At 9:00 pm on Saturday night ViniPortugal and the European Wine Bloggers Conference hosted an ‘After-Hours Tasting Party’ at the Flamingo Resort’s Alexander Room. The event was essentially put together by Gabriella and Ryan Opaz of the fine Barcelona-based website Catavino. Ryan, Gabriella, and Robert McIntosh of The Wine Conversation are the driving forces behind this Fall’s European Wine Bloggers Conference.
Wines of Portugal are very popular now, at least the talk of them is. Being a great fan of the Portuguese wines I have tasted in the past year, I was very interested in seeing what was offered. But it remains difficult to find them readily offered in wine shops, restaurants and grocery stores. One typically finds a bottling here and there. Even the otherwise excellent K&L shop in San Francisco carries no more than three, sometimes four, reds. Whites are just as uncommon. So it was with great pleasure I tasted through the WBC/ViniPortugal line-up.
I can only hope the event sparks discussion of the wines on wine blogger’s sites, paying especial attention to price and food-friendliness. The structure and bright acidity of many of the wines I tasted, many in the $10 to $20 range, was a delight. The interviews below is my small part at the promotion of these fine efforts.
Follow this link for a full list of wines, producers and prices: wine-bloggers-conference-showcase-wines-information1 And here is a good map of the regions: wine-regions-map-docs
A note about grape nomenclature. I was in a wine shop one day buying a wine from Cahors made from a variety I had come to call Côt or Auxerrois, but it is also known as Tannat and Malbec. I noticed an Alsatian bottling of a white wine also called Auxerrois. Well, it you think that might be a bit confusing witness the regional names of the Aragonez grape. Besides Tempranillo we have
Aldepenas, Aragones, (Portugal), Aragonez Da Ferra, Aragonez de Elvas, Arganda, Arinto Tinto, Cencibel (Castile La Mancha, Madrid, Aragón, Extremadura, Murcia), Cencibera, Chinchillana (Extremadura), Chinchillano, Chinchilyano, Cupani, Escobera (Extremadura, S. America), Garnacho Foño (S.America), Grenache de Logrono, Jacibiera (Castile La Mancha, S. America), Jacivera, Juan Garcia, Negra de Mesa, Ojo de Liebre, Olho de Lebre, Sensibel, Tempranilla, Tempranillo de la Rioja, Tempranillo de Perralta, Tempranillo de Rioja, Tempranillo de Rioza, Tinta Aragones, Tinta de Santiago, Tinta de Toro, Tinta Do Inacio, Tinta Monteira, Tinta Monteiro, Tinta Roriz (Portugal), Tinta Roriz Da Penajola, Tinta Santiago, Tinto Aragon, Tinto Aragonez, Tinto de la Ribera, Tinto de Madrid (Toledo, Cantabria, Salamanca, Soria, Valladolid, Madrid), Tinto del País (Castile/Leon, Rioja), Tinto de Rioja, Tinto de Toro (Zamora), Tinto del Toro, Tinto Fino (Castile/Leon, Madrid, Valencia, Extremadura, Rioja), Tinto Madrid, Tinto Pais, Tinto Ribiera, Tinto Riojano, Ull de Llebre (Catalan for “Eye of the Hare”), Valdepeñas (also in California), Verdiell (Catalonia), Vid de Aranda (Burgos), Tinta Santiago (S. America) and Tinta Montereiro (S. America).
I first spoke with Carrie Jorgensen of Cortes de Cima. The winery’s site describes her this way:
Responsible for administration and marketing. A Californian born girl, Carrie grew up in the San Francisco bay area, and studied Economics at UC Berkeley, before moving to Malaysia where she met Hans. Since the early days of Cortes de Cima she has been actively involved in both production and sales of our horticulture products.
Pioneer in Portugal of selling online direct from the winery.
The Cortes de Cima winery is located about 2 hours from Lisbon, in the north-eastern corner of one of the larger wine regions, Alentejano, specifically in a sub-region of the Alentejo DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) called Vidigueira.
Admin So, who are you, and what brings you here?
Carrie Jorgensen I am a wine blogger.
Yes, you’re a wine blogger. But you are also associated with the wines of Portugal, shall we say.
CJ Yes. I’m actually a Portuguese winemaker. Cortes de Cima. The ones you were just trying actually. I hope you enjoyed them. I’m a Portuguese wine maker but I’ll tell you a secret: I’m from Marin County, I’m from California. I guess you could hear that! (laughs)
A little bit.
CJ I left when I was 19, well, I was at Berkeley, UC Berkeley, and I left California and went to Malaysia. I met my husband, who’s Danish. And I lived in Malaysia with him for 9 years. Then we decided to leave Malaysia and move to Europe. So we bought a sailing boat and we sailed to Europe, and we sailed around Europe looking for a place to start a vineyard. Then our boat arrived in Portugal and we thought we’d found the place. One thing is it reminded us of California quite a bit. We liked the people. That’s how we ended up in Portugal.
How much property did you buy initially?
CJ We bought something that was the size of Central Park, 375 hectares. But it is not all planted with vines. Of course, when we got there it wasn’t planted with anything. It was dry farming. There was no electricity, no running water, no nothing. We planted our vineyards in ‘91 and we now have 100 hectares of vineyards.
Were there vineyards nearby?
CJ There were a lot of vineyards in the area, yeah. It was a wine-growing area. In fact, the Romans grew wine there. There’s a lot of tradition there in growing wine. Mostly white wine varieties. And we planted red wine grapes which was quite different in those days. Everyone talked about it. They thought we were nuts because we were foreigners and we didn’t know what we were doing!
What varieties did you start with?
CJ We started with Aragonez, which is Tempranillo, we call it Aragonez. We started with some Trincadeira. We started with Periquita which we don’t like. After a while we pulled that up. And then we planted something we weren’t supposed to do: We planted Syrah. It was illegal. But we did it anyway.
How did that go over with the locals?
CJ Of course, we didn’t tell them. No one knew. When we finally had our first vintage of the Syrah and we didn’t know what to do with it. We had a visit by Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin. They tried it. They said ‘you’ve got to try to find a way to bottle this wine and show the world that you can grow Syrah in Alentejo, and how great it is.’ So we found a label. We decided to call it Incognito. And there is an acronym on the back where you can see it’s Syrah. We have a Bob Dylan quote “to live outside the law you must be honest”.
Did you ask for help from the locals?
CJ We kind of mingled a bit. We did our own thing.
How was your Portuguese?
CJ It’s good now, after 20 years. (laughs) Yeah. Our kids were born there, they grew up there. They went to school there.
So the secret must have finally come out, that you were growing Syrah.
CJ Oh yeah, it’s out. When Incognito became very famous. It was went to London for the Wine Challenge where it won a gold medal. And everyone was talking about it. It was known because it was illegal.
Illegal in the same way a Super Tuscan is illegal?
CJ Yeah, same thing. We actually violated a lot of things. We also violated with our trellis system. We used a Smart-Dyson system. Under the DOC rules you’re not allowed to do that either. We did a lot of things we weren’t supposed to do.
Has your example changed winemaking techniques in the area.
CJ Winemaking techniques have changed a lot in the area, thank god. I don’t know if it is our example or if the just had to change with time to become competitive.
When you first bought the land was it expensive?
CJ No. It was after Portugal had joined the EU. It wasn’t dirt cheap. The standard of living has changed quite a bit, for the better, after they joined the EU.
And how has the response been to the Portuguese wine tasting this evening?
CJ Oh, fantastic! A lot of people are very excited about Portuguese wines; a lot of people don’t know about them but they want to learn.
Thank you, Carrie.
CJ You’re welcome.
I next spoke with Oscar Quevedo, the export manager for Quevedo, a family owned wine business in the ‘heart of the Douro‘. He and Adria were funny, energetic people. Always smiling.
Oscar Quevedo My name is Oscar Quevedo. I came from Portugal, from the Douro Valley. We make Port wine and still wine from the Duoro. We use traditional varietals, over 100 different varietals. And my family has been making Port for over 120 years.
What do you think of this evening? The room is absolutely packed!
OQ Yes, it is packed. If every one of the 250 people came here it would be impossible to taste anything. But I think it is a little bit late. People are maybe tired. Just enough are here!
How many wines were brought for this tasting?
OQ We brought three Ports. In total, around 40 different Portuguese wines, 35 still wines and 5 Ports.
And how was this arranged between the Open Wine Consortium and ViniPortugal?
OQ As you know, Ryan Opaz [of Catavino] is one of the admins of the Open Wine Consortium. He was invited by ViniPortugal to organize this tasting here at the Wine Bloggers Conference. It is a way to promote the European Wine Bloggers Conference that will take place in Lisbon at the end of October, but also the wines of Portugal.
What are the price points of the wines that have been brought here? [The full list and prices may be found here: wine-bloggers-conference-showcase-wines-information].
OQ I think we should have wines from $10 up to $60-70. I think there are some good wines from Portugal between $10 to $15 range. That makes us very competitive.
Especially in this lousy economy.
OQ Exactly. People are moving from $50 wines to the $20 wines. And those that bought the $20 wines are now buying at $10. So Portugal is getting some points ahead of some competitors.
Did you do much touring of the Napa wineries today?
OQ I did. I visited 4 wineries. I was really surprised and impressed by the marketing that is behind each one of the wineries in Napa. It is amazing. We in the Duoro really care about the vines, the grapes and the winemaking, and eventually about the tourists. Here I think they begin to build the concept, the label, by the marketing, the merchandising, and then they care about the wine and the grapes. I don’t want to say they [Portugal] make better wines because that is not true. They have very good wines here as well.
What are tasting rooms like in Portugal?
OQ Well, in the Duoro the land is very steep. So the tasting rooms are beautiful places to look out over the valley. That is in the North. In the South they are not so comparative, so professional as you are here. We don’t care so much about all the space where you are tasting the wines; we have a lot of work to do to impress visitors.
Do you offer horizontal tasting?
OQ Yes, both vertical and horizontal tastings of Port wines. We really like to taste different vintages from different vineyards because, as you probably know, in the North of Portugal all the vineyards are very small parcels, vineyards of just one acre. That’s what we have. So a vineyard of 50 acres is big. So we have a lot of different terroirs. The final blend is made with a lot of different wines. We allow our visitors to taste the different wines to let us know what they prefer [in the final blend]. It is a good way to learn and to improve from our consumers, they help us do our job.
Which Europeans are the most common visitor? And do you get many American visitors? Who buys your wines?
OQ We have a lot of tourists from the North of Europe, France, Denmark, Germany, UK. The UK market is very important for Port wine. There is a growing interest from the Portuguese society to discover the wine regions of Portugal.
The Portuguese society?
OQ The people of Portugal now have more purchasing power. Portugal is growing and people know more about wine; they want to visit the wineries, they want to meet the winemakers. This is improving and making the wine industry grow.
I understand. Cool. Is there anything else you’d care to add?
OQ It was a big pleasure to meet you, Ken. We had a tasting two days ago at Twisted Oak making a blend of the Spaniard ‘08. It was a big pleasure to be in your group and to share with you some thoughts on what should be the final blend.
It was because of you that we won!
OQ No, no, no! Definitely not.
Thank you, Oscar.
OQ Thank you, Ken.
Lastly, I spoke with Marcio Ferreira of ViniPortugal itself. His business card states that he is the Area Manager.
Marcio Ferreira I am the director of marketing for ViniPortugal. That is the wine marketing board for Portuguese wines. It is a not-for-profit organization, a private association. We have close ties to the government. But we are not government. We are a private association.
How did you make arrangements with the Open Wine Consortium to come to the conference?
MF Well, it has been a long way for us. We wanted to get on this side of the bloggers and to meet these people. It happened through Catavino. Being American and being in Spain like they are [Ryan and Gabriella], they are trying to approach the wine business that is closer to them. They approached us. I’ve known them for a few years and we got to work with this now.
We do this with great pleasure. It is very important to us to be here. When I think that when you are in the wine business and you want to be competitive, you have to capitalize on your opportunities. That is what we are doing here.
There is quite a crowd gathered. What is your sense of their response?
MF For us the American market is reacting very well to our wines. One reason is that Portuguese wines don’t have the brand that we wish they would have, and so we have to lower our prices. Best values from Portugal are really good, good wines for a very decent price. And that has helped us make a footprint in the market. We are currently number 9, we just passed South Africa, in exporting wines to the United States. I think the future will smile on us. Not everybody can say that in a recession you increase your sales. Portugal, we started in January, February, it was tough because we came from a nice increase in 2008. And now we break even in June ‘09. It’s been interesting for us, the US market.
So how were the wines selected?
MF Usually how we do this we open event to the Portuguese wine producers, all of them. We have a few criteria to select. First, the wines should be available in the states already because when you’re a blogger and you taste a wine, if you want to write about it, the wine should be available for people to buy. You can actually kill a brand, and harm a brand rather than promote it [if it is unavailable]. So the wine should be available in the United States. That’s it. Producers make arraignments with their importers, and importers submit registrations to us and we select a few wines that are adaptable to the market. We have about 35 wines here, we received probably 40 applications. So we didn’t turn out that many.
How does distribution work? How many distributors for the wines?
MF That’s our biggest handicap in the US. For a small wine country like Portugal we have pass the barrier of distribution because the biggest part of the consumers who buy our wines are Portuguese descendants and Portuguese immigrants, the ethnic market. The challenge for Portugal right now is to break off the ethnic market and to market the wines to other ethnic groups. That’s the biggest challenge.
And also market Portuguese wines to the global cuisine. Our wines are great food wines! Our wines are driven by fruit, acidity and freshness. They make amazing food-friendly wines.
Why do so many wine stores have so few wines from Portugal?
MF The reason is simple. A distributor, a retailer, when they think about buying a Portuguese wine he thinks ‘can I sell it off the shelf?’ Portugal does not have the brand yet. They’d much rather buy an Argentinean wine or a Spanish wine or a Chilean wine because they know the brand is there and that the consumer will grab it for that intangible that Portugal doesn’t have yet. That is our biggest fight.
We are a small country. We have 10 million inhabitants. We are a country engraved in wine culture; 7% of all Portuguese work in the wine business. We are the most densely planted wine country in the world. We have around 500,000 acres of vineyards in Portugal. So we are number 10 producer in the world; being that small it is quite an astonishing number.
Well thank you very much. I’ll let you get back to your pouring.
MF Thank you.
Sterling Vineyards has a great deal to say. Through a growing series of green and philanthropic initiatives involving everything from waste recycling to restoration of riparian habitats, from water recycling to the conversion to solar power of their celebrated tram, from using organically grown grapes to donations to Napa families in need and monies for land preservation, all that I have read and heard tells me Sterling Vineyards has made very impressive gains.
The Wine Bloggers Conference organizers are to be praised, as well as the other associated wineries and organizations, for bringing the Napa and Sonomas’ collective response to environmental and social issues to the forefront. For me personally it is a far more important collection of nested concerns that the latest release. Indeed, among the first questions I ask when making a wine purchase is where my dollars are going? In whom and what am I investing? What behaviors am I rewarding? I spend extra for organic tomatoes; I go out of my way to purchase Fair Trade coffee; I buy from local and socially responsible stores, those that pay a living wage and provide health care for their employees. Why should wine be approached differently? I am pleased to report Sterling Vineyards passes muster. And the best news is that they are not alone, far from it, among Napa and Sonoma producers as I trust fellow bloggers will report from their winery visits.
As I wrote in an earlier piece we departed on one of eight randomly chosen busses for winery destinations. The first stop on our tour was Sterling Vineyards where our group was to meet the charming Alison Crary, described, in part, in a bio provided on a flash drive as the following:
As Associate Winemaker for red varietals at Sterling Vineyards, Alison Crary is able to fully indulge her curiosity about Napa’s most prominent grapes and the terroir within which they grow. In close concert with Mike Westrick, Senior Vice President of Winemaking at Sterling, Alison has the opportunity to harvest over 200 vineyard blocks within Napa County, and to evaluate the wines made from those sites year after year. Working with varietals as diverse as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan, Mourvedre and Merlot, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot, Alison takes great joy in expanding the breadth of her experience, and exploring the ever-evolving world of wine.
What follows is a partial, edited transcript of a ‘wild’ recording of her remarks as we lunched and toured a limited portion of the impressive winery and grounds. Part 2 will appear early next week.
“So how many of you are familiar with Napa Green Certified Land? We’ve got a couple back there, excellent. Are there any experts? Couple more… couple more. Wonderful. And the name Fish Friendly Farming? O.K. Great. So you guys are going to do the rest of the talk, and I’m going to sit down and eat! (laughter) Just kidding.
Sterling is a member of Napa Green Certified Land. We are aiming for certification. We are currently 80% of the way there, which for us is a pretty big undertaking because we have over 1000 acres of estate vineyards. When you think about the fact that right now there are just over 30,000 acres of land in Napa County that are enrolled in Napa Green, and 15,000 of those acres are planted to vine, the fact that we have 800 acres already certified, and we’re about to certify the last 200, we make up a 1000 of that 15,000 acres that have been certified. I’m very proud of that fact.
We’ve been working toward [full] certification for the last couple of years.
Fish Friendly Farming and Napa Green basically center on the idea of preserving soil and preserving and restoing watersheds. For a winemaker, you know, this is a really important thing. These are two of the biggest resources. I need great water and I need to hold on to my wonderful soil that grows my terrific grapes. So it is, of course, in our interest as well to make sure that we preserve these two extremely valuable resources.
We go into our vineyards, like down at Winery Lake, we go in, we restore any watersheds that have seen damage in the past. We’ve been working on this restoration at Winery Lake [vineyard] for two decades. The work that we did twenty years ago at Winery Lake, we’ve basically gone and rolled through the rest of our estate vineyards to make sure the habitat stays friendly to fish, that we are able to nurture and plant native species like Western Dogwood, California Rose, yarrow… some of these plants will keep the sol where we want it and not in our streams during the rainy season. So that’s part of Fish Friendly Farming.
We’re also very committed to making sure we keep our dust levels down in the vineyard, that we do so with sustainable means. Right now we’re using a sugar polymer that we put on our vineyard paths throughout these 1000 acres of estate vineyards to make sure we keep the dust down and that we keep any of the sediment from going off into our streams an rivers providing better environments for the fish fry and for local salmon.
Everyday that I drive to work I feel very fortunate. [....] Everybody in the valley is extremely motivated to keep it as beautiful as it has been and will be. We are not alone. We do make up a lot of those certified grape lands. But we also have a lot of partners through the Napa Valley Vintners. And we have a lot of people here who are striving for the same preservation. We will continue it until we see full certification.
In addition to the Napa Valley Green Program we also just became a newly minted Napa Valley Green Winery. It happened this April. We were one of the first twelve in the entire valley.“
From the flash drive, a piece titled Sterling Vineyards Is Certifiable Green.
Founded in 2007, Napa Green Certified Winery was developed by the Napa Valley Vintners in coordination with the Napa County Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and is based on the Association of Bay Area Government’s (ABAG) Green Business Program as a model due to its consistent, credible and recognized program with a long track record. ABAG’s winery-specific checklist was updated and adopted as the certification method for Napa Green Certified Winery because it puts all the regulatory pieces into a comprehensive format that goes beyond compliance. The checklist includes water conservation, energy conservation, pollution prevention, and solid waste reduction elements.
“We have done a number of things over the last few years to make sure… well, we were actually, we were headed for certification before there was a certification (laughs), to be quite honest, because a lot of these projects were started several years ago. What I’m talking about would be night air cooling of all of our facilities. We live in an environment where we have during the summertime a 50 degree fahrenheit diurnal variation. Last week,for instance, we had a number of days when it was 49 degrees at night and 99 degrees during the middle of the day. We have sensors on all our air intake vents that blow at a certain temperature and bring that cool air in, and it will shut off at warmer temperatures so we can naturally cool our entire facility.
We also have this year 4 ten hour working days which right there cuts off 20% of our energy usage and also water usage, because if you only have to sanitize your winery 4 days a week rather than 5 that’s a huge savings in terms of water.
We’ve also been recently been recognized for our waste reduction. For a facility like this I am extremely proud to say that we have diverted, or have been able to divert in the last two years 95% of the waste that is generated on site. We’ve been able to keep it out of landfills. We compost all of our pomace. We recycle everything we can, down to little, tiny batteries to small boxes we reuse; any materials that are recyclable, we collect them and move them out through the proper channels. A 95% waste reduction has added up to a diversion of over 1,400 tons of material every year. Fourteen hundred tons! That’s what we’re keeping out of the waste stream every year.
And water conservation? How many here are from California? What you may not know is that we are in the third year of a drought. I was lucky enough to move to California in a non-drought year and I didn’t really understand what all the griping and moaning was about, now I understand it. I get it. It is extremely dry out here. And water is a very, very hot commodity. Our governor, this Spring, challenged all Californians to reduce their water usage by 20%. Well, we just christened a water processing unit, and I’m about to totally geek out on you here, warning! Winemaker goes geeky on you! But this is a fascinating piece of machinery, something called a membrane bioreactor. We’ve installed either the second or the third one in the county. We just christened it this Spring. What this is going to allow us to do… UC Davis has put out a statistic that it takes one to four gallons of water to make one gallon of wine. That’s a huge water usage. This membrane bioreactor will allow us to recycle and reuse 50% of the water we use on this site. Fifty percent for us is a pretty big number, it’s three and a half-million gallons in one year.
In addition to the use of organically grown grapes in some of our bottlings, we’ve also made strides in our packaging of these wines. Our labels are 30% post-consumer recycled paper, only using soy inks. We are a member of One Percent For the Planet. It is a group of businesses who’ve come together and said they will donate one percent of their proceeds to furthering environmental protection around the planet. We’ve donate $50,000 so far. That’s just in our first year. We’re very proud of that partnership.
And we’re very proud of the wines, too! (laughter)
I am a big gardener, and one of the fringe benefits of our membrane bioreactor is that we get to use the compost that comes out for our community garden here at Sterling. [The garden] is growing like gangbusters right now. So I was having a little squash, a little zucchini, out of that garden, just sautéed with some butter, salt and pepper; throw a little of that on some angel hair pasta and crack open an organic Sterling Sauvignon Blanc, there’s dinner! (laughs)“
End of part 1
Part 2 may be read here.
Great thanks to Alison Crary and Sterling for their generosity.
What follows is a brief outline of a number of stories and modest interviews I will be posting over the next week, all gathered from this year’s outstanding Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) held at the Flamingo Motel from July 24th to the 26th. Indeed, the 2009 conference showed a marked maturity over last year’s. By maturity I mean that whereas in 2008 there was an air of apprehension, caution and mixed feedback, I cannot imagine the negatives being more than a hiccup in an otherwise splendid banquet of conversation and activities. Why? Because it finally became clear to the majority of participants that the WBC is less a community out-reach program for troubled teens and much more about making of the event what our motivation and talent is able. Self-direction is now the order of the day. All for the better.
While the WBC has been able to harness a substantial percentage of the wine-blogging world, to put them in one place, to mark a date in our collective timeline, and while the import and influence of our irregular 4th Estate remains ambiguous, it is the wineries and other interested sponsors and organizations that this year stepped up their game. Beyond their startling generosity this year, they put front and center an important new subject, that of the greening of their industry. Of course, the commercial overtones of the conference, the persistence of bloggers’ ‘monetizing’ obsession remains as stark as ever, still there was, especially on the part of the participating wineries, an insistence on widening the discussion. Tired of writing about whether you like this or that wine? Fatigued by the mind-numbing sameness of tasting notes? Well then, write about the remarkable green initiatives undertaken by Napa and Sonoma wineries.
Saturday’s schedule was the heart and soul of this year’s conference. We first shuttled to the Culinary Institute of America where we were immediately put into a stupefied, migrainous mood by one of the dimmer ‘futurists’ I’ve yet heard, someone named Barry Schuler, formerly the CEO of AOL. We learned from him that Paul Masson made lousy wine, that San Jose is an AVA, and that one day we shall all be deceased. Fortunately, he was followed by a presentation of real importance, one given by Wines and Vines editor, Jim Gordon, a presentation titled The Future of Wine Writing and Industry Trends To Be Aware Of. Despite ending his title with a preposition, I can find nothing but positive things to say about it. His was perhaps the first constructive ‘nuts and bolts’ talk about wine writing in the two-year history of the WBC, certainly the finest. Among his practical principles:
Know your subject
Get your facts from the source
Get facts right
Stake a claim and mine it
Stay ahead of the pack
Look beyond the blogosphere for topics
Though his time was cut short by the futurist’s ramblings, Mr. Gordon outlined a very healthy wine blogger’s praxis. My understanding is that the presentation will appear in written form, perhaps in Wines and Vines itself. Subscribe and read it for yourself.
We next were instructed to pick one of eight or so busses. Each bus driver had been given a secret winery destination, two actually. I chose randomly and ended up on a truly remarkable journey. Our lucky busload of bloggers arrived first at the venerable Sterling Vineyards where we met the winemaker, a witty and earnest soul by the name of Alison Crary. Her work and the green initiatives undertaken by Sterling Vineyards will be one of my three subject posts for this week. Suffice to say, she was very well informed on all the details of her winery’s work. Additional detail was exhaustively provided by Terry Hall of Napa Valley Vintners. From watersheds to recycled water, from Ms. Crary’s organic garden to biodiversity, we were given an extraordinary amount of important material on practical greening technologies and land preservation.
We next traveled to Storybook Mountain Vineyards where my faith in Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was briefly restored. There we met a trio, a veritable tour de force of collective intellectual sophistication and grit. The subject of another of my posts to come, we were introduced to Dr. J. Bernard Seps of Storybook, Pat Stotesbery of Ladera Vineyards, and Dirk Hampson of Nickel & Nickel. Their talk was titled “Do AVAs Matter?” It was a graceful presentation about which I shall later write. For now I want to briefly mention their approach to the topic. Dr. Seps took the long view, the historical dimension of Calistoga’s region, Mr. Hampson outlined more practical geographical matters, but the real pleasure to be had was listening to Mr. Stotesbery’s bare-knuckled take on the TTB and recent controversies not only in Calistoga but with respect to AVAs generally. No marketing bullshit here. They had a point of view and they presented it with superb focus and wit. Great fun.
From an eye-opening tasting of Napa wines at Quintessa, we next traveled, asked again to blindly choose a bus, to Pine Ridge for dinner. As with the CIA departure this, too, was a shot in the dark as to where we might end up. I was fortunate enough to be told by Tish to take lucky number 8. I will have much more to say about the evening but I want to specifically mention meeting at long last one of my favorite people in the wine world, Amelia Ceja of Ceja Vineyards. Pictured above, I might add how happy was Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude to at last find somebody shorter than himself.
We returned to the Flamingo for the event I had longed for, the Vini Portugal wine tasting event. This will also be a topic of mine in the next few days. We can thank Catavino, a superb site founded by the attractive couple Gabriella and Ryan Opaz, for this dazzling line-up of wines. About much more later!
There is still so much to relate! And I will in the coming days. Able Grape founder Doug Cook’s brilliant wine lesson at the end of the evening (missed Alice Feiring terribly), meeting the folks from El Molino High School, the only high school known to have a winery permit, stellar wine makers such as Montemaggiore’s lovely Lise Ciolino. Much more to come!
This, the second part of my interview with Ken Burnap, was not without its quiet moments. Mr. Burnap is a man of considerable appetites and of curiosity, for wine and food, sailing, travel, but he is also a man of great sentiment. As you will read, a life well-lived is not without it’s obstacles and setbacks. Adversity, like a strong headwind, must be put to good use or it will simply drive you off course. It is not a question of choice but of constitution. And Mr. Burnap is made of the right stuff.
It is best to read Part 1 before this portion, of course. The reference to buying off-years of Latour for a couple of bucks will make much more sense!
Admin You mentioned copious notes and note-taking of the chocolatier. I know that you kept notebooks, that you’d take notes on virtually everything related to winemaking. I also know you kept many maps of the tracing of the proposed boundaries of Santa Cruz Mountains AVA when you went out on your hikes with Dave Bennion. What is going to happen to those notebooks and maps? Are they going, perhaps, to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley? They have extensive wine history holdings there.
Ken Burnap Nothing so grand at all. In fact, I’m not even sure where the notes are, although I am absolutely an incurable pack rat. I hardly ever throw anything away. I’ve got an office in my home with many stacks of cardboard boxes, cardboard file cabinets. I’ve got some mineral rights in Texas. I’ve got file cabinets of geological maps I should have thrown these things out a long time ago. The rights are essentially worthless. I used to get a check for maybe $3.70 once a month.
That’s two bottles of off-year Latour…
KB (laughs) Exactly! It wasn’t just a matter that I had this piece of paper that said it was such and such, I wanted to have maps of where it was. I have file drawers full of maps all of which should have been thrown away twenty years ago. That’s apropos of nothing; it just illustrates that they [winemaker notes] are probably in there somewhere…. Also the garage has got some big boxes!
Every now and then I think I really should go through all this stuff and save what I want to save and throw the rest away, rather than leave it for my kids to do after I’ve died. And then later I’ll say ‘Ah the hell with them. Let them figure it out.’ And this is kind of a personal note. My wife and I were married for 37 years. One wife, four kids. We were big buddies in all these adventures. And she died about 16 years ago. And it all stopped being fun at that point. I got back into it, and I kept doing what I was doing, and a couple of times I started clearing out all this stuff. Emotionally, I can’t get very far through it. I know that sounds childish. Anyway, I don’t know what’s going to happen to that stuff, or even if I’ll find it.
I mentioned earlier that I’m really an admirer of French wine and food; absolutely incredible microclimates for growing things that you can eat and drink. I really got interested in food. I love the food. But I really was never too curious with trying to make it myself. The wine was entirely different for some reason. I got interested in wine and then, after a while, after I figured out what really good wines were, then I wanted to got to all these places to see just exactly how they worked. So, we spent a couple of months a year for about eight or nine years knocking around mostly France. And during that process I learned how, and not too far downstream, my favorite wines became Burgundies. The whites are o.k., but the reds were where is was at.
I think I went through the normal progression. My first love was Lancers Rosé. It was in the barrel for 65 cents; and we went from that to the sweet, cheap German wines, eventually we got to red wines and, of course, Bordeaux! That was the epitome of everything until I started tasting really great Burgundies. It’s ironic. Bordeaux is always good in a good year. And you can buy certain châteaux, futures on them, sight and sense and smell and taste unknown being sure that when you got them from a good year they would be good. It’s not that way with Burgundy at all. It could be the right vineyard and the right winemaker in the best year, and he makes a really shitty wine. It isn’t that he makes it, but something about the Pinot god at that point decided he didn’t want it to be good. I really love Pinot so we ended up spending most of the time in Burgundy. That was where I learned how wine was made. By hanging out with these guys, the guy I thought were the great winemakers, Ponsot, many others.
When I started making wine what I did was made wine essentially the way it was made in France about 100 years ago. In Burgundy I don’t think they ever change. “Why do you do that?” “Well, that was the way I was taught. My father did it that way.” They won’t ever say “Well, it’s because we can lower the acid content.” It’s just the way it has always been done. So, I did a lot of research on the conditions that my favorite wines were grown and made in. What I knew about wine, really, technically, was the best place to grow Pinot in Burgundy! And the best way to make Pinot in Burgundy! (laughs) So when I decided I wanted to have a vineyard I had this criteria, about 11 points that applied to the different vineyards that produced, in my opinion, the best red wine in Burgundy. It was a certain type of soil, a certain face to the sun, so on and so on. And sometimes two great vineyards have something in this one that wasn’t in this one, and one would have another thing not in the other, I just jotted it down anyway. Probably of the 11 criteria I jotted down, two or three of them were important!
I started looking for vineyard sites in California because I couldn’t go to France and make wine. First of all, not being a French national I could never buy a grand cru vineyard. You have to be French to do that. If you’re incredibly lucky and erudite and a good person to be around then maybe you could meet a widow that owns some grand cru vineyard; maybe Madame Lalon Bize-Leroy, now wouldn’t that be nice!
So I started looking in California and I spent a lot of time in the stacks in the Food Science building at Davis going through books there. Winkler was a big help. Davis had some research stations 10-15 years earlier, and I studied all their stuff. But anyway, from a book a book that was written in 1941 by Schoonmaker to the hand-written diaries of Martin Ray on how to make Champagne, which was in those stacks; he had given it to them somewhere along the line and they just stuck it on the shelf. That was the most incredible thing. Martin would write, he would list these things down, and sometimes he would take pages out of French winemaking brochures and paste it down on a page and write over in the margin “This is bullshit!” It was incredible to see. I hope it’s still in the stacks.
When I decided to make sparkling wine I used Martin’s directions on how he made his sparkling wine, which was exactly the way they did it in Champagne.
One of the stories I often hear about Martin Ray is that he would greet people at his house with Champagne. Perhaps it was his own sparkling wine.
KB Yes. Martin made a lot of that stuff. When he sold the Paul Masson Winery after the war, and he then Martin went up on top of Mount Eden, built his place, planted some grapes, he kept the keys to the winery or a set of keys. Now, this was told to me by one of those brothers in the family who bought the Paul Masson winery from Martin. He said “That son of a bitch would come down in the middle of the night in his pick-up and let himself into our winery and steal bottles from our bottling room.” This all came up at some wine event at Pebble Beach. I wound up setting at a table with him and [Maynard] Amerine, a professor at Davis. And somebody started talking about the old days, and some of the wines that came out of the Santa Cruz Mountains, they were just the best, they said. I said I loved Martin Ray. This guy just exploded! “That rotten son of a bitch!” (laughs) For years he put up his Pinot Noir in Champagne bottles, and the reason he did, according to the guy I was talking to was that he would come down there at night and steal cases and cases and cases out of the Paul Masson winery. A little side-light.
Martin was very mercurial. He could be absolutely charming and fascinating, considerate and thoughtful, and two hours later he could be mean and vicious. I was dazzled by the wines that he made. I was also horrified by some of them. Somewhere along the line he sort of missed a lot of the finer points. He would bottle wine out of the barrel when you bought it from him. He might have some that were all bottled and labeled and ready to go, but I think Martin thought it was good sales PR for customers to take it out of the cellar in bottles. When he had a barrel that was half empty, he’d stick the bung back in it and it would just sit there until the next time he wanted to bottle some wine. So when I bought wine from Martin, we’d be walking through the cellar, I’d walk by the barrels and give them a little tap, tap, you know, surreptitiously, until I found one that was full. I’d say to him “Martin, there’s something about this barrel that is speaking to me. I would really like to buy this.” (laughs) You had to careful with him. He might throw you out of the place!
That is funny. You know, Neal Rosenthal mentioned a ’scandalous’ Chardonnay you made, one of your earliest. It had an orange cast to it…
KB They were all scandalous! (laughs)
That was the word he used; scandalous by California standards at that time.
KB Yeah. What I did was make a Chardonnay as if it were a red wine. We left it on the skins and used whole clusters. I did a lot of things that were very old-fashioned and ancient, out of fashion. We crushed a lot of grapes but the Virgo in me made me go out and buy white odorless, tasteless, food-grade rubber boots which were kept immaculately clean. We didn’t just get in there without any clothes on and bare feet as they did at the Zinfandel Stomp in Monterey, I think it was Monterey Vineyards, it had a monk on the label.
That reminds me. I have a bottle of Martin Ray, vintage dated 1931 Champagne. [Audible gasp from the Admin] It was given to me by Dave Bennion (that’s my birth year), at my sixtieth birthday party. It was one of those milestones. Dave somewhere along the line, heard from one of his buddies from Ridge, that some big wine collector on the Peninsula died. And his wife wanted to sell it all, the guy’s collection. She was somehow connected to Stanford and Dave found out about it. And they gave her a price; it was hundreds and hundred and hundreds of dollars. She said ‘great, just take it all’.
And Dave had the most eclectic, incredible wine collection. Dave built… he dug trenches under his house and you had to walk in the trench or you’d hit your head, but the wines were just stacked up on the dirt underneath the house. One of the wines that he had, he originally bought a couple of cases of, was a mixed bag of vintage dated Martin Ray Champagnes. He gave me this one because it was my birth year. “Ken, I’m going to tell you straight up. This wine is absolutely horrible. For god’s sake don’t ever open it and drink it. It’s meant as a decorator item or to remind you of your birth year.” (laughs) Anyway, I’ve got that. Actually, I know where that is! I wrapped it with purple tissue paper and I put it in with some other things. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I wandered off and told you that.
Actually, I was going to ask about David Bennion…
KB Dave, I loved Dave. Dave and I actually came up with the… we drew the boundaries of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation.
You both were avid hikers.
KB I’m not as avid as Dave was. Yeah, I liked to hike but not like Dave. We did hike the entire thing. It took a couple of months, and we were going at it pretty steadily. One or two days a week we’d hike for eight hours. Dave was an incredible guy. He had such a passion for life. Dave would try anything if it was edible or drinkable, just to see what it was like. He was down in San Diego one time at a conference, a conference of educators. He was in the Philosophy Department at Stanford. He taught. At the conference they had a couple of hours off so David decided to hike through that park up where the zoo is, a great place. He saw some mushrooms, the first ones he said he couldn’t identify. So he said he thought about it for a long time, and he finally decide to take a tiny, little bite. An he wound up in the Emergency Room! (laughs) It wasn’t a mushroom, apparently. That’s the kind of guy David was. It was ‘damn the torpedos, I’m going to try this.’
He had a black doctor’s satchel, the kind when doctor’s came to your house to treat you. That one. So we’d be out, he had some kind of French car, I can’t remember exactly, but we’d be out there, it was his turn to drive that day, we decided it was time for lunch. He’d open his satchel and there would be a salami in there and four or five chunks or blocks of cheese that had been chewed on, that were moldy, a couple of loaves of bread; then he’d open the trunk of the car and there were cases of wine in his car, all the time. He lived in a very cool part of the Peninsula. I never had a bad, oxidized wine come out of that car. Maybe they weren’t in there for very long…
They were Ridge wines?
KB Yeah, all Ridge wines. Invariably it was the current release. Maybe he was making sales calls and pouring samples. But I remember that satchel. We had many a meal out of that satchel….
That was such an incredible tragedy, god. The first time they ever really had any money, he and his wife; it was after they sold Ridge to investors. They took the money and he spent a whole harvest season in Australia, seeing how they made wines. He had been driving on the wrong side of the road for six or seven months. They were only back for one or two days. He made that turn on the Golden Gate Bridge, on the wrong side of the road. It was not that bad of an accident. The car did not have extensive damage. It must have hit in such a way….
Yeah, we figured out the appellation.
But there were a series of exceptions…
KB We actually had, both of us had our favorite vineyards that didn’t quite fit into the boundaries because we went strictly by climate, by degree days, temperature more than anything else. The closer you got to the ocean the lower you could get, but you couldn’t get too low because then it got too cold. So, it went by elevation mark, but it would go up and down in various places. Then we would come to our favorite vineyard somewhere and it didn’t quite get into the appellation. (laughs) I think it’s called gerrymandering! We’d have the line go down this creek bed to this draw at this elevation to include Bates Ranch, for instance. Bates Cab was not within the appellation according to the boundaries we had set by elevation, 800 feet on the east side of the mountains. But it got higher and lower in a couple of spots, not really because of the gerrymandering but because of other reasons we discovered, certain types of airflow in some places and so on. And then there was the gerrymandering, we made sure this and that vineyard got in the appellation.
Still, all in all, it was a hell of a lot better thought out than the first appellation that was approved, in Missouri, and it was a county line. The very first paragraph in the requirements for the appellation as drawn up by the government stated that they were not to be geo-political boundary lines. They would be lines that were associated with terrain, temperature, climate, this sort of thing. And the very first one they approved was a county line on three sides of the boundary!
Anyway, we did make a few little exceptions. I see some labels now, wines labeled ‘Santa Cruz Mountains’ appellation and I know the grapes did not come from the appellation. I mean, they came from the Santa Cruz Mountains but not within the boundary. It doesn’t matter, especially when you think it was just Dave and my idea of where the appellation boundaries should be. (laughs)
End of part 2
A bit of good news came my way this morning, a press release announcing that Trinity Oaks had been given an award by the non-profit organization, Trees for the Future, for planting one million trees from June, 2008 to June of 2009. That’s right, one million trees. It is the result of an initiative begun by Trinchero Family Estates, owner of the Trinity Oaks label, and long a ‘green pioneer’. With over 7,000 acres of vineyards under their management they can make an enormous difference. And with the Trinity Oaks’ ‘One Bottle, One Tree’ campaign they have yet deepened their commitment to sound, sustainable environmental practices.
First a word about Trees for the Future. Their mission statement:
“Since 1989, Trees for the Future has been helping communities around the world plant trees. Through seed distribution, agroforestry training, and our country programs, we have empowered rural groups to restore tree cover to their lands. Planting trees protects the environment and helps to preserve traditional livelihoods and cultures for generations.”
It was founded by Dave and Grace Deppner in 1988. The Deppners had spent many years, beginning in the early 1970s,
“serv[ing] as volunteers in developing countries around the world, they took note of the human tragedy brought on by illegal logging and unsustainable land management systems. Families who could no longer sustain themselves on their farmland turned to find work in cities where they were marginalized and struggled to put food on the table.
“Working with community leaders, the Deppners began to find ways to offer hope to villagers by reestablishing productive lands – with their families and culture intact. They renewed degraded lands by providing farmers with beneficial tree seed, technical training, and on-site planning assistance. People responded enthusiastically. Entire villages joined in, making great sacrifices to save their homes and way of life.”
Their story is a remarkable one and further reading may enjoyed here. Especially revealing is an accompanying video I encourage the reader to view. In fact, explore the entire website!
Trinity Oaks’ ‘One Bottle, One Tree’ campaign is very simple. I’ve just presented the sum total of its approach! Naturally, who would not want to know more? I contacted Trinity Oaks for comment and was invited by Jason Hart, Associate Brand Manager for Trinity, to talk. What follows is our modest exchange.
Admin Thank you for taking time to speak with me.
Jason Hart No problem. We definitely like to get the word out. I am the Associate Marketing Manager for Trinity Oaks. My boss is Tim Peters who is the Marketing Director on that brand. He’s out of town for a fews days. I figured I could answer any questions you had.
Yes. How did you become associated with Trees for the Future and founder, Mr. Dave Deppner?
JH It really came down to researching things on-line. They have a nice website with a lot of resources and information. There are a lot of different organizations that do this, but I think this was the unique one. They do things a little differently at Trees for the Future. They are the pros. They’ve been doing it since 1988. They’ve planted almost 50 million trees in that ten years, so we thought that they were a very credible organization. We wanted to work with somebody who had that experience and that background, somebody that was reputable.
But, really we just researched things on-line and tried to find the best organization to partner with. And we contacted them directly because the idea was in our heads; between my boss, Tim, and myself, we were tossing things around for Trinity Oaks and trying to work with somebody that would help get this program started. That’s what it came down to: online research! To be honest with you.
When we contacted Trees for the Future they were, of course, very enthusiastic about the idea of partnering with us. And they work with a lot of different organizations, a lot of other credible companies, too, so that lends even more credibility to them as an organization.
I find it very praiseworthy that you folks actually did the initial research.
JH Yes, imagine that phone call! Coming to Trees for the Future from this big wine company, out of nowhere, wanting to partner with you, to plant well over a million trees in a year’s time! They must have been a little bit ecstatic on their end. (laughs)
This is an approach that I certainly hope more wine companies take. It is quite wonderful. It made my day, I’ll tell you that.
JH Yes. And you said you saw the press release, that’s how you found out about it?
Indeed. It appeared in my email box today.
JH Yeah. And that’s something we just put it out. It’s been a while now. As a matter of fact, that award we received from Trees for the Future for planting a million trees this year, it’s a little out-dated by now because at this point we’ve actually planted 1.6 million.
Exactly. I went to the website and noted the new total. From visiting this morning and again this afternoon the number has increased.
JH Yes. It does. Admittedly it’s a formula that’s based on what we project month to month, so we update it for the website. We try and be as accurate as possible. But it is based on forecasted sales. The number varies, it’s not exactly correct. We’re not registering sales at the cash register in a store. But it is a pretty good estimate. We just have to adjust it once a month. It’s kind of a fun thing that allows people to check back from tme to time to see where we’re at.
It’s pretty powerful stuff. I mean, you step back and look at it. Over one million trees is a huge number! I’ve seen a lot of other programs out there, and even some within the wine industry. But when you compare it to what we’ve done… 1.6 million trees, that’s in the first year of the program. And we’re continuing it for another year. So we started it July 1st, 2008, and we’ve continued into year two this July 1st. So we’re looking at possibly 3 million trees planted, hopefully, by the end of June in 2010. Huge!
Two million additional trees by next June?
JH Yes. The projection is right around the same if not a little more for this up-coming year. As you know from the program it’s for every bottle of Trinity Oaks that we sell we donate the money to plant one tree. You know, us office guys certainly are not out there planting trees, but we’re donating money that goes toward, almost immediately, goes toward projects Trees for the Future has going on. In fact, they’ve told us that the Trinity Oaks donations so far have been used to plant trees in Cameroon, Senegal, Tanzania and Brazil. They’ve got projects going on in many different countries.
Indeed. On their website they have a wonderful introductory video that shows many of their projects around the world.
JH They have a different model than a lot of other organizations in that they don’t necessarily employ all the people who are going out and planting every tree. Their model is to work with the native cultures in those countries, in those areas where they’re going to plant trees, to educate them on how to plant the trees themselves. They enlist the help and the buy-in of the local cultures to plant the trees so that they can continue to do it when the educators aren’t there. It’s a sustainability [issue] as much as it is a tree planting issue. They are contributing towards their own ecosystem. It’s a really neat model.
So, the tree planting year ended on June 30th, and in just the space of, what, half a month it’s is now at 1.6 million. It looks like you’re on pace for far more trees planted next year than you’ve planted this year.
JH Actually, the million tree mark was hit somewhere in April. They presented us with the award recently. We felt it would be a nice piece of news to resonate with people, the million tree award. But that mark was hit back in April. It’s funny; the timing, and we didn’t mean for this to happen, but the timing of the million trees actually happened around Arbor Day! So it is since April to now that we’ve gone from the million mark to 1.6 million where we’re at right now.
Even so, it still looks as though you’re on pace to shatter last year’s mark.
JH I hope so. We’re able to get our customers to buy into the program. We get them involved around the country. Anybody can view the ‘tree ticker’ to see where we’re at as far as trees planted. We have some nice tools customers, retail stores, restaurants, wine shops, they’re able to see what their contribution is. One bottle, one tree. So it is pretty simple. They know how many cases of Trinity Oaks they’ve sold; that’s how many trees they’ve planted. Some restaurant chains have been latching on to it and having tree planting contests among their waitstaff. That’s sort of an incentive or motivation among their employees to sell more Trinity Oaks. Great for us, great for them; it gives them something tangible, to contribute.
There are certainly people out there who are not interested in saving the world out there. They don’t have to be. You can drink great wine and do something nice for the environment at the same time. So far it’s been pretty successful, and it is something we continue to do in the future.
Now, Trinchero has many lables, Sutter Hill, Terra d’Oro, Ménage à Trois and a few others. Why was Trinity Oaks selected to be the flagship wine for this program?
JH Well, it made sense for us from the marketing side. It is easy to connect the dots with a brand called Trinity Oaks. We’ve been trying to find its personality, find its reason for being. So we thought , hey, it’s Trinity Oaks, it has a tree in the name, it has a tree illustration on the label. It is a natural connection with this sort of program. The bottle has one tree and it ties that together. We try to make it as easy as possible for people to understand. Hopefully, we’ve done that.
Indeed. It is a lot easier than if you had a yellow kangaroo on the label.
JH Exactly! (laughs) One bottle, one kangaroo!
Well, congratulations on your achievement with Trinity Oaks, and, I might add, the many other environmental measures Trinchero employs.
JH There are a lot of things the Trinchero Family does just as a company that are important to them. You don’t necessarily hear about them very much. The Trinchero Family is a very humble family. They don’t publicize every little award they get, every little acknowledgment they get for their environmental contributions. But they certainly do a lot of things in the way of conservation, recycling, sustainability in the way they farm. It’s pretty interesting once you dig into it, because we are a large wine company, so the impact that we can have just making small changes in the way we do things is pretty significant.
Thank you very much, Jason. And keep those press releases coming.
JH Definitely. We’ll keep everybody updated as the tree count continues to build. Thanks a lot.
For Bastille Day last year I offered an interview with Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac. This year I thought I would honor an American winegrower of the first order, francophile to the core, Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, one of the most compelling individuals one might hope to meet. Bon vivant, sailor of international waters, winegrower, it is difficult to make clear the the importance of this gentleman, but through his own words. As I said to him at one point “I can’t interview Martin Ray so you’ll have to do”. The laughter!
The cross references Mr. Burnap introduces left my head spinning, as has the Tarlant Zero, Brut Nature Champagne I’ve poured in recent minutes as my tribute to the man. So it has to be that this is but the first of a minimum of a three part interview. We spoke for three hours. We met at the Scotts Valley Hilton owing to a disastrous water break in his second home here on the Central Coast. He spends most of his year in Mexico, more about which later.
Special thanks to Jeff Emery, Ken Burnap’s right-hand man for many years, and current winemaker for Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, for making this interview possible. Without his help none of this would have been possible.
Admin I had a conversation recently, an interview with Neal Rosenthal…
Ken Burnap Oh, Neal! I absolutely adore Neal.
He told me this wonderful story of coming out to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early part of his career, that he came to your winery and spent quite a bit of time there.
KB Yeah, he actually made several trips up. He’s such a wonderful, sweet guy. I’m sorry, I can’t think of the lady he was with at that time, but she also was very nice and considerate, so much so that the wife and I were going to France, I’m a bit of a francophile, I used to go a lot, almost on a yearly basis for a couple of months, and we had a three hour layover in New York. And Neal, he knows my fondness for a hot pastrami sandwich, he actually went to the Stage Door Deli and got a couple of pastrami sandwiches and brought them out to the airport for us! (laughs) He’s just a really great guy.
I am so pleased to hear that he is still doing what he loves to do. That was a long time ago.
Yes. He’s also farming now. He’s got a little organic farm in Up State New York…
KB Is he?
And he has quite an extensive cellar. He says he may still have some of your early wine, early bottlings from the 70s.
KB Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.
One thing Jeff Emery made very clear is that you kept an extensive wine library.
KB Yeah. Way back at the beginning of time, David Bruce and I were very close friends. This would be, maybe, in the mid-seventies, I was out there in his winery, which is like a big, expanded metal building, talking to him. We got to talking about his ‘69 Chardonnay which had gotten incredible rave reviews. It was a very different wine. He said “Ah, yeah! I’m sorry we can’t try it. I sold it all.” I asked him didn’t he keep any for himself? He said “No, no. Ken, that’s your problem; when you start your own winery you’re going to have to learn to sell wine. You just want to hand on to them, never sell them.” He didn’t keep hardly anything at all.
But I think maybe times have changed, maybe he started to keeping a little reference library later on. But in the early days there was nothing. My first Pinot Noir was the ‘75. And it got great reviews, I mean, really, they looked like they were written by my mother. I think I kept a third of the entire vintage…
And how much was that? How many cases?
KB 200 cases!
You kept a third of 200 cases?
KB Yeah. And I still have some ‘75 Pinot in my library now.
Extraordinary! It’s quite sad they don’t often do that in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They have no idea how their wines develop. They don’t completely understand themselves as winemakers; that only comes out in the long term.
KB You know, I’ve got so many issues with the way the wine business is today it drives me nuts. But one of the things that made it easy for me was that I was a wine collector, a wine nut, forever, ever since I was 18 or 17 years old. I had been saving wines for a long time. So, when I built the winery I deliberately built a fairly large space to store bottles in a very damp and cold environment (laughs) that were meant to be there forever. It was easy for me to save wines. It’s not that easy for some people.
In building the winery, being a contractor, you did the work.
KB Yeah. Well, no. Yes, I was a contractor but not a worker. My next door neighbor was a general contractor. I was in mechanical construction. I built things like breweries and chemical plants, that sort of thing. But my next door neighbor, Charlie Fair, up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was an honest, legitimate general building contractor for houses and that sort of thing. So, I asked Charlie to build it for me. I designed it. He built it.
How was it you came up with the design? Did you study winery construction? Or were you working principally with gravity?
KB Yes. I started out with the fact that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It’s so funny. When you’re that age you’re so sure you know absolutely everything, no one knows how to do it but you! (laughs) So I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I had been in love with wine for probably ten years before I ever actually discovered great wines.
The ones you stocked The Hobbit with, for example?
KB Yeah! That was an incredible wine list. I’ll bounce around here and say that I started the Hobbit with a friend of mine who was a chef. We built that restaurant because we were both really disgusted with the way the restaurant business was going, especially fine restaurants, was going at that time. Everything was becoming portioned controlled, the hollandaise was coming out of a Rycoff #10 can, that sort of thing.
There were three couples that were all food and wine oriented, and we did a lot of traveling together. We went to places to try restaurants and wine. One of us owned a restaurant. Ron and Dani. They were a very sweet couple. He had learned the restaurant business working for and in Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse. They had the original salad bar thing out front with a big grill where people could watch. The waiters wore Hawaiian shirts and very tight, cut-off shorts. It was a very popular concept; the steakhouse was sort of born there and came to the [continental] U.S. And Ron and Dani had a steakhouse. Howard was the cook, chef, and I was the wine guy.
Most of our little trips we’d take together, and we go to some great restaurant in San Francisco or Napa Valley or wherever we were. And we spent a couple of hours telling Ron what was wrong with his restaurant, why he wasn’t doing it the way it should be done. He was a pretty sweet guy; he just kept taking it and taking it. Finally, one night we were in San Francisco setting at a bar in the Fairmont Hotel at about two o’clock in the morning, drinking Cognac. He said “I’m sick and tired of hearing you two guys tell me how I should run my restaurant. If you know so goddamn much just start your own restaurant!” We both said “Well, we’re going to do that!” The next morning we woke up both expecting the other one to say that was a silly thing to say last night. But we didn’t. We got goaded into starting it.
The restaurant [The Hobbit] is going today, very successful. Howard and I had the restaurant for about a year and a half. I decided I wanted to grow grapes and make wine, and to do that in California you have to have something called a Winegrower’s License, and the Tied House restrictions written into the law, California law in the late 30s. A winegrower’s license will not be issued to the holder of any other beverage license. And I had a wine license in the restaurant. Incidentally, I just quoted you the entire law. It was one very short paragraph; now it takes about 6 pages because of all the exceptions. Domaine Chandon got the first exception. If you had enough money and a good attorney you could eventually get an exception.
Anyway, to do what I wanted to do with the grapes and the wine I had to sell my interest in the restaurant. I did. That’s why I’m no longer with the restaurant. But we would go to restaurants, really good restaurants that had maybe 10 wines. They’d have a bubbly wine, a rosé, a couple of whites and a couple of reds. They had bin numbers, you know, bin #76, bin #123; right at the bottom of the list there’d be a little thing that said “Please order the wine by bin number”. The waitstaff couldn’t even cope with you saying ‘Chablis’. So when we opened The Hobbit we had 250 wines on the list. We had about 25 sparkling wines, about 25 fortified wines, Ports, and the rest of them were still table wines.
The other thing that irritated me was that anybody can have a great wine list, a lot of restaurants did back in those days. So you’d ask “Well, we’d like to have the ‘66 this or that.” “Oh! We’re sold out of that. I really recommend our house red.” They’d just make up these wine lists with all these great wines on it, none of which they’d ever owned. But they were so expensive they didn’t think anybody would ever ask for them. They just wanted people to say “Oh, look at the great wines they’ve got!”
Anyway, we had a deal at The Hobbit. I bought a xerox machine, it was in the cellar, we had a full cellar, one corner of it was the office; down in the office was some master sheets for the wine list. If we ran out of a wine nobody went home until they changed the master sheet. We never, ever told a customer “I’m sorry, we don’t have that wine.” In fact, we had a standing rule that if someone ordered a wine that we couldn’t bring up out of the cellar the next wine they ordered was free. It came out of the tip jar of the waitstaff. They were the ones who were supposed to maintain the wine list. (laughs) We had it up to date!
We loved the restaurant, we loved doing what we were doing. We were in Orange County. We’d actually close the restaurant at night, go the Chez Cary, which was the only restaurant that served drinks after mid-night in Orange County (laughs), and drink until 2 o’clock, and then get in a van and drive to the produce market for the produce. Because we were doing it as a labor of love, right? I mean, obviously, you can’t do that now. About a year later, o.k., the produce was being delivered to the restaurant. (laughs) But that’s the way it was when we started.
I believe Alice Waters does something similar to that now. At Chez Panisse, In Berkeley. They grow vegetables on their grounds. Funnily enough, it’s an old model that’s suddenly new again. Not a model so much as a way of life, now seen as cutting edge.
KB Alice… I can’t remember the guy’s name, the consummate chocolate freak, and his house was at the top of the Berkeley Hills, directly up from Chez Panisse. You could look out the other side of his house and see everything. It was an incredible location. He had a fairly steep property, but with a little bit of terracing. And Alice was a friend of his. She grew vegetables on his property. An incredible chocolate freak, this guy.
I was introduced to him by Joe Swan. Do you know Joe?
KB Do you know his wines?
Uh, no I don’t.
KB Oh, god. Well, o.k. (laughs) Anyway, Joe had a winery, he made wine under his house in Sonoma County, along the Russian River. He was absolutely brilliant. He made fabulous wines. He loved Pinot Noir. We were at his house one day talking about chocolate. He said “You gotta meet this guy in Berkeley.” Alice Waters was very close to Joe. “If we’re going to Berkeley we’ll have dinner with Alice.” Joe made a few phone calls. “We’re going to spend the night with the chocolate guy.” He didn’t say ‘the chocolate guy’, I just can’t remember his name right now. So we got there about 3 in the afternoon. We moved into our little spare rooms, and he said he’d like to make something special to have after we come back from the restaurant. We said that’d be great. He asked “Do have any particular type of chocolate you like?” I say it’s all good. A pretty stupid thing to say to him! So we went down his hallway. He opened up a vault door. I thought we were going into a wine cellar. Inside was this room that was completely temperature and humidity controlled. It had bins, 20 to 40, about 14 inch square. And each bin had a clear plastic bag, a big one, and in those bags were huge chunks of chocolate that had been broken off of a block that obviously had been one foot square. And the bins were labeled by the country of origin and the year! If you think that the Sumatra dark chocolate from ‘96 was better than the one from ‘74, you could get into an argument with this guy, and he’d make you a delicious chocolate mousse of both of them. Can you believe that? (laughs) It blew my mind. To me, it all tasted good.
It was like my first wife. She never met a bottle of bad wine. When we first started getting involved with wines, I was, like, about 18. We were in San Antonio, Texas. You could go to our big local liquor store and they had barrels of bottles of wine, any bottle in this barrel you could buy for 65 cents; it was a long time ago. I bought Chateau Latour for a buck eighty-five. I’ve got some in my cellar today that still have the price on it! (laughs) It was a different time.
Texas, I didn’t realize this until many years later when I was actually in the wine business, and I’m talking to some big distributor, they say that Texas was a ‘dump state’. I said what’s a ‘dump state’? They said they import these wines to the Eastern Seaboard. The market was in Boston, New York, Washington D.C. Sometimes they didn’t all sell. After about three vintages people won’t touch them. If the ‘67 is still there, and the ‘68 and the ‘69 have sold out, they won’t buy the ‘67. So they had to sell them at any price, but they have to sell them in a market that the people on the Eastern Seaboard that bought most of these wines, back in those days the stuff never got to California, they have to sell them in a market that they don’t realize the bottle they paid $30 for is selling in Texas for $5. So they called it a ‘dump state’. You’d take the expensive wines you couldn’t sell and dump them into Texas and sell them. Here I was, fat, dumb and happy, buying off-years of Chateau Latour for a buck seventy!
I had a conversation with Jack Keller, one of America’s premier home-winemaking authorities, a great guy. He moved to Texas where he currently lives. He said that when he began drinking wine, when he was a young man, it was pretty much frowned upon. No one there could draw the distinction between good wine and bad wine, and that he would have to sneak his empty bottles into his garbage bin late in the evening so that people wouldn’t see him putting wine bottles into the trash.
KB It was a real stigma in the neighborhood. You could have a can full of Jack Daniels bottles or Early Times bourbon whiskey, but wine bottles were a real stigma. It’s interesting you said that because that’s exactly what my wife would do. She’d put them [wine bottles] in sacks with other things, and we’d put them kind of in the middle of the [trash] can and put stuff on top of them. That was only in Texas. We moved from Texas to California, here it was perfectly acceptable to have a lot of empty wine bottles in your trash! (laughs) That’s odd.
End of part 1 Please read Part 2 and Part 3.
Over the weekend I enjoyed a fine interview with one of the most important individuals in the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, Ken Burnap, founder and winegrower of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. It was Mr. Burnap who, along with his very good friend, David Bennion of Ridge, hiked the boundary, I should say, established the boundary of the AVA. The first part of that interview will be posted later this week. And a few days before that encounter it was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the sale of the Ahlgren Winery and Vineyard. I had a fine interview with Val Ahlgren many weeks ago. I am both pleased and saddened to hear from Dexter Ahlgren that the sale seems to be going forward. And months before that it was from Bob Mullen of the esteemed Woodside Vineyards that I learned of his approaching retirement.
All the folks above have played a profound role in the formation of the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA itself. And all are moving on. I encourage folks interested in this remarkable region to please read, in addition to the interviews above, the series of discussions I had with Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s current winemaker, and Ken Burnap’s right-hand man for many years, Jeff Emery. The historical traditions of the AVA, the plurality of wine-making styles, the independence of mind and spirit, are safe in Jeff’s hands.
So, for my part, I am going to recommend folks check out the wineries listed above for this Passport Event. There are many others associated with the AVA’s founding, David Bruce, Clo Tita, Mount Eden, for example.
Indeed, at whatever winery you may visit you simply must ask after their founding, their origin. Winegrowing is agriculture, it is hard work. Yes, what is in the bottle wins the day, but let’s not miss the opportunity to learn more about those who give their very lives to this most civilized of drinks!
On July 4th, Independence Day, I received a curious email invitation. It read, in part,
‘We are starting up a new only wine magazine, “PALATE PRESS: The Online Wine Magazine.” The idea is not to replace wine blogs, but to empower, and hopefully even monetize, them.’ By a curious coincidence I was preparing an article on this very subject, the monetizing of blogs. There certainly has been no shortage of news on that front, most of it discouraging. Indeed, the article I was preparing to write had as its framing device two recent posts. Days before receiving the Palate Press invite I read a good piece in the Independent, a UK paper, titled How Can YouTube Survive?. Good question in this era of ‘freeconomics’. From the article:
“Innumerable jaded web entrepreneurs will tell you how easy it is to get thousands of people to glance at a site, but how tortuous it is to get people to stick around or even come back again the following day. Not only do you have to fulfil a desire that people didn’t even realise that they had, but it has to be done with such style and panache that your service becomes indispensable. While the internet may have dismantled many of the traditional barriers to reaching us, the general public, if your idea is anything less than sensational, we will flatly ignore it.”
In the body of the article is referenced the work of Eric Clemons, Professor of Operations and Information Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a piece that appeared back in March 2009, Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet, my second reference. Though Prof. Clemons’ point of view is very complex and deserves a complete reading, his principle argument is that advertisement, whether broadcast or on-line, will fail for three reasons:
Consumers do not trust advertising
Consumers do not want to view advertising
Consumers do not need advertising
So, in light of this material what was I to do with Palate Press’ optimistic tone, no doubt informed by its highly qualified stable of wine writers? I put aside my work and took a look at Palate Press itself. Now in beta, it was begun by David Honig, the writer of the playful wine blog, 2 Days Per Bottle. W.R. Tish is the general editor. Other editors include Jeff Lefevere, Lenn Thompson, Remy Charest, Hardy Wallace, Russ Beebe, and these are only a few of the people whose work I am familiar with. The tireless Joe Roberts, too, is associated. Intrigued by such a strong line-up I agreed to take a closer look. I was sent a gloss on the project which read, in part:
“How will Palate Press work? It will be published on a “weekly” basis. Well, not really, but we will schedule everybody and archive in a weekly basis. The website (it’s just beta now) will have a front page with a featured article (selected by Tish, the Editor), and below that a box for each Editorial area, with an excerpt from whatever that specific Editor chooses to highlight. Click on that box and you go to the Editor’s “page,” which will have a featured article (selected by the individual editor), as well as excerpts from other stories, and a subject archive. [....] [W]e want to keep it fresh. [....] Also, this allows us to be fresher than a weekly magazine, but to keep stories alive for a while, instead of just being a blog-collecter scrolling mess.”
Of course, this was not enough detail. So I contacted David Honig. He was on the road. Our connection was not ideal but the transcript of the conversation below is, I believe, faithful.
Admin How did you come to this project? What was your thinking behind Palate Press?
David Honig I think that the whole idea of something like this has been bouncing around the blogosphere for quite a long time. And in some other areas it’s been made to work. Recently there were some new discussions about what is it going to take for blogs to become…? And then fill in the blank, depending who is writing the comment; more relevant, relevant, profitable, depending on how people look at the blog before it’s changed? But ultimately the question is really the same, which is: how do you go from hundreds and thousands of little blogs with a few of them that a fair number of people look at, a lot of them that very few people look at, and turn what is really a universe of quality content into a viable product?
I consider Palate Press, really, an experiment. The hypothesis is if you take the very best of the blogosphere, some is of the best writers, because there are people who produce terrific product each and every day; some of it is the best product, because there are people who sometimes write something which is fabulous; there are people who are tremendously knowledgeable; but if you can put all of that in one place, add some original content, will you have something that people will flock to read? Will you have something people will want, and that is attractive enough, of interest enough that people would start to either pay for it or, since I don’t particularly like the subscription model, pay to advertise on it?
That is the hypothesis. Palate Press is the experiment.
Indeed. The fine writers at Appellation America have recently embarked on the subscription model. It was explained to me in an email exchange that if they get just half of their ‘loyal core of readers’ to sign-up, hovering at around 23,000, they will be in good shape. I don’t know their thoughts on the advertisement model.
DH Yes. The advertising model is one we would like to try. It is part of the reason we are constructing Palate Press the way we are. It is to allow advertisers to carefully focus what they do. And what I mean by that is if you look at the Beta site you’ll see that it has a couple of featured stories and then each of our editors will have their own page, their own stories. So, Russ Beebe, who’s known on-line as the Wine Hiker, he’s going to be our Wine Life editor. So if what you had [as a company] was bicycle tours through Napa, you could advertise on his site because his page is going to be dedicated to wine life, hiking in wine country, bed and breakfasts, going to where the wine is made…. So if you advertise on his page, when somebody opens it they’ll see many stories about wine life. And your advertisement is going to be there. It allows an advertiser to focus on what the reader is looking at.
If you are regional, if you’re a retailer who’s local, you can one go to one of our regional editor’s pages and focus your advertising. That’s the experiment.
Yes. Navigation of the general site becomes absolutely critical, how to find the proper page. How is that being helped along?
DH We’ve got some people working on website construction who are far more technically savvy than I am. We’re looking at tying in with social media much more than any of the main stream magazines. We’re going to tie into Twitter, Facebook etc. to bring people back. When they see us there they’ll come back to see what we have. Also, obviously, you have to be creative and work on search engine optimization, that optimizes access to all the different modern social sites.
Recently one of the big magazines, I don’t remember which one, and I’m not just being coy, they did a survey on their average reader or average subscriber. Those were people who were, if people told the truth about their numbers, they were in the top percent of the top 1% [one percent] of income in America. And yet there are a whole lot of other people out there who are interested in wine! Now, those people are not reading the Wall Street Journal and they’re not picking up one of the wine magazines. They’re reading about it on Twitter and Facebook, and on Palate Press.
Mutineer Magazine began in somewhat a similar fashion. They then additionally moved into paper publishing. What is your thinking about Palate Press in this regard?
DH Well, I think you have to go back to the original statement which is that this is a hypothesis and an experiment. As that hypothesis gets tested we may ask additional questions, if we disprove it, we’re done! I don’t take anything off the table. One of the really exciting things about an on-line format, an on-line magazine format, in other words, it’s not just a scrolling collection of blog writing, but an edited magazine format. It gives us a tremendous flexibility. If something happens this morning we can have it on-line by the afternoon.
How did you secure the participation of Tish? That sealed the deal for me!
DH (laughs) I asked him. I thought I’d have to beg him! I think, though I don’t want to speak for him, I know he said ‘yes’. I must think that the model made sense, or at least he was as excited about the experiment as I am.
How do you answer those folks who’ve been in the business for a very, very long time, who view the blogosphere generally as a threat, who believe wine bloggers in particular are corrupting wine writing? I am thinking of Robert Parker, though there are others, a hostile, self-interested fringe. They share a considerable contempt for wine blogging, though it is clear to me they do not read many. There are more sophisticated voices, of course, often in print. Yet they, too, remain critical of wine bloggers because they claim they exhibit considerable short-comings. The older, more seasoned, more wizened writers, the more experienced writers, claim to speak about the blogosphere as a whole. Again, I see no evidence of their mastery of this space. What do you say to them?
DH I would say to them several things. The first thing I’d say is you are certainly etitled to your opinion. The next thing I would say to them is I believe that there are people who are not putting great product on their blogs. And I believe there are people who are. And then the final thing I have to say to them is watch. We’re going to keep moving, and your model is dying.
Couldn’t be more succinct. When is your formal launch? When is your official launch?
DH We don’t have an official launch yet only because we are still working on the website. I’m going to distinguish between ‘formal’ and ‘official’. I don’t think they really have a meaning. We’re launched, officially, we’re launched. We are accepting submissions, we are accepting contributors; we are reviewing new articles every day. I don’t even know how many people sent me whether articles they would like us to consider for posting, stories they’d like to be the subject of, a lot of material. With the Beta we’re comfortable with how everything works, with how everything looks. We’re going forward. This is new media. This isn’t old media. Here, you learn by doing. We’re going to learn by doing.
The whole idea is that the wisdom of the 1000s of people out there about wine, who love writing about wine, is greater than the wisdom of any one person or any room full of people.
Delightful. Any last thought?
DH We’re excited. I was going to do this slowly. Get all our ducks in a row. But as soon as I mentioned it, it just started rolling. Because of the interest. People want to be a part of that. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s tremendously exciting.
Were you surprised at the response when they were contacted?
DH Stunned! I was stunned. I thought I would get one of three responses. ‘You write your blog, I’ll write mine’; ‘That’s a really dumb idea because…’; or third, ‘I’m going start my own because it’s a great idea and I’m going to try to do it’. And didn’t get any of those! Instead it was ‘That’s terrific! Let’s all do it together.’
A closing thought is, I guess, is the word together. The key to this whole thing is not exclusivity. It’s not, well, we’ve got the twelve people on the editorial board, we’re in; we’re now closing the door behind us. Or maybe the 20 contributors we’ll end up with who are basically full-time staff. No. It’s open to everybody. I think there is just an amazing amount of content out there. And we want to look at anything anybody has written. This door is not closed. Anybody out there interested in wine and interested in seeing their work published we will consider. We won’t publish everything, but we are an edited on-line magazine. We’ll look at everything. And what we don’t post we’ll try to help the writer do better the next time.
You’ll be at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference later this month. You’ll be making a presentation. Will it be about the Palate Press?
DH It will not. The presentation I’m going to make is about legal issues in blogging, something I think is important, which people lose track of because it is so easy to blog. Copyright issues, ownership issues, the sorts of issues that if you’re writing a blog that only you and your three friends are reading are meaningless. But the more successful you are the greater risk you bring. It actually comes full circle to the beginning of our conversation: One of the risks of monetizing a blog is you go from being a personal diary to being a commercial enterprise. And that significantly increases your liability on copyright issues, on trademark issues, but also on defamation issues. I’ll discuss the matter fully at the conference.
I look very much forward to meeting you.
DH I do too! It will be fun.
Have you met most of the people associated with this project?
DH I have not met a single one of them! Think about that for a minute. We had this incredible conference call last night talking about how this thing is going to move forward. And these are people who’ve never met each other! They just have the same interests, are excited about the same ideas. We were instantly on the same page moving forward together. Right there, that’s the power of the blogosphere, to bring people together in common interests and in common goals. It was an astounding thing to see.
Wonderful, David. Have a safe drive. I’ll see you at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference.
DH Thank you, Ken.
Can it work? I don’t know, but I am very pleased to be a part of this experiment. Let’s get to work.
My good friend, and occasional contributor to this space, Brandon Miller, has taken the plunge: His passion for wine, especially Pinot Noir, has gotten the better of him and he has decided to offer his own label, Coleman Nicole. Brandon has been a prolific writer of tasting notes. He has tasted wines far and wide. He can speak fluently about most of the wines of California, certainly the varietals, but also of Oregon. Yet he is not a wine geek, nor does he hoard rare bottles. He is first and foremost a wine lover. His knowledge base is in tasting. A humble family man, it has been my great pleasure to know him and his lovely wife, Denyce, these last few years.
One last note: What I hope especially comes through in the following interview is the great joy Brandon took in discussing his adventure in winemaking, every step.
Admin Well, Brandon, how exciting, how delightful it is to see you here in San Francisco, at the restaurant Yuet Lee in Chinatown, and to see this lovely bottle of wine you’ve given me, your Coleman Nicole Rosé. Where on Earth did you come up with this idea? How did you find the patience to persist?
Brandon Miller I wanted to come up with something a little different. I didn’t want to create a wine company that was solely based on the marketing of the label. I didn’t want to come up with a clever name; I appreciate those names but I didn’t want to come up with a catchphrase name like ‘Sojourn’, that kind of thing. So I took my children’s middle names and created a wine company. I floated it around with a few people. Most people say to me, ‘hey, how’d you come up with that?’ They kind of give me a funny look first, and then when I tell them about my children they think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!
As far as having the patience to persist, when I started I had to tell myself you got to give it 24 months before there is going to be any real traction. And then after that you’ve got to give yourself another three years to create a company that makes something that people like and enjoy on a regular basis, and flock to.
You’re well-known in certain circles to be a strong Pinot enthusiast. And you’ve brought here today this Rosé of Pinot made from fruit sourced on the Sonoma Coast. Are all your wines Pinots? Are they single vineyard designations?
BM That’s what we’re trying for, yes. With the ‘08 vineyard we’re 100% Sonoma Coast Pinot. We’re not adding in Syrah, or anything to mess with the flavor. I’m a Pinot varietal nut. I love the flavor. I don’t really want to mess with that. Now, we will mess with different clones here and there. But we want to stick with a true…, and I hate using the word ‘terroir’, I really do, because I don’t think half the people out there really understand the definition, or they have there own definition, which is completely fine. But I really want people to be able to say this vineyard brings these characteristics on a semi-consistent basis; and I love the purity of that. I really do.
So, yes. It’s going to be 100% Pinots and we’re going to try like hell to stick to single vineyards.
How much wine have you made this first time out? What about barrels? A thousand questions….
BM The first year, ‘08, we did eight barrels, so we did roughly 200 cases, somewhere in there. Half of that is new French oak and the other half is neutral oak. We’re not messing around with any Austrian or American oak, it’s all 100% French. It’s going to age anywhere between 14 and 18 months depending on how we feel the juice is doing. For ‘09 we’re going the same route. We’ve changed a few coopers. The Remond cooper we’re finding to be just a fantastic barrel, so we’re going with 25% of Remond alone.
It’s been interesting having to go through clearing house and watching the euro to make sure you’re at the right price. It’s certainly different than the game I’ve been used to.
And what about the price point? How did you settle on it?
BM I actually did a lot of research before I decided on pricing. I looked at all the competition, looked at all where all the single vineyard stuff is, where blending is… I’m the type of person that’s not going to want to raise prices on my loyal customers. So, when we designate ’single vineyard’ we certainly have the ability to go higher in price as the farmers need to make their money; but $38 a bottle for us seems to be right in the middle of not taking advantage of people and still making a little bit of money. (laughs) I mean, we’re very small on our margins because we don’t own vineyards, and I’m still learning the winemaking trade, so I have a winemaker. I couldn’t even be considered to be the associate winemaker. I’m like the associate winemaker who wants to be a winemaker who is in training for it all. So we have to pay for that, as well. We’re trying to meet in the middle, and the research told me that between the Siduris and the Kosta Browns, the big Pinot guys here in the United States, we thought that was a fair price. [Brandon mentioned to me, though it was not recorded, that the rosé might sell for $12 to $15-Admin]
And what about your wine style? What are you after?
BM I have to admit that I fell in love with Kosta Brown. But I’m also a huge Rhys fan and a huge Rivers-Marie fan. I think the grape in general just brings so much on all the different levels that when it’s done right, it can be done right big and it can be done right laid back. Done right, it’s just delicious.
Our style is probably on the bigger side, but we’re not as big as Kosta Brown. A lot depends on how we bought our grapes in ‘08. We had to buy them through a different winery and they had the say as to when they were picked. The brix went a little high on us. This year we’re going to tone it back just a little bit.
We’re doing both a Pommard clone and some 777. I enjoy the Pommard clone. I really enjoy the meatiness, the thickness of the grape, I love the mouthfeel. The 777 can go a little more fruity and then get a little bit on the bigger side, of course, depending on when you pick. My deal is always balance. So if it’s big or laid back or Burgundian, it must have balance.
About that, Burgundy. People are always looking for the next best Burgundy wine here in the West, and I include Oregon in that, too. I’m a huge Oregon Pinot fan. I think that since this is California, this is what California gives to the Pinot grape, so let’s enjoy it. There’s so much good wine out there it’s just not worth pigeon-holing who we are as winemakers. Most people love Burgundy, it’s pricey, but to go with that more elegant style? I would bend that way. But I’m still feeling it all out.
How did you come by your vineyard selection?
BM The first year, I’ve got a plan where I want to start with Sonoma Coast. I love what Sonoma Coast brings. I also love what Russian River brings. I tend to like some Russian River Pinots a lot better than Sonoma Coast. But Sonoma Coast was where we had our ‘in’, that’s where we were able to buy from first. Russian River is a little more locked down when it comes to buying fruit. But once we a couple of years under our belt with Sonoma Coast we’re going to move and do a Russian River bottling. And then probably Anderson Valley and Mendocino. Then we’re going to move to either the Santa Lucia Highlands or the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of the stuff coming out of the Santa Cruz Mountains is really, really difficult to ignore. It’s really top-notch juice. And if we get big enough then hopefully one day we’ll do an Oregon bottling. I think that’d be fun.
Did you go to a bank and present them with a five-year plan? How did you secure financing? You’re smiling…
BM To say that did it all on my own would be a lie. (laughs) It’s four families that have a passion for wine. I am the biggest owner of the company but the four families, my mom and dad, my wife and I, my brother and his wife, and a very close family friend, we all put up the funds to do this. I did write a full business plan. We are an llc, it’s completely legit. We all consider ourselves investors. There is a pay-back schedule; there are responsibilities there that make this a true business and makes me watch the finances very closely. But I did not have to go through the pains of going to a bank to try and secure money for it.
So much of the wine business is payment up front…
BM Yes. Barrels, grapes, barrel racks, bins, the list goes on and on and on. Stainless steel kegs for our rosé… it keeps going and going. And I didn’t realize that there were that many costs involved. But we have some cool toys now! (laughs)
Where is the winery located?
BM The winery, so ‘08 was at Silenus Vintners, across Hwy 29 from Trefethen, right next to Laird; ‘09 is going to be at a brand new facility called JuiceBox, also in Napa. A new building, a beautiful place, everything is new. I think as of this date there are six wineries in there making wine. A cool facility.
Everybody I’m involved with, I’m close to in the last year doing this, most those people are moving over to JuiceBox as well. It’s a neat little community we have going on there.
Have you talked with distributors? Will your sales be subscription-based?
BM I have an allocation system I wrote. I’m in IT by trade so I created the website, I designed everything myself, and I’m writing the back end for it. Within that back end I’ve created an allocation system. We’re doing things a little different on the allocation system. You get points for being on the list per year, you get points for the amount of money you spend. But I wanted to be a little more viral so I came up something I’ve not seen anybody do: if you ask for Coleman Nicole in a restaurant let us know what restaurant you went into for dinner and asked. And we’ll give you some allocation points. If there is a Pinot Noir-only blog out there and you comment on a thread “Hey, has everybody tried Coleman Nicole?” Let us know. We’ll give you some allocation points. We really want to be viral. We want technology to work for us, like everybody else does. But it’s a cool way of getting the community out there and getting the name out there.
So, yes. It will be allocation-based only. And if we get to a point where we’ve got too much inventory then I’ll be footing to restaurants and boutique wine shops. I do not want my wine in Safeway or BelAir or grocery stores, at this point. I just don’t want that.
Are you looking into competitions?
BM No, I haven’t. But I will. I would love to be in Pinot Days next year. We’ll definitely submit for scores even though I’m not a big ’scores’ guy anymore. I used to be huge into scores but this journey has changed my perception on all that. But, yes, we’ll put it out in competitions. See what people think. I’m very realistic. Somebody’s going to absolutely love our Pinot and tell everybody about it, and somebody is going to hate our Pinot and tell everybody they hate it. That’s the name of the game in wine.
But I think if people realize the care we’re taking, and the hands-on approach we’re taking in every aspect, from hand-bottling, hand-labeling, hand wax dipping of the Rosé, people will look at that in an appreciative light. I would hope the judges at competitions read on our site the care we take. I don’t know. I’m very gray on that, if that’s even fair to say. A person’s palate shouldn’t judge a wine on the story of how the wine was made. A wine should be judged on how good the wine is. On the other hand, I do want people to know the care I take in the wine.
Have your children participated in the winemaking, the labeling?
BM They love it! My son, Davis Coleman Miller, is still a little young. He doesn’t quite understand the name on the bottle is him. He’s three. But my six year old Mattie, Madison Nicole Miller, she is very into hand-dipping the bottles with me. Yesterday she slapped a rosé label on her chest and slapped a label on her back and went up to grandpa and said “Look, Papa! I’m a good bottle of wine.” (laughs)
She’s very in tune to what we are doing. And I’m trying to train her on how she can maybe tell what wine is served by the shape of the bottle. I’m really trying to educate her on wine. And my son as well, when it’s time.
By the time my son was 16 he had tasted a couple dozen grower Champagnes. We went to France not too long ago. Outside Cahors, the wines from there I quite love, and again in Carcassonne, we would enter a cooperative, a tasting room and have two glasses put in front of us! Very civilized.
BM Because of the taboos surrounding alcohol in our society I think a lot of children are missing out on that artform. I really appreciate parents that do that with their children, to teach them about wine. It takes the bad mystique about alcohol away if it is part of the meal.
And if a young person develops an appreciation for wine how can they ever drink vodka?
BM Or swill! That’s how I was in college. I had a lot of friends who went through the micro-brew craze in the 90s. And I had my share. I enjoyed that hand-crafted beer aspect of things, but I was always much more into wine. My parents always had wine on the table. From the time I was about twelve years old, they always gave me a little, tiny glass of wine to enjoy with my meal. That’s all I got, and I knew it was something to be respected. I miss that in society. I miss seeing my friend’s parents being more open to teaching the art and craft of wine at earlier ages.
Wonderful speaking with you, Brandon. Thank you for the bottle of Rosé.
BM Thank you, Ken. My pleasure.
Lebanon, Israel, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Turkey & Uruguay are countries whose wines are encountered as way-points by many in their wine journeys, but how many see that list as a typical summary of their monthly activities? I consider myself an eclectic wine enthusiast and tend to find the unusual & unorthodox more interesting that the mainstream (although I know some people would use that as a criticism). June turned into a showcase for my wine eccentricities with a spread of “off-piste” regions and varieties factoring heavily in both my drinking and purchases.
Ironically the month started off as traditional as you can get with a tasting at my local Spanish retailer covering a sample of wines from Toro, Rueda, Rioja and Ribera del Duero. I’d enjoyed most of them before, but new that evening was the Dominio de Ugarte 2004 Reserva, from Bodegas Heredad Ugarte, in Magnum. This was tasted next to the 2003 Reserva in standard bottle size and I was so taken with the freshness and depth of flavour of the ’04 compared to the ’03 (which I like a lot) that I bought my first ever large format bottle.
We’d been chatting to a couple during the course of the evening and once the tasting had finished we invited them back to the house to continue the conversation and open up another bottle or two. When I discovered that neither had tried Lebanese wines before I knew I’d found the excuse to open the bottle of 1999 Château Musar I’d earmarked for drinking this year. A quick decant and pour released some beautiful aromas including smoke and tobacco with a subtle hint of V.A. and barnyard. Sweet and savoury in the mouth this had a Rhône style and was very, very smooth with fine-grain tannins and a long finish. A sublime 4-star wine drinking beautifully the two of us (the girls favouring a Pouilly-Fumé instead) polished off the bottle in two hours – which explained my hangover the next morning!
June weather in the North East of England was dire; thunderstorms and persistent rain with infrequent glimpses of the sun, however one of those rare moments coincided with a Saturday shopping excursion to the nearby market town of Hexham. I tend to come here once or twice a month if only to go to the local Waitrose supermarket for its excellent wine selection, but this time Sarah & I decided to have a treat for lunch and we strolled along to the Bouchon Bistrot for some French cuisine. I’d heard good things about the restaurant and had been meaning to go for some time now. I was not disappointed and, after 2 excellent starters, savoured the Boudin Noir (black pudding/blood sausage) while Sarah had a delicate fish course of Coley in a white wine sauce. To wash down the earthy Boudin Noir I had a couple of glasses of a fine Coteaux de Tricastin from Maison Delas, a young , fruity red perfect for a lunchtime drink.
On the way home I stopped by the Hexham Wine Rack (part of the Threshers group) and took advantage of their perpetual “buy 3 bottles for the price of 2” promotion. The selection is not terribly exciting, but there are some good deals to be had and this trip I can away with the Huber 2007 Gruner Veltliner from Austria, the Kanonkop 2007 Kadette from South Africa and a 2007 Cave de Turckheim Gewurztraminer (part of their own “Radcliffe’s” range).
A business trip to Israel towards the end of the month had me travelling via Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
I dislike this airport for several reasons I won’t bore you with, but its saving grace is the Air France Lounge(s) and an enjoyable selection of wines (French, of course!) to distract you while you wait for your onward connection. I had an intriguing white (Limoux I think) which had a peaty aroma not unlike a fine malt whiskey, while a red Cru Bourgeois was surprisingly complex and enjoyable – unfortunately as I write this my notes are sitting in the office so I’ll have to post an update later. Not so good was the Château Le Bonnat “Jeansotte” 2007 Graves served on the flight – I know I was travelling Economy Class, but this thin, acidic, 2 star wine was not what I was looking for. After that experience I read with a wry smile Michael Broadbent’s column in Augusts’ Decanter Magazine where he bemoans British Airway’s Economy wine offering on a flight to the U.S. as “beyond redemption”!
On the return leg of the trip I decided to get rid of a 20 Euro note I’d had in my wallet for the best part of a year and went to the Duty Free wine section at Paris. After a perusal of the ranks of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone I ended up with the Gueberschwihr Goldert Grand Cru 2004 Riesling, taking my stock of this grape variety to over 10% of my collection.
In Israel itself work kept me out of fine restaurants and there was no time for visiting any wineries, so my only note is of the Ramim 2003 Riesling which I bought for about $15 at a local supermarket to drink in my room. I couldn’t tell much from the label as it was in Hebrew but Kosher is guaranteed as it was from a standard state supermarket. At 11.3% abv I expected it to be a dry or semi-dry, but it was heavily sweet, with a golden honey colour and a very luscious and aromatic nose. It was slightly oxidised, but not enough to spoil the oily component (not quite petrol) and, while there was no real complexity or length compared to a Northern European sweet Riesling, it was enjoyable when served well chilled to take the edge off the sweetness.
The final weekend of the month was a family trip to my parents in the South of Scotland. We visited the small town of Moffat and took the opportunity to drop in on the local wine retailer, the Moffat Wine Shop. I’ve been before and I am always surprised about the quality and choice for what is essentially a Scottish country village with a population of only a few thousand – this time round I came away with a Uruguayan Red, the Cata Mayor 2005 Cabernet Franc by Bodegas Castillo Viejo, and a Sauvignon Gris from Chilean producer Viña Cousiño Macul.
The remaining wines in my “around the world” tour were from my weekend drinkers at home. The Domaine de Biéville 2007 Chablis Vielles Vignes and Domaine Raimbault-Pineau 2007 Pouilly-Fumé Cuvée Cassandra were both good French whites but both were bested by the 2007 Auxerrois from Apostelhoeve in Maasstricht, The Netherlands, which was a delicate, floral and slightly sweet white with a lot of charm. Moving up the sweetness scale was the Valbene 2004 Picolit from the Colli Orientali del Friuli region of Italy (next to the Slovenian border). Picolit is a rare grape, it is rumoured there are only 25ha of plantings in Italy, and this dessert wine was light and perfumed – not outstanding, but good for £10. Better still I remember to save the half-bottle for future use when I open a bottle of red I know I am not going to finish – a topped-up half-bottle re-corked and put away in the refrigerator lasts several days longer than if left in a standard bottle.
For Reds I revisited Corsica with the Domain du Mont Saint Jean 2006 Pinot Noir but was disappointed by its awkward mid-palate and lack of character. France fared much better with a Chinon from Domaine du Colombier, this was one for those that like edgy, medium bodied wine with a touch of the cabbage patch, as I do! Switzerland was next, with the Cuvée E. Obrist 2005 Vaux Rouge by Obrist Vevey, a Pinot-Noir/Gamay blend typical of the Vaud region, although the wine itself was a little thin and one dimensional. Turkey showed well with the 2005 Bo?azkere by Doluca, a fresh and beautifully fruity easy-drinking red with cherry, raspberry and a hint of herbs and menthol.
We move back into familiar territory with a young red from Portugal’s Douro region, the 2006 Fabelhaft (Stamp) by Niepoort. The nose was the star, smoky with sweet dark berry fruit and although the flavour couldn’t quite match up in the mouth, it was perfectly balanced and a joy to drink at 3+ stars.
I switched to South Africa later on in the month and opened up the Beyerskloof 2005 Pinotage from the famous Stellenbosch producer, prompted by a comment on last month’s Greybeard’s Corner by Peter May of the Pinotage Club. The bottle had been sitting in my cellar for the last 3 years and although only the standard White label Pinotage it had stood up relatively well and was smooth in the mouth, balanced with a little tannin at the end. However there wasn’t any stand-out flavour, fruit or otherwise so I could only just push this into a 3 star – hopefully the Longridge 2004 Pinotage I have will prove a better buy.
And so June came to a close with bottles spanning 12 countries and more than 16 different varieties or blends – welcome to my world! To tell the truth this is a little more on the fringe than even I am used to on a regular basis, but highlights what I’m looking for in the world of wine…..everything!
Adventures in Burgundy by photographer Lincoln Russell came to my attention in a rather unusual way. I made a request of Clive Coates, the august subject of my most recent interview, for pictures illustrating, among other things, the grounds of the Ten Year On Tastings, the Brouilland farmhouse owned by Becky Wasserman-Hone and her husband Russell Hone. Mr. Coates suggested I write Lincoln Russell whose fine book includes just such photos. Indeed, it does, and a great deal more I was to discover when Mr. Russell graciously sent me an inscribed copy of his book.
Photography books, especially of wine country, can be exercises in the familiar, the already known. Very often they are compilations of visual clichés. But Mr. Russell’s book is of another kind entirely. His is an effort that tells a story, deepens our understanding of things we’ve merely heard and not seen. Let’s take his photo of Sebastien Denis and his horse Mickey, for example. Simple. It’s of a man, a colorful local, plowing a field. Not quite. Burgundy has become a hot spot for the use of biodynamic methods, hence the workhorse, an essential component of that viticulture. And Mr. Denis has been working the biodynamic vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) for a number of years.
Or take this photo of the Hill of Corton from the vantage point of the commune Aloxe-Corton near Beaune. The intersecting of clos and subtle changes in the orientation of the vines, the slight changes in shade of the exposed soil surfaces, redder at the lower elevation, all are important details for the appreciation of this extraordinary growing area. Indeed, the book’s forward is written by Aubert De Villaine, DRC’s co-director. According to a recent brief in the Wine Spectator, the DRC
” has signed a lease with Domaine Prince Florent de Mérode for 6 acres of vineyards on the hillside of Corton for three grand cru red wines.”.
And among my favorite images is that of a wall, the run of a clos, simply titled Pommard. I have often wondered after the method of construction of these stone walls and how they weather. I was surprised to see how tight the fit of each stone. And the angle of the image helps reveal erosion, the crumbling of the top of the wall and its ad hoc repair.
Included among the book’s more than 150 images are numerous informal portraits of major figures of the region, of winemakers and workers. Many are of the caves, the work at local tonnelleries, the changing seasons in the vineyards, bud break, and superb pics of numerous domaines at dusk, in winter, shrouded in fog. And, of course, photos of Clive Coates’ Ten Year On Tasting from 2006, of the interior of the farmhouse and of the magnificent grounds with children playing on the expansive lawn.
One pic playfully hints at Mr. Russell’s participation. It is of a nearly a dozen pair of muddy boots and shoes aligned before an open door, the threshold to the interior of which is mud-free. And off to the left is the only pair of clean shoes remaining, a pair of black loafers; the photographer’s? All other folks must have put on their fresh shoes and entered. Mr. Russell must have been the last one in.
And that is the overall impression of his work in this wonderful book. He is the last one in. He effortlessly floats about the people and landscapes he clearly loves, patiently waiting for rare moments to reveal themselves to him, and so to us.
Lincoln Russell has one stop left on his book tour, the Tanglewood Wine and Food Classic, August 6th through the 8th, 2009. He will be signing at this event. A copy of his book may be purchased through his very well-designed website. I strongly encourage the reader to secure a copy.
Special thanks to Mr. Russell for his permission to reproduce photos for this review.