Pursuit of Perfection

"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence."
-Vince Lombardi

For my 6th wedding anniversary, I opened a bottle I'd been saving of Russell Bevan's 2012 "Ontogeny" Red Blend, which garnered a 99 Point rating from Wine Advocate.  I only state the rating as a means to communicate the headspace I inhabited as I opened and drank this bottle.

To say the least, I expected quite a bit. 

Sure, it wasn't technically a "perfect" wine as it only garnered 99 points, but I thought I'd at least fly close to the sun without melting my wings so I bought a bottle a couple of years back and its been sitting ever since in that special section of my wine cellar (aka, my tiny fridge) where my nicest wines rest in wait. 

So, on that hallowed day of celebration, I cooked a gorgeous meal with my wife and decanted the wine all day, finally sitting down in the evening to dive into the meal and the secrets of my wine glass.

It was big and gooey, stuffed to the brim with dark, heady fruits and alcohol...it was...it was...too much.  Over the top. Suffice it to say that I didn't prefer the wine.  It was just too marred in trying to please the sugar-craved palate that it struck me more as a soda than a wine.

There will be those out there that will shake their heads at me, uttering, "What did you expect?  Parker was the one to rate it 99 points, after all..." to which I would say, "I'm not sure what I was expecting.  I just wanted a great wine--a special wine--with which to celebrate."

This quandary led me more into the question of what can be expected in a perfect wine.

Since that moment, I've been thinking quite a bit about the pursuit of perfection, the idea that somewhere out there is an untainted, ideal version of...fill in the blank.  Whether it's art, food, a vehicle, or even wine, we, as a society, are obsessed with perfection. 

I am.  You are.  It's a plague.  "If you're not first, your last..."

Let me be clear that I do believe it's possible to distinguish between a good, well-crafted wine and a wine that one likes, but I truly wonder if it's possible to herald a wine as "perfect."  If each wine is a representation of a particular plot of land, or of the terroir (a combination of soil, sky, and vintage), how could a wine not be perfect every year?

In other words, if a vintage was rained out or too cold and the fruit couldn't attain the ripeness we've come to typically expect, would it still be possible for that wine to attain perfection? 

Or how could a wine assembled from various plots all over a region--in this case Napa Valley--every be truly "perfect" as it is assembled from many parts?

"Have no fear of perfection--you'll never reach it."
-Salvador Dali

Perfection indicates that its perfection is indisputable, doesn't it?  That the object of whatever you want to call perfection would be perfect to everyone, otherwise it wouldn't be perfection, right? 

In the wine world, it's rare to have any kind of consensus on anything, especially when it comes to that coveted 100-point rating or the wine scorer's equivalent to calling a wine perfect.  I mean, just look at the well-known talking heads of wine and you see an enormous disparity of palates from the fruit-soaked, headiness of Robert Parker to the spokesperson for "balance," Rajat Parr, or the crusader against high alcohol levels, Randy Dunn.

There's rarely agreement of what makes a great wine so how could it ever be possible to find or make a perfect one?

I recall at one point, famed New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, going so far as to suggest that we shouldn't even attempt to write tasting notes at all because so many wine drinkers taste such different things in the same wine.  One person's taste of tart strawberry is another's raspberry for instance.  His solution?  Only call a wine sweet or dry, but then after mentioning a plethora of examples, he fell into a new quandary when it came to labeling certain Rieslings or Vintage Ports that are a bit of both.

I'm reminded of one more quote:  "Believe Those Who Are Seeking the Truth; Doubt Those Who Find It."

Just switch out Perfection for Truth and we might be on to something...


Tasting Stars

"Come quickly, I am drinking the stars," or so the quote goes upon sipping his creation of the wine known as Champagne, attributed to the monk named Dom Perignon. 

Indeed, his quote is a perfect description to the iconic effervescent beverage from its namesake home in Champagne, France.  Most folks don't think of it this way, but Champagne is really just wine, at its roots the same idea as Napa, Mosel, or any other wine region, only something about its terroir makes capable of something different.  Unique.

So, in turn, Champagne has become something else entirely.  A thing to be revered.  A bubbling wine with which to celebrate momentous occasions.

And so it goes.  So it goes.

I once heard a story.  It was broadcast on NPR.

The story aired a few years back, so I can't remember the exact details, but it involved the birth of children and wine and I never forgot the broad details.

Two wine professionals, New York based sommeliers, were being interviewed about the wine business or some other topic involving the world of wine.  I don't recall specifically.  These two happened to be husband and wife.  They were laughing and joking about experiences in the wine industry, speaking about customer experiences, favorite wines, and visited regions...and then the interview became a bit more personal, about home life and their children.

They spoke of the birth of their children and how they celebrated with a bottle of Champagne.  I'm sure that aspect was nothing new.  Millions of folks each year, I'm certain, pop bottles of Champagne or some other bubbly to celebrate the births of their newborn babies.

However, this husband and wife somm team spoke of a small town in the country of France--they couldn't remember the name--and how in that village, the locals not only popped Champagne, but they also rubbed a dab of the bubbly across the infant's lips, a way to anoint their tiny new life outside the womb and welcome them into the world.

I loved the story.  I loved the idea and I never forgot it.

Now, just two days ago on May the 4th, I welcomed my second son into this beautiful world.  I anointed him with two different bottles.  I did not take any notes--being rather distracted by the life-changing event--but I've written down what I recall from the toast.

2002 Mailly "Exception" Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Mailly, Champagne...$80

Mailly comes exclusively from the Grand Cru village of Mailly and is a co-op formed in the 1940s, owned by the various farmers around the town.  This is a rich, yeasty style of Champagne, filled with notes of baked apple and buttered brioche.

NV Nicolas Maillart "Platine" Premier Cru, Champagne...$50

A blend of 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay hailing from the villages of Villers-Allerand, Ecueil, and Bouzy, this one is clean, crisp and lively with notes of sliced nuts, pears and chalk dust minerality. 

These were very different, stylistically, but both gorgeous.  I've tasted Champagne many times, too many times to count, but I've only tasted the stars on two momentous occasions.  Cheers to you and yours!

Washington Wakes, Part 2

(The Accidental Visit, and other Wineries)

This is a compilation of thoughts from a road trip taken across Washington State in September, 2015.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate

Through the inadvertent mistake of a wrong address, we found ourselves outside of the Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard rather than the planned Cold Creek Vineyard.  Although it was close to two hours in the opposite direction, everyone was having such a wonderful time, sharing open bottles of wine from previous appointments or staring out at the sun-tinged brush of the Horse Heaven Hills blowing in the wind, that no one even noticed the incorrect detour until we pulled up to a building that stated, in elegant, cursive script, "Canoe Ridge."

Mimi Nye, the estate's vineyard manager, sped over to meet us at the winemaking facility, ready to lead us on an impromptu tour of the vines.  Minutes later, we were about one thousand feet up in the air, at the vineyard's highest point and the prime spot for their Merlot and Malbec vines, looking over the watery ribbon of the Columbia River and were able to peer into the Northern reaches of Oregon.  It was a bright, sunny afternoon by then, but the wind was crisp and cutting, causing us to shiver underneath our coats.

Speaking from between the vine rows, her face partially obscured by a green, leafy vine, Mimi instructed us to pull a grape from the vine and pop it into our mouths. 

"Bite into it," she said.

We did.  It was sweet juice, dark fruits flowing onto our tongues until our teeth crunched into the large seeds, offsetting the sweet with a harsh bitterness that stung our cheeks, which was followed by a texture similar to sand paper--the tough grapes skins against our tongues.  It wasn't my first time to pluck grapes off the vine, but Mimi talked us through the process of knowing when to harvest for the season by taste alone.

I thought the grape tasted wonderful, ready and ripe. 

Mimi said, quite decisively, "Two more weeks," and I nodded in assent, deferring to her expertise.

In my first post, I spoke of the concept of a wine's story, of seeking out wines that are not available in every grocery store across the nation.  So, what gives?  Why speak about Chateau Ste. Michelle?

Two reasons...one, I absolutely believe that, similar to Robert Mondavi in Napa, Chateau Ste. Michelle's history is so intertwined with the history of Washington State, and their influence on the wine industry as a whole is so consequential that it would be a mistake to ignore their wines.  It would be like a beer aficionado scoffing at the idea of Samuel Adams, totally ignoring their overwhelming influence on the popularity of craft beer.

And the second is their ability to bring lesser known varietals to the forefront.  Many years ago, their goal was to bring prominence to Riesling, going so far as to jointly produce "Eroica" Riesling with Germany's Dr. Loosen and today, Riesling is the top-grown varietal in the entire state, outshining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Now, they have set their eyes on Syrah, the grape widely believed to be Washington State's calling card varietal, the signature for the wine community.  It will be exciting to see what they do with it.

-2013 CSM "The Pundit" Syrah, Columbia Valley...$25-

As they did with Riesling and enlisting the help of a famed producer from Germany, CSM has done a similar thing with their Syrah program, partnering with wine consultant, Philippe Cambie Michel Gassier of the Southern Rhone to help in this new venture. 

With that said, "The Pundit" is a fantastic addition to Washington Syrah.  At the 20ish price point, it's an attractive bottle for the average consumer and it certainly over delivers on the quality.  It's a bright and attractive Syrah, co-fermented with a touch of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre, and shows off rich raspberry, tea, and floral notes on a medium-bodied frame.  This isn't one to cellar, in my opinion, drinking very well now.

*In addition to "The Pundit," CSM is also producing a Costieres de Nime Syrah called "Le Fervent" at $20 and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape-inspired GSM blend called "The Tenet" at $60.

-2012 CSM "Canoe Ridge Estate" Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills...$25-

This is a solid wine.  CSM's Canoe Ridge Merlot spends 16 months in a blend of partially new American, French, and neutral oak barrels, so you get quite a bit of varying flavor on the palate.  Just enough tannic structure to indicate that it can age a bit.  Medium-bodied with ripe, dark fruits, a touch of pepper and a nice, smooth finish.

A couple of days afterward, I did see Cold Creek Vineyard off in the distance as we drove by on the highway.  It was about ten or fifteen miles away, a wild flick of green nestled at the base of the Horse Heaven Hills.  My drifted there, wondering what it might have said to me from between its vine rows, but then I thought, perhaps the mystery is better.

Mark Ryan Winery

Mark Ryan's winery is located in a nondescript office park that was once filled with regular businesses, I'm sure for shipping various office supplies and other endeavors, but is now flooded with garage wineries.  Prior to this trip, I'd never been to a winery that wasn't the preconceived notion of what a winery "should be," all of my visits being to beautifully rendered buildings set in a vineyard, and the picturesque ideas that we all dream about with owning a winery.

Not so with Mark Ryan.  It was barebones.  Raw.  A dream in the process of its ultimate fulfillment.

Metal vats were set in rows of four or five down the expanse of the warehouse.  Mesh-like cloths covered them, except for one, which had a young man wearing a bright yellow trucker hat perched over the top thrusting a long metal rod down into it, performing the first of two daily punch downs.  The punch-down serves as a way of keeping the grape skins by churning the fermenting juice over their tops, thus continuing fermentation and extracting deeper color. 

There were actually three warehouses connected to one another through enormous roll-up doors with a small strip of a break room and offices running along the side of the building.  Stainless steel tanks stood like shiny soldiers waiting for the call to battle.  A forklift sat quietly in a corner.

It was a strange feeling being in a winery like this one.  It wasn't impressive on its own.  It was enology pared down to its necessities, the winery appearing that it was meant more for shelves stacked with reams of paper rather than metal vats filled with fermenting wine.

To some extent, that's what made it one of my favorite visits I've had to a winery.  It caused me to realize that the rest was just pomp, the lovely wineries set in a meadow were built on extraneous details (not that there's anything inherently wrong with that) and that visiting the Mark Ryan winery showed me that wine doesn't need any of that to be great.

Strip away the pomp and circumstance and hopefully there is truly wonderful wine being produced.

-2013 Mark Ryan "Dissident" Red Blend, Columbia Valley...$35-

Much has been said about the high quality for the price point when it comes to Washington's wines and Mark Ryan's "Dissident" is a perfect example.  This would put to shame many bottles coming from other notable wine regions at double the price.

It's a blend from several vineyards from around Washington from Ciel du Cheval to Red Willow and is a Bordeaux-style of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and a touch of Petit Verdot.  It's just an immensely drinkable wine that is loaded with creamy dark fruits, a flutter of espresso, and smoky embers.  It's built to age a bit, but I wouldn't wait. 

-2013 "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre, Red Mountain...$48-

When I spoke of Washington being adventurous, this is a perfect example.  Ryan's "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre has about 21% Syrah built in.  A Mourvedre is hard enough to find in France let alone made in the States, but this winery is not only daring enough to attempt it, but also trust that there will be an audience for it.  In my opinion, it paid off.

There only 220 cases produced of this deep--almost black--red wine.  It's so dark, it almost seems that it will stain your glass.  I loved this wine.  It's deep and rich with layers upon layers of flavors revealing endless black fruit, smoke, pepper, and gamey meats.  There's fine-grained tannins that support the immense body.  I highly recommend this bottle for your next meal of braised short ribs or pot roast.

Woodward Canyon

We meet Rick Small, proprietor of Woodward Canyon, at his tasting room on the road leading into downtown Walla Walla.  Although the city is only a few miles away, there's a feeling of remoteness here.  It's a small room, looking as if it was formerly a homestead in the wide open West a few decades back, with the prerequisite squeaky floorboards to match.

Rick is lean and wiry, with a muscular frame that seems built from working in the vineyards rather than pumping weights at a gym.  He's a live wire, constantly excited by the subjects he covers whether it's his new wine or soil composition, and his subjects jump around a lot.  His mind seems to move faster than his mouth can keep up.

He takes us to his Estate vineyard site, a short drive from his tasting room into the rolling hills to the East of downtown Walla Walla.  If it felt remote before, the vineyard seems to be in the middle of nowhere with nary a car in sight.

It's mainly wheat out there, Rick being one of the first to plant with grapes three decades prior.  The hills that make up the vineyards almost feel like ocean wave frozen in time, rising and falling in great curves and small valleys.  One feels small in a place like this one as you can look out for miles in every direction, a chain of mountains rising to the South while the East and North reveal acres of unused land.

It's easy to imagine planting roots out there, a short distance from the Woodward Canyon Estate, and building a winery that produces bottles that folks across the world will taste.  It's easy to imagine, but hard to actually do.  Rick is a pioneer.  He was the first of a kind to envision a place rooted to so many other crops and believe that Walla Walla could be a wine destination one day, a wine valley to rival Napa and Bordeaux.

His dreams are becoming truer every day and you only have to taste his wines to understand it.

-2007 Woodward Canyon "Artist Series" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-

I find the Artist Series Cabernet to be consistently Small's most Washington wine in character, perhaps because he blends from several vineyards across Columbia Valley rather than just his estate in Walla Walla--a little of this, a little of that.  It just has that perfect balance between California fruit and Bordeaux elegance, which to me, represents the state's wines most accurately.

I was able to purchase this through the tasting room at the winery, so there may be more available if you contact them directly.  This was performing excellently.  This full-bodied Cab contains just a touch of Petit Verdot and displays an array of fruit and savory spice.  Currant, mineral, herbs.  The fine-grained tannins suggested that this will continue to age very well.

-2006 Woodward Canyon "Old Vines" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-

I find the Old Vines Cab to be delicious, but the alcohol--at a whopping 16.5%--seems to sap the wine of character.  I don't get a sense of place off this wine.  It's dark, and deeply brooding, loaded with very lush dark fruits, chocolate and espresso.  It is sourced from--of course--older vines in Washington, specifically two vineyards planted in the 1970s:  Sagemoor and Champoux.  3% of the blends is from Petite Verdot and then aged 22 months in French Oak.

Red Willow Vineyard

Mike Sauer believes in Syrah so much that he built a chapel at the peak of a hill within his vineyard to emulate Jaboulet's "La Chapelle," which overlooks the Rhone River in the appellation of Hermitage, a renowned site for some of the best Syrah in the world.  Now, Red Willow's chapel has reached almost the same acclaim, at least in the state of Washington.

At the top of this peak, we tasted through some of the best Syrah harvested at the site:  Betz, Owen Roe, and Eight Bells.

You see, Mike isn't running a winery, but a vineyard and Red Willow is a premium source for many of Washington's best wineries.  On the back a trailer, pulled by an old tractor, we stared out the open sides as vineyard rows passed by, at the end of which were little dangling white tags written with black Marker, denoting the winery for which the fruit was headed--Efeste, Mark Ryan, Owen Roe--while ten-foot high pickets nailed with a sideways piece of wood announced the grapes planted to each block.

Next to the Chapel, looking out on the expansive Yakima Valley, Mike sampled us on three different pieces of his vineyard, bits of juice inside nondescript black bottles with hastily printed labels that stated "East Block," "South Block," and "West Block."

Essentially, these were separate, fully-produced wines supplied to us by the Owen Roe winery.  Each one was different.  One block had richer fruit whereas another had higher acidity and then third had bigger tannins.  I couldn't pick one that I liked most, only able to enjoy each block for its own qualities.

And that's where the skillful job of a great winemaker comes into play.

It's perplexing enough to taste wine from one, tiny micro climate such as Red Willow Vineyard and compare it to another vineyard miles away, but instead, to compare two particular blocks of the same vineyard, only inches away, is much more vexing.  If a bottle of wine is a book, then each row makes up a sentence, and stringing them together into one epic tale is the work of the winemaker. 

Red Willow contains many good stories, enough to fill a library.

-2012 Betz "La Cote Patriarche" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-

Produced from some of the oldest vines in Red Willow Vineyard, Betz's "Patriarche" exudes an elegant personality with heft.  Deep flavors of plums, minerals, and crushed flowers flow out with richness, but with amazing acidity for support.  It's a perfect mix of Old World/New World sensibilities.

-2012 Owen Roe "Chapel Block" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-

There are only around 400 cases of this 100% Syrah from Red Willow Vineyard, comprised of three specific zones of the aforementioned Chapel Block.  It's another great example of that Old/New style of wine.  Big, plump fruits with the right amount of savory components to keep it interesting.  Chocolate, prunes, violets, and black olive all flow forward on a sturdy frame of tannins.  This drinks as if it will go through the next decade, maybe 2025.




Washington Wakes, Part 1

Bleeding Thoughts on a Wine Country State

This is a compilation of thoughts from a road trip taken across Washington State in September, 2015.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that most folks would describe Washington State as cold, rainy, and very, very green and technically, they would be correct--for perhaps 30 or 40% of the state.  In reality, the state of Washington has an almost bipolar personality with the immense Cascade Mountain range providing a distinct barrier between its two dominant moods.

The Western side of the Cascades, home to the state's most recognizable city--Seattle--meets those aforementioned expectations, the type of place where you can cozy up in one of its numerous coffee bars, stare out at the hills blanketed with the greenest pine trees you've ever seen and actually believe that you could write poetry to rival Thoreau.  The wines made on this side are very different from the East.  Most wineries are ones you haven't heard of, utilizing unique varietals that favor the cold, wet landscape of Puget Sound, grapes like Zweigelt, Muller-Thurgau, and other oddballs.  Sure there's Woodinville, just northwest of Seattle, and home to the iconic wineries of Chateau St. Michelle and DeLille Cellars, but those guys are mainly making the wine there, preferring to grow their grapes over in the Columbia Valley area.

For the predominant grape-growing areas, you have to make the trek through the Cascades over to the Eastern wing of Washington, which is a bit like stepping through the looking glass into a different world, leaving a place of tall pines and rock-strewn beaches for an arid, sand covered landscape littered with single stoplight towns.

It. Is.  A.  Desert.  Plain and simple.

Directly from the mouths of numerous winemakers and winery owners, they'll admit that without the advent of irrigation and other modern cures, grape-growing would not be possible, at least not at the quality level most consumers would expect.  

From the Cascades, across the Columbia Valley and all the way to Walla Walla, the majority of wine country is not what one would expect for an important grape-growing region.  The broad expanse of golden sand is oddly offset by numerous random green splotches as if a painter was distracted and his brush dripped across the deserted canvas.  It doesn't seem real.  The Horse Heaven Hills rise and fall like the deep humps of a camel's back while Red Mountain rises up as an omen over the small town of Benton City, its reddish hue a stark contrast to the landscape around it.  

Despite the overarching differences between the East and West sides of the Cascades, a main unifying theme I found throughout Washington wine country was that of a deep spirit of adventure, of a wine community discovering itself.  Like the pioneers of Napa Valley in the mid-1800s, the Washington wineries are assembled as the modern day trailblazers, those fearless few that dare to try something different.

While other wine regions have largely been decided, what grapes work best and where to plant them or the typicity of its finished wines, Washington is anything but decided.  It is burgeoning with possibility, in an adolescent phase of discovery, harsh acne and all.  Syrah seems to be the varietal that most wineries are rallying around as the calling card for the state, but even that somewhat decided truth is still up in the air because it's such an alien varietal to most unless it says "Shiraz" and "Australia."

No one knows the limitations of what can be produced yet.  The most exciting aspect for Washington wine is that the varying climates seem to suit almost anything from wildly racy, acid-driven Rieslings to deep and brooding Bordeaux blends that are completely different from their Californian brethren, yet different still from those of Bordeaux.  The wines are unique.  They taste of Washington.

In a place like Napa Valley, millionaires and billionaires dig into deep pockets to fulfill a dream of wine perfection, but across the Columbia Valley, you will encounter farmers learning on the fly about the varietals that perform best on their fields which were formerly sown with cherries, wheat, or apples.  You will drive into former office parks that are now converted into garage wineries and see the fermenting tanks crowded into a space that once was populated by desks.  You'll come across restaurant wine directors whose hands are rough where they should be smooth and notice the gritty soil that just won't quite wash away because they've been toiling away on their days off to bottle their dreams.

It's an exciting time for these ones.  It's a time when consumers are finally realizing the high quality wine hailing from those obscure regions, the unknown areas with otherworldly names like Walla Walla and Yakima, and the enthusiasm of the producers gets under your skin and puts a smile on your face.  It's history is being written now, on the road ahead of you as its vineyards fly by and its juice is flowing into barrels.

I'm not the gambling type, but if I were, I'd place a bet that the Washington wine scene's future is very, very bright.

Bottled Memories

Wine can be unexplainable at times.   Even illogical.

The more we attempt to put wine in a box (no pun intended), whether we dole out ratings and create charts in order to somehow quantify a particular wine's quality, wine always defies that attempt at reason.  Wine is an illusive thing, as art typically is, because as consumers, collectors or lovers of the arts, we all have different tastes and disparate perspectives. 

Even in the case of following a certain critic and agreeing with his or her tastes, there will always be a time that you and that critic will differ.  Your common path suddenly forks and you have to choose which direction to go.  There will never be a time that we all agree, and if there was, it would all be much less interesting.

No matter how much you explain what has gone into a particular bottle, the painstaking process, the hand-picked grapes or precise oak selection, there will be those times when someone just doesn't click with it.  There are bottles that stand out in one's life that you go back to again and again, and despite your attempts to branch away from it in order to try something "new" or "different," you always go back to that bottle.

Wine is an emotional experience and the bottles that accompany momentous occasions in a person's life become tangible memories.  I can tell you personally that there are a few bottles, some good and some not so good that stand out in my life for various reasons.  Some I will go back to, others I will not, but they are all special in very unique ways to my life.

Coppola "Diamond Label" Pinot Grigio, California

This was my first wine purchase.  I blush a bit when speaking of the initial wine that stoked my interest with understanding more about the wine industry.  It's funny now, thinking of how foreign it all was to me at that point.  Reading the labels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and all the rest might as well have been written in Arabic.

Nothing made sense.

Too embarrassed to ask for help, I scrambled for a different way to make my decision.  Another passion of mine is film so, in looking across the wine shelves of my local Tom Thumb, Coppola wines stood out from the rest.  It couldn't be that Coppola, but sure enough, the Coppola of The Godfather and The Conversation was the same Coppola on the wine bottles.  So, that's how I made my very first wine selection.

Krupp Bros. "Black Bart" Syrah, Napa Valley

While Coppola's Diamond Label Pinot Grigio might have been my first wine and the wine that urged me to discover more, "Black Bart" Syrah was the first high-end wine that informed me that wine could have depth and complexity.

I was working at a steakhouse at the time and the Wine Director held tastings in one of the private rooms to teach the servers about wine.  On one occasion, he invited the rep from Krupp Brothers to speak to us about their wines off Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak.  We tasted through their entire line-up, but it was the Black Bart that hooked me. 

It seemed to sparkle, alive and roiling across my tongue, speaking of plummy dark fruits and pepper.  That was my next wine purchase.

Far Niente Chardonnay, Napa Valley

About six months into our dating relationship, I surprised my (now) wife with an expensive dinner for her birthday.  This was also the occasion that I decided to reveal to her the love I was feeling so soon in our new relationship, but I didn't care because I was true to the feelings I held.  Luckily, she felt the same way.  We toasted to our newfound love with a bottle of 2006 Far Niente Chardonnay.

And there are many more wines--many, many more, such as the Krug "Grand Cuvee" with which we toasted our engagement or the "Cuvee Julienne" Champagne from George Vesselle that we popped in the hospital room and dabbed my first son's lips with to coronate his entrance into our lives. 

These are important wines for seminal moments in my life and my love for these bottles cannot be quantified on a scale for their individual importance.

These bottles exist as more than just a passing taste or a score on a reviewer's sheet.  These wines are memories for me and it only takes a passing glance or a single drop to transport me to another time, of when my wife and I ate macadamia nut crusted Mahi Mahi along with a Napa Chardonnay and nothing had tasted better in our lives or that period when an insignificant Pinot Grigio from a filmmaker could have been the window into a lifetime passion.

This is just a start.  I can't imagine how many more bottles that will be opened or how they will mark new chapters in my journey.  And that's just it.  Sometimes it isn't the wine that's important; it is the moment they mark for us like an entry for a journal of our lives.

Wines are no longer wines.  They are bottled memories.


Wine, in context. (or how I think about wine.)


In wine, as many things, context matters.  At least it does for me.

Allow me to propose a test:  let us say that you could drink two wines at the same price, grapes sourced from the same general area, and both happen to have a very similar taste profile.  What if, though, the first wine came from a tiny, family winery that was produced in a few hundred case allotment whereas the second is the creation of a wine committee employed by a multinational wine group and is available at every major grocery store. 

Which of the wines do you choose?

I can tell you honestly that although both wines might taste equally good, my taste buds would naturally sway in the direction of the first wine, the family winery.  Then, you might ask--if it tastes good, why does the background information matter?  Does the enjoyment of a wine really depend on the story of the winery?

The short answer is--YES.  The WHY takes longer to explain.

The late, great film critic, Roger Ebert said at one point that, "It isn't WHAT a movie is about, but HOW it is about it."  This was stunning insight.  I recall reading this quote many years ago as an eighteen-year-old college student and it turning my ideas of evaluating film, art and anything else on its head.

This concept, of thinking critically on a film on how it came together can easily be applied to the world of wine.  Rather than thinking about a filmmaker, translate that to a winemaker.  Instead of a producer, think proprietor.  Rather than an actor, consider the grape or swap out script for the background story of the winery.

  • How was the wine produced--was it organic, sustainable, or traditional growing methods?
  • From where does the wine hail from--did it speak of its place or did high alcohol overwhelm any subtleties?
  • What is the winery's end goal or message--producing great wine or producing great scores?

These are all important questions to think about as we sip over a wine and mull over its answers, but believe me, there are so many more.  So many more considerations and questions, and then answers that lead to many more questions.  And that's what makes wine so fascinating--it's endless possibilities.

One aspect that holds very true is that we all love to support something small.  Deep down, whether we realize it in a conscious sense or not, we want to give our hard earned money to a family business.  I can tell you that my family tries to seek out farmer's markets for the food we'll eat throughout the week or attempt to eat our meals out at small, local restaurants.  Why is that?

There was a recent scientific study that concluded the fact that dopamine was actually produced in the brain when people came into contact with new objects, ideas, or places.  This is part of the reason that we feel so good on our vacations.  It's a break from our day-to-day lives, but we are also unknowingly drugging ourselves.

I believe if a study were to be done on the knowledge of the background on products, the same stimuli would be found to be stoked.  I think our enjoyment is stimulated, in part, by what we find out about a product.  That is, if a product is good, that's fine on its own, but if it's made in an ethical, small way--bonus!

It is, to some extent, a similar reason that farm-to-table restaurants have become so popular.  Farm-to-table has become something of a mockery of itself with shows like Portlandia that ape the idea, but the ethics of its meaning still hold true--the concept that products matter and the method of how things are produced matter.  It's important to know that you could look at a menu and know both where the ingredients are coming from as well as that the chef cares about the preparation.

I am convinced that knowing that passion and love went into the making of a product leads to the better enjoyment of that product.  The wine's story is as important as the wine itself.  Wine is so much more than just fermented grape juice.  If that wasn't true, then we'd all be guzzling our Uncle's hooch being made in the basement, but most of us aren't doing that.  We're traveling to our local wine purveyor, searching the bins for wines from around the world, asking for advice on the best pairing or the perfect gift.  Even if we aren't vocalizing it, we all think of wine as something above, something special, and a thing to be revered.

It's alive.  It evolves.

Much like Ebert's favorite medium of film, wine is also a story, but we have to listen even closer to hear its secrets.  It's our job to be there as it whispers.