Dennis Alexander is not only highly mathematical and highly Greek, he is the physical reincarnation of the great Ionian philosopher Pythagoras.
This is not my assessment; I’m not much for Euclidean geometry, and the only thing I remember about Pythagoras beside a2 + b2 = c2 is a quote describing the relationship of patterns in nature, whether inanimate or lyrical: “A stone is frozen music.”
‘A reincarnation of Pythagoras’ is Dennis Alexander’s own assessment—and he is a man of such mystery and depth that it’s hard to find reason to argue.
It is also hard to hold a conversation at all—Dennis is old enough to have known a couple of Pythagoras’ contemporaries and he is suffering from what appears to be a debilitating malady of the mind that causes him to lose track of what he is saying mid-sentence and go blank from time to time.
And do not get me wrong: That’s fine since his lucid moments sparkle with such wit and wisdom that the lag times seem irrelevant.
Among a volume of intriguing characters in Lodi, I met this particularly intriguing one over the worst BLT on the planet. I won’t say the name of the diner that served it, but I will suggest that when your sandwich has only three ingredients, it should be possible to nail down a minimum of one of them. Fail on a level of epic-ness to rival Odysseus. But the meeting was arranged by Anthony Scotto 2 and his son Anthony Scotto 3, and they sat in on the conversation and revealed a lot about themselves as well: Namely, that if they are themselves reincarnations of anyone, it’s Job.
Because, alas, that’s the level of patience required to provide Alexander the space to share his story; but it is bestowed upon him with deference and pride. Alexander’s life has been filled to the brim with introspection and innovation and as far as the Scottos are concerned, a little incoherence toward the end makes him that much more endearing.
A2 and A3 could have prepared me, but the respect they feel for old Dennis is such that they trusted me to level-set my own expectations and adjust my interview accordingly, no questions asked.
And so I did.
The three of us sat stoically, silently, supportively, and for a long time, too. But, although interviewing Dennis Alexander was my morning’s raison d’être, for Scottos it was not. They are busy fellows who generally operate on overdrive—they may have viewed the interlude as down-time, but I don’t think so, because I have seen them defer to men who they admire many times, for as long as it takes, offering them whatever time and space required to be the sort of men that the hourglass has dictated that they must be.
Like mathematics in Greece, Dennis Alexander’s story runs back through essential Lodi history to nearly the beginning; he started out with a small home-winemaking retail business in the ‘60s, and, along with his brother George and a couple partners, began importing canned grape concentrate from Spain.
Grape concentrate is exactly what you think it is—pressed juice with some of the water removed, then pasteurized. Grapes are picked, on average, at a sugar level of about 24° Brix—after concentration, it is around 68 ° Brix. Grape concentrate was (and is) a staple in home winemaking kits along with pre-measured portions of yeast, sterilizer, nutrients and everything else you’d need to make a bottle of drinkable wine in your cellar. You didn’t wind up with Château Le Snoot, but the system made winemaking mistakes difficult and the end result was the equivalent of a mid-priced grocery store wine, which you could make for about a third the price. I know, because my father was sold on the notion, and always seemed to have a batch of something bubbling away in the cellar.
In retrospect, I bet the kit he used came from Dennis Alexander, because at the time, there weren’t many outlets selling them.
As it happened, when Dennis got into the kit business there were no California processors concentrating their own juice, and it didn’t take the wisdom of the ancient Greeks to see a fillable niche in the domestic market. It did take something close to genius to look at a huge, commercial Hills Brothers Coffee vaporizer and figure out how to retrofit it for wine grapes.
“I remember that other wineries thought we were nuts,” Dennis says. “But we found the inventory space we saved storing concentrate was amazing. Our first concentrate was Ruby Cabernet, an Olmo (Dr. Harold Olmo, UC Davis) variety, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan. It produces an abundent crop in the Central Valley, and the home winemakers loved it.”
The Alexanders set up shop in Acampo, in an area known as Crush District 11 on California grape pricing charts, and begin to scour auctions for used industrial appliances—a lot of it rigged by Dennis using dairy equipment—building up the business, adding other grapes, expanding the horizons of the DIY crowd to, and finding a huge market for varietal concentrates at existing wineries.
This outlet—wineries—becomes, perhaps, the most widely-known closely-held secret in the annals of California winemaking—one that is spoken of in hushed tones in the parlor with the same fingers-to-the-side-of-the-nose that the parents of pregnant teenagers once used when they sent little Peggy Sue to live with her aunt in Kankakee for the rest of the school year. The TTB—the governing bureau that oversees wine laws—permits the use of concentrated fruit juice in commercial wine, even allowing wine to be made of nothing except concentrate with no requirement that the label mention it.
Legally, if concentrate is added, it may be added in any quantity, with the only stipulation being that it must be the same variety as the rest of the mix. On the surface, this practice may seem somewhat ho-hum, but consider that in California, chaptalizing wine—adding sugar to increase either sweetness or end-product alcohol, even to levels mandated by law—is illegal. In theory, this prevents winemakers who have grown or purchased tart, substandard grapes from artificially boosting the oomph by adding sugar without adding grape solids. Once an end product has reached legal minimums for alcohol, it can compete commercially for shelf space—that all-important consummation that most wineries devoutly wish. The no-chaptalization standard is, in ways, a hold-out law in a system that currently allows a California winemaker to artificially adjust acid levels, tannin levels, extraction levels and to filter out flaws like VA and over-the-top alcohol.
As far as I can determine, the addition of concentrated fruit juice (occasionally from grapes the winemaker him/herself supplies from a bumper vintage and holds until needed) is a logical and wholesome alternative to dumping in character-free sugar, which in the beautiful terroirs of California should not be necessary.
One fairly prominent winemaker who disagrees with me is Adam Lee of Siduri and Novy Family, who told Wine Spectator in 2013 that he has broken the chaptalization laws on more than one occasion. His goal, he maintained, was to increase alcohol in lean years without adding the flavors inherent in concentrated fruit juice. I understand the concept, of course; the danger in excusing Adam when he breaks the law occasionally is that you have less excuse for insisting that his half-assed Cali colleagues, intent on saturating the market with cane sugar wine, follow any TTB regulations ever.
Slippery slopes are one thing, but this one is clogged with granulated sucrose.
And in any case, if a winemaker (and there are a few) believe that adding cane sugar to bump up the product is acceptable (even though it’s illegal) it’s really hard to understand the silly justification for not wanting to legally bump with grape concentrate of the same varietal.
Of course, the fact remains that many—if not most—major winemakers use some grape concentrates in a lot of their wines, not only in California, but in every growing region across country. I’d name some mighty big names if I could without engendering wrath and bad will—not from the wineries, to whom I am not beholden—but from the Alexanders, to whom I am beholden purely on a friendship level.
These clients are their bread-and-butter, and if they don’t want the exposé in this edition, I won’t do it.
And of course, they don’t: Tom Alexander, Dennis’s son and the fellow where the dynasty’s dynamics now concentrates, told me: “Whenever I show up at a big wine function in Napa or Sonoma, I know everybody’s name, but apparently, nobody knows mine…(!)”
Where The Magic is Concentrated
I stopped by California Concentrate’s nerve center in Acampo, where Tom has his hands on the rudder, the vaporizer and the dozen other contraptions and permutations that the family has put together over the years. The morning I visited, Tom’s son was cooking a batch of wort; the Alexanders have also gotten into malt extract for beer making.
“Most canned malt on the market is pretty low grade.” Tom assured me. “Mom and Pop beer making shops carry the standard brands, mostly imports. We’re trying to raise the bar on what’s available.”
Not only that, but a massive niche has opened for all-natural extracts from an entire cornucopia of fruits and veggies—the list expands along with the trends. Beside ever-changing ‘it’ flavors that Americans glam on to, the globe boasts countless regional preferences. Making a beverage entirely from—for example, bananas or guavas—is impractical. California Concentrates are produced with pure fruit and pack a lot of focused flavor into a small volume. Organic beverages can use their concentrates and maintain the USDA label, and, as Tom points out, “The world does not grow enough mulberries for all the mulberry drinks on the market, especially in China and Korea. Most of them are simply coconut water with mulberry concentrate added.”
And that goes for beverages labeled carrot, watermelon, blueberry, pomegranate, boysenberry, etc. Like the TTB, the FDA has all sorts of regulations regarding juice labeling, and the amount of actual soluble fruit solids that a beverage contains varies by variety, but is usually between a low of 6% for rhubarb and a high of 25% for banana. Frankly, the chart covers a lot of exotic fruits I’ve never heard of: Youngberry, acerola and guanabana among them.
But I do know muscat and mango, and Paul Scotto, whose family has been customers of California Concentrate for two generations, has put the finishing touches on William Tell Apple Mango Muscat Cider using mango concentrate from California Concentrate. I tried it and it sensuous and lush; mango is one of those fruits that makes itself manifest in subtle, textural ways as well as a sunny, sort of gentle sweetness.
How Ade is Made
When the tech boys start talking about concentrating juice—mango, muscat, carrots or youngberries—the conversation turns to stuff that is Greek to most of us: Cloud stabilization, essence recovery, acid ions, a lot of ‘de’ things—de-oiling, de-aeration, debittering. Each fruit has its own parameters, so understanding how concentrate is made is a little like understanding how cars are made. Different products have different processes.
In general, Tom points out, fruit for concentrating is handled like fruit for winemaking; it comes in either raw or as juice, and is enzyme-checked and chilled, the sooner the better—it turns out that in this biz, 30°F is your friend. When the reduction begins, the juice passes through a mechanical vacuum vessel to drop the pressure, and this is perhaps the most critical step in making quality concentrate. Water, as we learned in tenth grade physics, boils at 212°F, but with dissolved solids (especially sugars), the boiling point rises. And the hotter the juice, the more the subtle qualities your are trying to enhance are affected, and rarely for the better—a rule of thumb (though not without exception) is that foods that you are accustomed to eating raw will not fare well when exposed to high heat. And that covers most of the 26 fruits and vegetables that California Concentrates processes.
Under a vacuum, the boiling point of juice decreases with the air pressure; this is why water would boil at 160°F on top of Mt. Everest if you were up there and in any condition to try it. For most of Tom Alexander’s base juice, 135°F is sufficient to boil off the water while retaining most of the delicate aroma compounds.
By most, of course, Tom means everything except those volatile taste molecules that are lighter than water vapor and have evaporated in the concentration process. This requires a second step—essence recovery. It is essentially a way of distilling the essence-bearing vapors by forcing them through a series of baffles and condensing them, much as the process of making booze from fermented liquid works. The recovered flavors are then reintroduced to the concentrate, giving it additional intensity; additional spirit.
Catching More Praise With Vinegar Than With Honey
The intensity and spirit that has accompanied the Alexanders through the eons, perhaps since before the Common Era (Pythagoras, 570 BCE – 475 BCE) shows up again in the auxiliary operation, the artisan wine vinegar that they make in an outbuilding far from the main fruit concentrate plant, where the juice might not appreciate the vinegar cultures.
Kimberly Wine Vinegars (Tom Alexander’s brand) relies on a French technique—méthode d’Orleans—wherein the transformation of the ethanol in wine to acetic acid via bacteria happens slowly, inside oak barrels. The resulting vinegar is less acidic than commercial white vinegars, terrifically mellow and far more complex that most of the vinegars you’ve probably tasted. As is the hallmark of Alexander’s fruit concentrates, the varietal vinegars retain the subtle characteristic of the mother fruit and/or wine and the terroir in which they were grown.
The Final Formula
Meanwhile, back at the diner, over half-eaten BLTs with limp lettuce, soggy tomatoes and rock-hard bacon, Dennis is off in some Ionian taverna, talking mathematics with some folks he met. I am getting the impression that this really happened, and is not some vision from his previous life, and the story, with all its punctuated pauses and detached doldrums, is really quiteamazing. His stories unfold in their own way, at their pace, with their own quietude, and to appreciate them, you have to settle in for the long haul and let the wisdom polymerize with the measured evolution of wine vinegar in a balsam barrel.
Which the BLT could certainly have used in place of the viscous slathers of emulsified crap that is commercial mayonnaise. Maybe a spritz of reclaimed bacon essence and a little concentrated lettuce would have helped. Or maybe the whole sub-par sandwich could have been extracted, de-oiled, de-aerated, debittered and added to a bottle of coconut water.
Facetious, of course: But the quality of the raw material is the foundation to Dennis’ success and to the reputation of California Concentrate has spent half a century shoring up. Both Aristotle and Ptolemy had paradigms, so it is no wonder that the reincarnation of Pythagoras might see the pure essence of anything to be the sort of project he’d be willing to undertake. After all, in the end, the formula here is simple: Bacon2 + Lettuce2 + Tomato2 = BLT∞.
I have a sense that I may not have another chance to sit down with Dennis Alexander, at least not in this lifetime, but I am gratified to think that there may be other opportunities in the endless cycle that lies just beyond Mount Olympus.