Thursday, March 19, 2015

The zin of it

                                                      (Andre Tchelistcheff 1901-1994)

      I've never much liked zinfandel. Most of the time it's jammy and overly alcoholic, and though it can have a long finish the over-all effect is often dankly vegetal. Not green peppers, not green beans, but a kind of sweet, earthy pungency ill-suited to food not laden with spices and hot sauce.
     I'll be accused to prejudice against what's often cited as the "American" wine (the grape's related to Italy's primitivo) , but I associate zinfandel with other grapes with great color and fruitiness like petite syrah and Virginia's Norton that fall off precipitously. In my defense I cite the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff, wine making guru to old George de Latour, founder of Beaulieu and in the 1970s and 1980s to most everybody else of note in the Napa Valley. Andre didn't like zinfandel either.
     He used to travel from winery to winery with a black enologist's case whose broken handle was mended with cord. It contained the tools of the itinerant wine consultant: Bunson burner, glass slides, and a microscope wrapped in an old towel. The case had been built in 1910 and bought secondhand by Andre in 1940.  Coppola was one of his clients, and I met Andre there one bright morning to watch him in action and later to write about it in Napa: The Story of an American Eden (pages 344-351). "He placed a drop of Cabernet Franc on the slide and slipped it under the microscope. What he saw when he peered through the lenses were little black dots, malolactic cells... Andre said, 'It's good.'"
     He didn't care for the zinfandel at Conn Creek winery over on the Silverado Trail. There Andre tasted through all the wines and when he came to the zinfandel wrinkled up his nose and said in that inimitable Russian accent, "Oinyons [onions]."
     Now as with most things vinous, there are exceptions. That includes zinfandel. Two noted examples are, of course, the zinfandels of Ridge Vineyards down on the peninsula south of San Francisco that are restrained, even austere, the kind of zinfandel a Bordelaise might make (but doesn't). And Sonoma County's Ravenswood, long a bastion of well-wrought zinfandels at the high end. A couple of recent Ravenwood single-vineyard releases came my way recently,  and they were each in its own way a revelation.
The 2012 Ravenswood Teldeschi is mostly zinfandel, blended with 22% petite sirah and 2% carignan to - presumably - give it the edge. Some of the grapes come from 90-year-old vines in Dry Creek Valley. A berryish, peppery nose that continues on the palate, silky, mouth-filling, with a lingering but clean finish. The wine's well-balanced at 15 per cent alcohol.
      The other big Ravenswood single vineyard bottling has nothing to do with zinfandel. It's a 2011 blend of mostly merlot with a substantial hit of cabernet sauvignon. Pickberry is the somewhat prosaic handle for a wonderful Sonoma Mountain wine with only 13.8 octane. Cherries on the nose, full red fruit on the palate, good balance, and a quality finish.
       A caveat: the Teldeshchi tasting has forced me to pursue a zinful relationship with the many new versions, including those in the rest of Sonoma and across the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa.                                
                             (Coming: What Thomas Jefferson would think of the Napa Valley today.)


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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Another fight on the way, wine-wise...

 More change is in store for the largest vineyard on the East Coast, which may be the most controversial yet.                                                                      
     “This is the board room,” says Ashley, the twenty-something sales manager in a black cashmere sweater. She's showing me around The Barn on the old Kluge estate just south of Charlottesville, formerly the property of multi-media billionaire and philanthropist John Kluge and his wife, Patricia. “You can’t have a Trump building without at least one boardroom.”
   You can rent it if you’re a corporation, or have a wedding party if you’re a potential bride. The Pavilion next door can accommodate lots more guests. Through wrap around windows you see artificial lakes, vineyards, and rolling meadows and woodlands at the eastern base of the Blue Ridge.
   Ashley then slips behind the wheel of the “farm vehicle”-a jet-black Cadillac Escalade-and drives me past vineyards with rolled white netting attached to all the stakes, to foil the birds. "It's like pantyhose," she says. "You roll it up, and when you're done with it you roll it down again."
   We tour the 34,000 square-foot Great Hall where a towering flagpole supports a very large American flag, de rigeur on Trump estates. In the suite upstairs she opens windows onto a view of the chapel and lots of nice country, all for rent. “It smells of the outdoors without being, you know, barnyard-like.”
   This is the latest development in Virginia's galloping use of wineries to generate income having little to do with wine. Albemarle House, the Kluges’ former residence, is a 25,000-square foot Neo-Georgian manor built on a hillside, soon to be an uber-B&B with a 10-car garage and an entire room devoted to china.
   The wood-paneled library lost its books, along with the heirloom Purdy side-by-side shotguns and other rare collectibles, before Donald Trump acquired the whole thing. (The new property manager ordered replacement volumes en masse, online.) In the halls and art gallery hang oil paintings of stalwart figures in red jackets riding to hounds over grasslands like those visible outside.
   “We have everything here for your history enthusiast, your art enthusiast, your wine enthusiast,” concludes Ashley, without saying how Patricia Kluge let all this slip through her fingers.                      

She was formerly Patricia Rose, the third wife of John Kluge. She entertained royally, mixing celebrities and Virginia politicians. With divorce she received a big settlement plus Albemarle Farms, and since she had long been interested “in how wine and food interact,” she tells me by telephone, she decided to “start farming” in the belief that “great wine can be made anyplace in the world.”
   It's an unsupportable claim, particularly in the piedmont where Jefferson had serious viticultural problems. There have since been clear successes in Virginia, but lots of skepticism greeted Patricia’s venture. The soil happened to be loamy, though, which is bad for most crops but good for vines, and vineyards went in.
   Decisions were made about viticulture with the crucial advice of Gabriele Rausse, a respected winemaker with his own label, and Michel Rolland of Mondo Vino who visited the Kluge vineyards often, called for more investment and involved himself in fermentation and blending decisions that produced wines surprising everyone.
   “Patricia was committed to making the best wine in the world,” says Rausse. “Hiring Michel was an adventure for her. He was very expensive but she did it anyway, and a lot of wineries started to worry. People understood that it was time to stop playing around with the grapes and to get serious.”                      

She decided to include sparkling wine, although the late Robert Mondavi warned her against it because there was so much competition. “He scared me,” says Patricia, but as usual she went ahead, reasoning that since sparklers use chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which ripen early, they have a better chance of surviving Virginia’s cold, rainy autumns.                      
   “She had a lot of heart,” adds Rausse, “but she’s one of those people who don’t know what money is” meaning that it can eventually run out and that serious efforts have to be made to sell a product, particularly wine. Consequently, banks pulled loans and the property went into bankruptcy. As everyone knows too well by now, The Donald bought the property in its entirety for pennies on the dollar, and a new era began.
   I asked Patricia if she’s concerned about the eventual fate of old Albemarle Farms. “Now that I don’t own it anymore, I don’t care what happens to it.”
   That's not the most endearing sentiment from the perspective of people in the neighborhood, or in fact in the Virginia's burgeoning viticultural community. What's happening next is the subject of my piece appearing in April in Worth magazine, involving both Trump wine and the possibly explosive environmental/political impacts of the family's plan.
    Sniff sniff...                              


Friday, March 6, 2015

Wine writers sometimes forget where it all comes from

      Napa valley draws journalists like fruit flies. It draws tourists for the same reason: physical beauty, the glories of the palate, and a hard-to-define frisson including money, celebrity, and dedication.
      Last fall I was invited to join some wine and food writers having dinner in St. Helena. We were a mostly youthful lot: bloggers, a foodie website founder, ‘ziners and one freelance print antediluvian (me) who also blogs. The menu shimmered with promise - you have to be inept to eat badly in Napa - but first it had to be vetted with the waiter for lactose, soy, gluten. The delectable procession of dishes - Hogg Island oysters, piquillo peppers stuffed with cumin braised beef, rabbit tostada with red chile salsa - was carefully appraised by all, our insights lubricated by constant trickles of chardonnay, merlot, and lovely unfiltered rocket juice that sold for $50 a bottle, hardly extravagant by Napa standards.
   Discussion was of Criminal Intent and Billy Crystal, then the post-millennial role of tweets and sound bites (“Now it’s all about what you click through to,” one 'ziner said), wine as an antidote to stress (“I had a couple of glasses before I showed my afghan, and I got a level three!”), blogging (“You gotta, gotta have pictures”), the difficulty of finding adequate accommodation in Mendoza, and the fact that many wineries in Napa with rights-of-way though neighbors’ property can’t allow in as many visitors as the winery might want.
      “Why not?" demanded a New Yorker, between piquillos.
      "It’s private property,” said the Los Angeleno.
      Shaking their heads, they dug in.
      The advent of the internet has drawn many into writing about wine and food who are adept at producing and directing instant electronic synapses with vast, near-effortless reach. But too often among my colleagues there's not only lack of knowledge of, but also a lack of interest in, the struggles over land use that have kept this valley looking as good as it does.
      Not so long ago writers about wine, food and travel had an informed interest in the entirety of the subject. They were better able to see the larger role wine plays as a preserver of landscape through agriculture, the basis of it all. The very idea's inseparable from necessary limitations placed upon development, including tourism, a truth bloggers and antediluvians alike should keep more in mind.
     (Please read the following post:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The fight Napa's facing could be the big one...

                           Wine or water, and 400 visitor centers                               
   The county board of supervisors met recently in a new venue off Corporate Drive south of the city of Napa, instead of downtown where the recent earthquake left the historic courthouse in plastic-shrouded rehab and side streets full of rubble. The hearing concerned two controversial proposed projects, both involving new wineries in the steep hills where water’s scarce and roads narrow and crowded.
   Signs on sticks in mostly middle-aged hands said, Save Our Water, Save 28,616 Trees, Forests = Healthy Air and, my favorite, Water Over Wine, a succinct summation with biblical resonance. If that’s really the choice then the answer’s obvious, but as with everything else environmental these days, the question is devilishly complicated and ways to ameliorate or bypass restrictions are almost infinite.
   People came to the podium one at a time to voice displeasure and genuine regret for loss of oaks, productive wells, habitat, community. The president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers says, channelling Jefferson, “Agriculture’s the highest and best use of the land. Let’s keep it that way.”

   He points out that recent legislative changes have allowed event centers at wineries, that particularly pernicious element of hospitality that avoids the distribution system. The centers are part of every new business plan, which means more traffic, more arable land taken out of use, more water demands, more waste and more pollution. But many vintners who once would have praised preservation of ag land when applying for a permit now can’t live without an event center.
“We have a diminishing quality of life here,” says a speaker in a down vest. “We’ve lost our way, people are talking of leaving.” Another, a long-term activist named Chris Malan instrumental in the millennial hillside fight, says, “I’m lucky to live here, but do we want to continue to strip our land? It’s a moral question,” and gets applauded.
The biggest project under consideration is the old Walt Ranch high on the eastern side of the valley, 2,300 acres of which about 500 will be “disturbed” (cleared), with 300 in vines. One lurking fear is that houses will eventually appear there, too, vineyards sometimes being stalking horses for serial McMansions.
  The Walt property belongs to Craig Hall, a former owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a developer and “vintner,” a largely symbolic term at this point. Wine has been evoked so often over the years to soften the image of sharp-elbowed commerce that no one expects vintners to actually make the stuff. Winery owning has the same function often assigned to collecting art, and indeed the Halls did commission Frank Geary to design them an artful winery on the county’s main drag, before scrapping the idea.
Hall’s wife, Kathryn, an attractive women in tasteful white knit, was ambassador to Austria during the Clinton era and is a Friend of Bill. She has driven to this meeting in a familiar blue Porsche roadster with a khaki-colored top. I ask if she will discuss the Walt project with me after the meeting, and she goes off to consult with her lawyer and her winemaker. 
   In the years since the winery definition fight winemakers have performed increasingly ambitious lateral arabesques, not just selling the wine they make but also serving as courtiers and confidants of owners trying to navigate the promotional and political thickets, roles for which winemakers by definition aren’t qualified. The former ambassadress comes back, and says, “We’re not going to talk about it.”                     

A young man in tie and seersucker suit is writing vigorously on his clipboard. His seersucker suit and a tie look utterly establishmentarian, but in fact he’s part of the perennial bloom of citizen activists necessary to this long-lived struggle and who flair, flame out, flair again. His name’s Geoff Ellsworth and he agrees to meet me later to talk about “the issues,” which inevitably boil down to one: thwarting attempts by individuals who want a larger part of the action than the community is willing to give them, a variation on the tragedy of the commons.
At High Tech Burrito the unblinkered sun etches our hot border food into the reflective tabletop. “All these projects are ruining the quality of life in the valley,” he says. “There was a woman weeping in that meeting. People like her are the ones most sympathetic to keeping the agricultural preserve. But the ag preserve has lulled us all into thinking we’re protected, when we’re not. We don’t have defenses here against raw capitalism that’s encroaching on the common welfare and adversely affecting water, air, noise, and traffic.”
He pauses to ravenously eat. “Winery owners naturally want to succeed, but the industry as a whole hasn’t stood up to these excessive demands. Like event centers. Now they’re part of every winery proposal." There are more than 400 wineries in Napa now, and close to 700 if you include the “virtuals.” 
A freelance artist, Geof grew up in the hills west of St. Helena. His father was the winemaker at legendary Mayacamas Vineyards whose inky reds showed early the power of Napa fruit. That little mountain range is one of the southernmost reaches of the temperate rainforest that starts up in Alaska and, while Jefferson was trying to imagine the trans-Mississippi west he had just bought from Napoleon, and across which he would send Lewis and Clark. Then trees up there grew so densely that a raindrop took a week to reach the earth.
   Down here where we’re eating carnitos on Trancas Avenue grizzlies scooped salmon and steelhead from the Napa River nearby. Its tributaries ran year-round in a paradisiacal setting brimming with ground water and consequently with life, whereas today the streams are dry and the river so diminished the Corps of Engineers has been charged with rebuilding it.
   The question that often comes to my mind these days in the valley is: "What would Jefferson, that moral proponent of the family farm, make of Napa today?" I decided to get into the question more deeply, and my lengthy answer appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the University of Virginia's literary magazine, next month.
   As Les Breeden, the blogger in my novel, Nose, used to say, "Sniff, sniff...                    

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Was Frank Lloyd Wright a misanthrope?

It would explain his inspiring, if basically unlivable, architecture.
(From Preservation magazine)




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Friday, February 13, 2015

Zoning Out - what we left behind in Panama

The experience was wonderful, dismaying, and unrepeatable, since a lot of the natural real estate's now gone. I hope some of the protected bits survived (from Preservation magazine).




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