Apr 132012
 

Bernard DeLilleAmerica’s most visited winery isn’t in Napa. It isn’t even in California. Rather, with 600,000 guests annually, the imposing Biltmore Estate can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC. With a driveway measured in miles (glad I don’t have to shovel it), the 1895 mansion was ahead of its time with electric lighting and an elevator and continues to be forward-thinking in its emphasis on being a self-sustaining estate. In this regard, the on-premise dairy was replaced with a winery in 1985.

Growing grapes in North Carolina is not an easy task. The humid climate wreaks havoc in the vineyard, encouraging the growth of mildew. Accordingly, healthy grapes at harvest are not a given. Despite these less than favorable conditions, Bernard DeLille has made wine at the Biltmore Estate for over 25 years.

The Burgundy-trained winemaker responded to an advertisement in 1986, intrigued by the opportunity to make wine in the U.S. Although he was working in Madiran and Jurançon (both in southwest France) at the time, DeLille welcomed the opportunity to produce wines without the rigid constraints of France’s appellation system. Accordingly, he packed up his wife, two children and their belongings and headed to North Carolina to begin his new position. Joining the staff under the direction of Philippe Jourdain, by 1991, he was promoted to the position of winemaker.

Given the challenges that North Carolina presents, along with the need to increase production, Biltmore Estate now sources grapes from California for many of its wines. In order to comply with U.S. regulations, wine production for these wines takes place in California. However, the estate vineyards have not been abandoned; DeLille will continue to make wines at home as well. In this regard, consumers can choose from two Blanc de blanc sparklers – one from North Carolina and the other from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. Two still Chardonnays are also similarly produced (Sonoma County and North Carolina). Not surprisingly, their red wine production centers on California.

A recent luncheon at New York’s Lincoln Restaurant provided members of the wine media to become acquainted with a selection of the Biltmore’s wines, including side by side tastings of the two sparklers and the two Chardonnays.

This new approach to winemaking has provided DeLille with many rewards. Yet, he admits that it can be complicated to keep up with the need to make wine in two different facilities, separated by an entire continent. But, on the whole, DeLille seems to have taken well to the balancing act required.

I wish I could say the same of the restaurant’s servers. In clearing the flutes and white wine stemware, both DeLille  and I were the recipients of a Chardonnay shower. Luckily, as a veteran journalist, I was wearing black and was consequently, soggy, but not visably stained.

All in all, it was a nice introduction to these wines, or rather, re-introduction, as I had visited the Biltmore Estate back in 1997 as a belated honeymoon. Thus, the winery has a special place in my heart and I appreciated the changes being made in expanding the Biltmore Estate’s range of wines.

Mar 292012
 
FLIWC Wines

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

Dozens of wine judges descended upon Rochester, NY last weekend to participate in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the largest charitable wine competition in North America. Beating all previous records, this year, the competition drew 3,298 entries, representing all 50 states, 5 Canadian provinces and 22 countries. The 64 judges themselves hailed from throughout the U.S. as well as Canada, South America and Europe. Another claim to fame were the 67 ice wine entries, thought to be the largest judging of ice wines anywhere.

If you read this publication with some regularity, you will have noticed that a few of the contributors have had the privilege to serve as a wine judge this year. However, my colleagues’ experiences judging at various competitions were likely much different than mine. Did we judge flights of Chardonnay? We sure did. Pinot Noir? You betcha. But, we were just as often served a flight of Concord, Muscadine, fruit wines or hybrids.

While most of the judges have been trained to evaluate American and French-American grape varieties, we were certainly stumped by a few and had to ask for some assistance as to what a perfect example of the variety might smell and taste like. Léon Millet, anyone? I think I met him once. Our table was a bit rusty on Marquette (aside from the fact that they have a good basketball team). But, all in all, it is precisely this exposure to these wines that bring many of the judges back year after year. And, certainly these wines deserve as fair an evaluation as their more well-known cousins.

This competition is also special in the way that it brings the Rochester community together, in more ways than one. Established with the sole purpose of raising money for Camp Good Days and Special Times, a summer camp for children affected by cancer, FLIWC attracts a significant volunteer base of locals to help out with uncorking, pouring, tabulating and glass washing, among the many Herculean tasks required over the two-day competition. Several years ago, the competition drew volunteers Jeff Stabins and Nancy McCullough together, who recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary.

It was on an equally celebratory note that the judges had the opportunity to visit a few of the award-winning wineries the day after the competition. Of course, as the bearers of such great news, they were thrilled to see us. And, despite having tasted over 200 wines each on the previous two days, somehow were just as eager to taste their wines and toast their success.

Mar 152012
 

Drink Local WineIt’s an amazing time to be in the wine industry in America.  Wine is now made in all fifty United States, and we’ve tasted some startling wines over the past few months.

This spring we are in the process of visiting wine conferences around the country: Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, and beyond.

What fun!

We’ve tasted good wines from all those states, as well as from Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Connecticut, and North Dakota.

And yes, the wines were more than just “interesting.”. They were tasty, well made, balanced and delicious.

We’ve enjoyed Rieslings and Cabernet Francs, Vignoles and Nortons, Muscats and sparklers.

Even better, each of these wineries (and in most of the states above there are 100 wineries or more) is introducing new people and their communities to wine.  That’s good news for everybody associated with wine.

Want some fun?  Try Canadian Ridge or Whispering Meadows wines from Oklahoma.  Or St. James or Stone Hill from Missouri. Or…

Well, you get the idea.  If variety is the spice of life, the world of wine is getting spicier by the second.

Mar 122012
 
Joe Pollack

Photo Credit: Kevin A. Roberts

The wine business is all about relationships. For that matter, wine is about relationships. Nothing brings people together better than sitting down with them for a great meal and nice bottle. Over the years, I’ve met many people over a bottle or two. Which is why, when you hear the news of someone special passing, you feel like you’ve lost a close friend. Last week, long time St. Louis food and wine writer, Joe Pollack, passed away. He was 81 years young.

If anything can be said of Joe, it’s that he enjoyed life to its fullest. A tireless champion for good food and wine, Joe knew how to bring out the best in his writing. Doing all of this in a market like St. Louis, where big beer rules and beef is what’s for dinner, must have been a challenge at times. But, Joe brought it off elegantly.

I first met Joe when I was new to the business of wine PR. A mere neophyte, I brought one of my client winemakers to meet with Joe at a local restaurant. He’d officially retired from the newspaper at that time, but true to form, Joe kept on, keeping on. Now, if you’ve ever met Joe, you’ll know that he didn’t exactly look like someone you’d expect to know so much about food and wine. Bald on top, with hair on the sides that, I swear to god, stuck straight out from his head defying gravity, reminiscent of a famous clown. But, appearances aside, it was immediately apparent to me that I was in the presence of a legend. I marveled at how he and the winemaker chatted like old pals, though they’d never met. I will never forget it.

A few years later, when the Drink Local Wine conference kicked off in Texas, Joe was right there with the rest of us. He was a champion of local wine and food, and his presence at the conferences was a given. When the conference gathered in St. Louis last year, Joe and his wife Ann acted as unofficial hosts of the conference and showed us all what Missouri wines had to offer. He was a great ambassador for the region and its winemakers.

I’ll miss you Joe. So, I raise a glass to you, wherever you may be. Cheers!