There have been some heated exchanges recently between sommeliers in San Francisco and winemakers from the surrounding regions. Although nearly every chef in San Francisco embraces the concept of buying local products, wine buyers have shown little such interest, creating wine lists that are largely based on imported wines from both classic and emerging regions from the far corners of the globe while ignoring the innovations of myriad winemakers in California. A recent blog post from New York Times wine and spirits writer Eric Asimov ignited debate, with San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne following on his heals with an article of his own.
As a longtime sommelier and lover of wine from around the world who now manages a small winery in Napa Valley, I was approached repeatedly about weighing in – but thought it best to let the dust settle. Recent rains have settled that.
My first true wine trip took place nearly 15 years ago when I boarded a plane to Malpensa in November and made my way to the town of Alba. Anyone who has spent time in Alba in November knows that the streets are perfumed with the beguiling musk of white truffles. The streets are full of revelers and seekers, those who make the yearly pilgrimage to this famed northwestern region of Italy to secure and consume one of the worlds most beguiling products.
Aside from white truffles, the other defining product is wine. From the famed nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, to the more approachable dolcetto and barbera (and cortese), the bars and restaurants of Alba, and Nieve and every other town in the region, are full of locals and visitors alike enjoying the fruits of the nearby land. Order a plate of tajarin with butter and white truffle along with a pristine bottle of 1978 Barbaresco (ok, there are probably very few left in the cellars) and you are in heaven.
For many who travel to the worlds great wine growing regions, one of primary reasons for the trip is to taste the wines of the area. When I am traveling around the Willamette Valley, I am not likely to order a bottle of Angelus. If there is Coche-Dury on the menu at a reasonable price, I may HAVE to buy it, otherwise I, and most everyone else traveling in the region, is going to order pinot gris, chardonnay or pinot noir grown in the surrounding vineyards. Wine lists are full of the new as well as the established, the iconic and the eccentric. This is as true in Champagne as it is Bordeaux, in Rioja as it is in Mendoza.
Lovers of wine in all of these regions (simply living in a famed wine region doesn’t immediately qualify you as a true lover of wine) seek out compelling examples from around the world and well chosen restaurant lists highlight the local while looking outside the immediate evirons for compelling expressions of far flung varieties. THERE IS GREAT WINE MADE IN NEARLY EVERY WINE GROWING REGION IN THE WORLD. As a lover of fine wine you would be doing yourself and your customers a disservice NOT finding the best examples. Coercing the Burgundians to pull the cork on a bottle of Bordeaux is no small feat, and yet if you are truly compelled by the potential for myriad expressions of grapes, you seek them out, ask around. At Cyrus, in the heart of the Sonoma wine country, I was DEDICATED to finding the best examples of wines from throughout the region while paying homage to the greats from around the world. The local wine lovers asked after Burgundy and Piedmont, the visitors after Ceritas and Copain.
So why the allegations that the Bay Area, long home to one of the worlds most progressive and locally sourced food scenes, takes a dim view of its winemaking neighbors to the north and south?
The reasons raised are predictable, if more complex than understandable by a cursory glance.
Buyers are accused of romanticizing the foreign, of coercing their customers into trying wines that fit their preferences and not those of their guests, of simply being too busy or lazy to fully understand the wines and winemakers that work diligently in their own backyards. There is an aura of eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity, with Gruner Veltliner posing as the poster child for a whole era of copycat consumption where suddenly every restaurant in the larger Bay Area was pouring it by the glass (I include myself in this criticism, at Gary Danko I had 2 full pages of Gruner Veltliner…).
Winemakers, also predictably, are accused of making wines that taste the same whether pinot noir or cabernet, of slanting production methods towards the palate of reviewer, or worse, of planting grapes in places that should have remained apple orchards or grazing land. Most damning is the accusation that the local wines simply don’t go with food – all of the ripe rich fruit and wood morphing into some indistinguishable reduction of sweetness and cooking spice.
There is truth to all of these accusations; however, to delve so superficially into the debate is ludicrous. Are there overripe wines that declare themselves the primary point of the meal? Yes. Are buyers wary of preparing lists that are identical to the restaurant down the street? Absolutely. But if we in the Bay Area are devoted to the idea of localization, then buyers need to work harder finding the unheralded gems and innovative winemakers and winemakers need to continue to evolve their approach beyond one that is purely score based and more soul based.
Wines like Lioco are embracing old school methods of non intervention (including un-oaked chardonnays) and seeking out compelling sites that produce wines of balance and individuality. Parr selections is picking fruit early to preserve freshness and balance and demonstrating that wines from California and Oregon can have a sense of place. There is Peay and Corison, Dyer and Melville, Hirsch and Von Strasser – there is Meteor making distinctive site specific wines with structure, balance and elegance that rival (and often transcend) any of the worlds greatest wines!
Asimov and Bonne are right to question and buyers are not wrong to question, but to make grandious statements about an entire industry and declare yourself a supporter of “local” agriculture is hypocritical at best and naive and lazy at worst.
We racked the last of the 2009 vintage off ML today… have been racking since Tuesday and everything looks great. Particularly excited about the clone 7 and the Petite Verdot. The Petite Verdot is more of a stand alone wine than most I’ve tasted, with some of the racy, floral top notes of Petite Verdot but with great delicacy and length. Once again, the balance of clones offers and array of aromatics and textures, with the bright berry fruit of the 337 adding the telltale “high tones”. Balances are good. Tannins already controlled. Mike and his team did all the real work in the vineyard. Looking at oak, we’re liking the addition of more Tarrensaud, especially for the 337, but still are partial to the Alain Fouquet barrels. The before and after the rain discussion is a non starter…the only grapes that remained into the rain were Clone 4, and the fruit is close to perfect.
An article in the recent New Yorker about Johnathon Gold (”the high-low priest of the L.A. food scene…”) explored Gold’s exhaustive quest to eat through the endless array of restaurants in Los Angeles (he covers over 20k miles per year JUST dining in L.A. and environs). Many commentators note L.A. as one of the adventurous places to eat in the U.S.
The wine scene has been slower to develop. While mammoth wine programs like the former Grand Award winning Sona excel(ed) at comprehensive programs delving deep into the classic wine growing regions, others have looked broad and far for the most exciting producers from any number of regions from around the world.
Restaurants like Palate in Glendale fuse a passion for artisanal food with wines ranging from classics like Coche-Dury to biodynamic producers from the Loire Valley and Languedoc Roussillon. Caroline Styn’s Lucques and AOC have long sought out interesting wines from around the world – I remember several years ago enjoying Domaine Vacheron’s delicious Bell-Dame and marveling at the potential for Pinot Noir in the Loire (in ripe vintages). For Italian wines, everyone flocks to Mozza and Osteria Mozza.
For the most exciting wines from Napa, restaurants like CUT, The Polo Lounge, Spago, Boa and Melisse stand at the forefront – constantly surveying the horizon for wines that transcend the status quo.
And don’t forget that many of the most interesting wine programs in Southern California are the regions innovative retailers. Savvy consumers are tied into some of the most interesting wine shops in the U.S.; HK at Red Carpet Wines, Gary Fishman at Wally’s, Michael Brick at Hi Times and Alan Chen at Wine Connections.
I have been an avid bread baker since my college days. For me Autumn launches bread baking season and there will be dough rising every weekend. Over the years I have obsessed over great sourdough and have gone through various phases of creating and keeping starter.
Last fall I got inspired by Peter Reinhardt’s (arguably the absolute guru of bread authors) latest book “Whole Grain Breads” to get some sourdough starter going again, but this time with a unique twist – innoculating the starter with the natural yeast that grows on our very own Meteor Vineyard Cabernet.
The whitish “blush” that is common to smooth skinned fruit like grapes or plums is actually a natural yeast bloom which can be put to work for a natural sourdough starter. I was very interested to see what kind of terrior could be infused into a “mother” starter.
I soaked the grapes for two days and used the water as the liquid in the starter. All starters gain more character with age and after 12 months of feeding the started has really come into it’s own, producing robust rising power (without the addition of granulated yeast) and a mellow tang to the breads produced.
If interested I can “clone” some starter for our Meteor Vineyard friends. Write me at Barry@meteorvineyard.com.
Fall in the wine country is always serene. The grapes are in the winery, the leaves are slowly changing color and the sunlight feels more refracted and diffuse. The manic nature of harvest feels long ago, and the vines move incrementally toward a period of winter slumber. I was taking a quick respite this afternoon while talking to a buyer in Las Vegas and had to stop and marvel at the pristine natural beauty.
Despite early forecasts for rain into the weekend, Sunday arrived with perfect fall conditions.
Thomas MacNaughton, of San Francisco’s Flour and Water, prepared a melange of delicious food including Flour and Water’s incredible house cured salumi, roasted pumpkin soup with smoked duck and pistachio, roasted beet and persimmon salad with curly cress and roasted squash and pancetta salad with pheasant and wild arugula.
The wood fired pizza oven was burning, and Barry and Tom had a friendly battle over pizza crusts (Barry’s starter is developed with wild yeasts from the vineyard).
The food was delicious, and the wines (of course) were spectacular. Dawnine pulled barrel samples of the 2007 (yes, it is everything it is touted to be), both of the 2006 wines that were released several weeks ago were flowing, and a few of the final bottles from 2005 were pulled from the cellar to demonstrate the evolution of the vineyard. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.
As we prepare for the 2009 harvest, a flashback to 2006…
Each year, as harvest approaches, we winemakers find ourselves looking for comparisons with previous growing seasons. No two are ever exactly alike- that’s part of the compelling nature of winemaking (and wine drinking!), but over the past 30 years I’ve come to expect to find some resonance or a pattern of behavior, or lessons learned from a particularly treacherous season. So, as the unfinished story of the 2009 at Meteor unfolds and we wait for the nextl installment, I look back at the finished story of the soon to be released 2006 vintage.
2006 was cool and wet through April; May was variable with cool temperatures in the second half of the month delaying the finish of bloom and setting up a situation for variable ripeness. Several heat spikes in June and one protracted heat wave in July took their toll on the vines and left us thinking about a premature harvest, but August and September returned to below average temperatures and a protracted waiting began. A little rain in October, followed by a final, blessed week with temperatures over 80, brought us to a successful harvest on Oct 28. Not a year for the faint of heart! At every twist and turn, we anticipated alternate outcomes… then the unexpected happened! I really can’t find the vintage to compare to 2006, but am glad to have lived and learned from it. Already, the press has written about the vintage… and I would agree with challenging and maybe even variable, but challenging vintages in the hands of skilled viticulturists and winemakers can be astonishing successes ( my favorite quote of the year- “2006 was not a year when the wines made themselves!”). Mike kept the vineyard going thru the heat and made repeated passes thru the vineyard during the growing season. His diligence in the vineyard reduced the challenges in the winery, but there again, sorting was the name of the game and the grapes that made it to the fermenter were in pristine condition. Blending is the second half of the story.
2006 was a year where intimate knowledge of the vineyard (and Mike, who planted the vineyard knows it better than anyone), access to a sorting table and selective blending all paid off and we are really excited that with our second release, we are offering even more intensity of character and depth of flavor than the acclaimed 2005 vintage. 2007 and 2008 confirm that this level of quality is indeed sustainable from Meteor Vineyard… and 2009? So far so good!
History – A Quick Synopsis
The release of our inaugural vintage in the fall of 2008 marked the culmination of decades of dreams and experience.
For Meteor Vineyard owner Barry Schuler, it marked the culmination of a dream hatched over 35 years ago when Barry, a student with a growing passion for wine, first visited Napa Valley. After roaming the valley and tasting, he was struck with the burning desire to someday live in Napa, grow grapes and make a wine that could take its place among the worlds greats.
Simultaneously, Bill and Dawnine Dyer were launching their careers in winemaking and the history of Napa Valley was being written daily as it emerged as a truly world class wine growing region. Their paths would include some of the most successful wineries in the valley and an exhaustive understanding of the microclimates and potential of Cabernet Sauvignon from many areas of Napa Valley.
Three decades later their paths converged on a small knoll in a unique corner of Napa Valley that was immediately recognized as home to some of the most distinct fruit in the region. Meteor Vineyard was born.
Meteor Vineyard – A Rare Coming of Age
When Barry and his wife Tracy purchased the property that is now Meteor Vineyard in 1998, the comments that it was a “natural” vineyard site resounded. Noted viticulturist Mike Wolf planted the 22 acre vineyard to 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, recognizing that the quick draining soils of white volcanic ash and river stone and the temperate growing season of the Coombsville area would serve as the perfect foundation for world class Cabernet Sauvignon.
The 2006 harvest was far more challenging than the 2005. An uneven bloom set during spring led to a veritable autumnal “fruit cocktail” – green berries and raisins interspersed with perfect, concentrated berries. The result? – careful sorting in the field and even more diligence on the sorting table. Thank goodness we are a boutique operation; hand sorting is intensive and exhausting work! The grapes that passed the gauntlet were as perfect as Cabernet Sauvignon gets.
The palette of clones in the vineyard offered an array of character when it came time to blend. The dark brooding fruit and chocolate tones from clone 7, the structure and intensity from Clone 4 and the bright effusive fruit of 337 resulted in a wine of precocious aromatics, penetrating depth. This, coupled with what is quickly becoming our trademark mouthfeel, show the evolution of a vineyard that is truly coming of age.
It’s that time and the grapes have been coming in almost every night. Yesterday our very special plot of Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon was picked. These “artisans of the field” have tended to every vine during the season. Trimmed, dropped fruit, made the tough decisions over which clusters would stay on the vine during growing season to concentrate flavors in a purposefully selected yield of fruit. Most of these folks have been tending to our vineyard since it was planted a decade ago.
When the time to pick comes, it is done with grace and speed, not to get a tedious job done, but to get from vine to crush as soon as is possible.
No musical accompaniment to this little video clip would do it justice.