How To Cool Yourself Off On A Hot Summer Day

June 29, 2019 2 comments

The heat is rising.

Photo by Quốc Bảo from Pexels

This is not a metaphor – the summer is here, the temperatures are pushing up to the “beyond comfort” level, and the question is real – how do you cool yourself off?

Of course, there are lots and lots of solutions – from very low-tech fans, powered by one’s own hand, to the battery operated misters, neck braces and more – but this is the wine blog, remember? Thus we will not be talking about any gadgets, neither low-tech nor high-tech. We are going to proceed with our simple, you can even call it simplistic, approach – “wine is the answer, what is the question?”

To tame down that heat, we are going to ask for the help of mountains, called the Dolomites, or Dolomiti in Italian. The Dolomites are the mountain range located in northern Italy; they are a part of the Italian Alps, and overall they are located in the Alto Adige region. The Dolomites are known for its striking beauty and intense contrasts. The whole area is considered the world’s treasure and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.

Alto Adige is one of my favorite Italian wine regions, especially when it comes to white wines. The mountain climate, soil, vineyard elevations – everything which we know as terroir, all take part in producing the wines of character. Thus when I was offered a couple of wines from the region for the review, I gladly said “yes, please” – with or without a summer, Alto Adige, Trento, and all of the sub-regions, such as Vigneti delle Dolomiti, always promise to surprise you, and generally, in a good way.

Terra Alpina wines tops

The history of Alois Lageder started in 1823, first as a wine merchant business in Bolzano. Next generations of Lageder family started acquiring vineyards and experimenting with making the wine, and in 1934, Alois Lageder III purchased wine estate in Alto Adige, which became the starting point of the modern period for Alois Lageder Estate. With attention to the quality becoming paramount since the 1970s, today Alois Lageder’s 125 acres of the family estate are farmed biodynamically. You can visit the winery’s website for more information – it is not only the information, you will also find some stunning photographs there.

In addition to producing more than three dozens of different wines, Alois Lageder is also involved in the number of special projects. One such project is called Terra Alpina and it is dedicated to the striking beauty of Dolomites, it is an attempt to convey that beauty in the liquid form – take a look at this picture:

Source: Terra Alpina by Alois Lageder website

The wines in the Terra Alpina project produced via the partnership with local grape growers and winemakers in the Vigneti delle Dolomiti area. Currently, there are two wines produced under the Terra Alpina label, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio – these were the wines I received for the tasting.

When the wines arrived, at first I even thought I got two bottles of the same wine – they looked very similar. After a few seconds, I figured out that this was not the case, and those were actually different wines. While the bottles looked similar on the outside, once I opened the wines, there was no question of similarity – the wines were beautifully and distinctly different, with Pinot Bianco strongly minerally-driven, and Pinot Grigio showing a perfectly noticeable, but the well-balanced amount of fruit – you can see my notes below.

Were these wines capable of delivering on the “cooling off” promise? Perfectly so. While different, both were fresh and bright, dropping a few degrees off a summer heat with every sip. The wines would be perfect on its own, but they would also play very well with food. And please make no mistake – while the wines offer a welcome relief to the summer heat, these are excellent, year-around, versatile wines, which offer a great value, and perfect for any day, and every day.

Terra Alpina wines with glasses

2018 Alois Lageder Terra Alpina Pinot Bianco Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT (12.5% ABV, $15)
Straw pale
Touch of sweet apples, lemon, minerality
Crisp but buttery, noticeable salinity, minerally driven, dry, refreshing, lemon, lemon finish.
7+/8-, very nice

2018 Alois Lageder Terra Alpina Pinot Grigio Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT (12.5% ABV, $16)
Light golden, a shade darker than Pinot Bianco
Intense, tropical fruit, guava, candied lemon, honeysuckle
Crisp, also a bit buttery and round, fresh lemon, vibrant, refreshing, delicious.
8-/8, excellent, passes room temperature test with flying colors

Here is my summer cooling off story. What’s yours? Cheers!

Between The Worlds

June 26, 2019 7 comments

What lies on the intersection of the Old World and the New World?

Yep. Starting with the question. As many of you have come to expect. Let me repeat – what lies on the intersection of the old world and the new world? Of course it is the wine we are talking about.

I can spin this question differently if you want. What is the name of the major winemaking region (a country, rather) which is most often overlooked at dinner tables, wine stores, and restaurant wine lists? Yes, give it a thought. I’m sure you know the answer. But it is too obvious, which makes it difficult.

Let’s continue?

If you said “South Africa”, pat yourself on the back. You got it. Yes, it is South Africa. The wines of South Africa are often described as “old world wines masquerading as the new world”, and when you taste the wines from the region, you can easily see why such description makes a lot of sense.

I wrote about wines of South Africa many times in the past, also including them into the “best hidden secrets” series. Winemaking history of South Africa goes back more than 400 years, to the mid-1600s. From there on, South African wine had good times, bad times, phylloxera, political issues, boycott, and lots, lots more. Many times in history the wine production was focused on quantity and not quality, which obviously had consequences and not a good ones.

I had been tasting South African wines for quite a while, and I have to say that I perceive a definite upswing in quality. As I mentioned at the beginning, South African wines are still rare and underrepresented in the modern wine scene, for sure in the USA – nevertheless, every time I get a chance to taste South African wines, they make me say “wow” more often than not.

Case in point – recent tasting of the South African wines in New York. It was not a large tasting, by all means, maybe 60–70 wines, but out of those 60–70, I probably was wowed by at least a half of them, which is very unusual for the trade tasting, maybe with the exception of Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri. Below are my brief notes – as I had a bit more time than at the typical trade tasting, but absolutely not enough to do a full assessment, I’m using words instead of plus signs. Plus, I share here some of my general impressions.

Let’s go:

I love Graham Beck wines – their sparkling wines represent great value. These wines are similar to Champagne, as they undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, so any time you are looking for the bubbles but want to spend the half of what you will spend on the Champagne, see if your wine store carries Graham Beck wines.

NV Graham Beck Brut Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – love it! Fresh, generous

NV Graham Beck Brut Rosé Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – beautiful, elegant

2012 Graham Beck Rosé Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – a touch of strawberries, toasted notes, excellent

2013 Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – wow! Elegant, clean, polished

2012 Graham Beck Brut Zero Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – good

NV Graham Beck Bliss Demi-Sec Methode Cap Classique WO Western Cape – beautiful! Touch of sweetness, good acidity, elegant

I had some past (and delicious!) experience with Glenelly Chardonnay, so I was definitely looking forward to tasting their line of wines:

2018 Glenelly Unoaked Chardonnay Stellenbosch – excellent

2016 Glenelly Estate Chardonnay Reserve Stellenbosch – excellent, a touch of vanilla, burgundy style

2015 Glenelly Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch – excellent, cassis forward

2012 Glenelly Estate Reserve Stellenbosch (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Shiraz, 11% Petit Verdot, 6% Merlot) – restrained, clean, herbaceous, salinity. The wine is built for the long haul.

2012 Glenelly Lady May Stellenbosch (89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc) – Bordeaux style, needs time

This was an unknown producer for me:

2018 Beau Joubert Oak Lane Chenin Blanc – Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch – unusual, might be a touch sweet

2017 Beau Joubert Oak Lane Merlot – Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch – simple

2017 Beau Joubert Oak Lane Shiraz – Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch – earthy, nice pepper note

2013 Beau Joubert The Ambassador Stellenbosch – needs time

2014 Beau Joubert Fat Pig Stellenbosch – port style, very good balance, tasty

Yes, there was food too:

Let’s get back to wines.

The next set of wines surprised me in a lot of ways – packaging (labels), creative wine names, unusual grape varieties for South Africa (Barbera? Touriga Nacional?!) and most importantly, tasty wines. When I commented to the lady who was presenting the wines how unique and tasty the wines were, she said very unpretentiously “ah, it is my brother, he is always running around with new ideas, experimenting with the wines”. Little did I know that Bruce Jack is a star winemaker who was making wines for more than 25 years and who has almost a cult following. I can tell you, as the proof is in the pudding, this line of Drift Estate wines offered plenty of proof.

2018 Bruce Jack Year of the Rooster Rosé Western Cape – nice and restrained, excellent Rosé rendition. You would never guess the grape this wine is made out of – Touriga National. Yep. As I did a bit of research, I found out that 2017 was made out of Pinotage, and 2016 out of … Touriga Franca. Yep, talk about South African wines.

2014 Bruce Jack Moveable Feast Red Blend Western Cape – excellent. Dark fruit, spices, just excellent.

2017 Bruce Jack Gift Horse Single Vineyard Barbara Western Cape – another hit. Dark fruit, tar, pencil shavings, tobacco, just wow. Yep, a South African Barbera.

2016 Bruce Jack There Are Still Mysteries Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Western Cape – beautiful, elegant, restrained, truly a mix of the new world and an old world. If you didn’t discover yet South African Pinot Noir, go on, try to find this wine.

And a few more wines:

2018 Boschendal Rose Garden Rosé South Africa – excellent, restrained, Provençal style. Merlot + Pinot Noir blend

NV Boschendal Brut Rosé Methode Cap Classique South Africa – excellent

2016 Boschendal Elgin Chardonnay South Africa – Burgundy! Wow, spectacular wine – might be the best 9fnthe tasting.

2016 Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc Coastal Region – (3 Chenin Blanc vineyards, vines are 35 to 47 years old) – petrol on the nose, beautiful, clean, delicious.

2014 Bellingham The Bernard Series SMV Coastal Paarl Region (Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Viognier) – Elegant! Excellent

2014 Brampton Roxton Stellenbosch (41% Syrah, 33% Petit Verdot, 26% Malbec) – outstanding. Lots of power. This wine is named after a bull.

That competes my report. What do you think of wines of south Africa? Any favorites? Cheers!

Samples Galore: From Ohio to Washington with a Stop in Argentina

June 21, 2019 5 comments

Have wine, will travel – who is coming with me?

How about staring our wine journey in Ohio? There is a very, very good chance you never had a wine from Ohio – am I right? So was I – until the beginning of this year.

All 50 states in the USA produce wine – not sure as of what date, but this was already true at least 15 years ago. While this is true, it doesn’t mean that you can go into the store and pick up a bottle of wine from South Dakota as this is something you want to drink tonight. There is a slew of issues (economic, legal, etc.) which make it impossible. Never mind South Dakota – while Texas is one of the largest wine producers in the USA, I stand no chance of finding Texas wines in the local liquor store in Connecticut. And as I love collecting the experiences, when I was offered to participate in the Twitter Chat about Ohio wines, I quickly agreed.

The wines had been made in Ohio for a while – on par with most of the traditional wine regions in the USA. The wine cellar which is now a part of Firelands Winery in Sandusky, Ohio, was built in 1880. Obviously the wines are still unknown outside of the local towns and maybe some visitors, but still, Ohio has the winemaking history.

When I opened the box with the wines for the tasting, my first reaction was “ohh, this might not end well”. First one was Firelands Gewurztraminer – and I consider Gewurztraminer a very difficult grape – it is really difficult to create a balanced Gewurztraminer wine – I had lots (did I say lots?) of undrinkable editions, so yes, that bottle made me concerned. The second wine was equally concerning – Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Ferrante winery. Again – an experience with many plonk-level Ice wines was definitely getting in the way.

So how the wines fared, you ask? Much (much!) better than I expected (sorry, the inner snob was talking) – really, here are the notes:

2017 Firelands Winery Gewurztraminer Isle St. George, Ohio (12.5% ABV)
Light golden
Beautiful fresh tropical fruit – leeches, guava, white peach, intense
Dry palate, clean acidity, spicy bite, Whitestone fruit, good minerality, good balance
8, very enjoyable wine, will work well with food, excellent with cheese (manchego)

2016 Ferrante Vidal Blanc Ice Wine Grand River Valley (11% ABV)
Golden color
Honey, candied peaches, fig jam, medium plus intensity.
Perfectly clean palate, a touch of honey, apples, ripe pear. Honey notes linger on the finish, but it is not overwhelming and supported by good acidity.
8+, very impressive, this is the wine I want to have a second glass of. Outstanding.

As you can see, very impressive wines. I would gladly drink both at any time – and I would love to visit the wineries if I ever make it into the area. Ahh, and one more check mark for my collection of attempts to try the wines made in all 50 states – a personal challenge which I’m tracking right here.

After having a great experience in Ohio, let’s continue our trip. Next stop? California.

First, let’s go to Santa Barbara County. Lucas and Lewellen Estate Vineyards were born in 1996 out of the friendship between Louis Lucas, a third-generation grape grower, and Superior Court Judge Royce Lewellen who first met back in 1975. They started making wine under their own label in 1998, and from there, the business expanded to include vineyards in 3 principal winegrowing areas in the Santa Barbara County – the Santa Maria Valley, the Los Alamos Valley, and the Santa Ynez Valley. They also opened a tasting room in Solvang, one of the best “wine towns” in the country. The wine we are talking about today is a classic Bordeaux blend coming from the Valley View Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley:

2016 Lucas and Lewellen Cabernet Sauvignon Valley View Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley (14.5% ABV, $25, 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.5% Petit Verdot, 7.5% Malbec, 5% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 21 months in French oak, 40% new)
Dark garnet
Mint, underbrush, blackberries, cherries, medium intensity
Cherry-forward, tart, a touch of mint, tight, well-integrated tannins, full body, good acidity, good balance, spicy finish in the back of the mouth
8-, probably will further improve with time

Let’s move up north in California, to the famed Napa Valley.

The first vineyard on the Mt. Veeder site which is now home to the Hess Family Wine Estates, was planted in 1876. Donald Hess acquired his first vineyard on the Mt. Veeder in 1978, and through the chain of events which are described in details here, all the history connected together. In 1986, the Hess Collection winery was established, and from the early days Hess Collection became a pioneer of sustainable viticulture, hosting the first Natural Farming Symposium in 1992, and then helping to develop the California Wine Institute’s “Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices” in 2002.

You can see a symbol of the lion on most of the Hess Collection wines – “live each day with the heart and courage of the lion” had been a guiding principle of the Hess family for 9 generations. Two years ago, Hess Family Wine Estates introduced a new portfolio of wine with the release of Lion Tamer red blend. Last year, the Lion Tamer was joined by Panthera Chardonnay in its inaugural release. I had an opportunity to taste the new release of these wines, and here are my notes:

2016 Hess Collection Lion Tamer Red Blend Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $45, 40% Malbec, 27% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Mourvedre, 1% Petit Verdot, 1% Merlot, 22 months in French oak, 40% new)
Dark garnet
Coffee, dark fruit, sandalwood, cherries, a touch of sapidity
Palate on the first day was massive, with espresso, tar, pencil shavings, and cherries.
On the second day, the wine appeared a lot more balanced, with clean acidity underscoring fresh blueberries and blackberries with a touch of coffee on the finish.
V: 8, definitely needs time. Decant for 2-3 hours if you want to drink now, or put it aside for the 4-5 years. Make sure to serve it at room temperature at around 68F.

2016 Hess Collection Panthera Chardonnay Russian River Valley Sonoma County (14.3% ABV, $45, 15 months in French oak barrels, 35% new)
Golden color with a greenish hue
Distant touch of a gunflint, minerality, underripe white plums
Vanilla, butter, a classic California Chardonnay profile, big, present, Granny Smith apples, good acidity.
8-, I prefer Chardonnay with a bit more subtle expression, but this is definitely drinkable on its own and should be good with food ( nicely complimented manchego cheese)

Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay with Glass

Our next stop is in Pacific Northwest – in Oregon, to be more precise. Knudsen Family had been growing grapes in Dundee Hills AVA in Willamette Valley since 1971, one of the pioneers of the viticulture in Oregon. For a long time, the grapes from the Knudsen Vineyards were only bought by the other wineries. Relatively recently Knudsen Vineyards started producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under its own name. Previously, I tasted Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay from 2015 and 2016 vintages, which were both excellent. This year I had an opportunity to try 2017 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay (13.5% ABV, $45), and was able to see a clear progression, from 2015 to 2016 to 2017. My analogy for 2017 is Burgundian, but I don’t even know if this is a fair comparison. Knudsen Chardonnay is not a white Burgundy – it is an Oregon Chardonnay first and foremost, and it is a simply beautiful wine.

Citing myself sounds strange, but here is what I wrote about 2017 Knudsen Chardonnay in the Instagram post: “I would describe this wine as an Elegance of Precision – from the get-go, it had just a perfect amount of everything Chardonnay is famous for – a touch of vanilla, a touch of butter, a touch of golden delicious apples, vibrant acidity – and it was getting even better over the few days it was stored in the fridge, more precise, more integrated, more Burgundian. If you like Chardonnay, this is a “case buy” wine – not because it is inexpensive, but because you want to keep a few bottles in the cellar for the next 5-10 years, to see it magically evolve”. Drinkability: 9-

While we are in the Pacific Northwest, let’s try a few more wines. Kin and Cascadia wines are the result of the partnership between multi-generational families, Sagers and Masters, with these multiple generations involved in the wine business (hence the “Kin” part). This new line of wines comes from the Cascade Mountains region – which brings in Cascadia part. I had an opportunity to try Kin and Cascadia Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – here are the notes.

2017 Kin and Cascadia Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Washington (13.5% ABV, $16)
Dark garnet color
Intense berry flavor, blackberries, eucalyptus, sweet cherries
Fruit forward but has enough supporting acidity to make it pleasant. Medium body, light, simple, fresh, fresh berries (cherries and blackberries), good acidity.
7+/8-, not my idea of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is definitely easy to drink wine. Plus, it is young, so it might evolve.

2017 Kin and Cascadia Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.5% ABV, $14)
Ruby color
Muted nose, a touch of earthy notes, underbrush
Not very expressive palate either – Light, medium body, good acidity lingering on the finish
7/7+, I personally would like more fruit and more energy. This is drinkable, but not thought-provoking.

Santa Julia wine cans

And we finally arrived at our last stop in Argentina.

In 1950, Alberto Zuccardi started working on the new irrigation systems for the vineyards in Mendoza. In 1963, he founded the vineyard of his own, which over the years became one of the most renowned in Argentina. In 1982, Bodega Santa Julia was born, named in honor of Julia (yes, she is a real person), the granddaughter of Albero Zuccardi – and Julia Zuccardi is managing her namesake winery today.

Bodega Santa Julia focuses on organic and sustainable viticulture, which sprawls from the vineyards to the people. Santa Julia was the first winery in Mendoza to achieve Fair for Life certification.

The winery joined the popular canned wines movement in the USA and introduced the line of beautifully packaged wines, which I had an opportunity to try. The wines are not amazing, but sufficient for the day on the beach or a pool party. Here are my brief notes:

NV Santa Julia Organic Malbec Rosé (375 ml can, SRP $6) – simple, quaffable, but too sweet for my taste.
NV Santa Julia Organic Chardonnay (375 ml can, SRP $6) – a bit tart, restrained fruit expression.
NV Santa Julia Tintillo Red Blend (375 ml can, SRP $6, 50% Malbec, 50% Bonarda) – good fruit expression, good acidity, medium body, good balance. My favorite of the three. And despite the recommendation, I liked it more at the room temperature than cold.

Here you are, my friends. As I said before, have wine – will travel. Until the next trip – cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Iris Vineyards

June 18, 2019 Leave a comment

Let me ask you something. If you would look at the mountainous parcel of land, completely destroyed by the brutal commercial logging – would you be able to envision there a beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard? (if you answered “no”, same as I did, don’t worry about it – this is why you and I are not in the winemaking business). When Richard Boyles and his wife Pamela saw such a logging-destroyed site at the south end of the Willamette Valley, they were able to see past the nature in distress. They were able to see the future vineyards and even future forest restored where it was before. They purchased about 1,000 acres site in 1992, and it became the home to the Iris Vineyards, with the name inspired by the beautiful wild Douglas iris covering the surrounding hills in spring.

Richard’s fate was sealed at the age of 7, when he assumed assistant winemaker duty to his grandmother, helping her to make the sweet, dessert wine. As they say it in the stories, the rest was history. Richard met Pamela while studying at the University of Oregon. Countless visits to Europe and living there for a while as Richard had a carrier in international business management and hospitality, helped Richard and Pamela to discover their wine passion – Burgundy, and its signature grape – Pinot Noir. That passion for Pinot helped Richard and Pamela to see through the broken trees and realize their dream of making the world-class Pinot Noir.

Well, there is also an additional element to that passion – a principle of Areté. Richard and Pamela learned about Areté in the university, while studying ancient Greek philosophy. This principle simply means that it is one’s moral obligation to achieve the highest potential the person can achieve. Give it a thought – Areté is really a great principal to live by; we will get back to it later on in this post.

Today Iris Vineyards farms about 43 acres of vineyards, located at 800 to 1,100 feet elevation (quite high for the Willamette Valley). The vineyards are surrounded by more than 500 acres of restored forest, mostly Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine, as well as Oregon white oak. The main vineyard of the estate, Chalice Vineyard, was planted in 1996 and produced its first vintage in 2001. Pinot Noir takes two third of the plantings, following by the Pinot Gris and a small acreage of Chardonnay. Iris Vineyards also produces a number of other, less traditional wines (Viognier, Syrah, and more) from other appellations in Oregon, such as Applegate Valley.

Richard Boyles Iris Vineyards

Richard Boyles

I was definitely intrigued by what I learned about the Iris Vineyards, so I took an opportunity to sit down with Richard Boyles (yes, once again it was a virtual conversation) and ask him a few questions. Here is what transpired:

[TaV]: You grew up tasting sweet wines. How did you end up with Pinot Noir becoming a passion?
[RB]: Although my first experience was sweet wines made and sampled with my grandmother, the wines I “grew-up” with were the wines served at family celebrations organized by my dad. These were usually red Bordeaux and reds and whites of Burgundy as well as German Rieslings. As you can see, with the exception of the Rieslings, these were dry wines that were intended to pair with food. I became more focused on Pinot Noir as it became clear that Oregon could grow world-class Pinot Noir with Oregon attitude. After graduation from the U of O, while living in Seattle, Pamela and I continued to explore the world of wine, visiting vineyards, tasting rooms and sampling primarily in Oregon and Washington and occasionally in Napa and Sonoma. Our interest in Pinot Noir solidified as a passion as Pamela and I explored different viticultural areas of Europe when we lived in Germany and Switzerland. We found ourselves gravitating to Burgundy for Pinot and Alsace for Pinot Gris.

[TaV]: What made you think that the parcel of land destroyed by logging would be an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir?
[RB]: In the Pacific Northwest logging is a part of the rural economy and landscape. In the case of our property, the fact that it had been logged and that we took on the legal obligation to replant the forest meant that we were able to acquire large acreage at a modest price. The property had a long history as a mixed forest operation, with cattle and timber harvests providing income to the owners. When we acquired the property, we replanted hundreds of acres of forest before we turned our attention to planting the vineyard on former pasture. The areas for vineyard plantation were selected for the Jory and Bellpine soils, south-facing slopes, elevation and for modestly steep slopes which allow the property to be farmed with standard farm equipment. While our purchase of the property was prompted by the vineyard potential, it has been equally satisfying to plant tens of thousands of Douglas fir trees that have now matured into a forest, an ecosystem really, supporting many species of flora and fauna.

[TaV]: I know that the concept of Areté and its relevance to everything you do is explained on the website, but can you explain one more time for our readers what Areté means for you and how does it apply to the Iris Vineyards and your wines?
[RB]: In addition to what is on the website and press kit, this is what I would say about Areté: Areté is a philosophy or way of being that says, “Hey buddy, you want to excel and standout? Then be deliberate about it. Figure out what skills and knowledge you need, practice them, perfect them if you can. Figure out what else will up your game. Go get that skill or knowledge. Repeat. Because that is what this life is all about. A constant aspiration to live up to the potential that is you. Why would you settle for less?” With respect to Areté at Iris, Areté is a cultural signpost. It tells team members and prospective team members what we value at Iris, how we want to be and be seen as an organization. It tells team members how they can contribute. We can only be an organization that exemplifies Areté if our team members embrace it, make decisions and plans by it. By making it clear what we are about, we attract like-minded team members. And, of course, Areté is a proclamation to the world about aspirations. So, we take it very seriously when we put the Areté name on the label of the wines that are the best examples of our craft.

[TaV]: I would guess that first was Pinot Noir, then Pinot Gris, then Chardonnay (curious – am I right?), but Iris Vineyards today offers way more than just 3 flagship Oregon grapes – how did you get to include Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier into your repertoire?
[RB]: From the time we committed to establishing a vineyard, Pamela and I planned to grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. The expansion into other varietals is the result of two factors: 1) the desire to create variety for our club members; and, 2) our winemaker, Aaron Lieberman’s curiosity, interest and skill at working with grape varieties beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

[TaV]: While it is not yet available on your website, I understand that you are about to introduce Iris Sparkling wines. Can you tell me more about this project, starting even with “why sparkling wines”?
[RB]: Much as the reintroduction of the Rosé program was in response to Pamela’s strong interest in Rosé and renewed consumer interest in the category, the sparkling wine program came about as a result of Aaron’s interest in, and interest in the challenge of making sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is the ultimate celebratory beverage. Our club members and tasting room visitors love our Methode Champenois Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blanc. We reserve a small amount for weddings and other celebrations at the tasting room, though the sparklers routinely sell out prior to the subsequent release. Aaron can expand on what brought him to pursue sparkling.

[TaV]: Will sparkling wines be generally available or they will be offered as winery exclusive/club options?
[RB]: I anticipate that the sparkling wines will be available to club members, available at the tasting room, available to weddings and celebrations held on the property and perhaps to select accounts. I don’t anticipate that it will be available to broad distribution. These are intensely hand made wines requiring lots of time and attention. The sparklers will have an important but limited role in our line-up.

[TaV]: Considering the wide range of grapes you already use, do you have any plans to expand it any further?
[RB]: Our offerings will continue to evolve. Our core business is in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Rosé. As we expand our vineyard, we will plant small amounts of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc as well as a broader variety of clones of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Meunier will have a place in our sparkling program. We will evaluate it as a potential stand-alone variety. Pinot Blanc will be a standalone bottling. I expect we will pare some wines from our current offerings as we respond to the tastes of our club members and tasting room visitors. 8. I’m assuming you started producing wines at the end of the 1990s. Do you still have any of your first releases available in the cellar? How do they hold up? What is the oldest of your own wines you ever tasted?
We first bottled wine under our own label in 2001. Prior to that, we sold the small volume of fruit coming from our vineyards to other producers. We recently sampled a bottle of 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. We have a single bottle left. I wish we had more in our cellar. While this wine wasn’t deliberately built to last ten years, it is drinking very well. The 2012 Reserve Pinot is drinking nicely. Pamela and I have a few overlooked bottles of 2001 and 2002 Pinot Gris in our personal cellar. These were award winners 15 and sixteen years ago, including double platinum for 2002. As compelling as these wines were at two, three, four and even five-year-olds, they weren’t intended to age and are now past their prime. It’s a good reminder to drink while the drinking is good.

[TaV]: You are practicing sustainable farming. Can you explain what it means for you, how does it relate to the land, vineyards, grapes and so on? Have you ever looked at going Biodynamic?
[RB]: The goal of our farming practices is to produce fruit that meets our particular purposes. We use different farm practices and viticultural techniques for Pinot Noir that’s intended for Rose’ differently than the fruit that is intended for our estate bottling for instance. Our farm practices are conventional as we want to have all the tools available to produce the best fruit for the purpose while supporting the long-term productive capacity of the vineyard and operating a financially sustainable business. Farming isn’t static. We annually review best practices and new literature to improve what we do in the vineyard. While we have considered a Biodynamic approach, we believe we can produce better fruit for our purposes with a conventional approach to farming.

[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines from Oregon, and from around the world?
[RB]: One of the notable things about the world of wine today is that so much great (and not so great) wine is accessible from all over the world. We see wine as an exploration, so we regularly try what we haven’t tried before. That is as likely to be a Pinot from a new Oregon producer, a Sauvignon Blanc from a new growing region or an obscure varietal we haven’t tasted in a while. Through exploration, we learn more than returning to the same things repeatedly. That said, we have a broad stable of wines of our own production. We do frequently return to those.

[TaV]: Where do you see Iris Vineyards in 15-20 years from now?
[RB]: I expect that Iris will garner increasing consumer attention as we offer compelling wines at a good value. I expect that we will continue to offer wines across a variety of complex profiles and price points. I don’t say across a variety of quality, because all of our wines are of high quality, they just differ in terms of complexity. Personally, in 15 or twenty years I hope to have more tractor time and hands-on time in the vineyard and in the winery, particularly at crush. Overseeing this and other businesses currently require that I focus on the big picture. It was a “need” to farm and a maker mentality that brought us into the business. I still craft beer, pickle and can. I look forward to re-creating my job description to allow more time in the vineyard and winery and less in the business of running a business.

Yes, I agree with you – it is time to drink. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Iris Vineyards Pinot Noir wines – here are my notes:

2017 Iris Vineyards D Block Pinot Noir Chalice Vineyard Willamette Valley (12.7% ABV, $39.99, 300 cases produced)
Bright Ruby
Light, elegant, plums, cherries, a touch of ripe strawberries
Sweet cherries, plums, great acidity, excellent balance
8-/8, nice and approachable

2016 Iris Vineyards Areté Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $59.99, 100 cases produced)
Dark Ruby
Touch of smoke, plums, a hint of cranberries
Iodine, Cherries, a touch of smoke, good balance
8/8+, very good wine, will be interesting to try it again in 10 years…

Cropped Bench Iris Vineyards

Source: Iris Vineyards

Here you are, my friends – another story of Passion and Pinot. Go pour yourself a glass of Pinot – more stories are ahead…

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Daily Glass: Oh, Turley

June 14, 2019 2 comments

I remember discovering Turley Zinfandel many years ago for the first time at the pre-theater dinner in New York with my friend Henry. I wouldn’t tell you now if I heard something about Turley before we picked the bottle of Turley the off the wine list, or if it was just a happy accident. I just remember our reaction of a pure “wow” at how beautiful the wine was. Ever since that discovery, Turley wine almost became our secret handshake – when I show up with a bottle of Turley at my friend’s house, I get an understanding smirk and a nod – “you did good, buddy”.

Once the Turley was discovered, the very next question was – how can I get it. This is where I learned about the concept of the wine mailing list, starting with the waitlist (I talked about all those terms before – if you need a refresher, the link is here). I believe Turley was one of the first if not the first of the wine lists I signed up for (meaning, got on the waiting list for the mailing list). Turley also happened to be the very first mailing lists I got accepted to – to my big surprise and delight, as the wait was not that long (a few years).

Turley Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley

In case you are not familiar with Turley and don’t readily share into the excitement of the subject, here is a brief introduction. Turley Wine Cellars is a winery in Napa Valley in California, which specializes in Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The winery was started in 1993 by Larry Turley, who was actively working in the wine before and developed a serious passion for Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, especially for the old vine Zinfandel (some of Turley vineyards are continuously producing since the late 1800s). Today, Turley produces 47 different wines from 50 different vineyards throughout Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi, Amador Couty and other regions in California. You can find Turley wines in the stores and the restaurants, but they are scarcely available, as while they are making 47 different wines, most of the wines are produced in the hundreds of cases only, so the best way to get Turley wines is by signing up for the mailing list. One more thing I want to mention, as it is important to me – even with all the [rightly deserved] fame (they are definitely one of the top 5, or maybe even top 3 Zinfandel producers in the USA), Turley wines are still affordable on the mailing list, with some of the wines still priced at $20, and with absolution majority of the wines costing under $50 (Hanes Vineyard Zinfandel is probably the only exception at $75).

Since I got on the mailing list, Turley wines became my favorite present for the wine-loving friends. Every time we meet, my friend Patrick gets a bottle of Turley to take home to Switzerland – it is an equal exchange though, as I always get a bottle of unique and interesting Swiss wine – not something you can casually find here in the US. I also love the reaction such a present causes when people look at the bottle. I brought Turley for my friend Oz when we met in Singapore, and I handed it to him when we were finishing dinner. I perfectly remember huge, ear to ear smile on his face when he saw the bottle, and his exact words sharing the excitement with his friends “look, he got me a Turley!”. Lots of fond memories associated with Turley, in a variety of ways.

What caused this outpour of Turley love? Opening of the bottle of 2014 Turley Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley. How can I describe it? To me, a well made Zinfandel should have a perfect core of raspberries and blackberries with the addition of spices – it should have restrained sweetness and not be jammy. If you drink Zinfandel often, you know that what I just described is difficult to find. This wine had exactly that. A perfect core of ripe, succulent raspberries and blackberries, covered in pepper, sage, sweet tobacco and eucalyptus. Perfectly dry, with a firm structure and layers and layers of flavor. This is the wine you say “ahh” after every sip, and you say “ohh” when the bottle gets empty. And to complete my description, note that 15.6% ABV was not noticeable at all. A perfect balance and pure pleasure is what makes this wine so special.

Here it is, my wine love story of the day. What’s yours? Cheers!

Wednesday Meritage – Festivals Galore

June 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Meritage Time!

It seems that June is everyone’s favorite month for wine and food events. I guess it makes sense – the schools and colleges just finishing the year, the weather is generally great, and the vacation season didn’t fully start yet – so all the event organizers are trying to pack as much as they can into that one month. No matter what the reason – the end result is an abundance of choice when it comes to the different events focused on food and wine lovers.

I wanted to share with you three of the events which look interesting. Two of the events fall on the same weekend, so you will have to make some decisions, but having a choice is better than having none, right?

Let’s start with the event which will be taking place around the country – a Black Truffle Festival 2019. Who doesn’t like truffles? Well, actually, I know some people who don’t, but outside of those few, the majority is easily excited at the prospect of having a dish – pasta, risotto, steak – all covered with generous shavings of black truffles and exuding the aroma which alone makes you hungry. From June 14th until June 23rd, top chefs in New York, Miami, and San Francisco will help you celebrate the prized mushroom. By the way, until I started working on this post, I had no idea that truffles can also come from Australia – it appears that truffles are not limited to Piedmont only. See, I already learned something – check the information at the link above to see how you might enjoy some pungent beauty.

June 22nd, which falls on Saturday this year, is known as Summer Solstice – the day with the longest duration of the daytime and shortest night. The summer solstice is an important day in the biodynamic viticulture, where the sun’s cycle plays a key role in the whole program. Thus it is only appropriate that Summer Solstice 2019 will be celebrated with the Natural Wines Festival. Hosted at the Burnt Hill Farm in Maryland, the Natural Wine festival will have 25 wineries from Maryland, Virginia and DC pouring more than 100 wines – of course, the food, art, and music will be a part of the festivities as well. For more information and tickets, please click here.

Now, you can follow that Summer Solstice celebration with more wine the very next day. On Sunday, June 23rd, wines from the Côtes du Rhône region in France, which includes Côtes du Rhône Villages, Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, Rasteau, Saint-Joseph, Condrieu, and Cornas will take over Manhattan. Okay, this might be an exaggeration, but still, Côtes du Rhône Wine Festival will take place right in the middle of Manhattan. The festival consists of both press/trade portion, and consumer portion. In addition to all the wines, the festival (expectedly!) will offer food, music and lots more. For more information and tickets, please click here.

That’s all I have for you for today. The glass is empty, but the refill is on its way. Until the next time – cheers!

Daily Glass: Enjoy Your Wine and Play With Your Food – Beyond Meat Food, It Is

June 11, 2019 Leave a comment

I appreciate winding down Sunday with a good glass of wine and a family dinner. When it is warm outside, such a Sunday dinner typically means grill – and this past Sunday was not an exception (or maybe it even was a bit of an exception as it was dry and pleasantly warm, and not hot at all, compared to mostly hot and humid weather of the last year).

Kids love steak in this house. While shopping for a steak at our local Fairway Market, something caught my eye. Beyond Meat? Really? Both Beyond Meat The Beyond Burger and Beyond Meat Beyond Sausage Original Brat? Wow and double wow!

Let me explain the excitement.

Beyond Meat Burgers and BratwurstsI have plenty of friends and relatives who are vegans and vegetarians, so with the summertime, the question of a good meat alternative is always becoming hot – when someone visits our house, I really want people to feel included and taken care of, no matter what their dietary restrictions are, so the search for a good vegan burger, etc. was always on. A few years ago, I came across the product called Beyond Burger, made by the company with a catchy name Beyond Meat. The description of Beyond Burger, which offered full resemblance of the regular burger, including the blood, sounded a bit suspicious, so I carefully researched all the ingredients and to my dismay, found that all of the ingredients are natural and there was no red paint added to this product. When I decided to try it, further research proved it to be mission impossible – Beyond Burger was available only at the Whole Foods (which I don’t frequent), and the Internet was full of complaints of the people who desperately tried, but failed to find it in their local stores, as the product was always out of stock. I also learned that in addition to Beyond Burger, the same company is offering a new product called Beyond Sausage, which sounded to me too good to be true. Again, this all was taking place 3-4 years ago.

This year, Beyond Meat went public (and mind you, very successfully – while the initial offering was at $25/share in early May, today it is trading at around $168/share, and it is just about a month later). And it appears that they managed to increase their production and distribution – now I saw the actual product instead of just reading about it. Thus, as you can imagine, I simply had to try it, even though it is quite expensive for what it is – $5.73 for two burger patties and $9.99 for four “bratwurst” sausages – you can buy the pack of 14 real bratwurst sausages at Costo for $8.99. Nevermind all the price talk – the question is simple – is it tasty? Would I be happy to serve it to the guests?

What is the best way to compare wines? The blind tasting, of course. What is the best way to compare foods? Well, the concept of “blind tasting” in wine can’t really apply to the food, unless you would actually blindfold someone, or taste your food in one of those dark rooms were waitstaff wears special goggles. So I didn’t attempt to do any sort of the fair comparison, especially as the dinner plan included steak and not the burgers. However, I had some of the Costco bratwursts in the fridge, so battle sausage was definitely on.

Before we talk about the battle food, let me share with you two delicious wines we got to enjoy on Sunday. First, a Chardonnay from … Italy. Yes, Italy makes excellent white wines, and excellent Italian Chardonnay can be found more often than not – but I still get surprised every time at how good it can be. 2015 Maculan Chardonnay Veneto IGT (12.5% ABV) was delicious from the getgo. Beautiful golden color in the glass, a touch of honey and vanilla on the nose. The palate was plump and generous, with white apples, white plums, a touch of honey and vanilla, good acidity and nice weight. The wine might be close to its prime and offers an ultimate indulgence at the moment as it is perfectly balanced. My wife, who generally don’t drink white wines, said “wow” and asked for another glass.

Sunday calls for some special wine, so I decided to go with 1999 Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel Napa Valley (15.8% ABV). In case you are curious what makes this wine special, it is its age. I don’t drink routinely 20 years old wines (I wish I could), so every time I open a bottle of such an age, it constitutes a “special bottle”. Besides, Zinfandel is one of the pet peeves. The wine just jumped from the glass with the ripe blackberries and blueberries, supported by mocha and sweet oak. The palate offered layers and layers of goodness – ripe berries, a touch of blackberry jam, velvety smooth but well present mouthfeel, lots and lots of pleasure. I can also tell you that I noticed alcohol level only on the label, but not in the glass. A very well made, delicious wine.

Now let’s get back to food, as we have the battle to discuss.

Here is how both products looked before the cooking – note the real bratwurst at the bottom of the picture with sausages. Burgers look scarily realistic, and while Beyond Meat sausages look slightly different than the real sausage, they still look perfectly real overall (there are plenty of different sausages of exactly the same color):

Both burgers and bratwurst should be cooked for 3 minutes per side according to the package instructions, which is exactly what I did. Here is the result, again including the real bratwurst for comparison:

As you can see, Beyond Meat products have somewhat of a yellow hue (okay, this are the iPhone pictures, so you might have to take my word for it). Otherwise, both burgers and saysages perfectly held up to the cooking process and were very easy to handle – maybe even easier than the real meat products, considering the there was no fat coming out to cause the flare ups.

Just so you know we didn’t really convert into the vegans, here are few more dishes from our dinner (yes, this are real meat and real scallops):

And now, to the taste.

I made a small mistake of not creating the full experience out of the burger, meaning having it with a bun, tomato, ketchup and so on. On its own, it was quite decent, with some tiny hints of not been made out of the real meat (but then remember that it was not a blind tasting, so I was clearly influenced by the appearance). The sausage, however, was mind-boggling. It literally was identical to the real bratwurst in the taste profile and texture – I would never be able to distinguish it if I would close my eyes. Simply a wow.

If you read my typical wine posts you would know that at any possible occasion, I like to taste the wines over the course of a few days to see how they will change. When it comes to the food, it is not that I like to taste the food on the second or a third day (by the way, some of the soups and stews actually benefit from an extra day in the fridge), but I can’t stand wasting the food, so I usually make an effort to work on the leftovers for as long as possible or needed. What it has to do with this story? Simple. We had leftovers of both Beyond Meat burgers and bratwursts. Over the next two days, both perfectly held up to the reheating in the microwave, and both were perfectly on point in taste and texture, resembling its real meat brethren even more than on the first day while freshly made.

There you have it, my friends. The verdict on Beyond Meat burgers and bratwursts? Beyond reproach. I will be happy, very happy to serve them to my guests at any gathering. And yes, I hope you enjoyed your Sunday night wines too. Cheers!

Rosé All Day

June 10, 2019 6 comments

On Saturday we celebrated yet another one of the “National” days – the National Rosé Day (it is always celebrated on second Saturday in June). I don’t know if you actively participated in the celebration or not, but I wanted to use it as an opportunity to ponder at the state of Rosé in the USA (don’t know if this can be extended to the wine consumers worldwide).

I had been writing this blog for almost 10 years. When I started, Rosé was not a “thing”. It was a highly seasonal beverage – appearing in the wine stores at the beginning of summer, and disappearing with the end of the warm weather. If you crave a glass of Rosé in the winter – tough luck, unless you could find some Tavel – Rosé is the only wine produced in that Rhône appellation. Even as recent as 4 -5 years ago, wine aficionados and bloggers would typically lament that people still don’t get the concept of Rosé as simply another type of wine, same as sparkling, white, red or desert, which is not just an occasional summer beverage, but which has its own place and can be consumed any day of the year, whether thermometer says 10°F or a 100°F.

Rosé wines auto collage

It seems that all this writing, nudging, lamenting, complaining, and most importantly, convincing and educating, resulted in something which can be simply called a “Rosé revolution”. Today, there is hardly a winery left which didn’t add Rosé to its repertoire, both around the world and particularly, in the USA. The Rosé might be produced in the quantity of 10 cases and available only in the winery’s tasting room or to the club members, 1 bottle per year, but nevertheless, Rosé became a staple of attention and it became important. Maybe even too important – some of the wines, such as Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosé Gran Reserva used to be available at under $30 and was mostly demanded by the wine geeks. Today, you can’t even find this wine anywhere, and if you will find it, it will set you back for close to $300.  Today, while the selection of Rosé in the stores would go down in the winter, there still will be a reasonable selection available all year around. And maybe most importantly, the quality of Rosé has dramatically improved, no matter where in the world it is made or what grapes it is made out of.

It only seems that Rosé is a simple wine and it is easy to make – I guess the bottles with a spectrum of a very happy pink give this impression. In reality, making good Rosé very much on par with proverbial Chef’s test, when the Chef is asked to prepare an omelet and a chicken dish – anyone who had a pleasure of consuming burnt, crunchy eggs and rubber-shoe-dry chicken breast, can easily relate to what I’m talking about here. Rosé is all about balance, and it doesn’t offer too many chances to correct the shortcomings, which can be done for the red and even white wines, using different types of oak barrels and more. With Rosé, it is better to be done right from the very beginning, or else.

I have to honestly tell you that when I’m in the restaurant, especially by myself, Rosé is my typical drink of choice by the glass. It is usually reasonably priced and works well with a wide range of foods, due to the high acidity and gentle fruit expressions. There is typically only one or two different Rosé available on the restaurant’s wine list, which makes the selection process very easy.

Rosé is really not any different than any other wine. Beautiful color notwithstanding, it is all about the balance and it is all about the pleasure. So, what do you think – is Rosé here to stay or is it just a fad which will pass soon? Cheers!

 

Navarra, Surprising and Not

June 2, 2019 2 comments

It is commonly known that Spanish wines are some of the best-kept secrets of the wine world. An oxymoron, you say? Not necessarily. I’m not implying that you need to know the secret knock on the unsightly door in order to acquire Spanish wine. The “secret” simply means that consumers still often overlook Spanish wines as a category, despite the fact that those wines possess some of the best value, the best QPR you can ever find – try a $30 Rioja (for example, La Rioja Alta, Lopez de Heredia) and you will see what I mean.

Spanish wine regions. Source: Navarra Wine US

Turns out that even secret wines have deeper secrets, such as Spanish (of course!) wines from Navarra, a northern province known for its unique climate (influenced by Mediterranean, Continental, and Atlantic climates). A long history of a close relationship with France (going back to medieval times) also led to Navarra sporting rather an interesting mix of grapes, with plantings of Garnacha and Tempranillo intermixed with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.  For a long time, Navarra was known as the “land of Rosé” – today you can find a full selection of white, Rosé and red coming from this small region.

By the way, here is the fun fact for you – in case you are a Game of Thrones fan, you might be interested to know that season six of the popular show was filmed in Navarra, in Bardenas Reales desert – here, you can impress your friends already.

If you are interested in a quick set of numbers (I know I always am) – Navarra has about 27,000 acres of vineyards, located on an average altitude of 1,300 feet (400 meters) above sea level. Annual production is about 70M liters of wine. Most planted grapes are Tempranillo and Garnacha, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 90% of the wine production are red and Rosé (Rosé is 1/3 of this production), and 10% are white wines. Okay, done with numbers, let’s continue.

With this “secret of secrets” designation, you can probably figure that Navarra wines do not occupy central shelves of the liquor stores – but maybe it is for the better? Of course I mean it in our own, selfish interest – more for us, for the people “in the know”.

I had a pleasure of drinking Navarra wines before – for example, Tempranillo from Bodegas Ochoa is an excellent rendition of one of my most favorite grapes. However, this is where my exposure to the wines of Navarra mostly ends. Thus when I was offered to try a sample of Navarra wines, I quickly agreed.

Navarra Wines Sample

The surprises started upon arrival of the wines. Once I opened the box, finding a bottle of Garnacha made perfect sense. However, not finding a bottle of Rosé was rather surprising – I was sure Rosé would be included in the sample of Navarra wines. And the biggest surprise for me was finding the bottle of … Sauvignon Blanc! No argument here – Spain is often associated with red wines, but it makes excellent white wines – Albariño, Verdejo, Godello, Viura – but 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Spain is not something I see often (Rueda might be an exception, as Sauvignon Blanc is used there too, but mostly for blending).

The surprises continued as I opened the bottle of 2018 Bodegas Inurrieta Orchidea Sauvignon Blanc Navarra (13% ABV, $12). I have to admit, before the first sniff, I was skeptical. The first whiff of the aroma immediately cured all of my worries as the wine was simply stupendous. In a blind tasting, I would instantly place this wine into California – the wine was round and powerful, on the level of Honig or Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. A touch of freshly cut grass and currant leaves were unmistakable, supported by golden delicious apple, lemon, and complete absence of grapefruit. Perfectly refreshing, delicious wine – and at the $12 price point, the word “steal” comes to mind. (Drinkability: 8+)

Then there was Garnacha. Garnacha, a.k.a. Grenache is a very interesting grape. Garnacha has a tremendous range of expression, from ultra-powerful likes of Alto Moncayo Aquilon and No Girls Grenache to light and ephemeral Cote du Rhone and Bodegas Tres Picos. The 2016 El Chaparral De Vega Sindoa Old Vines Garnacha Navarra (15% ABV, $15) showed rather in the “ephemeral” category, despite the 15% ABV (I only noticed this high ABV when I was writing this post but not when I tasted the wine). Two main descriptors for this wine are raspberries and pepper. The wine was light, it was playful, full of fresh, ripe, but perfectly crunchy raspberries. Each one of those raspberries had a dash of black pepper on it. Ephemeral, surreal, or simply tasty – I will happily go with either descriptor. Again – excellent, excellent value at $15. (Drinkability: 8+).

Here you go, my friends. You can’t go wrong with either of these wines – not in price, not in the taste, not in the pleasure. Look for the wines of Navarra – you might be on a cusp of your next great wine discovery. Cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Bells Up Winery

May 31, 2019 4 comments

Do you know by any chance what “bells up” means? If you do, you can already pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a glass of wine. If you don’t – you can pour yourself a glass of wine and ponder at the question for a bit – the answer will follow.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about the passion, an indelible component of winemaking, possibly even a key ingredient in a delicious wine.

Dave Specter started making wine in the basement of his home back in 2006. By 2009, he realized that passion for winemaking trumpets his (successful!) career of a corporate tax attorney, and Dave decided to let his passion lead the way. In 2012, Dave and his wife Sara found themselves in Newberg, Oregon, purchasing a dead Christmas tree farm in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, where they started planting their estate vineyard. The rest is history – of passion and Pinot, there is.

BellsUp-Pinot Harvest

Bells Up vineyards. Source: Bells Up Winery

Before there was wine, there was music. For more than 20 years Dave had been playing the French horn. In classical music, there is always a moment which needs to be stressed – “Bells up” is the conductor’s instruction to the French horn players to lift the bells of their instruments and produce the sound of maximum intensity. “Bells up” became Dave’s motto in life, and it also gave the name to his winery – now you have your answer in case you are still wondering.

While Pinot Noir was the first grape planted at the newly minted Bells Up winery, the passion also led Dave to plant half an acre of Seyval Blanc, the grape he successfully used back in Ohio. That Seyval Blanc planting became the first in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and second in Oregon. If you look at Bells Up winery website, you will see that the winery bills itself as micro-boutique and un-domaine – planting Seyval Blanc and not Pinot Gris in Oregon is clearly an un-domaine move. By the way, the “un-domaine” was one of the words which caught my eye while researching the Bells Up winery information. So I took the opportunity to sit down (virtually, albeit) with Dave and listen to him share his passion for wine. Here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: What kind of wine(s) did you make in your basement in Cincinnati?
[DS]: In the beginning, when my wife Sara and I started making wine in 2006 as a couple’s activity for our fifth wedding anniversary, we started with kit wines—juice in a bag, essentially. When I moved on to grapes, I sourced from both local and regional vineyards for Seyval Blanc, as well as through a Cincinnati vintners club that would truck in fruit from vineyards in California. From that I made Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot—even a Pinot Noir, although that fruit was sourced from Lodi, and was completely unlike the Pinot I work within Oregon today. Essentially, it was a hobby that grew out of control.

[TaV]: Why Oregon? As a young winemaker, you had many options – what made you decide to go to Oregon?
[DS]: First, thank you for calling me young. We were a whole lot younger when we started this journey. After that first kit wine, I was hooked on the process and wanted to learn more. Sara graciously let me take over the basement, then the garage, then the dining room. And we started taking wine vacations to “hidden gem” wine regions—Texas Hill Country, Finger Lakes, and finally Oregon in 2008.

We had already visited Oregon briefly in 2004 and loved it. In 2008 we spent two weeks roaming the state, with the last few days in Newberg at a bed and breakfast just 400 feet up the mountain from the property that is now ours. We fell in love with Oregon, the scenery, the climate, the wines, and the intimate experiences tasting wines at the tiniest wineries with the winemaker. We decided then that this was the place for us.

[TaV]: Seyval Blanc is one of the most popular grapes in the Eastern US. But why Seyval Blanc in Oregon?
[DS]: When we moved to Oregon in 2012, we knew we wanted to plant a vine that connected to our story. I’d been working with Seyval Blanc for years in Ohio and when I won two amateur national winemaking competitions in 2011, one was with a 2010 Seyval Blanc. So, it was a great tie-in.

But also, we see an opportunity to differentiate ourselves with a white wine that nobody else has in the Willamette Valley—and only one other winery has in Oregon. Plus, we believed it would grow well here, and after two small harvests that resulted in some beautiful wine, we’re happy to be proven right. Note, however, we didn’t plant a lot of it: only about 250 vines (and not all of them made it—so Sara’s been propagating like crazy ever since for replants). We figured if it was a failure, we could always graft over it.

[TaV]: Any future plans for more mainstream Oregon white grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling?
[DS]: From a business perspective, we’ve taken a really close look at what other wineries in the area are making, and for a 500-ish case production winery like ours it’s best to have just one white wine available for sale at a given time. That’s because we don’t move enough volume and the whites generally don’t age as long as reds.

We currently make Pinot Blanc and we like it quite a bit. It’s a bit rarer in these parts than Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, which again helps to differentiate us. But as for expanding our white wine program, the ultimate plan is to phase out Pinot Blanc for Seyval Blanc and that will be the only white in our line-up. There are a lot of similarities between my Pinot Blanc and my Seyval
Blanc, so the transition from one to the other won’t be as jarring as a shift from another white varietal, such as Chardonnay.

Bells Up Wines in the cellar

Bells Up wines. Source: Bells Up winery

[TaV]: Today you already make white, rosé, and red. Any plans to join seemingly the hottest Oregon trend and start producing sparkling wine?
[DS]: No. I know I keep coming back to the numbers, but I’m a finance guy with an MBA and a corporate tax law career. While we think there’s a place in the market for adding bubbles to still wines, if I made a sparkling wine I’d want to do it the right way (traditional method). That takes time, space and money. And at our volumes, what we’d have to charge per bottle to justify that type of investment is more than what the market would reasonably bear.

[TaV]: Continuing the same question – as you already produce Seyval Blanc, which makes very good dessert wines, any plans for some Late Harvest Seyval Blanc goodness?
[DS]: Don’t give Sara any ideas! Actually, we’ve been so focused on just getting these Seyval Blanc vines established and proving that our concept had legs that we really haven’t thought much farther than straight up Seyval Blanc. Our 2017 harvest yielded 100 pounds and made 23 bottles (yes, bottles)! Our 700-pound 2018 harvest produced 15 cases and we’ve made that available exclusively to our wine club members on a 2-bottle allocation. Give me a few years when I’ve got Seyval Blanc growing out of my ears and I’ll get back to you on a Late Harvest version.

[TaV]: Who are your winemaking mentors (if any)?
[DS]: First and foremost, Joe Henke of Henke Winery in Cincinnati. Joe took me under his wing as a basement winemaking hobbyist. He offered me a position as an unpaid cellar rat but promised he’d teach me everything he knew—open book—and he did. He even showed me his books because he wanted me to understand what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly of being a professional winemaker.” He’s an award-winning winemaker who makes 2,000 cases across roughly 15 different types of wines (including a phenomenal sparkling Chardonnay and an incredible Norton) in the basement of a 100-year-old house in an urban neighborhood with the bare essentials: barrels, a pump, a press, a pallet jack. I learned so much from him about the process of winemaking and the business of winemaking; that you don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment to make incredible wines. You just need to do a ton of cleaning. Amazing mentor.

Additionally, I did a harvest internship in the Fall of 2012 at Alexana in Dundee, Oregon under Bryan Weil. It was Bryan’s first harvest there as winemaker and Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars was still working alongside Bryan, as she had been consulting winemaker for the label prior to Bryan coming on board. I soaked up as much as I could about working with Pinot Noir from both of them. Because, at age 39, I was not your typical harvest intern—plus I had three years of time at Henke Winery under my belt—Bryan was gracious enough to build my internship around what I needed to learn. He put me in the vineyard for sampling fruit, for example, something I’d never had the opportunity to do before. He had me set up the lab for him and run lots of testing because I knew how to do it. We’re still very close today and I appreciate everything he was gracious enough to share with me.

As far as winery business mentors, there have been so many people in the Willamette Valley who have generously offered advice and shared their successes and failures that it would be impossible to name them all. But they know who they are.

[TaV]: What is your view on sustainable viticulture, dry farming, organic methods?
[DS]: That’s what we do here in our own vineyard and at the vineyards we source from. We think it’s very important to be good stewards of the Earth—we’re farmers now! It also produces stronger vines that develop more flavorful grapes and ultimately better wines.

[TaV]: How did you choose the music pieces as the names of your wines? What was your thought process, what criteria? What message are you trying to convey with those names?
[DS]: Let me start by explaining the name of the winery. I played French Horn for more than 20 years (I’m horribly out of practice now—Sara says I only make noise) including after business and law schools, so it was a key part of my life. When it came time to name the winery, we wanted to name it something personal that wasn’t our last name (people are terrible at remembering names!) and I really wanted to tie it into the French Horn. Coincidentally, the property Sara found was on Bell Road in Newberg. So that tied in perfectly to the term “Bells Up,” which is a notation by the composer in the score of a piece of music. At a dramatic moment, it directs the French Horns to lift the bells of their instruments to project their sound with more intensity. It’s our time to shine—which is why I say the winery is my #bellsupmoment.

The pieces of music I chose to name each wine are all ones that prominently feature the French Horn, as well as epitomize the wine itself. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” inspired our Pinot Blanc to be named “Rhapsody” because it’s a jazzy, energetic white wine. Gustav Mahler—the French Horn player’s best friend because his pieces tend to be horn-heavy—wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D Major, called “Titan,” and it’s become regarded as his flagship work. Therefore, our Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which we consider to be our flagship Pinot, is “Titan.” And so on. There’s a link at the top of our wines page to a playlist of all the pieces for those interested in hearing them.

[TaV]: Why “un-domaine”?
[DS]: It was a term that came up as we were discussing how to describe our casual tasting room vibe, our keep-it-simple winemaking approach, and our distinctive brand with a good friend who happens to be a wine writer. A couple of years ago after we opened our doors in 2015 there was a trend of new wineries opening in the Willamette Valley with the word “Domaine” in their name. We just aren’t. Our property is humble, our tasting room is a converted pole barn, you won’t find a marble fireplace. While Sara and I enjoy wine, nobody would ever confuse us with wine snobs.

Does “un-domaine” mean we’re not for everyone? Absolutely. There’s no cachet associated with owning or drinking a bottle of Bells Up wine. And that’s perfectly fine with us. We’d much rather be the bottle on your table every day of the week than the one gathering dust in the wine rack because you spent a ton of money on it and are waiting for a special occasion—and friends who will appreciate it—before it’s opened.

[TaV]: Did you have a pivotal wine in your life, the one which changed your wine worldview?
[DS]: Not so much a specific wine but a wine experience I had very early on. I had the pleasure of visiting some friends in Europe after graduating from law school and they took me to Beaune (in the heart of Burgundy) for a weekend. We did a lot of tasting in the touristy cellars, but also in garages and co-operatives where the atmosphere was much more down-to-earth. I knew absolutely nothing about wine prior to that but I was in awe of what I saw, smelled, and tasted. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I was in the heart of a culture that valued wine as an everyday experience—that part really resonated with my soul. Looking back, I’m sure that I would appreciate that experience more fully if I took the same trip now, but that time in Beaune has fueled my passion for wine ever since.

[TaV]: With the exception of your own wines, what are your favorite Oregon wines and /or producers?
[DS]: We truly have an embarrassment of riches here in the Willamette Valley—so many quality producers call this place home that a list of my favorite producers would fill about 3 dozen barrels. With every producer having their own unique style—plus the trailblazing nature of the Oregon wine industry—innovation is happening all the time: new grapes, new techniques, and so on. I think many people assume that a winemaker drinks only his or her own wine at home, but the truth is I almost never drink my own wines outside of the professional setting. I’d much rather be exploring the styles and fresh ideas that other winemakers here are creating and perhaps get inspired to try some of those ideas myself!

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines and/producers outside of Oregon?
[DS]: Again, way too many to answer! The wines I enjoy most are ones where I have a personal connection in some way and I’m fortunate to have so many talented friends in other parts of the winemaking world. Back in Ohio, my mentor Joe Henke at Henke Winery, of course, but also my friends Greg Pollman of Valley Vineyards and Bill Skvarla of Harmony Hill Vineyards make fantastic wines from grapes grown locally and regionally. Up in Woodinville, Washington my friend, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars is making a name for herself with her Washington-focused program. And up over the border in Naramata, British Columbia my friend Jay Drysdale has founded Bella Sparkling Wines, BC’s only winery dedicated to sparkling wines. I know that some other friends have projects in the works and can’t wait to brag about them in a few years too.

[TaV]: Where do you see Bells Up Winery in 20 years?
[DS]: Not in the grocery store. Our customer base is national, but we have no aspirations for retail distribution. We’re perfectly content to sell direct-to-consumer and to a couple of local restaurants and a wine bar in Downtown Portland. When we hit 1,000-case production, that’s it. We won’t make any more than that annually because we both enjoy and believe wholeheartedly in the micro-boutique winery experience we’ve created. We want to have personal relationships with our customers. We specifically don’t have an online ordering portal because we want to have a conversation with our buyers either by phone or email. Making and maintaining those connections is really important to us, and we hope to grow those relationships over the next 20 years and beyond.

I’m sure you are ready to taste some wine by now. Before I will share with you my notes after tasting 3 of Dave’s wines, I want to bring something to your attention. By now you know that Bells Up wines are named after different musical compositions. In case you want to experience those musical compositions, either by themselves or together with the wine, Dave has a link to Spotify playlist of all the relevant music pieces available on the winery website. And now, here are my notes:

2018 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc Chehalem Mountains AVA (13.1% ABV, $38, 15 cases produced)
Light golden
Restrained, minerality-driven, touch of gunflint, a touch of fresh green apples
Excellent acidity, Granny Smith apples all the way, crisp, fresh, good texture. Has traits of Seyval Blanc (tropical fruit intent, I would say, like a hint of guava without any fruit notes), but put on a different core
8-, very interesting, thought-provoking and food friendly wine (acidity lingers on the finish for a good couple of minutes)

2018 Bells Up Prelude Rosé of Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains (13% ABV, $22, 126 cases produced)
Light red
Medium plus intensity, distant hint of the barnyard, underripe cranberries, herbal notes
Bone dry, crunchy cranberries, excellent acidity, food-friendly wine, fruit showing up a bit later, excellent balance
8/8+, delicious and dangerous. I can keep drinking it until the bottle will be empty

2016 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.1% ABV, $40, 12 months in French oak (39% new), 131 cases produced)
Dark ruby
Plums, a hint of smoke, violets
Slightly underripe plums, crisp cherries, sage undertones, good acidity, light to medium body,
8-, light, easy to drink, food friendly. Should improve with time.

Dave Specter conducts Bells Up-Private Tasting

Dave Specter conducts the private tasting. Source: Bells Up Winery

Here you are, my friends. Another story of Passion and Pinot.

To be continued…

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Ghost Hill Cellars, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

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