July 2008

Ha ha!, no, what I actually mean is “The Gall of DeVries Public Relations in New York,” which handles PR for Gallo, but in a recent post “Naked Wine People & Blog Promotion” on fermentation, one of Tom Wark’s principles of blog promotion is “Write Really Provocative Headlines for Each Post.” So there. I might throw in a naked person too.

The point here, because you’re wondering what the hell the point is, is that I received an email press release from DeVries bottleshock-poster-lrg-202×300.jpg inspired by the forthcoming release of the movie Bottle Shock, which is based on the controversy surrounding the notorious “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976, a cinematic premise that sounds as engrossing as watching a bunch of wine critics sitting around a table and, you know, tasting wine, which is what they did. The movie stars Chris Pine, Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman and will be released on August 6. A rival production, The Judgment of Paris, is also in the works, but got a later start than Bottle Shock.

The point of the “Judgment of Paris” tasting, a name conferred after the fact, is that a group of wines from California, chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, were pitted, in a blind tasting, against a group of wines from France, great and prestigious chardonnays from Burgundy and cabernets from Bordeaux, and the California wines not only showed extremely well but won. Selected as the best wines — remember, the panel was composed mainly of French winewriters — were the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973. The event was organized by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who ran a wine store and school in Paris. Naturally the French were chagrined at this slap against their national honor, and the French press tried to downplay or ignore the results of the tasting, but a reporter for Time magazine was present, and his article was, as it were, the shot heard round the world. The tasting, along with the excellent vintage of 1974, declared that winemakers in California were no amateurs and that their products could stand up to and beat the best that France could offer.

So, what’s the point of the press release from DeVries?

That Gallo Family Vineyards and Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio Gallo, should be a source for journalists writing stories about the movie and about the famous tasting in 1976. Gallo Family Vineyards is the arm of the vast E.&.J Gallo company that produces fairly limited editions of higher-end wines from Sonoma County. Gina Gallo is a talented winemaker, and the Gallo Family wines can often be quite good, especially the Single Vineyard and Estate wines, but Gallo had absolutely nothing to do with the “Judgment of Paris” nor with the making of the movie Bottle Shock. You can learn all you need to know about that event and its aftermath on Wikipedia. Or, if you have time, you could read George M. Taber’s detailed and evocative book, “The Judgment of Paris,” on which the movie of the name is based.

Here’s the gist of the press release from DeVries:

It’s time to break out the Chardonnay and celebrate the virility of Californian wines, with Gallo Family Vineyards and the much anticipated movie release of “Bottle Shock” staring Chris Pine, Allan Rickman and Bill Pullman on Aug. 6. Encourage your readers to relive the excitement of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where top sommeliers from around the globe shocked themselves and the world when they proclaimed Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons as the best wines in the world – beating out some French classics.

Gallo Family Vineyards, one of the country’s first and largest family-owned wineries and currently the largest exporter of California wines, wants to help your readers recreate the excitement of 1976 by hosting their very own Judgment of Paris tasting experience. We can offer an interview with Gina Gallo, Gallo Family Vineyards third-generation winemaker and granddaughter of Julio Gallo, who can recommend tips on how your readers can act as “sommeliers” just like in “Bottle Shock”— and taste for themselves.

I like that, “the virility of California wines.” And of course it wasn’t “top sommeliers from around the world” that were involved in the event, but mainly a group of dour Frenchmen. I hate it when PR people don’t do their homework.

Well, the point, the real point, is that this press release will probably be the opening salvo of batteries of PR and marketing efforts by wineries in California to capitalize on the movie and the attention it will bring to the state’s wine industry. Or at least to chardonnay — I can see the marketing slogan: “Go back to chardonnay. You always loved it.” — because according to blog reports, the movie concentrates on Chateau Montelena’s white wine victory and ignores Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

So, everybody is thinking, “Whoa, remember Sideways? Man, that sucker really took off! And it was about wine!” But the ultimate questions are: Do we need another movie “about wine” this soon after Sideways, and do we need two movies about the same wine event, even though they’re made from totally different perspectives?

Come on, you know the answers to those questions. Not yes.

Bottle Shock poster image from screenhead.com.

Fortune seems to be smiling upon the venerable House of Louis Latour, founded in 1797 in the picturesque town of Beaune and still owned and run by the family. That was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s, when quality seemed to diminish and there volnay-en-chevret-copie.jpg was an emphasis on squeaky clean, correct wines. Coming from a superb vintage in Burgundy like 2005 doesn’t hurt, of course, but the wines of Louis Latour feel more powerful, deeper and more attuned to the earth and the vineyard than they did 20 years ago.

Along with the other major negociant houses in Burgundy — Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Faiveley, Bouchard — Louis Latour owns segments of important Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards but also makes many wines at every level and from every commune from purchased grapes, generally through long-term contracts, in the time-honored tradition. The wines mentioned here in fairly straightforward transcriptions of my tasting notes represent only a small part of what Louis Latour produces, but every segment is touched on, from a simple yet very well-made Bourgogne rouge at $17 through village and Premier Cru wines, to a pair of magnificent age-worthy Grand crus.

*Le Pinot Noir Chanfleure de Louis Latour 2005. Entrancing bouquet, penetrating purity and intensity; black cherry and minerals, violets and roses, lavender, potpourri, clean fresh earth; some brambles and underbrush, lovely, dense, chewy texture. Now through 2010 or ’12. Very good+ and Good Value at about $17.

*Marsannay 2005. Acid and minerals cut like a shining blade; tremendous tone and body for Marsannay; smoke, roses, potpourri. black and red cherries and currants, fairly tannic but showing the innate refinement that characterizes the best of these wines. Now through 2010 or ’12. Very good+. About $18.

*Santenay 2005. Quite tannic, earthy and minerally; smoky, spicy black fruit flavors; very minerally but with a soft, smoky, slightly creamy edge; black and red cherries; core of potpourri and bitter chocolate; huge structure. Best from 2009 through 2014 or ’15. Excellent, and a Great Value at about $23. This is one to buy by the case.

*Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge 2005. Reticent, brooding, very earthy and minerally; briers and brambles; a spice and flavor chas5.gif spectrum that goes from dark to darker to darkest; massive structure but vibrant and resonant. 2010 through 2014 or ’16. Very good+. About $25.

*Volnay 2005. Extraordinary quality for a village wine. Pure, intense and concentrated, seductive; smoke, dust and earth, roasted, spiced and macerated red and black fruit scents and flavors; remarkable body, tone and resonance; the acid cuts like a knife, a massive wine but so well balanced, so lovely. 2009 or ’10 through 2015 to ’18. Excellent. About $41.

*Volnay En Chevrets Premier Cru 2005. Classic black cherry, currant and plum permeated by beetroot, earthy, loamy; incredibly fruity, floral and spicy, and so minerally that it almost tickles the nose; massive wine, impenetrable structure of tannin and oak and acid, very dry, austere and tannic in the finish. Try 2012 to 2018 to ’20 Very good+ to Excellent. About $50.

*Pommard 2005. Briers and brambles, loam; rose petals; deep, rich, warm, a lovely amalgam of power and elegance; sewwt and dried spices, deep, pure black fruit flavors; huge enveloping structure, but approachable; the tannin builds at the back and comes forward. A great wine. Excellent. 2009 or ’10 through 2016 to ’18. About $45.

*Aloxe-Corton Les Chaillots Premier Cru 2005, Domaine Latour. Sizable, large-framed with deep foundations, reticent; dense, chewy, almost shaggy tannins, tremendous earthy and minerally element; the acid ploughs through; a massive wine but after a few minutes, the bouquet opens beautifully. 2010 through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+ to Excellent. About $51.

*Beaune Vignes Franches Premier Cru 2005, Domaine Latour. Such eloquence and grandeur! Tar, roses, violets, dried spice; beau4.gif riveting purity and intensity, so clean, bracing and expressive! classic red and black fruit but with undertone of pomegranate; wonderful authenticity and tone, vibrancy and resonance. Now through 2015 or ’17. Exceptional. I have never purchased a case of red Burgundy and probably never will, but were I a person who could do so with impunity, I would purchase a case of this wine, believe me. About $55.

*Gevrey-Chambertin 2005. Charming and enticing bouquet of black cherry, crushed violets and loam; dense and chewy texture, fairly tannic but not overbearing; lovely weight and intensity; the oak a bit more apparent than with most of the others in this roster; a bit blunt and inexpressive. Time should help; try 2010 through 2014 to ’17. Very good+. About $45.

*Nuits-Saint-Georges 2005. Very spicy, very minerally, very brambly; very dense and chewy; rigorous tannins, though it’s open-knit, warm and generous to a degree; still, from mid-palate back, this is massive, tannic and austere. Try 2011 through 2015 or ’18. Reserving judgment with a Very good+? About $50.

*Nuits-Saint Georges Aux Crots Premier Cru 2005. Whoa. Cinnamon, cloves, cherry and pomegranate; warm, rich, roasted black fruit; piercing purity and intensity of fruit and floral aspects; dense with briers and brambles, tremendous drying tannins, almost gritty, austere, though freighted with a sense of potential. Try 2011 to 2015 or ’18. Very good+ to Excellent. About $95. chat1.gif

*Chateau Corton Grancey Grand Cru 2005, Domaine Latour. What a tapestry of amazing complexity! As huge yet exquisitely balanced as one would expect from this wine. Very dry, very tannic, quite forbidding even, but vibrant and resonant, bursting with ripe and warm black cherry, blueberry and pomegranate flavors. A keeper, try 2012 through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $99.

*Chambertin Grand Cru 2005 Cuvée Héritiers Latour. First note: “OMG!” Tremendous, both formidable and mesmerizing. Blinding purity and intensity, manifold depths and grandeur, fathomless layers, a continuous unfolding. Needs ages; try 2015 through 2020 to ’25. Exceptional. $220.

I’ll confess that my favorite style of rosé wine is the classic French pale, spare, dry versions of Provençal or the Loire Valley. nivi_grshro.jpg Occasionally, however, there will come a glowing, fruit-drenched rosé that is so engaging, so forthright in exuberant prettiness that it wins me over.

Such a one is Angove’s Nine Vines Rosé 2007, South Australia. Composed of 70 percent grenache grapes and 30 percent shiraz, as the Aussies call syrah, the wine is a blushful cherry-pink color, perfect for a ’59 Chevy Impala. The bouquet exhales cherry-berry fruit with hints of red raspberry, melon and rhubarb. That lively fruit-basket effect continues in the mouth, but is harmonized by vibrant acid, a scintillating mineral quality and a lovely, silken texture. A great quaff with chips and bean dip or Italian cured meats and roasted peppers or just sitting out on the porch with a bowl of Goldfish crackers. Very good+ and Good Value, about $11.

Imported by Trinchero Family Estates in California.

Visit angoves.com.au.

Winemaker George Bursick turned out an exemplary model in the J Pinot Gris 2007, Russian River Valley. This is a absolutely lovely jwine.jpg rendition of the grape, fresh, clean, bright and crisp, displaying very spicy notes of roasted lemon and lemon curd with hints of pear and peach, permeated by elements of limestone and wet gravel. The balance between vibrant acid — there’s no oak here, only stainless steel — and luscious fruit provides the wine with exquisite resonance and allure, while a touch of astringency on the finish, like the chastening power of grapefruit and some austere white mountain flower, lends a touch of seriousness. Try this the next time you’re grilling salmon or having Thai food or shrimp risotto. Production was 17,500 cases, so there’s plenty to go around. Excellent. About $20.

Visit jwine.com.

For our Fourth of July dinner, I grilled a steak outside, a rib-eye from West Wind Farms, a family operation in East Tennessee that raises all their beef, poultry and pork on strictly organic, free-range, grass-fed principles. They make a trip to Memphis, with stops along the way, once every two weeks. Anyway, I mixed together a dry rub of ground cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper, patted it on both sides of the steak and left it to absorb the flavors for an hour. LL made an arugula salad and a salmagundi of fresh corn, black beans, roasted red peppers, lemon zest and lime juice and, um, some other stuff. I grilled the steak over hickory and maple charcoal; it came out perfectly medium rare on the inside, crusty and spicy on the outside.

The only possible wine to have on the Fourth with such a meal would be zinfandel, an American wine, to be sure, but made from a grape brought to California in the 19th century; it shares DNA with the primitivo grape of Italy’s boot-heel, though the wines made from the grapes are nothing alike. I plucked from the rack a celebratory example, the Sausal Zin XXXV 2006, Alexander Valley, logo.gif Somona County, issued to commemorate Sausal Winery’s 35th anniversary. Sausal makes zinfandel wines in the classic sense, that is, they trade on the grape’s natural character rather than pumping up the wine with soaring alcohol levels and overwhelming ripeness. Vines on the estate go back from 50 to 130 years; when Sausal says “Old Vines,” believe it. The winery also produces one of the few sangiovese-based wines in California that actually tastes like sangiovese.

The color of the Sausal Zin XXXV 2006 is dark ruby with a faint cherry-red rim. Yes, the wine is large-framed, rich and intense, but it radiates purity and clarity in its spicy black currant and blackberry flavors layered with hints of wild raspberry and undertones of sandalwood, licorice, lavender and minerals. After a few minutes in the glass, the fruit takes on roasted and smoky aspects, while sleek and polished tannins spread their influence. The Sausal Zin XXXV 2006 is, I hope you understand, the opposite of the jammy, over-wrought zinfandels of which we see so much, particularly from Sonoma County. Only 250 cases were made, so mark it Worth a Search. Excellent. About $35.

More widely available, in 3,050 cases, is the Sausal Family Zinfandel 2005, Alexander Valley. Made from 50-year-old vines, this is another big, rich, intense, zinfandel, though it’s more earthy and minerally, more austere from the beginning than its XXXV cousin. It offers a pure black cherry foreground filled in with smoky black currant and plum flavors that flirt with the super-ripe qualities of boysenberry and blackberry tart. This model is also spicier than its counterpart, and the tannins are denser and chewier. This is, in other words, a brasher, more rustic version of zinfandel than represented by Zin XXXV, though no less enjoyable, especially with hearty fare like grilled pork chops and burgers. Very good+, and Good Value at about $18.

Visit sausalwinery.com.

It’s one of those commonplace assessments in wine and food matching that red wine and chocolate make a divinely shivery marriage on the taste buds, but it’s not always, and in fact is rather rarely, true. Many red wines are too tannic and oaky to pair with chocolate. Milk chocolate and almost any red wine make a Big Bummer. Best bets are varieties of dark chocolate, with a higher content of cacao than milk chocolate, with a lushly fruity, even “jammy” red wine that balances tannin with acid, barcelonal_000.jpg late-harvest zinfandels, for example, or uncomplicated ruby ports. (What used to be called “ruby” port is now designated “reserve.”)

We put some red wine to the test with a selection of the “exotic candy bars” from Vosges-Haut Chocolat, which I had been wanting to try anyway. Despite its French name, Vosges Haut-Chocolate is based in Chicago — and we were all fooled by Haagan Dazs, too, weren’t we? –the creation of Katrina Markoff, an American who studied in France. She brings to the creation of chocolate candies a wild spirit of innovation and experimentation. The manufacturing plant in Chicago is certified USDA organic; the company’s “green statement” (vosgeschocolate.com) is as long as its catalog of treats. There are two Vosges Boutiques in Chicago, two in New York and one in Las Vegas, as well as a host of retailers that carry much of the company’s line; trickling down, as it were, some Vosges products are also available in grocery stores, including Fresh Market, which is where I bought five of the “exotic candy bar” line. These are $7 for a 3-ounce package, way more than for a Milky Way at the 7Eleven but not much more than other specialty chocolate bars that have broken into American consciousness with the explosion of “plantation” and other “single origin” chocolate bars.

A word on nomenclature: The federal government regulates the use and terminology that applies to the amount of cacao in ridgeessence.jpg chocolate candy. (Cacao is the ground seed of the cacao tree — called kakaw by the Maya — from which chocolate and cocoa derive.)

*Milk chocolate must contain 10 percent unsweetened chocolate, 12 percent mild solids and 3.39 percent milk fat; if you’re thinking, “Whoa, there ain’t much chocolate in a Hershey bar,” you’re right.

*Sweet chocolate must contain 15 to 34 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk fat. redfire.jpg

*Bittersweet chocolate must contain 35 to 99 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk fat. Generally, what’s called semisweet chocolate has 35 to about 45 percent unsweetened chocolate and bitter sweet has over 50 percent.

Here are the Vosges “exotic chocolate bar” items that we tried:

*The notorious “Mo’s Bacon Bar,” which combines what Vosges designates “deep milk chocolate,” with applewood smoked bacon and alder wood smoked salt. Why “deep milk chocolate”? It rates 41 percent cacao, which qualifies it for the bittersweet category; this seems disingenuous. Anyway, the candy bar is weirdly compelling, with a sort of roasted fat-on-fat quality that achieves an acme of decadence. along with a tiny bite from the smoky salt that feels illicit.

*The “Barcelona Bar” features “deep milk chocolate” — the text explains that it’s “just milk chocolate … blended with a bit of dark chocolate” — with hickory smoked almonds and gray sea salt. This is a good candy bar but not my favorite of this group. I’m just really a dark chocolate guy, and I thought that the smoky-flavored almonds would have tasted better in a robe of darker chocolate. The sea salt gives it a gentle savory snap.

*The “Goji Bar,” also featuring the 41 percent cacao “deep milk chocolate,” was one of our favorite selections. We don’t have space here to go into the controversies that surround what in the West are traditionally called wolfberries; suffice it to say that all those packages in health food stores that tout the benefits of “Tibetan goji berries” are barking up the wrong bush, since goji cabf05.jpg berries don’t grow in Tibet. (See an incredibly detailed report here.) In any case, the combination of the slightly dark chocolate; the slightly tart berries, which taste rather like, um, cranberries, raspberries, raisins and apples altogether; and the arid, almost puritan bite of the salt made an enticing and paradoxical bit of candy.

*The “Creole Bar” piles on the chocolate experience: Sao Thome “select origin” bittersweet chocolate, 70 percent cacao; espresso, cocoa nibs; and New Orleans style chicory; in other words, a chocolate and coffee extravaganza. Nothing subtle here, just intense, jazzed up flavors that course through your mouth like caffeine a-gogo.

*Our favorite of these items was the “Red Fire Bar,” a concoction of dark chocolate, 55 percent cacao; ancho and chipotle chilies; and Ceylonese cinnamon. Wow, you can feel the heat from the chilies, and their subtle qualities of smoke and tobacco, with regali.jpg undercurrents of dry but slightly sweet cinnamon, which has an effect that’s sensual yet almost medicinal. A risky experience and a great one.

Now the wines:

*Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto. A very attractive ready-to-drink port, deep and rich and mellow, with spicy, grapey flavors of black currant and plum; sweet at the beginning, but tannins grip the finish. Imported by Premium Port Wines, San Francisco. Very good+. About $21.

*Ridge Zinfandel Essense 2003, Stone Ranch, Alexander Valley. At almost five years old, despite the residual sugar of 10 percent by volume, this is close to a dry wine; fruit is black, boldly spicy, rich and wild with touches of blueberry and boysenberry jam. Startling acid activates a plush texture. Excellent. About $30 for a half-bottle.

*Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui 2006, Piedmont. Always charming, always intense; mildly effervescent; strawberry and raspberry, orange rind and Bazooka bubble gum, rich, ripe and juicy but quite dry, lively, vibrant. Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville N.Y. Very good+. About $24.

*Inniskillin Cabernet Franc ice Wine 2006, Niagara Peninsula. This is one of the great unusual wines of the world. Spiced and grahamssixgrapes.jpg macerated peaches, orange rind, strawberry and red currants; hints of apple skin and wild berry; deeply funky; a glorious texture, satin, folded with silk, wrapped in velvet. Imported by Icon Estates, Napa, Ca. Excellent. About $95 for a half-bottle.

The most versatile of the wines with the chocolate bars were the Graham’s Six Grapes Port and the Rosa Regale 2006. In fact, as far as the chocolate bars were concerned the port could do no wrong; there was irresistible synergy between that sweet, potent jamminess and the various elements of the chocolate bars, though I like the combination with the Creole Bar and Red Fire Bar best. Actually, though, the Mo’s Bacon Bar was a difficult match with all the wines; it was just too unabashedly rich.

The Inniskillin was terrific with the Goji Bar, as was the Rosa Regali; the latter’s slight effervescence cut through the powerful richness of most of the bars. The Ridge Essence seemed to capture some essence of the Red Fire Bar, though, surprisingly, it didn’t perform as well with the other bars.

So, chocolate and red wine? Yes, if it’s the right kind of chocolate and the right sort of wine. You can only rely on trial and error, as we did in this experiment, with four red wines that I plucked from the shelf (or fridge) because they were there.

Readers, we did it for you.

I always feel guilty when I write about the wines of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery because so little is available. The eccentric winery in Oregon House, California, north of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills — specifically North Yuba — turns out minuscule quantities of generally superb wines. Under the guidance of winemaker Gideon Beinstock, Renaissance eschews the use of new home.gif oak, keeps alcohol content to sane levels and follows organic practices. The wines adhere to a principle of dignity and sometimes nobility, of purity and intensity, that often makes a mockery of the the over-wrought shenanigans that occur in wineries to the south. So, know beforehand, that these wines are not only Worth a Search but that they Demand a Search.

The Renaissance Rosé 2007 is the first rosé I have tried from this producer. It’s made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and ages four months in used German oak ovals, an old-fashioned type of barrel that typically holds 1,000 to 1,200 liters; the ubiquitous French barrique holds 225 liters, or 59 gallons. This is one of the most unusual rosés I have ever encountered. The bouquet is spicy and foxy in the way of muscadine wines, offering notes of dried strawberries, orange rind and dried thyme over a wild and foresty element. The wine is very dry, with a seriously firm, supple structure, yet it displays a winsome, almost ephemeral quality of dried red fruit, spiced citrus and limestone. Drink through the end of summer 2009. Renaissance made 55 cases of this wine, plus 12 cases of half-bottles, so good freakin’ luck, Jack. Excellent. About $18.

LL called the Renaissance Carte d’Or 2007 “a gift to vegetarians,” and indeed the wine’s striking fruity, herbal nature would make it appropriate for all sorts of vegetable-based dishes, including risottos (which don’t have to be made with chicken broth) and pastas. The wine is a blend of 60 percent semillon grapes and 40 percent sauvignon blanc that ages six months in neutral German oak ovals. It opens with herbal-grassy scents with touches of apples and figs and smoky dried pear. Carte d’Or ’07 is very dry, spare, clean, crisp and tart without being citrusy (read: no grapefruit), and it brings up hints of celery, ginger and melon, a bit of riesling-like honeyed peach, a wafting of jasmine. Don’t mistake this for an aperitif wine; it’s too serious, too thoughtful for that blithe purpose. Drink through the end of 2009. Production is 258 cases. Excellent. About $20.

Get this: The alcohol content on the Renaissance Semillon 2006 is 12.3 percent. When was the last time you saw a wine from California with such a mild alcohol level; it’s positively (and refreshingly) archaic. Part of the winery’s “Vin de Terrior” series, the Semillon ’06 offers a brilliant pale yellow/gold color. The bouquet spills out like a cornucopia of figs, melons and pears accented with dried thyme and bay leaf. The wine is quite crisp and dry but luscious with spiced and roasted pear and lemon flavors bolstered by a burgeoning limestone element. The wood, from those neutral German oak ovals, frames the wine deftly. I suspect that this wine will gather depth and nuance as it ages through 2010 or ’12. Production is — sorry — 71 cases. Excellent. About $30.

I have not been a fan of the viognier wines that come from Renaissance. On the other hand, LL said that the Renaissance Viognier 2007 was the best she had even tried, but that’s because the doesn’t like viognier, and it’s true that some examples can be cloyingly, overwhelmingly floral and spicy; those are the ones she doesn’t like. On the other hand, I think the Renaissance versions, which puritanize the grape, err on the side of spareness, even to the point of attenuation. Not that this is a bad wine; it’s quite drinkable and enjoyable, but I think it does not take advantage of the grape’s natural virtues of full-bloom sensuality. So I rate this Very Good. 202 cases produced. About $30.

Renaissance wines have new labels, and I wish I could reproduce them for you, but, as much as we admire the winery’s avoidance of technology in the winemaking process, I wish it would exercise a little more technology when it comes to the website — rvw.com — and provide more useful tools and information.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of protecting and nurturing the environment. Let’s not fool around with Mother Nature (though she was pretty hot in those old commercials) and all that. In terms of vineyards and grape-growing, let us, by all means — and these criteria are taken from “Our Seven Standards” of sustainability recently issued by Sanford Winery and Vineyards — preserve winery estate land for natural inhabitants; use natural springs requiring no electrical pumps as water sources; use minimal organic.jpg irrigation; use energy efficient buildings and recycled and reclaimed materials; use natural methods (“whenever possible”) for controlling grapevine fungal pathogens; use cover crops to control erosion and improve soil structure and nutrition; encourage predatory birds to help control vineyard pests.

These are admirable practices. Three years ago this month I visited a number of vineyards in the Sonoma Valley, including the well-known Rancho Salina, which occupies about 200 acres 750 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor; 40 of those acres, beautifully laid out and maintained, are planted with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. The vineyard is farmed using sustainable methods. The rows between vines are rotated with cover crops each year, grasses and clovers alternating with legumes, all of which provide nitrogen to the soil and help prevent erosion. Weeds, far from being regarded as enemies, are allowed to grow. Beside the fact that the view is spectacular, the vineyard exudes a sense of serenity and harmony, of things being done right, though, frankly, it would be difficult to find a hill-top vineyard, sustainably farmed or not, that didn’t embody serenity and harmony; location is everything

But let’s face it: Being green brings in the green. The principle moral decadence that afflicts American culture (and hence world culture) is the pervasive influence of and the complete permeation of marketing and advertising in all aspects of life, from bottled water to American Girl dolls to presidential campaigns to brands of t-shirts and jeans that start out hip and cool in New York and L.A. and end up in the Wal-Marts of Dubuque and Peoria.

The same pressure to create, to compete, to buy and consume, the same pretense of social significance affects popular movements and ideologies. It’s so easy so slap a “green” label on a product — a mattress, a pair of shoes, a tennis ball, a bottle of wine — and bask in the fashionable cloaks of virtue that a certain segment of the population requires at this point in the 21st century. How do you sell a product today? Give it an eco-friendly name and call it “green.” While the term “organic” is regulated by the federal government, anybody can use the word “green” with its loaded implications anywhere.

Green bread, green jam; green eggs, green ham: How “green” is our food supply?

According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, the number of acres of certified organic farmland in the United States doubled from one million in 1990 to two million in 2002 and doubled again to four million in 2005. That figures includes 1.7 million 4colorseal_usda.jpg acres of cropland and 2.3 million in rangeland and pasture. Still, that certified organic acreage represents only 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of U.S. pasture and range. That’s not very much. That’s actually itty-bitty.

California is the leading state for certified organic farmland, at more than 220,000 acres involving (in 2005) 1,916 certified organic operations. How many of those operations are wine producers and how many of those acres are vineyards?

It’s more difficult than you would imagine to assess the number of producers in California that adhere to sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices. Some wineries don’t mention organic practices on their labels for fear of being pegged as hippie wines for the Birkenstock-wearing crowd. Others tout their philosophical affiliations with bold logos and graphic devices, clearly willing to tap into a growing interest among wine consumers. I don’t mean that such producers are cynically exploiting popular tastes; going organic and at the least maintaining ecological balance and health in the vineyards is hard work and requires dedication and zeal.

In January 2006 greenLAgirl provided an annotated list of 25 wineries in California that practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic methods. In December 2007, cawinemall.com listed 67 wineries that do not use pesticides in their vineyards or add sulfites to their wines, a sort of minimal standard for “greenness.” Townhallcoalition.org offers 30 organic and biodynamic wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino countries.

None of which adds up to a revolution, though market forces are at work to convince us that it does. Take for example the “Fleming’s 100” list of wines for 2008/2009 at the national chain Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Corporate wine manager Marian Jansen op de Haar chooses 70 of the wines on this list with local restaurant managers allowed to select the other 30 wines. The recently released list offers more than 70 wines that are “green” in some fashion, whether that means sustainable, organic or biodynamic. Jansen op de Haar calls these 70 products “carefully handcrafted and environmentally responsible wines” and says “I also believe the fruit for these wines to be purer in taste.” Well, the jury is out on that last statement, but what I really wonder is if the customers at Fleming’s — lapping up red meat on expense accounts in a dynamic, clubby and testosterone-laden atmosphere — demanded a roster of wines so heavily dominated by “green” wines: “Hey, Bob, let’s order one of those green wines!” The press release doesn’t tell us. To see the full list of “Fleming’s 100,” click here.

Another recent manifestation of the imagery and marketing of “green” wine is “The Consumer’s Green Wine Shopping List” (little trademark sign) issued by the “International Green Wine Competition,” held on May 5 in Santa Rosa. Fifteen judges tasted 271 entries from six states and 11 foreign countries, awarding 15 gold medals, 58 silver and 80 bronze. The categories were Certified Biodynamically Grown, Certified Organic, Transitional & Third Party Certified, and Natural (International Imports Only). For a list of winners, click here.

The “International Green Wine Competition” was produced by Wine Competition Management LLC, a new company that has been busy this year, already having produced the “National Women’s Wine Competition” (little trademark sign) on March 16-18 and gearing up for the “First Annual U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition” (little trademark sign) October 13-14. (“Why spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to get face time with America’s top professional wine buyers? Enter your wines into the U.S. Professional Wine Buyers Competition and the Importer/Distributor Search Tasting.” Regular fee for entries is $85, but there’s an Early Bird Special through July 15 of $65.)

See what I’m sayin’? “Greenness,” in the good old American way, is being managed, codified and commodified. As minute as the certified organic segment is in farming generally and wine-producing specifically, it has already become entrenched in, or perhaps “swallowed by” is the correct term, the American Marketing-Advertising Complex (AMAC), a monolith of unimaginable riches and unfathomable proportions.

I’m in favor of sustainable and organic practices available in the choices we make both in personal daily life and as a country. But rather than emphasizing “green” products and playing on our sense of shame and righteousness, wouldn’t it be better if all those advertising and marketing dollars went instead to finding and funding alternative fuel and energy sources, for raising awareness of the necessity for conservation and public transportation and re-imagining the culture of cities, for changing the way we see ourselves in relationship to what’s left of the natural world?

Wines from Bierzo began making their way to this country three or four years ago. First available mainly on the East and West Coasts, they are now beginning to be found in the heartland.

Bierzo is a small mountainous wine region in the northwest Spanish province of Castilla y León, on top of Portugal. Long in decline, the region was revived in the 1990s by a handful of producers who saw the potential of the indigenous mencía grape and the rugged vineyards.

One of the best examples of the grape and the region is Baltos 2005, made from 25- to 40-year-old vines by Dominio de Tares. baltos.jpg The color is, well, just inky, with a deep purple rim. The bouquet bursts from the glass in a welter of funky, roasted black currant and blueberry scents packed with dried fig and fruit cake spices and notes of earth and minerals. This is a wild, robust and rustic wine, deeply spicy and smoky, with brambly black currant and plum flavors set into a dense chewy texture like dusty velvet. It gets more complex as the minutes pass, opening the whole box of exotic spices and dumping them onto your palate. The wine is given six months in new to three-year-old French and American oak barrels, contributing to structure but not overwhelming the wine with toasty flavors. Drink now through 2010 or ’12. Case production is 7,500. I rate the wine Very Good+ and an Unusual Experience. About $15 to $18. You may have to do a little searching for Baltos 2005, but that will give some purpose to your week.

We drank this with bleu cheese burgers that I cooked on the grill outside. I had mine spread with tapenade on one side, Dijon mustard on the other and lettuce and tomato. Have mercy, that was a good burger and a great match with the funky, meaty wine!

The producer’s website is filled with information about the grape, the region and the wines.
Imported by Classical Wines, Seattle.

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