Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – Why Dan Dunn’s American Wino is a Gross Outrage that You Must Read

Let me be completely frank with you: I don’t like Dan Dunn’s book AMERICAN WINO, in fact I find it extremely frustrating, so frustrating that while I was reading it I said, “what the fuck?” I don’t know how many times and I threw it against the wall a couple of times too. So you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to review it here, or even why I made the effort to struggle through its 338 confused and confusing pages. Maybe you’re also now wondering if I’m taking a sadistic thrill in craving this new wine book into pieces in the public place that is cyberspace. The truth is the opposite though, for I have forgiven Dan, although his book is a gross outrage. Why did I do that?

The worst thing about Dan’s book is the he keeps on losing it, by which I mean the thread of his story about a coast to coast journey of discovers through the mostly unknown grape growing regions of the United States of Wine, by switching his attention at exactly the wrong moment. In particular, just as you think he’s going to tell you something really interesting about obscure American wines he’s promised to give you an intro to he gets completely distracted by his dead brother, ex-girlfriend or their dead dog! We end up learning more about them and his inability to pick up girls (often much younger than him) than we do about American wine; inexcusable unprofessionalism!

His admission that, “luckily, the one thing that doesn’t scare me is actually being full of shit. I’ve known that I ‘m full of shit for a very long time. It’s pretty much the only thing that I’m comfortable with in life,” is a typical example of his humor, but it doesn’t makes this situation any better. Sure, his frequent attacks on the “snootytorium” that is the wine scene are well deserved, but they are as often off-target and off-subject as they succeed. Much of this crap-shoot is packed into “wine-centric sidebars” that result in those weak moments when I gave into anger and proved to myself that I have more upper body musculature than I admit to.

OK, sometimes – often just when you gave up hope that this wine book would discuss wine in any meaningful way – Dan does tells you something fascinating about little-known and under-appreciated American wines like the Muscadines of Georgia, but there is no consistency to this at all. For example, after he left Sonoma County, California – not exactly the least important winemaking location in the US – I felt I had learned exactly nothing about it, nor had he expressed a serious opinion about it; scandalous incompetence! But I kept reading. I always kept reading AMERICAN WINO even when I was totally infuriated by Dan’s perverse personality and by his inability to tell a coherent story, and even when I was bored by a his compulsive rambling.

Clearly he has the same writer hero as me, Hunter S. Thompson (who I also find infuriating and rambling) and he also writes about some of the same winemakers as I do, such as Maynard James Keenan (yes, the singer of Puscifer and Tool), who makes the Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards wines in Arizona (see my ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK, available on Kindle). So please dismiss this tirade as jealousy for a colleague who made it into out-dated print when I didn’t.

Why did I forgive Dan then? Not because his book enormously helps me to establish Gonzo wine journalism as category (which it does!), or because it takes a bunch of unfamiliar winemaking locations in America as seriously as I believe they deserve to be (which it does!) but because again and again AMERICAN WINO excited me in ways little other wine storytelling or other storytelling ever does. The book is worth $16.99 (published by Dey St.) just for Dan’s description of seeing rock group U2′s movie Rattle and Hum for the first time!

Be warned, at times this book could make you so frustrated that you will commit violence against it and/or your own person, but you must suffer all that for the outrageously things it will also to do to you, and to get to them you must read it right to the end!

PS Publication of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 on Kindle about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York will be May 2nd.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 16 – Truth Before Feel-Good

Regular readers will have noticed a change of tone in many of my postings from the last weeks, and several of you guessed rightly what lies behind this. A number of people told me that I should be careful not to let private things creep into my social media or blog postings. They meant well, but following this advice would lead to self-censorship and that’s something I cannot do. The problem is that a “harmless” element of self-censorship is the thin end of the wedge, and you can quickly move from there to small lies, then on to larger ones. For example, if I were to claim here that I have been doing fine that would be a lie, as would the statement that I’m doing fine, although just the last couple of days I’ve been doing somewhat better.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you all the dirty details of the rough ride I’ve had since the early hours of January 1st (no names mentioned), but I can’t hide the emotional truth of what happened without taking something away from the Big Story that all of these smaller stories add up to. The painful experiences and the problems that I’ve faced since 2016 have been many and varied, and they lead to a battle with depression, something I’ve had to deal with several other times in my life: you learn how to deal with it, and practice makes you better at it, if not perfect. Of course, this has influenced what I have written, some of the shadows have crept on to this page, just as my attempt to find the positive things has too. However, before leaving NYWC (New York Wine City) for a month in Austria, Germany and Switzerland it seemed essential to me to be completely straight with you all.

One reason that I feel rather better since a couple of days is no doubt my impending departure. I really need to breathe other air, see very different people and do everything else possible to refresh my mental state. This does not mean I’m turning my back on NYWC or the United States of Wine, rather that I need to try and return with a fresh approach that isn’t heavily weighed down by memories of the pain of the last three months. When I get on the plane the two-thirds completed manuscript of my forthcoming e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, but also love and love lost (an important part of the last months), will be in my bag. I will complete it in Berlin and on the road in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Publication on Kindle (you can download the Kindle app free of charge on just about any device!) will be May 1st, immediately before my return to NYWC. Of course, during the next weeks there will be plenty of blog postings and the new vintage in Europe will be covered in some detail. I guarantee a high Riesling content!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 12 – An Important Message

Sometimes it’s difficult not to see negative things around you, because sooner or later you find yourself in a situation that looks clearly negative, or as happened to me recently multiple situations that looked clearly negative. Suffering is an intrinsic part of life, not least because we are all born, age, get sick and die, process that are inherently more or less painful. Then there are the things and people we want but can’t have, no less the things and people we don’t want at all but have to put up with. The real problems begin when the idea that those “negative” things and people can be separated from the “positive” ones takes hold in your mind, and you imagine that if only you could do  this  everything would be hunky dory. And if that doesn’t work, then you try to at least keep the “negative” things and people at a distance where we feel that they won’t be able to harm us. That takes a great deal of energy, narrows or closes your heart and often doesn’t work either. The truth is, of course, that positive and negative, good and bad are all mixed up together and they always will be. I recently became more aware of how fear is the force driving the desire to avoid the negative: the fear of being hurt again. I am certainly not immune from any of these forms of thinking and often fall into them myself too. By the way, none of these thoughts are in any way new, in fact they’re as old as the world. Many other writers have said these things much better than I have, or will ever be able to. In spite of that I feel the need to communicate them to you today. Please take my advice and FEAR NOT!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – The Fragrance of Austria

Last night at Jadis wine bar on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side I had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind with the wonderful fragrance that Austrian wine is capable of. I’m not talking about the in-your-face kind of aromas that many so-called Icon Wines from around the globe have – they are often so over-concentrated that they slams into you like rogue waves  - much less the kind of overwhelming artificiality that many modern fragrances (for men and for women!) display. No, I’m talking about the aromatic delicacy that is possible in various parts of Austria, particularly with indigenous grape varieties like the white Grüner Veltliner and the red Blaufränkisch (aka Kékfrankos / Lemberger), or well-integrated immigrants like the white Riesling (from Germany) and Sauvignon Blanc (from the Loire in France).

Let’s start with tannic red wines, because this is the category of wine that many consumers imagine cannot ever be fragrantly aromatic. Blaufränkisch isn’t the only grape that proves this is possible (Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in the right location are also examples of this), but it is a very important one. Nowhere that I know of does it give more fragrant wines than on the slopes of the Spitzerberg in the small region of Carnuntum (named after the ancient Roman city there). Dorli Muhr of the Muhr – van der Niepoort estate winery, pictured above, is the most important producer of these wines and in the 2013 vintage she made the finest Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch I ever tasted. Even the regular bottling, the 2013 Samt & Seide meaning velvet & silk, has a fragrance in which lemon freshness mingles with all manner of summer flowers. In common with all Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch, this is a sleek wine with a forthright acidity, but also carries a generous load of dry tannins that give it power and the ability to age at least 5 years, maybe much longer. For under $25 retail this is a very serious wine.

Dorli’s 2013 Spitzerberg has the same basic characteristics, but there’s an earthiness behind the floral charm. The one thing that is eye-popping about this it is how vivid and energized it tastes, a dramatic contrast to many warm climate reds with their high alcoholic content and low acidity levels. In common with the best Blaufränkisch from Moric (in Mittelburgenland) and Uwe Schiefer (in Südburgenland), this wine has enormous depth and serious dry tannins, yet great balance and delicacy.  For me, those are the hallmarks of world-class wines from this grape. If you are longing for red wines that make bold statements that can be fully understood with the first sip, move on somewhere else fast (Welcome to Cabernet Country!), but if you want the wine to tease, tantalize, fascinate and astonish you, then this is a wine you must try. Red Burgundies or Piemonte Nebbiolos that do all this cost several times this wine’s price tag of about $50. Those seeking a slightly more fruity version of this experience are recommended the 2012 vintage of both these wines. They are also a little more supple and fleshy.

By the way, none of the Muhr – van der Niepoort reds have any directly perceptible oak character (although there is a hint of it in there if go hunting for it and are really sensitive to these aromas), in common with the wines from Moric and Uwe Schiefer. This is all a great achievement considering that this estate winery was founded in 2002 and Dorli is a self-taught winemaker. Her main profession is public relations (at her Wine & Partners company in Vienna).

How is this freshness and elegance possible in a region with rather hot summers like the Carnuntum? “The summer isn’t only warm it’s also usually very dry and I think the vines shot down for periods, that is the drought slows the ripening process down,” Dorli explained, “in 2013 the summer was very dry it turned very cool in September and that slowed the ripening down again.” These therefore qualify as genuinely slow wines.

The better-known side of Austrian wine fragrance is that of the dry whites, but these days those wines are often richly aromatic, rather than delicate and subtle. That’s not a criticism, rather it’s an observation about how climate change has made some Austrian dry whites bolder and more imposing. Ilse Maier, pictured above, has been making dry whites with great freshness and fragrance at her family’s the Geyerhof estate winery in the southern part of the Kremstal region (directly neighboring the Wachau on the right bank of the Danube). Here the secret to the wines’ special personality is the altitude of the vineyards that all lie between 270 and 300 meters / 885  - 985 feet above sea level. Even in the age of climate change these are cool climate wines in the full sense of those words. However, to capture that special character the winemaker must decide to go with what nature gives her, then adapt to that in the vineyard, press house and cellar. That is what Ilse Maier has been perfecting at Geyerhof during the last decade.

Her 2014 Steinleithn Grüner Veltliner has a kaleidoscopic fragrance that spans the entire range of white and yellow fruits along with many fresh herbs. It has none of the exotic fruit aromas or the lushness of flavor and texture that many high-end Grüner Veltliners have in their youth, and it is stunningly light on its feet for a dry white with this kind of flavor concentration. It weighs in at just 12.5% alcohol and under $30, yet has a great future ahead of it, assuming that you can resist it’s abundant charms. The striking thing about the recently bottles 2015 Rosensteig Grüner Veltliner (herbal and citrusy with great vitality) and the 2015 Hoher Rain Grüner Veltliner (wonderful interplay of sweet vegetal aromas and spring-like freshness) is how bright their acidity tastes although analytically it is clearly lower than in the previous two vintages. Often when Grooner has lowish acidity it becomes a bit broad, but not these wines. Then there’s Ilse Maier’s 2015 Sprinzenberg Riesling (subtle peach and spice aromas) that has an athletic energy and vibrancy that wouldn’t be possible if the acidity was too low. Of course, these 2015s are still super-young and will show much better in a few months time, or a few years if you have the patience.

No doubt some readers will ask why I didn’t start with the observation that these are two women winemakers. To me, it is obvious that women can make excellent wines just like than man, or vice versa. Only in latently sexist societies is there ever any doubt about that fact or any need to talk about this subject!



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FLXtra: Part 3 – Nova Creates a New Constellation

That Nova Cadamatre has just made three 2015 FLX wines for the 240 Days brand certainly sounds like the kind of news that this blog is on the look out for, but it hardly sounds earth-shattering. That is, until you realize that the owner of 240 Days is Constellation Brands in Canandaigua, NY the world’s largest wine producer (think giant brands like Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois, Kim Crawford, and, and, and). Nova Cadamatre is Constellation’s director of winemaking and is responsible for the making of more than 100 million bottles of wine per year. The roughly 8,000 bottles of the debut vintage of 240 Days may seem like a tiny drop in that ocean, but if you see this brand as a small new FLX winery then that quantity seems rather normal. The point of that analogy is that these wines taste as if they came from a small new FLX winery, not from a corporate giant. Given that the latter is the actual context  this is a major achievement. One of the secrets behind this is Nova’s ability to adapt to the special set of growing conditions in the FLX.

“After coming back from Napa I had to ask myself what will work here, and what won’t work here,” she explained, “I noticed that the size of the is much larger than in California.” For red wines that is of particular importance, because the color and the tannins are in the skins, so big berries means less color and tannin per unit volume of grape juice. Her simple solution to this problem was to, “to take the water out,” that is to remove 20% of the fermenting juice out of  the tank of fermenting 2015 Cabernet Franc to increase the skins to juice ratio. That 20% was then fermented separately to give the core of the 240 Days 2015 Dry Rosé. The latter is one of the new breed of fruit-driven – in this case mostly strawberry, but also watermelon and redcurrant – FLX dry rosés that have been taking the NYWC (New York Wine City) market by storm. The still slightly raw 2015 Cabernet Franc rted is a much more serious wine with a delicate touch of smoky oak, discrete herbal greenness rather than the full-throttle vegetal aromatics this grape is careful of, moderate acidity and quite elegant dry tannins. There are not many FLX Cabernet Francs that play in this league without getting what I call the Vanilla Pudding Problem, i.e. too much new oak leading to a vanilla aroma that smothers the wines’ fruit character. Some leading FLX winemakers need to get away from this if they want to persuade NYWC and the Big Wide Wine World that their Cab Francs deserve to be taken seriously!

Similarly successful, but in a dramatically contrasting style is the 240 Days 2015 Riesling, which is at the upper limit of the dry category. This has a very attractive nose of various fresh white fruits and a hint of citrus, and in the mouth has a spot on balance between juicy fruit, crisp acidity, and an uplifting spritz of carbon dioxide. Aging 10% of this wine in barriques used by the Robert Mondavi winery for six years before Nova got her hands on them has added some mid-palate texture without giving any hint of oak aroma. Both the alcohol and sweetness aren’t directly perceptible unless you’re a professional taster trained to look for those things. The price of $28 retail for the Riesling and $40 for the Cabernet Franc are statement’s of intent regarding the long-term position of the brand, and puts some pressure on Nova to push the quality even further during the coming years. It seems that Constellation are very serious about this project. “Rob said to me, “make the best possible wine you can!”" Rob is Robert Sands, the CEO.

Nova also as her own brand that debits with the 2015 vintage, Trestle 31, together with her husband Brian who also works for Constellation Brands, but on the financial side. They own a 12 acre property on the eastern bank of Seneca Lake that is cleared ready for planting and the grapes for the 2015 vintage came from nearby Zugibe Vineyards. This wine is a complete stylistic contrast to the 240 Days Riesling, being bone-dry with a much less strident acidity and aromas of tart peach and ripe lime. By the way, Nova is also a talented writer with her own blog. Normally, I don’t recommend winemaker’s blogs, because they are often poorly written and/or too geeky and/or dull as dust. However, I strongly recommend this one to you:

What does all this mean? Nova is undoubtedly one of the Rock Stars of Wine America! By the way, the third volume in my series of e-books under that name appears on Kindle on April 21st, and Nova also makes an appearance in it.


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FLXtra: Part 2 – A Simultaneous Riesling Vertical and Winemaker Horizontal

Why is there so little interest in mature wines like those pictured above? Most wine drinkers never have the chance to taste a particular wine from many vintages stretching back over 10 to 15 years, and those who lucky enough to have only done so generally only did that once or twice How can you actively desire something you’ve never experienced before? I think there’s also a difference between dabbling in a new experience and immersing yourself in it, because the former rarely leads to new habits being formed whereas the later does. The importance of habits in shaping our patterns of consumption and preferences whether in wine or other things is greatly underrated. The truth is that we are to a very large degree creatures of habit, but these habits can be changed. But enough philosophy for this afternoon, because this posting has a couple of concrete subjects.

The first of them is the vertical tasting of the dry Rieslings from the Sheldrake Point Estate Winery on Cayuga Lake yesterday afternoon that I was lucky to be invited to. I say “lucky”, because although I get to taste those 10 to 15 vintages of a particular wine quite often due to my profession, I very rarely get that chance in the FLX. Many producers who are making the best wines didn’t exist a decade or more ago, or if they did the quality took a big step up during that time. Then the comparison between wines of high quality current production with mediocre earlier production doesn’t real tell you anything apart from the simple fact that this producer got a lot better!

The most striking thing about the dry Rieslings from Sheldrake Point was the fact that the oldest  wines, the rich and weighty 2001 and the much lighter and much crisper 2002, both showed really well. The fact that regular quality wines produced in serious quantities can keep that well is a very positive sign. OK the 2003 had not aged so gracefully (it was drying out) and the 2004 was a bit too tart, but from the 2009 vintage onwards there was an impressive consistency of style and quality. This was also true of the rather more powerful and concentrated Riesling Reserve and even those wines from the unremarkable 2006 and very difficult 2009 vintages were seriously fresh and vivid. Probably the rich (apricot and tangerine aromas dominate) and beautifully balanced 2012 Riesling Reserve is the best white wine Sheldrake Point produced before the stunning 2014 that hasn’t been released yet. On which note, look out for the regular 2014 Dry Riesling due for release in just a couple of weeks. It is a steal!

 Then the concentration of the group of tasters was abruptly broken by a Facebook posting from Nathan Kendall, the winemaker of Bellangelo Winery on Seneca Lake for the 2014 and 2015 vintages (pictured right). It said:

For the last year and a half, I’ve had the great opportunity to make wines for Bellangelo Winery. Wishing them continued success. As of today I’m moving on to focus on the growth of my personal label, N. Kendall Wines. Also, stay tuned as I have some new exciting projects in the works as well!

That was a shocker had seen coming, and I had seen Nathan twice recently in NYC. The first time was at the first presentation that the winemaker group FLX Unfiltered & Unrefined in the Royal Seafood restaurant in Mott Street, Chinatown on the evening of Wednesday, March 2nd when he was showing the wines of his own label, and then the New York Drinks New York tasting on Tuesday, March 8th when he was showing the Bellangelo wines. The almost the off-dry 2014 Riesling he showed at the latter event was a striking wine that is just beginning to open up and (quite rightly) hasn’t been released yet. This situation didn’t suggest in any way that a big change was coming, rather it looked like Nathan would continue on this twin track career.

The FLX Unfiltered & Unrefined tasting demands some more serious comment. The one slightly questionable aspect of this group is the way they seem to be trying to position themselves as belonging within the broad (and increasingly confusing) circle of natural and alternative winemakers. Certainly, they can all claim to be makers of alternative wines, at least if that’s defined simply as wines with a non-mainstream taste. However, they certainly aren’t “natural” winemakers by any stretch of the imagination, or if they are then you have to make that category elastic to the point where it becomes meaningless.

This odd tasting in a Chinese restaurant was not only great fun, it was also my first chance to taste the wines from the Shaw and Wild Brute wineries. Shaw showed several mature wines, of which the muscular and tannic 2010 Pinot Noir was the most interesting. My only criticism of Wild Brute is given that name the wines were actually rather easy to drink, except for the 2013 Cabernet Franc, which is still a little bit wild and brutishly young in the positive sense. I really like the reds from Element winery that Master Sommelier Chris Bates founded, particularly the 2102 Cabernet Franc and the 2013 Lemberger. However, the most fitting description of this style is that I can come up with is that it is clearly inspired by certain traditional style French wines, but (thankfully) omits the hardcore funkiness often associated with them.

Nathan Kendall’s Rieslings are very striking, but if it’s bright fruity aromas that turn you on this is the wrong place to seek that tutti-frutti winogasm. However, if you like your dry Riesling to have some serious textural components then these wines – I’m thinking particularly of the dry 2012 and 2013 – could well excite you. The problem is that Kris Matthewsen of Bellwether Wines (pictured left) is also in the group, and he also makes dry Rieslings that are medium-bodied but have a lot textural complexity. As alternative as Kris’s wines undeniably are, they are also rather aromatic and I find them more interesting and satisfying than Nathan’s. I’m thinking particularly about the recently released Bellwether 2014 Dry Riesling from the Sawmill Creek Vineyard with it’s white peach, apple and lemon notes and a great balance for a high acidity dry white with just 11% alcohol. Hats off Kris!

What I’ve done here is simply to report on Nathan’s step sideways out of Bellangelo and off  completely in his own direction. Whether this is a positive step or not is another matter. You could say that it was a sign of the increasing dynamism of the FLX, or you could regard it as a petulant act of an ambitious and talented young winemaker. Time will tell us which it was better than I can with the facts currently at my disposal. Of course, it creates a problem for Bellangelo’s owner Chris Missick, but there’s plenty of time until the 2016 harevest and I’m sure that he can solve it well before then.


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FLXtra: Part 1 – Breaking the Boundaries at Boundary Breaks Vineyard

The Finger Lakes, increasingly well known under the acronym FLX, is a dynamic wine region that keeps drawing me back to it, but many people in New York Wine City, or NYWC as I call it, continue to look down their noses at the region’s wines. The inhabitants of NYWC are now split down the middle into FLX fans – mostly newly enthusiastic on the basis of the best wines from the last few vintages – and those who remain deeply skeptical. Just as Bordeaux – let’s stick with the goddamn acronyms and call it BDX – long benefited from being regarded by conservative wine drinkers as the wine region of France, Europe, the world and the universe, so in the eyes of arch-conservative citizens of NYWC the FLX will be forever the wrong wine region. Although the Great God of Wine is seldom evoked when such drastic judgements are made, it often strikes me that people act as if one or another gad had made that decision and all they are doing is following his will. I’m sure you can tell just how much scorn I have for this way of seeing Planet Wine, or for that matter anything else. The reason I’m so radical in rejecting this god-given determinism is that it strikes me that nothing in this world except for the hard facts of birth, aging, sickness and (eventual) death is ever fixed or forever certain.

Bruce Murray of Boundary Breaks Vineyard in the FLX, pictured above on the construction site of his new winery building, is the perfect proof of this. Although it is entirely functional it is also in the Greek Revival style that was so popular in this part of New York State when it was first settled by white European-Americans in the early 19th century. That is already quite a statement, and it fits Bruce’s ambitious plans for his still very young and still rather small winery.

After planting his first vines in 2008 Bruce released his first wine just under four years ago and with his 2014 vintage Rieslings he moved into the first league of FLX producers with a style that is at once ripe and aromatic, but also elegant and polished. His 2014 Dry Riesling 239 has already been named by this one of my  Riesling Revelations of 2015, and this wine is a steal at a shade under $20 direct from the winery! This quality and stylistic innovation is the result not only of the vision of Bruce the ex-market researcher, but also very much to his talented vineyard manager Kees Stapel and to the winemaking skills of Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars (with which wines they are not to be confused!) where the three main 2014 Rieslings of Boundary Breaks were made. I tasted them again this afternoon and cannot recommend them too highly to all the dyed-in-the-wool FLX wine skeptics in NYWC, because these wines have exactly what they think the wines of this region cannot ever have: finesse, sophistication and the ability to stand in the company of the world’s best (in this case Rieslings from the Mosel and Nahe in Germany would be the logical comparison).

With the first phase of construction of the new winery under way (I’d expect the new tasting room to be ready for the beginning of the tourist season),  the first red wine in barrel (at the cellar of Sheldrake Point), and plans for further planting in the air Boundary Breaks isn’t sitting still, rather Bruce is upping the stakes in the Great FLX Wine Game. And Bruce isn’t the only one with serious ambitions and the determination to turn a vision into wines that wow consumers out there in the Big Wine Wine World. No less than his switched on colleagues in the region, he knows that there is no way to achieve this but by breaking the supposed boundaries of what this region can do. Oh, and then you have to sell these new wines along with the idea that they are not just remarkable FLX wines, but remarkable wines period. As Bruce said to me, “in this market that’s overcrowded with many, many, many, many fine wines the way you market yourself has a disproportionate effect on how successful you are.” He’s working on that challenge too!


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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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