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Monday, 01 June 2009 20:00

Word just arrived that Jim Richards died a few days ago, at age 77. Jim and Barbara started and owned Paloma Vineyard, way up Napa's Spring Mountain.

PalomaIf you never heard of Paloma, no big deal. They're tiny and very much out of the wine mainstream.

But they did make the 2003 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year. That 2001 Paloma Merlot still holds the record for the highest score the Spectator ever awarded the varietal.

Jim also provided one of my more valuable wine lessons.

Like many first-rank wine folks, Jim came from a scientific background; his first career was as a petroleum geologist in Texas oil country. Through a well-connected friend, I tasted and began to buy Paloma with their first releases, in the mid-90s. Back then they also did a mini-production Syrah -- and I still curse the day Jim tore out those vines so he could plant more Merlot.

In late fall, 2003, I joined some mutual friends, one of whom arranged to drive us up to Barbara and Jim's place and cook dinner for the group, made seven by the Richards' son, Sheldon.

Though the rest of us didn't know it, this was a mighty strange moment for them. They'd recently nabbed an unheard-of (for Merlot) Spectator 95 points, and had just been notified of the impending Wine of the Year honor -- but were sworn to secrecy.

They did, however, let me leave with another six bottles at the original $45 release price. Two weeks later, I could have flipped them for $250 apiece, if I'd been so inclined. Such is the nutsiness of the wine marketplace.

We sat around the dinner table, munching on Allan Bree's feast. I asked Jim how his wine got so good, so fast.

When they began to harvest their vineyard, Jim said, before they permanently left Texas and moved to the mountaintop, they used to sell their grapes to the winery just down the road -- a little place named Pride Mountain, not exactly known for shabby products.

But Jim wasn't happy. He had an itch to make his own wine from his grapes. And though he greatly respected Pride's world class winemaker, Bob Foley -- who also made Paloma's first few vintages -- the way they harvested Paloma's fruit drove him nuts.

"They'd have someone take measurements on a few grapes, and if the sugar was right, the next day they'd send over a large crew and pick the whole vineyard," Jim told us.

Now, let's step back a second. A fair description of Jim and Barbara's 15-acre mountaintop vineyard might be "cubist painting" -- the kind with the crazy angles and fractured planes facing in every direction.

Setting out rows and trellises must have been a nightmare. And there was exactly zero chance that all the grapes in that crazy-quilt of slopes and elevations reached perfect ripeness at the same instant. Yet a larger winery, like Pride, simply didn't find it practical to monitor every tiny block -- sometimes just a few rows -- and send a crew to pick each at its peak.

But that's how Jim did it. He claimed to have tossed out the measuring equipment -- something I never believed, given his scientific bent -- and simply walked the vineyard daily during harvest season, sampling grapes. When his palate told him that a block reached optimum physiological ripeness -- never mind the sugar or acidity measurements -- he'd scramble for pickers who were willing to drop everything to come by and harvest it.

He said it took 13 separate trips into Paloma's 15 vineyard acres to gather the grapes for his Wine of the Year. To me, that sounded more like Chateau d'Yquem than Napa Valley.

More than a little obsessive? Maybe even monomaniacal? Sure. But that's how great wine, as opposed to merely very good wine, gets made.

And that's the lesson Jim Richards left with me, one I recall whenever a winemaker or grower talks about how they "have to" take a shortcut because doing it otherwise "wouldn't be practical".

 
Monday, 25 May 2009 20:00

ST. CATHERINES, ONTARIO -- Last week I visited a Michigan grape grower and hardcore home winemaker who's on track to start his own winery in a few years. While we shmoozed, I asked if he made it a point to try someone else's wine -- even a single glass -- every evening. He said not. I mentally flinched, thinking, "He'll have a harder time becoming a good commercial winemaker if he doesn't constantly benchmark his palate on what good -- or bad -- wine tastes like."

Bryan Ulbrich and John Burtka
Winemakers Bryan Ulbrich (Left Foot Charley) and John Burtka (Cherry Creek) sample each other's ros├ęs on Left Foot Charley's Traverse City tasting patio

It's not just Michigan. Yesterday, two winemakers here in Ontario's Niagara region -- where I'm spending a few days to benchmark my own palate on the same cool-climate grapes Michigan grows -- mentioned they hadn't tasted wines from some well-respected neighboring wineries. In each case, the wineries were less than ten minutes apart. One winemaker had never visited a nearby winery that's been open for more than a year.

"I really ought to get over there and taste their wines," he said to me.

Perhaps he was expecting an engraved invitation?

Two things happen when winemakers don't regularly sample other people's wines -- especially those from the same grapes, in the same or similar climatic regions. Both of them are bad.

First, they become blind to the flaws or shortcomings in their own wines. Winemakers even have a name for it: they call it developing a "winery palate". It's what happens when they taste and drink their own wines so frequently that they lose the ability to objectively evaluate them.

That's easy to grasp from a non-wine perspective. Since I moved to the semi-country, where you pump water from a well, my ability to detect sulfur in wine has completely vanished. Why? Our well water contains such ghastly amounts of hydrogen sulfide that it's turned into mere "background noise" to my nose. After years of showering and brushing my teeth with it, I no longer notice it.

But to compensate, I simultaneously acquired a world class chlorine-detecting palate. These days, I regularly annoy city friends by observing how their municipal utility injects a smelly pool sanitizer that turns tap water into Clorox.

Why can't they taste it? Guess they have a city-water palate.

On the flip side of the winery palate you find the vinous equivalent of tunnel vision -- a blindness to the possibilities of other flavors and styles. Let's call it "tunnel palate"

Wine educator Lisa Airey approaches the idea from the consumer's perspective: how tasters train themselves to detect and differentiate among the dozens of subtle scents found in wine. Her thesis is simple: if you don't teach your nose to recognize and put a name to an aroma, how can you later find it in the wines you taste?

Her solution: systematically smell all sorts of spices and foods with aromas you're likely to find in wine. Close your eyes and have someone put them under your nose, until you can associate each sensory aroma with a name.

The same goes for winemakers. Someone who makes Pinot Gris in Old Mission should regularly expose himself  to all the flavors, textures and styles made from this grape in Alsace, Italy and Oregon -- not to mention the guy down in Lake Michigan Shore. If she grows cool climate Cab Franc in Michigan, shouldn't she regularly sample wines from Chinon in France's Loire Valley and, yes, here in Niagara?

Or, in its simplest terms: only winemakers who regularly taste other people's wines will develop the ability to recognize all the stylistic possibilities and best choices available for their own grapes.

---------------------------

A hat tip for the idea behind this post, and the accompanying photo, to Cherry Creek's John Burtka, who headed north last week  to benchmark his wine with winemakers in that part of the state. 

 
Monday, 18 May 2009 20:00

Last week, Michigan's doyenne of wine writers, Sandra Silfven -- perhaps basking in the afterglow of an expense-paid junket to judge at the Riverside Wine Competition in California -- waxed rhapsodic about how such competitions "tell the real story of quality." goldmedal.gif

As opposed to reviews in "big glossy wine magazines" which, she suggests, rate wines on the basis of "the label or who advertises."

A grenade clearly lobbed in the direction of the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, neither of whose conflicts of interest I'd defend, either. But the collateral damage -- a message that medals are superior to reviews -- sprays shrapnel on every wine reviewer, from the matte-paper, commercial-free Robert Parker on down.

And it's plain wrong, especially where consumer value is concerned.

Let's start with the basics. Unlike consumer-oriented wine reviews, competitions are largely funded by and exist for the sake of wineries. In review-starved places like Michigan, medals supply an important currency for wineries to buy positive marketing buzz.

Nothing wrong with that. But it means that competitions structure the rules of the game to guarantee maximum payback with least downside risk to those who foot the bills. And that's not you or me.

For example, have you noticed that competitions have no losers -- only winners? Wines that don't get medals are quickly "disappeared".

At Riverside, wineries entered 1883 wines. Judges gave medals to 1247 (66%) of them; you'll find their names on the website.

What about the other 636 wines? As a consumer, wouldn't you like to be able to find out what they were -- if only to avoid on the store shelf?

Sorry, you'll never know. The "Entered, no medal" list doesn't exist.

What else don't competitions readily tell you? How freewheeling or stingy they are with the hardware. Riverside handed out medals to 66% of its entries. Last year's Michigan Wine Competition tipped the scales at 73%. The All-Canadian Wine Championships, held last week in Windsor, limits awards to 30%.

Does this make a difference to consumers in the quality of wines that come home with medal bragging rights? You betcha.

Competitions only give consumers one bit of information: who won a medal. And even that's suspect.

Just ask any owner or winemaker. The first thing they'll tell you is that medals mostly represent the luck of the draw: which random table of judges happened to taste your wine, what other wines were on the table in the same flight, and when during the day did they taste it?

How else do you explain why judges at the Pacific Rim Competition created a special trophy for Best Rosé,  just so they could award it to 45 North's 2008 Pinot Noir Rosé -- and two weeks later, the same wine came home with an also-ran silver medal from the Tasters Guild?

That's like Parker scoring a wine 96, and the Spectator 81 - a split-decision you rarely see among major critics. But it happens all the time at competitions.

One reason: time is a luxury that competitions deny their judges, who may taste 100+ wines in a day. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am -- grab a quick impression of the wine, cast your vote, and on to the next flight. Not to mention the fog of palate fatigue that can set in late in a long tasting day.

Another reason: with only four things they're allowed to say (gold, silver, bronze, no medal), judges need to shoehorn each wine into a size, whether it fits well or not. There's no room for subtlety or shading, as in a review, and one strong voice at a judging table can sway everyone else into substantially raising or lowering an award level. Every judge has seen this happen.

I'm tuned into this at the moment, because last Sunday MichWine's tasting panel sat down to taste a dozen Michigan rosés for upcoming reviews. 

(For the record: we taste blind so labels don't come into play, and don't take winery advertising. We do accept free review samples; since it's a stretch to imagine being ethically challenged by the chance to swirl and spit a group of $15 wines.)

At the end of the day, I'm much more satisfied with the panel's results than those from a competition -- especially from a consumer perspective. Why? Here's three advantages a good review process offers consumers that no competition can match:

(1) Reviewers can taste more like consumers drink -- taking time to evaluate, let a wine air out, and retaste after it's been open a while. Last Sunday, we spent nearly an hour on each four-wine flight, commenting repeatedly how the wines changed in the glass as we went along.

(2) Reviewers can differentiate among wines, not just slap labels on them. The tasting panel's three top rosés scored within a point of each other; at a competition, they might well have each earned the same medal. But each is completely different in character, flavor profile, and the foods they'd go best with. A good review tells you this; a medal can't -- and that helps you be a smarter wine consumer.

(3) Reviewers can help you train your own palate, because there's substance behind the score. You may agree or disagree with what we say about a wine, but the descriptions give you a jumping-off point for your own evaluation. You're never left to merely scratch your head and wonder, "Why on earth did they give a gold medal to THAT one?"

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Addendum, 6/2/2008

I just read this statement from Robert Parker on his website , which expresses some of my own sentiments about competitions:

A look at the results of tasting competitions sadly reveals that well‑made mediocrities garner the top prizes, and thus blandness is elevated to the status of a virtue. Wines with great individuality and character never win a committee tasting because at least one taster will find something objectionable about the wine.

 
Monday, 11 May 2009 20:00

Northern Michigan WineriesOne perk from sitting in at the Northern Michigan Wine Summit a couple of Mondays back: I got to take a first pass through some early-bird 2008 whites and rosés just coming onto the market, thanks to 17 Leelanau and Old Mission wineries showing off their wares to members of the trade.

The majority of bottles they poured and are currently selling -- especially those of the red persuasion -- came from the warm 2007 vintage. But about twenty 2008 wines did their first joint appearance and displayed enough family resemblance to justify some general conclusions.

In a nutshell, 2008 shapes up as a more typical up-north Michigan vintage than the ultra-ripe 2007s. Most of the whites show a fairly piercing cool climate acid backbone and bright, though not always 100% ripe, fruit flavors.

Which suits the palate of this acid lover* just fine, but may not be everyone's cup of fermented grape juice.

Given the raw materials, most winemakers apparently made the unsurprising choice to leave (or add...) some unfermented sweetness in their finished products to balance the vintage's higher acid levels. Nothing outrageous, but several wines that seemed bone dry in 2007 turned detectably off-dry -- residual sugar in the 0.6% to 1% range -- for 2008.

So what's good? The usual disclaimers: I didn't try everything in the room, and a walkaround gabfest isn't conducive to serious tasting. But here's a quick shout-out to several from 2008 I wouldn't mind getting to know better over a glass in the not-too-distant future. White first, then rosé, followed by dessert.

  • 2008 Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc, Island View Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula. Pear flavors and a gorgeous mouthfeel. One of the many slightly off-dry wines from the vintage, at about 3/4% RS. $18.
  • 2008 Two Lads Pinot Grigio, Old Mission Peninsula. Rich, lush grapefruit flavors and a nice acid backstop; .9% RS, definitely tastes off-dry. $16.
  • 2008 Bowers Harbor Riesling, Block II, Old Mission Peninsula. Owner Spencer Stegenga spun a good tale on how it took three vineyard pickings to get the flavors and ripeness just right. Whatever. It's good juice, again just off dry. $20.
  • 2008 Left Foot Charley Cabernet Franc Rosé, Michigan. My kind of summertime quaffer, light salmon color, dry and tight with a lean minerality. The out-of-the-ballpark hilarious website writeup tells us this wine is "yammering with optimisim". How nice. $15.
  • 2008 Forty-Five North Pinot Noir Rosé, Leelanau Peninsula. The yang to Left Foot Charley's yin. A little darker color, great density, focus and varietal character. Slightly off-dry at .8% RS. $18.
  • 2008 Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling, Lot 49, Old Mission Peninsula. Stunning flavors of honeydew melon with perfectly balanced acidity in this 4.5% RS dessert wine. Release date: June 1. $22. 
  • 2008 Forty-Five North Riesling, Select Harvest, Leelanau Peninsula. Beautifully balanced light dessert wine, with 4% RS and just 9.5% alcohol. $16.

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*In less polite company -- i.e. the wine crowd I hang with -- I call myself an "acid pig", which I assumed was a phrase in common usage. But a quick Google of "acid pig" and "wine" turns up just 61 results, and only a few by wine writers -- one of mine from last year, plus a six-year-old article by a Polish guy (!) on Tom Cannavan's Wine Pages in England. So until a few folks email to comment that you also use "acid pig", I'll revert to "acid lover" -- which regrettably resembles something completely different from back in my youth...

 
Monday, 04 May 2009 20:00

Chef Eric Villegas nailed it at last week's Northern Michigan Wine Summit. He told a group largely composed of winery staff, "One of the hardest things to do in my restaurant was to sell Michigan wine to Michiganders. They have a preconceived notion."

That squares with two of my recent experiences.

The first came in a group of 15 or so people, mostly middle-aged casual wine drinkers who didn't know me or MichWine, sitting around a large restaurant banquet table. Someone brought up the subject of Michigan wines, and someone else immediately replied, "Oh, I've tried them, but I don't like them." Heads nodded around the table, and people murmured assent.

The second came a couple of weeks ago. I was speaking with Dan Longone, founder of the Ann Arbor Wine and Food Society, for an article about the U of M wine history exhibit he curated. During a lengthy conversation, I asked if he drank Michigan wines. "No, not lately," he replied, "I haven't found any that I like."

At least this was something I could remedy. I arranged to drop off a couple of favorites for him to try.

Why isn't there more conversation in Michigan wine circles about how to deal with the number of Michigan residents who developed a knee-jerk negative view toward Michigan wine a decade or two back, and haven't changed it since, despite everything that's happened in the industry?

Hell, back then Larry Mawby still made still wine. And red wine.

Here's my guess: owners and winemakers don't frequently run head-on into the attitudes that Chef Eric and I do. They spend lots of time in the winery cocoon, hosting streams of visitors who are customers and admirers. When they leave town, it's often to attend expos or tastings or winemaker dinners where they're the headliners. In other words, pretty much the same crowd.

But the most instructive consumer isn't someone who walks into your tasting room or fawns over your wines at a dinner. It's someone who enjoys wine but chooses not to go anywhere near your winery. Someone with a "preconceived notion" toward your product, and figures a website called "MichWine" must be an oxymoron.

One way to grow your business: listen to these folks, and figure out what to do about it.

So here's a suggestion for any winery owner or winemaker reading this. Next time you head out of town -- to Lansing, GR or the Detroit 'burbs -- make some time to swing by a couple of local wine stores or wine-oriented markets. But instead of heading off to shmooze the buyer, ask their OK to stand around the wine shelves and chat up some random customers.

Don't tell them who you are. Instead, pretend you're taking a survey and ask some questions like, "What wines do you drink? When was the last time you tried a Michigan wine? What was it? What do you think about Michigan wines in general? What in particular do you like or dislike about them? Why?"

My guess: you may be surprised by what you hear. That's Chef Eric's "preconceived notion".

And if you want to extend an invitation, I'd like to join you and listen in on what a sample of wine consumers have to say about our state's wines, and your reactions to it.

 
Monday, 27 April 2009 20:00

Alice Waters is eligible for Medicare today. The doyenne of American locavores, founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, neighbor and early-on pal of wine importer Kermit Lynch turns 65 and, like many other old radicals, able to observe the revolution she sparked turn simultaneously mainstream and outdated.

Alice WatersWhat brought this home was a recent conversation with Ann Arborite Dan Longone for an article about the exhibit he curated at the University of Michigan's Clements Library, 500 Years of American Grapes and Wine

Longone and his wife, Jan, have spent the past 40 years on a first-name basis with a pantheon of American gastronomy, from James Beard and Julia Child to Treetown's own Ari "Zingerman" Weinzweig. Our conversation ranged from Michigan grape-growing to restaurants in France.

But one comment stuck in my mind. "Zingerman's taught Ann Arbor that special food isn't cheap," Longone told me.

That crystallized a long-simmering annyoyance with Alice Waters and her ilk. It isn't that Longone is wrong. He's not. But as promoted by its most zealous advocates, the drive to consume local, organic, and generally "better" food has turned elitist -- in the cash, time and personal energy-consuming meanings of the word. And that's making it irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Or, as a good friend advised me over dinner the other night, "Walmart destroyed organic food." Translation: her purist standards won't bend, even to make healthier food more affordable and widely available. A clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

She did suggest my health might benefit if I found the time to drive to a farmer's market a couple of towns away, where I could find Michigan hothouse-grown organic lettuce, even in the dead of winter. She couldn't recall the cost.

Instead, I grabbed some Californian organic-lite greens on my next Costco run and spent the time (and hydrocarbons) I'd saved on the web, where some digging uncovered a cottage industry in Waters-bashing that's sprung up among food writers over just this point. Here's Eat Me Daily critiquing Waters's recent 60 Minutes appearance:

Having the opportunity of being on prime-time television, you'd think Alice Waters would show America how to prepare a quick and affordable, sustainable and organic meal, but no: Waters cooks up Leslie Stahl an incredibly time-consuming luxurious breakfast, with heirloom tomatoes (likely $5/lb) and an egg cooked in a long metal spoon that has to be hand-held over the fireplace in her kitchen.

"But can we afford it? I guess that's what I'm asking," Stahl asks. "We can't not afford it," Waters argued, completely failing to comprehend how the rest of the world operates.

Award-winning restaurant critic Todd Kliman denounced such narrow-minded inflexibility in an NPR piece entitled "Alice Waters Was a Foodie Hero. Now She's the Food Police". Guess we can figure where he stands:

A generation ago, her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, birthed a revolution, putting a new emphasis on farms and the importance of mastering simple, elemental things. It changed American food, and it changed American cooking...

But do we really need to know the provenance of an egg? And more to the point: Shopping is not cooking.

Waters, like a lot of radicals, believes the movement will never end. She simply can't see that the revolution she helped lead has calcified into something doctrinaire and even repressive, not liberating and uplifting.

Many wine lovers have run across similar authoritarian types, such as the guy (with wine, this is almost always a guy) who rarely lets slip a good word for a bottle that costs under $50, or can be procured anywhere besides a long-closed mailing list. "Special" wine isn't cheap, either, he'll tell you. Such a pity that most of us can't make it part of our everyday diet.

Let's give credit where it's due: without the spade-work done by Alice Waters, it's doubtful that someplace like Black Star Farms could successfully market itself as an "agricultural destination" in 2009.

Despite this, she might take a lesson from old pal Kermit Lynch, who can extol the virtues of biodynamic wines with the best of 'em. But he's never suggested drinking only wines made from lovingly hand-tended grapes grown within an hour's drive of Berkeley. And the import lists from his wine trail adventures have always found a way to offer the overachieving $10 Vin de Pays alongside the $75 Brunello.

Happy birthday, Alice.

Alice Waters photo by David Sifry. AttributionCreative Commons license; some rights reserved.

 

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KIM'S SECRET STASH

Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.