Entries in toast (2)


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.







Toast: Grandfather's Book Opens Door to Past (Vacaville Reporter)

Note: This was my column published in the Vacaville Reporter on 11/6/12 and the Vallejo Times Herald November 11/7/12.

No one enjoys the guilty pleasure of a season's worth of TV consumed over a weekend as much as I do. I was halfway through the first season of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series about Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson, when a genuine artifact from Prohibition arrived in my mail.

It was a book, "The Complete Wine Book," by Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, that had once belonged to my grandfather. He died before I knew him, so this connection in the form of a wine book is a treasure. A personal treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed. It gives the reader a firsthand account of what it was like to be a wine lover at a time when drinking wine was not allowed. Maybe I should say that, legally, it was not allowed, there were loopholes.

People who made wine at home, either because of old-world tradition or new-found necessity, were permitted to make up to 2,000 gallons a year. During Prohibition, the amount of California acreage planted to wine grapes actually increased in order to supply these home winemakers. Yet Schoonmaker and Marvel bemoan the state of domestic viticulture at that time.

The problem was that in order to stay in business during Prohibition, grape growers were forced to uproot their tastier varieties, which were thin-skinned and didn't travel well, for heartier grapes that made inferior wine, which, according to the authors, were the alicante bouschet, zinfandel and petite sirah. I strenuously disagree with their condemnation of zinfandel and petite sirah, but I digress.

It takes about four years for a grapevine to produce a marketable crop, and even longer to age a wine. After repeal, even if grape growers had immediately replanted the better varieties, Americans would have to wait years for good domestic wine.

"To expect of American vineyards any real quantity of fine wine before 1940 or 1945 would be to expect a large-scale repetition of the Miracle of Cana," wrote Schoonmaker and Marvel.

They were also upset with grape growers appropriating the names of French localities such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne for California wines.

Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson "There is no indication that California wine would ever be considered as good as European wine. To attempt to maintain, as Mr. William R. Hearst, a loyal Californian, does with laudable, if mistaken, patriotism, that under these conditions the wines of California are 'just as good as those of France, if not better,' is even more ridiculous."

However, the authors were optimistic about the future of California wine, recognizing the ingenuity of California grape growers.

As evidence, they cite a product that may be the most inventive packaged good of the 20th century, the grape block. It was a brick of dried grapes, seeds and pulp, for making "juice," with explicit instructions of what not to do. Don't add sugar or yeast or keep in a dark place, otherwise your juice might ferment and turn to wine, cautions the grape brick label. This marvel of marketing speaks volumes about the eventual demise of Prohibition and ultimate success of California wine, something on which I'm sure my grandfather, Schoonmaker and Marvel and Nucky Thompson could all agree.