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....
Matthieu Finot's 2014 orange wine from King Family Vineyards has potential to become a classic regional pairing for Virginia ham. Read all about it in my latest article for The C-Ville Weekly:
Petit manseng is a fascinating grape. Several winemakers in Virginia are working with this unique grape in Virginia, where the grape can outlast even a dreadful hurricane season. Click here to read my full article about petit manseng in the local Charlottesville paper, The C-Ville!
I was gone for about 10 months because I was busy working on my first harvest. Yes, I finally made my own unicorn-- so highly allocated in fact, that there is just one. She's a very special 2015 vintage. If she looks extra sweet, that's because she is a late harvest, coming in two weeks after her expected date.
The 2015 vintage was a unique one. Bud break happened sometime in early February, then flowering shortly thereafter. The summer was full of mild weather and lots of kicking. By October, the fruit was practically falling off the vine, but even though the vine was ready (like, SO ready) to drop the fruit, harvest didn't happen until very late November. Today we're almost seven weeks into elevage, yet there is still so much development that needs to happen. But even at this early stage, it's easy to tell that this is one Grand Cru baby!
When you first open this beauty it is fruity and ripe and rich, but after 15-20 minutes or so, it magically turns to meat and pepper. I love serving this and watching peoples' reaction to how it changes over dinner-- it's a truly beautiful and pleasant syrah.
Making wine together since 1984, Rene-Jean Dard & Francois Ribo approach winemaking in a very non-interventionist style, and they were some of the first in the Northern Rhone to re-approach natural wine after the agro-chemical movements of the 1950s.
Much like the late Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar (who believed his aged whites "are for the mind" more than the body), Dard finds his older whites to be more complex and mysterious than the reds, and prefers the reds on the younger side of things. Thus, I was happy to open up this 2012 Saint Joseph red when I did. The wine is one of these alive syrahs that changes so much in the glass over a few hours. It's exciting to drink, and such a dynamic wine in a restaurant setting.
Today, the Margaret River is a thriving wine region of Australia, popular for similar varieties upon which Napa Valley has built its bread & butter, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. But back in the early 1960s, there was no wine in the Margaret River-- that legacy belonged to South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. Planting vines at Vasse Felix in 1967 signaled a turning point that brought this wine region into the world's eye.
Vasse Felix is named after a historic figure: Thomas Vasse. During storms in the early 1800s he was swept overboard on his ship, and though some presumed him dead, other legends abounded about his ultimate fate: Was he adopted by Australian locals? Had he been picked up by an American ship & taken back to Europe? Had he been jailed?
Tom Cullity, a cardiologist who purchased his first vineyard site for $75, named his winery 'Vasse Felix' ('Lucky Vasse'), humorously rebranding history's view of local legend Thomas Vasse. But the winery had to throw most of their first vintage (1971) overboard when local birds ate much of their crop. Determined not to share Vasse's fate, Cullity brought in a falcon to scare off the birds... but he flew away on his first release. (However, you can still find this feathery wanderer on every Vasse Felix wine label).
After a few vintages, things turned around. One of Cullity's early riesling vintages garnered some early support for the region. In 1972 he made his first cabernet sauvignon vintage, which would soon become a benchmark wine for the Margaret River. And, of course, today, these high-quality wines have helped set the course for the Margaret River's wine scene.
Recently, a friend shared this beautiful bottle of 2001 Vasse Felix 'Heytesbury', and it was like peering into the history of Western Australia's wine history. Heytesbury is old-vine cabernet sauvignon, with syrah, petit verdot, and malbec blended in (84% cabernet sauvignon, 8% syrah, 6% malbec, 2% merlot). They hefty alcohol (14.2) blends in to the rich, dark wine, and savory tertiary aromas presented in a way that made this wine great with meats.
Happy New Year, everyone! Charlottesville, Virginia has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the US, with the exception of New York City. It's easy to find a delicious meal in this town, and here are a few of my favorite bites from the past year (one for each month!), with the drink pairings that made them magical.
January: The Adam's Apple
This might be the best lunch under $10 in Charlottesville. Fresh turkey, local bacon, creamy goat cheese, crispy & tart apples, peppery arugula, sweet apple butter, and spicy garlic aioli-- all on crumbly & wholesome sunflower-wheat toast. The sandwich's name evokes an Eden-like perfection, but hints at how sinfully delicious this can be...
Foggy Ridge 'Handmade' hard apple cider
Cidermaker Diane Flynt has an unwavering commitment to high-quality cider, epitomized by her 'Handmade' expression from apples grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains. All of the fresh apple aromas in this sparkling cider bring out the apple elements in the sandwich. This cider is also a great way to wash down a hearty meal John Adams-style, who drank a tankard of cider every morning with breakfast.
February: Bacon Wrapped Dates
Mas - Chef Tomas Rahal
A great tapa is one of life's simple pleasures. These sweet & savory morsels are always on my list of things to try for anyone visiting Charlottesville. Mas has a wide array of tasty, fresh tapas, and while I've never left food on any plate I've ordered, there are a few of their specialties that stand out above the rest... like these dates. They come to you right from the oven in a cast iron skillet, the bottom snapping and crackling with lava-hot bacon drippings. The most difficult part about eating these is the 5 minutes they sit in front of you while you wait for them to cool down-- but on a cold and snowy day in February, a steaming skillet of bacon-wrapped dates is one of the best ways to warm up.
Crisp bubbles are one of the best ways to wash down anything with bacon fat. Since 1881 the family has been making wine, and their contributions toward viticulture and vinification have made a great impact on Cava production over the 20th century. A staple on Mas' awesome wine list, this is a great go-to glass selection that will pair so well with just about any tapa.
March: Mushroom Pizza
Dr. Ho's Humble Pie
Ok, this might be slightly outside of Charlottesville, but it is close enough to be a part of Charlottesville's pizza lore, so here it is: The mushrooms are local, the crust is fresh, crunchy, & chewy, the staff is sassy, the beers are freezing cold, and you can play magnetic scrabble at the tables-- could this be America's ultimate pizza house? It's definitely worth the 15 minute drive outside of Charlottesville proper.
Brasserie de la Pigeonelle 'La Loirette' (Touraine, France)
This farmhouse ale from the Loire Valley is a great treat with pizza-- it's not too funky or feral (as some farmhouse ales can be), but it still has some body and earthiness to it, making it an excellent pairing with mushroom pizza.
April: Icing Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies
Perfectly cooked chocolate chip cookies with just the right amount of crunchiness and chewiness, made into sandwiches stuffed with vanilla icing..... This would satisfy even the most discerning Sweet Tooth. The sugar rush mixed with a little coffee makes for a great mid-day pick-me-up.
Locally roasted coffee from The Mudhouse is always fresh, rich, and tasty. This coffee shop fuels most of the local business on Charlottesville's downtown mall, and it has also played a hand in writing countless college papers (there are always several students studying in the cafe). The baristas are seasoned professionals who know how to have fun-- and they pull great shots.
May: Olive Oil Cake
Parallel 38 - Chef Alfredo Malinis Jr.
This tasty and moist olive oil cake comes to you with a giant ball of goat cheese ice cream balanced on top.
Neudorf chardonnay (Nelson, NZ)
Neudorf chardonnay grapes are from a special clone with hen & egg symptoms. The big ripe berries in the bunches give the wine its lush richness while the small unripe berries add a pop of bright acidity. The combination is mellowed in oak, and the dense with with hints of vanilla and peach brought out the best in the olive oil cake.
June: Mushroom & Swiss Burger
Citizen Burger Bar
Citizen Burger Bar, a new burger joint on Charlottesville's historic downtown mall, serves satisfying burgers and fries and has one of the most extensive and well-procured beer lists in town. Sometimes it's the simple things, and when you have a protein craving there is nothing more satisfying than this local mushroom & Swiss burger with simple fries and a beer.
Lagunitas DayTime Ale (dry hopped)
The bright lemony-pine flavors you get from dry-hopped beers practically jump out of the glass. This lively beer acted as a type of palate cleanser between each rich bite of the meaty burger.
July: Heirloom Tomatoes from Radical Roots Farm
Charlottesville Farmer's Market
A late-summer visit to Charlottesville's farmers market will lead you to stroll by the tents of several local farmers. The produce at Radical Roots always stands out: they are hard-core organic farmers, they have one of the most incredible heirloom tomato programs I've ever seen, and the quality of produce is pretty hard to beat. Grab a bag of fresh-cut arugula and a hand full of tomatoes, then all you need is a little olive oil & salt to finish one of the best meals of your life.
Shafer Frohlich 'Felseneck' GG riesling 2010 (Nahe, Germany)
All the herbaceous and complex savory aromas you get from the natural yeast riesling ferment pairs perfectly with a warm, sun-ripened tomato picked a few hours prior from the organic fields at Radical Roots farm. This is one of the loveliest rieslings on the planet, and to have it with something so fresh and vibrant as a sun-warmed heirloom tomato is pure joy.
August: House Made Corn Tortellini with Mushrooms
The Red Pump - Chef Todd Grieger
The Red Pump opened in the summer of 2014 on Charlottesville's historic downtown mall. This tortellini dish from their opening menu was an incredibly memorable way to experience the freshest corn of the season.
Giacommo Fenocchio 2013 arneis
The oily richness of arneis against the sweet burst of perfectly ripe corn kernels and the earthiness of fresh mushrooms created one of the most hedonistic food and wine pairings I've had in a long time.
September: Maitake Mushroom & House-Made Ramen
The Clifton Inn - Chef Tucker Yoder
This is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life. Chef Yoder's house-made ramen noodles with a tasty pan-seared maitake mushroom satisfied the most limbic desires with its beauty, simplicity, and tastiness. Though Chef Tucker has recently left The Clifton, his ramen is something to follow wherever he may land.
Lopez de Heredia 'Tondonia' 2002 (Rioja, Spain)
The old-school wines from Lopez de Heredia are released when ready, and exhibit the earthy side of tempranillo. This 2002 went perfectly with the mushroom and noodles.
October: The B.F.P. (Big Fluffy Pancake)
Brookville - Chef Harrison Keevil
On one of the first crisp days of fall, it seemed as if the entire city was out strolling on Charlottesville's downtown mall. This type of morning was perfect for a lazy brunch, and perfect for a B.F.P., which truly is a gigantic, 'big fluffy pancake' (see the quarter for size comparison). The middle-- saturated with maple syrup and butter-- contrasted the crunchy, fluffy edges.
Virginia Fizz mimosas
A delightful reminder that a good brunch can set the tone for a whole season, the fresh squeezed orange juice topped with Thibault-Janisson's sparkling chardonnay, 'Virginia Fizz,' was a simple pairing for this perfectly-cooked, huge pancake.
November: Braised Lamb Shoulder with Licorice
Palladio - Chef Melissa Close-Hart
Chef Close-Hart is changing restaurants and will soon be running an eatery in Belmont; but in her final months at Barboursville Winery's Palladio Restaurant she made this delicious dish. The braised lamb shoulder was wrapped in a flaky dough and served with a licorice sauce that brought out all the anise aromatics of the Barboursville 'Octagon' 2010.
Barboursville 'Octagon' 2010 (Barboursville, Virginia)
2010 was a groundbreaking and benchmark year for Virginia wineries. It was one of the few years in the last decade when most of the state had a beautiful vintage (previous vintages were marred by drought, rains, earthquakes, and hurricanes). Barboursville's 'Octagon,' a reserve Bordeaux-style blend, has long been a bellwether for quality wine in Virginia, and the 2010 was complex and rich, with a bright acidity that balanced this hearty dish in a great way.
December: French Onion Soup with Mountain View Farm Swiss
Petit Pois - Chef Brian Jones
Caramelized onions, beef broth, toasted baguette and local McClure 'Swiss' cheese-- when French onion soup is done right it can be one of the most delicious bowls of soup on the planet. It's great for all involved.... except the dishwasher.
Ar Pe Pe 'Rosso di Valtellina' 2012 (Lombardia, Italy)
The smooth tannins of the Ar Pe Pe nebbiolo married perfectly with the meaty beef broth, and the bright acidity cut through the bubbling and crunchy Swiss cheese. The wine is delicious on its own, but with a hearty dish like this it became something truly unforgettable.
*note: I write Petit Pois' wine list, so I feel ethically compelled to state my association with this restaurant; but extended exposure to the French Onion Soup has only strengthened my resolve that it belongs on this list!
This year, my favorites revolved around hearty staples, as opposed to cutting-edge molecular gastronomy or high-end haute cuisine: burgers, pizzas, tapas, sandwiches, noodles... maybe I'm just at a point in my life where I want to get back to the basics of dining, but 2014 was the year of the satisfying, hearty, quotidian meals. And it was great!
The Growers Collection wines from Pyramid Valley Vineyards are interesting forays into winemaking outside of the Weersing's Canterbury home. Made from contracted fruit farmed to their specifications (at least organic and often with biodynamic preparations), these unique vines are a great way to showcase the specialties of tiny vineyards around New Zealand, as opposed to the owners selling their fruit to large wine corporations, or having an industrial grower instruct the growers to re-graft with a more profitable variety. Under the Pyramid Valley Vineyard label, these unique wines have a home in the global marketplace. Growers Collection wines include a sparkling riesling, a savory semillon, and this cabernet franc.
Hawke's Bay is renown for its Bordeaux-like gravel and clay based terroir. The great Bordeaux-style red blends of New Zealand come from this region.
Pyramid Valley 'Howell Family Vineyard' cabernet franc 2009 (Hawke's Bay, New Zealand)
The 2009 cabernet france is ripe and lush. It shows the dark, plummy side of what cabernet franc can be, rather than the savory side of the grape.
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! Posts are at least weekly, more if possible.