Feb 212014
 
Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

At a seminar for the American Wine Society’s annual conference, fellow TTB contributor, Mike Wangbickler, presented a session on “local wine.” As president of the Board of Directors for Drink Local Wine, Mike tried to dispel the notion that the only worthy wines in the U.S. were from California, Washington and Oregon. To support his claim, Mike had the audience blind taste a selection of five wines – not only didn’t the participants know which grape variety (or varieties) were in the glass, but they were truly clueless as to where the wine was made.

Once the wines were revealed, we found ourselves not just drinking, but enjoying, Finger Lakes Riesling, Texas Tempranillo, Ohio River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Maryland Red Blend Landmark Reserve (69% Merlot, 19% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot), Colorado Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux-style blend from Virginia. (Did I mention that the last wine retails for $75.00?)

At the same conference, I had the opportunity to taste wines from Michigan. Admittedly, the state of Michigan is not my first thought when it comes to wine regions, but I was impressed with many of the wines, especially those made from Riesling, Vignoles and Cabernet Franc.

So, when a winery located in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina (technically called Ronda, NC), contacted me, I was game. Although the winery graciously invited me to attend one of their upcoming events in Ronda, my schedule prevented me from joining them; when I declined, they offered to ship the wines to me instead.

The culmination of Jay Raffaldini’s dream, Raffaldini Vineyards draws on his family’s Italian heritage, which dates back to 1348 in the town of Mantua (of Romeo & Juliet fame) in Lombardy. Jay’s own father immigrated to America shortly after World War II, choosing the state of New Jersey to make his new home.

As a Wall Street businessman, Jay had the cahones and the cash to set about establishing an Italian-style winery in the U.S. With a preference for bold reds, Jay chose to look south of the City, instead of north, for the perfect property on which to pursue his passion.

Upon discovering the area of Swan Creek in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley back in 2001, Jay had found a home for his vineyard and winery. The 43 acres of vineyards were primarily planted between 2003 and 2005. While neighboring wineries in the area haven chosen to focus on French varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Savignon and Viognier, not surprisingly, Raffaldini has opted to concentrate on Italian varieties. Consequently, Raffaldini is the only local vineyard with Sangiovese, Vermentino and Montepulciano planted. They also grow Pinot Grigio, a variety which is also found at nearby Laurel Gray Vineyards.

Despite North Carolina’s southerly location, its proximity to several mountain ranges provide high elevations and consequently, a cooler climate that the latitude would suggest (just one degree north of Sicily).

As evidence of Raffaldini’s success, it was one of ten wineries named as a “Hot Small Brand of 2009” by Wine Business Monthly magazine, sharing that honor with Pacific Rim and Abacela among others.

The company’s image comes across as a little bit confused – the family is from Lombardy, but the grapes hail from Tuscany and Southern Italy, the property boasts of a Tuscan villa and the winery’s tagline is “Chianti in the Carolinas.”

Of course, in their defense, it would have been even more challenging to try and sell Barbera or Bonarda than it already is Vermentino and Sangiovese. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the Raffaldini family has created an idyllic location in which to produce and taste good wine.

In perusing their website and other materials, it is clear that the owners have spared no expense in making the estate beautiful. A well appointed, Tuscan-style villa sits atop a hill, while the winery is housed in a fattoria (Italian for farmhouse). Sweeping vistas of the vineyards from the villa’s terrace make it obvious why the winery has been ranked as a top place for weddings and other events.

This is precisely the type of place that my in-laws would find and fall in love with while traveling. We have occasionally been the beneficiary of their travels, previously receiving wines from Temecula and Sonoma. Most recently, they enjoyed a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they spent considerable time tasting. In fact, they just bought a second wine refrigerator to store a case of wine purchased on that journey, which they had been encouraged to lay down for a few years.

As we continue to think locally – from beets to beef – we should be equally encouraged to seek out these local wineries. What you find just might surprise you, whether you are in your own backyard or just passing through someone else’s.

Tasting Notes
Tasting through the generous selection of samples sent by the winery, I had the opportunity to try six of their wines. In general, these were well made wines that offered some varietal characteristics, good balance and, with a few, some complexity. My preference among them was the Vermentino, Sangiovese and the sparkling Dolce Vita, which resembles an Asti wine.

Raffaldini Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $15.00
With floral and tangerine aromas on the nose, this wine has medium+ acidity, medium body, citrus and pith on the palate. It is simple, but varietally correct and pleasing.

Raffaldini Vineyards Vermentino 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $19.00
Floral/blossom, pear and citrus aromas greet the nose, and are joined by beeswax on the dry palate, with medium acidity and medium+ body, culminating in long length.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $$18.00
This wine has cherry, oak and vanilla aromas which are repeated on the palate, along with high acidity, medium+ tannins and a slight herbal note in the finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $23.00
Although this wine is very similar to the Sangiovese 2011, the Riserva has more pronounced herbal aromas and flavors and a longer finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Montepulciano Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $29.00
This wine displays blackcherry, rosemary and vanilla notes with bright, ripe blackcherry flavors on the palate and an undercurrent of wet leaves and earth, along with medium+ tannins and full body.

Raffaldini Vineyards Dolce Vita 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $16.00
This lightly sweet wine has floral and peach notes on the nose and palate, beautifully balanced by sufficient acidity and good length.

Feb 042014
 

Wine Reviews DroningRecently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine reviews and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in wine reviews. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.

Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:

We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than my mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to share an identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to that memory of your tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.

Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment–until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.

Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.

That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what? It probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.

As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. But there are definitely exceptions and those individuals usually tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.

It’s easily understandable then how the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (Road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.

Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much, odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.

Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.

Just kidding.