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And the Pulitzer for best wine descriptions goes to…

And the Pulitzer for best wine descriptions goes to…

dirty rowdy wine
What is the point of a wine description from a winemaker? Is it to tell you what you might expect to taste in a wine? What berries are on the nose? What farm animals might be sensed in the mid-palate? Is it to make sure you know what expectations the wine will conform to – the fact that it is indeed a wood-bearing monster Napa cult cab, or a petrol-laden but crystal-pure Mosel? Or is it to convey something of the wine’s soul… the spark of light that lives inside it… the joy it brings to the folks who made it and those they hope will enjoy it?

In my inbox the other day was this verse, describing a California mourvedre:

Evening echoes of Curtis Mayfield, Fela Kuti, Del The Funkee Homosapien, Daft Punk – and whoever just put on “Let it Whip” by the Dazz band is a saint! At the end of the night, this is the bottle you will be holding by the neck when you try to pinpoint the time in the evening that the dinner party become a dance party!

It isn’t so much a wine description in the typical sense of the term as it is a short story. A poem. A battle cry. A Ken Kesey koan. Does it adequately describe the wine? Well, it manages to tell you practically nothing yet possibly everything about what a bottle of that California mourvedre will do to you. So, yes, it describes it exceedingly well.

The words were written by Hardy Wallace, winemaker at Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery, on the topic of the winery’s 2015 California “Familiar Mourvedre. If there were a Pulitzer for wine descriptions, he would deserve one. A James Beard? That, too. Heck, give the guy a Nobel prize because these are words that offer the potential to bring peace to the world and enlightenment to the ages.

Hardy was been waxing wonderfully on the topic of wine ever since I met him about a decade ago in Atlanta. Back then he had a blog called DIRTY SOUTH WINE, which can still be found archived somewhere on the internets if you know where to look. A typical post read something like the following, on the topic of Savennières, which Hardy wrote in 2009:

There is something about the aging, speed freak, Karate choppin’, Elvis –  It’s the incredible energy combined with quick circular hand motions, an occasional kick, a bedazzled cape, and a runaway train of a band just burning down the track.  It gets you charged and riled up.  But now imagine something challenging, perhaps a little bizarre, and stankingly awesome (like Glen Velez and Lori Cotler) that transports your inner Cornholio to the same place.  This is Savennières.  The stony, freak show, of a delicious wine that unapologetically meets more foes than friends. 

You can see the path, right? From aging, speed freak, Karate chopping’ Elvis to conferring sainthood on whomever it was that elected to play “Let It Whip” alongside a bottle of juicy mourvedre? Yes, Hardy digs pop culture references, especially those of the musical variety, because they convey a lot more than simple sandalwood-this or sous-bois-that. They tap into our collective memories, our joy, our deep down desire for funk.

Here’s another Hardy gem from their recent fall release, which manages to pull in some musical notes, but also goes deeper on the actual soil and place the wine came from, not to mention offering guidance on the ever-engaging ; ) topic of drinking windows:

The vinous soundtrack to all night 70’s ski lodge parties. Heady wafts of pure fruit, dried raspberry, crushed granite, and mountain air. Groove is in the heart. It is medium bodied, and filled with high elevation flash and fruit. It will evolve and continue to improve, but the pleasure seeker in you will say I want it NOW! Just go easy. Though there is something here today, there is so much more to come from this wine. (2015 Skinner Stoney Creek Mourvèdre, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills)

dirty rowdy wineNow the thing is, if it were typical plonk that Hardy was hawking, these exuberant missives would fall ferociously flat. It would be like Trump saying, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” Absurd. But have you had any of the Dirty & Rowdy wines? Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, maybe it’s the eclectic soil and non-invasive techniques Hardy employs, maybe it’s simply voodoo magic… but they really do live up to Hardy’s crazy beautiful wine descriptions.

So when you read that the 2014 Antle Vineyard Mourvèdre, Chalone AVA, Monterey County, offers “chaparral, arid winds, and natural monoliths worshipped by ancient civilizations and avid rock climbers (Antle Vineyard sits less than 1 mile from the entrance of Pinnacles National Park),” you’ll surely get a feeling for where the wine will take you.

Or, in the case of the 2015 Rosewood Vineyard Old Vines Mourvèdre, Redwood Valley, Mendocino County… “in an alternate dimension, this is Evel Knievel daydreaming his last great ride. It is stars and stripes, canyons, rocket bikes, pyrotechnics, hootin’ and hollerin’- But beyond the showtime splendor, deep down there is meaning, clarity, and a Rocky like message in never giving up the fight… a deep long finish, bids a tearful and loving fare thee well to the crowd.

Of the 2015 Evangelho Vineyard Mourvedre, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills, Hardy simply quotes The Mighty Clouds of Joy gospel group – “Take a load off your mind, Ride the mighty glory, Listen to my story, Ride the mighty high” before concluding, “this one is pretty good.” And, based on the words and wines of Hardy Wallace, I’m inclined to agree. Give the man a prize.

Georgia Wine, American Wine

Georgia Wine, American Wine

Wolf Mountain Vineyards Wine

Last night I drank some Georgia wine, and I’ve got good news and bad news for you about it. The good news is that the wine, from Wolf Mountain Vineyards outside Dahlonega, was darn good stuff – a crisp, floral, grapefruity blend of chardonnay and viogner. The bad news? It’s not really Georgia wine. At least not if you focus on where the grapes came from. The label simply says, “American Dry White Wine.” Based on that label, the grapes that went into it could have come from New Mexico, or North Dakota, or New York City. I love America, but designating a wine as just “American” feels a little… lost. That lost feeling led me looking for answers about the state of Georgia’s wine industry.

Winemaking is not easy. Winemaking in Georgia? Even not-er easy. One of Georgia’s most well respected grower/winemakers shut down earlier this year after repeated losses, due to the impact of our admittedly erratic climate. I reached out to Wolf Mountain’s winemaker and vineyard manager, Brannon Boegner, to get his thoughts. He said that, “over the past 13 years of making wine in Georgia, we’ve experienced ‘acts of mother nature” four times which have caused us to lose our entire crop.” Now, Georgia is not alone in this depressing fact – “acts of nature” have had major negative impact in places ranging from Washington State to Bordeaux and Burgundy – but our track record here is not reassuring.

Wolf Mountain VineyardsIs it possible Georgia is just not meant to be a rich and reliable wine growing region? Whatever the case, Georgia winemakers and growers continue to soldier on against the adversity of mother nature. And you have to respect their tenacity.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards is one Georgia winery that has done well. They make award-winning wines (“over 100 medals in major U.S. competitions, including Georgia’s first ever Gold medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles International Wine Competition”). They have a beautiful winery/tasting room/café/event space in the north Georgia mountains, and they consistently see more demand for their wine from winery foot traffic alone than what they can possibly supply. And maybe that’s part of the problem. The need to balance both the supply side of making wine and the demand side of being a successful winery. Is it possible Georgia wineries like Wolf Mountain are TOO successful??

Better yet, does it really matter if the wine sold in Georgia wineries takes advantage of the excess of wine grapes being produced in the fertile soil of California? I bet you’re saying, “heck yeah,” but think about this… do breweries in Georgia use 100% local hops? Do they use even 1% local hops? Would you expect a Georgia distillery making vodka or gin or whiskey to use only Georgia-grown grains? I bet your answers to those last three questions are NO, NO, and NO. So why does it matter if a Georgia winery brings in some California (or New York, or New Mexico, or Idaho) grapes?

Of course, wine is known for its sense of place – its terroir – much more so than those other beverages mentioned above. For the folks who are willing to spend $20 and more for a bottle of wine, it’s often not enough to know that a wine came from California, nor even that it came from Napa Valley, but that it came from a sub-appelation like Howell Mountain, or even a specific vineyard situated ON Howell Mountain. Wine geeks geek out over individual vineyards. In Burgundy, it frequently gets down to which specific rows at a particular elevation on a particular hillside are used for a particular wine. THAT is what “terroir” is all about – how those minute distinctions in the soil can translate into differences in the bottle.

Which brings us back to the problem of a $20 bottle of “American” wine that comes from a winery in the lovely, rolling hills outside Dahlonega, Georgia. We CRAVE the local. We ROOT FOR the local. And when our local wine, our Georgia wine, is made from non-Georgia grapes, there’s a natural tendency to feel that we’re being (at least a little bit) hoodwinked. Especially if you’re only looking at labels and not digging into the background of what’s really going on.

Wolf Mountain’s Boegner noted that, in Georgia, the “white grape cultivars are especially susceptible to freezes or frosts which can wipe out an entire vintage.” Their solution has been traveling out to California to team up with growers in regions ranging from the Russian River Valley, to Mendocino, to the Sierra Foothills. Clearly, Wolf Mountain does not take this task lightly. Boegner went on, “I travel to these vineyards to talk with the managers and establish a relationship in which they grow the grapes to our specifications. All grapes are delivered to Wolf Mountain and the wines are produced here.” Wolf Mountain also joined up with nearby Frogtown Cellars to form the Georgia Fine Wine Alliance. While Wolf Mountain has focused their vineyards on red cultivars, they rely on Frogtown to provide Georgia-grown white grapes, at least when available.

Wolf Mountain and Frogtown also aim to follow a strict truth in labeling policy of only labeling wine as “Georgia” wine when 100% Georgia grapes are used. Legally, winemakers can go up to 25% from out of state before they have to change that Georgia label, so this is a much stricter practice than what is legally required. Very few Georgia wineries are following this practice now – blending in out of state grapes is common practice, though not commonly made clear.

So, back to that bottle of Wolf Mountain Plenitude I mentioned at the outset. For the 2012 vintage, Boegner used a blend of Russian River (California) chardonnay and Mendocino (also California) viognier. This is basically well pedigreed California wine being made here in Georgia, by a Georgia winemaker. Why no Georgia grapes in the mix? Boegner said the 2012 vintage from their Georgia partner, Frogtown Cellars, was wiped out by a freeze. But, Boegner went on to note that his “decision to bring in fruit fluctuates from year to year based on growing conditions and availability.”

To that point, in 2011, Wolf Mountain’s Plenitude was made with 100% Georgia-grown grapes. And it received a 90 point rating and a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. Not too shabby. Wolf Mountain is purposefully labeling their wines as either 100% Georgia, else 100% American,  “keeping the two product lines distinctively separate.” I admire the stance. At the same time, I’m a little bothered by the fact that Plenitude’s label reads, “our Family Estate represents the ultimate North Georgia Wine & Food Experience.” Sure, it’s marketing speak, but surely the ultimate North Georgia wine experience involves wine made from grapes grown in North Georgia. Am I being too nit-picky?

Noted Atlanta sommelier Steven Grubbs (of Empire State South) was the one who recommended Wolf Mountain’s Plenitude to me. He recently took a trip through Southern wine regions, visiting Wolf Mountain and a few other Georgia wineries before heading on into the Carolinas and Virginia. He enjoyed the Georgia wines, but noted that he was “disappointed” by the news that the wineries were supplementing their own grapes with California fruit. Some, like Doug Paul of Three Sisters, another Dahlonega area winery, say they  simply refuse to make wine from grapes grown outside Georgia. That’s one way of approaching the issue, and probably the more stubbornly Georgia way to do it. But it’s not necessarily the path to the best wine, or the best winery experience for visitors.

Back at Wolf Mountain, it’s evident that the Boegners are both dedicated winemakers and smart businesspeople. I know they’re committed to the cause of Georgia wine. They’ve calculated what it takes to make very good wine, hopefully at a profit, that will keep the crowds driving up into the Dahlonega hills for a taste of wine country. I just wish our Georgia climate were more conducive to their endeavors. I wish that our Georgia wineries were not just places that make wine IN Georgia. I want them to be places that make wine OF Georgia. And I really wish they could succeed in doing so. But I’m just not sure that’s the case – at least on a year in and year out basis. I guess that’s the bad news. But when you’re up in the hills outside Dahlonega, enjoying a delicious wine made in the very same winery who’s offering you this sweeping view, maybe that bad news is not so bad after all. At that point, being “American” feels like a fine place to be.

IMG_2495Tasting Notes:
Wolf Mountain Vineyards, Plenitude
American Dry White Wine, 2012
13.8% Alc. by Volume
Approx. $20 Retail (available at Whole Foods in Atlanta or from the winery)

“Plenitude” is a blend of chardonnay and viognier, fermented and aged in stainless steel, with whole cluster pressing. The nose is lightly floral and grapefruity, a bit of cantaloupe too, with a lightly herbal edge (is that oregano?). I’d probably peg it as sauvignon blanc, but you can pick up both the chardonnay and viognier pretty well if you think about it.

This has nice body to it, a bit lush, but the stainless steel fermentation keeps it crisp. The acidity is bright, not quite sharp, but very present. Grapefruit again is most prominent. It’s got great balance between that acidity and the round floral notes and the fruit. Very enjoyable stuff. And 100% American. Made right here in Georgia.

Georgia’s BlackStock Winery Shuts Down

Georgia’s BlackStock Winery Shuts Down

There was sad news yesterday from one of Georgia’s pioneering winemakers – David Harris emailed friends and posted to Facebook that he is closing BlackStock Vineyards and Winery. The reasons cited included “repeated crop losses due to the exceptionally warm winters.” An inconvenient truth, indeed. Harris worked tirelessly over nearly two decades to grow great grapes and make great wine in north Georgia, and he met with a good deal of success until this recent turn of events.

While dealing with weather difficulties is nothing new for growers, there’s an increasing recognition that climate change will be a major concern for wine growers the world over (just Google “climate change and wine” and read the litany of news articles). Seeing warmer winters driving out one of the leaders of Georgia’s young wine industry, though, is truly sobering. Many Georgia winemakers are relying on bringing in grapes from other regions, which may fill the bottles but also undermines hope that Georgia can actually grow worthy grapes.

BlackStock earned many awards for their wines over the years, with a range of merlots and viognier in particular that were among the best Georgia wines made (and which I’ve personally enjoyed very much). BlackStock has also been one of the few Georgia wines readily available at retail in Atlanta.

Here’s the full text of Harris’ letter posted to Facebook:

Dear Friends of Blackstock,

I am very saddened to inform you that we are closing the vineyards and winery at Blackstock. It has been a wonderful experience to get to know all of you and be a source of relaxation, fun times and great pleasure, through hosting you at the vineyard and providing wines for your table. In the end, we have suffered from repeated crop losses due to the exceptionally warm winters and the early bud-break dates. This has resulted in normal frost dates having a devastating effect to our crop. We have also felt the sting from selling fruit in a soft economy and the importation of grapes and wine into Georgia wineries, eroding our market when the crop was plentiful.

I had a wonderful dream and lived it for 17 years, but while pages turn and chapters close, beautiful memories were made in this exceptional setting that will not soon fade, and I must thank you all for being a part of that story. I am especially thankful to our small group of “angel” investors, several of whom have passed away now. This was a very classy group of individuals who shared my vision and dream and saw it come to fruition in every aesthetic way, I am just sorry that we couldn’t make it sustainable.

While, in many ways, our fate was sealed on April 12th, I have been through every scenario imaginable to try to survive, but have also been through the roughest part of the reality emotionally. I have realized that some of our most passionate patrons are going to have a sense of shock and true grieving and, for them, please do not hesitate to reach out by email, FB, or text. I truly hope someone ends up continuing operations here after I have moved on.

Personally, I have been blessed with another opportunity for which I am passionate and thankful. Unfortunately, it is going to take me away from Georgia. I will miss my many friends made at Blackstock, but hope to stay in touch. Here’s to a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all!

Sincerely,
David A. Harris

Georgia Wine Country

Drinking New York City

Drinking New York City

I get to New York about once a year on average. I make lists each time. Bars, restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops. Places I just have to hit. It’s always a blend of the old and new – I lived there many years ago and still have to hit some favorites each time I go back. And I usually make it through only a small portion of “the list,” defeated by human limitations on time and consumption. And, of course, walking the streets of New York, there are always places that were never on the list that end up beckoning you in.

Cocktails at Mayahuel

For cocktails this trip, I ended up hitting PDT and Mayahuel and Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar (which also has an incredible wine list), and had time to walk in and check out Death and Company but not enough time to actually get a drink (bummer! this was at the top of my list but just didn’t work out). Other places I had really hoped to hit were The Beagle, Amor y Amargo, Booker & Dax, and Employees Only. Amazingly, The Beagle, PDT, Death and Company, and Mayahuel are all in an area about four blocks square in the East Village. That would be some cocktail crawl. Another time.

Mayahuel rocked. Thanks to some local Atlanta bartender friends who insisted I go there; I had never heard of it. Mayahuel focuses on tequila and mezcal, and does tremendously well with those spirits and a number of infusions and interesting flavor plays. There was the “Slight Detour,” with a jalapeno-infused tequila, reposado tequila and mezcal, agave nectar, and Xocolatl mole bitters. And there was something else… I can’t recall thanks to the tequila and mezcal. It’s a cool little underground space, an intimate bar with good things going on.

Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar was one of those places I just happened upon, another tiny little space that seats about 15 people max. I know the Blue Ribbon folks do just about everything well, so was confident that we’d find something good there. There were oysters, champagne, and deviled eggs, and then a cocktail involving gin and cucumber that was bright (naturally) green and tremendously interesting and complex. I just wish I could have done a few wine flights here as well.

The Bear at PDT

And the heralded PDT? Let’s just say I’m over the whole speakeasy-enter-through-a-secret-door thing, and I’m also kinda over gimmicks like bacon-infused bourbon. PDT has been doing this particular drink (the Bacon Old Fashioned) for more than four years now, but it seems people won’t let them take it off the menu. I may not love bacon-infused bourbon, but, luckily, I do love stuffed bears.

The only beer stop on the trip was Birreria, the rooftop bar at Eataly. The rotation of three house-brewed beers here are a co-production of Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Italian brewers Baladin and Del Borgo, but I was really disappointed in them (despite being a fan of Dogfish Head in general). All three are unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales. All sounded interesting – there was a witbier brewed with coriander and peppercorns, a chestnut ale, and a thyme pale ale. But none met the mark, more due to the beer lacking character than the presence of the flavoring elements. Service was equally disappointing.

Coffee? Holy smokes, it seems like there are excellent coffee choices every block or so in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I had the wonderful New Orleans ice coffee at Blue Bottle, a few fabulous espressos with different portions of steamed milk (no Italian names here) at Ninth Street Espresso, a great latte and espresso from Joe, a spot-on cortado at Third Rail… and I passed many, many more places that I wish I could have checked out, including the Mudtruck on wheels. Like I said, holy smokes.

Wine? That list at Blue Ribbon blew me away, and I had some really nice wine pairings at a “fancy” lunch at Eleven Madison Park. Favorite wine of the trip? A funky Savennieres from Domaine aux Moines that really woke up my taste buds with excellent acidity.

Making the Egg Cream

Oh, also at Eleven Madison Park, one of my favorites things imbibed this trip, an orange cocoa-nib “egg cream” that was perfection, with a subtle chocolate kick beneath a sharp orange cream bite. Like liquid dark chocolate-covered orange rind. In case you didn’t know, egg creams have no egg, no cream (discuss…), but are based on seltzer water, milk, and (most often) chocolate syrup. A high end take on this humble New York specialty was a surprising treat.

Of course, there was lots of food to go along with the drinks. A few places that I’d highly recommend: Kin Shop for semi-upscale Thai, Red Hook Lobster Pound for lobster rolls, the Lounge at Le Bernardin for late night seriously upscale seafood, Lonestar Empire at the Williamsburg Flea Market for an awesome brisket sandwich, and the always amazing chocolate chip cookies from Levain Bakery. Sure, there was some damn good pizza and pasta and bao and soup dumplings and pastrami, too, but the names above stood out most.

Local Spirits: Bourbon? Leave that to the South!
Drowning in wine

Drowning in wine

I have something to admit. I hate big wine tasting events. Same thing for beer. I keep getting drawn into these types of events for the opportunity to try new things, to overload on whatever it is that is being poured. But I really tend to regret it afterwards, kind of the way one feels after eating too much at an all-you-can-eat buffet, shamed by participating in something that goes beyond reason, ready to perform penance for your sins (whether gluttony or greed or even envy of others).

Why do I hate these types of events? Insert rant here… because I hate large tents or ballrooms full of lots of people pushing their way through crowded aisles trying to get in as many sips as possible in an allotted time. After the tenth taste or so, your tongue begins to numb to any joy of tasting anyway. The atmosphere suppresses any ability to sit with a drink, to get to know it beyond a cursory sensation. Outliers become more notable simply because they stand out from the norm. There’s simply too much followed by even more, even if (maybe especially because) you’re spitting after every sip so as not to get intoxicated or simply full. And that ain’t right.

Sure, you get the benefit of trying many new things at a big tasting event. And at a high profile event, you actually get the opportunity to meet and speak with the owners and/or winemakers and/or people who really know their stuff and are passionate about their product. That is, at least until the next guy in line starts shoving you out of the way so he can get his free pour.

I went to a trade wine tasting event today. It was for the High Museum of Art’s annual wine auction weekend. This is a big deal wine event, with big deal winemakers present, passionate small producers, all kinds of names I’ve heard but never tried. It’s also for a great cause, the fine art museum that calls Atlanta home. I had to be there, right? Well, I did get to meet some fascinating people. I did get to try a few wines that were really interesting (among many things that were not). And I did get to reconnect with some friends in the business that I don’t get to see often enough. But that doesn’t change the fact that I felt a bit depressed at the end of it, yearning for something like the wine tasting I went to a few nights before, where it was one passionate person sharing her family’s story with a small room of people who really cared about the topic at hand. I’d rather meet that one person, taste that one winemaker’s wines, than speed date through a crowded room for the opportunity to taste a tantalizing array of too much. Sure, each type of event has its purpose, and each has its place. I’m just sharing my preference, the way I find more relevant to the enjoyment of wine (or spirits, or beer, or whatever), the more intimate route. (Dear public relations people: if you must blacklist me from future events for my remarks, so be it)

So, with that said, I’m happy to share the winemakers I met whose wines really did manage to break through the crowd and leave an impression upon me. The next few notes will probably leave you saying, “wait, didn’t he just say he hates events like this?” True enough, I have to be honest, I did enjoy a few moments among the masses.

First off, I really dig the pinot noir of Kosta Browne. These are fairly pricey wines that I’ve only rarely tasted, and it was great to try a few of their wines and meet Michael Browne in person. Their Russian River has a great mossy forest floor aspect to it (yes, that’s a good thing). I may have liked their Sonoma Coast pinot even more, with a bit more balance between the woods-y notes and the dark fruit, a fairly voluptuous take on pinot noir. The pinot noir being poured by Andy Peay from Peay Vineyards also impressed, especially the “Scallop Shelf Estate,” superb floral and spice nose, lovely body.

Pierson Meyer‘s Heintz Vineyard chardonnay was fascinating, more mineral and then intensely vibrant than other Heintz vineyard chardonnay I’ve had (there are many, and they all tend to be excellent in different ways). I learned that their winemaker, Robbie Meyer, is actually from Atlanta and went to the University of Georgia – always good to meet Atlanta folks who have made it in the wine world. His L’angevin Russian River pinot noir is also my kind of wine, full of spicy undertones.

You’ll notice I don’t mention many cabs or other big reds, they were present in abundance, but none of them really spoke to me. I’ve moved on from the attraction of big wines… AND big wine events.

P.S. I realize for many people in the trade, attending large trade tastings is very important. This is from the perspective of both a consumer (who has attended many large scale fundraiser wine tasting events) and a writer (who covers both trade and consumer events). Thanks, any feedback appreciated in the comments below.