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Guys Guide to Drinking Wine in 2015
April 14, 2015 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

The Guys’ Guide to Drinking Wine in 2015 with Taken Wine Co

Last year, the United States downed roughly 1.3 million more bottles of vino than the French. That effectively pulls the U.S. into the lead as the world’s biggest consumer of wine.

This year, your inner oenophile deserves some attention. That includes a plan to seek out new wines from yet unexplored regions, staple wines to bring to dinner parties, wines that will impress in-laws (or potential in-laws) and some guidance on vintage wines you might have cellared—or have access to—that are ready to drink.

To help shed light on these tasks and more, we pegged Josh Phelps and Carlo Trinchero, two energetic movers and shakers from Napa Valley. Phelps and Trinchero make wines under their Taken Wine Co. label, and in the past year alone have been… keep reading on Liquor.com.

 

[This article first appeared on Liquor.com on March 27, 2015]

May 17, 2012 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

Stone The Crows – from Winemaker Thomas R. Brown

       

Let us say that I’m a “friend of the farmer” behind Stone The Crows. And let us say that the “farmer” is a country gentleman who enlisted the Food & Wine magazine 2010 Winemaker of the Year, Mr. Thomas Rivers Brown to make this new Napa Valley boutique production Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thomas studied under Ehren Jordan (winemaker at Turley and Failla) and who by all accounts from Hardy Wallace, is a bonafide genius maker of fermented juice.

They key is pedigree. And then there’s this:

Three Twins Vineyard (photo courtesy of Stone The Crows website).

Tell me what kind of grapes wouldn’t be happy growing here? The Three Twins vineyard comprises five acres of vines planted on fairly steep hillsides way up Conn Valley road in St. Helena, CA. Underneath the cloud cover in the distance is Lake Hennessey, first cousin to Lake Berryessa. From these vines, comes forth a plush, elegant Napa valley Cabernet that over-delivers.

2009 Stone The Crows (Napa Valley)

Recently, I took the liberty of bringing along a bottle to a blind tasting that included some notable and well-established NYC noses (aka sommeliers). Here is a smattering of what the group thought:

  • Wine is 4-7 years old
  • Surprised by smooth, plush tannin
  • Bright cherry aromas
  • Surely an Old World wine

Et Voila! I revealed the wine and with the 2009 vintage clocking in at a mere 35 cases, as indicated on the bottle, excitement was had by all, especially in discovering that the wine was a young Napa Cab grown from vines neighboring a heavy-hitter like Continuum.

Stefan Blicker of BPwine.com and Wine Berserkers was equally impressed and you can read his review here.

225 cases will be made from the 2010 vintage and production is expected to reach a mere 500-600 cases in 2012. That being said, now is the time to find yourself on the list, especially if you’ve left your heart just north of San Francisco where some of the world’s most surprising, delightful and elegant boutique production wines are coming into fruition. And as the Three Twins Vineyard matures, this wine will grow in complexity – there’s already a good balance of minerality and fruit – it’s a feel-good wine that should accompany you out to dinner where corkage is reasonable and think: spectacular views, balcony-sipping, the feeling you have when you’ve just come from a round of croquet or decided to take Friday off (again). Yes, you just might do that – don’t forget your corkscrew. And don’t forget to visit the website and sign up on the list before it’s too late (retail price is TBA): www.stonethecrowswine.com.

Twas indeed a blind tasting

 

November 14, 2011 1 comment Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest Recap: Part One of Three – Alpha Omega Winery

Alpha Omega Winery

In April of this year I began making plans to work the 2011 Harvest in the Napa Valley. I had no idea what it would mean to “work” the Harvest — only that it was imperative I be present in the valley in June, when wineries began the process of hiring for the season.

To simply pack up and leave Kings County, Brooklyn for five or so months and head west to the no-humidity, dry Napa County  seemed like… a fine idea! I telephoned everyone I knew – bloggers, winemakers, family, pool attendants and supper club impresarios… on the advice of Hardy Wallace and Jeff Morgan, two dynamic winemakers of radically different styles, I booked a one-way ticket and promised my wife that I would make good on this adventure (after all, she would only be able to visit in August, so we’d be apart for quite some time). I eventually found myself working in the cellar at Alpha Omega Winery in Rutherford, CA, but first there was June, July and August…

From the beginning of June until the middle of August I had work consulting for Ram’s Gate Winery. Ram’s Gate is now the first winery in sight as avid wine-country adventurers speed north from San Francisco into wine country. It is in effect, the gateway winery to the valley. Situated on a hill across from the Infineon Raceway in Carneros, the place is a work of art with expansive seating areas, lounging areas, glorious tasting room and demo kitchen, lake, on and on.  I will revisit a recap of Ram’s Gate in part three of this little three-part harvest recap series. For now, we fast-forward into September.

The foundation of a “wine country experience” for a person decidedly delving into the industry as a profession, is in my professional opinion: cellar work. And there it was. Was it there? Surely. Several weeks of early mornings and strenuous repetitive and tiresome activities. But: thrilling work, fulfilling work, gritty, take-action, no-standing-around, honest labor – a labor of art. You thought I was going to say a labor of “love,” but that’s silly. Harvest work is perhaps for some a labor of love. I began to see the work of the winemaker, the cellar team and vineyard crews as a labor of art.

Think about the many different works of art you might see in flea markets or say in Paris’s famous Montmartre market. Some works stand out above the rest, though the experience is entirely subjective. A finished piece of art is the result of an artist’s labor of his art, and speaking wine, bottled wine is the labor of a winemaker’s labor of his art. The artist will brood over many decisions: what canvas to use, brush strokes to perform, colors to highlight, textures to impart, anon. The winemaker too will ruminate over his canvas: the vineyard. What and how to plant? And then: when to pick? How to harvest (hand harvest vs machine harvest), and how the grapes are crushed, sorted and sent to cold-soak or to ferment, whether the juice goes into barrel or stainless steel, whether it is macerated with the skins during cold-soak or fermentation, whether it is inoculated with yeast or left to ferment with the natural yeasts coming in off the vineyards — there are a myriad of possibilities and wine as a finished and bottled product will be influenced by the choices the winemaker makes.

Now look: I’ve dabbled in a variety of careers: acting, directing, writing, temp work, restaurants, public relations, bird-feeding, horseback racing, fishing, hunting, singing, pretended to be a billionaire, Frank Sinatra, and told more Henny Youngman jokes than Henny Youngman, however folks: talking the wine-speak, walking the wine-talk and performing in a manner that holds the simultaneous attentions of the amateur and professional connoisseur is in short: a challenge. I’ve appointed myself a “Master Sommelier” for two reasons: 1) it’s irreverent 2) I will never be a true Master Sommelier, but why should that stop me? Okay, you say, fair enough — can you hold your own? Can you indeed talk the wine-talk and still keep your Maryjanes from biting? Good question.

Yes (for the most part).  The impetus for my western pilgrimage was to get an education. So: can I tell you the laws that govern the lands of Burgundy and Bordeaux? Can I name the 13 cepages that make up traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Would I be happy to debate the origins of Portuguese grape varietals? Or tell you the difference between any Spanish wines, any of them? How about describe the sensations, the aromas and the subtleties of white wines? Red wines? Rose wines? Would I recommend a wine to go with your dinner? How about a wine to go with your anniversary? Shall we head to a restaurant with a Gold Medal Wine Spectator Grand Award-O-Palooza wine list and tell you what the acid is like in a 1987 German Spatlese or Zweigelt or recommend the ’84 over the ’95 third growth Bordeaux or tell you the difference between the Cote-du-Rhone and the Cote-d’Or??

Yes. Will any of it be true? Maybe! Will you believe me because my conviction will be absolute? Absolutely!

Can we talk California? You bet we can.  Need another list of questions? No you don’t. But a fun list of the many activities I engaged in while working at Alpha Omega Winery is absolutely in hand. All, I should say, set into motion by winemaker Jean Hoefliger and assistant winemaker Henrik Poulsen. These good gents, whom I had the privilege to work for, are masters of their art. Jean is Swiss and Henrik is Danish from Denmark though contrary to what you might be thinking they don’t mix Swiss cheese, great Danes, Danish pastries or chocolate into the wine (I’ve suggested as much but to no avail). Swiss chocolate? Swiss knives? Danish Flags? Maybe. Delicious? Complex? Drink now but just you wait until later? All the above. A brilliant duo who work around the clock to make the best wine they can.

In the cellar, I worked with a team of Spanish-speaking work-horses: and I mean that with utmost respect. Many of these guys (and they were all guys) work year-round at Alpha or head to South Africa for harvest in the Napa-off-season, or other parts of the world for harvest work. “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live-long day,” is exactly how I felt through the month of September into October. “Up in the morning, out on the job, work like the devil for my pay,” is what I sang every morning in the shower. So, how about a typical day in the life of a cellar worker? Looks like this:

5:30am: Get up.
6:59am: Clock in.
7:02am: Morning Meeting.
7:12am: Get to work. Punch-downs, add sulfur, clean barrels, clean tanks, clean crush pad, clean tools, sanitize everything, clean some more, rack wine, depose of lees, stir the lees, batonnage, find something to clean while waiting for grapes to come in and once the grapes come in oh boy… make sure the million-dollar sorting machine is in place and sanitized, bins are ready, hoses are ready, barrels are ready, ozone, sulfur, all ready and man your position — you are sorting you hosing down you are driving the fork-lift you are cleaning the crates, the bins, the crushpad and you are helping him and you are supervising them because I’ve got to taste and make sure the “D-Juice” goes into this tank and the “Free-Run” goes into that tank and then after you’re going to climb in and scoop out the grape skins, but don’t worry, we won’t turn the machine on (har har har) and oh the jokes. Joking. There are lots of jokes. What else are you supposed to do when for eight hours a day you’re doing punch-downs. Repetition is the way of the winery. And guess what? It’s lunchtime.
12:00pm: Lunch.
12:30pm: Everything you did from 7:12am until 12:00pm do again. Do it a little faster too, okay?
4:00pm: Clock out, as long as there aren’t more grapes coming. If they are, stay put, but clean that punch-down stick and make more sanitizer and inoculate those barrels while we wait and take this into the lab and have them run the #$&%*#Y*@% test on this stuff and make sure they run the #(%*&%&# test and not the $(#&%&(#%( test, okay? You got it? That’s what she said.
4:05pm: Hunt for car keys and realize you are covered in grape juice, grapes hanging off your pants, sweater, hair, and blue rags are still tied around your belt. Oh well, they’re yours.
5:00pm: Just try reading and responding to emails. Just try it.
6:00pm: Dinner? You ate plenty of grapes today.
8:00pm: Too early for bed? Nope.

Alright, that’s a typical day. So let’s imagine you’re holding a bottle of Alpha Omega 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s nice, right? Looks like this:

Alpha Omega 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon

You: How much does it cost?
Them: $84.

And here is where the battle is waged between consumer, the market, reality, the connoisseur, the collector, the every-day drinker, the educated and frankly the uneducated. If you ask why the wine costs $84, chances are you’re not going to buy that wine. The efforts, aforementioned, that go into producing this product are monumental. The costs, the people-power, farming, the marketing, the distribution, everything that happens before that wine hits a shelf and eventually your table are a bit incomprehensible, but understanding that can help put costs into perspective. It takes a lot of people and energy not only to make a wine, but to make great wine. Think about that when you think about price. (We can have a different conversation when we’re talking a bottle of wine that costs $200+ because I have a different opinion about that).

Now let’s back track a moment and say that you tasted the $84 Cab before you new how much it cost. Now we dabble in the realm of quality vs expectation. Remember: that taste in wine, like taste in art is subjective. There’s one important factor however that trumps subjectivity and that is experience. Experience is not drinking; experience is tasting and reflecting. And reflection can shape expectation. Part of my pilgrimage to Napa for five months – leaving my wife to the vacuuming in Brooklyn – presented as much of an opportunity to taste/reflect as it did to network, talk and hear tales of the glory days and struggles of such a history-rich community of farmers.

Listen too and let’s dispel this: to truly taste&discuss a wine, good fearing wino, is not to be a snob of wine. When you drink chocolate milk or when you drink coffee or tea you’re looking for a pleasurable wonderful experience, ain’t you? You order that Blue Bottle $55 cup of Joe because it makes you feel like an important person. Wine is full of complexity too and recognizing that complexity by talking about its mouth-feel, texture, aroma, body, viscosity, taste anon! and what it reminds you of is all part of the pleasure to be had from building toward an intoxicating moment of truth. The children of our current college circuits are imbibing wine like Prohibition is once more on the horizon and if that’s a place to start, okay. After that, it’s time to work toward the sophisticated aspects of enjoying wine with a meal and crucial to not be so self-absorbed or self-infatuated that talking about wine is beneath some culturally idiotic principle you’ve decided to uphold because you saw it on Google, or some friend on Facebook thinks you might be an up-and-coming snob or some wine writer intimidates you.

Jonny on the rampage! Well, I had to. Being in the valley and working at Alpha also meant distancing myself from technology and hence, distancing myself from the constant conversation that seems all-too-important to drop, or leave behind. There simply wasn’t time to “engage.” I’ve tweeted less, I’ve blogged less (much less than I promised!), and I’ve engaged less than ever before. I spent hours connecting to the fruit of the land – being outdoors – noticing nature. I worried less about posting content every few minutes and focused instead on what I was doing. People used to drive. Now people drivetext. At the risk of sounding preachy, I mention all this because there was a lesson to be learned and I learned it: the conversation will go on & you can pick it up at any time. It tis only one’s own self-induced manifestations (and I induced plenty, believe me) of what one might be missing that creates – and is continuing to create – more content and more saturation than any of us can or need to handle.

Stop, slow down, reflect and enjoy. That is the power of wine. Wine is by nature slow and reflective. I spent many evenings having dinner with good people, and we talked and talked about wine and the qualities of wine – a valuable activity for anyone albeit a fan of drinking wine or immersed in the industry. I saw grapes grow on the vine over many months, tasted them as they ripened until they were harvested, crushed them and drank their juices and in another year I’ll be able to taste the white wines that made this 2011 harvest and in a year or so after that, the reds. Then, I will have come full circle. And when the time comes, I hope to be surrounded by friends, tasting the wine, eating good food and talking about the hours spent working in the cellar, remembering things like the sounds of fork-lifts racing around the crushpad.

“Door is always open,” is what Jean said to me as I left Alpha for the last time, on a bright and warm late October afternoon. Well, I’ll be back – certainly to taste the red wines, the very wines I spent hours upon hours punching down during cold-soak prior to fermentation. I tasted the juice then, and I look forward to tasting the juice… when it becomes wine.

Visit Noble Rot Talks to hear an interview with Jean Hoefliger.

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October 13, 2011 1 comment Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

Green Light/End of Dock -{JC}- C.I.A./Edge of Mayacamas

Green Light/End of Dock -{JC}- C.I.A./Edge of Mayacams

“As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

As I sat this morning brooding on the old, unknown landscapes of the Napa Valley, I thought of my own wonder when I first picked out the C.I.A. at the edge of the Mayacamas Mountains, in view just miles away from where I am staying. I have come a long way to this green valley, and my expectations of what I would find and what I would take back with me to New York seemed so close that I could hardly fail to grasp them.

"Every morning I wake to look across the valley and I see The Culinary Institute of America."

I have less than three weeks left in St. Helena, CA before returning to Brooklyn. My arrival date of June 8th to the west coast seems all at once, a distant day in years gone by and nothing so much as the day before yesterday.

If Gatsby could put all his dreams into one Daisy, I too could fit all of my dreams into one Valley. Gatsby, however, was too late chasing a life that had already left him behind. All the pomp and circumstance in the world would not make Daisy his. This Valley, however, is still young. At the same time, wine country is full of the old ways of doing things. I run into Meyer Wolfsheims everywhere I go: “You’re very polite, but I belong to another generation,” is what Meyer says to Gatbsy and Nick before parting ways. And there is much truth in this statement with respect to the class dichotomies that are evident in Napa Valley.

I’m not quite ready to put into words what I’ve learned here, but I can tell you that I’ve stopped swimming in pools…

Every morning I look across the valley and see The Culinary Institute of America. I never imagined that my life’s work would revolve around the activities of the dinner table: Wine and Food. The C.I.A. for the longest time was a representation of the very “vast obscurity” that would be Gatsby’s demise, however lately and in my case it has come to represent that, “one fine morning—-” and many more to come.

C.I.A.

For now, the season changes and the onset of Fall begins its careful re-touching of the valley, dotting each leaf one at a time a brilliant crimson or mauve or golden hue, the greens fading into obscurity.

October 12, 2011 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest — Days 3-6 at Alpha Omega Winery

The glorious moments of "Cold-Soak."

It’s Wednesday, October 12, 2011. I’ve been ordered by the town Doc in St. Helena to “take off” 10/11, 10/12 & 10/13 and then some. Apparently, I’ve been… overdoing it. A slight case of Vertigo and the ailments that follow have set me back. And I’m happy to have been knocked down into a chair for a few days because I realized I haven’t had a day off since June 8, 2011. Well, one day off, but I hiked Mt. St. Helena with Amanda Wells – the same Amanda Wells that happens to be married to me. Okay, listen: It’s Harvest, can you smell it? The salt air? I brought you to — wait, wrong movie. The fermentation in the air? I’ve brought you to Napa Valley!

Harvest work ain’t easy work and the hours are not for us, good-natured humans, to decide when the grapes are ready to come on down! Just as an example you can see what Ram’s Gate Winery went through for the harvest of their first ton of Chardonnay grapes. At Alpha Omega, we experienced a day where 23 tons of grapes had to be pressed with the juice of whites going into stainless steel tanks and the reds going into barrels for an extended cold-soak maceration. Now, what in the good name of Grape Juice is “cold-soak” and “maceration?” Good questions. After spending three days doing punch-downs of the cold-soaking macerated juice and grapes I asked winemaker Jean Hoefligger what this “nonsense” is all about. I said “nonsense” and here’s what he said more or less:

Jean: We cold-soak for an extended period of time because when the grapes are not fermenting and with the absence of alcohol, the tannin extraction, fruit and flavor extraction works best. We can make a wine with more concentrated, nicer flavor and aroma characteristics when the exchange of flavor and aroma profiles happens in the absence of alcohol.

Alcohol can inhibit and effect flavor and aroma, and so before the yeasts even think about turning sugar to booze, cold-soak is the way of this wayward winemaker. What that means for me and the rest of the cellar team hour and hours of punch-downs:

Punch-downs - juice is bubbling from the dry ice we add to keep the temperature down and hence prohibit fermentation.

We'll spend 5 minutes on each barrel, punching down the caps. That's 5 minutes per barrel on all these barrels, and apparently, I'm told , "This ain't nothin'." Well, I'd love to see what "something" is because this "nothing" is pretty intense. About 5-6 hours of work if alone.

***

Wine Connoisseur: “This wine has a nose of graham cracker and toast!”

Me: “Who’re you fooling buddy? It’s grapes! Grapes! Ain’t no toast or crackers in that!”

Wine Connoisseur: “I tell you, Jonny, there’s graham cracker.”

Me: “Prove it.”

Wine Connoisseur: “Surely, take a look at the photo below…”

Inside of a new Oak Barrel -- looky that toast!

If you were to stick your head into that barrel, as I did just after snapping this shot, you’d smell, so help me bloody merry, graham cracker and toast. And what a delightful smell too! But you see, good wino, that’s a reality and in a red you might just find that the aromas blend in such a way that you think you’re drinking a glass full o’ s’mores.

***

The Rain has been a’comin.’ On lunch break just last week (10/5) sunny, cook skies gave way to an instantaneous rain storm that looked like this:

Rain.

Not sure what this means for many growers, but as they say, we’ll find out. And I’ll let you know. So, we spent time inside recording the temperatures of the cold-soaking goodness.

13.1 degrees in the Celsius. Stable and good. Carry on! (Tastes great! Sweet!)

The forecast calls for more sunny days though. I’ll pick up cellar work next week. In the meantime, tune back in tomorrow as I’ll write about a dinner party hosted with Tim West of Grub.ly in a mansion at the top of Lombard Street in San Francisco, a Harvest dinner at Quintessa, and a partridge in a pair…

 

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