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“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)
Actually, it’s not so much a smackdown as, it turns out, a comparison of apples and oranges. Or, a comparison of Old World style vs. New World style.
After visiting both Opus One and Penns Woods Winery, located on the Left and Right Coasts, respectively, I thought it would be interesting to host a blind tasting between the 2005 vintages of both winery’s Bordeaux-style red blends.
What would a clash of the titans like this prove?
Not much, it turns out, but it was an enlightening experience, and one that you will want to read if you appreciate differing styles of fine wines, and are interested in a bit of a litmus test on how far wines from both coasts of America have come…
Or, if you want to read the extremely geeky musings of two wine dorks.
Anyway, for this blind tasting, I was reunited with my 2WineDudes partner in crime, Jason Whiteside, who was in town taking a few of his exams for the WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits. The wines (hereby referred to as Wine 1 and Wine 2, until such time as their true identity is revealed) were decanted a few hours before our tasting, and neither Jason nor I knew which wine was poured into which decanter. Both wines were then poured into separate (but identical) Riedel wine glasses.
Following is the uber-geeky tasting play-by-play:
- Jason: “There’s really good color in both of these wines. Wine 1 is Ruby with a nice garnet hue, and it fades more at the rim than Wine 2, which suggests that it wasn’t handled as gently. Wine 2 is deep ruby with blue tinges and nice pink legs.”
- Joe: “I really want to drink both of these suckers.”
- Jason: “I definitely get a Pennsylvania harvest/Autumn leaf aroma on Wine 1. Lots of smoke, not quite as complex as Wine 2. Plenty of bright red fruit, with black cherry, currants, spice (coriander and cocoa), and Macadam/tar. The finish on Wine 2 is waaaaay long and the wine is more concentrated – bakers chocolate is going on here, Lots of oak, menthol, and heat. Wine 1 might have had more exposure to oxygen and is a little more reductive. “
- Joe: “Wine 1 is more subtle on the nose. I’m getting a lighter red fruit on it than Wine 2, which suggests PA more than CA. Wine 2 is very dark with more fruit, I’m thinking figs, mint leaf and plums. I’m not going to spit either of these, though…”
- Jason: “Wine 1 is mineral-forward. The finish isn’t extraordinary, but it’s good. It’s got medium intensity and great acidity; it’s just really well-balanced. It’s very Italian in style, weight, and acidity. If you hadn’t told me these wines were from PA and CA, I’d have thought this wine was from Tuscany. Wine 2 has more dry extract, it’s got to be riper, thicker-skinned grapes. Wine 1 has to be PA, and Wine 2 is from CA.”
- Joe: “Wine 1 has ‘greener’ fruit to me. I would’ve expected a little more on the length of the finish though, based on how well the wine showed up on the nose and on the visuals. Wine 2 has more oak tannin, I think, and good acidity; it feels like a wine built for a “longer haul” to me. By the way, what the hell is dry extract?”
- Wine 1 was Penns Woods Ameritage, and Wine 2 was Opus One.
- Jason: “At a quick glance, these wines look and feel very similar. But when you investigate them more deeply, they are very, very different wines. What’s striking is how the different raw materials – the grapes – come through, even with two flawlessly crafted wines; which these both are.
- Joe: “Totally agree. Bottom line for me is that Penns Woods is aiming for an Old World style, and the wine totally begs to be sampled with food. Opus has more of a New World/CA thing going on. Both are clearly made with passion. Let’s get stupid on the rest of this stuff!“
There you have it. East Coast meets West Coast turns out to be more like Old World Italy meets New World California. Who’da thunk it?
Welcome to Wine Blogging Wednesday #51(WineDude)!
Dude here is hosting the 51st edition of the venerable WBW, and today’s theme is “Baked Goods“ – reviews of wines that are deliberately heated (aka “Madeirized”), and we’re also allowing reviews of sweet Fortified wines to be included. For the scoop on how Wine Blogging Wednesday works, check out the WBW site. More details on the background of the theme can be found here.
Now… let’s get this funk started!
I love Madeira. Love is a strong word. And I love Madeira.
It’s often sweet, incredibly tasty, high in refreshing acidity, and because it’s already been exposed to oxygen and heat (which would utterly destroy normal wines), it’s virtually indestructible.
A Madeira wine from 1935 will pretty much taste the same today as it did in 1935, even if opened and enjoyed tablespoon by luscious tablespoon from then until now. Not only is it tasty, indestructible, and food-friendly, it also boasts an abv of 19% or more. It’s a bad-ass wine!…
Normally, I’d expound on the storied history of Madeira, and give you background on the traditional styles of Madeira, food pairings, etc.
Rather than take you through the history of Madeira wine – which I figured might be covered by one or more of the other fine WBW participants anyway (and if not can easily be found in detailed play-by-play on the web) – I thought I’d instead show you, by way of comparison, just how bad-ass Madeira actually is.
Let’s compare kick-ass, indestructible Madeira to the so-called “Invincible” IRON MAN:
“Invincible” IRON MAN
||Superhuman strength, Repulsor-ray technology, Genius-level intellect
Intense aroma, Mouth-watering acidity, Ass-kicking 19%+ abv
||Bullet-proof, temperature-resistant armor – TIE
||Impervious to hot ovens, attic temperatures, and long, perilous sea voyages
||The Dutch Armada
||The Mandarin, Alcoholism, Soft spot for Pepper Pots, Very large magnets
Edge: IRON MAN
||Nuts, caramel, dried figs. –
|Result of Oxidation
||Characteristics of nuts and honey
No contest: Madeira totally trumps IRON MAN, 5-2.
Anyway, traditional Madeira comes in four flavors of grapes, each chosen to highlight a particular style of the wine, examples of which I tasted in comparison (witness below).
Notice how the color of each wine gets darker? This is a key to the style, which range from dry and nutty to lusciously sweet and caramely (is that a word…?):
Blandy’s Dry Sercial (Aged 5 Years in oak): Made from the Sercial grape, grown in the cooler high-altitude regions of the Madeira island. Sherry-like, nutty (almonds, baby!) with searing acidity. Pass the hors d’oeuvres!
Blandy’s 5 Year Vedelho: Made from Verdelho (also grown in the cooler Northern part of the island) – Sherry-like, but this time its darker and more ‘Oloroso-ish’; the oak is more pronounced, and there’s touch of sweetness balancing the acidity.
Cossart Gordon Medium Rich Bual (15 years): From the Bual grape (probably my favorite) from the warmer southern portion of Madeira, it ripens to higher levels so it can be made into a sweeter style. And sweet it is – as in sweet fig, vanilla, and hazelnut, with a long nutty finish.
Blandy’s Malmsey 10 Year: Malmsey is the malvasia grape, grown in the warmest and lowest-altitude regions of Madeira. These wines can become ultra-indestructible and typically have a near-perfect balance between acidity and sweetness. In this case, the wine is bursting with burnt caramel, rum, honey, and smoke, with a smooth, luscious mouthfeel.
Now do you see why I use the word “love” when I’m talking Madeira?
(images: 1winedude.com, malone.blogs.com, historyguy.com, wikimedia.org, sahistory.org.za, d210.tv, wilsoncrfeekwinery.com, fruitsstar.com, purplemissues.blogspot.com)
“No shortcuts – either you do it, or you don’t do it. You either believe in yourself and commit to the idea to spare no expenses, or you close your doors.”
Gino Razzi, owner and winemaker at Penns Woods Winery, drives his minivan in the same way that he makes his wines. In fact, he seems to do everything the same way that he makes his wines – which is to say, with a driving singularity of purpose.
Either it’s done full on, or it’s simply not done at all.
This was the primary thought running through my mind as I followed Gino from his winery and wine import business in Eddystone, PA (a stone’s throw from Chester, which is sometimes Philly’s equivalent of war-torn Beirut) to the idyllic setting of his vineyard and quaint tasting room in Chadds Ford.
It didn’t help that Gino takes corners at speeds that would make Mario Andretti proud, or that I’d spent most of the morning tasting samples of the wines that Gino had in barrel (most notably his latest Chardonnay vintage, which, as he put it “might be the best wine I ever made… if I don’t screw it up!”).
I was first introduced to Gino and his wines via a wine pairing event at Teikoku restaurant near Philadelphia. Gino’s Chardonnay blew me away at that event. What I tasted in barrel at the Penns Wood winery had even more promise. My curiosity at exactly how Gino was able to pull of wines of this caliber in PA – hell, for that matter, on the East Coast – led to me scheduling some time with him to discuss his winemaking mojo…
For anyone familiar with the perception of PA wines, it’s hard to convey the extent to which Gino may be rewriting the rules of how wine is made here. His wines achieve levels of fruit extraction that have never been reached by some California producers, let alone anyone on the Right Coast. When I arrived at the winery, Gino was preparing for an upcoming tasting that would feature some of his top-end wines. For comparison, he had selected wines such as Chateau Angelus and Puligny-Montrachet. He was prepared to compare his wines with what some consider to be the world’s best. Uhm… aren’t we talking about wines made in Pennsylvania here?
This confidence isn’t entirely a matter of hubris (or insanity, at least I don’t think it’s insanity). “I want to change people’s perception of Pennsylvania wines,” Gino told me. While he doesn’t expect his wines to necessarily be better than the world’s best, “I d0 expect to have [the tasters’] heads blown up when they taste my wine.”
It’s not that PA isn’t without it’s winemaking challenges: at 2,000 cases a year, Penns Woods can’t break into a market run by an iron-fisted monopoly; with a short growing season, Gino needs vines that encourage quick phenolic ripeness to achieve good color and complexity – exactly the opposite of what most nurseries are providing for California.
The inconsistent continental PA climate doesn’t always cooperate with fine winemaking, either. Gino’s red Bordeaux style blend, Ameritage, won’t be made this year due to the quality of the red grapes. “If you don’t have the chicken, you ain’t gonna make the soup,” said Gino. (It’s not all gloom and doom – the whites “are fabulous;” after some time in barrel, a low yielding Cabernet Franc is also looks promising.)
“No shortcuts – you either do it, or you don’t do it.”
No expense-spared winemaking is pretty much the only winemaking that Gino practices. Not surprisingly, his wines are pricey. “I’ve been told my wines are expensive – what do you want me to do? When I give something to the consumer, I need to say ‘Hey, I did my best.’ If it’s no good, I won’t put it out there.”
And as I came to find out, Gino has pretty high standards for “good.”
A stone’s throw from the Philadelphia airport, Gino is pouring a significant investment into Penss Woods and its final bottlings. His corks run upwards of $2 (“your cork is your insurance policy”); he’s installed a horizontal rotary fermenter that ensures controlled skin contact and maximum extraction (it’s not cheap), and he donates a portion of the proceeds of every bottle sold. He has a near-obsession with cleanliness (which made me feel bad for his right-hand man, George, to whom Gino was passing cleaning task after cleaning task during my visit), which also doesn’t help the bottom line. “I pay extra attention to the cleanliness,” he told me. “Everything must be absolutely clean. A clean winery only hurts your pocket.”
An immaculate, high-tech winery is one answer to the challenges of winemaking in PA, but Gino was quick to point out that he’t not making ‘Franken-wine’: “There isn’t one thing that makes your wine better. It’s the adding up of little steps. There’s no secret.”
Gino’s take on Go Big or Go Home winemaking probably came from his roots (ha-ha!) in Italy. Gino grew up around wine. He’s from Abruzzi, a large area of wine production in southern Italy. “When I first came to the U.S. around 1971, you didn’t find much Montepulciano,” he told me. Smelling a potential fortune, Gino started importing the wine – and soon realized why there wasn’t much Montepulciano to be found in the U.S. “It was so heavy and tough to drink. America loves sweets, and they like a softer mouthfeel.” In other words, nobody bought it.
As Abruzzi evolved from a bulk producer to an area producing fine wines, Gino began importing the newer, easier-drinking wines, which sold enough to support his budding importing business. “I see similar parallels to Pennsylvania now and Abruzzi 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s a rougher industry. It was done by people with a lot of heart; their enthusiasm was bigger then the available knowledge. They didn’t know what grapes to plant, or how to best make the wines. They did the most they could to learn –Eric Miller [winemaker at Chaddsford Winery] was the pioneer – there were no experts or viticulturists around to learn from.”
Gino’s introduction to Pennsylvania winemaking was not a positive one. “I was not convinced that it was possible to make good wine in Pennsylvania,” he said. While consulting at a PA winery, Gino’s opinion started to turn more favorable, and he wondered if PA had more to offer in the wine world than he’d originally thought. He called his friend, Italian eonologist Concezio Morulli, and invited him to PA for a motorcycle tour of the local vineyards.
“I was not convinced that it was possible to make good wine in Pennsylvania“
After seeing the prevalence of expensive (and locally inappropriate) Scott Henry trellis system used on the PA vines, Concezio wasn’t impressed (“My God!” he told Gino, “how would you like to work everyday upside-down hanging by your feet!”). He didn’t think much more of PA winemaking either, after tasting a few samples from the local wineries.
Undaunted, in 2002 Gino sent some PA grapes to Asti in Italy for analysis. The result? “They told me, ‘the grapes are really good – go ahead and make wine out of them.'” Gino purchased grapes from Jan Waltz in Manheim, PA and crushed about 7 small lots. The resulting wine was “absolutely phenomenal.” Gino blended Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, and Sangiovese – the Ameritage was born. When Smithbridge was ready to sell their 38 acres of Chadds Ford vineyard, Gino saw an opportunity to expand production and help recoup some of his ever-increasing costs.
Anyway, weren’t we speeding on our way to Gino’s vineyard? The picture there wasn’t anywhere near as rosy as it was in the winery.
Gino is starting with a decent base – 30 year old vines, on much more PA-appropriate VSP trellising, planted in stony, clay and loam soil. “The stones are a pain,” he said, “but they’re great for the wine.”
That’s where the fun ends.
Previously, the vines were poorly maintained, planted too low to the ground (promoting fungal problems) and permitted to grow way, way too long. In some places, the vines are planted a staggering distance from each other in their rows. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done.
Gino and I strolled through the vineyard as the autumn chill started to take over in the air. We were picking and tasting what grapes remained on the vines – those that hadn’t been harvested, or stolen by the birds, anyway. “It reminds me of when I was seven years old,” he said with a smile, “going through the vineyards in Italy after the leaves fell, looking for the leftover grapes.”
The taste difference between the clusters on the lower portions of the vine and those at the top (called “Seconds”) was staggering. The fruit on top was clearly under-ripe, in stark contrast to the sweet, luscious berries closer to the ground. “I told the guys at harvest, anything above the third wire, don’t pick it. Look! Not even the birds want the ones on top!” exclaimed Gino as he tossed a small cluster onto the ground. “Can you imagine if I put it into my wine?”
When you get three barrels of wine from thirteen rows of Chardonnay grapes, it’s no wonder the wine is expensive. I asked if biodynamic practices might help the situation. Too risky, according to Gino – especially considering the unpredictable Mid-Atlantic weather – and there’s too much work to be done in the vineyard before considering a big change in farming technique.
For now, there is much mojo in Gino’s wines (the upcoming whites especially, which have tropical fruit notes and good minerality), even if there isn’t too much mojo in the vineyard. Drinking Penns Woods Amertiage, it’s easy to appreciate the expense and effort that’s going into each bottle.
Whether or not the rest of the winemakers in PA, or on the East Coast, will be able to consistently rise above their vineyard challenges and rally behind Gino’s vision of no holes barred premium winemaking… well, we’ll just have to sip, wait, and see.