Reign of Terroir’s Top Posts Of 2010

Ξ December 30th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!


Forthcoming From Reign of Terroir

Ξ December 21st, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News |

As I make my way through the holiday season, one thing has becomes very clear: work slows to a trickle. But the mind is a wondrous thing; despite counsel from the East to the contrary, it can never truly be at rest. So, for readers interested on what is next from yours truly, I offer the following sketch of forthcoming stories.
My visit to beautiful Porto, Portugal earlier this month as a guest of ViniPortugal was brief but punctuated by moments of rich experience. The Wines of Portugal International Conference (WOPIC) was ostensibly concerned with speculation about the potential of Touriga Nacional to take its place at the international table as one of Portugal’s flagship indigenous grape varieties. Much ink has been spilled about the difficulty of marketing Portuguese wines with unpronounceable names, the disquiet they may provoke, especially in the minds of North American consumers; so, too, has Portuguese winemaking history been isolated as a potential obstacle for slick, stream-lined promotional campaigns. The argument runs something like this: inasmuch as the consumer wishes only to enjoy a bottle of wine, then ‘history’, an epic saga in Portugal’s case, can only interfere if not properly shaped to an increasingly parsimonious intellectual appetite already adrift in a ‘wine-dark sea’ of quality wine. And upon this sea we consumers bob on our life-raft, and after briefly swapping stories of the disaster that brought us to this moment, we need only to dip our cup. So the argument goes.
Moreover, in an era of sound bites, instantaneous reaction via the internet, the rise of the citizen journalist, and, quite simply, the noise of our daily lives, it becomes increasingly difficult to think our own history let alone that of a nation neglected from the beginning, even by the North American school system. And elsewhere? The comings and goings of the Queen of England and her brood command headlines. History, no? So perhaps Portugal stands as an example of a certain kind of imaginative failure of the balance of the West itself. Yes, perhaps ‘history’ is a buzz kill. But every invader first sacks a city. For this is history, too.
So, one of my first efforts to come will be tackling this sprawling topic. I have a special interest here because of a documentary, presently being edited, on historical Portuguese wines which, when released in late Spring I hope will constructively add to the discussion.
I will also be reporting on one on the finer presentations given at WOPIC, that of Willi Klinger, Managing Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board and that country’s wine ambassador par excellance. His talk deftly brought into focus the interests and challenges shared by both Austria and Portugal. In his succinct, self-deprecating speech, he successfully teased out the most important features of the marketing landscape confronting a smaller, lesser know country wishing to put bottles on the tables of the world, and without sacrificing heritage. Equally important was his reflection on the necessary structural changes that must occur within a country for it to have a chance. Cooperation between hitherto isolated bureaucracies is the critical first step.
Another subject following upon my recent Porto explore will be a detailed account of one of the very few biodynamic properties in Portugal, Projecto Afros. Located in the wilds of Vinho Verde, their substantial holdings are centered on the production of Loureiro, a beautiful white variety, and Vinhão, an intense red, both grown in granitic soils. Founded by Lisbon-born Vasco Croft, Projecto Afros is at once an experiment and a vindication that gentler, more environmentally sensitive practices may be put to use even in this region of rain and humidity. Indeed, no less a publication that The Independent named one of theirs as among the 10 best ethical wines.
A proper account of Quinta de Villar d’Allen in Porto will put my narrative skills to the test. This august name in the glorious history of Port wines, a name suspended for quite some time, now has recently returned to production, releasing their first bottling just weeks ago. Imbued with an expansive curiosity, employing a first-rate winemaker, and driven to produce only the highest quality wines, Quinta de Villar d’Allen’s story of the long road back to excellence will, it is hoped, prove compelling.
More general topics to soon come will include Biodiversity, Monsanto, and an unconventional interview with the brilliant Robin Goldstein, co-author, along with Alexis Hershkowitsch, of The Wine Trials. (The book, btw, makes for an excellent Christmas gift!) I shall also be following with great interest Randall Grahm’s exploration of biochar. My understanding is that he plans to visit Peter Schmidt in February. For more on the subject of biochar and Herr Schmidt please see this and this.
Merry Christmas to all.


Fabrique En Chine – Chateau Bolongbao

Ξ December 17th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |

Greybeard writes…
Vincent Debien is a long way from home, although that’s nothing new for this young Bordelais. At 26 he already has vintages from Lebanon, Corsica, Bordeaux, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland under his belt (including such names as Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Brion, Chandon Australia and Cloudy Bay), but for 2010 Debien is helping with the slow realisation of a new major player on the world wine scene at Château Bolongbao, southwest of Beijing, in the Peoples Republic of China.
China is all the rage in the wine world at the moment; from Bordeaux First Growths putting Chinese characters on their bottles or commissioning Chinese artists to design their labels, to record breaking auction prices in Hong Kong. But while Asian wine appreciation may not be a new phenomenon – UK Fine Wine magazine Decanter has been doing a Traditional Chinese edition aimed at Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore etc. for more than 5 years – the idea of fine wine actually made in China is still taking hold in the West even though there is a winemaking history dating back thousands of years although it has only been in the last few decades that have seen a revival).
The facts put things into perspective: 2008 figures show China was the world’s seventh largest wine producer – (it was briefly 6th in 2007 after Australian production dipped dramatically) – and based on the trends it’s probably 5th by now with only Italy, France, Spain and the US making more wine by volume. True, most of that volume wouldn’t be appreciated by the average wine drinker in Europe or the US, but quality levels are rising fast.
But let me rewind back to Château Bolongbao. I was in Beijing on business and when my hosts heard about my wine obsession they kindly suggested taking me to a winery near the city. On arriving we were welcomed by a young staff member, Dingshichao, and given a guided tour of the buildings and cellar. He was happy to answer all of my questions in broken English, sometimes looking to my colleagues for a translation when he seemed to struggle for the best words, although I think even if I’d been there without friends I wouldn’t have had any problems speaking with him.
The winery was started in 2000 with French investment, which seems to be a consistent theme in Chinese winemaking. New vine plantings in 1999 meant the first vintage wasn’t until 2003 with their prestigious Grand Vin from that favourable vintage labelled as Chateau Philippe, but the 2004 and subsequent vintages have all been labelled as Chateau Bolongbao.
The vines spread out over nearly 70ha of land surrounding the winery near the village of Bashimudi, just over an hour’s drive Southwest of Beijing, past Fangshan, and there’s a development plan to purchase and plant more land and expand to as much as 200ha.
Even without M. Debien the French influence is visible all around with the Tricoleur flying proudly alongside the Chinese flag outside, the Bordeaux Oak Barrels scattered in and around the buildings and the grapes themselves; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and, allegedly, a smattering of Petit Manseng (although this was not in evidence when I was there).
Production is limited to about 100,000 bottles a year although that has dropped to nearly 50,000 for the low yielding 2010 vintage, deemed already to be a very good year (potentially the best of the winery’s short life).
With such a limited production Bolongbao doesn’t sell in local stores; apart from visiting the winery itself, getting hold of a bottle requires you to be in their direct sales wine club, in the Duty Free area of the major Chinese airports or, strangely enough, in one of several Parisian Restaurants (again I’m guessing the French Connection at play here). This exclusivity and the winery’s organic status (they’re very proud of the Chinese, European and US organic certification which seems to set it apart from most of its Chinese counterparts ) probably helps explain the high prices of Bolongbao’s wine; their top wine, the 2003 Château Philippe was being sold at the winery for 1880RMB, approximately £200!
Debien happily brought me back to the tank room for a barrel tasting as he explained a little bit about himself and what he hopes for his time in China. He arrived in August to take over the winemaking duties (Bolongbao had a Chinese winemaker up until then) and was thrown straight into the 2010 harvest, which began at the beginning of September with the Estate Merlot, then the Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon throughout September. The summer seems to have been dry with a lot of sunshine, leading to some sunburn on the Chardonnay and uneven ripeness, however, the low yields for the red grapes promise excellent quality.
First up was the Rosé; 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot expected to come in at 13.5% abv with about 1000 bottles planned. It was an elegant salmon pink in colour and, with a just-dry taste, this was drinking very well straight out of the tank. Onto the Chardonnay next with 3 barrels and a small tank – again about 1000 bottles expected. The cask sample had a smoky nose and good texture, overtly oaky as you’d expect but with a hint of banana on the finish, potentially a very pleasant wine. Vincent was worried about low acidity in a lot of the grapes but was hoping the final blending of the tank Chardonnay, which had higher acidity than the barrel lots, would provide enough to bolster the wine’s structure.
Then to the reds, all still in tanks – the transfer to barrels was expected in the next 10 days.
Merlot was first, about 120 hectolitres (hl), which was first racked after 10 days – sooner than typical as it had good structure. The colour was rich, although Debien admitted he’d needed to do a little Carbonic Maceration to pull extra colour out of the grapes. This was a lot more elegant and lean than I’d been expecting for a Merlot, the tannins weren’t overly harsh for its age and it had a good structure, although lacked body.
Cabernet Franc next, 10 hl in a small tank off to one side – again this was first racked after only 10 days as Debien had concerns about its development. Although the nose was wonderful – heady and vegetal with a touch of acetate – in the mouth the tannins were surprisingly harsh with an ashen aspect, although it had a depth of texture that showed potential. I agreed with Vincent that there was something concerning about where this “was” – should it come together it would make a good wine and great contributor to a blend, but for the moment it was to be kept alone and watched.
Finally the Cabernet Sauvignon which had taken 3 weeks before it was first racked. 240 hl sat in 4 large tanks and had caused some concern at harvest – Debien wanted to wait for full phenolic ripeness while the owners nervously looked skywards for signs of rain (Beijing weather is notoriously unpredictable) as the grapes hung on for much longer than usual. French patience won out but even these ripe grapes are barely expected to reach 14% abv, less than usual at the Château.
This had a closed nose which eventually opened up a little in the glass, with a good structure, firm but relatively fine tannins (compared to the Cabernet Franc) and balanced acidity and fruit.
I extend my thanks to Vincent for going above and beyond with his hospitality to me on that cool but sunny November day in China, and I wish him well for his first vintage in the year of the Tiger.
Before I left I had a short walk around the picturesque oriental gardens and vineyard, noticing how the all of the lower part of the vines had been covered with soil for protection against the harsh winters this region of China experiences. I returned to Beijing with several pages of notes, plenty of camera shots and a bottle of the 2004 [browser would not render characters; see link-Admin] (that’s Cabernet Franc in Chinese characters) for a mere £30 at the cellar door – almost definitely more expensive than the juice inside the bottle warrants but at least affordable compared to the 2003 Château Philippe!
At least one Chinese wine review suggests Bolongbao is overpriced for what it is, but then again, isn’t that the epitome of Bordeaux as well? I suspect an element of status envy is going on here as the wines are mainly red (seen as healthy by the Chinese), exclusive and organic, while the winery is run by the son of a former general (or high ranking politician, I wasn’t sure of the translation). Given the ridiculous prices that top Bordeaux go for in China then I guess it isn’t too surprising a Bordeaux styled Chinese winery can ask, and get, high prices for it’s wines from the notoriously overspending, status symbol seeking Beijing elite.
For further background reading on the new Chinese wine culture I recommend reading Adam Luck’s excellent piece on the Bordeaux Wine Exchange, while for general reference and the latest news from the region check out and the Grape Wall of China Blog, which also has an earlier visit to Château Bolongbao in their archives.
Gan Bei!


California Dreamin’, Last Call

Ξ December 15th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News, Wineries |

Greybeard writes…
In Part’s I and II of my roadtrip journal I told of my short visit to Napa then the 4 days behind the wheel driving through (or at least past) most of the key Californian wine regions ending up in Sonoma (and I even managed to taste a few bottles along the way!).
Returning to the UK fate smiled and arranged two California themed tastings which brought together wines from across several AVAs and included some wonderful examples of what is possible from these areas.
The first tasting was a red only affair at my monthly North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) meeting, followed a few days later by a small informal gathering hosted by local (Newcastle) retailers Richard Granger (RG) where some whites managed to get a look in. Rather than simply listing the wines from each tasting I’m going mix & sort them based around the route of my own Californian journey, starting with Napa Valley then moving down to Santa Barbera and Santa Ynez before working back North to Sonoma.
Napa. Mondavi Woodbridge 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
OK, so I know Woodbridge is in Lodi, not Napa, but I didn’t get anywhere near there and the original Robert Mondavi winery was in Napa Valley (though the giant Constellation Corporation has owned it since 2004).
This wine was basically a generic representation of what most UK wine drinkers associate with California. It had a smoke and fruit nose, was a little thin but showed good balance with light tannins – a pleasant, inoffensive “ordinary” wine.
Napa. Stag’s Leap 2008 Artemis (NEWTS).
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (not to be confused with Stags’ Leap Winery, or the AVA itself) is arguably one of the names that made Napa famous in 1976 when its Stag’s Leap Vineyards (SLV) 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the Judgement of Paris tasting.
Cask23 and the SLV are the current flagship wines while the Artemis is a slightly more affordable blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (92%) and Merlot (8%) from younger vineyards. It had a deep colour, a herby, spicy nose with a savoury aspect and was very well balanced – a smooth, approachable wine which was easy to drink although I found it a little lean, flat in the middle and, for £50, even with all of its balance and smooth tannins, it seemed to be missing something which age was unlikely to provide.
Napa. Clos du Val 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
Another of the Judgement of Paris wineries (1972 vintage) with a Bordeaux blend, this time Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) Cabernet Franc (10%), Merlot (3%) and Petit Verdot (2%). This had a fresh, herby nose, dry at the front with a short finish, but a fruity mid-palate meant that I preferred this to the Stag’s Leap.
Napa. Frog’s Leap 2007 Zinfandel (RG).
Frog’s Leap is an organic winery with a sense of humour, as demonstrated by the “catch a fly” game as you enter their Web Site and the fact they named their late harvest Riesling Frogënbeerenauslese!
The ’07 Zin is a field blend of Zinfandel (80%), Petit Sirah (19%) and Carignane (1%) with a lovely fruit and herb nose. It was clean drinking with fresh acidity and firm, but not harsh, tannins – the fruit was restrained, almost hidden, so somewhat atypical for previous Zins I’ve tried, but elegant and delicious nonetheless.
Carneros. Cuvaison 2006 Pinot Noir (RG).
Carneros straddles both Napa and Sonoma AVAs, with Cuvaison sourcing their Pinot Noir from the southern part of Napa and proud of their sustainable credentials. The ’06 had a slightly rustic, sweet and sour nose – strawberry fruit and a touch of acetate – but was smoother in the mouth than suggested, with lean tannins and juicy, food-friendly acidity. This was a touch simplistic but showed flashes of elegance and potential for improved integration over the next year or so.
Santa Ynez. Zaca Mesa 2004 Z Cuvée (NEWTS).
Zaca Mesa known for its Rhône varieties, especially Syrah – it was the first to plant in Santa Barbera County in 1978. The ’04 Z Cuvée is a blend of Grenache (60%), Mouvedre (26%), Syrah (13%) & Cinsault (1%) and had a medicinal nose with a touch of menthol. In the mouth there was sweet fruit and raisin but it became disjointed as it moved into a smooth, dry mid-palate before a harsh finish.
The winery also seems to be something of a training ground for Californian winemakers; Ken Brown (Byron & Ken Brown Wines), Adam Tolmack (Ojai), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) and Bob Lindquist (Qupé) all worked there before setting up their own wineries.
Two alumni maintain their connection with Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat sharing facilities with Bob Lindquist at Qupé.
Santa Maria. Au Bon Climat 2007 Isabelle Pinot Noir (RG).
The Isabelle is a Jim Clendenen master-blend from the pick of the various vineyards at his disposal. The nose was strong and gamey, not dissimilar to the Cuvaison but with less strawberry, more structured and balanced with some smokiness and a little floral perfume on the edges. In the mouth this was delicious; smooth tannins run down the sides of the mouth mixing with a juicy, savoury fruit component and some of that meatiness suggested on the nose. The finish was sweet, a touch of sour and very long. This was a superb and very elegant wine, even at £43 a bottle.
Santa Maria. Qupé 2007 Syrah (NEWTS).
This showed a funky poivre rosé (pink peppercorn) nose (although some around the table said rubber!) with menthol and herbs coming through in the mouth. There was a little vegetal or farmyard aspect which, for me at least, added to the whole, chocolaty tannins throughout and a peppery finish.
Paso Robles. Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Beaucastel 2005 (NEWTS).
This is more than an homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape as the vines were propagated from cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in the Rhône using four of the traditional 13 Chateauneuf grapes (actually now listed as 18 in the most recent AOC Articles). This blend of Mourvèdre (44%), Grenache (26%), Syrah (25%) and Counoise (5%) looked older than its 5 years and had a lean nose with an almost sour aspect. Once tasted, smooth tannins surrounded a juicy savouriness with flavours of fig and mocha.
Paso Robles. Peachy Canyon 2007 “Incredible Red” Zinfandel (with 4% Petite Sirah) (RG).
There was a rubbery aspect to the nose which moved into a meaty/gamey aroma, but not particularly pleasant. A strong, concentrated fruit flavour bordered on candy fruit, with a sweet finish but this felt incomplete and wasn’t a favourite.
Monterey County. Diamond Collection 2008 Chardonnay (RG).
Wines from Francis Ford Coppola put in a double appearance at the Richard Granger tasting, starting with the Monterey County offering which had an enticing tropical fruit and banana nose. There was some bitterness in the taste before it moved into a smooth mid-palate, but a hot finish further detracted and consigned this to mediocrity.
Santa Cruz. Bonny Doon vineyards Le Cigare Blanc 2005 (RG).
A Rhône blend of Roussanne (54%) and Grenache Blanc (46%) with a floral beeswax nose and a good viscous mouthfeel, the floral aspects coming through strongly. There was a warm spiciness on the finish and good complexity, more so than the 2007 I’d tried in the Santa Cruz tasting room only a couple of weeks earlier. As Roussanne is a variety that can handle some bottle age maybe the ’07 will blossom after a few more years (although I’m not so sure).
Santa Cruz. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1993 (NEWTS).
Back to the Judgement of Paris theme again with a wine whose 1971 vintage was 5th in the original 1976 tasting but secured first place in the 30th anniversary re-tasting by an overwhelming majority.
Monte Bello is a vineyard blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (86%) with varying quantities of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Unfortunately the bottle of 1993 on my side of the tasting room was corked, but I managed to get a small sip of the second bottle which had a delicate nose with some sweet smoke. It was very smooth (almost fragile) in the mouth – lighter than I expected – and a bit austere at the front with an ethereal finish. I only wish I’d had a full tasting measure to be able to write more, but I was impressed with what little I had.
Santa Cruz. Ridge 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate (RG).
A Cabernet Sauvignon (56%), Merlot (42%), Petit Verdot (2%) blend which is effectively Ridge’s second wine to the Monte Bello. This had super-concentrated dark berry nose with some spice coming through at the end, a truly wonderful aroma, however, one word sprung to mind on tasting it – Infanticide! Forceful, almost harsh tannins were all around the edges and this was much too young to drink, even so, the strong core of sweet/sour fruit was obvious and a good dash of acidity which, together with the tannins, suggested another 3+ years before this should be tried again – the potential and longevity was clear.
In the home stretch now and heading towards Sonoma curving around the southern and eastern edges of San Francisco.
Livermore Valley. Murrieta’s Well 2007 Meritage (RG).
This is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (42%), Merlot (24%), Petit Verdot (22%), Cabernet Franc (11%) & Malbec (1%) – all fermented and aged separately for up to 4 months before blending. In the glass this was dark with some spice and berries on the nose, including blackcurrant. Tannins were understated in the mouth, this was smooth and fruity with a subtle cooked aspect to the flavours, but still very drinker friendly with good structure.
Contra Costa County. Cline Cellars 2007 Small Berry Mourvèdre (NEWTS).
I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Cline in the past with their deliciously smooth and fruity Cashmere 2007 GSM. This Mourvèdre had a sweet fruit and menthol/eucalyptus nose with something of a strange detergent aspect which blew off after a few minutes in the glass. A full-on, thick, sweet and fruity start quickly switched into an astringent, tannic finish which detracted a little, but on the whole this was appreciated as an elegant and relatively light Mourvèdre, with a fellow taster commenting that “the intrinsic dryness of the grape balances the Californian sweetness of fruit”.
And so finally we reach Sonoma to bring the journey to a close.
Russian River. Francis Ford Coppola 2008 Director’s Cut Chardonnay (RG).
The second Coppola Chardonnay of the tasting was barrel fermented and aged which showed through on the nose with a buttery aspect but also retaining some zest. In the mouth this was full flavoured; balanced, complex and smooth with the oak only appearing at the end along with a little heat, but otherwise this was a very good wine and superior to the earlier Diamond Cut.
Sonoma County. Joseph Swan Vineyards 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
Joseph Swan typically make a straight Estate Russian River Valley or a separate Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon but they told me that 2000 was a weak vintage so they tried blending the two into this Sonoma County label which seems to have done the trick, creating a delicious wine with more longevity than they’d expected.
It had a beautiful savoury, yet perfumed, nose with some background sweet vegetal aspects including red pepper (capsicum). Juicy in the mouth this had a light sweetness carried through by well balanced, fine tannins. There was bottle variation at the tasting but both examples tasted delicious; one heavier with exaggerated perfume, the other more sweet and savoury, a fine wine on the night and a fitting one to end this post.
So, my journey finally ended in a small tasting room in the North East of England but, along the way, I saw and sampled a small part of the 450,000 acres (182,000 ha) of vineyards and 110 different AVAs (both numbers still growing) and expanded both my knowledge and appreciation of the diverse wines of California.
It’s sad to know that very little of what is produced will reach the UK, and a lot of what does is either bulk brand quality or low QPR, but there’s no denying that a personal visit to any of the wine growing areas in the State will uncover a rich history, friendly faces and some damn fine wines.


HAC(k)ing a Wine, The New Science Of Cork Taint

Ξ December 5th, 2010 | → 18 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News, Wineries |

For many years now since the discovery of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), whenever one encountered a wine exhibiting a moldy basement and wet dog nose, and fruit muted or altogether absent, with a shortened finish on the palate, one said the wine was ‘corked’. A cliché fixed in the popular imagination, the term ‘corked’ naturally has led the uninitiated and the expert alike to believe only corks are responsible for this specific constellation of descriptors. But this is a very small part of the story and, more importantly, only partially correct. Recent scientific studies have revealed other active agents — along with TCA, all haloanisoles — are also directly responsible for the fault. And among the agents most deserving of our critical attention is 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). It is for this reason I am here proposing the replacement of the term ‘cork taint’ for HAC or HAlonasiole Contamination. In this computer-savvy era, it is hoped that we might now begin to refer not to a corked wine, but to a HAC(k)ed wine. Let me try to explain.
What is TBA? From the 3rd edition of Dr. Ron Jaskson’s Wine Science:
“The absence of detectable TCA in some wines identified as possessing a corked odor may relate to newly discovered musty-smelling compounds. Chatonnet et al. (2004) have isolated 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) from several corked wines in France. TBA appears to have a similar microbial origin as TCA – methylation of its halophenol precursor, TBP (2,4,6-tribromophenol). The latter is often used as a fire-retardant and wood preservative. As a consequence, it may be found on wooden or wood-based material throughout a winery. The common mold, Trichoderma longibrachantum, possesses an o-methyltransferase that can methylate phenols containing fluoro-, chloro- and bromo-substituents (Coque et al., 2003). The conversion of TBP to TBA generates a highly volatile compound (easily contaminating a wine cellar). It adsorbs efficiently into hydrophobic products such as cork, polyethylene, and silicone. Thus, both natural and synthetic corks, the polyethylene liners of screw caps, silicone bungs of barrels, vulcanized rubber gaskets, and polyethylene- or polyester-based winemaking equipment may adsorb significant amounts of TBA. It can subsequently be desorbed into wine. TBA has an extremely low detection threshold, similar to that of TCA (parts per trillion).”
For our purposes the “methylation of its halophenol precursor” describes a biological defense mechanism used by wide spread, commonly encountered filamentous fungi (but also some actinomycetes, Streptomyces, for example) when in the presence of specific environmental toxins. The fungus secretes an enzyme, chlorophenol O-methyltransferase (CPOMT), which essentially transforms the bio-toxin into a harmless substance. This is what occurs in the formation of TCA when the environmental precursor, 2,4,6-trichlorophenol (TCP) is transformed into the biologically harmless TCA.
Now, TCA and TBA precursors have long been used as fungicides, but also as general pesticides, as wood preservatives; they are mixed in fire-retardant paints, and, in fact, are among the most persistent environmental pollutants. Called halophenols, the precursors of TCA and TBA are a chlorophenol and a bromophenol respectively. (The prefix ‘halo’ merely refers to the position on the Periodic Table of the Halogens: Chlorine, Bromine, Flourine, Iodine, and Astatine.) And it is here the story takes a decisive turn. Just as the biological activity of a microorganism transform the environmental toxic 2,4,6-trichlophenol (TCP) into the harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), so does a microorganism transform the toxic 2,4,6-tribromophenol (TBP) into harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). (Each of these halophenols are then said to have become haloanisoles.) It may therefore be said that these specific halonisoles of Chlorine and Bromine, TCA and TBA respectively, are two of the agents responsible for ‘cork taint’. (Other agents: PCA, 2,3,4,6TeCP, are beyond the scope on this gloss.) Yet cork is not the ’source’ in any conventional sense.
When one speaks of a ‘corked’ wine, one is referring to TCA only if a scientific assay has determined its specific presence. As is well known, the cork industry has discontinued the practice of using hypochlorite-bleaching of cork stoppers for many years. It was this practice that led directly to the formation of the haloanisole TCA. Yet ‘corked’ bottles, sadly, continue to be discovered. After all, the tasting threshold of TCA is estimated to be around 2 to 6 parts per trillion, a bit higher for TBA. This translates into roughly 2 to 6 sugar cubes dissolved in a quantity of water equal to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools! So, inasmuch as the industry is dealing with a compound active in nano-grams, the universal recognition of the reduction of ‘cork taint’ testifies to the remarkable success of new technologies and practices.
Yet new scientific research clearly demonstrates that cork, in addition to being a potential originating source of TCA upon leaving a factory, it also readily absorbs TCA from any number of environments. And a cork stopper may also absorb TBA. But not only cork stoppers. Plastic stoppers and the liners of screw caps (see below) also readily absorb the offending molecules. Indeed, wine itself may become tainted before it is sealed with any closure. And this is why. From a 2008 Practical Vineyard and Winery article, “2,4,6-TBA, The Next “2,4,6-TCA” of the Wine Industry”,
“Like 2,4,6-TCA, 2,4,6-TBA causes a musty, mold taint in wine at very low concentrations, but it has the potential to be an even more serious problem to the U.S. wine industry because its precursor (2,4,6- tribromophenol [2,4,6-TBP]) can be found in so many sources commonly used in wineries. [....] 2,4,6-TBP and its derivatives have been used as 1) fire-retardant agents in epoxy resins, polyurethanes, plastics, paper, textiles, and fire extinguishing media; 2) wood preservatives; 3) general fungicides for the leather, textiles, paint, plastics, paper, and pulp industries; and 4) antiseptic agents. 5) They have also been found in detergents containing bromine.
“The winery environment has several possible sources of 2,4,6-TBP, such as painted surfaces in the cellar, sealants, barrels, oak adjuncts, wood ladders, wooden catwalks, wood pallets, plywood, wooden rafters, wood beams, water, water hoses, wine hoses, plastic tank liners, plastics, insulation, filter pads, fining agents, packaging materials (cardboard, adhesives, paper bags), cleansers, and sanitizers.”
My research yields the potential for silicon bungs to also transmit TBA directly to wine. Admin
From another report issued in 2006 from the Mosel Research Institute, concerning the possible sources of TBA contamination,
Synthetic closures
filter layers [sic]
wood pallets
cardboard boxes
plastic repackaging materials
plastic seals of crown corks (basic wines for sparkling wine
plastic seals of screw caps
The paper describes 3 documented cases of TBA taint having nothing to do with cork stoppers. One concerns a ship transporting plastic stopper from the US to Europe. Taint was readily evident upon reaching its destination. The cause was the presence of TBP-contaminated wooden flooring and paints which, under the poorly ventilated conditions and in the presence of high humidity in the ship’s hold, encouraged microbial growth and, therefore, the production of TBA. Another detailed account involved fungicide-treated cardboard, a vector, left near the bottling line. A third case involved TBA contamination of filter layers and plastic foils within a winery.
It is critically important to note the wide spread use of TBA’s precursor, TBP, in ordinary, everyday chemical compounds; paints, fire retardants, fungicides, pesticides (even some approved by Integrated Pest Management), et al. So, how common is the taint in wines? Unfortunately, we cannot say. TCA research and bad publicity (not to mention the infamous R. Grahm Funeral for cork some years ago), seems to have, in the short term at least, blunted a wider popularization of either the rate or even existence of TBA contamination. Indeed, in 2 emails from Dr. Ron Jackson he put it this way:
“What makes me ponder, though, is the absence of data on the actual prevalence of 2,4,6-TBA, at sensory detectable levels, in wine. It is six years since Chatonnet’s article. Is that an indicator of comparative insignificance, or simple lack of investigation? Without someone to study and report on its frequence I have no way of even guessing at its overall importance.”
It is also true that assorted companies offer TBP and TBA testing of the winery environment, ETS Laboratories, for example. And Mavrik offers removal services for both TCA and TBA. Indeed, an email to Mavrik President, Dr. Bob Kreisher, he wrote the following,
“Removal of both is pretty similar. When somebody has a relatively low level (say threshold to 5 pptr), we advise them to use special filter pads impregnated w/ a polymer. This strips the anisoles, as well as some phenols. I believe Heyes Filters sells one, and maybe Gusmer. This solution costs maybe $.05 to $.10 per gallon.
“If the level is very high, you may end up stripping the wine (in my subjective opinion). In that case, we have a process where we separate the wine into a phenol-free stream and a phenol-rich stream. We treat only the phenol-free stream to a proprietary adsorbent. This gives you a very clean and low-impact removal. It can run from about $.25 per gallon and up depending on level and volume of wine.
“There are also others who offer a service of running the wine through a bed of polymer beads. This is essentially the same as the filter pad solution mentioned above. The main difference is it costs several times more.”

So, just how prevalent is the problem is unclear. A recent 2009 article in the Wine Spectator restates the broad outlines of my complaint of the naming of but a single tainting agent.
“Corks are made from the bark of cork trees, and various fungi live inside the fine pores that give cork its light, springy structure. Certain conditions cause the fungi to produce various chemical compounds that can affect a wine’s flavor. The most notable is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). These compounds give the wine that musty, moldy flavor and aromas.
“The cork industry has spent decades trying to eliminate TCA and its friends. When chlorine- and bromine-based pesticides sprayed on cork trees and chlorine bleaches used to wash cork planks were suspected of triggering the fungi, they were eliminated, but taint kept popping up. Now Amorim and other producers use various cleaning processes. Some test the corks with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to detect TCA early on and reject the cork. While the industry says the methods have reduced the number of bad corks, others remain skeptical.”

TCA’s friends? Most notable is the author’s remark concerning the elimination of chlorine bleaching and the use of chlorine and bromine-based pesticides in cork oak forests, “but taint kept popping up”. Of course it did because the precursor TBP has multiple environmental sources unrelated to either cork oak stewardship or cork manufacture! I find it quite incredible, in light of the new scientific research on the matter of bromine-based taint, TBA, that such a thing might still be said.
Inasmuch as wine may be directly contaminated by 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, because of the high degree of probability of the precursor TBP already being present through multiple equipment and structural vectors in a winery environment, and because of the absence of historically documented research and identification of the occurrence of TBA, it becomes impossible to state whether anecdotally reported ‘cork taint’ is a result of a TCA-infected cork stopper and not TBA etc.
In the Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed., we may the following under the subject heading of cork taint, “[D]espite a few fairly high-profile instances of winery contamination [by TBA], it seems that the cork is the culprit in the vast majority of cases”. How is such a sentence authorized given that the first formal, scientific description of TBA and its generation and vectors was only published by Chatonnet et al. in 2004? Are we to realistically believe that after cork stoppers have been widely publicized for years as the only likely source of taint, that anyone would or even could claim otherwise? I mean, when an expert writes in a popular publication that a wine was corked, what are the chances it was scientifically tested for the presence or absence of TCA? Very near zero would be my guess.
Hence my modest plea. A wine may be said to be HAloanisole Contaminated, or ‘hacked’, and no longer exclusively corked. Cheers.
For further reading, see Causes and Origins of Wine Contamination By Haloanisoles, Institute of Biotechnology of León, Spain (INBIOTEC)


Saving Robert Parker, A Mexican Adventure pt.3

Ξ December 3rd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |

It’s been a while since we’ve last revisited our heroes, KP and Robert Parker. So, let’s get on with it. As usual, this is a work of fiction etc. etc.
Part 1 and Part 2
Episode 6
I arrived in Tequila when the bus driver was good and ready. He poked me in the ribs with a short bat to wake me. “Gracias.” I’d slept for 150 miles. Passed Encarnatión, Jalostotitlón, Tepatitlán, Acatic, Zapotlanejo, (how did that town escape an accent?), Guadalajara, of course, Tesitán, and El Arenal. Even thinking the names left my brain aching like Rod Stewart’s jaw. I immediately checked my left side. My remaining kidney was still there. First bit of good news I’ve had!
The bus was empty. I shuffled off, the driver, Señor Columbus, all 4′9″ of him, right behind slapping that damn bat in his palm. I’m goin’, I’m goin’! It was after dark, funny how that happens. Ugly little ‘Pueblo Magico’ was Tequila, framed by river rocks and mallow. Running a fever I went into the first Siete/Oncé I found, for aspirina, una mapa, Chitos Calientes, and a lottery ticket. Luck had to change. Truth to tell, finding RP would make all the difference. Well, some…. Would buy a cellphone, too.
The mercado was illuminated by Mother Mary votive candles. Extreme summer temperatures had collapsed the regional electrical grid. So the Virgin stepped up. She was in lovely flickering poses about the place: Holding her son here, floating above an agave leaf there, in one she appeared to be ripping a phonebook in half, wouldn’t doubt it! Gathered my purchases. Cash only. No problem. Had to count out pesos, hidden under my sweat-soaked shirt, in private. “May I use your restroom?” “Como?” Not again. Curse Babel! So I smiled, grabbed my crotch and gestured to the back. This time it was not a bat but a length of discarded rebar that was produced. “No, no! El quarto de baño con o’ sole mio! Uno hetero! Yo!” Thanks be to Mary, he understood, threw me the key chained to a Bel Air hubcap. In the something something baño I took out a fistfull of play money from the belt and checked my sutures. Unclean swelling. The bruise looked familiar. Where have I seen that shape before? More a visage, really… OMG! Mary herself! Had an idea. I exited the quarto, but not before buying a souvenir rubber with soft glow-in-the-dark agave leaf nubbins. Why must I tell you everything!
“Donde esta una iglesia?” “Como?” Had enough of this ‘como’ sh*t. Roughly handed wads of pesos at the proprietor. “Una iglesia!!?” He pullled a cd from among the counterfeits tucked under the counter. “Julio?” Must work on my accent. Bought my stuff, stole a plastic bottle of Mescal, and left.
Poured half the Mescal on my angry wound. And after fistfulls of aspirina, I wandered down black Taqulia roads. Bonfires backlit passed-out college kids from the States. Could read their sweats: U of Utah, Michigan State, Chico, gutters of kids from NYU, go Gators, go Buckeyes, U. of San Diego, Longhorns were splendidly akimbo, etc. The locals, dressed in counterfeit Nikes and Ambercrombies, expertly looted the students’ pockets. What is Mexico, after all, without a memorable theft? Well, I’ll tell you, an incomplete experience! Further along the ciudad de blackout, I passed a mature park, well-groomed, well-policed, lit by special generators funded by the Mex Dept. of Tourism. There I saw a writhing heap of energetic anglos fornicating amongst the olive trees and behind every nameless shrub. They don’t mind being seen, so pure is their love. “Dios mio!” echoed in an Arkansas/Floridian twang. Did I mention the cries of babies left in hot cars? Instructive acoustic counterpoint.
Kept walking. Suddenly (as is often said), I saw a church bathed in fire. Hundreds of votives were lit on every floor. All two of them. A stack of concrete blocks, really. Stern. Except for the acacia door, a penitent brown, that I beat upon. Nobody comes. Hammer again. Silence. Try the knob. Opens like Petronias’ roasted pig, full of game birds and exotic meats; opens like destiny. I stumbled before the altar and cried, “Anybody home?!” A priest appears from the shadows, as they always do. “Si, mi hijo?” He lays a warm palm upon my head. I pull up my shirt. “Look at this!” He recognizes Mary at a glance. Amazed, he demands, “Who are you?” “I’ve come for Robert Parker.” “Do you mean The Robert Parker?” I nod, knowing no better gambit. He takes a practiced breath understood only in the secret initiations of altar boys. (I’m flattered.) “You know Him? Who are you?”, his voice rises. I hesitate, not quite knowing how to proceed. “Mary can be faked! How many stained pancakes do I have to review, how many tacos, tortillas, and bread sticks must I endure? Why does Mary always choose carbos?! Why not a rich, fat expression, like a heafty cow, now and again? Are you a faker?!” “No se…” I whisper again, “I’m KP”. Rapidly back,”KP?” “Whatever. I mean, Si.” Now it is his turn to pause. “The KP? Its a miracle!” “Who are you, padre?” “Father Broadbento.” He rubs his lavender-scented hands together…. “Come, come…” Father Broadbento leads me down a dark hallway which ends at the rear entry of the altar. He takes out a bottle of red wine from a small cooler under the speechifying box, er, pulpit(?) He takes out a glass and opens the label-less bottle. He pours. A rich, fat sweetness swarms my senses, like being sat upon by a $1000 escort, if you know what I mean. “Do you know Señor Errrre Pe (RP) is responsible for all the Chalice wine from Baja to the Yucatan?” “Had no idea.” “Yes! For years we used Gallo box wines for Mass. Sadly, el pueblo from across the country finally rebelled. They couldn’t imagine the Host tasting so foul! Can you imagine?” He took a swig. “So we sought a better libation to slack the spiritual thirst of our congregations.” He leaned over to whisper in confidence, “I must admit, when I discovered Parker’s Wine Advocate I felt dirty. Couldn’t help myself. Who could under rough woolen sheets and in the dark?! God forgive me! All that talk of candied strawberries, buttery perfume, honeysuckle depth, unctious black cherry, chewy, full bodied pumpkins! I don’t even know what it means! But it drove me wild! Touched myself many times, many, many times….” “Easy on the juice, padre.” “Hence, I petitioned the Mother Church for a change. I meant well! Bring me Australian Shiraz, California Cabs, I cried! Bring the people gobs of fruit! Seems I chose poorly. Now I see the truth. Parker’s fruit and alcohol preferencias bombed my soul to rubble. Errrre Pe has driven more of my flock into the arms of Satan than all the profane streets of Tequila combined! And well beyond Tequila, to Jalisco, throughout Mexico itself…. Dios mio. My sin is to have lived large….” “So, what are you saying?” “Simple, KP…: RP must be destroyed. And you are the hombre to do it.” Angels pass. “Not following your priestly logic there, padre. But I do have Mary on my side, umm… can we focus?” Pause. “You’re sick.” “No need to get personal.” “No, no. I mean your wound is infected. You’ll die without my help.” “Padre, RP is my friend, a hero to the world…” “Listen! If you want to live you’ll do the right thing.” In the blink of an eye I’ve gone from being RP’s savior to his potential assassin.
Father Broadbento continued, “Your clothes are filthy, blood-soaked. Let me offer you Holy vestiments.” He claps his hands and out come two exquisite virgins bearing the fresh trappings for a priest. “For you. Enjoy them, try them on before you take the oath. Drink!”
Hmm, oath? In a tight spot. So I drank. And drank.
Episode 7
I woke up in a feather bed, sin ropas under a coverlet of satin! Not quite true. My paper robe had hiked up and bunched at my throat, must have had a bad night, that and the plastic sheeting I was laying on had rather perturbed my comfort. Took me a moment to recall where I was. Even then I did not know where I was. Not exactly. The nightstand stacked high with heavily thumbed issues of the Wine Advocate brought it all back. But the windowless room of cinder block was a cheerful shade of apricot. Floor to ceiling tapestries broke the corners. Velvet paintings of Biblical heros and heroines, from Old to New Testament, were well hung at eye-level across all four walls. The iconography began with Samson, David, Moses, etc. all buff, ripped. A bawling Abraham, his shame hidden by a goat, was less so. His body rather resembled mine: emaciated; and our flesh tone shared an unhealthy ecru with a hint of gun-metal blue and spash of iodine. Not pretty, but it often happens in velvet, again with the Tabitha or Dorcas (whom Peter restored to life) depiction a few panels down, though she was more the color of a whet stone stained with overripe papaya. Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ paintings were beneath warm Ikea track-lights. Jesus was a mess, too awful to recount. Then there followed paintings of Esther, Elizabeth, Joanna, Lois (Lois?), Phebe, etc. Not sure how I knew all of this. Never studied the Bible… And as I finished the survey, turned about in my bed, whose oversized visage should be above the headboard but the holy of holies, RP himself! Very flattering effort, I must say. His head was thrown back in a generous laugh. What a mouth! Soft, full lips, teeth corrected and whitened, internationally acclaimed pink tongue playfully peeking. You could almost smell the Mollydooker on his breath, so realistic was it. And those large eyes, the eyes of a naughty puppy! His hairline had been lovingly restored to youth, but not so much as to cover his soaring forehead. Jowls were reduced; cheeks blushed claret-red.
“Do you like it?” I spun around. Father Broadbento stood in the doorway. Pain shot through me. I grabbed my side. “Gentle. Here, let’s take a look.” He motioned to three nuns in line behind him. Two pulled my covers back. I quickly grabbed a copy of the WA to cover my shame. “I wouldn’t worry. They are impervious to your, shall we say, modest charms.” The nuns giggled. My wound was inspected and redressed. “The surgeon in Mexico City used fishing tackle for suturing. I had to do it again.” “What time is it?” “You’ve been asleep for three days. Must be starving. And thirsty.” The third nun approached with a breatfast tray of porridge and a glass of red wine. Three days?! I downed the drink in moments (licorice-infused, chocolate syrup, outrageous Blackberry, vanilla, cassis, an oaky fruit bomb, alc 17.2% 96 points RP). Felt better. The good Father gestured for more to be poured. I drank it. Felt smashed. Gesturing to RP’s portrait, “I painted it myself” he said. “Really? Ish verry verry good!” “When you are able, stroll about the room, see how the eyes follow you. Took me many lessons to get that right.” “Yup. When I am mable… able, s’cuse me.” I wink at one of the plain, drab nuns. “Oh, that reminds me. We found these in your pants.” He tosses my penicillin to me. “You are about to begin a new life as a simple country priest. You will travel to Puerto Vallarta. I have good intelligence that RP is there. You will get past the guards by explaining that you are his personal spiritual counsel from America. Once near him, you will terminate with extreme prejudice.” I turn to the nun, “Mucho, por favor? What’s under that?” “Silencio!” Another glass downed. “Sorry, padre. You can’t make me harm him. Nope, nopey, nope.” “Oh, I think I can. You see, I took the liberty of inserting half a kilo of heroin into your kidney cavity. You fail in this mission and I’ll merely make a phone call and, well, you can guess the rest.” “Yeah?! I’ll get somebody to tashke it out as shoon as I departo.” Father Broadbento laughs diabolically (natch). He claps his hands. In walks the biggest, baddest nun I’ve ever seen, with a face like a heap of hardened concrete. “Meet Sister Jancis. She will be going with you.” Not good. “But why go as a priesht? He knoows me, silly Father.” “Hmm. Good question. Let’s just say I lack your flair for the obvious. And I’ve a weakness for conspiracies and costumes, part of the job description.” I hold out my empty glass, “Just a teensy-weensy bit more?”
Tough spot. Gotta think. Only chance is to melt Sister Jancis’ heart. Will take some doing. Do I have the charms? No longer sure I have the, umm, fortitude. Still less the range for seducing a living, breathing bag of pesos. First things first: gotta get out of here.
To be continued…


California Dreamin’, Part II

Ξ December 1st, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Greybeard writes…
The great Greybeard 2010 road trip continues with some serious tastings in Sonoma at wineries with Italian, Croatian and French heritage. Read about all 625 miles of how I ended up in Santa Rosa in California Dreaming, Part I.
So, it’s a Thursday evening and I’m in a Santa Rosa motel room sipping on a very fine Syrah blend by Clos Tita (their 2007 La Sierra Azul, which is well worth a try) and trying to decide where to visit on my “Sonoma day”. Luckily I had an excellent guide book, Tilar Mazzeo’s Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma which I got from Ken Payton a few days earlier. A quick read suggested that Russian River may be the place to try, heading on up to Healdsburg if time permits.
Santa Rosa looked like it would be a good place to stay on Friday night as well (motel rooms were in my budget range here, unlike Sonoma itself) but unfortunately this one was full so I had to pack the bags again before hitting the road, although this time the intention was to keep the driving to a minimum.
I’d used the motel Wi-Fi to satisfy my Social Media addiction and just before leaving I got a tweet from @SonomaWineGuy (Jim Morris at Michel-Schlumberger) inviting me up to the winery in Dry Creek Valley, so I added them onto my rough schedule and headed on out the door.
First up was Balletto Vineyards on Occidental Road, just west of Santa Rosa, as I’d loved the simple picture in the guide book of a Wine Tasting sign on a dusty roadside (turns out that sign had been stolen and a shiny new one was in place as I turned off the road onto the long driveway to the winery and tasting room).
Founded in 2001 by John Balletto they have multiple vineyards in Russian River, the largest being the 280acre (113ha) plot around the winery itself. Of all the grapes they grow 90% are sold to other wineries in the area, with the pick of the crop kept for the Estate labels. Lacey Hunter was my pourer on a beautiful sunny morning and we talked our way through the 9 wines while I made full use of the spittoon.
The 2008 Pinot Gris was a pleasant enough opener with a rose petal nose but a bit too light and delicate to be memorable. The smooth 2008 Teresa’s Chardonnay, named for John’s wife, was clean and full of tropical fruit although finished quickly, unlike the 2007 Estate Chardonnay which had similar characteristics but was a much more rounded wine having spent 10 months in French oak (25% new) – any more oak would have overwhelmed the delicate fruit, overall a well made wine. We finished the whites with an easy drinking ’07 Gewurztraminer with a waxy lychee nose, good balance of sweetness to acidity and a pleasing viscosity, although the finish was too quick.
Three Pinot Noirs were then poured for comparison; the 2008 Winery Block, 2009 Estate Pinot and 2008 Burnside Vineyard, all hovering at approximately 14% abv. For immediate gratification it was the Winery Block and its warm, red berry nose and cherry finish, just enough tannin to keep you interested and very smooth – a crowd pleaser. The younger Estate Pinot had an interesting cherry menthol nose and fresher tannins, also with cherry on the mid-palate, but finished a bit too quick, while the Burnside showed an extra level of complexity with a gentle smoky nose, wonderful mouthfeel with acidity, tannins and red berry fruit balancing each other well leading to a caramel aspect on the finish – out of the three this is the biggest one, drinking well now but happily able to develop for a few more years.
Two more reds brought the tasting to a close, starting with the 2006 Estate Zinfandel at 14.2% abv which had a sweet Port-like, almost cooked aspect to the nose suggesting hot fruit. Flavours included some stewed rhubarb and ginger, which was intriguing, and the Port flavours also carried through from the nose, but without an obvious alcohol kick. Finally Lacey poured the 2006 Syrah, a low production wine with only 660 cases made. This was very perfumed with dark berries on the nose and good tannins in the mouth, some tar and Garrigue herbs with a pleasant austerity.
Before leaving I took a short walk around the back of the winery to see the adjacent Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands which Balletto helps maintain as a habitat for local flora and fauna, a heron was standing on the far side viewing the water. I also heard about, but didn’t get to see, the four acre baseball field built amongst the vines for the field workers and winery staff, Balletto’s very own Field of Dreams!
I then moved on a couple of miles up the road to Suncé on Guerneville Road, mainly thanks to the Back Lane guide book highlighting the winery’s Croatian links which pulled at my own Eastern European heritage. As it turned out I couldn’t have made a better choice, as they proceeded to troop out 18 different wines for me to try over two very enjoyable hours, details of which can be reviewed on my earlier Reign of Terroir piece. So it was much later than anticipated when I finally turned onto Dry Creek Road and into the Michel-Schlumberger grounds. This winery wasn’t initially on my list as the guide book said tastings were “by appointment only”, but after Jim’s twitter invitation I guess I now had that appointment!
The property is beautiful, with a Mission style courtyard focussed on the Moorish window design (also the corporate logo) at the far end, with the winery itself behind.
Jim gave me a warm welcome and a brief introduction to the history of the place and people, sadly including the death only 2 days earlier of Javier Acevedo Sr., the Estate’s Vineyard manager since 1979 when the first vines were planted (a memorial table was set up to “The Patron” in the tasting room). The mood lightened somewhat when winery Labrador Shae wandered through with all the menace of a Teddy Bear (Guard Dog ability – she’ll lick you!) and after an appropriate wuffle Jim & I sat down and talked wine.
Michel-Schlumberger is named for Jean-Jaques Michel, who founded the original Domain Michel in 1979, and Jaques Pierre Schlumberger who took over leadership in 1993, the same year that winemaker Mike Brunson joined.
The winery is fully organic and runs following sustainable principles over its 87 acres (75 planted to vine) but is unusual for Dry Creek Valley in that it doesn’t specialise in Zinfandel, instead focussing on Bordeaux varietals, some Syrah and the Valley’s only Pinot Noir Vineyard (who’s grapes go into the aptly named “Le Fou”). However, we started the tasting session with the 2009 Pinot Blanc, the only Estate wine not to use wild yeast, instead it is inoculated with one specially imported from Alsace. This had a fresh, floral nose with some honey and cream, moving into a medium bodied texture with a dry herbal finish. Honey and cream were also evident in the finish of the buttery La Brume Chardonnay 2007, with a rich blossom/pollen perfume. An even more aromatic nose was on the 2009 Viognier which gave a spicy tickle on the sinuses! I really enjoyed the oily, viscous wine which had some stone fruit (unripe peach?) and a slightly bitter finish, although Jim said that this fuller style was different to previous vintages and had a mixed reception with wine club members.
We then moved onto the reds with a taste of Le Fou, the “crazy” Pinot Noir that isn’t meant to grow well in Dry Creek Valley! This 2007 vintage had a smoky nose with some spice, but I found it disjointed at the front of the palate, acidity and tannin were initially out of balance although they merged on the mid-palate into a long strawberries and cream finish. Should the start of this wine get itself together this would be a delicious wine.
Then we moved onto Cabernet, 20% of the Estate’s acreage, with the 2007 La Cime; a big wine with spice, herbs and tar on the nose and heady, dark fruit struggling to get out from behind palate coating tannins – a baby of a wine which I’d give 3 years at least before approaching again, but if the elegant, almost understated finish is anything to go on this will definitely improve.
It was at this point that Francesco (stupidly I didn’t get his last name), responsible for Wine Education, introduced himself and took me on an impromptu behind the scenes tour. He confirmed the organic principles of the Estate and also the commitment to local wildlife habitat (which includes sheep for trimming the weeds and encouraging the bird of prey population which help keep rodents away from the vines). Then we walked through the barrel room and I was amazed to see hundreds of oak barriques from dozens of different producers – Francesco said they use mainly French oak and buy from as many coopers as they can for the subtle differences in grain and toast characteristics which they deliberately use when crafting each vintage and label.
I returned to the courtyard as it was filling up with guests for the evening’s al-fresco dining and musical entertainment, mostly wine club members and other local winemakers . We talked to one small grower whose entire Zinfandel crop was lost after he’d thinned the foliage in an attempt to speed up ripening after the dull summer, only to see the clouds clear and have the baking sun shrivel them to raisins (while in the next plots other growers who’d held out saw a beautiful harvest). This sounds like it summed up the Californian vintage; a difficult summer saved by great weather just before harvest, but only if you’d made the right calls in the vineyard.
Back to the tasting table and two more impressive reds completed my time at Michel-Schlumberger. A 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, simply labelled as “Table Wine” came from pre-Phylloxera vineyards (replanted after 1993 once the louse had done its worst) and didn’t look it’s age as I swirled the glass. It had a settled, earthy nose with some herbs and was delicate to sip, remarkably fresh, with some raisin on the finish. Tannin was still evident around the edges, holding the textures and flavours together –a complex, layered wine which I’m not going to try and describe any further as it will only highlight my inexperience of such mature bottles.
The end came with the 2006 Deux Terres, the Estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon grown at 1200 feet and predominantly from low yielding Clone 6, the Jackson or Heritage clone – more of which can be read on the winery’s own Benchland Blog. Everything about this wine was big; a spice and smoke nose, dark but juicy fruit with very fine tannins, a peppery oakiness and sweet liquorice on the tip of the tongue. A few more years will do miraculous things with this, but the inherent quality was obvious and, of all the wines I tasted over the week, this was the one that met my preconceptions of a big, bold “Californian Cabernet”.
Unsurprisingly Michel-Schlumberger wines are not exported, all sales are direct and they always sell out, something that Jim was justifiably happy about, if only to steer clear of the Distribution and Retail system – although they still have to deal with the bureaucracy of interstate shipping regulations.
Before I left I had a short walk through the picturesque vineyards at the back of the property and watched the sun dip behind the nearby hills. I’d had a wonderful day and told Jim as much before I left, that afternoon alone is recommendation enough for the power of Social media, and twitter especially.
Then it was back to Santa Rosa again for the evening and a fourth motel just across the road from a textbook American Diner, which meant an enjoyable dinner of clam chowder followed by ribsteak and mash washed down with a bottle of Samual Adams, just what the Doctor ordered after a hard days tasting! Back in the room the last of the Clos Tita ensured a good night’s sleep.
And so to Saturday, the last (half) day with my flight out of San Francisco in the afternoon. I was either going head to the coast then down Highway 1, or turn inland for a quick view of Sonoma itself. Morning fog and a misty rain confirmed the decision so it was onto the Sonoma Highway through Kenwood and Glen Ellen and into brilliant sunshine, the contrast in weather remarkable after only a few miles driving.
Sonoma itself is a really pretty town with evident history centred around Sonoma Plaza, where the City Hall building flies the flags of all the previous colonial nations who settled in the region. I strolled around the square looking for a wine shop for a final taste or purchase but it was still early and nothing seemed open, then I chanced on the Roche Tasting rooms on West Spain Street where Harry Miller was in the process of opening up. Explaining I had a ‘plane to catch he poured me a taste of their 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir and sealed the deal; this was a dark and savoury Pinot with a meaty nose, fresh tannins and a pleasant acidity, more texture than fruit and with a minimum of 2-3 years ageing potential. This was a hit with me and I happily purchased a bottle to squeeze (just) into my bag – finally I had a wine to bring home that matched the California stereotypes of a big Cab or a sublime Pinot.
So that was it, the drive back down to SFO was uneventful and I boarded the Air France 747 with a much better idea of California, both geographical and oenological. Obviously I barely scratched the surface of what is out there, 2 weeks would have given me a chance of doing that, not 4 days. Nevertheless I have a better appreciation of California, especially Sonoma, which I preferred to the more overtly commercial Napa.
Within 2 weeks of my return home I attended two separate California themed tastings which built on the experiences of my road trip and which I’ll expand on in my next post.


From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech


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