Category Archives: STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL

New York Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Faces of City of Riesling

The amazing Amanda Danielson of Trattoria Stella & The Franklin in Traverse City/MI

I got back to NYC from the City of Riesling festival a scant 24 hours ago and the hectic events of last weekend are still going through my head. What I remember most are the people who made it all possible and also gave it such an abundance of life and energy. Without the tireless work of Amanda Danielson it probably wouldn’t have happened at all and certainly wouldn’t have achieved the success which it this first time around after only a few months of planning. And most of that happened while Amanda was busy opening her second restaurant in Traverse City, The Franklin, where she is pictured above. It wasn’t only organizational genius and determination that she brought to City of Riesling, she also played a major role in shaping the content of events that were celebratory, but also asked important questions about Riesling in Michigan and in the United States of Riesling as a whole. Since the turn of the century Riesling has been on a roll in America, but these questions must be addressed if quality is to continue to climb and if consumer acceptance of the wines is to increase in step with that process. The latter is particularly challenging for 35+ year old consumers who often display a fundamental unwillingness to change the way they see wine, and quite possible much else in our world too (a sad attitude that strikes me as being highly defensive).

Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, pictured above with his wife Stacey was also vital in shaping the content and in pulling together the great group of winemakers from right across the nation plus Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring in Ontario, Canada’s leading Riesling producer. Thanks Angelo for that amazing vertical tasting of your medium-dry ‘CSV’ Riesling going back to the delicious 2002. Sorry Angelo, and also my apologies to Meaghan Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes/NY, that I failed to get good solo pictures of both of you during the weekend. However, you are both in the group picture below, taken Monday night at Trattoria Stella. Meaghan is on the left in the front row, Angelo is second from the right in the back row.

As with any subject, when it comes to Riesling there is much accepted wisdom and not all of it is actually helps us making sense of the wines that confront us all in the glass (or the reality of the Big Wide World for that matter). Sometimes ideas are passed around that are either hopeless out of date, or offer only half the answer to a question, but look like complete answers. During a generally impressive tasting of Michigan Rieslings Chris Williams of Brooks in the Eola-Amity Hills/Oregon, pictured below, suggested to me that the question of balance in Riesling – often reduced to the acidity/sweetness balance – is a way of seeing these wines that distracts us from the more fundamental question of whether we want harmony or character. This is a subject I will be following up in the near future, (also in my column in the Sunday edition of the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’ if you read German). Of course, not only his comments generated some controversy, Chris’ T-shirt also did that, also because of the logo of the elite German winegrowers association Verband deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) next to the slogan.

In my recent posting about the Smith Madrone estate winery on Napa/California I forgot to mention the new generation there, Sam Smith, pictured below. The great thing about Sam is that he is utterly grounded in the work his father Stuart Smith and his uncle Charles Smith have done up on Spring Mountain with Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, yet he brings a fresh perspective to all of that resulting from his experience working for wine producers and restaurants around the world. He also has a great sense of humor that helped us avoid sliding into the geekdom too often. The problem with that is once you go into Terminal Geek Out you no longer get any real pleasure except from you yourself think and say, your awareness of other people narrowing until it disappears completely. The problem with all of that is that wine is about sharing (also ideas).

During the City of Riesling there were many great moments of sharing and also some of complete nonsense to balance (there’s that word again!) the more serious ones. Nobody gave us more of these than Spencer Stegenga of Bower Harbor, pictured below, who is also the most under-appreciated Riesling producer in Michigan. His dry 2012 Block II had an intense aroma of blackberry (!) and a great interplay of ripeness, power and lively acidity. It was one of the best wines of the last day of City of Riesling and every bit as distinctive as Left Foot Charley’s new ‘Prose’ of Chateau Grand Traverse’s ‘Whole Cluster’, both medium-dry wines from Michigan.

This blog never descends into that pit of boredom which is decorated with one tasting note after another. However, a number of wines I encountered at City of Riesling deserve a special mention, not least those which are off most somms radar screens. The medium-dry 2013 ‘Stone Cellar’ Riesling from Galen Glen in Pennsylvania and the slightly drier 2013 ‘Golden Bunches’ Riesling from Ferrante in Ohio are the best wines I encountered so far from those states. The Galen Glen wine had a pronounced cassis note along with a cool freshness that reminded me of the smell of wet leaves. Although the Riesling from Ferrante was more exotic, this side of it’s personality was more subtle than in previous vintages and the wine was youthful and delicate too. Lastly, the 2013 Riesling ‘Spätlese’ from Brengman Bros on the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan had a big, bold apricot bouquet that is not at all typical for MI and a succulent interplay of almost razor-sharp acidity and high residual sweetness. Whoever said that sweet Riesling cannot be exciting (unless it’s German) is, to quote Chris Williams’ T-shirt, “a fucking idiot”.

PS A second (Traverse) City of Michigan in 2015 is in the planning!

 

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(Traverse) City of Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Maybe I’m Amazed by The Night of 100 Rieslings!

Yes, yesterday was a seriously amazing day, and it will be very difficult to communicate to those of you who didn’t make it to Traverse City what it was like. You see, I can describe the scene in the tents where the Night of 100 Rieslings took place right on the shore of Lake Michigan in Traverse – the big and colorful crowd – but it’s really hard to help you imagine what the Big Buzz was like. Certainly, there was no trace of that, “yes, great, love it, but…” hesitation about Riesling you often find amongst somms and other wine professionals in the US. However, it didn’t seem like many people had hung their critical faculties on the coatrack when they came in the tent. I heard a lot of people talking about the wines in a serious way, and none of the people who were just drinking were just trying to get inebriated ASAP. I think it’s that combination multiplied by the size of the crowd which made it such a special evening.

Even more difficult to describe, because the situation was totally unfamiliar to me, were the two screenings of my film WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) at the Bijou by The Bay. Pictured left is the queue I found outside the pocket-sized movie theatre when I arrived. Anxiously, I pointed out to the two audiences that lacking a multi-million dollar budget and all the technology behind Hollywood productions with those kind of budgets I felt that I had no choice, but to make a Gonzo b-movie. However, that approach also seemed to me to fit the grass roots phenomenon that is the Global Riesling Network. Air-brushed glossiness doesn’t suit the underdog and I hate all that stuff anyway. However, even a Gonzo b-movie can be made professionally, and I am extremely grateful to Klaus Lüttmer in Berlin (my producer, editor, cutter and third cameraman) and Marcarthur Baralla  in New York City (second cameraman). They made it possible for me to shoot from the hip and only write a full script immediately before the film was cut. You’re not supposed to shoot without a complete script, but it’s also the way that some great movies like David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ were made. And that surely applies particularly to a documentary-type movie like mine, at least if it is going to reflect reality. Both audiences were interested in the result and laughed at it as I’d hoped.

There were some amazing wines in that tent, which I really have to tell you about. The one which wowed me most was the 2011 ‘Poet’s Leap’ Riesling from Long Shadows winery in Washington State. It was an elegant and sophisticated dry wine by any standards, in any context and it proves that Europe doesn’t have a patent on the salty mineral taste that a dry Riesling needs (along with ripeness, freshness, balance, intensity and delicacy) in order to qualify for greatness. Then there were some local surprises like the succulent and subtle 2012 Dry Riesling from Shady Lane on the Leelanau Peninsula. It’s the best white wine Adam Satchwell ever made; congratulations!

We also had the benefit of a local super-group in the form of Girls with Guitars in which a wealth of talent was pooled. I didn’t think that it was possible to do cover-versions of famous songs like Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ that stood on their own rather than sounding second-rate (which is what copies usually are). But I must finish up as today’s Salon Riesling Symposium at The Franklin – where I write this – is about to begin. The first of the four sessions is called ‘United States of Riesling’ and last night proved as conclusively as the recent Riesling Invasion in Portland/OR that this slogan I spat out a some point are now anything but hollow words!

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(Traverse) City of Riesling Diary: Day 1 – This is the Day!

It was one of those perfect moments when the Riesling Spirit seemed to embrace us all. We – a group of local winemakers plus Meaghan Frank from Dr. Frank in the Finger Lakes/NY, Sam Smith from Smith Madrone in Napa/CA and Chris Williams from Brooks/OR  - climbed onto Spencer Stegenga’s boat out at Bowers Harbor (after which Spencer’s winery is named) on Grand Traverse Bay just as the sun was sinking behind the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Then we headed far out from the shore, the waves grew and the sky darkened. Pictured, about an hour into our journey are Sean and Stacey O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse. Unfortunately, the Riesling Spirit is always invisible. Could there have been a more perfect beginning to the City of Riesling festival?

Well just a short while before we headed out onto the bay it looked like boating would be completely out of the question, because of a hefty downpour which abruptly hit the welcome BBQ at Chateau Grand Traverse. Ice buckets full of Riesling, a large table loaded with food and much else had to suddenly pulled in under cover. Don’t worry though it didn’t dampen our spirits and about half an hour later the sun dramatically returned.

OK, I was too slow to capture the double rainbow, but this picture shows very well why this part of Northern Michigan has been attracting ever more tourists from right across America. This is in terms of climate perhaps the most extreme wine landscape on the eastern side of the US, and is also perhaps the most extremely beautiful wine landscapes on the eastern side of the US.

This region and its beauty also makes a guest appearance in my film WATCH YOUR  BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) which has its “world premier” at the Bijou by The Bay movie theatre in Traverse City tonight. Some while say that it was the only moment of beauty in my rough and tumble, no holds barred, Gonzo B movie, and I won’t contradict them. Who knows way lies in store? I’m prepared for just about anything. Unlike my  producer, editor, cutter and additional cameraman Klaus Lüttmer who is back in Berlin, I will have to literally face all the responses… At least the premier is followed by the Night of 100 Rieslings, which is certain to be exciting and blessed by the Riesling Spirit.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Announcing the World Premiere of ‘WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1)’ Sunday Evening at the Bijou by The Bay during CITY OF RIESLING in Traverse City/MI

In the interests of International Security I can neither confirm nor deny that the image above is a still from my recently completed film WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) which has it world premiere at Michael Moore’s Bijou By the Bay movie theatre in Traverse City on the evening of Sunday, July 27th as part of the City of Riesling festival (scroll down to previous posting for more details). However, that is definitely me in the picture and as you can see I’m watching my back. Why? You’ll have to see the movie to get the full answer to that question. However, it has to do with the fact that there are although there are “only” about 12,500 acres of Riesling planted in the US (now the second largest area in the world after Germany) compared with more than 8 times as much Chardonnay, a group of industrially sized Chardonnay produces clearly feel threatened by Riesling’s coolness and the increasingly wide acclaim for it as a “democratic” (i.e. fairly-priced) wine and it’s food friendliness. There is a backlash, and yes, I have felt it. For that reason I recommend any of you who have literally been vocal about Riesling, or actively talking about it in the social media, to watch your backs too.

I only got to see the finished film myself for the first time last night in New York Wine City (NYWC), because my producer, cutter, editor and additional cameraman Klaus Lüttmer had a horrible accident while working in one of his vineyards in the Unstrut Valley a couple of hours drive south of Berlin. This threw him back a couple of days when there were only a few days left, and robbed me of the chance for a final round of corrections. Sure, there are a couple of things that I will tighten up or change, but we are talking about details. Just as I hoped, there are many steep climbs and falls, a few jolts and abrupt changes of direction, some ugly moments and much strange beauty during the movie’s coast-to-coast journey across the US of Riesling. That and the erratic quality of picture and sound, much of it shot and recorded by me with low-budget equipment surely qualify it as a “Gonzo B-movie”, the category I placed the project in before I began shooting here in NYWC back in July 2012. You may well hate it, and possibly with good reason, but I promise you that it isn’t going to leave you cold whatever your taste in movies is.

I look forward to seeing you in Traverse City and don’t forget, WATCH YOUR BACK!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 2 – (Traverse) City of Riesling Welcomes You to Planet Riesling, July 26th thru 28th NOW WITH A COMMENT BY SEAN O’KEEFE

Obviously, I’m not shy, but normally I’m cautious about putting images of myself up here, because sometimes I blow my own trumpet too much in the texts that appear here anyway. However, this image based on a photo by Bettina Keller is so amazing I felt I had to show to to you. Thank you Andy McFarlane for creating this amazing image of me with Planet Riesling (the US of Riesling is clearly visible if you look carefully) behind me. It is part of the promotional material for the City of Riesling event in Traverse City/MI on Saturday, July 26th, Sunday, July 27th and Monday, July 28th. Here is rough outline of the proceedings for what must be the most ambitious US Riesling event this year:

On Saturday, July 26th all the action takes place at a string of wineries on the Leelanau & Old Mission Peninsulas, that is the places where I researched the Michigan section of my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story. Then you can taste for yourself why I devoted pages 53 – 60 to the Rieslings of this beautiful region which many Americans are not even aware produces wine at all!

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 27th Chef Michael Peterson of Siren Hall represents the Riesling Oyster Riot at Traverse City’s popular food truck mecca, The Little Fleet. As many of you already know dry Riesling loves Oysters and this promises to be simply delicious! For those of you who never tried this combination it will be like taking your first steps on another planet of taste.

Sunday evening features the “world premiere” screening of my Gonzo B movie WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) at Michael Moore’s Bijou By the Bay followed by the Night of 100 Rieslings (with wines from all over Planet Riesling) served at a pop-up bar staffed by winemakers and somms plus live music and a farm to table dinner. Please note that I come in peace for all mankind and my movie is a non-profitmaking venture, which means I am not receiving any payment for this or subsequent screenings. And no, I won’t be wearing that red coat pictured above (thanks to Neodandi in Seattle for creating it for me), because it is far too warm for the warm summer weather in Traverse City. You should be able to spot me easily enough though.

On Monday, July 28th the action will move to The Franklin in Downtown Traverse City for ‘Salon Riesling’ a series of four seminar tastings. They begin at 11am and continue to around 5pm, the subjects being (in running order), ‘US of Riesling’, ‘The Eagle has Landed’ with wines from my cellar in Berlin (from Hungary, Italy, the Mosel and Nahe, vintages range from 2009 to 1990), ‘Almost Famous’ featuring the Rieslings of Northern Michigan and finally ‘Riesling Time Machine’ with vertical tastings of Rieslings from Smith Madrone in Napa/CA and Cave Spring in Niagara/Canada.

For more information go to: http://cityofriesling.com

This weekend promises to be something else and unforgettable. The only problem facing it – also facing the wine industry of Northern Michigan on a day-to-day level – is that almost nobody in American knows where Traverse City is, much less has an idea of the quality of Riesling  (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, sometimes also Cabernet Franc, Lemberger and more rarely Pinot Noir) produced on the Leelanau Peninsula (LEEP) and Old Mission Peninsula (OMP)I’ve been following developments there since 2000 from a distance and first visited in October 2005. Since then not only has the area planted with Riesling increased by fully 180% – the fastest growth rate anywhere in the US of Riesling! – but the quality of the wines has leapt into a much higher orbit. There is now a very solid group of producers who don’t need to fear comparisons between their wines and those produced anywhere else on Planet Riesling. They are now approaching Earth orbit escape velocity and are about to set course for the Outer Planets and beyond, just like Voyager 1 and 2 did back in the 1970s.

Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse – “we don’t have a chateau and it’s not very grand, but we love Riesling” – was the Mission Developer for the ‘City of Riesling’ event amongst the region’s winemakers, but without the software and hardware of Mission Controller Amanda Danielson of Trattoria Stella and The Franklin it might never have achieved lift-off. Of course, there are also the astronaut winemakers and many ground staff, not least Michael Albaugh of Nu Art Signs who designed the logo which tells you where Traverse City is. My movie would never have got this far if it wasn’t for Klaus Lüttmer, my producer, editor, cutter and extra cameraman in Berlin. Thanks to everyone who believed in this Mission and God’s Speed to us all this coming weekend!

COMMENT BY SEAN O’KEEFE:

The following comment was received from Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, regarding the “chateau”. That quote of his above is indeed old, dating back almost a decade. I feel Sean’s comment below deserves a reply:

Of course it’s grand! ( I am not that self deprecating to not recognize that).  No chateau yet though, just give us a century or two to quarry the rocks!

Sure, even ignoring the question of its architectural merit, Chateau Grand Traverse is “grand”, because it’s the largest Riesling producer east of the Rockies. I thought that would be one of the big Finger Lakes wineries, but no. Personally, I’m not a fan of fancy winery architecture always tasting according to the motto, “what do I want to drink, a great wine or a beautiful chateau?” In this case I found the beautiful scenery way more distracting than the winery architecture.

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Oregon Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Faces of the Riesling Invasion

“I used to be a normal person, then I found Riesling!” Barnaby Tuttle of the Tuetonic Wine Co., one of the most high profile winemakers in the Riesling Invasion Force of Oregon. As you can see from his eyes, this Mosel-inspired West Coast winemaker is not someone who does anything by halves, and along with the quality of his medium-sweet Riesling this has put his wines on the lists of some very cool New York Wine City (NYWC) restaurants. This was just one of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind that about 300 paying guests and I had yesterday afternoon at the second and decisive Riesling Invasion staged in this state. Although what I tasted didn’t want me to turn the text about Oregon in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (#BWWOE) upside down, several producers who I had praise there have been able to push the quality of their Rieslings up another couple of notches since the last time I encountered their wines, most notably Trisaetum and Anam Cara; congratulations to the teams of both wineries on their excellent 2013s!

More importantly I found some very interesting new producers who look ripe for inclusion in a future edition of #BWWOE. Maybe the Rieslings of Oregon look like a crapshoot to some of my colleagues and Riesling-sceptics in the state’s wine industry, but to me the situation is much better described as creative chaos. Stuart Pigott’s Law of Winemaking Creative Chaos says that create chaos times time divided by self-criticism equals exciting new wines. The Rieslings that Kelly Kidneight (see above) has made at Mad Violets are a perfect example of this phenomenon. As good as her 2011 Riesling is she felt it was lacking excitement, “so in 2012 I went native!” she told me, meaning that she did a eco-called “native fermentation” with ambient yeasts instead of adding powdered yeast from the packet. This might have been a dangerous path if she was making dry wines, because native fermentations can stop by themselves long before all the grape sugars have been converted into alcohol (and various fermentation bi-products). However, for her medium-sweet style that was not a problem and the 2012 has an interplay of racy acidity with aromatic sweetness with Hitchcock-like suspense.

She’s not the only winemaker in this part of the United States of Riesling to have decided that the medium-sweet, but bright and crystal-clear style of wines is better-suited to the acid-rich fruit that the climate here leads to. Brian McCormick (above) is based a short distance over the border in Lyle/Washington State and his 2013 “Idiot’s Grace” from the Columbia Gorge is at once succulent and vibrant, packed with the aromas of flowers and leaves dripping after summer rain (I kid not!) That’s a remarkable achievement considering that his first Riesling vintage was only 2009. I wish I could drive straight out to see his high-altitude vineyards where the Mediterranean red Grenache grape and Riesling are picked within a week of each other. That’s seriously crazy and against all the textbook rules; there’s no Grenache in the European Riesling regions, because it simply wouldn’t ripen properly there. However, I have to head back to NYWC on Monday, so this is sadly impossible.

Maybe it could sound as if John House of Ovum (above) is pushing an all too fashionable envelope with his 2013 Riesling that was fermented in concrete eggs and neutral oak (dear winemakers of the world, I humbly suggest that no vessel is truly neutral). However, this richly textural wine with a hint of floral honey and pronounced salty-mineral finale is far removed from contemporary winemaking cliches. For me the inspiration of Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace (see the Alsace chapter of my book for more details) is clearly apparent here, and why not. Inspiration is what the Oregon wine industry needs, not another boatload of glibly-fruity, sweet-tasting Pinot Noir reds and Pinot Gris/Grigio whites. There’s already too much of that kind of stuff being pumped into the market place alongside the many well-made, more or less elegant, dry wines that the state is rightly renowned for. The Oregon wine industry really needs to watch out, because that glibly-fruity, sweet-tasting stuff made from grapes best turned into dry wines could ruin their very good name.

Yesterday at the Riesling Invasion, a group of Willamette Valley winemaker-musicians provided it in the form of some seriously original reinterpretations of jazz classics that sounded as good as I believe Oregon’s wine future will taste when the Riesling Invaders have grabbed a larger share of the vineyard territory and kicked their creative chaos process a lot further down the road. This is a story I intend to follow closely during the months and years to come, so WATCH THIS SPACE for further reports of the Invasion Force that is creeping into the Willamette Valley.

 

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Oregon Riesling Diary: Day 1 – The Riesling Invasion begins Saturday, July 19th (in Portland/Oregon)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normally I don’t ever quote press releases, much less reprint entire texts, but what Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines in Oregon has written about the impending Riesling Invasion that begins on Saturday, July 19th in Portland/Oregon is so good here it is in full:

HG Wells (or even Orson Welles) couldn’t have planned so stealthy an invasion, but after years of groundwork, Riesling has broken out of the Willamette Valley and is coming to claim Portland! As part of the annual Summer of Riesling celebration, Portland will be invaded by 39 wineries pouring 100 different Rieslings.

The Riesling Invasion takes place on Saturday, July 19th from 4-8 PM at the Olympic Mills Building, 107 SE Washington Street, Portland. Tickets for the public are $30 in advance (purchase them online at  http://rieslinginvasion.com ) or $35 at the door. A complete list of the winery participants can be found on the same website.

“Riesling Invasion is great example of the sense of community shared by Riesling producers all over the world” says Jani Brooks, of Brooks Winery in Amity.  “RI gives us an opportunity to gather and celebrate Riesling, to change stereotypes associated with Riesling, and to connect with other Riesling fanatics looking for the next level of acidity. What an extraordinary – and fun — event!”

Adding to the festivities, Vin Halen, an all-winemaker band from the Willamette Valley will be performing during the event. There will also be food available ( but not included in price of admission) via a cluster of food vendors: Olympic Provisions will be there with their hot/brat dog cart, Andrea Slonecker’s Pretzel stand (the go-to pairing for Riesling!), and Xico for Mexican style grilled corn. Legendary Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones is also slated to attend with a selection of cheese that will be perfect with the range of Rieslings being poured.

But wait, there’s more! Renowned author Stuart Pigott will be in attendance with his new book “Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story” and he will be selling and signing the book for attendees. Pigott has traveled the world documenting its top riesling regions and producers and this book delves into the history of these people and places. Says Pigott, “Finally, the Riesling Invasion has arrived in Oregon and is clearing out all that Pinot Noir fog! This invasion is actually innovation, giving Oregon its first great dry white wines.” And if that’s not enough, the folks from Summer of Riesling (sponsored by Ambonnay Champagne Bar) will be there with plenty of swag!

Follow us on Twitter- @RieslingInvader and Instagram- #rieslinginvasion. For further information, images, photos, quotes, or interviews, contact: Jess Pierce, Brooks Winery Phone: 225.328.0706  jess@brookswine.com

PS Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten my promise! A text is in progress. 

 

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California Riesling Diary: Day 7 – A Promise That I Will Keep

My couple of days in Monterey are about to come to an end. They seemed even shorter, because I had to spend one of them chained to my desk working on an urgent article for the German wine magazine FINE (that is the long article was in German). Never mind, yesterday I was able to head down the coast with my traveling companion Wolfram Eberhard from Berlin. Looking out over the Pacific all my work seemed about as far away as Asia is on the other side of that ocean and I felt close to the banks of fog climbing the coastal hills in the distance. Then over a sandwich and a beer at The Bakery in Big Sur a moment of inspiration gave me the opening words for my next book, and reminded me that for some time I’ve been meaning to write some kind of statement. I’m not talking about a “mission statement”, because I’m not working according to the instructions of the Commander in Chief, God or anyone else high up. And my statement will also be full of questions that I’m asking myself, and think might be worth you asking yourselves too. There will be no neat, round answers, because those things are like wet pebbles that slip through your fingers in a moment. Hard facts are more like jagged little rocks, but it’s hard work hunting them down, and this is something I’m still working on. Please don’t expect too many of them and please be patient, because this thing is going to take a few days if it is to be any good and I do believe in good. However, delivering this statement is a promise that I will keep.

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California Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Smith Madrone Magic

Why do I do this job? Why am I more excited about it than ever before? Because of people like Stuart (left) and Charles Smith (right) of Smith Madrone estate on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Before I visited them yesterday I knew that they’re two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling, but since my visit I would say they’re also unsung heroes of American Chardonnay and American Cabernet Sauvignon. These are actually all world class wines, however I think it’s important to emphasize that although the Smith brothers are inspired by certain Western European wines, those which they produce are American thru and thru. What their wines never do, however, is neatly fit into any of the currently Fashion Wine stereotypes, American or global, because they all have genuine style by the bucket load. Of course, that means that certain critics, somms, collectors and wine fans don’t take them seriously, and maybe never will. The most refreshing thing of all about the Smith brothers is that – as I think you can clearly see from my picture – this situation doesn’t get Stuart and Charles down in the least, quite the opposite. Their quiet confidence derives from the conviction that they’re doing the right thing (also that they’ve considered all the other options and rejected them with good reason), and from the fact that there are more than enough wine drinkers out there who appreciate the Smith-Madrone wines for them to sell out at healthy prices.

At least part of the secret of this is their location on Spring Mountain where they’ve planted 35 acres of vineyards (9 acres of which are Riesling), an area of mixed forest (pictured above is a stand of redwoods) and some grassy hillsides, part of which they use as a shooting range. From up here they look down upon the floor of the Napa Valley where wine can be produced more cheaply and sold more easily the waves of well-to-do tourists who pass through at this time of year. Up on their section of Spring Mountain there are almost zero tourists and wine is far more arduous and expensive to produce. This has encouraged the development of a very different spirit and I think you can read that in their faces. When Stuart Smith said to me, “California goes over the top. That’s what Hollywood is all about,” he was defining the Smith Madrone position as one of opposition to that. That’s not a willful form of opposition though, but a very considered one. The Smith brothers have a position and that, no less than their special location, is what makes these wines so very different from the Napa and Californian norms.

Of course, the mere fact of growing Riesling in Napa Valley (the vineyard is pictured above) seems like a revolutionary act to some people in the California wine industry, but the wines I tasted ranging from 2013 back to 1994 were not only of consistently high quality, they were also also utterly distinctive. “I think the reason we’ve done so well with Riesling is that the concept of balance is fundamental to what we do. We’re in a different and warmer region than Riesling’s homeland in Germany, so we’ve been able to make the wines with less sweetness,” Stuart Smith explained. In fact, recent vintages have been properly dry and wonderfully expressive (see the hit list of the best 20 dry wines on Planet Riesling in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH). The aromas range from white peach and lemon to dried flowers and herbs, the acidity is bright and enormously refreshing without a hint of sharpness. With age a note that reminds me of quince jelly develops. If you want a “dry” white that tastes lush and creamy, sweet and heavy like the Rombauer Chardonnay, then run for cover! This is not the wine for you! However, if you want to feel fully alive and you aren’t afraid of acidity, then you could find this wine seriously exciting.

It was interesting to taste how when the wines are young the Chardonnay and the Riesling from Smith Madrone share some aromas,  and the Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons share something vital in a less direct way; dry elegance and brightness. That says to me how strongly the personality of this site asserts itself. More words are not necessary to convey the essentials of these wines, except perhaps to mention that the Smith Brothers 1996 Riesling was one of the best mature American Rieslings I ever tasted. Which other American Rieslings can match its vitality and uniqueness of flavor? The current vintage costs just $27, making it one of the great dry white wine bargains.

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California Riesling Diary: Day 3 – B(ring) Y(our) O(wn) R(iesling) at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the publication of #BWWOE than with the BYOR event yesterday evening at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco/CA. The most extraordinary mix of people (including someone who came from New York Wine City to be with us!) gathered at an over-sized table in this great restaurant, each bringing at least one bottle of Riesling with them which we then drank blind. Of course, when you let people decide for themselves – the democratic Riesling Spirit! – then you don’t know what’s coming, but we had an amazing global selection of Rieslings ranging from the super-elegant, peachy, but bone-dry 2000 ‘Cuvée Frédéric Emile’ from Trimbach in Alsace/France to the succulent and citric 2013 Bendigo Riesling (Spätlese-style) from Auburn in Central Otago/New Zealand. All of this was received with great openness, also several Mosel Rieslings from the 2003 vintage, which was panned by the US wine press when it came (oh, how well the best of these wines have aged!)

For me it was also the first experience of State Bird Provisions acclaimed cuisine. It made sense that Alice Waters of Chez Panise in Berkeley/CA was sitting at the next table, because this cuisine would have been impossible without what Alice did several decades ago to convince diners that ingredient quality and distinctiveness is more important than fancy Haute Cuisine preparations. It’s impossible for me to pick out a single dish, because all the almost 20 dishes which came to the table dim-sum-style were spot on. Sure, there were Mexican and Italian elements, but the way it was all done was totally Californian Melting Pot. As I’ve written before, the Melting Pot is also a cooking pot, and the Global Riesling Network is the perfect partner for this culinary cross-cultural pollination.

Sadly, I know have to leave San Francisco, but next stop is the Smith Madrone winery on Spring Mountain high above Napa Valley, and they make one of the best dry Rieslings in America. WATCH THIS SPACE!

PS Many thanks to Dade and Petra Thieriot and the team of Dee Vine Wines for the enormous effort they put into my three events here in the city! And a special thank you to Johannes Scheid of Dee Vine for being the MC of yesterday’s complex tasting.

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