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Tina Caputo

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Petaluma, California

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Zester Daily contributor Tina Caputo is a wine, food and lifestyle writer based in Northern California. Her stories have also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, VisitCalifornia.com and Sonoma magazine. 

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Spanish Priorat Vineyard Gets Probiotic Boost Image

A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.

While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.

The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.

“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”

What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”

Enter probiotics

In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.

The process is done in four stages.

“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”

Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”

The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”

Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”

Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.

Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

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Winemakers Follow Bold Brewers And Get Creative Image

In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)

The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.

Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?

It’s already starting to happen.

Prairie Berry, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specializes in fruit-infused wines such as Blue Suede Shoes, a blend of Zinfandel grapes and blueberries.

“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”

Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.

According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.

And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.

Adventures in wine drinking

Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.

Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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New Year Pantry Purge Blows Open Your Mind Image

When was the last time you cleaned out your kitchen pantry? I mean really cleaned it out? Sure, you try to stay on top of it, but the next thing you know you’ve got expired cans of tomatoes dating back to 2009. Oh, wait, maybe we’re talking about me.

Not long after 2016 made its debut, I opened up my pantry door to find not the can of beans I was after, but pure chaos. I practically needed a machete to hack through the jungle of “vintage” condiments, dusty spices and botulism-enhanced canned goods. How did I let it get that bad? I resolved then and there to mend my disorganized ways.

I began by taking every single thing out of the cabinet and surveying the damage. Holy Moses, was there any edible food in there? These are just some of the treasures I unearthed:

  • Cardamom seeds that expired in 2007.
  • A half-used pouch of never-good-in-the-first-place taco seasoning, “best enjoyed by” May 2008.
  • Two nearly full, expired bottles of Old Bay seasoning.
  • Truffle salsa brought back from a trip to Umbria in 2007.

No one likes a braggart, but I think I set some kind of record with this one: a bottle of Chinese five-spice powder from 1995!

Taking on the challenge

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Three large grocery bags could barely contain all the forgotten food items I hauled out to the trash bin. I didn’t know whether to feel triumphant or ashamed.

The fun part was starting with a blank canvas. After tossing all the expired stuff, there wasn’t much left. (As much as I love having six different olive oils and five varieties of vinegar at my disposal, these items do not actually qualify as food.) A trip to the grocery store soon remedied that, and I returned with peanut butter, oats, polenta, pasta and other staples for my sparkling-clean cabinet.

Bottles and boxes tend to go rogue once the pantry door is closed, migrating to who-knows-where the minute your back is turned, so I also picked up a couple of baskets and a Lazy Susan to help keep everything in check.

Olive oils are now happily segregated in one of the baskets, placed in the front of the cabinet for easy access. My vinegar collection resides on the Lazy Susan, where a quick spin lets me find the bottle I’m looking for in seconds. Pastas and grains live together in harmony on the third shelf, and baking supplies stand ready on the bottom-right shelf. Few projects I’ve taken on lately have given me such satisfaction! Sometimes I open the pantry door just to admire the lack of clutter.

Starting fresh

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Now that all my pantry foods are neatly organized and unlikely to poison my dinner guests, all I have to do is keep them that way. My pantry got out of control because I kept adding new stuff without purging the items that were past their prime. Well, there’ll be no more of that.

You too can start 2016 with a tidy pantry filled with still-edible foods. Just follow these tips:

Create groupings that make sense. For example, store all your baking supplies together, so you don’t end up buying multiple bottles of vanilla extract and jars of molasses. The items will be easier to locate, and you won’t have duplicates taking up extra space.

Pay attention to “use by” and expiration dates. If an item is stamped with a “use by” or “best by” date, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat when that day comes; it means the product’s quality can no longer be guaranteed. An expiration date, however, means “eat at your own risk.”

When you buy canned goods, place them behind the older ones on your pantry shelf, so you’ll remember to use them before they expire. In general, the shelf life of foods canned in liquids is one to two years.

Staying on track

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried beans seem like they should last forever, but that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, beans that have been stored longer than a year may never get soft enough, no matter how long you soak or cook them. They’ll last longer if you keep them in an airtight container.

Check your spices. Dried herbs tend to lose their color and flavor after a year. Ground spices last longer, up to three years. If you have the time and patience to grind whole spices as you need them, you can keep them up to five years.

Move that honey! For decades I made the mistake of storing honey in the pantry, then gnashing my teeth when it became hard and crystalized. Well, guess what I learned while researching this article? Honey never expires! It just hates being kept in dark places. If you leave it out on the counter, it will remain fluid and keep its lovely amber color.

Look out refrigerator, I’m coming for you next.

Main photo: Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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New On Tap Trend: Wine-inspired Beer Flavors Image

There’s an old saying in the wine business: It takes a lot of beer to make great wine. The adage is especially appropriate this time of year, when harvest crews work overtime in the late-summer heat to bring in the new crop. But for an adventurous group of American craft brewers, it’s also true that it takes a lot of wine to make great beer.

No one knows that better than Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner and brewmaster at Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California. A decade ago, when he decided to make an American version of a Belgian lambic ale, he couldn’t resist putting a vinous spin on it. Lambic beers get their distinctive tartness from wild yeast and bacteria, and Cilurzo’s creation was no different in that respect. The twist came when he aged the beer in used Chardonnay barrels sourced from a local winery. The result was a sour beer called Temptation, and it was such a hit that Russian River added two more wine-barrel-aged sours to its lineup.

Today, craft brewers across the country are making wine-inspired beers using not only wine barrels and yeasts, but even wine grapes and juice.

One of the most interesting examples is Noble Rot, from Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. “We worked with Alexandria Nicole Cellars winery in Prosser, Washington, and they helped us find all this amazing botrytis-infected Viognier grape must (unfermented juice),” said Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head founder and president. “The botrytis infection is kind of a benevolent fungus that really intensifies the complexity of the grapes. It’s a perfect mix between a Belgian saison, a beautiful white wine and a sour ale.”

Thirsty for more wine-inspired brews? Click on:

Main photo: Dogfish Head Brewery makes this saison-style beer with Viognier grape must infected with a desirable fungus called botrytis that intensifies its sweetness.  Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Dogfish Head 

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4 Fruits And Veggies Great For Grilling, Plus 2 To Skip Image

I think it was Ben Franklin who coined the saying, “Everything tastes better with grill marks on it.” (Or was it John Adams?) This is especially true in the summer, when a bounty of vegetables and fruits bursts from our gardens, and it’s just too gorgeous outside to stay in the kitchen.

Most of us have tossed asparagus, ears of corn and red bell peppers on the “barbie.” When we’re feeling really adventurous, we may even grill peaches. But why stop there, when there’s a whole farmers market of summer produce to explore?

With this idea in mind we hit the market, revved up the Weber and found some fabulous new options to add to our summer grilling repertoire. (And as Ben Franklin would tell you, not all experiments are successful; that’s why our list also includes a couple of clunkers.)

Grab your tongs and click on!

Main photo: Drizzle grilled romaine lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette and top with crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and fresh ground pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

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Vineyard CSI: How To Read Grape Leaves Image

Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.

You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.

Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.

Expert ampelographer

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lucie Morton is a world-renowned ampelographer and vineyard consultant. Credit: Copyright Tina Caputo

In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.

Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.

Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”

Mistaken identity

In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.

In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.

Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.

Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.

Anatomy of a grape leaf

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It's also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Lucie Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include their lobes, petiolar sinuses and teeth. It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:

Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.

Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.

Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.

It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.

In the vineyard

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Students in Lucie Morton’s ampelography class examine vine leaves to identify the corresponding grape varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.

Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.

Defining characteristics

Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Chardonnay. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.

Merlot

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Merlot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.

Malbec

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

Malbec. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo

This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.

Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo

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