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Friday, November 12, 2010

Totally unprofessional olive mill repost

It is shameful to do this, but time is short. So, this is a repost. It is my repost but a repost all the same. We harvested a little over a ton of Tuscan blend olives today. The Arbequinas are about 2 weeks out. Did not get any cool pictures or glam shots. So, in the interest of olive season, we present "A trip to the olive mill, 2008":

The story of the olive goes back a few years, about 6,000. From Phoenicians to Athena to your favorite earth-toned Tuscan Villa (that actually bought theirs from Spain), the olive is a classic, kind of like Bottle Caps. Fast forward to the golden age of Kelseyville, Ca., and take a (very) brief trip through the processing of our 885 pounds of olives by Father Emilio Rafael.

Step 1. Dump picked olives into hopper, where a conveyor takes them through a brief fan-driven leaf remover and a very quick rinsing cycle. The water will centrifuge off, so that is not a problem. Then they enter:

The hammer mill that grinds them up, seeds and all, into an emulsified paste that will be worked for about 45 minutes, until the emulsion starts to break down and the water and oil start to separate, sort of like when your Bearnaise dehydrates or gets too cool or hot. This allows full oil release from the solids. It then will be pumped to the:

Horizontal centrifuge (notice the 2" hose full of olive paste coming in on the lower left of the picture). Spinning at 45,000 rpm this gives a rough separation of the solid matter, the oil, and the watery components that are pumped out through the screen in the middle of the picture. The partially processed oil is then moved to a final centrifuge

moving at 55,000 rpm that gives a final separation of oil from water and a final particulate removal down one micron! Here the beautifully green stuff trickles clean as a whistle into a receptacle that is far too large for the tiny crop. Actually, the oil still needs to settle for a couple of months. Like wine organic solids and components have just been altered, beaten, and traumatized. They they need to do their chemical dance of oxidation, precipitation, and general new life cycle type stuff. Out of the horizontal centrifuge burps the watery paste that remains after extraction, kind of an almondy smelling gross but kind of appealing gray sludge without a trace of olive oil essence.

Olives are slow work. In four days of picking we managed a lowly 885 pounds, yielding a grand 13.2 gallons of oil. Like Nick says, you can imagine in the old days that parents were always yelling at their children to turn off the damn oil lamps whenever they left the room. And a final picture of all three machines together, processing left to right.

Well, there youy have it. Of course yield should be three tons this year (we hope) which is hopefully in the 90-100 gallon range. The oil can actually vary quite a it depending on the growing conditions of the year, harvest time, potential insect damage (olive fly is always a concern) and other agricultural vagaries.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sagrantino, Montefalco, to Tracy Hills

     Sagrantino is one of the new "in" grapes like Vermentino and Gruner Veltliner. There is a lot of hubbub over this grape and only about twelve acres are planted in the California. Ridgely Evers has a little a bit planted in Dry Creek Valley that famed nut ball Alice Feiring made lots of videos of herself slipping and sliding around a bin filled with a couple of hundred pounds of fruit in an attempt to stomp out a "natural wine" masterpiece. The other bit we know of (where Jacuzzi gets theirs) is from Tracy Hills AVA.

     Sagrantino is native to Umbria and twenty years ago it had dwindled to a paltry 250 acres. It was used in either Montefalco Rosso which is mostly Sangiovese and up to 15% Sagrantino blended in (which has a remarkable structuring effect) or it was made into a very wonderful but very limited sweet passito wine. Sagrantino is very tannic (at least in Italy - it is the inverse of our Aglianico problem in which all California Aglianicos tend to be even more tannic than the Italian ones) and is famed as having the highest phenolic content of any grape - which may or may not translate directly into tannin. It likes clay soils, handles heat well, and is a lighter cropper unlike neighboring Sangiovese's excessiveness.

     Stylistically it is quite interesting and clearly belonging to the "noble" class. Despite its stature it, like Nebbiolo, generally does not make a really dark wine (though Colpetrone's is pretty roasty). It has an almost ruby Bordeauxish color but with great clarity. The stunning thing is that like the other noble Italian reds it is FLORAL at the same moment it is dense, earthy and jammy. Know how Nebbiolo is split into high tone floral beauty and dark tarry reductive stank? Sagrantino does that same schtick but on a warmer climate blackberry fruit core. The wines tend to ripen in the 13.5 - 14.5% range and there is a bit of sun-ripened jamminess. Acidity is moderate. Though big and burly it is also elegant and light toned like Nebbiolo over all that rich earth and mineral. It does not have the reductive character but it is capable of great mineral length and a similar clarity and concission of flavor and top to bottom depth.

    The leading producers are Caprai and Paolo Bea and these two are the benchmarks and pricey. Bea pulls out ridiculous 50-day macerations while Caprai is a little cleaner and more updated without being "New World." Antonelli is an effective bargain at around $35 (it is a good clean option with no new oak) and is available. If you pick up a bottle, go for age and decant. Our four barrels finished up fermentation a week ago and are now doing extended maceration in the traditional mold. It keeps changing a little bit the same way that Nebbiolo tastes different from day to day and hour to hour. In Umbria it can not be released for 30 months after harvest, and that amount of time is probably just about right, unfortunately.

     If Sagrantino sounds interesting to you Gary Vaynerchuk devoted a Wine Library TV episode to it HERE - the ending when he tastes the Paolo Bea is one of the funnier things I have seen...

Friday, October 29, 2010

That was that...

It is over. Just like that. You can keep dreaming all you want but it is done. Six inches of rain, 36 degree nights. Remember leaving extra canopy on the Aglianico to keep it shaded into November? So much for that projected November 8th harvest. Idiot.

(not our grapes to the left, thankfully. All of our crop is in!)

2010 will go down as one hell of a year. In the large picture Lake County in fact came out pretty well. Two weeks late sure, but a good consistent dry summer was a winner. We were way ahead of Sonoma County, better off than Southern Napa, and even better off than a lot of Willamette Valley. Nature definitely calls the shots though, and in retrospect the weather may be the best decision maker.

Here is our funny weather snapshot:

October 11-14 was 92, 93, 94 and 94 degrees of sunny warmness leaving us discussing water
October 19th, 86 degrees
October 23rd, 24th, and 28th we got 1.1" + 3.27" + 1.58" of rain
October 27th, heavy frost.

We picked Aglianico (which looks very, very nice despite the relatively early harvest) and all Barbera on Wednesday in one massive push. The real losers were all the things that never ripened this year and will never be harvested. Touriga National, Souzao, and Nebbiolo never reached brown seeds or got above 22 brix. Cabernet was a big if that was all over the board, though that late warm weather really helped. All tanks are wrapped, tarped, and have heaters running around the clock underneath them. The grapes may be in but we are far from done for the year...

Monday, October 25, 2010

10/25 update

Never thought we would say this for a few years more, but we have Sagrantino, Montepulciano, and Nero d'Avola working right now in addition to Primitivo, Greco and Refosco at this moment. Awesome. Thanks go to Jeff Brown in Tracy! So far Dolcetto, Arneis and Sangiovese are done and put to bed. Aglianico and Barbera will be in the next two days as soon as we can drag them through the mud and get them working.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wine geek quiz time

Here is a copy of the quiz that will be given at Sonoma State University's Lake County presentation and wine tasting tomorrow night.

1. In which region(s) is irrigation not allowed?
Rioja    Brunello di Montalcino    Chåteauneuf du Pape    Piedmont    All 4

2. Which country has more recognized indigenous varietals: Italy or Portugal?

3. This county had the highest number of marijuana seizures in California for three years in a row, has the oldest natural lake in the United States, and 16.8% unemployment.

4. True or False. HR 5034 was written by well-meaning temperate folks who want to protect underage drinkers and the sovereignty of states’ rights.

5. Austrian wine that is the “groovy” next new big thing (again).


6. The most planted grape in the world by acreage is:
Airén    Merlot    Trebbiano    Grenache    Chardonnay


7. True or false. Much valued oak used for barrels in Italy comes not from France or America but Hungary and Slovenia.

8. Ravenswood, Clos du Bois, Robert Mondavi and 59 other wine labels are owned by:
Diageo     E & J Gallo     Constellation Brands     Bronco


9. True or False. Sussreserve is unfermented grape juice added to very acidic wines in Germany, and it used in California to nefariously add aroma to bottled whites and rosé.


10. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross of Cabernet Franc and ?
Merlot     Sauvignon Blanc     Pinot Noir     Malbec


11. True or false. Napa Gamay is not the Gamay of Beaujolais at all but Valdigué.


12. In California you are allowed to add which of these to a fermentation?

Sugar by concentrate      Acid      Water     Oak      All of them


13. True or false. In the 19th Century Champagne was normally over 8% sugar.


14. True or false. Oregon voluntarily instituted Prohibition three years before the U.S.


15. There were no mentionable plantings of this varietal in California before 1962 and Louis Martini bottled the first varietally labeled example in 1970.
Tempranillo       Grenache      Merlot       Semillon

Bonus Question:

Can you help us find a distributor?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Greco di Tufo - the cutest grapes I ever saw...

   The cutest grapes I ever saw were a surprise.When something is simply called "Greco" you can feel pretty sure that you know where it came from. Most of these Southern Italian grapes have links to Greece, apocryphal or otherwise, but this one just calls it out. (There are other varietals that claim to be Greco as well, offering a more historical aspect than literal ampelographical - Trebbiano comes to mind).

   Here is what can be seen by the naked eye. Greco bunches are extremely small, and painfully cute. These were picked in Dunnigan where they were just reaching ripeness in equal time with Nebbiolo (!!), which is a very late season grape. The Greco canopies were still going quite strong, saying that they took heat, did not mind wind, took sun with glee, and even on sandy soil they miserly mined moisture while other vines had totally shut down. They are susceptible to mildew, but their tough skins resist damage though they may harbor the foul demon. They have very small leaves, that help form a webbing of protection around the fruit, somewhat like Montepulciano though totally different in appearance.

   Here is what they looked like In late August. Vigorous. Having only had a couple of Greco wines the varietal's profile is a little inconclusive. Medium bodied, some mineral finish, some herbal notes and citrus qualities. It certainly holds its acid well. Richly colored. It can also age and dig deep to develop interesting tertiary characteristics. Sort of a core warm-climate Chardonnay quality with a little Viognier thrown in and a touch of cold climate citrus and acid.

Keep your eyes out for the Southern Italian white triumvirate of Greco, Falanghina, and Fiano. Distribution has been increasing with Feudi San Gregorio leading the way. Incidentally they are based in Sorbo Serpico, and if I could be from one place in the universe, nothing could have a cooler name than that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wine Yeast

   Fermentations seem really exciting, like the first hour of dinner rush when everything is going well and everything is in the right place and all the dishes are up at the same time. Or that first dinner date full of your clever and witty comments for the first hour. Toward the end fermentations feel like the table that was seated 30 minutes after the kitchen has closed, and they want to do the full tasting menu, or when you made a joke about hating cats and you find out she has 14. Some fermentation are smooth and fairly linear. Some whites have been very nice and clean, just need a little bit of cooling during the peak activity, taper off and let them finish warm at the end and boom. Done. Some reds tends to be fast and hot and leave cab fare the next morning, like Barbera. Sometimes a fermentation is a problem every year, no matter how well you prepare.
   Our Dolcetto, which should be the quickest and easiest wine to make and drink is the biggest headache every year. For three years in a row everything looks fantastic - perfect temperatures, everything healthy, moving predictably, and then all of a sudden at 5 brix it slams on the brakes. That clean 7-day magic just became 12-13 days of nail biting drama, getting bitter and tannic and threatening to produce off flavors.
   Yeast are magical fungi that facilitate a lot of what is wonderful in the world. For example: alcohol (including favorites such as beer, wine, and Old Turkey), bready goodness like ciabatta and the amazing brioche (butter is another wonder), kefir, some stinky cheese rinds and MSG. They also have some evilness, like infections and food spoilage. They are quite a broad range of beasties. For winemaking we are interested in two basic types, and selection are propagated from those that have special features. Some are more voracious than others, some are more sensitive to heat or cold or their nutritional preferences. Some pump out extra goodness in their lifespan, like glycerol that imparts fullness and sweetness - this however is at the cost of greater nutritional fastidiousness and potential difficulty.
   More important though than just choosing yeast from a catalogue is that grapes can come with their own hurdles. High potassium in skins can actually shut down yeast metabolism. Different vineyards carry different microbial loads, and these can interfere with the yeast doing their job. Sometimes there are other organisms that are subtly part of a flavor profile that is accepted as part of "terroir."
   The problem is that yeast are particular, and when they are stressed, scared, or feeling insecure or unappreciated they create flavors and aromas that humans don't care for. Ever smelled rotten eggs, garlic, or farty wine? Yeast did it. One of the most widespread modern afflictions is a yeast called "brett" (Brettanomyces) that can feed off of wood sugar in barrels, residual sugar in wines (there is always some) and is highly resistant to sulfur. It is far more voracious than the yeast that conducts fermentation, and in fact in can ferment on its own as well. The problem is that it produces yucky smells like wet horse, sewage, or other fun descriptors. At a low level it can add complexity (this is common in some Malbecs from Argentina on purpose) and some beer styles actually inoculate for it - far away from the winery hopefully.
   Yeast actually start dying off about 1/3 of the way through a fermentation. They quickly build up a huge population, generate heat (we count on the yeast generally raising a tank's temperature from 68 degrees at the start to 84 at peak fermentation - all by their own kinetic activity), and start dying off and dwindling before they are even half done.  It is pretty amazing to think about. Four tons of grapes can be approximately one ton of sugar. And a few days later it is all ethanol, CO2 and some other stuff. All by a few horny fungi that generated millions of children in a couple of days - joylessly.
   Most winemakers develop a favorite yeast that behaves predictably and cleanly. Getting that wine dry smoothly is the first and most important task. Alice Fiering will tell you that winemakers just pick the yeast they want out of a catalog to give them the flavors and features they desire, destroying all authenticity in one quotidian blow, and to a very tiny limited extent this is somewhat true. You can get a little more passion fruit with one, a little more raspberry with another, but it quickly diminishes over time. Yeast choice is for Sauvignon Blanc, not Cabernet.  Getting the wine fermented cleanly is much more important. Even those wild/indigenous fermentations are in fact from the same family as cultured yeast - and they have been the most successful. Yeast don't make magic. They can catalyze some aromas that are already there yet undetectable to our limited senses (cue discussion of Hume's color theory), but so can "native" yeast. The issue often becomes what is historically correct and appropriate. There will be more said on this later...
   You can always press the wine while it is still sweet and allow it to ferment in barrels or in another tank - and this is common practice these days. People fear tannins and want fruit bombs, so they press the grapes early before they are dry and the ethanol extracts all the tannins from the seeds into your juice. Problem is that it can halt the fermentation by shocking the yeast with a temperature or turbidity change. It also introduces sugar into a barrel which raises the risk factor exponentially. We do not have the ability to keep barrels at a happily fermenting 70 degrees when it is 35 degrees at night outside, so for us it is a difficult option. Not to mention, the Italian historical paradigm that we try to follow is do not press until dryness, and you will notice that Italian reds are always very dry, and this is the reason.
  Anyway, yeast are magic. Stupid, lazy horny magic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sangiovese Porn

Oh yes. Was going to keep this all to myself, but it is always better to share.

Amador. Sangiovese. Brunello cuttings. Look at those small tight little bunches. Perfect spacing, hanging loose and free. Firm fleshed yet supple and seductive. Resplendent in radiant warmth, cool and disinterested but you can sense the yearning. A little wisened age here, maybe a little more slap than tickle in that demure package. Round and full beneath those leaves. Heavy on the mouthfeel and grip and a little less lipstick and flash - the kind of stuff that gets better with age.

If Isole E Olena mean anything to you, if you see "Cepparello" and the lips quiver, then you are jealous already. We don't even have pictures of the REAL good stuff. While our own Sangiovese vines continue to grow, we had to find a source for this year. A couple of phone calls, a guy knows a guy, and all off a sudden you have a dream date, twice. This particular three-way hookup was - um, not really sure how to say it but it may be pronounced Ménage à trois.

Half of the Sangiovese was planted according to famed Tuscan consultant Alberto Antonini's direction, here on 3'x6' planting, 420A rootstock, and the budwood was from Isole E Olena's Cepparello vineyard. Though it is called a Chianti Classico clone it actually has IGT status. Tannic, spicy, naturally acidic. Tense and high strung are standard decriptors here. Look at that perfect handful. The other half is the above photographed  Brunello clone - a little deeper and more relaxed, a little less acid and a little more top heavy. Amador fruit tends to be a little light on nitrogen, keeping canopies in check and resulting in good UV exposure and relatively light and balanced crop loads. Stylistically this year's should be very different than the lighter weight (but more fun) Romagnolo clones we usually use. Exciting stuff, currently sitting at 15 Brix and 82 degrees, awaiting its 11pm pump  er pumpover. Daddy like.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Arneis was not on the original road map for this season (see left), but being flexible is part of the fun. Based in the Roero in Piedmont, Arneis translates approximately into little rascal or stubborn one, illustrating its peculiar viticultural needs. It likes the legendary sandy soil that also produces asparagus, and Arneis is one of the go-tos for those difficult asparagus pairings (though they are not really that challenging, especially with sauce, egg, or cheese).

Arneis almost wasn't. By the 70's it had virtually disappeared all together. Arneis does not age, it is not a fruity or particularly hedonistic white, nor is it a stony or minerally and structured drink. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that it was also known as Barolo Bianco back in the day when Barolo was given away because no fool would ever buy such a poorly made wine - and Arneis was the diluting additive that tamed the tannin and acid of Nebbiolo.

So what should the Arneis experience be like? Almond is a big marker, as is a straw-ish hay-like component. (This is ironic incidentally because last year's special run white was Tocai Friulano, which has similar charcteristics in some ways though with a radically different nature, and is on sale now, hint hint). If you want mineral, there can be some of a delicate sort, not the bold aggressive stoniness of some though. Delicate flowers? Not really, but again some delicate haunting notes. The paradigm here is more in between a warm, roundish experience and a lean one of unusual nuances. I just say somewhat oceanic, somewhat continental.

Anyhow, if you don't mind leg hair in your wine, we whole-cluster pressed the Arneis, all 80 gallons, and now it is slowly fermenting away, hopefully producing a nice, clean Spring bottling. No battonage, no oak, no trickery. Just Arneis being what it is, and teaching us along the way.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alcohol and Wine. It is in there - it is true.

 (warning - this a very boring and dry yawn inducing geek piece...)

Wow, we are still talking about alcohol! W. R. Tish recently posted a very nice piece here discussing the rising alcohol levels - yesterday's rocket fuel is today's norm. The thesis is that reviews should contain ABV (Alcohol by Volume) information, and amen - they should. And she is correct that there is no compelling reason in the light of transparency to not include them. BUT, if information is the key to informed consumer reviews, then from a winemaking perspective reviews should include acidity and any "additives" (gum arabic, fining regimen, etc.)  as well if data equals knowledge and these are available. Anyway, some nice information is contained within and it is certainly worth a read. But, it is also seems a little misguided and reductionist by overly concentrating on a number that has 2% total leeway plus or minus as being intrinsically meaningful and relatively accurate in and of itself. Quite simply, your most powerful stylistic indicator would be acidity rather than alcohol. First though, since we have a higher level of access, here is some industry insight from within the wine beast:

1. Winemakers regularly put 14.5% on bottles that they know are not actually that percentage to cover the allowed spread on the ABV statement. They know it is 15.3, and legally choose to state 14.5 because it sounds better. This is an industry standard, and that is a fact. Unless you are on the inside, this might be unknown. ABV statements are a strategic marketing tool that is very carefully considered. All that jug wine in the supermarket is not actually 12.5% like it says - most of it is on high side of 13. But it is allowed the leeway to state 12.5 when it is 13.9. Tish claims that this range is moderately slippery and that is o.k., but the very thrust of her piece refutes this "moderate" claim. A review of a 15.1% wine that states 14.1% and vice versa is obviously comparing apples and oranges. The 15% threshold is pretty clearly taboo.

2. Watering back (amelioration) is very common practice in California. Barbera, which can hit 16% alcohol pretty easily in the warmer climes, is often watered back to 14.5%ish. Tempranillo and obviously Zin are the same. Most reds can float up to 15%. This is legal and no statement is required. If we try to establish some sort of direct correlation between alcohol levels and some standard of quality, it would be very much a leap of faith to believe that adding 15% water to crushed grapes to lower the alcohol to 14% will somehow result in a better end product. It certainly is a more manipulated product once that threshold has been crossed. We can give you your low alcohol, by adding water. Does that feel right?

2a. We can add acid in California at will. Higher sugar levels directly correlate with diminishing acid. Most elsewhere in the world higher alcohol means low acid wine. We can not make this stylistic correlation with domestic wine laws. Sorry. In Barolo and Toro, yes. California, no. And yes, acid is a manipulation. Alcohol levels might indicate acid levels, but they might not.

3. For larger producers that can afford it (and it is not cheap) alcohol removal is an option. Clark Smith at has written endlessly on alcohol sweet spots and it does not need to be rehashed here. Many wines have alcohol levels that have been reduced. Little guys like us are jealous because we want to do it but can't afford it. From a naturalist viewpoint (which is an illusion) this is a major manipulation. If alcohol is used as a ripeness indicator in reviews, adjusted wines can be overripe and low alcohol - a conundrum if alcohol is used to indicate something stylistically.

3a. On a similar note, many producers add concentrate back to sweeten white wine just before bottling, adding extra nose and body. Sauvignon Blanc, various Muscats, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc are commonly adjusted varietals This is the sussreserve technique used in many German wines, and sometimes this is cited to support its use. HOWEVER, QMP wines are allowed to do it, yet it is rarely practiced because it is considered schizerly and inferior. This is a pretty heavy manipulation. And again, here you can have a high-alcohol white, that is also sweet, and may have low or adjusted high acid, ruining the classic alcohol/r.s. Riesling formula.

4. Alcohol sensitivity organoleptically is variable. Usually at about 15+% it becomes noticeable, though there are always famously balanced wines that are high alcohol yet good. I would hate to miss that Negro Amaro just because I erroneously thought that at 14.8% it would be wonky. Also, the people that think they can feel the effects of 13% versus 15% can suck it. One night a bottle is fine, the next night 2/3 is too much. Gee, drink twice as much when a pizza is in the belly. The vagaries of the human body are great and many, and varying widely day by day. If alcohol is the enemy here, you may need to go to beer.

5. Alcohol is part of terroir (or at the very least a byproduct) as ripeness/climate/growing conditions/soil water holding/canopy/ad infinitum. This rubs shoulders with the hated "naturalness" straw man. Some areas have always produced high alcohol wines - Puglia, La Mancha, or Banyuls.

The concern here is that, yes, alcohol a significant indicator of something. But what? To say that alcohol simply indicates warmth or body is a banality. What is an alcohol level preference? In your Cognac or mild ale? What about your sake? Pretty broad playing field here...  Certainly the alcohol level effects pairabilty, implicitly when in balance and explicitly when it is a problem. HOWEVER, acidity is more important generally, and this where my newly minted sommelier's hat goes on, pairings are now starting to exploiting contrast and counterpoint more and more, opening up possible venues with what were previously considered clunky complementary pairings. Also, and this where my former chef's hat goes on, food can be altered to be made more pairing friendly. Hot wine, better lower your black pepper level, and pass on that squeeze of lemon if it is low acid. Richer because of alcohol? Tighten up that texture, that risotto should be a little thicker to accompany the Amarone. High alcohol wines are generally low acid (though they can be acidified in California), so watch the acid level in the dish. Either work the counterpoint with acid or work with warmth and body by reflecting it in the dish.

Tish's piece squarely accepts these challenges and the general fuzziness in the beginning. But at the end of the day the stated ABV is still held to be a crucial piece of info. In contrast it may only be moderately informative.  Please don't believe that alcohol will show the whole story. It is a stylistic indicator at best, if it hasn't been acidified, dealcoholized, sweetened or watered back. There is just too much legal manipulation in the New World (horrible conceptual tool). We should look forward to ingredients listings if you want conclusive stylistic indicators in conjunction with alcohol. My hunch is that most of those big score U.S. wines have a big wallop of gum arabic and added polysaccharides - all legal direct manipulations. And these are probably just as responsible as brix ripeness for lush mouthfeel, Parker's glycerin fetish and the general low acid/big wine explosion.

This is no apology for high alcohol. Our goal at Rosa d'Oro is to keep the alcohol as low as we can and produce self-consciously old-world inflected wines. We do not chase critics scores. In fact, when we have sent something for review, it has always scored very low, and we don't bother anymore. And we like acid and tannin here, and these are inversely related to sugar/alcohol levels.

So, in short, please do not discount a wine just because it is 15%, or grab a 13% just because of what the ABV statement says. Please don't believe that a high alcohol wine will necessarily be low acid. There are all sorts of bad wines on each end of the spectrum, and balanced ones where you might not expect. If you comb the internet you can find labels for Primitivos and Shiraz's at 15% from the 70's. This notion that high alcohol is a totally new think is false, though it is demonstrably more prevalent now.

I warned you this was long winded and boring....

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Breakage happens. Driving a cork into the neck of a bottle displaces/compresses a huge amount of gas. When a blowout occurs, it usually happens at the shoulder, just like this - clearly the weakest point. The shape is always the same teardrop, though this one fractured a little bit in addition. Figures for breakage vary widely depending on who you ask and why. So far, with these particular bottles which are a pretty nice build, we are seeing about one bottle per 300 cases, or 1 in 3,600. Not a bad figure really and we are pretty happy with them all around.

The last brand we used was a nightmare, about 1 in 40 cases breaking, meaning wine everywhere, broken glass and the all important time-destroying cleanup ruining the day. We hand bottle our own wines in a small finished room with a pneumatic corker that can't be hosed down or simply brushed out. I won't name names, but with that last glass we used the quality control schmuck who finally came out after numerous angry phone calls claimed that:

a) 1 in 480 bottle breakage is totally normal and acceptable, and we shouldn't be complaining. And,
b) It was the other guy's fault, not his company's.

Needless to say we will never use Demptos glass again - oops.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Grape Pics

Here is Barbera. Looks o.k. Typical spindly canes, smallish leaves, medium size bunches.
Here is the Dolcetto. Classic big bunches, moderate thinned crop. Looks good.
 Primitivo: nice, classic growth, differentially ripening away, again, nicely thinned
Oh my gosh, what the heck is this? This is the Aglianico, as of September 7th. The standard rule of thumb is 60 days to harvest from veraison. Looks like a November 15th harvest this year, just like on Mount Vulture.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Rosé wine question

A faithful reader recently asked about rosé wines, wondering who, what and where they were royally made. Fact is, a dedicated rosato is very hard to find. Here are a couple of quick thoughts:

1. Rosé, as in a dedicated rosato that is made for its own ends, is very rare. Most rose is the product of a saignee program, meaning that juice has been drained from the skins of a red wine not to create a rose specifically, but to concentrate a red wine. (Here is a hint - after three inches of rain last fall in Northern California during harvest, you can bet that a rather large amount of 2009 rose from those areas is available. Many vintners bled off 20-25% of their juice to make up for the rain filled Cabernet.) This is standard practice in many places, all over California in particular. In many/most cases the pink juice is drained off in 24 - 48 hours, water is added to bring the alcohol down to 13-ish % (most in the know claim that a rose over 13% is an error in California) and the pink juice is fermented coolly like a white wine, usually resulting in strawberry madness. The famed areas of rose production in Tavel and Lirac (to a lesser extent) can approach 14%, which brings us to the next point...

2. The best roses are usually dedicated roses, meaning that the grapes are pressed in the pink stage, adding extra body, complexity and depth that the saignee method can not, also helping to meld higher alcohol/ripeness levels, because in most of the world water can not be added like it legally is in California. Grenache and Cinsault are the primary varietals for this. Certain parts of the Loire are quite famed for their Cab Franc roses as well.

3. Rose shows flaws quite clearly, just like a white wine. The number of H2S-defective roses running around is astonishing, ostensibly because it is usually an afterthought, and the last tank to be checked and monitered during crush. The yeast work too fast, or are too cold, the juice is too clear or they are too reductive. Yeast stress is the largest offender, as some defects are moot with the early removal from skins. VA isn't such a problem. A lot of roses have had H2S problems and have been copper fined, stripping them down to the basics of pink alcohol. At the other end are enterprising roses fermented in new oak barrels with all sorts of bizarre woodiness and over enthusiastic batonnage programs that smell like old cheese and sawdust. Most people find charm in a simple rose. Residual sugar is another area of contention as a touch holds onto volatile aroma compounds, lowers alcohol a tad, and broadens mouthfeel. On the downside, sugar is sugar, and a sweet rose can make you feel like a hack - though some good ones do exist with a touch of sweetness. The irony is that cold weather grapes (imagine a St. Laurent rose = brilliant) would probably make real good rose, but colder climates are the last place you would want to consume them. This is where a place like Alto Adige comes into its own.

4. There are a few grapes highly regarded for rose beyond Grenache and Cinsault. Sangiovese and Mourvedre are a couple, Cab Franc and Tempranillo can also work quite well. Minerally Pinto Noir can be phenom, and skanky grapes like Syrah and Negroamaro give a good hope of unusual varietal interest. Obviously just about any red grape can make a rose - and most end up tasting like strawberry. Our Nebbiolo experiment in 2006 was pure watermelon Jolly Rancher - one of the few flavor profile varients beyond barrel treatment to be had. The fermentation kinetics usually create a pretty firm strawberry core, and then you try to work spice into the mix. Just about any hot area will make them, and on a hot day they can all taste pretty darn good. Whether or not getting too fancy with them is open for debate.

5. Ironically, some of the best and cheapest to be had is Bordeaux Cabernet rosé, say 2005 Phelan Segur at $5.95 a bottle retail. The extra minerality and Cab-iness clinched it.

6. When you talk about rosé Champagne or Cremant (non-Champagne sparkling wine) - it becomes a whole new complex animal, and for the money, probably the only game worth playing.

And, number 7: The eternal dilemma: That rosé you had in Provence will taste like crap at home. Such is life...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Negroamaro - the next Syrah?

(Note - we have our first vintage of Negroamaro in barrel now - part estate, Yolo and Mendocino counties. I definitely see some intense viticultural issues with this grape, especially with its peculiar cluster morphology, so it will be management intensive. What we have is quite unique - extremely dried plum-ish that would seem high-ripeness but it is rather low alcohol, has silky tannin and very soft acid. The non-estate fruit had poor canopy management, but sometimes that overshaded fruit (which is better than over exposed), unmanaged rusticity is a key component, and I think maybe 30% of our block I will leave with heavy canopy to preserve that brambly element. It tickles in the right places.

But, to answer the question, could it be the next Syrah? Maybe, but the current California Italian market is still uphill - especially with lazy wholesalers and their mistaken status quo low-hanging-consumer-fruit focus, though it is slightly easier to navigate with the newer wine drinkers with direct contact. The flavor profile is unique though, and gentle... Fingers crossed!)

Negroamaro or "Negro Amaro" could be the new Syrah, with the exception that it might actually sell. Syrah is actually doing ok realistically, the good producers doing serious work are still making great wine with it. It is not a grape suited for the cheap mass market though, so the shakeout is a good thing.
Anyway, Negroamaro has several things going for it:

Freshly planted on Kelsey Bench
1. It has a pronounceable name that is descriptive and its meaning can be inferred by most folks with a bit of work that lends an adventurous/exploratory element that some consumers love. It is not as foreign as Aglianico...

2. Negro Amaro is like Syrah in that it has good dark violet color that consumers seem to expect these days and only moderate tannins (Syrah has a particular tannin-color linking structure that prevents it from becoming too tannic and drying, excluding viticultural or winemaking error). It can be silken or a little chunky, but never astringent when properly handled. Negro Amaro also tends to be fairly warm-climate vibrant with that violet flower and touch of high-toned delicate white blooms coming through against a deeper and more musky/rustic background - a lot like Mourvedre and North Rhone Syrah.

3. Like Syrah there can be strong leatheriness that forms the backbone in conjunction with a brambly spice element that evokes the old world (perfect in our lineup) while still being a relatively fruity warm weather grape. It has skank and finesse.

4. Coming from Puglia it is obviously drought tolerant and heat loving without compromising its typicity- yay. (But, it does sunburn, and crop load can be vary with soil type.)

5. Negro Amaro is often blended - the Salice Salentino DOC specifies minimum 85%, and often Malvasia Nera, Sangiovese or Primitivo are added to bump up the fruit/floral quotient. Hopefully this will not be the case in Lake County where we need to actually restrain the fruit bomb character of our wines and try to produce something with actual structure and character. For us, the more bramble the better - we don't need to worry about fruit here.

6. Negro Amaro rosato is known to be very, very good.

Needless to say we are excited to try our hand with this one. Its mix of backward rusticity, delicacy and aromatics should be exciting. Now if we can just get Nero d'Avola to pass quarantine our Southern Italian plantings will be complete. Sorry Calabria, but we don't see Gaglioppo in our future.

(Oh, incidentally, Negro Amaro may be a distant cross between Verdicchio and Sangiovese).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time to taste, and top up

Every six weeks we need to taste, peak into each barrel, evaluate, and replace the evaporated wine that slowly diffuses out through the oak. Not such a bad job, except when two days before you tasted 60 Madeiras and the day before you judged the home winemakers competition. Keeping the palate sharp is extremely important; regular training is necessary.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Seattle area pourings 7/16 and 7/17

If you happen to be in the Seattle area this weekend Rosa d'Oro Vineyards (via myself) will be pouring on Friday evening from 5-8 at Winestyles in:
 Bothell Washington
22833 Bothell Everett Highway
Suite #104
Bothell, WA 98021
Phone: 425-408-1031

And we will be pouring on Saturday from 3-6 at the Fremont Wine Warehouse:
3601 Fremont AVE N, Seattle, WA 98103
In the Courtyard

Our wines will be available all weekend at both events. The event at the Fremont Wine Warehouse will emphasize domestically grown Italian varietals with an informative presentation. Please stop by and say hello.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Flowering Olives

                     If summer ever comes, the olive harvest may be much better than the grapes...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Late Spring Grape Predators

Gophers are our enemy, first and foremost. They love the well-drained Kelsey Bench soil. They will feed off of roots, clustering around the vines, slowly devouring it and crippling it below ground. Eventually the vine just gives up and will simply die with little warning. Pure evil. They also like to cluster around endposts, loosening the soil so that they all pull.
Ground squirrels. More of a nuisance than a direct threat, they still can cause serious burrowing mayhem, damaging whatever might be in their way. Their burrowing is impressive, often sinking above-ground objects into their tunnels.

Deer, we really hate deer. They will buzzsaw through a vine in no time. Now that all of our vines have been shoot thinned, the deer damage is even worse. These canes might throw some lateral shoots to compensate for their wanton emasculation, but they are eunuchs at this point with little point in living this year.

Yeah, it is May 23rd, what the hell? Frost damage with June just around the corner? This is frozen Aglianico found while shoot thinning.

Last night the wind machine ran from 11:30 until 6am. On May 23rd - that is right, almost June. Fortunately, frost damage has been minor, just a few shoots here and there, often in the center of dense spurs where air was stagnant and the vine just sort of gave up that particular cane.

Summer threats: birds, turkeys in particular in Lake County which clean every single berry off a vine in neat fashion, sunburn, orange tortrix (largely under control in Lake County now), and the dreaded European moth at this point. For some reason Lake County has yet to trap one, even though we are surrounded by quarantined counties. It is inevitable that it will appear here, but we keep fingers crossed.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Gravity is one of the few things that is still free. Though it makes many winery functions difficult for us, racking is one of the few that it really helps out. For the last year we have been gravity racking barrel to barrel for the most part. Now, most of the classier wineries used compressed nitrogen to pump their wines around when they are gently handling a delicate varietal, so what we are doing is only new to us. We use the simpler ghetto version by simply using a bit of compressed carbon dioxide to start the flow from barrel to barrel, and then lift the draining barrel by forklift so that it can transfer to a new barrel at its own silent leisure. The Sangiovese likes delicate handling, so it is being racked into new barrel through a long pipe that fills from the bottom without splashing or really aerating it. More tannic varietals like Dolcetto, and especially ones that need to be exposed to oxygen like Cabernet can be splashed around as well. The nice part is that it is very quiet, you can do it almost anywhere, and only minimum equipment is necessary. The downside is that when you are busy away somewhere multitasking you will find out that those 2004 Kadar Hungarian barrels are a different size than the French Chateau Ferre and your precious wine is silently overfilling and running away. Won't make that mistake again.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Austria Uncorked 5-3-2010

If you like your whites minerally and your reds on the delicate side, Austria is for you. Villainized in 1985 for yet another anti-freeze sweetening scandal (it wasn't actually ethylene glycol that was used), Austria's wine industry really tightened the belt and set up a rigid quality control system. Like Germany, Austria measures sugar ripeness as means of categorizing their wines, and they share the same terms such as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc. to indicate the oeschsle (brix) level at harvest. Being South of Germany, the minimum levels of ripeness in each category are generally higher than the equivalent German sugar levels, placing the wines somewhat between those of Alsace (not as unctuous though) and Germany (not as rigid or austere). Botrytis is extremely common in some areas, leading to some fantastic dessert winemaking. One other thing that Austria does well for consumers is that like Alsace, they label their wines varietally, making consumer selection that much easier.

The poster child for Austrian wine right now is Grüner Veltliner, and with good reason. G.V., if you are unfamiliar, is an extremely minerally wine, very angular and structured in a pleasing way that tends to be a little light on fruit with a nice white pepper finish, in other words it makes a tremendous food wine. Modern versions are moving into green apple territory with slightly later harvesting that produces a more accessible wine that still retains acid and structure. And you can find very good ones in the $15 category. Also of note are the Rieslings, several Muskatellers (Muscat) and Pinot Blancs that are very nice, as well as some dry Gewurztraminer, and then of course are the stickies and ice wines.

The red I really enjoyed is from the St. Laurent grape (although Austria is famous for their Blaufränkish/Lemberger that produces a slightly darker and fruitier wine that did not move me quite as much.) It is generally believed to be a Pinot Noir descendant with an unknown cross that has some undeniable similarities, but it ripens earlier, and has thicker skin that helps prevent the perpetual rot problem. With careful vineyard management it can actually take oak nicely and remain terroir driven. It could also be compared to a very well made Passe-Tout-Grains (a Pinot/Gamay blend) in that it retains a fruit character in addition to the Pinot-like element. Pricing is not as friendly or as easily available as the Grüner Veltliner, but a restaurant wine list might feature one at a reasonable price when no one orders this obscure varietal!

Because tasting notes are painful and boring, and I already recommend that you go out and buy just about any Austrian white you find in the $15-20 range, just a brief note on one producer is reasonable. Weingut Neumeister was pick of the day for me, and you won't find it on the West Coast and he doesn't make very much for export. They are located in Styria at the Slovenian border, famous for huge rainfall and warm summers. Their basic bottling was great, and it all improved from there. Christoph Neumeister's approach is that his wines are so structured that he can add extra skin contact (36 hours), barrel fermentation (in 2000 liter barrels, not the little standard guys), and year-long lees contact and still have a rigidly structured wine. His Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic, fat and lean at the same time, incredibly structured with no flavor of oak, something that blows away most any Fume Blanc. The fat is not oak, but fleshy grape with a very strong spine. We finished with his Gewurztraminer - a barrel ferment with 18 months lees contact - and it was fantastic. It had the best palate ever. It was the opposite of an Alto Adige Gewurz., which generally have the most phenomenal noses but the palate is flat and can not deliver. This one was the opposite with a delicate, subdued lychee aroma, and then flavors and texture just exploded in length. Just really beautiful and quite dry for Gewurz. Hopefully some of his production will make it out here in the future.

All  in all, an exceptional tasting, and very nice, hospitable people as well eager to talk details openly - very cool.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Slow budbreak

It has been a long and wet winter here. Bud break is about two weeks behind in general due to the low temperatures and frequent rain. Two weeks ago Clear Lake surpassed the official "full" mark and more cold rain is in the forecast. Another benefit is that the frost season is running out. 
The downside is that much like teenagers, grapevines are at the mercy of their hormones. As soil temperature warms the growth cycle starts to kick in. There is a brief but traumatic point between the time that the buds start to awaken and the fact that they can not produce any nutrients until they are  mature enough to begin photosynthesis. The grapevine is in fact living off stored energy from last year while it is unable to produce any to support its new growth. The vigor off this hormonally controlled cycle is effected by several factors.

Now, look at these two pictures. These are both Barbera. When we prune them, the intention is to leave two fruitful buds per spur (the wood protrusion).  Each bud produces a cane that generally produces two bunches of grapes. This particular clone of Barbera puts out very large bunches, and when estimating the crop load per vine we might remove every fourth bunch to prevent overcropping. So, looking at the pictures, there should only be two buds.So why are there 12 instead? Well, those winter conditions, temperature shifts, the slowness of bud break, the state of the vine when it went to sleep last fall - all of these effect this growth. It may be that the painfully slow budbreak (it took about two weeks to look like this) has forced more latent buds to push in order to produce the photosynthetic capacity necessary for life since the shoots are just not growing yet.

What all these buds mean is a huge amount of hand work removing them all so that only the two originals remain. Remove them too early and the hormones will trigger more growth. Too late and the vine has wasted energy and you end up basically repruning everything with shears. Either way, it pretty much just is what it is. Late bud break can push harvest back a bit, but all the rainfall is encouraging, and everything is looking pretty good!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

See you at the San Francisco Vintners Market this weekend

Try It Buy It
Tired of going to wine tasting events, discovering great new wines and then never being able to find them again? We were too. That's why we created the San Francisco Vintners Market at Fort Mason Center April 10th to the 11th. This first of its kind wine tasting and buying event is a farmer's market style shopping experience where wine enthusiasts can try and buy wines from over 200 wineries. 
Tired of going to wine tasting events, discovering great new wines and then never being able to find them again? We were too. That's why we created the San Francisco Vintners Market at Fort Mason Center April 10th to the 11th. This first of its kind wine tasting and buying event is a farmer's market style shopping experience where wine enthusiasts can try and buy wines from over 200 wineries.

The San Francisco Vintners Market will feature top local wineries from Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Russian River Valley and other regional wineries plus imported wines from around the world. San Francisco Vintners Market features wine at all price points and styles including new releases, library collections and end-of-vintage selections-all available for immediate purchase. Don't miss this unique opportunity to try and buy great wines at the San Francisco Vintners Market. Be there!

What: San Francisco Vintners Market
When: April 10th - 11th
Where: Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA
Cost: General Admission: Early Bird Ticket Price, $30 (prices go up at the door)
VIP: Early Bird Ticket Price, $75 (prices go up at the door) includes Reserve Level Access

Monday, March 29, 2010

Thank you to all who came to the Kelseyville Olive Fest - it was a great event beyond all expectations. Pictures are up at . Here on the ranch the the cover crop just went under, the vines and now olives are all pruned and the Spring calender is quickly filling up with important dates. Bottling whites is on the horizon in a month, and several pouring events will be taking place in a few weeks - we will post those soon.

In an attempt to seem timely, here a couple of thoughts on the wine scoring system conundrum that is still circulating. The 100-point system has taken a lot of flak as it probably should. A lot of that hinges on the hair-splitting difference between a 92 and a 93 score for example - not particularly problematic here, but some people get all weird over wielding such power over numbers. To play devils' advocate, most wine people could probably come up with a reasonable scenario in which they could convincingly state that a wine is one percent better than another. Quantifiable? No, but subjectively defensible at that moment, sure. Maybe the finish is a little longer, a little more mineral, the VA a little lower. These are plausable. Incidentally, feel free to ask your teacher exactly why your Honor's paper received a 92 instead of a 93. Sometimes, experts just know, and we have to trust them because all opinions are not equal. Not everythinhg is a democracy, nor should it be. Sorry.

The 20-point system's virtue is its inherent lack of precision in the context of the 100 point's inflated importance. By using looser standards the wider range is less definitive and more general - positive in some ways. But then does not the difference between a 16-point and 17-point score become even more contentious by beingh magnified? Again, usable, but far from perfect. A nice guide though for general use. The five-star system is a more reductionist version, often appropriately used in newspapers.

But, hopefully without copyright infringement, here is THE BEST system when you have a panel of reviewers. This is from Sommelier Journal. Every issue they feature a panel tasting and discussion. The scoring is statistically based with outlying marks noted but not included in the statistical range. This provides the range of the 20 point score with a more precise grouping range. You can see how tight or how broad the concensus really was on a particular wine, in some ways focusing on that magical precision between a 92 or 93. Again, not definitive, but a great option, though panel tastings are often impossible for a magazine with 500 reviews. And, it raises the whole problem with competition scoring: should you discuss scores openly and often change them slightly in the end due to consensus decision making or should they be definitively scored and then tallied later? That one is for another entry.

Postscript: Always a little behind. To read a very interesting paper and excellent blog post on this subject please visit Highly recommended. Arthur also wisely distinguishes between the subjective descriptive language in evaluation and objective criteria. The structuring of criteria is paramount. Are you judging clarity and VA level? Those can be measured. Or are you basing it on personal preference? Often it is both, one before the other. Discuss.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alto Adige - When are Austrians really Italian?

It became part of Italy in 1919, its official languages are both German and Italian, and it had Gewurztraminer growing there 1,000 years ago. Give up? Ok, it really is Alto Adige. The Export Organization of Alto Adige made an extremely nice presentation March 2nd in San Francisco, featuring a brief seminar followed by a tasting. Though the suits were not as nice as those worn at the Tre Bicchieri tasting, the Germanic organization skills were far superior. Also of note: three of five panelists were named "Wolfgang". Surely a good omen.

Wine wise, Alto Adige has several things going for it. Its grape-growing areas have good altitude, a surprising amount of sunlight with moderate rain and weather, and a good mix of soil types amenable to quality vines. Most likely it is Lagrein, the surprisingly dark red varietal possibly indigenous to the area that most wine aficionados are familiar. It is rumored to be possibly related to Syrah, and there is something to the fuzzy, robust and violet purple tannin that seems a kindred spirit. But, if you appreciate whites, and you know you should, here is a little secret: the best Pinot Blanc/Biancos in possibly the whole world are found here. In fact, as a closet Pinot Blanc whore, these are some of the best. The Gewurztraminer sings, as well as much Sauvignon Blanc.

Alto Adige whites have a strong similarity with Alsatian whites. But, the Alsatians tend toward greater richness, and maybe a bit more residual sugar, while the Adigians have an added mineral dimension much of the time and a little less on the body front. Aging regimens are similar with fermentations in stainless, then aging in large oak on the less for added body. One Pinot Bianco tasted could have been mistaken for a turbo-charged Viognier with a full tropical honey glycerol booyah palate. The majority though maintain an appealing lean-ness with a medium-plus mid palate that somehow works and is well integrated. The acid levels are perhaps a touch light at times, but usually the balance is such that acid is never questioned; neither too low or too high, but integrated. The Sauvignon Blancs sit on a surprisingly ripe aromatic spectrum, with some of the nose of our own Lake County whites. Of particular notes was Tramin's Gewurztraminer Nussbaumer 2008; the most incredible nose ever.

The reds focused on Pinot Nero and Lagrein, and Schiava's conspicuous absence indicated that this varietal, though occasionally enjoyable, is on its way out. The Pinot tends toward the austere side with a strong mineral finish. Lagrein is a bit of an enigma as a noble variety. It holds its acid and is tannic, ripeness is important and moderate oak use is involved in working with the potential astringency, though it seems a more lax grape that some Sangiovese. The curiosity of Lagrein is that for all of its rich skin and dark purple phenolics, the lacking flesh produces a hollowness in the wines, as if the juice has been too heavily saigneed off, resulting in too much skin to flesh, sometimes leaving a big hole right down the middle - something that oak can help to close. It has nice fruit and spice, but it can lack backbone in a very interesting way. It can be off kilter in a very interesting way though, and interesting trumps most other qualities any day.

As for winery updates, pruning is largely finished, and if you have read this far, maybe you can help with another question: would you like to see Fiano or Vermentino from us? Either is possible.
Some wines will get first rackings and we need to start prepping for the Negro Amaro that is soon to arrive. The year old vines are ready for their first pruning, meaning that the roots have a year on them and we hope that a dominant cane will push up and become the trunk for to-be trained vines

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wine writers, tasting, context

Next week we return to true winery blog format, with racking news, vineyard pictures and cover crop reports - less wine critic talky talk. Malolactic fermentation is just finishing; nice, slow and elegant. The first truly important wine decisions, primarily racking or not racking begin. Does it sit on the lees for more body? Is it sediment-heavy like the Refosco and Nebbiolo always are, wanting an early racking to clear heavy lees that may impart off flavors - then put 'em away and forget about 'em? Do we want it a little reductive to add that meatiness or clean and bright? We will also report on Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri tasting in San Francisco next week which is one of the destination tastings for Italian wine afficianados. Multiple Sagrantinos in one place - hell yeah!

But, wine critic talky talk has been pretty good lately. The Wine Writer's Symposium is taking place, and though we did not garner a fellowship (next year?), the brief reports emerging thus far indicate pretty interesting subject matter. Eric Asimov discussed the tyranny of the tasting note as the mystery destroyer of good wine. Jeff Morgan headed a panel discussing about the role and necessary level of technical knowledge a wine writer should have. Looks like the general consensus was some is enough, too much is not necessary, taste is what matters in the end. With all due respect to Mr. Heimoff who championed the middle road, this is b.s. An art critic, by analogy, should have PhD-level technical knowledge to publish criticism. You can not possibly have too much intimate technological knowledge. It behooves you, the professional wine critic, to invoke and articulate it responsibly as needed. If your technical winemaking knowledge impedes your wine writing, perhaps your writing or your creativity is deficient. We should separate as necessary, and write proficeintly. Which, of course, Mr. Heimoff certainly does all the time, but I'm just sayin'...

Mr. Morgan also raised the question of interventionist wine making - correctly identified as a frequently invoked red herring in many forms. Watering down high brix musts provided a ready example of a frequent practice that very few admit to. Sure, it is common practice in Napa, Lodi, and yes, Lake County. Especially Lake County, sometimes called 31 Brix County. If amelioration (adding water back) makes better wine, good. If it doesn't, bad. No one seems to want to believe that it is a last ditch alternative. Do you water down your beer when the alcohol gets high? Stretch your twenty-dollar lobster bisque by adding water maybe? Does anyone really know how many wines on the grocery store shelf have been dealcoholized? What about fining? Any winemaker will tell you that every manipulation is a huge risk and the wine that doesn't necessitate it is always the best, a tautological quality control theory. Great grapes, made cleanly = awesome. This is the rarity, but it is the goal for all of us every single year.

Mr. Morgan also raised VA removal, de-alcoholization, etc. The self-congratulatory plug is that if you want unmanipulated wine, buy moderately priced small winery-produced product. We can not afford VA removal or dealcoholizing. We could not get a bottling truck into Rosa d'Oro if we had to. The little grower/producers generally are on their own, and what you see is generally what you get, for better or worse. Traditionalists will always intervene less, if that is important to you. At the very least, it should make for more interesting wine even if it is not technically clean.

One of the larger debates bouncing around asks whether blind tasting is actually objective and truly relevant. Often the apples and oranges compete blindly, and the outcomes are inconclusive. makes a good case for the value of context, both for the consumer and the reviewer. Fact is, most consumers have never tasted wines blind, so what is the contingent connection to blind tasting as a truer evaluation? Say someone really likes Southern Rhone wines. Lets say that we pour them a 2005 Bourgueil and tell them it is a Gigondas. Would it be imaginable that it would gain extra interest and enjoyment from the context for the consumer? The endless blind tasting shows some qualities, but it also eclipses others, such as historical or cultural interest and technical curiosities. That orange colored Italian white may seem totally defective, but it may be a sulfurless white that had 40-days maceration on the skins in an underground amphora. Suddenly a little more interesting maybe? The story is part of the game for small wineries, otherwise we would not ever need anything beyond technically clean mass-produced bottles. All those high-falutin wine competitions may require blind tasting for the context in which they operate, but to argue that it is somehow epistemologically or ontologically superior seems dubious at best. We all have stories of the same wine with different labels winning double-gold for one and bronze for another. The future taste off may involve both, a blind tasting and a verification/falsification non-blind round. Parker's method may have been revolutionary at the time, and an improvement on the payola-type old school wine writer, but the new mantra may be novelty over blind points if cost is equal. This is not worrisome in the least.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Are Italian wines more likely to be corked? A TCA primer.

Are Italian wines more likely to be corked than others? In our experience, yes. Over at Spume the question of corked Italian wines appeared too, confirming an old observation. But, this is not some funky Portuguese conspiracy because the manner in which these batches of wine are corked points to a slightly different offender.

TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) is well known as the primary perpetrator in corked wine. Or, should say, known to be. The "chloro" part gives away that it had to do with chlorine and it often originated in bleached corks. It was thought to be a good way to make those dark corks whiter and a good antimicrobial agent. Whoops. That problem is largely under control now as most corks are peroxided instead and usually subjected to some sort of steam cleaning, rinsing and heavy sulfuring. A bit of time in a wine shop though showed that indeed a truly abnormal number of Italian wines were corked - whole lots, not just individual bottles. Three bottles in a row come to mind of both very reputable Brunello  and Chianti Classico, and a high number of Alsatian whites also incidentally. Multiple bottles opened - all bad, though at slightly varying levels of corkiness.

The down and dirty truth is frightening. Basically, there are four related compounds all with similar effects if different sensory thresholds: TCA, TeCA, PCA and TBA. TCA is pretty clear in corks, but the frightening thing is that these compounds are alive and well in the wine cellar, TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole) in particular is more ubiquitous and just as potent. And, the sensory thresholds are in the parts per trillion (ppt) for the worst offenders - a few drops in an Olympic swimming pool sized. Observation shows that the sensory defects are similar but not exactly the same, and it seems that the threshold for recognition is more widely variable than for TCA. Long arguments have taken place over who can recognize it and who can't more than once.

For a long time everything was blamed on poor old TCA, which as a cork-based defect is isolatable and usually limited to a cork or a bale of corks. TBA is a taint that physically infects wine in the cellar, meaning large lots, like a tank or a barrel that inevitably is mixed in for bottling all at once. TBA is often used in wood treatment, ending up frequently in the lowly wooden pallet that necessarily appears everywhere. But wood pallets are not the only danger as TBA's precursor TBP is often present as a fire retardent ingredient in several carriers, in fungicides, paints, antiseptics, and bromine-containing detergents. No way, detergents unsafe? Yup, just like bleach. It can be in barrels, infect oak chips, it can show up in plastics, and it can be in the paint inside the cellar.

We have all experienced the flattened, fruitless bottle that does not seem corked or overtly musty and danky, but sure seems to suck. Chances are that the bad bottle was at 1-2 ppt TBA, just below threshold but clearly hurting quality. Sometimes it "blows off" a little, a curious thing that may indicates other problems as well - often a reduction issue. But when multiple bottles of the same wine show the same defect, TBA taint in the cellar is the suspect. These Italian wines are most likely not victims of bad corks, but either tainted wood or inappropriate cleaning compounds or paint in their cellars or coops.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sacramento Wine Symposium 2010

We spent Wednesday at the Unified Wine Symposium in Sacramento walking the show floor. Most of your wine, vineyard equipment and various services are represented by several hundred booths and floor displays - with the exception of distributors. You get to fondle all the barrels you can't afford, the stainless guys roll out their most beautiful custom micro tanks, and we spent a lot of time at the capsule booths figuring out what the next packaging step might be for us and looking for a few this-or-that thingies.

The mood was on the quiet side, and there was an unusual amount of room to roam. Attendance seemed down. The classes were experiencing lighter traffic and the final day's seminar was discounted. There can not be much doubt about the state of the wine industry. Overall wine consumption is up 2%, but California wine was down 1.6% - the first negative gain in 16 years. Granted this is a national-size snapshot, and our own little corner of the world in Lake County may look different, but the economic climate is still the same. Anything over $20 is dead, and many consumers respond that anything over $12 is off limits. Cheap imports are up, and restaurants are still closing. The national stranglehold of three-tier distribution insures that the pain for small wineries will continue as we are forced to compete directly against them as well on a dollar-for-dollar level. And, distributors have shifted and consolidated, creating an even more monolithic stranglehold. The small family distributors are still hanging on, but their market is shrinking as more people go to the grocery store and Bevmo shelves. The day of the neighborhood wine shop is largely dead and buried, a sad victim of big-box discounting. The economy of scale is ruthless on our side too. Bottles, corks, and printing cost more because of the smaller-size lots involved. A case of bottles without any wine in them costs us $30. Every month we feature a discounted case in the tasting room at approximately $100 for wine club members. Our normal case price is not much higher. A quick look at the cost of grape growing, winemaking, labor and overhead makes you wonder how it can all come together at the end of the day. We are not alone.

But, despite the current climate, the general atmosphere was vaguely upbeat. Many seemed to feel actually pretty good. There were fewer people but more serious business was taking place. It felt like those left standing have another year behind them and a stronger focus on the future. The worst is behind us, or at least the confusion and panic. Soon all the those grapes left hanging in Lake County (my guess is 30% went unsold) will be on the ground with the prunings and a new year starts again. Everyone has streamlined and there is some pleasure in that, and business moves on.

After the show there was plenty of wine open all over downtown Sacramento. Nearly every hotel and restaurant hosts a tasting whether it is related to sales or not. There must have been ten promoting digital labels going on at the same time. We went to Mendocino County's which was purely informal. No sales, just a chance to get together and chat over a table full of Mendocino County wines. Much more exciting was Nova Vine's reception for Dr. Eugenio Sartori‏ of Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo in Italy. These are where the VCR clones come from. They have, no lie, 60,000,000 vines growing on 150,000 acres in Northern Italy. These are the people who Novavine gets there unique clonal selections from that we plant and make wine from. They are also very active in crossing selections and creating new hybrids. He noted several things of interest that were central to their business model and indicative of the global wine market. First, red wine vines are way down and whites are way up - this was a shock. Here in silly "I only drink red" land, this was incredible. Secondly, he was quite open in stating that their hybridizing program is driven by the market place, and what that market place wants is full phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels. More flavor, less alcohol. Blunt and realistic. Several of their recent experiments had a little detail behind them. Some of the more interesting crosses were a Barbera and Nebbiolo that retains Nebbiolo phenolics but can take heat, a Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon that bears no resemblance to either, and several unique whites, one of which was Pinot Blanc and maybe Gruner? Sign me up for that one if I am remembering properly.

Returning to the optimistic theme, most of us brought a few bottles of our own wines, mostly vines purchased from Nova and clones from Rauscedo. Lots of trellissing talk, maceration times and soil profiles were compared. Everyone happily talked shop, compared notes and enjoyed a table full of Cal-Itals - a rare sight that felt really good and was fun to taste. The illusory Seghesio Chianti Sation even appeared, as well as their Aglianico. During our little love-in, Gamba barrels had their own tasting next door, empty Barolo bottles were left lying around and Fresno State's viticulture program was next to them. Most had smiles, and the satisfaction of knowing that this year will be better.