Tracy Ellen Kamens

Tracy Ellen Kamens adores wine and loves to teach. So much so that when the idea to combine her passion for teaching with her love of wine presented itself, she jumped at the opportunity and quit her pesky day job. As both founder of Grand Cru Classes and Education & Certification Consultant for the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), she is truly living la vida vino. Over the past several years, Tracy has pursued wine studies in earnest (yes, life is tough ) to add to her background in higher education. And, while she is committed to making wine more approachable for consumers, she is proud of her wine credentials, which include the Certified Wine Educator certification from SWE and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust’s Diploma of Wine & Spirits. Tracy is a self-professed wine geek, but certainly not a wine snob. In fact, she considers herself to be an equal opportunity drinker, ferreting out wonderful wines at all price points. However, she does draw the line at anything out of a jug. Tracy can be reached at tracy@grandcruclasses.com.

Jan 162015
 
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Photo (c) Tracy Ellen Kamens

Although wine has been produced within Umbria for centuries, its reputation for high quality wine didn’t develop until more recently. Specifically, the region owes much of its current popularity to Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2012 European Winery of the Year: Arnaldo Caprai. In 1971, Arnaldo Caprai, founder of one of Italy’s leading textile companies, purchased an estate in the region and planted Sagrantino, a minor grape variety at the time, but indigenous to the area. The grape was most commonly associated with its use by the Franciscan monks who crafted a sweet wine for use in religious observance.

With an ambitious aim, Arnaldo set out to make a historic wine with the production of a dry Sagrantino, but his first trials weren’t very good. When Arnaldo’s son, Marco, joined the winery as manager in 1988, he began to work with the University of Milan – a partnership that still continues to this day. This project focused on the need to truly understand the Sagrantino grape, particularly its structure and tannins. After 15 years of intensive study of the grape’s genetics, they were able to identify the three best clones, which they then patented and planted. Ultimately, producing high quality Sagrantino dry wines and fulfilling Arnaldo’s dream.

Currently, Arnaldo Caprai has 136 planted hectares planted to vines of which 40 hectares are dedicated to Sagrantino, planted on the best sites, especially hill tops. Sangiovese, Cannaiolo and other grapes fill out the remaining acreage. A specially designated vineyard is planted to 20 different varieties from which the best grapes are selected each vintage and then made into the winery’s Cuvée Secrete, first produced in 2012.

Among the winery’s viticultural endeavors has been its emphasis on sustainability. In 2008, Arnaldo Caprai launched its Sustainability Project, Montefalco 2015: The New Green Revolution. Eschewing the limited nature of organic viticulture, instead, the adopted protocols are evaluated for their collective social, political and environmental impact before they are implemented. In this regard, an agricultural machine was adapted to capture the chemicals used to protect the vines from mildew, and recycle them, thereby ensuring that the spray is used solely on the leaves and not dripping down into the soil. Further, while machine harvesting might be a reasonable option, the winery has chosen to continue to hand harvest its grapes to preserve employment opportunities for local workers.

Given the family’s textile connection, their textile and viticultural endeavors have been woven together. In 1992, Arnaldo Caprai Gruppo Tessile was joined by the creation of Cruciani by Luca Caprai. This new company focuses on cashmere and lace, most recently launching a subsidiary line Cruciani C in 2011. Specializing in crocheted bracelets, made of macramé lace, the concept of Cruciani C is to bring lace to a modern (and younger) audience. These multi-colored bracelets have become quite popular and the company has capitalized on this trend to raise money for various causes. A bracelet sporting a heart and grapes was designed to support Montefalco’s museum and the return of a letter, which documents Benozzo Gozzoli (fresco painter)’s love for Montefalco. Also, a bracelet with green circles acknowkedges Caprai’s commitment to the environment and its Sustainability Project, Montefalco 2015: The New Green Revolution.

Jul 172014
 

2014-06-30 20.23.43No one can accuse John Geber of lacking imagination or lacking enthusiasm. He exudes enthusiasm from the moment you meet him and, as for his imagination, well, it runs rampant.

Most people riding their bicycles past an abandoned building would keep on riding, but not John. Instead, while cycling through the Barossa Valley one day, he chanced upon a chateau for sale and decided to buy it on the spot. After the deal had been made, John called his wife to share the news. The couple are clearly made for each other since she first asked him how many bedrooms the chateau contained rather than the more rational question: “Are you insane?”

John’s new purchase was originally built in 1890, and as the largest chateau in Australia it is the size of three football fields and three stories high. After the deal closed, the chateau was eventually fully renovated and its vineyards restored, giving birth to the Chateau Tanunda brand of wines.

Among Chateau Tanunda’s previous marketing efforts, John used to bring 20 people down to Australia each year to visit his property. But, he recognized that such an approach was inefficient and changed tactics. John decided to do what any reasonable person (oh right, we already decided he was insane), he bought a yacht; now, he brings Australia to the U.S.

The Grand Barossa Cru yacht has kept John “on the road” quite a bit in past several months. Setting sail from Boca Raton, FL on May 6th of this year, the yacht has traveled the eastern seaboard, during which time it visited 18 different ports of call and held 65 events over the course of 60 days. The boat and crew arrived in New York City in late June, entertaining wine and lifestyle writers with Australian cuisine, a brief jaunt in the harbor and, of course, the Grand Barossa wines.

Additionally, John shared his three key messages with us:

  • “Australia is not a brand called Yellow Tail
  • The Barossa Valley is one of the five most important valleys in the world of wine and the only one located in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The Barossa Valley is the “Napa Valley” of Australia, at a third of the price, and it has more varieties than just Shiraz.”

During the voyage, we had the pleasure of tasting several wines including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Among my favorite was the Chardonnay, which despite having a small portion fermented in French oak, is surprisingly fresh and elegant. As John noted, “We are not carpenters.” All of wines had great, vibrant acidity and were well suited to enjoy with food, whether at home or on a sea cruise.

May 302014
 

Artisan tableEntertaining seems to have come full circle. While intricately formal dinner parties are no longer de rigeur, the renewed focus on cocktail and dinner parties seems to imply that hosts have abandoned an haphazard approach in favor of paying attention to details and ensuring that their guests are well cared for.

This renewed emphasis on creating the perfect environment in which to entertain now extends beyond the home and into restaurants, where white plates have been banished in many establishments, which is fortunate for Jono Pandolfi. This ceramics designer has now become well-known for his dinnerware collaborations with notable chefs at high-profile restaurants such as 11 Madison Park and Nomad. You can dress your table with equally impressive style, thanks to Pandolfi’s joint project with Crate & Barrel.

Once the table has been beautifully set, adorning it with delicious food and fabulous wine is the obvious next step. At a recent event held at the Scott Conant Culinary Suite, a test kitchen space in New York’s Soho neighborhood for the noted restaurateur, the artful table brought a trusted name to the bottle and glass.

Known for its Extra Virgin Olive Oil (the #1 Italian Brand in the U.S.), the Colavita family has entered the world of wine production in partnership with Terlato Wines. In recognition that “Italy’s two most important food products are olive oil and wine,” the co-founders of Colavita USA (Enrico Colavita and John J. Profaci) were prompted to create their own brand of wine and looked to Terlato to help them realize their dream.

As explained by Giovanni Colavita, CEO of Colavita, the family approached winemaking the same way they approach olive oil production – identifying and working with the best producers throughout Italy. In this regard, the grapes for each wine are sourced from a specific region and are iconic of that region.

The collaboration and approach are certainly novel, but the selection of wines proved worthy of such an elegantly set table.

The current Colavita-Terlato portfolio includes four wines:

ColavitaColavita Pinot Grigio 2012, Trentino, Italy, $15.00
From northeastern Italy, this wine is fermented in stainless steel and is a young, fresh wine with bright acidity and nice citrus aromas and flavors.

Colavita Verdicchio di Matelica 2012, Marche, Italy, $15.00
Located in central Italy, the Marche region is known for the Verdicchio grape, which shows off the mineral characteristics of the calcareous soils, especially in the Matelica zone.

Colavita Pinot Nero 2012, Provincia di Pavia, Lombardy, Italy, $15.00
Lombardy is known for growing Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) for the production of Franciacorta, a Traditional Method sparkling wine. Here the grapes are used for crafting a well-made still wine with vibrant cherry and herbal notes. A truly fabulous Pinot Noir at this price!

Colavita Valpolicella Ripasso 2011, Veneto, Italy, $23.00
A blend primarily of Corvina (70%), with Rondinella (20%) and Corvinone (10%), this wine is made using partially-dried grapes – the ripasso in Valpolicella Ripasso – which adds richness and body to the resulting wine.

Mar 252014
 
Turkish Wine

Courtesy of Wines of Turkey

A five hour drive from Istanbul (not Constantinople 😉 ), Turkey’s Ankara province is home to Vinkara’s main vineyards and winery, which were established by the Gürsel family in 2003 in the village of Kalecik. This newer venture is part of the continued renaissance of Turkey’s viticultural and winemaking history, which originally dates to 7000 BCE.

Like many other Turkish wineries, Vinkara has hired an international consultant – in this case, Italy’s Marco Monchiero – as their winemaker. But, its main focus is decidedly Turkish. Although Vinkara’s plots include international varieties, it is the indigenous Narince and Kalecik Karasi that the company is widely promoting as they debut their wines in the U.S. (Does the world really need another Chardonnay or Merlot?) Moreover, 60% of its plantings are dedicated to Kalecik Karasi, along with the preservation of other important Turkish varieties.

The white Narince (pronounced Nah-rin-djeh), which translates as delicately, hails from the mid-Black Sea region (Tokat), situated a little closer to the coast than Kalecik. This variety is produced by Vinkara in two guises – regular (aka unoaked) and Reserve. The Reserve is treated to 14 months in oak barrels and it unfortunately shows. When tasting the two wines side by side, the overwhelming preference among the four of us was for the unoaked version. Perhaps the variety is just too delicate for so much time in oak (Kavaklidere’s Prestige Narince only spends nine months in oak and seemed much more balanced to my palate on previous tastings).

Also available in unoaked and oaked styles, the Kalecik Karasi (pronounced Kah-le-djic-car-ah-ser) is a red grape whose name stems from its origin’s proximity to the village of Kalecik, translating as “black from the small castle” given that Kalecik is home to –you guessed it– a small castle. This low tannin variety offers lovely freshness and bright red fruit character on the palate. Much less delicate than the Narince, the Reserve Kalecik Karasi wasn’t hurt by its 14 months of oak aging.

Choosing to drink these wines provides a refreshing change of pace, and, with the exception of the Reserve Narince, I found them to be well balanced, well made wines with good fruit, nice acidity and good length.

The company’s circular logo, prominently featured on every bottle, displays not only its name and location, but also the phrase “This is the time, my love, to pour the wine…” And I agree; you might say, it’s a Turkish delight.

For more information on Turkey’s wines, regions and its indigenous grape varieties, please see the Wines of Turkey website.

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.