There is no other way to start this column other than to say my heart aches for the many people affected by the devastating fires in Northern California’s wine regions. I have been on the phone over the past several weeks touching base with some of my dearest friends, in not only business discussions but to offer my personal condolences on the sheer devastation and destruction they have endured. Our conversations quickly turned not to the devastation of the wines but to the loss of lives.
The vineyards will recover in time, but the loss of life is forever.
From all accounts, the immediate implications of the devastation are still being assessed, but in no way is this vintage — or the wine regions we have revered for decades — doomed. Many wineries in this region had almost 90 percent of their grapes harvested and some already in vats in the winery.
Most readers have questioned the effect smoke has on grapes and a finished wine. The industry refers to this as “smoke taint,” the result of smoke seeping into the pores of grape skins and grapevine leaves and becoming present in the juice. This generally shows up later in smoky or ashy wine aromas and taste of bitter, smoky and charred flavors. Smoke has affected vineyards as recently as the 2008 vintage in Mendocino and northern Sonoma where forest fires in Mendocino cast an eight-day smog of smoke over many vineyards.
A recent bulletin from the University of California Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology offered a wealth of information on this subject. The grapes can’t simply be washed to remove the smoke. Washing grapes will remove the ash left by the fires from the exteriors but the compounds causing smoke taint are already inside the grapes. However, there are methods used to remove these smoke-derived compounds. One is reverse osmosis, a form of membrane filtration that can remove these compounds. But the UC Davis bulletin states that over time the taint may return because some of the smoke’s effects are temporarily bound up in the chemistry of the wine but can be released as the wine ages. Many experts in the industry believe this unlikely, as this method has improved dramatically over the last years and is a viable option. But, with much of the harvest in before the smoke covered vineyards, smoke taint is a risk for a small percentage. Numerous studies confirm that smoke taint does not linger in the grapevines and will not affect the quality of future harvests.
Here in Arkansas we may feel as if we’re too far away to help in the recovery, but one thing we can all do is simple: Buy Northern California wines with confidence in the resiliency of these communities that in their words, “are only stronger” and keep their devastation and recovery in our thoughts.
Note: Wildfires have ravaged California’s wine country in recent weeks. I want to have all of the facts before I write about it. It’s still too soon to say how the fires will affect wine production. The good news is most of the winemakers I’ve talked with had harvested about 90 percent of their grapes before the fires.
When I meet winery owners I am always listening for the story behind their wines. Over lunch with owner Tom Gamble of Napa Valley’s Gamble Family Vineyard, his unique story resonated with me when he said, “I’m a farmer first.”
(My own family is rooted in Arkansas agriculture, which was the seed for my adventurous passion for wine study.)
Gamble’s story confirmed one of my firm beliefs: The essence of a great wine starts with the guiding hand of agriculture.
In 1916, Gamble’s grandfather Launcelot Gamble first began cattle ranching and growing crops in Napa County. He passed not only his land but his fervor to his sons, Launce and George (Tom’s father.) As a third-generation Napa Valley farmer, Tom bought his first vineyard in 1981, taking on the task of farming some of the valley’s most sought-after grapes. The meticulous detail to agriculture and respected farming practices resulted in the opportunity to sell his grapes to vintners.
More than 20 years later, Tom founded Gamble Family Vineyards with the goal of producing wines that express the epitome of grapes coming from the distinct Napa Valley terroir. His shift from farming grapes to bottling his own wines was not an easy decision, “I didn’t know much about winemaking or wine sales, but I knew I had the land to work with.”
Tom practices a holistic approach to farming and winemaking focusing on the specific soil and climate of the Napa Valley. His wineries are certified Napa Green and Fish Friendly. With over 175 acres of grapes growing in some of the most sought-after regions (Oakville, Mount Veeder, Rutherford and Yountville) his grapes come to the winery ready to be made into astounding wines.
As we sampled his wines I could taste his commitment to his craft.
- 2016 Gamble Family Vineyards Rose, California (about $22 retail)
- 2012 Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Proprietary Blend, California (about $90 retail)
Many years ago, I was given a bottle of wine that sparked my greatest wine dream: my own private wine cellar. A cellar designed with bottles lining a dark romantic room. Wines waiting among the spider webs while time works its magic. If you are fortunate enough to realize this idealistic cellar it is a significant achievement, but do we need a space in our homes to allow decades of wine aging?
One of the main reasons we buy wines to age is a simple case of supply and demand. If you let the producer, broker or wine shop store the aging wine, generally, it will cost more. Many wines in the past were produced with characteristics that needed time to mellow out and soften.
But the reality is most wines do not improve with age. Almost 98 percent of wine produced today is meant to be consumed fresh, with a shelf life of 3 to 5 years.
What makes today’s wines so different from those romantic stories of pulling out a 30-year-old Bordeaux or Burgundy that has finally reached its prime? A lot. One hundred years ago, grapes were hand harvested and put into baskets and thrown into open vats at the winery in hope Mother Nature would control the temperature and it would eventually become a fine wine.
Today, with dramatic changes in grape harvesting and winery technology, wines are crafted with more precision. Starting with the harvest of uniformly ripe grapes. Perhaps the largest impact is from “green harvesting.” A green harvest is when, a month or so before the actual harvest date, less ripe clusters of grapes are “dropped” or “eliminated.” These unwanted clusters are literally cut and dropped on the ground, allowing the vines to divert more energy on the riper grapes. Green harvesting has transformed the quality of modern fine red wines throughout the world offering the consumer a softer, finer tannin structure.
Advances in technology are allowing winemakers to pay meticulous attention to fermentation methods, timing of skin contact on the wine, temperature control, filtering and the use of small oak barrels. Each of these techniques makes red wines more approachable to drink with more integrated tannic structure.
I know some of you may be thinking, “but what about my classic Brunello or Barolos?” Those wines are the exception. But for the rest of us, those millions of other bottles lining retail shelves are ready to drink now and don’t require the coveted cellar space.
The conclusion: Unless you have strategically collected bottles intended for aging, it may be time to take stock of your collection and enjoy those bottles in the present.
Generally, this time of year my menu shifts from lighter foods (fresh vegetables, grilled chicken and fish) to robust comfort foods (pot roast, braises and chili), but I am learning more and more readers continue to seek out foolproof seafood and wine pairings, even as the weather cools.
I’ve scoured through my notes, revisited a few test pairings myself and hope these selections will make for an easy wine shopping list. Also, keeping with your requests, this week I recommended only values under $20.
ALBARINO AND PAELLA
The albarino grape could easily become your wine choice for any seafood and any preparation method. Paella generally has a mix of mussels, shrimp, clams, lobster and even meatier versions with chorizo. This grape, with its refreshing light-bodied crisp acidity, simply complements and does not overwhelm the seafood’s flavors as do many other wines.
- 2016 La Cana Albarino, Spain (about $17 retail)
CHARDONNAY AND LOBSTER
Lobster is often a splurge, but chardonnay, hands down, pairs superbly with this exceptional seafood. This match works because of the delicious simplicity in cooking preparations. Lobster is usually steamed or grilled and served with melted butter and a splash of lemon. It’s these flavors setting up chardonnay as its pairing companion. If we consider the palate profile of most chardonnays, whether from Burgundy, Australia or California they will have citrus notes. This can be lemon, lime and sometimes grapefruit. Adding to the pairing combination is many chardonnays spend some time in oak, bringing out a rich buttery note to the wine. This also is a component offering the ideal pairing of the buttery dipping or cream based sauces.
- 2016 Imagery Winery Chardonnay, California (about $16 retail )
PINOT NOIR AND SALMON
White wine may be the go-to for fish, but salmon and pinot noir share a divine food pairing relationship. I have attempted many pairings with salmon with different cooking variations. The ones matching best with pinot noir are those with a savory-sweet glaze, grilled and smoked. Lighter bodied pinot noir has just enough acidity to add a burst of flavor to complement the bold salty fishy notes. The only salmon preparation I have found in my notes with a minuscule conflict are those prepared with extreme spice and chile-heat.
- 2016 A to Z Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $15 retail)
SAUVIGNON BLANC AND CRAB
Dungeness crab has a succulent fresh sweetness and pairs best with higher acidity white wines. The key is not to overwhelm the rich delicate flavor of the meat. Whether the crab is steamed or roasted, sauvignon blanc doesn’t take over and matches perfectly.
- 2015 American Thread Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $19 retail)
It’s one of my favorite events of the year: the Festival of Wines benefiting the American Heart Association.
This year’s event, Festival of Wines: Cocktails & Cuisines, will take place Thursday at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/festwine2017.
I always look at large tasting events as an opportunity to sample and explore many wines in a short amount of time. But the key words to keep in mind are “countless wines” and a “short amount of time.” So, how do you make the most of it without over imbibing? Spit and spit often. Spitting is part of the tasting experience. If you drink the full amount of each tasting, you’ll be intoxicated long before you’ve even made a dent in all the wines there are to explore. If your intention is to try as many new wines as possible, and assess them, use this rule.
A large tasting event such as the Festival of Wines can be a bit overwhelming. When you arrive take a quick look at the event handout. Are there any regions, grape varietals or producers you’re especially interested in? Find these tables first to make the best use of your time.
Take simple tasting notes and don’t worry with long narrative comments. I will use my event brochure and scribble in smiley faces on my favorites, question marks on wines I want to consider tasting later and then of course a quick photo with my phone for those I want to remember and buy in the future.
This year I got a sneak peek of the wine offerings and this is just a sampling of the many worth searching out for a quick taste.
- 2016 Voga Friuli Grave Pinot Grigio, Italy (about $10 retail)
- 2016 Gassier Sables D’Azur Rose, France (about $15 retail)
- 2016 Turtle Bay Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Don Rodolfo Tannat, Argentina (about $11 retail)
- 2015 Llama Malbec, Argentina (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Rabble Red Blend, California (about $15 retail)
- NV Zonin Prosecco, Italy (about $15 retail)
- 2014 Alexander Valley Vineyards Temptation Zin, California (about $12 retail)
- 2015 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel, California (about $21 retail)
- 2015 Seven Hills Walla Walla Red, Washington (about $36 retail)
- 2015 Rutherford Ranch Merlot, California (about $18 retail)
- 2015 Predator Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $16 retail)
- 2016 Niner Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $21 retail)
- NV Chandon Blanc De Noir, California (about $17 retail)
- 2014 Tooth and Nail The Possessor, California (about $30 retail)
- 2015 Stasis Chardonnay, California (about $36 retail)
- 2015 Chateau Du Caillau Cahors, France (about $16 retail)
- 2014 Round Pond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $59 retail)
- a rock ‘n’ roll star or celebrity.
- a star or celebrity in any field or profession, or anything highly admired: TV chefs are the new rock stars.
There is something that occurs when winemaker Anthony Bell visits our state. There’s no other way to explain it other than there’s an excitement in the air.
Some are eager to hear of his Napa Valley adventures, and for others, like me, it’s the chance to see a longtime friend.
At a tasting event with Bell recently, I watched him visit with guests in his humble, soft-spoken manner. Likely few people there knew how he has influenced the business.
Bell’s early career sometimes goes unnoticed because of our appreciation of his current wines’ stellar status. But it was in those early years that Bell contributed to and helped mold what most consider today’s Napa Valley wine culture. In 1979, Bell joined Beaulieu Vineyards as assistant winemaker and viticulturist. He was responsible for Beaulieu Vineyards’ extraordinary and iconic Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet for 15 vintages. During his time at Beaulieu, he became involved in many projects, from the creation of the Los Carneors American Viticultural Area to collaboration on the Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville appellations (areas where wine grapes are grown).
During the 1980s, Bell began designing the first Cabernet clonal evolutions studies. During this time, he introduced the Bordeaux Clone 6 cabernet sauvignon to commercial production after almost 100 years of neglect. The clone was found in an abandoned University of California vineyard. This aspect of his career would lead to years of producing Napa Valley’s first single vineyard, single clone Cabernet Sauvignon, Clone 6 in 1991.
As I continue to enjoy Bell Red Blend as my go-to wine and Clone 6 on most special occasions, Bell will always be one of my favorite winemakers and, of course, a dear friend.
- 2015 Bell Red Blend, California (about $17 retail)
- 2016 Bell Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $17 retail)
- 2014 Bell Syrah Canterbury Vineyards, California (about $28 retail)
- 2014 Bell Yountville Merlot, California (about $46 retail)