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 of 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.)


To see my bio, click on:
To order Napa, click on:

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: