This is pt 2, the tentative conclusion to my interview with Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards. It is tentative because he is a man of many layers, at once open, yet reserved. He can be startlingly honest and subtle at the same time, in the same sentence. There is always more to learn from him. This interview, though detailed and thorough in its own way, nevertheless implies dozens more questions all of which he would be willing to answer. Some people I’ve spoken with establish an implicit contract. They make it clear from the first utterance just how much they are willing to discuss. They might imply advertorial conditions, a set of company-sponsored talking points beyond which they are unwilling to go. They might limit inquiry with clipped answers. But that is not Jason Lett’s approach. Ask him a question important to you and he will answer. He requires, I sense, a dedicated interlocutor. And I hope I have held up my end of the conversation.
In The Vineyard
Admin This is a quiet place.
Jason Lett These are the original vines planted in the Willamette Valley. They are all planted on their own roots, so we’re going to do a little clorox wash before we go in. You just have to get a little on the bottom of your shoes.
We each step into a shallow pan of bleach.
JL So this is our tillage and cultivation center here. This is a flail mower. Its has two side cutters that I have folded over right now because we’re missing a snap ring…. But as we’re driving down the row we’re both mowing the middle but also underneath the vines.
That’s a clever design.
JL Yes. As it bumps into a grape vine it just pulls around the trunk. It is made by a local company called Rears. They build great equipment, and they came up with this design based on an older design, an Edwards mower that was used in apple orchards in Washington. So it’s pretty homegrown engineering. It’s built like a proverbial brick shit house.
At Parducci’s they had one of the strangest machines I’ve ever seen. It was designed for shallow spading. It was a series of spades moving in the oddest way.
JL Oh, yeah. A power spader. Those things are cool. It’s like a crankshaft with spades on it. They are fun to look at. But we don’t do any tillage here. And over here is our newest acquisition. Our vineyard manager, he’s been with us for 25 years now, this was kind of his 25th anniversary present, this tractor.
I can see it. After he blew out all of the candles, you put a blindfold on him and told him to come outside…
JL That’s exactly what we did! We hid it in one of the bays at the winery. We’d had our big harvest party, everybody was there. I said, “OK, everybody. We’re going out. Mamas hang on to your kids. It’s going to be dark in there.” So we went into one of the storage bays and closed the door. Nobody could see to the back what was going on. Then we flipped the lights on! And there was the tractor.
So at the heads, at the ends of the rows we’ve got these cordon-pruned vines. It’s just hard to get rid of these. They’re just too pretty.
In vineyards you sometime see the practice of digging down a few inches at the base of the vine in order to access the shallow lateral roots. I saw it demonstrated in Cahors; it was a method to improve vineyard health there. The shallow roots are then cut away so as to encourage deeper rooting. Is any of that done here?
JL Well, remember how you were observing how in Burgundy they clean-till everything or herbicide it so that there is nothing growing on the vineyard floor? Well, that means that every drop of water that hits the ground is available to the vines. So the plants are going to take advantage of that and put their water-collecting roots at the surface. That’s one of the purposes for leaving this full coverage here in our vineyard. It is to drive the roots deep. Basically, all of the weeds and companion plants handle all the minor rain events. This coverage all turns brown in late July, and it then acts as mulch. So we retain more water in the soil as a result of leaving the cover than we would if we tilled it up.
Then when harvest comes in October, and we start getting those rains that tend to panic people, this stuff is drinking up the water. The grapes, which are down into deeper sources of water, aren’t getting that big burst of precipitation; and so the clusters don’t get water-logged, for lack of a better word. This grass on the surface is drinking it all up.
And here you have a high admixture of red clay, yes?
JL Oh, yeah. This is classic Jory soil, red clay. Its got some really interesting properties. For a clay it’s stays really friable. It doesn’t seal shut in the Winter the way that a typical clay soil does. And so the roots still have access to oxygen. But it retains that ability of clay to hold water in the Summer. It’s a great soil for growing grapes on. It is very consistent throughout the hill. Where you have lots of different layers of stuff, sort of a layer cake of hard and soft, water can move in interesting and unpredictable ways. In some places where there hasn’t been a spring in 20 years might suddenly become one Winter very wet. In other places where I’ve managed that’s actually been somewhat of a problem. A part of the vineyard that wasn’t very vigorous before, and which you’re farming in a certain way, suddenly it has all this water one Summer. You then have to back off what you’re doing there, but then down on the other end, that’s gotten a little bit dryer. That’s one of the things Dad was looking for in a vineyard site in the Dundee Hills.
The Dundee Hills are composed principally of this material?
JL Yes. We’ll actually walk down and I can show you the other major soil. It’s like at the base of the Dundee Hills there is a kind of bathtub ring of Missoula floods soil.
Do you do much green harvesting?
JL Well, it depends on what the natural loads are. We are at a very wide spacing here. When my Dad came up here the common spacing he’d been trained to employ was 12 X 10. So, when he came to Oregon he was really going to pull it together and do hard-core Burgundian spacing. He narrowed it up to 10 X 6, which is now, of course, considered Combine spacing. But each one of these plants is stretched very wide. We ask each plant to give us a lot of fruit. But we also give each plant an enormous amount of resource. So, Dad basically determined this balance between how much we were giving the plant and how much we were asking of it in order to get what turns out to have been, intuitively, a really dialed-in balance.
If you look at these canes, none of the canes are bigger than my little finger. That’s really what you’re looking for. When you start getting thumb-sized canes, they’re shooting off secondaries all over the place; they start to clog the canopy; you’re not getting the sort of dappling effect; the clusters don’t have good exposure. And the plant invests more heavily in developing infrastructure in the form of canes than it does in actually ripening fruit. What we look for in the vineyard is this innate balance. And an innate yield level. These naturally yield about 2 1/4 tons an acre. We might come through and take off a little wing here and there. And that will get us down to 2. So we’re not having to physically shove the vines hard in order to get them to give us ripe, balanced fruit. It’s kinda been happening from the way the vineyard’s been structured since the get-go.
Is this a sulphur residue?
JL It’s sulphur and milk whey. The milk whey is actually a mildewcide. We used to use a traditional Bordeaux mix, but I don’t really like copper. It’s not good for people, it’s not good for the soil; so we replaced copper with milk whey. And we’ve seen improved health in the vineyards. Not what comes out of the sprayer smells like a latte! Two benefits. (laughs)
Jason then does a bit of work.
JL This was my first job in the vineyard. It’s called suckering. I was never sure if the sucker was the the thing growing off the vine or the guy doing it. There are lots to go. The guys were actually suckering and I said, “You know what? This is the perfect time to do some cane straightening.” So what we’ve done is pulled the canes up, tighten the catch wires together, tied each one. So we’re getting a good, upright canopy, which means we’ll get good airflow, good exposure, good spray penetration.
What is the vineyard’s orientation? North/South?
JL It’s actually East/West. One of the things Dad experimented with was which orientation works best. It’s funny. East/West, back in the 70s, he didn’t like very much because it was too cold. But in the era of global warming we get some of our best fruit from these East/West vines. He didn’t know it but he was preparing us for the future.
Was he an exacting records keeper? Did he record temperatures 3 times a day, take note of every rainfall?
JL Yes. We have really good historical notes. Unfortunately they are all on these 3X5 cards that are interspersed with his daily to-do lists and stuff. So he was able to go back and find anything. But if you go back into his card index it’s like… How did you do that? (laughs)
So, in other words, you’d have a complete record of climate data and changes in these particular vineyards…
JL Yeah. We’ve actually worked with a scientist up at the University of Washington who is looking at the oxygen isotope ratio in library wines to try and extract climate signals based on these wines. Really interesting stuff. Gordon Holtgrieve is his name.
Most of the vineyard here was planted between 1967 and 1974. The first vines were planted in 1966. There is a last block planted at Eyrie, in 1984. Because it is a due West facing slope, it is less than ideal. But we had a vineyard manager at the time who said, “Well, let’s just fill it in.”
These are actually the first rows right here. These are the ones my Mom and Dad laid out on their honeymoon. This is Muscat Ottonel. It is kind of a shy-bearing white varietal, something we have a cult following for. Some years we make 100 cases, in others we make 25. It depends on what it gives us.
I see that a couple have given up the ghost.
JL Yeah. Eutypa is kind of an issue with these older vines.
And that tree right there is the tree that is on the label. So when my folks were planting this vineyard there were a pair of hawks nesting up there. At the time there was a filbert orchard on the back side, so there were lots of squirrels for the hawks to eat. And they were hanging out there building their nest, and my folks were, you know, planting their vines, having their kids, and building their nest — that’s why they named it the Eyrie Vineyards. An eyrie is a hawk’s nest.
We just went through here and mowed last week. Our little wheel cutters, we had the wheels made big so they won’t go in too tight to the trunk. We come through here after the grass dries out. It gets it out of the fruit zone. But you know, when everything is up you can see what kind of diversity there is.
In California when we see grass standing this tall we often look for the nest spittle of leaf hoppers, a vector of diseases.
JL Yeah. The glassy-winged sharpshooter is definitely a concern up here. We find it in nursery stock from time to time, but it hasn’t actually naturalized. I need to knock on some wood here! But we’ve been lucky so far.
JL Not an imposing sight after a long wet Spring; but this is the first Pinot Gris planted in the United States. When Dad came up here from Davis he talked somebody into letting him get 160 from the research vineyard there. He planted the cuttings in a temporary plot down in Corvalis ‘65. It took him a year to find this spot. And then he dug up the vines he’d planted in Corvalis and brought them back up here. And this is now their home.
Do you get a lot of rabbits and wild boar? Deer?
JL No. Back in the day they used to be an issue. But now the deer all have other vineyards to eat. They don’t pick on us anymore. Even the birds aren’t the problem they used to be. I think it’s because there are so many more vineyards, and unfortunately, there is now a lot less habitat for wildlife. It just doesn’t migrate through much anymore. They used to have on the next hillside over a herd of elk. There were bear sighted in there, cougar and bobcat. The locals shot all the elk. And then they clear-cut the forest that the elk were living in to plant vineyards… And so we really haven’t nearly the wildlife anymore. The critters need continuous habitat. On the top of the hill we get a little deer damage, and a little bit on the very bottom of the vineyard.
We walk to a block of Chardonnay. Here Jason shows me the diversity of of the vineyard ground cover courtesy of the mower’s broken snap ring.
JL Here we’ve got panicum grass, wild oats, not sure what this is… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… just within this little 6 foot area we’ve got 6 species of grass. And then we have the broadleaf forbs, here’s clover… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, that’s lactuca, 6, 7, 8…, so 8 different forbs in this same area. Oh, I forgot the huge one I’m standing over, 9. And that’s just today. There is this whole cycle that happens throughout the year as new things come in. So this is a really important part of our viticulture.
We venture down to the lowest elevation in the vineyard. As if on cue, a female hawk soars overhead. Her cries, clearly audible on my recorder, punctuated our sentences for the next few minutes.
JL All the vineyards around us have been torn out and replanted because of phylloxera. But not ours. We’re right next to the first vineyard in the state to have it, as far as we know. Yet we’re still able to hang on to these vines. It’s present here, but we’re able to keep it to a dull roar. I think it has a lot to do with the dynamic that we create by having these other plants here.
And this is something your father practiced from the very beginning…
JL Yeah. He used to cultivate under the vines. We always left cover between. One other thing he did was occasionally to just mow under the vines. But then he went back to cultivation for a while. When I came back I said let’s get back to mowing again. I really like that approach. So that is what we’ve been doing ever since.
What we need is a friendly gopher to give us a soil sample here… You can see that we’ve pretty much got the same stuff here. This soil is getting a little browner. So we’re basically right at the bathtub ring where the Woodburn soil from the Missoula flood meets the Jory soil. And as we have walk down the row here you can see that we’ve much more brown here, much more friable. We’re right in the middle of this little chevron of Woodburn soil that comes up the hill here.
The skies are overcast, but very still. No shadows are thrown.
So what does this particular cloud configuration suggest? In California we might think rain.
JL It suggests more cussing and praying. (laughs) There might be rain coming but it kind of looks like that all day. So once the clouds have made the jump over the coast range there, they must be rung out enough so as not to drop on us. When we’ll see rain is when they start to stack up against the Cascades. Then the whole ceiling fills in.
The hawk’s cry is relentless. One is circling right above our heads.
JL So you can see where the inspiration for the label came from!
Can you imagine being out here, working one day and having those hawks screaming; maybe even seeing them mate. A horrifying sight!
JL No kidding! Watch out! And I’m about to have teenagers in the household. (laughs)
There’s a lot of work that’s been done here…
JL And to maintain it every year. We visit each one of these vines and tend them by hand between 13 and 14 times. I’m the closest person to full time in the winery. I don’t spend nearly as much time there as I’d like to. But we’ve got 6 full time people in the vineyard. That shows where are priorities are.
Are the vineyard folk Spanish speakers in the main?
JL Yes. There are all US citizens. Like I said, our foreman’s been with us since 1984. Our most recent hire was in 1997. We’re able to keep people around for a good long time. They know every vine. You don’t have to go in and look around to figure out what average thing you should do in a block and say, “Do it this way.” Because they are so good in understanding each vine individually. They are really farming at a vine to vine level. That’s ideal.
Then they come into the winery during harvest. I mean, I hire an intern every now and then, but for the most part the work is done by the guys in the vineyard. The winemaking informs the vineyard work. The vineyard work informs the winemaking. It’s a really great closed cycle for the people in the vineyard to also to be making the wine.
Do they have healthcare?
JL Oh, yeah. We give them full benefits. We do hire temporary work during the year, and a lot of the wineries in Oregon have gotten together to form a group called SALUD which is a non-profit dedicated to providing healthcare for the more transient portion of the workforce. There are mobile clinics that come out to the vineyards. If people have issues they are taken care of. We had an open heart surgery completely paid for by SALUD last year, as well as just dental and visual, and cholesterol, you know, just regular check-ups.
We turn to make our way back up the slope.
JL In 1979 a friend of my Dad’s who lived in Burgundy encouraged him to send her some bottles of wine for her to enter into an international wine competition. Dad looked around his cellar, and the Pinot Noir he was really proudest of came from 10 rows of vines down here at the bottom of the vineyard. He called it the South Block. He made his first dedicated South Block cuvée in 1975. These are the rows. It’s all Wädenswil clone. This is the Pinot I was talking about that tends to be a little more floppy, need more support.
I noticed in the winery, in the tasting room, there was a Pinot Meunier. Where does that fruit come from?
JL Right here. We have a tiny block, just a few rows.
Have you ever thought of playing around with a sparkler?
JL I’d like to. I’ve got the base wines in barrel, a rosé Pinot Meunier we made last year, it was our 40th harvest. i thought, well, we’ll do something fun and commemorative. But I don’t quite know how to go from the base wine phase to the sparkling wine phase in anything less than an industrial level. I need to talk to somebody who understands sparkling wine production on a smaller scale. If you know of anybody, I’d appreciate it.
I know a couple of people I could write.
JL So our first question here is how many of these are going to bloom. We can, with the kind of weather we’ve been having, and in spite of making sure we’re on top of the spray, we can get mildew development underneath the cap that will cause the berry to shrivel. Everything here looks really healthy and green, so I’m feeling pretty positive about this. But often by this time of the year these caps are starting to brown off and split at the bottom. They’ll start to fall away; that’s when pollination starts to happen. These caps can come off and we’ll have rain that totally blocks pollination. We can end up with 30% of the berries on this cluster actually setting fruit. So we wait to make any decisions about thinning until then.
Oddly, I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with Ken Burnap, the founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. I adore that man. In any event, he told me about Randall Graham stealing canes from the vineyard of Romanée-Conti and smuggling them into the US in his dirty socks.
JL I have a theory. Everybody in Oregon seems to have a row or two of a Romanée-Conti suitcase clone.
You’re kidding! It’s like most Americans have a Native American background? (laughs)
JL Exactly! But I’ve never heard of anybody actually making a wine from those canes decent enough so that they would graft over a bunch of stuff to it. You know? My theory is that at Romanée-Conti all around the edges of their vineyards they plant the crappiest Pinot clone they can find just to sandbag all the vintners coming in there to steal the cuttings!
Oh, that’s funny. You might be right! What do you think about wine blogger, by the way?
JL What I love blogging in general is that it has really decentralized the power structure of how people think about wine. This is important. Everybody’s a critic, that’s fine. At least everybody is thinking about it and not taking everything without analysis from an accepted mouthpiece. I really support that. It’s a refreshing change. I think it’s rocked the established media back on its heels and made it be more responsive and thoughtful to its readership and to the wines they’re tasting.
We arrive back at the car to return to McMinnville. The hawk begins to more loudly exult as though it alone had driven us from the vineyard. My conversation with Jason continues on for another two hours. He is a very generous man. A talented man. A happy family man. Not sure there is anything more to say.
The Wine News for June saw Auction Houses breathing sigh of relief at the beginning of the month as a New York Appellate court ruled that Bill Koch may not sue Acker Merrall and Condit over alleged counterfeit bottles bought by the Billionaire collector, although Koch’s representatives said they’d appeal the decision and this could end up in the Supreme Court. For an insight into Koch’s motives there’s a good article on Bloomberg by Elin McCoy from February this year.
Over to Europe and the controversial Mosel Bridge looks like it is going ahead despite continuing protests. UK daily newspapers The Telegraph and The Independent carried similar articles, with the Independent also posting an emotional piece by Hugh Johnson, one of the bridges most vocal opponents.
Across the border in France and there were changes to two Rhône wine regions. Fed up with being associated with the bad press of the Tricastin Nuclear Power Plant, especially after the 2008 Uranium leak, the Côtes du Tricastin appellation, founded in 1973, has now become AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégé) Grignan-Les Adhemar, while the renowned Rasteau region has finally been promoted to the ranks of the Crus des Côtes du Rhône, joining Condrieu, Châteauneuf du Pape, St. Joseph and others nearly a decade since its application.
The new UK Coalition government’s “Emergency Budget” in June did not change the already high Excise Duty for wines, much to the relief of the wine buying public (well, me anyway!), however, the increase of VAT from 17.5 to 20% in January 2011 will see prices rise accordingly. We already have one of the highest rates all European countries for wine taxes – working out at £1.69 ($2.50) for most still wines, £2.16 ($3.25) for sparkling and £2.25 ($3.40) for fortified – so any additional targeted taxes will be keenly felt.
As for me, one event at the beginning of the month took centre stage – the inaugural North East Wine Festival (NEWF) held in the quiet Northumberland country town of Corbridge on Friday 4th and Saturday 5th June. The weather surprised everyone and remained perfect for the open air event; a good dose of sunshine and no rain to scare off potential visitors. Saying that, attendance was not as high as hoped for with only about 350 on the Friday and approaching 800 on the Saturday, however, retailers I talked to at the end of the show seemed happy that they’d more than covered their costs and spread the word about their wines to a group of new people.
I gave a talk on both days entitled “The World Wine Web” on how to use the internet to get what you want out of wine, discussing a range of useful web based resources and links – although targeted for the North East of England you can download a PDF of the handout sheet for a taste of my first ever public speaking roll!
Of the other speakers I really enjoyed Massimo de Nardo’s engaging description of Prosecco production at his Fasol Menin winery in Valdobbiadene, while Ian Cobham, ex-winemaker and now Sommelier at the Hotel du Vin in Newcastle, kept us all guessing with a blind tasting session as part of his presentation on understanding wine.
Over both days the 11 attending retailers poured their way through hundreds of bottles, but what really made the festival were the three local eateries who set up mobile kitchens and cooked a delicious selection of snacks and light meals to be eaten in the open air Cafe environment at the tables laid out between the marquees.
Bouchon Bistrot, winner of the Best French Restaurant on Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word” TV show last year, put together a Gallic inspired menu with wines by local stalwart Michael Jobling – the delightful Chicken liver Parfait with Onion Compote & Cornichons was my only real food on day 1.
Renowned local Chef Terry Laybourne of Café 21 was behind the pass at the temporarily renamed Casa 21 with a selection of delicious Tapas dishes accompanied by wines from Spanish Spirit, the event organiser.
Finally the Feathers Inn, one of the best Gastro-Pubs in the region, put on a menu including the incredibly popular Lindisfarne Oysters and a damn fine cheese board.
My star wines of the festival were;
* Patricius 2007 Dry Furmit (£10.99. Carruthers & Kent). This elegant dry Hungarian white had a honeyed floral nose and textured, full bodied mouthfeel – another delicious example of a style I’ve yet to have a bad example of.
* Amayna 2007 Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc (£19.49. Carruthers & Kent). This was a thick, fruity wine with nutty complexity – savoury and dry but suffering from 14.5% alcohol and its hefty price tag.
* Morgado Sta Catherina, Quinta da Romeira Vinho Btanco (oaked Arinto) (£16.15. PortoVino). Another oaked white, this time from Portugal’s Arinto grape, the Morgado was light and inviting with a lemon sherbert taste, dry mid-palate and long, almost sweet finish.
* Domaine Pattes Loup 2007 Chablis (£12.95. Tyne Wines). A good example of the Chablis style; clean and flinty with a refreshing citrus fruit aspect, this was an uplifting wine with a full mid-palate, although the finish was a little short.
* Cossetti 2004 “Il Conteso” Nebbiolo D’Alba (£18. Castello). A fruity and complex Nebbiolo with a herb and tar nose, strong tannins and a very long finish. This has been nicknamed the “Baby Barolo” with good cause, as good as many a Barolo in the £20-£25 range.
* Latium Morini 2003 Campo Leon Amarone della Valpolicella (£29. The Hop, The Vine). Possibly the most expensive wine of the festival this had a smoky, savoury nose with some cherry wood. In the mouth it was juicy with lots of fruit and a very, very long finish. Although the tannins were fine they were also in abundance and a few more years would soften and improve the wine. At 16% abv this was a big wine in every sense, however, the price tag puts this well out of many people’s range.
* Château Vespeille 2007 Muscat de Rivesaltes Vin Doux Natural (£6.70. Michael Jobling). This wasn’t even on the lists as Michael poured the wine as part of his Food & Wine pairing presentation on the Saturday. The floral, uplifting nose, thick texture (but not cloying) and very long finish marked this out as one of the better sweet wines available on the day and a QPR hero as well!
* Jordan 2008 Mellifera Noble Late Harvest Riesling (£10.75. Proteas Wines). A decadent delight, this candied Botrytis wine oozed richness, with a mouth-coating texture but acidity to balance the high sugar content – one for the hedonists!
* Quinta do Infantado 2004 LBV Port (£18.15. PortoVino). This is what every LBV should be – a hint of sweetness and the character of a Vintage Port. The nose was more of a rich, deep red with plenty of liquorice, while in the mouth there were firm tannins and juicy complexity.
The dates for next year’s Festival have already been announced as 3rd & 4th June 2011, this time with a possible 3rd day on Sunday 5th, so if you’re anywhere near the North East of England then put it into your diary and I’ll see you there!
As if one major event for the month wasn’t enough the following weekend had a large commercial tasting organised by Newcastle Wine School as part of the Newcastle and Gateshead EAT festival. The usual suspects were present, with most of the NEWF independent retailers plus the addition of local store Fenwick and the National chains Oddbins and Majestic.
There were no talks, food or the luxury of a whole day to browse the offerings here, it was the quick-fire taste and move format with a deadline to work to. Naturally I avoided wines I’d had from the week before and found a few more gems worthy of mention;
* Cossetti 2007 Roero Arneis (£18. Castello). A wonderful Italian white with a deep, musky nose which pulls you in. A textured mouthful, a little oily with a creamy buttery finish.
* Lammershoek 2007 Roulette Blanc (Proteas Wines). Extremely perfumed nose with some honey & toasty oak. Slow to start but a full mouthfeel with a long honey finish with this Cheni-Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier blend.
* Alpha Domus 2008 Viognier (Fenwick). Herbal nose with a little rubber and a wonderful texture; smooth & rich, medium dry with a lot of subtle flavours.
* Casa Ermelinda 2006 Quinta da Mimosa (PortoVino). This fruity red was flying off the shelves and had a beautiful warm nose with some liquorice, crying out “sunshine”. I found it a little light in the mouth, very smooth on palate with subtle tannins on the finish and a savoury aspect – an easy drinking wine but it didn’t live up to the promise of the nose.
* Cantina Mesa 2008 Prima Scuro (Carruthers & Kent) This Sardinian Cannonau (Grenache) had a savoury, roasted herbs nose and was smooth with good acidity. Relatively light bodied it was delicious with a range of complex flavours and tannin, one to look out for and for £10.99 I’m definitely getting a bottle or two.
* Priests Hill 2009 Pinot Grigio (Michael Jobling). For only £5.52 this was the best white QPR by the Hungarian label, part of the Hilltop group. It had a fruity nose and, while not thought-provoking or complex, was very, very quaffable.
* Mountain Pass 2008 Pinot Noir (Fenwick). This took best red QPR at only £5.93 after Fenwick picked up a job lot of cases from the defunct First Quench group. This Victorian Pinot Noir was made by Yering Station and had a savoury nose with a little mushroom, was light & smooth in the mouth with a touch of sweet tannin and was an absolute bargain.
* Veiga Serantes 2008 Albarino (Spanish Spirit). This had a subtle lemony nose and light texture – a very good example of Albarino but, at £12.99, was unfortunately also a typical price for this fashionable grape which is becoming expensive to taste.
I’m not going to put any detail on June’s NEWTS premium South American tasting as it received a full article of its own a few weeks ago, other than to say my predictions for the World Cup proved way off mark! As I was not sent off anywhere with work there are no tales of exotic restaurants or wine exploits either, so I’ll finish off the post with the usual round up of bottles bought using my hard earned cash and consumed in the privacy of my humble home.
June saw the final flourish of my Italian White Wine buying quest with 2 more bottles, the Cossetto 2008 Roero Arneis and Della Valle Isarco 2008 Müller Thurgau, added to the Deltetto 2008 Favorita Sarvai, alta Battistina 2009 Gavi, Borgo San Michele 2005 Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio and 2005 Greco di Tufo dei Feudi di San Gregorio which I bought in May. Now all I have to do is start drinking some of them! An Australian oaked Chardonnay, the McGuigan 2009 Bin No. 156, and an Argentinean Torrontés from Vinalba concluded the whites for the month and only one red made its way home with me, a simple 2003 Grenache blend from the Languedoc destined for uncomplicated drinking within the month.
The unusual weather (i.e. not raining) meant that it was time for the first BBQ of the year and what else could there be for a pleasant evening sitting out on the patio but a Rosé? The fruity Jacob’s Creek 2007 Shiraz Rosé was an uncomplicated sipper to complement with the various chargrilled vegetables and ribs. Most of the rest of the bottles opened during the month were uncomplicated or uninspiring, except for Salentein’s 2004 MCM, a Malbec, Cabernet, Merlot blend which had an earthy, almost animal nose with smooth, integrated tannins and a smoky, sweet complexity which made it a pleasure to drink.
July promises to be equally interesting with two blind tastings to detail amongst the usual background noise. Until then, Slainte!
Taken by a couple of articles that have recently appeared in the Palate Press on both the history and the commercial potential for American indigenous grape varieties, I did what anyone would do: I turned to Jack Keller, author of the site Winemaking, and perhaps the net’s first fermented beverages blog, Jack Keller’s WineBlog. Though humility forbids him from saying it, I have no problem calling him one of America’s leading voices on all things fermentable. And as an accomplished, award-winning home winemaker, he brings to the discussion his considerable experience with the making of fruit, grape, dandelion, even grass wines! He is a terrific resource for information and knowledge, both the arcane and the indispensable. The Michael Broadbent, if you will, of our indigenous and fruit wines. For our purposes here, he sheds significant light upon the questions I put to him.
In addition to visiting his websites, for more information please see my interview with the gentleman from the Fall of 2008.
1) Would you say a bit about the historical eclipse of America’s indigenous grape varieties by Vitis vinifera?
Jack Keller Ken, from the earliest days, I think every generation of Europeans who came to America brought with them a memory of wine that was formed almost exclusively around their homeland’s varieties of V. vinifera. It was and still is, after all, the overwhelmingly dominant grape on the western half of the Eurasian landmass and by import throughout North and South Africa, Australia, South America, and the Golden State. Sure, the more common among the immigrants possibly also had experience with elderberry, greengage, apple, blackberry and other homemade country wines, but there wasn’t really anything in Europe equivalent to the vast numbers of American native grapes.
With a V. vinifera memory, immigrants were of course disappointed in the very different flavors obtained from wild American grapes. However, the old expression “any port is welcome in a storm” also applies to wine. Oddly flavored wine was vastly preferred to no wine at all. Besides, for those who were born in American or came here very young, they had no memory of V. vinifera, American grapes made perfectly acceptable wine. Until, that is, the second half of the twentieth century, when Madison Avenue began to tell us what was and what wasn’t acceptable.
The wild grape of Europe, V. sylvestris, is somewhat analogous to American grapes in that both are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on separate plants. If you walk through the forests of America where grapes grow, you see many vines that are male and devoid of fruit. V. vinifera, with hermaphroditic flowers, clearly would be favored in the garden or on the farm for that reason alone. But that is but a bonus. The real draw to V. vinifera is the generally superior flavors of the juice and it’s fermented byproduct over any other grape species on the planet. Even an inferior V. vinifera variety is unquestionably superior to the best V. monticola, V. mustangensis, V. acerifolia, V. arizonica, V. girdiana, V. vulpina, V. cinerea, etc. While one can get used to wines from these grapes, they are certainly not the best of the American native species.
The better American indigenous species, V. labrusca, V. aestivalis, V. riparia, and even V. rotundifolia have all produced some outstanding varieties. But, with the exception of V. rotundifolia (muscadine), the vast majority of the commercially successful “American” grapes all seem to have a little V. vinifera in their genes. Concord, Catawba, Alexander, Niagara, Delaware, Norton (or Cynthiana, if you prefer), and Ives are but a few that have had long lasting commercial success, and all but one of those had a European pollinator in its distant past. And then there are the muscadines — Scuppernong, Noble, Scarlett, Nesbitt, Summit, Carlos, Ison, Magnolia, Tara, and so on.
Certainly you can say these wines have been eclipsed by V. vinifera wines, but they were never in the same league at all. Even so, they have their place. Personally, I would prefer a good Ives Noir to an average V. vinifera, and there are a lot of average V. vinifera wines out there.
2) Tell us something of the quality of wines the home winemaker can achieve with both vinifera and native grapes, but also of various fruits.
JK I have been judging home wine competitions for a long time. I distinctly remember the first homemade wine I ever scored a perfect 20 (out of 20 possible). It was a black raspberry with a little elderberry in it, and it was superb. The beauty of that wine was that had I not known I was drinking a black rasp with elder, I’d have thought I was drinking a very well made Zinfandel.
The best wines I have personally ever made were almost all non-grape wines — dandelion, Marion blackberry, Key lime, Loganberry, black currant, pomegranate, mangosteen, black raspberry, Boysenberry, cherry, and (you’re not going to believe this…) beet. Oh, I’ve made more than a few unforgettable grape wines too, but I like to field blend indigenous grapes and produce something no one has ever tasted before. Probably my very best was a blend of V. mustangensis, V. cinerea var. helleri, V. monticola, and V. vulpina, and it was smooth but crisp and utterly delicious. I could never make it again because I just filled the press with what I had, but of course I’ll try.
Having said all of that, I am not the best home winemaker I know. I think I am pretty good, but I know people who make wines that put mine to shame. I consider it an achievement when I can steal a Best of Show or Grand Champion from them.
I think some of the best wines and worse wines I have ever tasted were made from the same fruit or berries. You can make an absolutely delightful wine from peaches, for example, but if your method is inappropriate or you use under-ripe fruit or simply not enough fruit it can be worse than bad. The best eating plums you can find might make pitiful wine, but a bucket full of small, tart, wild sand plums can be transformed into the most delicious wine you have tasted. The same can be said of grapes. The best table grapes generally make poor wine. Have you ever eaten a bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes? Not very appealing, but oh, what wine!
Native grapes present similar challenges. Many have unusual aromas or flavors associated with their species. These are not necessarily disagreeable, although they might be, but they certainly are unusual. Every winemaker knows that the wine almost certainly will not taste like the fruit from which it was made, but it will carry certain characteristics of the fruit into the wine. Learning what will and what will not be carried into the wine is one of the skills that separate really good winemakers from the rest. Put another way, knowing what the ingredients will taste like when combined and then baked or cooked is what separates chefs from mere cooks.
V. vinifera varieties present the same problem, but we have tens of thousands of examples of finished product from which to learn. With most native grapes and a lot of different fruit, you have to make the wines to learn what is possible and what is not. Learning how to manipulate what nature offers so as to bring out desirables while shedding, masking or neutralizing undesirables is what turns the average chef into the master craftsman.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the potential quality of native grape wines is really dependent on the winemaker’s skills. The same can be said of V. vinifera wines, but most viniferas are much more forgiving than are the natives. You have to be a pretty bad winemaker to screw up a batch of Merlot, but you have to be a pretty good winemaker to coax a good wine out of V. mustangensis or V. rupestris.
Country wines present different challenges, but these are basically challenges of ingredient selection and chemistry, solved by a combination of knowledge and good winemaking techniques. Just as tart plums make better wine than most table plum cultivars, tart cider apples make far superior wine than do sweet eating apples. You have to select the right ingredients and then work with the chemistry that comes with them. The results can be both surprising and delightful.
If you’ve ever eaten raw cranberries, the idea of making wine from them might seem like a waste of time and effort. But the truth is that cranberry wine served in a blind tasting will be mistaken for grape wine — usually white Zinfandel — almost every time. Few other fruit or berry wines will do this, but the beauty is what each actually tastes like once fermented. Banana wine will not taste like banana unless the winemaker adds banana extract, in which case it will taste like adulterated banana wine.
The things to remember with country wines is that they are not grape wines, should never be compared to grape wines, and should be judged by what they present — not what you expect. My wife and I were in a little winery outside of Kalamazoo and we were luxuriating in the enjoyment of one of the best cherry wines we’d ever tasted when a woman complained in a very loud, shrill voice, “This doesn’t taste like any wine I’VE ever tasted!” You can go through life complaining and being unhappy or you can just relax and enjoy the moment.
What I love about home winemakers is that they experiment. It doesn’t always work out for the better, and folks with good manners will never let their failures cross the lips of a guest. But those successes, those are where the next greatest thing might be found. My wife’s favorite wine is a wine I learned how to make from Martin Benke called Key Lime-A-Rita, which is basically fermented Key Limeade and Triple Sec, and yes, it tastes more like a Margarita than a wine. Some winemaker down in Florida is going to read my blog one day, give Key Lime-A-Rita a try, and sell a thousand cases.
3) What are the indigenous varieties which show the greatest promise for commercial success?
JK Down here in Texas we have a native grape called mustang that is probably the worst tasting grape you’d never want to try, but good winemakers have been making some terrific wines from that sucker for generations. Mustang is a real challenge, but if you can make good wines from that grape you can probably make exceptional wines out of anything else. I’m not saying mustang has great commercial promise, but at least two wineries in Texas sell an awful lot of it.
The reason I mentioned mustang first off is to make clear that a good winemaker can make good wine out of any grape. The problem with many indigenous grapes is that they bear too little fruit to be commercially viable or are too vigorous to be controlled in a vineyard setting. Those that bear well and can be managed on the trellis have largely been exploited in breeding programs or in niche markets.
There are a lot of old grapes — heirloom varieties, if you will — that were once popular but would now be extinct if not for a few breeders, memorial vineyards, enthusiasts, and the clonal germplasm repositories at Geneva, NY and Davis, CA. The ones I am referring to are mostly hybrids of the native species, but some do indeed have at least some V. vinifera genes. From this vast storehouse are some exceptional grapes that make exceptional wines, but would you plant a few acres of Herbemont, Lenoir, Hidalgo, Ives, Brilliant, Lindley, Elvira, Blondin, Clinton, Elvicand, Valhallah, Hopkins, Bailey, Husmann, Munson, or XLNTA when customers are still asking for Merlot? It would take a gutsy person to do so, but there are some such folks out there. I have tasted commercial wines of most of these grapes (still looking for Elvicand and Hopkins). Most of these grapes will grow fine down here in the Pierces Disease belt (PD), where V. vinifera bears two crops before dying.
The oldest continuously operated winery in Texas is Val Verde Winery in Del Rio. Their flagship grape is Lenoir, a.k.a. Black Spanish, and they make a darned good table wine and a highly respected (and a bit pricey) port from this grape. They also make a half-dozen V. vinifera wines, but I would bet my soul that they buy that juice from some place where those grapes will grow. And that’s okay. They have to compete, and even though Robert Parker is never going to mention Val Verde Winery (they grow that Lenoir grape!), he does seem to mention all the other wines they sell and that works in their favor.
The truth is that I don’t really know which indigenous species or varieties show the greatest promise for commercialization, but there is some good potential out there. I prefer the blends to the varietals in both vinifera and indigenous wines, so I am only limited by what I can find out there.
4) I believe the time is ripe for the expansion of fruit wines into the market, still and sparkling. As with crafted beers, there is a commercial niche high quality fruit wines can create. Your thoughts?
JK Ken, I think the expansion is well under way. In certain portions of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, every other winery offers a stable of fruit and berry wines, both still and sparkling. I was amazed how good sparkling cherry and raspberry can be. It had simply never occurred to me to make these wines.
Throughout the South you will find many, many commercial wineries offering wines from every fruit grown regionally, including pawpaw, mayhaw, huckleberry, blueberry, elderberry, all varieties of blackberry, currants, star fruit, Clementines, and so on.
Just recently a friend of mine living in the Sierras above Oroville commented on a winery in Chico that makes blackberry, cherry, cranberry, and elderberry wines, as well as a dry mead he likes.
When I lived in San Francisco, on my jaunts down home to San Bernardino I always stopped at a place in Pacheco Valley called Casa de Fruta and picked up a few bottles of pomegranate, raspberry and apricot wines. When down your way, I always tried to stop at Chaucer’s Winery in Soquel, CA, and pick up a bottle of Olallieberry wine, arguably the best blackberry that ever grew, and a bottle of raspberry mead.
I think the wines have been here for a long time. What has happened, though, is that the commercial wine world, especially in California, is 99.9% invested in V. vinifera and that is what rules the roost. Wine writers perpetuate the “If it isn’t vinifera, it isn’t wine” mantra by completely ignoring non-vinifera and non-grape wines. In the PD belt of the South, where V. vinifera vines only survive for 3-5 years, non-vinifera grapes are widely grown and their wines widely consumed. Indeed, muscadine is the grape of the South, and people who drink muscadine have no problem with fruit wines.
5) What are the cultural, practical and gustatory obstacles to the commercial success of fruit and non-vinifera wines?
JK I think there are few gustatory obstacles. Yes, cherry wines will never taste like any wine that rude woman in Kalamazoo has ever drank, but every good cherry wines tastes, well, good. And if truth be told, I have never met a person that didn’t like blackberry wine. But, if you don’t like fruit, well, then you might want to stick to beer.
On a practical level, the shelf life of fruit wines is comparatively short. If they don’t sell quickly, they probably won’t sell. But fruit wines are almost always shoved into the corner with the lowest traffic in the store because the big money controls the high traffic areas. You have to go looking for fruit wines to even find them, and you won’t go looking if you don’t know they are there. When is the last time you saw an ad or commercial — or just a mention in a movie or TV series — for a fruit or berry wine?
So that brings us to the cultural obstacles. I think most of the above is relevant here, from Robert Parker and all the Parker-wannabes, to the farmer who isn’t going to take a chance on a vine that will grow but which almost no one still living has ever heard of. The truth is that it is a V. vinifera wine world and in America it is all influenced by two or three small valleys in northern California.
I talked to a grower 12-14 years ago who was losing all his vines to Pierces Disease. He asked the agricultural extension agent, who was there at that moment, when was someone going to put some real money into solving the PD problem. The agent said, “When PD reaches California the money will flow.” He was right. PD has reached California and there are big bucks flowing into PD research. But that too is part of the cultural obstacle. PD wasn’t a problem as long as it was just wiping out mom and pop vineyards in the South. But when it threatens Big Wine’s vineyards, then it becomes worthy of notice.
Now, it may just turn out that there isn’t a solution to PD. If that comes to past (and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t), then all those native hybrids I mentioned earlier will start looking really good because many of them are PD tolerant and some are outright resistant. Andy Walker and many others at UC-Davis and elsewhere are looking into that resistance and the genes that may be responsible for it. Until the actual genes responsible are identified and spliced, the next best approach is to cross-breed resistance from the natives into V. vinifera. Once you do that, you then cross back to vinifera repeatedly until you have just enough residual resistance to protect the vinifera without messing up the flavor too much with that pesky American muck. It’s a perfectly understandable approach. Another approach would be to simply plant Lenoir, or Herbemont, or Bailey, or….
Having spent megatons of money convincing Americans that they are mere commoners if they don’t drink toasted oaked Chardonnay, it would be, well, insincere — would it not? — to retrain the palate to like something less noble. God forbid we should stoop to anything so low as Carlos muscadine, persimmon wine or — dare I say it? — Key Lime-A-Rita.
So, bottom line, my interest is in the clear-headed promotion of commercial alternatives to Vitis vinifera. I have enjoyed a number of pear and apple-based wines recently, and was blown away by the quality. It seems to me that the success of off-dry Rieslings, for example, the dumbing down, the homogenization of vinifera wines, especially at lower price points (the Two Buck Chuck Effect!), combined with new marketing niches now possible because of the revolution of crafted beers, all dovetail into new opportunities for non-vinifera expressions.
JK Ken, I couldn’t agree more with your last opinion. Despite the best efforts of Big Wine to dictate what we should like, the truth is that not all people are sheep. You can burn out on any taste after a while. The success of all those soft drinks on the cola aisle is based on the fact that people get tired of Coke or Pepsi or 7-Up all the time. The same is true of wines. But I fear Big Wine is trying to control that desire for diversity.
Take, for example, Arbor Mist’s fruit flavored vinifera wines. I counted 11 different flavors the other day at the market, and their success validates your instincts. There is a niche out there for fruit wines and Arbor Mist is jumping in to fill it. But why not sell the real fruit wine? Why flavor Merlot with blackberry when you could sell blackberry wine? The truth probably has something to do with a glut of grapes on the market. Merlot is cheap. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a Two-Buck Chuck Merlot.
Now, I do understand why there is at least some grape in most fruit wines. Having made the real McCoy of every wine Arbor Mist offers, I will be the first to point out that most fruit wines are light in body. I myself usually add about 12-20% grape juice by volume to my fruit musts to thicken that lightness. But the difference between adding fruit flavors to vinifera wines or vinifera to fruit wines actually is significant. Arbor Mist Peach Chardonnay tastes too peachy, like that banana wine adulterated with banana extract. The consumer who tastes it and then tastes an excellent, real peach wine may well be disappointed in the real thing. Arbor Mist is tricking the consumer into tasting what he or she expects peach wine to taste like rather than presenting the real flavor of peach wine. This, in the long run, may well work against the real fruit wine producers.
You mentioned the Two-Buck Chuck Effect on pricing; let’s call this the Arbor Mist Effect on flavor expectations. The former has been positive for the consumer. The latter is just deception. Deception may be profitable and it may taste good, but it’s still deception. It is important to remember that whenever deception is practiced, someone gets hurt. In this case, it is probably the real fruit winemakers who suffer. The niche they belong in is being largely filled by Big Wine (Arbor Mist is owned by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world) and manipulated so that many consumers will reject real fruit wines as “lacking flavor.”
I’d love to be wrong. I don’t think Arbor Mist will steal established customers away from fruit wine producers unless it is on the pricing level, but it probably will absorb the bulk of new customers turning to — what did you call it? — “non-vinifera expressions”? But of course they satisfy the change with more vinifera. The fruit wine producers may not lose customers, but they certainly won’t gain the many new customers they might have.
I really don’t know where all of this is going, but it worries me. If there were suddenly a demand for Norton, would Big Wine plant Norton, buy established wineries producing Norton, or follow the Arbor Mist model and sell Merlot with Norton flavoring added? It’s anyone’s guess.
Great thanks for your reflections on what promises to be a lively cultural conversation in the coming years.
I was on my way to the noisy world of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. Two stops were planned along the way: Parducci in Ukiah, Mendocino County, and The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Oregon. Neither destination would disappoint. Indeed, each in its own way would be a revelation. Let me explain…
Jason Lett would never claim that he possesses a near-encyclopedic winemaking knowledge. It is irrelevant to his mission of crafting some of the finest wines made in the US. What he does know of winemaking has come, I would argue, from two equally important and complementary sources: his father, the legendary David Lett, and Jason’s own explorations, his university training, the experience gained from producing his first label, Black Cap, and that he assumed responsibilities for winery and the viticulture in 2005.
Yet it must be difficult to grow up the son of a legend. How to find your own way? After all, a father has his ways and methods, he holds onto his truths with a firm hand. What the son first learns is how to do things the right way. Much later comes a son’s wisdom to do things his way. This is both homage and the only way forward. If I may be permitted a possibly undeserved familiarity, Jason’s quiet confidence tells me that The Eyrie Vineyards’ second iteration will continue to produce wines not only consistent with its historically exemplary standards, but will excel. And since 2005 Jason has not missed a beat. As he said to me, “Even the clamp on a hose, if not properly tightened, can affect the wine. There are hundreds of things to consider.” What he did not say was that such a refined, intimate winemaking knowledge was his. But, humility aside, it is.
A brief gloss on The Eyrie Vineyards: All of there vines are on their own rootstocks, including David Lett’s original plantings from 1965. It must add something to the taste of the wine. Hard to say. It may be that American rootstocks used for grafting express subtle distinctions in their rooting systems as opposed to varieties growing on their own.
Organic from the beginning, The Eyrie Vineyards are not irrigated, forcing roots deeper. (About this readers may learn more in part 2.) Oak is of particular disinterest. Chardonnay sees around 3% new oak. Jason is looking for only for a little help with color. The rule is that the fruit is never to be outshone by wood. To this end Eyrie continues to use barrels decades old. More, The Eyrie Vineyards is the expression of four properties that range in elevation from 200 to 900 feet, all in the Dundee Hills. Jory soils dominate. They are composed of a lighter red clay and differ in important ways from Willakenzie, a richer soil, heavier clay. Though phylloxera was introduced to the Dundee Hills in the ’80s, it has never been a problem for Eyrie. The thought is that this is because they don’t rototill. Phylloxera seems to need rototilling to expand its range. Native organic flora encouraged at Eyrie includes weeds as they are part of the local ecosystem; yet they are kept in control because of the flourishing region-specific biodiversity growing alongside. Again, all of this will be learned in part 2.
For those traveling near McMinnville, Oregon, take an hour out of your day to visit The Eyrie Vineyards tasting room which may be found at 935 NE 10th Ave. Full details may be found here.
A final note: Special thanks to Ben, a resourceful individual working for Hertz in Medford. In addition to rescuing stranded motorists, he is a home beer brewer. Should his product finally come to market, I’ll be first in line.
In The Winery
Before heading out to the vineyards, Jason shows me his parents’ original barrel room, the greater space in which the tasting room is situated.
Admin What was this building originally?
Jason Lett Some gal showed up one day and told me it was a originally a Hershey’s chocolate plant during the Second World War. This is the first room that my folks occupied, back in 1970. They had plans drawn up for a winery to be built on the hillside overlooking the vineyard. But no bank would loan them any money because they were just a couple of crazy kids. So they found this place. It was vacant at the time. It was a perfect winery. There are two layers of cork in the walls and ceiling. There used to be windows but my dad blocked them up. He wanted to create the dynamics of a cave in here. It is very cool in here. The thermal mass in this building is the wine itself. There are 10,000 gallons of thermal mass in here. That keeps the temperature low. And the concrete floor.
All the barrel cleaning is done in here? And the waste water, how is that treated?
JL Yes, we clean the barrels here. The city of McMinnville invested a lot of money about 10 years ago in a processing plant to handle the stuff and get it back downstream in a good condition.
Did the city build it with the wine industry in mind?
JL No, it was for the capacity of the town. But they over-built it. A lot of the towns around here didn’t have the foresight. It’s a good place to have a winery just from a green perspective. You know, the streets are already here, the water infrastructure is already here; we take the chlorine out of the water with a big charcoal filter; the three-phase comes in on the wire; we don’t have to drop a big infrastructure onto farmland in order to make wine here. The infrastructure is already here. From a green perspective wineries should probably be built in town.
You were asking about barrel cleaning, well, when my folks moved into this room, they came here with 30 new French oak barrels. And here are several of them. We’re still making wine in these original barrels from the 1970 vintage. Anything with the letter ‘S’ and a number lower than 30 is from the original vintage. Dad came up with some very good techniques for keeping barrels in sanitary condition through the years.
What kind of techniques?
JL That’s a trade secret! (laughs) The Pinot Gris is done in unjacketed tanks. We do inoculate with Champagne yeast, good old EC-1118. The great thing about it is that it is very neutral. It doesn’t really impose any of its own flavors. Seems to me that if you’re trying to talk about the vineyard you don’t want to necessarily want to impart flavors from the yeast. The very best case scenario is when you can use the yeast from the vineyard. We’re successfully able to do that with smaller fermentations, but with these big tanks, if they start going sideways, it’s a major investment. I’m a little bit more conservative in my winemaking approach with the Pinot Gris, the Pinot Blanc, than I am with the Pinot Noirs.
And how often do you top off?
JL Right now we’re doing it every two weeks. When summer comes we’ll start doing it every 10 days. I like to stay on top of that. We’ve certainly had longer topping periods in the past. Dad preferred a more oxidative winemaking style. One of the nice things about these older barrels is that they are really tight. They don’t transfer oxygen as much as a new barrel would. Certain vintages, like the 2008, we had to keep in barrel forever! That was a big, structured vintage. It needed a lot longer time to open up. And since we’re topping at a tighter interval, they weren’t getting as much oxygen contact that way; so it just took its time getting that micro-oxygenation through the walls of an old barrel. Most of the cooperage in here is French; we’ve got a little bit of Oregon oak. That’s kind of fun.
What do you get from them?
JL A lot of oak. With Oregon oak you have to use it homeopathically. The flavors are great, but they are so strong. Our cooper who does these, every thing is three-year air dried. He’s also doing a rock salt soak in these. It pulls some of the tannin before he assembles the barrel. And they’re incredibly well-made. Since we’re keeping barrels around for the texture they impart rather than the flavor, the quality of the construction is probably the key point for us. The barrels here… there’s one from 1993, here’s one from 1970; this is a mid-1980s barrel; these guys down here are from the late 1990s… we probably have some of the oldest cooperage in the United States in continual service here. Well, shall we run out to the vineyard?
On The Road To The Vineyard
You know, I was talking to the winemaker at Ridge, Eric Baugher. And he told me that for their Montebello they use a very complex mix of French and American barrels. But the American oak is sourced from a number of very specific forests each of which he claimed imparted different characteristics to the finished wine. What do you think?
JL From a botanical point of view, oaks are probably the most prone to hybridizing of any broad leaf tree in that group. There are 200 recognized species of oak in the United States. Red oak versus White oak is a woodworker’s term. It really doesn’t have anything to do with flavor. They just cross like crazy. You’ll see some funny little shrub oak in Colorado, in the Four Corners, it’s a White oak. The Quercus garryana we have here in Oregon is also a White oak; but they are incredibly different species. I just like to make a wine in barrels made from oaks on the other side of the hill!
In terms of looking at an oak mix, oak is such a limited part of the flavor profile of our wines that I don’t obsess about it too much. We kind of go counter to the trend. If you’re employing more oak in your blend then you’re probably going to more toward a darker toast because those tend to give you the coffee and cocoa tones that integrate better. This is all well and good. But for our style we find that the light toasted barrel is preferable. For one thing, you get less bubbling, and issues inside the barrel, but also in a very moderate new oak program – ours is about 5% – those flavors actually integrate better. In a high concentrations, yes, it’s like licking a plank. But to mix one of those barrels into 25 neutral barrels and all of a sudden you get this beautiful support from the wood without any obvious or overt oak signature.
The valley floor here used to be covered with Quercus garryana, Oregon White oak, before colonization. The Native Americans used to do controlled burns to maintain clearings, but the whole white oak ecosystem was basically a whole complex of plants and creatures that were adapted to the White oak, living in conjunction with it. Now we have isolated pockets of trees on the hillsides. You don’t see it so much on the valley floor; the ecosystem is very different.
The White oak is a massive tree. It has a lot of branches as opposed to the European oak which are grown in rows close together so they don’t branch very much on the bottom. They tend to be very slender and long, and very straight. Ours are almost exactly the opposite. It takes a bit of a different approach to make barrels out of Oregon oak. But Oregon oak is distinctly different from what people call ‘American’ oak, most of which comes from the South Eastern part of the United States, from a warmer climate, longer growing season. The oak tends to have wider rings and have a little bit more of that vanilla, coconut characteristic.
It’s ironic to talk about the oak signature at Eyrie!
Well, coming from California it is increasingly difficult to find lighter-oaked wines. Fortunately I live in Santa Cruz. Our AVA has a quite a number of cool climate sites. Wines tend to be marked by restraint. There is some experimentation. But it is not a particularly wealthy AVA, and holdings tend to be small. New technologies are not immediately embraced owing to their expense.
JL Well, if technology made great wine, then jug wines would taste better than artisanal wines. In fact, the opposite is true. In the end, what determines great wine is not the amount of technology you can throw at it but the amount of personal dedication. And I’m not sure why that reflects in the flavor, but it seems to.
I think that a lot of the larger producers realized a long time ago that they could not win the battle over artisanal quality. So what began to happen, I think, is that it dawned on them to limit, through the use of wine critics and to some degree even the Wine Institute, the general development of consumer wine education, the deepening of the understanding of wine. Larger producers seemed to say “If we can keep the consumer dumb as a post then we’ll have a chance in the marketplace.”
JL (laughs) You’re a subversive, Ken!
Very much so! (laughs) So what has essentially happened is that the California wine industry is to some degree dedicated to the proposition that the consumer remain ignorant. That means they needn’t worry about the use or consequences of technological fixes as such. That many wines approach the character coca cola and the unctuous mouthfeel of cheeseburgers is not really a problem. The consumer is always right, after all.
JL So we’re in the Dundee Hills. There is a big wheat field over there. That is the last big chunk of ungraped land on the hillside. And that’s owned by Old Man McDougall. He must be 150 by now. But he’s holding out. He’s not going to let these fancy grape people plant everywhere! And I actually love that. It really reminds me of the way the hill was when I was growing up. We were a very, very minor part of the farming scheme in Oregon back in those days. Grape growing was not a very big deal. There was a huge and diverse agriculture around us. Lots of cherries, cane berries, prunes, and, except for Old Man McDougall, most of that has been supplanted by grapes.
It looks like McDougall’s property has a southerly aspect as well.
JL He’s got a beautiful piece of land. It’s right next to the Stoller vineyard. I’m sure that Bill [Stoler] just looks over the fence and just drools. Yes, it faces South and rolls East, a great exposure for grapes.
End Of Part One
Part 2 will begin with our arrival at the vineyard.
Ryan Crane owner and winemaker at Kerloo Cellars and Sean Boyd, owner and winemaker of Rôtie Cellars are the best of friends and demonstrate a cooperation that is one of the finest features of the Walla Walla winemaking and wine growing community. Each producer helps the other in ways both great and small. Though all folks are committed to winning in the market place, those in the wine business there understand that the success of one is not possible without assistance and labor of all. As Ryan Crane put it, “We’re all in this together.”
And so it was that Mr. Boyd provided me an introduction to Mr. Crane, just as the electric Abigail Schwerin of Sapolil Cellars had pointed me to David Stephenson of Stephenson Cellars And had I the time for a longer stay, I am certain the chain of referrals would have gone on uninterrupted. But even so, the Crane/Boyd connection is an unusual one. Each moved from the Seattle area at roughly the same time. Each had been ‘discovered’ when still winemaking assistants. And, most amusingly, each had their wines rates by the same critic. And Ryan Crane received the better score. So what? As you will read, Ryan was quick to point out the success Sean Boyd has recently enjoyed. I must say it has made the work I’ve done in Walla Walla a great pleasure.
Admin Hi, Ryan. Are you watching the World Cup?
Ryan Crane Hey, Ken. No, I’m not. This is kind of wild, I’m actually composing an email to a dude in Bangkok. He wants to buy 20 cases of my wine! This is the first deal I’ve done overseas. He’s got a registration number for a logistics company. They’ll pick up the wine here at the winery and ship it to Bangkok.
I’ll be damned! Congratulations. How did that happen?
RC He had my wine at El Gaucho in downtown Seattle. It seems he’s getting married, and he wants to pour our wines. So, I’m working on the costs of shipping the wine to Bangkok.
I understand you and Sean Boyd are good friends.
RC Sean and I have the same sort of story. He’s originally from Seattle as well. We both wanted to get into the wine industry. I come from a background in distribution and sales. I think Sean was more on the enjoying drinking side; I was too. He moved to Walla Walla about a year before I did. We basically packed up everything, quit our jobs. I went to wine school here and just started diving into the wine business.
Were you one of Billo Naravane’s students?
RC No, I was in the last class of Mr. Stan Clarke. He’s passed. He was awesome, the core of the program when it first started.
When was the program started at College Cellars?
RC Boy… I graduated two years ago. I think it started in 2004? Stan and Myles Anderson from Walla Walla Vintners were the two that kind of started the whole program. Myles then stepped away and they hired another director to handle the program.
Was the program designed to turn out winemakers? Viticulturalists?
RC It’s both. The first year is all in viticulture; the second year is all in winemaking. It’s a two year program. Stan taught all the viticulture classes and Mike Moyer taught all the winemaking classes.
I see. So you could just walk off the street and get what, a BA?
RC It’s basically an Associates degree in Sciences on paper. But its an Oenology and Viticulture certificate out of Walla Walla. A graduate is free to pursue either. I love making the juice.
Yes. I was fortunate enough to be given a bottle of your 2007 Syrah by Nicole Rivinius of Rôtie. But as rare as it is, I find it heartbreaking to open it!
RC We’ll take care of that. I want you to get an idea of what I’m up to, my styles. I’ll ship you a bottle of each of my ’08s, both Syrahs and a Tempranillo. And you’ve got the historic ‘07 wine. You can pick and choose.
Damn! Thank you very much! You and Sean are very generous. Are your wines made exclusively from grapes within the Walla Walla AVA?
RC I source outside the AVA as well. My philosophy with varietals themselves is that I want the best, from where they grow the best. So I make unique varietals across the board. For Syrah I’m a cooler climate guy. For me Syrah is going to be Walla Walla all the time. I get my grapes from Va Piano were I work, and make the my wines. And then I also pull from Stone Tree vineyard, a remarkable vineyard. I love it. I also pull a little Tempranillo from here, Les Collines, block 6. And then I pull some Malbec from a little bit north of Red Mountain. Sean and I share some Grenache from Alder Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills. And I’ve got some Cabernet coming on board this year from Bacchus Vineyard, block 10.
I am fascinated by the Walla Walla winemaker’s philosophy. You understand what the AVA offers, but your creative imaginations and tasting sophistication demands that they source from outside the AVA. You folks don’t seem to be concerned about a general Washington State AVA designation. You just want to make the best wines you are able. I like that approach to Walla Walla.
RC The one thing that’s a little bit different on my side from a stylistic standpoint is that I try to make wines that are true from where they’re grown. I really want to make terroir wines, wines of place. So I don’t blend a lot of wines together. I like to make vineyard designate wines that speak of that site. I ask what style of wine do I want to make. And where in Washington State does that varietal grow best. I then select sites. So, Syrah, I like to make good, concentrated Syrah, but balanced across the board. This is what Walla Walla give me; slow concentration and slow maturity in the vines. At the end of the day, when I make the juice, they tend to be really concentrated and well balanced.
With Tempranillo, I’m trying to pay homage to Rioja-style Temps from within the state. I want to make wines that are palate challenging across the board. Just as there are cooler and warmer Spanish Riojas, I want to source the same here in Washington State and blend both together to make the Rioja style: brighter fruits, good tannins, good acid, low alcohol. With Malbec, which traditionally needs some heat to get ripe, I’m kind of edgy, on the cut. I crop it at 1.67 tons per acre. And it’s just stoopid, I mean concentrated just off the chart. So, I like to make vineyard-driven wines.
Where do you do your fermentations?
RC I make all the wine, I’m bonded, out of Va Piano. Sean is bonded at Waters, I’m bonded at Va Piano.
And your distribution circle?
RC I have no distributors. It’s all done through me, Ryan Crane. I haven’t picked up anything yet. I’m really in no hurry. When I moved here, just like everyone else, my wife and I would go out and taste in Portland and Cali and Washington State, and a lot of times you walk into a winery and you don’t even know who the winemaker is, you have no idea of what is going on. For me, I wanted to create and carry the brand. I sell the wines by appointment only, because at the end of the day, my hope is that every bottle of Kerloo Cellars on the table the people can say they met the winemaker, they shared a glass of wine with me, they tasted a barrel sample with me; I think the story drives the brand. I’m really focussed on that part right now, especially in the early vinages of Kerloo wines. I’m in no hurry. And I don’t have much juice. Thankfully we’ve had some good press; we’re moving relatively quickly. I have it in the books that I will have, in the next four years, three distributors. But for now it is just me.
One of my disappointments at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference was the absence of so many small producers. Many were not even referred to in the official literature. Why is this? Is it all about dollars? After all, some of the most interesting wines are being made by the smaller producers. Why should we hear so much about the big guys?
RC I don’t know. Some of the events were definitely driven by the bigger boys. Yes, it’s capital-driven. But I think there is a small core of us little guys that are staying a little out of the mainstream, that are just trying to grow our brands by word of mouth. As for the reasons, I didn’t really hear anything about tastings with the bloggers coming into town, or of any events. For example, there is an event coming up featuring distributors, big wine buyers from all around the country; we were invited to that only because I know the director running it. The little guys just aren’t known. And when a tasting comes to town we may not even know about it. We aren’t necessarily invited to anything.
The Wine Alliance could do a better job, especially with the small guys. But they ask for $2000 every year just to get your name on a small list. For us it is not worth it to write the check. Because it sometimes happens that Boom! Ken Payton comes to town and we end up talking. And truth be told, I think one of the cool things about the small guys is that everyone wants to talk to the smaller brands.
One of the difficulties is that a certain understanding is established between the major wine press and the big guys should the former spend only time with the latter. I don’t want to name names, but the presence of new oak was obvious in many of the wines I tasted. Who can afford new oak? Well, principally the big guys. But that theirs are the ones that are often tasted, a picture or model or standard emerges of the AVA that is uses lots of new oak. That feature then becomes an element of the dominant taste profile. The risk is that smaller brands can become pressured to convert to a barrel program against their better judgement.
RC For me it’s not really about that. They are going to sell more wine because they have more wine to sell. I really want to get the people who want to meet small brands, who want to be a part of the up and coming generation of winemakers in Washington State and, obviously, Walla Walla. I’m patient. And then there’s Brandon at L’Ecole, he runs the wine club there, he’s a huge fan of my wines, and I get many phone calls from people he points my way. Brandon Kubrock is the Tasting Room Manager; the Wine Club Manager is Jaime Chalk.–Admin] The cool thing about it is that we have this kind of underground movement, and Sean is the same way, so whenever people come to town everybody knows who to send them to. People find us. That’s a cool way to do it.
In what direction do think the AVA is headed?
RC It will continue to expand. I think the growth in the past 5 years has been relatively fast. We’re, I think, 140 bonded wineries now. Within the next three years there will be another 50 new wineries opening. I can say, from a numbers standpoint, that ever since Kerloo opened the door, and Rotie, I haven’t seen that many other wineries put in licenses to open here. It has slowed a little because it is such a capital-driven market. But we will continue to grow, perhaps not as fast as we have the last few years.
And from the vineyard side of things, Walla Walla is tricky. There are some really good sites here, and there are some really poor vineyard grounds as well. That part of the business will grow more slowly. I don’t see a whole lot of vineyards opening or starting to plant right now. It also has to do with land allocation and parcel development. Depending where you are at in Walla Walla, some parcels are only divided into 40 and 80 acres plots. Buying 40 acres at $700,000, plus putting in a vineyard after that, we’re talking some crazy cash.
Who are the people who have opened up and are opening up wineries? Are they from out of state? Are they from within Washington State? Walla Walla itself?
RC I think it is a mixture. I’m originally from Seattle, born in Minneapolis, but have lived in Seattle my whole life, so I’m a Stater. Sean is a Stater. A lot of them are from within the state itself. Sinclair Estate Vineyard is Microsoft owned, but they live in Seattle as well. Corlis is within state. Maybe even most are within state.
There must be just a modest number of viticultural managers and vineyard consultants in Walla Walla. Some use Dr. Kevin Pogue, for example. Are there so few that the 140 wineries all share the same small coterie of consultants?
RC It is pretty much the same group. Of the handful of vineyards that are selling within Walla Walla, yes, everyone talks to the same vineyard manager, absolutely.
But does that mean that canopy management is roughly the same? That the layout of the vineyards is roughly the same?
RC In a general sense, yeah; I mean, it’s all on VSP. There is some Sprawl up at Les Collines. There is really no other trellising that’s getting played with except for at Morrison Lane. They’re playing with some Scott Henry and some double tier quad lateral action. So, most of the vineyards, all of the ones I work with, are on VSP. So, in an overall sense, most of it is getting managed in much the same way. Outside of how much you decide to leave from a fruit standpoint.
What is it that Cayuse does differently? Or are they within the same frame?
RC Well, Christophe is doing the VSP system as well, as far as I know. He hangs the cordons a little lower to the ground to get some more heat from the rocks, obviously. I think he’s hanging one to two clusters per shoot. He’s biodynamic. So, no spray program, no pesticides, that I’m aware of. But he’s very secretive. So this is all guessing. He’s a very cool guy. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. Half the people in Walla Walla hate him, half the people like him. I think he’s a cool dude. I would say that his sites are truly terroir. His is all native yeast fermentations from what I know. They tend to be really high pH, low acid, kind of stinky wines. That’s all I know. I don’t think he is doing anything out of the ordinary, apart from Biodynamics.
My real question was whether you felt there was a sufficient multiplicity of voices giving advice to the emerging AVA. Can those currently available handle all the exigencies and differences of the multiple terroirs available in Walla Walla?
RC Oh, yeah. I think that’s the most exciting part, frankly. If you look at two of my wines, the one that you got, the ‘07, that’s basically a two vineyard blend, 80% Va Piano, 20% Les Collines. That’s a pretty big, powerful wine. I don’t want to say feminine, but Les Collines is definitely more feminine than Va Piano. My point is that I try to make two distinct Syrahs. Some people like Syrahs that are a little bit bigger, more powerful, with a little bit more viscosity. And Les Collines is like that beautiful lady in a red dress walking to the theater. Those sites, Les Collines and Va Piano, are literally four miles apart and the fruit is totally different. That’s the beauty of Walla Walla.
What is it that readers should know about Kerloo Cellars wines?
RC My goal is to make wines that are true to varietal. I’m not going to make wines that have 1% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon… I really want the varietal to speak for itself. It is a harder way to make the juice, but that is my way. So you’ll see a 100% commitment to true varietal wines with Kerloo wines across the board. What that gives me is palate challenging wines from carefully selected sites. I don’t make oak bombs. I use oak minimally, usually about 20% new wood. Right now I’m at 22% new wood with my ’08s. My Malbec and Grenache are at about 25% new wood. Everything is going to be under 30%.
When we started the brand, we meaning my wife and I, we asked how did we want to do this? I already had a style in mind. We wanted to build a brand similar to us: Simple and Sexy. My goal is never to walk away from the project. I’ll always be making the juice. I want everyone to know that. I’m not looking to hire someone to take over the program because I always want to be the face of the brand. And we’re only going to make 1,500 cases max. Between 200 and 400 cases of that is going to go to the wine club. The 1000 cases left are going to be the only things you can get. It’s a chance to be exclusive and really give our customers a chance to get to know us on a personal basis.
While I was in Walla Walla, it was often been pointed out to me that one of Sean’s Rôties received 2 stars and your Kerloo received 3 stars at a particular tasting. Why do you think this happened? Actually, I think it was Sean who first brought it up!
RC (laughs) That’s hilarious. This is kind of a funny story. A wine writer, Sean Sullivan, out of Seattle, a very cool guy, he found me way back in the day. I haven’t been making wine that long, but he was there right when I started; I mean, I had 8 barrels when he came out and tasted with me. I had just put my ’08s to barrel, I think. So he did a focus report on both me and Sean [Boyd of Rôtie) about assistant winemakers starting their own brands in Walla Walla. I'm not totally sure why the ratings were different. Sean goes to bottle a lot earlier than I do. I'm guaranteed 16 to 22 months in barrel and then another 4 to 6 months in bottle before I release. So I'm not sure if it was that the wine tasted more mature. I don't know if my style is more to the liking of Sean Sullivan's palate. I would say my '07s are bigger and have more weight than Sean's just because of our styles. In '07 I tried to make little bit bigger wines. And I think that Sean's are a little more lean and fresh, on the brighter side. Mine are a little bit more on the massive side. But I didn't even ask Sean [Sullivan] about it.
But Sean [Boyd] got a 94 with his ‘07 Southern in the Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator, I’m not sure which one. Hey, dude, that ain’t too shabby! The only other thing is that I’m better looking than Sean! And I think I have a better sense of humor; I throw things around a little bit more than old Boydie. So maybe the additional star was for my shining personality!
So whose wife is the better cook?
RC (laughing) Well, my wife took off this morning on a business trip to the fine town of Cleveland. So she’s not here. Annie is the better cook, his wife. No doubt about it. But Sean is a better cook than me as well. I barbeque just as good as Sean. But Sean is a little better cook than I am. I just tell him, “Don’t worry, Sean. You cook, I’ll make the wine!”
Well, it was a great pleasure to speak to you, Ryan.
RC You too, Ken. Take care.
I met Yashodhan (Billo) Naravane (right) at the Three Rivers Winery. He was member of one of many panel discussion organized, in part, by the good offices of the Wine Bloggers Conference spread among wineries throughout the Walla Walla Valley. Though meant to be instructional in character, centering on explaining the basics of the Walla Walla AVA, it became very clear to me that this gentleman was no ordinary panelist. It turned out uttering generalities is not where Billo excels. His is a very disciplined mind, a curious mind, exulting in a profound natural intellectual freedom and flexibility rarely encountered outside of a university setting. He and his equally gifted brother, Pinto (left), founded Rasa Vineyards in 2007. And in just a few short years they have demonstrated an understanding of viticulture and winemaking which repeats in yet another field their considerable academic achievements. But inasmuch as this is an interview with Billo, we may read a fragment of his CV below:
“Billo has worked in various technical and managerial positions in the Computer Industry for over a decade and a half. Billo received his BS in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from MIT and his MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Billo finished his MS in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in June 2008 and is currently running the Viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College.”
But as I was to learn, the CV is by no means complete. As you will read below, Billo is launching new projects that will require significant modification of the thumbnail bio above. Please enjoy my encounter with Billo, without a doubt, the smartest man in the room.
Admin So let’s jump into the middle of things. Tell me about your wines.
Billo Naravane We were interested from the beginning in building a luxury brand. This was when the economy was good. So, we initially poured our wines for MWs, and told them that the price points [for QED and Principia] were $65 and $75. We asked for an honest critique of the wines. We got great feedback, they were said to be beautiful wines, worth the money; but the economy was not the greatest. They suggested pricing it a little bit lower, it might be to our advantage. So we had to go back to our investors, and we decided to price the wine, the QED, at $50. Now, $50 is expensive. We’re not delusional. But that wine I think offers an extremely great value for the money.
We’ve had it in blind tastings with some of the very best wines in the world: Guigal’s La Landonne, La Mouline, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, against Grange, you name it, it’s been blind tasted against it. It really holds its own against the best wines in the world. So, that wine is 94% Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 3% Mourvèdre. It is mostly Les Collines; the Syrah is about 85% from Les Collines Vineyard.
I hear Les Collines being referred to constantly.
BN Les Collines is a great vineyard. It’s a huge property, 300 acres, or so, I think are planted up there. There is a wide degree of variation within the different blocks of the vineyard. It is not an homogenous terroir. Some blocks I really like; there are two we sourced from for the ‘07. One block had this really earthy, mineraly, almost truffle-type character underlying the core of fruit. The fruit is this black berry, black cherry on the Syrah, but has this depth to it. The aromatics are fantastic form that property as well. The finish is sometimes not the greatest. The finish is nice; it’s just not as long as we would like it for a high-end Syrah. So we have to address that via blending.
I’m a big fan of blending in that when done correctly you can achieve an aromatic complexity and a palate complexity, and broaden the finish out, rather than using just one specific wine. Now the trick, however, is that we’re also big fans of terroir, so how do you preserve the Walla Walla sense of terroir in a blended wine. That tricky to do. Blending is highly non-linear. You can put in 2% to 3% of something yet change it by 30%. So you have to be very careful not to obliterate a sense of place, of terroir in blending. But what we’re trying to do, being technically minded, we go through every permutation in the blending process. We do all the samples. Me and my brother then go through all of them, we argue back and forth, and then we decide on the final blend, whatever tastes the best and still preserves that terroir of Walla Walla or of any other region.
In that year, 2007, it was 94% Syrah, 3% of Grenache, Mourvèdre. In 2008 the blend has been different. Our QED will always be a Grenache/Mourvèdre blend, but the percentages will be different based on what the year gave us. 2007 was a very warm year, so we got riper fruit versus 2008, which was a pretty cool year. So, stylistically, our Rasa wines are more along the lines of French wines rather than California. We are huge, huge Francophiles. We love the great Rhone wines, Bordeaux, and Burgundy as well. But we don’t make a Pinot Noir… yet! We amy do so in the future.
Best of luck with a Pinot!
BN We were introduced to a gentleman who owns a small block of Pinot Noir, so we may try it out, not this year but next. Pinot is not something I’ve worked with yet. I’m really kind of anxious to try it.
That reminds me. Rasa is the rough Indian equivalent of the word terroir. Could you explain the distinctions between the two concepts, if any?
BN So the actual root of the word Rasa, it’s from Sanscrit, technically, though it can be used in a couple of different contexts, in one context it means essence. For us that is essence of soil and variety. And almost in a slang parlance, it can mean juice. So we have this essence and juice concept that is the closest word we’ve found that is also relatively easy to remember. Some of the related Indian words can get quite long and complex, hard to remember. We were looking for a word that tied together wine and our heritage. My uncle is the one who thought of it. He speaks Sanskrit. He’s not a wine aficionado, but after explaining what we were doing, about terroir and why it was so important to us, he thought up the word. We fell in love with it. It’s a great name! (laughs)
We’re originally from India; me and my brother were born in India. Our parents moved to New Jersey when I was turning 6, my brother was 8. We just wanted to have a tie-back to our heritage and still have something that was easy to remember, and with a wine connotation.
You mentioned that you initially tasted widely throughout the Walla Walla AVA. And we know the AVA is still in the process of being defined, the proper terroir for which grape, and so on. So, what are the relative merits and demerits of having a Washington State designation as opposed to having a Walla Walla AVA designation? In a conversation with Sean Boyd of Rôtie he said that the AVA designation, though not irrelevant, will not necessarily result in the best wines. He is willing to sacrifice, especially for so young an AVA, a specific designation in favor of an overall quality.
BN I tend to agree with Sean. In our 2007 QED we did source the Grenache and Mourvèdre from Minick Vineyard over in Prosser. We also had a little Lewis Vineyard Syrah in there, which is also from Prosser, over in Yakima. Now, Grenache and Mourvèdre are not best for our area. Let me put it this way: I haven’t tasted great Grenache and Mourvèdre grown here in Walla Walla. Now, this is all price point dependent. I’m talking about a $50 and up price point wine. You can definitely grow good enough quality Grenache and Mourvèdre here for a $20 bottle. I’m not questioning that. But for a quality that you want to deliver at that higher price point, we’ve just not found that yet in Walla Walla. So we have to look elsewhere. And we found this great cooler climate site. We would much rather get this cooler climate fruit. We like the acidity to be preserved naturally, and to get that balanced flavor development, rather difficult at a super warm site. The cooler sites tend to give wines that are much more elegant and refined.
We don’t want to be making wines that are 16% alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with those types of wines; they’re just not stylistically what were going after. I still do enjoy the occasional Australian Shiraz, but I tend to prefer Rhone style for Syrah.
We are after making the best wine possible. While we want to remain as true as possible to terroir, we want to make the best wine possible. For the QED, since we could not get the Grenache and Mourvèdre of a sufficiently high quality, we needed to go outside the AVA. We don’t see that as being contradictory. And if you taste the QED, that is a Walla Walla wine; 91% of the fruit is from here. It is in the blending process that you have to be very judicious to maintain the sense of terroir. One of our blends during the trial phase, when we were going through all the possible blends for the QED, it was roughly 5% Grenache, 7% Mourvèdre, and the balance Syrah. That did not taste like a Walla Walla AVA wine. We did not go with that blend even though it was pretty tasty because it did not taste like it came from the AVA.
You seem to have been blessed with an extraordinary palate. I was reading one of your blog entries about a tasting party you attended some time ago. Could you say something about your tasting history?
BN I’ve been extremely fortunate. When I lived in Austin I had a bunch of very eclectic wine collector friends that I had met throughout the years. It was a wine group we started called the S.O.B.s, the Sons of Bacchus. That name was quite fitting for the group in many respects! They were from many different backgrounds. And some had been collecting for many, many years, 30-40 years. They had these amazing wine cellars. We got to be such good friends that when invited over they would pull these unbelievable bottles of wine: an ‘82 Mouton, ‘61 Lafite, these crazy wines I had the privilege to taste. My brother had a similar experience in New Jersey. We really have tasted, just through really good friends, some of the best wines that have ever been made. One time I got to taste a 1900 Chateau Margaux, and the ‘47 Cheval Blanc, all these wines that are considered to be the best wines ever made. That is one the the biggest strengths that Pinto and I bring to the winemaking process. We are able to recognize, or at least have a perspective, of the best wines ever made. We bring that to our blending and winemaking processes.
It is kind of startling to me how many wine people I’ve met here in Washington, many of them winemakers, who have never tasted a first growth! They probably couldn’t tell you who the first growths are. It’s kind of shocking to me. I would wonder that if you don’t have it in your head what great wine is, then how do you know when you’ve made one?
That’s a very interesting question, and it bears upon the question of wine education, certainly of the average drinker, to the degree there is such a thing. There is a problem within marketing, I would argue, that through a series of commercial feedback loops, they work to maintain a certain level of knowledge, or, alternatively, of ignorance, amongst the wine-drinking public. It is very difficult to know how to challenge that, how to convince people there are depths to wine that can essentially change your life. How would you go about educating people to continue looking and searching for wines of revelation rather than listen to marketers, who have an interest, after all, in limiting that same revelation?
BN Boy, that’s a really good question. I don’t have a good answer. At some point everyone needs to have a friend, or somebody who is into wine, to expose you to an Aha! moment where you taste a great wine that is compelling and kind of leaves you speechless. It is that experience that everybody needs to have. That’s when they realize that there is something to this wine thing. My moment was when I was just starting out in wine. When I lived in California I used to go up to Napa a lot back in 1990 and ‘91. Back then you could go tasting all day in Napa for free. It was great for people just out of college, who had no money and could drink for free. But after doing this, me and my brother started to recognizing the differences between Pinot Noir and Cabernet. Wow, there must be something to this wine thing! It may not be all bullshit!
And then I had an experience in ‘91. I was at a store called Beltramos. I lived only 3 miles from there at the time. I believe it was the ‘86 d’Yquem that was just being released. And they were pouring it in their wine bar. At that time I did not know d’Yquem from anything. There were 3 other Sauternes they were pouring. They cost $3 for a taste of them. The d’Yquem was an additional $10 to taste. At that time I thought, Wow!, I couldn’t afford that. But there was an obviously wealthy woman there. She tried the wines, took a sip out of each one, and left. I asked the guy behind the counter if the d’Yquem was really worth $10 for just a taste? He said it was one of the best wines made in the world, “You should try it.” He let me take over the wines the lady left. The d’Yquem was my Aha! wine. It floored me. I had never ever smelled or tasted such an amazing array of things. It was indescribable. I could not find the words… My perspective on wine changed immediately. I began reading books on wine, going to Napa, not to just get loaded, but to actually meet with winemakers and learn about wine. The passion just went crazy after that. Then we became serious collectors. That was our downfall! (laughs)
To get people jazzed about wine they need to taste something that blows them away, and that they can’t quite put into words. For a friend of mine, it was the ‘90 Lafite. For another it was a Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet. It’s fun to hear people tell you what wine did it for them!
Now, you are also a teacher at the local community college. How did you assume the teaching position, and in the local colleges, how long have viticulture and enology programs been offered?
BN That’s a good question. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. When I was at MIT and Stanford, and U.T. Austin, I had the opportunity to teach mathematics classes here and there. I’ve taught Calculus and Differential Equations, Probability Theory, even a Pascal Programming class, and it was always a lot of fun. And when I moved here to Walla Walla in 2008, I was tasting wine at an event over at Dunam Cellars, and I started talking to a gentleman who, after a half an hour, began asking where I went to school and what was my background. He suddenly asked, “Can you teach viticulture?” “Sure!” When I was at Davis I took all the classes in both viticulture and winemaking. So it happened that the previous instructor had unexpectedly passed recently. So again I began teaching in January of 2009. I took over the viticulture position.
That having been said, I just resigned a couple of weeks ago. I did enjoy the teaching aspect of it quite a bit. Community College is an interesting place. You have students from very wide backgrounds. Teaching in places like Stanford, everybody has a similar background. They have a similar intellectual capacity. At a community college you have students that are super bright to those who I could not quite figure out why they were there. It was a little bit frustrating at times. But I had more frustration with the management there, rather than the students.
I took the tack that I would teach roughly 50% of the viticulture material that we did at Davis. I figured that was a reasonable target. But on no less than 5 separate occasions, the director of the program came in said that I had to dumb down the material. The last time I was approached was in April. I then knew this was not the right place for me to teach. I had tried to make some adjustments. But when eventually I was teaching only 25% of the material they should be learning, I really considered it less than a viticulture class then a viticulture-like class. I didn’t feel good about teaching it. I think the management there is a bit misguided. With the rising competition from other programs at other schools, it makes no sense to take ours out of contention.
At Washington State University (WSU) they recently hired a great, great director, Dr. Henick-Kling. He’s very well known in viticultural and enology circles. He’s going to raise that program up to probably compete with UC Davis at some point. I talked with him, and I was thinking of doing my PhD there. He gave me a run down of his vision where WSU is going to go. If he executes, it’s going to be a great program. It will produce 40 to 50 undergraduates a year, and 10 or so Master students a year. And you’ve got other programs cropping up in Yakima and South Seattle; and then we have Walla Walla Community College that wants to diminish the quality of their program. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a bit short-sighted.
That is unfortunate. They may well be in the process of becoming an irrelevant institution just when the region needs qualified people the most. I hope the transition is not too jarring, but about pesticides, I’ve noticed that a number of vineyards in the valley, even some near Cayuse, a biodynamic property, are fringed or surrounded by apple orchards and other crops that require a substantial use of pesticides. I was told that Japan, for example, demands perfect apples. Many tons come from the Walla Walla Valley. Now, for someone who aspires to something like an organic status for their vineyard, what are the tensions, if any, between fruit farmers and grape growers? I asked this question of the winemaker at Buty. He said that although the fruit trees bordering his property are heavily spray, he just doesn’t pay attention to its impact on his vineyard! So, what is going on?
BN I can’t imagine how there couldn’t be conflict because of the proximity of these orchard sites to vineyards. They really are often on top of one another. As best as could have been done, they have put restrictions on the application and the timing of the sprays. They are not allowed to spray if the winds are more than 3 or 4 miles an hour to contain the drift, for example. Now, on the local basis you can’t tell a specific orchard owner that they can’t spray something that is legal for them to apply. There is this whole question of legality versus sustainability, organic and biodynamic. So just because you can spray something, doesn’t mean you should. And if you are going to spray something, then you’ll probably want to do it in the least invasive manner as possible. So overall there is a great deal of friendship and trust between the growers that they are not going to do something that is going to damage their neighbor’s crop. People here are very cognizant and willing to work together, which is great.
That being said, if you have a biodynamic site and your neighbor does not, how do prevent somethings from coming over? Some drift is inevitable. In fact, the biggest case is probably 2,4-D. This is something a lot of the wheat farmers like to use to contain weeds. However, 2,4-D is extremely toxic to vines. I mean, just a small amount of 2,4-D drift coming onto your vines causes serious damage; you will essentially see the arrest of the photosynthetic capability of the vine once just a little bit of 2,4-D gets drifted onto it. With this we have been seeing a little bit of contention between people using 2,4-D versus people who don’t want it used because it is affecting their grapevines. Some of these things need to be sorted out. But the spirit is generally one of cooperation.
And could you discuss the difficult issue of the local migrant labor force? What is the local mentality?
BN Hmm. Ask 10 people you’ll get 10 different opinions. In general, while I would prefer people to be properly documented – when we came over, we’re immigrants, we had to go through the whole process, the Green Card, the Passport – I would appreciate everybody to do that and respect the laws of the country. But we realize that there are some kinds of labor Americans don’t want to do. The laborers here during harvest are great people. They want to work. They are very industrious. They work hard and get the job done effectively. It needs to be addressed at the Federal level. I’m kind of for giving amnesty for the people who are already here, and getting them appropriately documented. This might curtail future people from coming in. But all the workers I’ve met here have all been tremendously great people.
I must congratulate you and your brother on your extraordinary success. You’ve gone from 0 to 60 in nothing flat. You’re one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever met. Maybe you should become the president of the community college! What are your plans for the future? What are you academic plans, if any?
BN I still do have aspirations to complete my PhD. I have worked in Theoretical Mathematics, kind of at the cusp of Electrical Engineering, so I toy with the idea of going back to mathematics or possibly doing something in Plant Physiology or Viticulture. Right now my focus is to get Rasa to be successful. I think we are headed on the right trajectory. Our wines are improving. We’re just beginning to get positive praise from the critics. We’re having the major critics coming through right now. Jay Miller was here just a couple of weeks ago. Tanzer is coming soon. I can see success on the horizon. Once that is done, I think I’ll pursue my PhD.
An extraordinary pleasure, Billo. Thank you.
BN Thank you, Ken.
Anonymity. It is one of the great difficulties facing the young winemaker. How to break through the wall of advertorial noise, the clamor, protectively surrounding established labels? The quality is there. The dedication, the labor. But absent good fortune or dumb luck, the new kid on the block faces a long slog toward much deserved recognition. And this is as it should be within the marketing ecosystem. Indeed, during my recent participation in the Wine Bloggers Conference there was not an ‘official’ word spoken of a number of very good small producers, Sapolil Cellars, Stephenson Cellars, Kerloo and, of course, Rôtie. To be mentioned in the ‘official’ literature costs money the little guy does not always have. So it falls to independently-minded bloggers, caring only for wines of quality and of story, to pound the pavement to find them.
And Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars has very good karma, if I may put it that way. For so great is the reservoir of good will and reputation for quality he has built up within the Walla Walla wine community that his efforts are on the minds of the locals. It is for this reason tha when researching an entirely different story, I stumbled into Vintage Cellars and met the exquisite Megan Bosworth working there. She told me there was someone I should meet, a certain winemaker I should know about. Come back at 5 o’clock. I did, and met Rôtie’s lovely marketing whiz Nicole Rivinius, also an employee of Vintage Cellars, and Sean Boyd himself. The results may be read here.
Ms. Rivinius worked the next day to diligently arrange a tasting at Rôtie’s freshly minted tasting room. I dragged several important wine writers along, including Hoke Harden, Remy Charest and Joe Roberts. Hoke Harden over at Elixir Vitae has written a very entertaining and informative piece on our experience there.
What follows is an account of the balance of my time with Mr. Boyd. I should mention that I was asked not to reveal certain vineyards from which Mr. Boyd sources some of his fruit. I have honored that request.
In The Tasting Room
Admin I like this. It’s a nice space. Simple.
Sean Boyd This is Nicole’s sanctuary. She sells the stuff; I just make it. Let’s get you some bottles. You have to promise me that you go to Saffron, the best restaurant here in town. Well, that’s the line-up. The VDP, the vin de pays, which means country wine, has some of my most expensive fruit. But it just wouldn’t blend into the Northern. I make about 70 barrels a year, and I sell off about 30. I pick the best barrels that I possible can for the wine club. So nobody really gets this. Let me find you a box…
These are for me? Are you shittin’ me?
SB Yes. You got to taste the wines to see if you like them. You’ve got to open these f*ckers up, shake them up, because they’re ’08s. Open them up in the morning. They’ll hang very well. They’re very tight.
Our white is a Roussanne and Viognier, a 50/50 blend. The ’09s will be 50% Viognier, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Marsanne. Marsanne is my new favorite grape. The ‘08 was a little heavy handed with the Roussanne, I think. I was really trying to dial in the first year by playing with Roussanne. I learned a lot. It’s a very heavy, viscous grape. I stopped it from going through secondary fermentation, so it’s as crisp as they come. It’s definitely elegant, but its got a weighty back-end. You only really realize how much acid it has when you have it with food because it really clears the palate. But you still think of it as having gone through secondary. So adding Marsanne really helped in ‘09. Sommeliers love it, but they’re definitely in the minority. We definitely have a good following with the white, but not everybody is there. Some say, “Ooh! That’s a little different. But there is no oak and no butter!?”
The Southern is 70% Grenache, 15% Mourvédre, 15% Syrah, all from Horse Heaven Hills. That is the one that does well with awards. The Northern, co-fermented Syrah and Viognier, comes from 4 different vineyards. Definitely give these babies some air. Please. Please, please.
These will be much appreciated. I have a bit of a European palate. Living in California can be difficult… And I’m not crazy about grotesque amounts of oak. You know the story…
SB Hopefully you don’t mind grotesque amounts of fruit! Are you going to drink wine tonight?
I’ve got some writing to do. Yes.
SB Here’s one from the last four cases of ‘07 [55% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 10% Mourvédre]. These cases came back from California battered and bruised from the transit. I have no clue what happened to them. So try that tonight.
Thank you, Sean. It’s extraordinarily generous of you.
SB Hey, you’ve got to buy off the Press, even if you get shitty stories off of it. That’s just the way the world works. (laughs)
Well, in my case, what I typically do is just turn on the mic. I then will transcribe verbatim, along with my questions and narrative ornaments, of course. This is an extreme case, but I recently interviewed Tim Thornhill of Parducci. I had to get completely the hell out of the way for that one. But I like minimal intervention, a more documentary approach.
SB That’s how we sell wine. I had a guy selling wine for me in Seattle. I asked him, “Jesus! How are you selling all this wine?” He used to say, “Well, what I do is ask for a wine list and a menu when I first sit down. I open up the wines. I act like I’m looking at both menu and wine list. I let them all talk; they all like talking. And all I do is nod once and a while; and they buy.” I thought that was ingenious! Everybody likes to hear themselves talk, especially in this industry. There are so many egos and heads out there.
In The Winery
Sean Boyd This is my playground. Here in this winery we’ve got Wines of Substance, which it Waters’ second label. They split some with Gramercy. I think Gramercy has 10% ownership in Substance; Waters has 90%. Waters does about 3,000 cases; Substance is probably about 10,000 or 12,000 cases. And Gramercy makes their wine independently here. They are probably pushing 5-6,000 cases.
It’s kind of a crush pad facility?
SB Well, it’s definitely Waters’ facility. It’s so capital intensive to build a winery. So us little gutter dogs like to come in, and for a reduced salary I make Rôtie Cellars here. It works well. I wasn’t born with $1,000,000 in the bank, or $5,000,000, which is probably be what it would take to get a nice facility.
So basically, the fruit comes in half-ton bins. Then you go into either 3/4 or 1/2 ton fermenters. We love stainless steel. These are the best ones, these round, hot tub tanks. We had these designed so that we could control the fermentation temperature. If it gets too hot the yeast eats itself up. That death phase just kicks right in. Then you struggle through your fermentation. But if you can keep it at 75-78 degrees, then it is a nice, cool fermentation. It finishes a lot smoother. I really like having control. As the fruit is nearing dry, it’s nice to be able to also plug them in and heat them up. The worst thing you can do to wine is leave a little sugar in there for microbial growth. If I could have a winery loaded with these, it would be a no-brainer.
By how much does the temperature vary in the Fall, I mean after harvest?
SB September is still pretty warm; but in October it is down to, well, here we get this diurnal shift, so it’s down to 45 degrees in the night, which is fine for barrels. Anything under 58 degrees is pretty good. We do almost all the fermentation indoors. We like to try and keep our VAs low. The coolness helps that. We do a lot of whole cluster fermentations, so those require some pump-overs, though we prefer to punch down. It’s fun to be able to have lots of small fermentations because you can really play around with what yeasts you’re using; you can try different lots, some with stem, some without.
The blending program here is based on the idea that you don’t just go off of the vineyard and how prestigious it is, or how much you loved the last year, or how fantastic it was when you picked it. It’s more along the lines of tasting everything every month. So if I have 7 different vineyards of Syrah, I’ll blind taste them with people whose palates I really respect. I don’t want to know what they are. I want to know what I like the most, not what vineyard I want to have in a bottle. Then it’s fun. You can figure out what you like. Some vineyards really surprise you. Doing it blind helps.
Some of the wines we’ll try today will include Grenache. I’ve just blended 2 blocks in their 13th and 14th leaf off of Horse Heaven Hills, from nice south-facing slopes, one is 28 brix, one is 24 brix. I’ve blended those because they had interesting phenols going on. Then there are 8 barrels of another Grenache, the vineyards of which is even further down the river. It’s turned out to be some of my best Grenache; 24 and 1/2 brix. It was picked in early November, really rare, because usually we have a freeze that come into Washington State by then; but this site is so hot, and as we talked about yesterday, it’s the kick-ass area for Rhones, for Grenaches and Mourvédres. It enjoys a super-long cycle, very temperate. It’s magical for those varietals (sic). You just have to find all the crazy people that started growing them 15 years ago! They are the fun ones. Shall we taste?
Yes, of course. One quick technical question. How many punchdowns a day?
SB Three. It depends. Your fermentation tells you what’s going on. If you’re smelling H2S you have to make Nitrogen additions. A punchdown can tell you a lot. If it was Pinot Noir, we’d go much lighter on it. We’d probably cover it. We’d let that heat and moisture just kind of work itself out. But with Grenache and Syrah you’re given a lot of leeway. It’s hard to beat them up too much. It’s just keeping the cap wet. Let’s taste through.
You have distributors locally. What about back East, or California, for that matter?
SB In California the market is just dead. We sold out of our ’07s. And California still had 21 cases. But everybody seemed to want deals and deals and deals because the market is so saturated down there. So we pulled it. We’ll sell it here. I don’t want to make deals that will cheapen my brand. Seattle is my major market. There are not too many in Portland yet. Of the distribution, about 20% of production goes straight to Seattle. Most of the rest goes out of the tasting room. It’s a double-edged sword. You want to sell it as close to retail as possible, but it is really important to service the accounts in Seattle so that you are seen. So that costs a certain percentage of the portfolio.
As we taste through the barrels, Sean explains his love of Grenache, especially when dominant in Châteauneuf-du-Papes. He rhapsodizes over Cornas, another passion we share. Some of the barrels are full of violets and roses, odors of an English garden spilling out. The Grenache in other barrels is lighter, leaner, almost Pinot in character. Still other barrels, whether of Syrah or Grenache, are bowls of fat blueberries, and marked by the occasional reductive character, mushroom and forest floor. Selection after barrel selection is of a very distinctive character. I begin to understand what Sean means by the winery being his playground. The blending opportunities are extraordinary. It is almost like the range of admixtures one might find in a perfumery. Sean’s talent is clearly in finding diverse vineyards from both within and without the AVA, and from varied elevations, that conform to his disciplined understanding of Rhone varietal correctness. And vineyard site variety is key. After all, for a Syrah pH that pushes 4 on the Walla Walla Valley floor, but that possesses a mid-palate he wants to preserve, Sean’s trick is not to add water or to acidulate (as one might with an estate designation), but to blend the softer expressions with, say, 24 degree brix juice with very high acidity from another locale. We were not able to taste the Mourvédre or Cinsault. It was being held at another facility.
SB The first year I didn’t have enough contracts. But now I am able to pick and choose which vineyards and barrels I use. People ask why didn’t I try to extract more. That’s ridiculous. Grenache is mean to be a lighter color, leaner. Of some lots, I don’t tell too many people where I get it. I just say ‘down the river from Horse Heaven.” Can you leave the specific vineyard out?
I take one last picture of Mr. Boyd, one among his favorite barrels. I then take my leave, smarter, pleased to have played a roll, however small, in the celebration of this guy. He has good friends in Ms. Bosworth and Ms. Nivinius. He owes them a beer, or two.
On this Independence Day I will take a break from my noisy pyrotechnic display to quietly reflect on how our country was built and how it is sustained. It was hard work to build the Trans-Continental Railroad, the Highway system, to fell the forests, to electrify America, and to fight our wars. How beautiful the sparks from welder’s torch, the miniature daily display of 4th of July fireworks! From the captains of industry to the common laborer, all are part of our unexampled historical narrative. The phenomenal growth of the agricultural sector deserves special praise. The efficiency of our farmers to put food on our tables from coast to coast, to fill supermarkets to bursting with produce is heroic; but reflection must also fall upon the migrant laborer as an indispensable engine of America’s transformation.
But times have changed. A new fever is sweeping across the country, a divisive, toxic reaction to the presence of undocumented, unauthorized workers among our ranks. Arizona and Texas are just two of the states promoting draconian legislative solutions to the strangers in our midst, their governors falling over themselves to formulate the most un-American rhetoric. Even though the Labor Department tells us that “three out of every four farm workers were born abroad, and more than half are illegal immigrants”, crass political opportunism knows no shame, let alone decency.
But help is on the way! In our quest for mind-numbingly simple solutions, no matter who gets hurt, Stephen Colbert and the United Farm Workers of American (UFW) are joining together to promote the Take Our Jobs initiative. The idea is as elegant as it is peaceful: via the UFW site itself American citizens, only those able to prove it, of course, may pour over a constantly updated listings of agricultural jobs offered across America. Those wishing to work may sign up. That’s it! Training will be provided, for it makes a difference whether one picks, for example, grapes, lettuce, or strawberries. And the working hours are strictly enforced. So prospective field laborers must arrive on time. Just what attire is appropriate is also explained. You wouldn’t want to show up without a hat in triple-digit heat! Water will be provided, though there are no guarantees in this world.
Though the site is currently active, Mr. Colbert will provide an update on its progress July 8th on his show, The Colbert Report. Have a safe and sane 4th! I won’t!
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