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Lately I’ve found myself at (what I’d consider to be) a lot of (what I would call) professional (or, at least, semi-professional) environments in which I am expected (or at least it seems that way) to taste wine in the hopes that I might critically evaluate it (but with fewer parenthetical interruptions if I do).
I’m rarely alone at those moments – I’m usually part of a small group of bloggers, traditional press, or some mixture thereof. But I am usually alone in at least one respect at those tastings: I’m the one asking for a spit bucket.
Or the one looking around for an open outside door, empty unused glass, drainage grate, or random patch of grass so that I can spit. More often than not, I feel as though I’ve got to explain myself, and/or am left wondering why a winery or event coordinator hasn’t thought to at least provide a plastic cup for spitting purposes.
More concerning to me is that the majority of my peers at these tastings don’t seem to feel the slightest need to spit.
Now, I’m not about to tell someone how they should evaluate wine, and I’m certainly in the "wine tasting is more subjective than objective" camp – but I’m baffled as to how someone can taste several wines without spitting and think that they can remain cogent enough to provide an ounce of objective viewpoint about it all later…
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Bart Araujo is an intense man.
It’s obvious when you meet him, if you’re paying enough attention. And you’d have plenty of opportunity to pay attention during a visit to his Araujo estate, which for me began not in the vineyard, but in the winery’s offices. We were standing in front of empty bottles of some of the best wines that this Calistoga property – the Eisele vineyard – has ever produced (some of which were made in basements during the `70s and `80s by dedicated hobbyists, and are obscure enough bottlings that you’ve likely never heard of them, even if you consider yourself a fervent wine geek.
Bart gave the same treatment to Jon Bonne recently, so I’m pretty sure that the brief history lesson in the final products from Eisele vineyard is S.O.P. for visiting press at Araujo.
The message? Context is everything.
One might, at first meeting, take Bart to be a bit too serious, which would be slightly off-the-mark. He jokes (albeit dryly). He smiles. He offers his time generously. But he is definitely… focused. “You have to reach for perfection,” he told me. “Of course, you’ll never quite achieve it, but aiming lower means sacrificing something. Otherwise, you might as well be making Coca-Cola.”
Given his obvious pride in the history of Araujo, including its wines and the heritage of its impeccably maintained Calistoga vineyard, one might also mistake Bart Araujo as smug. While his demeanor has been described by one Calistoga wine insider as possessing a good deal of the “Yes, I did” factor, that too is misleading – it would be more accurate to say that Bart Araujo’s demeanor reflects his knowledge of what the Eisele vineyard is capable of producing when it comes to fine wine. Which is to say, some of the best wines produced in all of the Napa Valley – putting them in the running for some of the best wines in the world.
“Yes, It did” is what Bart’s demeanor is actually saying.
Why are we spending so much time on Araujo’s proprietor? Because in this case, context really is everything, and to understand Araujo’s wines, you need to get inside Bart Araujo’s head, just a little. He is far from a distant figure of a landlord: he still helps to make the call on the final blend, and is familiar with even intimate details about what is happening in their biodynamic vineyards. Saying that Bart is involved in the production of Araujo’s wines is a bit like saying that Argentinosaurus was a slightly oversized dinosaur.
Or, put another way, it’s like saying that it was mildly surprising to the Araujo team when their 2007 estate Cabernet Sauvignon was given a 90-92 rating in The Wine Advocate…
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“All this was green – from here until the sea.”
George Koutsoyannopoulos has a round, friendly face that belies the seriousness of what he is telling me, one arm on the steering wheel of his “Volcan Wines mobile,” the other gesturing over me towards the passenger side window as we ride up the twisting, winding passage towards one of Santorin’s higher points. We’re on our way to lunch at the local taverna; a Greek lunch, mind you – the kind that is of Homeric epic proportions even by European standards. It’s the kind of lunch that will last hours and showcase the best local cuisine that the island has to offer, the kind of lunch where you might just forget how to walk by the time it finally concludes.
Typical day at the office, right?
From the vantage point of the front passenger-side window, I don’t see vineyards in the valley below as it stretches out to the rocky beach and then the Aegean; I see an airport.
“Building in Santorini has reduced due to the recent economy,” George says, “from the `80s to 2000 was the biggest expansion. But the airport had the biggest impact on the vineyards.”
George is a brave man. I know this not because he is driving recklessly – he isn’t (in fact, his driving, like the pace of just about everything else on this gorgeous volcanic oasis, can best be described as “laid back”). I know it because he is one of the driving forces behind the island’s Wine Museum, which chronicles the history of Santorini’s viticulture from 1660 through the 1970s. For one thing, the museum, while an informative treasure trove of the unique and ancient story of viticulture on Santorini, is underground and populated with some of the eeriest animatronic humanoid automatons I’ve ever seen – there is no way I could walk through it at night without totally losing it in an apoplectic, fetal-positioned mess of abject fear.
More importantly, George’s investment in the museum is a brave gamble, part of a battle being fought to protect the island’s vineyards – and the history of Santorini’s wine culture, itself a miracle of human ingenuity vs. the forces of nature – from extinction.
The greatest threat to the way of the wine on this most-beautiful of all of Greece’s Aegeanic treasures?
The island is simply too gorgeous not to be visited, and the result of its open embrace to the throngs of tourists who visit each year is a bit of a cold shoulder when it comes to preserving its time-weathered culture of unique, indigenous wine…
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I have, quite clearly, met my match when it comes to quirky wine interviews.
His name is Les Claypool, and he’s probably most famous for fronting the talented and popular hard rock band Primus (who are on tour this Summer).
As a (wannabe) bassist (going on 20 years) myself, I’ve often found Les’ music and technical proficiency inspiring. I recall being an undergrad in university and hearing Primus’ live album Suck On This! for the first time; “this kicks ass,” I thought, “but I doubt anybody but bass geeks like me would get into this stuff.” Thankfully for millions of music fans everywhere, my prediction was very, very wrong. Primus went on to release two Platinum and one Gold album, achieving impressive chart success with their singles and wildly eccentric videos.
What many people might not know about Les is that he’s also been a filmmaker, as well as the driving force behind multiple successful and stylistically diverse rock bands such as Oysterhead and Flying Flog Brigade. He has, somehow, also managed to find time to create a wine brand – Claypool Cellars, which produces a promising and very enjoyable Russian River Pinot Noir (“Purple Pachyderm”) with help from Shad Chappell at Vinify Wine Services. Les’ description of the `07 Pinot:
“We’ve ended up with a California Pinot with a fairly low alcohol content (13.9%), strong color, and good extraction that gives complexity without being overly “jammy.” Coupled with a moderate amount of French oak and some whole cluster fermentation, we have a vino that sits silky in the mouth with a finish that glides away with elegant authority.”
`08 was a bit of a different story, as heat in the RRV made trying to render a low alcohol Pinot much more challenging. I tried samples of two bottlings of the 2008 Claypool Cellars Purple Pachyderm: one a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (307 cases, about $42), the other an RRV Pinot from Hurst Vineyard (110 cases). Both are big and expressive, just like Les’ music; while some might shy away from the boozy palate on both of these wines (each is around 14.4% abv), few would deny that the red berry fruit on the nose packs a substantial amount of depth and intensity while deftly avoiding the dreaded “jar of red jam” territory, despite the heat.
I managed to catch up with Les via email during a break in Primus’ current tour, to talk shop on the wine front. I still count Suck On This! and Tales From The Punchbowl among my favorite albums – and after 20 years of bass playing, still have trouble copping Les’ intricate, driving and chord-driven bass lines (though I’m making good progress on “Southbound Pachyderm”…) – so this interview was a particularly fun and inspiring one for me. I think you’ll find it fun as well, especially after witnessing how effortlessly and eloquently Les one-ups me in the quirkiness department.
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