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.
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.
I’m Erin, and this is my wine blog. Here, you'll find information about wines from around the world, and Virginia.