Last month I seemed to be at the focus of some weird alignment of forces which resulted in a business trip to California – where I took some free time to have my own Sideways experience – followed by 2 separate Golden State themed tastings back home in the UK which allowed me to taste even more of the range of wines available from the world’s 4th largest wine producer.
It may seem strange for the Reign of Terroir readership already used to seeing so much about the state, given the blog is based there with Ken Payton, but remember I’m from the UK where we don’t get access to most of what the US has to offer, so this post should be considered an “outsider’s view” of the local wine scene.
Let’s start off with what most people immediately think of when you mention Californian wine, Napa Valley. I only had a few short hours on a gloriously warm and sunny Sunday to visit the region with a colleague so I concentrated on the two towns themselves, Napa and Yountville.
In Napa we parked the car up near the river so I could get a few photos and then strolled a little through the Town Centre until I saw the Wineries of Napa Valley, a shared tasting room hosted by Goosecross Cellars and featuring wines from Burgess Cellars, Destino Wines, Girard Winery, Nord Vineyards, Illona Howell Mountain and R.A. Harrison Family Cellars.
Steve Lacy was behind the counter and we quickly got to talking while he poured a few of the wines from the tasting list, including a floral Goosecross Viognier, a dusty Destino Pinot, the herbal Illona Howell Mountain red, a spicy liquorice Girard Cab-Franc and the complex Goosecross Napa Cab’.
The best was definitely kept until last with two delicious dessert wines;
R.H. Harrison’s 2006 Nobility, botrytis Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc. This was a true 4 star wine, a big floral nose and supremely balanced in the mouth with complexity and length to go with the sweet fruit.
Destino 2007 Late Harvest Viognier. Rich and sweet with a savoury tang, syrupy texture and a long caramel finish. Although not as sublime as the Nobility it was still delicious and a third of the price, so became my first purchase during my trip (and the half-bottle size wouldn’t take up too much room in my flight bag!).
A short drive up Highway 29 and we were in Yountville admiring the pristine, picture postcard shop fronts and tasting rooms – I’d thought Napa was overtly commercial and touristy but Yountville surpassed even that, especially on a bright Sunday afternoon!
We stopped in at the V Marketplace and their enormous Wine Cellar where I tasted the ’03 and ’04 Arcturus wines from Astrale e Terra, pleasant Meritage (Bordeaux variety) blends (the ’03 had more going on).
Walking a little further down Washington Street and we went into the Somerston Tasting Room, an impressive new building from a company focussing on sustainability. Somerston have three labels – Priest Ranch, Highflyer and Somerston – and Jeff (in a snappy Pork Pie hat) poured and talked me through a few of the wines, starting with a pair of Highflyers, so named because Somerston winemaker Craig Becker is also a pilot.
The ’08 Grenache Blanc was deliciously floral with some peach with only a touch of heat and bitterness on the finish detracting, while the Centreline Red, a curious mix of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo and Grenache, was sweet fruit & spice on the nose with fine tannins and juicy fruit in the mouth – a very good wine (and the second to make it into my flight bag).
Priest Ranch next, and the rich, cherry menthol ’07 Napa Cab – plenty of sweet fruit but also a touch of capsicum surrounded by young, dry tannins needing a little age. Then the ’07 Petit Sirah with a big, funky, vegetal nose – a brooding and dark wine which I enjoyed.
Finally a couple of Priest Ranch Zinfandels, the high alcohol 2007 and the more restrained, just released 2008. The ’08 was poured first and had an unusual sweet & sour nose with a full texture,14.5% abv, but it was the 16.9% abv ’07 which impressed with its smoothness and balance, I couldn’t feel any heat while drinking which is a feat of winemaking with that much alcohol in the glass.
After Napa Sunday I flew down to San Diego to finish off some work until Tuesday afternoon when I “clocked off”, got into the rental car and started driving North, the only fixed part of the schedule being the Saturday afternoon flight out of San Francisco International airport and back home.
My chariot for the rest of the week was a Hyundai Elantra automatic (unfortunately they don’t do manual gearbox rental cars in the States) and I decided to take the inland route to LA so got onto I5 and headed North – it was already getting dark so there was no point taking a more scenic route as I wouldn’t see anything anyway! After 4 hours I was in Pasadena and decided to find a motel for the evening, letting fate play it’s hand by randomly taking one of the off ramps and letting the SatNav suggest a nearby motel. A nearby 7-11 provided a cold Mexican beer and a Pasta Salad for nourishment while I watched the Chilean miners get rescued.
Wednesday morning and I was on the road, later than I should have been as the traffic was horrendous. I did manage to see some of Downtown LA as I drove through before finally getting onto Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Malibu. PCH is the Southern Californian acronym, while Northern Californians prefer Highway 1 – for the sake or impartiality I’ll use both!
Sadly the fickle Pacific weather came into play and the entire coastline was bathed in a dull grey, cool fog which may have been familiar to the Brit in me but didn’t help with the tourist part. Still, it was a pleasant drive along the coast from Malibu to Santa Barbara. Here I turned onto Highway 154, the San Marcos Pass road, and suddenly I was out of the fog into glorious sunshine and climbing… climbing a lot. Cresting the top of the mountain the view of the valley on the other side was of breathtakingly beautiful countryside with a lake visible in the distance. Driving a little further I realised this was the Santa Ynez valley, where they do some winemaking of their own, but I needed to make up some time so didn’t stop, re-joining Highway 101 to Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo bay.
At San Luis Obispo I pulled off the freeway to grab a late Mexican lunch (Burrito, mmm!) and did a Google on nearby wineries, quickly realising that many places were shut on a Wednesday. Luckily a Paso Robles winery was in the top 5 of the search list and also showed up on the SatNav, so I continued along the 101 turning onto Vineyard Drive just before Templeton and then to Rotta Winery.
Established in 1908 the winery has 20 acres of vineyards, mostly Zinfandel with some Cabernet Sauvignon, and purchases grapes from local suppliers for their additional labels.
In the tasting room Pat Johnson and Barbara Milburn were generous hosts as they went through the 12 wines on the tasting list (for $3, Napa take note!). Most interesting for me was the smoky 2006 Paso Robles Reserve Merlot, the delicate ’05 Boneso Vineyard Cabernet Franc and the dark berry fruit ’06 Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, all excellent wines. Strangely, as with Napa, it was Rotta’s dessert wines which impressed me the most with a light and fruity ’09 Muscat Canelli, a cheeky young ’07 Zinfandel Port (a bit too alcohol dominated) and the luscious Black Monukka, a toffee and raisin wine with a Sherry dryness and a nutty finish.
I left Rotta with a Cabernet Franc, intended for evening drinking during the week, and a bottle of the unique Black Manukka for home. I headed west to rejoin PCH near Cambria, but cresting the hills all I could see down below was the same damn fog shrouding the coast, while I was still in brilliant sunshine. The prospect of more fog driving, especially going from dusk to darkness, didn’t fill me with joy, so I turned round and decided to take the 101 North instead, finally stopping at King City and a much more comfortable Motel ($10 more than Pasadena but with free WiFi!).
A service station provided the evening’s sustenance, with Sushi and a sandwich. To go along with it was the Rotta Cab Franc that I’d enjoyed so much at the tasting earlier that afternoon, Tuesday night’s beer was an aberration and I intended to have wine to help me get to sleep. Unfortunately the gods were not smiling as I opened the bottle and got that instantly recognisable and unwelcome smell of TCA – sure enough the Cab Franc was corked (not a lot, but more than enough to spoil any enjoyment).
I also wonder at how many people would have picked up the wine being corked, instead of just calling it a poor bottle of wine and leaving it at that? I’d like to think I’d have detected the fault even had I not known what it should have tasted like, this was a low level of taint which only just masked the rich sweet fruit I knew was there – not completely undrinkable, at least for soporific value. Needless to say I wasn’t going to turn around and drive back to Templeton to return the bottle, sometimes life plays the odd trick on you, and the Rotta Cab Franc is definitely worth seeking out as my bottle will hopefully be a rare exception to what is a delicious wine.
Thursday morning and I was on the road again, heading to Monterey. The digital co-pilot suggested the 101 to Salinas, but that seemed a dull route for such a beautiful morning. I noticed a small road indicated on the map so I turned off just before Arroya Seco and headed on up the Carmel Valley Road – and what a fortunate decision that was. This was nearly 2 hours of driving pleasure, backed up with some amazing scenery; a true drivers route with tight hairpins, narrow lanes, some steep drops and plenty of climbing and dipping. The only thing I missed was a manual gearbox, as the automatic was nowhere near as responsive as I’d have liked it to be.
A couple of times I stopped to get photos of the stunning vistas, and also passed plenty of vineyards and a couple of wineries, although it was too early for them to be open for a tasting. I eventually reached the picturesque town of Carmel and finally stopped for lunch and a quick walk around the wharf in Monterey.
Next was Santa Cruz, intended to satisfy the wine enthusiast in me, now that the sightseer was content. First stop was to see Ken Payton and drop off a bottle of English Sparkling (Ridgeview 2007Bloomsbury). Ken suggested a trip to Vino Cruz where J-P Correa (read a more detailed view of Vino Cruz in an earlier Reign of Terroir post) poured me 5 wines from local producers. All were good, but two had that little something extra and I bought the honeyed Sarah’s Vineyard 2008 Côte de Madone Blanc (white Rhône varieties) to bring home and the smooth 2007 Clos Tita La Sierra Azul red (with Syrah, Merlot and Viognier in the blend) to replace the defunct Rotta as an evening drinker.
I couldn’t leave Santa Cruz without paying a visit to Bonny Doon – it’s practically a Mecca to a lot of people and I am a big fan of Randall Grahm (I realise not everyone feels the same) – but I hadn’t expected the urban tasting room to be alongside several other local wineries. Had I more time I could have done them all justice, however with the tight schedule (I’d decided to drive up to Sonoma for the evening) there could be only one. For those who haven’t experienced the Bonny Doon Tasting Room then check out Ken’s original Reign of Terroir post but I will say it’s an experience you need to try out at least once, the architecture and atmosphere is special.
Leah Kuykendall was my guide through the afternoon’s tasting, and she was bubbly and attentive, happy to chat about life and wine and not just pour and move on. We covered an interesting sub-set of the Bonny Doon range, including the honey & lime ‘09 Albarino, with a dash of Loureiro, the surprisingly uncomplicated ‘07 Le Cigare Blanc, the fruity, entry level ’09 Contra and the meaty ’07 Le Pousseur Syrah.
The last three wines were worthy of a few more words, starting with the ’06 Le Cigare Volant, Grahm’s homage to Châteauneuf du Pape. The nose was elegant with layers of aromas; mint, liquorice and blackberry. Its young tannins were a little drying, but otherwise it was well balanced in the mouth with a delicate finish – my concern was that the fruit may not last the 2 or 3 years needed to soften those tannins.
Then to the ’07 Angel Paille dessert wine with its honeyed nose and plenty of ripe peach and apricot fruit but also an underlying juicy acidity making this a very good wine, and one I was tempted to buy if I hadn’t already gone down the dessert/fortified route in Napa and Paso Robles! Instead I finished off with a refreshing glass of 2006 Riesling to Live, a zero dosage Methode Champenoise sparkling with a strange burnt toast and epoxy nose but a deliciously full flavoured and fruity wine with enamel stripping acidity – unusual and eccentric, so of course I liked it!
Once again the weather had started to close in so, rather than take Highway 1 up to the Golden Gate I followed my co-pilot’s inland advice, heading over the mountains to San Jose, up through Oakland and then over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge back onto the 101 heading towards Sonoma. I finally hit town just after 8 and quickly found that there were no “budget” motels available (Best Western’s $140 walk-in rate did not impress) so I was back on the road again heading to Santa Rosa, a much bigger City which luckily had motels to spare.
Settling in for the evening after a long day behind the wheel I opened the Clos Tita and enjoyed a glass or two of the juicy, easy drinking red, very fruity and very welcome (I’d been spitting up until this point!) while I considered what I’d do with a full Friday in Sonoma.
To be continued….
“A Dog comes to you, a Cat runs away”, said Paul Dolan. Deep Biodynamic principle? No, it’s a lesson taught children in elementary school on how to tell whether the Moon is waxing or waning by using the capital letter of each proper noun. And so did Mr. Dolan mix the wisdom and humor of the humble farmer with the still-negotiated principles of Biodynamics. Where one might have expected slogans and unsatisfying workarounds to difficult questions, instead what the four wine writers gathered for what was called a BioD Camp got from Mr. Dolan was wonder, openness, and, most importantly, the willingness to say, “I don’t know”. Intellectual curiosity disarms the dogmatic mind every time. But such a principle is a two-way street, something both parties must embrace in order to learn, to make a conversation be worthwhile. We were all called upon to listen, each of us encouraged to contribute honestly, as though encountering Biodynamics for the first time.
Earlier this month Jane Firstenfeld, an editor at Wines & Vines, certified sommelier and author, Courtney Cochran, Jeffrey Weissler, veteran of the wine industry and author of the site Conscious Wine, and yours truly, gathered at Dark Horse Ranch outside Talmage, California, a few miles from Ukiah in Mendocino County, for a full day with winemaker, Paul Dolan. I thought I had been suitably prepped for agricultural adventure the night before with a communal dinner at Parducci’s and a warm bed at Vichy Springs Resort. Mr. Dolan had left us with the parting thought to reflect on our place in Creation. Though comfortable with mystery and the unknowable, the next morning I stood slack-jawed on a rise above the Dark Horse vineyard. This was no ordinary site. Oddly, the collapsed perspective of the web page’s naïve painting reproduced above, like the best pieces of folk artist Lewis Miller’s gives a good idea. But the practical reality is that it proved impossible for me to take a proper picture. From rolling hills to ridge line of terraced vines, white goats grazing in green fields dotted with old oaks, wheeling raptors and buzzards already riding thermals in the morning sun, the vista was impressive. Even from a distance the complex landscape of flora and fauna, both native and introduced, whether placed by the hand of man or diverse natural vectors, spoke loudly of very bright biological creativity, so to say. And as I was soon to be convinced, all of the ranch’s hundreds of living elements and resources collectively generate the finest example of Biodiversity with a capital ‘B’, but also permaculture I’ve yet seen in a California vineyard. Rather than dominating the landscape by monotonous monoculture common in the state, the vineyards appeared proportional, integral to the larger environment.
First visited by Mr. Dolan in 1977, and finally purchased in 1998, Dark Horse Ranch is 160 acres, 69 acres of which are under the vine, most planted on gentle slopes. Like the fine terroirs of Cahors and the McMinnville, Oregon AVA among others, highly desirable red clay soils are abundant in this portion of the Mayacamas Range. And after a broad sit-down introduction to Steiner’s Agricultural Lectures and a bit of play with the gestalt of perception, our troupe, joined by Mendocino Wine Company’s brilliant Tim Thornhill, descended a dirt road riven between a wind break and vineyard block to the animal paddocks, cows, chickens and their portable pens, bee hives, and scattered owl boxes.
It was here, after a preliminary discursus on the viticultural arts of pruning, discing, the cultivation of inter-row biodiversity, and the scourge of leaf curl, Mr. Dolan explained the importance of the cow in biodynamic thinking. The cow expresses the vintage. How? The cow eats the local vegetation. The vegetation shares in the bounty of the local terroir, expresses that terroir; indeed, the flora owes its very generation to the elemental by-products of local soil life and microbial activity. Now, inasmuch as the cow’s habitus is the local terroir itself, so much so that its everyday life, whether rough or relaxed, informs its very physiology, the animal’s manure, its own by-product, comes to be seen as the sine qua non of the regeneration of the local terroir itself. The cow essentially recapitulates the terroir as a whole, recycles the truth of a place.
This brought us to our first big question: biodynamics privileges the closed cycle, however meandering are its means and measures. It understands the farm, too, as a closed circuit, repeated in minature by the cow, at least as a virtual ambition. What are we to make of these nested circles? My passing mention of permaculture above was meant to introduce an important coupure into biodynamic’s circularity. For permaculture understands a farm as open to externalities, as irretrievably open to the world and its energies, whether wind, water, slope, neighboring farm practices, all elements traditionally understood as informing a terroir’s specificity. In permaculture the effort is to understand a farm, for example, as a complex of obstacles inserted into greater external natural processes and forces. Unlike the cow (and horse) in biodynamics, there is no central, organizing figure in permaculture. There is no unity as such; there is only, if done attentively, an ever increasing energy efficiency (in the broadest possible sense) of all a farm’s elements. The goal on a permacultural farm is ultimately to approach the ‘natural’ by maximizing these self-same natural processes the farm itself initially frustrates. The goal on a biodynamic farm, as I see it, is to understand a farm as a self-sufficient organism, a closed system. Additionally, permaculture includes everything, from farm buildings and machinery, to irrigation equipment and water reservoirs, to make its calculations. Biodynamics seems to limit its purview to living elements alone, the balance left to other disciplines and sciences.
I shall write a more detailed piece on this matter in the fullness of time. I will say here that I believe permaculture, broadly speaking, can resolve numerous sterile, trivial intellectual debates between growers of the organic and biodynamic persuasions. Moreover, I think the Mendocino Wine Company, under Mr. Dolan and Mr. Thornhill’s visionary leadership, has already largely realized this ‘third way’. More later.
From the lowest point of the vineyard, we piled into a truck and drove up the terraced vineyard slopes to the higher elevations where our troupe grew dizzy looking across the valley to higher mountains beyond. We talked of Dark Horse’s 21 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, the relatively new 4 acre block of Petite Sirah bringing the total to 10 acres planted, shoot positioning, the virtues and demerits of various trellising systems, and rootstock. Yet it was on the drive up the slope we perhaps learned the most. We passed extensive plantings of insect-friendly brush and flowers and yet more owl and assorted bird boxes. Truly a very progressive brain trust was at work. Everywhere we looked, we saw the practical implementation of any and all environmental improvements and refinements most often read about in books and magazines. What should be done is here on Dark Horse Ranch being done. Paul Dolan walks the walk. And as we returned for lunch, I don’t believe any one of us, now relaxed friends, felt any different.
After a nourishing meal and a song powerfully sung, both gifts of the sultry Rochelle, we drove back up the terraced southeastern slope to view the water fall built to dynamize water (as the process is called) used in the production of certain biodynamic preparations, those to be applied directly to the vineyard or compost. In Steiner’s original works, dynamizing was written to take an hour of vigorous stirring. I vaguely recall an amusing passage from his Ag lectures about how a farmer’s children might enjoy participating such an activity. I am not so sure! Now, a creative solution has been developed, a tiered falls, to ease the process (though I get the feeling purists might object). I should add that all around us were, again, insect-friendly rows of shrub and flower. Mr. Dolan was to then show us the wooden box in a small room beneath the water falls tower where the finished preparations are kept.
Perhaps the high point of this visit to the dynamizing falls was digging up last Spring’s cow horn packed with the 501 preparation, one made of ground quartz (silica) and rain water, for Autumn is the proper time for unearthing these spiritual instruments. (Preparation 500, cow manure packed into horns, is buried in Autumn and disinterred in Spring, another cycle.) After some searching for the right spot, the shovel hit something hard in the dark red, well-textured soil. Because so many of us had never seen such an object, there was a polite scramble to retrieve one of the horns, at the very least to feel its exotic texture.
I could well imagine the biodynamic farmer’s gaze falling upon a bare Winter field and, full of hope, wondering after the subterranean work such horns might be doing. In any event, nearby were piles of manure awaiting additional prep. applications. I could not but help notice the recent rains had produced a riot of what I am confident were psilocybin mushrooms. Another research project, perhaps(!)
More seriously, it was here that the second big question presented itself. Almost in passing, Mr. Dolan touched only very briefly of one of the most controversial aspects of biodynamics: that the overall practice creates more energy and health on a farm than the sum of all its parts. This key biodynamic concept is where the rubber hits the road as far as one’s dedication to its philosophy is concerned. Now, from my perspective and that of our collective sciences, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. Something can never come from nothing. Such is the fundamental truth of Physics and Biology. And entropy implacably increases in all systems, just as water always flows downhill and a cup of coffee always cools. Organic life is precisely the management of entropy par excellance, the miraculous way life found to maximally use energy on its way to the cold of absolute zero. Life is the disorganization of all the energies informing it. Balance and equilibrium is death. And these are principles, broadly stated here, I cannot abandon. For it is my humble opinion that it is the seemingly unreasonable complexity of living systems creates doubt among us as to its materialist foundations. But that is not life’s fault. It is ours.
I am reminded of a philosophical parable involving an encounter between the engineer and the peasant. Having just witnessed the passing of a train, a machine the peasant has never seen, the peasant asks, “Where are the horses?” The engineer attempts to explain the principles of Thermodynamics, the concept of a heat sink, etc. Undaunted, the peasant triumphantly replies, “Ah! The horses must be invisible!”
In any event, with our quartz-filled cow horns we traveled back down to our base. But what if we hadn’t found the horns? Tim Thornhill then told us a very funny story about his effort when a youngster, to find something he’d buried on his family’s property weeks before. In no time at all, his back forty was covered with holes!
It would soon be our turn, we writers, to pack Autumn’s cow horns with fresh manure. But first Mr. Dolan would take us through the basics of the biodynamic calendar. Broadly speaking, there are rhythms of the natural world: lunar cycles act upon tides, day and night, faunal migrations, seasons, birth and death, vegetative succession, weather patterns and the like. Overlaying or comprehending these rhythms, biodynamics proposes the following elemental grid:
— Spring corresponds to Water and Leaf.
— Summer corresponds to Air and Flower.
— Fall corresponds to Fire and Fruit.
— Winter corresponds to Earth and Roots.
Now, none of this is particularly controversial. Our popular imagination readily grasp the principles at work. Indeed, as Mr. Dolan was to repeat, biodynamics is in essence a distillation of the collective wisdom of centuries of farming practice. Whether in the Farmer’s Almanac or last century’s Sears Catalogues, and books of the Ancients and pre-Moderns, biodynamics is said to be this comprehensive compendium of civilization’s every encounter with the soil. The spiritual dimension not-with-standing, this brought us to our third big question: Inasmuch as biodynamics makes the claim to encyclopedic farming knowledge, along with that, though its spiritual aspect, of the human condition itself, what is to become of the creativity of the contemporary farmer? I mean, can there ever be anything new under the sun? Are all biodynamic farmers committed, avant la lettre, to merely follow? For Mr. Dolan, and certainly for Tim Thornhill, they are innovators and experimenters of the first order. So, what are they to do should they discover a practice outside or contrary to the official biodynamic program? Laughing, Mr. Dolan had an answer as profound as it was simple, “I don’t know”. His vulnerability in this room of unpredictable strangers was palpable.
Biodynamics is under assault from diverse quarters. It is faulted for poor thinking, for sloppy thinking; it stands accused of crypto-fascism, of being a force of darkness; of dogmatism and irrationality. But all of my experience with Paul Dolan this fine Fall morning tells me otherwise. Biodynamics is not a force apart from those who practice it. And Mr. Dolan is, in my opinion, the perfect embodiment of its flexible performance, especially by answering as he did. “I don’t know.” My finest ‘take away’, the best lesson of all.
From the basics of the biodynamic calendar, we went outside, and holding horns enough for all, we began to texturize manure enough to fill them. Let me just say a number of hilarious photos were taken I hope never surface! We all then went our separate ways until regrouping for another good dinner.
The following morning brought us to the Parducci winery, and a lesson on what is probably the least understood dimension of biodynamic practice. After an amusing temperamental electric shuttle failure, we walked to historic building where Mr. Dolan took us through a portion of the barrel room. Enough of me. Mr. Dolan said this of biodynamics and winemaking:
“When we’re in the cellar there are a number of different considerations we take when we’re thinking about the activities that we would consider relative to using the biodynamic calendar, for making biodynamic wines. The first is harvest [....] Ideally, if we could pick the grapes on the waning of the Moon, moving to the dark side, we know that is the period of time when the moisture is moving out of the grapes, out of the fruit; and we think that is a period of time when you get more concentration as opposed to when it’s moving into the full Moon; that’s a levitational period when you’re moving liquid water up into the plant and up into the fruit. So once we bring it into the winery, we don’t have a lot of considerations with the crushing time. [....] It’s the yeast that’s probably the most critical at this stage of the game. So we’re not adding yeast. So therefore we would add little to no SO2 during that period of time. It’s critical that the fruit be very healthy. If the fruit is healthy then we don’t have any considerations as to whether we’re going to add natural yeast or not. If the fruit is not so healthy, we would declassify it and use it as ‘organic’ as opposed to biodynamic. For all biodynamic wines, it’s native yeasts, natural yeast.
“Now, for me as a young guy I can remember being trained, not only in school but by other winemakers, that you really had to use cultured yeast because you couldn’t trust natural yeasts. They wouldn’t finish the fermentation. So I never even tried a natural fermentation as a young man. When we decided to do the biodynamics, that was probably my biggest anxiety, but not so much my winemaker’s concern. He actually just said not to worry. Now, today, we do even our organic wines using natural yeast.”
The use of natural yeast is particularly important owing to two major factors. Cultured yeasts produce specific flavor additions to the finished wine. And the native populations of yeasts blooming on the grapes in one vineyard differ from those on a neighbor’s vineyard fruit. Terroir expression is, therefore, most honestly completed by native yeast expression. This principle Mr. Dolan insists is perhaps the single most important feature of biodynamic winemaking. He continued,
“The other considerations we have are when we would do rackings, or when we would do filtrations or bottling. When we rack a wine, we want to make sure all of the sediment goes and stays at the bottom of the tank. We find that those timeframes are, once again, with the waning of the Moon. And when we’re in a Root day or a Leaf day, that’s a recessive timeframe. Those are the best times to rack a wine because you get the least disturbance. We’ve also done a series of tests on bottling. There are some winemakers who have chosen to bottle on days moving towards the full Moon, or waxing, and also on what I would call ‘expressive’ days, Fruit days or Flower days. We’ve chosen to do just the opposite. We want the wines to go into the bottle in a quiet state; so we bottle them on a waning timeframe as well as a Root day, or even a Leaf day; ideally a Root day.”
A quick walk back to Parducci’s tasting room brought us to a blending exercise of their latest biodynamic Big Red, a blended wine, often but not always, of Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah, in diverse proportions. I’ve blended wines in the past, but I must say Jeffery Weissler and especially Courtney Cochran blew me out of the water. Somewhere in Ms. Cochran’s brain a switch was thrown. I have never seen such a tour de force as when she set her mind to the blending task. Incredible palate. Brilliant performance.
I had to get back to my daughter in Santa Cruz, and so left before we had finished the exercise. Ms. Cochran and Mr. Weissler stayed behind to complete the job. I bid good bye to all. And was gone.
To Paul, I’ll now call him Paul, I offer my heartfelt thanks for the time he spent with us. Thanks to Tim Thornhill, a gentleman and brilliant, if reserved resource. Great thanks to my scribbling colleagues. To Kelly, Rochelle, and Jan, thank you. To Selina Luiz, well, I’ve a special affection for this charming, affecting soul.
Pickled frogs, fungal barrels and superb Bordeaux (again) highlight in this reprise of the last couple of months in the wine world.
Unfortunately I have been guilty of letting my Corner posts lapse recently, a mix of work related time constraints and travel – so this post is an attempt to recover lost ground, starting with a whistle stop tour of some of the main wine stories of the last couple of months.
All over the Northern Hemisphere harvesting of the vines began, and nowhere was it more eagerly anticipated than Bordeaux, where, once again, the harvest of the (insert decade, century, millennium here as required) was pronounced after a relatively dry, mediocre summer was supported by fine weather just before picking resulting in slow, evenly developed grapes with great (possibly superb) potential. Elsewhere the Loire was also successful while German yields were small but of good quality. Over in the US the situation in California was more uncertain after a cool summer which slowed ripening. Everything depended on decisions taken in September and the subsequent weather – for those that made the right vineyard choices 2010 could be a great year, for others it was barely salvageable, as summed up by the Wine Country Minute.
Nine new MWs were announced in September joining the first 2 from earlier in the year. US journalist Jean Reilly joins 5 from the UK, including writer Peter Richards, and new MWs from Belgium, Norway, Australia, Japan and Canada.
Decanter reported on research identifying TCA in oak barrels, although Jamie Goode had some words of caution on his blog which elicited a response from the paper’s author Pascal Chatonnet in the comments section. The abstract of the original article can be found in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
After the news of James Suckling leaving the Wine Spectator we all wondered what he’d do next but I’m not sure many would have predicted a wine blended by him being served to The Pope! – Decanter and Jancis Robinson got a sneak preview. Aside from ensuring his place in the afterlife we’re still waiting on his new web-site, but the “teaser video” on JamesSuckling.com has managed to ruffle a few feather’s, especially Jamie Goode who posted a critical piece (make up your own mind if the video is meant to be self deprecating or serious).
One more Decanter mention when their World Wine Awards were announced at the beginning of September. All 384 pages of the magazine’s October edition gave me plenty of reading material recounting details of the tastings earlier in the year. Noteworthy of the International Trophy winners was a 2006 Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs beating off Champagne in the sparkling category – highlighting England’s strength with that style –Chile beating off all contenders for Sauvignon Blanc, and an Israeli Shiraz beating France and Australia for high-end Rhône varietals with the Carmel 2006 Kayoumi.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous and October saw a UK woman suing supermarket retailer ASDA (the UK arm of Wal-Mart) after she claimed to have almost drank a frog poured from a bottle of relatively clear Moscatel de Valencia last Christmas. One assumes the alcohol must have been flowing freely for some time for no-one to have noticed that before the glass was raised to the lips!
Equally ridiculous is yet more news of grape thieves pre-empting a legitimate harvest, this time in Hamburg, Northern Germany, where almost all of the tiny St. Pauli crop was picked clean.
The biggest news from the Blogoshpere had to be the 3rd EWBC in Vienna, Austria in October. The wrap-up can be read here but Reign of Terroir’s own Ken Payton was present, ably participating in a talk on Wine Communication as well as accosting Austrian Politicians and winemakers. [Also see Wine Politics In Immoderartion - Admin.] Next year’s EWBC is to be held in Franciacorta, Lombardy, Northern Italy on October 14-16th.
On a more personal note, and as an unashamed advocate of German wines, especially Riesling, I had to accept the depressing truth of The Guardian’s post “The Curse of the Blue Nun” which details the poor image of Germany in the UK. Whilst this does mean I can continue to purchase world class wines at bargain prices I often wonder why it is only the wine cognoscenti who seem to “get” Germany, a point of view echoed by The Wine Rambler with his recent post on another German wine stereotype, Black Tower.
Sharpening the focus to the North East and the September NEWTS meeting was a commercial presentation from Oddbins, given by Gosforth store manager David under a New World/Old World comparison theme.
The most interesting match ups were for Chardonnay and Syrah;
— The creamy, tropical fruit Ladies who shoot their lunch 2009 Wild Ferment Chardonnay (£20) held its own very well against the brioche and crème-caramel 2007 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru by Domaine des Bons Coteaux (£75).
— Chapoutier’s mature and minty 2008 Les Meysonniers Crozes-Hermitage met Craggy Range’s deep and dark Single Vineyard 2008 Gimblett Gravels – both at £18 and, for me at least, the Kiwi just took it.
October became a California-fest when all my business travelling finally paid off and I had the opportunity to visit San Jose for a training course, spending a day in Napa before flying down to San Diego and a couple of days work in Carlsbad. I then took the rest of the week off and drove back to San Francisco visiting a few wineries along the way, including detours to Paso Robles, Santa Cruz and Sonoma. Coincidentally when I returned to the UK there were also 2 California-themed local tastings to attend which means that I have more to write about than I can do justice to here– so I won’t bother! Look for some California-biased pieces on this blog some time shortly.
Other than the Californian tastings the main local news was a new source of wine in my area; MartaVine is the second Portuguese retailer (PortoVino started last year) to set up in the North East, except founder Marta Mateus has the added advantage of being Portuguese. I’ve only had a brief meeting so far but hope to find out a little more about her and her wines in the near future.
And so we finish with my roundup of wines that I’ve bought for, and drank from, my modest home collection. I may not have noticed at the time, but for some reason purchases outstripped pourings nearly 3:1 over a 9 week period, aided by a modest little haul brought back from California.
First the drinkers, of which two reds and two whites stand out. Penfolds 1997 St. Henri Shiraz was opened for friends along with two more understated examples of South Australia’s most famous grape. The St. Henri blew the others away with a structured, somewhat Pinot nose – a little stinky moving into a sweet spiciness & some liquorice. This was a full flavoured mouthful; smoky with some sweet fruit and very fine tannins throughout, but even this superb wine was outshone a few weeks later by the Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru 2005 Vinogorje Hvar. This brooding Croatian had a dark inky colour with a hint of rusting on the swirl and a dusky, inviting nose of sweet smoke and spice. In the mouth there a juicy acidity perfectly balanced by plenty of smooth, fine-grain tannins and a sweet-sour plum fruit component. The tannins give you the urge to chew so you almost miss the medium-length finish of the flavours drifting off into a slightly sweet, herby aftertaste – a damn fine wine which could last another 3-5 years with ease.
For the whites Riesling, that perennial favourite of mine, dominated. The Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt 2004 Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett had a light nose with a touch of kerosene coming through, sweet and floral in the mouth. The texture was light and flavours were simple, but enhanced by some bottle age – this was a crowd pleaser, an enjoyable Mosel wine with a mix of sugar, acidity and age. Somewhat younger but far superior was the Wild Earth 2008 Riesling from Central Otago, New Zealand. This had a crisp, petrochemical nose with a slight creamy nuttiness. In the mouth it was just dry, with clean, zesty acidity and a touch of residual sugar – really fresh and youthful with a relatively full texture. This was an excellent wine, exactly what I like from the variety and one of the best New Zealand Rieslings I’ve tasted.
Now to trim down that buying list and suggest what may be interesting in a few years time.
Top of the pile must be the 2002 Château Musar, last on the shelf as my local Waitrose was moving onto the new 2003 vintage of this Lebanese classic. I’ve yet to taste the ’02 but this completes my trio of that vintage – the only wine where I purchase multiple bottles for staggered opening, something I resist doing for other wines as it reduces my ability for one-off, impulse buys.
From Lebanon to England, and the Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2007 Brut. This fine example of English Sparkling now also resides with my two Reign of Terroir compatriots, Ken Payton and Brandon Miller, as I brought them a bottle each on my Californian road-trip – I hope they enjoy it at some point over the 2-3 years as I intend to.
Iberia next, with the Quinta do Poço do Lobo 2007 Reserva (Portugal, Red), Quinta do Infantado 2004 LBV Port (Portugal, fortified), Done José Oloroso Reservas Especiales de Romate (Spain, fortified) and Jorge Ordonez & Co. 2007 Malaga Seleccion Especial No. 1 (Spain, sweet). This mix typifies my eclectic tastes and spirit of adventure in wine buying, especially the Jorge Ordonez Malaga which is made in collaboration with Austrian maestro Gerhard Kracher, the subject of a two part Reign of Terroir interview only this month.
I finally started buying some of the fêted 2009 Beaujolais…. well, a bottle at least, the Côte du Py 2009 Morgon Vieilles Vignes. Hopefully this will be the start of a gradual expansion of Cru Beaujolais in my cellar, an underappreciated wine in my household but one I always want to give more time to.
Finally there was the selection of Californian wines which made it safely home with me at the end of October; 3 fortified wines, a white Rhône blend from Santa Cruz, a red blend from Napa and a Carneros Pinot Noir. To find out more about these, and the stories behind their purchase, keep an eye on your Reign of Terroir RSS feed over the next couple of weeks!
Family, wine, politics, America, and China, these are but a very few of the topics touched on in this, part 2 of my luncheon interview with Gerhard Kracher of the Austrian wine house Kracher. Located on the banks of the Neusiedlersee in Austria’s Burgenland, the vineyards suffer under the divine abuse of Botrytis cinerea, one of only four such regions currently known. Kracher’s sweet wines are held by many to be the epitome of the style. Perhaps one day I shall taste one. In the interests of economy, I ask that folks interested in further reading about the region, please read this article by Austrian wine expert, Julia Sevenich. For a sense of the impact Kracher wines have made upon the international wine community, please read this marvel of economy (even if slightly out of date). And for an interesting overview, please read this.
A final note: Sharing lunch introduced a certain staccato quality into our conversation. I turned the recorder off more than once so that we might be free to enjoy our meal. I’ll end with the observation that Gerhard is not a showman. He is reflective, thoughtful. Thrust into the spotlight after his father’s, Alois Kracher, untimely death, he is eager to be his equal, and to build upon the legacy begun by his grandfather so many years ago, a legacy begun with the simplest of gestures: planting a vine. Without further ado…
Admin Governments can make it very difficult for winemakers to work. Though often historically based and needed, rules are sometimes quite numerous and seem just as often stifle innovation. Is the Austrian government sympathetic to the winegrower?
Gerhard Kracher Yes. Much more. When my grandfather started, it was people who came for holidays, actually. They were the ones who first started bringing wine into their countries. It was then mostly Swiss and German because he was in a German-speaking area. There was no thinking, no chance of going further away.
How did the visitors then hear about Kracher? Advertisement? Word of mouth?
GK Yes, word of mouth. The first people came by accident! (laughs) They were lost, and ended up sleeping in our house. They were tourists. And these people told other people.
Do you remember an occasion when your family name first appeared in a guidebook about Austria?
GK Actually, this was before my time so I don’t know exactly.
Of course. But how common was wine tourism then? Do you recall family stories of such?
GK At this time no one did it. We just had holiday visitors. We have this big lake near our village, so it was just tourists making their holiday.
Is the lake really only five feet deep?
Why is it only five feet deep? Is it a glacial remnant…?
GK Actually, the lake was five times the size it is now a couple of thousand years ago. And it’s just five feet deep because that’s what happened! (laughs)
That’s as good an explanation as any! So you’re not a Geologist!
GK For our place, where we are, we have the perfect micro-climate from that lake and all the other small lakes around our village and between our various vineyards. Some of them are just 30 to 50 centimeters deep. So we have a large quantity of water all around us which brings a lot of humidity. So that during September and October we have heavy fog in our vineyards every morning. We are totally flat, so during the day there is a little bit of wind which clears out the fog in the vineyards and leaves us with a clear, sunshiny day. And it is this combination that is perfect for botrytis.
Just how large is this Austrian region where the botrytis thrives?
GK It extends all around the lake. But there are places where is is more and less.
So there are other producers of sweet wines in the area? And did they come after your grandfather?
GK Sure, there are other producers. Sweet wine was always on the scene, but people didn’t know how to place it on the market. It is true that on the other side of the lake they were more successful because they were the richer, more educated people. They knew what they had. The other side was nearer the capitol of our region, and there was Esterházy. They had money. They had education. On our side of the lake there was nothing. No one was interested. In our village they always said our area was not good because nothing would grow. But is turns out to be perfect for wine.
Is it fair to say the government of the time would show a preference for Esterházy’s side of the lake? They would get the development monies but not your side?
GK Not exactly. I am speaking of the time when the Esterházys were, how do you say, the bosses. And from that time on they could develop. They knew about botrytis, they knew about how great these wines can be. On our side of the lake we did not know such things. Everyone then had to do anything to survive.
Tell me a little about your grandfather’s post-war experience. What was it like to return to the village?
GK My grandfather was in World War 2 for three or four days. He was a very tiny, very slim man. He was 17 or 18 when he had to go to defend Vienna from the Russians. When the Americans came they saw him, and because he was so small that they thought he was 13 or 14. They said they don’t shoot kids and they sent him home. At this time he took over the family estate.
Where were his parents?
GK His parents were also in Illmitz. There were eight kids. Everyone got his part. My grandfather got his small part. But actually, he got essentially nothing; he was poor, too. So he started to build it up. He rented some land, he bought land when he could, so it was step by step. He knew exactly what he wanted to be: a winemaker. But at this time he did not yet have a chance. You need a lot of money to plant vineyards, you need a cellar and barrels…
Where did he eventually acquire his rootstock? And what grapes did he initially plant?
GK He planted traditional varieties from the region. The most successful grape of the time was Welschriesling. And there was Pinot Gris, Muscat Ottonel, Traminer, Zweigelt, that’s it. And Chardonnay. Chardonnay was brought by the monks 300 years ago. These were known. There was a family in Illmitz at this time who dealt in rootstock, and another in the next village; there he got his plants.
In your climate is it three years until a first harvest?
GK To produce, it’s three years. But real quality, what we say here is real quality, we say seven or eight years, because if the vines are young you can’t leave the grapes that long on the stock, it is too much stress for the young vines.
When did your grandfather start a family? Like your father, he must have been quite young.
GK He was married when he was 17 or 18, right after he came back from the war. My father was married when he was 22.
Now people frequently get married when they are 30. It takes men longer to grow up these days!
GK That’s true! (laughs) At this time 22 was quite old to be getting married. Most got married when they were 18 or 19.
And how many children did your father have? What is your mother’s role in the family business?
GK Just me. My mother is the boss of the office. She takes care of all the exports, all the administration.
When I spoke with Rudolf he told me of three episodes in recent Austrian history that have had a sever effect on Austrian wine exports. Not only did he mention the wine scandal of 1984-85, but he gave near equal weight to political developments, especially concerning the rise of the far right. He referred to Jörg Haider, for example. He caused an international stir, shall we say. Now, here in Vienna you recently had elections. You came very close to having the Freedom Party’s leader as the city’s mayor. How do understand these political developments in Austria?
GK The vote was 27%. Very close. Well, the first thing is that the Freedom Party has great marketing. They simply have. Their politicians are educated in the ways of marketing very, very well. They know exactly how to deliver a speech in front of the camera. The second thing is that is very easy to get people to feel uncomfortable. Very easy. You just have to tell them “We could be better”. (laughs)
We have a similar problem in America…We have Sarah Palin.
GK Yes. How can it happen you get George W. Bush two times for President? (laughs) It’s crazy. Sarah Palin isn’t even educated. So, yes, people are feeling uncomfortable. And yes, we have some problems. It’s absolutely true. But I think that a lot of people voted for the Freedom Party to give a kick to the Social Democratic Party, to get them to wake up. So, I think it is a matter of time, maybe at the next elections, that the Freedom Party will never again get 27%.
Now, does that 27% give them additional policy-making power? I mean, will people be able to see the consequences of their vote?
GK Yes. They have more seats in the Vienna government. There will be some consequences. But the Social Democratic Party will work with the Green Party so that the results will not be so terrible. The coalition might also include the Conservative Party, which has a different meaning than in the US. They are not on the right wing.
In America we no longer have moderate Republicans. It is shocking to reasonable Americans.
GK And that is very, very bad. To me what was most shocking was when George Bush was elected a second time. I just couldn’t imagine people would vote for him again. There was no reason for it.
Turning to more pleasant topics, tell me more about Kracher as a business.
GK We also have an import business. We import and distribute wines from all over the world; a lot from California. American wines were always selling well. After George W. Bush was President? No chance. He was very, very unpopular.
There you go! Exactly my point about Austria’s vulnerability. That’s funny. Were you stuck with large inventories?
GK It wasn’t really that bad. Our success was that we had wineries where we don’t have to worry about selling them; for example, Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl, he’s Austrian, so he wasn’t treated as an American. There were others, but New World wines became very unpopular during this time. Not on the level of Ridge or Sine Qua Non, but on the middle level.
Is there much of a wine collecting culture in Vienna? Do a lot of people have cellars?
GK Quite a lot, yes. Nearly every house has a cellar. And not just in Vienna. But most of the people don’t really know it, but there are huge, fantastic cellars. It is not that extreme as in Switzerland. The Swiss are crazy for wine. That is a fantastic market for us.
So when the architectural plans are drawn up for a house do they include a cellar?
GK Yes. In our region every house has a cellar. This is normal because in our region nearly every house has some vineyards. Even to this day I don’t believe there are houses built without cellars. Maybe a few but… As a matter of fact, if you go up the street a ways there is the Palais Colburg. They have one of the best wine cellars in Europe, or, actually, in the world. They have a collection of 100 vintages of Lafite. They have everything, actually.
Is it principally a French collection?
GK No, no. It’s international. Everything.
Would you therefore say the Austrian public has a good grasp of the qualities of international wines?
GK Well, this is a hotel and restaurant. The owner loves wine. So he made this his theme. Not everyone collects wine, but a lot of houses have cellars because it was this way. Sometimes there were two cellars, a cellar beneath a cellar. Wine collecting in former times did not really exist; it’s been in the last 20 years that this has occurred, and then to collect Austrian wines.
Does the Austrian government have a formal position on alcohol consumption? I mean, does it draw a distinction between wine and other forms of alcohol? Better, when they speak of wine are they also speaking of alcohol? Do you foresee a time when Austria might impose stricter laws?
GK It is just alcohol to them. But there are no extreme regulations here. You are allowed to drink when you are 16. That’s it. New laws? Not now.
Kracher is also attempting to open new markets in China. How is that coming along? I think I read you were the first.
GK I think so. We were there 7 or 8 years ago, when we entered the market. It was an import company co-owned by Swarovski. The manager for the Swarovski team was responsible for this import company and he brought us into his portfolio. That’s why we’re there, and it’s growing every year. People get more and more interested in wine. It’s perfect for us.
How do you find the Chinese palate? After all, their wine history is very short. What of those stories of mixing wine and cola?
GK There is none. I’ve heard about the mixing but I’ve never seen it. I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and Macao in May for two weeks. But I have never seen this mixture.
Assuming even urban legends often contain a kernel of truth, do you think the Chinese have an enthusiasm for sweeter wines?
GK It is this way, yes. They have a palate for sweeter products. They like sweet wines quite a lot. It is a very good market for us. We have to build up our market there which will take another 10 to 15 years. They are not educated about wine. That takes time. They have no idea where Austria is. They have no idea who Kracher is. They have no idea what botrytis is. It’s all new for them. We only export sweet wines there. That’s what we are famous for. And I have a similar impression that is the way it was when we began importing to the United States. But, the people in the United States were educated in wine. They just didn’t know where Austria was or what we were producing. So in the US it was easier.
Well, I personally apologize for the American educational system. And after the mid-term elections it will probably get worse. We’ll be teaching creationism and American exceptionalism, and have even less to talk about.
GK Well, it is easier to control a country when people are not educated. (laughs)
And our foreign language studies are not what they could be, shall we say. To speak another language is to enter another’s world. We’re not very good at that.
GK When I was 16 I spent 5 weeks in Chicago. I was quite shocked how historically and geographically uneducated people were.
Was your company at all a part of the European Wine Bloggers Conference? There were a lot of wineries there but I don’t recall seeing Kracher. Were you contacted?
GK We had some wines at the Badeschiff, I think. We were not contacted. Actually, maybe we were. I am not often in the office. But I was not informed.
What is your understanding of the effectiveness of the wine blogging community? What of social media generally? Does Kracher have a Facebook page?
GK No. I think in the future it will become more and more important because the internet is the media of the future, definitely. Whenever I meet people under 40, they spend at least a hour everyday on the internet. That is a large number of people. And wine blogging is something for the future. People are more and more interested in the news, what new is happening in the wine world. And such news is easy to find on the internet. Waiting for a month or two for a magazine, the internet is instant.
When doing background research for our conversation I came across very few interviews, and of those they tend to be quite short. So ours will be a kind of the internet equivalent of War and Peace!
GK I’m a little shy. (laughs) No, I’m not!
I don’t believe it is in the Kracher family’s DNA to be shy. Neither is it in the Austrian DNA, now that I think about it. I’ve been invited into homes and had frequent, detailed conversations with complete strangers.
GK Absolutely not! The people here are quite open-minded because Vienna traditionally was always a melting pot, for hundreds of years.
I would imagine organic viticulture is rather difficult in your area. I would imagine the use of Bordeaux mixture might be common.
GK Well, we are working with Nature and not against it. The thing for me is that it doesn’t matter if it is organic, biodynamic, or whatever: the truth is always in the bottle. And if you work against Nature you will destroy your soil. You will never make great wine. The only thing you have to do is treat your vineyards in the right way. A plant is like the human body. If you’re seriously ill you need antibiotics or you will die. It always depends on the vintage.
If you weren’t here, how would you have spent your Sunday, or any Sunday?
GK My Sundays? (laughs) Well, when I wake up I think to myself what I am going to do today. I have a short breakfast with my girlfriend. Then I read the newspaper. I visit the cellar to make sure everything is alright (I do that everyday). When there is beautiful weather I go out for a bike ride through the vineyards. If it’s cold I will go by car. Then it is lunch, something casual in town with my mother or my friend’s mother, together with my girlfriend. The afternoon then is very easy, sitting in the garden in the summer, going to the beach at the lake. I’ve a small boat. That is my Sunday.
Thank you very much, Gerhard. And thank you for the lunch.
GK My pleasure, Ken.
I was part of a panel discussion titled Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities at the recent European Wine Blogger Conference (EWBC) in Vienna, Austria. The moderator was wine writer and EWBC co-organizer Robert McIntosh of The Wine Conversation; the panelists, George Sandeman of SOGRAPE VINHOS and, for our purposes, representing the organization Wine in Moderation, yours truly, and Adam Watson-Brown, Head of Sector of the Directorate-General Information Society & Media of the European Commission. The official description of the event was:
“We will discuss the influence wine communicators have had upon the consumer, and how best to encourage the creative exploration of wine for the benefit of all. This discussion will draw on the practical experiences of the Wine in Moderation campaign, the future impact of EU regulations on online wine communication, as well as Ken Payton discussing ethical issues that come from being a ‘citizen wine critic’ .”
A rather raw video of our presentation of our exchange has been posted on the internet for public viewing. What follows here is an expanded account of my remarks and thoughts. And I shall provide only a cursory glance at Mr. Sandeman’s presentation and that of Adam Watson-Brown. The reasons are simple. Out of an abundance of caution I asked to speak last, primarily because I was on the European continent and thought it proper to defer to their collective anxieties; and secondly, I am not a particularly good public speaker, so a little clarification couldn’t hurt; and lastly, though I had a modest prepared text thematically consistent with Wine in Moderation’s well-known positions, I needed to better know the EU’s formal posture.
This proved to be a good decision. For the EU’s Adam Watson-Brown opened with a photographic slide titled ‘The Demon Drink’. His slide show continued with like-minded photos, including that of a car wreck, a painting of a wine-soaked Noah, and a soul disfigured from an automobile fire, who first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show; pictures perhaps better suited to an audience of high school teens than a room full of industry professionals. Further, it became very clear that the EU’s message for the blogging community was one of fear, a transparent warning of the coming regulatory storm looming on Europe’s horizon. In a very general sense the EU, following the World Health Organization’s lead, has deferred to an ideology of the medicalization all alcoholic beverages, combining them all into a singular threat, a threat to families, community, the health service system, and civilization itself. After all, alcohol is the common demon haunting wine, beer, whiskey, Absinthe, vodka, and Everclear.
So, in the interests of fairness, of evenly distributing social responsibility among producers of all forms of alcoholic beverages, the EU has chosen medicalization, in my view, as a political expedient, a blunt, normative instrument par excellance. Wine in Moderation, by contrast ever reasonable, and fully anticipating probable future political realities, is attempting to stay ahead of the regulatory curve.
Mr. Sandeman’s presentation, seemingly choreographed rather like a WWF tag team, was to lay out a program tailored in particulars to the EU’s nightmare scenario. Strongly implied by both gentlemen in their official capacities was that we as on-line alcoholic beverage writers, principally wine in this instance, need to begin to take note of our position as influencers. But this idea is shadowed by an additional disturbing dimension. Also strongly implied was that we may ultimately be subject to regulation and sanction because of a growing temptation within the EU and beyond to understand alcoholic beverage writers as a subset of the advertisement industry, as themselves potential promoters of alcohol abuse. What would be the value, after all, of a government banning or restricting alcohol advertisement both in traditional and on-line media were it not also to do the same to alcoholic beverage writers? But I am getting ahead of myself.
Supplemental Notes and Observations on Freedom, Rights and Responsibilities
Wine bloggers and independent wine writers generally are the best contemporary goodwill ambassadors of the wine world. They provide context through stories and biographical insight into wine culture and its winemakers. The best of our community are international citizens. They provide badly needed background in a wine world formally driven by life-style ‘advertorial’ nonsense. I think we can all agree such is finally losing its dominant grip on the popular imagination.
Further, on-line wine writers, and those of other alcoholic beverages, are the bellwethers of change and innovation. They are often the first to know and popularize a winery’s new green initiatives, a technological development, harvest reports, novel university research, invasive insect updates, and yes, how a latest vintage from Brand X tastes.
Wine writers, but also beer and Saki writers, too, remove alcoholic beverages from something to merely drink and place them into a wider, more expansive context, into a timeline of cultural work. Because such writers, those who have been at it for years, are now realizing that they, too, are creating autobiographical histories of a sort, not only of their drinking enthusiasms but of their cultural experiences as well. Responsibility is found (or discovered) exactly here. Moderation is built into vinous thinking and conversation itself. For the internet is no longer a space for immediate, transitory writerly gratification, but in fact persists, endures over time. There are consequences large and small. The Library of Congress, for example, is in the process of preserving and cataloguing ALL tweets from Twitter for, one assumes, future anthropological research. So, a kind of permanence, a legacy, is beginning to dawn on the on-line community. Given the proper archiving tools, a wine writer’s on-line work may now be safely rescued from oblivion. Of course, public indifference is another form of oblivion, but at least it is consistent with a properly human scale of things, our primordial right to forget, as it were.
And speaking of the primordial, advertisement and alcohol now produced on an industrial scale have both played a role in deracinating our ancient relation to alcoholic beverages. Indeed, archaeological and anthropological evidence amply demonstrates our intimate history with inebriation. Dr. Patrick McGovern is the most recent author to expand upon the thesis that farming and human settlement may very well have followed upon Homo sapien’s (or Homo biben’s?) discovery of fermentation. In short, before ‘demon’ drink, there was ’sacred’ drink; alcoholic beverages and intoxication brought the divine to earth in a very real way. Social bonding was enhanced, whether through the agency of the shaman or of a collective miraculously birthed by the experience of inebriation itself.
For this reason I will insist that it is profoundly ill-advised to resort to the ‘medicalization’ of ALL alcoholic beverages. It may be a necessary socio-political maneuver, but it is woefully insufficient, if not nihilistic; along with advertisement and mass-produced alcohol, such a politics further removes us from a lively, informed understanding humanity’s obsession with alcohol. Make no mistake. Medicalization, whether of the mad, women’s bodies, homosexuality, or of undesirable ethnicities, has always enjoyed a policing dimension. Databases, surveillance, ‘public service’ propaganda, legal sanction, therapeutic incarceration, all are ever-present instruments of the state.
And political considerations are of some moment here. Our European Wine Bloggers Conference narrowly missed being held in a Vienna with the fascist Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache as mayor. Indeed, we in the United States may damage our international reputation with the imbecilic ramblings of ‘mama grizzly’ Sarah Palin, but nothing (yet) under American political skies is quite the equal of the loathsome ‘Reich Mother’, Barbara Rosenkranz. Taking the wine sector as an example, the painful reality is that Austria has suffered multiple setbacks regarding wine exports over recent years owing to internal political developments, these quite apart from the ‘wine doctoring scandal’ of the mid-eighties.
While I would not expect the advertisement industry to miss a beat whomever was in power – money speaks all ideological languages – it is in this connection that the wine blogging community may play its most powerful role. Now, surely wine writers are, in my experience, a surprisingly conservative bunch, at least their public faces. None wants to squander social capital on exclusively political matters. However, it is my opinion that this vulnerability is displaced, in part, by discussions about oak, cork versus screwcaps, natural and industrial wines and so on. These highly metaphorical substitutions hint at broader themes. (I’ve come to believe that virtually all talk about wine is ultimately indirect, confused prayers about the survival of our world.)
So, when speaking with Dr. Rudolf Kracher about his departed brother, Alois, one hopeful refrain sang through loud and clear: It remains a durable strength of Austria’s wine producing community that they have reached out to the international community. In his own way, Alois Kracher was as fine an ambassador as Austria has known. And it is we, as wine bloggers and on-line writers, who can stand as guardians of this larger truth. Despite political vicissitudes a nation might be destined to suffer, it is our community which shall stand side by side with those whose hearts we know. Wine writers must insist on this freedom, this right, and this responsibility.
Let us continue to work to preserve them.
For further reading please see:
An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm
EU citizens’ attitudes towards alcohol
Alcohol in Europe, A public health perspective
I was to meet Gerhard Kracher of Kracher Winery for lunch at the Plachutta Wozelle. As an earlier post recounted, I had met Dr. Rudolf Kracher, Alois Kracher’s brother, at Parliament in Vienna a previous afternoon. It was Dr. Kracher who put me immediately in touch with Alois’ son, Gerhard. Of course I arrived half an hour before lunch to explore the restaurant’s immediate neighborhood. I had seen two pictures of the gentleman while preparing for our talk, and so sat on a park bench near the restaurant to see whether I could identify him among the Viennese strolling by this brisk Sunday. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he walks. But as the hour drew near I saw no one resembling him pass. I began to worry the interview might not occur. Into the Plachutta I went, and was immediately greeted by the nattily dressed maître’d. “Mr. Kracher is waiting for you.”
Gerhard Kracher has been the winemaker at Kracher since 2007, assuming full responsibilities at the tender age of 26. The passing of his father, known for a year to be approaching, helped with the transition. As did the years of work Gerhard had already put in at the winery where he worked since he was 18. I shall let Gerhard explain the circumstances in the interview below. It is sufficient at this point to say that there remains some sensitivity to the idea Gerhard needs to prove himself the skilled winemaker. For it is true Kracher is no ordinary winery. Its sweet botrytis wines are among the most celebrated and sought after in the world. Can Gerhard sustain its reputation? Yet it is also true that Alois was himself initially eyed with suspicion.
By all accounts, Gerhard’s father Alois (Luis) Kracher remains a beloved figure in the Austrian wine world and beyond. Having taken over the Kracher Winery from his father in 1981, Alois worked diligently for his brief life to promote and establish the international reputation of a winery built by his father out of the ashes of World War 2. From the impoverished village of Illmitz near the Austrian-Hungarian border to the salons of Paris and skyscrapers of New York, it was a long, hard journey. Kracher founder and patriarch, also named Alois, was, at 17, forced into the army to fight against the invading Russians during the closing weeks of the War. A slight, thin man, he was given a uniform far to large for his frame. When finally captured by the American Army, he was singled out and sent home because, as an American soldier put it, “We don’t shoot children”. Soon after arriving back in Illmitz, elder Alois begins his adult life with the planting of a vineyard.
This is one of the stories Gerhard tells during our 2 1/2 hour lunch conversation. And many more details of the early days of the Kracher Winery will emerge with the additional parts to come. Gerhard is a warm man, and quite funny. But also cautious. I am certain Dr. Rudolf Kacher’s introduction, while trusted, was not without its peculiar, fantastic gaps. Just who really is this American wine writer guy? Good question. But after time spent talking, with my recorder frequently turned off for the sake of shared, relaxed moments, I think he came to feel sufficiently comfortable to speak freely.
Let me hasten to add that I shall in later posts provide background information about the winery. For now: Enjoy.
Admin I was at the MAK last night, not too far from here. Most of the conference participants were there.
Gerhard Kracher So you had a long night?
No, I didn’t. I have to work. I arrived last Saturday. My time in Vienna is nearly gone.
GK So you have already been to the Badeschiff, the ship on the Danube?
Yes, that was Thursday, an informal gathering. Quite a charming location.
The maître’d steps up to our table.
GK Would you like the typical Viennese tafelspitz?
Yes. [Of course, I really didn't know what it was.]
GK Something of a starter? I’ll have the beef tartare.
Maître’d Welcome to Plachutta. You are lunching with one of the most famous men in all of Austria! (laughter) We specialize in Viennese cuisine, many dishes of beef, sir. On the menu you can see all of the cuts we use. We prepare the cuts in a very special way; we serve it in a copper pot. We use the bone marrow, too. That means, first of all, that the beef broth is very strong, then you have the meat. And on the side we serve horseradish and other things. And Mr. Kracher always uses the bone marrow because we found out that the bone marrow is very good for the man power! (laughter)
Well…I’ve one night left in Vienna, so maybe I’ll find out tonight!
The maître’d leaves us to choose from the menu.
GK He’s fantastic!
Do you come here often?
GK Quite often, yes. Not so much in the summertime, but in the wintertime it is fantastic.
Of the most amusing experiences of being a wine writer are the odd relationships you make. I walked in off the street into Parliament, and I asked if I could speak to someone about the contemporary state of Austrian wine. They searched through the membership of various bureaus and departments wondering who that could possibly be. And lo and behold, who should appear but Rudolf Kracher, a delightful fellow.
GK He wanted to be here but he has to be in Parliament for a budget discussion. He’s working.
Ah… So we had a very nice discussion about the situation of wine in Austria. He provided me with this article, the text of a talk your father gave some years ago. I was hoping you could talk a bit about this for my American readers who might not be familiar with your story, the sudden, enormous weight of responsibility that has fallen on your shoulders at your father’s passing. The transition was already going on…
GK When this happened I had already been working 8 years in the winery. I was very familiar with everything, every step of production. I was my father’s right hand for production… actually, for everything. It was not new to me. We knew one year before my father died of his likely fate. So, I had quite a long time to prepare everything. I wasn’t really kicked into something. I have to say that was very, very helpful that I’ve been working in the winery since I was 18. Because to be a winemaker cannot be learned in one year. It’s impossible. You have to have the feeling, you have to have the experience. It was quite tough, but I knew what would come.
The eyes of the world were watching you…
GK Yes. Which was helpful for me because if I have someone sitting at my back, then I am working more and harder! (laughs)
Yes. We have examples of such public transitions in the United States. When David Lett, an Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer, passed, his son, Jason took the reigns. Questions swirled about whether Jason, already an accomplished winemaker, could fill his father’s shoes. It is tough following a legend. But Jason has succeeded extremely well after the transition.
And you have managed to be named Sweet Winemaker of the Year in 2009 at the International Wine Challenge in London. What were the number of Austrian wines present at that event? And European sweet wines?
GK I don’t know exactly, but it was over a thousand. I sent twelve wines, and every single one was winning. I think it was four or five Golds, four Silver, and three Bronze.
Could you tell me something of the history of the Kracher estate, the property?
GK The history is not that long. My grandfather [also named Alois] started after World War Two.
What was his training in winemaking?
GK Nothing. He had zero training.
Did he have friends and neighbors who helped?
GK There was always wine in every house, but it was very simple. Very simple. And he had half a hectare of vineyards, and he had five hectares of [lake]land. He was a mixed farmer. He had chickens, horses, cows, food plants, nearly everything. It was a self-sufficient farm. Which was normal in our village. Our village [Illmitz] was very, very poor. It was the end of the road, actually, after World War Two. Beyond us there was Hungary. There was communism, so nobody wanted to go there, no one was interested. And no one knew what was happening there.
My grandfather always said that having the vineyards was always his dream. He loved to be in the vineyards; he loved to work in the cellar. The other land holdings were horrible for him. He didn’t like it. He started, step by step, to rebuild the estate, to make out of the lake land, vineyards. He worked at the butcher, saved all his money to invest in the estate. He always said that the first time he made wine like he envisioned it should be made was in 1959. This was the year my father was born. From that step on, he built some guest rooms because he didn’t know where to sell the wines! So with the guest rooms he could have visitors try them and maybe buy them. It was Germany, Switzerland, Austria, visitors from those countries. Then there were the restaurants that began taking our wines, like the Steirereck, Altwienerhof, the Schwarzen Kameel, Meinl am Graben… these were our first customers that took our wines into their restaurants.
My grandfather built up his vineyards in those days to 7.5 hectares of his own land plus another 5 hectares he rented. This was at that time quite big for our region, actually for our village. My father, Alois, took over winemaking in 1981. He was in the pharmaceutical industry with Baxter. He was in middle-management. He worked there because the estate wasn’t big enough to feed two families. My grandparents weren’t retired, so it was impossible to feed two families.
My father saw, as well as my grandfather, that we could sell botrytis wines. They saw that we could compete with the world immediately, because there are only four regions in the world where you can do that every vintage: Sauternes, the Mosel, Tokaji, and here. And that’s it! So it becomes very easy to compete with the world immediately. My father made the winery an international success. He went to VinExpo in Bordeaux; he went to London, he went to New York… to present the wine. The problem was never that the people didn’t like the wine. The problem always was to get people to taste the wine, because nobody was interested in Austria. Most didn’t know that there was real wine production in Austria.
Were there rules and regulations already in place governing Austrian wine production, considering its modest scale?
GK Yes. There was everything in place, but the wine was actually sold here in Austria. There was no real export.
This story summarizes Alois’ adventures in the United States where he went around the country and essentially hand-sold the wines. That’s quite a demanding way to finally get people to taste your wines.
GK Well, at this time, when you don’t have any money, and you have to get your wine to the customer, that is the only way to do it. And it was successful. (laughs) It wasn’t easy because, as I said, no one knew that Austria was producing wine. And sweet wine is the niche of the niche. So, in the first couple of years, when he went to Paris or VinExpo or VinItaly or the London Wine Fair, you can’t get people to taste wines very easily! Everyone is stressed. Everyone has a program. And then someone comes and says “Please taste my wine. It’s from Austria.” There is immediate skepticism. This was the problem. But when they tasted it, they were happy. It was a big success. But to get people there to taste our wines… this was the problem.
But then success happened very quickly…
GK Well, quickly… it took him years. It took him from 1982 until 1989 to be a small part of the wine world. In the first years no one wanted to taste the wine. The first VinExpos and wine fairs were absolutely not successful. Absolutely not. But as he got his foot in the door, as he got some people to taste the wine, then it became easier. He was becoming known; he knew the people, and people began to recommend my father. He was a very, very good connector. He knew how to use his contacts, the few contacts he was able to get.
The maître’d briefly returns to the table.
GK Do you want a glass of wine? I’m driving, so I can’t.
No thank you. I don’t want to drink alone. So what motivated Alois to choose the United States? Was it because of a perceived openness of the mind of the American sweet wine drinker? An opening in the market?
GK During these times we were actually at the point where we didn’t even try to build up Europe. The only export markets we had were Switzerland and Great Britain.
How much did you actually have inventoried to sell for export at that time? How much was available? Your production was not very large.
GK No. It was about 15,000-20,000 bottles a year. My father was in VinItaly. He had a stand, it was an Austrian stand. There were Americans who passed by. And one of them said to his friends, “Why don’t we taste the Austrian sweet wines? I’ve heard somewhere, somehow, about it, about Kracher”. And the boss of the company said, “Ah, come on. No Austrian sweet wine. We have so much to do!” But the other guy, his assistant said, “Let’s just taste it.” They walked up to my father and said they just wanted to have one wine. He gave them one wine, which was the Grand Cuvée, 1990. they tasted it and were blown away! They said, “OK! What else do you have.” They stayed there for a couple of hours talking and tasting. Two or three months later it was our first export to the United States.
Did it go to New York?
GK It went to Chicago. Most of the quantity eventually went to New York in the end. It was then that my father began to travel in the United States. The good thing for him, which he didn’t know exactly before, was that there were a lot of Austrian chefs, sommeliers, food and beverage managers working in the United States, especially in New York. New York is still our single biggest market in the United States.
When I was walking through Vienna I happened to pass by a group of perhaps 50 young people, all dressed in suits and ties. They were all taking a class break from a school specializing in the hospitality industry: restaurants, hotels, and so on. Their English was very good. They were preparing for positions in the international tourism, restaurant, and hotel industry. Austria seems to be quite aggressive in turning out young ambassadors, as it were.
GK They are very good. They have very good schools for that. Very, very good. They have training in food and wine, which ten years ago was non-existent. They treat the people very well. Actually, the treatment of food was always very good, for cooking, for being in the service; that’s why so many Austrians are in Gastronomy outside of Austria. We are in the United States, Asia; we’re on cruise-liners, for example. That’s because the schools here operate on a very high level.
And were the establishment of these schools sanctioned and encouraged by the government? It is an official position of Austrian foreign policy to produce such culinary ambassadors?
GK Well, it depends on the school. The school can decide by themselves how high to establish the level of expertise. There are some schools in Austria where, when you hear someone has passed the school, has graduated, you know exactly what that graduate’s skills are in food and wine.
So Alois learned all of his winemaking from his father? Or did he attend an Enology and Viticultural school?
GK No school. He learned the first steps by my grandfather’s side. And then he always went to Bordeaux. He was always fascinated by Bordeaux, and by Sauternes. When he went to Sauturnes, he didn’t speak any French, and only a tiny bit of English when he started. It was in the beginning of the 80’s. And Mr. Pierre Meslier, who was at this time the manager of Chateau d’Yquem [regisseur 1963-1989] — before he was a winemaker — he was approaching retirement. My father tried to visit him. After his second visit he was able to have the contacts to visit this guy. And Mr. Meslier was so fascinated by the enthusiasm of my father that he then showed him a lot of things. So from this time on, my father visited every holiday. Mr. Meslier was one of his, let’s say, masterminds. So he brought my father into thinking different ways about winemaking.
End of Part 1