Suncé Winery, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, California

Ξ October 31st, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wineries |

Greybeard writes…
 
If you ever find yourself in Santa Rosa heading west to the Russian River Valley then take the Guerneville Road (Exit 491 off HWY 101) and make sure you turn right onto Olivet Road to visit a little piece of Croatia that is the Suncé Winery and Tasting Room. I discovered this wonderful, welcoming place from their entry in Tilar Mazzeo’s useful pocket guide book, “Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma” – a gift from Reign of Terroir’s mastermind Ken Payton when I visited him a few days earlier. Leafing through the pages on Russian River I saw that winemaker Frané Franicevic was born in Croatia and my Eastern European heritage pulled me to the tasting room converted from an old horse stable – it was a good decision.
 
Born and raised in the fishing village of Sucuraj on the eastern tip of the island of Hvar, off the Dalmatian coast, Frané came to the US with his family aged 17. Winemaking may have been in the genes (the family had been making wines in the old country for hundreds of years) but initially there was a more academic path laid out for him with a masters in Humanistic Studies from the University of West Georgia and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. By the end of the 1980s, while he was completing a hypnotherapy program, the lure of wine country took hold and Frané started making small amounts of wine until, in 1990, he set up One World Winery on Piner Road, outside Santa Rosa.
In 1994 Frané met his soon to be wife Janae and together they developed the winery, moving to an old horse property on Olivet road in 1998 which they named after their second daughter Sunce, Croatian for sun. The couple have 3 daughters, each of their names contributing to the winery’s offerings; Zora (dawn) has the estate vineyard named for her while the youngest, Zemlja (earth) is immortalised by the sublime Zemlja’s blend described shortly.
 
Frané’s most quoted saying is “If all you make is Cab’, then you’re not a winemaker – you’re a Cab’ maker” and, with 23+ different varietals through the vintages, he’s doing his damndest to be a winemaker. Although Suncé only grows 3 acres (1.2 ha) of Pinot Noir(Zora’s vineyard) they buy grapes from across the area for a staggering portfolio of wines – a quick search on Vinopedia for Suncé comes up with 88 entries! The variety doesn’t lead to a compromise in quality either, Suncé wines win their fair share of awards.
 
It was into this history and range that I stepped on a sunny Friday morning recently, notebook in hand. Although I was only expecting the standard tasting menu I quickly struck up a rapport with Janae and Cindy Lundquist behind the bar and soon extra bottles were appearing for my comments, which I was only too happy to give. The introduction wine was their Rosado, an 11% Sangiovese and Chardonnay blend from Sonoma county, a dry rosé in the European style with juicy fruit – very good to kick things off. Then onto the 2009 Viognier from Suisun Valley which had a rich floral nose with a little sweetness, good fruit flavours (some apricot) and a rich mouthfeel with a long finish.
 
That was it for the white grapes, Frané obviously prefers red as a colour, so out came the home grown Pinot Noir, the 2009 Zora’s Estate Winemaker’s Reserve, just out of barrel and hot on the heels of winning best of class in the recent Sonoma County 2010 Harvest Fair awards. This had a herby nose with an earthy aspect, noticeable tannins (but not harsh) light on fruit but with a juiciness to it. Definitely too young, but still approachable and I suspect in 3-5 years will be truly delicious.
Then we moved onto Italian varietals with a 2008 Sangiovese from Alexander Valley which had a sweet nose with a hint of raisin and in the mouth was dry with harsh tannins and noticeable acidity. Although there was some of that raisin on the finish this struck me as a little unbalanced and was not a favourite.
 
Next was a direct comparison of 2 Nebbiolo vintages; 2004 and 2006 both from the St. Olaf vineyard in Clear Lake. The difference in colour was remarkable, the ’06 almost Pinot-esque in translucence, with the ’04 much deeper. I was told this was due to the wine being pressed along with Barbera skins to add some depth to the colour – I also found it intriguing to learn that the Nebbiolo (Suncé work with the Lampa Clone) ferments orange.
The ‘04 had a subtle nose with a touch of smokiness whereas the ‘06 was closed, not giving much away. Both were well-rounded, balanced wines with a fruity mid-palate, the ’06 showing some Garrigue herbs going into a long, elegant finish with tannins that could probably do with a couple of more years to round out.
 
Nebbiolo was then joined by equal amounts of Barbera in the 2007 Zemlja’s Blend which had an almost perfumed nose with some aromatic spice and a touch of Turkish Delight. This was a delicious wine from the start with juicy fruit developing in the mid-palate before firm tannins kicked in – I’d give the tannins a couple of years to settle down. I then discovered the source of those tannins in person with a glass of the ‘07 Barbera, also from the St. Olof Vineyard. The nose was really beautiful; warm and inviting with sweet tobacco, floral perfume and mulled wine spice. Dark in the glass this was very fruity at first, sweet and spicy, but then the tannins kicked in as with the Zemlja’s blend.
All the Italian varietal wines, except maybe the Sangiovese, had a delicate complexity and good mouthfeel with plenty of fruit. The ‘07s need some settling in but the Nebbiolos were delicious and the ’04 was perfect now.
 
After Italy we moved onto France and began with the 2005 Malbec (St. Olof Vineyard again). This had a “Wow!” nose; a meaty, animal, sweet and sour savouriness – a dark aroma matching its deep, inky colour. In the mouth this was well balanced with forceful tannins just starting to smooth out and a savoury acidity enhancing sweet fruit – this was a powerful, complex food wine, as was the 2007 Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend next on the counter, labelled as “California” with its mix of 64% Syrah from Brentwood (Field of Dreams vineyard, Contra Costa County) and 36% Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County. A sweet smoky aroma rose from the glass with a little liquorice, and in the mouth it was full and dry with juicy acidity and relatively forceful tannins – a good mix of classic “red wine” flavours which I expect is a real crowd-pleaser.
 
Syrah took a solo role in a 2007 from San Francisco bay with a smoky nip to the nose and warm fruit in the glass, a good, balanced easy drinking wine.
Another ‘07 was the Mazzocco-Bevill Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley made from Clone 337; bold, early ripening and deep coloured. There was a leanness to the nose of this one, with plenty of fruit, including some blackberry, and strong tannins which need mellowing – a wine with good potential.
Staying in north Sonoma came the 2005 Cabernet Franc (Mazzera Ranch, Dry Creek Valley) which had a warm, subtle, sweet-smoke nose. In the mouth it had good acidity and was smooth, leaving a sweet vegetal taste at the front of the palate and juicy fruit down the sides. With relatively mild tannins this was very enjoyable, a well made wine and, along with the Nebbiolos, one of my favourites of the day.
 
The Spittoon was filling up quickly yet still more bottles appeared on the counter, each accompanied by some anecdote or story about the grape, the grower or Frané himself. It was about now that the main himself came into the tasting room and I exchanged a few words, mostly about his enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries with new and different varietals, although I got the feeling that Janae has a hand in this as well Frané seemed hesitant as we discussed the possibility of a Roussane but Janae was enthusiastic – I’d put money on that Roussane (possibly barrel-fermented) being on the lists in a year or two!
 
Another measure was poured, this time the 2005 Meritage blend of 42% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Cabernet Franc. This started with a strong, fruity nose with lots of sweet red and dark berries, a pure mouthful of fruit with a juicy sweetness and good holding tannins underneath.
Then to the “Super Tuscan”, Suncé’s homage to new Italy, with the 2006 Les Trois Amis Winemaker’s Reserve made with equal measures of Merlot and Sangiovese (44% each) and a splash (12%) of Cabernet Sauvignon, all from Russian River. If I had to use one word to sum this up it would be complex, both for the nose and taste. The aroma was a mix of baking spices, including some nutmeg, while in the mouth there were layers of subtle flavours and a warming minty spiciness. The texture was smooth with fine tannins running underneath, a 4 star wine and one I seriously considered bringing home with me.
 
Before finishing off the tasting with the fortified wines Janae and Cindy poured a measure of the just-bottled (and label less) 2009 Carignane. This had a youthful nose and a vibrant purple-hued colour to match, full of light, young tannins and sweet juicy fruit (heading towards candy fruit). This was a light and very drinkable young wine – I used the phrase “gluggable” which seemed to amuse Janae!
 
And so to bring the tasting to a close we finally came to the dessert trolley! First was the 2005 Late Harvest Zinfandel at 17% abv, old-vine Zinfandel from Buck Hill Vineyard in Sonoma County. This wasn’t sweet as such, made in a light Port style although maybe a touch fresher and quite delicate in flavours, making a savoury digestif.
 
One of the daughters made another virtual appearance with the 2008 “Sweet Zora” Late Harvest Cabernet Franc, 18% abv with only 450 cases made. The colour suggested more than its 2 years of age but it was the nose that got me, a sweet volatility which instantly took me back to memories of my grandfathers homemade wines in Hungary. In the mouth this had a delicious nuttiness similar to an Oloroso Sherry , although maybe not as rich and with a sweeter acidity. I would rate this as another 4 star wine and, being a smaller bottle than Les Trois Amis, I decided that this was a better fit in my baggage for the flight home across the Atlantic!
The last wine, ending a long session in the tasting room (although an extremely enjoyable one exchanging banter with Janae and Cindy), was the 2009 “Sweet Zora” Malvasia Bianca, another fortified wine in a white-port style, at 17% abv and 13.2% residual sugar. This had a grapey nose and was fresh and light with a floral sweetness, a clean wine perfect as a lightly chilled aperitif.
 
So ended my marathon tasting session at Suncé leaving a well-used spittoon and plenty of glasses in need of a wash. I had a quiet walk around the property, noting a Bocce court, a popular sport in Croatia where it is known as Bo?anje (I later discovered Frané is a prominent player in the local Bocce league – even a winemaker needs a hobby!).
 
I was really glad I’d decided to visit Suncé; the winery and tasting rooms are somewhere I’d easily recommend to any wine enthusiast visiting Sonoma for the friendliness of the people, the range and quality of the wines. On my return to the UK the memory of the visit spurred me to open a Croatian Plavac Mali I’d been holding onto for a couple of years, made on the island where Frané came from and where his parents retired to….Hvar. This was the Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru 2005 Vinogorje Hvar and, although it was made in Sveta Nedjelja on the other side of the island from Sucuraj, each sip reminded me of that sunny afternoon in the Russian River.
 
Greybeard
 
Winery Facts;
Name: Suncé Winery
Winemaker: Frané Franicevic
Address: 1839 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95401. Tasting room open 10:30am – 5pm.
Contact Details: 707-526-WINE, Email, and their website.
Summary: Small batch production from vineyards across the Sonoma and North Coast area. Approx. 5000 cases annually sold through the wine club or at the cellar door.
 

 

A Visit To The Parliament Of Austria

Ξ October 29th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine & Politics, Wine News |

Finding my way in a new city without a grasp of the language, clutching only a worn map, this American tourist in Vienna, Austria cut an amusing figure. Zigzagging down streets, frequently turning back, transfixed by a monumental skyline, yet always searching the crowd for a friendly face to whom I might ask the one precious phrase learned, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”, certainly is the stuff of comedy. And while in Vienna for the European Wine Bloggers Conference, I was quite the walking sight gag. But as I’ve often insisted, this condition can be a strength, an advantage of great value. And so it is a closely held truth of this nomad that unusually fruitful encounters are guaranteed. This was made perfectly clear when I visited the Parliament of Austria.
 
I was generously asked to participate on an EWBC panel about freedoms and responsibilities of advertisers and wine writers with George Sandeman of Sogrape Vinhos and, for the purposes of the panel, the organization Wine In Moderation, and Adam Watson Brown of the European Commission. I shall provide full details of our very interesting exchange in a later post. Of greater moment here were my effort to learn as much as possible in advance of the discussion. It occurred to me that speaking with member of Parliament might prove illuminating. But just how might I do that? Well, I just walked through a door.
 
There was much puzzlement at this unkempt American standing before staff. The entrance was teeming with students and their harried teachers, and well-dressed men and women coming and going through a maze of security. These are the customary groups. An occasional Russian, French, and English voice could be heard. Apart from officials of some sort on their way to the current legislative session, everyone else was destined for the controlled walk through.
 
“I would like to speak with someone in government about the liquor laws of Austria.” OK. I was asked whether I had an appointment? No. Did I have someone in mind? No. Did I have the slightest idea in which governmental division liquor laws are legislated? No. But I have a map! “Perhaps you need a better one.” Fair enough. But after much consultation and more than a few phone calls, all in German, natürlich, I was asked to wait. Someone had been found willing to speak with me.
 
Dr. Rudolf Kracher is no ordinary someone. In addition to being a Klubsekretär of the SPO, the Social Democratic Party of Austria, he is also the brother of the recently passed and greatly missed Alois Kracher, among the most important figures in the Austrian wine industry, past and present. His presence is still keenly felt. And Dr. Rudolf Kracher brought him to life for this writer. For once through security (and after a very entertaining conversation with a security agent about the American-style football played in Austria–he was a Raider fan, can you believe it!), Rudolf took me to the august Parliament cafeteria where, surrounded by deputies and politicians, he proceeded to tell me the story of his family’s life and struggles. Much was in confidence, I believe. I cannot be sure. Out of an abundance of caution, I will not relate the more personal remarks. In any event, I did not record the exchange.
 
I can say Dr. Kracher was particularly frank about the many shocks and setbacks the Austrian wine industry has suffered in recent years, especially on the political front (leaving aside the obvious wine doctoring scandal of ‘84-’85). The rise of the far-right, of the grossly misnamed Freedom Party–fascist was the word Dr. Kracher used–is especially troubling. In recent elections they made substantial gains. Indeed, the EWBC narrowly missed laboring under a fascist mayor, the morbid Heinz-Christian Strache. Austrian international trade has and likely will again suffer. The wine sector has proven particularly sensitive.
 
But the bright reality, forcefully explained by Dr. Kracher, is that many Austrian wine producers–and Alois Kracher was also a pioneer in this regard–work very hard to establish personal relationships with distributors, restauranteurs, retailers, and ordinary drinkers throughout the world. This is Alois’ enduring legacy. Beyond the body blows Austria seems destined to take, despite internal social turmoil, there remain lasting friendships. As Dr. Kracher poetically put it, the idea is to “show and explain what is in your heart”.
 
Dr. Rudolf Kracher then gave me an article written by his brother, “The Successful Development of An Austrian Winegrowing Estate In the International Dessert Wine Market”. Read properly, it is a moving document. (And I hope to locate and link an on-line version soon.) Many names and telephone numbers were written on the back of the paper. Among them that of Alois’ son, Gerhard Kracher. So it happened that I was immediately put in touch with Gerhard. My lunch-time interview with him will come in a few days.
 
Dr. Kracher bid me farewell, but not before insisting I contact him whenever I needed to (a promise he kept, you can be sure!). Show and explain what is in your heart. Words to live by.
 
Admin

 

Wine In Poland, A Talk With Maciej Gontarz

Ξ October 26th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

A great intellectual pleasure of a nomadic wine writer is doubtless the people met around the next bend. For this traveller it was the turn I took to the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) in beautiful Vienna, Austria where, among the many folks attending was one Maciej Gontarz, a young, knowledgeable wine blogger from Poland. Fast friends, with many ideas in common, he and I spent much time together during the conference discussing everything from Mondovino, the preservation of indigenous grape varieties, to the social responsibilities of the wine blogger.
 
We also share an interest in Portugal, an interest I like to think I played a small part in cultivating. And though his understanding of Portugal’s fascinating complexities, the depths of her historical wine culture, may now be lacking, I bring readers the good news that Maciej (pronounced Ma-Chek) will be going to Portugal this December through the generosity of ViniPortugal, a conference attendee and last year’s principle EWBC host. ViniPortugal brought along a number of well-received wines and a contest. Place your business card in a box, and if it is blindly drawn you will go the 1st Wines of Portugal International Conference from December 9th to the 11th in Oporto. Maciej’s card was drawn.
 
A final note: Language proved a small barrier, and so the interview to follow is marked by modest, yet real ambiguities that I hope to resolve in the coming days. (Corrections have been added since posting.)
 
Admin Here we are at the Schönbrunn, just outside the Orangerie, the base of operations for the European Wine Bloggers Conference. So, who are you, and what is it you do?
 
Maciej Gontarz I’m Marciej Gontarz. I am the owner of the site Viniculture_pl, a wine blog devoted to wine lovers in Poland.
 
Do you enjoy a wide readership?
 
MG It depends on the market. We can’t compare it to the states because you have a much bigger population of wine drinkers, but I can say that it enjoys around 3,000 unique users per month, something around this figure. But the amount of users is not, I think, that important. To me much more important is the average time spent on the website, which for mine is around 3 minutes. This is more important because even if I could have 10,000 users, if the average time spent there is 20 seconds then its clear they found nothing interesting on the website, and they’re going elsewhere. Therefore time spent on the site is more important than the total amount of users per month.
 
Are there many Polish wine bloggers?
 
MG I think the number of active bloggers, those who treat wine more seriously, is about 10. It’s a tiny market, so not many wine bloggers.
 
About the Polish wine growing regions, are they spread throughout the country?
 
MG Actually, we have three main wine growing regions: The first one is Lubuskie which is close to the German border; the second one is Przelom Wisly near the city of Krakow; the third one is Podkarpackie. And I think these guys have the greatest heritage. Of course, wineries exist in many different parts of Poland. (I think it is worth mentioning that one of Polish winemaker – Piotr Stopczynski – used to work at Diamond Oaks in California.) But they are very tiny producers. The biggest one is just several hectares. But they are trying to develop their business. Even here I met one guy from the cork industry who recently had a trip around Poland and met Polish producers. He said that he is really impressed by the rapidly growing industry; but to me wine making in Poland it is much more like a hobby. This is true, I think, for the majority of them: It’s like a hobby.
 
Of course, there are certain obstacles to Polish wineries…
 
MG Yes, yes, mainly because, I think, we are not really mature in terms of even a wine drinking culture. So, the government, generally speaking, sees no reason to develop opportunities for our wineries. There are a lot of politics, of course, as it is in all countries. But here it’s really hard for them, the wineries, to have their own laboratories, for example. And the taxes to pay! At the end of the day, the price for the wine is too high. It doesn’t make any sense to buy wines from Poland. If you need to pay around €12 per bottle of Polish wine, it is completely not comparable with other wines for the same price from different parts of the world. This is a hard thing to overcome in our market.
 
So it’s essentially the tax burden?
 
MG Yes. Taxes and the costs of laboratory work.
 
The lab tests, are these just the routine tests required to sell in a market?
 
MG I am not sure. I think this obstacle has to do with needing laboratories to produce more research and to improve quality, the mark of a maturing wine culture; and this comes when you finally have larger volumes of wine to work with. Generally, they need to have a laboratory. And right now, as far as I know, some cooperatives share a wine laboratory. But I am not even sure whether this laboratory is in Poland or in Germany. The producers will most often use external resources. The simply do not have the money to build a proper laboratory; the equipment is probably too expensive.
 
Are there Enology and Viticulture departments in Polish universities?
 
MG Actually, yes. There is one winery that is part of Krakow University, it is going pretty well. But it’s not really for teaching. They have their own winery.
 
Where do they get their technical expertise?
 
MG That is a good question. I don’t know.
 
So it could come from France or Germany…
 
MG Yes. Maybe even from Hungary; it is not so far away, especially for those guys who are from the southwest of Poland. I think they might exchange their knowledge with people there.
 
So, given the tax burden and other obstacles Polish wineries face, what kinds of topics do you write about?
 
MG Well, we are an immature market, so I don’t think its really important for wine lovers in Poland to know about all the issues related to the problems of Polish wineries. Writing about such things does not give them knowledge about the world of wine. My goal is to create content for people who want to learn about wine, even basics; to know what the wine regions of the world are. It is important in Poland to teach people about wine generally speaking. Your talk today, for example, about freedoms and responsibilities of wine writers, this is the key issue: The educational aspect.
 
If you teach people in Poland how to drink wine, that it is something more than alcohol, they would start to drink less! Because they would start buying and trying even more expensive wines. They would try to discover what are the differences between wines that cost €8 and €50. They would discover that there is a difference, and that it is worth it to pay more and drink less. So this is the whole issue about responsibilities. Unlike the European Commissioner at your talk, he doesn’t need to show pictures of traffic accidents; there is no point to have such a discussion in terms of the wine industry. Especially in Poland with such an immature market.
 
Of course, in Poland we have a huge problem with alcoholism, mainly because of our history of communism. We had and have a huge vodka consumption; it was and still is very inexpensive. This is a real problem, especially in the suburbs and small villages. But we can’t merge data about wine with the data about vodka and beer. This is the key point.
 
What percentage, as far as you know, of the total alcohol consumed is wine? And what of hard liquor and beer? Are those the three major drinks?
 
MG Honestly, I don’t know. Right now, I’ve just received from friends some hard data which I will write an article about for Palate Press. They asked me to provide some research on the Polish industry for the last 20 years, to look into the differences and trends. But I will not have all the data until sometime in the future; I think in one month I will be ready.
 
Do you think the Polish government has such data? Or will you have to look elsewhere?
 
MG You know, I work in the advertisement industry, and in our industry we have a lot of research for marketing purposes. So I use that to understand the cycles of what they drink in Poland. There is research on consumer brands and preferences, for example, the type of alcohol. I would have this kind of data. And the total amount of all types of alcohols consumed, I am not sure our government would really have such data. I’m not sure.
 
Well, thank you, Maciej.
 
MG Thank you very much, Ken.
 
—–I encourage readers to visit Viniculture_pl. With the help of a google translator, among other translating aides, his site makes for delightful reading.
 
For further reading see this and this, and the Poland Wine Institute site.
 
Admin

 

Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex, pt.2

Ξ October 18th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers |

Innovative yet attentive to the evidence, radical but scientifically responsible, Professor Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, takes us on a more detailed examination of the science supporting his speculations of our intimate human relation to alcoholic beverages.
 
“To understand the modern fascination with alcoholic beverages of all kinds, as well as the reasons why they are also targets of condemnation, we need to step back and take a longer view. Alcohol occurs in nature, from the depths of space to the primordial ’soup’ that may have generated the first life on Earth. Of all known naturally addictive substances, only alcohol is consumed by all fruit-eating animals. It forms part of an intricate web of interrelationships between yeasts, plants, and animals as diverse as the fruit fly, elephant, and human.” (pg. 266)
 
Naturally his formal presentation may be found in the pages of his marvelous recent book, Uncorking the Past, The Quest For Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages; so it is that here, in part 2 of the interview, he artfully highlights key concepts such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, our hard wiring, if you will. From the book,
 
“The neurons in our brains communicate via chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. Alcohol coursing through the blood prompts the release of these compounds into the synapse, of the gap between the neurons. The neurotransmitters travel across the synapses and attach to receptors on the net neuron, triggering an electrical impulse. As we sip that drink, neurons fire at high speed seemingly ad infinitum. Different types and quantities of neurotransmitters activate specific pathways of neurons in our emotional and higher-thought centers. More alcohol leads to more activation, which we experience as the conscious or not-so-conscious feelings of elation or sadness, dizziness, and eventually stupor.” (pg. 272)
 
And it is this intimate relation between brain chemistry and alcohol that forms the basis of Prof. McGovern’s cultural conjectures.
 
“Once our species started down the road of drinking alcoholic beverages, there was no turning back. At the same time that the human body and brain adapted themselves to the drug, those unique symbolic constructions of humankind–its languages, music, dress, art, religion, and technology–were emerging and even reinforcing the phenomenon. How else can we explain the near-universal prevalence of fermented-beverage cultures in which alcoholic beverages (whether wine, beer, or mixed grog) came to dominate entire economies, religions, and societies over time?” (pg. 276)
 
Part 1
 
And so we resume our conversation.
 
Patrick McGovern I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Georgia, up in the Caucasus, but there you’ve got a wine culture that probably gone on for millennia. Whether you’re having an ordinary meal, or are going to church, any special celebration, it is all centered around wine. They have other foods that they bring in to it, but if you’re really going to sense your oneness with life and celebration, your union with other people, wine really captures that the best.
 
Admin Now, historically speaking, the best wines, the best made wines are going to be reserved for the higher castes, whether the priests or the royals and their courtesans. Can you locate in diverse ancient cultures moments when the making of fermented beverages shifts from a small scale collective effort to a quasi-state monopoly?
 
PM You can see that as you go from Neolithic to the Bronze Age in all parts of the world. In the Neolithic you have people doing a lot of experimentation, discovering which plants and animals they can domesticate. It could be the Middle East where barley and wheat, or grapes are important; it could be China where rice dominates; Africa with sorghum and millet–but every area’s got it own set of ‘founder’ plants. In the Middle East, for example, there are eight founder plants. So it was in the Neolithic Period when people discovered a lot about which plants they could use and started developing ways to prepare the foods. And they discovered different secondary fermented products, cheeses and so on.
 
Then we actually see those societies getting more complex with time. You start getting descriptions that suggest that they’re starting to produce on a much larger scale, and that there are very specific people now charged with the responsibility of making the wine, making the beer, cheese, whatever it happens to be. Whereas in the Neolithic Period it was more of a closed community that was more experimental and probably more in touch, again, with their environment and with each other. But once you get into these more complex cultures roles are split up, mass production begins. You feel distanced from what the original purpose of that food and beverage may have been.
 
I think that’s what you’re getting at, the desacralization process. How do you escape it once you no longer have those small communities where everybody is out there really learning about their environment, testing things, being open to change, in touch with each other? How do you keep some sense of that in a very complex society where your role is so limited? You might be a father with a child but it not like you’re part of a larger community like you used to be. You’re not going out to find out about nature like you used to back in the Neolithic. So I think it’s very difficult to recapture that spirit unless, I suppose, you return to communities like that. But how many people are willing to do that, unless you’re Amish or some 60s radical settling a commune! (laughs) But even there maybe it is that so much has already been lost or distorted that you can’t really get back to the way it was in the Neolithic.
 
Well, even the issue of polygamy versus monogamy would be difficult inasmuch as inebriation reduces social inhibitions. There are all kinds of historically inherited, if not unconscious, taboos that remain stubbornly modern, that in fact, following Freud, preserve a community’s integrity. It has been said that polygamy was supplanted by monogamy, however theoretical its practice, precisely in order to preserve a community. It therefore seems one could argue that alcoholic beverages can also work to undo communities.
 
PM Yes. I think you could write a history about how taboos have come in to try to regulate alcohol’s use. Even genetically you could say of the flushing reaction of the Chinese that it may be a genetic solution to over-drinking from an earlier period. We know the Shang dynasty emperors of 1200 B.C. and before were huge drinkers. Maybe even going back a lot further than the Shang dynasty we do have evidence that there were a fair amount of alcohol-related vessels that are very similar to what comes later. So you can push it back quite a ways. But if there was a lot of heavy drinking and it was undermining the fabric of the society, how do you control that? Well, genetically you might have something like the flushing reaction that would keep people from drinking to excess. Or the social prohibitions, taboos, come into play.
 
Like you say, there could be other aspects to a society, too, especially since alcohol breaks down inhibitions and leads to more sex in a generalized way; and not necessarily with just one man and one woman! So, yes, if you look at human behavior you could make a case that left to their own devices they’ll do a lot more than monogamy! (laughs) Again, we don’t really have the evidence from those early periods. But you can certainly come up with hypotheses.
 
With the idea of monogamy, I’m also trying to get a sense of the tension between growing societal complexity, the rise of the state and official religion and the emerging specialization within alcoholic beverages and their producers, perhaps accompanied by drink related taboos. Might inebriation have, at some point, become a threat to the primitive state and to an early codified religion, perhaps driving both, certainly with respect to sex and the understanding of our own bodies? If through the use of alcoholic beverages a group collectively enters into a creative, sexualized spiritual dimension, as it were, then perhaps we’re also seeing in later society the willful disintegration of collective spirituality itself. Taboos would then function as regulatory principles and have as their target the source of re-creation itself: a woman’s body. I mean, to control alcoholic beverages is to control an unpredictable spirituality writ large. Maybe not! I know you’re not a cultural anthropologist…
 
PM Communication among themselves as a community within nature was probably more direct and less desacralized or fragmented as things become increasingly more complex. I’m not saying they lived in an ideal world, either. Obviously the life spans were very short. But at the very least they had a more integrated existence, I think. It is that kind of environment that you could then have people making real discoveries, which they did: the domestication of plants and animals, and much more. Clearly there was a lot of pain and suffering and early death. Everything we see around us today has so many millennia of history attached to it. So you don’t really know how constrained things have actually become. And you can never really peel that away, first of all because you have limited evidence to work with to know what life really would have been like. There might have been a more democratic awareness of a community as such, and Nature.
The situation changes whether you’re in the Arctic or in the jungle… but humans will adapt to any of these circumstances. You can still find peoples today who are more integrated rather than socially fragmented by a large, complex society. I think this has obvious implications for the role fermented beverages play in the society.
 
More to the point, you have the Bacchic poets, especially their love poetry where wine is equated with love-making, really. They say it could be the love of god, a mystical union, that’s part of it, too. Like the Song of Solomon, you can have an over-arching sense of the oneness with being, but how does that really get expressed in this world? One way it is expressed is by physical union. That taps into some tremendous, deep wellspring that you don’t otherwise feel. It unleashes the same kinds of neurotransmitters, the pleasurable compounds, as happens when you drink alcohol. Similarly, and I try to bring this out at the end of the book, when you get new ideas you are also unleashing–and this gets back to what you said about me thinking in a young way–those same neurotransmitters as well. New ideas, seeing new relationships is exciting! So as your brain releases these compounds, you feel elation. The same with sex. The same with fermented beverages or wine. It opens up your mind to a great deal of pleasure!
 
And this is what I’m trying to get across in the book: the way wine and fermented beverages function is to open you up to other worlds. And this could be a phenomenon that has been with us since the beginning of our species, how language and music developed… these things are all interconnected, I think.
 
Could you say more about the development of language? I suddenly remember a professor of mine who once spoke of the near-universality of the sound and meaning of ‘mama’. No matter how inebriated one is one can always call, in whatever tongue, for ‘mama’!
 
PM What I try to argue is that language probably develops out of music. If you drink a fermented beverage, if you drink wine, you might feel like dancing or singing. This would be a stimulus for articulating sounds, I think. I don’t know if there are any specific words from such scenes, but the origins of most of the words has some relationship to whatever that thing is. The word for wine in Egyptian is ‘irp’, like the sound you might make if you had too much to drink–’burp’! That’s been seriously proposed as the origin for that word from ancient Egypt.
 
Part of the argument here is that music is universal. Language is universal. Fermented beverages are universal! Somehow there must be a relationship going on from an early stage, even if we can’t determine all the specifics.
 
But perhaps it is also true that we can’t think it properly absent a deeper reflection on the sacred. We have to employ a kind of hermeneutic, or an eidetic reduction, if you will, to help clear away the profane debris barring proper historical thinking.
 
PM Perhaps. It’s like the taboos you’re talking about. There’s been such an accumulation of stuff that really doesn’t tell us what happened originally. It’s just the stuff we have to live with, that we struggle with in our society. It’s like the language you use, it is second nature. You almost have to push it away in order to see something different based on the evidence you’ve got.
 
I had a similar experience recently with a clay jar wine from Vila Frades, Portugal, a Cistercian wine specifically intended to be a way to approach God. And made in the same way for hundreds of years. How hard it is for a modern to think such a wine.
 
PM That when they drink the wine that it somehow puts them in touch with the divine…
 
Well, that’s part of an older protocol. My effort, and it was a dismal failure, was an attempt to think the wine without the modern apparatus of wine tasting concepts, all the supplemental stuff I’ve come to know. It proved very difficult to think the wine in its proper context, especially to remain faithful to the spirit of those who made the wine. In my own work I’m trying to reintroduce alternate ways of understanding wine that is not dependent upon marketing, upon the critic’s and the consumer’s fetishizing predilection.
 
PM Some people are trying to get back to these older traditions. There is a place in New York City called Anfora after the ancient Greek word for jar. [Website under construction. Twitter handle: AnforaNYC] They are trying to bring in wines, especially from Italy and France. And in those countries they are starting to do all of their fermentations in pottery jars, sometimes underground, rather that in barrel or stainless steel tanks. They are trying to incorporate ambient yeasts to get as much out of the natural product as you can. And clay is thought to help better with the oxygenation process. This is basically following ancient methods where maybe at those times–and most of the early Greek and Roman writers spent a lot of time talking about wine and how to grow grapes, how to vinify–maybe they were more aware empirically of what was happening and actually did something that was a higher quality, more interesting and complex product.
 
And many of these traditions are hanging on by a thread.
 
PM Oh, yes. There’s Gravner in Italy… of course, sometimes it gets into superstition with biodynamics and lunar cycles. But taking the clay from their local area, older vines of mixed parentage, you know, trying to make the most of what their native plants and soils and yeasts give them.
 
I see biodynamics as suffering from an excessive formalism, obsessed by a kind of fidgety, antiseptic spiritual technology, if you will. Biodynamics attempts to sacralize through formal techniques and practices.
 
PM I think the ancients probably had a much greater appreciation for the sacred elements. Again, with the Bacchic poets you can sort of see one way it might be expressed. But the Greek and Roman writers can sometimes seem like a modern science text book. Then every so often they’ll introduce the notion of some sort of god is acting. And in the Bible God is the great vintner, he stamps out the grapes of wrath against the nations rising up against Israel. There are all kinds of analogies drawn between grapes, wine, and the deity. Ultimately you have the funerary feast of the Last Supper where the person to die is represented by wine and bread.
 
Looking at other cultures one sees the same thing going on. In Mesoamerica with chocolate beverages there is a very intimate connection through associations and symbolism with God or gods, as with chicha as well. When people drink these beverages and have their celebrations and feasts, they are in some sense identifying it with a sacred dimension. It becomes more than an ordinary food!
 
God could be another name for no longer being yourself, of being in an oceanic space without understandable or recognizable boundaries.
 
PM I think we’re all wondering about that. Striving for that. Even in our desacralized world we recognize that wine and alcoholic beverages take us outside of ourselves. There is such contradictory thinking in our society about it! I’m looking out the window here at Penn University. In another building they are probably doing studies of some of alcohol’s negative properties! Yet at all the alumni events there is always going to be some kind of alcoholic beverage served.
We really don’t know our own minds.
 
Amen. What do you mean by ‘extreme beverages’?
 
PM Extreme beverages are those that aren’t just based on one natural product, like grapes made into wine or barley made into beer. Extreme beverages are mixtures of different substances. Neolithic beverages seem to be, for example, made of just about anything they find in their environment. They just throw it in and see if they can get a fermentation to occur. The residue of the beverages we do find are these mixed sorts. And this makes sense in that if you have limited sugar resources and you don’t understand the process of fermentation, you might want to have as many things in there as possible to be sure that fermentation gets going. But it could go beyond that. It could be that they are really playing with different flavors, or trying to come up with mixed substances that have beneficial medicinal properties, for example. But then things get increasingly specialized with societal development, as we’ve noted.
 
The rise of the money form, commodification… Do you have another book in the works?
 
PM Not as such. I could do spinoffs that have to do with one beverage or another. I’ve thought about that; and coming up with different kinds of beverage recipes, elaborating a bit more on some of the beverages that are there. It could be extreme beverages, it could be about fermenting in amphoras… I’ve done some experimentation in that, too; and then also the beer-making with Dogfish Head, trying other formulations.
 
We’re thinking of making an Egyptian beer. When you go into the tombs you can see all the depictions of the winemaking and beer-making processes. There are a lot of myths and deities associated with the fermented beverages, too. There is a lot of textual and artistic evidence, and also chemical and botanical evidence, too, about what kinds of alcoholic beverages they were consuming and the place they held in the society, and still do. That are a few of the ways the ideas in this book can be expanded upon.
 
Thank you very much, Patrick.
 
PM Thank you, Ken
 
Admin

 

Uncorking the Past, A Talk With Patrick McGovern pt. 1

Ξ October 13th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History |

Alcohol enjoys a multivalent reputation. From triumphant and vanquished Prohibition movements in the United States and around the globe, to its central symbolism in Christian religious expression; from the painfully refined and esoteric tastings of fine wine vintages, to violent brawls among soccer hooligans ripped on root beer schnapps and Fosters; from the drive-through liquor stores in some southern states, to the parade of Utah citizens passing through Nevada border towns; from “liquor is quicker”, to “shaken not stirred”, alcohol is a highly contested substance of infinite social and (agri)cultural plasticity. And University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology pioneer Professor Patrick McGovern thinks he knows why. In his latest book, Uncorking the Past, he advances the radical thesis that alcohol is fundamental to the human condition.
 
With a measured combination of hard evidence and grounded speculation he begins, like a modern Plato, with a cave.
 
“The phantasmagoria of our dreams can be extremely fluid and evocative: we might imagine an animal transformed into a human, see ourselves from the outside as it acting in a play, or experience the sensations of flying or falling into an abyss. The Stone Age murals in their dark caverns thus have strong similarities to dream images that well up in our three-dimensional and often vividly colored fantasies in the dark of night. The deep silence of the grotto, intensified by the effects of an alcoholic beverage, might have nourished the imaginations of sensitive individuals, who then represented their inner and outer worlds in two-dimensional art. The shaman and the community could then act out the essential rituals that would guarantee their welfare in this life and the one to come.” [pg.21]
 
“I contend {…} that the driving forces in human development from the Paleolithic period to the present have been the uniquely human traits of self-consciousness, innovation, the arts and religion, all of which can be heightened and encouraged by the consumption of an alcoholic beverage, with its profound effects on the human brain.” [pg.27]
 
But there is a more important part of the story. Long has been the search within an Anthropology broadly conceived for a unifying explanation of the origins of agriculture and human settlements. What motivated our ancestors’ transition from nomadic hunter and gatherer, from opportunistic scavenger to keeper of field and hearth, as it were? Prof. McGovern developed a scenario in an earlier seminal text, Ancient Wine, that he calls the Paleolithic hypothesis.
 
“[T]his hypothesis posits that at some point in early human prehistory, a creature not so different from ourselves–with an eye for brightly colored fruit, a taste for sugar and alcohol, and a brain attuned to alcohol’s psychotropic effects–would have moved beyond the unconscious craving of a slug or a drunken monkey for fermented fruit to the much more conscious, intentional production and consumption of a fermented beverage.” [pg.12]
 
So a central question in Uncorking the Past becomes whether the archaeological evidence gathered world-wide, much of it unearthed by Prof. McGovern himself, can sustain the thesis that we were driven to agriculture and permanent settlement precisely because of a conscious, intentional desire to reliably, predictably produce fermented beverages. Though unprovable owing to the absence of beverage manufacturing artifacts, the Paleolithic hypothesis does derive some support from the archaeological record.
 
“For example, some of the earliest artistic representations of our species depict bare-breasted, large-hipped females, often referred to as Venuses because of their obvious associations with sexuality and childbearing. One particularly provocative Venus was chisled into a cliff at Laussel in the Dordogne [...]. With one hand on her pregnant belly, the long-haired beauty holds up an object that resembles a drinking horn.” [pg.16]
 
Of course his caveats are many. The point here is to illustrate Prof. McGovern’s approach to the evidence from the Paleolithic, how he attempts to synthesize all surviving forms of ancient creative expression, cave paintings, religious fetishes, musical instruments, etc. into wider narrative of our passage to Neolithic settlement and plant domestication. Indeed, he argues throughout the artfully structured book that alcoholic beverages are always and everywhere (with modest exceptions) not only the raison d’etre of agriculture, but also of increasingly sophisticated forms of artistic and cultural expression, and a fundamental agency of social bonding as well. And his most radical insight? It is the intoxicating, mind-altering effects of alcoholic beverages themselves, whether from figs, grapes, or baobab fruits, whether from grains, honey, sweet gourds or rice et al, which proves the indispensable motor of early societal development.
 
And as though holding onto an unbroken chain of the hands extending a 1000 generations into the past, we moderns still desire, we still crave, perhaps it is not too much to say (he does) that we are addicted to the altered states of consciousness alcoholic beverages can provide. Whether we wish to consort with loved ones now dead, relieve the stress of a terrible day, forget or briefly transcend this mortal coil for a glimpse of god’s face, alcoholic beverages, then as now, offer swift passage.
 
There is a great deal more to say. I will post a full book review in the fullness of time. For now we may turn to the interview with Prof. McGovern for a bit of light.
 
Admin You recently gave a talk at UCSC, a very entertaining gloss on aspects of your new book Uncorking the Past. The book is quite fascinating, radical in many ways….
 Patrick McGovern Not many have recognized that. Not as many as I would have expected.
 
That is surprising. It breaks a lot of new ground and is filled with compelling speculations of course grounded in your long scholarly experience. The tone of the book is that of a young man who has made great discoveries, a youthful exuberance. Just how old are you?
 
PG Sixty-five. (laughs)
 
In looking at pictures of you I wonder, should you shave your beard who would emerge!
 
PG I’m not even sure. I’m afraid to shave it off! I’ve had it ever since I went into Archeology when I was in my mid twenties because when you’re in the field you don’t have warm water to use for shaving. So you just grow a beard. It’s very smooth, not rough. I enjoy certain advantages. (laughs)
 
But the youthful spirit of the book, and its radical tone, puts you in a very distinct group of scholars. I’ve read in Anthropology, for example, and such a playful spirit is uncommon.
 
PG I try to be based as much on evidence as I can be. But I am also putting out hypotheses that try to link the evidence we have together; that keep us moving forward, motivate us to find new things and connections as well. That’s the way I see the book, as a way to get basic information out there, but at the same time to also try to fit it together to make a broader cultural sense. It is to encourage further research, especially as scientific techniques improve. I mean, you can talk about the Paleolithic period all you want, but unfortunately right now we don’t have the tools or the recovery methods to get organic materials from that period.
 
But you can make assumptions based on what we see later, what other animals do, what they are attracted to, like alcohol and sugar; what our physiology is set up to do with alcohol and sugar. It’s a lot like any historical science, Geology or Astronomy, for example; you can’t actually replicate the phenomena. You’re missing evidence. It’s in the past. But you try to take what you see going around you today, the available information you have, what the human body and senses are attracted to, and then you come up with a scenario that makes sense out of the evidence that we do have, to fit it together as best you can. As time goes on, we will see if the scenario holds up or not.
 
One of the fascinating things about your reflections on the origins of fermentation and of our being drawn to its products, offers, to use a Freudian metaphor, a royal road back to our ancient ancestors. When you refer to dreams, for example, or the role of the shaman, the darkness of the cave, alcohol in its various forms seems to offer us a special purchase on a historical continuity of our bodies, this despite cultural differences, the remoteness of our histories.
 
PM You mean as far as tapping into a shared realm? Then yes. Alcohol is universal. You can make it from so many plants given enough sugar, or you can process it in a way with added sugar. And yeast is found throughout the environment. So you can have these fermentation processes occurring quite naturally, and having them easily discovered by peoples everywhere. It is then a matter of figuring out if such a discovery changes their whole mental attitude, how it might open up various attitudes with regard to how the world is seen. You have dream states, a common altered state of consciousness, but here you’ve got an actual beverage, widely available, that can do something similar. I think that is one of the main reasons alcohols get incorporated into religion in general; and may have had a real social impact, much more than we recognize.
 
We don’t really have the evidence from the Paleolithic period of how much alcohol they were drinking, how it was affecting people, but we can look at modern cultures today and see that they often drink to excess. You’re really going into an altered state of consciousness in that case. So whether you’re in Africa, South or Central America, they had feasts at which they drank huge quantities of alcoholic beverages. Why was that? And how long has that been going on? And what kind of an impact did that really have on the way humans developed?
 
What I’m sort of suggesting in that first chapter is that alcohol does stimulate peoples’ imaginations. Obviously if you really go to excess then you’re turning off your ability to come up with or bring back something new or different from the altered state because you fall into unconsciousness. So there is a point at which there are negative returns from drinking too much alcohol. My experience is that it varies from person to person, of course. A small example: I’ve spent a fair amount of time now with people in the micro-brewing industry, and they are drinking a lot of this beer too, yet they seem to have a real knack of coming up with new ideas, of always being interested in what the next beverage is going to be. This is probably the case in the wine industry too.
 
Also in the first chapter you mention the ‘desacralization’ of the shaman in the modern world, now labeled charlatans and so on. Because thinking the sacred has become so difficult in our world, what do you suspect are some of the other consequences of this general desacralization when trying to think extreme beverages?
 
PM Today it’s as if we’ve taken away any sort of mystery in Nature. Alcoholic drinks have become increasingly specialized. Used at different social events of course, so they still play a social and religious role to some degree, but because of the prohibition movements that have existed in the Islamic world and here in this country, they’ve been pushed to the sidelines. They are even being stigmatized as bad for health, the cause of car accidents, that women shouldn’t drink during pregnancy. So you have this sort of medical point of view that disparages alcoholic beverages yet doesn’t, at the same time, speak of the positive roles alcohol has played and continues to play in human culture and history.
 
Even Mondavi, when he put on his label that wine is an essential part of the good life, that it has been with us for centuries and millennia, the ATF came in and said he could not use that label because it gave the misleading impression that alcoholic beverages actually had some positive benefits! I think recently they’ve given a little more leeway to having that idea on a label. But alcohol has been an essential part of human existence right from the beginning. And it has played multiple roles in social interactions, breaking down barriers between peoples so that they open up to others, spurring the artistic imagination probably. As long a you don’t go into a permanent state of inebriation! Before modern medicine alcohol was very important. Alcohol was often mixed with herbs, dissolved and administered that way. It’s been at the center of religious culture. So why should we deny that? That is what I can’t understand. I mean, obviously there are drawbacks as there are with everything. But here we have a substance which has been there right from the beginning it seems, even with life on the planet, yet we make it sound like it’s some sort of forbidden fruit without any redeeming qualities. This is what I mean by ‘desacralized’. Alcohol has become medicalized.
 
About the figure of the shaman, I was wondering how you see the matriarchies of great antiquity? After all, the shaman is gendered male. However, you can read in some of the radical anthropology of the 50s, for example the work of Robert Graves and his British circle, quite interesting speculations on the sometimes violent suppression of matriarchal cultural contributions. I have no idea on the current state of the research, but do you have any thoughts on the gendering of the shaman?
 
PM Well, I guess I bring it out at various points in the book. I include a Paleolithic drawing of a Laussel woman holding a drinking horn. She could be an early female shaman. Women have really been the principle makers of alcoholic beverages around the world, as far back as we can go. So whether it’s Mesopotamia, like the Gilgamesh epic wherein Gilgamesh meets a beer-maker who is a woman; he asks her, Siduri, to help him on his way to Utnapishtim. Then you also have in the Mesopotamian history both men and women playing various roles associated with alcoholic beverages. There is the wine goddess; she plays a central role in the Underworld. And there are other goddesses related to beer. So there is obviously a recognition among these ancient cultures that women are central to the making of fermented beverages. It is the same in Egypt.
 
Even today if you travel in these areas, such as South America, the chicha is made by the women. And even now in the wine industry you see a lot of female vintners who produce some of the best wines. So I think what often happens is that it starts out as a woman’s domain, this could be for religion as well, but then men are stronger, especially if you have to do mass production like for a large feast or religious observance; then the men may get more involved in the production end of it. Eventually they start to take over whereas the women stay at the home level, the smaller-scale production. Then as the society gets more complex you have the actual selling of fermented beverages. It then becomes a male-dominated mass production system. It then also becomes more specialized, the actual beverages in beer, wine, hard liquors…
 
Perhaps that’s when it begins to become desacralized, with the rise of fermented beverages as commodities…
 
PM Yes, I think it desacralizes it too. When it [alcoholic beverages] was originally associated with smaller groups, when it was holding the community together, it was essential to life, to a culture’s creative development. But when you get into these larger, more complex urban environments, it becomes just another product. Sure, it can be used to still generate an altered state of consciousness, but it isn’t any longer a part of the community’s sense of being ONE [capitals added] with its environs and environment. That’s what you lose with increased social complexity and mass production. The beverages become divorced from this more holistic or organic existence of people together within Nature. Like in a South American village, when you go into Peru, the women are still making the beverages right there in the household involving the whole family and the community. And this goes on everyday with people coming to where the chicha vessel is sitting. And the woman who made it is serving it directly to all of these people. Also involved are people out in the field growing and gathering the corn. It is an organic set of relations with their environment and their community. It’s just a natural part of the alcoholic beverage. Chicha becomes a central expression of a community’s relationship with itself and its environment. It comes to represent what life is all about.
 
End of Part 1
 
Admin

 

The EWBC In Vienna, An Independent Guide

Ξ October 8th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Wine & Politics, Wine Bars, Wine News |

What follows is by turns a personal and obvious selection of general and specific web sites to assist especially the North American traveler to Vienna, Austria, this year’s host of the European Wine Bloggers Conference. I have the good fortune (and sense) to arrive a few days earlier than the conference itself. So in the interests of hitting the ground running, I’ve been doing a bit of research on transportation, art and architecture, open flea and food markets, specialty restaurants, cultural events, and, of course, wine. Vienna’s urban geography is completely unknown to me; the German language, a thicket of rough consonants. However, though maps and virtual guides (not to mention a phrase book) are of great importance to most visitors, I particularly look forward to getting good and lost. There is no better way to learn about a city than to fall off the radar, go off the grid. Nevertheless, I offer the following list just in case!
 
Shedding a little light, web cams of Vienna, Austria.
 
Fairly good compilation of Viennese sights, monuments and architectural features.
 
A competent, easy to navigate on-line guide to public transportation in Vienna:
 
Helpful guide to the taxi system of Vienna.
 
A useful Calender of Events. Right side bar features helpful links specifically related to wine & food:
 
I am especially excited about this collection of Austria’s most popular markets. The link leads with Vienna itself. 1000 stories are just waiting to be written!
 
Interesting calendar of Vienna walks. Think I’ll do the Unknown Underground tour on the 20th. Anyone else?
 
Vegetarian restaurants in Vienna:
 
A very interesting art house, The Secession. Radical, innovative, chic. Often in the news!
 
Art, Art, and more Art! A good compilation of museums, and more (there is always more).
 
(Lord, help me!) Another portal for art museums in Vienna.
 
Magnificent! Everyone must visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The Bruegel collection alone is staggering.
 
A very current look at the wine bars in Vienna, part one of two.
 
Supplemental: I am not sure just how current, but here’s an expansive compilation (with multi-lingual reviews) of wine bars.
 
Boy, it’s not easy finding passable on-line summations on the vineyards of Vienna, but this is a start.
 
While many today energetically stoke the fires of (routinized) wine scandals in France and Italy, it is important to reflect on one of the most damaging and, therefore, instructive in recent memory. Here is an amusing and informative wiki entry on Austria’s diethylene glycol wine scandal back in 1985. In a recent round-up of EWBC tweets on a site unrelated to the EWBC itself, this link was mysteriously dropped; clearly an indication of the on-going sensitivity to the subject.
 
Some might have time for a day trip to Salzburg, which according to this website is less than 3 hours away by train.
 
I have a few angles to explore with respect to more controversial topics, some cultural, some political. No maps, busses or taxis can take the hungry intellect such places. It is, in the final analysis, a matter of independence. Wine is culture. Very simple. See you there!
 
Admin

 

Full Pull Wines Enjoys A First Birthday

Ξ October 5th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News |

For his first anniversary, Full Pull Wines’ founder Paul Zitarelli is backpacking in The Enchantments, located in the Cascade Range, Washington. The area is well named. But had the omens experienced by Mr. Zitarelli on launch day, October 5th, 2009, prefigured failure, perhaps he would now be touring Death Valley. From this subscriber’s email:
 
“I’d like to recount October 5, 2009 as a flawless triumph, but let’s go with the truth instead. The truth is that on the morning of October 5, after one of the great restless nights of my life, I got out of bed, showered, proceeded to slip while executing a towel-grab maneuver that could only be described as routine, cracked my head on the side of the tub, and lay there dazed until Smoke Bomb (our cat) unleashed a worried meow in my face. I might have actually conked out for a few seconds. Only Smokey truly knows.”
 
Mr. Zitarelli goes on to describe a series of technological snafus, all of which seemed to be aligned to end his noble wine retailing experiment before it even began.
 
“Certainly there were several apocalyptic omens that day. The universe seemed to be saying: ‘This is a terrible idea. You will fail. Expect more head welts.’ And so the lesson I take away from that shall-we-say challenging first day is: screw omens. The 363 days since have not been without challenge, but those struggles have been easily outnumbered by countless joys.”
 
But he did not fail. Instead business is thriving, if my visit to his busy warehouse one Thursday this summer was any indication. In Seattle for a badly needed vacation, I read notice of Walla Walla-based Rôtie Cellars’ wine club launch party at something called Full Pull in the Sado district. An admirer of Rôtie owner and winemaker Sean Boyd’s work, the wines from whom I tasted first just months before, I decided to made my way down the industrial avenues, arbitrary one-ways and dead-end alleys of Sado before arriving in front of what appeared at first glance to be a garage. It may well once have been. But today it serves as Full Pull’s warehouse and tasting space. For Full Pull Wines is quite a special business.
 
Mr. Zitarelli, a bright and restless soul by most popular accounts, travels Washington State visiting wineries big and small, the well-known, the obscure, and the up-and-coming, getting deals on modest allotments of hard-to-get wines. Working from a list of subscribers, he then periodically sends an email alert. Folks then buy only what they want, a single bottle or a case. If shipping is required then one must wait until they’ve amassed a full case. Thursdays are of special importance because it is the only day Full Pull is open. It is then subscribers may exercise the option to pick up their purchased wines, but also to taste the offerings of visiting wineries, such as Rôtie’s that day. Costs are kept low, prices competitive.
 
I could hear voices spilling out of the warehouse, the bright Seattle sun momentarily blinding me to the happy crowd inside. The room was warmly lit by Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Very simple late ’80s university student decor throughout. And the feeling of the room was collegial, folks freely mixing. Aiding my introduction to Full Pull Wines that Thursday was the charming and energetic Emily Resling who works for both Full Pull and Rôtie in various capacities. According to her Linkedin page:
 
“Copywriter, website updater, image taker, bio maker, attention getter, event coordinator, vox populi liaiser, awareness spreader. If it’s wine or food related, and it needs special attention from a creative brain, I’ve got it covered.”
 
I spent a few minutes chatting with her.
 
So what is going on here?
 
Emily Resling “Full Pull Wines is a Washington wine retailer. Paul Zitarelli sells to a private list. Anyone can be on the list. You just sign up through the website. One day he might close it, but for right now it is open. He sells only Washington wines. And only the best wines. That doesn’t mean the most expensive, by any means. He gets out there frequently, he and his wife. He’s a total vineyard geek. He gets into the land, figures out who is doing great stuff, and that is what he sells here. We just did an offer for Renegade Red which was, I think, under $10. We can do that. We did an Abeja, which is certainly more than $10. We have a pretty great list of Washington wine fanatics! We either ship, or on Thursdays you can pick it up; we call it the Pick Up Club. Folks can come and just hang out all day. Paul will usually have a few wines open for tasting, and not just Washington wines. They are wines from all over the world. It’s a pretty good little scene we have!”
 
What is your part in all of this?
 
ER “Umm, helper? (laughs) I do events for Paul here in the warehouse; and for Sean [Boyd] I started and now own his wine club. This was kind of a no-brainer for me. I have this beautiful space where I throw events, and I have this wine club, and I needed a space to launch it, so it was pretty easy. I asked myself if I could use the space. I said Yes. (laughs) And here we are! My anxiety dream of only three people showing up did not happen!”
 
Are you a wine geek?
 
ER “Definitely. I’m a somm. I’ve been in the restaurant business my entire life, since I could walk. I retired from restaurants three years ago to just go freelance. I’m a freelance hustler in the wine business, that’s what I call myself. I have a small collection of really great clients, and Paul and Sean are among them.
 
“Paul is a Harvard grad. He got a Masters at UW; then after graduation, in that bubble of time, he asked himself what was he going to do? He was so passionate about wine (he wrote his own wine blog), so he just decided to give the biz a try. He knew he had to do it right away, before he got too far along his career path. It was kind of a now or never thing. He went for it. His wife is terrific. Kelly Larson is her name. She’s got steady job and is very supportive. She’s got the insurance. She said to Paul, ‘Just do it. Make it happen.’ So he rented this space in July last year, opened in October, and it’s been gang-buster ever since! People love Washington wine, and he is the go-to guy. Oh, our tasting table is from an old racket ball court! The stools were made by one of our great clients; he’s a carpenter. It’s such a great community here. I guess that’s what wine does.”
 
Can I get a picture?
 
ER “Of course. Got to include the flair! My mom’s going to love it; she made this apron. If I don’t wear it now, then when?”
 
I take leave of Ms. Resling and say hello to Sean Boyd, deep in a conversation with Sean Sullivan, author of the excellent Washington Wine Report. I ask Mr. Boyd a question.
 
Sean [Boyd], any words of wisdom?
 
Sean Boyd “Mourvedre and Grenache will be our focus. I’ve really contracted a lot of Mourvedre. I’m really excited about the different blends it’s going to offer. I think it’s because of my old age that I’m really starting to like Mourvedre. It’s either that I’m getting grumpy or jaded! I like the smell of iodine and freshly cut meat. Mourvedre fits in well. Big game. Some blending with Syrah; I love that combination. But I’ll probably flip flop it, do 88% Mourvedre and 12% Syrah. But we’re only going to do about 50 cases. We’re still going to concentrate on North and South; they are our flagship wines.”
 
After catching up with folks, I took my leave. Happy Birthday to Full Pull Wines. And rock on, Rôtie!
 
Admin

 

Saving Robert Parker, A Mexican Adventure pt. 2

Ξ October 3rd, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Wine News |

So begins part 2 of KP’s tale as recorded by yours truly. The plot truly thickens. For additional detail, please read the intro to part 1. This is a work of fiction.
 
Episode 3 THE PLEASURES OF MEXICO CITY
 
My cell phone is ringing. Wouldn’t you know it, ah, the poetic irony, Savanna Samson calls while I’m being entertained with a robust cavity search at the Aeropeurto Internacional de la Ciudad de Mexico. (Damn expired passport.) I knew it was SS: I’d assigned her number to a Barry White ring tone. I didn’t want to answer. I knew what it was about, but just now I needed friends. I pleaded with my captors, Jaime, Roberto, Ignacio, and Jorge, and gave them what I call the ‘Sleepy RP’, melancholic bedroom eyes. “It’s Savanna Samson!” No strangers to pirated XXX tapes and DVDs, my tormentors relented. “Savanna?”, slurps Roberto. He opens a drawer beneath the airport’s surveillance screens. Rifling through VCR tapes, he produces an old effort of hers, ‘The Train to Tijuana’. Tapping the title he asks, “THE Savanna?” I nod, Yes.
 
A latex-gloved hand shoved my cellphone into my face. Yes, I could answer provided I put her on speaker phone: “Savanna!?” “KP?!” “Hey, sorry about the 2004 Sogno Uno. RP shoulda’ given it a 93.” “He said it was opulent, luscious, and had a great personality.” “Actually, he said it HAD a personality.” “But isn’t that the same thing?” “Savanna, I’m a bit occupied. Why have you called?” “My champagne will be out soon. I need a review…” “Savanna, dear, I haven’t seen RP in years.” “But he called you.” How could she know that? “How could you know that?” Her voice softened, “Your Twitter update, silly. I’ve got my fingers in a lot of social media pies.” Officer Ignacio, and Jorge in plain clothes and Raybans lean in. “Darling, you are your own social media.” “Whatever, KP. Listen, you’re the only one who can get to him for a review.” “But I don’t know where…” “He’s in Jalisco! Don’t you follow his Twitter? Isn’t that why you’re in Mexico?” “Gringo, ask her what she’s wearing.” “Shush, Jorge!.” Jorge raises his fist. “Samantha, I’m hanging with some of your biggest fans. They want to know what you’re wearing.” “Bastards! I need RP!” The phone was ripped from my face. Perhaps I exaggerate: in fact, my I-Phone was smashed underfoot. “She is not so polite as her movies,” says Jaime. But I was angry. I yelled at my captors, “None of you are her type!!” A bad attitude results in more ernest cavity explores, every guidebook should clearly state this truth.
 
And as I suffered fresh insults I could not help but wonder: What was RP doing in Jalisco? Was he? Is wine made down here? And is Mexican wine any good? Must find out.
 
Episode 4 WANDERING AT MIDNIGHT
 
I promised them a box set of Samantha’s work, still they took my money, smashed my cell phone (as stated); but I was released by the aeropuerto policia just after midnight. And they took my notebook, 1600 pages of tasting notes on terrifically obscure French, Spanish and Portuguese wines mostly; and a real estate guide I was writing on promising wine regions emerging in a post-climate change world. No great loss, the guide. I had not gotten much further than a few pages of speculations on Greenland’s prospects. (Note to reader: Make sure there is soil underneath the hectares of ice sheet you buy. Greenlanders are a cheeky bunch.) Needless to say they found and confiscated my sleek Belkin flash memory back-up of the same. I thought I’d hidden it well. Shoulda’ known they’d look… there… first…. Jaime said they were going to use it to start their own wine blog, ‘El Sombra del Abogada de Vino’. Curse this fame, somersaulting so high without a net!
 
So, it’s after midnight, I am wandering in Mexico City without a peso to my name. I am somewhere but nowhere, and nowhere is everywhere. Yet every nowhere must be a somewhere, n’est pas? como no? So I must be somewhere, but where? Sigh… nowhere is everywhere, hey, any traveller will tell you. It is a real place. And I know my odds of finding a way out of this huge ciudad. Slim. But I must resist this existential house of mirrors, my penniless pity party. Gird my loins, what’s left of them. Then and there I resolve to find a map. Must find the road to Jalisco. Still, tears flow from my eyes and smear the street lights. RP! I’m no hero…. Need a drink. Would take my confusion out of focus. Then food. Then rest.
 
Under orange, tarry skies, lorries bearing down at every turn, thugs a-lurking, an occasional burst of gunfire, I walk down lonely alleys; are there any others? Aimlessly turning another corner around which I can hear Mariachi music, I encounter a 6′6″ transvestite in the near dark standing in my way. But s/he does not menace. S/he opens her arms to me. Her back-lit blond wig, scooted a bit too far back on her head, shines like a beacon in this sea of black hair. From within a bath of incandescent street light she seems to recognize me as a friend. Small miracles often happen in weak light. They do. They do. No words need be spoken. S/he takes me by the hand into the taqueria. I eat. I clap to the Mariachi band. And s/he pours. Tequila flows. Stupid me, muttering sweet Parkerisms about her/his eyes and flesh, ’solid ruby/garnet, apricots, deep leather, solid, round minerals, solid this and that’; it’s all I can give my savior in exchange! Yet s/he gives me the key to s/her apartamento above the restaurant. Says to me the only word s/he’ll speak tonight, “Vamos”.
 
As my brain enjoys a dizzy swim, I lay down alone on slick, ochre sheets, oiled by the bodies of so many s/hombres. Before passing out I watch a small spider that had spun a web between two burning Mother Mary votives carry away a heavy fly.
 
Episode 5 A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
 
July 4th on a crowded bus. I struggle to consciousness with the help of the penetrating aromas of cloves, rotten plums, tar, chicken shit, and human sweat. Yet there is also something else: camphor. My body aches. What was in that tequila? I don’t remember getting onto the bus. I don’t know where I’m going. In a painful delirium I turn to the cinder block of a woman in a floral huipil tent sitting next to me, “Are you my mommy?” She stares back, her moon of a face rising out of a field of poppies, so to speak. “Como?” Mommy? Where the hell did that come from? Last time I saw my mother she was in the later stages of Alzheimers, all liquored up, and shouting obscenities at the Good Humor Man. “Lo siento, Senora Luna.” “Como?” Get a hold of youself, KP! I let a few moments pass. Focus. The initials ‘RP’ roll up in the Magic Eight Ball of my mind. Yes. I remember. I try to sit up. Pain screams through me, down my back. I manage, “A donde vas?” This time she does not look at me, but flatly says, “Tequila”. “No, gracias.” Won’t be drinking anymore Blanco anytime soon. “No! Nosotros vamos a Tequila, la ciudad”. She points to her ticket, then pulls out mine which is stuffed in my shirt pocket. “Tequila! Tequila!” What? Tequila is also the name of a city? “Flaco”, she mutters.
 
The bus pulls into a dusty gas station. A 1000 people must have gotten off, all headed for the bathroom, the creosote bushes, or the Siete/Once across the street. Very hot, this place. A merciless sun, as is often said. Standing in line for the toilet, I touch my painful side. There is a damp presence, a lump on my lower back. Soon it is my turn for release down the foetid porcelain hole. After undoing my pants, camphor overwhelms even the stench of the cuarto de baño. To my surprise I find a money belt crammed with pesos strapped around my waist. And a folded note. But, there’s more (or less). The belt holds in place a poultice covering the right small of my back. I move to a sheet of stainless steel doubling as a mirror. I peel the poultice away. A neat sutured incision. Seems I’ve lost a kidney, so the note reads in just enough English to understand. Yet I have been paid. Odd mix of honor and cruelty in this sun-blasted country!
 
Nothing is to be done. Back on the bus. To Tequila… Jalisco…. RP! I am coming!
 
Admin

 

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