Hurry Up And Wait…

…for the grapes to come in.

Looking south over a block of Cabernet Sauvignon on the very top of the Canoe Ridge vineyard, which is about 2 hours east of Portland.

We’re pretty darn prepped for the harvest, and I’ve been doing a lot of busy work, so not much to say. We did a bottling, which I missed since I was at Burning Man, but I helped prep for it by blending wine and moving a lot of glass (winemaker-speak for bottles) around.

I spent a few days on the most drudgery-laden portion of my harvest: cleaning the picking and fermenter bins. All of them (there were many). By myself. I’ll try not to bore you with the details, but you have to pick up each one individually, wash, scrub, and hit it with triple rinse, and then gingerly (a very difficult, often aggravating operation on a forklift) stack them four-high. I’m anticipating this might be eclipsed by shoveling out fermenter bins and the press, but that’s all still to come.

I did some topping earlier this week which is kind of a combination of rock climbing and wine making. The barrels lose nearly a liter every four weeks or so, which makes topping a major part of cellar maintenance.

Topping affords me unique views of the barrel room, which gets repurposed as a wine-themed jungle gym.

Now we’re just waiting for some fruit! The grapes are not really cooperating however, because of our cool season. Jamie thinks we’ll have some Merlot in before October, but the ripest thing we’ve pulled so far was 21.5 brix; most sites were in the high teens. With temperatures around 70 during the daytime and moving down to the high 40s at night, I’ve been told the grapes will pick up as much as 2-2.5 brix per week, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule for this. Here’s to hoping.

Zinfandel at Alder Ridge, about 15 minutes west of Canoe Ridge. Both overlook the Columbia River. The Zinfandel here displays its classic tendency to ripen unevenly across its clusters.

The cool season also means a compressed harvest. Jamie wants good hang time with brix just at or about 25 for most of our fruit. The pressure will be to hang as long as possible without overshooting the brix mark. However, for all the grapes and sites this doesn’t happen to before late October, we’ll have to pull a lot of fruit at once in order to avoid the risk of frost damage. This might mean a lot of fruit all at one time, but as with most things in wine, one just has to wait to see.


Posted in Horse Heaven Hills, Vineyards, Viticulture, Walla Walla | Leave a comment

Some Plants and Some Dirt

This past Wednesday, we spent the day visiting vineyards. We had done this a few weeks ago, immediately after I had arrived, visiting some of our sites in Horse Heaven Hills, but this was a little more intense. We visited four or five sites and took samples at each.

Even though Waters is located in Walla Walla, the winery sources a fair amount of grapes from further in the Washington interior. This year, it’s almost a necessity, since last years frosts have left much of Walla Walla without fruit. Gramercy has a vineyard basically on our front lawn and it won’t be yielding  The more famous Pepper Bridge vineyard is across the street from us was fairly hard-hit by the frosts as well. At Va Piano, one of our other neighbors, they were cutting plants down to their trunks and only using completely new shoots. As I said, the frosts were very bad this year, with temperatures reaching the single digits in mid-November, before any of the vines had entered their winter hibernation. Some of the sites at higher altitude in the valley (800 feet plus, or so) were saved the damage.

Frost-damaged vines at Va Piano. Notice the new growth to the left of the old dead trunk, which was topped. The new growth and the old trunk are both the same plant.

The first vineyard we visited was Candy Mountain, from which we get a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is Geneva Double Cordon trained, as opposed to Sprawl and VSP (vertical shoot positioning), which is what most vineyards are planted to in Washington. I’m no viticultural wizard, so I’m going to defer to Tom Stevenson in Southeby’s Wine Excyclopedia who basically says that GDC offers more generous yields, provides frost protection (since the berries are relatively far off the ground). He also says it’s easily machine harvested, which cuts both ways, I guess.

Cabernet Sauvignon at Candy Mountain trained in the Geneva Double Curtain Method. The fruit hangs very evenly off the plant, all in a row, since the spurs are all hung evenly off canes.

Jamie, my winemaker, says that this fruit is consistently excellent, and one of the few sites that we source from which has the potential to be as good as the Bordeaux-variety fruit we get from Cold Creek (a much more pedigreed vineyard site). Candy Mountain has the aesthetic misfortune of being situated directly above I-82 a few miles east of Richmond, but other than that, the vineyard was very well maintained, with healthy fruit, no trash in the rows, appropriately groomed plants. Curiously, the sprinklers down by the highway all turn on progressively as you drive by them. Here I clipped a bag of samples, which we took back to to the lab to run brix (sugar content of the grapes), TA (tartaric acid), and pH.

The soils here, as seemingly everywhere, are a silty, sandy, alluvial, dusty: definite phylloxera deterrent. Loess, a calcareous silt, is so common that we have a single-vineyard bottling of it at Waters.  The one exception I have seen is Christoph Barron’s Cayuse vineyards (the one’s directly next to his winery) which have large, gallet-esque* stones in them. I would love to taste his wines, but as they’re permanently sold out, his tasting room is never open (but he maintains it, directly on Main Street). He’s the only guy doing biodynamics in Walla Walla, or at least the only one touting that fact. I’d love to meet him before I leave Walla Walla and am endeavoring to make that happen.

Not an excellent picture, but you can see the soils here at Olsen Vineyard just north of Benton City, between Yakima and Richmond. As I said, I have yet to step foot in a vineyard that isn’t mostly comprised of sandy, alluvial soil.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Eastern Washington’s geological history is fairly fascinating, especially vis-a-vis volcanic activity and some tsunami-like super-floods which occurred towards the end of the last ice age (roughly 15,000 years ago).  The floods made what would have been a totally flat environment in to a series of rolling hills, which give most of the vineyards in Washington greatly variable aspect.

At least two of the best vineyard sites in Washington are on classic vineyard locations: south-western-facing, gently-sloping hills. Red Mountain, just outside Yakima, is more of a hill, and is probably better profiled here at the Washington State Wine website. Jamie says we don’t use fruit from Red Mountain because it’s just a little to baroque for his taste, but these wines from Hedges just came across my radar, and they’re mostly under 14% alcohol. I’m going to try to make it out there, possibly next weekend.

We do get a very small portion of the Andre-Tchelistcheff-consulted, Chateau-St.- Michelle-owned Cold Creek vineyard, however. Located in the middle of nowhere, on a scenic bi-way between Yakima and Richland, just miles from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Superfund Site, Cold Creek would seem an unlikely place for one of the best vineyards in the state. The first vineyard-designated wines ever released in Washington state came from this vineyard, labeled without AVA, simply as “Benton County”. Some of the Cabernet plantings here are from 1973, which makes them the some of the oldest in the US, due to the AXR-1/phylloxera disaster in California in the late 1980s/1990s**.

Fan-trained Cabernet Sauvignon at Cold Creek. This plant is at least 35 or 40 years old, as is most of the block that Waters gets from Cold Creek. Most of this fruit goes into their super-cuvee 21 Grams which they make with Gramercy Cellars.

Tasting fruit from these vines was fascinating. The acids were higher, the skins more tannic, the berries more concentrated than any of the other sites we were at that day, where all the plants were much younger. Given that soil types are so (to my untrained eye) nearly identical, I do wonder what contributes to site-specificity here. I think much of the pedigree from this fruit comes from vine age, but also probably the aspect of the vineyard and weather patterns (higher winds thicken skins, much as with Red Mountain).

We also visited Stone Tree in Wahluke (Wah-loo-kay) Slope, which was gorgeously maintained, and planted to all sorts of crazy things like Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and some Portuguese-sounding grape I had never heard of whose name is escaping me at the moment. We source some Malbec out of the vineyard.

I’ll leave you with a portrait of Petite Verdot***, which I’m gaining a new-found respect for in my time here in Washington. I blended some for a wine a few weeks ago, and and got a fast-moving mouthful of it from a siphon tube. Massively tannic and pretty acidic (for Washington), it was powerful juice. I can see why it only makes it into 5-10% of most Bordeaux blends.

Petite Verdot at the Olsen vineyard. Tiny berries, tiny clusters. Still totally green in early September.

Every other vineyard we visited Wednesday had nearly complete veraison, and this Petite Verdot had not even begun to start. Oddly, there was one plant with a single veraisoned cluster. I tasted a berry from it, which was also super-gnarly, especially compared to the Grenache I had just been tasting previously: piercing acid was matched with sandpaper tannins. Powerful stuff to be used in small quantities, for sure.

*Gallet are one of the traditional soils in Chateauneuf du Pape, smooth stones about the size of grapefruits.

**This data comes from Paul Gregutt’s excellent Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide. I have the 2007 edition, but it was re-released in September 2010.

***My only experience with a varietal bottling of this grape was earlier this year with the Clendenen Family’s ’05 (13.5% alcohol), which I loved, but was not nearly as intense or brooding as what I tasted at Waters. Possibly due to the development?

Posted in Geology, Vineyards, Walla Walla | Leave a comment

That’s a nice rack…(pt. 2)

Once the pump is sanitized, you’re ready to blend some wine.

The barrels are sealed with rubber bungs inserted in a (about) 2” diameter hole into the barrel. I de-bung them and insert the siphon wand.

The sword and shield of racking: siphon wand and pump remote

I want to get the good wine out, without sucking up the sediment at the bottom of the barrel. A remote in my right hand controls the speed of the pump and I have to hold the wand in my left moving it slowly towards the bottom of the barrel. With my left hand, I also hold a small flashlight up to a glass window on the siphon wand, which essentially allows me to spot when I’m sucking sediment.  I then lower the wand to the bottom of the barrel until I hit sediment, raise it just above into the clear wine, and drain the barrel. Each one takes about 4 minutes.

So, the whole set up has the siphon wand on one end, the pump in the middle, and then the tank on the other end of the hose. After the last barrel, any excess wine in the hose is pumped into the tank, using water for back-pressure.

After drawing all 30 barrels out into the tank, I have to clean the barrels of the omnipresent accumulated sediment. The winery has another specialized tool for this, which is reminiscent of a rotary garden sprinkler, except it’s attached to a hose pumping 180-degree water and comes with a stand to hold it in the barrel.

The barrel rests on a rack and the sprayer (which bends in an “L” shape at the end) is inside, cleaning…

The barrels have to be rotated, and then then the sprayer inserted. They’re then blasted with 180. As you can see from the picture, the sediment is quite heavily pigmented. Although I didn’t get a picture of it, the sediment often comes out in the form of small chunks, which look like blobby, violet tapioca pudding. The room is redolent with wine-y smells during this process

The winery floor during racking…

As you can see, messiness abides; the red hose is for the sprinkler, the white for wine, and the black is attached to the pump remote, all sitting in a steamy puddle of dissolved sediment.

The barrels get an hour-or-two of drip drying, are rotated vertical and then centered on their racks (crucial when you’re balancing them in four-high stacks). I simply reverse the pump flow, open my tank, drain the water from the hose and start racking back into barrel. This operation is difficult as well, because it’s very easy to mistake how much wine is in the barrel, generating a wine geyser from the barrel when I’m not careful.

The easiest way to tell how much is in the barrel is by listening to the sound of the wine flowing in: the higher the pitch, the closer I am to the top. The last few inches inevitably have to be done by hand because the pump is a little too indelicate for such an operation.

Because of the volume of the sediment, nearly two barrels of the thirty are lost, but no one wanted to drink that stuff anyway. I bung the barrels and then Dreux stacks them in the cellar room to await their bottling sometime later this fall. Any partially filled barrels are topped with nitrogen and will be topped off or transferred into kegs at the next possible juncture, to avoid any oxidization.

 And that, my friends, is how you rack a wine off its lees…

Posted in Vinification, Walla Walla | 1 Comment

That’s a nice rack…

Over the last week or so, I was lucky enough to participate in blending some of last years vintage of Substance (warning: flash) Syrah, to prepare it for bottling sometime this fall, which, when the winery has thirty barrels of it, is kind of an involved process.

Our press: we’re at least three weeks off from using it…

The wine completed primary fermentation in large fermenter bins last fall, and then the must (the wine along with the skins) was pressed into 3rd-and-4th pass french oak barrique (a french term for a 225 liter (about 60 gallons, a beer keg is 15 gallons) barrel). My assistant winemaker, Dreux, insists that after the 2nd use, practically no oak flavor is imparted by the wood, but does admit that the barrels may add some textural components. Barrels past 5 or 6 years are put out to pasture, as they throw too many skronky, off aromas for Jamie‘s liking.

Barrique on the back of our truck…

The wines complete their malolactic fermentation (a requirement for nearly all red wines, softening their acid) in these barrels, as well as the process of settling out all the protein, dead yeast cells, and small pieces of grape skin that made it through the press. This sediment rests on the bottom of the barrel as a lavender sludge, which, obviously, you don’t want people to be drinking. First, we need a vessel that will hold 1800 gallons of wine, and luckily, we happen to have one or two of those at Waters.

Someone (me) has to clean this tank though, to remove any unwanted microbes, enzymes, etc. To do that, I have to climb inside of it, which involves getting into the tank through a comically small door located about 3 feet up the side of the tank. This tank is almost immediately turned into a sauna for the washer/occupant, as I use 180-degree water to sear all the unwanted micro-fauna off of the tank walls. One learns very quickly that stainless steel is quite conductive and that being exposed to 180-degree water (hereafter known simply as “180”) makes the stainless steel 180 degrees as well in little time.

After gingerly (oh! eee! yi! hot! yow!) climbing out of the tank, spraying the door, as well as wherever in the tank you were standing, you can start to sanitize your pumping equipment, which undergoes an even more thorough bacterial pogrom.

Our tank, also known as,  the “harvest intern jungle-gym”

A hose leads from the tank to a variable-direction pump (so you can get both the wine into the blending tank as well as back out to the cleaned barrels), then out to another hose, the end of which is attached to a siphoning wand through a series of ingenious washers and clamps. Before you do any of this, you need to run your washers and clamps through the triple rinse system, which is sodium percarbonate (peroxy) solution, citric acid solution, and clean water.

Proxy and Citric, my two new best friends…

The peroxy does the heavy lifting, as it’s an intense oxidizer, present in miracle-clean products like OxiClean. The citric acid solution also isn’t great for microorganisms, but it also neutralizes the peroxy and is also naturally present in wine, so if any small quantity of it makes it past the purifying neutral water bath, no harm, no foul.

Oxidization, being the enemy of wine, mandates that you would keep your peroxy as far away from your wine as possible. After rinsing your fittings, you need to sterilize the whole pump set-up, so you pump, in succession, 50-gallon plastic garbage cans full of 180 and peroxy, citric solution, and clean water through all your hosing. The clean water ensures that your lines are clean and ready to go following their sanitizing regime.

That’s basically how to sanitize a pumping set up in order to rack, which again, is more complicated than you might think and will be covered in my next post…

Posted in Vinification, Walla Walla | 1 Comment

Walla Squared


Walla Walla, circa 1917. Not much has changed.

Well, here I am in mid-sized, quaint Walla Walla. I’m on the second week of my time at Waters, and I’ve finally gotten enough of the bullshit out of my system in order to sit down and write.

After an incredibly opulent, debaucherous few “good-bye” weeks to New York, I arrived in Seattle on Thursday before the Monday I had to be in Walla Walla (the 15th was my start date). I got my certification to ride motorcycles on Saturday and Sunday in a two-day class, so I didn’t get out of Seattle until about five on Sunday and I was into Walla Walla around 10:30, where I moved into a completely unoccupied six-bedroom house.

After spending a sort of spooky night by myself on an air mattress, I got up early and went to find coffee. I discovered an excellent bagel and mediocre coffee. One of the offshoots of small-town living is that you often don’t have everything you need in one place, or at least within reasonable (read: walkable) proximity of each other, so now, every morning, I have to go to one coffee shop for my coffee, another for my pastry. Such is life. At least they’re both on the way out of town.

Walla Walla prompted many newly-found firsts: first in-house laundry and first dishwasher in seven years, first honest-to-goodness weekend (I mean the type that happens when you have Saturday and Sunday off) in three years, first car-based work commute ever, first trip to a Walmart (there was simply no other place to buy sheets) since my summer doing Christian dinner theater in south-central Virginia…

I’ve gotten a few roommates since arriving, but I’ve learned that my house is known by Whitman (the 3000-or-so-student liberal arts college in town)  students simply as, “The 905,” and is a lauded, historic party house which bookends Fraternity row. I am nothing but entertained by this. My tenure here is short, so the fact that I scavenged up a very nice-looking full-sized bed, a desk, a chair, an armoire and book-case is pretty stellar, because I was just going to rough it otherwise. To give you an idea of what the house is like, there’s a sign over one of the bathrooms in hand-painted, 1-foot letters that simply reads, “URINE.”

The skinny on work: it’s hard, but it’s great. I’m learning an incredible amount and getting all the manual labor I could shake a stick at, “Ask and ye shall receive.”

I’ve been endeavoring over the past few days to investigate the watering holes in town, and a few are remarkable, definitely including a place where I successfully ordered a Hanky Panky, and another one where I had Jacky Blot’s sensational 2004 Taille Aux Loups Montlouis with a perfectly prepared brook trout in beurre meuniere and fresh herbs. I’m completely ignoring the fact that I cannot afford any of this on a harvest assistant’s salary.

As soon as I get my photo transfer situation figured out, I’m going to start in on a series of blog posts with more detailed information on what I’ve been doing at the winery, which has been mostly general cleaning in addition to blending a few wines from the 2010 vintage, and a day spent out at a few of the vineyards to the west of Walla Walla in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (a.k.a. American Viticultural Area).

The harvest still a ways out, probably no earlier than the third or fourth week of September for the early ripening varietals like Merlot and Tempranillo. Much to the opposite of Europe this vintage, we’re well behind the usual harvest. The year has been very cool, plus frosts devastated low-lying vineyards last year (negative 11 degrees in mid-November). The plants weren’t killed, but the next year’s growth was, and so they won’t have a harvest from those plants until next year. The vineyards we saw last week showed only the most marginal signs veraison. Theoretically perfect conditions to make the sort of wines Water’s likes to put out; the wines aspire to old-world quality with a definitive sense reflecting the various terroirs working with the winery.

This weekend I’m headed back to Seattle for one of my best High School friend’s weddings. I’m also crashing another. And going to a boat party. And shopping for Burning Man clothes. My life is ridiculous.

For moment-to-moment updates on what’s going on, follow me @techdrinking on Twitter.



Posted in Everything Else, Vinification, Viticulture, Walla Walla | Leave a comment

The Sunday Papers

Closed the bar at 3:30AM, Eleven Madison Park at 9:30 AM on a Saturday: Sommelier Life

I haven’t been posting a lot, and I realize that to turn this into anything substantive, generating a lot of content is a necessity. And generating it consistently. Aaron over at the excellent Not Drinking Poison in Paris is a great illustration of this.

However, things have legitimately been super busy.

Here’s a look into the life of a NYC quasi-sommelier this week:

Shifts: 6 (everything but Sunday brunch, Thursday dinner)

Tasting groups: 4 (these are typically 2-3 hour sessions)

Study Groups: 1 (again, 2-3 hours)

This is not to mention keeping up with e-mails, trade magazines, any of the other stuff associated the lighting-fast pace of New York City. I love it to death, but you can see how sometimes this blog falls by the wayside. I will endeavor, dear reader (if there are, in fact, any of you), to pump out a little more interesting content. I have a project in the works that might bring a little more multi-media oriented material to the blog. Oh, yeah, and having a personal life…

Also: Paris, Champagne, Los Angeles, Seattle, Grand Rapids from the 9th-27th…there will be eating. And drinking. If any of it is of note, I will advise…

30 different types of oysters, 30 dollars, Pepiere Gras Mouton ’09 for $9 a Glass = Happyness

Anyone in NYC, try to get yourself to the happy hour (or afterward) at Maison Premier in Williamsburg. You will not regret it. Small, but well-considered wine list. Great cocktails. Affordable oysters.

Posted in CoMS, Everything Else, New York, Travel, Wine Community | 1 Comment

Oh, Captain, my Captain!

A partial definition: service means suggesting something new

The other night, I had a really ideal service experience. I went into a well-known Williamsburg cocktail bar looking for a nightcap after observing (and participating in, to a lesser degree) the craziness that was the JBF after party at 11 Madison Park. Now, I often find myself at this bar because it’s open quite late, they have knowledgeable bartenders (who can help me “research” cocktails for my Court of Master Sommelier studies), and it’s directly on my way home if I’m coming back to Greenpoint by way of the Williamsburg Bridge.I also get to feel really cool and hipster-Brooklyn-y with all the wood paneling, flannel, and locally-sourced ingredients.

I sat at the bar and was considering a whiskey from their sizable selection, but decided to have one of my favorite cocktails, the Last Word, which I had blogged about earlier here. The bartender and I chatted for a second about the whiskey, I asked for my drink, and he came back at me, suggesting that I try the Final Word, which is the same drink as the Last Word, but with scotch instead of gin. I happily agreed, of course, giving my proclivities towards the novel, and was well-rewarded. The drink, to my palate, makes a better nightcap, but I predict I’m still going to find myself ordering mostly Last Words. I suppose the names do mean something.

To me, this bartender offered me real service (a rarity generally, but especially in Brooklyn). It was anticipatory. He took the information that I was interested in whiskey, combined that with the fact that I liked a Last Word, to give me a third possible option; he offered me a new experienced based off drinks I had enjoyed in the past, which is pretty much perfect, as far as I’m concerned. This sort of service is a two-way street. Consumers need to engage their servers (bartenders, mixologist, sommeliers), but servers also need to get interested in what they’re doing.

Fellow service industry professionals, the fact is, you’re probably going to be at your job for at least 25-30 hours a week, even if you have other interests. Take some pride, people! How would you like to be treated when you sit down? I ask myself that question every time I step behind my bar, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that you should too. If you have aspirations to act, paint, dance, model, draw, babysit, work as an accountant, train for the Olympics, or whatever while you’re in the service industry, just make an attempt to be good at your job. I guarantee this will manifest itself in how much your time as worth (tips), as well as your general outlook towards your job. There’s a lot of bullshit in the service industry. I would be the first person to admit that, but I’d like to see the exception become the rule, wouldn’t you?

Posted in New York, Service | Leave a comment

Ode to A Grecian Urn

Everyone should have a Calvelin!

The form of a wine bottle is perfect: 750 milliliters. Too much for one person to reasonably drink on their own, it requires sharing. Not that I haven’t been responsible for a whole bottle of wine in my time (and then some), but things generally get pretty weird for most people after 4 or more glasses. It’s just big enough for two people to get a little buzzy on. It’s durable. It stacks. It’s the product of hundreds of years of natural development. It’s a perfect marriage of form and function.

Tee-hee, Goat’s Balls!

Other formats exist, and they too all have solid reasons behind them. One of my favorite is the Jura’s Clavelin, a 620ml bottle, who’s difference in volume is supposedly the “angel’s share” which would have evaporated from a regular format bottle over the course of its six years of barrel aging. Magnums, Jeroboams, and other large formats (the subject of many a smutty sommelier mnemonic) are wonderfully ceremonial and add a real dose of theatre to a large party, as well as adding the ageability of a wine. Franken’s Bocksbeutel, a flat, pancake-shaped bottle is named for its resemblance to a goat’s scrotum (the 12-year-old boy in me cannot stop sniggering) and flattened to prevent it from rolling away (presumably on Germany’s famously precipitous vineyard slopes). The half-bottle shines best when used to contain thrillingly concentrated elixirs, such as Germany and Austria’s Trockenbeerenauslesen, Tokaj’s Essenczia, and new world delights such as Seppeltsfield’s fathomless 100-year Para: a whole bottle would be an embarrassment of riches. The split (actually a quarter bottle, 187ml, not a half-bottle) is truly adorable, the Thumbelina of wine bottles, and is perfect for dessert wine for two. The Rheinhessen’s Gunderloch Estate does some of its Nackenheimer Rothenburg Trockenbeerenauslese in this format.

Regardless of the particular form, the most amazing thing about the shape of a wine bottle is that it reinforces sharing. It brings us together to commune, about the bottle’s history, or our own. The wine bottle is a cultural touchstone for the meeting of minds and hearts. Overly romantic? Maybe. Meet me for a bottle of wine sometime and we’ll talk about it.

Posted in Wine History | 1 Comment

Greece Enrichment Application

I wrote this for a recent Guild of Sommeliers (a.k.a. the best $100 you will ever spend as a wine professional) enrichment program application.

Again, a little dry, but I feel a good PSA for the quality and value of Greek wine:

Beautiful: Ancient basket-trained Assyrtiko vines on Santorini

Nothing will ever replace visiting a wine region. Direct contact with the vines, soils, traditional winemaking practices, the wines, and, most importantly, people has no substitute.

Specifically with Greece, I think the country is poised to make a real splash in the American market and will become an increasingly important member of any internationally-focused wine list. Some of the best examples of Greek wine on the market currently (Sigalas Assyrtiko, Kyrdas Xinomavro, Samos Vin Doux, to name a few off the top of my head) are amazing values, and quality is high across the board. Most Greek wines reaching the American market today have incredible appeal and are generally consistently high quality. They are also food friendly, and mostly done in an accessible “Vin de Soif” style, particularly the whites. This is good for the consumer and for me, as they have a much more utilitarian (read: accessibly delicious) nature than wines coming out of most other emerging markets.

On a trip to Greece, I would like to get inside these wines. I really want to understand them in their context, and not just from the perspective of what a wine rep brings me or what I read in a book. A trip to Greece would allow me to see how these wines function relative to the native cuisine and to speak with growers and winemakers, to see what they’re focused on and what interests them about their wine making; what is their ethos? If I want to see more of these wines on the market in America, I need to know what to ask for and what I like. Hopefully, that will allow me to guide importers and distributors towards bringing in the Greek wines that I’d like to provide to my customers. Right now, what’s brought to the American market from Greece is good, but I definitely feel as if we might be missing some amazing wines here in the States. As a sommelier, I feel it’s my responsibility to advocate for quality, value wines. We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in Greece, and I’d like to spend my time in Greece exploring just how deep it goes.

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Hunter Valley Semillion

I wrote this for Wine Australia’s Sommelier Immersion program.

Sorry I’ve been so busy. Regular updates will occur. For ‘rizzle.

A Vieux Certainty:

Some Suggestions for the Development of Hunter Valley Sémillion in the American Market

By Morgan Harris

For the Australian Wine Sommelier Immersion Program

February 28th, 2011

I believe that Hunter Valley Sémillion (hereafter, HVS) to be one of Australia’s greatest opportunities to expand in the US market, but caution must be taken in how this marvelously unique style of wine moves into the American market. Most of this burden falls on the shoulders of the producers of HVS. They must continue to focus on quality wine production, re-orient their distribution structure to afford for library releases, and travel to the American market to show their wines in vertical tastings.

Firstly, to discuss my understanding of HVS as a style, Sémillion is a fairly early-ripening, high-yielding grape variety with relatively thin skins. From it, generally medium-to-full bodied wines are made with dominant citrus and apple-and-pear orchard fruit notes. In its traditional home of Bordeaux, the wines are mixed with Sauvignon Blanc (for acid balance) and Muscadelle (for aromatics). The best examples are always oaked. Besides the Hunter and its expression in Bordeaux, its not grown and labeled varietally in significant quantities anywhere except perhaps Washington State, but it used to be grown in large quantities in South Africa and Chile. Being a low-acid grape, it favors soils of relatively low pH in order to make structured, balanced wine. In the Hunter, James Halliday suggests that these take the form of sandy, alluvial flats.Climate in the Hunter is moderated by river and ocean breezes, afternoon cloud cover, and humidity. This helps the wine maintain a healthy acid-alcohol balance, as well as assisting in consistent phenolic development. Oak is never used in classic HVS and many are malo-blocked in order to maintain structurally desirable acid.

The best examples of HVS are fully structured and mineral, with bracing acidity. They’re quite primary in their youth, displaying lime, lemon notes as well as under ripe pears and green apple. After five or six years, the wines begin to uncoil from their youthful bindings, yielding a stunning cornucopia of fruit flavors: lemon curd, kafir lime, yuzu, peach skins, tart nectarines, just to name a few. More important (for me, at least) are the secondary elements of beeswax, toast, dusty chalk minerality, and intense hoppy-herbal notes which are nothing like aged white Bordeaux. The wines undoubtedly have the structure to develop for decades. The ’74s and ‘77s from top-notch producers are widely sought-after by collectors. Aged HVS is truly a singular wine, and this fact lives at the core of my proposal for their development in the American market.

As a marketing minor in college, my professors instilled in me the importance of understanding how products function relative to the marketplace, both within their category and within the general economy. Interest in wine in the US market in wine is unquestionably on the rise. Marketers can count on this being the truth as larger portions of America embrace the foodie lifestyle. Moreover, wine consumers are consistently more curious and looking for products based on tradition, unique qualities, and above all, deliciousness. Consumers are less interested in point scores and more interested whether or not the wine is good and a value. The development of HVS in the American market must capitalize on these factors.

The principle strength of HVS is the fact that it is the category. Most other varieties have to compete with other expressions of the grapes from around the world (Bordeaux varieties, Burgundy varieties, etc.), but HVS is the sole quality example of the style. Much like Château Musar in Lebanon, or the white wines of López De Heredia in Spain, quality producers of HVS have very little competition in terms of similar wines. White Bordeaux is oaked (generally a disadvantage for whites in the American market), and has reached such absurd prices in recent years that you can hardly compare it to HVS. With the exception of Grosses Gewächs dry Riesling and perhaps Savennières, there are very few wines which display any similarity in terms of structure and longevity, let alone aromatics.

And here we have the next key, Hunter Valley Sémillion is a quality wine. Increasing production without regard to quality will be the ruin of HVS. Trying to turn it into the next New Zeland Sauvignon Blanc would be disastrous (at least in the American market). Producers must continue to focus on quality by only planting on the best sites, restricting yields, avoiding botrytis, and practicing all the other tenants of quality viticulture and vinification for dry white table wine.

Certainly the most difficult part of my proposal is the focus on holding wine for ex-cellar library release. Unfortunately, HVS is a remarkably miserly wine in its youth. I identify the structure and pedigree in young HVS, but aromatically, they’re simply ungenerous. Only at 5-10 years of age do they begin to develop the sublime aromas which make old HVS of the most revelatory wines I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. This, again, is the burden of the producers. Hopefully, their cash flow will allow them to begin to hold wines for later release ex-cellar. If not, they should make an effort to restructure their business plans to afford this luxury.

And then comes the most important part about moving HVS into the American market: the people. The day that my colleagues tasted through our HVS flight, there were definitely some very wide, surprised eyes. We were definitely jazzed about the wines and the tasting was a first for many of us. The quality was undeniable. This needs to be shown! Producers need to make library releases available to taste the American market, even if there’s not enough of it cellared to actually sell in quantities at the moment. The work that Australian Wine’s immersion program has done definitely put HVS on the map for me, and I think that allowing more sommeliers and retailers to taste older, mature vintages of these wines will enable the category to blossom. Young HVS will never sell itself, but the older wines definitely do. Wine professionals who work in markets with large amounts of storage space will definitely begin to pick up wines from recent releases for cellaring. Unfortunately, in a market with real-estate prices as astronomic as New York, I simply don’t have the facilities to cellar wines for 5-10 years before putting them on our list. I also don’t have any interest in putting young HVS on my list, unless perhaps I was working in a high-concept, all-Australian restaurant.

If you get the wine professional understanding and enthusiastic about the majesty of HVS, the rest will follow. The wines are not a far deviation from mainstream American palate in the way that many wine nerd and sommelier darlings are. This is not voile-wine from the Jura. This is not extended maceration Ribolla Cialla from Friuil. This is not off-dry Méthod Ancestral Gamay from the Savoie. These are wines that the average consumer will unquestionably enjoy. I believe aged HVS to be incredibly saleable in the American market (especially in restaurants, given its food-friendly qualities) if back-vintages of the wine becomes available for purchase.

To conclude, the general nature of this market positioning is one of “Blue Ocean” strategy. Aged HVS shouldn’t compete with an existing sector of the wine market, because it doesn’t have to, due to its unique qualities. Aged HVS must create its own category. Unfortunately, as a young wine, it doesn’t do this very well because it’s too similar to many other full-bodied, clean, aperitif-style whites (unoaked white Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, etc.).

Aged HVS is the definition of its category. It stands alone. Aged HVS will compete with other wines on a general level, but that’s a given in any market. There’s really nothing similar to aged HVS and expansion of the style in the American market should rely on this. HVS Producers would do well to look at certain German producers’ (Zilliken, etc.) focus on library releases, as well as the aforementioned Château Musar of Lebanon and López De Heredia in Spain to get a picture of how HVS might most successfully function in the American market. Tyrrell’s seems to be one of the few producers in the Hunter to have already developed this model, and I advise other producers to follow their lead. Furthermore, education and marketing should focus on getting wine professionals in major metropolitan areas to understand how HVS develops in the bottle, because as it stands, HVS’s potential (one might say necessity) for cellaring is widely misunderstood.

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