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London Wine Diary: Day 2 – Visit Atlantis Now! The Virtually Unknown White Side of Randall Grahm

I was seriously distracted for about a week after arriving in Europe, and this caused a delay in writing and posting this second story about Randall Grahm. That was unhelpful, because the first story (scroll down to read about his Le Cigare Volant reds) attracted a lot of attention. Here it finally is! Please note that unlike the photos accompanying the first story, this one was supplied by Bonny Doon Vineyard.

For me there never was any doubt that Randall Grahm (the winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard of Santa Cruz since it’s foundation in 1983) is not only a rock star winemaker, but that he is also the first American Rock Star Winemaker I ever met. In the first of these two stories I compared him to Neil Young, because of the latter’s talent for radically and brilliantly reinterpreting his old songs. Randall was a bit taken aback by this characterization and suggested that maybe Franz Zappa was a better comparison. I found that an interesting thought, and I certainly get the comparison when I think of Zappa’s often brilliant and sometimes seriously crazed early material: “I’m a rock!“ However, when I think about some of Frank’s later numbers like Titties and Beer, then – thankfully! – I don’t see any comparison at all with Randall and his wines.

Although Randall and his wines are often misunderstood, there’s no avoiding the fact that he has a certain reputation for his red wine, even if they are usually judged not to belong to CA’s first league. And he used to have quite a reputation for white wines when he was transforming the Pacific Rim from a Riesling brand (first vintage 1991) into a Riesling winery, and finally a major force in Washington State and American Riesling. Then he sold Pacific Rim to Banfi Vintners at the very beginning of 2011 and his white wine profile took a hit. A few insiders and his loyal are well aware that, for example, Bonny Doon producing the best dry white Albarino in America. However, most of the American wine scene put Randall firmly in the red-wine-guy-with-fun-products pigeonhole where he’s remained stuck ever since. The white side of the Bonny Doon went from obscure to virtually unknown, and now resembles an Atlantis of CA white wine!

For this reason I decided to taste the white and rosé wines Randall recently sent me samples of by themselves. I figured that I should give them a chance to come out of the shadow cast by the reds, and as soon as I began tasting I realized that I made the right decision. I’m going to focus on just three of those wines here, because they seem to me to add up to a strong argument for regarding Randall as a seriously talented CA white winemaker with a unique vision. The 2012 Vin Gris de Cigare Reserve was aged on the lees (deposit of fermentation yeast) in the 5 gallon glass demijohns you can see behind Randall in the photo, and that has given this pale and barely pink-tinged rosé a totally different personality from the fresher and more fruit-driven, but also bone-dry, regular bottling of Vin Gris de Cigare. The 2012 Vin Gris de Cigare Reserve the closest thing to a Bandol Rosé I ever tasted from anywhere in America. At once creamy, savory and pithy with just a hint of funk (most of all in the aftertaste) this is a wine that lives from its complex textural qualities and whatever associations its non-fruity character awakens in you. I felt myself transported back to the beautiful town of Collioure on the coast of Roussillon, France (admittedly a long distance to the west of Bandol, but in the same climatic zone). Either you will love this wine or you will hate it and – on your knees – beg for a bottle of fruity, fresh, spritzy rosé with a dollop of sweetness!

Those demijohns also worked their magic on the 2011 Le Cigare Blanc Reserve and together with the blend of 62% Grenache Blanc (a grossly underrated white grape for CA) and 38% Roussanne have resulted in a great dry white. With its hazelnut and flinty aromas, it is about as far removed from Riesling – the “home territory” of this blog – as you can get, but I found it totally distinctive, the textural and savory qualities even more fascinating than those of the Vin Gris de Cigare Reserve. It is also extremely well-balanced in bone-dry, mid-weight style (with just 12.5% alcohol) that is very rare in CA. The nutty-lemony aftertaste drew my hand back to the glass for more, which is the real test of any wine! The 2011 Le Cigare Blanc Beeswax Vineyard is broadly similar, but with a smoother and more polished personality than the Reserve version. It is also more fruity with a ripe melon aroma that I found very appealing. This is a very well-conceived and executed wine that is certainly not mainstream, but it is a little bit more conventional and was therefore a shade less exciting for this seeker of uniqueness.

I strongly urge you to seek out these and the other white and rosé wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard, because they are all more or less striking and they also offer great value for money. Visit Atlantis now!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 4 – Kallstadt, Germany Origin of The Donald and Home to One of the World’s Great Dry Whites

That Kallstadt remains unknown to everyone except some wine geeks is a little bit bizarre when you consider that the parents of Donald Trump’s – yes, I’m talking about The Donald – come from this small wine town in the Pfalz, Germany. That becomes even more incomprehensible when you think that the Heinz family – yes, I am talking about the canned soup people – come from the same place. I humbly suggest what we have here is a classical example of Americans denying their own German roots and/or other Americans’ German roots.

This wouldn’t be worth mentioning here if it weren’t for the fact that Kallsatdt is home to one of the greatest dry white wines in the world. Yes, I’m talking about the dry Saumagen Riesling from Koehler-Ruprecht. The Saumagen – the word refers to a haggis-like dish of meat, potatoes and herbs cooked in a pig’s stomach – and the vineyard seems to have acquired this name because of the shape of this ex-Roman chalk quarry. The Saumagen Riesling and I go back a long way. My first visit to this producer was in May 1985, and in May 1986 a number of colleagues and I took part in a tasting there that spanned the vintages 1985 – 1932. That was truly remarkable, because in spite of all the terrible events of those years, and the Cold War was still ongoing, those wines possessed a resilient consistency, no, an I-am-what-I-am attitude that was truly breathtaking. Those wines were made by just two people, the multi-talented larger-than-life Bernd Philippi and his grandfather.

Since then this estate has changed hands, and changed winemaker too. Some people in the German wine scene didn’t like these changes and there was some talk of a stylistic sell-out or less professional winemaking. However, on the basis of the vertical tasting this afternoon at Martin Zwick’s wine salon in Berlin that spanned the vintages 2014 – 1996 I have to say that this producer has not wavered at all, rather, under the direction of Dominik Sona and Franziska Schmitt (pictured above), it has remained true to it’s unique wine style yet also moved an important step in the direction of more elegant wines.

What makes these wines so special? It is a combination of weight and delicacy, liveliness and mellowness, plus a properly dry balance. When most dry white wines reach the age of five to seven years they start to head downhill rather fast, but that is the age that the Koehler-Ruprecht Saumagen Rieslings start to become really enjoyable to drink (assuming you like the taste of mature wines), and begin standing out from the crowd of self-important, but interchangeable wines that dominate the market. That’s why this tasting that looked backwards in time in order to look forward to the pleasure of drinking the wines of the vintages Dominik Sona has made (he has been the winemaker since 2008) when they have had even more time to show their hand..

As exciting as the 2014s were – it is probably Dominik Sona’s best vintage to date and the best wines from it haven’t even been released yet! – and as impressive as the 2012s were – this is one of the producers who shone in that vintage – it was with the 2009 vintage that we began to see what the Saumagen Riesling is really all about. This is the age when the magic starts to happen, the point where the wines become winey in a sense that goes far beyond the regular meaning of that word. Then they turn to face us frankly in a way that seems thoroughly old-fashioned compared with all the fashion wines of today that throw all kinds of simplistic obviously aromatic stuff at us in the hope that we will freak out about it. There is nothing showy about a Saumagen Riesling, and this is a reason that they aren’t yet world-famous like The Donald, or even Heinz soup, and for this reason it may still be the most underrated dry white wine in the world. For those of you seeking a more concrete orientation in the form of a direct comparison with another well-known wine, it bears quite a similarity to Trimbach’s Clos Set Hune, the most expensive dry white wine from Alsace, France.

Thankfully sometimes there are tastings like today at which some people get the chance to see things as they are, and there are also a bunch of good restaurants in Germany and America where you can order these wines for rather friendly prices and find out for yourself. That is exactly as it should be! The glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty, rather however much there is in it there is enough for anyone who wants to drink!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 2 – #gowinefreestyle

An Initiative of Stuart Pigott, Manuela Sporbert and Jürgen Hammer

Now is the time for more democracy in the world of wine, and to reject the recent spread of rigid ideologies. The pleasure of wine is free – each person with their own taste and preferences – and dogma is the exact opposite of that!

Don’t misunderstand us, we’re also against the irresponsible use of chemistry and high-tech in the vineyard and cellar; we’re also opposed to the industrialization of wine production in the cause of profit-maximization. The movement that reacted against them – whatever name you decide to give it – has enriched the world of wine with many fascinating new and new interpretations of old wine styles. However, sometimes it has provided the basis for dogmatic ideas. Those who spread this poison ignore the fact many wine producers who do not fit into any of the now fashionable categories have also turned away from the use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, cultured yeast for fermentation, etc. The levels of sulfites generally added to wine today, even mass-produced wines, is now well below what it was one or two generations ago. This too, is real progress! Of course, organic and biodynamic viticulture  are more systematic and serious expressions of the desire to bring wine production back into step with ecology. The growth in these categories is cause for optimism.

A growing group of winemakers have taken a more extreme path, letting nature take it’s course in the cellar, sometimes without in any way influencing how the result tastes. Turning the fascinating ideal of “natural” wines (no wine is really natural, since wine is always the product of human intervention) into alcoholic beverages that not only taste strikingly different, but also lack basic flaws is not an easy task. Once Francois Mitjavile of Tertre Rotebeuf said something very important to me: “too much human influence and the wine tastes totally boring, too much nature and you end up with vinegar, but where exactly is the right point between these extremes? That isn’t easy to say.” Does the fact that a wine is “natural” excuse an excess of volatile acidity (vinegar), a mousy aroma or extremely high histamine content? We don’t think so.

For us, the decisive thing about wine is style, and achieving that requires a winemaker who gently guides her or his wines in a particular direction without falsifying its inherent character. Whether she or he uses, for example, sulfites (legal in Germany since 1497!), barrique barrels or concrete eggs is a question of style, not a moral issue. All winemaking requires technology, and the amphora is just an ancient winemaking technology that has once again become an option in the modern cellar. The great French oenologist Jules Chauvet once said to his friend the Swiss winemaker Hans Ulrich Kesselring, “wine is science and sensuality.” Chauvet is a guru for many natural winemaker and we applaud both his honesty and open-mindedness. In this spirit we say, #gowinefreestyle


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New York Wine Diary: Day 31 – Rieslingfeier Returns to New York Wine City February 20th, 2016!

This is a photograph of the second Rieslingfeier, or Riesling Celebration (the direction translation of the German) that I attended on the evening of Friday, February 21st, 2014 in the private function room of the old Rouge Tomate Resaturant in NYWC (New York Wine City). On Saturday, February 20th 2016,  thanks to Stephen Bitterolf of the importing company VOM BODEN the event’s founder and dedicated organizer, Rieslingfeier returns with two big events in one action-packed day. For more information and to book tickets go to:

What makes Rieslingfeier so special? The same thing that makes a great story: the people and their interaction. It’s not just that a great many of the most important people involved in the Riesling grape and its wines (for a list of the 18 participating winemakers scroll to the bottom of this story) come together, they do so in a way that’s entirely free of the nagging self-doubt and neurotic self-searching that plagued Riesling during its years of crisis a decade and more ago. The Rieslingfeier euphoria also has to do with the presence of some very serious Riesling fans – I mean people not professionally involved with the wines – and the way they can connect with the producers, top somms etc. That doesn’t happen in this way at many wine events of any kind anywhere, and I hope that the photographs below communicate some of that free-flowing, high-energy interaction. The first of them shows Paul Grieco, aka The Chairman (of Riesling) of the Terroir wine bar in TriBeCa, NYWC on the right with Gernot Kollmann of Immich-Batterieberg in Enkirch/Mosel. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast of personalities than these two, but as you can see at Rieslingfeier they connected big time. The resulting inspiration is what it’s all about!

The problem for a writer to describe the atmosphere of such an event without rapidly falling into a series of clichés that give no more than a vague idea of how the Rieslingfeier dinner at 7pm at the Wythe Hotel at 80 Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn will really be. $330 plus tax is quite a price, of course, but what you get is not only a great meal with remarkable wines from the participating winemakers and you’ll get to sample a bunch of high-end Rieslings brought along by the guests. At the 2014 event I suddenly had three vintages of the Scharzhofberger Riesling TBA from Egon Müller-Schazhof in Wiltingen on the Saar (Egon Müller is attending again this year!) For those of you who cannot put up that kind of money there’s The Gränd Tasting from 11am through 3pm at Back Label Wines on West 20th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The VIP ticket for this which gets you exclusive access to the 12 producers and their wines during the first hour costs just $50 plus tax. That is a steal and I’m making a “buy” recommendation!

All of this has a personal aspect that it would be indiscrete of my to reveal in full, and I have to admit that this kind of situation cramps my style as a writer. However, I can tell you that I had a most remarkable conversation with a most remarkable person at the 2014 Rieslingfeier, and I hope very much to speak to them again at the 2016 event. That one conversation lead to many others, much reading and thinking, and as a result I am living very differently now to how I did back then. That means I striving to be a more positive, open, compassionate and loving person, rather than often narrow, sometimes closed and judgmental one I was before. How well I’m succeeding at that is another matter, but all meaningful change starts with the decision to change, the growth of the determination to change, and potting that into practice is almost never as easy as it sounds. I humbly suggest that if Rieslingfeier could not only stun me with many amazing Rieslings, but also introduce me to someone who changed my life, then it could do so for you too!

Top of my personal list of participating winemakers is Katharina Prüm of J. J. Prüm in Wehlen on the Mosel. We haven’t been able to talk in quite some time, although I have no illusions about the fact that there will be several other people at Rieslingfeier with the same idea! Here is the list of winemakers who will be attending and pouring:

Jochen Beurer of the Beurer estate of Stetten in Württemberg, who makes some remarkable dry wines in this rising star among Germany’s wine regions.

Caroline Diel of Schlossgut Diel in Burg Layen in the Nahe makes brilliant dry and sweet wines that have made her one of the region’s top winemakers.

Gernot Kollmann took over the direction and winemaking at Immich Batterieberg in Enkirch on the Mosel in 2009, and within very few years he has turned it into one of the region’s leading producers of dry Riesling.

Florian Lauer of the Peter Lauer estate in Ayl on the Saar, who since 2005 has taken this small estate from anonymity to international star status with complex wines ranging form bone dry to aromatically sweet.

Johannes Leitz of Josef Leitz in the Rheingau, who since the turn of the century firmly put Rüdesheim back on the map for top quality dry and west wines, and transformed this producer from being a name known only to insiders into a global Riesling brand.

Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen on the Mosel is an unlikely Riesling Hero. Completely unknown when he took over control of his family estate in 1987 he is now a German Riesling Superstar and one of the nation’s most successful quality wine exporters.

Egon Müller IV of Egon Müller-Scharzhof in Wiltingen on the Saar continues the tradition of this producer for world-class sweet Rieslings that range from the delicate to the unctuous and honey-sweet.

Roman Niewodniczanski took the almost literally crumbling van Volxem estate, also in Wiltingen on the Saar, and turned it into one of the region’s largest, best and most acclaimed producers in just 15 years.

Katharina Prüm of J. J. Prüm in Wehlen on the Mosel has already been introduced. This producer is synonymous with Mosel elegance and finesse!

Hansjörg Rebholz of Ökonomierat Rebholz in Siebeldingen in the Pfalz producers some of the best and most original dry wines on Planet Riesling; character and elegance rather than raw power are their hallmarks.

Dr. Carl Ferdinand von Schubert has directed Maximin Grünhaus in Mertesdorf in the Ruwer since the early 1980s and today this famous estate is once again right at the top of its game, making uniquely aromatic and strikingly racy wines.

Dominik Sona does things the traditional way at Koehler-Ruprecht in Kallstadt in the Pfalz, just as his predecessor Bernd Phillipi did, and that makes for deep and complex dry Rieslings.

Christian Witte has taken world-famous Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau out of a period of erratic performance back to the very top since he took over there in 2005; great dry and sweet Rieslings!

Stefan Steinmetz of Günther Steinmetz in Brauneberg on the Mosel is one of the rising stars of this region.

Johannes Weber of Hofgut Falkenstein on the Saar, has made a major commitment to traditional winemaking techniques is also one of the stars of his region.

Wilhelm Weil of Robert Weil of Kiedrich in the Rheingau has taken that estate from the  mid-field of that famous region to the top since he took control of it in 1987; world-famous desert wines!

Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler jumped into deep water in 2005 when they purchased their first steep vineyards with slate soils and launched Weiser-Künstler in Traben-Trarbach on the Mosel.

See you there!


New York Wine Diary: Day 28 – Dan O’Brien’s Wild Idea

This is South Dakota author and buffalo rancher Dan O’Brien at the reading from his new book Wild Idea he gave at the Patagonia store on Columbus Avenue. Of course, the main focus of this blog is wine, and when it considers landscapes it is therefore mostly vineyard landscapes that it deals with. However, every landscape is also an ecosystem, even if many of the world’s vineyard landscapes are what I would call dysfunctional ecosystems, because man has so radically manipulated them. Mostly, vines grow were there was once forest or scrub, and if nothing is growing between the rows of grape vines or only a single plant species (seeded by man) grows between them, then the bio-diversity is very low with correspondingly negative results for soil and vine health. No wonder so many grape growers (not all organic or biodynamic) are now encouraging the growth of complex communities of “weeds” in their vineyards to combat this problem. However, the ecosystem of the Cheyenne River Valley where Dan O’Brien ranches buffalo on a square plot of land eight miles on each side is still pretty close to what it would have been before the white man arrived on the scene (except for the absence of wolves). That is another situation entirely to any vineyard I know on Planet Wine! As he said of his company Wild Idea (!), “biodiversity is our main product and buffalo meat is a delicious byproduct!”

This in itself would have made Dan fascinating enough for me, but we also go back quite a long way. Back in 2004 I read his autobiographical Buffalo for the Broken Heart and was so fascinated by its insights into the world of the Great Plains that I contact him and asked if I could visit. During the first days of October 2005 I travelled to South Dakota for the first time and stayed for a couple of days at Dan’s ranch about an hour’s drive from Rapid City in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. That’s where I took the picture below.

Of course, this is what most of us would call the Wild West. My trip to South Dakota with photographer Vuk Karadzik and driver Dr. Doom the Optimist turned into a pretty wild ride due to the tensions between them, the sudden and unexpected arrival of arctic winter conditions and my puzzling sickness. Only after I left the Dakotas did I discover that I had been ill with West Nile Virus. No wonder that after a long afternoon of Dan’s ranch in biting cold wind even standing under a hot shower for half an hour didn’t make me feel any warm. However, the amazing burgers made from his ground buffalo meat that Dan grilled for us that night warmed all our hearts. They had the most intense and original taste of any meat I have ever eaten, and unlike some of the steaks from Wild Idea, this is not an expensive delicacy. That’s what Dan’s referring to when he says that Americans should eat, “red meat but less of it. Buffalo meat is healthy us and for the Great Plains.” Unfortunately, much of the buffalo meat sold in the US is from animals that were fattened up with GMO crops in feed lots, then slaughtered in big industrial facilities. In contrast, Dan’s herd (pictured below) eat only indigenous plants, receive no additional feed, are harvested on the range and also butchered there in small mobile slaughterhouses. This is an uncompromising approach, but it avoids supporting industrial agriculture in the form of those GMO crops, and the herbicides sprayed on them (to which they have been genetically manipulated to be resistant to). To order buffalo meat from Wild Idea go to:

These are all beautiful images, but I feel that it’s my responsibility not to dodge the truth, rather to point out to you that “harvested on the range” means shot at close range with a high-powered rifle, “one inch behind the ear and one inch below the ear.” Then the animal dies instantly and drops where it was standing without experiencing any pain. I know that, because I was present when this was done and I saw everything. Inevitably, there is plenty of blood and if you are squeamish about blood DO NOT SCROLL DOWN from here to the next image. If, on the other hand you wanted to see that truth, then you should scroll head down straight awy. I should point out that I am sometimes a bit squeamish about anything except animals or people that are suffering, not that I look away (never!) but they can turn my stomach, so I have complete understanding if the image below is not for you. I show it hear, because one of my fundamental principals is to face unpleasant truths, or #unpleasanttruths as I call them on twitter.

Dan O’Brien not only speaks about his passion for buffalo and the eco-system of which they are such a vital part with great conviction and earthy eloquence, he also writes about those same subjects extremely well. Part of me is a little envious of the quiet confidence with which he finds such fitting words to describe the dramatic sights and sounds of the Great Plains, and his feelings about them. I think my writing must look a bit flashy and over-thought in comparison, maybe even uncertain and hesitant compared to his. However, if this is the case it is part of who I am. Let’s face it, the best writers are those who, like Dan O’Brien, write themselves. I haven’t yet read his new book, Wild Idea (Bison Books, 2014), but on the strength of his NYC reading I feel sure this is another classic from this remarkable man that captures the essence of the complex grass-based Great Plains ecosystem and his part in it.

PS what I have revealed above of my trip to the Dakotas in 2005 is on the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, that story was so far only published in the German language. Please be patient! At some point during the next year I hope to publish something in my e-book series ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA on the subject of the Dakotas.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 26 – Rock Star Winemaker Randall Grahm and his Greatest Hit, Le Cigare Volant

This is how most of the wine scene and the wine-drinking public see Randall Grahm, but who is the “court jester” of Californian wine really? And are his wines as “sunny” and “fun” as they are made out to be, or do they taste very different from what most people imagine? Answering those questions requires me to tell quite a story!

Let me straight be with you, for me Randall Grahm (vintage 1953) of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California was the first American rock star winemaker, and for that reason alone I always get a thrill when someone pours me a glass of his Le Cigare Volant red, a blend of grape varieties that originated in the French section of the Rhône Valley. The label is based on an old engraving of a French château surrounded by vineyards to which the graphic designer added a cigar-shaped UFO floating in the sky that’s firing a dangerous looking red ray into the vines. There’s quite story behind this about the town of Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhône banning UFOs from landing, but it was Randall’s genius that turned this story into this unique label (scull down to eyeball it). It was quite a shock to see it the first time in 1986 in a San Francisco wine bar. “This is something really new from California!” the server said to me as he poured me a big glass of 1984 Le Cigare Volant, the first vintage. It tasted nothing like the heavy, oaky “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon reds then so fashionable and I immediately knew this was something different, special. That wine, and the thoughts of its maker get a whole blog posting today (it will be followed shortly by one about Randall’s dry whites and rosé).

One of the high points of Randall’s career came in 1989 when Wine Spectator Magazine put him on the cover dressed as the Lone Ranger. That was a joke about him having been nicknamed a Rhône Ranger because of his fascination with making wines like Le Cigare Volant, and it was the beginning of his “court jester” image. Finally, on March 2nd, 1992 I stood face to face with the wild-haired, wild-eyed, wildly funny and dangerously creative young Randall in the tasting room of his winery.  He described the kind of wines he was making as, “red wines, sunshine wines, fun wines!” so this is where that perception of the Bonny Doon wines has its root: he said it a thousand times! Then he poured the first vintage of his game-changing Pacific Rim a dry white Riesling, which tasted nothing like that at all.  When I asked him what made California a special place to make wine he told me, “1) lack of history, 2) flexibility, 3) cheap land, 4) sunshine.” I found him totally fascinating. Some the wines he poured for me tasted great, the rest were very solid, which was good enough for me. His was clearly a freewheeling creative enterprise and the wines that he was making were all a work-in-progress.

I’ve kept in touch with Randall ever since, and the periods when contact was more sporadic never eroded the openness of the relationship. I remained interested, because he continues to develop exciting new wines, and the latest vintages of his old favorites are often stunning. He’s the Neil Young of winemaking, each of his new creations surprising me just like Neil’s new songs, and the radical reinterpretations of his old numbers he frequently does. That’s why a couple of years back I was excited to receive an invitation to an audience with the Randall at The Breslin Restaurant in the ACE Hotel just off Broadway, New York City on November 18th, 2013. I’d last seen Randall 18 months before in San Francisco, not long after he’d sold the Pacific Rim brand and winery in the Columbia Valley, Washington State after cranking production up to over two million bottles of Riesling per year. He told, “This gives us some wherewithal to develop our 280 acre San Juan Batista property, 85 of which will comprise our new estate vineyard, at a quicker pace… We’re also retiring a significant amount of debt with this sale and I might go out for dinner tonight with some of the proceeds.” At our San Francisco meeting in the spring of 2011 he’d told me he was planting some of those vineyards from seed, which is definitely not the normal way of doing things, so this is clearly a very daring project. If anything it became even more daring since then!

I got to the Breslin exactly on time, which meant that I had some time to talk to Randall before the other journalists and somms who were invited turned up. I may be an Englishman in New York, but I’d already learnt how to hustle and get ahead of the game Big Apple style. After pouring me a couple of his latest wines Randall suddenly turned pensive and within moments his usual expansive tone had vanished, and that’s when I took the above photograph.

Nobody’s written about the sea change in the wine industry. 20 years ago it was much more idealistic. People in the wine industry wanted meaning and now they want money. OK, I’m interested in both. Now there’s a cynicism and self-consciousness, and a sense of randomness…” His words instantly reminded me of the scene in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical movie Almost Famous in which the aspiring young music journalist William Miller, the central figure of this great rock movie, is told something very similar about the music industry by Lester Bangs, then one of the senior rock journalists of America. In retrospect, that moment in The Breslin was the conception of my series ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA, although it took me almost two years to realize which that e-books for Kindle was the right medium was right for my subject, because that required me to overcome the stupid idea that I needed to print them.

20 years ago your job as a winemaker was to make a really great wine. If you did that and the price was OK, then you sold it. The weird thing is now you don’t know if you can sell it however good it is! Then you’ve got all the new shock labels. Is that how you sell wine now?” I couldn’t help thinking of some wines Randall himself had created with new shock labels. Then he sheepishly admitted setting that ball rolling was partly his fault, but this didn’t make what he said any less disturbing. What did it mean for him and his own wines? Sadly, we never got the chance to talk this through in any detail face to face, nor have I been able to taste recent Bonny Doon wines in a more thoughtful situation. For this reason I ordered samples and he happily provided them.

These bottles, more than any others he sent made me, convince me that Randall is a winemaker who has been radically misunderstood, because too many somms and journalists who tasted the wines couldn’t get that court jester image off him out of their minds. In a blind tasting I would have confidently identified all three of them as European wines of elegance and sophistication. The 2011 Le Cigare Volant immediately reminded my very much of the first time I tasted the Chateauneuf du Pape Vieux Telegraphe back in the Mid-1980s. On more careful reflection those wines were a bit more dryly tannic and a shade less fruity than the 2011 Le Cigare Volant. So this wine does have a certain Californian aspect to its personality, but in the CA context it is seriously dry, mellow and  mysterious; I get the mystery most in the cool herbal freshness at the finish. I would never have guessed that it has 14.23% alcohol, because the wine is seamless, but you could say very much the same about the best reds from the Southern Rhône.

The 2010 Le Cigare Volant (I had the unfiltered bottling) is a more meaty wine with an edgy side to it that is unlike the 2011, and either you will love it or not depending upon your palate. I really went for that edgy side, perhaps because it matched the more savory flavors of this wine really well. Possibly that edge is due to the inclusion of a big slug of wine from the Carignan grape in the blend, which under hot dry conditions tends to retain more fruit than the other Rhône grapes, but never gives subtle wines. However, there was no doubt in my mind that the 2009 Le Cigare Volant (also the unfiltered bottling) was the star of the trio, perhaps because it has moved out of the youthful, fruity phase of it’s life, but still retains so much energy and freshness. I love that combination in wines of all kinds. As one of the friends who tasted with me said, “it’s got all the earthiness and the mushrooms, it’s dusty too…but there also this raspberry note.” I couldn’t have described better myself, so I’m not going to do so. Seeking this many-sidedness, that means embracing the non-fruity character without rejecting the fruit, is the at the heart of Randall Grahm’s art, and he is now a master of it. Somehow Randall has found a way to negotiate that sea change in the wine industry and the stormy waters they brought, or perhaps his own stylistic development maneuvered him out of the harms way without him consciously seeking a safe harbor? In the end it doesn’t matter which of those it is, it’s the results that count.

After tasting these wines I also drank some of them and felt elated. That is something only a great winemaker can do with three consecutive vintages of one wine!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 21 – Time to Launch My Boats!

Often people ask me what the subject of my blog really is, and quite often they ask me if my latest blog posting isn’t off-subject. I feel that I owe all of you questioners an answer, and it’s really simple.

For me wine is a beverage in the glass, but it is never just that, because every wine comes from somewhere and doesn’t smell and taste the way it does by accident, rather there is a complex network of factors, intentions and relationships which lead to that wine being as it is. There’s therefore a story behind every wine, and those stories all fascinate me, regardless of the wine’s place of origin, the grape variety/varieties from which it is made, the greater or lesser price it commands and the esteem it is held in. (FYI some material about Two Buck Chuck is on it’s way!) These stories, no less than the wines they are connected to, are a continuous source of inspiration to me. And that inspiration is like the spark in a spark plug in an internal combustion chamber, it ignites my imagination.

My imagination, just like yours, is inaccessible to everyone else. It’s visions and vibrations must be given a concrete form in order to become accessible to others. That’s what all my writing, including these blog postings, is. I take the materials I have gathered during my re-search for truth, and with them I build boats (that I hope are sturdy enough for a long voyage), then I launch them onto the high seas of the Big Wide World. Last year, 2015, that worked better than it has for a very long time (scroll down for more about that), but this only makes me want to build more and better boats, then launch them onto those same choppy and rough waves. Although building them frequently requires me to face painful truths they are all bear a cargo of hope, and journey forth to overcome fear and the negativity it breeds. Please join me on that voyage!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 19 – Become a ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA Author, an Open Call for Submissions!

This is a call for authors to submit manuscripts for potential publication in the ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA e-book (for Kindle) series and is open to all. Please allow me to explain why and how I’m doing this before giving you details of how to actually submit, because you should know what exactly you’re getting into before you jump in the deep end of this Olympic depth diving pool.

When I published my first e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1: Point of Entry featuring Very Bad PR (pictured above) on September 29th last year I knew that it was going to be the first in series, but it didn’t occur to me that with it’s appearance sporting brilliant cover art by Angelyn Cabrales I had de facto become a publishing house and was thereby a (albeit very small) competitor for Penguin, Simon & Schuster and all the other well established publishing houses of Planet Wine. Our relationship may be an extreme form of the David & Goliath struggle, but that doesn’t alter the fundamental nature of it. Of course, you could argue that from the beginning this blog has effectively been an online magazine edited and published by me, and the presence of other authors (particularly Frank Ebbinghaus in the German-language department) makes this undeniably true. But, with God knows how many millions of blogs out there in cyberspace it didn’t feel like even when the traffic cranked up to the current level of half a million plus hits per month. Publishing that first e-book was the decisive step, because it is sold by the Kindle Store on Amazon which is hardly a small underground operation. That made me realize I would have to step up and play the role of publisher in an active way, rather than continue to dodge the issue. Should you not yet have read this outrageous tale of my first trip to the US (to Baltimore, to be precise) thirty years ago told as if it all happened yesterday, then this is where to find it:

With the publication of the second “volume” in the series, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK: I Could Drink a Case of You (pictured below, also with art work by Angelyn Cabrales) on November 21st things became much more serious for two reasons. The first of these is that this story takes place in the present, in fact, the last events described in the book took place just one hundred hours before it’s publication! Secondly, the central figure of this story set in Arizona is a genuine rock star, Maynard James Keenan the singer of Puscifer and Tool. Tonight is the first night of the 2016 Tool tour (Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, also tomorrow night). This meant that I’m now also in competition with publications like Rolling Stone! I actually offered this story to Rolling Stone, but they weren’t interested. In spite of that they influenced me, because the $4,99 per copy price I set is Rolling Stone’s newsstand price. I have to say that I’m still trying to figure out what being in competition with those guys really means. On the other hand, I immediately realized that one enormous advantage of their lack of interest  in my e-book is that I enjoyed that rare and priceless treasure called COMPLETE ARTISTIC FREEDOM when writing and publishing it. I never forget the first time I heard those words as a teenager – in connection with the movies of Stanley Kubrick, who insisted on those words in every movie contract – they made the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck stand up. They are still the most erotic words I ever heard and I adopted that freedom and eroticism as my agenda for #2. The PARENTAL ADVISORY Explicit Content sticker is on the cover for a good reason. I can promise you that you will be shocked that a wine book could read like this, because I’m still shocked that it makes great sense to me that a wine book does read like this. As far as I’m concerned it’s the best thing I wrote in a decade. Grab your copy now if you haven’t already done so:

Work on ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 about the FLX (Finger Lakes) of Upstate New York has just begun and publication is due for April 1st (!) this year. Having got this far it suddenly struck me that there’s absolutely no reason why other authors shouldn’t also publish under the banner of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA. If you have an American wine story that’s as good as my material or better, then you are more than welcome to submit a sample and an outline. HERE IS THE OPEN CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION IN THIS SERIES:

A sample is a maximum 20,000 characters including empty spaces and an outline explains in a couple of pages what the whole story you wish to publish is. Please include a realistic completion date and indicate (with contact info) who your editor is, alternatively I can edit your work – no editor is not an option and you cannot be the editor! Samples that are too long will be returned unread. Samples without an accompanying outline will be returned unread. Should your story be accepted we will agree a delivery date and you will deliver on time (or agree a delay with me), or the story will not be published. Before publication you must also submit a written statement signed by you to the effect that you possess the copyright of everything you are submitting and agreeing to my terms. Those terms are that your work sells for $4.99 plus tax on Kindle (they will vary the price slightly, but I will enter $4.99 when uploading your book) and that we will divide the 70% of that price which you receive as follows, $1 per copy sold for me the publisher and the rest for you the author. There will be no negotiations about those terms at any point and they hold for the entire lifetime of the e-book, that is as long as copyright still applies to your work. To submit a work first send me a message through the contact function of this blog, then we will establish email contact.

I am full of anticipation for your work! Together we can turn ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA into a serious competitor for the publishers and publications mentioned above

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New York Wine Diary: Day 13 – The Sparkling Genius of Larry Mawby (and My New Year’s Resolution)

As promised, my last blog posting of 2015 has a sparkling wine theme. I know that now some of you are now going to ask why I didn’t post this at least a week ago, so that you could stock up on these products for the moment when the ball drops tonight. I will also toast the New Year with a glass of sparkling wine at that moment, but I know that I won’t take in what it tastes likes like I would in a calmer moment. And the sparkling wines made by Larry Mawby on the Leelanau Peninsula of Northern Michigan deserve that kind of attention, rather than only being knocked back when the hands of the clock meet at the top and you’re already so drunk that you know most of January 1st will be painful.

That means that apart from those of you have already secured supplies you won’t be able to begin 2016 with a glass of SEX. Yes, that’s the brand name on the label of the sparkling wine in the left of the photo of Larry. As he said to me when I visited him for the second time at the end of July, “this is the only federally approved sex!” He meant that the label had received approval from the TTB, the federal body that regulates the labeling of alcoholic beverages in the US. As you can see from the photo of Larry above he uses two distinct sets of packaging for his sparklers, SEX along with all the tank-fermented wines appear under the M. Lawrence label and the champagne-method (i.e. bottle-fermented) wines are all marketed under the L. Mawby label. Already this strategy of producing two distinct ranges using different methods is highly unusual and attracted my attention.

Then, when I first met Larry back in 2013 I realized that this innovative, clever, sophisticated and funny man was a great story. Sure the story of his wines had been told before and sometimes quite well, but the I couldn’t find any story that did him justice. Perfect! Nothing is more helpful to a journalist interested in underdog winemakers like me than a tremendously talented winemaker who has been ignored or misunderstood. The problem with this subject was confirmed during my second visit to the M. Lawrence & L. Mawby tasting room on July 24th this year: this is one BIG story, and an important part of the HUGE story of Northern MI wines. I had no time to write a blog posting about Larry Mawny while I was up in Northern MI because of the major commitment of the City of Riesling event in Traverse City (the 3rd of these events will take place August 27th thru 29th, 2016), then when I returned to NYC work on the first of my e-books for Kindle, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 demanded my full attention. The fact is that this format is the right place for a stories like this, because the maximum length of my blog postings is way too narrow a frame for this huge personality. What I can do here and now (an important place to be in!) is tell you about his wines and give you an idea about why I consider him a sparkling genius.

The things that amaze me about the L. Mawby champagne-method sparkling wines are their technical perfection, their precisely-judged balance and the distinctiveness of each product. The most important of them is the non-vintage Blanc de Blancs Brut, because at circa 24,000 bottles per year this accounts for roughly half of Larry’s production under the L. Mawby label. I love the combination of lemony freshness (it is MI 100% Chardonnay) and creaminess in this wine (from 28 months on the yeast in the bottle), then the aftertaste that reminds me of lemon meringue pie, but is fresh and dry. The mousse (technical name for the bubbles) is persistent without being dominant. Is this an American sparkling wine that New York somms obsessed with Blanc de Blanc champagnes from obscure growers (preferably Extra Brut, biodynamic, $50 – $100 per bottle, and really difficult to get hold of) will have orgasms over? Definitely not, but for $23 direct from Larry it is a seriously delicious sparkling wine with great charm and balance. However, the much more concentrated, creamy and complex 2005 Mille Blanc de Blancs, ($50 direct from Larry, but now sadly sold out) might just gain their grudging appreciation. I was also really turned on by the wines in the L. Mawby range made with the hybrid grapes that are mega-uncool in the wine scene of NYC and just about everywhere else. My favorite of these is the seriously sexy non-vintage Sandpainting Brut, a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Vignoles. The latter grape really energizes the whole and adds a fresh pineapple note to the red berry and lemon aromas of the French grape varieties. The stunning interplay of fruit, creaminess and acidity in this sparkler must be experienced. I know nothing else like it anywhere Planet Wine, and it costs just $27 direct from Larry. That is mega-cool for me!

The M. Lawrence tank-fermented sparkling wines are much more up-front and fruity, but this strikes me as merely a stylistic alternative. I refuse to fall into the trap of thinking that this is an “inferior” method, and because they come onto the market without the long aging of the champagne-method wines they shouldn’t be taken as seriously. Larry describes his Green Extra Sec as, “like Vinho Verde, but with bubbles,” but I find the personality of this blend of the hybrid Cayuga grape with Riesling comes mostly from the latter grape. The list described it’s flavor as, “tropical electronics,” a Larryism that was spot on and made made me laugh. These two pictures of signs on the winery patio fall into the same category. After I tried the SEX Larry asked me, “was it good for you?” and I answered with British irony, “if I may say so, I really enjoyed the SEX!” This dryish sparkling rosé is a weird mix of grapes with the color coming form Regent and Marechal Foche and much of the flavor from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s crisp and juicy and it might stimulate your appetite for some healthy and positive physical activity with someone else, or even yourself. Detroit only appears under that name in the local market, while in Chicago it’s called CHI and in the New York area it’s called NYC. This is a blend dominated by Riesling and Muscat Larry aptly describes on the list as a, “floral, HipHop diva.” Even with just over 5% / 50 grams per liter RS this is not an overly sweet wine, the effusive aromas and bright acidity plus the mousse balancing the sugar really well. These are really fun drinks that deserve to be taken seriously. My suggestion would be that over the coming weeks and months you experiment with these still little-known works of sparkling genius that begin around $15 direct from Larry. Valentine’s day is not far away, and that is time when we sit (or lie) and savor!

Thank you all for your attention and support during 2015. Happy New Year and all the best for 2016 to you all from NYC! I shall return shortly.

PS My new year’s resolution is – in the spirit of Larry Mawby – to enjoy wine, sex, laughter and life more thoroughly, (but never to do so at someone’s else’s expense).



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New York Wine Diary: Day 7 – Merry Christmas from NYC

Obviously I’m not celebrating the holiday at the moment, because I have to sit at my desk to write this message of good will to all women and men. Sorry for reminding you all of that horrible things called work on the ultimate day off, but I wanted to let you know that I haven’t got fancy software that writes the blog postings for me, nor do I employ minions to take that task off my shoulders. No, if this stuff that I write and publish is any good, then that’s because I really enjoy working on it, even when it means sitting at my desk on a day like today in order to say Merry Christmas to you all.

I took the photograph above just before 5pm on Christmas Eve from the bank of the East River and it was about 70° Fahrenheit. Yesterday in NYC it felt positively sub-tropical, conditions seriously difficult to cope with. I felt like I was in a daze the whole time! In order to wake myself up so that I could cook dinner for friends I headed out for a walk just before sunset and caught what you see above. The riverside pathway is part of my morning jogging route, and if the weather is bad early then I head out later in the day for my run. That mean’s that I get to see this view in all kinds of weathers and lights, but it never looked like this before. When I got back home I felt a lot better and dinner worked out pretty well, thank goodness.

Sometimes I feel a bit negative about the way the world is developing (just think back over the events of the last year!), but I would genuinely like to think there is a good chance that things will be better in 2016 than they were in 2015. Let’s work on that! Do not fear, this is not the last blog posting of the year. At least one further item will follow on the subject of sparkling wine. Outrageously – I’m good at outrageous, in case you missed that – that story has been waiting for half a year. I’m hoping that it will have been worth the wait for all of you, because your interest is what drives this blog. Thank you!

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