Berlin Wine Diary: Day 2 – My Mother Tongue and I

It’s just under 24 hours since I (kicking and screaming with reluctance) signed up with Facebook and was greeted with just over 1,000 emails from people asking to be my “friends” or congratulating me that I had finally seen the light, capitulated to the inevitable, and joined the biggest club on the planet with the lowest common denominator of any club on the planet. I know, that’s me being negative and what I ought to do is keep an open mind, give it a chance, see how it works out, etc. And I will do that (kicking and screaming with reluctance!)

All of this would hardly be worth mentioning if it hadn’t brought up something else, something that I also received a bunch of analog comments about (i.e. people actually spoke to me, I mean to my actual face!) You see, after spending 20 years living in Berlin and writing just about all my regular columns and some daring books in German I have a Stammpublikum, that is a hard core of regular fans who want to read and hear me in German. Dear Stammpublikum, honestly I have a lot sympathy for you. Those people who accuse me of leaving Berlin are talking out of their asses (not least because I own an apartment here and most of my stuff including an oversized wine cellar is here), but it is true that I have been writing more in English and rather less in German since New York became my second home. I know that many of you would have preferred for me to stick with German. If you urgently need a large dose of full-throttle Stuart Pigott in German, then please buy the current issue of Der Feinschmecker magazine (12/15) in which there is a big article by me about Berlin. There is also my regular column in FINE, and every two weeks I have a column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. Indeed, this Sunday’s issue will contain the highlights of the year and that’s a must for German-speaking readers!

Why did I make the move to publishing e-books, in English? When, three years ago, I once again began spending a serious amount of time in places that my mother tongue is spoken I realized how much I had missed it, and how much easier it is for me to write in it. Most of my writer heroines and heroes wrote in English (Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Wolfgang Hilbig are important exceptions), and most of what I read is in English. I have a fluency in my mother tongue that extends from the last things I thought while writing this to my first memories and beyond all those things into the realm of imagination and dreams. This – and the technical possibilities for self-publishing on Kindle – made it possible to write ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK so fast that it came out just four days after the last events described in the book actually happened. Can you imagine how liberating that was? If not you might want to read the book. It is obtainable from the Kindle Store (just download the free Kindle app on your phone or tablet, then click on the link below):

There is also the simple fact that it is easier to write about english-speakers in their own language. ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA is a series of e-pamphlets that each explores the underground winemaking of one American state in-depth. It would have been absurd to publish this material first in German, and waiting to simultaneously publish a German-langauge edition alongside the original English-language one would have slowed me down by several months. That is not shooting from the hip, the American way of doing things that belongs to this project as much as the logo above and below this story. I am now considering an offer from a potential translator (who I got to know through Facebook – it is good for something) and we’ll see if this is a viable proposition. I will certainly have to pass on the costs to readers, so expect a $9,99 cover price instead of $4,99 for the English-language original. However, the more pressing question is if it can successfully be translated, for the tone is a special variation of American-English incorporating some English-English elements. There are numerous American literary and rock music associations, every one of which a German translator would have to “get”. So, dear Stammpublikum I’m investigating the possibilities, but making no promises I don’t know if I can keep. Tut mir leid!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – The Tale of My Two Wine Cities, Berlin & New York

When I took a flight from the Wine Metropole Berlin to New York Wine City (NYWC) on this day three years ago I was definitely planning on beginning a new life, but dividing my time between two cities in the long term was not part of my plan. However, it only took a very short time before that was what I was doing, and now I’m not thinking about living any other way. If you scroll down to the postings below, then you will see what this life with one foot in Berlin and the other in NYWC has made possible for me. The motto of my latest writings, most importantly the series of short e-books ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA, is a three word phrase that sent a shiver of excitement through my teenage body when I first heard it: complete artistic freedom. And that’s why the Freedom Tower in New York is pictured at the top of this posting.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Berlin and it’s good to be back. However, many of the things that make modern Germany a great place were imported from the US during the immediate post-WWII years, most importantly of all the fundamental principals of the constitution, technically referred to as the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. The first words of the Basic Law (Article 1 – 1), Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority, represent a complete rejection of the disastrous situation in Germany during the Nazi period and the many atrocities committed by that state (and many German people, often with the assistance or collusion of non-Germans) during those 12 years. This is the foundation stone of the openness of Berlin, although much else has become allied to that principal that encourages that openness. Nowhere in Germany does the process by which positive thoughts and actions grow out of, and become associated with, this fundamental principal function better. That has a lot to do with the city’s division by the Berlin Wall from August 1961 thru November 1989 and the enormous efforts made since then to bring the two sides fully together, a process that has been extremely successful.

It’s a great place for me to live for these reasons, but it is a great place me to work because of another principal enshrined within the Basic Law (Article 5 – 1), Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting…shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship. This also represents a radical rejection of the situation during the Nazi period, and was no less inspired by an American example (the Bill of Rights of 1789). This principal has also put down deep roots in Germany, and nowhere does this function better than in Berlin, the seat of government, as the German media’s extensive and fearless reporting of the NSA affair clearly shows.

Germany wouldn’t be what it is today without the influence of America and Germany (including those Germans with anti-American sentiments – though they may not want to admit it) knows that. At some point soon I will write about the influence of Germany on America, which is less obvious, unknown to many Americans and seldom acknowledged. First, though it’s time for some serious reporting from the Wine Metropole Berlin!

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FLX Wine Diary: Day 5 YES, Maynard James Keenan IS on the Cover of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2 !

There has been some suggestion that the portrait on the cover of my new Kindle e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK is not of the singer-winemaker Maynard James Keenan (Puscifer & Tool / Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards). The reason that some people have jumped to the conclusion seems to be that in Angelyn Cabrales portrait he is shown smiling. So there seems to be a need to put the record straight. The cover image is based on the above photograph of MJK that I took in The Bunker, aka Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona on November 15th, 2014, and as you can see from it he does smile just like everybody else! To learn more about the man, his wines and the Arizona wine industry that he is a vital part of click on the following link:

This also seems like an opportune moment to explain that the portrait on the book’s cover is a work of embroidery, a stitched drawing and collage of fabrics. Angelyn Cabrales developed this technique and circular format herself although she is still a student at The College of New Jersey. The design of the book’s cover is also her work, although it is modeled on the cover that Alexandra Weiss of Bad Dürkheim in Germany did for #1 in this series of outrageous tales about America, wine and I. Research for #3 about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York continues this very day!

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FLX Wine Diary: Day 4 – ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK: I Could Drink a Case of You IS OUT!

I am feeling enormously relieved after completing a writing marathon that was the reason for the long radio silence here. You see, I was almost totally preoccupied by the intense last days of writing and corrections to my e-book ROCK STAR OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK: I Could Drink a Case of You. Finally in the early hours of this morning it went on sale at the Kindle Store at Amazon. Please note that if you don’t own a Kindle all you need to do is download the free Kindle app on your device, then head to the Kindle Store. Here is the link to the right page:

Unlike #1 that was set in the Baltimore of 1985, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2 describes events in Arizona and NYC stretching from November 14th, 2014 thru November 17th, 2015. It’s hard for me to imagine how a book can be more up to date than this, yet also takes it’s subject seriously. My subject is the wine industry of Arizona – one of the ultimate “wrong” places for grape growing and winemaking in America – the singer-winemaker Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer & Toole and Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards, and other leading winemakers in the state like Kent & Lisa Callaghan of Callaghan Winery and Todd & Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks. They are true American pioneers and this is a rock ‘n’ roll tale that massively pushes the envelope of what a wine book can be. If you want a regular wine book this work is not for you. However, if you are looking for excitement and adventure then follow Hunter S. Thompson’s recommendation, “buy the ticket, take the trip.”


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New York Wine Diary: Day 32 – MORIC Blaufränkisch, a Candidates for the Title Best Red Wine in the World

I know that some of my colleagues and some somms will say that I am biased, but the fact is that we are all influenced by personal likes and dislikes. The person who will accuse me of not taking the world of Cabernet Sauvignon dominated red wines seriously enough after reading this posting, will themselves struggle to find something decisively positive to say about Nebbiolo red wines from Northern Piedmont, red Burgundies from cooler vintages, or Austrian Blaufränkisch. The latter of this trio is the subject of this story, to be precise the Blaufränkisch from MORIC, a producer who’s first vintage was 2001. No doubt, now some of you are asking  yourselves if I’m seriously suggesting that the wines from the rather little-known Blaufränkisch grape  from a producer in the unromantic and previously unacclaimed region of Mittelburgenland in Austria who just harvested their 15th vintage might be a serious candidate for the title of best red wine in the world. The answer is decisively yes!

The man behind the MORIC wines is ex-casino croupier and wine philosopher Roland Velich, pictured above. I got to know Roland more than five years before he founded his own winery in 2001. Back then he was still working together with his brother Heinz at their small family winery in Apetlon, Burgenland.  During the 1990s they turned the Tiglat Chardonnay into one of the finest and most sought-after Austrian dry white wines, but already it was pretty clear that the brothers would have to go their separate ways at some point. How would that work out though? For some years this question mark hung in the air, then  suddenly Roland decided that the red wines from the indigenous Austro-Hungarian grape Blaufränkisch / Kékfrankos was his future and Mittelburgenland was the place with the best potential for this grape. I first tasted the results in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben in Berlin in late 2003. The already bottled 2001 – there was just one wine from the debut vintage – was very elegant, but a bit oaky and therefore slightly  conventional. However, the 2002 vintage wines – cask samples ready to bottle – from old vines in the communes of Lutzmannsburg and Neckenmarkt were like nothing else I’d ever tasted. They were the first MORIC wines in the contemporary style and desperately I wish I had a few bottles of them in my cellar. My collection “only” goes back to 2003 and they are still full of life.

The other day I was lucky that Heather Meyer of Winemonger, the US importer of MORIC, invited me to join a professional tasting of Roland Velich’s wines spanning the vintages 2013 to 2009 she organized at the excellent Le Du wine store on Washington Street in Downtown Manhattan. Because Velich avoids ageing his wines in new oak barrels if he possibly can (occasionally a barrel has to be replaced and his hand is forced) the full bandwidth of aromas that this grape is capable of came out, some more in one wine others more another wine. There are floral (violets and red roses) and fresh herbal notes (tarragon and sage particularly), then there’s spices (ranging from clove to black pepper), and I haven’t even got to the fruits yet! If a Blaufränkisch is good (made from ripe grapes rather than under-ripe or over-ripe grapes) then they are black and fresh, like elderberry or slightly tart wild blackberry. Blaufränkisch always has an acidic freshness, but if the wine’s balance is really good, then this is like a beam of light shining on a beautiful vase. Close the curtains and suddenly the vase looks nothing special compared with how it struck you just a moment before;  what the wrong approach to this grape (i.e. trying to make its wines taste more rounded and conventional) does to it. And there is a mineral saltiness at the finish to almost every MORIC Blaufränkisch of a kind you find in  very few reds from anywhere on Planet Wine.

Let’s be specific, though. The best value you can find in MORIC Blaufränkisch at the moment is the 2011 Reserve, which you might be able to find for just under $50 a bottle in NYC. This vintage is just beginning to open up this wine is beautiful example with it’s best years immediately ahead of it. It has a bunch of tannin (typical for the vintage) so if you don’t like pronounced dry tannin this is not the wine for you, but for my taste the balance between power and freshness, between delicate spice and ripe fruit is excellent. For the Alte Reben, i.e. old vine bottlings you will pay in the direction of $150 in the US and a bit more than half that figure in Euros on the other side of the Atlantic. For me the 2011 Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben and 2009 Neckenmarkt Alte Reben are unquestionably among the best red wines I’ve tasted during the last year, and I promise you that I tasted some spectacular things lately here in NYWC. The 2012s of these two top bottlings are still a bit young and I fear I may be underestimating them. The basic 2013 Blaufränkisch from MORIC suggests this is a fantastic vintage of aromatic subtlety and elegance. Those are the virtues traditionally associated with the red Bordeaux 1er Grand Cru Classé Château Lafite Rothschild, but I just tasted the 2004 the other day and that wine didn’t come close to the MORIC Blaufränkisch I just recommended. I rest my case!



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New York Wine Diary: Day 28 – True Elegance in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is All About Style NOT About Fashion

A colleague of mine in Germany, Stephan Reinhardt, who writes for The Wine Advocate got wind of this column’s forthcoming appearance and wrote on twitter #tickingbomb. Well, here’s the explosion!

It’s not without some good reason that I sometimes get referred to as the  “Riesling Guy” or even, “Mr. Riesling”. My fascination with that grape is decades old and the STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL logo that stood at the top of this blog for two and a half years still appears at the bottom of appropriate postings. The other side of this is that a bunch of people around the world also say that I hate Chardonnay, or even that I just don’t understand it, but this is complete. Sure, I hate what I call Bullshit Chardonnay, that is the crudely oaky and/or sweet and/or alcoholic wines with Chardonnay printed on the label, although often 25% of something else in the bottle. That’s entirely legal in the US. However, I love elegant Chardonnay just as much as I do good Riesling or Pinot Noir (aka Spätburgunder / Blauburgunder in the German speaking world). Although there are other grape varieties that can give wonderful wines in cool climate regions, to my mind this is the most important trio for that kind of grape growing location.

I was recently reminded of all this by Rajat Parr of Santa Barbara, California who kindly sent me samples of his 2013 vintage Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs sold under the Sandhi (made from bought in grapes) and Domaine de la Côte (made from grapes his own vineyards) labels. Here in NYWC (New York Wine City) these are mega-cool wines often revered in a manner someone outside the wine scene of this fair city would find hard to image. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see graffiti here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn saying, “Rajat is God, according to the same principal that back in the ’60s and early ’70 Eric Clapton’s fans wrote graffiti saying, Clapton is God. (Anyone interested to read my own opinion of these wines just needs to scroll down this page). Unfortunately, most of the comment about this was analog – people actually spoke to me! – and I therefore can’t provide links to it, but being so straight about my skepticism about the balance of the Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte wines certainly had a polarizing effect on the citizens of NYWC and far beyond!

This whole situation raised the question if California produces elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at all. Rather by chance last night Ed Thralls of the Thralls winery in Windsor, Sonoma County (pictured above) provided me with a conclusive positive answer to that question. His 2013 Antonio Mountain Chardonnay is the most distinctive new wine from this grape I’ve encountered in a couple of years. Sleek and firm with a lemon character that’s at once intense and subtle (anyone luck enough to have eaten a lemon from the Amalfi coast of Italy will know what I’m talking about) it reinvents Chardonnay elegance in a style I didn’t even imagine would be possible. The 14% alcohol is balanced by a vivid acidity, and the harmony is so good I wouldn’t have had trouble draining a whole bottle by myself. When did I last say that about a Chardonnay that costs $35 a bottle from the winery, and not much more on the shelf? What makes this all the more extraordinary is that before yesterday afternoon I’d never heard of Ed Thralls and his wines.

Thralls’ Pinot Noirs are no less original, the 2013 Anderson Valley bottling having seen exactly 0% new oak. The cherry and raspberry fruit aromas of this wine have an uplifting freshness and a delicacy that I found very enticing, and as I lingered over it a herbal note developed that perfectly fitted the rather medium body and moderately dry tannins. It is the same price as the Chardonnay described above, and even Thralls top Pinot Noir, the 2012 Bucher Vineyard from the heart of the Russian River Valley will only sting you for $45. Here you can smell a hint of spice from the oak, but the wine manages to be rich and filigree with a fragrance that had me hooked from the first sniff. (Frederick Wildman is the NYWC distributor).

As you can see, I don’t like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir and I don’t understand them – BEWARE: HEAVY DUTY INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH IRONY IN USE!

Again by chance, the Taste Ontario NYC event was just a few days after my encounter with Rajat Parr and his wines. Of course, there is a very major climatic difference between the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County in California and both the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County in Ontario where Norman Hardie (pictured above) makes what I think are North America’s most original cool climate Chardonnays. His two bottlings of Chardonnay from those two locations of the 2013 vintage are arguably the best wines of his career. They clock in at barely 12% and have a brilliance that is hard to describe with regular vocabulary without resorting to cliche’s. The 2013 Niagara Chardonnay is the more energetic and challenging of the two – here the brilliance has a diamond-like edge to it – and the 2013 County Chardonnay has a more gentle and caressing mouthfeel. Both have a saline quality that I regard as genuinely mineral, and a flinty aroma many professional tastes call mineral, but I prefer not to make fancy claims about like that. BOth these wines retail for around $30 (Artisan Wines is the NYWC distributor).

In a rather more generous and supple way Thomas Bachelder’s Chardonnays from the Niagara Peninsula are also genuinely stylish. Here is another alternate vision of the elegance that this grape’s wines are capable of. The 2013 Wismer Winfield #1 Chardonnay has floral notes and a great balance of lemony freshness and discrete creaminess. I could barely detect the oak and on that point too this was the exact opposite of Bullshit Chardonnay and the clichéd recipe winemaking behind that category. (Bachelder is new with Wildman in NYWC). I don’t want to be unkind, but a wine journalist ought to have an opinion, and in my opinion these three wineries are doing very much what Rajat Parr says he’s do with Chardonnay in Santa Barbara, but all too often fails to achieve.

Elegant Chardonnay is a special winemaking discipline and it is incompatible with the demands of wine fashions. Instead, it demands a vision of winemaking style and the right techniques in both the vineyard and the cellar to make this kind of balance possible. Push something too far in either of those places and you will fail. Here are some great successes that are also affordable!

PS For those of you searching for Riesling content. Norman Hardie told me that he expected to pick his Prince Edward County Riesling grapes in 5 days, and if he stuck to that plan then he’s picking tomorrow, Saturday, November 7th!

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New York Wine Diary: 24 – All Apologies: to Cockroaches Insulted by their Portrayal in ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 and to the Citizens of NYC

Note: I seem to have a major talent for getting myself into trouble. Trying to appease the cockroaches of the nation led to a storm of protest from New York’s who felt that I was entirely lacking in sympathy for them in their daily lives, which often also involve encounters with cockroaches. I have even been accused of being a foreign agent guilty sympathizing with the enemy. Bill de Blasio’s office didn’t call, but I was told in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t desist, then I would incur his wrath. I promise you that the last thing on my mind when all this started was taking sides in a dispute that is so old and that awakens such visceral reactions. So now I have to apologize to both sides. Just to make it all crystal clear: Yes, I do know what a large cockroach looks likes (I have decades of experience), yes, I have encountered them unexpectedly (a huge one once ran over my hand) and I have had to deal with them. However, due to the prior complaint from the other side of this equation I’m leaving the text below to stand as I wrote it.

When I wrote ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1: Point of Entry featuring Very Bad PR I had no idea what I was unleashing upon an unsuspecting world, much less how this would come back like a boomerang flying straight at me! As well as a lot of more or less positive comments that were nice to hear, I have received a long letter of complaint from the attorneys representing the American Association of Cockroaches (AAC). No, I’m not talking about the professional body of cockroach exterminators, nor even the club of those people who keep them as pets and breed them. The complaint comes direct from the cockroaches themselves, and they appear to be well organized since they have some rather high-powered legal representation. This is the reason I have to be precise in what I say.

The problem seems to have arisen through the appearance of two cockroaches, both already dead, in my story. I felt that they played spectacular roles in the story and that this would be positive for this often reviled category of creature (of which there are many sepcies). I’m not going to risk the B-word with three letters as that could lead to yet be construed as being pejorative and lead to yet more trouble! Let me make it plain, I am not anti-cockroach. If I find any in my NYC home, then I put them out rather than killing them as most people do. It was in this spirit of live and let live that I wrote my story, and mentioned my two cockroach co-stars in all the publicity material about ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1. This appears to be how they found out about my work, downloaded the free Kindle app on their cellphones and tablets, then purchased it through the Kindle Store on After reading it many of them felt insulted. Clearly, the PARENTAL ADVISORY Explicit Content logo on the cover did not in any way alter how they felt about my work.

The AAC’s position is that by only including dead cockroaches in my story and in situations where they create moments of shock and suffering for the human characters who encounter them my new work disseminates a negative characterization of their members. Please don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not dismissing this argument and if my work were one of fiction, then I would seriously consider adding some living and attractive cockroach characters to create a more balanced picture as the AAC demands. However, mine is a work of non-fiction and a product of journalism. I have tried to tell the truth, in the events I describe only two cockroaches appeared and they were both dead. That is the reason I’m not willing to go back and add living and attractive cockroach characters to the story. That would be a falsification of the truth. However, I understand the pain that this news, and I hereby officially apologize to all cockroaches who feel that my story has insulted them and their like. This was entirely unintentional, and should cockroaches appear in my work in the future I will consider this question carefully.

This last point is going to get me into more trouble with the AAC, but anyone who wishes to read my work and make up their own mind should click on the following link:



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New York Wine Diary: Day 19 – Rajat Paar, the Man Behind “American Burgundy”

I’m sitting in my “country cottage” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a glass of the 2013 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir from Rajat Parr’s Sandhi Wines in Lompoc, Santa Barabara County California. Although the bottle was opened 8 days ago it’s still full of life, and I will probably kill it while I’m writing this posting. However, one thing is for sure, this wine is about as far away from those sunny Claifornia, “good, good, good, good vibrations,” as wine can get. This is a deadly serious wine that is also seriously daring and extremely cool in NYWC (New York Wine City) where skepticism of California wines is deeply rooted and endemic. Typically, they are regarded as fat and heavy, but Rajat Parr’s wines are exactly the opposite of that. In fact, I think that I should warn you not to mess with this Dude – I mean the wine! – unless you are prepared for a taste experience that is set on a collision course with mainstream Californian wine. The roads fork here and the man pictured above is in good part responsible for that situation! Depending on your NYWC perspective he is either the devil incarnate or he is the savior of California wine. Middle ground? Don’t be stupid! This is NYWC – the Center of the Known Wine Universe – and the future of California wine, the most high-profile American wine is at stake!

Perhaps that might seem like a critical statement, even an attack on Rajat Parr, but I assure you that it’s nothing of the kind. It’s my attempt to grasp a complex situation that Rajat has in part created, and that to a greater part developed around him in ways he couldn’t control. That basic situation is true of anyone who sticks their neck out, as I’m well aware having stuck my neck out a long way many times. I first met Rajat in Vienna back in June 2012, but that was at the Slanted Door Restaurant (of San Francisco, California) pop up during the hectic VieVinum wine fair. It was crowded, there was (rightly) much excitement about Charles Phan’s food (about as far removed from the Wiener Schnitzel as you can get) and no chance to talk at length. Then, by a slightly elliptical route I received samples of the 2013 wines from Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte and a lunch invitation from Rajat Parr. At Restaurant Boulud Sud not far from Columbus Circle, where I took the picture above. I found him to be charming – a word I try to avoid using at all possible costs – and a very relaxed gourmet. However, he also said a bunch of stuff that made it clear how serious and determined he is, to the point where I struggled to make sense of the man, the phenomenon. Let me state it plainly, what Rajat is doing is NOT part of the regular world of the California wine industry.

I’m also still seriously struggling to make sense of the wines, and I began tasting the Chardonnays from Sandhi Wines (all made from bought in grapes like the Pinot Noir reds) 11 days ago. Those dry whites were pretty challenging, and I was much less impressed by them than the reds from both of Rajat’s labels. First of all, it was a shock to taste Chardonnays that were lighter in alcohol and higher in acidity than is normal for dry German Rieslings in this century. You see, in the past it was always the other way around, even if the Chardonnays came from that grape and Pinot Noir’s homeland Burgundy. To be frank, if they hadn’t taste so strongly of the lees (techie term for the yeast that settles to the bottom of the barrel/tank after fermentation is completed) then they would have been seriously lean, tart and sometimes green. I like that lees character, but I wondered if the wines weren’t way too dependent upon it to halfway harmonize. And the regular 2013 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay struck me as just plain thin. Sorry, but I’d rather drink the “basic” Santa Barabra County Chardonnay from Au Bon Climat winery than any of these wines. And I promise you I am not afraid of acidity!

I spent a lot of time and trouble trying to figure out the Pinot Noirs from Sandhi and Doamine de la Côte, because they were so heterogeneous. Not without reason did Bruce Schoenfeld write in his The Wrath of Grapes article published in New York Times at the end of May this year that these wines tasted as if they came from several wineries. The only thing that they had in common (also with Rajat’s Chardonnays) was low alcohol and high acidity. Here the balance of the wines is less challenging though, but the only category of California wines that they fit into is the new IPOB (In Pursuit of Balance) one, a style and an association of winemakers that Rajat was a co-creator of. Once again, the crucial question is just how good do these wines taste, and my answer can’t be a simple thumbs up or thumbs down because of their diversity.

The most exciting of them for me was the relatively full-bodied (13% alcohol is the high end of the scale for Rajat’s wines that often have less than 12%) 2013 Memorious Pinot Noir, a wine that had some richness and tannic power as well as aromatic delicacy. At about $60 retail this is a modestly priced wine from Rajat’s range compared with the 2013 La Côte Pinot Noir at just under $100 a bottle. Much as I liked the elegance of that wine it did not blow my socks off, even in terms of subtlety (and it is subtle). Returning to the example of Au Bon Climat, winemaker Jim Clendenen’s top Pinot Noir, the ravishing Isabelle, averages $49 per bottle retail according to That makes it a steal compared to Rajat’s wines.

Of course, everybody has to decide what they want and what they’re prepared to pay for it. All the Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte wines extremely well made and most of them are very distinctive, but you have to be willing to pay a serious price for any of them. In spite of that, during our conversation Rajat said that, “maybe Domaine de la Côte will never be commercially viable.” This combination of high prices and a weak bottom line struck me as pretty crazy, and it can only be explained by the extremely low yields. He quoted a yield of 0.77 tons per acre for the 2015 La Côte Pinot Noir, or just under 12 hectoliters per hectare. I translate the yield into the European measure, because as the label for this wine shows, the reference point for Rajat is entirely European. Looking at the Burgundian style label I again feel confused. It looks like a pastiche, but according to Rajat it is a homage. For me it’s a positive thing to have role models and to use them both as an inspiration and as a measuring stick for your own progress. However, this looks very literal, almost like a slavish copy.

Having a label designed for a California wine that looks totally Burgundian is one thing,  making wines in California that taste something like Burgundy is another. The obstacles to that begin with the facts that Burgundy is at about 47° North and has a mildly continental climate, whereas the Rajat’s vineyards are at about 34° 30′ North and, being only 8-9 miles from the Pacific Coast, have a distinctly maritime climate. That divergence in growing conditions is massive, but only the most obvious of the many obstacle to achieving such a goal, because there are a ton of other differences between Burgundy and California. The question I can’t get out of my head is whether Rajat’s isn’t trying too hard to imitate Burgundy under conditions where this is simply impossible. Has he made himself a slave to the role model wines that he loves? Is he pushing the envelope of elegance way too far and too hard? I ask those questions as someone who also has a tendency to try too hard and push the envelope way too far.

I haven’t quite finished that bottle of Sandhi Pinot Noir, although I have been enjoying it, but this is one complex story, and I just saw a completely different angle I could have used to writing it. Maybe tomorrow, if I can find the time and the ideas develop in an interesting way I will write that story too. Rajat is a very complex guy and the ramifications of what he’s doing are much greater than his critics (Robert Parker being the most prominent) give him credit for. And for the first time in many years I described someone as “charming” and “serious”.


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New York Wine Diary: Day 17 – Dry Austrian Riesling Past & Present, and Nearly Always Great!

Although Austria is one of the most important producers of dry Riesling on Planet Wine the profile of these wines varies enormously from market to market, and here in the USA is well below the relative prominence and popularity of Grüner Veltliner. This was no doubt the reason that the Austrian Wine Marketing Board staged a very ambitious tasting of these wines that covered all the significant producing regions, and spanned the vintages 2013 back to 1990. The 1990s was the period of fastest growth in the vineyard area planted with Riesling in Austria (and it still continues to grow, if at a slightly slower pace), and was also the period of my most intense involvement with these wines, so there was a personal reason for me to be seriously interested to taste these wines.

Although just 4.06% (2009 figures from Statistics Austria) of the nation’s vineyards compared with Grüner Veltliner’s 29.4%, much of the latter produces everyday quaffing wine and almost nobody is making that kind of wine from Riesling in Austria (here the contrast with Germany is striking!) With Riesling Austrian winemaker are focusing on producing good to top quality. Combine this with the fact that, in contrast to just about every other Riesling producing nation/region, Austria is making almost exclusively dry wines and you can see why these are way more important for the nation than that 4.06% suggests. However, there are also massive differences in the degree of commitment to Riesling of the various regions. 16.4% of the Wachau’s vineyards are planted with Riesling, the figures for the Kamptal, Kremstal and Wien (Vienna) are 9.4%, 10.3% and 13.7% respectively. At the other end of the scale in Mittelburgenland – the heart of the homeland of the red Blaufränkisch grape – it is just 0.16%, or about one hundredth of the regions specializing in Riesling!

Of course, the important thing is how the wines taste, and the excellent 2013 vintage is the right place for those Riesling drinkers unfamiliar with these wines to start. 2013 was a cool vintage, but those growers with a good standard of vineyard cultivation who picked late ended up with wines around 13% and a bright acidity . The 2013 Heiligenstein “Atle Reben” from Jurtschitisch in Langenlois, Kamptal is a beautifully elegant example with great subtlety of aroma and flavor, entirely drinkable now but with many years of life ahead of it. The 2008 Heiligenstein “Alte Reben” (old vines) from Willi Bründlmayer also in Langenlois showed how brilliantly wines like this can age. It still had bright peach and grapefruit aromas, and a racy finale with serious mineral intensity.

In warm years like 2011 dry Austrian Rieslings like the Steiner Kögl from Salomon Undhof in Stein, Kremstal can push 14%  alcoholic content with the power and richness that brings, also the much softer acidity that comes with those things, but still have a really satisfying balance. Those wines can also age very well as the 2003 Reserve from Müller-Grossmann in Palt, Kremstal, a wine from a very hot year that still has great citrusy freshness. It is this style that is more widely associated with Austrian dry Riesling and Germany very rarely come up with wines of this type, so there is something unique about it in Europe.

Inevitably, it was the older wines in the tasting that took the limelight. For Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, the 1997 Achleiten “Smaragd” from the Domaine Wachau – it is that region’s co-operative winery – was particularly significant, because he was the director of that winery when this wine was made. Although this was quite a warm year that wine had a moderate 13% alcohol and at 18 years of age was delicate and filigree in flavor with a had impeccable balance. No less exciting and lively were the more powerful and concentrated 1999 Loibenberg “Smaragd” from F.X. Pichler in Loiben, Wachau (conclusively disproving the rumor this producer’s wines don’t age well), and the 1997 Steinrigl “Smaragd” from Prager in Weissenkirchen, Wachau that was simultaneously mellow and energizing. I vividly remember these wines when they were young and they have kept all the promises they made back then when Planet Wine was a very different place to what it is today.

What more do you want from mature dry white wine?

Photo of the Achleiten & Klaus sites of Weissenkirchen, Wachau by Gerhard Elze

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New York Wine Diary: Day 14 – Ernst Loosen Pushes the Mosel Riesling Envelope Yet Again

In more or less it’s present form the GG (Grosses Gewächs) category of single-vineyard dry German wines goes back to the 2002 vintage, and during those years a bunch of things about this category have become standard practice to the point where they strike many people in the German wine scene as carved in stone and therefore beyond all discussion. One of those things is the principal that because the rules state the release of the GGs may not happen before September 1st of the year after the vintage that this is when those wines must be released. Although this is a major advance over the situation beforehand in which high-end dry Rieslings were sometimes being rushed onto the market less than 6 months after the grapes were picked, there is no evidence to back up the argument that making these wines so they can be sold from September 1st after the harvest is always ideal. In fact, September 1st has become the standard because most of the wine merchants and restaurants in Germany want to get their hands on these wines as soon as they can, according to the ancient motto SELL! SELL!! SELL!!!

That’s why what Ernst Loosen of the Dr. Loosen estate in Bernkastel on the Mosel, pictured above, is doing is so important. He’s question what the ideal way to make these powerful dry wines really is. Already his “regular” Riesling GGs don’t fit into the regular time frame, because they are released on November 1st after the vintage, and with the 2011 vintage he has created two new categories: GG Reserve that is aged for two years longer before release, and GG Hommage that will aged many years longer before sale. Of the latter category not one bottle has so far left the Dr. Loosen cellars except for tastings. “I think we will probably release the first of them, the 2011 Hommage from the Ürziger Würzgarten in 2021,” Ernst said, as if this was the most normal thing in the world to do. In today’s hectic wine world in which modern cellar technology makes it possible to bring wine to market within weeks of the harvest this is really seriously abnormal!

There’s much more though. To understand what he’s doing properly you have to realize that Ernst’s not just hanging on to these wines longer, that is being more patient, these dry Rieslings are spending almost the entire time until bottling sitting in the traditional Mosel Fuder (1,ooo liter / 263 gallon) barrels on the full deposit of yeast left from fermentation, also called gross lees. By not disturbing the lees, much less regularly stirring them (what the French call batonage), and this means that for at least two year much of that yeast remains alive, helping to keep the wine fresh and gently “feeding” it as they very slowly breaks down. This is the way Ernst’s great-grandfather Peter Loosen made his dry wines (he only made dry wines until 1953). Of course, this is an interesting and highly unusual method, but the proof is in the tasting, and yet more importantly in the drinking.

That’s why the tasting Ernst staged this afternoon at the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in NYWC (New York Wine City) was so important. He provided two chances to compare three of these wines, of which the first comparison was the vital one for seeing what the difference between the same wine after one year on the full lees, two years on the full lees and three years on the lees are. Those three wines were all dry 2011 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling GGs and were made from the same lot of grape juice picked in one corner of that site. The first of them was the “regular” version of this wines (one year), the second the Reserve (two years) and the third the Hommage (three years). The first of these was clearly the most developed of the trio and a little bit rustic compared with the others, but full of the herbal and berry character typical for this site with its red volcanic soil. The Reserve version was so much fresher, but also more elegant with more precisely delineated flavors, and to drink now the most pleasing. Then came the massive, almost monolithic and very closed Hommage. Those are not just my comments either, but were echoed by the other tasters, each of us finding our own words but coming to a very similar conclusion. Consumers often think this kind of unanimity is the norm in the wine scene, but actually it is really rare.

The second demonstration was the row of the 2012 Riesling GG “Alte Reben” Reserves from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr (grey slate soil), Ürziger Würzgarten and Erdener Prälat (red slate soil) sites, pictured above, that are about to be released on November 1st. They were bottled about one year ago and have been aged in bottle since then. The premium you will pay for this extended ageing process is about 100%. For example, according to the regular Riesling GG “Alte Reben” from the Ürziger Würzgarten averages $37 retail. The Reserve version will therefore retail for about $75. But on to that crucial factor, the taste! The differing characteristics of these three sites were very clearly apparent. Although the Sonnenuhr didn’t have the floral notes many wines from this site that are bottled young show, it did have the peachy fruit and the combination of ripeness and sleekness. Likewise, the Würzgaren was true to its name – it means spice garden – reminding me of the smell of spices being roasted in a hot dry pan. There was also the hint of dried strawberry that sometimes enabled me to recognize the wines from this site in blind tastings. It was very complex, warm and cool elements mingling and a hint of wild strawberry. In contrast the Prälat was massive and much more reserved, and in spite of its abundant power and concentration still finished fresh. By the way, all of the wines described above clock in at between 12% and 13% alcohol; analytically they are not monsters by any means.

Any readers still suffering from the prejudice that dry Mosel Rieslings are lean and tart and therefore a mistake need to experience these wines. Possibly, some of the decision makers in the VDP producers association that governs the production of the GG wines also urgently need to taste them. It seems that some of them would prefer that Ernst Loosen didn’t push the Mosel Riesling envelope and didn’t make the best dry wines from the Middle section of the Mosel Valley in living memory as he is now doing!


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