Category Archives: Random

Winemaker’s Madeleine

Fall ColorWoke up to a crisp morning after rain yesterday. The smell of Autumn is in the air. Smells at the winery are reaching their seasonal end also. Thursday I pressed off my last wine lot of the 2014 vintage, the Cabernet I’m making with Marcel that we macerated for 37 days. Completing the work of harvest usually provokes me to reflection, if not melancholy.

Proust — that pedantic f**k — bit into his madeleine and pressed his readers to recognize that time is never really lost. This morning one of my favorite wine slingers and writers in the world, Samantha Dugan, asked the question of what top three aromas evoke memories of happy childhood. In response I tossed back the first three that popped into my head, but I’ve been thinking of many others ever since.

  • I swear in dreams I remember the smell of my mom when she held me as a very small child: the artificial freshness of Prell and Hair Net, the floral complexity of her favorite perfume L’air du Temps which she knew to wear lightly when she was young, and under all the warm natural sweetness of her skin.
  • When I was very young I lived with my grandparents in North Hollywood for several years. The smell of my father’s mother’s kitchen in the morning will always be with me: coffee, bacon, buttermilk biscuits or cinnamon cake cooking in a gas oven, syrup warming on the stove, fresh orange juice, the smell of a newspaper at the table mingled with fresh-cut grass smells coming in the open windows, cigarette smoke on my grandpa, and hints of old linoleum underfoot.
  • My grandparents’ home had a huge sycamore out front. The weirdly aromatic, papery, spicy smell of sycamore leaves in the morning was more powerful even than cut grass, or the incipient smog that would become oppressive in the heat of the day and into the evening. My grandma always hung out the laundry early in the day, the detergent smell of wet clothes as they dried supplanted with hints of those sycamores.
  • The ice cream truck that came through the neighborhood, it seemed daily, had a smell of melting frost and the promise of popsicles. But it was nothing compared to the power of the Charles Chips truck that came by every week with a warmer drawer full of donuts: yeasty dough, fragrant grease, sugary glaze, chocolate, and caramel made a heady, potent mix that to this day evokes a slavering response from my inner child.
  • My disciplined grandpa smoked two cigarettes a day, and sipped a single Old Fashioned in the evening when he returned from his daily walk to say the Rosary. I remember the smells of Old Spice aftershave, tobacco, Bourbon and maraschino cherries fondly. Even more fondly I remember that he occasionally smoked a pipe. He kept several aromatic tobaccos, a collection of briars — one always new — a calabash, and a meerschaum in a cabinet in the study off the main house, a room that had been my father’s when he was a boy. When no one else was around I would take the pipes out of the cabinet to hold them, but really to smell them.
  • I spent less time at my mother’s mother’s more formal home. I recall smells of leather and lacquered furniture, wool carpets over creaky wood floors, vaguely musty drapes, and the sweet spicy and fruity promise of hard candies she kept in a covered ruby glass dish in her den. I recall the warm goodness of gingerbread cake and oatmeal cookies from her kitchen. And cigarettes, which would eventually claim her life. But most strongly I remember the aromas we kids generated when we ran around in her front yard chasing skinks. Her yard was not planted to turf but was covered instead with a food-deep growth of broad-leaf ivy. I can almost taste the sharp vegetal pungency our steps would raise from bruising the purple ivy stems, and the rich loamy mushroom smell from the decay underneath.
  • I have a very sharply-limned memory of my first airplane trip. My mother, my younger brother, and I were flying from Texas to meet my father in Venezuela where he had been sent to live and work. I recall we had an overnight layover, probably in Miami, and our hotel room faced the end of the airport runway. I sat for hours on the balcony that night watching and listening to the 707s taking off right over our heads, drenching me with the smell of jet fuel and exhaust — truly unforgettable.
  • When I was older our family would drive from Houston to Southern California nearly every summer to vacation with family. I remember smells from those long drives: if the forever views in the southern deserts have a smell it is a combination of hot vinyl upholstery, hot asphalt, unburned gasoline and diesel exhaust, dust, mesquite, and sometimes the faint, far-off, and surprisingly pleasant smell of skunk.
  • When we stayed with family in the Valley we would drive to the beaches several times a week: Santa Monica to Malibu. To this day any smell of eucalyptus or bay evokes strong memories of early-morning drives through Laurel or Topanga Canyons, or on Kanan-Dume. The smells of the beach are forever with me: salt spray, ozone, washed-up kelp and small bits of decaying sea life, and always Coppertone, Coppertone, Coppertone on the hot sweet skin of all of us – me, my siblings, and my beautiful cousins from Tarzana.
  • My mother’s father built a home and planted an orchard of citrus and avocado in the hills north of Escondido, near Jesmond Dene Road about a mile east and above Highway 15. My siblings, my Montana cousins, and I roamed that place like wild savages. We hunted and trapped rabbits, and I have good memories of the smells of the dusty dirt road along the flume, gunpowder, and salted pelts drying in the sun.
  • Grandad had a huge shop where he let us make things using power tools and exotic hardwoods, wrench on his old pickup truck, even repaint it, where the pungent aromas of fresh sawdust, of greases, solvents, and paints were deeply ingrained in me. He paid us a little to do chores — mostly picking fresh fruit or cleaning up the fallen stuff before it rotted too badly. Those citrus smells are good memories.
  • But the best and strongest memory of Grandad’s place came from a daily chore we fought over: washing the red dust off the hot painted concrete driveway, with mineral-laden well water at high pressure through a brass nozzle on a thick red rubber hose. Each one of those elements had a distinct, intensely evocative smell, all are intertwined in my memory.
  • I have fewer great smell memories from my childhood in Texas, but there are some. My dad was an engineer and he would at times take me with him to the steel fab shop, the oilfield, the refinery, the ship channel. The oil industry has left me with good memories of the smells of its associated aromas, even of the “bad” smells. Along these lines of appreciating chemical aromas, I liked the smell of the mosquito fogger truck that roamed our neighborhood at dusk, rumbling, growling, and belching clouds of thin, billowy, sweet-smelling death.
  • We lived in a neighborhood of old ranch houses on big parcels covered with oak trees, and every fall all the neighbors would rake dead leaves into big piles and we’d have fragrant bonfires evening after evening. A couple blocks from home there was a bayou surrounded by a wooded nature preserve, redolent with the fresh smells of pines and oaks after rain, and the mustiness of humid decay. We played there nearly every day as children after school, and got up to trouble there well into our teens.
  • My dad was an avid hunter, and from a young age took us out for ducks and geese in the rice fields west of Houston, or for quail, dove, deer, javelina farther afield in central Texas or near the Mexican border at Del Rio. I can hardly begin to describe the complex aromas associated with these hunts, ranging from the close proximity of unwashed humans sharing tents and cabins, to the wild aromatics of mesquite and chaparral, to the funky musk of game on the hoof that I could track by smell without a dog, to the warm, wet saline funky heat of dressing out a kill, to the chemical complexity of cleaning and lubricating firearms.
  • A lot of my good smell memories from this time were amplified by simply getting out of the heat and humidity attendant to living in Houston. There were very few private pools in our neighborhood — two that I remember: our neighbors across the street had a small one and a couple down the block where I house sat when I was older had one indoors (years later I was told that that house had been a porn set before the couple I knew bought it, bit of a shocker in those days) — but we belonged to a swim club and a tennis club that had large pools. The smell of chlorinated pool still washes me with remembered pleasure.
  • My mother was a student of the arts, and often took us to museums, concert halls and especially libraries — each with their own characteristic smells that I at least partly associated with the pleasure of getting out of the heat.
  • Mom was not a particularly adventuresome cook — as I recall it, nobody else was at that place and time either. She made one dish fairly often whose aroma evokes pleasurable memories: a casserole of chicken and rice with curry and raisins.
  • Sundays were special because dad would cook homemade buttermilk pancakes with warm syrup, Jimmy Dean sausage patties cut from that plastic tube, and broiled canned peaches with cinnamon and brown sugar — all good smell memories that harkened back to his mother’s kitchen. In the afternoons we’d watch football on TV and he’d make his version of a “Dagwood” sandwich stacked high with cold cuts, fried slices of hotdogs and Spam, cheeses, and pickles (if he had cut back on the meats a little and had had a sandwich press, it would have made a credible Cubana). The smell of those sandwiches has stuck with me mostly because dad shared the sandwich, not because the smell was that great.
  • I will never forget my first sweet, savory, spicy, smoky smell of real Texas pit barbecue. And there was this deli a few miles from home that I tried to get my parents to take us to all the time that made a sliced roast beef sandwich the like of which I have not smelled or tasted since those days. If I ever encounter that particular smell and taste again, that could be my “madeleine” moment.
    • When, How, Why Wine?

      I grew up with wine as part of our family meal, having sips and small glasses regularly from a young age. Perhaps surprising given where my career path has taken me, I do not have any fond smell memories of wine from those early days. Not then, but I found them later when I was a surly, rebellious teen obsessed with the countercultural pushback against “authority” — tall, skinny, angry, with bad skin, nerdy glasses, and hair halfway down my back in defiance of my father and of school policy.

      The first wine I recall as a distinct life event was a bottle of Valpolicella that dad ordered when he dragged the family to a newly-opened Spanish restaurant where I had my first, revelatory taste of paella. I don’t remember the wine, but I remember the experience. And it triggered something in me that never tripped back.

      Later in that same era we took one of our last family vacations to California and rented a motorhome in Oceanside which we drove up the Coast Highway, ending up in Napa Valley and camping at Bothe State Park. My parents took surly young me along with them to visit at least a half dozen wineries over a couple days. From the get-go I was incensed to find that I would not be allowed to taste the wines with my parents — fine to do in Texas at the time, but against the law in California.

      But the smells, the smells! The wines, in their native environment, the smell of the barrels and old redwood tanks in the cellar all struck a deep chord in me. Maybe the experience was intensified by the anger, but from that point onward I was really interested in wine, not exactly obsessed, but focused. And that is what eventually led me to choose UC Davis as the uni where I would do my doctoral work — the fact of UCD’s proximity to wine country.

ALL Wines Deserve A Level Playing Field

ElBanditoAlice Feiring and I don’t often agree, but today she put up a lament that I sympathize with completely on the exclusion of wines she loves by “quality panels” in Canada and South Africa.

The brilliant label pictured (love how they have used the bar code!) graces a wine that is unusual. Because it is unusual, tasters on the South Africa Wine & Spirit Board rejected it and thus the producer is not allowed to export the wine. Regardless of the fact that the wine has an international fan base, because the tasters on the SAW&SB didn’t like it, the producer is being restricted in his ability to sell it.

Wines that tasters on Ontario, Canada’s Vintners Quality Alliance panel don’t care for are denied a substantial tax break that other wines produced in the province receive – making the economics of production and distribution that much more challenging. Alice and other fans of these wines are rightfully outraged.

Laws that dictate what can and can’t be in a wine, and laws that insist that the label on a wine bottle accurately reflects what is in the bottle (at whatever level of detail is deemed appropriate, and enforceable) are desirable, and protect the producer as well as the consumer.

But laws that empower tastemakers to impose economic sanctions on wines that don’t fit some arbitrary “taste” standard are abhorrent. As Eric Asimov has said: “…distinctive wines will always be at least somewhat divisive.”

The ONLY criterion that should determine whether a wine producer gets to market their wine in any way they choose, wherever they choose, is this: if just one consumer is willing to buy a second bottle – with the only context for their decision being that a friend recommended the wine, or Alice Feiring, or Eric Asimov, or the awesome somm at the table of their favorite restaurant.

Stop Calling Wine “Juice”

Master Somm Juice TastingI admit it’s a pet peeve of mine. I acknowledge that there are more important things going on in the world of wine, like the current schmoozing at IPNC, or maybe the lack of diversity on wine writer panels at the recent blogger conference. But please, I implore everyone! For the love of God stop referring to wine as “juice”!

It’s Infantile

Toddlers drink juice. Wine is an adult beverage. When one refers to wine as “juice” in public it sounds like baby talk, and may — in truth — violate the industry’s voluntary guidelines on promoting underage drinking. Think about it.

It’s Derogatory

As slang, all other connotations of “juice” are negative. Money and influence, likely gained in an unsavory manner. Steroids. Spunk, jism, baby batter, semen. Stop it. And it is an unfortunate fact that “juice” is an apt descriptor for some wines that people reading this post may find easy to sell but wouldn’t be caught dead drinking themselves.

It’s Exclusionary

I’ll allow that industry insiders — the bro’s, the dudes and dudettes who sling this stuff for a living — use the term amongst themselves with reasonable impunity, and sometimes a nod and a wink to irony. Get it? Insiders — otherwise known to outsiders as “douchebags” — use the term. Insiders? — stop using it in public. Outsiders? — stop using it at all.

It’s Inaccurate

At the end of the day juice is to wine as fetus is to baby. As milk is to cheese. As bricks are to houses. People don’t confuse these other things, or use one word to refer to the other.

And in other news…

On a more serious note, obviously if I haven’t posted anything here since May 16th there is something else taking up all my time and attention. Premature to report, but news is coming. Until then I am throwing out random bits and little fits @jkellyca on Twitter

"Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics" – It Was Ever Thus…

What kind of lab is this? Credit: Syd MeadAs a consumer, or as a producer, how badly do you really want to know what is in your wine? Would you stop buying (or making) a wine you really liked if you found that it didn’t “stack up” against others in areas that had nothing to do with aroma, flavor, value, or age-worthiness? As a producer, do you change the way you make a successful wine in reaction to some arbitrary praise for a different style? Who would you trust to make those determinations? Inquiring minds want to know.

In early April Alice Feiring tweeted a link to a press release by a lab proclaiming that their in-house testing of over 450 top-selling white wines in the US revealed that one in three of them have levels of lead or arsenic above the level allowed in drinking water under the Clean Water Act.

Oooh I’m so scared…

In fact I am not scared at all, though that seems to be the intent of the press release. Here’s why.

The action level the EPA lists for lead in drinking water is 15ppb (a part per billion is a microgram per liter in liquid or per kilogram in a solid) and for arsenic it is 10ppb. The low levels allowed for both of these metals in drinking water are based not only on their toxicity but mostly on the volumes likely to be consumed by children, not adults.

By contrast, in a letter to the TTB the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the FDA stated:

“The Health Hazard Evaluation Board (HHEB) determined that the daily intake of table wine containing 150ppb or less of lead is likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population, including women of childbearing age.”

Note that the concentration beneath concern by the HHEB is over ten times the action level for lead in drinking water. The director then goes on in the letter to propose that the action level for lead in table wine should be 300ppb.

There is no mention in the Code of Federal Regulations of a limit for arsenic in table wine. The FDA is currently engaged in rule making which proposes an action level of 10ppb in apple juice — the same level as in the standard for drinking water.

Given that this 10ppb arsenic proposal is based on the fact that children drink a lot of apple juice (as well as water), it would be unsurprising to me if the HHEB was to suggest that a level of arsenic in wine of ten times the drinking water standard would be “likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population.”

Levels Of Lead & Arsenic In Other Foods

It’s long been known that plants accumulate these metals (and others) from the environment. For example, lead levels in lettuce grown next to highways (where the soil is contaminated with decades of accumulation from burning leaded gasoline) have been measured at up to 1.5ppm (1,500ppb) — over 100 times the drinking water standard.

The FDA has measured levels of arsenic in rice (which tends, more so than other grains, to accumulate the naturally occurring metal from the water it is grown in) — especially brown rice — of up to 700ppb, or over 70 times the drinking water standard.

But that’s not really the point. Concerns over toxicity or toxic effects pivot on the serving size and frequency of ingestion. Even the most determined hypochondriac must recognize that drinking enough wine to reach even mildly toxic levels of lead and/or arsenic is likely to result in negative health consequences due to excessive alcohol consumption that far exceed the damage caused by the exposure to these metals.

Which leads back to the question: what is the point of the press release by this lab, warning of levels of these metals in wine that exceed drinking water standards? Assume that the purpose of the press release was to generate media attention for the new business with a scary headline — the tactic appears to have failed. Today I can find no online references to the “1 in 3 wines tested”” headline, and it appears the lab has even removed the press release from their website (though the original tweet is still up).

Perhaps they don’t have much faith in their methodology. I certainly have questions about their performance. This lab claims that their current accuracy/precision is ±20% — a level of uncertainty that was not good enough for me or for my clients when I managed a wine services laboratory in the late 1990s.

In a Twitter exchange with this lab I asked if they had ISO certification and the answer was “we have started the process.” However, I know from experience that the process can take well over a year, and that ±20% on analytical results won’t be acceptable analytical accuracy/precision to the accrediting agency.

In a further Twitter exchange with the lab, they declined to state where they are getting their startup capital, and would not respond to a request regarding their business model — i.e. how they plan to make money after they burn through their startup funding.

What Is The Agenda Here?

Ignoring the implied — and mistaken — assumption in the press release that table wines should be held to the same standards for these metals as drinking water, there is the question of how the levels of lead and arsenic in wine compare to levels found in other foods. The lab does not say what absolute levels they found in the 450+ wines they analyzed, so it is impossible for an educated and concerned consumer to assess the risk. Without the actual statistics, according to the axiom: perhaps we are left only with lies and damn lies as the other possibilities.

This lab is attempting to establish itself as an arbiter of which wines are “healthier” than others on a range of metrics. Rather than provide actual levels of “unhealthy” components in wines in the context of the range of levels of these same components found in comparable serving sizes of other foods, they claim they are using a proprietary algorithm to weight the levels they measure — however accurately, or inaccurately — by non-transparent and therefore arbitrary criteria in order to generate a one-to-five-star “ranking” for individual wines. While Federal law prohibits wine producers from making health claims about their products, third parties such as this lab are, surprisingly, exempt from this injunction.

Much has been written about mandatory composition/nutrition labels on wines, and I’ve written before about the realities and pitfalls surrounding these proposals. While I do have reservations, I generally support the right of interested consumers to know what they are paying to put in their bodies:

Mrs Winslow's Baby Killer

How would you know this contains morphine, alcohol, soda ash and ammonia?

If the people running this lab were more transparent about their funding, their business model, their weighting algorithm and their overall agenda, it’s likely I would be inclined to support their mission. As it is, I have a lot of unanswered questions, mostly regarding the potential for this lab’s activities to result in both direct and indirect coercion of producers: either a pay-to-play scenario, or a requirement to defend our products against specious or spurious claims of “unhealthiness.”

Since the lab was unwilling to provide information, I forwarded these concerns to the Wine Institute, and apparently the legal and technical teams there share them. Here’s their reply to my inquiry:

Wine Institute’s Technical Advisory Committee has been monitoring [this lab] for several months now to determine their direction, intent and purpose. We agree with your assessment that [this lab] has the potential to leverage their web presence and immunity from TTB therapeutic claims provisions to coerce industry members. At this point, we are actively monitoring their website to see if any of their statements rise to the level of a legally actionable claim for defamation, unfair business practice, or false representation.

In light of this uncertainty, Walter White has good advice for everyone involved in this issue for the time being: Heisenberg As this develops I’m soliciting my producer friends and acquaintances on what they think about a third party ranking their wines on arbitrary scales of “healthiness.” I’m wondering what consumers think of this as well: believable? Helpful? Inquiring minds want to know.

Rites of Spring

Mar 14, 2014 View From TopHere we are, a few days into spring, and the vineyard is still looking pretty bare, while the vines in Carneros already have a couple inches of growth on them. The crew finished pruning and tying at our Estate vineyard about a week ago.

The young, cane-pruned Pinot next to the highway has started to pop (this is in the clone 91 “Pommard”): Mar 14, 2014 PN91 …but the rest of the block is still barely woolly. It used to be that the Tannat at the top of the slope was my “canary in the coal mine” indicating budbreak was imminent:

Mar 14, 2014 Tannat Old VineMar 14, 2014 Tannat Young Vine

…but only one vine up the hill — the young, cane-pruned replacement on the right — has popped, while the older vines in the rest of the block look like the vine on the left.

As a matter of course, our cane-pruned vines are trained to two canes and two renewal spurs (double-Guyot pruning) which looks like this older vine of Pinot clone 943: Mar 14, 2014 PN943 Double Guyot This pruning works well for our Dijon clones and the young vines of the heritage selection Pinots — the vines are well-balanced between crop and canopy. However over the last couple vintages we have discovered that the Haynes selection of Pinot (which we think may be a mutation known as Pinot Liébault) is more vigorous than the other Pinot Noir selections at the vineyard. We have decided we need to set an extra cane to help dissipate this vigor, meaning we had to stretch a new fruit wire to support the extra wood, as seen below:
Mar 14, 2014 PN-HVS 3-canesWe’ll see if this works for us. If the crop load ends up too heavy for the site, we will treat the third cane as a “kicker” and remove it after berry sizing and before veraison.

Endings & New Beginnings

There seem to be an unusual number of changes happening around here right now, big and small, that leave me unsettled. Bob Cabral is leaving Williams Selyem to do who knows what. I met Bob way back when he was winemaker at Alderbrook and his wife worked with me at Vinquiry.

Steve Heimhoff suddenly announced that he is leaving Wine Enthusiast to go to work for Jackson Family Wines as director of communications and wine education. Steve has been working as an independent wine reviewer for nearly as long as I have been in the industry — for Spectator from 1989 and then Enthusiast from 1994.

Then came the news that Wilfred Wong is leaving BevMo to go to work in PR for I can remember when Wilfred started at BevMo — it was 1995 — but it seemed that he had become a fixture there.

Then there’s little things, like the closing after 18 years of Hot Shots, my favorite independent drive-through coffee stand in Sonoma, which will become a Dutch Bros. coffee outlet. It’s going to be interesting to see what the local cadre of finger waggers has to say about the rampant proliferation of coffee chains in our town (first Starbucks, and then Peet’s and now THIS outrage! where will it all end!?), now that they have lost on limiting hotel size, regulating winery tasting rooms and painting ice cream store doors pink.

Maybe I’m still unsettled by the news that a close older family member took a hard fall a couple weeks ago. Or maybe it was the hit-and-run driver that rammed into my car from behind at a stop light the other day. Maybe I’m unsettled by the annual pre-tax-day worries that my business and personal finances are teetering on the verge of insolvency.

Even good news can have an unsettling effect. I’m very happy, but also inexplicably on edge that three good friends are about to have babies. What could be unsettling about that?

I find it curiously disturbing that, nearly a decade and a half after the failure and bankruptcy of the Mobius Painter winery project that was slated to be built on land adjacent to our Estate vineyard, the parcel has finally been purchased by our neighbors on either side of it (Annadel Estate Winery and Novavine grapevine nursery) for a joint development.

I’m even a little nervous that the Weather Service is forecasting rain for Tuesday and again Friday, as we need to get our first sulfur application on the vineyard and dig out some slumped water channels that led to unwanted flooding in the last storm.

This brings me back to the one pure good thing that is not unsettling of itself: the vineyard. No matter what changes are in store for me this year — and I’m certain there will be many — the vineyard is a constant. Sure as the sun rises (which it is doing as I put the finishing touches on this piece) the regular annual rhythms of the vineyard will march on. I’m on my way there shortly to walk and check out the progress of budbreak and become, myself, for a moment, a participant with a small part of the rites of spring.

Calling Budbreak — Finally

PN 96, 4/12/2013 Everything has broken bud at the Estate vineyard, at last–even the late-breaking Counoise. That’s young, cane-pruned Pinot 96 in the image above, where shoots are already out about two inches.

We finally managed to get a little rainfall accumulation last week, nearly an inch last Thursday. You can also see in the image above that this has really helped push the cover crop, which is topping 2 ft. in some areas and is no less than 6″ anywhere. The bromes are setting good seed, and I’m seeing more rye and clover than I did last year. And the mix with turnip, marigold, and the many other annuals and perennials in our mix, is gorgeous.

PN 943 April 12, 2013 I just like this picture. What you can’t see from this particular angle is that a very large fraction of the buds in the Pinot are pushing two shoots, and most of them are sporting two clusters. This means we are in for a lot of work to manage canopy density and crop load this vintage. Traditionally we call and end to frost season in the middle of April, but the weather pattern has changed enough that I won’t stop worrying about frost until at least the start of May and more likely the middle of May. Jet and geese I snapped the pic above just before leaving the vineyard this morning: a small flock of geese with a low-altitude jet still throwing a contrail.

It’s been nearly six weeks since my last post, but then there has been a lot going on. First, my assistant (and friend) Justin Moulton moved on to a new job early in the year (he’s now managing the spirits program for Bounty Hunter in Napa). It took me a while but I eventually succeeded in bringing Kyle Altomare on board. Here’s a pic of the new guy: Kyle Altomare Kyle came to Westwood from Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, where he managed their wine club (which is substantially larger than ours). Kyle hopes to rapidly expand his knowledge of the industry through participating in all aspects of production, sales and marketing with me.

The other thing that has been occupying my attention is preparation for bottling. We did a pretty big day on Friday, April 5th: Bottling, April 5, 2013 We had originally scheduled the bottling for Thursday, but could not guarantee we would have all our labels in time. That turned out to be a blessing, as nearly an inch of rain fell (as I mentioned at the start of the post). Friday was supposed to be clear, but we ended up with an hour rain delay after we started on the day. Wasn’t too much of an issue, but I was very glad when it stopped.

I’m really happy to have got one of the best rosés I have ever made in the bottle. We also did a bottling for custom crush client, Marcel Petard—a white blend of 80% Roussanne and 20% Viognier. Marcel bought the juice from the grapes we pressed off for us to use the skins and seeds in our Syrah ferments. I thought Enkidu, Bedrock, or Tricycle would buy the juice, but this guy showed up at the right place at the right time with cash in hand. Don’t know a lot more about him or his brand, but we will be selling the wine for him out of our Tasting Salon. 2013 New Wines

“Industry” Guests

Free Tasting Taking a quick break from harvest (HARVEST!!!) to get a little rant off my chest.

Dear “Industry”:

Please don’t come into my tasting room, flash some sort of business card, announce that you are “in the industry” and demand a free tasting for you and your friends.

Not gonna happen.

We don’t give free tastings to anyone anymore, except to our Wine Club members. Our production is tiny. We pour over 25% of our inventory in the tasting room – think about that.

I appreciate that the winery where you have worked for all of two weeks gives free tastings to “industry.” I imagine that the fraction of that winery’s hundred-thousand-case-plus annual production that gets poured off in the tasting room is on the order of a rounding error. Just because some wineries do pour free to “industry” does not mean that you should expect that every one will.

And hey, take your shitty attitude with you when you leave. I will have forgotten about you in a few days, and don’t expect we will cross paths again.

We won’t hesitate to keep referring our guests to the tasting room at the winery where you currently work, because I have known the owner there for decades and he’s a great guy making great wines, and lord knows I have also made hiring mistakes in the past.

Sincerely, and with all due respect,
The owner, winemaker, and dictator of free tasting policy.

Praise The Thoughtful Wine List

Today I feel like writing about semantics, because the words we use matter (“natural” wine, anyone?). A month ago Jon Bonné put up a piece on “The Bay Area’s incredible shrinking wine lists” where he commented:

Years ago, restaurants like Square One and Zuni Cafe pioneered that balance of fancy and fun. Later came Nopa, with its wildly diverse collection of more than 250 wines assembled by wine director Chris Deegan, with everything from Swiss Chasselas to Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. It had all the length of a fancy list, with none of the pretense, yet it now feels big by comparison to the svelte lists at, say, Piccino or Bar Tartine.
That reflects another theme mirrored in our dining habits: a communal fatigue with endless choices. The success of focused wine shops like Biondivino in Russian Hill or Dig in Dogpatch shows that we’re ever more content to let someone else curate for us.
So while the list at Perbacco remains an encyclopedia of Barolo and Barbaresco, it has always seemed beholden to expense-account Financial District customs. When Barbacco opened just two doors down in 2010, then-wine director Mauro Cirilli devised an avant-garde selection – on iPads, no less – that veered toward Slovenian Ribolla Gialla and Oregon Gamay Noir.

This piece generated a mild furore over short vs. inclusive vs. comprehensive wine lists among the thirty or so people who actually read and comment on the wine blogs I follow.

Thursday, a wine rep acquaintance re-tweeted a consumer’s lament: “ack! so sick of ‘_____ curated the wine list.’ no they didn’t. they made the wine list.”

My response was: “‘Curating’ is 1 way to make a wine list. Letting the SWS rep write it for u is another. I’ll take curated.” Continue reading

Do Proponents of “Natural” Wine Vaccinate Their Children?

no inoculation This question occurred to me the other day as I was reading a Newsweek/Daily Beast article about the increasing number of measles cases in the US. Author Kent Sepkowitz wrote this little nugget regarding people who refuse to vaccinate their children:

For these folks, and their 200-year-old forebears, vaccines are bad because they are not “natural.” This is true, but isn’t the point of civilization to rise above the blunt cruelty of nature? To arrive at some higher ground where we, and not Mother Nature, can call a few shots? … One of nature’s charter members is measles, which, even with WHO’s impressive efforts, still kills hundreds of thousands of children annually. Its victims die a slow, miserable, natural death as the virus overwhelms every organ within a few weeks, culminating in respiratory failure. Vaccination has saved tens of millions of lives, more than any other medical invention. It is one of the few health-care heroes out there. Wouldn’t it be more natural for us to be thankful?

This got me thinking about the insistence in some quarters that un-inoculated wine is “better” wine. I am in no way equating the importance or consequences of choosing whether or not to vaccinate children with whether or not a winemaker chooses to add yeast to a wine, or with a consumer choosing to only drink wines with no added yeast.

I AM wondering if there is any intersection between the set of “natural” wine advocates, and the anti-vaccination set.

If there is strong overlap, it would clarify things for me a bit. If there is little or no overlap, that would raise questions for me of coherence and consistence in the philosophy held by “natural” wine advocates.

Corks, & Cork Soakers

Yesterday I spent a couple hours chatting with a gentleman from Chalon-sur-Saône and his Irish friend. The subject of natural corks came up, in the context of my commitment to using them over screw caps. The French guy currently works for a respected tonnellerie but before that worked for a high-end cork supplier. He told me a story that was too marvelous to keep to myself:

One day he was visiting one of his customers, a well-regarded Burgundian producer. While he was in the middle of taking an order for corks, the producer gets a phone call from a local restaurant: “Oooh, we have a BIG problem! SIX bottles out of the last case you sent us were CORKED!” Producer: “One moment, please…” and he puts them on hold while he explains the situation to my new friend.

Apparently, this restaurant was calling the producer every week complaining of “corked” bottles and asking for replacements; this AFTER demanding a 10% discount off every invoice against the possibility of returned bottles. With the restaurant on hold, the producer expounded to his supplier that he did not believe the rate of corked bottles was anywhere near 10%, much less 50%.

My new friend asks for the phone: “Hello, I’m a representative of the company that supplies the producer with the corks you are having trouble with. This is very worrying to me! Please, put the bottles with the problem corks aside and I will be right over to pick them up. I want to take them back to our lab and have them tested.”

Restaurant: “Puf…uh…well, two customers who complained ended up accepting the bottles after all…and we used several more in, um, sauces and other cooking…and, well, they are not here.” Supplier: “Then PLEASE, next time you encounter a corked bottle call me immediately and I will come over to pick it up for analysis. We are very concerned!” Restaurant: “OK we will. Thank you.”

After that, the calls from this restaurant to the producer about corked bottles stopped. The producer stopped giving the 10% discount. And the restaurant never complained.

I have heard of restaurants playing this scam, but never anything this egregious. My friend proposed that this game might be more common in France. He explained that businessmen taking their colleagues, clients, and—especially—secretaries out for a meal are inclined to reject a bottle or two in order to show how confident and important they are.

I wonder if this approach actually makes them seem more confident and important to their colleagues, clients, and secretaries (um… no, I don’t).