Category Archives: Gonzo

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 20 – Billy Wagner’s Restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig is Some-thing/where Else (Part 2)

The photograph above is a Portrait of the Gastronomic Artist as a Young Man, which is to say the previous incarnation of Billy Wagner just before he started seriously planing what became his new restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig (N&S) on the wrong part of the famous Friedrichstrasse in Berlin (the section in the Kreuzberg district, rather than the much cooler one in Mitte). I was not in good shape health-wise the evening I visited N&S for the first time on Friday evening, which had the advantage that I didn’t take a very active a part in conversation and therefore had plenty of time to think. Watching Billy Wagner zipping around the restaurant, opening bottles, pouring wines and changing the vinyl on the record player it struck me that N&S is not only the stage on which the new Billy Wagner performs with the grace of a gazelle in its natural habitat, it is the stage which gave birth to the new Billy Wagner! If you doubt this, then I suggest you compare the above picture with the one in Part 1 below and see if you really find no difference.

We return to the Mahlzeit, or meal, just as the oh so very noble, hard and dirty soup course was served. Like many other dishes, you can’t tell what is actually from the “menu”, because it only tells what the main ingredients are and where they came from. In this case it said celery, leak and lamb fat from Bauer Zielke (farmer Zielke). Exceptionally, I think my photo conveys very well what this dish looked like. Either you’ll love this soup’s very low key, delicately rooty and mellow flavor, or you’d find it way too bland and ask for Tabasco or some other form of chili to pep it up, as someone in my group did! (Billy Wagner just laughed at that comment). Every dish at N&S has this potential for controversy to a greater or lesser degree, and if that idea doesn’t excite you I suggest that you don’t go there. Maybe this was a shock for some of the “young and beautiful people” who made up the majority of the guests last Friday, but if so they weren’t showing it. Maybe the pervasive aura of coolness surrounding N&S at this early stage in it’s life distracts some guests from this situation, but that’s an effect that will wane in a short time. Then we’ll see how they take these gastronomic slaps in the face. Not everyone can say, “hit me”, and very few can say it and mean it.

Meat was a single course and – if you really wanted to see things this way – was just about recognizable as a “main course”. I forgot to take a picture of my plate when it arrived and when I was able to take a picture of another plate of this dish later in the evening (the photo above) the piece of meat was much larger than the one I got. I guess that I got about 75 grams / <3 ounces, but feel I should point out that this is all any of us need per day to obtain the protein our bodies need. I’m actively in favor of this portion size, also if it’s goal is to make this dish less of a conventional “main course”. Democracy for dishes and wines is something I strongly believe, but am sometimes not thorough enough about.

This piece of Mangalitza pork neck from the Landwerthof farm was delicious thanks to the exact preparation and the intense flavor of the fat. The caramelized onion with it made it even more schweinisch, or piggy, as Billy Wagner called, and the hint of camomile added a light touch to this fat bomb of a dish. The 1975 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Spätlese – a 30 year old sweet Riesling from the now defunct Rheingau estate of Schloss Groenesteyn – was also the most daring and exciting wine pairing of the evening. The combination of fat and delicate sweetness landed spot on the pleasure center of my brain and I could have wallowed in this dish like a Mangalitza pig in mud. By the way, there is a pig in my name, Stuart deriving from styward, or warden of the pigsty.

Also only slightly sweet was this combination of flower pollen sorbet with elderberries and yoghurt and for my palate this would have been the perfect happy ending to the meal, because the sweet dishes I like are anti-desserts like this. That’s a personal preference though, and not to be taken too seriously if this is a serious review who’s purpose is to assess how good N&S really is according to the motto, “two stars or three?” Before I go any further I have to take that purpose and heave it into the dustbin of history though, because what this story is actually about is figuring out what N&S stands for and what the food, drinks and everything else about it says to us. “I’m not a critic, I’m a free thinker!” Let’s leave this subject right now though, so that the dustbin doesn’t get too full of what seem to me rubbishy ideas before this posting ends.

The other end of the scale to personal preferences are those things that once we taste them immediately make us want to retch. I started eating this dish with the Elstar apple ice and liked the “odd” – an ugly little 3 letter word – contrast with the grains. Then I tried the oat mass and, although I eat quite a lot of oats, the flavor was just too intense for me and I wanted to retch. I consider that quite an achievement by chef Micha Schäfer, because most chefs are so dependent upon being praised, admired, talked about and generally loved to death that they only put stuff they know almost everyone will like on the plate. That narrows down the range of gastronomic possibilities before even ingredients are bought never mind prep begins. Don’t get me wrong, other people in my group loved this stuff. It’s me that was the problem, and the good thing is that Micha Schäfer doesn’t shy away from this kind of collision. As I wrote yesterday, N&S is a gastronomic collision chamber!

With the considerable help of his friends the team, the new Billy Wagner has made N&S this. Everything from the David-Lynch-dim lighting to his own wine selections fits into this dangerous, rag-bag whole without anything ever drifting off in the direction of familiar well-rounded harmonies. I dislike them as much as I like well-rounded answers to difficult questions. That makes this is the Berlin restaurant for me.

For more details go to:

www.nobelhartundschmutzig.com

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 19 – Billy Wagner’s Restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig is Some-thing/where Else (Part 1)

I don’t normally do restaurant reviews, but occasionally my visits to restaurants were so exciting that I ended up writing some kind of “review”. This is such a case thanks to restaurateur Billy Wagner (left), dishwasher Samuel Teye-Osom (centre), chef Micha Schäfer (right) and the rest of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig team (sadly invisible in this “group” photo).

Before I pressed the bell of Nobelhart & Schmutzig’s (N&S) front door in an unlikely off-centre location in Berlin-Kreuzberg I already knew a great deal about the personality behind this new restaurant that dares to declare itself to be oh so noble, hard and dirty. I first met Billy Wagner when he became the sommelier of Weinbar Rutz in Berlin-Mitte a few years back. That was “late”, since many other people in the wine and gastro scenes knew him from his previous job in Düsseldorf. At first I didn’t know what to think of this larger than life Natural Born Waiter, then we slowly became sort-of-friends, although contact was always erratic, and my observation that I’m old enough to be his father (me vintage 1960, he vintage 1981) repeatedly annoyed him. More importantly, many waves of mostly positive comment crashed over his new restaurant even before it opened, then a rogue wave of immense proportions hit immediately after it opened. I haven’t read what people wrote on the social media, blogs and in newspapers, although some of it was reported to me by friends. As the door opened I tried to forget all this stuff before going, and what I could remember certainly didn’t prepare me for the experience.

I stumbled into the dingy space, and immediately felt dazed and confused in this small-town bar on steroids in the wrong location, turned around and saw I was actually in an over-sized Japanese restaurant (all the best places in Japan are small), then sat down at the enormous three-sided bar and felt sure I was actually sitting in the lovechild of Noma (Copenhagen’s most famous joint) and New York’s Momofuku Ssäm (David Chang’s luxurious street food emporium). It is all of this, but also defies any simple description. Then it was clear that the long gestation process before the lovechild’s birth wasn’t due to any problems, but had been necessary for all of these facets to align in this precise pattern. Diamonds and movies both have to be cut, and N&S had to be cut too.

Not that every aspect of the evening was “perfect” in the conventional sense of that nasty little 7 letter word. The two surprising, but playful amuse bouche – ramps roots with mayonnaise, then goats milk cheese nuggets coated with elderflower – along with the delicious white bread and butter (from Stettin in Poland) count as dishes in the 10 course Mahlzeit, or meal, that is the only solid nourishment on offer. I’m all in favor of breaking down the hierarchy of dishes, so it is seriously inconsistent of me to now “complain” about these details. And let me say right away that whatever other criticisms I have – the wine list is too complex for me to read, but maybe I’m just way too linear? – the 80 Euros which the N&S Mahlzeit costs is a wound I will inflict on my credit card as often as I can.

The super-delicately flavored trout from Müritz in the state Mecklenburg served with potato purée and almost raw chicory (pictured above) announced that regional products are not a fad here, much less a politically correct reflex, but are at the very heart of what N&S aspires to be. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this restaurant is trying to reinvent the regional identity of this city, and with dishes like this Micha Schäfer has already got a long way along down that path. Yes, this dish doesn’t look like that much if you’re used to all the clever fancy stuff that passed for gastronomic creativity before the Age of Noma, but I think even my so-la-la photo does communicate something of the Geist or spirit (it is, of course, a Zeitgeist) of N&S.

“Too many vegetables!” was one comment I heard, but realizing the untapped vegetable potential of the landscape around Berlin (mostly flat with sandy soils, many meandering rivers and lakes – lush green in summer, grey-brown in winter) is a noble cause, which has its hard and dirty sides. So, I was all in for the gherkin with emmer wheat and rowan berries. The combination of textures was as exciting as those of flavor, and all of these ingredients have deep roots in this landscape. In some way, that I can’t adequately describe this fact gave the dish an inner logic behind the interplay of textures and flavors. To some degree you could say that about all the dishes.

Radish is one of my favorite root vegetables and like parsley it feels at home in this region. Blood sausage is something fundamentally German with many subtle regional  variations and personal interpretations, as any genuinely national dish must have. It looks so right, elegant, but also so very down to earth, and that’s exactly how it tastes. I can imagine that this dish is something of a shocker for some of the guests, just as Billy Wagner’s wine combinations sometimes are. His drive to surprise and his delight in astonishing is one of his best traits, and N&S is a collision chamber where all of this takes place within its own space-time. And, I say that although I wasn’t “pleased” – another nasty little 7 letter word – by every beverage and food combination he presented me during the evening. I was always surprised and often astonished.

Now, I’ve reached the halfway point and I’m wondering if this is the right way to tell this very fascinating story. Have I managed to fascinate you, that is to communicate something of the knot of impressions and feelings I had during my hours in N&S? Part 2 – hopefully – tomorrow will therefore not only be a description of the second half of the meal, but a second attempt to nail this story which keeps running away from my hammer and nails. Watch this space!

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 17 – The Vanishing Wine Journalist: Good, Bad or Flaky?

As you can see from the title of this posting it’s Day 17 for me in Berlin this time around, but sometimes it felt like Day minus 17. Several times I’ve walked into wine stores, wine bars or wine tastings and someone here I’ve known for many years said something like, “Oh look who’s here, the vanishing wine journalist!” What they’re referring to is the fact that the Wine Metropole of Berlin used to be my sole home and now New York Wine City also feels like some kind of home to me. They always try to make it sound as if those words are a joke about my new situation as a “bi-polar” journalist, but every time there was something judgmental about their tone, and it was this I didn’t like.

I think what they feel is that I’ve somehow let them down by spending so much time away from the city in recent years, or through my more limit presence here than in the past I’ve forfeited my membership to the Club of Proper Berliners of which they are fully payed up members. They are annoyed with me for behaving in a way that seems to cast doubt on their own commitment to this city. Of course, the doubt is all in their minds, for I have never questioned the importance of this place. As a whole Berlin is the most creative, relaxed and liberal city in the German-speaking world, but their attitude doesn’t fit into that. However, theirs is a highly parochial and narrow-minded attitude that demands people be divided up into neat groups (including those of the Good, the Bad and the Flaky – in their eyes I belong to the latter group). This is definitely the worst side of Berlin, and clear proof that the city still has some way to go before it’s fully cosmopolitan in the way New York is. I am doing my best not to let it get me down, much less cramp my style, because there’s so much else about Berlin that is so positive!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 8 – That Strange and Rare Substance Called TRUTH

Yes, this blog is all about that strange and rare substance called truth. Sometimes, I feel as if truth has become something seriously dangerous to be found in possession of. Political leaders of all persuasions, but particularly those of a “nationalistic” type who regard the nation, religion, party or belief-system that they stand for as beyond criticism, have become very anxious to prevent the general population from getting their hands on this substance. One method of achieving this goal, is to deny us access to as many of the facts as possible; another is to remove as much as possible of the context from the facts that are available, so that they become ciphers. What does the above photograph depict? If I tell you it was taken late at night in a street of the town of Geneva in Upstate New York while I was there recently researching the wines of the Finger Lakes, then it might suddenly make a great deal more sense than it does without that information. As Nietzsche wrote, “the context is the facts,” that is the two are as inseparable as space-time are according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In fact, I see a very close parallel between these two things.

This is undeniably a “dark” posting, but although I’ve been sick the last couple of days there’s no direct connection between that and the content of these lines. This stuff has been going through my head for a long time. Let’s face it, as long as life goes on there’s no exit from the situation I’ve just described, although during my lifetime there was certainly a period when it was much less dangerous to be found in possession of  that strange and rare substance called truth. However, political paranoia and the related desire for a clear front between friend and foe have won out again, as they did during the First Cold War. Regardless of the subject, to be a journalist today in the full sense of that word is to take a position that will be attacked by one or more political establishments. For a long time I naively imagined that the harmless subject of wine would protect me, but as long term readers know I often fail to stay on subject, and even if I did, wine connects with so many other fields (most notably, but not only, land-use, economics, global trade, law and science). And I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t the case, as some other journalists writing about wine do. By, the way, the photo above was taken in the ‘Microclimate’ wine bar in Geneva/NY. Watch this space and watch your back!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 36 – Arizona Dreaming – “There are no Facts, only interpretations”

A brief philosophical intro: There’s no way around the fact that the context (the natural and human aspects are so interwoven it’s almost impossible to separate them) in which a wine is produced shape it. However, there’s also no way around the fact that the context in which a wine is experienced no less radically shapes the experience of its smell and taste. A wine tasting in one location with one group of tasters is NOT going to lead to the result as the “same” tasting in another place with another group of tasters, not least because they will taste the location and the contents of their heads every bit as much as the wine in their glass. These too are so interwoven that you can hardly separate them. I write this listening to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana, and I promise you that colors these words too, and it would do so differently if I was hearing it for the first time, rather than for the (still electrifying) thousandth time.

But now, let’s get down to business: Sunday afternoon I forgot all the above for a long moment, because I was focusing on the brass tacks of staging a blind tasting of wines from Arizona plus a couple of pirates from California and France at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn for a group of New York somms (thanks again Alex Allan for the great support, both moral and practical). And that’s how I blindly sailed straight into the dark heart of a storm.

I didn’t begin realize what was happening until one of the somms politely asked me if the winegrowers of Arizona focussed on terroir, French for the taste of the place and NYC-Sommspeak for a taste that is indefinable – je ne sais quoi - in a simultaneously sexy and holy way. I politely pointed out to him how young the contemporary AZ wine industry, but I don’t think he has any idea how hard it is establishing vineyards in locations where there’s no previous generation who’s experiences you can draw upon. Terroir is a luxury for established winegrowers, or, at least, for winegrowers in regions that are well established. It’s also a method for selling wines more expensively (see the example of  Burgundy where the T-word enables some mediocre wines to be sold for fancy prices).

Only after that exchange did I sense how behind that question lurked the expectation – of course! was anything else even conceivable? – that the winegrowers of AZ would be focusing on terroir. You see, in France terroir is holy  and from there this religion has been spread around the world by French winegrowers, their importers and SOPEXA. With it has travelled a mythical France that is a timeless land of wine on the western edge of the wine continent of Europe which the Great God of Wine favored above all others. That this marketing strategy was successful is proven by the prices charged the famous wines of France, which bear no relation to the production costs of them. Of course, I deliberately exaggerate for effect, but also because this way you’ll pay more attention than if I was cautious and understated everything.

The tasting started quite well with a flight of three dry whites. However, when the the first reds – young wines made from the grapes of the Cabernet family – were poured something odd suddenly happened. NYC somms can have a knee-jerk reaction against the combination of the sweet fruity aromas of fully-ripe grapes plus clean, modern winemaking. These wines certainly smelt that way and provoked that knee-jerk reaction. To be fair, I would say that there was a touch of over-ripeness in all of them, that they would have been better without. But did this justify the force of those reactions? Some people seemed to feel they’d been insulted by the wines. In fact, they’d only tasted some wines of a style they personally don’t prefer.

I have to admit here that most of the AZ wines had tasted better to me when I was there in a more relaxed context that was undeniably friendly to them. Many also tasted quite a better and very different after 24 hours further aeration. For example, on the day of the tasting the 2012 “Gallia” from Saeculum Cellars (55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc) had quite an intense sweet redcurrant character, but the next day it was dominated by firm, dry tannins. I’m not arguing with the tasters characterizations, rather pointing out their  vehemence and how that inclined some present to pay less attention to the taste experience. Those somms may also have projected a high alcoholic content and lots of new oak onto the wines, because often in the big wide world of wine those sweet aromas are married to high alcohol and lots of new (in what used to be called “Parker Wines”, after the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr who liked that combination). The AZ wines actually had below 14% and were not full of new oak.

This situation repeated itself with the GSM (named after the combination of the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre grapes in a blend) flight, at which point the attention oif some somms was seriously wandering – we want funky terroir wines, and we want them now! – their comments becoming rudimentary, vague and dismissive. My experience is that at many blind tastings a mood is established early on and casts a show or an aura over all the wines that follow. I’ve been swept along by such moods myself, and am certainly not immune to that effect. In this case it was a deep shadow, as the grudging nature of the praise for impressive wines like the 2012 “Kitsune” (Sangiovese) and 2012 “Judith” (60% Tempranillo, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) from Caduceus Cellars made clear. With that latter wine the tasting ended with an at-least-its-finally-over-and-we’re-all-still-alive mood.

I don’t mind what any individual taster or drinker makes of a particular wine, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and opinions contrary to mine are welcome. My doubts about the tasting have to do with the influence of local culture (the NYC wine scene is no less an island than Manhattan is) and the role group dynamics. As Nietzsche wrote, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

An important conclusion for me: It was interesting to ride this ship through the storm and listen to all the screams (including my silent ones at a couple of moments). When I chewed it all over after I was back home, it became clear to me that my decision to make AZ as a major research project in 2015 is a daring one, and some people here will think me mad for pursuing it. My experience with Riesling has ably prepared me for being out on a limb (particularly when it was totally “out” 20 and more years ago). There’s iron in my soul! I shall proceed regardless of any and all reactions!

Full sail ahead!

 

 

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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 them that’s a horribly rare thing, although a slew of the rich and famous are making wine. Let’s face 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 rather 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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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 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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