Strong Pillars in the Wine World Sustain Communities

It is always interesting to see how we handle unimaginable events in our lives. I lived in downtown Manhattan during 9/11 and if someone would have presented that scenario as a hypothetical situation to me, I would have instantly replied that after that disaster, I would have gotten my butt out of there… Sadly enough, that situation did happen, and not that far away from me. Yes, I was in a state of panic and pain, but something funny and unexpected happened… I chose to stay, to be close to where the attacks happened… close to the World Trade Towers… to mourn and to eventually find a way to get past this horrible tragedy as part of a community, together. I couldn’t help but have some of those feelings of panic and pain flashbacks during the destructive wildfires in Northern California recently… I knew many people in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino that were at risk of losing their homes, jobs, businesses and potentially their lives. Yes, California is used to wildfires but these recent fires, that raged for weeks, were on a whole different level of devastation; some areas in California will take many years to fully recover… it was horrible to have to sit here on the other side of the country feeling helpless as I watched so many people I knew lose so much in a matter of hours.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk over lunch to a winery owner from Sonoma who was visiting New York City. I was anxious to hear how things were out in her neck of the woods. I ended up walking away from that lunch feeling a lot more empowered and hopeful than I could have anticipated.

Debra Mathy, owner of Dutcher Crossing Winery, told me that her winery and vineyards, like many others’ did survive, and the biggest issues were helping people who lost their homes, like in the suburbs in Santa Rosa, and many of the wineries were providing shelter and food to the victims of the fires (her small winery was providing 100 meals a week).  During these tough times, the local wine producers really shone as important pillars of the community.

Debra Mathy

It was interesting to learn more about Debra and how an “outsider” like herself became such an important part of helping the Sonoma wine community survive. She is originally from Wisconsin, moved to Arizona and Colorado at different points in her life, and made a career as a teacher, focusing on nutrition. But it was an early experience, at 15 years old, of a field trip to Paris with her French class that would plant the seeds of wanting to live a life in the wine world. While she was living a “safe” life of a proper profession that offered security, she could not help but to still have that wine dream, which would just deepen with each of her visits to Napa and Sonoma over the years.

Over eleven years ago, Debra was hit with the fact that her father had stage four melanoma cancer (now, each year she has a tribute wine to benefit melanoma cancer research). Her father, a man who spent his whole life working to provide for his family, told her on his death bed that she should live her dream now. Three months after his death, she bought a tiny, charming winery – Dutcher Crossing – that sits in the junction of two creeks, Dry Creek and Dutcher Creek, in Sonoma County.

Her first vintage was the great 2007, and, naively, she though that all vintages would be that easy. But the hard core reality of being at the mercy of Mother Nature was not the only tough challenge she faced. She was the first single female winery owner in Sonoma County, which is an area that is used to many of the winery owners typically being male as well as being established there for generations. Debra remembers a first encounter of an elderly woman coming up to her, shaking her hand, while asking her where she was born… when she replied with “Wisconsin” the woman stopped shaking her hand, quickly walked away, and never spoke to her again… that was her first inclination that it was going to take a lot of grit and tenacity for her to establish herself within the Sonoma community. This was not a problem for her as a Midwesterner with a father that made sure she wasn’t afraid of hard work.

Dutcher Crossing Winery

Debra kept the winemaker and staff from the previous owner at the winery and credits them for helping her along her mission to learn as much as she could about the Dutcher Crossing wines. Also, she knew that having a winery was about relationships and she went out of her way to consistently stop by vineyard owners’ homes to say hello or to lend a helping hand while making herself a fixture at Sonoma wine producer meetings. As the years passed, the community realized she was not there with an unrealistic dream without the backbone to make it work… hell, yes she had a backbone, and through time, proved herself a pillar of the community that would give advice to other producers about how she had become so successful. Debra has established a loyal wine club, selling out of her wines each year, and took the winery from only making a few different wines to making 30 different wines that represented the specific plots of the various grape growers she has gotten to know over the years… there was even one grower who passed away recently and one of his wife’s first phone calls was to Debra… she takes pride that her growers trust that she has their backs.

During our lunch, Debra did admit that she was not terribly comfortable talking about herself and she seemed to want to spend more time talking about her incredible employees, for whom she opened her wine cellar when the fires were going on, and her neighbors, fellow producers and those special relationships with her growers. When I asked her about her wine labels, she said that the drawing on them came about because the artist creating them started to dig within her personal life and found out about the story of her father telling her to live her dream… and his last gift to her was a high-wheel bicycle, which the drawing depicts. Because her father encouraged her to live her dream, Sonoma is so much stronger for it. Pillars of the community do not need an ancestral tree for deep roots… they just need to understand the spirit of a place, and Debra, no doubt, understands what it means to be Sonoma Strong.

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Tasting of Dutcher Crossing Winery at Lunch on October 24th, 2017

2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County: 97.25% Sauvignon Blanc from Bevill “Hall Road” Vineyard in Russian River Valley, and 1.5% Semillon, 1% Roussanne and .25% Chardonnay “Clone 809” from Estate Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Nice fleshy mouthfeel with good weight and long finish that had a lovely balance of sweet peach pie and zingy lemon zest.

2015 Pinot Noir, Chenoweth Vineyard, Russian River Valley: 100% Pinot Noir from the Chenoweth Vineyard in Russian River Valley (Clones 23, 115 and Calera). This Russian River Pinot Noir has lots of black berry and smoky notes that have savory underlying flavors of dried bark and wild mushrooms that was rich yet electric with bright acidity; a powerfully elegant red.

 2015 Zinfandel, Maple Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley: 91% Zinfandel and 9% Petite Sirah from the Maple Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. Lush, brambly berries with spice and dried Provencal herbs and a hint of pepper on the finish. The Petite Sirah gives structure and drive to this sexy, lusciously robust red wine.

Sample of Dutcher Crossing Winery Tasted on November 6th 2017

-2015 Proprietor’s Reserve Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley: 97% Petite Sirah, 2% Zinfandel and 1% Syrah from Estate Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Opaque color, and surprisingly inviting as Petite Sirah can be fiercely tannic… the flavors of boysenberry and plum pastry tarts with multi-layered, complex notes of fresh tobacco and leather made this wine irresistible; selfishly, I am happy that I have it as a sample at home. It is a great wine to decant for hours – while it opens with granite and exotic spice, the muscular yet managed tannins start to mellow throughout the day, as I kept it open while I wrote… it could continue to age for 15 years or go great with a steak tonight!

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When Generosity Is Undervalued

Photo Credit: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG

The wine world can be contradictory at times. Although we are supposed to promote a product that reduces stress, shares accessible human stories from various areas around the world and, ideally, brings people together, it has sometimes been promoted as a drink that sets up boundaries between economic classes, sophistication levels and educational backgrounds. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the elitism and false presentation of knowledge, both from past colleagues and wine connoisseurs, and I am sad to say that one time, I was told from a long time employee of a well-respected wine retailer in Manhattan that it was better to “seem like you know what you are talking about” instead of actually passing along solid facts.

The “old school” way of talking about wines was to look seriously imposing, while pronouncing a bunch of foreign words (that were indiscernible to many wine consumers), and proclaiming that the wine experts’ personal taste, especially in regards to high quality wines, was the one of choice. If someone in the wine world was smiley, warmly generous, and he/she was transparent about what they knew and didn’t know about wine, then his/her opinion was not taken as seriously in the fine wine world.

Throughout my career in the wine industry, I have met all kinds of people and have been given all sorts of advice. I have spent many, many years trying to learn as much as I can while always being open to the idea that it is impossible to know everything; most importantly, I wanted to serve my customer – whether it was the wine buyer for restaurants and retail stores (when I worked in distribution) or wine consumers (when I worked for a retail store). The idea of trying to figure out what was best for the people whom I was serving while conveying accessible, inspiring wine stories that were relevant to their desires and needs was always the priority. But it would be sometimes pointed out by others in the wine trade, or wine communication world, that trying to be in service of the customer with such a generosity of spirit would just devalue my presence as a knowledgeable and experienced wine voice. Warm, fuzzy feelings did not equal high quality wine expertise.

Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG

Photo Credit: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG

 I spent many of my Tuesday nights in October participating in a Twitter virtual tasting (using hashtag #winestudio and #ConValDOCG) talking about Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG. I know, I was just starting to talk about generosity in terms of being accessible to others and here I go throwing some seemingly intimidating words around… but these words are important to a specific place and culture, and they are actually very easy to understand. Many of us know Prosecco as a fun and delicious sparkling wine… the name Prosecco is based on a winemaking zone in North-East Italy, in the region of Veneto. Conegliano Valdobbiadene is an area in Prosecco that has a reputation for being one of the top places for outstanding wines… the Superiore DOCG (DOCG indicating the highest quality designation) which is noted on the bottle lets a Prosecco lover know that this wine has been subjected to the strict standards.

Prosecco

Photo Credit: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG

I think it is fair to say that many of us think of Prosecco as a quaffing wine… and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. No matter how much artisanally made, complex, fine wine I drink and love, I will always want my “drinking on the porch” wine. And few other wines have been as successful in that regard as Prosecco, since its generosity of flavors and textures invite all wine drinkers to enjoy these wines. Prosecco became so popular that wines made in different areas across the globe started to use that term on their label calling it a ‘Prosecco style’ wine with the “Prosecco” grape… the producers who actually lived in the designated Prosecco area knew that they needed to protect their name, a place that points to a particular area, and part of that campaign was to bring back the proper name of the grape, Glera, and to educate people that Prosecco wines that had DOC or DOCG superseding the name on wine labels were the only true Prosecco sparkling delights on the market.

But just like I was told that being too friendly, down to earth, warm and generous would diminish my professional presence in the wine world, the same has happened to Prosecco. Because they have become so successful with a generously tasty style that has a welcoming presence on the wine shelves, it has made many people underestimate their quality potential for more serious wines… there are even some who like to snicker at its evident accessibility because the old idea that top wines need to be austere or only appeal to a small section of the population unfortunately still prevails with some fine wine connoisseurs.

I remember a woman coming into a fine wine retail store that I worked in, asking for the most expensive Prosecco we had…. at the time, we only carried some of the moderately priced Prosecco wines, and I told her that expensive, fine wine Prosecco didn’t exist. She was frustrated as I tried to point her towards the Champagne section, because she loved Prosecco and she said that there had to be a higher quality version… I felt that day that I failed that woman because of my own ignorance. She made a great point – just because Prosecco is a delicious sparkling wine that many people love doesn’t mean it can’t be made into great wine.

Generosity Takes Different Forms

Photo Credit: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG

During our Twitter #winestudio chat about these superior Prosecco wines, it was interesting to learn that although there were different styles and sub-zones (Rive highlighting different villages, Cartizze being a famous sub-zone for quality, contrasting  winemaking styles – all explained below with tasting notes) that all the wines shared an inviting generosity of ripe fruit and floral notes. Even the top wines, which blew me away with their elegance, complexity and distinct sense of place, had a giving quality that I thought anyone could enjoy… and I respected that they didn’t sacrifice the generosity of their top wines, even if it was not completely appreciated by some “serious” wine drinkers.

Every Day We Have a Choice

All of us have our different personal issues. I understand that those who feel the need to put on a stern, judgmental tone when talking about wine are, many times, battling their own insecurities, and thus have a strong desire to prove their worth to others. But I decided a long time ago that I did not want to go down that road, and I missed out on a lot of opportunities because it was more important for me to promote a more generous approach to talking about wine. My attitude was that I didn’t want to be part of a workplace or group of people that did not make generosity one of the main priorities of their wine mission. And just like people, generous wines are also judged, but I am hopeful that times are changing. Now, as many voices have a chance to speak up through the power of social media, we will discover the hidden gems of wines that are stunningly gorgeous yet are generous enough to be shared with ALL our friends as well.

 

***If you want to know more about Twitter “virtual tasting” programs such as the above go to the #Winestudio website.

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Tasting Notes of All Four #Winestudio Twitter Chats:

October 3rd, 2017 (1st Week) – Focus on Introducing Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore is a DOCG sparkling wine produced exclusively in the hills of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone; it is made from the Glera grape variety. The denomination is made up of 15 communes (municipal areas), and takes its name from the zone’s twin capitals: Conegliano, the cultural capital, which was responsible for the creation of the Prosecco phenomenon thanks to being the site of Italy’s first School of Winemaking, where this wine’s production method was perfected; and Valdobbiadene, the heart of production in the zone: it is surrounded by vineyards of extraordinary beauty, with a special vocation for producing high-quality grapes.

SIDE NOTE: Vineyards located in Conegliano Valdobbiadene can use either Conegliano Valdobbiadene, only Conegliano or only Valdobbiadene regardless if they are located in one capital or the other.

-2016 Bortolomiol, Extra Dry, ‘Banda Rossa’, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Juicy peach fruit with hints of citrus sorbet and a creamy body – Lusciously Divine.

Conte Collalto, Brut, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Linear with lots of vitality and lots of chalky minerality – a true lady that doesn’t give it up all in the beginning.

 

October 10th, 2017 (2nd Week) – Focus on Rive Sub-Category

The term “Rive” indicates, in the local way of speaking, the slopes of the steep hills that are characteristic of the zone. This category of wine highlights the diverse expressions of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Rive wines are often obtained from the most high-quality vineyards, from grapes grown in a single commune or area, and so, it expresses the underlying characteristics that a particular terroir gives to a wine. Within the denomination, there are 43 Rive and each one expresses a different and distinctive combination of soil, exposure and microclimate.

Val d’Oca, Brut Nature, Rive di Santo Stefano, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG: An elegant beauty with intense chalky minerality, lots of tension and energy – THRILLING!

Masottina, Extra Dry, Rive di Ogliano, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG: This luscious lady had a fine mineral edge with rich, tangy fruit flavors such as lemon confit and peach cobbler and a lovely edgy, long, oyster shell finish!

Tenuta degli Ultimi, Brut, Rive di Collalto, “Biancariva”, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG: This 2013 showed that great Prosecco can age. YES, YOU HEARD ME RIGHT, 2013!!! Pristine, exotic fruit such as lychee, with wild flowers and an elegant saline finish.

October 17th, 2017 (3rd Week) – The Secondary Fermentation: Bottle vs Autoclave

95% of Prosecco uses the autoclave for their secondary fermentation that makes the wine sparkling. The technique of the autoclave was invented by Martinotti (1895), was immediately adopted by the Conegliano Enology school (Italy’s oldest) and perfected for use with the local wines by the beginning of the 20th century (though it did not become widely used throughout the area until after WWII). Some may know the autoclave method by the name “tank method” or “charmat method” (secondary fermentation in stainless steel tank), but the autoclave is the preferred term for high quality wines such as Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, since it is used for the preservation of the beautiful aromatics and flavors that come from high quality Prosecco and should not be equated to bulk made “Prosecco-style” wine.

Secondary Fermentation in bottle usually implies that a wine will have more “yeasty” “leesy” qualities such as toast and brioche-like notes and creaminess to the body. But sometimes the wine is left on the lees longer in the autoclave method, so those notes can be achieved in the previously mentioned technique as well.

-2015 Bellenda, Brut, “Sei Uno”, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, RE-FERMENTED IN BOTTLE: Richness with spiced toast and lemon custard yet good tension on the body. It evolves in the glass eventually giving notes of wet stones.

-2015 Malibràn, “Credamora” Rifermentato in Bottiglia, Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG RE-FERMENTED IN BOTTLE- NO DISGORGE: SUPER WINE NERDY & DELICIOUS – sugar covered almonds, violets, creamy body, hints of brioche with high notes of citrus blossom on the finish. These types of Prosecco wines are called “Col Fondo” which means “with sediment”.

October 24th, 2017 (4th Week) – Cartizze – The Most Respected Sub-Zone

The Cartizze is a legendary sub-zone that is a highly fractured area, with 140 different owners of around 265 acres (107 hectares) that is said to have the ideal combination of mild microclimate, ancient soils and steep vineyards that produce deep concentration and complexity in their wines. Many times, their wines are considered “Extra Dry” and have more  residual sugar than the “Brut” style due to the ripeness in the grapes, but the high acidity makes the wines seem dry on the palate. The first wine, drier version (Colesel), and the second wine, the sweeter one (Le Colture), both excel and the sweeter wine (with 23 g/l residual sugar) is seemingly dry yet richly delectable.

Colesel, Brut, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG, Prosecco: Enchantingly ethereal quality with crumbly silty-stone and juicy stone fruit in the background – a wine with sense of place that offers engaging silky texture with fine bubbles.

Le Colture, Dry Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG Prosecco: A deliriously delicious dream with intense perfume of orange blossom, white pebbles and a hint of lilacs, with lemon drops on the palate – intoxicatingly dangerous with a rich body.

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The Truest Sense of Place within Yourself

I think most people have a need to fit in, to belong; a desire to be part of something bigger then themselves. I’m sure there are exceptions, like people suffering from narcissistic disorders, etc., but I think, generally, humans are social beings that need the company of other people. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider and it was always a mystery how other people connected seemingly so easily. I was the observer, fascinated by their interactions with each other as I tried to figure out the ‘secret handshake’ or password that was needed in order to be accepted.

When I was a kid in school, I never formed any real friendships. I would talk to people but it was always with caution because since I felt like I stuck out as an outsider, I was often one of the people chosen to be mocked. It was not until my senior year in high school, at 17 years old – one year away from legally becoming an adult in the US, that I formed friends at a performing arts school that I attended for a few hours a day in New Orleans. This artistic institution gave kids from various neighborhoods and backgrounds a chance to explore a deeper side of themselves and to gain skills that went beyond the regular classroom.

That first day, I sat in the corner and started my observation as boys and girls started to form their social groups. The white kids formed one group and the black kids formed another group. It was 1992 – I don’t know what it is like in New Orleans now, but back then, it was typical for kids to stay within their own race when forming friendships. At one point I looked up and saw two black girls standing in front of me. One said, “What’s up Doc?!” which is a funny line from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I immediately thought they were making fun of me and I told them to leave me alone. Before I knew it, one of the girls said that it seemed like I was lonely and that I could use some friends… and from that time on we were inseparable in our classes together… so much so that the other kids called us Oreo (a cookie that is black on the outside and white on the inside). I enjoyed  having friends, and at times, I could not help but think that perhaps I had missed out on friendships up until that point because I was not trying hard enough to fit in… hell, it took someone saying to me straight out that I looked like I needed friends for me to finally find schoolmates.

Southern Oregon

It is a tricky thing to try to explain to someone that you are trying to fit in but can’t when they themselves have never had such an issue. Some Southern Oregon wine producers are questioned as to why they are not jumping on the Pinot Noir bandwagon. Oregon is still a name that struggles to find global recognition, and where I live, New York City, people look at you a little funny if you say “I brought an Oregon wine…” and you end that sentence by saying any other grape variety besides Pinot Noir.

 

Troon Vineyards

As I tasted non-Pinot wine samples from Southern Oregon wine producer Troon Vineyard, it triggered those memories from my last year in high school. It was interesting to learn why Rhône varieties prevalent in Southern France would do well in their vineyards located in the Siskiyou Mountains, which differs from Oregon’s most well known area, Willamette Valley. Troon notes that their vineyards have longer days during the summer, contrasted by their days becoming shorter closer to harvest. The combination of both these factors creates an environment that provides plenty of sunshine for those grape varieties that need it, yet not too much, helping to keep alcohol levels reasonable, retaining acidity and allowing grapes to hang longer for more flavor development. Their climate has more in common with Southern France than Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Sense of Place

One day in particular stands out during my senior year of high school, at that artist institution, where we were encouraged by a teacher to stand in front of the class and tell a real life story from our life that was either funny or sad. One of my friends, Rikisha, stood up and started to tell the story of the last time she saw her mother, a drug addict; my other friend, Tamika, went next and started to tell the story of when her mother’s boyfriend stabbed her mother in the back with a knife, which left her mother paralyzed from the waist down. At that moment, as I sat there living with my secret – a drug addicted mother who would tell me that I was only worth what she could get for me (she would get money from her father to be supposedly used for my education) and a father whom I had only met a couple times in my life – I realized why we were friends and why it was not so easy for me to make friends with other people… because I had needed to find other kids that understood my home life in the truest sense of the word.

Although it seemed odd to other people that the three of us would only talk to each other, to us, the Oreo, it made perfect sense. I’m sure it is the same when it comes to choosing to go down another path as a wine producer that goes against the grain of what most wine drinkers expect from you. But sooner or later, I think the best producers realize that the worst way to make a wine is by denying the truest sense of place from their particular vineyards.

It has been 24 years since I have seen Rikisha and Tamika. I haven’t seen them since I moved to New York City after graduating from high school and started on the long road of trying to survive and find my place in the world. Back then, it was not so easy to stay in touch with people, so I wasn’t able to stay connected. But now, I think about them all the time… Rikisha had an incredible strength for someone her age, almost like she was a queen, who spoke quietly yet with great power…. and Tamika was clever and remarkably creative… I remember a one person performance piece she did – it was funny, bittersweet and profound… she left everyone in the audience speechless. They were not afraid of who they were and what others would think… I was not at that point yet and they always tried to get me to hold my head up high and be proud of who I was. Even though I have no idea where they are, I hope that if they saw me today, they would be proud of me.

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Troon Vineyard Samples Tasted on October 31st, 2017

Starting in 2018, Troon Vineyard is launching their program to achieve biodynamic certification. The suggested retail price of all the below wines is $25.

2016 Kubli Bench Blanc, Estate Bottled, Applegate Valley, Oregon: 55% Marsanne and 45% Viognier, crushed by foot and fermented together. Quince flavors with hints of spice that had an alluring perfume note on the finish. A full-bodied white with textural complexity that will be ideal for the cooler months and/or to hold up to richer dishes.

2016 Blue Label Grenache, Rogue Valley, Oregon: 100% Grenache. A warm, inviting wine that I thought did well served cooler than room temperature (10 minutes in refrigerator), with exciting flavors of bright red cherries and black pepper that had good structure that balanced out the fleshy body with a focused finish.

2015 Blue Label GSM, Rogue Valley, Oregon: 39.66% Syrah, 31.61% Mourvèdre, 16.06% Grenache and 12. 67% Sangiovese. Rhône varieties with a touch of Tuscany (the Sangiovese). At first, an intense dried black cherry note was dominant until it evolved over time with savage qualities giving elegant, old world charm. Although intensely delicious with sweet fruit and meaty flavors, it finishes with finesse that hints towards crumbly rocks and wild rosemary, lifted by marked acidity.

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Only as Good as One’s Community

Photo from One of My Trips to Napa Valley

I always get frustrated when I hear stereotypes about New York City, my home. So many times, articles that go viral on the web or stories highlighted in blockbuster movies focus on the wealthy people living luxurious lives ruthlessly stabbing each other in the back, and so, this seems to be the NYC that many people visualize in their mind. I’m not saying that the aforementioned doesn’t exist at all but it represents a very small percentage of the population. The NYC that I know and love is filled with people struggling with impossible circumstances: barely paying our bills, finding enough time and space, and living with large amounts of stress that are mainly rooted in the fact that we are not getting everything done… tick tock tick tock… Why on earth would I love these things about my city?! Well, it would not be possible for the middle class, let alone poor people, to survive in such a situation if there wasn’t a strong community, and if one word can sum up NYC, it would be community.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is another one of those places that people think are populated with just a bunch of fat cats rolling around in money, and so, are on the receiving end of similar misinformed statements to those about New Yorkers, “It must be nice to have that kind of money” (like a character exclaims on “Seinfeld” when Jerry’s retired father misses the early bird special for dinner). These kinds of misleading stereotypes are misnomers that lead people away from knowing the depth of Napa’s story. The original key figures that raised Napa Valley to wine glory were farmers that had a passion for wine… there was a time before The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 (aka Judgment of Paris) when those who owned Napa vineyards were on the brink of bankruptcy… their dreams were fading, but then, the Judgment of Paris brought world recognition and their hard work was finally appreciated. The big, bold personalities of Napa – which are wonderfully depicted in Richard Mendelson’s Appellation Napa Valley – decided that they needed to work together as a region to define themselves and to try to give all vineyard owners and producers a fair shake while keeping the integrity of being a high quality wine area.

Silverado Vineyards

I received a couple of samples of Silverado Vineyards a while back ago and the time never seemed right to try them or talk about them. Well, after this past month of hell for Northern California that involved, at its peak, 21 major wildfires burning an estimated 245,000 acres (99148 hectares), 100,000 people evacuated, 8,900 structures destroyed, and heartbreakingly, 42 people’s lives lost, it seemed like the perfect time to try these wines as Napa Valley, one of the areas hit hard, fell heavy on my heart. These figures I give are current as of October 28th, 2017 and so check out the Cal Fire website to get an updated damage report.

Silverado Vineyards is tied to many of those captivating stories that helped to shape Napa. Abel McFarland, who planted vitis vinifera (the species of vine that is most common for making wine) on the Silverado property in the 1870s, was supposedly one of those fantastical Wild West characters who was into gold mining and gun fighting. Their GEO wine (tasting note below) comes from the Mt. George Vineyard which was founded by Henry Hagen – a man whose Cedar Knolls winery won a Silver Medal at the 1889 Paris World’s fair. And in the 1980s, when Napa Valley was going through the process of redefining their different AVA (American Viticultural Area) boundaries, it was Silverado Vineyards that was used as an example – specifically for the much desired Stags Leap District – to illustrate that Napa should base the dividing line of districts on research done on the type of soils and aspects that represent any given district’s classic style as opposed to superficially basing it on physical markers that neatly help break up the AVAs on a map. Silverado Vineyards had been included in the original AVA but their adjacent vineyards to the west and north that were excluded were added once research came out proving their relation to the Stags Leap terroir.

In 1980, the construction of Silverado Vineyards winery was started by Ron and Diane Miller – Diane being the daughter of Walt Disney, and so, people mistakenly associated Silverado Vineyards with the Disney corporation when in fact it had always been a passionate Miller family business with no association with the media conglomerate. Although there is a wink towards Diane Miller’s famous father with one of three Cabernet Sauvignon Heritage Clones found on the Silverado property, analyzed and designated by UC Davis as the Disney Silverado Heritage Clone because it represented such historical qualities that are distinctive to the area.

The Real Napa Valley

I remember around 7 years ago being on a wine education trip in Napa. One of the Napa guys on my bus started pointing out a distant area that had a bunch of tiny homes packed right on top of each other and he said that THAT was the “real” Napa Valley; where the people who worked in hospitality, in the wineries and in the vineyards lived their lives and housed their families. It was the Napa that no one wanted to know, as it was easier to take pot-shots at the wealthy investors who sunk tons of money to create a place where tourists could escape a dreary existence to live in a fantasy land for a short while.

I think some people often miss the most important thing about Napa Valley, and I honestly admit, I was once one of those people… Napa is a diverse community of people that spread a wide range of economic status, built from the sweat and blood of those that saw it as a promise land for everyone, and it continues to flourish for those with limited opportunities in life because of wealthy benefactors who want to keep the Napa dream alive. Actually, the Napa Valley Vintners association has raised and invested $170 million from Auction Napa Valley to benefit their local nonprofit organizations including healthcare and education for those who cannot afford it. And at this time, Napa as a whole is hurting, not so much the wines (most of the grapes were picked before the major wildfires in that area started, and many wineries used generators to get through their ferments when they didn’t have electricity) but the Napa people. They took a big hit from the loss of their homes, their businesses, their jobs… Great wine is what has helped to keep this community going, so we should buy their wine, visit their wineries and show our appreciation for a place that built their name by coming together to help each other out… Napa has always known that they were only as good as their community, so let’s show them that their community exists beyond the state of California, and be a part of that wonderful Napa spirit!

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Samples of Silverado Vineyards Tasted on October 27th, 2017

2013 Silverado Vineyards, SOLO, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Heritage Clone, with all of the grapes coming from their Silverado vineyard. Lots of vitality and bright red currant fruit is surprising on this Napa Cab, with more subtle nuances of dusty earth and spice but the pristine, fresh fruit that is expressive on the long finish really makes this wine stand out. Only 2, 476 cases made.

2013 Silverado Vineyards, GEO, Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa Valley: 88% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Petit Verdot with all of the grapes coming from their Mt. George vineyard. Seductive smokiness on the nose with cigar box and fresh tobacco notes and is more structured on the palate compared to the SOLO. Dark and brooding blackberry fruit with hints of cocoa powder and just a touch of grip from more noticeable tannins allows one to chew into these alluring flavors with a juicy, prolonged finish. Only 2,200 cases made.

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Counting on Time We Do Not Have

Time is a funny thing. Even though we know that it moves forward at a constant rate, like the most precise base drum in a marching band, at times it seems to move quickly (weekends always fly by much faster than days during the week); other times it almost seems to stand still.  I had one of those moments seemingly frozen in time not long ago, sitting in a historical, cozy, hidden gem in Manhattan – a charming building that housed the long running Wine & Spirits Program. In front of me were five glasses of beautiful Champagne, and one was being dragged off the table by a gentleman’s jacket. Ever so slowly, I saw it move off the edge. I thought I had time to grab it but I was taken by the moment… the beauty and pain of the unpredictability of life… entropy, one of the fundamental forces of the universe, demonstrated in a single moment… before I knew it, the glass filled with Champagne smashed to the ground and everyone in the room froze, not knowing what to do or say.

A Champagne House that Defies the Odds

This was my first introduction to a man whom I was dying to meet… someone who had done the impossible… believed in himself more than the trivial chatter that would question his decision to take on the monolithic task of starting a Champagne house in 1981 when there were already big players well established. That man was Bruno Paillard and his Champagne house is aptly named Champagne Bruno Paillard.
I had the good fortune of meeting his daughter, Alice, last year at a lunch to taste a vertical of their Champagnes. She was bold, passionate and fiercely committed to aged Champagne – a real force of nature, like her father, or so I was told. But I had only heard the legend of Bruno, never a chance to meet the man himself.

Well, a few weeks ago presented my opportunity to finally meet the man who dared to do what many would want but did not take that leap when they had the chance. He was giving a seminar on his Champagne showing us a selection of “multi-vintages” blends of various 2002 selections that represented different aspects of that vintage.

Aged Champagne

 The Bruno Paillard Champagnes are known for a few remarkable qualities, besides being a relatively young house. They have a lower amount of dosage (residual sugar added) creating a drier style of Champagne, the vineyards Bruno purchased include 30 acres (12 hectares) of Grand Cru vineyards out of his total 79.5 acres (32 hectares) making up over 50% of his production; they practice sustainable viticulture, and most importantly, they give the wine time to age – both after secondary fermentation (on the lees) and after disgorgement to help recover.

The last factor of aging is the most important, and defining, of the Bruno Paillard style. Bruno’s father was born in Champagne in 1928 and his father made sure to buy lots of Champagne from his birth date (back then it was not that costly); consequently, as a boy, Bruno, drank a bottle of 1928 Champagne each week with his family. One time, as a child, he had an 1884 and said it was a profoundly emotional experience that he has never forgotten. “I did not inherit money but inherited a love for old Champagne” said Bruno.

Moments Slipping Away

As time raced to catch up with the present, after the glass had smashed, we looked up at Bruno since it was his jacket that accidentally pulled the glass off the table. “Was that me?!” Bruno said, and he immediately, without waiting for a reply, asked for a dust pan and broom and started to sweep up the broken glass as he continued leading the seminar. He was the type of person who did not wait or languish in regret. Instead of being part of the ones complaining from the sidelines, he was going to be part of the few that did something about it.

How many times have we missed out on a moment? How many of us allow life to happen to us instead of us taking responsibility for our own happiness? How many of us face our mistakes with zeal so that we can come up with a solution as quickly as possible? Bruno Paillard is a man who proudly talks about the special moments of his childhood but he is not stuck lamenting a past that no longer exists… he has taken the best facets of his upbringing and combined them with the improvements of the modern world. He lives as fully as someone can in any given point in time, and so every day holds an exciting surprise of the fruits of his labor… Bruno is not counting time he does not have but rather living a lifetime in each moment that is reflected in the depth and longevity of his wines.

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Tasting at Champagne Bruno Paillard seminar October 5th, 2017

All of the Champagnes listed below are Extra Brut (drier than Brut) with no more than 6 g/l residual sugar added at dosage. Bruno said he works with vineyards that get enough ripeness so he does not need to add that much sugar to find balance, “Complexity must not be confused with heaviness.”

Champagne Première Cuvée MV (multi-vintages):  45% Pinot Noir, 22% Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay (from Côte des Blancs). 38% from reserve wines that include 25 vintages since 1985. Bruno calls his non-vintage wines multi-vintages because he specially blends various vintages to find a particular style. 3 years aging on the lees and allowed 5 months of “recovery” after disgorgement. It was disgorged in February 2017.

Mouthwatering granny smith apple and citrus peel that has cinnamon toast notes. Despite being a drier style, it was not austere in any way… creamy texture and plenty of fruit.

Champagne Rosé Première Cuvée MV (multi-vintages): Majority Pinot Noir (some vinified as white, some as red) with a small amount of Chardonnay. The blending and aging practices are similar to the above Champagne Première Cuvée MV.

Light strawberry flavors with dominant chalky minerality, lemon blossom and red currants on the finish. A Rosé Champagne with lots of tension and precision. I was dreaming about having this with some cured meats.

2002 Champagne Blanc de Blancs (poured from magnum): 100% Chardonnay. 9 years on the lees and minimum 1 year of rest post disgorgement. It was disgorged in January 2013. All of his vintage wines except the N.P.U. have a different label for each vintage that is an artist’s rendition of the aromas and flavors that Bruno discovers in that particular wine. This label shows the whimsical floral notes that can be found.

Dried flowers with peach and marzipan that has a linear, oyster shell finish.

 

-2002 Champagne Assemblage: 47% Pinot Noir, 42% Chardonnay and 11% Pinot Meunier. 7 years on the lees and minimum 1 year of recovery after disgorgement. It was disgorged in September 2011. This label has an impressionist style.

This wine needs time to open to show its full complexity. It evolved through time with delightful notes of candied almonds, pear syrup and wet stones, with a broader weight giving it more richness than the Blanc de Blancs.

2002 Champagne N.P.U. “Nec Plus Ultra” (aka Nothing is Higher): From Grand Cru communes: Oger, Chouilly, Verzenay and Mailly. 13 years on the lees with 3 years of rest after disgorgement. 2002 needed more time than the 2003, which was disgorged last year. Silky, fine texture with apple tart and roasted almonds with a fully flavored, multi-complex finish that seemed to never stop. Wow Wee Ah Wow, Wow… yes, that is a technical term.

Bruno said the N.P.U. is the ultimate Champagne, in his opinion.
There are 7 points for the NPU:
1. Only Great Vintages: 1990, 1995, 1996, 1999, they released the controversial 2003 last year and this year the 2002
2. Only Grand Cru vineyards
3. Only 1st pressing – true for all Champagne, but Bruno said it was better to say things out loud instead of assuming
4. Fermented in 100% barrique and left in these small barrels for 10 months
5. Minimum 10 years of lees aging
6. No more than 3 g/l residual sugar at dosage
7. Minimum of 1 year “recovery” rest after disgorgement

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The Road Less Traveled

Some people are just so truly creative that even though they have been raised in a seemingly average life, they are able to be innovators in certain fields that go against the grain of normal convention. Others, who were perhaps unknowingly innovators earlier in their life, are thrust into a tragic situation that challenges their mind, body and spirit, and with their back to the wall, they discover that they were meant for greater things.

Champagne Duval-Leroy

A few weeks ago, I went to a low key Champagne tasting in a charming Champagne parlor called Air’s in the West Village of Manhattan in New York City. I was exhausted and overwhelmed that week (I was just getting back from two separate wine press trips) but didn’t want to miss out on tasting some Champagne with other ladies in the local wine and media business. I had no idea that I was about to learn a story of a remarkable woman.

Carol Duval-Leroy

Carol Duval-Leroy, originally born in Belgium, lost her husband Jean Charles Duval-Leroy in 1991 to cancer – he was in the prime of his life at 39 years old; she was only 35. Many would assume that she would just sell the family Champagne house, Duval-Leroy, to a much larger Champagne corporation, but she made a promise to her husband that she would run the company until she could pass it on to their sons, Julien, Charles and Louis – who were only 8, 6, and 4 when they lost their father.

Femme de Champagne

This event was for invited females only since we were drinking Carol’s Femme de Champagne, launched in 1991 after her husband’s death with the 1990 vintage – a Champagne that was originally conceived by her husband. The wine is made from grapes exclusively grown in Grand Cru areas, yet she decided to name it “Femme de Champagne” (Woman of Champagne) since it was up to her to keep the family business running. The Femme de Champagne project was a great way for Carol to get past one of the most difficult times in her life; it was also the time she decided to hire 23 year old Sandrine Logette-Jardin as her Quality Manager. Hiring Sandrine paid off as Duval-Leroy became the first Champagne house to be granted ISO 9000s certification – an inventory procedure that helps to ensure high standards. In 2005, Sandrine became Chef de Caves of Champagne Duval-Leroy – the first female head winemaker of a Champagne house.

Duval-Leroy was the first Champagne house to produce a certified organic Brut Champagne, which is still made today (wine made from grapes grown organically and Ecocert FR-BIO-01 certified), and Carol Duval-Leroy was the first and currently only female to be appointed President of the Association Viticole Champenoise. Duval-Leroy Champagne is served at many of the top Michelin-starred restaurants around the world; when Carol was young she dreamt of becoming a chef, and so, she has a great admiration for the top chefs around the world.

It was not only wonderful to taste such special wines from an extraordinary lady, but it was also nice to see women who I have known in the business for many years… some of them had given me much needed encouraging words about my work at one time, and I have been happy to pay it forward by emboldening other women. Sometimes it is very difficult to see our own worth or value when there is no one to validate our contributions in life…such as having someone like Carol hiring a young woman like Sandrine and entrusting her to bring her family company to another level.

There were a couple of men at this Champagne tasting that I certainly hoped were enjoying being surrounded by women. One of them, who simply introduced himself as someone working for Champagne Duval-Leroy, came over to me as I was tasting the vertical of their Femme de Champagne wines. He was curious to know what I thought… well, the Champagnes, which I was previously unfamiliar with, were even better than I could have imagined… yes, elegant with lots of finesse, yet an intense richness and complexity that is not often associated with “female” styled wines. He immediately said, “Yes, they have a lot more to them than people think.” I found out later that he was one of Carol’s sons, Julien Duval-Leroy, as all three of them work for their family Champagne house. It made me smile to know that he knew the true power of women.

Sometimes There is No Reason

I like to believe that many times, there is a reason for things to happen unexpectedly, but honestly, there have been certain events that have happened in my life and those close to me that I know had no reason – unfortunately, bad things happen to good people and some are given a lot more knocks in life than anyone could deserve. But when these tragedies happen, I find the best thing to do is to think about the people around you… how it is not good enough to just survive; you have to be the force that goes beyond the cards you were dealt in order to find meaning in life. That is what Carol did… and I think her sons are so lucky to have her as their mother… and we are all lucky to have a great example of a woman who took the road less traveled.

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Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne Tasting on Sept 28th, 2017

Champagne Duval-Leroy owns 494 acres (200 hectares) of the Champagne vineyards they use which makes up 1/3 of their production – 40% of the grapes are from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. Duval-Leroy is located in the Côte des Blancs, an area in Champagne where some of the best Chardonnnay is sourced, and hence many of their Champagnes are Chardonnay dominant.

Femme de Champagne is a blend of Duval-Leroy’s best Grand Cru vineyards that is made only during years that they deem to be exceptional as well as having a lower than average dosage compared to other Champagne houses.

-1990 Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne: 89% Chardonnay and 11% Pinot Noir with 4 g/l residual sugar at dosage. The vintage that started the Femme de Champagne is one that is tied with bittersweet memories of pain and finding the strength to go on and take on the world alone. As harvest approached, this vintage saw an extremely rapid rise in temperatures and so those who could be selective produced some richly enticing vintage Champagnes. Big and bold with honey and candied-ginger although the mousse is fine as it gallops across your palate. May 16th, 2017 is the disgorgement date.

1995 Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne: 76% Chardonnay and 24% Pinot Noir with 4 g/l residual sugar. Generous and inviting with almond paste, lemon meringue and a broad palate – it was creamy and decadent in texture. May 16th, 2017 is the disgorgement date.

1996 Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne: 79% Chardonnay and 21% Pinot Noir with 4.5 g/l residual sugar. The 1996 Champagnes, as well as Burgundies, are known for their fierce acidity, linear body and in the best cases, pristine fruit… this one lives up to the legend of this vintage while I certainly can’t say that about all the 1996 vintage Champagnes I have tasted. Lots of energy and vitality with quince and an aromatically floral nose… could continue to be cellared for many more years as it seems still a baby. And may I say it had a “holy crap” long finish. Wow! March 21st, 2017 is the disgorgement date.

2000 Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne: 95% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir with 6g/l residual sugar added with dosage.  Ripe peach with toasted brioche and a hint of orange blossom – fine bubbles and a very long, expressive finish.

 

–1997 Champagne Duval-Leroy, Femme de Champagne, Rosé de Saignée: 100% Pinot Noir from Grand Cru vineyards. One of the very few houses in Champagne that make a Rosé by “leeching” during maceration of Pinot Noir rather than blending red wine into the assemblage (final blend) before the secondary fermentation. This 1997 Rosé de Saignée has structured elegance with intoxicating aromatics of sweet spice, crushed cranberries and a textured body that has a flavorful finish. It would be perfect to have with game bird!

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Like Minded Hearts Find a Way

As I sat by the edge of the sailboat gazing at the turquoise water of Lake Garda, in Trento, Italy, I could hear the Captain talking about what made this boat different from the others. It was open in the back to allow people with physical disabilities, such as being confined to a wheelchair, to have access to the boat (also, an elevator could take people to the bathroom below). As serendipitous as I thought it was to be on this sailboat instead of the others – our 30 person group was broken into several smaller groups for the boat rides – the Captain then talked about how they mainly use the boat to help children and adults with autism. There was research that pointed to being on the calming water assisting with them finding a way to relate to other people on the boat, and our boat further assisted the idea of creating a calm world by having a heavier bottom. As my eyes moved up to the Dolomites, a special UNESCO Heritage section of the Italian Alps, I thought about this place that made thrilling, elegant sparkling wines and how it was imbued with many kind hearts.

Trentodoc

I was in Trento to explore Trentodoc wines, specifically, the leading producer of this wine area – Ferrari Trento. Trentodoc is the designated high quality wine area in Trentino, Italy, that can be used by wine producers who make these traditional wines from a particular mountainous area that are assessed to be to at the approval level for Trentodoc certification. Although the history of these sparkling wines did not start until 1902 with the legendary Giulio Ferrari, it is believed that Trentino has ancient roots going back over 5000 years. But Trentino, with 77% of the land being above 3280 feet (1000 meters) in altitude and the highest vineyards going up to 2953 feet (900 meters), presents some intense challenges, and hence why it took a real lion’s heart such as Giulio’s to make into reality the dream of producing some of the greatest sparkling wines in the world made mainly from Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) – as well as Pinot Meunier and Pinot Bianco (Blanc).

Ferrari Trento

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of the #FerrariCamp2017, led by Ferrari Trento in their home of Trento, Italy. It is owned by the Lunelli family whose grandfather, Bruno Lunelli, a wine shop owner in Trento, started a partnership with the brilliant Giulio Ferrari. Giulio himself did not have heirs to carry on his legacy, including study in Champagne as well as his knowledge developed as an enologist at the San Michele all’Adige Agrarian Institute. Today, with the third generation taking the reins, Ferrari Trento has become one of the most well-respected sparkling wines in Italy – always part of any special event that holds major significance in the hearts of Italians. Yet still, to this day, they pay homage to the man who laid down the foundation, Giulio Ferrari.

It was not only remarkable to hike through the Ferrari vineyards and tasting several wines, but it was also an uplifting experience to spend time with the Lunelli family and their Ferrari team. We were a group of around 30 people from around the world, mainly Wine Directors and Sommeliers, with a couple of us media people in tow. They invited the group to pose tough questions to the Lunelli family about any misgivings they had about their wines, and there were a couple of tough critics who mainly focused on how difficult it was to go up against Champagne in other markets – although everyone did admit when it came to quality that Ferrari delivered.

It was touching to see some of their long time employees, seemingly part of the family at this point, jump up to emotionally and ferociously defend all the energy they placed into improving their Ferrari wines and the environment and those that live among them in Trento, when it was questioned that it didn’t make any business sense since their prices would always be limited due to lack of international recognition.

What We Value in Life

When I think back to that sailboat ride with the Captain sharing his beautiful philosophy of life… how people make themselves miserable because they only focus on how the world benefits them instead of valuing our achievements by how we make the world a better place… I could see what was the purpose for the Lunelli family – constantly striving, whether it was to help improve the practices of the 500 wine growers (each owning an average of 1 hectare/ 2.5 acres) they work with, or making sure people far and wide could experience their extraordinary way of life surrounded by the Dolomite mountains, as they seemed to value their lives based on how it changed the world for the better.

It was fitting that I had an encounter with Camilla Lunelli, granddaughter of Bruno Lunelli and now Communication Director for her family’s winery. We talked about our deep desire to promote a positive, uplifting energy to the world… I was fascinated to know more about her so, later, I did some research and found out that she had spent some time doing volunteer work in Uganda before she decided to come back to Trento to work with her family. Just like I realized that I was meant to be on that boat, I realized why I was on that Ferrari Trento trip… like minded hearts just have a way of finding each other.

 

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Tasting at Ferrari Trento on September 21st, 2017

Side Note: Although Trentodoc wines can use Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) and Pinot Meunier as well, Ferrari only uses Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) in their wines.

Ferrari Brut: 100% Chardonnay. They could call this a Blanc de Blancs since it is 100% Chardonnay, but the Lunelli family said it was important to keep it as simply Brut since it does ideally represent their house style – fiercely elegant with a linear shape and complex minerality that finished with white peach and mouth watering acidity. If you love traditional sparkling Blanc de Blancs wines, and you have never had Ferrari Brut, you are missing out! At around $23 in the US, it will quickly become your weekly sparkling treat.

 

Ferrari Rosé: 60% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and 40% Chardonnay. A pale pink color with a copper hue that gave enticing aromatics of rose petals and cranberry… this sparkling Rosé, with marked acidity, would be ideally paired with prosciutto and a glorious day spent at Villa Margon in Trento, Italy.

-2010 Ferrari Perlé: Strict selection of 100% Chardonnay from top-quality zones in Trento. Rich, with spiced toast notes, marzipan and candied lemon and velvety texture on the finish. 


-2011
Ferrari Perlé Rosé Riserva: 80% Pinot Nero and 20% Chardonnay from vineyards owned by the Lunelli family. Orange blossom, wild strawberries and a hint of marmalade fills one’s palate with flavorful delights. Despite being opulent in flavor, this wine still had a freshness and great vitality on the finish.

-2009 Ferrari Perlé Nero: Strict selection of 100% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) grapes made into a Blanc de Noirs aka white sparkling. Vineyards owned by the Lunelli family, such as the highest sites of Villa Margon. This wine really stood out for its multi-structural quality – having a firm tactile presence in the mouth with a great weight – it could be paired with game or heavier dishes.  Acacia and honeysuckle danced in my head as I enjoyed this lusciously bodied wine.

-2008 Ferrari Riserva Lunelli: 100% Chardonnay from the slope section of the Lunelli mountainous vineyards – a minimum of 7 years of lees aging. Creamy texture with alluring flavors of golden apple – and when I came back to it after it sat for a while, it opened up with lemon custard and roasted nuts… it had fine bubbles that gently caressed the palate.

-2006 Giulio Ferrari, Riserva del Fondatore: 100% Chardonnay from up to 1970 feet (600 meter) high slopes on the mountains of Trento that are owned by the Lunelli family. This sparkling wine is only made in the best years, and has at least 10 years of lees aging. When their namesake, Giulio Ferrari, fled Trento during World War II, he decided to build a wall in front of the cellar to protect his bottles from being stolen. When he came back after the war, after being gone for 7 years, he tasted some of these wines and realized how well they could age. This is why they named this wine – one of the longest lived Ferrari Trento wines – after him. This wine truly represents an impressive history in traditional sparkling wine and it is one of the greatest ways to pay respect to Giulio Ferrari. Toasted coconut flakes with brown sugar and an extra exotic layer of mangosteen flesh on the long finish that had a profound sense of finesse. A special, special wine in so many ways.

 

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A Personal Victory with a Glass of 10 Year Old Moscato d’Asti

It was a gorgeous day, one of the hot ones as the weather swung from hot to cool to hot again, when I was visiting wine producers in the land of Moscato – Asti, Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy. I was in the tiny eastern village of Strevi, known for its much higher acidity in its Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines as well as a delicious honeyed note. I was in front of the Marenco steep vineyard “Scrapona” which meant “to hike” in the local dialect. The challenge was placed before my group – we could either try to take on the challenge of climbing to the top or we could take the bus to meet up with those who dared to take on the seemingly almost vertical trek. I took one look up the never ending upward-climbing trail and immediately said, “Oh heck no… I’m taking the bus”. But then many people in the group started skipping up the Scrapona vineyard, some even shouted back to me that they were old enough to be my parents and I was silly to not take on this minor task. And so, damn it, I was not going to look back with regret; I gave a fierce yell of joy before I started up the hike.

Scrapona

Scrapona is considered one of the best vineyards in Strevi’s prestigious Bagnario Valley – Strevi being one of the first three villages of Moscato d’Asti. This is the first time I really got to dive into the Strevi terroir. It is a shame that their Moscato d’Asti wines are not as well known as Canelli  located in the most eastern part of Asti and they offer a very different interpretation of the Moscato Bianco variety. Their crisp acidity, intense energy and distinctive honey note makes them stand apart from all the other Moscato d’Asti wines I tasted during my visit, and Scrapona was the ideal expression of Strevi’s great potential.

Marenco Vini

The Marenco family can trace their farming roots in Strevi back to 1261. Currently, three Marenco sisters run the winery and vineyards:  Michaela, with her husband Dr. Giovanni Costa and brilliant son Andrea Costa, and her sisters Patrizia and Doretta. Patrizia is the first woman to graduate from the School of Enology in Alba and she talked us through our tasting as her nephew, Andrea Costa, translated for her. Earlier that day, I learned from Andrea’s contemporaries that he was nicknamed “The Professor”, because he is always trying to educate the younger generation of producers, and so he is obviously following in his aunt’s footsteps of trying to raise the quality of Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines, as well as sparkling Brachetto, which Strevi is known for as well.

After we finished our winery and vineyard tour, we came back to their lovely Marenco home that had a remarkable view and lots of wines that were matched with a thoughtful dinner awaiting us. As Patrizia and Andrea talked us through our first flight of their 2016, 2012 and 2007 Scrapona Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines, they touched upon the recent research of how well their wines could age. Not only is the Scrapona site unique for Moscato d’Asti, but it is planted with 5 different clones, one of them being a Marenco clone from their original family vines which they believe give it even more distinctiveness. They felt that their high acidity as well as the residual sugar helped to preserve the wine, and, ideally, aging in bottle would express more captivating facets of their wines since recent research shows that Moscato Bianco may need aging to fully express itself.

As we dove into tasting the 2007, I could hear sounds of pure delight fill the room and saw a previously nervous looking Patrizia start to relax with a big smile on her face. She said she was nervous since she was tasting this 10 year old Moscato d’Asti wine for the first time herself, none-the-less with a group of wine buyers and journalists from the US; it turns out that even she was thrilled, surprisingly, with the result.

Enchanting End to a Victorious Day

As we continued that evening to taste their wines over dinner, an accordion player serenaded us with his music, Andrea Costa danced with his wife and baby, and I gazed out over the horizon to see a grand painting by Mother Nature. Somewhere out there was that insurmountable Scrapona vineyard that I ended up conquering by reaching the top… don’t get me wrong, I stopped quite a few times while questioning the wisdom of my choice… but I did it and ultimately it was not as bad as my mind first thought it would be… then I looked back at Patrizia Marenco, the first woman to graduate from the School of Enology in Alba. Initially, it must have seemed impossible to her to be that first woman, an impossible task, yet here she is continually pushing the envelope by tasting us on a 2007 Moscato d’Asti… it was certainly a personal victory, but even more importantly, it is a victory that can inspire us all in times of doubt.

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Wine Tasting Dinner at Marenco Vini on September 2nd, 2017

2016, 2012 and 2007 Moscato d’Asti wines were tasted side by side: all have low alcohol (5.5% abv) with around 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. All considered warm vintages and they illustrated how Marenco wines could still have potential to age even from warmer conditions.

2016 Marenco, Scrapona, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Luxurious flavors of honeysuckle and peach pie with bright acidity and lots of energy.

2012 Marenco, Scrapona, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Intense, flinty minerality which I loved with flavors of acacia honey in the background.

2007 Marenco, Scrapona, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Honeycomb with a hint of lanolin and sage with a bright, expressive finish. Wow!

2013 Marenco, Albarossa, Piemonte DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Albarossa. In 1938, Giovanni Dalmasso thought he crossed Nebbiolo and Barbera, but in fact, crossed Barbera with Chatus (also known as Nebbiolo di Dronero). Albarossa is known for its small berries and thick skins that produce wine with delicate spicy and fruity aromas and a creamy texture. Typically it is used as a blending partner for its color but a few producers have realized its potential as a single varietal wine. Only 5 producers currently make a 100% Albarossa wine. This was a dark, brooding wine with rosemary and charred ember notes and juicy fruit on the palate.

The following two Passito wines used grape bunches that were “naturally” dried, according to their DOC regulations, and mechanical fans and such are not allowed. It is tradition for the local people in Strevi to buy a Passito wine on the year that their baby is born.

2012 Marenco, Scrapona Passri, Moscato Passito, Strevi DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. A viscous sweet wine that was balanced with tons of vitality: grapefruit, orange peel, candied ginger and smoky black tea.

2012 Marenco, Passri’, Brachetto Passito, , Piedmont, Italy:  100% Brachetto. Only 5 producers among 7 acres (3 hectares) of this Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG exists. It is not made every year. Stewed red cherries with cinnamon and gingerbread that danced upon the palate with all its glorious lushness.

Tasting of Marenco White Barbera at Consorzio dell’Asti Greetings Dinner on August 30th, 2017

2016 Marenco, Carialoso, Monferrato Bianco DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Caricalasino (aka White Barbera). When I first heard about this wine, I thought it was the red grape Barbera vinified as a white wine. But no, it is a rare, white native grape of Piedmont which was in danger of disappearing. Patrizia Marenco discovered some old vines in Strevi, and in 1990 decided to start experimenting with them. About 3000 plants of this mysterious variety were reproduced. Toasted almonds with golden apples and fresh tarragon that is well-structured with extract and marked acidity.

 

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The Madman of Moscato d’Asti

For almost a year, I have been delving deeper into the world of Moscato d’Asti DOCG from Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy. I’ve found it fascinating to research this style that inspired a worldwide trend of making semi-sparkling, sweet Moscato wines. As much of a compliment it is to the Asti area that other parts of the world want to emulate this style, it has been a detriment to its reputation as many mediocre wines have flooded the market bearing the Moscato name, but from areas that do not have the same sense of place, tradition, and most importantly, quality of Asti. This has made the producers who make Moscato d’Asti DOCG even more vigilant to strive for only the best in farming their particular clone of the Moscato Bianco grape on their steep vineyards, coupled with ideal winemaking procedures, enhanced by their intense research and investment. This commitment to excellence is being led by none other than Romano Dogliotti, whom some say is crazy because of the extreme practices he employs to bring a distinctive sense of place to his Moscato d’Asti wines.

Romano Dogliotti

Romano Dogliotti came from a grape growing family that specialized in the Moscato Bianco grape. His father sold the must (freshly pressed grape juice) to larger companies who made the semi-sparkling Moscato d’Asti and the sparkling Asti wines. But, in the late 1970s, when Romano got involved in their small family grower business, Azienda Agricola Caudrina, he decided to reserve the best grape bunches from his vineyards, painfully experimented with inventive winery practices that would express the purity of the fruit, bottled it, and sold it directly to wine consumers. Word started to travel about his enticing Moscato d’Asti wine that was named “La Caudrina” and the increasing demand from his local restaurants and wine bars started to cement his reputation with those who sought out the best Moscato. This led to the famous “La Galeisa” Moscato d’Asti, which is his strictest selection from his vineyards, and the delightfully playful “La Selvatica” Asti Spumante which bears a label drawn by the legendary grappa distiller Romano Levi.

Today, Romano Dogliotti is still an innovator, a passionate zealot that some have deemed a madman in the greatest sense of the word. Although many of the top producers of Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines produce low yields in their vineyards, for quality and concentration, Romano still makes 1/3 less than even the most high quality minded producers. A madman that many of his fellow producers admire, and sigh at the very thought of his efforts and how his standards seems impossible to obtain by mere mortals.

Consorzio dell’Asti DOCG

Consorzio dell’Asti Presentation: Director Giorgio Bosticco (left) and Chairman Romano Dogliotti (center)

It was fitting that before we visited Caudrina, we spent time at the Conzorsio Asti Laboratories to participate in a seminar conducted by the Consorzio dell’Asti DOCG – a group that protects the Moscato d’Asti DOCG and Asti DOCG wines as well as conducts research and development. Romano Dogliotti is the Consortium’s Chairman, and when it comes to safeguarding the integrity and prominence of these wines, there is no other person that is better suited.

As it seems that the news is constantly filled with everyone trying to fight for the largest piece of the pie, it is great to see that there are still those madmen whose focus vigilantly stays fixed on improving themselves instead of wasting time looking for what others possess that they lack. We need more of Romano’s spirit in the world – a spirit that not only never wavers on its extreme standards but also a spirit that spends each day believing that there is always a higher bar to set.

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Wine Tasting Lunch at Caudrina on September 1st, 2017

 2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Caudrina, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1979 – 35 acres (14 hectares). Low alcohol (5.5% abv) with 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Pristine stone fruit and white flowers with an overall finesse that is absolutely lovely.

 2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Galeisa, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1970 – 9 acres (3.5 hectares). Low alcohol (5.5% abv) with 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Intense chalky minerality with sweet spice and a velvety texture that has a long finish.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Selvatica, Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1975 – 6 acres (2.5 hectares). Low alcohol, 7% abv, yet slightly higher than above, and 80-90 g/l residual sugar, made in a fully sparkling way (spumante). Light and agile on the palate with wild flowers and a hint of brown sugar – so much fun!

2015 Romano Dogliotti, MEJ, Piemonte Chardonnay DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Chardonnay planted in 1980 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Hedonistically tropical on the nose with elegant stone fruit on the palate and a touch of wet stones on the finish.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, Lunatics, Piedmont, Italy: A dry, white sparkling wine made from the local red grape variety Albarossa planted in 2004 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Albarossa is one of the few successful crossings. In 1938, Giovanni Dalmasso thought he crossed Nebbiolo and Barbera, but in fact, crossed Barbera with Chatus (also known as Nebbiolo di Dronero). It is known for its small berries and thick skins that produce wine with delicately spicy and fruity aromas and a creamy texture. Typically it is used as a blending partner, yet a couple producers in Piedmont do make a 100% Albarossa red wine – but this was the first white sparkling wine I have every heard of… let alone taste. It had a gracefully alluring nose with a richly textured body.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Guerriera, Piemonte Barbera DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera planted in 1975 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Another fun innovation with a slightly sparkling Barbera red wine that expressed violets and ripe cherries, ideal with the homemade veal tartare they served us at lunch.

2015 Romano Dogliotti, La Solista, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera planted in 1975 – 5 acres (2 hectares). Lots of energy and bright wild berry fruit was beautiful expressed in this Barbera without any maturation in oak.

 2013 Romano Dogliotti, Redento, Piemonte Moscato Passito DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1968 that have been dried to intensify the concentration and sweetness – 5 acres (2 hectares). An exquisitely lush and complex sweet wine made from the dried bunches of Moscato Bianco. This wine “Redento” is named after Romano Dogliotti’s father who wisely handed over their family wine business to Romano in 1997 – a fitting tribute.

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The Birthplace of Moscato d’Asti: Wandering the Underground “Cathedrals”

As we descended further and further into the cavernous dwellings, it felt as if we entered another universe, an underworld of serenity that majestically displayed an untold number of  bottles and barrels of wine. Further along, I felt the temperature drop – I started to put my light jacket on as I gazed up at the arches in the ceiling, formed by bricks. I wandered off from our tour here and there, and followed the glow of lights that led me to wondrously large format bottles that were comfortably evolving in this heavenly subterranean dwelling… all of the various tunnels beckoned me to discover the delightful libations aging at the end of each path. I was in the land of Canelli, a place were Moscato grapes have been grown since the 13th century, and explored the Coppo cellars that carry the prestigious subzone “Canelli” on their Moscato d’Asti DOCG wine.

Coppo

Coppo winery has been around since 1892, and the Coppo family has remained sole owners since that time, making them one of the oldest family-run wineries in all of Italy. We were guided by the founder’s great-grandson, Luigi Coppo, who spoke with great reverence of the historical accomplishments of the previous generations. One of the many Coppo achievements is their “Underground Cathedrals”… cellars that have such distinct architectural allure that they have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Barbera

Although we were there to delve into the special qualities of Moscato d’Asti from Canelli, in the area of Asti, Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy, we could not visit Coppo without tasting their famous Barbera d’Asti wines. Luigi’s father and three uncles run the winery and were truly visionaries when it came to taking the grape variety Barbera more seriously; they sought out single vineyards that expressed the different facets of the Asti area as well as employed modern vinification techniques that displayed the structure and intricacy of this famous Piemontese grape. Their work was ultimately expressed in their outstanding Barbera d’Asti Pomorosso, in 1984, which ushered in a new era of high quality Barbera production in the area.

Moscato d’Asti in Canelli

Because of the focus on their well-heralded Barbera d’Asti wines, it is easy to forget Coppo’s importance when it comes to shaping the Moscato d’Asti and Italian sparkling world. It was in Canelli in the 1800s when Coppo made the first Italian sparkling (spumante) wines that were made with secondary bottle fermentation. Although Moscato d’Asti is made in its own unique way that highlights its varietal characteristics, it illustrates Coppo’s long experience and devotion to finding the right sparkling techniques for different styles of wines. Their Moscato d’Asti semi-sparkling (frizzante) has that creamy texture that is ideally sought from a Canelli Moscato.

After walking through their extensive “Underground Cathedrals” – 16,400 square feet (5000 square meters), reaching a depth of 130 feet (40 meters) – we ended up emerging into their enchanting courtyard, greeted with a bottle of their Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti. It was the perfect drink to have after such a celestial experience. As I sat there thinking about Luigi’s role within his family winery, a family that already has four strong-minded men running it, I could not help but be impressed by his emotional intelligence. He had a way of making each person, no matter their personality, feel at home and valued. Despite the intense pressure he felt being the spokesperson for his family’s astounding wine legacy, he still kept things fun and playful. Like their Moscato d’Asti, Luigi is complex and has many layers, yet he never loses sight that the most important thing about wine is that it connects people from all over the world and creates experiences that we will never forget.

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Tasting at Coppo on August 31st, 2017

2016 Coppo, “Moncalvina”, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, subzone Canelli, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Low alcohol (4.8% abv) with 136 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Peach jam with a touch of rose water and a lush body with a slight hint of white stones on the finish.

2016 Coppo, “L’Avvocata”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. This wine offers great value (around $13) and expresses Barbera in its fun and easy form as it only sees stainless steel vessels in the winery. It has a pretty cherry blossom nose with fresh strawberries and mouthwatering acidity on the finish.

2015 Coppo, “Camp du Rouss”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. For only a couple dollars more, this Camp du Rouss offers more complexity, with stricter grape selection and 12 months aging in French oak barrels. The bright red fruit is still evident, yet enhanced by cinnamon spice and tobacco leaf with more weight on the palate.

2014 Coppo, “Pomorosso”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. This label celebrates the 20th anniversary of the creation of this wine that was instrumental in changing the perception of Barbera. Extremely strict selection of grapes from one of their top vineyards, where an apple tree grows (hence the name), with 14 months aging in French oak barrels, although it is the profound sense of place that makes this wine stand apart from the rest. Sweet blackberry jam and floral notes are dominated by a fierce minerality that gives this wine an elegant drive.

 2000 Coppo, “Pomorosso”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. It was a nice treat to see a Pomorosso with a lot more age to exhibit its ability to improve with time. Truffle-y goodness was the first aroma to waft into my head, followed by cigar box and roasted nuts. It still had plenty of fruit, with more noted on the palate, and a vigorous finish.

 

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