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Thursday
Apr182013

Toast: Biodynamic Wine in the Land of Boies and Cowboys 

   

From Tueday, April 16, Vacaville Reporter under the title Baby Steps Produces Wine Made the Hawk and Horse Way.

Mitch Hawkins has a good dentist.

I know because I can see every one of his teeth when he smiles. It's hard to resist a guy who smiles like that and brings you icy water on a hot day.

Like Gomer Pyle in a David Mamet play, he's got a twangy, nonstop patter that must have served him well in his days as a bartender. He's a good ol' boy in a checkered shirt with a princess for a wife.

Tracey Hawkins claims humble roots, she grew up working in her mother's restaurant in Sonoma, but her cadences conjure boarding school all the way.

When I drove up to their ranch house, she emerged wearing a Western shirt, riding pants and knee-high boots, an outfit that only someone with a perfect derrière would risk -- I was jealous. Perhaps her patrician air comes from selling luxury wine for Windsor Vineyards for many years or, perhaps, it's the influence of her stepfather, high-stakes attorney David Boies.

Boies is the lawyer who took on Microsoft in United States v. Microsoft, George Bush in Bush v. Gore, and is now defending same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court. In 1982, his enthusiasm for wine and of California's North Coast wine-growing region led him to purchase, in 1982, the historic El Roble Grande Ranch, a former horse-breeding facility on 900 acres of wilderness in Lower Lake County.

Tracey's family took turns managing the ranch but, after awhile, it became clear that Mitch and Tracey had a special love for the property. They took over daily operations of the ranch in 1999 and began to plant their vineyard, called Hawk and Horse Vineyards.

If a Supreme Court lawyer seems improbable in Lake County, an area known for cowboys, Indian casinos and methamphetamines, biodynamic farming may seem equally preposterous.

But a trip to the vineyards at elevations of 1,800 and 2,200 feet, surrounded by nothing but wild hills, spring water and a pristine sky, makes any other approach to farming feel like a travesty. The low-grade diamonds sparkling in the red dirt are a ready metaphor for the crystalline beauty of the Red Hills AVA (American Viticultural Region).

"We're micro-managers big time. We baby this stuff at every step," said Tracey.

Biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming in that it avoids chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Easy when you're growing petunias on the deck but an awesome commitment when you are clearing decades of brush, brambles and poison oak, which is what the Hawkins pair did for their vineyard. Biodynamic farming goes a step further by treating the farm as a single ecosystem, thus the importance of the cattle, hawks and wild turkeys on their ranch.

"Other biodynamic growers use chickens in their vineyards; we have wild turkeys. If they eat a few grapes, well, God bless them," said Tracey.

The ranch's herd of Scottish Highlander Cattle, a breed chosen for its easy calving and gentle nature, supply a key ingredient to the nutritive preparations that are part of biodynamic farming: manure.

In fact, the Hawkins share their "bounty" with other biodynamic farmers, many of them associated with premier wineries in Napa.

"There's enough love for everyone," quipped Mitch. Added Tracey, "I call it alchemy. They leave and I have biodynamic wine and honey on my table. They left with dung."

The ranch is also home to horses that Tracey and her daughters ride in local rodeos.

They love the horses, they love the land. But, most of all, they love their vines.

"I have my head in every vine," said Mitch and I believed him. Whether it's the hawks, the diamonds, Boies or the Scottish Highlander manure, I'll never know.

But  the end result is a special-occasion cabernet that is rich with black berries, cocoa and soft tannins. For more information about Hawk and Horse Vineyards, visit www.hawandhorsevineyards.com.

 

Tuesday
Mar192013

Toast: You CAN Go Home Again (and make good wine)

(From the Vacaville Reporter)

Gina and Annalise RichmondDon't tell Gina Oberti Richmond you can never go home again. A fourth-generation native of Suisun Valley, Richmond traveled across the Pacific to hone her winemaking skills and picked up a New Zealand husband in the process.

She is now home in every sense of the word, the couple living steps from the house where she was raised.

Richmond, along with her partner, Gary Mangels, are part of a winemaking renaissance that is Solano's best hope for keeping Suisun Valley the undeveloped gem it is today.

The Richmond-Mangles partnership came about the old-fashioned way. Mangels farmed wine grapes in a former orange orchard that belonged to Richmond's father, seven acres that had been in the family since her great-grandfather sold produce from his horse and buggy. When her dad mentioned to his old friend that his daughter was studying enology, a partnership was born.

Matt Smith of Blacksmilth Cellars and his crossflow filtering machineRichmond had been planning for a career in law when a friend stopped by and told her, "Hey, I just found out you can get a degree in winemaking!" "I said, 'Really! No way!' " recalls Richmond. Considering UC Davis to be "a little too close to home," Richmond chose California State University, Fresno, to get her degree.

To complete her education, Richmond worked as a harvest intern in Napa Valley and then in New Zealand. Asked about the signature grassy flavors of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Richmond is forthright: "I prefer the California style of sauvignon blanc. They (New Zealand winemakers) hate being known for that grassy style." But because the British have fallen in love with New Zealand's sauvignon blanc, Kiwi winemakers are forced to continue making it.

Still ... "They hate drinking it and they hate making it," says Richmond.

With her own label, Richmond is under no such constraints. "I make all the winemaking decisions: when it gets picked, if we're going to try some new fermentation practice or a new yeast. (But) When it comes to blending, it's a group decision."

Gina and her husband both hold day jobs in Napa, which helps them operate their Mangels business. He works as a viticulturist and she at a winery specializing in volume production for retailers like Trader Joes. Despite wineries blossoming everywhere from China to Missouri, Richmond says Napa Valley is still the mecca for wine pros. "It's like being in finance and working on Wall Street," she says.

Crossflow filtration has a self cleaning design and can get winemakers pretty excited. We thought it looked a lot like pumping blood.When I caught up with the Mangels at their Suisun Valley property, Gina, with baby and toddler in tow, was filtering red wine with the help of another vintner, Matt Smith, from the Suisun Valley Cooperative.

Meanwhile, Richmond's daughter played among the vines, the morning sun polishing her hair -- an idyllic childhood. I wondered, is this the fifth generation that will see the world and come home again?

You can try Mangels Vineyards wines at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative tasting room at 4495 Suisun Valley Road. Don't miss their tempranillo, a chewy mouthful of fruit and spice that screams for a summer barbeque.

Tuesday
Feb192013

Toast: No Joking, Paulsen's Wines Are Seriously Good (From the Vacaville Reporter)

Monty Paulsen Monty Paulsen is the son of a famous man, but that is the least interesting thing about him.

The collection of lava lamps at the door, the mysterious name, and a bathroom outfitted with jungle noises, Don Ho music and a Tiki head dispensing tissues are your first clues that EBGB Underground Wine Bar is a refreshingly different approach to wine tasting.

If that were not enough, enter Monty’s partner, Gigi Benson.

The first thing Benson might tell you is that she is an actress and an “Intuitive Extrovert,” referring to the Meyers Briggs personality profile. The next might be the story of when the cat, upon hearing the bathroom’s jungle bird sounds, jumped into the toilet. No Napa nature girl here, Benson rocks short skirts, high heels and a charismatic transparency that is hard to resist.

Lava lamps and bubble chair signal something differentThe Monty/Gigi dynamic has a Lucy and Desi quality:  she’s outrageous, he’s deceptively reserved. Deceptive because Monty has a droll humor of his own, not surprising for the son of Pat Paulsen, a comedian best known for his appearances on the Smothers Brothers TV show and his tongue-in-cheek bid for the presidency in 1968.

Something of a Renaissance Man, Monty found his way into the wine business after earning degrees in English and enology from U.C. Davis, followed by an MBA from Duke. As head of operations and winemaking at Rosenblum Cellars, Monty nurtured lasting relationships in the wine business. According to Benson, “He has a talent for blending wine and he has these connections, they’re not networking connections. They’re real.”

When Rosenblum Cellars was sold to beverage giant Diageo, Monty had the time and money to re-invigorate his father’s label, Pat Paulsen Vineyards, and as a wine consultant, leverage his contacts with over 100 different growers. If he helps to make a wine that turns out especially good, he suggests a partnership. “I say, ‘Hey, I made this, can I claim it? They say sure, take a couple barrels,’” said Paulsen.

Tiki bathroom complete with jungle soundtrackThis talent for blending, of people as well as wines, is one of the reasons Pat Paulsen Vineyards garnered nine medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A partner with a local angle, Stefanie Jackson is a winemaker who met Monty when she was a “cellar rat” at Rosenblum Cellars. Jackson created a Cabernet for Pat Paulsen Vineyards from grapes grow at Wirth Ranch, in Suisun Valley’s Green Valley appellation. “I’m a single mother and I didn’t have the money to get my wine into bottles. Monty had the wherewithal and it made for a good partnership. The difference with Monty is that he preserves the story. He gave me an opportunity.”  Jackson is bullish on Suisun Valley grape growing. “I love it as a winemaker because it is stellar fruit, wonderful terroir that is a well-kept secret. The prices are still low enough for a winemaker like me and that plays out for the consumer.”

Jackson’s 2008 Wirth Ranch Cabernet is ripe with cherries and blackberries, with velvety tannins and a juicy finish. You can find it at the Pat Paulsen Vineyards website at http://www.patpaulsenvineyards.com along with other wines at a range of price points, from the edgy EBGB series at $14 to the winemaker collection at $18 and reserves at $34. Better yet, visit Monty and Gigi in person at the EBGB Underground Wine Bar. Their next event is an Academy Awards Party on Sunday, February 24, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The dress code according to Benson is “Black tie or shorts.”  And check out the Tiki bathroom, don’t let the jungle birds scare you.  

Friday
Feb082013

No Weather In Napa, Instead A Restaurant Report 

I love to walk in the evening when it is just getting dark. The lights come on in the houses and I can see people preparing dinner. Very little blue glow from TVs. The light is gold coming from the houses and the people are in their kitchens. Eating is big in Napa.

I sensed a kindred spirit when Parker Hall told me about a friend of his who lives near downtown.  He also walks in the evening, and his ritual is to count the people in the restaurants, "Morimoto was busy. Uva about 15." Parker filmed a cooking demo for the local public access station this afternoon and at the end he included a "Restaurant Report" from his friend.  Only in Napa.

Parker told me this story over dinner with his wife Janet. We had a fresh salad with fuji apples and carrots dressed with his secret (or it should be, but he shares everything) green dressing and enchiladas that were so deeply, roundly and richly flavored with ancho chile steeped in beef stock I'm not likely to forget them soon. 

He cooks for his friends, so don't be a stranger. Get on his Park Hall Comfort Takeout email list for your own enchilada fix. 

Friday
Feb082013

Toast: A Wine Label, More Than Just A Pretty Face (from the Vacaville Reporter)

Far Niente Cabernet labelThis column was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on January 15, 2013

Fifty items in 50 minutes -- that's a typical trip to the grocery store. Convenient, yes. Fast, sure. But choosing wine in the supermarket has all the charm of online dating.

Yet grocery sales account for 40 percent of the wine sold in the U.S., which means the mighty wine label needs to tell its story in nine-square inches of paper or less.

Wine marketers and label designers create mental cues, most of them unconscious, that tell the consumer what to expect.

"I am a luxury, I will impress your boss," or "I am an everyday wine, it's Monday, pick me up," and "I am French, ma chérie d'amour!" Creating a label so compelling that it is chosen over the thousands of other bottles of wine on a shelf, it is no wonder that wine-label design must be an exacting art.

Most wineries approach their wine labels, or "trade dress," which includes all aspects of the bottle's appearance, as an ongoing process. Trade dress brings to mind a bottle wearing a dress (I once bought a hula skirt for a wine bottle-- yes they sell such things), but I digress.

According to Jim Caudill, the director of public relations and hospitality at the Hess Collection, wine marketers believe labels and related trade dress need constant care, with regular updates to reflect evolving market tastes. The Hess Select brand was recently refreshed with brighter colors to appeal to younger consumers without alienating their core customers.

"We're constantly absorbing insights and information as we interact with consumers, getting feedback from retailers, our distributor partners, often directly from consumers we talk with at events all around the country," said Caudill.

Given that consumers (would you believe 75 percent!) sometimes can't remember the name of the wine they like, icons on wine labels serve as useful mnemonics. Thus everything from kangaroos to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, all make an appearance.

A friend once recommended an inexpensive syrah, saying "I can't remember the name, but it has a rooster on the label." That sounded simple enough. But gazing at the Safeway syrahs, I wondered, "Which rooster?" I think there were five.

My favorite wine label does not have a rooster on it. An artist who was originally commissioned to create a stained-glass piece for the winery owner’s home designed it. According to Rachelle Newbold, Far Niente Winery's communication coordinator, the label has changed very little since its original vintage in 1979. Framed in gold foil is a pen and ink drawing of the historic winery and vineyards, with the Mayacamas mountains in the background.

Clustered around the drawing are water-colored grapevines in an art-nouveau style. It reminds me of a Tiffany window and the sumptuousness of the label's craftsmanship suggests an equally rich and artistic wine inside.

Far Niente comes from the Italian saying, "dolce far niente," the sweetness of doing nothing, a reminder to take a breath and smell the wine.

A wine label's work is never done. The bottle sits on our table as we drink, melding in our memories the flavors, the food and the friends.

And perhaps, when the party is over, it remains on the counter, too beautiful to throw away.