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Napa Valley Vinter’s Wine Academy – in the trenches

The Napa Valley Vintner’s Wine Academy is a significant wine event held annually at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, the heart of California’s wine country.

Having been invited to attend afforded an opportunity to meet a “who’s who” list of wine experts, leaps in learning and of course a reason to taste many exceptional Napa Valley wines.

A highlight of the week was a day spent in a vineyard during the harvesting of grapes. The names of those attending the academy were matched, by random drawing, with a Napa Valley winemaker. I was first out the door, paired with one of the regions recognized winemakers, Kristen Belair of Honig Winery. What would be an ordinary day for her would be a memorable event for me.

The grapes at Honig vineyards teetered between waiting and being ready to pick. It’s a   balancing act dependent on the specifics of each vineyard. For instance, one vineyard may get more sunshine than another or the direction in which the vines are planted may afford faster ripening. While one vineyard may be ready, another may be a week behind, and the winemaker must await Mother Nature’s perfection.

So, being in the trenches with a busy winemaker in the midst of harvesting decisions was a true educational experience.

During harvest time, you often hear the word “brix.” To many, it is just another wine word. Brix is the term for the method of measuring “must” weight and thereby potential alcohol, or basically, when the grape reaches a certain sugar level and is ready to harvest. To test for ripeness, single grapes are picked at random throughout the vineyard. The lab at the winery will make the final decision about the picking time.

The remainder of the day was filled with lab work, tank tastings, testing’s and ended with a delightful long, leisurely lunch — a day any wine writer would look forward to experiencing again and again.

Roosters and Chianti wines

I am taking notes furiously and can’t wait to share them from this trip.   A fun piece of wine trivia to get us started is about the “black rooster” on labels from the Chianti Classico wines.  I was always told the practical and political reasons behind the labeling but loved hearing the legend from the poised accent of an Italian winemaker.

In the middle ages, when the republics of Florence and Siena were fiercely battling for territory between Chianti they constructed a bizarre method to end this continuous conflict.  It was agreed that two knights would set out from their respective cities and establish the border where they would meet.  Departure was to be at dawn and the starting signal given by a cock’s crow.  A coherent decision at the time, when daily rhythms were still paced by natural phenomena.  And so the choice of rooster would be more decisive to event preparations than either knight or steed.  The Sienese chose a white one, the Florentines a black, which they kept in a pen in the dark with no food for days, where the poor thing obviously was in a panic.

On the fateful day of departure, as soon as the black rooster was released from its prison it began to crow, long before dawn.  Its crowing allowed the Florentine knight the advantage to depart immediately while the Sienese had to wait until dawn when his white rooster would crow signaling his departure.   He only rode about 7 ½ miles before meeting the Florentine knight very quickly.

It was because of the black rooster legend all of Chianti came under the control of the Florentine republic… and of course a well told story behind the emblem of the black rooster on Chianti Classico labels.

Ask a wine expert about Italy

Today, I am sitting in Italy typing my blog, embarking on a wine journey because of something I read a year ago. It was Matt Kramer’s Wine Spectator column, Are you Afraid of Italian Wines? A shocking confession: Even the experts find the country’s wines daunting.  Why I’m here is because I agree.

The columns focus is around he and a fellow wine writer talking shop.  When the conversation leads to a very blunt and truthful statement by his friend and an agreement by most of the wine drinkers in the world including myself.  “ I’m afraid of Italian wines.  It’s not that I don’t’ like them,” he said.  “It’s just that they’re so damned complicated.  When I first started with wine, everybody told me how difficult Burgundy is how mastering Burgundy could be a life’s work.  I’ll tell you one thing: Burgundy is a breeze compared to Italian wines. “  He continued with, “Italian wines seem chaotic. I hate it when I get handed the wine list in an Italian resturant, I’m supposed to know all this stuff about wine, but it’s any kind of extensive Italian wine list I’m lost. . I’m clueless.  That’s why I’m afraid of Italian wines.”

So, thus sets out my journey in Italy to better grasp just one region at a time.  I will begin this chaos deciphering in Chianti and will offer cliff notes along the way.

Best kept secret in Spain

Unbelievable!  I have been in love with the story of Sherry for years only by reading about it in books or classes and lectures.  Today, I went to Osborne’s bodega in Spain.  Just the tiny corridors of the streets of Jerez and the secret compound of the Estate had me excited before I even made it to my appointment.

Walking into the barrel room surrounded by hundreds of Sherry casks laying quietly in the sacred Solera system mesmerized and confirmed why I have such a passion for wine. I know it sounds like a romance … but truly is why I love wines.  Maria was so patient with a barrage of questions that may have been random to her but so real while I was standing in the solera room …  angel share, yeast, 100-year-old wine … more later on my bumbling of questions.  Can’t wait to share the tasting!


Clash of the Sensories

Bratwursts were the meat of choice for us this past holiday weekend and a few sides to make them even tastier.  All was going exceedingly well until the clash of the sensories!

Not sure where to lay the blame, but I am almost positive it was with the kraut and the sauvignon blanc.  I’m not sure sauerkraut pairs heavenly with any wine,  but I will definitely explore this a bit closer on our next bratwurst grilling adventure.

Let me know if you have any thoughts.

Double gold from way down under

The results are soon to be posted for the Professional Wine Buyer’s Competition, but I thought we should take a sneak peak.

Searching out stellar wine values has always been my mission, so with 400 wines in the competition and prices across the board; I knew it would be long day of stained teeth and aching gums.  Not talked about many tasters, but for me crucial to any social interaction following these events.  When you taste 40-60–100 wines throughout a few days, your teeth and gums take a beating.  I usually leave with black teeth and a paranoia of drinking anything extra hot or cold.

As judges, we tasted blind (not a blind fold… just did not know the producers).  The wines were scored Bronze, Silver or Gold and the extraordinary Double Gold.

Awarding a double gold was not an easy task for any of the judging panels.  Not that we were a tough crowd, but knowing our collective scores would be compiled into a list of awarded wines and handed on to you the consumer to decide for yourself.  My panel only awarded one the entire competition, the 2009 Crossroads Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

I think all buyers are looking for a wine they would recommend to a friend because it taste great and is a great value for your money.  This wine delivered both and had all of the benchmark qualities you would expect from a well-made New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

For final results go to the Professional Wine Buyers Competition website.