The story of the underground rock star winemakers of America.

“I dwell in possibility” – Nancy Irelan, FLX Rebel Winemaker with a Cause

Nancy Irelan

Since early March 2019, when I began work for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) wine estate in Niederhausen in the Nahe region of Germany, the focus of this blog has certainly shifted. Here’s proof that it is by no means limited to stories about GHB.

Recently winemaker Dr. Nancy Irelan of Red Tail Ridge estate winery in Seneca Lake/FLX (Finger Lakes) in Upstate New York was recently on the list of semi-finalists for one of the James Beard Awards – the “Oscars” of food and wine in America – but she didn’t make it to the finals, much less has she won the award itself. I’m sure that she doesn’t see it this way, but I think you could say that once again she has been damned with faint praised. You see, again and again during the dozen years since the winery released its first wine people have said nice things about her, but nobody ever publicly celebrated her special form of genius. Maybe it’s because she never did or said anything outrageous enough to abruptly drag the world wide web’s attention to her. Maybe it’s because she’s a strong-willed, highly intelligent and extremely articulate woman. Maybe’s it’s because she doesn’t neatly fit into any of the established roles for women winemakers. Strangely, I’m pretty sure that if she were a movie director then she’d have a better chance of wining an Oscar, than she has of wining a James Beard Award as a winemaker!

But let’s begin this story in 2004 when Nancy and her husband Mike Schnelle, then an accountant and now a self-taught grape grower, purchased a 34 acre parcel of wooded land on the west side of Seneca Lake.  At this point, the year of my first visit to the region, the reputation of the FLX was a pale shadow of what it is today. The first planting was 3 acres of various clones of Pinot Noir that went into the ground in the spring of 2005. However, a huge storm of the kind locals call a “gully washer” hit just a couple of days after it went in and the rain washed all the young vine stocks out of the ground. Mike was alone at the estate, because at this point Nancy was still Vice President for Victiculture & Oenonolgy RD for Gallo in California. He called her in a panic and she told him how he would have to try and find the vine stocks – they were all at the bottom of the hill – and replant them all by hand.  He did that and in 2006 they picked their first crop, just half a ton of Pinot Noir grapes. Nancy turned them into a Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine (to this day sparkling remains of Nancy’s strong suits), “it was yummy,” she says, “sadly it’s all gone now, but one bottle.” Winemaking is a double-edged sword and winemakers have to lick that blade repeatedly.

Fast-forward to October 2014 and my first visit to Red Tail Ridge. I was up in the FLX from NYC with my then girlfriend and she insisted we had to visit Nancy. She was right to overrule my skepticism and our first meeting was one of those connections with a winemaker that changed how I think about wine, although in a very non-dramatic way. At this distance in time it’s hard to say exactly what lead to that, beyond stating the simple fact that Nancy is a very thoughtful winemaker who bases her decisions on strong science, but who’s goal can be expressed in one old-fashioned word that she makes liberal use of: delicious! I say old-fashioned, because in the natural wine scene “authentic”, “naked” and “real” have taken over the role “harmonious”, “elegant” and “delicious” play in the regular world of wine. And the natural wine scene’s disdain for the regular world of wine has made those words look increasingly like expressions of out-dated reactionary concepts.

Nancy has strong beliefs, not least in the central importance of deliciousness to the wine industry, but she’s never rigid in her thinking. Taking several leaves out of the natural wine scene’s book she makes an excellent skin-fermented dry white wine called “Miscreant” and Pet Nats (short for Pétillant Naturel). However, she also makes elegant dry Rieslings with bright citrus and stone fruit aromas in a style no natural winemaker would accept. Their generosity has a lot to do with the warm site and the limestone soil (unusual for the FLX) there. In the 2016 vintage it also has to do with the warm year she seemed to effortlessly master. You could say much the same about her Chardonnay too, a rare star for this grape variety in the FLX. And those Pinot Noir vines have matured to the point where they give silky and subtle red wines that no Burgundy lover would consider radical or revolutionary. Nancy is a self-confidently liberal winemaker who rejects all forms of dogma and the idealization that so often accompanies it.

Rebel with a Cause grapes

I used to repeat in mantra-like way the statement, “Red Tail Ridge wines are unspectacularly excellent”, but then along came a red wine called Rebel with a Cause, a blend of Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger and Kékfrankos in its native Hungary) with Lagrein and Teroldego. It is spectacular in many ways, beginning with that blend. The first of those grapes has a small tradition in the FLX, but the latter pair of Northeast Italian varieties have zero tradition anywhere in North America. The idea of pushing these three together is radical in the extreme and for this reason the name is a perfect fit. As luck would have it I was at Red Tail Ridge on the 3rd October 2016 during the fermentation of these grapes (pictured above with Nancy’s hands) and could follow the development of this wine almost from Zero Hour onwards.

Of course, radical winemaking ideas is one thing and a delicious wine is quite another. Thankfully this bizarre marriage born in Nancy’s fertile mind is a very happy one, though not without a stunning tension that make the 2016 Rebel with a Cause one of the most exciting new reds I’ve tasted anywhere on Planet Wine. And during the last three years I tasted about 25,000 wines from all the wine continents. Just how is it delicious? What grabs me most is the forest berries and wild herbs character and strong, but there’s also the strident yet balanced tannins and vibrant acidity which together give it so much structure. This isn’t a red for the faint-hearted who need a smooth as silk landing, nor is it for those who demand plenty of (reductive) funk in their wines as proof that they’re “natural”. Once again, some people will fail to take her seriously and that’s the reason that the image on the label of Nancy preaching from a pulpit in the vineyard is spot on.

Stuart Pigott Riesling Global


Berlin Wine Diary: Day 5 – The Big Virginia Story, including Trump Winery (owned by the family of President Trump)

Me with Trump wines!

My big story about the wines of Virginia on the East Seaboard of the USA was just published on and ought to cause a stir for a variety of reasons. It is not only the first in-depth report on the wine industry of the state where Thomas Jefferson famously failed to found a wine industry (this process actually began with the arrival of the first colonists from Britain in 1607) by a non-American journalist I’m aware of, it also the first to place the Trump estate winery – the biggest in Virginia – within a wide-ranging state-wide context.

Yes, that’s the winery owned by the family of President Donald Trump, and unlike many of his pronouncements my Virginia story is composed of fully-formed statements that are free of alternative facts. My training as a wine journalist, part of which was under James Suckling when he worked for Wine Spectator magazine, taught me that facts are facts, and quotes are quotes. The policy of is that wine ratings should never be influenced by politics and there was therefore no discussion that the Trump wines would be included in my report and they would be treated exactly the same as all the other couple of hundred wines I encountered during a week of blind tastings and visits to leading producers.

I was very pleased that although there wasn’t time to visit Trump winery I got the chance to taste Trump wines on four different occasions and I also got  to talk at some length with the winemaker, Jonathan Wheeler. He’s very serious about what he’s doing at Trump winery and from this encounter I’m convinced that he has the talent and experience necessary for his considerable winemaking responsibilities. During that discussion he told me that sales at Trump winery are rocking (the same is true of many of the other leading wineries in Virginia), not least, “because of all the publicity.” That was certainly interesting to learn, particularly in view of the controversy about whether the businesses owned by the Trump family are benefiting from the fact that he’s the President of the USA, but in no way influenced but in no way did it influence how I rated and described the Trump wines.

Of course, you are all now wondering whether the Trump wines are amongst the highest-scoring in my report, or if they bombed out. I’m sure that how many of you feel about the results of our tastings will be colored by your opinion of the 45th President of the United States of America, and that’s your privilege. Although I cannot reveal all the results of my week discovering the exciting new developments in the Virginia wine industry, I can tell you that several Trump wines rated 90+, but one was far below that level. Will Trump’s critics fry me for praising the former, and will his followers demonize me for criticizing the latter? And how will the Trump family themselves react to the report? We will see.

The cellar at Boxwood in Middleburg

Meanwhile, I strongly recommend you to read the report and consider that a couple of Virginia wines rated 95+. Those are scores that is very cautious about giving and this therefore represents a milestone for the state’s wine industry. There is now not only much beauty in the landscapes of Virginia, but also in its wines (the photo above is of the barrel room at Boxwood in Middleburg, one of the new red wine stars.) Thomas Jefferson has finally been proven right!

Here is the link to the full story:




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Eppstein Wine Diary: Day 9 – READ THIS BOOK! Bianca Bosker’s CORK DORK is the Best and Most Innovative Wine Book of the 21st Century!

Cork Dork

Maybe this is the first time that the category’s existence been openly declared, but I have no doubt that something worthy of the name New Wine Journalism is out there and that it came into existence shortly after the last turn of the century. Anyone who thinks that these are yet more Alternative Facts should buy and read Bianca Bosker’s brilliant new book Cork Dork, for it is irrefutable proof that this is not bullshit.

Let me give you a brief introduction to the intoxicating nitty-gritty of the New Wine Journalism. It is never directly concerned with which wine of a particular type and/or vintage is the best and it never uses numerical or other ratings of the conventional kind, e.g. five star system. Instead, just as New York-based Bianca Bosker does in Cork Dork, it delves into the guts of the wine world and after the writer’s deep immersion in it she returns to what is oh so glibly referred to as the “normal world” to report on this strange and still largely unknown – to “regular folks” – other reality just around the corner.

Of course, the name I’ve given to this new category is deliberate plagiarism of the New Journalism that developed in America during the 1960s and flourished there during the 1970s. I’m claiming that this theft is fair game, because the proponents of the New Wine Journalism – let me be straight with you in case you didn’t guess, I’m one of them too – make liberal use of the tools that were developed by Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe & Co. Bianca Bosker does this with aplomb in Cork Dork, but these are far from being the only means she employs to explore widely differing aspects of obsession with wine, and how it changes those who befall this terrible infectious disease. By the way, as the story of her 18 month long deep immersion in wine unfolds she too develops all the symptoms and becomes a sufferer. That, more than anything else about Cork Dork, is truly gonzo!

One of things that makes Bianca Bosker’s book such a racy read and an impressive piece of journalism is the way her texts morph with each change of viewpoint, for example from her review of the science of olfaction (Chapter Four, The Brains) to how dinners are treated by the somms in top NYC restaurants (Chapter Five, The Magic Kingdom), then on to the hedonism of wealthy wine collectors (Chapter Six, The Orgy). As she flips with agility from one side of the wine world to another her writing style effortlessly changes to fit her new subject. As a result almost every chapter in the book can be read as a self-contained work with its own logic. In spite of that, each of them has one or more stunning surprise for you, like  the story of the scent of her grandmother in The Brains or that of “normal somm” Annie Truhlar of Virginia Beach, VA in The Trial (Chapter Ten). I didn’t see the end coming either. The things that holds the wild and fascinating human cocktail of Cork Dork together are Bianca Bosker’s sociological / anthropological approach to analyzing each individual and sub-culture she encounters, and the way she does so both with compassion for her subjects and an eagle eye for the absurdities of their lives.#

All this makes Cork Dork much funnier, more compelling and richer than any other work of New Wine Journalism I know (including my own Rock Stars of Wine America e-books). How, then, can I adequately describe it in a short review like this? The best I can do for you is to say that Cork Dork is the journalistic equivalent of a great 10 course tasting menu in one of the NYC restaurants Bianca Bosker investigated. Even if you have even only a little curiosity about wine her book will pull you along then suck you in, as it did to me.

Cork Dork is published in paperback by Penguin Books, New York and costs $17.


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New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – Is Michel Rolland of Bordeaux the Darth Vader of Wine?

Bildergebnis für darth vader photos free

What is that spooky sound that reminds me of someone breathing through a helmet? Part 3 of my series on red Bordeaux – BDX: Falling in Love Again? –  was just published on and in it I wrote that Michel Rolland is the Darth Vader of wine. Maybe you’ll find it hard to believe, but when I wrote those words I was not attacking the famous consulting winemaker, rather I was trying to adequately describe the way a large section of the wine scene sees him. Undoubtedly the most common perception of Rolland in contemporary New York Wine City (NYWC) is that he is the most dangerous prophet of the Dark Side of the Force in BDX, and a mover and shaker of oenological evil in the dozen other countries Planet Wine where he exerts an influence upon winemaking. But the truth is that’s not at all what he is!

Rolland is an oenological consultant and blender who has an approach to that field of endeavor as distinctive as your, my or his handwriting. The week I spent in January tasting hundreds of 2014 red BDXs with James Suckling proved conclusively to me that Rolland is not responsible for the currently dominant style of red BDX (see for more about the new style), rather he plays a role of varying importance in the making of a small proportion of these wines. My gut tells me that the same applies in all the other countries on Planet Wine where Rolland works. The fact is that if you don’t like Darth Vader wines then there are plenty of alternatives and it is easy to find them. And if you join the Rebels, then you don’t need to worry because this time the Empire will not strike back!

Beyond this, the wines from the producers Rolland consults for are not nearly as uniform as his critics suppose. Château Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien/Médoc is an excellent example of a BDX producer for whom MR consults, but who’s wine does not have the opulent, over-ripe and one-sidedly oaky character the Rebels say all Darth Vader wines have. Unquestionably Rolland exerts some influence upon the wines of this BDX Second Growth, but he is not the decisive factor that shapes them. What he has done is to help the owning Cuvelier family create a style that is completely distinct from those of the other two other Léoville chateaux in St. Julien (Léoville Barton & Léoville las Cases). To my mind this stylistic diversity is one of the strengths of Bordeaux alongside the fact that many Médoc châteaux like these are producing large volumes of very good wine. It is the latter that makes global distribution possible. Read the full story for more about all this.

The one way in I see a negative effect emanating from Rolland is that the Darth Vader profile he has acquired in certain circles has aggrivated the image problems that the region as a whole now has. Today in the West red BDX is widely perceived to be an expensive wine that doesn’t fit into the modern world with its faddy eclectic dining and its fickle social media coolness. However, I fear that if Rolland hadn’t been there, then someone else would have been demonized in much the same way by the same people. Before he became so famous Émile Peynaud – widely regarded as the inventor of modern consulting winemaking – was often accused of having modernized away the true character of red BDX. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s he was the Darth Vader of wine.

The question my story concludes with is a big one that has been too little asked and it  concerns the future of red BDX here in NYWC, America and the West as a whole. I hope that many of you will take the trouble to read the story and the two preceding stories in this series to find out more about all this. Quo vadis Bordeaux?

Please note that I selected the image of Darth Vader above that was presented to me as being copyright free. If this is not correct please let me know and I will remove it.






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New York Wine Diary: Day 1 – New York / New York (FLX)

Fog over Seneca LakeI just made it to New York City (NYC), but of course the photo above isn’t of NYC, or even what I call New York Wine City (NYWC). Instead it shows a particularly spectacular part of what I sometimes call the “other New York”, that is the Finger Lakes (FLX) where many of the most exciting white wines being produced in North America are grown. I’m talking about the new (generally) dry Rieslings of the beautiful FLX region. They are the work of a new generation of winemakers obsessed by this grape (often also Cabernet Franc and sometimes Gewürztraminer too). They are the subject of my major report on the FLX just published on In fact, I was just about to get on the plane from Frankfurt to NYC when I realized it had appeared. Here is the link to it:

I first visited the FLX back in fall 2004 when things didn’t look so good unless you visited one of the handful of genuinely quality orientated producers. I’ve been giving the region my concentrated attention since the summer of 2013, because about then it was like a turbocharger was connected to the region and change suddenly accelerated. I’ve never seen anything quite like that happen before and I humbly recommend you to taste a few of the best new FLX dry Rieslings if you don’t already know these wines. Expect to hear some winemaker names you never heard before, and remember where you read them first!

Steve Matthiasson

NYWC, by which I mean the city’s wine scene, is always full of surprises and just hours after I stepped off the plane yesterday I met Steve Matthiasson (pictured above) at Flatiron Wines on Broadway. Steve has the reputation of being an Anti-Napa winemaker in Napa Valley, however, after tasting his wines I would say that he has a radically alternative vision of what the wines of California’s and America’s most famous winemaking region could taste like. Therefore I’m only up for the “Anti-Napa” label if it’s used in the same way as the “Anti-Folk” label that refers to a wide range of music that is rooted in folk, but twists folk in an unexpected direction that hits a nerve regular folk almost never does.

Part of me us most impressed by Steve’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, which he rightly describes as, “being inspired by the Napa Valley Cabernets of the period 1985 – 1995,” something that I can very well identify with having experienced the wines of that period close up in Napa. There’s a gentleness and gracefulness to this wine in spite of its (restrained) ripeness and power, and the aromas (ranging from pencil shavings to redcurrant to plum) are more delicate than the majority of contemporary wines from Napa Valley. I honestly think that the region needs more wines of this kind if it is going to win over a wider audience.

The other part of my was more delighted by the 2015 “Tendu” red for $19.99 at Flatiron Wines, or a shade over a quarter of the bottle price for Steve’s Cabernet. This blend of the Montepulciano, Aglianico and Barbery grapes is light, crisp and juicy with a red cherry note and a hint of something earthy. “I’m trying to recreate the experience I had with Gallo Hearty Burgundy when I was at college,” Steve commented, and the jaws of some wine geeks at Flatiron Wines fell mightily! By the way, this wine and its equally light and crisp white counterpart (a blend dominated by Vermentino and French Colombard) are filled in liter bottles with crown corks. “I’m trying to get the wine ritual our and replace it with something like the beer ritual.” Amen!

This and much, much more all happened within the space of 24 hours in NYWC. Watch this space for more reports from the city too busy drinking wine to ever sleep.






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Eppstein Wine Diary, Day 1: The Fast Approaching Danger and My Big Decision Part 2

I love America

In case there’s any doubt, I wrote the following lines as a friend of America and a strong believer in the principals enshrined in the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Today (Sunday, January 29th) I have added an extra paragraph, the third before last, in order to complete the analysis of our current situation.

 Don’t worry about me, I’m doing just fine. That is as long as I don’t think about the dramatic developments of the last few days in Washington D.C. The latest massive shock came in a story the New York Times published Thursday (January 26th, 2017) entitled ‘Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media should, ‘Keep it’s Mouth Shut’’. Reading it convinced me events are already lurching towards a climax the shape and hue of which nobody can yet discern, but which will undoubtedly be fearful and loathsome.

The title of that New York Times story referred to something the former head of the right-wing Breitbart News website said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. He stated that because the media were surprised by the result of the recent presidential election they “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Silence would be self-censorship, a particularly insidious form of censorship since it is invisible to the reader/viewer/listener. For example the censorship of communist East Germany functioned almost entirely by this method.

To this Bannon added “The Media has zero integrity, zero intelligence and no hard work,” which is tarring thousands of reporters and editors who’s work is extremely diverse, with the same brush. Then he went much further, insisting that, “I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party.” My theme may only be wine, but since American wine and wine in America are some of my major subjects I too am pushed into that role.

The fact that Bannon peppered his comments with expletives and ironically referred to himself as “Darth Vader” does nothing to cloud the real reason his attacks on the media and pushing us collectively into the role of the enemy. His anger is stimulated when we report something – absolutely anything at all! – that doesn’t align with President Trump’s vision of America, the world and himself.

In this parallel universe Trump is the sole source of these “alternative facts” as the president’s advisor Kellyanne Conway famously called them last Sunday on NBC television’s Meet the Press. I congratulate the show’s anchor Chuck Todd for correctly and courageously identified them as falsehoods. Bannon regards these as the only “facts” that deserve reporting by the media. Period.

At first glance the last week in Washington D.C. might look like a series of ghastly ad-libs by Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip spin doctors, including the statements of his spokesman Sean Spicer, but there’s nothing haphazard about them at all. They were all made in pursuit of the new administration’s prime goal: the wholesale replacement of the true facts with Trump’s vision of “American carnage” and himself as the messiah come to pull the crippled nation out of the mire and make it great again.

There’s nothing new with the basic idea of circumventing reality like this. Hitler & Goebbels, Stalin & Beria were 20th century masters of this art, combining it with genocidal goals so far missing from Trump’s white supremacist ideology. In modern America this goes back at least to when President George W. Bush and how his administration sought to radically reshape reality in theatres of action like Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s worth looking back to October 2004 when Karl Rove, Bannon’s predecessor in the role of chief ideologue to the president, said to Ron Suskind of the New York Times that he belonged to, “what we call the reality-based community,” that is Suskind was part of that group of people, “who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality…That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Trump’s vision of American Empire is clearly different to Rove’s, but the family resemblance is clear. “Alternative facts” is simply another way of saying “create our own reality,” meaning substitute a self-serving fantasy for the reality any sane and halfway rational person can easily discern. President Trump doesn’t have a running war with the media, as he’s repeatedly asserted, rather he has a running war with reality.

For President Trump reality is lies and his fantasies are the truth. He’s convinced that they trump (verb) all the cards of every suit that reality could ever play. This is what makes the current situation so dangerous, because regardless of what anybody wants or imagines reality always holds a tall stack of trump cards that it can play at any moment.

For the new administration the media’s “crime” has been to doggedly stick with demonstrably true facts in the face of attacks and intimidation. However, we will soon see that they are only the first group to land in Trump’s firing line for being reality-based. Soon this will extend to other many groups, who will also be demonized as, “amongst the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

I accept this insult, because it clearly places me on the right side of this fundamental divide. Regardless who is posing the question which side I’m on my answer will be the same, “I’m with reality!” From Day Zero that’s been the program of this blog and is the guiding principal of all my work. I’m grateful to have employers like and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who see things the same way.


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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

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.


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


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!







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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!



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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:




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