Category Archives: Wine Knowledge

Two Great Videos About the Stags Leap District

I’m currently working on a research project about the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. Despite the region’s fame, I’ve discovered that there aren’t many resources covering the Stags Leap District as its own entity. Virtually every wine book groups the AVA within the patchwork quilt of the greater Napa Valley with maybe a couple pages, at most, dedicated to it.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

A vineyard shadowed by the basaltic palisades in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley.

Which is a shame. As you peek under the covers and explore this dynamic wine region, it’s almost impossible not to see how distinctive this area and its wines really are.

Over the next couple months, I will be writing several posts about the Stags Leap District and sharing more of my research. But, for now, I want to highlight two great videos on YouTube that are worth watching.

An Introduction to the Stags Leap District’s Terroir

This short (1:19) video features winemaker Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge Vineyards. He gives some great insights about the uniqueness of the Stags Leap District’s soils. This is important because the Stags Leap District was the first AVA in Napa to be designated based on the distinctiveness of its soils.

Beaulac highlights the importance of the Stags Leap Palisades in influencing the climate of the AVA. You also get a nice view of these rocky, basaltic outcrops of the Vacas in the video as well.

The Very Interesting History of How The Stags Leap District Became an AVA

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Stags Leap District AVA. And, whoa nelly, was it a journey to make that happen!

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is today one of the flagship wineries of the Stags Leap District. But during the AVA’s creation, they were one of its fiercest opponents.

No one knows that story better than Richard Mendelson, the attorney who was driving force behind the AVA petition. This video is a bit longer (40:24) but Mendelson gives tremendous background on the process that started in the early 1980s and didn’t come to fruition till 1989. And he definitely covers the challenges and drama over the name! However, I was most fascinated by the struggle that went into delineating the boundaries of the AVA. In some ways, it seems like “wind” played more of a deciding factor than soils.

I also highly recommend Mendelson’s book Appellation Napa Valley. This covers not only the Stags Leap battle but also the work that went into the establishment of all the other major AVAs of Napa.

Mendelson, who also worked on the petitions of the Rutherford, Oakville and Paso Robles AVAs as well as the failed Rutherford & Oakville Benches applications, is a well known expert of wine law. So if you want to get super geeky, you can check out his more technical books Wine in America: Law and Policy and From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Five Essential Books On Champagne

Champagne is the benchmark for all sparkling wine. Any wine student studying for advance certifications needs to be able to explain what makes Champagne unique. They also should be familiar with important producers–both big houses and influential growers.

Important Champagne books

While there are certainly online resources available, few things top a great reference book that can be highlighted and annotated to your heart’s content.

One of the best tips for wine students (especially on a budget) is to check out the Used Book offerings on Amazon. Often you can find great deals on wine books that are just gently used. This lets you save your extra spending money for more wine to taste.

Since the prices of used books change depending on availability, I’m listing the current best price at time of writing. However, it is often a good idea to bookmark the page of a book that you’re interested in and check periodically to see if a better price becomes available.

Here are the five most essential books on Champagne that every wine student should have.

Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine by Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan (Used starting at $29.97)

The Christie’s encyclopedia is ground zero for understanding the basics about Champagne (production methods, styles, grape varieties, etc). But, even better, it is a launching pad for understanding the world of sparkling wine at large and seeing how Champagne fits in that framework.

While Champagne will always be a big focus of most wine exams, as my friend Noelle Harman of Outwines discovered in her prep work for Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, you do need to have a breadth of knowledge of other sparklers.

In her recent exam, not only was she blind tasted on a Prosecco and sparkling Shiraz from Barossa but she also had to answer theory questions on Crémant de Limoux and the transfer method that was developed for German Sekt but became hugely popular in Australia & New Zealand. While there are tons of books on Champagne, I’ve yet to find another book that extensively covers these other sparkling wines as well as the Christie’s encyclopedia.

Changes in the new edition
Chapel Down wine

Global warming has made England an exciting region for sparkling wine. The revised edition of Christie’s Encyclopedia has 17 page devoted to the sparklers of the British Isles.

Tom Stevenson wrote the first Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine back in the late 1990s. That edition tallied 335 pages while the newest edition (2013) has 528 pages with more than half of those pages covering other notable sparkling wine regions like England, Franciacorta, Tasmania and more. The new edition also has a fresh perspective and feel with the addition of Champagne specialist Essi Avellan as a significant contributor.

In addition to covering the terroir and characteristics of more than 50 different regions, the Christie’s encyclopedia also includes over 1,600 producer profiles. The profiles are particularly helpful with the major Champagne houses as they go into detail about the “house style” and typical blend composition of many of their wines.

Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region by Peter Liem. (Used starting $36.57)

The long time scribe of the outstanding site ChampagneGuide.net, Peter Liem is the first author I’ve came across that has taken a Burgundian approach towards examining the terroirs of Champagne.

For a region that is so dominated by big Champagne houses who blend fruit from dozens (if not hundreds) of sites, it’s easy to consider terroir an afterthought. After all, isn’t Champagne all about the blend?

But Champagne does have terroir and as grower Champagnes become more available, wine lovers across the globe are now able to taste the difference in a wine made from Cramant versus a wine made from Mailly.

In-depth Terroir
Pierre Gerbais Champagne

Several of the most delicious Champagnes I’ve had this year have came from the Côte des Bar–like this 100% Pinot blanc from Pierre Gerbais.
Yet, historically, this region has always been considered the “backwoods” of Champagne and is given very little attention in wine books.

Liem’s work goes far beyond just the the terroir of the 17 Grand Cru villages but deep into the difference among the different areas of the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, the Grande Vallée, the Vallée de la Marne, Côteaux Sud d’Épernay, Côteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat, Montgueux and the Côte des Bar.

Most books on Champagne don’t even acknowledge 6 of those 10 sub-regions of Champagne!

Not only does Liem discuss these differences but he highlights the producers and vineyards that are notable in each. No other book on Champagne goes to this level of detail or shines a light quite as brightly on the various terroirs and vineyards of Champagne.

The best comparisons to Liem’s Champagne are some of the great, in-depth works on the vineyards of Burgundy like Marie-Hélène Landrieu-Lussigny and Sylvain Pitiot’s The Climats and Lieux-dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy, Jasper Morris’ Inside Burgundy and Remington Norman’s Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards.

Liem’s book also comes with prints of Louis Larmat’s vineyard maps from the 1940s. While I’m a big advocate of buying used books, these maps are worth paying a little more to get a new edition. This way you are guaranteed getting the prints in good condition. I’m not kidding when I say that these maps are like a wine geek’s wet dream.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters (New available for $18.14)

I did a full review of Bursting Bubbles earlier this year and it remains one of the most thought-provoking books that I’ve read about wine.

Photo by victorgrigas. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

If you think I get snarky about Dom Perignon, wait till you read Walters take on the myths surrounding him and the marketing of his namesake wine.

Walters believes that over the years that Champagne has lost its soul under the dominance of the big Champagne houses. While he claims that the intent of his book is not to be “an exercise in Grandes Marques bashing”, he definitely heaps a fair amount of scorn on the winemaking, viticulture and marketing practices that have elevated the Grandes Marques to their great successes.

Throughout the book he “debunks” various myths about Champagne (some of which I personally disagree with him on) as well as interviews many of influential figures of the Grower Champagne movement.

While there is value in Bursting Bubbles from a critical thinking perspective, it is in those interviews where this book becomes essential for wine students. There is no denying the importance of the Grower Champagne movement in not only changing the market but also changing the way people think about Champagne. Growers have been key drivers in getting people to think of Champagne as a wine and not just a party bottle.

Serious students of wine need to be familiar with people like Pascal Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Jérôme Prévost and Emmanuel Lassaigne. Walters not only brings you into their world but puts their work into context. While other Champagne books (like Christie’s, Peter Liem’s and David White’s) will often have profile blurbs on these producers, they don’t highlight why you need to pay attention to what these producers are doing like Bursting Bubbles does.

Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times by Don and Petie Kladstrup. (Used starting at $1.90)

In wine studies, it’s so easy to get caught up in the technical details of terroir, grape varieties and winemaking that you lose sight of a fundamental truth. Wine is made by people.

Of course, the land and the climate play a role but the only way that the grape makes its way to the glass is through the hands of men and women. Their efforts, their story, marks every bottle like fingerprints. To truly understand a wine–any wine–you need to understand the people behind it.

Photo scan from a postcard with unknown author. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Anonymous-EU

During the height of World War I, when the vineyards and streets of Champagne were literal battlefields, the Champenois descended underground and lived in the caves that were used to aged Champagne.
This photo shows a makeshift school that was set up in the caves of the Champagne house Mumm.

While there are great history books about Champagne (one of which I’ll mention next), no one has yet brought to life the people of Champagne quite as well as the Kladstrups do in Champagne.

Set against the backdrops of the many wars that have scarred the region–particularly in the 19th & 20th century–the Kladstrups share the Champenois’ perseverance over these troubles. Even when things were at their bleakest, the people of Champagne kept soldiering on, producing the wine that shares their name and heritage.

If you wonder why wine folks have a tough time taking sparkling wines like Korbel, Cook’s and Andre’s (so called California “champagnes”) seriously, read this book. I guarantee that you will never use the word Champagne “semi-generically” again.

It’s not about snobbery or marketing. It’s about respect.

But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine by David White (Used starting at $6.00)

David White is known for founding the blog Terroirist. He gives a great interview with Levi Dalton on the I’ll Drink To That! podcast about his motivations for writing this book. While he acknowledges that there are lots of books about Champagne out on the market, he noticed that there wasn’t one that was deep on content but still accessible like a pocket guide.

While the producer profiles in the “pocket guide” section of the book overlaps with the Christie and Liem’s books (though, yes, much more accessible) where White’s book becomes essential is with his in-depth coverage on the history of the Champagne region.

A Tour of History
Photo from Département des Arts graphiques ; Sully II, Epi 5, Fonds des dessins et miniatures. References Joconde database: entry 50350213446. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Art (PD-old-100)

A watershed moment for sparkling Champagne was in 1728 when Louis XV struck down the laws that prohibited shipping wine in bottles. Prior to this, all French wines had to be shipped in casks.
Soon after, as White’s book notes, the first dedicated Champagne houses were founded with Ruinart (1729) and Chanoine Frères (1730).

The first section of the book (Champagne Through The Ages) has six chapters covering the history of the Champagne region beginning with Roman times and then the Franks to Champagne’s heritage as a still red wine. It continues on to the step-by-step evolution of Champagne as a sparkling wine. These extensively detailed chapters highlights the truth that sparkling Champagne was never truly invented. It was crafted–by many hands sculpting it piece by piece, innovation by innovation.

There are certainly other books that touch on these history details like Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine (no longer in print), Kolleen M. Guy’s When Champagne Became French, Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot as well as previous books mentioned here. But they all approach Champagne’s history from different piecemeal perspectives while White’s work is a focused and chronological narrative.

I also love in his introduction how White aptly summarizes why Champagne is worth studying and worth enjoying.

“From dinner with friends to a child’s laughter or a lover’s embrace, every day has moments worth the warmth of reflection—and worthy of a toast.

Life is worth celebrating. And that’s why Champagne matters.” — David White, But First, Champagne

It is indeed and, yes, it does.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

Every month I have a Geek Notes feature on upcoming wine books that I’m excited about. A subscriber that is visually impaired once shared to me how he unfortunately can’t enjoy those features as much since his printed book reading days are past him. That gave me the idea to look into what is available in audio formats.

Photo by Matti Blume. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

While I haven’t done many audiobooks myself, my wife has long been a fan of them for her work commutes. And really, when you think about it, aren’t audiobooks just very long podcasts?

With that, let’s take a look at my top 5 picks for audiobooks about California wine history available on Audible.

Gallo Be Thy Name: The Inside Story of How One Family Rose to Dominate the U.S. Wine Market by Jerome Tuccille with Grainger Hines narrating.

First published in 2009, Tuccille’s work documents the family history of Ernest & Julio Gallo and how they turned a small post-prohibition winery into a global empire. I’m honestly shocked that the Gallos’ story hasn’t been turned into a Netflix miniseries. There is tons of drama here–not the least of which is the possible murder-suicide committed by Ernest & Julio’s father, Joe Gallo, with their mother Susie.

But beyond the drama and family intrigue is a thoroughly engrossing case study in wine business–especially in the American market. While it is very easy to poo poo Gallo wines today, there is no denying their continued success.  Savvy business acumen that responded to changing dynamics in consumers’ tastes drove that success.

Ernest & Julio had almost an intuitive sense about what Americans wanted to drink and they delivered it. That savvy is still on display by their descendants who continue to grow the Gallo empire with new acquisitions and expansions.

A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman Who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur by Edward Humes with Mel Foster narrating.

I have not read this one yet but I can see this being similar to Tuccille’s work, absent the murder intrigue and family drama. For wine students wanting to understand the American market, you need to understand the figures who have had their finger prints all over it.

Like Ernest & Julio, Jess Jackson built an empire. But his start was world’s apart from the Gallos. A lawyer by training, Jackson purchased a pear and walnut farm in Lake County in 1974 to give him a change of pace as a gentleman farmer. He planted some vines which he sold to wineries like Fetzer. When Fetzer unexpectedly cancelled a large order on him one vintage, Jackson decided to make wine from the grapes himself. This was the birth of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay that has gone on to be a 3 million+ case behemoth.

The background of the author, Edward Humes, also jumped out to me. Following a long career as an investigative journalist, he’s written several highly acclaimed books covering a broad spectrum of topics such as Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution and Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia. This is not the typical resume of a wine book writer which, for me, adds a lot of intrigue to this book.

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber with Sean Runnette narrating.
Image a derivative collage put together by self as User:Agne27 on Wikimedia Commons. Originally image details available here https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Producers_from_Judgement_of_Paris_wine_tasting.jpg

Some of the wineries that participated at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event.

Taber’s 2005 book has long been a favorite of mine. While I haven’t dived into them yet, his other wine books are high on my “to read” list.

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle

A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks

In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism

It’s hard to know where the American wine industry would be today if the 1976 Paris tasting didn’t happen, or if Taber wasn’t there for Time magazine to report back. Robert Mondavi was still actively promoting American wines but did the 1976 tasting help spark his joint venture with Baron Philippe Rothschild that became Opus One?

The Baron’s 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the French wines that unexpectedly lost in the blind tasting to an upstart from California (in this case, Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Coming only three years after Rothschild’s dogged petitioning finally got his Second Growth estate elevated up to First Growth, it’s fascinating to wonder how those dominoes fell to lead him to invest so heavily into California.

Now Taber’s book doesn’t really go off into that kind of speculation and tangent. But he does provide some great background details about the California wineries that took part (Stag’s Leap, Ridge, Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Ch. Montelena, Chalone, Spring Mountain Vineyards, Veedercrest and David Bruce) as well as the general state of the California wine industry at the time. Most importantly he provides context to an event that undoubtedly was a pivotal moment in not only Californian, but also American, wine history.

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler with Alan Sklar narrating.
Photo by scottsdale9. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Robert Mondavi with author Pat Montandon in 1981 at the Premier Napa Valley Auction.

Speaking of Robert Mondavi, his story and family drama would also make a very interest Netflix series. It’s still jaw dropping to think about how fast the forced sale and corporate takeover of the Mondavi Winery by Constellation Brands happened back in 2004.

Even though the empire’s collapse was rapid, there were smoldering cinders burning long before the ruble. While they never came to blows like Robert and his brother Peter famously once did, the infighting among Robert’s children–Tim, Michael and Marcia–played just as much of a role in shaping the Mondavi family narrative.

Siler’s work touches on all that as well as the family’s early history dating back to Cesare Mondavi’s arrival in the US from his native Italy. But the major focus of the book is the charismatic force of Robert Mondavi. Like the Gallos, Jess Jackson and Martin Ray, it’s hard to see the American wine industry being what it is today without his legacy.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway with John Morgan narrating.

This book is part of a series that Conway has written about the history and potential future of Napa Valley. The other two books are The Far Side Of Eden (2003) and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (2018) with The Far Side of Eden not yet available in audio format.

Photo by Schmiebel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A black-crowned night heron fishing in the Napa watershed. Concern for the habitat of this bird and other animals fueled support for Napa Prop C. which aimed to curb vineyard development in the hills of the valley that feed into the watershed.

I just started reading the hard copy version of this book. I was inspired to pick it up after listening to Levi Dalton’s interview with James Conway on episode 446 of his I’ll Drink To That! podcast.

Prior to his great interview with Dalton, Conway was already on my radar after reading his very biting essay for The Atlantic from March of this year titled “Rich People Are Ruining Wine”. A lot of this was happening during the political battle surrounding Napa’s Prop C ballot measure that aimed to limit vineyard development on hillsides that would have impacted the watershed of the Napa river.

Following a lot of heated debate from both sides, the measure ultimately lost in this June’s election–49.1% to 50.9%. Listening to Conway’s interview with Dalton and reading the first few chapters of this book, it seems that the war over Prop C was just another chapter in the endless story of the battle for the soul of Napa.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes — Insider’s Peek Into Champagne

I came across two great videos (≈ 10 min) on YouTube that share an insider’s peek into Champagne production. Both of these videos give a perspective that you don’t often find in wine books.

The first one is produced by GuildSomm. They have an excellent YouTube channel that is well worth subscribing to. Most of their videos are in the 10 to 12 minute range with the longest, on the wines of Burgundy, being almost 22 minutes.

The production quality is top notch with beautiful cinematography that really give you a feel for a region. Each episode is also jammed pack with useful historical details and insights from producers. Below the video I’ll highlight my notes from this Dec 27, 2016 episode on The Wines of Champagne.

Notes From The Wines of Champagne

(1:59) Charles Philipponnat of Philipponnat talks a little about the distinction of the sub-region of the Grande Vallée de la Marne from the greater Vallée de la Marne. Most wine books (and even the beginning of this video) treat the entire Vallée de la Marne as a monolith–Peter Leim’s Champagne: The Essential Guide being one of the few exceptions.

But the terroir (and wines produced here) are remarkably different. The Grand Vallée is dominated by Pinot noir with south facing slopes bordering the north side of the Marne river. Heading west through the rest of the Vallée de la Marne, the vineyards flank both sides of the river. Here Pinot Meunier is the main variety with these western sites being more frost prone as well.

(2:52) Rudolph Peters of Pierre Peters highlights the similarities between the Côte des Blancs and Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Both have east facing slopes with abundant limestone that Chardonnay thrives in. Great close up shots of the vineyard soils where you can see the seashell fossils.

(4:00) The narrator, Tai Ricci, goes into the history of the 1910/11 Champagne Riots with some terrific photographs from the period. This part definitely has an old-school “History Channel” feel to it. Anyone wanting to learn more about the riots and issues behind it, I highly recommend Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. Hugh Johnson also covers it quite a bit in his all around excellent wine history book Vintage: The Story of Wine.

Grand Cru and Growers
 Jean Fannière Grand Cru Champagne

If the wine is 100% sourced from grapes grown in Grand Cru villages, like this Champagne Varnier Fannière’s Jean Fannière, the words “Grand Cru” can appear on the bottle.

(5:46) The difference in Grand Cru designations between Burgundy and Champagne are highlighted here.  Whereas in Burgundy the vineyards are classified, in Champagne it is the village. While there are over 300 villages in Champagne, only 17 villages are designated as Grand Cru.  If they were using the Champagne model in Burgundy, then villages like Vosne-Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet, Chambolle-Musigny would be “Grand Cru”. Then you would have villages like Santenay, St. Aubin and Marsannay designated as Premier Cru and so forth.

It’s not likely that Champagne will ever adopt the Burgundian model of having vineyards individually classified. However, there are certainly notable vineyards with “Grand Cru” reputations. Vineyards like Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Franck Bonville’s Belles Voyes, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos St-Hilaire and Pierre Peters’ Les Chêtillons have a long history of acclaim. Additionally, Peter Leim’s book lists numerous single vineyard bottlings from nearly ever major Grand Cru and Premier Cru village. While some of these certainly can get pricey, I found several on Wine Searcher in the $50-70 range.

(6:48) The topic moves to the difference between Grower Champagnes versus the big negociant houses. Here Rudolph Peters highlights some of the advantages and disadvantages for both. As I noted in my review of Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles, while I definitely get more excited about Grower Champagnes and their more terroir driven expressions, I don’t agree with the idea that blended Champagnes (like what the negociant houses do) are inferior.

In fact, I think the master blenders of the major houses have remarkable skills and winemaking talents. It’s just that the proliferation of a “house style” can get repetitive and boring. They may be really delicious the first or second time you have it, but by the third time you have a bottle of something like the Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, you begin feeling like you’re just drinking the same ole, same ole over and over again.

But that’s kind of the point.

Like an army of clones…or the Borg.
You will be assemblage! La résistance est futile!

It’s certainly a successful business model (much like McDonald’s) but it’s one that I get easily bored with—as I was at last year’s Champagne Gala at Daniel’s that was headlined by two vintages of Dom Perignon.

While there were some differences between the two vintages (with the 2004 being far superior to the 2006) neither of the bottles were any more distinctive or exciting than the other Moët & Chandon wines with the NV Rosé Impérial being the best Champagne of the evening.

Sparkling Wine Making From the Wine & Spirit Education Trust

This video was uploaded on Nov 21, 2012 by YouTube user McWilliamsWinesVideo who hasn’t uploaded anything else in nearly 6 years. I strongly suspect this was a sloppily edited recording of video series in the 1980s produced by First Growth Productions for the Wine & Spirit Education (WSET).

I tried to find the original broadcast on the WSET website but to no avail. Nor could I find an online presence for First Growth Productions either. WSET does have its own YouTube channel for their 3 Minute Wine School videos taught by Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin. While it hasn’t been updated in over 2 years, the 21 videos featured do have a lot of great content worth viewing.

The quality of this video is no where close to that of the GuildSomm video above. But the illustrations and up close view of the winemaking process used in Champagne has a lot of value.

My Notes From Sparkling Wine Making

(1:46) A discussion and illustration of the transfer method. This is how most 187ml airline splits are made but apparently was quite popular for Australian sparkling wines when this video was produced.

(2:28) Here the video switches to Champagne where they note that the grapes are often harvested in October. Boy has global warming changed that! This year’s harvest started on the 20th of August and was the fifth harvest since 2003 to start in August. And several vintages, like the very stellar 2015 vintage, have started the first week of September.

(3:45) A little subtle dissing of the Aube which is not out of line for the mindset of this time period. The Aubois led the Champagne Riots highlighted in the GuildSomm video when they were threatened with expulsion from the Champagne zone. It’s only recently that a wave of high quality grower producers from the Côte des Bar sub-region of the Aube have turned this into one of the most exciting regions in Champagne.

A crazy delicious blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay.
It’s a hunt to find this unicorn but will certainly be worth it if you can score a bottle!

Producers like Pierre Gerbais, Cédric Bouchard, Vouette et Sorbée, Jacques Lassaigne, Marie-Courtin, Nathalie Falmet, Drappier and more are making outstanding bubbles. I’m still trying to hunt down another bottle of Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale (100% Pinot blanc) and the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs that I had while playing the Somm Game in Vegas is a strong contender for my Wine of The Year.

Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to start looking for bottles from the Côte des Bar and Aube.

Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty

(3:52) A really good demonstration of the traditional pressing process in large wooden basket presses. Champagne’s wine laws strictly regulate the press yields. Producers can use only the first 100 liters of juice from every 160 kgs of grapes they press. The first 80 of these liters (the cuvée) are highly values as the best quality. The next 20 liters are the taille. This is often used for producing fruity, aromatic wines that are meant to be consumed young.

(4:45) The video doesn’t explain why but says that the houses who ferment their wines in oak prefer casks from Hungary. Will need to research this more. Wines and Vines has a pretty in-depth article about Hungarian oak (though doesn’t mentioned Champagne houses using them) while the home-winemaking site MoreWine! has a simple breakdown of the difference between French, American and Hungarian oaks.

(6:54) This is probably the best segment of the entire video. A fantastic explanation and illustration of riddling. At the 7:15 mark  they show an illustration of the two different types of sediments that form during the autolysis process. Again, this is something that wine books rarely draw out and explain. But learning about these two different types of sediment (heavy & sticky vs light & dusty) helps explain why the riddling process needs to be so methodical.

Enjoy the videos! If you find these Geek Notes breakdowns helpful, post a comment below!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 10/28/2018 — New Wine Books for November

Let’s take a look at some new wine books coming out next month that are worth geeking out over.

Feel free to also take a gander at the titles profiled in previous months’ Geek Notes for October, September and August. With the holidays approaching, it’s never too early get ideas for great gifts.

Age Gets Better with Wine Third Edition by Richard Baxter. (Hardcover release November 1st, 2018)

Richard Baxter is a plastic surgeon who wrote his first edition of Age Gets Better with Wine back in, honestly, I don’t know.

The oldest date for the 1st edition I could find was in 2007 yet somehow the 2nd edition came out in 2002. My best guess is that the two years were probably switched by Amazon. However, the Google eBooks copy of the 2nd edition dates to 2009. So who knows?

Regardless, quite a bit has changed in our scientific understanding of wine so this 2018 revision will likely have a lot of new material.

This books intrigues me because of the objective approach it appears to take on the many conflicting studies about the role of wine and health. I’ve not had a chance to read either of the two previous editions but I think I’m going to pull the trigger on this one. Blogger Joey Casco of TheWineStalker.net had a great review of the second edition. Describing it as “a wine-science-history geek’s wet dream”, he posted a 2 minute review of the 2nd edition back in 2016.

What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime by Terry Theise. (Hardcover release November 6th, 2018)

Terry Theise is a phenomenal importer who has played a huge role in introducing Americans to the exciting world of Grower Champagne. Additionally, he’s done much to bring attention to the high quality production of small family estates in Germany and Austria.

If you want to learn more about his story, Levi Dalton of I’ll Drink To That! podcast had a fantastic interview with Theise back in 2015 (1:50:22 length).

Pierre Gerbais, a fantastic grower Champagne from the Côte des Bar. The fact that we can find a lot of these gems more easily in the US is because of the efforts of Terry Theise.

Theise’s previous work, Reading between the Wines, was a mix of manifesto and anthology taken from his years of writings for his import catalogs. Now part of the Skurnik portfolio, Theise still regularly writes about vintage years, producer profiles and numerous (often humorous) rants about the world of wine.

Frequently in his writings, Theise expounds on the question that is the title of his current release What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking? What makes a bottle of wine worth the money to procure and the time spent cellaring and savoring? What makes anything worth putting into your body or sharing as part of a moment with loved ones?

Rarely do wine drinkers really stop to think about the answers to those questions. I suspect that Theise’s book will give a lot of food for thought and be a great read.

Good, Better, Best Wines, 2nd Edition: A No-nonsense Guide to Popular Wines by Carolyn Evans Hammond. (Paperback release November 13th, 2018)

This is the updated edition to Hammond’s 2010 release that dived into the world of mass-produced bulk brands and supermarket wines. With the link to the first edition, you can “look inside” and get an idea about her approach and the type of wines being reviewed.

In many ways, I applaud her snob-free approach but I do wonder what audience she is aiming for? Many of the folks who buy the Lindeman’s, Kendall Jackson, Fetzer and Sutter Home wines she reviews aren’t necessarily the folks who purchase wine guides.

While Constellation Brands’ famous Project Genome study of wine buyers found that nearly 1/5th of wine consumers felt “overwhelmed”, these folks were far more likely to seek info on the spot at a retail store versus searching the internet or seeking out a published wine guide.

Likewise, the near third of consumers who fall into the combined categories of “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” are already buying their favorite mass produced wines being profiled here. It doesn’t seem likely that one writer’s opinion that Bulk Brand X is slightly better than Bulk Brand Y will sway many people.

Perhaps the 20% of Image Seekers and 12% of Enthusiasts who are more inclined to look at wine guides will be tempted but often these segments of consumers either eventually settle into “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” or move beyond the $15 & under category this book focuses on.

Good, Better and Less Snobby
Photo by Robbie Belmonte. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

You may not like them or drink them but there is no denying that Gallo has done a masterful job of marketing and selling Barefoot Wines.

However, I do see this book being a huge benefit to students pursuing certifications such as the WSET Diploma level which focuses on the business of wine in Unit 1. Often these students need a bit of an “anti-snobbery” jolt to realize that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t drink the same kind of wines we do.

In our rush to dismiss these wines, we often forget that there are reasons why things like Barefoot, Franzia and Apothic are top selling brands in the US.

I get it. They’re not my cup of tea either and I don’t vaguely hide my personal sentiments about them much on this blog.

But I do seek to understand them. This is why I give wines like Mamamanago, Apothic Brew, Capriccio and the like, just as much research and effort to figure them out as I do for Petrus and Cristal.

I see value in reading Carolyn Evans Hammond’s Good, Better, Best Wines as a window into the world of the “Traditionalists” and “Satisfied Sippers” and what they are drinking. While I don’t think anyone will ever quite cracked the code of how to convince these drinkers to “trade out”, much less “trade up”, we’ll never come close if we don’t first understand where they’re starting from.

Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing edited by Jay McInerney. (Hardcover release November 13th, 2018)

I started geeking out over this book back in August when I was profiling Amira K. Makansi’s Literary Libations: What to Drink with What You Read.

Though he is the editor for this anthology, Jay McInerney has written several thoroughly entertaining wine books like Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine and The Juice: Vinous Veritas–not to mention several other highly acclaimed works outside of wine.

He does contribute a chapter to Wine Reads which includes over 20 pieces of fiction and non-fiction writings about wine. Other writers in the work includes Rex Pickett (of Sideways fame), A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker, an excerpt from Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Jancis Robinson and more.

Just like with Makansi’s book, I can see this being the perfect companion for long flights or train rides.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 9/30/18 — Super Cool Map of Barolo Crus

A section of the Grand Crus of Barolo map with the full version at http://www.jdemeven.cz/wine/Barolo_map.pdf

For centuries wine collectors and lovers have poured over maps of the top vineyard sites in Burgundy.

Names like Chambertin, Clos St Jacques, Les Amoureuses, La Tâche, Les Suchots, Les St Georges, Les Perrières, Charmes, Genevrières and Montrachet are practically tattooed on the hearts of wine geeks everywhere.

But as the prices of those wines reach several hundred and even $1000+ a bottle, it’s becoming more worthwhile to look outside of Burgundy for complex, terroir-driven wines.

One such area that is ripe for geeky exploration is Barolo and its sister region of Barbaresco.

Like Pinot noir, Nebbiolo does a fantastic job of conveying the story of where it came from–the soils, the micro-climate and the character of each vintage. Just like in Burgundy, a Barolo made in one cru could taste dramatically different than a Barolo made from vines that are just a stone’s throw away–even by the same producer and tended to in the exact same manner.

It’s clear that the next horizon for wine geekdom is going to be pouring over maps of the top vineyard sites in Piedmont and tattooing names like Rocche dell’Annunziata, Cannubi, Brunate, Vigna Rionda and others on our hearts. While prices of these wines are steadily starting to rise, good bottles showing amazing complexity and character can still be found for a fraction of the price of top Burgundy Grand and Premier Crus.

Really gorgeous Rocche dell’Annunziata from Mauro Veglio. This wine has the stuffing to last 20+ years.

That is one of the reasons why I was very excited to stumble upon this excellent map produced by a Czech blogger that highlights many of the top crus in Barolo. It’s well worth checking out and bookmarking.

The map offers a great description of the main soil types in Barolo–Tortonian and Helvetian–and the type of wines they tend to produce as well as general commune characteristics and the top crus from each.

A Few of My Favorite Barolo Crus

Last June I got an opportunity to visit Piedmont and fell in love with several wines from some of these top vineyards.

Only two producers work with the fruit of the Marenca cru in Serralunga d’Alba–Luigi Pira and Gaja for their Sperss Barolo.


Arborina (La Morra)
Gattera (La Morra)
Rocche dell’Annunziata (La Morra)
Sarmassa (Barolo)
Romirasco (Monforte d’Alba)
Margheria (Serralunga d’Alba)
Vigna Rionda (Serralunga d’Alba)
Marenca (Serralunga d’Alba)
Villero (Castiglione Falletto)

Other Great Resources For Geeking Out About Barolo and Barbaresco

Antonio Galloni’s Vinous site has some beautiful and very well put together interactive maps of Barolo and Barbaresco that are available to subscribers. These maps not only show the topography difference but also includes a quality ranking of Exceptional, Outstanding and Noteworthy. When you click on each vineyard the map give you a description for the style of the wines from the cru, key producer and reference bottles as well as links to educational videos that go into greater details about the terroir and wines.

Many of these write-ups are done by my Vino-Crush Ian D’Agata who is writing an upcoming book about Barolo and Barbaresco.

Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine by Kerin O’Keefe.

This goes a little more into history and the general culture of the region but also name drops important producers and vineyards.

Barolo and Barbaresco (Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards) by Benjamin Lewin.

Written by a Master of Wine, this is a fantastic (and super cheap) resource for anyone planning to visit the area because Lewin highlights the producers that have tasting appointments available.

Barolo MGA Vol. I & II and Barbaresco MGA by Alessandro Masnaghetti.

Masnaghetti’s books are written in both English and Italian.

These are really pricey (especially when you add international shipping) but they are, by far, the benchmark standard reference for intimately learning the cru vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco. Beautifully illustrated with great detail, I picked up my copies while I was in Piedmont (at 40 euros apiece) and saved a little bit of money but they are well worth the publisher’s price and getting them shipped.

A Wine Atlas of the Langhe: The Great Barolo and Barbaresco Vineyards by Victtorio Mangnelli.

A little bit outdated (2003) but at around $53 it is cheaper than buying all of Masnaghetti’s volumes and is still a useful resource with detailed maps and producer listings.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to joined his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in cellar until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the home grown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allowed him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 9/25/2018 — New Wine Books for October

Fall is here which means shorter days but longer nights to spend curled up next to a great wine book. Here is a look at some of the upcoming October releases that I’m excited to get my hands on.

Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine by Simon J. Woolf (Hardcover release October 2nd)

This Two Vintners “OG” Gewürztraminer made in an orange wine style with extended maceration blew me away with how complex and delicious it was.

For many wine lovers, “orange wine” is the biggest wine trend that they’ve heard of but haven’t had the chance to try yet.

It’s tempting to call this a fad and chalk it up to Millennials’ latest fancy. But this is a really old winemaking style that has been around for as long as wine has been made. At its most simplest, orange wine is basically just white wine that has spent time in contact with grape skins. This exposes it more to oxygen than the modern method of quickly pressing white grapes and processing them anaerobically.

While a couple 2017 releases like Marissa A. Ross’s Wine. All the Time, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine and Alice Feiring’s The Dirty Guide to Wine touched a little on orange wine, to the best of my knowledge, Amber Revolution is the first book devoted exclusively to the topic.

Judging by the recent popularity of the category, Woolf’s book is quite timely. Here he covers the history and production methods behind orange wines, as well as profiles 180 producers in 20 countries.

At this year’s Louis Roederer international Wine Writers’ Awards, Simon Woolf took home the Domaine Ott International Feature Writer of the Year award for his work at Meininger Wine Business International, Decanter and blog The Morning Claret.

Update:

On Instagram Simon Woolf had this advice for folks wanting to get a copy of his book. “Btw although in the US the book is only available from October, in Europe it can also be ordered direct from my site. Also for US customers, best to order direct from the publisher.”

Kevin Zraly Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition by Kevin Zraly (Hardcover release October 16th)
Photo by tomasz przechlewski. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The new edition of Windows on the World likely will also touch on orange wine and the renaissance in Georgian winemaking of using Kvevri (Qvevri) amphora jars buried in the ground to ferment and age wine.

From the very first edition in 1985, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World books have been a benchmark standard in wine education.

In addition to his Windows on the World wine classes and books, Zraly has also authored the very useful wine texts The Ultimate Wine Companion: The Complete Guide to Understanding Wine by the World’s Foremost Wine Authorities and Red Wine: The Comprehensive Guide to the 50 Essential Varieties & Styles with Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (authors of Wines of California that I mentioned in last month’s Geek Notes).

Frequently updated, the Windows on the World series has grown to include a pronunciation guide (Kindle only), a tasting notebook and food pairing companion.

The current 2018 edition has been expanded to 432 pages (up from 384 pages in the 2016 edition). It includes more detailed coverage of South America, Australia, China and New Zealand with new maps and infographics.

For geeks on a budget, there is one advantage of the frequent updates and releases. You can get used copies of previous editions of Windows on the World super cheap on Amazon. For instance, the 2012 edition is going for around $1.30 for the paperback version. While a tad outdated, at 352 pages it still covers the basics and the classic wine regions very well.

The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (Hardcover release October 23rd)

This is probably the book that I’m most excited for because of the atlas’ focus on blind tasting. As the Amazon description notes:

“There are books that describe the geography of wine regions. And there are books that describe the way basic wines and grapes should taste. But there are no books that describe the intricacies of the way wines from various subregions, soils, and appellations should taste.”

Any wine student seeking higher level certifications through the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine Spirit & Education Trust should be intimately familiar with the wines on the Probable List of Examinable Red Grape Varieties, Examinable White Grape Varieties and the Certified Sommelier Examination Grape Varieties & Growing Regions.

All these wines will have distinctive profiles (typicity) with the examination board picking examples that demonstrate these distinctions well. Not only do you need to train yourself how to identify these wines, when you get to examinations like those of the Institute of Masters of Wine you will also have to explain why these distinct profiles exist (terroir, viticultural decisions, winemaking, etc).

Dearth of Blind Tasting Resources

There are not many resources out there tackling blind tasting and typicity from an examination point of view. Of course, there is  material from WSET and CMS that you get with classes but outside sources are hard to find.  Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting has been the closest I’ve found. But even that strays more into a “Windows on the World” type overview instead of getting into the nitty gritty details of teaching you to look for this while tasting a Chablis Grand Cru like Les Clos and this while tasting a Chablis Premier Cru like Montmains, etc.

I’ll be honest. At this point in my studies, all I can tell you is that they are both delicious.

Parr and Mackay’s book looks like it’s going to fill in that sorely needed niche–at least regarding terroir.

To understand the role of viticulture and winemaking decisions on the taste of wine, James Halliday and Hugh Johnson’s The Art and Science of Wine and Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass are two of the best books I’ve found so far.

Vines and Vintages: A Taste of British Columbia’s Wine History by Luke Whittall (Paperback release October 30th, 2018)

I’m only about 3 to 6 hours away from the wine regions of the Okanagan and Vancouver Island. Yet, in all practicality, the wines of British Columbia might as well be from China. Here in the US, they are incredibly difficult to find. Even restaurants in Vancouver are far more likely to offer French, Australian and Californian labels instead of local BC wines.

While I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bordeaux varieties in BC, this 2016 Clos du Soleil Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rose from the Upper Bench of the South Similkameen Valley was quite tasty.

But every time I do eventually get my hands on wine from BC, I tend to enjoy them.  It’s clear that this is a growing industry. With the influence of climate change, it is only going to become more significant on the world’s wine stage. This is definitely an area worth exploring.

The few other books that I’ve came across dealing with BC wines have been a brief inclusion in Cole Danehower’s Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest and some of John Schreiner’s (a bit outdated) works The British Columbia Wine Companion (1997) and Chardonnay & Friends: Variety Wines of British Columbia (1999).

But with 370 pages, I can see Luke Whittall (already an established authority on BC wines with his blog and podcast at Wine Country BC) going into far more detail about the British Columbia wine scene and the remarkable growth it is has seen in the last 20 years.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 9/23/2018 — UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata

I have a new vino crush and man have I been crushing hard.

How can you not to get all tingly and giddy over sweet talk about biotypes, Pigato vs Vermentino, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and the battle for the soul of Pecorino?

Well at least it is hard for me not to get tingly, especially when that sweet talk is coming from a wine writer with over 25 years of experience living and breathing the wines of Italy. Thankfully for us, and my geeky fan-girling heart, Ian D’Agata has drilled down all of those years of walking the vineyards and tasting wines with producers into the magnum opus of Italian wine grapes with his 640 page tome–Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

Frequent readers know that one of my favorite resources is Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes written with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. That gorgeous hunk of geekdom devoted 1280 pages to covering 1,368 grape varieties grown across the globe.

But with an estimated 2500 different varieties (many of which likely biotypes/clones of other grapes) growing in Italy alone, you need a dedicated source to help untangle the messy weave of regionalization, synonyms and just downright weirdness that can be found with Italian grapes.

D’Agata’s book is like a scalpel to that tangled mess. While he is upfront about not having all the answers–especially with conflicting DNA analysis and contrary first person observations–it is impossible to pick up Native Wine Grapes of Italy and not come away learning mountains of new information about Italian grapes.

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Did you know that the Moscato bianco grape of Piedmont was once one of the most widely planted wine grapes in the Tuscan village of Montalcino? In fact, it is still grown there today and used to make the DOC wine Moscadello di Montalcino.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of fun tidbits I learned from D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

The work is exceptionally well organized (mostly alphabetical though several varieties which belong to groups or families of grapes like the many Greco, Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes get their own chapter) making it a fantastic and easy to use reference anytime you want to dive deeper.

I seriously can’t recommend Native Wine Grapes of Italy enough for wine geeks and students. A definite must have that is less than a third of the price of Wine Grapes and can often be found used for around $25.

But you don’t need to take my word on it. As I’ve discovered while prepping for my upcoming class on Italian wine, Ian D’Agata has been a frequent guest on several of my favorite podcasts discussing Italian grapes and wine regions. These podcasts, plus his writings on Vinous, give you a great sneak peak into the content of Native Grapes as well as an upcoming book he’s working on about the crus of Barolo and Barbaresco.

They are all well worth a listen–after which I’m sure you’ll be vino-crushing on Ian too.

Podcast Interviews with Ian D’Agata

In The Drink Episode 206 w/ Ian D’Agata (43:57)

Monty Waldin’s Italian Wine Podcast Episodes 20 through 22 on the Aglianico, Glera and Sangiovese grapes respectively. (About 10 to 15 minutes each)

Really wished I had listened to the IDTT episode with D’Agata before I visited Piedmont last June. I probably would have appreciated even more how cool this map and viewpoint from La Morra was.

I’ll Drink to That! Episode 354 w/ Ian D’Agata (1:37:49) — In this podcast, Levi Dalton and D’Agata spend a lot of time talking about Barolo, Barbaresco and his upcoming book on those regions. Really fascinating stuff.

My only slight negative with D’Agata’s interviews is that he does speak very quickly. While his enunciation and articulation–especially of Italian names and words–is great I do find myself having to slow down the podcast or go back sometimes to re-listen to things that D’Agata breezes through.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m going to go back to a June 2008 interview that Ian D’Agata did with Chris Scott of the UK Wine Show (37:28).

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

The format of the UK Wine Show starts with Chris and his wife Jane going over recent wine and beverage industry news. Even with older podcasts, I always find this segment very interesting as a “window in time” look at what was big and newsworthy in the world of wine at the time. I also often end up learning something as well.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

I know now if I pick up a strong oaky flavor in a DOC wine under $10-15 that perhaps I should be suspicious.


For instance, the first news story in this 2008 podcast (1:07) was on a controversy in the Tuscan wine region of San Gimignano where 4000 bottles of red wine were confiscated because of the use of oak chips in production of the DOC wine. I honestly didn’t know that San Gimignano produced red wine (much less a DOC wine) because I was only familiar with the white Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

While it makes sense that oak chips wouldn’t be acceptable in DOC/G wine, I didn’t realize how strictly regulated that was in Italy or that oak chips were permitted for IGT wines.

It was also fun listening to early thoughts on the 2007 Bordeaux vintage with Chris and Jane (5:36) especially considering the woeful reputation that vintage has now (though, in hindsight, good cellar defenders can still be found from 2007).

The interview with Ian D’Agata begins at the 10:35 mark.

(11:47) Of the 2500+ grape varieties grown in Italy, only around 1000 of them have been genetically identified. Of that 1000, around 600 are used for wine production.

(13:55) Chris asks if the Sangiovese of Brunello di Montalcino is a specific clone. Ian D’Agata debunks quite a bit of common misconceptions about Sangiovese and clones that is incredibly eye opening (and also well worth reading about in his book). Simply put, a lot of the stuff that we’ve learned in wine books of the past have been very incomplete and imprecise.

(18:45) D’Agata describes the Umbrian variety Sagrantino which I haven’t had the privilege of tasting yet but am very intrigued by.

(19:20) A prediction that Aglianico is the next big thing from Italy. This has definitely held true with even producers in the US like Leonetti releasing an Aglianico. I know at my local wine shops I’ve seen the selection of Italian Aglianico in the last 5 years go from maybe one bottle of Taurasi ($50+) to now featuring more than a half dozen options from Basilicata, Marche and Campania. As many of these can be found in the $13-25 range, there is some awesome value here that is well worth exploring. In my January 2018 post In a rut? Try these new grapes!, I describe Aglianico as a fantastic wine for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to branch out with.

Fun fact: When you Google pics of Nero d’Avola, one of the results is a picture of the Muscat of Norway grape instead. I know this because that is my hand in the pic holding a cluster of Muscat of Norway I harvested from Cloud Mountain Vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA.


(20:40) Chris notes that he always found Nero d’Avola to be very Merlot-like. D’Agata highlights the similarities (and that Merlot is apparently often blended with Nero d’Avola) but also the relationship with Syrah and Teroldego and what good Nero d’Avola should taste like.

(21:40) A great discussion about the unheralded gems of Southern Italian whites like Mt. Etna’s Carricante (a distant relative of Riesling), Grillo, Inzolia, Vermentino and Grechetto. However, D’Agata notes that the Grechetto used in Orvieto is not always the best Grechetto.

(24:52) Apparently Italy makes really good dry Kerner, Silvaner and Gewurztraminer on par with Alsace up in the Alto Adige region.

Photo by Puntin1969. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The Valadige (pictured), Alto Adige and Friuli regions can be more labor intensive than the Veneto or some parts of New Zealand which can make producing value priced Sauvignon blanc a bit difficult.


(26:16) While Italy doesn’t do well with Chardonnay (over-oaked), D’Agata feels that they excel with Sauvignon blanc with a style between Sancerre and Marlborough. This definitely caught the attention of New Zealand native Chris Scott. Considering how hot Sauvignon blanc has been in the UK market, I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear more about Italian Sauvignon blanc. The higher cost of bottles from Italy compared to bulk NZ Sauvignon blanc probably is a significant reason.

(29:06) A lot of Pinot grigio that is/was imported to the United States might not actually be Pinot grigio with D’Agata noting that a fair amount of Trebbiano is likely used.

Photo by Giovanni. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

D’Agata does notes that just because there might be Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon growing in a vineyard of Montalcino that doesn’t mean it is being used in a producer’s Brunello di Montalcino. However, the color of the wine could be a tip off.


(30:26) Very interesting discussion about the Brunellopoli scandal that was just starting to hit the news at the time of the interview. D’Agata notes that the dark purple/black color of Brunello di Montalcino is often a clue that something might be up with a wine that is supposed to be 100% of the moderately pigmented Sangiovese. The new clones of Sangiovese that produce darker colors can only give you a deeper ruby, not black color.

(34:23) Even though Italians invented screw caps, apparently they can only be used for IGT wines and not DOC/G? (At least back in 2008) D’Agata pointed out that it is more expensive to bottle wines with screw caps as opposed to corks which can be a financial burden for small producers.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Celebrating International Grenache Day With The Grenachista

Today is International Grenache Day–according to someone.

I honestly have no idea who comes up with these things and googling around it looks Grenache Day hops all over the calendar a bit like Thanksgiving and Easter.

Which is kind of fitting since Grenache goes so well with turkey and rabbit. (Sorry kids)

But hey, I don’t need much of an excuse to geek out about something so that makes today the perfect opportunity to take a flashback to this spring’s Hospice du Rhône event and revisit the highly impressive wines of CR Graybehl aka The Grenachista.

The Background

CR Graybehl was founded in 2013 and is named after founder and winemaker Casey Graybehl’s grandfather, Cliff R. Graybehl, who inspired Casey to get into winemaking. The small operation is essentially a two person show with just Graybehl and his wife.

Graybehl studied Fruit Sciences at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo when the school hadn’t yet developed a viticulture program. He spent time working at wineries in the Central Coast and Bay Area before starting his winery in Sonoma.

In addition to his own wine project, Graybehl is a production manager for Obsidian Wine Co.–a custom crush facility and makers of Obsidian Ridge and Poseidon Vineyard.

The Grape – A Little Geeky History

While it is generally agreed that Grenache is a very old grape variety, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the origins of the grape is debated by ampelographers.

Photo by Fabio bartolomei. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Old vine Garnacha growing near the the Sierra de Gredos mountain range in Central Spain.

The stronger argument favors a Spanish origin where it believed that the grape was first documented growing in Madrid under the synonym Aragones in 1513 by Gabriel Alonso de Herrea in his work Argicultura general. The name Garnacha seems to have been established by the late 1600s when Estevan de Corbera describes the grape growing in Tarragona in his 1678 work Cataluña illustrada.

A competing theory argues that the grape is a native of Sardinia where it is known as Cannonau. Here the first mentioned appears in Caligari in 1549. The name Garnacha also shows up in Miguel de Cervantes’ 1613 work El licenciado vidriera referencing an Italian white wine that was being served in Genoa. The theory of a Sardinian orgin involves assuming that the Aragones grape of Madrid was not actually Grenache and that the grape was brought to Spain sometime after 1479 when Sardinia became part of the Spanish empire.

While Aragones is still a synonym used today for Garnacha it has also been used as a synonym for other grape varieties like Tempranillo.

Italian ampelographer Gianni Lovicu also argues that the Spanish name Garnacha is closely related to the Italian name Vernaccia that is derived from the Latin vernaculum meaning local. Documents in Catalunya dating back to 1348 describe a Vernaça grape that appears to have been introduced to the area from somewhere else. This would predate Sardinia’s Spanish colonization and suggest perhaps a different Italian region as the grape’s origins.

Photo by www.zoqy.net. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Grenache blanc vines growing in the Rivesaltes AOC of the Roussillon region that borders Spain. Here the grape is used to produce the sweet Vin Doux Naturel dessert wines.


However, even today Spain remains the loci of the greatest mutation and clonal diversity of Grenache–strongly suggesting a far longer presence in the area than anywhere else. While Sardinia and the Colli Berici DOC of the Veneto have significant plantings of the dark skin Grenache noir, only Spain and southern France have a notable presence of the other color mutations (white and gris) as well as the downy leaved Garnacha Peluda.

Grenache in Modern Times

Today Grenache is the second most widely planted grape in France, after Merlot, with 94,240 ha (232,872 acres) planted as of 2009. The grape forms the backbone of many Southern Rhone blends such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape (around 70% of plantings), Gigondas and Vacqueryas as well as the rosé wines of Tavel and Lirac.

In Italy, it is the most widely planted grape on Sardinia–accounting for around 20% of the island’s wine production–with 6288 ha (15,538 acres) planted by 2000.

After Tempranillo and Bobal, Garnacha is the third most widely planted red grape in Spain with 75,399 ha (186,315 acres) of vines covering 7% of the country’s vineyards. The grape is most widely planted in the Aragon region of northeastern Spain where it accounts for 45% of production. It is also a popular planting in Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, Catalunya, Priorat and the Rioja Baja region. In Navarra, it is an important component in the region’s rosé.

CR Graybehl’s Grenache from the Mounts Family Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma.


Grenache noir is believed to have been introduced to California in the 1850s by a Santa Clara wine grower named Charles Lefranc. The grape became a significant planting in the Central Valley after Prohibition where it was used to make dessert wines and lightly sweetly rosés. Today, along with Grenache blanc, it is used to make dry varietal wines and Rhone-style blends.

In 2017, there were 306 acres of Grenache blanc and 4,287 acres of Grenache noir growing throughout the state from the Sierra Foothills and Sonoma down to Paso Robles and Santa Barbara.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines that Grenache was the first vinifera wine to earn critical acclaim in Washington when wine writer Leon Adams praised a dry Grenache rosé made by a home winemaker in the Yakima Valley in his 1966 book Wines of America.

As Gramercy Cellars’ winemaker Greg Harrington noted in his interview on Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That! podcast, severe freezes in Washington in the late 20th century nearly killed off all Grenache in the state.

However, the grape has seen a renaissance of interest in recent years thanks in part to winemakers like Master of Wine Bob Betz and the Rhone Rangers movement pioneered in Washington by Doug McCrea. As of 2017, there were 212 acres of Grenache noir in Washington.

Over the years, growers have used Grenache to breed several new grape varieties such as Caladoc (with Malbec), Carnelian (with F2-7, a Carignan/Cabernet Sauvignon crossing), Emerald Riesling (Grenache blanc with Muscadelle) and Marselan (with Cabernet Sauvignon).

The Wines

Below are my notes on the CR Graybehl’s Grenache wines I tasted during the April Hospice du Rhône event updated with some production and winemaking details.

2017 Grenache Rosé Sonoma Valley ($24-25) — Sourced from Mathis Vineyard. Around 190 cases made. Medium intensity nose. Bright red fruits of cherry and strawberry mixed with some blood orange. Medium-minus body weight and juicy medium-plus acidity. Good patio sipper but not a great value compared to Grenache-based Rhone and Spanish Navarra rosés in the $10-15 range.

2016 Grenache blanc Dry Creek Valley ($19-24) — From the Mounts Family Vineyard. Around 245 cases made. Medium intensity nose. Tree fruits–pear and apples with noticeable baking spices of clove and nutmeg. Subtle herbalness. Medium body weight and medium acidity. Long finish ends on the tree fruits. Reminds me of a more refreshing Chardonnay.

2016 The Grenachista Alder Springs Mendocino County ($34) — High intensity nose. Dark fruits with wild berries like huckleberry, blackberry and boysenberry. Lots of blue floral notes and herbs de Provence giving this wine a lovely bouquet. Very full bodied but very ripe medium-plus tannins that are balanced by medium-plus acidity which highlights a peppery spice. Long finish.

The very full-bodied and fruit forward Mathis Vineyard Grenache from Sonoma Valley would go toe to toe with much more expensive old vine Grenache from Australia.


2015 Grenache Mathis Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($34) –Around 273 cases made. Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dark fruit–blackberries and black cherries. By far the most fruit forward nose of the bunch. Some spices come out on the palate with medium-plus acidity giving the fruit a lip-smacking juiciness. Ripe medium-plus tannins and full body bodied fruit. Kind of feels like an old vine Aussie Grenache.

2015 Grenache Mounts Family Vineyard Dry Creek ($34) — Made from clones 362 and 513 sourced from the Southern Rhone and Languedoc. Wild fermented with 100% whole cluster. Around 273 cases made. High intensity with a lot of savory black pepper spice that has a smoked BBQ element. Mix of red and dark fruit flavors on the palate. Medium-plus body and medium-plus acidity with ripe medium tannins. Long mouthwatering finish ends on the savory notes.

The Verdict

Across the board I was enjoyed all of CR Graybehl’s wines though I definitely think the best values lie with their reds. These wines shinned at a tasting that featured many more expensive bottlings. The whites are certainly well made and tasty but you are paying a little bit of a premium for their small production.

The vineyard designated Grenache noirs, however, could be priced closer to $45 and would still offer very compelling value. Each one has their own distinctive personality and character that more than merit exploring further.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!