Saturday, February 29, 2020

Screaming Eagle? Screaming Deal?

I was looking over the wine list at my favorite local Italian restaurant when the owner's selection caught my eye.
2011 Screaming Eagle $3,900

Credited as the trailblazer for Napa cult wineries, Screaming Eagle was founded by Jean Phillips, a former realtor with a knack for good soil. In 1986, she bought a 57-acre vineyard in Oakville. While Phillips sold most of her grapes to nearby Napa wineries, she kept an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon for her personal winemaking.

Screaming Eagle, the most expensive Napa wine

A few years later, Phillips decided to go into commercial winemaking and hired Heidi Barrett to be her winemaker. Barrett is a second-generation Napa winemaker and wife of Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena fame. At that time, she was already a rising star with a couple of Robert Parker 100-points from a consulting gig with Dalla Valle.

In 1995, Phillips released the first vintage of Screaming Eagle. The 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon was a hit, scoring 99 points from Robert Parker. Both ladies became an overnight phenomenon.

The winery is not open to public
With continued accolades and production kept low at around 500 cases per vintage, the demand for the celebrated wine sky-rocketed. A mailing list was quickly established, and only members of the list were able to purchase the wine directly from the winery. The members-only price started at $75 per bottle, which was high at that time. It then increased to $125 a bottle, making Screaming Eagle the most expensive wine in the Valley.

By the time Phillips sold the winery to Stan Kroenke and Charles Bank in 2006, the members-only price was $300 a bottle. Today, the wait to get on the Screaming Eagle mailing list is rumored to be a few decades long. If you are patient enough to get on the mailing list, you get to purchase Screaming Eagle at $850 a bottle, a screaming deal since the aftermarket price averages three to four times that. And the restaurant price... you do the math!

Personally, I have not tasted Screaming Eagle. At that price, it will be a very special day if I do. My friends, who were fortunate enough to have it, definitely thought highly of it.

So what you would consider to be a screaming deal for Screaming Eagle? I have my number. What is yours?

Friday, January 31, 2020

One Wine Lover's Two Cents on Dieting

January is coming to an end. Some of you may be on the last stretch of Dry January or Whole30 or a similar month-long break from alcohol and/or other indulgence. I congratulate you.

Can't say no to Champagne and caviar
Try as I might, that is not my cup of tea (or glass of wine). But I am not immune to the allure of fad diets and exercise routines that promise a toner trimmer version of me. In fact, I am in the middle of an 8-week program. Just that I am ignoring the no-alcohol diet portion of it. Let me share my two cents on dieting.

No to No-Alcohol Diets

Unless you have alcohol abuse or binge issues, I can't imagine why anyone who appreciates wine would want to follow a no-alcohol diet, even if only for a month. The key word is "appreciate."

Proponents of Dry January suggests that taking a break from alcohol helps reset one's relationship with it. I see the point to some extent. I once gave up meat for Lent. When I got back to eating meat again, I became more selective in the meat I would partake. But I wouldn't say that I "appreciated" meat pre-Lent the same way I do wine.

My friend and wine blogger, Amber LeBeau, wrote a post that Dry January Can Go to Hell. She suggests that instead of taking a pause from alcohol in January, try mindful consumption all year round. Engage your senses when enjoying a glass of wine. Learn the story behind the wine and the vintage; how was the weather that year, what challenges were presented by Mother Nature, and how the winemaker artfully crafted the wine.

Wine flight is a great way to learn about wine appreciation
I mentioned in my blog that I belonged to the Specialty Club from my local wine shop. Every month, we get a red and a white from anywhere in the world. Tom, the shop owner, is a wealth of wine knowledge, and he always tells a good story for each bottle he carefully curates for the club. It brings a richer experience as I sip the wine. It is more than getting a buzz from the alcohol. If that is your experience too, then say no to no-alcohol diets.

No Bad Wine is Worth the Calories

One might argue that a good wine is a matter of taste. I think enjoyment is a matter of taste. Good, which suggests quality, is different. Consider this. I adore Jack in the Box tacos and all the beef-ish meat product tastiness. But that doesn't make them good tacos. Nor should I be eating them beyond rare moments of guilty pleasure. They are just not worth the calories.

Tasting our homemade wine
Wines of the Jack-in-the-Box-tacos variety are often mass-produced from leftover or poor-quality grapes, buffed up with all kinds of additives to hide the flaws. These could range from powdered tannins to provide structure to Mega Purple for a deeper color and a little residual sugar to mask any off-flavors.

Now I am not advocating for natural wine. As a hobby winemaker, I certainly have used my fair share of sulfur, commercial yeast, yeast nutrients, and malolactic bacteria. My goal is to ensure a clean and successful fermentation, but not to manufacture a taste. I very much subscribe to the philosophy of minimal intervention. Get the best grapes you can afford and make a wine that is a true expression of the variety, the vintage, and the terroir.

Perhaps I have the luxury since I don't make wine for a living so I don't worry about consumer taste and sales. But the overused additives in mass-produced wine can't be any better than the meat product of Jack in the Box tacos. When I go to a restaurant that only has cheaply-produced wine by the glass, I would skip it. If I were to add wine calories in my body, I'd like to have the full experience of a well-made wine.

So there you go! This is just one wine lover's two cents on dieting. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Who is in Your Wine Cave?

Who would have thought that wine caves would be a topic of discussion at the Democratic presidential debate? 

It was a fundraiser for presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, hosted by Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of Hall Wines. The event was held in the wine cave, decorated with 1,500 Swarovski crystals, and where $900 bottles of wine were served. Certainly, an event that is exclusively for those with deep pockets.

Beautiful and extravagant Halls wine cave
His critics decry that billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States. So I thought, let's talk about wine caves in this post.

Let's be clear, I LOVE WINE CAVES!

Bottles in an old wine cave
Just as bibliophiles love libraries, oenophiles love wine caves. I love seeking out wine caves in my travel. Some are old and musty, storing each wine bottle in cobwebs, mold, and history. Others are sparkling clean and high-tech, with an opulent display of carefully curated bottles and barrels. But each wine cave is a treasure trove, and I am one equal opportunity oenophile.

The origin of wine caves dates back thousands of years during the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans stored their wines in catacombs. They discovered that the subterranean structure would protect the wine from temperature variation and provide the perfect humidity for cellaring.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, these underground tunnels continued to persist. In many parts of France, they were used primarily for cellaring wine. However, these wine caves were not immune from political activities of their times as well.

Wine Cave for the Resistance

One of the most fascinating wine caves that I've visited belongs to Maison Joseph Drouhin. The subterranean cellar in Beaune was so old that you can see herringbone-style stonework on some of the walls. This indicates the presence of Romans. Other walls were added on over time, including facades built during the Nazi regime to hide the French Resistance activists and treasured wines.

Drouhin wine cave herringbone-style stonework from the Roman era
In the book, Wine and War: The Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup, you will read about how Maurice Drouhin served in the French Resistance from his cellar. In fact, French winegrowers played a big role in fighting the Nazi regime from the intricate labyrinth of wine caves.

Wine Cave for the Ritzy

Moving 200 miles northeast from Beaune is Épernay, the capital of Champagne. Under the streets of Épernay are over 60 miles of the underground caves storing millions of bottles of sparkling wine. I visited the wine cave of Möet et Chandon, the famous Champagne house that is associated with luxury name brands Louis Vuitton and Hennessy.

Riddling rack in Möet wine cave
Möet et Chandon is all about opulence and extravagance. Founded in 1742 by Claude Möet, the high-end winery focused its clientele on nobles and aristocrats. In fact, Claude's grandson, Jean Rémy, went to military school with Napoleon Bonaparte. The alignment with the powerful emperor continued for many years. Today, deep in the Möet wine caves, you will see a big barrel of port that was gifted by Napoleon himself. You can't get tighter than that.

Napoleon's Gift of Port
My Verdict: As you can see, the relationship between wine caves and politics did not begin in Napa Valley's Rutherford Hall Winery. It is a fair question to ask whether a candidate is able to rise above lobbyists and donors to do what is best and right for his or her country. Is the wine cave fundraising event so incriminating? Because sometimes there is a Maurice Drouhin in the wine cave. Other times there is a Napoleon Bonaparte. You be the judge.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

'Tis the Season to Drink Bubbly!

 I only drink champagne on two occasions. When I am in love, and when I am not. 
- Coco Chanel

Nothing puts me in the holiday spirit more than the whisper when the Champagne cork is gently twisted off. Or for those who prefer a touch of drama, the slash of the saber across the bottle neck.

During the holiday season, you can also expect Champagne tasting at many local wine shops, drumming up the sale of the celebratory libation. So I'd like to take this moment to share with you a few fun facts about Champagne.

NV Louis Roederer
#1 Will the Real Champagne Grapes Please Stand Up?

You have seen them in the grocery store. Those tiny sweet seedless berries of Champagne grapes. Alas! Those are not the grapes used to make Champagne. They are not even *gasp* French.

So what grapes are used to make Champagne?

About 98% of the grapes that go into Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The other 2% allowed are Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Fromenteau), Pinot de Juillet, and Pinot Rosé. Even though both white and black grapes are used to make Champagne, most bubblies are white wine, and about 12% are pink.

Sometimes you will see Blanc de Blanc (white from white) or Blanc de Noir (white from black) listed on the label. Despite the names, both are white Champers. Blanc de Blancs are made with only white grapes, typically 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs are made with only black grapes, primarily Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, but with minimum skin contact. Blanc de Noirs are not to be confused with rosé Champagnes.

#2 NV, MV, or Vintage?

Most Champagnes you see are labelled NV (non-vintage). This means the Champagne is blended from grapes of different vintages or different years of harvest. NV is sometimes marketed as MV (multi-vintage), which more accurately describes the blend. Most NV Champagnes follow a house style, ensuring consistency in taste and quality. NV or MV wine can be released for sale fifteen months after harvest, which provides early cashflow for the Champagne houses or growers.

Dom Pérignon tour in Eperney
Vintage Champagne, on the other hand, is made from grapes that are harvested in the same year. On the label, you will see the year of the vintage. Vintage Champagnes are rare as they rely on a single year of good harvest. Additionally, the wine needs to be aged three years in the bottle prior to release. This is a luxury that small producers cannot afford. 

Dom Pérignon and Cristal are two famous vintage Champagnes. The last Dom Perignon vintage was released in 2009, and the last Cristal vintage 2012.

#3 Does Size Matter?

Yes, if cellaring wine is important to you. Larger-format bottles are usually made of thicker glass and provide better protection from light exposure and temperature variation. Moreover, the higher wine-to-oxygen ratio helps the wine age more slowly and gracefully. The rule of thumb is to drink smaller formats young and cellar bigger formats.

Moët & Chandon bottle sizes
While no one really knows the origin of why larger-format bottles are named after biblical characters, it is always fun to see if you get the names right. To complicate matters, some of the same names are used to refer to different sizes when describing still wine.

Piccolo/quarter bottle = 187.5 ml
Demi/half bottle = 375 ml 
Bottle = 750 ml 
Magnum = 1.5 liters (2 bottles)
Jeroboam = 3 liters (4 bottles)*
Rehoboam = 4.5 liters (6 bottles)*
Methuselah = 6 liters (8 bottles) 
Salamanazar = 9 liters (12 bottles) 
Balthazar = 12 lite4s (16 bottles) 
Nebuchadnezzar = 15 liters (20 bottles)
Solomon = 18 liters (24 bottles)

* For still wine, 3-liter is called Double Magnum, and 4.5-liter is called Jeroboam.

Now that you know a few more things about Champagne, go in confidence to that sparkling wine tasting. Perhaps you want to get yourself a Jeroboam of that NV Blanc de Blanc for the holiday party. 

'Tis the season to drink bubbly!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Winemaking Spooky Moments

Pumpkins and corn, grapes and vines. The final days of harvest are upon us!

Is it any surprise that Halloween and winemaking happen around the same time of the year? This Halloween, it seems apt that I should share three spooky moments of winemaking and the tricks to get out of them.

Halloween and winemaking
Spooky Moment #1: Starving Yeast

Two years ago, I was working on my second vintage. While my first vintage was part of a class, this was the first time I made wine with the training wheels off. I was in charge of the yeast, nutrients, and chemicals to ensure good sanitation and health for the fermentation process.

Healthy starter
It had been a year since I had prepared a yeast starter. (The downside of a once-a-year hobby.) I activated the yeast with warm water and nutrients, paying close attention to temperature control. To the hydrated yeast, I then added crushed grapes (known as the "must" in winemaker speak) diluted with an equal amount of water. The idea was to whet the appetite of the activated yeast several hours before introducing it to the eventual feast of grape-y sugary goodness.

While I thought I had kept good notes from my first vintage, it became clear that I missed some details. Important details. Like how how much must mixture I should add to the starter.

Starving yeast
I returned home from my day job to find the sad state that was my yeast starter. Instead of being round and full with tiny air bubbles, the starter was straggly and almost lifeless. Clearly I did not add enough must mixture. The yeast did not get enough sugar and was starving.

The Trick: Thankfully, it was early in the fermentation process, literally two days after harvest and crush, and this was highly recoverable. As long as there were some bubbles going on in the starter, adding more must mixture should revive the yeast in less than an hour. That was what I did and it worked. Failing which, I would have to get a new yeast starter. I added to my notes: 1 cup of must and 1 cup of water per 5 grams of yeast.

Spooky Moment #2: Rotten Eggs

Why does my must smell like rotten eggs?

H2S compound
You learn about this in class, and you are told not to panic. Still you pray it doesn't happen to you. But if you have been making wine for a while, it is inevitable.

What contributes to the rotten eggs smell is the compound hydrogen sulfide (H2S). By the time you can smell it, it typically means the yeast is stressed. The cause could be inadequate nitrogen, excessive sulfur, and/or lack of oxygen. And I believe we might have hit the jackpot on the trifecta.

  • Nitrogen - Washington grapes are infamous for having a low nitrogen level. This year's particular crop had less than a third of the healthy amount of Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (150 mg/L) for fermentation.
  • Sulfur - While I had treated the must with the same amount of sulfur every year to inoculate the grapes from wild yeasts. It is possible that the vineyard had also added sulfur to preserve the fruit for the four-hour ride back to Seattle, resulting in a double dose.
  • Oxygen - With the two factors above, weak air circulation and low oxygen contact with the yeast could just seal the deal for H2S production.
The Trick: First, we increased aeration with more rigorous and frequent punchdowns. We even removed the lid on the primary fermenter for several hours to improve circulation and let excess sulfur dissipate. Finally, we moved up the nutrients schedule by a day and beefed up the yeast with diammonium phosphate (DAP) to compensate for the low nitrogen level. That seemed to get the yeast going. By the next day, the rotten eggs smell was gone. Phew!

Spooky Moment #3: Sluggish Fermentation

While we fixed the H2S problem and kept fermentation going for the next few days, the drop in Brix started to slow down again at 11 degrees. (Our goal is to get to -1 or -2, which indicates that fermentation has completed.) Brix measures the sugar content in the must. Yeast coverts sugar into alcohol during fermentation. The slowdown indicates that the yeast might be experiencing stress again and might not be able to complete fermentation.

Hyrdometer to measure Brix
Sluggish or stuck fermentation is problematic. The unfermented sugar could attract bacteria. Additionally, there would not be enough carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, to provide a protective layer against oxidation. In both cases, the wine would be prone to spoilage.

The Trick: Depending on where you are in your fermentation process (high Brix or low Brix) and your winemaking skills, there are different ways to fix a sluggish or stuck fermentation. Given that we were nine days into primary fermentation and had only reached midpoint in the Brix, our best bet was to re-pitch with another yeast strain, Premier Cuvee, that is known for a fast and clean fermentation. (We normally use Premier Rouge for primary fermentation of red wine.) That was what we did, and we did manage to get the fermentation going through dryness in the next four days.

An added bonus of this second pitch of yeast is that we happened to catch the yeast starter on video, which was pretty neat!


My Verdict: While this is my fourth vintage, I find that I am constantly facing new challenges in winemaking and learning new things. Sure, these are spooky moments. But once you learn the tricks to overcome each challenge, you get a deeper appreciation of the process and you are rewarded with the ultimate treat! So move aside, Halloween, with your trick or treat. This is Hallowine time!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Rocks by Any Other Name

I first tasted wine from the Rocks in 2014, a year before there was a Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. It was at a tasting hosted by Esquin, with a line-up of Washington great reds, that included Christophe Baron's Cayuse wines.

Cayuse and Quilceda Creek Tasting at Esquin
While he might not be the first to grow grapes in the Milton-Freewater area, the French winemaker was the one who brought that region to international fame. When Baron first set eyes on the terroir, he saw a field of cobblestones, that reminded him of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He planted his first vineyard there in 1997 and named his winery Cayuse Vineyards, after the Native American tribe. Incidentally, the word "Cayuse" was derived from the French word for stones, cailloux.

Terroir or Wine Flaws?

Cayuse tasting room that is always closed
Baron was a controversial winemaker. While many absolutely adore his wines, he has his fair share of skeptics. Kori Voorhees of Wine Peeps wrote a compelling blog post in 2010 on whether Cayuse wine flavor profile was a reflection of a unique terroir or simply wine flaws. She even ran lab tests to prove that it was the latter.

I confess that I went into the Esquin tasting as a skeptic. Then I tasted four of his wines; Bionic Frog Syrah, Cailloux Syrah, Widowmaker Cabernet Sauvignon, and God Only Knows Grenache. It was not hard to pick up the unique flavor profile across the different varietals. What Voorhees would call pickle brine and cooked cabbage, I called kimchi. However, I found the umami in the wines oddly pleasing with a well-rounded complexity.

I was sold! (And yes, I love kimchi too.)

Rocks or Stones?

Fast forward five years from the tasting, the Rocks District was established as an AVA and continues to attract a lot of attention from both wine critics and wine collectors. The number of wineries that offer or increase wine offerings in the Rocks District AVA has also grown exponentially.

Sleight of Hand Cellars, for example, added two Syrahs from the Rocks District (Funk Vineyard's Funkadelic and Elevation Vineyard's Spider from Mars) to its popular Stoney Vine Vineyard's Psychedelic. All three single vineyard Syrahs are offered in the newly formed "For Those Who Love the Rocks" club.

Sleight of Hand Cellars' Single Vineyard Syrahs from the Rocks District
Interestingly, while others are cashing out on the Rocks District AVA branding, Baron did not jump on the bandwagon simply because he didn't like the name. (He prefers "Stones.") Truthfully, Baron didn't need to use the coveted AVA on the label. When people think of the Rocks District, people already think of Cayuse.

Regardless of the AVA listed on the label, the Rocks District produces beautiful wines. I want to share with you three from my cellar that I am super excited about.

Force Majeure's SJR, Rasa's Primus Inter Pares & Reynvaan's ITR Syrah
2016 Force Majeure's SJR Syrah is a departure from the winery's typical Red Mountain offerings. The project paid off when it received 100 points from Jeb Dunnuck of Wine Advocate. I tasted the SJR Vineyard Syrah the past spring at the Force Majeure winemaker's dinner before it was officially released. While every Force Majeure wine that night was incredible, the SJR was the most terroir-driven and interesting for me. It made such a lasting impression that I begged the winery to allocate a bottle to me.

2017 Rasa Primus Inter Pares Grenache is such a fun and fascinating wine. I tasted it during this past Spring Release in Walla Walla. Made with 100% Grenache from Monette's Vineyard, the wine is fruit-driven with cherries and berries and yet savory with the minerality that is typical of the region. International Wine Report gave it 95 points.

2016 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah In the Rocks is just stunning. In fact, Baron sold the Reynvaans the parcel of land that would become the estate In the Rocks Vineyard. A protégé of Baron, winemaker Matt Reynvaan is a star producer of Rhône-style varietals. I tasted the Syrah also during the past Spring Release in Walla Walla. It has well-balanced layers of fruit, meatiness, and umami. Jeb Dunnuck gave it 97 points.

My Verdict: I have definitely been converted from a Cayuse skeptic to a big fan of the Rocks region.  I do not disagree with Voorhees' blog post about the lab test results, and I certainly do not think that the Rocks District wines taste anything like Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I do, however, have a different perspective of what constitutes wine flaws. After all, there is no accounting for taste. I would encourage anyone to keep an open mind and try a wine from the Rocks District. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Vouvray, My Summer's Last Hurray!

Labor Day is around the corner, and the glorious warmth of summer days will soon cool into a burst of fall colors. But today I shall enjoy basking in the sun, sipping a glass of chilled Vouvray Sec, while poring over wine literature.

Vouvray, nestled in the heart of the Loire Valley, is an Appellation d'origine Contrôllée (AOC) that is dedicated almost exclusively to Chenin Blanc. This single grape however is extremely versatile. It is high in acidity and sugar, which makes for a crisp white wine with a nice body and mouthfeel. It can be completely fruit-forward and great for easy drinking. In the right terroir, such as Vouvray, it can also have interesting minerality, adding layers of complexity that is well sought after by wine collectors.

Vouvray in Loire Valley
In Vouvray, Chenin Blanc manifests itself in different styles of wine - from sparkling to still, from dry to sweet!

Sparkling Vouvrays are mostly made in the Champagne method (or traditional method), but you can find a less bubbly version made in the ancient method under the label "pétillent naturelle" or "pet-nat." (The difference between the two methods and among others as well is a topic that deserves its own blog post.) Sparkling Vouvrays are typically Brut (dry) or Demi-Sec (slightly sweet).

Still Vouvrays, which is what I normally drink, can range from Sec (bone-dry), Tendre (off-dry), and Demi-Sec (slightly sweet) to Moelleux (sweet or dessert-style).

2012 Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Sec
On this lazy summer afternoon, I popped open a bottle of 2012 Philippe Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Sec. 2012 was a challenging year in Vouvray as fluctuating weather conditions ended in a wet harvest season. Even then, the Foreau Sec was quite tasty.

On the nose, I got pear and honey, a winning combination for aromatics. While crisp and dry, I could taste apricot and honey mixed in with salty minerality. It was quite a pucker with the high acidity but well-balanced with medium-full body. The pucker also lent itself to a lingering finish. It was completely satisfying, and I'd imagine great with seafood or any light meat.

A note about Foreau and Huet...

Normally, my wine club sends me Vouvrays from Domaine Huet, which is known as the gold standard for the appellation. If you have read the book, Wine and War, or my blog post about it, you would also learn that co-founder Gaston Huet fought the Nazis during World War II and was a prisoner of war for five years.

As it turns out, Philippe Foreau is Gaston's nephew. It is no wonder that this third-generation winemaker is a Vouvray powerhouse in his own right. His Vouvray Sec was absolutely delicious and fitting for my summer's last hurray. I can't wait to get my hands on his sparkling wines and Moelleux, which will be the perfect celebratory wine for the holiday season.