Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Kingmaker

We gathered to hear the kingmaker speak. Robert Parker has been called the most powerful critic (of any sort) in the world, and it’s hard to argue the point. I can think of no other industry with such a sharp tip on the pyramid of critical review. Think about it. In food, film, travel, etc., writers all play a role in a sort of democracy at work. But Robert Parker? He’s the only one who can take an obscure producer to stardom with the stroke of a pen. Let’s say you’re making 200 cases of a Grenache blend in Paso Robles that no one has ever heard of before. Now let’s say that Parker tastes said blend and stamps it with a “98-point” review. You will sell out within hours. It’s literally the equivalent of one movie reviewer plucking an indie film from obscurity and having every theater that picks it up sold out for months. Or a single food reviewer causing a reservation overload at a new restaurant with calls from around the country. Which is amazing… and kind of insane, truth be told.
After his annual tasting tour of Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners invited their members for a Q&A session at the venerable Rutherford Grange with The Critic. I personally wanted to hear what he had to say about the ’08 vintage in Napa (as did most folks in the room based on the applause that followed his proclamation of a “fabulous” year). But I was also curious to hear what sort of questions the people whose livelihood he was impacting with every review would have for him.

What followed was a wide-ranging flow of conversation from why no one can sell Syrah to the Asian market as a legitimate force to the ongoing competition with the Old World for consumer acceptance. (The answers were essentially: No one really knows, you have to have a footprint in Asia to compete with the French and European wine lovers will never take American wine seriously because they have an ingrained bias and are hopelessly provincial). But the session was also an interesting look at what makes Parker tick.

His big break moment came back in the early days of his publication when the vast majority of the old guard writers proclaimed 1982 Bordeaux to be a flop vintage, and Parker went the exact opposite direction. He turned out to be right, of course, and the wine business would be forever changed for it. He still reminds his readers (of which there are a shockingly low 55,000) that his reviews are just his opinions. He is also steadfastly not for sale. His insistence on paying his own way is legendary, as is his absolute refusal to accept advertising in any form. So criticize the critic all you like, but even the most ardent Parker detractors can’t question his integrity.

The irony for me is what he didn’t say, in this case about what may be his most controversial - and widespread - contribution to the critical field… the infamous “100-point” system. What was then a novel concept is now employed by most American critics (with varying degrees of laughably implied precision). But although he didn’t specifically say it, I got the sense that the point system may be his Frankenstein’s monster. Parker writes some of the most detailed tasting notes in the business, and yet most people never read them.

Which brings us to the role of the world’s most powerful critic going forward. He has over the last decade or so assigned certain regions to his team of understudies. He no longer reviews Italy, Australia, several prominent regions of France, etc. (the volume of producers wanting a Wine Advocate review is far too much for one person). So what happens as Parker perhaps considers retirement and the majority of reviews in a given year are not penned by the man who started the publication? It will be interesting indeed to see who steps in the fill the void. Frankly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see one individual critic with such influence ever again.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sonoma Decanted

When people talk about Sonoma as a wine region, most often they are referring to the entire, sprawling, Northern California county, which consists of 13 American Viticultural Areas spreading out across one million acres of land (Note: That’s twice the size of neighboring Napa).

In wine terms, Sonoma County starts with the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys in the north, follows the Russian River into the Russian River Valley to the east and ends in the south with Sonoma Valley and Carneros, the latter of which rests partly in Sonoma County and partly in Napa Valley. Tucked within these key Valleys are smaller AVA’s (including a Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and a Sonoma Mountain AVA), all of which seem to have their own unique microclimates perfectly suited for very specific grape varieties.

Because Sonoma County runs along the Pacific Coast, the entire region is heavily influenced by the cool fogs rolling in from the sea. In the morning, these fogs come in thick and wrap themselves around the mountains, snaking into the valleys. Inland regions, like Alexander Valley, only experience light mists of these fogs, while more western-lying regions, like the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast are often blanketed in dense, low-lying clouds.

Such climactic variation, coupled with its potpourri of ancient bedrock, volcanic ash, chalk and sandstone soils, means a host of grapes do well in Sonoma County. The tiny, 16-mile long, two-mile wide Dry Creek Valley is home to some of the most compelling Zinfandels in the state, while its eastern neighbor, Alexander Valley, turns out complex Cabernet Sauvignons to rival nearby Napa Valley. The more coastal influenced Russian River Valley, Green Valley and (further south) Carneros AVAs are known for their richly elegant Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines. Rising above the fog line high above the Pacific Ocean, the Sonoma Coast AVA is praised for its fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, as well as some incredibly nuanced cool-climate Syrahs.

And what about the Sonoma Valley? Bordered by the Mayacamas to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west, the city of Sonoma stands on the southern end of the valley. It was here, in 1845, that the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolt took over Mission San Francisco Solano and claimed California for America. It was also here that Spanish monks planted some of the first vineyards in Northern California. Today, no one grape dominates the region often referred to as the Valley of the Moon. It’s a fertile valley rich with winemaking history and short on pretension. Just real farmers, making some really good wines.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wine Clubs

A simple search of the web uncovers a bewildering array of wine club offers. They basically fall into four major categories – clubs offered by wineries featuring only the products they produce, clubs offered by retailers and specialty wine shops, clubs affiliated with organizations – non-profits, credit card companies, Alumni organizations, etc. – and companies specifically offering only wine clubs for sale.

Which one is best for you depends on a myriad of factors, including quantity shipped in a year, price point, variety, customer service, and quality. The most important of these are quality of the wines and the customer service experience. Let’s look at each category’s pros and cons.

  • Winery clubs. The good news is that you usually know exactly what you are getting. The bad news is that you know exactly what you are getting. With a few exceptions, wineries tend to produce the same wines year after year. The best ones strive for consistency in their products, understanding that yearly fluctuations in climate can impact a wine’s flavor profile. If you join one of these clubs, you will mostly likely get the same wines year after year. However, as someone once said variety is the spice of life – these clubs can get a tad boring after a year or two.
  • Retailers and specialty wine shops. These clubs usually offer the best selections in terms of variety and wine quality. The best ones have wine knowledgeable staff who select the wines based upon what it actually tastes like, not just what they happen to have an overabundance of in their warehouse. One of the key factors in selecting one of these establishments to give your wine dollars to is customer service. Do they have a real person I can talk to if there is a problem with the wine, the shipment, my credit card? Sadly, many do not, which can lead to a very frustrating experience.
  • Affiliate clubs and wine club only businesses. The two of these are lumped together because while you think you may be having your favorite PBS wine expert involved in the wine selection for your affiliate club, the actual selection and fulfillment is usually done by one of many companies who specialize in creating wine clubs for both their own interests as well as affiliate marketing. Quite often, these have wines that are what we call “one offs”, ghost label excess wines purchased and labeled specifically for the lowest price point with little regard to quality and true value – what we at Bounty Hunter call “taste per dollar”.

What makes us different? We have the expertise in selecting only the best wines for our wine clubs, wines that deliver great value at their price point, wines that taste like they should cost much more. We have the variety and affordability in our nine proprietary clubs, so you can get up to 36 different wines to taste in a single year. We have the customer service support that extends from our in-house personal sommeliers (Wine Scouts as we call them) to our fulfillment staff. We stand by our products, and, if you don’t like what you get, we want it back. We tell you the stories behind the wines, introduce you to the people behind the products, the families with terroir and fermentation in their DNA. And, if you want more, we can often satisfy your craving for a few more bottles of that certain wine that woke up your palate.

Not that we are biased, but we are convinced we have “the best damn wine clubs in the business.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A morning dram with Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich

When I heard Jim McEwan was going to be in San Francisco for the first time in seven years, I cancelled all appointments and called in a favor from a lovely French maiden who was able to get me a 30 minute one-on-one with the godfather of single malt. For those of you who do not know Jim McEwan, not only is he the most highly regarded distiller in the world, he is probably the most irreverent and amicable Scotsman I’ve ever encountered. For 48 years he has distilled, sourced and blended some of the purest and most innovative drams in all of Scotland and this was his last trip to the U.S. before retirement – which sadly, is not far away.

As with anyone of his stature, I knew that even in 30 minutes I would walk away with a wealth of knowledge and understanding that I did not have before. To capture the moment, I brought a camera along just to make sure I didn't miss anything. Please watch the interview below…

After the camera stopped rolling, I sat down alongside a couple dozen colleagues to a whisky seminar featuring Bruichladdich (brook-lad-dee) and Port Charlotte single malts. Mr. McEwan began by telling stories about what whisky means to him. He showed us the picture of his home, only 45 paces to the Bruichladdich distillery doors, where every evening he grabs a bottle of young whisky (7-12 years old) lights up a cigar, and as he put it “…for 20 minutes, the worries of the world around me go away and I don’t give a shit!” Those of you like me, who light up a cigar and sip on single malt from time to time, can appreciate such a statement. He continued to talk about the time that whisky made him weep, which at first, threw almost everyone in the room for a loop. It was when he was working for Bowmore distillery and putting together the now infamous “Black Bowmore.” He sat down at a table with several 35-50 year old whiskies adding bits and pieces of each to make a monolithic single malt, when all of a sudden the whiskies started “talking” to him. You see, each whisky he put in the blend was made by an old friend or family member that once worked for Bowmore and have long since passed. All of a sudden the dram he had put together started to come alive and at that moment, when he heard the voices, the tears came and he knew he had the right blend for his masterpiece. As you can imagine, the room fell silent with that story.

Having heard these and many other stories straight from the horse’s mouth was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget, and it gives me great pleasure to share it with all of you.


--Stefan Matulich, Spirits Buyer

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Steak Dinner and ‘08 Continuum, Deconstructed

It’s Friday night, at last. I’m home from a good solid day of Wine Scouting and I’m excited to try a new recipe for a grilled New York strip steak to pair with the bottle of Gigondas I claimed from the tasting lab leftovers. Where’s the beef? Whole Foods. Now, I’m sure you’re already totally clinging to my prose here, like a Matt Kramer oratory on how impressed he is with himself for being so hip, but there is a point to this story, and even a cameo by Tim Mondavi.

Let’s face it; Napa Valley is a circus, and a damn fun one at that! Napa is constantly on the stage, from daytime wine tasting to evening dining and, yes, the occasional late night dance-off contest in the Bounty Hunter’s Wine Bar. We’re a tourist industry, no doubt. I’m sure though, if you’ve spent much time in Napa, you realize that when we say “it’s just another day in paradise,” we mean it! We work together, eat together, drink together and do business together but, more importantly, coexist in a very small valley together. So it’s not too out of the ordinary that, while patrolling through my local grocery store, on the quest for provisions, I would just happen to run into Tim Mondavi (As an aside, I think Tim is secretly addicted to our pulled pork sandwich… he’s a regular).

We exchange formalities which, with Tim, are an effervescent back and forth of acknowledgement free of pretense. I introduce him to my wife and they exchange words about Prague (her hometown, which he knows a surprising amount about). He thanks me and the Bounty Hunter in general for all we do which I humbly return and I compliment him on a stunning ‘07 vintage and the huge response from my customers. Of course, I have to ask him what to expect with the ‘08. I now know one truth; asking Tim Mondavi about the 2008 vintage is like asking Bruce Bochy how he felt about his team’s finish this year.

Continuum estate vineyard
The man is passionate, and for good reason. In 2008, they are much closer to the goal of producing the entire makeup of the wine for Continuum from their estate property on Pritchard Hill (if you haven’t seen the site, I highly recommend getting up there on your next trip to Napa). With 70% of the final blend coming from the estate vineyards, it stands to reason that the blend has changed slightly. In fact, a new, as of yet un-utilized Bordeaux variety grape is coming into play. (I won’t tell you what grape, but you’re welcome to guess). Tim tells me with pure conviction how proud he is of the vintage and how much he can’t wait to release it. I am so captivated by his enthusiasm that I forget we’re in a grocery store; where are my manners! I tell him I can’t wait to try it, and I apologize, jokingly, for bringing up work in the produce aisle. He shakes my hand graciously, laughs and says “No, no, no. I love talking about the wine; I’m really excited about it!” And I knew he meant it. Just another day in paradise. Now, where’s the beef?
--Räm Hatley, Wine Scout

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

El Dorado Wine Country: A Toast to the Underdog

When most people think of California’s El Dorado County, they think of small, dusty ghost towns and of the region’s once-flourishing mining history during the Gold Rush. As a wine region, however, El Dorado is relatively unrecognized. Which is a shame when you consider the fact that not only was El Dorado County the third largest California wine producer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that today, many of California’s top winemakers are drawing inspiration from the broad range of grapes being grown in the El Dorado appellation.

The draw?

“Mountain Fruit!” says Vinum Cellars and Horse & Plow Winery owner and winemaker Chris Condos. An El Dorado expert, Chris says he ventured into the region over ten years ago when he began looking outside of Napa and Sonoma Valleys for unique varietals such as Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc and Grenache being grown at elevations between 1800 and 3300 feet. Perched as it is in the higher elevations of the Sierra Foothills, nearly every vineyard in the region, Chris discovered, is planted on hillsides rich with high draining volcanic, decomposed granite and shale soils. For Chris, El Dorado was, and is, a viticultural home run.

Days in the El Dorado hills tend to be long and intensely sunny, but at night cool, even cold, breezes drift in from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and settle over the vines. Because El Dorado is cooled not by fog but by high elevation winds, vines planted here receive more direct sunlight than vineyards in nearby regions like Napa Valley, so grapes experience long, even hang-times that don’t ramp up sugar (and alcohol) levels in the resulting wines. It’s the perfect setting for a variety of grapes, including Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Franc, all of which, as Chris says, need a lot of sun but also need the balance that comes from cold nights.

In fact, balance could be the key to El Dorado’s success. Well, that and diversity. Over 50 grape varieties are grown in the small Sierra Foothills sub-appellation. While each variety expresses its unique personalities, the region’s consistency in producing grapes with balanced sugars, acid and tannin makes it the ideal source for blending fruit. In the last few years, if you’ve enjoyed a Rhône or Bordeaux-style blend with a California or Northern California designate on the label, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a wine at least partly comprised of El Dorado fruit. In fact, the Cabernet Franc for Vinum Cellars’ The Scrapper (call 800.943.9463 to inquire about availability), one of the Bounty Hunter’s most popular table reds, comes almost exclusively from El Dorado’s dramatic mountain vines. Chris calls it their “shout out to the wines of Chinon.” We call it an early autumn porch pounder and a tasty salute to one of California’s underdog wine regions.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

So You Think You Want a Vineyard?

Part I The Rise of Insanity
Part II Making Your Own Terroir for Fun and Non-Profit
Part III A Plantin’ We Will Go
Part IV The First Year
Part V The Second Year (Fall 2011)
Part VI CH. Petruski at Last (Fall 2012)

Part I: The Rise of Insanity
Many years ago, when my wife and I first moved up to Sonoma County, we fell in love with the idea of learning everything we could about wine and the wine business, with an unfocused goal of maybe, somehow, being involved in the business – someday. At that time, working in corporate finance in downtown San Francisco and commuting 50 miles a day, it seemed like a pretty far-fetched idea.

Besides drinking our fair share of California wines, we decided to make our own wine. After all – what could be so hard about it, we naively told ourselves. Since we didn’t actually own a vineyard, and we had a nice dry garage I could insulate and put barrels into, and there were lots of small growers willing to sell grapes to garagistes like ourselves, we dove in. I took a series of courses at the University of California at Davis sponsored by the state agricultural cooperative extension, and got the basics of fermentation science down. While most of the wines we produced were drinkable (one was even rather good), it was obvious we needed a couple of things in place in order to, as Emeril says, “Kick it up a notch!” Like a better facility dedicated to home winemaking, and, most importantly, better control over the grapes we were trying to coax into becoming quality wine.

Part II: Making Your Own Terroir for Fun and Non-Profit
Fast forward about 15 years and we find our protagonist actually working in the wine business – although not in quite the way he’d originally thought about. After deciding to stay in the finance and operation side of business, but trading transportation for fine wine as the underlying franchise, the empty-nest syndrome kicked in, and we decided to move to the country. Finding a fixer-upper in rural Sonoma County on 2/3rds of an acre, we settled in to become grape growers for our own hobby. But wait! There is no vineyard – only about 35 evergreen trees and shrubs, courtesy of the previous owner who really liked the FREE TREES the county was giving away back in the 70’s…

BTW – when buying an old house, figure out what you think you need to do to fix it up, then quadruple it. Then, when you’ve made the place somewhat livable, you can get your vineyard going. So, after a new roof, new well casing, new septic drain field, new kitchen, new everything in the house, new pool equipment, new fences, new electrical service, etc., it was time to start prepping the land.

Early on a hot October weekend, Paul Bunyan and his brother and their fraus attacked the forest in what we laughingly call “the south 40.” The sole survivor was a 50 year old Mission Fig tree dead center in the south 40. Still very productive, we thought it set a nice mood when gazing out towards the mountains of Annadel State Park. Then, a few months later, Stumpy the Stump Grinder ( I’m not kidding – that’s what he called himself – don’t ask) shows up and removes the last remnants of the carnage. Ready to plant you say? Not quite yet…

I believe back in 1880, there was a rock farm here – probably was a fairly profitable business, judging by what was going on at the business end of my rototiller. Back to the rental shop, get a bigger machine. Try again. Spread out the ground up shavings from the stumps. Remove rocks. Rotovate again. Repeat as necessary for a couple of years. Finally get smart and rent nice new Kubota tractor. Remove rocks. Now – how to go about getting the trellis built, the plants bench grafted, the dripper system in? Who ya gonna call?

Part III: A Plantin’ We Will Go
In answer to my rhetorical question posted above, no, it’s not Ghostbusters, it’s Mr. G. and his crew (names are changed to protect the innocent). In just 2 weekends, they installed a very sturdy professional trellis system, drip irrigation, and 394 grapelings mostly Merlot and a bit of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot thrown in roughly the same proportions as Petrus. The end posts are leftover drilling pipes from the Alaska Pipeline project, manufactured in Napa, driven into the ground with a small pile driver attached to a bobcat way cool... us boys like our toys.

We decided on 3X3 spacing rather close, but I want to be able to drop a lot of excess fruit and manage the yield to produce better flavors. We will add the third and fourth wires of the trellis before the first fruiting year, which is year two.

Part IV: The First Year
We just got the protective sleeves on the baby vines a day before the first hard frost nothing like cutting it close! The danger in the first year is mostly due to these being bud grafts onto a phyloxera resistant root stock. Nearly all California grapes come from grafted stock, partly because we don't have severe enough winters to warrant growing vines on their native rootstock. In colder climates, like Washington, Oregon and New York, you will see mostly planted varietal rootstock.

We came through a rather mild but very wet winter and early spring. We only lost six vines - that's a good start. Then, the invaders arrived. Gophers (bad) and moles (not so bad). Towards the middle of summer I started feeling like Carl the groundskeeper in "Caddyshack." Poisoning, trapping, and gassing became my second business. While I didn't lose any vines to them, they managed to take a three foot lime tree completely down into the ground, with no evidence it ever existed except for the forlorn planting stake and the identification tag, left sitting near the hole in the middle of the tree ring. Nice $40 dinner for the little buggers. Sadder but wiser, I trudged back to the nursery, found a gopher wire basket and another tree, dug a hole and put the basket in, then planted the tree inside of it. Now, I am the proud owner of a nice little dwarf citrus that cost three times what it should have. I wonder do I need to hire dwarves to harvest it for me?

This was the summer that never was cool days, cold nights. I thought that would be OK for me, because my little vines were just producing a few leaves, and I was concentrating their growth on producing sturdy cordons, not fruit. However, upon returning from a two week vacation out of state, I discovered that my neighbor's powdery mildew had migrated into my vineyard. A good dose of Neem oil sprayed on the leaves, and subsequent sulfuring, saved all the vines. In total, of the 394 planted, we have 388 left - pretty good survival rate for an amateur.

Now, all the vines are starting to shut down as the days are getting colder, wetter and shorter. Time for the gophers to return (launched a major operation today dubbed Operation Underlord with apologies to the folks who participated in D-Day), the fig tree to give up its last fruit, and the vines to go to sleep until February or March.

To be continued...

--Craig House, CFO/COO

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Quick Sip on our Winemaker, Tim Milos:

Fifth generation Bay Area resident Timothy Milos jokes that he’s “dropped out of some of the best schools in the country.” The truth is, the biology and genetics expert spent three years at Cornell working toward his PhD in molecular genetics when he realized he would never be content to sit in a lab day after day. The son of builders, Tim missed that feeling of actively applying his science, or as he says, “of sitting on top of a foundation wall at the end of the day.” Fortunately for Tim and the wine world, Tim spent some time in the cellars of a Finger Lakes winery and stumbled upon the perfect intersection of biology, agriculture, architecture, history and art: making wine.

“Every fermentation,” he says, “is a living system. It is its own ecology, and it evolves over time. It is as complex a matrix as you could ask for.”

After leaving Cornell to study enology at UC-Davis, Tim made his way to Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars, then Opus Wine and finally wound up as winemaker for S. Anderson Vineyard. In 2004, he partnered with Marco di Giulio (another Bounty Hunter alum) and started his own consulting practice. He’s been consulting for premium Napa Valley wineries ever since.

Tim indulged our whims and engaged in a little oenological free association. Below are the results:

1. My winemaking role models…don’t exist. “I don’t have heroes; what I like most are wines that are expressive of a place and not the winemaker.”
2. If I weren’t making wine I’d…be completely lost. “Honestly, I cannot imagine doing anything else, but if forced to answer, I might consider teaching science.”
3. When I’m not drinking my own swill… “I’m drinking wines from as far away as possible. I’m constantly working not to develop a strictly California palate.” Rhône wines are a favorite, Cornas or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. North or South, he loves them all.
4. The food and wine pairing that makes me sit up and pay attention is… “Gewurztraminer (with lychee flavors and not too much residual sugar) and Thai.
5. The ultimate aperitif wine is… “An old fashioned.” While Tim prefers classic cocktails, he says, “Wine should be enjoyed as people want to enjoy it.”
6. At the end of the day… “Kiss your lover, open a bottle wine and enjoy the evening.”