The conventional wisdom disagrees, but I say what’s wrong with judging a book by its cover? People judge wines by their labels all the time!
OK, so maybe it is a bad idea as a general rule, but I encourage you to make an exception for my next book, Extreme Wine, which is sailing smoothly towards its October 2013 release date.
Check out the recently-finalized cover– pretty cool, huh? Hope readers will think that the book is as good as the cover that embraces it!
Best Sellers Are Made Not Born?
Since Wines Wars was such a success, we naturally have high hopes for Extreme Wine. Wine Wars in its three editions (hardcover, paperback and eBook) has consistently appeared in Amazon.com’s various specialized best seller lists (such as the top 100 globalization books, for example), but didn’t bust through to the really big New York Times kind of league tables. Tough to break into the really big leagues, I guess.
In reading about how the best seller lists work, I discovered that there are some techniques to “game” the best-seller rating system. Some unscrupulous authors and publishers, for example, have apparently purchased large volumes of their own books all at once — creating the sort of sales bump that pushes a book onto the big time lists — only to cancel the order or return the books after ratings have appeared. Mission accomplished, so to speak, and a phantom best-seller created.
Clever, I suppose. But not very ethical. I would never do anything like that (even if my credit card had enough head room to allow me to place such a big order).
A Not Entirely Unethical Experiment
But there’s another technique that is also strategic but not entirely unethical. It involves Amazon.com pre-orders. Apparently all of the pre-orders on Amazon are processed together on the day that a book is released — giving that same sales bump as the phantom strategy, but based upon actual orders, not fake ones. I guess that’s why some of my author friends encourage their readers to pre-order.
I wonder if it would work for Extreme Wine? If you’d like to participate in an experiment to find out, click here to visit the Amazon.com page for Extreme Wine where you can pre-order the hardback (you’ll have to wait for the Kindle version). It’s just a social media experiment, you see, not really Shameless Self-Promotion as you are probably thinking!
Speaking of Shameless Self Promotion, I’d like to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at Savour Australia 2013, Australia’s first global wine gathering, which will happen in Adelaide in mid-September.
You can learn about Savour Australia 2013 by clicking here or watching the video above. The purpose of the program, as I understand it, is to re-launch Brand Australia onto the global wine markets — to replace the down-market Yellow Tail sort of image that evolved over the last dozen years with an up-beat, up-market narrative that connects Australian wine with its regions, food, culture, people, and links it all to wine tourism, which is the best way to have the complete experience.
I think the message is exactly the right one for Australia today and I am looking forward to being part in the discussion.
Here is Your Chance to Tell Me Where to Go!
Sue and I will be staying in Australia for a couple of weeks after Savour Australia 2013. Where should go and who should we visit? If you have suggestions please leave a comment below or email us at Mike@WineEconomist.com.
Looking forward to seeing you at Savour Australia 2013!
When 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.
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.
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
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.
Extreme Vineyard Persistence
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
Update November 1, 2012. Here’s a new video from the Nederburg Auction website. Cheers!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 Bottleshockare 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.
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
X-Wines: In Vino Veritas?
Extreme Wine: Best and the Worst
The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive and Most Overpriced
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!
Dirty Jobs is a popular television show where host Mike Rowe goes out and works alongside ordinary people as they earn a living for themselves and their families and make products and services for the rest of us. The jobs are frequently dangerous and often have a high “yuck!” factor but, as they say, it’s a dirty job and someone’s gotta do it.
One job that is apparently too dirty for the Dirty Jobs crew is research. At the end of each show Mike pleads with his audience to send in ideas for even dirtier jobs. If you don’t, he says, I’m out of a job!
Now I don’t really believe that the Dirty Jobs staff is as clueless as they say, but I think they have the right idea. The people who watch their show have a world of experience and are full of great ideas. They’d be crazy to ignore this great (and free) resource. No wonder the show is so successful.
Wine Writing is a Dirty Business, Too
This started me thinking. Wine writing is a dirty job, too, and readers of The Wine Economist are pretty smart and creative. Maybe I should exploit their expertise for the book I’m working on now.
My new book, Wine Wars will be out in June and I’m doing research for a follow-up project tentatively titled Extreme Wines that explores the world of wine from its outer limits — the best, worst, cheapest, most expensive and most outrageous wines that I can find. The idea is that the forces that are shaping wine today will show up first and maybe most clearly at the edges, so that’s where I want to go.
I’ve got a lot of ideas about what extremes would be the most interesting and I have gathered them up into a few categories:
Extreme Wines: Best and the Worst
The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive, Most Profitable and Most Overpriced
Big and Small: Extreme Wine by the Numbers
Message in a Bottle: Wine Magazines, Critics, Books and Films
Like the Dirty Jobs folks, I’m looking for a little help here, folks. Can you think of interesting categories I have left out? Do you have nominees for wines (or wine regions or types of wines) that I should include in the book? If you do, leave a comment below or send email to Mike@WineEconomist.com. Like that other Mike, I need all the help I can get.
Because writing wine books is a dirty job but, hey, someone’s gotta do it. Why not you?
For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.
PS: The Prohibition Grape
It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.
Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household. Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)
So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.
Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.
But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS. There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.
PS Renaissance: Why Now?
Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.
But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.
The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel. That’s why I planted it: a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.
I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.
People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese. At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well. My main source of PS is up in Calistoga. Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.
A Certain Smile
Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.
If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 – 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.
“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located. … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!
In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.
Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel? Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.
I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.
Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.