The Power Of An Individual Grape Shining In A Brunello Wine

My trip to the Montalcino area of Tuscany in Italy last October to visit Brunello di Montalcino producers seems like another lifetime ago. The first inklings of the coronavirus were back in December but it seemed nothing more than a mild virus that was on the other side of the world in the city of Wuhan in China. In the world of sensational news it is no longer so easy to tell what could be a potential crisis as opposed to what is just one of the many things that flood our news cycle that has very little importance. Once the national government of China found out about a possible highly-transmittable virus that had seemingly mutated to the point where it could not only transmit from bat to human but it could easily be passed from human to human the government did everything possible to lock down the area. As we know now, the virus had been around longer and hence unknowingly people were transmitting it to each other around the world, many of us not completely understanding it, and it jumped from China to Europe and then it took its wrath out on New York City – my beloved home.

Covid-19

As all of us know, northern Italy, especially Lombardy, and New York City were hit hard by Covid but it could have been a lot worse if we didn’t go into lockdown – a scenario I think, culturally speaking, Italians and New Yorkers could never imagine. Every day decisions during the height of the Covid-19 here in NYC had the weight of equaling life or death while everything that framed our previous bustling lives fell by the wayside. In those quiet moments when I would try to make sure that the darkness of depression did not take its hold when inundated by the long list of people I knew who lost family and colleagues, I would think of those things that brought me glimmers of joy in the past… spending time with Brunello wine producers were one such joyous memory.

The one major positive aspect that has come out of such a tragedy is that it really forced people to examine their lives without being distracted by the constant grind many of us have to constantly abide by. Instead of seeing injustices as a general thing that can never be conquered, we were inundated during the coronavirus crisis with heart wrenching individual stories of the inequalities of our society over and over again that became the main priority of our existence; combine that with not feeling overwhelmed with our own jobs and struggling to survive in a “paused” state, we decided to place our own lives on the line to demand change. And it struck me how powerful a person’s story can be if enough people are in a situation where they can take the time to see it and allow themselves to process it. This idea of focusing on the individuality of something was what made an impression on me at a small Brunello estate called Le Chiuse.

Le Chiuse

One sunny day last October I was walking among historic vineyards that were at the heel of the hill of Montalcino in Tuscany not knowing how quickly my world would change in a matter of months. My group was there to meet family owner and winemaker Lorenzo Magnelli of the Le Chiuse estate who comes from the famous Biondi-Santi lineage. In 1869, Clemente Santi was the first producer on record to have a wine called Brunello and then a few generations later, Tancredi Biondi-Santi would help to establish regulations for Brunello di Montalcino starting in 1966. Tancredi left his vineyards to his son and daughter (Lorenzo Magnelli’s grandmother) but Lorenzo said his grandma was much more interested in living in the city so her brother Franco included her vineyards in the Biondi-Santi Riserva Brunello di Montalcino. At a certain point Lorenzo’s mother, with the help of Lorenzo’s father, Nicolò Magnelli, wanted to make their own wine which took the name Le Chiuse as that property was given that name by the Biondi-Santi family long ago.

There are many incredible aspects about the Le Chiuse wines such as the vineyards having historical importance with the much cherished ‘galestro’ soil, the highly respected Biondi-Santi Sangiovese clone (BBS11) and natural ferments that produce a Brunello that focuses on the expression of place, yet it is their harvest practices that were the most intriguing to me. All of their Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino and Riserva Brunello di Montalcino wines come from their Le Chiuse estate although they do several different harvests, a few days apart from each other, to select bunches of grapes for their varying wines.

Since their Rosso di Montalcino wines need to be fresher and easier to drink earlier, the “bigger” grapes with “lower density of tannins” are the best compared to the smaller grapes with greater concentration and structure which are ideal for the Brunello di Montalcino. All the grapes are harvested by hand by a group of ten to twelve family members who have come to know “each vine by name”. The strict selection of grapes are made in the vineyards so that the grape bunches are taken from the vines to the tank within “20 minutes” to keep the “integrity of the grapes”. The Riserva is only made in those vintages where the wines have the structure and concentration for long aging and, starting with the 2010 Riserva, it is aged for ten years.

Missing Promising Excellence

Although Lorenzo noted that many times it was the older vines that would always yield the grapes destined for Brunello, there were always surprises by a bunch here and bunch there from other vines. It takes a lot more time and investment of energy as it would be easy to only take from those designated vines for the top wine and to always assume that everything else was not up to the high quality but then the wines would always be missing out on their ultimate promise. We find ourselves in New York City and all over the world finally taking action in regards to the idea that not everyone is given the same rights and we are missing out in investing in people who will help bring us to the next level; yes, it will take more time, more energy to find the promise of the people and places typically ignored but besides it being worth it because it is the right thing to do, it will bring us closer to the great ideal dream that was promised to us… as we only reach our promise when we recognize the best of the best in every corner and shade of color in the world.

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Tasting on October 9th, 2019 at Le Chiuse Winery:

2017 Le Chiuse, Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Le Chiuse has been certified organic since 2005. Such pretty fruit with sweet red cherries balanced by a mixture of dried flowers and fresh tarragon.

2014 Le Chiuse, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. An enticingly fragrant wine that displays the pure elegance and breathtaking beauty of Sangiovese with an electric energy that brightened the black cherry and baking spice notes that finished with a smoky minerality and had an overall enchanting finesse, especially considering that 2014 was a challenging vintage.

2015 Le Chiuse, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2015 was warmer with less rain than 2014 and so this was a bigger, more structured wine that had chewy tannins and much more brooding fruit and a freshly tilled earth component that gave it an intriguing complexity on the finish. This is a wine built for some serious long term aging yet it was surprisingly showing pretty floral notes with an underlining mineral note waffing in the background.

2010 Le Chiuse, ‘Diecianni’, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Lorenzo called this a “muscle vintage” and it had so much structure that it could not be released until the beginning of 2020. Extremely complex with tobacco, licorice and forest floor; decadent yet exquisite, savory yet sweet with tannins that were like thick ribbons of silk that held the wine with grace while still having lots of plush fruit with great intensity along the extraordinarily long finish.

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A Community Preserving a Child’s Hope

When I was 16 years old, almost 30 years ago, I remember watching the video of Rodney King, a Black American construction worker, getting brutally beaten by several Los Angeles police officers after he was pulled over in his car. It was extremely disturbing to see Rodney on the ground helpless while those who were sworn to protect the public unleashed a beating that I could never have imaged ever happening; through time I realized that this had happened all the time but this time was the first time it was recorded. So many shocking tragedies have happened between Black people and the police since that time and every time, as a society, we say we are going to do something about it, only to move on to something else. But, finally, the heart-wrenching video showing the death of George Perry Floyd Jr., a Black man who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th of this year, not only inspired protests from all types of people (liberals, moderates and conservatives) in every state around the U.S. but it set off a movement of social justice around the world.

Reports of the incident note that George bought cigarettes at a local store that he frequented using a 20 dollar bill and after he left, the employees of the store thought the bill could have been counterfeit and called the police. The owner of the store, Mike Abumayyaleh, said that most of the time “when patrons give us a counterfeit bill they don’t even know its fake” and so the police are notified that there is no crime being committed, they just want to know where it came from but unfortunately, this situation had a horrific ending.

After a long line of tragic events that have involved the Black community and the police with the final straw of George being murdered for the world to see, the majority of America has demanded change and is willing to do the enormous work and community commitment that it will take. After so many protests about social justice, this one feels very different because there are a lot more people from all walks of life that realize that this is one of the top issues that is holding us back as a society.

Brooks Wine

Ever since I heard it, I have been taken aback by the story of Brooks winery as it is one that really shows what a community can do when they are committed to the younger generation’s future as well as to protecting each other. As so many of us around this country are discussing how we can strengthen our own communities to make sure everyone is protected and empowered to live the life they were meant to, I can’t help but think of this winery as a shining example.

Left to Right: Pascal Brooks, Janie Brooks Heuck and Chris Williams Photo Credit: Brooks Wine

Brooks winery was started by Jimi Brooks in Willamette Valley, Oregon, in 1998 and not only did he have a strong belief in the potential of single vineyard Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley back then but he pioneered single vineyard Riesling wines as well. Tragically, Jimi died of a heart attack in the fall of 2004 leaving behind an eight year old son, Pascal, his sister Janie, his friend and assistant winemaker Chris Williams and a community of producers who couldn’t believe that this pioneer of Oregon Riesling wines was gone. The communal spirit of Willamette Valley made it possible for an outsider like Jimi to even build such a larger than life dream and that spirit continued after his death as his sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, quickly realized. Once she arrived at her brother’s house after hearing the horrible news, she was greeted by many Willamette winemakers who were figuring out how to pick Jimi’s grapes and make his wine because it was his goal to pass on his winery to his son. Moved by the community, Janie decided she would travel back and forth helping to manage the winery which became a permanent position as she is still the managing director today. Jimi’s friend and assistant, Chris Williams, has become a very well-respected winemaker and today makes over 20 different Brooks Riesling wines as well as a long line of fantastic Pinot Noir wines. And Jimi’s son Pascal has graduated from university while juggling working at the winery, traveling to learn more about wine made in other countries and is deeply grateful that so many went out of their way to preserve his ownership of his father’s dream.

Certified B Corporation

Last June I went to a seminar and tasting of Brooks’ wines with Janie Brooks Heuck leading and besides the incredible story of Jimi and his commitment to single vineyard Pinot Noir and Riesling wines being continued and becoming certified biodynamic, I was really impressed that they had become a Certified B Corporation in recent years. Certified B Corporations’ goal is to balance purpose and profit, and businesses that are given B Corp status are “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.” Janie said that she is required to examine things like benefits, transparent sharing of company information, the gap between her highest and lowest paid team member, the length of stay and turnover rate for the team and ongoing education, just to name a few things. “It pushed me to implement new policies and programs” Janie noted such as “evaluating the difference between a living wage and minimum wage and many more.” And recently I found out that Brooks is a member of 1% For The Planet, companies that donate 1% of their profits to organizations fighting for social and environmental justice.

It is pretty remarkable that the hardship that could have been potentially created by the passing of Jimi was conquered by the community; not only is his son thriving because of the Willamette community getting involved but Chris and Janie were able to take their own lives to the next level as it is never too late to live your best life.

Living the Life We Envisioned

Like so many other people around the world, I was completely shaken by the George Floyd tragedy and it cut me to my very soul to watch the video. As that police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he begged for his life, saying he couldn’t breath, calling for his dead mother to help him while teenagers standing by also begged for his life, I could not help but think that I let that man down by not doing enough… I think many of us felt that way.

One of the things that broke my heart was seeing an interview with George’s second grade teacher who had kept an essay he wrote when he was eight years old which she shared. She always kept one major project that the class worked on over her 24 years of teaching at Frederick Douglass Elementary School and the year she had George, who she called by his middle name Perry, the major project was during Black History Month and she asked the kids to write an essay titled “Future Famous Americans” envisioning their future. George drew a picture of himself as a Supreme Court justice and he wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court judge. When people say, ‘Your Honor, he robbed the bank’ I will say, ‘Be seated.’ And if he doesn’t, I will tell the guard to take him out. Then I will beat my hammer on the desk then everyone will be quiet.”

As the journalist asked his teacher, Ms. Sexton, what her reaction was when she found out that her former student died at the hands of law enforcement, she struggled to hold her tears back and to find the words that could no better describe her feelings than “devastating”. Looking back she remembered “Perry” being a long, lanky boy even back then and that he liked singing and dancing and enjoyed his friends. “And he was a good boy. He was a delight to have in the classroom” she said as she tried to smile while fighting tears.

There is no doubt that our system is broken when a child that had so much hope and a desire to be part of justice not only doesn’t get to find a path to his dreams but is killed in such a senseless way and by the law enforcement system that he wanted to be part of. It makes me take a closer look at all those young kids and young adults in my community, especially if they are Black, and although they are precious and beautiful in my eyes that one day they may mistakenly be considered a threat to others. All of us have so much work to do and this is only the beginning as all of us have to build a better society where each kid is given a chance; this younger generation is already impressive with how much they are changing the world and I can’t wait to see where they are going to take us in the future.

That excitement also seemed evident when Janie Brooks Heuck talked about to what level of evolution her nephew Pascal will bring Brooks winery when the time is right. Janie, along with her winemaker, Chris Williams, has already laid down a pretty solid foundation for not only Pascal to fly but to be a great benefit to everyone involved with Brooks winery. It’s a great example for the rest of us in the older generations of how to create a better foundation that gives everyone an equal chance; an equal chance for that eight year old little boy who wanted to make the world a better place.

 

***Cover and first photo are both credited to Brooks Wine

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To Be Only Human

Animals’ simplistic wiring of only needing the basics in life can make them better partners in regards to living in harmony with Mother Nature compared to complexity of humans’ egos that can lead them astray. Human beings can get lost in the fast paced world that is fiercely carved out by a powerful corporate dominance; we end up living just to survive and not surviving to live, or perhaps we unknowingly live to just be a worker bee in someone else’s power hungry vision. Our actions can seem utterly illogical and maddening when it comes to the basic principles of maintaining a holistic synergy among our natural community… but that same lack of reason within our overloaded brains can be profoundly beautiful in all of its flawed judgment.

Bellaria

Right now I am sitting in my little New York City apartment thinking back to my trip to Montalcino, Tuscany, back in October and although it seems like a lifetime ago since everything has changed with COVID-19, I can close my eyes and remember visiting a tiny winery called Azienda Agricola Bellaria. It was one of those special situations that rarely happens when you are visiting a famous wine region such as Montalcino, in terms of realizing that a two-person operation Brunello producer is not just a tiny company that had popped up over the past decade but quickly realizing that this producer, Bellaria, had been an original founder of the great Brunello di Montalcino wines we know today.

Gianni Bernazzi stood in front of his modest home surrounded by Sangiovese vineyards; he owns a little less than nine acres (three and a half hectares) in total that includes various levels of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino designated vineyards as well as a small portion of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well as Trebbiano and Malvasia that make separate IGT and Vin Santo wines respectively. Gianni was accompanied by his assistant that could only speak a limited amount of English, which I am always impressed by such a talent that I lack, and between my colleagues’ Italian wine speaking skills (two wine directors/communicators and another writer from the U.S. and Canada) we were able to communicate.

Heart of the Region

It was not completely clear where we were exactly in Montalcino as it seemed we were off a small road with no key markers and at first it just seemed liked a tiny home with vineyards in the front yard but as we walked through his backyard we found ourselves on a back road that took us to a steep hill where Gianni’s prized vineyards were planted by his grandfather. The soil is extremely important for great Brunello di Montalcino and ‘Galestro’ (schistous clay) as well as ‘Alberese’ limestone are highly desired in such a vineyard. Sometimes it is not so clear that these soil types are present even when a wine producer is telling you they are there but without a word it was obvious at this Bellaria site. At one point we asked which vineyards were nearby and the legendary name of Fattoria dei Barbi came up – one of the producers that helped to shape Brunello into the success that it is today; we then quickly realized we were in the heart of the region.

We popped our heads into Gianni’s winery/cellar and it was small yet had a few temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks with varying sizes of French and Slavonian oak for aging. In 2000, Gianni took the winery over from his grandfather and he brought these more modern touches but didn’t go too overboard as the transparency of the wines’ sense of place is of the utmost importance, just like his grandfather taught him.

When we went to have our tasting inside, we could see that Gianni went out of his way to make his home/tasting room a wonderfully inviting place and he used the space wisely placing some comfy chairs by a few of the barrels of wine with a picture of his grandfather smiling back at us. Gianni’s grandfather, Assunto Pieri known as Sunto, was everything to him as he spent his childhood in the vineyards following Sunto around and that he knew he wanted to follow in the footstep of his grandfather who passed away in 2018 at the age of 97… but Gianni expressed that it was still too soon to have his grandfather taken from him as Sunto enjoyed life up until his last breath. As we tasted the wines we whispered amongst ourselves that these wines were quite enchanting and certainly had a great expression of the heart of Brunello that balances that rusticity of the past with the precision of today’s modern winemaking that was perfectly represented by his ‘Assunto’ Brunello di Montalcino wine that came from the vineyard that his grandfather planted.

As we were delving more into trying to figure out when Gianni’s grandfather started the winery, which happened to be in 1963, all the pieces started to come together that his grandfather was one of the 25 original members of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino in 1967 and he was one of the 15 that signed Brunello’s community accord during that time. We asked Gianni if he had a copy of the document so we could see his grandfather’s name and lo and behold there was his name at the top.

The Best of the Madness of Human Beings

As we sat there eating lunch at Bellaria, that was made and served by Gianni himself, I could not help but think how endlessly exhausting it must be for Gianni and his assistant when it comes to running every aspect of the winery that ranges from vineyard management to operating the cellar to making sales to running tours and tastings; only during harvest is he able to hire a handful of people to help pick the grapes as funds are limited. It is already tough enough to run a winery when the owner has revenue coming in from other businesses but all Gianni has is the winery and the land while competing against other Brunello producers that have a lot more resources. In a way it seems illogical as usually when animals find that a situation becomes too hostile to their survival they move on to a different  and hopefully a better situation.

But that illogical aspect of humans which is rooted in emotion and sentiment is truly inspiring as I sit here in New York City where our governor has decided to put a halt on the economy fully knowing that it will plunge us into an economic depression that will take years to recover from, so we can protect our vulnerable population by stopping non-essential businesses and forcing non-essential workers to stay home; we are on a path to possibly having more critically sick people in the coming weeks than the hospitals can potentially handle and so we need to decrease the spread of the virus. There are some that argue that it is ridiculous to do such a thing to the economy just to save some lives.

The New York State governor, Andrew Cuomo, has laid out the seriousness of New York’s COVID-19 crisis and that it will only get worse as well as there being ultimately a large economic price to be paid that will be devastating to middle class and lower income people as well as piss off large corporations and the stock market but that he takes “full responsibility” and if there is anyone to blame it is him. He said that if he can save one life it will be worth it and he used his 88 year old mother, Matilda, as an example exclaiming, “My mother is not expendable.” He went on to talk about how no-one is expendable and that human life comes first.

Many animals leave behind, or in some cases will even kill the sick and most vulnerable because it is bad for the survival of the community and the deep instinct to survive is hardwired in many creatures. Humans have the same survival instinct but it is complicated and those complications can sometimes be destructive to sustaining balance yet in the case of Gianni carrying on his grandfather’s legacy at all cost and Andrew Cuomo wanting to protect his 88 year old mother and all of us who could not live with ourselves if we couldn’t at least try to save everyone (even if that is an impossible task) it shows an extraordinary beauty that lives within the human race. When it is all said and done, will the financial numbers make sense from a practical point of view? No they won’t, but we are only human.

 

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Tasting at Azienda Agricola Bellaria on October 8th, 2019

2018 Rosso di Montalcino: 100% Sangiovese. An explosion of fruit and sweet spices with supple texture which is everything one wants in a Rosso that you want to drink now. Simply delicious!

2017 Rosso di Montalcino: 100% Sangiovese. At first it was savory with notes of grilled herbs yet rich black cherry fruit came out with an impressive underlying mineral note – over-delivers for a Rosso.

2014 Brunello di Montalcino: 100% Sangiovese. Bacon fat and cocoa dust and still has vibrant blackberry notes with only a touch of tannic grip that was complementary to the plush mid-palate fruit and a long, flavorful finish. This is my kind of Brunello – loved this wine!

2015 Assunto Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: 100% Sangiovese. Named after Gianni’s grandfather, Assunto, as it comes from their best vineyard which is also named after him. They have had to replant the vines through the years and this site has 30 year old vineyards. When Gianni said that his grandfather planted this vineyard and he would have been 99 years old if he lived today, I realized his grandfather was still planting vines at 69 years old. Gianni said his grandfather was helping him in the vineyards even right before he passed at 97. This is a big wine with broad shoulders in terms of structure, lots of fruit and layers of complexity that included tar, leather and that fierce minerality that seems to be present in all of Bellaria’s wines.

2013 Assunto Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: 100% Sangiovese. This wine was still tightly coiled when it was first opened but through time, during we had lunch, it evolved into baking spices to fresh thyme, wet stones and bright red cherry notes that was more open on the nose than the palate; the body is linear with firm tannins and it will take time and patience in the cellar to show its full potential.

2012 Assunto Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: 100% Sangiovese. A more elegant and refined Brunello with broken chalky limestone notes, pristine red fruit and a linear, energetic drive. Really gives ethereal qualities that has a lovely transparency of the Assunto vineyard and it is wonderful to see Sangiovese in all its refined glory in this wine.

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No Brain, No Pain

Legs paralyzed by fear, heart furiously pounding and thoughts in panic mode all told me that I could have been making one of the biggest mistakes of my life! In a nutshell, that wraps up the most overwhelming moment I take away from my last vacation with my husband, in New Zealand. My best and worst moments in New Zealand – a place that I have dreamt of visiting for over 19 years – took place hiking the continual upward slope of a particular trail to reach the summit.

My husband and I were able to take two week long vacations this year instead of just the one week during the summer. Previously, I had been given the opportunity to go on a wine press trip to New Zealand, a place with unique animals, plants and landscapes that I desperately wanted to see, but it was two weeks long. I never like to take press trips that extend more than a week, and for me, the shorter the better as I am always juggling a lot of work as a freelancer. When I am on a press trip I am working while dealing with 15 hour days that are typical for such media trips and it ends up being exhausting, especially when you are burnt out from the long days of taking notes, social media posts, outlining possible article ideas while answering emails only to be forced to stay up for hours more once back at the hotel room to catch up on freelance work. Also, I like being there on a daily basis for those who are the most important people in my life and so I hate to be away from home, my loved ones and my community for too long. And once I found out that my husband, the most important person in my life and the number one person I hate to be away from, really wanted to go to New Zealand, we decided to look for deals to see if it could be possible.

After a year and a half of planning, the time finally came when we would take this trip which took place a couple of weeks ago, a 30 hour journey each way – a lot longer than some other routes but it was half the price of these other offerings – and I would finally see the place I had dreamt about and, better yet, got to share it with my best friend. We only had five and a half days to enjoy New Zealand on the ground so our plan was to go to the South Island (there are two islands: North Island and South Island), flying into Christchurch then driving down to Queenstown seeing the raw, untouched beauty that was like no other place.  We had a few side trips from Queenstown and we devoted a whole day to Fiordland National Park (which is far from being enough time) in the southwestern section of the South Island which is around 3 million acres of mountains, lakes, fiords, rainforest environments and so much more. We took many walks through various sections of the Fiordland National Park but none would be as challenging as a section of the Routeburn Track that was a three hour return hike and took us to an array of alpine plants at the summit. While the sparsely populated track had other hikers who seemed to be fairing better than us – some even carrying toddlers on their backs – I was not prepared for this endeavor.

Weingut Beurer 

As odd as it seems, during my times of feeling overwhelmed and straight out panicked at various points of this hike, I had flashes of a visit back in September with a small German wine producer named Weingut Beurer. New Zealand is a great wine producing country but we only visited one wine producer because we only had a little over five days on the ground to visit the natural wonders that brought us to that land and I wanted us to mainly be able to spend time alone without too much work involved (I am currently working on a separate article for the producer we visited). As I was constantly trying to figure out a way to get my non-athletic body up the seemingly never ending slope, along with the Routeburn Track path turning into a narrow walkway with slippery, broken rocks that skirted the edge of a mountain, the wines of Jochen Beurer (owner of Weingut Beurer) kept popping in my mind.

Jochen Beurer is a wine producer located in the southern part of Germany in the Württemberg region that is known for warmer weather, wines that are less distinctively German and influenced by an array of European countries and big smiles among its people. Every press trip I go on I always debate whether it is worth it considering the amount of work I always have to do and the exhaustion I have to battle yet meeting someone like Jochen, in his humble house with a tiny cellar on a cloudy rainy day, is one of those moments that makes these trips worth it. He very much downplayed his operation and he seemed very conscious that he was a tiny producer that made wines that perhaps were not for everyone. He did not have a grand place or take us to a cool, fancy restaurant but his wines were electric, rich and utterly intriguing.

Jochen wines are organic and biodynamic certified through Demeter and he uses a low amount of sulfur, spontaneous fermentations with natural yeasts as well as allowing malolatic fermentation to complete; also he implements long skin contact with his Riesling wines that range from three months to two and a half years. He is one of the producers who has inspired a more serious look at the wines of Württemberg as it is historically a region that is known for wine cooperatives that produce quaffable wines. But over 20 years ago, Jochen, his father and wife decided to leave the cooperative and today they own 32 acres (13 hectares) of vineyards with some top vineyards sites for Riesling that are considered 1er Cru and Grand Cru level sites.

Nothing

Jochen Beurer’s mission to make wines that were “joyful to drink” with a strong sense of place were criticized for many years, and still get odd looks, as he is always pushing the envelope as he won’t allow the chatter to make him doubt his path. The idea of blocking these negative thoughts and fears from his mind started when he was very young as he was the BMX European bike champion in 1992. Although he had the intention to always come back and make wine with his father in the cooperative, for a time he was performing in BMX competitions performing jaw-dropping tricks… I only found this out because I looked up his background and asked him about it. He actually has one wine that pays tribute to that time called ‘Nothing’. Nothing is the name of a trick where the rider jumps up in the air and lets go of the bike completely (no feet and no hands) and it is called nothing as the hardest part of it is getting past the initial instinct of fear and panic because everything in the body just wants to hold onto the bike; you have to have a clear mind to do it. As Jochen said, the slogan of BMX is ‘no brain, no pain’ and there on the label of his Nothing wine was a drawing based on a photo of him doing the trick.

One has to practice a lot before performing such a trick just like one has to do for quality winemaking; in regards to wine, Jochen has received a formal education, done internships at modern wineries, worked with natural wine legend Elisabetta Foradori in Trentino, Northern Italy, but when it comes to the toughest part – spending decades going against the convention of one’s neighbors, snobbery from more established regions and the weight that bills need to be paid and passion doesn’t pay bills, none of those aforementioned things in the wine world could prepare Jochen with his internal fight against the barrage of negative fears more than performing the ‘Nothing’ over and over again. The Nothing wine is on the skins (crushed berries with seeds) for two and a half years, wild ferment, unfiltered and he used no sulfur in this wine. He is actually holding experiments by bottling and cellaring this no sulfur wine to see how long it will gracefully age.

Brain: Greatest Asset and Worst Enemy

Certainly, I am not advocating just throwing oneself into a potentially dangerous situation without being prepared. Jochen said that, unfortunately, he has a couple of friends who did end up in wheelchairs because of the risks of performing such tricks, just like there are many warnings to hikers in regards to the various New Zealand trails as temperatures plummet quickly and some tracks are for more experienced hikers. As I was up there on this trail, looking down the steep cliff that triggered my fear of heights which was only heightened by the rain coming down, I was able to assess the situation… I told myself, “Well, there are many trees along the side of the mountain that would stop me from falling” and I paid attention to where I was stepping as well as kept conscious of how cold it was getting and if we were wearing enough layers. But every so often I would see people hiking with little kids and I would yell inside of my own head, “Okay if they can do it I can do it!” It may seem silly to talk about an Intermediate Track with such fear near the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown,(where bungee jumping was invented) but my experience in life prepares me to work 15 hour days in front of a computer not to hike up a mountain, and sure as hell not to bungee jump!

What Jochen Beurer accomplished on a BMX bike was much more extraordinary than my hike but it was symbolic of all of us taking on what is holding us back; standing up for ourselves, proclaiming our worth, being a force for good in the world or making wines with passion although they receive unpleasant comments from other winemakers. Our brain is designed to protect us from harm but how many times has your brain hurt you in other ways? Kept you from your purpose? The brain can hurt us in ways that gnaw at our soul and make us give up hope. I don’t know what Jochen’s wines were like when he first started but, surprisingly, his long skin contact wines today are not overtly tannic or astringent to drink, as a matter of fact they are pure, vital and delicious with just the right amount of complexity, structure and tension to make them ‘joyful to drink’ in his own words; and maybe that is the key to joy… finding a way to let go of the brain when you know it is going to cause major pain.

 

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The Weingut Beurer vineyards are specifically located in the town of Stetten that has cooler winds, expositions that avoid direct sunlight and higher elevations over 1,300 feet (400 meters) making it more ideal for Riesling than some other areas in the Württemberg region of Germany.

Jochen Beurer has also been on a mission to save ancient native grape varieties that are becoming extinct such as Adelfränkisch which he believes has existed in Germany for over 1,000 years. He has also started selecting his own clones in his Riesling vineyards as he thinks some are more suited for long skin contact fermentation. I would have loved to have talked to him more about this but our time was limited with him.

Wines Tasted at Weingut Beurer on September 8th, 2019

-2018 Weingut Beurer, Weiss Trocken: Blend of Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, and Weissburgunder grape varieties from a mixture of parcels. It is juicy and fruit forward with stone fruit and good amount of body with a refreshing finish.

-2018 Weingut Beurer, Riesling Trocken, VDP Gutswein: 100% Riesling. This Riesling is from a mixture of parcels as well and Jochen calls this his ”breakfast Riesling”. It is certainly a great way to start the day with lovely honeysuckle notes and a hint of smoky minerality with a touch of white peach skin.

-2017 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, “Gipskeuper”: 100% Riesling from southeastern facing vines at around 900 feet (280-310 meters) elevation planted in pre-Jurassic shale that had generous nectarine fruit with wet stones and more structure and body of the previous wine.

-2017 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, “Schilfsandstein”: 100% Riesling from Schilfsandstein soils that represent the reed beds of an ancient sea (alkaline and laden with quartz) that is located 1,080 feet (310-340 meters) above sea level and comes from 35 year old vines. Intense energy from this wine with a linear focus and crisp acidity that was heightened by citrus zest; finish was long with a chalky note on the end.

-2017 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, “Kieselsandstein”: 100% Riesling from 35 year old vines as well yet comes from a younger soil than Schilfsandstein called Kieselsandstein  from sandstone soils (feldspar, mica, quartzite and dolomite) and is mineral-driven. Fiercely mineral with wet stones with a savory dried herb quality and an overall beautiful floral component – a Riesling with grip and structure that still retains its finesse.

-2017 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, “Junges Schwaben”, 1er Cru Vineyard (VDP Erste Lage): 100% Riesling from Jochen’s highest vineyard over 1,300 feet (400 meters) located at the top of the Stettener Häder vineyard. The slope here is so steep that a horse is used for much of the farming, and the soils are sandstones mixed with calcareous marls and clays. Cooler temperatures make this one of the last vineyards harvested. The purity of fruit on this wine is simply breathtaking with a hint of spice and honey on the elegantly structured finish. Jochen formed a group with four other winemakers in the area back in 2001 so they could share knowledge and taste each other’s wines while helping to promote each other and they call themselves Junges Schwaben – translated into Young Swabians (Germanic people who are native to the Swabia area which is now mostly divided between the modern states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria). Each producer bottles one wine that represents their varietal specialty (they each specialize in a different grape) and Jochen represents the Riesling specialist and so this is his Junges Schwaben bottling; they also do collaborative projects of various libations.

-2016 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, Stettener Pulvermächer, “Berge”, Grand Cru Vineyard (VDP Grosse Lage/ Grosses Gewächs): 100% Riesling from one of the top Riesling vineyards in Württemberg, the Grand Cru Pulvermächer. An extremely textured wine with a rich waxy quality that was balanced by vibrant acidity with flavors of baked apples laced with saline minerality. Jochen has a great quality to his wines that are at once decadent yet electric and this Grand Cru is a great example!

-2016 Weingut Beurer, Riesling, “Nothing”: 100% Riesling that has been on the skins (whole berries filled 50% of a 500 liter neutral barrel) for two and a half years with no sulfur added and unfiltered. Jochen says it is an orange wine without being orange as the color looked gold instead of orange or amber. Blood orange flavors with a hint of fresh sea urchin with Pineapple Underside-Down Cake and crunchy acidity that lingered with the smell of a forest after a rainy day. A wine that I could have sat with for a while just like when we made it to the summit of that track in New Zealand surrounded by wild alpine plants with the cold rain falling on our faces looking onto the other mountains as the fog surrounded us… it was like we were among the clouds… floating.

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A Journey Filled with Twists and Turns Can Bear Intriguing Fruit

For many, the past is something we run away from… try to change everything that was considered odd, unpopular – any outlying characteristics and those things that we couldn’t change we would try to diminish or hide. Once we get settled into ourselves, those layers from our past start to seep through, sometimes bringing dysfunction or simply being a lost opportunity to share something special with the world if we don’t embrace them as often times, the best thing we can bring to our journey is that unique set of circumstances that brought us to this point in our lives.

Le Cuvier

John Munch is certainly a local legend in the Paso Robles wine scene in California. Napa Valley is known for a few big personalities that shaped Napa wines which took the world by storm but Paso Robles has had a longer journey to get any type of recognition and John Munch with his Le Cuvier winery has been happy to stay small with around “4,500 cases being made” that are sold directly to consumers. Despite Le Cuvier being founded in 1983, John first bought the property where his winery, cellar and tasting room is located back in 1978.

John has a fascinating past. He was born in Costa Rica and grew up in various Central American countries; eventually, after a few academic pursuits, ended up getting an English literature graduate degree in West Saxon poetry. This old English background is evident not only in the descriptions of his wines but also in how his wines express themselves with power yet remain elegant. He was even a general contractor for a time, working for a group of people who renovated old Victorian houses in San Francisco and he eventually used those house building skills to build a home on a plot of land he bought in ’78 in the western section of Paso Robles, which was pretty desolate at the time, with his late French wife. Even though the house was not completed until 2008 he created a wine revolution way before that time.

John’s late French wife had a “brother who was a scoundrel,” always looking for new ways to make money and this brother-in-law was representing a group from Champagne who wanted to bottle sparkling wine in California following the lead of Moët establishing Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. So John would make sparkling wine for them from vineyards in western Paso Robles that had lots of limestone in the soil and a cooler climate while taking weekend winemaking courses at U.C. Davis. John said with his big, rich laugh that the one complaint he kept getting from the Champagne producers was that the acid was too high in the wines, which was ironic as Champagne wines are ideally highly acidic. Then John worked under the brand name Adelaida Cellars with partners starting to experiment with the range of varieties and vineyards in Paso and he would start his own smaller winery project, Le Cuvier. In 1999 he left Adelaida after being bought out by his partners and he gave his full attention to Le Cuvier and his new role as “Wine Herd, a shepherd to the ‘feral beasties’ that accompany the finest fruit from the finest vineyard into the winery” with his now business partner Mary Fox.

As I sat outside at the beautifully set table across from John at Le Cuvier, he regaled my group with wonderfully descriptive stories as we tasted his selection of wines and hors d’oeuvres that is available to anyone who calls for an appointment.  He then handed over the floor to his head winemaker, Clay Selkirk, who was, at one time, studying Greek and Roman literature. “John was a big influence on my father; my family has a very small winery, Cayucos Cellars” Clay started out and continued, “and like John, my schooling didn’t touch on this [winemaking] at all except that I was a classics major in Athens and all the Greeks and Romans drank a lot of wine.” Clay was called back to Paso Robles by his father when his brother broke his femur bone as help was needed at the winery and he ended up at Le Cuvier with John, which seemed ideal.

I was feeling in that moment that winemakers in Paso Robles are interconnected in a way that I hadn’t experienced before and in that moment another key figure in Paso Robles wines was mentioned, Neil Collins, as Clay spoke about Neil working with his father in construction back in the day while also juggling a winery job with John at Adelaida Cellars.

As if he was beckoned by his name being spoken, Neil walked up to the sun soaked lunch table with his son Jordan in tow and a big Cheshire Cat smile appeared on John’s face, shaded by his beige panama hat. Before Neil could get more than a few words out, John launched into his introduction of Neil stating that he was “from Bristol, England and he was originally in training as a chef because he couldn’t get through normal school because he was f**king up too much.” He amused himself as he continued with his favorite Neil story, talking about his time in the restaurants working in a “basement kitchen and how they would have this vent fan that would lead out to the passage of the sidewalk and when they would see people coming, they would throw up boiled cauliflower up into the fans.” Then John motions to Neil’s son and noted Neil “showed up with this character in diapers and he was driving this old Volvo that was held together by baling wire” as Neil had sent John a letter saying how he wanted to work for Adelaida Cellars before he visited; Neil quipped that he only sent a letter to Adelaida as it was the first listed in the yellow pages.

But John seriously drew attention to the fact that once he saw the baling wire holding the car together, he knew Neil would be able to work at a small winery as “you have to be able to do everything and not just be in a lab” as well as Neil being a chef let John know that he didn’t have issues with long hours. John and Neil even reminisced about them finding a high school chemistry textbook from Australia to know more about what sulfur did at different stages of the winemaking process and as John gleefully exclaimed, “then we threw it out and rewrote the rules” as they both believe in minimal intervention in the winery and John said he only added sulfur dioxide once in his winemaking (26ppm after first racking for those science nerds out there!) at a stage when it would bind with potential off-putting aromas in the wine so the wine could “blossom”.

Tablas Creek

Neil could not help but chime in, “It was a little bit deeper than that…” Neil started in ’92 with John and he said there was not that much around back then in regards to tourism or infrastructure for visitors and that has greatly changed although there is still that Wild West, small community feeling in Paso. Neil noted that “five years with John was like re-inventing the wheel and we knew it was crazy as it was revolutionary at the time because there wasn’t much going on here at that point” and then he said his life would change forever when American importer Robert Haas decided to start Tablas Creek in Paso Robles bringing in partner Château de Beaucastel. Tablas Creek started using the winery at Adelaida in 1994 which Neil jokingly said he thought was a horrible idea because he was English and Tablas Creek’s partner was the French winery Château de Beaucastel – lots of history of a love/hate relationship. But the Perrin family and especially Robert Haas couldn’t have been more generous. Neil and John beamed with delight when talking about all the cases of Burgundy and Beaucastel they received from Robert, and Neil eventually traveled to Beaucastel to learn more about their process where they worked with native yeasts for fermentation (some more stuff for the wine nerds), something both John and Neil practice today. After a few years of making wine at Adelaida, Tablas Creek built their own winery in 1997 making Neil their winemaker and he is currently the executive winemaker and vineyard manager.

Lone Madrone

That fateful first day that Neil showed up at Adelaida to meet John to interview for a job, John had him taste a bunch of wines. “He didn’t have the wine speak but he had the nose” John noted, thinking back to that meeting. Neil said that moment was the unknowing instigator for the creation of his own winery Lone Madrone. Neil reflected on that moment, “And so in 1996, when we first tasted through those wines and he said he liked my notes on that very first tasting, the wine that I pulled out as being something special was a Cabernet Sauvignon from a single vineyard” and Neil pointed out that is was a bad idea to blend this special plot; shortly after that tasting, he bought grapes from the vineyard owner of that plot and he started making his own wine. The vineyard was known as Lone Madrone by locals and so he asked the vineyard owners if he could use it as his wine’s name and they told him yes. But the plan was never for Neil to have his own label, yet his “inability to focus on any single thing and the excitement of all the vineyards popping up” led him to expand into other wines under the Lone Madrone label such as Rhône varieties and Paso’s famous Zinfandel grape.

Neil has a deep love for dry farmed vineyards as well as the limestone soils that are prevalent on the western side of Paso Robles that he uses for his Lone Madrone which is a love shared by John; Le Cuvier wines are almost purely sourced from dry farmed plots with the exception of 5% (some Viognier and Chardonnay). When it comes to dry farmed vineyards, Neil described his personal preference for them by stating, “to me that is the greatest expression of land” and each dry farmed vineyard is vastly different as the climate can drastically change within a mile in the west side of Paso Robles.

Pentimento

The lineup of wines from John and Neil are certainly memorable, as is their passion for art, literature, food and the passion driving them to keep living up to their own ideals. But one wine was a great symbol for what made these two men very special, it was Le Cuvier Pentimento. According to John, the term Pentimento “is an art term where an artist will take a canvas that they bought that they already painted and white it out so that artist can paint over it and through time the original art bleeds through.” In a way, these men’s passions and journeys bleed through their wines giving a stronger sense of transparency over glory.

Curiosity Ignites Passion Not Glory

I think that if John and Neil dreamt of being star wine producers from the beginning, putting forth a plan that they needed to achieve by certain markers in life, their wines would not be as multidimensional as they are today. Each man came to wine from a different path and their previous skills of being good with their hands, love for literature and cuisine as well as no fear for the hard work or failure, laid down a foundation in Paso Robles that would encourage other producers to open their minds to seemingly unconventional practices. They are each examples that you don’t need to figure out from day one what you wanted to be for the rest of your life in order to achieve something significant… and sometimes being on an unorthodox path, guided by nothing else but a strong sense of curiosity, can be the way to best unlock the potential of a place since people typically take the risks they have to take when freed from the desperate need for glory, to liberate a new truth that hasn’t been discovered in a special vineyard.

 

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Click here if you are interested in visiting Le Cuvier for a paired tasting.

Tasting Notes from Visit on November 6th, 2019:

Le Cuvier

2016 Le Cuvier, Grenache: 100% Grenache from two different vineyards: Kirk-Landry Vineyard and St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard. A real lightness of being to this wine while being juicy with red cherry flavors and spice with a smoky tea finish.

NV Le Cuvier, Pentimento ’19 Bottling: A mixture of 35% of a blend from 1998 and the rest: 2016 Petite, 2016 Littoral blend, 2016 Malbec, 2015 Malbec and 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. The winemaker, Clay Selkirk, said that although they specialize in single variety wines, they will blend certain portions of a wine that don’t suit the ideal expression of a particular variety and that sometimes the blends will outshine the single varieties and that is the case here. Through time the varieties, and the 1998 vintage especially, starts to “bleed through” like a pentimento painting. Wild morels with freshly fallen leaves and cassis flavors that have a mint-y lift on the finish.

2016 Le Cuvier, Littoral: 55% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec and 15% Petit Verdot. Rich blackberry compote with smoldering earth and fresh tobacco leaf that had fine tannins.

2015 Le Cuvier, Malbec: 86.36% Malbec from Kirk-Landry Vineyard and 13.64% Petite Sirah from Kirk-Landry Vineyard, St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard and Loma Seca Vineyard. Lush blueberry pie flavors with fresh sage and silky tannins that caressed the palate finishing with notes of dark chocolate.

2016 Le Cuvier, Petite Sirah: 100% Petite Sirah from Osgood Farms Vineyard, St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard and Kirk-Landry Vineyard. Dark, brooding wine with smoky minerality and black tea that had baking spice carried by surprisingly round, inviting tannins. Here’s an excerpt of Le Cuvier’s tasting note that I love: “This wine is most assuredly a creature from the deep: it has the darkest-dark ton of the Devil’s best mourning cloak.”

Lone Madrone

2018 Lone Madrone, Oveja: 51% Grenache Blanc and 49% Picpoul Blanc from Old Oak Vineyard. Bright and zingy with lemon zest and white peach flesh that was laced with minerality.

2015 Lone Madrone, Oveja Negra: 49% Mourvèdre, 22% Grenache, 21% Syrah and 8% Counoise from the Old Oak Vineyard. Layers of complexity with underbrush and wild rosemary that had a solid core of fruit flavors that ranged from plums to black currant and supple texture that had a great backbone of vibrant acidity.

2013 Lone Madrone, The Dodd: 51% Tannat, 27% Petit Verdot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Zinfandel from the Klau Mine Vineyard. Lots of texture to this wine with dried herbs and fresh blackberries that had a wonderful aroma of violets and toasted spice.

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A Life of Service is a Life Fulfilled

 

Every morning during my time in Montalcino, Tuscany, I awoke to the warm glow of the sun highlighting the rolling fog. It didn’t matter the time of day as the place gave a feeling of enchantment at all times that was further echoed by the beauty and charm of their famous Brunello di Montalcino wines that show the heart and soul of the Italian Sangiovese grape. As a full day of visiting producers in the area was winding down we would approached one of the most historic Brunello producers as the blue sky deepened its color while the light fell behind the stone buildings.

Fattoria dei Barbi

Fattoria dei Barbi is one of the producers that helped to shape Brunello into the success that it is today. The Colombini family founded the estate in 1790 and a document proves that they sold wine to France, under the wine name of “Chianti di Montalcino”, as early as 1817 yet Stefano Cinelli Colombini (CEO of Fattoria dei Barbi) said that he had found documents that go back to the them selling wine in bulk as far back as the 1300s.

Stefano Cinelli Colombini

Stefano Cinelli Colombini met us outside his family winery, which also had a lovely restaurant on the property, Taverna dei Barbi. Despite Stefano earning a Law degree, he decided to pass on being a lawyer and instead helped grow the family’s business. His maternal grandfather, Giovanni Colombini, accomplished with cousin, Tancredi Biondi-Santi, the herculean task of raising the quality and profile of Brunello di Montalcino wines and that Colombini baton was passed to Stefano’s mother, his grandfather’s oldest daughter, and now he carries it today – although he notes that his elderly mother is always there in the cellars with him as he gestured at a life sized photo of her during our tour.

Stefano was a sweet man with a gentle personality whose eyes would constantly sparkle with delight when he talked about the history of Montalcino and Brunello wines. The Colombini family had an impressive history with important politicians, scholars and nobility that shaped the area through the ages and as the 20th generation heir to their winery and land (that he has divided with his sister), Stefano is the custodian of preserving and sharing their legacy. It seemed each Colombini he pointed out, as we passed their photo, had a fantastic story that accompanied him and it was as if Stefano was taking us in a time machine through several centuries of Montalcino; then we came upon the “saint” of the family.

The Saint

The saint in question was Giovanni Colombini. Giovanni is an important, common name in their family, but this particular one lived during the 1300s in the nearby city of Siena. As we asked about more detail of this saint, Stefano beamed with enthusiasm as it seemed he was quickly going through his ancestors’ biographies as he wasn’t sure if it interested us; but our evident curiosity gave him an opportunity to tell us this saint’s story that he was obviously dying to tell. “He was the richest man of Siena at that time and he was a banker”, Stefano started telling us with a slight smile that indicated his awareness that no one would ever guess that would have been the beginning of a saint’s story. Stefano continued, “One day he came home and found his wife reading a book on the history of saints and he was upset because he wanted to eat and she was so busy reading that she didn’t make dinner. So he took the book and threw it into the fire yet one page remained in his hand; the page spoke of a saint from Florence, a female, who decided to give everything to the poor.”

Then Stefano described in detail the confusion of Giovanni and how his ancestor obsessed over the story of this woman giving her life to the service of others. Through time Giovanni saw his life as foolish because he was devoting everything to money and power when the “only real thing was eternal life.” So he went to the main public space in Siena, Piazza del Campo, and he walked into the halls of government and started scrubbing the floors; he then went into the streets and started washing the feet of the poor, as it was a way to find that special saint trait of humility within himself. Since Giovanni was well-known as the richest man in town, a crowd of people gathered and they were shocked – many thought he had gone mad.

Giovanni told his wife he would leave the trappings of the world to live a life that was completely devoted to service like the story that inspired him; he set up his wife with a life-annuity and then gave the rest of his money to charities. He then formed a group that included devotees who gave up their worldly possessions to spend their lives among the people, teaching the gospel, taking care of the sick and even teaching academics such as mathematics to help educate those that never had the means to be gifted with formal schooling. And those who were part of this order could only accept food, such as bread, to survive and they were never to accept money. Their ultimate fate was explained by Stefano, “But then the order was placed into question by the Catholic Church because they did not speak Latin and only spoke Italian to connect with the local people and so the order was closed. It is a pity as it was really a noble idea to deal directly with the people.”

A Deeper Meaning

I was taken by this story as I myself, in the beginning of my adulthood, considered devoting my life to becoming a Buddhist monk; spending a life serving others, no thoughts about material things, practicing discipline of the mind while debating the age old questions of our times. And I could see the great admiration from Stefano in regards to this particular forefather as he himself has devoted himself to tell the stories of Montalcino, talking to historians throughout the decades; he has even written a book about the various families of Montalcino that he will release soon. But his devotion to preserving this history is purely a passion as there is no real money besides paying off expenses that are gained. This greater purpose is evident in the museum he created on his property that is devoted to all the different centuries of his homeland, as far back as he can find as he is constantly searching to showcase this particular civilization. After my visit with him, it made sense why every other wine producer we visited talked so highly of this winery; not only because of their historical importance that includes them being the first to export their wines after World War II but the generosity of Stefano to spread the “gospel” of Montalcino was the biggest part of it.

The Buddhist monk’s life was not for me; honestly, I think I was using it to hide from issues that I needed to resolve in the greater world and that my place of service was within my community; yet every day it is difficult struggling with all the superficial trappings that are always trying to take one off track of finding deeper meaning to their life. But I think many of us who feel at times useless or lost undervalue our own contributions; whether it be to family, friends, volunteering or even those seemingly small moments when we decide to take the higher road at work to not be ruthless, possibly losing out on advancement, or deciding to help an acquaintance while refusing to receive anything in return. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for how we are servicing the world even if we are not part of some formal order or specific belief system.

Stefano’s story of the saint of the family shows a man who found purpose by simply going to the streets and taking care of all that he could; Stefano has the same philosophy with his passion as an “amateur historian,” as he calls himself, with photos, documents and artifacts that overwhelmingly focus more on the place than his particular family history… he even has bottles, enlarged photos and biographies of many of the other producers in his museum and ultimately he wants all the producers to be honored there. As we constantly peppered him with questions about his extraordinary place in Brunello history, he downplayed it with the idea that his family was lucky and it really didn’t become exciting until the area, that was at one time a dying town, started to become successful as a whole… and it dawned on me that his service to this area is really what makes Fattoria dei Barbi an outstanding producer. It is an example that all of us can live up to everyday.

 

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Fattoria dei Barbi Wines Tasted on October 10th, 2019

2019 has been a long growing season for Montalcino and so many people had just picked grapes during our visit and hence Stefano gave us a tasting of Sangiovese in the first day, second day and third day of fermentation. All of the producers we visited had talked about ’19 as being high for quality as well as quantity and a lot of the juice, as well as grapes we tasted, just coming into the cellar, were already delicious.

 

Fattoria dei Barbi, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (100% Sangiovese) Wines:

2012 Riserva: 2012 produced rich wines with ripe fruit while still having freshness that was displayed in this brooding, black berried wine with lots of spice and tobacco leaf yet it was vibrant and bright on the long, flavorful finish.

2012 “Vigna del Fiore” Single Vineyard: The Vigna del Fiore is 14 acres (5.7 hectares) in size and it has been cultivated by the Colombini family since the 16th century. Stefano said this is one of the southernmost and oldest vineyards in the whole area of the Brunello di Montalcino and it is known for its elegance. Jasmine tea and juicy cassis on the nose drew me in to find sweet black and red cherries on the palate with hints of tar and crumbly earth that was multi-textured with finely pixelated tannins on the impressively complex finish. Only 3,900 bottles were made.

-2013 “Vigna del Fiore” Single Vineyard: 2013 was a cooler vintage that produced wines with restrained fruit, intense aromatics and crisp acidity. A delightfully pretty nose with violets, fresh oregano and minerality that had a linear structure with chiseled tannins and fierce acidity that gave an energetic lift to the wine that was persistent in its aromatic enchantment. Only 4,000 bottles were made.

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Partners in Life Come in All Forms

It was a hectic day a few weeks ago when I visited the wine producer Weingut Weegmüller, as the harvest started earlier than expected in their wine region of Pfalz, Germany, but one of the family owners Gabriele Weegmüller was still gracious enough to give a tour of the vineyards and winery with a tasting at the end. Despite these wines having been exported into the U.S. market for many years, there was one wine that was still not and that was their Cuvée 3 Schwestern (sisters in English) because the label was not as modern as the other ones. But this pretty label that depicted three young sisters represented the Weegmüller women; Gabriele handling the sales and exports while her sister Stefanie (Steffi) was the winemaker and another sister who passed away. Although the passing of their sister happened many years ago, it was too much for Gabriele to speak about it further and she asked that we move on to another topic.

It was deeply moving to see how much these sisters meant to each other and became evident with how Gabriele would beam with pride when talking about Steffi becoming, in 1984, the first German female vintner with sole responsibility in the cellar. Sometimes with family wineries it is not possible for siblings to work together, let alone run the operation as a team, but it seemingly was an asset with the Weegmüller sisters who were true partners in keeping the family business successful.

Pfalz

The Pfalz wine region is the one that many young, hardcore German wine drinkers are the most excited about as there have been a few rock star winemakers making thrilling dry wines as the climate is warmer and drier than many other regions. Also, it is known for making a significant amount of everyday wine but that is not so surprising as the area’s ease of achieving ripeness makes it possible to make quality wine at an affordable price.

Weegmüller

Weingut Weegmüller was established in the middle of Pfalz, in the Haardt district, in 1685. The winery is currently the oldest in the area that has been continuously owned by the same family. Both Steffi and Gabriele have become great examples for other German women to take leadership positions in the German male-dominated wine industry and they have made sure to place other women in key positions at Weegmüller as well. Weegmüller is mainly a white wine estate with Steffi’s favorite varieties being Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner, as well as Riesling; Gabriele proudly stated, “Steffi is known as the Queen of Scheurebe” and Steffi is part of bringing an interest in the variety. Their Alte Reben trocken Rieslings are known for their intense minerality.

Klundt

One of those up and coming rock stars is the shy yet thoughtful Sven Klundt who is the winemaker for his family winery Weingut Klundt. Klundt is located in the southern part of Pfalz and although it has been the northern area that has historically been the most well known because of a few iconic producers, there has been a shift to look at other areas such as the middle and southern sections to find other producers making high quality wines for a fraction of the price. Sven Klundt is one who is getting noticed, especially his last few vintages. In 2017 he was named one of the 25 “Winemaker Talents of the Year” in VINUM magazine. Sven may have a gentle personality but his top wines are not, especially his Kastanienbusch vineyard site, and they perform like Grosses Gewächs “great site” without breaking the bank but is not labeled as such since his winery is not part of the VDP invitation-only group. From his Extra Brut Traditional Sparkling Sekt to his “Grand Gru” Riesling vertical, it was an impressive lineup that showed that there is an exciting future for the southern area of the Pfalz.

Wachtenburg Winzer

After visiting Weegmüller and Klundt I honestly thought it was going to be disappointing to visit a coop in the north as such a visit doesn’t have the same personal impact as family wineries. But the wine coop of Wachtenburg Winzer was a wonderful visit as a sense of community was brought by the Managing Director, Albert Kallfelz; Albert talked about the grape growing families (members of the coop) like they were old friends and it was lovely to see many of their faces on the walls of the tasting room. The vineyards come from the Mittelhaardt which has been historically known as the best in Pfalz; remarkably, the area can receive around 2,000 hours of sunshine and Albert joked that it was a much better place to live than the Mosel wine region where he grew up. The wines were delicious and a real value as some of their entry level wines were only a few Euro and even with the added cost to import and distribute in the U.S. they would still be an incredible bargain.

Partnerships That Last

When it comes to the best types of partnerships they are always the ones that last and that does not always mean in the literal sense. Some of the most important people in our lives – family, friends, spouses or mentors, leave a strong mark and these people never leave us. It doesn’t matter how we originally became connected as all that matters is that they were interwoven into the fabric of our spirit. But it can still be painful when times get tough and stressful and you wished that she was there to help you in that way she always did. It is something that these very different wineries all have in common as Sven Klundt has a great partnership with his family that allows him, at such a young age, to take the winemaking reins and the Wachtenburg Winzer brought together families with prized vineyards that formed a partnership of building a modern winery so they could make quality wine. And it is undoubtedly part of the story of the Weegmüller sisters who are all represented on that bottle of Cuvée 3 Schwestern – they started together and they are still together, at least in spirit.

 

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Tastings at Wineries on September 11th, 2019

Most of the wines below are dry wines and even those that had a small amount of residual sugar tasted dry and hence why there is no reference to the sweetness level of the wines.

Klundt

-2017 Klundt, Pinot Extra Brut Sparkling Sekt: Mainly Pinot Noir with some Pinot Blanc made in traditional style with 16 months on the lees; riddling by hand. Fine bubbles with hints of cherry blossom and white stone fruit.

-2016 Klundt, Pinot Noir “Obsession”: Obsession (name of Sven’s small town) notes that this is a village wine as opposed to some of the single vineyard bottlings that Sven makes. Fresh thyme and cinnamon with juicy black cherry fruit and silky tannins.

-2017 Klundt, Sauvignon Blanc Reserve: This wine is a joint project with Sven’s friend Benjamin Ehrhart. Lemon rind with white flowers and hint of green mango.

-2017 Klundt, Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) “Obsession”: This is from 30 year old vines. A fun nose with anise seed, cardamom, citrus blossom and a juicy, fresh palate.

-2016 Klundt, “Kastanienbusch” Riesling: Sven gave us three different vintages of his single vineyard Riesling “Kastanienbusch” that is considered a top site. The soil is called Rotliegend and it is thought to be created by the collapse of the Rhine rift valley 40 million years ago. Nectarine with intense minerality and smoke that had a fierce energy and a breathtaking sense of purity of fruit on the finish.

-2017 Klundt, “Kastanienbusch” Riesling: Creamier than 2016 with more floral notes and a touch of sweet fruit on the mid palate that was round and crisp on the finish.

-2018 Klundt, “Kastanienbusch” Riesling: Ripe peach fruit with sweet spice and more lush fruit that expanded on the flavorful sustained length.

Weingut Weegmüller

-2018 Weegmüller, Scheurebe: A crossing of Silvaner and Riesling – it is one of Germany’s most successful crossings. Stone fruit and wild flowers with a linear body.

-2018 Weegmüller, Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc): Rich body and golden apples.

-2018 Weegmüller, Cuvée 3 Schwestern: Equal blend of Grauer Burgunder (Pinot Gris), Scheurebe and Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc). Broad body with exotic fruit and candied chilies.

-2018 Weegmüller, Vom Gelben Fels Riesling: A blend of Rieslings grown on various soils. Smoky minerality with baked apples and hints of fresh herbs.

-2017 Weegmüller, Herrenletten Alte Reben (Old Vines) Riesling: The Herrenletten vineyard has old vines planted in sandstone and calcareous soil. Very spicy with a saline minerality and rich concentration.

-2016 Weegmüller, Herrenletten Alte Reben (Old Vines) Riesling: Wet stones with Asian spices and rounder body than the 2017 with a long aromatic finish.

-2017 Weegmüller, Pegasus Rieslaner Spätlese: Rieslaner is a crossing of the Silvaner and Riesling grapes. Apricot jam with hints of lemon rind with bright acidity.

-2017 Weegmüller, Von 4 Morgen Riesling Auslese: Fierce acidity with ripe stone fruits and pear syrup flavors with a mixture of violets.

Wachtenburg Winzer

-2018 Wachtenburg Winzer, Blanc de Noir: Made from Pinot Noir with a light body with pretty red fruit and gentle bubbles.

-2018 Wachtenburg Winzer, Rosé “Junge Winzer”: Pinot Noir rosé with ripe strawberry fruit and a textured body with spice on the finish.

-2018 Wachtenburg Winzer, Riesling “Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel”: This comes from Riesling that was grown on sandy clay soil with a layer of limestone; it had a rich weight with dried pineapple and stony notes.

-2018 Wachtenburg Winzer, Riesling “Wachenheimer Gerümpel”: Riesling grown on loamy, sandy soil with basalt deposits and a gentle southern slope which gives full exposure to the sun. Candied orange rind with complex notes of cumin and a marked minerality at the core with a hint of lemon verbena on the finish.

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We Need to Listen if We Want to be Heard

Photo Credit: © Abir Sultan EPA Shutterstock

The world around us is changing faster than most of us can keep up, and combined with the idea that the internet and over-saturation of news makes it all too tempting for even respectable newspapers to go for the sensational spin, it is a difficult time to have a balanced viewpoint. Yes, journalism is vital to a free democracy and I vehemently support it but we are living in times where tribalism (my team is better than your team) reigns supreme and it becomes which side is bad and which is good instead of actively trying to understand different circumstances to ultimately better the world for everyone. In this world of demonizing any group that slightly opposes our own views, many get caught in the crossfire.

Israel

As an American, I am welcomed, for the most part, around the world with open arms (and no, I don’t tip in places where tipping isn’t part of the culture, but always at least 20% in New York City of course) and I never spend that much money as I am always on a tight budget, and so there are other factors at play. For one thing, the US has a very powerful media and entertainment industry that reaches the globe so many will be familiar with some aspects of the melting pot of cultures that exist here, and when someone is familiar with a people they seem less threatening. The idea that we are so diverse with our ancestry, lots of us being mutts, many people around the world can see themselves in our TV shows and movies. And so, for the most part, whether traveling around Europe or Vietnam or Indonesia or China, I have always met friendly people, outside of those trying to sell me something, that were happy to help me out or just wanted to pick my brain to learn more about my personal American experience… as well as me trying to learn more about their world. There have only been a few exceptions but those insults hurled at me by strangers were then followed by xenophobic comments against other countries as well and I realized in that moment that the issue is with that particular person’s prejudices against anyone not superficially exactly like them.

But there are other countries that are not so lucky and they only get one sliver of its world shown around the globe – Israel certainly falls into this category. One of the greatest things about being a poor, or even struggling middle class, person in New York City is that if you are lucky enough to live in a multicultural neighborhood, you meet people from all areas of the world; some Europeans, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, Palestinian and Israeli, as well as a whole array of countries and cultures are represented. Every financially struggling person is dependent on their community to survive, and so, in my case, I depended on people with all sorts of origins as they depending on me to get by; very early in life I realized that I couldn’t judge a people by its government and that things, in general, are a lot more complicated than waving a magic wand to create peace.

Diversity of Culture in Israel

Whether you agree or disagree with the current Prime Minister (PM) of Israel and his conservative party, it is still important to note that there are around 17 parties as a whole represented in the Israeli government and the last election for the PM was pretty close. I’m not going to get into politics and judge one side against the other as that is not the point, but it is the idea that there are all sorts of different types of people in Israel that each see a different path to get to the same place; the same can be said about Palestine, China and America. But unfortunately, only one type of Israeli news sells internationally, when in reality it really only makes up a tiny percentage of the average person’s life there.

One falsehood commonly believed in America that I will dispel is that the ancestry of the Israeli people does not go beyond Europe and the Middle East, as most of us probably would guess. In fact, there are people who have come from South America and parts of Africa – especially Ethiopia as some Ethiopians are Jewish. Also, the second largest city in Israel, Tel Aviv, is one of the top LGBT friendly cities in the world to visit and they host the largest Pride parade in the Middle East and Asia. The city of Tel Aviv is broken up into different worlds as there is the clubbing, beach scene that reminds one of Miami, the European quality of the cafés surrounding the tree lined walkway of Rothschild Blvd, and the free, liberal, open minded atmosphere that is represented by the smell of marijuana in the air.

I was even surprised at all the street art that I witnessed, even in the supposedly conservative city of Jerusalem, as well as fun craft beer bars and the still lingering smell of cannabis in the food markets (I guess they are not that conservative), which was a fun contrast after visiting the Old City which contains holy sites for Christianity, Islam and Judaism – highly recommended even if you are an atheist as it is a pretty incredible place.

Photo Credit: Tabor Winery

 Wine Regions

Like its people, the topography of Israel is quite diverse as it is a long thin country and it has various microclimates and aspects. It is possible to ski on Mount Hermon, in the Golan Heights, in the morning and later that day go scuba diving in the Red Sea to explore the coral reef; ranges in elevations are as extreme as the Mount Hermon ski resort located at 6,690 feet (2,040 meters) above sea level contrasted by the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, at 1300 feet (396 meters) below sea level. So one can only imagine the multitude of terroirs for the wide variety of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and indigenous varieties such as Marawi, Dabouki, Bittuni and many, many more.

There is a proposal to change and update previous wine region categories (currently: Galilee, Golan Heights, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and Negev) to reflect the realities of today. They are as follows:

Galilee (Upper and Lower)

The Upper Galilee is a mountainous area in the north of Israel – forests, plunging peaks and stony ridges and Israel’s most beautiful vineyard region. The soils are heavy but well drained. They tend to be a mixture of volcanic, gravel and terra rossa soils ranging from altitudes of 1,150 feet (650 meters) to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). Winter temperatures range from 32F (0C) to 59F (15C) and summer is 54F (12C) to 86F (30C) with around 800 to 1,000 mm of rain a year. The Lower Galilee is situated near Mount Tabor with 656 feet (200 meters) to 1,312 feet (400 meters) in elevation and soils that are volcanic and limestone with 400 to 500 mm of rain a year.

Golan Heights

Photo Credit: Golan Heights Winery

The Golan Heights is a volcanic plateau rising to 3,940 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level. The area benefits from cool breezes from the snow covered Mount Hermon. Temperatures can be as cold as 20F (-15C) in winter and 55F (12C) to 85F (30C) in the summer with 800-1000 mm of rain a year.

Coastal Plain

The Coastal Plain area can range from sea level to 330 feet (100 meters) and the vineyards are along the Mediterranean Sea. It is a hot, humid region but most of the vineyards have been replaced by real estate and other more desirable places have been established to plant vines.

Central Mountains

Mount Carmel, the Menashe Hills, the Shomron Hills and the Judean Hills make up the Central Mountain Region. The main concentration of vineyards is in the valleys surrounding the winery towns of Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina, benefiting from the southern Carmel Mountain range and cooling breezes off the Mediterranean Sea. This was one of the first regions planted with vineyards by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, as mentioned before, and the elevations rise to almost 500 feet (150 meters) above sea level with a Mediterranean climate and 400 to 600 mm of rain a year.

Photo Credit: Judean Hills Quartet

The Judean Hills is known for having a few small superstars with higher elevations with some reaching 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) giving them cooler weather. Many Israeli wine experts consider the Judean Hills to be the leading region for white wines due to the amount of limestone in the vineyards as well as the high elevations; the soils are thin terra rossa on a bedrock of limestone. Also the vineyards tend to be in nature reserves, surrounded by Mediterranean herbs as well as fossils found in the vineyards, showing the ancient history of this region.

The southern tip of the Central Mountains is Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest planted forest with over 4 million trees, and is the meeting place between the mountains and the desert.

Judean Foothills

The Judean Foothills is made up of small vineyards and many tiny wineries, bisected by the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There are rolling hills with chalky soils and clay loams. Some areas reach almost 1,000 feet (300 meters) above sea level and it averages around 500 mm of rain a year.

Negev

Photo Credit: © Rostislav Glinsky Shutterstock

Only a tiny percentage of vineyards are planted in the Negev desert but it is seen as the frontier for Israeli winemakers as the swings in temperatures are extreme and it has many pockets of microclimates, such as the world’s largest erosion crater, Ramon Crater, creating a much cooler environment. There are also high altitude vineyards that go over 3,000 feet (915 meters) and the dry climate creates low disease pressure; one of the biggest issues for the Negev vineyards are roaming camels that sometimes eat a vine to its roots but in the grand scheme of things, it is certainly manageable. There is only 50 to 100 mm of rain per year.

It has Taken Some Time to Find Their Own Sense of Place

Israel has an ancient winemaking history that is said to go back 5,000 years but it was discontinued for a time once there was Muslim rule in 700CE and winemaking didn’t return until Château Lafite’s Baron Edmond de Rothschild decided to plant vineyards, starting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan, in Israel during the late 1800s, building a modern winery (for the time), and giving Jewish refugees a place to become grape growers, eventually giving the land and winery to his workers.

For a time, the wine industry was on hold in Israel until the 1980s when they brought in technology from California and then tried to make wines just as good as France and California – two places that have greatly influenced them. But during the past couple of decades they have realized that they need to find their own sense of place and style and the definition of wine regions are being created… and in a way this is just the beginning of unlocking what is unique about this Eastern Mediterranean country.

Israel is fascinating in the sense that it is an ancient winemaking country that was discontinued for a time and so they focused on trying to live up to other places once they restarted their tradition in making wine instead of digging into their own hidden jewels. But that is changing as the wine world does want something different, something exotic, something authentic – and Israel has that in spades – and so they have been finally embracing what makes them different while balancing the knowledge that has been passed on by other successful winemaking countries.

This evolution of the wine industry is in line with the growth between Palestinians working with Israelis and there is even a dating app to connect young people on both sides, as with each generation they will find more ways to come together even if it is, for now, just on a small scale here and there because those in power on both sides are making it difficult. But the last thing we should do is punish a whole nationality because we disagree with their government as there are many that are working everyday to bridge connections and that will only get stronger with time. All of us will get to a point when we will have to make a choice between wanting to be absolutely in the right and leaving others in the wrong, or be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that we misjudged others so we can stop repeating history. One will tear us apart in ways we still cannot imagine while the other might, unfortunately, continue to be an unattainable dream; all of us need to make that step forward as people can’t hear us if we don’t start off listening ourselves.

 

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This post was inspired by the Wines of Israel seminar at the Society of Wine Educators Conference in Washington DC.

 Wines of Israel Tasting/Seminar on August 16th, 2019

-2018 Dalton Winery Pét-Nat, Upper Galilee:

This Pét-Nat (Pétillant-Naturel) is a great example of the current experimentation going on in the Israeli wine scene. Dalton was one of Israel’s pioneering wineries to explore the use of Mediterranean varieties and their head winemaker Guy Eshel (U.C. Davis trained) is given a certain amount of wine by owner Alex Haruni so he can experiment with various techniques such as natural winemaking.

This wine is majority Sémillon coming from sustainable vineyards in the mountainous area of Upper Galilee which is known for its mixture of volcanic, gravel and terra rossa soils with some parts having limestone.

Sémillon began fermenting in tank with native yeast and just before completion was blended with a small amount of sweet Muscat of Alexandria and transferred to bottle where it completed fermentation. The fermentation in the bottle causes the wine to be effervescent and also slightly cloudy.

The wine has aromas of fresh bread and honeysuckle with grapefruit and green apple flavors that has a lively, bright finish.

-2017 Recanati Winery Reserve Marawi, Central Mountains (Judean Hills):

Recanati Winery is owned by Lenny Recanati, a native of Israel with ancestral roots stretching back to Italy, and this winery fulfills Lenny’s life-long dream to produce truly world-class wines. His chief winemaker Gil Shatsberg (U.C. Davis trained) has helped make Recanati one of the most heralded Israeli wines in the US as well as Israel.

The variety Marawi (Arabic) , also known as Hamdani (Hebrew) is one of a handful of ancient indigenous varieties that are being researched in Israel and Recanati has been placing a focus in finding and working with indigenous varieties such as this Marawi first commercially released in 2014 and now they have a red indigenous variety on the market called Bittuni.

This Marawi is actually sourced from a vineyard in Palestine located in the region of the Judean Hills in Bethlehem. The grapes are dry farmed at 2460 feet (750 meters) from a small 1.5 acre (.6 hectare) vineyard from 30 year old vines. The vineyards has limestone and clay soils and the grapes are hand harvested.

They are still experimenting with this wine trying to find the ideal expression of varietal characteristics and sense of place and the 2015 was more mineral driven while the 2016 had more stone fruit and this 2017 has a combination of the flinty minerality, juicy apricot, lanolin and honeysuckle notes with a hint of spice from its time in one year old French oak.

2016 Jezreel Valley Winery Argaman, Central Mountains (Jezreel Valley):

Jezreel Valley Winery is a boutique producer that was established in 2012 by founders Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar with a goal of creating wines that have a unique statement and they have done that by becoming a specialist of the Argaman variety (an Israeli wine grape that is a crossing of Souzão and Carignan), and they have received high praise for their efforts.

These grapes are sourced from the agricultural moshav, Givat Nili, that is referred to as the “Tuscany of Israel” because it is a small village surrounded by vineyards, fruit trees and gardens. It is a single vineyard located in the Central Mountains area in Israel that is hand harvested.

This wine aged 15 months in 300L second year French oak.

This Argaman has a deep ruby color and soft tannins which is characteristic of the variety with juicy wild berries, forest floor and singed rosemary with a lovely freshness on the finish.

2011 Somek Estate Winery Carignan, Central Mountains (Mt. Carmel):

Somek Estate Winery was founded by Barak and Hila Dahan in 2002 with the aim of producing quality wines that reflect the terroir of the Zichron Ya’acov in Mt. Carmel which benefits from the southern Carmel Mountain range and cooling breezes off the Mediterranean. The winery only uses grapes from their family vineyard cultivated since 1882.

The owner, Barak Dahan, is a 5th generation vintner in Zichron Ya’akov, Mt. Carmel, as his ancestors first came to this town in 1882 to work on Baron Rothschild’s newly established vineyards at the time; and his family has been growing Carignan for five generations.

The wine is from a single vineyard estate of 40 year old Carignan.

It was aged for 24 months in French oak and allowed to age in bottle for two years before being released. Some bottles have been held back such as this 2011 so to offer older vintages to the market.

This Carignan has an intense minerality that has notes of limestone and brambly berries with wild sage with hints of baking spice and fine-grained tannins.

2016 Hayotzer, Arza Winery, Lyrica GSM, Central Mountains (Judean Hills):

Hayotzer Winery is the boutique winery of the Shor family, who established their first winery in 1847 in the Old City of Jerusalem. The winery operates on the belief that wine is a work of creative art representing the person who made it and the place where it’s grown.

These grapes come from the area of the Judean Hills in the Central Mountains and the area has warm days and cooling winds from the Mediterranean that moderate the temperature with cool nights. The soils are thin terra rossa and stony on a bedrock of limestone. The vineyards in the Judean Hills are planted among nature reserves and fossils in the area show the ancient history of this region.

This is a blend of 40% Grenache, 35% Syrah and 25% Mourvèdre that was aged in French oak barrels for 18 months.

Delicious nose of crushed stones and black cherry with notes of fresh flowers, Herbes de Provence and juicy blackberry on silky texture.

-2014 Golan Heights Winery Yarden 2T, Golan Heights:

Golan Heights Winery was established in 1983 by four kibbutzim and four moshavim (cooperative communities). The winery has planted 20+ grape varieties in 28 vineyards divided into roughly 450 blocks, at elevations ranging from 1310 to almost 3940 feet (400-1200 meters) on the volcanic slopes of the Golan Heights.

This is a red blend of the Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão made famous by the high quality wines of the Douro Valley.

The grapes were harvested from two vineyards in the Golan Heights: Springs Vineyard at 2300 feet (700 meters) and Geshur Vineyard at 1300 feet (400 meters) above sea level.

This Yarden 2T was aged for 18 months in (40% new) French oak barrels.

This 2T has a real silky texture with good mid-palate weight of ripe black cherry and blackberry fruit yet has an overall sense of finesse that was highlighted by a smoldering earth and spice cake notes. A wine with real weight yet very food friendly.

2014 Tabor Winery Malkiya Cabernet Sauvignon, Upper Galilee:

Tabor Winery was founded in 1999 in the Galilee region by four families of grape growers who have been growing grapes uninterrupted for over five generations.

This Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a single vineyard at an elevation of 2382 feet (726 meters) on Mount Malkiya in the Upper Galilee. The topsoil is terra rossa but underneath, only eight inches (20 centimeters) down, is one of the most unique soils Tabor’s viticulturalist, Michal Akerman, has ever seen in Israel. In English, it is called “a lot of stars” since there are limestone rocks throughout the soil that gives the visual impression of this name. She said that it was a piece of land that many of the local people thought to be undesirable for any type of crop, but that she somehow, to their amazement, was able to produce the best Cabernet Sauvignon she has ever seen.

The grapes were hand-picked and only the free-run juice was used and then aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels with an additional one year of aging in bottle.

This wine has a nose of blackcurrant leaves and cloves that has a stony minerality with well-knit tannin and juicy cassis flavors that has an overall sense of elegance.

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What is Success?

Photo Credit: Michael David Winery

All of us want to live a “successful life” but that can mean various things to various people. To some, it can mean earning money, and even that within itself can vary – simply having the means to cover the essentials in life is a success to some, or having a nice lifestyle without having to compromise on things can be termed as successful to others; or success can be contributing to the world in a valuable way by devoting yourself to a cause or breaking dysfunctional cycles that we were raised with, thereby bettering the world by our centered presence… but whether we have achieved success, or were unable to reach one’s goal of success, there always seems to be new goals that appear or our own sense of what is successful can evolve with age. When it comes to the wine world, the idea of success can be just as complicated of a concept as it is not limited to the wine regions that get the highest average price for a bottle of wine or the one that is held on a pedestal and sought after by wine connoisseurs around the world… sometimes success is more subtle than that and it accounts for the community as a whole.

Lodi Wines

The Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area) is said to have a Mediterranean climate that consists of warm days and cool nights; its proximity to the San Francisco Bay (90 miles East) helps to influence the wine growing areas of Lodi, according to Stuart Spencer, Executive Director, Lodi Winegrape Commission and owner/winemaker of St. Amant Winery. Snooth Media held a virtual Lodi wine tasting and seminar led by Leslie Sbrocco who was joined by Stuart Spencer and Adam Mettler, director of wine operations/lead winemaker at Michael David Winery as well as winemaker at Mettler Family Vineyards. Stuart went into more detail into what makes Lodi an atypical Central Valley wine appellation by explaining, “Sacramento and Stockton are North and South of Lodi [respectively] and both are inland seaports and Lodi is nestled in between the two of those cities just west of San Francisco and as temperatures rise in the valleys, cool air comes from the San Francisco Bay, the Delta region, and that creates a very distinctive climate.”

Photo Credit: PRIE Winery

The first vineyards in Lodi were said to be planted in the 1850s and actually one of the wines that was tasted during the virtual tasting was PRIE Winery 2016 Ancient Vine (1900, Block 4) that was made from vines that were planted in 1900; shockingly this wine retails for only $29 and it was beautifully balanced, complex and elegant as well. PRIE is one of the newer wineries in the area that started to appreciate some of these old Carignane (Carignan) plots that have been safeguarded by generations of growers. Lodi is also known for very old Zinfandel vines (it’s considered the Zinfandel Capital of the World) and makes a wide range of styles such as fresh and restrained to lush and decadent. Stuart Spencer said, “What is often lost on people is Lodi’s significance to the California wine industry. We have been growing grapes for over 150 years but for many of those years we lived in anonymity and many of the large California wine companies have liked that… and we have been their best kept secret” as he referred to many of the bigger California wine producers blending Lodi grapes into their wines.

Freedom

Stuart also expressed with delight how Lodi was evolving as he has been working with the wine commission for about 20 years and when they first opened their visitor center in 2000 there were only eight wineries. But he noted that each year there was another winery opening and more experimentation being employed by passionate winemakers being drawn to the area. Also, those grape growers that were barely getting by who were growing unconventional grapes are seeing an increase in interest of wine producers looking for something different.

Stuart talked about a Lodi grape growing family that had planted vineyards with “up to 50 German varieties” and around 10 to 15 years ago they were considering pulling out their Kerner variety as well as everything else because wine producers didn’t want to buy it. But a winemaker named Markus Niggli, who is also Swiss, wanted their Kerner as well as other interesting varieties and the Kerner has become a cult success – now other producers even want to buy it; there is so much demand that the grower has a waiting list for their Kerner.

Back in September of 2016, I had the chance to talk to Markus Niggli during my visit to Lodi. I was really impressed by the Markus Wine lineup and the idea that they were using varieties such as Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus, just to name a few, and I was curious how a winemaker from Switzerland ended up in Lodi. He talked about how he initially came to Napa Valley and found that he was limited in what he could do with regards to finding real opportunities to experiment with wines. Then, when he came to Lodi, he saw the potential of all the longtime growers who were growing underappreciated varieties in various microclimates and soils that suited an array of grapes. In his opinion, there were not the huge financial barriers that one finds in Napa which can limit artistic expression and opportunities for those coming from an unconventional background.

Unfortunately, Markus wines were not part of the tasting but another innovator in Lodi was tasted by the name of Acquiesce. Stuart talked about Sue Tipton starting this winery that makes practically all white wines (there is currently one rosé) in Lodi, known as red wine country, ten years ago. He laughed because people thought she was a little bit crazy for trying to accomplish such a thing yet she proved all of them wrong and makes elegantly aromatic white wines that were pivotal in showing Lodi’s potential for white wine. Sue uses rarer white grape varieties found in the US such as Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette Blanche and Bourboulenc.

Adam Mettler reinforced that Lodi was going through an exciting time, “We have had great growth not only in plantings of vineyards but with numerous wineries and lots of success here; really, Lodi has become a hip, fun place to make wine and there are new winemakers and new varieties being tried out all the time.” Stuart elaborated that the Lodi growers/winemakers are separating themselves from the bigger companies and they are making their own wine, they are making single vineyard wine and varieties that are interesting to them as well as some classic varieties like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Idea of Success Not being Stagnant

Photo Credit: Michael David Winery

Lodi has had many stages of success – first being able to just make a living off of farming grapes, then the ability to save old vines by making money off of the trend of White Zinfandel, finally getting some recognition with Lodi being named Wine Region of the Year in 2015 by Wine Enthusiast, as well as Adam Mettler being named Winemaker of the Year in 2016. But in a way, the previous unfair lack of recognition of the area has kept it from becoming too tainted by unscrupulous outsiders who invest so much money that it takes the power out of the hands of the multi-generational growers and makes experimentation impossible; when there is lots of money on the line, the ability to take risks become nonexistent. Lodi is a diverse wine region not only in regards to the mixture of microclimates, soils and grapes that include Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian and Southern Rhône varieties but it is a place that is open to all those willing to do the work to fulfill a passion, regardless of pedigree.

And in the end, the explosion of creativity with these new wineries that are not controlled by outside big business keeps things on a fair playing field with those multi-generational wine producers who are finding a recently renewed interest in their wines allowing them to be financially sustainable for generations to come. It is not the type of success that hits you over the head and gets a bunch of headlines but it is the type that enables passionate outsiders to have an opportunity to carve out a small name for themselves while reigniting an interest in the more established wineries and vineyards that make it possible for future generations to succeed; just imagine if we could find this type of success for the country as a whole… we would certainly be much more united and looking at a much more hopeful future.

 

***Top Cover Photo is Credited to Michael David Winery

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I was not able to attend this Snooth virtual tasting but I was able to taste the wines and watch the video another time which can be viewed here

Also, it was noted during the tasting that the first three wines are all from young sites, the Pinotage is under 15 years (4th wine) and the Carignane (5th wine) is from vineyards planted in 1900.

2018 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, “Ingénue”, Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: White blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc and Picpoul Blanc. Perfumed nose with dried apricots and a rounded body that had good weight with lots of focus on the dry finish. Only 350 cases made, $32.

2018 m2 Wines, Vermentino, Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 100% Vermentino. A white wine with key lime and blanched salted almonds that was fresh and had a saline minerality on the finish. Only 250 cases made, $20.

2018 LangeTwins Winery & Vineyards, Aglianico Rosé, Lodi AVA, California: 100% Aglianico. Chalky minerality with ripe strawberries and zingy cranberries that had a floral lift on the end. $20.

2016 Mettler Family Vineyards, Pinotage, Lodi AVA, California: 100% Pinotage (cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault). Adam Mettler said, “Honestly I didn’t have a lot of experience with Pinotage until five years ago when we started making this one. It has always been a nice wine with dark fruit, medium body so I haven’t had that many problems.” – which was his response to Pinotage being hit or miss in South Africa. I definitely got the dark fruit with nice smooth medium body like Adam said and it was simply a delicious, well balanced dark fruited wine with baking spice and a good amount of acidity. Only 350 cases made, $25.

2016 PRIE Winery, Ancient Vine (1900), Block 4 Spenker Ranch Vineyard, Carignane, Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 100% Carignane ancient vines that were planted in 1900. Dried flowers and crumbly rock on the nose with a surprisingly bright flavor of vibrant red fruit, smoky tea notes and pepper that had fine-grained tannins. Only 70 cases made, $29.

2016 Michael David Winery, “Ink Blot” Cabernet Franc, Lodi AVA, California: Mostly Cabernet Franc with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah added. Michael David is the most well-known winery in Lodi and has been vital to its past as well as present wine industry. This is the first Lodi Cabernet Franc produced by Michael David Winery and comes from a nine acre vineyard located on the west side of Lodi very close to the winery itself. Adam Mettler noted, “This plot tends to be the most ripe with black fruit, less herbaceous than the others. It is always the block that presents itself as the best.” This Cabernet Franc was lush and decadent with juicy blackberries and cherry pie with a hint of sweet tobacco and cocoa dust and had silky tannins. Adam went on to explain the Ink Blot series as single varietal red wines that come from inky grapes such as this particular Cabernet Franc (as certainly many Cabernet Franc are not inky) as well as Tannat and Petit Verdot versions; also, each variety has their own ink blot, as he describes it. $35.

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The Papers that Hold the Pride of a People

As the glow of the sunset across the vines lit my inner soul on fire, I could hear calls to dinner that came from inside the centuries-old, beige, Southern Italian castle. At first I didn’t want to acknowledge the need to go inside as the golden sky defied it, and then, as if by design, the sun seemed to instantly disappear as if to nudge me inside… before I knew it I was frozen at the door by the shear beauty and beckoning mysteries that were tucked away in the stone-vaulted room. There seemed to be an infinite amount of delicate wine glasses on the tables that shimmered under the various pools of light.

Finally, I forced myself to walk inside as I felt the anticipation of the crowd behind me and I tried to quickly survey my surroundings… stone carvings in the wall, a distinguished looking book here and there, side hallways that were illuminated by the warmth of lights that foretold that there was more to come. But then I saw a series of old papers that seemed to be handwritten notes of some kind that were framed and hung side by side along the wall. My chair was too far away from the papers to decipher any notion of the Italian script but close enough that they were always in my line of sight… through time they built my curiosity as it seemed odd to have hand-written papers with scratch-outs in such a grand dining room.

Radici del Sud

I was in Puglia (Apulia), invited by the Radici del Sud association to be part of their 2019 exhibition that brings buyers and journalists from around the world to taste, judge and explore the wines of Puglia (Apulia), Basilicata, Campania, Calabria and Sicily. One of our evenings was spent visiting the Agrinatura estate between the Andria and Castel del Monte areas in Puglia that produces the wines of Giancarlo Ceci.

Giancarlo Ceci

The owner, Giancarlo Ceci, met us outside to talk about the existence of their ancient estate that has existed for at least 200 years as well as having eight generations of farmers in the family. Giancarlo said he has lived on the estate his whole life and only briefly left when he went to University for agriculture; when he came back in 1988 he was convinced that organic was the only way to farm.  Giancarlo said that “my father and everyone was against the idea” but he continued pushing until all their vineyards and farming practices were 100% organic, starting with his first steps 31 years ago. He said that from that time, he had only one philosophy – “balance.” Through time Giancarlo became a believer in biodynamics as he feels no other system “manages the soil as completely” as it does.

Nero di Troia

Later that night, inside the vaulted dining room before dinner commenced, Giancarlo gave us a vertical of his Nero di Troia wine Felice Ceci “A Mio Padre” (meaning “To My Father”) and we were given the different profiles of the various vintages as well as an introduction to the Nero di Troia variety and its history in the area. The red grape Nero di Troia is technically listed in the Italian National Registry as Uva di Troia but as there has been a recent focus on it in the region of Puglia, many producers thought it better to have a more approachable name. It was a favorite for blends and actually was exported to France and other parts of Italy to bring color, aromatics and a sense of grace to the wines. According to Giancarlo, despite not being an easy variety to grow due to its “fragile” quality making it susceptible to parasites and mildew, it was kept by farmers because it was highly prized for the attributes it added to a blend and so money could be made on exporting it. It was uncommon for grapes in Southern Italy over 50 years ago to be grown for anything else besides as a daily supplement to give calories but thankfully it survived, and over the past 20 years there has been a focus on making single variety Nero di Troia wines as the grape deserves to be known on its own merits.

Then, at one point, Giancarlo gestures to those papers on the walls, the ones that I kept eyeing, wondering, thinking about during the whole time, and he said that they were invoices. As he talked about the demand of Nero di Troia in other wine regions, he pointed to the framed papers on the wall “here are all the documents of the invoices from the 1800s that we were writing for our wine importers in France as well as a company in Italy.” It was a moment that took my breath away as I was not expecting it; out of everything in that room, these old, stained papers with scratches and scribbles meant the most to him.

What Money Can’t Buy

It must have been a good financial situation for grape growers in Puglia, especially during the times when people were dirt poor, to be able to have a steady income but I’m sure many of these growers felt like a part of them died a little bit every time their indigenous grape from their ancestor’s land was shipped off; that distinctive grace and complexity was awarded to another grape, another place, another people. That type of pride in the fact that the region has reclaimed one of their cherished grapes for the world to see means more than anything that money can buy. And so, that is why I understood that those were the most valuable items in that grandiose room; they were symbolic of those people who once felt like they had to keep their heads low who can now finally lift them up high.

 

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Tasting of Giancarlo Ceci Wines June 5th, 2019

The designated wine area, Castel del Monte DOC & DOCG, is known for its calcareous soil with limestone. Giancarlo said that this is a critical component as it slows down the maturation of the Nero di Troia variety so it doesn’t get too much body or sugar and keeps its “grace” developing phenolic maturity and aromatic complexity.

 2006 and 2008 Vintages

Dry seasons, it was pretty much dry throughout the both seasons which caused a lot of stress during budding that remained during the ripening of the grape and for this reason the grapes developed a lot of phenolics. There is a lot of power in 2006 and also in 2008 which are not the same but pretty similar.

2007 and 2009

More rain than 2006 and 2008 during July and August and so the grapes had a longer hang time which helped to develop more complex aromas.

2006 Giancarlo Ceci, Parco Grande Rosso, Castel del Monte DOC: 70% Uva di Troia, 10% Aglianico and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. There wasn’t a 2006 of “A Mio Padre” because this is the year Giancarlo Ceci’s father died so he didn’t make a 2006 vintage of it. Dusty earth with fresh blackberries with firm tannins that had a hint of spice on the finish.

2007 Giancarlo Ceci, Felice Ceci “A Mio Padre” Nero di Troia Riserva, Castel del Monte DOCG: 100% Uva di Troia from their “Grand Cru” vineyard. Dried herbs with cedar box and brambly berries that expanded with sculpted tannins on the length.

2008 Giancarlo Ceci, Felice Ceci “A Mio Padre” Nero di Troia Riserva, Castel del Monte DOCG: 100% Uva di Troia from their “Grand Cru” vineyard. Dried red cherries with smoldering earth with structure and power that was lifted by fresh acidity.

2009 Giancarlo Ceci, Felice Ceci “A Mio Padre” Nero di Troia Riserva, Castel del Monte DOCG: 100% Uva di Troia from their “Grand Cru” vineyard. Rich, silky tannins with lovely floral and baking spice aromas that had a fine textured finish.

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