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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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“I almost named the wine Serendipity because I discovered the technique which produces this wine by pure accident.”
This is a story that I’ve been chomping at the bit to tell for months. It’s the kind of story that makes you excited about the influx of talented, young winemakers in the Napa Valley, who are shaking things up with an attitude and passion that probably hasn’t been seen in the Valley since John Trefethen accidentally exploded a trash can full of fermenting juice in his basement in the `70s.
The quote that kicks off today’s article comes from Modus Operandi Cellars owner and winemaker Jason Moore. And he is either a bit of a genius, a bit ingenious, or certifiably nuts (or some combination of the three), depending on whether or not you come from the traditional U.C. Davis school of California winemaking. The story of the wine – called Antithesis – is the kind of stuff that is a bit stranger than fiction – in other words, you can’t make this kind of stuff up if you tried – which is why I’m excited to tell it. Or, I should say, I’m excited to have Jason tell it, which he did via a recent e-mail exchange. In that way, this article is part wine review, and part interview:
“In 2006 I had a little problem with one of my fermentations… the yeast stopped fermenting which left me with about two brix of sugar to ferment. I knew that the winemakers usual response to this issue is to prepare a new yeast build up and re-inoculate. I also knew that this is horrible for ultimate wine quality so I reeeeeally don’t like to do it… only as a last resort. So, I learned a trick from Phillippe Melka which has the ability to solve the fermentation problem while still retaining as much wine quality as possible.”
Before we talk about how Jason (quite creatively) overcame this little conundrum, I need to tell you a bit about the wine itself, which I first tried back in February during a get-together at Vintank HQ in downtown Napa. Jason was pouring the `07 Antithesis (among some of his other M.O. wines). I was struck by the quality and depth of the wine; I knew that it stood out as special, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why – that didn’t become totally clear until Jason described the strange history of the wine, which, as you will soon discover, is sort of like a twisted CA version of Valpolicella Ripasso.
Jason kindly agreed to send me a sample for review so that I could taste the wine under more controlled circumstances. And I enjoyed it just as much the second time around…
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