Smoky Mountain Hop – Part Two

[One]

JAMES WEST’S NORTH ASHEVILLE WINE SHOP, Westlake Wines, is a good-looking space. The shop’s blond wood floors have a bright polish, and its slate blue walls are decorated with some of its owner’s photography collection that follows a surfing theme. Along with the central table set-up and a burgundy wing chair tucked away in a corner (Moxie’s favorite spot), furniture at Westlake consists of a pair of well-traveled lounge chairs in faded brown leather. But on second glance you notice that one of these is, quite incongruously, a barber’s chair. “The Chair is here,” James proudly declared in an Instagram post last October. “It’s even got an ashtray in the arm. Will be put to use Monday. Just a little up off the ears.”

During my visit last fall, when I complimented him on the actual lounge chair, an Eames reproduction, he mentioned he’d recently become friendly with the owners of The Local Barber & Tap, a downtown barbershop where, this being Asheville, craft beer is served. Courtesy of them, he was now awaiting the arrival of a piece of furniture to complete the shop’s layout. Aware that he hosted wine tastings and other gatherings, James’ new friends asked if they could set up their extra barber chair at Westlake to promote their services at one of his in-store events. They proposed, literally, to offer haircuts inside his shop. Not unlike the Italian wine specialist who took a look at the diverse Westlake inventory before pitching pelaverga, The Local Barber guys must have caught something in his non-conforming attitude that suggested an evening of wine, beer, scissors, and razors was not an outlandish idea. At least, not in Asheville.

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Smoky Mountain Hop – Part One

[One]

WORK TRAVEL LAST FALL TOOK ME for the first time to Asheville, North Carolina, the city in the craggy, western band of the state that runs between Tennessee and South Carolina. On a cool weekday morning, I drove for 90 minutes up Highway 74 out of sprawling Charlotte, encountering the famous, smoky-blue mountain vistas as the road climbed to Asheville—weird for a native Angeleno accustomed to gazing upon the smoggy-brown San Gabriels—and arrived at my friends Virginia and Richard’s home in Arden, a woodsy suburb on the south side of town. I briefly caught up my hosts on the latest from Napa Valley, where they’d lived for years before deciding to return to their native Southeast. Then I headed out for the day to play California wine ambassador.

The agenda my friend and colleague, Gwen, had arranged for our two days together included stops at several of the more unique bars, restaurants, and retail shops I visited during all of last year. I knew before I got on the plane in Oakland that Asheville had a reputation as “Beer City, USA.” By extension, I figured there would be opportunities to sample some North Carolina chopped pig and a brown liquor concoction or two, and maybe listen to some live music (I wouldn’t be disappointed). But the level of wine appreciation I witnessed was something of a surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t have been.

Asheville is a picturesque, postcard-ready city of a little over 80,000 with a UNC campus, a minor league baseball team, and a tree-lined downtown that reminds me of the neighborhood around Shattuck and University Avenues in Berkeley. It’s perhaps most notable for its connection to the Vanderbilt family, whose scion, the imperial-sounding George II, built a chateau in the 1880s on a huge swath of land at the south end of town. He named it Biltmore Estate, an original Dutch-English moniker to honor his patrician heritage. To call Biltmore House “big” is almost comic understatement; it’s the largest single-family home in the United States, with a wide-angle façade worthy of any Loire Valley castle. Near the entrance to the estate, George 2 had a village laid out to house the workers he employed to build his mansion. Today, Biltmore Village is a section of Asheville and a charming little town-within-a-town. But before the city grew to absorb it in the early 1900s, it was a true village—a Craftsman shire, if you will, filled with Vanderbilt’s craftsmen and surrounded by misty mountains. Continue reading

Great Scots Syrah! – Part Two

[One]

IF THIS HAD BEEN AN ARTICLE about, say, San Francisco bartenders in the 1970s and 80s, chances are pretty good that a couple of Irishmen would have made an appearance by now. But two Scottish winemakers in the same story on Sonoma County syrah? Not bloody likely, you might think. Yet it happens, anyway: Steve Law, who was mentored by zinfandel specialist Michael Talty and inspired by a pair of Rhône vignerons, found another Michael McCourtimportant career influencer when he introduced himself to Edinburgh native Andy Smith, the winemaker and proprietor of DuMol Winery in Windsor.

“I met Andy in ’08 down on the Central Coast at one of the Hospices du Rhone events,” Steve told me last year. “I was initially drawn to him because of his accent. It was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I found out he was actually the winemaker at DuMol, and the friendship has grown between the two of us.” He described Smith, 48, as a brilliant advisor, especially when it comes to analyzing different microclimates of Sonoma County for their syrah potential.

Andy Smith has made wine at his Windsor facility since 1999 and started producing DuMol’s Russian River Valley syrah a year later. I called him there recently to chat about the MacLaren wines. He echoed his friend’s comments about his own winemaking mindset, telling me that Steve “knows what he likes, and that’s his target. That’s his vision.”

He and Steve get together regularly to trade bottles and taste each other’s wines, which has given Smith insight into the MacLaren program over several vintages. “Steve started off well over at Talty and had some good guidance,” he said, “but, you know, syrah’s a little different than zinfandel. I think he’s making very interesting wine. What I particularly like is he’s adhering to his vision and not following any trends or critical acclaim or anything like that.Drouthy Neebors He’s making what he wants to make and what he believes in.”

The same year they met, Smith connected Steve with Peter Young, the owner of Dry Stack Vineyard. Come harvest, he thought Young might have some syrah fruit available from his rocky Bennett Valley property. Steve called to inquire, and the rest is MacLaren Wines history—if only for one vintage. Grape sources in California not locked into contracts can, and do, shift with the prevailing winds, and his access to Dry Stack ended up being more of a Bennett Valley experiment. Still, he viewed it as a successful one. Reflecting on the unique opportunity to work with Young’s cool-climate site, he was enthusiastic about the wine that came out of it. The 2008 Dry Stack was “a telling moment in terms of the style” of syrah he was trying to make. “It just lit up,” he said. “That was it. It had everything I was looking for from a stylistic perspective.” Continue reading

Great Scots Syrah! – Part One

[one] maclaren-atoosa-syrah-no-2

“HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE?” the wine retailer standing at our table asked with a stupid grin. He was trying to laugh it up with my winemaker boss and me. “What’s the difference between a case of syphilis and a case of syrah…?”

“The case of syrah is harder to get rid of! Get it?!”

My winemaker boss happens to make syrah—cases of it, in fact—so only one person was laughing. He looked stone-faced, saying nothing as his eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before. The guy turned to me, but I just shook my head. “That’s hysterical, man,” I said flatly. He moved on to find a friendlier audience.

This little episode took place several years ago at a trade tasting in San Francisco. The boss and I were pouring his Mendocino County syrah for Bay Area restaurateurs and retailers. Venereal jokes aside, California syrah had free-fallen into the damn-near-impossible-to-sell wine category, thanks in no small part to an industry trope that put this noble wine grape variety in the same containership-sized box as a purplish, fermented grape beverage commodity from Australia called Yellow Tail Shiraz. The reason? Back in the 1950s, a Sicilian winemaking couple, Filippo and Maria Casella, immigrated to New imgSouth Wales. A few decades later, Casella and his sons launched an export shiraz brand. They named it after Australia’s cute Yellow Tail wallaby, adorned the bottle with a quasi-Aboriginal art label and a $6.99 price tag, and unleashed upon the world the phenomenon of “critter wine.” The family duly made a fortune. Here in the U.S., the imaginations of Costco members from coast to coast were forever captured, and shoppers doing wine arithmetic in supermarket aisles summed up that premium domestic syrah was equal to, but not necessarily greater than, cheap-ass Aussie critter shiraz. California syrah went into a marsupial death dive.

But letting the Casellas—and their wallaby—off the hook for a second, I think another important reason for California syrah’s bad rap of recent memory is that a lot of it made in this state isn’t very good. It’s been a problem going back to the 1990s that can be pegged to both location and vine age. “People weren’t really paying attention to the places they were planting syrah vines,” my friend Bill Easton told me on the phone recently. Earlier this year, Bill received the Rhone Rangers trade organization’s lifetime achievement award for thirty-plus years of work at his Amador County winery, Terre Rouge. He’s widely respected for both growing and making syrah and other Rhône varieties, and I was curious about his thoughts on the state of syrah a couple of decades ago versus today. “I think what happened in the 90s was everybody kind of jumped on the bandwagon at the same time with syrah. They thought it would be the next easy or hot thing to sell, and they didn’t want to be left out.”

bill-easton-rr-award-2016-textThe rush to production in the 90s and early 2000s meant that grapes were being harvested too early from young syrah vines, a practice that took away from many syrah-based wines the varietal characteristics that wholesale buyers and knowledgeable consumers associate with the wines of the northern Rhône Valley— syrah’s home turf in France—and better examples from California: namely blue and black fruits, white pepper, and the all-important meaty-bacon flavors that are a signature of this complex variety. Bill, who has produced syrah under the Terre Rouge label since the late 80s, started early enough to stay ahead of, and immune to, consumers’ disinterest in California syrah. Over time, he’s cemented his reputation for definitive syrah from the Sierra Foothills. “I think a lot of people came out with wines that were from third-leaf syrah vines, and they dtr-labeljust weren’t that great,” he explained. “But as our vineyards have matured, the quality of the syrah and the character we get from the grapes is exponentially better than it was when we first started working with those sites.”

Bill added that, in his opinion, this trend included a number of Napa Valley wineries and growers. I’ve tried my share of Napa syrah over the years. Some has been quite good, though much of it I’ve found average, or at least expensive for the amount of complexity, elegance, and varietal focus it delivers. And the Valley’s floor and hills are already covered with a famous vine that is capable (with just the right human touch) of rather spectacular underachievement. Looking a bit south, successful growers like Lee Hudson and the Truchard family in the Napa-Carneros AVA have worked magic in their syrah vineyards for years, thanks to a combination of the area’s syrah-friendly, cooler climate and their own growing and winemaking skills. Down in Napa County’s southwest corner, Carneros spills over into Sonoma County, and in this neighboring viticultural region the conversations about syrah—and the wines themselves—take off in a different direction.

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Daddy’s Timeout

Daddy's GC Berkeley (3)[one]

A FEW YEARS AGO, I flew into Houston for a work trip on a breezy October afternoon and cabbed straight to a sales appointment with a distributor colleague at a truly Texas-sized grocery store. No need to mention the store by name, though gourmet-minded residents of the city would know the place, which was high-end and located in a nice neighborhood. The lighting and space were bright and airy, and the shelves were very well-stocked. It reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Dallas has the flash, but Houston has the cash.” Indeed, there was a fossil fuel-enabled vibe of prosperity to this mammoth epicurean outlet. I was, after all, in the energy capital of the world.

Upstairs in a back office, the wine-related dealings came to a swift conclusion. The store’s merciless buyer was like the Astros’ J.R. Richard, circa 1978, shooting BBs past the Dodgers. Naturally, I was the Dodger—a strikeout victim. As I trudged back downstairs with my colleague, we encountered a wide stack of wine at the end of the “Gourmet to Go” aisle, the cases full of what turned out to be an Italian pinot grigio.

In keeping with the U.S. treatment afforded to one of Italy’s cornerstone exports, the boxes had been dumped directly from their pallet onto pinot grigio’s natural terrain in this country: the floor of a supermarket. The signage atop this lowly stack of wine advertised something called “Mommy’s Timeout,” its cost per bottle just a couple dollars more than Two Buck Chuck’s. There was no doubting this fancy store had more than a few cheapskates among its affluent clientele, and I was pretty sure that the pale liquid in the bottles didn’t exactly represent the noblest Italian expression of pinot grigio. But not curious enough to buy one on the spot, and not having come across this wine since, I can’t comment on its flavor (or possible lack thereof). It was really the label that caught my attention.
mommysgreen-2
The illustration on it depicted a café table and a single, unoccupied chair arranged in the corner of a room. This being a timeout, the chair was pointed towards the corner, its shadow cast low against the wall. A bottle of wine and a glass sat on the table. I didn’t miss—or mind—the obvious humor. Here was the spot where Mommy could temporarily escape the stress of being a mommy and remove herself to a wine-themed break from the kids. It was clever visual marketing to a stressed-out demographic. But the image was also morbidly engaging. It reminded me of a Charles Addams cartoon: toss in an ashtray and burning cigarette, and it could have passed for a scene of foul play, or maybe the aftermath of someone’s spontaneous combustion.

•   •   •   •   •

Though I appreciate the contents of a good bottle, I’m also a sucker for wine label art and packaging, particularly of Italian wines. They’re what drew me in the early 2000s to the distinctive bottles from Cantina Terlano, a winery in northern Italy. This historic company (which happens to produce excellent pinot grigio) is a 120 year-old cooperative of grape farmers in Alto Adige, the sundrenched province and winegrowing region in the Italian Alps, close to the borders of both Austria and Switzerland. Perhaps at some point the proud Terlano growers took a vote not to pallet-jack their slender, discreetly embossed bottles of pinot grigio into Texas grocery stores, fancy or otherwise. The postage stamp-sized Alpine etching at the top of the label would get lost in a supermarket, anyway. Cantina Terlano’s wines have always been a more unique Italian product, both aesthetically and from a quality standpoint. Continue reading

An Aperitif: Sutton Cellars Brown Label Vermouth

“There is a horrible American vermouth — I shall not reveal its name.”
– Julia Child to Jacques Pepin

Bamboo ingredients web sized 2It was a pleasant surprise to find out earlier this year from my friend Carl Sutton that his Sonoma County Brown Label vermouth, a labor of love if there ever was one, had been featured in the New York Times. I became a convert to this extraordinary aperitif wine last fall and subsequently plied friends and family with it between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. At the end of January, I brought a bottle to a friend’s restaurant in Napa Valley to mix “Carlitos” (a Cava-sherry-vermouth cocktail; recipe noted below) for his manager and him. A couple of wine industry friends were in tow. It was roundly agreed that, on top of experiments with hand-made vermouth being a pleasant way to spend a Friday afternoon, this dry, rich, botanically expressive wine was good stuff. Then Jordan MacKay’s article appeared in the Times in early February. Echoing Julia Child, he observed that while the supermarket brand vermouths we Americans are used to drinking are almost unmentionable, the Brown Label is another beverage entirely. The publication of MacKay’s article was an event I figured would alter Carl’s world of artisan winemaking for good and perhaps, too, my chances of continuing to buy it at such a friendly price.

Carl mixing 2 web sizeAs both a friend and professional colleague, I’ve had a unique view into Carl’s winemaking world. Six years ago, I helped him sell his wines to a handful of restaurants and retailers in the Bay Area. Meeting at his and his wife’s San Francisco apartment to organize our sales plan, I took note of regular updates to the classroom-sized chalkboard on their kitchen wall. The board would tell intertwining tales. It served mainly as a calendar for a busy schedule of distributor visits across the country and event dates in and around the city. But also I recall notations of wine science data, interspersed with abacusian reminders (“$$owed from Ohio!”), domestic exhortations (“Buy coffee!!”), and a sidebar devoted to drink recipes and ideas, wacky and otherwise. The serious purpose of our work meetings notwithstanding, my powers of recall in the wake of visits to Carl’s flat have always been softened by his more formidable skills at hospitality. I have, in fact, come to believe that his favorite adjective to pair with the word “wine” is “fortified.” So The Chalkboard, like a kiss or a cigar, might just have been a chalkboard. What I know for sure is that Carl Sutton’s kitchen, like his mind, is an ideas factory for riffs on the theme of fermented grape juice. Continue reading

Jungle Wine: Massican Sauvignon

“As for Juliana, I think the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
– Dan Petroski

Massican SB at Lou Aug 2010 2Here’s something I’ve learned since moving to Napa Valley seven years ago: among the winemaking set, kids’ birthday parties are popular occasions to debut side labels and one-offs, or otherwise unload mistakes on friends. For a good example of the former, see Dan Petroski, whose full-time job is assistant winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga. On the side, he runs a tiny project he founded last year called Massican, with a production so limited it makes some boutique winery outfits seem Gallo-esque by comparison. I first came across Dan’s unique white wines at a mutual friend’s daughter’s birthday in May. It was a warm day in a St. Helena park, and the wines were an unexpected but very welcome find. One of the bottles—a crisp, delicious sauvignon blanc—etched a deep impression on my palate. Over hot dogs and cake, he agreed to show me around its source, a vineyard in the Napa hinterlands of Pope Valley.

Larkmead Sept 4 #8 web sizedDan knows from out-of-the-way places. It could be in his Italian genes: his great-grandfather grew up north of Naples in the foothills of Monte Massico, for which he named his label. He got his winemaking start in 2005 working at Valle dell’Acate, a winery in southeast Sicily whose location must rival the Corleones’ ancestral hometown in the category of remote getaways. And he lives in Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley. While not as far-flung as Sicily, the pickup trucks and minivans there still appear to outnumber Range Rovers and Maseratis. The town is its own little island of unpretentious solitude. Continue reading