Notes from the Cellar blog
El Camino California: Neyers “Sage Canyon” Cuvée
I’d like to think that I know better, but have to ‘fess up that I’m as susceptible to thinking (and drinking) sweeping generalizations as the next know-it-all. That’s the bad news. The good part is that it can be pretty tasty catching yourself in the act and getting a little remedial schooling.
The most recent such epiphany comes with a series of encounters with Bruce Neyers outstanding wines. We carry Neyers wines in our larger stores, and there’s a good reason for that: although the demand for moderate – to spendy California wines in this neck of the woods is tepid at best, you just can’t argue with the quality and character these wines offer. Add to that Bruce’s Old World sensibilities and scrupulous, reasoned vineyard and winery practices and, well, voilà.
Picking out wines for a wine team tasting last week, my gaze fell on Neyers “Sage Canyon” red, a southern Rhône-inspired alliance of non-clonal grenache from the Sierra foothills, mourvèdre and carignan from 125 – 135 year old, own – rooted vines in Contra Costa County and syrah from the Sangiacomo Family’s Old Lakeville Road vineyard. While I remembered having been impressed with this wine when Bruce stopped by a few months back, re-tasting it was an epiphany.
In the wake of California’s drift toward more, bigger, riper, woodier wines, it’s gotten easy to forget that there’s actually terroir there. Duh, right? It just takes people like Bruce or Matt & Kevin at Lioco who have the vision to taste that sense of place and care enough to throw the dice and make the commitment to get it in the bottle. In this case, it’s pure Norcal: that heady dry, brushy, woodsy blend of scrub oak, a digger pine or two, some dry grass and sun-baked, iron – rich dirt. Nothing like it. Steep the aforementioned mélange of lovingly farmed, old-school California Rhône grapes and you have a heckuva bottle of wine. A perfect companion to some a nice big slab of beef, fresh off the grill.
I’ll take mine with a large side of crow, please.
There’s a lot going on these days, a veritable cyclone of a to-do list. Out of all that, there’s been no shortage of great wine to drink -- and some rather compelling ideas about it. In no particular order…
No apologies, no pretense. If there’s a unifying theme among wines that make my heart sing, it’s a sense that they’re unapologetically just what they are. No more, no less, no striving at being the “best” outside being the most honest, no-bs expressions of what they are as possible. Thelonius Monk wouldn’t have been Thelonius Monk if he’d tried to play like Basie. Brings to mind this quote, from Muscadet producer Frédéric Niger Van Herck, read in the New York Times awhile back: “We don’t make the best wines in the world, but we make them with conviction.” Yeah, like that. There’s the kind of thinking that interests me in drinking.
Snarky interlude: World Class…whatever. I often see promotional stuff from new-kid-on-the-block wineries and regions touting their “world class” wines. OK, fine. But what the heck does that mean? My sense is that it’s shorthand for “Hey, this is no mom-and-pop operation. We’re making stuff that’s just as good as the big boys.” Or, “people can actually drink this, just like real wines” -- or something like that. The subtext is that “World Class” is something that’s universally coveted. Like a Mercedes Benz hood ornament, a Gucci logo or a bottle of Leonetti Cellars. The perfect way to say “me too.”
Back to the good stuff. The Accomplice spent last week working with a charming, dynamic Italiana (but aren’t they almost always charming and dynamic?) name Corrinne, from Castello di Luzzano, which sits astride, and produces wines in two DOCs – Oltrepo -Pavese and the Colli Piacentini. Both are off-the-beaten-path regions – at least if you think of Italian wine in terms of Chianti, pinot grigio, and a couple other familiar, household words. If, on the other hand, your perception of Italy is that of an astoundingly complex, diverse patchwork of geographies, cultures, geologies and yes indeed, separate, very unique wine regions—then you simply have Oltrepo – Pavese and Colli Piacentini. Two different DOCs who share the same geographical neighborhood.
But I digress. These were fascinating wines. Distinct, singular, fetching expressions of place. From the dry, silky, enchantingly perfumed malvasia (called, appropriately, “Seta” or “silk”) to “Romeo”, a blend of bonarda (different from the Piemontese bonarda, and sometimes called “croatina) to the revolutionary, red, savory-tinged, earthy “Sommossa”, 100% lightly sparkling bonarda, walking tightrope of just-ripe fruit and dry earthiness, all were enticing, hard-to-put-down-the-glass expositions of character and typicity. The sort of wines that make you happy – and hungry for great food and the company of friends. The sort of wines that don’t need to call themselves world class – they have way too much character for that. The best? Who needs that either? I think this is what the man meant when he said conviction.
What a lovely week. (And the weather has been pretty fine, too!). Got off to a fabulous start, breaking bread with a jet-lagged bunch of charming and gracious Italians from some of my favorite Italian wineries, in the company of some of my favorite Seattle wine people. (With plenty of lovely, charming, gracious wines from all those amazing place, of course). Not to be a name dropper, but we’re talking Inama, Selvapiana, Marchesi di Gresy, La Valentina and Aia Vecchia. Not bad, huh?
Grace. If there’s one word that sums up what all those wineries share, it’s grace. It’s in the wines, it’s in the people, it’s effortless, it’s easy, it’s magical in the way it adds an ineffable dimension to a simple conversation and a sip of wine. My friend, the amazing Carrie Omegna, who is both economical and profound in her use of the language, summed it up perfectly. I can’t remember if it was the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina or the Marchesi di Gresy “Camp Gros” or Sauvignon. No matter. Carrie took a sniff, smiled and said, quite simply, “that makes me happy.” Amen.
Can you say it any better than that? While an effusive spray of artfully descriptive verbiage is nice, maybe even informative, it’s often nonetheless just that, a big blah-blah-blah in world that’s flooded with often meaningless, inescapable blah-blah-blah. As Count Basie said, “less is more.” Words to live by, pretty much no matter what you do. It’s what happens when the music, or the words, or the wine you grow come from the same place in your soul that love comes from. It’s what happens when you’ve got something to say.
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t blow you away. It’s the kind of thing that just makes you happy.
It's Friday, closing in on fiveo'clock and there Marchesi di Gresy sauvignon in the fridge. That makes me happy, too.
Labor Day. Onward. Rolling the stone up the familiar hill can lead to a moderate case of myopia, if you don’t take the next exit and look around every once in awhile. Meanwhile, it’s a big world out there, and we’re looking to get the maximum thrill from our time on the ride. Ergo, we do what we can to keep our blindness from becoming either acute or chronic.
As Richard Brautigan once noted, “the biggest surprise is when you come gradually to realize that nothing surprises you anymore.” Word.
We’re fortunate enough here in our little slice of the wine business to do a tremendous amount of our commerce with families, farmers, smaller-scale distributors and importers—people whose labors and the way they think about it are quite a bit different from the big players. Mere DAvids to the Big Brands’ Goliaths. Independents. Still, once or twice a week, I have a glance at Wine Business News, or one of Marvellous Marvin Shanken’s trade publications, just to see what’s happening out there “the Industry,” given that we’re part of that universe and the ripples from its movers and shakers affect our world out here on the edge.
It’s pretty standard fare: water issues in Norcal, weird weather in France, somebody buying, somebody selling, bigger grenache yields on less acreage, a lawsuit here, one there and the usual litany of mergers, acquisitions et cetera. In a business that’s essentially agricultural, where nothing’s really a given until the harvest is done and the wines is in the bottle, there’s one thing you can count on when you read about its heavyweights and other contenders: the bigger the brand, the further removed from actual dirt and honest-to-goodness grapes its players get, and the more jargon it takes to express really basic ideas. You can count on it.
But still. Sometimes you just have to shake your head in amazement. This past week’s wonder is both brand-new word and a whole new category: masstige. That’s “mass-produced, prestige wine” brands. In an interview with Wine Business News, Treasury Wine Estates CEO Michael Clarke expounds on his leadership in the company’s “acquisition campaign” to reverse several years’ trend of flat sales growth. The level of linguistic obfuscation throughout the piece is pretty much what you’d expect from an executive of his stature: “”and there is an opportunity to build on top of that, especially luxury and massitge portfolio where doing well and to accelerate that beyond just organic growth…” “we have shown the discipline that we can take costs out…and we can over-deliver…and can do the approporiate acquisition to build on the great momentum we are building in luxury and masstige.” We are not talking major acquisitions, we are talking bolt-ons.” Blah-blah-blah. Bolt away, then.
“Luxury and masstige.” “Bolt-ons.” There’s another whole post right there (coming soon). Meanwhile, I’m thanking my lucky stars I don’t have to get up in the morning and concern myself with prestige, or luxury, or bolt-on acquisitions. Whew!
Think I’ll go home and find something decidedly un-luxurious, non-prestigious, grown in small quantities and maybe not even attached to anything else -- although I bet it'll play well with dinner. It’ll be delicious.
There’s some crazy stuff going on in Oregon these days. There’s energy and inspiration in spades, while a desire to let the vineyard sing in the wines both drives that energy and infuses it with the kind of humility that seems to be the common denominator among people who produce truly expressive vino.
Lately, the Boss (aka “the Accomplice”) and I have been hanging out at SE Wine Collective, on Division street in Portlandia. The brainchild of owners Kate and Thomeas Monroe, it’s sheer brilliance, a place where a half dozen or so producers share equipment and space, allowing all the space and the gear to realize their various projects without the considerable investment of setting up shop solo. With a restaurant that doubles as a retail outlet, it’s essentially both studio and performance space for some of the area’s most talented, up-and coming wine producers.
Better still, it’s temple of wine passion and serious geekdom, with the restaurant offering a small, but incredibly well-chosen selection of wines from around the world to complement the menu and the resident wineries’ offerings. Last Friday, when I was there to meet my good friend Barbara Gross, of Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Thomas insisted we begin with a flight of chenin blancs from various regions from Vouvray to the Willamette Valley to Walla Walla (Thomas makes several superb, terroir-driven chenins blanc, under his mmmmm, which are, sadly, presently sold out until the release of the new vintages - - more about Thomas and Kate’s wines in another post).
Onward, then, to tasting though more wines from the Collective, a few new Cooper Mountain releases that Barbara brought along (getting more and more impressive with every vintage—more on that soon, too) and barrel sample of a Chardonnay that Thomas is making with fruit from cooper Mountain. Great stuff.
I’ve come to think that great wine is a lot like the printed word, or music – it’s best when enjoyed and explored in good company—and truly amazing when you have the opportunity to taste wine with people as passionate, inquisitive, experienced and humble as Thomas and Barbara. I could’ve hung there all evening – and am sure to be back soon. If you’re down in P-town you should check it out!
Lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer … (with apologies to Nat Cole).
While being a “person of a certain” age has its obvious downside, there’s plenitude of reasons to be grateful, if not downright cheerful, not the least of which are those lovely little “aha” moments that go hand in glove with no longer having time to burn on [meaningless projects].
I’ve been re-discovering lately just how little interest I have in anything that smacks of more, bigger, louder, lusher, richer and all those other turn-up –the-volume sorta things, especially when it comes allocating brain cells and liver function. Keep chasing after that stuff and all you’ll do is chase, ‘cause more always begs another more, right?
Just got a mail advertising some new Washington releases. A brand new round of the the usual fare: Blockbuster! Plush! Brand new oak! Concentrated! A gazillion months of brand new oak! Concepts! Techniques! I’m thinkin’ I’ll hafta keep my wallet in my pocket and miss that one. Oh well.
Meanwhile, right up my alley, I had the opportunity and absolute pleasure last week to join a crew of local wine industry types at a lunch and tasting with Luca Currado of Vietti. The wines were, of course, incredible – and for this go-‘round we’ll skip an attempt at description that’d be predestined to fall far short of doing them justice. My only advice is to pick up a bottle of anything Vietti and let the wine tell the story. You’ll see what I mean.
That story is all about the place, and one of them most remarkable stories about vignaioli like Luca is the depth of thought and humility with which they approach their roles as translators of place. While the hallmark of New World winemakers is to use technique to “make” grapes into wines of a certain style, the Old World approach is to use whatever technique best permits the character of the vineyard to speak in the wine. It’s not about making a stylistic imprint as much as it’s about staying out of the way, subtracting one’s own ego and not leaving a signature. Think accompanist, rather than soloist, as our friend Jean-Pierre Vanel often says.
As Luca says: “I don’t care anymore about making wines to please people. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but all I want to do is to make wines that tell the story of the vineyard.” (I don’t know about you, but I’m hard pressed to find anything arrogant in that statement. ) Later, as I complimented him on the wines, he smiled and said “grazie, ci proviamo (we try).”
In your obedient correspondent’s humble opinion, that’s grace – something you can taste in a wine that’s made with passion and humility, but that no amount of money or ego can buy. But grace requires that you pay attention. It's not a blockbuster, it won't blow you away. But it's there for the taking, whispering stores of enchantment and down-to-earth, honest dirt.
And that, as Martha says, is a good thing.
Everyone knows that: Rosé and riesling are sweet wines (and sophisticated people don’t drink sweet wine), white wine is the pairing of choice with fish, Italy and Spain are all about red wine, big brands are big because they’re the best, Lambrusco is the soda pop of red wines, white wines should be served very cold, and only a hayseed would ever dream of chilling red wine. You know.
Well dang. Isn’t it amazing how completely wrong conventional “wisdom” can often be? I mean, not just a little bit misguided, or not quite right, but completely, thoroughly, barking-up-the-wrong-tree erroneous? I can personally testify, cross my heart, Scout’s honor that the above “truths” ain’t necessarily so. Which serves to make your summer a heckuva lot more more delicious, particularly because of the temperature thing.
The fact is that, year-‘round, most of us drink our whites way too cold and our reds way too warm. Most of us are familiar what happens to aroma as its source is chilled – it vanishes, by degrees. Chill that bottle of grower Champagne or white Burgundy to near freezing and you essentially squander the loveliness your hard-earned ducats bought. Just be cool, not ice cold and your reward is refreshment and the full pleasure of all discovering all the nuance and charm your wine has to offer.
On the other hand, drinking a red wine at “room” temperature often volatilizes the alcohol, making it seem disjointed and out of balance. Crank up the temperature a notch or two on a warm summer day and things can really get out of whack, pretty much taking all the pleasure out of a nice bottle of red. Granted, a big, powerful, tannic red is less likely to sound very refreshing on a toasty day, but a fruity Beaujolais, a young Rioja, a grenache-based Côtes du Rhône, or a nice fresh Dolcetto (not to mention a savory Lambrusco) are often not only the perfect match for warm weather fare, but all the more refreshing with just a hint of a chill. Not cold, mind you, but just a few degrees above “cellar” temperature—somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees, depending.
So, thirsty for something red with your al fresco dinner? Just chill, the possibilities are endless.
Free your palate…
I love the Vigneron Indépendant logo. It makes me smile, calls to mind all the reasons beyond a paycheck that I’m in this business, makes me think of France and all the cool people we work with from over there, and ultimately—makes me thirsty. When it comes to the wine-y things that matter most, it says it all: vigneron—the idea of vine-grower versus winemaker; hard work and, most of all, independence.
Independence. It’s a big idea, requiring more time and effort to wrap one’s brain around than most of us generally allocate it. The idea (and its mmmmm) infuses just about everything we buy, eat, drink, do or think here in the land of the free. It’s everywhere, and in everything --but like all of the truly good things in this life-cycle, you have to think about it and choose to exercise it, or effectively abdicate it.
So, ahem, here you go. Riffing on my contention that wine is a metaphor for everything, voilà my little wine-themed attempt at making like Thomas Paine on Independence Day.
Big, corporate “wineries” are no different than religious sects, political parties or Wal-mart. Choosing brand x over to wine a, or Big Box over friendly neighborhood guy, is just that – matter of choice. Those who have something thing to sell, (and in particular a lot of it), generally need a little help to move all that product. Think hearts and minds. Big marketing budgets and sheer ubiquity are the most potent means of peddling the corporate kool-aid, playing off our innate tendency to equate sheer might (in all its various forms) with right. Not to mention the promise of whiter whites, a greener lawn, shinier car and the envy of the ever-present Joneses. Buyer beware. Freedom ain’t free --but, fortunately, mental exertion is its most basic currency. When it comes to wine, it's liberating to think before you drink.
To paraphrase Terry Theise, you should drink wines from independent producers if you’d rather buy REAL wine from a person, a family or a farmer than product from a factory. You should drink wines from independents if you’d rather support someone who thinks you’re a human, rather than a “consumer.” You should drink such wines if you want to drink wine that’s expressive of where it grew and who grew it. Most of all, you should drink it if you want to fill your glass with a vital, expressive, character-driven wine that’s good for your soul.
Finally, the law of the land may say that money is speech and corporations are people – but that doesn’t mean that you, as a free, thinking person, need to fuel that speech or personhood with the fruits of your toil – much less for soulless product.
Life is short. Make every glass count.
…and [everything else] will follow. Vive les indépendants!
I just read a short interview in Relix magazine the with singer-songwriter extraordinaire Rodney Crowell – he of Emmylou Harris’s original “Hot Band”, the source of more hits than you can shake a gold record at and an amazing discography of his own, impressive work. Like many of my favorite wines, yet another example of the most amazing stuff that almost no one has ever heard of. Bizarre. Anyway ... a couple thoughts in the piece prompted some extended riffing on one of my favorite themes, music in terms of wine, and vice-versa.
In the article, he talked about how his approach to both live shows and recording has evolved over the years, from a production to a performance-oriented approach — much as a non-interventionist approach to “making” wine is founded on aiding and abetting what vineyard and vintage provide; one in which the vigneron assumes the role that Stefano Inama or Jean-Pierre Vanel refer to modestly to as that of accompanist.
Rodney Crowell views the work of songwriting humbly, relying on a blue collar work ethic and the patience of a “song whisperer” to appease the muse. His take on both recording playing live are equally modest — and refreshing: “I like to take production out of the mix."
"It’s all about performance,” he says of recording. “There were a lot of years when I operated from a production angle and as I’ve gotten older and more confident in myself as a guitar player and singer I have become more interested in the performance ... Part of the romance of our recording process is we ditched the headphones and figured out how to play without them. That put us in a different mindset.”
And each night on tour, fans should expect a slightly different, if no less spiritual, interpretation of the songs. “I have no interest in reproducing a song the way it was on the record” he says. ”You can use certain musical signposts, but as far as dragging musicians around with me so they can recreate what someone else did night after night, that’s not of interest.”
Performance versus production makes for an apt wine metaphor (as does the songwriter who views their role as a conduit for inspiration, rather than its source). Wine-wise, there are, obviously, the ubiquitous mega-labels where the goal is to make fruit into a product that’s identical vintage in, vintage out. But production isn’t the sole domain of mass-market brands, it’s also an uber – upscale tool, as producers pander to the palates of the wine press, manipulating fruit in search of the magic metrics that generate 90 point ratings.
If having your good old, reliable glass of La Crema or 14 Hands is your ticket to paradise, that’s what you ought to be drinking and you won’t get any argument from me. And if you’ve got the palate (and the pocketbook) for big points, hats off to you and your good fortune. Likewise, Top 40, flawless studio production, 16 tracks of overdubs, ear-saturating digital delay and lush string arrangments make your ears sing, turn it up. Or catch it “live” with every lick a faithful reproduction of the album, just the way it was back in the day. Sounds fine to me.
But for my time (and money), I’ll take the humility of the songwriter who embraces a blue collar work ethic to be worthy of the muse, whose variability – imperfection even, of live performance, who’ll roll the dice, betting on the maginc that happens when the musicians just play, whose shows are different every night in every town. And I’ll wash it down with wine made by a guy who’ll never even dream of making enough wine to be a household name, who has dirt on is hands, makes wine with sweat and toil rather than a spreadsheet, who knows his vineyards like the back of his hand &emdash; and bets the farm on the magic of the amazing interplay of vines growing in a no-other-place-like-it piece of dirt, nourished by a never-to-be-repeated rhythm of sun, wind, rain, night and day. That’s not just a performance ... that’s art. And there’s nothing else like it.
(Stefano Inama evangilizing in Soave )
There are probably as many ways to go about the business of selling wine as there are folks who get up in the morning to do just that. But all that variety pretty much amounts to variations on a handful of basic themes – of which a couple in particular seem, if not mutually exclusive, then mighty divergent at the least.
Back in the day, when I was just starting out in the wine biz (when it was just the job I happened to have at the moment, no thought whatever of “career”), it seemed to me that that success amounted to becoming versed in the hierarchy of brands and attaining the credentials to hawk the “good stuff” – the wines that were revered in the pantheon of upwardly mobile adoration.
Which works, of course. It’s hard to argue with the idea of selling “stuff that sells itself.” Except, as we eventually discover, the Emperor has no clothes – and the “good stuff” often really isn’t so good. (“Grande Marque” Champagne is a great example—for the most part, average, mass-produced, tarted-up fizzy wines, with huge marketing budgets, a luxury reputation and a spellbound customer base).
What’s left once you realize that a lot of the hype is just that? The “Vignerons Indépendants” motto says it all: Authentic Wines and Personalities. Think small guys, farmers, families, often fiercely passionate souls who set out to put the soul of a place in every bottle they make. Not luxury goods, just the goods. Real wines, for real people to drink…every day.
In an almost resolutely brand-conscious world, selling those goods takes a little work. But once you’ve had those flavors in your mouth, there’s no going back…and things can start to feel a little bit Quixotic. Eventually, you come to realize that it’s all about evangelizing. Tell the stories, get folks to take the leap of faith on something they’ve never seen before, share the love. Talk, talk, talk and talk some more. Broadcast it, baby.
It isn’t always uphill, though. Along with all the great wine and people, sometimes you get a tailwind, too. Last week, Seattle Sommelier Christopher Chan graciously invited me to join him, along with local wine entrepreneur, personality and ambassadot David LeClaire on his “Happy Hour Radio.” Once past the anxiety of talking into a conduit to who-know-how-many ears, it was a blast. A chance to essentially hang out and taste with two very bright, experienced, discerning palates—and talk about wine. To talk about wine, and through the magic of radio, have a conduit to those who-know-how-many folks’ ears. Brilliant. Check it out, right here:
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it’s 82 degrees and my mid-afternoon reveries are turning to Jerez. My friends Laine and Toni just texted photos of the Manzanilla they’re enjoying – on tap, no less, in NYC. Sounds like a plan. While there isn’t a Sherry bar in this burg (yet?), I know what to do.
Hasta luego, y'all...