November 30, 2014

To Burgundy and Back Again, by Roy Cloud

Something I've done more since harvest ended last month is read. Because it's still a very busy time for wine sales and shipping, I haven't read nearly enough. That should change this month and next, as holidays allow for more time and the new year is predictably slow for wine sales.

I have a number of books - wine related and not - on my night stand, and one I finished recently is To Burdundy and Back Again, by Roy Cloud. It's not a great book, but it's a fun, engaging and personal story from the proprietor of Vintage '59 Imports.

The story is set in 1997 when Cloud is starting his wine business and he goes to France with his French-speaking brother to search for producers to import. Cloud's father had recently been injured in a bike accident, and the transitional journey serves as catharsis for the brothers.

I enjoyed the stories of traveling in French wine country, from Alsace to Burgundy to the Rhone and Provence, with in depth sections on producers as unconventional as Marc Tempe in Alsace to the elegant and haunting wines of Joseph Voillot in Burgundy. As armchair wine travel, this book is an easy, fun read.

On a more personal note, I especially enjoyed the extended quote and then riff on Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, with the brothers retracing some of Hem and Fitzgerald's well lubricated road trip from Lyon to Paris, starring a roadside picnic and fresh Maconais white drunk straight from the bottle. I love that book and loved finding such rich reference to it here.

Cloud has a writing degree and there's more structure to the book than just the story of a wine importer starting out. I didn't necessarily think the book succeeds on that higher level. It's just a fun read, the kind of book that makes you hungry and thirsty as you get out a map to chart locations along the route. There's no higher compliment for wine/travel writing.

November 29, 2014

Ten years

What do you say when you haven't spoken for so long? I think about that. It's good to be back.

The last few months have been the busiest of my life, wonderfully so. It just can't go on like this forever, working a full time job, making and selling my own wine, working as a partner in another wine business, not to mention duties at home as father and husband. It's a little crazy to be honest.

But it represents something I set out to do ten years ago that actually came to pass, by hard work, persistence really, and definitely a lot of patience. I wouldn't want it any other way.

I kind of have a thing about remembering dates in my life. So it strikes me today that exactly ten years ago, after a tumultuous Thanksgiving weekend where I was preoccupied with taking a job I didn't want just because I thought (with some prompting) that we could use the higher salary, I drove home from the final interview and had what you might call a "come to Jesus" moment. 

In the old Honda, driving home on I-5 through north Portland on a grey Monday morning, I committed to a life in wine. I thought, I have a job that I'm pretty good at, with a lot of flexibility and paid time off. Why not use that to work days and even harvest seasons in wine? Who knows where it might lead? Certainly it would be better than that shit job that could have ruined everything.

I had no idea anything would actually come of it. And I don't think anyone in my life - including me - really knew what I was doing. It seemed so far fetched to make my own wine commercially some day that I didn't exactly declare that goal to anyone, for a while anyway.

I just went for it, getting more involved in the local industry in many different ways, the stories of those years recorded here by intention and chance.

I started this blog pretty soon after this day ten years ago. I thought that I'd write to process what I was learning and doing in wine, and I'll admit I thought maybe someone who was searching for me would find it and get a really good sense of where I was coming from in wine.

Ten years have gone by so quickly and I still feel like I've only just begun, perhaps like a vineyard that takes years to bear fruit and then a few years more to really start hitting its stride. 

So it's good to be back writing. And better to think of what's to come next.

August 31, 2014

East coast get away

We're back from a two week trip to New York City and state, as well as New England. This was a family vacation so not wine focused. However,  with distributors in both New York and Rhode Island, I had to take advantage of visiting the area to work the market a bit. If you're in the area, look for my Vincent wines in excellent shops like Frankly Wines in lower Manhattan and The Savory Grape in East Greenwich, RI, among other shops and restaurants.

Two of my sisters live in the NE, and one I mentioned with her husband a few months back in the post about 1978 Chateau Gloria. Every wine has a story, good ones anyway, and this one was fun to retell with the protagonists, reliving a special and emotional part of our lives.

Then in New York City, where we began and just finished up our odyssey, we visited with old San Francisco friends now living on the upper west side. How lovely to spend time catching up, eating delicious home cooked risotto and roast chicken, and drinking a few memorable if not A-list wine.

First to toast old friendship, the NV Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Selection Belles Annees Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, which we picked up at an otherwise sizable but lackluster shop around the corner. I didn't realized it's only 4-5 atmospheres of pressure, meaning less carbonation than typical Champagne. That and being just a touch not cool made it delicious but a bit flat on the palate, lacking the dynamic edge I think either a touch more sparkle and/or just a few degrees cooler would have given. How's that for geeky.

Then with dinner first the 2011 Antoine Jobard Bourgogne Aligote, crystaline and razory crisp with lemon and leesy aromas and flavors, flavory but so clean on the finish, thirst slaking, perfect with the meal. Must be older oak aged, perhaps a bit of stainless steel or perhaps not. I would love to find more of this.

Then a taste of red, blind without being wine geeky about it, just efficient. Youthful vibrant magenta in the glass, floral and clearly syrah, bright flavored but with good depth, green olives, purple fruits, so floral but deliciously so. I guess something from Domaine Faury, perhaps their St. Joseph Viellies Vignes. No, it's old vines but Victoria, Australia, the 2011 Jamsheed Shiraz. Revelatory and on par with the best of the "new California" school, leaner but so delicious and lengthy, sneaky excellent without hitting yourself over the head with oak barrels. Not sure the price, but if I made syrah and this were in my barrels, I'd be very happy.

After eating, we walked down to Lincoln Center for gelato. We found a crowd of perhaps 2,000 seated in the courtyard of the Metropolitan Opera House, watching a recording of an opera that I believe was Italian. Regardless, the air was light and just warm enough, the gelato amazing along with the look on my son's face as he watched the screen intently. What a New York night, just what I wanted the kids to experience. A true get away for us all.

August 09, 2014

New Vincent wines coming

Readers, if you're interested in getting on my mailing list for Vincent Wine Company wines, do so now to make sure you get in on the first offer I'm doing this month on upcoming 2013 vintage wines.

The new wines go into bottle in September and will be released and shipped in the fall, once weather has cooled and at least the bulk of the upcoming harvest is done. 

My mailing list is simple. Join with your email address and you'll get access to everything I make at the best prices I offer. I even custom bottle 1.5L magnums, and offer free shipping on case orders over $300.  I don't kick you off the list if you don't buy, or do anything lame like some producers seem to do with their customers. I'm not made of money either and I appreciate anyone who's interested in what I'm doing, at any level. Ok, end of sales pitch.

June 21, 2014

New (and old) California comes to Oregon

Exciting things are happening in California wine. But I'm not talking about Napa and cabernet, or Somona and pinot. Not even central coast and syrah and other Rhone varieties, as well suited as these varieties are in their respective regions.

What's truly exciting in my native state are wines from varieties long disrespected in California like trousseau gris (grey riesling) and verdelho, among many others, as well as modern favorites from appellations well known and obscure alike but made in less conventional ways. Grapes harvested at moderate sugars and fermented in ways both new and very old. Be it no added yeasts or little or no sulfur, as was the way for centuries, or fermenting in concrete tanks shaped like eggs, things in California are very different from what I left behind in 2000 when I moved north to Oregon.

SF Chronicle wine writer Jon Bonne has christened this back to the future movement "the new California wine," which is the title of his eminently readable and fairly comprehensive book published in late 2013. Bonne contrasts the latest trends in CA wine with the more conventional oaky fruity wines that Bonne has dubbed "big flavor" wines.

Indeed, so much modern California white and red wine seems built to overpower the senses. Big ripeness, big alcohols, big textures, pungent aromas if not always fragrance and full bodied flavors that lead to wine notes full of words like "rich" and "plush" and "jammy."

California makers undoubtedly react abrasively at descriptions like that, and it's true that generalizations are full of exceptions. But so many of them will also tell you all about waiting to pick grapes until the flavors "explode" in your mouth, with well worn narratives about the difference between sugar ripeness and true physiological ripeness to explain where that heft comes from and then how wines of high alcohol are not inherently out of balance if married with proper fruit density. That's "big flavor" and you'll even hear arguments that California is made for this approach. Why try to make "light" wines that apologists will try to pass off as "elegant" when the terroir largely tells us to make wines the size of mid-70s American gas guzzlers?

It can be entertaining hearing Californians (and true, some Oregonians) try to thread the big flavor / elegance needle.

I've stayed in touch with California wines over the years, and let's be clear that whether it's the late picked and typically high alcohol (but balanced!) wines of the Scholium Project to more recent efforts from lower ripeness producers like Forlorn Hope, the new California wines hardly lack for flavor. What they do have, in the latter case anyway, are brighter acidities.

Strangely, acidity has gotten the reputation of shutting down flavor in wine when the opposite is true. Acidity is the tent pole or laundry line on which the fabric of a wine's flavor can be displayed. Acidity provides length of flavor too, so "big flavor" wines without acidity that allegedly "clips" the finish of a wine may really be "big impact" wines that lack length and real closure, or finish. What they do have is another explosion of flavor when you take the next sip, and the market still loves these wines.

But things are changing. The other day I have the chance to taste through a mix of "new California" wines distributed in Portland by PDX Wines, producers like Forlorn Hope, Dirty and Rowdy and Broc. Interestingly, several of the producers on display weren't new or newish at all, Calera, Sky and Kalin Cellars among them. These older producers haven't changed much of what they've done for years. Trends are simply shifting and what's old is new again. It's nice to see.

In my own production, I'm not driven by trends, rather by my tastes and my personal exploration in wine making. Then I think I'm not nearly trendy enough. How do you stay front of mind in the market? But you can't work like that and, even if the road is tough, it's reassuring to see old school producers that I aim to be in the far future both surviving and perhaps thriving as they keep on doing their thing. Think Neil Young in the early '90s when grunge rockers made him their godfather.

With all that, some thoughts on what I tried. Overall, I didn't love every wine and I won't deny that some of those I loved I still might struggle to find the right setting and people for. That's my issue though, not anything about the wine. What I find most exciting about the new California wine is how much the wines will force us to grow and change as tasters, not so that we accept "flaws" as good, rather that we don't dismiss what's unusual simply because we're put out of our comfort zone. Which most critics of new California wine tend to do. But that's another story.

The wines:

Hardy Wallace from Dirty and Rowdy was pouring two wines that I enjoyed. The 2013 Semillon was grassy and fresh, more like old school sauvignon blanc to my taste, perhaps due to partial skin fermentation? The 2013 Mourvedre Especial, fermented on the skins for a few days and pressed off to finish in cask had an amber, light red wine color but works more like rose. Autumn leaves, strawberries, fascinating. I love that D&R are doing several different mourvedre bottlings and I'd like to try them all.

I have a couple wines from Forlorn Hope in my drinking queue at home so it was nice to meet winemaker Matthew Rorick. He's doing some crazy, challenging things. The 2012 Verdelho was a bit wild, with a cloudy appearance, a lifted fragrance and waxy, broad flavors with fresh acidity. The 2013 Trou Grit (trousseau gris) was a bit more conventional, showing a little botrytis richness and delicious ripe apple flavors. The 2012 Mil Amores red blend was definitely not overripe, with an herbal, floral pungent aroma and tight flavors, I'll think about holding the bottle I have a while. And the 2009 Deus Mathieux Petite Sirah was a lovely example of this variety, briary, spicy black fruits, definitely the most conventional tasting wine of the bunch. Fascinating things here, I must try more.

Don Heistuman from Bebame was there pouring his 2013 Rose from 3/4 cabernet franc, the rest gamay noir. So pale and fresh, this is wonderful California rose. And then a lovely rouge of mostly cabernet franc, with a simple aroma but pleasing grip on the palate, the Loire valley inspiration ringing true in the Sierra foothills terroir. No surprise on the wines here, it's another example of old being new again as Don's partner in this delicious and affordable wines is Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John, the Neil Young of CA winemakers.

Calera's two chardonnays were standouts, the 2012 Central Coast bottling surprisingly finessed and true and the 2011 Mt. Harlan a notch or three higher, with a mealy terroir quality that you simply can't invent in the cellar. Wow. I hadn't tried Sky Vineyards in years but the 2009 Zinfandel Mt. Veeder is 15.1% alcohol but old school translucent, peppery zin that screams of what's good in larger scaled California wine. Barolo and Chateauneuf can routinely hit such alcoholic heights and we don't necessarily turn our noses up. Why should we here? Lovely, classic stuff. I didn't love the 2012 Pinot Noir Central Coast - it was fine - but the 2010 Pinot Noir de Villiars was all class.

And then there's Kalin, truly the old becoming new again. Kalin Cellars has never followed a conventional path and, while I'm not sure, I wouldn't be surprised if these wines are in fact new releases. There's the 2000 Semillon, long a reference point wine in CA. This one is toasty with fat, waxy lemony semillon flavors, a little wild from volatile paint notes mixed in but so fresh and lemony on the finish you can't help but stop and think for a while, about the wine, about what food it should pair with. Then you sniff it again. That's what great wine does. However, I didn't love the 1999 Pinot Noir Cuvee DD, very mature looking and minty smelling. Would have like to try this one several years ago.

Of the other newer generation producers, the 2012 Wind Gap Syrah Nellesen Vineyard was astonishing. Floral, peppery, truly syrah with density but not heft, really nice wine. Then labels new to me, a Cotes du Rhone like blend from Folk Machine that was delicious table wine and a basic Chardonnay from Brea that would be perfect in keg and carafe at restaurants anywhere. Assuming you don't mind crisp, dry chardonnay without much if any oak influence.

June 15, 2014

Reflecting on dad

It's Father's Day in the US, a day to reflect on being a dad to my two kids and think back to my late father's role in my life.

One of the most difficult things about him being gone is not sharing the wine business I started shortly after his death in 2009.

I remember, and perhaps recounted here, my stupid first reaction to hearing on the phone that he had terminal cancer and wouldn't be here much longer. I said something like, shit, I'm finally starting my wine business and I want you here for it.

He was gracious with my awkward moment, and of course I shouldn't have said it, but it's true. I miss him all it the time, for so many reasons, not the least of which is his business knowledge and advice. I'm reduced to imagining what he would say and I think he did a pretty good job as a dad because I can hear most of the answers. He's truly alive in me.

A special connection we shared was our birthday, once de Mayo. We were both born on Mother's Day, May 11, and our last shared birthday in 2008 again fell on Mother's Day. We celebrated together here in Oregon, a weekend I'll never forget.

It's fun having that same date as our starting point. I remember his wedding anniversary in 1992 when I was exactly as old as he had been on his wedding day. We had lunch that day and I remember remarking to him that I wasn't nearly as ready as he must have been for marriage. There were several opportunities in my life where I could mark myself directly to the events of his life.

And now that I've surpassed his age at my birth by a few years, the game extends to remembering back to exactly how old my dad was at a particular time in my early life.

This year our birthday again fell on Mother's Day, and it brought me back to 1975. I turned six that day, my dad 45, my age now. We were on a family weekend in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, fishing for trout and spending time together.

Sunday came and we celebrated together with my mom and aunt, the birthday boys and Mother's Day moms. It was so special and here I am exactly that age now, feeling a lot younger in my mind than my dad seemed to me at the time. Funny how that is.

So for this birthday I had to open something special. Not great wine, not fancy wine, but special wine, in this case a bottle of 1969 Concannon Petite Sirah Livermore Valley.

My dad loved Petite Sirah and Concannon was a favorite budget choice. He was self employed, had seven kids raised by a stay at home mom. They didn't drink much fancy wine, but he enjoyed different wines and loved my interest in all the details about wine - where it's from, how it's grown, how it's made, ultimately what we think of it in the glass.

The challenge with Petite Sirah is finesse. It's the BBQ ribs of wine, delicious but more powerful than nuanced, more about a mess a flavors in your mouth than discretion or restraint. Most young Petite Sirah cry out for age. Most older Petite Sirah, in my experience and opinion, are more about lasting than transforming into something of the highest distinction.

With all that and my father in mind, I opened this bottle a month ago and quite enjoyed it. In part for the wine - it was alive and flavory, not particularly complex or compelling but a good drink as the Brits might say - and in large part for the significance.

I imagine my dad had this vintage a few times back in the early '70s. Maybe he stashed a few in the tiny basement "cellar" of a few cardboard boxes of wine he kept over time. Perhaps not, but who cares.

Here I was, el dia de la madre, once de Mayo, the first time without my dad. But there he was, there he is, with me nonetheless, whether he knows it or not.

It wasn't the first time a wine has so powerfully brought me together with someone distant or gone. I imagine it won't be the last either.

May 22, 2014

2012 Merriman Chenin Blanc The Brasher Block

I haven't posted in quite a while but this wine is so good, I'm compelled write.

I've long thought that Chenin Blanc is a white grape variety that should do really well in the new world. Not as cheap, sweet, insipid white wine that we know from California jug wine.

Instead, as it can be when grow in the right places and farmed with the belief that it can produce quality wine. Wine that's rich but nervy, golden fruited and waxy, even honeyed. To my knowledge, there are still too few good examples. Perhaps I should make one.

I'm inspired by a wine like this, the 2012 Merriman Chenin Blanc The Brasher Block, from nearly 40-year-old vines outside of Yakima, WA.

It's deeply aromatic, with red apples, wool, herbs and wax scents. The flavors are rich, with yellow fruit, wax and bright acidity that dominates a bit but also carries the finish. The wine will need time to show its best, but it's electric now and already simply delicious.

I'd age this three to five years, or maybe a few more beyond that, and expect the intensity of the wine to unfurl on the clothesline-like acidity. Great job Merriman and my old bud Erik Brasher. I love this.

April 15, 2014

A long time coming but worth it

Something I love about wine is its longevity. Perhaps I just want to think I'll last as long as some wines, a hundred years or more. Really I think it's more about two things. I love that drinking old wine allows us to experience something from decades ago or more. What other food incorporate such time travel?

I also love that you can drink something you may have drunk decades before, meeting again like old friends, reconnecting.

It's true that you can even reconnect with a wine you've never really known, just seen, and a place you've only been once and people you hardly knew, but remember. The 1978 Chateau Gloria from the Bordeaux commune of St. Julien is one such wine for me.

Let's go back to fall 1992. I was a young geek, already entranced by the magic of wine. I was living in southern California at the time but traveled to New England to spend Thanksgiving with my sister and brother-in-law in Rhode Island.

Over the weekend we traveled to western Massachusetts, the Berkshires, somewhere I hadn't seen before and haven't since. It's just stayed with me, sweetly.

We stayed one night in a rustic house owned by my brother-in-law's dear uncle and godfather, deep in a birch forest that reminded me of Austria. This uncle had not so long before seen tragedy, having survived a horrible car accident that killed his wife a year or two earlier, a truck having crossed the median and hit them.

I'd met the couple at my sister's wedding a few years earlier still and they struck a chord with me. They meant so much to my brother-in-law, who in turn befriended me when I was the very young, youngest brother of his girlfriend, and they meant more to me in that moment for it.

These thoughts made our visit to the Berkshires a bit more deliberate, for me anyway, and memorable in return. The uncle wasn't there, but had invited us up and assured us to make ourselves at home. We walked in the woods, cooked food and generally got away from it all after a lovely but busy Thanksgiving holiday.

And there was wine - wine we drank and wine I just looked at and wondered about.

My brother-in-law knew I was already into wine and he shared with me before our arrival that his uncle loved wine as well. Sure enough, there was a nice if modest rack of a variety of wines, any of which I would have liked to try but one in particular that called out to me, the 1978 Ch. Gloria.

There we several bottles in fact. I thought, surely as we are making ourselves at home, surely we could open one, no? But my brother-in-law is far more disciplined than I and he telegraphed that, no, we aren't touching the uncle's collection. Beside the fact that that's horrible wine karma, these were a collection of a man and his deceased wife. There's no coming between that.

Still I've always wondered about that wine. What was it like? How did he select it and how long ago? And why? I imagined it was a special wine for them, something only they knew. The wine may be fairly common, but their connection to it would be something only they had. It was special at least for that. Someday I would find it for myself and see.

Sure enough, the wine comes up at auction not infrequently, and for a lot less than you might imagine if you've kept up with the continually soaring prices for new release Bordeaux. Not infrequently, you can find 30 year old wines for less than new releases cost, the top vintages aside. Old wines from good producers in good vintages seem to fall through the cracks.

I've bid on this wine unsuccessfully a few times, holding out for the lucky auction where I'd get it for a song. Sure enough two bottles came my way, and the other night, nearly 22 years after thinking about this wine, wondering what it would be like, I opened a bottle with dinner.

I'll admit, I didn't expect much. Perhaps I got lured into the low price, but surely the wine would be old and tired. Even in 1992 I remember thinking, hmm, 14 year old Bordeaux, maybe it's too old? Nonsense, of course, but I had a lot to learn.

I still do.

The dry cork of the 1978 Chateau Gloria broke in half as I eased it out of the bottle. I poured the wine carefully, its mature ruby color translucent and limpid. I sniffed and it was more than alive, perfumed like a mature Chinon, with tobacco, leather, gravel and plum scents. The flavors were similarly delicate but complex, medium bodied, soft and resolved with fair persistence, soft and flavory, very alive if totally mature.

I thought of the Berkshires, of autumn leaves, of the woods, of cool, earthy scents like a forest walk on a cold fall morning. And I thought of passing time and loss, and then of joy, of longevity, of the wonder of a glimpse into the past that's not the past anymore at all.

It's right here, always.