Pinot Noir Wines Expressing Differences From Three Great Vineyard Sites Throughout California

Landmark Hop Kiln Estate
Photo Credit: Alexander Rubin Photography

California is one of those states that provokes an array of images – pictures of jaw-dropping natural beauty that can range from the charming vineyards that are tucked within the numerous woodlands of Sonoma County to the magnificent views of the rugged central coastline in Big Sur to further down to the much visited stunning beaches of Santa Barbara. A wine producer in Sonoma called Landmark Vineyards recently compared three single vineyard Pinot Noir wines from great vineyards in these three different wine regions in California. One might automatically think that the most northern vineyard in Sonoma Country would be the leanest wine and the more southern vineyard in Santa Barbara making the richest but it is quite the opposite and it really shows the diversity of the topography of California with its various pockets that can produce a wide range of Pinot Noir excellence throughout the state.

Greg Stach first started with Landmark Vineyards 20 years ago and only took a brief break to work at another Sonoma wine producer in Russian River Valley early in his winemaking career. He was quickly called back to Landmark with an assistant winemaking position that led to him eventually becoming head winemaker. Before he started his journey as a winemaker he worked in the restaurant business as well as wine retail in northern California and quickly became a wine geek with the siren song of Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County getting him hooked. Like a true wine geek, he became curious about wines from all over the world and his evident passion made many in the business around him suggest that he make the leap from wine buyer to winemaker. At first, becoming a winemaker seemed impossible as the science was too much for Greg when he first took enology classes at the University of Fresno in his early 20s but with a lot more age and experience under his belt, he went back to get his enology degree and he was back to his first love of making California Sonoma County Pinot Noir.

Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County

:Greg Stach
Photo Credit Landmark Vineyards

As much as Greg was obsessed with Pinot Noir from Sonoma County, he was also game to taste as much Pinot Noir from other wine regions in California throughout the years and as time went on, the wine areas within Santa Barbara, a place that had at one time been mainly known as a wonderful travel destination for those who wanted to avoid the crowded beaches of Los Angeles (two hours south of Santa Barbara) to take in the serene atmosphere of the Santa Barbara coastline, started to receive his attention. Over the years, various wine areas in Santa Barbara, such as Sta. Rita Hills, have made a name for themselves among wine connoisseurs as great wine growing places that were remarkably cool climate areas. In a lineup of three of Greg’s Landmark single vineyard Pinot Noir wines including one from Russian River Valley and one from Monterey, it is the southernmost of the three, the La Encantada Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, that has the coolest accumulative weather according to Greg.

Sta. Rita Hills “is in a much more windier climate” notes Greg and not only does it give the wine brighter red fruit, he believes that the grape skins thicken as a reaction from the intense winds and so the wines will have a lot more structure.

Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County

Four hours north of Santa Barbara is one of the most photographed places in California, the Bixby Bridge which is along a section of the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. The majestically over-whelming view encompasses a palette of varying shades of blues reflecting from the Pacific Ocean while surrounded by heart-stopping jagged cliffs that are brought together by an elegantly designed bridge that brings a focal point that helps one to digest the over-whelming landscape. Just a half an hour away is the wine region of Monterey County and its most well-known sub-region Santa Lucia Highlands where Greg sources Pinot Noir grapes from the Escolle Road Vineyard, in the northern section of Santa Lucia Highlands.

The Escolle Road Vineyard is cool-climate as well and it is influenced by the fog and sea breezes from Monterey Bay yet it has a longer growing season, sometimes up to a month longer, and so it will get darker fruit and a distinctive “plum” character that sometimes has added notes of chocolate. Greg noted that the owners of this vineyard are also produce farmers and so if anything goes awry, the owners can bring over a crew of 100 to meticulously handle any challenges in their vineyard.

Russian River Valley in Sonoma County

And four hours north of Monterey is the famous Russian River Valley in Sonoma County with Greg’s Hop Kiln Vineyard – he noted that once they bought this vineyard in 2016, that “Landmark bought a landmark” as Hop Kiln has a remarkable history. The label of Landmark’s Hop Kiln single vineyard Pinot Noir with hop kilns on the label points to its history as a piece of land where Italian stonemasons built these large hop kilns in 1905 so they could grow hops and dry them. Eventually a disease wiped out the hops as ideally hops should be grown in an area that freezes every winter but as luck would have it, the hop farm was right next door to the Rochioli winery and vineyards – one of the most well-respected and sought after vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Through time, the property was planted with Pinot Noir as a known superior site and it ended up in Landmark’s hands as one of their most prized possessions.

Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood, Sonoma
Photo Credit: Landmark Vineyards

The Hop Kiln Vineyard is in the Russian River Valley area called the Middle Reach which contains a who’s who of some of the most iconic producers and vineyards and it is known as well as the warmest area in the wine region. Just for contrast, Greg talked about their Rayhill single vineyard in the Sebastopol area of Russian River, one of the coolest areas, and he said that the wines were “vastly different”. But when it comes to the Hop Kiln Vineyard it is more complicated than it just being the warmest site as when it comes to temperatures “the highs are higher but the lows are lower” compared to the other two properties as Greg explained and that in general, Sonoma County, where the Landmark winery is located, will get a few days of intense heat during summer weeks but the latter part of the week will be countered by a few days of significantly cool weather as the fog is pulled in by the heat and cools things off until it dissipates; and the fog lingers for several hours more in the area of the Hop Kiln Vineyard compared to Greg’s experience at their winery in Kenwood, Sonoma County. Furthermore the Hop Kiln Vineyard is divided into different sections as the elevation varies by 300 feet from bottom to top and so some of the grapes can be richer and plusher while others more vibrant and fresh. And so the resulting wine has red cherry jumping out of the glass that is additionally highlighted with black and blue juicy fruit, sweet spice and a luxuriantly inviting body. 

Greater Appreciation for What Started It All

Greg notes that his handling of these single vineyard Pinot Noir wines are similar in the winery for all three wines and includes trying to allow native fermentations when possible, using only free-run juice with no pressed wine added and small amounts of new French oak in cellaring the wines in barrel. Even when it comes to working with various Pinot Noir clones (different mutations of the Pinot Noir grape variety) in these vineyards he feels that those vines that reach ten years or older really display more of the sense of place, a.k.a. terroir, in the wine than the different characteristics of the clone. As it is really mainly about place for Greg, that is what he is always looking for in his single vineyard designates and the idea that he gets to work with one of his favorite grape varieties in different terroirs really makes this journey a constant thrilling experience.

But one cannot help but notice the extra glimmer of excitement when Greg talks about the Russian River Valley Hop Kiln Vineyard that represents where it all started for him. Tasting the wines of Rochioli was a game changer for Greg and he noted that he, like many others, started his wine journey with Pinot Noir “because it is approachable”. But after discovering Russian River Pinot Noir he went and explored the whole world, training his palate and his mental awareness of different styles and quality levels, but then he came back to Pinot Noir “because it is really the most complex red wine there is”. As what has a great appeal to many, such as the wine that everyone is fighting over at the party, doesn’t mean it is not the most complex and elegant as the idea that only wine geeks can get a truly great wine doesn’t always hold true in every wine situation. Sometimes great wines attract a diverse audience of wine lovers because it hits so many pleasure centers and just enjoying it is enough. Although for others, such as Greg, they need to taste the world of wines learning as much as they can to see what they are missing out on only to be led back to those wines in Russian River Valley that started it all… but with a greater appreciation of what these wines bring to the table.

Landmark Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Wines
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

***This article was originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/09/17/pinot-noir-wines-expressing-differences-from-three-great-vineyard-sites-throughout-california/?sh=6f3f29b141e6

2018 Landmark Vineyards, ‘La Encantada Vineyard’, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, California: Overall pretty and elegant wine with vibrant flavors of pomegranate and cranberries with aromatic rose oil notes balanced by earthy forest floor and energetic acidity with structured tannins.

2018 Landmark Vineyards ‘Escolle Road Vineyard’, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, California: Sucks one in with its deep and dark fruit and dark chocolate flavors that has contrasting hints of citrus peel that meld together to create a chocolate covered orange slices note with a richer body than the La Encantada Vineyard. 

2018 Landmark Vineyards ‘Hop Kiln Estate’, Russian River Valley AVA, California: Singing with red cherries and rich blackberry and blueberry flavors with a background of baking spice, smoky minerality and earthy morels that danced across the plush body; a sweet and savory knockout punch with an intensely mineral edge.

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Spanish Family Winery Survival Saves Century-Old Ungrafted Bush Vines

Close Up of Old Bush Vine Photo Credit:
Bodegas Piqueras

A secret garden of vineyards sit at 2,300 feet and beyond in elevation within a tiny wine region called Almansa in Spain, surrounded by limestone mountains called El Mugrón that protect the old, dry-farmed bush vines that are ungrafted as it is a place that is quite isolated from anything from the outside world. Ungrafted vines are always a remarkable sight in Europe considering that European vineyards were almost wiped out completely by an American pest called phylloxera, hence why many European grape vines are grafted onto American rootstocks to combat it. Almansa soils are mainly made up of limestone and they are poor in nutrients and the combination of having such a soil with an arid, cooler climate makes it difficult to grow anything besides cereals, olive and almond trees and vineyards that produce low yields.

It is a town that, many times, gets passed up as one drives from Valencia on the central eastern coast to the city of Madrid without the person knowing that in their rearview mirror is a special designated wine region that specializes in such unique dominant red grape varieties such as Garnacha Tintorera (known as Alicante Bouschet in France) and Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France). But if European wine history has taught the wine world anything it is that many wine regions were never fully discovered because there wasn’t a strong enough transportation infrastructure to assist them with getting their wines to markets in major cities and the wine regions that became popular early on were able to construct vital infrastructures to vital markets.

It is amazing that these old bush vine vineyards were able to survive in a tiny delimited wine region in Spain that had no fast track to fame, especially considering that the European Union was paying vineyard owners to pull up their vines as there was a European wine surplus – combined with these low yielding vines make it difficult to make a living when they are tragically being blended away into bulk wine; even the Spanish Civil War, from the mid to late 1930s, played a part as many of the wine producers from the small town of Almansa either died in the war or were part of the hundreds of thousands of people who just went missing during and after that time. Yet one family was able to continue on and kept these old bush vines alive: Bodegas Piqueras.

Bodegas Piqueras

Luis Piqeras
Photo Credit: Bodegas Piqueras

Luis Piqueras started making ‘jug wine’ for his neighbors in 1915 and he was one of the few locals that had the great fortune of coming into a significant amount of money in the late 1920s and hence he was able to buy a large plot of land where he would build a modern winery over time. Luis’s son-in-law Mario Bonete went on to study winemaking and today, Mario’s son, Luis’s grandson, Juan Pablo Bonete Piqueras runs the winery with his brother continuing to strive to showcase these vineyards so they will survive for generations to come. As Juan Pablo (known as JP1) was standing in his tasting room surrounded by black and white photos of his grandfather and father, he stated that his father, Mario, established the Almansa DO in the 1960s to make sure it was recognized as a quality winegrowing area. “In fact my father was the president of the DO for more than 18 years and I was also the president of the DO for eight years,” Juan Pablo said with pride as it is very much a family mission to keep the Almansa wine region alive with his brother, nephews and soon to be his son joining the fight. And considering there are only 12 wineries that are a part of the DO and 750 grape growers with Piqueras producing over 80% of the wines from the Almansa DO, if Piqueras decided to close shop it would have a massive negative effect on the region.

Piqueras Wild Fermented Verdejo
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The winemaker of Bodegas Piqueras, Juan P. Cantos, affectionately called JP2, is another one who has joined the fight after spending many years learning from other wineries around Spain, as well as a harvest to refine his white winemaking skills in New Zealand, and he even won a competition to become a winemaking student at the legendary Spanish winery Vega Sicilia. Interestingly enough he was born in Almansa but his winemaking dreams took him to other places until four years ago when he decided to come back home mainly due to family and friends but he discovered in the process of coming back that there was a wealth of old bush Monastrell and Garnacha Tintorera vines.

Juan Cantos is very well aware that the red variety Monastrell is not only better known coming from the Southern Rhône (Mourvèdre) but also from other areas of Spain such as Jumilla and Yecla – the latter being a wine region he has already previously worked in, and that Garnacha Tintorera a.k.a. Alicante Bouschet is a rare red variety from Southern France with red flesh as well as dark skins yet has recently made a strong name for itself in Southern Portugal, its often proclaimed adopted home. But Juan Cantos makes a case for those who love these grapes, and those who are curious about them, that the Almansa wine region is a place that shouldn’t be missed but getting that message out is difficult because their budget as a wine region is severely limited due to only having a handful of wine producers in the region.

Wealth of Old Vines in a Modest Wine Region

Castillo de Almansa
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Bodegas Piqueras makes a few different lines of wine and the ‘Castillo de Almansa’ is the most widely distributed; one can find them in the U.S. from $12-$15 and although they are their middle tier wines, they still contain 45 to 65 year old dry-farmed Monastrell and Garnacha Tintorera with the ‘Selección’ containing Monastrell, Garnacha Tintorera and Tempranillo from 65 to 90 year old dry-farmed, ungrafted bush vines. Then their premium line of wines go by Piqueras such as their ‘Piqueras VS’ that contains 50% Monastrell and 50% Garnacha Tintorera from dry-farmed, ungrafted bush vines that are over a century old, and the VS is such a beloved wine that it is the only one that Juan Cantos and Juan Pablo Bonete Piqueras sign. Juan Cantos has been working on a couple of fun projects such as the ‘Piqueras Wild Fermented Verdejo’ white wine and the newly released ‘Los Losares’ which are two different single varietal wines from a single vineyard that is 3,000 feet in elevation containing a stony soil with vines that are over 80 years old; there are two bottlings, only 6,000 bottles made of each, one is from the old dry-farmed, ungrafted bush vines of Monastrell and the other with Garnacha Tintorera.

It is still a struggle to get the word out about these special vines that are off the beaten path, tucked away in this limestone mountainous area of Almansa but at least there is a producer such as Bodegas Piqueras who has been able to guarantee a paycheck for these farmers year in and year out for over a century; if it wasn’t for Piqueras, potentially all of these old, ungrafted vines and a way of life that involves traditional vineyard farming techniques would be lost as other places around the world are certainly much more famous and can command higher prices, unlike the unknown Almansa. And to think, it all came down to one day, the day that the founder Luis Piqueras bought a lottery ticket for eight pesetas and he ended up winning the equivalent of $50,000. That not only changed everything for the home winemaker to invest in building a professional winery but it changed the courses of actions that could have taken place for the entire winemaking area as the farming families would have to grub up these precious vines just so they could put food on the table. And it is only fitting that a woman who runs their administration office in logistics is the granddaughter of the man who sold Luis that ticket. A moment in time that altered the future lives of so many yet this community is still hoping to get to the next level… where the globe recognizes the value they bring to the wine world.

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French Wine Producer Using Electric Wires To Combat Frost In Chablis, Burgundy

Domaine William Fèvre Grand Cru Les Clos 2009 and 2018
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Very little sleep was had by Domaine William Fèvre’s cellar master Didier Séguier while he fought 20 nights of frost over a span of only 29 days in the Chablis wine region in northern France in April earlier this year. “And the temperatures were very, very low this year, around -8 Celsius [18 Fahrenheit],” Didier explained. In some vineyards they lost 50% of their potential grapes in vineyards where they were able to employ protection against the frost while other vineyards lost all of the potential for any grape bunches hence there was zero production. Even though Didier is very well-acquainted with frost, as it has become one of the most concerning issues for Chablis over the past six years, 2021 was still a shock in its relentless onslaught of severe freezing temperatures.

“The frost has become more and more of an important factor compared to 20 years ago,” noted Didier, as bud break (first stage of the vine cycle) used to happen later in the year and so if there was a frost it wasn’t that extreme when it came to low temperatures and most of the buds could survive; yet today, due to climate change, the higher temperatures earlier in the year, around end of March, bring the vines out of their winter dormancy earlier and the resulting bud break is more at risk with colder weather that is not only due to an earlier start in the year but the weather has become even more extreme since the past six years; they are no longer just dealing with temperatures that are just below freezing as the lows have dipped even further.

Over the past few years a multitude of profound photos of lanterns and candles in the Chablis vineyards have flooded the internet every spring showing the world how these wine producers are trying to bring warmth to the vines, pictures that are at once stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking. But when it comes to dealing practically with the frost, Didier says one of the best tools they use to combat it is the un-romantic electric wire. 

Frost Protection

Bud covered in ice
Photo Credit: Domaine William Fèvre

There are three main practices that Didier uses to combat frost: spraying water, lighting candles and electric wires. They will spray water in their ‘Côte Bouguerots’ section of their Grand Cru vineyard Bougros but for the rest of their vineyards where they implement frost protective practices the choice is either candles or electric wire. Didier, who is always concerned with the environmental impact, insists on animal fat based candles as opposed to gas filled lanterns as it is less toxic for the surroundings, although in his opinion there is nothing like electric wire when it comes to battling the frost in the most efficient and sustainable way.  

Electric wires are the most “environmentally friendly and the easiest to use on many levels but is considerably more costly,” states Didier. Just the idea of the man power that William Fèvre needed with bringing out all those candles in the middle of the night, for 20 nights among multitude of plots within Chablis (they own 193 acres in total with 77 acres being Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites) makes one’s head spin, and it is impossible to bring out enough people and candles and so many vineyards were 100% damaged by the frost in 2021. Yet the electric wires can be programmed to turn on automatically when the temperatures go too low and so it is easy to understand how electric just makes more sense, as well as it doesn’t emit anything into the air, although it is costly to properly install and maintain these electric wires and so at this time they only have it installed in almost four acres of the Grand Cru Vaudésir and part of the Grand Cru Les Preuses as these areas are highly prized plots that also have a high risk for frost. But he says that they are planning to add more electric wires to the Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre in 2022 and the remaining part of Les Preuses in 2023.

 Modern Sensibility Balanced with Old Values

William Fèvre cellar master Didier Séguier Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

As climate change takes its toll on Chablis, as it is doing all over the world, Domaine William Fèvre is exploring practices that incorporate modern sensibility while still maintaining their core values, being a wine producer that first started 250 years ago, of taking care of the community and their surroundings. This does not only extend to which practices to use while they combat frost but it is also represented by Didier using organic practices since 2000, and William Fèvre will be certified organic in 2023, as well as incorporating biodynamic principals.

As Didier has faced an onslaught of challenging times with the 2017 and 2019 vintages losing 50% of their yields and now the 2021 facing much greater loses with a pandemic on top of it, he always finds solace in William Fèvre’s farm that he started around ten years ago. There are goats, donkeys, ducks, chickens and a bee hive just to name a few of the creatures that add to the biodiversity of their estate that produce eggs and honey that are enjoyed by their workers. It is the place where he can go when the world doesn’t make sense so he can ground himself in the beauty of life and the pandemic has given him more time with the animals; he even witnessed the birth of the baby lambs in March. It was a hopeful reminder that yes, life can be cruel and take every thing away from you within a blink of an eye but around the corner there is always the gift of new life that inspires a weary soul that the fight is well worth it.

***Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/31/french-wine-producer-using-electric-wires-to-combat-frost-in-chablis-burgundy/?sh=3a9edfa72820

Domaine William Fèvre Wine Samples
Domaine William Fèvre Wine Samples Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The 2019 is the next vintage to be released and the below wines are a few tasting notes of samples from that vintage which is characterized by wines with a great amount of concentration balanced by a great amount of acidity. All of the wines are 100% Chardonnay but Didier likes to refer to them as Chablis wines since it is the place that distinguishes the wine over the grape variety.

2019 William Fèvre, Domaine Chablis: A blend of William Fèvre’s vineyards in the Chablis appellation. Chalky, white flowers and citrus pith on the palate with fierce acidity.

2019 William Fèvre, Grand Cru Bougros (Domaine): Intense minerality with exotic passion fruit and juicy white nectarine with a wet stone quality on the very long and mouth watering finish.

2019 William Fèvre, Grand Cru Les Clos (Domaine): Already bigger, bolder on the nose with orange blossom, lemon meringue and a creaminess on the nose with seashell notes laced throughout, finishing with a saline minerality on the palate.

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Champagne, Rhône And Burgundy Wine Festivals Coming To New York City

La Fête du Champagne Event with Champagne expert Peter Liem and Daniel Johnnes being lifted up
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

The smell of wines bursting with fruit, spice and freshly foraged mushrooms filled the air bringing an energy to the room that was so electric that it vibrated on another level of happiness, sense of community and pure exuberance. As the night went on, wine producers hugged long time wine clients, Rolling Stones songs became the soundtrack to this celebration, people chatted about their favorite wine of the night while pouring it in a glass of someone they just met hours ago; the evening culminated with people singing Burgundian drinking songs while waving their napkins in the air with complete abandonment. It was a Burgundy wine gala dinner to be remembered for the ages and it was a source of mental nutrition that many drew on during one of the worst times in recent history that would descend upon everyone just shortly after – this was the 20th Anniversary of La Paulée de New York that was celebrated five days before the Covid lockdown in New York City in March of 2020.

La Paulée NYC 2017
La Paulée de New York in 2017 with chef Daniel Boulud on the left and Daniel Johnnes on the right
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

For 20 years, La Paulée de New York has been considered one of the greatest wine celebrations in the U.S.. Former wine director of Daniel (one of the top fine dining restaurants in New York City and beyond founded by chef Daniel Boulud), Daniel Johnnes, based his La Paulée on a recreation of La Paulée de Meursault in Burgundy where wine producers and their friends come together to share their wines. It is a much needed gathering, putting all the competition and stresses of life to the side to come together without any walls so people can bond over a common love – wine. It doesn’t matter if one is rich or poor, young or old, wine savvy or novice; many from all walks of life have joined various aspects of La Paulée, which has been celebrated in other U.S. cities throughout the years; and that is when wine is at its best, when good people drinking good wine are sharing it with others. It is an experience that goes beyond just the alcohol creating a buzz as it is a mutual group intoxication that takes everyone on an ethereal carpet ride that creates one of the best wine related memories for all involved.

The creator, Daniel Johnnes, was not raised drinking expensive Burgundy wines; he had a humble upbringing in the middle class suburbs outside New York City. But it was an intense love for everything French that started to percolate at 18 years old that would eventually lead him to working in the wine world. He became the wine director of Montrachet restaurant in 1985, the first restaurant of the famous wine restaurateur Drew Nieporent that opened in the once desolate NYC neighborhood of Tribeca – later becoming one of the prime downtown areas for innovative dining and killer wine lists. Daniel noted that at the time there weren’t any places outside of the Windows on the World restaurant, which was located in the World Trade Center, in NYC that were “serious wine restaurants” during that time and so Montrachet, with its encompassing wine list, was a revolution. He then went on to become wine director of Daniel Boulud’s The Dinex Group starting in 2005 and Daniel Boulud has been one of the chefs who has been an integral part of La Paulée de New York as well as partnering with other events such as La Fête du Champagne.

Restocking Up on Vital Good Times

La Fête du Champagne with Olivier Krug on the right talking to a Champagne lover at one of the events.
La Fête du Champagne with Olivier Krug on the right talking to a Champagne lover at one of the events
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

As cities such as New York City are returning to a state of relative normalcy with the restaurant world coming back to life due to high Covid vaccination rates, Daniel Johnnes and his team are now planning live events again to take place between November 6th-13th with their La Fête du Champagne festival – a combination of Champagne events and virtual webinars; the webinars will include wine packs for people so they can taste along from the comfort of their homes. All the live events will be following the NYC and CDC guidelines as well as requiring proof of vaccination from anyone working or attending the events. Champagne wine expert Peter Liem will be presenting the La Fête du Champagne with Daniel Johnnes again and just a couple of the extraordinary events include a grand tasting with Olivier Krug, sixth generation of the Krug family, and a gala dinner where attending Champagne producers will be sharing special bottles, as well as guests bringing their own Champagne bottles from their cellar, to be paired with a multi-course menu designed by chef d’honneur Daniel Boulud who will collaborate with chef Esther Ha of Momokfuku Ko, chef Ryan Hardy of Legacy Records and chef Melissa Rodriguez.

Images courtesy of La Paulée®
People coming together to share their love of wine at a Daniel Johnnes’ event
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

From November 10th-13th, Daniel Johnnes will reignite live dinners, lunches, seminars and tastings for Rhône wine lovers with the La Tablée New York festival and these wines not only connect to Daniel’s deep love for all things French but it also links back to his early beginnings as a wine director at Montrachet as his boss at the time, owner Drew Nieporent, went on to open Tribeca Grill which has one of the most comprehensive Rhône wine lists in the city.

La Paulée San Francisco in 2016   Images courtesy of La Paulée®
La Paulée de San Francisco in 2016 
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

Daniel is hoping to bring back La Paulée live in NYC in March of 2022 as well as bring it to Los Angeles for the first time. Earlier this year, in March, they had what was called La Paulée Mondiale – Mondiale meaning Global in French – which was a 100% online celebration with people attending from Singapore to the U.S. to Europe and beyond. It was a bittersweet gathering online with wine producers and chefs with Daniel Johnnes leading the way; many had tears in their eyes that were a combination of pure joy of being able to at least connect as a group in some way combined with the sorrow that it wasn’t the same – nothing was the same. The question, “What does La Paulée mean to you?” was posed to many of the Burgundy wine producers in an interview series which was part of the La Paulée Mondiale online event this year and some spoke with a heartbreaking tone that struggled while holding back the emotions of being crushed… one moment they were hugging and kissing people while passing bottles around and the next moment French wine producers didn’t know when they would be able to visit the U.S. again.

Images courtesy of La Paulée®
La Fête du Champagne with chef Daniel Boulud and Daniel Johnnes and other Champagne lovers
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

But Daniel Johnnes, being the man that he has always been, held up the light for these wine producers (a combination of famous and obscure winemakers who held a special place in his heart) and he was not going to accept the possibility of the end of these extraordinary events as he knew there was an even greater urgency to bring civilized human interactions back that were centered on a passion for wine and food. “Wine is not about money,” Daniel said and it may seem odd to those not in the business but insiders know this all too well as it is a business with low margins even when it comes to selling wines for thousands of dollars – and many times the people involved in making that wine or pouring it for a customer in a restaurant are not getting the majority of the profits from such a bottle. These festivals that Daniel organizes demands a huge budget and huge investment hence there is a huge amount of risk and he is putting his whole livelihood and his future security on the line; such an idea became greatly apparent as he was on the verge of losing everything if the New York City lockdown had happened just five days earlier and La Paulée de New York would have been cancelled at the last moment.

La Fête du Champagne Event in New York City
La Fête du Champagne event in NYC
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

Yet during the pandemic, Daniel Johnnes has been able to expand into online events, start consulting for restaurants by managing their wine programs (Daniel Boulud being his first client), establish a sommelier scholarship program and create the Pressoir.wine Club that is designed to take wine lovers’ and collectors’ experiences to the next level. Daniel has brought on-board Raj Vaidya, the last wine director of Daniel Boulud’s The Dinex Group, as Daniel Johnnes hired Raj back in 2009 as head sommelier at that group mentoring him to eventually take his place. Raj talked about the new role of the sommelier going back to the basics as he said, “You are not going to just have someone who dresses well and be that sort of sommelier. It is really about service and wine knowledge and having a certain amount of humility.” Another member of Daniel Johnnes team who has worked for his La Paulée company for over nine years, Max Goldberg Liu, has known Daniel all his life since he is his son’s lifelong friend. When Max was 13 years old, Daniel took him on a trip with his son to France and Max noted that such a trip was a great example of how Daniel mentors people by just showing them France through Daniel’s deep connection with the culture and people and Max exclaimed, “It was a life changing experience for me.”

Broken Pieces Coming Back Together

Chef Daniel Boulud and Daniel Johnnes hugging after a successful event in New York City
Chef Daniel Boulud and Daniel Johnnes hugging after a successful event in New York City
Images courtesy of La Paulée®

Many facets of societies around the world were broken once the pandemic came on full force, and Daniel Johnnes’ company was one of the many businesses that were broken as well when Covid initially reared its ugly head in the U.S. and he is on the journey of putting it back together again as he has many people he loves depending on him. And his mission is far from over with “turning people on” when it comes to French wine that goes beyond conceptual ideas in a book. Also, Daniel is very familiar with trying to put back together jagged, broken pieces as at the tender age of 15 years old, he lost his father and soon found himself getting into a lot of trouble as an adolescent trying to process an enormous amount of grief. His mother and father had lived in France after World War II for a time and so his mother thought that living in the South of France for several months before he went to college in the U.S. would be a good way to keep Daniel out of trouble. He ended up living with a local French woman for four years in the small Provençal town where he was staying… and that was the beginning of his great love affair with France.

This journey started with Daniel being broken by his father’s death and those pieces never exactly fit back together. But that is not always a bad thing as sometimes they fit back together in such a way that it allows in more light. And that is what is so exciting about the next La Fête du Champagne, La Tablée or La Paulée as all of these events are being put back together in a different way within a world that is forever changed. While there are certainly tons of trepidatious feelings mixed with intense adrenaline, it is the chance to experience falling in love for the first time all over again but with a greater sense of wisdom.

***Originally this article appeared in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/27/champagne-rhone-and-burgundy-wine-festivals-coming-to-new-york-city/?sh=330ef0826bad

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Choosing A Life Based On California Pinot Noir Wine Over The Biotech World

Bouchaine Vineyard with Sunrise Photo Credit: Bob McClenehan

The golden sunrise revealed thick fog that slowly rolled over Mount Tamalpais as Chris Kajani stood on her winery’s terrace watching this “miraculous” sight. The wine estate she runs, Bouchaine, is tucked away off the beaten path of Napa Valley in the cooler climate area of Carneros. The remarkable difference between Carneros and other parts of Napa, such as St. Helena which is barely a 40 minute drive north, would sometimes include days that had over a 20 degree difference. When the fog starts to cascade onto her mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards it leaves moisture that enveloped the leaves and grapes in its wake yet that moisture quickly evaporates in the accompanying wind. The fog is part of the energetic flow that starts in the San Francisco Bay, is further powered by the San Pablo Bay and Napa River to find itself among the Bouchaine vines, completely changing the sense of place in comparison to its non-Carneros Napa neighbors. Still, to this day, it remains an experience that is beyond her wildest dreams when she first contemplated leaving the biotech world for a life devoted to making California wine.

Chris Kajani in the Bouchaine vineyards in Carneros, Napa Valley, California
Chris Kajani in the Bouchaine vineyards
Photo Credit: Bob McClenehan

A major career change doesn’t always work out the way one thinks; the images that presents themselves in one’s head while fantasizing about a dream job does not always come to fruition. But for Chris Kajani, the landscape that surrounds her job as winemaker and general manager of Bouchaine gives constant chills up her spine with the small miracles she witnesses throughout the growing season. The combination of the consistency of the fog balanced with the erratic climatic bursts such as hailstorms gives her a life that is filled with dependable wonderment and electrically charged challenges that demand swift action; a life that is at once enchanting and thrilling.

Taking the Leap

Although Chris is a proud Napa Valley native who was raised with a father who loves to collect Napa wines as well as her getting the opportunity to travel to Europe and experience the wines there, she never knew that one could make a living in wine. So she worked in biotech for years until she met a winemaker named Ed Kurtzman who has an impressive resume working with top Pinot Noir wine producers throughout California. But besides the great resume, he is also an incredibly hard worker as he drove a cab in San Francisco while getting his winemaking degree in Fresno, and so despite Chris not being born into a winemaking family, Ed was a great example of someone who came from a humble background and through relentless hard work became a well-known figure in the industry. “Ed talked me into this,” explained Chris and she said that he let her do a part-time harvest at Testarossa, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer in the Central Coast, so she could see for herself if the winery life was for her.

Chris was bitten hard by the wine bug as she was fiercely determined after her Testarossa experience to get into one of the most prestigious winemaking universities in the country, U.C. Davis. Chris already had a degree in science as well as a recommendation letter from Ed Kurtzman so she knew the next step was to let the Davis admissions committee, for the viticulture and enology graduate program, know how committed she was to joining their program. “I literally stalked them and audited all the classes as I really wanted to get in the first time,” Chris said with a laugh.

Gerret and Tatiana Copeland Photo Credit Bouchaine

She ended up interning at Pahlmeyer which made wine from Napa and Sonoma vineyards planted with Bordeaux varieties as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Chris said that the wines that blew her away the most were always the Pinot Noir wines as they were “light, bright and graceful”. Then she joined Saintsbury in 2006 and it gave her a chance to work with various vineyards throughout Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and all over Carneros. She happily stayed there for almost nine years until a beaconing light from the Bouchaine owners called to her. And before Chris knew it she was having a six hour conversation at their home in Delaware with the owners, Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, and at one point Mrs. Copeland looked at her and said, “Chris, you have already made wine and you could be doing that forever but what if you could run the winery? What if you did it all?” It was like being hit by a lightening bolt and even though she never envisioned being the general manager of a winery, Mrs. Copeland made that vision come alive for her in that moment.

One big passion that Chris and the Copelands shared was rooted in Pinot Noir and the importance of site. Gerret and Tatiana Copeland both have had a long-lasting passion for Burgundy Pinot Noir wines; Gerret’s French-descended American family built the DuPont Company (his father, Lammot du Pont Copeland, was DuPont’s 11th president) but more importantly in this context, his father and mother loved French wine. Gerret fell in love with Burgundy wine during his first trip there with his father when he was only 16 years old. Tatiana came from a great legacy of artistic and independently minded Russians as her great uncle was the legendary composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and her grandmother was the first woman to drive a car through Moscow’s Red Square. Tatiana ended up coming to California for undergraduate and graduate school and by means of a successful business career she would meet her future husband Gerret Copeland and together they would try to make their wine dream come true. In the 1980s it was impossible to buy in Burgundy so Tatiana sought out a property for them to buy in California which led her to what would become the Bouchaine estate.

Bouchaine Vineyard in Carneros, Napa Valley, California

Bouchaine vineyards in Carneros, Napa Valley, California
Photo Credit: Bob McClenehan

The estate was not much to look at in 1981 as it had a couple of dilapidated buildings yet the feeling of being nestled among a hidden natural wonderland instantly won Tatiana over although the question of whether it could produce high quality wine was not answered as the Carneros area in Napa was not the well-known name that it is today. But her friend, André Tchelistcheff, who happened to share her Russian heritage as well as being America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker came out with her and when he saw the land and the fog he said that it was the ideal place for Pinot Noir… and at that moment it was meant to be as that was their dream wine to make.  

Sharing the Miracle

“Before I started in wine I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like,” Chris said with an introspective look on her face. But since her first full-time harvest in 2004, she can remember every aspect of the growing season and the recall of it is just as vivid and emotionally vibrant as if she was reliving it in real time. Today she is completely engaged and connected with the symbiotic relationships that pulsate among the nature that surrounds her and she had the same impassioned wave of feelings that Tatiana had the first time they each experienced the Bouchaine property – part of the magic of the wines is the experience of the place. Of course the challenges of the Covid pandemic has made it difficult to share this special property but Chris says that she can always count on the Copelands to support them in any of the fun ideas they come up with and the more out of the box it is the better so they were able to adapt pretty quickly; whether it is doing special bottlings of wine, planting a small section of an atypical variety for the area or in the case of the pandemic, investing in all the equipment to do online tastings with their customers, the Copelands are always there to give them what they need.

During these trying times everyone needs to know there is still plenty of magic to be had in life and many have experienced how easy it is to get lost in the darkness when the magic seems to have completely disappeared. Chris herself, who feels that giving visitors this incredible experience is the best part of the job, desperately missed hosting real live people when things were in lockdown. But as life is slowly getting back to normal, it makes the moments of having people come out mean that much more and reinforces the notion that she has gone down a path that brings beauty, conviviality and much needed escape to people’s lives. And it all started with a random conversation with a Pinot Noir winemaker who introduced her to a world that she didn’t even know existed and then it was just up to her to fully commit to making that leap… a leap that she could have never imagined would ultimately help to keep the magic alive for herself as she still witnessed the copper tinted fog roll in, even during the darkest of times.

***This article originally was published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/22/choosing-a-life-based-on-california-pinot-noir-wine-over-the-biotech-world/

2018 Bouchaine Estate Chardonnay and 2018 Bouchaine Estate Pinot Noir
2018 Bouchaine Estate Chardonnay and 2018 Bouchaine Estate Pinot Noir Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2020 Bouchaine, Vin Gris of Pinot Noir

2020 Bouchaine, Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Bouchaine, Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa Valley: 100% Pinot Noir grapes where 95% is whole cluster pressed and 5% is saignée.Purple flowers with wild strawberries on the nose and lots of energy, high acidity with a touch of texture that gives it shape with stony minerality on the finish. 720 cases made.

2018 Bouchaine, Estate Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa Valley: 100% Chardonnay. Carneros is famous for its cool climate Chardonnay as well as its cool climate Pinot Noir wines. Juicy peach with nectarine skins that had a hint of marzipan that was ideally balanced with mouthwatering acidity; such a great Chardonnay to pair with food. 3,500 cases made.

2018 Bouchaine, Estate Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa Valley: 100% Pinot Noir. Multi-layered nose with smoldering earth and black cherry that is intermixed with cardamom pods and forest floor that has bright acidity and round tannins. 3,100 cases made.

2018 Bouchaine ‘Swan Clone’ Estate Pinot Noir
2018 Bouchaine ‘Swan Clone’ Estate Pinot Noir Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Bouchaine ‘Swan Clone’ Estate Pinot Noir, Carneros, NapaValley: 100% Pinot Noir from the Swan Clone. A stunningly pretty, perfumed nose that was lithe and light on the body like a ballet dancer and hence why this particular clone of Pinot Noir is called Swan; really elegant yet still nicely concentrated on the mid-palate with ripe strawberries that had a refreshing basil note in the background. 500 cases made.

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250 Wine Grape Growing Families In Austria Produce Excellence By Banding Together

Domäne Wachau Vineyards
Photo Credit Domäne Wachau

As the sun shone down between the clouds, illuminating the medieval buildings and ancient abbeys, a little girl took a deep breath. Life was an enchanting dream in the Wachau Valley, Austria – tiny villages with steep hills planted with vines along the old dry-stone terraces that were constantly refreshed with the breezes from the Danube River. In her early childhood, this little girl took in the historic buildings of her village thinking of all the stories rooted in events thousands of years ago that told tales of love and loss. For a time there seemed to be no other place as magical as her home where she would run along the river during the summer while the smell of ripe apricots in the air indicated that it was time to harvest this delectable stone fruit. But as she grew into adolescence she could not help but yearn for something more than what went on in her old-world town and her never-ending chores of helping out her family in their vineyards which was once thrilling as a child but had become a burdensome servitude that only created a stronger desire to escape.

That young woman would travel the world and experience things that were beyond her wildest dreams eventually finding a fast-paced, extremely competitive career in a major city until she got to the time when it all became too much. She would have random panic attacks, find joy in very little, feel each day filled with dread until she walked away from it all, not knowing what she would do next, but she just needed to go back home to her Danube River so she could deeply breath again. There, she walked through the steep vineyards as she had done many times in the past, feeling a wave of peace come over her that she hadn’t felt in a long time and she knew that she needed to come back home and leave the rat race behind, but there was one deep regret; in that moment she would have done anything to change places with that young adolescent to make sure she stayed on the path of helping to run her family’s vineyards or to at least come back sooner… because after a time it had become too difficult for her grandparents to work their labor-intensive vineyards and they sold them off.  The vineyards that had become part of her soul as a child were no longer owned by her family.

Domäne Wachau Estate
Photo Credit Domäne Wachau

Some wine producers become lucky as either they make a name for themselves during the right time or they ride the tidal wave of the success of a wine region that becomes extremely popular around the world, but for many, it is a constant struggle as the overall cost of living and cost of land taxes combined with an uncertain future for a place on the market for one’s wines takes its toll. After World War II, for many European wine regions, the idea of a wine cooperative – a group of vineyard owners working together to create and sell wine – became very popular as a means of survival as it divides the costs among many instead of just one but even cooperatives have faced recent challenging times.

In general, cooperatives can have a reputation for making tons of entry level wine that many times are seen in supermarkets across Europe and during a time when overall consumption of cheap wine has decreased and more wine from around the globe enters the world market, cooperatives are “doomed to fail,” according to Master of Wine Roman Horvath. And Roman would know as he was a wine buyer for Austria’s leading wine retailer Wein & Co but what is interesting is that since 2004 he has been the winery director of a cooperative called Domäne Wachau in the wine area of Wachau (pronounced: va COW) and it seems an odd choice for a man who knows all the issues with such an operation.

Wachau, Austria

It may seem odd to those hardcore Austrian fine wine drinkers that Wachau was only just recently awarded Austria’s version of a quality wine designation, DAC, especially in New York City, as the Grüner Veltliner and Riesling single vineyards from Wachau were highlighted on the wine list of the celebrated Austrian fine dining restaurant Wallsé for over 20 years; and although many of the wonderful wine regions of Austria are today represented on the Wallsé wine list, there is still a special place for the back-vintage Wachau wines that give proof to the ageability of the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner grape varieties. Twenty years ago New York fine wine drinkers may have known very few wine regions in Austria but the one area they did know was Wachau.

Roman said that part of Wachau’s success lies in it being a popular tourist destination since the 1950s as it is only a one hour drive along the Danube River (via car, train or boat) from Austria’s stunning capital city Vienna as well as it being an enchanting landscape on its own. And so there was a significant amount of investment in the vineyards of Wachau and today they still have many of those 50 to 60 year old Grüner Veltliner and Riesling vines. Wachau has had a couple of rock star winemakers that would make a splash as far back as the 1960s and ‘70s but for most in this small wine region, becoming a rock star seemed impossible because of lack of funds, knowledge and making wines that weren’t on the radar for the masses. And so one-third of the small Wachau wine region (only 3,200 acres in total compared to Napa’s 43,000 acres of vineyards) is overseen by a cooperative calledDomäne Wachau – owned by 250 families who have been in Wachau for generations.

Domäne Wachau 

It may have seemed that most cooperatives were doomed in Roman’s opinion, especially during the time when he was a wine buyer, but he does note that there are a few in Europe that are the rare successes producing excellent quality wine and being equally recognized for it such as Produttori del Barbaresco in Barbaresco, Piedmont. So when Roman came to Domäne Wachau he knew it had all the key factors for a potentially successful cooperative: small wine region, great terroir and well-established quality vineyards. But there was no vision or overall structure that would be able to juggle several different bottlings of all the single vineyard wines, marketing and selling them, as well as invest even more into sustainable and quality driven management practices in the vineyards.

Roman Horvath and Heinz Frischengruber Photo Credit Domäne Wachau
Roman Horvath and Heinz Frischengruber
Photo Credit: Domäne Wachau

The “slow evolution” of Domäne Wachau to a more ultra-premium level organization has been a mammoth task that couldn’t have been possible without Roman’s partnership with its cellar master Heinz Frischengruber as he was able to really zero in on all the top quality, fiercely challenging steep vineyards and channel each individual expression into its own bottling; also making all the vineyards certified sustainable and now working on converting them to organic has been a mountain to climb within itself. It has been one tiny step after another in regards to getting the 250 growers/owners of Domäne Wachau to trust that their wines would be well-received beyond the prejudices that come with the label of being a cooperative and garner the praise as well as a higher price point that they would need to cover the extra expenses of trying to compete in the fine wine world.

Egg Shape Concrete Tank and Amphora Vessels
Photo Credit Domäne Wachau

Roman said it took a while before the growers were comfortable putting more resources and money into taking this leap and he completely understood because they are gambling their livelihoods on it. But now, as they have seen top wine critics giving them praise and their wines being requested by wine buyers around the world, the growers are pushing Roman to take Domäne Wachau to the next level instead of it being the other way around.

Easy to Make the Right Choices When There is Hope

Domäne Wachau is located where the climate is marginal in terms of ripening wine grapes and although there will be warmer vintages nowadays compared to the past, Wachau will still get cooler vintages that can also be wetter which is a battle in the vineyards to achieve premium grapes in steep vineyards that can only be managed 100% by hand. And Roman said that it is only possible to do what they do because they have 250 growers with small lots and the growers have a “strong bond” with their vines and land and they can react quickly as they live and breathe their vineyards every day.

Domäne Wachau
Photo Credit Domäne Wachau

There are so many Wachau families that have their lives intertwined with the success of Domäne Wachau with each having their own distinctive story while also having a common purpose. One such family is led by Nina Preisberger who has had her 3.7 acres of the single vineyard ‘Ried Bruck’ in her family for several generations and today she is a full-time vintner and full-time mother managing the vines with her grandfather, her small children learning at a very young age the importance of generations working side by side to preserve their land.

That story of the young girl leaving Wachau to live a seemingly more adventurous life who realizes when it is too late that she was happiest when she was in her family’s vineyard never happened. But that scenario has been a road that many others around the world have gone down because there was never any hope that one could keep the family business going as the world changed around her and her family’s legacy had become obsolete. Yet what Roman Horvath and Heinz Frischengruber have done with Domäne Wachau is show the growers that they can move with the times and become part of the fine wine world not only bringing in more money that will help with generational survival but also give people the pride and fulfillment of being part of something special.

Nina could have been that girl who left but instead she is a partner in a successful wine company that is run by herself and her neighbors while never having to sacrifice establishing those same precious memories for her kids that she formed as a child playing in the same vineyard with her family.

***This article was originally published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/15/250-wine-grape-growing-families-in-austria-produce-excellence-by-banding-together/?sh=65a1fbe66b09

2019 and 1996 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten’
2019 and 1996 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

A couple of points that are important to understanding the labeling of the wines below: anytime there is the word ‘Ried’ before a name, that indicates a single vineyard as opposed to just a brand name that refers to a wine that comes from grapes throughout Wachau, such as the ‘Terrassen’ wine below that contains grapes from various terraced vineyards on steep hills in Wachau.

Also, Federspiel is a style that is a tier above the entry level Steinfeder (typically only seen in Austria) as it is picked from high quality vineyards later and gives a wonderful sense of varietal characteristics of grape varieties such as Grüner Veltliner and Riesling as well as a stronger sense of place; the Smaragd style is the highest level and picked even later than Federspiel and sourced from some of the best vineyards and these styles are known for more concentration, intensity and an ability to age for decades.

2020 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Federspiel ‘Terrassen’
2020 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Federspiel ‘Terrassen’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2020 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Federspiel ‘Terrassen’, Wachau, Austria: 100% Grüner Veltliner. White pepper and peach flavors with round texture and creamy body with a lot of mouthwatering acidity that finishes with lemon confit. Roman noted that 2020 was a cooler year so it was displaying “pronounced acidity” that he said would balance out in a year and a half as it was just bottled.

2018 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Federspiel ‘Ried Bruck’
2018 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Federspiel ‘Ried Bruck’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Federspiel, ‘Ried Bruck’, Wachau, Austria: 100% Riesling. Flinty minerality and a multi-layered expression of lime with lime sorbet, lime zest and lime blossom that had an exotic green mango and green papaya note with a fun combination of juiciness and sharp edged acidity. 2018 was one of the warmest years they had in the Wachau, Roman noted, but since the Bruck vineyard is one of their coolest climate plots in the Wachau, even in warm years the “firm acidity” and “raciness” is still present.

2019 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten’
2019 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner, Smaragd, ‘Ried Achleiten’, Wachau, Austria: 100% Grüner Veltliner. More earthy spices such as turmeric rather than white pepper and a subtle nuttiness (that comes from the variety Grüner Veltliner, according to Roman) with almond slivers that had a tart edge on the palate balanced by a hint of poached pears in rich syrup. 2019 was a warm, dry vintage without any extreme weather events.

2019 and 1996 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten’
2019 and 1996 Domäne Wachau, Riesling Smaragd ‘Ried Achleiten
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Domäne Wachau, Riesling, Smaragd, ‘Ried Achleiten’, Wachau, Austria: 100% Riesling. Smoky minerality with laser-like acidity, pristine stone fruit and a fierce saline finish that was absolutely captivating; an electric Riesling that is quite a beauty with a long life in front of it.

1996 Domäne Wachau, Riesling, Smaragd, ‘Ried Achleiten’, Wachau, Austria: 100% Riesling. There was more of a trend for concentrated, richer wines in the ‘90s and so it was common for Wachau producers to add 5% to 10% of noble rot grapes (botrytis) during those times and hence this wine shows those spicy, marmalade and toffee notes quite well, especially considering that it was seen as a lesser vintage because it was a cool, wet year in ‘96 as opposed to the great ‘95 and ‘97. But this delicious 25 year old Riesling is still a wonderful example of how amazing it can be with age when it comes to these top sites and among the decadent notes there was still plenty of marked acidity and fresh tangerine and saline minerality to balance it all out. Roman said that the practice of adding botrytis has fallen out of favor, although there are still a couple of producers who do it well, and that Domäne Wachau doesn’t add any today in their dry wines as they want pure, fresh wines.

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Women Making Changes In Their Family Wine Estates In Alsace, France

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

In a little village within the wine region of Alsace in northeastern France, five three-year-old children gathered together for pre-school among a community of wine grape growers. The children were asked to draw pictures that represented what they wanted to be when they grew up and so four of the kids, all boys, drew tractors and vines as they wanted to be grape growers and winemakers like their fathers but the one little girl didn’t have winemaking parents and so she was curious about these pictures that the boys drew as well as their enthusiastic descriptions of their fathers’ job. “I want to work in the vineyards too!” the girl exclaimed but everyone else was dumbfounded by such a statement from a little girl as it was known during those times that it was the men who worked in the vineyards and winery.

Agathe Bursin
Photo Credit: Agathe Bursin

Four decades have passed and that little girl, Agathe Bursin, grew into an accomplished winemaker who has some of her vines in the most coveted vineyard in her small village of Westhalten with only around 15 small wine producers that work outside of the large co-op wineries1 that is 12 miles from Colmar – known as the “Little Venice” of France. Agathe’s maternal grandparents were vineyard owners who were part of one of the local wine co-ops who had four children, two boys and two girls, and it was commonplace to leave vineyards to the male children. But Agathe said her grandparents were ahead of their time and they said, “Four children four parts” when it came to the inheritance of their vineyards. Agathe’s mother had no interest in maintaining vineyards so she allowed one of her brother’s to work her plots until Agathe told her that she wanted to become a winemaker and so her mother gave her the plots, seven acres in 2000 and eventually she would grow it to 17 acres – all farmed organically and some vineyards being quite steep.

After studying winemaking in Burgundy and refining her white winemaking skills while working for a producer in Chablis and then improving her ability to work with steep vineyards and various micro-plots by working with a producer in the Rhône Valley, she came back with a fierce determination to express the many different nuances in her vineyards that included the famous Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru vineyards in Westhalten.

Changes Implemented by the Women of Alsace

The very fact that Agathe went against the grain by not only saying that she wanted to become a winemaker over 20 years ago but that she also wasn’t going to just be part of a co-op as she would make her own wines under her own label Agathe Bursin makes her a positive force for change.

Lydie and Marine Sohler
Photo Credit: Domaine Sohler Philippe

Yet she is not the only woman making changes as 34-year-old Lydie and 29-year-old Marine Sohler completely took over their family winery, Domaine Sohler Philippe, in 2016. These sisters divide duties by having Lydie in the winery as the winemaker and Marine looking over the vineyards as vineyard manager in their small town of Nothalten, Alsace. Lydie’s winemaking philosophy mainly focuses on allowing their white wines to age on their fine lees (sediment after fermentation) in the neutral stainless steel vessels for several weeks, as she believes the aromatics become more complex, with the exception of their Clos Rebberg Pinot Gris and their red wine, Pinot Noir Mateo, as they both age in barrel for 12 to 18 months. They also ferment each plot in its own tank whether it is from a Grand Cru vineyard or a lieu-dit (a plot with a traditional name although not officially classified). One of the biggest changes is their first attempt at an orange wine, a white wine that is fermented on the skins, that is a blend that includes the skin and juice of the Riesling and Sylvaner grapes but only the juice of the Pinot Gris grapes. Lydie and Marine “love” orange wines but their father and mother are not so sure that it is a good idea and so their 2020 vintage of their orange wine will be a true test to show their parents that they can make a “good orange wine” and Lydie expressed that it has been her favorite project as both herself and Marine have worked together in the cellar making it and typically that doesn’t happen.

Mélanie Pfister
Photo Credit: Domaine Mélanie Pfister

An orange wine is also made by Mélanie Pfister at her family’s newly renamed estate called Domaine Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim, Alsace and her orange wine is a Pinot Gris that receives two weeks of skin contact that is called ‘Macération’ and it had its first vintage in 2018. But that is not the only change that Mélanie has made as she has had the great fortune to be able to do internships at some of the top wine estates in the world such as Méo-Camuzet in Burgundy, Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux and Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace just to name a few. Some of her takeaways from these internships include learning biodynamic practices from Zind-Humbrecht, and Mélanie is currently converting her vineyards over to biodynamic after she has been organic for many years and she will be certified organic starting with the 2021 vintage, as well as the importance of blending which she learned from Cheval Blanc leading to her creation of ‘Mel’ (representing her name Mélanie and the French word mélange meaning mixture) that is a white blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat.

Although Alsace is known for their white wines, they also make red wines from Pinot Noir as well and since Mélanie studied at Méo-Camuzet, known for making some of the top Pinot Noir wines such as their Grand Cru ‘Clos de Vougeot’, she decided once she came back to her family estate that her first task would be to make the Pinot Noir. “Okay papa I will take charge of the Pinot Noir”, Mélanie announced to her father. But her father said instead they would split the Pinot Noir plot and he would make his wine and she would make her wine and then they would compare and decide which one was better. Since Mélanie felt that Pinot Noir was more about “delicacy and subtlety” she would use a cooler temperature while fermenting and less extraction and her father agreed that her Pinot was better and she would take over the winemaking completely in 2008. Today she continues that relationship with Méo-Camuzet by buying used barrels from them which she uses for her Pinot Noir.

Mélanie is the first women to take over her family vineyards in eight generations and Muriel Gueth is also eighth generation and the first women to take over at her family estate Domaine Gueth which is located in Gueberschwihr, Alsace.

Muriel Gueth
Photo Credit: Domaine Gueth

Muriel worked for a German wine producer who was organic back in the mid-90s and so when she came back to her family’s estate, working organically was a priority and today her estate is certified with the HEV (High Environmental Value) organization which allows a bit more freedom than being fully organic certified. Muriel is 100% organic but she has small plots that are surrounded by her neighbors’ plots who are not organic so she feels it would not be completely honest to become certified organic until her neighbors are also organic but she is hopeful that she will be certified in the future as many of her neighbors have started sustainable practices. When Muriel completely took over the winemaking in 1996, she still wanted to be respectful to her father and so she kept her father’s name Jean-Claude Gueth on the label as well as his traditional ways of blending different terroirs together for most of the wines. But finally in 2020 she started placing her own name on the single plot bottlings she has been working on for many years as her own personal project as she has found some of her vines, especially the old vines, have a distinctive expression that needs to be isolated so that specific plot can be expressed in the wine.

Changes Implemented by the Older Generation

But it wouldn’t be fair to talk about these changes without recognizing those that were initially implemented by the older generation. Certainly Agathe Bursin’s maternal grandparents were ahead of their time when they divided up their vineyard between their two boys and two girls making it possible for Agathe to have her own vineyards. Lydie and Marine Sohler credit their father for always having mostly organic practices and so for them it was a “small leap” to start the certification process.

Mélanie Pfister’s father also made it an easy leap for organics as well as he was a real pioneer by stopping the use of herbicides in the 1980s and it was her parents’ idea for her to change the name of their family estate to Mélanie Pfister as there was another Domaine Pfister that was started a while back and it created confusion on local restaurant lists. It was much harder for Mélanie to make this name change for the estate as she didn’t know if it was the right thing to do but her parents looked at it in a practical way and knew this was the best thing for the survival of their family estate. Muriel Gueth was always thankful that her parents had bought modern stainless steel tanks and a pneumatic wine press decades ago as it really helped her from the very beginning to make quality wine but most of all she appreciates how open-minded they were in trusting her so early on to take over the winemaking.

Agathe Bursin has a very strict philosophy of bottling one variety from a specific soil and never mixing, for example, one Riesling plot with another Riesling plot with different soil types. She very much believes in the idea of terroir as being ideally expressed by one grape from one soil. Yet back in 2001, she received a call from a friend who inherited an old vineyard, around 75 years old, but her friend didn’t know what to do with it because she worked in a hospital and she had no desire to manage a vineyard. Agathe said she would buy it but her friend quickly warned her that she would have to replant the vineyard as it was a mess with various varieties all mixed in with each other. Although Agathe already had her own firm opinions of how vineyards should be planted, she was curious and decided to make wine from the vineyard before replanting. The vineyard is a composite of five Muscat vines, 15 Pinot Gris, 20 Riesling, 20 Gewürztraminer, 20 Sylvaner, 20 Pinot Blanc and two vines of Pinot Noir and to Agathe’s amazement all of the vines ripened at the same time which is shocking as outside of this vineyard these different varieties ripen at various times. She even says there is a Muscat vineyard right next to this co-plantation vineyard (field blend) planted at the same time that ripens at a different time as the Muscat does in the co-plantation vineyard.

It is a complete mystery to Agathe how it is possible that all of the varieties in this co-plantation vineyard ripen at the same time yet the one thing she does know is that she loves how all these varieties are expressed in one wine and she is so happy that she decided to wait until she made wine from it before she pulled out the vines. And it is a wonderful lesson that one should not just change for the sake of change as progress and evolution should ideally be creating a better situation for all involved such as the progress of all of these family estates that are now run by women; women who just happened to be the ideal choices to take on the responsibility of their families’ vineyards as well as being very mindful and thankful of the gifts that were passed down from the generations that preceded them.

***Originally published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/08/07/women-making-changes-in-their-family-wine-estates-in-alsace-france/?sh=779c63675c3b

Wines Samples from Agathe Bursin, Domaine Sohler Philippe and Domaine Gueth
Wines samples from Agathe Bursin, Domaine Sohler Philippe and Domaine Gueth

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

Agathe Bursin Wines

2019 Agathe Bursin, Riesling ‘Bollenberg’, Vin d’Alsace: Wet stones, saline minerality and grapefruit on the palate with mouth watering acidity.

2019 Agathe Bursin, Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru Riesling: Floral, salted lemon rind with juicy peach mid-palate that had good weight and a long finish with fierce acidity.

 2018 Agathe Bursin, Zinnkoepflé Grand Cru Gewürztraminer, Vendages Tardives: Rose oil, lychee syrup, nice amount of sweetness with some Turkish delight and apple strudel notes and a lush texture. 95 g/l residual sugar.

2018 Agathe Bursin, Pinot Noir ‘Strangenberg’, Vin d’Alsace: Earthy with rich fruit of blackberry and tea leaves finishing with a note of smoldering embers.

Domaine Sohler Philippe Wines

2017 Domaine Sohler Philippe, Alsace Grand Cru ‘Muenchberg’ Riesling: Intense peach aromas and ripe stone fruit flavors on the nose with some flinty minerality with good weight, vivid fruit (nectarine and peach) and racy acidity.

2018 Domaine Sohler Philippe, ‘Heissenberg’ Riesling: White flowers and star anise with lots of wet stones and a flintiness on the palate; lean with sharp acidity and notes of lemon zest.

2017 Domaine Sohler Philippe, Gaïa White Blend: 60% Riesling from a mixture of volcanic and sandstone soil, 20% Muscat from sandstone soil and 20% Pinot Gris from marly sandstone soil. Three different grape varieties from three different soils; a mix of floral, white pepper and golden apples that had a lean palate – linear.

2017 Domaine Sohler Philippe, Pinot Noir: Earthy and dark fruit on the nose with bright acidity, black cherries and dried herbs on the palate with a light body and fine tannins with hints of forest floor.

Domaine Gueth Wines

2017 Domaine Gueth, Riesling, ‘Original’sace’: Stony nose with lime juice and citrus blossom with smoky minerality.

2017 Domaine Gueth, Riesling, Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines): Richer flavors with lemon meringue, white flowers and electric acidity with plenty of fleshy peach flavors on the palate to balance it out.

2018 Domaine Gueth, Les Grès Roses: A white blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois from ‘Ruescht’ plot and Pinot Gris from ‘Aschqeg’ plot that both are a mixture of clay marl and sandstone soils – the pure pink sandstone terroir of the Vosges. Round body, floral with white strawberries and a saline finish. 

2017 Domaine Gueth, Sylvaner, Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines): Broad body with hints of almond, toasted spices with broken limestones giving it minerality.

***Wasn’t able to sample recent vintage of Domaine Mélanie Pfister wines but I have had her wines many times in the past and they have always been extremely impressive.

Footnote:
1A winemaking co-op is typically a group of vineyard owners working together to create and sell wine.

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A Burgundy Wine Producer: Surviving Tariffs, Covid And 40% Loss Of Yields

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The past year and a half has been a challenging one for many across the world with waves of the tide of coronavirus shutdowns, illnesses and deaths coming and going with intervals of brief breaks that would hint at normalcy here and there. No one can argue with the idea that this pandemic has been a devastating tragedy on many levels that has had a big impact on loss of life, on long-term health and the decimation of employment for many as well as livelihoods that were intrinsically part of business owners’ sense of self and main purpose in life. Everyone at a certain point has to deal with their lives in some form being shattered into a thousand pieces and each person will need to find a way to go on once they face that moment in their lives. This time, the world has to do just this at the same time… and for some they are actually finding a way to renew their work and personal lives with a different perspective that is energetic in ways that many haven’t felt in years.

The legendary wine producer Bouchard Père & Fils in Burgundy, France, has had many obstacles over the last couple of years that started in October 2019 with the U.S. imposing tariffs on French products, as well as other European goods, that hit the wine sector hard. Wine is a low-margin business and so any dents in profits can be devastating especially when it comes in a marketplace that an export country greatly depends on, such as the U.S., not to mention that France has spent much of its resources and money establishing a good trading relationship with America. A few months ago these tariffs were suspended and so now Bouchard is getting ready to release their 2019 Burgundy 1er Cru, Grand Cru and lieux-dits (vineyards with historical importance) after riding out some tough waves.

When Mother Nature and the Market are Both in Turmoil

After a very intense and stressful 2019 vintage in the vineyards Bouchard Père & Fils cellar master, Frédéric Weber, looked forward to his annual exciting trip to the U.S. giving him a brief break to talk to sommeliers, wine buyers and media people who loved Burgundy and always greatly looked forward to tasting their 1er Cru and Grand Cru wines as a preview; for Frédéric it is always a thrill to go to varying U.S. cities where the surroundings are very different from the agricultural villages of Côte d’Or, Burgundy. It is a true gift for Frédéric to travel to a city like New York and he could have never imagined such trips while growing up in his small town in Alsace, in northeastern France.

Frédéric Weber Visit to NYC in March of 2020
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

But when he came to New York City on March 9th in 2020, it was a visit unlike any before as it was just the time that the positive Covid cases in NYC started escalating exponentially and by March 16th and 17th schools and non-essential businesses were closed respectively. This visit would be one filled with confusion of how such a thing of finding oneself in the middle of a pandemic could ever happen that was only made more stressful with 25% tariffs on one’s wines that was being threatened to increase to 100% at any time; 2019 and 2020 will go down as two of the most difficult years that could happen side by side for Frédéric as cellar master for Bouchard Père & Fils.

2019 Vintage

Traditionally, a difficult Burgundy wine vintage would mean wet weather (that could cause mildew) or frost as well as cool temperatures that would make achieving ripeness for the grapes difficult, but things have changed. Burgundy can certainly still have wet, cool weather but over the past couple of decades they have found themselves with warmer vintages and it has been a blessing of sorts as ripeness is no longer a consistent issue but warmer, dried weather can have its own potential negatives. The 2019 vintage had issues with both cold, wet weather and dry, warm weather that would sometimes be erratic in its timing and overall would cause a yield loss of 40%1 for Bouchard Père & Fils wines.

Frédéric talked about the milder temperatures in February and March in 2019 that made bud burst come early, “two weeks earlier than 2018” but frost hit in April which caused “mixed damage”. Then the rest of spring was “much cooler than usual” and so the flowering was delayed until early June which overall caused millerandage – a.k.a hens and chicks – irregular fruit set in which the berries on a grape cluster are not uniform in size – that affected some of the Pinot Noir bunches but mainly the Chardonnay grapes.

But the Pinot Noir was more affected by the combination of “hot temperatures, wind and drought” that took place a few days before harvest causing more concentration in the grapes as the water evaporated out of them. 2019 was a vintage that was all over the place and Frédéric was thankful that, at Bouchard, they have vineyard workers who have been working the same section of a vineyard “all his life”; and so even in a vintage that cannot be compared to another in how the life cycle progressed, the workers know the vines so well that they can intuitively adapt vineyard management to what the vines need.

The Things that Stand the Test of Time

Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

At the time of getting crushed by them, challenges can seem like a nightmare that is difficult to process physically and mentally but sometimes they can eventually bring out the best in a person, or a wine for that matter. There is no doubt that Frédéric and Bouchard Père & Fils have been relentlessly challenged and only recently getting a chance to catch a breath but in a wonderful turn of events, Frédéric hasn’t felt this excited about tasting Bouchard reds since that time he went to their cellar and tasted a 1949 Beaune Grèves ‘Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus’ as there is a unique combination of richness with “very round tannins” that still has lots of acidity and layered aromatics in the 2019s – it is a vintage that has reignited the magic of it all for Frédéric.

Frédéric is always very careful of how many whole clusters he will use in fermenting Pinot Noir bunches, as although it depends on the vineyard and vintage, he typical errs on the side of caution and uses only a small percentage of whole cluster. But in general, the seeds of the Pinot Noir grapes had a “beautiful coffee and mocha” note and so he increased whole cluster fermentation from 25% to 40% for the Côte de Beaune wines and to over 50% for the Côte de Nuits wines. Of course not all winemakers agree when to use more or less whole clusters but Frédéric is firmly on the side of making the quality of the stems and seeds the most important factor.

There are many things over the years that have overwhelmed the humble Frédéric Weber with exhilarating joyous moments that includes working for one of Burgundy’s oldest wine merchants and largest landowners in the Côte d’Or, or traveling to exciting places far and wide, or being able to drink the most exquisite liquid that was made while France was recovering from World War II…  it would seem that Frédéric already had enough thrills in life with his almost two decades with Bouchard that it was time to settle in and live off of the thrills of the past yet Bouchard’s iconic 1er Cru and Grand Cru vineyards continue to astonish him with new challenges that come with unlocking more nuanced complexity and concentration. And just like how Bouchard was able to make great 1949 wines that still live on today, after so much loss and pain they have done it again with the numerous set of challenges of 2019 and 2020. Frédéric says that he always takes comfort that Bouchard has been around for close to 300 years, and just like the French spirit, it cannot be so easily defeated.   

This article was originally published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/07/29/a-burgundy-wine-producer-surviving-tariffs-covid-and-40-loss-of-yields/?sh=3b01790ccefa

Bouchard Père & Fils has a total of over 320 acres (130 hectares) and they will all become certified organic in 2024. 

Bouchard Père & Fils tastes the reds before the whites and hence the tasting order below.

Reds

2018 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune du Château, Côte de Beaune: Yes, that is correct, this is the 2018 and the only 2018 in the lineup as it was just recently released into the market – it is a richer vintage as well with less acidity than 2019 so interesting to compare; aromas of loamy earth, ash and smoldering cedar with brooding fruit on the nose with lush blackberry on the palate that had added notes of forest floor and cocoa powder.

2019 Bouchard Père& Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Clos de la Mousse, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Monopole): Fresher on the nose than the 2018 Beaune du Château with pretty floral notes such as dried flowers, fresh sage and espresso hints with layers of warming black fruit and lush tannins and a touch of sandalwood on the finish. This is one of Frédéric’s favorite vineyards as it is very old and it has had vines growing there since the 12th century.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Grèves ‘Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus’, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Exclusivity): Cappuccino aromas with wild truffles and blackcurrant jam with round texture and juicy cassis flavors with good weight on the mid-palate that had vivid fruit and crisp acidity on the finish.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Volnay Les Caillerets, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): A spicy wine – baking spice, cinnamon bark, pretty cherry blossom notes and a plush body, finishing with crumbly earth aromas. This was the first vineyard that was purchased by Bouchard Père & Fils in 1775 who became wine merchants in 1731.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Grand Cru, Le Corton, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): Really lifted with star anise and jasmine tea. It had the most weight and overall plush quality in this lineup with a continued floral lift on the finish.

Whites

Frédéric noted that making the white “was a little bit more challenging” for the 2019 vintage as it needed more time in his opinion. The whites were a little too “opulent and rich” for his taste but they still have high acidity due to the millerandage (a few underripe acidic berries with riper ones) and so he has given the white wines more time to age in barrels until they become more “focused” and he can sense more of the terroir and hence why the wines are being released later this year compared to previous years; many of the Grand Cru whites are actually still aging in large, neutral barrels.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Meursault ‘Les Clous’, Côte de Beaune (Domaine): This lieu-dit (historically named vineyard) is an atypical Meursault as it is usually linear instead of rich like other Meursault wines and in 2019 it has electric acidity as one would expect but also has ripe golden apple and pear cobbler flavors with a touch of almond paste. So this year it is rich yet still electric.

2019 Bouchard Père & Fils, Premier Cru, Beaune Clos Saint-Landry, Côte de Beaune (Domaine/Monopole): Toasted coconut shavings and grilled pineapple with green mango zing on the palate and sesame oil lingering on the finish.

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One Of The Oldest Wine Producing Countries Growing Grapes In Conflict Zones—The Reemergence Of Armenia

Vahe and Aimee Keushguerian Photo Credit: Tigran Hayrapetyan

For many wine producers, harvesting the grapes is the most stressful time period as it can make or break the future of potential wines. Some harvests are easier than others with enough time to gather the grapes with the days and nights going exactly as planned and making it a truly wonderful celebation of gathering ideally ripened fruit under easy circumstances. Yet there are other harvests where each step is trying, terrifying and at times exhausting as Mother Nature paints the skies grey with the gloom and doom of either too much rain or devastating hail. Neither an easy nor tough harvest is an absolute guarantee that the wine will be great as sometimes the cruelest vintages, with regards to weather, can produce incredible wines but those same wines will still send a chill up the spine of the winemaker as the memories of relentless stress are conjured by the very smell and taste of it.

The stresses and pressures that are faced during harvest can be very different in certain wine regions in Armenia and in their bordering conflict zones — dodging bullets while carrying small boxes full of wine grapes to the car and some being forced to use their tiniest vehicle to harvest the grapes so they are not noticed by military forces across the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many of these wine grape growers have survived so much; from the repression of the Soviet Union to being placed into an unknown limbo after its dissolution in 1991 and now in a conflict zone where each harvest can become a literal life or death situation, especially in the Berdavan community in the North East province of Tavush. But remarkably, people somehow are able to give a lot of attention to their vines to grow grapes for quality wine as there has been an escalating interest in quality wines from Armenia.

In 2010, archaeologists “unearthed a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds” which all together are “evidence of the world’s oldest known winery” in the Areni village in the famous Vayots Dzor wine province located in the southeastern part of Armenia. These discoveries are traced back at least 6,100 years and they were located in a cave now known as Areni-1 which proves humans produced wine “systematically” 1,000 years earlier than what had been previously noted. Armenia is home to over 400 native grape varieties and one can imagine since systematic winemaking had been there for so long with a wealth of grapes as well as a range of varying terroirs that it was on its way to becoming a well-established winemaking country until everything came to a screeching halt when the Soviet Union took it over in 1922.

Armenia made brandy for the Soviets and its neighboring country Georgia made wine and so many of the vineyards were managed for quantity, mixing all of the grapes without any concern for expression of grape variety or vineyard site as well as being removed from the world of wine with no reference point except for what the Soviet Union demanded.

It makes sense that the world discovered the ancient winemaking from Georgia sooner since their wine production never stopped as opposed to Armenia which has stayed longer as a hidden gem of an ancient winemaking land. But there would have had to be a pioneer that would be able to teach the people of Armenia how to manage vineyards, how to make wine that would be at the level of international high-quality standards, who knew people from the outside who could bring interest from the rest of the world; since many parts of Armenia are still a conflict zone surely it would take a warrior to set up such infrastructures within such a tumultuous place. But, no, the man who is pioneering the reemergence of Armenia is a lover not a fight, a man who through it all has never stopped dreaming the romantic dreams of walking on the wine path.

Vahe Keushguerian

Vahe Keushguerian
Vahe Keushguerian
Photo Credit: Antoine Bordier

Vahe Keushguerian is one such man who admits to winemaking not being a “rational business” but he is a man who has lived his life based on the beauty of connecting to people and having experiences that feed the heart and soul with love, excitement and fun. Although he was raised in the Armenian culture he has been a wandering soul from an early age with his family first moving from the western part of Mount Ararat, once Armenia but today Turkey, to Syria and then from Syria to Lebanon, growing up in Lebanon and going from Italy to various cities in the U.S. to eventually back to Italy and then to Armenia.

He initially got into the wine business in 1985 when he started a restaurant in Berkeley, California, and he has thought recently of those times again as one of his regular customers, Jim Clendenen, winemaker and owner of Au Bon Climat and famous original founding member of the “Rhône Rangers”, passed away a little over a month ago. Vahe can remember how fascinating it was to hear many of the Rhône Rangers’ founders come in and talk about their wines, as many times he would set up special menus with them. As Vahe’s obsession and reverence for fine wine grew, in 1994 he started a wine import company in California bringing in wines from Italy and France. Four year later he and his family moved to Tuscany as he said during that time it was an economically depressed area and so he was able to buy 87 acres “almost for free” and that is where he took a very romantic approach to learning how to become a winemaker as he knew what great wine tasted like; through trial and error he would eventually start making wines that he had loved to drink for years.

“It was really risky,” Vahe noted about jumping into winemaking in Tuscany but he is a man that leads with his heart and luckily he said that the demand for Tuscan grapes went up the following year after he purchased the vineyards. Then in ‘97 his life took an unexpected turn that would even surprise a free spirit like Vahe as that year he met a friend in Paris for a fun trip that ended up taking a detour to Armenia. Vahe was shocked to learn how long wine was made in Armenia and as he spoke to winemakers in the area, as well as visiting some of the top vineyard sites, he realized that Armenia was a special winemaking place to be discovered by the world.

Vahe said with a big laugh, “If I had to write it 20 years ago I would have still been making wine in Tuscany, end of story, and living happily ever after but over 15 years later I am making wine in Artsakh” – the Armenians refer to this area as the Republic of Artsakh, and it is a territory that sits between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but currently it is officially known outside of Armenia as Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict zone with an Armenian ethnic majority, that is recognized by the U.N. as a part of Azerbaijan by a recorded vote of 39 in favor to seven against (Angola, Armenia, France, India, Russian Federation, United States, Vanuatu), with 100 abstentions.

At first, Vahe flew back and forth to Armenia helping to lay a foundation of improving the wine industry and then in 2009 he decided to move with his family – wife and two kids, to live in Armenia for a “gap year” as his children were going to high school in Maine. He would eventually live in the western area of Armenia, bordering Turkey, in the Armavir province and he has been there for the last 12 years and his daughter, Aimee, moved there full-time six years ago with 2015 being her first Armenian harvest.

Aimee founded Zulal in 2017, introducing the 2015 Zulal Areni Reserve and 2017 Zulal Voskehat wines with the red grape Areni and white grape Voskehat being two well-respected native grapes from Armenia and representing her mission of expressing these grapes and terroirs in single varietal wines – she has, since Zulal’s inception, started working with other native varieties as well.

Aimee discussed how the wine culture is exploding in Armenia as within a short amount of time, the first wine bar, In Vino, opened in 2015 and two years later the first wine focused restaurant opened, Wine Republic, and that each year she can see people getting more comfortable, especially women, drinking wine in communal settings as the old ways of the Soviet Union of drinking vodka or brandy in private rooms is fading.

This change in lifestyle was observed by Zack Armen, co-founder and president of Storica Wines — a U.S. import company bringing in Armenian wines, when he visited Armenia in 2017. Born and raised in the U.S., Zack who is 100% ethically Armenian, went back and forth to Armenia with his family every year as they were very involved in helping the Armenian community with his father’s charity, Children of Armenia Fund (COAF). “For some reason that year seemed to be an inflection point where all of a sudden we were drinking a lot of wine,” noted Zack and he continued, “as we either drank a lot of Russian vodka or Armenia brandy in the past but wine was never part of the things we would order” and he was also surprised that there wasn’t just lots of wine but good wine and wine bars and wine stores popping up all over the place. Zack was already involved in a venture fund where they were investing in agricultural technology and he had been already applying the knowledge to help Armenian vegetable farmers to work in a more sustainable way with his father’s charity but he never thought about wine until that visit in 2017.

Vahe was a friend of his father and they had partnered in different aspects of helping the COAF and once Zack spoke to Vahe and Aimee, learned more about the vineyards and tasted more wines, he knew that he had to find a way to start importing these wines into the U.S. and so he started with Aimee’s Zulal wines and Vahe’s Keush wines which are an expression of Vahe’s love for Champagne.  

Second Generation of Pioneers

Old Vines in the Vayots Dzor of Armenia Photo Credit: Tigran Hayrapetyan

Vahe spoke of his excitement for his daughter and her generation when it comes to building the future for Armenian wines. Vahe started a custom crush facility called WineWorks that Aimee now helps to run that initially was to make it possible for him to produce his sparkling wines made in the Champagne-method (Méthode Champenoise) from vines that are over 100 years old that sit at an elevation around 5,800 feet in the famous Vayots Dzor wine region – making them some of the highest vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere – as well as making Aimee’s single varietal Zulal still wines. But over time WineWorks has also launched many Armenian wine producers as they help to get their feet off the ground during their first few years as well as being able to break barriers with placing indigenous variety names on the label such as the first time a grape variety was placed on an Armenian wine label with the Voskehat white variety on the 2013 inaugural vintage of Keush; today Voskehat is considered the white grape with the most potential for fine wine.

Then there is also their vineyard management company helping grape growers to produce more quality grapes leaving behind the Soviet practices of growing for quantity and their fight to establish legislation to help safeguard the future for quality wines in Armenia. And as if that isn’t enough, the EVN Wine Academy where Vahe is the co-founder is helping to give a formal winemaking education to the Armenian youth as well as give them opportunities to do internships in other countries so they can come back with that knowledge and experience to share with their community.

So there are many levels of how Vahe and Aimee are working to grow the Armenian wine industry to live up to its ancient winemaking heritage that ranges from the vineyards to the winery to branding and marketing showing the farmers and their children that there is a bright future for Armenian wines. Aimee was even part of a group that visited the Riedel wine glass factory in Kufstein, Austria, to design a glass for the Armenian native variety Areni; today the Riedel ‘Performance Pinot Noir’ glass lists Areni as one of the grape varieties that it is made for. And she has even connected to U.S. female winemakers through the Bâtonnage forum which brings women in the wine industry together to ask for advice when it comes to winemaking. It has been a tremendous amount of work and their wines show not only the solid infrastructure they have created but the incredible potential as the Keush and Zulal wines express something very distinctive and unique yet they are classic and stunning in their elegance and beauty.  

But even though Aimee is an impressive 28-year-old who has really had to take over and learn every aspect of the wine business, she credits her father Vahe as making any of what they are doing with wine in Armenia possible. Her hope is to take what her father has already built and through time bring in organic and biodynamic practices and design the vineyards with a mindset towards quality which is challenging because each acre is broken up between several farmers where each owns two rows of the vineyard; but even with their Soviet Union designed vineyards they are already producing impressive wines so that is a great sign for the future of Armenian wines.

The wine regions of Armenia have challenges like few other in the world and they needed someone desperately from the outside who was deeply emotionally invested in Armenia to come and discover what it had to offer and be willing to make that commitment, and that man is Vahe Keushguerian.

It was interesting to learn that the reason Vahe was moving to Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) is because, according to Aimee Keushguerian, Armenians have recently lost 70% of their land there to a war last fall with Azerbaijan which included the loss of three incredibly important Armenian wineries, vineyards and forests that they used for Caucasian oak. And so Vahe, a man that has lived his life following his heart into wine, has gotten into politics and he has been appointed advisor to the Armenian Prime Minister on economic development. He is coordinating with all the international development companies, the donors and the fundraisers to focus help towards those in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and to try to protect what they have left of their vineyards and build a wine cooperative.

“Our wine industry is so important,” Aimee exclaimed, “as our grapes will give us a reason to stay and defend our land as we can’t and we won’t lose our vineyards!” And it just took an ethnically Armenian man, who like many immigrants belonged everywhere and nowhere, basing his life on the romantic visions of his wine dreams; he was supposed to live out his wine fantasy in Tuscany until he discovered to his surprise that in his own blood there was thousands of years of wine culture. 

***This article originally appeared in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/07/23/one-of-the-oldest-wine-producing-countries-growing-grapes-in-conflict-zones-the-reemergence-of-armenia/

NV Keush 'Origins', Méthode Traditionnelle Brut
NV Keush ‘Origins’, Méthode Traditionnelle Brut Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

The wines below are from the famous Vayots Dzor wine province that has proof that wine has been made there for at least 6,000 years if not much longer. The vineyards are many times up high in the mountains, over 4,000 feet, and are planted with ancient indigenous varieties such as the white grape variety Voskehat and the red grape Areni that has vines averaging around 40 to 50 years old that reach up to over 100 years of age. Many of these vines were used for local homemade wine as the vines were not capable of producing large quantities for the Soviet Union and so the winemaking culture has never stopped in this area of Armenia

2019 Zulal, Voskehat
2019 Zulal, Voskehat
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

NV Keush ‘Origins’, Méthode Traditionnelle Brut, Vayots Dzor, Armenia: 60% Voskehat and 40% Katouni coming from high-elevated (4,920-5,577 feet) volcanic and limestone soils with minimum 22 months lees aging. Lightly toasted bread notes with intense minerality and hint of lemon blossom and white flowers on the nose with marked acidity, lots of energy and finely creamy textured bubbled on the palate. Really impressively elegant all around! $26.

2019 Zulal, Voskehat, Vayots Dzor, Armenia: 100% Voskehat. White flowers and stony minerality makes me think that the indigenous variety Voskehat from Armenia typically has these qualities as the above sparkling had the same notes. Tangy and flavorful with green mango and juicy peach on the palate with crisp acidity and a lifted expressive finish. $20.

2018 Zulal, Areni 'Reserve'
2018 Zulal, Areni ‘Reserve’ Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2018 Zulal, Areni ‘Reserve’, Vayots Dzor, Armenia: Uniquely pretty nose with spiced pickled cherries, cinnamon bark and lily of the valley wafting in and out with mouth watering acidity, soft tannins with bright red cherries and floral lift continuing on the finish. Wow! So unique yet also perfectly balanced – typically the two don’t go together. $22.

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Co-Founder of Kosta Browne Wine: A Deep Crack In A Child’s Foundation Leads To A Life In The Circus, Restaurant Business And Wine World

Photo Credit: CIRQ.

When I heard about just a little bit of the story of Michael Browne, winemaker and co-founder of the iconic, award-winning Kosta Browne winery, who had been in the circus earlier in life, I had to jump at the chance to be given a digital copy of his Pinot Rocks book as I wanted to know how that journey happened. Well, I got a lot more than I bargained for as the book gripped me with its raw honesty of an unconventional childhood that is initially rooted in the stress and fear that surrounded his mentally-ill mother. He does not go into the details of her condition but he writes about having to deal with her irrational paranoia, like when she asked a young Michael, who had been in the house making a mess in his room, and when he couldn’t tell her who had been in the house, as it was just him making the mess in his room, she would do unsettling things like pour a bowl of milk over his head as she was sure he was lying to her. His early childhood had been very lonely because he unknowingly at the time isolated himself as he didn’t want others to meet his mother because he didn’t know how to explain her behavior and words; even though desperate for a connection with other people, the deep-seated fear in his unconscious mind kept him from getting into his school’s extracurricular activities as his parents never showed up to his school and it was just too hard to keep explaining why they were never around.

As I first started to read about Michael’s unexpected childhood, I started to think about my own as there were a few similarities. I too had a mother with a lot of issues, although drugs played a part with her issues but maybe she was mentally ill before the drugs – I will never know. My mother had very little to do with my life, actually she didn’t speak that much to me as she was more concerned with just getting money from people to continue her “lifestyle” and that very much is her relationship with anyone – either she gets money from you, or uses you to get money out of others; if neither is possible then she wants nothing to do with you. My stepfather met my mother while going through a mid-life crisis while partying and he immediately was sucked in by her but through time he just went into a deep dark hole of depression as he didn’t want to realize that he had married someone who was just out to use him; and so I spent all of my childhood taking care of myself, living in a home where no one spoke to each other and having great difficulty finding a way to connect to other children.

Of course there are many differences between our situations as Michael’s mother’s issues were mainly linked to mental illness which now has a lot less of a stigma than it had in the past. When he was ten she left to live with her mother as it was probably too much for her to be a mother or a wife. His father and mother met when they were young and Michael remembers his mother being a brilliant woman who obviously had issues navigating some parts of life. Once his mother left, his father became very depressed, as anyone would expect, and Michael very much appreciates his father trying to battle his depression while working and being a single parent.

Many of us think about the traumatic events that shape us when we are a teenager but often times we are only left with shards of images from our really young adolescence, even though some experts will talk about how stress and fear can be hardwired into us at an age that we can’t even remember – Michael’s childhood, especially when his mother lived with them, was filled with a constant state of living in a stressful environment that often had his parents fighting and his mother making disturbing comments based on her intense paranoia. Despite the differences in our backgrounds, I know that feeling of being a kid that is always in stress and fear mode and although such issues become even more intense in isolation, one feels trapped as how could you ever explain your home life when you yourself can’t even make sense of it?

It is quite powerful how Michael starts the book as it allows the reader to understand how he was shaped as a kid that eventually explains what really drove him in life. Ultimately, he was seeking a place that felt like home, a family and an ability to effortlessly connect with those around him.

Michael Browne
Photo Credit: Eric Wolfinger Photography

But writing this book was anything but easy as he said he had never really talked about his childhood so openly but his editor said he needed to open up about his life and it took him four and a half years to finally take that leap of faith. He didn’t want to paint anyone in a bad light as he realized that his mother had her issues and his father was a good dad placed in a difficult position. But Michael explained that something that took so long to put down on paper became “freeing” for him as not only has he gotten a lot of great feedback from other people who appreciate his honesty but it lifted a weight from him.

Circus Lessons

It may seem odd that a co-founder of such a famous winery in Sonoma County, California, would directly relate the lessons he learned while being in a circus growing up in Wenatchee, Washington State, to his success in the wine business but as I got through the story, it made sense because getting to a place of having your own winery when you have no money requires an unorthodox journey. There are a lot of devastating hits that will most certainly come your way in the wine business, whether you are in debt up to your elbows and ready to lose your house or in Michael’s case, dealing with the blow backs and complications of having a very successful winery gaining numerous high scores and accolades and learning to navigate something that becomes bigger than one can dream.

Michael was only 12 years old when he joined his town’s local circus as one of his buddies talked him into it as a cool thing to do and they could just move mats around. But then he wanted to learn how to ride the unicycle and soon he was on the unicycle team and then he wanted to eat fire so the fire eaters taught him and then he was on the fire eating team but there was “no way” he could do the high-wire act or be on the trapeze… well the next thing he knew he was hanging upside down on the trapeze catching people flying through the air as well as riding a bicycle on the wire 25 feet up in the air. It was a great lesson over and over again that although Michael felt he didn’t have what it took to gain any of these skills, it was just a matter of practice and making mistakes over and over again and each time getting back up to do it with the intention of learning the lesson that the mistake will teach you.  

Some of those mistakes were quite terrifying, like having his head “engulfed” in flames when it was a windy day while attempting the fire eating act and even more horrifying is when he was performing the high-wire act and it collapsed and the guy who went on it right before him fell into the net so hard he bounded out, hit the ground and was knocked unconscious. Of course the high-wire incident put him off of wanting to do it again but the leader of the circus, Paul Pugh, who was also Michael’s junior high school principal, approached him after he finished the physically exhausting work of catching people during the trapeze to get him to do the high-wire act again; Michael exclaimed, “I can’t, I’m freaked out and I’m burned out physically” and Paul Pugh simply replied with, “Get up there” and they did it. Michael learned many things from the circus such as the joy of entertaining people and working as a team but no greater lesson than “making mistakes are a good thing” since if you make them enough and get up and try harder each time, you will eventually be able to accomplish things beyond your imagination, even in what seems the worst of times.

The Inklings of a Legendary Winery

Michael knew nothing about the wine business when he first got into it but just like the circus it was a step by step process with first being a bartender, then a waiter, then sommelier and then eventually taking on internships at wineries while supporting himself with restaurant work. Fate would land Michael at John Ash & Co., a high-end Sonoma restaurant that was one of the first that worked with seasonal, local ingredients as well as wines from the region. And it would not only introduce him to great Sonoma wines but that is where he met his future wine partner, Dan Kosta. At one point, Michael interrupted his early work experience in Sonoma County by flying back to his home Washington State, working in a couple of “cool” restaurants in Seattle and then ultimately he got a job at a large wine distribution company as a salesman as he wanted to be in the wine business. Well the job didn’t last long as it really was just about being a salesman and not really about talking about the wines themselves but he did meet a young lady who worked for the company during his first interview and that seemed to be the best thing that came out of working in distribution.

Soon Michael missed Sonoma, as well as all the great wine producers and growers who came into John Ash & Co. and so he asked for his job back from Dan Kosta, who was managing the place, and the plan was that he would also volunteer at a winery called Deerfield Ranch while crashing at a friend’s place. After just a couple of months of dating, he asked that young lady from the distribution company to move to Sonoma with him and to his surprise she said yes. It was a tough time as he and his girlfriend never saw each other and she was out of her element and away from her tight-knit family and so she questioned whether moving to Sonoma was a good idea but Michael painted a picture of them living in a “little bungalow” and making enough to cover their family’s expenses while eating “good food,” having “good friends” and certainly drinking delicious wines but it would probably take ten years; Michael had no reason to think that it would end up that way but he had a feeling.

He ended up working at Deerfield for eight years and learned so much from the owner and winemaker, Robert Rex, who basically taught him by “trial and error” how to do everything in a winery. Michael explains in detail the many “mistakes” that very much drove the point that although a task may seem easy when first described to you, many times it is quite intricate in regards to the right way to do it and considering that Michael found himself overworked with balancing working for a few wineries while trying to start his own brand, there were a few times that he lost thousands of dollars in wine as barrels exploded from too much pressure or when wine was shooting into his face like a fire hose. But just like working in the circus, there was no time to waste, no matter how devastating the failure as there are other things that are much more important than you – the show must go on as many depend on it.

Kosta Browne Wine

As all of us know now, Kosta Browne became a huge success but there was certainly a lot of bad luck, mistakes and obstacles along the way that could have easily pushed it into its demise – a few included almost having the financial rug pulled out from under them by not selling their unfiltered flagship Pinot Noir wine in its second vintage because of a spoilage yeast, Brettanomyces, making the wine undrinkable.

Kosta Browne was started by Michael Browne, Dan Kosta and eventually Chris Costello joined bringing incredible resources from his father and other partners and many investors; it was a “wild ride, a 20 year wild ride,” noted Michael. Dan and Michael used their many years in the restaurant business to help guide them as throughout the years they talked to hardcore Pinot Noir wine connoisseurs before the grape even became popular in the U.S. and they got an idea of what they liked and didn’t like to get an idea of what worked. Also, the idea of giving the customers a great experience was an essential component to both of them and that harkened back as well to Michael’s desire to connect with people and to give them an experience they would never forget. He said most wineries wanted to sell people the minute they walked through the door but he was happy to talk to these visitors for a couple of hours, eat a couple of snacks, drink some wine and find out a little bit about their life’s story and he was happy to work out how to sell them wine later.

He would then extend these small customer visits to inside the winery itself to taste them on a bunch of barrels, which was not as common 20 years ago as it is now, and he would see how blown away they were and it would be a way to get people to open up and share their life as in a sense they felt like you invited them into your home – a home free of judgment because it was all about building relationships with those people who understood and respected your passion. Michael was against large groups coming and going as that was a quick way to move bottles but those situations would never lead to long-term loyalty, let alone a relationship that led to truly knowing one’s customers. Something that was so difficult to Michael when he was younger, connecting to people, seemed to happen with ease once he started working in restaurants and wineries – it was the magical formula of creating an inviting atmosphere that made such connections possible.

Early on Michael said he made big Kosta Browne Pinot Noir wines with higher alcohol by accident as he couldn’t get ahead of the picking schedule and so he was harvesting later than he meant and so he was nervous when “high-end tasters” barrel sampled the wines as he felt it was something that they were not used to tasting. But they liked it because it was elegant yet intense and so he came up with the term “elegant intensity”.

In 2005, their ‘03s were awarded the best lineup of scores for an American Pinot Noir at that time and then things exploded as all of a sudden, all of their wines were sold, and over-sold in some cases, overnight as Kosta Browne had become much bigger than the three men running it. Everyone started writing about them, whether it was professional wine writers or bloggers, some of it was praise and some of it just nasty snark. “I felt like I was in the middle of a stadium, and the stadium lights had been turned on, and they were all pointed directly at us. But when the lights are on you, you can’t see anyone in the audience,” explained Michael in his book. It was certainly too much, too soon as he was still making wine in three different locations: Deerfield’s small winery in Kenwood, a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa and Kosta Browne in Sebastopol as well as Michael having to still make wine for Deerfield as he had to make a living and he was not making enough from Kosta Browne.

Photo Credit: CIRQ.

Michael loved the challenges of Pinot Noir and through time he moved towards finding balance, elegance and more consistency while making the wine delicious and whether it translates into lower or higher alcohol it doesn’t matter – it is the end result. But what is nice about the book is that he doesn’t try to constantly make himself look good as he is very honest about the reality of the various situations he was put in and at the end of the day he is human like everyone else who was learning as he went as he didn’t have any formal training. As time went on with Kosta Browne, he found himself spending more time in the office and less in the winery and connecting with customers and so around ten years ago it was time to move onto another phase – they sold Kosta Browne. But he wanted to get back to having a small, boutique winery and so as homage to his circus days, he started a winery called CIRQ. that focuses on his main wine love – Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. It is a long story but the partners he brought in to start CIRQ. ended up buying Kosta Browne and CIRQ. got put under Kosta Browne’s umbrella and he decided that he just needed to own CIRQ. directly, and it took him three years, but he was able to buy CIRQ. back and he has slowly been able to build an estate winery and acquire land where they are planting a vineyard. For the immediate future he will work with “spectacular growers” that he has gotten to know over years and he is in “no hurry” as he is happy to make the wine when it is right and to keep being part of the Sonoma wine community. He is just looking forward to connecting with people from all over the world once they are able to travel again and come out to visit him.

A Guaranteed Happy Ending

Michael is happy to encourage young people to shoot for owning a winery of their own if they are willing to put in the hard time of learning with other producers and juggling a lot of jobs just to survive. Looking back, it is quite amazing to think of him and Dan Kosta putting ten dollars of their tip money in a jar at the end of their shifts at John Ash & Co. until they had enough to buy some grapes so they could make wine – it was a long hard road and still many bumps even after they were deemed “successful” but they were in it for the right reason. Michael knew they would never become rich, actually Michael felt lucky when he could support himself and his family with only one job, but the wine world was the only world for him – once he first started to meet wine producers and growers he knew these were his people; and for Michael to finally find his people was a big deal.

Browne Family Photo Credit: CIRQ.

There are some people who have such a major influence on kids, especially when they need guidance, and Michael thinks back to the leader of the circus, Paul Pugh, as giving him the foundation to survive everything that was thrown at him. He was such a cherished figure in his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington State, that after Paul Pugh passed, the town erected a bronze statue of him. Through time Michael was able to establish a close relationship with his father who actually lives only ten minutes away and Michael warmly expresses that he has “a wonderful life” as he has “great friends and a great family.”

Additionally, that young lady 20 years ago who took a chance on a guy she only dated for a couple of months to move to Sonoma County, just to crash on someone else’s couch with no guarantees of the future, ended up marrying Michael. “She is downstairs right now and we have three kids and two dogs and she is a wonderful woman,” exclaimed Michael. He finished our conversation by simply saying, “My profession and what I do means a lot to me but it is the personal connections that mean the most to me whether it is friends or family…” he then stopped and let out a laugh thinking back 20 years ago when he decided to ask his future wife to begin this wild journey with him, “but I still can’t believe she said yes.”

In the end it doesn’t matter what happened to Kosta Browne in regards to what Michael deeply desired as he just wanted to belong among people who loved to share great wine with great company… and maybe that is part of the reason it became so successful, because he was willing to make a lot of sacrifices, juggle many jobs and put it all on the line when it came to delivering something that he thought was exciting.

It is a sign that there is justice in the world when looking back at that scared little boy who had a tumultuous home life, desperately wanting to be part of the world, in time becoming a man with a loving family and generous community of growers and producers. And Michael’s second wine journey is just beginning so he can get back to the heart of his passion – small production that connects directly to the consumer. It is a full circle moment, as although he is not going back home, he is going back to the home he had always imagined.

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