sound & fury

Ah, Burgundy! The name alone sounds so romantic. Even the French, Bourgogne, though almost impossible to say properly, is magical.

stunning rooftop at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

stunning rooftop at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

view of part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or

view of part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette as seen from across the vineyard

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette as seen from across the vineyard

Last month, Hegui and I met some friends at a stunning resort in a refurbished château nestled in the village of Meursault, part of the famous Burgundian Côte-d’Or, or “gold coast.” Kay and Pascal live in a small city adjacent to Geneva, Switzerland, so visit this famous wine region often. It’s only a few hours car ride on the French autoroute for them. Since we’d never been, we let Kay plan the weekend of relaxation.

To start, everything is really pretty. All those lovely towers, castles, vineyards, colorful rooftops and gorgeous churches made Hegui a maniac with the camera. Our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette, was absurdly beautiful, situated as it was on a vineyard surrounded by gentle hills, a quaint view of the village, etc. Even the pillows were wonderful! Look for yourselves.

beautiful courtyard at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

beautiful courtyard at Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

cute car parked in Beaune

cute car parked in Beaune

La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot

La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot

pillows from Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

pillows from Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

Meursault from the back of our resort

Meursault from the back of our resort

Despite the frequent, unseasonable rain, we did lots of nice things. Hegui and I were enchanted by the Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune, where they have that famous wine auction every year. We bought tasty souvenirs at La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot. Naturally we ate a lot of French pastries, cheeses, butter, breads, and so on. One evening we drove to Dijon for dinner. I was really struck by how tiny this most famous of wine producing regions seemed. We went slowly, in the rain, through all the various world-renowned villages, like Nuits St. Georges, Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin, yet made it to Dijon in less than 45 minutes. Small!

enjoying my apple tart, baguette and cafe au lait at a small patisserie in Beaune

enjoying my apple tart, baguette and cafe au lait at a small patisserie in Beaune

Hegui slicing a country loaf with what looks like a machete

Hegui slicing a country loaf with what looks like a machete

the front yard at our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

the front yard at our resort, Château de Cîteaux La Cueillette

more cool cars in Beaune

more cool cars in Beaune

Of course, we tasted some Burgundian wine, too. Kay arranged for us to visit the lovely Château de Meursault and Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau, the later, right across from the resort. Wine tasting in Burgundy was fun and seemed very glamorous. I was a bit underwhelmed by the wines themselves, sadly. Sure, we tasted reds and whites from the celebrated 2009 and 2010 vintages, plus a few older ones here and there. Don’t get me wrong. These were okay. The whites, with a single exception, tasted a lot like “new” low oak California chardonnays. The reds, generally, seemed too acidic and prickly to really enjoy. Perhaps they need more time? Maybe I’m a Burgundy rube? My real worry is that my Burgundian wine “a-ha” moment might be a lingering sense of mild disappointment. Alas.

an enjoyable, if forgetatable white from Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau

an enjoyable, if forgetatable white from Château de Cîteaux Philippe Bouzereau

me with our friends wine tasting in Meursault

me with our friends wine tasting in Meursault

posing in front of the world famous Chambertin vineyard

posing in front of the world famous Chambertin vineyard

Hegui and I wine tasting in the caves at Château de Meursault

Hegui and I wine tasting in the caves at Château de Meursault

Burgundy was an amazing experience and going there has completely changed my perspective. Now it remains to be seen exactly how.

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I completely adore Littorai pinot noir.

Taj Campton Place on Stockton Street in San Francisco

Taj Campton Place on Stockton Street in San Francisco, home of the Campton Place Restaurant

I wrote that first sentence and somehow feel that the point of my story today is more than half accomplished. I adore Littorai pinot noir. J’adore! It even looks good in French.

So I was thrilled when I learned that Hegui and I had the chance to attend another San Francisco dinner with the winemaker, Ted Lemon. We didn’t know Campton Place Restaurant but that didn’t seem as important as the wine somehow—that is until we dined at this divine establishment.

Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson

Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson

About a block from Union Square, in the heart of the San Francisco shopping district, the restaurant is gorgeous. Sadly my only camera was an eye-phone so most of the pictures leave much to be desired. Take our word for it; the dining room at Campton Place is elegant. And the staff is impeccable. I understand they’re known for their wine collection and often host winemaker’s dinners. Click here for the schedule.

Since it’s fairly small, the entire space was taken up by the Littorai event. That seemed especially grand. We stood around for a bit sipping (or perhaps trying to sip—it was just too darn tasty. I was probably gulping) the 2009 Mays Canyon chardonnay. It was the only wine not on the preprinted menu so I’m not positive here. That’s when we met our really cool tablemates, Pam and Bill. Like us, they’re fairly new to Littorai but Bill particularly is a dyed-in-the-wool pinotfile.

lobster veloute with red pepper and summer squash

lobster veloute with red pepper and summer squash

Turns out that fifth at table was Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson. Unfortunately, Ted Lemon couldn’t attend at the last minute due to the death of his father. So sorry! We’re thinking of you and your family, Ted.

That was heavy news, but it didn’t dampen our spirits for too long. John turned out to be like a younger version of Ted—intense, charming and charmingly nerdy, extremely informative and always very polite. We really liked him and what great luck it was to sit by him as we tasted away.

green apple arugula and avocado amuse bouche

green apple arugula and avocado amuse bouche

the 2009 Littorai Cerise and Savoy pinot noir did not stay in my glass too long

the 2009 Littorai Cerise and Savoy pinot noir did not stay in my glass too long

Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth

Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth

Since we drank mostly 2009s all night, which I’ve written about in a couple of other places on the blog already, I’ve decided to focus on the meal and just give our most general impressions on the wine. You can read the other stories if you’re curious or better yet try the wine yourselves.

The first course was lobster velouté with red pepper and summer squash. It was paired with the 2010 Theiriot Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. This is the wine that I liked a lot when we went on the Littorai biodynamic tour. It was a perfect match and a great start to what turned out to be a fine meal.

Then Chef Srijith Gopinathan surprised us all with a green apple, arugula, avocado amuse bouche. Light and really refreshing, it created a mini-sensation at our table.

Next came the Alaskan cod with roasted nori crumbs, squid ink linguini and bonito broth (my favorite dish of the evening) with two pinots: 2009 Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley and 2009 Cerise Vineyard, Anderson Valley. Both wines were great though I sort of preferred the more funky nose and fuller bodied Cerise.

instead of lamb, the chef prepared this lovely string halibut with veggies in a spicy cashew sauce

instead of lamb, the chef prepared this lovely string halibut with veggies in a spicy cashew sauce

Instead of lamb loin, we were offered an exciting pescatarian option: string halibut with mixed veggies in a spiced cashew sauce. “It’s like Indian taken to the next level. It has all the ingredients that we are using, but different,” Hegui exclaimed. The wine pairing: 2009 The Pivot Vineyard, Estate Bottled Sonoma Coast and the 2009 Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast pinots perhaps didn’t quite work with the spicy cashew sauce, but I didn’t mind. Both wines were amazing anyway.

A cheese plate was offered all diners rather than sweets. These were Abbaye de Belloc and San Andreas Bellwether Farms , though it beats me which is which. Sadly, and if there is a criticism to make about the entire event, this is it: the wine had run out by the time we arrived at the cheese course. Bill wasn’t deterred one bit by that tiny bump in the road. He ordered a bottle of 2006 Littorai Sonoma Coast pinot noir—I think that’s the one—and shared with the whole table. Thanks again, Bill!!

Taj Campton Place cheese course

Campton Place cheese course

At the end, the staff gave everyone shiny little boxes with some tiny sweets, ostensibly to take home, though I ate ours there ;) Fin.

my only pic of Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan with Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson is not the best but I had to include it here

my only pic of Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan with Littorai Assistant Winemaker John Wilson is not the best but I had to include it here

So it was a perfect evening all around: good food, great wine, meeting new friends and wine lovers, and even stimulating our intellects. Try Campton Place Restaurant when you’re next in town. And definitely look for Littorai.

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This biography of the famous American wine critic, Robert Parker, best known as the creator and power behind Wine Advocate, has been out for a while now. I’d been hesitant to read it, to be honest. Frankly, biographies often leave me a bit numb. Generally their writers are either so enamored by their subject that they’ve no sense of objectivity at all, or, admittedly more rarely, it is the complete opposite, and thus the identical problem: the writer despises the person in question and bends over backward to make him or her sound dreadful. Just think of that endless parade of awful books about the American founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, British Monarchs or Hollywood celebrities, and soon enough you can see what I mean.

Windsor Castle, formerly an imperial home of the British Emperor

Windsor Castle, formerly an imperial home of the British Emperor

That said, McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine rises above the tired sanctified/demonized style biography. As I was reading this well written monograph, I kept wondering what “side” of the Robert Parker debate she fell on: pro or con. By the end, I couldn’t really tell. That may not be a true measure of objectivity, but is impressive nevertheless: both because the nature of the genre seems to demand the writer choose, and, since Mr. Parker has been such a lightning rod for controversy in the wine world for ages, it would appear perfectly natural to have a strong opinion.

Perhaps McCoy is especially cognizant of the importance of objectivity in her book on Parker. After all, much of the weight of the story hinges on the question of the great critic’s ability to independently evaluate wine and the industry. Educated as a lawyer in the seventies, Parker was as much a fan of good wine as he was of Ralph Nader and the consumer rights movement in the United States at the time. When he decided to start Wine Advocate, he eschewed advertising and freebies of any kind. He makes a big point of paying for all wine that he tastes—even going so far as to donate money to charity for any free sample bottles that arrive in the mail from hungry wine makers hoping for a 90+ Parker score.

That’s all fine and dandy, but didn’t translate into much success, that is until the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. Parker loved it and praised it to the skies in his newsletter. British and other American critics were less enthused. But the industry, always focused on the bottom line—after all wine is big business—rode the Parker bandwagon all the way to the bank. Overnight he was a star and his critiques, and even more importantly, his 100 point numerical rating system were everywhere.

As hard as it is to understand now since everyone is doing it, that last piece, the wine score, was a huge innovation, or depending on what camp you’re in, a tragic devolution in vinous writing. Just glance through the pages of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast and you’ll see those powerful little numbers everywhere. Of course all the obvious questions come up in Emperor of Wine: can wines really be boiled down to a number? What’s the difference between 87 and 86? Though, it turns out that the difference between 89 and 90 suddenly became obvious to wine marketers: the nineties flew off the shelves and the eighty-nines languished. Collectors and wine drinkers became so enchanted by the numbers game that some even held potlucks in which guests were asked to bring only 97’s or above, or perfect 100 point bottles, or what have you. People really can be nutty. Easy to criticize (people understand scores immediately but don’t want to bother understanding flowery descriptions) nevertheless the idea is genius.

The Parker story is the American dream. Wooed by France and the rest of the wine world; he is rich, comfortable, with ample time to travel, apparently a 12,000 bottle wine collection divided into three cellars, an enjoyable marriage, loving child and warm close friends. He was even bestowed the Legion of Honor for his wine-critical work in 1999, the highest award given anyone in France.

Oh, and I forgot to write, the guy’s famous, too.

And that fame-thing has become the source of much of the critical push-back against Parker. He gives some obscure wine a high score, and suddenly overnight they’re sold out and the prices soar through the roof. A new cult wine is born. Bordeaux, who really created the Parker juggernaut with their 1982s, wait and wait for his reviews each vintage before they even release their prices. But he’s just one guy. Is he really so on-point all the time that he “knows” the quality flawlessly? Could he ever make a mistake? Apparently he says no—or at least not that often.

Then there’s the whole issue about his taste in wine. We all know that’s subjective, but apparently he’s the exception. Many Parker critics believe that he favors reds that are dark, fruity, oaky, bold and low in acidity—actually, thanks to Parker, those are the reds that most of us tend to drink. So has his taste been shaping how wines are made and drunk throughout the world? Probably so. Are we in fact at risk of having all wines coalesce into a single style? Harder. And finally, doomsday fears aside, can the Man really be objective at this stage in the game when the entire world bows down to his taste and winemakers knowingly design theirs for his glass alone? Hmmm…

This is a good book. I was alternately amazed, intrigued, horrified and amused by what I found here. Locating the rise of Parker in a specific time in American culture, McCoy concludes this delicious read, “There will never be another emperor of wine.” But I’m not so sure. If all the predictions of the rising Chinese middle class prove true, I wonder if the next Parker might live someplace in Asia, maybe right now, awaiting his or her wine-epiphany?

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I came across this book by chance while wandering the quaint touristy downtown section of Half Moon Bay, where they have the famous pumpkin harvest festival every autumn. Published a few years ago, this is not one of those stuffy-Oh-Lafite-Oh-Latour-can-do-no-wrong Bordeaux snoozers. Instead here Echikson examines the region from the Left Bank perspective of garagistes, new wine makers and those trying to update the stuffy and often dowdy image of this celebrated wineland.

just plain, yet charming rot on a fence in springtime California

just plain, yet charming rot on a fence in springtime California

I love the title: Noble Rot. Of course, that’s the name for the desirable pourriture noble, the grey fungus that attacks the white grapes of Sauternes, thereby transforming them into the sweet dessert nectar formerly prized around the world. These unctuous stickies have suffered a steep decline in popularity with the 20th century rise of dry table wines. Sauternes and the flagship Château d’Yquem remain exalted but struggle.

The plight of that Superior First Growth has a special place in this well written, light yet informative book—here I almost wrote “novel” since the Yquem story itself is so convoluted and bizarre that it seems like fiction. This, then, represents the second form of “noble rot:” the gradual, painful-at-times, yet inexorable decline of once great châteaux.

Of course, as the subtitle suggests, most of the book deals with attempts to fight off the lethargy, and, dare I say, greed, that has apparently overtaken Bordeaux in past decades. Focused on the ”new”-ish “garage movement” primarily based in the St Emilion appellation of the Left Bank, the book champions American Robert Parker and those local winemakers that want to make more powerful, ageworthy, nuanced wines, instead of the typical plonk that has allegedly been foisted on the world marketplace for ages.

Whether you believe old school Médoc has fallen behind the times or not is largely irrelevant here. Though there’s little doubt in Echikson’s mind that a refreshing breath of change is called for.

The book introduces you to some key players from traditional Bordeaux—Alexandre de Lur-Saluces from Yquem primarily, but with cameo appearances by Paul Pontallier director of Château Margaux—and some new-wavers like Michel Gracia in St. Emilion and Yves Vatelot, from Left Bank Château de Reignac and visionary at the Margaux estate, Château Lascombes. These people and their stories completely bewitched me.

Sadly, I’ve hardly ever tasted Bordeaux. And, when I’ve done, often it hasn’t left much of a favorable impression on me. But this book made me really excited to expand my horizons. And really, isn’t that enough?

Certainly, others might find Echikson’s opinions inaccurate and distressing. Nobody wants to think that their prized wine and fabulously valuable and venerable estate are junk I suppose. So for you, I offer my third take on the title: noble rot is nothing more than glorified nonsense.

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Some of us from the weirdcombos tasting crew had the distinct pleasure of catching up with Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast of Waits-Mast Family Cellars for a fun Q and A and wine tasting. We’d been trying to plan this meeting for several weeks following the recent San Francisco PinotDays, but had been stymied by the complicated remodeling process at the Waits-Mast winery space downtown. Finally, Brian suggested that we meet at the couples charming San Francisco home.

Jennifer Waits

Jennifer Waits

They live with their 5 year old daughter, Beatrice, in a lovely lemon yellow corner house on a hill near Glen Park. Their neighborhood has good views on clear days, but is prone to billowy fog. In fact, on our visit, the fog seemed almost alive, it was racing all around us so quickly. Inside was snug and cozy.

They are an attractive pair and seem to compliment one-another well. After a brief introduction, Brian led us to their dining room, already laid with several bottles of Waits-Mast pinot noir. As he bustled in the kitchen, preparing a cheese plate and some other snacks, Jennifer started chatting with us about her other job, in radio. Both Brian and Jennifer do work other than at winemaking. That, having a young child, and maintaining a house might be enough for most people. Not so with the Waits-Mast family. Winemaking has become a passion for the two, and even after a half dozen years, it has not lost its romance.

Beatrice suddenly burst into the room wearing a startlingly pink “princess dress,” carrying a matching butterfly wand, full of questions and comments about princesses and our visit. Brian explained to us that she has a different princess costume for all her movies on that theme. Jennifer then mused aloud about finding her a book of modern living princesses as strong female role models. These two are cool. (We’ve refrained from showing pictures of Beatrice here by request.)

red red roses

red red roses

Waits-Mast line-up

Waits-Mast line-up

Brian and Jennifer got into wine when first dating. They would frequently visit wine country and soon started going to the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival. Like many, they fantasized about owing a vineyard somewhere in Anderson Valley, but were put off by the high cost and the hardship of living away from San Francisco. But these two were hooked. It was probably a sign when they began attending the technical conference connected to the wine tasting festival. There they learned about filtering techniques, reverse osmosis where undesirable components of a wine can be removed, and other things.

2005 Waits-Mast Amber Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: This wine had a gorgeous color that showed some age. The nose was beautiful, with spices and hints of plum. Medium bodied with some fruit, maybe a hint of raspberry and a long finish.

In 2005 they decided to make their first barrel of wine, as a learning experience. Then CrushPad, a company that provides the equipment and technical expertise to allow anyone to make a barrel of wine, was based in San Francisco. Brian and Jennifer were “blown away” by their 2005 Amber Ridge pinot. We thought it was really good, too. They gave the wine to friends who really enjoyed it, which added to the couple’s inspiration and excitement over this new endeavor.

They’re still quite small. In 2007, they produced 2 barrels of wine; 2008, three barrels; 2009, eight; 2010, 10; and in 2011 they hope for about 10 to 12. Actually, their tiny size was part of what attracted us to them at PinotDays. It has a big impact on the winery. There are limits on blending options, for example. With only one, or maybe two barrels, there isn’t much choice there. If problems arise, let’s say a barrel gets tainted, the entire production can be lost. Plus they cannot yet afford to hold back anything.

Brian Mast serving some pinot

Brian Mast serving some pinot

Their wine is scarce. On first look, that might seem like an advantage. Scarcity increases value. But Brian was quick to note that it affects the ability to promote themselves. Pouring at wine festivals and submitting wine to competitions takes multiple bottles. If they only have 45 cases of a particular wine to begin with, how realistic is it to send it to multiple competitions? So they need to “be selective” in how they promote their product. Even so, they have won competitions and the 2007 Waits-Mast Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley was named one of the top 100 wines of 2009 by the San Francisco Cronicle.

Factors like price and other obligations obviously also have an impact on their winemaking project. We didn’t realize that there’s a rule of thumb in the industry related to pricing a bottle of wine. Brian said that it is fairly standard to price the bottle based on the cost for a ton of grapes divided by 100. So let’s say, if you were to pay $4500 for a ton, the price per bottle should be around $45. For Waits-Mast, that calculation doesn’t quite hold as their expenses are somewhat greater now as they start up the business. And Jennifer reminded us that since they’re small, they cannot really enjoy the economies of scale that larger wineries can by purchasing things like barrels in large quantity at discounts.

2009 Waits-Mast Amber Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: This was more purple than the 2005. It is creamier, fuller and more lush with lots of fruit—sort of strawberries and cream. It too had some spice and a good finish. They believe that 2009 was a good warm growing season that has the potential to make great wine.

Jennifer and Brian are both attuned to their wine drinking public. “People are more sophisticated in terms of the range of foods they eat… and the same is true of wine,” Jennifer said. Brian works in marketing full time and was really impressed when the pair attended a seminar about bottle labeling. Their original label for the 2005 Amber Ridge shows a sepia black and white alpine scene in fog on a roughly conventional picture-shaped label. They’ve modified it now by stretching it out to make it wide and narrow, taking out the sepia and adding a red stripe to be more eye-catching and “sleek.” They kept the fog both because they produce “cool climate pinot noir” and because of the connection of fog to San Francisco. They also mentioned that word of mouth as well as having someone pour wines at a shop are two personal and effective ways of getting people to taste and get excited about their wine.

here you can really see differences in the labels  Which do you prefer

here you can really see differences in the labels: which do you prefer?

2009 Waits-Mast Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir, Mendocino County: A deep red to purple color, this has a musky, spicy nose, orange peel, a rich full body with lots of red and black fruit notes and a peppery finish. This is a powerful wine.

Locating fruit to turn into wine is an art in itself. Oppenlander Vineyard is one of only two vineyards in the tiny town of Comptche, CA in Mendocino County. The town sounds very remote and hard to find. When they started out, their grapes got sourced for them through CrushPad. Now that they’ve become independent, that aspect of the job falls directly onto their shoulders. That’s where all their networking at technical wine conferences and more informally has been paying off. Still there’s a bit of anxiety over the fruit. They’ve limited control over vineyard factors, now must directly develop contracts with growers, and since their winemaking facility is in San Francisco, transportation remains an issue.

Even in the winery, there are so many technical decisions to make that the job of winemaker is quite complex. Everything from types of barrel, stems or whole fruit clusters, blending and when to bottle, and a host of other decisions constantly crop up. They’ve learned a lot but Jennifer admits “It’s hard for me to know what the wine will evolve into.” Brian chimes in, “It’s a total crap shoot.” They do continue to use a consulting winemaker as they gradually define and refine their style.

Both believe in terroir and try to be “as hands off as possible.” Brian recommends: “Try lots of wine,” “Drink what you like,” and “The more you drink and the more you try you begin to identify different things.”

2009 Waits-Mast Deer Meadows Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley: This was a rusty red with herbs, musk and hot stones leading the way to a creamy, full bodied pinot with red fruit, caramel, raspberry and hints of coffee before finishing with some spice.

glowing glasses of Waits-Mast pinot noir

glowing glasses of Waits-Mast pinot noir

For the future, both hope to keep making great wine. Locally they’d like to see their wine on offer at fine restaurants in San Francisco as well as at local wine shops. “It’s a lot like music” Jennifer concludes. “People into music like to try new things.” Plus much of wine and music writing struggles to “capture” the true essence of their subjects. Jennifer mused on the possibility of wine and music pairings: “What does this music taste like? What does this wine sound like?”

By then, all five adults were making jazz-hands for Beatrice’s amusement, so it was clearly time to go. Brian gave us the rest of the 2009 Oppenlander to take home.

This was a brilliant experience. We never did ask the obvious question: Why pinot noir? Nevertheless, we left Jennifer and Brian feeling a warm glow of friendship. Their wines are hard-to-find but worth the effort. Once their new winemaking facility us up and running, you can contact them for a tasting and tour. Tell your friends. Taste with them. Get the buzz going!

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Nicholas Miller in Bien Nacido Vineyard

Nicholas Miller in Bien Nacido Vineyard

We had the distinct pleasure of meeting Nicholas Miller from Bien Nacido Vineyards while attending PinotDays in San Francisco a few weeks ago. BNV is a family owned and operated fine wine vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. The Miller family purchased the land in 1969 and began growing grapes by the early seventies. Famous for their pinot noir, cool climate syrah and chardonnay, the Millers work with numerous well established wine makers in California and Oregon. Clients include: Au Bon Climat, Longoria, Ojai Vineyards, Quipé, Sine Qua Non, Steele Wines, Twopmey Cellars and Landmark Vineyards, to list just some.

Nicholas Miller poured wine from several producers, all made from BNV grapes at PinotDays. He also offered a pinot that his family has begun bottling themselves under their own label. Afterward, we were able to catch up with Nicholas for a brief Q and A:

What do you think makes Bien Nacido distinct? What sets it apart?

From the beginning my family has been dedicated to quality. When the vineyard was first planted back in the early ‘70′s, most growers were planting for quantity, but every step my uncle and father took was one with an eye on the highest quality possible. We have always tried to stay on the forefront of innovation and experimentation.

At PinotDays, you poured several wines produced with Bien Nacido fruit, including your own bottling. Congratulations, by the way, on your own label. We thought that the wines represented a large variety of styles of pinot noir. Yet, these all come from Bien Nacido. What do you think accounts for these wide-ranging differences?

The original Pinot Noir plantings were all Pommard and Martini. Since then, we have added a variety of other clones including 22, Swan, Jackson 16, Mt. Eden, 2a, 113, 114, 115, 667, 777.

However, I always say site trumps clone and BNV is blessed with a wide variety of micro climates and soil types. After almost 40 years of growing Pinot Noir on the ranch we feel we have learned more about the different areas of the ranch. Instead of trying to over-manipulate the vineyard through farming practices, we try to place customers in areas that best match their wine programs. For example, customers looking for lower yielding vines, we try to place in areas of the ranch that naturally throw small yields as opposed to dropping fruit.

Also, we feel blessed to have the diversity of customers that we believe are some of the best winemakers in California and Oregon. Each one of them brings their own unique approach that makes it so fun to taste through the variety of wines made from our one vineyard.

Pinot noir has the reputation for being tricky to handle in the vineyard. Do you agree? What has been your experience at Bien Nacido?

A low yielding, thinned skinned grape that is hard to ripen is not a farmer’s ideal crop. However, I believe Bien Nacido’s vineyard manager, Chris Hammell, is the most talented vineyard manager in the state. No other vineyard manager in the state deals with as many high end wine producers and consistently delivers year after year. Many of our customer’s don’t bother sorting their fruit because Chris is able to deliver it so clean.

Now that you’ve been making your own wine for a while, do you think that it changes the way you operate in the vineyard? If so, how?

We are still growers first and foremost. Making (and more challengingly – selling) wine has given me a better understanding of our customer’s businesses. However, we are committed growers through and through. Making wine is a very small portion of what we do.

What is your philosophy of wine?

It’s a consumable product meant to be enjoyed. It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people around the world.

I want my family’s wines to be pure examples of our vineyards. They are 100% single vineyard and 100% varietal (except a small amount of Viognier co-ferment in the Syrah).

No funny business in the cellar, just make what the vineyards and that vintage give us.
Basically the opposite philosophy of NV Champagne.

These days, many California wines are criticized for too much alcohol and being so powerful that they overwhelm the palate and really can only be drunk alone, rather than with food. What do you think about this controversy?

See previous answer.

It’s a consumable product meant to be enjoyed. It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people around the world. For some people that debate / controversy is part of the enjoyment, so for them – let them have it.

I’ll drink the wine in my glass without reading #’s on the bottle. If it taste’s hot, there probably isn’t a second glass in my future. However, I feel the same way about wines that are too lean / astringent. I do not have a quest to make a 11.5% wine.

I’ve read about Bien Nacido cool climate syrah but haven’t had the good fortune to try it yet. How would you compare it to other California syrahs?

We were the first vineyard in California to plant cool climate Syrah.

Unlike other areas in the viticultural world that either get too hot (fruit dehydrates) or other weather events (hail, rain) end their harvests, we are very blessed at BNV to have the longest growing season in the state that provides a slow/steady march towards ripening. The reason we can grow Chard/Pinot/Syrah in the same spot, is that we harvest Pinot/Chard starting August/September and let the Syrah continue to ripen through October/November.

What I love about cool climate Syrah is the white pepper. A few years ago around the Syrah harvest I realized I starting putting a lot more pepper on my food at dinner after spending days in the vineyard trying the BNV Syrah. There is a place for Shiraz (as it’s called Australia), but I think cool climate Syrah is what really excels in CA

It seems like a natural that you’d end up working in your family business at Bien Nacido, but did you ever consider another line of work? What was that?

It was certainly never presented as a job that was waiting for us. My family said we had to go work elsewhere and develop experience before working for the family business. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine, then worked for a marketing consulting company in Boston before returning to work with my Dad.

How do you envision the future of Bien Nacido?

Every year we learn more and more about how our vineyard works.

We are in the process of redeveloping some of the older acreage that is no longer productive.
Some of our hillside fruit is starting to come online, which should be some of the more exciting fruit on the ranch.

One of the largest changes we are going through is taking a more holistic approach to farming at Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills. For decades we just farmed grapes, but over the past decade we have planted blueberries, lemons, and avocados and well as integrating goats and sheep into our biodynamic and organic growing practices.

Do you have any advice for wanna-be wine makers?

Stay focused. Through my family’s custom crush facilities I have seen many ambitious winemakers make so many different wines that they lose the story of who they are or with a little success, expand beyond what their cash flow can support. The wine business is a tortoise business. If you want to be a hare, make Vodka where you can just turn on the spout or splash in a fruit “infusion.”

Where can people find your wine?

All of my wine goes through the three tiered system: American Wines in CA and Lauber Imports in NYC. With the exception of a few key retailers it goes to restaurants throughout New York and California. As the production expands, I’d like to open other states as well.

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are wine collectors saving for the next generation like in the old days

are wine collectors saving for the next generation like in the old days?

Did you read the article about tips for attending wine auctions in the most recent edition of Wine Spectator? I did. I’m always amazed by the prices that folks are willing to pay for wine. Easily thousands and thousands of dollars or even more for a case or two; or occasionally for just a few bottles. Once in a while, I wish that I had the money for that, since it sounds really fun.

Among other practical tips, WS recommends scanning the auction catalog before bidding to look for wines to fill holes in your collection. On the face of it, I suppose that makes sense; that is if you’re trying to amass an inventory of fancy wine. But is that really sensible advice if you plan on drinking the stuff?

If you’re like us, in the later category, than you’ll always have “holes” in your wine collection, since you continually create them yourself through hedonistic living. Despite having a modest wine cellar, I think that I’m a terrible wine collector. We can never hold onto those lovely bottles for very long.

I’ve read that in past centuries, wealthy British gentlemen would buy cases of Bordeaux which they stored for their children and grandchildren. The wine became part of the estate. Since these same men inherited aged cases from their fathers and grandfathers, everyone was happily drinking claret and nobody ever worried: you could be generous and still have fun. Perhaps a bit sexist and classist, it still sounds quite elegant to me. And if that’s what people are doing at wine auctions, than I truly am envious of their grandchildren!

But I don’t have the sense that most modern wine collectors are beneficently planning for their progeny’s palates when they spend hundreds of thousands for exquisite wine cellar-showrooms packed full of ridiculously expensive bottles. You see these vinous palaces occasionally splashed across the pages of Wine Spectator. They truly are stunning: like museums or temples dedicated to Dionysus. That Greek deity was no slouch at the bar, so I wonder what he’d make of these marvelous caches: probably short work.

More often than not, I read these wine-collecting Olympians vaguely worrying that they’ve so much that they’ll never be able to drink it all. Poor things! Or maybe, greedy mean things. I think that I’m critical in part because I totally get these guys.

Truth be told, there is a delicious tension between holding onto fine wine for a while and drinking it. Certainly, I feel the pain. How to manage? Is the purpose of wine collecting to obsessively accumulate a stunning array of bottles that just sit around looking gorgeous? Is it an investment in the future? Or, should you actually enjoy the stuff, come what may?

Do you collect wine, and if so, what are your plans for your precious gems? I want to drink all of ours achingly slowly over many years, to prolong my delight.

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wine is like art:   it demands that you form an opinion and take sides

wine is like art: it demands that you form an opinion and take sides

I finished Matt Kramer’s delightful On Wine a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t quite figure out how to describe it to you, my dear readers, until just this moment. The dilemma, of course, is that I am completely on Team Matt, so I’m totally biased. I even met him over this newest publication. He came to K and L Wine Merchants in San Francisco for a book signing last fall. He inscribed my copy “To Steven—the best advice I know for wine is drink up! With regards, Matt.” Wow! I was in heaven.

But therein lays the problem: I wholeheartedly agree with his best advice. So what to say here?

I will say briefly that this wine book is different from many others; being a collection of various columns, many from Wine Spectator; some essays and chapter fragments from some of his other books and a fairly long never-before-published piece on the life and wines of Angelo Gaja. The topics, as you’d imagine, vary widely: everything from finding proper wineglasses, the challenges and pleasures of working with sommeliers, wine as big-business, hidden vinous gems, personal anecdotes and wine trivia, etc. I really like it. Kramer sort of whines a bit about his Gaja story. It does sound like The New Yorker editorial group was a political minefield, though I have to add after reading the thing myself, the piece needs some editing. And really Angelo Gaja, to all but wine cognoscenti, is a pretty obscure figure in the U.S. even today.

But what’s interesting about the book is that Matt Kramer has a voice. That’s right, a Voice. He cares about his subject, has opinions, biases and is not always a ‘nice guy.’ Just compare his writings on Bordeaux to those on Burgundy and American pinot noir for some prime examples. And that’s what I like: the subjectivity factor.

So much wine writing pretends that subjectivity doesn’t exist. Just look at any wine magazine that lists
numerical scores with their wine tasting notes; or rates vintages in various regions; or writes about all and sundry red, white, green, brown or pink wine as if they were interchangeable, implying that they might be equally appealing to everyone. Well, I don’t think that’s true for a second. Taste is subjective. And though it is a good idea, as Oldman writes, to push your wine boundaries and try new things, you are unlikely, in fact, to enjoy every kind of wine out there. I for one have become completely jaded with Australian shiraz, bored with Napa cabernet and have never warmed to Grüner Veltliner, for example. There it is, I’ve confessed. As my tastes continue to evolve, I suspect the wines that I truly appreciate will change, too.

But like fine art, automobiles and psychoanalytic models of the mind; wine demands that you notice it and take sides. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a wine is never only a wine. Matt Kramer takes sides, whether you agree or not. Cheers to you, Matt! And to you, too, weirdcombinations readers! What wine do you enjoy drinking right now, and, more importantly, why?

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7th Annual Pinot Days San Francisco Pinot Noir Festival: cheers!

June 22, 2011

I’ve still got pinot noir on the brain, and, what with Hegui’s charming niece, Juliana, coming into town for a long weekend, what a better opportunity to explore my passion and have fun at the same time than at the 7th Annual Pinot Days pinot noir festival. Held at Fort Mason, parking for the grand […]

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Alexis Lichine’s Wines of France, a work of subtle comic genius

June 8, 2011

La Mission-Haut-Brion claims that it is responsible for getting St. Vincent into trouble. It seems that St. Vincent, the patron saint of vintners, had not been in heaven very long before he was attacked by a terrific thirst and had a yearning to taste again the great wines of France, the Burgundies, the wines from […]

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