The Convivial Origins of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Ξ December 29th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

As returning readers of this blog well know I am a tireless enthusiast for the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I feel it has enormous unrealized potential, this despite fistfuls of awards won by its wines over the years. What is missing is greater national recognition. A stronger effort must be made by winegrowers, through their modest collective instruments of publicity and marketing, to better promote the unique qualities of the region. Terroir means something here. Creative indifference to both fashion and the latest technological innovation is the rule. A barn not a faux chateau is the dominant architectural form. If you like your wine spiked with masking oak, look elsewhere. The preference is for structured, balanced wines, approachable in their youth but, like the winemakers here, in it for the long haul. Indeed, the continuity of the AVAs wine history is unmistakable.
After I had finished my interview with Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (pt.1, pt.2, and pt.3) and was preparing to leave he volunteered the following meditation on the origins of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Jeff Emery The Santa Cruz Mountains (SCM) AVA is unique in a number of ways. It was the first American Viticultural Area whose criteria was based entirely on geographical and climatological considerations. All the appellations up to that point were generally political boundaries. For instance, Napa Valley. To say Napa Valley on a wine label, on a bottle, you only have to be within Napa county. It is actually somewhat meaningless in terms of climate, soils and geography. Whereas in Europe those things are very strictly controlled based on where you are, that type of thing.
What ended up becoming the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Growers Association, through a number of different changes, was a group of what was being called the new renaissance of winemakers in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late ’60s early 70’s. They would get together for these monthly or quarterly pot lucks and discuss the criteria to submit to the government for establishing the SCM AVA.
The main players felt strongly that appellations needed to mean more than they had previously in the US. Appellations here were kind of a farce, a straw version of what they were in Europe. They really needed to have reasons why. The main people involved in that push were David Bennion of Ridge, Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Val and Dexter Ahlgren of Ahlgren Vineyard, Bob Mullen of Woodside Vineyards, and I’m sure I’m going to miss some people…, Jan and Nat Sherrill of an outfit called Sherrill Cellars, long gone now; so this core group of people, we would get together and meet. I was a teenager when I came to this group in the late ’70s. The main focus was developing this AVA criteria. We had endless meetings about what to do with vineyards such as Bates Ranch which has an upper portion and a lower portion, and the lower portion would have been kicked out of the appellation based on the criteria that the upper was in. So a little gerrymander was made for that one….
In short, the boundary is much more complicated than this but generally the West side of the Santa Cruz Mountains the elevation has to be above 400 feet with the idea being that if it is below 400 feet it would be too cold for quality grape growing. And on the East side of the mountain range the vineyards have to be above 800 feet, the idea being that below 800 feet it is too hot for quality grape growing. There are a whole bunch of exceptions to that but, by and large that’s the deal. So when you look at a map of the SCM AVA it’s this incredibly squiggly line because it follows the contour lines. The most arbitrary limits, perhaps, are the northern terminus at Hwy 92 [Half Moon Bay] and Hwy 152 in the south [Watsonville].
So this group got together to establish this. The appellation was approved in 1981 by the TTB or what was called the ATF at the time. Now, they’d gotten used to meeting together and had, in and amongst establishing the appellation criteria, they had also done some marketing things and some tastings here and there, done some collective efforts like that, so it just naturally evolved into a marketing group for the Santa Cruz Mountains. Then, I’m sketchy on the dates, a group of folks started a Santa Cruz County group that was much more marketing-based than the Santa Cruz Mountains group, and it was sort of a sub-group. But as time went on they became more and more similar, in fact, a whole bunch of us, about half the membership, were in both. And it was decided that it was redundant and silly to have these two organizations duplicating efforts. The two organizations were merged, that was at the time the Santa Cruz County Winegrowers Association and the Santa Cruz Mountains Vintners. They became the present-day Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA). I was president of the board at the time when that happened, so you’d think I would know when that was but I cannot recall off the top of my head! I was chosen primarily because I was in both organizations and they wanted someone to sort of unify the groups and get it together.
Now we’re an organization [SCMWA] of over 70 member wineries from around a dozen in those days. We don’t do potlucks in people’s homes because there are too many of us! But we still do meet at least twice a year.
The SCM AVA does have one sub-appellation…
JE Yes.
In a conversation I had with Bob Mullen he was quite opposed to any further sub-appellations.
JE Interesting…
He believes it would dilute the branding. On the other hand there are so many microclimates…
JE I don’t know that sub-appellations dilute appellations. I mean, does a vineyard designation dilute the Gevry-Chambertin AOC in Burgundy? It’s a difficult question because it is such a broad appellation, certainly in terms of microclimates. And there is not just a single varietal that says this is what’s grown here. So it’s very hard for the consumer to get a handle on what Santa Cruz Mountains is. This is what the SCMWA has been struggling with for decades as far as what is the AVA’s identity. To an extent I could make a case for sub-appellations as helping with that. But I also don’t know that it needs to be that specifically legal called out. When you get into an application for an AVA you going to have to spell out the exact boundary. It’s like a property line deed. And we all know that applying such rigid, objective things to such a subjective, organic process like growing grapes is never going to be perfect. What I’ve heard proposed more recently that I think is a good way to do it, and to an extent winegrowers have started to promote it this way, is to talk about the different districts within the appellation, and their different characteristics. The wine group that has done a very good job of doing that is Appellation America which is an on-line presence that looks at and judges wines in the context of their given appellation, tries to pick out the different styles and then the sub-regions within that. They just did a whole thing on Pinot Noir…
Yes. Clark Smith and Laura Ness wrote a wonderful series…
JE Right. They developed these different regions like Corralitos and what they’re calling in our old area, the Vine Hill area, Los Ranchos, the Summit area, Skyline… so you can do these different plots and regions, and I would say you could do that in general with the Woodside, the Saratoga, the Corralitos…
Without a formal sub AVA…
JE Yes, without formal subs and formal boundaries because in many cases, within a given varietal, I think you could argue those boundaries would shift with what variety you’re growing, its requirements, heat, exposure, etc. It’s become so cumbersome to do applications for AVAs now that I think it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. In fact the Feds are talking about throwing out the whole process entirely.
Paso Robles has been involved in quite a long fight over their proposal…
JE Yes, because they are trying to do lots of sub-appellations. We had a big fight years ago when the San Francisco Bay appellation was proposed. That was a situation of applying a bigger, broader based thing on top of an existing smaller one, in this case the Santa Cruz Mountains. The group actually fought pretty hard against the San Francisco Bay. We felt it was pretty meaningless. The Bay is a huge, diverse bunch of microclimates. It was mostly proposed, in our opinion, as a marketing tool for people that distributed world-wide because nobody knew where things were if you didn’t tie it to San Francisco Bay. And in the end the winegrowers group met and came up with the official policy by voting, and it was by no means unanimous, there was a lot of contention about whether it was a good idea, but the great majority thought it was a bad idea.
To my knowledge Santa Cruz Mountains is the only exception in the American Viticultural code wherein a smaller appellation within a bigger one is nevertheless exempt from it. In other words, the Santa Cruz Mountains said, “We do not want to be called San Francisco Bay”. Normally in that case if you were in the small one and the big one you could choose which you wanted on your labels. So, for instance, if you were in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA under the normal circumstances if you wanted to say [on your label] San Francisco Bay you could. In our case we said we never want to do that because it is ridiculous and meaningless. Santa Cruz is not part of the San Francisco Bay appellation, which did get approved. But we are carved out of the middle of it.
And if you’re below the 400 foot elevation on the western side?
JE Well, you can always call yourself by a county, Santa Cruz County, Santa Clara County, San Mateo, Monterey, or you could do San Francisco Bay were you located in the first three counties. Or Central Coast.
Thank you for your insight, Jeff.
JE You’re welcome, Ken.


The Electric Vintage

Ξ December 27th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News, Wineries |

Donna writes:
South China U of TechMy husband called me a few days ago to tell me about a newspaper article in the UK newspaper Daily Mail. The article from the 18th of December told about how Chinese scientists from the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou invented a treatment to convert cheap wine into premium wine.
Reportedly they have been working on this technology for the past 10 years. The procedure is to pump wine through a pipe between two titanium electrodes at 600 volts per centimeter (V/cm) current for a period of 3 minutes. Resulting in wines that had softer acidity, were more aromatic and palatable. The test wine was a 3 month old cabernet sauvignon from Suntime winery in China and went through a professional tasting panel as well as chemical analysis showing the wine indeed improved with this technology.
After reading the article I got fixated on what 600 V/cm exactly meant. Just how much energy usage is that? I researched online trying to equate it in layman’s terms.
In my research, I found a reference that a household appliance such as a hair dryer, coffee maker, TV’s etc. had an average electrical field of 30-60 V/m (volts per meter). Next, I found a voltage converter which transcribes V/m into V/cm and places the household appliance’s range at point 3 (.3) to point 6 (.6) V/cm.
Then I converted 600 V/cm stated in the article and the resulting number is 60,000 V/m. That’s twice the amount needed to create the phenomenon St. Elmo’s fire. So, if my layman’s analysis is even remotely correct, those are very powerful currents to use simply for accelerating the age of young, cheap, unbalanced wine into something palatable and ready for market in 3 months versus the average 6. Could that much power be correct with my analogy? I don’t think so.
So I’ve asked a number of people regarding my dilemma and I’ve gotten a bunch of different replies, so I’m going to have to post an update in the future when I better understand the voltage used.
So why am I writing about it at all? It’s really intrigued me and the mad scientist that dwells within wants to figure it all out.
There were more questions to be asked:

1. What does the machine look like?

2. Is the machine scalable, by the few articles I found it appears to be a large machine.

3. Who were the “experts” who tasted the wine?

4. Why was a Chinese wine used? Why weren’t samples of Cabernet Sauvignon used from different regions throughout the world?

5. What’s up with a Burgundy wine professor endorsing it? Burgundy is birthplace of terroirists!

So after looking REALLY hard, I found the paper.
Wine Improvement machineThe machine looks relatively simple. It has 3 sections, a high voltage generator, pump with a flow rate controller and a treatment chamber. It uses 220 V power supply. The treatment chamber has two titanium plates of unknown size separated by 20 cm of space. That undetermined space houses Teflon pipes with inner diameter of 20mm of unknown length where the wine passes through between the plates. The wine enters the machine and the flow is controlled by the pump.
The paper advises 50 L (I assume that’s liters) of wine was used for each sample and timed at 1 minute, 3 minutes and 8 minutes at various electrical field strengths of 300, 600 and 900 v/cm. So with 50 liters for each sample, it appears to be a decent sized piece of machinery to be able to pump that much wine through 20mm diameter tubing in 1 minute. 50 L is about 66 regular bottles of wine. With the data given it’s impossible to work out the tubing length.
Then the paper discussed the sample used. They used Cabernet Sauvignon from the Suntime Winery Company in northwest China. Aged 3 months after it went through malolactic fermentation. For those who don’t know what malolactic is, it’s a secondary fermentation all red wines go through converting malic acid into lactic acid (think milk) which is softer. A few white wines such as Chardonnay go through this second fermentation to add body and softness. With white wine it’s much more noticeable as the lactic acid lends a buttery taste.
What was interesting about the wine sample is it went through 2 fining and 3 filtering processes before being subjected to the test.

Albumin Glue

Sheet Filtration

Kieselguhr Filtration

Membrane Filtration
I’m surprised there was anything resembling wine left after all that. Fining and filtering are common in the wine industry, but I haven’t knowingly drunk any that has been put through all those processes.
Then a panel of 12 experts in wine sensory evaluation was given the samples to rate on a 100 point scale following O.I.V recommended methods which are quite scientific and detailed. There were no details on who the experts were or their qualifications. The graph on the study shows the optimum sample given a 600 V/cm for 3 minutes treatment received a full 15 points higher score than the untreated sample. 15 points is a remarkable difference in wine quality.
What is interesting is the wine wasn’t subject to temperature increase during the procedure. It maintained 25C as it exited the machine. Although the tasters noted the sample that went through the procedure for 8 minutes at 900 V/cm had a burnt taste.
But only Chinese wine was used. I would think such an amazing discovery would also see a selection of Cabernet Sauvignon samples such as California, France & Australia used. It poses the question: Does it only work with cheap wine or can fine wine be made even better? As well as wines that were not fined or filtered prior to going through the procedure? I would have liked to have seen a sample of MD 20/20 go through the process as well.
So while this machine appears quite remarkable, I’m amazed 5 wineries in China have invested in the technology to produce facilities enabling them to immediately ship new wine to stores and decrease storage expenses. I understand electricity is subsidized by the government so it’s cheaper for them to use this aging method versus the storage requirements for an extra 3 months before a wine can be sold on the market.
I couldn’t find any documentation on the shelf life of wines that went through the procedure, but I figure in my own personal opinion if wine is artificially accelerated to be at its prime when it hits the shelf, it would have a 6 month window for drinking before it began its decline. Its decline should be quite rapid compared to a traditionally aged wine.
Ultimately while it’s a very intriguing process that can boost the flavor compounds of wine to taste better, are we going to see wineries readily adapting this method?
The current trend for winemakers is to create wine using sustainable and traditional methods versus manipulating wine with strange processes, chemicals and additives. Instead of subscribing to such intense technology, I hope they continue on this path, making wine as it was intended, a reflection of its place, its Terroir.


A Time To Lay Down Arms

Ξ December 25th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History |

Donna writes:
War CrossOne of my great joys in life is studying about wine. This year I’ve not been able to spend much time with my books and this week things slowed up for me and I took out one of the untouched dozens of volumes purchased this past year with good intentions to study.
Today I picked up “Champagne, How the Worlds Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed over War and Hard Times”, by Don & Petie Kladstrup. I was thumbing through the pages and my eye was caught by a brief description of how fighting stopped between the Allied and Germans on December 24, 1914. This really intrigued me and I started doing more research on the internet and military books I have at the house.
It was 5 months into WWI and already half a million had been killed in the fighting. Champagne’s fields were carved up vast trenches housing Allied and German soldiers, fighting for position to push each other back into retreat. The fields surrounding them held the bodies those that had fallen.
On evening of the 24th of December, Allied soldiers saw lights glowing from their enemy’s trenches. Then they hear Christmas carols being sung in German. With great hesitation, they began singing carols back and the book said a German soldier appeared through the mist holding a very small decorated Christmas tree and was unarmed.
The Allied soldiers left their weapons in the trenches and went to meet the German soldier, the Germans in their trenches also joined. They shook hands, embraced helped each other bring their dead back from the fields and drank Champagne, toasting each other to the early morning hours when at the days light a football (soccer) game was played.
After this wonderful evening of friendship and fun, the soldiers retreated back to their trenches and the fighting and death began again.
I can’t imagine the trust and bravery of those soldiers to lay down their weapons for a few hours and push aside their prejudice for a brief moment to be good to each other.
It’s remarkable how the holidays, in spite of our beliefs encourage us to reach out to each other and share the joy of these special days with each other.
This story gave me so much hope during this time of war and destruction. I encourage you all to lay down your arms, be brave, and trust yourself to reach out to your enemy and share wine and hope for the future, if only for a few hours.


Christmas Drinks

Ξ December 24th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Winemakers |

The Christmas and New Year holidays are perfect for experimenting across the range and variety of wine styles; a fine Jerez as an aperitif (or later on in the day as a digestif), delicate sparkling and crisp whites for those seafood appetisers, rich reds for the main meal, something sweet at dessert and a late evening Port for a cheese board – over the hours of a traditional Christmas feast you should be able to find a dish to accompany most if not all of these styles. If you have extended family or friends coming round a good glass will break the ice and help relax the mood, while if it’s just you or close family then all the more reason to find a special bottle or two that has been crying out to be opened.
This year I’m trying a couple of wine styles for the first time, a Palo Cortado sherry and an Eiswein.
Palo Cortado is one of the rarer types of sherry, typically only 1-2% of total production, and is described as a cross between a medium dry Amontillado and an Oloroso. It starts off life intended as a Fino under a layer of flor (the surface layer of yeast which gives the characteristic tang of dry sherry), however if the flor dies then oxidation occurs and further development continues along the lines of an Oloroso (which never gets a covering of flor in the first place).
The one I have bought is an entry level version for £7.49 ($11) made for Waitrose by the renowned Jerez producer Emilio Lustau. Sherry & EisweinI haven’t opened it as yet, but from my previous experiences of Oloroso and Amontillado styles I’m hoping for a rich, nutty experience with a salty dry aspect and good complexity – I’ll let you know!
The Eiswein is Pfeiffer’s 2004 Silvaner from Pfalz, which I picked up at the beginning of the year from Morrison’s supermarket for a bargain £5.99 ($12 at the time, closer to $9 now, such is the whim of the international currency market!). Eiswein (and international equivalents such as Canada’s IceWines) are made from late harvest grapes that are picked while frozen on the vine resulting in highly concentrated, sugary juice for fermentation. Unlike Tokaji or Sauternes dessert wines an Eiswein shouldn’t contain any grapes affected by Botrytis, which should lead to a fresher taste profile.
I’ve already opened this one up and can confirm this is definitely sweet! It has a light aroma with some tropical fruit, mainly pineapple, and a bracing acidity on the finish which counterbalances the sweetness well. It lacks the complexity and finish that I love in a good Tokaji Aszu but for the price it is excellent value for money and a solid 3+/5.
I haven’t decided on what else will be drunk over the next 10 days, although I’m tempted to continue with the “try new things” theme and open my Boplass Cape Tawny Port, brought back from South Africa last year. As for the white, red and sparkling, I’m not sure yet, but I’ve plenty to choose from and no doubt I’ll add in reviews of some of them later on this blog.
Unfortunately this year it may not be so much a season of peace & goodwill than a chance to forget all the problems for a few days, as the economy is in depression on both sides of the Atlantic and we are all feeling the effects of the current financial crisis to some extent. I hope you are viewing the problems with concern but not directly affected, however with most businesses feeling the pinch, and too many closing down, then people are naturally reining in their spending to cover the “essentials “ so, for most of us, it is likely that wine purchases will decrease in volume or price. I’ve already started to notice this myself but have made a decision that I’m not going to compromise on quality – times like these need some creature comforts and I would rather spend £10 on a single bottle than buy two £5 ones.
Christmas TreeWhat is likely to happen is that I’ll start dipping into my modest collection more but I’ve realised that as I get older I am enjoying warm memories more than the anticipation of possibilities, so it’s better to enjoy some of the good wines now in times of need than to keep all of them for some uncertain future.
If you have a few nice bottles put away that are ready to drink then you should need no further encouragement to open them up, otherwise, before you realise it, the years have passed and bottles that would have enhanced any situation have remained unopened. This is still the one time of year that you should take what you have and enjoy it – better still, take what you enjoy, and have it.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Top Ten Reign of Terroir Posts for 2008

Ξ December 23rd, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History, Wine News |

The following list considers only the posts assembled by a single writer for this space, the Admin. The two other principles, Greybeard and Donna, provided their respective choices for the 1st Anniversary post from December 3rd.
My method for inclusion is two-fold and simple. As a new wine blog struggling for a readership it happened that some early posts were ‘published’ when we were still quite unknown, and therefore the work topic did not get the readers perhaps it deserved. Readers come to a blog and entertain the ‘front page’. Owing to time constraints and the abundance of excellent wine blogs folks may not wander through the archive. So this is my way of promoting certain nested stories, of taking another ‘bite of the apple’, as it were.
In no particular order:
Margaret Duckhorn1) Easily among the most interesting and rewarding interviews I did was with Margaret Duckhorn of the Wine Institute. Her gracious participation in the interview should give hope to new bloggers that passive commentary on the events, topics and important personalities in the wine world need not fix your compass.
2) An early attempt at understanding the Biodynamic movement remains one of my favorites if only because of its rigor and plentiful links to primary sources.
3) This early piece from February, on the Murrin Bridge Winery, remains one of the most interesting but suffers from one big omission: I was unable to secure an interview with the protagonist.
4) And also from February was a story most notable for an included picture of a rare surviving grape brick from Prohibition. To my knowledge it remains the only pic of such a historical object on the internet. If you don’t know what a grape brick is then read the piece!
5) Another notable interview was with the charming Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. The passing of his father, David ‘Papa Pinot’ Lett, some months later adds an unexpected poignancy.
6) And Alice Feiring, a delightful woman. Gracious, ethereal. Up to a point. She bites back!
7) A piece nearly composed in real time, as the events were unfolding, this is one on the participation of a few of Lodi’s wineries in the Hong Kong International Wine Fair.
8 ) A post from January on Braille Wine Labels was a success.
9) I simply must include my two-part interview with Jack Keller, here and here.
10) Rounding out the list would have to be a recent piece, though hardly obscure, which neatly frames Reign of Terroir’s exciting trajectory. This would have to be my account of Constellation’s trial of a new barrel-cleaning technology.
Back to work!
P.S. Upon reflection I simply must add my interview with Andrew Jefford. Really no finer wine writer.


Screw It or Cork It?

Ξ December 21st, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine History |

Donna writes: Screw it or Cork it?
Oh yes, I’m going to open that old mess back up. I figure everyone else has talked and blogged about it, I don’t want to be left out.
vinocor corkThe past year our entire portfolio had 14 bottle returns for cork taint. Versus the volume we do it barely registers a percentage. I personally have not had one bottle I’ve opened be bad, and about 30 cases of bright eyed hopefuls wanting to join my portfolio the past two weeks also brought no cork taint.
So is the cork industry getting better at removing tainted cork during its processing, are wineries doing more tests when receiving new cork supply? Or am I just lucky? I think a bit of both. I would say 80% of my portfolio has cork closures. I’m not offended by screw caps; I love them, for wines meant to be drunk young. Otherwise, cork has no equal in my humble opinion. Yes, I know the heartbreaking ordeal of opening that special bottle we’ve been saving for decades only to find it corked. My answer is I always buy in two’s. If I can’t afford two, I shouldn’t be drinking the first.
But on the other hand, is the public conscious of what corked wine smells like and are my bad bottles just not being returned? What if their comment at the wine bar or dining table, “I don’t like such and such wine” because they got corked bottles and didn’t realize it?
I personally have never met a wine I didn’t like except those corked in the past few years. I’ve favoured some over others, but I wonder if people really didn’t like it or was the wine bad? People frequently ask me what my favorite wine is and my reply is always “The one in my glass right now.” They look at me in disbelief and protest, and I’m always “no, every wine has it’s place and what it’s supposed to be and you have to compare it within the rules of what is, not what you want it to be”. But I’m drifting now….
plastic corksBack to corks. What I can’t stand is those plastic corks. I really want to get on the phone and call the producers and ask them what they are thinking. Well, I can’t lie; I do call them and ask why they are doing it. Hate them.
#1: They have broken 3 of my wine keys. Not my Laguiole, which I would be berserk if it did, but I liked those keys, some were gifts.
#2: Because a lot of plastic corks have food grade oil smoothed on them so you can get the corks out. Nothing like pouring a glass of wine and the cork manufacturer was a little too generous with the oil and there’s a faint coating of oil on the surface of the first glass poured; while it’s not an oil slick, it’s not attractive. I also think I can taste the oil, which of course is probably my prejudice, but all the same, hate it.
#3: They smell like plastic. Cause they are.
#4: Depending on the product it leaks and it’s less oxygen proof than natural cork. Ever put one on its side in your fridge and then when you get it out the next day, there’s a puddle of wine on your shelf? Then you have to clean it up, then you realize the shelf next to it needs a wipe, then the next thing you know, you’re doing a complete hose down of the fridge’s insides instead of drinking wine. Sacrilege!
StelvinI’ve refused to accept wines into the portfolio unless they were closed with Stelvin or natural cork. In this day of economic strife do I have the right to do so? Yes, I think I do. I certainly don’t want my wine to have the cork that breaks the favorite corkscrew of a customer. They aren’t going to remember the cork broke it; they are going to remember my wine broke it, and that gives me economic strife.
Of course I don’t believe in long term aging in Stelvin either. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found some old aluminum screw cap products hidden in a shelf that hadn’t seen light in 8 years and they were corroded. Ever climb into your attic and see your grandmother’s old Mason jar collection? Lids and caps are a little nasty. I can’t imagine pulling out a forgotten bottle from storage and unscrewing a corroded bottle cap only to see little bits of white oxidation particles falling in the wine. Ew.
glass corkSomething that’s recently come onto the market, that I got jazzed over, was the glass stopper. It’s a glass stopper with a flexible o-ring, so no plastic touches the wine, just glass. It’s sterile, preventing contamination or oxidation. Nice. It’s pleasing to the eye. It’s fun to play with, a conversation starter at a dinner party and it’s got the tin capsule giving us a formal opening of the bottle which makes us love natural cork so much. Only drawback is you can’t throw them at your friends like you can real cork. Well, I did, until I embedded one into the drywall.
crown capOne closure I really like, which I’ve seen a few wines bottled, is the crown cap. We already know due to its use in the Champagne region of France it works quite well for aging purposes with recently disgorged selections, but esthetically it’s probably worse than plastic corks to the wine drinking public. But it’s the most cost effective option out there right now and it’s not unpleasing to me for some reason.
Go figure.


Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Pt 3

Ξ December 18th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Jeff EmeryIn this final part of the interview Mr. Emery indulges my historical curiosity. He expands upon Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s founder, Ken Burnap, and touches on the legendary Martin Ray, an early friend of Mr. Burnap’s.
I would encourage folks who visit tasting rooms, any tasting room, to ask a few questions. Inquire after the winery’s origins. Sure, the person behind the counter may be reading from a hackneyed script and the winery may be little more than the investment of a trust fund baby. That is its own story. Still, persist. Cut through the bull. And ever so often you’ll run across someone like Jeff Emery, someone whose life is coextensive with his work. It’s all about the work. And I believe the living culture of wine, especially the labor of its making, is the better part.
Any fool can rate a wine. But it takes a special fool to remain indifferent to a vinous history in which they nevertheless participate.
pt 1
pt 2
Early bottling, 1987Admin Would you tell us a bit more of the historical origins of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard? And of Ken Burnap specifically.
Jeff Emery Ken Burnap had been interested in wine very early on. He got started in kind of a backdoor way. He lived in Texas when he was a late teenager, in his early twenties, and he took a gal from the prom to the best restaurant in San Antonio at the time. He tried to order a bottle of Bordeaux and completely butchered the French pronunciation of the wine. The waiter, a snobby sommelier, made him feel about two inches tall. And in a classic early twenty-something attitude Ken vowed he’d go home and learn as much as he could and show the bastard! The more he learned about wine the more he became fascinated by it.
He was drinking first growth Bordeaux in San Antonio at a time when the neighbors basically only drank bourbon and martinis. He said they would literally put their empty bottles in paper bags before they put them in the garbage because only winos drank wine! That was the attitude at the time.
So it was through his love of wine all those years that he had come to find that he preferred Burgundy, pinot noir, of course. Now fast forward to what Ken said before [pt 1], “Why does California produce pinots that are so flabby and uninteresting compared to Burgundy?” He decided it had to do with where it was grown.
The HobbitBut he had no intention of ever being a winemaker or starting a winery. He had started a restaurant called The Hobbit in the city of Orange, California, which is still going today, his partner’s son still runs it. Ken had done that because of a real love of food and wine. He was the sommelier and his partners, Howard and Bev Philippi were the chefs. A single seating a night, eight to ten course meal, and the wine was priced at retail. Not at a high mark-up. And he sold more wine per table per night than any restaurant in L.A. in the second year of business. He had a lot of interaction with winemakers, that’s where he got a lot of his information and developed a lot of his ideas about Burgundy and California pinot.
So, as a hobby he started looking at maps (we go back to the meticulous Virgo thing). I have in a file every quadrangle of the Santa Cruz Mountains in great detail, with every patch shaded in that looked like it could be potentially a good vineyard site. He had done this before I met him. And as a hobbiest, with no conscious intention of ever being involved in the wine business, he would get out of Southern California and come up here and drive around pretty places to look at vineyard property. Or property he thought would be good for a vineyard. He did that for a number of years.
old vineyard, the first.Then he stumbled across this property on Jarvis Road that he ended up owning. It had just been planted with pinot noir. It was owned by David Bruce. He and David Bruce were buddies because they had similar philosophies on pinot noir when they met. As Ken says, they put a realtor between them to save their friendship! David had planted it to pinot, he had intended to have it as a second source on into the future. It had 80 years of zinfandel on it when David pulled the zin in 1969, ‘68 was the last crop of zinfandel from the vineyard. David was in a divorce at the time and had to divest himself of some properties. David never saw the production from that vineyard, the pinot noir he’d planted. Ken bought it in 1974; the first crop was ‘75.
So before he bought it Ken sat on top of the hill of the vineyard, it had met all his criteria, he had this whole list of criteria that a vineyard had to have to meet his idea of the perfect site; he drank a bottle of champagne on the hill thinking, “Ok. This would be it”.
Did he finished that bottle? Something people will not often admit today!
JE (laughter) Yes! And he was alone at the time. And through the course of drinking that bottle he realized we all tell ourselves “If only… then”. If only I’d saved this much money; if only when I do this, I’ll do that. If only… Well, he just decided… he was incredibly busy and overworked with his businesses in Southern California, he just decided to jump in with both feet and buy the property and make the wine. He then spent two years commuting, 104 flights a year on Air California, three days a week here, four days a week in SoCal. He got invited to Air California picnics because the pilots saw him more often than any staff member! And he started the winery. He did the ‘75-’76 production year while commuting back and forth.
He sold his contracting company which was his main business. He had to, at the time, sell the restaurant. The Tied-House restrictions were such that he couldn’t own a winegrower’s license and an on-sale license at the same time.
Tied-House restrictions?
JE Yes. They were put in at the repeal of Prohibition to keep mostly Mafia-based monopolies from controlling production and sales all the way through. It was broken by Domaine Chandon when they wanted to have their restaurant. They brought the legislation to the state to get it changed to where you could simultaneously produce and sell wine as the same entity. But Ken had to sell by law and he says it was a blessing in disguise because he probably would have tried to keep the restaurant, to do both. Much too much work. So he sold his interest in The Hobbit in order to start the winery. He moved up here in 1977.
And there is an intriguing Martin Ray connection…
JE I don’t know that much about it. I do know Ken spent a fair amount of time visiting with Martin Ray when he was first looking at property. Realize that at that time, as Ken points out, having been the buyer for this restaurant, that in 1969 there were something like 12 to 15 wineries in the Napa Valley. He knew the dogs’ names, he knew the kids’ names, he knew all these people. The group of wineries was very small, in the Santa Cruz Mountains even more so. He became very good friends with Bob Mullen, Martin Ray, all the folks here at the time.
I know that Ken went to Martin’s place a few times. I do remember a couple of stories where Martin was a real showman. He liked things to be very classy. Ken and his wife were invited for a luncheon at Martin Ray’s place and when going up that dirt road, still a dirt road today, part way up there is a kind of a pull out and a view of the whole of the Santa Clara Valley. There was a table set up with a linen tablecloth, champagne in a champagne bucket, and two flutes… you were supposed to stop there, admire the view, drink the bottle of champagne, enjoy that before proceeding further up to the house for the luncheon. That was the kind of thing Martin would do.
Delightful. What is your advice to young winemakers?
Jeff Emery in his tasting roomJE That is a very open question…. Don’t believe the stereotypes, trust your palate and your tastes. Learn from as many different approaches as you can, talk to different people. Try different wines, try the wines of the world. Don’t stay within California. Realize that wine is a subjective thing, everybody’s taste buds are different. The mission should be to demystify wine, make it fun and accessible. Remove the dos and don’ts, how you should have it, how you should drink it, how you should open the bottle… By and large I think that’s naturally falling by the wayside as the younger generation comes to wine. They are less worried about that….
Would you ever go to screw cap?
JE I have nothing against screw caps for something like the verdejo I produced in August and will be selling next month. But I don’t own a screw cap machine and I own a corker and my own bottling line. I’m not about to go out and buy another piece of equipment. So in my case it is that simple.
I would not use screw cap for the long term aged pinots. I would still do traditional cork. I think screw cap make absolute perfect sense for shorter term drinking wines. And there should be no stigma attached to that.
I’d like, lastly, to ask about your adopted child. Would you be willing to say a few words?
JE Oh! Yes. We have a little girl we adopted from China in 2005. She’ll be five this coming February. We couldn’t have children for various reasons. We looked into options. We like the China connection. We looked into the US program but there is this legal limbo period where the court may or may not grant you the child. We didn’t want to go through that uncertainty. People ask why international when there are kids here, that’s one of the reasons.
We were torn between Russia or China. My wife is a Russian major, speaks Russian, so that was attractive. In the end, children of China are healthy, they were available only because of their gender, not because of any family/social issue. And Russia is a drinking culture. There can be some alcohol issues there…
She’s a joy! The timing was interesting. We were doing this just as I was officially taking over the business from Ken. You have to do things for both alcohol licenses and adoptions. Finger prints, background checks, that kind of thing, so I had these two forms going to the FBI office to get these background checks, one for getting an alcohol license and one for adopting a child! (laughter) It really cracked people up!
Thank you very much, Jeff.
JE A pleasure, Ken.


Wine Cask Hotel

Ξ December 17th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |

Tree Hugger is reporting the existence of a hotel in Stavoren, Netherlands featuring a few rooms made of wine casks. Hotel De Vrouwe van Stavoren has put to use old 14.500 liter casks. As Tree Hugger writes,
“There are four of them, each created from Swiss drums that used to contain Beaujolais wine from the French chateau area.”
Included in the rooms are chairs, lights, windows, TV, a toilet and a mirror (not pictured). The beds rest on a fully carpeted floor. A free bottle of wine, unopened, complements the seasonal potted plant on a table. Beautiful hotel landscaping and the old harbor provide a welcoming vistas upon exit.
There is really nothing else to add. But a map. Which I’ve done.
Christmas shopping calls.


What’s In the Price of a Bottle?

Ξ December 16th, 2008 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News |

Dollar signI’ve been contemplating writing this article for a while. I’m a wine buyer for an importer/distributor. The only buyer, I say what is bought, what isn’t, pricing and when, where and how. I have an entire portfolio to build within a budget to find new and exciting wines for our market to purchase. So I kinda run a thin line doing an article about pricing.
The reason I wanted to bring this up is the wonderful wine consuming nation that is the USA doesn’t often really know what an effort it is get good wines to you at fair price. Being in the wine industry isn’t for everyone, very competitive, you must know a lot about your products and the overheads are high. We really do it because we love wine and want to be around it, and to say the least: I get a lot of cool points when people find out what I do.
Now I’m not trying to host a sad violin party for myself, but I have read a number of forums, blogs, etc where there’s a lot of moaning about the price of a bottle of wine compared to what it cost to make it. But it’s really not a big mystery why wine has markups.
Let’s run it down, and this really is the short version of what’s required, it all depends on your state, the states liquor sales system, as they are all different, local, regional and state legislation, and a thousand other different factors. So for the experts out there analyzing what I’ve about to say, it’s just a rough speculation, so to speak.
First you have to apply for an importer or distributor license, which depending on the state runs $2,000 to $10,000.
Then you have to have a licensed warehouse to house your stuff, license costs around $5,000 plus around $2,000 for monthly rental. Now if you live in California or New Jersey or another large wine distribution state, you can buy warehouse space. Cost depends on how much space you’re using monthly.
That set up, you gotta hire sales staff, sales manager, bookkeeper (who can do books and keep track of all the continually changing legislation). And whomever else you need.
At this point without buying any wine, you’re out about $120,000.
Then if you aren’t qualified to be a buyer you got to find one, someone who’s market savvy in the industry, can maintain a portfolio of hundreds of wines, keep them ordered and in stock, and appease the sales staff by continually bringing in new products for them to sell, maintaining a minimum net percentage off sales and steadily monitoring the market for pricing. There aren’t many buyers who can do it all, and they’re not cheap. I know, I am one.
Ego aside, okay, you got your foundation in place, but you still need wine. You then have to go find products one of two ways. Shipping containersEither through importer’s collections that aren’t being carried in your market. With the exception of Bordeaux, most distributors have exclusives on the products they carry in the market. It’s done so as not to be undercut and have your brand go into a pricing war, which is disastrous. Or if you’re lucky enough, you have enough cash and you’re an importer, you can ship your products directly from overseas. You wonder why Bordeaux doesn’t go into pricing wars with having market exclusives? Bordeaux is a chateau based market system, they maintain the prices themselves, and they don’t let them go crazy. Bordeaux likes to make money and they’ve had the system for hundreds of years it, so it works pretty well. It’s a lot more involved than that, but that’s the short version.
Most distributors buy from known importers first and then graduate to containers from overseas or domestically. Profit margins are much less when purchasing locally (locally meaning within the USA) then buying full containers. However, you can buy just a few cases locally to sell or a container of 10 to 20 pallets.
Let’s say you weren’t affected by Wall Street this year and you want to buy a container from overseas. Average cost of a container is about $80,000 for $15 retail product. Plus $20,000 in shipping and taxes to bring it into your warehouse. Domestic shipping ranges from about $500-$4000 depending of the distance and quantity of your shipment, plus extra for refrigerated shipments during the summer. Besides sales costs, transport and taxes are the highest costs associated with the price a bottle is sold for.
MargauxSo you get all this glorious wine you have your markups and then you give it to your staff to go sell. Well, they need marketing materials, so if you’re not savvy, you got to contract a graphic designer if your producer doesn’t give you any material. Lots of times, you’re finding unknowns and they don’t know what a graphic designer is, they just want their wine sold in the states. So you will give your contract person about 20 hours of month work. They’re not cheap.
Now your sales team is set. It takes about 3 months to introduce a product into your market. All the while you’re sitting on existing product you’re ordering new products to keep a balance in your stock levels. The absolute worst thing you can do is run out of stock. So you end up keeping a minimum of a months worth at any time so your staff doesn’t freak out when they lose sales.
And lastly, when you buy that wine, it’s yours, you can’t return it. You have to make it work, it’s a heavy burden and mistakes in predicting what the market is going to like is quite costly. It’s quite risky.
Of course then you say why do restaurants have high markups? I personally don’t believe in the 3 times markup and I don’t frequent restaurants that have it. When I do, I make sure it’s an expensive restaurant and I buy a high dollar bottle because I get more value because the markup isn’t 3 times on expensive bottlings. I’ve actually found some bargains even compared to what a retail markup would be. But you say I have an advantage being in the industry; that’s true, but I was a “civilian” at one time and I learned pretty quickly what I liked to drink and what is cost retail versus in the restaurant.
I don’t begrudge a 1 or 2 times markup though because, the same as a distributor, if they want to have a good wine list, they have to build a cellar which can cost upwards of $30,000, plus training for staff, sommelier on staff or more than one sommelier on staff, that is preferred. Then they have all the time dedicated spending with various distributors finding products that meet their image. It costs a lot of money a year maintaining a good wine list. I mean a lot, anywhere from $30,000 to millions. And many of the bottlings need aging, so they aren’t making any money with the bottles waiting in the cellar waiting to be ready to drink. But they know better customers drink wine and spend more money. So a wine program is a must for any decent restaurant serving entrees $13 and over.
Retailers for the most part are pretty good with their markups, however, there are some I would never buy from. In order to make sure you are getting a fair price, fair is within 15% of the market price, you can find out on wine search engines like If the wine isn’t listed, then bargain; your retailer might have an exclusive and it shows they look for rare and unique products. I’d keep them if I were you as they obviously dedicated the time, energy and money into looking for interesting products. From my perspective, I look for cool stuff for these guys. I love them. Gives me a chance to find some super neat stuff and there’s a lot of neat stuff out there.
So I’ve given you a peek at my world. The next time someone grumbles at a wine costing $$$, once they know where came from and that upfront costs are half that price, they might now understand why it does. Keep it in perspective! Compared to the real costs, it’s still pretty cheap.


Cavitus Ultrasound Trial at Constellation’s Gonzales Winery

Ξ December 11th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

I had the great pleasure of witnessing the first trial run of Cavitus’ new barrel cleaning system at Constellation’s Gonzales Winery (formerly Blackstone) in Gonzales, California. In attendance from Gonzales Winery was General Manager Hugh Reimer (left) and winemaker Scott Dahlstrom (right). Present from Cavitus was Andrew Yap (center), not only Director of Oenology and Industry Marketing, but one of Mr. Reimer’s former teachers, and Field Engineer Howard Wittwer. In addition to these distinguished gentleman were representatives from three major California wine brands the identities of which Mr. Yap has asked me not to reveal pending their permission. I was present at the invitation of Mr. Yap and with the assent of Mr. Reimer.
Mr. Reimer opened Gonzales Winery for others in the industry to watch the Cavitus beta prototype in action. Having successfully performed in Australia earlier in the year, the unit recently arrived from trials in New Zealand. This is the first time the system has been demoed in the United States. As may be read in my three-part interview series, essential background reading for this story, Mr. Yap was in the Napa/Sonoma area in October laying the ground work for a number of demos planned for this month at a few of the larger wineries located there.
The entire barrel cleaning/sonication process was performed by one person, in this instance, Field Engineer Howard Wittwer. This is not to say such a unit is optimally run with only a single operator but it does amply demonstrate the simplicity of each step of barrel sonication. Further, the beta prototype is complete in itself. It possesses all the requisite elements as a stand-alone unit. The titanium soniprobe, the hot water heater, recycling/recovery pumps, conveyer belt, cable runs, etc. However, the complete unit is, in part, for the purposes of demonstration. A winery with its own hot water system, etc., it was explained, would not need to purchase those elements of the unit. They could use the already installed tech of their own winery’s infrastructure.
As with the wineries in Australia and New Zealand, three specific barrel trials/experiments were performed at Gonzales Winery. One was the sonication of known brett infected barrels (which will later undergo laboratory analysis to test for any live cultures), a second was the removal of tartaric crystal buildup, and the third was a lower-power sonication of brett infected wine while still in barrel. Of the latter experiment, the effort is to determine both the elimination of live brett cultures and whether any disruption of base-line phenolics might occur. Only a laboratory assay to be conducted at a later date will prove conclusive. Standard 60gal/227 liter barrels were used (American oak, in this case), though puncheons could easily have been substituted without modification of the beta unit.
With respect to tartaric buildup, Gonzales Winery cleaned a one year old barrel according to their own protocols and then passed another through the beta prototype. I am neither qualified nor inclined to make a finding, but I will say the sonicated barrel appeared virtually free of surface crystals (pictured above) while the conventionally cleaned barrel was still well-covered. Despite not having taken a pic of the conventionally cleaned barrel (my bad) my observation was in accord with the other visitors and Gonzales Winery itself.
A word about the hot water heater and filtration system. The optimal temperature for sonication is 60 degrees centigrade or 140 fahrenheit, heat sufficient to soften the cell walls of target organisms so that cavitation easily breaks them up. Indeed, one could sonicate at room temperature but it would simply take far longer to kill brett etc. Now, Cavitus’ published studies show that, with respect to both brett and tartaric build-up, sonication takes five minutes to complete for a red wine barrel. Draining the water takes one and a half minutes. The water loses a couple of degrees before it is pumped through filters and returned to the hot water heater. The hot water heater pictured at the left holds 1000 liters/264 gallons. The filters can take in excess of 60 passes before requiring replacement. Of the filters, a 1 micron pore-size membrane is proving popular. A one and a half micron membrane filter is sufficient according to Mr. Yap, but he says winemakers seem to nevertheless prefer the smaller size out of an abundance of caution.
White wine barrels, according to Mr. Yap, can take more than 10 minutes to clean. Under review at Gonzales Winery were 2006 barrels. And even then tartaric crystals obviously remained. The problem is pressing owing to the incorporation of yeast cells at crystal nucleating sites. This matter remains a challenge for Cavitus no less than for wineries using conventional methods.
I spent a couple of hours in the Gonzales Winery. I have never seen anything like it. One gentleman told me they had purchased 5000 American oak barrels this year. The room where the demo took place, multiple football fields in size, was stacked with barrels three storeys high as far as the eye could see. There was nothing out of place. The facility was spotless. Fresh air flowed through, maintaining an agreeably cool temperature. Recently the winery installed the biggest solar array in the state and of any winery in the world. I couldn’t help but imagine the water savings alone the Cavitus technology might bring, never mind the reduction in the use of sulfur and associated barrel cleaning chemicals.
In my opinion Cavitus has hit upon a revolutionary barrel cleaning process. It is as green as anything I’ve yet read about, certainly in the wine industry. All they must do now is work on a more portable unit, one suitable for the smaller winery.
Upon leaving Gonzales Winery I bid Andrew Yap farewell, promising to catch up with him at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium this January, the 27th through the 30th. Cavitus will be there.
Special thanks to Hugh Reimer and Scott Dahlstrom for their hospitality.


Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Pt 2

Ξ December 10th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

In part 1 of my interview with Jeff Emery, owner/winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, we concentrated on more general and historical matters. Part 2 gets closer to Jeff’s practice as a winemaker and as an experimenter. Intellectually curious, respectful of the past, Jeff looks forward by understanding from where he’s come.
Part 3, the conclusion, will post early next week.
Admin Would you say a little about your barrel program?
Jeff Emery I’ve been experimenting with that a lot in the past four or five years. Of course, it’s different for different wines. For Pinot Noir, as good an American barrels have gotten compared to a few years ago, I still don’t like American wood on Pinot Noir. So, I’m using Hungarian and French and in some cases Russian oak. American barrels have come leaps and bounds from where they were twenty-five, thirty years ago when they were basically a modified Kentucky Bourbon barrel that wasn’t charred as much. I’m very pleased with some of the newer barrels out there, and I do use some amount of American oak on Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet, a tiny bit on the Durif, what we call Petit Syrah. So, it depends on different wines.
The last four or five years I’ve done many side by side experiments of the same forest source of a barrel made by three different coopers with the same wine. Or three different forests, the same wine in barrels made by the same cooper. I’m trying to do some semi-controlled experiments on that and learn something about the different sources, how they play with the different wines.
How long do you use your barrels?
JE I use the barrels indefinitely as a container. I have some barrels that were actually in Ken Burnap’s original winery. But in terms of giving wood character to the wine there is, of course, an exponential drop-off. The first year you get a lot, second year you get a fair amount, third year to fourth year, if you leave the wine in there for its entire 18 month cycle you’ll notice the difference over an inert barrel, but not much.
Some wineries use spent barrels for fermentation…
JE No, we have not.
Your yearly case production?
JE It’s about 3,500 cases.
How much is sold by subscription? How much is foot traffic?
JE Well, it’s changed a lot in the past few months since we have our first tasting room in 33 years! I think we’ll only build on this [Surf City Vintners] little complex where we have so many wineries within walking distance here. I actually haven’t run the numbers more recently. But it’s been traditionally, let’s say, two-thirds wholesale and the rest the internet, wine club and direct retail. Even without a tasting room we did still sell a fair amount by appointment in the old regime. We sold a fair amount through the mail.
Have you enjoyed the tasting room experience?
JE I have! I really like the marketing lab opportunity it gives me. It’s fun to just literally sit down at the computer the night before and print out the wine list we’re tasting for the weekend, play with different things to see what people like… it’s interesting.
And what a variety of wines you have, not only your current releases but also your Library wines. I have never seen in a small winery with such an extensive and deep list of vintages…
JE Well, Ken Burnap believed very strongly in that. Especially if you’re making wines in the style we’re making them where they can age for decades, something we’ve proven, we’re still drinking Pinot Noirs from that first vineyard, from the 70’s, today. They are very much alive and well. Ken kept five to seven cases of everything red we’ve ever made throughout the course of the business. When we moved out of the old winery building on Jarvis Road in 2004 he realized that there was more wine there than he personally could drink in his lifetime. It would be a shame to have those wines go over the hill without people experiencing them. At that point we did a hand pick of our long-term customers and offered library wines. Some went that way. And I’m launching a new program here in the tasting room where I’ll be pouring on the second Saturday of every month one or two of them. And offering them for sale. This is Ken’s stock and he’s given me the green light.
All the way back to ‘75?
JE There is probably precious little left of ‘75 but certainly through the 80’s vintages.
I find that just thrilling.
JE I don’t understand why so many modern wineries sell off to the last bottom case of what it made. Maybe that makes sense if it’s an early drinking style of wine, but some of these wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains can age for a very long time. You don’t learn anything about your winemaking technique and how it applies long-term unless you keep some of your things back and try them now and again. And look at… well, this was a drought year, this was a rain year, this was a different barrel regime, you know, what’s working twenty years out. It’s interesting to me as much as what’s working three and four years out.
So Mr. Burnap was an exacting note-keeper?
JE He’s a self-described anal retentive Virgo. I have the winery diaries, the entire history of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. The first vintage was 1975. He used those little composition notebooks. That first book went to, like, 1985. The first two-thirds of the volume of that book is of the first vintage. He took notes on absolutely everything; temperature probes at eight or twelve different levels in the fermentation tanks, he plotted all of that. An unbelievable amount of data collecting.
Perhaps it’s destined for the Bancroft Library Wine Archive! A few details about the Crush this year?
JE It was a tough one. We’re in this new building so, first of all, we entered Crush already worn out! We took possession of this 3,100 square foot raw space in mid-May, Denis Hoey, my employee, and I. (He’s worth far more than I can pay him.) We spent 2 1/2 to three months playing ‘contractor’. We had to put in the drains, the lights, the walls, sheetrock, paint, everything. Now, harvest came early this year. We saw our first fruit on August 14th. We were in nothing but triage mode from June 1st until about three weeks ago. It was basically scrambling to take care of it all. We had the year that is one in ten where everything came at once. We had arrive 70% of our annual production in twelve days. I damn near killed us! That’s a 30 year record in my career. The other one was crushing five varieties in one night, I’d never seen that before. We had fruit in the parking lot just stacked up by type so that after it was dark we didn’t screw up and put the wrong variety in the wrong bin.
How much control do you have over when the grapes are harvested?
JE I pretty much have the say on that with most of my vineyards. In some cases it’s a crew issue so if I’m taking a very small amount I can’t just pick one day that is only for me, I’d have to piggy back on someone else. Generally, I have a hands-on relationship as to when I get the fruit. This particular year it was more a matter of how fast we could process it. We were pushing the edge of getting things too ripe for my taste. About that, we had a solid two weeks of heat the first two weeks of September. The cold snap that came at the end of that period came not a second too soon. We would have lost control of quality with even two more days of heat.
So, it tested the new space! The good news is we found out very quickly we can ferment a lot of grapes here, much more than in any other place I’ve been. We had 36 tons fermenting at once under the roof. Insane!
We had quite a few fires this year. Any smoke issues?
JE I’ve read a lot about that. Some of the labs have come up with smoke-testing protocols for grapes. We did have a Mendocino Grenache as it was first crushed and early in its fermentation, I got a smoky, cardboardy kind of thing. We were quite concerned about that. I was going to send it to the lab, but by the time it finished to dry two weeks later that had seemed to go away. That was the only thing I saw, and that was my only Mendocino fruit. Fortunately, none of my other sources were in any smoky area.
You’re starting a new line of Iberian wines called Quinta Cruz….
JE Yes. After making wine for so many years, and after a couple of trips to Portugal for pleasure, I fell in love with some of the varietals there. They are so entirely different from the wines were used to drinking. By chance I was perusing the Wine Country Classifieds, an industry journal, there was a listing for a vineyard that had just planted Portuguese varietals. I still don’t know why to this day, why they put the ad in when they did because they didn’t actually have fruit yet. I think they were just looking to see what the interest was. I got connected with these folks very early on, the Pierce Family down in the San Antonio Valley; it’s a new AVA, only two years old, by Lake San Antonio and Lake Nacimiento, off Jolon Road in south western Monterey County. It’s a good region for warmer climate fruit. So I started working with them from their first crop on some of the varietals: Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cão. That relationship has continued.
I’ve had Tempranillo on the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard label since ‘03, and with the ‘05 release in about two weeks, that will move to the Quinta Cruz label. Quinta Cruz is a brand simply devoted to Iberian varietals, of Spanish and Portuguese origins. I did that because I got deep enough into these other varietals that I thought it made sense for the brand not to muddy the waters to where people would say, “What’s he doing? Pinot or Portuguese?” Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot remains the flagship line. Quinta Cruz can be more experimental. I’ve added Graciano. It’s the third variety that goes into Rioja, Tempranillo, Garnacha being the other two. Graciano is the base player, it’s the Mourvedre in the mix, deep, dark, spicy, brooding…. Around 3 to 12% in Rioja, but I will have a 100% varietally labeled wine. There are fewer than a dozen in the world. I know of only five.
I’ve not done white wine in over ten years but now that I have a tasting room it seems prudent. In my world it wasn’t going to be Chardonnay, so I’ve produced two Iberian white varietals, Verdejo and Torrontés. Torrontés is better known as coming from Argentina, but it comes to Argentina via Galicia, Spain. The Verdejo will be available before the end of December, the Torrontés will be out sometime next Spring.
End of pt 2


WL’s Gary Vaynerchuk Thrills at Fort Mason Event

Ξ December 8th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News, Wineries |

On Saturday, Dec 7th, the 2nd Annual Fort Mason Tasting Event with Gary Vaynerchuk was finally realized. Two writers for this blog had worked on it for some months. As we had the 1st Annual. Like herding cats. But we could not have been prepared for what was to come.
Last year we had well over 100 souls hold up in the Firehouse, a more modest and perhaps more charming venue than this year’s Golden Gate Room. Nevertheless, with around 90 folks Saturday we had room to breath and the better acoustics allowed us to hear one another when in small groups.
Thank global climate change for the temperate, cloudless evening. As night fell the Golden Gate Bridge became the furthest ornament of the many decorated houses and bright Christmas rigging of sailboats along the Marina and its boulevard. Gary Vaynerchuk arrived early while the crowd was still gathering. As is his way he immediately plunged into the middle of things, offering his hand and ear to all who approached.
You can’t have a tasting without food. We pushed hard the idea that everyone bring good eats to share, a no-brainer when our event was to commence at the dinner hour. Brandon and I are just two private citizens. We simply haven’t the resources or the muscle to enforce conviviality. Fortunately, we’ve never had a single incident due largely to the excellent food most guests bring to share. We had over 20 different cheeses, parma ham, copa, salami, bruschetta, quiche, pate, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, plenty of bread, chocolates, truffles, the list goes on. It may seem trivial but when you put on an all-donation event to end up with a fine spread is no small miracle.
Wines began arriving. Again, all for sharing. We secured a formal contribution of wines from Pelican Ranch, Stefania Wine and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Twisted Oak. I thank them here. The great pleasure of our events is the complete unpredictability of what wines end up on the grape leaf-strewn tables. A ‘75 Mondavi Pinot, a ‘95 Barbaresco magnum, Kosta Brown, a young Côte-Rôtie, an ‘82 Riesling, a ‘90 Barolo, a Pina cab, a few of the dozens of offerings. All of these were in addition to a special collective tasting Mr. Vaynerchuk himself was to put on later in the evening featuring wines he brought.
Now, all was going according to plan. Brandon and I were justly pleased with the evening’s progress. Everybody happy, nobody hungry.
Then began the raffle. Brandon had secured a few items to give away, a six pack of a Don Melchior, a new copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, and bottles of two other fine wines. Every penny paid by participants is put back into the event. We don’t even make gas money! In any event, the raffle began with Gary Vaynerchuk pulling the numbers. With our gifts given away Gary decided to give away something, a $250 gift certificate to Wine Library. Then another for $100. He pulled another number, a $400 gift certificate this time, then another denomination, and another, and another…. Along came two $500 gift certificates. Then he gave away a trip to New York for the winner to film an episode of Wine Library TV with him. Then he gave away another prize, that he would come to the winner’s house, fine wines in tow, to film another episode of WLTV with eight of the winner’s friends. The crowd was now at a roar! Still Gary was not done! $100 WL cheese gift certificate, a year’s subscription to their finest wine club, passage for two on his innovative Thunder Cruise through the Caribbean, a trip to Tampa Bay for dinner at the acclaimed Bern’s Restaurant and his Super Bowl tailgate party. I’m certain I’ve forgotten a few prizes!
I am telling you, I have never seen such a spontaneous burst of generosity. We were all a little bit stunned, I’ll be honest. It was a thrilling 45 minute bravura performance! No way around it.
Gary did manage a fleeting expression of corporate responsibility, saying that all the gifts were predicated on his beloved, play-off bound Jets beating the marginal 49ers on Sunday, a ’slam-dunk’ among the Vegas odds makers. Didn’t work out that way. No worries. Gary will do the right thing!
He left the tasting at around 11 p.m still alert and bright. The exhausted crowd thinned. A few folks stayed until the Fort Mason cleaning crew chased us away. Gary has already agreed there will be a 3rd Annual Fort Mason Event. Brandon and I are on it!
Special thanks to Joel Galang for the pics, and a shout out to the staff of Fort Mason. Many thanks to the volunteers who arrived early to help with the prep.


Château Musar-Unique from Vine to Glass

Ξ December 8th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Wineries |

Musar Crest

Château Musar is neither the Lebanon’s oldest or biggest winery, both those titles belongs to Château Ksara which was founded 1857 and contributes two thirds of the countries production. However since it was exhibited at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair (impressing Christies head of wine Michael Broadbent and journalist Roger Voss enough to regale it as the “discovery of the fair”) Musar has created an envious, some may say cult, international following. This is partly due to the charismatic and irrepressible force that is Serge Hochar, son of founder Gaston Hochar, and the unique characteristics of the Musar wines.
I do not intend to re-hash the entire Musar story as it has been told many times before and by better writers than me – Andrew Jefford’s two Decanter articles here & here are excellent pieces to delve into – however there is something special about this tale and since Château Musar (the ’99 Red to be precise) played a role in the beginning of my journey into wine it would be remiss not to cover the facts.
Gaston Hochar, son of wealthy Lebanese banking family, developed an enthusiasm for wine while in France in the late 1920s and set up his winery as a hobby in the cellars of the 17th Century Castle of Mzar in Ghazir, north of Beirut. His son Serge, born in 1939, initially studied Civil Engineering before completing his wine education in Bordeaux and bottling his first Musar vintage in 1959. Together with his younger brother Ronald, a lawyer, the two sons took over the running of the Château – Serge in control of the vineyards and cellar with Ronald managing the business side.
The 1970s saw major upheavals for the Château, with Gaston dying at 62 years of age and Lebanon plunging into a two decade long civil war. With his wife and young children quickly smuggled out of the country Serge continued to make wine, although the fighting in 1976 was so bad that no grapes could be picked in the vineyards 30 miles away to the east in the fertile Bekaa Valley. However with most of its wine sold locally Musar’s customer base disappeared, so the Hochar’s looked to Europe for new customers, specifically the expanding market in the U.K. which has always been more open to new ideas than its neighbours, not being a wine producing country itself.
The success at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair led to international recognition and plaudits, with Serge being named as Decanter Magazine’s inaugural “Man of the Year” in 1984 (ironically another year when a Musar Vintage could not be produced). The baton has since been passed to the next generation, with Serge’s eldest son Gaston, now in his 40s, taking over the day to day running of the Château and winemaker Tarik Sakr working on the vintages since 1991, but Serge still plays a role in the tasting and blending of the wines and doing what he is famous for, promoting Musar and Lebanese wines around the world as head of the Union Viticole du Liban (LIVL). For a taste of his character listen to this 2006 interview on whilst Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent 2004 interview for GQ magazine can be downloaded from the Musar website.
The grapes come from over 180ha of vineyards, including the Château’s own 60ha near the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa (recently certified as organic). The vines range from 25-60 years old for the red varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre), and 30-150 for the white (the indigenous Obaideh and Merwah, a small amount of Ugni Blanc and some test plantings of Chardonnay). The winemaking style is non-interventionist, with limited chemical use, the use of wild yeasts and no filtering.
Internationally there are 3 Musar labels, the Château (Gaston Hochar), the Hochar Père et Fils and the Cuvée Réservée, each with a white, a rosé and a red. A 4th label, Rubis, is a young wine for the Lebanese market only.
Serge has called the Cuvée a “simpler wine”, without oak aging and released early, and the Hochar Père et Fils “more serious”, aged in oak and released after 3-4 years, but it is the Château Red that is the benchmark, fermented in concrete, aged for 12-15 months in oak, bottled in its 3rd year and then laid down until release, 7 years after vintage.
This in itself is atypical; while most wineries are thinking of cash flow and try to get their wine sold as soon as possible the Hochars have millions of bottles ageing gracefully in the cellars of Mzar Castle in Ghazir, and not just the newer vintages, even on release the Château holds back a relatively high percentage of the 600,000-700,000 bottles for further development.
And so to my own limited experiences of Château Musar. In the last 3 years I have drank 4 different bottles – not exactly a large amount, but enough to have had a large impact on me.
The first was the 1999 Château red, a bottle I have fond memories of, as it, along with a Château Kefraya 2004 Les Bretèches, were the 2 wines that led me to Wine Library TV (Episode 115) and indirectly to my participation in the WLTV Forums where I “met” Ken and Donna and so to Reign of Terroir! I savoured its delights in June 2007 and the depth of flavour was immense for what I classed as a medium bodied wine.
Musar BlancThen earlier this year I took part in a 3-way international “simultasting” of the 2000 Château red with two friends from the Wine Library Forums, one in Kyoto, Japan, and the other in Philadelphia, USA. Trying to synchronise tasting across 3 diverse time zones was a fun experience in itself, as you can read about in the thread, and led to me opening my 3rd Musar, the 2001 Château white the same evening. It was this wine that eclipsed its older brother, at times reminding me of a red wine with light tannins, a sherry with subtle oxidation and a dry Hungarian Tokaji Szamorodne with a salty tang. This was a white wine like no other I had tried before, and I loved it (although I suspected at the time I would be in a minority!).
MusarFinally, and most recently, I had the 2002 Hochar Père et Fils, which had a rich “beefy” nose, a little of the trademark V.A. and herbal aspects, while in the mouth it was well balanced with gentle tannins and a long berry finish.
Of the 4 wines the 2000 red was a worthy 3+/5, while the 2001 white and 2002 Hochar Père et Fils were both a delicious 4/5. The star was the 1999 red though, one of the most enjoyable wines I’ve had and a strong 4+/5.
As to how Musar is perceived elsewhere, there is no shortage of devotees. It would seem that that first exposure to Musar in 1979 had a lasting impact on Michael Broadbent as he is another self-confessed Musar fan, as is his son Bartholomew whose company, Broadbent Selections, imports and sells Musar in the U.S. You can see them on three early episodes of IntoWineTV tasting the 2004 Chateau Musar Cuvee Rosé, the 2006 Chateau Musar Hochar Pere et Fils, and the 2004 Chateau Musar Cuvee Rouge.
If you have an adventurous or romantic streak when it comes to wine drinking then it’s hard to imagine a better wine to try than Château Musar, and it is still affordable compared to other wines that have reached similar “cult” status yet in doing so have pushed themselves out of many people’s price range. In the U.K. a bottle of the current 2001 Château red can be found relatively easily (my local Waitrose has it in store, while Tesco has it on-line) for £14-18. For more tasting notes to whet your appetite then try these links to Decanter, The Wine Anorak, the excellent article by Lindsay Groves on Tony Aspler’s site, The Wine Doctor and Tom Cannavan’s wine-pages forum.
It is probably a combination of many factors that contribute to the wine styles that can so often polarise the opinions of those who drink them. The natural “management” style of winemaking means that each vintage is usually completely different to the previous, and for the red a high Volatile Acidity (V.A.) is typical with the wild yeasts used imparting an “animal” or “barnyard” characteristic. For the white there is an oxidative aspect and a texture and taste quite unlike most whites which makes it possibly the most intriguing of the range. These are all part of the Musar uniqueness but such is the trend nowadays to regard these simply as flaws or signs of poor winemaking that many can’t get beyond these to the quality that lies within. If you are in this camp then I can only accept that wine tasting is subjective, and give thanks that I am one that enjoys this type of offering!


Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Pt 1

Ξ December 4th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Jeff Emery, owner/winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, is a very fortunate man. For those of us asking after the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA you would do well to listen to him. He was witness to many of the informal discussions of a generation of winemakers who founded it. Mr. Emery was in the right place at the right time. The reasons will become clear over the course of this three part interview.
He began as a cellar rat working at the right hand of Ken Burnap, a no-nonsense pinot pioneer in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over the course of years Mr. Emery has come to understand what the AVA has to offer, its strengths and weaknesses. He is an unassuming man, a man of quiet confidence. Expertise and clarity of conviction will do that.
I interviewed him at his new winery on 334-A Ingalls Street, Santa Cruz.
Admin Tell us a little of your early history with Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard?
Jeff Emery I was a sophomore going to UCSC in a Geology program in 1979. I knew somebody who worked for Ken and helped him out once and a while. Well, his wife went into labor that morning and he said, “Oh! I told Ken I’d go help him bottle. Can you go help him? Here’s an address. Bring a sleeping bag, they’ll feed you.” It was to be a two day deal. I went up there and bottled the ‘77 Cabernet from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. I had an incredible meal. The other person bottling was a professional chef; had amazing wines, which I knew nothing about because I was nineteen years old. Then Ken said, by the end of the second day, that he was at the point where he needed some extra help now and again. So I started working part-time, finished my degree, I thought that was important, and have been with Santa Cruz Mountain eve since. I have never written a resume, never filled out a job application.
What ensued was a terrific 25 year collaborative apprenticeship with Ken. He wasn’t the classic home winemaker who becomes a professional winemaker story. He was more the meticulous researcher. He had developed his own theories about how to make Pinot Noir primarily. He also had an incredible cellar of Burgundies which he was very generous with. I did a lot of my learning by drinking old world versions of Pinot Noir with Ken. I lived at the winery with Ken for some nebulous 15 to 18 year period, literally at the winery. I’ve never looked back. Ken and I worked together for 25 years, up to his retirement in 2004.
Ken Burnap strongly believed in the use of gravity, he built a three-tiered winery. What are the advantages of using gravity?
JE He felt the less you could do to screw up the wine the better it was. The winery was technically 4 tiers. We crushed on the roof. The fruit would come in through these hatches he built in the roof directly into the fermentors down in the next level. Then there was the settling tank room we would press into and where we’d also stage the wines for bottling later. And then the barrel cellar at the bottom level.
We changed that philosophy slightly over the years. We realized that with big, tight mountain red wines some air early on is not a bad thing, it can be a good thing. But certainly, the gentle handling, not whipping it up with pumps is good. We didn’t even own a pump until we started making white wine sometime in the mid-eighties. We would do absurd things like siphon the barrels into a tank we had on a truck and drive the truck to the top of the hill in order to have it flow downhill into the tank to bottle. [laughter] We literally did that!
What kinds of fermenters did you use?
JE We used big open top fermenters, one of them is sitting in here, six ton capacity open tops, seven foot in diameter, six foot high, three of those, and one four ton fermenter. Ken had them made. He was an industrial contractor in his former life and had many fabricators at his beck and call. He had a lot of it made for him.
So what is it about the Santa Cruz Mountains and Pinot?
JE Well, it’s one of those places in the world that has a very good climate. Because of the marine influence where we get warm enough days to get things ripe and fully developed with mature flavors, but cool enough nights that we keep the natural acidity and structure. The character of Pinot Noir is very ephemeral and easy to burn out with heat, especially overnight. So you get these valley floor situations where it’s hot all night long. You then lose the acidity, you lose that bright black cherry-berry fruit character in pinot.
This is precisely why Ken Burnap got into making Pinot Noir. He loved Burgundy and couldn’t figure out why California Pinot Noir was so flabby and uninteresting in comparison. Of course, we’re talking what was in the market in the sixties. And in those days, it was primarily the Napa Valley where grapes were grown, almost exclusively. We now know Napa is too hot to grow good pinot, and if it has a Napa appellation it’s Carneros on the cool end. But that wasn’t the case then.
Ken set out to find regions he thought would produce better pinot than where they were being produced. And his two short-list answers in talking to winemakers and looking at climate were the Russian River and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Mind you, this was the early 1970’s, long before Russian River became a ‘thing’.
And the clone selection he preferred, that you prefer?
JE That’s a whole different topic! I have my own opinions about some of these modern clones that I think are more negative than the general market view.
JE Dijon, in particular. I think they have their place but I think they’re overused in California. They get ripe too early, they were developed in a place, Dijon, where it’s cold. I think there is a whole generation of pinot drinkers who don’t understand what pinot is in the classic sense because these modern clones when they get even slightly over-ripe they just become cola-cherry soda pop. No back spice, earth, forest floor and all those other nuances that good pinot can have.
In Ken’s case he wasn’t specifically looking at clones. Clone’s weren’t that big of a deal in the 70’s. Nobody was really talking about clones. They were talking about location, soils, people were talking about how Burgundy had a lot of calcareous limestone elements in the better, premier cru vineyards. Josh Jensen at Calera was really big on that, saying Calera has limestone. So people were more focused on soils in those days. Clones weren’t on the radar of the circle I was with. And the vineyard that we had had already been planted by David Bruce. Ken came to the vineyard already planted in pinot.
And these days, how are your vineyards selected?
JE It is a matter of what is available out there. I’ve just come upon my two main sources. It wasn’t a conscious, pro-active situation. In the case of the Branciforte Creek vineyard, which is a mile away from our old estate on Jarvis Road, that was a vineyard that a customer of ours who came visiting from Chicago one day years ago and who had thought about moving out here. Loved the idea of a wine vineyard. And they ended up moving to the Santa Cruz Mountains and planting this vineyard in about 1988. We made the first crop off of it in 1991 on our label. But the person who owned the vineyard realized very quickly that he wasn’t a vine tender, he needed help with that; and we weren’t a big enough winery to do that kind of program. But David Bruce was. The fruit went to them. Then in 2003 the grower came to me and said he wanted to make some changes. Were we interested in having the fruit? It was perfect timing. In 2003 I knew I was to lose the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Estate source when Ken retired and sold the property a mile away. It was pure, fortunate luck obtaining the Branciforte Creek vineyard. It was a little bit older vineyard, planted in 1988. It produces terrific fruit. Pommard clone. We just signed a six year contract to manage it. So we’re back in the vineyard business, controlling all the viticultural aspects.
My other pinot source is yet another mile away, two miles from the old Estate, and it’s called Branciforte Ridge vineyard. This is endlessly confusing for my customers so we call the second one by the family name, Bailey’s, Bailey’s Branciforte Ridge. That vineyard I’ve been connected to since it was raw dirt. There is a very well-established vineyard tender/installer by the name of Rick Anzalone here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He’s been a fan of our style of Pinot Noir and was sort of looking out for us. So when he was contracted to do this project he told us we might be interested in this. I started working with Rick and the owner early on to be one of the two wineries that would have that fruit. Its first crop was 2003. And they are Dijon clones, 115 and 667. The road passes right down the middle; I take one side of the crop, Clos Tita takes the other.
How has the market changed since you’ve been in the business?
JE [Laughter] That’s a big question!
Then let’s take wine styles.
JE The wine business, in my opinion, is always cyclical and pendular. It will go through these lopsided, cam-shaped loops; oak to no oak, butter to no butter in Chardonnay, high alcohol to moderate alcohol. I’ve gone to many of these trends in my 30 years. Probably most obvious is the fairly recent and, in my opinion, dying out approach of really, really ripe California wines, the whole ‘Mondovino’ thing, wines that are 15, 16 percent alcohol.
The Parker palate.
JE Yeah. We’ve always been the opposite of that. We’ve always been very European, making wines that have higher acidity, tighter structure, longer lived; we’re making wines for the table, wines for the cellar. Wines that go with food. The Parker palate brought in a lot of new wine drinkers and we’ve surprisingly overcome France in per capita wine consumption, which I never thought I’d see in my life time. He had a lot to do with these big, juicy, jammy things that were easy to approach, and people got used to drinking them. That’s for better or worse the stereotype of the American palate, that it does not really understand subtlety and that it goes for power. As much as I don’t like to drink those kinds of wines I think they did a great service to the industry by bringing in many new wine drinkers. As new drinkers get more sophisticated perhaps they’ll realize that these wines may be nice as an aperitif, they’re really fun to start a meal, but when you sit down with some food it’s a train wreck!
But then, new drinkers will eventually find out about more traditionally made wines, what I laughingly hear people call ‘lower alcohol’ wines. I make properly balanced wines. They are not over-ripe.
That’s just one example of the swinging of the pendulum. There is also the incredible over extraction of oak, backing off the oak… But we’ve never been trend followers. Maybe we all would have made a lot more money if we did. I think sticking to your guns, keeping your style is the way to go. We have many, many customers on the mailing list who go back more than thirty years.
End of Pt.1


Reign of Terroir Completes Its First Year

Ξ December 3rd, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History |

one candleA year in the life of a wine blog is an eternity. I have often heard most give up the ghost before the earth rounds the sun. Could be. Very likely. While the reasons for the failure of a blog are few, writer fatigue, the rush of life, family and work obligations among the most frequently cited, perhaps the most important reason is that it never found a readership. Writing a wine blog worth a reader’s time is difficult to achieve. But it remains the only satisfying measure of a blog’s success.
With respect to the wine blogs of others, I hold in very high regard virtually any creative effort I might find. An interesting turn of phrase, an obscure topic explored, the profane confessions of wine diarist, all are sufficient reasons to bring me back to a blog. ‘A Carnies Guide to Wine’, ‘Grandma Breaks Her Hip’, ‘Why I Hate Wine’, ‘Can’t Find My House, A Wino’s Drinking Companion’ may be charming, fine wine sites in their own way but they are not, however, what the vast majority readers are looking for. Or I should say the reverse is true, a blog creates its audience. Eventually. The fundamental question must always be, “Who would I like to read this blog”?
What follows are the first anniversary reflections from the three original writers for Reign of Terroir, Donna, Karl, and lastly, yours truly, the Admin.
Year in Review
2008 has been an interesting year. Living in Houston, I got to experience the tragedy of Hurricane Ike. On the scale of hurricanes it did not carry a lot of death in its wake as some of it’s predecessors but the damage to the landscape of Galveston and surrounding areas was astounding.
I was one of the lucky ones, I was only out of power for 3 weeks with a little bit of carpet damp due to my French door jams giving way to the horizontal rain that assaulted them.
Our Admin for asked us to comment on our most valuable article we wrote.
Being a student of wine and a wine buyer for an importer, my favorite was the How Professionals Taste Wine. I had a blast with my friends taping the tasting. I hope we can do more of these for the grape of the month in the future. More than anything else it allows me time with my good friends. Working in the wine industry, despite being a blast, is very time consuming and we have a tendency to work very long hours as our personal lives and commitments are also surrounded by wine.
But, then I started thinking about all the work I do, and lack of personal time, and I knew the article not involving wine was the real winner. The article for Veteran’s Day about my father was my favorite and I thank our Admin for remembering him in our previous conversations about life and including his memory in the blog.
It’s hard to believe he’s been gone nearly 4 years now. Not a day goes by without my heart aching for him. His last years were fraught with the evil that is Alzheimer’s. What was once a great man was reduced as the disease attacked his head and subsequently by default his body. But taking care of him through his diseased years gave me the strength to deal with the obstacles of 2008 leading up to the finale of Hurricane Ike. So even through his illness he was still parenting me to deal with obstacles in my life.
So, as we come to the end of another year, we are told to count our blessings. I however recommend you also count the curses. The curses are that which makes your character.
Greybeard (Karl)
A year in retrospect.
When Reign of Terroir went live in December 2007 I was excited at the prospect of being able to “publish” my thoughts and experiences on food and wine which, up until that point, had been confined to informal chatting on Internet Forums (which is where I “met” original co-authors Ken and Donna).
Writing has always been something I’ve been comfortable with ever since school and the written word factors heavily in my day-job with verbose technical reports, training manuals and customer-support e-mails all hinting at a frustrated author trying to get out. However away from work I’d never had anything to write about until I developed my interest in all things wine-related in 2006. The timing of Ken’s decision to set up Reign of Terroir was perfect for me – my business travels around the world meant I had a good supply of topics to (hopefully) tell some interesting stories and also I was at a stage in my wine education where I was becoming confident in being able to include relevant and useful wine information as well.
My first post, From the Caucasus to the Baltic, is, with hindsight, a fairly amateurish attempt with rudimentary formatting and no images which add necessary visual excitement to a web-page. However it shows, in embryonic form, the style of writing I was to develop over the year and my liking for reference facts and information on the topic, most of it usually relevant!
One of my specialties is the Restaurant review, if only because I get to go to plenty during my business trips. My aim is always to write about places which have a link to wine, whether it is indirectly through the location or, more often than not, directly because of a good bottle consumed on the premises! My favourites from the year were Schmulik Cohen’s in Tel Aviv, where the hearty home-style food is to die for, and Pano Saraphanesi in Istanbul where the selection of weird and unusual Turkish wines should pique any enthusiast’s curiosity.
Of the other articles over the last 12 months ones that I’m particularly happy with on a personal level are A Case of Familiar Faces, where I profiled some well known names in the industry, and Pesticides in Wine, which was one of the few “Current Affairs” topics I worked on.
And the year ahead? Changes in my role at work mean I could be travelling less so the global Restaurant Reviews may suffer, but you should see more informal “diary” style posts of what I’m buying and drinking each month. Most of all I have strong desire to inform and educate – so expect more articles on wine history and unusual or interesting producers, as well as the usual mix of topics related to the workings of the wine-world.
I’d like to think that Reign of Terroir has found a niche for itself in the blogosphere and that people find something useful out of the range of topics covered on its pages. My contribution to the blog has at times been irregular, and with the constraints of a busy day-job that will likely continue, but I plan to continue sending through my eclectic ramblings as long as Ken will have them and I trust that at least a few of you will enjoy reading them.
My appreciation for Donna and Karl is boundless. We work well together because I’ve made no rules as to what they may submit. Like our readers, I, too, like to be surprised! I will do the html, add the pics and hyperlinks for anything they write. Wonderful, broadminded folk.
A special note of thanks must be given to Tom Wark of Fermentation, the net’s gold standard of the daily wine blog. He provided this space an early boost. More than that, after receiving Tom’s notice I realized how much work needed to be done to remain deserving. He has been the single biggest influence on the quality and rigor of what we’ve written. As I asked above, “Who would I like to read this blog”? Well, folks like Tom.
A hearty thank you to all of our readers. We will continue to work hard to inform and entertain you.
Back to work…


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