Author Archives: Stuart

New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Looking Back in Space-Time at Maynard James Keenan

TIME PAST AND WINES PAST! There’s no way round it, now I’m looking back both in time, and across diverse mountains, plains and rivers between my desk on the East Coast and the American Southwest and my actual Gonzo #AZwine Adventure. Of course, it ended three days ago with the long flight back to New York Wine City from Phoenix/Arizona, most of which I passed by in a seriously dazed and confused slumber. Done is done! But what is every really done? It’s an everyday paradox that memories are right now, even if they’re like albums of faded photos. Time past and wines past?

Some of you are surely well aware that my host and guide Maynard James Keenan (MJK), pictured above, split from his business partner in the Arizona Stronghold wine project, Eric Glomski (EG), back in the spring of 2014. I can well understand how you might consider that with this move the really exciting phase of the #AZwine story ended. Famously Punk Rock was already dead back in 1979. I remember graffiti in rural Switzerland telling me that piece of news.  Undeniably, it was Arizona Stronghold, founded 2007, that first made a noise about the state’s wines (distributed in 38 states plus some exports!) thru the promotional tour MJK and EG undertook when their first wines came onto the market and the 2010 documentary movie about the pair ‘Blood into Wine’ Stuart! It’s way too late for reporting. If you really must write something, then it will have to be The Official History of #AZwine (Part 1)!

I have to admit I was unaware of the above history when I set off for AZ just over a week ago and I’m really glad that I was, because that Divine Ignorance enabled me to absorb everything around me in a nonjudgmental, sponge-like manner, (though obviously, some wines did more for me than others, and some people fascinating me more than others). However, what I experienced most intensely was not the bunch of extreme individuals I encountered, but the complex network of business (not only money, also goals, ambitions) and other relationships (blood and other bodily fluids) that bind them together in a wine community like I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been doing this thing long enough to have seen many wine regions come up, and a few go down too.

When I get down to writing the Big Story of #AZwine, MJK and his Caduceus Cellars some time next year after another visit to the state, then it will be about that network, although I’m not quite sure how to pull that off without turning it into an #AZwine version of a Russian novel. Certainly it will need some history of the kind outlines above – how else could you figure out how all these people got where they are now? – but I promise you it will be all about what’s happening in the fiery crucible of the  Storytelling Now, all about the moment of wine becoming. I hope that doesn’t sound too fine and fancy, because it certainly isn’t intended to do so, in fact, this story is caked in a gooey-gritty mix of dust and grape juice that sticks to everything it comes into contact with.

WHO EXACTLY IS THE MAN? An important side-effects of my deliberate lack of conventional journalistic focus, was that I took MJK almost exactly the way I found him. Sure, I’d heard he was the singer of a gigantically successful heavy metal band called ‘Tool’, but I didn’t know their music, and, although I’ve now heard a bunch of MJK’s work with ‘Puscifer’, I still don’t know what ‘Tool’ sounds like! Sure, I listened carefully to the music he played on his car radio and in his house; a musician’s taste in music surely say something about him, though it may be damned hard to figure out exactly what that really is. I noted Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, because I was surprised to find that MJK also enjoys music I do. This relaxed way of doing my job is no doubt naive, but it meant that I wasn’t dazzled by the aura many of his fans clearly see around him. For me he’s a complex guy who’s done a bunch of stuff in his life and recently mutated into a creative winemaker. I promise you, amongst the rich and famous that’s a horribly rare thing although a slew of the rich and famous are making wine. Let’s tell the truth, most of them are employing people to make wine for them and taking the credit for the, because it means magazine covers. Often the result taste remarkably dumb and are way too expensive on top of that. Did I mention Gérard Depardieu? It seems I did, because I just read his name on the screen and felt slightly queasy. Forgive me for digressing…

I took MJK to be a creative winemaker from my first encounter with him was at the Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers where he presented a tasting-seminar devoted to a method of red wine production called Submerged Cap Fermentation (which is what the tank he’s pictured with below is for). He was obviously right on top of this thing in the technical sense, but – as every good winemaker exploring some new technique is – and from the four very different 2104 Sangiovese red wines we tasted he’s also relentlessly running down exactly the right way to use it. In winemaking the difference between more or less right and exactly right is often also the difference between a very good wine and a mind-blowing one (although getting up to either of those levels demands the use of excellent quality grapes). Although we talked about all kinds of things during the following days – I was actually listening far more than talking, because that’s what a journalist after a True Story has to do – we always swung around the next corner back to wine growing and winemaking. Although music is still important to him, this creative process which turns solid grapes into liquids in barrels and tanks no less defines who he is, not only publicly, but also in his own mind.

Obviously, the wines MJK makes, mostly powerful and tannic reds, plus some rich dry rosés and dry whites, are far removed from those that usually dominate this blog (Riesling & Co.) but that isn’t the point. As Michael Pierce of the Saeculum/Pierce winery in Wilcox and Enology Director of the Southwest Wine Center in Clarkdale said, “Nature will prove you wrong if you plant the wrong grape varieties!” The growing conditions dictate what will work best in a particular location, be it in a long-established wine region or out on the enological edge in the mountains of Northern Arizona, and whatever the location if you want to be succeed in making wines that excites people and sells well, then you better pay attention to the growing conditions before you plant the vines. In fact, you’ll need to kneel at the altar of the weather’s caprioles – good, bad and ugly – for the entire lifetime of your vines if you want to play in the wine major league. That’s more important than it the wine happens to be Riesling, even if it is the Best White Wine on Earth. Please give me a delicious Big Red, rather than a mediocre Riesling. “It works” is a compelling argument in the world of wine!

AN EVENING AT THE BUNKER: Suddenly I was sitting in MJK’s house in Jerome with another four glasses of red wine were in front of me again. Clearly, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that dominated the ‘Judith’ vineyard below his house when he first planted it is a grape that’s well adapted to the conditions in the mountains of Northern Arizona, otherwise the 2008 ‘Judith’ (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) wouldn’t be at once imposing and so well adjusted at six years of age that it could both delight and challenge me. However, I greatly preferred the 2012 ‘Judith’ and it’s one third Cabernet Sauvignon and fully two thirds the Spanish red wine grape Tempranillo. The perfume of this youngster reminded me of violets and hot dry earth, which is crazy, because violets naturally grow in cool, damp woods; the tingling suspense of contradiction! This is one seriously intense wine, boldly sexual in a way some will find too domineering, others maybe too darkly feminine, but that’s my wavelength and I’m not talking FM rock. On the basis of that I’d say that Tempranillo digs the narrow stone terraces of the ‘Judith’ vineyard even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe the 2014 ‘Judith’ that we tasted  from the barrel later that evening will be even better. If so, then it will be because of that Submerged Cap that MJK has prescribed for the wailing newborn that are his fermenting wines. As I said, the man is a creative winemaker.

And I still feel that I’m scatting the surface! Bear with me while I scratch some more and be prepared that I might draw a drop or two of blood, because it’s down there.

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Das Wein Biotop von Frank Ebbinghaus

Wein ist eine Gesellschaftsdroge. Wer jetzt ausschließlich an die berauschende Wirkung des Alkohols denkt, liegt falsch, wenn auch nicht völlig. Der Rausch ist für das Wohlgefühl beim Weingenuss natürlich nicht ganz unbedeutend. Aber nicht auf diese Wirkung sei abgezielt, wenn von der Droge die Rede ist. Sondern auf die soziale Dynamik. Wein kann Gesellschaft konstituieren und zwar ganz real. Er setzt der virtuellen Vernetzung, die allzu oft von individueller Einsamkeit ablenken soll, ein konkretes gemeinschaftliches Erleben entgegen. Man muss nicht befreundet sein, man muss sich nicht mal besonders gut oder lange kennen, um über Wein intensiv ins Gespräch zu finden. Der Wein-Diskurs bietet auch einen Schutzraum, um sich über Gefühle und Empfindungen, die man beim Genuss erlebt, offen und spontan auszutauschen. Dabei wollen wir nicht unterschlagen, dass der Drang nach Selbstdarstellung, gesellschaftlichem Ansehensgewinn und Rangerhöhung kein geringes Motiv darstellt.

Berlins Weinbars und Restaurants mit vinophilem Einschlag (die Weingenuss durch ein erlesenes wie erschwingliches Angebot und durch eine entsprechende Atmosphäre stimulieren) bieten dazu nahezu täglich reichen Anschauungsunterricht. Hier etabliert sich ein gesellschaftliches Biotop, das mit seiner besonderen Form von Offenheit, sozialer Kompetenz und dem Bedürfnis nach verbindenden Gemeinschaftserlebnissen in Großstädten einen avantgardistischen Trend gegen Vereinzelung, Anonymisierung und Virtualität setzt. Denn ebenso berauschend wie der Wein selbst, wirkt die Gruppendynamik, die von einem solchen Abend ausgehen kann.

Deshalb rufe ich an dieser Stelle alle vinophilen Gastronomen auf, in ihren Lokalen einen Tisch zu freizuhalten, an denen Weinverrückte spontan und zwanglos zusammenfinden können, um ein solches Erlebnis zu teilen. Ermutigen Sie diese Gäste, ihren eigenen Wein mitzubringen. Probieren Sie ihn und diskutieren Sie darüber. Ein Korkgeld lindert die Umsatzeinbuße. Aber auf längere Sicht werden Sie profitieren.

Avantgardistisch ist der gemeinschaftliche Weingenuss auch, weil er in besonderer Weise gesellschaftliche Distinktion ermöglicht. Man schaue nur mal auf Gesellschaften mit starker sozialer Mobilität, die quasi über Nacht Heerscharen Neu- und Superreicher ausspucken (was diese ungebremsten Zentrifugalkräfte am Rande der Gesellschaft ausrichten, darüber der Mantel des Schweigens). Wie hebt man sich ab, wie zeigt man Extravaganz und Reichtum? Die Privatjets, die Lamborghini-Flotten oder die Mega-Jachten sind Statussymbole, die in den post-kommunistischen Gesellschaften und den sich rasant entwickelnden Volkswirtschaften Asiens für Aufstieg und die Überwindung politischer Fesseln stehen.

Aber man hat sie nicht immer dabei, wenn man andere beeindrucken will, allenfalls auf dem iPhone. Und eigentlich sind sie schon zu gewöhnlich. Ausschließlich aufs Materielle gerichtet grenzen sie Reiche von weniger Reichen ab. Aber wenn man in der gesellschaftlichen Belleetage unter sich ist, dann helfen eigentlich nur noch Kunst und Wein, um aus einem reichen einen besonderen Menschen zu machen.

Der Umgang mit erlesener Kultur bezeugt Kennerschaft und Kultiviertheit, Stil und Passion. Wein gehört unbedingt in diesen Kontext, natürlich nur die superteuren, von Robert Parker mit Höchstbewertungen versehenen Rotweine der Alten Welt. Sieht man vom Preis ab, ist ihnen das Immaterielle, aufs Höhere Abzielende geradezu eingeschrieben. Denn der Genuss ist flüchtig. Ist die Flasche geleert, bleibt nur die Erinnerung.

Genau darin liegt der besondere Reiz und die sinnstiftende soziale Dimension des gemeinsamen Konsums edler Tropfen. Wer mittrinkt (oder mittrinken darf), erfährt eine besondere Gunstbezeugung. Und der Glanz des Produkts fällt auf den edlen Spender zurück.

Diese Wirkung kann berechnet sein: Am Oligarchentisch wird mit Wein regiert. Aber sie kann in einem weniger statushörigen Kontext auch aus völlig altruistischen Motiven erfolgen: So etwa, wenn der Wirt der Kurpfalz-Weinstuben in Berlin, Rainer Schulz, für einen erlesenen Kreis von Weinfreunden und alter Stammkunden am 9. November 1989 eine Flasche 1989 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild öffnet (Stuart berichtete). Die Haltung, mit der diese Gabe unters dürstende Volk gebracht wird, ist die reinster Freude. Man tritt dem Kurpfalzstuben-Wirt gewiss nicht zu nahe, wenn man unterstellt, seine einzige Berechnung lag darin, den verzückten Glanz in den Gesichtern der Trinker sehen zu wollen.

Man wird aber ebenfalls annehmen können, dass Rainer Schulz diese Geste nicht allabendlich für jeden Gast wiederholen wird. Wobei sein Kalkül vermutlich gar nicht primär auf die begrenzte Verfügbarkeit dieser kostbaren Ressource und ihren Preis gerichtet sein wird, sondern vor allem die Angemessenheit berücksichtigt.

Gerade das Kriterium der Angemessenheit als Selbstverpflichtung ist ganz entscheidend für die Konstituierung einer Wein-Gesellschaft. Das Kunststück liegt darin, elitäre und egalitäre Wirkungen auszubalancieren. Denn wenn die Zugehörigkeit zur Wein-Society über Passion, Genussfähigkeit und Kennerschaft definiert ist, dann können die unterschiedlichen finanziellen Möglichkeiten der Teilnehmer desintegrierend wirken. So wäre es beispielsweise töricht, wenn ein gut betuchter Genießer mit einer superteuren Flasche neue Freunde finden wollte. Der Schuss könnte nach hinten losgehen, mögen die Motive noch so edel sein. Denn manche Begünstigten, die sich eine solche Flasche nie im Leben leisten könnten, würden in diesem großzügigen Akt ihre eigene Unterlegenheit gespiegelt sehen und zumindest unbewusst abwehrend reagieren. Ich selbst habe kürzlich gezögert, der Einladung eines mir bis dato unbekannten High End-Sammler zu folgen, von dem es hieß, er trage stets einige sehr kostbare Trouvaillen im Gepäck, die er auch umstandslos öffne. Es wäre mir schwer gefallen, mitzutrinken. Zum Glück kam es anders. Die Flaschen, die er kredenzte waren erlesen und großartig, aber für mich nicht unerschwinglich. Er hielt sich an das Kriterium der Angemessenheit und wies neben Großzügigkeit, Kennerschaft und gutem Geschmack auch Takt und Respekt nach. Auch so funktioniert Distinktion über Wein.

Anders ist es mit engen Freunden oder langjährigen Gastgebern. Von ihnen lässt man sich gerne auch mal luxuriös verwöhnen (und verwöhnt sie), denn Vertrautheit und Sympathie haben längst dafür gesorgt, dass die Gabe ausschließlich als ideeller Wert vermessen wird: als Ausdruck persönlicher Wertschätzung und Anerkennung gleichgerichteter Passionen. Schon aus diesem Grund verbietet es sich praktisch von selbst, wenn der Wirt der Kurpfalz Weinstuben den 89er Mouton für jeden x-beliebigen Gast aufmachen würde.

Was aber, wenn mir der 89er Mouton nicht schmeckte, wenn ich ihn gar fehlerhaft fände, wohlmöglich als Einziger am Tisch? Eine sehr heikle Situation. Zu viel Offenheit kann verletzend wirken, stummes Trinken ignorant. Beides ist gefährlich für die Gruppendynamik. Einen Ausweg bietet die schonungslose Selbstbefragung (Schmeckt mir der Wein nicht? Ist er einfach nur schwach oder fehlerhaft? Oder finde ich den Spender scheiße und will es ihn über meinen Wein-Kommentar spüren lassen?). Es folgt eine selbstkritische Stellungnahme, wobei der subjektive Eindruck in seiner ganzen Fragwürdigkeit im Vordergrund stehen sollte: Ich komme mit dem Wein nicht zu Recht, finde im Moment keinen Zugang, ist toll, aber nicht mein Geschmack usw. Solche Statements können – auch wenn sie den edlen Spender zunächst düpieren – förderlich für die Gruppendynamik sein. Denn die Geschmäcker sind verschieden. Sie lassen sich nie im Einzelnen begründen und stehen für Individualität und Vielfalt und verdienen höchsten Respekt. Sie sind der Motor eines perfekten Gemeinschaftserlebnisses mit Wein. Ohne dieser Vielfalt den ihr gebührenden kommunikativen Platz zu schaffen, wäre ein Weinabend nur ein hohles Besäufnis.

Fotos von Gerhard Gneist

 

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Drawing Big Conclusions about #AZwine on Down South Road Trip

The official program of the A2Z press trip to the wine regions of Arizona ended last night when I got back to the Four Points Hotel next door to Tuscon Airport from dinner at Augustin Restaurant. Full stop, end of story? No way. My flight back to NYC via Phoenix  doesn’t leave until early afternoon, so I’m hunkering down in the hotel room this morning to tell the next episode of the story of my gonzo #AZwine adventure. It takes us Down South, or to be more precise, to the Southeast of the state where about three quarters of the wine is currently grown.

I took the picture above that thru the windshield of Maynard James Keenan’s car (MJK seems to be an established acronym) and it gives a pretty good idea of what the latter stages of this journey looked like, but first we had to get the four hour drive south from Jerome past Phoenix then beyond Tuscon behind us and it was a grind. I mention this to give an idea of the huge physical separation between the vineyards of the North and those in the South of AZ. As we approached Elgin-Sonoita the landscape reminded me of intensely of the sixties TV series ‘Bonanza’, with which I’d had a love-hate relationship (I found some other westerns were more exciting). It was a bizarre thought that in just a moment the first vineyards would swing into view and we would be in a wine region.

This is not the time to go into great detail about the Elgin wines that we tasted at Lightning Ridge and Callaghan, because the general conclusion of those tastings is more important: although winegrowing here is just one generation deep this is clearly a great location for growing powerfully tannic and generously aromatic reds, possibly also for full-bodied whites. Again and again I was stunned by how bright and fresh red wines with a stack of dry tannins and 15% or  more alcohol tasted; a complete contrast to California, where those kind of numbers almost invariably mean  a porty and ponderous or even monolithic brute in your glass. At the moment the best wines are blends like Kent Callaghan’s Petit Verdot & Cabernet Franc driven ‘Caitlin’s’, to give just one stunning example. That may be a reason the varietal-obsessed mainstream wine press has so far paid little attention to these wines. When they did take notice they tended to grossly underrate the finest products of this industry for no better reason than Arizona was on the label. Wrong wine style, wrong state! Where’s my 100 point California Cult Cabernet, God damn it!  

Calling wine growing in Elgin-Sonoita  an “industry” gives a rather false impression, because there’s a drive from one vineyard to the next and during it you rarely see any vines in the gently undulating landscape that is primarily devoted to cattle ranching. The problems begin with the fact that the hollows are no place for vines, because of the very real danger of late (i.e. spring) frost damage. The availability of well water for irrigation is also a major limitation for wine growing, ruling out many potential sites. That, as much of the early stage of development of winegrowing here and under-capitalization, results in the wide open spaces between the vineyards through which a group of cowboys could easily drive a big herd of cattle.

The distance between Elgin-Sonoita (the only AVA, that is official appellation for wine, in AZ) and the Wilcox region is more than two hours drive, but doesn’t look like much on the map. There’s an utterly different landscape there, pictured below, the vineyards lying close together on the flat valley bottom between mountain ranges that were well-known to Jeronimo. The red wines from here share the chewy tannins of those from Elgin-Sonoita, but are usually a shade fleshier and more supple. The excellent blended reds like the ‘Le Norte’ made by Todd Bostock at Dos Cabezas epitomize this type, but Sand Reckoner (first vintage 2010) and Deep Sky (first vintage 2013) are hot on his heels with their new wines.

At Saeculum/Pierce (first vintage 2011) Michael Pierce is plowing a different furrow with lighter, fresher reds like the elegant ‘Gallia’. The floral and juicy dry whites with fresh acidity that Pierce and Sand Reckoner made from Malvasia Bianca this often overlooked grape is extremely well adapted to growing conditions here. It’s also a great grape for white wine blends as Dos Cabezas ‘Meskeoli’ already proved (scroll down for more). So Wilcox isn’t turning out just one type of wine, much less shifting standardized wine units, in fact there seem to be a couple of dozen different grape varieties that do so well here that they may have a long-term future. That means the possibilities are enormous and even the daring young winemakers of this region are still just scratching the surface.

HANG ON JUST A MOMENT! These lines all seem way too pedestrian to me as I read them back, so let me add some more direct and spicy words that will hopefully drive those people who want the world to stay put and confirm to their preconceptions crazy. Arizona is not only making many really good wines and some great ones, but one day this state will one day be famous across America and around the world for its wines. The fact that MJK became the sole owner of the 80 acre Buhl Memorial Vineyard here early this year, and his team are rapidly knocking that site into great shape means that this recognition may come sooner, rather than later. Because he’s planning to sell about half the fruit he grows there, this site will be a major source of grapes for many producers as well as fuel his own brands. As he told me, his team, “have pulled a white rabbit out of a hat” in knocking the vines here into shape in a single season. Even without that though, the smaller producers mentioned above are all pursuing the goal to top quality and distinctive flavors with great determination, and that’s what a new wine region needs to grab the attention and capture the imagination of media and consumers alike. Here in Wilcox are enough grapes, and enough land that can be quickly planted, that a new out-of-state demand could be supplied.

With each vineyard visit and each tasting not only did the layer of dust on my boots grow, so did my conviction that although there’s only be a small amount of Riesling here (scroll down for more), this state’s improvised and sometimes chaotic wine industry is a great story for me. The #AZwine spirit I breathed in deep made me feel more alive than when I got on the plane from NYC to Phoenix just 5 days ago. Was it really that short a time? It’s very hard to believe The somewhere-or-nowhere-in-America ambience of this hotel room is hardly compatible with the gonzo ethos of this undertaking, but that doesn’t alter the basic fact that a great new wine adventure has just begun for me. The best thing of all is that in spite of absorbing a huge mass of impressions I can’t give you any idea where this will all end.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Surprising HOW of AZ Wines (Believe Me, this Place isn’t all Desert)

The Big Problem with figuring out how Arizona can make exciting wines – scroll down to see how I became aware that it can do that – is the rigid stereotypes in my head, in our heads. The most obvious of those stereotypes is the one that says AZ is a rocky desert filled with cacti, and it is the most difficult of them all to overcome. You see, large chunks of AZ are rocky desert filled with cacti, and other parts would be if man hadn’t brought in huge quantities of irrigation water in order to grow the cities there. That fact only ingrained the stereotype more deeply. So the above photograph, poor in quality as it is, is essential to try and revise that deeply rooted perception. It shows the vehicles carrying the group of (all expenses paid) journalists I currently belong to fording a river in order to visit Caduceus Cellars’ Eliphante Vineyard, the largest of their sites in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizone. As you can see, there was enough water that the drivers needed to proceed cautiously, although it’s a long while since the last rainfall in this part of the state.

The fact is the landscapes and natural vegetation of AZ are way more diverse than outsiders imagine, and there are ecological niches were wine growing can function really well as long as some irrigation water is available. Annual rainfalls in these locations vary between about 8 and 20 inches, which is comparable to Eastern Washington State (a slightly cooler and distinctly less humid desert). Summer highs may go slightly over 100° F/40° C, but they go higher in Napa or Sonoma/CA, for example. The AZ wine growing climate has its foibles, most notably the danger of frost in April when the vines have just began growing after their winter dormancy, then the way later in the growing season the weather flips over from windy and dry to hot and humid. However, as a whole it isn’t nearly as extreme as most people imagine it to be.

The picture of the Eliphante Vineyard below serves to undermine the preconception amongst wine pros, that while AZ may make a few drinkable wines these belong in the world of small scale semi-hobby production that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by the mainstream wine media, somms, etc. The Eliphante Vineyard is around 30 acres/12 hectares in size and as you can see much of it isn’t old enough to give a crop yet. Owner Maynard James Keenan (yes, the rock star) has planted a slew of grape varieties here, many of which are Italian, on the basis that since Sangiovese does really well in AZ it’s worth taking a bet on others like Nebbiolo (from which Barolo, Barbaresco and many other high-end reds are made in Piemonte/Italy). That’s a risky policy, but he’s well aware of that. As he told me, “I’m not delusional. Nebbiolo could fail, because that’s been the broad trend around the world.” I seriously admire this serious daring.

No less striking is the hidden side of Keenan’s approach to cranking up the rapidly developing AZ wine industry that involves a lot of systematic thinking. He’s incredibly focused and has done a great deal of thinking to try and avoid wasting time, energy and money on going down dead ends that don’t lead to wines that are capable of exciting and surprising. His wild sense of humor and boundless self-confidence never seem to get in the way of the question that lies behind the complex strategy to put AZ wines on the map he’s developed over the last years. But more about the man later, let’s get back to the wines, which have been a font of surprises.

I would never have imagined that one of the wine categories in which AZ would shine is rosé, but the three (!) different rose´s that Caduceus Cellars produced in 2013 are conclusive proof of this. They’re anything but flimsy blushing maidens, rather they’re like the strong, loose women I imagine hanging around saloons in this part of the world more than a century before there was a state of Arizona (founded 1912). The picture below shows these three femme fatales, from left to right the ‘Marzo’, the ‘Lei Li’ and ‘GSM’. They taste as different as those colors look, too. The ‘Marzo’ is 100% Sangiovese and has the bright fruit and acidity I associate with this grape married to considerable power and a candied orange note. Anything but superficially charming the ‘Lei Li’ is 100% Nebbiolo and a big, warm non-fruity rosé that I struggled to adequately describe this unique wine. ‘GSM’, a blend of  the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes (hence the widely-used acronym for this combo), was more like a big meaty red wine, but had a freshness that enabled it to just about fit into the rosé category. $40 per bottle isn’t cheap, but these are big personalities like their maker.

So, even before we left the North of AZ on the four and a half hour drive that brought us to the utterly different world of wine growing here in the Southeast of the state a bunch of preconceptions had to be slammed into the trash can of useless ideas. That was an exciting process that continued yesterday afternoon and will proceed further today. The next posting may also take a little while as the program is pretty intense and many of my colleagues in the group have a lot of experience and ask the wine producers strings of probing questions. As astonishing as the best wines have been it has been tough to keep up with the pace. The effort has been more than worth while though, because here is what I call a Big Subject. I will return!

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 2 – How AZ is About to Change the Way We Think about American Wine

Fully aware of the journalist’s saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I must report that during a generous and rather tasty dinner last night at The Asylum Restaurant in the Jerome Grand Hotel I had a moment of revelation about #AZwine. In fact, there were two moments, one of which was directly the responsibility of Maynard James Kennan, the man pictured above, the second of which he was indirectly responsible for. You can look up more biographical information on this winemaker and rock musician on the internet than I can usefully give you here, so let’s go to the wines that convince me Arizona is about to change the way we think about American wine.

The first moment of revelation when I tasted the first white wine with dinner, the 2013 “Meskeoli” from Dos Cabezas Wine Works in Sonoita down in the southeast of the state, which managed to be simultaneously bold and richly expressive, but also cool and lively. The back label detailed a blend of grape varieties so crazy and complex that not only could I never have dreamed it up, but I can’t understand how anyone managed to get all those components to give a wine so precisely balanced and delicate in flavor. Amongst them was 15% of Riesling, that somehow seamlessly ran through the body of the wine like a silver thread. The majority of the blend was composed of Picpoul, Viognier, Roussanne, plus a splash each of Albarino, Muscat and Malvasia. I would place this wine firmly in the Mediterranean-type dry whites category, but I don’t know anything else in that category that comes close to this. Congratulations are due to Todd and Kelly Bostock for this delicious curveball of a wine!

They are good friends of Maynard’s and that was, I guess, as much the reason their wine being on the table as its inherent quality, but that is not the issue. I was far from being alone in singing its praises. The same could be said of the 2012 “Kitsuné” Sangiovese red from Maynard’s own Caduceus Cellars here in Jerome, a slightly eccentric corner of which is pictured above. American Sangiovese usually taste a bit tart, lean and rough, even when it manages to have 13.5% natural alcohol like this wine. There wasn’t a hint of that in this wine, also sourced from a vineyard in the far south of the state. Instead it had the ripest and brightest cherry aroma wrapped in a slew of dark aromas that ranged from violet to star anise. And I promise you all that I’m not the guy who normally writes descriptors like that. It was seriously tannic, but those dry tannins were wrapped in something that felt like velvet on my tongue, so that even at this young age the wine slipped down almost effortlessly while touching nerves I didn’t know American Sangiovese could reach.

Of course, dinner had been bought for us all and there’s no denying the intention of this on Maynard’s part was to impress us. Please dismiss all the above if you think the situation makes the impressions I gained invalid, but in that case you might have to permanently avoid this blog. You see, if I think that it helps me find out something valuable I am going to let a winemaker entertain me, and I will always bring my own attitude to that dinner table. I think that it is also significant that several other wines were served that were either very good but not mind-blowing, and one (the 2013 Dos Ladrones, a dry white from Caduceus Cellars made from a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia) that was technical spot on, but left me cold. That strike rate tells me that the best winemakers of this state are just getting into their stride. However, it already seems clear that the best wines of the future from here will not be pure varietal Cabernets, Merlots or Chardonnays, but will lie outside the current American Wine Box in which most of the nation is drinking. For #AZwine to be fully successful it will have to persuade some of them to drink outside that box with relish.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as Seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 2)

Of course, this is how many readers imagine my trip thru Arizona in search of unknown  Great American Wine, and, as you can gather from this photograph which I took on Highway 17 heading north from Phoenix to Jerome this afternoon, at least some of the time it looked exactly the way you expect. However, beforehand at the 6th Annual Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers Association at Maya’s Farm in Phoenix, pictured below, it looked exactly the way you would imagine an al fresco wine tasting in California would. The wines were very different though, in fact they were very different from any other wines I’ve tasted from the Western side of the United States. Here the acidities are sometimes moderate, but rarely  too soft in the way they often are in California, and the best wines have a lively acidity that I found appealing rather than tart. I have to admit that the sample was a bit erratic, because I deliberately left out the wineries we’ll visit during the coming days, but I felt the pattern was rather clear. Only a couple of the wines – reds from low acid varieties like Grenache – were a little bit on the warm and broad side due to pronounced alcohol and lowish acidity.

This acidity was part of the explanation for several very good white wines I tasted, although none of the Rieslings were more than solid. The most delightfully surprising of these whites was the dry 2011 Chenin Blanc from Carlson Creek Vineyards close to Wilcox in the southeast of the state. It had attractive apple, pear and honeysuckle notes as well as a touch of what I call wet wool (a rather common aroma with this variety in my experience). Better still the wine was crisp and bright with a pronounced mineral freshness and the 13.5% wasn’t perceptible. A mineral flavor in a Chenin Blanc from Arizona! That was really a shocker in the most positive sense of that word.

No less striking was what the Pillsbury Wine Company in Cottonwood, a short drive south of Flagstaff, has done with a new white grape called Symphony during the last few years. The dry wine Sam Pillsbury made from it in 2012 was slightly reminiscent of a rich Gewürztraminer, but with more freshness and a great apricot aroma as well more spicy notes. In spite of 14.7% alcohol it was not heavy, finishing deliciously clean and fresh. The same winemaker’s 2013 “Sweet Lies” is also made from Symphony and the complex dried fruit aromas of that wine were stunning. If only it had a little more sweetness and a little less alcohol, then it would have a really satisfying balance and be a great sweet white, but in spite of that it didn’t have any alcoholic burn with 15%. That says how fundamentally right the combination of this location, this grape and this style are.

The drive north to Jerome was fascinating not just because of the frequently changing scenery, but also because the flow of no less fascinating stories from Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, seen at the wheel in the above picture. Please be a little patient, because I’m still getting a grip on the multidimensional personality of this winemaker and musician in order to give you a story that doesn’t reduce him into a journalistic cardboard cutout. Here’s one of the phrase he uttered that I jotted down as sped across the dessert. “Rule one: be nice to other people. Rule two: don’t eat other people’s shit.” He meant it literally as well as metaphorically and saw no contradiction between those two rules. That’s Arizona at its best.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 1)

Welcome to green Phoenix! 

Normally, I reckon that the ideal blog posting is about a Great Wine Personality unfamiliar to the majority of readers and the ideal picture at the top of that ideal story is a photograph of that Great Wine Personality. Measured against that ideal this first posting from my Gonzo #AZwine Adventure is a major flop, and this journalistic undertaking perhaps doomed to abject failure. Let’s face it, that kind of failure is not exactly an All American option. However, only the above image can adequately convey my sense of shock when the sun came up this morning at The Legacy Resort in Phoenix and the landscape became clearly visible, in contrast to being bathed in a dull glow of streetlight when I arrived last night. And I promise you, that I didn’t tweak the above image with Photoshop, by which I mean that this is not the Kim Kardashian of lawns! That’s how it actually looked.

On the way to breakfast at Maya’s Farm with Gonzo PR David Furer (the organizer of this   press trip) I passed the totally contrasting chunk of landscape seen above. Cacti like these can make it here in Pheonix without any irrigation, because they’re perfectly adapted to this desert environment, but my guess is that at this nursery they’re probably befitting from a little bit of extra water out of the pipe to grow them faster. Nearly all the water in this city comes from the Colorado River, which is the prime water source for about 40 million people in seven states here in the Southwest. Californian agriculture, including grape growing in the Central Valley for cheap branded wines, also depends upon this H2O. On my early morning run I passed the canal that brings this water to Phoenix, but also a street called East Desert Drive and a real estate development called Villas at Tuscany. When I got to Maya’s Farm, one of the last urban gardens that survived the Sunbelt Boom, I found the rows of some member of the cabbage family (some kind of kale?) pictured below. The combination of all these things with the hyper-real greenness of the lawns at The Legacy adds up to a pile of AZ contradictions that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

The question for me now is, of course, how wine fits into this landscape. How do vines adapt to these growing conditions? This morning at the Arizona Wine Growers Festival at the Farm, which is also at Maya’s, I will start figuring that out. During the excellent breakfast there – when did I last eat fried potatoes this early in the day?  - I heard that today temperatures will “only” go up into the lower 70s Fahrenheit today. However, the harvest here must have long finished (under much warmer conditions) and the contrast to the Big Freeze in most of the country is dramatic. Let’s face it, these are extreme growing conditions all the regular American stuff like those lawns is also extremely odd in this desert location.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day One – Before My Gonzo AZ Wine Adventure

Which is the wrong wine direction, and how would you know that it’s “wrong”?

Promptly timed for my return to New York Wine City (NYWC) today the weather turned grey and wintry. It seems a bit early for that seasonal twist – for example, I remember how outrageously warm it was here on December 8th 2012 – but it doesn’t really bother me, because tomorrow evening I’ll be flying to one of the warmest places in the country for a five day Gonzo Wine Adventure. Let’s face it, here in NYWC almost nobody thinks about Arizona when it comes to wine. Seen from the perspective of this self-consciously cosmopolitan metropolis AZ is one of the wrong wine places. The fact that New Jersey also falls into this category, proves that AZ’s fate isn’t directly the result of its physical remoteness from NYWC. Instead, it has to do with the fact the wine growing regions, along with many other things in our world, is subject to hierarchical thinking. The somms, wine journalists, dealers and many consumers in NYWC, like everywhere else wine is drunk, have a mental A-list of wine growing regions that are cool, also a B-list of those that are OK, and also a C-list of those which don’t count and who’s wines rarely, if ever, get taken seriously.

The reason for AZ being firmly on the C-list is that so far nothing dramatic ever happened that lifted its wines out of the mist of obscurity and on to the B-list. I don’t even think the involvement of Maynard James Kennen of the band Tool has done more than raise a ripple, also because way too few people have tasted the wines from his Caduceus winery that won a bunch of prizes (including at the San Francisco International Wine Competition). To be frank I haven’t either. Then, there’s the cumulative effect of the daily TV and internet weather reports from Phoenix that suggest to many who aren’t familiar with AZ that the entire state is so fiery that the sun must burn every grape there to a cinder. The inability to think further than such simplistic assumptions is, of course, a fundamental human weakness. The problem with all this is that some NYWC wine pros simultaneously act in a way strongly influenced by those mental lists while promoting the virtues of wine democracy, that is of giving every wine the same chance on a level playing field. Of course, those positions are contradictory. But please don’t think that purpose of this message is to gripe about this situation (though that would be an understandable reaction). I’m observing all this, because it’s the background to the Gonzo Arizona Wine Adventure I’m about to depart upon. You need to know this in order to make full sense of what follows during the next days. WATCH THIS SPACE!

PS I rarely go on press trips, but this is one. My flights, accommodation and food will be paid for by a loose affiliation of Arizona wine producers which is being dubbed “A2Z”. Gonzo PR man David Furer has organized this press trip for them and his involvement is the reason I put aside my usual rejection of press trips and signed up. The list of other guests only seemed to confirm the rightness of this decision.

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 17 – NO, this Blog Posting is NOT About Dentistry, it’s All About the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

While the rest of Berlin was watching 7,000 balloons ascend poetically from the the line of the former Berlin Wall I was pulling my mouth open as far as I could for Gerhard Gneist, my dentist (pictured above in his Berlin-Wittenau surgery) to see the gaping hole left when a chunk of one of my dead teeth fell out a couple of hours earlier. Yes, bizarre as it may sound, we were celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least we were about to do so at the Kurpfalz Weinstuben in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, just off the Ku’damm (West Berlin’s main drag).

Gerhard and I go back a long way, in fact just a few days short of the twenty years that Berlin has been my base. At that point it was very difficult to find any dentist in the city willing to take on new patients and Gerhard was the only one I could get an appointment with. The timing for that first appointment was all wrong, because I had to go for my first appointment with him straight after a pretty serious wine tasting. As I sat down in the big white chair and he peered into my mouth I was sure he would smell alcohol. Then he asked me, “do you by any chance drink a lot of…tea, because there’s a brown stain on your teeth.” I explained to him that he was spot-on about that, but that he might also be able to smell the alcohol from the wine tasting. He admitted that he couldn’t, but was more of a beer drinker, which was logical since he comes from the beer city of Hamburg.

After that Gerhard did a lot of root canal treatment on me – I can still see all those needles going deep into my jaw! – that left me with the dead teeth. In return, I introduced him to German Riesling and the wine world, beer lost much of its appeal to him and bit by bit he built up a pretty serious wine cellar. Unfortunately, one of those dead teeth collapsed punctually for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was much less poetic than all those balloons. But as I said, NO, this blog is NOT about Dentistry, it’s about wine, so back to that celebration…

A dozen friends and I gathered in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben (one of the city’s best wine bars) last night to drink a string of wines from the 1989 vintage and a handful of other bottles that seemed desperately in need of having their corks removed by force. We only had one red, but thanks to the generosity of the Kurpfalz’s ruler Rainer Schultz, pictured above, it was 1989 Château Mouton Rothschild, one of the richest and most meaty wines of that vintage in Bordeaux. It also smelt like an entire pack of Hells Angels dressed in leathers; an aroma that will either turn you on or completely turn you off. “Thank you Rainer! That’s a beautiful wine!” exclaimed Vuk Karadzic, the Berlin photo-artist. “No, you’re the beauties!” Rainer retorted with great conviction.

From there we proceeded to the lighter Rieslings, of which the 1989 Wallufer Walkenberg Riesling Spätlese from J.B. Becker in the Rheingau was definitely the group’s favorite. It’s now almost dry and remarkably vigorous in flavor with dried apricot (the dark ones, not the bright orange stuff) and quince bread character. The trio of Riesling Auslese that followed were anything but light, but they made me completely forget my damned tooth. It was hard to believe that the 1989 Saarburger Rausch Riesling Auslese from Zilliken on the Saar was only the 8th best wine this producer made that year so amazingly fresh and floral did it smell, but the number 8 printed in bold type on the label left me in no doubt about that fact. “The wine is so wild, but so very elegant,” was the fitting comment of Frank Krüger from the Berlin wine merchant Wein & Glas. When it was young the intensity and brilliance of the 1989 Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Auslese Nr. 137 were almost too breathtaking, but a quarter of a century of aging have turned those qualities into something  super-fine and super-erotic. It was hard to believe that the 1989 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Egon Müller could top that, but it did with its supernatural concentration of dried fruit aromas and a balance which turned that awesome power into something mere humans like us can savor and swoon about. The photo above shows Roy Metzdorf (right) of the Weinstein wine bar with that bottle.

Of course, the real world doesn’t go away when you open and share bottles of that kind, although sometimes, like last night, it feels as if it does for an hour or two. Today I had to fly down to Vienna and back to commentate a tasting of Blaufränkisch reds from the Eisenberg appellation in Burgenland, which was seriously exhausting day. Worse follows tomorrow though, because I have to go to Gerhard’s surgery for the second time during this stay in Berlin in order to get that tooth patched up, but as I said, NO, this blog is NOT about dentistry, it’s about the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

PS When I visited Gerhard Gneist for the treatment of that tooth I found out that it was actually still alive and I was therefore lucky not to have experienced some severe pain. 

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 11 – Flowering Wine & Cheese Landscapes in and around Berlin

It’s a couple of years since I’d seen Sabine Denell of the Capriolenhof farm close to Fürstenberg about an hour’s drive north of Berlin, but it felt like we picked up our conversation where it left off just a day or two ago. At the Capriolenhof she and Hans-Peter Dill produce some of the best goats milk cheese in Germany and the world. My favorite is called Blühende Landschaften, or flowering landscapes, a quote from a famous speech by Helmut Kohl during the German reunification process. That’s what he promised the East Germans, but a quick comparison of the contemporary unemployment rates and average incomes in the East and West of Germany shows that on the macro-economic level the landscapes of the East failed to blossom. This wonderfully creamy and delicately flavored brick-shaped goat cheese topped with a sprig of lavender is therefore both a completely unexpected realization of Kohl’s promise in miniature (180 goats is tiny compared with the human population of Germany’s East) and an ironic comment upon the hollowness of that promise.

An important reason for the wonderful texture and flavors of the Capriolenhof cheeses the pair produce here is the 250 acres of heathland on which the goats graze. This landscape would lose it’s heather and the flora and fauna associated with it (it would turn into forest) if the goats didn’t graze it, so they perform an important ecological role. It was great to hear that their company has blossomed since our last contact, and to take home some cheese and find that it was even better than I remembered it. If anyone doubts that the Berlin area could have its own “terroir”, that is a taste of the place, then they should taste this amazing cheese.

That meeting took place at the third ‘Cheese Berlin’ fair in the Markthalle Neun, a late 19th century covered market that has become a focus for the rapidly developing regional food culture of Berlin. Although extremely spacious the place was packed out from the moment that doors opened at 11am on Sunday, and the crowd was dominated by young people. I had to choose a slightly quieter corner and then wait for a slightly quieter moment to get the shot above, which gives a good ides of the atmosphere. The exhibitors ranged from local producers like the Carpiolenhof to Berlin cheese merchants like Kippenbergs and Maitre Philippe & Filles, but there was also a strong international presence thanks primarily to Neal’s Yard in London. For more information see:

www.markthalleneun.de

www.ursulaheinzelmann.de

What made Sunday such a special day is that the ‘Weinbund’ association of Berlin wine merchants also held their annual public event jet around the corner, so that many people moved from one event to the other. This event really brought home how the city now has a string of the best wine merchants in the country. Here too, I think you can speak of a flowering landscape, and this too is a well-kept Berlin secret, at least outside Germany.

At the ‘Weinbund’s event I bumped into winemaker Jens Heinemeyer of Geisenheim in the Rheingau, pictured above. I’ve been following Jens’ progress for more than a quarter of a century and during this time he’s developed into one of Germany’s top producers of Pinot Noir red wines. This fact is not widely appreciated, also because Jens’ career didn’t develop in a neat linear fashion. Recently he created his own solo-label, Weingut Solveigs, having previously been part of the Johanninger team (a small group of winemakers marketing under one label). Jens doesn’t like the taste of new oak and he’s obsessed with the taste of good Pinot Noir. His most important winemaking tools are hygiene and patience. He takes the latter much more seriously than most of his colleagues, and the youngest wine he was showing was a 2009! His top wine is the ‘Present’ Pinot Noir from a single block of ancient vines in the Höllenberg site of Assmannshausen. The not very special 2006 vintage tasted very special indeed to me and you can still buy it from Paasburg’s in Berlin for Euro 35, which is moderate for top quality Pinot Noir at peak maturity.

Sadly, there’s too little time for me to tell you about all the winemakers, but I was very impressed by the wines shown by Matthias Adams of von Racknitz of Odernheim in the Nahe, Kurt Angerer of Langenfeld in the Kamtal/Austria,  Florain Fauth of Seehof in Westhofen in Rheinhessen and Anthony Hammond of the eponymous estate in Oestrich in the Rheingau. More on them another time!

 

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