Wednesday, July 3, 2019

BRAMBLES: Storied Wine

"Wine for lunch?"  It was just a simple, Cal-Provencal chicken breast and salad with feta, but the early summer day quietly demanded a lazy, unpretentious quaff.  "But, we have nothing chilled", she may have said.  No problem.  Just grab a bottle of light bodied, high acid juice from the dark, cool space below and prepare it for the quick chill.  Ten minutes is all that it will take, because we are going to crisp-change the temperature of a cellar-ed bottle, a cool survivor that is still found in the 60+/- degree range even on this summer day.  A Portuguese vino verde gets wrapped in wet paper towel, slipped into a plastic bag(so it doesn't attach to anything else), and laid in the freezer.  As the wet paper quickly chills, it directly transfers cold to the bottles liquid, and within a few minutes it's near perfection for this particular lazy day dejeuner.  It could have been any bottle(sparkling demands even cooler temps), but chilling improved the presentation, focused the physical properties and the bright character of this particular modest bottle of imported white wine.  We could almost imagine the warm and gentile breezes of  a Lisbon seaside cafe.
A sea of familiar brands or a wine adventure?
 Current domestic commercial reports indicate a slow down of overall wine sales, but that is not the case with wines produced in the golden state of California.  Even with import selections increasing daily, this nation's top wine producing state still dominates from a position of strength, with wine shipments increasing by 3% over the previous year. More direct to consumer markets are open in more states than ever before, and wine trends in restaurants continue to bolster the national sales. Another constant that remains is that the most widely popular brands, those comfortably priced, widely available selections, are still mostly produced by large, industrial beverage corporations.  Fans of venerable Louis M. Martini, or MacMurray Estate or J Vineyards may be surprised to learn that these labels are owned and operated by the largest wine company on the planet, E & J Gallo, of Modesto.  Perhaps your 'go-to' is great value ne'gociant  Cameron Hughes, or a Girard, or Tamarack Cellars; they are all popular labels of Sonoma Counties' own, Vintage Wine Estates.  Even that convenient Bota Box wine, or widely dispersed Gnarly Head zinfandel are products of long established Delicato Family wines of Manteca.

 Distinguished brands that are pillars of the state's Napa wine history, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, and Stags' Leap Winery are today all Treasury Wine Estates of Australia properties.  And that popular Meiomi Pinot Noir, as well as iconic, Robert Mondavi Winery are currently part of the largest imported beer company in the U.S., Constellation Brands.  Bottles such as these and countless others are effectively commodity brands, guided by investors who may have never touched its soil or fruit. Mostly, they can generate standardized industrial products, striving for consistency and market-share that's utilizing a shrinking distributor(wholesale) market. But, another thing they may share today is that at one time in the not too distant past, just about all of these brands were a single artisan's dream; regularly producing a genuine and honest reflection of a unique place and time(it was a good year!).
Cheers to another great story!
 Today there are over 685 bonded wineries in Sonoma county, the vast majority being very small producers, those holding on to that artisan's dream from vineyard to cellar. Way back in the late 60's the region had supported fewer than 60 federal licenses. Over these past decades many artisans have been drawn to the songs of local vineyards and its winemaking, many of them found just down the road. They may have names not seen on our favorite retail wine shelves or home town wine lists, but there is a good chance that here is where a wine lover or adventurer can find that summer California dream.  Should you pick up an honest bottle or two, you may find authenticity using the quick chill method back at the yurt or the lodge, and have a story to tell.

Raising a glass here for more than a decade;
 and Salute!


Friday, May 31, 2019

BRAMBLES: Amazing Taste!

One of many papillae types on the tongue

 Mostly, I sit back with amazement when in the company of more perceptive tasters.  The insights that their palates share with their brains just blows my mind, and humbles me in that I did not share in the same immediate recognition.  I feel better when I remember that a minority of the population may have inherited the abilities of 'super-tasters', the benefit/curse when many chemical compounds are perceived more strongly.  As it turns out in this inexact science, it may effect s much as a quarter of the population.  It was helpful then to re-examine how it is that we recognize 'taste'.

 Our taste receptors are not universal. These individual sensors ignite a chemical reaction to a smell, then compounded with those recognized by the tongue and throat receptors, all sending sensory information to the singular brain.  Additionally, our brains also help when we anticipate how something familiar will taste once we see it.  That perceived smell too becomes an integral part of what we savor and connects to our taste histories that are as individual as we are.  Common basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami(savory), can be found in just about everything we put in our mouths, with some strong compounds easier to detect than others. Add pungent, and astringent tastes, and you've got a real mental exercise for the brain to decipher with each anticipated gulp or bite.  Simply, the ability to taste uniquely for our species is just amazing.

Anticipation of taste sets a response.
 Even as a scent can be strongly impressionable, its the blanket in our mouth holding numerous receptor cells, each papillae with thousands of tiny taste buds that is tasked with sending a stream of recognition impulses to our brains.  As it turns out, it is in our individual brains where we actually  'taste'.  This relationship between our sight, our nose, our tongue, our throat and our brain means that 'taste' is unique to each individual taster.  An individuals taste history aside, strong 'flavours', like strawberry, lime or tar(can't forget that smell) are more commonly recognized, while many others require individual repetition and memory.  The exercise of taste, of recognition and repeat helps us to catalog and then anticipate what things actually taste like.  If we had never tasted a kiwi it would have very little flavor anticipation for most of us.

It happens in an instant.  We make connections that spark a memory, impulses that run non-stop from our brains to our olfactory perception and back again.  If it smells bad, we may decide not to drink it.  With nose-blindness or odor fatigue our brains can eventually create an inability to recognize certain odor compounds(consider folks who work at the city dump).  Plus, our sense of taste changes as we age, even as its taste memories remain.  Plus, a loss of recognition is generally accepted as we evolve into mature consumers of food and beverage, so much so that a fabulous sampling years ago of a acclaimed '69 Bordeaux may never be repeated.   

A beverage temperature(cold mutes aromas), the tasting environment(two vodkas and a heavy perfume), and certainly our health(stuffy nose?) also will effect how we are able to perceive taste. Tasting then is always trying to catch those past memories that may never come again. No two experiences are never exactly alike, and for each taster it becomes uniquely sensual.  It is this human ability to taste recognize so much, to experience wide variation, that keeps us in pursuit of the savor moment.  Tasting for us is the here and now of recognizing pleasing aromatic and flavor compounds, and the new memories they may create.  So, if I continue to enjoy drinking what I like, and focus on what is physically happening in that moment, it will happen again. Now I don't feel so out-witted when raising a celebrated glass, because I too am blessed with amazing taste!



Tuesday, April 30, 2019

BRAMBLES: Chasing Greatness...

Beginnings of greatness on Sonoma Mountain AVA
Flowering grapevines now blanket the North Coast vineyard landscape, a fresh start with the annual anticipation of a great harvest bathed in warmer degree days later in the volatile growing season. Comparatively, it is not unlike the national pass time, where groomed conditions awaken in the early spring, in preparation for the long developing run into, hopefully, the post season and a chance for ever-elusive renown. Greatness should, after-all, be elusive, served only to the most resilient, the strongest, and the very best.
Prized Riesling vineyards of Johannisberg, Rheingau
For most wine consumers greatness is ever elusive, as the overwhelming majority of consumers sponge low price point wines consistently produced by large industrial complexes where accountants or shareholders may carry more influence than contracted growers or accomplished winemakers. Those that casually quaff the best of global wines, also find greatness as rare as fine vintages or perfect growing conditions for the most esteemed estates.  Additionally, something as personal as wine has always had the handicap of being subjective: what's good to me may be swill to you.

Part of what makes wine so socially enjoyable is the constant quest to discover a lasting memory that can be shared. Imagine a wine that you can have a conversation with, a goblet that for that instant becomes so much more than just a social beverage. When we find a wine that speaks to us, that opens its soul so that we have a relationship with it, that can be a moment to remember.  There are certainly wines that have all the bells and whistles, all the shining varietal characteristics delivered in balance across almost all price points.  But, a wine that can transport you to a place, to a surprising memory, or for a brief moment to display a story of its unique path is a very special wine that may be on the cusp of greatness.  It can be authentic, an honest expression.
Terraced Syrah vineyards of Cote Rotie
Authenticity is not common to all wines, in spite of what may give us the appearance of vintage consistency. A harmony of the nurtured vine, its true fruit expression in concert with its place and environment, where its 'whole' is more that the total of its parts is then so much closer to authentic. Even as it may appear to most as too esoteric, when found in the glass authentic wines tend to stand out.  For many wine lovers' it becomes their 'ah-ha' moment.  These then are 'honest' wines, a liquid story of a time and a place and careful nurturing that allows them to approach greatness.  Routinely, this is more difficult with the dilution of multiple vineyard sources, where the singular focus becomes prismatic.  Talented winemakers then can then take numerous instruments to compose very unique, yet still authentic, liquid compositions.

It is those rare, innate attributes that are the reasons wine lovers continue to search for greatness.  In that moment when the bottle is pulled from the shelf or ordered off a well-tailored wine list can be filled with the weight of mystery, but buoyed with the yearning to find greatness.  Historically there are prized vineyards or estates that routinely get to the post season for wine lovers because they define, because they know who they are. How fortunate are then are those chasing greatness when its expression can be surprisingly found in the unexpected.  It's even richer when it is a consumer value.


Sunday, March 31, 2019

BRAMBLES: That's Life!

And, so it begins anew, again
 Awakenings. You probably started that dedicated journey some time ago, pushed to explore ways to express those innate impulses that follow, naturally. Under the sun, you feel the appetite for growth. You begin to leaf  (or could have initiated, say,  a wine blog); hesitant at first. What of the vermin, the critics and skeptics; what of the demands of consistent demonstration, that regular attempt to prove value at every turn. Even as you may have had strings of lessons earlier in vine life, you find that in your adult life subsisting on the grape(vitis vinifera) qualities had become a passion, a profession.  Innately,  you feel the ever compelling need to share many lessons you nurtured along the way.  Each spring, each renewal, we are again reminded of this productive cycle of the European grape vine.  A new beginning that follows each harvest, bringing with it a new promise, a yearning,  a new awakening.  It is a renewed life, one that uniquely benefits from each of those many seasons grown before.

Aged bush-vine or 'goblet' pruned zinfandel 
 In Ervin Drake's, 'It was a very Good Year', Frank remembers, 'my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs', 'it poured sweet and clear'.  Contemporary consumers don't generally age their wines; we being an immediate gratification society. Most bottle aging, it is said, occurs on the way home from the retailer.  And, in truth, current consumer market wines are typically ready to drink earlier in their bottle evolution due to decades of advancements in viticulture and oenology, the science of wine-making. It could be enough to have Frank drink anything he would pull from the shelf, since overall quality has continued to improve in our lifetimes. But remember, for those who are planners, aging a bottle can be a joy in collecting and also pay harmoniously mature and delicious benefits.

Spring frosts bring an early burn to new shoots 
 In the retail market there's also an awakening of consumers: more multi-generational wine drinkers who have traveled abroad, and may have explored in vogue dining while keeping up with the latest social craze. And, they drink up easier access to the marketplace with off-premise and direct-to-consumer growth. There's an awakening of producers, too.  Large multi-national corporations standardize qualities of the sourcing and production of the vine, while tacking to harvest the latest wine market trends.  And, more machines are toiling in the global vineyards than ever before, even as growing sustainability is echoed in the rows of vine.  And, there is also an awakening of the vine.  Globally, we continue to invest finding where each vine variety grows best, and how unique characteristics of site and climate are reflected in its best wine.  More controlled yields, standardized regulations and continued research in the many distinguished research academies that continues to nurture global grape growing. It's a world-wide awakening.
Traditional wine retail off-premise

 'It was a very good year', and like just about any year(let's be Frank) there were many segments of market up-swing.  Fortunately, more Americans are drinking wine than ever before, although much is made of millennial population slow down( think fads(prosecco, rose', white zinfandel,etc.).  Current data reports that strong market growth sustains from boomers and gen x(a growing population), and yet, across the country it's still only 10% of the adult population that drinks 90%(appox.) of the wine in spite of increases in popular wines by the glass service and on-line growth.  Wine tourism is on the rise, as well.  Currently, there's early bottling of our last harvest, even as bud break awakens in the groomed vineyards that are blanketed with flowering cover crops(providing nutrients, breaking up compacted soils).  As spring welcomes us, this is a great time in the life cycle of the vine to visit uncrowded estate tasting rooms.

  As the warming sun stimulates that precious need to get active, the vine across the northern hemisphere( the southern globe began 6 months ago )begins again. We consumers are already awakening, making bright plans: that garden Easter, kids to summer camp, a family escape from the doldrums of a wet winter.  Our shared history creates that extended record, for the vine, for the wine industry, and for its consumers.  And, it begins again each spring, from the continued beginning; this too is our awakening.  That's Life!
Raising a glass to the awakening!

  *Celebrating 30 years of service to the NorCal wine community!
  *Leaders in family-owned sustainable viticulture
  *Inaugural awakening in alternative consumer packaging

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

FRANCE: Standard of Values

Ancient World wine service
Not the ancient lands of the golden crescent, Caucasus' to Egypt, nor one of the first wine regulated and defined appellation systems from the globes important early exporter(Porto), and not even the 'land of wine'  claimed by the early Greeks, which currently is the worlds' largest volume producer, would find itself as today's' world benchmark of wine. Sure, there's important cultural and political history with Italy's Chianti region being the first officially recognized wine region in 1716, as there remains with Tokaj's 1730 official demarcation, or the royal declaration of Portugal's Douro regional demarcation in 1756. But, for hundreds of years, another wine country has been internationally accepted as the quality standard for a steadily growing global industry.
Amphora trading vessels for early Mediterranean wines
With a domesticated wine grape history that goes back to around 600 years before Christianity, it's a country that in its regional/national development has survived wars, revolutions and even an inter- national blight of phylloxera among other maladies.  By virtue of its early colonization, its adaptable climates and soils enriched the vine brought here, and then in turn, the vine enriched all of those who loved it. Among the worlds' largest producers, today France bottles billions of bottles annually, and steadfastly remains the high quality standard for most, if not all of wine lovers.

Noted in a recent Decanteur posting, French wine exports(2018) to its number one customer(USA) grew more than 6 per cent over the previous year.  In spite of a wilting market for its products in China, and a worry about the pending Brexit, the French export market has sustained and grows consistently.  Serious collectors and speculators continue to pursue Bordeaux and Burgundy as wine treasures, bench-marked by a recent auction of a prized bottle of French Premier Cru for more than $500,000! To balance the scales, current standards in the French value market continue from its southern Rhone, from Alsace, the Loire and certainly the wines of the South. In the Mediterranean the splash today is with blush wines, where the regions' rose' market shines to be among the most popular in the world.

- Decomposing limestone vineyards of sunny Provence
In the domestic market, our 'off premise' wine sales continue a steady climb; 3%  higher in January than in that same 2018 month, according to Nielsen. 'The rub' surfaced on a North Bay Business Journal cover recently: Too Much Tasting?(2.25.19), as local destinations attempt to limit congestion and growth(tasting rooms). Whereas a current announcement from an industry conclave served notice that there's now a sell off of  "everything that is not a power brand", by beverage giant, Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company.  Meanwhile, for France, distinguished Champagne house Louis Roederer recently acquired pioneering Merry Edwards winery of Sonoma County, it was reported, as its seemingly national standards look to similar high profile foreign acquisitions.
Beaujolais Premier Crus, too
France today remains the reference, as it continues to lead not only super-premiums, but also the world of values; from a blush in the south, to defining Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire, or the 'Germanic' styling's of the Alsace.  These are wines of refreshed methods and anchored in steadfast traditions, wines that are passionately cultivated that remain a mirror of her important viticultural history. For contemporary wine lovers, France not only offers great and notable wines by which others are judged, it also offers the dominant variety of a standard of values.


'Laissez les bon temp rouler'

WineFind: Chateau Briot, AOC Bordeaux Blanc 2017, generous notes of citrus, white peach and honey for a song, and a great example of why Sauvignon Blanc is home in France.