South America’s (Wine) MVPs

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My first wine tour of South America begins today. In every region, everywhere in the world, there are always a critical few people who lead the shift from bulk to quality wines, and show the pathway into global markets.

Absent major political and economic deterrents, it’s true that winegrapes can grow reasonably well without much human intervention. Many would argue that less is more. But personal touches matter, especially today because we know so much about terroir, agriculture, chemistry and other key process factors. Selecting a good site, planting grapes well suited to that site, nurturing the vineyard through Mother Nature’s life cycles, healthy practices in the vineyard and during winemaking operations, and knowing when to pick in good conditions and bad. These are all human decisions that make a difference in the quality of finished wine.

Every New World country was propelled onto the global stage by a late 20th  century catalyst. The infamous 1976 “judgment of Paris” was a dramatic turning point for wine development in the U.S. In 1994, the end of South African apartheid unleashed 25 years of private entrepreneurship for white and black owners. New Zealand found its international magic in ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc. Australia overcame a poor reputation owing mostly to a glut of sweet and fortified wines, first by grubbing up vines and later by investing in production technology and enforcing quality standards. At various points during a twenty-year period (1970s-90s), key individuals in South America made the dramatic moves that reset the game board for quality winegrowing in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. (This same story can be told about some European countries, notably Spain, which took great advantage of advances in equipment, technology and labeling regulations to restore eminence to an historic wine producing reputation.)

Without further ado, introducing South America’s “Most Valuable Pioneers” (MVPs), a small collection of the most influential people who helped to propel the “big four” countries into the modern era of the global wine trade!

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Only one in ten winemakers in South America is female. The grand dame is most certainly Susana Balbo who has dominated the wine scene in Argentina for more than 35 years. In 1981, she was the first woman to graduate from the school of oenology in Mendoza. She has served three times as elected president of the trade group Wines of Argentina. Launching her own winery in 1999 in the Luján de Cuyo region, and recently joined by her two children, Balbo makes three ranges: “nosotros” single vineyard 100% Malbec, signature reserve, and crios (“children”).

The undisputed patriarch of fine wine in Argentina is third generation winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata, widely credited with reviving Argentina’s industry in the 1990s. Among his revolutionary moves was to hire renowned international consultants, including Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland, to share their deep knowledge with winemakers in and around Mendoza. For example, they pioneered extended maceration and use of new oak barrels in Argentina. Catena was named “Man of the Year” in 2009 by Decanter Magazine. His daughter Laura joined the family enterprise in 2001 to manage R&D, and the next year created Luca Wines named for her oldest son – a 5th generation on the way?

Antonio and Rinaldo dal Pizzol are considered to be leaders of the boutique wine movement in Brazil since 1974, focusing on direct sales to customers (consumer and trade) rather than large-scale production. Even today, the Dal Pizzol winery sells more than half its wine independently without distributors.

Reinaldo de Lucca is the current generation of an Italian immigrant family that began making wine in Uruguay in the 1940s. He was one of the leaders of the so-called “reconstruction” of the wine industry at de Lucca winery 20 years ago. With multiple wine-related and business degrees from prestigious higher education institutions around the world, he is one of the most highly trained winemakers, certainly in Uruguay, and perhaps in South America. Enjoy Alder Yarrow’s recent Vinography post sharing his October visit to de Lucca winery.

Although his influence was felt a full century before the modernists in this blogpost, no story about MVPs would be complete without Don Pascual Harriague. He is credited with bringing the Tannat grape to Uruguay in 1870 from the Basque region near the Pyrénées, specifically Madiran. Today, Tannat is the signature grape of Uruguay, occupying nearly 50% of all vineyard area.

Adriano Miolo is Brazil’s largest grower and producer of fine wine. According to Evan Goldstein in “Wines of South America,” Miolo is the Catena of Brazil in his “visionary outlook and focus on quality” and is known for pioneering new winegrowing areas such as Campanha Gaúcha. Miolo Wine Group, formed in 2006, has assembled more than 100 products from national and international partnerships, including 8 wine projects in Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Spain (in addition to Brazil).

Aurelio Montes is a pioneer and the modern patriarch of quality wine in Chile. With three other partners, in 1988 Montes founded the winery originally called Discover Wine. Soon their Cabernet Sauvignon wines, rebranded as Montes Alpha, were being sold in 100 countries worldwide. Other growing regions, vineyards and varietal wines soon followed, and are widely considered benchmarks for quality Chilean wines. Iconic wines include Montes Alpha M, Montes Folly and Purple Angel. Son Aurelio Montes, Jr., runs Kaiken, a premium winery established in Argentina in 2002.

Continuing the Spanish tradition of exploring the new world and building on three centuries of family winemaking in the Penedès region of Spain, Miguel Torres “discovered” Chile in 1979. He declared it a viticultural paradise. Looking back 35+ years, Torres considers that initial foray to be stage one of a decade-long journey that helped to catapult Chile’s international reputation starting in the mid-1990s. The hallmarks of a second stage of development included identifying new growing areas, planting additional vines, and taking advantage of viticultural technology. Today the Torres empire includes nearly a dozen brands in Chile.

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzo brothers; de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Morio

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzol brothers; Reinaldo de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Adriano Miolo

Andes photo courtesy of tripwow.tripadvisor.com.

Balbo, Catena, Montes and Torres photos courtesy of vineconnections.com; catenawines.com, wine-searcher.com, wsj.com.

dal Pizzol, de Lucca, Miolo and Don Pascual wine bottle photos courtesy of dalpizzol.com.br, vino-pasion.blogspot.com, pautasdeguarda.com, bonde.com.br.

 

South America’s Big Four: Argentina, Brazil, Chile & Uruguay

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Rodney Strong Winemaker Rick Sayre: Lucky, But Deserving

 

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Rick Sayre, Chairman of the 2016 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

On a warm, sunny Sonoma day in January, Rick Sayre generously spent four hours touring, tasting and telling the story of his journey at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Toward the end of our interview, Rick confessed that he would have preferred to be fishing for steelhead trout during this relatively quiet vineyard winter season. Fortunately for me, the rivers were too muddy for fishing from so much (welcome) rain in previous weeks! Also fortunate for me was that Rick agreed to a personal and in-depth interview even though he has a well-documented pet peeve about wine writers who seem to forget that wine is above all an experience to be enjoyed. Thank you, Rick, for your warmth and trust that this interview would go in a different direction…lucky for me, and I hope deserving.

Rick Sayre is proud of how Rodney Strong Vineyards has evolved during his 36-year tenure. Yet he is so humble about his role in the winery’s growth in size, sustainability, sophisticated use of eco-friendly technology, and the quality of the wine.

I would add patience, focus and adaptive skills to a long list of personal attributes. Born in Michigan, his parents left the family farm and moved to Southern California. As a young SoCal teenager living near Huntington Beach, Rick learned how to surf. When he was a sophomore in high school, his father moved the family to Northern California and farmed prunes – then the major Sonoma crop.

Entering the wine industry at age 19 was a happy accident, followed by more strokes of good fortune that have made for a rich career. Lucky, but deserving.

As a young husband and soon-to-be parent, Rick took a path away from college science and forestry, which he loved, and took a seasonal forestry job. He was after a job at a lumber mill north of Healdsburg, but as luck would have it, Rick happened to see a job posting for a position at Simi Winery. He took a leap of faith, filled out the application, and got the job! His new boss saw in Rick a person who would work hard even if he didn’t yet know anything about managing vineyards or making wine. In less than a month his title was Cellarmaster  and Assistant Winemaker to Robert Stemmler.

In early 1973, things took a very interesting turn. A change in winemakers had Rick reporting to legendary (then recently retired) Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker André Tchelitscheff who worked as a consultant with Rick for seven years. Rick’s in-depth tutelage in growing grapes, making wine, and the foundation of his respect for place began there. Rick was André’s “first wine kid” post-BV. He was one of many aspiring winemakers that André mentored as protégés. Today, Rick carries that legacy forward and is equally committed to mentoring young winemakers. His philosophy of winemaking stems from André’s influence and this period of his life: “Get out in the vineyards, get out in the market, visit consumers, experiment and taste wines often.”

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But this isn’t just Rick’s story. There are other key people, the most colorful of whom was Rodney Strong himself. Rick left Simi in 1979, compelled by these words from Rod: “I’ve got 1,200 acres of the best vineyards in Sonoma and they are yours to command. They’re yours and the bank’s!”

Rodney Strong, the Entertainer and Entrepreneur

In a tribute published after his death in 2006, Strong was described as “Debonair dancer. Witty man of the world. Small town boy. Cosmopolitan charmer. Fly fisherman. Mastiff breeder.” Others call him a visionary, and he was certainly a pioneer.

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Rod Strong grew up in Washington State loving both outdoor and competitive sports. During high school, he worked multiple part-time jobs, began studying dance, and performed in USO shows during the waning days of World War II. After a short college stint where he studied dance more formally, Strong decided to move to New York City where he was accepted into Balanchine’s American School of Ballet and later studied with Martha Graham. At the young age of 23, he took a successful show to Paris and reveled in the life of wine and food across Europe. Married in 1948 to a fellow dancer he had met in Miami, Rod and his wife, Dale, performed together in Europe for four years, returning to the U.S. in 1952.

There Strong met and married his new dance partner, Charlotte Winson, his wife until her death in 2003. They both retired from dance in 1959 and made a bold move to California, fortuitously just as the wine industry was just starting to take off. Their first winery, Tiburon Vintners, operated by purchasing bulk wines and bottling them on a smaller scale. In 1966, the Strongs founded a second business, Windsor Vineyards, and successfully pioneered “mail order” wine sales. During the next few years, they began to amass nearly 5,000 acres of vineyard properties in the Healdsburg area.

By 1970, Rod was ready to build a new wine production facility, becoming the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma County. The grand building was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. (As Rick and I said practically in unison, “that means the roof leaks”!) Drawing on his knowledge and experience in Europe, Rod applied a keen sense of terroir to choosing each vineyard purchase. The most special of these vineyards was Sonoma’s Chalk Hill, then and now a perfect location for Chardonnay.

Life Lessons in Winery Economics 1967-89

As early as 1967, Rod Strong needed to enlist capital from private investors to finance the development of his burgeoning wine business. Initially offering relatively small private placements, he took Windsor Vineyards public to build the new winery, later naming it Sonoma Vineyards. That worked for a few years until there was a major market slump in 1973-74. The following year, a national beverage marketing company helped the winery weather the down market in a venture capital deal. With an infusion of business acumen and capital, and with Rod still working as a vice president, the company recovered nicely.

In a bold step, Sonoma Vineyards entered into a joint venture with Piper Heidsieck in 1980 to build a sparkling wine production facility. Rick Sayre had just joined the company and speaks with both awe and humility about that experience as a new employee who not only had to figure out corporate ROI, but also had to fast-track knowledge of how to make good sparkling wine. (The wildly ambitious sparkling venture didn’t last long…Piper Heidsieck bought Sonoma Vineyards’ 50% share in 1987.)

An early-eighties cycle of growth and innovation lasted about three years. With capital from profits flowing again, in 1980-81 Sonoma Vineyards had acquired several wine-related companies in New York, Arizona and California. In 1982, the premium line of Sonoma Vineyards wine was rebranded Rodney Strong Vineyards.

But the growth spurt came to a grinding halt once again in 1983. The venture capital company bought back outstanding shares, took the company private, and in 1984 offered both the winery and vineyards for sale. Land holdings were reduced from 5,000 to 1,200 acres, mostly by shedding marginal properties. Bankruptcy was a real possibility. Rod Strong was moved back into action as the head of winery operations. Then a corporate roller coaster ride really got activated. The company was bought and sold three times in three years, finally coming to rest in 1988-89 in the hands of Klein Foods, a fourth-generation California farming family.

Terroir + Technology = Timely: 1989-present

Having paid a handsome sum for both Rodney Strong Vineyards and the mail order company Windsor Vinyards, the Kleins raised working capital by selling half of the remaining acreage. In 1991, Tom Klein became president of Klein Family Vintners, the parent company, and proceeded to invest heavily in winemaking innovation and production growth for the next decade. At that point, Rodney Strong Vineyards was producing about 350,000 cases per year. Today production is at nearly a million cases per year.

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With an eye toward increasing efficiency while boosting quality, Sayre oversaw the installation of new equipment such as whole cluster presses, rotary fermenters and automatic barrel processing lines. Facilities were built and outfitted for on-premise barrel and case storage. The Hospitality Center (tasting room and more) was renovated. Windsor Vineyards and other related companies were sold. Vineyard purchases restored nearly 500 acres to company holdings. Leading the way toward sustainable winery practices, Rodney Strong Vineyards installed what is – or at least was at that time – the largest winery-based solar energy system. In recognition of this effort, the property received a “Green Power Leadership Award” in 2004 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Center for Resource Solutions. Five years later, Rodney Strong became the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.

Starting with a 2001 sweepstakes win for the 1997 vintage Symmetry Alexander Valley at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Rodney Strong Vineyards has amassed a stunning number of medals and awards, literally hundreds. Perhaps a pinnacle among these many awards was being named 2013 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. With appreciation for the accolade, Tom Klein said “We are and have been family-owned for 25 years. This pride of ownership gives me the ability to farm the best vineyards and tools to make the best wines possible.”image

Rodney Strong Wines: “You Can’t Go Wrong with Rodney Strong!”

Today the company owns 1,500 acres comprised of 14 estate vineyards in premium locations across Sonoma County AVAs. This continues the tradition set by Rod Strong, who was the first to make a single-vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the first to produce a Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Tom Klein and Rick Sayre are in complete alignment about the importance of place, of terroir. (It’s probably also important to note that they are further in alignment about their love of fishing – a seeming requisite carried forward from Rod Strong!) Farmer-turned-vintner Klein sums it up like this: “Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing. When you discover a passion for something, whether it’s golf or jazz, politics or poetry, you want to live it and breathe it.”

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Rick Sayre believes firmly that consistency is the key to quality wine. He describes his own style as a winemaker like this: “I was called Super Cellarmaster in my early days and it speaks to the style of wines I like to make, ‘Strong’.”

Many consumers think they know the Rodney Strong Vineyards (RSV) brand well – with good reason! It’s a go-to wine for many people. In the Midwest, we see the brand for sale at a reasonable price (<$20) at Kroger’s and other grocery stores. But that’s not the whole story. Sonoma County is only one of RSV’s wine ranges. In addition, RSV offers:

  • estate collection wines from all 14 vineyards, generally selling for $25-35;
  • reserve “artisanal” wines made from specially selected grapes from small blocks of estate vineyards (including Symmetry, a $55 blend of all five Bordeaux varieties) which sell for $40-45; and
  • three single-vineyard Cabernets at $75 a bottle (Brothers, Rockaway and Alexander Crown).

Guests attending the Cincinnati International Wine Festival Grand Tastings, scheduled for March 4 & 5, 2016, will be able to taste wines from all four ranges of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Tickets are available here.

Fishing is not the only tradition carried forward by Rick Sayre. As Head Winemaker, he is mentoring winemakers Justin Seidenfeld and Greg Morthole who joined RSV in 2010 to craft small production artisanal estate wines. And Rick is no doubt imparting the same wisdom he received as a young winemaker: keep an open mind, and be present in your place.

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

Resources: “Rodney D. Strong: A Tribute to a Sonoma County Wine Pioneer” (undated, preface by the former veteran New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial); www.rodneystrong.com; interview with Rick Sayre

Photo credits: unless otherwise noted, all photos provided by Rodney Strong Vineyards and Cincinnati International Wine Festival. Rodney Strong tasting room: winecountry.com; map of Sonoma AVAs: quentinsadler.wordpress.com.

Texas (Wine) Rodeo

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Huh? Texas wine? Isn’t that the home of “Chateau Bubba”?

Even though roughly 90% of all wine produced in the U.S. comes from California, today wine is made in all 50 states. It’s perhaps not surprising that Washington, Oregon and New York State (Finger Lakes, Long Island) are the other top producers of quality wine, collectively making up an additional 8%. So that leaves 2% for all other states. In 2014, Texas ranked 10th in production and 6th in the number of wineries. (My home state of Ohio is also in that ranking at 7th and 8th positions, respectively, in production and number of wineries.) Recent intel supplied anecdotally by local winemakers indicates that Texas moved up to 5th position in 2015.

Texas wine history mirrors that of other western states. Missionaries planted vines in the 1600s. German immigrants arrived in the 1800s, bringing homeland vines that didn’t grow well in the hot Texas climate. Like California, the Texas wine industry catapulted forward in the 1970s. Texas pioneers include Doc Clinton (Llano Estacado Winery), then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, who is widely considered to be the father of Texas winemaking. But it wasn’t until growers like Neal Newsom and Jet Wilmeth discovered that Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties love Texas that things really began to take off.

Recent growth in wineries has been meteoric. Texas Grape Growers Association documented 180 Texas wineries in 2009. Now there are close to 300. The Central Texas Hill Country, seated by the quaint (somewhat touristy) town of Fredericksburg, has 46 wineries, all with fancy tasting rooms. Local winemakers who keep a watchful eye on growth note that there are 25 more wineries under construction right now in and around Fredericksburg.

The Hill Country is often described — at least by locals — as the Napa Valley of Texas. The wine region’s growth in tourism popularity is booming. In the mid-2000s, Orbitz.com reportedly ranked the Texas Hill Country as the second fastest growing wine destination in the U.S. Local signage still proudly displays this somewhat dated piece of visitor propaganda. Perhaps more realistically, in 2014 Wine Enthusiast named the Texas Hill Country Wineries as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations in the U.S.

There are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas, with the Texas High Plains AVA in the panhandle around Lubbock supplying most of the grapes to Fredericksburg wineries. To a person, the staff serving up flights describe the climate as Mediterranean. It’s probably the closest description for this sunny, dry region in which vineyards must be irrigated to survive. The secret is the “High Plains.” Like many quality wine regions, Texas landscape includes an escarpment, the edge of which offers ideal winegrowing conditions — hot days, cool nights, (relatively) high altitude of 3500 feet.

Quality wine. That’s always the key. So what about Texas? Has it moved beyond its “Chateau Bubba” reputation? While I can’t attest to the merits of the whole lineup, on a recent drive from Austin through Johnson City and Stonewall to the historic Germantown of Fredericksburg, we stopped in the Texas Hill Country AVA for a wine and food pairing at Kuhlman Cellars, followed by a drive through LBJ National Historic Park and a tasting at Pedernales Cellars. Over the balance of the long holiday weekend we also visited Becker Vineyards and Grape Creek Vineyards.

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Opened in 2014, the wine tasting room at Kuhlman Cellars offers a unique wine and food pairing opportunity that is a fantastic addition to the wine trail along Hwy 290. Reservations are necessary for a guided tasting experience of five wines paired with “nibbles” that are carefully selected to bring out flavor nuances. Open Thursday through Sunday only. 18421 E. US Hwy 290, Stonewall; (512) 920-2675.

Featured Wine 2014 Calcaria (“cal-CAR-ee-uh”): 12.7% abv, unusual white grape blend of 75% Trebbiano, 17% Roussanne and 8% Viognier. $22.00. Kuhlman’s most popular wine, named for the deep calcereous soil on the Kuhlman Estate. Aromatic, round and full bodied; aromas of stone fruits and white flowers, crisp citrus acidity on the palate. Paired with grapefruit “tartare,” onion, jalapeño and cilantro in a Tostitos cup (salt and citrus bringing out those qualities in the wine).  The 2014 is sold out, but look for the 2015 vintage release the week of January 25th!

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Every winery has a big back story. At Pedernales Cellars, it’s earning a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for its 2011 Viognier Reserve, and taking the Grand Gold prize for its 2012 Viognier Reserve at the Lyon International Wine Competition (the only U.S. winery to win a top honor). Of course the 2012 vintage is long gone from the market — except for a precious bottle tucked away by friends in Austin — and it was a beauty of a classic Viognier. The Kuhlken family planted vineyards 20 years ago and are still operating as a family operation. Open 7 days a week, no appointment needed. All wines available through the tasting room are $29.99 to $49.99. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-8186.

Featured wine 2014 Viognier Reserve: Slightly more delicate in body than the 2012 vintage, with clear aging potential, this wine exhibits the body, perfume and floral essence of a quality Viognier. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla owing to 90 days spent on new French oak; aromas of rose petal and peaches. $39.99. Open 7 days a week. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-2037.

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In order to experience the wines of Becker Vineyards, you will likely need to visit the Texas Hill Country! Although Becker is one of the largest Texas producers and its wines are widely available, the wines presented at the tasting room are only sold there, not via retail distribution. Becker also offers a club membership with wines available only to members. Vineyards were planted in 1992 on dolomite soil. The first wines were produced in 1995, and the tasting room opened in 1996. Becker was the first winery in Texas to commercially plan Viognier. Open 7 days a week. 464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; (830) 644-2681.

Featured wine 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Wilmeth Family Vineyard: 13.3% abv, 100% Cab. $40.00. Grower Jet Wilmeth is one of three farmers who contract vineyard-designated grapes for a reserve Cab. With top notes of earth, leather and tobacco, and dark fruit notes emerging in a second layer, the wine is a “late bloomer” (according to Becker staff).imageThe eponymous Grape Creek Vineyards sits on a 17-acre plot planted in 1983. Initially a grower, the founder began producing wine in 1989 — the oldest winery on the Hwy 290 wine trail — and built the first underground cellar in Texas. Current award-winning winemaker Jason Englert joined the winery in 2004. In 2006, the property was purchased and expanded by Brian Heath who has created a “Tuscany in Texas” look and feel to the experience. The picturesque winery campus is set among gnarled peach trees, blackberry bushes and herb gardens. Tastings, tours, lunch (pizza, panini pasta) at Stout’s Grape Creek Vineyards Trattoria. Open 7 days a week. 10587 E. US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg; (830) 644-2710.

Featured wine 2013 Rendezvous: 13.8% abv, Rhone blend (GSM plus Viognier). $26.95. Classic spicy notes, red fruit, rose petals; smooth, integrated tannins; well balanced. This lovely wine would be terrific chilled on a hot summer day.

Photos courtesy of: Pinterest (Texas Viticultural Area Map); stevestastingsandtravel.com (tasting table) and texasmonthly.com (wine bottle) at Kuhlman Cellars; pedernalescellars.com (logo) and expressnews.com (outdoor patio) at Pedernales Cellars; snooth.com (label) and winetrailtraveler.com (lavender) at Becker Vineyards; Grape Creek Vineyards logo courtesy of texaswinetrail.com. All other photos taken by or for Kathy Merchant.

Resources: “Crush” Hill Country Edition 1; “Texas Wineries: A Guide” (2012, no longer published)

Up next: profile of Kuhlman Cellars.

A Spectacular Chaine Holiday

Chaine logo

The Hilton Netherland’s Hall of Mirrors adds sparkle and festive vibes to any event. Monday’s holiday dinner for more than 100 members and guests of the Cincinnati chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was no exception. Greeted by glittering glasses of Roederer Estate Brut NV (Anderson Valley sparkling), canapes passed deftly by a charming staff among hugs and holiday greetings, we were eagerly ushered into the Hall where chef Todd Kelly’s extraordinary meal awaited our undivided attention.

Though the experience of quality fine dining is central to being part of the Chaîne, wine pairing plays an equal measure. This holiday dinner was “100/100” as one member described it in a Facebook post. I’m sure you will agree!

Chaine 1st course

First course: Seriously, I could have declared victory for the evening with an utterly perfect pairing of foie gras with Sauternes. Cleverly presented on a savory, peppery shortbread, the disk of silky goodness accompanied by classic pistachio accents and a cooling dab of Muscadine gel, was frankly inhaled by everyone at the table. Always a good match with salty undertones, the unctuous honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes lingered on the palate, lifting the punch of the pepper into a long spicy finish. Château Roûmieu-Lacoste Sauternes 2013.

Chaine 2nd course

Second course: Cleverly presented as a carrot-billed duck, our second course featured a Maitake mushroom strudel topped with whipped red wine, and plated with shaved truffles and root vegetables. What better to go with this earthy dish than Burgundy? The whipped wine dissipated into a lovely sauce for the savory strudel. While truffles can at times overwhelm a dish, this was a light touch preparation. The root vegetables were pickled, striking fear in the hearts of wine lovers who know what vinegar can do to red wine — but the acidity in the Pinot Noir made it work! Maison Roche de Bellene Gevrey-Chambertin 2011.

Chaine 3rd course

Third course:  Grilled swordfish medallions were accented by aged Wattle Ham and clams, plated on smoked butter and celery, and accompanied by red and white miniature potatoes. The wine selection for this dish was an oaked California Chardonnay, again causing some trepidation for the oenophiles. Named for roasted hazelnuts, our wine selection is considered the winery’s most “appellation-expressive” Chardonnay. Oak influences were modest (30% new French barrels) and the roasted/citrusy flavor profile was more like northern Burgundy than northern California. Kistler “les Noisetiers” Sonoma Coast 2013.

Chaine 4th course

Fourth course: It took some effort among several diners to collect a photo of this bacon-wrapped filet. Not because it wasn’t terrific, mind you; rather because the wine was so amazing! This very rich beef course was presented with smoked chicken hearts, pomegranate ragout, swiss chard, and a Champagne/tarragon sabayon. Most of us simplified the experience to its essence, focusing on the filet and the wine, a smooth “drink now” Cabernet Sauvignon with a unique and vibrant aroma of milk chocolate and licorice. Odette Estate Cabernet, Stags Leap District 2012.

 Chaine 5th course

Dessert course: It was a happy moment when the Sauternes made its way back into the final course anchored by a disk of fromage blanc custard. Geometrically pleasing to the eye, the top bar was caramelized white chocolate; the “balance beam” was a hazelnut praline; and a swoosh of cranberry gelee accented small marinated fruits. The Sauternes paired beautifully with each element of the dish.

Photos courtesy of Mary Horn, Jt Mayer, Michael Lancor

Artisanal Bells Up Winery

Wine glasses

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to a webinar sponsored by the French Wine Society featuring veteran Champagne expert Peter Liem. The subject was grower Champagne. I was most struck by Liem’s frankness, advising us not to be allured blindly by the market buzz of grower bubbly because it is (seemingly) artisanal, and not to inherently reject the big Champagne houses or négociant fizz because it is (seemingly) industrial. Drink what you like! Ahhhhh, yes….

For us wine geeks, Liem explained the French labeling terms Récoltrant Manipulant (RM) vs. Négociant Manipulant (NM). In simplest terms, RM means that the grape grower and winemaker are the same. NM means that the winemaker has purchased grapes from someone else. Again, Liem offered a cautionary note, even going so far as to say that he would abolish this distinction because it is somewhat arbitrary and thus not really helpful to the wine industry or to consumers. For example, if a grower with small land holdings needs more grapes for a certain vintage, what’s to say that s/he can’t or won’t buy some additional grapes from cousin Pierre?

This presentation sent my thoughts flying off to the exciting Bells Up Winery adventure of Cincinnatians Dave and Sara Pearson Specter, and to taste a bottle of their wine I had been saving for just the right moment. A few years ago, Dave caught the wine bug in a major way. He left behind working as a lawyer to learn how to make wine. With visions of Pinot Noir dancing in his head, he convinced his creative (and portable) wife and daughter to buy property in Willamette Valley suitable for planting a new vineyard.

Keenly aware that I am making a long story short, Bells Up Winery was soon born. But what’s a newbie winemaker to do when he has just planted his vineyard? Buy grapes and start making good wine from growers in Willamette Valley! So Dave and Sara started out making wine as NMs, and when the grapevines are ready, they will gradually morph into artisanal growers (RMs). It was clearly a smart business strategy.

Bells Up Winery

I remember telling Dave when the winery was branded that I didn’t understand the imagery and name. If other readers are similarly challenged by musical terms, let me explain the artistic connection gratefully shared on the back label of Bells Up wines: “The versatile French horn: in an orchestra, its warm, smooth tone balances a composition; when solo, its bold, brassy character unleashes a heroic, spiritual sound. Lifting the instrument to a ‘bells up’ position projects its voice to maximum intensity. At Bells Up Winery, we compose our handcrafted wines to highlight the versatility and individuality of each varietal.” And of course, winemaker Dave plays the French horn!

Now to the tasting notes. Only 27 cases of the 2013 Villanelle Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noir were bottled and released in 2015, the inaugural year. So no surprise, it sold out quickly. But please enjoy it vicariously. In the glass, Villanelle is so light and pale, a bit cloudy as if unfiltered. Winemaker notes reveal a brief period of aging in neutral oak. Things quickly change as the savory and earthy aromas of Burgundian-style Pinot Noir leap from the glass. On the palate, there is initially a tinge of sweet bubblegum which gives way quickly to subtle notes of bright red fruit and rose petal.

Wine glass image courtesy of wineenthusiast.com.

Bolognese + Brunello

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It’s Monday. You may be revving up for NFL. I’m swooning for the “Monday night special” at Nicola’s Ristorante Italiano flanking the northeast corner of OTR.

Nicola’s Tagliatelle alla Bolognese is so popular among knowing neighbors and patrons that I hesitate to call even more attention to this fabulous experience. Every Monday night, the restaurant is packed with diners who will undoubtedly spend more on wine than on dinner for the table. This unbelievably value-priced bonanza starts with a basket of house-made and classic Italian breads and crunchy breadsticks. Carbo avoidance be damned! Next, either a fresh greens or caesar salad. And finally the moment you’ve been waiting for: a rich, soulful, mouth-watering bowl of ragu served on fresh pasta with a dusting of parmigiano grated at the table just for you. On my most recent visit, my guests enjoyed a bottle of Donatella Brunello di Montalcino 2007. But don’t get your hopes up for that particular selection — it was the last bottle of an amazing vintage in Nicola’s cellar.

Seriously, does it get better than this? Well, it does. I won’t share the price to avoid a stampede, plus Nicola must reserve the right to change it from time to time. But let’s just say you should get on over on a Monday night as soon as you can fit the date in your holiday schedule and the restaurant has room for you.

Photo credits for wine and pasta: http://www.lifeinitaly.com; http://www.thekitchn.com

 

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