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Risk Is The Business: Earthquakes, Amphorae and the Quest For Terroir at De Martino

“It’s not really very safe.”

Hearing those words, from winemaker Marcelo Retamal in a barrel area that is little more than a small warehouse on the Isla De Maipo estate of De Martino, surrounded by support beams that have been twisted and broken like so many toothpicks, and overshadowed by a ceiling that looks as though parts of it could drop on top of our heads at any moment without warning… well, let’s just say I was hoping that whatever gods dole out the karma points were forgiving me for my initial reaction of “Well… f*cking DUH!

In California, I’d have had to sign a 37-page waiver just to look at this building, and here we were traipsing about inside of it without even wearing hardhats. But this dark-haired, olive-skinned, brown-eyed winemaking guy had me totally at ease despite the less-than-secure surroundings.  Marcelo carries an almost ego-less assurance in his laid-back manner, no doubt a side effect of his fifteen-year tenure at De Martino (one of the longest stretches in the modern history of a country where most winemaking staff turnover is closer to 15 months than it is to 15 years).

De Martino’s current barrel aging area is, of course, a victim of the February 27, 2010 8.8-magnitude earthquake that in other regions of this long, thin country, had squashed enormous stainless steel tanks of wine as if they were empty beer cans at a college fraternity party. Our visit trails the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan by only a few days, and the resilient Chileans feel a kinship to the Japanese quake victims that is mostly unspoken but still palpable whenever the topic of The Quake comes up (though it doesn’t take a shared disaster for one to feel the emotional impacts of the devastation near Tokyo: one report, which told of parents finding the bodies of a class of Ishinomaki kindergarteners huddled together after their school bus was engulfed in flames triggered by the recent earthquake’s resultant tsunami, had me privately shaken and withdrawn). Chileans are a forward-looking bunch, and are quick to talk about The Quake, a situation in almost polar opposition to the way that they seem to avoid direct talk about their political past, referencing it only in the abstract (Augusto Pinochet is never mentioned by name, sort of like how Hitler never ever comes up in conversations in Germany).

We’re not here to look at barrels or taste aging samples, though.  We are here to look at Marcelo’s clay amphorae.  The ones in which he (almost crazily) plans to ferment and age País (the grape of low-end boxed wines) from the cooler Itata region in the south, using carbonic maceration and adding as little sulfur as possible, burying them in the ground à la how they used to do things in the Jura in Spain…

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Visiting Hestan: More Money Than God, And A Pretty Tasty Cabernet, Too

Vinted on March 31, 2011 binned in California wine, crowd pleaser wines, kick-ass wines, on the road

The point when (or is that where… damn, I can never keep that straight) any normal person realizes that Stanley Cheng is loaded, and I mean God-calls-him-when-He-needs-a-loan loaded, probably comes pretty early during the course of meeting him; in my case, it came about ten minutes before I met him, while coasting up the lengthy, gated drive that marks the entrance to his newly-finished home and vineyard estate in the outskirts of Napa Valley.

It wasn’t the need for a security gate, the fact that he could actually afford a piece of land that spacious in Napa Valley, or even the fairy-tale mansion at the end of the drive that tipped me off to the Laurentian-abyss-level deep pockets; it turns out I’m too obtuse to pick up even those obvious clues.  In fact, at first I thought the house had to be a winery facility made up to look like a mansion, because it just seemed too big and gorgeous to really be someone’s home.

No, for me the moment came when I pulled up to the much sparser but still handsome building a little more than halfway between the gates and the mansion, thinking that it had to be Stanley’s house because it was about three times the size of my place.  Then I took a peep through the large glass doors and noticed that I wasn’t peering into an office building or a residence, but into a sort of garage / gymnasium.

That’s when it hit me that Stanley Cheng had more money than god…

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Movie Stars, Vineyard Maps And Dirty Undie Drawers: Chateau Montelena’s Winter Rebuilding Project

Vinted on March 24, 2011 binned in California wine, crowd pleaser wines, kick-ass wines, on the road

“You’re actually the first journalist to see this.”

Loaded words spoken to me when walking down the back staircase at Chateau Montelena to the cellar room. And they’re not just fully-packed AK-47 words because I’ve received no formal training in journalism; it’s because there’s pressure when someone trusts you enough let you take a peek into the dirty underwear drawer of a movie star.

Ok, so it’s not actually a dirty undie drawer; but it’s the equivalent, anyway, when that movie star isn’t a recognizable pretty face plastered across billboards and silver screens worldwide, but is a winery.  And make no mistake about it, Chateau Montelena is, indeed, a movie star.

The steady stream of tourists and visitors arriving right on my heels at 9AM, popping photos of the Calistoga winery’s iconic stone castle exterior was evidence enough of that, considering that your average Napa Valley wine country tourist turns around once they hit downtown St. Helena on Route 29.  If you want to visit Montelena, you have to find Montelena, and to find Montelena you have to be going slightly out of your way; you have to be looking for it.

The recently-expanded parking lot is the best evidence of Chateau Montelena’s new-found popularity – where they previously got by with space for about eleven cars, they’ve had to expand to a new lot that can accommodate several times that number. It’s all part of the strange dichotomy that seems to have defined the image of Montelena in the minds of wine lovers over last few decades: a familiar name and yet not a familiar destination.  Even though its name became etched into the consciousness of U.S. wine lovers after Chateau Montelena’s then-unknown Chardonnay bested its more celebrated French counterparts in the famed 1976 “Judgement of Paris” tasting, real fame – movie star fame – didn’t come until 2008 when the movie Bottle Shock hit the theaters, giving the `76 Paris tasting the Hollywood treatment.

Too Hollywood, as it turns out.  Ask Montelena’s assistant winemaker, Matt Crafton – who as a lanky, tall, affable, laid-back-but-knowledgeable guy seems to fit like a glove into Montelena’s NorCal culture – how accurately Bottle Shock portrayed Montelena’s history, and you get a pause, followed by a smile and an answer that says everything by hardly saying anything:

“Well… There was a Paris tasting; the Barretts did exist; we did win.”

All the rest, as they say, is basically Hollywood bullsh*t…

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Wines Of Place (For Obligatory Valentine’s Day Proceedings)

Vinted on February 10, 2011 binned in crowd pleaser wines, elegant wines, sexy wines, wine review

Let’s get the Valentine’s Day mention out of the way first thing – my views on this most Hallmark© of upcoming holidays are akin to those recently espoused by my friend W. Blake Gray. In summary: I’m not a huge fan, but I do love spending quality time with my wife.  For those of you who insist on having a V-Day wine tidbit, I will refer you to the study that I highlight every year at this time, which found that wine knowledge actually makes you makes you more attractive (and re-submit as supporting evidence the fact that my attractive wife actually decided to marry me).

For those who need a little more by way of wine recommendations for V-Day festivities, I am going to tackle that topic today because with V-Day falling on a Monday I’m guessing most people are going for their (obligatory) V-Day proceedings this weekend.  Anyway… I’d like to point you to a selection of wines from a recent press dinner at Philly’s fabulous restaurant XIX organized by the Center for Wine Origins (great dinner, by the way, in which I got to finally catch up with Philly wine personality Brian Freedman and Philly Wine Examiner’s Jeff Alexander, among others). They are wines about which (lucky for me) I was planning to write anyway that (lucky for me) just so happen to also have potentially significant V-Day appeal – provided that your pockets are deep enough to lay down the cash for them.

Please note: generally speaking, I’m NOT a fan of going for expensive wines just for the Hallmark© V-Day holiday – I’d rather save those for anniversaries with real significance – but I share the following because they can serve triple duty as 1) recommendations for special events that are actually special to you and aren’t special because some marketing machine told you they were special, 2) are really friggin’ good anyway and so wine geeks will want to try these and 3) can serve admirably in a pinch for those who can’t escape the marketing hype and/or just really need to impress someone on V-Day.

So, here goes…

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