Monthly Archives: July 2009

California Dreaming At Porter Family Vineyards In Napa

I am an Italian wine snob. I admit it. I love everything about Italy and have always turned up my nose at those who compare California to Italy, Napa to Tuscany, and other silly things like that. That was, until last night. I don’t know what is happening to me. Perhaps I just need a vacation and maybe I am just so happy to be out of New York but California looked surprisingly like Tuscany yesterday, with rolling hills, wheat and soft plantings.

Thanks to the Society of Wine Educators, I am at the annual wine conference in Sacramento. As part of the conference, we had a wine dinner at Porter Family Vineyards in Napa. I would surely never have happened on this winery and I am truly pleased to have had the opportunity.

The setting as I mentioned is ideal and truly reminded me of corners of Italy. The family that runs the winery was extremely kind and welcoming and to boot they had built a beautiful home with fabulous plantings and an incredible wine cellar replete with a King Arthur like room. The only thing missing was a round table. Enough about the supreme setting, I actually really liked the wines. After all, this is a wine blog about wineries and wine producers.

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The Porters described themselves as scientists who studied their land assiduously before deciding where to build their winery. While searching for the ideal spot, they discovered a fossil with a sandpiper’s footprints from millions of years ago. Apparently, the area where the winery sits was a shoreline at one time.

The Napa Valley is well known for having varied soils, more than 30 different types. The Porter’s winery is built on volcanic ash over bedrock in a town called Coombsville. They are awaiting a designation as a new AVA which is expected to come through any time soon. The vineyards are at 600 feet above sea level and gets considerable sunlight although it also benefits from cooling breezes off of the San Pablo Bay.

Not to harp too much on the view but the winery rests at the tip of Napa and you are treated to a spectacular view of the whole valley and the mountain ranges in the distance.

One difference in wineries in California, or at least this winery, is that everything is new and immaculate. Whether it be the fermentation vats, the barriques or the sorting equipment. Tom Porter, the owner of Porter Family Vineyards appears to have spared no expense on his 15 acre vineyard. The family is planting mostly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon along with small lots of other Bordeaux varietals.

The Porters practice sustainable farming, looking to protect and promote the health of their land, the environment, their employees and family. They use a technique called deficit irrigation which creates water stress on the vine. This stress helps to control vigor of the grape vine which can be a problem in warm weather climes. They also use integrated pest management and study each specific pest’s vulnerabilities in order to combat them without using pesticides and chemicals.

Ken Bernards is the wine maker at Porter Family Vineyards. Bernards has his own wine label and has made wines for numerous wineries throughout the United States and Chile. He has a long relationship to the vineyards and is well acquainted with the terrain.

Bernards spoke at length during our visit on his different wines and the systems that they have created to gently treat the wines during vinification, including a machine that makes the grapes “hop” to the selection table and eventually into the fermentation vat.

One of my favorite wines was their 2008 Sandpiper rose’ made from Syrah. According to Bernards, the best rose’ is made from whole bunch pressing not from the saignee method. The wine was very fruit forward with lovely bright acidity. A real pleasure to drink on a summer evening overlooking the Napa Valley.

We were also treated to an interesting Cabernet Sauvignon blend of three different vintages, the 2005, 2006, 2007 were blended together. The wine hasn’t been released yet and some of my colleagues wondered at the wisdom of the blend.

I thought it was lovely and surprisingly drinkable, much more so than the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon which was extremely tannic and closed. I am sure the Cabernet will be eminently drinkable but not for some years.

The Porters also make a Syrah. We were lucky enough to taste a barrel sample as well as the 2006 vintage. Pepper and chocolate were the signature flavors that I found in both examples.

All in all, the evening was memorable as were the telescopes set outside to gaze at the planets and the stars. I am sure this family that hails from the Midwest has great things in store. I look forward to trying their wines again in the future.

In the meantime, I guess I have to change my assumptions about California and the Napa Valley. Flexibility and the ability to admit when you are wrong are signs of maturity they say. I think I will just have to make another trip to be sure.

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Chile Day 11: The Casablanca Valley – Rediscovering Sauvignon Blanc

Although it has been almost seven months since my lovely trip to Chile, I have yet to write about my vineyard trips while there. An article by Eric Asimov in this week’s Dining In section sparked my memories of just how much I enjoyed the Chilean Sauvignon Blancs that I tried while visiting.

Vina Mar

Let me be frank, I generally find Sauvignon Blanc is not a grape I favor, unless it is from the Loire Valley or blended in a White Bordeaux. I am not fond of the new world style sauvignons so I was quite surprised to discover that these wines from Chile’s Casablanca Valley appealed to me very much.

Wine Label

Quite unexpectedly I found that I truly enjoyed the Vina Mar 2008 Sauvignon Blanc. It was light and fresh with nice acidity but none of the tinned vegetable notes or other characteristic aromas that one gets with other Sauvignon Blancs.

Vina Mar 3

Vina Mar was started in 2002. Casablanca is ideal because you have warm temperatures during the day and cool ocean breezes at night and early morning fog. This combination of factors helps to keep the acidity lively. Vina Mar uses selection tables for the grapes and a pneumatic press.

The Sauvignon blanc ferments in stainless steel although for the special reserve version of this wine, a small percentage sees some wood. The fruit is more tropical on the special reserve and it is a bit creamier than the leaner 100% stainless steel one. I also enjoyed a Pinot Noir that they produce and a Carmenere. The Chardonnay was less interesting to me.

I am used to visiting wineries in the old world and have visited quite a few in the new world in Argentina, Australia, California and New York, however, I was quite unprepared for the scale of the holdings in Chile. The valleys run for miles with nothing but grape vines.

Vina Mar Winery

This winery reminded me more of a scene from Dallas, the soap opera, and I expected JR to walk out of the front door.

Vina Indomita

My group moved on to the neighboring winery, also quite commerical called Vina Indomita. Here the decor reminded me of chic bars and night spots in Milan.

Milan

This estate was immense as well, some 200 hectares. Immaculately groomed and well cared for, the wines were pleasant. The Sauvignon Blanc was lemony with citrus notes. Not very complex but most enjoyable. The scenery is gorgeous. Nothing about these wineries is at all quaint but they were both truly beautiful.

Not quaint but beautiful

At this winery, I preferred the Carmenere and the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are made with grapes grown in the Central Valley, farther South.

Wines at Vina Indomita

The day was exceptional and I was sorry to see it end.

Before going to the wineries we went to Pablo Neruda’s famous home on the coast, Isla Negra. Neruda, that most romantic of poets, is one of my favorites. I saw three of his homes while in Chile. He was a fascinating character with a love for everything related to the sea, although he was afraid of boats. His homes are fabulously interesting with a charming, eclectic variety of objects. Un incanto, come si suol dire…

Isla Negra

Neruda’s poetry speaks for itself. Surely there is nothing I can add except to remind people to go visit Isla Negra, a truly magical experience.

Bar at Isla Negra

Beach at Isla Negra

View at Isla Negra

While you are there, have a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, what a great way to relax. After the visit, you must also buy a chocolate from this lady, Nonna Tina.

Nonna Tina

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Italian Indigenous Varieties: Seldom Seen Blending Grapes From Sardinia & Sicily

While trying to write an Italian indigenous grape dictionary for Altacucina Society’s website, I keep reading about grapes that I have never heard of from all corners of Italy. I am still on the first letter of the Alphabet and am amazed at the wealth of varieties.

Albanello bianco from Sicily, for example, is one that I just discovered from the provinces of Siracusa, Ragusa, Caltinisetta and Etna in Sicily. The variety used to grow in Le Marche but can no longer be found there.

This white grape variety, normally used as a blending grape, apparently aids in the production of both dry and sweet wines which can age. It is mentioned in references to Eloro Bianco, a wine from the province of Siracusa as well as Ambrato di Comiso, a liquoroso wine from the province of Ragusa.

I only found one winery which produces wines imported into the US which use Albanello as part of a blend. The winery, Gulfi, is located in the Iblei Mountains in the province of Ragusa. I found the wines on wine-searcher at Astor Wines and PJ Wines.

Ragusa is the smallest Sicilian province and is known in the wine world for its Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red wine with a very light (rose’) color made from a blend of Nero d’Avola, Frappato and 10% other indigenous red varieties which attained the coveted Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status with its 2005 vintage. It is the only DOCG wine in Sicily.

The Iblean Mountains lie on the South-Eastern side of Sicily and are known for their limestone soil.

A dear friend from Italy is from Ragusa and she has often invited me to visit. I have not yet taken her up on the offer but as I look through websites, I am becoming increasing curious about this corner of Sicily that I do not know well.

I also read about two varieties which are impossible to pronounce Albaranzeuli Bianco (also called Albillo and Albicello) and Albaranzeuli Nero from Sardinia. The names conjures up a Spanish past with moorish Arab influence. While their provenance is uncertain, it is thought that they come from the Iberian peninsula.

Sardinia if you recall was under Spanish rule for more than 400 years. Both grapes are found in the province of Nuoro and the white variety in the province of Oristano.

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Once a Francophile…

I confess on my birthday last week I drank French wine and not Italian. It’s the first time ever but then again this was a particular birthday. I had bottle of Georges Duboeuf Pouilly Fuisse 2007 with a delicious lobster on City Island with two people I adore. Quite different than the birthday’s I’ve spent in Italy, it was lovely and a French wine from my youth seemed a perfect fit. Before I became an Italophile, I was a die hard Francophile. In my home, everything French was considered superior – be it the wine, the food or the language. Naturally. I drank this in and was an earlier lover of France and all it has to offer. I lived in Dijon during college and in fact majored in French. One cold winter’s day in Dijon, my mom came to visit and took me on a holiday to Italy. I was smitten at first glance of the Borromean Islands peering through the mist of the lake. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and looking out the window of the train thinking I was in paradise. My Italian adventure began and has never ended.

While I just received a huge shipment of my things from Italy, I often feel as if I still reside there. Everything about it is just so much a part of my life. France for all the years I lived in Italy was completely on the back burner. Except for an occasional rose or a trip to France, the importance of France had completely receded. These days, both personally and professionally, France is back in the picture. A welcome addition, I guess old love affairs die hard. That’s how I think about my romance with Italy, as a long standing love affair.

Generally I like this blog to be about wine producers and their lovely products or topics in the wine business. I aim to be informative and share knowledge that I have been lucky enough to gather about a producer, a wine or an area. It’s much more interesting to read about that sort of thing than about what I eat and drink and with whom. That’s my take on the blogsphere, though everyone has their own style.Il mondo e bello perche vario… Once in a while though, I too write a blog about me. So here’s this month’s indulgence.

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Blunders, Mistakes and Tasting Wines Blind

Over the course of the last three days, I have had many occasions to try wines and have to guess something about them. I have been hopelessly wrong in over 60% of my guesses and it has been a humbling experience.

Back to the drawing board as I study for my Certified Wine Educator’s (CWE) degree from the Society of Wine Educators. I along with a number of other friends and acquaintances will take the test in Sacramento, California as part of the Society of Wine Educator’s annual conference. I am excited for the conference, less so for the exam.

Part of the CWE is guessing wine faults. While there are methodologies to studying and eliminating possible guesses, at the end of the day, practice makes perfect.

Another portion of the test is tasting wines blind and guessing what they are from a list of wines on a sheet. This is much harder to do than it appears. I was given a good tip this weekend though by Rodolphe from Wine Messenger, write a tasting note first and then look at the list of wines.

In my bi-monthly podcast with Terence Hughes from Domenico Selections, Mondosapore and Muddyboots, we also tasted a wine that I was supposed to guess.

While this has all been somewhat depressing, what has come back into the picture for me is that you need to study the wine you have in front of you and compare it with the other wine profiles you have in your head.

You need to examine the wine in three ways: visually, on the nose and on the palate. Armed with this information, you can then begin to make educated guesses, using your knowledge of varietals, vinification and aging techniques, color and aspect, flavor profile. Generally I try to do the old/new world division as well but even that can be confusing as old world countries make wines in the new world style and vice versa. This all takes a lot of practice.

There are worse things I’ll admit.

It can be very hard to stay on top of all the available information and no one can try every wine out there but we can certainly try. The other key issue these tasting have brought home to me is the need to be more systematic. Methodology is very important and using the same tasting method each time is fundamental.

I am always interested in the ways that different people rate wine and what standards they use. Often we aren’t told what components go into rating but whatever the components are, serious wine raters and tasters have a methodology.

Mine is a work in progress, just like me.

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New York Wine Bars – Via della Pace & Bar Jamon

New York wine bars may be a dime a dozen but everyone has their own personal favorites. I went to visit a few of mine this weekend and shared the experience with friends.

I had visitors in town and led them on a long tour of New York. We went on the Circle Line – the long tour, watched fire works, walked on the rivers, walked across the Brooklyn bridge and on the promenade as well as all around the city. Of course, I also ate and drank a lot, in other words, a holiday.

Among my travels were visits to a couple of wine bars/restaurants that I want to mention. One in the East Village is called Via della Pace. I am not sure if it is related to the beautiful bar of the same name in Rome on Via della Pace but I imagine it is. I had a lovely Dolcetto.

Another bar I really love is Bar Jamon. A friend is a long time member of the staff at the bar so perhaps it is just nice to be in a place where you know someone but I think the exquisite Pata Negra also has something to do with it. I drank too much Rose’ made from the Tempranillo grape. The wine was called Quinta Clarisa and is made by Belondrade y Lurton. The entire experience was appealing and shall be repeated shortly.

If like me you are sometimes stranded in New York on a staycation, take advantage of these two spots that can bring you close to the Mediterranean without taxing your wallet too much. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

If, instead you want to bring some Spanish wine home, I discovered that PJ Wine in Inwood has a huge and inexpensive selection.

Clarisa

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Italian Indigenous Varieties: Aleatico

My series on Italian grape varieties continues on Altacucina Society’s website. This week’s article is on Aleatico. Aleatico grows in a number of different Italian regions, the most famous of which are Tuscany, Apulia and Lazio. I have tried a number of these wines and find them quite interesting. Aleatico can be made into a dry wine or a passito (dessert wine). I much prefer the dessert versions.

At Vinitaly, I dragged David Buchanan to try some lovely ones from Apulia. We tried an Aleatico from Tenute Rubino from Brindisi. The wine was quite rich with floral and berry aromas. Tenute Rubino is a very interesting winery but I was more taken with another of their wines than with the Aleatico.

Aleatico Passito Castel Del Salve

The Aleatico Passito from Apulia that I preferred was from Castel di Salve from the Salento region of Apulia. The winery is from the 1880s and is run by two men named Francesco who take their jobs very seriously.

The wine was full bodied and sweet without being overpowering. I like the philosophy of this winery as well. They try to work with only indigenous grapes and to bring out the true expression of the local varieties. I also really liked their packaging. They are located in Depressa, way down the coast of Italy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in this area back in 2002. I wasn’t aware of the winery at the time but I can highly recommend the Salento for a wonderful vacation with beautiful beaches, churches, meals, and people. Don’t go there on a diet though, you will miss out on all the fun…

Castel di Salve

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