Archive for the 'terroir' Category

Terroir from Santa Cruz to Australia

I wouldn’t say I’ve spread the gospel (?) of terroir to friends in the wine and tech business, but I’ve certainly talked about it a lot in reference to our Mapovino project.  And as in all things where you take the time to sow the seeds, enough interest is returing for a perfect Fall harvest.  (Ouch, what a metaphor).

A while back, independent wine salesman Alex Pryor (now over at Starlite Vineyards) pointed me to this article about the search for an Australian sense of terroir. What I liked about the article was that these folks tried to taste the difference between wines mades within the same appelation (Barossa), but coming from different sub-regions that could potentially reflect different influences on the wine.

More recently, my friend in wine and Drupal, Kurt Hurtado (at Bottlenotes) passed this on to me – the original Rhone Ranger’s thoughts on terroir.

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Great wine podcasts – and great geek cheat sheet

In researching the basics of U.S. wine and terroir for Mapovino, I’ve come across a few good resources for interested beginners. And so, to share the wealth:

  • Napa Valley Wine Radio: Despite the elevator jazz and fireside-smooth feel of this podcast, it has some gems of fundamental information. I’ve been looking for a good guide to “Decision-making in the course of wine-making” (a useful tool to use on Mapovino to compare differences among wine-makers?), so I appreciated Episode 61 – Winemaking 101. Yes, it’s a beginner’s overview, but it does point out step by step what decisions a winemaker will make that can affect the outcome of the wine. And then, perhaps more relevant to Mapovino, Episode 63 – The Napa Valley AVA.
  • Twisted Oak Winery: I’ve never tried their wines, but their “cheat sheet” (pdf) is not only helpful to understand their wines, but to understand some of the “wine geek” numbers that get thrown around a lot by people fascinated by such things (residual sugar, brix, etc)
  • Grape Radio: Grape Radio has a ton of great content. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the trio’s banter (but then again I prefer the foul-language and insult-laden diatribes of LUG Radio, so who am I to say anything?). That doesn’t stop me from recommending them as a great resource – and if you’re at all interested in Pinot Noir, you should listen to their recording of this lengthy Pinot Noir seminar with Allen Meadows. Whether you know very little and are curious, or you are well-versed in Burgundy wines, this is an incredible font of knowledge and history.

Medlock Ames, Alexander Valley, Sonoma

Winery - Medlock-Ames

I just came back from visiting Medlock Ames, a winery farm in Alexander Valley, in Sonoma. I first heard about them at last year’s Wine 2.0 event, although they are anything but high-tech – in all the right ways. I was visiting to get some pictures and basic data to use as a test for a small Mapovino demo we are hosting next week, and Medlock Ames is a great example of the kind of geographically specific, sustainable winery that we want to showcase.

Panorama - Medlock-Ames
At first glance, Medlock Ames is well within a trend sweeping many wineries: a sustainably farmed, organic vineyard that has adopted a lot of biodynamic practices to boot. In an oft-repeated reasoning among adopters of biodynamic grape-growing, Ames Morison, grape grower and winemaker for the the winery, said that he wasn’t sure exactly how biodynamic improved things, but it did – the results tended to be better than just using conventional organic farming methods.

Wait, I just said “conventional organic.” Wow, see how far along this road we’ve already travelled, where simply “organic” is still not enough?

In any case, Ames does pay attention to every piece of the ecosystem. Like any good father, he was up the entire night previous to my visit, monitoring the overnight cold snap that was hitting the region to make sure his new leaf buds didn’t freeze.

Native habitat - Medlock-Ames
But that’s to be expected from a premium grape grower. So also, these days, are the owl boxes that act as IPM to reduce mice and other vineyard pests; clover and native Californian grasses acting as cover crop to refuel the soil with nitrogen; solar panels to reduce dependence on fuel. This kind of attention to sustainable farming practices is certainly not ubiquitous, but becoming more and more common among the vineyards of Napa and particularly Sonoma.

But using a horse and plough? That’s a commitment, one of many made at Medlock Ames. How about the fact that they use less than half of their land for grape-growing, keeping the rest as natural habitat? Ames pointed out that it’s not altruistic – it actually helps maintain pest control, promotes animals and plants that are beneficial to the health of the vines, and in general supports the entire winery’s “health.” I also guessed, judging from some of the superlative wines I’ve had from the south of France that always hint of fennel, that the wildness of Medlock-Ames imparts a distinct character on the wines (Ames pointed out that, in a similar fashion, Heitz’ “Martha’s Vineyard” has a hint of eucalyptus.)

And Medlock Ames is certainly wild. They use sheep to act as natural weed-whackers, but have recently had some “predator problems.” I guessed a coyote. Ames responded that it was probably a mountain lion because of the neck puncture wounds on the dead sheep; coyote tend to gut their prey when they kill it.

Huh? This winemaker can identify predators by they way they’ve killed sheep? I felt like I was on a vineyard safari. And that’s when it really hit me – Medlock Ames is really a farm that produces, amongst other things, superb wine. When I mentioned this, Ames related the story from “An Omnivore’s Dilemma” where the dairy farmer actually identifies himself as a grass farmer, because that’s at the root of everything else he produces. Ames feels similarly about Medlock Ames.

Bulls at Medlock-Ames
To complete the safari feel of the tour, I pulled out my camera to capture some brief glimpses of the new small-bred cows they are now testing out to keep weeds and grasses down. These cows, bred in Australia to be heartier eaters across a wider range of environments, are also a bigger match for coyotes or mountain lions than sheep. I could hardly imagine them ambling among the fragile-looking vines, but apparently they do fine as long as it’s not right during the new leaf bud.

Medlock-Ames produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, a rosé (only available to club members) and a Bordeaux blend called “Red”. You can get their wines online, or from Bi-Rite Market and Castro Village Wine Company in San Francisco.

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Mapovino: Google-mapping and social-networking and wikipedia-ing

It’s very difficult to describe what we are aiming for with the Mapovino project without getting caught up in Web2.0 buzzword bingo; or, going the other route, being so pretentious that it’s we’re sooo different that we shun any words that sound vaguely like the “read-write web”. Sigh. Below are my best thoughts in words so far….

(We’re having a demo and wine-tasting in San Francisco soon. Contact me if you’re interested!)

Mapovino is a wine-mapping website incorporating GoogleMaps to showcase geographically distinct wines and the stories behind these wines.

Mapovino is interactive:

  • Users can add comments, photos, link to maps in their blogs, and even add blog links on the map.

Mapovino is encyclopedic:

  • It will pull wine and geography information from Wikipedia and other public information sources. This secondary user-generated content further enables users to interact with Mapovino.

Mapovino is information and referral:

  • Mapovino will not sell wines; instead, it will point to where to find the wine in stores and restaurants.

Mapovino will be driven by wine fans, helped by Mapovino staff:

  • Producers will not have the burden entering information about their wines and vineyards – fans of their wines can help input that information. Mapovino staff will highlight producers, and post in-depth articles and interviews. Producers can control their own entries, but do not have to do anything specific for their wines to appear on the site.

Mapovino is in development:

  • To be part of the conversation, please email “greg.beuthin” in front of “”

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Craigie Street Bistro – Boston

It’s been a long time in coming, but while I was in Boston for a conference, I finally made it to Craigie Street Bistro which is run (and cooked) by Tony Maws. Amanda is friends with the Maws family, and we’ve benefited form Tony’s expert recommendations for French dining before.

And in the month since I’ve eaten there, CSB (to insiders) has won some major awards and accolades. So I figure I’ve got to get this post up in order to support their well-deserved reputation.

Unfortunately, the timing for my trip was lousy – not only did I just recover from being sick for almost two days, but Tony was on his first well-deserved night off in 4 months. On top of that, I was alone – a couple of understated invitations to what is essentially Boston’s best French restaurant conflicted with colleague’s plans, and the list of people I wanted to invite to the best 4-course meal of their recent memory was fairly short.

Nonetheless I persevered. The place is small, about 20 tables, and the first thing I noticed is that it’s understated. It’s in a walk-down space under the corner of a large old brick apartment building, but immediately it feels cosy. And there are wait staff everywhere – I think I counted 6-8 for what was apparently a slow night. They all looked like they could have been recruited from any number of the colleges nearby, but they were all relaxed, very well informed, and so comfortable with the foreign words in the menu I sometimes had to ask them repeat something because they glided through the descriptions so effortlessly. Tony’s printed claim that all staff went through intensive training was in evidence (the staff also eats at the restaurant on Tony’s dime).

Tony focuses on sourcing a lot of local food, as much of it organic and biodynamic as possible. As with anything, though, when he needs something superlative, he’s not above importing it, as attested by his Wine Spectator-approved French wine list, or the offer of fresh shaved (and freshly imported) Perigord truffles – the last of the season, apparently.

However, for those more fastidious about being truly local, there’s plenty to crow about. The menu is created new every day – in fact, my menu stated it was printed at 5:07 pm that day, after all the products had been delivered and inspected. That’s fresh food.

So not only does Craigie Street Bistro have a new menu every day, he also has a daily “menu” – i.e a suggested 5-course meal (including a completely separate full veggie version). Oh, with a short list of 10-15 suggested wines that would work with that suggested meal. I got stuck on the appetizers, so I decided to make a small tapas meal out of it.

I started with house-cured Portuguese sardines, which looked like they had been barely seared – they were still reddish, meaty but tender, and not flaking and falling apart like cooked sardines. The sardines sat on tiny cobblestones of preserved lemon, pickled peppers and artichokes, a combination that reminds me of North Africa… (Yes, the cobblestones too, for those of you familiar with their war of independence….).

Next was the octopus, a single tentacle nearly 8 inches long with cipollini onions and hearts of palm (Palmito!), incredibly tender except, well, yes, the crunchy sucker parts. Hmmm. I wasn’t sure I had been prepared to go that far because I’m a little squeamish about fish parts, but I finished it all.

I had accompanied this by a glass of rosé, a great and dry sample from – I actually don’t remember. The wine list is several pages long (his half-bottle selection has over 20 wines, and his glass list easily a dozen). However, I wasn’t that focused on the wines since I was still sick, and really what interested me after a day and a half of eating nothing but peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, miso soup and tea was … food!

Then the ragout came out. I don’t know what I was expecting form a ragout – some sort of down-home stew something or other – but this wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a delicate arrangement of house-made venison sausage, sheets of brussels sprouts (yes, just sheets, not the whole thing), honshi meji mushrooms, with a split-pea purée. Oh, and a poached egg on top. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I’ve had before. And surprisingly, given all that was going on, everything tasted distinct – it wasn’t a blend of toppings like an “everything” pizza.

I had ordered a side of pomme aligot, which was made with so much laguiole cheese that I was forewarned it would come out almost gummy. Yup, that rhymes with yummy. I had actually canceled my order of the potatoes since I realized quickly the food was so rich I would be stuffed by then – but instead they came out with a “taster” version, and the chef (whoever it was that night) even threw in some of the famed truffle shavings.

I had finished my courses, but had a considerable amount of my second glass – a classic spicy and somewhat grassy Chinon red – left to go, so I relaxed and took in my surroundings. What I had noticed was that a good portion of the clientèle that night was the same kind I’ve seen in upscale restaurants near higher education institutions in the Bay Area (read: Berkeley). I know, people from East Coast academia hate being compared to their slacker casual West Coast brethren, which is partly why I’m doing it. Because the upshot is the same – there’s an demographic of landed intelligentry that eats at upscale restaurants near well-heeled universities as a given. Very polite, even politically relevant conversations, but the evening is nothing special, just another pleasant meal out.

I mean, celebrate the food, people! This is damn good, and it’s not a given that you should have access to this. I was ecstatic. The time and energy that went into the preparation – not only by the chef(s) and wait-staff, but the people listed on Tony’s short-list of preferred farms and all their staff – this means something to them. They are putting a lot of their energy and soul into this – the least you can do is feel something! If you’re not ecstatic, at least engage! I would bet Tony would really appreciate someone who was passionate about something wrong with the place (price, quality, service, whatever) after months of scores of people coming through, dropping a couple of bills, and leaving with only a “value” memory of what they liked that night. No one inherently deserve this food; it’s a gift, a privilege – appreciate it, celebrate it!

OK, sorry, rant over. I finished – uncharacteristically – with a tea, and as a consolation prize they brought out a single pear gelato ball – covered with a caramel made of, get this, reduced goat’s milk. Only – no added sugar. Bra-a-a-ah…. ‘Twas excellent. And that goes for the whole experience. I think I smiled the entire T ride back….

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Back to the Source – Yoga and Terroir is back!

My wife Amanda Dates is hosting her second yoga and terroir retreat (a quick look at the first one here). We spend a weekend up in Marin, visiting farms and eating locally procured food cooked by fantastic home-chef extraordinaire, Russ King – book-ended every day by yoga in a yurt, overlooking the Pacific Ocean!

More details on the retreat on Amanda’s yoga website.

Wine is geography in a bottle

So says Jancis Robinson, a well known English wine author and Master of Wine.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear her on the Grape Radio podcast, where she repeats what I assume is a long-time maxim of hers (tune in about 17m20 for the question that leads up to it; quote below).  So far the entire interview is great – I’m about 1/3 the way through it, and she’s a wonderful speaker.

“As for say, California wine, the tradition has grown up, hasn’t it, that most of it is varietally labelled.  I think it’s quite nice to see more and more vineyard names on the label, and I think that’s a healthy trend.

More and more the wine world is getting increasingly interested in geography, and realizing that that is the quintessence of wine, really – wine is geography in a bottle.”

This is exactly the sentiment we are coming from with the Mapovino project.  The question that comes up for us is – at what point does geography become so precise that the wines are too expensive (frequent in single-vineyard U.S. wines), or the so imprecise that the geography doesn’t matter much any more – does “Loire” or even “Napa” have any real geographic meaning when it comes to the nature of the wines produced?  Perhaps only in the traditions practiced within that geopgraphy – but that is a longer, ongoing discussion.

Speaking of Jancis, she also gave her insight on “cellar taste” in the SF Chronicle- the phenomenon of getting so used to a particular style of wine that other wines seem out of balance when you try them.  Most noticeably this happens to me when switching from Old World to New World wines, and that’s why the single wine club I belong to actually features wines from around the world.  Because I know every time I walk into a store, I head towards the French and Italian sections….

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