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Notes from the Cellar blog

Free Your Palate

Free your palate…

I love the Vigneron Indépendant logo. It makes me smile, calls to mind all the reasons beyond a paycheck that I’m in this business, makes me think of France and all the cool people we work with from over there, and ultimately—makes me thirsty. When it comes to the wine-y things that matter most, it says it all: vigneron—the idea of vine-grower versus winemaker; hard work and, most of all, independence.

Independence. It’s a big idea, requiring more time and effort to wrap one’s brain around than most of us generally allocate it. The idea (and its mmmmm) infuses just about everything we buy, eat, drink, do or think here in the land of the free. It’s everywhere, and in everything --but like all of the truly good things in this life-cycle, you have to think about it and choose to exercise it, or effectively abdicate it.

So, ahem, here you go. Riffing on my contention that wine is a metaphor for everything,  voilà my little wine-themed attempt at making like Thomas Paine on Independence Day.

Big, corporate “wineries” are no different than religious sects, political parties or Wal-mart. Choosing brand x over to wine a, or Big Box over friendly neighborhood guy, is just that – matter of choice. Those who have something thing to sell, (and in particular a lot of it), generally need a little help to move all that product. Think hearts and minds. Big marketing budgets and sheer ubiquity are the most potent means of peddling the corporate kool-aid, playing off our innate tendency to equate sheer might (in all its various forms) with right. Not to mention the promise of whiter whites, a greener lawn, shinier car and the envy of the ever-present Joneses. Buyer beware. Freedom ain’t free --but, fortunately, mental exertion is its most basic currency. When it comes to wine, it's liberating to think before you drink.

To paraphrase Terry Theise, you should drink wines from independent producers if you’d rather buy REAL wine from a person, a family or a farmer than product from a factory. You should drink wines from independents if you’d rather support someone who thinks you’re a human, rather than a “consumer.” You should drink such wines if you want to drink wine that’s expressive of where it grew and who grew it. Most of all, you should drink it if you want to fill your glass with a vital, expressive, character-driven wine that’s good for your soul.

Finally, the law of the land may say that money is speech and corporations are people – but that doesn’t mean that you, as a free, thinking person, need to fuel that speech or personhood with the fruits of your toil – much less for soulless product.

Life is short. Make every glass count.

…and [everything else] will follow. Vive les indépendants!




Performance art...

I just read a short interview in Relix magazine the with singer-songwriter extraordinaire Rodney Crowell – he of Emmylou Harris’s original “Hot Band”, the source of more hits than you can shake a gold record at and an amazing discography of his own, impressive work. Like many of my favorite wines, yet another example of the most amazing stuff that almost no one has ever heard of. Bizarre. Anyway ... a couple thoughts in the piece prompted some extended riffing on one of my favorite themes, music in terms of wine, and vice-versa.

In the article, he talked about how his approach to both live shows and recording has evolved over the years, from a production to a performance-oriented approach — much as a non-interventionist approach to “making” wine is founded on aiding and abetting what vineyard and vintage provide; one in which the vigneron assumes the role that Stefano Inama or Jean-Pierre Vanel refer to modestly to as that of accompanist.

Rodney Crowell views the work of songwriting humbly, relying on a blue collar work ethic and the patience of a “song whisperer” to appease the muse. His take on both recording playing live are equally modest — and refreshing:   “I like to take production out of the mix."

"It’s all about performance,” he says of recording. “There were a lot of years when I operated from a production angle and as I’ve gotten older and more confident in myself as a guitar player and singer I have become more interested in the performance ... Part of the romance of our recording process is we ditched the headphones and figured out how to play without them. That put us in a different mindset.”

And each night on tour, fans should expect a slightly different, if no less spiritual, interpretation of the songs. “I have no interest in reproducing a song the way it was on the record” he says. ”You can use certain musical signposts, but as far as dragging musicians around with me so they can recreate what someone else did night after night, that’s not of interest.”

Performance versus production makes for an apt wine metaphor (as does the songwriter who views their role as a conduit for inspiration, rather than its source). Wine-wise, there are, obviously, the ubiquitous mega-labels where the goal is to make fruit into a product that’s identical vintage in, vintage out. But production isn’t the sole domain of mass-market  brands, it’s also an uber – upscale tool, as producers pander to the palates of the wine press, manipulating fruit in search of the magic metrics that generate 90 point ratings.

If having your good old, reliable glass of La Crema or 14 Hands is your ticket to paradise, that’s what you ought to be drinking and you won’t get any argument from me. And if you’ve got the palate (and the pocketbook) for big points, hats off to you and your good fortune. Likewise, Top 40, flawless studio production, 16 tracks of overdubs, ear-saturating digital delay and lush string arrangments make your ears sing, turn it up. Or catch it “live” with every lick a faithful reproduction of the album, just the way it was back in the day.  Sounds fine to me.

But for my time (and money), I’ll take the humility of the songwriter who embraces a blue collar work ethic to be worthy of the muse, whose variability – imperfection even, of live performance, who’ll roll the dice, betting on the maginc that happens when the musicians just play, whose shows are different every night in every town. And I’ll wash it down with wine made by a guy who’ll never even dream of making enough wine to be a household name, who has dirt on is hands, makes wine with sweat and toil rather than a spreadsheet, who knows his vineyards like the back of his hand &emdash; and bets the farm on the magic of the amazing interplay of vines growing in a no-other-place-like-it piece of dirt, nourished by a never-to-be-repeated rhythm of sun, wind, rain, night and day. That’s not just a performance ... that’s art. And there’s nothing else like it.


Talkin' the talk...

(Stefano Inama evangilizing in Soave )

There are probably as many ways to go about the business of selling wine as there are folks who get up in the morning to do just that. But all that variety pretty much amounts to variations on a handful of basic themes – of which a couple in particular seem, if not mutually exclusive, then mighty divergent at the least.

Back in the day, when I was just starting out in the wine biz (when it was just the job I happened to have at the moment, no thought whatever of “career”), it seemed to me that that success amounted to becoming versed in the hierarchy of brands and attaining the credentials to hawk the “good stuff” – the wines that were revered in the pantheon of upwardly mobile adoration.

Which works, of course. It’s hard to argue with the idea of selling “stuff that sells itself.” Except, as we eventually discover, the Emperor has no clothes – and the “good stuff” often really isn’t so good. (“Grande Marque” Champagne is a great example—for the most part, average, mass-produced, tarted-up fizzy wines, with huge marketing budgets, a luxury reputation and a spellbound customer base).

What’s left once you realize that a lot of the hype is just that? The “Vignerons Indépendants” motto says it all: Authentic Wines and Personalities. Think small guys, farmers, families, often fiercely passionate souls who set out to put the soul of a place in every bottle they make. Not luxury goods, just the goods. Real wines, for real people to drink…every day.

In an almost resolutely brand-conscious world, selling those goods takes a little work. But once you’ve had those flavors in your mouth, there’s no going back…and things can start to feel a little bit Quixotic. Eventually, you come to realize that it’s all about evangelizing. Tell the stories, get folks to take the leap of faith on something they’ve never seen before, share the love. Talk, talk, talk and talk some more. Broadcast it, baby.

It isn’t always uphill, though. Along with all the great wine and people, sometimes you get a tailwind, too. Last week, Seattle Sommelier Christopher Chan graciously invited me to join him, along with local wine entrepreneur, personality and ambassadot David LeClaire on his “Happy Hour Radio.” Once past the anxiety of talking into a conduit to who-know-how-many ears, it was a blast. A chance to essentially hang out and taste with two very bright, experienced, discerning palates—and talk about wine. To talk about wine, and through the magic of radio, have a conduit to those who-know-how-many folks’ ears. Brilliant. Check it out, right here:

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it’s 82 degrees and my mid-afternoon reveries are turning to Jerez. My friends Laine and Toni just texted photos of the Manzanilla they’re enjoying – on tap, no less, in NYC. Sounds like a plan. While there isn’t a Sherry bar in this burg (yet?), I know what to do.

Hasta luego, y'all...

Sogni di Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo. Palms poised over the keyboard, at the ready, bent on saying something pithy, insightful, maybe even flat-out brilliant (how’s the song go -- set my sights on heaven and I wind up on the floor?). I type the word nebbiolo, my mind gets all cluttered, and here I am, Sogni di Nebbioloten minutes later…

But isn’t that the way with things you love? And isn’t it extra appropriate with nebbiolo, pinot’s Italian counterpart? Precocious, enigmatic, ineffable, a kaleidoscope of unfolding nuances, a flower of layered textures and flavors that allude and infer while playing an always unfolding counterpoint of theme and variations. Like great Burgundy, a blessing and a curse. Taste one great bottle and you’ll never be the same, seized with thirst that can placated, but never satisfied. A thirst whose the quenching begets still more – and stronger -- desire.

So. Forget the stab at description, toss any delusion of brilliance. The Accomplice came home with an open bottle of this ridiculously affordable, amazing delicious Barolo from Damilano. Lecinquevigne is, as the name suggests, blended from nebbiolo grown in five distinct townships within the Barolo DOC. You want brilliance? This is it, for a relative song. Meanwhile, take note of the Damilano name. While the family business has roots in the region that go all the way back to the 1890’s, the winery has begun a remarkable renaissance under the management of the family’s fourth generation, Paolo, Mario and Guido Damilano.

Over the past several years, the family have added parcels of some of the most expressive vineyard in Barolo to their holdings, making them a force by sheer dint of the quality and quantity of vines under their control. More important (and impressive) however, is their commitment to expressing the incredible, ineffable place that is Barolo in their wines. The Damilano family feel that having such a stake in the region implies a responsibility and their winemaking philosophy is to do their utmost to render that incredible sense of place in their wines.

Having had an opportunity recently to taste through wines from all the Damilano Crus, the wine in the bottle is without exception a testament that they’re succeeding -- magnificently. Do I think highly of the wines? I’ll put my money where my mouth is… you can bet there’ll be plenty of Damilano wines gracing my cellar, and my table for a long time to come.


Also Sprach Bob

Thank heavens. It’s now been officially deemed OK to drink Languedoc - Roussillon wines by that most Esteemed of Mouths, Monsignor Advocate, Bestower of Scores, Robert Parker.

Our good friends at Domaine La Madura, Nadia and Cyril, sent us a piece of promotion from the CIVL (that’s the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins AOC du Languedoc – see why they go with the acronym?) touting the 2013 vintage (a highly tout-able vintage, I’m here to humbly testify), that included the following quote from His Bobness:

 “The wine world is going to get less elitist. Good value for the money and good volumes of sunshines wines like from the Langeudoc – Roussillon will be full steam ahead in 2014, in amore global democratic shift in the core range. It’s good news for both the consumer and the Languedoc.”

Whew. Glad to know that things are getting less elitist and more globally democratic (whatever that means). Makes me feel vindicated, and just that much less Quixotic in having spent pretty much an entire career thinking that wine oughtta be less uppity. Ally-ally-oxen-free, do we get amnesty for having promoted the heck out of the Languedoc for these past five years, before it was officially recognized (and given the Bob-speak moniker of “Sunshine Wines”, no less)?

Hallelujah! Good news for the consumer and the Languedoc. Humble consumers are no longer squandering their dough on “pointless” wines, and the producers in the erstwhile backwater may now consider all that manna anointed, sanitized, legal tender.

But, I wonder, does the blessing apply only to über ripe, oaked-up examples or does the entire region get a pass? Never mind, I’m drinking St. Chinian to celebrate, before Napa appeals the ruling.

I’m just sayin’…

A rosé for all seasons (especially this one)

While pink, in all its amazing shades, is on my palette of flavors year-round, something magic happens as late winter turns to spring. Just like that, the light is all different, colors start their brilliant metamorphosis and although we all know that it ain’t really gonna quit raining ‘til the 5th of July, everything is just a little bit brighter, in every sense of the word. Lighter shades red of transcend their places in the cast of tasty options, to the star status of full-blown cravings.

Today, I’m thinking Tavel. Monsieur Soleil inspires me to hues of pink, but that cool edge to the breeze makes me want the warmth of red, something heady, bright, grenache-ish, Rhône-ish, with spicy red fruit and that inimitable stony undercurrent.

Tavel, baby. France’s only appellation that’s devoted solely to pink wine. Refreshing, cool and dry, with a heart that beats red fruit, and recites poetry with a garrigue-y accent. Blood oranges and raspberries, the citrus accented with the bitter edge of the rind, just-ripe berries imprinted with the incredible earthy tinge of their skins, the enticing hint at bitterness that plays perfect counterpoint with fruit.

This, of course makes me hungry. Like all the best wines, it’s best with the companionship of some mets, particularly savory things. Perfect with sardines, anchovies or escargot in a very simple preparation. Fresh greens, chèvre or other piquant cheeses, jambon, olives… see where this is going? As for me, I’m inspired, thirsty, hungry -- and going to the store...

À bientôt!

Four Part Harmony

Words. Wine. Song. Voila, the three realms that give color, flavor, texture and an esquisse (sketch) of sense to this old boy’s romp through the life cycle. While each in its own way is hugely responsible  for forming the collective bundle of pleasure, pains and ideas that led to my particular here and now, they all more or less inform and color one another (quite handy when it’s time to reach in the metaphoric bag o’ tricks). I often think of books in terms of wine, music in terms of books, wine in terms of music...and so forth.

I find this little habit of mind especially useful when tasting wine. Thinking of wine in terms of music doesn’t just make for a nice set of metaphors, it’s actually an amazingly precise way to describe—and evaluate—wine.  Texture, ripeness, residual sugar and alcohol readily lend themselves to orchestral or acoustical interpretation. Think of red Burgundy in terms of Debussy, brilliant, elegantly balanced whites as Mozart (or Beethoven) string quartets, and the Rhone as Ravel’s orchestral works (for example). On the other side of the Atlantic, old school California cabs are the Stan Kenton band, while Zinfandel is a bad-ass tavern band…and all those overripe, over-oaked, ego-centric expositions of plushness are everything from a metal band turned up to 11 to “smooth jazz” laced with layer upon layer  of digital delay—walls of lush, silky, sentimental, processed sound.  Oak is the wild card, the magic tool, the special touch, the producer’s ace, everything from lush strings to saccharine vibrato --think Leonetti Cellars wines channeling Kenny G offering a prime example (for those who have the means).

Perhaps the most useful musical reading of wine is in terms of basic harmony. The basics, the roots, the timeless stuff that gave birth to most of everything else that matters, musically. Think Bach chorales, for example. Four voices: Soprano, alto, Tenor, Bass. In well-balanced, cleanly rendered wines, all voices sing clearly, cleanly and in harmony. Solo or featured voices will stand out, of course, due to varietal or vintage considerations, but the parts should always all be present. White wines, for example, should see the soprano as featured soloist, or in strong support of an alto soloist, (Too often, overripe white wines become lush textures of alto and tenor, with no voice in the soprano part.), with tenor and bass present, but laying down the proverbial foundation. Likewise, red wines should tend to feature tenor and bass voices, but not to the exclusion of the altos and sopranos. Those high harmonies provide a bright contrast, providing depth and context for the profundity of lower voices.

You get the idea. There are endless examples, of course, but check it out over your next bottle or four. Think in terms of basic, four-part harmony and find the individual voices in the wine. See how they contribute to the texture and provide counterpoint for one another.  And, of coursed, a little Bach (or Basie, Beethoven, the Beatles or Buddy Miller) on the side doesn’t hurt, either…

An Old Friend

Sometimes you can be so wrapped up in what’s just beyond the metaphorical windshield that you lose sight of the various, truly amazing people and things that make the whole danged journey worthwhile. Then the universe and the road conspire to give a little tug on your coat. And voilà…illumination, perspective, satori, reality check.

Last day in France at the end of a non-stop, action-packed trip and I’m hitting that point where I need to either be home or stay. Twelve days of being on the move make for a powerful desire to be quiet and still—maybe with a tasty beer to wash the dust (and several hundred wines) outta my mouth. Just one more visit to make before I catch my ridiculously early flight to Paris to begin the long, long day that ends up back in Ballard. It turns out to be the highlight of the trip—and makes all the rest even more worthwhile.

Jean-Pierre Vanel is a classic. Thinker, reader, philosopher, amateur of music. And, of course, artisan-vigneron, grower of some of the Languedoc’s most authentic, soulful wines.  A man with as much depth as the ocean, and not the sort with whom one can taste and run.

We meet at Jean-Pierre’s house in the village of Caux, taste barrel samples of E-blanc, named after a line in the Rimbaud poem Voyelles, and the only white wine Jean-Pierre grows. It’s incredible, an enchanting blend of grenache blanc and roussanne -- with the savory, floral, mineral character of the vineyard contributing as much to the fabric of the wine as the varietal character. Then it’s off to lunch in Pezenas, where the Saturday market is in full swing under fresh blue skies that sing promises of spring.

With the temperature still a little fraiche, we score a table in the sun at a bar à vins on the place.  Soup, bread (classic, simple, amazing, inexpesive), charcuterie, cheese—and a tour of Jean – Pierre’s current  releases of reds: Fine Amor, grenache – based and as delicately, elegantly expressive as pinot (which inspires Jean-Pierre’s vinification of it); Mélanie – based on syrah, brooding, but still beautiful; and probably the most elegant expression of mourvèdre I’ve ever tasted—ma non troppo, the musical term meaning “but not too much” which perfectly sums up this wine. It show the dark, animal character of mourvèdre, tinged with the savory-but-bordering-on floral notes of the Pezenas terroir.  Amazing.

Add conversation, from philosophy to politics to books … and of course, wine – and it all adds up to one of those afternoons you wish you could bottle and keep (that’s all the better because you can’t).

Jean – Pierre expounds on his fundamental ideal as a vigneron: the idea that he doesn’t “make” wine. Vineyards, earth and the weather do that. His role is that of accompanist, to simply help the process along as much as possible. He pauses, grins and says “c’est on opinion—et je la partage” (that’s my opinion –and I’m sharing it).



Qué Syrah (Part I)

Syrah. Let’s just say that I’m not a huge fan – though I truly, truly love syrah.

Huh? A  case of love – hate, where passion leads to a treacherous walk on the wild side of excess? Nope, no epic battles of virtue and vice in this episode – although as a matter of sensibilities it makes a handy metaphor for what this curmudgeon sees as the frontier between character and gooey gratuitousness (but that’s another story).

It’s a question of style (and sensibility), and we’re talking about two very, very different things. Syrah (syrah the grape, that is), is a marvel when harvested at ripeness that allows it to express both its uniqueness and its terroir. Think dry, dark fruit essences, black cherries, dark stone fruit (imagine a black peach), notes of pepper, aromas of violets, game, smoke. Profound and brooding, but capable of elegance and finesse, it’s the place where fruit and dirt intersect. Like many things with pronounced character, it’s something that you either like or don’t’. It doesn’t invite ambivalence.

Syrah, the “style” on the other hand, is all but an oxymoron. When picked at the levels of über – ripeness that typify New World syrahs, it loses all those lovely characteristics that make it so distinctive vanish, leaving a big, juicy, alcoholic monolith of fruit compote. Flavors that’ll wow your senses with shock and awe, but that can’t carry on a conversation in the morning. It’ll blow you away, but have nothing to say.

Happily, more and more Washington winemakers are embracing syrah, and working with it in a way that allows for expression of both grape and terroir. I tasted two this past week, a new release from our friends at Naches Heights (whose wines just keep getting better and better) and an impressive third vintage from Jeff Lindsey – Thorsen at W.T Vintners. Both his syrah and a yet-to-be-released gruner veltliner left us enthusiastically looking forward to getting this wines in the stores (coming in early March). Here are notes on both:

Naches Heights Syrah ($18) Biodynamically farmed syrah from Two Coyote and Naches Heights Vineyard deliver pure syrah character—a brooding, spice, pepper and mineral-infused whirl of dark fruits. A foundation of minerals and a whiff of piney, sagey terroir round out an outstanding wine from one of our favorite producers. Ridiculously affordable for this quality.

W.T. Vintners Syrah Destiny Ridge Vineyard ($26) This is impressive stuff, especially given that this is just the third release for this wine. A super example of what syrah is really all about, it’s a bold, yet restrained, with an elegant Old World sensibility. Savory aromas of tar, violets, blackberries, pepper and game resonate on the palate, where notes of spice and smoky dark berries join the chorus, supported by firm tannins.  A terrific value.


Between Two Deep Blue Seas

Domaine Girard MalepereGenerally speaking, I’m not a fan of “Bordeaux” varietals — especially cabernet sauvignon (although I do love me some cabernet franc–Loire-style cabernet franc, that is — not the overripe, overwooded, generally over-the-top stuff that tries to be sauvignon). The monolithic monsters that wow the wine-by-numbers crowd by dint of shock and awe feel like an assault on the palate, while the old-school California-style cabs that actually have structure and a sense of place are pretty danged hard to find and usually prohibitively expensive when you do. And let’s not even getting started on Malbec, which is well on its way to being the new poster child for wine grape prostitution.

There is, of course Bordeaux (yes there is, isn’t there?). Shoulder shrug. Why spend time and bandwidth (and too often a pile of loot) on a handful of ubiquitous varieties when there are a gazillion other crazy, wonderful, unique, off-the-beaten-path flavors just waiting to be discovered?

Malepère, that’s why. And why is that? Location, location, location. Sitting just to the northwest of Carcassone at the Languedoc’s westernmost edge, the appellation sits astride the Mediterranean and Atlantic climates (yes, the wind doth blow, both ways). Encompassing barely a thousand acres of vineyard and 18 producers, it’s among the smallest and the least-known of all France’s AOCs, not to mention the most unique, in terms of character. Think Bordeaux and Southwest cépages, but with a pronounced Occitan, even Catalan accent.

Tristan Shout, bearing tidings from Agent MC, stopped by with a gorgeous, amazingly affordable bottle from Domaine Girard the other day. Just a few swirls and sips was all it took to tilt my interest meter from moderate intrigue to pure enchantment. Composed of cabernet franc and merlot, it shows that duo at their old-world best, with focused, crystalline, bright aromas and flavors of red fruits that shade to darkness around the edges. Think structure, balance and certain Bordelais sensibility — married with the a sauvage element that’s pure Langudeoc,  elegance with an untamed streak — and a heady bouquet of all those crazy garrigue-y things that sing songs and tell tales in old Occitan.

Crazy good, and a lesson not to make sweeping generalizations, nor to let a jaded, been-there-done-that attitude get in the way of brand new deliciousness. That’ll show me.

Now, it’s just a matter of waiting until that boat from Marseille actually gets here. Can’t wait!

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