December 28, 2013

Trust

I've been thinking about this post for quite a while, moreso this past week while I'm away from Portland and my wines. 

As a winemaker, there's so much work to do throughout the year. Working with growers, visiting the vineyards to monitor the growing season, making the wine of course each fall, and then worrying all year long as there's everything at stake in the new wines but really little you can do about what they are and what they'll become. 

The cliches about winemaking being like  parenting are apt. And just as it is nice and even a requirement to take time away from one's own children to restore and gain perspective, it's important to step back from your wines and see things more clearly. 

I've come to understand that winemaking is really all about trust. Trust in your vineyards and the grapes they produce, trust in yourself as the one guiding the grapes through the process of becoming wine, then trust in the truth of those new wines so that what you put into cask at the end of harvest to age over the winter and beyond is, as one might reluctantly admit, what it is. 

Wines, like love, just are. We can analyze them, doubt them, even fear them at times, that they aren't as real as we thought or hoped, or are going to slip away if we do something wrong. 

But that's not how this works and as a winemaker I'm coming to understand that I need to trust my wines implicitly. And I hope they trust me as well. That's all that's necessary. The rest will take care of itself, in time. 

So often when I talk with other winemakers, I hear their fears. Of rain and other weather issues, of a lack of dynamic flavor in the juice, of problems or supposed problems or deficiencies in the fermenting wine, a lack of enough mid-palate density or aromatic complexity, things that yeasts and texture enhancers and whatnot allegedly help. Not to mention new barrels for their flavor impact. There's so much that people want to add to their wines in the name of making them better.

But what about trust? Why not just trust the grapes and a simple process? We work so hard in the vines, we're committed to bottling by site or region. We usually vintage date things. All these things are about variety, place to place, year to year, and yet so often we work against that to dial in some kind of consistency, a lack of variety, in the name of better wine, ensuring profitability, even simply sleeping more soundly at night instead of worrying about everything that's wrong.

That's not to say one should be neglectful or fatalistic. Not at all. No, we should trust in what we know we have and let the wines be their best. Wines can do nasty things. They can be horrible at times. Our role is to not freak out and overreact. These things pass, usually, and we will live with then no matter what. Our part is to trust in what we know is there. There are no guarantees about how things will turn out, just a certainty that the best results will come from giving up control and trusting in what's there. 

Lately I've been thinking about what I put into barrel this past fall. I was so excited at the time. I knew these wines were something special. Then time passes and I have doubts if they are what I thought they were, if I was mistaken or fooled. I can check in on them, and I do, but they don't always show me what I want. They can't, nor should they. Wines, like people, are in motion. They don't stay put well and that's something else to love about them. Talk about dynamic. 

Now I'm away from my wines and I understand anew what they are. They're changing but what they are doesn't change. I know now that, no matter how things go, they will turn out. Not perfectly, necessarily, but truthfully. 

know what I have, how real it is. And I know I can trust. You can too. 

December 27, 2013

Book review: The Road to Burgundy

[ed. note 2015 - I'm leaving this post up for historical purposes, but the author's public interactions have left me incredibly queasy and unable to continue endorsing what's written below. Perhaps I should have done more research...]

After far too long a delay, I just finished reading Ray Walker's The Road to Burgundy. Why the delay? Reasons reasonable and not, none to do with the book. Well, mostly.

Let's start by being clear - this tale is a fun read for armchair wine geek travelers and non-geek dreamers alike. It's not fine literature and the editor in me wanted to break out the red pencil more than a few times. Then I would remember, this isn't my story, just sit back and enjoy it. 

And I did. 

How can I resist the story of an impossible dreamer who throws all common sense aside for his passion? Especially if that passion is making wine, from Pinot noir no less?

Yet for me sometimes that was the problem. While I in no way want to compare my story to Ray's - there's really no comparison - so many of Ray's challenges hit close to home, sometimes way too close, to my own journey from wine making novice to established professional.

Like Ray, I've found most people along my journey to be surprisingly supportive, even miraculously so at particularly necessary moments. Ray compares the  kindness of Burgundians to the indifference of Californians. I kept thinking - Ray's descriptions of Burgundy reminded me of Oregon. People helping for no reason or pay. People working on a small scale for the wine and not the fame. 

Then there are those horrible moments and people who can do nothing but push their awfulness your way. Why? There's no answer, just the reassurance that you're not the first, nor will you be the last, to feel the brunt of someone's fear turned into abrasiveness. 

Reading Ray's recounting of his weird experience with the facility where he made his first vintage was particularly painful for me. I took a while to get through that part, but that's just me, not the book talking. 

Mostly, I loved reading over a tale I largely knew already after I'd followed Ray through the years as an internet acquaintance. I remember his posts online about wanting to work harvest, then the move to France and trials along the way. There was even a terrific Graperadio podcast with Ray, early in his quest when he was still presuming all he could aim for were low level grapes, not the crus he ended up with. 

I also took a bit longer than I might have to finish this book just for the time to process the joy of Ray's story juxtaposed with the bitterness and suspicion of him that I've witnessed in the online world. 

It began with seemingly well intended people who were so condescending in their concern that Ray didn't have the experience necessary to pull off his project. Concern is one thing, but some people were outright hostile to Ray's dream. 

I've never understood why that was, but thinking about it all caused me to slow down my reading of this book. I just couldn't make sense of it, and that was only worsened by more recent nitpicking of everything about Ray from him as a person to his incredible honesty about his concerns for his wines as they were being made, to the usual complaints about when is he going to ship wine, does he even know how to navigate that, surely this will all still blow up in his face. Etc., etc. 

I've never met Ray but it's to the point where the insane criticism I've witnessed about a nice guy who's clearly more complex then one book can convey - aren't we all? - made it harder still to let go and allow the story to envelope me. Not so reasonable, I know. But there you are. 

Ray's book ends on a happy note and by the looks of things, Ray isn't resting after what was just his fifth vintage in Burgundy. Now he's apparently involved in a Nebbiolo project in Piedmont. Could the next book be The Road to Barolo? I'm hoping so.

Just spare me your "wisdom" about how this skinny kid from California, who probably just got lucky in France, is really going to fuck it all up in Italy. Good grief. Just read the book, preferably with some Burgundy in your glass, and enjoy. I know I did. 

December 23, 2013

Celebrating a Christmas past

The holidays are for celebrating and that includes special wines, though not simply wines for drinking. We can always find a drink. Rather, I'm looking for something more, wines that take me some place in my life as well as the wine's life.

In wine, we often talk about terroir, a wine's sense of place or "somewhere-ness," to borrow author Matt Kramer's term. Wine is great for its ability, at its best, to transmit something specific to its place of origin, something worth savoring.

Less often do we note the intangible connections wines bring to our lives, the parts they play as a perpendicular in our lives. Take for instance the Christmastime wines you may have enjoyed over the years. Those wines can provide a thread between the years and our memories, where the taste of one wine now can convey us and add definition to our past. We may not understand that definition, we may not be able to make sense of it, but there's something there, and wine for me anyway is the conduit.

So the other night, the Saturday before Christmas, I opened this surprisingly delicious if still very young Burgundy, the 2006 Ch. Chorey Beaune "Les Teurons" 1er Cru. The wine is one thing - oak framed, perfumed with a scent of hazelnuts, red fruits and shoe polish. The texture is finely tannic, with flavors of slightly bitter tree bark and red fruits that evolve and gain richness over the evening, the whole thing taut with a sense of energy and youth that suggests long cellaring potential. 

This is fine wine, plain and simple. 

But this wine is something more. Five years ago on this same Saturday night before Christmas, I remember similarly enjoying a great bottle of Barbaresco from Produtorri del Barbaresco. Perhaps I wrote about it here. The wine itself is just a connector here, to that snowy December when my dad was ill. I lit a fire that night and enjoyed the wine so much, knowing we had no control over how we were getting to the airport the next day much less whether or not any planes would be leaving.

I just needed to get home for that last Christmas with Dad and for that night, the wine made those worries melt.

Somehow we did make it to the airport, thanks to a neighbor from New Hampshire who knew how to drive through plowed walls of snow and other road hazards that had shut the city. And somehow we made it to LA, thanks to Jet Blue. I don't remember many other flights getting out of Portland that day and with the roads in horrendous shape, it wasn't like we had any other options. Missing that Christmas certainly wasn't an option so this had to work, and it did.

So, with this delicious Burgundy and a roaring fire on a cold but thankfully snowless night - we're traveling south tomorrow to spend this Christmas with my mom -  I'm at once totally satisfied in the moment but also compelled to feel again that impossibly important journey five years prior, the touchstones equally delicious Barbaresco and Burgundy that had no intention of being part of my life but are. 

What more could I want.

November 17, 2013

Armagnac

Photo from Chambers Street Wines's website
I'm not a huge spirits guy. Sometimes distilled drinks strike me as little more than poison.

Ok, maybe that's too much, but do you know what I mean? Spirits are tough on the body. Some are just so good, they seem to rise above and are truly the water of life. Or that's bullshit but they're just worth it, body be damned.

Whatever your feelings about spirits, I'm excited to have tracked down some Armagnac from 1989 to sip on for the holidays and beyond. That year is special to me, my first visit to France.

I can't provide any of my own tasting notes just yet. I'm just excited to read what I've found online from places like Chambers Street in NYC, which just offered some Armagnac from the '80s from Ch de Pellehaut. Apparently K&L in California has also offered various bottlings from this producer, imported by Bay Area-based Armagnac expert Charles Neal. I remember Charles' selections from my SF days years ago, mostly country wines from SW France and then a nice selection of Armagnac.

Then I found an incredibly informative blog yesterday, Sku's Recent Eats, about all kinds of whiskeys and then brandies, among eating adventures in my native Los Angeles. I must check out more details here before my latest So Cal visit next month. For you Bourbon fans, check out the blog's comprehensive breakdown of the mysteries of who's actually distilling what brands on your store shelves. There is so much to learn if you're really interested in what you're drinking and where it comes from. Bourbon especially seems notorious for brands disguised from huge distillers. I suppose the same is true of so many common wine brands. I guess I'm just more comfortable with how it works in the wine world.

For now, let's remember that brandies like Armagnac and its more famous neighbor Cognac are essentially distilled wines, and whiskeys like Bourbon and Scotch are essentially distilled beers. There's much more to it, but when I learned that basic breakdown, things suddenly seemed to make more sense.

That is, until you drink a little too much of this stuff. Any night changes course when the liquor comes out, sometimes for better, sometimes not. With that in mind, I'm excited to get my hands on some good Armagnac. Just know these bottles are going to last. There's no sense poisoning yourself with such special, handmade spirits.

October 28, 2013

Vincent winery open house Sunday, November 3, 3-6pm in Portland

If there's tradition here on this blog, it starts with holding free tastings of my wine and inviting any readers and companions to come sample. Back in my home wine days, I would literally open the garage door and invite the world in to taste. It was a great way to meet readers of the site and get more and more feedback on the quality of what I was up to.

Now five harvests into my commercial winery Vincent Wine Company, things are different but also exactly the same. Now we throw open the big garage door at the SE Wine Collective winery in the heart of SE Portland and invite the world in to taste. Our next tasting is this Sunday, November 3, 3-6pm. Location is 2425 SE 35th Place at Division in the heart of SE Portland.

There's still no charge to taste, and we're again pouring with our friends Helioterra Wines so there's even more wine to taste. What's different now? Sales - you can buy all the bottles you like. Stock your cellar, gather gift bottles for friends and colleagues, come taste but also bring wines home with you.

Hope to see you at the winery.

October 17, 2013

Harvest 2013

It's taken longer than I'd hoped to sit down to recount this past harvest, which for me wrapped up last Saturday, October 12. In a normal year, that would be early to be done bringing in grapes. To be completely finished with harvest, with all the new wine in barrel or tank, by October 12? That's crazy.


Such was/is the harvest of 2013 in the Willamette Valley.

My story is unusual this year. I picked virtually all my fruit between September 17 and 20, in ideal conditions. Many wineries were bringing in some fruit at that time but hardly everything, and many others didn't pick a thing until late September, after several days of occasionally heavy rain.

Somehow the vineyards I work with, even in the cooler Eola Hills, were ready before the rain. And not just sort of ready. The flavors were just where I want them, the sugar and acids too. After the very warm summer, I never thought we'd be harvesting grapes with such freshness and life. I was super happy with things at picking, and only happier (though a bit sheepish) as the rains fell. Many vineyards stood up fine through the rains, but not all. Some growers had it really tough. I certainly am not happy for anyone's struggle.

I just lucked out. My grapes came in all at once, they didn't require much sorting, fementations took off naturally after just a few days, and things progressed largely without any issues. I could bore you with a few things - the fruit flies this year were horrible - but really things proceeded well and the wines I have in barrel are terribly exciting to me. They still have a long way to go until they'll be ready, but some things you just know, and I'm feeling pretty good about the '13s.


September 28, 2013

Harvest 2013 update

What a crazy grape harvest 2013 is turning out to be in Oregon's northern Willamette Valley. The short story? Harvest began last week under sunny late summer skies, then picking shut down for days as rain fell intermittently throughout this past week, more picking resumed in the last couple of dryish days, again picking has stopped for an unseasonably wet and windy weekend, and with perhaps 50% of the local grape crop still on the vine, growers and winemakers look at a rainy forecast for clearing and dry days to resume picking.

What does it all mean? First and most importantly, rain isn't bad. People sometimes freak out about rain and down in my native California it seems even the threat of rain brings out the naysayers who write off a vintage before grapes have even been picked. Grapes are tougher than people think, even Pinot noir, and personally I'd rather have lighter more delicate wines from wet harvests than heavy, overripe wines from drought conditions.

That's not to say the wines of 2013 in Oregon will be light. I actually brought in 90% of my grapes last week before any really significant rain, and I'm thrilled with what I have happily fermenting away in the winery as I type. My red wines won't show any affect of the rain we're seeing right now, and that will make for interesting comparisons to wines made from later picked grapes.

This vintage is making me think of a more extreme 2005, where we had a nicely warm summer though not as warm as this year, then an early window to harvest at the earlier ripening sites where grapes were picked without any weather issues. At the end of September 2005, the heavens opened and it rained hard for a couple of days, not unlike this past week. Picking resumed amid up and down conditions, much like we've seen the past few days. Then as the season drew out, some really nice picking windows reemerged and the last of the grapes came in under fair skies. And you know what? 2005 is one of my favorite vintages of the past decade plus.

Who knows how 2013 will turn out, and I sympathize with those who have lots of fruit still out there hanging in this nasty weather. It's easy to say the grapes are tough when you don't really have anything left out there (just a little Pinot blanc to bring in in a week or two). But the truth is, I was afraid of extreme ripeness this fall after the consistently warm but rarely super hot summer we had. Seeing the fruit I brought in last week at sugars in the 22 to 23 range, with pHs in the 3.2 to 3.3 range, wow, that's chemistry I'd like any day. What about the flavors? I thought everything tasted nicely ripe, with the Bjornson fruit reminding me of 2011 with dynamic fruit expression at low sugar and low pH, just what I want and something I never expected given the growing season.

In all, there's no judging a vintage when so many grapes are still on the vine. Given when I've brought in, I'm thrilled for 2013. Given the fruit I've tasted that's still out on the vine, I'm excited so long as we do indeed see some prolonged drying and final ripening time. And before anyone writes things off because of rain, just remember 2005.

September 11, 2013

Harvest approaches

Pinot Noir grapes nearly ready to pick at Crowley Station Vineyard
It's always a controversial time of year. The grape harvest approaches and there are the usual conversations among winemakers of varying stylistic and ego tendencies.

"I was out in the vines yesterday. Looks like things are getting close!"

"What? I haven't even begun sampling."

"Maybe you should. I'm going to start picking next week."

"No, I don't work with early ripening young vines like you do. I won't even begin to think about picking until the end of the month."

"I want fruit in before all the acidity ripens away."

"That's not a problem with my old vines. The flavors aren't there anyway. You can pick by the numbers. You need to wait for the flavors to develop."

Blah, blah, blah.

The upshot is - no one can agree what grape ripeness really is, much less when to best capture it with the all important decision - when to pick.

I was out in the vines the other day - incidentally, with a playwright friend who's latest script is set in the OR wine country - and found things progressing very fast toward harvest.

I'll just admit it. I'm an early picker. I want fruit that isn't too ripe, with good natural acidity and more focus in the final product than huge, explosive flavors that may impress up front but then fade, leaving you hanging.

A big sky from the top of the hill at Crowley Station
This year in the Willamette Valley, flowering was early. Think of that as the time you put something in the oven to start baking. Put it in early and you figure you'll be taking it out early, especially if the temperature was running warm. Sure enough, summer has been warm - rarely hot though - and the grapes have been progressing toward "done" consistently ahead of a normal schedule.

Normally we might harvest in the last week of September into mid-October. In 2011, we harvested in late October into early-November, ridiculously late compared to the norm. This year, we're looking at a harvest perhaps a week earlier than "normal."

How did things look the other day? Sugars in Pinot Noir grapes ranged from 18 to 21 brix, or percent sugar (essentially). pHs were in the 3.0 to 3.15 range. By the numbers, I'd love brix at 22 to 23, and pH in the 3.3 range, perhaps lower, perhaps a bit higher if necessary to wait for - yes - flavors.

Flavor is more complicated than it might seem. Winemakers always talk about flavors - wanting explosive flavors that they'll capture in their wines. Except I don't really want explosive anything in my wine. And we all know from cooking that if you're going to cook something first, then add it to something else to cook together, you probably don't fully cook the thing at the outset to account for the additional cooking it will see.

Translated to grapes and wine, I want grapes with flavors that are appropriate for wine, not fruit juice. Wine is the product of fermentation, an additional kind of cooking if you will, so I'm looking for flavors that will translate well through that entire process (I haven't even mentioned the curing process of aging wine in barrels). It seems though that many winemakers want flavors in their fruit that, once made into wine, seem to lack energy or complexity, more like a bucket of ribs (delicious as that can be) instead of the more subtle, perhaps more complex flavor of appropriately rare beef.

Ok, enough with the analogies. The other day, the grapes sure looked, tasted and even measured out in ways that suggest harvest is just about here. Once we're through this week of hot summer temps, we'll see a cool down and perhaps some rain showers. Then I think it will be time to pick.

We'll continue to measure sugar and acidity. We'll continue to taste. But like with cooking, sometimes you just know when it's time, when something is ready. My focus right now is on that moment, for each vineyard I work with. It's exciting to know it's getting closer, really close. 

August 18, 2013

Reading wine

I'm a talker and talkers don't exactly have a reputation for listening, however misguided that may be. I love listening, even if it's not always obvious. I'm a reader, an apprentice, a wine taster and now a wine maker. I want to learn, to know what you're thinking. I want to read you. To listen.

So it is with wine. We use terms without even thinking what they really mean. "This wine speaks to me." "That wine was singing last night." "This one didn't have much to say." Even the notion of terroir requires the wine to speak and us to listen - to the sense of place, the somewhereness of the wine, its reflection of the growing season and grape.

As tasters, we must listen, and listen carefully in the case of more delicate grapes and wines like Pinot Noir and red Burgundy. I make Pinot in part because of that. I want a wine that compels me to listen.

Last night I opened the first of several bottles from Pierre Guillemot that purchased recently, red Burgundies from several vineyards in the village of Savigny from a producer known for delicate, perfumed, ageworthy wines. I opened this one - the 2009 Guillemot Savigny-les-Beaune Jarrons 1er Cru to get a read on it, and the others by extension, to listen and then to consider when the others might speak their best.

No surprise, this wine is an infant and was decidedly not singing. It was delicious, with a transparent but deep red raspberry color and a dusty through quiet aroma. Its perfume has not yet evolved, something careful aging should bring. The flavors were bright but rich, showing the warmth of the vintage, with a young, unresolved texture much like fruit that needs another day or two on the counter to smooth out and come together fully.

The read on this wine? Leave it and presumably its siblings in the cellar for several more years. Not that you can't enjoy the wine now, and I did. Nor was any of this surprising - the wines of Guillemot always need time. So much more from this wine will come in time, or should. So much more of its story, what it really has to say. I'll be reading and listening, however long it takes. Reading requires patience, something I also don't always have a reputation for having...but how can you not when your devotion is wine.

August 10, 2013

Wines of Corsica: Antoine Arena

I had the pleasure of tasting through a line up of red and white wines from Corsican producer Antoine Arena last night at Storyteller Wine Company in Portland.

As readers and Twitter followers may have noticed, I'm a little obsessed with Corsica, declaring this the Summer of Corsica. Ok, that moniker hasn't actually caught on. It's more a sound-of-one-hand-clapping movement, but I'm happy.

I love Corsican wine. Perhaps it's too much to say this, but they make me better. They inspire me and make me pause at the same time with their beauty. It's love, it's that simple. I want.

Antoine Arena makes wine from the Patrimonio AOC in the north of the beautiful island. The line up this night was three white and three reds, all recent vintages that I didn't fully note. So consider these thoughts as impressions of the range of Arena wines, not necessarily specific comments on specific wines.

The Bianco Gentile is apparently an indigenous Corsican white grape variety, the wine pure and delicious, round and yet focused as I'm finding so many Corsican whites. The Blanc Carco is all Vermentinu (Vermentino in Italy) and lovely with mineral and lemon flavors. I'd love to try older examples to see how this ages.

This wine is so beautiful it's crying
Then the 2010 Blanc Grotte di Sole, oh my, this is the wine of the line up for me. All Vermentinu again, as so many Corsican whites are. There's truly old vine intensity here, just a deeper, richer but still delicate impression, truly compelling and wine to age for many years I would imagine. I believe all these whites were 2010s, so very young still. Correct me if I'm wrong on the vintages for the first two, readers.

Moving on to the reds, I must say that if there's a weak spot in Corsican wine, it's the reds. They are or can be delicious, but some just aren't nearly as compelling as the whites and pinks. Maybe it's a factor of my tastes evolving, where I'm not necessarily so big on the riper, coarser wines of southern climes compared to perhaps more focused and precise reds of northern Europe or cooler southern climes. That's speaking very generally of course.

The first red is the 2010 Cuvee 0, a no sulfur cuvee that reminds me why I like sulfur. I think in analogies, so consider sulfur in wine like the focus mechanism on a camera lens. Sulfur to me, in judicious amounts, helps the truth in a wine come into focus. A lack of sulfur on the other hand is sort of to wine like room temperature is to milk. Sometimes things you don't want end up happening. This wine is delightful to some people, but to me the lack of sulfur seems to leave the wine muddled, with a bitterness on the finish from (I imagine) less desirable yeast or bacteria. This is a wine I'd rather drink at the domaine or at least on the island.

Then the '10 Rouge Carco that's made with a bit of sulfur and has more non-literal clarity than the 0. I am reminded of southern Rhone reds, another factor in me not loving the reds as much as other Corsican wines. The whites and pinks somehow taste like Corsica to me, even though I've never been there. The reds make me think more of the Rhone, which isn't bad, just not as distinctive. More tasting is necessary. This is good wine, just not as compelling to me.

Finally the '09 Rouge Grotte di Sole. Now we are talking. Rhone-esque but with an intensity that makes you notice, a character that's compelling and makes me wonder what the future holds. It's smoky though apparently there isn't a lick of wood in the whole cellar (I believe everything is done in concrete). There's great texture, something I'll say of all these reds. No polish. No falsely rounded edges. No, these are wines that stick rather than slide away, like wines that seem to be afraid of owning up to who they really are.

This red Grotte di Sole is just fascinating wine, but for the #summerofCorsica perhaps this is more appropriate for the coming #winterofCorsica. Yes, I'm planning already. You don't need to doubt it.

More on Arena at Kermit Lynch's website. And for you French language enthusiasts and/or those who like pictures of the insanely rocky vineyards, check out Antoine Arena's website.

July 22, 2013

Summer of Corsica

I fell in love with Corsica at first sight. Maybe it was something to do with leaving London on a grey, sleety February morning and arriving in Ajaccio to find spring sunshine, a blue sky and flowering almond and mimosa trees. It was irresistible and I was enchanted.
Um, I know that feeling. Don't you?

So begins chapter seven of Rosemary George's classic book French Country Wines, entitled "Wines of Corsica" and full of interesting anecdotes about the island of beauty, or "the very beautiful" as she translates the Greek name Corsica Kalliste. I love that, "the very beautiful."

Before remembering and revisiting this chapter in a book that I've long owned, before this year's Tour de France spent its first few days on the impossibly gorgeous island, before I realized what I was doing, I declared this the summer of Corsica. You know, #summerofCorsica.

As someone replied to me on Twitter, the summer of Riesling is so 2009. 

Fear not Riesling fans, the #summerofCorsica hasn't caught on. And to be sure, Corsica shouldn't be limited to just summer. The warm island produces fairly full bodied wines that don't necessarily say summer. The Roses of course are summer fare. The whites too. But both, and certainly the warm, sometimes a bit roasted reds, can shine all year round.

Prepare for the #autumnofCorsica" and certainly the #winterofCorsica, when we in the northern climes could use some of that summer sun in a bottle.

For now, it's summer and I'm working my way through the wines of several of the better producers from the very beautiful. I'll report further when I've made it through more of the wines, but so far, I am in fact enchanted. And I don't expect that to change. Some things just are.


July 14, 2013

When is it time?

Carefully evaluating the 2012 Pinot Noir
People always ask the most interesting - and often hard to answer - questions about the winemaking process. I love that they're so interested, but I wonder if my answers satisfy.

Where is your vineyard? I don't have one, but I work closely with growers. Where is your winery? I don't have one, but essentially rent space in a shared facility. I thought you said you were a winery, how's that? A winery is a business, and a winery is a facility. I have a winery business but rent space in someone else's winery facility. Blah, blah, blah.

Some questions can annoy, even if they shouldn't. When do you put the pepper into the wine to get this peppery flavor? I taste blueberries - when you put those in? I practice being patient and friendly in these situations. People just don't know much about something I'm totally obsessive and geeky. Doesn't make it easier though.

And there are questions that I never thought I'd get (I'd heard about the added flavor questions from friends). The one that I think about the most? When. When is it time to bottle the wine? And how do you know when it's time?

Good questions. Some things you just know. One, that something is good. Two, that it will go into bottle as a particular cuvee. Three, that there are no deadlines in winemaking, but there are reasonable conclusions we can make about what and when certain things should happen.

When is a wine ready? When it's ready. That is, when it's done with its chemical changes through two fermentation processes, when it's fallen clear (or mostly clear anyway), and that it's ready to begin consuming or begin its continuing maturation in a glass bottle, or both. In short, when the particulars are established about the quality, stability and clarity about a wine, it's at least close to time.

For me, wines go to bottle after about a year of maturing, after careful evaluation of each barrel. Over time I'd like to experiment with holding some wines in cask longer. For now, I know this - the time is close. And I'm very excited.

June 24, 2013

Flowering 2013, part 2: Eola-Amity Hills

After the lovely early morning stop at Armstrong, it was on south to the west side of the Eola-Amity Hills growing region to Crowley Station Vineyard, the first of three sits I work with in this excellent sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley.

Crowley Station is nicely situated vineyard on a southwest slope, fairly exposed to the cool Van Duzer winds that shoot through a gap in the Coast Range. Sure enough, even on this mild Sunday morning the cool breeze was notable as we walked the rows.

Despite the relative low elevation here, around 300-400', those winds make this a cool, slower to ripen site. Because of this, I expected flowering wouldn't have begun, but sure enough, flowers. Many flowers. Not like Armstrong but clearly advanced  and immediately suggesting to me that Armstrong is no anomaly. This is shaping up to be an early year.

From the top of the original block of Pinot Noir clones 114 and 115 at Crowley Station Vineyard, dry farmed, pretty old school. And that hay bale stacker in the neighbor's field is pretty cool too.

Flowers! This was one of the more advanced clusters but still, most plants had flowers already.

Looking back up the hill and the cover crop in every other row, things are moving along at Crowley Station. Looking forward to our second year working with this fruit. Next visit I'll try to get a shot of the soil - an interesting mix of very old (millions of years) ocean sediments - complete with fossilized shells here and there in sandstone - and the occasional piece of decomposed granite carried here in the Missoula Floods in more recent times (15,000 years ago, give or take).

Then it was over the hill to the east side of the Eola Hills, the heart of the AVA where you find Zenith Vineyard. Our rows are on a rocky knoll midway up the hill, originally left unplanted because there "wasn't any soil," according to grower Tim Ramey (relaying the words of the prior owners the O'Connor family).

The soil is a mix of Missoula Flood sediments, very thin in this specific block, over hard sandstone, a few blond chunks of which you can see in this picture.

Here's a view looking down the hill in our rows of Pommard clone. Again, there is cover in every other row but notice how much shorter the growing shoots are here compared to the other vineyards. Tough soils made great wine, and you can see how the vines just don't have a lot to work with here. Which is great.

Getting down at vine level, you can see how far the vines here have to go to fill the trellis wires. This block never has a lush canopy, but again that's fine - we're growing grapes, not just leaves.

Somehow I missed a shot of flowering clusters, but you get the point. On this warmer eastern side of the Eola Hills, I expect things to be a little more advanced, and sure enough there were more flowers here than Crowley Station, fewer than Armstrong. Still, lots of progress for early June.

Then it was on to the final stop, Bjornson Vineyard higher up in the Eola Hills on wildly different soils.

First, on the way, I couldn't help capturing the hay rolls, England style but very common here too. There's something serene around the way they lie in the field, but maybe that's just the city boy in me talking. These rolls don't represent work to me.

Ok, now at Bjornson and what a view. We're around 500' now in the Eola Hills, a few miles north of Zenith and surrounded by vines - one neighbor is Seven Springs vineyard - and higher up the hill Christmas trees farms. I describe Bjornson as a saucer, not quite a bowl, with an aspect to the southwest. This view is nearly due south toward Salem and the southern Willamette Valley.

Here's a view looking up one of the block, this the Wadensvil clone that I got a bit of last year along with my usual Pommard. Young vines and bushy already, with cover in every row still to push the vine roots deep.

Bjornson is higher than my other sites, which typically means a bit later ripening. The Van Duzer winds that make it over the tops of the Eola Hills flood down on this site, making for intense but still Oregon delicate Pinot Noir with exceptional acidity, even in warmer years. Sure enough, flowering had barely begun here. This shot was typical of what we found this day. Lots of inflorescence (pre-grape clusters), not a lot of flowers and definitely no fruit set yet. That's fine, it's so early and we don't need everything ripening at the same time if we can help it.

What about the soil here? The Bjornson family is excavating for a winery site on the property, which lets us see a fresh cross-section of classic Nekia soil. What's that? Essentially one to two feet of very red clay over easily fractured but otherwise pure volcanic basalt rock. Compare that to the more famous Jory soil, similar except for having several feet of clay over the basalt. Nekia is super thin and seems to give a more powerful wine than I get from Jory soils but still with the delicacy that great Pinot must convey. I love it, and Bjornson is a vineyard to watch.


June 23, 2013

Flowering at Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge

Two Sundays ago, June 9, I drove to all four of the Pinot Noir vineyards I work with in the northern Willamette Valley. My goal was to assess the progress of the growing season, and ideally to see some flowering in the vines.

Sure enough, I saw a ton of grape flowers - more in the warmer, earlier sites, but flowers in every vineyard - which surprised me a bit. Why? Because flowering normally doesn't really happen until the middle of June, and in the past three years we've been one to three weeks later than that. I know it's been warmer than average this spring, but lately one can't help but wonder if every year isn't going to have flowering on the 4th of July instead of around Father's Day. Or much earlier as we're seeing this year.

So what's the big deal about that? While there's still a long way to go this summer, once you get to the peak of flowering - and we were there in at least one of my sites - you can estimate harvest being 100 to 110 days later. That means picking at the earliest sites could be in late September, something I haven't done since 2007, 2006 and 2005 (not to equate those vintages qualitatively - just in terms of picking time).

That's sure different from our October 20 harvest kick off in 2011, and that was earlier than many local producers. We really were weeks behind the norm that year, but luckily things worked out. This year I imagine we'll be long done picking by that point, as we were in '07, '06 and '05. The good news there - the chance of perfect harvest weather is much, much more likely in late September under potentially summer conditions rather than in late October where one typically things of trick or treating in the rain, crafty kid costumes unfortunately covered by raincoats and umbrellas.


Overall, things looked great this day at all my sites. I'll post shots from Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge here, then more from the Eola Hills sites next time. Soon, I hope.

To start, the lovely early morning view from the 667 block of Armstrong vineyard, looking south toward the backside of the famous Dundee Hills across the valley.

 
Then the road at Armstrong coming up through the vines, for me the most classic view from this incredibly gorgeous vineyard.


The grower here has been converting to a more organic approach, describing the less manicured look of the vine rows as a bit of a "hippie" vibe. Sure enough, flowers. Perfect wild daisies that made me stop and think for a moment. I love daisies.


Down in a swale of the 115 vines, there's more water in the soil so we're leaving row cover in every row to draw out moisture and compete with the vine roots for resources. Otherwise, every other row is tilled to make sure there's not too much competition.

Ah, the morning's prize. Everywhere I look, flowering clusters. Open this picture if you don't open any other. In each inflorescence, or cluster of grapes before the flowers bloom, you can see lots of tiny grape flowers already setting. And you can see that in a single cluster, fruit set isn't uniform, even this year where flowering weather at Armstrong (as you can see) was pretty ideal - sunny and mild. A single cluster can flower over a few days, meaning grapes in one cluster can have even slight variance in maturity, and that's ok with me. Perfect uniformity is boring. Then again, variable weather during flowering can draw things over for a few weeks, leaving too little uniformity if not issues with fruit set because of wind, cold, even rain and hail that physically knocks off the flowers as they bloom but before they've set as fruit. Got that? 

Things here look amazingly good, so that I'm mesmerized more by the unexpected wild daisies that I take as another good sign, that we have an interesting summer coming and the hope of a great harvest. There's still lots of time, but I'm confident. And then there are the alien-like growing tips as I look up the hill across rows and rows, the vines growing so fast at this time of year you can also watch them change by the minute. I can't take my eyes off them.

June 05, 2013

Thank you

I'm terrible about thank you notes. There's no good explanation. I was raised well. I do know how to say thank you in person. I simply need help saying thank you in writing. It's become even more important now that I'm in the wine business.

Don't get me wrong. I admire good thank you notes, but they can seem a bit anachronistic at times. In formal situations like job interviews, it's almost like you don't have time to mail a thank you anymore. But a real thank you note, for something more meaningful than begging for a job, for true gratitude, now that is worth writing.

So why have I only recently gotten these, my first batch? I can't say. My father wouldn't be proud. He was a staunch supporter of the written thank you. But here I am, thank yous in hand at last and for all sorts of occasions, many but hardly all wine related. There are customers, retailers, restaurants, distributors, writers, you name it, so many people to personally say thank you for supporting what I'm doing. It's truly important to me to let them know what it means to me. Even more, there are thank yous to send to those I love. Handwritten, printed well, with a nice stamp, everything just right, expressing so much in words and beyond words.

All to say, thank you.

May 31, 2013

Third annual PDX Urban Wine Experience tasting June 9

PDX Urban Wineries, the association of Portland-based wineries, is holding our 3rd annual PDX Urban Wine Experience tasting on June 9, 4-7pm at Refuge PDX in inner SE Portland.

All association member wineries will be pouring, including Vincent Wine Company. Most producers will have new releases that you haven’t tried before, and we’re delighted to welcome our newest member Clay Pigeon Winery to the fold. Try their just released 2011 Pinot Noir among so many other wines sample.

Advance tickets are now available, and buy in advance because your ticket price will include $15 towards wine bottle purchase at the event. Tickets at the door will be available, but they won’t come with that credit. Don’t miss out, and we hope to see you there.

May 24, 2013

In Portland this Saturday? Come taste wine

Just a short post to let you know that we're doing a wine tasting and casual BBQ at the Southeast Wine Collective in Portland this Saturday, May 25, 4-7pm. The address is 2425 SE 35th Place in Portland, at SE Division.

I'll be there pouring my Vincent Wine Company Pinots, and a barrel sample or two from 2012 (possibly Chardonnay if anyone's interested). And Division Winemaking Company, Helioterra, Bow & Arrow and Fullerton wineries will also all be pouring new releases.

Cost is a modest $15 at the door, and includes tastings and some Olympic Provisions wieners or vege dogs and whatnot from the grill. Come hang out Portland-style and drink some great Oregon wine in the Memorial Day weekend tradition. Hope to see you there, and if you're out of the area, our tasting room is open Wed-Sun. Surprise us sometime.

May 20, 2013

The truth about Oregon's 2011 vintage

I'm just going to say what no one seems willing to admit. 2011 is going to go down as one of the greatest vintages for Oregon wine in history. A brief history, true, but the point is the same. And apparently controversial.

I think I can finally say this with a straight face because I have most of my 2011 wines sold. Don't accuse me of shilling to move wines from an allegedly substandard vintage. I finally feel like I can say what I really think, not that I haven't before. I can just do it without opening myself to accusations of only being positive about things because I have wines to sell. Happily that's not an issue.

The weather in 2011 was cold all spring and summer long. Then unusually dry, mild weather through October into November allowed for a historically late harvest under relatively nice conditions. The fruit in the winery was riper tasting than the sugar measurements might have suggested. The acidity was stellar, with terrific energy propelling the fruit flavors to a long aftertaste.

And yet the vintage immediately received bad press because of the late harvest, as if the summer couldn't possibly have yielded something worthwhile, much less anything made to last.

For producers who want to make big, rich wines, ok, the year was a challenge. You won't find goopy, top heavy wines full of dense fruit and lumber flavors in 2011. Likewise, you may find some underripe, hard, mean little wines that taste best in the rearview mirror, especially with the rich, opulent 2012s waiting in the wings.

Taste before you buy, but be open to what's truly special and exceptional about this year - the subtlety. What I think you will find are some of the most nervy, energetic and delicate wines I've ever had from this fair state. Wines of low alcohol, light color, intense perfume and lacy, fragile flavors with way more tensile strength than you might expect.

And that's the key. Great wine is not synonymous with ageworthy wine. But the most truly ageworthy wines are great, are what we most want from our wines, and I expect many top notch ageworthy wines will come from the 2011 vintage in Oregon.

Can I prove it? No. We won't know how things turn out until time passes. And yes, many wines from 2011 taste really shut down right now, essentially not generous in the way a cut flower doesn't smell as it will after a few days in a vase. These delicate things take time. They demand your patience.

What I do know is this - the beauty that has emerged from the roller coaster 2011 vintage is there. It's not always easy to see, certainly not what will be there over time. But the greatness is there, the beauty that will win out over time if it's not already apparent.

And I'm betting an extra large amount of library wines that this is the vintage to hold in the cellar. I want more of this vintage than any other to pour at future dinners and special events, to sell years later to customers who prize the delicacy of fine aged wine, and of course to share with my sweet at home. Our home.

May 16, 2013

Wine sales update

How about an update on how Vincent Wine Company wine sales are going? Not sure if anyone's too interested, but I once asked and some readers suggested yes, they wanted to hear about it here and there. And after all the detail of making wine in my garage and then transitioning to commercial production, vineyard visits, bottling days, etc., surely you want to know if and where all the wine goes, no?

The short story is this - things are going great. The wines are selling well, reaching more and more better and better places, and generally my issue right now isn't whether or not the wine will sell, but whether or now I'll run out too soon before the next vintage is ready. That's not a bad problem to have.

The longer story is a little more complicated.

I won't lie. The first year of sales - mostly my 2009 Vincent Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills - was a little daunting. That's in part because selling wine is hard, in part because things actually went much better than they might have, but still it was hard and the wine took time to sell. In retrospect, my feeling after selling through the 2009 vintage was like a tight rope walker who looks back after a successful crossing and gulps, realizing the peril s/he didn't notice en route. Things could have been much, much harder.

The sales year for the 2009s started well. My nascent mailing list purchased a healthy amount of the first wines. My first winery open house event with a friend and her label was a huge success (would that there were always such big crowds at our open house tastings...). And my first ventures into the local market selling my own wine began wonderfully - a nice shop downtown bought two cases right away. Another couple shops bought cases. I was off and rolling.

Then reality set in. I had a bit more than 200 cases and my early sales moved maybe 1/3 of it. Then I fell into the pattern of stores or restaurants buying some wine but never buying more. Suddenly I realized that instead of 20 accounts that might move a few cases of wine over the year, I needed many more accounts because they would likely just a bit and that would be it. The wine would sit on the shelf. I'd come in a month or two later and see how things were going but there were the same bottles, getting dusty. The owners would say, what can we do, you're new, no one's heard of you...to the point where I stopped asking. I'd see the bottles sitting there and duck out, hopefully without being noticed so there wouldn't be that weird conversation about how they were sure things would pick up.

Throughout the year, my sales days got harder and harder. Some places I really didn't want to be going to weren't so thrilled to see me either. I'd spend a precious day in the market and move barely a case of wine, inside worrying what I'd do it the wine wouldn't sell. A little voice would tell me though - be patient, be charming, know that you're making incredibly special wine and don't give in. And I didn't.

Sure enough, the wine from that first year sold, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I wanted to declare the vintage sold out months before I finally was able to. I'd actually released the 2010s before the 2009s were finally gone, a little out of frustration, a little out of the reality that people were ready for new wine, not so interested in trying that same old wine again. It's a cruel reality of the business, though hardly unique to wine.

By year two of sales, I noticed a few things. One - stores that greeted me skeptically tended to now take me more seriously. I got it - shops wanted to see if I was for real before going to long on my wines. Would I be back the next year? Would the wines be good in another vintage, or were my '09s just lucky starts? Sure enough, yes I was back and yes the wines were good again, and even though I made 40% more wine in the 2010 vintage, the wines sold in half the time.

That was a little problem. Where with the '09s I have wine available all year, with the '10s I was sold out seven months after release. How'd that happen? Mailing list growth, shops ordering and reordering more quickly, restaurant placements picking up, even a special deal with Whole Foods that go my wine throughout Oregon and Washington stores - that all added up to wine disappearing almost too fast. Oh, and I picked up distribution in New York and that definitely moved some wine. Nice.

I'd already planned for more production for 2011, and could have made more still but don't want to grow too fast. My 2011s came out last fall, all 400 cases or almost double what I made in 2009, and as of today I have about 80 cases left. And that's including wine allocated for a local restaurant glass pour list for this summer (20 cases?), as well as an expected order from my NY distributor. Otherwise the rest of the wine will go to the winery tasting room and a few important accounts around Portland that I want to make sure don't run out of wine.

In 2012 we upped production further to at least 550 cases, probably a bit more once everything settles out. We've picked up distribution in Rhode Island and, with the coming year, I'd love to add Los Angeles (my home town). If everything goes well, that organic growth should take care of the increased production, leaving me in position to monitor wine sales rather than push, push, push. Wouldn't that be nice.

Meanwhile, I still do push some to get the wine where I want it. And I hear that voice - be patient, be charming, believe in what you're doing. And I'll just say, again, thank you.

April 22, 2013

Tasting blind

I tweeted earlier today about an interesting experience last night.

I went over to the home of one of my growers to deliver some wine and a check toward grapes purchased last fall - it's not unusual to be paying for grapes from one harvest for many months forward (though I really want to finish things out for 2012!).

When I showed up, he had two wines waiting in bags, plus a plate of delicious orange chicken he cooked for his family in some crazy black chumba wumba pot, or something like that. I don't ask questions when the food's that good, and I'd already had dinner.

The wines could have been from anywhere, and given the slightly spicy chicken and rice, really the wines could have been white. But they were red. And the first was fairly dark in color. One sniff and it was obviously from the new world, meaning not Europe. That's the first base of blind wine tasting - old world or new? How does one distinguish? It's not easy, but you know it when you know it. A new world wine will smell like fruit, and old world wine will usually smell like soil.

So I said, new world, and it's Pinot Noir. And it's Oregon. There was just something about the wine that said Oregon, like a unfamiliar block in town that you know even if you don't necessarily know this part of town perfectly well. This was clearly Oregon, plain and simple.

Then I thought - volcanic soil or old ocean sediment? Clearly the latter. Why? Hard to say, but there's a dark fruit aspect to sedimentary soils in Oregon that, again, yuou know it when you see it. I even thought this might be from the grower's own vineyard on Ribbon Ridge, but I said it's either Ribbon Ridge or maybe the neighboring Yamhill-Carlton growing area.

I unveiled the wine and...it was my own 2006 Vincent Pinot Noir Wahle Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton. How interesting. I sort of nailed what it was and where it was from, but didn't recognize it as my own. In my defense, I haven't had that wine in a while and, even when I knew what it was, I still didn't pick up the little hallmarks that I know, or think I know, from that wine. Perhaps it's just aging and changing, but at least it still seemed youthful and pretty good, even if not my favorite style. This 2006 is from a warm, ripe vintage, which I don't usually favor, but I didn't peg it as homebrew. I honestly thought it was "really good" wine from a producer more interested in larger-scaled wine. Ha!

So, on to bottle number two. This one was lighter in color, more translucent but a bit fruity smelling like I tend to find in new world wines. For a minute I wasn't sure. It had to be Pinot Noir, but was it from Oregon in 2011, a vintage of more restrained, French-style structure? The flavors said no, this was from Europe. We just don't get the acidity that this wine had, the element so many local wine lovers cite when they say they don't like European wines - they're too dry.

I found the wine expressive aromatically, flavorful if lighter bodied in the mouth and a touch short on the finish. I guessed Michael Ganoux Bourgogne, thinking it was from a recent vintage. The wine? 2007 Louis Jadot Savigny Les Beaune Les Dominode 1er Cru. Not a bad guess at all, though a much nicer terroir than simple Bourgogne. With time in the glass, the wine unfolded aromatically - beautiful - but remained tight on the finish. This won't ever be generous wine but I'm sure a few years will soften the finish. The rest is lovely.

And the point of all this? Not to brag on the parlor trick of blind tasting. I didn't nail these wines. I can't pick Burgundian vineyards, if that's what you're after. But we did talk a bit about how I think it's hard to pick out wines, not like picking out the silhouette of a loved one, the soft jaw line or the unique shape of one's ears or something like that. The way a person looks, their lovely uniqueness, that's hard to disguise or miss even in silhouette. Wine? Getting close is saying a lot, and though I didn't recognize one of my own children (essentially), I found it interesting to see what I did recognize - something true about each wine. Something you have to listen for, not speak. I love that about wine.

April 11, 2013

NV Valdespino Oloroso Don Gonzalo

After a little Sherry immersion recently, I was inspired to buy a half bottle of Valdespino Oloroso "Don Gonzalo" to see what I thought. This 20+ year solera of wines apparently going back up to 100 years represents one of the intellectual curiosities of Sherry, and Port and many other fortifieds - how the heck is wine this old and this good so relatively reasonably priced, much less available fairly commonly?

Peruse a good wine shop and it's not unusual to find table wines from the '90s, even '80s or earlier, from top producers. Pricing is usually steep though. If the current release of a given producer is $50, the 20 year old model might be $150 or more.

But in most fortified wines, prices for older wines are incredibly reasonable. Not cheap, but for $23 I purchased a half bottle of wine that's at least 20 years old and really a blend of wines going back decades, a solera where casks of old wine are partially bottled, topped up with newer wine and aged longer, bottled in part again and refilled, etc., so that over time the base wine might be several decades old and the youngest wine in the blend, in this case anyway, is at least 20 years old.

Did you follow that? Essentially, this is 20 year old wine with some elements going back perhaps a century, in a tidy little bottle for just over $20. That's cheaper than a bad seat at an NBA game. Sometimes my head spins thinking about things like how. How is it possible?

Well, fortified wines aren't exactly trendy, and even if the hipsters have found Sherry, I think people talk about drinking Sherry more than they actually drink Sherry. Supply, meet demand.

But if you're adventurous and interested in value, two things I happen to believe are true of me, here's a wine for you.

The Don Gonzalo is tawny in color, fitting many years of cask aging. The aroma is pungent of flor, the surface yeast that is a trademark of Sherry, covering the wine surface in not quite filled barrels and giving a signature aroma and flavor you need to experience to understand. There is also a wooden scent, spirity, not unlike cognac.

The flavors follow, with lots of roasted nuts, wood spice, caramel and other sweet notes balanced by a medium body, a notable lack of thick syrupy texture, a pronounced saltiness, and an acid spine that carries the flavors to a long finish but cuts the sense of sweetness from the aroma and first taste impression.

In sum, the wine is complex and delicious, exotic and a little rancid (in a good way), caramel sweet but almost electrified with acidity that cuts a precise point in the center the wine. It ends up not being that sweet, so you might have this for dessert but pair it carefully with something a bit savory to accentuate the tension in the wine. Or you might just have it on its own after dinner to sip. It's that good.

Regardless, try a wine like this. It's like traveling to darkest Spain without leaving your dining room table. It's come all this way and waited so long for this moment, how can you resist?

March 30, 2013

Valdespino Sherry

Sherry is all the rage these days with wine hipsters. It's a funny thing though - so much Sherry is essentially industrially made wine with huge bodegas cranking out oceans of wine, much of it only decent. Hardly the set up you'd think the hipster crowd would gravitate towards.

In the US, most Sherry that you can find is Lustau, so that the category is almost synonymous with this one producer. Lustau has some incredible bottlings, but much of their range is pretty standard stuff that fails to excite.

The line up
Lately I've been learning about another not small but high quality producer, Valdespino. Without even knowing it, I'd enjoyed a Cream Sherry from them many years ago, the El Candado Cream Sherry, complete with a small lock o
n the T-top cork. I remember enjoying it but the kitchy lock suggested more than anything in the bottle that this wasn't special stuff.

This past month, Sherry maven Peter Liem visited Portland and led a number of sessions around town about Sherry. Sadly I missed out on all of them but took it upon myself to try a flight of lovely Valdespino sherries that we have at the SE Wine Collective. These are all 100% Palomino grape wines with varying levels of fortification, as well as solera aging where older casks are topped with newer wines over time to preserve character year to year.

First, the Fino Inocente, full of flor character, flor being the film yeast that defines so much sherry. Casks of wine are intentionally left partially full, so that the flor grows thick in the wine surface, simultaneously affecting the wine and yet preserving it as a barrier to undesirable characters. Fino is bone dry wine, this one with a pale color and a pleasant nutty pear aroma. The flavors are clean, salty, with a finish like hard cheese, earthy and a bit fruity, crisp. 15% alcohol by volume.

Tio Diego
Next, the Amontillado Tio Diego, aged apparently for eight years under the flor, and more time beyond that so that there's tawny color. The wine smells rich, even sweet, with a touch of rancio mixed in with the yeasty flor, altogether a penetrating aroma. Rich in the mouth, starts a bit barrel sweet but turns dry with strong, focused acidity, nutty with a long finish. Wow. 18%.

Finally, the Palo Cortado Viejo Calle Ponce, richer still with a dark color from 8 years under flor and eight more years of standard barrel aging. Aromas of bananas and butter, not unlike a dessert wine. Intense flavors, rich but dry with more fresh nuts and lots of them, a warm finish from the fortification, very long. My only question is - when to drink something as intense as this? It's dry but like a dessert wine, so maybe with the right after meal pairing, or perhaps as an aperitif. For drinking, I prefer the Tio Diego, but this is obviously the class of the flight. 20%.

Later I bought a half bottle of Valdespino Oloroso Don Gonzalo VOS, that I'll enjoy soon and over time. One practical thing I love about sherry is that the wines are so stable in an open bottle, so there's no special rush to consume them quickly once opened, though a Fino to my taste is best as fresh as you can get it.

March 21, 2013

Epistolary wine

There are many stories about how I came to make wine. Sometimes I'm not sure which ones are real and which are fiction, not in a lie sense but perhaps wishful thinking. The epiphany bottle. The childhood scent memory of a barrel cellar. The book of tasting notes I've kept all this time. They all happened but maybe they weren't as singularly pivotal as they seem at times.

The story I've come to understand is most true, however unlikely, is the muse of strangely beautiful music, in this case Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet's now 20 years gone recording The Juliet Letters. For many Costello fans it seems the record is best forgotten, a one-off dalliance of a rock and roller posturing with classical music. It's hardly surprising given the vitiriol some Costello devotees save for anything not from the first several albums with his groundbreaking band the Attractions. It's as if anything since then is a slap in the face of that greatness.

I guess I see things differently. All that earlier music is wonderful, but the recording I keep going back to is The Juliet Letters (even more than King of America, which now seems oddly dated - maybe it's the hollow remaster from Rykodisc, whatever). The Juliet Letters is the most true to me, and my simple approach to wine. Even why I make Pinot Noir is best expressed in terms of this record. Lyrical. Acoustic. Quiet. Pure. Heartbreaking. Epistolary.

As is the case with so many significant things in a life, the recording came at the right time for me. It was something reflective I needed in that moment. I didn't love it at first and maybe that's where most listeners left off. The difference for me might have been my lucky attendance at Elvis and the Brodskys' performance at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus near my childhood home. Royce Hall to that point was a site of horror for me, the place my parents sent my brother and me for interminable theater performances for children. I've blocked out what we actually saw. I just remember any trip to Royce Hall would gladly have been traded for a few cavity fillings at the dentist.

Image stolen from www.elviscostello.info/wiki

A dear old friend and Elvis fanatic was in grad school at UCLA and got us two student tickets right on the floor, maybe 20 rows back. We walked in, the horror of Royce Hall immediately exorcised when we sat down and I noticed the familiar, incredibly beautiful neck of Jamie Lee Curtis right in front of me. We'd all received pens from the ushers when we walked in and I mused out loud, why the pens? Jamie Lee turned around and answered - The Juliet Letters. Get it?

Uh, yeah. By the way, I love you.

Happily I didn't actually say that. She just smiled, I felt stupid and said, of course, and she turned around. In the moment I thought - wait, I knew your half-brother Nick, he was a childhood friend and he had recently passed away. I wanted to say something but obviously this wasn't the place. The show was about to start. I still think about him though, and when the curtain went up I was in a heightened place emotionally.

This concert was the best performance I've ever seen. The music, even Elvis' imperfect but incredibly committed vocals, blew me away. In the current vernacular, he owned it, dog. And I wasn't alone in the rapture. I've never heard an audience applaud like we all did that night, to the point where, after several encores, we pleaded for even more and the performers were visibly taken aback, saying they simply didn't have any more material.

They'd performed the whole record in two movements, then played a few of old Costello gems, Tom Waits' More Than Rain, and what was that, were they teasing us with The Beach Boys' God One Knows? Yes, they wound around into it, giving perhaps the most perfect song I've ever heard and maybe ever will. The crowd could not be silenced until the performers decided they'd sort of messed up one of the initial numbers and asked, in lieu of having anything else, could they play it again? Yes, of course.

I walked out of Royce Hall that night changed in a way I didn't understand at the time. I still don't, quite. I just heard the violin that night in a way I've never forgotten. My parents had taken me to see Pearlman at the Hollywood Bowl a couple times. I knew the instrument was singular. It's just this night it slugged me in the gut and hasn't ever gone away.

You see, Pinot Noir is the violin. It's the one. It's one note, long, singular, incredibly pure. It's a small chord, the growl of assertive bowing, weightless with finesse and muscular in strength. It's often overwhelmed in the rock and roll of new world terroir. It will change your life before you know what's happened.

It did for me. Not immediately, but I was searching for that sound in some part of my life, that incredibly beautiful tone, the lyric. I already had a passion for wine and it wasn't really until years later that Pinot emerged in me. But it did, and I moved to Oregon, to me the most exciting place for wine in the new world, even if so much of the wine world overlooks it in favor of the canonical classics. I'm not provinical. I love the world of wine. But this place is the one where I'm writing from.

And so, epistolary wine. We learned in college literature classes that epistolary novels are those typically written in letters. Les Liaisons dangereuses is a classic example and well worth reading. Likewise, The Juliet Letters is epistolary music, each song a letter, the concept apparently inspired by letters so many people around the world have apparently written to the mythic Juliet and mailed to somewhere in Verona. Searching for something.

Only some of the lyrics actually refer to Juliet or Romeo. Instead there are letters of all kinds, letters of suspicion, letters of lost love, a suicide note, even a letter that gets to the heart of the matter, admitting in the song "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet' - I don't know why I'm writing to you.

We don't always know why we write, but I know now why I make wine. Each one is an epistle, a letter home from the time and place, the year of the wine and ofmy life. These bottles are where I'm coming from, something I need you to know, written in the single note or powerful chord of a grape, so that twenty years later it's still there, ringing true, compelling, crying it hurts of its story so bad.

That's why I'm writing to you.

March 13, 2013

Farewell Bob Wood

Just a quick note tonight to remember my long time friend Bob Wood, who died this past week here in Portland. Bob was a wine lover and huge supporter of Oregon wine, and good wines of the world. He even followed this little blog and commented occasionally over the years. He was a crusty, no bullshit guy who loved his kids, loved golf, and hated all kinds of random things from cargo shorts, Crocs and Bieber to bad grammar and ostentatious wineries that I will leave nameless here (sorry Bob, but I like buying their used barrels).

Underneath all the crust Bob was a sweet man, even if he didn't let you see it too much. Our last communication a couple weeks ago was about another thing that drove him nuts - signs that state the obvious. This one, a picture Bob had just taken, means more now, though we emailed back and forth then about how our kids loved Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. I didn't think anything more about it at the time, but now it's all the more painful to again say goodbye to someone without being able to say goodbye. They won't ever quite know what they meant and mean to you. I find that feeling impossible to reconcile, heartbreaking.

Sadly, the sidewalk ends this time somewhere in SW Portland. Farewell Bob. We'll keep up the fight while you're away, and keep making shitty Oregon Pinot in your memory.

March 01, 2013

Celebration

Some of you may remember that, in addition to making wine as Vincent Wine Company and being a partner in another wine business called Guild Winemakers,  I have a day job in higher education. I know, how does all that work? Sometimes I wonder myself.

I'm committed to my career in higher ed and after a long, far too long time, I'm leaving my current job at a local public university to take a nice position at another local university, smaller and private. I couldn't be more excited. It certainly is something to celebrate.

Let's be clear - bubbles are not just for celebrations. It's a shame that Champagne and the world of sparkling wines are so often saved only to celebrate. Those of us who know better know that bubbles go tremendously well with all kinds of food, and honestly, short of some nasty cheap, sweet "champagne" out there, is there a wine category with more to offer at the lower end than sparkling wine?

Sparkling wines at reasonable prices from Italy, Spain, France, California, Oregon, even the state of New Mexico (Gruet!), abound on shelves across the US. I honestly don't know why I don't drink more of them myself.

Perhaps I too am guilty, and with the new job, what did I do? I went out and bought a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

I didn't spend a ton, paying about $23, but it's true I didn't exactly cheap out. Still, the NV Clotilde Davenne Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Extra is astonishingly good bubbly worthy of celebration and even a simple dinner at home. It's excellent wine for some money but hardly too much.

This producer is located in the Chablis region, where the chalky soils suggest the unique terroirs of nearby Champagne. I knew nothing of the wine when I bought it. I just trusted a favorite retailer - Division Wines in SE Portland - and it's what they had in the cold box. I didn't expect it to be bad, I just had no idea how good this would be.

Pale in color with a lovely texture of bubbles and bright acidity, the middle palate was the key. A burst of energy in the mouth took this from pleasant sparkler to near Champagne in quality, and I don't say that lightly. The finish was pretty long and graceful, and the bottle disappeared rather quickly. This was irresistible wine.

The lesson? Bubbles are indeed great for celebrations. But when you can get a wine of this quality at this kind of price, a wine that puts a smile on your face so effortlessly, why on earth wouldn't you drink it more often? There's always something to celebrate, no?

February 14, 2013

In defense of the tasting note

It's become fashionable in wine geek circles to bash the tasting note. It seems the venerable note has gotten mixed up in the fight over scoring wines on the 100 point scale, so that "flavor descriptors" and other hallmarks of most tasting notes are about as stylish as wine ratings.

You'll get no love from me over rating wines with points. What's a "94" versus a "95?" Points suggest a false constancy about wine. They are objective about a medium judged by subjective instruments, our noses and mouths. Really, they are just guesses, and I'd rather read a more prosaic, possibly even poetic, estimation of a wine.

I love a good tasting note. And I love this book, my first  book on the subject of wine, the one, something I'll carry with me always. Yes, always.

It's not a chapter book. It doesn't recount the history of wine and wine culture. There are no sordid tales of wine industry intrigue and despair, no polemics about biodynamics or terroir or anything we usually see in print these days.

Nope, it's just a book full of tasting notes, from the master himself, legendary Christie's wine auctioneer Michael Broadbent. And if you like tasting notes, this is a book for you, even though it's 20 years old.

You won't find tasting notes on recent vintages (though there is a more recent update of this book). You won't find a section on "orange" wines or a vertical tasting of some obscure Jura producer that's hip today. I don't think there is even a tasting not from any wine from the Jura region of France. However, you will find notes on wines going back two centuries, notes that tell a history of wine through the spare prose of Broadbent's notebooks.

Broadbent's position as head auctioneer allowed him to vet cellars full of all kinds of treasures and taste incredibly rare wines prior to auction to ensure provenance and quality. He was also regularly invited to high profile tastings of famous bottles. That a few of those tastings were later found to based on forgeries - and how do you authenticate wines you've maybe never tasted before, or once or twice over decades? - should not affect our view of the man or his great work.

Yes, tasting and writing notes about wine is great work. I may never have become a winemaker were it not for this book. I certainly wouldn't appreciate the tasting note so much, nor have learned so much reading about wines I'll certainly never have the chance to try.

Broadbent's prose is generally plain. I swear that somewhere in this book there's an eyebrow raising allusion to a wine smelling like, and I try to quote from memory, a clean, well-scrubbed youth after exercise.

Mostly though, it's full of nondescript phrases and flourishes like "A delicate, charming wine, soft, scented, with good length." Yet these words are tremendously meaningful to me. Who doesn't want to be charming? Who doesn't love wine that's delicate?

It's all the more interesting that this note is on the 1847 Ch. Rauzan. Yes, 18. This book is full of both the simple and then profound, much like great wine.

Yes, the notorious forger Hardy Rodenstock's tastings account for a portion of some of the more famous wines. Broadbent has been pilloried for his alleged complicity in accepting fakes as genuine, and while I'm sure there are decisions he regrets, how can we hold Broadbent to task too much when he was often tasting wines for the first time?

Or better yet, what if we let his notes speak for themselves? About the 1928 Ch. Petrus tasted at a Rodenstock event in the mid-'80s, "Extraordinarily rich, high-toned bouquet, sweet, hammy, reminiscent of a late-harvest Zindandel." Perhaps that's exactly what it was, assuming this was one of the fakes.

It's true that I don't refer much to this book these days, though I have had fun diving into it again in preparation for this post. And the torn dust jacket, the broken spine, those don't change my feelings for this book. It's incredibly special to me, more so than it probably should be and certainly more so than might make sense to anyone else. Some things just don't make sense, but there they are.

And here's this book, still.

February 03, 2013

Perfect wine for crab

With the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl today, I had to have Dungeness crab and good white wine while enjoying the game.

For a long time I found myself drinking white Burgundy with crab. Then a friend commented innocently, white Burg? Oaky chardonnay?

He had a point. Minerally and older oak aged white Burgundy can be a lovely match for the sweet flavors of cracked crab. But anything with newer oak showing in the flavor profile can overwhelm the delicate nature of good crab.

So today I thought - why not something from the south of France, where white wine and seafood may both have been invented. But should I have something rich and fancy? No.

How about a simply Vin des Pays des Bouches du Rhone from Ch. de Roquefort? Perfect. This bottle was the 2011 Petit Sale de Villeneuve, which sells for around $10 and comes from organically grown Clairette grapes (one of the common white grapes of the southern Rhone).

There's nothing terribly remarkable about this wine. Except that it is simply perfect, to my taste anyway, for crab or other shellfish.

The wine is pale in color and fresh smelling with an unmistakable lemony aroma and flavor. The finish is not long or profound. It's just delicious.


There's even a little note on the back label of the wine from the owner of Juveniles in Paris to say this isn't "serious" wine. It isn't for oohing and ahhing over. Just drinking. Perhaps in large amounts.

I couldn't agree more. And even though my 49ers didn't pull off a miracle comeback in a tortuously long game, the wine delivered. Look for it if you love good wine and want a great pairing for seafood. I found this at Storyteller in Portland and it's a Thomas Calder Selection, imported by Triage in Seattle.