Posts Filed Under on the road
[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]
Northern Spain’s “Small California”
Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano
Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.
What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?
Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.
Somontano’s ancient Alquézar
Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.
Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”
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One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that
a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and
b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”
Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele
One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.
And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.
And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…
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Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded the farming practices now known under the certification of Biodynamics, was largely full of sh*t.
For example, Steiner was all about making wild claims based on anonymous sources long before it became the new standard of presidential tweeting in the U.S.; just check out a handful of the claims he made in his The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria:
“As to the sources of the information to be given here, I am for the present obliged to be silent. He who knows anything at all about such sources will understand why this must be so…”
“…it was only in the course of time that the forms of man and woman arose from an earlier, original form in which the human being was neither the one nor the other, but both at the same time.”
Working the good sh*t at Troon in Oregon
“Just as we have contrivances for transforming the latent force of coal into the power to propel our engines, so had the Atlanteans devices for heating by the use of plant-seeds in which the life-force was changed into a power applicable to technical purposes. In this way were propelled the air-ships of the Atlanteans, which soared a little above the earth. These air-ships sailed at a height rather below that of the mountains of Atlantean times, and they had steering appliances, by means of which they could be raised above these mountains.”
So we’ve got, with literally no evidence, Steiner on the record challenging how humans evolved, and claiming that ancient Atlanteans had airplanes powered by seed oil. So if you’re not at least a little bit skeptical of the guy’s take on farming, then you have deep issues with how you handle facts, logic, and the scientific method.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that with Biodynamics he didn’t stumble upon something incredibly useful for coalescing several centuries-old, tried-and-true farming practices that turned out to be great for fine wine vineyards. But it does mean that we need to approach anything that Steiner wrote with healthy (and probably substantial) levels of skepticism. We’ve tackled this topic before on these virtual pages, giving equal “air time” to both prominent Pro and Con voices regarding BioD, and more or less ended up not that much farther from our starting point (or, at least, I didn’t).
And so it was with a sort of mixed fascination and trepidation that I recently observed firsthand Troon Vineyard‘s Biodynamic compost preparations (#502-507) in the gorgeous (but, at the time, quite smokey) Applegate Valley, to literally see “the good sh*t”…
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Getting serious during the OWE 2018 Best of Show judging round
The results of the 2018 Oregon Wine Experience Competition are in and have recently been announced, and since I was more-or-less directly responsible for said results, I thought that I’d share some of them with you all here.
Before I do, however… a couple of thoughts/insights/dime-store-philosphocal-treatise on the experience of the OW Experience:
- Wildfires suck; we hardly saw a clear, smoke-free day during the competition, and while the ever-present used-fireplace smell is somewhat pleasant, the destruction behind it all certainly isn’t anything short of tragic, and major props are due to the firefighters who shared my flights into and out of Medford for their difficult, tireless work in fighting the recent blazes.
- There’s (much) more to Oregon than Willamette Valley. Duh. Southern Oregon is a lot smaller in volume, less developed in both land and sense of place, warmer in climate, and diverse in potential vinous offerings than its more famous northern wine AVA siblings. What should have wine geeks excited and giddy is that the premium fine wine scene in S. OR is really just getting its groove on, and the results are ridiculously promising already. The fact that the region is probably among the top ten most beautiful wine country settings in the world is just icing on the cake. To wit…
- You’ll see a lot more coverage of some key S. OR producers here over the coming weeks, because I found their stories – and their development in wine quality – quite compelling. More to come.
Anyway, here are some of the wines that wowed our judging panels at the 2018 OWE Competition…
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