How Fenn is My Valley?

Brian and Gwen Lesperance

Brian and Gwen Lesperance

To answer the titular question, pretty Fenn.  I’m sitting inside Fenn Valley Winery in the city of Fennville, speaking to the most prolific winemaker in the Fenn Valley appellation.

Not only that, but Brian Lesperance—said winemaker—is the grandson-in-law of the guy who invented the Fenn Valley appellation in the first place.

If I said the experience was fenn-tastic, not only would it be an understatement, you’d have to shoot me.

Fennville is an interesting place nonetheless—it’s picture-perfect small-town, Midwestern Americana where everything is orchards and cemeteries and fraternal lodges.  But they’re neat orchards and orderly graveyards and lodges wear a new coat of paint; this Norman Rockwell’s saccharine take on the human condition, where front lawns are always mowed and the liquor store is discreet and people have three stately rows of corn in their backyards, even though they can buy ears of corn ten for a dollar this time of year.  They grow corn because they are wholesome, all-American, salt-of-earth types who fly flags when it isn’t Fourth of July and take down their Christmas lights when it isn’t Christmas.

city_signFennville has been around since 1837 and the Fennville appellation since 1981. If that date strikes you as sort of AVA prehistoric, it should: Not only was Fennville the first federally recognized appellation in Michigan, it was only the third AVA recognized anywhere, preceded by a year by Augusta, Georgia and Napa, California.

And up until a couple years ago, Fenn Valley Winery was the only show in town—owners Bill and Doug Welsch also owned—in metaphor—the appellation they’d seen established.  That followed a number of years of wrangling with other (currently designated) Lake Michigan Shore wineries and the TTB to establish a viticultural region in southwest Michigan.

As Bill’s grandson-in-law Brian puts it, “Back then, everyone was learning as they went along, including the federal government. How precisely to establish a legally defined growing region, and which wineries to include in it, is an amazingly complex thing. When we were finally approved, it followed a full-blown hearing at the Saugatuck Library in Saugatuck, with BTAF representatives flying from Washington D.C. to conduct it.”

Fenn Valley Winery

Fenn Valley Winery

As determined at that meeting, the Fennville AVA now encompasses 75,000 acres bordering Lake Michigan on the west, the Kalamazoo River on the north, a game reserve to the east, and the Black River on the south. It is entirely contained within the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, which was established two years later, so the winery can use either appellation, depending on where the grapes are grown.

Most of these are estate grown, as Brian Lesperance—who is marketing director as well as winemaker—is proud to point out.  “We grow 90 acres to wine grapes and contract out another hundred or so.”

The tally of varietals grown winds up split evenly between vinifera and hybrid grapes—a strategy perfectly suited to the terroir of Fenn Valley, which is dictated by Lake Effect.

If you are not familiar with that term, no shame in it: Neither was I twenty years ago when I first called Bill Welsch and asked him to explain it to me, and as far as I know, he was the first wine grape grower to really base a Mission Statement around the idea.

Lake effect piles on snow, but moderates temperature

Lake effect piles on snow, but moderates temperature

In brief, there’s a narrow slip of land running along the entire eastern shore of Lake Michigan that enjoys a near Mediterranean climate based on the temperature of the prevailing wind rising in winter (and cooling in summer) as it passes, west to east, over the lake. Since the lake doesn’t freeze, winds that may leave Wisconsin at thirty below zero may hit land in Michigan warmed to double digits, a phenomenon cased simply by air passing over water above 32 °F. Close to the shore, Lake Effect may result in hail storms and ferocious winds, but inland a couple miles, and for about eight more miles, there is an amazing ribbon of moderate climate, which, when coupled with suitable soil types, can produce world-class vinifera grapes in most years.

It is in those ‘other’ years—when even Lake Effect can’t keep temperatures from plummeting to negative numbers—that hybrid grapes, with a natural resistance to cold weather, are the Midwest wine industry’s most effective insurance policy.

Hoping to minimize risk, the Welsch family’s initial plantings were 100% hybrid: Marechal Foch, Seyval, Cascade, DeChaunac, Vidal, Baco Noir and Aurora. Some of these vines are still producing, although they are usually used in blends. They planted cold-tolerant Riesling in 1975, and by 1977, Fenn Valley Vineyards was producing 19 different labels.

Doug Welsch

Doug Welsch

Winemaking was then under the direction of Doug Welsch, Bill’s son, who claims that his college-age experimentation with basement wine ‘had gotten out of control’. But, of course, in a good way: Almost from the outset, the targeted demographic—day-trippers from Chicago—had nibbled their bait, and by the time Fennville was declared an appellation, their sprawling tasting room—the largest one in Michigan and among the largest in the country—was hosting nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

It still does a brisk and steady trade, and about 40% of the 50,000 cases Fennville Valley Winery produces is sold on premise.

In the hour I spent with Brian Lesperance on Tuesday, I watched the tasting room crowd swell like a squall over the lake within an hour of opening.  In early August, with a number of great beaches  a short drive away as well as the impossibly pretty, leafy-streeted town on the water which is like Fennville plus cool arty types, this has become a must-stop destination for a lot of vacationers.

The wines for the most part are solid, respectable Michigan wines, with a couple of standouts.  Among these, I have faves in the major wine categories, and I’ll leave you to decide between the rest.

Yeasty, doughy, lemon-line rich méthode champenoise made entirely from Pinot noir is a delightful, crisp and solid entry to the painstaking world of properly produced sparkling wine.  Beside being a remarkable value at $22, it is unique in that it is made on premise, and not jobbed out.  Very few wineries in Michigan are willing to make this investment in time and money.

traminetteTraminette is a remarkable varietal and produces sensational wine in this corner of Michigan—why it isn’t grown in greater quantities in a mystery.  A hybrid of  Joannes Seyve and Gewürztraminer, it maintains the best qualities of both, meaning that it has high yields, withstands cold and disease, and offers the heady sweet fruit of Gewürz without the oily, overly floral tendencies when this grape is grown here.  This one shows peach, lychee and grapefruit is juicy proportions;  at $12 a bottle, Fenn Valley Traminette 2015 is among the most sensuously appealing Michigan wines I’ve had in a while.

Merlot is not the grape that you’d think a Michigan winemaker would single out as his best producer, either in quantity or quality, but Brian swears by it.  And his Reserve Merlot 2013 ($22) is a rich blend of wild berry flavors, black and red, and wrapped in a silken package of tannins.  Long on the palate and a lovely wine with which to showcase Michigan reds, which can sometimes be pyrazine-heavy and thin.

Finally, Vidal Ice Wine; a sweet syrupy decoction of Vidal grapes harvested after they’ve frozen on the vine.  The wine is amber brown and redolent of apricot jam, honey, walnuts and marzipan. $22 for a half-bottle.

Fenn shui compass

Fenn shui compass

Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophical system; it examines harmony, how the placement of things affects energy flows. If it covers high-rise apartment complexes, I assume it covers vineyards.

Out here, two miles from Lake Michigan, basking in Lake Effect, which in August keeps everything a bit more temperate than in the rest of sun-baked mid-Michigan, and awaiting a harvest that should come a weeks later too? What you have going out here in Fennville is some serious Fenn Shui.

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Mari By Any Other Name Still Has a Kick-Ash Tasting Room

That was then...

That was then…

When I first wrote about Villa Mari in 2014, it was just beginning to take shape, emerging from a pretty hillside along Highway 37 and forming itself from the living stones like one of the Nephilim in Genesis 6. Meanwhile, the locals stood back and watched with a combination of awe, respect, puzzlement and cynicism—although granted, some of the latter came from me when I first wrote about Villa Mari.

...and this is now.

…and this is now.

Today, the winery is done, renamed ‘Mari Vineyards’, and it’s a work of imposing splendor—Old Mission’s answer to the Roman Colosseum. Whether or not Old Mission needed an answer to the Roman Colosseum remains to be seen, but it’s there nonetheless; a mountainous shrine to a dream that if not exactly impossible, requires an outlay of major success expectations guaranteed to make a rational winemaker like Sean O’Keefe, who lives on the edge of viticultural disaster, pull out of what remains of his hair.

Sean joined Mari as winemaker shortly after my 2014 write-up, but he’s been a fixture on Old Mission (the skinny promontory to the east of the Lelanau Peninsula) for nearly his entire life. Youngest son of Ed O’Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse’s pioneering patriarch, the man who first successfully raised vinifera in the northwest outpost of the Great Lakes wine region, Sean was never (as far as I know) his father’s chief vintner—that title has gone to Bernd Croissant nearly from the beginning. But Sean hung around the cellar with a certain obsessive drive, and he had personal projects happening at the winery, and they were usually unique, exciting and high-quality enough to draw my attention away from his old man’s winery story. Sean thinks deeply—almost compulsively—about the nuances contained within every bottle of wine he produces and of every row of vine he manages.

That’s one of the reasons Sean  is among my favorite peninsular personalities. You can find winemakers who can discuss the aesthetics of wine, and you can find winemakers who can discuss the mechanics of wine, but it’s rare to find a winemaker who can discuss the philosophy of wine. And Sean O’Keefe is one of them.

Sean O'Keefe

Sean O’Keefe

That said, I’ve known him for years, and all our wine conversations have generally gravitated toward the two varietals that appear to be fused to his enological DNA: Riesling and Gamay. Sean is convinced that, all things being equal (and in wine making, all things rarely are equal) these are the two vinifera grapes best suited to the terroirs of Northern Michigan.

So it was strange, to say the least, to hear him, in his Mari Vineyard armor, waxing wise about Refosco, Teraldego and Scuppatino—grapes that generally don’t appear in the same sentence as ‘Michigan wine’.  Then again, neither does ‘nellaserra’, a system of greenhouses that Mari Vineyards uses to get a jump on the growing season and extend it into November. In my original version of this story, I was a skosh sarcastic and a scad skeptical of this technique, believing that if you really want to grow Italian varietals, you should stick to a climate when you can do it without smoke and mirrors.

But, having tasted the wines, I’ve come around entirely; every vineyard manager in Northern Michigan has tricks up his/her sleeves, including Sean’s dad, who imported several tons of dirt to make a south facing slope on his property.

It takes a big man to admit when he’s… well, not 100% right.

The Silver Bullet

The Silver Bullet

And anyway, these are canny viticultural techniques, not the magic silver bullet used by other Northern Michigan wineries, which is, quite literally, a silver bullet: The steel-bottomed tankers filled with grape juice from Washington and California that cruise the twin peninsulas every year and sell Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. to winemakers trying to shore up naturally thin wine. And in years like the last two, when the harvest has been severely limited, it is tough to find a winery that absolutely refuses to adulterate Michigan product with West Coast product, and yet, still insist on calling it ‘Michigan’ wine. It’s perfectly legal—the TTB allows you to add up to 25% of wine from a different appellation, or state, or country, or planet, or nebulae and still maintain the sanctity of your own appellation’s name.

And if you think it isn’t done all the friggin’ time, you might be interested in buying a time-share portion of the Mackinac Bridge I’m selling.

Based on that, a wee greenhouse doesn’t sound so squirrely, does it?  And, according to Sean, the overhead involved in building a plastic overhead is huge, so many of the grapes grown this way wind up blended with those grown under the blue empyrean.

curse_of_oak_island_s3_vertical1Speaking of budgets, the bucks behind the behemoth belongs to Marty Lagina, and he earned it by hunting for buried treasure. Not the elusive kind on his History Channel adventure series ‘The Curse of Oak Island’, which has made him a household names in those households fond of watching rich people spend a lot of money to get even richer and failing, but the kind that nestles inside Antrim shale. Terra Energy, the company he founded in the ‘90’s, perfected a method of extracting biogenic gas from the thick layer of sedimentary rock that forms much of Northern Michigan’s basement. In 2011, the company sold to CMS Energy for a number that starts with a five and ends with a whole lot of zeros; the precise figure is not discussed. Lagina threw some of it to the wind, investing in Heritage Sustainable Energy, leasing 120,000 acres and creating utility-scale wind energy projects throughout the State of Michigan.

Lagina’s rake-hell switch from drilling to spinning, from non-renewable to renewable energy sources, is reflected in the recycled schematics of Mari Vineyards tasting room, where the prominent feature is the thirty=foot bar made of polished Michigan ash.  Like the phylloxera louse did to the world’s vinifera crop, so the Emerald Ash Borer has done to tens of millions of ash trees across the United States.  But unlike the louse, the borer has left a few aesthetics in their wake, and the bar reflects the beautiful, snaking, sensuous—albeit deadly—pattern that borer larvae makes through the wood.

The Laginas

The Laginas

The stone that makes the mantel, the outside wall and the fireplace surround is likewise hewn from Michigan quarries, and the accouterments, from the framed church keys to the tables made from slices of maple stump, are all local.

As, most assuredly, is the wine. Says Sean, “We produce 100% estate-grown wine, most of it red. The greenhouse tunnels push temperatures up ten to twelve degrees in the spring and late fall, and that’s what you have to do in a ‘borderline’ wine region if you want to create big, ripe reds consistently without importing grape juice. The terroir is not always good up here, and I understand the philosophy of other wineries, where keeping the doors open and the lights on is paramount, but personally, I feel that if I have to bring in grapes from other states, I’ve failed.”

In fact, he shares a guilty secret: “I wasn’t entirely sorry that the last two vintages were so bad. It gave me two years to study, a couple of harvests to read up on the methodology used by other regions who are producing the kind of wine that the Lagina’s want.”

Wine caves

Wine caves

A lot of it is still theory, because 2016 will be the first year Sean will make appreciable quantities of wine a Mari—upwards of 9000 cases, ten times what the winery currently produces. Among the all-natural tricks he’s picked up, especially for high-pyrazine grapes like Cabernet Franc, which in cool years develop a striking, generally unpleasant green-pepper taste, is to dry the grapes before crushing them. Where additional hang time is impossible due to climate, and red grapes are picked at between 15 and 20°Bx, a time of drying—on racks, or straw; the medium is not important—can often temper the harshest pyrazines.

Likewise, he intends to produce heavily in good harvests, and store wine in huge casks with thicker walls to prevent premature aging and the over-oaked quality that wine kept in smaller barrels over many years develops. Also, he will load up on méthode champenoise sparkling wine which can age on the lees for a decade and improve, ultimately selling for $50 a bottle.

Old Mission Peninsula

Old Mission Peninsula

Caves ‘n’ casks are the cornerstone of the Mari business model, and currently under construction are a network of underground caverns, the first such innovative/millennia-old facilities in Northern Michigan.  As a tribute to sustainability, these caves, along with the building, are being built for the long haul—centuries, according to Lagina.

Like the multi-million dollar estate, some of these revolutionary ideas are still on the drawing board, but the vines sure aren’t: Team Lagina has been growing grapes on Old Mission Peninsula since 1999, and a lot of that produce was sold to Ed O’Keefe at Chateau Grand Traverse.  The rest was vinified (Sean was the consultant) into a portfolio of wines that is at once exclusive, unusual, pricey and sensational.

Taking them as an oeuvre, it’s clear that Sean, steered by Marty Legina and his son Alex, are on to something…

And Here’s What It Is:

seanSitting beneath a set of chain mail that over the tasting room fireplace—one of many folksy if inexplicable tchotchkes that ring the place—Sean poured through the current portfolio—all the while burbling with excitement over the first major, real-time harvest coming up in a couple months.

Mari Vineyards Cabernet Franc, 2011, $26:  This was a cool year with relative high yields, and the resulting wine’s color does not appear stable. It’s pinkish pale and slightly herbaceous.  But the fruit is apparent, and it’s fresh and elegant, touched with notes of Traverse City cherries, which is what many of these vineyards used to be.

Mari Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012, $25: Simple but solid; red fruits and pepper underscore an example of what non-greenhouse Cab does in Northern Michigan; it’s slightly, oaky and quick on the finish, but bright and sharp and juicy in the meantime.

Mari Vineyards ‘Scriptorium Bestiary’, 2011, $24:  Fitting that Sean should name this wine something unpronounceable considering it is a blend of three unpronouncable grapes: Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Lagrein. It makes for a well-structured wine with a precise balance of grape tannin, woodsy, almost dried berry flavors and shivery acidity.

Ultima-Thule-20102Mari Vineyards ‘Row 7’, 2011, $50:  The titular row—actually three rows—is an amalgam of all the red varieties initially planted in 1999, and shows a beautiful frame of intense bouquet of cassis and blackberry, with a whiff of iodine. The wine is supple on the palate, nicely textured and resolves into a long, oaky, dark cherry finish.

Mari Vineyards ‘Ultima Thule’, 2011, $55:  This is what the hoopla is all about: Hoop wine. A blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Nebbiolo, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah, the grapes were grown entirely in the nellaserra, and takes full advantage of the extra ripeness the technique permits. A voluptuous nose filled with violets, wood smoke and creamy boysenberry leads into an expansive, velvety palate layered in chocolate-covered cherry, vanilla, tobacco and caramel. This is the sort of product that should convince the most aggressive cynic that Northern Michigan has no chip on her shoulders when it comes to Italian varietals—unless they’re made of oak.

sean-okeefe-vpImpressed as I was with these reds, I would not deign to leave Sean O’Keefe’s company without asking about Riesling, and true to form, he poured a 2015, still unlabeled bottle from the Jameison Vineyard, a south-facing, heavier clay lieu-dit. This resulted in a wine with less of the huge perfumes that show up in sandier blocks, but was filled with the sort of ripe peach and delicate, honeyed apricot aromas associated with the great wines of the Rheingau.

Sean in the Oculus

Sean in the Oculus

O’Keefe, who generally puts in a great showing at the annual Riesling Rendezvous, has spent many years and countless horticultural routines and vinicultural disciplines to elicit the maximum from this potent varietal: He sweeps vineyards several times per harvest, hand picking ripe bunches, he whole-cluster ferments, he allows the wine to sit on the lees.  His Rieslings are generally luscious, rich and spectacularly aromatic, and this one was certainly a pick of the litter.

Meanwhile, the televised hunt goes on for the phantom prize on Oak Island, but Marty Lagina may be overlooking the pot-of-gold he has already discovered right here in Old Mission.

Not the beautiful view of the East Bay from the wide-angle tasting room, not the mysterious ‘Oculus’ room in the Mari caverns, not the plots of sensational terroir made temperate beneath the nellaserra network—not even the mighty Mari manse on Highway 37.

I’m talking about the real treasure here: Sean O’Keefe.

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The ‘Grade-School Play’ Concept of Writing Wine Books

People in Traverse City don’t seem to understand the ‘grade-school play’ concept, at least when it comes to wine books.

Take the main branch of the Traverse City Library on Woodmere.  Please.

coverOn Wednesday, I made my dutiful, semi-annual trip to the Cherry Capital of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxy Groups to flog copies of Heart and Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country to the very citizens about whom I spent a year-long tour-of-duty chronicling in order to promote the wine industry in my home state—at a time when they suffered two shitty harvests in a row.

Now, book in print, copies in tow,  I sought to place said chronicle into various tasting rooms and book stores throughout the subject terroir in order to bring to the huddled, thirsty masses the easily digested details of the characters and quirks of a fascinating wine region perched on the far edge of viticultural sanity.

Heart and Soil is a commercial proposition, for sure, although not a particularly good one as it turns out.  Even so, I am willing to split proceeds equally with all and sundry willing to offer the book in their venues.  I place copies with them on consignment, and after manufacturing costs (about five dollars each) I split profits with the seller down the middle —but require nothing until the books are sold.

With the Woodmere Library, it was a different deal: I donated several copes of Heart and Soil so that little Johnny and Suzie Q. Public could borrow the book gratis (that’s how libraries work, right?) and learn for free about all the zany, crackhead-quality  lunatics pioneers who choose the Great White North, of all places, to plant their Cabernet vines. Whereupon, I was informed that the library reserves the right to either shelve the book literally or shelve it figuratively by selling it at a ‘Friends of Books’ sale.

In other words, my goal is to give the library free books so that over the years hordes of Traverse City-ites can shore up their knowledge of local lore in the grand and noble tradition of the bibliotheca, and that venerable institution informs me that instead, they may turn my magnanimity into their own paltry profit game so that a lone TC plug-ugly may—or may not— benefit from the book.

How do you say ‘Blow Me’ in Dewey Decimal?

Or take Lee Lutes, winemaker extraordinaire, co-owner and producer at Black Star Farms, to whom I turned over an entire chapter of Heart and Soil.   He offered me one of the most creative excuses I have yet heard for dodging the chance to sell my tome at his sprawling gift shop/tasting room, which is about the size of a grade-school auditorium:

He already has ‘too many’ books to sell.

Really?  Riddle me this, Lee:  How many of them are about you??  I don’t recall pointing out in the numerous individual columns I have written about you over the years that there are approximately 10,000 wineries in the world that would enjoy focused, detailed, well-thought out coverage of their mission statements, yet, being a Michigan boy, I keep writing about you, over and over and over.

See, that’s the core of what I don’t get.  All of these winemakers carp and bellyache ad nauseum that they don’t get enough respect from the wine world; that they are overlooked in wine directories and pooh-poohed by a cognoscenti that really doesn’t understand how one can grow vinifera on Pluto.  Yet, when a volunteer steps to the plate and explains in excruciating-but-loving detail precisely how, precisely where and precisely who pulls off this viticultural triumph, the idea that those very winemakers are supposed to promote their own glowing portraits seems to have gone over their heads like an F/A-18 Hornet at the Cherry Festival Airshow.

Case in point: Last year I did a book signing at Horizon Books, one of the good eggs who carries copies of Heart and Soil.  Although every single winemaker whose oft-extensive stories I gladly told in the book lives and works within ten miles of Horizon Books, do you know how many showed up to pump a little fist at their own biographies? Here’s a hint:  Greater than negative one and less than positive one.

How do you say ‘Bite Me’ in academic?

The Grade-School Play Concept…

Here’s how it works.  Sixth graders at William Pudd Elementary put on an extremely off-Broadway version of  ‘A Christmas Mouse’ by Susan Vesey, which lasts about an hour and has roles for nearly every kid in class, including the chorus.  They rehearse the musical for weeks, memorize their lines, are coached by their teacher into hitting at least two out of every four notes in the songs, and they do all this not because the public is pining for another interpretation of ‘A Christmas Mouse’, but because everyone—kids, teachers, administrators and janitors—are irrevocably certain of one fact:  On the night of the performance…

The parents will all show up to watch.

sidway-play2-2-06-eAnd probably the grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles, etc., etc., and thus, the concept is self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling, the auditorium is filled to the brim and the niggling buck or two they charge for tickets will cover expenses, like royalties to Susan Vesey, who (trust me here) is not retiring on ‘A Christmas Mouse’.

It is win/win because the kids are proud, the parents are proud, the community is served and everybody goes home and eats happy ice cream with jubilant sprinkles and positive sauce.

On the other hand, if the parents don’t show up—and know in advance that this will never happen—the entire idea of the grade-school play goes the route of Pink Catawba wine and winds up in the dusty archives of the William Pudd Elementary library.

So, when you transfer this very basic principal of mutual back-scratching and supporting-your-own to writing wine books, you can easily see that if the very people the book is for and about don’t do their part on opening night, those of us who write wine books are flummoxed by what, exactly, is expected of us.

When hearts and souls and pocketbooks are frozen as hard and solid as Lake Leelanau in January, maybe it’s time to give up the eno-scribbling and start writing grade-school plays.

Wonder if there’d be a market for a story with a local angle; a sixth grade version of the Calumet Massacre of 1919 during which the denizens of a small Michigan town were locked inside an auditorium and burnt to cinders.

Too bitchy?  I know, right?

Okay, so I’ll do ‘A Christmas Mouse II: A Stake of Holly Through The Heart’.  Coming soon to a book store, tasting room, and/or grade school stage near you.  Be there or be predictable.

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Drawing Blancs: Three From Marlborough

You can slice them and dice them, rank them and spank them, praise them or raze them, but there are really only three region on the planet that regularly produce Sauvignon Blanc of any true splendor—the Loire, Bordeaux and Marlborough, New Zealand.

Clipboard gooseThe reasons for this are as abstract as any novel and as as explicable as any Nasco science experiment. Sauvignon Blanc’s flavor palette is generally dichotomized within tasting notes into two primary categories, grassy and fruity.  The grass often goes under synonyms like ‘new mown hay’, ‘herbal’ and ‘green’ while the fruity ones will be described with ‘grapefruit’ and ‘gooseberry’.  Many winemakers will assure you that they are aiming for a specific style, but terroir always triumphs: You can pick early or you can pick late, you can use this yeast strain or that, you can plant Clone A or Clone B, but the climate and the soil will ultimately nudge Sauvignon Blanc in one direction or the other, and this, of course, is a good thing.

The chemistry behind the categories can be simplified:

A concentration of thiols, notably the mercaptans, give Sauvignon Blanc it’s tropical fruit flavors and in extreme doses, account for the smells of sweat and urine that may mar an otherwise lovely sip.

Clipboard hayMethoxypyrazines are the chemicals responsible for the herbal qualities in Sauvignon Blanc; this is a class of compounds so intense that detection thresholds are said to be two parts per trillion.  One of these molecules in particular,  3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine (IBMP), appear in great quantities in green Capsicum peppers; you will taste the occasional Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like jalapeños.  It’s sister methoxypyrazine, isopropyl methoxy pyrazine (IPMP), is more frequently found in Sauvignon Blanc’s cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon, and accounts for those wines’ characteristic coffee tastes.

This concludes the dull, banausic portion of today’s story.

And Baby Makes Three…



Among the three regions given in the opening paragraph, the Loire—especially the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, where Pouilly-Fumé is made—has long been a spiritual sanctity for pure Sauvignon Blanc, meaning a clean, crisp and acidic wine that showcases the minerality of the chalky hills of the region, sometimes at the expense of either grass or fruit.  When suspended in ideal balance in the top estate wines of Château de Tracy and Domaine Henri Bourgeois, Loire Sauvignon Blanc is nearly electrically charged.  It remains, in my book, the most beautiful version of the varietal.



Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate a solid, hedonistic white Bordeaux.  Like the red wines, it is rare to encounter a pure Sauvignon Blanc int Bordeaux; they are nearly all blended with Semillon, and to a lesser extent, Muscadelle.  The dry ones—the wines that would slide into the same slippery slot as the Sauvignon Blancs from Loire and Marlborough—primarily hail from Graves on on the left bank of the Garonne river, and in Pessac Leognan especially. Here, the soil is composed of a blend of clay, gravel and large deposits of limestone, ideal for producing a rich cornucopia of tropical flavors in the wine, pineapple to mango, especially when combined with barrel fermentation and lees aging.  These dry white Bordeaux are not to be confused with that other, molar-crumbling Graves paragon, Sauternes.



The baby of the SB superstar siblings is Marlborough, who only started the marketing juggernaut that won it a spot on the podium in 1979.  In ways, the grape still seems to be finding its voice, but it is clear that the terroirs of the north-eastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island are some of the best in the world for Sauvignon Blanc. Although commercial quantities of wine grapes were not cultivated here until relatively late in the twentieth century, the first vineyards were planed a hundred years earlier by pioneering Scottish farmer David Herd.  Another David, David Hohnen, along with Kevin Judd may be credited with starting the cult status of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in 1985.  That’s when they founded Cloudy Bay.  So unique and potent was the wine that it began to draw hundreds, then thousands of visitors; arguably, that number is now in the millions, and the iconic SB is something of a bench marked style for the area—intensely expressive to the point where it may seem over-the-top, like some of the annoyingly-extracted fruit-bombs from Australia, too much of a good thing.

I tried a trio of Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs earlier today, provided by importer W. Gillett Johnson of International Vines, who assured me that to measure Marlborough based on Cloudy Bay’s style of overdriven Sauvignon Blanc would be a mistake.  There are plenty of subtle, steely, Sancerre-like Sauvignons available; they may not get the press of the hundred-thousand case ClogilletJohnsonudy Bay, but they offer the tighter, crisper angle on the appellation.

Arona, 2015, about $12:  Penetrating nose of honeydew melon and lemon=lime dominate; there is a sense of crushed stone with faint grapefruit in the background. What struck me as savory and sweet is not necessarily the herbal quality, but the spectrum of those herbs that rises from the glass after a brief period of aeration: Tarragon, oregano and woodruff each appear in quick bursts.  The wine finishes cleanly with a touch of sweetness.

three broomsThree Brooms, ‘Single Vineyard’, 2015, around $13:  A minimal mineral nose wafts up upon initial pouring, but the wine exploded after a minute, showing deep notes of sweet, creamy lemon, light green pepper, and an encompassing palate that reaches from tongue tip to tonsils.  Winemaker Simon Barker crafts the wine from select fruit grown in the micro-climate of Awatere Valley; the vineyard here nestles in a tiny zone that permits hang times up to two weeks longer than the surrounding terrain.

Ranga Ranga, 2015, about $11:  Insignificant bouquet; a little green fruit and hay, but not much.  Potentially a bit of bottle shock; there is, as tasters know, a ‘dumb’ phase that most wines go through where their expression is muted.  Still, for the price, I tend to think it is merely an aromatically-challenged wine.  It’s fuller in the  mouth, though, with bright Key Lime pie and gooseberry notes offering lift and vibrancy; a nice mineral and acid backbone run through the core of the wine and leave a sharp, crystal-clear finish.



Posted in Marlborough, NEW ZEALAND | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Arnaud Bardary,MS: What Sort of Wine Goes With Forearm?

The proud addition of ‘MS’ after one’s name is the professional pinnacle, the authoritarian apex, the superstar summit to which everyone in the industry aspires.

After years of tastings, countless tomes devoured, endless sessions with those of similar consuming interests, imagine the thrill that Arnaud Bardary must have felt when he finally earned the right to have business cards made referring to him as Marquis de Sade.

Count your fingers after every date

Count your fingers after every date

In the end, all it took was a single gavel drop in the Westminster Magistrates’ Courtroom after the almost-famous Master Somm—one one of Gordon Ramsay’s protégés —accepted a plea bargain allowing him to cop to one count of assault by beating after he was accused of repeatedly biting his paramour in the arm during a sex romp that went a little haywire.

The misdemeanor was reduced from the original felony charge, ‘Attempting To Consume a Human Being in a Setting Other Than a Plane Crash in the Andes.’

At the time, Bardary was (and according to his LinkedIn profile, still is) Head Sommelier at Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant ‘Maze’, which prides itself on ‘eclectic and innovative food.

To which those of us still shaking our noggins over Bardary’s choice of anatomical amuse-bouches, can only respond, “No shit.”

Arm in Mouth Disease

First a word on restaurant titles, then on Ramsay, and lastly, on Captain Choppers himself, all wrapped in a prix-fixe of biting sarcasm.  It may be presumed that some of what follows is facetious, but that the story at the core of it—Bardary’s culinary predilection to bite the hand that feeds him—is absolutely accurate.

Clipboard hannibalBefore becoming Head Sommelier at Maze, Master Sommelier Bardary was Assistant Head Sommelier at Maze. Before that he was Assistant Head Sommelier at Hotel du Vin.  These are semantically interesting staff positions since ‘Head’ (like ‘Master’) indicates a top level job and ‘Assistant’ indicates ‘not a top level job’.  We have Vice Presidents because ‘Assistant President’ is as ludicrous-sounding a title as ‘Assistant CEO’ or ‘Assistant Emperor’ or ‘Assistant Master Sommelier’.  I can only assume that in the Gordon Ramsay Corporate Manual, the designation ‘Assistant Head Sommelier’ is accompanied by a job description that reads, ‘You have all the technical qualifications to be Head Sommelier, but we already have one, so if you could just hang on until our current Head Sommelier attempts to eat his date, that would be nice.”

Clipboard gordonOn to Gorgon Ramsay, who really looks like a piece of food—namely, one of those apples we used to carve into an old lady face and leave on the counter until it got all shriveled up and became a witch face. His persona matches quid pro quo —he is the Wicked Witch of the West without the cool monkeys or the sense of humor.  Sitting through ten excruciating minutes of his awful show is the sensory equivalent of removing your own appendix without anesthesia, and I can certainly understand the onset of psychopathy in those under his employment. I swear to God, if I worked for this desiccated namby-pamby cock-smooch, I would flip out at the very first obscenity-drenched tongue-lashing I was forced to endure and start taking great, bloody mouthfuls of flesh from the nearest human being, and I assure you, I wouldn’t require consensual sex beforehand.

lord_phillipsNot that this is a legitimate legal excuse for Bardary’s beastly behavior, especially in Great Britain, where they take crime so seriously that they make their judges dress up in silly powdered wigs like it’s still the eighteenth fucking century. I can see getting disbarred in England for breaking out into uncontrollable giggles while defending a jizz-stain like Arnaud Bardary:

“I know cannibalism is no laughing matter, your honor, but what is up with that Ben Franklin ‘do??”

A Case For Providing Employee Meals

If it please the court, the particulars of Bardary vs. Rational Humanity indicate that the kinky, dinky winky sommelier met the lovely victim (unnamed in some reports, ‘Anais Lopes’ in others) at a party at the City of Quebec in Marble Arch, London. According to Bardary’s attorney, Anne McCarthy, at the party the young morsel “…came on very strong to him. She was bearing her breasts at him and using language that she would destroy him.”

If that’s not asking for a masticated medial intermuscular septa, I don’t know what is.

Ramsay vs. Ramses Wrinkle Contest

Ramsay vs. Ramses Wrinkle Contest

To the arresting bobbies (not to be confused with Ramsay’s douche-buddy Bobby Flay), Bardary said, “It wasn’t romantic. It was rough sex.”

Prosecutor Edward Aydin agreed: “This amorous liaison ended up not as an amorous liaison but a rough and tumble, as if the victim there went into a tumble dryer.”

Now, this is a family wine column, so to put it as delicately as possible, let’s say that upon hearing the barrister’s suggestive imagery of biting a woman while she was trapped inside a clothes dryer, the defendant’s nether region was seen to become visibly turgid.

The penalty phase of the trial occurred on June 29, 2016, during which the magistrates fined Bardary £250 and ordered him to pay £150 compensation to the victim.  Since he confessed to biting Ms. Lopes five times in the left arm, this equates to a net worth of £50 per bite, per limb.  Placing an equal value on each of the breasts she bared, and a compensatory amount of £250 for her lady parts, it can be surmised that had he eaten Anais Lopes in her entirety, damages would have amounted to approximately £1000, or, roughly the amount he paid to be certified as a Master Sommelier in July of 2015.

The Donner PartyBardary was asked by this reporter if he agrees with Hannibal Lecter’s recommendation of Chianti as an appropriate accompaniment to human liver, but by press time, those emails remain unanswered.

In conclusion, my droogies, the moral of the story is:

‘Be careful who you meet and eat at any party that isn’t called ‘The Donner…’

Onward and supward.

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Good Seed Makes Good Crop: The Franciscan Focus

Caine_and_Master_PoHere’s a life lesson, Grasshopper—and especially if you are a grasshopper:  Never turn down an opportunity to interview a man named Turnipseed.

If he happens to be socially engaging, well-versed in the art of enology and willing to pick up the tab at a Birmingham bistro while pouring exclusive, big-shouldered Mt. Vedeer reds, well then, Grasshopper, a plague of locusts shouldn’t keep you away.

Charming as the name ‘Turnipseed’ is, it’s also well-respected in California, albeit under a slightly different spelling: ‘Turnupseed Electric’ appears on many a motor in the automotive, agriculture and food industriesAnd odd as the name ‘Turnipseed’ is,  Jay Turnipseed—the Franciscan Estate winemaker who breezed into town to pour his wares—is not the first one I’ve interviewed.  I tracked down a relative of the late Donald Turnupseed when I was writing a book on Paso Robles. Although Donald Turnupseed was the man who put Turnupseed Electric on the map, that’s not why I wanted to interview his nephew.  Beside owning the electric motor company, Uncle Don Turnupseed was also the guy who broadsided James Dean in the latter’s fatal car crash outside Paso.

Whether or not there is any family ties between the Turnupseeds and the Turnipseeds, I didn’t ask. I did, however, ask a lot about Napa wines.

another jay

Jay Turnipseed

Jay didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he has been with Franciscan since 2004; before that he was an enologist with E&J Gallo.  He rocks a sort of Walter White look, with the chrome dome and goatee, and like White, he’s adept at the chemistry behind controlled substance production. He entered that profession along a circuitous route that began as a stint as a back waiter in a Sand Diego restaurant, where he picked up extra cash by helping the wine captain do inventories. Though that experience, he learned so much about the organization of the cellar that when the sommelier moved on, he was tapped for the job.  During his stewardship, he had a chance to taste a 1953 Chateau Margaux, and it proved to be a transcendental experience.  No longer content with selling wine, Turnipseed enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis and learned how to make it.

“I couldn’t have landed at a better winery for the kind of wines I wanted to make,” he says. “Old school, invested in success.  Oak Knoll produces some of the most nuanced wine in California; Mt. Vedeer, some of the most intense and age-worthy.”

Intensity and nuance are words that get tossed around with frequency in conversations with Jay Turnipseed, and so is ‘Justin’.  In fact, ‘Justin’ is uttered with a sort of deep-seeded reverence that reminds you of that old Warner Brothers cartoon when the big-haired conductor entered the symphony hall and everyone began a gutteral, whispered chorus, ‘Leopold… Leopold…’

Justin Meyer

Justin Meyer

In this case, ‘Justin… Justin…’ refers to Justin Meyer, a former monk who left the Christian Brothers in 1972, about the same time I joined them—at least, by attending a Christian Brothers parochial school.  Like me, Meyer had a better time ex-Christian Brothers. He partnered with Colorado entrepreneur Ray Duncan on a 750 acre plot of land in the Napa Valley, formerly the Oakville Dairy farm, and put the skills he’d learned as a winemaker at Greystone Cellars, a church-owned winery from 1945 to 1989 and today home to The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, to work.  The goal was to focus entirely on Cabernet Sauvignon and produce the finest incarnation of that varietal in the world.  This singular fixation was explain by Meyer at the time:  “It was kind of a reaction to my days at Christian Brothers, where we made so many wines it was hard to do them all right, and it was kind of in keeping with what I thought—that Cabernets were what Napa and Sonoma did best, so why not devote our attention to that? This is a pretty common concept in France.”

What wasn’t a common concept in France was the use of American oak in barrels, a decision Meyer made because he believed that the classic barriques of Burgundy and Bordeaux imparted too much wood tannin in a wine.  In one of the most brilliant analogies to emerge from the early wave of California vintners, Meyer likened tannic wine to tough steak.

Nothing tough about his tradition; the wines that Jay Turnipseed poured were supple and firm, and those with tannins showed none of the bitter qualities that Justin Meyer deplored, but ripe grape tannins that strutted beautifully with the fruit.  Even the wines meant to age, the Reserves and the small production lots, show well today; indeed, to Brother Mr. Meyer’s point, many young Bordeaux from top châteaux are virtually undrinkable in their infancy.

Although Justin Meyer died in 2003, the legacy he built at Franciscan remains at the forefront of the mission statement (no pun).

sb labelWith one noteable exception:  Meyer’s Cabernet complex is shattered, with a wide range of varietals now in the portfolio.  Take the Sauvignon Blanc, the first of the line-up poured, vintage 2014 ($17).  Grown in the heavy clay soils of Oakville, the grapes were picked early (August 7) because of low-rain condiditons, but the  methoxypyrazines—the chemical compound responsible for the overtly grassy quality of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs—are evident, but not overpowering.  The wine finds itself in a delightful limbo between Marlborough and the Loire, with a balance of stone fruits and herbal freshness. The wine might have been named ‘Equilibrium’, except that they already had one.

Equilibrium 2014 (2014) is a blend of 72% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Chardonnay and 11% Muscat, left slightly sweet and jazzed up by a percentage of barrel fermentation. Like all Franscican wines, despite a foreward, friendly feel, it’s meticulously produced, with precisely monitored skin contact during fermentation and careful vineyard management during the growing season.  “I’m in the vineyard constantly,” says Turnipseed.  “The trigger on these grapes has to be pulled at the right second.”

Both wines are bottled beneath Stelvin ‘Lux’ stoppers, a neat twist on the twist-off—more elegant looking and perfectly suited to this style of wine.

vineyardsWe shifted attention to a trio of Chardonnays: Entry level Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($23) is grown in the Larsen Vineyard in Carneros, the coolest region in Napa. The vintage was warm and dry, so the fruit developed optimally, and the wine is luscious with lemon curd and ripe pineapple notes and a nice buttery finish. Malolactic is a given with these high Carneros acids, and lees stirring helps build the richness. That’s redoubled in the upper-end Larsen-designated Chardonnay, made from select blocks in the same vineyard.  Retailing for $35, Larsen offers lush tropical aromas, toasted almond, and syrupy pear notes.

Particularly intriguing, and the best of the white lot, is Cuvée Sauvage 2013 ($45), produced using purely native yeasts.  According to Jay, “We put the juice in the barrel and let the native vineyard yeasts start a wild and unpredictable fermentation. It begins slowly. And when it finally takes off, it moves at a leisurely pace and at cooler temperatures. As one strain of wild yeast slows, another comes forward, adding even more complexity and body to the wine. Each successive fermentation adds a new dimension, and each barrel develops its own personality with unique flavors and nuances.”

In fact, the wine feels both restrained and foreward, a dichotomy explained by the many layers of complexity, running the full spectrum of citrus and apple with a restrained perfume and an explosive texture underscored by a silky, oaken sheen.

DSC_0002Then Jay raised the red flag, and as much as his whites displayed the multifaced terroir of Napa, the original Franciscan raison e’tre, and Bordeux blends especially, display the foundational organoleptics. Not sure if Brother Jeremy stirred a little Merlot or Petite Verdot into his Estate Cab, but the 2012 ($29) is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 1% Syrah and is filled with brambly, dusty summer black fruits, berries, currants and plums and opens opulently into cocoa and coffee.

Napa Merlot 2012 ($23) which blends in a touch of Malbec, is filled with juicy red cherries and cinnamon, surprisingly chewy with supple tannins and a good, broad finish.  Later, Jay poured a limited edition Reserve Merlot—less than a thousand cases produced—of which he is justly proud; it showed ambition and fruition, a California Merlot with breeding born of the varietal’s spiritual home in Saint-Émilion on Bordeaux’s Right Bank while offering the lush forwardness of Napa’s fertile warmth.

mt vedeer reserveThen the pick of the litter: The  Mt. Vedeer label, made in the Fransciscan winery, relies on top fruit from that most rugged of Napa sub-appelations. Located in the southwest corner of Napa, ranging in elevation from 600 to 2500 feet, Mt Vedeer has the longest growing season in Napa, and also the lowest yields—according to Jay, the grapes are often the size of frozen peas.  But the wine is magnificant.  Mt. Vedeer pushes viticulture to the limits, but when the wines are successful, they are outstandingly so; it’s a combination of perseverance and patience are required to wait out the risks of the growing season, but Mt Vedeer Reserve Cabernet 2013 demonstrates stature in the struggle:  Both brooding an ebullient, the wine shows cassis, black licorice, eucalyptus and deep, serious fruit.  Tannins are beautifully integrated, vibrant and gripping, and the wine in clearly crafted to settle in for the long haul.

In 1999, Fransican Estate Winery was purchased by the great global wine firehydrant, Constellation, and I recall, at the time, being skepical.  Shored up by workhorse brands like Woodbridge and Vendange, I assumed that corporate directives would take Fransciscan away from the tight, hand-crafted intensity of small production lots and wedge the winery into the mass-production fold based on reputation.  Well, now I’m willing to toss Constellation a bone, here: Jay Turnipseed poured a harvest of prizewinners and there’s wasn’t a dog in the bunch.

“Constellation allows us to produce the quality of wine we always have, the best of what the appellation allows, “he say. “But we have deeper pockets now, and can take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to purchases—tractors, barrels, stuff like that.  So, we keep prices reasonable.”

I can see it.

What I can’t see is the hallowed patriarch Frère Justin being particularly enamored of the move; after all, he made his mark in the world by leaving the tribe, not by joining it.  Still, the seeds were sown nearly two decades ago, and as far as I can tell, from those seeds, Fransciscan’s quality and  stature has grown.



Posted in CALIFORNIA, Mt. Veeder, Napa, Oakville | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Burgundy, 2014: Terroir vs. Tempests

When I asked a prominent Burgundian vigneron at what point during a growing season a winemaker knows for sure that the vintage will be great, she replied:  “On the day of harvest.”

To me, that single upchuck of cold, hard truth says more about the difficulties of being a winemaker in Burgundy than the dozens of books written on the subject.  Everything about the occupation is beholden to the tides of fate—weather, pests, mildew, even the fluctuation in market pricing.  When I asked her if, on the Sunday prior to the day of harvests the churches in Burgundy were busier than usual, she laughed, “We’re Catholic. Our churches are always packed.”

Churches and hail in Burgundy

Churches and hail in Burgundy

That said, vintage 2014 in many ways typified the best and the worst the region has to throw at long suffering loyalists, especially in Beaune. Following three consecutive low-yield vintages, everybody in Burgundy was praying for a copious crop.  With the introduction of modern improvements like pre-crush sorting and all-organic viticulture, few vintages are complete busts, but when yields are low, certain disadvantages unrelated to fruit quality set in.  As any home winemaker knows, small batches of wine often begin to ferment at uncontrollable speeds, because fermentation is an exothermic process, which means that heat is produced as the yeast are doing their work and this raises the temperature of the must.  A sufficiently cool environment for primary fermentation is not always possible.  Plus, in smaller batches, the heat doesn’t dissipate as readily, so it is easy to exceed the maximum optimum fermentation temperature, which for white wines is around 55°F and for reds, around 80°F.  Runaway heat plays hell with volatile aromatics and can produce funky flavors of its own.  The lessened time for skin contact in quicker, hotter fermentation is another negative that results in substandard must.

In short, when yields are kept intentionally low, concentrated, complex wines may result, but below a certain level, the law of diminishing returns sets in.

Hot fermentation

Hot fermentation

In Côte de Beaune, the southern part of the Côte d’Or, 2014 pushed some limits to that critical mass after violent hail storms in the end of June, wreaking havoc outside the villages of Volnay, Pommard, Meursault and Beaune. The plague of hail is a double whammy in vineyards, because not only is fruit destroyed, but damaged wood goes into repair mode, producing the botanical equivalent of scar tissue.  This can impart off-flavors, so destemming becomes a labor-intensive priority. In Beaune, in some of the vineyards hardest hit, sorting and destemming resulted in ratios of four bad grapes to every one that was salvageable.

The July that followed was less than ideal, with damp weather and chilly temperatures leading to slow ripening.  And the first half of August was even worse.  Said Gevrey-Chambertin’s Pierre Damoy: “Given that this was supposed to be an early vintage, the awful weather in August slowed everything  down and caused us great anxiety.”

800px-Pernand-VergelessesThen, voilà!  Skies cleared, the sun warmed things up, and steady ripening through mid-September seized victory from the jaws of defeat.  In all, whites fared better than reds, as thicker skinned Chardonnay was better able to withstand the fruit fly infestation that descended on the Côte de Beaune in the final weeks of August and some Pinot Noir growers, fearful that the flies would destroy their remaining crop, picked too early. Early-picked Pinot Noir leads to wine with unripe anthocyanins and tannins, both vital for color stability and textural quality.  Growers who resisted the temptation to jump the gun were rewarded with wines both voluptuous and age-worth.

The beautiful safety net in the French AOC system is that Burgundies can be declassified by the producer if the fruit in a given harvest is deemed of insufficient quality to warrant using a previously, fully earned classification like Grand Cru. In other words, in off years, Grand Cru wines can be called Premier Cru, Premier Cru can be downgraded to Villages and Villages can become a basic Bourgogne.  Of course, even in exceptional years that practice cannot work in reverse—unless your designation changes, there are no labeling upgrades.

The line-up of newly-released 2014 from Côte de Beaune I sampled featured producers Domaine Rapet,  Domaine Bart, Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair and Domaine  Claudie Jobard.

As far as Burgundy producers go, these are all rationally-priced selections fully capable of expressing the subtle majesty of the Burgundy, 2014.


Under the auspices of Vincent Rapet, Domaine Rapet sits on fifty prime acres in Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Aloxe-Corton and Beaune.


Pernand-Vergelesses “Sous Frétille” rapetPernand-Vergelesses “Sous Frétille” Premier Cru, $50

Creamy apple strudel scents on the nose, crisp and ripe and stylish on the palate .  The climat sits within a protected valley that lies between the fabled Grand Crus of Corton and Corton Charlemagne.  The terrain funnels the wind, drying the grapes and concentrating the juice, producing a wine with a lovely mouthfeel and a long finish.


Beaune “Clos du Roi” Premier Cru, $46

Sandy soils in the northern end of Beaune make for a floral bouquet; the wine is rich with black fruits, ripe and ample with friendly cinnamon notes; sweet oak and austere minerality reins it in.

Pernand-Vergelesses “Ile de Vergelesses” Premier Cru, $56

The sheer vividness of the nose is outstanding; macerating black cherries mingle with rose-petals, lychee and spices with an almost chocolatey accent.  The structure is powerful and rounded and the finish satisfyingly long.

36Domain Bart

¡Ay, caramba! Pierre Bart is the sixth generation Bart to manage the family holdings in Bonnes-Mares and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, as well as Santenay.


Marsannay “La Montagne”, $26

Slightly smoky with aromatic hints of blueberry, cherry and cassis; fresh-tasting in the mouth, although the wine dies fairly quickly after mid-palate.  The tannins feel a little raw still and need some time to integrate.

Claudie Jobard

Claudie Jobard

Domaine Claudie Jobard

Claudie Jobard manages 23 acres of old vines in Côte Chalonnaise and Côte de Beaune, including prime parcels in Pommard from family ties with Domaine Gabriel Billard.  She’s the daughter of Laurence Jobard, Joseph Drouhin’s winemaker/enologist for 30 years.


Rully “Montagne la Folie”, $22

Beautiful aromas of apple peel, damp pavement, citrus and butterscotch. Extended skin contact without bâtonnage imparts a delightful richness to the wine, which at this price, is a genuine steal.


Bourgogne “Cuvée Milliane Vieilles Vigne”, $21

Fruits tends to the red side of the spectrum, with tart cherry and wild raspberry along with a soil-driven earthiness.  Generally simple and short-lived, this is an ideal accompaniment to a light meal served outdoors.

Floral, peach, golden delicious, mineral

Rully “Le Chaume”, $22

Black currants and light red cherries, this is an entry level, Village wine from a single vineyard.  Nice, not too complex, but balanced and well-rounded.

Pommard “Les Vaumuriens” Billard, $41

More clay in the soils of Pommard produce a lush, full-bodied wine of great repute.  This one has some linseed oil on the nose behind rose and violet perfumes; the tannins are young and parching and the acids linger in the mouth.

Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair

Domaine Françoise & Denis Clair was created in 1986 with 12 acres of Pinot Noir in Santenay; since then it has expanded into the best terroirs in Saint-Aubin.


Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, $20

Basic almond and citrus scented Burgundy, light and crisp in the mouth, not too heavy on any single element, but refreshing and easy to enjoy.

domaine-francoise-et-denis-clair-saint-aubin-1er-cru-1er-cru-les-murgers-des-dents-de-chien-vin-blanc-2014Saint-Aubin, $27

Restrained nose; a summery wine with butter and Golden Delicious apples  through mid-palate; meant for drinking  young. buttery fresh. Village wine, rocky vineyards.  No lees stir bâtonnage, co2 evident when shake.

Saint-Aubin “Les Murgers des Dents de Chien”, $41

The oddly-named ‘Walls of dog teeth’ vineyard probably gets its name from the jagged hillsides, so steep that they have to be plowed from bottom too top.  Sustainable agriculture encourages deep root growth, so the wine has gobs of complex and pure fruit layers behind smoke and an underlying mineral austerity echoed in a firm acidic grip.

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Ten Things You Never Thought Could Be Turned into Alcohol: #11 Will Blow Your Mind!

Every once in a while, I take a breather from my professional schedule to make fun of Drink Me magazine, which continues to show up in my inbox despite me not subscribing to it and never doing anything but make fun of it, but which I do not mark as spam because I clearly revel in making fun of it.

drinkme logoIf you are not familiar with Drink Me, good. If you are familiar with it, but are not familiar with me, it’s probably because you are a serious wine person who cannot take wine writers seriously if they regularly stray from pedagogic, stultifying, big-word wine columns in order to take cheap shots at the columns of other wine writers.

So be it—you’re probably mean to your mother too and have nasty, prurient thoughts involving your friends’ children.

We Doubted it Too, So We Fact-Checked it (Twice)!

Deposed multimillionaire finance minister of Nigeria

Deposed finance minister of Nigeria

But for Christ’s sake, if you do know Drink Me, you know how often they rely on the ol’ clickbait headline to drag you in—the journalistic equivalent of an email from the deposed multimillionaire finance minister of Nigeria—and it may be part of my 2016 weltschmerz, but when I see such cheap attention grabs from a site that sells advertising based on hit count, I’m hardwired to expect total disappointment.  So, when I was baited into clicking ‘Five Things You Never Thought Could Be Turned Into Alcohol’ I wasn’t totally disappointed by my subsequent total disappointment.

You Gotta See What Happens Next…!

For the record, though, before I launch my crapulous critique: As far as clickbait goes, the Drink Me headline was pretty bush league. Good clickbait headlines pick up any curiosity stragglers with one of the most effective tools at yellow journalism’s disposal:  The sub-headline. The sub-headline is meant to imply to you, the reader, that if you or do not read the entire story from start to finish you will be deprived of something critical to your future happiness or at least, will be left fluttering a handkerchief on the mental platform when the Smart Train leaves the station.

clickbaitBut Drink Me does not employ the sub-headline, and—I suggest—to their peril. I will guarantee you that any curiosity gap not bridged by ‘Five Things You Never Thought Could Be Turned Into Alcohol’ could have been given short shrift had they added the sub-headline, ‘#3 = Gag Me With a Spoon!’ or ‘You’ve Been Flushing #4 Down the Toilet!’

I mean, if you are going to be an annoying, hyperbolic, extortionist, overpromise/underdeliver rag, at least do it right.

Like I do.

Big Wine Publications Hate Him, And You’ll Never Guess Why! you will.  Because I out-absurd the absurdist, out-bullshit the bullshitter and out-bait the baiter. In fact, you might say I’m a master baiter. The Drink Me piece listed the following five alcohol-ready items: Dandelions, oranges, potatoes, spruce and maple sap.  Big deal, huh? I would assume most people capable of reading a fourth grade book on how to make Pruno out of cafeteria canned peaches know that alcohol is merely the conversion of sugar, either natural or stirred in with a big spatula, to C2H5OH. Thus, anything with sugar in it, and nothing to inhibit the action of ambient yeast cells, will ferment.  This, of course, includes sugar water.  Anything added to fermented sugar water (like dandelions, oranges, potatoes, spruce and maple sap) is meant as a ‘flavoring’ agent, so if you have never heard of, say, dandelion wine, it’s because you don’t read Ray Bradbury, and if you haven’t heard of orange, potato, spruce or maple sap wine, it is likely because in a world of Romanée-Conti, Montrachet and Egon Müller Scharzhofberg Trockenbeerenauslese, there really is no need to make wine out of Aunt Jemima or pinecones.

Simply because something can be done does not mean that it should be done, right?

As such, here are five more things that, although they can be made into wine, nobody not incarcerated in a maximum-security third-world prison actually has.

Peruvian Stink Badger#6: Peruvian Stink Badger Bile:  Obtaining the main ingredient may be more difficult than making the sugar water, but anonymous sources tell me that super-adorbz black market Peruvian Stink Badger babies can be purchased from Global Exotics out of Arlington, Texas. The bile, of course, can be found in the creature’s gallbladder, and if you don’t know which one the fucking gallbladder is, buy one of those machines that has a Google inside it, Dr. Moreau.

fuku#7: Fukushima Runoff Water: It’s recommended that you wear a hazmat suit while fermenting this electric elixir, which has the additional clickbait potential of not only increasing your penis size by three inches, but actually growing you additional penises.

#8: Light Sweet Crude Oil:  Recipe courtesy the ex-captain of the ex-buoyant Exxon Valdez.

leper#9: Saliva from Heroin-Addicted, AIDS-Infected Lepers:  I didn’t believe it myself, so I fact checked it.  Twice. Turns out that among the most amendable substance on earth to fermentation, based the ideal balance of enzymes, sugars, tannins and acidity, is ripe organic grape juice.  I know this has nothing to do with junkie lepers, but why in the world would anybody ferment their spit?  That would be as gross as fermenting maple sap.

corleoneAnd I know there is no #10.  That’s how clickbait works, suckers.  Like the Mafia.  Just when you think you’re out, we pull you back in.  We are on a divine mission from God to see how many cheap emotional ploys, empty promises and worthless listicles you people can endure.

And we suspect that the number is legion.

That said, if you really need to know (and you do) what the number one substance that you didn’t know could be turned into alcohol is, click the hyperlink and receive your super-cute reward.


Onward and upward, droogies.


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The Cult of Brumont: Alchemy in a Glass

I met Alain Brumont at The Stand, over a nice dinner arranged by local wine merchant Elie Boudt, and when I gripped the knotted, platter-sized hand of Brumont in greeting, I was struck with an overwhelming moment of déjà vu.

Brumont's hands

Brumont’s hands

It was briefly unsettling, because I couldn’t pinpoint the feeling. Brumont’s hand is thick and gnarled as a hundred-year-old Gros Manseng vine, so when I embraced it, I anticipated sandpaper and calluses. But Brumont’s palms are like velvet; gentle and warm and the grasp sincere, and…

Then it struck me. I remembered who else had hands like that, years ago, when I was a kid: Grandpère, my paternal grandfather.

I only met the old guy a few times—he lived four thousand miles away, and as far as I know, he never once set foot outside the small Swiss village where he was born. But we’d visit him over summer break, and I remember being eight or nine and how his hand felt in mine when I clutched it and it felt exactly like Brumont’s. The husk was tanned and rough, the knuckles gnarled and the fingernails stained, but the underside was soft as a baby’s rump, like Grandpère had been soaking in Madge’s Palmolive overnight.

Alain Brumont

Alain Brumont

Once I worked through the memory, the rest of the evening with Brumont was incandescent; the lilting flow of Brumont’s voice—who, like Grandpère, spoke no English yet seemed to measure and choose his French words carefully, as if that might help a monolingual American understand them. I understood what I needed to, and learned the rest via a translator.

Feudal France was divvied up into duchies, and the duché de Gascogne, where Brumont’s Château Montus nestles, was once under the rule of Eleanor of Aquitaine, among the wealthiest women in Europe and instrumental in launching the Second Crusade. These days, Alain Brumont wears the crown in Gascony; he is, in the best sense of the word, a cult leader, and his crusade has primarily involved the Madiran appellation’s pet varietal, Tannat.  Before Brumont came on the scene, Tannat was producing bitter, clumsy wines that required years to mellow and often did not have sufficient background fruit to survive the process. Much as the popularity of the local fat-rich comfort casserole Cassoulet fell out of general favor in the 1980s with the rise of leaner, cleaner nouvelle cuisine, so did the the lumbering Tannats of Madiran begin to seem dated and dumb.



The key to the Brumont’s unparalleled success is found within the Tannat’s labor-intensive rehabilitation; the wines of Château Montus are often listed among the icons of Southern France and mentioned in the same breath as Haut-Brion, Rothschild, Yquem. Brumont’s first Montus vintage, 1982, won accolades and according to him, Cuvée Prestige in 1985 ‘unseated 300 years of dominance by Bordeaux and Burgundy’.

“I rank Tannat among the world’s great red varieties, no question,” Brumont says. “But it a grape that requires constant management. To bring out the best, the winemaker needs to prune carefully, six or seven times a year, restrict yields and only pick at maximum ripeness. Our vine rows are perfectly orientated so that the grapes get 15 hours of sunlight each day and each grape receives individual attention.”

Mr. Digger

Mr. Digger

Early on, Brumont’s obsessive approach to lieux-dits earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Digger’—his neighbors discovered that he was fond of digging up the ground at various locations throughout the appellation to assess soil structures—and he is unabashed about admitting it: “I dreamed of terroirs every night; it got to a totally unreasonable level. I got to know every square meter of the region. I went terroir-mad, stone-mad.”

The method to the madness was his subsequent purchasing strategy: He began to buy up Madiran hectares, but forwent the pricier, fertile land where corn and wheat are predominant cash crops in favor of steep, rocky plots where vines show best. There’s some intrigue throughout Brumont’s rise to stardom, some cloak and dagger, and part of it involves him forming shill companies to buy land when jealous peers pulled strings in the local land agency, which oversees sales of rural agricultural property and can easily quash any deal.

He also confesses to having used grapes from vines that had not yet reached the legally prescribed age of three year, although he has never acidified nor chaptalized, believing implicitly in the power of the ‘Brumont Discipline’, a philosophy primarily governed by ‘a series of uncompromising choices’.  In the vineyard, for example, eschewing the use of insecticides, he separates vines from each other by wooden partitions to prevent ‘contamination’. He adds: “I only use water from our springs, which come out of our unpolluted hills. Our vines have grass growing around them, the land is rich in ancestral plant life…”

“These soils are six million years old,” he adds, sniffing at Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s 400,000-year-old infrastructure as the new kid  on the block. “The enzymes and positive bacteria have had that much more time to evolve.”

abcdHe discovered the site for his iconic, ten-hectare vineyard ‘La Tyre’ in 1990; the French wine guide Bettane et Desseauve refers to it as The Pétrus of the Southwest, and puts it on the quality level as Vega Sicilia-Pingus. Situated on an ideal southerly slope on the highest hill in the Madiran appellation, the site is scattered with stones and the subsoil is layered with strata of red and variegated clay. As part of the Brumont Discipline, vines are restricted to five or six bunches and wine made from a rigorous selection of grapes involving six different passes through the vineyards during harvest. Wines from La Tyre grapes are full-bore, rich with acid and filled with fierce black fruit, spicy mocha and tobacco—comparable to wines from the Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux.

This may be contrasted to the silkier, less bombastic wines of Brumont’s other estate, Château Bouscassé, which he inherited from his father in 1979. Covering three hundred acres of marbled clay and limestone outcrops, the wines are a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon the wines show the tarry elegance of Montus, but in a slightly more restrained and pretty package with cherry and currant in the forefront. Less age is needed to bring the fruit and tannins into stasis, and the wine sells for considerable less—Brumont wines, of course, are across-the-board bargains when stacked against the Bordeaux Premier Cru vineyard with which they’re compared.

Château Bouscassé

Château Bouscassé

Now nearly seventy, Alain Brumont’s eyes still sparkle with ferocious intensity: He simmers beneath a sort of gentle impatience as his words are translated; he seems constrained by his native language, as if the subtle flavors in his words will be misunderstood, perhaps like Tannat and the Uruguayans. “They grow for quantity,” he shrugs and nods, “and there’s too much rain.  They get two liters of rain annually; Tannat thrives in half that. They make nice Tannat, but not great Tannat. It is dilute and lacks complexity and purity; it does best when blended with Merlot.”

Before Brumont, blending Tannat was actually a legal requirement in Madiran; he fought the law when it came to the wines of La Tyre, and the law lost. It is, however, the only wine he produces that is pure Tannat—the rest of his reds are blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, up to 25%, and lesser levels of Cab Franc.  This can be viewed as Xanax for the more aggressive side of Tannat’s nature, and when all the viticultural stars have not aligned quite as perfectly as they do at La Tyre, are needed to avoid a slide back into the literal black hole of pre-Brumont Madirans.

The white counterparts to Tannat are the Manseng twins, Gros and Petite; these wines are bottled under the separate appellations Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, the former sweet, the latter dry, although in tandem they cover the identical area as the Madiran AOC.

Brumont produces both.  In his dry Brumont Blanc 2014 ($10) Gros Manseng is blended with Sauvignon Blanc and produces a wine of almost perplexing complexity for the price—notes of ginger and marmalade play against a spice box of applesauce and buttery toast; the wine is clean and precise, but with the unctuous mouthfeel of a Hermitage Blanc.

montus-blanc-sec-162011 Château Montus Blanc ($26), which The Stand’s ever-clever Chef Paul Grosz pairs with Tuna Tartare on Risotto Cake, showcases a lighter, more floral nose and a grassy palate with citrus and honey and a backbone of minerality.  It’s a blend of Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng; unique grapes grown few places outside the region.

Château Bouscassé and Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, both from the 2009 vintage and priced respectively $20 and $100, are described above, and served as perfect foils to Grilled Quail with Red Wine Braised Blueberries and Beef Sirloin with Celery Root Puree and Shiitake Mushroom.  Chef Grosz displays the same fleet manipulation of cuisine subtleties as Brumont does with varietals; the two engaged in a lovely pas de deux of gastronomy.

…Which was demonstrated conclusively in the final course; Pear Tart with Pear/Bourbon Sorbet dovetailing Château Bouscassé Brumaire Doux ($38), a botrytis-heavy late-harvest blend (again) of Courbu and Manseng.  It’s rich with candied fruits, but reaches into the tropical panoply, with dried pineapple and concentrated notes of papaya mingling with toasted hazelnut and toffee apples. As a beverage, it is the essence of Indian Summer in a glass—an image that stirs up as many fond memories as does Brumont’s soft, but firm handshake.

Terroir can take a wine only so far; it is the intensity of the winemaker that pushes it across the finish line.  In 2011, according to Decanter correspondent Andrew Jefford, Brumont did an informal poll among sommeliers and importers to gauge the name-recognition factor in his universe, Madiran, Brumont, Montus and Bouscassé, and found that his name was recognized over Madiran’s by a factor of eight to one.

Génération Madiran

Génération Madiran

Plenty of good growers in Madiran, including Didier Barre of Domaine Berthoumieu, the Laplace family of Chateau Aydie and the twenty members of Génération Madiran—a coterie of younger growers experimenting with nouvelle technologies and techniques, including micro-oxygenation. All of them recognize Alain Brumont for what he has done for the reputation of the AOC in general and Tannat in particular.

To them, without question, Brumont is the father of New Madiran, although to me, and indelibly now, he better fits the role of Grandpère.


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Ktima Gerovassiliou: Grecian Formula Number One

The Greeks have been at it for six thousand years, and the presumption is that they’ve learned a trick or two.  Something that has eluded them, however, by intention or intractability, is making wine names that un-Greeks can pronounce.

Of course, having invented everything from democracy to the screw, the notion that some uppity wine drinker from, say, Kankakee is going to have trouble with Aghiorghitiko or Xinomavro has not been high on the marketing roadmap.

Perhaps, borrowing a strategy from stadium building, which they also invented, winemaking folks in Greece are operating under the ‘Ferment it and they will come’ presumption.

Vangelis Gerovassiliou

Vangelis Gerovassiliou

Vangelis Gerovassiliou, who redoubles the concept in his thirteen-letter name, is among them.  And his products, unlike major league baseball, are always worth the price of admission.

Take his bush-league-prospects white, Ktima Gerovassiliou, a blend of Malagousia and Assyrtiko: It’s like finding Hank Aaron playing for the Toledo Mud Hens.  Multi-syllabic tongue-twisters be damned; this wine, at $20 a bottle, offers a fiercely floral profile typical of white grapes grown in sandy soils; it’s bolstered by tropical fruit notes—mango and pineapple—and a sprinkle of fresh herb, thyme and ginger.



Malagousia ($23) was nearly extinct as a varietal until Vangelis Gerovassiliou, a young winemaker from Epanomi in the northeast part of Thessaloniki (the second oldest establishment in Macedonia), began experimenting with it in the 1980s.  Distinct perfume of jasmine and pear, with a unstoppably unctuous mouthfeel; slightly buttery and filled with candied citrus, honey and nicely balanced fruit sugars and natural acidity; miles long on the palate.  But don’t necessarily take my word for it:  The 2013 vintage took a trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London and nailed 92 points in Wine & Spirits.

‘Avaton’ is loaded with fresh summer berries you can’t quite identify but suspect exist—maybe on some Macedonian hillside. A triumvirate of Limnio, Mavroudi and Mavrotragano, the explosively fruit sweet, parching with ripe tannins, bitter as black tea with slight leafy tobacco tang, like tobacco, and a full-bore red that’s hung between rustic and elegant. The pedigree is intact, however: Limnio is mentioned by Aristophanes in the 5th century BC, making it the oldest attested Greek grape variety.

Ktima Gerovassiliou

Ktima Gerovassiliou

These wines are as ready for supper as they are for the cellar; they’re splendid now, but display the sort of fruit, acid and tannic backbone associated with wines you could expect to improve with age.  Proof may be in Ktima Gerovassiliou’s Evangelo, the window-dresser of the portfolio, pushing $70 a bottle on wine-searcher.  For his top end red, Gerovassiliou co-ferments Syrah and Viognier—choosing a Northern Rhône varietal that is hard to pronounce just to rub our noses in it. But it’s a good nose rub; Viognier blended with Syrah is a trick that originated in the Côte-Rôtie.  The floral and stone fruit notes in Viognier add distinct sparks of brightness to brooding Syrah, but more than that: Due to a strange chemical phenomenon, colorless compounds called ‘cofactors’ that exist in Viognier bind and stack between colorful anthocyanins in Syrah, so that rather than diluting the color, the blend actually increases the intensity of the purple/red in the final product.

A certain, odd tasting descriptor that sometimes appears in warm climate red wines is some variation on the concept of ‘barnyard’.  In  large doses, this flavor is off-putting and is likely caused by a bacteria called Brettanomyces. In judicious (read: miniscule) doses, it adds a note of intrigue; a contrivance of complexity.  At these PPM, I love it in a Mediterranean red, and it is here in the 2008 Evangelo in the precise portion to be provocative.

muHigh doses of Brettanomyces claussenii is not only a flaw in wine, the word itself—despite having a lot of letters, is Latin in derivation, not Greek, so any suggestion therein would be a double smack in the kisser of winemaker Gerovassiliou.

I’ll opt instead for a brief word, one which succinctly and completely describes the Ktima Gerovassiliou portfolio.  And although it is only comprised of a single letter, it can be repeated ad infinitum, and I am pleased to note that said letter is derived from the Phoenician ‘Mem’ and… wait for it… the Greek letter Mu:





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