Entries in wine (15)


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treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed.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.


Toast: The Patrón of Winterhawk

This was first published in the June 19, 2012 edition of the Vacaville Reporter, in my column "Toast."

They call him Patrón. "That’s Spanish for Boss Man," explains Martha Gustafsson, the winemaker at Winterhawk Winery. If Patrón conjures up a mustachioed Mexican, think again, this Boss Man is a blue- eyed Swede from Michigan.

The Patrón of Winterhawk Winery is Don Johnson, who found his way to growing grapes in Suisun Valley by way of the army and a career in accounting. He grew up on a dairy farm where he milked cows by
hand, three times a day. Every day. No vacations. “I swore I’d never get into farming again. But it’s night and day between a small family dairy farm in Michigan and growing grapes in California.”

Johnson still works every day but on weekends he’s joined by a community he has built around the Winterhawk Winery trifecta: wine, pizza and live music, all for $7.

The deal is this. For seven bucks you can taste all the Winterhawk wines on the menu, there are eleven of them, then you are poured a glass. Once you decide on your favorite you are poured a glass. Only a wine geek could find time to taste them all because the music is irresistible. It makes a turn on the dance floor, in the shade of the winery shed, almost mandatory. When you catch your breath you can
fortify yourself with a piece of pizza.

The pizza comes from an oven Johnson ordered when he was touring Italy. When it arrived he was shocked by how big it was. "I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I don’t have that many friends," he joked. Well, now he does.

Winterhawk Winery hosts hundreds of people each weekend, many of whom are regulars, without any marketing outside a Facebook page and an email list of 3000. Last year he expanded his regular Saturday get-togethers to include Community Service Sundays, when 20% of the proceeds go to a different non-profit each week. Johnson is happy to wave off questions about wine to Gustafsson, but when talk turns to music, his eyes light up. It’s obvious that entertaining in the middle of his vineyard is what sends him.

The music may be what makes his blue eyes shine, but Johnson is no slouch about his wine. He’s proud of Gustafsson’s U.C. Davis credentials. On the day I visited she was working with cellar master Steve Eaton to ensure that their Pinot Gris was stable under cold conditions. The frosty tank was about the last thing I expected to see on a 95 degree day. Chilling the wine to 27 degrees forces tiny crystals out of the wine before it is filtered and bottled. Gustafsson’s explanations are littered with chemical jargon but it’s the flavors that brought her to winemaking, "What it comes down to is flavor. I think you have to really like the wine you’re making." She enjoys the challenge of eleven different wines. "Each vintage is a story. The weather that year, the rainfall, new farming techniques. Don gives us a lot of autonomy."

All the wines are under $20, three to try:

Refreshing as a sea breeze on a hot day, the 2011 Albarino was bright and crisp with a touch of minerality.

The 2010 Winterhawk Red packed such an aromatic wallop that I could smell it a couple feet away as the glass sat on a table beside me. The raspberry flavors gave way to hints of cocoa, pepper and black cherry on the finish. This would taste great with some Brie and French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Eaton made the late harvest Sauvingon Blanc from grapes picked about a month after the regular harvest. I usually associate “late harvest” with desert but you could drink this with a meal. The apple and lime notes are delicious, if a wine can taste like a margarita, this is it.

Fitting, I suppose, for wine that comes from a man they call Patrón.



Petite Sirah: Survivor Grape

There is nothing dainty about Petite Sirah. Inky and peppery, this wine packs a wallop of tannins, that astringent quality that is not so much a flavor as it is a sensation.  Like a scrappy wrestler who is more sinew than flesh, Petite Sirah will muscle down a steak, a stew or an earthy sandwich of Portobello mushrooms.

If you think wrestling is an odd metaphor for wine, you should see the Youtube video in which Petite Sirah is likened to a muscle car. Wrestling, muscle cars, wine, you get the picture.

Petite Sirah is not Syrah, it’s a hybrid of Syrah and a variety unto itself. It is distinctly Californian. Called Durif in its native France, it isn’t grown there much, it likes our drier climate.  Petite Sirah was one of the first grapes imported to California to replace the so-so tasting Mission variety, a grape planted by the padres for sacramental and (I hope) recreational purposes.

In the early days people were less snooty about wine and more casual about the pedigree of their grapes. Growers confused this grape as a small-berried version of Syrah, thus its name. The small grape size is important for another reason. The skin of a grape gives wine its color and tannins, therefore the high ratio of skin to juice in Petite Sirah give it a punch of black-tinged color and lip-smacking tannins.

During prohibition this mighty little grape was prized for its portability.  Many California wine growers, such as the Lanza family in Suisun Valley, survived prohibition by shipping grapes to home winemakers in the east. There was a loophole in the law that allowed home winemakers to make up to 200 gallons a year.  Do the math: 200 gallons, 365 days a year, would a daily half-gallon ration of wine be enough to keep you happy?

Later Petite Sirah was used in blends to give oomph to the color and structure of other wines. Many single varietal wines are in fact blends, a wine needs to be only 75% of the variety on the label to carry that name. For example, your favorite Cabernet may in fact have small amounts of Merlot, Malbac or Petite Sirah and still be correctly called a Cabernet.

The advocacy group for Petite Sirah (yes, even grapes have advocacy groups) is called P.S. I Love You. Yes, Suisun Valley Petite Sirah, I do love you, let me count the ways. You bring the warmth of the valley to my table. You make my hamburger sing. You fill my glass with rich color, my mouth with big flavor. Most of all you remind me of a little girl who grew up near Suisun Valley, my daughter Sarah. Need I go on?


What Would My Dad Say.....about biodynamics? 


Joey Brinkley of Grgich Hills Estates

High on a hill in American Canyon I heard the faint hum of traffic and industry below. It’s purpose, it seemed, was to remind me how lucky I was to be at this peaceful vineyard on a beautiful blue, crisp morning in December.

My guide is Joey Brinkley, Vineyard Assistant for Grgich Hills Estates. Spending time with Joey,  I can’t help wondering if the biodynamic approach to farming works for people too. On this little farm among the olive trees, vetch, rye, peas, barley, beans, yarrow, catnip, lavender, bees, owls, hawks, eagles, chickens and jackrabbits, I get the feeling that the sky to soil diversity that is good for the vines is also good for the soul.

It seems to be working for Joey. At the ripe old age of thirty he appears to have internalized the balance and harmony that is part and parcel of biodynamic farming. He has an easy laugh, listens intently and is healthy-handsome in a way that falls somewhere between Farm Journal and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Joey, a self-described “seeker,” became interested in biodynamics after earning a degree in horticulture at Virginia Tech (and economics from Virginia Commonwealth University). Organic farming was good, but he felt something was missing – he was looking for a holistic approach that went beyond inputs and production.

His father, a Vietnam vet who spent his working life at the Newport News Shipyard encouraged him to follow work he loved. His mother was supportive but a bit more pragmatic. Joey told her not to worry, “Mom. I have degree in economics. I can add.”

He was working at the Josephine Porter Institute, the "mother ship" of biodynamic farming, when he met Ivo Grgich. Ivo is the nephew of Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, the winemaker who helped change the world for California wines when his Chardonnay was named "finest in the world" in the now-famous "Paris Tasting of 1976."   When Joey got the call to come to work for this famous family he didn't immediately say yes.  He and his wife, Natalie were about to embark upon a cross-country trip. "We were going to end up wherever we ended up and try to find jobs. That was the plan. The plan was not to HAVE a job, it was to find a job when the money ran out.” He didn't accept till he talked to Natalie. "She said, 'Yes, yes, yes! Take it" and they took off on a month-long trek from New Orleans to their new jobs in Napa Valley.

Obviously Natalie has a strong streak of “seeker” too. She was his waitress in Blacksburg, Virginia when he was traveling from a farm in Kentucky where he was helping a friend.  Four months later he went back to Blacksburg, and in a simple statement that says it all,  “I found her.” 

They live on Grgich property in Calistoga and Natalie works in the Grgich tasting room. This venerable winery is still very much a family affair. Ivo, is the winemaker and in charge of production. Mike Grgich’s daughter, Violet is in charge of all the day-to-day operations, marketing and sales. "It's not like this is just something fun to do, although they totally enjoy it. I think for some people in Napa it's a hobby. They made billions in some other industry and they come to do this because their friends did or because it was fun. Our situation is different. I think that changes things." 

In addition to her business responsibilities, Violet is the inspiration for the Violetta desert wine, made with the botrytis-ized late harvest fruit that grows in this vineyard.  “This year was great because of the rains. We got lucky. You can't really manipulate it. The rains and humidity helped it spread and it really concentrates those flavors." 

The only thing missing in Joey's life seems to be a cow. Or cows.  As he looked wistfully at an open field next to the vineyard, he muttered, "Good to get some cows on that." Later, when I spotted a jack rabbit, he told me they call them mini-cows, "The closest thing we have to cows right now. They eat the green stuff and poop." When I quiz him about what I consider some of the more bizzare aspects of biodynamics, cow-related and others (cow horns filled with dung and buried, intestines with camomile, vortexes and equinoxes) Joey replies simply, “For one thing, because it works.”  

Yes it does work. Harmonious conditions and minimal manipulation allow Grgich wine to be the ultimate expression of terroir, that sense of place that encompasses soil, climate and topography.  The wines taste clean, bright, and elegant, and with a complexity and balance that honors the farm in the vineyard where Joey works.  

Tomorrow - what it took me to "get" biodynamics. What would my Dad the Physicist say? 

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