While in Walla Walla, Washington I was told by Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars of a particularly important wine guru working in Anacortes. Mr. Boyd spoke in almost hushed tones of a certain Doug Charles, a man whose knowledge and palate could put a wine on the map. Specializing, but by no means limited to Washington, Mr. Charles was said also to be a key source for limited production wines from throughout his favored state. For rare, hard to find wines, wines of limited production and allocation, Doug Charles was the man to see. Indeed, while in Compass Wines in Anacortes, the far northern gateway to the San Juans and Canada, I encountered a woman, an artist, who was worried upon learning I was a wine writer that I might ruin her unique wine store by mentioning it. For causing her anxiety I must apologize. But the truth is that this is a wine store worthy of national recognition. And it is, among sailors, as you will read. Open since 2001, on-line since May of 2003, it is now our turn, we land lubbers.
From the initial press release back in 2001.
Leveraging long-time business relationships developed over the course of his 20+ years in restaurant management, Doug Charles is able to obtain and offer his customers wines that are otherwise only available via select mailing lists, if at all. “From Leonetti to Bunchgrass—from Chateau Margaux to Chateau d’Yquem, our shop offers a nice range of wines, including under $10 bottles perfect for sipping with dinner tonight,” said Charles. “Our customers include everyone from New York collectors to local fishermen.”
And from their About Us page.
Contrary to most retail shops, Compass Wines was built on the idea of maintaining an extensive inventory of past vintages, as well as quantities of the current releases. We also purchase entire cellars of fine wines from around the world. These range from great old Bordeaux, to the ‘cult’ wines of California.
And so it was when visiting the San Juans, I dropped in to spend a few minute at this remarkable wine store. Enjoy.
Admin I’m here at Compass Wines in Anacortes, Washington with owner Doug Charles [along with Will Parks]. So what is it you do?
Doug Charles I’ve been in the wine business directly for just over 10 years, 20 years before that in the restaurant business. I’ve done a lot of consulting work in between. Washington has been my passion since the 80s, when the wine industry got going. I got hooked early on and never really looked back. I love other stuff too, but I have a soft spot for Washington.
How did you end up in Anacortes?
DC I did restaurants up here for a number of years. I was doing some consulting work that involved putting wine cellars onto mega-yachts. We determined that there was a need in the maritime community to service boaters. We figured that if these guys with Feadships and Bayliners don’t have places to store their wines then we should look at locations from the Canadian to Mexican borders in maritime areas where we could combine specialized retail with wine storage; and everything pointed right back to Anacortes, a half hour from where I live. We spent about 18 months looking, but it all pointed back here.
So distributors make a pilgrimage out here.
DC Yes. We’re definitely remote for Washington, we’re about an hour and a half north from Seattle, which bodes well for what we do because a lot of the allocations for limited production wines are divided by the Seattle metropolitan area and the rest of the state, and because we fall outside in the rest of the state, when allocation numbers are set the guys in Seattle will be fighting over a few bottles and I get a larger allocation because I take up everything else in the state.
It does seem that you’ve put Anacortes on the map as a wine destination, besides selling through your web-site, of course. Certainly for sailors. And you must advertise in sailing-themed magazines?
DC I don’t know if we put it on the map. I think the Washington Ferry system did that! But yes, we advertise in sailing magazines. We also do a wine program called ded reckoning which is sailing-themed. And we’re just rolling out next week the new edition that features the BMW Oracle yacht on the label. That’s been months in the making. The label is being printed as we speak. That sailboat was actually built right behind the shop here in Anacortes. It was tested here. We will be promoting that extensively in the maritime community on both coasts.
[I was given a bottle of ded reckoning 2000 Walla Walla Petit Verdot. It features a label with a 1906 photo of the U.S. Battleship Nebraska built by Moran Bros. Company, Seattle, Washington. See poc above.]
Fascinating. Now, I met Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars in Walla Walla recently. He knows and speaks very highly of you. He understands your reputation. How is it you cane to meet Mr. Boyd?
DC We get lots and lots of wineries that come through here on a regular basis. I had several wineries here yesterday. I had five here last Friday. I’ve got two coming tomorrow [Aug. 21st]. We’re known for being specialists in limited production, small output wines. We’re not afraid to put a wine with a production of 20 cases on the shelf. I don’t have a corporate mind set I have to follow. I don’t have shelf tags that I have to fill. Winemakers know that they can come here and experiment with us. They can bring in limited production things; and because we focus half of our floor space to Washington specifically, we’ve got a lot more room for these little producers. They are not going to get squeezed out by the big guys. Look at our shelves. We don’t carry a lot of the big brands that you normally see because those brands are available everywhere. We go after brands you don’t see everywhere else. So the little guys have a better opportunity to get floor space here than other places just because of the way we’ve set up our business.
What is the square footage here? And how many bottles?
DC We have about 16,000 bottles on hand at any given time. We’ve got 3,500 square feet here, most of which is actually in refrigerated storage in the back. I’ve never really mapped out what our actual showroom is here but I’m guessing 1000 square feet probably, of display space. And then a couple thousand of storage.
You have a big tasting coming up…
DC We do tastings once a month. Tomorrow we have Chris Gorman and Mark McNeilly. They are going to be pouring the Gorman and Mark Ryan wines. They’re always free events here. Everybody gets to come and taste the new releases before they hit the street. And some of the old releases.
What are your European specialities?
DC I have a soft spot for Burgundy. Reds and whites. And for Southern Rhone. I have my biases! But those are the ones that I like to focus on. And it also doesn’t really compete with the Washington profile. We don’t do Pinot Noir up here very well, or very much. And Chardonnay is not something Washington is known for. So for the people who are trying to balance out their cellars, or balance out their dinners, Burgundy and the Southern Rhone fit really well. Grenache, for example, I’m a big fan of the grape, but there’s not a lot of it up here. There’s more and more coming, but I don’t try to compete. But because I can’t find good Pinot in Washington so I go to Burgundy and get it! It seems like a fit, doesn’t it?
You have a few Portuguese things I see…
DC I do. We like odd things for this market. We’re in a rural area. We don’t have a huge wine community in this immediate area that has experienced a lot of the things from Portugal, or from Greece, or South Africa. We like to have a lot of those fun, different things on hand so that everybody has an opportunity. You don’t have to go to the Big City to get these unusual wines from Croatia. We like them, the funky, weird stuff; and I stock it because I don’t have to report to anybody. If it doesn’t sell, well, I have only myself to blame.
I like different things to kind of push the envelope for our customers. If they come in and are used to drinking Pinot Gris all of the time, then I can suggest they try a dry Muscat this week, try a Viognier, try something a little bit different. And the way our shop is set up we instinctively do not put neon tags with prices on them on display. Every bottle is hand labeled so the customers are in a way forced to talk with my staff. We’ve set up the floor plan so that when people walk in the first time they are confused. That’s intentional. Because we want to develop a one-to-one relationship with our customers, know what they like. Every customer has their own data base in our system. So if you come back next year we can pull up what you bought when you were on vacation last year. Maybe they bought XYZ. We’ll ask them if they want to try something different. It’s something I took out of the restaurant business; something like the relationship a waiter develops with his clientele.
It’s like a mini CellarTracker.
DC Exactly. My goal is to make wine accessible to everybody, to take away the snobby, elitist attitude. My take has been that I want to make it accessible, I want to make it fun; I want to make it no different for the layman than going grocery shopping. For the customer who want First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, or Leonetti, or Quilceda, they are going to come in regardless of whether we’re jerks or not because there is product they want, and they are going to buy it. Our main goal is to sell the novice wine person who is used to buying a bag-in-a-box somewhere, when they come in the first time, to sell them a $6.99 Merlot they like; then should they come by a second time then we’ve done our job, our staff has done its job. That to me is the hardest customer. If we can expose people to new and unusual things and get them out of drinking the usual fuzzy animal wine from Australia or a jug of some sort, and get them to try something different then we have done well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something expensive; it just has to be something interesting and fun, and make them feel welcome, that to me is the primary goal of what we do.
If we can make those people happy then we know we can make the other people, the specialists, happy. Because we have those products that they want. We have a 1970 Petrus available today. We’ve got those sorts of things for the collector types. But the hardest customer for me is the non-collector, the novice, getting them to feel comfortable coming here instead of grabbing something with an orange tag at the grocery store.
We want to establish a personal relationship with our customers, to sell them something they themselves describe to us, and then edge the line forward. The way that I approach it is that buying wine is really no different from buying a cabbage. It’s just a food item. You don’t need to have an attitude about it. My job is to make it fun. that’s why when you’re digging through bins here you’ll find a couple hundred dollar bottle of wine alongside a $6.99 bottle of wine. (Though I have had to put the really expensive stuff under lock and key because some of it walked away.) I want people to know that it is just a bottle of wine, you know? It is just food.
I am next given a modest tour of the storage facility.
DC The idea behind these storage lockers is very simple. We took this yacht and built wine facilities into it to store his wines. And while his new ship was under construction we actually built a wine cellar below the water line so that he could actually store his wines properly. That was the idea behind putting the storage lockers here: If this guy with this 250 foot yacht doesn’t have wine storage then the guy with a 30 footer doesn’t either. So we began to offer wine storage here on our premises. They can leave their wine here rather than at their house on the islands or on their boat. And when they travel back and forth between here and Seattle (though we actually have guys storing wine here from as far away as London), they can pick them up here on their way to somewhere else. They needn’t worry about it.
Before I leave a second storage area for Compass’ bewildering quality holdings, I notice cases of older vintages of some of the most professionally celebrated wines of Washington, Quilceda Creek, for example. I ask Mr. Charles about a large format bottle I see.
DC Quilceda Creek is the only 100 point winery in the state from the Wine Advocate. As far as I know they are the only Bordeaux varietal producer in the world that Parker has given 100 points to three out of four years. They scored 100 points in 2002, 2003, and 2005. They scored 99 points in 2004 and 2006. Their 2007 has not been released yet. They produced one 6 liter bottle each in 2002 and 2003, and we have both of them.
This gives you some idea of the tremendous stock Compass possess. Indeed, it sometimes happens that wineries themselves contact Mr. Charles for bottles of wine they no longer have or are willing to take from their own wine libraries, for horizontals, for example. Mr. Charles is only too happy to oblige. I encourage you to visit their site. And if in Anacortes visiting the San Juans, as I was, do drop in. It is a challenging and sublime wine store.
Anyone who follows this blog knows of my admiration for Andrew Jefford, that he is, in my opinion, the finest wine writer in the game. At once an intellectual, playful, curious, precise, he is a stylist without peer. His books may be trusted, and his occasional pieces, those featured on his blog, for example, are literary miniatures, the textual equivalents of ivory carvings or the roughed in maps of explorers.
Whether he writes on tea, scotch, Cahors or his occasional experiments with poetry, you can be sure it is well-researched, fluid, and multi-layered, an invitation to new research and thought. His intelligence is, in a word, nomadic. And it is no coincidence he and his family have spent the last year in Australia. From the sounds of things he pulled up stakes and, with his family in tow, he just decided to go for what the Australian Aborigines call a ‘walkabout’.
What follows is an interview, the questions for which I submitted some time ago. Now safely landed near Montpellier, France, he at last found the time to respond. Enjoy.
Admin When you and your family initially moved down under, what were among the more notable challenges you and yours faced?
Andrew Jefford Moving from country to country is administratively complex, time-consuming and expensive. Australia is a long way from the UK so all we could take with us was what we could fit into four 20-kg suitcases plus a flurry of hand luggage and a few haphazard boxes consigned to the ocean shortly before we left.. Obviously this excluded a car, a fridge, a washing machine, three beds &c. &c., though we were very lucky in that most of these things were leant to us in Australia by friends, and friends of friends. For almost two months, I couldn’t get a work visa for reasons we never understood but in the end seemed to be to do with staff churn in the immigration department. It was finally resolved by a slightly more senior immigration officer than the ones we had dealt with taking a look at the dossier, saying ‘This is ridiculous’ and ping! it was all sorted in 30 seconds. We knew we only had the right to be in Australia for a year, too, so that meant that we couldn’t do any serious settling. But you quickly forget about all of these difficulties and discombobulations later … We had a wonderful time and loved the country. My wife and children still lament our departure daily, almost five months later.
Can you tell us of some of your encounters with the aboriginal culture?
AJ Very sadly, my only encounters with aboriginal culture were literary (reading about it), and signing up for a single walk around Perth’s botanic gardens with a native Australian guide. The presence of native Australians in the country’s vineyard areas is negligible, and I never knowingly met a single native Australian working in wine in Australia. The historical relationship between alcohol and native Australia has been an unhappy one (as unhappy as the Inuit version of that relationship). However, it strikes me — as it has others — that the aboriginal philosophy concerning land might be fruitful and inspiring for those trying to make great terroir wines in Australia, and I hope and believe that there will one day be native Australians among the country’s cohort of winemakers. For a little (and only a little) more on this theme, see World of Fine Wine issue 28, page 101.
What is your sense of the state of organic and/or biodynamic viticulture in Australia? Are ‘natural’ wines in the French meaning of the word, made there?
AJ Both organic and biodynamic wine production are now well-established in Australia, and some of Australia’s best wines are produced by biodynamic practitioners (like Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill, Gilles Lapalus of Sutton Grange, Julian Castagna of Castagna, Mike Brown of Gemtree, Vanya Cullen at Cullen, Andrew Mitchell at Mitchell, Steve Lubiana at Lubiana, John Nagorka of Hochkirch, Anton van Klopper at Lucy Margaux, Erinn Klein at Ngeringa and many others).
To say that views differ in Australia about the desirability or otherwise of ‘naturalness’ in wine is an understatement … but that movement is growing too, as is the understanding of its rationale. Some of the best zero-sulphur wines I have ever tasted are made by Christian Knott at Harkham in the Hunter Valley. I am not a natural-wine fundamentalist, by the way, and don’t object to sulphur either in my wine or my dried apricots – but if it can be done as successfully as Christian seems to manage, then why not?
Given the high alcohol level of many Australian wines (you wrote of Greenock Creek’s 2006 Apricot Block Shiraz at 18.5%, for example), do you know what are the yeast strains commonly used to finish to dry such wines? And what is the role, if any, of wild or natural yeasts in Aussie winemaking?
AJ I can’t give you an adequate answer on the high-alcohol yeast question but will endeavour to find out. (Though wines of this sort rarely finish dry.)
Indigenous yeasts are being used more and more widely in Australia, especially for Chardonnay. This is pure guesswork, but I would say that there are more wild-yeast Chardonnays from Australia in the $30+ bracket than there are those fermented with selected yeasts. Wild yeasts are less widely used for red wines in Australia, because of brett-phobia among other reasons, but of course the avant-garde are experimenting with those, too, and with great success.
In your on-line post, Regionality and its Myths, you write “When the right variety is planted in a single site of distinction and vinified with sympathetic restraint, then you have the apotheosis or epiphany of place.” Can you provide insight into what is meant by “sympathetic restraint”? Has your definition undergone a transformation since you’ve been in Australia?
AJ Growing and making wines is an immensely complicated business, and there is no ‘sympathetic restraint’ formula, just as there is no formula for successful lovemaking, picture-painting or child-rearing. It’s the outcome of ten thousand decisions; it’s never the same twice; but the achievement is generally recognised and everyone is happy afterwards. Restraint, of course, implies only making an intervention (especially chemical) when absolutely necessary, and adopting a posture of solicitous supervision at all other times. Sympathy, by contrast, might almost be better expressed as empathy – with the raw materials, in order to help a wine into being which owes as little as possible to process and as much as possible to origin.
My understanding hasn’t undergone a transformation since I’ve been to Australia, though I did discuss the matter with a number of devout sceptics, and it is true that it is very hard to achieve this kind of limpidity with existing varietal plantings in some of Australia’s warmer regions. If anything, I am now even more convinced of the wisdom of that approach, since I have tasted so many wines in Australia whose flavour profile is based on robust intervention, and I have found them so hard to drink and to enjoy. (By the way, I claim no personal stake in the approach, nor any moral shine for it. Nor is it a route to commercial success with a wine, especially in Australia where palate expectations require high internal force of contrast. It is simply an approach. It is the one I favour and recommend, but there are others, and it is up to every wine producer to decide what is right for himself or herself.)
How might sympathetic restraint differ from one wine growing region and another? One country and another?
AJ Enormously; it is never the same twice. Local conditions are everything. The challenges are different everywhere. Nothing should be ruled out, or ruled in. Recipes are catastrophic. But the ideal remains, in outline if not in detail.
Hardly a day passes that we don’t hear difficult news out of Australia. Whether it be about drought, fires, climate change, the declining fortunes of Australian wine exports, the news always seems to be disastrous in nature. Assuming the worst about our ambulance-chasing press, what is the reality of the day to day viticultural challenges facing the Australian grower?
AJ I only know Europe and Australia with any intimacy, but I would say that there is often a fieceness or an implacability about the Australian climate which is missing in Europe, with its gentler, moister (though not necessarily cooler) climate. The greatest Australian wines reflect that, as they quite properly should, while at the same time being wines of natural articulation. Australia has historically (both post and prior to European settlement) undergone long, multi-decade pulses of alternating dryer, hotter periods with wetter, cooler ones, and the dry, hot ones will always be challenging for wine producers, especially when stoked by greenhouse forcing. Sudden heat spikes and drought as phenomena of this dryer, hotter period are consequently two of Australia’s biggest problems — along with the new long-term strength of the Aussie dollar. I think we will see a slow drift south (or up in altitude) for wine production within Australia for as long as the present dryer, hotter period in the country’s climate history continues. How long that will be I don’t know. Maybe it will end next year. Maybe it will only end with the termination of the Anthropocene epoch.
And of climate change, according to the report, “State of the Climate” just issued by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology found an increase in temperature every decade for the past 50 years, among other details. What are some of your practical observations of these changes? And how are winegrowers responding?
AJ I asked most of the producers I visited about harvest start dates, and was usually told they were now between two and four weeks ahead of the established start dates a decade or two ago. Alcohol levels are perceived by many Australian wine producers (though not particularly by me) to be a big problem for the country. Some of those I spoke to in the University context felt that Australia was likely to be more susceptible to climate change than most other global winegrowing locations. At the same time, the public debate about climate change in Australia is surprisingly immature, and the attitude of many leading Australian politicians to this matter is most politely described as nostalgic. Ordinary Australians (in contrast to the wine-producing community) seem barely aware of the problem, nor of the fact that they have the biggest carbon footprint in the world.
How are winegrowers responding? Many pick earlier — sometimes prematurely in my view. I am convinced the country’s oldest-established vineyard areas needs larger plantings of later ripening varieties, but this will take time to institute and has market implications in a country where almost all wines are varietals. It’s beginning to happen, though.
Have you learned enough for a book? And will it be fewer than 500 pages? I ask in jest. It seems to me that your imagination must have been on fire. What are the broad lines of the book we hope will come from your time in Australia?
AJ I am very aware of my own limitations, and the fact that my knowledge of Australian wine must be necessarily restricted compared to the knowledge of Australian wine-writing colleagues. But it is possible that a non-Australian perspective might perhaps be of interest to readers. My aim is to make the book unequally bi-partite. The smaller part will be about terroir more generally; the larger part about terroir in Australia’s vineyards, and about those striving to express this in their wines. A vast amount of work lies ahead before this will be satisfactorily realised.
Have you ever considered making a wine film, a documentary, perhaps? I mean, of course, shooting and editing it yourself.
AJ Nope: time, family, economics.
Were you able to find the time to read Chatwin’s Songlines? If so, what did you think?
AJ I re-read it in Australia. The journalistic core of the book is well-researched and well-written, but all the quotations and other toffee is tiresome and ponderous. I feel native Australians deserve a better outsider’s book that that: can anyone point me in the direction of one? The most moving book I read in Australia was The Last of the Nomads by W J Peasley: an astonishing story (all the more astonishing for being plainly told) of the peregrinations and survival of two outcast nomads in the Gibson Desert. No lighter carbon footprint than theirs.
Thank you, Mr. Jefford.
AJ My pleasure.
The rewards of being lost are never better realized than when stumbling upon a place like Selvatica, a new wine and speciality shop in the up-and-coming SoDo district of Seattle, Washington. Located at 3220 1st Avenue South, I stopped in front of its plain exterior to ask directions. Nothing could have prepared me for the magnificent expansive interior of exposed brick, high-beamed ceilings, a rock garden and massive stone archway. Echoing the island landscape of the owners’ beloved Sardegna in the Mediterranean, and their exclusive wine import focus, I quickly found myself transported to a most unique intellectual space, one of reflection, a feeling of spiritual amplitude, as it were. The sheets of natural light and superb music piping throughout certainly helped.
I was to learn that Selvatica’s grand opening was just on August 12th, and runs through September 4th. I was fortunate to meet Lauren Price, co-owner and Director of Marketing. She took me on a spontaneous tour.
Admin What have you done here!
Lauren Price Selvatica means wild in Italian. We chose the name because our first importing endeavor was on the island of Sardinia. We developed a relationship with a small producer on the southern tip of the island. They’ve told us quite a bit about their wines, they call them the wines of the gods; and at first we had no idea what that meant. We just thought it was ego and grandeur. But it has been recently said that Sardinia was probably the first place in the world where wine was made. Sediments indicating this have been found dating back to 1,200 B.C. which pre-dates Mesopotamia. So they’ve had vines growing wild all over the island for millennia. That is what hit us.
This is our grand tasting space. We were very lucky to have inherited most of this stone from a local artist who works with a local company called Marenakos. They left all of the stone. This over here is the largest dolmen in North America. We were very fortunate.
And it is indoors.
LP Yes! The thought of moving it was a little daunting to them. That might have influenced their decision to leave it.
LP We tried to keep a lot of the exposed brick, beam, wood and stone intact. It is a really stunning space, one of the few buildings in this area that has been preserved in its natural state. It was originally a foundry. They used to build ship parts here and transport them to the harbor.
How did you find this place?
LP Very randomly. We were just driving around, and we passed it several times. But we fell in love with it. With all the grittiness in SoDo, outside it’s dirty, it’s gritty, but when you get inside it is just an absolutely breath-taking, serene space. We got very lucky that it came on the market right when we were looking. We snatched it up!
What kinds of event have you or could you have here?
LP We’ve had everything from Casino Nights to anniversary parties, dinner parties… we’ve only been open for retail for a short time, but we’ve been importing and wholesaling for a while.
All of that was done out of here and then you decided to make it your tasting space.
LP Yes. And we’re working on our wine bar license as well. That is in the works.
Tell me about the wines you import.
LP We started importing Sardinian wine. We’ve expanded our efforts to the Basilicata region in south/central Italy. We’re expanding even further. We’re now working with a small Wenatchee winery, Dutch John. They produce 750 cases a year across all of their vintages. It’s pretty amazing stuff. We’re striving to make this essentially a speciality shop, a speciality market, where you come to purchase goods you can’t really find anywhere else. Our wines, for example, are not available anywhere else in the United States.
We’ve had business relations with the sea food industry for about 20 years. So we’re starting to bring in sea foods as well. And we’re working with the Ekone Oyster Company; they are letting us distribute amazing smoked oysters and sturgeon, fresh, ready to eat right out of the can. Interesting flavors, we have barbecue, lemon, pepper, all very good.
So you have a 5 year plan?
LP Our 5 year plan is to try not to drink too much of our inventory! We’re opening the wine bar very soon. We want this to become a destination. We want this to be the convergence of Italy, hopefully France in the near future, and local goods. Our first tag line was “Where SoDo Meets Sardinia”. A lot of great things are happening in this area [SoDo] right now. It is the newest area of development. We scooped up this place at just the right time. You’ll notice in the next 5 years or so a lot of new businesses, retail, restaurants. There’s a plan for down the street for a 15,000 square foot wine warehouse/restaurant/a few other things. [laughs] It’s a pretty exciting place to be.
What kinds of people have been coming through your doors? How did they hear about it? Do you make media buys? Word of mouth?
LP We’ve had several different approaches. Our private events have worked very well for us. We host small parties, and we gat a lot of ‘word of mouth’ out of that. We’ve recently started hitting the streets more and putting our brand out there. We market on the Washington Ferry system. We market to hotels, to restaurants, Pike Place Market…
LP We Facebook, yes we do. Look us up! We’re hoping to share the story of Sardinia which really turned us on to the wine business. Oh, I should mention that Sardinian grapes have the highest polyphenol levels than any other grapes in the world, anti-oxidants, resveratrol, all that good stuff. Sardinia has the highest number of male centenarians in the world. They live to unheard of ages.
And the women?
LP It is actually the only place in the world where more men than women make it passed 100. But they, too, enjoy longevity.
Curious. Is it that the men drink more wine than women, or less?
LP That is one theory. Actually, for the longest time women weren’t allowed to drink wine in their culture. It only changed recently, in the last 100 years or so. This is according to our friends at the Cantina [Cantina di Quartu winemaking cooperative]. They swear by their wines’ health benefits. They drink a couple glasses a day. That and they have the oldest winemaking traditions in the world. They have quite a claim to fame.
It is a very localized economy in a lot of senses. They don’t export a lot, at least out of the southern end of the island. They are very focussed on domestic distribution. It took us about two years of building confidence and friendship with them for the relationship to be truly comfortable. We’ve taken several visits over there. It is such a tough life!
Thank you very much, Lauren.
LP Thank you for visiting.
All vacations must come to an end. Mine, spent in Seattle and the San Juan Islands, finds its close in three days time. Once back in Santa Cruz, California, I begin to play catch up with a modest backlog of stories, the finest being an interview with Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. Author of Ancient Wines and, most recently, Uncorking the Past, he will prove an important contribution to the wine cognoscenti’s intellectual background.
But first up, early next week, will be my conversation with Carlos de Jesus of APCOR and the Director of Marketing and Communication for AMORIM, the latter being world’s foremost producer of cork stoppers.
And about cork, a most curious thing happened while on my vacation. When preparing a boat for a Puget Sound sail, a boat designed by Bill Garden, an old family friend, it was discovered that the drain hole plug was missing. Rather than give up we looked around for a substitute. We found it in a very high quality cork stopper from an emptied bottle of 2008 Desert Wind Ruah from the Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley! With a bit of epoxy we were on our way.
Until next week.
Death was an unfortunate theme running through July’s wine news. The would-be DRC blackmailer, Jacques Soltys, committed suicide in a Dijon jail while awaiting trial, as reported on Decanter.com, but the industry also lost 3 of its own on separate continents with the passing of Douglas Murray, Bill Wagner and Graham Beck.
Murray co-founded (with Aurelio Montes) Viña Montes in 1987 and became a champion of the Chilean wine industry. He died of cancer aged 68, as did 80 year old Beck, the pioneering South African winemaker and champion of the Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wines the Cape does so well. At 83 Bill Wagner was also a pioneer, this time in the Finger Lakes where he initiated the Riesling plantings which the winery now excels with.
Another era came to an end with the surprise resignation of James Suckling from Wine Spectator. The news resulted in a flurry of blog posts and twitter feeds but it was Eric Arnold’s article in Forbes which I enjoyed as a concise summary of the Suckling saga to date.
A couple of other pieces also caught my attention over the month. Have you heard of Jacques Boissenot? No? Well, neither had I until I read about him in Decanter magazine, but he’s a consultant to four of the five Bordeaux First Growths and was recently named Winemaker of the Decade by the Chinese Bordeaux Guide in a ceremony in Bordeaux. Biossenot and his son Eric seem to consult for most of the area (at least the left bank) but, unlike other consultants, likes to keep a low profile – a refreshing change in today’s self-promoting world.
Finally, with the various debates on closures still going strong, Catherine Jevans on ThirtyFifty.co.uk penned an interesting piece on how cork tainted wine from several recent wine events is coming in at less than 1% – below the typical percentages still used in the aforementioned debates (1-15% depending on who you ask).
Blind tasting was the name of the game for me in July with 2 separate events in Newcastle to attend.
The first was organised through local retailer Richard Granger as an informal, leisurely sit-down gathering covering 5 wines from their range – 6 if you included the Blanc de Blancs from Philppe Herard, a delicious Burgundy sparkler to start off the proceedings. Although served blind things were made a little easier as we were provided with a choice of 3 answers for each glass, either variety or country, and two hours disappeared easily in a relaxed discussion of the merits of the wines with the group of about 20 people.
The Wine of the night was also one of the ones I got wrong, the de Bortoli “Windy Peak” 2008 Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley in Australia. I had guessed New Zealand as the slightly stinky nose with warm, savoury flavours and delicate complexity seemed too elegant and “classic” to be Australian, based on the few examples I’ve tried previously. At less than £10 a bottle this is a wine worth seeking out as a good introduction to what Australia can do with this difficult grape.
A week later and The Wine Society juggernaut rolled into town with their “You’d swear blind” event. In comparison to the Richard Granger night everything was scaled up; 20 wines to get through over 2 hours in a large, walk-around hall amongst a scrum of about 150 other tasters. We were told at the beginning that the last red was a Competition Wine whose identity would be revealed 45 minutes before the end – the nearest guess winning a bottle of Champagne.
There were no help sheets or clues to any of the wines this time so to have a chance at guessing as many as possible I knew I had to be organised and efficient. I got off to a good start with 8 white wines, a sparkling and a Rosé within the hour, making a guess at variety, region and price for each. By the time the “reveal” of the competition wine came around I’d tried it and 2 other reds, so was starting to fall behind but was confident I’d get close to the 20 before the end, even if it meant spending a little less time trying to figure out region or price and concentrating just on variety.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the competition wine was a ringer; the Château Ksara 2007 Reserve du Couvent (Syrah-Cabernet blend) from Lebanon at £8.75 a bottle. My guess of a 2-3 year old Cru Beaujolais was way off mark, but I was not alone as no one came close to its origins with the Champagne given to a lucky lady who had gone for a Syrah dominated Rhône blend!
Unfortunately that was where the evening’s enjoyment stopped, as the host then proceeded to reveal every wine’s identity, much to the surprise of everyone there. After that I only half-heartedly went round the remaining reds, with their jackets removed and labels visible, as the excitement of the challenge was now gone and I felt thoroughly disappointed. I chatted to a couple of people I knew who said the same; the atmosphere in the room had changed, at least for me, and it suddenly felt as though everyone was being pushed towards the door with no new bottles being opened up even though there was over 20 minutes before the official close.
I consoled myself with the 6 varieties I correctly identified from the 8 white wines tried (although none of the 3 reds) and the lingering taste of a superb Royal Tokaji Wine Company 2007 Áts Cuvée, Late Harvest Furmint still in my mouth.
This was the second Wine Society I’ve been to and, while I really enjoyed the first, this one was let down by an ambitious number of wines (20 in 2 hours was too much for a walk-around blind tasting) and the quick reveal (which I later found out was 30 minutes earlier than intended).
I also attended a “normal” tasting by my local retailer, Spanish Spirit, who put on a Tapas and Wine evening at a local cafe in celebration of Spain’s World Cup victory.
Although I’d already tried the majority of the wines before it was a great evening with plenty of good conversation. I arrived early and managed to find a table to sit at, but by the time the last arrivals had come in it was standing room only in the small room.
A selection of Verdejos started us off, with the Enebral 2009 by Bodega Liberalia showing well – well balanced and fruity in a creamy Sauvignon style. Before moving onto the reds we tried the excellent Veiga Serantes 2008 Albariño which had a sharp acidity carrying with it a range of secondary flavours, most likely from the lees that it is fermented on. At £12.99 a bottle this shows how the popularity of Albariño is pushing prices up across the board, but for a well made and complex white such as this sometimes it’s worth paying a few extra pounds.
Onto the reds and we tasted our way through a mix of Tempranillos from Toro and Ribera del Duero while finishing off what remained of the cured meat and cheese. An old favourite provided drinking pleasure with the Tamaral 2004 Crianza; spicy oak on the nose and plenty of sweet fruit supported throughout by good acidity and integrated tannin – good for a couple of more years yet. Finally a bottle was opened “for the brave” in the room, the Barrel fermented 2009 Cero from Liberalia. With menthol and liquorice on the nose this had a big texture with fresh acidity and, although there was a background greenness, wasn’t as we were led to expect. Given 3-5 years and I’d expect this to be drinking as well as, if not better than the Tamaral is now.
The monthly NEWTS meeting was presented by the Society chairman Geoff Cullen on the Loire Valley, one of his favourite areas . “Touraine” was the theme with a selection of predominantly Vouvray, Chinon and Saumur wines, sourced during one of his frequent holidays to the area, but it was a delicious Sancerre which started us off; the J.P. Balland 2007 Grand Cuvée (Terres Blanches) which had a subtle, floral nose, plenty of citrus acidity and elegant texture.
Vouvray was represented by the venerable producer Domaine Huet with the clean, relatively full bodied “Le Mont” Sec and the honeyed, sour-sweet pineapple “Le Mont” Demi-Sec – a very interesting wine (“Tart Tatin” in a glass was overheard) although a few questioned exactly what it was trying to be, a dessert wine or aperitif (I favoured the latter).
The reds were mostly as expected from a Cabernet Franc region; lean, acidic and vegetal with the exception of the Ladoucette 2007 Les Doux Tours (AOC Touraine) which was a Malbec, Cabernet Franc blend with a very fruity, almost jammy flavour, but lacked complexity. Of the others the 2007 Fours à Chaux (AOC Saumur) from Philippe et Georges Vatan at Château du Hureau showed great texture on the mid-palate with juicy fruit and oaky tannins throughout – a wonderful wine and better appreciated than its more expensive sibling, the 2006 Lisgarth, which had a fantastic cherry menthol nose but the dry tannins needed a little more taming.
The final wine of the night was a treat; the 1999 Château de Fesles Bonnezeaux; a burnished bronze colour in the glass with an unctuous oily perfume and a cinder toffee and burnt orange taste, but with a solid backbone of sour acidity underneath the sweetness.
Back at home and July was the first month in some time where I acquired nearly twice as many bottles than I drank, which caused its own problems as I ran out of space to put them! Emergency action was required and on the last day of the month I purchased a second 40 bottle cooler and installed it in the garage. As the painful process of reorganising the collection didn’t start until August 1st I’ll leave that tale until the next ‘Corner post!
The purchase of the wine cooler meant a visit to a store where they have a wide range of older wines (a few of which have officially moved into the “over the hill” category). I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of E. Guigal’s 2000 Condrieu for £10, even though it has surely seen its best days, however, a Penfolds 1997 St. Henri Shiraz should hopefully have some life left in for my first experience of an aged Aussie stalwart.
A trip to Corkscrew Wines in Carlisle was very successful as I brought back two Château Musar 2003 Blanc, joining one remaining ’01 and pair of ‘04s. This unusual wine, made from the Obaideh and Merwah grapes, made an everlasting impression on me when I first tasted the 2001 a few years ago and I intend to continue purchases of this as well as the more famous red label. To remind you of my mini-obsession with Lebanon and Château Musar I now have 18 bottles of varying colours and vintages – over 12% of my increasing collection of bottles.
I also added to my mini-vertical of Château St. Georges, AOC St. Georges St. Emilion, after a visit from a French colleague who gets a regular allocation of this small producer. With the 06, 07 and 08 laid down I hope in a few years to try again to ignite an interest for Bordeaux which, as yet, just hasn’t happened.
Of the wines opened at home only two excited to any level;
Pfaffenheim’s 2005 Steinert Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace had a delightful fresh honey nose and was beautifully smooth with a slight herbal bitterness throughout and a good balance of acidity in an off-dry style.
The Umkhulu 2001 Akira Cabernet Sauvignon & Pinotage blend (South African, as if you needed telling) had a wonderful warm, smoky, vegetal nose with vanilla and liquorice and a smooth, chocolate texture with barely noticeable fine tannins. This was a savoury, juicy wine with plenty of fruit left for its age, drinking beautifully right now.
August promises to be a sedate month, so, until then, Slainte!
Stu Smith is not a happy man. Besieged on all sides by fantasists, charlatans, fabulists, religionists, Greens, vegetarians, and a viral Double Rainbow video, he has had enough. He has bravely decided to take a stand against such pretenders and their intellectual deformations, and maybe just save the world. His target is more sinister than Monsanto, more damaging to the environment than the whole of the petrochemical industry; it is colder than the heart of a Wall Street banker, hotter than a sweatshop. What is his target, one that robs the young of innocence, leaves a trail of broken communities and bodies around the world? Well, Biodynamics, of course. You see, it turns out that ‘dynamizing’ water and burying cow horns are the greatest threats to Culture the world has ever known.
The story begins quietly enough. According to Mr. Smith’s well-informed reading of Western History, civilization was moving along swimmingly until a small, sickly man by the name of Rudolf Steiner opened Pandora’s box of miseries and plagues upon humanity. With the publication of a slender volume of agricultural thought experiments this one pied piper, Steiner, set back the progress of Reason and Enlightenment by centuries. Suddenly darkness descended. The mind of Man became infected with thoughts of ‘preparations’, compost heaps, spinning water, the destructiveness of synthetic fertilizers, of cows and manure, land regeneration and speculations on the unity of all life. Jehovah, Christ, Muhammad, even a laughing Buddha, are mere bit players when compared to the starring role Mr. Smith’s feverish imagination has given to Steiner in the eclipse of Reason. Indeed, Mr. Smith’s militant atheism has no use for art, music, or literature if it has been created by an author in the thrall of religious ecstasy or mere inspiration.
And that he claims to write in the name of Science and Rationality is all any of us really need to nail the coffin shut on this style of thinking. His is a shameless display of disrespect, of throwing elbows when civil exchange is what this world really needs.
Most galling is that he pretends to be an organic or sustainable farmer himself, though we never read any proof of this on his site. I’ve asked him many times to tell his readership the specifics of his practice. Silence. Besides, after a certain point, all certified farming practices are suspect. They’ve been legislatively constructed with plenty of escape clauses and exceptions. My suspicion is that Mr. Smith is sufficiently cynical of both the certifying agency and the consumer so as not to finally care what methods he uses. Only Biodynamics is at fault, not industrial agriculture.
So, after reading his latest bit of nonsense We Use To Burn Witches In America, wherein we read some wrong-thinking guy is “dumber than dirt”, I felt it important to respond. And I did. But Mr. Smith is no longer posting my replies. Censoring dissent has become the form of his latest insult. I’ve decided to post it here.
I’m trying to figure out how to live my life according to scientific principles. I know fantasy is not real, I’ve gotten that far. But I’m having trouble with completely banishing the former. Perhaps you can help me. For example, particularly perplexing is the fact that almost all of my relatives believe in a deity of some kind despite all of the excellent scientific evidence to the contrary. God this, god that… They are always whining about one dead family member or another. They tell me stories of when they were young, about their farming days, the Great Hail Storm of ’46, how they saved the world from communism. But between you and me, they always get the details wrong. They leave stuff out. Yet they insist their memories are real! Must be the Miracle-Grow they use on their flower beds. Judging by their memories, I think they drink the stuff as well.
The problem is huge. There are entire nations who organize their self-understanding around scientifically inaccurate fantasies. David slays some really big Goliath dude, Washington tells the truth about a cherry tree, I mean, WTF? The stupid stuff people believe!
Not too long ago a cousin of mine, a veteran, gave a part of his liver to his mother. Now, he needed his entire liver! I tried to stop him, telling him that his altruistic impulse was a fantasy; that his abiding love (another fantasy) for his mother was irrational. His health would be compromised (as has happened); the health of his mother… well, what is a mother anyway but a drag on the bank account, especially when they get old and have absolutely no rational purpose for hanging on? “What if you were adopted?!” I implored. Nothing I said worked. Now everybody is old and in debt, and the son has gained like a thousand pounds, lost his ability to work while the mother went back to baking cookies. Where is the rationality in that?!
I’ve written multiple times to the federal govt. to DO something! But each day I lose a little more confidence that our chronic mistaking of fantasy for reality may have a federal solution! So I’m turning to you, Stu. I’m hoping! Fingers crossed! Knocking on wood! I even went to the mall and had a bumper sticker made up. It reads, “What Would Stu Do?”
Please also see my Reflection On Biodynamics.