Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dreaming of Wine in America - Repost!

This post originally ran back in March of 2009 but as we are just getting in in the new vintage of the El Llano, the 2009 Carneros Chardonnay and doing a dinner with Rolando Herrera I thought it was worth a revisit! Wines have been updated to reflect current price and availability at the time of the post. Cheers!

Wine Dinner Information:
Mi Sueno at the Pluckemin Inn

Mi Sueno, which means “my dream” in Spanish, is the realization of the dream and vision of Rolando Herrera. In what is a great American story, Rolando was born in a small village in Mexico, and looking for a better life, moved to California in 1975. His life in the wine trade began humbly enough as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soliel, then on to line Cook at Mustards’ Grill where he began to appreciate the magic of great food and wine. At the age of 17 he took a summer job working as a laborer building a stone wall for Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and was then offered a job working the harvest with the provision that he attend school in the afternoons. It was the beginning of a career that included 10 years at Stag’s Leap (the last seven as Cellar Master), assistant wine maker at Chateau Potelle, Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs. At each step along the way he absorbed his experiences, learning different aspects of winemaking, grape growing and marketing, developing his own vision which evolved into Mi Sueno.

“Each stop played a significant role in refining my style of winemaking. Stag’s Leap was the foundation.  It was here that I learned to appreciate the smell of the grape must and the feeling of being surrounded by barrels of fermenting wine. In addition, Warren taught me the value of attention to detail as well as to respect and enjoy the product we were making. At Chateau Potelle I was introduced to French winemaking techniques, including all-natural fermentation. I also learned that while anyone can make wine, to craft a truly unique and special wine, winemaking becomes more of an art form. My tenure at Vine Cliff provided me, for the first time in my career, a chance to be in complete control of the final product.” 

Eventually Rolando’s brother Ricardo joined him, having spent 10 years developing his talents as Cellar Master at Dominus and Assistant Winemaker at Screaming Eagle. Today they have a vineyard management company, and farm 40 acres of their own vines as well with terrific vineyard sites in Napa, Carneros and the Russian River Valley.

The wines are sold to us by Juan Prieto, owner of Vinifrance Imports, and Juan’s story is just as good as the Herrera’s. His family, solid middle class Cubans, lost everything when Castro and the communists came to power, nationalized private property and took their family business. After many hardships, they were finally able to leave Cuba and made their way to America with little more than the clothes they left with. Through hard work and drive, Juan and his family got him through school with a degree in Psychology which today is where he mainly makes his living. But his love of wine and food drew him to the wine business, and he began to travel, ask questions and learn everything he could. Eventually this led him to winemaker Michael Havens, a great long time friend of mine and Napa Winemaker, who subsequently led him to me about 20 or so years ago to ask advice about getting into the wine business. After giving Juan as many reasons as I could think of for not leaving his bread and butter job to open a wine distribution company, he went ahead and did it anyway. Today he has a great portfolio of artisan growers whose style and approach to winemaking we heartily endorse, making wines we love for their purity, expression, and natural approach, and of course, for their sheer brilliant quality. But he still has his day job!

We both work with on the French supply side with importer Olivier Daubresse, who aside from introducing us to some of our favorite French producers (Pascal Maillard, Guillon, Grivot and many more) has by far the most precise palate I have ever tasted with. With what I would call total recall and utter sensitivity, he is able to discern subtle changes that often the winemakers themselves don’t pick up in their wines. Travelling with Olivier is part and parcel to what I love about this business. I have spent long days the cold cellars in France together working on blends and selecting wines to import where you can see the relationship of respect and open communication between Olivier and his growers (Olivier pulls no punches!). This trust and understanding is based on a pursuit of excellence and results in our ability to source truly great wines (and share them with our clients!). Long, grueling days in cold cellars (I know, tough job!) are rewarded with lingering lunches and dinners, often with the winemakers digging deep in their cellars for magnificent wines in a spirit of sharing, mostly tasted blind, that challenges your senses and truly makes you think about what you are tasting. Vintage, soils, grapes, terroir, winemaking; how did these flavors and nuances arrive at the place and time we are drinking them? Every great wine tells a story of the year and conditions they were grown, the grapes and the soils and climate of the vineyards where they were grown, and the winemaking and care of the winemaker. 

Olivier’s personal story begins in the north of France, in a region best known for industry and far from wine country. As he tells it, the French social structure is a somewhat stratified system where upward mobility is difficult in terms of education, employment and career advancement, with layers of tradition and bureaucracy often creating impediments. So like many, Olivier went into the service industry, in his case the wine trade as a Sommelier, where he worked his way up to Wine Director of one of the best restaurants in France. He, like Rolando, found that his spirit was yearning for a better life in a place where his entrepreneurial ambition could be more easily realized, and eventually made his way to America. With stints at Bouley and Daniel in New York, he eventually left to follow his own dream of creating a business to import the small family owned estates he loved. These stories remind me, in a time when there seems to be so much negativity and doubt, of what a great place our country really is, with possibilities that exist here and nowhere else in the world. 

So what does all this have to do with wine? Not much, really, but it does reflect a little on my approach to it in a business sense. While the quality absolutely has to be there, wine is about more than just what's in the bottle, and definitely more than reading the press, checking the scores and ratings and stocking what is popular. It's about choosing to work with people who believe in what they do, who have a passion so strong they are willing to take risks and walk a sometimes difficult path to accomplish their goals. When you surround yourself with people with these characteristics and philosophy, quality usually follows - but on to the wines!

What I love about these wines is that they are a summation of all the experience and talent from the Herrera's years learning their art, and yet they sell for a fraction of the price of the wines from the places where they learned it. In addition, while they have California exuberance, they are also restrained and elegant, balanced, plush and deliciously drinkable. All are extremely limited production and worth getting to know. 

Mi Sueno Chardonnay Carneros 2009 – The grapes for this wine are grown in the cool Carneros region, and the resulting wine is balanced, with good ripeness and lively tropical fruit, creamy vanilla and a clean finish. About 35-40% new oak keeps it in check and allows the delicious fruit to shine through. Incredible value! $32/bottle

Mi Sueno Chardonnay “Sonoma Mountain” 2007 - The Sonoma Mountain is full, rich, but with restraint and only moderate oak, hints of apple, nutmeg and vanilla. Tiny production – excellent quality! $49/bottle

Mi Sueno Carneros Pinot Noir 2009 - This wine was first made by Mi Sueno in 2002 with purchased fruit, but discontinued it until their own vineyards were mature enough to provide the fruit. Planted on white soils with lots of lime it has lovely aromatic of red and dark cherry, lively fresh and mouth filling on the palate - California fruit (but in check), with fresh acidity underneath and a silky, smooth middle and finish. Lovely! Tiny production. $39/bottle

Mi Sueno El Llano 2009 - This is a blend of between 20-35% Syrah with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on the vintage, from vineyards near Caldwell's in the Coombsville area of Napa. Deep and dark, with cedar components and focused dark fruits both on the nose and palate. Long, solid and balanced, with just enough oak to compliment but not dominate. $49/bottle

Mi Sueno Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 - Although the 2007 vintage was highly regarded for its vigor, depth and cellar-worthy characteristics; 2008 did not fall too far from the same tree!  Three words for you: elgance with decadence. This wine was crafted in the classicly-balanced style that Rolando has been known to make. Showcasing fruit from the Coombsville area of Napa (soon to be an AVA), this Cabernet is sure to grab your palate's attention with its firm, yet approachable tannins followed by its smooth finish. Tiny production, only 5 cases available. $65/bottle

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Port - The Perfect Winter Warmer

When port comes to mind, most people think of the great Vintage Ports from the top houses such as Graham’s, Warre’s, Fonseca and Taylors. These superb wines are certainly some of the finest produced especially in great years. But Vintage Port is not inexpensive, it takes decades to evolve and reach its prime and represents only a small fraction of Port made. The good news is that there are a number of more affordable, ready to drink styles that can offer as much or more pleasure than drinking a great Vintage when it is far too young.

Wine has been made in the Douro Valley for nearly two millennia, but it was the arrival of the English in the 1700’s, smarting from their troubles on the Continent with the French that resulted in a lack of access to their preferred wines such as Bordeaux, that had a major impact on the Port trade. The treaty of Methuen in 1703 created a favorable trading relationship and low import duties between England and Portugal, setting the stage for the expansion of wine exports. In order to improve the fierce wines they found and to increase its stability for shipping, the practice of adding alcohol to the wines began, and Port as we know it today was born. Today the British still largely own the Port trade with Taylor Fladgate, Cockburns, Croft, Dow, Graham, Gould, Osborne, Taylor and Warre’s all English owned.
Port takes its name form the seaport city of Oporto, which lies at the mouth of the Douro River where it meets the Atlantic. Port is a fortified wine, made by stopping the fermentation process with an addition of a neutral grape spirit (called aguardente) before the yeasts have converted all of the sugars to alcohol. This has the dual effect of retaining sweetness in the wine and bringing the alcohol level up to about 21% by volume. All Port is made virtually the same way up to this point: grapes harvested and crushed, still by foot in some cases, in large trough like vats called Lagars, and then the spirits added to stop fermentation part way through. The variations that create the different styles of Port occur mainly during the maturation process.
While many countries produce fortified wines called Port, the real deal can only come from Portugal, made from grapes grown in the Douro River Valley. It is the third oldest protected wine appellation in the world, having been legally established in 1756 in effect to regulate and improve the quality and reputation of its product. The region begins about 40 miles upriver from the city of Porto on the Atlantic and extends east almost to the Spanish Border. The Serra do Marao mountains form a barrier than protects the region from maritime climate along the coast. There are several sub-regions as one travels upstream towards Spain, with the climate cooler and wetter in the west and becoming drier and warmer as one gets further east. The climate plays a role in the quality of grapes and the style of wines they produce. Grapes grown the western most (cooler, wetter) are mainly used for cheaper Ruby and Tawny Ports. The Cima Corgo which is higher, drier, and warmer produces Vintage and the higher quality Ports. While dozens of grapes can be used by law, the main varieties used are Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cão, and Touriga Nacional for reds. White Port is made from mainly Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Viosinho, but is also a fortified wine.
All Port begins essentially with the same process of fermentation. It is in their maturation where many of the differences in style have their origins and there are basically two large families of Port styles. The first are the cask-matured wines. These wines are aged in large barrels until they are ready for consumption and include Tawny, Colheita, and the rarely seen Garrafiera. Ports in this category can range from ordinary Tawny, generally inexpensive without a long period of age, to wines that are aged 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years in cask. The aging process in large barrels allows oxygen to interact with the wine, and they take their name from the color they achieve as the oxygen and aging process slowly changes their hue from deep ruby/purple to their namesake amber brown. They are typically a blend of multiple vintages, and are off dry to sweet in style, with a caramel, nutty elegance to them. Colheitas are similar to Tawny Ports but are from a single vintage and also aged in cask for many years. Cask matured Ports, since they have done their maturation in an oxidative environment, sometimes for years, have thrown most of their sediments in cask before bottling, or have been filtered before bottling and thus do not need decanting. They don’t improve with bottle age, are corked with a stopper cork that can be removed without a corkscrew, and once opened can last for weeks and longer. While many seem to focus on Vintage and Ruby styles, I personally love old Tawny – and would prefer them to drinking a great vintage Port too young. Best value/quality seems to be the 20 or 30 years olds as they have the character of age, but are not as expensive as 40 year.
The second group are the bottle matured Ports which are often referred to as Ruby Ports. They are only mature a short time in casks, with the best spending years maturing in bottle instead. This group includes Vintage, Reserve, Late Bottled and Crusted Port. Simple Ruby Ports are inexpensive, fermented in stainless steel to keep them from oxidizing like Tawny Port, and are known for deep color and juicy sweet, sometimes candied fruit. Vintage Ports are often seen as the premier category of Port and are made from the best grapes grown in the best vineyards and are from a single year. Vintages are declared only when the Port Houses feel the conditions are right, and it is up to the individual shipper to decide whether to declare, with the decision made in the spring of the second year after harvest.  Vintage Ports are only aged about two years in cask and then complete their maturation in the bottle over many years. They are deeper, darker and concentrated, black purple when young. They have the ability to age and improve for decades and often only truly come into their own after 20 years or more. When young, they can be fierce and sometimes peppery, tannic and spirity, albeit still sweet, evolving towards ruby and garnet in color as they reach maturity, softening and becoming fine, elegant and complex with time. Vintage Port has true cork, requiring a cork screw to remove. As they have aged primarily in the bottle, they can have quite a heavy deposit of sediment and need decanting. While they stay fresh a bit longer than most unfortified wines, they should be consumed within several days of opening. Single Quinta Ports are Vintage Ports from one single property or estate, whereas a Vintage Port may be a blend of many Quintas. They are often made when a Vintage is not declared, and while they have the same characteristics of Vintage, they sometimes are earlier maturing. They are usually a little less expensive than Vintage, and these include Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos for example, and have the name of the Shipper and the Quinta on the label. 
Late Bottled Vintage are Ruby Ports that have been in cask longer than Vintage and shorter than most Tawny, between two and four years. Somewhat of a hybrid, they come in two styles, filtered and unfiltered.  They fill a need for Ports with the characteristics of a Vintage Port but without the need for many years of aging in bottle. The filtered LBV’s are similar to Tawny as they are ready to drink on release, have stopper corks and do not throw sediment. The unfiltered LBV’s, called “Traditional Late Bottled” until the laws changed in 2002 are now referred to as “Bottle Matured” or “Unfiltered” to distinguish them. This style is closer to Vintage in style, throws sediment, will age in bottle, needs a corkscrew to open and should be drunk within several days of opening. These are often the best value in Ruby style and can be very similar to a good, mature Vintage at a fraction of the price.
Crusted Ports, not often seen in the US and are more common in Great Britain, are akin to a Late Bottled Unfiltered but are from several vintages. They have true cork closure, throw sediment and do age in the bottle, and need decanting like Vintage Port, however the shipper often holds them until they’re ready to drink.
Cask aged Ports are pretty much ready to drink on release and since they have a stopper do not need to be stored on their side. Bottle aged Ports and Vintage Ports are stored like any other wine, on their side to keep the cork moist, cool, dark and no vibration or temperature fluctuations. Port is typically served after dinner with a selection of cheeses, Stilton or similar blue one of the best options, some crusty French bread, fresh pears and apples, dried fruits and an assortment of nuts are perfect matches. Chocolate is a great match too, and of course Port is perfect post dessert with a great cigar.
Tradition has it that Port is always passed to the left, with the host first serving the guest on the right and then passing to his left (his port-side in nautical jargon), with the process continuing in turn until everyone has been served, without the Port being set down on the way around. In one version if the Port stops, it is seen as impolite to ask for it, rather one asks the person closest to the decanter if he knows the Bishop of Canterbury (any town in England will do). This is obviously not done to get an answer, but as a gentle reminder to pass the Port. If the reply is “no”, then the next comment is “well the Bishop is certainly a very good fellow, but he never passes the Port” which in turn prods the person who is holding thing up to realize they have hogged the Port. 
To View our selection of Port visit us online at 56 Degree Wine - Cheers