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Friends who love wine love to drink wine together. Throwing a wine tasting with friends elevates the everyday into an event.
Wine tastings are easy to organize. The trick is to feature wines that collectively tell a story. It can be a group of wines that are based on the same grape — Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Sauvignon Blancs — or wines from a region, such as California’s Santa Ynez Valley, France’s Rhone River Valley or the Piedmont region of Italy. If you combine the two concepts and taste wines made in a specific region with a particular grape, you can really geek out.
I recently gathered with a group of women who make their livings producing, promoting, selling or explaining wine. Tasting with these generous, curious women was as enlightening as it was fun.
Follow the slideshow to learn their tips for throwing a wine tasting that both novices and experts will enjoy. Our Pinot Noir tasting revealed a surprise that sent us all running to the wine store the next day.
Our favorite Pinot Noirs:
» Sancerre Rouge
» Domaine Henri Gouges, Nuits St. George
» Domaine Lafarge, Volnay
» Mt. Difficulty, Roaring Meg Pinot Noir
» Elke Vineyards, Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
» Belle Pente Vineyard, Estate Reserve Pinot Noir
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Main photo: At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
Old, overgrown apple orchards were everywhere Troy Carter looked when he took a post-college motorcycle trek along the back roads of California’s Sonoma Coast. Planted in the 1950s, the trees had been fending for themselves in the generations since wine arrived.
A kombucha fan, Carter treasured artisanal hard cider’s funky flavors and guessed the ugly apples would be the perfect raw material for his favorite libation. An orchard owner told him he could pick all he could carry.
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The first pressing of Troy Cider was in the fall of 2012 using the mostly Gravenstein apples he and about 100 of his Stanford University friends harvested one afternoon. To manage the wild yeast fermentation, Carter hired organic winemaker Tony Coturri to produce his inaugural vintage. Artisanal hard cider makers view cider apples and orchards much like vintners view wine grapes and vineyards. The taste of the “place” is in the cider.
Fresh-pressed apple juice with nothing but the orchard’s natural wild yeast, cold-fermented in Pinot Noir barrels, Carter’s hard cider made itself. He aged it for eight months in those same barrels before bottling it, unfiltered.
The 25-year-old who thought to check out the apples by the side of the road has moved on in his peripatetic journey around the world. While Carter remains the “artist in residence,” he sold his cider operation to Mark McTavish, a Los Angeles hard cider importer Half Pint Ciders and distributor who says he will stick to Carter’s protocol. The third vintage of Troy is now available.
Troy seemed an oddity when it launched but it is part of a nationwide revival in the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition, an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were, perhaps, a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400 with new farm-based cideries opening every day.
Sensing a trend, big beer companies recently jumped on the hard cider bandwagon, producing commercial hard ciders that are selling faster than their beers. Launched in 2011, Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard Hard Cider now commands 40% of the $300-million commercial hard cider market.
Artisanal vs. commercial ciders
Don’t be confused. The difference between artisanal and commercial ciders is stark. Artisanal cider is made with fresh fruit. Commercial hard cider relies on reconstituted fruit juice, often from as far away as China. If there is much residual sweetness, it’s probably a commercial cider. “If you want to drink it over ice, it’s crap cider. Artisanal hard cider is best sipped at room temperature,” says McTavish.
To the uninitiated, artisanal hard cider can be difficult to understand. In the Spanish tradition, the ciders have a slight vinegary flavor and lots of funky mushroomy, savory notes on the finish. English hard ciders are austere drinks that highlight the tannins from the apple skins with refreshing acidity. French-style hard ciders tend to be softer, gentler. Most artisanal hard ciders have a light spritz.
Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched The Cider Journal last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”
On the West Coast, Tilted Shed is another Sonoma County-based cidery gaining traction for its fresh, earthy hard ciders. Wark recommends E.Z. Orchards in Oregon and Snowdrift Cider Co. in Washington state. With its vast apple orchards, the Pacific Northwest welcomes a new cidery into business every week, according to industry analysts.
Main photo: Troy Carter at the cider house where he hand-bottled the first vintage of Troy Cider. Credit: Courtesy of Troy Cider
It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.
Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.
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Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.
California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.
“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”
There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.
The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”
Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.
His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.
“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.
That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”
Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.
How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.
Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.
Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs
* * *
Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:
Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.
Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.
Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.
South African wine has arrived. Smart wine buyers seeking good values and wine geeks looking for exciting discoveries are making their way to the rapidly expanding South African section of their wine store.
For the first time in, well, forever, delicious, distinctive South African Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs are showing up in U.S. wine stores at prices that are as surprising as the wines: $10 to $18 a bottle. Even South African Pinotage is making a comeback, this time without its notorious barnyard-in-a-bad-way funk.
What’s changed in South Africa? Everything. The new wines represent a massive transformation of the country’s insular, low-quality, high-volume wine industry that began two decades ago after the end of apartheid.
Young winemakers working with ancient, abandoned vineyards kicked off the revival. Devoted to organic, dry-farmed vineyard management, their wines showcased the potential buried in South Africa’s arid coastal climate and varied soils.
New generation of winemakers emerge
Following their lead, a new generation took the helm of the large, established wine houses and rose to the challenge of meeting international standards for wine quality. The combination is enabling the oldest non-European wine region in the world to rise above its plonky past.
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“A lot of things have come together for us,” says Eben Sadie, a leading winemaker working to revive the coastal Swartland region north of Cape Town. With 15 vintages under his belt, Sadie Family Wines is producing some of the most celebrated wines in South Africa’s 400 years of winemaking. Even though he limits his production to 4,000 cases a year, many of his wines are priced close to $60 a bottle, near the top of the market for South African wine.
“We don’t want to push prices up too high,” Sadie says. “South Africa has a place of its own on the wine shelf now. Even our most commercial bottlers — wine companies producing 500,000 cases — are making much better wine. There are great South African wines, amazing wines, for $20.”
Although wine writers are applauding the new South African wines — Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson christened them a “new era” for the country — few of them made it to the U.S. In 2014, South African wine exports to the U.S. surged 37% and are still climbing.
“There is a ton of good stuff here now,” says Ryan Woodhouse, the South African wine buyer for San Francisco-based K&L Wine Merchants. “The wines from South Africa’s old vineyards are liquid gold.”
Selling it, however, is an uphill battle. Many producers, including DGB of South Africa, one of the country’s largest wine companies with an extensive collection of properties, are entering the U.S. market for the first time. They have to build awareness of their brands from scratch. “It a big challenge,” says Niël Groenewald, chief winemaker at DGB’s Bellingham Collection. No one in the U.S. has ever heard of his wines. Still, Groenewald says, the company is “grabbing the opportunity.”
This is a pivotal moment, says Pascal Schildt, a U.S. importer specializing in the new South African wines. As a whole, South Africa hasn’t expanded its overall vineyard acreage, he says, with most vintners focusing instead on improving their farming and winemaking. If wine drinkers are disappointed this time around, they may not give South Africa another chance. “No one wants South Africa to just be a flavor of the month,” Schildt says.
Sadie isn’t worried. “We aren’t going backward from here.”
Shopping for new South African wines
Good value South African wines are easy to find if you shop at a trusted wine shop where the people behind the cash register understand the wines they sell. But beware of discount bins. Junk South African wines haven’t disappeared.
Top regions. Swartland is the hot spot; the wines of Western Cape, Paarl, Hermanus, Citrusdal Mountain, Stellenbosch and Walker Bay are also gaining acclaim.
Rising stars. South Africa’s best producers have made a decision to over-deliver, to produce wines that exceed expectations for the price. Look for Sadie Family Wines, Badenhorst Family Wines, Mullineux Family Wines, The Three Foxes, Fram Wines, Hederberg Winery and Botanica Wines.
Leading importers. Two companies stand out for their selection of top quality producers. Look for wines imported by Pascal Schildt and Broadbent Selections Inc. Also retailer K&L Wine Merchants is directly importing some choice South African wines available only in its stores.
I recently picked up a 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland. The initial fresh, light fruit flavors quickly dissolved into a rich complexity that lingered far longer than I had any right to expect for $13.
Another gem was a 2012 False Bay Pinotage from a region slightly south of Swartland on the West Cape. It also was a fresh tasting, balanced wine. The bonus this time was a sophisticated earthiness that made it a steal at $15.
Main photo: Adi Badenhorst, one of the new generation of winemakers at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa. Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines
The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.
Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.
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A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.
Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.
There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.
A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.
“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.
Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue
The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.
In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.
Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”
Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.
PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.
The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.
Check your local PBS listings for show times.
Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV
Aubert de Villaine is a rare wine character. The gatekeeper to the most celebrated wines in Burgundy — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — de Villaine works in the service of his vines. His wealth and power are obscured by frayed tweed jackets and mud-caked boots.
When you meet him, there is no hint of the haughtiness typical of lesser lights in the wine world. Neither is there the equally off-putting salesman’s instant friendship. A private man, de Villaine maintains a surprisingly low profile for someone with his influence.
By Maximillian Potter
Knowing this, I am all the more astonished by the intimacy of the story Maximillian Potter tells in “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine.” Potter’s unprecedented access to the great vigneron and the people closest to him imbues the book with the spirit of its two main characters, bringing both de Villaine and his vineyards to life as no one has.
This is a thriller, complete with a blackhearted criminal and a scheme so frighteningly sinister it is nearly unbelievable. Unable to put it down, I read it in one sitting.
Lesson in the ‘Shadows’
Potter deftly delivers everything you need to know about winemaking, the French Revolution, de Villaine’s family, the birth of the American wine movement and Burgundy’s history to keep you turning the pages to learn more. When you close the book, you will want to pull a cork as an act of homage and celebration.
My favorite chapters focus on de Villaine’s ancestor, Louis-François de Bourbon, who began the family wine dynasty in the pre-revolutionary intrigue of the court of King Louis XV. From that vantage point, Potter pulls the threads with which he weaves the modern drama that took place in the dark of night on the hillside of La Romanée-Conti vineyard.
In my home, I have two giant bookcases filled with wine books, at least 200 volumes. As a wine writer, I have at least perused nearly every wine book written in the last couple of decades. I keep the ones with information I might need in the course of my work.
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“Shadows in the Vineyard” goes on a separate bookshelf, one reserved for books I’ve enjoyed and want to either read again or pass along to friends. This is a book for anyone who loves a well-told tale. It also might turn you into a wine lover.
I worked with Potter at Premiere magazine when he was a fresh-from-college assistant to the editor. He went on to become an award-winning journalist, writing for Philadelphia and GQ and working as an editor at 5280: The Denver Magazine, Men’s Health and Details. He is now a senior media consultant to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The dogged journalist with an open heart I met 20 years ago is in evidence on every page of this, his first book. It is a feat he accomplishes without once getting in the way of the story he tells. Bravo, Max.
Main photo composite:
Maximillian Potter. Credit: Jeff Panis
Book cover: Credit: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group