Extreme Wine: Vineyard Edition

P1030341When I started working on my book on Extreme Wine  (due out in the fall) I asked Wine Economist readers for ideas. Who are the most extreme wine people, for example? I received many nominations but one particularly caught my attention.

It came from a California winegrower who asked that winegrowers (although not him/herself) be included on the list. Everyone says that wine is made in the vineyard — and some growers go to real extremes to make that happen — but it is the wine makers who get all the attention.  The Pisoni family was cited as an example. Fruit from Pisoni Vineyards goes into some of the best wine in California, although only a little of it is bottled under the Pisoni name.

Good point. A quick search on Robert Parker’s website turned up a long list of Pinot Noir and Syrah with the Pisoni Vineyards designation (Parker calls it a grand cru vineyard in one review).  The 2008 Pisoni Estate Pinot earned the highest score (98/100), but all the reviews were strong. Clearly there’s something special about this vineyard and the people who farm it.  I visited several extreme winegrowers in 2012 (most recently on Red Mountain). Here are three that illustrate different sides of the extreme winegrower phenomenon.

Serendipity

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As luck would have it, at about the same time I was having this extreme wine people conversation I received an invitation from Wine Yakima Valley to participate in a program they were organizing to help wine enthusiasts get to know several of the most noteworthy (read “extreme”) vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA (which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2013). A perfect opportunity for me to do some extreme vineyard / wine grower research!

The Vineyard Tour Series highlighted the work of  four outstanding growers at Red Willow Vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard, Upland Estates and Boushey Vineyards. What a great opportunity. Each of these vineyards is famous for the quality of the wines made from its fruit and each is discussed in Paul Gregutt’s valuable book, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide.

Gregutt knowingly breaks down Washington wine into grapes, AVAs, wine makers and wine growers. Boushey is one of his “grand cru” designates while Red Willow and DuBrul make “premier cru” in the top 20 list.  All these vineyards have interesting stories, but the DuBrul program was the best fit for my schedule.

Tough Love

I ended up spending a hot July afternoon at DuBrul, walking the vineyards with Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils and gaining an appreciation of the unique terroir. This is how the Sheilses describe their site:

Our DuBrul Vineyard is situated on a basalt promontory with sweeping vistas in all directions.  The steep rocky south facing slope is composed of dissected terraces comprised of coalesced alluvial fan deposits primarily from the Ellensburg Formation.  The soils in the vineyard are made up of relatively thin loess (wind-deposited silt) over the more coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.  The volcanic ash and heterogeneity of the rock types within the Ellensburg Formation add to the complexity of our terroir.

It’s hard land — literally. I think I remember Hugh saying that the spacing of the vines was partly determined by the lay out of the previous apple orchard there. The land was too equipment-busting tough to cultivate any other way, so they were forced to accept what they had to a certain extent. Wade Wolfe laid out the vineyard and Stan Clarke advised on the winegrowing — that’s as good a combination as you can get in Washington State.

The grapes are in high demand and are sold to only a few carefully selected customers — if you see the DuBrul Vineyard designation on a wine label you can expect something pretty special. So special that some of it is reserved for Cote Bonneville, the estate wine that Kerry makes.  The wines get high marks from the critics. At $200 the top of the line Cote Bonneville Du Brul Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive Washington State wine.

But DuBrul Vineyard isn’t about the money, it’s about the place and the particular geological forces that shaped it over the millenia and that shape what’s in your wine glass today. And, of course, it’s about the extreme wine people who have nurtured it.

History in a Bottle

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The first thing you see when you approach Larkmead Vineyards, which is located in Napa Valley up the road near St. Helena, are the 120 year old head-trained Tocai Friuliano vines planted in a block between a house and the road. Man, that’s history, I thought, as I surveyed these gnarly old vines and imagined the tenacity of the owner and the commitment to a less-than-fashionable Napa Valley variety.

I was right about the history, but wrong about the commitment to Tocai. Turns out the Tocai vines were kept through the years  in spite of  negligible market demand because they made such a darn fine hedge in the summer. Completely blocked out the road and its noise! Only in recent years did the winemaker decide to make lemonade out of the lemons. Now the unusual wine quickly sells out its tiny production each year.  (I was too late to try the most recent vintage. Sigh … maybe next year).

We came to Larkmead for the history (although not specifically for the Tocai Friuliano). Larkmead got into my head when I first read Jim Lapsley’s history of Napa Valley wine, Bottled  Poerty. The legendary Andre Tchelistcheff identifed the “big four” quality wine producers in the valley when he came to work here in 1938: Beaulieu (Tchelistcheff’s new employer), Beringer, Inglenook and … Larkmead.

Larkmead? I knew the wines were very good, but I didn’t appreciate the historical significance. I needed to find out more.

My curiosity was especially piqued because of what I knew about the other three wineries and the way that they fell into corporate hands and met different fates. Perhaps the saddest story (but with a happy ending) was Inglenook, which went from producing some of Napa’s best wines to being a lowly jug wine brand. Only recently, after years and years of effort, has Francis Ford Coppolla managed to bring the estate, its vineyards and the Inglenook brand back together to make excellent wines. Congratulations to him on this achievement.

We tasted with Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar and enjoyed the wines quite a lot. But what I liked even more was the sense of history. Although everything about Larkmead is up to date, there’s a very strong sense of of identity here. The people at Larkmead know what they are –the stewards of the land — and who they are, too.  After talking, tasting and thinking a bit I realized that several generations of extreme wine people were necessary to preserve these vineyards and to sustain a particular vision of wine through all of Napa’s ups and downs. The Tocai vines that first caught my attention aren’t central to all this (as I secretly hoped), simply an unexpected reminder of how hard it can be for a vineyard and winery like this to stay true to itself.

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We visited Anne Amie Vineyards twice during our Willamette Valley expedition (I taught a class for the University of Pinot at the International Pinot Noir Celebration) — first to attend a casual food and wine reception and then again for a “magical mystery tour” seminar and luncheon.

We’ve been to this place on many occasions, starting about 30 years ago when it was called Chateau Benoit (after the founding family). We liked the wines then, especially the sparkling wines as I recall, and it has been interesting to watch the place evolve as the region’s wine industry developed. Much has changed. We called it Chateau Benoit (pronounced Ben-OYT) when we first visited because that’s how the founders said it, but I understand it morphed into a French-inflected Chateau Ben-WAH later on. And it 1999 it became Anne Amie when Robert Pamplin bought the operation and named it after his two daughters.

More than the name has changed — Pamplin has invested much energy into developing Anne Amie’s Pinot Noir program as you might expect in Oregon — but much has remained the same, including some of the original vineyards (which is where this story fits into today’s post). As we drove up the long road to the hilltop winery, we passed the original (1979) block of Muller Thurgau vines that produced the grapes that went into the wines we tasted on our very first visit.

It has taken a good deal of persistence to maintain these vines because they have faced a lot of challenges. The first is economic — there’s not much of a market for Muller Thurgau here in the U.S. It might make economic sense to pull them out and put in a more marketable variety.

And then there’s nature. The bottom of the hill gets pretty cold in the winter and these old vines sometimes suffer. And I think I remember that they’ve been hit with Phylloxera, but nursed along rather than grubbed up as you might expect.  I like the wine that is produced from these grapes — crisp and clean — but more than that I appreciate the extreme perseverance that is behind it. This particular Muller Thurgau vineyard is singled out for special mention in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz and it is easy to see why.

These three vineyards only scratch the surface of extreme winegrowing, but I hope they make the point that my anonymous correspondent suggested. If wine really is made in the vineyard as we all like to say then we ought to honor and celebrate wine growing as much as we do wine making. Here ‘s a toast to the growers! Cheers!

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Thanks to Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting me to take part in their vineyard program. Special thanks to Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils for answering all my questions and sharing their wine growing experiences with me. More thanks to  Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar at Larkmead and to Ksandek Podbielski at Anne Amie. Happy New Year to all!

Photos: Old vine Tocai block at Larkmead, Hugh Sheils at DuBrul, those old 120 year old Tocai vines once again, and the view from Anne Amie looking down the hill at the Muller Thurgau block.

Extreme Wine South Africa: Nederburg Edelkeur

Since I’m writing about South Africa’s Extreme Wines (see previous post) I cannot neglect a wine so extreme that it it took an act of Congress (figuratively) to get it produced, and act of Will (literally) to initiate a tradition that can be sustained only when acts of Nature permit, and that  provoked the creation of a very special stage for extreme acts and actors.

I’m talking about the wine in the photo, Nederburg Edelkeur, one of South Africa’s (and the world’s) treasured extreme wines.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Wine Gets Personal

This is a personal story for me because my small cellar now holds two half-bottles of Edelkeur from the 1977 and 1979 vintages. They were given to me by Carina Gous, Distell Business Director of Wines, as a token of thanks for giving the keynote address this year at the Nederburg Auction. I’m looking forward to sharing these wines with Sue (and perhaps one or two special friends) on an appropriately special occasion several years in the future.

Edelkeur was the personal vision of an extreme wine person, Günter Brözel, one of South Africa’s most honored winemakers who was Nederburg‘s cellar master for 33 years until his retirement in 1989. (You can see and hear  Brözel in the video below. You can read details of Edelkeur’s history here and  another story here).

Brözel’s extreme idea was to create a Noble (made with Botrytis infected “noble rot” grapes) Late Harvest wine that would express the elegance and power of South African terroir in much the way that German Trockenbeerenauslese, French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji represent their respective wine producing regions. The only things that stood in his way were Mother Nature and the South African wine law.

Mother Nature is easy enough to understand. Late harvest wines are tricky to produce because the grapes need to stay on the vines long after the usual harvest and they are subject to damage from birds, mold and other problems. Making a Noble wine is even harder and requires both luck (in the vineyard) and lots of harvest labor. You can’t count on making a noble late harvest wine every year and indeed the first Edelkeur vintage in 1969 was not followed by a second until 1972.

Extreme Wine Law

So Edelkeur required an act of nature to make, but an act of Congress? Well, not literally Congress, but it’s a fact that South African wine laws prior to the 1969 vintage did specifically forbid this kind of wine. The rules permitted (and protected) sweet fortified wines but outlawed the production of natural (unfortified) wines with more than 30 percent residual sugar. Tokaji Eszencia often has as much as 50 percent to 70 percent residual sugar (90 percent in the 2000 vintage!). Brözel was going for an extreme and the law got in his way, so the law had to be changed. And it was.

But not all the laws yielded to Nederburg’s cellar master. The most reliable way to get late harvest grapes (because Mother Nature’s part is reduced) is to harvest them earlier and dry them on racks, concentrating the flavor that way. (Just as the most reliable way to make Ice Wine is to pick unfrozen grapes and then … freeze them!) But Nature’s Law prevailed here and so the grapes for Edelkeur are left to hang exposed to and expressing wild nature before being finally picked and vinified.

A Special Stage 

And so finally Brözel was able to make Nederburg Edelkeur but that created another problem: how to distribute the tiny amount of this precious wine that law and nature permit. After some early trial and error, it was decided that a special stage was needed and this became the now-famous Nederburg Auction, where a juried selection of rare South African wines are offered up once a year to the international wine trade. Some of the 1972 vintage was sold at the first Nederburg Auction in 1975 and the link between the auction, Edelkeur and the best of South African wine has been going ever since.

The “first five” founding wineries — Nederburg, Delheim, Groot Constantia, Overgaauw and Simonsig — are now joined by many others, the Auction Selection wines determined through rigorous blind tasting panels. It’s an honor just to be selected for the auction and to have your bottles wear the “Nederburg Auction Selection” ribbon.

The auction today does much more than just allocate one extreme wine. It honors an extreme wine person’s vision and draws international attention to South Africa’s best wines.

Back to the Wine

So what does the wine taste like? Well, I’m not going to open my bottles for several years, but I was able to taste through several vintages of Edelkeur on the first day of the auction and they were memorable and gave a hint of how this wine can age. I don’t rate wines or write reviews, but I found this CellarTracker tasting note for the 1976 vintage that sums up my opinion.

Brown with a bright yellow rim. Fabulous nose – intense citrus, caramel and leather with a very slight flor touch. Amazing attack. Citrussy sweetness. Amazing life. Huge depths of flavour. Great length. Excellent

One of the people I was tasting with that day had this reaction: “They shouldn’t sell these wines; they should hold them back.” She didn’t care about the money, she just knew that the wines would get better and better and that it was a sin to drink wines like the 1979 and the 1977 so young.

She’s right, I suppose, because certainly the wines will continue to develop for many years, but I think she’s wrong, too. Yes, the wines will get better with age, which is why I’m not rushing to pull these corks, but putting some of them up for auction isn’t really about the money or maybe even [just] about the wines themselves. There’s something bigger going on here — defining the identity of South Africa and its wine and honoring the passion of the wine makers — and that’s what makes it really extreme.

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Update November 1, 2012. Here’s a new video from the Nederburg Auction website. Cheers!


Extreme Wine South Africa: Oldest Living Wine?

I received many invitations to sniff, swirl and chat while I was in South Africa and I had to decline most of them because of my tight schedule. But I’m glad I made time for lunch with Cobus Joubert of Maison Joubert and his winemaking (and photo-taking) brothers. It was a most memorable Extreme Wine experience.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

Brothers in Wine

The agenda for the tapas lunch was mainly to talk about wine and South Africa (and for me to autograph a copy of Wine Wars that Cobus brought along for that purpose). Cobus and his wine-maker brother Meyer opened several bottles of wine from the family wine farm, Joubert-Tradauw, which were excellent and paired well with the tasty food.

But the simple tasting turned a bit competitive when another brother, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Cellarmaster at Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons, pulled out some of his wines for comparison. Joubert-Tradauw and Rupert & Rothschild represent two faces of South African wine that, like the brothers, compete in a friendly way.

The Joubert family history in South Africa goes back ten generations to 1688 when French Huguenot Pierre Joubert arrived in Cape Town. The current  Joubert-Tradauw wines date from 1982, when vines were planted in Klein Karoo, and 1997, when the cellar was established.

Rupert & Rothschild, on the other hand, is a partnership between the Rupert family of South Africa and the late Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The Rupert family, whose wealth is measured in the billions, controls the Swiss luxury goods multinational Richemont (brands include Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Sulka, Montblanc, and Baume & Mercier) as well as South African wine and spirits producers such as La Motte Wine Estates.

Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, who continues his father’s work in this project, is descended from the non-winemaking branch of the Rothschild family tree, but certainly the Rothschild name unlocks doors, for wine as other things, especially in the growing China market. The R&R wines have South African roots to be sure, but with high international aspirations.

It was interesting to taste the brothers’ wines at lunch. Sometimes Meyer’s wine would shine a bit brighter, other times it was Schalk-Willem’s wine that stood out. The wines were deliciously different, but not without a certain family resemblance, just like the brothers themselves.

The Oldest Living Wine?

But the brightest star of all came at the end of the meal, when Cobus brought out a small bottle of Jaubert Muscat d’Alexandrie vintage 1800! Wow, what an experience it was to taste this wine. Here is Neal Martin’s Wine Advocate tasting note:

Just twelve 250-ml bottles of this incredibly rare and ancient Muscat d’Alexandrie are released from a 100-litre French oak barrel in Klein Karoo that is topped up each year. It has an iridescent clear amber hue with green tints on the rim. The nose is simply stellar: candied orange peel, toffee, apricot and almond soar from the glass and fix you to the spot. The palate is perfectly balanced and fresher than some South African wines two centuries younger! It has a Sauternes-like viscosity but is not cloying like a Tokaji Essenzia. There is a touch of sherbet at the tip of the tongue and then it fans out towards a kaleidoscope of spice, clove, candied fruits and a touch of honey. One can discern an oxidative tang towards the finish that has a touch of volatility. Very long and intense and yet somehow refined and elegant, this is an ethereal experience. Drink now-2100+. Tasted June 2011.

I missed the touch of sherbert, but the rest was there in my glass. Drink now or until 2100+. Now that’s a wine that can age.

The brothers date the wine in their barrel from 1800 because that is the date that is given for the few similar lots of wine that are still around, but they think it could be older. The barrel has been in the family for several generations and in fact the house they grew up in was built around the barrel, so there is no way to get it out. They worried a bit (as brothers would about an ageing uncle) that the oak barrel was getting old and might some day simply collapse. But they had no plans to try to fix it up — too risky.

They maintain the wine — and share it! — through a sort of solera practice where, as the tasting note above explains, three liters of the wine are drawn off each year, replaced with new wine and a little bit of spirits. Is it the “oldest living wine” in the world as some have said? That probably depends upon your point of view, but it is certainly the oldest wine that I have ever sampled. And one of the youngest and freshest, too, if you go by taste.

One of my goals in visiting South Africa was to taste a wine as close as possible to the famous Vin de Constance that European heads of state treasured and Napoleon requested on his death bed. I did in fact get to taste a 2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance (made by Adam Mason, who was at the Joubert lunch) at a dinner party hosted by Mike Ratcliffe and it was great — hats off to Napoleon and special thanks to Mike and Adam. But the glass that Cobus put in my hand brought me as close as any human being can come to that 200 year old taste.

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The lunch group shown in the photo includes (left to right)  John Mitchell, Chris Waters, Igor Ryjenkov MW, Schalk-Willem Joubert, Adam Mason (winemaker at Mulderbosch, ex of Klein Constantia), Cobus Joubert, Mike Veseth and Meyer Joubert. Photo by Andries Joubert. Thanks to Cobus and family for sharing this great experience with me.

Extreme Wine South Africa: De Toren Book 17 XVII

Regular readers know that I’m interested in how Old and New intersect in the world of wine — and that I like to push arguments to their extremes (that’s why my next book will be called Extreme Wine). So it should come as no surprise that I sought out extremes of new and old during my time in Cape Town. And I sure found them!

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction. Thanks to Wines of South Africa and the Nederburg Auction for facilitating my visit. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

My interest in seeing what’s new in South African wine provoked me to call on a number of wineries in the CapeWine 2012 exhibition hall. One of them was De Toren Private Wine Cellar, a boutique winery started by Emil and Sonette Den Dulk in 1994 to make Bordeaux-style wines that showcase Cape wine terroir. The first wine, a 1999 vintage, was Fusion V, a left bank (Cab-centered) Bordeaux blend using all five (or V if you will) traditional grape varieties.

Extreme in Several Dimensions

I tasted the current release of De Toren Fusion V as well as a right bank (Merlot-centered) blend called De Toren Z. Both were classic representations, noteworthy for their fine tannins and delicate balance. This part of the New South Africa is doing very well, I thought. And then things started to get extreme.

Emil reached behind the counter and pulled out a bottle labeled “Book 17 XVII,” the most extreme wine in the De Toren collection. It’s extreme in several ways at once. First, its inspiration is pretty extreme. Pliny the Elder wrote about wine and viticulture in Book 17 of his treatise on Natural History and De Toren sought to apply Pliny’s farming principles to make a modern wine (Emil showed me the relevant passages from Pliny’s text). Pliny’s favorite wines were quite sturdy, potent and age-worthy, but elegant, too, and that’s what this project aimed to achieve.

Having started with an extremely old way of growing grapes, De Toren’s winemaker Albie Koch then studied the most extreme contemporary winemaking techniques, focusing on cult wines such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Extremely low yields in the vineyard (300 grams of grapes per vine). Hand de-stemming, foot stomping, hand punch-down and 200 percent (not a misprint) French oak.  I tasted from one of the extremely scarce 650 bottles that resulted.

I don’t have much experience tasting cult wines and I admit to being a little frightened as I stared into the black hole at the bottom of the glass. Book 17 XVII was notably darker and more extracted than the other wines I had tasted. But in fact the wine was balanced and elegant and while all the oak showed in the glass it didn’t knock me down with a two-by-four as might happen in less skilled hands.

Chicken or Eagle?

Going to extremes without going over the edge is a tricky business and you can see it in Neil Martin’s Wine Advocate review of the wine (I think he was tasting from barrel).  On one hand “It has a super-ripe creme de cassis, fruitcake and fig scented bouquet with a palate that is ostentatious to the point of vulgarity” which sounds like it’s over the top. “However, this full-bodied turbo-charged wine is so damn silky smooth and seductive in a super-Tuscan kind of way, that its charms will be nigh impossible to resist.” Hmmm. Sounds a little like Lady Gaga.

Making cult wines must be a bit like the “chicken game” in Rebel Without a Cause. I think De Toren Book 17 XVII succeeds in mixing ancient inspirations with extreme techniques to make a very interesting wine. Martin was obviously seduced by the wine’s elegance in the end (as was I), which pulled it back from the cliff edge at the last minute.

Unlike the Z and Fusion V wines, I wouldn’t want to drink XVII  every day (which would be impossible in any case given cost and limited production). But I appreciate its potential to make wine enthusiasts reconsider the potential of South African wine.

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Is that an angry chicken or a screaming eagle on the title page of Pliny’s book? You be the judge. Thanks to Emil Den Dulk for letting me taste the wines and providing helpful background information.

Frogs, Secrets & Satire: Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies


I’m working on the two chapters of Extreme Wine about wine and popular culture — celebrity wine and wine in film, television and on the web and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you and, as always, ask for your feedback in the Comments section below. Sideways and Bottleshock are the two best-known wine-centered films, but here are three others for your consideration.

Art Imitates Life: Grenouille d’hiver

Grenouille d’hiver means “Winter Frog” and it is the title of a short film by the director Slony Sow that was first broadcast on French television in 2011. It is making the rounds of film festivals, including Cannes;  I haven’t seen it yet except for the short trailer on YouTube. It stars Gérard Depardieu in an emotional role. “Benjamin, grower, sees his wife die in his arms following a long illness. Only one way out for him: death. But a young Japanese girl, came especially for its wine tasting, will bring it gently to mourn a series of symbols and exchange between two cultures,” according to the film’s official synopsis as quaintly translated from the French by Google.

Gérard Depardieu has played many roles in his long career – over 170 of them since he began in the 1960s according to his French Wikipedia page. He’s played everything from Cyrano the big-nosed patriot of the Edmond Rostand play to Oblex the big-nosed patriot of French cartoon fame. He’s worked with iconic directors like Francois Truffaut and won most of the top awards including the César and the Legion of Honor. He is scheduled to portray libertine French socialist politician Dominique Strauss Kahn in an upcoming film. That should be interesting!

Depardieu has played so many characters for so long that there might seem that Benjamin would be just another role. Except that the vines he stands among as he contemplates harsh fate and his own mortality are actually his own on his vineyard estate in Anjou. And I’m pretty sure the wine he sips with the young Japanese visitor, which opens the door to grief, is his too. Depardieu has owned Chateau de Tingé in the Coteau du Layon appellation since 1989. He owns the estate, which includes a 14th century castle, and oversees things generally in the way that a busy global media star can, leaving the actual winemaking to an old friend.

The film seems to be an interesting commentary on wine’s ability to store and release feelings and its power to transcend language. I’m looking forward to seeing all 18 minutes of this film when it finally becomes available.


Wine? We Have No Wine

The second film is completely different and yet manages to strike some of the same notes. I’m talking about Stanley Kramer’s 1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which is based upon Robert Crichton’s best-selling novel. It stars Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger and Sergio Franchi. The entire two-hour plus film is available on YouTube — just click on the image above to watch as much or as little as you like.

The setting is a sleepy Italian town in the closing months of World War II. The film is played as a romantic farce with town drunkard Quinn  unexpectedly elevated to mayor just as German troops approach, intending to occupy the village and seize its only important asset — more than a million bottles of the local cooperative’s wine stored in the cellar under the town hall.

With Quinn as their leader, the townspeople risk death to save themselves by saving their wine, hiding it in the old Roman caves beneath the city. This act brings the divided town together in a way that probably nothing else could do, making the deception’s ultimate victory all the more miraculous.  Great fun!

This is Spinal Corked

The third film is called Corked! and it is a 2010 satire made, like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” in the form of a “mockumentary.” In this case an innocent film crew shows up in the Sonoma Valley and interviews a collection of increasingly outrageous caricatures of the “usual suspects” of the wine world including a world-famous wine critic with initials RP. (The naïve wine tourists are my favorite characters.)

Documentaries tend to be uneven and so is this film — the characters who get the most screen time aren’t always the funniest or most interesting but it all comes together in the end. The romantic image that we cultivate about wine and wine making (see films above) is a bit of a fraud. It isn’t a complete fake as Corked! suggests (by definition satire needs to go over the top), but it’s not a completely noble calling, either.

Wine is about people and relationships (the point of all three films, I suppose). No wonder it is so complex. No wonder it translates so well to film.

Extreme Wine: A Sideways Analysis of the World of Wine

I’ve started writing my next book which I’m calling Extreme Wine and I’m looking for a little help from Wine Economist readers.

Extreme Wine is a sequel to the best-seller Wine Wars. Where Wine Wars probed the center of the world wine market, Extreme Wines focuses on  edges based on the same theory that wine lovers use when they tilt their glasses “sideways” and analyze the liquid’s rim: the forces of change first make themselves visible at the outer limits.

I’d like to invite you to read about the ideas behind Extreme Wine by clicking here and to scroll down to see the working table of contents. Then please use the Comments section below to tell me what extremes you find the most interesting. What are the most unusual wines? Who are the most extreme wine personalities? What are the most extreme wine films and televisions programs? Where should I go on my “Around the World in 80 Wines” analysis of extreme wine tourism?

You get the idea — let me know your Extreme Wine suggestions and I’ll try to incorporate them in my book!

>>> Working Outline <<<

Searching High and Low for the Best, Worst and Most Unusual in the World of Wine

by Mike Veseth

  1. X-Wines: In Vino Veritas?
  2. Extreme Wine: Best and the Worst
  3. The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
  4. Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
  5. Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive and Most Overpriced
  6. Extreme Wine Booms and Busts
  7. Extreme Wine People
  8. Fifteen Minutes: Celebrity Wine
  9. Message in a Bottle
  10. Extreme Wine Tourism
  11. BRIC by BRIC: Going to Global Extremes
  12. Tasting Notes  from the Edge

Extreme Wine: Mad Wine Science in Oregon

Jason Lett’s business card reads “President, Winemaker & Curator” and it is true that he performs all three tasks at Oregon’s The Eyrie Vineyards. The first two jobs are easy to understand, but Curator? Yes, of course, since Eyrie is an important part of Oregon’s wine history and Lett’s challenge is to preserve the heritage without choking off the innovative spirit that defines the place.

Three jobs are a lot, but maybe Jason Lett should add a fourth to his business card: Mad Wine Scientist. The scientist part is uncontroversial — Lett has scientific training and he seems to approach wine and life with a scientist’s combination of curiosity and discipline. The “mad” aspect … well I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  Maybe it’s not madness so much as innovation and experimentation taken to the extreme. Either way he seems to belong in The Wine Economist’s “Extreme Wine” file.

Sue and I visited Jason Lett at Eyrie last fall when I was giving lectures at Linfield College. Jason invited us to visit the winery (housed in a converted turkey processing plant) and when we arrived he asked if we wanted to taste through the current releases or to check out some of his experiments. No question, we said. Take us to your laboratory. And so we learned about and sampled three different extreme wines.

Extreme Pinot Gris

Oregon is Pinot country — everyone knows that! But let me tell you a secret. It’s Pinot Gris (PG), not just Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris is Oregon’s #2 wine grape variety and its a darn useful one, too. Pinot Gris is what I call a Chateau Cash Flow variety, since the time from harvest to market is shorter than Pinot Noir and the production expense (think expensive oak barrels) is lower, too. No doubt about it, Oregon PG is a great wine for producers and consumers.

But there’s that respect thing. White wines seems to get less respect than reds in most parts of the wine world and probably nothing can match the status of Pinot Noir, so Oregon PG is the “second wine” in more respects than vineyard acreage. No wonder a group of winemakers has come together to create OregonPinotGris.org in an attempt to get their grape the recognition it deserves.

Eyrie was one of the PG pioneers in Oregon, but these wines (which account for 60 percent of Eyrie’s production) suffer from the recognition problem, too. (“Oh, it’s just Pinot Gris?”) So Jason Lett decided to try to do something to change the perception of PG — by tweaking it in a modestly extreme way. The result is the 2008 Pinot Gris Original Vine Rose, which has three unusual qualities according to Lett: 1) all “original vine” (first planting in the US ca 1965),  2) 100% skin contact fermentation like Pinot Noir  and 3) three years age sur-lies.

It was Pinot Gris all right, but a very different take on it. More serious? Maybe. It certainly made me think about Pinot Gris differently, which is what extreme wines are supposed to do.

The History of Oregon in a Glass

The second extreme wine was actually more interesting than delicious … but that’s not a criticism because it was very interesting. It was the history of Oregon wine in a glass and it came about through Lett’s curatorial duties.

Eyrie’s wine library contains Chardonnay vintages going back to the very first year. Lett went through these wines sorting out the good wines, the ones that had gone bad and some interesting wines in the middle — oxidized (“sherried” I guess you’d say) but still drinkable, with a certain distinct character. Lett mixed these middle wines from all 40 vintages along with some fresh 2009 Chardonnay and a little eau to vie made from estate grapes.

The wine tasted old because of the oxidization, but made me think about how young the Oregon wine industry really is — so young that you can drink a slice of its history this way. An extreme non-vintage blend. Very memorable.

Coltraine versus Hildegard

The final extreme wine was the result of a mad experiment. Lett knew about Clark Smith’s theories of wine and music. Wine’s taste can change depending on the music you are listening to, according to Smith. Although this sounds a bit wacky, some of my students have experimented and they say that there is some effect.  There’s a potential scientific basis, too, since music stimulates some parts of the brain that are also active in the sensory perception of wine. So far, so good.

But Jason Lett decided to take the next step. If music makes a difference when you taste wine, then how about when you make wine?  You know, the way that they say it is good for pregnant women to listen to Mozart — it is supposed to help the baby’s brain develop? (Alois Lageder has his “pregnant” wine barrels listen to Mozart played at a very low speed.)

So Lett set up an experiment. Identical grape juice and yeast, but with different music. One fermentation listened to music by  Hildegard of Bingen (click on the YouTube video above to get a sense of what this might sound like) while the twin tank grooved to the jazz of John Coltrane (see video below for one of my favorite Coltrane performances).

Incredibly, the two fermentations developed differently (the Hildegard started first) and the wines taste different, too. Or at least that’s what Sue and I thought as we tasted back and forth. Hmmmm. Maybe there’s something to this music thing!

Sue challenged Lett to take the next step. Does the Hildegard taste different listening to Hildegard than to Coltrane? Does the affinity for the music extend all the way down the line? Maybe we can find out when we go back in July for the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Jason Lett isn’t really a mad scientist, but he is an innovator and I think that’s great. His role at Eyrie represents perfectly the modern winemaker’s dilemma — how to respect the past while creating the future.  Cheers!

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