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.
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 important 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.”
“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 South 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.
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.
“There is a horrible American vermouth — I shall not reveal its name.”
– Julia Child to Jacques Pepin
IT 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.
As 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.
“As for Juliana, I think the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
– Dan Petroski
HERE’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.
Dan 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.