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Taste Our Terroir, Livermore Valley 2013

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IMG_2438(Photos by H. Kremer)

I was grateful to attend the Livermore Valley’s kickoff event for Taste Our Terroir 2013 at the Casa Real in Pleasanton on Thursday July 18.  The event was the first of a four-day weekend showcasing the food and wine of the Livermore Valley.  For the remaining days, many wineries were hosting tours, with others offering wine-paired dinners with cooking demonstrations, and much more wine-related events.

Established in 1849, the Livermore Valley has long been a forgotten wine destination.  Within the last two decades, a groundswell has been building to remind us that the Livermore Valley has a great deal to offer.  This movement has come from a variety of different groups, including wine growers associations and the wineries themselves.  Two of the wineries, Concannon and Wente, have deep historical roots in Livermore and have made many contributions to the changing landscape and strive to continue to draw attention to the Livermore region.

Thursday’s event had about 20 wineries each stationed with a local caterer.  The pairings were exquisite, and I had the opportunity to talk with many winery representatives and caterers alike.

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A couple standout pairings were:

  • Eagle Ridge 2010 Zinfandel paired with small gnocchi (green potato dumplings) served with a lamb ragu sauce
  •  Garre Vineyard 2009 sauvignon blanc paired with smoked salmon on bruschetta with capers and goat cheese

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  •  Concannon’s Righteously Rosé with a Gulf shrimp, Coho salmon, Pacific true cod, sea scallop sausage with Olivina EVOO, chives, rosé cream sauce with chervil [a delicate fennel-like herb]

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  •  Occassio Vineyard 2010 Zinfandel paired with American Kobe beef Carpaccio lollipops

My favorite was the watermelon gazpacho with a skewer of miscellany presented by Tender Greens Catering of Walnut Creek paired with the Retzlaff Vineyards’ 2011 Isabelle Blush, a merlot rosé.

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I was fortunate to speak with one of the pairing judges, David Glancy, after the competition.  David is the founder and CEO of the San Francisco Wine School and has a culinary background, so he was well suited for judging the pairing competition.

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I asked him what standards he was looking for in the pairings.  He told me he was looking for pairings that were “right on” for the particular varietals, but he also said that the judging was not about wine or food, but that he was looking for the best pairing.

He alluded that the wine and the food together needed to equal more than their individual parts.  He and another judge mentioned, “1 + 1 = 3.”

All in all, it was a great event to attend, and I’d love to attend it again to see what different pairings the caterers and wineries concoct for the evening.

How about you, did you attend?  Which pairing did you feel was the best, and why?

Cheers!

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Cornerstone 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain)

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January 8, 2012:  Yesterday, I took a wine tasting course for the volunteers over at White Crane Winery in Livermore.  Although I’ve been drinking wine for a number of years and had also been taught what to look for at previous tastings, I did learn a lot.  More on that in another post.

In order to give my UC Davis Aroma Wheel a spin, I stopped by the Wine Thieves in Lafayette tonight and picked up a 375 ml. of the Cornerstone 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain (Napa).

January 9, 2012: I had neither “Soiree’d nor decanted the wine last night.  At first sip, after breathing for over an hour, it was still tighter than an infant’s grasp on a man’s beard.  However, my initial impressions were of chocolate and vanilla.

Tonight it is much looser, the flavors more approachable.

The color is a beautiful deep garnet, with a tiny clear rim.  The fingers appear slowly, and travel even more slowly down the glass wall.

The chocolate (cocoa?) aroma is still present, along with an appealing tobacco — a vanilla cigar?  I had a pepper steak earlier this evening, so, not surprisingly, I’m detecting a faint whiff of spice or pepper on the nose.

The initial impression is gradual, and slightly fruity (red fruits, raspberry), slightly floral.  The feel is the beginning of a small wave, an eddy caused by a boat’s wake.  The peak is pleasant, no overly exuberant tannins, and the taste rounds out with a balanced, elegant finish.

I’d drifted away from bordeaux a few years ago due to over-muscular tannins, and had begun exploring more fruit-forward or earthy varietals, specifically GSM blends, malbecs and mourvedres.  This wine is the beautiful denouement to the drama.

According to Cornerstone’s site, over two-thirds of the Howell Mountain vineyard fruit is certified organic, and the winery is striving to increase that number.  While the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is virtually gone, after my tasting this evening, this winery is definitely on my watch list for the years to come.

~H

Thomas Coyne 2010 La Petite Quest

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Although I was disappointed about not publishing an article I’d worked on for a couple months, I kept telling myself two things when the editor told me she wasn’t going to publish it: (1) I am not married to my work, what she declined to publish is not “me.” and (2) the experience of meeting and interviewing wonderful people for the article was an experience in and of itself for which I’m grateful.

As an example, I got to talk to Thomas Coyne again. It had been years since I’d met him, and I had forgotten he made Rhone wines (my favorite!).

Tonight I’m drinking one of the wines I purchased from his winery, La Petite Quest. La Petite Quest is a rose (table wine) which is a blend of Grenache, syrah and Mourvedre. The label on the back mentions fruit (strawberry and raspberry), but I don’t taste it.

In fact, when I drink, it, I imagine a non-rose accompaniment. While one would normally think cheese, fruit, maybe some nuts for a picnic with this wine, I actually imagined it with something that was more substantial. A salad frisee with seared lamb or even ahi, with a nearly non-existent salad dressing.

This wine is neither dry nor sweet, but refreshing just the same. I’m drinking it with a small vegetarian pizza and even though the garlic on my pizza may be overwhelming, I still want to elevate this wine to something beyond fruit and cheese in a picnic setting.

~H

Lodi Rules!

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I received the assignment for an article on Lodi fruit sometime in early to mid August, and submitted my final draft in late September.  The editor and I had not been on the same wavelength as initially the assignment was for a harvest article with a Lodi fruit emphasis.  I sought out East Bay wineries that purchased Lodi fruit to bring the article closer to home.

In any event, the article will not be published in the upcoming issue, but may be slated for a future article once some specific, now-known questions have been answered.

I offer to you the unedited version of my article. Please bear with me as I had to finish it in a bit of hurry to make deadline, and it is more wordy than I expected it be when it was going to press.

I’m going to offer more photos as well.

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Many of us have a clouded perception of wine from the Lodi region.  We may have learned early on from our parents not to trust the grapes that went into the massive jug bottles on the supermarket shelves.  Perhaps we consumed a coveted bottle from a more prominent region and believed no other region’s fruit would be comparable.

Whatever our perception, it is time to elucidate beliefs that Lodi grapes are somehow inferior to fruit from other regions.

With continuous company consolidations and mergers today, we can be assured the wine we drink isn’t made necessarily with fruit from where the winery is located.  In fact, much of the fruit used in wine we consume was grown in Lodi.  This begs to ask more about the fruit that we don’t see that goes into our wine.

LANGE TWINS Winery and Vineyard, Lodi

Marissa Lange, winery operations manager at Lange Twins Winery and Vineyard and a member of a fifth generation family of Lodi farmers, represents lineage dedicated to grape farming and vineyard management for Napa wineries.

Her father and uncle, identical twins, formed the Lange Twins organization in the late 1970’s.  “It was originally a partnership between the two families, and they were going to farm 40 acres they purchased from my grandfather,” Marissa explains.  The 40-acre farm wasn’t enough to sustain two families.

The Lange Twins added vineyard management to their list of qualifications, and began offering vineyard management to third party property owners.  Third party owners are “essentially absentee owners that want to invest in the agricultural sector but don’t have the expertise or desire to actually tend to it,” Marissa describes.  This is where her family’s business found its niche.

In the early 1980’s, by farming estate fruit and absentee owner fruit, the Lange Twins went from farming 40 acres of now obsolete varietals, such as French Colombard, to evolving into a larger, more agile operation that manages 8,000 acres of vineyards.

Marissa attempts to put the numbers into perspective.  “8,000 acres yields approximately 60,000 tons of fruit a year.  We farm 21 different varietals, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon — all the usual suspects.  We also have other varietals not as well known such as malbec and cinsault.”

In addition to farm management, Lange Twins became exclusively contracted long-term grape growers.  “We sell grapes to wineries that want grapes, we sell bulk wine to wineries that want wine, and we can make wine to their specifications on a long term contract.”

While still miniscule compared to the gigantic E. & J. Gallo Winery, Lange Twins’ scale doesn’t seem far behind as much of its fruit and wine is provided to Robert Mondavi and Clos du Bois, both of which are owned by Constellation Brands, the world’s largest premium wine company.

Green Valley

Just like all other businesses, there is the social obligation for wineries to adhere to a sustainability program.

When asked what the motivation for such a program is at Lange Twins, Marissa again points out that the company is five generations strong.  “When you look at your business as a multi-generational business you realize that if you don’t do what you are doing better than the generation before you, the generation after you won’t have anything to work with.”

The charge to become sustainable began with Marissa’s father, Randy Lange, and his twin brother.  “In my grandfather’s day, you cleared the land, you leveled it, and you planted on it.  My grandfather’s generation didn’t have the same environmental concerns we do,” she added ruefully.

For the past few decades, the twins independently rehabilitated the natural habitats on their land. “Back then there was no marketing spin. They were doing it because it was the right thing to do.” Her father and uncle together set up a local committee to establish rules for sustainable farming.

The Lange Twins’ Mission in essence:

“We need to ensure sustainability on three levels.

1. To have a viable business perspective to provide to the next generation;

2.  To provide the next generation with an opportunity to farm the land; and

3. To remain sustainable for our workers.”

The Lodi Rules program, which the Lange Twins sought to develop for the community, incorporates those three points —  Environment, economics and employees.  “It’s the three-legged stool – if one of those elements isn’t working, it all comes tumbling down.”

Marissa puts it in plain words.  “What our family has done is the right thing.  It’s the right thing to do for the business, it’s the right thing for the land, and it’s the right thing for the environment.”

THOMAS COYNE WINERY, Livermore Valley

Thomas Coyne, whose background is in chemical engineering, was a former winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars.

In 1994, when Thomas and his wife, Emilie, began their winery at the historical Chateau Bellevue in Livermore, none of the local farmers had any of the varietals they wanted.  The majority of the local wineries were growing and pouring primarily Bordeaux varietals, and Thomas wanted to produce less popular varietals, such as Rhones.

“In 1994, there was no viognier (a Rhone varietal) in Livermore, and a lot of the other wine grapes I was interested in weren’t available in Livermore; no one was growing them,” he explains.

Thomas began buying fruit from small grape farmers in the Lodi region.  “I was buying syrah from a Lodi farmer for about three or four years, and finally we grafted some syrah to grow here.”

Thomas explains how the Livermore Valley landscape changed the past two decades.   “It used to be chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and a little merlot.  That’s all there was,”  Thomas clarifies.  “That’s the evolution of how it’s happened here at my winery.”

Lack of availability wasn’t the only reason he began looking outside the Livermore Valley for fruit — It was also to get out of the groupthink that existed in the Livermore Valley.  “The diversification wasn’t there.  When I contacted other people [outside of Livermore], they were interested in other things, and getting grapes out of the area gave me the opportunity to try different varieties that I didn’t have access to otherwise.”

His experimentation has created a niche for his winery.  Some of the varietals he’s blended and bottled include verdelho, terrantez, rousanne, grenache blanc, ugni blanc, mourvedre and carignane.

Strange Weather

In addition to the availability and variety of fruit available from the Lodi region, weather has also played a part in his decision to continue buying fruit from outside of the Livermore Valley AVA.

“It’s not just the cool summers; it’s also the way the spring has evolved [these past two years].  Normally, we get bud burst in April, and in May we are seeing good shoot growth. This summer we weren’t getting any shoots at all.”

“The year’s harvest is going to be set back about three weeks,” Thomas opines.  This statement applies to everywhere grapes are grown, not just the Livermore Valley or the Lodi region.

Norman Knoll

While at Rosenblum, Thomas met Norman Knoll, a grape farmer in the Lodi region who has well over 200 acres and specializes in small lots.

“The majority of his farm is zinfandel vines, which mostly goes to larger wineries. The small lots go to smaller wineries.  He has varietals you’ve never seen before,” Thomas says excitedly. Viognier and Grenache are two of the varietals Thomas regularly gets from Norman.

Thomas tells a story of an exceptional varietal Norman grows:  “Norman’s land is bordered by the Mokelumne River. One day, he found a vine growing in the middle of the river with white grapes on it.  He took some of the vine and planted it.  We bought the grapes from him one year and called it ‘vin sauvage,’ or “the wild vine.”

“He does things like that, nobody else would do that — he’s a great grower,” Thomas continues.  “He takes very good care of his vineyard.”  Not surprisingly, Norman farms his grapes organically.

“He’s very quality sensitive and understands that if you don’t have good grapes, you can’t make good wine with it; he understands that equation.”

NORMAN KNOLL

Norman Knoll, born in 1926, likes to say he was “born into” the wine business.   His mother kept him in a grape box while she worked packing Tokays, a one-time popular table grape.  When he was 8 or 9 years old, Norman was driving a tractor and helping tend grapes.  When he was 16 years old, he was working for his grandfather’s winery.

His grandfather, Jacob Knoll, was a Russian immigrant who came to America with nothing but a wife and three hungry children.  After homesteading 160 acres in North Dakota for five years, Norman’s grandfather grew weary of the bitter cold and moved west to California.  Upon arriving in Lodi, he purchased 40,000 acres of vineyards.

According to a Lodi News Sentinel article from September 18, 1937, the region already held a reputation as a prolific grape producer with a quarter of the nation’s wine grapes grown in Lodi.  The article also mentions Jacob Knoll’s winery and credits it for producing half a million gallons of wine a year.

Diversity

Norman’s varietals are diverse.  He has 40 acres of zinfandel, with the remaining acres of small lots of uncommon grapes such as viognier, chardonnay, early burgundy, and sangiovese.  He also has six acres of Tokays, a flavorful table grape.

Historically, Lodi was abundant in Tokays and had as many as 40,000 acres in the early to mid 1900’s. Today there are less than 500 acres left.

When asked about the wild vine found in the Mokelumne River, Norman is casual.  “I just planted the roots and they had grapes.  No body knows what it’s called.  I just call it a wild white grape,” he says.  “I still have a row of them, 64 vines.”

Organic Farming

When he first starting growing grapes, Norman said there was no organic movement yet. “At that time, we sprayed everything.” In the early 1970’s, he went to one of the first agricultural farm shows in Tulare.   “I talked to a fellow there who had a display of organic stuff.  That’s when I made the change.  You can farm organically.  You have to work at it, but it’s worth it –  it makes a better product.”

Conclusion

Lodi farmers are dedicated to preserving the natural resources they tend.  Growing fruit organically is no longer just hype; it is a necessity for many farmers.  How wine is created, from the deep dirt in the earth to the spreading leaves on the vine, is deep in the minds of Lodi farmers and producers.

For decades, the Lange Twins organization has fostered participation with local farmers and state representatives to advance sustainability in Lodi.  For over half his life, Norman Knoll has organically, painstakingly farmed his grapes because he knows the outcome is going to mirror his care.  The picture in Lodi is changing.

Wine is a personal thing.  It’s something we can share with friends, family, people we love.  To sip a good wine is akin to experiencing a faint breeze that causes autumn leaves to fall.  Sipping wine can invoke a reverie of the senses.  For some, it’s a spiritual connection to the earth, and the devotion for what goes into our wine is becoming as clear as the glass we hold.

~H

Whatever Floats Your Cork (Jezebel, 2009 Pinot Noir, Oregon)

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Drinking wine is like listening to music.  Sometimes you want to listen to a song to elevate a good feeling, or to forget a bad day.  Sometimes you want to rock out to your favorite band, and sometimes you want to mellow out to the haunting vocals of a lyrical hero.

Too often we drink wine because it’s the wine everyone else is drinking.  This is similar to hearing a song on the radio and when you realize you don’t really like it, it’s too late — you’ve heard it so many times it’s stuck in your head.

I hate to admit I’m intrigued by Katy Perry.  She worked with Alanis Morrisette during the mid 90’s and appears (to me) to have potential.  I will continue to keep my thoughts to myself though, while I listen to Teenage Dream in my car on the way to work. 

Just like musical tastes, people should drink what they truly enjoy — even if it’s the much maligned white zinfandel.  After all, if you’re not drinking the wine you like, there is no sense in drinking it at all.

My musical tastes are more diverse than my taste for wine.  I have 50’s pop, hardcore punk, classical, jazz, ‘smooth’ jazz, new country, classic country, classic rock, and anything else you can think of in any of those spectrums.  I have reggae, Cuban, Latin jazz, and even a little bit of hip hop. 

Paso Robles vineyards

When it comes to wine, however, there exists only a small range of wines I’ve explored.   I have had many chardonnays, cabernets, syrah, and zinfandels from the Paso Robles area, Amador Valley, and the Livermore Valley.  I don’t know that much about Napa wines, and if I were asked to point out on a map of France where the Rhone region is located, I would fail miserably.

What’s worse, besides the initial foray into chardonnays, cabernets, syrahs, and zinfandels, the only other wines I’ve explored at length have been Rhone varietals — viognier, mourvedre, grenache, and GSM, the blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.

I’m not worried though.  I’ve already had a malbec that I would love again, and I am prepared to buy and drink an unknown wine from Wine Thieves that I may not like.   The experience will be good, and I’ll be smarter in the long run when making choices in wine tasting at wineries or at restaurants. 

After all, it’s like my Miles Davis collection on CD.  I have 23 or so now, but there’s always room for the remaining 40 or 50 other classic albums that I don’t have yet.

~H

Tonight’s Tasting:  Jezebel, 2009 Pinot Noir, Oregon

Listening to: Wayne Shorter, Adam’s Apple with Herbie Hancock, Reginald Workman, and Joe Chambers, 1966

Appearance:  clear medium rim, pale red hue

Nose: light spice, faint earthy scent

Palate: light berry on initial impression, soft body, mild berry and woodiness on finish

 This wine was a good value (from Diablo Foods) and a very good pinot noir.  This is a great every day wine for a pinot lover.

The Beginning…and Thank you!

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This post was initially to talk about the Curtis Heritage Series.  Lately I’m drinking the 2007 Santa Barbara County Heritage Cuvee.  This wine is a blend of 36% mourvedre, 28% grenache, 19% cinsault, and 17% syrah.  I realized in a moment of brilliance that it would not be appropriate for me to write about this wine without a hat tip to the people with whom I discovered Rhone varietals.

I was amazed a few moments ago while reflecting how I came into the wine blogger scene here in the Bay Area.  It was a pretty innocent beginning, with my friend for a few years telling me in 2008 about Twitter being the hot new site to find information.  At the time, she was finding freelance work at the time on Twitter, so it’s staggering to imagine the true potential of Twitter as an employment/recruitment tool.

She also mentioned it was a great venue to learn about things.  At the time, as she knew, I was very interested in learning more about media, both traditional and new, journalism, marketing and advertising.

Prior to entering the fray on Twitter, I had been reading many industry blogs, and paid particular attention to John Battelle, Chris Pirillo, and other long-time bloggers who had high visibility in the blogosphere and on Twitter.  Just by reading their tweets, and who replied to them , I was able to begin my foundation of followees and followers on Twitter.

Before Twitter had its own search capability, there was Summize.   Google didn’t do Twitter justice when it came to finding people to follow, and the other sites such as Twello did not exist.  Summize was very helpful.

Once I had found Summize and found more people to follow, it wasn’t long for me to do a search on something I’ve loved for nearly 20 years:  wine.

Through my searches on Summize for wine, I found a gal in San Francisco who was tweeting about wine, and I decided to follow her.  She was the first person I knew who protected her tweets.  Also, if I remember correctly, her bio even mentioned that she tweeted a lot about bacon.

I watched her Twitter stream to see who she engaged with and followed and engaged with them as well.  I realized early on that many of the people who were tweeting about wine were meeting in real life.

In late 2008, I made plans to meet up with Jim and Sharon in Livermore to do some wine-tasting and tweeting.  We had a great time, and had some great wines.

What struck me though was at one of the wineries, Les Chenes, I tried a mourvedre for the first time.  I was blown away, and purchased two bottles on the spot.  I’d always been a typical wine drinker, heavy cabs, oaky chardonnays, but this Rhone wine was a foray into unknown territory.

I was struck by the earthy, somewhat spicy nature of the wine.  The aroma was amazing as well.  I was hooked!  After that I sought out all Rhone varietals in any store, in any restaurant with a substantial wine list, and at any winery.

So, this is my thanks to Jim and Sharon for meeting up with me, and giving me the opportunity to find a new wine!

~H

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