Finding Our Value by Realizing We are Never Alone

I remember sitting in one of my first few yoga classes, a young lady of 22 years old, and getting ready for a spiritual (or inspirational for those who are not feeling the word spiritual or its kind) talk, and getting ready to “testify”. Okay, so you are now asking, what do I mean by the word testify? Especially being an atheist this may seem odd, but to testify is to exclaim in such a way that it lets the person giving the inspirational talk know that you passionately agree with what they are saying. So I shout out things like “Yes!”, or “Thank you!”… Now, I am from New Orleans and so such exclamations were common growing up… lucky enough, New York City embraces such fervent displays of approval… But during this one yoga talk, there was something that was addressed that I did not care for… did not care for one bit. The topic was based on the Sanskrit word vaśīkāra:  the state of dispassion, in which an aspirant is no longer interested in even the charms of heaven and is no longer afraid of hell. Or in more real world terms, one should not dwell within criticism or praise, within horrific times or great times, feeling bad or great about oneself. One should always try to bring themselves back to a balanced, contented state.

As a young lady sitting there with very low self-confidence, trying to deal with some anger and pain, I all of the sudden said out loud, “Why wouldn’t we want to allow ourselves to feel praise, to feel that we have value, to feel an overwhelming warmth of happiness?” Well, I think I was taking this lesson too literally, especially for someone who was living in the world as opposed to living a monastic life which is necessary to be in constant vaśīkāra.

Grounding Ourselves in What is Constant

At that young of an age, my main goal was just to find a way to let go of those negative feelings that were weighing me down, to find a way to live a life of joy and happiness, to get away from my constant focus of trying to prove my worth… and in my mind, the way to do that was by achieving as much as I could, thereby gaining respect and approval from others…. then my existence would mean something; there would be a purpose for my life. And so I shrugged off this teaching thinking that I was not going to think about anything that made me uncomfortable or was not part of making me feel good about myself.

Well, quickly enough, through time, my plan to only take in what made me feel good was not working out for me. I know all of you are shocked! I felt that I was going into a deep hole because my sense of self was dependent on endorsements from others. And so my journey was constantly rocky, uneven, and fraught with highs and lows.

And then, one day, when I had gone as low in my esteem as I could go, I thought about that teaching… about vaśīkāra and that it was not so much based on not feeling anything and being devoid of exuberance when there is fanfare around you, or it was about not dealing with sadness or anger when you have felt cheated or hurt.  You allow yourself to surrender to those feelings but then you should quickly force yourself back to your daily rituals of life – cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or giving back to one’s “family” and community, realizing that my worth should be associated with how I make the world a better place in tiny ways.

Victor Schoenfeld

I was really excited to sit down for a press lunch with Victor Schoenfeld a couple months ago. Victor is the head winemaker at Golan Heights Winery and is credited with starting the wine quality revolution in Israel. Earlier this year, I had been on a wine press trip in Israel and visited Golan Heights Winery, but at that time, he was out of the country with the important responsibility of promoting and educating people about his wines as well as about the Golan Heights sub-region of the Galilee region of Israel. I was disappointed to miss him and so I was thrilled to be given an opportunity to pick his brain during this lunch in New York City.

Victor is a warm and instantly likeable sort of person. He is at ease in his own skin and obviously likes talking to people and connecting. Some of us remarked that although he is a living legend in shaping the Israel wine world, he was very humble. He then noted that he ended up in this position, starting in 1992 as head winemaker, because of luck. Born and raised in California, going to one of the top schools for winemakers – UC Davis – coming to Israel at a young age and being inspired to become a farmer – farming food for people to eat (Israel has many communities that share the cost of farming, and in some communities they share the profits). Through time and the influence of being a young man at one of the top enology schools in the world, he changed his focus to becoming a farmer of wine grapes. He said timing and working for a producer that was happy to invest in resources and research, such as Golan Heights Winery, were key to his success.

Getting Beaten Down

Also, he said that it is easy to keep humble because every farmer gets beaten down by Mother Nature. Although Golan Heights Winery is in a highly regarded wine area in Israel with cooler temperatures at night (and sometimes during the day as I experienced 32F (0C) during my trip in January), higher altitudes, as well as having humidity which is important for vines not to transpire too fast (aka sweating water vapor) and so less likely to shut down, Mother Nature will still slap him and others who devote themselves to the land a harsh reality of what they can control and their overall importance when it comes to the bigger picture.

What is Our Value?

Personally, I think it was more than luck that has built Victor’s reputation, but what makes him even more approachable is that he realizes that no matter how many awards and titles he receives, he will still need to go out and face those vineyards everyday and they will not always deliver what he expects, no matter how much of his blood, sweat and tears he gives them. But he recognizes that his faith is not any worse or fairer than anyone else’s and everyone has their peaks and valleys…. so no feeling sorry for oneself, let alone better than anyone else… and in that way, he is never alone.

When I think back to that yoga lesson, I realize it is fine to shout out to the world, “Yes, I did this! Isn’t this awesome?” but it must be tempered by the realization that we were perhaps given a little bit more luck than others in that moment and we should ground ourselves in the idea that we are just part of contributing to something that is greater than ourselves – some call it God, or the universe; I’m more comfortable calling it my local, and even broader, global community. Because if we get attached to being too much about only oneself – my title, my award, my glory – then we imprison ourselves to live a very lonely life, a life where we face all our ups and downs alone. But if we immediately bring ourselves back to what it means to truly have value – to better other lives around us – then we will never be alone, …and when we fall from that high place of glory, as people do several times in their lives, our fall will not be that big, or make that much of a personal impact because we knew the whole entire time that we were already a worthy being who deserves love freely because we give it freely.

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Golan Heights Winery Tasting on June 22nd, 2017

My visit to the Golan Heights with Mount Hermon in the background and a wild horse enjoying the open land.

All Golan Heights Winery wines are kosher although I hesitate to even mention it because some interpret this as having a negative effect on quality or meaning it is intended for only religious Jewish people. Please note that it means neither of the aforementioned concerns as it does not alter quality, and the wines are for everyone – actually they sell quite well in Japan. Being kosher only indicates that the wines were made in a safe environment for those who follow kosher law. I hope wine consumers will start to appreciate these wines and that they get a little more love with proper placements on wine store shelves and in online wine stores as being quality wines, not just lumped into the kosher section.

The Golan Heights is in northern Israel, a sub-region of Galilee, and has very different geographical aspects than the regions surrounding it. It is a volcanic plateau with basalt and tuff soil, rising to 3937 feet (1200 meters) above sea level. The area benefits from moderating influences such as the snow covered Mount Hermon, which I saw with my own eyes during my trip there. Also, a fun side note, there are wild horses that gallop freely in the Golan Heights.

Yarden series of wines: Each year, the finest grapes from the best vineyards are reserved for Yarden wines.

-2009 Yarden Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Brut: 100% Chardonnay. A traditional sparkling Blanc de Blancs with toasty notes, zingy green apple and lime blossom flavors.

2011 Yarden Rosé Sparkling Brut: 72% Chardonnay and 28% Pinot Noir. A traditional sparkling rosé with delicate, fresh strawberry notes, surprisingly intense minerality and hint of spice.

2016 Yarden Gewürztraminer: Majority Gewürztraminer. This is a delicious, rich white wine with ripe mango, lychee syrup and a lift of rose water flavor on the finish. This would be perfect with Middle Eastern food… which is fitting because it was made in the Middle East!

2016 Gilgal Rosé: 100% Syrah. This rosé made from Syrah grown on volcanic soil in the cooler Golan Heights, is a must for any rosé lover who wants to try something different. I really got this smoky, crumbly earth character on it, with black fruit dominating and a noticeable structure that would make this a great rosé to pair with food. (The Gilgal Series of wines offer great value yet still take pride in expressing the ancient soils of the Golan Heights by noting prehistoric markings on this label.)

-2014 Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay: This wine proves that you can be big with finesse… the oak was so well integrated that no one at the table could guess that it was made with 100% new French oak. Victor just smiled at our surprise and said that he tasted many MWs, MSs, wine experts, etc. on this wine and no one had ever suspected. It all comes down to the quality of the oak and selecting his best Chardonnay grapes. This wine is complex, yet balanced by vigor and brightness. Nutty aromas, baked apples and a full body with tannic structure supporting its weight makes this wine a pleasure in every way.  It was open at this stage but could continue to improve for at least four more years.

2013 Yarden Malbec: Malbec from the single vineyard Yonatan Springs at 700 meters (2,300 feet). The nose was exciting with violets and dried tobacco notes; the body was elegant with fine tannins and fresh blue fruit.

-2013 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: This is Golan Heights Winery’s flagship wine – it offers so much for only 35 bucks! Blackcurrant leaf, sage and basaltic soil with big, manicured tannins that give muscle to the body of this wine.

My visit to the Bar’on Vineyard

 

-2013 Yarden Bar’on Vineyard: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Syrah and 11% Petit Verdot. The 2013 Yarden Bar’on Vineyard is the first ever release of a single vineyard blended wine from this vineyard. Opaque color with fresh notes of mint, gravelly earth and graphite with majestic laced shaped structure. Only 20 barrels made.

-2013 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Bar’on Vineyard: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the single vineyard of Bar’on – blended wine previously tasted. Love the precision on this wine – lots of energy – and tons of structure with fine tannins – crushed rocks and wild flowers – pure and expressive with strong sense of place. Only 30 barrels made.

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Keeping Core Values While Staying Open to the World

There I was, having lunch in Tribeca, New York, with a woman talking about the cultural diversity of the place she comes from… Roman, Arabian, Spanish, Greek, and so on.  We connected over our mutual love of traveling, connecting with people around the world… she recounted a trip to Cuba with her family – she said it was wonderful for her to see her young son run around Havana and at one point exclaim, “Mama I love Cuba”. For a moment, I thought that perhaps I was talking to someone else from a big, metropolitan city the size of New York City… but no, it was someone from an Italian Mediterranean island, Sardinia. An island that has the largest population of people over 100 years old, where people know that food and wine should be savored slowly, teaches its young to take care of its old, and has charmingly interwoven the cultural influences from various invaders, over several centuries, that came from far and wide.

Argiolas

Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

I actually knew about Argiolas before I knew much about Sardinia itself – it was introduced to me around ten years ago by another wine nerd. Their wines have all the polished markings of modernized winemaking, yet the aromas, flavors and textures of their wines were like no other I had experienced. When I worked in wine retail, it became the producer that I would recommend for those who wanted something different yet well-made, and every time I would get rave reviews for recommending such an unknown gem.

Sardinia

Sardinia is an Italian island in the Mediterranean, the second largest after Sicily, and like another Italian region, Campania, it has a large wealth of indigenous grape varieties on which they place their focus. They have not caved into the pressure to plant significant amounts of international varieties. Actually, in 2012, during the Fourth National Congress on Viticulture, held in Asti, Italy, it was noted that there were 250 different grape varieties living on Sardinia, although only 24 were listed in the National Registry. One grape, called Cannonau, or known in Spain as Garnacha, or in France as Grenache, was mentioned by Bernardino Conti in 1549 as existing on Sardinia as Canonat, and so, some Italian experts say that the grape originated on Sardinian soil and not on the soil of Spain as many others believe. Of course this is completely disputed by Spanish experts with solid evidence backing up their claims as well. And so, the origin may never be known but Cannonau has certainly been present on Sardinia long enough, showing its own characteristics, that it is uniquely Sardinian.

Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

What is also widely known about Sardinia is that it has one of the largest populations of centenarians, people who live to or past the age of 100, as noted above. There have been many studies as to why people live so long, but I was excited to ask Valentina Argiolas why she thought her famous grandfather, Antonio Argiolas, the father of Sardinian modern winemaking, lived to the ripe age of 102.

Valentina Argiolas

Valentina and myself

When I first met Valentina for lunch in downtown Manhattan, I was immediately taken with her golden Mediterranean glow. I was able to learn so much about her family’s wines, wines that I had admired for so long, as well as getting a taste of what it might be like to be a Sardinian – especially the granddaughter of Antonio Argiolas. She was bright, worldly and grounded in her beliefs while also surrendering to the moment to take in a wonderful experience. She talked about the long life of her grandfather, how he lived a good life filled with exercise and conviviality until his last breath. She noted that he had a daily glass of Sardinian red wine and a whole fish for dinner… but I have known many people who kept an excellent diet, combined with moderate wine consumption and did not live such a high quality life for so long. To me, there had to be more…

Then she talked about her love for travel… how she and her husband travel everywhere with their small children, saying that it was not a big deal as her kids actually love it. And when I heard her story of visiting Cuba and her connection with the people, her remembering with a smile her children running on the streets of Havana, that although she is a sharp woman who knew how to help take care of her family’s business, she was also a woman who knew how to place business and stress to the side to live those precious moments that fill us with the magical dreams that all of us need to get through those less-than-magical times.

Enrich Yourself with Biodiversity while Keeping Core Values

I find it interesting how people see biodiversity… especially that which we find to be difficult to integrate. I spent all of my young adult life in a poor, artsy New York City neighborhood filled with people of various cultures, religions, and races that were happy to give their last dollar to someone else who needed it… and so, that is the most natural biodiversity to me. But I must admit, that since, most of the time, I was around artists who were proud of being unknown and poor, I didn’t really have any idea about the competitive ruthlessness of the world until I was in my 30s. I was an open vessel giving all without any consideration that I could have been used or taken advantage of. Through time, I have learned to be more careful, even though it is still hard to fight the impulse to want to open my heart to everyone in my path. I realized that I can’t live in my little bubble if I wanted to grow professionally and personally. But I never wanted to lose those core values of generosity, openness, and simply, pure surrender to moments that are rejuvenating to believing in humanity again. And so, I deeply admire how Valentina is able to live in the moment, appreciating the connections with people around the world without any noticeable fear or doubt while being very aware of the many realities of the world.

Maybe that is Sardinians’ secret to a long and, most importantly, good life. That no matter how many times they had been invaded, or they themselves travel beyond their captivating island, they know how to integrate the things that enrich the heart and spirit and avoid those things that tarnish their soul.

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Tasting of Argiolas, Sardinian wines, on June 13th, 2017

It is worth noting that Argiolas has carried out an ambitious project for the selection and conservation of native Sardinian grape varieties. They work with 11 local varieties (Vermentino, Cannonau, Monica, Bovale Sardo, Malvasia, Carignano, Nuragus, Nebbiolo, Moscato, Caricagiola and Nasco) and have researched 5000 different clones (or biotypes) for each variety to find the healthiest and highest quality vines. Their collection vineyard has around 5000 plants total, from 499 selected mother vines to help propagate the best replanting.

2016 Argiolas, Is Argiolas, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC: 100% Vermentino from the oldest vineyards of Argiolas. Vermentino is another variety that has enjoyed a long history in Sardinia, but like Cannonau, the origin of Vermentino is still a mystery. This variety does best on poorly fertile soils and it has a good tolerance for the salty Mediterranean winds. This Sardinian Vermentino really shows a sensational saline minerality that no other Vermentino winemaking area can replicate, with lemon zest and marked acidity while maintaining good flesh on the body. Its salty, stony finishing note is really out of this world.

2016 Argiolas, Serra Lori, Isola dei Nuraghi IGT: Dry rosato (rosé) blended from Cannonau, Monica, Carignano, and Bovale Sardo, four red grape varietals that typify Sardinian viticulture. What a fun, juicy, vibrant rosato, aka rosé, wine. I still got that hint of salinity, with wild strawberries and white pepper. Have you ever had strawberries with pepper on them? It may sound odd but when you have it you will ask, “where has this combination been all my life?!?” Also, the back label said to pair with pasta with sea urchin roe…. oh my God… yes, yes! And the idea that it is only $14 makes it my new summer wine of choice.

2013 Argiolas, Perdera, Monica di Sardegna DOC: Perdera is 90% Monica, 5% Carignano, and 5% Bovale Sardo. There are many vines on Sardinia that are supposedly incorrectly labeled as Monica, but Perdera from Argiolas is one of the wines that a wine lover can drink to know what real Monica tastes like… this 2013 was light and nimble with floral and sweet spices on the nose that evolved into an extra sweet tobacco note as I went back to my glass at the end of lunch. A perfect light red for those who want a bit more complexity than your average everyday wine… and at $13, it could very well be an everyday drinking wine.

2012 Argiolas, Turriga, Isola dei Nuraghi IGT: 85% Cannonau, 5% Carignano, 5% Bovale Sardo and 5% Malvasia Nera. Turriga is what placed Agriolas on the map of many fine wine drinkers. It is their benchmark wine for excellence and how that excellence can be achieved by only using indigenous, local varieties. This gorgeous wine had luxurious dark fruit that invites you in with exciting tension and precision that had never ending layers of intricacy… mocha, crushed rocks, balsam herb and espresso… it was loving and nurturing but there was always a feeling that you will never completely figure out this intricate wine. It is like the statue of the “Mediterranean Mother”, “Venus”, or “Turriga” that graces this label (an archaeological piece found by Valentina’s grandfather in 1935, possibly dating back to 400BC)  – open to nurturing the world yet she does not compromise her core characteristics or lose her individuality. This wine is a great example that a life filled with excellence does not have to come at the expense of what is native within us; in other words – they trusted that their top selection of native varieties could make a wine that rivaled the great wines of the world without the addition of international grapes. It was an honor to taste it.

 

***** Top Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

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If We Try to Deny the Bad and the Ugly, We Eventually Stop Recognizing the Good

Surrounded by a sea of varying shades of green, I had to remind myself to keep on the well-trodden path as there could have been some remaining undiscovered active landmines… although less likely in the year 2017, as they have been largely deactivated and unearthed, it is better to be safe than sorry. My husband and I were at the 17th parallel, the former Vietnam DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a demarcated area that separated South and North Vietnam during what American’s call the Vietnam War and what the Vietnam government calls the American War – this is where the majority of lives were lost during a war that lasted from 1955 until 1975. It was just as stunning in its raw beauty as so many Vietnam Veterans, or vets, (Americans who fought in the war) had described it to me. One vet not only told me about the surreal, natural splendor of the Vietnam landscape, but he also talked about the kindness and care of the South Vietnamese people who took care of his army unit. He still kept a picture next to his bed of a Vietnamese woman who would make fish soup for them… she was a temporary mother to his 18 year old self, and to this day, her picture is a reminder of the better memories from that experience.

There is No Sugar Coating It

Vietnam is an intensely authentic place… I know people are tired of the word “authentic” but I think, in this case, it is rightfully used. Although, if you go through a very touristy place like Hoi An, a delightfully restored ancient area the Old Town section anyways (recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site),  you will be bombarded with the local Vietnamese trying to sell you stuff… so yes, like any other tourist place on the planet, be wary… but when you go off the beaten path, people are living their lives openly in the streets… hanging clothes up, burning things that they want to send to their deceased relatives, screaming at each other (or perhaps just loudly having a pleasant conversation?)… many people’s doors were open where I could see them taking a mid-day nap when the temperatures hit 120F (49C), and I would think, sweat pouring down my face, “I am such a sucker running around during this time of day!”… and hints of rusty sections of the dilapidated buildings would gleam in the fierce sun . No one was trying to compete with each other, or show that they were better than anyone else, or trying to pretend they were something they were not… they were living their lives, content with very little… of course this is not true for everyone, as we had some interesting conversations with some local people that there is a movement to make South Vietnam a more capitalist area of Vietnam… but I think in every country there is at least one group, if not more, that feels alienated by their government.

I like the transparency of how people live in Vietnam… or as some may say, “the grit.” Albeit a communist country, it has a loosey-goosey, anything goes feeling, where, for example, a red traffic light doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone on a motorbike will stop. And talking about motorbikes, there are tons of them… with all these easy riders driving on tiny bikes with 3, 4, sometimes 5 people. People transport huge deliveries, windows and livestock on these tiny bikes. Most people can’t afford anything else and people do what they have to do to survive. Even though, as a tourist, I would be cautious as I would be in any other city in a foreign country – never knowingly break the law… no matter how insignificant you think the law is.

The Free Spirits of Australians and Vietnamese

Any time we heard a non-Vietnamese voice during our trip, 7 out of 10 times it had an Australian accent. Like the locals, many Australians seemed to completely give themselves over to the Vietnamese way of life of riding motorbikes in chaotic traffic, and I think they somehow innately knew what the unspoken rules were in any given situation. Being a somewhat neurotic New Yorker, I could never ride a motorbike… even if I was just on it as a passenger with a professional driver. We all have our limits – I have no issues just walking through a local neighborhood and jumping into a random eatery; I brought my own toilet paper and I have had my typhoid and hepatitis immunizations updated so I was good to go… but if anyone knows real New Yorkers, we love to eat in hole in the wall restaurants… or at food trucks…. so not that much of a stretch for me.

But I did sit back and enjoy seeing how the Australians intermixed effortlessly with the Vietnamese. There was something playful about how people lived their life in Vietnam and the Australians fit in perfectly. Americans have always admired the seemingly free spirit of those who come from the “land down under.” Almost every other place on earth is a big trip for Australians, and I think that’s why you see many traveling the world as they are used to it, and hence don’ t fear travel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is around an 8 hour flight from Sydney, Australia, and so relatively, it is not that big of a trip for our Aussie friends.

Ungrafted: Old Vines and Why They Matter

Three weeks before I left for Vietnam, I went to an Australian wine seminar that was based on the old, ungrafted vines that are unbeknownst to many Americans. The US consumer has had a very positive, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, relationship with Australian wines. The entry level to mid-market wines, at $7 to $12, really took off in the mid-1990s (although the biggest current category for them in the US is the $15-20) and the general attitude that Australians were a down-to-earth people who lacked pretense or judgment towards the American palate just made the wines that much more psychologically approachable. You always want to support those who you think support you. But as the Australian dollar surged high against the US dollar, and other countries with cheaper labor were able to undercut their prices, it became impossible for Australia to keep their wines a steal, and hence, they lost center stage placements in many wine retailers in the US.

As time went on, the US became more wine savvy in some ways while reinforcing unfair stereotypes in other ways. We started to assume that Australia could not make complex, elegant wines because our ignorance was based on the wines that first flooded our market, which were jammy, sweet fruit libations with a touch of residual sugar, ideal for the US wine neophytes at the time. But as artisanal wine consumption and consumers’ desire for wanting to inform themselves has quickly increased in the US, somehow the tiny production of extremely old vines tucked away in different pockets of Australia have not made the radar of many fine wine sommeliers and connoisseurs in America.

Australia has an astonishingly impressive, still existing, old vine history with the first vines planted in 1788 – only 10 years after the British settlement in Australia. It became a country for adventurous UK citizens willing to take a risk, others who were desperate for another opportunity in life, as well as a place where the British government shipped convicts, around 164,000 of them between 1788 and 1868.  In 1901, Australia gained their independence and they became the Commonwealth of Australia, with their own governing rules. This event started an explosion of creativity and innovation while also allowing Australians to find their own distinct culture. Three of the wines we had during the seminar had a combined vine age of 452 years… that was only three of the wines.

A Part of Ourselves

In my experience, Australian producers are completely transparent and have a self-effacing humor. They do not want to spin a mystical tale or present themselves as being better than anyone else; instead, they enthusiastically tell you the good, bad and the ugly of their situations, laugh about their colorful past, and proudly display their wines for the unique creations that they are. They want to tell you exactly what you are getting, show it to you, allow you to dissect it, and empower you to make your own mind about the diversity of their fine wines. I almost get the feeling that they despise any sort of fake veneer. Some marketers argue that Australians don’t sprinkle enough PR fairy dust on their regional images or even for individual producers, but they give it to you straight… they work hard and they feel they have nothing to be ashamed of… so why not share the full reality of their stories?

This was my third trip to Vietnam, and to be honest, I’m not 100% sure why we keep going back. Perhaps it is part of resolving certain things that happened in the Vietnam War that still haunt many Americans today… so much so that people don’t like to talk about it. There have been some American vets who have moved to different parts of Vietnam, embracing the past to heal for a better future.  There are a few who have set up tours for other vets to come and meet former North Vietnam soldiers so they can hug, talk and help each other find closure, because, at the end of the day, most of the soldiers who were on the frontlines were just kids who thought they were serving the greater good… as time goes on we realize it is a lot more complicated than the simple assessment of who was right and who was wrong.

That’s why I try to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know and may never figure out… at certain times, I try to just shut my mouth, leave the assumptions at home, and open myself up to what someone has to say. My previous New York City trade experience was with fine wine and it was nice to get a more inclusive look into the fine wine world that I have been acquainted with for many years. The frank world of the old vines in Australia is a refreshing and invigorating one. Like the 25 hour door-to-door trip from New York City to Central Vietnam, it takes a little bit more effort to seek out these old vine Australian wines, but it is worth it to expand our own bubble. Instead of allowing a one sentence soundbite to form our opinions, we can choose to seek out as much of the whole story as we can digest, as well as appreciate those we encounter who veraciously share their own tale that may not always correspond with our initial impressions.

If we constantly live in denial of the less-than-desirable aspects of our story, we eventually become numb to the beautiful facets of life… like that one vet refusing to pretend that Vietnam didn’t happen so others would not feel uncomfortable… he wanted to hold on to the memory of his temporary Vietnamese mother. Maybe the Australian fine wine producers are not so foolish… they may have a pretty good handle on knowing that being honest about their entire journey is the only way to guarantee security for the future generations… and even if it is not, it is a pretty fine way to live one’s life.

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Tasting at Australian Ungrafted Old Vines Seminar on June 7th, 2017

The below is a chart that shows the Barossa Old Vine Charter classifying the meaning of various old vine terms, actually old vines typically have no specific age range in many other countries and it is more of a judgment call from the producer, and although this is specific to the region of Barossa Valley, it is a good reference for other regions in Australia.

The University of Adelaide has been researching ungrafted old vines (ungrafted: many old vines in Europe and North American need to be grafted due to the pest phylloxera) The report has not been released yet but is anticipated soon.

Email research@wineaustralia.com if you would like to be notified once the research is released.

Also, some of the bottles below had a screw cap and some had cork (one glass closure)… here is some research from The Australian Wine Research Institute that addresses the idea of aging under different closures.

2010 Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard ‘HVD’, Semillon, Hunter Valley, Australia (screw cap): Hunter Valley Semillon is one of those wines that is truly unique to Australia. Hunter Valley is 80 miles (130 km) north of Sydney and it is a zone that only contributes about 3% to the total Australia wine production. Another odd thing about this highly heralded fine wine region is that the climate is hot, humid and rainy… so picking early is essential. Typically, the alcohol range is between 8 to 9% abv, yet this particular Hunter Valley Semillon is 11% abv. Bruce Tyrrell, managing director, said he wanted to start picking his Semillon a little later than what is normal in the Hunter Valley… that way the wine is more generous at a younger age. One cannot truly appreciate these wines unless you have had one at the minimum age of 20 years old, and they can last a couple more decades past that depending on the quality of the wine. As Bruce said, these wines “used to have a reputation for being like battery acid” with low alcohol, high acidity and a light body when they were consumed too young. But his 7 year example was certainly friendlier than its counterparts at the same age, with notes of lime zest, honeysuckle and a flinty smoke… still lots of tension, with an electric acidity that was tempered by a little bit more fruit and alcohol than normal. This wine will continue to improve for 20 years if not longer.

There is not much money in these types of wines as one makes such a tiny quantity, and they have to hold back on release, but as Bruce Tyrrell said, “This stuff runs in my blood” and so he is committed to these wines. No other country has even attempted anything close to Hunter Valley Semillon, and perhaps one needs to be a little crazy, in the good way, to do so. Personally, the first time I had one it was already 30-ish years old, then I tried a 40-ish year old, and these wines become liquid gold. But it is nice that consumers can get a sense of these wines at a younger age with a producer like Tyrrell.

This HVD plot was planted in 1908. Production is hand picked and hand sorted in the vineyard, through the crusher and press as quickly as possible, stainless steel cool fermented with neutral yeasts, stabilized, and put away in temperature controlled storage.

2008 Tahbilk, ‘1927 Vines’, Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes, Australia (screw cap): Nagambie Lakes is a sub-region of the Goulburn Valley wine region – the oldest wine region in Victoria. Although most wine states in Australia are phylloxera free (the pest that makes it necessary to graft vines in many countries), Victoria is a state that does have phylloxera, and so, one may ask, how they have ungrafted vines in this particular vineyard started in 1927? Sandy soils. Luckily, phylloxera cannot climb up in sandy soils, and so usually they cannot damage the vines. Marsanne is one of those varieties from the Rhône Valley, in France, that either people love or hate. There are certainly some mediocre Marsanne wines out there, or blends, but there are some exceptional ones and Tahbilk is legendary among those who love Marsanne to be the quintessential outstanding example of this white grape. This wine is based on the Hunter Valley Semillon old school technique of winemaking – with slightly higher alcohol at 11.5% – and it is ferociously acidic and may even outlive my 42 year old self. But it seems to have just started to come into its own with aromas of crumbly rock intermixed with flavors of golden apples drizzled with honey. It is texturally quite complex in the mouth as well.

Tahbilk’s association with Marsanne can be traced back to the 1860s – and this vineyard was planted in 1927 – they are the oldest winery in Victoria in a sub-region called Nagambie Lakes in Central Victoria – only 90 minutes north of Melbourne. Nagambie Lakes is the only Australian wine region, and one of only six worldwide, where it has been proven that the meso-climate is dramatically influenced by the inland water mass.

Alister Purbrick, CEO of Tahbilk, 4th generation winemaker (his daughter may be 5th and his grandsons may be 6th) talked about the winemaking for this wine…. harvest early, don’t add a lot of chemicals, drain as best they can and are then left with a brown juice with a high acid backbone… then they ferment it and all the brown oxidized matter falls to the bottom, and at the end of the ferment they are left with a “water white, flavorless, incredibly acidic white wine which you could not sell on the open market in its 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year or 4th year”. Alister says all the “magic happens with bottle age”. The 2008 is their current release of this wine.

2016 Best’s Great Western ‘Old Vine’, Pinot Meunier, Grampians, Western Victoria Zone, Australia (screw cap): The Great Western is a sub-zone within the cooler Grampians area of Western Victoria. It is certainly a rare treat to taste a 100% Pinot Meunier outside of Champagne, and even in Champagne, 100% Pinot Meunier is atypical…besides noting that a 100% Pinot Meunier as a still wine is even more impossible to find. This vineyard was planted in 1865 and this 100% bottling is only made when it yields extraordinary fruit so this is only the 4th bottling for Best’s – 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2016 were the vintages made. This wine has a lovely nimble body that gracefully dances on the palate, yet no hint of greenness… floral and pristine raspberry notes dominate with some stony undertones. This is the sort of wine I would love to drink everyday… perhaps when I make it to Nirvana!

2011 Cirillo ‘1850’, Grenache, Barossa Valley, Australia (screw cap):  If you know anything about Australia fine wines then I’m sure you know of Barossa Valley. Stephen Henschke, winemaker at Henschke, was kind enough to talk a little bit about Barossa. English, Scottish and German immigrants settled Barossa Valley before the first pre-settlement, so he joked that the rest of the panel, including himself, who were established outside of Barossa were “just convicts”…hehehe…

Although 14% abv, there was no sense of the alcohol on this Cirillo beauty… a good backbone of structure that one does not expect from Grenache, with some grip on the fine tannins, yet lots of flesh to balance it out. Sweet red cherries dominate with complex layers of tar and earth.

Stephen talked about the clonal diversity of Grenache and that each clone has its own attributes… some are light with big berries, others have looser bunches with small berries and darker color – this vineyard has a combination of these clones…  He also remarked on the 2011 vintage, “2011 is one of the worst on record” like the tough 1974 vintage — rainy, cooler weather unlike the warmer, drier climate they typically expect in the Barossa Valley and it is a testament to these old vines, from 1850, that they were able to produce such an exquisite wine.

 2010 d’Arenberg ‘The Beautiful View’ Grenache, McLaren Vale, Australia (screw cap): McLaren Vale is another infamous wine region, with d’Arenberg being one of their international stars due mainly to rock star, family owner and chief winemaker, Chester Osborne. I have tasted many d’Arenberg wines over the years, and even though McLaren Vale wines can easily go over 15% abv, the d’Arenberg wines never come off as being hot and they always have an overall finesse and complexity that is distinctly their own. By the way, this wine is only 14% abv… and most importantly, it is balanced… silky texture with a more lavish body than the Cirillo… still it has a thrilling acidity on the finish with wild berries and spice.

‘The Beautiful View’ Grenache was planted in 1912. Their winemaker, Toby Porter, was in attendance and he said that there has not been one dull moment in his 14 years at d’Arenberg – they make 24 different wines, export to 70 countries and they have a total of 450 hectares of vines that are organic and biodynamic that always strive for low yields…. no wonder he is not bored!

 2013 Hewitson ‘Old Garden’, Mourvèdre, Barossa Valley, Australia (cork):  Some may know Australian Mourvèdre by the name of Mataro… Mourvèdre is the French name for this grape and in Spain it is known as Monastrell. I think the importance of these different names draws attention to the fact that although they are the same grape, they have morphed into a diversified set of clones, or biotypes, whatever term works for you, due to evolving to suit their different environments. So Australian Mourvèdre is a different animal. The first notes on this Hewitson ‘Old Garden’ wine were dried herbs and wet earth that had plenty of ripe blackberry and nutmeg deliciousness to bring a complex harmony to this wine… the chunky tannins allow you to take your time and chew it… bringing out more of the flavor. It is made from some of the oldest Mourvèdre vines in the world, ranging from 100-150 years old – first planted in 1853.

 2013 Kaesler ‘Old Bastard’, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia (cork): Ahhh… ‘Old Bastard’… just the name of this wine makes you want to drink it. Again, the Barossa Valley and many of us are familiar with Barossa Shiraz, yet there is a lot more divergence in styles than the wine books will tell you. This particular vineyard has a heavy clay base with loamy top soil and makes a ripe, textural Shiraz. This wine showed a lot of muscular structure with brawny tannins… it was a big, robust Kaesler Old Bastard but still had so much energy… so much so it had a linear drive in the middle of the palate that made this more than just robust… it had a majestic quality… a king that is not shy about his unorthodox opinions. Vineyard planted in 1893.

 

2014 Langmeil ‘The Freedom 1843’, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia (screw cap): This Langmeil was prettier, lighter, and brighter than Old Bastard… I thought it was nicely filled out with juicy fruit flavors and a hint of fun meaty flavors on the finish.

Langmeil found these vines, planted in 1843, in an abandoned vineyard and they dug them up and replanted them… remarkably, most of them survived the transition. It is believed that these were planted by vigneron Christian Auricht. Christian escaped war and persecution in Prussia to find freedom in his new home in Australia, hence why this vineyard is called Freedom. These vines are some of the oldest in the world – 174 years old.

 2010 Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’, Shiraz, Eden Valley, Australia (this particular bottle was under Vino-lok glass closure but Henschke was an early adopter of the screw cap and still uses it as his main closure): The clouds parted, the music played, and so I knew that meant only one thing… it is time to taste Hill of Grace. One of the most famous Australian fine wines with the humble yet humorous Stephen Henschke leading the way. I have been fortunate to taste Hill of Grace a few times, as I used to work for a fine wine retailer in Manhattan that would give staff tastings on most things we sold. Hill of Grace is stunning… not only for an Australian wine, but it could go head to head with any other fine wine in the world. The 2010 has stewed black cherries that give it immediate accessibility but the layers of complexity are never ending… potpourri, star anise, cloves, lavender… but what is most remarkable is the great generosity of this wine although it is ethereal… on another level of lightness of being… true grace… giving everything while still seeming delicate… nothing is like it. But I am not saying anything that anyone who has ever tasted a great vintage of Hill of Grace doesn’t already know.

Eden Valley is “high country” with cooler nights. 2010 was an interesting vintage – heat came early with hot, low-disease conditions, and then it became cool with a little bit of rain right when they needed it. It turned out to be a magnificent vintage for them.

Hill of Grace is not a hill but it is named after the Gnadenberg Lutheran Church in the center of town. The German word “Gnadenberg” translates into “graceful hill.” The vineyard was planted by Nicolaus Stanitzki in 1860 and Paul Gotthard Henschke purchased the vineyard in 1891… it has stayed in the Henschke family since that time.

The University of Adelaide has tagged and planted some of Hill of Grace’s better performing ungrafted old vines for their soon to be released research paper that will address the attributes of such plantings. But Stephen Henschke said he would never want to only make Hill of Grace consist of those better performing vines, as he likes the diversity and thinks even the vines that seem a little odd in their production add something special that cannot be necessarily determined by science.

Final side note: Hill of Roses is the wine made up of the newer plantings from the Hill of Grace vineyard. The 2010 comes from 21 year old vines… so at least they are legal.

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Within the Silence, Hope is Always Waiting for Us

There was a time in my life when I had no hope… every minute was painful, every day was dreaded and I only looked forward to sleep… and never waking again. I think many of us face this at least once in our life. I was young, in my mid-twenties, and I had just had my first husband tell me that he was having an affair and that he was going to leave me. I am a romantic… I actually had only dated one person before him, and prior to getting married at City Hall, we had only known each other for a short time. I know, obviously it was a mistake and bound to fail, but I took it seriously… and with no family or real support system in place, it became a devastating event in my life. I was in a deep, dark hole and I did not know how to pull myself out. Simply, I gave up on myself… On a slightly different note, I think it is interesting how we give up on some wines… especially those meant to age. We think, “this is it for the wine… why bother?” Even at wine trade events, I hear some people whispering that they are going to run to the wines that were given the biggest scores in the past and skip the ones that have been considered lackluster at one time.

Il Poggione

Over a month ago, I was invited to taste a Brunello vertical from Il Poggione, one of the four original families that started producing Brunello di Montalcino. Alessandro Bindocci, second generation of the Bindocci family to follow in the footsteps of legendary winemaker Piero Talenti, mentor to Alessandro’s father Fabrizio, presented the wines at the world famous Babbo Ristorante Enoteca, in New York City. We had a formal wine seminar followed by a wine lunch. It was one of those fantastic events that gave the participants the time to taste and really access the wines in the moment. Many times, as a wine writer, or even in the wine trade, you are forced to taste wines in a rapid fire situation – there is no other way to truly know a vintage, appellation or region… there are not enough hours in the day to take one’s time with every wine.

Silent Retreat

When I think back to that dark time in my life… the feeling of shame and complete despair, is in complete contrast to how I feel now, I try to think about how I initially got out of that place… and there is always one moment that sticks out. I had signed up for a yoga silent retreat located a few hours outside of New York City on a long Easter weekend. I had given up trying to get myself out of that dark place, I could not bring myself to talk about what happened to anyone else, and so, I thought this was my last chance to help myself. It was a week of listening to yogic teachings, practicing yoga and meditation, and of no pressure to have to talk – being terrified that people may ask me personal questions that I would not be able to answer… only silent smiles exchanged during lunches and dinners. I was part of a carpool of a handful of us going back to the city, and at that moment, sitting in that van on my way back home, I didn’t feel happy, I still had a lot of tough feelings to confront, but I felt hope for the first in the longest of times. Hope that while things may not get better tomorrow, or even next week, things would eventually get better. I just needed the time, space and freedom from expectation to reconnect with that hope that was always there.

1997 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino

It almost seems like that time in my life was another lifetime ago. Now, I’m much more confident, grounded and am married to an amazing man, the love of my life. But I try to always remember that important lesson that I was forced to learn so early in life – and I now try to think of that lesson when it comes to re-tasting wines. Before, I used to look up all the information about particular vintages/producers of wines I was going to taste… I also have my own database of wines I have personally tasted throughout the past 9 years. Being a lover of Brunello, I had already tasted many Il Poggione vintages as they are a well-known producer. But I have ended that practice of going to a tasting with an expectation… clutter and noise that can cloud my judgment to the possible detriment of a wine vintage. Now, I like to come into tasting a vertical in the same state I was in during that silent retreat.

At the tasting at Babbo, the 1997 Brunello was among the lineup, and I have to say that it was my outright favorite of the day. After the seminar, I went back and got more to taste during lunch and I was captivated by its richness, complexity and overall sense of poise. I remember sitting in the enchanting upstairs space of Babbo – the room glowed from the natural sunlight during an unexpected beautiful, sunny day in New York City. While I ate the infamous beef cheek ravioli, paired with a wine that has reached its great potential, I could not help but think about how life at times can seem crushingly bleak and other times overwhelmingly joyous.

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time”

Later, when I looked at the vintages I had previously tasted of Il Poggione, I saw that the ‘97 was in my database, and it was a note of a mediocre wine. I did not have much hope for the wine, just like at one time, I did not have much hope for myself, but somehow we were both able to move past that awkward phase in our lives. I only hope that I become as graceful as that charming glass of 1997 Il Poggione Brunello one day.

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Il Poggione Vertical Tasted on May 16th, 2017

All wines are 100% Sangiovese according to Brunello DOCG & Rosso di Montalcino DOC rules.

-2006 Rosso di Montalcino: Rosso wines are like their big brother Brunello except there is less aging and typically the grapes selected from the Brunello vineyards have a fresh style for early consumption. This 2006 is a wonderful example of how some Rosso di Montalcino wines can age and this one will probably age for a few more years. It still has good structure with notes of dusty earth and old leather with a soft texture, and finishes with a lifted floral aroma.

-1985 Brunello di Montalcino: An intense meaty nose that is ideal for those who love savory wines; a velvety  body and roasted nut finish.

1997 Brunello di Montalcino: The 1997 vintage is a historic one and the American Press labeled it “the vintage of the century”. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I gave it a mediocre note in my database many years ago because my expectations where too high and the wine may have been going through an closed stage… or quite honestly, perhaps I was not having such a great day.

But when I had it recently it was singing! Out of all the Il Poggione Brunello vintages that day, none other sticks out like the 1997. This vintage was actually not shining as brightly a few years back, but somehow, someway, it came back and came back with spectacular glory. It was really singing that day. It just goes to show that although we may find ourselves in dark times, and I think all of us, sooner or later, get overwhelmed by life, we can still find a way to pull ourselves up and be better than we ever were before. Layers of complexity with leather, anise seed and moist earth leap from the glass with plenty of full-bodied goodness displaying plums and kirsch. The tannins are fine, giving this wine an elegant shape with a long, expressive finish.

2004 Brunello di Montalcino: This wine was still a young rock star with sweet black fruit, salty licorice and high quality, fine tannins. This wine already offers a lot of visceral pleasure at this age, yet I have a feeling that it will just continue to evolve to something even more incredible if given more time.

2012 Brunello di Montalcino: Such a great vibrancy to this wine makes me giddy with delight… succulent black cherry with a hint of cloves and leaves a pristine seashell note on the finish. Some of the most exquisitely subtle young Brunello tannins I have experienced.

I have already talked about tasting the 2012 Brunello wines when they were first presented to the wine trade/media in New York City. They are still mind boggling to me, as well as to many others. It is a Brunello that has such generosity with pretty, bright fruit flavors and the finest, most integrated tannins of any Brunello that was this young. When I asked Il Poggione winemaker, Alessandro Bindocci, how this happened to all the 2012s across the board,  and he said that no one has been able to figure it out – because if Brunello producers could figure out how to make a wine that had the potential to age for a couple of decades while also being incredibly accessible upon its release, well, they would do that every time! But we both agreed that 2010 was the greatest vintage of the 2000s… and we were both hoping to still be alive when they hit their peak!

Il Poggione Wines Tasted with Lunch on May 16th, 2017

All wines are 100% Sangiovese.

2016 Brancato Rosato: A fleshy body that delivers delicious strawberry flavors with an underlying gravelly minerality and a cherry blossom finish.

2015 Rosso di Montalcino: Rich body with stewed cherry fruit, cinnamon and supple tannins.

2009 Brunello di Montalcino: Black Raspberry jam with lavish flesh and brawny structure. Such a bada$$ and makes no bones about it.

2011 Brunello di Montalcino: It was interesting to have the 2011 right after the 2009 as they seemed opposites. 2011 is more linear with a fierce backbone of acidity; the fruit, as well as savory notes, all have an overall vivid, lifting quality. Really good for a 2011, showing intense energy and a bit of personality.

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A Titan’s Greatest Attribute is Compassion

Almost a couple years ago now, in October of 2015, I met a Titan, or as some of my French friends call him, a god on earth, Alain Dominique Perrin. A man who helped turn the fortunes of Cartier around and also led the Richemont group, which is considered to be one of the largest luxury goods groups in the world. But for me, the most intriguing reason to meet Alain was his commitment to helping artists, both established and emerging, with the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, in Paris, as well as his connection to the labels for his flagship wine from his Château Lagrézette estate. I did not know what to expect during my dinner with him, tasting some of his wines, and even then, the unexpected happened that night.

Château Lagrézette

Photo Credit: https://www.chateau-lagrezette.com/en/the-winery/the-cellar

In 1980, Alain bought Château Lagrézette, a 12th century fortified house in Cahors, in Southwest France. As a man who appreciates beauty as well as history, he took on the enormous task of restoring the medieval architecture and the Renaissance ornamentation throughout the property. Once he learned that the property included vineyards that had historical importance, he realized that part of bringing the property back to its former glory would involve him becoming a wine producer. As a wise man, he knew the best thing to do was to hire the best in a particular field and trust their opinion. And so he hired world famous soil expert Claude Bourguignon to advise him where to plant vines and which ones to plant. Surprisingly, Claude said to plant Viognier in certain areas, a variety that is known to make its home in the Northern Rhône in France, not the Southwest.

Then when it came to the winemaking Alain turned to his longtime friend, who just happens to be one of the most famous consulting enologists in the world, Michel Rolland. Together Alain, Michel and his managing director, Claude Boudamani, devised a plan to renovate their cellar after rigorous review in 2011. Currently, their state of the art cellar includes such goodies as micro-sized, robotic, stainless steel wagons to swiftly carry the grapes from the sorting table to the tanks.

Unexpected Night

When I arrived at Le Bernardin for our dinner in 2015, I knew that the wines were going to be special because of all the information I had read about Alain’s incredible commitment to making great wine in Cahors. But I thought it was only going to be a pleasantly formal night at a fine dining restaurant, with a human being who had a remarkable resume; it was not going to be a conducive atmosphere to get to know the inner soul of Alain Dominique Perrin. Well, that evening, I got to know the man, his spirit, and his heart. Our conversations ranged from the movie American Sniper, and how he said he could not stop thinking about the horrible moral dilemma of the lead character, to him being close friends with one of the owners of Le Bernardin and remembering how heart breaking it was for her to lose her brother, Chef and co-owner at the time with his sister. Alain said he realized that she lost her partner and picked up the phone and told her to come to Paris to see him so she did not need to be alone.

Halfway through the night, the owner of the restaurant, his friend, sat right next to him to have a private conversation. She had come to the restaurant late and seemed to be having a stressful night… but I could see the closeness between her and Alain… you could tell that she had leaned on him as a friend, and he, being the tower of strength that he was, was able to be there for her in a time of need.

Mon Vin

Me and Claude

Around a month ago, in the magical garden-like ambiance of La Grenouille, with managing director of Château Lagrézette, Claude Boudamani and a couple of other colleagues, I found myself thinking about Alain Dominique Perrin and how he was much more than I could have imagined. We had a good group of open hearted people escaping from the rainy day to share a lovely meal and to re-taste the Château Lagrézette wines. It was wonderful to see Claude again and to revisit our enchanting dinner at Le Bernardin, as well as making new memories that day. I remember that Claude’s story was one of modest beginnings, such as mine, working his way to eventually become the vice president of Château Haut-Brion and now working for a man who allows him to shoot for the stars.

Although Alain Dominique Perrin was not there at our La Grenouille lunch, I could feel his spirit and it was perfectly represented by the Mon Vin wine we tasted that day… a wine made in secrecy from Alain, that would represent his intrinsic qualities that nourishes and firmly supports those around him… from a struggling artist on the street to a world renowned expert, Alain appreciates the inner life of a person that goes beyond their pedigree. He is the Titan we need today… whose powerful presence can only be matched by his capacity for compassion.

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Château Lagrézette Wines Tasted at Lunch on May 25th, 2017

2014 Le Pigeonnier Viognier, “White Vision”, Rocamadour Single Vineyard: 100% Viognier from a 2.5 acre (6  hectares) single-vineyard located in the Côte du Lot with extremely low yields – around 25 hl/ha. Soil is Kimmeridgian like in Chablis. This wine had intoxicating layers of exotic spice and floral notes that had a nice amount of flesh on the palate with lively acidity giving it a lift at the end.

2014 Château Lagrézette Malbec: 87% Malbec, 12% Merlot and 1% Tannat sourced from 30-year-old estate vines on the clay/limestone second and third terraces of the Lot River. Each year Alain Dominique Perrin commissions a young artist to design a different label featuring Château Lagrézette – 25-years worth of labels now exist. The 2014 was designed by Agathe Gonard and was inspired by the tragic bombings in Paris in November of 2015. This 2014 of their flagship wine has juicy plumy fruit and a medium body with charming underbrush, hints of rosemary and the well-integrated oak is hinted by subtle spice that dances across the finish.

-2014 Paragon Massaut Malbec, Clos Marguerite Single Vineyard: 100% Malbec from the 3rd terrace above the Lot River. Ancient trees surround the vines creating a “Clos” (enclosed vineyard). An opaque color with enchanting aromas of jam covered toast, damson and tobacco leaf. A full bodied wine that has an elegant shape with firm yet polished tannins.

In Château Lagrézette, there is a carving of Marguerite, Dame de Lagrézette – the person whom the vineyard is named after. It is said that though men built Château Lagrézette, it was women who had given the château its soul.

-Mon Vin: 100% Malbec from the top selection from 2014-2017 vintages. This is a bottle that was made in secret, hidden from Alain Dominique Perrin, by Claude Boudamani, his managing director and enologist, and his good friend Michel Rolland, consulting enologist. They wanted to create a wine that would express Perrin himself, and as someone who has only met him once, I have to say that I think they did a good job. A complex bouquet of violets, vanilla bean and truffles that had plenty of sweet blueberry fruit with hints of pencil lead and wild herbs that were generous yet profound, rich yet dignified and powerful yet nurturing, finished with a seamlessly textured body.

They decided on a unique bottle for this special wine but could not come up with a name, so Claude told Alain about the wine made in secret and that it was supposed to be a wine that represented Alain himself… well, of course this revelation surprised Alain, who started to ask, “Mon Vin?” and so they decided that that would be the name. A beautiful gift to a man who has given so much to the world.

2015 Merveille de Lilas, Viognier Noble Rot Sweet Wine: 100% Viognier from their Merveille vineyard that has clay and limestone in the soil. This was an experiment allowing some of the Viognier to receive noble rot (botrytis) and making a sweet wine. It was absolutely delicious and a rare treat with aromas of peach cobbler, baking spice and mandarin peel with only a hint of enticing perfume on the finish. It has a viscous body that offered a bright acidity at the end. This may be the last time they make a sweet Viognier as Claude Boudamani, managing director and enologist, said it would be too difficult to guarantee the high quality they would want year after year as the vineyard is not ideal for encouraging botrytis.

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Death by Madeira

Until I took the Diploma from the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) in 2009, I had never heard the word Madeira, let alone experienced its earthly pleasures. I was taking the fortified wine segment of the class, and although I knew the liquid delights of Port and Sherry, Madeira was a complete mystery to me. A wine considered virtually indestructible due to the extreme elements that it is subjected to during production and aging, it is a fierce warrior libation that can live long past its fortified brethren. Many past American presidents have obsessed over it… it was even the drink of choice when the Founding Fathers had their celebration after signing the Declaration of Independence. Centuries before that time, in 1478, George, Duke of Clarence, chose to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey (Malvasia) wine when sentenced to death. Damn! Now that must have been some good wine!!

Madeira

Photo Credit: http://www.justinosmadeira.com/

Madeira is an island, part of Portugal, that is recorded to have started making wine back in the 1400s. A remarkable feat since not only is it a mere 459 square miles in surface area, but a significant part of the island has slopes above 25% and so many of the vineyards are planted within the construction of bench terraces, called “poios,” sustained by walls of basaltic stone. Some of my colleagues that have been lucky enough to visit this exotic island said that their plane landing made their heart jump out of their chest – since there is very little available flatland, you have to come in steep!

The relationship between England and France has been one that has historically swung back and forth from love to hate – fighting many wars. And so, during one of their off-again phases, England, a long wine drinking culture, was forced to find wine from other countries. They were able to strike up a relationship with Portugal, and hence Port and Madeira have been favorites among many British wine lovers. But since they were importing wine starting in the 15th century, the wine needed to be fortified with a spirit to withstand the voyage since moderate refrigeration and inert vessels were not available during that time. The Madeira wines in casks were subjected to extended periods of oxidation and heat on the boats while traveling from Madeira to England.

But as the great English proverb says, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and so astonishingly resilient wines were produced that benefited further from fierce acidity, created by many of the varieties used, as well as early harvesting. The heated, oxidative process would not only help to preserve the wines for the trip, as well as long term aging, but they would create aromas ranging from fruit cake to burnt sugar and find an enticing balance of richness and vitality.

And so, although they no longer need to subject the wines to this winemaking practice, they purposely have come up with better solutions to emulate the process but under more controlled conditions, such as the high quality “Canteiro” practice of placing the casks on the top floors of cellars. The best producers will move the casks around, as some areas of the top floor are warmer than others, to guarantee an overall consistency to the wines.

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You

My husband and I were having a conversation the other night about the most painful way to die. Drowning certainly made the top of the list, but I do have to admit that drowning specifically in Madeira makes it somewhat more appealing… as appealing as a death sentence can be. Visually, it is a poetic way to die, and I know for myself, if I buy a bottle of Madeira today, open it, drink some tonight then place the closure back on, it will live long past my body and perhaps even my memory – happy to be outlived by such a divine wine.

 

***”Find what you love and let it kill you.” –often times attributed to Charles Bukowski but some question him as the source. Basically, all you need to know is that I did not come up with it. Hehehe…

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Madeira Tasting on June 8th, 2017

It was great to taste a range of Madeira wines recently at a trade seminar led by kickass wine blogger Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude. He has been lovin’ Madeira since 2007 and he made no bones about his passion as he exclaimed, “I’ll drink the crap out of it!” Now, that is what I’m talking about… Here’s the line up:

CAF – Madeira Vintners, 3 Years Old Sweet: Madeira Vintners is a new project that is run by an all female team that intends to improve working conditions for women as well as improving vineyards of neglected varieties. This wine blends 60% Tinta Negra and 40% Complexa. A fun, spicy and slightly smoky libation with a medium viscous body that is bright and nimble on the finish. 17% abv & 116 g/l residual sugar.

Vinhos Barbeito, Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve: Founded in 1946 by Mário Barbeito de Vasconcelos and since then has been continually run by the same family. Blend of 85% Bual and 15% Tinta Negra. Dried apricots and prunes with walnuts and fleshy body. 19% abv and 89 g/l residual sugar.

Henriques & Henriques, Verdelho 15 Years Old: Bought by the Henriques family in 1850 and since the last Henriques’ had no heirs, it was left to three friends in 1968 who kept the name. I loved the purity of this wine with lots of tropical fruit such as guava and mango with a hint of sugared chilies. 20% abv and 71g/l residual sugar.

 

Blandy’s Madeira Wine Company, Blandy’s Colheita Malmsey 1999: If you know anything about premium Madeira then I’m sure you know the Blandy’s producer. They celebrated their 200th year of making Madeira in 2011. Chris Blandy, 7th generation, continues to work within the company. 100% Malvasia (or traditionally called Malmsey). This is classic Madeira to me, with burnt sugar, caramel and fleshy goodness on the palate with hints of baking spice… yet still mouth watering with all these decadent flavors. 130 g/l residual sugar. 20% abv. Also, the most textural of all the wines tasted. Side note: typically Bual and Malmsey get skin contact while Sercial and Verdelho get very little or none.

Pereira D’Oliveira, Verdelho 1973: Founded in 1850, one of the classic Madeira shippers, surviving from the pre-phylloxera era. D’Oliveira is one of my favorite producers… mind you there are only 8 producers (6 on the export market) and they are great at what they do since we are talking about small wine production. I guess they are my favorite because I have been able to taste very old vintages from this producer – such as an 1875 Malvasia (aka Malmsey). Orange peel and marmalade dominate the ’73, yet it is still youthful with electrifying acidity, but it was sneaky-ly complex… the only sneaky I like… with volcanic ash and clove rounding out the aromas. Around 20% abv but do not have an exact number on the residual sugar. Verdelho is typically around 60 to 80 g/l residual sugar.

Justino’s Madeira Wines, Justino’s Madeira Terrantez 50 Years Old: Established in 1870. 100% Terrantez. I was as giddy as a school girl trying this wine… Terrantez is a rare variety to find, is prized among Madeira connoisseurs, and I have not been given many chances to try it. It was much more linear on the palate than the others, with an incredible backbone of structure that gave this wine a precision on the long finish. Also, the nose was so interesting with eucalyptus and smoky black tea notes, like lapsang souchong, with zesty lemon drop flavors. 19% abv and 74 g/l residual sugar.

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The Greatest Accomplishment is to be Yourself Against All Odds

To be yourself is not such an easy task… especially considering it takes a while to get to know who the heck we are… and even that can be a lifetime process. Sometimes we rebel against what was presented in front of us in our childhood, or the opposite, we try to live up to an impossible, near perfect adult image. But I think many times, we are not just one thing… we do not so easily fit into a neat little box. That was certainly my issue. I desperately tried to fit in when I was younger but it was always a major fail… and still, even today, in New York City, with close to 9 million people, there are still people who want to have convenient, albeit limiting, labels… perhaps they can’t help it since they themselves are trapped in their own world of extreme dogmatic rules. Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing it. All of us need context… we need to know how we can relate… and that is why I love it when things appear in the wine world that give producers more freedom of defining themselves while helping wine lovers to find an accessible way to connect.

Vino de Pago

Many European countries started establishing regulations of controlled appellations (designations) that were based on France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) – originally established to combat wine fraud which was prevalent in the late 19th century after the phylloxera epidemic destroyed many of the vineyards. Spain has their hierarchy of designations with Rioja and Priorat receiving the top wine regional classification – DOC. No one would ever doubt that both of these areas deserve adulation for the range of spectacular wines that they produce… but some may argue that there are other areas that could be just as deserving, if they only had the investment, the opportunity. And moreover, these designations can be constrictive to the artistry of wine – such as restricting which grape varieties one can use.

I remember the very first moment that I started to get into wine debates, the most dominant topic was the scourge of wine homogeneity plaguing the world. And as time has gone on, there has been a great outcry to use local grapes and many of these regulations ensure that only local varieties are used – of course there are a few exceptions. I am a strong believer in helping to promote what is indigenous to an area but I also get excited by great wine – no matter if the varieties have been there for thousands of years or not.

And this is where the recent, as of 2003, Spanish wine classification of Vino de Pago (DO Pago) gives a bit more freedom to single vineyards that excel in quality. The DO Pago status indicates a single vineyard that is considered to be one of the great estates in Spain and it can exist outside of an established wine region classification. Such things as the unique terroir (sense of place) and a tasting of a 10 year vertical of wines are considered to attain a DO Pago classification. Currently, there are only 14 such estates in Spain.

Arínzano

Arínzano is one of the few single vineyard wine estates that have received the status of Vino de Pago. They are located in north east Spain between Rioja and Bordeaux. I was able to taste two of their top wines, tasting notes given below, as I participated in their #winestudio virtual tasting on May 23rd. Their top red was a Tempranillo but their top white was a Chardonnay – some may scoff at such a notion considering it is Spain, and remorsefully in my younger days I may have done the same, yet it would be a shame. It was a dazzlingly Chardonnay that was elegantly shaped by being planted in an area that benefited from the Cierzo wind and a bed of chalk in the soil. The vibrancy and overall finesse was surprising to many of us. And yes, as one can guess, the Tempranillo was a superstar… still the Chardonnay could go toe to toe with it – and it beautifully differed from other Chardonnay wines from around the world.

Truly Being Open to All Possibilities

I’m happy that people have opened their minds to many different possibilities – women can work, same sex marriage is becoming celebrated and investment is given to discovering the potential of local grape varieties. But I think we miss the point when we think a woman can only be an accomplished person if she has an important career or impressive initials after her name – when we look as those women who choose to stay home with their kids as a failure. That is when we go back to the same closed minded attitude that created unfair prejudices that took away opportunities in the first place… whatever life we feel the most comfortable living, that is the path of success for us.

And with this thought in mind, I will continue to drink Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from around the world, being open to those varieties that have been there for 10 years, as well as 1000… and I will reserve my judgments, if it was a good choice for that place, until after I taste the wine. During our virtual tasting, Arínzano winemaker Manuel Louzada wrote on Twitter that he takes inspiration from the words of Michelangelo, “the angel is already inside the marble, I’ve only (have to) release it”… he is not there to force any ideology, he is there to discover the full potential of that land… and that’s what we just need to do sometimes to find success… just surrender to who we are, no matter if it fits with popular opinion or not.

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Tasting of wines Arínzano on May 23rd, 2017

Please feel free to check out the other wines from Arínzano, besides those listed below, as they have others ranging in the mid-priced level.

2010 Gran Vino Arínzano de Blanco, DO Pago de Arínzano, Spain: Strict double selection of 100% Chardonnay. An incredible, expressive elegance of intense smoky minerality with white peach and spice; a long finish with lots of finesse.

2008 Gran Vino Arínzano de Tinto, DO Pago de Arínzano, Spain: Strict double selection of 100% Tempranillo. Generous blackberry liqueur flavors with spice, fresh leather and smoky coal embers… lots of flesh on the body, yet a regal backbone of fine tannins and marked acidity… it prances around my head like a beautiful nymph.

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To Live a Life Worth Living

After spending the day seeing ancient artifacts, cutting edge winery techniques, and tasting the top wines from one of the most prominent and famous wineries in Spain (let alone the world), it seemed that sitting there during our typical Spanish late lunch, letting it all soak in, that it could not get any better… and then the man, the living legend, Miguel A. Torres, walked up to our table. We had been touring just a sliver of the incredible history and operations of Bodegas Torres, in Penedès, Spain, enjoying a lunch with Christoph Kammüller, Torres’ brilliant Director of International Communications, when an elegantly dressed gentleman approached our table – when I looked up and saw that it was Mr. Torres, I instantly felt the wind knocked out of me. I have had the great pleasure to meet many greats of the wine world, but Torres is a man whose family had been able to create an empire under the toughest conditions.

Miguel A. Torres

Torres was a gentle man with an overall graceful quality that seemed to elevate our conversation by his mere presence. He shared his story with us, which started before he was born… when his father was a young man, basically running for his life during the time that Franco ruled Spain, starting in 1936. His father, Miguel Torres senior, was an educated man and was considered a threat to the fascist dictator, so he was eventually captured and sent to one of Franco’s concentration camps. I have to admit that unitl I heard this story, I had no idea that Spain had concentration camps. Later, I looked up reports talking about the crimes against humanity that were committed by Franco against his own people – it is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 were killed, but the number of those who survived their torture while imprisoned cannot even be estimated. The Catalonia region was especially targeted by the Franco regime and was repressed until his rule ended when he died in 1975.

Miguel Torres senior was fortunate to have a friend help get him out of the concentration camp. He returned to Catalonia where his family had a winery in Vilafranca del Penedès – it had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Bodegas Torres

Taking advantage of the fact that France was under Nazi control at the time, Torres senior started promoting his wines in America during World War II. His son, Miguel A. Torres, would follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the business in 1962 after studying both oenology and viticulture. He continued helping with his father’s dream to make world class wine, while promoting Spain to the world and specifically promoting the Catalonia region that had been through so much. In 1991, his father passed away and Miguel A. Torres became the President and Managing Director of Bodegas Torres.

We first visited their visitor center, in Pacs del Penedès, to see the glorious legacy of the Bodegas Torres history. Then we took a stop to see all the various experiments that they are conducting, from soil analysis, the recovery of obscure local varieties, to figuring out ways to combat CO2 levels such as using algae – which has not proven useful at this moment, but they are seeking out every possible solution to be kinder to the environment. Bodegas Torres began organic farming back in 1975, an auspicious year since it was the end of Franco’s rule, and they started doing it long before it became fashionable. Torres’ numbers with regards to sustainability are off the charts, as they aim to increase their recycling of treated water to 40%, have 45 hybrid cars (with Tesla charging stations) at their wineries, enough solar panels to produce 50% of the hot water for their bottling plant, and they protect 4571 acres (1,850 hectares) of forests and organically cultivate 4942 acres (2,000 hectares) of their own vineyards.

We then visited their newest winery, La Bodega Waltraud, designed to near perfection with an external shape that harmoniously blends into the surrounding nature and the internal construction that creates an ideal aging environment for their best wines – lacking light and not allowing any type of vibration. The winery is named after Torres’ greatest treasure, his wife, Waltraud Maczassek – originally from Germany. Waltraud is an artist and visitors can see her art displayed around the winery, giving a sense of passion to such a technically precise space. The winery has all the latest goodies for making outstanding, visceral as well as intellectually pleasing wine: optical sorter, amphorae (anfora) vessels, and oak tanks that were designated for specific plots, etc. It was glorious to behold a winery that strived for excellence of function as well as beauty.

Jean Leon

Part of the Torres legacy extends beyond their own blood, including close friends such as Jean Leon. Before visiting Torres, we went to the Jean Leon winery, also in Penedès, which was started by a man who overcame many obstacles to ultimately become an important figure in Hollywood, as well as being a great friend to the Torres family.

Jean Leon was originally given the name Ceferino Carrión at birth, in 1928, and was raised dirt poor in a large family in Spain’s north coast. Tragedy hit his family early with the loss of his father and eldest brother, and considering the dangerous times that eventually came with Franco’s rule, Jean Leon decided the only way to make money for himself and his family was to try to make it to America. He eventually took on the name Jean Leon as many Americans could not pronounce his name; plus, it was symbolic that he would leave the degradation of his past behind and open himself to the possibilities of the future.

Jean Leon eventually ended up in Hollywood, California, working in restaurants and befriending many of the top stars during the time. He opened the world famous Hollywood restaurant La Scala and was supposed to originally partner with his friend James Dean, who tragically died before he could see their joint dream come true. He regularly sent lunches to Marilyn Monroe and later had his wines served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony.

Jean Leon started his winery in 1963 because he was not happy with the wine he was serving at La Scala and thought this would be a great way to reconnect to Spain, bring his high standards that he already had for customer service and food to wine, and bring his love of Spain back to his adopted home in Hollywood. Like Torres, he was an innovator who was one of the first to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Spain as well as obtain a single vineyard wine certification, Vi de Finca in Catalan.

Jean Leon was a great patron of the arts and every vintage of his “Vinya La Scala” Gran Reserva is now commemorated with artwork on the label. He was also a man who cherished his friendships, and towards the end of his life was planning a new restaurant on an island in Thailand that he fell in love with… he envisioned he and his long time friends making more fantastic memories together in paradise. But he knew that dream would never be realized when he was given the news that he was gravely ill and would only have a couple years to live. He turned to the Torres family to ask if they would purchase his winery, keeping his legacy alive, and so they did in 1994. His winery still continues today as a great tribute to Jean Leon with his wines made in the strict standards that he always employed himself when he was alive.

Gratitude for Each Day

Some people remarked that it was not typical for Miguel A. Torres to come to lunch while media people were there visiting. Torres expressed how his son and daughter were the new generation and they were gearing things for the future, such as wanting to use more indigenous varieties. And so, I think he is at the point in his life where he would like to pass on to people the most important part of his family’s legacy… which started with his father. Miguel Torres senior was able to survive something that many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen were not able to survive. So often I think of the people I have seen taken in the prime of their life… they were good people… people who did everything right, they had everything to live for… why them and not me? Torres and Jean Leon did not dwell on their misfortunes because they knew that each day was a gift that many did not get to enjoy, and they made sure that every day of their life was one that was worth living.

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All of the Below Wines were Tasted on April 25th, 2017

 Formal Tasting of Jean Leon Wines:

Jean Leon Lineup with Enologist Xavier Rubires

-2016 “3055” Chardonnay, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. No MLF. Two months partial aging in oak. A white chalky intensity with lemon rind and a touch of white flowers. 3055 was the taxi cab license number that Jean Leon worked under during his time in New York City – before moving to Hollywood.

-2015 “Vinya Gigi” Chardonnay Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. Six months in French oak. Named after Jean Leon’s daughter and coming from a 12 acre (5 hectare) single vineyard. Richer body and aromas of hazelnut and marzipan with ripe apples.

-2013 “Vinya Palau” Merlot Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Merlot from a 25 acre (10 hectare) single vineyard with low yields. The name of this wine pays homage to Jean Leon’s home town. Gorgeous notes of lavender and lemon verbena with spicy plum pie.

-2011 “Vinya Le Havre” Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc from a 47 acre (19 hectare) vineyard. Named after the French port of Le Havre, where Jean Leon stowed away trying to get to America – a sailor discovered him but decided to keep him concealed – he never forgot that generosity. Black raspberry with autumn leaves and a slight grip on the palate that added another nuance to the juicy body.

-2009 “Vinya La Scala” Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a 20 acre (8 hectare) vineyard named after his beloved restaurant. The 1975 vintage was served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration – a great moment for Spanish wine. A graceful Cabernet Sauvignon that shows black currant leaf and attractive fresh blackberries; although there is plenty of ripe fruit, there is an overall restrained, linear quality with fine tannins.

 

 Tasting at La Bodega Waltraud:

-2016 Waltraud Riesling, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Riesling. Inspired by Miguel A. Torres’ wife, Waltraud Maczassek, from Germany yet she made her home in Penedès with her husband – the label is one of her own drawing that depict the sensation of this wine. These grapes are planted in the Upper Penedès where there are cooler micro-climates. Wonderful balance between sugar and acidity as it seems dry although off-dry with some residual sugar. Jasmine and orange blossom perfume this wine, offset with bright flavors of lemon confit.

 

Formal Tasting of Torres Wines Before Lunch:

-2014 Milmanda, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. 2014 was a different vintage for reds because of too much rain, but with extremely strict selection (only used 1/3 of their harvest) they were able to produce enchanting whites such as from the Milmanda vineyards. Pristine white peach flavors with stony minerality and a creamy texture that still had marked acidity on the long, refined finish.

-2012 Mas La Plana, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mas La Plana is a prestigious single vineyard of 72 acres (29 hectares). This wine has always been a textbook example of why Cabernet Sauvignon can excel as a single varietal wine in warm weather – the first vintage of this wine dates back to 1970. A multi-layered wine that shows such complexity as fresh leather and sweet tobacco, while wrapped in juicy blackberry goodness. The well-manicured tannins melt into the alluring body of this wine.

-2013 Perpetual, Priorat DOQ, Catalonia, Spain: 90% Cariñena and 10% Garnacha coming from vines that range between 80 to 100 years old and are grown on steep, rocky slopes. This is a smoldering wine that slowly reveals its intoxicatingly smoky aromas, with notes of broken slate, powerful black cherry jam flavors and firm structure that gives drive and elegance to this opulent wine.

-2010 Grans Muralles, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia: Blend of Garnacha, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Querol (a rescued local variety), Cariñena and Garró (another rescued local variety). Querol has small berries and offers lots of acidity – also the thick skin makes it quite challenging to break them, and Garró has no pits and gives intense floral notes. This wine has a great balance of savory and sweet with violet, tree bark and an explosion of creme de cassis, with mouth watering acidity along the prolonged finish.

The Muralles vineyards used to surround the walls of the historical Cistercian monastery of Poblet and today this wine still pays tribute to the ancestral varieties of Spain.

-2010 Reserva Real, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. At first, I was captivated by the smell of sautéed tarragon with cocoa powder; then went deeper with toasted oak and black currant that was superbly supported by the fine tannins – and yes, a jaw dropping-ly expressive finish.

The Reserva Real – Royal Reserve – was created in honor of the visit of HM Juan Carlos – then the King of Spain – to the Torres winery in 1995 to mark its 125th anniversary. The grapes come from their small vineyard of (4 hectares) in Agulladolç, showcasing the Silurian slate soil which is unique to Penedès.

 

Tasting of Torres Wines during Lunch

Santa Digna Estelado Rosé Sparking, Maule Valley, Chile: 100% País. This is just one of the examples how the Torres family was able to pioneer quality winemaking in other countries, such as Chile. País is an old variety that dates back to being planted in Chile around the 16 century, believed to come from Peru, and it was not taken seriously until Torres started making this delightful, traditional sparkling wine from it. Delicate bubbles with lively fruit of wild strawberries layered with toasted notes. A lovely sparkler for a modest price.

-2013 Torres Purgatori, Costers del Segre DO, Catalonia, Spain: Blend of Cariñena, Garnacha and Syrah from the high altitude vineyards of Costers del Segre. A rich wine giving generous fruit and spice yet still having lots of freshness.

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Powerful Things Can Happen When Women Come Together

Parés Baltà Winery

The most powerful memories I have are typically triggered by smell, and I think these important moments in our childhood are often times reflected by the images that are conjured when we smell and taste wine. Some of Marta Casas’ fondest early experiences have to do with actually smelling wine being made in the tiny cellar of her grandparents’ home. She grew up in a tiny fishing village in the Province of Barcelona, Spain, and becoming a winemaker was never considered an option since her grandfather only made wine as a hobby – to be mainly consumed by the family with a little sold off for bulk wine. But time with grandparents can often form the recollections we cherish, as grandparents don’t have to discipline or have the stresses of providing for the family… they are able to spend real quality time helping to shape the character of their grandchildren. These early “winemaking” smells would ultimately lead Marta down a path that she did not initially intend.

Parés Baltà

Marta Casas

In order to have a winery in a traditional winemaking country, such as Spain, typically either someone would need to inherit a family winery, be related to people in the wine industry, or have a large fortune that he/she does not mind turning into a small fortune. Marta had none of these, so she originally started studying pharmacy at university. During her studies, she met her future husband at a party, Josep Cusiné, whose family owned the Parés Baltà winery in the exciting wine region of Penedès, first made famous by Torres. When she started visiting Josep’s family winery, the aromas in the air reminded her of the precious time she spent with her own grandfather. She started taking winemaking classes at the university she was attending, not knowing where it would lead.

Finding Strength in Tradition

As Marta stood in one of the Parés Baltà vineyards of Syrah planted by Josep’s grandfather, at 1312 feet (400 meters) elevation (one of their over 60 sites that all needed to be individually managed and harvested) she shyly told us of her journey after some prying on our part, and uncomfortably mentioning that the wine from this plot, Marta De Baltà was now named after her. Since this vineyard was out in the open, she said it caused a great deal of gossip among their neighbors when they started using biodynamic practices. Of course, the other grape growers thought they were crazy. And now, after seeing the great success of the thrilling wines they started producing, their neighbors are starting more sustainable, organic practices and may even integrate biodynamic treatments. But it was important for Marta to credit her husband’s grandfather for believing in organic practices from the very beginning. Even though he lived through the depression during The Spanish Civil War and World War II, he always had a strong belief in restoring and maintaining harmony in his vineyards.

As we drove through many of their other plots (some as high up as 2460 feet (750 meters)), it was amazing to see some sites that were truly “isolated” biodynamic vineyards, surrounded by forests, that they have been allowed to remain untouched. We finally reached our tasting destination, located in the middle of one of Parés Baltà’s forests, where clay was excavated to make amphora (aka anfora) vessels thousands of years ago – baking the amphora vessels in the hole that was created when they dug up the clay. Today, Parés Baltà  themselves use this clay from their forests to make their own various amphora vessels in different shapes for their natural wines (wild yeasts and low to zero sulfites added) – now that is terroir taken to another level!

It was perfect to sit there, even as a few drops of rain fell on our heads, as we tasted their wines, some of them deeply rooted in the atmosphere that surrounded us. A few of my colleagues had never previously tasted a natural wine that they liked, and I could not blame them, as many faulted wines are passed off as acceptable in the natural wine world – but Parés Baltà Amphora white was a delicious surprise with layers of complexity, exciting flavors and not a hint of any fault – a pristine, knockout wine.

 

The Power of Women

Joan Cusiné Drinking from Porron

We finished this incredible day with dinner at their winery and a fun lesson of how to drink from a porron (Catalan: porró) which was artfully displayed by Marta’s brother-in-law Joan. During the dinner, Joan gave credit to his wife, Maria Elena Jimenez, who is the enologist, and Marta as the winemaker, for elevating their wines to world class status.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Marta… perhaps it wasn’t luck as I am always drawn to women whose energy recharges those that surround them… and so I was able to learn that her sister-in-law, Maria Elena, was originally on track to become a chemical engineer before she met her husband to be. These women did not know each other until they started dating Joan and Josep, but they quickly became complementary to each other. Maria Elena was the first to start working at Parés Baltà, with Marta starting a couple years after her. Maria Elena is happy to entrench herself in the science while staying out of the limelight while Marta places her energies on the artistry and she is more comfortable publicly speaking about their wines.

Marta’s brother-in-law, Joan, talked about the complications of a family winery. Although they loved and greatly respected their grandfather, and certainly to this day give him credit for continuously working in organic ways, the grandfather’s desire for high yields clashed with their desire to lift the quality of their wines. Joan said it was the two women coming together that were able to eventually convince their grandfather, a man who came from the depression mentality that you need to produce high yields, that this way the right future path for his family winery.

Conquering through love, support and unity as opposed to destruction

It just goes to show that when women get out of their own way, embrace each others’ different strengths and weaknesses, we can make the world a better place while raising all of those up around us.

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Tasting of Parés Baltà on April 25th, 2017

2010 Blanca Cusiné, Sparkling, Cava DO: 60% Xarel·lo, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Golden color with a nose of roasted almond and ripe apple and cinnamon spice on the finish. Fine bubbles that form a creamy texture in the mouth. Only 3,500 bottles made.

Alcoholic fermentation of Xarel·lo and Chardonnay take place in stainless steel tanks while Pinot Noir takes place in new French oak barrels. 30 months of lees aging after second fermentation in bottle.

-2016 Amphora, White Still Wine, Penedès DO: 100% Xarel·lo. This natural wine seemed to blow everyone’s mind. It had all the benefits of a natural wine – exciting aromas and flavors that are not typical in most wines, yet it had none of the potential issues, faults that cause ‘dirty’ flavors. Popcorn with candied ginger and lemon curd that had a rich texture and finished with a riveting acidity. My new favorite ‘natural’ wine. Only 2,600 bottles made.

Wild yeasts ferment in clay amphorae with no sulfites added.

2016 Indigena Rosé, Still Wine, Penedès DO: One can actually find this wine for $20 in New York City. 100% Garnacha (aka Grenache). A beautiful light pink color with highlights of salmon, an intense, stony minerality that is fleshed out with pink grapefruit, wild strawberry and hibiscus. It is agile and lively on the palate while still giving plenty of weight. I’m a real fan of the energy combined with generosity of the Parés Baltà wines – it seems to be one of the trademark qualities that I found across their lineup. This will definitely become my new favorite summer wine above $15.

100% Garnacha sourced from one of Parés Baltà’s plots located at 2021 feet (616 meters) inside the Foix Natural Park, one of the highest parts of the Penedès region.

2014 Mas Irene, Red Still Wine, Penedès DO: 74% Merlot and 26% Cabernet Franc. A wine that is meant to be dark and brooding and certainly lives up to the intention… mulberry jam with star anise and fresh black cherries – plush on the body yet it still has that energetic lift on the finish that seems key to the Parés Baltà wines. Only 5,000 bottles made.

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The Cusiné Family decided to start another project in the rugged landscape of Priorat with young winemaker Jordi Fernandez, under the label “Gravatavinum”.

2010 Gratavinum, GV5, Red Still Wine, Priorat DOQ: 70% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. A multi-layered wine sourced from old vines. A bouquet of slate, dusty earth and licorice gives this wine a depth of complexity beyond its years, balanced by bright notes of blood orange, black berry and scrub vegetation. It is rich and well-structured on the finish.

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The Memories We Hold On To

Photo Credit: Brooks Wine https://www.facebook.com/brookswines/

There are many memories that fill my heart from childhood… sitting at a festive holiday table… the warm hugs… the giggles… the touching moments of time spent with parents and grandparents that carve out images in my mind that would help to keep my inner light going in my darkest times. As I taste the wines from Brooks – whose story includes Pascal Brooks becoming the youngest winery owner, at the age of eight, when his father Jimi Brooks shockingly died of a heart attack in September of 2004 – I think about the memories that Pascal must hold on to, or Jimi’s sister Janie Brooks Heuck, who became the managing director of Brooks Winery, or his long-time friend Chris Williams who took over the winemaking duties, or even the Willamette Valley wine community, in Oregon, that helped to harvest Jimi’s grapes right after his passing, to make sure they could make a wine honoring his intended future.

Jimi Brooks

Jimi Brooks seemed like a man who followed his passion… from traveling the world right after college, to learning about winemaking in Beaujolais, to coming back to Oregon to further his on-the-job winemaking education, to eventually starting his own winery in 1998. He devoted his life to holistic farming and finding the ideal ways to express Willamette Valley Riesling and Pinot Noir. Jimi started with biodynamic practices in 2002 and Brooks Winery was able to expand their property to 20 acres (8 hectares). Although Jimi and Pascal’s mother divorced, it was still vitally important that Pascal was a part of Jimi’s dream of making wine and to one day inherit the winery.

Brooks Wines

Photo Credit: @BrooksWinery on Instagram Chris Williams (left), Janie Brooks Heuck (center) & Pascal Brooks (right)

As Jimi’s sister made the long, emotional drive from her home in California to her brother’s home in Oregon, once learning of his untimely death, she never thought she would find 60 strangers in his house… there were around a dozen winemakers who drew up a list of who would take turns harvesting his fruit and processing it in his winery… they were going to keep his wine and his name alive. She decided to run the winery as managing director while one of Jimi’s friends, Chris Williams, who learned winemaking by working alongside Jimi, would become the winemaker.

Today, Brooks Winery makes 20 different Riesling and 14 different Pinot Noir wines every year – pretty crazy, but crazy good; crazy in the way that life, just like memories, is precious and something about the memory of Jimi inspires those close to him to live a life they couldn’t even conceive of… let alone go after. To this day, Jimi’s sister, Janie, commutes back and forth from California to Oregon to help run the winery and she has become an important voice in the Willamette Valley wine community.

Keeping the Light Going While Dealing with Loss

The memories that we hold dwell on shape us as human beings… my memories of having precious moments with family, my blood, were nothing more than the figment of my own imagination, as my biological parents were not capable of having proper relationships and each went down their own separate dark path. And so, it took a while for me to come to grips with that and to understand that those fantasies were simply my deepest heart’s desires for the future…family comes in many forms, and the most important thing is that we are truly connecting, sharing and open to loving while the details of how our DNA is related to others matters very little.

Photo Credit: @BrooksWinery on Instagram Pascal Brooks

I think about Pascal Brooks, and although his situation is different, there is that same feeling of loss, of missing out on all those key shared moments with a father throughout his childhood… but there are the memories, the real memories in his case, of spending time with his father in the winery. I’m sure his aunt, their winemaker Chris Williams, Jimi’s friends and the Willamette community have shared their stories with Pascal over the years.

Looking at the Brooks website, I saw that Pascal had a blog that was last updated in 2015. At one point he says, “People continue the business because they want to and it is an incredible mark of pride to see it, knowing full well this is not my doing, but an intense debt with want to repay”. He is now twenty years old, trying to finish college and I’m sure also trying to find a sense of self… which is a journey that can seem endless. Although his father could not be there in the way that he intended, it seems that the best of him can still be felt in their vineyards, the winery, and in the hearts of all those who continue to fight to keep his dream alive. By his words, Pascal already seems like a thoughtful human being and perhaps that is due to the memories and stories he chooses to hold on to.

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Tasting of Brooks Wines Samples on May 25th, 2017

Many of the wines have the symbol of the ouroboros dragon on the label – Jimi Brooks had an ouroboros tattoo and used this icon on some of the labels of his wines. The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail and symbolizes rebirth, which is very fitting considering Jimi’s spirit lives on in a different way even after the death of his body.

All of the wines below are part of the Willamette Valley AVA, in Oregon, with the Sweet P Riesling coming from their estate vineyard having the more specific AVA of Eola-Amity Hills within Willamette. The Janus Pinot Noir always includes a dominant percentage of Eola-Amity AVA fruit in their barrel selection for the final blend.

2015 Runaway Red: A Pinot Noir wine with notes of flowers and sweet raspberries with a touch of dusty earth… soft body with gentle acidity. A delicious wine! 4,750 cases made.

The label bears the portrait of Leon Trotsky, a runaway from the Soviet Union and is reminiscent to Jimi having a runaway barrel, during his second harvest in 1999, roll down into a creek during the night – he was able to find the barrel completely intact the next day.

2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: More savory than Runaway with crumbly rock, cranberries and dried thyme on the finish… tighter tannins that give more shape… wild yet firm! 4,000 cases made.

2014 Janus Pinot NoirA dark, brooding wine that kicks up the wild to another level… fresh meat, volcanic ash with dried cranberries all wrapped up in a fleshy body that has beautifully interwoven texture and a long, exciting finish with marked acidity. Wow! 1,650 cases made.

In Roman mythology, Janus is the God representing balance for new beginnings and endings, the future and the past, and the connecting doorways. Janus is their flagship Pinot Noir and the first wine Jimi started making in 1998.

2016 Amycas: 44% Riesling, 21% Muscat, 18% Pinot Blanc, 10% Gewürztraminer and 7% Pinot Gris. Lemon verbena with lychee and spice that has medium weight with a sexy perfume and a surprisingly zingy finish. 2,000 cases made.

Amycas is inspired by the noble blend wines found in Alsace, France.

2015 Willamette Valley Riesling: A dry Riesling that has an intense, flinty minerality note that I love, with hints of chalky soil, white peach and orange blossom… sip it slowly and you will see it evolve in the glass over 30 minutes. An elegant wine. 1,000 cases made.

2016 Sweet P Riesling: This wine has 36 g/l residual sugar and is considered a medium sweet Riesling. It is from Brooks’ estate vineyard, planted in 1974, and it is the last fruit to go into their winery. Noble rot is welcomed in this plot as the partial shriveling of the fruit helps to intensify the sugars. Flavors of peach pie and apricot jam are the first to hit the palate, and that smoky volcanic note, as experienced in the Janus Pinot Noir, comes in on the finish… as the wine opened up, there was lemon peel, kaffir lime leaf and dried flowers with sweet spice. This wine has more flesh on the body, although it still has marked acidity and seems more off-dry than medium-dry to me… which I prefer… and so a great example that you cannot always go by numbers. Brilliantly balanced. Only 500 cases made.

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