There’s nothing like a good scandal to encourage a hit of the reset button.
Or, in the case of Sonoma’s venerable Flowers Winery, it’s more akin to just hitting the next-phase button.
Flowers has always seem to operate a bit under-the-radar by upper-tier California wine brand standards; which makes sense, considering that founders Joan and Walt Flowers were Bucks County, Pennsylvania folk who just happened to fall in love with the Sonoma Coast area. By the close of the `80s, the Flowers saw an ad in an issue of Wine Spectator for available land in an area that most people cautioned them against using as a vineyard. But they saw potential there above the fog line, made the purchase, and, as history in the bottle has mostly borne out, it turns out that they were right.
According to Flowers, the Huneeus Vintners board is (understandably) more involved these days, after Agustin Huneeus Jr. was speedily sped out, and his father stepping in to retake the company reins. Flowers, due to its size in the Huneeus portfolio, acted with a good deal of autonomy through it all, being in, as one employee there put it, “the outer reaches of the solar system” within the parent company. And so Flowers went chugging right along, opening up a new Healdsburg tasting room, and basically just making the same thought-provoking, scandal-free stuff they always have. Speaking of which…
It’s in Israel‘s north, along the borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, where you realize that you’re definitely notin Kansas anymore, Toto, viticulturally-speaking. Actually, let’s correct that – it’s not just viticulturally-speaking, it’s just-about-everything-speaking.
Certainly the rocky hills in the Golan Heights and Galilee speak to Israel’s unique location as a transition zone between the Sahara and Europe, with the requisite variations in soils (from volcanic, to terra rossa, to chalk, to te dessert-like Les), climate, and elevation; you know, the standard grape-growing stuff.
But while that sort of geological and climatic scene is mirrored in many wine regions across the globe, there aren’t many that are surrounded by imposing barbed wire fencing, dotted with even more imposing signs warning of land mines, and sporting the occasional airfield patrolled by very imposing drones.
Welcome to wine-growing, northern Israeli-style. It wouldn’t be for the faint-hearted even without the explosives.
As a wrap-up finale on Israeli wine, here are highlights from my not-so-recent media tour there, which culminated in trips to some of the most promising producers in the Golan Heights and Lower Galilee…
It’s been that long since I had my feet on the ground among the vines in Israeli wine country, and until now I’d yet to write a word about the experience, apart from a few social media updates and the odd mini-review.
The mistake I’d made over that period of waiting? Thinking that there would be an appropriate time during which the political maelstrom that is Middle East politics would present a low-key time for me to simply be able to focus on the region’s wines themselves, without the specter of centuries upon centuries of conflict rearing its ghostly head obtrusively behind. And it’s just difficult to do that when you have visited vines that grow among former Lebanese army bunkers, or are surrounded by land mine warning signs, or that have turned up with the occasional IED among them. In that context, waiting for a quieter period of Israel in the national news before focusing on something as simple as vino doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Buuuuuut… Fat chance. I may never see that time. And so I suppose this is the start of me trying to do a (very) small part of in taking matters into my own hands with giving Israel a bit of media focus that isn’t packed to the gills with cringe-worthy tales of damage to pride, property, and lives. Well, perhaps the writing will be cringe-worthy, but hopefully that’s the extent of it.
Fortunately, Israel’s winemaking history surpases its history of conflict, both in terms of longevity and in interest. There is evidence of winmaking and (particularly along the Mediterranean coast) wine export dating back at least five thousand years. About seven hundred years of Muslim Ottoman influence slowed things down, buy by the 1880s a wave of Zionist immigrants, focused on farming, renewed and rejuvenated the region’s wine industry. Investment from the Rothschilds in France helped to modernize the industry here, and another wave, starting in about 2008, focused the fine wine scene mostly on Mediterranean grape varieties, and saw the development of more modernized marketing approaches.
And despite all of that, as Recanati winemaker Gil Shatsberg told me, “Israeli wine is not really defined yet…”
“It only took me… eleven years!” remarked Ron Yates, owner of the family-run Spicewood Vineyards, which produces about three thousand cases from about forty acres in the about-as-unlikely-as-they-come-at-first-but-upon-further-review-kind-of-inevitable fine wine region of Texas Hill Country.
Yates was speaking about the fact that he and Texas-native winemaker Todd Crowell can now offer an all-estate tasting list. Getting there, apparently, wasn’t all that easy; or, at least, not straightforward. Yates was studying law and working in the record label business (High Wire Music, once home of Toad the Wet Sprocket front-man Glen Phillips, a personal 1WD fave), when he caught the fine wine bug. In unlikely-but-inevitable fashion, his cousins Ed and Susan Auler own Fall Creek Vineyards; but that’s not really what got him into wine. That would be… Spanish Tempranillo. Of course, right?
“That’s my favorite grape in the whole world,” Yates told me when I visited his tasting room in Spicewood, TX (as part of a media jaunt). While a student in his twenties at the University of Texas, Yates spent a semester in Spain, living with a host family whose son just happened to be grape grower in Ribera del Duero (see what I mean about kind-of-inevitable?). A love affair with that region’s signature red grape thus ensued. “A good bottle of Tempranillo was as cheap as a bottle of water back then” Yates recalled.
Years later, in 2007, thoroughly enthralled with things vinous, Yates began courting then Spiwood’s then owners Edward and Madeleine Manigold, eventually buying from them. The vineyards, sandy loam with a well-draining limestone bed, had potential; the vines, though, needed some work. They reduced the `92 plantings, removing “stuff that just shouldn’t be here [in Texas] with the heat.” Yates’ grandfather helped him with the lease and purchase; “he was so excited that his long-haired, hippy grandchild was leaving the music biz and getting into agriculture!” Turns out, it was a pretty good move after all…
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