Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pinnacle Whipped Vodka

The well-governed State of Vermont has a fantastic** website which listed information about the content of alcohol for sale there.

(** as in "wonderful")

One of my daughter's possibly not quite so well-governed friends brought over a magnum of fantastic* flavored vodka which piqued my curiosity about the abuse of perfectly good alcohol.

(* as in "unbelievable")

Here is the Vermont info:

Pinnacle Whipped Vodka
Whipped cream-flavored vodka imported from France. Handcrafted in small batches and quadruple distilled with spring water from the Champagne region of France. The time-honored recipe has been handed down from generation to generation. Pinnacle Whipped Cream is a light, sweet combination of vodka, vanilla and cream.

you can mix 2 oz. Pinnacle Whipped Flavored Vodka with 4 oz. of ginger ale for a 'Whipped Cream Soda.' Or you can make a Key Lime Pie-tini. The possibilities are simply endless.

I will say that it is a curiously clear liquid, for something containing cream and vanilla. But who am I to quibble? It actually tastes pretty good. Like candy. Like something which can cause you to ingest mightily, not even noticing the alcohol, then make you want to go out driving, or performing brain surgery . . .

Friday, December 24, 2010

Vintage European Posters

On Maui there is a wonderful little store which you should visit and dawdle in, if you are ever on that island. It's in Lahaina, on Front Street, facing the channel and Molokai.

Employees with gloved hands show you as many of their hundreds of thousands of vintage posters as you can stand. Many of them are by pretty famous artists, such as Capiello, and date from 1900 to the present. A giant wine-related poster from 1920, by a great artist, might set you back about $700. These are original prints, not reproductions. The variety and colors and skill are amazing. Many reveal a wonderful bit of whimsy.

I found a real treasure (OK, two): In 1905 some French chaps put together the Ampellographie, a seven-volume set of the world's best depiction of all the world's winegrapes, with lots of written information about each variety. This set includes many grapes that are now thought to be extinct. We think of animal extinction but how often do we consider plant extinction? Each set of books includes about 500 color plates and many more black and white ones. Each plate was stone-lithographed; the color plates were done by printing each color separately, in multiple printings. The process is so exacting that it took about seven years just to print enough for 250 sets of these books. Many of those sets were lost in World Wars 1 and 2; this store has a set which they'll sell to you for just $14,000. Another set is for sale online at another bookstore for $13,000. But this Maui store also found a partial set of volumes, and they stripped out the color plates, and sold each one for $400. Guess who came and bought almost all of them? California winery owners, of course, so as you taste through Napa and Sonoma, you might scan the walls for color grape prints--just look for "Ampellographie and 1905" on the print. By the time I got there, they had only three color plates left. I bought the best one of those--an obscure white grape, Gradiska. It's grown in Bessarabia, which is now called Mondovia, a tiny country in the former USSR which runs north-south and is bordered on the south by the Black Sea. It is the most amazing artistic quality you can imagine. The color printing is amazing.
The second treasure I found was a 1937 Damiani label created by the famous Italian artist Capiello. He drew a comely lass adorned with grapes, for a liqueur called Quinquina--it has a double shot of quinine in it and was made on Corsica. The border of the label is 10k gold! It is lovely.
They have SO many posters there that a nearby warehouse cannot hold them all. The employees are highly educated art history majors (in case you know any who might need a job using that knowledge). Allan Dickar is the owner. What a great business! I give it my very highest recommendation!

Maui's Winery

If the San Juan Islands can have a winery, why not Maui? Tedeschi Winery is about 20 years old, and is located close to Kihei as the crow flies but to drive to it one must go Upcountry and then way past the squiggly road up to Haleakala (10,500' dormant volcano).

They have a vineyard a mile northwest that was full of Ruby Cabernet (a Cabernet sauvignon hybrid), but with 365 days a year of warm, humid weather even the disease-resistant hybrids cannot long survive here. And to simulate winter they strip the leaves off the vines, but because of the warm weather the vines merely start up the growth cycle again.

So the winemakers make vinifera wines in California, and then ship them in bulk [on ships! a 3-week (and possibly hot?) voyage] to Maui for "finishing." I humbly submit that is not the preferred way to make vinifera wine (and I'm sure the winemakers know that). However, the winery has spent decades perfecting pineapple wine. They have a dry white still version, a sweeter pineapple-passionfruit version ("Maui Splash"), and a bubbly version. Wow! They were fun to try, though a metallic aftertaste holds my score for them to the low 80s, max. If you find yourself on Maui, you should go to the winery. It's cool, up there in the clouds at 2000'. Gorgeous. Green, with black stone field walls, like Ireland.
That's Noni in the photo. The tasting room has a wonderful bar made from Mango wood.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2008 Adelsheim Elizabeth's Reserve Pinot noir

My friend Nick recommended this wine, so I tried it during the Thanksgiving open houses. It is a great wine. Now, Matt Kramer (the Oregonian's wine writer) has written how great it is. He says yes it is $50, but it's worth it. It's from the vintage generally considered Oregon's best ever. It demonstrates great concentration, depth and nuance, and this may be the best Elizabeth's ever. I loved its nose which emphasized violets and fruit, with the requisite barnyard just a subtle note in the background, and I loved its richness and complexity on the palate. It's best bought now and laid down.

I was fortunate to be given a private tour by Adelsheim's winemaker, which afforded plenty of time to learn a lot about this wine and his winemaking theory. I'm a fan. And I offer this one at $40. While it lasts. Contact me!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

An old, great WA cab

1998 Apex Cabernet sauvignon: We opened this last night with steaks and potatoes au gratin. Wow! I bought it at the winery in 2002 for $30. At twelve years, it is magnificent. The bouquet yields a burst of purple fruits, leather, and violets. In the mouth it was so rich and jammy you could literally chew it by pushing it against the roof of your mouth. The tannins were silk. The flavor came in waves. Each sip brought a big smile to our mouths.

Incredible. Who cares if Spectator gave it 88 points and noted a smoky element? I give it 95 points and there was no smoke in mine at all.

PS-Apex used to sell wines from the old Sunnyside Dairy building. I believe Apex is long gone now, and Owen Roe makes its WA wines in that building.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Who says the Romans weren't brilliant?

"Why do strong arms fatigue themselves with frivolous dumbbells? To dig a vineyard is worthier exercise for men!"

Marcus Valerius Martialis, 40AD-103AD

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some Thanksgiving Weekend winery visits

That is a construction photo of the new J.K. Carriere winery. It's not far south of Chehalem. You should visit, if only to see how highway culverts (really large ones) can be laid down and buried, to make perfect barrel cellars. I like Jim Prosser's wines (except his "Glass"--I don't understand that one). He keeps getting better and better. He makes a range of Pinots at various price and quality points. I can get many of his wines at wholesale. Jim's taken a risk with such a large and nice winery in this economic climate, but I predict he will do just fine. I appreciate his philosophy of continually learning; the master remains the student.
2. Adelsheim: Dave the winemaker gave me a great tour. Love those barrel vaults! They go back almost to infinity, dimly lit and wonderful. And their wines are very, very good. The '08 Willamette Valley Pinot noir ($32 retail) is my favorite when considering price as well as quality, but the '08 Elizabeth's Reserve ($52 retail) and '08 Calkins Lane ($68 retail) are outstanding Pinots. Cross your fingers and hope they will go on sale, someday. Their Pinot gris is outstanding and their Chardonnay is classic Burgundian. This is a winery which I had not given sufficient thought to, over the years.
3. Anam Cara: New tasting room in Newburg (on Hwy 240, just north/west of Hwy 99). Their Riesling is not as good as I recall a couple of years ago. A dessert Gewurz is wonderful stuff, but that's about it. The owners sold a line of pizza restaurants in CA and moved up here to a nice hill near Sherwood, where the grapes are. They bear continued watching.
4. Brick House: it IS a lovely brick house, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. I wish we still lived in that time. New buildings now do not look like this. And their barn is a lovely renovation of some office space, some tasting space (furnished), and some winemaking space (rustic), all in the same building. I like the physical plant very much. Unfortunately, that is all the the good I can say. Their numerous loyal fans must not know a lot about wine.
5. Natalie's Estate: Boyd makes very good warm weather red wines, and he does it off North Valley Road in Dundee country. My own Viognier is better than his, but his Cab franc (Red Willow Vineyard) is outstanding, as is his Meritage. And his prices are good. (As is his spread of food.) His Cab sauv is great in the mouth but it has no bouquet; maybe it needed a blender?
I'll look for some of these wines, at wholesale . . .

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cold's worse early

November 23 is awfully early for us to see 22 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon. Not in 25 years have we seen such temps in November.
My friend in Lyle Washington (across from Hood River, in the Columbia Gorge) has 5F this morning!
Why do grapegrowers care? Because vinifera can die back to the ground at about 0F to -15F. If there is a graft union somewhere above ground, and the vine winterkills to the ground surface, then that vine loses its ability to ever make vinifera fruit again. The rootstock (which is selected for many features, none of which include fruit quality) may sprout but nobody wants the grapes from it.
Worse, a cold snap in November is harsher on the plants than a cold snap in January. This is because it takes time for the plant to acclimate to winter; one can only imagine the changes which the plant must undergo (sap falls to the roots; leaf stems must be hardened off and rejected; and who knows what else?). Heck, the Harvest was still going on just a few weeks ago, and some vinifera (e.g., Riesling) can be harvested in November. This is very early cold.
Hybrid grapes, which contain the disease resistance and cold resistance of native American grapes, plus the early ripening which may give them more time to prepare for winter, can laugh at cold temperatures, at least until they hit -10F or lower. Some hybrids survive -40F.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Taste-off: 2000 Leonetti v 1994 Mondavi

We put two heavyweights into the ring last weekend:

Fighting in the red corner, we had 2000 Leonetti Cabernet sauvignon. Age: 10 years. A full-bodied red hailing from Walla Walla, Washington. Rated 93 by Spectator, who says to drink it now. Parker, however, says it can last another couple of decades. Original cost: $60. Present Value: About $130. This was Washington's first cult winery (and now, it's one of three, together with Cayuse and Quilceda Creek).

In the blue corner was 1994 Mondavi Cabernet reserve. Aged; 16 years. Fighting from its base squarely in the Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi was one of the early giants who put Napa on the world stage. Parker called this wine "Mondavi's greatest Cabernet." Original cost: $65. Present value: about $140. Spectator gives this one 87 points ("currant, olives, and cedar") and says to drink it up now.
The Mondavi was decanted right before drinking, to remove sediment, of which there was plenty. The Leonetti was just opened and poured. A group of us observed the wines over time.
The gist: Neither wine presented the complex aromatics that I hope for in a Cab blend. Each was just OK on the nose. In the mouth both were very jammy and smooth, with nice dark fruits showing. The Leonetti had good structure (acidic backbone) for food. One note worth mentioning is that this was the first Leonetti I've opened that didn't make me feel like I was robbing the cradle. If I were a buyer building my cellar, I wouldn't pay the current value for either of these puppies, though they were very good. Just not good enough to warrant a price (presently) of $130-140.
This is not Leonetti's best; I think on a good day the best Leonetti would probably smash the best Mondavi. There is every reason to continue thinking that the better wines from Walla Walla, Tri-Cities, and Yakima are head and shoulders above their similarly-priced competition from Napa and Sonoma. That is a generality and of course there are exceptions, but that is my belief and no events of the past 20 years have done aught but to further solidify my feeling.
Life is good, when we have opportunities to make such comparisons!

Yes, Virginia. There is a huge difference between light and heat

There is a rather poor way to measure the quality of a grapegrowing season. It is Growing Degree Days (GDD's), which in the US are calculated in three different ways. The most common is to calculate the average temp for a day [(max temp + min temp) divided by 2] and then subtract 50 degrees F. (50F is the baseline.) If the result is negative (which is the case today, Nov 18, where the high is not even 50F), then just give that day a zero. Then, you add up all such results, for each day of the year. For 2010 in the Portland area, this results in a total GDD for the year of about 1800 GDDs. In 2009 it was about 2200, or 22% more.

So why is this method a lousy proxy for sunshine? Because GDDs vary somewhat independently of sunshine. (What we need is a new way to measure and report actual sunshine units.) Here are some examples proving the shortcomings of GDDs:

1. Think of the US Northeast. It is often cloudy there in the summer, although it can get quite warm. And the nights are generally warm also, due to the high humidity. So the GDDs are pretty high (for a northern climate), but the actual sunshine on the grapes is low. There, the GDDs are misleadingly high, and only extreme Northern grapes tend to ripen there.

2. Think of West Texas. There, the sun is amazingly bright (because of the high altitudes--about 4000') and it shines on those high plains almost every day of the year. Yet, due to the high altitude and low humidity, the average temps, even in summer, fall pretty far at night, which drags down the day's average temp. So the GDDs there are misleadingly low, even though the sunshine is very strong and frequent and the afternoon temps are often in triple digits.

3. Now, consider Scandavia and Southern England. (Yes, wine grapes are being grown there now, just as they were back in Roman times.) There, the high latitude makes the sunshine very bright in summer, and the days are very long, so the actual sunshine totals are pretty high, although the GDDs, due to the cool temps, are very low.

I'm paraphrasing Bill Shoemaker, who is a grape breeder at U of Illinois: "Heat is like an accelerator; it regulates the rate of the plant's physiological engine. Light, on the other hand, is fuel [it is one of the inputs which the plant uses, via photosynthesis, to make sugar and cellulose from sunlight, water, and minerals]. Respiration is also key; it consumes the products of photosynthesis. Respiration is higher wherever the temp is high, so in Scandanavian nations, where temps are cool, respiration is lower and the plant retains more of its sugars. This (combined with the long sunny days in summer that far North) allows the plant to ripen its fruit fully, even though temps are cool and the growing season is shorter." The Portland area is similar.

This is a major reason why the same grape varieties will fare so much differently in different geographic settings. Then there are other important factors, such as soil type, drainage, color of soil and surface rocks (which affects heat absorption and reflection), wind, winter minimum temps, speed of onset of winter, etc. Altogether, it really does make "terroir" a critical component in winegrapegrowing. And it truly makes every wine, and even wine from each plant, uniquely different.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anybody can be a Wine Critic . . .

Check out this drivel, by Mike Steinberger, Slate's wine columnist:

I know we have a free press, and anybody can publish whatever BS opinion they want, about anything, but how did this guy get his position as a wine writer? There is some pretty suspect advice in this piece. The only good point he makes is that many wineries in Napa, and especially some of the high-end ones, are in some serious trouble with their overpricing and this weak economy.

I have nothing against the CONCEPT of good wines from Napa. Let them flow, from whatever extremely-limited places where they exist. Too many Napa wines are overpriced and (as M.S. noted, but this is widely known so he doesn't get credit for saying it) they are hopped up with too much alcohol and too much oak, and thus cannot be much good with food.

But, really? To call the following wines the good ones from NADA Valley???

1. 2004 Smith-Madrone ($37): Spectator finally stopped scoring these guys 12 years ago--their last two scores were 72 and 74. Those are failing scores, in the Napa context. If this winery has turned around, Spectator doesn't seem to know about it.

2. 2006 Napanook ($43): This is Dominus' second label. But Spectator gives this wine 82 points--which is not exactly hearty praise--and says it has "an earthy streak, which bends to dryness." Ouch! And oh the by the way, there are numerous 90-point wines which cost half this much, or even much less.

3. Dominus (I chose the 2006, like its second label cousin above) ($129): This got a whopping 86 points and Spectator says, ". . . trim, tannic finish suggests only short-term cellaring." Let me get this right: For $129 we should buy a wine that must be drunk now and has an average grade. For that same cost, you can buy a CASE of a much better wine. It's just not from Nada Valley; hope you don't mind . . .

4. I have tasted the length and breadth of Ch. Montelena, and though their winery building is most impressive, the wines just aren't.

That is hardly the kind of service that readers should expect from a wine writer. Please, please, don't follow his advice--don't put those wines on your Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A burning match, on gasoline?

(photo is of Christophe, of Cayuse, presumably standing in The Rocks)

The below blog post is by a person well-acquainted with the subject matter. The lab results are startling in some ways. But we need to remember this is just one bottle tested. And everyone's palate is different. And most "flaws" are NOT subject to general agreement. Still, a large amount of what is essentially a contaminant is worth noting, even in one bottle of wine, and a pH of 4.06 does seem quite high.

What's fascinating about this post (link below) is the debate and political blowback it may induce. The elephant in the room is the proud (and sometimes fiery) Christophe Baron who may be reading the various comments with interest.

On one side you have loyal customers and the world's greatest wine critics, standing with Cayuse. On the other hand you have a brave (foolish?) wine lover who noticed something she didn't like about the wines and had them tested, and thinks she has scientific proof of her palate at hand. There are reasons why both sides may be right. (Perhaps we are seeing that certain excursions from what has been considered "normal" might not result in bad wines, but could in fact become new understandings of quality?)

I don't want to get into the shooting war, thanks, although you will see my own (hopefully moderate) comment, there in the blog comments. I am a Cayuse member. I am mostly just holding my Cayuse wines, as I find their hugeness makes them inappropriate for early drinking. If you try to drink them from barrel, they are so big and tannic that it might kill you ;) None of the Cayuse wines I've drunk have presented the flaws alleged by the wine writer. For an eyeful, just read through the comments.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Two more waypoints on the search for good red hybrids

We opened two red hybrids yesterday, as part of the mostly-elusive search for wines from red hybrid winegrapes that are as good as the best white hybrids.

These were both by Bully Hill, from the Finger Lakes in New York:

1. Marechal Foch: Nice cherry nose; no initial off flavors (which is extremely rare with Foch); not herbaceous; nice on the palate; body is too light; on the very back end, a bitter note. Hollow and one-dimensional. It did not improve with time. I'd score it about a 78. The bouquet is there but the mouth is disappointing.
UPDATE, after re-tasting a few days later (BTW: I keep opened reds, unpumped, in the refrigerator, where the low temps prevent oxidation; when you want another glass, just zap it for about :12 seconds in the microwave; don't laugh; this method is the best, easiest, and does not adversely affect the wine). This wine is better now. Still a one-chapter novel, but nice. Maybe it would score about 82. Nothing wrong with it, though it's straight-forward.

I still don't have a compelling reason to plant M.Foch, but perhaps I am now more tempted. This was far better than most Foches I've had, which stink with herbaceousness. Many growers insist that if you treat red hybrids like vinifera (prune to VSP, leaf pull, drop crop, hang for maximum ripeness) you can get vinifera-worthy wines from them. The jury is still out on that, for me, with Foch, but I am a believer in that line of logic.

2. Baco noir: Pleasant muted nose of leather and dark fruit, with some pepper. Simple palate--dark fruits and pepper, with medium body. Well-balanced. A short, acidic finish. Better than the Foch. But it didn't improve once opened--upon further drinking, it was just OK. I score it 81 points. Hate to say this, but it would benefit from a 50% blend with a good red vinifera grape.
Kudos to Bully Hill!

I will be planting this grape--supposedly if you treat it like vinifera, oak the hell out of it and lay it down for five years, it mimics a good cab pretty well. Fingers crossed.

Background: Hybrid winegrapes are crosses between vinifera and disease-resistant, early-ripening native US grapes. To my palate some of them have clearly proved their worth (Cayuga, Melody, Traminette)--their ability to match the best vinifera seems well-established to me. Like any grape, it takes time to figure out where it best grows and how best to vintify it. The effort needs our patience, but it is so green that its future is indisputably bright.

Falling Leaves

The leaves are falling on the soon-slumbering vineyard. Out in the street, folks are scraping their yards clean and making great piles of leaves in the street, for pickup by the city.

I wonder if they have thought about what they're doing? To them, the leaves are trash, debris, a nuisance. To me, they are an essential part of the ecosystem.

In removing the leaves, those "old school" folks are harvesting a "crop" every year. It's the same with bagging your lawn clippings--it's a harvest. In nature, the leaves and grasses slowly become part of the floral floor, where they decompose and then the worms pull them back down into the earth. By removing leaves, you are systematically weakening the soil. Sure, the leaves will probably be composted and used somewhere else, but (i) it uses a lot of fuel to gather them and then distribute the compost later, and (ii) that doesn't help your own yard in any way.

If you just can't stand whole leaves, you can pile them on your lawn and run over them with a mower. Voila! Instant fertilizer. You are again a harmonious part of the natural cycle.

I can't stand people who can't stand leaves ;) You know, as long ago as ancient Greece, the poets were comparing fallen leaves to the different ethnic groups of humanity (light brown, dark brown, yellow, red--you get the idea), and they used the leaves as metaphors for the end of our lives, but still providing a source of hope and promise, for future lives to come.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How to approach a wine made from hybrid grapes

But of course: You merely walk up and say "Hello!"

Seriously, I am a projector: I tend to project what I know onto some future circumstance, without always realizing how the future circumstance might be very different. If I have a bad wine made from Cayuga (I'm not sure if one exists--that is just an example; in fact, I love the wines I've already made from that grape), I might conclude that ALL Cayuga wines are bad. Similarly, if I read that, for one experienced winemaker in Virginia, Chancellor is too acidic and has objectionable herbaceous notes, I am inclined to write it off my list of potential candidates. (That is a ripe Chancellor cluster, on your right, and that cluster shape is what we call "shouldered," for obvious reasons.)

What I needed to learn--and what I beg you to understand--is that every grape performs differently in each different micro-environment. In the subtle sense, a Viognier wine might taste slightly different from a Viognier wine made by the same maker, from the adjacent row's fruit! This phenomenon is widely known among winemakers, who recognize such differences in selecting their "reserve" wines. But in the strategic sense, a grape can be almost as different as night and day, when planted in widely-varying locations. To use two vinifera examples, just think about a Shiraz grown in the Barossa Valley, in Oz, where the baking heat and unique soil conditions can push it to a tarry, raisiny over-ripeness if it is not picked at the right moment. That same grape in SE France (called Syrah there, of course) might have cool-weather characteristics, such as herbal and pepper qualities. Or, Malbec is a bland blending grape in France, but once it found the high Andes soil and sun, it brought well-deserved fame to Argentina as one of the legitimately greatest grapes on Earth (though I admit it's on a long list). The winemaking practices have similarly dramatic effects on grapes.
Hybrid grapes are no different. They vary just as much, based on site and conditions. Worse, most hybrids do not have centuries of viticulture (grapegrowing) and viniculture (winemaking) experience behind them, as we have with viniferas. Nonetheless, many hybrid wines are "ringing the bell" by winning competitions against vinifera wines. So we must realize that with hybrids, we are deep into an evolutionary learning process, as skilled practitioners continue to advance the art. If we have a Ravat 262 wine that makes us want to throw up, then we need to be careful, perhaps, not to drink that winemaker's Ravat 262 again, but we should also remain open-minded to other Ravat 262 wines. Hey, it's pretty easy to purse your lips and spit a bad wine out!
Thanks to Cliff Ambers, who looked at my compendium of information about various hybrid grapes and commented that, in assessing which grapes to try, I was perhaps putting too much importance upon some comment or other, by some experienced grower or enologist. Whatever they said, four or sixteen states away, might not be true for me. If, during the phylloxer epidemic, the wine lovers in France were drinking so much hybrid wine that it was stealing market share from the major vinifera estates, and the French government finally moved to prohibit hybrid grapes in France, then we can assume that those hybrid wines must have been at least fairly good wines. It would put a drinker on the wrong side of the future, if he or she assumed that there are no good hybrid wines out there.
Here are some grapes in my current trial:
Traminette: This hybrid is half Gewurztraminer, and it retains the glorious Gewurz spiciness and zest, while adding disease resistance (which saves sprays and tractor fuel), earlier ripening, higher yields, and cold-hardiness. Fortunately, I have had AWESOME Traminette wines, and I fervently hope I can duplicate that result here in the Northwest. Bold prediction: You will be hearing a lot about Traminette. I frankly see little reason to grow Gewurz now, except as a heritage grape to preserve the germoplasm.
Cayuga: Also a hardy white hybrid grape which makes awesome wine everywhere, and has already been proved in the Northwest (by me, at least, and perhaps by others). It tends to ripen with acid levels a bit too high, which suggests a light residual sweetness is needed, or it could be blended with a lower-acid grape, or it could be diluted with a small percentage of water. For my trial, that will mean planting some Melody, too, which is not quite as hardy as Cayuga, but it has lower acid and very similar crisp, Riesling-like flavors.
Brianna: A white hybrid grape which yields up pineapple flavors. What's not to like about that? (I have an appointment on Maui with a certain winery which makes award-winning pineapple wine. Please don't laugh ;)
Sandia: A new hybrid resulting from Vitis longii (a wild American grape which grows on sandy creekbanks in Eastern New Mexico) crossed with Cayuga. This one is a red grape which is supposed to taste like watermelon. Again, what's not to like? I may be the only person growing this one for wine, in the US. That's pretty cool. What if it makes a great wine?
Cascade: Another red hybrid that smells and tastes like strawberries. Did you know that grapes are the only fruit that can smell and taste like other fruits? That is likely a major reason so many of us love grapes and grape wines so much. Cascade will hang up to 50 lbs of fruit on one vine, but in some sites it is sensitive to soil-borne viruses. We'll see.
Baco noir: An old red hybrid grape which (like Marechal Foch) has been made into many, many bad wines. But I have heard that if you hit it with 93 degrees during primary fermentation, and give it lots of oak and a long aging period, it tastes like Cab sauv. OK, let's prove it!
Noiret: A new red hybrid (thank you, Cornell U) which one skilled grower in NY's Hudson Valley says is worthless because it "always" has a stewed prune character. But guess what? I am drinking one from NY's Finger Lake region (made by Arbor Hill, in case you want to try one) that is positively delicious. No prune in there, at all. It does have an herbal taste that I haven't yet identified, but also leather, cherries, and earth, as you might expect in a Bordeaux blend (and they have herbal notes, too).
I think you get my point. Grapes and winemaking are so personal to their locations and to the style of the grower and maker . . . Wine is part of an intimate dance, perhaps just as personal as any other activity you can imagine between two partners. The grape and the grower/winemaker have such intimacy. All they need is open-minded consumers, and more time.
Final note: Hybrid grapes are the result of combining the male and female parts from different grapes' flowers, as has been done for centuries. It is NOT gene splicing (genetic engineering) in the modern sense. In fact, all vinifera grapes are the result of natural crosses, or hybridization in the wild.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coming around to final postings, on the 2010 harvest

Well . . . So many interesting twists and turns, this year. Harvest is ending today. The grapes picked now should make pretty good wine, although many winemakers are buying sugar because the grapes' ripeness levels are not up to the point (21-24 Brix) for the desired level of alcohol. But flavors can develop independently of the sugar level, and this (near-miraculous) long Fall did allow for flavor development.

Bird predation almost completely wiped me out, but I was surprised to read that it also took a very heavy toll on commercial vineyards. One used propane cannons, cap guns, shotgun-wielding employees riding an ATV through the vineyard from dawn to dusk (!), and recorded bird distress cries, and still lost a huge fraction of fruit to the winged pests. Birds know how to worm their way inside of the nets, and they can peck out grapes through the nets. The bird pressure was the worst in over 20 years.

Who will develop a solar-powered hawk-like aircraft which can be programmed (like a Predator drone in Afghanistan) to protect a vineyard? It's hard to eat when a known killer is circling nearby, looking at you.

So, bring on the rains! They are only hours away now. Let's see what develops in bottle, from this almost-disaster, almost-miracle year of 2010.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pinots Past

I am pulling out all my Pinot noir vines. It has nothing to do with the awful vintage conditions of this 2010 year (2010 had the triple witching: started late, stayed cool and wet, and ended early with more cool and wet). I know how much each of you enjoys a good Pinot noir, and so do I. My first planting at our current house was 100% grafted PN, and even my 2010 plan was to keep my little vineyard mostly in PN, while I tried some hybrids, too. I've decided that my site is just not conducive to PN, even in a good year (and there is SO much promise in hybrids). My PN shortcomings are two: Sunlight shortfall, and late-ripening predation. OK, three: the grape is difficult to grow and make consistently good wine from.

Sunlight: PN (like all vinifera) is late-ripening compared to other grape species, and by Oct 10 the sun hours on my vineyard are so few, even on sunny days, that I don't get enough sunshine for full PN ripening (due to shadows from trees to the E, trees to the W, and even my house to the S, which is fine during the summer but by mid-Oct it shades the vineyard until almost noon). In contrast, hybrid grapes ripen about 2-4 weeks earlier, which puts the grapes in full sun for a higher percentage of their natural hang time.

Predation: But more importantly, predation pressure increases exponentially after mid-September, which causes me to lose much of my (unripe) PN fruit. To use 2010 real-life data:

a. I fully netted all my grapes this year, attaching the nets together every 3".

b. I also hung reflective tape, and kept adding to it.

c. I also spread, and renewed, a "scareaway" chemical (organic: it's putrescent bloodmeal), which should keep coons, birds, and deer away.

d. We have a feral cat, and she has been seen catching mice, and presumably she puts some perceived or actual pressure on birds.(I could have, and probably should have, put out fake owls and snakes, but that is about all one can do.)

Still, the deer got in and ate some of my grapes (and tomatoes and beans and squash). I added a chain curtain on my gate and spread some dog poop around, and that deterred the deer for a while. And the birds were getting into the fruit, somehow--perhaps pecking through the nets, perhaps worming their way inside the nets. Through good vineyard management, my clusters had avoided rot (unlike many area vineyards), and the grapes were very slowly getting riper, but the bird pressure just kept increasing. It got so bad that when I checked the vineyard after work on Tuesday, I had lost (visual guess) about 75% of my remaining fruit just on that one day. I flew into action (pardon the pun) and raised the nets and harvested. I had about 120 pounds of fruit hanging, a couple of weeks ago, and I bet I had about 60 pounds hanging on Tuesday morning--still enough to make wine, and I needed to let it hang longer, in order to reach a workable Brix level. But in the end I got only 11 pounds of grapes. 11 pounds, out of 120 pounds! It takes 16 pounds of grapes to make a gallon of wine. And of course the fruit I got wasn't ripe enough to make good Pinot. I've added Regent grapes to it, and some black currants, and it smells very good (is fermenting now; I just pitched MLF to remove the malic acid and then I will supplement with tartaric acid).

The big growers don't have the predation problem to the same percentage extent, because they grow so much fruit that the birds can't eat it all, or at least it would take longer for them to eat it all. Also, in addition to nets they use propane cannons and loud bird distress cries, which aren't exactly available to me in a suburban setting.

I'm not doing this to feed the wildlife.

So, sad to say but I'm pulling out all my PN, and will further expand my planting of hybrids. This gives me an experimental vineyard like none other in Oregon (I'm finding and planting new varieties that even Lon, my mentor in Aurora, doesn't have). I think some (particularly the whites) will make very good wine (as we've seen in my tastings of hybrids from around the country). The hybrid reds are more of a challenge (as you know from my tastings), but a legion of breeders and biochemists is working on it, and several of them have promise.

Hybrids are much more "green" than vinifera, which need regular spraying for diseases (and the tractor fuel that goes with it). And they ripen earlier than vinifera--I should be able to harvest a greater percentage of my fruit, since it will ripen more in the Sept 10-25 timeframe. Almost NO hybrid grapegrowers ever have to use nets. This could lead to a commercial enterprise, if I'm stupid enough to get seriously involved in farming. I think the green aspect will help make the effort stand out as worthy of attention, and there are plenty of wine lovers who are willing to try a new variety. It will all depend on whether the wines are good.

In that regard, all the hybrids contain (partial) vinifera ancestry; I will just slap anybody who gets all arrogant about insisting on 100% vinifera. What they don't know is that all vinifera are the result of natural crosses with other grape species. Just like we humans are all mutts, so are vinifera grapes all mutts. And, another point: PN really is the "Heartbreak Grape" (read the book of that name) for a reason. It's hard to grow and fickle in the winery and in the bottle. I prefer the predictability of, say, the W.Walla/Yakima grapes/wines (and also their quality). Bottle to bottle, you know what you'll get.

We should raise a glass to mourn the loss of my Pinot, and to hope for progress in another direction. Life is so full of perfect opportunities (perfect to our interests and talents) that even if we had a hundred lifetimes we could not begin to seize them all.
And Pinot noir, when I need it, is as close as Dundee wineries or the grocery store. At least I know, pretty much, which few makers of it have mastered the Heartbreak Grape! Sadly, it is not very many out of all those who try. It reminds of a line from Dune:
"They tried and failed, did they?"
"No. They tried and died."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Epona Blackberry Pourt, Phase 2

Why "Pourt"? Because Portugal is very finicky about use of the "port" name in connection with any non-Portuguese product (more finicky, even, than the good people of Champagne, who will let you say "champagne-style" or "Methode Champenoise"). But we can't say "port-style"! Not sure yet if the new name for this wine will be Pourt, Purport, Sport, Blort, Trop, Pohrt, Pport, or something else, but Pourt is the current favorite (you heard it here first!).

The 2010 Pourt looks to be very good. The primary fermentation (in white, food-grade plastic pails) is finished, and now the still-fermenting must is in glass carboys, puffing out bubbles of CO2 every four seconds or so. The must will get a sugar feeding soon, in the continuing drive to squeeze out everything the yeasts can deliver before the alcohol content finally does them in. When the fermentation is finished, the yeast fall to the bottom in an honorable spent sludge. The wine is racked off into clean carboys, and the chemistry is checked again and adjusted. The fortifying liquor is added, along with some French oak (toasted to the "vanilla/caramel" stage in my oven). Then, the wine takes its beauty rest in my cellar. Bottling will be in perhaps 9 months.
We keep learning ways to use less and less added water, and this year's Pourt has a record low water addition. So the flavors should be concentrated, with a thick, unctuous mouthfeel.

The raw wine looks like blood, and is thick like blood. Come to think of it, it IS blood--the Earth's blood. Only from a plant instead of an animal.

When you think about everything a berry bush, or grapevine, has to know how to do, it's pretty amazing. It even approaches sentience. One could be forgiven for thinking that the plant world is pretty much on par with the animal world. Animals cannot take minerals from the soil and turn them into something useful to us (such as food, clothes, and shelter). Animals cannot isolate and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Plants are not just background wallpaper to an animal-dominated planet. They can influence animal behavior towards the plant's advantage. They can terraform the planet on a greater scale than animals can (say, in turning a fresh-frozen volcanic island into a tropical paradise). Arguably they can govern their lives better than we humans can govern ours. Think about that, as you wait for your pourt ;)

Super forecast!

One never knows with extended weather forecasts, but after a late, wet Spring and a cool summer, with too much rain in September, we are into what may be 11+ days of sunshine (Sept 26 through Oct 6 and beyond??), with only a couple of short cloudy/showery breaks, if any.

Whoa. Is this the grapes' salvation, or just a "too little, too late" tease? Stay tuned . . .
The photo is of Rex Hill's vineyards, in the sunshine.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I've got an idea: Let's ignore the US Constitution and pass this federal bill that will allow states to prohibit shipments of wine direct from wineries to customers. Let's give the law a cute name (the "CARE" act), so that everybody will vote for it.

After all, it's more important to protect the monopolies of the huge-and-powerful wine and beer distributors! They need more profits, don't they? Who cares that most wineries can't get distribution deals, which leaves direct sales to customers as a primary means of survival? Who cares if consumers won't be able to buy wines directly from the wineries? Who cares if more wineries go out of business, which will cause: lower tax revenues to the states; job losses; mortgage foreclosures; and reductions in property prices? I don't give a hoot about any of that stuff-do you?

Kudos to the bill's sponsor, Democrat Delahunt of Massachusetts. You're really looking out for the common citizen, dude. It's great to know your vote can't be bought by corporate money. Not. Jerk.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

2010 Harvest Hell in Sonoma

On your left, a worker drops Zinfandel clusters in Sonoma, to increase the odds that the rest will ripen this year. Also, note in the pic that many of the berries aren't ripe; I think the pic is from late August, so their harvest is running late, like Oregon's.

Some details about the pickle Sonoma finds itself in:
1. A very cold, late Spring prevented the vines from budding on time.
2. During bloom, there was more cold rain, which reduced the amount of fruit set.
3. The growing season was late and cool, so growers stripped off leaves around the clusters, in order to allow more sunshine and ventilation on/of the fruit. However, in mid-summer, a rogue heat wave struck (hitting 120F in the shade, in some vineyards) and with all that direct sun exposure, many of the grapes shriveled in the heat and were ruined. This effect was worst in dry-farmed vineyards, so much of the old-vine Zin has already failed this year.
4. Then the Fall came early, with lots of rain, cool temps, and heavy fogs. That has prevented normal ripening. If the permanent rains come when they usually come (or earlier) it could be devastating for growers.
5. Against that cruel natural backdrop, the grape economy is awful. About 20% of Sonoma's fruit is still unsold; that is unprecedented. Most wineries face excess inventories, so they have little incentive to boost production, especially in a year when consumers may learn to stay away from the vintage. Any winery that has taken on lots of debt is going to be in a world of hurt this year.

All in all, this isn't a year to "separate the men from the boys;" it's a year to separate the gods from mere mortals. Even a wine god might not be able to make good wine, this year.

Here's the source for some of my info:

1984 all over again

It is 1984 all over again. Everything except Big Brother. Oh, wait--we have that now, too!
That year, the cold, lasting Fall rains came early and often to Oregon, sealing the doom of any hope of grapes ripening.
Beaverton/Hillsboro sits at 1500 cumulative Growing Degree Days (heat units), which is about 25% less than this time last year. We've had weeks now of mostly cool, cloudy, sometimes wet weather, and last night a winter-style storm blasted us for several hours with heavy rain.
Worse, the heat units we've gotten lately are deceiving. It's been warm enough (thanks to the "Pineapple Express" weather from Hawaii), but no sun.
It may already be too late, by September 19, to wish for anything approaching normal ripening. I wish this was just a local phenomenon but sadly this is happening up and down the Pacific coast, from B.C. to WA to OR to CA. Even Walla Walla and Red Mountain have gotten only partial veraison, which is very, very late--and they are in the desert! I was told by several folks in CA last weekend that some growers in Sonoma have already conceded a zero harvest. Wow.
One friend near Salem OR has his chin up. Not mentioning his Pinot noir grapes, he reassures us that his Viognier and Syrah will be OK; they won't be harvested until November. Some growers hold their Riesling until then, too. But I think those varieties have thick, tough skins. Pinot noir does not. There's only so much wet weather it can stand before the berries split, or rot. That point may be coming soon.
If wines are to be made from Pinot this year, and if this weather keeps up, many of them will be roses. I haven't had my first good PN rose yet.
One year does not a climate trend make, but let's lift a glass to hoping that next year is better. And how many debt-extended wineries are going to meet their Maker this year, with a low or zero crop?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

New batch of blackberry port

Our group effort to make port again was kicked off today, in fine form. 74 pounds of frozen berries, 41 pounds of bananas, 15 pounds of raisins, and the powers of chemistry came together as Kenton and Bob enabled the magic of fermentation. Stay tuned . . .

Quintessential photo of the Sierra Foothills AVA

This is a perfect illustration of the Sierra Foothills AVA, perhaps the best undiscovered wine area in America. It reminds me in many ways of Walla Walla, about 10-15 years ago.
Note the dry golden-grassed hill in the background, dotted with majestic white oaks. Black boulders peek up regularly through the grass, to check on the progress of the vines, which luxuriate (with drip irrigation; it's near-desert) below.

Montevina/Terra d'Oro

This is a pretty winery north of Plymouth CA, in the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA). It is a HUGE 200,000 case/year winery. Montevina is the lower label; Terra d'Oro is the premier label. But all their wines are very reasonably priced (and, no tasting fees anywhere in the AVA!).
We liked many of their wines, and they are available here in Portland, through my distributors.


On your left is the view from northern Lake Tahoe, looking south towards the Heavenly ski resort (atop the mountains on the horizon). We stayed at the Cal Neva Lodge, which has slid to the point at which you should NOT stay there. It's been a long time since Sinatra and his Rat Pack frequented that place. But you can still hear them singing and partying, if you listen hard enough . . .

Behold, the view of Lake Tahoe, from the top of the gondola at Heavenly ski resort. This is looking west, showing the southern end of the lake. The town of South Lake Tahoe is spread out from lower right to all the way to the left extreme shoreline, where developers have concocted a "Tahoe Keys" neighborhood where there is a maze of artificially-created waterways, and every house has waterfront/a dock. Nice! Shades of Florida.

Tahoe is the second-deepest lake in the US; its denizens were chapped that it was NOT included on a recent list of Top Ten Lakes in America, whereas Crater Lake was included.

Tahoe is a short drive from Reno NV, where SW Airlines flies cheap flights from Portland (in our case, a sale of just $39 each way ;).

Sutter Creek California

Above are two images of Sutter Creek, CA. This is a well-preserved historical town, with Victorian and pre-Victorian storefronts. Only a few thousand folks live there, but it is vibrant. The restaurants are good and it's a great staging center for wine trips throughout the Sierra Foothills AVA. The right pic shows a car show, which was coupled with a chili cookoff.
Wonder what the old gold miners would think, to see the town now-it's very little changed since the first few decades after gold was discovered in the creek by John Sutter's sawmill in 1844.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wow! What a great back wine label

Check out this superb article, about Calera's Pinot noir's back bottle label:

The above photo shows only the front label, but the back label is a treasure trove of fascinating information about the wine. And this is a very special wine, by the sound of it (once you've read the back label). My only quibble is that I don't think that less-concentrated vine spacing brings lower yields; in fact I would expect the opposite. I think it is the high-elevation and limestone soil which retard the yield. And I totally agree that his own-rooted vines (as opposed to grafted rootstock) probably would yield more and better flavors.
In case you're interested: I've not heard of this one. It's small production and likely not available at wholesale.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wines of the Sierra Foothills, Part 2

Jonathan, our host at Cedarville Vineyards, suggested that we stop at his neighbor's place, MV. MV is owned and operated by John Miller. He makes just 600 cases per year. His wines are hand-crafted and I use that term with its fullest meaning. John says he could not make more wines, given all the attention he gives to detail, on these.

Some important folks agree: The French Laundry (America's most-expensive restaurant? in Napa) wanted to buy his entire production, but he refused, saying he must be loyal to his regular customers. He is a very intelligent, quiet, and quietly-proud person. I liked his wines, and one in particular was SO EXCELLENT that I can't wait to offer it to you. I can't believe I actually have access to it. He sells direct from the winery, so we'll have to add about $3/bottle for S&H, but who cares? as this is world-beating wine. And you won't believe the grape, when I tell you. I'm withholding the details now because I don't want anyone else to rush in and seize those wines before you can.

The photo above shows the golden grass on black rock hills, with the stately oaks. Typical view of the Sierra Foothills AVA. Gorgeous.
This is why to travel in search of great wines. You just can't find them all in the grocery store ;)

Wines of the Sierra Foothills, Part 1

We had an appointment to meet Jonathan Lachs, the owner/founder/vineyard manager/winemaker at Cedarville Vineyard in Fair Play, California. He and his wife (fellow owner/winemaker) are both Davis-trained. He worked at HP (before Carly F--the question was raised: how can you get elected in CA if you already have 10,500 people (HP former and present employees) who despise you?). Then once they had saved up the money to start this place, it all unfolded by dint of talent and hard work.

Fair Play is north of the Shenandoah Valley, which is N of Plymouth, CA. It's a hike but worth it. The soils are decomposed granite--it looks like dusty black and white granite but crumbles in your hand.

Jonathan's place is not far past Fitzpatrick, a quirky and fun place with a lap pool, lookout tower, fig trees, art for sale, pizzeria, Irish pub, B&B, and, oh yes, a winery. And all of it in the most-remote gorgeous dry rolling hills. Jonathan's wines are described (aptly) by Parker as "producing some very tasty wines at most intriguing prices . . . well-made, reasonably priced, delicious efforts."

Cedarville Vineyard grows and offers Viognier, Grenache, Cab, Zin and Syrah (those two are the signature wines of the AVA, which is mammoth, extending from Nevada City in the north (NW of Tahoe and our first wine stop) down to Placerville, then Plymouth and Fair Play, then all the way south to Murphys--all old gold mining towns in the golden-grassed, rolling black-rocky foothills of the Sierras), and Petit Syrah and Cab. All the wines are expertly made. My question is how to project what the wines will be in the future, because they seem tight, big and minerally now. Some of the Amador County wines from N of Plymouth have an odd undercurrent that I can't quite describe well--I suspect it's from the reddish soil down there--maybe it's a soapiness/meatiness/funky taste? that I just don't like. But up in Fair Play--1000' higher where the red soils give way to the wonderful crumbly granite--the wines are totally pure; the minerals "just right." I want the Cedarville wines to open up with time, and everyone (even folks from other wineries) assured us that Johathan's wines DO emerge gorgeously after a couple of years. He was so kind as to give us an older bottle, which I cannot wait to taste, once it has rested from its trip from Fair Play to Reno to Portland.
I think Jonathan is highly skilled (aside from a wonderful person to meet, and he just joined the ZAP board, with the big boys in Zinfandel). All the wines here have good acidic structure, which makes them great with food. They are not the jammy wines from Walla Walla which I love so, but they are well made, elegant, big and tasty. And the prices are great! I will offer his wines and if you have the patience to lay them down for a year or two, you will be amazed.

Jonathan adopted some cool trellising methods for his various grapes (he grows all the grapes used in his 2000 case/year production). Above is a pic of his cab sauv (excellent wine!) on quadilateral lyre trellises. Fun!
Finally, the light in Fair Play. O, the light! It is a little like the light in Tuscany, only more intense. And the crumbly granitic soil is very special.

Ione, CA: Preston Castle for boys

That edifice to your right is proof that Old California really knew how to do it right. That gorgeous Potter-inspiring, Hearst-inspired structure was built not for some wealthy family, but as a prison for bad boys. The Preston School of Industry opened in 1894, seeking to rehabilitate youthful offenders and offering a progressive alternative to San Quentin. The Romanesque Revival building has carved sandstone balconies, and lots of wonderful stylistic touches in granite from Folsom and bricks from Folsom and San Quentin prisons.
This place would be so wonderful to live in, that it makes me want to go out and steal a chicken or something ;--)
It's in the tiny town of Ione, not far from Jackson, not far from Sutter Creek where we stayed. The whole area is property owned by the CA prison system, and elsewhere on the campus are other buildings, some ruined like this one, some new and in use.
This castle's roof had fallen in and decades of occasional rain (it's near-desert here) had taken its toll. When I took this shot yesterday, they were having a very swanky wine fundraiser, to raise funds to rebuild it. The new roof (visible) is already on, and now the inside needs to be refurbished.
If you love castles, improbable as their location or history may be, you can contribute to save the Preston Castle. I'm not sure what its future use holds, but I suspect it won't be housing miscreants anymore, save for the occasional winelover like us ;)
And, dig those Tuscan cypresses astride the castle; having seen them all over Tuscany last April, it is somehow reassuring to see them here. Italians made a huge mark on California, as we see again and again.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Extreme Dining in Sutter Creek CA!

I think I am in heaven. Only (and this is the best part) I'm NOT DEAD.
More posts to follow about the Sierra Foothills AVA, our trip to Tahoe and the lovely drive out to these golden-grassed, oak-studded hills so rapidly giving ground to masses of promising vineyards, and about the various gold mining towns here that revel in second lives as tourist destinations for history, fine wines and food. And we saw the most amazing castle today in a town you've never heard of (Ione). And it isn't a castle--it was a prison for wayward boys. Old California really knew how to do it right. And the scads of wineries include some which make great wines.
But I'm in heaven because of Susan's Place. Oh, my! Where to start? Little restaurant in Sutter Creek, where the CA gold rush began. Most of the tables are outside, only covered. Vines trail lazily about. Wonderful ambience. Susan herself interviews you about your wine stylistic preferences, and then she custom blends a glass or a 750ml pitcher of local wines for you. For us, she crafted a combo of local Grenache and an Italian blend called Migliore. Oh, my! This was yummy with our dinner and cost only $20!!!
The food rang the bell. Cream of asparagus soup was divine. My salad was seriously perfect. Jane had a veggie concoction with pesto, over polenta. I had the most scrumptious Mediterranean sauce full of ground beef and pork, with lots of veggies--slightly spicy, tomato-based. Then some angel named Ingrid (local pastry chef) supplied our caramel-walnut tart, which was to die for.
Why should you hop SW Air and get down here now? Because: The custom-blended wine was only $20. The entres were only $15 or $16 each, and the service and owner and atmosphere were SO wonderful. Not to mention the town is only 50 miles from Sacramento or about 100 miles from Tahoe (where we came from, via flight to Reno). This town is lovely. Well-preserved. Stone, simple wood, and fancy Victorian storefronts. Friendly folks everywhere. Tomorrow is a chili cookoff and antique car show. The buildings on main street are jumping from the 1850's right into your mind. If you shop carefully in the little shops here, you can find the most amazing antiques, and even the occasional 1921 Uncirculated Morgan silver dollar for just $25. And if you're a sun lover, it is BRIGHT and HOT here right now. Too hot for this Willamette boy, but with the low humidity the nights are cool.
Our Hanford House B&B is also perfect, with great young hosts who handle all the rooms, plus their organic veggie garden and chickens. Historic brick building. Free bikes which we used to see the town, including a tree just past the Jehova's Witnesses church, which was loaded with small, juicy yellow/orange plums. The "placer" gold (loose, in the creeks) went first, then they dug deep mines, which finally played out. The gold mining stuff (hoist derricks, ore carts, foundries, etc.) is mostly gone now, but a few reminders of that era remain.
Many more posts to follow. We have found many tasty wines, and they are very reasonable. Nary a tasting fee to be had, and the winery owners are marvelous. Napa was never this much fun for such little cost.
Wait! I see another angel outside, watching the tricycle races! Will write more later . . .

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rain rain stay away

2010 is a tricky year for grapes hereabouts. First they got a late start due to a long winter. Spring was cool and record-wet. Then, flowering was late. Then, after a very hot 2009 summer in the Pac Northwest, 2010 gave us only a few hot days, and way too many cool cloudy days. I think July set a record for lowest average high temps. My nearest weather station calculates that my Growing Degree Days to date (a measure of sunlight hours) is fully 24% behind where we were, this time last year. That is very bad. Veraison (color change) is about 2-3 weeks late, and has just begun, at my 490' elevation site.
All this means that we are running a risk of a sub-par year, or even a disastrous, no-crop year. If the persistent rains come early, then it could wipe out the Willamette Valley's Pinot noir crop.
However, Dick Shea told me this week that persistent Fall rains, starting in the last week of September, occur in NW Oregon only about 20% of the time. If that happens this year, we could have a grape disaster on our hands. The rest of the time, the Rains come in either the first week of October (in which case some PN makers could make a good wine) or the second week of October, or even later (in which case many PN makers should make very good wines, and some should make great wines, in a spectactular triumph of recovery from all odds).
And, in the silver linings dept, even if we have a grape disaster, the winemakers who survive it might benefit from the marked reduction in wine inventories which would ensue, if there simply was no 2010 wine to be had.
Last comment: It is SUCH a shame, but all that winter and spring moisture gave the vines a supercharging. I've had to hedge (trim) them way more often than normal. Their growth is rampant, and they confidently threw out far more than the usual number of grape clusters. But, as the end of the growing season approached with the grapes so far behind, we all had to drop fruit like crazy, in order to try to get some of it ripe. Such a shame. A high yield of fruit, with high quality, is a bifecta which only rarely happens, in this marginal growing environment. These are some of the reasons why Pinot noir is "the heartbreak grape." Stay tuned . . .

Friday, August 13, 2010

2005 Clarendon Hills Grenache

Wow. In the photo to your right, that is the Clarendon Hills vineyard, planted in the 1920's. This is 25 miles south of Adelaide, NE of McLaren Vale.

No trellises. No wires. Just a fine witch's stew of gangly, contorted head-pruned branches.

It's beautiful.

The 2005 Clarendon Hills Grenache series (from six vineyards) are great wines (91-94 points, Spectator). Even better, they were released at retail from US$61-$100, but can now be had (from me) for $28.50. However, the 2005s are almost gone forever.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Billionaire's Vinegar

This book, by Wallace, is a very difficult read. It contains fascinating wine collecting tidbits and snippets, without being overall interesting. If you want to read it (for any purpose other than the need to put yourself to sleep), be warned: This book will bore you to death, but on some pages there are stories that will highly entertain you.
Still, why would such a clear charlatan not be called out sooner by the wine industry? If the owner of Petrus thinks that Petrus never issued a 1787 magnum, then why not publicly state doubts about the provenance of such a bottle? Why would a fraudster, who has gone to all the trouble to mimic the correct bottle, label and capsule, and has probably also put expensive 19th-century wine from the same chateau into an 18th century bottle, then use corks which are clearly not "original issue"?
Why would anyone who bought a bottle from the 18th Century, then open it?
Questions, but no answers . . .

Friday, July 23, 2010


There are changes afoot in WineWorld.
Years of near-optimal grapegrowing weather (at least in Washington) have brought us over-ample harvests. The economy is still quite weak. Some folks are leaving wineries, who have been there for years. The number of post-offs (discounts) at my distributors is much higher than in the past. Torii Mor, for example, just took a federal stimulus loan, in order to keep operating; now it has even more debt to repay.
At long last, the combination of massive (reckless?) new plantings of winegrapes over the past decade has run headlong into a Great Recession. Stocks of wine are building up, not just in the distributors' warehouses but also in the wineries.
What is a winery awash in its own juice to do? No winery wants to admit that its top-end wines are not selling.
Enter the Second Label and the Negociant.
Some wineries issue a second label, for value-priced wines. If their premium wines aren't selling, lots of that juice can find its way into the second label bottles. Some wineries (e.g., K Vintners) will freely admit that in slow years, some of their top-end wine ends up in their value-label bottles. Other wineries take the stealth route, and sell prime wine to negociants, under the strictest confidentiality (the wineries don't want anyone to know that they can't sell all their best stuff). The negociants then sell the wine under some label which doesn't disclose the true identity of the wine. You can imagine a tank truck backing up to the winery, under cover of darkness . . .
If you can identify those value labels which contain a lot of top-end wine (say, wine made by the likes of Leonetti, or Quilceda Creek, or Cayuse, or Basel, or Abeja, or Walla Walla Vintners--you get the idea), then a great bargain can be had. The difficulty is in spotting the gems amidst all the gravel. I'm working on this concept, and hope to bring you some great bargains; if you have any info for me, please write me at

Friday, July 2, 2010

Trying so hard to create a show vineyard

July 2: Grapes are looking pretty shipshape, after (finally!) some sunshine. Most shoots are past the high wire already. Bloom began June 26, and 2 varieties out of 6 still haven't broken to flowers. It's late this year, but there's still time to make up the cumulative heat/sun deficit, if we're lucky.
That's thyme on the vineyard floor--some dozen varieties of it. Some of them are blooming purple and pink right now, which is pretty cool, but my favorite might be the (yellow and green) variegated lemon thyme--what a bouquet if you walk on it, or pick a twig and crush it beneath your nose! It's practically begging to have a bit picked and taken into the kitchen, to turn some food or other into a masterpiece.
The thyme replaces tall pink field clover, which was a dumb idea from the start but this city boy didn't think about how tall it grows and I was thinking its nitrogen-fixing would be nice plus it's good fodder for our bees. I tired of whacking it down, or letting it block airflow to the fruiting wire so much that the perennial Powdery Mildew reared its head. (I could/should have chosen ground-hugging lawn clover, but I'm still mad at it because it never yielded me a four-leaf clover as an impatient boy, despite hours of searching, and let's face it: There are too many white flowers in this world ;). I paid for my folly by having to pull out each plant of clover, stem by stem, and root by root, all along my seven rows, six-feet-wide. I can think of no better way to cement a lesson in a stubborn brain. If only our justice system could think up similar punishments for some of the lesser crimes . . . . Which reminds me of something I did as a father that I am very proud of: When a daughter kept slamming her bedroom door against repeated parental advice, I walked up and calmly and wordlessly removed it from its hinges and carried it away for a few days. You should have seen her incredulous face as she sat on her bed and watched me do that! (PS-she is now the most wonderful and successful person you could hope to meet. We should all be so lucky as to have achieved anger management at such a young age.)

Hoping for dry sun!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New, relaxed standards for what is "moderate" drinking

The benefits of moderate drinking, especially wine, are well known. Now, the Depts of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have issued new standards for acceptable moderate drinking, and they allow more consumption:

For women: Up to one drink per day (that is 1 oz of hard liquor, or 6 oz of wine, or a 12-ounce beer). Also, women can have up to three drinks on any day, so long as their average over the week is no more than one drink per day.

For men: Up to two drinks per day. Also, up to four drinks per day (!), so long as the weekly average is no more than two drinks per day.

That gives us all much more flexibility, when we pop a cork! But, of course, please drink sensibly, especially where driving is concerned.

And just one more reason to be happy to be a man ;)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Biodynamics is a hoax

Check this out:

The author argues that Rudolph Steiner (a philosopher who believed in the ability of science to reach into a separate spiritual world) was a flimflam man who never grew crops in his life, whose ability to promote and confuse rivaled PT Barnum's.

And yet, clearly there are many vineyards and wineries who use biodynamic farming as a clarion call of excellence, in their marketing.

You can bury dung in a cow's horn under the full moon, if you want to, but I'll stick with scientific and sustainable farming methods, thank you. Let's all call this what it is: a hoax. At least until scientific methods can prove whether it is a superior farming program, and why.

Monday, June 7, 2010

To Stomp or Not to Stomp?

There seems to be a resurrection of an age-old ritual: Foot-stomping grapes. One winemaker claims he can better judge the ripeness of the grapes, by stomping them. (I wonder why his just feeling the clusters with his hands would not accomplish the same thing.)
Some (not all) stompers spray disinfectant on their legs and feet; sometimes that is distilled grape spirits. But does that disinfectant get beneath toenails and into the pores of skin cells?
I have smelled the following things in craft-made, expensive wines, in my time: sweat, marijuana, smoke. No, thank you. I have heard that sometimes, during primary fermentation, the winemaker and friends may skinny-dip in the tanks, to feel that "fizz" on their bodies. No, thank you (although skinny dipping certainly has its time and place). And who knows how many toenails, hairs, junk from dirty feet, and flakes of toenail polish have made it into wine, from stomping, skinny dipping, and whatever other horrors are impinged upon the grape? ;) I know that some insects get in there. But we can avoid excessive human contact with wine, if we choose to.
I vote let's all just leave crushing and fermenting to the machines and vessels designed for those purposes. Machines and vessels that can be sterilized before their use. And if this is to be even more of a socialist country anyway, how about we just require wines to bear a special warning label, if they were stomped or swum in?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Tuscany is on my short list of most-wonderful places to visit. This photo is taken next to the rural winery/vineyard B&B property (an "agriturismo" in Italian parlance) where we stayed, near Greve-in-Chianti.
What you don't see in this pic is all the native forest: miles and miles of wonderful oak forest, with wild boars lurking therein (which show up in various menus in all kinds of wonderful ways). The vineyards are remote islands amidst a huge expanse of forest. Most of Tuscany is undeveloped, with gorgeous rolling hills. Not at all what I expected.
Almost all the grapes are Sangiovese, and almost all is made into Chianti wine. This photo is in the Chianti Classico district; there are seven Chianti districts, but Classico and Ruffino are probably the two best-known. This is DOCG territory--the highest designation given to Italian wines. Good Chianti is medium-bodied, with fairly high acidic structure, which marries well to a wide range of foods.
I heartily recommend a visit to Tuscany. The people in all of Italy were universally wonderful. The food is fantastic. And, in Tuscany, don't spend all your time in Florence (very large; hard to drive in; takes a long time to park and walk to the core sights) and Siena (easier to get into and just about as wonderful in terms of sights). This is because almost every small village offers a great visiting experience, with the wonderful shops, restaurants, and great old buildings--so why put yourself into all those crowds when you can stroll more comfortably in smaller towns, with more-personal treatment from the locals?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Recycling the humble wine cork

Thanks to Nick W for this info:

Whole Foods is now accepting used wine corks, for a recycling program.

With more than 13 BILLION wine corks made annually, of which about 8 billion come to the U.S., of which about 99% are thrown into landfills, this is a great idea.

Factoid: Cork is harvested from the bark of a special oak tree species in Portugal. The cork is harvested sustainably--a tree can provide cork for wine corks, for many years, even decades.

So please take your used wine corks to Whole Foods. Maybe other sustainably-minded stores, such as New Seasons, will get into the act?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Effect of future climate change on winegrapes has a wonderfully-written article on the effects already being experienced worldwide by grapegrowers, due to changes in climate. (It cites Frog's Leap, and many other wineries.)

I know, I know--a quarter of you reading this are certain that there is no climate change, and to you I would say "just check it out a little more, would you please?" I can almost see Mt. Hood from here, where over half of its glacial ice is gone. A hundred years ago folks could ride sleighs OVER their fences, every winter, in Joseph, Oregon, but that hasn't happened even once for the past 80 years.

And another quarter of you acknowledge there is climate change, but they deny it is caused by human activity (150 years of our spewing hydrocarbon emissions into the atmosphere--a razor-thin blanket of nitrogen, oxygen, and a few other gases--notwithstanding). OK--you're entitled to that opinion; I know that volcanic eruptions do place monumental amounts of stuff into the atmosphere--boy, do I know that! That still leaves about 75% of us believing that climate change is happening (whether it is wholly natural or human-worsened). In either of those cases, we have a problem, and I'm talking to you.

Winegrapes are the canary in the coalmine: Past a critical point unique to each variety, grapes react quickly, and poorly, to hotter weather. White grapes' skins are less tolerant to heat: They split, and get diseases, and their sugar levels (and thus their alcohols) get too high, masking the delicate flavors. Red grapes get overripe flavors (cooked dark fruit, like burned prunes, and I have been noticing this in the Washington reds more and more often in the past couple of years--I don't like it at all). And the red wine alcohol levels are getting so high that elegance is gone and you can't drink more than a glass without getting drunk. Worse, pests and diseases multiply geometrically when temperatures are higher.

In some areas of Italy, harvest has moved from Nov 5 or so to Sept 10 or so, in one generation. Think about that--that is a earth-quaking change, full of significance. Some wines are benefiting, however, such as Pinot noir in Oregon, and certain wines in Spain. But if the weather keeps warming, Champagne will become impossible to make in France, and other areas (including Napa) may see the curtain fall on their great winemaking. Imagine the changes, in tourism and the local economies, if no great wines were made in Napa or Sonoma anymore.

You can't just push grapegrowing towards the poles. There is a limit to the locations with the right terroir, and Antarctica and Prudhoe Bay aren't exactly located close to the wine-consuming public. They both have very strange summer/winter light cycles, and to my knowledge grapes have never grown in such places.

Call me crazy. 'Cuz I am. (apologies to Storm Large; and OMG what a great show that was). But this is a big deal, and it has already started. So what can you do?

1. Purely selfishly, lay in some fabulous reds that will improve for decades. Their cost will get only higher, as inflation (from our deficits) and scarcity brought on by rising population and weather changes take their likely toll. And, as we've seen from tastings at my house and elsewhere, a great red, suitably aged, is tops to just about any other wine.

2. Nobly, find ways to reduce your energy usage, both car, home, and office. Turn to renewable energy sources where possible, and rely more on walking and biking (and live longer, too!). Lobby for the changes we need: high-speed electric trains (renewably powered); plug-in hybrid cars; more nuclear plants; burn biodiesel in aircraft; less coal burning; higher mpg for cars and trucks, and more use of mass transit; eating more locally; etc.

I had a muscle car, once. Guess my grandkids will just have to listen to stories about it, rather than drive one, themselves ;)

Earth to humans: HELP!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Just returned from Italy. Our first wine destination was the Veneto, the hills north of Venice. Here, prosecco is found. In the pic I'm with Cinzia Sommariva, at her winery just west of Conegliano. It was very generous of her to visit with us, given all that's going on at the winery and that VinItaly--the world's largest wine festival--was starting just two days thereafter, in Verona.

Her family's vineyards have just been elevated from DOC status to DOCG status; that is a big deal, as only 45 areas in Italy are DOCG.

I believe Sommariva prosecco is the best of all I've tasted (which is a fair number). Maybe it's so good because the Sommariva family manages the entire process, from growing the grapes to winemaking, bottling, marketing and selling. In sharp contrast, most prosecco producers buy their fruit from others.

Prosecco uses the Charmat Method, which involves bottling the wine under pressure by use of a centrifuge. Pretty complex, and totally different from the champagne method. Also, the grape and wine were both called prosecco, but now, due to DOCG regulations, the grape is called again by its medieval name, Glera.

This area (the DOCG) is extremely picturesque and well worth a visit. The prosecco wine trail winds through tiny storybook villages, starting from the old castle atop a hill in Conegliano. I wish I could attach more photos of our trip; it is a pretty place. We stayed in a wonderful small hotel nearby, in the country, where our dinner table overlooked the valley and, in the distance, the snowy Alps.

How Climate Change's Extreme Weather Events Affect Grapes and Wine:

  We (Epona) joined the Porto Protocol a year or two ago; it's a collaboration of grapegrowers and winemakers, worldwide, who are focusi...