Nov 142013
 

Napa diarama

TTB’s Paul Wagner teaches a course at Napa Valley College titled: Cultural Appreciation of Wine. The class is dedicated studying the history and culture of wine through the ages. Each week, one student brings in a dish to share with the class. Last week, Ana Schofield brought in an incredible creation: a topographic map of the Napa Valley created with candy. I think the peanut butter cups must be Mount Veeder.

Educational and delicious!

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.

Jun 082012
 

Napa Wine CountryNapa Valley is a different world. Yesterday, I was riding my bike through town and got a flat tire. I pulled over into a church parking lot to fix the tire, and noticed four young girls, about 11 years old, racing around on a collection of scooters, bikes, and roller skates. As they raced past me, they waved and said “hi.” I returned the greeting. And as they rode off into the sunset, I heard one of the girls say: “You can’t call it Champagne if you make it outside of France. Then you have to call it sparkling wine.”

Eleven years old. Gotta love it.

Mar 232012
 

Jose PeninSince I met Jose a few years ago, we have become good friends.  And so when he came to SF to promote his book, he asked me to take him on tour of some of the more interesting wineries in Napa.  Interesting?  It was up to me to decide.

So we began with a visit to Walt and Bernie Brooks, who grow grapes out on Dry Creek Road.  Walt is quite literally is a rocket scientist, having lead major projects for NASA, and he is full of interesting ideas on growing grapes and making wine.  We spent an hour there looking at vines, tasting wines, and talking about everything under the sun.  And with Walt, I really mean everything under the Sun.

After we passed by Darioush to show Jose the Persian architecture, we then raced off to Ceja Vineyards, where Dahlia entertained us, and her mother Amelia told us story after story about their family and the wine business.  I knew Amelia’s mother-in-law 30 years ago at Cuvaison, so it was a real treat to see her again, as well.  And of course the visit included a meal cooked by all three generations of Ceja women…scallops, chicken in mole, and an amazing pear with mascarpone, all combined with Ceja wines.

Quick, back in the car!  We have a meeting with Warren Winiarski to talk about wine and philosophy.  While Warren drew geometric figures on a pad to illustrate his vision of perfection and balance (the rectangle combines perfection with tension), Jose wove his fingers together to explain the harmony of perfect wine (and each note plays a key role in the whole).

And then racing up to Palmaz Vineyards to meet with Florencia, whose Argentine Spanish added a romantic note to the day.  We toured the winery, from top to bottom, and admired everything from the amazing engineering to the perfect Porsches.  And tasted through their recent releases.  Jose’s finger wove together as he described them…

And then we were done.   From Rocket Scientist to a winery like a spaceship, with great food and conversation in the middle, it was a day to remember.

Besides,  I had to teach at Napa Valley College, and Jose had to get back to SF to  get ready for the big tasting tomorrow.