Monday, October 29, 2012

Fear Not, A Deadly Serious Wine

OK, the wine is called "Bone-Jolly." Its label is a traditionally jaunty salute to Dia de los Muertos, one calavera playing a guitar, another an accordion as they dance about a table set with wine. Cases of the stuff are stacked in the middle of the wine department at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, showing up right on the eve of Halloween.

A novelty wine, meant to capitalize on the country's zany affection for all things Halloween, right? Not so fast. Given the amateurish and superficial  marketing so popular in the wine trade these days, no one can be blamed for such suspicions. "Bone-Jolly," however, isn't an effort to exploit the grim jubilation that attends Halloween. "Bone-Jolly" has a long and colorful history, and to see it on the market just before Halloween is more an accident of timing than coy manipulation, I want to believe.

The full and proper name of the wine is the Edmunds St. John 2010 El Dorado County Gamay Noir Bone-Jolly. Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds has been producing Bone-Jolly for around a decade. He wanted to make a wine that recognized the cycle of growth and death as represented by the gradual development of grape clusters followed by their quick dispatch, all in a spirit appreciative yet light-hearted.

"In perfect balance, a man with life's weight on his shoulders (Gravitas) smells a bouquet of violets and his spirt soars out over this weary world. A jolly-ness (la Jouissance) ignites in his bones. He laughs in the face of death, and the dead laugh, too; it's a joke shared across the abyss," writes Edmunds on the back label.

Only one style of wine, he adds, can evoke this mystery - Beaujolais made from the grape gamay noir au jus blanc. It's a variety not much cultivated in California, but after Edmunds found some being farmed at around 3,000 feet up the Sierra foothills he began to turn out his earnest yet happy interpretation of Beaujolais. "Bone-Jolly" is a wine lean, frisky and light-hearted, meant to be consumed casually, with more levity than gravitas. As Beaujolais, it's a wine to be celebrated for its knack at promoting unaffected jolliness about the table, quickening the pulse and raising spirits. Call in the musicians.

The name "Bone-Jolly" is a play on Beaujolais - say it fast and repeatedly. Tom Rozum did the art of the label. The wine is a light ruby with a fringe of purple. It's fruity but dry, with threads of fresh flowers, dried herbs and granite weaving through its youthful fruit, which presents itself embracingly up front, then excuses itself quickly but politely, finishing with a snap of citric tang. It's a playful wine, lithe and spicy, but with an earthy vitality. It comes in a screwcap bottle, with just 12.4 percent alcohol. It sells for $18 at Corti Brothers, but it is somewhat of a cult wine, with an avid following that waits to pounce upon its release, like some zombie hiding behind a tree.

Footnote: I was just finishing this item when what should be delivered but the hot-off-the-press newssetter for Edmunds St. John, wherein Steve Edmunds announces that the 2011 version of Bone-Jolly is just being released. Read about it here. Note that the suggested retail price for the 2011 is up $2 over the 2010.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vintage Notes: Whatever Happened To...?

Got to do something about that stack of old notebooks that keeps falling over. Think I'll weed them out, finally discarding those for which I no longer sense a use. First, let's flip through each to see what kind of memories are tucked inside:

- Here's a couple of notes from Open That Bottle Night in February 2006. You remember Open That Bottle Night. If not, it was the inspired invention of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, at that time the wine columnists for The Wall Street Journal. They, like a lot of other wine enthusiasts, had accumulated a bunch of wines that they were keeping for a special occasion. The special occasion for this or that wine never seemed to come around, however. The wines just kept accumulating. Why not, then, stage a yearly tasting specifically to see what some of those old bottles had to say for themselves, mused Gaiter and Brecher. Thus they proposed Open That Bottle Night, and small groups convened about the country annually for several years to see if dusty old bottles were still alive. One of the wines we opened in 2006, according to these notes, was the Aubert de Villaine 1990 Cote Chalonnaise Bouzeron Bourgogne La Fortune, which turned out to be a rather delicate and lacy interpretation of pinot noir, fresh but no longer profound, if it ever was. Another bottle was the Shenandoah Vineyards 1985 Amador County Cabernet Sauvignon, showing its age but still expressing interesting layers of chocolate and cedar. Whatever happened to Gaiter and Brecher, anyway? Their fun and influential column apparently was deemed too populist by editors of The Wall Street Journal, one of whom, however, thought enough of it to nominate it for the Pulitzer Prize a few years before it was dropped.

- Not long after that Open That Bottle Night, we toured some wineries in Amador County. One of our stops was at Avio Vineyards along Ridge Road just east of Sutter Creek. As we stood at the tasting counter...well, here's how I have it in my notes: "Cat brings in dead rabbit and drops it at the feet of three people from Modesto." If I remember correctly, the cat then was praised for doing such a fine job at patrolling for pests in the vineyard just outside, though it wasn't the Modestans expressing admiration. Now I've made a new note: Revisit Avio Vineyards, which early on was making some fine everyday red wines and a stylish premium cabernet sauvignon, but lately I've lost track of what it has been up to.

- Here's a bunch of undated and unstructured notes from what apparently was a spontaneous interview with Burgundy and California cooper Vincent Bouchard. I suspect our chat took place five or six years ago, most likely during the annual January convention of grape growers and winemakers at the Sacramento Convention Center. We talked barrels and the kinds of oak generally used to assemble them. American oak has more sweetness than French oak, he said at one point, and that sweetness carries through the wine. At that time, French vintners were ramping up purchases of American oak barrels, not because they were sweeter but because they were cheaper and their quality was improving. Nonetheless, Bouchard was prophetic, noting that the younger generation of wine consumers just may be looking for more sweetness in wines, whether it be from oak or residual sugar, and sure enough sweet red wines have become immensely popular. At the time, American wines often were criticized negatively for their heavy dependence on oak, a criticism that has lessened with recent vintages but still can be heard. At any rate, Bouchard had some advice on how wood should be brought to wine. It should be used, he said, to support structure and finesse, and its application always should be respectful of the fruit of the wine. Words worth noting then, and advice still worth keeping in mind.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Oakstone's New Owners Know The Territory

Last month, when John Smith said he was retiring, he also said he meant it. He'd retired before, but this time was different, he really, really was going to hang up the winemaker cap he's worn for 16 years. Now he's taken a big step toward fulfilling that vow. Smith has sold his Oakstone Winery in the Fair Play district of southwestern El Dorado County.

Steve Ryan
The new owners know their way around the neighborhood. They're Steve and Liz Ryan. Steve has been Oakstone's winemaker since 2007. His wife Liz has been Oakstone's business manager since 2008.

The transition was set in motion in July when fire of undetermined origin destroyed Oakstone. Last month, just as the fall harvest of wine grapes was getting under way, Smith, his wife Susan and the Ryans resurrected Oakstone by moving what remained of it into its smaller sister winery nearby, Obscurity Cellars. Now the Smiths, with no family members interested in joining the wine trade, have taken the next logical step in selling the business to the Ryans. The financial terms were not revealed, but Smith indicated that what was most important to him and his wife was that the business be taken over by someone who already knows the area and who will continue to work toward the standards he's set. "Any other new owner might not carry on the traditions we have established of excellent wine, attention to our loyal customers, and a very enjoyable tasting-room 'vibe' - and that would break my heart more surely than any disaster could," Smith says.

Liz Ryan
The Ryans are operating the business as Barrel Head Wines LLC, after a few barrel heads with laser-etched logos from both Oakstone Winery and Obscurity Cellars, salvaged from the fire. The quarters are considerably smaller than the old Oakstone, so the Ryans will produce just 2,000 cases a year, ideal for two hands-on proprietors. There, they will continue both the Oakstone and Obscurity labels. Under the Oakstone label, the Ryans will release estate cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, malbec, tempranillo, pinot grigio, torrontes, barbera, a meritage and an everyday red blend to be called Phoenix Rising Red, a successor to Oakstone's immensely popular Slug Gulch Red. They will use the Obscurity label largely for more obscure grape varieties, just as Smith did - alicante bouschet, petit verdot and carignane - but they also will continue to make the Old Man Murrill zinfandel from vines planted in adjoining Amador County in 1916, and a new blend to be called O'Blivion's Resurrection, thereby extending a series that Smith started. Bottling is expected to resume in February. Quantities of each will be smaller than what the Smiths and the Ryans had been producing. "In the seven weeks we've been in our new tasting room, five wines have already disappeared from the tasting bar," Smith says.

The new facility, 6470 Irish Acres Road, Fair Play, hard by the original winery, is open 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. When it first opened it had space for just five parking slots, but that has been expanded to 11.

Though Smith says he's sticking to his plans to retire, he will continue to maintain the couple's vineyard, consult to the Ryans, write the winery's newsletters and hang out at the tasting room, particularly during special events such as the Port & Chocolate Festival coming up Dec. 8 and 9.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Spain Shows The Way, The Laya Way

When you write of wine, you constantly strive to taste new releases, looking for one that both excites you and comes with a story you hope will interest readers. Rarely do you let yourself get hooked on one wine, returning to the store to buy a few more bottles each trip. There are just too many other wines that demand to be tried.

Over the past several months, however, I've become inordinately fond of an everyday red from Spain. It's become our household default wine, the one to be opened and poured on a weekday evening when pizza is on the menu and a baseball game is on the television. It isn't a wine to contemplate so much as simply enjoy. Yet, it isn't a simple quaff. Lean and limber, yes, but not without a vigor that allows it to stand up confidently against even fairly rich pizzas. It's never let us down, even when something more involved than pizza has been on the table.

The wine is the Bodegas Atalaya 2010 Almansa Laya. "Almansa" is the Spanish region where the grapes that went into the wine were grown. It's in southeast Spain, just inland from the Mediterranean Sea and just north of the Jumilla region, which in recent years has generated buzz for its own lilting and sturdy everyday red wines. Almansa is a severe region in which to grow grapes, torrid in summer, fiercely cold in winter. "Laya" is a proprietary name. I could find nothing about why it was chosen for this wine; from the Spanish, it variously translates as "quality," "nature" and "spade," any of which would be fitting for a wine.

The history of Bodegas Atalaya is a bit sketchy. One website affiliated with the brand suggests that it is related to Bodegas Juan Gil, a Jumilla winery founded in 1916 by Juan Gil Gimenez. The fourth generation to operate the winery is especially interested in cultivating the black grape monastrell in Jumilla, but it also is keen on farming another black grape, garnacha tintorera, in Almansa. On the other hand, Bodegas Atalaya is a brand of the Almansa wine group Orowines. Maybe they're all related. (The Northern California importer/distributor is Regal Wine Company of Windsor, Sonoma County, but its website isn't helpful, and a phone call to a local representative for the company wasn't returned.)

So, let's rely on the wine itself and what it has to say. In short, it's purely delightful - bright in color, freshly fruity in smell with a beckoning floral note. On the palate, it's light- to medium-bodied, dry yet juicy, with touches of peppery spice. It's fine-boned overall, but also authoritative in delivery. Tannins are supportive without getting in the way of pleasure. The blend is 70 percent garnacha tintorera and 30 percent monastrell. Garnacha tintorera, according to Jancis Robinson's "Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine," is a synonym for the deeply colored and lushly fruity alicante bouschet, often dismissed as just too pedestrian for the palates of serious wine drinkers. By the same token, monastrell is just another name for mourvedre. According to the bottle's back label, the grapes were grown in calcareous soils between 700 and 1000 meters above sea level, or between nearly 2300 feet and about 3281 feet as we say in the U.S. That suggests that these varieties might do well in the Sierra foothills, and they are, but so far plantings have been small and scattered. In the meantime, we have Laya. I found it at Corti Brothers in Sacramento for $10 the bottle.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Beer for Winemakers

Beer break. Or, as California winemakers are fond of noting, it takes a lot of beer to make a lot of wine. Not that they add beer to wine, but during the long hot days of harvest beer looks to be the beverage of choice for cellar rats. Just stop by a crush pad and peek into the recycling bin. Brace yourself, however, for the shock of seeing so many crushed cans of Budweiser. It's enough to rattle your confidence in their palates.

So, we have a suggestion for an upgrade - the Ruhstaller 2012 Sacramento Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac.  Jan-Erik Paino, who owns Ruhstaller, a year-old artisan brewery in Sacramento, didn't conceive of Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac with vintners in mind, but it's a beer whose crafting they especially might appreciate.

A clue is the vintage date on the label, common for wine, rare for beer. That's Paino's way of saying that this is a beer whose nature is meant to be contrary to the standardization and consistency that characterizes mainstream beer. As most any vintner can tell you, Budweiser is popular because it's always the same, for better or worse. In contrast, Paino expects Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac to be a little bit different each year, in large part because this is a "wet hop" beer, as also noted on the label. Customarily, hops are dried right after harvest. Paino skips that step, sending his dewy hops directly to the vat. His reasoning is that this is the best way to seize the nature of the place where the hops are grown - the terroir, as it were, a concept with which vintners can identify. "We want to capture a moment in time in that bottle," says Paino. "We pick the hops at 5:30 a.m., when they're still wet. That way we get all the the oils in the hops and the grassiness in the leaves. This flips typical beermaking on its head. A wet-hop beer changes yearly. It's a winemaker's approach to beer. We want people to enjoy the terroir."

Paino and his beers - his current lineup under the Ruhstaller brand includes three other styles - are pretty much based on the concept of place. The hops and barley he uses are California grown. Last year he was pleased with his inaugural release, a red ale called 1881, named for the year that pioneering brewer Capt. Frank Ruhstaller founded a Sacramento brewery. Paino was happy, that is, until Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti chided him for using "Ruhstaller" and "Sacramento" on his labels without using local hops in his beer. Paino had logic on his side. Though Sacramento once was celebrated for its hop farms, hop growing  in the area ended in the 1980s. Corti's admonishment registered with Paino, however, and he began a quest to help revive hop cultivation about Sacramento. With assistance from Corti, Paino tracked down Sloughhouse sod farmer David Utterback, who had a small stand of hops descended from the last stand of hops in the area, owned by the late George Signorotti.

Then, this spring Paino teamed up with Winters farmer Sean McNamara to plant nearly an acre of hops, believed to be the first new spread of hops in Sacramento Valley since Signorotti's last harvest three decades ago. McNamara calls his plot of hops the Blue Heron Hop Yard. Thus, the 2012 Blue Heron Hop Yard Hop Sac is based on barley cultivated in Northern California's Klamath River Basin and hops grown at Winters by McNamara and at Sloughhouse by Utterback.

Paino has put almost as much effort into packaging the large-format bottle as filling it. Each bottle is wrapped in burlap to mimic the bags into which hops traditionally had been harvested. The burlap is fastened to the bottle with sturdy black wire wrapped about the neck. The printing of the label is vintage letterpress. As to the beer itself, it also is attractive, from its coppery sheen through its smooth and refreshing flavor. It's medium-bodied, balanced and dry, with a citrusy tang and a suggestion of minerality. Paino made just 225 cases, and it is expected to be sold out by the end of the month. Each bottle contains 1 pint, 6 ounces. The alcohol content is 6 percent. I found it at the West Sacramento branch of Nugget Markets, where it cost $8. Other Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers and Taylors Market also stock the beer.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Chile Lays It On, To What Good?

Terra Gallery was the setting for tasting
As every California youngster learns in the sixth grade - or at least used to - Chile is the long, thin country along the west coast of South America, squeezed like a discarded strip of ribbon between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. Sometime after those youngsters turn 21, they learn that Chile has something going for it other than copper, avocados and sweaters of llama wool. That would be wine.

Given Chile's immense length (2,653 miles) and slim width (an average 110 miles), the wine enthusiast might logically conclude that the country's stylistic range of wines would vary most dramatically from north to south, and on paper that looks to be the case. Chile is pockmarked with no fewer than 14 wine valleys, from Elqui in the north to Malleco in the south. What's more, several of the valleys are further partitioned into sub-appellations.

All those demarcations apparently aren't enough for the Chilean wine trade, now embarking on a plan to persuade consumers that regardless of how narrow the country is and how small those valleys may be, their climate, exposure and soils are so diverse they need to be overlaid with an entirely new classification system.

This "vitivinicultural zonification" - that's the English translation - divides the country into three squiggly north/south bands - dangling threads of the ribbon - each possessing topographical and climatological characteristics so distinctive yet uniform that their wines share a similar expressiveness, according to Chilean vintners.

This isn't simply some marketing ploy. Chilean vintners take the concept so seriously they formally have amended Decree 464, the law establishing Chile's appellations of origin, to include these three new "complementary denominations of quality" - "Costa," a coastal zone whose cool climate and largely calcareous soils give wines from grapes grown within that zone a liveliness that sets them apart from other zones; "Entre Cordilleras," or "the generous plains," the flatlands between the coast and the foothills of the Andes, whose Mediterranean climate and sedimentary soils purportedly produce wines fruity, elegant and long lived; and the "Andes," the most photogenic and influential of Chile's geologic amenities, whose height and mass is responsible for everything from safeguarding the nation's vineyards from infestations of pests to modulating temperatures and affecting ventilation so substantially that wines from the area distinguish themselves largely for their structure and endurance. The new classification is so precise as to elevations, exposures, soil types and the like that a longstanding appellation like Colchagua Valley now is partitioned to include bits of all three zones, given that it stretches so far from west to east, relatively speaking.

How much of this is science and how much is hope is difficult to determine at this early stage. Earlier this week, ProChile, the agency responsible for promoting exports of Chilean agricultural products, staged at Terra Gallery in San Francisco a seminar and tasting aimed at explaining and validating the premise of the three zones. I came away feeling that these new categories aren't going to do a thing to promote understanding of and appreciation for Chilean wines among Americans. My sense is that residents of the U.S. look to Chile largely for value wines that deliver varietal clarity. By and large, American wine consumers aren't much interested in whether the wines are from the Colchagua Valley or the Maipo Valley, let alone whether they fall into the "Costa" zone, the "Entre Cordilleras" zone or the "Andes" zone.

To make its case, ProChile orchestrated during the seminar a tasting of nine wines, three each from the three zones. The tasting was flawed because it didn't compare wines of a type from the three zones. Various vintages and various varietals or blends were rolled into the tasting, regardless of their origin. Two of the three sauvignon blancs, for example, were from the "Costa" zone, while the third was from the "Andes." None was from the "Entre Cordilleras," even though that district produces 60 percent of Chile's wines, including, presumably, a sizable portion of the nation's sauvignon blanc. I single out sauvignon blanc because it was the most consistently impressive wine of the nine at the seminar; regardless of producer or valley - all were from the vintage of 2011. They were vibrant, crisp and refreshing. They varied in texture, minerality, acidity and expressions of fruit - Granny Smith apples here, lime there - but they shared the assertive and refreshing zestiness so often identified with examples of the varietal from New Zealand. They spoke so clearly to the popular international style of sauvignon blanc, and so quietly of regional distinctiveness, that they called into question the whole validity of the new zonal classification.

None of the Chilean representatives knew when Americans would start to see "Costa," "Entre Cordilleras" and "Andes" show up on wine labels with more familiar designations like Casablanca Valley and Maule Valley. There seemed to be some apprehension whether even Chilean vintners would take to the new nomenclature. The Chilean representatives on hand indicated that a marketing program for the new classifications still was being developed and likely wouldn't be seen in the U.S. before the new year.

Not without reason, Chilean vintners fret that the country's wine trade is appreciated more for inexpensive everyday varietals than higher-priced releases that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the finer wines of other countries. Chile produces exceptionally pleasing if not exactly enthralling sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay at bargain prices, but for the nation to be locked into that niche nettles winemakers who yearn to be accepted and respected for more complex, more persistent and higher priced varietals and blends. That looks to be the motivation behind the new zones. To judge by the overall disappointing character of Chilean wines being poured at a larger tasting after the seminar, however, Chilean vintners maybe should put more effort into the wines themselves rather than another layer of terminology that is apt to confuse rather than enlighten Americans about the nature of Chilean wines.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ambitious New Renwood Hatched

Alejandro Bulgheroni, right, with Renwood president Brent Cohen
For decades, vintners have been telling me they put down roots in the Sierra foothills because they couldn't afford Napa Valley. The latest is Alejandro Bulgheroni. He may have been pulling my leg. Bulgheroni, according to the business journal Forbes, is a billionaire. He's the chairman and CEO of Associated Petroleum Investors Ltd., based in Buenos Aires. According to Forbes, Bulgheroni and his brother Carlos have a fortune estimated at $5.1 billion, thanks largely to their handling of the oil firm Bridas, established by their father. If anyone could afford to grow wine grapes in Napa Valley, it would seem to be Alejandro Bulgheroni.

But he isn't there. When he decided to get involved in the U.S. wine business he scouted several possible sites, finally settling on Amador County in the Mother Lode east of Sacramento. Timing had something to do with his decision. Amador County's Renwood Winery was financially distressed, shedding its holdings at prices that attracted Bulgheroni. So far, he's spent a conservatively estimated $16 million to acquire Renwood, enhance its grape growing and winemaking, and turn it from a large if slumbering presence along Steiner Road in Shenandoah Valley into a large and lively wine-culture complex bound to introduce the area to a whole new wave of wine enthusiasts. Wine and Monday Night Football? At Renwood, that's just the start of the week. (Coming up: Thursday tapas nights starting Oct. 18, Saturday family-style meals starting Oct. 20 and Sunday brunch starting Oct. 21.)

I chatted only briefly and casually with Bulgheroni the other evening during a reception to inaugurate the restyled Renwood. Like a lot of other wealthy men, he's been bitten by the wine bug, but he's a largely hands-off vintner, delegating the running of Renwood to a slew of other people, including  Carlos Pulenta, his winemaking partner at Bodega Vistalba of Mendoza, the Argentine wine region celebrated for malbec. Pulenta is inexperienced at making zinfandel, the grape and wine upon which Amador County historically has staked its standing in the wine trade, and the grape and wine that most intrigues Bulgheroni. Pulenta, however, is working with several seasoned zinfandel specialists, including Dave Crippen, now overseeing his 10th harvest as the resident winemaker at Renwood, and Kent Rosenblum, retained as a consultant. (At the grand opening, Rosenblum hinted that Renwood's commitment to zinfandel is being expanded well beyond Amador County. Renwood already has released zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and will make zinfandel from Paso Robles, perhaps starting with this vintage.)

Bulgheroni is underwriting generously his confidence in the American wine trade generally and Renwood and zinfandel specifically. He and Brent Cohen, Renwood's president, have assembled a large team of savvy wine-industry professionals to restyle the winery and to reposition it as the most fashionable, sophisticated and dear zinfandel specialist in the country. The husband-and-wife team of Paul Almond and Pam Whitehead, the principals of Sage Architecture Inc. in Sacramento, responsible for the design of two new nearby wineries, Helwig and Andis, were called in to totally revamp Renwood's hospitality center, now a series of bright and airy salons to house tasting quarters and a deli. Jamie Lubenko, former director of the Amador County Vintners Association, was hired as Renwood's marketing and communications manager. To assist her, two wine-media veterans, Stan Hock (print) and Paul Mabray (online), also have been brought aboard (don't be surprised if some high-profile wine writers who heretofore have pretty much ignored the Mother Lode suddenly start to wax poetic about discovering Shenandoah Valley). Veteran Los Angeles caterer David Rowe was called in to create the hospitality center's menu (paninis, salads, cheese plates). And the Renwood team already has scored one high-profile gig, as the official wine sponsor for the Independent Film Forum next week in Los Angeles.

Bulgheroni, whose other agricultural holdings include Bodegas Garzon in Uruguay, where he also produces olive oil sold by Dean and Deluca in the United States, indicated that he was drawn to Renwood and Amador County in large part because of its standing for zinfandel, which he is eager to further enhance with an extensive portfolio of appellations and styles. When I asked him to name his favorite Renwood wine at this early stage in the winery's revitalization, he said he rather liked the 2010 Amador County Clarion, a bright and beefy yet supple blend of nearly 75 percent zinfandel and slightly more than 25 percent syrah. The Clarion also was my favorite wine when I tasted through 15 zinfandels and zinfandel-based wines at Renwood this summer. It also is to be the subject of my wine column in The Sacramento Bee this Wednesday. During my earlier Renwood visit another new zinfandel wasn't yet ready to show, but it was the other night. It's the Renwood 2010 Amador County Gold Crest Zinfandel, a husky but nonetheless brilliant and refreshing zinfandel, it's fruit all boysenberry jam, its spice a liberal sprinkling of black pepper; this is one delicious zinfandel, but brace yourself for sticker shock. Under Renwood's marketing program it is to be sold only in restaurants, where it is expected to be priced $75. Bulgheroni may be in Shenandoah Valley, but he isn't shy about adopting Napa Valley wine prices. How else will he be able to afford land over there?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's Fall, Bring On The Applewine

Look at a map of Germany. Find Frankfurt. There it is, in the south-central part of the country. If you are a wine enthusiast, you will notice that several of Germany's acclaimed wine regions are nearby. There's Franken to the east, Baden to the south, Pfalz to the southwest, and the Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Mosel to the west.

You might conclude that you should be able to get a decent glass of wine in Frankfurt, and you can. But wander about the city for awhile and something else becomes clear: The unofficial wine of the city isn't riesling, muller-thurgau or spatburgunder. No, it's a German wine you hardly ever see in the United States, but which you can find all over Frankfurt - apfelwein, also known as ebbelwei, abbelwoi, stoffche or appler, all of which, more or less, translate in English to applewine. Yes, the area about Frankfurt also is recognized for its apples, many of which are processed into juice and wine. Actually, to judge by the quantities of apfelwein I saw being quaffed in Frankfurt recently I'd say darn near all the fruit must be squeezed for apfelwein.

Frankfurt's Ebbelwei Express
You can't get away from the stuff, but Germans obviously don't want to. Booths dispensing applewine at the city's many street festivals are as numerous and even more popular than pretzel carts. In restaurants specializing in apfelwein and the dishes long associated with it, dozens of glasses are replenished at a time from jugs called bembels, traditional blue-and-white glazed crocks used historically to pour apfelwein. And Germans and tourists alike jump aboard the Ebbelwei Express, a bright streetcar that rambles about the city, pausing at many of its historic landmarks and cultural attractions. You no sooner are seated than the conductor appears with dewy bottles of applewine. For all the efficiency of the Frankfurt subway and trolley systems, this is the most leisurely and civilized way to see the city. You can get off at such stops as the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frankfurt Zoo, but visitors in search of more applewine stay aboard until the streetcar reaches the old fishing and brewing enclave of Sachsenhausen, now a fashionable and intimate residential district with the attitude and feel of refined Parisian neighborhood.

All's well aboard the Ebbelwei Express
Sachsenhausen is appointed with dozens of pubs serving applewine. From the outside, they look small, but once inside they can stretch and meander for several large rooms, some enclosed, some open to the elements, which from spring to fall can be balmy. Inside or out, guests take their seats at long wooden communal tables and start to down glass after glass of applewine while ordering dishes with which it customarily is paired - grilled spareribs with sauerkraut, a juicy cut of boiled beef with the city's signature green-herb sauce, sausages, and the craftily named "handkas mit musik," a small round of handcrafted cheese simmered in cider and vinegar and topped with a dice of white onion; the "musik" of the name stems from the gastrointestinal gurgling that such a combination can induce.

Pubs that take pride in their long association with applewine generally can be spotted by a wreath of pine needles over the front door. Once upon a time, this was an indication that the pub made its own appelwine, but that no longer is necessarily the case. Today, most of the applewine being consumed in Frankfurt looks to come from the presses of the two dominant producers, Hohl and Possmann. Together, they turn out around 25 million liters of applewine and apple juice yearly.

Embedded apples help imbibers find their way
I made stops at three landmark applewine pubs in Sachsenhausen - Zum Gemalten Haus, Apfelwein Adolph Wagner  and Fichte Kranzi. Outside, revelers who had indulged more applewine than maybe they should have could find their way about the neighborhood by following small brass apple plaques embedded in the cobblestones. Inside, virtually every table not already occupied had a "reserved" sign on it. By coincidence, my visits on two separate weekends coincided with crucial matches for the Frankfurt soccer team, perhaps helping account for the boisterous mood and the non-stop serving of applewine.

My visit was in late summer, when the applewine presumably was "alter," or aged, being carried over from the previous fall's harvest. Had I lingered in Frankfurt until this fall, I could have sampled applewine in its "susser" state (without alcohol), or as "rauscher," while it still is fermenting, when it's sweet and gassy. Later in the year, it will be called "stoffche" or "heller," packing around 5.5 percent alcohol, tasting dry, and smoothed by aging in barrels. Applewine is served in traditionally tall ribbed tumblers called "gerippte;" their decoratively etched sides meant not only to be attractive but practical, helping workers or diners with greasy hands get a firm grip on the glass. "They're less likely to slip out of your hand, even after four glasses," said one local.

Traditional glass for applewine at Fichte Kranzi
Aesthetically, the allure of applewine was pretty much lost on me. For the most part, it tasted of a listless apple juice, without a whole lot of essence of fruit. It could be refreshing, but in the heat of late summer most anything wet and chilled would. I've tasted apple wines in California that tasted much more of apple than applewine. Connoisseurs of applewine, however, supposedly can detect just what blend of sweet and sour apple varieties were used in a given release. They also say that you need to drink three glasses before you really can truly appreciate the flavor. What's more, Germans have several ways to enhance applewine's appeal to eye and palate, such as dropping a wild strawberry into the glass or mixing it with sparkling wine. A local warned me early on, however, not to mix applewine with lemonade, which while apparently fairly popular with Germans just might get you thrown out of some joints. Anyway, applewine's popularity may have less to do with its flavor than its reputed health properties. Germans believe applewine stimulates vascular expansion, increases blood circulation around the brain, and retards aging.

Refills at Adolph Wagner
Applewine has been a staple of the Frankfurt culinary scene for more than 250 years, though locals like to claim that it's been poured in the city since the time of Charlemagne some 1,200 years ago. Its popularity has soared when diseases or the vagaries of the growing year have set back the region's vineyards, restricting if not eliminating the production of wine from grapes. Though the region's vineyards are thriving today, applewine endures.

Monday, October 1, 2012

2011 German Riesling: Stock Up

The hot springs of Wiesbaden in southwest Germany have been drawing visitors since ancient Romans discovered that the soothing waters were just the balm their saddle-weary bodies needed so they could resume sacking the rest of Europe.

When I visited there recently, however, I never got to dip my own weary flesh into a single spa, largely because healing waters of another sort were foremost on my mind. Wiesbaden not only is celebrated for its thermal pools, it's recognized as the gateway to several highly regarded wine regions, including Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Pfalz, each recognized in large measure for its riesling.

Tasters at work in the Kurhaus of Wiesbaden
One goal of my trip was to attend Vorpremiere Wiesbaden, a preview tasting of wines mostly of the 2011 vintage and all from "erste lage" vineyards, ranked as the top grape-growing sites of the nearly 200 members of VDP. Die Pradikatsweinguter. That's a trade group whose mission is to upgrade the quality of German wines via strict standards of growing and processing while remaining vigilant against practices that result in wine "nondescript, uniform and artificial." The German wine bottle is busy with detailed information, but a shortcut to identify the group's wines is to find on the capsule a stylized drawing of an eagle bearing a cluster of grapes.

Through production standards and sensory evaluations, wines from the top vineyards are grouped into three or four tiers, depending on preferences of the regions in which they originate. The two top tiers are "grosse lage" and "erste lage." "Grosse lage" wines, for example, can only be made with grapes from vineyards where the yield has been restricted to a maximum 50 hectoliters per hectare. (To further complicate matters, the designation "grosses gewachs" on a bottle of wine, often abbreviated to "GG," denotes that the wine not only is from a "grosse lage" site but is dry, or without evident residual sugar.) "Erste lage" wines, on the other hand, can come from vineyards with a maximum yield of 60 hectoliters per hectare. "Grosse lage" wines cannot be released before Sept. 1 of the year after their grapes were picked. "Erste lage" wines can be released as of May 1 the year after their grapes were harvested. These standards have as their inspiration the belief that wines should represent their place of origin, and that small yields and a bit of aging encourage that expression.

The day-long tasting was held in a conference room of Wiesbaden's cultural center, the Kurhaus of Wiesbaden, a vast complex of ballrooms and parlors fronting a sprawling plaza lush with lawn and lively with the waters of a central fountain. It was a warm day, but the tasting quarters were cool, evenly lit and comfortable. Tasters, mostly writers, were, in short, pampered, but in a manner meant to keep them focused on the work at hand, which was to get both an overall impression of the nature of the wines and to zero in on   those that represented above-average quality.

Pourer dispenses a spatburgunder during tasting
The tasting was a marvel of efficiency. Participants took their places at assigned tables. Speeches were eschewed, talking was virtually verboten. Tasters got promptly to work and broke only for lunch. Each had a directory listing the 436 wines, of which 272 were riesling. With 66, the second largest group was spatburgunder, what the Germans call pinot noir. Most of the wines - 89 - were from the region of Pfalz, but large contingents also were from Baden, Rheingau, Wurttemberg, Franken, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheinhessen.

More than 400 wines is too many to taste in one day, so as I leafed through the directory I limited myself to mostly rieslings from estates I would be visiting, estates with long track records, and estates that have generated buzz in the wine media, regardless of age. By the end of the day I'd tasted 83 wines.

In addition to the directory, each participant also had a small pad on which he or she was to jot the number of his assigned place and the flight to be tasted. The directory had been organized by regions and by coded flights of up to six wines each. A runner would grab one of the completed slips, dash into a back room, and return in a flash with a carrier containing the flight. Tasters could taste the entire flight or specify just the wines he or she particularly wanted. This was billed as a "sneak preview," but it wasn't a blind tasting, and with that I had no quibble. Noted British wine writer Jancis Robinson had participated in the tasting the day before and has posted this video of the format.

Sometimes I fret that I'm such a fan of riesling, respecting it for being so refreshing and for being so baldly representative of where and when it originated, that I'm too accepting, too reluctant to judge it fairly. I'm not cured entirely of those doubts, but the breadth of the rieslings in VorpremiereWiesbaden persuaded me that not all rieslings can be embraced without qualification. By the end of the day, my notes included many I would like to revisit, but just as many that I don't care whether I ever see again.

Overall, I was mightily impressed by the quality of the 2011 rieslings. VDP officials were excited early on by the nature of the 2011 growing season - more even than erratic and difficult 2010 - and their excitement only has accelerated with the release of the vintage. They stopped just short of claiming that the 2011 wines would be equal to releases of the legendary vintages of 1811 and 1911, but they didn't shy from suggesting they might be.

I found rieslings of confidence and complexity from each region, but the Rheingau was the source of a disproportionate number of those to get my highest rankings. As a group, they were the most exotic, their flavors running from apples and limes to hazlenuts and chestnuts. A surprising number carried whiffs of autumnal leaf fires, or a thin trail of smoke from the bowl of a pipe packed with a rare tobacco. Their structures almost invariably were solid, their acidity razory, their finishes exceptionally long for a white wine. Mostly, they were dry, though a few tasted delicately sweet.

Rieslings from the Rheingau vintage 2011 that I especially will be looking for:

- Graf von Kanitz Lorch Pfaffenwies: Bright gold filigree in color, medium-bodied, rich with multiple layers of fruit, complicated with suggestions of leaf smoke, one of the more intriguing and longer rieslings of the day.

- Prinz von Hessen Winkel Jesuitengarten: Already roundly developed, with a depth and length that said, "This is really a vineyard you have to visit." I don't know a thing about the vineyard, just that it yields an unusually richly textured riesling whose vibrancy and balance suggests it will live and evolve gloriously for decades.

- Josef Spreitzer Lenchen Rosengarten: Rich without being ponderous. Exotic for its evocation of some kind of sweet tea leaves smoked over a pine-wood fire, as well as a suggestion of lychee nuts.

- Kunstler Hochheim Kirchenstuck: By riesling standards, quite muscular. The first whose smell could be said to bound effortlessly from the glass. If it were tobacco, you could pack it into a pipe, light it, and delight everyone in the room - and it could be a large room - with its cool sunny suggestions of late summer and early fall.

- Kunstler Hochheim Holle: Seemingly cut from the same fine cloth, but for all its power it is lighter, leaner and more brisk than the Kirchenstuck, which makes it overall a shade more demure and elegant.

Only an empty bottle was unwelcome
All five of these Rheingau rieslings, incidentally, are classified "erstes gewachs;" no rieslings classified "grosses gewachs" from Rheingau were in the tasting. "Grosses gewach" rieslings from other regions that most impressed me were:

- Mathias Muller 2011 Mittelrhein Boppard Mandelstein: Rich yet buoyant. Apples at their fall prime, sweetly fruity and refreshingly crisp, no pie crust needed to be complete. Its smell kept saying, "Come hither," while its lingering finish urged you to say, "Thank you."

- Von Winning 2011 Pfalz Forst Pechstein: One of the bolder rieslings of the day, its smell as earthy and as animalistic as it was fruity. Clearly, the most voluptuous riesling of the tasting, with a ripeness and roundness that says "California" more than "Germany," yet compelling for its strength and focus.

- A. Christmann 2011 Pfalz Konigsback Idig: The peach side of riesling comes through here with pure sunny juice. It is one lush and viscous riesling, but also possessed of a complexity and length rare for the varietal.

- Furst Lowenstein 2011 Franken Homburg Kallmuth: A searingly icy take on riesling, almost as if you might find stinging shards of crystal in the glass, but also possessed of gloriously ripe and sweet fruit. Great acidity, great balance.

If I again were to attend Vorpremiere Wiesbaden I'd make more of a point of tasting spatburgunder, which is what Germans call pinot noir. I was so interested in riesling, however, I put off exploring the spatburgunders until late in the day. German vintners acknowledge that they are having a difficult time getting wine consumers in English-speaking countries to recognize spatburgunder as pinot noir. It is a variety that German winemakers are taking to enthusiastically, however, and nearly all those I tasted said that here is a source ready to compete with interpretations of the varietal from New Zealand, California, Oregon and even Burgundy. My favorites:

- Knipser 2009 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Laumersheim Kirschgarten: You want the grace and charm of Burgundy? The richness and oak of California pinot noir? It's all contained in this one attractive German package. The color is deceptive; it's as faint as a rose. But the smell is glorious, all strawberry and cherry fruit set off against a flinty texture that speaks of terroir and a smoky note that speaks of toasty oak.

- Knipser 2009 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Grosskarlbach Burgweg: A somewhat heftier cousin of the first, its color deeper, its fruit richer, its oak a little less obvious. This is one luxurious spatburgunder, which should be served in nothing less than one of Germany's grander castles.

- Okonomierat Rebholz 2007 Pfalz Grosses Gewachs Siebeldingen Im Sonnenschein: I've no idea what all that verbiage means, but it could translate as "I may be light in color but I smell like pinot noir at its most embracing, and on the palate I'm snappy, playful and enduring."

- Bernard Huber 2010 Baden Grosses Gewachs Bombach Sommerhalde: Also lightly colored, and lean in build, but with thrusting and layered fruit that keeps drawing you back for another taste.

- H. Schlumberger 2010 Baden Laufen Altenberg Wingerte: If you insist on deep color in your spatburgunder/pinot noir, this is your baby. It has that, along with sweet lush fruit that not only is up front but long-lasting in the finish. It's a big take on the varietal, somewhat plump, but in delivery it carries all of pinot noir's legendary charm.

So, after tasting 83 German wines what were my take-away impressions? By and large, they are cleanly made, uncontrived and balanced wines. German vintners clearly rely on the grape, the site and the vintage for their wines to say whatever they have to say. They aren't tricked up wines. There's a naturalism to them, their highest calling being to provide an accurate and proud representation of place. Not all were necessarily exciting, and because suggested retail prices in the U.S. weren't available I couldn't evaluate value. (The average price in Europe for a bottle of "grosses gewachs" wine, incidentally, is 28 euros, around $36 in U.S. currency at the current rate of exchange.) Nevertheless, to judge by German wines I did buy while in Germany, I'm confident that if the wines singled out here can be found in the U.S. the prices will be fair for the quality in the bottle.