A Hint of Indigo

In 2010 I created Indigo Wine Press in order to illuminate the voices of those most intimately tied to the wine industry.

This year-long project took me to Sicily and Piedmont, Italy where I was graciously met by fourth generation wine makers. I also had the pleasure to spend a weekend with Carol Shelton at her winery in Sonoma, California. Carol was one of the first female winemakers to graduate from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Program in the 1970’s, and she has since had a profound impact on winemaking in that region. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Satterfield, who has worked to help transform the South African Wine Industry.

And I can’t forget to mention that Indigo Wine Press was kicked off at the 2010 Taste of Washington, where I spoke with MW Bob Betz and Brennen Leighton of Efeste Winery.

Please enjoy Indigo. I hope that by reading this blog you walk away with a stronger sense of the people and ideas that make great wine in the world today. As for me, I am currently pursuing an MFA in Arts Leadership at Seattle University. While I greatly enjoyed my time in the wine industry I always knew I would return to school for my Masters.

The future holds many great things!

photo credit: casper

A Carol Shelton Interview – 30 Years of Innovation and Excellence

A honeysuckle aroma lingers in the air as we approach the relatively new Rockpile appellation. It’s that exciting time of year where the fruit of the year’s labor are realized – it’s harvest.

“I always know it’s time to pick Rockpile when I get this smell here,” says Sonoma winemaker Carol Shelton.  Shelton, a petite blond with a lively passion for winemaking is visiting one of the many vineyards she sources from to test the ripeness of its zinfandel. After tasting through several grape clusters Shelton’s instincts tell her the zinfandel needs two more weeks of hang time – the 2010 season has brought cooler weather causing a later harvest.

This is by no means Shelton’s first harvest. In fact, she’s been involved in Northern California’s wine industry since the late 1970’s. Shelton’s career began at an exciting era of innovation and she’s since been part of the wine industry’s cutting edge.

UC Davis in the 1970’s

The 60’s and 70’s ushered in an era of talented women who broke into the wine industry at UC Davis and Shelton was at its epicenter. Shelton originally majored in poetry, however with the insistence of her parents to choose a different major – and a fateful visit to a Sonoma winery – she decided to go into winemaking.

“I graduated Davis in 1978 and was one of the first dozen or so women to get through. When I got out, the basic jobs available to women were lab or sales jobs. I had a degree in winemaking and wanted to be a winemaker. I got started with a lab job but did it in a neat way in that I was able to do small lot winemaking for Mondavi. I was out picking the grapes and hand crushing just like a home winemaker with 200 lots of wine. I would get the wine all the way through to the bottling stage and actually run the chemical analysis. At that time, it was believed that women didn’t have enough muscular strength to work in the winery, but I’ve learned that you can use your body and the resources you have- tools and other things- to make it work. You don’t have to just use brut force.”

In fact, Shelton went on to overseeing a 200,000 case production with 40 different wine styles at Windsor Vineyards in Sonoma. She spent nearly 20 years at Windsor and now operates her own winery with her husband Mitch MacKenzie at Carol Shelton Wines.

Today, Shelton is widely cited as one of the most awarded winemakers in the United States.

The Aroma Wheel

During her time at UC Davis, Shelton worked with Professor Emeritus Ann C. Noble to create the Aroma Wheel.  The Aroma Wheel solidified a language to describe wine at at time when wine description was rather esoteric. Instead of using words such as whimsical, exuberant or heavenly, the Aroma Wheel introduced more concrete descriptors. For example, ‘This wine shows hints of lemon, asparagus and stone minerality.’ The Aroma Wheel is now used in wine education around the world and is available in seven languages.

Yeast Research

Early in her studies at UC Davis, Shelton was hired as the first employee at The Wine Lab, California’s first independent wine analysis lab in Napa Valley. She worked under Dr. Lisa Van de Water who was developing a yeast nutrient called Super Food. Shelton’s work with Super Food translated into her career as a winemaker where she has greatly contributed to the understanding of how different yeast strains affect the flavor of wine.

During the late 70’s it was widely understood that yeast strains had performance characteristics like foaming, cold tolerance and alcohol tolerance. However, in regards to flavor, it was believed that yeast simply turned sugar into alcohol and lacked flavor impact.

“I kept saying this belief just couldn’t be right and so I ran trials on one particular lot of chardonnay that I tried about a dozen different yeasts on. I found a range of different tastes from one juice tank broken out over several different barrels. One yeast made the chardonnay taste like fresh baked French bread, one tasted like pineapple, and another one was just creamy and buttery without malo-lactic, then another tasted like green apple. The mouth-feel differences were also dramatic.”

Shelton was able to follow this particular lot of chardonnay in the bottle. “I figured that each individual bottling would continue to taste different, and after six months in bottle they all continued to have their own unique characteristics. Then after one year their unique characteristics were still in tact.”

Shelton then ran an experiment with merlot.

“I had questions of whether red wine yeasts would make a difference because red wine doesn’t spend much time in fermentation. It’s over and done with in about a week, 10 days maybe. White wines are usually three weeks to four weeks or even longer, so it’s a long time to be into it with your yeast friends. But with red wines they are basically removed from the equation quickly. I got this one merlot from Russian River Valley that was always very acidic. I tried two different yeast strains- our standard house strain and the new one being offered to me that was supposed to reduce acidity. And the people offering this yeast strain were right. Theirs made a little poly-saccharide, which filled out the mouth-feel and took away the bite of the acidity. It was a real eye-opener to me. I then started exploring all the other yeast strains and now I have an open mind with every yeast strain that comes through my hands.”

When Shelton started in the wine industry only one major company made yeast. Today, there are 50 to 60 designer strains of yeasts available on the market from companies all over the world.

“The fact that these companies had a very enthusiastic supporter they could send people to that gave rabid testimonials, I think it really encouraged people to open their minds and realize that one strain of yeast was not one size fits all.”

Rockpile AVA


The Rockpile appellation is one of the newest American Viticultural Areas in California. It sits on the steep, red-soiled hills above Lake Sonoma and is capable of turning out elegantly balanced red fruit. It takes a bold spirit to source from Rockpile in that it’s often quite difficult to ensure water in this dry area.

It was only in 2002 that Rockpile gained AVA status and Shelton was one of its founding winemakers. Watch this video to learn the history of Rockpile, how Lake Sonoma helped create this AVA, as well as how its soil types and climate support the growth of world-class zinfandel.

A Wine Maker’s Passion

What you look for in a wine is that infinitely fine balance of the earth, great fruit and the winemaker’s poetic touch. Shelton’s wines have a finesse that exemplify this balance; her passion for winemaking is unmistakable.

“I went with my parents on a tour of a Sonoma winery when I had just started college,” Shelton said during our time together at her winery. “I grew up in the Finger Lakes and had toured wineries all my life. But at this Sonoma winery there were big, wooden casks. I walked into the cellar and the smell of the red wine saturated into the oak hit me like a wave and I just said, ‘Oh my God’. I’ve always followed my nose. I’ve always loved intriguing smells and that just hit me and I said I want to smell this for the rest of my life.”

Carol and husband Mitch at Florence Vineyard, Rockpile with their Rocky Reserve grapes.

Credits

  • Photo of ‘Rockpile Viticultural Area’ by dwolfgra through Creative Commons
  • Lead and final images courtesy of CarolShelton.com.

Australian Pinot Noir is a Big Deal, Even In Tasmania

Australian Pinot Noir is poised to be the next darling of the wine scene.

I had a chance to talk with Sommelier and Australian native Mark Davidson.  He and Wine Australia are on a mission to unleash the country’s quietly held secret into the mainstream.

Since the 1990’s Australian winemakers in the cool Victorian regions of the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong- as well as Tasmania- have been working to create world class Pinot Noir.  They’ve studied with Burgundian winemakers and have planted Dijon clones in Australia’s ancient soils.  Many of these vines are now at an ideal age of around 15 to 20 years old producing elegant, terroir-driven Pinot.

Want to learn more? Watch this 12 minute video to get the full picture of Australian Pinot Noir.

 

Mark is currently the Market Development Manager for Wine Australia USA and has over 25 years experience in the hotel and restaurant industry- 15 of those as an award-winning Sommelier.  He is also a Department Head and instructor for the International Sommelier Guild.  Catch him on his weekly radio wine review at CKNW.


 

How the Portuguese Wine Industry Has Transformed into a Leader of Modern Technology: A Talk with Esporão’s Chief Winemaker David Baverstock

When you think of the Portuguese wine industry what is your first thought?  Perhaps it’s that delicious desert wine long adored by the English and world alike- Port. Perhaps it’s the beautifully terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Or perhaps you are new to wine and haven’t given much thought to Portugal.  If this is the case, welcome.  You are in for a treat!

Sexy, alluring, brilliant- the myriad indigenous vine varieties of Portugal have long enjoyed isolation from outside influences.  Where other countries have ripped out vineyards of indigenous varieties in order to plant internationals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay to please growing world markets, Portugal has long stayed true to its roots.

For a country that helped to discover much of the New World, Portugal itself has a history of political isolation.  Well, at least until it joined the European Union in 1986.

A Touch on Portuguese History

Back track to the 12th century.  The Treaty of Windsor is signed in 1386 between England and Portugal and solidified with the marriage of King John I of Portugal to Philippa of Lancanster, daughter of John of Gaunt.  This treaty put into effect an amicable pact between the two countries, which is still in effect today and holds as the oldest diplomatic treaty in the world.

When England went to war with France in the 17th century, Portugal became the main supplier of wine (think port) to England.  If you’ve ever heard that port is ‘the English man’s wine’, the rumors are true.

Fast forward to 1932.  Following 20 years of financial and political upheaval, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar becomes Prime Minister.  His pro-Catholic, authoritarian, anti-liberalism regime reorganized Portugal’s chaotic wine industry.  During this time, the Junta Nacional do Vinho founded over 100 winery cooperatives in less than 20 years which stood as an advancement for Portugal’s wine industry.

However, this tight control by the government led to a lowering of wine-making standards.

Salazar’s authoritarian regime lasted until 1974 when Portugal once again found itself in political upheaval.  The Carnation Revolution began on April, 25th 1974, lasted two years and transformed the Portuguese regime from dictatorship to democracy.

The European Union Saves the Day

During most of the 20th century, Portugal remained largely closed off to the outside world until it joined the European Union in 1986.  The EU has long supported countries with agricultural need and therefore poured money into modernizing Portugal’s wine industry.

The EU overturned the country’s monopolistic legislation while providing grants and low interest loans.  This encouraged many single estates to cut their ties with co-operatives and create their own distinctive brands.

Today regions like the Dao, Douro and Alentejo have some of the most modern wine-making facilities in southern Europe while maintaining a strong commitment to the country’s indigenous grape varieties.

So How Does Portugal’s History Relate to Australian-Born Winemaker David Baverstock?

In 1973 the 2,000-hectare Herdade do Esporão Estate outside the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, in the Alentejo region was purchased by Portuguese banker José Roquette.  The changing political environment of The Carnation Revolution after this purchase caused Roquette to flee to Brazil, and as a result the Esporão Estate, whose borders have not changed since 1267, fell into disrepair.

During this time grapes grown on the land were sold to the local cooperative as there was no winery.

Roquette’s return to Portugal in 1979 ushered in a revival to the Esporão Estate.  He built a winery in 1987 and in 1992 hired David Baverstock, who has since served as Director of Enology, Chief Winemaker.

Baverstock’s career leading up to Esporão has taken many turns around the globe.  In the below video he talks about what led him to Portugal’s Alentejo Region.

As Director of Enololgy Baverstock has worked directly with the indigenous Portuguese grape varieties planted on the Esporão Estate- aragonês, bastardo, trincadeira, roupeiro, moreto, touriga nacional, periquita and antão vaz (among many others).

Baverstock brought with him several New World technological innovations when he arrived at Esporão.  These innovations included temperature controlled fermentation, stainless steel tanks, improved hygiene and American oak.  With these innovations Esporão table wines transformed from heavy and oxidized to table wines of elegance, balance and bold fruit.

In 1999 Baverstock was awarded Portugal’s ‘Winemaker of the Year’, the first non-Portuguese to do so.

Breaking Into World Markets- What Baverstock Had to Say During Our Interview

“Portugal has been opened the door now for a number of years, and finally the quality is there, the consistency is there and the interest now there.

I do a lot of traveling.  I’ve been in China this year, I’ve been in Brazil and you kinda feel that there’s alot of curiosity about Portugal as a wine producing country.  The wines are really starting to measure up.  The Duoro wines are putting a lot of focus on Portugal as a wine producing country because they are the ones that have, if you like, the nice Spectator points and the most interest particularly from the U.S. market.

But the Alentejo, which is where we are, is coming in behind that.  We can produce more volume and more consistency.  There’s two really important Portuguese wine regions that are bringing alot of focus to the country which are the Duoro and the Alentejo.”

In fact, if you keep your eyes peeled you will find that table wines from this country are often the quality of a $30 to $50 wine from Napa at half the price.

The Future

One year ago Herdade do Esporão enlisted as a partner of Countdown 2010 to Save Biodiversity.  The Countdown’s mission is “to mobilize action to ensure that all governments and members of civil society, at every level, have taken the necessary actions to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010″.

I also talked with David about global warming and Esporão’s preparation for environmental changes.  Turns out producers in the Alentejo region have plans to combat the threat of climatic change.

More Background on the Estate

The Esporão Estate was once home to Roman wine makers.  In fact, the planting of new vineyards on the estate is often disrupted by excavation- so much so, in fact, that a museum has been constructed on the estate to showcase these artifacts.  Esporao also produces an exciting line-up of olive oil, all sourced from olive groves in the Moura region of the Alentejo.

Wrapping It Up

Enjoying a Portuguese wine not only brings you closer to the country’s indigenous varieties but also connects you to its vibrant history, culture and terroir. La vie est belle, non?

Credits

Images:

  • Alentejo Vineyard and Esporão Tower from The Wine Cabinet.com
  • Photo of David Baverstock provided by Herdade do Esporão

I used these references to write this article:

If you’ve tried a Portuguese table wine lately get back to me and tell me what you think!

The Brezza Boys- Barolo Through the Eyes of 3rd and 4th Generation Producers (video)

It’s fascinating what you learn by being there.  You can study all you want in books, but seeing a wine region in person unlocks a reality that takes you to a new understanding.  You experience the smells, the color, the people, the vineyards and it finally lifts off the pages of your wine books and becomes tangible.

I was fortunate to have Paolo Ferrero as a tour guide while in Piedmont.  A native to the area and author of several books on the region, Paolo has the ability to show you Piedmont in a way that would be impossible as a foreigner.

We visited Giacomo Brezza & Fils.  The video below was taken at the entrance of Brezza’s original cellar built in 1885.  It was once used for cellar operations and is now used for oak maturation.  The gentleman translating is Paolo and the winemaker is Oreste Brezza who talks about their four Grand Cru from Vineyards Bricco Saramassa, Saramassa, Cannubi and Castellero.

Want to watch it in a larger format? Go here.

After the tour we had a traditional Piedmontese lunch in their winery.  The dessert they served was off-the-hook for the simple reason that it contained their Barolo as the main ingredient.  The dish was made with egg white, sugar and –yep- their Barolo mixed in.  It was outstanding for the geek-out fact that Barolo in the U.S. is just too fantastic and coveted to rock in a recipe.

Have I mentioned we tried through a whole line-up of their wines? Langhe Chardonnay, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Nebbiolo d’Alba and Barolo.  Their wines exhibit elegance wrapped in a balance of tradition and modern technique.

Use of Oak

Our conversation over lunch led to a discussion about their use of oak. Enzo Brezza is the family’s fourth generation winemaker.  He commented they sell their old barrels to port and whiskey producers once the barrels have maxed at around 11 years.

(this is Enzo)

Several generations ago barrels were used for upwards of 40 to 60 years.  The older oak barrels would basically dry up and impart dry tannins into the wine.  When used with the tannic nebbiolo grape the practice lead to a gripping experience on the palate, a wine stripped of its fruit and problems with volatile acidity.

Due to its high tannins, a Barolo once required a good 20 years of bottle age before it was even approachable, and 30 to 40 years for optimum maturity.   That said today you can enjoy the wine much earlier due, in part, to the region’s updated use of oak.

Consumption and Wine Quality

Where oak practices have modernized, so too have levels of consumption.  Enzo commented that several generations ago agricultural workers used wine as food.  They would each drink roughly a liter of wine a day out in the fields, which gave them energy.

Wine produced during that time was made with quantity in mind, which greatly lowered alcohol levels and the overall intensity of the wine.

Consumption today, however, is much lower than it once was.  As well, the introduction of new technologies including the use of stainless steel tanks, temperature-controlled fermentation and defined single vineyards has increased the overall quality of wine in the region.

I leave you with a few pictures I took:

Above:Taken on our way into town

Above: The beautiful landscape

This biker happened to randomly show up in one of my photos during our drive into town!

If you plan to visit Piedmont, I highly recommend contacting Paolo.  You’ll have the chance to meet some amazing people while there.  You might even be lucky enough to visit the Brezza boys…

Lead image courtesy of Azienda Agricola Brezza Giacomo e Figli.  Photo of Enzo boldly borrowed from The Wandering Palate, a blog worth checking out. Video and bottom images taken by my Flipcam, which I adore.

How a Stellenbosch Wine School will Transform the South African Wine Industry- An Interview with ISAW Founder Stephen Satterfield (videos)

The International Society of Africans in Wine (ISAW) has a great story to tell.  They have just landed in Cape Town after an exciting U.S. tour featuring African music, food and wine, while raising money and awareness to create opportunities for Africans in the country’s billion dollar wine industry.

Fresh from the effects of apartheid, which ended in 1994, South Africa boasts just two African families who own wineries in that country. ISAW is set to change things up by helping to reduce poverty and create economic opportunities in Africa through the business of wine.

I covered ISAW back in March and had a chance to meet up with Founder Stephen Satterfield during his recent stop in Seattle.

His story of how he created ISAW is inspiring and will open your eyes to how wine is being used for the greater good of humanity.

Here’s the interview!

Tell us about the ‘Drink Well, Do Good Tour’ and the cities you’ve visited.

The ‘Drink Well, Do Good Tour’ is a multi-city, international tour of mainly food and wine events and concerts.  It’s put on by our foundation ISAW to raise money and awareness for our cause, which is to use wine as a way to reduce poverty in South Africa.  The tour started in New Orleans and is traveling through cities across the country including Austin, San Francisco, Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Detroit, and Atlanta.  The final destination is in Capetown, South Africa.

Talk a little bit about South Africa’s history and why this tour is so important to the country.

The thing that people should know about South African wines is that the industry there is 350 years old.  So it’s not considered a new world growing region, actually in fact it’s pretty old world.  And the industry itself was founded on slave labor after colonization took place.  The by-product of that has been many generations of disenfranchised indigenous workers.  So what our vision is, is to use this thriving industry that is creating wealth for so many others and to train the workers to move freely from focusing on just grape picking to other facets of the wine industry where they can expand their footprint and have a better life for themselves and their families.  Hence the ‘Drink Well, Do Good Tour’.  So we’re working with and promoting primarily two families- one is M’hudi and the other one is Seven Sisters.  They are the first and the second, respectively, black owned vineyards in South Africa.

With this tour you are looking to raise money for a school to be built in South Africa?

That’s right.  So in addition to raising awareness with this tour these events are set up to raise money to begin construction on a viticultural center in Stellenbosch which will actually be on the M’hudi Estate.  So there’s a really cool, symbolic partnership that’s happening there as well.

So how did you get your start in the wine industry?

I went to a culinary school in Portland and thought about being a chef, and then thought better about it (laughs) after I had to work in some kitchens.  But I was really inspired by the wine industry during the time that I spent in Portland.  Of course, the Willamette Valley is an incredible wine region.  And then from there I moved to Atlanta a couple years ago.  I knew I wanted to stay involved in the wine industry but also to have an opportunity to increase the well-being for others.  ISAW has been a unique opportunity and I’ve been at it for about 2 years now.

What is your connection to South Africa?  How did you get involved with the wine industry there and what led you to create the ISAW Foundation?

I don’t have a reason to be involved with South Africa other than I was really taken aback by the socio-economic landscape of the wine industry there.  I was a sommelier at the time and I know that there’s not many African Americans in the wine business in any capacity.  When I learned about the M’hudi and Seven Sisters families in South Africa I actually went over there and met them first hand.  After that visit it became very clear in my mind that this was the project I wanted to take on, indefinitely.

It’s been hard.  I mean it’s not easy. Starting a small business is not easy, philanthropy is not easy, film production is not easy, educating people about social issues is not easy.  I could go on and on.  The cause and message is not easy to get across, but we’ve created the ‘Drink Well, Do Good’ part of the message which we’ve tried to make easy.  We are trying to become better at getting people to understand why it’s important for South Africans to have access to education.

It sounds like you’re educating people about the South African Wine Industry in a really positive way.  Can you talk a little about the performances and events you’ve done on this tour?

First of all I should say that we will do this again next year, or if not next year, certainly in the future.  It’s been a really great way to engage people by meeting their interests as food and wine lovers, or as music lovers.  So the groups that we have in Seattle are Afrobeat groups- the headliner is The Chicago Afrobeat Project who have been on tour with us since San Francisco.  So you’re talking like 4 or 5 piece music sections, heavy percussion, lots of rhythm, fun high-energy music.  So the concerts have been alot of fun.  Depending on the region and the market in each town is how we bill the concert, and we focus on music with African roots to fit into the context of the tour.

(Wanna check out some concert footage?)

(this video distributed by Tubemogul)

For those of us who want to support your mission, how can we donate to ISAW?

Thanks for asking!  We are a 501c3 so that is a way that we keep gas in the tank so to speak in tour language.  You can go to the ISAW Foundation homepage and you’ll find a really big icon that says “Make a Donation” at the bottom of the page.  Click on that and we have alot of different opportunities to donate.  People can start at $5 on up.  We understand that everyone has different abilities to donate.

How can people follow what you’re doing and stay informed on ISAW’s progress?

So all our communication is very transparent.  We have a blog which I’ve been updating on the tour at ToastAfrica.com/blog.  We’ll always keep people informed on what’s happening with the Foundation through our newsletter, and if you want to receive our newsletter go to ISAWfoundation.org.  You can also send me an email- I’m at isawstephen@gmail.com.  You’ll also find tons of information and video footage of the tour on our Facebook page. We really try to use social media to get our information out there.

If you would like to hear more from Stephen, check out this video!

(video distributed by Tubemogul)

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Something to keep your eye out for… While at the concert in Seattle I caught up with Danielle Bernstein, an award-winning film maker out of New York City.  She is creating a documentary of the tour set to be released next fall.  As well, once the viticultural center is opened in South Africa she plans to document the life of a student from their first day of class through the creation of their own winery.

Cheers!

Finding the Love for the Freisa- New Oak Need Not Apply (video)

What I love about being in the wine industry is that you often get to meet wonderfully kind people.  This truly was the case when I visited La Montagnetta winery in the town of Asti.  Winemaker Domenico Capello runs the winery with the help of his family and concentrates primarily on a red grape variety called Freisa.

DNA profiling of Freisa by the University of California Davis has revealed that it has a parent-offspring relationship with Nebbiolo and is also a cousin of viognier.  It also has historically stayed right in its Piedmont home and enjoys little if any international recognition.

One thing Domenico pointed out was that you can tell a grape has great genetic quality if you can vinify it in several styles, and La Montagnetta winery rocks a whole line-up of Freisa.

Here he is talking about the four styles he produces at his winery:

Over cheese, olives and charcuterie we tried his sparkling Freisa d’Asti, Freisa rosé and tannic bold Freisa red, then finished with his late harvest Freisa.  Each style had its own defined character, crisp acidity and nuance- a testament to the grape’s versatility.

The week before heading to Piedmont I sent out a call to several sommelier friends to see if they had any specific questions they wanted me to ask the winemakers there.  MW candidate Stacy Woods asked, “how has their attitude toward the length and style of oak aging evolved – if at all?”

Before we get to that question, let me digress…

Domenico’s winery is the picture of modern vinification boasting three methods of fermentation- cement, stainless steel and plastic.

cement

stainless steel

plastic

He does aging on the lees in cement with his chardonnay (yes they do chard here!) and says that cement creates the most round and rich wines of all three.  In fact, several winemakers in the region have caught onto the potential of lees aging in cement and have implemented this method.  His comment on stainless steel was that it is the most sensitive of all three to climatic temperature changes and therefore does not preserve the wine as well.

To answer Stacy’s question, the general philosophy in Piedmont is that the high tannin and acidity of their wines are largely incompatible with new oak.  As well, one of the Barbaresco winemakers I spoke with said there was a trend about 10 years ago to adapt to the Parker style, but that local tradition has largely come back into play.

As for Domenico, he employs barrique aging but avoids new oak because Freisa is already so tannic, commenting that his barriques are all at least 2 or more years old.

La Montagnetta winery produces 40,000 bottles annually, is carried in the markets of California and New York, and in the past five years has adapted an organic approach to winemaking.

It was clear that Domenico is passionate about his profession as a winemaker, but his face really lit up when he talked about country line dancing.  That’s right, the town of Asti has a country boot scoot saloon and it sounds like several people there are turning onto the idea of traditional American dance.  Perhaps the US will in turn begin to find the love for the Freisa.  Peace!

three of la montagnetta's labels

All images and video were taken by my Flipcam, which I adore.

Exploring Sicily’s Mt. Etna with the Vivera Family (video)

“It seems to be so close, just a few steps from the shape of Etna.  On a sunny day, I think I could touch it, walking between the rows.  Etna is part of my family, as all these grapes and our wines are.  Etna knows our history, it saw us, my sons and me, building the winery, almost hidden for not to look away the beautiful landscape.  This winery is like us.  Outside it is discreet and quiet, inside it is colorful and passionate, a meeting place, a combination of tradition and creativity.  It is our home, our life, our future.”

- Antonino Vivera

An organic producer, the Vivera brand comes from the last name of the family who own Sicilian vineyards in Corleone, Mt. Etna and Gulfi Chiaramonte.  I had a chance to visit the Mt. Etna winery on my recent trip to Italy.  The winery was built just 5 years ago and features an array of beautifully balanced wines with a roundness created from the hot Sicilian sun.

Rosario Greco was my tour guide for the day.  His official title with Vivera is ‘Direttore Commerciale’ and he did a fantastic job navigating through the constraints of our language barrier.

Check us in action here:

Yes, his English was fantastic!

He spoke with pride about Sicily’s vineyards and the potential of Mt Etna’s soils, saying that Etna is like an island on an island and its wines compete in quality with Piedmont and Tuscany.

In fact, this is what The Wine Enthusiast recently had to say about the region:

“No other wine region in Italy is as exciting as Mt. Etna right now. In just a few years, the number of winemakers on the volcano has doubled… All the important Sicilian producers today are incomplete without an Etna component…The delicate wines of Etna often draw comparison to Burgundy and Barolo. Nerello Mascalese, the principle indigenous variety of the volcano delivers brass knuckles in a silken glove.”

Mt. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and boasts several microclimates impressively suited for viticulture.  The Vivera winery is located near the town of Linguaglossa and this area is considered to have some of the most promising vineyard sites on Etna.  The specific vineyard we visited featured two soil types- ancient riverbed and volcanic.

They are also located next to a phylloxera resistant vineyard.  Woot!

Vivera plants the indigenous Nerello Mascalese, and blends it with grape varieties Nerello Cappuccio and Cabernet Sauvignon from their Corleone Vineyard.  Tasting through their line-up I was impressed with their roundness, bright acidity and lifted aromatics.  Rosario pulled a wine for me that will be released to the public in a year that had some of the most beautiful floral notes and elegance I’ve experienced from a Sicilian wine.  They also feature white wines with indigenous grapes Carricante and Catarratto, and blend with Chardonnay.

A young operation, Vivera boasts winemakers Giovanni Dimastrogiovanni and Irene Vaccaro, both under 30, who use organic techniques in the vineyard and winery.  They employ stainless steel fermentation and a subtle touch of oak aging on their reds and sur lie aging with their whites.

Vivera is not currently available in the U.S. market and they are seeking an importer to pick them up.  Keep an eye out for this exciting producer as I’m sure you will be hearing more about them in the near future.

All images and video were taken by my Flipcam, which I adore.

How Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture Will Change the Way You Think: An Interview with Frog’s Leap Owner and Winemaker John Williams

I have had more and more people asking me about organic and biodynamic wines lately.  So much so, I decided to delve into the subject more fully by talking with an organic wine producer. John Williams, Owner and Winemaker of Frog’s Leap Winery has led the adoption of organic viticulture since the 1980’s in Napa Valley, and his winery has been certified organic for the past 22 years. We spoke recently about his use of organic and biodynamic viticulture and how these techniques benefit the earth and the wines he produces.

What is your definition of organic viticulture?

People tend to look at organic as not using chemicals. But I don’t think that at the heart and soul that’s what organic is all about. I think it’s about healthy soil. It’s about getting organic matter into the soil- cover crops, compost and bringing the soil alive. It’s like a healthy diet for the soil. Living soil produces a healthy living plant. And a healthy living plant is just like healthy living people- naturally resistant to disease. So in my mind, organic isn’t about not using chemicals, it’s about not needing chemicals.

Several people have asked me recently about what to expect from an organic or biodynamic wine. How would you describe the difference that organic and biodynamic viticulture plays on a wine’s quality?

Well if you think about it… healthy living soils create healthy living plants, which create healthy living grapes and ultimately healthy living wines. When you put the wine in the bottle it’s still living and healthy. And so when a wine is healthy in the bottle it goes on living for many years.

Now I’ll say the opposite. Let’s say we’ve killed the soil, and you find the grapes have lost their balance, have lost their life essentially. When you put a wine like that in a bottle, it’s only going to get worse. It’s only going to decay. So that’s how I look at organic wines. They are living wines with energy.

I’ve noticed that you talk alot about the father of biodynamic farming, Rudolf Steiner and that you have begun to use biodynamic viticulture at Frog’s Leap. What is your interpretation of biodyamics and its role in the health of the vine?

At the soul of biodynamics is that healthy soils are very critical. But the way I think about biodynamics is to put my arms out and pretend I’m the grapevine.

What’s the grapevine thinking about out in the vineyard? About getting 96 points from Parker? About getting wealthy? Apparently not. No, it’s thinking- How can I get my berries ripe so that the birds will eat them and poop the seeds somewhere else, and I’ve got to get ready for winter.  So it’s a living being thinking about all these things- when should the buds come out in the spring, when it should start degrading its malic acid to start producing flavors, when it should start moving energy down its roots.

How does it know how to do all these things? Well it measures its angle to the sun and it knows the days of the moon, it can measure the temperature in the soil and moisture content in the soil and it can tell what kind of bacteria and fungus and pheromones are in the soil.  It can sense the pheromones of the insects and birds in the sky. It knows all this stuff, right.

The thing that Steiner said was that with the very act of farming you take the grapevine out of its natural living system and you line it up in rows and tuck it up in trellises and it loses its connection. And so Steiner said, “What can you do to put information back into the farming?” Healthy soils, for sure, insects, wild life, domesticated life.   Steiner said that the act of farming will take some of the information out of the grapevines. And that’s why he proposed these homeopathic preparations. Can you stimulate their immune systems? Can you stimulate their information system, their ability to sense the cosmos of the universe. And that’s where you really get into the woo woo part of biodynamics.

So with biodynamics you really are thinking of the vineyard as one living, whole being?

Think about our own health as human beings.  Consider people who are getting all the right nutrients, but they aren’t getting any exercise, or they smoke or whatever. Health is holistic.

You were one of the first in Napa Valley to adapt innovative green technologies including geothermal power, solar power, dry farming, and Frog’s Leap is LEED certified

I think my sustainable vineyard practices also importantly include sustainable employment. I farm 200 acres of grapes and all my vineyard employees are permanently employed workers with benefits. Again if you think about organic or the health of biodynamics… great if you’re not using chemicals, but if your employees have to live in a car underneath a bridge- that’s not right. Or you’re using too much diesel fuel in your tractors or using resources that can’t be renewed. So as you get into organic and biodynamic you start to actively want to think differently. And I think we all have to start thinking about these things differently or we’re going to get lost.

Now can you taste that in my wine? There’s a good question, I think. I put those things in the karma bank. But you know, I think sometimes people can sense that from the product.

How does incorporating organic and biodynamic vineyard practices affect the way you do business?

Well we don’t market these things. We want to be a great Napa Valley wine producer rather than a great organic wine producer. But we think that our farming practices have a very important role in that.

You currently produce 60,000 cases each year. Many producers in Washington State cap their production at 3,000 to 5,000 cases annually, in what they say, is in order to maintain quality. How do you maintain quality at 60,000?

It’s all about vineyards for us. We have some of the best acres in Napa Valley and we grow great grapes. And I know there’s the hype that great wine is made in the vineyard and all that. But when a grape comes in, in perfect condition- no acid necessary, no sulfur necessary, no manipulation necessary you really don’t have to do too much. Grapes want to become wine. You really just add yeast. So it doesn’t require alot of winemaking stuff. We’re bored making 60,000 cases. There just really isn’t much to do.

I say that, but I also have a great group.  My Cellar Master has been with me for 17 years, a Winemaker that’s been with me for 16 years, and a Director of Vineyard Operations for 20 years.  So these are people that, I must say, can do it with one hand tied behind their back. It’s like a chef.  How can you continue to pump out great quality? Great ingredients, a highly trained staff, and a superbly equipped kitchen.

Last question… What’s your legacy? What do you want to leave behind as a Napa winemaker?

Right now my kids think my legacy is $21 million of debt (laughs). You know I don’t really think about my legacy too often. I’m happy about growing grapes and making wine and having fun doing it. But I believe our winery has changed the dialog about the healthy growing of grapes, conservation of soil and natural resources. I hope to be remembered for that.

But honestly, I think about a handful of wines from my whole life that have had that sense of terroir, that sense of place. You know every now and again when you get that certain smell that puts you back in a place or a time like the third grade or your grandmother’s house- that intense experience- wine has the capacity to do that. To make that happen, that’s pretty cool.

–>A special thanks to John for taking the time to talk with me on his recent visit to Seattle and to Grand Cru Wine Bar for letting us use their space for the interview.  Now go out and try an organic or biodynamic wine if you haven’t already.  You’ll be happy you did!

Lead image courtesy of NYT.

Pioneering Arizona’s Launch into the Fine Wine Scene- a Talk with Eric Glomski (video)

Wine has been produced in Arizona since the 16th century when Spanish missionaries planted vines and made wine for Christian ceremonies.

There has since been much experimentation throughout the state.  Yet with just one American Viticultural Area- the Sonoita AVA, located south of Tuscon- the state is just getting started in producing wine on a world-class level.

In this interview you will meet one of Arizona’s winemakers who is launching the state’s wine industry into the fine wine scene.

Eric Glomski is an ecologist who has been planting in a rather undiscovered region of Arizona, near Sedona, and has an in-depth understanding of the region’s micro-climates and soil types.

You will learn about the diversity of Arizona’s terroir, the experimentation currently going on with different grape varieties, and the role that Maynard Keenan from Tool is playing in pioneering Arizona’s wine industry.

I chose to split the interview into three short clips so you could simply jump from one topic to the next.  Enjoy!

The Diversity of Arizona Terroir from Cheri Walters on Vimeo.

Hot Varietals in Sunny Arizona from Cheri Walters on Vimeo.

Working with Maynard Keenan from Cheri Walters on Vimeo.

Eric Glomski got his start in winemaking as an apprentice in California, eventually taking on the role of Co-Winemaker at David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  His passion for winemaking brought him to northern Arizona where in 2003 he created Page Spring Cellars and Vineyards.

In 2007 Eric and Maynard Keenan, lead singer for Tool and owner of Caduceus Cellars, partnered to launch Arizona into the fine wine scene under the name Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.  Their philosophy is one of respect for the land and the knowledge that top quality fruit is the key to fine winemaking.  Check out their documentary “Blood Into Wine” to learn more about their role in the Arizona wine industry.