A Truth in the Vineyards Tells Us about Our Own Truth

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One of Ironstone Vineyards properties in the Sierra Foothills AVA in California

I am always amazed at how many things are connected to wine. How it not only inspires me but helps me on my quest to live a better, more fulfilling life. A specific instance of this happened during a post conference excursion from the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. As there were several choices, I took the one going to Ironstone Vineyards Winery, located in Murphys, which is located about an hour east of Lodi, California, this year’s location for the Conference itself.

Murphys, California, located in Calaveras county, is part of the Sierra Foothills AVA. It is referred to as the “Queen of the Sierra” and some have referred to it as “The next Napa (Valley).” Even though we only saw the Ironstone property and just a few of their vineyards, their property alone made an incredible impression with their remarkable amphitheatre, lake side park, museum and wine caverns. Quickly it became apparent why we were going to spend the whole day and evening there – there was so much to see and experience!

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Steve Millier (left), Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous (right), the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery

But it was a small remark that was made when we were in the vineyards with Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, and Craig Rous, the Director of Operations & Planning for Bear Creek Winery (which is also owned by the Kautz family who own Ironstone Vineyards) which got my attention. The remark had to do with their trellising system for their vineyards and they simply said that they preferred a quad lateral trellising system for their grape vines. Sometimes they would need to use a bi-lateral system (you may have heard its other name “California Sprawl”) but they did not like using the VSP system (Vertical Shoot Positioning).

The Truth about Viticulture

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Chris Storm (third from left), Vititculturist of Vino Farms, talking during The Truth about Viticulture session

Don’t worry, I won’t make this post all about the ins and outs of canopy management. But I found this comment interesting due to the fact that just a few days earlier, during The Truth about Viticulture session of the Wine Bloggers Conference, a local Lodi Viticulturist said in regards to VSP, “That’s the worst system in the world.”

Wow! I wish he would have told us how he really felt. Hehehehe…

But seriously, I appreciate that kind of passion, and he was certainly telling his truth which was formed by his experiences and personal opinions. This truth came from Chris Storm, Vititculturist of Vino Farms, which owns or manages many of the vineyards in Lodi.

The topic of dispelling myths about Lodi came up and he associated myths with pet peeves. His major pet peeve in his own words was, “perception is driving too many decisions and not objective reasoning.”

Perception vs Objective Reasoning

That is when he said that VSP was the worst system possible, especially for Lodi’s Mediterranean climate. But I got the feeling that he was not happy about VSP being in any vineyard in the world. He said that he has struggled dealing with winemakers who taste with their eyes and not with their mouths. He was referring to some winemakers wanting to see a vineyard look a certain way: high and tight – Vertical Shoot Positioning is very clean in appearance. The aforementioned things, though, do not always translate into quality grapes, which ultimately are needed for quality wines.


He made the point that VSP takes an open canopy and “smashes” it all together. He related the leaves of the vines to solar panels, and that we would never point the panels vertically to the sun, but rather lay them flat to get the most sun exposure possible. He further made his point by saying that in this situation, the leaves would form many layers, and in the third and innermost layer there would be leaves that were no longer photosynthesizing because they were not getting proper light, which means they are not helping out the plant and they are instead just sucking out nutrients and becoming a parasite of sorts – take but does not give in return.

And let’s not get into lack of aeration. Have you ever grown a tomato plant in your apartment and allowed the stems and leaves to get really bushy? Did you then stick your hand in the plant to try to find a tomato? Well, I did, and all I found was mildew and rotten tomatoes! Obviously, we were not doing such a great job with canopy management with our tomato plant….

Ironstone Vineyards

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Craig Rous showing us one of Ironstone Vineyards bi-lateral trellised Verdelho vines and comparing it to VSP, as well as the mainly quad lateral trellised vines in this vineyard

While touring one of Ironstone’s vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, I told Craig Rous what was said about VSP during the Conference.  He got a kick out of the whole rant -personally, he did agree with many of Storm’s points, but he also made a point to say that he has seen some other vineyard growers make it work in Lodi. He said that they had to do more work with canopy management, such as plucking leaves, and of course its success depends on variety type, vigor of soil and how much breeze and sunlight is available in any given plot. And there are many other variables for each situation that I could not cover in this one post.

Rous did think it was interesting that someone from Vino Farms was now saying they were against VSP, when at one time, they were an advocate for this trellising system. Chris Storm did mention that VSP was once said to be the ideal management choice for Lodi, as well as most of California. They were following what their more established Bordeaux brothers and sisters were doing in their own region (although their VSP systems are typically lower to the ground) thinking it would be ideal for Lodi as well. It has just taken time for California, and more specifically Lodi and the Sierra Foothills, to find their own way.

The Courage for Truth

Steve Millier and Craig Rous both agreed that while they did not use VSP in their vineyards, they could understand why many other vineyards still did. A commercial vineyard has a lifespan of around 30 years, and replanting a vineyard sooner than that would cost a fortune – money that many struggling vineyard owners do not have the luxury of spending.

I’m sure it was a big deal when Vino Farms (and many others) started to question a trellising system that was a huge part of how many locals grew their grapes. It is like when you are faced with certain unpleasant confrontational truths in your life, and you say to yourself, “Do I up-heave my whole existence for a chance at a better life or do I keep the status quo and not rock the boat?” We can only try to realize our own truths, not knowing if others will find it beneficial or helpful, and be satisfied simply with the fact that we are being true to our own selves.

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One of the many lakeside views on the Ironstone Vineyards property

The sentiment of being true to oneself was most evident when John Kautz, Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards and owner of Ironstone Vineyards, was leading our tour of his magnificent property of Ironstone.  At one point, a few people, who were seemingly repeat visitors and had seen Kautz on multiple occasions while enjoying tastings and the beautiful lakes and scenery, approached him and asked if he was with a group of friends that day. He told them he was leading a tour. They were surprised and asked him if he worked at Ironstone Vineyards, to which he humbly said that he owned the place and was walking with a bunch of wine bloggers. I could hear them squeal with joy, “We never knew you were the owner!” It made me smile, because he seemed like he just loved seeing people enjoy the place and he would happily talk to them as just another wine lover, never bringing much attention to the fact that he actually was the owner.

It made me think – Mr. Kautz has figured out the truth of who he was a long time ago. He was someone who wanted to create things and places that brought joy to people and he was happy enough to sit back and watch people have the time of their lives.


Vertical Tasting of Ironestone Vineyards Wines on August 14th, 2016

Reserve Rous Old Vine Zinfandel

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Their Zinfandel grapes come from the 10 acre (4 hectares), 105 year old Rous Vineyard, owned and managed by Craig Rous. His vineyard is found in the heart of the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The tasting showed me that Lodi Zinfandel was not as ripe or lush as Paso Robles and tended to have more structure, which is not better or worse, just noticeably different. It is mind-boggling that the current vintage is only USD$35. Wow! That is what happens when perception does not fit reality, and in this case, this wine is highly undervalued.

-2010: Rich blackberry fruit, violets, spice, dried herbs, lots of flesh on the palate yet still fresh and bright

-2012: Chocolate covered cherries mixed with earthy and savory notes

-2013: Bright notes of plums and strawberries with a more noticeable acidity

-2014: Dried herbs with blueberry pie and firmer tannins than the other wines

Reserve Cabernet Franc

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They wanted to show us how they could not only grow Cabernet Franc, but how their version ages as well.

Their Cabernet Franc vineyard is 2400 ft. (732 meters) above sea level.  The grapes are estate-grown at their Hay Station Ranch vineyard, in the Sierra Foothills, with warm days and cool evenings. Soil is granite mixed with volcanic sediment and red clay. Grapes have been grown in the Sierra Foothills for 150 years.

Steve Millier, Director of Winemaking, said that Cabernet Franc was always the last grape to be picked, even after Cabernet Sauvignon. He said, “Cabernet Franc wants to be out there watching everyone get done first, and when they’re all done it may decide to come in. No matter what kind of season you had it is always a battle right at the very end.”

-2000: Tomato leaf, blackcurrant with pretty floral notes; nice energy to this wine, a refined and elegant finish

-2005: Wet forest floor, lilacs and fresh raspberry with a linear shape

-2008: Riper flavors of raspberry jam and richer body

-2010: A lot more tannins than previously tasted vintages with dark cherry notes, seems like this has a long way to go

-2013: A full body with sweet red fruit and cocoa powder laced throughout

Again, price is always a factor, and it is unbelievable that they sell the current 2013 vintage for only USD$28


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Our evening concluded with an incredible meal by OuterAisleRestaurant.com, prepared by Chef Jimmy Sadegi, using local produce and pairing it with various Ironstone wines. I do have to note one interesting wine made with a grape called Symphony, which is a Californian crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, developed in 1948 (but not commercially released until 1982) by the late Harold Olmo, professor of viticulture at the University of California, Davis. Symphony is a white grape that is actually harvested later than many of the reds to get the aromatics just right.

2014 Obsession Symphony: Moderately perfumed nose with juicy peach flavors and for only USD$12 it is a uniquely fun white wine to have any day during the week







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Wine Lessons from China

Outside of Forbidden City

Entrance to the Forbidden City

Recently, my partner in crime and I traveled to Beijing, China for holiday (or as we say in the US, ‘for vacation’). You may have seen a couple of the over 500 pictures I placed on the internet. We are always looking to expand our minds and hearts with different experiences. And the biggest wine lesson that I walked away with is, in the quest to gain as much information and taste as much wine as possible, that I should always make time for those long conversations… not only with people in the wine business, but also locals. I was able to have some in-depth conversations with both trade and non-trade and I walked away having a deeper respect and understanding of the Chinese market.


It seems generalizations are a necessary evil. I cannot out right blame someone for making generalizations since I have used them myself. Whether it is a style of wine or wine consumers from a certain area of the world, it seems to be the most assured way to get people to walk away with any bit of information, as a long and thorough explanation always ends up being too much information to digest. But it becomes dangerous when we use quick sound bites that are more for the purpose of making ourselves look clever instead of passing on valuable information. I always have to remind myself to qualify a statement when talking about a particular market. Most of my experiences are seen through the lens of the New York City market; my trips to other places are relatively brief, and so it is always a good reminder that it is impossible to completely know another place unless one has lived there for several years.


China makes no bones about it not having the same long wine drinking culture as European countries. As an American, I appreciate many of the missteps a country can make when it is a neophyte to wine, as we were primarily a whiskey and beer drinking country not that long ago. But saying generalizations such as a “whole country does not have taste”, “can only appreciate brands” or “does not have the potential to become a well-respected wine making country” is simply unfair to make as dogma.


I think it is absurd to say any area of the world, let alone a large, vast and diverse country such as China, does not have taste. I have had the privilege of talking to people from various backgrounds in China, some in the wine business and some not, some who have lived and traveled the world and some who have never been beyond China’s borders. Whether I was tasting wine or tea, or eating food, there was always a discussion of the various subtle nuances of what we were drinking and eating, even to the point where my own senses were elevated. We are all limited by our own environment and need to expand our horizons.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

There has been a movement within the wine trade in Asia to use descriptors that correlate to the common flavors that a particular Asian country finds to be in the staple diet of their people. Young Chinese people in the wine trade seem to be well traveled, well educated and able to know the needs of their local markets better than foreigners who sometimes try to force their own terminology and culture onto a people, who not only have a rich culture of their own, but who may help to revolutionize the future of the wine world.




Does any country have the right to criticize another country for being attracted to brands?

Wine brands are important everywhere. The wine consuming public does not have the time to get a PhD in wine so they are dependent on those things they trust – it may be a salesperson at a store, a recommendation from a friend or most often a trusted brand. Names like Kendal Jackson and Gallo are trusted names within the American market. The majority of wine sales in the UK are through the large supermarket chains that mainly carry large brands since they require volume and consistency. French wine brand JP Chenet saw a significant increase in sales when they placed an image of their famously shaped bottle on their bag-in-box in Sweden.

And yes, there are the much covered, highly expensive fine wines that have been bought by Chinese consumers. But in the fine wine world, and I used to work for one of the top fine wine retailers in Manhattan, there is a market segment in many international cities around the world that are willing to pay large amounts of money for an assurance of “saving face”. I have met Americans who bought wines for large amounts of money because they did not want to embarrass themselves around wealthy friends and/or colleagues.

I understand, as being a middle class person myself, the frustration of certain wines that were once affordable are now price prohibitive – with the fortunate exception of being able to taste them for free as a wine writer. But to blame price increases on one country seems unfair. Some of my colleagues who work in the well-established London market say the need for fine wine “brands” to help one give the impression of being cultured is prevalent there as well.

China as a Wine Making Country

I cannot speak too much to this idea and it seems even the Chinese themselves are not 100% sure of the potential of China. Because the wine consumption in China has drastically increased in such a short amount of time practices such as using bulk wine from Australia, France and Chile to help blend with Chinese wine has created a perception that China is incapable of making quality wines.

But this is an issue for any up and coming wine making country. California was not always seen as a premium wine making area and through time, with a little luck that helped to bring investment and international acclaim to the state, it has become a world class wine making region. Before that time there was a prejudice of the area as being a place with a bunch of hicks who knew nothing about wine and were toiling simply to make subpar juice.

During one of my nights out with some very wine knowledgeable locals in the biz, I had the opportunity to taste a wine blind. I guess I should have guessed it was from China, but since these particular people I was having dinner with seemed to like European wines, I went a different route with my guessing. The wine was rich and ripe with various layers of earthy notes that suggested an Old World country that had a warm climate. The tannins were evident yet well integrated and so I thought it was a high quality Portuguese, non-fortified, red table wine that had moderate alcohol, beautiful fruit and contrasting textural qualities.

Did I overthink it? Yeah, I think so. Should I have just looked at the situation and said it was a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon? Yep, you are right again.

2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet SauvignonIt was a 2012 Zhen Ge Cabernet Sauvignon, and the first time I had a Chinese wine that was within the low to mid premium price range (188 RMB equivalent USD$28) as I had only experience with entry level and fine wine (Grace Vineyard). It was made with grapes that 100% came from China in the Ningxia province which has a continental climate ranging 80F (27C) to an annual average minimum of 7F (−14C). Cooler climate than I would have guessed.

But was it an unusually warm vintage? Who knows their Ningxia vintages?

Some at the table said they did not care for the green character in the wine. I have to admit I personally got very little green character, and the small hint I did get I very much enjoyed and thought it helped balanced a strong fruit character in the wine. But that is one of the greatest things about wine – we all have our own personal tastes.

Local Chinese wine experts do debate whether Ningxia is the best province for the government to place its hopes. Other provinces could be more promising such as the southwest province of Yunnan. But what Ningxia shows us is that quality wine can be made in China and perhaps, with further experimentation with other varieties and techniques in the vineyards and wineries, it could become a top region. Also, China is just starting to place a focus on making quality wine and so it is only the beginning

The Ultimate Lesson

I think the ultimate lesson is that while we may have our generalizations, we have to also, at the same time, admit our limited knowledge and experience of areas outside of our residences. There are many things, even to its own highly educated wine experts, that are unknown about China. Maybe that is what scares us; we do not know what is going to happen.

The Exit to the Forbidden City

Exit to the Forbidden City

Fear is everywhere these days as globalization starts to change the daily lives of many people around the world. There are those who want to fight it. Blame it for all our problems. Try to hold on to the past because we are afraid that there will be a power shift that will not be in our favor.

The world is changing. No one can stop that and either we move together with grace, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses each of us possess, or we fight tooth and nail with a bitter heart and a closed mind as the world changes around us.


I am happy to move with grace together.





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Assyrtiko: The RoboCop of Grape Varieties

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 3Greek Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis said with complete confidence:Assyrtiko for me is like a RoboCop – it is a very powerful variety.” This was one of the many interesting, as well as entertaining, talks given by Karakasis at a Greek wine dinner in New York City to showcase the wines of Domaine Porto Carras. Why call Assyrtiko RoboCop? It has high alcohol and high acidity which is not common. Assyrtiko has high alcohol for a white wine, averaging around 13.5-14% abv, and yet one can always count on it for crisp acidity even when it reaches full ripeness.

And what is RoboCop? A US movie from the 1980s (remade in 2014) that showed a good hearted police officer turned into a crime-eradicating cyborg. RoboCop had the super strength to be the protector that everyone needed – and Assyrtiko has the full body and refreshing finish to be the white wine of choice for various wine lovers.

Yiannis Karakasis MW (Master of Wine)

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 2I rarely go out to wine dinners. I make exceptions, here and there, for either an opportunity to taste wines I normally don’t get a chance to taste, such as Viognier from Cahors, or more often than not, it is at the request of someone who I find to be a very kind, good person.  Of course, I do, sometimes, have to turn down those who are kind and good also, since the major reason I do not go to dinners is so I can spend time with my husband. And so if I have been away on a work trip recently, I even have to say no to those people who I value as wonderful human beings. But the timing worked out this time.

There were two people I had familiarity with who were involved in this wine dinner, Yiannis Karakasis and Keith Edwards. Keith Edwards is part of a group called #winelover-s, of which I am a major part of as well, and a great guy that has a brilliant, well researched wine blog. And the other is Karakasis, who was in the Master of Wine program at the same time as me. As many of you know I am no longer in the program – I was happy I did it, and do not regret it, but I’m very happy to get back to my life and those that I love. So I was more than happy to see both of these special human beings. Since the wine dinner was led by Karakasis, I’m going to focus on him.

Karakasis was on the fast track to becoming an MW. He is an extremely disciplined individual who undoubtedly worked extremely hard for many years to achieve the title. But I have to say that even though he was on the fast track, he always had time to share a smile, a laugh and words of encouragement with anyone who crossed his path.

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Malcolm S. Forbes

I have met many people who wanted to be my friend because they liked me as a person; others had no interest, blowing me off instead to hang out with others until they hear I have gained any sort of success… then those same people come after me aggressively, trying to, all of a sudden, befriend me. I’m sure all of us have experienced this and it is something that you just need to grapple with in regards to living life. Yiannis Karakasis was always the type of guy to talk to anyone who was nice. It was evident when I met him he had a strong sense of character.

Karakasis graduated from the Hellenic Navy Academy as an Ensign and thereafter served on various warships, having flown 2,000 flying hours as a pilot, instructor and test-pilot with AB-212 navy helicopters, retiring as a Commander in 2011. So maybe his character has to do with the discipline he gained so early in life; or maybe he has always had a strong character.


It was not only very symbolic to compare Assyrtiko to RoboCop, not only because of the combination of high alcohol and high acidity, but it was also symbolic for someone like Yiannis Karakasis to use the term because to me he is RoboCop. Under extreme circumstances (the MW program is a long and extremely stressful program) he was able to greet everyone with down to earth warmth. In the movie, RoboCop’s character is tested, and ultimately he places his life on the line to do the right thing. His strength of character is never broken.

Domaine Porto Carras

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 1The theme of strength of character, of being a RoboCop, was carried throughout the evening as we tasted the wines of Domaine Porto Carras. Yiannis Carras aka John C. Carras, founder of Domaine Porto Carras, had a grand vision for the winery. He built it to the highest standard in the 1970s and hired the father of modern winemaking, Professor Émile Peynaud, to elevate their wines to the highest standards.

In 1999, the Stengou family bought the winery as well as the entire property including two hotels, a marina and vineyards. Yliana Stengou now manages the winery. She has a background in civil engineering and has taken the esteemed WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) classes. She proved to her father through hard work and strength of character that she could not only survive in a man’s world but she could thrive – and ultimately he knew she was the right person to run this iconic Greek winery. Today Domaine Porto Carras is the largest unified vineyard in Greece and one of the largest organic vineyards, 356 hectares (880 acres), in Europe and the Balkans.

The Legacy We Leave

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the outside layers of things that we forget that a great legacy is not necessarily made from titles, money or accomplishments (even though people should certainly be proud of hard earned rewards). A great legacy is how we treated those around us even during our toughest times. Strength of character is not something one achieves and then doesn’t need to ever worry about again. Strength of character needs to be worked on everyday – it is a practice – it is a discipline – it is a way of life. RoboCop was not a hero solely due to him being part robot and having abilities beyond other humans; he was a hero because even though he typically was the one with the power, he never lost the best side of being human.


Tasting of Domaine Porto Carras Wines at Molyvos Restaurant on May 19th, 2016

-2015 Melissanthi: A blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri and Roditis. Delicate flavors with citrus and a touch of mint. Refreshing and nice as an aperitif.

-2015 Malagouzia: 100% Malagouzia. This ancient white Greek grape variety was virtually extinct until Domaine Porto Carras brought it back. Tropical fruit flavors with accents of dried flowers and a full body.

-2015 Assyrtiko: 100% Assyrtiko. Skin contact, lees aging and time in neutral French oak for six months. At first I thought I was not going to like this version of Assyrtiko, with seasoned oak influence instead of typical stainless steel. But I have to say this was my favorite wine of the night. Even though I like the fresh versions from Santorini, I really thought this richer style of Assyrtiko, which comes from the Meliton Slopes, was complemented by the oak. I never thought such a young Assyrtiko could be so complex with nuts, honeysuckle, peach cobbler and a textural intricacy that really made this a world class wine.

-2015 Chateau White: Blend of majority Assyrtiko and Malagouzia, with nine months in oak. A big wine with lots of fruit, body and spicy notes. It would be interesting to see this evolve with time.

-2012 Magnus Baccata: Blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Black currant liqueur with pepper and tobacco leaf giving it depth of flavor. It had intensity on the palate with bright acidity and firm tannins.

Domaine Porto Carras Pic 5-2006 Chateau Red: Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Limnio and Merlot. A rousing, smoky nose that reminded me of cigar box and grilled figs. Silky tannins that melt in the wine created a smooth finish. Certainly one of the best Greek red wines I have had and it showed the great potential for reds in this area.

-2013 Limnio Ruby Heart: 100% Limnio. A Greek red grape variety indigenous to the Greek island of Lemnos. Some wine historians believe it was the grape variety, Lemnia, that was described by Aristotle. A pretty nose with brambly berries, vanilla and new leather. It had very light tannins with a gentle finish that left notes of cinnamon in my head.


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Wild Ferments: Believing That A Wine Can Be So Much More

Artesa Pic 1It is not always necessary to meet the winemaker and/or owner of a winery to get a sense of what they are trying to do with their wines. But it does allow the opportunity to learn something about that person that one could never have the chance to learn by only reading up on them and tasting their wines. At a lunch almost a month ago, I learned something right off the bat when I met Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery in Napa Valley – she has passion. You can see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice, and feel the energy that pulsates from her very being. Before I learned anything about her or her philosophy, I knew this to be true of her.


It is obvious when someone is driven by passion. For some, the need to fulfill one’s passion is so great it’s worth the risk of personal humiliation. Maybe that is, in part, what makes a person an artist. Artists take great personal risks because there is something greater then themselves driving them.

I admit that I enjoy watching America’s Got Talent (AGT). It is a guilty pleasure of mine. I love all the crazy acts and the various talents people want to show. But what I am waiting for – as I think all of us are waiting for – is that one person who has so much passion he or she is able to light up the stage and take us out of our own lives and transport us to another world, a better world.

A couple of nights ago, that is just what 12 year old Grace VanderWaal did. She sang a song that she wrote, only her on the stage with a little guitar, and she wowed everyone in the audience. Yes, she was talented, yes, she had a nice voice, yes, she was charming with such sweet humility, but most importantly, she was passionate. Passionate about being really seen and heard for the first time – as she said, most of her friends didn’t even know she sang – and this was a chance for her to finally share with the outside world who she is.

Artesa Pic 2Ana DiogoDraper

Originally from Lisbon, Portugal, Ana Diogo-Draper found herself in California in 2005 with a winery internship at Rutherford Hill Winery. She was pleasantly surprised how open California was at that time to potential female winemakers and she was able to find female mentors to give her advice. A few years ago, she found her way to Artesa, a boutique winery founded by the Spanish winemaking family Codorníu Raventós, in the Carneros area of Napa Valley, and she was promoted to Director of Winemaking in 2015.


One may say that Diogo-Draper has already achieved the ultimate success by becoming the Director of Winemaking at Artesa, but she still is striving to make better, more interesting wines. Whether it is skin contact Chardonnay, Pinot Noir fermenting in 500 liter Puncheon barrels or using an igloo in the middle of their Barrel Room, she is always pushing the envelope. But the experiment that got my attention was wild ferments – mainly because her eyes lit up when she talked about it. I could see this was something that truly excited her – this is what she was most passionate about, right here and now.

“Terroir to me is a wild ferment.” –Ana DiogoDraper

It is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker talk about wild ferments; and it is not the first time that I have heard a winemaker relating wild ferments to terroir. But it is interesting that a winery that has been using cultivated (inoculated) yeasts for around 30 years has decided, after all that time, to start experimenting with wild yeasts for some of their wines. Since Artesa is already successful, with one of the largest wine clubs in Napa (around 6500 people), one would wonder why they would try to alter an already working formula.

Diogo-Draper said that part of Artesa’s success is that they are constantly experimenting with different varieties and wines to such a point that they can have anywhere from 28 different wines offered at one time. Even though we will only see a couple of their wines out on the market, they do offer many of these wines for direct sale at their winery.

Despite the fact that they are currently making interesting wines from Tempranillo and Albariño grape varieties, paying tribute to their Spanish heritage, Diogo-Draper thought it was time that they started experimenting more with how they make their wines. She also wanted their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to show more of a sense of place.

Cultivated (Inoculated) Yeasts vs Wild (Indigenous) Yeasts

Here’s a quick, and I mean quick, overview of yeasts and why this is such a hot topic for some wine lovers. The yeasts that naturally live in the vineyards and in the winery are called wild (indigenous); the ones a producer can buy from a lab are called cultivated (inoculated). Now it would make sense that the ones living around the producer are the ones that are going to show the most sense of place – “terroir”. Right? That may not always be the case.

When a producer buys cultured yeasts, they know what they are getting – how well they will perform (important when wanting to avoid stuck ferments), and what esters will be created by the yeasts in relationship to the variety (which determine smell/flavor characteristics). Some yeasts (wild, not cultured) can create disgusting aromas that can be associated with manure; others can create more pleasing savory aromas associated with meaty notes. Bacon anyone? Yes please!

So a wine’s terroir could be overshadowed by these “faults” created by the wild yeasts – but maybe one could argue that those “faults” are part of the terroir. Well, we could go back and forth all day; there were people at that lunch who brought up this topic and Diogo-Draper nodded her head knowingly because, obviously, someone who has been working at modern wineries since 2005 already knows all the potential problems.

When Passion Drives You

She explained that when you have a winery that has been using cultured yeasts for a long time some of those cultured yeasts become part of the environment, just like how Diogo-Draper herself has become part of the Napa Valley wine industry. She did not grow up there but it doesn’t mean she is not just as important a part as someone who did.

So now the “indigenous” yeasts are probably a combination of long existing cultivated and wild. They are planning to have UC Davis come in to take samples to see exactly which yeasts are living in their winery but even though she is interested in the results, it seems she already sees the proof in the pudding.

Artesa Pic 3Her tasting trials with her team not only proved that the Pinot Noir significantly benefited from the wild yeast ferments, but the Chardonnay, which she had initial doubts about, became so much more wonderfully aromatic that she said she it completely convinced her to use indigenous yeasts with that variety as well. Her eyes lit up with excitement and joy as she talked about smelling and tasting these wild yeast ferment trials for the first time. She had never tasted such complexity and vibrancy in these wines and she knew that wild ferments were the only way to express their true potential.

I could not stop thinking about the passion in Ana Diogo-Draper’s eyes and voice when she talked about wild ferments. Hearing her speak about her personal experience with wild ferments, as well as tasting the wines, made me question my own belief about only using cultured yeasts as a means to make high quality wine. In some cases it does pay to take the risk.

And then I think back to that little 12 year old girl, Grace VanderWaal, on America’s Got Talent and the risk that she took. She was extremely fearful and overwhelmed but she had to take the chance of truly being heard, truly being known for the first time. She started out by singing, “I don’t know my name” and finished with “I now know my name”.

It was like tasting the Artesa wines. The 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines were very nice, some having a small portion of the wine going through wild ferment, but the 2015 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir 100% wild ferment barrel samples, which were only components to a future wine, were singing. And singing with pristine, beautiful notes like that young lady did on that stage.

Many wild ferments can go wrong, but what happens if it is the one thing that will unlock the great potential of a wine, and without trying, a winemaker would never know. It is better to have failed a hundred times, never giving up trying to know who we are and what we have to offer, so we may finally know our name – like the revelation that young Grace was able to sing to the world.


Wines Tasted at Winemaker Lunch with Ana DiogoDraper on May 19th, 2016

-2015 Artesa Carneros Albariño:

This wine had lovely aromatics and high acidity with peach and lime notes.

95% tank and 5% barrel. No MLF. Cold temperature ferment.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

Good flesh on the body of this wine balanced with fresh acidity. Honeysuckle and juicy white nectarine makes this wine simply delicious.

A blend of different sites and clones. All barrel fermented in 100% French oak with 50% being new oak. She believes in component winemaking for these wines. She picks different vineyard blocks separately and she will use different winemaking techniques on various blocks depending on each fruit expression.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Chardonnay:

A very elegant wine with linear shape; incredibly floral nose of orange blossoms with an intense minerality note at the finish.

They harvest this vineyard at four different times, and fermented them differently. Some were wild ferments, some were pressed in basket press. She felt the plots within this single vineyard were very different from each other. And only three of the plots made it into this final blend.

-2014 Artesa Estate Reserve Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block92:

A spicy wine with cinnamon and cardamom aromatics and a touch of tarragon that has lots of black cherry on the palate. Body is soft yet texturally interesting.

25% wild ferment. In 2015, 100% of their Estate Reserve and their Single Vineyard Block 91D will be wild ferment and in 2016 all of their Single Vineyards and Estate Reserves will be 100% wild ferment. Another interesting point with the Pinot Noir is that she is fermenting some of the wine in 500 liter Puncheon barrels for 4 days. She seasons the oak first so it adds a textural element instead of flavor. She does not do all her Pinot Noir in Puncheon, some are fermented in stainless steel, because she thinks it is better done to some of the wines that will be components and not to all the wines that are going into the same blend.

-2014 Artesa Single Vineyard Carneros, Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Block 91D:

Much more terroir driven with an intense stony quality and tantalizing scent of wild strawberries. Silky tannins and overall vibrancy to this wine makes it addictively drinkable.

25% wild ferment as well.

-2012 Artesa Single Vineyard Rutherford, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli-Borges Vineyard:                                                                                            

This wine had lots of dusty earth and sweet blueberry and blackberry jam to balance it out. Plenty of structure to give it shape and drive. Even though it had a great, lush generosity about it, the layers of complexity and slight firmness in the tannins played with me and kept me guessing.

10% wild ferment. 86% Cabernet Sauvignon & 14% Petit Verdot. 100% new French oak. This is one of their two single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines they produce. They make several, small lot wines exclusively for their club members and one member favorite is the Morisoli-Borges Cabernet Sauvignon. Mike Morisoli, third generation grape grower, farms his vineyard in the heart of Rutherford. He picks the grapes with his team and delivers them himself. Ana Diogo-Draper always takes him out for lunch the day he delivers the grapes to thank him. He is an engineer by trade yet he has this little vineyard that he crafts with his heart. Also, they get a little bit of Petit Verdot from him that they sometimes blend into this wine and sometimes they don’t – it depends on the quality of the Petit Verdot.

Also, they brought two barrel samples, one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir, that would each be used as a component for other wines. I will not issue a tasting note since they were only components, and unfiltered barrel samples to boot, yet I wanted to speak briefly about the quality of the components since they were 100% wild ferment.

The 2015 Block 92 Chardonnay component and Block 91D Pinot Noir component samples were not only complex and interesting, they were also clean – I would never guess that they were 100% wild ferment. Also, the skin maceration for the Chardonnay seems like a real success. The wines were delicious with their intoxicating aromatics – hope I get a chance to try the finish product.






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Riesling & Limestone: Finding a Way to Connect

There are some things in the wine world we can never talk too much about – alcohol levels, wine scores, and terroir. I always like to quote from The Oxford Companion to Wine when defining the term terroir: “Terroir — much-discussed term for the total natural environment of any viticultural site.” The idea of terroir makes a particular wine unique to a particular place. Sometimes terroir can refer to a tiny vineyard and sometimes it can refer to a large region. The factors that influence terroir can be lumped into two broad categories: Land and Climate. Of course within those two general categories there are many more sub-categories that range from soil (color and soil), sunlight (type of sunlight), macroclimate to microclimate, and so on and so on. But this post will focus on soil.

The color of soil can affect ripening because darker colors absorb more heat and then radiate it back to the grapes. And while we are talking about color let’s talk about the color “wavelength” of light itself – even that has been shown recently by Geisenheim University to have an influence on the development of the grapes during the growing season.

Why do we want to connect aromas and flavors in wine to a specific place?

We want to be connected to a place when we are spending a significant amount of money on wine. That is one of the top reasons to spend more for wine (even though, probably, the number one reason is an assurance of higher quality). But we are looking for something special, something that will transport us to another world. And it doesn’t always have to be another world, sometimes we need to reconnect to our sense of place locally – rediscover the magic of the place we inhabit.

If we just wanted to get intoxicated, not that there is anything wrong with that, then we could simply buy the cheapest alcohol we could get – translating into cheap spirits.

Yet wine, and artisanal spirits even, have become more significant to the American population. People want stories; they want to taste and smell the vineyards in their glass, to feel connected.


 We are living in interesting times. Some fear, rightly so, that people are connecting less because they are distracting themselves with social media. I’m sure many of you know, just as I do, that when you give yourself ways to not confront issues in relationships it creates distance so that, through time, people who were once close start to feel like strangers.

Okay, so that’s the bad.

The good is that social media gives people a chance to be themselves without feeling like they are directly weird-ing anyone out; yes sometimes social media can be weird, but you know what I mean…. You can talk about your feelings, politics, hobbies or deeply personal stories and not feel like you are the person who mentioned something highly inappropriate at a dinner party. No surprise, I have been that person. But you can place it on your Facebook page and people can decide if they want to see it, if they want to engage with it and/or if they want to continue to have you on their feed.

It is not like talking to someone face to face and saying, “I like to dress up as a Jedi once in a while.” The other person gets an intense look of panic in their eyes and they wonder for a brief moment, “Either this person is crazy or the most awesome person on earth.” And so we tend to skip all of the fun and sometimes deeply relevant information about ourselves when we talk to people in person.

But just like social media is an indirect connection, so is wine from a specific place an indirect connection to that place. It gives us a chance to connect to either a land far away or nearby without us having to risk rejection.

How Riesling & Limestone help me to connect

Riesling Pic 1Almost a month ago, I was invited to a seminar about Riesling grown in limestone soils, led by John Winthrop Haeger. Haeger is a sinologist (a specialist in Chinese language, literature and civilization), an historian and an academic administrator who has written about the science of wine. His specialties are Riesling and Pinot Noir, and he currently has a book out called Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry which is an in-depth look at this variety that is adored by wine geeks but still relatively unknown amongst many wine drinkers.

Many times in the past I have gotten excited at the notion that I would learn something about a certain type of soil that would help me to feel a stronger connection to the idea of terroir. I’m afraid to say that often times I have been disappointed because really no correlations would be made between aromas and flavors in the grapes and to what was in the dirt.

I can happily say that was not the case this time.

Limestone Soil

Limestone is a sedimentary soil that is high in calcium carbonate.

If you have ever been to France, you have probably seen limestone even if you have never been to a vineyard – many of the old buildings are made from it. Limestone can be so solid and hard that it can be used for building material, it can also be not as solid, sometimes it is ground up (as lime) or added into concrete materials, and finally it can play only a small part in another soil, such as a dominant clay soil.

Limestone soil is alkaline – which basically means it is low in acidity and has a high pH. pH imbalances can affect which nutrients are taken up by the vine in different concentrations, potentially leading to some unwanted conditions such as chlorosis (caused by various mineral deficiencies). But recent research has been linking limestone to a distinctive aroma in Riesling.


TDN is a shortened name of the chemical 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene, which is that petrol/kerosene flavor one sometimes smells in Riesling wines. Some of us love it, some hate it, and some are fine with it as long as it doesn’t dominate the wine. Well, what is so cool is that they are starting to see a trend between more acidic soils (which have lower pH) and the development of the TDN compound. Haeger said that classic Riesling from the Mosel is predominantly grown in slate soils that are high in acid, hence why many of us associate that kerosene note with classic Riesling.

And so limestone, which is a low acid soil, should produce Riesling grapes that are less likely to have that TDN, petrol note. I have a high tolerance for that aroma and so most of the time I find it pleasant. Alternatively, Riesling is a pretty variety and so it is nice to have versions that express the beauty of the fruit.

As a side note, they are also finding that richer soils with higher nitrogen concentration are less likely to produce TDN, as a lack of nitrogen possibly encourages its production. And so if the limestone soil is drastically lacking in nitrogen, it could end up producing TDN anyway. Of course this can be rectified over time through working the soil but that takes a very dedicated producer.

This piece of information, Riesling + Limestone = Less TDN is exciting to me. Not because I love or hate TDN but it is connecting something in the soil to something in the glass. They have a long way to go to prove exactly why they are seeing this, but it seems like this is a very new way to look at the old concept of terroir.


Riesling Pic 3During the seminar, we tasted though 16 Rieslings, in sets of 4, to showcase vineyards that had limestone, to some degree, in the soil (with a fun Ravines sparkling Riesling from a predominantly limestone vineyard to get us warmed up so to speak). But the producer that really screams out with intense, extreme limestone sites is Battenfeld-Spanier. Carolin Spanier and Hans Oliver Spanier are the co-owners, husband and wife team of Battenfeld-Spanier winery. Their wines made my heart speed up with pure giddy joy.

The wines were from Rheinhessen, Germany, in an area that has been known for extreme rocky limestone vineyards that were abandoned due to the expense of working such land – as many of us know there is not much money in growing wine grapes, especially quality wine grapes. Hans Oliver Spanier, winemaker as well as co-owner, made it his mission to find every plot of limestone, rocky soil in this area and rework the land by moving rocks, top soil and planting vines in a way that would make world class wines. The story is impressive and the wines (listed below with the other tasting notes) expressed such a pristine fruit and high acidity that gave these wines lots of life and a high concentration of flavor that was delivered in a linear, provocative way.

Limestone: Acidity & Flavor

Not to get too much into the science, but it was also discussed briefly that research at the University of Bordeaux linked soils rich in calcium, such as limestone, with maintaining acidity in grapes late into the growing season. This may not only point to giving the wines more acidity overall, but the opportunity to allow the grapes to hang longer, potentially developing more complexity and flavor concentration in the grapes without sacrificing acidity.

And one more piece of info (I promise this is it!) water stress turns out to increase terpenes, which are compounds that are the building blocks in grapes that help to create aromas and flavors. Limestone typically has great drainage so is conducive to water stress in dry areas.  BUT…. and this is a big but…  flavor enhancers such as norisoprenoids (another class of compounds) are less available in water stressed areas and so that could lessen aromas and flavors.

So what does this tell us?

No two sites are the same because there are so many factors. But we can say that Riesling grown in predominant limestone, for instance, can have a tendency toward particular traits.

Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry 

Riesling Pic 2I have just started to read, or I should say skip around, John Winthrop Haeger’s new book. Even though he focuses on dry Riesling across the Northern Hemisphere, it is an incredible book that goes into a comprehensive examination of this variety which I think can be appreciated by those who love dry and sweet Rieslings. I will report on it in more depth when I have time to read the whole book… but I already see it as a top reference book for Riesling.

The Need to Connect

The need to connect has always fascinated me. I guess because it was something that did not come easily to me in my formative years. Sometimes, I think many of our major world problems come from feeling disconnected to our fellow humans. That is why generalizations can be unintentionally divisive statements that pin people against each other. Great Riesling doesn’t only come from slate, it comes from limestone too, and they can both be great and yet different – one not taking away any glory from the other. But it not only takes time to learn about the true details behind generalizations, it also takes the discipline that we are not going to jump to completely one side or the other.

Some may feel that the idea that limestone soils can make spectacular Riesling wines will be a threat to those historically great sites in slate vineyards; conversely others will feel it will help all Riesling growing regions as a whole. But the issue is not so black and white… just like the explanations of how limestone soils can affect Riesling are not so black and white.

John Winthrop Haeger said at the beginning of the seminar, “… most of these soil stereotypes…have very little basis in science but quite a lot of basis in history and habit.”

And history and habit always need to be challenged if we are going to make the world a smaller place while increasing the diversity of our connections.

In the end my hope is that learning more information will increase opportunities for Riesling growers around the world, give even more pleasure to Riesling lovers and that all of us can connect in the pure joy which is Riesling.


Tasting Notes: Riesling from Limestone Seminar on April 27th, 2016

Riesling Pic 4

Sparkling Riesling poured before start of seminar:

-2013 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard: Flinty, smoky minerality with peach flavors and light body. I decided to taste it an hour later – while it was flat, it was still really lovely and so says a lot about the quality of the fruit.

2013 was a very cold vintage so they decided to make a sparkling Riesling wine from this predominately limestone vineyard Argetsinger for the first time.

We had the rest of the 16 wines in the seminar in sets of 4.


-2013 Weingut Von Winning, [Deidesheimer] Kalkofen GG, Pfalz, Germany: Bright acidity but not too fierce with juicy peach flavors and a relatively rich body for Riesling.

Deidesheim Pfalz is right above the Alsace border.

The Kalkofen vineyard or “chalk kiln” was an area that was mined for lime to be used as building material.

-2012 Domaine Pfister, Alsace Grand Cru Engelberg, Alsace, France: More stony and spicy quality than fruit with a bit of lemon zest on the finish.

Alsace in 2012 had flowering problems, millerandage (mixture of small and big berries in the same bunch) and rot. Bad vintage for botrytis sweet wines and just sweet wines in general.

They are picking on average 30 days sooner than they did 30 years ago in Alsace, and so some decisions in the vineyard have changed, such as when to harvest, but also they are choosing later ripening clones as to avoid high alcohol levels.

-2010 Domaine Pfister, Alsace Grand Cru Engelberg, Alsace, France: More flesh on the palate, especially compared to 2012, yet still had that small white stone intensity of aromas on the nose. Also, fierce acidity which was nice with the fleshy body.

Many of you may remember that 2010 brought extremely high levels of acidity and some winemakers panicked and inoculated the wines to assure MLF (which defeats the whole purpose of using an aromatic grape like Riesling) and in the worse cases deacidified the wines. But producers such as Domaine Pfister, who did not mess with the acidity, were eventually rewarded once the acidity started to settle into the wine and turn into energetic beauties such as the above.

-2012 Domaine Mittnacht- Frères, Alsace Grand Cru Rosacker, Alsace, France: A little bit more weight in the mid palate with extract, and intensely aromatic floral notes.

Rosacker is a great vineyard in the “sweet spot” of Alsace that comes entirely from the famous Clos St. Hune (right next to the biodynamic parcel near Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune which is a walled piece within the Rosacker vineyard. This is a less extreme site compared to Engelberg (a much more steep site).


 -2014 Weingut Huber, Traisental “Terrassen”, Austria: Restrained and linear with minerality dominating.

There is not much limestone in Austria except Traisental vineyard (only 2 producers known to make good Riesling in limestone and Weingut Huber is one).

-2010 Weingut Huber, Traisental Berg Erste Lag, Austria: A great example of a 2010 that was singing and really found a nice balance with that laser acidity. The marked acidity helps to lift the pristine stone and citrus fruit along the long finish.

-2014 Weingut A. Christmann, [KONIGSBACH] Idig GG, Pfalz, Germany: More ripe apricot flavors than peach and lots of weight. A delicious wine that could hold up to richer dishes.

Idig is almost a monopole and it is a vineyard that has consistently stayed in one piece for centuries, which is rare considering the German Wine Law of 1971 reassigned various vineyards to be linked to other vineyards. Idig was lucky enough to have survived being chopped up and redistributed.

Idig is a good example of a high clay, high water retention site with very fine particulate matter and a relatively gentle slope.

-2010 Weingut A. Christmann, [KONIGSBACH] Idig GG, Pfalz, Germany: This had more fruit than the 2014, or perhaps it was more generous because it has had some time in bottle. Lively acidity balanced the richness of the fruit and it had a long, flavorful finish.


 -2012 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard, Finger Lakes, New York, USA: Apricot pie with crisp acidity and creamy body due to long lees aging. They decided to make the lees aging longer due to the intensity of the fruit.

2012 was one of the ripest years that the producers had experienced in the Finger Lakes. I had previously tasted several other Finger Lakes wines from 2012 and they are decadently ripe.

The Argetsinger vineyard is glacier carved, near the east side of Seneca Lake in the town of Hector. It is predominately limestone, which is atypical for the Finger Lakes, and usually produces generous fruit even in cooler vintages. Half of Ravines’ vineyards are limestone dominant; they also use grapes from Geneva, which is part of the Niagara limestone escarpment that extends from the US side of Niagara Falls to the Canadian side in Ontario. And a neat fact is that Niagara Falls actually fall on limestone….yes, those rocks are limestone!

Also, Ravines is atypical in the Finger Lakes as they like to produce Riesling wines on the dry side which is partly due to the generous fruit they get from their limestone sites (half of the vineyards where they source their fruit is limestone dominant) but also lees aging helps to balance the marked acidity which is prevalent in the region.

The owners of Ravines Wine Cellars, Morten & Lisa Hallgren, were present at the seminar to give us a presentation.

-2008 Ravines Wine Cellars, Finger Lakes AVA, Argetsinger Vineyard, Finger Lakes, New York, USA: Intensively aromatic with tension on the palate.

2008 was a much more difficult vintage than 2012 in the Finger Lakes, where constant temperature swings between excessively cold and heat created a lot of work in the vineyards. But what is interesting is that even though they usually have problems with drought stress, they did not have that issue in 2008.

-2014 Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier, [Nieder-Flörsheimer] Frauenberg GG, Pfalz, Germany: Dried flowers, lemon confit and off the charts minerality with a tight body that was very exciting and a stunning, long length.

I spoke about this producer and their sites in the post above these tasting notes. The wines express the extreme nature of the sites.

Both of these vineyards from Battenfeld-Spanier are on the same geological formation, with the Frauenberg being on the north east corner and the Herrgott being on the south west corner.

-2014 Weingut Battenfeld-Spanier, Zellerweg am Schwarzen Herrgott GG, Pfalz, Germany: This wine is more generous and open than the Frauenberg, which is not better or worse but just different. An explosion of stone fruit flavors at first that then coil up into an intense expression of stoniness. This wine tingles on the palate with surprisingly brambly red fruit flavors on the finish. How is that possible?! I have no idea. These wines elevate one’s heart rate. If you can find them buy them!


Two of the same vineyards from different producers and vintages.

 -2013 Weingut Dreissigacker, [Westhofener] Kirchspiel GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: Nectarine jumps out and hugs you on first taste with zingy sustained finish.

Kirchspiel is lower on the slope and typically friendlier in its youth than Morstein.

-2013 Weingut Dreissigacker, [Westhofener] Morstein GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: There are so many layers hiding you can feel it but not quite decipher it this early in its life. Marked acidity that made my mouth water and it made me want to go back and retaste several times – a tease of a wine that plays with you but I have a feeling it will be a knock out in time. Bone dry.

-2014 Weingut Wittmann, [Westhofener] Kirchspiel GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: And this is what makes wine so interesting because this Kirchspiel was more reserved from this producer (and also note another vintage) with notes of thyme and white flowers with citrus undertones all the while with chalky notes dominating.

 -2014 Weingut Wittmann, [Westhofener] Morstein GG, Rheinhessen, Germany: This Morstein was generous with lots of flavors of honeysuckle and peach with racy acidity.







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Deconstructing the Terroir (Sense of Place) of Rias Baixas, Spain with a Memorable Couple

Albarino Pic of CoupleI have to admit I often drink wine without thinking of what I am pairing it with. I am not super sensitive to wine affecting food or food affecting wine. I have a great respect for a person who has such a gift but that is not one of my superpowers. I often just drink what I want to drink, but I have to say sometimes I do feel wine and food pairings illustrate a point.  In this case, that Rias Baixas has very different sub-zones and hence make very different white wines.


Albarino Food and WineIt was a lunch/seminar that would be led by a dynamic wife/husband team, Chef Katie Button and Wine Director Felix Meana. They are co-founders of Heirloom Hospitality, including Cúrate bar de tapas and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina. Button is already a rising star Chef and her husband, Meana, was a great guide for our vinous journey, immersing us into Rias Baixas, Spain, as well as Albariño by explaining how he shows their restaurant guests the differences in terroir by matching certain tapas to specific sub-zones.

Spain is known as a red wine country. And for great reason! Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat are just some of the world class red wine making regions in Spain. At one time many US wine drinkers wouldn’t even consider drinking a white from Spain. But that has started to change with the introduction of Albariño from Rias Baixas, which is located in the northwestern Galicia region in Spain. Galicia is vastly different from the rest of Spain, with higher rainfall, giving a greener look hence why it is referred to as Green Spain.

Rias Baixas

For those of you who have discovered Albariño white wines you may have already heard about the area of Rias Baixas. If you are hearing about it for the first time, don’t worry, you are probably in the majority. I must admit that I just thought of Rias Baixas as one place and thought all of the differences in style had to do with winemaking only. Yes, what a producer does in the winery makes a difference but there are sub-zones within this area which influence the grapes differently, and hence may help to inform the various winemaking choices a producer may make.

One of the most distinctive features of the soils from Rias Baixas is that they are granite dominant. Granite soils have great drainage, which is necessary for the higher rainfall in Rias Baixas, but also have low fertility which helps to keep yields low, helping to grow grapes with more concentration for higher quality wines.

The granite is such a huge part of Rias Baixas that the Albariño vines are trained on a wire trellis anchored by granite posts. Some of these wires are raised as much as seven feet high, allowing breezes to flow between the vines helping to prevent disease. Some vineyards are replacing this traditional “parra” canopy system with a double cordon system that will help to continue to restrict yields and encourage aeration but will be more manageable for vineyard workers.


In my previous studies, Albariño is one of the grapes that mystified me. It can be so different that sometimes I would get it in a blind tasting and sometimes I would not. Even though Albariño is a white grape variety capable of higher alcohol, the fact that it is grown in the cooler area of Rias Baixas keeps it between 12-12.5% abv – which nowadays that would be considered a lower alcohol wine. And so it is a wine that I have lumped into the moderate alcohol, semi-aromatic (this term drives some people I know up the wall) wine category with high acidity and an exotic spicy note. What is interesting, though, is that sometimes Albariño can be intensely aromatic and sometimes it can lack any aromas or flavors, such as one would find in Vinho Verde wines in Portugal (it makes up the blend under its Portuguese name Alvarinho).

Some people have thought I was mad because I would mix up Grüner Veltliner from Austria with Albariño from Rias Baixas. Okay, that is not the only reason for people to think I am mad, but in my defense, one time, I was blind tasting with a Sommelier originally from Spain and he said that he mixed up Grüner Veltliner and Albariño all the time. They are both moderate alcohol and Grüner has that white pepper note that we both confused with that exotic spice note sometimes present in Albariño.

But I digress, as usual, and so lets talk about Albariño. It sounds like a delicious white wine right? Well, like everything else they are not all created equal and this is where we get into sub-zones.


There are 5 wine sub-zones of Rias Baixas: Ribeira do Ulla, Val do Salnés, Soutomaior, Condado do Tea and O Rosal. I will only focus on Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea and O Rosal since these are the areas we focused on and tasted.

Albarino Oyster, Asparagus & Pulled PorkVal do Salnés

Val do Salnés is a sub-zone known for being the birthplace for Albariño and it the area where most Albariño is grown. It is in purple in the map below. It is also the coolest and wettest, averaging around 55F (13C). Felix Meana drew our attention to the seaweed and salinity qualities of these wines, which paired perfectly with an Blue Point oyster (another wine writer next to me was allergic to oysters and she was kind enough to give me hers.. so I had two!) and one can imagine other shellfish and certain fin fish pairing well too. Also, when thinking about having Albariño as an aperitif, the Salnés is the way to go.

Albarino MapCondado do Tea

Condado do Tea is more inland, as you can see it in orange in the map on the right, and more southerly located, by the border of Portugal. It is warmer than Val do Salnés with an average temperature around 59C (15C) and can rise as high as 104F (40C). The wines have richer, more ripe fruit flavors and paired very nicely with white asparagus (that were preserved in a can and shipped from Spain) in “light as air” mayonnaise enhanced with tarragon and lemon vinaigrette. Also, these wines were fantastic with braised pork in an apricot Albariño sauce (a wink to Button and Meana’s current home in North Carolina).

O Rosal

O Rosal sits in the southerly area of Rias Baixas as well, but is near the Atlantic so their weather is warmer than Val do Salnés but cooler than Condado Tea, so the wines are relatively moderate in body with that touch of a saline quality. In is illustrated in yellow in the map above. The O Rosal wines could easily have been paired with the oyster, as well as the heavier dishes such as the pulled pork, so if you want to have only one bottle of wine throughout a meal, O Rosal may be the best choice. Also, they have a distinctive peach note almost like biting into a peach so ripe that it drizzles down your chin. The peach note may also come from the fact that other local varieties such as Loureira, Godello, Treixadura and/or Caíño Blanco are typically added.

Does Specific Geographic Labeling benefit the wine drinker?

It seems lately that many regions around the world have taken to getting a lot more specific with their geographic labeling. Some are against this because they are afraid it will confuse wine drinkers even more in a world that is already too fractionated… but I tend to be on the other side of the fence. At the end of the day, you will still be able to present the wines as only Albariño, or a white wine from Spain, or heck one time I heard a Sommelier sell it as “Spain’s Sauvignon Blanc” and he sold cases of it. Yes, I know, it does not have the herbaceous quality, generally, that Sauvignon has but it is all about serving the customer and speaking in terms that connect to them.

But for those who want to know more, who are able to invest their time looking up information on the internet, or at least walk away from a restaurant knowing that one region goes more with seafood and one goes more with pulled pork (I need to really stop thinking about pulled pork!!!) then at least there are informed people to give them that information. And in this information age we are living in it really can’t hurt.

So yes, it does benefit the wine drinker if they are interested in taking the time to benefit from it. And if not, then nothing lost.

Chef Kati Button & Wine Director Felix Meana

I have to say that I was really impressed by Button and Meana… not just because they knew a lot, or they were obviously talented (if you look them up on the internet you will see they have impressive resumes) but I was most impressed because they represented why some of the best get into the food and wine business: to serve the customer. They had graciousness and enthusiasm that was infectious and you knew they were most alive when they were serving people.

Briefly they told us about a cookbook that would be coming out in October… they barely touched on it because they were there to make the Rias Baixas wines the stars of the show. After the formal tasting, we were served many of the dishes that would be in the book and they were undoubtedly delicious… but if their cookbook is able to transmit the feeling they give you when you are in their presence, then it will also undoubtedly be a memorable cookbook and I thank them for making the sense of place in the distinct areas in Rias Baixas, Spain memorable as well.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou


Tasting of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas on 18th of April:

In the formal seminar tasting:

-2014 Fillaboa from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño. Tropical fruit and spice on the finish. SRP: $20

-2014 La Val from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño. Ripe apple and creamy texture. SRP: $17

-2013 Baladiña from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. White flowers with citrus with ample body most probably due to extended lees aging. SRP: $14.95

2014 Santiago Roma from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. This is a great value wine with plenty of fruit and hint of oyster shell on the finish. SRP: $10.99

-2014 Terras Gauda O Rosal from sub-zone O Rosal: 70% Albariño, 15% Caíño Blanco and 15% Loureira. This is a well known winery for Albariño lovers. They were on the forefront of discovering different clones and using indigenous yeasts. Incredible nose of orange blossom and honeysuckle with, yes, a touch of minerality and opulent body. A wine that holds nothing back, but you never doubt its class. SRP: $23.99

-2014 Viñabade from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. A lighter wine that has bright flavors of apples dipped in honey. SRP: $15

-2015 Robaliño from sub-zone Condado do Tea: 100% Albariño.  Intense herbaceous notes with white peach. Almost makes you think it is Sauvignon Blanc but Meana said it reminded him of Rueda’s Verdejo, which can have a likeness to Sauvignon and sometimes Sauvignon is used as a blending partner. SRP: $18

After the formal seminar in the walk around tasting and snacking:

-2014 Albariño de Fefiñanes from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. Main note of minerality, sea salt, lemon peel and yes, I got the touch of seaweed. SRP: $17.99

-2015 Santiago Ruiz from sub-zone O Rosal: 76% Albariño, 10% Loureira, 6% Godello, 4% Treixadura and 4% Caíño Blanco. Very cool wine with rockin’ label (yes, that does add to my experience) pear and perfume note with good tension and light body. SRP: $20

-2014 Condes de Albarei from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. More fruit forward pear than other Val do Salnés with a citrus finish. SRP: $15

 -2014 Martín Códax from sub-zone Val do Salnés: 100% Albariño. This has the spicy, exotic notes that I often look for with mouthwatering acidity. SRP: $16.99

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Piedmont, Italy: Not all the Wines are Well Known Superstars

Sometimes I have a plan to write about a particular wine subject that has been weighing on my mind, but sometimes I am led in a direction that I was not planning. This was the case with me wanting to write about Piedmont after attending Vinitaly (Vinitaly is an international wine competition and exposition that is held annually in April in the Italian city of Verona). Originally, I had thought I would seek out a lesser known region to write about…. perhaps varieties that most wine nerds haven’t experienced…  I did not think I would have such a need to talk about the well known Piedmont (called Piemonte in Italy) which includes some of the biggest wine superstars such as Barolo and Barbaresco.

Women Who Love Wine & Yoga

The first day of Vinitaly I was invited to go to a seminar led by Michaela Morris, who is one of only three Italian Wine Experts in the world. We had become acquainted through a mutual friend, Cathy Huyghe, on Twitter. Cathy is a yogi, like Michaela and myself, and she expresses that yogic view by examining the world of wine in her book Hungry for Wine.

Alto PiemonteNorthern Piedmont Nebbiolo (Alto Piemonte)

The seminar was co-led by Michaela and “whiz kid” winemaker, Cristiano Garella, who is from the northern Piedmont area. The northern Piedmont Nebbiolo wines were certainly different animals than those found in the more southern Piedmont areas of Barolo and Barbaresco. Some of the areas may be familiar to wine drinkers in their market, such as Gattinara DOCG and Ghemme DOCG.

During the seminar I noticed firmer tannins and more black fruit in the Gattinara wine than the Ghemme – the Ghemme being lighter and having a distinctive mineral note. But there were other areas that honestly I have never heard of until that seminar: Boca DOC, Bramaterra DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC, Fara DOC, Lessona DOC, Sizzano DOC and Valli Ossolane DOC.

Did that long list of a bunch of different “cru” sites in Italian confuse you enough? Well, like anything, it is always overwhelming when you hear a list of names that are completely unfamiliar so I picked three wines, that I re-tasted after the seminars, that I recommend at the end of this post.

Generally, as compared with their southern cousins, northern Piedmont Nebbiolo wines are lighter, more aromatic, have softer tannins, and sometimes they are blended with local varieties. They are typically a few degrees lower in alcohol – when they are picking at a potential alcohol of 15% abv in Barolo, the north will be picking at around 11.5% abv. The acidity seemed more evident giving the wines great tension and energy that hinted towards the ability to age.

Of course, generalizations do not scratch the surface of the specifics of these “cru” sites and I hope to do that at a later time. For now, they are worth seeking out, and I have found many of them in the New York and California areas on www.wine-searcher.com

RoeroRoero in Piedmont

Later that day I got an email from a colleague in New York City, who knew I was at Vinitaly, and she asked if I had wanted to meet the President of the Roero Consorzio. Well, I simply thought it was fate – if there is such a thing. Another special area in Piedmont that I always wanted to delve deeper into… my first introduction was over five years ago when I worked in distribution. My company had just added the wines of Bruno Giacosa to their portfolio and so we had a whole afternoon of tasting their Barolo and Barbaresco wines. The wine that blew everyone away was their Roero Arneis. It was the first time I had tasted Arneis – it was generous yet elegant.

Roero Arneis DOCG

I was excited to try another Arneis (white grape) and to learn more about the Roero Consorzio (an association of wine producers that represent a specific wine growing area).  And so I had my meeting with the gracious Francesco Monchiero, who had become the President since the start of the Consorzio in 2013.

He explained that Roero was a special place within itself but had always been lumped in with the rest of the Langhe area with better known names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, etc. It was important for them to form their own Consorzio to help educate and promote the terroir of Roero with Arneis being their shining star as it had been given the high quality classification of DOC in 1989 and the highest qualification of DOCG in 2005.

Sand + Heat = Great Arneis

Monchiero talked about how the dominance of sand in Roero soils and exposure to heat helped to produce a more aromatic Arneis wine with classic white flower and white peach aromas while still retaining a mineral quality. He also noted that it was interesting because we typically associate cooler weather with greater aromatics. As I tasted his wines, listed below, with a selection of his Arneis, I realized how sensitive it was to terroir – expressing different qualities from a site that had significant amounts of clay and sand compared to one that had mostly sand in the soil. Also, I was treated to Roero Arneis wines with age, being given one that was from 2001, to show the positive evolution of these wines.

Reputation of Arneis

My first experience with Arneis was with a high end example. But it was an eye opener to learn that there were many Arneis on the Italian market that were made in a mass production way – producing bland wines. And so, those who have had those wines may think Arneis is not a high quality grape. My perspective, even before my meeting with Monchiero, was that it was high quality but I just had problems finding more Roero Arneis.

This reminds me of how I met someone from another market recently who thought is was rare to have Lambrusco slightly sparkling (frizzante), and I found that odd because I have only known Lambrusco to be slightly sparkling. It was a great lesson that we all live within our own bubble of our individual market. I would have never thought to try a non-sparkling Lambrusco and now I’m seeking one out.

Roero Consorzio

This brings me back to the importance of Roero having their own Consorzio, bringing attention to the group of winemakers who are living in Roero and devoting themselves to the expression of that place and especially to the striving for excellence with the Arneis grape variety. Monchiero even tasted me on his Barbera D’Alba DOC which was made from grapes completely coming from Roero. It was intensely aromatic with floral notes and spice. What is funny is that he said a wine made in the Langhe, with is clay dominant, can use the same Barbera D’Alba DOC but it will be completely different, again demonstrating the need to bring focus to Roero as a distinct place on its own.

I had spent a week before Vinitaly learning from the great Ian D’Agata at the Vinitaly International Academy who is the author of the award winning book Native Wine Grapes of Italy. It was an incredible learning experience that I am still continuing. But the main epiphany that I had during that course is that we have a lot more diversity surrounding us than we realize. Many lovers of wine are afraid that the wine world is becoming too homogeneous with a broad brush of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon painting the globe. But the diversity is still there… different terroirs that show the myriad styles of Italian varieties that exist, such as Nebbiolo, and those lesser known superstar varieties that have been neglected but are still there and in some cases, thankfully, local producers are placing their time and energy in bringing them back.

At the time of the writing of D’Agata’s book, he noted that there were 461 official Italian grape varieties registered. According to him, because of misidentification, and weaknesses in past identification of varieties, there are probably around 1000.

The problem is not lack of diversity, or local superstars; the problem seems to be that we are focusing so much on what we don’t have, we are missing out on the plenitude of diversity that still exists.

*I look forward to learning more about Roero at a seminar they are conducting in New York City in a couple of weeks.


A few of the northern Piedmont (Alto Piemonte) wines I re-tasted on the 10th of April:

-2011 Le Pianelle, Bramaterra DOC, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont, Italy: Nebbiolo with Vespolina and Croatina added to the blend. Bramaterra is also noted as being the 2nd placed in Italy to bottle wine with Marsala being the 1st place. This wine was very elegant with whimsical notes of purple flowers and intense minerality on the nose yet it gave great flesh on the palate.

-2011 Castaldi Francesca, Fara DOC, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont Italy: Nebbiolo with only a small amount of Vespolina and Croatina. This appellation only has three producers and so it is not prevalent on the market, even though I did find this producer in one wine store in New York City. Lots of generous red fruit with a savory dried herb quality and a saline finish. Love experiencing a salty quality with a red wine.

-2011 Casa Vinicola Garrone, Valli Ossolane DOC Nebbiolo Superiore – Prünent, Alto Piemonte, Northern Piedmont, Italy: 100% Prünent, a Nebbiolo synonym used in this area since 1309. Firm structure with notes of tobacco leaf and vanilla.

Tasting of Monchiero Carbone Roero Wines on the 11th of April:

-2015 Recit Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Coming from a soil mix of clay and sand. More ‘traditional’ nose of white peach and white flower with crisp finish.

-2015 Cecu d’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Coming from a soil with majority sand. Strong minerality with tropical fruits and creamy texture. Fascinating wine because you would expect more lean fruit and linear palate with a sense of minerality but this wine shows that you can have lots of ripeness with strong sense of place.

-2009 Cecu d’la Biunda Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Same wine as above but with 6 more years of age. An ethereal smoky aroma with juicy peach flavors.

-2013 MonBirone Barbera d’Alba DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% from Roero, so a Barbera from soil that is dominant sand. Very aromatic Barbera with purple flowers and spice on the nose with black cherry flavor.

-2013 Roero Arneis Srü DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Dominant sand soil. Lovely aromatics like the other Arneis but more energy and shape with bright pristine fruit notes.

-2012 Printi Riserva Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Soil is a mixture of clay and sand. Richer wine and noticeable extraction giving textural complexity.

-2001 Printi Riserva Roero Arneis DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: Same wine as above but with 11 more years of age on it. Luscious body with dried thyme notes and Asian spices and stewed apricots with lively acidity that finish with fresh, concentrated notes of lemon confit.

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Should a wine producer focus on only a couple varieties? Or many varieties?


Maggiovini wine lunch at the charming restaurant Ristorante Rafele in the West Village, New York City

One of the countless decisions wine producers need to make is the number of different varieties they want to either grow and/or buy from other growers. Some producers may only produce wine from a couple different varieties, such as in Burgundy producing wines from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. And others will have up to 25 different varieties (that is not including different clones, such as the Sicilian wine producer, Maggiovini, as I experienced a month ago during a lunch in New York City.

Why only focus on a couple?

As one can imagine, only focusing on one or two varieties would be a chance to specialize in only a couple styles of wines, and may ensure greater consistency of quality. Some producers are limited in their choice of varieties if they want to be able to use the local appellation, such as Chianti or the above mentioned Burgundy on their label. These restrictions are typical in Old World winemaking countries.

Also, it could be a chance to easily sell out one’s wine if they are taking advance of a trend. I remember visiting New York’s Finger Lakes (finger lakes blog link) last year and hearing many of the smaller producers say that they could easily make only rosé wine and they would have no problem selling all of it to tourists and the New York City market. Dry rosés have become immensely popular in New York City over the past five years. This popularity peaks during the summer, but there is such a high demand that in the past couple years there have been “rosé shortages”.

Why have many varieties?

I know many producers who would not agree with the notion that fewer varieties grown and/or bought guarantee consistent quality. Dealing with more varieties makes it more complicated and creates a lot of challenges, but if the producer is up for the challenge then certainly good quality can be achieved on a regular basis. South Africa is a great example of a country that grows many different types of varieties. This is due to the great diversity of their soil and microclimates, and so, many producers will not only make various different varietal wines but they will make blends made from several varieties.

Some regions in the world are limited to the varieties they can plant due to having extreme climatic conditions, such as Germany using their native cold-tolerant Riesling.
But some climates are more manageable, such as a warm climate like Sicily. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and because of its size, unique history and diversity it could be considered a separate country from Italy. It was once known as a region that produced mainly bulk wine, but since the 1980s they have made major improvements in their vineyards and winemaking practices. For example, Mt. Etna, the active volcano that is in the north-east corner of Sicily, has become one of the most exciting wine places for serious wine enthusiasts. Another exciting area is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria in the south-east area of Sicily, the only area that has been given a DOCG, which is where Maggiovini is located.

Maggiovini Cabernet SauvignonBecause of their warm climate moderated by the water and by their investment into the vineyards and winery, Maggiovini is able to produce rich wines that have an underlying quality of elegance, which is evident in their Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG. French varieties as well as native ones do well in this area, and so Maggiovini grows 28 different varieties, including international and native varieties. I was surprised that I was such a big fan of their Cabernet Sauvignon. They are even experimenting with ancient varieties by trying to identify them and test if they are capable of making quality wine.

Their favorable climatic conditions make it possible for them to grow a range of varieties, and it is a smart business choice to help hedge their bets by making sure to not heavily invest into any single variety. I asked the New York’s Finger Lakes wine producers why they didn’t just make mainly rosé wines if they had such a huge demand from New York City. Their answer was simple: if the trend for rosé wine died then they could go out of business; diversifying their varieties helped to secure their survival.

Diversity of Cultivation is a Way of Life

Maggiovini also grows vegetables, cereals, almond trees, olive trees and carob trees, as well as their many different grapevines that are cultivated organically. And so the reasons behind the choices of how many varieties a producer should place their focus on not only have to do with the climatic, soil and/or regulation issues, it is also a choice of lifestyle. Some feel that focusing on one or two is the best for the achievement of excellence, and some feel that the excellence comes from the fact that one is able to achieve harmony among so much diversity.


Maggiovini Wines Tasted on February 11th, 2016

-2015 Maggiovini, Villa Maggio Pinot Grigio IGP Terre Siciliane:
100% organic Pinot Grigio. A richer, fruitier style than those found in the northeastern part of Italy. Juicy peach flavors with a pretty pristine finish.

-2014 Maggiovini, Rasula Cattarato IGP Terre Siciliane:
100% organic Catarratto. A nice example of how Catarratto is capable of making interesting whites under the right circumstances. White floral notes with lemon peel and bitter almond finish. A hint of salinity lingers on the palate. I’m also a fan of the texture of this wine as some skin contact gives it an interesting palate.

Maggiovini Cerasuolo-2013 Maggiovini, Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG:
50% organic Frappato and 50% organic Nero d’Avola. This was hands down my favorite wine. Cerasuolo di Vittoria is an area that is known for elegant wines, which was evident in this one. Frappato and Nero d’Avola make perfect partners, creating a wine that has an exhilarating nose with fine tannins and wild plum flavors. A very exciting wine!



-2013 Maggiovini, Villa Maggio Pinot Nero IGP Terre Siciliane:
100% organic Pinot Nero. Lots of structure, with a rich body and dominance of black fruit.

-2013 Maggiovini, Pettineo Nero d’Avola DOP Sicilia:
100% organic Nero d’Avola. A spicy nose with decadent flavors of chocolate and plum pie balanced with earthy notes. A robust wine that has good harmony and balance.

-2013 Maggiovini, Villa Maggio Cabernet Sauvignon IGP Terre Siciliane:
100% organic Cabernet Sauvignon. A nice fresh quality gives lift to this well structured, yet soft textured wine. It is a big Cab with loads of ripe black currant fruit but conveys a sense of overall powerful elegance. Even though the Cerasuolo di Vittoria was my favorite, I must say I was impressed by this Cabernet Sauvignon and it really shows the quality potential for Vittoria.

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The Vineyard Whisperer

ColomeDonald Hess has a great knack for picking vineyards and making wines that are able to express unique qualities of a particular region. When he was at the helm of the Hess Family Estates, he was able to bring together a collection of wineries that all showed an intrinsic aspect of a certain terroir. This was evident when I tasted two of their wines from the Salta Province of Argentina, Colomé (one of the oldest wineries in Argentina), and Amalaya, with Colomé winemaker, Thibaut Delmotte, a few weeks ago.

Hess has the ability to see a piece of property’s potential as a future high quality producing vineyard, even though it may be considered an uninhabitable place by others. Some of the properties that he has planted in Salta were said to be too dry and/or too high in altitude to produce high quality grapes.

The Importance of Water

Water plays a great role in growing healthy grapes. Wet, humid climates, such as Virginia in the US and Bordeaux in France, can have excessive water. Too much water and humidity may cause diluted grapes, too much energy into the leaves, too little energy into the grapes, development of a shallow root systems and vine disease.

Alternatively, lack of water can cause extreme stress for the vines, which can incidentally cause photosynthesis to shut down. Photosynthesis is the process by which the vines convert light into energy, and so, it is easy to see how this could be a problem.

The first property that Hess bought in Salta is called Finca Amalaya, and Amalaya later became the name of their second label. Amalaya, in Spanish, expresses the hope that a certain event will occur, even though many times that event seems like an impossible feat. Many locals thought it was madness for Hess to buy this property for the purpose of planting a vineyard, since there was no known source of water. But the story goes that he took off his ring and waved it in the air to sense the water in the ground, and to everyone’s shock, he found water. And not just any water, but what they call “sweet” water – it does not have high levels of salinity, which is important when using it in the vineyards.

Since Hess mainly made his fortune from building the largest mineral water producer in Switzerland, Valser Water Company, it is said that he has a strong feeling for finding pristine water. Call it a talent, call it a gift, but it is something that can not so easily be taught.

Altura MaxThe World’s Highest Estate

Donald Hess goes even further with his pioneering spirit of spearheading plantings in vineyards at high altitudes. Colomé has just released a wine which has the label of being the “World’s Highest Estate”, called Altura Maxima. The wine is made from Malbec planted in a vineyard that sits at an elevation of 10,207 feet (3,111 meters). Interestingly, Colomé tried many other varieties before settling on Malbec, even though one would think that they would settle on Malbec by default, but they wanted to see how other varieties would fair. They tried Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Pinot Noir, yet due to frost issues in spring and early fall they needed a variety that had a short cycle and that had bud break later.

In the end, Malbec was the winner, but not without a struggle. They planted the Malbec vines in 2007 and it seemed to be an unending battle with the previously mentioned frost, as well as the donkeys, hares, bees, wasps and birds. After building a fence and using nets on the vines, they were able to produce an extraordinarily high quality Malbec with a breathtaking nose (see tasting note below).

As the altitude increases, so does sunlight. The skins of grapes thicken to protect themselves and so it gives more tannin to the wine. But not just any tannin, it creates a higher proportion of polymeric tannin. I know what you are saying, “What the heck does that mean?!” Basically, it is softer tannins that give more elegance, rather than harsh structure to a wine. And as I mentioned before, the aromatics are off the chart. Malbec is a grape that is capable of expressing beautiful layers of fragrant deliciousness, however, it is, many times, grown in a way where it never gets to live up to its potential.

In the Altura Maxima vineyard, the increased sunlight intensifies those intoxicating aromas, while the cooler temperature retains acidity keeping freshness in the grapes; Colomé’s high altitude vineyards have up to a 25 degree difference in temperature between day and night.

Wine: Science & Art

Many of us have heard that making wine is both a science and an art. Typically, the art is considered the artistry of the winemaker in the winery. I agree that is part of it, but it is not the only aspect to the art. There is a feeling for the land that sometimes goes beyond what common logic dictates. Sometimes this is shown in family vineyards that have been owned for decades, where the vines are like the owners’ children. In this case, the owner knows his vines so well that no specialist or expert could ever advise them better than their own experience with their “children”.

And then we have the visionaries. Those special human beings who can see the potential of a piece of land that no one else can see. Sometimes they are limited by resources, or by the lack of leadership skills that is needed for such an enterprise, but once in a while, a person will embody all of the traits needed to transcend the impossible into possible.

Donald Hess is that man. A man who appreciates art, apparent by his support of contemporary artists; a man who is not afraid to carve out a new path; a man who has the resources to make dreams a reality; a man who is able to show the world of wine that there are no boundaries; a vineyard whisperer.

Hess retired from day to day management of Hess Family Estates in 2011, but he remains an important part of the vision of the company. The Colomé and Amalaya wines are not only bewitching wines because of their appealing nose and palate, but they are a symbol of the deep rooted potential in all of us, that, tragically, most don’t get to realize, but a few do. Sometimes, something crosses our path, such as the Altura Maxima, that inspires us to take chances, because even though we could fail, we may ultimately create something grander than we could have imagined.


Wines tasted on February 4th, 2016

-2015 Amalaya White Blend (85% Torrontés & 15% Riesling):
A refreshing wine with pretty flavors of lemon confit, honeysuckle and exotic spice. It was a happy accident that they found a grower with Riesling in his vineyards, and even though it was not part of their original plan to blend Riesling, it has certainly worked out as a delightful partner for Torrontés. They grow their white varieties in the Pergola Trellising system (it is like a bunch of attached gazebos made of leaves) to help keep them from getting sunburned. Colomé has two different wineries, one for their Amalaya selection, which focuses on blends and making wines at a higher quantity, and Colomé, which focuses on single varietal wines that are made at significantly lower quantities. Suggested Retail Price: $12

-2015 Colomé Torrontés:
Ripe, juicy white peach with a touch of perfume. Thibaut Delmotte, Colomé Winemaker, said that they pick these grapes later since Torrontés has a tendency to have a short, bitter finish if it is not ripe; I have to say that this was the first Torrontés I have had that did not disappoint on the palate. Suggested Retail Price: $15

-2014 Amalaya Malbec (85% Malbec, 10% Syrah & 5% Cabernet Sauvignon – allowed to place ‘Malbec’ on the label if there is a minimum of 85%):
Blackcurrant flavors with notes of pepper and dried herbs. This wine has a nice balance between sweet fruit and savory flavors. Suggested Retail Price: $16

-2013 Colomé Malbec Estate:
Not only did I enjoy the concept of this wine, but it certainly gave a lot of bang for the buck. It is a single variety wine that is multi-altitude. What does that mean? The fruit comes from three vineyards at three different altitudes. 10% comes from La Brava Vineyard, at 5,740 feet (1,750 meters), which gives the wine ripe, generous fruit; 65% is from Colomé Vineyard, at 7,545 feet (2,300 meters), which gives the wine fresher fruit flavors with higher notes of spice and flowers; 25% is from El Arenal Vineyard, at 8,530 feet (2600 meters), which gives structure, elegance and a sense of minerality. It was a wine, especially considering the price that showed multiple dimensions in its texture and flavor profile. Suggested Retail Price: $25

-2014 Colomé Malbec Autentico:
This wine is called “Autentico” because there is no oak aging (100% stainless steel), no filtration and no fining, and so, one gets to taste the fruit without it getting help from the previously mentioned processes. Also, an interesting side note is that all of Colomé’s reds use indigenous yeasts. The grapes for Autentico are picked later, since it is essential to have ripe fruit, skin and seeds when oak cannot be used, so this wine was bursting with flavors of blueberry pie and stewed plums, and it was proof that even though Malbec benefits from oak, it does not necessarily need it. Suggested Retail Price: $25

-2012 Altura Maxima Malbec:
As you can imagine, when everyone saw the $125 price tag compared to all the others, there was a question if this wine would be worth it. It is the “World’s Highest Estate” at 10,207 feet (3,111 meters). Well, this wine’s breathtaking, outstanding quality was the answer to the question of price. I always thought that only moderate to light bodied reds could have the best nose. This wine proved me wrong! It had one of the most exhilarating noses that I have had in a while… and it was big and structured and fresh while swirling exciting violet and granite aromas in my head. This is the first vintage of this wine, and only six barrels made. It you can get it, count yourself lucky. It is a bucket list wine. Suggested Retail Price: $125





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An Israeli Wine made from Palestinian Grapes

Pic IsraelI could certainly be accused of placing a title that is click bait. Actually, I’m not happy with most of my titles. They typically express a question or idea that I am pondering, and not so much what would get a lot of views. I’m trying to find the balance between what titles will actually get people to read my posts while keeping them authentic to the thoughts in my posts.

This title is both authentic and intriguing. The intriguing part is obvious; there are many reasons why it is authentic to this post, but some less obvious. That an Israeli wine is being made from Palestinian grapes was the main reason I was excited to go to a lunch a couple of weeks ago, to meet an Israeli wine producer.

The producer is Recanati, one of the better known (in New York City) Israeli producers. They make a wide range of wines, and even their mid-level wines, such as their Diamond Series Cabernet Sauvignon, have received praise from wine critics. But also, I realize that they may not be as well known in other areas of the world. New York City has the largest population of Jewish people outside of Israel and so, many Jews and non-Jews would have tried Israeli wines at a Passover seder (a festive Jewish holiday dinner involving drinking kosher wine), and since Recanati has made a name for themselves, they have graced many a Passover table.

But I will go into a small rant later in this post, and I promise it will be small, about people only drinking Israeli wines for Jewish holidays.

So I went to a lunch at the trendy, East Village restaurant Kingsley, to meet head winemaker Gil Shatsberg, and owner Lenny Recanati of the Recanati Winery.
They talked us through a tasting of some of their wines (tasting notes after post), as well as talked about their project with a wine grower in Palestine. But they quickly discussed the wine made from Palestinian grapes since many were eager to discuss it. Shatsberg said they set up a date for harvest with the grower in Palestine, they visit to take samples and then transport the grapes to the Recanati winery. I asked him if it was dangerous….

“It is so simple you can’t believe it.” – Gil Shatsberg, head winemaker at Recanati Winery

Shatsberg and Recanati both said that what we see on TV is only a small percentage of what happens in Israel. Many Israeli and Palestinian people want to do business with each other, and this project is a great symbol of making those desires and dreams happen. And so, the Israeli wine from Palestinian grapes was not the story I thought it would be; I thought it was going to be a tale of dodging bullets in the name of making wine, but it ended up to be a different story, a better story. This is a story about good people working with each other regardless of their nationality or the current state of politics.

Perception Compared to Reality

The US news and TV, as well as my beloved internet, can warp our view of a certain place. The extremists are the ones who get the most media coverage. Being an American, and specifically a New Yorker, I sometimes encounter some crazy stereotypes myself simply because of what the international media projects to the world. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when someone basically sums up the type of person you are simply from where you live, it does seem like an impossible prejudice to overcome.

Israeli wineries are unfairly associated with war, when in reality, most countries have been in a war at one time or another, and war is, by its nature, chaotic. I do not know of any country or people who have been able to handle war perfectly. And this story of an Israeli producer and Palestinian grower easily working together in harmony will never go viral, it will never make the news, even though it represents an attitude that many have on both sides.

Not Just Israeli Wine but an International Wine

Lenny Recanati talked about his ancestry in Italy – he said there is even a town called Recanati in Marche, Italy. His family was not the only Jewish Italian family who made wine, as he said that there had been Jews making wine in Italy since the 15th century, but during World World II, the documents of these producers were destroyed. And so, winemaking is in the Jewish DNA. Also, Israel is a very diverse country, many may share the cultural and/or religious commonality of being Jewish, but since they come from various countries that range from Europe to Ethiopia, they have a melting pot in their major city of Tel Aviv that can only be rivaled by New York City.

Pic Wild CarignanThe Recanati Winery represents that diversity with their staff: head winemaker Gil Shatsberg was trained at UC Davis in California, and his co-worker Ido Lewinsohn was trained at the University of Milan. Their diversity extends out to the relationships they have with their growers, of course the grower in Palestine being one great example, another being the old vine Carignan grapes they buy from an Arab Christian – yet another simple story of harmony within Israel that will not make the papers.

Archaeologists have uncovered a 3,700-year-old wine cellar in the Canaanite palace in Israel, which reveals that area has been involved in making wine for many thousands of years.  Israeli producers believe that some indigenous varieties, as well as some Rhône varieties, are ideal for their Mediterranean climate and terroir.

And here’s my brief rant about Israeli wines being seen as wines to only drink for Jewish holidays or events. This is probably one of the biggest pet peeves I have about New York City as a drinking culture. Yes, we have the second largest population of Jews, and hence we have many wines from Israel here, but there is still the issue that they are not seen as quality wines. This could stem from a hard core reality that Israel had a primitive wine industry a few decades ago, and so, many New Yorkers associate Israeli wines with being incapable of excellent quality.

But recently, Israel has seen major investment of money and energy into their wineries. Recanati was started in 2000 by Lenny Recanati, who is not only a passionate wine lover, but a man wanting to reconnect with his forefathers’ love for making wine. Even the famous Rothschild family has invested heavily in Israel’s wine industry.

And what about the kosher issue?

Being kosher and/or kosher for Passover does not affect quality. Even though there have been many discussions whether top Israeli wineries should be kosher or not, some say just the idea of them being kosher hurts the quality perception of their wines, but they want religious Jews to be able to enjoy the best wines that Israeli can offer, especially if it does not affect quality and keep others from enjoying it. It comes down to educating the public that they offer a range of quality and can reach great premium heights. Also, enlightening the world that Israel can work in peace with their neighbors in a mutually beneficial relationship.

A Wine that Represents Hope

The Recanati wine that is made from Palestinian grapes is a white variety called Marwai. The grower’s name is kept anonymous since there could be backlash against the Palestine growing grapes for the purpose of making wine and/or working with Israelis. Marwai is thought to be a variety that has been around for thousands of years. It has survived being completely ripped out and eradicated, during times when winemaking grapes were destroyed, because it is a tasty grape to eat as well.

It is a beautiful representation of those who survive against all odds, and the hope that not only can all of us live in peace with each other, but we can thrive from the diversity of our world.


Recanati Wines Tasted on January 26th, 2016

-2014 Marwai:
We did not get a chance to taste this wine. There are only 2500 bottles made and so it will be allocated to only a few accounts in major cities such as New York City.

-2014 Sauvignon Blanc:
It seems sort of odd to have a sauvignon blanc from Israel, and some may say only the reds are good from such a warm country. But this is a nice example of a fresh, lively aromatic wine that had more fruit notes (tropical fruit with citrus) than herbaceous ones and a hint of black currant leaf gave it a nice lift on the finish. These vineyards are on a higher elevation which moderates the temperature.

-2012 Special Reserve White (60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne):
Okay, now we get into the more serious wines. This wine shocked me for several reasons. Honestly, I did not know that Israel could make a white wine this stunning! It could easily compete with some of the top white Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) wines. Also, many of us who love white CdP have a slight prejudice against Marsanne, always believing Roussanne to be the higher quality variety. But I must say it seems Marsanne, as well as Roussanne, does very well in Israel, and this wine made me actually think about instead of buying Château de Beaucastel Coudoulet Blanc, I would buy this wine. And yes, Beaucastel 100% Roussanne old vines will always be the best in this category, but it is also $130 compared to the suggested $50 retail of this wine. Lots of peachy flesh, lovely complexity of white flowers and roasted cashews. It was incredibly rich in texture yet with a good backbone of acidity and fresh flavors. I just hope this is not the last time I have it.

-2013 Reserve Petite Sirah:
Personally, I am a fan of Petite Sirah and I am always on the lookout for a good one, which is not so easy to find. This wine is great for those who love tannic structure, and the tannins are nicely shaped with no astringency. I think too many producers shy away from producing a 100% Petite Sirah because they are afraid of the tannins, but tannins are not always a bad thing, especially when it is a well made wine. Opaque color, ripe blueberry and spicy notes.

-2012 Reserve Syrah Viognier (97% Syrah and 3% Viognier):
Aromatic red with white pepper, perfumed nose, well-integrated round tannins and fresh black berry fruit that carries through the long finish.

-2013 Reserve Marselan:
Marselan is a cross between cabernet sauvignon and garnacha that was created in the 1960s in Montpellier, southern France, to be a large-berried variety that produced high yields. It turned out to have small berries and produces higher quality at a lower quantity, and so it was forgotten about since it ended up not fulfilling its high yield promise. But a few quality producers, such as Recanati, have decided to use it. Wild brambly flavors with fresh sage and a soft body that caresses the palate.

-2013 Reserve Wild Carignan:
Old, wild vines, the wild referring to them being bush vines producing low yields. Carignan is typically used as a blending grape in the south of France and northeast Spain, but under the right conditions it can make exceptional wines on its own. The tannins were not as strong as I thought they were going to be. Actually, it had a lovely textural component that one does not expect from Carignan. Layers of flavors with boysenberry, clove and rosemary.

-2012 Special Reserve (30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah, 25% Marselan and 15% Carignan):
Also, may I say that the alcohol seemed balanced in all the wines with the whites ranging from 13-13.5% and the reds ranging from 14-14.5%. There was never any type of heat detected and I didn’t even think about the alcohol. The head winemaker, Gil Shatsberg, said how he was against a jammy style and always strives for elegance and restraint in his wines, which he succeeds – and this Special Reserve is a wonderful example of his philosophy. Black cherry with tobacco leaf, exotic spice and a whisper of dark chocolate… and yes, I did use “whisper” in a tasting note – it promises hedonistic pleasure without giving up too much all at once… and so, the wine always gives more with each taste. A big, bold wine that atypically leaves a drinker wanting more…

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