Wine blog by Elaine Chukan Brown. Elaine serves as the American Specialist for JancisRobinson.com, a contributing writer with Wine & Spirits Magazine and a columnist at Wine Business Monthly. Her work has been featured in World of Fine Wine, MensHealth.com, San Francisco Magazine, Alquimie and Noble Rot, among others.
Elaine Chukan Brown reports on the annual Napa Valley Premiere – a preview of Napa’s latest vintage – where buyers bid on wines made specially for the auction
WORDS BY ELAINE CHUKAN BROWN
The crowd erupted into cheers. Winemaker Aaron Pott stood on stage and grabbed the microphone. “Are you ready?” he yelled. “Let’s get it on!” More than 1200 wine trade professionals – winemakers, sales people, buyers, and journalists – filled the upstairs hall of Greystone, home to the Culinary Institute of America and one of Napa Valley’s most venerated historic buildings. Dance music burst through the speakers and the crowd cheered wildly. The annual Napa Valley Premiere auction, with Pott as this year’s honorary chairman, had officially begun.
Over the next four hours 185 auction lots were sold to raise almost $3.7 million “to help the Napa Valley Vintners and their ongoing effort to promote, protect, and enhance” California’s most renowned wine region.
Napa Valley Premiere is a preview of Napa’s latest vintage. It’s a model originated by Bordeaux and brought to a level of indulgent celebration only possible in California. The day comes with surprise musical interludes, and snack breaks of artisanal foods made in the region.
Unlike Bordeaux, buyers at Premiere bid on unique wines made specially for the auction. Buyers range from retail giants looking to score coveted brands at ….
Every year, the International Wine & Spirits Competition, one of the most prestigious wine judging groups in the world, requests nominations for their prestigious Wine Communicator of the Year award. Writers, speakers, educators, and broadcasters from all over the world are considered and then a shortlist of who they deem the top five are selected based on their contributions in wine for the previous year. The most respected wine communicators in the world have won over the last two decades. I am deeply honored, grateful, and a bit overwhelmed to announce I have been named as one of the top five based on both my writing and speaking/seminar work. Enormous thanks to the International Wine & Spirits Competition for the recognition. Thank you too to those who nominated me. I am so grateful.
Elaine was treated to the unique luxury of tasting every vintage of Cathy Corison’s very special single-vineyard Cabernet. Cathy herself was due to taste them the next day but Elaine was the first commentator ever to do so.
One of Napa Valley’s most celebrated and respected winemakers, Cathy Corison, launched her eponymous winery in 1987 with a single wine – Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine reflected Corison’s commitment to elegance and restraint, a style that would soon become uncommon in her region as the power wines of the 1990s and early 2000s took over. However, even as trends changed, Corison maintained course, focusing solely on wine made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards planted in the well-drained, gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench in what has since been named the St Helena AVA.
The St Helena AVA constitutes a particularly distinctive portion of the Napa Valley in that temperatures throughout the area are high enough during the day to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon adequately to make single-varietal wines of distinction. At the same time, in most vintages night-time temperatures drop below vine respiration levels, thus preserving the potential for freshness and acidity in the wine.
Famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff called the gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench on Napa Valley’s western side ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. All Corison Cabernet vineyards, as well as the winery pictured below, are planted ….
photo by Fran CollinFrom Lifetime Achievement Award to a brand new enterprise.
On Wednesday it was announced that Bob Lindquist, one of California’s most respected winemakers, will no longer be making Qupé wines, and as of 1 March he will no longer be involved with the winery. Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) has taken sole ownership of Qupé and is moving its winemaking from Santa Maria to their newly purchased Laetitia winery. Laetitia is located in San Luis Obispo County, and together the two winery purchases – Qupé and Laetitia – represent VWE’s first expansion into the Central Coast. Previously VWE was focused entirely in the North Coast making brands such as B R Cohn, Layer Cake, and the cheekily named Game of Thrones wines.
Lindquist and his wife Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist will instead be launching a new project, Lindquist Family wines. The new winery will be focused on Rhône varieties, as well as Chardonnay, much as the original Qupé did under Lindquist’s leadership. Lindquist’s plan for his new winery, however, is to remain small. ‘I only want one partner this time, and that’s my wife, Louisa,’ he says. The couple will also continue making Verdad, a small-production label focused on Spanish varieties.
All Verdad and Lindquist Family wines will continue to be made in the winery tucked into the back of Bien Nacido vineyard that Lindquist and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Clendenen Family wines have shared for decades (see Au Bon Climat – lunch and more). The first Lindquist Family wine, a 2017 Grenache from the Sawyer-Lindquist vineyard (a biodynamically farmed site in the Edna Valley), will be released later this spring after being bottled in April.
Partial ownership of Qupé was originally sold five years ago as part of a long-term succession plan. Terroir Wine Fund founder Charles Banks approached Lindquist with an interest in helping to expand production of some of ….
Drinking Wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre
It’s a rare thing to find a friend with whom you can stand in the middle of a huge group of people and passionately argue (in total agreement with each other but arguing nonetheless, you know what I mean) about the importance of sci-fi as part of the mechanism for building a culture’s ethical understanding and then go straight into just as passionately discussing wines from all over the world. That level of curiosity and appreciation is a valuable gift to find in anyone. At the end of this week I fly to Texas to see a bunch of friends for work. It is one of my favorite trips of the year largely because there are more people in this group that share that innate, impassioned curiosity for all sorts of subjects in the world, as well as genuine interest in all aspects of wine. In tribute to them, and most especially to the several of whom I have honest to god love-yell argued passionately about the merits of Star Trek (and the recent horrors of Infinity War), I am re-publishing this turn-back Tuesday blog post that I originally wrote and published in April 2013. It was inspired by my friend, Annemarie, who shares my deep abiding love of Star Trek, and whom I love very much even if she doesn’t give a lick about wine.
Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre
climate meter at Chateau La Barre Vineyards
It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.
My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.
His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.
Meeting the Picards
inspecting the vines with Jean-Luc Picard
Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.
Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.
Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.
We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.
Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.
Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.
Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.
Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties
Jean-Luc Picard standing in his Eline Vineyard
Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.
Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant, large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.
During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.
Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.
With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The process depended on intensive plant selection to identify which of the new off spring matched the characteristics of the historic varieties. Grape seeds do not reproduce the exact same match as the cultivar from which they originated, but instead a range of possible varieties. With some genetic work, ampelographic research, and a bit of radiographic selection at germination Picard’s work was successful. With the new plants grown from the ancient seeds he was able to restart sections of his vineyard growing Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.
Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.
I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.
Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.
Post-edit: Since the publication of the original post Picard shared further information on his seed recovery efforts. That additional information has been added to this re-publication of the article.
Copyright 2019 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.
Photo from Texsom IWATexsom International Wine Awards (Texsom IWA) has extended its submission deadline until February 10. Entries can now be registered by Feb 10 through the Texsom IWA website. Entered wines must be shipped and received at Texsom IWA by Feb 12. The submission fee during this period is $105. The deadline was extended due to the inconveniences of the recent government shut down as well as unusually cold weather across the United States in January. Late expedited entries can be submitted and received to Texsom IWA by February 14 for a fee of $145.
Texsom IWA has been recognized as one of the most important wine competitions in the United States, with uniquely high consistency in determining quality among wines. In a study reported in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2017, Texsom IWA was considered the most selective of wine competitions examined. A smaller proportion of gold medals were awarded at Texsom IWA than other competitions, but those awarded were considered a stronger arbiter of high quality. The study also showed, that the evaluation procedures followed at Texsom IWA were more rigorous than other competitions.
Co-founder and director, James Tidwell MS, credits both the caliber and camaraderie of judges, as well as the rigorous verification process for wines entered as helping to set Texsom IWA apart.
“The goal at Texsom IWA is to present the right wine, in the right place, at the right time, to the right person, and in the best possible condition,” says Tidwell. The caliber of judges for Texsom IWA surpasses that seen from any other US-based competition. Sixty to seventy judges are selected each year from countries around the world, reflecting ….
To continue reading this article, head on over to Wine Business Monthly where the article appears free for all to read. Here’s the direct link.
Photo by Photographer Robert HolmesThe California Wine Institute interviewed me this month about how California’s efforts around Sustainability compare to other such programs worldwide. They also wanted to hear more about how such sustainability efforts showed up in the Masters of Wine tour that traveled the state late last year. They published part of the interview in brief this morning. To read the interview, you can find it here: https://us10.campaign-archive.com/?u=2cff3f94229ec1de06fa0e504&id=8d595e3e8b
illustration from 2011 when I was first getting started in wineI am riddled with self-doubt. By now it’s developed its own personality. I imagine it an ethereal presence, more aura than substance, but it does have a voice. It speaks in whispers. When other people describe me, they often say I am confident, but inside that doubt is whispering.
When I work the whispers disappear. It’s a paradox, it seems, to lose the voices while doing the very thing the voices talk to me about. But there it is. Work for me is a kind of peacefulness. There, I live in a space of simple joy. Joy for me is a kind of surrender to the action.
Much of my time, I travel the world tasting wine and interviewing winemakers, walking vineyards and listening to those who farm them. There is a moment when something in these interviews shifts – the other person begins to share more freely and my self-doubt falls away. It is a moment when a level of rapport between the two of us clicks on, and how they share their work feels like not just a glimpse at the work they do but them. In those moments the whispers stop, as if even the self-doubt is fascinated by whoever I am there to see.
Elsewhere in my work I also spend time speaking or leading seminars, and writing but it is when listening to people I love my work best. When listening what I am doing seems to have little to do with me. Instead, by being fully present, absorbed in the other person – the insight they are sharing, the way their mannerisms and ways of speaking may reveal their inner world – my life becomes a mechanism for witnessing and absorbing them.
The joy of listening remains long after as I drive away. There is such intimacy in sharing that individualized space with whomever I am interviewing, of stepping into the world they are offering me, that much of me for long after feels stimulated and fulfilled. Excited by what I’ve gotten to witness. It’s an experience where in the joy afterwards I feel surrendered to some grander plan, as if the main reason I live this life is for these moments between me and one other person when I am there listening.
illustration done in 2011 of my birthday wine that year, when I was first getting started in wineIt is later, when the joy calms, that it begins to appear otherwise, that self-doubt returns. It is difficult to translate those shared moments, so small in their scope, to a larger world, or to turn such work into income. Reflecting on that, my work begins to seem irrelevant. From the perspective of broader reach, it largely is. There is no way to commodify and sell the act of listening. Counselors, psychologists, I suppose are a sort of listening profession. They have found a way to sell the time they spend listening to people share their sorrows or confusion. Priests through the confessional have done something similar. They are not paid by confessors but by the Church. Beyond such examples, it seems silly to imagine listening as relevant work worth paying for.
In the 1970s, Studs Terkel proved an exception. Today, some podcasts do as well. But in 1974, Terkel’s collection of transcripts, Working, from conversations with people discussing their work across almost every profession and level of fame – movie actor to garbage man, famed writer to house wife – was a kind of revolution. The transcripts were inspired by the radio show Terkel had interviewing both regular and famous people. Working was not the first or the last in his series of books compiling such interviews but it was the first to become a best seller and focus entirely on working life. Before it he’d compiled interviews with jazz performers, with regular people about their life in Chicago, and a more historical text on surviving the Great Depression. Terkel spent most of his life gathering interviews and transcripts in this way. Over time, his vocation gave him insight into the values and choices of everyday people. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, Terkel offered the then-President elect advice based on Terkel’s own lifetime of listening. Listening had given him insight befitting of a President.
In my early twenties, I did two and a half years of professional actors’ training, primarily in Meisner Technique, though I also studied on camera acting, took a community college intro to acting class, and was a student actor for the same college’s directing class. I never had interest or the intention to be a professional actor and instead was trying to grapple with my own fears of being seen, and of speaking in public. It was there in the Meisner training I was introduced to Terkel’s work. In the second year of the program, we were asked to select from the collection Working to perform one of the transcripts as a monologue. I have no idea which one I selected. For me, the collection was far more fascinating as a sort of stained glass display of human life, each transcript a colored pane in the larger window. In truth, the extended study of acting did little to assuage my fears of being seen. I still feel skin crawling discomfort in getting attention. Instead, it shifted my perspective on both sides of the process – performing or speaking in front of others, and watching or listening to those that do. In either case, what I found through the training was an experience of great surrender, a way to give myself to the project at hand whether it is public speaking, or listening to others, to surrender even to discomfort and to move with it.
That sense of surrender is what I struggle to find in my moments of writing. The longer I have gone between writing sessions the more it feels like agony. Everything in me wants to avoid the work and the whispers feel more like screaming but instead of coming from some ethereal presence they feel like they come from the center of me. I rarely release actual sounds, though admit I sometimes do. Instead, it is as if I’ve learned to wrestle with myself, as if there really are two of me. And then eventually, if I keep at it long enough, the fatigue of wrestling gives way to surrender and I simply write. When I finish a piece, the relief is radiant and I move again into a similar joy I get from listening. It feels as if I’ve really accomplished something and witnessed a moment so intimate it is irreplaceable. By the time a piece is published, the joy has usually returned to self-doubt and I avoid thinking about it. If I let that shift to self-doubt hover too long I go back into a cycle of too much time between writing sessions and the process again becomes agony. It is from this experience I’ve learned the importance of wrestling. Agony is the doorway that can take me back to joy if I go ahead and wrestle through it. If I want to avoid wrestling, I can instead practice writing every day. But often, I don’t want to, and so I value wrestling.
illustration done in 2014 when I fulfilled my dream of drinking Salon by tasting every vintage made back to the 1970s side-by-sideMany writers I know describe a similar process of agony and retreat, of advance and exuberance. Then there are writers that seem to never have that experience. I think of them as journalists, invaluable hunters of facts and information. Even as they also reveal incredible insight into current events, and startling portrayals of human experience, somehow journalists seem guided more centrally by trust in their training than agony of the unknown.
For me, exploration of the unknown is what fascinates me about listening. It is in those moments, when two people have really found their rapport and speak with each other as people through their professions, rather than merely as two professionals doing their work, that that exploration begins. It is here that whoever is speaking seems to be discovering themselves and their work anew, even as they are sharing subjects they would seem to already know. The excitement of that discovery, or rather, of re-discovering the fascination we have with our chosen profession is what triggers my excitement for listening. It’s the same reason I like to listen to people re-tell stories of how they fell in love with their life partner or loved one. It’s like witnessing the spark of them falling in love all over again. Or, in interviews about work, the moment when new intimacy with the very thing the person has given most of their time to working on emerges. Besides the very subjects being discussed, what fascinates me about these moments is how the person listening helped inspire them, even as from another angle it seems to have almost nothing to do with who is listening precisely because it is about the person speaking.
Listening in this way becomes a sort of paradox – simultaneously creative and yet invisible, a profound intimacy that disappears in a moment, the moment in which the person listening becomes an irreplaceable audience rather than a simply exchangeable one. The particular listener is irreplaceable because it is their rapport with the speaker that helped the speaker re-discover their own story in just that way. And then the moment passes. The intimacy shared closes and the two people go on again about their lives.
If the self-doubt I suffer made me insecure – self-doubt and insecurity are importantly not the same – here is where I would bring in some kind of defensiveness. I could claim the moment never really disappears, that the intimacy matters, and becomes infused into whatever the person does afterwards, that they somehow imagine their lives differently after the experience, and that makes the listening important. In some cases, something like that might be true. In other cases it is simply not. Avoiding the trap of defensiveness matters. It won’t make the experience any more or less important than it happens to be anyway. And without it the self-doubt can offer a subtle lesson.
Self-doubt serves me partly because it is right. What I do is irrelevant from a large-scale perspective even as it also fascinates me for its specific moments. But it also serves me because my intimacy with self-doubt makes me, on the other side, acutely aware of those moments when I have surrendered to the action and helped foster something new.
Copyright 2019 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Elaine Chukan Brown when we were both invited to a harvest lunch at Jordan Winery. This traditional feast, orchestrated by the lovely – and tireless – Lisa Mattson, brought me in contact with someone who inspired me immediately by the fact that she was a successful writer who had raised her college-age daughter, Rachel, on her own and had a grace and intelligence that I got to experience more intimately after being asked to write about her.
Brown is a native Alaskan… really and truly a native with parents from two different Alaskan tribes. She grew up in a fishing family and has been on the water since the age of nine, starting her own salmon fishing operation in her teens. Brown has always worked with a dedication that puts those of us who follow a traditional path to shame. She fished the season tirelessly, sleeping very little, and experiencing the highs and lows of what nature delivers. If the season was June 1stthrough August 15th, Brown would keep fishing after the crew left picking up the late season catch. “I am not necessarily driven,” she says. “I do what’s in front of me.”
As one gets to know Brown and follows her unconventional life to where it has led her now – to the top of the wine writing heap – it becomes evident that this simple belief, or really practice, has been the reason her life has been an adventure. Not an adventure of extreme sports or pushing the limits, but an adventure of exploration. She chooses a path and excels, then may choose another path and give that avenue her full attention.
Having a successful fishing operation, Brown chose to attend college a bit later, but when she did, she did it with gusto. Quickly ripping through college at Northern Arizona University, then earning a McGill University ….
I am so grateful. The Wine Industry Network has selected me as one of their nine Wine’s Most Inspiring People for 2019. The rest of the article about it by fellow writer Barbara Barrielle appears their on the WIN website. Thank you very much to everyone at the Wine Industry Network, and to Barbara for her thoughtful article. I am deeply touched, and so grateful for the recognition, and for the opportunity to work in such a fantastic industry with so many incredible people as we have in wine.
Maynard James Keenan handed me my second espresso. To meet, I woke before dawn and drove over two hours across the Arizona desert. The town where he lives is remote.
We met in his Caduceus wine shop and tasting room at the top of the hill in Jerome to walk vineyards throughout the region. Mornings, the tasting room also serves the best espresso in town and, indeed, it’s among the best I’ve had anywhere.
Keenan explained that, when his favorite local coffee shop went out of business, he decided to buy the machine and beans to serve his own. It guaranteed he’d have a place to hang out in the mornings, and other locals would still get the coffee.
Keenan farms vineyards throughout the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona, as well as a heritage site in Willcox – the Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard – in the Southwestern part of the state. The vineyards serve as the basis for Caduceus and its sister winery, Merkin, and provide fruit for a few other top producers.
Keenan is better known, however, as the lead singer for the internationally celebrated rock bands Tool, Puscifer, and A Perfect Circle. The following for Tool is so rampant that, later in the day, we had to leave a local wine bar earlier than expected when a fan wouldn’t stop pestering.
The fanaticism doesn’t end there. A few years later, Keenan and I attended an Arizona wine tasting together in Napa, California. When news came out about the event, a winemaker friend spent the evening berating me in text for not inviting her to meet him. Tool, she told me, changed her life.
While Keenan’s reputation in music precedes him, people fail to recognize the quality possible for Arizona wine. In a wine world that fetishizes unicorn wine, oddball varieties and undiscovered regions, people still imagine Arizona as only a desert.
They also don’t realize that, unlike other celebrities who just attach their name to winery brands, Keenan actually makes his own wine. Spend time talking with him about wine, and his seriousness is obvious.
Now with more than 15 years experience growing in the region, Keenan has focused on continuously pursuing quality farming for the sake of quality wine. His efforts have been inspired partially by pioneers in the industry who farmed in Arizona first. Al Buhl, whose original vineyard Keenan now owns, first planted malvasia, discovering one of the state’s hallmark varieties. Today it’s one of Keenan’s favorite grapes, planted in steep, sloped terraces beside his home.
Other small production vintners who labor in the effective obscurity of Arizona wine also inspire Keenan. Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wine Works are among the oldest continuously producing wineries in the state. Both started vineyards in the first half of the 1990s. Their efforts have helped determine which varieties can genuinely succeed in the unique growing conditions of a high elevation desert. More recently, Sand-Reckoner has helped bring attention to the state through several acclaimed wines.
Though Keenan has been able to do the most to promote Arizona wine internationally – he often plans his tour schedule to line up with potential wine visits – he recognizes others were making wine first.
These four wineries have also recently banded together. Kent and Lisa Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wine Works, and Rob and Sarah Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner, along with Keenan and his wife Jennifer, founded the Arizona Vignerons Alliance. It’s dedicated to securing the quality and long-term reputation of the region’s wines by certifying those made with Arizona-grown fruit (rather than juice trucked in from neighboring states). The alliance has also helped shine a light on other small producers making quality wine.
Keenan and I begin to drive. Our day will include walks through Verde Valley vineyards, from the lowest to highest elevation. Here, Keenan farms a collection of smaller sites, each devoted to a mix of mainly Italian and Spanish varieties. Sangiovese and tempranillo in particular do well.
Though Arizona is known for heat, cold is the greater challenge in the vineyards. In viticulture, Arizona’s spring frost and fall freeze are among the biggest concerns. One of Keenan’s own vineyards was replanted four times in just over ten years. The joke is that with every big freeze he has to go back on tour to afford the new vineyard. Yet, with each replanting, they’ve improved the site, choosing smarter cultivars, honing the training methods, and adjusting the landscape to protect from freeze.
At the same time, the cold also offers advantages. Arizona hosts the second largest diurnal shift of any growing region on the planet. That is due partly to its incredibly high elevation. In the Verde Valley, vineyards begin around 3,800 feet and reach as high as 5,000 feet (1524 meters). The area includes the lowest elevation vineyards in the state, but also, until recently, the highest.
Near Willcox, newer sites are climbing into the foothills of the Chupacabra Highlands and successfully growing vines around 5,300 feet (1,615 m). Sites of Sonoita hover a little below 5,000 feet. As a result, throughout Arizona, even on days that reach over 100 degrees Farenheit (38 Celsius), nights can fall below 50 (10C), cool enough to slow vine respiration and thus also retain ample acidity. At its best, that means freshness for wine.
Land vs Water
Keenan’s arrival in the Verde Valley coincides with the start of modern vineyards in the area. It’s the youngest growing region in the state. He began planting his Judith block in Jerome in the early 2000s, only a few years after the first vines went into the region.
Modern vineyards were first established in Arizona in the early 1970s, southeast of Tucson near the town of Sonoita. Within a decade, they had moved further east into Willcox as well. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that people began planting vines further north.
As its name “green valley” suggests, the Verde Valley has plenty of water thanks to one of the state’s largest year-round waterways, the Verde River. Flowing between the dramatic red rocks of Sedona to the northeast and the rugged escarpment of the Black Hills to the south, the Verde Valley defies the desert stereotype. The rich vegetation of the river’s riparian zone includes plants as varied as walnut and sycamore trees, box elder, cattails, wild buckwheat, and desert sage. Vineyards here can even be dry farmed.
But where the Verde Valley has water, its land is limited. Thanks to the health of the river, sections of land are protected for wildlife conservation, while others are reserved for public recreation. The water has also meant its history of agriculture.
Ranchers have owned most of the Verde Valley for generations. For older landowners, the advent of wine growing seems an unwelcome upstart. Most are uninterested in the economic advantages of a swiftly growing wine country. Their lives have rested in cattle. But as ranchers age, they are faced with land to be split among adult children with differing motivations.
As wine country in the Verde Valley has grown, so have other cultural opportunities such as an improved food scene, tasting rooms, and wine bars that give locals a place to relax after work, as well as art shows, farmers markets and music events.
Younger generations have begun taking interest, and it’s changing the local economy. In the last five years alone, Cottonwood, in the heart of the Verde Valley, has gone from virtual ghost town to epicenter of food and wine. Halfway up the main street, Keenan’s Merkin Osteria includes an Arizona-only menu complete with produce from Keenan’s own gardens and pasta made onsite from the state’s own grain. The project is designed to support other local farmers and promote the state’s unheralded crops while also pouring Keenan’s wines.
Interest in wine has proved substantial enough that the area now hosts a two-year viticulture and enology degree through Yavapai College. The first graduates of the program have begun launching their own wine brands. To support the efforts, Keenan donated a vineyard for students to farm, and also opened the region’s first co-op where winemakers share equipment.
Success has some downsides, however. The strength of the region’s cultural interests has also meant increased land prices. Those boutique winemakers just out of their two-year degree are unlikely to afford vineyard land or their own winery space in the Verde Valley. But changes in potential land use of the Verde Valley could prove essential to the long-term health of Arizona wine. The state’s other two growing regions are thirsty for water.
Today, vineyards grow mainly in Willcox. Land remains affordable there, and the growing conditions in the area readily support vines. It is also home to more small wineries, and the quality of the region has attracted uniquely experienced winemakers.
After making a name for himself in Oregon, Dick Erath established vineyards in Willcox, bringing attention to the vineyard potential of Arizona. He also established the winery Dos Cabezas before selling it to Todd and Kelly Bostock. The Bostocks also farm land in Sonoita.
More recently, after earning his master’s in viticulture and oenology in Adelaide, Rob Hammelman and his wife Sarah moved to Willcox. They simply liked the area, but more importantly they were also able to afford a house on plantable acres to launch their bootstrap winery, Sand-Reckoner.
Not far from Sand-Reckoner’s home vineyards, the Pierce family owns and farms their Rolling View Vineyard, which provides fruit for two family-owned brands, Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars. Son Michael Pierce also serves as the director of enology for the two-year program in the Verde Valley.
The success of these wineries has depended at least partially on land prices and availability. None of them could have started in the Verde Valley. Even so, the long-term growth of Willcox hits a limit when the region runs out of water.
Sonoita too has a limit on water, but its soils also slow growing potential. Uniquely high bicarbonate levels give wine the same palate-squeezing tension and innate concentration found in sites planted to limestone. But, like limestone, too much means vines are imbalanced, unable to capture enough of their other mineral needs.
In places that work, the spindly power and mouthwatering character of the wines is impressive. As a result, sites in Sonoita tend to be managed as a sort of ongoing experiment, looking for just the right spot and just the right planting. Vineyards are often established to a field blend-style melange of varieties. It provides both insurance against vintage variation and the chance to see what works.
Many of the best wines of the region too, from producers like Dos Cabezas Wine Works and Callaghan, come from the co-fermented mix of varieties grown in these sites. The approach offers texture and balance to the concentration and intensity innate to the region.
Back in Jerome
After a full day of driving the Verde Valley, Keenan and I finish back in Jerome, tasting vintage verticals of his hallmark wines. The most striking for me comes from his Judith block. It’s the highest elevation site in the Verde Valley, set on the side of what locals call Cleopatra Hill in a series of steep-sloped terraces at 5,000 feet. Earlier that morning, we’d started the day walking the Judith block just after finishing our espresso.
There, when we step into the vines, the morning light across the valley glows at a low angle, rising over the Black Hills behind us. The hills cut the light into fingers reaching across the Verde Valley, emblazoning the red rocks on the other side of the river. We step carefully from terrace to terrace. Everywhere there are chalky white stones. As we walk, the stones release a faint, powdery chalk smell, all mixed through with chaparral. I am struck by it. This feels like one of the most iconic sites I have seen anywhere, as if it was simply made to grow wine. Yet, here we are in Arizona.
At the end of the day, when we return to taste the wines, there it is again. I recognize the Judith block in its smells. With every vintage and variety grown in those soils, I can smell powdery chalk mixed through with chaparral, the smell of the desert, the scent of growing Arizona wine.
Publisher’s Note: TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2017 demonstrated the heights to which Arizona wines are rising and the engagement of which producers in marketing their wines to a wider audience. TEXSOM IWA received enough entries for Arizona to qualify as its own single state category (along with California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and last year’s addition Virginia). Nineteen wines from Arizona won medals under the stringent judging standards of the competition. – James Tidwell