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May 21, 2012 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

The Wines of Brooklyn Winery Winemaker Conor McCormack

This is all you need to know about the winemaker at Williamsburg’s very own Brooklyn Winery:

“Making wine wasn’t on my radar until I saw a craigslist posting for a harvest intern in 2003 while hunting for a job post-college. It was serendipitous, but once I got into it, there was no stopping.”

Left to right: John Stires, Conor McCormack, Brian Leventhal

That quote comes from Conor McCormack’s bio on the Brooklyn Winery website. It’s nearly a verbatim-repeat-quote of what he told a group of about 40 of us this past Thursday, the 17th of May, 2012, just before we got into a four course wine and food pairing of Conor’s latest bottlings.

Prior to making his home here in the east, his wine-country experience is fruitful and spans stints from Napa to Washington State and looks like this: Crushpad SF, Rutherford Hill Winery, Brehm Vineyards, Audubon Cellars, and White Salmon Vineyards. Pretty fabulous places.

Conor’s serendipitous rendezvous with the art of making wine, now into it’s ninth year  and laden with cellar stellar experiences establishing his “vine-street-cred” should impress you – but honestly, stop reading this blasted blog and go to Brooklyn Winery and have a few glasses of his wine. Treat yourself to a marvelous sensory experience. And since you asked my opinion so kindly I’ll give it: try the Pinot NoirAhem. The Carneros Pinot Noir. Think about this: the fruit was picked in Carneros and shipped east, fermented and aged at Brooklyn Winery. When you nose this wine, it is so distinctly Carneros that it should take everything within to remember that after enjoying a glass you are in Brooklyn and have to get on the subway to go home, not in a car to drive north to Napa or south to San Francisco. The simple fact that Conor has been able to maintain the integrity a Pinot that is so distinctly of another place from fruit shipped across the country, fermented in Brooklyn and aged in used barrels, is a testament to his winemaking skill, cleanliness and philosophy.

The Brooklyn Winery has become a hub for amateur and serious wine enthusiasts excited to be near barrels and tanks and to taste wine made on-site. It’s also become a go-to for events – lots of events – especially weddings. Lots of weddings. And lots of weddings means lots of brides. Brides asking, pleading, demanding and suggesting that the space, the physical space (where tanks and barrels and winemaking equipment resides) be arranged and rearranged to fit the perfect vision of their impending marriage. And with weddings comes the wedding train and all its glory and pomp and circumstance a.k.a. a nightmare for a winemaker. I’m not suggesting that BK Winery entertains foolish requests, or that they rearrange the crucial areas where wine is racked and fermented, but when a winery is beholden to events, it is often the winemaker who must make sacrifices – sacrifices in quality control. Whatever Conor’s urban winery fate, he has managed to maintain the quality he knows his wines deserve and as a result is producing wines worthy of some serious attention.

The evening’s food pairings by Executive Chef David Colston looked like this:

Scallop Ceviche with Cantaloupe, Chorizo, Basil and Lemon Verbena. Paired with:

BKW Riesling (two glasses: one aged in stainless steel and one in neutral oak! Yes, neutral oak!)

Spicy Seafood Risotto with Monk Fish, Lobster, Squid and Heirloom Tomatoes. Paired with:

BKW Chardonnay aged in Stainless Steel.

Long Island Duck Breast with Mini Yorkshire Puddings and SPring Vegetables. Paired with:

Paired with BKW Pinot Noir - MY FAV and the one bottle I didn't grab a shot of. That's a glass of it. Aged in 20% French and 80% Neutral Oak.

Cheesecake with New Jersey Strawberries and Rhubarb. Paired with:

BKW Rose of Zinfandel, aged in Stainless Steel.

The good and loyal readers here at Winetology know that I don’t like to give descriptors of wine. (It’s not because I don’t have a certification and am incapable of using good wine descriptors, okay?) I find it to be a foolish thing, since no two noses or palates are the same. And you don’t need me to tell you what kind of Jolly Rancher I get out of the rose either (watermellon). Decide for yourself and imagine that these photos are scratch and sniff (just don’t send me a bill when you ruin your iPad). Or better yet, head to Brooklyn Winery and say to the winetender, “Winetender! Jonny says I want a glass of Conor McCormack’s Pinot Noir!” And when he gives you the Chardonnay, don’t make that face and tell him you don’t drink Chardonnay. Drink it, be surprised, and then order the Pinot.   By then, I’ll be sitting next to you draining my cup dry.

"A Wine & Food Pairing" at the Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg.

 

November 23, 2011 1 comment Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

2011 Harvest Recap: Part Two of Three – Swanson Vineyards

Welcome to part two of our three-part mini-series, “2011 Harvest Recap,” I’m your host and the chap who worked the Harvest, Jonathan Jonny Cigar Cristaldi and sometimes Why.

That’s a bit of an old joke and it’s not very funny. Shall we then?

We turn now to the score of an old Parisian Salon and boutique winery tucked away in a garden paradise just off Manley Lane in Rutherford, CA. Mind you, I had a unique situation worked out in wine country: three days a week working at Alpha Omega in the cellar and three days a week working the Salon at Swanson Vineyards.

Moroccan wood, agate in-lays, a table suitable for a king, and this is how you feel when tasting wine at Swanson. Like a king, or a queen. And me: the court Jester, ahem Salonniere, 'scuse me.

Look up:

Art adorns the Salon walls by local Calistoga artist Ira Yeagre.

Integral to the Harvest experience, I was convinced that work in a tasting room was equally essential to my understanding of the industry from the ground-level up. Now, I’ve been to many-a-tasting rooms at many a-winery and have been plenty-a-disappointed. Tastings are typically whirl-wind experiences, like In-and-Out Burger. They get you in, they say, “Here’s our Cabernet, it’s so delicious, it tastes like blackberry soup with a dollop of graham cracker crème fraîche, a richy rich mouthfeel and goes nice with Turkey.” Then they say, “On the other side of the card is information about our Wine Club. If you sign up today we’ll give you a shoulder rub and charge your card a magical price, derived from our Wheel-of-Fortune-esque wheel of fortune.” And before you know it you’ve lost $30, a bit of pride, and have an empty feeling in your stomach because you didn’t pick up the hint of “late-afternoon simmering prune.” Well, clearly you’re not cut out to taste wine. Why don’t you stick to Coors Light?

NO, good wino. You will not stick to Coors Light. You will persevere.

At Swanson, the Salon was designed to experience wine the way the Swanson’s like to experience wine: slow, over bites, around a table with friends. Conversation and storytelling, blended together to create a memorable experience and truly let the guest spend a bit of time with the wine. Lucky for the Swanson’s they have winemaker Chris Phelps who happens to make fu#%ing incredible wines. And I know because I had to taste them before every appointment, and when day-in-day out one is tasting the same wine, one has the opportunity to look for nuance and to understand the concept of “structure” in a wine.

But let’s backtrack a moment, because someone in the back row asked a great question: “How did you end up at Swanson?” Great question!

Through a series of humorous miscommunications with the former Marketing Director (I thought she was the daughter of Elizabeth Swanson and she thought I was a spammer) and after numerous follow-ups, I was granted a meeting! I thought I was heading there to talk about a potential Noble Rot collaboration while she thought I was interviewing for a job. After 20 minutes we figured it all out and became fast friends realizing we had come to the valley on similar missions.

A few weeks later I received an invitation to a small private gathering at the winery. My contract with Ram’s Gate was about up and I was in talks with Alpha Omega, so I had no expectations of this event other than to meet the family and taste more of the delectable Swanson wine.

I took it as an opportunity to “dress up.” I had been living in jeans and tucked in button-down shirts. My vests had gone to the wayside. Napa is not a valley of style, sorry Napa! But they know that: they’re farmers. It’s not a three-piece-suit-kind-of-town. Though if you ask me, anything other than a three-piece suit is out of place, alas!) So, off I went to Swanson, even wearing a bow-tie. And then it happened:

The distinctly and stately Clarke Swanson, a man who could very likely have been King of the Napa Valley had this been 15th-Century Europe, wearing a double-breasted suit jacket, complete with pocket-kerchief appeared in the Salon. Was it possible that this man was my real father?! Had I been raised in the trailer park in upstate New York accidentally? Had I been sent down the Napa river as an infant, my mother picking grapes saw me coming, saved me, and fled to the Catskills? Nay. But, my word, we hit it off right away. Then followed Clarke’s wife, the inimitable, warm, friendly, humorous and enchanting Elizabeth Swanson. A sixth-generation New Orleanian and what I call a “pleasant hurricane,” one that envelops you in welcoming winds. Groucho Marx might have met his match with Elizabeth Swanson. And finally I met their daughter, Alexis, whose name adorns bottles of Swanson Cabernet. Like her parents, boasting a winsome personality, she and I engaged in quick-witted quick-speak and in a matter of minutes it was decided that I would likely be working as a Salonniere in the Salon.

Just like that. See what a three-piece suit and bow-tie does for you in Napa Valley? In New York people just hand me their dirty dishes.

And so, from late August through the last day of October I was several days a week working in the Salon, hosting by appointment only, hour-long tastings. One such tasting was chronicled in photos here by Carolyn C. Burgess, a friend of Alexis, in her October 23rd posting.

***

Landing on the Swanson crushpad, so-to-speak, was the absolute perfect scenario pour-moi. The tastings were like short performances. I had one hour to entertain, delight, revive the senses and educate the good guests that came-a-shuffling through the gates. I learned the Swanson story in and out and selected which wines I would pour on a daily basis. And my co-winery workers made the daily routines thoroughly enjoyable. A group of smart, supportive brilliant people (they laughed at my jokes, and if they were laughing at me at least they were laughing and for that they are diamonds in my book). They shall be named: Mindi, Ella, Rosemary, Lin, Grace, Samantha, Holly, Logan, Chris and Jamison.

These good folks made coming to “work” a treat. I even whistled while breaking down boxes! And they supported my unconventional approach to the Swanson experience, which certainly included Dean Martin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I have to single out one of the dames: Ms. Mindi Burnett. If e’er there was evidence that the world is truly small, look no further! Mindi was my Salonniere-marathon-trainer. And on the second day of my trailing her, dotting her brilliant performance with frivolous Henny Youngman and Dean Martin quotes, we were setting the table for the next group of unsuspecting tasters. I was telling Mindi about my days at Oxford and Juilliard. She didn’t believe a word of it, “You didn’t go to Oxford!” she accused! And I admitted she was right. I had been to The Tisch School of the Arts. Okay: that was a lie too. I went to SUNY Purchase. “I went to SUNY Purchase,” said Mindi. And here I thought the tables had turned and she was pulling my leg, but in fact it was true and all made sense! She had that familiar look; though I couldn’t place it. Well, turns out I had seen her in many productions because Mindi had attended the acting conservatory at Purchase. Our paths never crossed, however she has a lovely memorable visage and our hair parts in the same direction, hence we became fast friends. I even knew her husband! I mean: really? All the way out in Napa Valley, at a tiny off-the-beaten path winery, a fellow Poorchoice alum? The odds, the odds! My horse for the odds!

Amazing. Grace. How Sweet… the wine. Let me tell you, faithful reader, what I learned from my experience working in the Salon:

Namely, consumers are like George Seurat’s favorite thing: a blank page or canvass. They come in with varying degrees of wine education, but are open to hearing it all again or learning what they don’t know or informing me of what they do know. The tasting room is the front line for a winery and it is essential to put on a good show. If the show is lacking, the experience is dull and forgettable and hence the worst enemy of any brand. And when you’re working a table of eight people from all walks of life, with different goals (some are there to taste, some to buy, some to guzzle and some to simply have a wine country experience), you’ve got to play your cards right. It’s like Blackjack. As the dealer you have an obligation to the house to win and still you have to help the other players along, make suggestions to the novice, and be on par with the experienced.

The tasting room is also a place to truly develop one’s communication ethic. It’s also a great place to work on a vaudeville routine. And in my case, the only place where wine can be described by referencing various lines from The Great Gatsby. In the case of the Swanson Salon, the only place where I can comfortable say I’ve several more bottles of our $140 Face Cabernet, and I’d be happy to open one so you might taste (and I might taste with you!)

Look: Chris Phelps was hired in 2003 to make wine at Swanson. They’d been around since 1985 producing exceptional wines and Chris’s experience (Petrus, Dominus, Camyus, et al.) brings a lovely marriage of talent and quality to the wines and the take-away experience. It’s fascinating to see how different Chris runs a cellar from the way Jean Hoefliger at Alpha runs his cellar. Different winery designs will dictate different approaches. Different backgrounds will do the same. Prior to Chris joining forces, Marco Cappelli was winemaker and continues to make the dessert wines. Marco makes, in my humble opinion, the greatest Noble Rot wine on the face of the United States continent.

A Noble Rot late harvest Semillon from Lake County.

How perfect? They make the highest-rated Noble Rot wine in all of the U.S.!!! Meant to be!

***

On my final day, Chris and the team made Merlot burgers. After all, the Merlot is what Swanson is known for.

Left: Chris Phelps, eating a Merlot burger. Yum.

Playing in the courtyard: the brilliant barrel organist Michel Michelis, whose career includes performing with Cirque du Soleil, a French gypsy band and numerous other credits among them one wildly interesting gig as the voice of Tomber in Disney-Pixar’s Cars 2.

Michel Michelis

My final second to last “Salon” tasting was held in the courtyard and looked like this:

A Salon Tasting in the Courtyard at Swanson Vineyards

My last day was an interesting last day. I was at the end of my stay in Napa, having accomplished what I set out to do: work the Harvest from cellar to tasting room and beyond. I was inwardly emotional, but outwardly the performer. I’d made great friends and found a wonderful sense of community and I think that anyone who wants to collect a wine that tells a story, that is the epitome of community – also happens to be delicious and age-worthy – should collect (and of course drink) Swanson wines. Visit them, make an appointment in the Salon, be inspired and become a member of their family. Tell ’em Jonny Cigar sent you. You won’t regret it. I look forward to visiting the valley and stopping by, who knows, maybe even hosting an impromptu Salon tasting!

To hear my interview with winemaker Chris Phelps visit Noble Rot Talks.

And certainly check out SwansonVineyards.com

Closin' Time...

Pocket Squares given to me by Elizabeth Swanson as a parting gift!

 

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 14, 2011 0 comments Articles & Reviews, By Jonathan Cristaldi

A Visit to Robert Biale Vineyards

"Watch for Black Chicken" a Biale code-word relic from the days of Prohibition. Photo sourced from Robert Biale Vineyards website. http://www.roberbialevineyards.com

I had the pleasure of speaking with Bob Biale, Steve Hall (winemaker) and Bob’s mother, Clementina for our second program of Noble Rot Talks. To listen, subscribe to our podcast or download an MP3 to listen at your leisure, click here.

Robert Biale Vineyards is at 4038 Big Ranch Road in Napa, California. The winery is famous for its Zinfandels, and Bob tells a great story about the “Black Chicken” operation his dad was involved in during that ridiculous national experiment of Prohibition. I will say, however that Ken Burns’ first episode shed some interesting light on why we enacted Prohibition — the alcohol abuse was so rampant that many families (many mothers) were in total support. That… I can understand. And our country was much smaller in the earlier part of the 20th century than it is today and that’s a very real factor to consider.

Neverthemore, just as the sun has shone down on this land in previous decades and centuries, the day I interviewed Bob, Steve and Clementina (who was an unexpected but absolutely delightful guest!) the sun was shining bright as you can see here:

Robert Biale Vineyards - tasting patio.

We walked through the crush pad and eventually settled down on a porch overlooking the vineyards. Bob and I chatted about the history of Napa and how at one time Prune trees and Walnut trees could be seen as far as the eye could grasp – not vineyards. We also talked about the labor and incredible struggles many immigrants went through working to build the valley into what it is today. His father, Aldo Biale, is one of those individuals. At age 14, Aldo’s father passed away and he had the responsibility of taking care of a family. Age 14! And Clementina and Bob recount a story in the podcast of how Aldo turned a tough situation into a profitable opportunity. And once you know the story behind the wine, go, good wino and seek out a bottle and think of Aldo and the Biale’s – think of sunny Napa and do it over good Italian cuisine.

Robery Biale Vineyards crushpad - lookee them stainless steel!

Biale Wines! Zinfandel and then two delectable looking wines that the family had opened and drank the night before with dinner. Look at the sediment in the middle bottle! Wild. Clementina said they all tasted, "very nice."

Reverse side of "Bravo Aldo!" talking about Aldo's Vineyard.

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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