Rhone varieties have a storied history throughout California. A few months ago, I traveled throughout the state to chat with winemakers and learn about why they love working with Rhone varieties. I wove their thoughts together into an audio essay-- click here to listen to the podcast episode that tells their story.
A couple of weeks ago I teamed up with Booth Hardy of Barrel Thief (Richmond, Virginia) and Kim Prokoshyn of Rebelle (Manhattan, NY). We traveled to the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in search of pinot noir for the Wine & Spirits Magazine Sommelier Scavenger Hunt.
We learned so much about the AVA! The Santa Cruz Mountains are so special-- this wine region has an altitude requirement which lifts most of the vineyards up above the fog line. You end up with small, meticulously farmed vineyards that on the tops of mountains. The vineyards are often surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus trees. The smell of the forest can be sensed in the glass.
Check out our full report here.
Here is a recent article about Virginia's wine growth. Production, interest, and quality have all increased in the last decade....
The Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange
I recently sat down with Virginia winemakers Emily Pelton (Veritas Vineyards) and Scott Dwyer (Pollak) to talk about their innovative research exchange.
Their group started informally, with friendly sessions of winemakers gathering to share their trials and experiments. As the idea picked up steam, they formalized their process and got funding from the Monticello Wine Trail to found the Monticello Winemakers Research Exchange. This core group of Monticello AVA winemakers has now expanded to include all of Virginia, with new funding from the Virginia Wine Board.
Read all about it here, in my latest article for The C-Ville Weekly. You can also visit the Virginia Winemakers Research Exchange website at www.winemakersresearchexchange.com to see the results of their trials. They publish their results publicly so that everyone may benefit from their efforts.
What makes this endeavor so extraordinary? You'll often find trials such as these in an academic university setting, but rarely do you see a group of winemakers so motivated and dedicated to sharing their experimental results. Several wine regions have organizations among winemakers, but to see this level and scope of experimentation is quite unique. With the excitement and commitment that currently surrounds the VWRE's tasting sessions, and with online access to the results, an individual's experiment has the potential to enhance the wines across the state.
Click here to read my latest article for Knife & Fork magazine about chardonnay in Virginia.
This post outlines Erin's journey from a Rhone Rangers Professional Study Travel Grant, awarded by the James Beard Foundation. To learn more about this scholarship, or to apply yourself, visit the James Beard Foundation's page that details their Scholarships and Grants.
I just returned from an incredible journey through California, visiting several producers who focus specifically on Rhone varieties. The journey began in southern California and ended in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. As the trip progressed, it became clear that this was more than just a wine trip up California's coast... this was a journey through time that began with some of California's newest vineyards, and ended with some of its oldest. So, this post will start at the end of the trip, which was a beginning for Rhone varieties in California.
The Gold Rush and Rhone Varieties in the Sierra Foothills
Though much of California's deep wine history points to missionaries and sacramental wine, a whole other chapter can be found in the Gold Rush days. The influx of miners from around the world led to the pop up of many towns and, indirectly, the infrastructure of civilization, such as food and beverage production. Miners needed something to drink.
Lodi's Bechtold Vineyard
Head to Lodi, and you'll find one of the most interesting vineyards in all of California: The Bechthold Vineyard, originally planted in 1886. Here, gnarly old cinsault vines stand sentinel and make some of the most interesting wine in California.
Geyserville's Treasure Trove of Old Vines....
Geyserville is home to a wealth of old vines that, like the Bechthold vineyard, trace their history back to the 1880s.
As I asked around about some of the older vineyards in the area, by happenstance I ran into Will Thomas, Viticulturist at Ridge, who pointed out some of the older vines in Whitton Ranch's 'Old Patch.'
For a wine geek, this enthralling plot of ancient vines is where you want to be. It was incredible to stand among vines that are older than my great grandparents. After all, what other agricultural product can service four generations over the course of its life cycle? Being around vines this old sparks a true communion with the past. Planted as a field blend in the 1880s, this patch is predominantly zinfandel, with other Rhone varieties mixed in, such as grenache, syrah, and carignane.
Old Vines at Lytton Springs
An Ancient French Grape in Paso Robles
Living History in Santa Barbara Country
A Jewel in the Santa Maria Valley
Two of the first winemakers to work with the Black Bear fruit were Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) and Bob Lindquist (Qupe), who worked together at Zaca Mesa before founding their own labels. Today, they work with fruit at Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley. As two bellwether producers for the larger Santa Barbara Country, Clendenen and Lindquist have written (an continue to write) an important chapter for California wine.
When you arrive at Bien Nacido, you unmistakably enter a special place. To get here, a long, hot, semi-flat drive suddenly opens up into a Brigadoon-like valley, with round mountains that rise up around a valley that winds through a lush paradise of vines that spill down the hillsides to the mixed crops below that push up from the valley floor.
New Ground in Santa Barbara
California: South to North is a Journey into Historic Vineyards
Juxtaposing the vineyards in the south against the old vineyards in the north, you'll find great differences in age. The producers in the north who work with the old vines shepherd the established vineyards through the season and work with a framework handed down to them from the past. The producers in the south are building such a framework that will hopefully, one day, be the future of Santa Barbara Country wine.
Perhaps the ancient Minoan towns that populated Santorini Island and Crete 4,000 years ago looked similar to this modern-day view.
Standing on the edge of the caldera and looking out into the sea, it's difficult to imagine that beneath these peaceful, lapping waves lurks one of the world's most powerful volcanoes, and that this calm view was one of armageaddon-like destruction during the Minoan Explosion sometime between 1500 and 1627 BC.
The volcanic eruption all those millenia ago buried in ash and pumice an ancient Minoan town that archeologists refer to as Akrotiri. This bustling sea-faring town boasted three story houses with a market square, paved streets, artistic wall paintings, advanced furniture, toilets and plumbing, pipes and 'air conditioning' systems, and evidence that ancient wine was traded through this town. The sea-faring Minoans had some sort of warning of the volcanic eruption, because no human remains were left at the site. Perhaps early smoke, sulfur, and pre-volcanic earthquakes caused their organized departure. Archeologists posit that although they made it off the island, the people of this town most likely perished on their ships in a tsunami that followed the explosion. The volcanic explosion weakened other Minoan outposts to the point where other cultures and civilizations could easily move in and take over their cities. Imagine what the world could be like today if some of the Minoan technologies could have been advanced on thousands of years ago.
These plaster casts of wooden beds are just one example of the craftsmanship and handiwork of the Minoans.
Here, you see a glimpse into a bustling marketplace where amphorae filled with grains, oils, and wines supplied the locals with daily needs.
A closer looks shows a view of an amphora that held grain-- the contents were usually hinted at by the designs on the pottery. In the amphora in the upper left of the photo you can see the grain design painted on the outside of the clay.
Akrotiri continues to give up secrets about Minoan society 4,000 years ago, and the similarities to our own modern comforts are pretty incredible....
The drive from Charlottesville to Lovingston has a hallucinating effect on the senses. In winter, tall road-side trunks tower in the strip of median. The morning sun casts long shadows on the road in stripes of sunlight and darkness. The faster you drive, the more the strobe-like effect numbs your vision. Icicles melt from the tips of the branches, sparkling into light as they drip away onto the red clay below them. Closer to Lovingston, the road widens, habitable structures grow farther apart, and the hills rise up taller, closer, and more jagged. Rough stone outcroppings on the hilltops make them seem more like mountains, and the trees that cling to the vertical edges echo the ruggedness of this hardscrabble countryside. This is like another world.
One part of the building-- 'the bunker'-- cuts into the earth, and here is where bottles awaiting shipment rest. A few experiments are brewing in this area-- a PetNat, and a sherry-style wine, among others.
The entire space is on the smaller side for a winery, which is ultimately a relief to the wine drinker. So often 'tiny family wineries' are actually huge operations behind-the-scenes. But here, you get the feeling that every grape berry is under the watchful eye of the Puckett family. As you might guess by the size of the winery, production is limited and focused at around 1500-1800 cases per year, 95% of which comes from their estate fruit. They have about 10 acres planted, with perhaps some expansion in the future, but nothing too grandiose.
How did it all begin? Ed & Janet Puckett got their grape start in Georgia, where, admittedly, 'we learned what not to do.' They moved to Virginia, determined to set up a small, high-quality winery. In 2002 they purchased land here, from a family who had owned it for about a century. Perched above the winery, the Pucketts live in a house built in 1906 by a woman named Josie & her husband. Out front, on what was once 'Josie's Knoll,' vines grow. It makes a difference when you live right next to your vines; they become intertwined with your life, and the wines become as much a part of the story of the Pucketts, as the Pucketts are a part of the wine.
The main vineyards were planted in 2003, named 'Josie's Knoll' after the previous steward of their land. The winery rose in 2005. 2005 was also their first vintage, which marks this coming September's harvest as their 10th anniversary bottling. The vines are still young, but they yield incredibly interesting fruit even at this young age. On Josie's Knoll, a few blocks stand out. 'Janet's Block,' and 'Gilbert's Block.'
Ed & Janet's daughter, Stephanie, keeps track of the details, and works closely with winemaker Riaan Rossouw.
'It takes a lifetime to figure out a barrel,' Rossouw says, hinting at a bit of wisdom, 'and some people, they change them every year!'
Some of my favorite bottlings from Lovingston include their merlot, Meritage, and petit manseng.
I’m Erin, and I’m thirsty for drinks and the secrets they hold. Wine is my main game, but I’ve been known to love a cocktail here and there, and who doesn’t like a good beer on the regular? This blog is for wine/spirits/beer geeks. No beverage will be left unsipped!