Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Light Crop

- Whether by oversight or in recognition that its initial report wasn't up to its usual standards of detail and balance, "60 Minutes" this week skipped a staple of American journalism, the anniversary story. Twenty years ago, the CBS-TV news magazine aired a four-minute report in which correspondent Morley Safer speculated about why the French have relatively few heart problems despite their high-fat diet. His conclusion, based on mighty thin evidence, had to do with the nature of the cheese that the French eat, or maybe it was because of all the red wine they drink. That last part is all that Americans needed to hear. They began to buy wine by the pallet, and haven't let up. In the meantime, scientists have come to recognize that the "French paradox" - that is, a rich diet coupled with comparatively little heart disease - may be more complex than "60 Minutes" suggested. Other aspects of the French lifestyle not addressed by the "60 Minutes" report could contribute to their well-being. Their fondness for fresh produce, for one. Their tendency to walk or bike wherever they can. Their eating patterns, which include helping themselves to generally small portions, then eschewing seconds. And so it goes. Nonetheless, thanks to that brief televised segment, Americans jumped at the opportunity to take their medicine in a most pleasant way, and they still are.

- This was a tough vintage for California grape growers and vintners, starting with spring freezes and prolonged rains, continuing through an atypically cool summer, and ending with unusually early fall storms. It was a "winemaker's vintage," vintners are saying. In other words, if anything good is to come of it the credit will be due in large part to the skill of the winemaker in overcoming the bins of sorry grapes he or she received at the cellar door. If that's the case, the winemaking monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux at Vina in Tehama County have a talented winemaker in Aimee Sunseri, or maybe they have a higher power on their side, or perhaps both. At any rate, they've released what to my knowledge is the first California wine of the current harvest, just wrapping up in some vineyards. The monks have nothing to apologize for; the wine is clean and quietly distinct. It's the New Clairvaux Vineyard 2011 Tehama County St. James Block Nouveau Tempranillo. It isn't a blockbuster, but nouveau-style wines aren't meant to be. Rather, they're expected to be light, fresh and immediately quaffable. While simple in its fruitiness, the New Clairvaux is a touch more complex and compelling than the standard nouveau wine, principally because of it its suggestion of juicy cranberries in both color and flavor, its satiny feel and its dash of spice. It may not have the spine to stand up to the richer dishes of the Thanksgiving table, but as a bright greeting for arriving guests it will help set the mood for a festive celebration of this year's harvest. It sells for $14 at Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

- And speaking of Corti Brothers, I was standing in the store's wine department the other day, scanning the latest issue of Darrell Corti's periodic newsletter, when I came across a list of recommended barberas assembled from his judging at the California State Fair  and his attendance at the first Barbera Festival in Amador County, both this summer. Of the seven barberas, the one at the very top of the list is the 2009 from Beemer Winery in El Dorado County. Corti praises the wine for its "pretty red color," its "varietal character of notable intensity," and its "excellent acidity and fine body." He also notes without comment that the wine packs 15.5 percent alcohol. I had to ask him about that, and, fortunately, he was standing nearby. In the spring of 2007, recall, Corti kicked off a brouhaha within the international wine community when he announced that his store no longer would stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol. The level of alcohol in California table wines has been creeping up in recent years; varietals that routinely weighed in with 13.5 percent alcohol two decades ago now just as routinely carry 14.5 percent alcohol, sometimes as high as 17 percent, far beyond the historic standard for table wines from most of the world's wine regions. The rise is attributed to several factors, from the impact of climate change to the influence of wine critics whose palates prefer wines exceptionally ripe and big, one consquence of which is higher alcohol. Corti snapped when he tasted one high-alcohol wine too many. While such wines can be balanced and captivating, they also often can be cumbersome and harsh. That's what irked Corti, so he put on hold any interest in tasting them. Now, he's clearly relaxed that vigilance. Whether at the State Fair, where wines are evaluated without judges knowing their identity, or at the Barbera Festival, where wines were tasted without their identities being concealed, Corti found several to his liking, including, clearly, the high-octane Beemer. When I pointed at the wine's 15.5 percent alcohol, all he had to say was, "If I make the rules, I can break the rules."


  1. well he did say he was going to stock wines above 14% if he liked em because it was his store

  2. I like Darryll a lot. He did one of the critic’s on my book "The Pope of Wine" and helped me immensely. However, he realized that he shot himself in the foot with his early comment on his stance on high alcohol wines. As a wine maker and wine buyer for years you just have to realize that Mother Nature will throw anything at you. When you are deciding when to pick and your total acidity could be a little higher naturally, or that ‘hang time’ will render higher quality, you can wait a few more days. This also allows you to not have to acidify- something that we purists dislike. As you wait for the TA and maybe the pH to get a little higher you sacrifice the higher sugars. So what? In the end that gives us a more balanced wine- albeit higher in alcohol. My answer to higher alcohol wines is drinking less of the bottle. Save some for tomorrow.