The Godfather

“Just when I thought I was out . . .they pull me back in!”

Like General Douglas MacArthur, I have returned. It has been an interesting ‘go back,’ to use the parlance of the trade, but I am in no way broken or damaged. It is amazing what a two-year-old will do to your attitude towards labor. Perhaps it would be better to adopt the George Costanza attitude and say, “I’m back, baby!”

I am fascinated by the changes in the wine industry in a scant seven years. There is a huge demand for vinho verde. A decade ago I would have guessed it was more likely that vino merde would take off. Prosecco abounds. In the 90’s Prosecco was largely referred to as a panty-peeler, a sexist term that has no bearing on the current market. Tempus fugit, and apparently it flies on Malbecian and Grüner Veltliner wings.

I am no curmudgeon. I find these changes delightful, just as I find the lingering scorn for Merlot in the aftermath of the film  “Sideways” to be comical, at best. Please, let me release you from that burden of Chateau Petrus in your cellar, I will take it off your hands for nothing.

Wine evolves, just as humanity does. Each year brings a different vintage, and despite the efforts of the spin-centrifuge salespersons, wine does change with the seasons, as does the taste preferences of the public. In that Stratford man’s time, the English citizenry loved a drink known as old, brown Hock. The oxidized wines of of the Rhine Valley near Hochheim were enjoyed by the Falstaffian men of the day as a delightful drink. No doubt superior to the dysentery-laden waters of the Thames.

Whatever your wine preference, I revel in my ability to learn your palette and help you find a wine that you enjoy. There are good wines and bad wines, and, as a former employer likes to boast, some wines are noble. But there are no wines that can be accessed without a turn of the screw (cap) or a turn of the cork (screw). Here the laws of nature rear their head, and the spiral, or helix, prevails.

Published in: on September 10, 2011 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Number 216

I am drinking a 2002 vintage pinot noir from Bryce Vineyards.  I am 50. 18,262 days on the planet, and you will not experience much better than this bottle of wine.  The 2002 vintage of Bryce Vineyards was an interesting bottle of wine. There were less than a ton of grapes harvested from their 4 acre vineyard, not surprising since it had only been planted 3 years earlier in 1999.  The 2002 vintage of Bryce Vineyards took three and a half vines to produce each bottle of wine.  It was one of – now many – global warming years and the alcohol was substantial – 14.7% per bottle.

Three year old vines generally produce wines that are most commonly referred to as plonk. You are lucky to make any wine at all from three year old vines.  Perhaps you blend it with other grapes to flesh out a vintage and add some youthful exuberance.  Fourth year, maybe fifth, you start to have a product to work with.  By ten years of age you can make decent wine.  By 20 you are in the major leagues.  30 year old vines and you are an A-list star – the George Clooney of grapes.

Bryce Bagnall would never be confused with George Clooney.  Maybe Bill Murray, or Tom Hanks.  There was a comedic air to him. A rustic charm.  He came across as a farmer, someone connected to the earth, but no yokel.  I remember the day he learned he had been approved for a medical marijuana permit.  He laughed and joked with us about the absurdity of modern times.  He knew he was not going to survive, but it didn’t stop him from living.

To taste the 2002 vintage today, eight years after harvest, is to look back in time.  It was hot.  We were younger.  There is a smell given off by freshly crushed Pinot Noir grapes, and once you have inhaled it – indeed, once you have been immersed in it up to your hips – you never forget it.  A wine from young vines, getting a bit long in the tooth, that still possesses it, is a miraculous thing.  Sometimes you can bottle miracles.

Bryce Bagnall was born the same year as I, four months my junior.  He has a daughter, and I have a daughter. Maybe there’s something about that similarity in age that made his death resonate so deeply with me. No one lives forever. No wine lives forever. But all living things resonate, including a fine bottle of wine.  Bryce died of Lou Gerhig’s disease. His 2002 Pinot Noir is still a heavy hitter.

216. Bryce BAGNALL – U.S. Social Security Death Index

Birth: 17 Dec 1960  State Where Number was Issued: California  Death: 13 Nov 2006

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 6:36 am  Comments (1)  

de Gustibus

De Gustibus non est Disputandum.  For those of you who do not read Latin, I will translate into standard, American English:  “I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout wine, but I know what I like.”  Or more commonly, “in matters of taste, there can be no argument.”  I have known what the phrase meant for many years, as it used to be the name of a distributorship based out of Seattle, Washington.  I do not, as a rule, like to use words  which I cannot define, and it seemed rude to denigrate the company of competing sales-persons when you don’t understand whom they are working for, so I looked it up.  “Ahhh, they are arrogant bastards!”

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For some reason that Latin phrase, and the company it kept, popped into my mind after reading some disturbing news from land of the mistress of the vine.  It appears that the European Union will make a decision on June 19th, 2009 as to whether European winemakers may add red wine to white and label it rosé.  That is, of course, how most plonk wines -er pink wines – are made in America.  Traditionally, however, true rosés are made from only red grapes, allowing the juice  (which is almost always white or clear) to briefly macerate on the skins, obtaining just enough color to give it its blushing hue.  Rosés are sort of the veal of the wine world – without the torture.  The reason for this decision making is rooted in economics – the French are now drinking more rosé wines than white.  My god they really are pinko-socialists!

It is understandable that one might think this is of no real importance.  It was, after all, only a few years ago that Frederic Brochet was able to fool 57 wine experts into thinking a white wine was actually red wine by coloring it with red and green food coloring.  His report went so far as to study brain patterns while the testers were tasting the faux wines, which makes one wonder how they smuggled the corkscrew into the MRI.

As I was a wine professional at the time of this scandal, and as I did not want the term “so-called” permanently added as a prefix to my title, I decided to test this experiment under my own conditions.  I had a friend add red and a small amount of green food coloring until the glass was a deep garnet wine color.  I put on a blindfold and I had the two glasses placed before me.  I tasted each glass, not knowing which was the pure glass and which adulterated.  We expanded the test.  Three glasses were artificially colored and three were left blanc.  The results were the same – I was able to correctly identify the artificially colored glasses each and every time, even blindfolded!  There could be no mistake, either those Frenchies were no experts, or there was some flaw to the experiment.  What wine did we add the food coloring to?  Oh, it wasn’t wine, it was water.  It seems that food coloring, while having no flavor to speak of, does have texture.  There is no argument for taste.  There is, however, education.

Our visual perception does change how our other senses perceive flavors and aromas.  White wine colored red or pink will taste differently, but a Chardonnay-tinged pink will never taste the way a Grenache or Mourvedre rosé will when artfully prepared in the timeless manner.  And it seems unfair that those artisanal winemakers should have to compete with fakes and counterfeits.  The members of the EU should blush for even considering it.

Published in: on May 25, 2009 at 8:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Mr. Bio-dynamica

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Photo courtesy of

Reign of Terroir

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, who sits on the wine-making standards committee within the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, needs little introduction within the wine-making community.  If you’ve never heard of him, he is sort of the Crispin Glover of viticulture.  Usually if you say someone is outspoken, the person who comes to mind is an individual on an angry rant.  Randall has never come across as angry.  Let’s say Randall Grahm is vocal.  There are many personalities who make up the community of winemakers.  What is interesting, and which completely blows out of the water some of the weight of the bio-dynamic argument, is that those different personalities influence how the wine tastes, not by their actions, so much, as by their personality.  If Randall is a joker of a winemaker, then he is our Feste, and wise enough to play the fool on any given Twelfth Night.

what are you doing with that cowhorn?

what are you doing with that cow-horn?

Biodynamic agriculture came about from a series of 8 lectures given in 1924 by the Austrian Ruldolph Steiner, perhaps better know for his creation of the Waldorf School of education.  That, and Anthroposophy.  Again, if you are not familiar, Anthroposophy is a philosophy which teaches that there is a spiritual world attainable through thought and self improvement, without the need of any messy sensory involvement.

Biodynamicism, when applied to the practice of growing grapes for making wine, involves 9 preparations, which emulate homeopathic principles within human health care.  By applying dilute compositions to the vineyard, at very specific times, one alters the environment of the vineyard in subtle ways which influence the resulting wine.  One of the early adherents was Anne-Claude Leflaive, of Domaine Leflaive.  

anne-claude-leflaive

Anne-Claude

Anne-Claude made two wines from a single vineyard.  Part of the block of wines, which would go on to become a Puligny Montrachet, 1er cru Clavoillons, was farmed in a straightforward organic manner.  The other half was farmed bio-dynamically.  A cow-horn full of dung was buried in autumn.  Powdered quartz in a cow-horn was buried in spring.  Yarrow blossoms were stuffed in the urinary bladder of a red deer:  dried in summer, buried in autumn, dug up in spring.  Thus was the life of Solomon Grundy, aka red deer.  That’s all, really.  The difference was noticeable.  People who tasted the two wines preferred the one from the bio-dynamically farmed block, often requesting a side order of red deer urinary bladder to go along with their selection.

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The birth of Bacchus from Zeus’ thigh.

The madness lies in global warming.  The problem?  Complex dynamical systems.  Weather is one such system.  The laws?  Small changes can result in large bifurcations down the road.  Veer very gradually towards the ditch and after a long interlude of relative peace and calm, the car plummets into a culvert hurling the occupants through the windshield.  Tear up the black currant bushes at the end of each vine row, and the subsequent vintages lack a certain berry characteristic, duly noted by the importer, one Kermit Lynch.  Dump a load of horse manure in the fields next to your soon-to-ripen grapes and your wine tastes like poop, literally.  Add a few tons of carbon monoxide to the gargantuan atmosphere, and even though it only seems like a little, tiny bit, Florida becomes the isle of hanging chad, formerly a peninsula in the Caribbean.

What is important is that winemakers like Randall Grahm care.  They feel for their vineyards, and the vineyards take note.  Biodynamics is not a fad, or a fluke.  It is the sign that winemakers care, that they are connected, and that they have submitted to the heavy responsibility of knowing that every thought, every action will make a difference in how that glass of wine tastes.  Nevermind. Just give me the bottle, you wouldn’t appreciate it.

From Twelfth Night

Feste’s sings:

A great while ago the world began,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 7:38 am  Comments (2)  

The Nuthouse

 

It’s true, I’ve spent time in the nuthouse. It was the 90’s, a crazy time for many of us, and I needed to get away from the stress and strain of a 50 hour a week sales job in the wine industry. The nuthouse I ended up in didn’t have padded walls or any of those white sport coats with the sleeves that tie in the back. Instead, there was a hard floor, a sleeping bag and a 12 hour workday with three squares. The nuthouse was the old house next to the former hazelnut processing plant which is now known as Argyle Winery. I was a voluntary inmate, with no compensation other than a workout tougher than any health club could offer, and enough gourmet food and wine to keep the NY Times’ food critic happy.

Rollin Soles, the greatest living wine-making Texan, was kind enough to let me play cellar rat for a week, allowing me to see first hand what it takes to turn grapes into wine, and dispelling any notion of the romantic life of a winemaker. What it takes is one brilliant Texan and enough blindly obedient disciples to do the grunt work. My main job consisted of hoisting milk crates full of grapes to the top of some scaffolding, then dumping them into the de-stemmer, being careful not to hurl myself into the hopper. Lift, twist, dump, turn, lift, twist, dump, turn. Not exactly the poster boy job for OSHA. The strain on your back is taken care of by the red’s. If you ever want washboard abs, then just volunteer to punch down the caps on a few vats of Pinot Noir. Balancing on the edge of a vat with a stainless steel paddle in your hands, you can either strain your abs or fall in. By the second day I could barely sit up in bed. The satisfaction came a couple years later when the reviews for Argyles latest release of Pinot’s came in. “Amazing extraction,” they read. Yeah, because me and a couple of other zealots got into the punch down competition of ’95.

My best memory of that week was provided by Rollin. He grabbed me to come help him with a lab project. We took a large chemistry beaker to one of the tanks of fresh Riesling juice, waiting to be inoculated with yeast. He had me help him draw out a large quantity of juice into the beaker and I followed him into the lab. Was there a problem? Did he need to adjust for sugars, or acidity? We went into the lab and he went over to the beat up refrigerator and got out a bag of ice. What strange research project was this turning into? He filled a pitcher with the ice and poured the large volume of Riesling juice into it. He then went to the fridge and near the back he found a bottle of vodka. He poured a healthy dose of vodka into the pitcher of Riesling juice, and looked at me with that big Texas grin of his. “Riesling gimlets,” he said. Damn if he hadn’t invented his own cocktail.

Rollin and Corby Solles

Argyle is an easy stop in Dundee,Oregon. Rollin also makes wine under the ROCO label and is pictured with his wife, Corby.

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 5:50 pm  Comments (2)  

The Full McCarty

“Abbey Ridge is one of the oldest vineyards in the
venerable Dundee Hills of Oregon; the oldest vines
are now 25 years old and it is exclusively from these
vines that we produce the “Abbey Ridge” designate.
The reason becomes obvious when tasting all of the
various lots of wine in a particular vintage from this
vineyard: there is so much more going on in the
mouth when one is tasting old vines wine.In all, Abbey
Ridge has around 22 acres and of this approximately
15 in Pinot noir
The most important part of the wine-making is that the
Abbey Ridge had three beautiful women who did a
pigeage of the wine (ie took off their clothes in the
time-honoured French tradition and entered the warm
fermenter at the height of its fermentation)! I am
certain that this was very good for the wine as it was
very good for the winemaker! I can’t remember who
climbed into the Clos Electrique fermenter!”

www.pinotnow.com.au
crush.jpg

It is entirely possible that my naked visage exists somewhere on a unsavory German web site. It’s a long story.

When I was a young wine salesperson, one of the first road trips we took was to the Willamette Valley. Our first stop was Cameron, in the hills above Dundee, just a right turn at the Nuthouse (a.k.a. Argyle Winery) and then look for the unwelcoming entrance. It was an evening stop, for a rustic dinner and elegant wines. I tire of all the references to Cameron winemaker/owner John Paul as eccentric or a character. So what if he has dressed up like Martha Stewart. He seems perfectly sane to me in a world that appears intent on losing it’s marbles. John Paul was a gracious host, patient with so many rookie sales-persons. We knew the stories. Here is where one truly becomes one with the wine. There was the visit in the early days. Only a half dozen employees in the novice firm. A visit to test the waters, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. Samples were poured, guards were let down. It was late fall and the cap needed punching down. What else to do but the natural thing – strip and submerge.

It is said that the original idea of hot-tubbing came from abandoned wine fermenters in California. But an actively fermenting tank of Pinot is quite warm and bubbly, I can assure you. We did not engage in the act of pigeage that year. There were too many young souls, and owners who were suddenly aware that they had a real live business on their hands. It was bacchanal but not Caligularian.

A few years later I took a week off work to volunteer at crush time. Most of my time was spent in the nut house, at Argyle, where we worked hard, ate well, and worked on our abs. (Volunteer to work the business end of a punching down paddle, if you want to know what I mean.) After a week of 14 hour days I took for the hills. I pulled into Cameron an unexpected volunteer. I worked hard, and earned some respect. John Paul made an announcement, not as a pontiff, but as a tired boss. “Well, we need to punch down those caps.”

“Um, can I do it John?” Fine with him, the Tom Sawyer of cap punching. I stripped down and showered off quickly. Me and a paid worker climbed the scaffolding and got in the tank. It was warm and prickly and decidedly lacking in oxygen. We worked on opposite sides of the tank, pushing the thick cap down with our cupped hands, laboring through the slurry that is Abbey Ridge to be. Did I mention we stayed on the opposite side of the tank? I mean, we were yin and yang, baby, and never the twain were going to meet in that mixture.

The wine came up to my low hips. I would have been happier to have had a bigger harvest, I mean a little more juice in the tank. I was working up a sweat by now, and we were nearly done with our labors. Then I heard the sounds of German men speaking rapidly. And power winders on camera’s with long lenses. “Um, John Paul, were you going to tell us about the German camera crew coming to do a feature on the winery?” “Hmm.?” No, I guess not. I’ve just become a Lucy episode.
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I still enjoy telling people that I have had an intimate relationship with wine. They need not know just how intimate. I’ve drunk the last of my 1995 Abbey Ridge, long ago. And no, I do not, after skipping a daily shower, find myself breathing deeply and reminiscing over past vintages. Come on people, wine is a natural bactericide! It is good to be intimate with wine, for we, after all, are intimate with it. And lest you let this article dissuade you from trying one of the excellent wines from Cameron vineyards, you would do well to remember that fourteen percent of alcohol kills off just about anything. Not to mention the tannins.

Published in: on February 26, 2008 at 6:52 am  Comments (2)  

Transcendental Vinification

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Most individuals who become what one would call “serious” about wine can relate their experiences back to a single, transcendental wine. For me it is easy. I had come to like wine very much. I had tasted many good wines, and had, since high school, been exposed to good wines and food pairings through work in restaurants, but none of those experiences is what I would call sublime.

I was working as a waiter in a now defunct Greek restaurant (“You! Go clean all the stainless steel!”) when I started hanging out at what was then the only wine bar in the Pacific Northwest. Enoteca was a subterranean haven for those who loved wine, as well as for cockroaches and sewage, due to the previously mentioned subterranean-ism and the construction of the Seattle bus tunnel. Housed in the Times Square Building, in what was once the presidential campaign headquarters for Bobby Kennedy, the structure was a sort of miniature flat iron building. There must have been something about that building, because Enoteca was a special place. Enoteca served 40+ wines by the glass, preserved by a huge industrial gas cylinder of argon, hooked up to a bleeder valve, which we would use to displace the oxygen in open bottles. A combination wine shop, wine bar and restaurant, customers could choose from any bottle in the shop and have it served for only a $5 corkage fee. The menu changed daily and was determined from what was fresh at the local Pike Place Market, and was printed on a rickety dot matrix printer. This probably sounds quite ordinary, unless you are in 1980’s Seattle, when the Spaghetti Factory was considered an exotic dinner out.

As you can probably surmise by reading between the lines, I eventually ended up working at Enoteca, but before I began my tenure I was a solitary customer at the wine bar. I would usually order a tasting of 3 or 4 glasses, taking amateurish notes in my pre-moleskine double entry ledger journal. The notes were brief, crude, and uncertain. Then came the wine. The vintage was 1976, harvested in my freshman year of high school. The region was Sauternes. Chateau LaFaurie Peyraguey. The color was golden, like pale honey, but unlike honey there was nothing cloying or simple about its scent. They say that our memories are stored in areas near our olfactory centers, and that is why a smell can trigger a memory of past events. Proust smelled a cookie and ended up with seven books out of the deal.

I couldn’t stop smelling the wine. I would taste it – and the taste was sublime – but the smell is what hooked me. You begin to be reluctant to taste when a wine’s aroma is so enticing, and, thus, you begin to savor it. It was one of those experiences, like having a word on the tip of your tongue, where you can remember a scent, but can’t quite place it. I knew it was something from childhood. I was six, or seven. It was morning, and there was a sense of spring and excitement to go outside. There was citrus fruit, but also cream, and something exotic. And then I had it. Trix are for kids. It was that first bowl of forbidden cereal. The decadent, sweet, yet citrus, creamy pre-BGH bowl of Trix in a bottle. Keep your cookies Marcel, I’ve got my own memories.

Published in: on February 11, 2008 at 2:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Blessed by Dr. Cosimo

Salice Salentino
The good doctor Cosimo Taurino was a hulk of a man. His son is a hulk, and his wife and daughter too. The last of the Titans. He came to visit the Pacific Northwest in the mid 90’s, while I was a salesman at Noble Wines, Ltd., in Seattle. Neither he, nor any of his family, spoke English, so we relied on a translator, but the real communication was through wine and gestures – the international languages. I had found two bottles of his 1978 Patriglione standing at attencione in a Safeway store on Whidby Island, lingering the slow death of misunderstood wines in an unappreciative market. They were relatively cheap, for wine nearly 20 years old, so I bought them.

When I found out Doctor C. was going to be visiting I brought one of the bottles to the meeting. A rookie then, I could sense the tension from my bosses when I asked the interpreter to explain to Doctor Cosimo that I had a bottle of wine I would like him to try to let me know if it was any good. The Patriglione label was different then, sporting the same blue and red colors as on the current Salice Salentino, and it was packaged in a funky half breed bottle more akin to the shapes you see in red wines from the Loire. I drew the cork out, noticing a deep purplish black stain saturated far into the core of the cork. I was relieved not to pick up any off smells, and plain grateful that the cork hadn’t failed after such a long time traveling to strange destinations. I poured the good Doctor a glass and waited. His countenance was similar to a mafia don deciding whether you were going to live or die. He tilted the glass to a 45 degree angle and inspected the purplish color of the wine, slowly lowering his giant proboscis into the small tasting glass. He swirled the wine deftly a couple of times then took a deep sip, holding the wine on his palette for what seemed a long time before swallowing. All were stone quiet at the table looking at The Boss. In a sudden movement of surprising grace and power for such a large man, Dr. Cosimo threw his chair back and stood up like a bolt of lightening – now towering like Zeus over the tasting room. Very quickly he crossed himself, looking directly at me.

Doctor Cosimo turned to the interpreter and began speaking rapidly in Italian. “Perfecto” was the only word I gleaned. “Did I have any more bottles which I could sell him?” the translator asked. “How did I come to acquire this bottle when he, the creator, had none left?” No, I had no more bottles, I lied. From the meager sample I poured myself, after sharing the bottle with the rest of the sales-force, I knew I wanted to keep my other bottle to myself.

I drank my remaining bottle a few weeks later. I had it with some lamb chops, broiled simply with rosemary and black pepper. The underlying sweetness of the strong wine was a perfect foil for the lamb, and it served double duty as dessert wine with some sharp cheese. I remember raising my glass – a solitary toast to distant shores – and with a crooked smile I thought to myself, “perfecto, Doctor C, perfecto.”
The Boss
“The Boss”

Published in: on February 3, 2008 at 9:08 pm  Comments (2)  

The Philosophy of Wine

There is an apocryphal tale of an ancient Persian king who stored some particularly good grapes in a jar that he then marked “poison”, lest someone eat them.  He forgot about them, of course, and when a despondent girl in his harem decided to kill herself, she drunk greedily of the jar.  She did not die.  She, instead, got high, and feeling better she shared her findings with the king.  She became his favorite.  He invented viticulture.  Then organized religion got involved and nearly spoiled it for all of us. 

This is not, of course, how wine was invented, but it has some truths in it. The first wine was most likely mead. It is not hard to imagine some primitive man or woman finding a beehive, perhaps in a hollow of a tree, which filled with rainwater and fermented naturally. Accident and discovery always seem to play some part in art and science. This blog has come about by accident, and I hope it will lead to discovery – both on my part and yours. Wine, it is said, is its own living organism, and so too, it would seem, is the Internet. Let us hope it flowers and grows a little more before it all turns sour.

Published in: on February 3, 2008 at 1:45 am  Comments (1)  

Wine is history. Tasting is knowledge.

Published in: on February 3, 2008 at 1:28 am  Comments (1)