Monday, April 18, 2011

A Dog's Nose For Sniffing Wine

I like to think I've taught Bluey (the Australian Shepherd who runs this place) something about wine tasting while he's taught me a few things about wine & cork sniffing. I'm not exactly sure how many thousands-of-times more powerful a dog's nose is to ours, but I've learned to trust Bluey's judgement of wines by the number of times he smacks his lips, the higher number of licks correlating to better wines.

I have never tasted "chocolate" nor "espresso" in wine (although I do not deny their existence), and I'm the first to admit that my palette is unsophisticated. I know what I like and that's good enough for me. As a winemaker, my aim is to make wines that I (and Bluey) like. And if you like our wines, follow-me. I know I liked those bottles of 10-year old Chateau Montelena Cabernet I won in bets from Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra last year, and I know that I liked that Chateau Brion I tasted in 1976 at a tender young age. Although you're unlikely to find me on a wine judging panel with Robert Whitley (though we're both from San Diego), I have developed an uncanny ability to identify "salt" in wine (this is handy when evaluating grapes from Guadeloupe Valley) and to identify "oxidized" wine, which some of you may refer to as "corked."

How is it that Mr. Unsophisticated Palette can identify bad wine faster than a Bloodhound can sniff out beef jerky at JFK customs? Because I've made my fair share of bad batches (let's just call those learning experiences) and I know what a good wine gone bad tastes like. Furthermore, when we moved inland to the country and experienced our first heatwave and I left a 5-gallon carboy in the garage of our first batch of 2004 Syrah, our neighbor, a member of the Royal Order of Wine Tasters of Burgundy, was diplomatic enough to observe, " Reminds me of medicino." I quickly became all too familiar with what high heat and insufficient sulfites can do to good wine. Another formative moment in the development of my nose was when Joe the Wino gave me a case of 1970 Chateau Lafitte for Christmas one year with the level of wine below the neck. When poured it revealed a light, brownish, color -- that wine and its aroma defines oxidized in my mind. (By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of that wine, thinking back to the year 1970 when it was harvested and what on earth I was doing way back then, but the taste was well past its prime.)

So on a visit to New York City last weekend I sat down at a counter inside Eataly, a new, fashionable Italian all-in-one cafe, delicatessen & restaurant establishment that's great fun, and noticed Italian Nebbiolos on the menu. They were pricey, but in the mood to splurge and as a maker of Nebbiolo wines for Bishops, company CEOs and women who trade hugs for wine, I ordered a glass for $25 (that's $25 a glass, not for 750 ml). The waiter brought a bottle to the table and poured a taste that resembled the off-color rust of that 1970 Chateau Lafitte wine more than the purple majesty of Blue-Merle's Nebbiolo and a taste quickly confirmed my suspicion. "That's oxidized," I told the waiter, who took the bottle to the Maitre d' for evaluation. The Eataly's service was fantastic and the staff fetched a new bottle that was better and later as I was eating the waiter came back and told me yes, the wine was corked (what about those people who had spent $75 on the wine before me?) and then the Maitre d' came by and told me he had tasted it too and yes, it was off. What did they expect? Of course the wine was no good -- I have too much experience making no good wine. When Mario the proprietor reads this and invites me back, I propose carrying a 2006 Blue-Merle Nebbiolo with grapes grown by Camillo in Guadeloupe Valley (Cetto Winery) and let's have a shoot out of the Blue-Merle vs. Eatly's $50/glass of old world Nebbiolo. If I loose, I'll pay $50 for his glass. If we win, Mario should pay us $250 for our 5-glass bottle plus Bluey's airfare.

We'll need a neutral judge for this shoot-out and I have the perfect person in mind: Mademoiselle Salud Scents, the world famous scentologist who has created a line of fragrances that combine the building blocks of wine essences: fruit, flower, citrus, pepper, et al. I wonder if the Scent Sommelier could fashion for me an aroma that evokes that elusive wine delight, chocolate?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Before Palm Sunday Feeling The Pain

In 2008 with the darkening clouds of The Great Recession gathering on the horizon the Queen took the last of her life savings and purchased 48 Canary Island Palm trees, known to academics and master gardeners as Pheonix Canarienisis, but known to my friends by the more common name "my favorite palm tree." There was something Jack-and-the-Beanstalkess about spending your last dime on a worthless plant and having that lead to the Goose that Lays Golden Eggs but those palm trees for which she paid less than $49 a piece are on their way to being worth $10,000 each (before deducting the costs of hiring workers to dig them out, renting a crane to lift them up and paying commissions to a sales broker to find them homes), which is to say they are growing and need a hair cut.

What better time to trim them than in preparation for Palm Sunday, and besides, the needles on the large fronds closest to the trunk of the palm pose a threat to Bluey who enjoys watering them with his hose each morning. "Would you please cut those palms," requests the Queen, who starts singing a song about how I do nothing in the vineyard, and don't take care of the weeds, and how it's her vineyard and her palm trees and don't you care about your dog who's always going pee-pee at the foot of the palms and is about to be impaled (if not circumcised) by them.

Armed with hand clippers, a saw and a loper and I begin the task and quickly feel that a knight's shinning armour would provide better protection to my hands than canvas gloves. A poke to the forearm here, a poke to to the hand there and the shirt I'm wearing exhibits expanding stains of blood, not wine, which I don't think too much about until I remember stories about flesh-eating bacteria entering innocuous cuts and it's probably not a bad idea to wipe the punctured flesh with an alcohol swab, which I do, and consume a shot of grappa for extra protection. A few days pass and I notice in the mirror that my whole right forearm looks like a rotting banana. A spreading infection? Since I'm heading to a reception where a few doctor friends are likely to be, I decide to ask them. My college classmate Ted Hendershot from Lexington, KY is there. "Ted, what kind of doctor are you?" I ask as I pour him a glass of Blue-Merle wine, which I gladly share in exchange for advice.

"Infectious diseases."

"Perfect, take another pour and have a look at this, will you" as I roll up my sleeve to expose my arm.

"That looks like a bruise, not an infection. Keep an eye on it."

So I keep an eye on it and each night lay my good hand upon it and recite a healing prayer. Palm Sunday is here. The bruise is gone. Praise the Lord.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In the Vineyard Women Are From Mars, Men Are From Heranus

Chemical Ali is alive and well and living in our vineyard, spraying anything green between the rows of vines with Round-Up. In the words of naturalist Barabra Kingsolver, author of Vegetable, Mineral, Miracle, "The more we use pesticides, the more pests have appeared." I subscribe to the principles of the sustainable vineyard, which suggests planting a cover crop to control erosion and naturally replenish the soil. Although the barley seeds I sowed in December's rains failed to take root, I've been nurturing nice weeds such as mustard plants and dandelions but as soon as the dreaded foxtail appears, which is a mortal threat to Bluey the Australian shepherd who swaggers through the vineyard as if he were the Lion King, the Queen dons her backpack sprayer, mask, and gloves, and mixes a few ounces of Round-Up concentrate and heads off to the weeds. "If we didn't have Bluey I wouldn't spray," she says. "The foxtail problem is all your fault. You don't pull out the weeds and you don't check Bluey's paws everyday," she complains. The foxtail is like an arrowhead that can't be pulled out once it enters the skin. It works its way through muscle piercing the lungs and has been known to enter the ear and cut through to the brain causing death. "There's a green patch over there between rows 1 and 2 and in front of row 1 without weeds, so please don't spray there, OK?" I gently suggest. "That green space is good for the vines." And I reminder her, "Please don't spray over there by the fence, because that's where we're going to plant the garden." We're planning to grow our own vegetables and eat better and live a greener, healthier life. She heads off to do her work in her vineyard and I go inside to make some calls and make some sales because there's work to be done in the daytime job to pay for all of the joys of weekend vineyarding. Ninety minutes later I take a break and go outside for a moment to soak up some sunshine and inhale some fresh air and there she is, a descendant of Chemical Ali, spraying the weedy cover crop I asked her to leave in peace. "What are you doing?" And with those are fighting words she rips of her mask and tosses the cap off her head and throws the $219 sprayer to the ground all in a huff and informs me that I never do anything and that she's the one who does everything and that I can go and pull all the weeds out myself. (Fortunately, her English is not good enough to instruct me to perform anatomically impossible and perverse acts with the sprayer nozzle although her tone of voice would indicate a desire to learn such vocabulary to unleash on her useless spouse.) "Calm down. There are no weeds in that area. I told you, I'll knock down those weeds myself with a shovel. Why are you spraying?" "There could be a snake on the ground. I want to be able to see it." "Look, the perfect camouflage for a rattler is the clay earth. It blends right in. But a snake in the short grass will stand out." Do you sometimes think women are from Mars and men are from Heranus? Are we just asses in our wives' vineyards? For the sake of Bluey, for the sake of not stepping on snakes, for the sake of maintaining matrimonial bliss, sustainability can wait. After all, the journey to a sustainable vineyard is a process.