New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – Meet Kelby James Russell, the Star of “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story”

This is Kelby James Russell, the KJR in the title of my new e-book on Kindle, and one the FLX (Finger Lakes) Rock Star Winemakers the title refers to. The unlikely hero of my new work is pictured in the lab of Red Newt Cellars, the wines of which he’s only been fully responsible for since the 2013 vintage. In that short time Red Newt has gone from being an extremely reliable producer of elegant and charming Rieslings, mostly in the medium-sweet style to a daring innovator in the field of dry and medium-dry Rieslings. KJR is also responsible for making most of the wines for Bruce Murray’s small, but very ambitious Boundary Breaks winery, for the Empire Estate dry Riesling brand launched with the 2014, and for his own Kelby James Russell label. Taken together these wines have already exerted a significant impact on the perception of FLX wines in the Northeast of the US, and this effect will increase significantly during the next few years. The situation just a few years ago in which Hermann J. Wiemer was (rightly in my view) regarded as the sole star producer in the region has changed for this reason, but also others that I will go into over the next days. Given that Kelby is only 28 years old and gained his first experience of winemaking at Fox Run Vineyards on the other side of Seneca lake from Red Newt in the fall of 2009 this is an extraordinary achievement. This is the main reason that I chose him for the cover and title of my in-depth study of the new generation of FLX winemakers.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have already read the quote from Clarke Smith (the author of Postmodern Winemaking) that follows, but it’s so important I think that you should read it again along with everyone else: “The revolutions in winemaking are not the work of scientists, but of lunatic heroes who try stuff which orthodox thinking says never should be tried.” Clarke then added some further explanation that makes it clear he doesn’t regard this as being something specific to winemaking, but a much more general phenomenon: “Any paradigm shift is caused by such people. But the Scientific Method does not generate new hypotheses, rather merely tests them – a mopping up activity that constitutes the bulk of scientific enterprise. Revolutions are risky behavior for which you have to be a little bit nuts.” Although he doesn’t scream and shout about it, as you can see from the above photo of KJR he’s on the same page as Clark Smith. He certainly isn’t the only one of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX to see things that way, but he struck me as the right figurehead for this movement that might well be the Second Great Wine Awakening in New York State.

No revolution was ever the work of one woman or one man alone, and in this case the owner of Red Newt Cellars must take a very substantial amount of credit for recognizing KJR’s talent, seeing that this represented a great opportunity rather than a ton of complications, and giving him all the support he needed to realize his ideas. The results speak for themselves and would have had a great success in the marketplace even if I had written nothing whatsoever about them. However, maybe “success” is way too simple a word for the myriad reactions to the new wines from Red Newt Cellars. I have already noted much astonishment on the faces of leading Riesling winemakers like Cornelius Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in the Nahe, Germany, critics like Stephan Reinhardt of the Wine Advocate, and experts like Lisa Granik MW in NYWC (New York Wine City). As the wines get tasted by more and more people some critical voices are bound to become loud, because wines with this kind of dramatic personality are polarizing. I like the way that both KJR and Dave Whiting have a relaxed “so what?” attitude to this, because it’s inevitable and by no means will it always be bad publicity for them.

Great wines are impossible without excellent quality grapes, and with Riesling there’s very little possibility to hide inadequate fruit quality with winemaking bells and whistles. What you see (when the grapes come into the cellar) is what you get (in the bottle) when it comes to quality. The rise of KJR and Red Newt wouldn’t have been possible without the man pictured on the left in the above photograph, Harlan Fulkerson, a.k.a. The Big H, of the Lahoma Vineyard on the western bank of Seneca Lake. They are standing in a block of the vineyard that KJR christened The Knoll, because although the vineyard has several knolls this is the one planted with Riesling. From the 2013 vintage Red Newt  have produced a very special dry Riesling under the name The Knoll, and that first vintage is just coming into its own. Soon to follow from Red Newt is a new top medium-dry Riesling called The Big H. from another block in the Lahoma Vineyard.  The praise for these wines will be a vindication of Harlan’s precise vineyard cultivation no less than of KJR’s winemaking. Harlan also gets a big splash in my e-book, but a larger than life personality like his is incapable of making a small splash!

For more information about Kelby Russell go to

http://rednewt.com/ww4/?page_id=217

And for the full, unexpurgated story of the new generation of FLX winemakers and much, much more head to the Kindle Store on Amazon and purchase my book:

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

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New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story” is finally published on Kindle!

I write these lines in a state of exhaustion and euphoria after a two day marathon completing the latest e-book in my series ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA and publishing #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story on Kindle late yesterday evening. It’s subject is the new generation of winemakers in the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York and the events described in this roller coaster work of gonzo journalism span the period June 15th 2015 thru March 17th 2016. KJR is Kelby James Russell, the 28 year old Rock Star Winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, and it is his face on the cover. More about him tomorrow. Once again the cover art was drawn and stitched, then the cover designed by Angelyn Cabrales. I must thank her for giving the cover a very different look to either #1 or #2 that communicates the daring, optimism and openness of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX. They deeply inspired me.

In spite of increased media coverage of the FLX during the last years – a reflection of the rapidly improving quality of the wines – I don’t think any of my colleagues really wrote a comprehensive portrait of the new winemakers that captured their spirit and society. Nor did anyone describe in detail how they are part of a network of creative exchange between older and younger winemakers. This is not a sales pitch – I need several days of R&R before I can write anything resembling that! – merely an observation that this subject was rather inadequately covered, because nobody considered it important enough to invest the considerable amount of time and effort that I did. However, during the months since I began writing it on a flight from Berlin to New York on December 18th 2015 I was often a bit worried that I might be scooped by some colleague. The FLX are about to be discovered by the mainstream media big time!

Look at those dates and you will see that I was writing for almost full three months before the events described ended. This alone makes #3: FLXtra gonzo, for I was often writing about what had just happened, lifting quotes and impressions from my notebook into the text the very next morning. This meant the text was developing as the story happened, and I decided not to shy away from telling that story with all its highs and lows. Those who have read #1 and #2 will note the absence of the PARENTAL ADVISORY: Explicit Content sticker from the cover of #3. This is a risk I’m taking, because there is some sexual content in #3 (I’m rating it PG), but the more unusual thing for a wine book is that emotional intensity. In recent years several colleagues (most notably Alice Feiring) wrote wine books that went some distance in this direction, but I don’t think anybody did so in the radical way I have done. By the way, I tried to do so in a spirit of compassion rather than to be judgmental of others in any way or form.

#3 is gonzo in a more fundamental way too, for I worked hard not only to be accepted by my subjects, but also to become part of their world, so that when I wrote about it I would be doing so from the inside. Many of the new winemakers of the FLX trusted me completely, and that made this dissolving of boundaries possible, so help me God. Here is the outrageous result. The price is $4.99 and all you need to do to read it is download the free Kindle app onto your device before purchasing, that is if you don’t already have a Kindle or an iPad/iPhone/etc with the Kindle app on it. ENJOY!

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

 

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New York Wine Diary: Day 1 – Castello di Morcote is One of the World’s “Grand Crus” for Merlot

This is Gaby Gianini the owner of Castello di Morcote, and although those names will be unknown to most readers I am convinced that this place is one of the world’s great Cru for red wines from the Merlot grape. I call it “Anti-Petrus”, because Chateau Petrus in Pomerol/Bordeaux – the most famous Cru in the whole world for Merlot-based red wines – is almost flat and has a heavy clay soil that retains a lot of water, whereas Castello di Morcote’s vineyards are on steep slopes with a weathered porphyry soil that retains very little water. The contrast could hardly be more striking, but it goes much, much further than these facts, however fundamental they are for the business of winegrowing.

Due to their location on the plateau of Pomerol from the vineyards of Petrus you can barely see beyond the immediately neighboring properties where the vineyards look much the same. “Dull” was the first word that occurred to me when trying to describe this location. And no, I’m not anti-Bordeaux, for example, the nearby town of St. Emilion and the surrounding vineyards are stunning in comparison. Castello  di Morcote stands on an isthmus projecting into Lago di Lugano from which the views are truly spectacular. On three sides of the property lie the waters of the lake lie and, depending which way you look from which location on the property, you can see for somewhere between several miles to some tens of miles. Most of what you see is densely forested hill country that is unchanged since thousands of years (see below). I know of no other vineyard location in the world exactly like this, although the bluff of Keuka Lake in the FLX of Upstate New York kind of resembles it.

Then there’s the architecture. The Chateau at Petrus is little more than a 19th century farmhouse, and it still looks like that although a great deal of money having been poured into making it look grander (and avoiding some taxes). In contrast, Castello di Morcote is a massive fortress dating back to around 1450, and although it is partially in ruins this only adds to the impressive effect. However, the age of this place is much greater than the fortress you see when you arrive, for it was built around the remains of a Roman tower that are still visible (the Roman well is pictured below).

I’m going to stick my neck out a considerable distance and say that there’s no department in which Morcote lags behind Petrus except in wine prices, although it does that by a huge margin: the latter is one of the most expensive wines in the world. Morcote costs between 5% and 10% of the price of Petrus depending on the vintage (for the latter).  Of course, the statement of with which this paragraph begins means that I consider the red wine from Castello di Morcote to be remarkable and extraordinary. In my opinion, since the 2011 vintage it has joined the L’Apparita of Castello di Ama in Chianti Classico as one of the two most elegant Merlot red wines in the world. They both come from high altitude vineyards with rocky soils that are not only a great contrast to Chateau Petrus, but also to the almost flat vineyards with loam-based soils from which Masseto (Italy’s most famous and expensive Merlot red) is produced in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast.

This is all down to the vision of Gaby Gianini who was convinced that her family property was capable of producing special wines when she took over responsibility for the vineyards and winemaking in 2009. In Michele Conceprio (pictured above) she has found an ideal oenologist for this project, not only because he has great experience growing Merlot around the Lago di Lugano, but also because he is fanatical about turning vineyards into complex eco-systems through bio-dynamic methods. It has been this and more rigorous selection of the grapes used for red wine (the property also makes interesting dry whites based on Merlot) that have moved quality up and up since 2009. Already the 2011 wines (the current vintage) have the dry elegance and subtle fragrance that is Gianini’s goal, but the 2013s take this a step farther having even more energy (that which Merlot generally misses), and the 2015s that are still in barrel are sensationally expressive and unbelievably vibrant considering how hot last summer was.

The idea of Cru, that is of unique locations in each of which a particular type of wine achieve both a remarkable quality and a high individuality of flavor is not new, although it is less old than is commonly supposed (it very rarely goes back much more than 300 years). However, this idea is often only applied to a few select regions, as if in the distant past the Great God of Wine had written in stone that terroir could only exist in a handful of places. In fact, the way the Cru idea has spread very considerably during the 30 plus years of  my career, most obviously in the German-speaking world, but also, for example, in Piemont. Back in the 1970s there were very few single-vineyard Nebbiolos from that region and they were often considered oddities. Since then there has been a great blossoming of the culture of single-vineyards in Piemont. I am sure that this will also happen in the region that is Castello di Morcote’s home.

Where is that? Although the names are all Italian, it is just the other side of the border in the Italian speaking Swiss province of Ticino. Yes, I’ve been talking about a Swiss wine the whole time! And how could a Riesling lover get so excited about Merlot of all grapes, because here too are elegance and vitality, subtle aromatics and a balance that draws me back to the glass again and again.

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – BE HERE soon for ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra

This is where it all started. I took the above photo at almost exactly the moment when the story of my forthcoming e-book begins. Finally, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra about the Finger Lakes (the FLX) in Upstate New York is almost ready for publication. Pictured above is the team responsible for the Empire Estate brand of dry FLX Riesling, Kelby James Russell, the winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on Seneca Lake and Thomas Pastuszak, the sommelier of the Nomad Hotel on Broadway in Manhattan. I took it just a few blocks from the Nomad Hotel at the launch of Empire Estate on the evening of Monday, June 15th 2015. The story of FLXtra spans the nine months from then until March 15th 2015, a period during which I experienced incredibly personal highs and lows as I researched the new generation of winemakers in the FLX.

Now the question is WHO are the Rock Star Winemakers that my book praises most highly and WHO is the winemaker pictured on the cover? This blog posting is low on text, but introduces you to some of the most important candidates.

The Dr. Konstantin Frank / Chateau Frank winery was the pioneer of high-end wines from the Vitis vinifera  (think Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also Saperavi and Rkatsiteli!) in the FLX, and Meaghan Frank (on the left) is the fourth generation of the Frank family to direct the family winery on Keuka Lake. She’s pictured with her father Fred (on the right) at the 30th anniversary celebration for the Chateau Frank sparkling wines on July 5th last year.

Fred Merwarth (above left) and Oskar Bynke (above right) have done an amazing job of taking the already highly regarded Hermann J. Wiemer winery to the premier position in the states along the Eastern Seaboard of the US.  Their Riesling are the benchmarks against which ambitious young winemakers measure their own achievements.

Tom and Susan Higgins (above left and right) left NYC and the computing business less than a decade ago to found Heart & Hands, a small winery on Cayuga Lake dedicated to Pinot Noir reds (for which they already have quite a reputation) and Riesling (for which they’re not so well known). Tom also introduced me to some of the extraordinary geology and wildlife of the FLX.

Bruce Murray is an even more recent arrival in the FLX from NYC where he was a market researcher. The first vintage for his Boundary Breaks Vineyard Rieslings was 2011, and it was amazing for me to see what he’s achieved on Seneca Lake without actually having either a winery of his own and working with a team of winemakers. Regular readers will already know how highly I regard the 2014 vintage wines from Boundary Breaks.

Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing winery on Seneca Lake is an old hand compared with the new winemaking immigrants, but the steadily rising reputation of the FLX during recent years has a great deal with the consistent high quality of wines like his medium-dry single-vineyard Rieslings: Yellow Dog, Round Rock and Red Oak. And he’s also the inventor of the un-oaked style of Cabernet Franc rapidly gaining ground in the region.

Peter Bell of Fox Run winery over on the other (western) side of Seneca Lake not only made the first FLX red wines that I found completely convincing, for example, the stunning 2005 Cabernet Franc Reserve. He also played a vital role behind the scenes in training a large part of the new generation of FLX winemakers. For this alone somebody should give him a medal!

Julia Hoyle, now the assistant winemaker at Sheldrake Point winery on Cayuga Lake, was one of Peter Bell’s best students. She is one of the new winemakers to watch closely during the coming years, and already her example is inspiring other young women – some with no wine background like her – to enter the NY wine industry.

August Deimel (pictured above in a scene from FLXtra) took the more conventional route of the Oenology Program at nearby Cornell University, but I don’t think anyone could accuse August or his wines of being conventional. I thought that I was done with Gewürztraminer until I tasted those he makes at Keuka Spring Vineyards on Keuka Lake. His Dynamite Vineyard Gewürztraminer really is (dry) dynamite!

California star winemaker Paul Hobbs and Mosel star winemaker Johannes Selbach (pictured above right with Paul’s younger brother David, left) recently started the most daring new vineyard project in the FLX. They are pushing more envelopes simultaneously then I could cope with, but this is how you find out what’s really possible in a young wine region like this (the first vinifera was 1962!)

I wish there was space for everyone in this blog posting, but there isn’t, and I have to admit that the above selection was also influenced by photo quality. To find out who the biggest Rock Star Winemakers of the FLX are for me you will have to head to the Kindle Store on Amazon sometime from Sunday, May 8th and purchase ROCK STAR OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra for $4.99. By the way, only then will the full title of this most daring of my wine books be revealed. Perhaps you can sense my own excitement about this impending publication in the above short texts. WATCH THIS SPACE!

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On the Wine Trail: Day 6 – The Low Down on 2015 in Germany (General Overview)

Yes, that’s my handwriting on the label of this wine from Peter Lauer on the Saar!

I must apologize to you all for the lack of postings during the last couple of weeks, but I was completely distracted by work on my forthcoming e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra in order to try and meet the deadline I set myself of publication on May 2nd immediately before I return to NYWC (New York Wine City). However, I just spent several days on the road very intensively tasting the young German wines of the 2015 vintage and I was also able to catch another bunch of them in Berlin during the week before I set off. This now adds up to a good general overview and a more detailed appreciation of certain regions whose wines are widely exported around Planet Wine.

I’m sure that this is going to disappoint many of you, but what I’m not going to do is write a shopping list of the wines that you have to buy. First of all, each of you has a different taste and such a list would only work with extensive notes, secondly any list that accurately reflects the nature of 2015 in Germany would have to be very long. This is because almost everywhere the fall was nearly perfect for an extended harvest, there being little or no rot problems (which were major in 2013 and 2014) and the acidity being very healthy (more than  2014 or 2012!) That meant even less talented winemakers made some good wines, and the high flyers could get close to the optimum possible. I am now going to disappoint the group of you looking for power wines by saying that the great majority of 2015s from the leading producers are remarkable because of their subtlety of aroma and flavor, their brightness and delicacy. There are far fewer imposing wines or showy wines than in some recent vintages. And 2015 is not only great for Riesling there are many excellent Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Silvaner (Sylvaner), just to name the most obvious success stories.

The biggest problem for the vintage is probably going to be that the euphoria about it (not entirely justified, because nearly all the producers who made exciting 2015s also made the best wines in 2013 and 2014 too) will probably result in most of the wines being drunk before they’ve had even a few months in the bottle to open up. Then, a couple of years down the line there will be widespread moaning about how the producers should have held back some 2015s, and how terrible it is that they don’t have many bottles even for themselves. If you want to drink 2015s in the future PUT THEM IN YOUR CELLAR!

The label above was not my idea, but it seems to be a good idea. A few weeks ago in NYWC Florian Lauer of Weingut Peter Lauer of Ayl on the Saar told me that since his mother’s recent death he had nobody to do the handwritten texts for his labels, and asked if I might be able to help him with that. This is my first attempt – part written on my NYWC desk and part on my Berlin desk – and it appears to work. I first visited this producer 25 years ago and I liked the Lauers very much for our first meeting. Florian has revolutionized the drier Rieslings since he took over the winemaking just over a decade ago and the sweet Rieslings are as good as they ever were. It is an honor for me to be able to put my swirls and curls on these labels.

 

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – Anna Leonhardt and Her Ironically Cryptic Paintings

Wine takes me to all kinds of places and introduces me to all kinds of people, and one of the most interesting recent introductions was to the German painter Anna Leonhardt who’s first NYC show opens at 6pm tonight (Sunday, April 10th at Marc Straus Gallery, 299 Grand Street in Chinatown). In the photograph above she is pictured in her grungy NYC studio - it’s cold even on a warm day, and at one point when she was working several bucket loads of water suddenly dropped in through the ceiling - just a few doors down the street from the gallery where where she did most of the paintings that go on show tonight, a process I was able to follow. If you can’t get to the gallery before the show closes on May 15th, then you can get a get a good idea of how it looks by clicking on the following link.

http://www.marcstraus.com/exhibitions/anna-leonhardt-april-2016/

I won’t get to see the show until after I return to NYC May 3rd, so what I see when I think of Anna’s work looks more like the photograph below that was taken in her studio the last time we met. It shows the largest of her recent paintings, and although it may not look it, this thing is 3.5 meters long and barely fitted in through the studio front door!

All of Anna’s paintings function in the same basic way, having a landscape-like background – that is one element covering the entire surface of the painting that we read as being a landscape type space – and a number of strokes in the foreground – that is a number of elements superimposed on that background that we read as being like figures standing closer to us than what we read as being behind them. This clumsy piece of description is necessary to point out that the way Anna’s paintings function is all about how we interpret them, a process I’ve only described the most banal aspect of. However, it is the basis upon which all the other interpretations we make are based, as it were the foundations upon which many floors can be built.

It’s a long time since abstract paintings fascinated me as much as Anna’s do, and they do so because they are ironically cryptic. That means, when I look at them my mind jumps to the conclusion there is a puzzle to solve, but I also see my mind doing that and observe the way it jumps to that conclusion. And what a (non-)puzzle it is! New pieces of (non-)it drop into my mind each time I look at one of Anna’s paintings, yet my head doesn’t just fill up with a growing pile of mental debris, rather space for further interpretations always remains available. That’s the reason that they are ironically open-ended, because I also observe the way they always remain open-ended, and any conclusions I come to are delightfully inconclusive. That might read like some kind of complicated word game, but really it’s not like that at all. Anna’s paintings communicate a special kind of freedom and it’s something I could never have thought up before I hadn’t encountered them.

I like this small painting a lot – Anna’s work on a small scale is every bit as strong as her larger paintings – and the way it looks in this deliberately awkward photograph. I took a number like this, because they seemed to capture the very particular atmosphere in her anarchic studio best. Anarchic? What I don’t mean is that this place and what she did there were chaotic in any sense at all, rather she gave the place a spirit that refuses to adhere to any rules, but then pragmatically goes through the motions of playing by the rules in order to get somewhere and take us there with her.

Now I’ve said too much already, or possibly nothing useful at all, but you read this far and some of you will go and see the paintings, which is the most important thing. On the side, being introduced to Anna Leonhardt by wine one evening in a Japanese restaurant (1 or 8 on South 2nd Street), then getting to know her work pushed me to reconnect with the painterly creative process and write something about it. That’s something I haven’t done for many years. No doubt the lack of practice shows!

 

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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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