New York Wine Diary: Day 28 – I Blog Therefore I am?

I was never asked by anybody why I write this blog, perhaps because by the time it really got rolling blogging had become so well established that it was widely assumed to be as natural as breathing or having sex. Nobody asks why someone might want to do those things. By the way my advice is don’t forget to breathe (thanks Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer and Tool for those immortal words). The fact is thought that blogging isn’t like breathing or having sex, even if it is extremely habit-forming and addictive so that it can feel as natural as those things to a long-term blogger like me. So “why blog?” is a very good question to ask, and I do so now.

I’ve been thing about this a lot lately, because I haven’t been either healthy or happy. I’m going to keep the reason for that to myself, because it involves someone who’s identity I want to protect, and their identity is also irrelevant to what I’m trying to say today. The point is that while I have been depressed writing has given me, and continues to gives me, a reason to live and be positive. It actively pulls me along through the difficult days, distracting me from the pain. The open-ended nature of my blog makes it particularly good at this. What I mean by that is, although I keep coming back to certain themes here I could write about almost any subject. I always find a story that I want to tell without much trouble, because storytelling comes as naturally to me as wanting to love and be loved. That isn’t quite on the same basic level as bodily functions, but, as I say, it’s connected to the fundamental emotions. The only problem with storytelling on a blog is that there’s a maximum length to a blog posting which the regular readership will accept. That’s why I sometimes break a story up into a number of episodes. This is a minor practical detail though. Basically, a free flow of storytelling is possible here and that’s what excites me about this medium.

Although my blog does have guest authors (particularly in the German-language section) it has been suggested to me that this location in cyberspace is far too narrowly devoted to my experiences, thoughts, ideas and prejudices. The argument goes that the interactive social media are now the model for everything, and just as there is crowd funding, crowd sourcing so there should be crowd writing. I’m in favor of all those things being done, but not here and now. The reason for placing this limit is not just my ego, rather it comes down to the fact that a crowd can only tell a coherent story if they all share the experiences the basis for the story, or at least know the outline of the story they are jointly telling.

Beyond this, a story can only touch you if it has an emotional truth – believable characters acting in a believable way with whom you identify positively or negatively - and an emotional logic – a beginning, a middle and end, each leading to the next –  to accentuate that truth. There’s no way you can throw together a bunch of people who write in widely contrasting styles and have them jointly tell a story that does this, because each time there was a change of author there would be an abrupt break in the storytelling. In fact, the story could easily get lost completely. So the answer is that everyone can join in the storytelling, but the best way is for each to tell their own story as well as possible. The whole point of my blog is that it is the place where I can tell my stories my way, and that is what your blog can give you too. Do it!

If I need more space that this blog can provide, because a story is big and complex, than that material goes into an e-book for Kindle. I am currently working on ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York and publication should be some time the first days of April. Writing that book gives my life purpose just as writing for this blog does, and that has saved me from the worst effects of depression during these last difficult weeks. That may make it sound as if blog-writing is a form of therapy, but I would counter that by saying that this is what storytelling of all kinds is therapeutic for the storyteller and the readers/listeners. A blog is just one rather particular way of telling stories, and it’s one that I found suits me, although I didn’t believe it would when I started.

By the way, if you want to submit a story you are very welcome to do so. You may also comment at length on things I have written and be critical. The only rule is that because I earn no revenue through this blog, neither can you. We are all equal!

 

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New York Wine Diary: Day 25 – Hugel’s New Star Rieslings

It might sound absurd to talk about innovation at a company founded in 1639, but that’s what Jean- Frédéric Hugel (left) and his father Etienne (right) were doing today in New York, and they brought the wines along to prove it. Hugel of Riquewihr in Alsace was already an extremely well established producer around the world when I first visited the family company in 1987, but there was a period when I found their wines extremely dependable (stylistically too – they were always dry wines that worked on the dinning table), but rather seldom inspiring. That has very definitely changed, at the latest since Jean-Frédéric’s generation began exerting some influence on the company, but I am sure that Eteinne’s generation has also done some important rethinking too. Now the fruits of this are reaching the market, most obviously in the form of Hugel’s new star Rieslings.

Before we get to those new wines I have to point out that the Classic range of varietal wines that is the foundation of Hugel’s business has also seen some changes. The 2014 Riesling Classic is made from just over half from Hugel’s own grapes and a bit less than half from bought in grapes, and during the last years some of the weaker sources for the latter were weeded out and replaced. This along with a modest change of emphasis in the cellar towards more fruit make the 2014 vintage of this wine – the aromas range from yellow apple to fresh pineapple, the taste is at once juicy and fresh with a silky finish  -  the best I’ve ever tasted. I feel confident that this joyful wine will switch some consumers who don’t yet know them yet on to dry Riesling, Hugel and Alsace.

The difference between the 2014 Riesling Classic and the 2012 Riesling Estate is very clear, the latter being far more about texture than aroma. There’s a considerable amount of power and weight to it that comes from the just over 50% of this bottling that grew in the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg vineyard site of Riquewihr. Already in 1643 the Swiss cartographer Merian declared this vineyard site to produce the most noble wines of the entire Alsace region. I was glad that Etienne pointed out that at this time Alsace exported more wine than it does today, most of these exports having headed north by boat along the Rhine. The impressive architecture of Riquewihr from that period was paid for with the profits from this business. The top dry Rieslings from Hugel always came from this site, just as the best Gewürztraminers always came from the Grand Cru Sporen site, but since 1945 those names didn’t appear on any of the labels.

You might think that this great tradition would be good reason for Hugel to proudly write those vineyard names on the label, but they weren’t due to the scars left by the Second World War. After what the Nazis put Alsace and the Hugel family through between 1940 and 1945 Germanic names were suspect, although the Alsatian dialect is actually one of German, not French, and Riquewihr was called Reichenweier until 1945! So, it took a long time for the region and the family to find its way back to this tradition. They have done so with the just released the 2010 Riesling Grossi Laüe (“Grosser Lage”, or great site, as pronounced in the Alsatian dialect) and it is so successful with this first vintage I can’t imagine this decision could be reversed. Etienne promised that in time the vineyard names would also appear on the labels of the Grossi Laüe wines, of which there are four: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. Please note, that to taste the first three of these in the US you will have to wait until they arrive in April/May.

This wine is the most impressive new dry Riesling from Europe that I’ve tasted in quite a few years. Somehow this 100% Schoenenbourg Riesling manages to marry all the depth and power of this vineyard site (due in good part to the clay-rich marl soil) with a fruit that’s at once rich and subtle. The wine has near-perfect balance and from the first sip it captivated me, but every further sip revealed more nuances of flavor so that I was busy with it for quite some time. It really deserves a large wine glass of the kind you’d normally serve red Burgundy in as I found out when I moved the 2010 Grossi Laüe into that type of glass and the wine instantly expanded to wide-screen format!You should be able to find the Grossi Laüe for  under $100 per bottle. To put this in context, that’s the high end of same price category as the Grosser Gewächs dry Rieslings from the top German producers.

Hugel’s new top dry Riesling, the 2007 Riesling Schoelhammer, needs a big glass and a lot of air even more than the Grossi Laüe! Although it has a rather conventional 13% alcohol for a top dry Riesling this is a massive wine that is still rather austere, although it’s more than eight years old. It really demands both time and space to breathe. If I had some bottles – this one is an extremely limited production wine and it will set you back about $150 – then I would definitely hold on to them for a few years. Both these wines have at least a couple of decades aging potential of them, and the Hugels proved that too by pouring their astonishingly lively 1981 Riesling Reserve (another 100% Schoenenbourg wine) from magnum.

Another thing which has changed are the labels. Although the yellow and red color combination used since 1921 has been retained along with the family crest showing the three hill vineyards of Riquewihr (Hugel means hill in German). However, the company name has been changed to Famille Hugel, and the redesign makes it easier to immediately see exactly which bottle from the Famille Hugel you have in front of you. This is an obvious change that’s easily visible. The more important ones are those of vineyard management, harvesting strategy (most importantly the grapes from every single vineyard parcel are now vinified separately), and vinification. To grasp them you must taste the wines, and I strongly recommend you to experience the new star Rieslings from Hugel.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 22 – Eric Texier is a Real Rhône Ranger (from France)!

This photograph of winemaker Eric Texier reminds me somewhat of that I took a week earlier of Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project in California, and there are number of important similarities although Eric is working on the other side of Planet Wine to Abe in the Northern Rhône Valley of France. Both are true originals who came from outside the industry and saw winemaking possibilities that the insiders hadn’t. Both have mastered the technique of making attractive and highly individual wines with a minimum of added sulfites. As regular readers know, I have a healthy skepticism about that winemaking path, because sulfites are not only an antioxidant, they are also an antiseptic and without their help unwanted microbes would spoil vast quantities of wine. They make it work real well!

I’d encountered the Texier wines many times before (thank you Alice Feiring for my first introduction about 3 years ago), but I finally met Eric yesterday at The Big Glou alternative wine festival in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg yesterday, where I took the above photograph. I found his entire approach fascinating, beginning with his principal that in the Northern Rhône mono-varietal wines work best, (in contrast to the Southern Rhône Valley where he believes blends work best), and continuing with both his short red wine fermentations in order not to extract too much from the grapes, and his use of concrete tanks. He always worked with organic grapes, even before he had any vines of his own.

Acquiring his own vineyards in 2009 was a decisive step for Eric and the wines he showed all came from two forgotten areas of the Northern Rhône, Brézème on the left bank of the river with its limestone soil and St. Julien-en-St.-Alban on the right bank with a granite soil. The latter enabled him to make the 2014 Adele, a pure Clairette that has a floral touch and a lemony acidity I never encountered in this grape before. It is also the location of a rare Grenache vineyard for this part of the region and Eric christened the wines from those old vines Chat Fou, or mad cat. The 2013 had bright red berry aromas, was sleek and had a startling liveliness at the finish. Grenache is usually a rather broad, warm and soft red! These are totally original wines with great clarity of flavor, and not a hint of microbial funk. Best of all, they are joyful wines and I think that makes Eric as true a Rhône Ranger as Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in California (scroll down for the two recent postings about him).

Most exciting of all for me were Eric’s two Syrah reds, the 2104 St. Julien-en-St. Alban had very pure wild blackberry aroma and hints of both green and black pepper, tasting crisp and elegant with a real northerly freshness. More fleshy and powerful the 2013 Brézème had a stack of dry tannins, but they were very well integrated and the aftertaste was seriously spicy. Just a few days before I’d tasted the 2010 Hermitage Le Greal from Marc Sorrel, a bottle that will set you back well over $100 if you can find that sought-after vintage at all, and as impressive as it was this 14.5% alcohol behemoth was too much for me. At this stage in its life it’s a wine to admire from a safe distance, but not to actually drink. Eric’s wines are all about drinking rather than impressing people, and I’m completely on his side! No wonder that these are widely imitate wines and have also inspired many winemakers in the so-called “natural” wine field.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 16 – East-West Winemaker Abe Schoener Defies All the Categories!

A lot of people in New York Wine City (NYWC) and in the wine scenes of other cities and  around Planet Wine regard Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project as one of the leading producer of “natural wine” in California and/or the figurehead of the New California Wine. I certainly don’t mean to take him down a notch or deny that he’s seriously alternative by making this observation, but the truth is, although there’s plenty evidence to support those claims, Abe Schoener is a unique winemaker who defies all the conventional categories. That’s what made it so fascinating to meet him, hear him speak and taste his wines at Red Hook Winery late yesterday afternoon, where I also took the above photo.

The reason that the tasting was staged at Red Hook Winery is that Abe is one of the three winemaker team at that operation based in a renovated 19th century red brick warehouse right on the water’s edge. Of course, the sound of gently-lapping waves and seagullscould be considered appropriate for a tasting of “natural wines”, but that’s a term Abe didn’t use once to describe his wines, and he assiduously avoided “orange wines” too, although he showed several examples of what the world calls that. All words are labels and although it is the context that loads them with meaning, clearly certain contexts can overload particular words with meaning and associations, and I think it was this that Abe was trying to avoid. His goal seemed to be that, as far as possible everyone in the considerable crowd that gathered at Red Hook Winery should taste each wine for itself without a big pile of preconceptions. Both his wines from West Coast and from the East Coast were worthy of that openness and attention.

The tasting began with a huge surprise for the “natural wine” freaks in the audience, because the carbon dioxide in the  Scholium Project’s slightly funky and outrageously fruity frizzante 2015 “Blowout” was added from a cylinder prior to bottling and the wine also had a rather conventional sulfite content. Also, although this blend of Verdelho, Grüner Veltliner and Roero grapes tasted light it actually had close to 15% alcohol. Those are not the things Abe is supposed to stand for.

“Most of what we talk about in winemaking is about the role of oxygen in the process,” he observed, “we protect this wine from oxygen right through the production, unlike many of our other wines.” In fact, it was only with the fourth wine that we got into the territory that most of his fans associate with Abe: white wines fermented on the skins. As we tasted the 2015 Rhododactylos, a pale but powerful and slightly funky white from the red Cinsault grape he pointed out, “the big question isn’t whether the wine was made from red fruit or white fruit, the fundamental distinction is between wines fermented on the skins and those fermented with no skins.” For his skin-fermented whites and reds Abe works with very low sulfite additions, because this style is more resistant to oxidation than the wines fermented without the skins. Although most of his wines are shaped by techniques that transform the fruit he begins with, rather than seeking to simply preserving it, Abe is a winemaking pragmatist.

I enjoyed that wine a lot, but I have to say that I was even more excited by the 2010 Die Welt des Mondes, or the world of the moon, a partially skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from Red Hook Winery that was waxy and honeyed in aroma, and richly textural in spite of the crisp acidity. This was introduced by Abe’s fellow winemaker at Red Hook Christopher Nicolson, who said of the Macari family from who’s vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island the grapes originated, “I can taste the rage, the sadness and the passion they pour into their vineyard.” The 2013 The Prince in his Cave (yes, the wine really is called that!) from the Scholium project took skin-fermented SB a lot further and the aroma reminded me of chutney. This wine’s tannins are quite chunky and either you’ll like that or you won’t! “Some of the color of this and other skin-fermented white wines comes from the grape seeds, with which the wine has extended contact due to the technique,” Abe observed. That was news to me, like so much else he said.

Although pink in color and made from Zinfandel like the zombie wine (yesterday’s mega-fashion wine is still undead in the marketplace) White Zin Scholium’s 2015 Il Ciliego is about as far away from that sweet and kitschy quaffing wine as you can get. The bouquet was discrete, but the flavors reminded me of the maraschino cherries, dried cranberries and candied citrus. In spite of having some serious body (and almost 15% alcohol) it was very clean and dry. Here the path of low sulfites had helped give the wine a unique personality unlike any other rosé I can remember tasting.

The 2007 and 2013 vintages of Scholium’s Babylon made from the Petite Sirah grape (called Durif in it’s homeland in Southern France) were monster reds, but also unlike anything else I ever experienced in that category. They both had a slight whiff of vinegar (technical terms: acetic acid, volatile acidity), but in both wines this was unobtrusive, rather than being a problem as it is in some California Cult Cabernets or many rustic reds from around Planet Wine. Abe claims that this actually adds some freshness to wines of this kind, and is a legitimate winemaking tool as long as it isn’t pushed too far. In the still unreleased 2013 – it tastes like a great Hendrix guitar solo sounds! – I could see what he was talking about. I’m still chewing on this and a bunch of other things this category-defying winemaker active on both coasts of the US said, and I may need to devote a second posting to this subject. You have been warned!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 12 – Schloss Joahnnisberg and Elite of Germany in New York Wine City for Rieslingfeier

Saturday, February 20th is Rieslingfeier in New York Wine City (scroll down for the link to obtain one of the last tickets to The Gränd Tasting) and already a slew of the winemaking elite of Germany has arrived in the city to make the most of this event that focuses attention upon the wines of my favorite grape from it’s European homeland. Christian Witte the director of Schloss Joahnnisberg in the Rheingau was one of the first to arrive and is pictured above during the tasting he lead at Terroir Tribeca last night. In some respects Schloss Johannisberg is an unusual German Riesling producer, because all the wines come from one 90 acres vineyard site that is a monopole of the estate, and it bears the same name as the estate. However, in every other respect I can think of Schloss Johannisberg is the archetypical German Riesling producer.

This begins with the history, because in 1720/21 this became the first vineyard in Germany to be completely replanted as a Riesling varietal monoculture and therefore stands at the beginning of the trend to varietal wines that we now take so much for granted (not just for Riesling, think also Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon!) Then followed the first, albeit accidental, Spätlese or late harvest wine in 1775. This was also an event of momental significance that spanned two years for it was in the spring of 1776 that the cellarmaster of Schloss Johannisberg realized that late harvesting and nobly-rotten grapes were twin keys to a new and extraordinary type of sweet wine. From this developed the practice of selective harvesting (successfully employed in 1787 in the production of the first Auslese) leading to the range of wines of differing amounts of body and sweetness used at the estate, and almost every other leading estate in Germany to this day.

Christian Witte presented just five wines but within this small selection there was the dramatic variation typical for the Riesling grape that some people find so confusing. The 2013 Silberlack GG was a seriously dry wine with a Grand Cru Chablis-like personality, the dominant aromas being herbal, lemon balm, camomile and green tea rather than fruity. It had quite an austere and slightly salty taste that is certainly not what most consumers associate with Riesling. Already the second wine, the 2014 Gelblack had a completely contrasting style, being full of citrus fruit flavors, rather full, juicy and crisp; a medium-dry extrovert who’s charms it is hard to resist! No wonder this is the estate’s most important wine for exports to the US and the rest of the world. As Christian Witte pointed out, “the history of Schloss Johannisberg is sweet, but we can also make dry wines of a very high quality so we also do that.” This applies to much of Germany too, and Rieslingfeier therefore showcases both the nation’s finest sweet and the dry wines from this grape.

Those names I put in italics raise a question, and one of the guests at the Terroir tasting last night rightly asked what they mean. Silberlack is best translated as silver capsule – silver because it is the estate’s top dry white wine – and Gelblack means yellow capsule. In the above photo of Christian from his previous visit to New York last fall you see him wearing a yellow cap of another kind. They make it real easy to remember what your favorite Schloss Johannisberg wine is, for example, the one I reach for most often is the Rotlack. The 2013 Rotlack Kabinett  was another medium-dry wine, but much sleeker in body than the Gelback with enormous mineral freshness and a bright peach aroma. Each of these wines comes from a different part of the vine clothed conical hill of Schloss Johannisberg, the Gelblack coming from the flat vineyards at the foot of the hill where the soil is up to 27 feet deep and the Rotlack comes from the top of the hill where the soil isn’t even 3 feet deep and the roots of the Riesling vines go into the quarzitic slate directly below that. The Silberlack  comes from a section of the hill between these two. This is the rather simple logic of the estate’s wines contemporary drier style wines.

Then came the two sweet wines, the 2014 Grünlack Spätlese is already familiar to regular readers of this column, and once again it had an enormously wide spectrum of aromas ranging from peach to exotic fruits with many herbal and spicy nuances, new ones emerging with each swirl of the glass. Sure, your first impression of this vividly youthful wine is of pronounced sweetness, but then an acidity of fresh pineapple-like intensity charges through with a ton of minerals in tow and washes that impression away. The 2013 Rosalack Auslese is an altogether bigger wine with much more of the dried fruits character, particularly dried apricot and mango, from shriveled nobly-rotten grapes. It was as undeveloped as the 2013 Silberlack with which the tasting began and if you are lucky enough to have a bottle or two of this sleeping beauty don’t kiss it too soon, unless that is you find it impossible to resist!

The astonishing thing about these stunning wines is that when Christian Witte took over the direction of Schloss Joahnnisberg in 2005 the estate was seriously under-performing and he was not quite 30 years old. Within very few years the wines had dramatically improved and since then they have continued to do so in smaller increments each year. Why did the pace of improvement slow? Well, when you get close to 100% of the maximum quality that’s possible, then there isn’t much scope for further progress left, and each further  % becomes so much more arduous to achieve than those rather simple steps that lifted the quality from 60% of what’s possible to 70%, and from there to 80%. Christian did all this through team work and team motivation, and apart from having a mastery of Riesling wine growing and winemaking, this is his greatest talent.

Paul Grieco of Terroir is very good at talking about Riesling, or all kinds of other wines for that matter, but he’s also one of New York Wine City’s best listeners. As you can see from the above photo he also did some serious listening last night, and listening means thinking. One of the great unsung virtues of German Riesling is that although it is a wine you think about and talk about, analyze in minute detail if you want to geek-out about it, on the other hand you can just drink it and let it sink into your senses, submerge yourself in it so that you forget all your everyday cares. If you give in to it’s seductive pull like this, then, in spite of all the intensity of its character, it is so gentle and delicate that it leaves you fresh and invigorated rather than satiated and tired, as many other great wines do. I will go one stop further and say that you can extrapolate from the type of the wines to the personalities of Riesling fans. They have absorbed enough of the Riesling Spirit that they mirror their favorite wines to some degree.

Gathering a large number of the top German Riesling producers together with a crowd of their biggest fans is what makes Rieslingfeier so exciting and truly unique on Planet Wine. No wonder tickets for the dinner at 7pm on saturday at the Wythe Hotel, 80 Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg are long since gone, and the The Gränd Tasting at Back Label Wine Merchants, 111 West 20th Street are selling out fast. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

www.rieslingfeier.com

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New York Wine Diary: Day 7 – Turbulence Internal and External, or how Four Words unleashed a Facebook Storm

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about turbulence, not least because of the storm this week on Facebook. This question was already on my mind, because I’ve been reading Michael A. Singer’s extraordinary book about spiritual development, The Untethered Soul (New Harbinger, 2007). In everyday language he expounds the key beliefs and practices of Eastern Religions, including Buddhism. Few readers realize it, but I’m a practicing Buddhist and therefore many of his ideas were familiar to me. However, the way he explains how internal and external turbulence disrupt the centered awareness that allows us the possibilities of spiritual development gripped me, because it is so clear and simple. Each of is almost continuously faced with the choice of giving in to the influence of turbulence or of letting go of our egos and all the baggage they laden us down with.

This week, the first after my return to NYC, there was a lot of external turbulence as a result of something I said in an interview with a journalist from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the German equivalent of the New York Times for the Sunday edition of which I have written a column since September 2001. The interview was first published in November 2015 in the print edition and nobody took any notice of four words about my daily reading habits: “Weinblogs? Um Gottes willen!” wine blogs, oh God no thanks! Then a few days ago the interview was also published in the online edition of the newspaper (for German speakers the link is below) and the shit hit the fan big time.

Some people – mostly bloggers, others merely active Facebook members – immediately assumed I was dismissing all wine blogs as rubbish, others went even further and accused me of adopting an aggressive position in The Great Print vs Internet War. Neither of these things was true. All I was saying is that there’s a bunch of boring and stupid wine blogs, just as there’s a bunch of boring and stupid stuff about all kinds of other subjects on the internet. However, that didn’t prevent certain people from demonizing me as an anti-blogger, fascistic asshole. Others jumped to my defense, and I thank them.

This controversy attracted the attention of internet journalist Patrick Meier in Frankfurt and yesterday on his site blogg.de he published an interview with me in which I clarified exactly what I’d meant by those four words in the FAZ. His questions were concise and precise, and the interview therefore fully reflects my opinions. However, it’s publication only unleashed another wave of turbulence on Facebook. This time the main accusation was that I was praising this blog and denigrating all other bloggers. Actually, I never made any claims about the quality of this blog (the postings are obviously of mixed quality) and was only trying to fairly assess and describe the quality of the reporting on wine on the Internet. I’ve been the object of controversies any number of times, so that didn’t bother me. One thing did though, and that was how several well-meaning colleagues who are very active on Facebook asked me not to post anything more on the subject. Yesterday, I felt compelled to reply with the following statement on Facebook that deserves to be repeated here in full:

Several people told me during the last days that I should shut my trap and not express the opinions I hold. There is a nasty name for this and it is SELF-CENSORSHIP and all dictatorships rely on this to function, even if they also have censors. In an open society where there are no censors self-censorship is more insidious, undermining freedom of speech in ways that are invisible or almost invisible. It is a rot that quickly spreads. There is no way that I can go along with that, and for that reason I answered all Patrick Meier’s questions.

To my own astonishment I remained calm during this latter disturbance, and put that down to the influence of The Untethered and the daily practice it prodded me into resuming after a break of some years. Lastly, I must thank German wine blogger Dirk Würtz (one of the best wine bloggers around) for pointing out to the angry people on Facebook, “es ist nur Wein!” it’s only wine! I’d call those other four words fair comment, and in this positive spirit I will drink some Rieslings today and report on them as usual.

http://www.faz.net/aktuell/stil/essen-trinken/ein-weinkritiker-der-keine-weinblogs-mag-13943356.html

 

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New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – BC’s The Acorn in NYC

A lot of people think that my life is just one amazing dinner and wine tasting after another, and that nothing I experience is ever less than completely awesome. I don’t want to let you down with a bump, but the truth is that a lot of the time I’m kept busy by PR people with the job of making rather unremarkable and over-priced products look like they’re of enormous significance and a steal too. Sometimes I do get lucky though, and Saturday night was one of those genuinely inspiring moments, although it didn’t look like it was going to be that stunning when at 7pm I arrived at a pop-up restaurant in what looked like an art gallery on a dingy street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The email invitation I received told me that this was the NYC guest appearance of an avant-garde restaurant in Vancouver, BC (British Columbia) called The Acorn, and that just like in their beautiful home town they would be serving a seriously vegetarian menu. The invitation deliberately didn’t shout out the V-word, but in the end what was served was indeed a vegan meal. However, that really isn’t the point at all. What I tasted at Exhibit C, an exciting space for culinary and other arts at 88 Eldridge Street, was a breathtaking exploration of the gastronomic possibilities of vegetables and the fermented juice of the grape in BC. Even when a dish involved ingredients I’m rather familiar with like pumpkin (see the photo above), Shira Blustein and Robert Clarke of The Acorn always found an angle that I hadn’t thought of. In the case of the dish pictured above, slow-cooked squash was dusted with ground pumpkin seeds, pepper and cumin adding far more to the experience than a mere seasoning.

This sequence of dishes wouldn’t have been as stunning as it was without the complementary BC wines that sommelier Kurtis Kolt had picked. The star of these was the 2012 Riesling from Tantalus not only accompanied the flavors of the slow-poached and glazed carrots (the unpretentious, but delicious first dish of the menu), it’s lemon curd and salty-mineral character set them alight. This may not be a “big” wine, but on the other hand it’s certainly not light-weight. It also isn’t bone dry, but neither is it by any stretch of the imagination sweet. BC wine often has a radical freshness and a remarkable ability to defy the conventional categories of taste. This was a perfect example of that phenomenon! Of course, the label of this wine (like all the Tantalus wines) features a mask from one of the indigenous tribes of this part of North America. What winery in the US would dare to do that? None Instead, their labels are either cool, but hopelessly dull imitations of French/Italian classics, or they do things like feature machete-wielding nubile young women in a half-hearted nod to Tarantino. Sorry, but neither of those things excite me.

At their NYC pop-up The Acorn delighted me with each dish they served, but their variations of the Bassica family, pictured above, blew my mind. I am not a restaurant critic and I feel obliged to point out that this is not a restaurant review, not even a pop-up restaurant review. I must also point out that there are no points, stars or any other kind of symbols on offer here. The reason for these things is that the conventions of restaurnat reviewing no less than those ranking systems make it more difficult for you the reader to grasp what an exciting restaurant or winemaker are actually doing. This dish did was conjure an entire spectrum of aromas and flavors from one of the least loved and appreciated vegetables. A lot of chefs have tried to do that, also for the cabbage family, but it never stirred me before as this combination of rosemary roasted red cabbage, pickled cabbage and roasted cauliflower did. The textural contrasts were no less exciting than the flavor contrasts, but there was nothing self-consciously intellectual about this dish (or any of the other dishes), it just tasted simultaneously complex and satisfying. That’s a darned good reason to head to the airport and get on a plane to Vancouver RIGHT NOW!

Dear chefs of America, please prove me wrong if I am wrong, but it seems to me that The Acorn is a highly inventive vegetarian restaurant of a kind lacking in the USA. At no point during the evening did I feel even the slightest pang of longing for meat or fish of any kind. That was an experience I only had three times before, which means The Acorn is something very remarkable, even within the creative context of Vancouver. I got lucky that they came to NYC when I was here, and Kurtis Kolt thought of asking me if I could come. NYC got lucky that Exhibit C provided an ideal frame for this introduction to the world of BC food and wine here in the city. I went along expecting to be interested and I came away totally amazed. It is these rare experiences that make my job not only worth doing, but a luxury!

For more information go to:

www.theacornrestaurant.ca

www.exhibitc.co

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 2 – #gowinefreestyle

An Initiative of Stuart Pigott, Manuela Sporbert and Jürgen Hammer

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

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

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

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

 

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