December 28, 2013


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.