Wine School

Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on July 15.

"I've taken all the drinking classes so this sounded like the next best thing," joked the man with the distinguished grey at his temples, in response to that inevitable question on the first day of class, "Why are you here?"

Why was I there? In VWT 241 class, Wine Marketing and Sales, at Napa Valley College? I had recently moved to Napa and understood that if I was ever to be accepted in my adopted home, I had better learn a little bit about the industry that employed what seemed to be 99.99 percent of the population.
It was only later, as I furthered my wine education, that I learned that wine is the perfect subject for the dabbler and the dilettante, someone like me who is happy to flit across the surface of history, geology, horticulture and chemistry with a warm wine buzz and some tasty food thrown in. If not in the classroom then, at least, doing "homework."

I hasten to tell you that they don't really offer drinking classes in Napa Valley College's Viticulture and Wine Technology program. Tasting, yes. Drinking, no. Spit cups are required. They are usually the large, red Solo brand you may remember from kegs in college. Tasting 30 wines in three hours, we filled and emptied them often. They also came in handy for drooling, yes drooling, which we did in Sensory Evaluation (VWT 173), when we tested the viscosity of our saliva. "Don't watch your neighbor," cautioned our teacher.

What do you learn in wine college? A lot. That pyrazine is the chemical responsible for the tomcat smell in sauvingon blanc, our three-tiered distribution system for wine is a by-product of prohibition, the French ranked their first-growth wines in 1855, a ranking that has remained frozen (save for one exception) ever since, and, when a plant passes something called the "permanent wilt zone," there's no coming back, a fact all too familiar as I look at the snapdragons on my deck.

Some of my classmates were preparing to go on to four-year degrees at Fresno State, Sonoma State and U.C. Davis. Others were home winemakers or vineyardists exploring the transition from hobby to career. Many of my classmates were working in local wineries, product managers, biodynamic advisors and "cellar rats," all continuing their education and sharpening their competitive advantage.

If the Viticulture and Wine Technology program is college, then the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) course is the SAT. In two days we covered what seemed like every wine in the world, with a primer in vodka, Scotch whiskey and other spirits thrown in. Even with my trusty spit cup, I absorbed enough alcohol through my skin to feel a little woozy at the end of each day. With the hefty fee, the No. 2 pencils and exam results you get in the mail, the process really did have the feel of an expensive prep course for a critical exam. What you get for your trouble is a nifty certificate and an international certification of wine knowledge that is more concise than a listing of your coursework at Napa Valley College.

On test day, our group could hear one of our classmates, who had arrived late, arguing loudly and vigorously with the proctor because he was prohibited from taking the test. Quite a change from the affable guy we had been swirling and spitting with a few weeks ago. His fury was no doubt fueled by the knowledge that he would have to return to his employer with $800 of coursework and no certification.

Vacaville is located almost equally close to two premiere venues for wine education, U.C. Davis and the Napa Valley. Whether you choose to go slow and easy or fast and hard, I recommend you get your wine geek on and try a class. Don't forget your spit cup.


Why Is It So Hard To Make An Inexpensive Pinot Noir?

Note: This first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on June 18, 2013

The 2004 movie, "Sideways," is about two buddies spending a weekend together in wine country. Jack, played by Thomas Hayden Church, is a fun-loving actor who is looking for one last fling before his wedding the following weekend. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti is a failed writer and wine aficionado of the most tiresome variety. He talks about wine in that annoying way, "Quaffable, but ...far from transcendent .. just the faintest soupçon of asparagus and just a flutter... ah, of nutty Edam cheese."

 Miles rhapsodizes about pinot noir but is clearly "over" merlot. When Jack begs him to please be polite if someone chooses merlot at dinner, he responds, "No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot."

With that fateful line, Miles initiated what came to be known as the Sideways Effect in the wine economy. Merlot sales slid and pinot noir sales soared as this low-budget film became a classic.

Merlot, a less tannic, sometimes wishy-washy alternative to cabernet sauvignon, is just one example line of a wine fashion to move from hot to not. Chardonnay, the wine everyone seemed to favor in the nineties, suffered a similar reversal when drinkers revolted against the overly oaked flavors in a movement called ABC (Anything But Chardonnay). And, now that I think about it, when was the last time you heard someone get excited about a chenin blanc?

Pity the poor farmer who, whenever wine fashions change, must rip out vineyards, replant, and then wait four years for the vines to bear harvestable fruit. After all, farmers are business people, they must grow what the market demands. In 2012, the California Department of Food and Agriculture's crop report listed the average price for French colombard grapes, a wine we never hear of anymore, at $300 a ton. Pinot noir, at $1,500 a ton, was five times that. No wonder pinot planting is on the rise.

But there's the rub. Pinot noir is picky. It doesn't grow well in most places. It likes a cool breeze and a chilly fog, like that in the Carneros region of Napa, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Burgundy region of France. The grapes are small, yields are low and its thin skin make is susceptible to bunch rot (which always sounded vaguely locker room to me).

Coaxing the silky tannins and ruby colors, that make wine lovers like Miles cry out in pinot ecstasy, is tricky, too. Winemakers will take extra steps, sometimes with a "cold soak," which is a chance for the juice and skins to hang out together before fermentation, or by pulling out some of the juice to boost the skin to juice ratio during fermentation.

My advice is not to skimp on a pinot noir. I keep looking, but I have never tasted a really good pinot noir under $30, one that expressed the "lively, sprightly essences of place," to borrow the words of wine guru Jancis Robinson. But maybe I'm sounding like Miles and getting tiresome.

If you're more like Jack and just want to have fun, you might try 24 Knots, a wine I received as a sample this week. Named for the wind that cools the hot Salinas vineyards, it's the perfect gift for a sailor or weather geek, someone who will find the wind diagram on the label's two-toned black map of the Central Coast as fascinating as the wine inside.

Whether you're a Miles or a Jack, there's a wine for everyone. Share it with friends.







The Karma of Midwestern Wine


Note: This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on May 21, 2013.

I'm back home again -- Indiana. It is achingly green here and, even more remarkably, the sky is blue.

The weather in northern Indiana is notoriously bad. The winters are long and gray. The summers are punishingly humid. The annual average of sunny days is 73, about one out of five. But, on this trip home, the weather that drove me to California feels like a bad dream, and I've awakened to a Technicolor wonderland like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz."

Every lawn is a carpet of turf, every house has a blossoming tree, and in every living room of those who stayed, are portrait photographs of those who went away.

Growing up, we took for granted the terrible weather and the vivid greens that were its result. Occasionally, there were perfect days, with the aroma of cut grass in the air as we rode in cars with boys. On Saturdays, we would drive 30 miles north, on back roads with the windows down, past red barns and small farms to the dunes of Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes are truly great, vast freshwater oceans with no land on the horizon. Lake Michigan is so big that it has a moderating effect on the weather. Freezing air blows across the warmer open water, moderating the temperatures on the eastern shores. The warming "lake effect" means that fruits that grow in Solano County are also mainstays of the narrow fruit belt of southwestern Michigan -- peaches, cherries, plums and wine grapes.

Wineries in Michigan have evolved from producing post-Prohibition jug wine to fine wines that are as much about tourism as they are about wine. One fruit farmer who saw the potential for agritourism in southwestern Michigan is Joe Herman. He approaches his winemaking in typical Midwest fashion -- with a sense of humor and an eye to the bottom line.

 His Karma Vista tasting room is on a knoll overlooking vineyards and trees, a view that must be equally beautiful covered in snow as in the green riot of spring. Where Karma Vista parts company with the more sedate brands of California, is in the rock 'n' roll inspired wine names, flashy labels and a willingness to experiment -- with blue bottles, stainless-steel "aging" and post-fermentation additions of sugar to "sweeten up" the wine.

Herman, a sixth-generation farmer, went back to his family's farm after a brief stint as a reporter at a local newspaper. "You hate farming when you're a kid because all you do is work," said Herman. "Other kids are playing ball and you're working. Not till you get away do you realize people work all week to come here."

His knack for turning a phrase is evident in the witty copy on the Karma Vista website. "I'm trying to entice people to come here. I want them to feel a bond," he said.

 Herman is a faithful correspondent on the winery's blog, opening each entry with a rock 'n' roll lyric. For his 50th birthday, his kids bought him a new turntable -- he is a vinyl man. "It keeps your drinking under control because you have to flip the album after 20 minutes," Herman explained, joking.

I didn't get the full effect of my favorite wines till I shared them at dinner, the narrow tasting glasses favored by Michigan wineries don't allow for much sniffing and swirling.

The 2011 Coloma Sol, made from seyval grapes is a food-friendly balance of hay and grapefruit. The 2010 Karisma, a co-fermented blend of merlot and syrah, is a soft burst of black cherry, cola and vanilla.

Karma Vista only ships in-state, you'll have to visit to taste their wines. If you can't go to Michigan, or Indiana for that matter, find a winery near your old home. When you do, I hope it's a day when everything but the sky is a psychedelic green and someone like Joe Herman is there to share some rock 'n' roll with your wine.






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



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.