Chardonnay's Black Sheep Ancestor

Researchers were unsurprised when they found that Chardonnay was a direct descendant of the Pinot variety.  The surprise was that if Pinot was the mother, a variety called Gouais blanc was the father, a variety so far on the other side of the tracks that is it is no longer grown in France or the U.S. In fact, according to an article in UC Davis Magazine (Winter 2000) “several unsuccessful attempts to ban it were made in the Middle Ages.”

Carole Meredith is the same grape DNA authority that conclusively proved that Petite Sirah, a variety grown in California whose provenance was uncertain, was in fact Durif. Another grape the French gave up on. Possibly because in their wetter climate the tight clusters develop rot.

If God forbid your daughter runs off with a low life miscreant, tattooed and unemployed, take heart from the mighty Chardonnay. Your grandchildren may turn out OK. According to Meredith, Gouais blanc and Pinot have been successful parents, perhaps because of their genetic diversity.



This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on 12/31/13.

Roger King has the gift of gab. I caught up with him at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative this week where he riffed, part professor and part bartender, on everything from histamines in grape skins to the water engineering of Solano pioneers.

His ability to talk, with interest and certainty, about almost anything served him well in as a marketing executive for Kirkwood Ski Resort and now as the president of the Suisun Valley Vintners and Grapegrowers Association. Even as a young man an air of certainty was evident. When his law school dean told him his test scores were good and leaving would mean starting again from the beginning, King replied, "You don't get it! I don't want to be one of you bungholes." Except he didn't say "bunghole." King tells it like it is.

If you like to know where your wine comes from, Roger is your man. His dead-on vineyard descriptions and their familiar landmarks are part of the joy of drinking his wines. His King Andrews Albarino comes from a vineyard in one of the cooler locations of Suisun Valley, across the street from Larry's Produce. Seventeen miles to the north, his Sangiovese is grown off of Shale Peak Lane, halfway up Mt. Vaca on the final ridgeline separating Vacaville from the Sacramento Valley.

The two vineyards are a study in contrasts. According to King, part of the albarino vineyard is sitting on an old creek that was diverted by some early farmers and is consequently so full of moisture it needs no irrigation.

King Andrews Zin block with view of Mt. Vaca from Yelp"I've been dry farming this for years but I call it my most irrigated vineyard," King said.

At the other extreme is the Shale Peak Vineyard, an arid location that clocked 117-degree temperatures earlier this year, with irrigation dependent on a well that goes dry as early as January. According to King, the heat is perfect for his Sangiovese, a field blend that includes cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

"The heat is great for burning the acid down. The trick is to find the balance between getting the acids down and the alcohol not too high. It is a testament to the fact that grape vines will adapt."

King's barkeep lectures are almost entirely focused on location, soils and weather. Clearly, this is a man who believes in terroir, the environmental factors expressed in a wine that give it a sense of place. He is a minimalist winemaker, preferring vineyard management to experiments in the cellar. He ferments about half his wines with indigenous yeasts, a practice that requires fortitude and patience since they are less reliable than yeasts that are developed commercially.

He's bullish on Solano wine, citing the I-80 corridor as key to its success. However, he's cautious not to jump in so completely he becomes a "captive to selling wine."

King has a Facebook page but no retail or website, you'll find his wines only at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, which is not a hardship considering tastings are free. When you visit try the Albarino, with bright acidity and a fragrant whiff of spiced pears and a hint of lime zest on the finish. I tried the 2012 and 2013, which will be bottled this spring, just in time for warmer weather.

The King Andrews Sangiovese is a bold ruby, with medium structure and a play of cherries and raspberries that amplify in a spicy blend through the finish. See if you agree with the King of the Hill, that Vaca heat is the key to great wine.

Ann Miller is a Napa resident and wine enthusiast.



In Defence Of Rest

Life's too short to feel guilty about eating chips and salsa.I've long known that if I needed to "be creative" the best thing to do was to take 1) a shower, 2) a napa 3) a walk. Best, but not necessary, would be to do all three. In the words Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence we need times of  "open awareness" to be receptive to seemingly unrelated ideas.

I came home from a fantastic New Year's Eve yesterday with big plans to Get Things Done.  Instead, I took a nap, ate a year's worth of chips and salsa and binged on The Killing, Season 3.

My only regret was that it took me till halfway through the chips and salsa before I decided to just go with it and not feel guilty. Do as I say not as I do, go for it, even if that means A Big Long Rest.


Edith Head: A Deserving Google Doodle

Blue princess: you really need to see these clothes in action It’s Edith Head’s birthday.  I know because Google told me so.

The reason I know who Edith Head is, and just about every millennial does not is that she was 1) the creator of stupendous fashion for movies in the black and white era and 2) she made herself into a brand, the first and perhaps the only movie costume designer to do so.

Her designs for To Catch A Thief make me catch my breath every time  Grace Kelly entered the frame. But without Head's savvy branding her costume designs would be merely pretty dresses, not Edith Head.

Her round glasses, her icy critiques and her frequent appearances on talk shows like Merv Griffin and the Tonight Show made “Edith Head” a known quantity. But without the quality of her designs she would have been just an early Kardashian, a brand in search of substance.

FYI, Edith Head was never as portly as she was sketched here 



You Don't Have to be a Farmer to Love Harvest

Note: this was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on Sept. 24, 2013.

One of the best things about living in wine country is the newspaper headlines, especially at this time of year.Murder and political malfeasance are not the stuff of our breaking news. What do we care about? Grapes! “Growers Expect Early Harvest,” “Wine Grape Harvest Could Be Biggest In Years,” “Grape Harvest Accelerates,” who knew there was so much to report about grapes?

The articles that accompany those harvest headlines invariably quote winemakers who have been walking the vineyards for weeks, sussing out the ideal levels of sugar, acid and color. They calculate the logistics of vineyard crews, cellar tanks and “hang time,” ever vigilant for the heat wave or rain shower that could ruin everything. When everything is as good as it can be they “call the pick” and harvest is underway.

No matter what the challenges of the vintage year, these winemakers are media savvy; each year their quotes indicate that THIS harvest is “one of the best.” Rarely do they publicly worry that a freak rainstorm will turn their crop to rot or a hot spell will bake their grapes into raisins. The standard comment about a late season rainstorm, as typical as “it’s an honor to be nominated” from an Oscar loser, is “No problem, the rain was just enough to wash the dust off the grapes.” Vineyard full of baked cabernet? “The yields may be off but overall the quality of the grapes is outstanding.”  

The winemakers are not so sanguine in the cellar. Their art involves many choices: yeast strains, fermentation temperatures, pressing techniques, and barrel choices, but the quality of the grapes is paramount. They’d rather enhance the flavors created by a playful Bacchus than the fix problems wrought by a cranky Mother Nature.

For everyone in the wine industry it’s an exciting time of year, like final exams and graduation. The work of a season culminates in long and anxious hours, with the promise of leisure once it is all over. People like me, for whom the industry is a spectator sport, see the signs and get excited too. The lights in the vineyards before dawn, the yeasty aromas in the air, the cellar worker in the coffee line, bleary-eyed and still in his rubber boots, all signal that harvest is here.

Harvest is a time when we, in our world of freeways, reality TV, and shrink-wrapped vegetables, can reach back to the ancients and celebrate the elemental pleasures served up by earth and sun. When the daylight is waning, the hills are brown, and even the crape myrtles seem melancholy, it is cheering to see the vineyards. There we see bunch upon bunch of fat, round berries, full of juice and ripening before our very eyes.

I look forward to the day that Solano’s emerging wine industry shoves those joyless headlines off our newspapers in favor or our own harvest news.  For now I can enjoy more immediate pleasures:  turning leaves, an orange moon, and wines of earlier harvests.