|Me, during harvest 2008 at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, OR having a little trouble with the hoses.|
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
|'Brut Force With a Touch of Finesse'|
The single-most enlivening part of my time in the wine industry, without a doubt, has been the people I’ve met. People drive me. Their quirks, life stories, clothing choices, cleanliness, eating habits, accents… they’re fascinating. From high-profile sommeliers to legendary winemakers and writers, I’ve shared some amazing dinners, been welcomed into people’s homes, and popped some stellar corks at my relatively young age. Those who have made my experiences most worthwhile up to this point, however, are all the young people I’ve met during my stint as a ‘traveling winemaker’. Sadly, last week I learned that one of those bright young stars is no longer with us.
Niki Dow was a young guy from New Zealand I met last year during my brief ‘harvest’ time in California. He shared a tiny room in a modest suburban Santa Rosa apartment with some friends who were working at a different local winery. He was a seamless counterpart in the cellar. His constant, quick-witted grin was enough to make you laugh in even the most stressful situations, or elicit laughter in the calmest of times. He put up with the crazy antics of his Moldovan roommate ‘John’ who didn’t speak a lick of English, and even managed to convince us all that John was a good guy at heart, despite some of his outward antics. Niki lightened the mood for anyone who cared to share in conversation. His eloquent stories of his rugby days from college made me wish I could have spent time as a fit young kiwi bloke; I was stoked to get an old rugby shirt of his when he moved back to NZ, even though it had a few holes in it and plenty of stains from a tough vintage. His physical aptitude was apparent, and he seemed to be the type that succeeded in every task he took on. Nonetheless, he possessed the ‘Kiwi-Humble’ I’ve come to know and love; so overwhelmingly sarcastic and jabbing (in a lighthearted sense) upon first impression, but in the end full of compassion and friendship. Nik, as I knew him, embodied all that I’ve come to love about harvest. A young person, fresh out of school with the world ahead of him, when it was easier to find a fulltime, well-paying job at home and settle into normalcy he embarked on a journey to follow his dreams, better his craft and expand his world outlook.
With a number of vintages under my belt I’ve gotten pretty good at saying goodbye. We, as seasonal harvest workers spend so many hours together in a relatively short timeframe. Best friends are made alongside the wine, and when it’s all said and done, everyone usually parts ways and moves on to the next job. I have fostered some high quality friendships and kept in touch with a few people, but have also lost touch with many more I was sure to see again. The wine industry is so small though that you never know when you might one day cross paths with an old friend. I somehow figured that would happen with Nik so his passing hit me like a bag of bricks. Maybe it’s also because it could have been me if I hadn’t decided to stay home this vintage. Maybe because it’s a harsh realization of hope, so quickly lost. He was in Portugal working for a world-class Port producer, a job that isn’t given to just anyone. Only 23 years old, he was surely brimming with excitement and infusing the locals with his positively high-octane energy. They were surely challenged, yet humbled by his work ethic, so notable it has inspired a Facebook tribute group called ‘TheLegacy of the War Donkey-Niki Dow’. I encourage you to check it out.
After sorting through the emotions in his passing, I move forth with a renewed energy and outlook. I’ve reached out to a few old friends who deserve a better effort from me. I’m going to do a better job of busying myself with work that I truly love, push myself to physical and intellectual extremes, and be sure to laugh a little more often, knowing that today could be my last.
Cheers to you Nik! You will be missed, but your legend will live on and inspire us all.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
The ‘Sideways’ shunning of the poignant Bordeaux grape varietal gave rise to Miles’ beloved Pinot Noir, at least domestically, in the years following the popular wine flick. Why? I have no idea. The fact that a single film could have such a drastic effect on the market is beyond me, even as Merlot-based wines from Bordeaux, such as Petrus and Cheval Blanc continue to fetch top dollar on the auction and futures markets.
I’m partial to Pinot, and have found it a theme in my wine-work-travel ventures around the globe. All of the wineries I’ve worked for have been high-end Pinot producers. Living for three months in Burgundy only solidified my love for the delicate ‘Queen’ grape as one winemaker called it (Chardonnay being King of course). Recently, however, I’ve started a new love affair with an old friend, Merlot. It’s only in the beginning stages, like third-date new; Hand-holding is a given, we’re way beyond the first kiss. Splitting the tab is out of the picture; I’ve got it. I can’t get her out of my mind and every glance is met with a glimmering smile. Where did she come from? Is this love? Will it fade? We were ‘just friends’ for so long and now that we’ve finally given it a go, I can’t imagine the world without her.
Okay, sorry for the romanticizing, but I taste a lot of wine. It’s part of my job. When something moves me, it really moves me. Sometimes it’s nearly to tears. Two years ago when I was working as a wine buyer up in the Twin Cities I was blessed to welcome a number of Washington State winemakers to my store for a night of tasting during Washington Wine Month. The focus was on smaller producers: Dusted Valley, Amavi, Trust, and Pepperbridge. For many wine-loving people, Washington wine still doesn’t conjure up much for thought. Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling maybe? For the geeks, maybe Leonetti or Cayuse in terms of notable producers. Columbia Valley and Walla Walla usually elicit a reaction in terms of regional terms. Yakima is there, but maybe it’s known more as the name of a car-top bike-rack. Check out the Washington State Wine Commission for all sorts of great information.
In short, Washington is HOT SHIT right now for winemaking. Only second in terms of production behind California, it boasts incredibly diverse sub-regions and soil-types with unique microclimates that enable experimentation and success across the board with grape varietals. Smaller producers are honing in and making incredibly expressive wines that represent the true potential of their vineyard sites. Pepperbridge Winery is my ‘gateway drug’ to the excitement. Back to the in-store tasting.
Jean Francois Pellet the winemaker/partner of Pepperbridge was a welcomed presence. Perhaps it was the rare opportunity for me to speak a little French in a blue collar Minnesota suburb, or his reserved demeanor that I saw right through, sensing a wealth of knowledge and winemaking wisdom that I could pick apart. Ever so gracious and humble, it was a pleasure to have him pour his wines for me. The 2008 Merlot (current vintage at the time) quite literally spoke to me. So complex, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it all. I couldn’t stop coming back to the glass, voraciously swirling the dense, young wine to elicit any aromatics it would offer (which were astounding). The palate was not heavy, it was not overly juicy. It was not closed, it was not open. It drew a perfect line. I couldn’t help myself from imagining what the wine would taste like in five years. JF’s winemaking experience was presenting itself, not on paper, but through his wine, as it should. The poignant ‘take-away’ from all I gathered was his philosophy on making wines that present well young, express the unique estate vineyard sites, and are meant to evolve with a number of years in bottle.
Fast forward to last week, July 2 2013. I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder with some of Madison’s finest wine personalities. The minds and palates that form the wine lists for Osteria Papavero, L’Etoile, and Square Wine Company to name a few, all gathered around a communal wine table. The night’s blind tasting theme: All American Reds. Seven wines, all relatively different in their own right. One stood out. My exact tasting notes:
‘Age. Color separation on the rim proves it. Oak influence, spicy cinnamon. Cigar Box. Cherry caramels. Ripe dark fruit and integrated tannins. Bordeaux blend?’
The wine? 2006 Pepperbridge Merlot. Magnificent! Granted I didn’t call it head on, in terms of varietal and site specificity it seemed perfect. My world came full circle. I was, quite nearly on the verge of tears when I realized the potential of a wine with which I had become smitten only a few years prior. A few extra years of age in bottle did wonders on the juice. It was in perfect balance. Given the fact that most wine produced for the market these days (last I heard was 90%) is meant to be consumed within the first year of bottling, JF’s vision of creating a wine for longevity had become a true reality. Wow.
Points gathered? Step out of your comfort zone. You are limiting yourself by saying ‘I only drink California Chardonnay,' 'I don't like sweet wine,' or ‘I only drink wines from Morocco’ (wink). Merlot, as passé as it might currently be, grows in vineyards on nearly every continent and there are winemakers there who are making it well. Investing in a case of a wine that moves you and letting some bottles age for a few years might reward exponentially down the line. Drink wine with people of diverse backgrounds and palates; they will bring you things you never imagined. Winemakers are rockstars, but they really just care about sharing their bounty with you, the consumer, and hope you enjoy it. Drink more Washington wine.