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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A Loss in Life Can Create Open-Hearted Richness

Leola Watts is a woman who has had to suffer through one of the most imaginable losses – her son passed away at the tender age of 34. She said, “I was lost. I was literally lost. He was my baby.” In the face of a great tragedy it can seem impossible to go on, and some do decide to crawl into a hole and die, but others find a way to take that deep pain and turn it into love, then give that love to those that desperately need it.

Chablis 2017 Vintage

Chablis is a designated wine area that is in the most northern area of Burgundy; actually it is closer to Champagne than to the rest of the designated Burgundy wine areas such as Côte d’Or. Recently, many of you might have heard about the extreme frost Chablis received in the beginning of April or even more shocking were the photos that flooded the internet showing icicles on the vines, or the beautifully tragic photos of tin containers filled with a flammable substance burning for many hours during the night trying to protect the delicate buds. Well, unfortunately this threat of frost is starting to become a common experience and Didier Séguier, William Fèvre’s Cellar Master, said that they lost “50-70%” of their yield in some of their Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards during another spring frost in late April of 2017.

Open-Hearted Richness

Leola Watts decided to take the path of turning her sorrow into love by volunteering for The New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA)’s Foster Grandparent Program. She is currently assigned to the first grade class at Montclair Elementary School. According to NYSOFA, “Foster Grandparents offer emotional support to children who have been abused and neglected” and Leola gives her heart to each child – the entire student body calls her “Granny”. The other teachers found out that Leola was anonymously buying the kids much needed gloves, hats and scarves during the wintertime as well.

In the same way that a devastating loss can be an opportunity to give affection and kindness to kids that desperately need it, it is like the grapes in the Grand and Premium Cru vineyards of William Fèvre that become rich and generous since, in many cases, over half of the buds were lost in the spring of 2017. There was a lot more energy in the vines than grapes to give it to, and so, an immense amount of vitality and potential went into each grape. And William Fèvre, despite going through difficult times, is striving to find greater expression in their top sites. Didier Séguier noted that they are using “natural yeasts for Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites” and sometimes for their village wines as well, if the grapes are pristine. Also, they started biodynamic practices in 2010 on the right bank of Chablis with all their Grand and Premier Cru plots, and all of their vineyards are organic. Didier talked about the importance of this sense of place by stating, “the expression of Chablis is the expression of the soil. We don’t make Chardonnay, we make Kimmeridgian soil wine.”

Investing in Potential

It can be crushing to be given such a horrible blow in life; many times, the only way to go on is to find how one can turn tragedy into purpose. Of course, William Fèvre is trying to find the best ways to deal with highly destructive frost, as well as hail, but they also realize the importance of investing in the health of the vines, making them stronger, better able to handle the ferocity of life. Leola Watts said that the Foster Grandparent Program “saved my life” but I’m sure that she is not only giving comfort in the form of winter clothing to those six year old kids, she is strengthening their potential with love, and I’m certain she is saving some of their lives as well.

 

***All of the above photos are credited to William Fèvre

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Tasting of 2017 William Fèvre Grand and Premium Cru Chablis Wines on March 6th, 2019

The term “Domaine” notes that it is a vineyard owned by William Fèvre. Also, William Fèvre owns 15% of the Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis. And for those who don’t know, as it can get a little confusing, all Chablis AOC wines is made with 100% Chardonnay.

Didier Séguier said about the 2017 vintage “We started harvest the 4th of September and very small yields with 15-25hl per hectare; but perfect grapes because the weather was perfect. We decided to harvest a week earlier for acidity.” Also, “The wind the last two weeks before harvest reduced the yields and concentrated the sugars and acidity.”

2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume: Citrus zing with concentration and good acidity, citrus peel and has a real mineral backbone.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Premier Cru Montmains (Domaine): This Montmains Premier Cru vineyard is known for its upfront minerality, which it did display along with an energetic, quince flavor that had a long finish of lime blossoms.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons (Domaine): This Premium Cru represents all the different types of Chablis terroir within its vineyards. Tropical, juicy fruits with hints of chalk and white flowers with marked acidity that lifted the richness.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre (Domaine): The oldest vines they have are in this plot, planted in 1936 – over 80 years old. White peach skin with crumbled rock that had a rich, creamy body with a stunning purity on the persistent finish. This really over-performed as a Premier Cru.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Grand Cru Bougros (Domaine): Delicious generosity of ripe nectarines with enchanting nose of lemon verbena with a thrilling vitality on the focused palate.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Grand Cru Bougros ‘Côte Bouguerots’ (Domaine): These vineyards have a very steep slope with a gradient of more than 30%. This was an outstanding wine that had fierce, steely acidity yet an intense richness of multilayered fruit flavors that was laced with saline minerality.

-2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses (Domaine): A textured Grand Cru with upfront minerality with hints of lemon confit and dried flowers that finished with an incredible finesse that made it powerful with its shear beauty.

 

2017 William Fèvre, Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos (Domaine): These vineyards have soil mixed with fossils and stones (lots of Kimmeridgian soil) with 31.5 inches of limestone as well as the majority of vines were planted by William Fèvre’s father in the 1940s. An exotically spiced wine that had golden apple and honeysuckle flavors with an oyster shell edge that danced in my head for the next hour. These wines warmed my heart with their generosity while still keeping their elegance and sense of freshness and place. Chablis does not need to be austere to deliver nobility, if anything, the addition of rich fruit and lack of hardness makes these the type of fine wines that are felt by the heart.

Extra side notes:

-Gravity pressing

-They harvest in small baskets

-Vinify plots separately and then blend

-These wines that I tasted above were only bottled two and a half months earlier

-William Fèvre vinifies 30% in used large barrel for six months for texture while the rest is vinified in stainless steel

-Many of the vines were planted by William and his father during the 40s and 50s – so lots of old vines – small yields

-Chablis is the only place that makes still Chardonnay wine from Kimmeridgian with England making sparkling wine from Chardonnay in Kimmeridgian soil

-William Fèvre has been practicing sustainable growing in their vineyards for nearly ten years now and they have just obtained High Environmental Value (HEV) status

-William Fèvre is not the largest producer of owning Chablis vineyards overall but they do own the most amount of Premier and Grand Cru sites: around 130 different plots

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Distant Lands Inspire the Exploration of Truer Sense of Self

Traveling to far-flung, vastly culturally different places is challenging on many levels and at times extremely exhausting. When one lives such an already overwhelmingly challenging life trying to survive, such as I’m sure many of you do, it may seem odd that someone like myself who feels overwhelmed ever week, or anyone else for that matter, would want to spend her small amount of vacation time visiting a place that offers so many obstacles – the best way I can explain it from my own experience is that this type of travel gives you a chance to tap into a purer form of yourself.

Louis Gaspard d’Estournel

Louis Gaspard d’Estournel is considered the founder of Cos d’Estournel – the ‘Super Second’ Left Bank Bordeaux wine in the most northern area of the Médoc, Saint-Estèphe, for the Grand Crus Classés wines. d’Estournel inherited the properties of Cos and Pomys in 1791 and even back then he was a believer in the terroir (sense of place) of the hill of Cos. And so that is how Cos d’Estournel started, and despite it being located in an area that had issues ripening tannins, it was placed quite high as a 2nd growth in the 1855 classification.

Travels to India

d’Estournel did not only sell his wines to British officers stationed in India starting in 1838 but he also built Cos d’Estournel to look like an Indian palace, made from French limestone, that has accents suggesting sacred pagodas throughout the property. As I walked around the estate, I felt that the surroundings evoked feelings of South Asia and East Africa (India and Zanzibar respectively) – several artifacts pointed towards many trips taken to exotic lands. This Cos d’Estournel estate showed the commitment, especially during those times, of a man who had more than just a business interest in the East but who was truly smitten and perhaps connected to places he visited.

My husband and I took our first trip to the other side of the world over 13 years ago. It was our honeymoon and we actually had two weeks off – that is a lot of time for Americans – and so we thought we would go to Thailand and Vietnam, never to have that chance again. It was a complicated journey that was tough on the body and mind, as well us getting ourselves into a few harrowing situations. But despite that, we found ourselves not wanting to go back home because we had found the home we were always missing. Of course, we came to our senses, realizing we could never figure out a way to make a living in either of those countries and took some small mementos back – like the carved piece of wood we bought in northern Thailand – to bring back those memories.

I have thought long and hard about the reasons behind us contemplating staying in South East Asia and walking away from everything to live in a place with an unforeseeable future. It is sort of like the path that the character Larry takes in the book The Razor’s Edge – a traumatized American WWI pilot who no longer feels at home in his old life. At one point in the book, Larry has a discussion about a trip he took to India that helped him to find where he belonged in the world. The discussion takes place between Larry and the author, W. Somerset Maugham, who places himself in the book as an observer. In the book, Maugham notes that this conversation can be skipped without losing the plot of the story yet he states that without this section he would not think the book would be worthwhile to write. I first read this book when I was a teenager, and several times in my early 20s, and that one section of Larry talking about his trip to India spoke to me. I never knew why until I was 31 years old in the middle of South East Asia.

Cos d’Estournel

I’m sure there were many Bordelais who did not appreciate the architectural style of Cos d’Estournel when it was first built, and even today, some traditional, old school Bordeaux drinkers refer to the property as being bizarre. Today the property has great appeal to a younger audience of Bordeaux drinkers who love the infusion of East and West – for me it is one of the most beautiful estates I have seen. While I walked around during my visit there, I could not help but think of the man himself, Louis Gaspard, and his own connection to the East. Did he always feel like an outsider and so that is why different cultures appealed to him? Did something happen in his life that changed him to seek out another land to connect to? Or did he end up traveling to distant lands out of a sense of adventure and realized that there was more to life than he could have ever dreamt?

For the main character of Larry in The Razor’s Edge, it was about him being forever changed by war; for myself, I was always an outsider trying to fit in and oddly I felt more comfortable in a land where I stuck out like a sore thumb. There is something wonderful about going somewhere so different that when you travel off the tourist’s path you are treated by people simply as a human being because it is difficult to have any assumptions when people are so far removed from each other. It is a much truer way of connecting, contrasting with the encounters we have with others in our own world where quick assumptions are made based on a few superficial facts. Traveling to cultures that are foreign to us in almost every way frees us to tap into a sense of self that goes beyond the expectations of the societies of our homeland.

Expressing the Terroir that was Always There

In many ways, that has been Cos d’Estournel’s journey as it has always been a great property and certainly one of the top in Saint-Estèphe, but it had always seemed different and placed in a box which has limited its potential by outside expectations and so no one ever thought of this property rivaling the great wines of Pauillac. But instead of trying to turn themselves into a great Pauillac wine like Lafite or Latour, Cos d’Estournel decided to go deep, not being afraid of its atypical or exotic nature – to go on the journey of discovering a whole new expression of excellence in Bordeaux.

The current owner, Michel Reybier, constructed a vat room that involves four vats encased in glass elevators, so no pumping is required, which creates finer tannins in the wines. Furthermore, Reybier and his team have isolated specific plots in their vineyards – 19 different soil types and varying microclimates – and not only can they gear their vineyard practices to these discoveries, but they choose which variety goes where depending on their analysis of that plot. Cos d’Estournel has been on an inner pilgrimage, peeling back the layers revealing that the property is more extraordinary than even its greatest fans could ever imagine and the outside world has been impressed – many Bordeaux wine experts placed Cos d’Estournel on the top of their lists for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages.

All those years ago, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel knew that there was something special about the Cos that seemed of another world, a world beyond Bordeaux, hence it is fitting to have it be such an exquisitely unique place; a place that reflected the dream of d’Estournel that finally makes wine that lives up to that once thought of impossible dream that was inspired by distant lands.

 

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Tasting at Cos d’Estournel on March 26th, 2019

-2018 Vintage-

2018 was a vintage of extremes in Bordeaux and the quality is inconsistent, yet those properties that had luck on their side, as well as the desire and capacity to go the extra mile, produced excellent wines with beautiful texture and complex flavors.

-2018 Goulée by Cos d’Estournel: 73% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet France. This wine comes from their Goulée vineyard that is ideal for elegant Merlot. An expressive nose with notes of broken rock with hints of rose oil that had cinnamon spice throughout with blueberry pie that has tannins that caressed the palate with an energetic focus.

2018 Pagodes de Cos: 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. A generous wine that had an open heart with delicious cassis flavors that was also deeply complex with fresh leather and an earthy charm that has an intriguing turmeric root note, finishing with a fine structure. Impressive second wine!

2018 Cos d’Estournel: 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. A stunning sense of grace that left me completely enchanted with a satin texture, incredible linear energy and rich dark fruit flavors layered with cocoa nibs and traces of sandalwood incense smoke that transported me to another place. The finish was breathtaking in its persistence and pure finesse.

-2018 Pagodes de Cos Blanc: 93% Sauvignon Blanc and 7% Sémillon. Crisp acidity that gave a wonderful vitality with juicy nectarine flavors and hints of lime blossom and a hint of wet stones.

 

2018 Cos d’Estournel Blanc: 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Sémillon. Honeysuckle with white flowers, chalky minerality and green mango notes made this wine regally exotic with an enticing textural component that at once gave it weight and structure that had an impeccably purity of fruit on the finish. The whites of Cos d’Estournel are extremely impressive although I had never thought of giving them much attention until this tasting.

-2014 Vintage-

2014 vintage was not a super star like the 2016s as it was lighter, but 2014 was certainly more concentrated than 2013 or 2007. Basically it made fresh, classic wines but some areas and estates did better than others with round tannins and a fair amount of concentration. The top estates of Saint-Estèphe did quite well in the 2014 vintage and so it makes sense why Cos d’Estournel proudly tasted us on the red lineup of this vintage.

-2014 Goulée by Cos d’Estournel: 78% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Cabernet Franc. This had a gamy, savory quality that I liked that was perfectly balanced by blackberry liqueur and had firm tannins that played off of the lush fruit.

2014 Pagodes de Cos: 43% Merlot, 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. More forest floor notes on this wine with a gravelly character with a laser focus that gave it lift and fresh black fruit showed on the sustained finish.

2014 Cos d’Estournel: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. I loved the smoldering incense character I got with this Cos d’Estournel, with a nose of dried flowers, fresh herbs and wild truffles that had tannins that felt like silky ribbons across the body.

-2005 & 2003 Cos d’Estournel-

2005 was known as a perfect vintage where everything happened in the ideal way in the vineyards and it was also the vintage that created a whole new standard in Bordeaux. 2003 was one of the hottest in recent history where some elderly people actually died in France from the heat-waves; many of the wines ended up becoming too desiccated for classic drinkers, although a few, such as Cos d’Estournel, were able to make elegant wines with freshness.

2005 Cos d’Estournel: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. This bottle was a lot more open than when I had the 2005 last in January of 2016. Incense and clove notes were still dominating the nose with extra layers of cigar box and stony rocks that still had plenty of that blackcurrant jam on the palate. I still feel it is far from its peak and will only get better with more time.

-2003 Cos d’Estournel: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet. This 2003 shocked me back when I had it last in the beginning of 2016 and it shocks me still today as it is fresh and vital, unlike so many other Bordeaux wines that are dead and dried-out. This is a beautiful wine to drink now as it had sweet spice, round pretty fruit and it was seductive with its plush body yet that sandalwood note was still there with bright acidity and elegance.

-2017 Cos d’Estournel-

2017 is one of those vintages that is difficult to summarize because it is all over the place. For many wines, the quality is a couple notches below the across-the-boards stellar 2016s, but there are standouts, especially in Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. I tasted over 150 wines at the Panorama Primeurs (tasting the wines one year after En Primeur) at Millésima on the same day of my visit to Cos d’Estournel. It was a fun vintage to taste because there was so much variety and there were some shining stars that unexpectedly thrilled me. I will be posting my 2017 notes soon.

2017 Cos d’Estournel: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. This 2017 was just as extraordinary as their 2016 but stylistically different. Instead of prancing and giving everything at once like the 2016, it was deeper and mysterious as it was always evolving in one’s head with, yes, that incense and spicy note but it had multifaceted flavors of an array of black fruit while being laced with intense minerality. And despite the tannin quality being an issue for some in 2017, the texture on this Cos was fine and outstanding and it made this wine desirable while still being deeply moving in its complexity that seems never-ending.

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Full Circle: Realizing That Paradise Is Where You Started

Turning onto a dirt road, the fear of the GPS no longer being of any help starts to sink in; yet the fear is tempered by the raw beauty of the surrounding forest that enveloped the car with the slowly rolling fog seemingly a greeter to an enchanted place. Once it got to the point where it seemed that one’s destination would never appear, the forest opened up showing a glorious hillside vineyard. It is serene – hawks flying overhead and old redwood trees circling the vines as if they were the ancient protectors of this parcel of land. There is no way to capture this place with a photo – one can only take in the moment. A vineyard that no one would ever guess was there, tucked away like a hidden treasure.

Santa Nella Vineyard

This story was shared with me by the winemaker of Kenwood Vineyards, Zeke Neeley, about his single vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Nella as we tasted this wine from the 2015 vintage. Zeke said that the great thing about Sonoma, with its protected 52 regional parks, is that many of these vineyards are tucked away surrounded by nature – and most importantly, that nature could be enjoyed by those who lived and visited Sonoma County. The locals have such a commitment to preserving such a healthy way of life that the Sonoma County Winegrowers has made a commitment to try to get as close to 100% sustainability as possible for their vineyards. In 2018 they reported 97% (58,318 acres) as being sustainable according to a self-assessment and 89% (51,485 acres) actually being certified.

Zeke talks about Kenwood’s plans for sustainability with not only having their own vineyards being 100% certified sustainable, moving towards organic in their estate vineyards, but trying to get all the farmers they deal with to become certified sustainable as well; right now he estimates that “90-95%” of the vineyards outside of their own estates are sustainable. Yet trying to get multi-generational grape growers to become certified has its challenges as the paperwork can be scary to people who know a lot about working their land but do not know that much about the outside world. On the positive side, Kenwood is there to assist them as well as the Sonoma County Winegrowers who will help them with the logistics of becoming certified for free.

Kenwood Vineyards

Zeke became the winemaker for Kenwood around 2 ½ years ago. He has an interesting background as he initially started in the BioTech industry working on cancer research until he found himself at UC Davis studying for an M.S. in Viticulture and Enology. For about a decade, Zeke had been a winemaker in Napa Valley with experiences at two very different wineries; the first, Trefethen and the second, Orin Swift. Trefethen is a family owned winery that only works with their own estate vineyards while Orin Swift is a much bigger enterprise sourcing fruit from “60 different vineyards and working with four separate facilities.” Both experiences taught him a lot in regards to great terroir as well as juggling the logistics of managing a multitude of vineyards. Zeke said that a new winemaker is expected to bring innovation to the winery that he is joining and so there is an expectation for him to take things to the next level. Kenwood already has all the goodies when it comes to modern technology and his innovation is to make the wines better year after year. “That is the only innovation I can offer” said Zeke and he continued, “If we are not improving the wines every year, we are failing.”

The Barn

Despite Kenwood making their single vineyard wines since the 1970s, expanding to a more selective process with their Six Ridges line a few years back, such as the Russian River Valley ones I tasted below, there is a more concentrated focus in finding top performing vineyards among the plethora they source from in the Sonoma area with new projects such as the first vintage of The Barn – a wine that represents the heritage of the past with the energized direction of the future. Many of you will know Kenwood’s wines as those bang for the buck ones found in your local corner stores. Of course, giving a more general taste of Sonoma County for $16 is still important to their mission of making these wines accessible to all, just like allowing the natural beauty of the area to be enjoyed by everyone, but there are a lot more hidden vineyards and attention needs to be given to expressing their brilliance instead of blending it away – that is where Zeke comes into the picture. It is no small feat to visit several vineyards (that are not so accessible) on a constant basis to find the next stars but he is up for the task.

The name and label of The Barn is an homage to Kenwood’s restored old winery which is now their tasting room that was originally established by other owners in 1906; not only did it survive the changing of various hands throughout the decades, but it has survived Prohibition, WWI, WWII, the devastating 1906 earthquake (which was their first vintage) as well as the economic collapse after this tragic event. Zeke looks towards his four best vineyards and takes the strictest selection of premium fruit from each, and then, after the various plots of wines are aged for a year, there is a final selection to create The Barn and then it continues to age – the first vintage is 2016. It was singing the day I tasted it and showed the potential of Zeke being the custodian of these vineyards.

A Coming Home

Zeke said that, in many ways, working for Kenwood was like coming back home because he grew up in the Bay area of San Francisco – just south in Daly City. He spent his summer vacations at his grandparents’ home in Sonoma and he remembers it being “paradise”. Even before he went into the wine industry, he and his wife would drive up from San Francisco and take his grandparents out for lunch and go wine tasting, and sometimes they took them to Kenwood. Again, that was before he changed paths to go into the wine world and so he feels he has come “full circle”. Sometimes we have to step away from home for a while to truly appreciate everything as it is and to cement the idea that it is every bit the paradise that our young minds remember.

***Photo Credits for First and Third Pictures Above Belong to Kenwood Vineyards

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Kenwood Vineyards Tasting on March 12, 2019 with Winemaker, Zeke Neeley

 2017 Six Ridges, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: 100% Chardonnay. This wine only has around 25-30% new oak (French and Hungarian) as what he is shooting for is to showcase the fruit with only partial malolactic and some battonage for body. It was a pretty wine with elegant white peach and a hint of spice and white flowers that was slightly creamy yet invigorating on the palate as well.

 2016 Six Ridges, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: 100% Pinot Noir. This is a blend from selected vineyards that displays different aspects of Russian River Pinot like the above Chardonnay; some linear and tart and others lush and fruity to create a multilayered wine. This wine had a rich concentration with strawberry reduction balanced with dried sage and a brightly flavorful finish.

2015 Single Vineyard Santa Nella, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: 100% Pinot Noir. This single vineyard had more vibrant fruit with fresh cranberries and black cherries that had a thrilling energy with a touch more tension; it had complex aromas on the finish with anise seed and a stony minerality.

 

-2016 The Barn: 100% Pinot Noir. This bottle had only been opened for 30 minutes (kept in the bottle) and it was singing from the start – remarkable. Zeke sources from four of his best vineyards and takes the top selection from each, and then, after a year of aging, he makes the final selection and it goes back to aging some more. The Barn is on another level with an incredible richness of cherry pie, cocoa powder and pressed lilacs with baking spice that had an extra layer of hints of forest floor and wild morels.

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