Articles in Drinking
In an annual rite, tea professionals from around the globe gather each year at the World Tea Expo to unveil new products, attend workshops and network with their peers. With the United States now the second largest tea importer, this year’s show was held in Long Beach, Calif., attracting an estimated 200 exhibitors and 4,000 buyers.
As people sifted through bins of loose tea, aromas filled the air at the expo. Like wine connoisseurs, they had their own jargon — such as “dirty socks” and “swamp” to describe the blends. I followed my nose to the World Flavorz Spice & Tea Company booth. The Malibu-based wholesaler specializes in teas that blend notes of fruit with floral fragrances. With names like Green Tea Lavender Rose and Island Paradise it’s easy to imagine why some call tea “the new black.”
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Of course, not everything was new. Few things are more artistic — or traditional — than the Chinese tea ceremony. Meng Yang of China’s Fujian Chunlun Tea Group brewed a delicate green tea using the Chaou method. It uses cooler water, which helps maintain the tea’s integrity for tastings when viewing and sniffing are important.
Back amid the vendor hubbub, wholesalers showed off sexy new brew bottles, traditional clay teapots, single pot drippers, digital gooseneck kettles, infusion tea pitchers, bag-less tea and disposable tea infusers. The goodies went on and on. You may see some of them the next time you visit a local tea house. While you’re there, remember to use words like dirty socks and swamp.
Main photo: Meng Yang of China’s Fujian Chunlun Tea Group presents a traditional tea pour at the 12th annual World Tea Expo. Credit: © Seth Joel
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
When the temperature climbs near triple digits and you’re outdoors feeling the heat, there’s nothing like a nice refreshing glass of … red wine. I know what you’re thinking: red wine on a hot day? You must be crazy!
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But before you head for the cooler full of ice-cold beer or chilled white wine, answer this question: What’s going to taste better with the juicy burger or gorgeous rib eye you’re grilling? “Lite” beer or Pinot Noir? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)
The trick to making red wine suitable for summer is simple. Just chill it.
I’m not talking about keeping the bottle in the refrigerator for days or plunging it into an ice chest for hours. I’m merely suggesting that you bring the wine down to a more hospitable serving temperature by popping it into the fridge for a short period or putting it on ice until it’s lightly chilled.
This may sound like blasphemy to some people, but I’ve seen many a winemaker chill down their reds before serving them on hot summer days. They are also not above dropping the occasional ice cube into a glass of wine. If winemakers do it, why can’t you?
The right reds
When choosing a red for the cooler, steer clear of big, oaky wines. Don’t even think about chilling a Brunello di Montalcino or Napa Cab, or you’ll be sorry. The cold mutes the fruit and complexity in those big reds, amplifying the oak and alcohol.
What you do want is a fruity red with some finesse. Beaujolais is a classic example of a chillable red, but other wines, such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and lighter styles of Zinfandel, can also benefit from the ice bucket. Sparkling red wines — not rosés, but true reds — were born to be chilled, and the drier styles (think sparkling Shiraz from Australia) are excellent with grilled meats and sausages.
Just cold enough
There’s a very good reason most people avoid drinking red wines in hot weather: Reds served at “room temperature,” which in the summer can easily be 75 degrees Fahrenheit, are not at their best. Warmer temperatures can render them flat and lifeless, and far from refreshing.
In my home experiments, I’ve found the ideal temperature for red wines to be around 65. Any colder than that and they begin losing their aroma and flavor complexities. In a refrigerator set to 38, as mine is, it takes about 30 minutes for a bottle of wine to reach the desired serving temperature. The timing is a bit less for chilling a bottle on ice. (If a chilled red seems dull and muted, warm the bowl of the glass in your hands for a few minutes and it will perk right up.)
Cool reds for hot weather
Here are five chiller-ready wines, tested by yours truly, to help you beat the heat this summer:
A to Z Wineworks 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19): Light red in color, this light- to medium-bodied Pinot has aromas of raspberries, cherries and spice, along with bright acidity. The wine loses a little of its brightness when chilled, but retains its lovely red fruit character.
Cantiga Wineworks 2011 El Dorado County Grenache ($28): Light, transparent red in color, this juicy wine has aromas of berries and spice. The wine has some tannic backbone and acidity, along with raspberry and vanilla flavors. Don’t let this one get too cold, or the tannins will start to take over.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2012 Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($20): This medium-bodied Zin has black and blue fruit aromas, with some woody notes. The wine has blackberry and cherry flavors, with moderate acidity. The chiller brought out its cherry and spice notes.
MacRostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($34): With aromas of red fruits and spice, the wine has bright flavors of raspberries and cinnamon. The spicy quality comes out a bit more when the wine is chilled, along with a tart cherry note on the palate.
Korbel Champagne Cellars Sonoma County Rouge ($14): This sparkling red has a base of Pinot Noir, with a tiny bit of Merlot added. The wine has a beautiful dark purple color, with fine bubbles and a black cherry aroma. It’s full bodied and flavorful, with black cherry flavor and a dry finish. Serve this one nice and cold.
Main photo: On warm days, red wines can benefit from the ice bucket. Credit: Tina Caputo
Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.
Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.
In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.
The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.
Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza
Limoncello, anise liqueur
Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.
Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.
The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.
Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.
“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”
The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)
Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).
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The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.
Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.
Tips from the experts
Advice for creating your own liqueur:
- Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
- Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
- Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
- Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
- In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.
This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.
- 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
- Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
- 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
- 1 ⅔ cups sugar
- Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
- Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
- Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts
Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.
3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron
For the simple syrup:
1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water
- Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
- Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
- Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
- Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
- After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
- Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.
Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles
Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.
3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the simple syrup:
3½ cups water
3 cups sugar
- Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
- After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
- Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.
Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay
Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza
Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.
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No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.
As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.
This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.
As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.
Fragrant foraging in the shade
Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.
When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.
As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.
As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.
Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.
Turn linden into teas and cocktails
With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.
Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.
If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.
Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.
Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.
Cold-Infused Linden Tisane
1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included
20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)
½ gallon lukewarm water
1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.
2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.
½ cup cold-infused linden tisane
¼ cup white grape juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ounce gin
½ cup seltzer water
Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.
Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty
The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.
We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.
Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.
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By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community. Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.
We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.
Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.
They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.
It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.
Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.
Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.
View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown
As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.
It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.
He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.
Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.
Paradise Rum Swizzle
With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.
2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt
1 ounce fresh honeydew juice
1 ounce coconut water
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)
4 dashes of Angostura bitters
Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.
Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.
12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum
3 ounces Grand Marnier
2 ounces fresh lime juice
20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)
6 ounces cranberry juice
Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.
Dark and Stormy
Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.
2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum
4 ounce ginger beer
½ ounce fresh lime juice
Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.
Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan
It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.
2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario
1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters
Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.
Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager
The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.
The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.
As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.
After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.
Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.
After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.
Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.
Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.
“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”
Biale family has humble origins
An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.
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“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”
A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.
“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.
Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.
In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.
They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.
In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.
Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”
As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.
Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.
“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.
“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.
Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.
“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”
Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.
That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.
Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.
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Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.
Age of vines influence vintage quality
Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.
To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.
The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.
The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.
Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.
The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!” This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.
We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.
Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard. Courtesy of Craggy Range