Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BRAMBLES: Integrated Nature

Old World BioDynamics

A broad field of gold and bronze with scars of crimson carpet the seasonal Dry Creek Valley landscape. Soft sunlight bathes the dormant vines as swarms of starlings dance waves in the cool air streaming above. It is autumn, and the premium grapevines of this American Viticultural Area reflect the green loss of chlorophyll across their acres of canopy that are today increasingly sustain-ably farmed. At around 1 million acres, the county of Sonoma has targeted being the nation's first 100% sustainable farm region by 2019!  Further, its environment specific programs, such as the approximately 20,000 acres certified as Fish-Friendly Farming, and the growing Demeter certified farms and vineyards utilizing BioDynamic practices, such as Benziger Family Winery and Dry Creek's Quivira Vineyards establish even higher standards.

Traditional bio-diversity in agriculture evolved dramatically in 1924 thru a series of lectures offered by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, promoting chemical fertilizer, pesticide-free farming. Seen as an entire self-sustaining organism, BioDynamics proposed an integrated, closed nutrient system; essentially a whole farm organism with a close personal connection to the land. Beyond rotating beneficial cover crops, it required beneficial predatory insects, the recycling of nutrients, an integration of livestock, and employing the phases of celestial bodies to positively influence planting and harvesting. Extended to the wine cellar, certification now requires fermentation from native yeasts only, with no adjustments to sugar or acid allowed. It is a holistic approach that at its core is integrated nature.

As may be expected, the philosophical practice is strongly anchored in the Old World, and today there are more than 450 certified viticultural practicioners world wide.  There are currently six(6) BioDynamic vineyards within our Central Coast super-AVA, stretching roughly from San Francisco to Santa Barbara which in total farms than 100,000 acres of vines. Blanketing six(6) counties, it had contained 27 smaller AVA's, as diverse as Santa Cuuz Mountains AVA and Carmel Valley AVA. In the Spring of 2007, numerous petitions from a local 59 member wine industry group began to be filed with the U.S. Treasury Departments Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau requesting changes to the existing demarcations established in 1985(amnended in 1999 & 2006).  Back in 1990 there were fewer than 20 wineries in the region of Paso Robles AVA, and the petitioners were arguing for change.

Historically, it was easy for most consumers of the regions wines to recognize the distinction of the differences from the Costal Range coolness of the western side of the Salinas River as compared to the warmer rolling hills that made up the eastside of the AVA. The bureau's final ruling was published in October of 2014, and the existing Paso Robles AVA of San Luis Obispo county(now home to more than 200 wineries) was sub-divided into eleven(11) defined regions to 'better describe the origin of their wines' or to 'better allow consumers to better identify wines'.  The established divisions are intended to better reflect the areas diverse soils and variations in daily temperature swings and annual rainfall. Jason Haas, general manager of organicly certified Tablas Creek Vineyard(sibling to Perrin's Ch. de Beaucastel of the Rhone valley) and Paso Robles AVA Committee member noted that “ultimately, the new AVAs will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.”
One AVA has become Eleven
 Downtown Paso Robles is today home to more than 15 winery tasting rooms, and on a recent wine escape there was opportunity to taste many fine efforts,  but I found it difficult to discern what was nouveau regionally distinctive. Certinly world class cuvees were to be found westside in the Adelaida Hills AVA at refined estates like Justin Vineyards & Winery(Wine Enthusiast Winery of the Year) and the stunning DAOU Vineyards(SIP Certified).  Extreem comparison took us to top-rated and fun-loving Tobin James Cellars eastside in the new Geneseo District AVA, where they are sourcing premium fruit from literally dozens of local independent grape growers, but no mention of their 'distinctive' AVA was offered by engaging hospitality staff or even their web site.
Tablas Creek Vineyards, Adlaida Hills AVA
On appearance(the first way we taste), many of these wineries seem distinctive by general location and capital investment. Points of differentiation ultimately will begin to sort out the Paso field, offering inevitable comparisions in the spirit of the TTB guidelines that will 'set it apart'. Consumers will increasingly have recognized broader choices from this area, something that Sonoma County to the north is still figuring out how to market.  Until then, we have the truth in advertising that appears on govenment approved wine labels, and the pledge from an increasing number of sustainable viticultural efforts to produce wines that are distinctively integrated with nature.

Certified BioDynamics of the Paso Robles AVA:
  •  AmByth Estate, Templeton
  •  Pine Hawk Vineyards, San Miguel
Salute', and a Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, October 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Tasting the Passion

'Reality is an illusion that exists due to lack of wine'. W.C.Fields
Vineyards of Sonoma Mountain AVA
Routinely, it is offered that of the hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, the top 10% by volume, produce almost 90% of the wine within this vast, diversified agricultural region. This is a landscape holding countless micro-climates and more than 30 soil types, yet the majority of wines produced too often lack a distinction of place.  Assuming that the volume brand leaders base their market success, in part, on continuity and consistency of their wine product, they produce a homogenized wine on what can only be described as an industrial scale.  It is then among the remaining producers of Sonoma County that can offer consumers a distinctive taste of passion.

The bucolic county of a million acres, currently farms more than 60,000 acres to premium wine grapes, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.  Diversely, this represents only about 6% of its total landscape. By recent estimates, it supports more than 1800 grape growers, of which almost 50,000 acres are sustain-ably farmed.  Defined American Viticultural Areas began being uniquely recognized in 1981, and by 1985 there were seven(7). Today there are seventeen(17) Sonoma AVA's. In theory, each offers defining and unique characteristics that can be recognized as part of its heritage and consistency.  
Wild mustard in Sonoma County dormant vineyards

To the Coast Miwok, it was the beginning of the world, but today it is known as the Sonoma Mountain AVA(1985).  Fog-free, high altitude vineyards planted in freely draining soils of mixed volcanic materials contribute to make this a unique, distinctive growing region. Near its crest sits one of the oldest homesteads on the mountain, and one of the tallest Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County. The 26 acre Platinum-rated Van der Kamp vineyard is on the dormant volcanoes north face, and offers its premium fruit to a handful of grateful artisans. LaFollette 2011 Van der Kamp Pinot Noir, displays an opaque plum robe in the glass with a brickish rim, presenting dried, dark tree fruits and earthy notes in its smoky aromas that preview a firm body; a body linear and refined, with a finesse that is developed, focused and deliciously lingering on the palate. Distinctive!

Diversely, just over the north county line in the Mendocino Ridge AVA(1997) and situated on an eroded sandstone plateau near the coast, 2000 feet above the Pacific, is the isolated 26 acre Manchester Ridge vineyard. LaFollette's 2012 Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir sits surprisingly opaque and dense in the glass.  Generous aromas of dried cherries and wild strawberries lift from the glass, a gateway to the round restraint, the opulent and ripe, the rich and sultry. It is a juicy Pinot Noir, with nuance of violets and wet earth, that exquisitely  lingers on the palate. Distinctive II!
Sonoma Coast AVA
Made by the same hand in the same cellar, there is a uniform thread in the style and fashion of these acclaimed vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs.  Each echos a place, and even the distance from that place, if only we take the time to listen.  Even as other vintners source premium fruit from these sites, the vignerons signature, and what the French describe as terrior distinctively assemble in each glass for us to explore.  It is the taste of passion.

Upon reflection, there is a sensibility to this distinction of place.
Old world tradition, tells us that French wine prestige is all about the land; a single celebrated, unchanging plot, and it must be exalted. even revered. It is uniquely a foundation of the concept of terrior.  In Germany, the world leader in production of the noble grape Riesling, the prevailing dictate is that any vineyard site is available to blooming as a great land, but that it must be created. As a New World endeavor, American vintners(and consumers) are still working with the concept of the distinctive place consistently reflected in the glass.  But, when it is understood, when it is translated to the bottle, you often can get a distinctive taste of the passion.

A special thanks goes out from wine lovers to the dedicated men and women of the harvest who make such enjoyable moments possible. Cheers!

Friday, September 25, 2015

BRAMBLES: Harvest Wine Events

Field of Harvest Dreams: Pomace
Harvest signs are everywhere on these warm, late summer days.  Trucks of assorted sizes, configurations, and loads dot the local highways and byways in a seasonal procession.  Casual drives across this Sonoma landscape offer the distinct aromas of the season, one green pocket at a time.  New to the local mix of agricultural perfumes are the notes of the recently pressed juice and solids of freshly harvested grapes(must) and the separated, solid remains of the following grape fermentation, pomace(marc).  In these local AVA's(American Viticultural Area) there is once again the last of the early morning fruit harvesting and the beginnings of another season of harvest dreams. It is nearing the end of a repeated annual cycle that started early in the calendar year with local vines awaking from their required winter dormancy. It is harvest, and a time to celebrate.

Every week here there are numerous and varied wine events around this beautiful county to explore and celebrate our local agri-industry.  The recently lauded Sonoma Wine Country Weekend remains the longstanding grand scale standard-bearer, of course. Small events dot this landscape too, including the newly inaugurated Grenachistas celebration by Sonoma's delicious Suite D's. From the annual August Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival, to the upcoming Kendall Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival(Sat. 09/26), there are countless ways to dig in and enjoy the diversity of the contemporary local wine culture.

For many, a lingering question may be 'why go to a local event? For the neophytes, it can be the desire may be to find something new, to learn more about wines, or to support local businesses and to gain some of that delicious insider knowledge. Those of us that crave socialization will have the scheduled opportunity to interact with others of the same or similar desire, or to join what may be perceived as a 'free' meal and a joyous party. Many who are passionate about the lifestyle may thrill to the idea of enjoying(celebrating) a lively and broad wine experience, or even evaluating scores of diverse wine stylings. But any celebration, wine events included, are amplified by the size and nature of the gathered crowd.  We all love to be part of a happy group, and wine lovers are no exception. It has been that way almost since there was wine, and that is a long time!

What better opportunity than the season of harvest to celebrate with friends, new and old.  An annual chance to renew the worn spirit and reward those local efforts that brought us the delicious bounty we will enjoy currently and into our future. It is the nature of wine, after all.  And another delicious reason to celebrate another California Wine Month.

Taste of Atlas Peak (Sat. 09/26) http://www.atlaspeakappellation.com/specialevents.html
Sonoma Valley Crush (Fri. 09/25-Sun. 09/27)  http://www.heartofsonomavalley.com/
Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival (Friday 09/25-Sun. 09/27)    http://www.valleyofthemoonvintagefestival.com/
Sonoma County Harvest Fair (Fri. 10/02-Sun. 10/04) 
Food & Wine Affair (Sat. 11/07-Sun. 11/08) https://www.wineroad.com/events/wine-food-affair/

Friday, August 21, 2015

TASTE; Apples to Apples

"The quest for taste might be nothing other than a voyage out of childhood...It then occurred to me that perhaps what I was searching for in my own quest for taste was some sort of adulthood."
L. Osborne, The Accidental Connoisseur

Golden, bright honeysuckle in color, the glass offered aromas that reminded me of a sliced apple dipped in butterscotch.  Recognition of that 'apple' character promising to be found in this Chardonnay just had been taken for granted.  I have simply come to expect and anticipated finding something reminding me, even slightly, of apple or pear in the varietal Chardonnay. Interestingly, later that afternoon I sliced in to a beautiful, pristine orb of a Gala, and took a bite.  There was no 'apple' taste at all. Beyond its conventional and polished appearance, how should its taste, I thought, be different than that of an Asian Pear, or even that chilled glass of Chardonnay? What actually is the process of taste, and how do I recognize the alteration of the unique sensations of what we generally describe as taste? It was going to be more than just apples to apples!

By appearance/sight it looks like a fruit that we have had before; a familiar shape, color and texture. Observationally, that glass of wine seems also to be recognized: clear to bright, a light straw to golden in hue. There are even a few in my tasting experience that have offered a slightly green tint to that brilliant glass. My nose above the glass, its aromas lift to recognition thru the nasal cavity, stimulating the olefactory bulb with a quick relay to the limbic system in the brain, the reaction matching previous sense memories. It looks like an apple.  It even smells like what I had anticipated an apple to smell like. Taste, after all, is an individual sensory detection.  It evolves into a rationalized cognitive: the knowing and perceived rational thoughts of distinction; a genetic pre-disposition that affirms the recognition of various sensations, flavors or textures. As a chemical reaction, thousands of taste buds on the tongue, react consistently to these recognized primary tastes: sweet to sour, salty to bitter, and then unami, or savory. Yet, even as our universal recognition or impressions of these primary notes continues to evolve over a lifetime, scientists have recently identified the sensation of fat to the buffet of basics. That initial sense of smell, as well as our feelings for textures, and temperature also will influence ultimately what we perceive as taste.

Unfortunately, these gustatory perceptions begin fade with age, and additionally, not all of us taste things in exactly the same way. There are even a minority of the populations that are recognized 'super tasters' due to a mysterious genetic concentration in their taste buds!  Yet each of us over a lifetime have enough reinforcement of the same or similarly experienced chemical reactions to re-actively recognize and even to categorize taste; the red fruit family(strawberries, raspberries, etc.), the stone fruits(you know who they are), the chemical family(petrol, anyone?), the tertiary family(mushrooms and wet earth), etc. As a result, a marketable contemporary lexicon has become the convenient language for the presumed sensory identification, the sensual description of the living, breathing, ever-changing elixir that is wine. In my case, when a fruit, like an apple, does not taste the way it had previously been categorized a flavored disappointment is bound to set in.
Chardonnay ready for the press

Wind to Wine Grand Tasting, recently featured the wines and the winemakers of the geographic Petaluma Gap region of southern Sonoma County.  Currently part of the broad Sonoma Coast AVA, this contiguous low land region is an east-west wind gap extending from the Pacific Ocean to San Pablo Bay. Offering foggy mornings with generally sunny days, it typically has windy afternoons which thicken grape skins and shut down photosynthesis in the sun drenched vines. Arrested by the areas cool nights that retain a naturally high acidity in the fruit, this sub-region is home to around 4000 acres of vines across more than 200,000 acres of rolling coastal hills; a mix of alluvial soils: gravel to loam, that stretch from Marin to southern Sonoma counties.

After tasting many Chardonnay's from this contiguous region, I assessed that an apple personality, under-ripe to over-ripe, tart to crisp was a flavor foundation to most samples. Its perceived personality jockeyed for attention with many other recognized elements: pear, citrus, barreling, and mineral. As for sight recognition, each selection was on its bottle clearly marked 'Chardonnay', and I began to feel the waning loss of the once pretty apple that did not really taste like an apple.

"I want to live in a world of thousands of different wines, wines whose differences are deeper than zip code, each of them revealing fragments of unending variety and fascination of this lovely green world on which we all walk."
T. Theise, Reading between the Wines


Thursday, July 30, 2015

PINOT BLANC: Refreshingly Under the Radar

Pinot Bianco, the mutant
Surprisingly, I've become a Student of wine, rather than the Educator that became my goal.  I continue to consume wine information in the form of many books, articles and beverage/lifestyle blogs. There are days every week when I engage wine country visitors, sharing wine trivia and subjective impressions of personal taste.  And, I even absorb retail wine displays and restaurant wine lists with a perspective I could not offer prior to becoming a Certified Wine Educator.  Yet, a Student of wine is the lifelong path that I have found myself on.  It is an exploration into a world of wonder and mystery, bottle to glass.  To that end, our congenial wine tasting group recently focused on an under the radar grape varietal, Pinot Blanc, and the expose' was enlightening for a journeyman on a path as a Student of wine.

An offspring of Burgundian Pinot Noir, this widespread white juice variety is the result of a progressive genetic alteration in the noble grape resulting in the permanent change in its DNA; the loss of its skin color pigments.  It is easy to imagine that the powerful14th century Dukes of Burgundy who famously outlawed prolific Gamay rouge in favor of Pinot Noir would have also found displeasure with the albino bastard of Pinot. Today, we can find Pinot Blanc widely dispersed in vineyards from Alsace to Austria and beyond. In Alsace, the spectrum of this grape is prominently featured in lovely Cre'mant d'Alsace traditional method sparklers, traversing to the still, mineral driven and crisp wines(Pinot Bianco) of Italy's wine regions northeast of Venice.
Fittingly for such a world traveler, our tasting group samples covered three(3) countries, with typical descriptions of apple/pear aromas, stone fruit and citrus flavors, having floral notes, as well as medium-bodied currents of mineral and honey.  As is our tasting groups quest, all wines tasted were considerably less than $20/retail.  Some of the domestic selections seemed to be out of balance, a shadow of other examples we tasted.  Prominent among the best of them was the Navarro Mendocino County 2014 Pinot Blanc, a recent sweepstakes winner at the North of the Gate wine competition.  France's northern Alsace region was well represented with the refined Domaine Allimant Laugner 2013 Vin'dAlsace showing well; its tight focus and long length on the palate found it a favorite among most of our experienced tasters.
A widely distributed selection from Italy's glacial Alto Adige DOC, brilliant and stainless steel fermented Elena Walch 2013 was my top rated selection.  Slightly restrained on the nose, it amplified those impressions of scent with a rich volume of white peach and citrus fruits, joining wet flowers and honey with rich texture and mouth-feel that gracefully danced to a moderately long finish.  I found myself pleasingly thirsty for more.  At the close of the tasting I was left with the undeniable impression that the domestic selections were not as focused, or even as refined as those from Alsace or Alto Adige, and yet all were examples of the varietal less expensive than their domestic comparisons.

Alto Adige vineyards
This pleasing international variety was certainly under the radar.  Interestingly, upon review, all of our varietal reviews(Gamay, Muscat, Barbera) have been under the radar grapes.  As I reflect upon that discovery, I am reminded that what I typically drink without analysis on a regular basis are under the radar varietal selections.  They consistently seem to offer the most interest with typically the best value and generally the quality for my particular palate. If you just know where to look, there are a broad selection of friendly, available food wines, like Pinot Blanc, that will keep wine interesting. What more could a frugal student of wine want?

Wine Sip: Germany is second only to Italy in the amount of Pinot Blanc(aka Weissburgunder) planted nationally, and the dry varietal is on a dramatic & popular increase with savvy consumers.


Wine Link: http://www.germanwineusa.com/index.html