Thursday, March 29, 2012

More on spiced wine (really)

Continuing John in Santa Cruz's March 26 discussion: So, do any
winemakers today experiment with spicing wine? If so, are
any of them any good? And do winemakers have any idea
what grape Falernian was or how to make it?
Doc Lang replies:
According to Wikipedia, Falernian was Aglianico, a wine
prized by Romans and grown on the slopes of Mt. Falernus
between Latium and Campania. Now I too am reading Spice,
The History of Temptation
, and Turner cites a medieval
compilation of ancient writings that gives this recipe
for a spiced honey wine: "six scruples of myrrh, 12 scruples
of cassia, two scruples of costus, four scruples of nard,
four scruples of pepper, six pints of Attic honey, 24 pints
of wine and store in the sun at the rise of the dog-star
for 40 days. Some call this nectar." My problem with the
recipe is basic: what's a scruple? (Don't think I've ever
had one.) From further reading I find that spiced wines
fell from favor in the 16th Century with the development
of the technology of bottling and corking. It was no longer
necessary to disguise the spoiling of wine, primarily with
cinnamon, cloves, cassia, ginger and pepper. Until air-tight
sealing, wines quickly went sour in poorly made casks and
leather sacks, and records of English royal accounts tell
of servants pouring barrels of wine down drains, and giving
it away to the poor. One Peter of Blois reported that wine
served in King Henry II’s court was "sour or musty, muddy,
greasy, rancid, reeking of pitch and quite flat. I have
witnessed occasions when such dregs were served to noblemen,
they had to sift it through clenched teeth and with their
eyes shut, trembling and grimacing…" Poor things.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dr. Silvius's revenge

No, they're not wine. However...

Martinis taste great. Lots of people drink them – even wine lovers - or what passes for martinis. Like vodka in a cold glass, which isn’t. Neither are the other concoctions put together by bartenders who these days often know little about the art of mixing and feel entitled to charge extra for simply picking up a shaker. The martini was favored traditionally by the upper class and attacked from the left as a vestige of imperialism, as if grain alcohol in a stemmed glass could be shamelessly mercenary while chardonnay in the same thing's a sign of enlightenment.

The benefits of a real martini are recognized: stimulated appetite, fluid tongue, uplifted psyche. A martini contains no more alcohol, and fewer calories, than a couple of healthy glasses of wine. Most everyone has an idea of when a martini should be drunk. To my mind the mood should be good, the present uncluttered, the future promising.

The deceased novelist, Robert Benchley, famously wrote the line, "Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini." Don’t know exactly what he was talking about but I don't think of martinis and bad weather as complementary. Ideally, they should be drunk on a fine evening, either at home as a prelude to lamb chops, say, or in a strange locale as a toast to the spirit of adventure, or in a comfortable old sock of a bar, preferably with a friend.

The real martini's cold and contains no ice cubes, which dilute both taste and punch. They should be violently shaken - yes, James - in a metal container with ice and then quickly poured into a flared glass that has spent half an hour in the freezer; they should have squeezed over them flat lemon rinds that imparts tiny globules of lemon oil on the clear skein of gin and ice shards and are then discarded.

Sip, don't gulp. Success, as always, depends upon quality: the real thing's gin and white vermouth from a bottle that didn't belong to your father and is kept in the frig. Gin was a Dutch invention by a Dr. Sylvius, in the 17th-century, and hailed as a diuretic. He used pure grain spirits and the oil of the juniper berry, which gives gin its unique flavor. The Dutch never realized that preparing to pee could be so much fun. Within a few years all Holland found itself suffering from ills that could be cured only by gin, which crossed the Channel and became the national drink of England, setting back economic development by more than a century.

English gin's drier and less aromatic than the Dutch variety. Good ones are Tanquery, Beefeaters, Boodles, even the aromatic Bombay that's flavored not only with juniper but also with coriander, orris, and almonds and almost makes vermouth almost superfluous. Vermouth surfaced about a century after gin, in Italy and France, both versions blends of wine and stronger spirits aged in contact with as many as 50 different herbs, the Italian one slightly sweeter.

The earliest incarnation of a martini appeared in a 19th-century book of recipes as the "Martinez" - a concoction of mostly vermouth mixed with a shot of gin and some bitters. By 1900 it had become known as the martini, half gin and half vermouth. By the end of World War II it was 15 parts gin to one of vermouth, and has evolved today into what is often a glass of straight gin or vodka filled with ice cubes, olives, pimento, onions, toothpicks, little plastic swords, straws, old rinds and assorted junk.

"The martini's a complicated cultural artifact," the head of Johns Hopkins's classics department, Lowell Edmonds, once told me. The author of The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization, he added, "It means so many different things to different people: civilized and uncivilized. Classical and individual. Sensitive and tough... People have always thought the martini belonged to the past, even when it was invented."

For user rules I offer the wisdom of Dorothy Parker:

I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I'm under the table,

After four I'm under my host.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Readers, and Doc Lang:

Hey Nose... you now have another Ear. Love how you write!

Nancy, Washington DC

Thanks, Nance

Dear Doc,
I know air is the enemy of wine, and corks can lose the seal. But polymer stoppers are the pits, harder to pull and practically impossible to unwind from corkscrews. Why don't vintners just go to screw tops, which are reliable and easy to remove?

Dear Puzzled,
It's snob appeal, known by MBA's as marketing. There are good wines being sold now with metal and plastic seals, but it'll never happen with high-end ones. Example: the restaurants would never go for it. Picture the waiter bringing your Margaux to the table and instead of the nice little pop of cork there's a scrrrrrk of metal unscrewed. And who'd sniff an aluminum cap? No, corks will never go away. Now the plastic plugs, I could suggest to vintners another place for 'em.
Doc Lang

Here's another question from a reader which I will pass along (with reservations) to the Doc:
I'm reading a book, Spice, the History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, in which there are numerous references to the Romans spicing their wine. He says there is a reference to Pliny's Natural History to a recipe for cinnamon-spiced wine. He also cites a "honey-spiced wine" and a "spiced wine surprise" but doesn't give the recipe for it. Also, Turner writes that the Romans favorite wine was "Falernian."
John, Santa Cruz

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Red Room

It’s very… well, red. Red flocked wall paper (ceiling, too, as I remember), red divans, even a red felt pool table in an adjoining space. The style’s something between plushest man-cave for up-scale wine savants and what one jealous vintner calls “fin de si├Ęcle bordello,” which is both harsh and inaccurate. For one thing, the furniture’s too nice - real antiques, lovingly restored, and delicately sat upon by those accustomed to the thin air of Napa Valley’s elite.
Any demimondaines along for the ride are well-behaved and apparently aware they’re enjoying one of the more striking of the valley’s hidden resources. And the pour here is too good for anyone whose sensual pursuits are other-directed (more later about the wines). The Red Room lives in the interior of the old Raymond Winery in St. Helena, which has been radically reappointed since the days of the Raymond brothers, who would be astounded to see what has become of that workhorse on Zinfandel Lane.
Its owner, Jean-Charles Boisset, scion of the largest wine-producing family of Burgundy and third largest in France, is married to Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio. So his feet are firmly planted in two high-powered if very different, bi-continental wine worlds, and he’s making the most of both. Appealing, energetic, Jean-Charles was in, yes, Mondovino, the controversial wine documentary, and sometimes mentioned as a candidate to replace the late Robert Mondavi – one of several – as spokesperson for this, one of the most prominent vinous destinations on earth.
Some dismiss the notion, but I’m not so sure. Truth be told, Mondavi was primarily a showman, his personality and ability to stay on message for most of his long life redounding to Napa’s benefit. Jean-Charles is as outgoing as Mondavi ever was and has the European bona fides Mondavi longed for. His Red Room is available to ranking members of Raymond’s wine club, and anyone else willing to pay $500 a year for the privilege.
Like all owners of older wineries – Coppola springs forcefully to mind - Jean Charles enjoys grandfathered perks no new vintner could possibly get today. And you never know who you might encounter in The Red Room. When I was there, Delia Viader, owner of Viader vineyards on Howell Mountain, took me gently to task for, she claimed, making fun of the buttons on her blazer in my book, The Far Side of Eden. (What I remember was all the mud her vineyard dumped into St. Helena’s drinking water.) Mark Pope was also bending an elbow. The agreeable owner of The Bounty Hunter, the choice watering hole for fine wine (and now spirits) in downtown Napa, had just paid many thousands of dollars for primo cabernet at the trade auction. I remember when Mark was just starting out as an itinerant seller of hard-to-find vintages, with a media profile that included a three-legged dog as a side-kick.
You won’t find any of those in The Red Room.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

That time of year...

It's spring and you’re looking for a light wine for a pig roast and you see this rose’ called Hogwash, a lovely pink hue conjuring up a scrubbed porker. You like the imagery and buy a couple of bottles, knowing everybody will get a kick out of it, except that you probably can’t because Tuck Beckstoffer Wines makes only a thousand cases and other people have already had that idea, most of them living south of the Mason-Dixon. Well, persevere. Hogwash is made of 100 per cent Grenache from two different vineyards, one in Paso Robles and the other in Mendocino, a proper porcine marriage of SoCal and NoCal that Beckstoffer says will stand up even to Carolina barbecue. I’m not sure any wine will do that, but this is definitely a rose’ on trotters for fourteen bucks and you also get a nice picture of a pig.

A reader on di Rosa and Doc Lang

Thanks, it’s a delight to get the view of the West from the East. Thanks also for the di Rosa piece.

I'm pretty sure Doc knows that most foils today are relatively inert alloys, but I will be looking for my concerned Berkeley neighbor to advise not drinking directly from the bottle (unless it is a screw cap).


Napa Soda Springs

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Just grow it

We sometimes forget that one of the strongest arguments in favor of drinking wine is environmental. Viticulture is agriculture, and vineyards are preferable to houses, malls and office complexes. (I know, monoculture, chemicals, and snobbery are just some of the downsides, but overall grapes trump concrete.) So, any serious person, including those who drink wine, is concerned about what's happening in the natural world:
From National Geo Traveler's
Intelligent Travel

In Focus: D.C.’s 20th Environmental Film Festival

Posted by James Conaway


Film still from The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Walker)

The 20th anniversary of D.C.’s Environmental Film Festival is underway (March 13-25) and shouldn’t be missed, in part because there’s nothing quite like it. This assemblage of films from around the world makes the urgency of climate change both real and provocative, and provides a running history of the environmental movement itself.

Symbolically, Washington’s cherry trees are already in bloom, ten days early, as the Japanese ambassador pointed out at the ceremony for this year’s winner of the Polly Krakora Award for artistry in film. It went to Academy-Award-nominated director Lucy Walker for The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, an alternately riveting and sad film about the 2011 disaster and its aftermath that manages to avoid difficult questions.

After the ceremony, one exasperated viewer stood to ask if there was evidence that building on Japan’s coastal plain would be prevented in the future, something neither the ambassador nor the director addressed. Yet it’s clear from the film that the clean-up and disposal of waste from last year’s devastating tsunami has caused a second, equally dire environmental disruption.

The vast majority of the films on display at the festival (many of which are premieres), however, bring riveting and entertaining attention to explicitly environmental problems. There’s something for everyone here, from Wild By Law (which presents the story of the Wilderness Act‘s creation) to Wild Scandinavia. Other don’t-miss features include California Forever: Parks and the Future, Shattered Sky, and Aral: The Lost Sea.

Ken Burns will even be on hand on the festival’s final day to present a special sneak preview of his upcoming documentary, The Dust Bowl.

The screening locations themselves — from the National Archives to the AFI Silver – will take you around the city and beyond and amount to another, fascinating historical and architectural tour of the nation’s capital.

go to:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Di Rosa

Intelligent Travel

The Di Rosa Preserve

James Conaway

The sheep on that hillside off Highway 28, just north of San Francisco Bay, remind me that this place, called Carneros, is named for rams. It was once considered useless for anything but pasture, but today extensive vineyards indicate a different reality — primo chardonnay and pinot noir and, indirectly, art.

Those sheep aren’t moving because they’re made of flat, poly-chromed steel, droll heralds of a very different Napa Valley attraction (and one you should see before heading north to the more familiar tourist-oriented Napa). The di Rosa preserve is an astonishingly rich sensory experience and a journey through a vibrant Bay Area art scene from the 1950s to the present. This mother lode of painting, sculpture, drawings, photographs, and installations will, quite simply, stun you — and, if it doesn’t, you need life support.

The di Rosa, reason enough to wind your way north from the Golden Gate, is probably the largest collection of significant regional art in the country, featuring work by every artist you should know about from the Bay Area – William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Deborah Butterfield, Paul Kos, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown and many, many others. If you don’t know about them, don’t sweat it: part of the charm of di Rosa is its movable feast of discovery.

The provenance of the preserve itself is also interesting. Rene di Rosa was a Yale graduate who came west in the ‘50s, worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, knew all those Beats we’ve heard about and most everybody else, quit his job – that’s what you did in the ’60s — and moved to Carneros to write a novel. But he was more smitten by the art all around him than anything else, and he had both the presence of mind, and some financial wherewithal, to collect it.

He was also generous of spirit, and encouraged young artists at the center of a tempestuous and still resonant time. Among the work on display is a toy-encrusted “Rhinocar,” by David Best, a vintage Oldsmobile with a rhinoceros head for a grill. No child can resist it. And right next to it is the current show, new work by the painter Hung Liu, vibrant, laminated oils of Chinese subjects.

The long historical throw of the di Rosa is apparent in several wonderful gallery spaces, but any sensible visitor will want to take the jitney tour — kids go free — which will take you through the grounds and the peacock-patrolled house where di Rosa lived with Veronica, his wife, a water colorist and sculptor who created the steel sheep that greet you upon arrival.

Di Rosa was an environmentalist before that term had cache and, with money acquired from selling off vineyards, constructed the preserve, complete with a 35-acre lake enhanced by a palm-treed island, and a vast sculpture garden that leads you past “Poetry House 4” by Alan Shepp, “Cactus Garden” by Gordon Huether, “Roller” by William Warenham, and “For Veronica” by Mark di Suvero, which catches the afternoon light, yet another luminous reminder that there’s more to Napa than wine.

Fruit flies: an exchange

Dear Doc Lang,
The New York Times reports scientific findings
that male fruit
flies who are sexually inept
turn to alcohol more than the ones
who are
successful seducers. So I want to know how do
I get rid
of these drunk losers? They're always
sneaking into my place and
acting up, getting
in my face. Is there any wine they don't like?


Dear Bothered,

Alcoholics drink anything (even Yellowtail).
What you should do
is, before going to bed,
leave some wine (or even apple cider
in a glass placed by a light. They'll dive in,
but fruit
flies can't swim. Next morning you'll
find them floating dead in
the glass.
Doc Lang

Friday, March 16, 2012

Now buy this

I’m often asked for a really good California wine that’s really a bargain, as it should be, the implication being that because it’s made in the U.S. it should be cheaper than wine made elsewhere. The sub-text is: why shouldn’t Americans be able to buy American wine at a patriotic price point? Well, it’s a silly premise (really), since the cost of making wine is real wherever you are, and if you want good cabernet, chardonnay, or whatever, you have to pay for care, skill, and decent grapes.

That said, most anything made by the Donati family of Templeton, Central Coast, is a deal, relatively speaking. The vineyards are part of the AVA Paicines sub-appellation, with such august neighbors as Calera and Chalone. The Donati wines are almost entirely Bordeaux varietals and sell from between $15 and $20, with one spectacular spike at $35 – Ezio, the Donati meritage blend of all five Bordeaux grapes, balanced with ample fruit that if Napan would cost fifty bucks.

I recommend the Donati cabernet ($20), merlot ($18), and Claret ($15). All prices fluctuate according to where you’re buying, of course.

Send a comment to, and join up at right.

Caveat emptor

Doc Lang's response to the reader's question below about lead foil on bottles (March 15) is - simplistically - "apparently so." Consequently I'll add my own: corks are not wrapped in lead foil, the neck of the bottles are. So at most exposure of wine to lead is minimal, and the free flow of wine across a surface that has merely touched lead isn't much of a hazard. That, at least, is accepted wisdom.
Because Doc Lang's expertise has been tacitly questioned by Ralph of Philadelphia, I asked Doc Lang for a bio, which I don't think is going to make Ralph happy. Here it is:
I am a contributing expert to Nose, having abandoned
nascent career as an unlicensed medical practitioner
to devote myself to a lifelong
study of the varied
effects of vinous imbibulation. My selfless
has garnered frequent comment and citations
from authorities
I conduct much of my research up a creek on the Eastern
Shore of Maryland.

Doc Lang

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A reader asks:

Doc Lang, what’s up with why vintners persist in wrapping wine corks with lead foil? It’s been long supposed that the downfall of ancient Rome was due in part to their eating off lead platters and getting their drinking water through lead pipes. Ingestion of lead causes bizarre behavior: the Romans sicced tigers on Christians, chased Republicans from the Senate, took baths together, and gave orgies a bad name while parading around in togas and sandals with leaves on their heads. I can’t help but wonder: do trace amounts of lead from many bottles of wine explain the current primary season?

Quite confused


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Santa Cruz

I will revisit the Santa Cruz appellation this summer, but meanwhile some background from my piece in Saveur:

One of California's best and most beautiful wine regions,
the Santa Cruz Mountains, also happens to be one of its
least known. That's perhaps because it's horizontally
challenged, a kind of oenophile's Bhutan, where wine pilgrims
get hopelessly lost amid the winding roads and vineyard
managers worry almost as much about shifting tectonic
plates as they do about the state of their vines. There exists little level land for planting in the Santa Cruz
Mountains (SCM) appellation, where I went in search of the
defining character of the terroir. Here, winemakers must
consider countless variations of slope, exposure, and altitude.

Established in 1981, the appellation extends into parts of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties but comprises only about 1,600 acres of vineyards; those located here are required to be at least 400 feet above sea level on the western side of the mountains and 800 feet above on the east. At any elevation, the soils in the SCM are surprisingly diverse, made up of sand, clay, and other elements. Add to these factors widely fluctuating temperatures and sunlight that ranges from intense to spotty. These conditions are ideal for some grapes; the question is which ones. Even as winemakers experiment, they're producing good, varietally diffuse wines, some of which can be counted among California's best.

Located just south of San Francisco, the mountains overlook the Bay on the east and, on the west, the cold Pacific Ocean, frequently shrouded in shifting mists like an image from a Japanese block print. The art of winemaking has been practiced here since the 1850s, but until recently there were only a few dozen wineries; now there are more than 60. Santa Cruz has long been known for a certain countercultural verve, which I remembered from my first visit here, 20 years ago, and some of that spirit lingers despite today's sophisticated winemaking and marketing techniques.
"Is this wine going to make the world a better place?" asked Randall Grahm, founder of the famed Bonny Doon Vineyard, reflecting remnants of Aquarian idealism. Winemaker David Bruce, one of the largest producers in the SCM, was a true "garagiste" before the term was coined. Bruce was known for his experimental, assertive pinot noirs. I found him in his namesake winery and listened to him explain why he chose the SCM in the first place: "Here the wines talk to each other."

If that's true, the region is a vinicultural Babel going back to the time of Martin Ray, California's legendary mid-20th-century winemaker. The temperamental Ray learned the rudiments of wine
from another larger-than-life personality, the Frenchman Paul Masson (an early advocate of what later became the SCM), and Ray eventually acquired his own vineyards in the Santa Cruz. He argued constantly over his contention that local producers should make only 100 percent varietal wines, and he charged what were, at the time, enormous sums for his vintages. From his notorious dinner parties, held in his concrete aerie above the Bay, he was known to expel guests who expressed opinions about wine with which he didn't agree. Embroiled in several years' worth of battles with investors, Ray lost the property in 1972, with Mount Eden Vineyards to be
overseen by Eleanor and Jeffrey Patterson.

Most mornings the
Pattersons enjoyed a stunning view from Ray's old porch. Some mornings, though, a sea of fog below appears to swallow the San Francisco peninsula whole. Later in the day, when the fog rises, temperatures up here plummet while those on the formerly dank valley floor will climb, a reversal that confuses visitors but suits the grapes just fine. Struggling on slopes of quickly draining Franciscan shale, the berries tend to be small but intensely flavorful. Jeffrey also supervised the production of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, but his estate chardonnay is his best-known wine, although fewer than 4,000 cases were made back in 2001. It was a balanced wine built to last without exhibiting a Californicated oakiness, and it presented a stunning example of what the SCM is capable of.

Another early disciple of the hands-on, Burgundian style of winemaking, Ken Burnap, bought land on the western side of the SCM in the '70s and established Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard
after traveling California in search of the perfect place for growing the temperamental pinot noir grape. If pinot noir was a person, Burnap once told an interviewer, "it would be committed,"
meaning institutionalized. Working with Jeff Emery, a geologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Burnap dry-farmed and punched down the fermentation cap by hand. Emery took over from Burnap in 2004 and drew from a vineyard that's just two miles away from the original.

If any qualities are common to Santa Cruz pinots, it's deep color and full body; the challenge is to bring out the grape's subtleties. One winemaker who has worked with pinot for years, Michael Martella, produces wine under his own label; he was also the winemaker for the Thomas Fogarty Winery, established in 1981. Martella dipped into the traditions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the
Rhone Valley, producing syrah and cabernet blends. Martella considers the SCM appellation unique. "Part of it is the soils and cooler climate," he said, but it's also the community.

More to come on Santa Cruz.


I am a practicing physician and find it hard to believe that your Doc Lang is a medical doctor.

Look forward to more Napa coverage---there’s not enough of the type of thing you’re doing.
Julie Ann
St. Helena

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

And you, too

A kind note from a reader:

I am not a wine enthusiast, but your writing is winning me over to reading about the magic you detect. Your words flow as if from a cask of vintage literature. This is the second time I have had this odd transporting experience, the first being drawn to basketball , which I never cared for, by Pat Conroy. Thank you.


Washington DC

Monday, March 12, 2012

If it's not in the vineyard it's not in the glass...

Planet Forward: Smart people, smart iedas. Online and on TV.

Jim Conaway gets the dirt, literally, on Napa Valley’s organic wine business for National Geographic Traveler.

Photo: Frogs Leap Vineyard

The barn is old, red, and lovely, topped by a droll weathervane – an elongated frog in mid-jump – and surrounded by a riot of blooming mustard and other chest-high nitrogen-fixers. This dense, nutritious jungle overruns the nearby vineyard and nearly hides the name, Frog’s Leap, painted on a fence rail. Despite sheets of black plastic stretched over a very large mound of aging manure, both the winery and grounds looked, the last time I visited, more nineteenth than twenty-first century.

Its owner is John Williams, a bearded, unassuming proponent of organic agriculture for two decades and co-founder of the Rutherford Dust Society – a collective which has as one of its primary concerns the health of the nearby Napa River – and he was talking sustainability. “We got the farming down,” he told me, “and then I realized that there are 35 cars parked here belonging to workers. You don’t want to come off holier than thou when half the things you do still contribute to pollution.”

He has hopes for a parking shed with a roof of solar panels to recharge the batteries of the hybrid cars he wants to one day make available to employees, and one for a tractor that runs on the sun. But that’s another story in the broader narrative of organics, in part an attempt to instill in farmer and consumer a greater appreciation of the taste of place. Inherent in that taste, they say, are healthier communities at both ends of the production cycle – growing, and imbibing.

Photo: John Williams

Williams led me out into the vineyard, first grabbing a shovel; he parted the mat of vegetation to show the rich mix of cover crop, and turned over black soil full of worms and white nodules on the roots of plants where the nitrogen resides. He learned this and other lessons in the late ’80s, after visiting Fetzer Vineyards over in Mendocino County, which had undertaken an organic regimen early on. Williams hired a Sierra foothills farmer and itinerant ag consultant, Robert Cantisano, aka Amigo Bob, who traveled the state advocating effective holistic practices. Frog’s Leap was certified organic in 1990 by California Certified Organic Farmers, and today it makes about 60,000 cases annually from Williams’s 200 acres plus 50 acres owned by other organic growers who share his concerns.

Some organic growers practice the “bio-dynamic” principles of the late Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian polymath, founder of “anthroposophy” and the Waldorf Schools, and who in 1924 delivered lectures in Koberwitz, Silesia, on agricultural theory. Today these principles incorporate organic farming but differ from it as orthodoxy differs from free thinking. Bio-dynamics is an oxymoron in the opinion of scientists, but some of Steiner’s ideas seem logical enough, including the rule that animals roam the fields and vineyards part of each year, contributing natural fertilizer.

It’s the other Steinerisms that really push eyebrows into the hairline, however: Planting and harvesting must be done in strict accordance with the movements of extraterrestrial bodies. More controversial is the claim that common manure is somehow transformed into a much more potent force by putting it in a cow horn, burying it for six months, and digging up and storing it in specially fabricated containers (you can watch a video to learn more about this practice here). It is then diluted with large amounts of water and sprayed on the vineyard, with supposedly decisive effects.

Most organic growers don’t follow this regimen, but don’t necessarily knock it, either. The cow horn and the vessels are the “sacraments” of such an approach to organic farming, in John Williams’ view, and can’t do any harm. Another vintner says matter-of-factly, “I believe in cosmic forces but I can’t run a vineyard this size by the calendar.”

At Robert Sinskey Vineyards, and at Grgich Hills, Steinerian maxims were being followed, with varying degrees of obeisance, the last time I was there. Grgich Hill’s de facto winemaker, Ivo Jeramaz, was more assertive about the physical efficacy of both cow horns and planets: “You don’t have to know how something works, to know that it does work.”

Organic farming, said Williams, “has evolved into a deeper understanding: if you want healthy soil, you don’t want the guy tending it to have to live in his car or under a bridge. You don’t want your winery using up too many resources.” He leaned his spade against the barn, surveying the organic garden from which he helps feed employees.

“In the end you take better care of everything,” and that’s got to lead to better wine.

[Previously posted on Intelligent Traveler]


Just when I thought we had put to rest sulfites – a necessity in good wine-making if surely the most boring subject yet - Doc Lang brings up its alter-ego:
Now to histamines, which are as much as 200% higher in red wines than in white. Yet histamines naturally occur in plants and animals. Could it be the combination of histamines and alcohol in wine that you don't get in, say, milk? And numerous investigators have found differences among sniffles, flushing, and headache, which can occur within a few minutes of quaffing a particular wine. That headache isn’t the same as the one you experience when waking up next to a stranger. The first is a true red wine headache, blamed on one or more of the above compounds or their combination. The latter’s a medical condition known as “snockered” that can be attributed, at best, to having been over-served by a generous host.

Doc Lang

Friday, March 9, 2012

Now hear this (and thanks)

Readers respond:

I checked out your blog. Fascinating! I love reading words about wine that I actually understand - informative words with a poetic finish, so to speak. I especially enjoyed the Jim Law and Rutger de Vink section (East Coast’s Most Expensive Cab, 3/5).


Washington DC

Ben Bradley made you the wine writer for the Washington Post, way back post Watergate, and I guess you’ve never gotten over it. While people are usually telling me to put a cork in it, you’re telling me to take a cork out of it. Most of the soil, grape and French arrogance nuances are lost on me, but I now completely understand why I felt like s___ after I drank two bottles of not-exactly Ripple. Not to mention feeling somehow unfulfilled. There's very good writing here, good evidence of the Conaway bite, and some decent commentary on the vine.



Please sign up at right or you can contact me at

Burgundy West Redux

WINEMAKERS today in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are most interested in teasing out the tastes of discreet places, rather than tourism. In 2004 the valley divided itself into six sub-appellations, in recognition of distinct characteristics found in the different soils. The valley’s northern extremity is closer to Portland but has maintained an artisanal approach once considered quaint: small-lot fermentation, gentle handling, restrained use of oak.

This approach extends to land use. All have so far mostly avoided the allure of commercial development and heavy tourist promotion afflicting wine country nationwide.

“The good news is that young people today are for saving farmland,” I was told by Pat Dudley, co-founder of Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Eolo-Amity Hills. Her two daughters are involved in the business, as is a nephew. Their estate pinot noir includes some from Pommard clones, all planted in volcanic soils. The wine spends about a year in barrel, a third of it new oak, and emerges with soft tannins that enable some aging.

Other wineries that passing to the next, conservation-minded generation include Ponzi Vineyards; Chehalem Mountain Vineyard in the district of the same name; Elk Cove Vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton district; and Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards and Sokol Blosser Winery, both in the Dundee Hills.

Pinot noir isn’t the only grape transformed by them into distinctive wine. That other Burgundian, chardonnay, was almost as ubiquitous, some of it with a distinct mineral quality often associated with Chablis. And a cousin of pinot noir, pinot gris, originally from Alsace, was first planted here by David Lett in the ‘60s. It soon evinced its own American personality: dry, suggestive of pear and apple, with a floral quality that avoids the cloying quality of many Italian pinot grigios.

But pinot noir remains the touchstone, which brings us back to Robert Drouin. So impressed was he by the Eyrie victory over the Burgundians in the ‘70s that Drouin came to Oregon in 1988, examined the red soil of Dundee, and bought some. He planted traditional Burgundian varieties, built a gravity-flow winery that would have been impossible in the crowded environs of his native Beaune, and named it Domain Drouhin.

Wine-making there has much in common with Burgundy, including new oak and tightly structured wines, but there’s a nod also to the new world in soft tannins. Drouhin’s daughter, Veronique Drouhin-Boss, a fourth generation winemaker, later took charge, and Domaine Drouhin allied with other wineries in the Willamette to defeat a proposed five-star hotel to be built in the heart of the Dundee Hills.

Willamette Wines aren’t cheap but they are wonderful. Some I particularly like are Bethel Heights, Domaine Drouhin, Eyrie, Elk Cove, Cristom, Adelsheim, Hamacher, and Chehalem. In the months ahead I expect that list to get a lot longer.

False Notes?

This just in from the mysterious Doc Lang:

Who knew? It turns out that even FBI agents can distinguish the rarest of prestige-labeled wines from plonk. Or so the agency would have us believe. This very day the gumshoes rattled the world of wine to its wormy roots by announcing the arrest of uber-salesman Rudy Kurniawan, whose clients have included billionaire William I. Koch, with trying to sell counterfeit wine. Can’t you see it? Bunch of guys in fedoras sitting around a conference table on Pennsylvania Avenue? Their boss in a feather boa, lifting a flute, sniffing deep, saying, “Oh, a pretentious little wine, hints of pomegranate and pine cone. But a 1929 Domaine Ponsot?”

It didn’t happen quite like that. It seems somebody in a suit noticed that Domaine Ponsot did not begin estate bottling until 1934. Then, when agents questioned Mr. Kurniawan about the discrepancy, and about his source for the vintages in question, he referred them to someone at two different phone numbers in Asia. When called, one number turned out to be a shopping mail in Jakarta and the other was for a regional Indonesian airline. Bit isn’t it conceivable that Kurniawan himself was taken in? After all, he’s sold as much as $35 million worth of wine in a single year. His client list includes dotcom geniuses, Hollywood royalty and any number of very rich old men. Was he expected to authenticate every single bottle? What is “counterfeit wine” anyway? Is the FBI going after Yellowtail next?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Burgundy West - and Better

SPITTING DEEPLY-hued, vintage pinot noir onto a crushed white marble path isn’t everyone’s idea of wine evaluation, but I was going with the flow. This was Beaune, the 14th century capital of Burgundy, and my host the negociante, Robert Drouin, of the stellar Gallic smile and ancient family estate that included cellars beneath cobbled streets, full of priceless, hirsute bottles stacked like vinous Methuselahs. On the patio table behind us stood a big silver colender full of ecrivisse awaiting our gustatory attack, while overhead the sun anointed the fabulous Cote–d’Or.

Follow me now 6,000 miles westward, to an old board-and-batten structure on a back street in McMinneville, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a former pickle factory transformed into a winery. No crushed marble here, just bare floors and a cluttered desk, and in the chair the bearded David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee hills. His 1975 South Block Reserve pinot noir had in a blind tasting held in Paris in 1979 beat out the best of the French wines, including Robert Drouin’s. In a subsequent tasting the Reserve again defeated all but Drouin’s ’59 Chambolle Musigny. “Now,” Lett told me, “our only competition comes from Burgundy.”

Both encounters occurred a long time ago. By the early 20th century there was a plethora of competition in Oregon, so much in fact that Eyrie’s restrained pinot was superseded by more powerful, fruit-forward wines. These came to represent in the popular mind the best of Oregon pinot – dark, almost chewy, sometimes over-powering the food they were supposed to complement - but the best have since trended back toward Burgundy’s model.

“We’re the sushi of the Oregon pinots,” said Jason Lett, David’s son, the last time we spoke. He had taken over running Eyrie according to the precepts of Lett pere: no irrigation in the vineyard, no “cides” (poisons) of any kind. Eyrie’s estate pinot is fermented in small bins, punched down every few hours, and put into old barrels for two years, without filtering or fining, resulting in subtle but complex wine requiring aging.

Tomorrow: More Willamette...

Tofu headache, anyone?

More on sulfites from a reader:

There are a host of troubling facts about adverse reactions to wine. The FDA determined long ago that about 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites, and many more people sensitive to it in varying degrees. Scientists also found that sweet white wines typically have more sulfites than red wines. And yet, curiously, more people complain of headaches from red wine than whites. Also, dried fruits commonly contain sulfites - but nobody’s laid low by a "dried fruit headache."
Some experts believe that tannins, from the grape skins, could be a cause. Tannins release serotonin, a neurotransmitter. However, tannins also are found in chocolate, soy and tea. So why don't we hear about tofu headaches?

Doc Lang

Virginia cabernet revisited

A reader asks:

Since Jefferson had imported Filippo Mazzei from Tuscany, his real problem was vinifera-vs-phylloxera, no? Or has Virginia undergone drastic changes in terroir since then? As for the Cab— are we short of cabs or something? What care I for yet another? And we’re fortunate to have two grapes that are American, that are ‘ours’ — Zin, and Norton. Norton’s Virginia-born and –bred, and mostly ignored there. And ignored by wine writers, too, even though they are usually desperate for something to write about. These days all they can think of is Robert Parker and James Suckling.
Bill Marsano

As I understand it Jefferson had several problems. As for phylloxera, everybody has had it at some point, and it has mostly been fixed with new rootstock, etc. Another problem was mildew, and poor drainage since piedmont Virginia sits on clay. As for Norton, it was a so-called French hybrid (the French call them American hybrids) and so not exactly American. My problem with it is the taste and complexity. These can be fine in a well-made, aged Norton, but the grape doesn’t compare well with cabernet to me. That said, a very good one is made by Horton Vineyards of Barboursville, Virginia (which also makes a first-rate viognier).

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