You Don't Need Expert Advice to Pair Wine with Thanksgiving Dinner.

You really don't.  If you are struggling to pair the "correct" wine with your Thanksgiving Dinner, you are maybe missing the point of Thanksgiving.  And perhaps also the point of wine.  Please allow me to explain...

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There is a deluge of Thanksgiving wine pairing articles are easy to write and easy to read, but the sheer number of them can make you think that pairing wine with your Thanksgiving table is somehow difficult.  It isn't.  It might not even be that important.

Thanksgiving is at its core a harvest celebration.  We give thanks for the bountiful crops of the summer and prepare for the lean times of winter.  The table abounds with a overabundance of meat, vegetables, and more.  And that is what makes the concept of wine pairing with it so irrational.

Precision wine pairing - finding the perfect pairing - is simply not relevant during a celebratory feast.  For most of us, the Thanksgiving meal isn't a crisp progression of courses.  It is a delicious free-for-all of flavors, family, friends, and probably football.  There are too many flavors in play, making a mouthwatering mingle of meat and vegetables.

Plus the flavors are relatively nondescript.  Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, noodles, pumpkin pie!  These are some of the most versatile wine pairing foods in the world.  At most, you'll get a splash of sweet acidity in the cranberries and dark savory in the dark meat of the Turkey.  The neutrality of most of these flavors make wine pairing a cinch!

Love sweet white Riesling?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

Love aged French Bordeaux?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

Love explosively fruity Shiraz or Zinfandel?  That will pair with Thanksgiving.

The dirty secret is that almost anything will.  Better yet?  You can have all of the above at the same time.  If you enjoy a wine, you will enjoy it at your Thanksgiving Table.  But do not forget why you have gathered.

Celebrate the abundance of the harvest.  We have never had more choices.  The world of wine comes to our wine shops in a diversity that the kings of a few decades ago could never have experienced.

Time is fleeting.  Life is fleeting.  Family is fleeting.

Eat and drink and laugh and love with Thanksgiving.  Just don't stress out about the "perfect pairing."

7 Ways to Consistently Drink Bad Wine.

The wine world is difficult for anyone trying to drink truly bad wine.  The rampant flaws that plagued the wine world only a few decades ago have been mostly wiped away.  Modern wine-making techniques, refrigerated shipping containers, and a demanding wine trade have eliminated the vast majority of these issues.

Still, the modern world has gifted to us a new way of bad wine.   Bland, boring, corporate zombies of wine.  Wines made from irrigated deserts, high yields, and chemistry sets in the wineries.  And thankfully, these wines are slowly taking over our wine shops and restaurants.

To tide yourself over until the inevitable victory of boring wines,  here are seven ways to consistently drink bad wine.

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1.  Pick the 2nd cheapest wine on a wine list.

Sommeliers and restaurateurs know that most people don't want to appear 'cheap' and so the 2nd cheapest wine on a wine list is often one of the best sellers.  This is often where the restaurant puts its highest margin wine.  Frequently, this isn't a very good wine either.

2.  Buy wine in a big box store.

People love to buy from big box stores.  They think they are getting a great deal.  On most things they are right, but not in the wine aisle.  Any wine available in the kind of quantities that can service a big retail chain isn't going to be anything close to hand-crafted.

3.  Buy wine from a store without anyone in the wine department.

This is similar to number two, but is even more important.  If a wine store hasn't invested in qualified wine personnel in their wine department, you can bet that they are letting the ultra-large distributors run the show.  Those guys are going to put their corporate junk that "has to move" front and center.  You can count on the quality being sub-par.

4.  Buy wine from a wine club connected to a entity that doesn't normally sell wine.

I'm not talking here about that wine club from the winery you visited on vacation.  That wine is probably pretty good.  Nor am I talking about the wine club run by your local wine shop.  That is likely exceptional. 

I'm talking about the wine club run by a newspaper or some organization that promises discounts that are too good to be true.  They are correct.  The wine is consistently bland and boring.  It is also likely generic "custom crush" juice, since no one in the industry ever recognizes the labels they are selling.  This is a great choice for getting a bad wine on a regular basis!

5.  Buy any wine that you recognize.

Are you a wine expert?  Probably not, since they tend to want to drink good wine.  If you aren't an expert, please assume that reason you recognize the wine is because some large corporate wine company has dumped barrels of money into marketing to make you remember it.  They wouldn't do that if there wasn't hundreds of thousands of cases that they needed to move.  These wines are reliably awful.

6.  Buy a cheap red blend from California  (without doing copious research first).

Cheap reds blends are an important part of the wine world and a favorite of people that like good wines.  Just not cheap red blends from California.  The economics just doesn't work.  With the high costs of land and labor, you aren't going to get the value for money offered by a red blend from France, Italy, or Spain.

Also, most of these wines are sold on brand identity, not vineyards or regions or anything that denotes quality.  They are marketed like soft drinks and many of them have 'secret sugar' that makes your 'dry wine' anything but.  A great choice for bad wine.

7.  Buy Cheap Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is one of the greatest of all wine grapes.  Maybe the very greatest.  It is capable of wines of incredible finesse, elegance, purity, and complexity.  But you don't want any of that, and that's why you bought a cheap Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is such a finicky grape that it requires premium (expensive) land and skillful (expensive) cultivation.  This does not make for an inexpensive bottle of wine.

Cheap Pinot Noir often contains the minimum amount of actual Pinot Noir that is allowed by law.  Many California Pinots can contain up to 25% other grapes and they don't have to tell you that on the label.  Most of the popular cheap Pinot Noirs have so much blended into the wine that there is truly no hint of Pinot left in the flavor. 

It is perhaps the best way to get a truly awful wine in the modern wine landscape.

Is Your Winery Really an Art Studio?

Why is it so difficult for many wineries to consistently sell their wine?  Perhaps, it is because they are behaving more like an artist in an art studio instead of a business selling a product.  What do I mean?  Let's take a look.

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One of the fundamental rules of business can be summarized in this way. 

"Find out what people want to buy and make that thing for them."

This is at the core of how capitalism creates value for the world.  Customers speak with their dollars about the products they want to exist and businesses are compensated for creating that product for them.

This is the opposite of what an artist does.  Artists create the thing that they wish to create.   Then they hope and pray that someone can sell it.  The effect here can be startlingly original and insightful works of art.  It can also be why the phrase 'starving artist' is a cliche. 

We live in a time when many independent wineries are suffering slowing sales, shrinking distribution channels, and the pain of deep discount online retailers.  Rarely, do they understand why.

There may have been a time in the American Wine Business when winemakers could make anything their hearts' desired and sell it all.  Those days are passing quickly, if they aren't already gone.

None of this means that we need to sacrifice originally and quality.  That isn't the point here.

If we want the independent wine scene in America to continue, we need a generation of wine entrepreneurs that inject a little more business acumen into their 'art studios.'

A Different View of California Cabernet Franc: John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company

One of the exciting things about working in the retail wine business was the ability to go to industry wine tastings.  Not only could to taste a wine variety of wine, but you often got a chance to meet cool winemakers.  At this trade event in 2010, I had the chance to interview John Skupny of Lang & Reed Wine Company.  He had a very interesting take on what was possible for Cabernet Franc in California.  **It was also the era before cell phone video and this was shot on a small jittery pocket camera.

This is Episode #12 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman podcast.  Enjoy. Transcript is below the video.

Transcript:

Hi, I'm John Skupny from Lang & Reed Wine Company in Napa Valley, California. I'm the proprietor and winemaker for Lang & Reed Wine Company along with my wife, Tracy. We are one-of-the-only wineries in California that work exclusively with Cabernet Franc. That's kind of the whole story.

In California, they had been following the Bordeaux Model for a long time and a few people focused on Cabernet Franc. With Lang & Reed, in the early '90s, we decided that there was some inherent and distinctive charms about Cabernet Franc, particularly when it was expressed by themselves. The places in which we had Cabernet Franc planted and the vinification techniques all sort of favored the Bordeaux Model. We looked at some of the charming ones from the Loire Valley and decided that we were going to try and create something that expressed those inherent attributes of charm that came from Loire Valley recognizing that we had different circumstances in Napa Valley.

We moved to California 30 years ago in 1980 and at that time, as I mentioned before, it was this sort of influx of the thought of what did the Bordeaux know that we didn't know. Deconstructing the blends, I was always charmed by Cabernet Franc in its early stages. We start barrel tasting in January or February after a harvest and you'll find that of the Bordeaux grapes the Cabernet Franc expresses itself in a much more effusive way than the other varieties do in an early stage.

In the early '90s Tracy and I decided to start to look at producing wine on our own and we thought nobody was doing Cabernet Franc with that kind of intent. That might be something that we could create our own niche or market. Even in the year 2010, making and selling Cabernet Franc is a little, we call it the Rodney Dangerfield of varietals, but it's a little bit like rolling a rock up the hill and it's still in a pioneering phase.

It is a touchstone grape in sort of its volatility of acceptance. It's not unlike Sauvignon Blanc where you'll find people who really, really dig it or people who really don't. Some of it has those because it has fairly overt characteristics. We say that it lies on the green edge or the herbaceous edge. Some people like that and some people don't. It often times depends upon what you're eating with it because it is an exceedingly food-friendly variety because of that herbaceous streak to it.

Well, it is a cool climate variety. It's adaptable to both cool and warmer climates. If you look at vinifera growing in the world, it's like a pencil line going around the northern hemisphere and a pencil line in the southern hemisphere and Cabernet Franc happens to be a fairly soft pencil and covers a pretty wide swathe. If you imagine that it excels in the Loire Valley, which is a very, very northern region in France, and it also does really well in Bordeaux, which is a fairly southern region in France.

If you make that swathe across the United States, you'll find it excelling in Washington State, Napa Valley, San Ynez Valley, on the western coast. You also see Cabernet Franc doing well on the east coast in Long Island, Finger Lakes area in New York, in Pennsylvania, Ohio up near the lake, and also in Virginia. It's really actually more adaptable to come into ripeness in a lot more places than Cabernet Sauvignon will come to ripeness.

The one thing you find, because it has this wide swathe, is the cooler the climate, the more herbaceous, more green characteristics you either contend with or utilize. The warmer climate, the more you sort of rise the sugars above that stage, for good or bad. You may lose its inherent characteristics or charm in too ripe a climate.

The 2008 Vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir. Interview with James Cahill of Soter Vineyards

I always strive to create wine content that is evergreen; not tied to any one specific vintage or wine.  But in the summer of 2010, the fine wine community was buzzing about the 2008 vintage in Oregon and people wanted to talk about it.  Unlike the 2008 vintage Pinot Noirs, my interview with James Cahill, winemaker of Soter Vineyards hasn't aged very well.  It's all out the quality of the 2008 Vintage in Oregon.

This is Episode #14 of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.

Transcript:

I'm James Cahill and I am the winemaker for Soter Vineyards, Tony Soter's Oregon project. A certified sustainable winery producing an emphasis we'll say on estate grown and regional blends of Pinot Noir and a little bit of sparkling wine. It's just a silly habit of ours.

What we have in '08 is a long growing season and when we found ourselves in Oregon picking grapes in the middle of October, that means lots of things. Especially if we're picking at leisure like we were. It means that the grapes have been out for a good long while. They've enjoyed a good growing season.

If we're not in a hurry, it means it's been a moderate growth season, right? That there hasn't been heat and things that would force us to have to harvest because grapes are shriveling or something like that.

Of course, if we're harvesting leisurely it means it's under sunny skies. I think what we regionally look for in from '08's will be the precious and natural acidity that's found consistently in '08 Oregon Pinots. It's what our region does.

It's a beautiful level of ripeness. A complete level of ripeness without excess, right? So that the things we can do in our cool climate, which is capture fruit flavors with freshness and life rather than more confection or baked flavors are so clear and consistent I think in most quality levels as well.

Of course, the price of admission for a fine Pinot Noir is pretty steep right? You have to pay a few bucks to get a satisfying bottle of wine, but I think even on modest bottlings you'll find a good quality Pinot that will speak not just of Pinot, but of Oregon Pinot. Acidity, liveliness, structure. Again, with a thorough level of ripeness.

What is the aging potential of 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir?  And what Oregon vintage is most similar to 2008?

It's a great question. Of course the aging potential is always how you enjoy wine, right? I think what we always qualified is that the wines will get better, you know? I think that there's structure in the wine and enough depth and volume in the quality of fruit that they will age gracefully, and in balance, and that you will be rewarded by waiting both in the near term as the wine's relaxed. Waiting a year or so you'll be rewarded with a better picture of what the young wine is.

Then of course as it unfolds, in its old age I think one of the things we'll look for is that the wine's made mature like many other vintages at seven, eight, nine years old, but they'll probably hold for quite a long time where other wines may have less ability for a plateau.

2002 is a vintage we often look back on as controversial for some, but for many right-thinking folks in our region, I think 2002 is kind of a perfect year because there was good ripeness. There was not a lot of drama to harvest. The harvest conditions and the wines had muscle.

If people didn't go to far in terms of manipulations or excessive hang time. I mean, beautifully balanced wines that will age elegantly. '98 and '99, '99 would probably be more like '08 in that it was a miracle vintage at the time because we were harvesting well into October. A vintage that looked like it might be tough to get the grapes in, you know?

There were three challenging vintages in the 90's. '95/6/7 people were pretty gun shy that if you're waiting to October puts you at risk of course for the winter rains that are going to arrive. So yeah, I think referencing '02 and '99 might be benchmarks, but the level of ripeness in '08, while complete, the alcohol potentials might be a little lower perhaps than in other vintages.

Half-bottles, Restaurants, and the Meaning of Wine. Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery: The Complete Interview

My interview with Elizabeth Pressler of Elizabeth Spencer Winery was a pleasant wine conversation with a pleasant lady who makes very good wine.  What really makes this a turning point was that I asked her "What Does Wine Mean to You?"  It was a question I had asked of Dirk Richter and would soon become a motif in later interviews as well.  Enjoy!  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

My name's Elizabeth Pressler, and I am the Elizabeth of Elizabeth Spencer. My husband Spencer is of course the Spencer. We put our first names together to make the brand name. People often mistake the name Elizabeth Spencer as being one single person, and of course it's not. It's the unification of the two of us.

Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

That's a really hard question. It's interesting, because wine is a passion of mine. Wine is my business. Wine is something that stimulates my mind and thinking, and it's a lifelong pursuit. Once you get hooked by wine, you learn about it every time you open a bottle of wine and taste, and it's a lifelong growing experience because you're always experiencing new tastes when you're interested in wines. I also love the way wines bring together the culinary arts. When you begin to love wine, you also appreciate food, and you think about how flavors go together.

Spencer and I cook at home. I love how we will come home and pour a bottle, pour from a bottle, have a glass of wine while we're making our dinner, and we talk a lot about wine.

We have a side board at home in the kitchen, a marble top table, and we have zillions of bottles open, where we're always tasting and sampling. What we'll do is we'll open a bottle of wine and watch it over the course of five to seven days to see how it changes over time, and on that side board, you'll find wines from Napa, Sonoma, France, Italy, Australia. We're always looking at what our friends and colleagues are doing around the world, because we think it's very important to know about wines from other regions.

What else does wine mean to me? I love the way it brings people together. Once you open a bottle of wine and share it with friends or family, suddenly the conversation flows. The conversation moves to interesting things. You talk about art, politics, what movies you've just seen. It just is an added enjoyment to life and to living.

Part Two: On Cooking and a Little History

Oh, gosh. I was raised by a mother who loved to grow organic gardens back in Pennsylvania, and we always had fresh corn, and tomatoes, and lettuces, and my favorite, the strawberries. I got to learn what great, good food tasted like, so that was part of my interest. I always liked cooking, and we always cooked at home as kids with my mother. When I met Spencer, we loved cooking as well, and both of us have spent much time in the restaurant business before we got into the wine industry.

I started out as a waiter, which I think is some of the best training that anybody can ever, ever have for life, because you really learn how to think on your feet, but you also get to appreciate and enjoy fine wine and fine food. I also worked in front of house as a maitre d, and I organized all of the waiters, and I seated our customers. I was even a sommelier in a restaurant, where I went from table to table and really increased wine sales, so I love restaurants, and love food and wine, and putting it all together.

Part Three:  What are the Characteristics of a Good Wine Restaurant?

A restaurant where you get an opportunity to taste wines from around the world, and I love the idea of having different size pours. For instance, I think it's great to have a two ounce pour, so you can really have a sampling or a taste of wine, and then maybe a five to six ounce pour so you can actually enjoy it with a meal, and then I like the idea of having a variety of wines that you can enjoy throughout the course of a meal.

You and I were talking earlier about the beauty of half bottles. My husband and I often like picking those off of the wine list so that we can select a wine that goes well with each course, so it would be fun to have a white wine with our first course, and then move into a red for the second. Of course, I can't forget sparkling wine. We love having champagne as a cocktail, so it's great to have a half bottle or a split of champagne to begin.

Oh, yeah. Spencer and I are committed to bottling in all different formats. This is primarily for our Cabernets. Cabernets are wines that can age very well, and classically in France, the French have always bottled in many different sizes.

When you come to our tasting room, you'll see that we have a display. Everything from the 375, which is the half bottle, to the 750, which is this normal size bottle, to 1.5, which is the magnum. We do a three liter, six liter, 12 liter, 18 liter, and recently Spencer even has done a 27 liter.

Don't ask me what that's called.

I have to read the names to know what it's called.

Biodynamic, Sustainable, and Organic Wine. Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars: The Complete Interview

Biodynamic wine?  Organic Wine?  Sustainability?  In the world of wine, these are terms of confusion for even experienced wine drinkers.  In my interview with Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars, I received my first coherent explanation of these terms.  I hope they help you as well.  Parts of this video were released as separate episodes of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman and are collected here for the first time.

Transcript:

Hi, I'm Rebecca Work, and the winery is called Ampelos Cellars. It's a winery that my husband and I do all the work ourselves. It's a very small winery in the Santa Barbara/Santa Rita Hills area. We make about a total of 3,500 cases. We have a vineyard as well, 25 acres planted. Two-thirds of what we make comes from our own vineyard.

Part One:  Organic? Sustainable? Biodynamic?  What Does it all Mean?

 Many people don't really know the difference between those three practices. Basically, you actually have four farming practices. You have conventional, which is basically you spray herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, try and get the largest yields you can get out of the land. Don't necessarily pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any of the farming aspects. Just try and grow as much as you can possibly grow out of the soil.

Then you have organic, and organic is, you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers. Basically, don't spray any nasty stuff. Organic doesn't say what you must do or how you must do it. It doesn't pay attention to waste management, irrigation practices, any other farming aspects. Just don't spray that bad stuff.

You have biodynamic, and biodynamic actually came before organic, so it's been around since the early 1900s. This is not a newfangled idea. Biodynamic is you're not allowed to spray herbicides or pesticides, or use artificial fertilizers, so by default you're organic. But biodynamics says, "Here's what you must do and here's how you must do it." Biodynamic follows the earth schedule and not the farmer's schedule, so examples of that would be, we know that in a descending moon the earth takes in, and in ascending moon, the earth lets out. We irrigate on a descending moon because it takes less water. We get deeper penetrations than if we irrigated on ascending moon.

Biodynamics says, "Everything you take out of the vineyard you must bring back." All of our stems, seeds and skins come back. We compost it. We put it back in the vineyard. Biodynamics says, "You must treat everything like one holistic system." We know we have a lot of beneficial insects, so to make sure those insects don't leave our vineyard, every 10th row, it's totally natural. Nobody's allowed to walk in it. No equipment's allowed to go there, and therefore when the tractor goes up and down the other rows, the beneficial insects have a safe place to go and we don't lose them.

The thing with Biodynamics, though, is it doesn't look at waste management, employee practices, some of the other aspects of farming. Sustainability is a term everybody's using, but now there are starting to come out some certification processes. We were in the pilot of that. Sustainability breaks farming into nine areas. You have employee practices: do you have a grievance process? Social practices: do you tell you neighbors what you're doing? Don't spray at 5 in the morning. Soil management, waste management, irrigation, and you must qualify a minimum in each one of those areas. We're 100% on solar power, so we've qualified in the energy area for that. With sustainability, you can still spray herbicides and pesticides, certain ones, and use artificial fertilizers.

Part Two:  Does Biodynamic Winemaking Make the Wine Any Better?

The school is still out with biodynamics as to whether it made a difference or not. We have seen a difference in the health of our vines. Example of that is in 2008, it was the worst frost we've had in 35 years. Vineyards around us, all on rolling hills like us, all doing the same frost protection like us, all of us getting out there in the morning to turn on the sprinkler systems, lost 50 to 60% of their fruit. We didn't lose a single thing. We weren't doing anything different from them. They were not very far from us. We think the biodynamic just made our vines stronger to protect themselves against the frost.

We have seen in our vineyard where ... We have American oak trees in California. They're protected. You're not allowed to take them out, so you plant the vineyards around them. Problem is, the oak trees taking everything of the nutritional value out of the soil, so you try to plant your rows as far back. We planted it back, but the row by the oak trees just were not doing very well at all. We were about ready to take them out, and over the time of being biodynamically farmed since '05, as of last year those vines were now catching up to the rest of the vineyard, which is telling us there's enough nutrition in the soil to support the oak tree as well as our vineyard.

We think just the healthiness of the vines ... Another aspect is in that frost. We got hit in the fall at the harvest time. We got frost at the beginning and we got frost at the end. That meant many of the vineyards who still had fruit out there, the vines totally shut down and therefore were not going to develop any further than where they were. Our vines just kept on trucking, and so we were able to develop the flavors for our wines even though we had that nasty frost.

Part Three: What is So Special about Santa Barbara Wine Country?

The thing with Santa Barbara is it probably doesn't have an identity, and that's its biggest problem. You think of Napa, you think of cab. You think of Oregon, you think of Pinots. Santa Rita Hills, what do you think of? We've got cabs, we've got Rhones, we've got pinots, we've got everything across the board. I think with Santa Barbara, we are able to get tremendous hang time on our fruit. We don't start our harvest until the end of September, which is a really late time. By having that longer hang time, it allows the flavors to develop so much more. We get so much more complexity, I think, from that in our wines.

I think Santa Barbara is doing a awesome job in the pinot area from Santa Rita Hills, the Rhone areas from Happy Canyon, Foxhound. We're starting to really show beautiful sauvignon blancs that are coming out of there now. I think one of the things people don't really realize is really, Santa Barbara's not only a great place for a lot of varietals, but we're not into yet the big, commercialized, artificial kind of thingYou'll walk into many tasting rooms and meet the winemaker there, or you'll meet the owner and winemaker, like me and me husband area. Santa Barbara has a lot to offer.

Part Four:  What are your favorite wines?  Not including anything you make.

We’re, especially me, very partial to Greek wines. I know that sounds kind of odd. We've spent a lot of time in Greece. We think Greece has amazing wines that actually doesn't leave the country, and one of my most favorite ones is called Agiorghitiko. It's from Nemea. It's a wine that's so hard to explain. It's kind of like a cab but not really. It's like a cab/Syrah. It's got its own identity, and we just love Agiorghitiko. We try really hard to find that wine.

Part Five:  What Do You See Happening in the Wine Culture?

It’s no longer just something to drink that's good. It's more where we're having a lot of people coming in who want to really learn what goes behind that wine. We have a lot of people who are now interested in coming to work a day of the harvest with us. People have a real kind of desire to learn what goes on in the winery. Why do you do what you do? We're seeing this more and more, especially in the younger generation, who, A, is interested in learning as to what goes behind the wines, but B, is wanting to venture into new kinds of wines that they hadn't had before, like we make a Dornfelder. It's the one time we've made it. It's a German varietal. As far as we know, there's the one vineyard in Santa Rita Hills that has Dornfelder, and most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or tried it. People get excited when they find something unusual that they can take to a dinner party.

I think in the past, people were into the white Zinfandels and that was just something to drink, but nobody was really interested in what went on behind, and how do you make white Zin, even though ... I'm not a white Zinfandel person at all, but ...

I think they want to get rid of all of the technical terms around it, but understand what is a clone? Most people don't understand, varietals are pinot noir, Syrah, cabs, and then within each of those varietals you have clones. Most people don't have a single idea what a clone is. I always explain, it's like apples. You have Granny Smith, red delicious, the different ones, and each one of those apples have totally different flavors. The clones we have for like pinot noir are absolutely, totally different, and therefore makes it our spice cabinet to make the kind of style of wine we want to make. People love it. They come out, and then I let them taste the difference between a pinot noir clone 115 versus a 667 versus a triple-7. They can see how those different clones can make the style of wine you want to make. I think people are really wanting to be educated as to what goes into that wine.

 

 

Behind the Scenes with Dave Miner of Miner Family Winery

I met Dave Miner by accident, as he was passing around a bottled barrel-sample of Tempranillo on the porch of an Anaheim restaurant after hours.  The wine was good.  Dark and rich.  Miner was talking wine and music with Michael Jordan (the Master Sommelier, not the basketball star) and a couple guys from Fender Guitars were improvising a soundtrack on two twelve-string guitars.  It was the kind of January evening that comes with a pleasant frequency for those of us in the wine business.

The darker side of the business would come a year later when, visiting a famous Napa Valley winery, I would be mocked by an entire tasting room staff who had nothing but derision for wine retailers and (even worse) people from "The Rust Belt."

Driving south on the Silverado Trail, I saw the sign for Miner Family Winery and pulled in.  Dave Miner was his gregarious self.  He stopped what he was doing and welcomed me in.  We spoke about the evening in Anaheim, tasted some wines, and shot some video.  A few hours later, I had produced my first wine video in wine country. 

This is Episode #6 of the Understanding Wine video podcast.  Enjoy.  Transcript is below the video.

Dave Miner:

Hi. I'm Dave Miner with Miner Family Winery. We're here at Miner in Oakville, right in the heart of Napa Valley, over on the eastern side. As you can see behind me, spring has sprung in Napa, so it's a good time to be here. We're getting ready for some bud break and you should come by and see us.

Me:

When you're in Napa Valley visiting Miner, you could visit the tasting room. That would be a great place to start, but we're going to go behind the scenes with Dave Miner. Once you get behind the building, what you notice first are the solar panels.


Dave Miner:

We started doing solar a couple years back. We started the project, and we've been on the solar panels for roughly a year and a half now. We generate our own solar power. We're 100% solar powered. All of the waste that we produce here from wine making, whether it's skins, stems, seeds, all go to compost. All of our water is recycled back into irrigation for our property here. We really try to be very conscious of our footprint and our presence here, and not leave a mess.


Me:

The same care that Miner gives to the environment, they also bring to their wine making.


Dave Miner:

We hand harvest everything that we do and then dump that directly into the hopper. We sort of hand sort, as well, as we go through. We also don't tend to harvest a lot of grapes at one time. We might do 15, 18 tons in one day and that's it, not a huge amount. It really kind of allows us to manage everything in fairly small quantities. Make sure that the quality of every little lot is premium. Essentially, the whites go right into the bladder presses down here. A whole cluster whether it's Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. We pretty much do all of those, the whole cluster press.

Each of those bladder presses will hold about seven or eight tons of grapes. We'll drop those all in there, rotate and just gently and lightly press them over two hours. Then, the juice will go off into a tank for fermentation in the tank. Although, Chardonnay, we actually ferment in the barrel, but it goes into a tank first. We kind of cold stabilize it, chill it down a little bit, start the fermentation process, and then move it on to barrels.

The red wines would go through the de-stemmer. For the most part, about 95% of our red wines are completely de-stemmed. We do have some wines that we actually do some whole cluster fermentations with, Syrah primarily, or Tempranillo. The rest of them are all de-stemmed, and then the berries are just kind of lightly popped. Then, they go into a tank, or into a bin for fermentation. Pinot Noirs, we actually do all our fermentations in picking bins, with a lid on or off. The punch downs are all by hand, so we mix the skins up all by hand. The fermentations are all natural. Again, in the smaller quantities, it's easier to sort of control the quality of each little bit that we do.

This is essentially 20,000 square foot cave, which we dug in 1998. Took about 14 months to complete. Can probably hold about 5,000 barrels, although it's not that full. We built it a little bit larger than we probably needed, just so that we would have kind of a comfort level room to work. The great thing about the cave is that it's much more energy efficient. It's 60 degrees and about 90% humidity all year, so you lose a lot less wine to evaporation. Above ground, you can lose roughly 5%, 6% of your wine every year to evaporation. Under ground, you lose 1% or less a year. Significant savings in wine loss. Consequently, you have less labor because you don't have to top the barrels off as often. You want to keep barrels full so that the wine doesn't oxidize. The faster it evaporates, the fast you've got to top it off.

We have variety of cooperages that we buy from. We have a couple that we buy a lot from. Then, quite a few other smaller producers that we buy smaller amounts from. That's kind of an ongoing thing. We always kind of experiment with some of the different producers, different types of barrels. See if we really like them. It's a little harder to do that with Cab, because you're racking in and out of those barrels a couple times a year, whereas with Chardonnay, once it goes into the barrel, it stays there, so you can get a much better of a idea of the effect of that barrel on the wine. You can taste the same chardonnay in four different barrels and really get a sense for what that barrel adds to the mix.

This is basically one of our Cabernet lots from Stagecoach Vineyard from the '08 vintage. These will essentially get blended here in the next month or so, and then put back in the barrel as the blend. Then, bottled roughly in August of this year. This is from a block at Stagecoach that we call the bowl, which is about an 11 acre block, 10 acre block, that's basically just kind of a bowl. It's a western facing area up at Stagecoach Vineyard. Stagecoach is just east of the Oakville Appelation. It's a fairly large vineyard. It's 550 planted acres. On the north end it kind of butts up against Pritchard Hill, runs along Oakville, and goes pretty much all the way down to Atlas Peak. It's a huge vineyard, great, rocky, volcanic soil, roughly around 1,500 to 2,000 foot elevation. It's kind of an ideal vineyard for the Bordeaux varietals. Keeps the yields low. Keeps nice acidity in the wine. Gives the grapes just fantastic intensity. It's also, because it's higher up in the valley, it tends to not get as cold, and not get quite as hot. You get a nice kind of breeze effect off the the bay up there. It's kind of ideal growing conditions for a number of these grapes.

Everything we do is in really small batches, very hand crafted. Quality really is kind of the key thing for everything that we do. Balance. We like to makes wines that are very well balanced, that go with food well. Also, lack of pretension. We like to have people come here and have a good time, no matter what their experience level with wine is. We want them to feel comfortable that they can come here, have a good time, learn some things if they want to, taste good wines, and just enjoy themselves. I think those are kind of the themes here at Miner that we try to promote all the time. You'll get to taste a lot of different kinds of wines, which is unusual, and I think really good, quality examples of every varietal that we do. I think you'll have a really good time, so come visit.

Talking German Wine with Dirk Richter: The Complete Interview. Max Ferd Richter.

One of the great ambassadors of German Wine is the erudite and passionate Dirk Richter of Weingut Max Ferd Richter.  I was very lucky to be able to meet him often in the early years of my wine career and talk German Wine in one of my video interviews.  We discuss the meaning of wine, recent vintages, the role of Riesling at the dinner table, and the positive effects of global warming.  Parts of this video appeared as an early episode of Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman, but it is collected here for the first time in its entirety.

Transcript:

Part One:  What Does Wine Mean to You?

Dirk Richter:  "That is good question, what does wine mean to me? Wine is ... let's put it that way, wine accompanies human civilization since there is human civilization. Wine is cultural heritage. Wine is gift from God. Wine is legacy. Wine is totally different from any other drink. When you invite guests to you home and they enjoy the wine, then you are proud to have chosen the right bottle. If they don't enjoy the wine, then you will tell your wife, "I knew that this wine is far too good for these people." That is a kind of reaction you would never have with any liquor or beer whatsoever. That is a personal emotion.

Wine is emotion. That's the reason why we all like to drink wine, to experience wine, because we learn and we know exactly that wine has a total different identity in history. To me, it's very important, I like history.

I think, we all should know where our roots are, we should know where we come from. So is with wine. When I go back in history and when I open the Bible, and the gospel, there from the first to the last page it's wine talk. The first thing Noah did, after the great flood, he planted a vineyard. Why did he plant a vineyard? He could have made a dairy farm or something. No, he planted a vineyard. It is important. It interacts our doing here with a blessing from Lord, himself. I think that's very important. Another example, in the gospel, when Jesus went public, so the first miracle that is reported from Jesus Christ was not the healing of the wounded or people that had physical or mental problems, no, it was the wedding of Cana, in the Gospel of St. John. Why is that reported as the first miracle? My explanation is because that story attracted attention to the public, to the audience. Wow, someone was able to turn water into wine, let's listen what he has to tell.

When we go to the old Egyptian cultures, for example, people were drinking red wine, but the Pharaoh was drinking white wine. That could be seen from the tomb of Tutankhamen, this young king who passed away at the age of nineteen years old, they found remnants of white wine in his tomb chamber. Or when we go to the old Sumer culture, in Iraq now-a-day, in Mesopotamia, wine. Wherever we go, wine. In the Black Sea cultures, the old country cultures, which is now Georgia there, wine. Everywhere is wine. I think that's so important.

To me, wine is part of my family identity. Wine is the history of the landscape I come from. There is so much knowledge and wisdom involved, given from one generation to the next. I think it's really important to learn about wine, to learn more, as people who like to drink wine are always people who are really savvy and interested and go a step forward.

Part Two: On Growing Riesling in Mosel, Germany.

Dirk Richter: 

As most wines, gains its elegance by the long vegetation season and not a hot, short growing time. Subsequently, we have the model country, climatic wise, to grow these refined, versatile, and sometimes fragile white wines. Apart from that, we grapes on slate stone, Devonian slate stone. That is a stone that was created some 500 million years ago. It's not a grown rock but a sediment rock. It was created for millions of years the sediment has been pressed to ground. When the landscape was built, as we know it today, the shift of the continent, some of these layers were brought up, came to surface, and create the Slate Mountains. It is very easy for the blondes to penetrate the terroir, the soil, and take out nutrition. That is very mineral driven.

We have coolish climate, we have got slate stone, the terroir, and that ends up with a low PH level in the wine and as we have got the long vegetation season.   All Rieslings, and that is something really special with a Riesling from Germany, are driven by tartaric acid. The longer the grapes ripen on the vine, the more delicate and the higher the finesse in the acidity. Riesling is something that is seen from the backbone taste. My duty, as the wine grower, is to produce wines taste around that dry lingering finish. That is the secret of the Riesling production. Particularly in the United States, people like acid, subsequently Mosels are so much distributed in this country.

The other reason why we are successful at producing Riesling in Germany is that a kind of German character is precision. If you want to make a top Riesling wine, you have to do it with precision. It's not the art other than other grape varieties, some other grape varieties, to make a blend. In white, a fine winemaker, with his special cellar recipes, take a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit there, mix it and then you have a nice brand. No, it is precision. Show back the fruit on a given spot, picked at a certain time, back into the bottle. That is the Riesling story.

Part Three:  But isn't Riesling Just Sweet and Cheap?

Dirk Richter:

Cheap Riesling can be simple and sweet, but there is cheap wine everywhere that has no higher match or criteria to fulfill. The great Riesling wines, of course they have got residual sweetness, but they also can be bone dry. Rieslings have an uncounted number of faces. They can go from bone dry to super sweet and everything in between, every step is possible.

But what makes it so special is that the sugar that might be in that particular bottle shows on the tongue and on the palette in quite a different way. It tastes as if you were to bite in a fresh fruit, in an apple, pear, apricot, peach. When you eat that kind of fruit you never speak of sweetness of that fruit, you just speak how refreshing that fruit is, because it is balanced by acid. The same occurs to Riesling, we have, initially on the lips, on the tongue, we have some amount of sugar, that might be in a lower or in a higher percentage. But, it's always balanced against backbone acid. The wine never tastes sweet, the good Riesling wine, but fruity. That is terribly important. That is so important, particularly in the food process, as it helps to reanimate your taste buds, to cleanse or to rinse you mouth, it works like a sorbet and it helps with digest. Riesling is the ideal food wine.

Part Four:  On Aging German Riesling

Dirk Richter:

White wine ages, particularly when it has some residual versus acid. What makes the wine aging is not the amount of alcohol, it's the balance of sugar versus acidity. The Riesling has got, generally, most of the sugar, subsequently it can age much better, provided the acidity is not too low. But, good Riesling from the Mosel, from the Nahe, Rheingau, Pfalz, have got acidity, subsequently they age. There are the white wines that age Chinon Blanc, Bonnezaux in the Loire, Vouvray ages well. There is little bit similarity, they have got residual sweetness as well. It's always that balance that make the wine age. Once these wines start to age, they get more complex, you get much more texture, and slowly they start drying out. A 20 year old wine has no longer the sweetness the wine had when it was young, but it has a lot of richness and complexity and you don't miss that kind of sweetness. It tastes dry, but it tastes, still, very round and has kept it's freshness. That's really important. I can only encourage people to look for vintage bottles to show how well these Riesling wines age.

Part Five:  The Effect of Global Warming on Recent German Vintages

Dirk Richter:

The vintages you see mostly on the market right now is 2005, to start with the older one. That is a great vintage in any corner of the wine hemisphere on this globe, glorious vintage.

2006, a difficult vintage, very small in quantity but a lot of botrytis. The concentration of the '06 is enormous and when you look on the label and you read Kabinett or Spatlese, you can always be sure that this is heavily downgraded. Actually, you get much more wine for what's written on the label. It's a typical example of under exposed, over delivered. The '06 really has a rich, pungent, opulent, creamy character. It has great fruit and great acid and great density. You get oily flavors from the botrytis, you get very quince and rhubarb flavors on the more cleaner or more less botrytised grape wines. That, you find in the '06 vintage.

The next, '07, is very elegant. It's a very elegant, lush elegant, has not the top end style that '05 has got, but in the QBAs a Kabinett and Spatlese, and even the Auslese is a classy vintage. Very elegant.  A vintage to age perfectly.

Now, '08, we are a little bit more crunchy and spicy and zesty than '07. '08 has got a higher acid and a little bit lower alcohol than '07, though if you are looking for light-style Kabinett in German wines and you didn't see it recently, go and find '08, you will have it.

Now, '09, we are already a year further on. '09 is just starting ascending. We are tasting, and sampling, and preparing the first bottlings of '09. It's highly concentrated. It's relatively small quantity. It comes close to '05. I don't know whether it will be similar to '05 but it goes in the direction of '05.

Whatever we see from German wines, on the shelf, be sure you will never run into an off vintage. Whatever vintage the importing agent, the distributor, the restaurateur, the retailer, or the customer picks he can be sure, or she can be sure, always to have a great, good vintage above average. That is so far, the positive effect of global warming as we can see in the Mosel, so far. But we haven't seen the end yet.