There always seemed to be overcast skies with a greyish hue that placed a gritty film over everything in sight. The drug dealers selling crack and other drugs on the street corners would wear dark colored camouflage, despite police officers seemingly never being around, as they didn’t want to take the chance of being too in the cops’ faces as they shouted out, “crack, crack, smoke, smoke”. Although everything seemed gloom and doom, there was very little time to get noticeably depressed as there was an electricity in the air that was rooted in many things: fear of getting attacked while walking down the street, fear of not making enough money for rent and ending up on the street, and oddly, the elation that came from witnessing a rare piece of music, art, or performance that was not there to charm tourists out of their money as no one but the poor residents, and visitors who wanted to score drugs, would hang around such a place… these artistic expressions were created by lost, broken humans whose souls cried out to connect.
Lower East Side (LES)
The place I’m talking about is Alphabet City in the East Village of New York City -specifically B & C Avenues in the 1990s – my home from 1993 until 2004. I still live within walking distance and find myself there a couple times a week, yet many times when I am in my old neighborhood, I am furiously running around trying to get everything done with all that I juggle as a freelancer, so there is never much time for nostalgia… until a little over a month ago. I felt a pull to wander further east, into the heart of my old ‘hood that still has many of the run-down tenement apartments (slums originally created for the poor immigrants flooding into NYC back in the early 1900s), and my heart started to ache for my previous home… I ached for all the creativity that surrounded me back in those times… witnessing some of the most amazing performances from people, like myself, who didn’t have enough money to eat on a daily basis let alone buy materials. Scavenging the streets and garbage cans was where many of us found the items to work with… many times what we gathered from the street was not ideal but it would not stop us from creating and performing… in many ways, it made us even more inventive.
A couple weeks after allowing myself to walk down memory lane, I saw the last episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which was filmed in the Lower East Side (LES), my old neighborhood being showcased at certain points. It is interesting to note that although the LES does not technically include the East Village, the Alphabet City section of it that was part of the whole artist scene from the 70s until the 90s was connected to part of the Lower East Side; actually one can draw a completely different map that takes parts of the East Village and parts of the LES to create the area where artists, drug addicts, murderers, and solid blue-collar people all struggled together in this lower income neighborhood. I ended up there by chance as an 18 year old with no family, no home, no sense of how to navigate my life, except that I loved to read and I loved to create and NYC gave me the ability to do both… initially I lived in the YMCA and then I found my way to Alphabet City.
I never got into drugs – not even marijuana (but that may be reconsidered once cannabis becomes legal in New York) – and there was a time that I didn’t even drink alcohol. It wasn’t because I had a holier than thou attitude but it is because I came from parents, who luckily wanted very little to do with me, that were a combination of alcoholics and drug addicts. When you come from such a background, typically one of two things happens: you either become an addict, or you never touch any type of drug (for many years, I was even against taking over the counter medicine such as aspirin). But through time, I fell in love with wine before I even started to consume it… for a geek like me, it had everything: science, history, geography, culture, and most importantly, a sense of connecting to a community, to many communities around the world as I was surrounded by poor artists who came from around the globe and they shared their wines from their homelands.
There was a group of us who decided to save up during the week to be able to splurge on a bottle to share with different people from around the world, with everyone taking turns. Many times I only ate potatoes during the week, a habit that I still continue to this day funnily enough, so I could save enough money to pay my fair share. I would dream about the bottle, reading as much as I could about the area of production in books at the library, in anticipation of what I was going to drink with my struggling artistic wine group that week… and I will never forget the week that I first tasted gold.
I was one of those weird kids who was not a big fan of sweets… I mainly went crazy for salty, fatty, umami qualities – I think that is why I loved Chinese food with lots of MSG. And so I was certainly skeptical of my pauper-ish band of artisans spending our hard-earned money on a sweet wine named Barsac – the area that encompasses one of the most famous sweet wine areas, Sauternes in Bordeaux, France (side note: all Sauternes are Barsac but not all Barsac are Sauternes). Well, I was amazed by its complexity of spice, umami represented by mushrooms and truffles, array of sweetness from coconut to marmalade, a bouquet of mixed flowers and a range of minerality that I had not yet learned the words to express. Then, over the next few weeks, we really sacrificed to be able to get a bottle of Sauternes, which blew our minds to another level. After that, I started the process of reading about other sweet wine areas near Sauternes and Barsac and even though it would take many years before entering the wine business when I would be given a chance to taste a parade of these golden delights, I dreamt of them all the time and those dreams helped me to get through many tough times.
Back in November, I was sent 8 samples of golden sweet Bordeaux wines from Snooth as they were promoting these wines, many from tiny wine producers that never had the means, before social media, to get the word out, to be tasted alongside a video seminar (link) they launched on their site. Not only did the Snooth video about these golden beauties address the extreme nature of farming and making these wines that involves several harvest passes (picking grape by grape) and the minuscule yield that comes from grapes that are blessed by noble rot, but they addressed the idea that these wines were not only meant to be drunk with fine food but paired very well with everyday salty, fatty and crispy delights such as fried chicken – a fantastic recommendation from Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, who co-hosted the video with Snooth.
Treasures for the Downtrodden
Tasting through the snack pack sent by Snooth to pair with the wines, I found that the spicy beef jerky and Calabrese salami were my favorites and the whole experience made me flash back to some of my more precious wine working times in Bordeaux… going to visit a tiny sweet wine producer for dinner where a ham that was cooked buried in the ground was served to us, a lunch that paired Sauternes sweet wines with spicy Szechuan food where the producer of a small winery nervously sat at my table wringing her hands not knowing what to expect as she had never previously eaten Szechuan food (at the end it shocked us all how well these foods went with each other) and all the times that my former group of artists gathered on the floor of someone’s apartment with potato chips, Doritos and cheap cheeses and meats – anything we could afford that would create a poor person’s feast to go with these wines.
We may have been downtrodden back then but we did, in many ways, get so much out of life… no one was there to compete, show off knowledge, make anyone else jealous, or even knew the words “trophy wines.” We were there to share, to learn, to be enlightened, to be part of something special. Just like all the downtown theater that was prevalent during my time, it was not about being a star – you went to midtown in NYC or LA for that – it was about finally belonging, about finding other broken beings who just wanted to do something good with the volcano of emotions and images that plagued their minds, hearts and souls.
It was a little painful to watch Tony Bourdain revisit the Lower East Side because you could see in his eyes that he desperately wanted to go back to the old days and that too much had changed… just like for myself and for so many others, that time no longer exists… only bits and pieces of that creativity can be found there now. But change is a part of life and it sure as hell is a part of New York City; you need to find a way to keep moving and evolving with it. And let’s not kid ourselves, there was a lot of bad going on back in those days… I do not miss fearing for my life every time I walked down the street or seeing prostitutes every damn day or drug addicts shooting up. Yes, it is still there, but not so much in your face.
At the heart of many of these golden sweet wines is the process of botrytis that is common in certain wine growing areas in Bordeaux because of the confluence of two bodies of water, one warm and one cold, that creates a mist in the morning that is ideally balanced by the sun coming out during the day to dry the damp grapes. While some of the grapes can quickly turn into bad rot that cannot be used for the golden wine, others slowly shrivel to perfection as microscopic spores find their way through the skins of the grapes without breaking them, concentrating the sugars and altering flavors, bringing complexity.
I am grateful that I came to wine and discovered the artist within myself in Alphabet City back in the 90s – especially storytelling – although I must admit that I was probably one of the least creative people in my old neighborhood. I think my desire to learn, as well as being surrounded by those who amazed me at every turn helped me to see the world in a different way. But many of those people paid a price, whether it was damage from expanding their minds with major drugs or ending up on the street because of insane amounts of debt that was incurred by making spaces available to artists such like myself… it was a constant balancing act of being part of a beautiful, yet in some ways, toxic community, just like how producers need to find balance grape by grape, sorting between the ones destined for a divine sweet wine and those that are simply rotten and are to be thrown away – each of us has the capacity for noble or bad rot and each day our choices lead us to one or the other.
The Art that Lives within Us
To me, the most precious moment of Bourdain’s LES episode was finding out who was the person(s) who made captivating mosaic art on lamp posts all over the East Village – it was one man named Jim Power, who was mainly unknown, because his intention as he explained was to bring beauty to the struggling residences, and I have to say that on many an occasion while walking home from balancing working a couple of jobs in order to survive, while sadly witnessing the depravity on the streets, I would turn and see one of his mosaics (not knowing if it was one or many people doing them) and smile with hope reignited in my heart. It was the most precious part because it represented everything that was good about that time that not only still remains on some old lamp posts they reinstalled but that still resides inside of me.
My challenges are different these days but can be just as overwhelming at times. Some people want to suck you into their world of jealousy, competition and elitism with wine and that really has very little to do with the good parts of it and has nothing to do with why I got into it. Many of these small Bordeaux producers making sweet wine are artistic farmers committed to an extreme practice of making liquid gold because they have been given a gift and a curse at the same time. They take on all the challenges because the grapes’ souls cry out, just like so many of those people I have known in the past, to express a wine that is deeper, richer and much more complicated than the easier route of not making noble rot wine. They continue the fight and struggle to find a place for these wines in an ever changing world just like I am trying to carry the torch of all those who introduced me to wine – people who were so much more brilliant and talented than I, yet for some reason, I am one of the few still standing, and because of that I have a responsibility, just like these golden wine producers. I was given a gift that may not have seemed like one at the time, and instead of mourning its loss, I now need to find a way to keep the essence of it alive.
#GoGoldenBordeaux Sweet Wines Tasted on November 7th, 2018
***Quick Helpful Note: The below sweet wines can be placed in the fridge for about a week with either the cork back in, or better yet, a bottle vacuum sealer, and in some cases these wines may last up to a couple weeks. All the sugar makes them much more durable than dry wines.
–2016 Château Manos, Cadillac AOC, Bordeaux ($10 for half bottle 375ml): 98% Sémillon, 1% Sauvignon Blanc and 1% Muscadelle. Cadillac is a great area for value and typically they get less noble rot on their grapes and so the wines are not as rich. This 2016 was a fresh, more moderate bodied sweet goldie with lemon curd, cardamom and anise seed spices with only a hint of the mushrooms that one gets from noble rot. But also 2016 was a fresher, less concentrated year for the sweet wines.
-2016 Château Loupiac-Gaudiet, Loupiac AOC, Bordeaux ($16 for a half bottle 375ml): 90% Sémillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. Again another fresher style sweet wine from the 2016 vintage with apricots and grilled pineapple that had hints of honey and only a touch of forest floor.
-2015 Château La Rame Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC, Bordeaux ($22 for a half bottle 375ml): 100% Sémillon. This is actually a well-known small producer among sommeliers in NYC, and probably other cities in the US, that appreciate these wines. 2015 was a lusher, richer year which brings a real creaminess to this wine that would go great with avocado, as Mary Gorman-McAdams MW suggested, for perhaps those who want to stay away from meat. Also, crispy bacon in a BLT sounded amazing as well. Candied oranges seemed to dominate this wine for me with a lovely aroma of pressed flowers that had a sweet, mouth coating finish that was lifted by mineral notes expressed on the finish.
–2014 Château du Cros, Loupiac AOC, Bordeaux ($22 for a full size bottle 750ml): 90% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle. 2014 was a year of high acidity and lots of savory notes that works out well for sweet wines. Yes, fierce acidity with smoky minerality and ripe peaches that had a flavorful yet zingy finish.
–2011 Château Dauphiné-Rondillon, Loupiac AOC, Bordeaux ($16 for half bottle 375ml): 70% Sémillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc. This is considered a great year for sweet Bordeaux wines so start grabbing them up. 2011 had high acidity and it was ideal for noble rot so they had tons of good, clean botrytis and these wines are meant for long-term aging although they taste great now! Preserved exotic oranges on honey drilled vanilla ice cream and grilled peaches with citrus zest on the finish.
-2016 Château Lapinesse, Sauternes AOC, Bordeaux ($22 for half bottle 375ml): 100% Sémillon. Viscous texture that went so well with the beef jerky that had flavors of peach pie and roasted coconut with a long decadent finish that still had zing with orange zest. Despite it being a less concentrated year the richness of the Sauternes AOC comes through.
As the white stoned Madonna shone in the sun, it seemed her open arms were welcoming us to the delicious bounty of food and wine that was waiting. It was like a dream to be surrounded by so many tasty bites, pretty rosé wine being poured into everyone’s glass, the scent of freshly picked flowers wafting through the air and all the little details that adorned the round picnic tables… for a moment, I had to take it in… the weather was perfect, the view of vineyards down below gently sloping as far as the eye could see during a perfect day in September, and most importantly, the enthusiastic energy of my group that at one time was being challenged by the mockery of harvesters behind us as we took pictures to capture the precious moments. Those same harvesters were met with the kindness and generosity of one Anne Duboeuf, who walked over to the strangers with an authentic smile to offer them some of our food and wine with open arms like the Madonna statue I had first witnessed.
Georges Duboeuf Rosé
Back in September, I visited the vineyards of Georges Duboeuf, mainly focusing on the Cru wines featuring the family names of the well-regarded wine producers in various Cru communes, as that is what many of us wine writers (aka wine nerds) wanted to see, but I was taken aback by the positive economic impact that Beaujolais Nouveau, the harvest wine released on the 3rd Thursday of November, brought to the region of Beaujolais in France. It is a pretty, light red wine with red fruit, spice and a floral aroma that is ideal for a day of conviviality such as the gathering we had at the top of the hill of the La Madone de Fleurie in the Fleurie Cru of Beaujolais, France.
While tasting the Duboeuf rosé, that was only sold locally, I was interested to learn that the Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau release would, for the first time, include a rosé that would be imbued with the same spirit as its charming red sibling. I would not be able to taste it until the rosé was released onto the market on the 15th of November of this year but I was thrilled to hear that they finally decided to make a pink Nouveau. Duboeuf didn’t make that much this year as they didn’t know how the market would receive it but they heard the world loud and clear when it was sold out to retailers before they had a chance to finish making the wine.
Franck Duboeuf, who seems to be transitioning in taking over the family’s company as his father starts to take a slower pace at 85 years old (despite Franck himself insisting his father is still involved in every aspect from vineyards, to winemaking, designing labels and writing the vintage report), felt like now was the right time for the leap into Nouveau rosé. Although nothing makes more sense than making a rosé out of Gamay grapes that are made in a fresh style highlighting the fruit while keeping a dry palate to add to the fun of Beaujolais Nouveau Day, there were concerns; those concerns focused on the possible damage to the reputation of the red Beaujolais Nouveau that not only made Duboeuf’s name but allows Beaujolais grape growers to sustain a living.
Trouble When There is No Middle Ground
The Duboeuf family works with over 300 grape growers, which not only accounts for a lot of people alone, there are many more jobs created by the co-op wineries that work with Duboeuf as well as the Duboeuf winery itself that are all mainly sustained by Beaujolais Nouveau. There is nothing romantic about the idea of giving many local people the chance to pay their bills without having to leave the place where they grew up. And the idea that Beaujolais Nouveau is an accessible wine that makes no bones about being a wine for everyone to celebrate together without any pretense, or lacks complicated lingo that we wine nerds love to decode, has made it a target for those who want to go off on a rant on why more people are not drinking “more interesting” wine. And I point the finger at myself and my own rants in the past.
But as we see information coming back showing that we are moving into a wine market where there is no real loyalty in wine purchases and the younger generation seems to want to buy what they haven’t had or what is different (don’t get me wrong I am happy that this is happening), we are moving into an unforeseeable future within the wine world, and if we are not careful it will only be the tiny, obscure and the conglomerate companies that will exist while the medium sized companies, many times the ones bolstering communities, falling by the wayside. But it is just so easy to go after medium companies because there are real people running them that don’t have the manpower or team of lawyers to go after ever defamation of character like the conglomerates.
The most interesting thing about meeting Georges Duboeuf, as well as his son Franck, was the fact that both men had a quiet intelligence as well as a deep connection to the many people in the Beaujolais area where they both lived and raised their families. When someone bashes Nouveau in front of Georges he gets very serious, and in a way hurt, as it is the wine that he not only loves for its pure expression, and its connection to the history of celebrating harvest in the region, but it has made so many things possible for a long list of neighbors he can name within a heartbeat.
Sometimes It Is Too Late
As we wake up and look at the news everyday in the US, in the UK, in France, we see worlds that are being torn apart because too many people on the extreme sides of a multitude of topics are tearing down the companies and way of life that so many depend on. I do believe in progress, and am happy to see it in so many ways, but when we start to chip away at those companies, or organizations, that are creating something that brings joy to a lot of people while giving a means of steady income to those who live outside the cities, we really start to become part of why so many are feeling left behind.
I am happy to see that the Duboeuf family is standing behind their Nouveau in the wake of sometimes snarky criticism and that they will not allow those critics to keep them from the most logical of choices, which is the rosé.
Recently, I saw Franck Duboeuf and his lovely wife Anne again for a lunch to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau, on November 15th, with other media people in New York City. As I tasted their pretty Nouveau wines, I could not help but think how my own actions and words have contributed to an unyielding viewpoint that is in part creating this divisive world we are living in; where none of us respect an experience or opinion that is different from our own.
I was fortunate to sit right next to Anne Duboeuf who has such an open heart and nurturing personality, and I remember how well she took care of all of us during that picnic back in September… even those harvesters that were making fun of our festive setup. I was not surprised when Anne talked about her priority for many years of having a close relationship with her three kids (who she encourages to see and experience the world while currently in their college years) and how they still do not want to be too far from her comforting presence. She was a little fearful that they won’t have a chance to find themselves, but I’m sure through time they will come into their own… but at least they appreciate all that she does to create such a loving, accepting environment for them. Anne’s kids appreciate the special world she has created for them with her beautiful heart while they still have it… and with that thought I lifted my glass to toast Anne and the others around me with a wine that not only brings many people from all walks of life together but it gives an area of the world a means of support and purpose that would otherwise have been forgotten.
Tasting of George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé on November 15th, 2018
–2018 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé: 100% Gamay. Sweeter on the nose than in the mouth, with strawberry shortcake and dried rose buds that becomes bright and fresh on the palate with zingy red cranberries and a dry finish. This is the first vintage of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé and it is about time. Since this is the first year the Duboeuf family made this wine, they decided to err on the side of caution and not make that much so this rosé may be harder to find than the red. I’m guessing next year they will be making more. Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
–2018 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau: 100% Gamay. Deep, dark cherry and blackberry fruit with exotic spice and a distinctive crumbly rock aspect on the palate with a lush mid-palate balanced by round tannins that gave the wine shape across the sustained finish. A longer finish than Beaujolais Nouveau wines I have had in the past because this year there was plenty of concentration early so they were able to pick early, retaining acidity, while having grapes that reached optimum ripeness levels… so good that I was eating the grapes like crazy when I was there in September. Suggested Retail Price $12.99.
–2018 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau: 100% Gamay. This Beaujolais Nouveau comes from villages within Beaujolais that have more granite and schist in the soils and so it is typically more concentrated with a step up in quality. Since 2018 was such a great year, this Villages Nouveau really over-delivered with cassis and raspberry preserves that had hints of spice cake and silky tannins that were carried by marked acidity that had quite a long finish – I couldn’t believe this was a Nouveau wine but it really shows the vintage variation in these wines. Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
I am a strong believer in the idea that life does not work around us, we need to work around life, in the sense that there are many things we will have to take on that will be drudge work, so to speak, for us to survive and to be contributing members of society. Not only will the grind be a part of our daily lives but there are people that will come in and out of our personal and professional lives that will challenge us, maybe even trod on our souls a little bit. There is no way to completely avoid any of these unpleasantries but there are choices that we can make to help shape the soundtrack of our lives, but often times, these choices come at a price.
I was invited by a well-respected American journalist, author and famous natural wine advocate, Alice Feiring, to a Puglia Primitivo tasting. At first, I was completely taken aback as Puglia Primitivo wines are viewed, in general, as big, alcoholic, manipulated wines, and Alice only promotes wines that have very little or no intervention and have an overall finesse and sense of place that usually equates to lower alcohol levels. Now I am a wine generalist obsessed with the story aspect of wines so I like big Primitivo wines as long as they are well-done, and I am open to commercial wine practices, as well as natural practices, and everything in between. But I was shocked to see Alice send an invite for Puglia Primitivo and I knew there had to be something special about this producer called Fatalone.
Gioia del Colle DOC
Fatalone (Azienda Agricola Petrera Pasquale) represents 5 generations of winemakers in the Gioia del Colle DOC area of the region in Puglia of Italy – Puglia is the heel of the boot at the southeast corner of the country. Puglia is the Italian home of the red grape variety Primitivo which is related to US Zinfandel and both can be traced back to a Croatian grape variety that found its way to Italy centuries ago. Pasquale Petrera, the family owner and winemaker of Fatalone, said the Primitivo was the father and son of Zinfandel because after the louse Phylloxera devastated many European vineyards, Puglia needed to replant with Primitivo clones that were from the US (aka Zinfandel) that originally came from Puglia.
But like any set of twins that were raised apart from each other, each evolved differently and so not only is Puglia Primitivo its own thing but the two most famous communes in Puglia (Primitivo di Manduria and Gioia del Colle) can diverge in their styles; generally Gioia del Colle are lighter wines with more finesse… again, I have no personal issue with the richer Manduria style and like to get my Manduria Primitivo on from time to time.
You may be more familiar with Primitivo di Manduria as it has enjoyed success longer as Gioia del Colle didn’t start bottling their own wines until 1987 – Fatalone being the first – and there are only 15 wine producers in the consorzio (a group safeguarding the Gioia del Colle DOC) and only 3 of them make more than 50,000 bottles (yes, I said bottles not cases) which is just over 4,000 cases. Fatalone (the 3rd largest producer) makes 60,000 bottles just around 5,000 cases. Many US wine producers have told me that a winery needs to make 10,000 cases to even become profitable and so this is a DOC of tiny producers and their wines are not going to be widely available on export markets.
Gioia del Colle is higher in elevation than Primitivo di Manduria and near the Adriatic Sea; Pasquale said that his vineyards were almost 1312 feet (400 meters) above sea level and 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the sea.
A big part of why Alice Feiring liked this producer, besides the simple fact that their wines were fantastic, was their commitment to natural winemaking. I asked Alice if Fatalone was considered a natural winemaker and she simply said, “They were natural enough.” Temperature control during fermentation in stainless steel and pumping over during their spontaneous fermentation, to avoid stuck ferments, are the only controls that take place by Pasquale, that may not be followed by other hardcore natural winemakers especially if they are in cooler climates… but the warmer temperatures almost make it mandatory that Pasquale takes a couple precautions, at least in my mind. Fatalone vineyards are 100% certified organic (no irrigation – dominant clay soils absorb water), using grapes from only their own vineyards, they have zero CO2 emissions (100% of their energy comes from their solar panels), aging takes place in old Slovenian oak, low SO2 with less than 40 mg/L and they employ “music therapy” during the aging of the wines.
While the wines are aging in oak, Pasquale plays new age music with the sounds of storms, rivers, and such, at a low level, near the barrels, and he says that it seems to help with micro-oxygenation of the wines in oak. Since Pasquale has a strong scientific background (he studied physics) he felt obligated to say that there was no evidence of effects on the micro-organisms living in the wine, and that not only did each vintage react differently but each barrel has varied results, yet he can say that some barrels will show more desired tertiary notes (aromas associated to the wine evolving). He said he needs to keep the volume just right… too loud, it becomes too disruptive to the barrels and if there is no music at all, then there is nothing instigating the development of deeper complexity.
Sincere Choices Leading Us Down an Unsettling Path
There are so many variables and obstacles on every permutation of a path we could take that it is impossible to be completely prepared for what we will face when trying to find fulfillment, success and peace. Like the thin skinned Primitivo that is transparent in telling its vintage story, we cannot help, even against all our efforts, to show our inner lives that are constantly molded and shaped by our own soundtrack that surrounds us on a daily basis… the words that are spoken around us, the acts that touch our lives, the looks, the intentions, the ethics of those around us forming a crystal lattice structure that seep into our very being… this is the music, the vibration that chisels into us our sense of worth, our sense of purpose, our inner contentment that encourages the evolution of what we will become, in time.
Sometimes we are placed into positions where what we are expected to say, or actions we are expected to perform, that are crimes against our own personal sense of humanity… many times being told that this is what everyone does, and so we feel that again, this is one of those things in the world that we need to work around to become productive members of society. We are faced with the decision to sacrifice outward success for inner peace and the hard reality is that choosing character over a sense of outward prosperity will typically not be rewarded… except for the soulful dance of our inner light that only grows strongly when the right soundtrack, at the right level, surrounds us.
And I think that is the best reason that someone would take the path of a natural winemaker, especially one in a tricky region such as Puglia. It is not easy, it is not hugely profitable, it will most probably not get you fame, and may get you some odd side looks from people, but it is a choice deciding the soundtrack that plays through our lives, one that is not always easy yet allows us to age knowing that the things we sacrificed were fleeting and those we chose represented the music that evolved us into the person we knew we could be.
Tasting of Fatalone Primitivo Riserva Vertical on November 2nd, 2018
Thank you to Astor Wines in New York City for providing the space for this vertical tasting and seminar. Also, they carry many of the Fatalone wines.
Primitivo is the only grape variety in the Mediterranean area that supplies a second harvest that they call the Racemi of the Primitivo. Some producers blend the Racemi as it is lighter and more acidic, but Fatalone harvests the Primitivo and Racemi separately (Racemi one month after Primitivo) and only uses the 1st harvest for all their Primivito Riserva and regular Primitivo wines and then uses the Racemi for their ‘Teres’ wine. They like leaving the Racemi on the vines as it helps to arrest the development of the Primitivo, a thin skinned grape that goes from perfectly ripe to over-ripe very quickly, and helps arrest development towards the end of the growing cycle to keep the Primitivo’s ripeness at an ideal level.
Photo Credit: Fatalone
Pasquale says that they have been altering their traditional Alberello Pugliese trellising system to raise the grape bunches further up from the ground to keep them from getting over-ripe as average temperatures slightly rise due to climate change.
In regards to the below tasting, all of the Riserva wines had an incredible lightness of being to them while still achieving an intensely vibrant complexity that would tingle down to my toes. So when I refer to some vintages being richer than others, please keep in mind that all of these wines had finesse and that lightness of being quality but of different degrees.
All of the Wines in the 2015 to 1988 Vertical are Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva, Gioia del Colle DOC:
1st set of wines: 2015, 2013, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2006
-2015: Warm vintage that was not too hot with right amount of balance. Pretty, vibrant red & black fruit with cinnamon note and a bright finish. Textural wine with elegant structure.
-2012: Dried black currant and bay leaf with zingy cranberry on the finish with hints of smoke.
-2011: This vintage is similar to 2015 yet it is not as concentrated. At first, juicy black berry then black tea, bruised cherry, savory herbs with power on the body.
-2009: A vintage that had less ripeness. Dusty earth dominant on the nose with dark fruit in the background, yet it had good flesh with smoky, dried leaves.
-2007: Perfect ripening. This was a favorite of mine with tight structure and broken earth with dried basil and thyme with lots of spice.
-2006: Slightly more ripe than 2007. Exotic spice of cumin and cardamom that had electric, fun flavors of pomegranate and a long, vibrant finish… couldn’t believe that this was a riper vintage
2nd set of wines: 2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1997, 1996
-2005: Lots of rain during this vintage and so lighter color as less phenolic maturity. Marked acidity with dried herbs. Pasquale was quite hard on himself in regards to this bottle and said it is not at the same quality level of the other vintages. Someone else in the room asked if he had tasted this vintage recently and he said he did in March and it was more expressive. So perhaps bottle variation is the issue in this case since it was such a difficult vintage.
-2003: A very hot vintage and Primitivo is very sensitive to climatic changes. Lots of earthy, sweet tobacco and sour cherries on the bright finish.
-2001: This had real old world charm with black cherry skin and a touch of tar with moderate body and gravelly finish.
-2000: Smoldering cedar, sweet fruit in mid-palate with a rich body. A great vintage that is celebrated by a limited edition of magnums in hand signed wooden boxes.
-1997: Wild boar sausage, fresh rosemary and mulberries with a linear body.
-1996: Plums with a noticeable texture to the body with zingy cranberries on the finish.
3rd set of wines: 1995, 1994, 1992, 1990, 1989, 1988
-1995: Wild and stony with hints of brambly fruit along the delicate texture.
-1994: Carob powder, wild rose and subtle black berry fruit with silky tannins across the long finish.
-1992: Smoked meats, ripe strawberry and basil with an expressively long length.
The last 3 wines were the last bottles Pasquale had left in his cellar and he decided to share it with us that day in New York City.
-1990: Crumbly rock, granite and a hit of passion fruit in the background.
-1989: Balsamic with stewed cherries that was surprisingly rich and sustained on the finish.
-1988: Fresh black cherry, grilled herbs, smoldering earth with a lift of sour red cherries on the end.
A treat of two wines over 40 years old made by Pasquale father’s father in 1977 (fermented in concrete) and his mother’s father in 1969 (fermented in chestnut) showed how there is a different tradition for winemaking on both sides of the family. Both of these wines were made without any modern controls in the winery.
-1977: Copper color with intense walnut and a hint of bruised golden apple.
-1969: Ginger, quince with toasted pine nuts… tangy finish.
Current Releases of Fatalone (some may not have hit the market yet):
-2017 ‘Teres’ Primitivo, Puglia IGT: 100% Primitivo Racemi (2nd harvest) of the vines. The wine looked like a dark rosé (aka Rosado) that had cherry blossom and sweet spice along the light body. A great new find for a light red wine that is fun and playful. This wine would probably be best served on the cooler side. Right now this wine is available for $13 at Astor Wines.
Around a month ago, just before the Paso Robles masterclass kicked off here in New York City, I was able to hear the story of renowned importer Robert Haas, who passed away earlier this year, as told by Robert’s son, Jason Haas. We had a small group discussion about how Jason’s grandfather owned Lehmann Bros., one of the first Manhattan retail shops to receive an alcohol sales license after Prohibition, and which eventually became Sherry-Lehmann; when Jason’s father graduated from college in 1950, he was sent to France to seek out producers that could be sold in the family’s retail store. In 1966, Robert Haas, who became an advocate for the wines from Alsace, Burgundy, and the Rhône Valley, started a relationship with the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape (in France’s southern Rhône Valley) that would become an important partnership with Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles, and directly increase the quality of US wines made from Rhône grape varieties.
Winemaking and wine grape growing actually started in the Santa Margarita Ranch area (today part of the Paso Robles AVA) in 1790 by Franciscan Friars. Eventually, in 1983, Paso Robles became an AVA (American Viticultural Area) and it was one of the largest un-subdivided AVAs in California, over 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) with 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) planted with vines, until 2014 when it was officially declared to have 11 sub-AVAs. The declaration of these already locally known sub-AVAs was a big step in regards to publicly acknowledging the diversity of sense of place (aka terroir) as well as brought to the forefront that there were a multitude of wine specialists in Paso Robles excelling in various types of varieties and styles.
I have to admit that from my own perspective, I knew very little about Paso Robles, and I was more familiar with the nuanced differences of Burgundy villages and Barolo communes as my past New York City wine experiences had a major focus on European wines. But Paso Robles, which is dead center in between San Francisco and Los Angeles, not only has a range of soils (over 30 parent soil series) with it having the most amount of calcareous and siliceous soils in California but it also has some of the most extreme swings in temperatures, with a 60 degree swing happening just a week before the masterclass, 104 F (40 C) to 42 F (5 C); these factors ripen the grapes to the point where one can “taste the sun and fruit” yet retains the acids for freshness and allows for longer hang times that helps with phenolic ripeness of the skins and seeds. The Paso soils (majority calcareous, siliceous and clay) contribute to a high pH that helps to produce quality wine, in some instances, such as Giornata’s Nebbiolo growing smaller grape bunches that are like the ones produced in Piedmont. The top Paso Robles wines express an aromatic and textural complexity that are breathtakingly enticing in their generosity and overall sense of finesse.
Despite only having 6% of vineyards planted with old Zinfandel, Paso Robles is still seen by many wine drinkers as a place for big, lush Zins. But there is so much more to Paso, such as Italian wine specialist winemakers like the producer Giornata. 49% of the area is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and offers bang for buck value when it comes to well-balanced Cab wines (example Ancient Peaks Winery Cabernet Sauvignon retailing for $22), and it is the heartland of American Rhône varieties due to the great investment that Tablas Creek Vineyard placed into the area.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Tablas Creek Vineyard was established in 1989 (included in the Paso Robles AVA in 1993) by the father of Jason Haas, Robert, and the Perrin family, the owners of Château de Beaucastel, as stated above. As one can imagine, many people in the wine world wondered where the eminent importer Robert Haas and the iconic Perrin family would lay down roots in California when their search became known. Jason said that even though the world was shocked when they picked Paso Robles, no one was more shocked with the outcome than the Haas and Perrin families. At first this dynamic partnership thought Sonoma would be the ideal place for their New World wine endeavor but when they discovered the calcareous soils of Paso (also found in the sub-soils of Châteauneuf du Pape), as well as the opportunity for dry farming (Paso soils absorb winter rainfall for distribution during the growing season), and Paso’s extreme swings in temperatures which are ideal for late ripening Rhône varieties such as Roussanne and Mourvèdre, they knew Paso was the idea place for them. And despite having hotter days than Châteauneuf du Pape, Paso Robles has cooler nights and so the overall average temperature in Paso is slighter lower.
Raw Material at the Heart of Quality
As the seminar progressed and I kept hearing other Paso Robles wine producers talking about using cuttings from Tablas Creek to start their vineyards, I had to ask Jason Haas how many producers used cuttings that were originally brought over by his family’s winery. Jason first started off, this slight detour in the conversation created by myself, by saying that his father and the Perrin family members knew that the biggest thing holding back quality wines based on Rhône varieties in California was the raw material. And so Tablas Creek first started a grape vine nursery before they started to actually make wine. They brought in 6 cuttings of each type of clone (as that is what the US government allowed for mandated quarantine reasons) and then they reproduced these clones to plant for themselves. Well, once US producers heard about their superior clones from the motherland, they wanted to purchase them. A conscious decision was made by Jason’s father and his partners that they should not make these clones proprietary, despite potentially giving them a huge competitive edge in the marketplace, as they wanted the quality bar of US Rhône wines to significantly improve across the board. Over the last 20 years, the Tablas Creek nursery has sold 5 million grape vines to more than 600 vineyards up and down the West Coast, from Paso Robles to Washington State.
Competitive Edge Over Community
When we choose to have a competitive edge over community, despite being able to superficially thrive as an individual, we betray our inner life, as the inner life of a person’s spirit cannot continue to exist if there in no connection to community.
I know that to be true because even though I had no resources, family, or anyone to teach me survival skills when I first came to New York City when I was 18, I immediately realized that the diverse, lower income community that I lived in would have my back – just like I would have theirs. And please don’t get me wrong – I would never recommend any 18 year old to do what I did, but in my case I had no choice, but it was an incredible lesson in the idea that life is so much more fulfilling when you realize that you will not end up on the streets because of your neighbors, and most importantly, that most of us need very little to make us happy when we have a community to support us.
Now, 25 years later, I find myself as a struggling middle class person running into too many people who seem depressed because they are desperately trying to find validation through an outward success of being in the top of their field while at the same time feel disconnected to those around them. Please don’t take these statements as judgment because I can see how the world around us forces the aspirational middle class to base their worth on achievements, and what we own in comparison to others; that has little to do with inner values and ethics, and all of us fight every day to find a sense of worth in a world that subliminally tells us that we are worthless.
“Alone, we can do so little, together, we can do so much.” –Helen Keller
Amongst the fierce turmoil in the US, I still feel proud of certain aspects of our society. We certainly take the idea of freedom to the ultimate level… it can be wondrous at times… and horrifying at others. But I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today, especially considering my lack of family background, if I wasn’t in the US. But where the United States of America is failing many of its citizens is in its lack of community in pockets throughout the country… community allows us to trust that no one, or no company, will cross boundaries in their desire for success where it becomes detrimental to the society as a whole… but ideally this is done by the free will of others knowing there is only one type of success – uplifting the community.
This is something that Tablas Creek knew from the beginning and still continues to place their energies into… there is a reason why the blog on their website has won many awards (I have been an avid reader for years) – because they openly share their knowledge, and passionately wave the flag for Paso Robles. When we try to climb every mountain ourselves we set ourselves up for disaster… but when we realize that there are many mountains we cannot climb, and if we can at least assist others in those achievements, we will always be successful.
Wines Tasted at Paso Robles Seminar on October 2nd, 2018
SRP means Suggested Retail Price
–2017 Giornata, Fiano: (SRP $30) 80% Fiano, 13% Trebbiano, and 7% Falanghina. This wine was zesty from first sniff with citrus peel and intensely wet stones that had peach pit on the palate with lots of bright energy and a slightly bitter finish, as one always expects with Italian whites.
Co-owner Brian Terrizzi was there to talk about his winery and he said that once they got some publicity for producing wines made from Italian varieties, many Paso Robles grape growers who grew Italian grape varieties started coming out of the woodwork to approach Brian and his wife Stephanie (who manages some properties that have Italian grape varieties) about purchasing vineyards. This lost Fiano vineyard wasn’t really being farmed as it was part of a divorce settlement. Brian said he wants the variety and place to speak for itself so he does very little to the wine with minimal amounts of SO2. A small percentage of Trebbiano and Falanghina are added to top it up because the Fiano is a small property. They sell out of this wine really quickly – only 70 cases are currently made and they are hoping to increase production by a couple hundred cases.
–2015 Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Tablas Blanc: (SRP $45) 55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc and 17% Picpoul Blanc. I have tasted the Esprit de Tablas wines many times as they are the iconic wines from this area that are stylistically like the great Château de Beaucastel wine, yet with more of a Paso edge. This white blend was multidimensional with honey covered juicy stone fruits, white flowers and nutmeg with a fleshy body that had a shock of electric energy on the finish.
Based on Château de Beaucastel Roussanne wine (honeyed, rich) yet with more acid and brightness added by the Picpoul. This wine is treated like a red wine and fermented in 1200 gallon size fermenters (foudres aka large wooden vats), then bottled for a time, and then it goes back to barrels to age. Tablas Creek is certified biodynamic and organic and Château de Beaucastel has been organic since the 1960s.
-2015 Thacher Winery, Cinsault: (SRP $42) 100% Cinsault. Such a treat to taste a 100% Cinsault, especially when it is fermented as whole grape clusters because it illustrates how this grape can be the “Pinot of the Desert”. The nose was so alive with sweet red cherries and perfume with a sharp, linear body that made it fierce and fun at the same time.
This wine is from the Glenrose Vineyard in Adelaida District, a cooler, higher elevation sub-AVA in Paso Robles (Tablas Creek is located there). Hand harvested, foot trodden, native fermentation, bottled after 12 months un-fined and un-filtered, minimal SO2, no additives, no enzymes or no nutrients added. Recently Thacher has changed direction into a more natural direction – they sell 95% of this wine direct to consumer as there is a cult following for it.
Glenrose is a crazy vineyard where the owner terraced it because it was too steep and it now looks like a ziggurat. Unfortunately, the owner of the vineyard didn’t realize he would need to take off the topsoil when terracing, and so the vines are chiseled into the limestone bedrock and the pH was too high for the vines, and so then he had to run sulfuric acid through his irrigation lines so his vines would take up nutrients. Now if that is not commitment and passion I don’t know what is! Most of this vineyard is planted with cuttings from Tablas Creek.
–2014 Giornata, Nebbiolo: (SRP $45) 100% Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo from Paso Robles! Say WHAT?! But you better believe this baby from Giornata delivered with rose oil, mushroom, dried herbs and hints of cherry with marked acidity and tannins that formed an intricate lace in the body of the wine. Nebbiolo loves the higher pH in the soils that Giornata has selected.
Brian and Stephanie Terrizzi started with a barrel of Nebbiolo in 2005 as Stephanie was managing a vineyard of Nebbiolo at the time. This wine comes from the Luna Matta Vineyard which is 1,750 feet (533 meters) high and Brian said that they believe the climate and soil conditions are similar to those of Piedmont. No manipulation in the winery as Brian said that he wants the drinker to identify it as Nebbiolo.
–2016 Ancient Peaks Winery, Merlot: (SRP $20) 100% Merlot. Cocoa dust intermingled with espresso with an interesting smoky note that had fresh plums on the finish, and all for only $20.
Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, VP of Operations for Ancient Peaks Winery, is a 4th generation Paso Robles resident, and as well as working for Ancient Peaks (2nd generation winery) for 12 years, is part of the family of one of the owners. The families that own this winery are proprietors of 14,000 acres (5700 hectares) in Santa Margarita Ranch AVA (takes up 50% of this sub-AVA) which is in the southern most part of Paso Robles, near the Pacific. There are just under 1000 acres (405 hectares) planted (the rest is cattle ranch) and Amanda said that when you are in the vineyards the only thing you see is vineyards and the Santa Lucia Range. Their vineyard is mainly planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as those are their biggest sellers, but they have 70 different blocks delineated with 17 different varieties and they plant vines for smaller producers such as the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo vines they are planting for Brian Terrizzi (Giornata) who will use these grapes for his new project called Broadside.
Also, Amanda talked about the importance of Tablas Creek helping to bring quality grape growing to the Paso area with their research, investing, spreading the word, and how much it has meant to their community. As she said, there was not a lot of hope for development of an economy with the generations that came before her.
–2015 Villa Creek Cellars, Avenger: (SRP $55) 70% Syrah, 10% Petite Sirah, 10% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre. As a Syrah lover, I really liked the chewy tannins that had broad shoulders with BBQ smoke notes that were balanced by a juicy finish.
Most of the fruit for this wine is sustainable based in the Willow Creek District which is also a higher and cooler area in Paso Robles and is known for super star cult Rhône producers.
The dark purplish-blue sky seemed to drape over the mixture of stone carved buildings contrasting with metal and glass skyscrapers looming above me in midtown Manhattan. It seemed like, overnight, we were losing more daylight as the mystic night came in fierce and fast, taking with it the frivolity of summer to replace it with a sense of wonderment of the mysteries that wait for us to discover them.
The People make the Dinner
I was going to Le Bernardin for a wine dinner celebrating the 30 year friendship of Alain Dominique Perrin (who is famous in the luxury world for spearheading the renaissance and international development of Cartier) and Michel Rolland (who is one of the preeminent wine consultants around the world) and their collaboration of Château Lagrézette. I practically never go to evening events while I am home in New York City as I like to keep farmers’ hours when I can and there is nothing more important than having dinner with my husband. Additionally, I like to have deeply personal and intimate conversations with wine producers, as my focus is on the human condition; a large celebration, and especially an evening event at a formal restaurant, is usually not conducive to such an intention.
Around three years ago, I received an invitation to a small dinner with Alain, my first meeting with him, as well as only a couple other media people, at Le Bernardin. Despite my rule of not going out for dinners and fear that the formal atmosphere wouldn’t be conducive to soulful conversation, I could not help but be tempted, as a wine nerd, by the idea that Château Lagrézette, an estate in Cahors, made Viognier wines. Anyone who had the guts to make Viognier in Cahors I had to meet. It ended up being a night I will not forget, filled with deep conversations as Alain was a man who liked to cut through the BS and get to the heart of the matter, and the people he surrounded himself with were real, thoughtful and approachable. And so I knew that I wanted to be a part of this celebration as I admired the man. It was also a great opportunity to get to know more about the friendship he had with Michel Rolland, as well as meet the human being behind the “famous wine consultant” label who has seen more than his fair share of unfair caricature-like portrayals.
The Past Never Completely Leaves Us
The celebration dinner had around 20 people in attendance and included such luminaries of the wine world such as Kevin Zraly. As I was enjoying a bubbly aperitif while talking to Mike Colameco (a 45-year veteran of the restaurant industry and today is the host and producer for ‘Mike Colameco’s Real Food’ television show on PBS) about the importance of gratitude, an exchange of chance that clutched at my heart happened… Mike approached Kevin Zraly and said that many years ago he worked in the kitchen of Windows on the World restaurant, which was located on top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and as many of us know, was destroyed, along with many of Kevin’s former colleagues. From 1976 to 2001, Kevin Zraly was the wine director at that legendary restaurant that helped to shape the American wine scene as we know it today. After 9/11, he struggled with deep depression and left the wine world for a time. Thankfully for us, he came back and devoted most of his time to teaching and inspiring others about wine, while he himself was renewed by learning and being inspired by others… still to this day finding excitement in the various ways people communicate about wine. It was a special moment that harkened to a time that none of us will forget, remembering those that will never be forgotten, and the knowledge that it is always important to never get stuck in one place, to keep moving towards the next unknown that will ignite our fire in different ways.
Before we started dinner, Alain introduced himself saying, “I am Alain Perrin and I am the owner of Château Lagrézette and that is all I am. The hero is Michel.” Alain spoke a little bit about the history of Château Lagrézette, it being one of the oldest wineries in France, going back to the 15th century with Malbec vines planted. Alain said he possessed a document that suggests that the first vintage of Château Lagrézette was in 1503, and although there were other artifacts found in the château that link it to being around since the 13th or 14th century, the oldest official document Alain could find that points to the winemaking of Château Lagrézette was the aforementioned.
The Day the Police Came
Despite Alain being a man who has probably seen it all, he is still filled with great enthusiasm and Château Lagrézette seems to offer an endless number of revelations to encourage his curiosity even more, as every nook and corner offer a new ancient object that has a story that Alain seeks out. He proudly publicly proclaims that his estate has been making wine “since 1503”, which he knew would ruffle some feathers as he is a relatively new winery owner. “One day,” Alain said, “the full brigade of the wine police (around 5 or 6) came to my door and I knew why they were coming.” The brigade told Alain that there was a complaint of him committing false advertising by saying that Château Lagrézette has been making wine since 1503. So Alain asked the head of the brigade, “Do you read old French?” As the man was perplexed by his question, Alain proceeded to show him the official document that said Château Lagrézette had indeed been making wine since 1503. “The man became white,” Alain said with a warm and playful laugh, and he told the officer, “Next time Mr. So and So complains, call me first.”
Alain and Michel
It was wonderful to witness the interplay between Alain and Michel, long-time friends and partners in resurrecting Château Lagrézette, both amazed at how this historic estate, tucked away 31 miles (50 kilometers) north of Cahors, has given them more surprises in its diversity of soil that creates Malbec wines that express different terroirs, as well as some sections being ideal for premium Viognier wine which is only traditionally seen in Northern Rhône, France. One of the things that was so refreshing about Michel Rolland was his excitement to find the new frontier of wine, joking that he would love to go in one of Elon Musk’s shuttles to plant vines on a new planet, so he could experience and learn something completely new; Château Lagrézette was, in a way, a new frontier for a man born and raised around 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Cahors in Pomerol, Bordeaux… a legendary wine commune now, but back when Michel was young, it was quite an unknown wine appellation. He has been completely taken aback by the sophisticatedly complex wines that each parcel is capable of and while he never really thought that he would be making Viognier, when he had seen the results from particular plots of Château Lagrézette, it made him a fan of this variety. It was thrilling to be around two men who have lived a pretty full life be more excited by the prospects of the future than they have ever been.
“Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.” –Anonymous
Lack of curiosity can smother us in ignorance, such as the little misunderstanding in regards to Château Lagrézette’s rightful place as one of France’s oldest wineries, and in a more detrimental way, can keep segments of society from ever seeing an argument from another’s point of view. Encouraging curiosity can keep the glimmer in the eyes of one of the world’s most famous and prolific wine consultants, and can show someone a way to go on when their whole world has literally come crashing down.
***Some contribute the quote “Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own” to James Cameron but others question whether he was the originator of this quote.
Château Lagrézette Wines Tasted on September 27th, 2018
–2015 Le Pigeonnier Blanc: 100% Viognier. Intoxicating on the nose with clove and rose oil with juicy peach flavors on the rich palate with smoky minerality on the expressive finish.
The Le Pigeonnier Viognier comes from a 2.5 acre (1 hectare) single vineyard within the 49 acre (20 hectare) Rocamadouor vineyard. Vines are 14 years of age and the yields are low at 25 hectoliters per hectare. The vineyard soil is alternating layers of dense chalk and a soft, permeable clay encrusted with marine fossils (Oestra Virgula). This wine was aged for 9 months in 40% new French oak and 60% in 2 year old French oak.
–2012 Paragon Massaut: 100% Malbec. Rich, sweet blueberry fruit with notes of violets and crumbly earth interlaced with the decadent fruit. A full bodied wine that had an elegant shape with firm yet polished tannins.
This 2012 Paragon comes from the Landiech vineyard – from 5 year old vines on the 3rd terrace; yields are extremely low at 25 hectoliters per hectare from gravelly soil. The wine was aged in new French oak barrels for 20 months.
-2015 Mon Vin: 100% Malbec. An outstanding wine that had layers of complexity with cocoa dust and a hint of crème brûlée with forest floor, that had plenty of lush blackberry fruit… generous yet profound, rich yet dignified, and powerful yet nurturing, finished with an elegant decadence.
The vines for the Mon Vin come from a miniscule plot of clay and gravel in their Caillac vineyard that are 35 years in age; extremely low yields ranging between 15 to 20 hectoliters per hectare. This wine was aged for 30 months in 100% new French oak barrels: alcoholic fermentation was conducted in 500-liter new oak barrels, then aged in 225-liter new French oak barrels for 30 months.
Mon Vin was a wine made in secrecy from Alain by Michel Rolland and Alain’s winemaker Claude Boudamani that would represent his intrinsic qualities that nourishes and firmly supports those around him. Michel decided on a unique bottle for this special wine but could not come up with a name, so when they told Alain about the wine made in secret and that it was supposed to be a wine that represented Alain himself… well, of course this revelation surprised Alain, who started to ask, “Mon Vin?” and so they decided that that would be the name.
-1998 Le Pigonnier: 100% Malbec. This wine certainly made wonderful old bones with chiseled tannins and fresh acidity that was balanced by flavors of cardamom poached plums and baking spice that had lots of old world charm on the finish with a note of dusty earth.
The 1997 was the first vintage of Le Pigeonnier Malbec, with Michel Rolland creating this wine with Alain Dominique Perrin. Michel recognized the distinctiveness of the soils and location of the vines that surrounded “le Pigeonnier”, a dovecote that is a structure that housed pigeons or doves, built in the 1600s. The Pigeonnier is a 6.7 acre (2.7 hectare) single vineyard adjacent to their Caillac vineyard near the 3rd terrace.
The 1998 Le Pigeonnier Malbec was the first vintage of this wine to be vinified in a wooden tank. The yield was extremely low at 15 hectoliters per hectare. Grapes were harvested and destemmed by hand. The wine was aged 30 months in 100% new French oak from the Saury cooperage that has a great reputation making wide grain wood barrels that give soft tannins, respecting the wine’s fruit characteristic.
–2015 Merveille de Lilas, Noble Rot Sweet Wine: 100% Viognier. A sweet wine that was absolutely delicious and a rare treat with aromas of peach cobbler, baking spice and mandarin orange peel, with only a hint of enticing perfume on the finish. It has a viscous body that offered a bright acidity at the end.
Merveille de Lilas is sourced from the oldest vines of the Rocamadour vineyard (limestone and clay soils) on Alain’s estate (14 years old). The dry days and humid nights allowed for the development of Botrytis (noble rot that concentrates the flavors and sugars) during September 2015; harvested the following October, the wine spent 12 months in new French oak.
Around 11pm on October 8th, 2017, Pierre Birebent was abruptly woken up from a deep sleep by his daughter saying that his phone had been ringing several times… in his half-dazed state, Pierre looked at his phone and saw messages that said there was a fire… he quickly woke up and immediately jumped in his truck and started driving down the road with a fierce intensity envisioning the worst case scenario as panic furiously pumped through his veins and heart.
Pierre is the winemaker and vineyard manager for Signorello Estate and the messages on his phone were left by the owner of the estate, Ray Signorello Jr., who was in Canada at the time. Pierre was telling us this story on November 11th, just a little over a month after it happened, at the Wine Bloggers Conference taking place in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, California. The conference had been planned for over a year, but when one of the worst periods of California wildfires (from October 8th until the 30th of October) hit a significant part of wine country (according to Cal Fire: over 245,000 acres were burned, 100,000 people were forced to evacuate, estimated 8,900 structures destroyed, and 43 lives lost), many of us planning on attending the conference thought it would be cancelled. But word got back from the various wine participating counties that they needed us to come to the conference and talk about their wines, their tourism (most of the tourist sections were untouched) and to inspire people around the US to support them.
From my perspective, I had overwhelming anxiety that I felt like I needed to go out to Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, (4,658 homes were destroyed in the wildfires) as soon as possible… I didn’t know how I could help out, but as I saw all the people I knew in the wine industry in California talk about the merciless infernos coming and going, swiftly changing direction, many having to evacuate and re-evacuate many times, some losing everything, watching it all play out on Facebook while the national news barely talked about it, I felt like I needed to be there and be prepared to do whatever they needed me to do. It was the same feeling I had living in downtown Manhattan during 9/11. I did not want to flee, my overwhelming pain made me want me to stay and find some semblance of grounding and peace by being of some use in my home of New York City… of course it took many years to find our grounding as a city.
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate
Pierre is no stranger to devastating events that can alter the rest of a person’s life. Before coming to Napa, he lived with his family, sixth-generation vintners, in Algeria. But when he was only 2 years old, his mother fled with him to Spain when the Algerian War broke out. Pierre’s father, Paul, stayed behind to look after their vineyards until one day he and a worker were attacked; Paul escaped but the worker who had warned him of the attack from the distance never made it out alive. Then the Birebents picked up the pieces of their lives and were able to pool their resources to buy undeveloped land in Corsica; after they built roads and prepped the land for vineyards they were able to rebuild a family winery and legacy for future generations. Pierre, who knew that he would not have much free time after he took on the responsibility of his family farm in Corsica, decided to spend his youth studying at the Montpellier University in France and working in Napa to gain more knowledge and experience to bring his family’s wines to the next level of quality.
Unfortunately, tragedy would hit his family again in Corsica when Pierre’s father, Paul, was attacked by people in masks and bound with rope with his vineyard crew, as his house, his winery and farm equipment were burned in front of him. The toxic emotion of envy had eaten away at Corsican locals who turned to terrorism to take out their rage on those who were successful and not considered real Corsicans. Everyone escaped with their lives but Pierre, who was in Napa at the time, decided to stay in Napa Valley as there was no future with his family winery; he eventually settled at Signorello Estate and lives in St Helena with his wife, Nathalie, and his children, Paul and Isabelle; Pierre’s parents retired to the Riviera.
There was Pierre, at the Wine Bloggers Conference, reliving another traumatic event in his life that he hadn’t yet even been given a chance to process. When Pierre arrived at Signorello that night, he saw that there were only a few bushes, a garden and trees on fire so he was hopeful that he could put out the fires himself with a hose that he grabbed. One of his guys was there to assist him with extinguishing the fire with another hose but before they knew it, the fire had jumped to the roof assisted by the high winds. Pierre gave his worker a damp handkerchief to hold over his nose and mouth while Pierre held his t-shirt over his own to combat the brutal smoke that blew in their faces. They stood there and fought the fire as best they could but within 45 minutes, it had consumed the entire building. By that point the police had arrived and forced Pierre and his worker to leave; once the police left, Pierre went back towards the inferno to try to put it out… he tried 3 different times but he had gotten to the point where he was gagging from the black smoke and his assistant physically grabbed him yelling, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!!!”
Pierre was able to make it to his crush pad and stainless steel tanks that were in the midst of fermenting his grapes – there was a mesh top above the tank to give it shade and he hosed them both down, spending 15 minutes soaking the mesh top. It finally got to the point where he had to get back a few hundreds yards away (so the smoke didn’t kill him) and in Pierre’s words he just, “watched what happened”. Pierre’s head slumped down and his voice broke as it lowered into his gut as he sat there on the panel struggling against his intense emotions to get the words out. Pierre then said that he called the owner who was in Canada so he could let him know what was going on “and that was it”… a profound silence hit the room as Pierre took a few breaths. It took 3 days before he was able to visit the property again since there was a police blockade; the vineyards and cellar were untouched, the wine which was tested (by a lab) was not affected by smoke taint, but their main building, tasting room and offices had burnt to the ground.
Good & Bad of Wine
I remembering sitting there, as close as I could to the panelists, each one taking their turn to talk about their own personal experience as Pierre did… there were two sessions back to back, and since I had taken non-stop back to back sessions, I needed to go up to my hotel room to get some work done and call my husband. The stories were heavily weighing on me, and although I have already written a couple of posts about the conference since that time, it has taken me this long to write this post, the most important one, in my opinion, as I was waiting to see how it worked out for Pierre and Signorello.
Wine has been a big part of my life, and I love it deeply because it is intertwined with the human condition, but there are sides of it I can’t stand, such as some people’s obsession of the superficial. As I came back down from my hotel room after getting some work done and talking to my love, still processing the trauma that so many people had shared during the last two sessions, I had a run in with another attendee of the conference as I walked through the front lobby. This man asked me where I had been and, since I had already had a previous conversation with this acquaintance about having to go to my room to work, I replied, “I told you, I needed to get some work done.” Well, at that point, he started to say that I was probably off drinking some fancy wines in one of the off-schedule parties because I seemed like the type of person who would do that and then proceeded to give me a hard time for not hanging out to go drinking with him… I’ll remind you, again, this is someone I barely knew.
Funnily enough, I have never been to one of those parties in the hotel rooms, not that I have anything against them, but I was there for the sessions and the one-on-one heart to heart talks I have with people who are kind enough to share their journeys with me. That man I barely knew got ugly with me and I felt like I was verbally punched in the gut… don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of good at the conference, but then there is the bad because it is all part of the world of wine… Looking back, it was interesting how in such a short time of a few hours, I had experienced the extremes of the wine world watching some people coming together as a community during traumatic events and others becoming petty in their narcissistic desires, even in the face of others losing everything.
We Need to Believe
I have recently read that Signorello Estate opened a modular-unit tasting room so they could resume giving wine tastings to visitors. The owner, Ray Signorello Jr., made a commitment to rebuild 3 days after Signorello burned down, but at the time, it still seemed to those of us on the outside that there was a question mark if they would be able to continue… but luckily, despite being given some fierce blows, they have come back with Pierre at the helm. California is still getting some tough hits by wildfires; the only way they can keep continuing, keeping an important part of American wine culture alive, is if those of us who do believe in them support them with our purchases, with our visits, and with our deep compassion and empathy for the people who are struggling to keep the legacy of great California wines alive. As much as there were times when I wanted to walk away from the wine world because of nasty comments from people who barely knew me, or narcissism that makes one not care that a bunch of people right in front of them just lost their homes and means to support themselves, I sometimes run into a beautiful person that makes me believe that there is still lots of humanity and love in the wine world… and that is all we need, to have someone make us believe when we are losing hope.