friend, will be that.

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Ghost Pines Chardonnay: Did Thirty-Five French Generations Get It Wrong?

I begin with a short and doubtlessly dull philippic on vineyard designated wines.  And all you smarty-pants enophiles who already know this stuff are encouraged to go back to The Marriage Plot or Unbroken or whatever the hell you’re reading these days.

The Upside of Monkdom

For the rest of you, the tale begins near the end of the Middle Ages—somewhere around 1300—when scholarly types first started to appreciate the differences in various Burgundian wines based on which vineyard was producing them.  Monks—who tended to bogart literacy in those days—took it upon themselves to map out holdings and land parcels and note the lots that were dispensing the best wines.  Most of their findings were confirmed by Denis Morelot in 1831, and although his opus La Vigne et le Vin en Côte d’Or didn’t make past a single edition (a reprint finally appeared in 2009), many of the top vineyards listed therein are still on top today and command the highest bottle prices.

The Hocus-Pocus of Locus

The reason, of course, is the omnipresent-in-wine-harangues but frequently misunderstood concept of terroir.  Defining it (beyond ‘an expression of place’) is like defining ‘irony’—examples work far better than words.  Burgundy is France’s most terroir-conscious appellation—possibly, the most site-psycho wine ward in the world.  Why?  First, it’s a consequence of Burgundy’s size.  All told, the AOC from which the noblest wines on earth geyser forth is a mere 25 miles long by a mile and a half wide, and, thanks to 1804 inheritance laws put into play by Napoleon, most of the family-owned vineyards have been divided and subdivided until a single small vineyard may have scores of owners, some of which might cultivate only a single row of vines.  Le Montrachet, the ne plus ultra of chardonnay, is less than twenty acres total and serves 18 masters—Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose Montrachet commands upwards of $4000 a bottle, owns a paltry acre and a half.  The result of all this is that precisely where your Burgundian parcel is located—on an ideal site midway up a slope facing southeast or in the flat, poorly-drained valleys below—makes all the difference.

"Call me a cab." Okay, you're a cab.

Another factor that determines the signature flavors of your situation is  air temperature, which in Burgundy is just barely where it needs to be to grow grapes.  And not just any grapes, either: Cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux’s heat-seeking valedictorian, wouldn’t last a season in the Côte d’Or.  So, microclimate based on a thousand interwoven factors is frequently the difference between a Grand Cru and a Village.  Likewise in Germany, where the viticulture envelope is pushed to its limit, ripeness is key to a wine’s classification.  Only in exceptional vintages from vineyards with ideal exposures can grapes ripen to the point where they can wear labels that make them coveted and collectable.

A third reason why a specific vineyard name on a label may be considered a guarantee of breeding is soil—a key element of terroir, right up there with geography and climate. (The root of terroir, of course, is terre—‘earth’).  Despite its relatively small size, Burgundy is composed of over 400 different soil types ranging from chalky limestone to shallow compacted clay, each of which has a marked effect on a wine’s profile.  French vignerons have noticed that vines planted in blocks encrusted with chalk are healthier and the wines are deeper and more complex, so it’s not surprising that the greatest names in Burgundy and Champagne come from fiefs that sit above limestone outcroppings.

And these soils do not, for the most part, meld gradually together—they change abruptly, often within the space of a few feet.  This explains in part the haywire pricing variations between Burgundies.  Stand, for example, among the trellises of Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet, a Grand Cru which sells for around $300 a bottle, and look toward Puligny-Montrachet, only a hop-scotch skip away, which sells for $50.  It’s all down to dirt—and nowhere in the wine world is there a better exemplar: Soil is to Beaune what oil is to the U.A.E.

In the Mosel, where the magic word is Sonnenschein, the best bottlings come from vineyards containing blue-gray slate which collects heat during the day and radiates it back to the soil during the night.  By contrast, nearby Rhein’s soil contains high concentrations of quartz, loess, sand and loam, and produces wine with a distinctly different character.


Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Later

The United States was a bit slow on the single-vineyard uptake.  The first California winery to fuse the name of a specific block of grapes with the winery’s name was Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard in 1966.  It provided not only a unique, appellation-defining sense of terroir (Heitz has a distinct minty flavor, said to come from the eucalyptus trees that surround the vineyard), but also a sense of pride as Joe Heitz, seller of the cellar, realized that he was sitting on what would be considered in France a premier cru vineyard—not to mention that the unusual labeling  became a talking point which helped nudge the fledgling enterprise onto the world stage.  (Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard currently sells for around $150, but if you’re so inspired, there are still bottles of that magical ’66 vintage available for about ten times as much.)

Martha's Vineyard: The Wampanoag called it 'Noepe', but what the hell did they know about wine?

Enlivened by the success of what was, to some extent, a gimmick, Chateau St. Jean tagged their 1975 chardonnay ‘Robert Young Vineyards’ and it was off to the races.  Such proud partnerships between grower and winemaker soon became the whip, with some vineyards—Bella Oaks and Herb Lamb, for example—becoming more famous than the wineries themselves.  In fact, Martha’s Vineyard became such a beloved brand among affluent Americans that an upscale island off Cape Cod ripped off the name.

Federal regulations require that if an American wine is called ‘Single Vineyard’ (SV), 95% of its grapes must come from one delimited vineyard.  The TTB must have plenty of Praetorian Guardsmen in the field, since in 1966, when Joe Heitz went for the gusto, there were 424 bonded wineries operating in the entire United States while today, in California alone, there are 3,364.

And more and more of them are hopping aboard the SV bandwagon.

Michael Eddy

So, Who’s Been Slashing The Tires On That SV Bandwagon?

Michael Eddy, winemaker at Ghost Pines, that’s who.

Now, it’s one thing to opt out of the single vineyard program—even to quietly pooh-pooh its theoretics.  But Eddy eschews even as broad a label as Napa or Sonoma, opting instead to buy grapes anywhere in the state he wants, and is perfectly content to wear broad, non-informational ‘California’ as an AVA.

He’s more than content, actually.  He brags about it:  “As a winemaker, I’m pretty lucky.  I’m not bound by a single appellation or vineyard, so I have a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing grapes…”

Okay.  Now, I’m pretty certain that each time Joseph Drouhin collects $2,339 for a 3-liter of Le Montrachet Marquis De Laguiche his first thought is not, ‘Damn, I wish I wasn’t bound by a single vineyard’, but there are some valid reasons for winemakers to consider the cons as well as the pros before diving in headlong to what has, for some, become a branding nightmare.

Regrets?  There’ve been a few.

The primary concern, of course, is that whenever you partner up with someone with the intention of developing a product, you’ve got to be optimistic about the future—let it be full of harmony, bliss and greenbacks.  However, even though a given winery—say, Domaine Jacktard—labels a wine ‘Dingledouche Vineyard’ and dutifully uses 95% Dingledouche fruit, it has no proprietary ownership of the name ‘Dingledouche’, which belongs to the grower.  So, when the grape-buying contract ends, there’s always the chance that the Dingledouche faction will choose not to re-up, or will raise prices beyond what Domaine Jacktard can spend.  So, after all the sweat that went into advertising, pavement-pounding and begging reviews from weenies like me, there’s no equity—and Domaine Jacktard is left with a popular brand name it can no longer use.  Dream over.

There are some SV worries on the consumer front as well.  You generally pay more—sometimes a lot more—for wines wearing a vineyard designation, but you’re willing to do so because you have an academic interest in why a 2007 Zinfandel from Ravenswood’s ‘Barricia Vineyard’ sells for $24 a bottle while an ‘05 Ravenswood ‘Belloni’ commands upward of $850.  If you shell out for the latter, you expect—and have the right to expect—a genuine understanding of what Belloni had going for it in 2005.

And yet, without research on your part, simply imagining that a vineyard listing guarantees a soulful reflection of an identifiable terroir is probably a romantic pipe dream.

As Michael Eddy phrases it, “Vineyards don’t know where the county lines are.”

Microclimate in action

People own vineyards for all sorts of reasons—egos, Last Wills and Testaments, love of the earth, more money than sense, etc.—but I assume that one of the least common reasons for farming grapes is a grower’s absolute conviction that every vine on the property is living in the precise climat as every other vine.  If you, like me, come from Hardiness Zone 6, you’ll notice that patches of snow remain on the lawn until late April or even May while the rest of it melts in March—meaning, of course, that these small areas are living in a microclimate quite different from the rest of the grass.  Likewise, in vineyards where one block of grapes may be a hundred acres distant from another, elevations, drainages, soil types and exposures—hence, terroirs—can be as different those from a completely different appellations.  And yet, no TTB regulation covers this loophole, and all grapes from the entire vineyard, no matter how different in ripeness and quality, can make up a wine labeled ‘Single Vineyard’.

And Michael Eddy’s reasons for releasing Ghost Pines Chardonnay, ‘Winemaker’s Blend’, 2010, incorporating fruit that’s 60% Sonoma, 18% Monterey and 22% Napa?

None of the above.

Eddy says, “”You may find an incredible vineyard site next to a marginal one in the same AVA. For me, it’s about ignoring the traditional boundaries and finding those great sites that let us express pure varietal character in the bottle.”

In other words, he’s just not all that enamored over terroir specifics.  Far from being the sacrilege that this attitude would be in Beaune, it reflects a very back-to-the-basics California focus on fruit—the reason why American wines are listed by grape names while the French ballyhoo location names.  Eddy believes—and has believed through stints at Trefethen Family Vineyards, Beaulieu Vineyard and Rodney Strong Vineyards—that carefully chosen blocks from multiple AVA’s can ultimately reflect the purest nature of the beast, whether the soil is volcanic, sedimentary or granitic.

Of course, the ultimate test of his hypothesis happens after the cork is popped, and tasting notes follow.  I will say that I found Eddy’s 2010 Ghost Pine to be a marvelously textured and multi-dimensional chardonnay, though at .46 g/100ml of residual sugar, nearly Spätlese sweet. A natural pH of 3.54, however, offers a nice foil.

But that’s dweebese, and if your browser does not support a Geek/English translator, you’ll have to judge Ghost Pine’s haunting complexity for yourself.

Today is Sunday, and since a lot of stores won’t sell wine on Sunday, you may have to wait until tomorrow–Halloween– to pick up your bottle of Michael Eddy Munster’s Ghost wine.

And that, class, is an example of irony.

Tasting Notes:

Ghost Pines Chardonnay, Winemaker’s Blend, 2010, about $20: Nose presents a many-layered impression beginning with Green Apple Jolly Rancher and a light oak-honey nip followed by the distinct scent of mandarin orange.  Mouthfeel is almost viscous, with evocative tones of frankincense along with spicy peach, apricot and apple, everything shored up with a pleasant acidity that balances the sweet citrus of the mid-palate.  A token hint of oaky bitterness exists on the finish.  Eddy’s wine undergoes malolactic fermentation to mellow the vintage’s higher than normal acidity, and it provides a nice creaminess throughout.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Chardonnay | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

English Wine: A Convenient Truth

Among the reefs upon which English culture has traditionally foundered are the following: Oral hygiene, naming food (spotted dick, bubble and squeak, blood pudding…  Seriously?), failing to be suitably deferential to Americans for kicking arse in 1776, then winning World War II for them, spelling ‘color’ with a ‘u’, shit with an ‘e’ and soccer with an ‘f’…

…And making wine.

Yet, lo and behold, at a sold-out London Wine Fair this coming weekend (October 29th) four English wines will strut their stuff among the 600 international wines, plenty from lesser known wineries like Sula in India.

How is this possible in England—a country where it rains 365 days a year (people sunbathe only on Feb 29, once every four years), where beer is the omnipresent bevvie of choice and where, during a sort of renaissance of vine planting in the ‘80’s, more than one in three of the new wineries tossed in the towel within a decade?

I believe that Al Gore can clue you in—maybe catch him aboard his private Gulfstream as he travels the world lecturing on how to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle:

Global warming.

It’s nothing new.  The first climactic blow to English viticulture occurred during the 800’s when a mini ice-age put the chill of destiny into the hearts of Romano-Britons and killed the vines they’d spent a thousand years installing.  By 1086 the industry had recovered a bit, with forty-six wineries listed in a survey of landowners commissioned by William the Conqueror; apparently, English vineyards could be found from modern-day Somerset and as far north as East Anglia.  Over the next five hundred years, the number of wineries grew to nearly one hundred fifty, mostly cultivated by monks and falling under the auspices of the church.  Henry VIII put a kibosh on all that, of course, by abolishing monasteries, and in subsequent centuries, the British wine industry faded to near extinction.

All in all, the English proved to be better at importing continental wine—Claret from Bordeaux, hock from Germany, sherry from Spain and madeira from Sicily—than they did at maintaining their own winegrowing community.

That is, until we humanoids started leaving carbon footprints bigger than those of the Jolly Not-So-Green Giant.  Figure that Burgundy is about three hundred miles south of London; over the six months that Burgundian grapes are active, the average temperature is a shade over 70°F—in Kent, one of the primo growing spots for vines in England, average temps have now crept above 64°F.  Kent, in fact, set a British record in 2003, recording temperatures of over 100°F—a historical first.

And, despite the inconvenient untruth mentioned above concerning the amount of rainfall England gets (that was a wee bit o’ John Bull bull), sunshine is not really an issue to sub-London vintners.  England’s South Coast receives as much as 1700 hours of sunlight during the growing season, while vines require about 1500 hours to remain viable.

One day, if temperatures continue to rise, the Kingdom appears poised to snag a throne on the world’s wine stage.  For now, maybe not: In the course of a decade, England can expect four atrocious vintages, four average vintages and only two good ones.

Clearly, there’s both a learning curve and a weather curve still required.

In the meantime, Brittania waits impatiently,  engines revved (more CO2 for the atmosphere, mate) doing what it can to hurry things along…

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Seyval Blanc

So one man’s Day After Tomorrow is another man’s VinExpo Britain 2050, but as it stands, most cépages nobles have opted to exercise a contract rider stating that they won’t perform in the U.K. until it can provide dressing rooms as slick as those of the Côte-d’Or.  And these are the rock star varietals, the label-names that put coin in the coffer:  cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, shiraz, sauvignon blanc—you name it, the Brits can’t quite grow it.  So, as the English wine industry becomes more sophisticated, many vineyards have opted to plant such ingénues as are willing to give the country the benefit of the doubt.  That includes Seyval Blanc, Bacchus, Huxelrebe and Phoenix.

Seyval on the vine.

Seyval is an early-ripening French hybrid built to withstand cool temperatures and truncated growing seasons; besides England, it shows up frequently in Finger Lakes (New York) vineyards.  Characterized by a mouthwatering acidity and a backbone of minerality, it has flavors comparable to those of basic white Burgundies: pear, apple, lemon and melon.

Developed in the Palatinate in 1933 as part of the German plan to create a blonde and vigorous Master Grape, Bacchus—named for the degenerate god of one-for-the-road—is a cross between the powerhouse varietals riesling, sylvaner and müller-thurgau.  In the Fatherland, it tends to produce flabby wines without much character, but in England, where temperatures are cooler, the grape retains enough acidity to be quite lovely.  Flavors are distinctively herbal: leaf, meadow shrubs, honeysuckle with a bit of grapefruit in the background.

The totalitarian-looking 'Institute for Grape Breeding' was designed by Albert Speer in 1927

Huxelrebe is another German ex-pat, developed in 1927 in the very Third Reich-sounding Institute for Grape Breeding as a high-yield, high-must early ripener chiefly used a blending grape.  Which is how England treats it, frequently stirring it into the pot alongside bacchus and seyval.  On its own, it’s a sort of sauvignon blanc lite with delicate overtones of  gooseberry, grass and green apple.

Finally, Phoenix, yet another Aryan offering—although in Germany, a scant 120 acres are currently being cultivated.  It’s a cross between bacchus and villard blanc, and produces a chalky, mineral-tinged wine that, like huxelrebe, is gently reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, but without the breeding of a truly fine one.

"Nay, Charles, you shan't be my tampon. Nay, neigh, neighhhh. Say, do you happen to have a lump of sugar?"

The UK Vineyards Association: How Hoity-Toity Is it…?

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall is the president, that’s how hoity-toity it is.  Equine-looking Camilla, second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, home-wrecker extraordinaire and poster princess for why you don’t want your phone hacked took over the position from Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in July, becoming the figurehead of the UK wine industry.  ‘Figurehead’, of course, is stodgy Brit for ‘I haven’t got the slightest clue as to what I’m doing here, but I’ll gladly accept photo ops at the vineyards’.

As the only organization recognized by the government as representing the English and Welsh wine industry, The UKVA regulates Britain’s place-of-origin pedigree via categories equivalent to France’s AOC, America’s AVA and Italy’s DOC.  The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and the slightly less restrictive Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) also makes rules for permissible label designs, cultivar specifics, alcohol levels and sweetening/de-acidification practices.

Also, each June, they run the English & Welsh Wine of the Year Competition, which offers a pretty good cross-section of who’s doing what, where and how.  In terms of ‘how good’, one would expect that the awards themselves would be a pretty good indicator considering that the six judges are all Masters of Wine—enology’s equivalent to  an Sc.D. degree—but something here doesn’t quite settle in the duodenum.  Of 274 wines entered this year, 252 took home medals or mentions, and for those of you still languishing in remedial math, that’s 90%.  With all that’s been said, here and in dozens of articles elsewhere regarding the struggles and challenges of growing quality grapes in Britian (strides have been made, granted), the idea that 90% of contest submissions would warrant shiny metal or kind kudos is about as credible as Neville Chamberlain waving that ‘Peace In Our Time’ agreement the day before the Nazis invaded Sudetenland.

“We were immensely impressed with the number of entries and the overall quality this year, which is why so many went on to win an award,” said Susan McCraith, the competition’s chairman.

Look, Susan, this may be a speck presumptuous, but isn’t the whole idea of a competition to winnow the fair from the bad, the good from the fair, then the great from the good?  If, as you suggest, they’re all great, aren’t you supposed to tap into your considerable wine knowledge and bionic palate to extract the genuinely sublime from the great?  If everybody wins, nobody wins.

From a slightly different angle, the 'Institute for Grape Breeding' actually looks like half a grape.

Nevertheless, a few of the tippity-top winners included The Jack Ward Trophy (Best Commercial Production from the 2010 vintage) to New Hall Vineyard Bacchus 2010;  The Wine Guild Trophy (Commercial Production, Any Other Year) to Sandhurst Bacchus Dry 2008; the coveted The Gore-Browne Trophy (Wine of the Year) to Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2000The Waitrose Rosé Trophy to Giffords Hall Rosé 2009.  A new category for dessert wines, dubbed The Stefanowicz Trophy, went to Astley Vineyard Late Harvest 2009, produced from 100% Siegerrebe, which is—you guessed it—another Dr. Moreau-Josef Mengele high-must mutt developed at the Institute For Grape Breeding.

One thing you notice looking at the complete list of winners (http://www.englishwineproducers.com/competitionresultsUKVA2011.htm) is that the same vineyards keep showing up again and again, so one supposes that these are the guys who’ve figured out how to make the enology’s equivalent of the Special Olympics work for them, not against them.

Alphabetically, these include:

Astley Vineyards: Michael and Betty Bache established Astley in the 70’s and it sits upon free-draining red sandstone kept temperate by the River Severn.  Winemaker Martin Fowke produces a variety of styles from kerner, madeleine angevine, late-harvest siegerrebe and phoenix, and 97% of them have won awards since 1996.

Biddenden Vineyards: The oldest winery in the Southeast, the scant 22 acres of vines produce a variety of cultivars.  50% of the land is planted to ortega with the remainder divided between huxelrebe, bacchus, schönburger and reichensteiner with reds being made up of dornfelder, gamay and pinot noir.

Sam Lindo

Camel Valley: Situated in a distinctly camel-free zone halfway between the Atlantic and Channel coasts, the mildish Cornish climate helps produce wonderful whites from bacchus, seyval and even a bit of chardonnay while reds are primarily pinot noir and dornfelder.  All, under the directorship of Sam and Bob Lindo, have won awards, but none so prestigious as the second-place they took in the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona, bested only by Bollinger.

Chapel Down Winery:  Kent is considered the Garden of England, and not ‘garden’ in the sense of a grotty, microscopic backyard in the row houses of Coronation Street, but a real live, fertile and brimming with verdure garden.  Here, above a chalk seam typified by the North and South Downs of Kent, is the setting that winemaker Owen Elias plies his trade, producing a decorated portfolio of still and sparkling wines.  Attached to the estate is a superlative restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Richard Phillips, making this one of the top destination wineries in the Commonwealth.

Denbies Wine Estate:  A whopper by British standards, Denbies is one of the largest privately owned vineyards in Northern Europe, and in top vintages can approach a half million bottles—10% of all output from this tight little isle.  The state-of-the-art facility in the hilariously named town of Dorking in Surrey, produces both still and sparkling wines, predominantly from a no-surprises line-up: Seyval, reichensteiner, müller-thurgau, bacchus, ortega, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Nyetimber Limited: For owner Eric Heerema, the 100 Years War never really ended and he battles on, still determined win it.  At least, he wants to out-Champagne Champagne.  The estate was founded in 1986 by an American couple who noted the geological similarities between this West Sussex property and the Champagne region; they reasoned that they could produce a wine to rival the great bubblies of France.  The estate has changed hands several times, but not one of these hands has lost touch with the mission.  The UKVA voted them Best Wine of the Year thrice running (’03 – ’05) and the shelf-load of trophies, gold medals and ‘Best of Class’ awards proves that the ultimate goal may be in sight.

Ridgeview Wine Estate:  So named because it nestles on a low limestone ridge sloping towards the South Downs in Sussex, the winery enjoys a rare growing-season climate—both dry and hot.  This allows them to fully ripen chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier along with ten other French clones to ensure variety in blending.  It should be no surprise, therefore, that winemakers Mike and Simon Roberts specialize in méthode champenoise sparklers—and they’re nailing it:  In June, Cavendish 2009 was awarded Best Sparkling Wine in the 23rd Thesis Wine Competition.

Three Choirs Vineyard:  The average size of a Napa vineyard is 150 acres; at 80 acres, Three Choirs is one of the biggest vineyards in England.  To further level set, within the Three Choirs microclimate, less rain falls than in Napa: 20 inches a year compared to 24 for Napa.  Sheltered by the Malverns and the Brecon Beacons, the land is ideal for most of the English standby grapes; in the red category, experimental plantings in rondo, regent and triomphe are producing favorable results.

So, Back To The London Wine Fair…

You’ll likely be reading this after the fair is over, but no matter—there aren’t any tickets left and you couldn’t have gone anyway (frowny-face emoticon, which I would never, under any circumstances, actually incorporate into my writing).  But for those lucky enough to score an entry, it promises to be a whirligig day filled with tastings, break-out master classes, tastings, a wine walk and more tastings from the 55 tables manned by some of the most influential wine merchants in the country.

According to the Wine Gang, a quintet made up of the U.K.’s most respected wine critics,  “This is Britain’s brightest, best and most fun wine event and is a fabulous chance to plan your wine drinking for Christmas and beyond.”

The Wine Gang: Somewhat less intimidating than the Crips

As mentioned previously, four English wines will flex muscles against multinational heavyweights like Bodegas Marqués de Vargas, 2006; Domaine de la Fond Moiroux Moulin-à-Vent, 2009 and Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc, 2010.

As follows, the English entries:

Chapel Down Bacchus, 2010; Camel Valley Atlantic Dry, 2010; Bloomsbury Cuvée Merret Ridgeview, 2009 and Armit, Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs, 2006.

Unlike a Premiere League soccer-with-an-‘f’ rivalry, there will be no home field advantage for British winemakers here, but like the Academy Awards, it’s an honor just to have a spot.  Everyone is here to have fun, get a bit tipsy and learn how to buy ‘smarter and drink better’—the Wine Gang’s motto.

Ultimately, whether or not the English actually take any medals probably doesn’t mean, well, shite.

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

Hoary Antinori Does it Again. And Again… And…

A cardinal difference between the outlook of Italians and Americans is that in Italy, a hundred miles is a long way while in the USA, a hundred years is a long time.

I think the Antinori family will confirm this.

Portuguese people

These venerable Tuscans have been pumping out wine for twenty-six generations, since 1385, the year that Great25Nonno Giovanni di Piero Antinori became part of the Arte Fiorentina dei Vinattieri.  Here’s a few other things that also happened that year:

  • Richard II, who became King of England at the age of ten, invades Scotland.  Epic fail.
  • France’s Charles VI marries Isabeau of Bavaria.  Charles, who thought he was made out of glass and frequently forgot his own name, was called ‘Charles the Mad’.  Isabeau wasn’t too happy about it either.
  • Portugal becomes an independent nation, and the world has had to contend with Portuguese people ever since.
  • Jan van Eyck, the Flemish painter is born; Xu Da, Chinese military leader and co-founder of the Ming Dynasty, who was allergic to goose meat, dies after eating goose meat.  Another epic fail.

Marchese Piero and daughters, not King Lear.

A lot of Chianti has passed beneath the bridge since then, but the ancient clan still sports an Antinori at the tiller.  Marchese Piero Antinori is the winery’s current director, with plenty of support from his trio of lyrically-named daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia.

The passion and predisposition that have driven the Marchesi Antinoris for these six centuries have secured them a spot as one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished wine families, but as Marchese Piero loves to remind us:

“Ancient roots play an important role in our philosophy, but they have never held back our spirit of innovation…”

That’s ‘innovation’ with a capital ‘C’, my friends:  Controversy has been at the heart of many of Piero’s decisions, and if the gleam in his eye appears to have a slight purplish tint, it’s probably cabernet sauvignon.  Italian DOC laws are stricter than anything Hammurabi scribbled down on his crankiest day ever, and if you are going to make, say, a Chianti Classico, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico grower’s union warns that you’d better not stray from legally mandated varietals—80% sangiovese, with an allowance of six other clones to make up the remaining 20%.  Flout these rules and you won’t just get your wrist slapped, you’ll get cold-cocked in the money clip.  You will not be permitted to wear the locality-defining black rooster on your bottle neck nor stamp your wine DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)—Italy’s highest quality designation.  Screw with the Consorzio, even by a grape or two, and you may not be sleeping with the fish, but you’ll definitely be sleeping with vino di tavola—Italy’s lowest status designation—on your wine label.

Fallen Angel

Well, with Piero, it wasn’t just a grape or two, it was a quarter of the crop.   Back in the 60’s, Chianti Classico went through a major choke—a collapse of purpose more disgraceful than the 1995 California Angels’ late-August, 9-game wild card lead over the Rangers, following which, despite odds of 8000 to 1 that they’d miss the playoffs, they missed the playoffs.  You’ll have to ask S.I. editors about the Angels, but Marchese Piero Antinori can explain what happened in Tuscany:

“When the Chianti formula was created, the red wines were particularly harsh because the whole grape bunch was utilized, even stalks, and no one knew about malolactic fermentation. This made it necessary to use a percentage of white grapes—originally malvasia—to soften the wine. Then it proved convenient and useful to add white grapes all the time so the more productive and hardy trebbiano became the white grape of choice. Over time, Chianti came to be made with 30 percent trebbiano and this radically altered the nature of Chianti. By the late 1960s, it was lighter in color with a simple structure and, worse still, it was unsuitable for aging.”

'71 Tignanello: You can still pick up a bottle for around $500

Inspired by a few local heretics like Azienda Agricola San Felice, Antinori began to radically reduce the amount of trebbiano in his Chianti, and in 1971, released Tignanello, a treb-free blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.  It proved over-the-top opulent; seductive and elegant with an essence that seemed almost intrinsically Italian—it became a cult wine icon virtually overnight.  But it strayed from from the prescribed production code, and thus, the Consorzio would not classify the wine as DOCG but instead condemned it to the lowest rung on the wine ladder, VdT—a designation that indicates nothing more than that the wine was made in Italy—it may be mass produced or cobbled together from bulk-market juice.

Piero’s rejoinder?  A very cultured nobleman’s paraphrase of the gutter yawp: “Andate tutti a fanculo!”

And they hadn’t seen anything yet.

Tignanello’s comprehensive success among consumers and critics galvanized Tuscany, and more producers began to release non-traditional blends, mostly using Bordeaux varietals—and far from sweating their demeaning VdT classification, they soon found that these remarkable, rich and often expensive wines were being referred to by the cognoscenti as ‘Super Tuscans’.

And as prices continued to skyrocket, other Tuscan enologists, still making clunky and sub-standard Chiantis, realized that a lot of the egg that they use for fining was winding up on their faces.

Fiascos were a fiasco

Antinori’s bold defiance of regulations and subsequent triumphs (Cervaro della Sala, Gualdo al Tasso, Solaia) ultimately inspired a Chianti overhaul, first of the psyche, then of the psystem.  Classico producers began to clean up their act and then to embark upon the long road of convincing patrons (Americans especially) that Chianti Classico was not to be confused with cheap red wine bottled in straw-covered fiascos and plunked down on checkered tablecloths in generic paisano restaurants.  As a vital part of the renaissance, Chianti Classico was able to break its ties with Chianti, of which it had previously been a mere sub-zone, and in 1996, was awarded its own autonomous DOCG with a new and rigorous production code.  Among the tenets was the complete elimination of white wine grapes beginning in vintage 2006.  Ultimately, the Consorzio blinked, and in an attempt to bring the Super Tuscan winemakers back into the fold, created a whole new class for them: Indicazione Geografica Tipica,  or IGT.  Of course, that came with a new bunch of restrictions, and some Tuscan vintners (and a few winemakers in Piedmont and Veneto also, as the damn-the-torpedoes trend spread) continue to do exactly what they want, and accept the declassified ranking with a certain offbeat pride.  Viva L’Italia!

Atlas Peak: Some tough rows to hoe.

An Altitude Attitude

Meanwhile, Marchese Piero Antinori was not looking back, but over the ocean toward California.  In 1985, doing a survey of available acres in Napa, he found a boulder-and-chaparral-strewn pocket above Foss Valley in a little-known, high-elevation appellation called Atlas Peak.  Unlike Napa’s other, dominant mountain AVA’s—Veeder, Howell, Spring and Diamond—Atlas Peak was at the periphery of most  of the wine world’s California dreamin’.  As the consensus went, it was too cold, too rocky and too scraggy for wine grapes.  One brave pioneer, Bill Hill, had managed a raise a handful of vines there, but that was about it.  Still, with six hundred years of wine instinct coursing through his veins, the Marchese recognized that the area was above the fog, had well-drained soil and good exposures; and best of all, it looked like Tuscany.  Obviously, based on his family history, he had no problems with long-term strategies, and at the time, he said, “When I saw this property, I must say I immediately fell in love.”

Atlas Peak Shrugged

Except that, for a long time after that, it looked like love’s labors lost.  Vineyard manager Glenn Salva now admits to some classic winemaking missteps: Planting the wrong clone of cabernet on the wrong slope, planting much more sangiovese than was supportable, market-wise, and then, to satisfy investors, going for large crop loads—high yields equated to high-acid sangiovese without much character.   Plus, the grapes were picked too soon, resulting in hard green wines—the antithesis of the (then) growing consumer taste for lush, heavily-extracted, fruit-focused reds.

Glenn Salva

“Were we bad farmers?” Salva asks, somewhat rhetorically.  “ In hindsight, yeah. But at the time, we didn’t know.”

By 2004, they’d worked the bulk of the issues through, but by then most of the original investors had bailed, including Christian Bizot of Bollinger and Whitbread, the British brewer and hotelier.  Antinori gutted it out, and finally, in 2007, released 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Which says ‘Atlas Peak AVA’ a grand total of no times on the label, just in case the appellation had become, like Chianti in the 60’s and 70’s, indelibly associated with sour, plonky wine.

Antinori says, “My feeling is that the appellation Atlas Peak has not really gained a reputation that can give an added value to the wine.”

A Leap of Faith

Another Napa concern, one that’s indelibly associated with unsour, non-plonky wine, is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (the winery whose cab kicked French derrière at the now-infamous 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’). In 1995, Antinori send Richter-scale shock waves through a fairly jaded industry by teaming up with Washington’s biggest winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and buying it.  Despite the shivery-cool $185 million that exchanged hands, former Stag’s Leap major domo Warren Winiarski claimed that his only true interest in cashing out was if he could his sell to his old pal the Marchese.

Separated at birth: Dabney Coleman and Michael Mondavi

The Marchese, in the interim, has continued to tweak his properties.  Beside the streamlined, ranch-style, patently un-Tuscan house he built on a ridgeline called Cougar Rock, and beside Col Solare—the Washington cabernet joint venture with Ste. Michelle—he set Glenn Silva to the task of buying up all the Atlas Peak property that came up on the block—for which he occasionally competed with such Napanese luminaries as Jan Krupp (Stagecoach Vineyard), Kerner Rombauer, John Kongsgaard (who Eric Asimov of the NY Times claims ‘makes the best chardonnay in California) and Michael Mondavi.  Also, his massive plantings of sangiovese have not survived, 80 acres pared down to ten: Antinori readily admits that his dream of producing a California Tenute Marchese or Badia a Passignano had become a prolonged nightmare, and the vines are being replaced by cabernet and chardonnay.

It’s a painstaking process, without question.  Now well into his seventies, you’d think that the snail’s pace of establishing a new label from a new vineyard in a new appellation would give Antinori a touch of agita, but no—things will be ready when he says they’re ready, and he’ll be finished when he wants to be finished.  Try to rush him and he’ll call you some aristocratic version of the street-level dis, cetriolo.

After all, the Marchese has the patience and perspicuity of someone who, when he gazes into the rearview mirror, can see all the way back to the 14th century.  I have no doubt that when the angels come a-calling, he’ll have some nice, polite Italian invectives for them too.

Tasting Notes:

An Antinori Sampler:

Villa Antinori Bianco, Toscana IGT, 2010, around $14:  Excellent drainage and volcanic soil makes for a clean, nicely-weighted, firmly acidic white; built around the titanic Tuscan two, trebbiano and malvasia, it has 35% pinot bianco and 15% riesling blended in to lend structure.   The wine displays a nice core of minerality that’s shored up by grapefruit flavors, pear scents and an elusive depth that seemingly plumbs (to a surprising depth) fruit rinds, almonds and exotic flowers; orchids especially.  An excellent value wine, ideal for light fish dishes and chicken breast.

Antinori Villa Toscana Rosso IGT, 2007, about $18:  A stylish and extracted red for the price point, which, for all of Antinori’s flavor dividends, can at times be sort of stratospheric.  First released in 1928, Toscana Rosso was the first of the estate’s wine specifically bottled for aging, and it’s make up—55% sangiovese, 25% cabernet and 15% merlot with the remainder being syrah—does not fit the Chianti formula, so the wine has been wearing the IGT hallmark since 2001.  A lively ruby in color which has just begun to brick-out at the rim, the wine flaunts a persistent bouquet of dried black cherry, wood spice and  a hint of chocolate.  It’s rich, but remains soft and supple on the palate.  A value red to counteract the Bianco on Prince Spaghetti Day… Wednesday, wasn’t it, Anthony?

Antinori Chianti Classico, Pèppoli DOCG, 2008, around $22:  Sangiovese’s muscular frame bellies forward; batting clean-up is a scant 10% blend of merlot and syrah, and they’re all managed by a 14-month stay in small French barrels.  A gorgeous nose and an aggressive, if still tightly-knit body are the result of the estate’s unique northeast-facing exposure, and the microclimate of the small, heat-retaining valley packed with mineral-rich soils.  A bit austere and chewy—something that cellar age should see to.

The Badia

Antinori Badia a Passignano, Chianti Classico Reserva DOCG, 2006, around $50:  They’ve been making wine at the abbey Badia a Passignano for a thousand years, and in 1983, a vine from that distant era was discovered, alive.  The Badia has been a center for learning as well as winemaking—Galileo Galilee taught mathematics here in the 16th century. Situated a couple of miles south of Tenuta Tignanello in one of the prettiest, most productive areas of Tuscany, Antinori only purchased the land in 1987.  But this generous garnet gem—the only wine that the estate produces—represents its illustrious history as proudly as a  wellspring of modern technique—newer sangiovese clones, severe grape bunch selection and often, delayed and cluster harvests.  Supremely expressive, Badia shows an intense nose of raspberry and violet, a palate juicy with cherry and black currant with some smoke, anise, mineral and hazelnut in the background.  Should continue to mature and improve until the mid-teens.

Antinori Family Antica, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2007, around $55:  It’s been nearly half a century since Marchese Piero first visited Napa, and now, his dream of making a Napa wine with his family’s imprimatur is no longer of the pipe variety.  First released in 2007, Antica has met with critical kudos, and has been reviewed as an amalgamation of Italian technique and California flavors  ‘Antica’, in fact, is a portmanteau combining ‘Antinori’ and ‘California’.  Fittingly, it’s also Italian for ‘ancient’, which is what Marchese Piero will be when ’08 Antica finally peaks in the wine cellar.  Not to say that it isn’t drinkable now, but the fruit/oak is has not yet melded into anything close to a seamless whole.  Obvious is rich black fruit, coffee, some foresty notes and a generally powerful sensory overload—something that Antinori was supposed to be eschewing in this label in favor of finesse and elegance.  In any case, it’s a wine that Californians should love provided it matures before their tastes change.

Col Solare, Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, 2007, about $70: Dio santos, remember the days when even the best Washington wines were cheap? Even so, $70 is pushing the limit—you’ll find many more top-rated Washington reds priced below this figure than above it. Nonetheless, Col Solare—a joint venture between Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle—is a full-throttle cab intended to be an amalgamation of Italy and Washington taste and technique.  The first thousand cases released in 1995 contained a percentage of syrah, but these days, the Rhônish workhorse has been replaced by cabernet franc.  And yet, if you were bent on Bordeaux’s profile, $70 would put you in the saddle of a Chateau Leoville Poyferre 2004 (2nd Cru Classé), a Chateau Ferriere Margaux 2008 (3rd Cru Classé), a Smith Haut Lafite Blanc 2006 (Premiers Cru Classé) or a Château La Couspaude 2010 (Grand Cru Classé.  Which is not to suggest that Col Solare is not a remarkable sip; it is, without question.  It’s redolent of blackberry liqueur, cassis, cinnamon, nutmeg and mocha it shows a gorgeous, mouth-coating density and a finish that’s nearly willing to overstay its welcome.  But unless you tack on the Antinori legacy as a rider, the winery is too new to have much of a backstory, and frankly, it doesn’t rank all that highly in Washington wine ratings.  In 2010, the ’07 vintage came in 33rd on the Seattle Times list of the top 100 Washington wines, 32nd  in The Washington Wine Report and in the Top 25 Washington Reds by Northwest Wines, it didn’t even appear.  Consider that it’s still early days, though; building a loyal and vocal following is often a customer-by-customer struggle.  If you’ll recall, Leonetti founder Gary Figgins spent his first few years making wine in a horse’s tack room where he raised rabbits.

Tignanello, Toscana IGT, 2007, about $80:  Pure ‘wow’ factor; a thrilling lady-in-waiting since waiting is what you’ll need to do for at least another half decade—as it stands, drinking a 2007 Tig now is as inappropriate as dating Emma Watson—they’re too darn young.  Make no mistake, the dusty tannins, super-ripe plums, the licorice, rosemary and chocolate will meld and marry—the wine is destined to become a colossus.

But not yet, grasshopper—not yet.

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Gold and Glory: Partida Tequila’s Personal Eldorado

Your garden variety Mexican-art-collecting, charity-focused California philanthropist  might resent  being compared to a predatory 15th century  Spanish Conquistador, but J. Gary Shansby is anything but boilerplate.  The San Francisco private equity investor, a 35-year veteran of consumer brand development for Famous Amos Cookies, Spic and Span, Vitamin Water, Mauna Loa Macadamias (and so on)  wanted to get his marketing mitts on some rare treasures from the heart of Mexican antiquity, and headed, Cortés-like, into the country’s rugged interior to search for a Lost City of Gold.

In Shansby’s case, however, El Dorado was sleepy, cobblestoned Amatitán, twenty miles north of Guadalajara, and the gold was ultra-premium añejo tequila.

Amazingly, the only known photo of Cortés was taken 300 years before the camera was invented

As a matter of fact, it was the Conquistadors themselves who invented tequila.  They were after a bit more authority than pulque—the Aztec’s low-oomph fermented maguey sap could provide, so around 1521 they began distilling it, thus creating North America’s first indigenous liquor.  In 1600, the Marquis of Altamira built a large-scale fabrica—tequila factory—in Jalisco and in the late 19th century, Don Cenobio Sauza, President of the Village of Tequila, began to export tequila to the United States.  For a long time, gringos considered it more of a curiosity than a serious spirit, and other than the lovely, if somewhat plebian cocktail the Margarita, (origin unknown—one story says it was invented in 1941 in Ensenada, Mexico and named after Margarita Henkel, the daughter of German ambassador, the first person to taste one), everything remained pretty much status quo until the early 1990’s, when premium tequila took the country by storm.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Sierra de las Balcones

And not only gold: Here’s a non sequitur, but one I had to read three or four times just to make sure I wasn’t suffering tequila-induced hallucinations:  In 2009, Mexican scientists discovered a method to produce synthetic diamonds from 80-proof (40% alcohol) tequila.

If you want more details, you’ll have to look it up.

J. Gary Shansby

Anyway, Shansby—who is not only founded TSG Consumer Partners (one of the oldest consumer product equity firms in the country) but who is also Professor of Marketing Strategy at U of C Berkeley—noted that tequila’s high-end sector has enjoyed double digit growth nearly every year of this decade in an overall business sector worth $3.6 billion.  Certainly, more than a few Wall Street eyebrows were raised when, in 2006, Brown-Forman purchased Herradura for  $776 million.  (Herradura, oddly, was first imported Stateside by Bing Crosby).  Michael Mondavi, co-founder of the Robert Mondavi Winery noted it too, which is why he sank bookoo bucks into ‘Partida’, Shansby’s nascent tequila concern.  The two of them, brand builders extraordinaire, knew how true tequila connoisseurs drool over any emphasis on tradition and heritage, so naturally, as ultra-premium market-makers, they drone on and on about it:

Mondavi: “Just like a fine wine, producing a great tequila takes passion, commitment and a love of the earth. Like the best wines in the world, premium tequila has a great heritage and a culture.”

Shansby: “We’ve managed every step of the production process for the Partida Tequila Elegante with painstaking care. We selected the very best blue agave – hand harvested when perfectly ripened…”

America’s self-styled ‘leading spirits expert’ (and huge Partida fan) Paul Pacul distills those Mad Men sound bites into layman English: “Partida is the best tequila that money can buy.”

Navin R. Johnson, ‘The Jerk’, sums it up even better: “Ah… it’s a profit deal.”

Sofia Partida

The Pith of the Partida Parable

Despite his CEOship and chairmanhood, the core of the Partida story is not Shansby, but Sofia Partida, a Newport Beach TV reporter and health club owner who had a hankering to rediscover her Jalisquilla roots—roots that happened to be delving into red volcanic soil from the nethers of a blue agave plant.  ‘Tequila’, as is legally defined by the General Declaration of Protection, must be made from blue agave alone—other types of agave, when distilled, make mezcal—and Partida’s uncle Enrique was then farming over 5000 acres in the lowlands of Amatitán, making the family the largest grower of blue agave in Jalisco.

In what must have been a bolt of fortune cast down by Tepoztecal, the Aztec god of alcoholic merriment, Partida, who was bemoaning a lack of funds to get the family name on a tequila label, ran into J. Gary Shansby, who was bemoaning a lack of quality agave for his dream of manufacturing a high-end, estate-grown tequila, no matter whose name went on the label.  What suitable analogy is there; the day Abbott met Costello? They partnered up, with Shansby as major shareholder and marketing maven and Partida as part-owner and Brand Ambassador and they spent the next four years sniffing around destilerías, sussing out best practices, the newest technologies and the most antiquated traditions (that still made sense), testing terroirs and setting up blind tastings; first with La Academia Mexicana del Tequila, and then with Julio Bermejo, the official ambassador of Tequila in the United States.  Among many surprises, Shansby found that tequilas made using the old-school stone or clay ovens in which distillers have, for centuries, roasted the agave cores (called piñas because they look like pineapples) invariably finished behind the new wave of enlightened distilleries who are using stainless steel ovens to pressure-cook, rather than bake the piñas.  The reason?

“What I realized was that stone ovens generate smoke in the product and give it a slightly bitter, smoky taste,” says Shansby.  “Some people like that, but most Americans don’t.”

Americans, of course, were his target audience—they drink 80% of the tequila that Mexico exports, and if their preference was for a clean drink that tasted of agave instead of smoke, that’s precisely what Shansby would produce.  He jotted down the observation on his to-do list: ‘On the way home, stop at Autoclaves ‘Я’ Us’

And score one for modernity.

He also found that in the cask aging required for reposado tequila was approached  haphazardly by most of the area’s tequiladores, with ‘resting’ times ranging from two months to a  year.  Neither produced the sort of nuanced product that Shansby was after, so again, using trial and error, he settled upon a six month oak dormancy for Partida.  His choice of barrel wood was equally painstaking, culminating in his decision to go with Canadian white oak—the same stave-stuff that Jack Daniels uses.  White oak has a cell structure that resists leaking and also imparts a slight sweetness to whatever it contacts, whiskey, wine or tequila—not to mention the sort of interesting synergy in drawing the North American ‘big three’ together for a project.

Things that look like agave but are not related (top to bottom): Agave, aloe, yucky, yucca

Agave Maria

Agave, optimistically nicknamed named ‘the century plant’ (they live about fifteen years) looks like a cross between a yucca and an aloe, but is related to neither. Rather, it’s the woolly mammoth of the lily family.  Cultivated primarily in the shadow of the Tequila volcano, which last erupted a quarter million years ago, blue agave requires eight to ten years to attain the optimum sugar levels (a minimum of 24%) required to make super-premium tequila.  During the growing period, the plants are pruned, weeded, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, but never irrigated—agave depends on Jalisco’s three month rainy season, roughly July through September, for water.

Long-nosed bat

As the plant reaches maturity, it sends out a large, fibrous stalk called a quiote which is often steamed and eaten or dried and used as fence posts or fishing rods.  One cat in British Columbia even uses quiotes to make that emblematic Australian drone-tube, the didgeridoo—holy cross-cultural WTF, Batman.  (Speaking of bats, agave is pollinated by genus Leptonycteris, the long-nosed bat).  At that point, farm hands called jimadores cut the plant from its roots and remove the long sword-shaped leaves using razor-sharp pikes known as coas.

According to Shansby, “Each jimador makes his coa by hand and can harvest one piña in about 75 seconds.  It would take you and me an hour.”

That equates to nearly a ton of piñas per campesino per day; for the curious, a liter of tequila is the product of about fifteen pounds of agave.

Back at the destilería, the piñas are halved or quartered based on size—they range from 25 to about a hundred pounds.  Depending on the producer, one of three methods is then employed.  The so-called ‘artisanal’ process is pure old-hat, utilizing stone, mule-pulled crushers, wooden fermentation tanks and copper pot stills.  As in the Partida process, today’s generation of tequila makers are relying more and more on autoclaves and stainless fermentation tanks and stills.  A third, little-used technique uses a diffuser to extract the sugars  from the piñas and distill the fermented juice—called mosto—in column stills similar to those used for Armagnac, scotch and bourbon.  These days, as a younger generation takes over, number two is becoming the M.O. of choice.

And yet, despite such 21st century applications, a lot of superstition still surrounds tequila making—at a fabrica I visited outside the Jalisco town of Jesus Maria, for example, they were blasting the fermentation tanks with Beethoven symphonies in the belief that this made for a more elegant tequila.  The owner told me, “For an experiment, I tried playing rap music for one tank.  The tequila was awful.”

Neither Hagar nor his tequila brand qualify as premium

Fermentation takes around a week and yields a mosto that’s around 7% alcohol, roughly the same as strong beer.  Like Cognac, the product is then double-distilled in pot stills; the first distillation, a two-hour operation, produces a liquor that’s about 20% alcohol.  The second, which refines the tequila by removing unwanted aldehydes, results in a solution with an alcohol content of around 55%.  A few top-drawer tequilas (and Partida competitors) like Casadores’ Corzo and Cofraidia’s Casa Noble distill a third time, but as the Cognac cognoscente will assure you, a third go-round may produce a smoother, more refined liquor—with much of the character stripped away.

At this point, tequila faces the crossroads of its career: It will either be bottled as blanco or transferred to casks where it will ‘rest’ for a prescribed length of time to be sold as reposado, añejo or extra añejo.

Whatever the pedigree, all authentic, regulated tequilas display a government-issued NOM identifier; it applies to all processes and activities related to the supply of agave, production, bottling, marketing, information and business practices of the distillery.

Currently, Partida produces four distinctive tequilas: Blanco (not aged), Reposado (aged six months), Añejo (aged 18 months) and Elegante Extra Añejo (aged 36 – 40 months).   Available in the 27 states that consume 80% of the tequila drunk in U.S., Shansby is compulsive about his product being identified as unadulterated Mexicano: Everything—the tequila, the bottle, the leather wrap, silver spirit-bird the crest–is hecho en México.

So reverential is Shansby toward the sub-border culture that it is rumored he once petitioned the Board of Directors at Spic and Span to change their name to Hispanic American and Span.

And he’s justifiably proud of the unprecedented success that Partida has enjoyed in a market that’s become inundated with tequilas (901 registered brands from 128 producers), each of which endlessly jockies for position:

“We’ve entered spirit competitions, and won them all. We’ve been rated as the best tequila in the world, one of the top five spirits on the planet; we’re the only tequila to have earned 100 points across our entire product line. We’re also one of the very few estate-grown tequilas on the market using no additives, no glycerin, no color except the hues imparted from barrel aging.…”

By combining market savvy, years of R&D, decades of personal expertise along with the venerable art of pavement-pounding, Shansby (and his team) have out-Pizarroed Pizarro—not only have they discovered a genuine Eldorado, a City of Gold, they found out that by  maintaining exceptional standards of quality and consistency, that gold winds up being stacked with stars.

Tasting Notes:

Partida Blanco, around $50:

An amazing complexity runs through the bouquet and the body, both subtle and distinct.  It’s reminiscent of mint, anise, newly-mown grass with a bit of citrus.  Like most lowland blancos, the profile leans toward herbal (mountain grown agave shows more fruit) with flowery notes, a pepper snap and delicate flavors of pineapple and apple, but mostly, fresh agave which resembles cooked yam.  This is a tequila that you can feel comfortable to use as a base for a mixed drink, but defer from a Margarita.  Try it with freshly squeezed juice—orange, pomegranate or grapefruit.

Partida Reposado, about $55:

Six months on Canadian oak leaves a golden tequila with hints of toast and vanilla, but allows the elusive and often fragile yamminess of agave to filter through.  Flavors of almond and brown sugar on the palate, also slightly oily orange peel.  A superior sipper, you are now beyond anything you’d dare mix.  A silky finish with a bit of walnut, honey and butterscotch.

Partida Añejo, around $60:  With three times the oak contact as the Reposado (a rarity even among the super-premiums), Partida Añejo has picked up the tone of burnished copper. It displays the finest characteristics of tequila tradition with a caramel-scented earthiness and a mellow nip of smoke behind the agave.  And despite the extended hibernation, the agave remains obvious—as it should—just behind the wood notes.  Enticingly rich, ultimately smooth and complex, there are undertones of baked apple, pear and wild flowers that lead into a finish that is as warm and satisfying as any like-priced Cognac.

Partida Elegante Extra Añejo, $350:

This particular gem, the star in Partida’s crown, was not included in the three pack I sampled, so any notes concerning its quality would be purely speculative.  Based on the other three, I am speculating awfully, awfully good.

The Tequila Family Tree

Gold—Any tequila labeled ‘gold’ is usually a gussied-up, non-premium mixto with caramel color and additives to make it look like something it ain’t.  Partida does NOT produce this breed of tequila.

Plata / Blanco—Premium tequila that sees no oak; it’s usually bottled shortly after distillation.  It tends to be clear and pure in flavor with a shivery sort of freshness through which the taste of agave shines.

Reposada—‘Reposada’ means rested, and in this case, the slumber takes place in oak casks for two to twelve months, lending it notes of hazelnut and vanilla.  Neither should overpower the agave flavors.

AñejoBarrel-aged between one to three years, añejo tequilas pick up deep, sweet tannins and become ambery and coppery in color.

Extra Añejo Only allowed as a classification since 2005, it represents tequilas that have been wood-aged for three years or more. It’s deeply flavored, nearly brown in color.

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Heineken: Nineteen Emerging Designers Selected to Create Futuristic Concept Ashram

Amsterdam, 19th October 2011 – Heineken today announced that nineteen emerging designers have been chosen to co-create a pioneering ashram concept as part of Heineken’s Open Design Explorations Edition 1: The Spiritual Hermitage.

Esteemed designers working in the fields of fashion, interiors, yoga, penance and making really long pilgrimages to somewhere that will bore your skivvies off selected the up-and-coming talent, which they believe have the vision and talent to create an exciting prototype for future places of pretending to pray when you’re actually asleep.

The nineteen selected designers, who all showed they love solace, tranquility and Lord Krishna, now have the chance of this particular lifetime to create an ideal locus for sacrifice and Hindu instruction. They will form cross-discipline design teams and through open innovation will showcase progressive ideas about how to meditate while simultaneously thinking about those leaked nude photographs of Scarlett Johansson.

Alongside the designers, a number of handpicked rajguru, which literally translates to pedophile clergymen are providing personal insights from their own experiences in being defiled by emissary-demons of Ravana.

Their concepts will be brought to life by Heineken as a ‘Pop-Up Monastery’ and presented to the world at Milan’s prestigious design fair in April 2012.*

*(Hang on.  I had to use these really weird eye drops last night, and now that I am re-reading the above press release I am realizing that, in fact, these artsy fartsy design wankers are not creating a prototype ashram, but a prototype nightclub.  Geez, how totally embarrassing for me.  Mea maxima culpa.)


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