Hey folk, I just wanted to let you know that I'm off to California for various book events so any major blogging is on hold while I take to the road and try to be a salesperson, which is not my forté but very necessary. If I could find a pair of jeans that fit me, I'd be a lot happier about going, but I can't. Once I land, and all will be great.
Am hoping for plenty of great wine, great friends, reconnections and as always, learning more about the Golden State. Looking forward to reconnections and meeting new people and coaxing my extrovert out of hiding. I'll try to post some finds, reflections and moments that beg for documenting as they happen. On that note...
The American Vigneron
How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics, so important a biological phenomenon as first love?—albert einstein
Sometimes, I think my hunting for quirky winemakers is merely an extension of my childhood delight for turning over wet rocks in search of thin-skinned salamanders. But for a pig- tailed, red-haired kid, the salamander search was a pastime: For the winemaker, it is a mission.On a damp and cool day in May, perfect East Coast salamander weather, I was actually out West, in Healdsburg, California, and had just pulled a beast of a gnarly celery root from my friend Marcy Mallette’s back yard. We deemed it too ancient to dice up, and so I puttered around, helping my friend in the kitchen while, as usual, guests bearing bottles produced a mini mountain of wines piled up for dinner. I was looking forward to some old Gaglioppo I had carried north from Los Angeles. But little did I know, those bottles I brought were not going to be the surprise of the evening for the guests. After the beet salad came a local wine, Arnot-Roberts.“This is your wine, Clary Ranch Syrah?” I asked Nathan Roberts as I tried to register what this taste of California was in my mouth.
Kevin Hamel was sitting next to me. He pulled it from my hands and poured himself a bit. As I mulled it over, I registered mint, clover, stem, spice, color, and horse.“Pretty neat!” I said and noted that this must have had low alcohol.
Well not quite. But now that you've read all of the teasers, I do hope you find it really a tease enough to buy the book. Thanks for staying with me this long.
This Thursday, all you N. Californian folk ,come out and see this doc on natural wine in California. I'll be there, come hang, watch, drink after @ Heartbreak. Will be a great evening. Pre book yout ticket. Use discount code NAKED WINE (2 words, all in caps) when you buy your ticket online for a $5 discount. K?
I love angular wines. Wines of spine. And so it's no surprise that I also love the fresh, structured, anti-flavor aspect of aligoté, in fact, I'd rather drink it than most 1er cru and grand cru burgundies, I mean chardonnay.
As I went to Burgundy to discover why I liked the grape and how it came to fall into disrespect, I started to feel like a freak, is something wrong with me? There's barely a mention of aligoté in Jasper Morris' fine new book, Inside Burgundy. Coates makes reference to it being a 'grape of no distinction.' He refers to its common use, splashed with cassis, as a kir. Bascially the grape is used to play a kind of winey foosball.
But it wasn't always like that. At one time aligoté thrived, even in high up places. It flourished-- not in shabby rent areas, like across the 74 on the flat-- but in soils where the clay mixed with limestone, and in Bouzeron, on the best slopes in the middle. And also in Corton and Pernand! In fact today there is talk of many stray old aligoté vines snaking on the hill, still. (and from Laurent Ponsot himself, he's renting some of them and will make a wine called Corton, not aligoté. Take that, Corton-Chuck lovers. Will you be able to tell?)
Its disappearance started with a familiar story. Phylloxera. Chardonnay was the winner in that race. But it still existed. There were problems, economic ones. Being a late ripener, one often ran into harvest rain and rot. Easier to work with the early to ripen chard. However, it had one last gasp with a short-lived renaissance after WW2 when the grape was actually replanted mostly because the locals needed something to knock back. They couldn't afford other fancy white burgundy.
Today, there's not a lot of aligoté left in the ground. But it's there. From Côte Chalonnaise to Côte d'Or to Chablis (hello deMoor, gosh I love your aligoté ), much of it stands as an old and gnarly, with a mean age of about 60 (guessing here). I like the character delivered from old-pre-clonal vines. I feel I'm getting more truth. In fact from Pierre de Benoist who makes his uncle's wine (A&P de Villaine) to Anne, to Laurent (Ponsot) to Mikulski, they all agree, the stuff just doesn't even get decent until the vine is at least fifteen years old. So, there I am looking for the wine on the shelves, Aligoté is complex and inexpensive. Sounds like I'm the winner here.
This is a vine in Monts Luisants, the 1er Cru vineyard in Morey St. Denis
Ponsot calls it an 'elephant' foot shaped leaf.
Grabbing her polar fleece on the hot June day, Anne Morey, Pierre's pretty dark haired daughter asked me, "Are you really here to taste aligoté?"
I thought her smile was another way of saying, 'Are you some kind of idiot? Everyone else wants to taste the grand cru.'
I assured her I was on for the aligoté. We walked down the long staircase to the very cold Meursault cellar. She took her spot behind a barrel and started to pull corks. There were 11 vintages in front of me, my first real aligoté vertical. (prices in US for recent vintages, $17-$25)
'09 was fresh, cheddar cheese.
'08 profoundly aromatic, honey.
'07 wet wool and reduced, but juicy and breezy and licorice.
'06 aromatic, ripe, round tangerine
'05 some rs, mint, fennel, very meursault like but better
'04 close to the 07, kind of malic (popcorn) least fav
'00 cheesy, yogurt, fruit, apple, second least fav
'99 delicious, apple, fuzzy, odd, complex, radish, watermelon.
'98 cheese nose but juicy with a dose of aspirin. yum.
'97 ah, guess what oxidation watchers? oxidized!
'03, her grandfather's last vintage, 15% alcohol. picked at end of september. peach, caramel, powerful, interesting, quite an oddity.
Then she asked at the end of a spectacular tasting , "Why are you interested?"
I didn't know whether to tell her the long or the short version. I went with short. "I love it. And I want to give it some attention.
She smiled, she wasn't shittin' me as she said, "I love aligoté too. It's as if the grape eats minerals and stones."
I wasn't the only one who loved this underdog. Wherever I went there was a very personal connection to this thick-skinned omnivore of stones and minerals, as if it were their special child, the special needs child who just needed a little love and appreciation .
But still, as I wandered off to see Laurent to hear his side of the story, I wondered if she was thinking with that cellar filed with vintages of grand and 1er cru Morey wines, if she was thinking, wow, you are a nut.
Chauvetists or Néauportists?
Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.—immanuel kant
Ever since that afternoon in Valvigneres, the name Jacques Néauport kept resurfacing with increasing frequency. It was at the wine bar Le Verre Volé that Jean-Paul Rocher had told me unequivocally to go and see him. A filmmaker in the Loire wrote to me about this fabulous fellow he met, quite agreeable but shy—Jacques Néauport. But when a random e-mail came my way from an itinerant biodynamic student staying in Santa Rosa, telling me that he had decided that Jacques Néauport was going to be my husband, I had to do something proactive. First, however, I declined his matchmaking offer. Sixty-three and living with a mother in a remote town in the hills was not my type. Still, if I needed to find the origin of the natural-wine movement, I had no choice but to return to the Ardéche. Néauport was the most direct living link.
Everyone was on board to help me make contact. Andrea Calek sent me Jacques’s phone number and address, delivering the ultimate blow:“No e-mail.”Worried about how my French would per- form over the phone, I asked Pascaline to give him a call. At precisely 10 A.M. on the next morning, she called me back. I could hear her grinning as she delivered the news.“It would be his plea- sure,” she reported.“By the way, he speaks perfect English, and he invites you to lunch.”
That Obscure Object of Desire: Real Wine in Spain
It is impossible to produce natural wines, if the person who produces it is not natural.—josko gravner
In the short two decades after Franco’s death, Iberia’s Old World wine went new. Some loved the resulting modern wines. The marketing arm of Spanish wines shouted the affection on their website: “ The transformation of the image and quality of Spanish wines during the last quarter of the 20th century has been truly remarkable. During this period, a group of hard-working pi- oneers began to introduce and apply new wine producing tech-niques being used elsewhere.”But others, like me, took such statements as heresy, not nationalism. We saw Spain as having sacrificed preexisting expressions. Many old vines and varieties were saved, but there was also a huge planting of new international varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Merlot. It didn’t matter whether the grapes were old or new, indigenous or foreign—all of them were made in woody, overextracted styles at the expense of terroir. In short, Spanish wine was a disaster.
That was before American-based, Spanish-born boy genius José Pastor decided to be a wine importer when he grew up. He and I met through a bottle of wine. By chance, I tasted a Rioja he im- ported, Bodegas Peciña. The wine grabbed my attention for its unabashed sense of place. I went to Spain and visited the Peciñas and their vines. Upon my return, José, who is based in California, called me up. The next time he was in New York City, we met. We tasted. We talked. We made friendship. I was touched by the young Valencian man’s pride in his country and how he wanted to champion what was lost. I wondered: With his help in developing a thirsty market in America for wines that were not “espoofulated,” could the wines of Spain be saved? Oh, if only!
The Secret World of the Ardeche
It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.—henry james
Except for the cats that wandered in hope for a vole, the southern Rhone hilltop town of Castillon du Gard was silent. I was waiting for Matt Kling and Amy Lillard, American transplants to this area, whom I had met through the usual means these days, the booming wine community on the Internet. I liked what Amy had to say, and she liked what I had to say. There I was in France, propped up near my suitcase, sitting near the one open café, which was adjacent to the church, fascinated by a swaddled man who was probably on his fourth drink of the afternoon and who picked his nose without apology.
Cute, I thought and then pondered the couple who was about to fetch me.A little over a decade ago, Amy and Matt had hooked up at Ker- mit Lynch’s Eurocentric wine store in Berkeley. She worked. He shopped. They married. Francophones forever, they headed east to Paris in.
Why not? After all, they were young, fluent, and free.
Demeter dumbs down?
Just in. A change to the standards for biodynamic grapes was passed overwhelmingly in time for the 2011 vintage.
I checked in with the head of Demeter, Jim Fullmer who confirmed and wrote to me, "The Standard for Biodynamic Wine remains primarily as it has been for
years-focus is on no manipulations- what was changed is the Standard for
Made With BD Grape wines. It was moved to be in line with the NOP organic
regulation ( you would call "conventional" I assume) but with the
requirement that wines labeled as being made from BD grapes be 100% BD
The result? A wine labeled made with biodynamic grapes must have 100% biodynamic fruit, and yes, you can throw the book at it in the winery. (The only difference is wine with organic grapes only need 70% of organic fruit, with BD, it is 100%).
Prior to this vintage, one could not use aromatic yeasts nor inoculate for ML for this category of wine. Additions were sort of limited. Fullmer was very proud of it. He's been struck down. Being a gent, he won't dish out on his members.
Ridgely Evers, who farms olives and grapes under the name of Davero in Sonoma is, on the other hand, very happy about it. He explained his feelings this way. (disclosure, Ridge played a supporting role in my new book.)
This is, in my view, a _huge_ win for farmers, because there were only 12 wineries last year that released either "Made with BD Grapes" or "BD Wine" wines. In other words, there was no market for BD fruit, so no one grew BD grapes besides wineries. Without that, there's no hope for critical mass to build a foundation of interest in and knowledge of the value of Biodynamic, period.
It's also a big win for consumers, because it allows more winemakers to begin to embrace the power of BD; heretofore they could not because it was too risky to try to produce a BD wine, and the "Made from BD Grapes" standard was too close to the full BD standard to be worth the economic risk.
If we're going to heal the planet, the farmers have to be deeply involved. And sustainable farming starts, inviolably, with sustaining the economic unit that is the farmer.
So, why do I care? Now that one doesn't have to use less intervention in the winery under this category, I can envision large scale BD growing will be encouraged. Higher prices per tonnage, I suppose. When it comes down to it, I have a hard time with the separation of grapes and domaine, that reigns in the New World. There's just not enough real and true vigneron to balance out the large scale agriculture.
I'm not worried about the run on nettle, but industrial companies growing BD and using the treatments, will ( I imagine) be spendthrift with their use of copper, for example. There might be a run on cow horns (note: this is a joke).
But additionally, what has attracted me to the use of BD is the emotional connection to the earth and environment. In large scale farming, BD becomes a job like any other. I really don't see the industrial BD farmer will take the care of, let's say, Ducroux, to do the best he can. To look for an ox instead of a horse. To go almost a decade without any copper use. No, when you're just reading the rule book, the rules are followed and the spirit is lost. Thirdly, the consumer will expect a natural wine and be duped into thinking their conventional wine is natural.
People who know how to taste the difference, won't be tricked. But many people in this country who rely on certification to tell them what their taste buds cannot.
I suppose if I was a real biodynamist and looked to save the planet, I would agree with Ridgely. But I'm I do find myself on the side with Tony Coturri, who put it this way.
"It's like making Wonder Bread out of organic/biodynamic wheat."