Archive for December, 2008
Remember our not-so-old friends, Volta? Seems there are a few other winemakers out there who do, too.
Take Ted Henry of the newly-minted wine producers Prime Cellars in Napa.
“I was in Volta‘s Winemaker Massimo’s class at UC Davis,” Ted told me. “We used to drink beers together in his Silver Oak days…”
As it turns out, Volta isn’t the only tiny Napa winery that kicked off an innagural, premium Cabernet release in the 2005 vintage. The promising 2005 red wine harvest in Napa also saw the birth of Prime Cellars (who recently contacted me to send me a sample after reading Volta’s first-ever review here at 1WineDude.com), founded by UC Davis alumni and marching band-mates Ted & Lisa Henry, and Curtis Mann (handling winemaking, marketing, and sales chores, respectively).
Unlike Volta, Prime is going for a less high-octane Cab. (their 2005 release clocks in at 13.6% abv, which is about a full percent lower than Volta’s Cab)…
The back-label on their first release, dubbed “District 4” Cabernet, does the best job of summing up the story of their endeavor so far: “Hand picked… Small Lot… French Oak… Empty bank account.”
Let’s check out the wine…
2005 Prime Cellars “District 4” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Sourced from Grasso Vineyard in Napa’s east hills (Coombsville), which is a relatively cool growing area that can still achieve ripeness for traditional Bordeaux varietals like Cab Sauv.
The vitals: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (Clone 7 on 1103P rootstock), 3 day cold soak, 23 days on the skins, 22 months spent in New French, used French, and new Hungarian oak (1/3 in each).
My thoughts: Even though this wine is lower in alcohol (13.6%) than the typical bordering-on-port style of CA Cab popular today, the first thing that hits you about this wine is that it smells (and looks) powerful.
The nose is dominated by black plum, with a hint of dried black fruits and elegant spice (rather than hefty oak). After several minutes in the glass, pepper and dried herbs start to creep out, and once in a while you sniff some wet dirt (but in a good way).
Take a sip, and and the fruits get a little more red (cherries and currants), but still “feel” dried. The tannins are smooth but almost coffee-thick, and the coffee notees stick around on a finish that is almost half a minute long.
Like it’s prime number namesake, Prime’s District 4 achieves an excellent balance, with almost nothing in divisive proportion; its fruit, tannic & acidic structure, alcohol, and spice seem measured out in harmonious doses with almost recipe-like precision. While in balance, these elements haven’t blended harmoniously together yet – it needs time, either by an hour or two in a decanter, or prefreably 4 years (in a bottle, of course).
This first Prime Cellars release is only 147 cases – so you’ll probably want to visit their website if you want to get your hands on it; chances are it won’t show up at your local wine shop yet.
Although I undermine my perception of ay sort of wine expertise when I say things like this, I need to tell you that I’m stumped as to wether or not the `05 District 4 will ever capitalize on its integration potential.
But I suppose I’d put more money on that than one me being able to hold out 4 years before drinking another bottle.
(images: 1WineDude.com, PrimeCellars.com)
I really wanted to hate this book.
I was sent a promotional copy of Wine (edited by Andre Domine, who has authored a number of wine- and culinary-related books), and form the moment that it arrived, I was primed to hate it.
It’s huge. It’s impossible to comfortably read it in bed (trust me, I’ve tried it). At well over 900 pages and what feels like nearly 20 lbs of weight, it seemed better suited to my workout routine crunches than my wine education.
But a funny thing happened on my way to hating this book – I fell in love with it. And now this post is going to be precariously close to sounding like an advertisement for Wine. But I don’t care so much, because the book Rocks…
When I cracked open this book, I was thinking that the world needs another wine reference / introduction / tome like I need a hole in the head.
The first chapter states “Wine… has also become more egalitarian in that never before in its history has such a hige, high-quality range been available to so many people.”
You could say the same thing about wine books, I thought.
The truth is, if you’re a wine novice, you have dozens of decent choices when it comes to finding books to increase your wine know-how. If you’re a wine expert, there are a few key resources that you will undoubtedly tap into from time to time (especially the Oxford Companion). Newcomers to the wine world also have a good many wine resources available to them on the web, and most wine blogs are in some way geared towards the newbie.
Those of you who are past the point of being a beginner, but are not in the trade, or are otherwise someone with an ‘Intermediate’ level of wine knowledge, you have far fewer resources available to you.
Which is why most of you who fall into the “Intermediate” camp will probably dig Wine. It combines lucid and informed writing about all aspects of vino with some beautiful (but mostly functionally relevant) photographs, useful maps, and information on most of the world’s winemaking regions. In a way, it’s a bit like a one-stop-shop combination of the excellent Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and the fabulously-illustrated World Atlas of Wine.
Worth a look – even if you might need to hit the gym and bulk up before being able to lift it…
“We’ll be in the Green Room.”
I was walking along the sidewalk of a conspicuously calm street in downtown Wilmington, DE, chatting on my cell phone with Gino Razzi, the tireless force behind Penns Woods Winery. It was a Mid-Atlantic November Saturday, which meant intermittent cold rain, but I’d expected the streets to be busier. I was making my way to the swanky-but-elegant Hotel DuPont for lunch with Gino and this year’s Brandywine Valley Vintners’ dinner keynote speaker, Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson.
Despite the fact that I grew up in Wilmington, I did not feel at all at home.
I’d never been to the Green Room. And I hadn’t strolled the streets of downtown for what felt like a dozen years.
I also wasn’t a frequent interviewer of winemaking legends, either.
Joel Peterson started the now-ubiquitous Ravenswood back in the 1970s, back when the Internet was a gleam in the eye of military ARPANET developers, well before Sonoma was a winemaking force, and long before Zinfandel was considered the de facto varietal choice of patriotic, red-blooded Americans that it is today. It was hardly an overnight success (“either that, or it was a really long night” Joel told me): Joel maintained a second job to help make ends meet until the early 1990s. Ravenswood now produces in excess of 500,000 cases of wine per year, and its brand is nearly synonymous with budget-priced Zinfandel.
In other words, Joel Peterson is to Sonoma Zin what Robert Mondavi was to Napa Cab, or what David Lett was to Oregon Pinot Noir.
Which prompted my first question to Joel while we worked our way through our Green Room appetizers: Considering the recent spate of departed California wine legends, does he fear for his safety? A-la the ill-fated drummers in Spinal Tap?…
Joel (chuckling): “No… in fact I’m in some of the best health I’ve been in a long time.”
Ice officially broken.
Or so I thought. That’s when Joel began to ask me questions (hey, who’s interview was this, anyway?), about how I came into the world of wine, and what the sources of my wine passions really were.
I was beginning to feel outflanked. And outclassed. Good thing Gino and Joel like to talk, and are conversationalists at heart – “If I could touch on some pertinent topics,” I thought, “then I could let the veteran conversationalists take it from there and have some hope of holding my own here…“
Despite the penchant for jeans, plaid, and cowboy hats in his promotional photos, in person Joel comes off much more the scholar than the farmer – mild-mannered, approachable, and with no shortage of lessons from his experience in the wine world.
So pay attention. Maybe you’ll learn something…
Of Rising Tides & Sinking Ships
Since Joel was in town to talk to Pennsylvania winemakers, I started off with questions about PA wine. Do PA wines need to get better across the board in order to change their perception in the marketplace? Does a rising tide actually lift all boats?
Joel: “A rising tide takes many forms. When I helped found ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers), we had maybe 50 people at out first tasting. We had about 10,000 people at our most recent tasting. We [Zinfandel producers] challenged each other in friendly ways, to see who could get the most recognition or the highest-scoring Zinfandel. But a rising tide also creates more boats, and it makes a bigger pond – there are 7,000 wine brands available to consumers right now, it will be exciting to see where the wine industry foes from here.”
Gino: “You still may sink! I’m trying to get the group [of PA winemakers] to invest time and credibility in themselves.”
Joel: “[In Sonoma] we had a personal recomendation kind of thing. Make it fun, make it friendly, get the wine off the pedestal and onto the table. It’s a long – but not painful! – process, and you do it one person at a time.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like social media to me.
“A rising tide also creates more boats, and it makes a bigger pond – there are 7,000 wine brands available to consumers right now, it will be exciting to see where the wine industry foes from here.”
On the State (get it?) of PA Wines
Speaking of PA wines – what did Joel think of them?
Joel: “They range from amateurish, to interesting, to very good. The problem is consistency – no one has broken through the threshold to consistently produce thought-provoking wine year on year.
There are a few tenets to grape-growing. Well-drained soils; a rootstock compatible with the soil; keeping the vine in balance with itself with low production; using trellising matched to the area and moisture; farming moderately and irrigating carefully (moisture in the soil and respiration of the vine are critical); choosing varietals that are resistant to the attacks that you have locally. That’s the reason that Cabernet Franc has done well here, with their open clusters and thick skins. Mediterranean varietals could also do well here. I think mainstream grapes aren’t as interesting anymore anyway – you have an opportunity to do something special here.”
On the Amazing Ever-Shrinking Economy
Many wineries have told me that they’re seeing a drop of nearly 20% due to the economic downturn. What’s your perspective on the state of the ‘wine economy’?
Joel: “The economy will change the scale and nature of wines. There’s going to be less outlet for ultra-expensive cult wines made by those funding advances in technology, knowledge and equipment. We’re seeing a shift back to less expensive wine. Drinking a $1,000 bottle of wine now will be a bit like fiddling while Rome burns…”
I admitted that my ‘sweet spot’ for finding excellent wine at a half-decent price was still the $30-$40 range, despite the economic downturn.
Joel: “Yeah, the $35-a-bottle range allows you to do more things as a winemaker: more expensive grapes, different crop levels, different oaks, etc.”
“Drinking a $1,000 bottle of wine now will be a bit like fiddling while Rome burns…”
On Whether or Not CA Wine – or the Wine Business in General – is ‘Played Out’
Joel: “No. It’s a business model now as opposed to an experimental model. It forces you to be really conscious of your quality and your market in ways that you didn’t have to before. Consolidation and Big Box stores are now significant players in getting wine out to people. It’s created a whole employment policy and new jobs. It’s created a whole subset of people who are spinning off into small side businesses, coming out of that secure existence and doing interesting, cutting edge things.”
Joel: “They’re reviving that individual way of winemaking. My son got little piece of Kick Ranch [editor’s note: many WBC attendees may recall meeting Morgan Twain-Peterson and tasting his Bedrock wines), maybe 4 – 6 tons. And they have to figure out “What are we gonna do with this?” And they have a lot of knowledge, capability and experience already.
California wine continue to have high volume, good wines. Then, you’ll have a “Burgundian effect” of small producers making really interesting wines with their own following. Some will survive, some won’t. Some may become the next Mondavi. I talk to these guys a lot. Most don’t expect to make a lot of money from it. They do it because they love it.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like blogging to me.
Joel: “I would have been a blogger had there been a blogosphere!”
Gino: “The position was created from the past success of wineries like Ravenswood. Your success left a space behind that small wineries are starting to fill. You left a footprint of experience and knowledge that they build on and then they add their own personalities to it.”
Joel: “The miracle of the wine business now is that people are willing to experiment, and the system for communicating the results and changes are instantaneous. We never had that before in the history of winemaking.”
Hmmm… sounds a lot like blogging to me.
I’m starting to wonder if we bloggers are here for a reason…
(images: startupstudio.com, englewoodwinemerchants.com, sugendran.net, fermentingthoughts.com)
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.
“Nice title… wonder how he’s going to get himself out of this one?”
Trust me, it’s all gonna make sense in a minute or two. I think.
See, it all started with Thanksgiving last week.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Not off to a good start there, chico. Mind if I call you chico?”
Not at all. Anyway, Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for us to stop and – duh – give thanks for that in our lives for which we are most grateful. Now, wine has been very, very good to me and it got me thinking about how grateful I am to have wine in my life. And it got me thinking about Spider-Man. And miracles.
Let’s start with the miracles…
The Universe is an unimaginably big place – conventional wisdom is that the observable Universe is at least 10 billion light years in radius, and is probably much bigger. How big is that? Our entire solar system is 42,700,000,000,000 times smaller than the universe.
And, it’s really, really old. Like, at least 12 billion years old. How old is that? If you mapped out the history of the Universe into 1 Earth year, all of recorded human history would occupy approximately the last 13 seconds of that year.
Note that none of this either supports or excludes the possibility that the Universe is in some way intelligent. I say this because the cosmological parameters needed to eventually support life in the Universe were, to the best of our collective knowledge, set at the instant of the Big Bang. As we understand it today, the precision needed within those parameters (and their subsequent margin of error) to support life is so small that the odds against it happening are simply huge.
“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.” ~Henry Ward Beecher
Throw in the fact that the matter created in the Big Bang eventually combined in some way to create YOU, and you have even greater odds against you even being here to read this blog post.
The fact that you exist at all is a cosmological miracle on a grand scale.
It sure doesn’t look that way when you analyze the odds from, say, the point of your grandparents – or even the point of Homo Sapiens – first hitting the Universal timeline. But when you look at the broader context, that of the history of the Universe, well you have to admit that if you’d been around in a parallel Universe during our Big Bang there’s no way you’d have put any money down on it working out.
Yet work out it did.
How even more miraculous that we came to invent wine, and that a glass wine has come to be in front of you at any given moment.
Which brings us to Spider-Man.
All of this Zen Wine musing had me recalling a Spider-Man comic (geek alert!!) I read many moons ago, in which Spider-Man has defeated an enemy in Peru (long story… just go with it). After his battle he meets up with a sort of shaman/mystic, who at one point tells him (and I’m paraphrasing here): “You can say that the Sun will rise tomorrow because of the rotation of the Earth, the orbit of the planet and the Sun and the solar system’s movement through the Universe. I say the Sun will rise tomorrow because it is destined to do so. Do you see a conflict?”
Spidey’s response: “I don’t at that.”
You can say that I will come to enjoy my next wine because of chaos theory, benevolent divine intervention, or the destiny of the entire Universe.
I don’t see a conflict between any of those.
All I see is a miracle, and man, I’m really, really grateful for it. See, told you it would all make sense! Sort of.