Ports are open and corks are closures – the world returns to normal

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment
Your wine is here. Someplace. The announcement of a tentative settlement to the nine-month strike affecting 29 West Coast ports may means a return to normal commerce soon. Photo courtesy Port of Los Angeles

Your wine is here. Someplace. The announcement of a tentative settlement to the nine-month strike affecting 29 West Coast ports may means a return to normal commerce soon. Photo courtesy Port of Los Angeles

Midwinter, and while this season has been particularly mild (regrets going to all my East Coast friends), this week we honestly can say “winter” with its recent return of cold and snow finds us wandering past brown, leafless vines and waiting for the return of spring, or spring as we know it.
While there isn’t much happening in the vineyards – except the occasional pruning in preparation for the warm weather to come – the wine industry itself never sleeps.
The biggest news nationally might be the tentative resolution of the nine-month labor dispute that paralyzed 29 shipyards in California, Washington and Oregon.
This goes beyond that case of wine you’ve been expecting, the one that’s been baking in the California sun all this time; the disruption affected many agriculture groups concerned the U.S. was losing market share due to its inability to serve export markets.
It’s estimated 80 percent of waterborne U.S. red meat exports move through West Coast ports. The leader of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, said it would take three months “to get back a sense of normalcy.”
As you know, there’s been some talk in recent years about corks, or at least what some writers refer to as “cork taint,” a disagreeable order imparted to wood corks and then to the wine from the chemical 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, more commonly known as TCA.
TCA is a natural compound that ‘s been been described as musty, earthy or “moldy newspaper,” which as a long-time newspaper hack I may know something about.
In many cases TCA is transferred to the wine from the cork but evidently it also can be transferred through the cork rather than from it.
While it takes only nanograms of TCA to ruin a wine’s aroma and flavors, the human threshold for detecting TCA varies by several orders of magnitude depending on an individual’s sensitivity.
Some of the best wine “super-tasters” may be able to pick up TCA in the single-digit parts per trillion.
About 20 years ago, when wine producers and consumers became aware of a growing perception of TCA taint (it one time was estimated as many as three to even five out of 10 bottles were TCA tainted), the natural cork industry saw its share of the $2 billion market slip from almost 95 percent in the 1990s to currently about two-thirds of the U.S. market.
Plastic corks and screwcaps have taken over the majority of the new portion.
Recent news, however, indicates the natural cork industry is fighting back.
The industry implemented a massive quality control and testing system in response to cork taint and last year the Cork Quality Council ran over 25 thousand tests, according to a council report.
The results reportedly showed an 81-percent reduction in TCA presence compared to eight years ago.
“We live in the shadow of a lot of problems that existed 15 or 20 years ago,” Neil Foster, president of wine-closure manufacturer M.A. Silva USA, said in a recent interview with the Press-Democrat of Santa, Rosa, Cal.
M.A. Silva sells more than 100 million closures annually, ranging from 7 cents to $3 a piece.
“The reality is today’s cork is light years ahead of where it used to be based on the technology we use to test our cork,” Foster said.
Now, if someone can come up with a solution to wine ruined from sitting nine months on a freighter in the middle of the Port of Los Angeles.

Old-vine Grenache dominates in McLaren Vale

February 1, 2015 Leave a comment
Grenache bush vines in McLaren Vale. These low-growing, head-pruned vines produce smaller, intense berries reflecting the history of wine-making in the region.

Grenache bush vines in McLaren Vale. These low-growing, head-pruned vines produce smaller, intense berries reflecting the history of wine-making in the region.

Here are some of the things I like about Australia: The vast distances between here and the horizon, the wide-open beaches and wave-pounding surf, native artists such as Stephen Hogarth of the Kamilaroi Tribe and, of course, given the scope of this blog, the wines.

My most-recent favorite is the Yangarra 2012 McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache ($24).

McLaren Vale officially is about 35 km (21 miles) south of Adelaide but you might not notice the distance because of the continuing encroachment on the area by Adelaide’s expanding suburbs.

In spite of increasing citification, the area is considered by many as the most-important wine-producing area in the Fleurieu Peninsula and certainly the Grenache stronghold of Australia.

Vines were first planted in the area in the early 1800s, shortly after Captain Arthur Phillip dropped anchor in 1788 in Sydney Cove with a ship carrying Australia’s first grape vines from Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope.

But while many wine regions around the world had an initial spurt of production but then saw the vines ripped out or starved by Prohibition, some of the McLaren Vale Grenache vines survived and today there are wines being made from vines more than 100 years old.

The Yangarra 2012 McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache comes from vines almost 70 years old, originally planted by Frederick Arthur Smart after returning from World War II.

On the surface, little has changed since Smart, who still lives in the area, first planted his early vineyards, with dry-farmed vines thriving on the deep sandy soils and Mediterranean climate at the foot of the Southern Mount Lofty Range.

To understand what has changed calls for a deeper look.

In 2000, Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke (proprietors of Jackson Family Wines) purchased Yangarra Estate and soon appointed Peter Fraser as the winemaker and Michael Lane as viticulturist.

In 2008, the Yangarra team began farming the estate organically and in 2012 the property, according to the Yangarra press information, was certified A-grade organic as well as biodynamic.

What difference did this make in the wine?

One of the precepts behind biodynamic farming is to enliven the soil and make the organic nutrients in the soil available to the plants living there.

A press release explains that in order to further that transfer of a sense of the land to his wines, winemaker Peter Fraser incorporates traditional and time-consuming winemaking methods in his wine-making.

These including pre-soaks, indigenous yeast, open-top fermentation, hand punch downs, barrel fermentations, and the two-stage rack-and-return process, all key to Fraser’s drive to create balanced wines reflecting the terroir of McLaren Vale.

“I’m not interested in numbers on a piece of laboratory paper,” Fraser is quoted on the Yangarra website. “I’m interested in flavor.”

The 2012 Old Vine Grenache easily delivers all the flavor you might want, this brightly elegant wine brimming with dried red cherries, leather, black fruit and hints of white pepper.

In addition to Grenache, Yangarra produces other southern Rhone varietals including Shiraz, Mataro, Cinsault, and Carignan among the reds; Roussanne and Viognier are the major whites.

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Maggy Hawk’s Pinot Noir keeps Anderson Valley on right track

December 26, 2014 Leave a comment
The view of Northern California's  Anderson Valley shows the coastal influence of cool, foggy mornings, perfect for producing world-class Pinot Noir and Alsatian varietals.

This view of Northern California’s Anderson Valley shows the coastal influence of cool, foggy mornings, perfect for producing world-class Pinot Noir and Alsatian varietals. Photo: Anderson Vally Winery Assoc.

It must have been the mid-60s when I first saw the Anderson Valley, tucked into a remote corner of California’s Mendocino County, about 2.5 hours north of San Francisco.

We were on our annual family vacation, kids packed into the back half of the black-and-white Nash Rambler station wagon while my ever-westering parents kept an eye out for the promised land.

Not that they were looking for a new homestead – Colorado had everything they really wanted – but rather simply in search of America and all that it offered.

I faintly remember stopping along Highway 128 where it headed northwest into the valley after leaving U.S. Highway 101, amidst towering forests of redwoods and Douglas fir, perhaps the same view pioneer Walter Anderson enjoyed when he first saw the valley in 1851.

I don’t remember seeing any vineyards during that summer trip but I do remember my father shivering in the cool breeze, even though the ocean was about 15 miles off, and hurrying back to the car.

Today’s tourists are not so quick to dismiss the Anderson Valley, which has earned its reputation for sterling Alsatian varietals (Gewurstztraminer, Pinto Grigio and Chardonnay) and the purity of its Pinot Noir.

I recently received samples of two Anderson Valley wines, the 2011 Jolie Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Maggy Hawk Winery and the Wind Racer 2011 Anderson Valley Chardonnay.

In recent years Pinot Noir has become a major focus in the Anderson Valley, where a 2011 vineyard census showed 1,453 acres out of the 2,244 total planted acres in the valley.

Those 76 different properties produce a range of Pinot Noirs, some of a distinctly opulent but hard-edged Russian River Valley style with its out-sized flavors.

But the latter still are the outsiders, because the true Anderson Valley style of Pinot Noir is modest and restrained, bright with red fruit flavors.

The highly allocated Maggy Hawk 2011 Jolie (242 cases, $66 SRP) is one of a line of wines named for the progeny of Maggy Hawk, a race horse owned by proprietor Barbara Banke.

Banke also is the head of Jackson Family Wines and the widow of famed California winemaker Jess Jackson, who died in 2011.

The Jolie was floral and tightly wound, showing plum, cherry and cranberry with a minerally acidity and soft tannins, a tribute to the skills of winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas in dealing with the problematic 2011 growing season.

And while I know how much the Hosemaster hates to read this sort of thing, this was one of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve had the privilege of tasting.

Grant-Douglas also is director of winemaking at La Crema Winery, also owned by Jackson Family Wines.

The Wind Racer 2011 Anderson Valley Chardonnay (463 cses, $40 SRP) – This precise and well-focused wine is another effort from Barbara Banke (along with co-proprietor Peggy Furth) and shows a light touch of oak highlighting vibrant apple, spice and pear flavors. The delicate fruit is buoyed by more of the Anderson Valley bright minerality and acidity.

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The best gift is the one you give yourself

December 21, 2014 Leave a comment
122414 FD wine Italy map

This map shows the some of the wine-producing areas of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. There are 20 such administrative regions in the country, each enough to fill an entire vacation.

Christmas is a time for lists and it seems every writer online and in the glossy magazines is anxious to share his or her list of things you need for that perfect gift.

Need? How many people really need another cork puller or wine book or more wine glasses?

Well, all of us, perhaps, although I disagree with the “need” part. Those things and more make welcome gifts, but they certainly aren’t things we can’t live without.

And it’s almost agonizing how much time and money we spend trying to make someone else happy, when that happiness is theirs to make, not ours.

There is one thing you and all wine lovers can do this Christmas and that’s to give yourself the gift of wine in 2015.

It could be education, diving into one of the many fine books covering every topic of wine, from the basics of wine and grapes to insights on winemakers and the regions where wine is made.

One of the best parts of wine travel: Walking and driving the steep hills of Valdobbiadene in  the Veneto region of Italy and getting an education into the difficulties of producing Prosecco DOCG and what makes it a special wine.

One of the best parts of wine travel: Walking and driving the steep hills of Valdobbiadene in the Veneto region of Italy and getting an education into the difficulties of producing Prosecco DOCG and what makes it a special wine.

It could travel, getting to know what it means when someone talks about the “place” from where wine comes. Travel doesn’t have to expensive, although you certainly can make it so.

A long weekend trip to California, Oregon or just around Colorado can teach you a lot about those regions, and by expressing an interest you’ll be surprised how doors may open and how friends you will make.

Or perhaps you can make a visit to one of the Big Three – Italy, Spain and France, each with more than enough to fill your two-week vacation.

Italy, for example, has 20 administrative regions and each of those has wine-producing sub-regions.

Why do the mind-numbing “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Tuscany?” trip? Pick a region or two and focus there.

Find yourself an inexpensive B and B, rent an inexpensive car, and spend a week driving from one vineyard to the next.

Or maybe visit one of the areas you’ve dreamed of, such as Germany, Sicily, Argentina and Chile, the Less-Big Four, and all of which are on my list of places to visit.

Australian and New Zealand not only have great wine and great beaches, they also have friendly natives who speak English, something not to be discounted.

Every major wine region has a tourist association or consortium anxious to assist you with visits to their region.

If you’re hesitant or simply can’t make up your mind, you can have a great time and learn things you might never learn alone by traveling with a tour arranged by a local restaurant or travel agent.

Closer to home, there are many ways to improve your wine knowledge.

Watch for and attend a seminar or two, hang out at wine tastings and go to dinners with winemakers, talk to the wine steward at your favorite store or restaurant, and buddy up to a wine salesperson.

The easiest way is to drink more and different wine, because you have to pop a lot of corks to learn what you like and why. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a wine you’re not familiar with, to take notes and read the notes of those who have more experience than you.

Wine education is a great gift to give and it comes in many forms, most of them enjoyable. But like any education it takes a bit of effort. That’s effort with an “F,” as in fun.

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The Mendoza terroir: Malbec as a place

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment
The Zuccardi vineyards in Mendoza lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

The vineyards of Bodega Famila Zuccardi in Mendoza, Argentina, lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

Three months after meeting Sebastián Zuccardi at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (noted in a previous post), three friends and I jumped the border from Brasil to the Uco Valley of Argentina, just outside Mendoza, dodging rainstorms in a land resembling the high-desert terrain of western Colorado.

Except, that is, for the Andes, looming on a close horizon and towering thousands of feet up.

Despite its modest appearance, Mendoza, which sits at 2,500 feet elevation on the east slope of the Andes, is one of the great wine cities of the world, where even modest restaurants unblinkingly serve world-class Malbecs, Syrahs, Petit Verdots and other varietals.

Malbec is the both the workhorse and the star of the Argentina wine industry, and according to the website Wines of Argentina, the country has 76,600 acres of Malbec vineyards, the most anywhere.

Our first morning found us headed to Bodega Familia Zuccardi in the Uco Valley, where Julia Zuccardi had arranged us a tour.

Julia and her two brothers, Sebastian and Miguel, compose the latest generation of Zuccardis to be involved with a winery established in 1963.

Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker and head terroirist at Bodega Familia Zuccardi.

Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker and head terroirist at Bodega Familia Zuccardi of Mendoza.

Each has their niche – Sebastian is the winemaker and responsible for the vineyards, Julia does the marketing and tourist development and Miguel has developed the bodega’s compelling olive oil market.

The Uco Valley resembles my home valley in western Colorado: High elevation, semi-arid climate, heavy alluvial soils watered by irrigation, mountains on the horizon – familiar indeed, except for the snow-covered Andes, including the impressive 22,837-foot Aconcagua looming over the region.

Irrigation from Andean snowmelt is key to Mendoza’s agriculture, and 50 years ago Sebastián’s grandfather Alberto Zuccardi developed an irrigation system that soon became a standard of the local wine-making industry.

While the system was a success, Alberto found his true calling in making wine from the grapes he was watering.

Today Zuccardi makes around 20 million liters (about 25 million bottles) a year, most of which is Malbec with smaller bottlings including Bonarda (which Zuccardi and others think may be the Malbec of the future), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranilllo, Torrontes and Chardonnay/Viognier.

One thing a visitor to Mendoza quickly learns is there is no shortage of Malbec in Argentina.

“Everyone in Mendoza makes a Malbec of some sort,” said Zuccardi spokesperson Monserrat Porte, who gave our small group a personal and insightful tour of the Zuccardi winemaking facilities. “What sets Zuccardi apart is its insistence in quality.”

Perhaps a translation is needed, since every winery around the world likes to say it emphasizes quality.

Carlos Gloger of Curitiba, Brasil, tests the inside of the 10-foot concrete egg used for a moderate and controlled fermentation at Zuccardi.

Carlos Gloger of Curitiba, Brasil, tests the inside of the 10-foot concrete egg used for a moderate and controlled fermentation at Zuccardi.

What Porte was responding to was the question, “With so many Malbecs to chose from, and so many that taste similar, what sets Zucccardi apart from the rest?”

Consistent quality, of course, which stems from Sebastián’s belief in the terroir of individual vineyards.

‘I’m always talking about the origins of the grapes,” Sebastián said in Aspen. “Each region, each sub-region offers something different.”

He said walking through the vineyards and tasting the grapes will reveal the individuality of the vines.

“You can taste the individual terroirs and that is what we are promoting,” Sebastián said, waving his hand at the selection of Zuccardi wines near him. “You will notice I am always talking about the origin of the grapes, not just the fact they are Malbec.”

Which also means Malbec is more than a grape: it’s also a place.

“It’s that origin that we must promote to ensure our future.”

Which entails using sustainable and organic agricultural practices, and focusing on micro-climate terroirs in the various vineyards and soils of Maipu and Santa Rosa along the eastern foot of the Andes.

Every wine is estate grown, hand-picked and estate produced in a modern, state-of-the-art facility.

Not too modern, though: Scatttered through the fermentation are several bunker-like concrete fermentation tanks and 10-foot concrete eggs scattered around the winery. So strong is Sebastián’s belief in terroir he uses only local concrete in making the amphora-shaped eggs and the concrete tanks in which he uses to age specific varietals, including Bonarda.

Bodega Zuccardi produces three lines of wines: the premium Zuccardi; Julia (named after Julia Zuccardi); and the Malamado line of fortified wines.

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December 10, 2014 Leave a comment
Eames Petersen and his son Devin, who has taken on the role of partner and winemaker at Alfered Eames Cellars.

The 2014 holiday season is bright for Eames Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia, particularly with the continued emergence of his son Devin as partner and second-generation winemaker. The winery’s annual holiday open house and barrel tasting drew a lively crowd this past weekend. Photo by Jim Brett

PAONIA – The holiday season officially began here last weekend with a rousing chorus of Jingle Bells resounding through the  barrel room at Puesta del Sol and Alfred Eames Cellars, the vineyards and winery south of Paonia, Co.
Here, on the flank of Mt. Lamborn, Eames and Pam Petersen, along with their son Devin and daughter Lais, hosted their annual holiday open house and barrel tasting with friends sharing wine, good food and the locally renowned Madrigal Choir.
There is much to celebrate this year at the winery, although some things you might not notice unless told.
Eames has two new knees, the latest (his right) being installed less than a month ago to balance his new-found gait with the first transplant from 6 months past.
The thought of unencumbered movement significantly brightens his aspect on life, especially life hiking and climbing the mountains he loves.
“I’m already thinking about Gunnison lakes,” said Eames, speaking of the trek to the lakes half-hidden on the upper shelf of 12,725-foot Mt. Gunnison in the West Elks Wilderness.
“Last time I went, I made it about halfway and had to stop,” recalled Eames. “Devin kept going but I had to come back down.”
There’s also the not-small fact that Devin, whose name means “poet” in the original Gaelic, is fitting comfortably into the life of a second-generation winemaker, a move that pleases Eames as much as his two new knees.
“He added 10 years to my life,” said Eames, watching Devin easily haul three cases of wine to a guest’s car. “He knows everything I do, probably more. We’re partners but he’s taken on a huge responsibility for the operation of the winery.”
Devin, 30, admitted to a bit of indecision a few years back but now he’s solidly committed to being the resident winemaker.
“I’m excited about being here,” he said. “This is my home, now.”
Which is more good news. Like many Colorado winemakers, Eames and Pam spent years building their business and faced an uncertain future if and when it came time to retire.
Now, listening to Devin talk easily with guests enjoying the barrel samples in the cement-lined, cave-like barrel room, it seems the winery’s future is assured.
“We built this to be like a cave, with thick walls and buried in the ground, to maintain a near-constant temperature,” Devin, pointing around the expanse while speaking to a few listeners. “It fluctuates less than 10 degrees though the year.”
During a brief break in his wione-pouring duties, he mentioned the winery is a cross roads.
“I’d like to grow the business but we’re so limited in what we can expand into,” he said, lifting his hands to the solid walls of the winery around him. “Not just as far as building sales and increasing capacity but finding the resources to make more wine.”
That last part is key in a business where weather makes half your business decisions for you.
“We’re limited both by our physical space but also the supply of fruit,” said Eames with a laugh. “You have to learn to adjust.”
Getting bigger could mean losing some “intimacy” with the business, Devin said.
“It’s really about where we want to be, both in the quality of our product and in our way of life in doing it,” he said.
For now, that way of life continues unchanged. There is wine to rack and bottle, cases to move and the myriad other tasks that take up a winemaker’s winter.
Well, maybe for Devin to move.
“I just shuffle around and do quality control,” said Eames, laughing again. “Now, I have time to sit down with my guitar and watch Devin.”

It’s a small world: Politics, strange bedfellows and a three-legged dog

December 9, 2014 Leave a comment
Curitibanos display their political affiliations before the October presidential elections. The red shirts are supporters of incumbent Dilma Rousseff and just behind them are the white tentsand banners of Aécio  Neves' fans.

Curitibanos display their political affiliations before the October presidential elections in Brasil. The red shirts are supporters of incumbent Dilma Rousseff and just behind them are the white tents and banners of Aécio Neves’ fans.

The U.S. off-season elections came and went uneventfully, at least if you won.

No so in other countries, especially South America where elections and unrest go hand-in-hand. Watching the elections in Brasil, one get struck at the similarities in fervor between the U.S. and Brasil, although I don’t remember seeing in the U.S. fans of one party (in this case incumbent Dilma Rousseff) yell obscenities and throw objects out the windows of high rises at the supporters of challengers (and eventual runner-up) Aécio Neves.

It was a frequent occurrence in Curitiba, particularly in the chi-chi bairro of Bigorrilho, where supporters of Rousseff and her center-left Workers’ Party envision themselves as freedom fighters, conveniently forgetting their maids often ride two hours on the bus to clean kitchens and toilets.

It’s sad to see Uruguay president José Mujica step down. Despite the widespread corruption and bigotry in other countries’ politics (see Andrew Downy’s account here of politics in Brasil or Mexico and the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students) Mujica, a former revolutionary who still professes anarchist ideals, lives in a tiny house rather than the presidential palace and gives away 90% of his salary, once telling Al Jazeera that “I make more than I need.”.

He’s said to be the world’s “poorest president”, regularly appears in public driving a 1987 Volkswagen bug, legalized marijuana and gay marriage, and says too much attention is paid to his his simple lifestyle.

But Uruguayan presidents are term-limited, so now the country is preparing for president-elect Tabaré Vazquez, who was president from 2005-2010. He’s expected to continue Mujica’s policies, but we’ll miss the rumpled, politically adept Mujica, the well-worn VW and his three-legged dog named Manuela.

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