Catherine Seda

Catherine Seda found herself grinning from ear to ear just cleaning out wine tanks as she volunteered for wineries back East. All that grinning propelled her into a career change and move to the Napa Valley. While she doesn’t make her New York salary anymore, “being downwardly mobile can be quite invigorating” Catherine says, “especially since I can drink wine at lunch and get away with it”. Catherine landed at Cain Vineyard & Winery before working for and co-authoring The Wine Lovers Calendar with Karen MacNeil. Some fierce studying for several years with the Wine & Spirits Trust (WSET) gave her a shiny diploma and she now teaches courses for the organization. Catherine sits on the Napa Vintners and St. Helena Star Tasting Panel and also scratches out several wine columns for local Napa Valley newspapers. Whenever we catch her not smiling, we just direct her to the nearest wine cellar with a water hose, and all is well again.

Jul 232012
 
The Freeze Miser

Source: Rankin/Bass Productions Inc. “The Year Without a Santa Claus”

It has hardly heated up this summer, and already the daydreams have started: there I am, sitting by the fire sipping luxuriously rich wines. What’s with this cold weather we are having lately? I think Freeze Miser has finally tackled his miserable brother, Heat Miser.

Even if the summer heat were at normal levels, however, Napa Valley gets nippy every evening and every evening is therefore cause celebre for whispers of sweet nothings in our glasses. Only I prefer sweet everythings: Port style wines, Muscat wines, late harvest Zinfandels. You name it, it goes down the hatch to stave off pesky goosebumps.

Sweet wines are historic in California, if only because that is what we produced forever. Well, long before dry wine pushed the sweet ones off the hill anyway. In the 1960s in particular, California became known for its sweet wines. The most popular were fortified wines, made in the style of Portugal’s Port. It took a winemaking renaissance later in the 60s to elevate dry wines in California, and this same renaissance brought about a pretty nice side effect: serious, high-quality sweet wines.

Sweet wines are no picnic to make. You have to really love them to go through the pain of making them. With late harvest wines, there is stress over weather and rot issues. For botrytized wines (a good mold sucks the grape practically dry so the only thing left is sweet, syrup-like elixir). For this mold to happen in Napa Valley, you pretty much have to do special rain dances wearing a bunny suit and waving around a scepter; it don’t come easy. With Port-style wines, you have to go all grape-spirity and the husband or wife may not appreciate a distillation pot or tank in the kitchen.

However, once sweet wines are made, there they all, ready to whisper sweet everythings in to your glass.

Here are some fun sweet wines being made in Napa Valley:

  • Alpha Omega 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • V Sattui Winery  2009 Late Harvest White Riesling
  • Heitz Wine  Non-vintage Cellars Ink Grade Port
  • Honig Vineyard  2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
  • Truchard Vineyards 2007 Roussane Carneros
  • Bennett Lane Winery  Non-vintage  After Feasting Wine (Port-style)
Jun 122012
 
Concrete Eggs

Photo Credit: Sonoma Cast Stone - concretewinetanks.com

California is known to be on the cutting edge of new ideas. We are “Mikey” in the Life cereal commercial, willing to try things first.

But sometimes what is new is really, really old in the wine industry. Asked recently what current techniques they are using to make their premium wines, a group of Napa Valley winemakers listed off things such as native yeast, not filtering and fining, whole cluster fermentation, and using concrete tanks among other things. These are certainly not new ideas, none of them. But what became apparent in the discussion is that these techniques are new again to some of the Napa Valley’s producers.

Experimentation continues even today in the industry. Where a winery might have bought all manner of commercial yeasts-ones that brought out flavors in wine, ones that played well with the vineyard’s soil, and who knows –maybe ones that did jumps and twirls with batons-now they are trying the native yeasts that lie around their cellar or vineyard. Where once, the winery fired up every slick new filtering system on the market, they are now learning what their wine tastes like and how it matures without filtration. And some of those who believed stainless steel was the mecca for its grapes, are now trying large wooden vats or concrete tanks. It appears that Napa Valley winery owners and winemakers-despite their successes and the incredible brand recognition of Napa Valley-are continually striving to improve on their wines.

Concrete fermenters in particular are coming out of hiding. When the temperature controlled stainless steel tank burst onto the scene, the concrete tank was relegated to the lowliest of statuses. They became a cause of embarrassment on winery tours where the guide would try to circumvent visitors quickly past them. If you mentioned them, they would always, ALWAYS–no matter how clean and ready for harvest they looked-say that the tanks were no longer used. But times they are a ‘changing.

Numerous wineries have old square-ish concrete tanks hidden deep, deep in their cellars and they are no longer embarrassing to use. A new shape has also gained popularity– the concrete egg (looking quite like an overblown, modern version of the amphorae used by the Romans in winemaking). Rudd Winery and Viader Napa Valley were the first to use these eggs in Napa Valley, sharing the costs of a shipment from France’s Nomblot manufacturer in 2003. The local company, Sonoma Cast Stone, has worked with numerous California wineries and is now producing concrete tanks in the U.S.

Proponents of concrete eggs say the benefits are numerous. The concrete keeps a steady temperature during fermentation without the need for heating/ cooling coils. The egg shape in particular ensures there are no dead corners so there is better uniformity of the juice. The material that the concrete fermenters are made from is porous so the vessel breathes as wood does. This reduces off odors which can come when a wine has no air, and it also imparts a rounder, richer mouth feel in the wine. It does this without imparting oak flavors on the wine while maintaining fresh fruit flavors. Its detractors say they are hard to clean, although that is argued by its proponents.

Regardless, this old vessel is new again, and you are sure to see at least one of the elongated egg fermenters on a future winery tour. Perhaps it will be the stainless steel that causes an embarrassing blush in the future? We don’t think so, but we welcome back the concrete fermenter into the Napa Valley family fold.

Mar 202012
 
Source: Disney-Clipart.com

Source: Disney-Clipart.com

Give us more grapes, more wine!  That seems to be the new M.O. for the wine industry this year. The “sky is falling” types even talk about grape shortages to the point where wine brokers and wine shops could replace the Black Friday Walmart stampedes in the news. That seems a little dramatic to us.

There certainly is increased demand for grapes and wine though.  Brokers are reporting in on it; The Wine Market Council says people are drinking more wine: over 291 million cases were consumed in 2011. Winery cellars are finally emptying of the stock built up over the last three tough years.  (And grape prices, by the way,  are subsequently going up to boot, says the 2011 California Grape Crush Report. )

Could a larger 2012 harvest help supplies at all?  To some extent, sure.  Just how is the 2012 growing season looking in its infancy?  TTB took a look around Napa Valley to see ….

John Williams at Frog’s Leap weighed in regarding their fruit in the Rutherford region:  “We have not yet had sauvignon blanc bud break (as of March 15th) although it looks like it’s just around the corner.  We are scurrying to get all the canes tied. Our observation is that we will be just about normal on timing. At one point given the dry fairly cold winter we thought we were going to be late but with recent warm rains the schedule appears to have advanced to normal. It should be pointed out that the decision to break bud is determined by the hormonal system of the grapevines roots which are less likely to be fooled by the variable temperature above the ground where we humans make our observations!”

In the Spring Mountain District appellation, up in the western hills of the Mayacamas mountain range in St. Helena, Francois Bugue of Cain Vineyard & Winery states that there is no sign of bud break. This is typical, though, for the sub-region, sitting at 2,000 feet above sea level.

Remi Cohen, the Viticulturist for Saintsbury Winery provided an in-depth look at the growing season in Carneros  (as of March 14th):   “With buds swelling all over Carneros, and some Chardonnay vines just beginning to grow, vineyard managers prepare themselves for another growing season. ….

Most of Saintsbury’s vineyards have not quite experienced budbreak yet, but will experience budbreak within the next week or so.  I have seen a little bit of Chardonnay that has started to grow in some of the earliest blocks.  This season is starting out a little bit early compared to ‘average,’ and significantly earlier than the two prior late years of 2011 and 2010…”

Time will certainly tell. We hope all the Chicken Littles of the industry will settle down until we can really tell how things will play out.

Mar 052012
 
Charles Krug

Photo Credit: Charles Krug Winery

Traipse around St. Helena in the heart of Napa Valley today, and you will hardly feel sorry for anyone living there. The vineyard and mountain views are incredible, the streets are quaint, the restaurants are top notch, greenery is everywhere, and some of the world’s finest wines are made within stone-throwing distance.

But it wasn’t always praise and rainbows. The late 1800s were unkind to Napa Valley. The Mission grape being used in the wines was proving to be unpopular in the all-important East coast market, the country was going through a recession, French wines were popular and coming in via low tariffs, while the railroad fees for getting California wines back east were high. Add to that the phylloxera disaster, and things were looking very dark.

But our forebears were a tough lot. Gathering in December of 1875, Charles Krug, Henry Pellet and Seneca Ewer decided to pull up their bootstraps and do something about their impending fate.  With subsequent meetings, membership grew and the St. Helena Viticultural Club was established.  A Vintners Hall for offices and meetings, as well as a warehouse, were built between 1878 and 1880.

Important quality-changing pledges were made such as planting international varietals and stopping the practice of chaptalization (big move).

While the viticultural club has changed its name since, Appellation St. Helena continues to be a force in promoting the St. Helena appellation and its wines.  This truly is a reminder that, despite our industry’s youth, we have come a long way, baby.

Feb 242012
 

MuscatWe’ve watched the Muscat varietal creep up the ladder of popularity for some time now, and it has just made a big move.  Wines & Vines magazine reported this week that Muscat has officially ousted Sauvignon Blanc as the third most popular white wine varietal in America.

Nothing so far has displaced king-of-the-mountain Chardonnay which is the best-selling wine—never mind red or white– in the U.S. And Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) is holding at second place.

Who knew that Muscat—all sweetness and orange blossoms– was a prowress at heart.  A study by Symphony IRI shows sales of Muscat grew 70% compared to Sauvignon blanc’s 7% from January of 2011 to January 2012.

The wine is often labeled Moscato (its Spanish and Portuguese name) in the U.S. but goes by a large variety of names around the world.  It has enough synonyms to make your head spin. But one thing is clear:  this grape varietal is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, on the planet.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion says Muscat was likely the first grape farmed in France. It was wide spread in Roussillon in the 14th century. It is also Italy’s oldest varietal, where it flourished in Piemonte, land of the grand Barolos. Sorry, Nebbiolo, you weren’t always first!

But anyway, we digress when really this should just be about opening a bottle or two of this rising star and seeing what the hubbub is all about.