Thursday, June 11, 2009

California Trip: Stop One

Annnnnnd... We're Back!

We left our heroes on their way to California with an aching in their bellies. Cuz, you know, their hearts are okay and all, but, well, its not really... I mean, their bellies didn't actually hurt, per se, but the lyric and all. Zeppelin. You understand.

After an evening of California Mexican food so good it probably made my brother spontaneously turn green on the other side of the country and a religious experience with hippy ice cream, all hosted by the amazing G, we slept well and woke on a mission. But not in Mission, because G lives in Oakland. It took awhile to get the Ford Focus because, according to the Enterprise guys, we were attempting to rent a car on the busiest rental day of the year, so its a good thing that the California attitude toward scheduled meeting times is not like its counterpart in New England.

Our first stop in wine country was (shocker warning) NOT in Napa Valley. Sacrelige? I think not. We drove northeast from Northeastern Oakland into the Suisun Valley. Now that's: suh-SOON. No, I don't think it looks that way either. But I got corrected, and now you don't have to. Fairfield, CA in the Suisun Valley is about 2mi south and 9mi east of Napa city (Napa city is essentially the southernmost part of Napa Valley). Before researching for this trip, I'd never heard of them. I had, however, heard of a winery called Scholium Project, and those folks I really wanted to see.
Scholium Project and Tenbrink Vineyards both have nice websites. You can buy their wine through the sites as long as you can ship somewhere other than MA and a couple other silly, stubborn states. The sites are also more informative than I'm going to be in this space, so check 'em out, but...
Scholium Project was introduced to me by Nick Cobb, a super cool wine sales dude who really gets it. And plays blues guitar. The winemaker's name is Abe Schoener. His praises are all over the internet, written by wine-geeky bloggers and legit journalists alike. He was a professor of ancient Greek studies, and a handful of years ago decided to make a batch of wine using vinification (wine-making) methods as close to those of the ancient Greeks as possible. His stuff is crazy - wild, challenging, exciting. His wines are all vinified and aged in barrel, but almost entirely old ones.

What's the deal with barrels? What's the deal with me starting sentences like Jerry Seinfeld? A couple years ago, everybody loved "oaky" wine. "Oaky, buttery California chardonnay." "Oaked Cabs." Then shift up to three years ago when I started my restaurant gig, and lots of wine-trendies specifically demanded wine that had never seen the inside of a barrel. I need to exercise restraint in my writing here, because I could really go on and on and in several different directions (another post, perhaps?) on this stuff, but I've left our brave heroes dangling like a participle, and I have to go fetch them quickly. The thing that American wine drinkers generally seem to associate with the relationship between aging grape juice and bound oak staves is the aroma and flavor of things like vanilla, butter, and toasted nuts. When those characteristics are en vogue, everybody loves barrels. When they're SO last year, everybody hates barrels. This is a sad, sad state of affairs.
Follow my swinging gold pocket watch and listen to the soothing sound of my voice... you are getting sleepy... not too sleepy, you have to keep reading... but still, sleepy... you are now subject to my suggestion... when you wake, you will no longer associate toasty vanilla and butter with all wine barrels, only with brand new ones, particularly those that have been given a heavy toast during cooperage (barrel-making)... instead you will know that in even-handed wine-making, the most important thing a barrel does is slowly and gently expose the wine to air, because the wood is porous... this affects the character of the wine in more subtle ways; in the best cases adding complexity to aromatics, softening texture, and increasing longevity of the wine... you'll wake when I snap my fingers...

Where was I? Scholium Project wines are all very small production, single-vineyard wines of intense character and integrity. I really wanted to visit. Researching Scholium did not yield any information about tasting or touring or even the existence of a place to visit. But I did learn about the close relationship between Abe Schoener and Steve and Lisa Tenbrink, owners and farmer (Steve) of the vineyards that provide the most significant source of grapes to Scholium. I also learned that a couple years ago, that relationship produced a small winery that now serves as base of operations for Scholium Project and for the Tenbrink's own label, for which all fruit is estate-grown and Abe oversees wine-making. There was a contact email address on the Tenbrink website, and I used it. Lisa Tenbrink wrote back to me and we made an appointment for Becca and me to see the Tenbrink vineyards and the Tenbrink/Scholium winery in Suisun Valley.
Lisa was sitting outside waiting patiently for us when we arrived. She greeted us warmly and began to introduce us to the vineyard and winery. The coolest thing in the world interrupted us: three large crows flushed a juvenile Golden Eagle out of a nearby tree. The eagle buzzed the tower right in front of us and landed on the Tenbrinks' house to our right, then alighted, again crossing just a few feet before us to land at the apex of the red-barn winery. Awesome - an amazing greeting.
Steve Tenbrink arrived shortly thereafter, followed by Graham, Abe Schoener's assistant winemaker. The Tenbrinks own and farm vineyards in three separate zones of Suisun, each with a distinct microclimate determined largely by position relative to the surrounding mountain ranges. The closest vineyard to our location at the winery ran right up to the driveway and stretched back and out on either side. Steve took us into the vineyard and gave us fantastic insight into his farming operation and techniques. He showed and discussed with us his vine-training (lyre, named after the harp-like instrument) system and pruning, even plucking a grape bunch off an overly ambitious vine shoot as we spoke.
After vineyard 101, we made our way into the small winery. Graham showed us the winery's two wood fermenters and some vinification equipment and then lead us back to the barrels. Now, many popular wine-country tour stops will invite you into a beautiful house whose atrium opens into a tasting room and walk you up to a marble bar behind which stand winery employees trained to lead you through a tasting of the house bottles for a small fee. Tenbrink had no bottles to open and no bar at which to stand. What we got to do was very special, and I'm still tickled over it. Graham produced a wine thief, a turkey baster-looking object used to siphon wine from the barrel, and proceeded to taste us through eight aging Tenbrink and Scholium wines, all barrel samples. My favorite aspect of the tasting was that some of the wines were clearly not ready for bottling, and displayed really weird characteristics. Tasting these wines as they were growing through their infancy with Graham's commentary gave great insight into the wine-maker's process and offered a rare demonstration of the incomprehensable range of smells and flavors through which one batch of grape juice travels on its way to your glass. The most awkward of the bunch was the 2008 Scholium Project Verdehlo. I mention this because later this same night Becca and I ate dinner at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's bistro in Yountville in Napa Valley, and drank a carafe of the 2007 Verdehlo, which is so different from the 08 barrel sample, you'd never have thought them related at all. Of course, I know they're different vintages, and that accounts for a lot, but the night-and-day difference between the aging and completed wines served as a great show of the magic of the winemaking process.
The Tenbrinks were super nice and so gracious, as was Graham. Steve is the full-time farmer of not only his vineyards, but also several acres of produce, and we're deeply grateful for the time he took to spend with us. Best of all, the wines were amazing, and like our experience at Tenbrink, complete unique.
We weren't able to walk away from this visit with any bottles, as they're not set up to sell much out of the house. Graham told us the name and address of the only shop retailing Scholium in Napa, and nobody has Tenbrink, so we had to resolve to order some stuff online when we got home. Scholium produces two 100% Verdehlo wines: Naucratis and Gemella. We were able to find only two Scholium Projects bottles in that one shop. One was the 2007 Gemella. I'm thinking of having it this summer with paella, which I make in a pan Becca got me that I put on the Weber kettle. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it. A lot.

Many thanks to the enormous crowd of roughly a dozen of you currently reading - you've already given me topics I hadn't thought of and I think this is going to be a lot of fun to write. However, beware: what you're doing to my ego is like feeding mogwai after midnight! Okay, not really as dangerous. But seriously: DO NOT feed the mogwai after midnight. No water either. I'm not kidding.

California Trip: The Planning

Welcome back!

Mea culpa: "Bill... was asking Becca and..." ME. "Me". Not "I". Grammatical error. Pointed out by all two of my first readers. Never happen again. Please forgive me. Moving on.

Becca and I got to spend about 29 hours in Napa Valley recently. It was a great wine adventure. And as it is most fresh in my mind, I thought I'd make it my first subject...

In anticipation of touring America's most famous strip of grape-squishers I put a bunch of thought into what to do with the very limited amout of time we'd have there. I'd never been before, but knew Napa to be a super tourist-friendly wine region, where the number of wineries one can visit in a day is limited not by distance or travel time, but only by tolerance. If you don't know what I mean, take by contrast the equivalent amount of time we got to spend in Logrono, Spain, one of the three city-centers of La Rioja (certain to be the subject of another entry, assuming I get that far). In Logrono (there's supposed to be one'a them squiggly-looking thingies on top'a the "n") we had to take a 15 or 20 minute cab ride to and from our one scheduled winery tour up a road that lead only to that specific winery; the winery was isolated from others with no convenient roads between. Furthermore, few wineries have tasting rooms or regular open times. Travel time and a knowledge of directions was a huge factor in determining the number of places one could visit. In Napa, a practically endless stream of wineries lines each of the two main roads of the valley, the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, many of which are open throughout the week for drop-in tastings or reserved tours. In order to make the most of the trip, I wanted to plan a couple of stops, but leave time to take advantage of the opportunity to pop in on any place that struck our fancy (as they say).
Now, I was a science major, so I'm always a little shaky on what exacty is and is not irony*, but I'm pretty sure this qualifies: I can rattle off a dozen winemakers I'd love to visit in any of several different regions of most of the wine-making countries of Europe, and I'll be lucky to get to a handful of those places in my life. But here I am setting off for the most popular wine region of my own country, home to hundreds of wineries in a super-condensed, easy to navigate space, and I can't name even five places I'd really like to visit (that's irony, right?). California, and Napa in particular, was not an important part of the wine program I'd helped run. Moreover, the style of winemaking or of the wine produced in Napa that I'd guess most people associate with the region is not exactly my personal cup of... tea (more on that later).
Of course, there were a couple names that came to mind. Ultimately we left for California with a plan that included three scheduled stops and a good amount of time to explore.

Next up: Stop One...

*Despite my confusion, I am sure that nothing in the Alanis Morisette song is ironic.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Greetings; About the name

Hi! Thanks for reading. I'm Mike. This is weird. Blogging and such. So.

Greetings! A little about me: Three years ago I started working in a really good little restaurant with a world-class wine program. I'd never worked in a restaurant before; I got the job on an unknown proportion of chutzpa and the fact that I'd studied wine at BU for a year. I worked there for two-and-a-half years and had a great time. In that time I had the opportunity to wear several different metaphorical hats (real hats not being allowed on the floor) including Wine Manager and General Manager. However, my favorite role was that of Staff Wine Educator. For two years, I taught a weekly class to our great service staff about wine: regions, making, grapes, tasting, pairing. For those who have not had the experience of teaching (what are you waiting for?), it is a universal truth that one learns material much more completely when one is preparing to teach it. So, between wine class, frequent tastings with cool sales guys, and interaction with the kitchen and guests of the restaurant, I learned some stuff about wine and, as I have already mentioned, had a great time.
I moved on from the restaurant biz in search of a gig that would offer a schedule that was a tad more compatible with that of my family, but still feel very connected to the wine world. It was suggested to me that blogging about wine would be a good way to maintain that connection, and here we are! Therefore, this blog is dedicated to David, whose idea it was in the first place.

I recently had a great vacation in California. One of the really special things we got to do was drink some wine with Bill Cadman, owner and winemaker of Tulocay Winery. He's hilarious, and his wine is killer, but that's the next entry. He was asking Rebecca and I what we do. I told him that I was on the precipice, though I did not use the word "precipice" at the time, of a new career path in the Jewish community. He said: "klezmer and cabernet!" And there you have it.