The Wine Memory: An Ode to Chateau Guiraud

By Kareasa Wilkins

It was January of 2003 and I had just finished a five-month stint living in England. I had recently graduated from college and didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to travel and I knew I wanted to learn more about wine.  Using up almost everything I earned working in England, I bought a month’s stay in Bordeaux at a French language school, complete with my own apartment a few blocks from the school. I could’ve chosen just about anywhere in France to study French, but I chose Bordeaux because I wanted a chance to experience what is possibly the greatest wine region in the world.

The French lessons turned out to be grueling (I was the only person in my class who had never had a single French class before) and the port city of Bordeaux with its neo-classical architecture, lush parks, and enticing patisseries, though charming, was freezing in January. I spent most of my days running back to my apartment from school to huddle under a warm blanket. But my first weekend there, I discovered Bordeaux’s office of tourism, which offered jaunts to the local wine regions. I signed up for the tour of Barsac and Sauternes followed by a tour of the Medoc the next week and, for my final weekend in Bordeaux, a tour of St. Emilion. I remember riding in a small white tourist van with travelers from Japan, England, and Scandinavia. The skies were gray, and the trees were bare, and as we left the vast expanse of the city, to the rural French countryside, there was little more to see than the miles and miles of barren vines laid out before us. Our final destination on the day of the Sauternes tour was Chateau Guiraud. A wrinkled old man, perhaps the winemaker, or perhaps simply a tour guide, took us into what appeared to be an old barnyard packed with oak barrels. He poured us some sweet nectar and spoke in gravelly French about the beauty of noble rot. I was so seduced by the liquid gold in my glass, I spent what little money I had on two 750ml bottles. Back at the apartment I put one away in the closet to bring home with me, and the other I put in the refrigerator. I bought a wedge of Roquefort at the Carrefour market that day and for the rest of my stay in Bordeaux lived on bleu cheese and Chateau Guiraud Sauternes.  Everyday after my French lessons, I would stop at the patisserie next door to my school, buy a baguette, and go home to lunch on a few slices of Roquefort and bread with my glass of Sauternes. That month I was cold and lonely, and despite spending five hours a day learning the local language knew barely enough French to get by. But somehow my glass of Guiraud each day made things bearable. When I smelled the aromas of honey soaked pears I always seemed to get Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose stuck in my head and I’d think of the wonders of Europe, and remind myself that even though it was a bitter winter in Bordeaux, I was lucky to be there leading a life of the mind and the vine.

Once I returned to the States, I kept that second bottle of Chateau Guiraud in the back of my closet for years. Sauternes age brilliantly, and I wanted to save it for a special occasion. In 2009, a co-worker of mine who was studying for the WSET hosted a dinner party, and I opened the bottle, a 1998 vintage. The wine was every bit as unctuous as the one I savored in my small Bordeaux apartment and had taken on a rich complexity of stone fruits and lingering sweetness. I was home again, but in that moment I was transported back in time to the days when I was living on nothing but bleu cheese and noble rot.

Last night my mom and I were in Palo Alto to go see the performance at the local theater. Afterwards we went to a restaurant/wine bar that had Chateau Guiraud by the glass on its dessert menu. It was a 2006 vintage this time, but I couldn’t help but order a glass for memory’s sake. While the food at the restaurant was only slightly above average quality, as soon as I smelled the brown sugar sweetness of the Sauternes, I wanted to linger there all night, with Edith Piaf playing the background noise in my head, remembering that little piece of my life spent in the old world, that Southwesterly part of France that has so much history, the place that introduced the world to quality wine, the place that arguably made wine not just a beverage but a commodity, and the place that gave my dreary January days a little bit of sunshine.

http://chateauguiraud.fr/en/

http://www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk/What-to-see-do/Wine-and-gastronomy

If you have a wine memory you’d like to share, please post it in the “Leave a reply” section.

The Rind Sacramento

By Kareasa Wilkins

As a recent migrant to Sacramento from the Bay Area, I’ve been eager to try the numerous wine bars in the Sacramento metro. A friend recommended The Rind on L Street, and I’ve been there twice since I moved. The Rind is a quaint, cheese centric spot that’s a perfect place to unwind after a hard day of work or to gather with a few friends for happy hour. They offer daily specials, including Monday night fondue and Wednesday’s “Hump Happiness,” which boasts a free cheese platter when you purchase a bottle of $30 or more. This is truly a place to feed your inner cheese addict; they have a rotating menu of 30 +cheeses, including local favorites like Point Reyes Blue and Humbolt Fog, as well as far off finds like Italy’s La Tur. Cheese is the core of the main menu as well, with a wide selection of gourmet mac ‘n cheese and grilled cheese. The wine menu, though small, contains an eclectic mix of international wines at great price points. This is an excellent place to expand your palate by trying wines you’ve never heard of. You can find German bubbly, Viognier from Santa Barbara, Moschofilero from Greece, and The Rind’s best selling wine, Teroldego from Friuli.

My husband and I recently stopped by The Rind on a Wednesday, so we went for the bottle and cheese platter special. We had the Domaine de Cristia Grenache, a Vin de Pays from a good producer in the Rhône Valley. The Grenache was easy drinking with a nice peppery kick and worked well with our mix of sheep and cow’s milk cheeses from Spain and the UK. Not ones to be satisfied with just a cheese platter, we ordered more and more food as the evening went on. The Rind has followed the recent trend of haute comfort food, and we satisfied our hunger with some of their selections. Many Americans have fond memories of mac ‘n cheese from their childhood that came out of a blue box. These days, restaurants are gussying it up with anything from chilies to truffles. We opted for The Rind’s lobster mac ‘n cheese, and it was absolutely to die for. The cheese sauce was rich and creamy with just a hint of heat, and the large chunks of lobster were mouth wateringly tender. My only regret was that I didn’t order a rich chardonnay to go with it, because while a big buttery chardonnay may be about the least food friendly wine there is, the one exception to that rule is pairing it with big rich shellfish.

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After the complimentary cheese platter and lobster mac, we were still a little hungry so we went for the “Pepper Popper”—grilled sourdough loaded with Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar and Laura Chenel Chevre , and spicy roasted poblanos and jalepeños. Not the most wine friendly thing on the menu, mind you, but for grilled cheese, which I generally find boring, this explosion in the mouth was anything but dull. I doubt their was a wine on the menu that would’ve worked with this, but thankfully, The Rind has an impressive beer menu as well, so in this situation you can always order a nice IPA to cool the heat.

In my quest for quality wine bars in Sacramento, The Rind works on many levels. They’ve got a small but charming atmosphere, unique wine selection, and a menu full of cheesy goodness.

http://www.therindsacramento.com/

History in the Vines: Fremont’s Wine Legacy

“There is no more important vineyard district in California, all things considered, than that which lies around the old Mission San Jose. …The best wine vineyards are around the Mission and Warm Springs, and on the roads to Irvington and Niles -in other words -on the spurs of the great mountain that rises above the district.” –Charles Howard Shinn, 1889

By Ralph de Unamuno

After having lived in Los Angeles for nearly a decade, I returned to the Bay Area to teach Chicano Studies & History at local community colleges. My commute took me past the Gallegos-Palmdale Winery ruins.  My curiosity as a historian led me to research the past of the ruins I had once explored as a young boy growing up in Fremont. I soon uncovered an amazing story about the Gallegos- Palmdale winery in particular, and that Fremont had a remarkable viticultural and enological past in general. From the Spanish-Mission era up to Prohibition, south Fremont (then called the Washington Township), had once been one of the first and most productive wine regions in California. While the Gallegos-Palmdale Winery was not the first or the last winery in Fremont, it is a symbol of a bygone era of Fremont’s historic agricultural past. A past that is all but forgotten but much deserving of acknowledgment to the history of California viticulture and enology.

Figure 1 Ruins of the Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit: The Wine Institute

Figure 1 Ruins of the Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit: The Wine Institute

The origins of the Golden State’s wine industry has its roots in the Spanish colonial era.  Wine production began in the late 18th century within the Mission system. The vineyards of Mission San Jose were productive from 1797 to 1836.   After the secularization of the Missions by the Mexican government in the 1830’s, the Mission’s vineyards were sold-off  and focused on non-ecclesiastical wine markets. In 1849, an early Anglo-American traveler named Bayard Taylor wrote, “A Frenchmen named Vigne made 100 barrels of wine from a vineyard of about six-acres at Mission San Jose.” In the early days U.S. occupation of California, Anglo-American settlers would plant vineyards and import French cuttings from throughout Europe. In 1862, J.C. Palmer imported from France and Spain 10,000 cuttings of various varietals. In this era the vines of what would become the California heritage wine, Zinfandel, would also be introduced to the area. By the turn of the century southern Alameda county would have earned an international reputation for its wine and vines.

By 1893, the present-day districts of Mission San Jose and Irvington had 1,627 acres of vineyards under production. These vineyards grew 5,092 tons of grapes, and the wineries produced 2,058,800 gallons of wine. Interestingly enough, what could be seen as the equivalent to a little “Silverado Trail” by 1893 standards along the well-traveled thoroughfare of Washington Boulevard leading up the hill from the Irvington district to the Mission San Jose. Traveling east past present-day Driscoll/Osgood road along Washington Boulevard would take you smack dab in the middle of the historic wine country of southern Alameda county. If 1893 was the early historic high-water mark, the world-wide phylloxera infestation of the 1890’s would be its historic low point.

Figure 2: Map of Washington Township Wineries. Key: 1. Beard/Gallegos/ Palmdale Winery; 2. Grau-Werner (Los Amigos); 3. Rosa Bez; 4. DeVaux; 5. Riehr Winery; 6. McIver/Linda Vista Winery; and 7. Stanford/Weibel Winery.

Figure 2: Map of Washington Township Wineries. Key: 1. Beard/Gallegos/ Palmdale Winery; 2. Grau-Werner (Los Amigos); 3. Rosa Bez; 4. DeVaux; 5. Riehr Winery; 6. McIver/Linda Vista Winery; and 7. Stanford/Weibel Winery.

Like the rest of the wine world, the recovery from the world-wide phylloxera epidemic would be slow in southern Alameda county, but further exacerbated by scourge of Prohibition. Wine production after the repeal of the 18th Amendment was further delayed due to the agricultural demands on the home front for World War II. National and international politics aside, at mid-century the future looked bright for southern Alameda County’s wine country. Mission San Jose and Irvington wineries and vineyards would soon reclaim their place in California’s wine industry.

In 1948, the legendary Frank Schoonmaker of Gourmet Magazine touted the region’s past, and what was then seen as a promising future, by prophesying

“There are vines, too, off east of the Bay on the low hills round Mission San Jose…already famous for the excellence of its vintages in the 1850s; and if we are ever to have wines in America that can honestly be called “great,” this is assuredly one of the districts from which they will come.”

From the Livermore valley to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the future looked promising for Bay Area wine in the eye of Schoonmaker. During the early days of the “repeal,” San Joaquin Valley wine producers flooded the market with subpar wine made from table grapes. Local wine makers in Fremont resisted the quick bucks and focused on developing quality wine for the consumer. Robert Maylock of the Los Amigos winery was one of the first in the state to plant Pino Noir in 1943, and later experiment by planting Cabernet Sauvignon in 1945. Los Amigos won sixty medals, one gold for Zinfandel and an honorable mention for sherry at the state fair. It seemed like a given the area would rebound, however history certainly has a way of playing dirty tricks on the future.

The Gallegos-Palmdale Winery ruins that captivated my attention as a boy, and later as an adult, I would soon uncover had an amazing history. The origins begin with two of the early Anglo-American emigrants to what would later be called the Washington Township, E.L. Beard and John Horner. The two purchased 30,000 acres of Mission San Jose Land in 1850. A year later Beard bought out Horner and planted a new vineyard that he would operate from 1851 – 1881. In 1881, Juan Gallegos, an immigrant from Costa Rica, purchased the estate and would soon raise the profile of the area wineries like no other producer. No doubt he would become the first Central American wine maker in California history. Gallegos would build a garden estate near the old Mission, as well as a palatial brick winery and distillery. The Gallegos Winery and Distillery was one of he first gravity-fed wineries in the state, man-made cave cellars, and its own cooperage. From the Mission Era through the late 19th century, the Latino presence in wine making would be represented in southern Alameda County.

Figure 3 The Gallegos- Palmdale Winery & Distillery. Photo Credit The Wine Institute

Figure 3 The Gallegos- Palmdale Winery. Photo Credit The Wine Institute

Gallegos would later sell the estate to his brother-in-law, Carlos Montealeagre, in 1892. Montealeagre would then sell the winery to the Palmdale Corporation, of which he and his family had controlling interest. By 1893, the Palmdale Company had 600 acres of vineyards with a total annual production of 2,400 tons of grapes, and over 1,250,000 gallons in cooperage. At one time the Gallegos Winery had the second largest wine cellar in California. The Palmdale Winery would change hands once more before its ultimate demise and destruction on April 18th, 1906. The earthquake that would decimate San Francisco would also show little impunity for the Palmdale Winery and Distillery.

Figure 4 East-side of the Gallegos- Palmdale winery.

Figure 4 East-side of the Gallegos- Palmdale winery.

So why didn’t Fremont become the next Napa, Sonoma, or even an up and coming Paso Robles? The answer lays all around in the blocks and blocks of houses, and the absences of blocks of vines. The wineries of southern Alameda county have long since been plowed under for subdivisions. The rapid suburbanization of the Bay Area in the Post-war era provided too much in the way of economic opportunity in terms of land sales for later generations of area agricultural and ranching families. Now all that remains of the bygone wine past are the cookie-cutter housing developments that now comprise Mission San Jose and Irvington. The lackluster demise of Fremont’s wine industry came to a definitive end in 1996, when sparkling-wine producer, Weibel Vineyards, the last winery pulled up its roots in 1996 for Woodbridge, California.

The end of Fremont’s wine industry may have been inevitable, however, the heritage of wine and wine making in southern Alameda County is not lost. In fact, we in the bay area are surrounded by an amazing wine universe and can be immersed in it if one so desires. One of the many benefits of living in the Bay Area is that we live in close proximity to some of the best wine producing regions in the world. We are also a short day-trip or weekend road trip from some terrific up and coming AVAs.

A must for any one who calls California home is to make a pilgrimage to both Napa and Sonoma. While Napa tasting room fees can be a bit pricey, the wine and the experience are well worth it for any wine lover. Sonoma maybe an ideal destination for someone with a pallet that seeks a wide-range of wine varietals, but Sonoma is not to be mistaken as “second fiddle” to Napa in terms of wine quality. Quite literally Napa and Sonoma are two sides of the same coin, in terms of geography and their impact and influence on the global wine world today.

For those wine lovers who only venture out to Napa and Sonoma, or who maybe inclined to be a bit provincial and loyal to their local wine region, I challenge you to explore our state! A weekend trip north of the bay to the picturesque and remote Anderson Valley is a must. This AVA is home to some terrific Pinot Noirs and amazing aromatic white wines. A weekend trip south to Paso Robles will not disappoint. A new comer to California wine, with most of is wineries having been planted in the 1990’s, this region has some terrific Rhone varietals and a restaurant scene that is unmatched on California’s central coast.

Want to go wine tasting but not interested spending too much time on the road? Well, there are many wine trails in Northern California between the Anderson Valley and Paso Robles that deserve some exploring and can be done on a short day-trip. On the edge of the Bay, from Saratoga along the Highway 9 to Santa Cruz along the Highway 17, awaits some great wines and friendly tasting rooms. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA offers Pinots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, and some traditional Italian varieties. First and foremost the Ridge Winery on Montebello Road in Cupertino is a pilgrimage all wine lovers must make (watch for bicyclists) . A short drive south of the bay along the 101 is a wine road that is off the tasting room radar for many, but well known for its vineyards is the Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands. While very few of the wineries here have tasting rooms open to the public, these Monterrey County wineries are worth the trip (just call ahead and ask for a private tasting).

Last but not least is the Livermore Valley AVA in the east bay. A quick drive along the 580 or Highway 84 will put you right in the middle of wine country less than an hour from most cities in the Bay Area. Livermore’s wine legacy shadows that of the old Fremont wineries step for step, having similar roots in the Mission era, and floundering through the dual shocks of phylloxera and Prohibition. The persistence of the agricultural industry in Livermore has afforded a future for wine on the eastside of the southern Alameda county foothills. Livermore is simultaneously one of the oldest and youngest AVAs in California. At one time California’s wine industry was centered on Livermore. In fact, wine makers from the Livermore Valley won the United States’ first international gold medal in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, nearly a century before the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris.

Livermore Valley is home to over 50 wineries; the overwhelming majority of them have sprung up in the early 2000’s. This late-bloom makes it even younger than Paso Robles in terms of development. Livermore is slowly emerging as an up and coming region, but is struggling to find an identity. In Livermore one can see the twin of Fremont’s wine legacy that was separated at birth. With Fremont’s wine heritage having long since faded into the annual of history, and Livermore now undergoing a renaissance, soon prone to reclaim the past prophesized by Frank Schoonmaker so many years ago. Some say in each bottle of wine is a story; one can say the same for the vines in the vineyards. California and Bay Area wines, although younger than Europe, have no less of a rich tapestry of history and many stories to be retold. So next time you enjoy a nice bottle of California wine, raise your glass to the local wine history that made it all possible. Cheers!

Sources:

Country Club of Washington Township, 1965, History of Washington Township, Stanford University Press, CA

Singleton, Jill M. “Lost Wineries and Vineyards of Fremont, California.” Museum of Local History. Museum of Local History. Web. 03 June 2011. http://www.museumoflocalhistory.org/pages/wineries.htm

Reichl, Ruth. History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print.

Bucatini alla Puttanesca with Ridge Lytton Estate Primitivo

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By Kareasa Wilkins

I had a shload (for those of you that can’t put two and two together, that’s shit load) of olives left over from the paella party. I don’t know, maybe I’m the only one who likes to snack on olives, or maybe I just buy way too many olives and then other people bring olives and we end up with an olive explosion. Luckily, with this overabundance of olives, I can make pasta puttanesca, a stinky spicy salty southern Italian style pasta named for the women of the night. Tonight I made a lovely version with bucatini (the sipping straw style spaghetti) from Abruzzo. Sadly, my wine supply is running a little low right now and I didn’t have a single Italian wine on my shelf. I was hoping for a zippy Sangiovese or something more rustic from the bottom of Italy’s boot, but sometimes you’ve gotta go with what you have, and the closest thing I had to Italian was Ridge’s 2012 Primitivo. Ridge is of course famous for Zinfandel, which is genetically identical to Primitivo. The grapes for the Ridge Primitivo are grown in the Dry Creek Valley region of California, so why would they put Primitivo on the label rather than Zin? Well, it turns out that this wine is made from Primitivo vine cuttings that were taken from southern Italy and transported to the Lytton Springs vineyard in Healdsburg. It was an experiment of sorts to see how it would compare to the Zins grown in the same vineyard. This wine was not at all what I expected, but wow, was it a showstopper. I had a bottle of it about a month ago and it was somewhat closed and just kind of tasted like an earthier version of Zinfandel. Tonight when I opened it, it was all black and purple fruit with this amazing velvety tannin structure. In other words, the Petite Sirah that it’s blended with was really showing through (it’s 88% Primitivo with Petite Sirath making up the other 12%). This wine was really a knockout, though I think I was hoping for something with a little more acidity and red fruit to go with the whore’s pasta, not the big bruiser that this turned out to be. But in any case, the wine was phenomenal, and while I enjoyed the hell out of drinking it tonight, it will likely be even grander in the years to come.

Ponzi Wine Bar

By Kareasa Wilkins

Set in the heart of downtown Dundee, the Ponzi Wine Bar is a must stop when tasting and touring in the Willamette Valley. The hallway leading into the wine bar is adorned with a photo/essay collection called “The Oregon Trail of Winemakers,” which documents the pioneers of Oregon winemaking. The bar itself offers a cozy atmosphere where you can chat with the wine servers at the bar or opt for a private table.  The Ponzis specialize in high quality Pinot Noir, but they have a brilliant selection of white wines as well, including Arneis, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, and all are available to sample. The Ponzi wine bar also supports other local vintners, and offers rotating flights of other producers’ wines in addition to their own. When you’re done tasting, you can grab a bite to eat next door at the Dundee Bistro, which is also owned by the Ponzis and has great food and a great wine list to boot.

http://ponziwines.com/our-locations/dundee-bistro

Elk Cove Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins

A visit to the Elk Cove winery in the beautiful Yamhill-Carlton AVA of the Willamette Valley can’t fail to put one in an overwhelming sense of calm. The pristinely manicured gardens and breathtaking views of the valley make this winery the perfect place to relax and enjoy a sip of Pinot Noir. Be sure to take the time to wander around by the pond and enjoy the garden and vineyard surroundings. Established in 1974, Elk Cove is one of the oldest wineries in the valley and offers a wide range of Pinot Noirs and white wines, such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling in a serene setting. The winery is also has catering and event space available, making it a picturesque place for a wedding.

http://www.elkcove.com/

Wilson Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins

Wilson Winery, located in northern Sonoma County on Dry Creek Road, is always one of the most popular stops during Russian River Wine Road weekend events. Wilson is a must for Zin lovers, as they make an array of delicious single vineyard Zinfandels that are named after family members. But Wilson’s portfolio extends beyond Zinfandel, and they also offer a slew of good Bordeaux and Rhone-inspired wines as well. Tasting events at Wilson are always enjoyable; they have a huge patio that overlooks the Dry Creek Valley where you can often find a staff member grilling up their famous tri-tip recipe to compliment the wines being poured.

Livermore Valley: Can It Live Up to Its Golden Past?

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By Kareasa Wilkins

Back when I was a freshman in college, I worked with a guy who had grown up in Livermore. He told me that natives of Livermore used to joke about the town’s suburban monotony, calling it “Live-No-More.” While my co-worker never mentioned anything about the Livermore Valley wineries, most people I’ve talked to in the wine industry seem to think that the wines produced in Livermore are just as dull as the tract housing that encompasses the region. Long overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma, Livermore Valley barely registers on most wine enthusiasts’ radars, and if it does, the general reaction is at best ignorance and at worst contempt. Yet unbeknownst to most wine drinkers, the Livermore Valley played a fundamental role in the history of California’s wine industry.

Livermore is one of the oldest wine regions in California. Spanish missionaries planted grapes in the Livermore Valley as early as the mid-18th century, and grapes for commercial use were planted in the 1840s. James Wetmore, once a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, founded Cresta Blanca Winery in 1882, and shortly after, two of California’s founding wine families, the Wentes and the Concannons established their wineries in 1883. Wetmore helped to create the first viticultural commission in the state of California, and quickly became its first CEO. Believing that the gravelly soils of Livermore would be perfect for Bordeaux varietals, Wetmore took a trip to France where he obtained vine cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from the celebrated Sauternes estate Chateau D’Yquem.

This was the beginning of the heyday of Livermore wine. While nearly century later, Napa Valley wineries made headlines at the 1976 Paris tasting, Livermore Valley was the first California wine region to receive a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Not long after, C.H. Wente, founder of Wente Vineyards began his lifetime research of the chardonnay grape, a grape that was little known in California at the time. Livermore was the first wine region in California to varietally label its chardonnay, and these days, more than half of the chardonnay grapes planted in California are linked to the Wente clone. The pioneering spirit of the first winemaking families in Livermore set the stage for more ambitious followers. By the early 1900s Livermore boasted 50 wineries, and was primed to be one of the most successful wine growing regions in California.

So what happened? Given the historical significance of winemaking in the  Livermore Valley, why isn’t it on par with Napa or Sonoma today? Why is it that many wineries in Livermore add “San Francisco Bay” to their labels just to clue people in on where it’s located? One explanation is that when prohibition hit Livermore, it hit hard. While Concannon was able to maintain its livelihood by selling wine to the church, most other wineries were forced to close their doors forever. Later, in the 1960s and 70s when Napa was undergoing a wine renaissance, Livermore, instead, was experiencing a boom in suburban housing developments that would wipe out nearly all of the existing vineyards. It wasn’t until 1993 that a plan was put into effect to protect the remaining vineyards and promote the planting of new ones.

Thus, despite a great history, and with the exception of a few old wineries that have survived, the Livermore wine industry is still relatively youthful in the current market.  Moreover, while Napa seemed to find its niche with Cabernet and Dry Creek Valley with Zinfandel, Livermore currently seems to be going through an identity crisis. The original winemakers of Livermore Valley were convinced that Bordeaux varietals were the most suitable for the region, but now things are changing. Concannon made a name for itself by introducing Petite Sirah to the American palate in the 1960s, and subsequent to its success others have followed suit. Many people liken the climate of Livermore to the south of France and in addition to Petite Sirah are experimenting with other Rhone varietals. Still others are trying their hand at Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varietals, yet none seem to have a distinct taste of “place.” While these efforts to cultivate a wide range of wines are admirable, they seem to detract from a real focus, and at this point the experimentation seems to be more on the basis of chance than out of a genuine studied attempt to place the proper grape varietal to the most appropriate site. Finding a distinct sense of Livermore Valley terroir is further hindered by the fact that many of the wineries purchase their grapes, sometimes for more than half of their production, from outside of the Livermore AVA. Another disappointment has been the lack of knowledgeable tasting room staff.  Few of the salespeople I’ve encountered at the Livermore wineries have expressed familiarity with the larger sphere of the wine world, and at one particular tasting room, I asked the pourer if the winery’s sparkling wine was made in the traditional champenoise method, and she replied, “No, our sparkling wine is made in Lodi.”

Still, there is hope for the future of the Livermore Valley wine industry. The last few times I went to the region the quality of the wines had drastically improved from my previous visits there. More and more growers are employing sustainable farming methods, and some producers, such as Wente and Steven Kent, have upped the quality control by introducing small lot wines to their portfolios. Improvements in wine education are being made as well. Many wineries are beginning to host winemaker dinners and educational seminars, and the local community college, Las Positas, has recently implemented a viticulture and enology program.  The new program at Las Positas could allow Livermore to compete with AVAs such as Napa, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara, which have long had the advantage of being located near colleges with wine programs.  Thus, with more focus on education, improvements in quality, and the potential of turning out enthusiastic young winemakers, Livermore could be standing on the edge of a rebirth worthy of its roots.

https://www.lvwine.org/

http://www.laspositascollege.edu/viticulture/program_description.html

Hosting a Tasting Party

Party Host

By Kareasa Wilkins

The world of wine is a many splendored thing, but it can be daunting because there is just so damn much to learn about it. Grape varietals, regions, producers, interpreting the language of wine bottles—all of these things can be intimidating to the novice wine drinker. Yet if you’ve established the fact that you enjoy consuming wine and you’d like to learn more about it, one of the best ways to improve your wine knowledge and have a fun time doing it is by hosting a wine tasting party. Wine tasting parties are also great for people who already know quite a bit about wine as there is always something new to learn by wine tasting.

Before you begin, you should establish a few things. First decide how many people to invite, and only invite people who are serious about learning more about wine. Wine tasting parties can all to easily turn into drunken ragers if the people involved are focused more on drinking than on educating themselves. It’s best to keep the group relatively small, though that depends on how much space you have. You should be able to provide a table space that is free from any distracting noises or smells, and ideally you should use a white tablecloth or white paper background in order to see the wines clearly. Also, be sure to provide a spit/dump bucket. As much fun as it is to get a little tipsy from wine, the professional way of tasting is to sip and spit. This allows you to have a clear head to analyze the wines and helps ensure that you won’t have people crashed out on your couch after the party.

Unless you have a huge selection of glassware, the best thing to do is have your guests bring their own glassware—one glass for each wine you are going to taste is ideal, since side-by-side tastings are an excellent way of distinguishing the different nuances between wines. You also need to determine how much wine you plan to taste, and who will be providing it. You can provide all of the wine yourself and trade off by having different people host the parties each time you meet. Alternatively, you can buy all of the wine and collect money from your guests, or you can have each person bring a wine to the party. Before the party, you should come up with a method of analyzing the wines that will be served. In most recognized wine societies, such as the  Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the International Sommelier’s Guild, the following items are assessed in a wine tasting:

Appearance: (including clarity, intensity, color, rim vs. core)

Nose: (including condition, intensity, development, fruit character)

Palate: (including sweetness, acidity, tannin, fruit intensity, fruit character, alcohol, length)

Conclusions: (including quality, maturity, price range, region)

You may also come up with a rating of the quality of the wine or how well you like it.

Once you’ve figured out your method of analyzing the wines, the fun part is deciding what type of tasting party to host. There are numerous types of tastings you can do, but here are a few suggestions:

Varietal Focus: This is one of the best ways to get to know the character of a particular grape variety and the subtle differences between the regions in which the grape is grown. For this theme, first choose a varietal, such as Pinot Noir.

Ask each person to bring a Pinot Noir from a different region: ie, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Willamette Valley, Burgundy, New Zealand. Pour the wines side-by-side, and assess the similarities and differences between the wines. Alternatively, you could do a varietal tasting of Pinots from the same region, but different producers.

Country/Region Focus: For people who are just beginning to learn about the world of wine, focusing on a country, such as France or Italy, or a region, such as Bordeaux or Piedmont,  is a great way of expanding your wine knowledge. This is the perfect opportunity to do research—look at maps, provide a handout for your guests, or assign a different region of one country to each guest and have them research and talk about their assigned regions.

Does Price Really Matter?: This is a good sub-theme of a varietal focus party. Choose a varietal, such as Cabernet, and buy one wine in the $10-under category, one in the $10-$20 range, one in the $20-30 range, and one in the $40-and over category. Blind taste the wines side-by-side and see if price really makes a difference.

Guess the Varietal: Buy different varietal wines and blind taste them side-by-side to see if you can guess which is which. This is a great party theme if you have a more experienced palate. If you are new to wine tasting, do research on the typical flavor profiles of the varietals that you are serving. Discuss these before tasting, then see if the wines conform to their typical tasting profiles.

Old World vs. New World: Another sub-category of the varietal focus. Pick a grape varietal, such as Grenache, and find examples from the New World (ie. The U.S., Chile, Australia), then find examples from the Old World (France—the Rhone Valley, Spain, Sardinia) and assess the similarities and differences.

Vertical Tasting: A vertical tasting is a tasting of the same wine from different vintages. If you are lucky enough to have access to multiple vintages of the same wine, this is a great way to taste the difference of vintage. For example, pour a Ridge Montebello 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, and look for the differences and how the wine changes with time.

But the fun doesn’t stop here…tasting parties give you the opportunity to be creative. Just about any tasting theme you can think of can be successful and educational, so call your friends and bring out the corkscrew!

Raving About Riesling

Riesling

By Kareasa Wilkins

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a Riesling fanatic. Of all of the wines in my cellar, a good 75% of them are made from Riesling. From the zesty, limey, bone dry Australian Rieslings from Eden Valley to the lusciously sublime botrytized German TBAs (Trockenbeerenauslese), I believe there’s no grape that’s more diverse or more food friendly. Yet in most circles I’m alone with my enthusiasm for the grape. Many of my male friends think their penises will shrink if they dare to sip any wine that may have a hint of sweetness to it, and still others believe that the only white wines worthy of prestige come from Burgundy. Yet once upon a time, Riesling was the most prestigious wine in the world. In the 19th century, German Riesling was more sought-after and pricier than the top red wines from Bordeaux. Unfortunately the mid-20th century brought on a wave of mass-produced, low-quality versions, and Riesling has been trying to shed its image as a cheap sweet glugger ever since.

In an effort to help boost the image of Riesling, I’d like to start by dispelling the numerous myths that haunt the grape:

Wines made from Riesling are sticky sweet. Untrue in most cases! Some of the driest wines I’ve ever tasted have come from Riesling. Young Trocken wines from Germany can be so searingly acidic that you can almost feel the enamel peeling off your teeth. Rieslings can range from bone-dry to tongue-coatingly sweet.  While some of the finest dessert wines in the world are made from Riesling, such as the TBAs of Germany, the SGNs (sélection de grains nobles) of Alsace, and many ice wines from Canada, even the sweet versions, if they are made properly, don’t taste cloying because the high natural acidity balances out the sweetness.

Only people with unsophisticated palates like Riesling.  Another myth! While my mother, whose palate is questionable given her fondness for White Zinfandel, loves Riesling, she shares this affection with some of the most renowned wine writers in the world. Karen MacNeil, Jancis Robinson, and Terry Theise are all Riesling advocates. Some of them would even argue that Riesling, not Chardonnay, is the finest of the classic white varietals.

Riesling won’t match well with the dinner I’m having. Well, if you’re having a T-bone steak, probably not. But because of its versatility, Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world. Afraid that wine is out of the question for your meal at the new Thai restaurant? Bring along an off-dry German Spätlese and make your palate sing. Think Riesling is too light for heartier fare? Try a dry Alsatian Riesling with grilled sausages—hey, remember choucroute is a classic dish in Alsace, and Riesling is one of its grandest grapes. Finger Lakes Rieslings go great with fish, as do Clare Valley Rieslings, especially if the fish is prepared with a spicy sauce. And don’t forget to pour a Riesling ice wine with that tarte tatin.

White wines don’t age well. Not so when it comes to Riesling. Wines made from Riesling are among the most long-lived in the world. The combination of high natural acidity with residual sugar can mean decades of enjoyment. Dry versions of Riesling from top producers can usually last a good ten years or longer, and in general, the sweeter they get, the longer they age. The finest trockenbeerenauslesen wines from Germany have been known to last 100 years and still be delicious. So if you’re building a wine cellar, be sure to include some Rieslings in your collection!

So now that a little light has been shed on Riesling, here are more reasons to love it:

It doesn’t need oak to make it brilliant. While Chardonnay and many other white varietals are often insipid without a little gussying up from the barrel, Riesling is a natural beauty. It shines alone, defying manipulation at the hands of the winemaker. Because Riesling is an oak-hater, its sheer transparency makes it a pure expression of terroir. Depending on where its grown, you can get a sense of smoky minerality, rich earthiness, luscious fruit, or soft floral notes.

Riesling thrives where no other grape can. Riesling is the Eskimo of the wine world, existing in extreme northerly territory, where nearly all other grape varietals and agricultural products fail to survive.  The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in Germany may be as far north as Canada’s icy Newfoundland, but its cool climate contributes to Riesling’s dazzling acidity and ageability.

Riesling is a relative bargain for your cellar. As I mentioned before, Riesling is a great choice for the cellar. While the finest German TBAs are not cheap, you can still find some wonderful age-worthy Rieslings that cost significantly less than other cellar contenders such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Napa Cab.

Riesling will seduce your palate with its myriad flavors. Peaches, apricots, honey, green apples, petrol, minerals, lime, orange zest, marzipan, honeysuckle, ginger, and nectarines. All of these words have been used to describe Riesling. How many other wines can boast that many flavor possibilities?

Did I mention that Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world? Well, allow me to reiterate. Riesling complements a whole range of flavors including ones that usually clash with other wines. Whether your meal is complex, spicy, fatty, or sweet, there’s likely to be a Riesling out there that will perfectly harmonize with it.

These days beautiful Rieslings are available from wine regions around the world. Here are some of the best regions for Riesling:

Australia: Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Tasmania

Austria: Wachau, Burgenland, Kremstal, Kamptal

California: Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County

Canada

France: Alsace

Germany: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen

New York: Finger Lakes

New Zealand

“Ok,” you’re probably thinking. “I’m convinced. But how can I tell how sweet it’s going to be?” Well, that part isn’t always easy. The best thing to do is ask your local wine merchant. But there are a few things you can look for that will give you a hint as to how sweet or dry the Riesling you are about to consume is. A lot of new world producers are starting to label their Rieslings as “dry,” “off-dry,” or “sweet.” Most Alsatian Rieslings, unless they are labeled “Vendange Tardive” or “Sélection de Grains Nobles,” are on the dry side (this is usually, but not always the case, so be sure to check with your merchant), and most Austrian Rieslings are quite dry as well. The German wine labeling system is the most complex, and top-quality wines are labeled by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. The categories are as follows:

Trocken: These are acutely bone-dry wines, so prepare your palate!

Kabinett: These wines are made from grapes that are picked relatively early during harvest. While they can exhibit a touch of sweetness, most are on the dry side.

Spätlese: This is the German term for late-harvest, but should not be confused with late-harvest dessert wines. Spätlese wines tend to be richer and more intense than Kabinetts, but are usually just off-dry, not excessively sweet.

Auslese: These wines are made from very ripe grapes, are very lush and rich, and usually exhibit medium levels of sweetness.

Beerenauslese: Rare wines that are usually made from hand-selected grapes that are affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). These wines tend to be rich and unctuous, making them superb dessert wines.

Trockenbeerenauslese: The sweetest and most highly prized of the bunch. These wines are made only in the best vintages from grapes that have become raisinated from botrytis. The sugar levels in the grapes become so concentrated that they produce glorious nectar-like wines.

So there you have it. Now that the secret of one of the world’s most underrated wines is out, you should be feeling a little smug that you’re in on it. So go ahead and raise a glass of Riesling. You won’t be disappointed…