Category Archives: ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

The story of the underground rock star winemakers of America.

Bordeaux Wine Diary: Day 4 – The Blank Sheet

Léoville BartonI’m sitting in an office that looks like countless other offices in rural France – cream colored walls, filling cabinets and desks, a framed map of the company property on the wall – but I’m not just anywhere in rural France, I’m in Bordeaux (BDX), and I’m not anywhere in BDX either. The commune of St.Julien at Château Léoville Barton, one of the elite Grand Cru Classé properties in the Médoc; fame and fortune! I just finished a two-hour tasting of only six wines, Château Léoville Barton of the vintages from 2010 through 2015. What made that tasting absurdly time consuming? Why didn’t I just suck up all that good juice down, then wallow in it, instead of hunkering down and hammering away on my ageing MacBook Air in a corner of this office?

The simple answer is that shortly after I arrived in BDX I resolved I would treat the region and its wines as a blank page. That was at the breakfast early on Monday morning at Château Mauvesin Barton in the AOC of Moulis where I have been staying since Sunday evening. In fact, that isn’t anything else than my regular determination to treat each glass of wine I encounter as just that: another glass of wine that either tastes good or doesn’t. I was once told told by a rather important colleague that this is “empiricism”, a term thrown out with a pejorative tone, as if to say, “OK, young man, you might have a bunch of experience and be reasonably intelligent, but I can’t take you seriously!” For me empiricism means nothing but acknowledging how I experience the world – my truth – also that part of it in the wine glass – my truth in wine.

It felt good to make that resolution and I was quietly confident that I wouldn’t find it difficult to keep, because it isn’t difficult for me to do so on a regular basis in Berlin or New York. However, as soon as I started tasting I found it was much more of a struggle here in BDX. The problem is all the baggage in my head. Lugging that around is real hard work. In my case, this is the residue of all the great BDX red wines I drank during the last 35 years on the positive side, and various negative experiences I had in this region and with its wines, on the other side. At almost every moment I felt torn more in one direction or the other, and it was a real challenge to simply merely calm.

There will be more about both those things in the first of my forthcoming series of stories for the Grape Collective website about BDX, but in the meantime let’s continue along this diversion I’ve taken. Watch that space soon!

There’s also plenty of baggage just lying around this place, for example, the famous classification of the wine châteaux of 1855. The proposals various colleagues of mine made for a new classification or for an updating of the existing would only perpetuate the hierarchical structure that pervades the BDX wine industry. Undoubtedly, there are places in the region where it is much easier to make a great wine than others, because some vineyard locations make a sensational grape quality possible that can’t be obtained elsewhere, however well you tend the vines. However, the hierarchy of the 1855 and other classifications of the wines have nothing to do with nature and everything to do with the traditional nature of BDX and French society, in spite of the French Revolutionary principle of Égalité. Although the rigidity of that society has been significantly loosened in recent years you still bump into it. If I look at the way my colleagues are judging these wines, then I have to say most of them are following it some degree.

Jean-Pierre Foubet, Chasse Spleen

Given all that it was appropriate that the best discovery I made during this trip was Château Brans Grand Poujeaux in the AOC of Moulis en Médoc. It’s not even a Cru Bourgeois, the lowest rung of the hierarchy of wine estates here, but the wines are rich and subtle. Moulis has a history of bucking the system and to good effect. One of the first exciting young red BDX wines I tasted was the 1978 Château Chasse Spleen, also an unclassified wine estate in Moulis. While exploring Moulis yesterday it was striking how the wines of Chasse Spleen have maintained an astonishing stylistic consistency since then, always being sleek, fresh and dry and the quality slowly inched up too thanks to the work of director Jean-Pierre Foubet (pictured above) and his team. Around the corner at Château Poujeaux quality is also and the wines have a completely different style again, one that’s suave and elegant. With the 2011 vintage Château Mauvesin Barton became the fourth top producer in this AOC. Even the best recent vintage of all these wines can be found for under Euro 30 a bottle, or a slightly higher number if you’re paying in US$. See www.wine-searcher.com.

Another piece of baggage lying around is the global prejudice that BDX reds are expensive wines, but that turns out only to apply to about 3% of the production of this region: the famous and classified growths. However, even there the differences are huge. 2015 is an excellent vintage here (and most of the better wines will be bottled in a few months time) and the Léoville Barton I just tasted has a combination of ripe black fruit aromas, concentrated dry tannin and fresh acidity that creates an elegant and ravishing whole. You can buy it on futures for a little over Euro 60, and although that’s not cheap it’s certainly not wildly expensive.

Let’s put that in the crazy local context though. The rather lusher and slightly softer, more immediately appealing 2015 from neighboring Château Léoville Poyferré is also a very impressive wine in a more “modern” style for perhaps Euro 5 more per bottle. That seems like consistent pricing until you turn to the other Léoville in St. Julien: Château Léoville las Cases. It’s 2015 sells for about Euro 100 more than that per bottle. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about that vintage, because the Château wouldn’t give me an appointment although I have only written positive things about their wines. That’s not the point here though. In BDX pricing is all about the classification (all three Léovilles are 2eme Grand Cru Classé) and reputation – Léoville las Cases has the highest of the trio. The Médoc Château with the best combination of classification – 1er Grand Cru Classé – and reputation is Lafite Rothschild in the commune of Pauillac immediately to the north of St. Julien. For a bottle of the 2015 vintage of that wine you’ll have to pay another Euro 300 more than the Léoville las Cases of the 2015 vintage. These situations only apply to the top 0.3% of Bordeaux wines though. As Abba famously sung, “Money, money money / Must be funny / In the rich man’s world.”

An old saying says that the higher you climb the further you can fall, and this is very true of this kind of wines. The effect on me of those highs (in wine prices) and those falls (when the taste doesn’t measure up to expectations) multiplied over 35 years are what I’ve been struggling with. The struggle has been well worth while though, and I managed enough calm to gather a lot of new impressions and get a lot of new ideas. However, time is running out to write the first of my BDX stories for Grape Collective…see you there soon.

ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – WATCH YOUR BACK the Riesling Movie (Part One)

WATCH YOUR BACK

Although work on my movie was completed several months ago my thoughts have returned to it, because my producer and I recently submitted it for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. We feel this would be an ideal venue for it given the unconventional nature of the work. Here is a brief introduction to the project which I began planning in 2013, and for which shooting and editing began in earnest early in 2014. Before leaving New York I did a small private screening for a group of friends and it was encouraging to hear how they found the result funny, but also informative and to see how well they responded to its distinctive style and tempo. Of course, not everyone will love it!

Of course, even the title of the documentary movie I made together with producer, editor and cameraman Klaus Lüttmer of Berlin in Germany will strike many people as abnormal. Either half of the title looks fine on its own, but the combination of the two halves is downright strange. That’s because the 65 minute movie tells a seriously strange story, and we felt it would be cruel to make viewers expecting a regular movie of the kind Hollywood churns out, when it’s actually light years removed from them.

Making this kind of movie wasn’t our intention at the beginning though. Then our goal was to make an entertaining 20-30 minute film about the Riesling grape, its wines and the global network of fans who drink and celebrate them. I’m a British wine journalist living in Berlin and New York and Klaus, who also makes wine in the Ex-East Germany, felt that I would provide a colorful anchor. Believe me, we wanted to tell a seductive tale of wine and food, funky winemakers and beautiful wine regions scattered around the world. However, the unexpected and shocking events that unfolded during the shooting swept us along in a gonzo direction far removed from our original plan. Or would you call it normal that some fans of one kind of wines threaten the lives of certain fans of another kind of wine?

We live in strange times and WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) explores this situation with brutal honesty. When Klaus and I began shooting in New York City and Berlin in 2013 Klaus Lüttmer and I were rather naïve, but it wasn’t long before we realized that our movie could only end up being a dark and disturbing tale drenched in fear and paranoia. Sometimes that made it exciting to work on, but at other times I literally feared for my life as a group of fanatical Chardonnay fans pursued me across America from Venice Beach in LA to Manhattan in New York. Were they only trying to frighten me off promoting Riesling, or were they seriously intending to rub me out? It wasn’t clear.

A number of things made that last possibility seem plausible. The booming American wine market of the early 21st century was the scene of battle for market share and Riesling enjoyed a sustained renaissance there that culminated in a “Summer of Riesling” being celebrated each year in bars and restaurants coast to coast. On the other hand there are almost 100,000 acres planted with Chardonnay in California and the producers of the big brands of these wines form a lobby who didn’t welcomed any of this. No doubt they would have been delighted if all the Riesling advocates had been spooked into silence. Maybe the fanatics making up the self-styled Chardonnay International Army (CIA) were operating without industry support or financing, but their actions appeared to meet with the tacit approval of the Chardonnay lobby.

The prime motive of Klaus Lüttmer and I was to record these events in a form that accurately reflected their nature. Shooting “from the hip” with cameras small enough not to attract attention was often a matter of necessity, but as this strategy developed we quickly came to relish the edgy look it gave our movie. The fact that I ended up shooting large sections of the movie myself – I have a BA in Fine Art from a London art college, but I’m not a trained cameraman – accentuated the grungy aesthetic we locked ourselves into.

However discrete I tried to be about that material my activity with the camera was noticed by the thugs who were trying to intimidate me. To our horror this inspired them to send us a series of videos that made their threats gruesomely explicit. Fearing that it would only enrage them further we bit the bullet and included this material in our movie. It makes an extreme counterpoint to the thoughtful analysis of the development of the global wine industry provided by experts like economist Dr. Karl Storchmann of NYU, but this also seemed to say something important about the contemporary wine world. Wanting to include all those facets made the movie stretch and stretch until we reached 65 minutes.

The result is totally different from other recent documentaries on wine subjects such as Somm (dir. Jason Wise, 2013) or American Wine Story (dir. David Baker, 2014). Nor is there much similarity between our movie and the feature films Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne, 2004) or Bottle Shock (dir. Randall Miller, 2008). Our recommendation is that you see it and if you end up cheering for Riesling, then watch your back!

ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

 

 

 

 

 

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New York Wine Diary: T minus 5 Days – My BDX Re-Search

Damien Sartorius

My New York days are numbered and I am busy packing up all my stuff, part of which is going back to Berlin where I will spend the winter and part of which is going into storage here in NYC where I will return to search for a new home in the spring. This unexpected and unwelcome change is thankfully not the only thing happening now. On Sunday November 13th I am flying to BDX (Bordeaux) for a week of research, or as I sometimes call it re-search for a series of articles about BDX for the Grape Collective website. Why?

BDX and I go back a long way. In the spring of 1981 when I was a barman at the Tate Gallery Restaurant in London I tasted my first high-end red Bordeauxs (1971 Château Cheval Blanc was the most decisive experience) and was instantly fascinated. However, my love affair with these wines has been stormy with moments of complete elation, but also some painful shocks leading to periods of virtual abstinence. Of course, the dramatic price rises also dampened my enthusiasm for these wines, but that’s nothing specific to me. Most people have price limits for an everyday bottle and for special bottles, and when your favorite wines break them you either reluctantly abandon them or ration yourself. She who bought herself a 12 bottle case of a particular chateau in every good vintage now either buys a 6 pack (which have become very common since the post 2000 price rises) or buys none at all. This – the erosion of traditional markets and their replacement with nouveau riche markets – is unquestionably a challenge for BDX. The same must also be said of the almost complete disconnect between the market for the top 2-3% of the region’s production and the rest. These are subjects worthy of investigation.

For me there are other, more important reasons that I’ve decided to shortly return to BDX and one of them is pictured above. I got to know Damien Sartorius of Châteaux Léoville Barton, Langoa Barton (both in St. Julien) and Mauvesin Barton (in Moulis) last year in New York and stunned by how much he knew given his age. He is just 26. From the beginning he was asking me when I was coming to BDX and the better I got to know him the more certain it became that I would take him up on his offer to help me write something new about BDX. My goal is to shatter the unquestioned “truths” that are actually just oft-repeated myths and to hang all the boring journalistic clichés out to dry. What Damien is – a winegrower and winemaker with a profound understanding of all the technical issues relating to the production of red BDX with an extremely cosmopolitan appreciation of wine – made me decide in advance to give him a major role in the story.

Of course, every story needs to develop a life of its own, and my story will acquire it’s own dynamic very quickly once I get started. The flights are booked. During the next few days a program for my week in BDX will begin taking shape, then I will start work on the first of the series of stories I will be writing for the Grape Collective website. Of course, that is where my stories about the hipster somms of NYWC  (New York Wine City) appeared. As in that series I won’t hesitate to say exactly what I think, and I shall also adopt an “anthropological” approach to my subject. However, BDX isn’t NYC and the nature of the land and the culture of the region will also shape my story.

To get me thinking I will be tasting and drinking some red BDX, as I did the other day at Racines on Chambers Street with Damien (Thank you Frederick Wildman for the invitation). That first serious taste in a long time immediately connected with my memories of that first Close Encounter of the Third Kind back in the London of 1981, it made me think back to all the sensational bottles that kept my love affair with BDX alive, and made me remember how for decades I yearned for a world in which I could afford to drink top BDX wines at my own expense from time to time. One thing I now know for certain is that this “better” world is never coming. The question at the front of my mind is therefore if there’s also some good news from BDX. Watch this space to find out!

150810_rockstars_rz 

 

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FLX Wine Diary: Day 1 – Knapp’s Reinvention and the 2016 FLX Wine Harvest

Belinda & Jerry

I just arrived in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) where the wine harvest has been briefly interrupted by some rain showers that are actually a welcome change from the long dry summer. It would take several inches more rain to pull the region out of the drought it’s in, but that seems rather unlikely. It wouldn’t be good for the quality of the fruit either, since it could lead to both dilution and rot. Of course there’s a lot of anticipation as to how this vintage will turn out for the FLX after much of the 2014 and 2015 crops turned out so well. That’s why today I leapt at the chance to taste some fermenting wines at the Knapp Winery on Cayuga Lake together with the General Manager Belinda Venuti and the new winemaker Jerry van Vort (pictured left and right above).

Jerry previously worked at wineries in Connecticut and Santa Barbara County, California. As different as the growing conditions in those locations on opposite coasts of the United States are, working in those divergent cool climate regions seems to have prepared him very well for the conditions and general types of wines made here in the FLX. Of course, wines that are still fermenting or have only just finished their alcoholic fermentation shouldn’t be judged in the same way as finished wines in the bottle. Tasting embryonic wines is like reading science fiction. However, it struck me that Jerry’s done a very good job so far at mastering grapes from quite a challenging growing season. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and the Lemberger (a.k.a. Blaufrännkisch and Kékfrankos) red pictured below all made a very good impression. Just look at that color. No filter was used to enhance it, in fact the photograph makes it look paler than it did seen directly.

Knapp Lemberger

 

Knapp is part of the Glenora Group of wineries and getting their own winemaker is important for reasons that go well beyond potential improvements in wine quality. Previously the Knapp wines were made by Steve DiFrancesco of Gelnora Wine Cellars and this lead to the widespread impression that this was just a second label for Glenora, although in recent vintages many of the Knapp wines (particularly the Rieslings) had their own distinctive style. That made a lot of sense, because Knapp has almost 40 acres of their own vineyards and they are located close to Cayuga like, while Glenora Wine Cellars is on the west bank of Seneca Lake. With Jerry’s arrival not only should that style become yet clearer, the independence of Knapp as a winery is finally immediately and easily comprehensible. The winery’s reinvention, which Belinda has been working at for 7 years has entered a new and decisive phase!

PS I continue to be astonished how many people, also people in the FLX, remain unaware of the existence of my e-book (for Kindle – all you need to read it is to download the free app onto your device) about the region and its wines: ROCK STARS OF AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR. This was only published a few months ago and it is by far the most up-to-date in depth report on the subject available. Here is the link to it:

https://www.amazon.com/ROCK-STARS-WINE-AMERICA-FLXtra-ebook/dp/B01FBI0STS?ie=UTF8&keywords=stuart%20pigott&qid=1462714774&ref_=sr_1_1&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

 

150810_rockstars_rz

 

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – How The Hipster Somms Could Get Away With Murder And How We Can Stop Them

Never are the hipster as cool or perfect as when sipping the right “natural” wine!
How The Hipster Somms Could Get Away With Murder And How We Can Stop Them

Yes, Part 4 of my series of outrageous stories about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) was just published on the Grape Collective website and the flack has been flying in my direction. Needless to say, some readers were sure before they read a single word – some of them didn’t seem to bother to read a single word! – that they hated what I’d written and they hated me for having written it. Others seem incapable of grasping the idea that I am trying to describe a concrete phenomenon in the smallest number of words (i.e. an article, that is a series of them, not a damn fat book) and through the use of satire to make this seriously entertaining to read. You see, I really do want you to read it and make up your own minds if, as I hope, I have come rather close to describing the true situation in NYWC. Part 4 tries to analyze how the wine city functions as an ecosystem which competing organisms cohabit; a food web! I gratefully acknowledge the inspiration of Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth (18th century Britain), along with that of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolf (late 20th century America). As we Brits say, the truth will out, and if I’ve done my job well, then I have been its medium. As with the publication of Parts 1-3, I am in Berlin, and it is a weird experience to be on the other side of the Big Pond to where the action is. So be it!

Here is the link to the Grape Collective story:

https://grapecollective.com/articles/how-the-hipster-somms-could-get-away-with-murder-and-how-we-can-stop-them

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New York Wine Diary: Day 11 – ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA Celebrates It’s First Anniversary

The humble beginnings of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA in Brooklyn

Exactly one year ago today I began work on my e-book series (for Kindle) ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA. The photo above shows what that looked like. At that point I was de facto homeless both in NYC and Berlin, so this was a bold decision and I had no idea where this serious commitment to gonzo wine journalism in the land of the free would lead me and an unsuspecting world.

Since then I’ve published three volumes: #1, describing my first trip to the US – Baltimore – in September 1985, described as if it happened yesterday; #2, a report of my encounters with Maynard James Keenan – the singer of Puscifer & Tool – and the other pioneer winemakers of Arizona, most notably Kent & Lisa Callaghan and Kelly & Todd Bostock; #3, the story of the new community of young winemakers in the FLX (Finger Lakes, Upstate New York) including Peter Becraft, August Deimel, Julia Hoyle, Nancy Irerlan and Bruce Murray. #4, about the non-Pinot Noir wines of Oregon is a work-in-progress, publication date to be announced.

It all feels good now, although there was some difficult moments along the way. The sexually explicit material in both #1 and #2 was widely criticized and #3 was damned for the lack of sexually explicit material!  Many thanks to everyone who bought and/or read and/or talked bout this radical new form of wine literature. Also a special thank you to Kate Fitzgerald-Groby for allowing me to house, garden and cat sit for her in Brooklyn while I started work on this project. I greatly appreciate all your support. By the way, not only is no end in sight, but I intend to continue working on this series for the rest of my days, so help me God!

The strange looking link below takes you to the ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA page at the Kindle Store. Once again, you don’t need a Kindle to purchase or read, just download the free Kindle app onto your device. The iPhone and iPad both display these texts in a form that makes them easy to read.

 

Online shopping from a great selection at Kindle Store Store.
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New York Wine Diary: Day 6 – Maybe I’m Amazed by Günter Seeger’s New York Restaurant!

I’m frequently asked what the best wine in the world is, what my favorite wine of all time is, which the best of this or that category of wine, food, restaurant or bar is. The first couple of these questions are completely absurd, because how a wine tastes depends enormously on how you feel, your mood, what you just ate or are currently eating, and the entire situation. Therefore, what feels perfect one day won’t the next. However, even the latter questions that are much more specific are often not easy to answer, because even within a seemingly arrow category like Chinese restaurants there are great differences. In this instance they begin with the fact that there are eight main schools of Chinese cooking and each of these has many local variations. However, occasionally something comes along that is so sensational that I end up saying something like my words at the end of yesterday evening: “that was the best meal I ever had in a New York restaurant!”

I had been invited by a couple of friends to a new restaurant in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan called Günter Seeger after the chef and patron. I first heard about Seeger and his new restaurant a good year ago, long before it opened. Rudi Wiest, a German wine importer based in Southern California with a great feeling for fine cuisine, told me that it was coming and it would be something special. I made a mental note, but did no more about it. I was therefore hardly well prepared for what came. Perhaps that was a good thing though, because the element of surprise definitely added something to the whole experience.

Since I had my first fine dining experiences as a teenager I’ve loved the buzz I get when I walk into a restaurant where hedonism hangs heavy in the air, but I don’t feel that I’m in a temple where I shouldn’t laugh loudly and must show some kind of exaggerated respect for the food on the plate beyond what I show any artist or crafts(wo)man with a special talent and the determination to develop its potential to the full. That’s exactly what it was like last night when I stepped into Günter Seeger’s restaurant, and as the evening progressed the precise, but friendly and unfussy service confirmed my impression this is an establishment that completely rejects all the show, glitz, tricks and BS that so many other fancy NYC restaurants are crushed under the weight of. The problem with all that fancy stuff which has nothing whatsoever to do with the food on the plates and the wine in the glasses is that I also feel crushed by it!

The next thing that stunned me was the wine list, a single large sheet of paper on one side of which were German wines and on the other a selection of wines from all kinds of other places. Finally a German chef in America who isn’t pretending that he’s some vague kind of European, but not actually German. There’s a great German word for that: Lebenslüge, or a life-lie, i.e. being in denial big time. This wine list has a smattering of famous names, but also a healthy number of excellent wines from small producers at friendly prices. For example, amongst other things, we drank the 2013 Spätburgunder from Shelter Winery, a start-up in the Baden region of Germany founded in 2003 by a young couple from the beer-drinking north of Germany.

The reason that I come to the food first in paragraph five is that this is the nature of the restaurant experience when you dine at a high level; a lot happens before that first plate arrives. The Ceviche of Kona Kampachi with Cilantro and Habanero was hardly a radical innovation, but the texture and super-fresh flavor of the fish, together with the balance of the citrus and chilli flavors was exactly spot on. Optically, the food itself was very simple, but the presentation on a porcelain bowl by the Berlin-based ceramicist Stephanie Hering that looked like a snowstorm of diamonds was stunning. This was the moment when I thought to myself, why didn’t I find out more about this chef before I came out tonight? That was the best ceviche I ever had!

Summer Salad with Tomato Sorbet – the second dish of the six course menu – sounded like a cliché, and I feared it might be a nod to vegetarian PC, and possibly even be a filler. How wrong I was. Every type of tomato, the long red pepper of a familiar kind, a piece of perfectly ripe white peach, and the eggplant of a variety I’d never encountered before each had a completely distinctive taste. The intensely flavored tuna sauce (think Vitello Tonato) and tomato Sorbet added decisive accents that unlocked new flavor dimensions from the fresh tomatoes. This is the summer I was missing until that moment.

Grilled Solette Grenoble style is not really my mind of dish, also because normally a punch of caper flavor this powerful is too much for me. However, the fish was also no slouch and dodged that potential blow with the butterfly deftness like that of Mohammed Ali when he was right at the top.

Then came the next sensation. I thought the 50-dayDry Aged Creekstone Farm Beef, Local Chanterelles with Marrow would be a rather conventional dish – hell I cook stuff vaguely like that and I’m not a particularly talented hobby cook – and when it arrived on the table the only unconventional thing about it was the thinness of the steak. What was Günter Seeger doing serving steak? One bite was enough to persuade me that this was the most complex steak I’d ever eaten. The thinness of the steak meant that almost the whole of it was external surface, dramatically increasing the roasted flavors to weight ratio. The marrow added richness to the texture and I felt like I was melting in my own mouth!

I will omit description of the excellent local cheese and the great dark German style bread served with it, but only for reasons of space. The Balivet Bubbles with Rose Petal scented Raspberries was so very delicate and literally almost lighter than air. Then I realized how soothing the interior décor of the restaurant was, although I couldn’t do more than point to the well-judged subdued lighting if asked to explain that more. I had been somewhat distracted by the “action” in the open kitchen, because we were at the Kitchen Table right next to it. What I saw there was exactly the opposite of the Gordon Ramsey mud-wrestling-style theatrical violence. Instead Seeger’s kitchen is a place of Zen-like calm.

Finally, came one of the simplest and most satisfying deserts I’ve had in a long time. However, I have to warn you that the Wild Blueberry Soufflé Glacé with Candied Lemon Peel and Spearmint is packed with heavy cream, but its there for a purpose (a seriously erotic texture). How could the humble blueberry become the basis of a desert at once so rich and so pure in flavor? Right now I can only begin to explain it. Indeed, those words describe Seeger’s cuisine as a whole. And unusually, I felt like the best thing that I could do tonight would be to return and savor those things once again. Neither was I physically over-satiated, nor was there any sense of sensual overload as so often is the case after eating at restaurants working at this level. Maybe I’m amazed by Günter Seeger!!!

For further information see: www.gunterseegerny.com

Günter Seeger NY, 641 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Tel.: (1) 646 657 0045

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New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – The Sea Change in the FLX and the Vineyards Behind It

Harlan Fulkerson, “the man, the myth, the legend!”

Why write yet another blog posting about developments in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) wine industry, and why begin with this photograph? Both are the result of reactions to my previous posting (scroll down to the bottom of this story to find it). You see, some people in the FLX reject my view that the top 2015 Rieslings from the region are great wines, instead considering them “atypical” and therefore inferior to the wines from “normal” vintages. Of course, they’re entitled to their opinion, but I’ve been to this place before and saw what happened.

This situation reminds me strongly of the reception that the 2003 vintage German Rieslings received both at home and abroad.  They too, were rejected as atypical because they were rich, ripe wines, many with a considerable amount of power, but only moderate acidity. It was often said that they couldn’t age although they closely resembled the 1959 vintage, the best wines of which have aged magnificently. And sure enough the best 2003 German Rieslings are aging very gracefully. Of course, if you desperately wanted light, sleek, crisp wines, then the great majority of German 2003 Rieslings didn’t fit the bill, and either the 2002s or 2004s were far more likely to please. However, the whole point of Riesling is the extremely wide spectrum of wine types and styles that this remarkable grape makes possible. Anyone who insists on Riesling wines conforming to one narrow taste profile is rejecting that diversity, but even supposedly sophisticated wine professionals who praise that ability of Riesling to be versatile do this!

Back to the FLX though. 2015, like 2014 before it, was a vintage that can’t be described in just a few words, not least because it has two distinct sides: success and failure with rather few wines in the middle between them. In spite of the differences between the two growing seasons, in both cases success was all about excellent viticultural practices that prevented rot gaining an early foothold on the grapes. When that enabled they could  hang on the vines ripening further well into October, and in 2014 sometimes into November. For reasons that probably relate to the small size of the crop, the ripeness in 2015 was even higher than in 2014, the aromas of the best wines often heading in the exotic fruit direction, rather than the peachy and citrusy directions that dominated in 2014. Exotic fruit aromas in young FLX dry Rieslings is something many people in the industry aren’t familiar with, although, for example, some of the 2001s showed this kind of character.

The two things which have changed since then, since I first visited the region in October 2004, are the winemaking and the viticulture. The former has been written about at considerable length (though often inadequately), but the role of the latter in the sea change that’s occurred in the FLX is rarely more than mentioned in passing. However, it is cleaerly the more crucial factor responsible for the leap in quality at many producers.  That’s the reason I put a photo of leading grape grower Harlan Fulkerson of Lahoma Vineyard on the west bank of Seneca Lake at the top of this post, and another picture of him with Kelby Russell (right), the winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on the opposite bank of the lake.

Harlan has just shy of 100 acres of vineyards of which almost 40% is planted with vinifera grape varieties, of which the most important is Riesling. He was encouraged to plant this grape by Dave Whiting, the owner of Red Newt, and the first vines went into the ground in 2007 (internally referred to as the “7er block”). Harlan, or The Big H as he is often referred to, is a larger than life personality who combines great determination to perfect grape growing in the FLX with a wicked sense of humor. For example, the last time I visited Lahoma Harlan said that 2016 was, “the driest goddamn year I ever saw. The corn is so short a racoon has to bend down to pick it!” A typical Harlanism! More important for the subject of this posting though was the impeccable state of the vineyards when I saw them last week. There was no sign whatsoever of the powdery mildew I saw in some other vineyards, and the balance of canopy to fruit at Lahoma was just about ideal.

Nobody can quite figure out how Kelby and Harlan make such a great team, maybe it’s because their both unconventional perfectionists. Two of the most important new Rieslings in the region, the dry The Knoll (first vintage 2013 recently released) and medium-dry The Big H (first vintage 2014, set for fall release) from Red Newt Cellars are sourced from Lahoma Vineyard and are therefore the result of this collaboration. Like so many of the other new wines in the FLX they represent radical stylistic innovations. No attempt has been made to imitate the elegant and finesse of the Hermann J. Wiemer wines, instead Kelby has sought the maximum of expression and not shied away from radical aromas and flavors that will polarize opinions: yellow grapefruit including a hint of the pith and smoke of the kind that wafts long distances so you can’t figure out exactly where it came from. This is spirit also fits the 2015 vintage like a glove. You have been warned!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – More About the Awesome 2015 FLX Rieslings

It has been suggested that I should supply much more information about the 2015 vintage Rieslings in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York), also that I should come out and say which are the best wines sooner rather than later, if possible right now. “Stop pussyfooting around! You didn’t do that when you wrote about the hipster somms on Grape Collective, so don’t do it now!” This thirst for information is understandable, and given the title and content of my last posting I can fairly be accused of having encouraged this thirst, these expectations. However, accommodating them is not as easy as it might seem. Let me try and explain.

Even at the FLWA (Finger Lakes Wine Alliance) event at the Three Brothers winery that I reported on the other day there were a number of wines that had just been bottled and were seriously closed up and therefore difficult to taste as a result. Just imagine how you would feel if someone had pushed you into a narrow prison cell, then slammed the door shut! In some of those cases – Boundary Breaks and Sheldrake Point – I’d tasted the wines from tank before bottling, and therefore had more to go on than the immediate taste impression. I feel confident they’re really good wines, but to nail them with a precise description and/or a rating would have been unrealistic the way they currently show. On top of that there were also a couple of cask samples from Heron Hill that were still hazy due to suspended yeast. That makes it even more difficult to make a professional judgment, but I’m not going to risk it because the impression the wines made was good. However, it was so much easier to see the quality of wines that were bottled and already open like the Dry Riesling and Semi-Dry Riesling (full of citrus, apple and tart peach aromas, the cidity crisp but not piercing) from Fox Run on the west side of Seneca Lake.

That was the wines that were at Three Brothers. However, several FLWA members had decided (possibly for entirely practical reasons) not to take part in this event. Here I’m thinking particularly of Lamoreaux Landing and Red Newt, both on the eastern side of Seneca Lake. When I tasted the Dry Riesling, Semi-Dry Riesling and the three medium-dry single vineyard 2015 Rieslings from Lamoreaux Landing with owner Mark Wagner (pictured above) back in early June they were still in tank, but ready for bottling. That’s an ideal moment to taste, because nothing is getting in the way of the wine showing you everything it has (particularly if you are a patient taster), and they were an impressive group of wines. In fact, the Red Oak Vineyard may well be the best Riesling Mark Wagner has ever made. In spite of the ripe pineapple and kiwi aromas there was nothing exaggerated about this wine, and it got better and better as it aerated and warmed in the glass (always a very positive sign for very young wines).

In spite of that it’s always good to remember what leading dry Riesling winemaker Martin Tesch of the Nahe in Germany says: “tasting cask samples is science fiction”. However, convinced you are that the future of the wine lies in a particular direction the real test is to sample the finished wine. That means the fact that Mark Wagner has been the most consistent Riesling producer in the FLX in recent years is not a cast iron guarantee that these wines will turn out as good as I think, any more than tasting cask samples at the Bordeaux 1er Grand Cru Classé Château Margaux is (an example I give as a result of some disappointing experiences with those wines). In the world of wine there really are no cast iron guarantees.

In the case of Red Newt the top Riesling wines of the vintage won’t be bottled until late August. This is a daring move on the part of winemaker Kelby Russell, but it looks like the right call to me. I got to taste them the day before the FLWA while they were still in tank sitting on the full deposit of fermentation yeast (technical term: lees). A handful of them are hot candidates for the title of best wine of the 2015 vintage, most notably the Dry Riesling and the dry The Knoll, both sourced from Lahoma Vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake, and the dry Tango Oaks Vineyard bottlings. However, these are wines that will need some time in the bottle to show their true colors, that is for the grapefruit and passion fruit aromas to unfold and for the interplay of fruit, acidity, lees and mineral character to become apparent. That’s the technical way of saying that I’m expecting them to be like tuning forks vibrating on my palate when they’re released next year.

Not every FLX winery is a member of the FLWA and a couple of non-members need to be mentioned if the picture is to even halfway complete. The 2015 Dry Riesling from Red tail Ridge on the west side of is an “oddball”, because the limestone soil hear leads to wines that are significantly softer than the norm. The floral and candied ginger aromas of this wine are also positively untypical. It’s another wine that needs some time to unwind. There are a bunch of other wineries, particularly small producers who would deserve a mention here, but either they haven’t let me taste any 2015 Rieslings yet, or I couldn’t find the time to visit them. My apologies to the latter group. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you!

In early June I also tasted Hermann J. Wiemer’s 2015 vintage wines and apart from some of the components for the Dry Riesling they were seriously embryonic wines, and a couple of them were still fermenting! Here I have to trust what my intuition tells me, and hope that it doesn’t fail me in this exercise in science fiction. Certainly these are remarkably concentrated and complex wines that retain the hallmark elegance of Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke’s wines. Let me risk a great deal and say that I think they – from the regular Dry Riesling up to the Josef TBA – will become the best wines this producer ever made! Add up all these impressions and I think you can see why I’m so excited about the 2015 vintage in the FLX.

For those looking for a more in-depth report on the FLX region please consult my e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story. Here’s the link to the page on Kindle Store on Amazon where you can find it:

https://www.amazon.com/ROCK-STARS-WINE-AMERICA-FLXtra-ebook/dp/B01FBI0STS?ie=UTF8&keywords=stuart%20pigott&qid=1462714774&ref_=sr_1_1&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

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New York Wine Diary: Day 1 – The Best 2015 Rieslings are New High Point for FLX

No doubt you’re wondering what Tony Cardova, brewmaster for the War Horse Brewing Company belonging to the Three Brothers winery in Geneva in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) is doing pictured at the top of a Riesling story on this wine blog? Well, amongst other beers, Tony brews a Riesling wheat beer and a Riesling sour beer, and these were amongst the many new products I tasted during the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance trade presentation of the 2015 Rieslings when I was up in the region during the last days.

The fine weather meant that the wine presentation could take place in the garden that separates the various buildings that make up the Three Brothers complex (there aren’t actually three brothers, rather three wine brands each with a strikingly different marketing concept and its own space). However, I had to go into the bar of the brewers to taste those beers. Good as the Riesling wheat beer is, with a somewhat more fruity citric taste than is normal for this category, it was the Tarty McFly Riesling sour beer that got me, because it has a crispness genuinely reminiscent of Riesling wines. So beer and wine can share some common ground, in spite of all the important differences between them.

The wine tasting was important because it was the first time that I’ve been able to sample a bunch of FLX Rieslings of the new vintage from different producers next to each other. Undeniably, some of the best wines (Boundary Breaks and Sheldrake Point, both of whom haven’t released any 2015 Rieslings yet) were rather closed, because they were bottled just a couple of weeks ago. However, the overall conclusion was very clear: the best 2015s are the most exciting FLX Rieslings made this century, and that in spite of the tough competition from the best 2014s!

In fact, one of the innovative wines at the event was the 2014 Riesling (medium-dry) from Bellangelo that has only just been released. Making wines like this that need this kind of maturation before release is a new idea in the FLX and I feel sure that this is an important new development. In this case it enabled quite a strident acidity and a flinty-funky note from extended lees contact to become well integrated, and a serious aromatic and textural complexity to develop.

At the front of the pack of 2015s I tasted was the Dry Riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank, the founder of the vinifera wine industry in the region and in the Eastern Seaboard states. This has really intense floral and herbal aromas that literally leap out of the glass at you, and for all its power the wine remains as sleek and sinewy as a marathon runner. The acidity is energizing, but far from sharp. Anyone who doesn’t yet know what the mineral aspect of Riesling tastes like is directed to this wine! It has all the virtues of the 2015 vintage in the FLX with none of the down sides. They resulted from the wet early summer when Botrytis (in this case ignoble rot) from getting an early foothold on the grapes in some vineyards. That either resulted in full-blown rot later in the summer or the imminent threat of rot forced an early harvest before the grapes had achieved full ripeness.

The big surprise of the tasting was the new wines from Lakewood Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake. These have long been good wines, but since Ben Stamp joined his father Chris in the cellar they took a jump up. “I like wines that teeter on the edge, wines with tension,” Ben told me, and that is an excellent description of the winery’s 2015s. They also have the ripe passion fruit, peach and citrus aromas that are typical of the vintage.

It’s a little known fact that Three Brothers produce almost 120,000 bottles of Riesling per year and are therefore one of the major players in the FLX with this variety. They have a simple, but radical marketing concept for these wines which is directly linked to the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) taste profile on the back label of each wine. It divides the Riesling taste-spectrum into four bands: dry / medium-dry / medium-sweet / sweet. The Three Brothers 0 Degree Riesling is dry, the 1 Degree Riesling is medium-dry, the 2 Degree Riesling is medium-sweet and the 3 Degree Riesling is sweet.  They are all unashamedly fruit-driven wines and the 2015s are very clean with a lot of charm.

2015 is a vintage with which the FLX is going to win friends and influence people, also NYC, DC and beyond! Watch this space for more information as more wines are released.

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