In the course of traveling our way through some of the most important wine regions of the country, we just recently spent some time in Paso Robles, California. “Paso” as the locals abbreviate the town’s Spanish name of “Pass of the Oaks” is one of the country’s largest American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). First created in 1983, this central coast AVA finds itself roughly at the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles and about 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Since its inception, these 32 by 42 miles of vineyard acreage has seen a tremendous growth to the tune of over 200 wineries today. “Paso” at about 3 times the size of Napa, used to be one of the largest undivided AVA’s. But this changed in 2014 when it was subdivided into 11 sub-AVA’s to ostensibly allow for the expression of the different soils and microclimates. Some argue that it will be a while before those sub AVA’s really show substantial terroir differences.
Paso Robles is rather hot and for that reason it lends itself to varietals that appreciate a good suntan. This can result in alcoholic wines that can sometimes be a bit on the jammy side. However, the cooler sites that are closer to the west and sit at higher elevations are laden with the diurnal variations (cool nights/hot days) that help preserve acidity. This climatic feature is certainly the case in areas such as the Templeton Gap; a “gap” in the coastal range that allows cool Pacific Ocean wind to flow inland.
Paso Robles had been historically identified with Zinfandel. Nowadays, although this is still a flagship grape, the AVA takes great pride on its Cabernet Sauvignon (pretty big boys with heavy structure), Rhone Blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, etc.), and an irreverent group of interesting blends that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I mean, what are you supposed to do when you grow close to 70 varietals? For instance, it is not rare to find Spanish grapes blended with French, Italian, and Portuguese reds/whites!
The actual town of Paso Robles is small and quaint. If you are looking for a swanky hotel with lots of white in the lobby and staff that greet you with “how are you feeling today”, go back to Yountville. Actually, some say that “Paso” is the way Napa used to be a few decades back. There are no black turtlenecks and slick back hair here. Hotels are few and the gastronomic scene, although flourishing, it still feels personal and the conduit of somebody’s passion.
The wineries are not set up one after the other as you would see down Napa’s Highway 29 (with its satanic left turns onto it!) or Silverado Trail. Although there’s a bit of more driving, there’s virtually no traffic and several of them have restaurants on the premises. The staff is very friendly and engaging. In fact, one of my favorite things was that wine hosts, after a brief introduction, would come and serve a flight of wines and leave you alone to taste with your friends.
For the “wow factor” Daou Winery carries plenty of punch. Beautiful property in a serene bucolic setting that really makes it hard to get up and leave. But for me, it was a very edifying experience to visit Tablas Creek Winery for its historical value. This property years ago struck a deal with Chateau Beaucastel (one of the most prestigious properties in Chateauneuf du Pape) to one by one bring all the 13 CDP varieties they grow in their Southern Rhone vineyards. After many years of quarantines (you cannot just bring cuttings into the country as they may have viruses and other maladies) and propagation, Tablas Creek makes virtually varietal wines from all these grapes. Very cool, I think.
Give Paso Robles wines a chance. I recommend their Rhone Blends and some of the other more restrained reds. It is a beautiful part of the country’s wine world and as it turns out, you can leave your black turtle neck and hair gel for the next time you go to the area between Rush, State, and whatever east-west street to the south you think defines its third leg.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I had the good fortune of an invitation to spend a wonderful weekend in Michigan with several fun and irreverent couples. In the course of seeking age appropriate entertainment for this wine loving crowd, one of the more enlightened moms” (who, ahem, also happened to be a Hinsdale Wine Academy graduate) set up an appointment to visit a local winery: Wyncroft Wines.
And then…I was blown away.
Soon after arrival (by appointment only…as they are not into bachelorette parties or any sort of other parties that mandate veils and rubber phalluses), upon turning at the small old graveyard that guards the ornate wrought iron gates that open into the botanical garden that introduces visitors to the property, we were met by the co-proprietor and wine maker, James Lester. James immediately engaged us with a charismatic earnest way about him that betrayed the fact that he was once a theology student. His magnetic personality was punctuated by the “this guy is cooler than me” head of wavy grey hair that added further gravitas to his commentary. After genuinely asking about our provenance and wine interests, James proceeded to talk about his property and passion for wine in almost spiritual qualities.
Unbeknownst to many, Michigan shares similar latitudes with some of the great wine growing regions of France. In addition, the temperance provided by Lake Michigan, the pedigreed plant material meticulously grafted to local rootstock, and uncompromising almost cult-like devotion to the vines’ life cycle result in the type of measured grape yields per acre (similar to what you would find in Burgundy) that produce quality fruit that can only be destined to make remarkable wines.
James is a true “garagiste”. For real. His operation takes place in the confines of a garage now converted to a winery. This is where the work of his staff of four (including him and his friendly wife/partner, Daun) begin the vinification process. There you will find his de-stemmer, lab, fermenting vats, barrel room, bottling area, and the most “legit” tasting room I have ever enjoyed.
There’s no denying that, as James floods the room with his enthusiasm and hospitality, his wines are made to taste even better. But let’s be clear. These are serious dry wines which are a far cry from the fruit bazooka plunk that many southwest MI wineries make to please the “Coca Cola Palate” crowd. His wine portfolio is honest. James is not looking to coax his young vines to make wines they cannot. Yet he has lofty plans for these “youngsters”: He has a true-to-form Bordeaux blend, a Burgundy-esque Pinot Noir, a steely Chardonnay, lively Rieslings, and even an ice wine that I recently paired with a Baked Alaska (yeah, baby!)
If you are a wine aficionado and would like to partake in both an educational and hedonistic experience, I encourage taking the just over 2 hours drive from Chicago for a revelation that will feel like a wine-world apart.
And who knows, maybe someday someone in France will say “I can’t believe how these wines taste like Michigan wines”!
I am old enough to remember those old Geritol commercials that promised vigor if you took the tonic. Vine “vigor” is something that’s also of utmost importance for the production of good grapes and the great wine they can make. Remember that, although you can make bad wine from good grapes, it is only from good grapes that you can make good wine.
Teleologically speaking, a vine’s work is to perpetuate itself via propagation. This can only happen by spending a significant portion of its energy in making seeds, which as you know, are inside the grape berries. To better target that outcome, farmers and wine makers train the vines to direct their energy accordingly so that the end product are grapes that, albeit smaller, have the best concentration of flavors and ripeness. Well beyond the evolutionary changes over centuries that have given wine grapes (as opposed to table grapes) the best skin to pulp ratio (the “grapeyness” is mostly in the skin), there are vineyard interventions that help target the grape bunches.
A vine left to its own devices will grow an unruly canopy to make as many grape bunches as possible. In fact, in ancient times some vines were trained to grow up larger trees. The problem with this much “vigor” is that the sugars and “grapeyness” of so many bunches are diluted to the extent that the flavors are not as intense because an unruly leaf canopy will also take away from the energy the vine would otherwise use to better its means of propagation (remember the grapes?).
This is why grape farmers will implement certain techniques in order to force the vine to focus its vigor, even if it means reducing it, so that the berries are the main object. The key is to induce a certain amount of “distress” so that the vines are conned into making better grapes. Among the different things that can be done at the vineyard, canopy management is vital. Not only it forces the vine to pay more attention to the grapes, but it also allows for better sun exposure of the berries which in turn enhances ripening. Sometimes, when there is an overabundance of bunches (too much vigor), a “green harvest” is carried out. This is a process by which certain green grape bunches are cut and dropped on the ground. Water management is also crucial. The old adage “vines don’t like wet feet” pertains to the idea that when a vine has to “struggle” for water, it will spend a lot more of its energy in the berries. This is one of the reasons why planting vines at hill sides and porous soils (significant water runoff) produce better grapes. By the same token, vines can also be “distressed” by being planted closer to each other so that they have to compete for water.
The end product of all this vineyard management is to keep the vigor under control so that yields are restrained. For instance, a very vigorous vineyard could produce up to about 10 tons of fruit per acre. But these berries would not be of the best quality as they would not have the concentrated flavors from vines that would have been forced to pay extra attention to lesser amounts of grapes.
With that in mind, a quality vineyard will produce about 3 tons of grapes per acre. Each ton produces a little bit above 2 barrels of wine and each barrel contains 25 cases. Since each case has 12 bottles, this 3 tons/acre vineyard will produce:
3 tons x 2 barrels = 6 barrels.
6 barrels x 25 cases = 150 cases x 12 bottles = 1,800 bottles.
Considering that there are 600-800 grapes per bottle, that’s almost 1.5 million grapes!
Nice vigor...even if you take it easy with the Geritol.
“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners”.
This aphorism underscores the symbiotic relationship between food and wine: a combination that, when at its best, is supposed to create an enhancing balance of both performers.
That in the American culture we must have a didactic dialog regarding wine with food while in most other wine producing countries this is self-evident is a matter for a different conversation. Nonetheless, wine, as the ultimate “food condiment”, deserves our attention via some basic knowledge of how is it that it works with different meals. As you read on you will learn that we do not need those convoluted algorithms to learn which are the combinations that work.
As it turns out, there are very few wine and food combos that are atrociously unappetizing. In other words, most matches tend to fluctuate between the sublime and the “ok”. Here’s a quick foolproof way for coming up with the different food and wine matches you may want to pursuit.
1. Let your wine mirror the weight and body of your dish: This is easy and the most important thing to keep in mind. I mean, we all can agree that a flaky poached fish has a lighter weight and body than a seared
bone-in ribeye. Bear in mind that the weight and body of the dish can be affected by the cooking method (what if the fish is blackened?) and, to a great extent, the sauces (what if the fish now has BBQ sauce?). Even when there are several things going on in the plate, you will have a sense of who’s the main ingredient that “driving the bus”.
2. Let your wine bridge the flavors of your dish: If your meal is a peppery steak au poivre, perhaps what you need is a peppery wine such as Syrah. If the tomato sauce is acidic, maybe you want to compliment that with an acidic Chianti. A Latin dish with savory herbs? No problem. Try a savory wine like a Chilean Carmenere
3. Let your wine contrast the flavors of your dish: Sometimes the best match is the one that “cuts” through your dishes overriding mouth feel. For instance, when eating creamy cheeses, a nicely acidic white is just the thing. When it comes to palate cleansing this is where sparkling wines can shine! I tell you…try some bubbles with flan.
There are also time tested “rules” that are pretty much fail proof.
1. Drink and eat dishes of similar provenance. This is particularly true for Europe and South America. What do Argentines, arguably the meat experts of the world, drink with their steaks? Malbec. What’s a beautiful match for the seafood of Galicia, Spain? Albariño. What’s a fantastic partner for goat cheese? The Sauvignon Blanc of the Loire Valley.
2. The wine should be more acidic than the food. Think of how a lemon squeeze turbocharges the flavors in just about anything. Thus, when talking about “food friendly wines”, this often refers to wines with bright acidity that are not overly tannic.
3. The wine should be sweeter than the dessert. Otherwise, the wine will taste bland. This is why for the life of me I cannot understand where this wine and chocolate match s from?!
4. Tannins will augment hot and spicy…but some people actually love this.
Here’s the thing. This ought to be a fun process fueled by curiosity. Do you really want to always have the same match? Will they all equally work? No, not really. Think of this a dating for your palate: sometimes you are the actress who marries handsome Brad Pitt (only to be divorced soon after) and sometimes you are the supermodel who marries not so good looking Ric Ocasek (RIP).
At the end, the ultimate food and wine pairing recommendation dwells on how I would answer George Karlin’s question: “What wine goes with Captain Crunch?”
Drink what YOU like!
Over the last several classes, my wine education, readings, and experience, I have come around certain wine etiquette questions that often come to mind but many seldom ask about. Here are some I want to share:
1. BYOB – Many of us keep great bottles at home and it often feels like a shame to go out for dinner and order other bottles while thinking about that gem we left behind. That’s when it may be just the thing to bring it to the restaurant. It’s always wise to call ahead to make sure that’s allowed and if so, what is the corkage fee. Personally, if $35 or more, it feels like they don’t really want you to bring that bottle. But then again, if your bottle is that special, then the economics of expensive corkage fees may work. I think it is always good form to offer a drink to the waitstaff. I also find it elegant, for instance, if you bring a red, to buy a cheaper white from the restaurant. Remember that often there are limits to the number of bottles that can be brought. It is not unusual to allow “just” one bottle per two guests.
2. Tipping on wine- This is truly an art form. I think that most folks would agree that it may be unreasonable to tip 20% on a $500 bottle of wine for pulling and serving the wine. On the other hand, this may be perfectly fine for those more down to earth bottles. It’s been said that if you fret too much about tipping for wine, perhaps going out and ordering wine is not what you should be doing.
3. Ordering cheaper priced wines without appearing to look cheap - It’s perfectly cool to point at the wine list, slide your finger right to the prices, and show the server/sommelier the price range you want. Nobody will know what that range was! Remember that often the second to the cheapest wine is the wine with the highest markup…the restaurant knows that you don’t want to be cheapskate!
4. What to do with the cork? - Very little. This is a throwback to the days a branded cork helped confirm the provenance of the wine when labels would peel off or otherwise deteriorate. DO NOT SMELL IT! Why? Because corks smell like cork and there’s not much information from that. Instead just look at it to make sure it’s not destroyed or blemished with wine staining the side as that can be a sign of seepage and thus a bad wine. It’s still a cool part of the pageantry.
5. That popping noise- Again…part of the pageantry for some but technically considered not “elegant”. Same applies to opening sparkling wines. Instead “popping” the cork should make no more noise than the sigh of a content lover or a nun’s fart (this IS an adult blog, folks).
6. The guest who holds out a wine glass up in the air for a refill- This is a disaster waiting to happen and considered uncouth. When faced with this situation, gently grab the glass, set it on a table, and then pour the wine. Be nice.
7. Bringing wine to a party- Do not expect that your wine will be opened because chances are that your host already has the drinks set up. But if you must, bring one for opening and another for your guests to enjoy later. Please be clear to your host. Not cool to make them read your mind.
Above all, beyond all these “rules”, the bottom line is that wine should be there to serve us and not the other way around. Agree?
Among the many myths surrounding wine, a few are more established than the erroneous idea that many folks are allergic to sulfites. This belief is most often fueled by the headaches and/or flushing that some drinkers experience after a few sips.
The notion that there’s something nefarious about sulfites is in part promoted by the legally mandated wine label warning: “Contains Sulfites”. Although this warning was first federally mandated back in 1988 for wines that contain above 10 parts per million (ppm) of SO2, the truth is that wines have always contained sulfites. It is not only a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation but also a vital additive that has been used for centuries in the interest of protecting the wines from oxidation and spoilage. The genesis of this labeling mandate started after reports of some people, mostly asthmatics, who developed certain adverse reactions after eating at salad bars back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As it turned out, these poor devils were chowing on foods that had been sprayed with up to 2,000 parts per million (PPM) of sulfites to prevent the food from turning brown! In the EU, and pretty much in America, the maximum levels of SO2 allowed are 160 ppm for reds and 210 ppm for whites. Sweet wines are allowed up to 400 ppm. Why the different levels? That is because reds have tannins and this substance helps stabilize the wines to the extent that less SO2 is needed. Therefore, it does not make sense to drink whites over reds to avoid the ostensible sulfite side effects.
In fact, sulfites are still in many foods and in vastly larger concentrations than in wine. For instance, dry fruits, beer, flour tortillas, shrimp, and pickles, to name a few, contain quite a bit of the stuff...sometimes 10 times the amount you would find in wine! So, if you have not keeled over from eating these, chances are that you are not part of that 1% of the population that the FDA has identified as having sulfite sensitivity.
Notwithstanding that sulfites are a natural by products of yeast fermentation, many see their addition as an unnatural process in wine making. For this reason, many choose to drink “organic wines”. Although the definition of organic wines can vary from country to country, the USDA regulations state that these wines must be made from organic grapes and sulfites cannot be added. It specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites must be under 10 parts per million. Finally, organic doesn’t imply that the wine doesn’t have other additives. Therefore, winemakers that use organic wines but use some SO2 cannot call their wines “organic” but instead “Made with Organic Grapes”. And what about “Natural Wines”? Since there’s no uniform definition of “natural wine”, the winemaker can use a bit of sulfites and still be called “natural”.
So, what’s causing the headaches and the flushing? There is some evidence that certain substances such as glycoproteins can cause the release of histamines and these in turn unleash other reactions that include the headaches and the flushing. But let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes the headaches come about after you finish that whole bottle by yourself!
“Keep Syrah Weird”…so the dictum goes as a likely play on the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker. Syrah is, however, the Portland of grapes.
As opposed to popular belief, Syrah’s provenance is not from the ancient Persian town of Shiraz, the fifth most populous city in today’s Iran (sorry, my Persian friends). Ampelography (the field of botany that studies the classification and identification of grapevines), through DNA studies, have traced the grape’s origins to the northern Rhone, the spiritual home of this grape. By the way, Petite Sirah, although related (cross between Syrah and Peloursin), it is not a “petite” version of Syrah but rather a different grape altogether.
Syrah is a dark skinned grape which typically produces wines that are full bodied, packed with dark fruit, and yet with somewhat subdued tannins. Its capacity to have an acid backbone is rather dependent on the climate where it grows. Since the best concentrated and balanced flavors come from vines that grow on hills, it’s been said that “Syrah likes a view”. The “weirdness” of Syrah is perhaps better described as its ability to render these fruit flavors while yet providing other aromas such as black olives, smoke, raw meat (to me certain bottles smell like Paulina Meat Market…ever been there?), iodine, blood, tobacco, rosemary, and cracked black pepper. Incidentally, rotundone, the chemical that gives off the black pepper aroma, cannot be smelled by as much as 20% of the population.
When grown in regions with cooler climate, like the northern Rhone, Syrah will express more of the savory and acidic characters that make up world class wines such as those from Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Hermitage’s etymology, from the word “hermit”, has to do with the legend of the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg. After he returned home wounded in 1224 from one of the crusades, the queen allowed him to set up in this area where he lived as a “hermit”. Cote Rotie (“roasted slope” in French), first planted under the rule of Caligula (ooh, salaciousness) is divided between Cote Blonde and Cote Brune. Legend has it that these slopes were named after the blonde and brown hair colored daughters of a local lord. The girls, like today's soils, had two very different personalities. Cote Brune, with its iron rich soils, tends to be more tannic while the Cote Blonde are more balanced and meant to be enjoyed while younger.
Australia, where the grape is known as Shiraz (the mnemonic I use to remember this is that in Australia they call women “Sheilas” and that sounds like “Shiraz”), the wines tend to be more powerful in that they are quite fruit forward, alcoholic, and tannic. While this was the overriding style of the 90’s, more conscious efforts have been made as of lately in order to adapt to palates that demand more restrained wines. Aussie Shiraz often gives what I personally consider to be glorious notes of eucalyptus. This delicious “taint” seems to be a function of the often seen proximity between vineyards and eucalyptus forests.
Peripatetic Syrah also shows very well in California where it finds great balance in Sonoma and the Central Coast; particularly in cooler climate areas (i.e. hills or proximity to the Pacific Ocean) where it can even appear lighter colored and with heightened acid. Again, the cooler climate helps the grape express its savory/cracked black pepper notes. Syrah has also made a name for itself in Washington State where producers such as Cayuse can demand over $200 a bottle. Finally, don’t forget the great values (value = delicious wine at a reasonable price) to be had in the Syrah from Chile and Argentina.
For me Syrah/Shiraz is one of those wines that I can readily enjoy with or without food. But who are we kidding? Like most wines it transforms itself when accompanied by the right food. Try it with a steak au poivre (Duh! The pepperiness, right?), lamb chops, or even with savory dishes that have herbs such rosemary and thyme.
So call on your favorite Sheila, or Bloke, grab a bottle of delicious weirdness and have a feast!
Chateauneuf-du-Pape, French for “the Pope’s new crib”, refers to the papal palace during the Avignon Papacy (1309-1376) when, due to some drama with the French crown, the Holy See was moved to this area in the south of France. Today, this is a French wine region of great prestige located in the southern Rhone valley.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s (or CDP as it’s known in wine circles) wine frauds during the early 20th century contributed to the impetus for the creation of wine “appellation d'origine controlee” (AOC) regulations. These "protected designations of origin" are the laws that would go on to govern the production of wines by overseeing things such as location, grape growing, and wine making. With the help of a blind taster, who must approve the wine for it to receive AOC classification, the laws are meant to compel these areas to adhere to a set of very strict and precise standards. Today, more than 300 French wines that have AOC classifications. As an example of how fiercely protective the folks at CDP are of their brand, look no further than the municipal decree passed in 1954 that prohibits the landing of any flying saucers in the commune! The law still stands and along the way it captured the imagination of a popular American Central Coast producer who named his Rhone-styled CDP “Le Cigar Volant”.
CDP has traditionally allowed for 13 grapes varieties in their blends but as of 2009 this number has technically been brought up to 19 as the new regulations explicitly recognize certain red and white varieties of prior grapes. Although there are no restrictions in the proportion of varieties allowed in the blends (in fact, CDP allows for 100% singe varietal), most of their wines are Grenache dominant. The most common blends are described as “GSM”: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The grapes in the blends have specific roles: Grenache brings the red fruit character, Syrah the savory earthy aspects, and Mourvèdre adds strength with its tannins. Whites are also allowed but they are a rarity in comparison. Chateau Beaucastel is the only producer that grows all 13 varieties.
The CDP terroir is characterized by an overall warm Mediterranean climate and arid looking soils covered by the famous “galets” (stones deposited by ancient glaciers). The heat and sunshine hours, in addition to the often-brutal Mistral (a cold and dry strong wind in southern France that blows down from the north) are the stuff from which alcoholic robust wines are made. Because these wines are not shy about their fruit and tannins, they are great pairings for the same foods you would have with California Cabernet and Bordeaux. These tend to be many of our winter comfort foods: braised anything, steaks, lamb, etc. In fact, the Syrah aspect of the wine can also make it a good companion with the more savory and spicier aspects of these dishes. But if you want to feel “healthy” try a CDP with roasted cauliflower…it works!
Although CDP’s have seen an increase in prices, mostly due to a perfect storm of decreased production (due to challenging vintages and a nasty fraud scandal) with high demand, these bottles are truly wines that have a unique taste profile that I think offer something for all red wine lovers.
“You can make bad wine from good grapes but you cannot make good wine from bad grapes” so the old saying goes. Like most aphorisms, this one holds true because it underscores the importance of grape growing. Not withstanding the images of a “gentleman farmer” the manicured vineyards of places like Napa may conjure, the reality is that grape growing is agriculture and this line of work is tough. The agricultural aspects of wine making are particularly relevant because, while we do not talk about the taste nuances of the different corn crops, the life cycle of a grape does have impactful results in the end product of wine.
The grape grower, in conjunction with the wine maker, is all about nurturing vines so that they produce grapes that end up with the desired balance between essentially three factor: Pulp ripeness (the sugar contents), Skin ripeness (the “grapey” ripeness that encompasses things such as tannins and aromas), and Acid levels.
Sun exposure is crucial not only for photosynthesis, but also for the heat it provides. Although a bit simplistic, it’s been said that sunlight ripens the skin while heat ripens the pulp. Grapes will not ripen in a region that has an average annual temperature of less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the growing season. Grapevines also need about 7 hours of sunlight per day. If the climate is too cold, you will end up with acidic, low sugar (and hence low alcohol wines given that yeasts “eat” sugars to produce alcohol) grapes. The opposite happens when it is too warm and light-hours and heat are overabundant. Therefore, in order to achieve this balanced triumvirate, grape growers often turn to manipulating the effects of temperature and sunlight by deciding whether to plant their vines at high (mountain fruit) or low (valley fruit) elevations.
Bearing in mind that you will lose an average 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation you gain, mountain grapes enjoy the benefit of a longer growing season where they can have a lot of light without accrued temperatures. Conversely, in the valley floor where the temperatures are higher, the grapes often attain pulp/sugar ripeness before skin ripeness. These are the wines that tend to be alcoholic (remember: more sugars = more alcohol) and often lack the aromatic and taste nuances of those that have been crafted with grapes of better skin quality. The extra light from higher elevations is a function of being above the fog line and one that’s related to higher UV light exposure. As a result, these grapes develop thicker skins which in turn result in more of that “grapey” goodness. The cooler growing conditions also allow for preservation of acidity since the grapes are not exposed to the acidity reducing effects of heat.
But mountain fruit is not only about sunlight hours and temperature. It also has a lot to do with soils. On a mountain (or hill) the soils are not as fertile and in turn this compels the vine to work harder to secure the best possible ways to procreate by focusing in producing delicious grapes. Slopes also have better water drainage and this also contributes to “stressing” the vine to concentrate on the fruit. Therein lies the origin of another great grape growing adage: “Vines don’t like wet feet”.
For instance, the Cistercian monks of Burgundy over the years figured this out to the extent that they even codified those regions of the hills that work best. They would refer to the valley grapes as the fruit to make wine for the parish priests, the mountain top plots for the cardinals’ wines, and the mid-section vineyards as the most excellent ones…the wines for the Popes!
Next time you have a chance, try to mindfully taste the difference between these two styles. Try them from a similar region and with the same varietal. Napa would be a good place to start.
Who knows…maybe this will be a revelation that will have you screaming “Habemus Papam”!
The Napa Valley, aptly considered the most famous wine region in the country, has had an illustrious history that, albeit a short one when compared to the great vineyards of the Old World, is one that makes for a great tale. “The Valley”, as the locals call it, has seen its share of challenges from its humble agricultural beginnings to the processions of rowdy bachelorette parties (sorry, dudes don’t do wine bachelor parties unless it’s your third wedding…and even then it’s a bit weird).
As opposed to popular belief, Napa was not America’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA’s are expanses of land, often enormous, that are supposed to have certain defining grape growing/wine making features). It was the second one after Augusta, MO (1980)!
At over 225,000 acres, it sits between the Mayacama Mountains to the west and the Vaca mountains to the east. It’s been studied to have over 100 different types of soils and a climate that, although mostly Mediterranean, varies in temperature from the cooler south (closer to San Pablo Bay) to the warmer north. In a hot day, this difference in temperature between the two ends can be as high as 20 degrees. These temperature variations are pertinent because they dictate which grape varietals grow better in certain areas of the Valley. This almost 30 miles long x 5 miles wide AVA in turn has been divided into multiple sub-AVA’s. Many of you will recognize some of them: Carneros, Yountville, Mt. Veeder, Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga, etc. These sub AVA’s can in turn be grossly described as “mountain” vs “valley floor” regions (perhaps a topic for another blog).
Napa’s first commercial winery was Charles Krug in 1861. Leading up to the phylloxera epidemic of the 1890’s (a nasty bug that eats the vines’ roots) there were about 140 wineries. After this plague was vanquished another catastrophe took hold: Prohibition. As expected, during the 1920-1933 years of teetotalism, many wineries succumbed to the “noble experiment”. The ones that made it kept in business with either the production of sacramental wine or “wine bricks”. These were blocks of died grapes that, upon being reconstituted with water and some yeast, would help fulfill the Volstead Act loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons per year of home wine production.
After the vicissitudes of the great Depression and two World Wars, Napa would find its resurgence in the persona of Robert Mondavi who, after founding his eponymously named vineyard in 1966, brought quality and international recognition to the Napa Valley. But the region's reputation would be turbo charged after The Judgement in Paris: the 1976 blind tasting competition where an all French jury picked a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as the winners over the local wines. Booya! To this day both varietals continue to lead the charge in percentage of red and white grapes produced.
Today’s Napa remains a popular enotourism destination with 3.8 million visitors a year and it continues to provide excellent big and bold wines that, alas, continue to climb in price. Lodging and housing are right on par. Nonetheless, it is unequivocally a great place to visit (3 nights is my limit!) to enjoy fantastic food and wine…and yes…the art of doing very little else.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.