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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Life is a Highway Edition

In 2005, before “extreme eating” became television fodder in Man v. Food on the Travel channel, or local joints developed hipness du jour via Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives on the Food Network, my brother, brother-in-law and I made a pilgrimage, as part of an annual trip, to eat the stuff of legend – Tennessean hot chicken.

Annually, we do an annual road trip to an NFL stadium to catch a game whilst seeking out unique, local food.  Think pierogies in Pittsburgh, barbecue in Kansas City, cheese curds in Green Bay – indigenous foodstuffs.

When we went to Nashville, TN, the unique local food we sought out was “Prince’s Hot Chicken” – secret recipe fried chicken so damned hot it’s like a stomach exorcism and 24-hour laxative wrapped in toe-curling endorphin-popping, stars ablaze orgasmic pleasure.  And, that’s the food.  The actual location and vibe is enough to induce social anxiety while adding tummy bubbles to your overall sensory experience.

If I had to hazard a wine grab, knocking my beer over to get to the wine chaser, an off-dry German Riesling might be a nice match to my fiery red-tinged fingers and sweaty brow.

I’ve been thinking about the unlikely pairing of down home American food and wine, because, let’s face it, despite our attempts to the contrary, most of our historical and comfort food traditions in the U.S. aren’t something that has an immediate and apparent wine match.  And, that’s a problem.

When I think of wine pairing with chicken, the immediate dish that comes to mind is a roasted chicken with haricot verts and a nice pan sauce.

Unfortunately, that’s not how most people eat, at least the majority of the time.

Two excellent recent books have explored our native food traditions and local institutions.  500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them chronicles a region by region account of the unique, the quirky and the delicious – food items uniquely American and uniquely regional in a land of increasing homogenization.  In California, for example, taco trucks get the recommendation treatment (amongst many others) including the El Paisa Taco Truck in Oakland.

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In my Mom’s hometown of Huntington, IN, the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich gets its just due with a mention of Nick’s Kitchen and their “world famous” version of the fried goodness that extends to 9 or ten inches in diameter on the plate, nestled in a five inch hamburger bun, adorned with some mustard, sliced pickles and onion.

Yum. 

Real. Good. Food.

The other book is, America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA - the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define

Taking more of a survey and sociological approach, America Eats! updates original writing from Depression-era Works Progress Administration writings—the government-sponsored writing that was paid for during a funded preservation of the arts during the Depression.

What the author finds is a lively regional food culture that is transforming, but still vital.

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Taken together, both of these books represent a fascinating peek at our American food traditions in the past, the present and the need for preservation in the future.

But, as alluded to, the irony of the situation for wine lovers is the very simple notion and near empirical fact that most of these traditional American foods are not thought of as companions to wine – not to say that they can’t be, just that they aren’t.

And, fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, that needs to change.

If wine lovers and enthusiasts are serious about the continuing expansion of wine at the table, in our thought process, as an accepted complement to a life well-lived, then there needs to be a continued expansion of information-sharing and embrace of wine pairing with all types of foods – that means that instead of wine pairing tools and the like matching up with food that is classically derivative of the French tradition, wine and food pairing needs to go to the goofy, absurd and the fried – the American regional food tradition.

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Sure, wine enthusiasts humor this notion around wine pairing with pizza, BBQ and burgers, but I’m talking about a real intent to drink wine with what you’re eating. 

Does California Pinot Noir go with an Iowa loose meat sandwich? What pairs with that Pork Tenderloin sandwich – fried, with perhaps some mayo alongside the mustard and onion?  I don’t know, but we need to figure it out to ensure that wine growth occurs with a sensibility that is in alignment with an increasing pervasion and celebration of our down home roots and an aversion to the white table cloth.


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Why Natural Wine needs to go Extreme

The natural wine movement, while gaining a flow of momentum, will always be a small tide pool in the wine world ocean unless vignerons and winemakers embrace the extreme.

Simply, it’s not enough for natural wine proponents and winemakers to eschew technology while embracing organics, and ambient yeasts.  Nope, it’s not nearly enough.  In order to gain real mindshare, to create a real revolution, to incite consumer interest that transcends the fringes, they have to go to the fringe … and beyond.  They must go to the outer edges, past what is known as sellable in commerce, to that dark unknown area where real risk lives. 

Without risk there can be no widespread consumer movement, adoption, international acclaim, and reward.

I have been thinking about the nature of the natural wine movement, and the flaws inherent in carrying a flag for something both nebulous and reasonably unknown.  And, mostly, I’ve been thinking about this within the context of a debate format where an argument is easily rendered moot and invalid.  And, unfortunately, it’s too easy to shoot down natural wine proponents with a reasonable argument. 

Recently, Alice Feiring, at her blog Veritas in Vino, Truth in Wine, enunciates the components of natural wine.  There she lists the following attributes:

1) Assume minimal chemical to no chemical farming.

2) Wine with grapes and nothing else added. And that means yeast.

3) No forceful machinery to alter the taste, texture or alcohol level of the wine.

4) S02? Softcore natural means a little SO2 (sulpher dioxide as a preservative) at bottling. Hardcore natural, means non, no way, no how.

Personally, I don’t have a vested interest in either camp, but I will note that the problem with this natural wine definition is it immediately invites the contrarians – those who easily and readily are prepared to say that any intervention in the process immediately renders the conversation null and void.

Proponents of “natural” winemaking will indicate that the use of new oak barrels is a no-no because it imparts a flavor profile.  But, what of storage in a neutral, older barrel?  Is that not interventionist in nature?  A cooper made the barrel with significant process. Or, what about something as simple as trellising for grape vines – that is certainly human intervention.  The “natural” wine conversation always devolves into this sort of “what-if” philosophical debate.  I’ve seen arguments where people indicate that the Romans used clay vessels with tar as a sealant and that is certainly human intervention dating back a couple of thousand years.  I would urge you to read the comments at Alice’ post to see a reasoned bit of contrarianism—it’s a useful illustration for the wide swath of gray area that the natural wine movement lives in. 

However, there is a way to counter this argument.  In her post, Alice alludes to “militant vegans.”  It’s a good analogy because “militant vegans” are hard core and earn respect from anybody that encounters them based on the true north nature of their compass related to their diet.  This is especially so within the context of other “lite” variants of vegetarianism – pescatarianism, lacto-ovo and the like.  Simply put, vegans look down their nose at those that don’t adhere to the rigor that they do and anybody who has cooked with a vegan, outside of being annoyed with what they DON’T eat, comes away with respect for their discipline if not a little bit of interest in learning more.

The natural wine movement needs to move to the edge like vegans.  They need to go to the edge and risk alienation and lack of understanding, transcending the hypotheticals.

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In my worldview, it’s not enough to do minimal chemical or even Biodynamic farming.  It’s not enough to hand harvest and use ambient yeasts and it’s not enough to bottle without SO2.  Nor is it enough to be a proponent of massale selection vines versus clones.

If the natural wine movement wants to earn real simpatico respect, while gaining broad mindshare, the vignerons need to move further afield and embrace the quirky and what some might say is even weird, highlight the contrasts to the starkest degree.  They need to risk abject failure.  Playing it safe by trying to create a nice wine free of mechanization and engineered yeast isn’t going to get the job done in terms of fomenting a movement.

Winemakers and vignerons need to take a block of vines, tear out the trellising and allow the grapes to do what they want when they want enjoying Mother Nature’s whims with absolutely no care whatsoever.  Go native.  Leave it alone.  Harvest what you can. Risk failure.

When those grapes are harvested, they need to be foot-treaded (crushed by foot) and allowed to go into fermentation naturally, ideally contained in a vessel that is of the earth.  From there, the wine needs to be bottled.

That’s it.

This small addition of wild vines and foot-treading to a “natural” definition moves the conversation to the realm of the esoteric and the extreme away from engineered barrels.  Granted, it leaves small cracks in the sidewalk for conversational weeds, but it also eliminates much of the “what-if” conversation because the grapes are what they are, they are harvested by hand, they are crushed by foot, they are fermented with what’s in the air and then bottled.

By taking out some of the liability in what constitutes a “natural” wine, you are creating a wooly-bully wine that is truly of its place and merely shepherded instead of made.  And, at the least, that invites curiosity and interest – enough so that it might just transcend the mud wallow that is the current conversation.

Now, I’m not sure if this wine will be any good or even sellable, but that’s not really the point when you’re trying to simultaneously debate a philosophical question while swimming upstream.  Risk, and moving to the extreme is where the real reward exists.


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Oregon Bounty: An Interview with Oregon Winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash

Often, particularly in areas of marketing and promotions, the rug doesn’t match the drapes, so to speak.

That is, the promotion is intended to convey a certain reality that doesn’t exist.  Think about the Swiffer floor mop and you’ll see that the advertising and promotions are designed to offer the softly spoken tangential benefit of a whistle-clean floor AND spare time to spend with your family. 

Now, using that Swiffer, my floor may indeed be super-duper clean, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a frolic in the park is in the offing with a precociously cute toddler and the shiny-coated Labrador Retriever – the main culprits in many a dirty floor anyways … Yeah, this flight of ideal and fancy imagery is stock-in-trade stuff for consumer packaged goods.  However, I would argue that the best marketing and promotions deliver on reality – as in, a reality that already exists if you seek it out.

Fortunately, the folks that manage the marketing and public relations for the statewide tourism program, Travel Oregon, can deliver on reality.  Not only do the rugs match the drapes, but the paint matches the décor, as it were.

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Outside of the cornucopia that is California food and wine, Oregon leads the pack for those that are food and wine inclined with a richness and diversity in comestibles that makes a foodie and a wine geek rub their thumb and middle finger together in Zen-like bliss, and they do so without much of the well-heeled luxury spin that is the double-edged sword of California lifestyle marketing.

No, Oregon keeps it real. 

And, you can find out for yourself. Travel Oregon has launched the Oregon Bounty Cuisinternship promotion – an opportunity to win one of seven all-expense paid one week trips to Oregon to shadow with an expert in their field.

Partnered with a mentor, entrants can choose to work with a chocolatier, a brew master, a chef, a rancher, a fisherman, a distiller or a winemaker – Lynn Penner-Ash from Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in the Willamette Valley.

Personally speaking, an all-expense paid trip to learn at the knee of Lynn Penner-Ash, an award-winning winemaker who turns out lush Pinot Noir, seems like a pretty good deal to me.

And, it’s super-easy to submit to win the trip for your preferred experience – simply submit a short video to traveloregon.com/bounty and a Twitter-like statement of brevity in 140 characters on why you’re the perfect candidate.  Entries will be received now til September 18th and winners will be announced on September 28th.

As a volunteer judge for the promotion, representing the wine blogging community, I caught up with Lynn Penner-Ash for a couple of questions:

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Good Grape:  What do you think the next 10 years holds for the Oregon wine scene, particularly the quality of the Pinot and its mark on the national and international scene? 

Lynn Penner-Ash:  We will see continued and greater consistency from the top tier wineries but wineries that didn’t manage to gain brand strength before this current economy will begin to populate a second tier - meaning lower price point.  I imagine Oregon will start to have more price levels for the Pinot Noirs and more wines to choose from in those tiers.  There are many acres of fruit just coming on line that were planted prior to 2008 when fruit seemed scarce and grape pricing was at an all time high.  I think we will see more fruit available and more negotiable prices - which will then develop more brands in the 20 to 30 dollar range and continued growth of the under 20 wines.

Good Grape: You don’t see much Viognier coming from Oregon and you produce a relatively small amount—what was the impetus for doing a Viognier instead of a Pinot Gris or other white more typically associated with Oregon? 

Lynn Penner-Ash:  I have always been fascinated by Viognier, it can be so lovely and intoxicating and at other times alcoholic and mean spirited.  We initially started working with Viognier to co-ferment with our Syrah.  Having made what seemed like a million cases of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in my 20 years of winemaking, I wanted to make a white wine that wasn’t what everyone else had to offer.  Viognier was new to Oregon and a challenge for me. 

Good Grape: Portland is a progressive city ... any thoughts on Portland’s food and wine passion that play into Oregon Bounty? 

Lynn Penner-Ash: We have so much available to us locally - fresh produce, cheese, beer, meats, chocolate and wine that it encourages creative thinking.  The “community” for the most part doesn’t take themselves too seriously so there is a greater sense of support and friendship.  We get together with local chef friends, they make dinner, we open the wine and we all play a game of ping pong - we go camping and a friend creates the meal with what’s fresh or freshly caught and we provide the wine!  We’ve got the easy deal, great food, great chefs and all we have to do is bring the wine!  The best part is we enjoy each other’s friendship and don’t get caught up in the pretense. It’s an engaging lifestyle, supportive of experimentation and creativity.

Good Grape: Thanks, Lynn!

As we climb out of this economic hole, I’m personally pleased that we’ll do so with what seems to be a more grounded pragmatism about life and enjoyment – food and wine, friends and family, life experiences, those are the markers of a life well-lived, not necessarily the car you drove up in or the big house that you left ...  So, leave the floor dirty for just a couple of minutes, submit to reality, Swiffer or no Swiffer, and enter to win an all-expense paid trip in the Oregon Cuisinternship program.

if you’re interested in a 130 page free Oregon Bounty cookbook with food and drink recipes, hit this link (PDF download)

To get more of the spirit of what the Penner-Ash wine Cuisinternship might be like see the short video below with Chef Gabe Rucker (shhhh … he’s a Napa native, now a Portland resident) and Lynn from Penner-Ash.


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Scott Becker from Global Wine Partners on Napa Valley’s Future

Ed. Note:  I have been profoundly impacted by a simple little treatise in book form called Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America by Kurt Andersen.  It’s a gem of a book, a scant 96 pages and an equally quick read.  I’ve read it three times, each time highlighting, dog-earing and writing notes as it inspired thought.  Several more references to this book will likely make their way to this blog in the near-term.

The premise of Reset is that the U.S. has been in a go-go period since the Reagan years (1982) – a period of time in which everything grew including the disparity between rich and poor, the size of our houses, the quantity of consumer choice, our spending habits, waistlines and more.  And, while this cyclical growth has wrought much havoc in the form of present day circumstance, our current economic period offers great hope.  Noted Andersen, “it’s the end of the world as we’ve known it, but it’s not the end of the world.”

According to Andersen, citing the Schlesinger Model:  “we are now at the start of the fifteenth alternating cycle since the founding of the United States, currently making yet another of our periodic shifts from an unfettered zeal for individual getting and spending to a rediscovery of the common good.”

Andersen suggests that we all possesses a duality of spirit much like the Grasshopper and the Ant in the old fable – we are irrepressibly fast and wild coupled with a practical ingenuity, common sense and an ethos of hard work.  And, now, we are shifting from a sustained period of acting like the Grasshopper to a time of needing to be the Ant.

Andersen continues (excerpted): “… the possibility of a radical reshaping of not only economic and financial systems but also the ways that Americans think about their country and themselves … to a great extent, our national future will unfold over this century according to the collective and individual choices we make now.”

“As the recession ends and the sense of crisis fades, we mustn’t lose our freshly, painfully acquired ability to think the unthinkable.  We need to keep the downside risks in mind … it’s just as important – and maybe more so – to imagine the unimaginable on the upside.

Andersen’s ultimate message is one of hope and belief in the American spirit.

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With that in mind, I asked Scott Becker from Global Wine Partners for his thoughts on this period of time in Napa and what it means for the future—a Kurt Andersen-like analysis of wine, if you will. 

Scott was quick to provide compelling insight, while also noting that Napa’s success isn’t the result of one man; perhaps symbolically, but not literally.  He cited Andre Tchelistcheff, Mike Grgich, Jack Cakebread, amongst many others as being key to the success of today, and historical precedent for what happens tomorrow.  Here are Scott’s full comments.

Napa Valley’s Next Chapter

With the current recession affecting fine wine sales, many industry observers have questioned whether this period of time marks the end of a chapter for Napa Valley.  In my opinion, the new chapter began in May of last year, before the financial meltdown last fall.  It was something more fundamental than economics that changed Napa Valley.  The passing of Robert Mondavi marked the end of an era, but also the beginning of a new chapter full of opportunity.

Mondavi was the face of Napa Valley for decades and projected the young region into wine stardom through the sheer strength of his passion and personality.  Mondavi was to wine what J.P. Morgan was to finance or, more recently, what Bill Gates was to computers.  He was exactly what the Valley needed at the time—a visionary who inspired a generation. 

And, while the Napa Valley wine industry has matured over time, it’s still youthful in comparison to parts of the Old World like Bordeaux or Barolo.  And, yet, the Valley isn’t as freshly scrubbed as Mendoza or Mendocino.  Without question, as Napa grows into middle-age, what the Valley needs now is different than what it needed during Robert Mondavi’s lifetime. The next chapter for Napa Valley will not be defined by one man.  No, the next chapter will be defined by the network of relationships that capture the essence of the Napa Valley.  These relationships exist at all levels—producers, distributors, importers, retailers, consumers, media and many others. Between each level we will continue to interact in ways never before possible due to continuing changes in technology and regulatory barriers.  This communication will lead to transparency, which will create increasing authenticity allowing additional growth and development between Napa Valley and “me too” brands. 

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However, more professional talent will be required to manage the network and mine the data, the glue that binds the relationships.  Speaking of data, the next chapter will need more of it.  Scanner data and depletion reports won’t be enough to readily understand what is happening in the market for fine wine.  The shift from a production focus to a market focus will accelerate through this next chapter.  We can expect continued consolidation in the distribution channel, which will inspire some to find still more innovative ways to reach the consumer.  In short, Napa Valley will need to develop the systems and the talent to support a maturing, complex industry in an increasingly competitive market, while leveraging its strengths in infrastructure and reputation.

This is not to say that Napa Valley will lose the heritage and culture that has made it so great.  The challenge is to figure out how to capitalize without compromise.  In other words, how to capitalize on the opportunity before us without compromising on what made Napa Valley great in the first place—special terroir and special people.  Robert Mondavi, and others like him, laid a solid foundation.  The next generation of leaders in Napa Valley must continue what he started but also take it to a new level.  And, while Napa Valley will no longer point to one man as the ideological leader, Napa Valley will continue to evolve for the better because we all succeed when everybody is invested as a stakeholder.  Just as we have seen the “wisdom of crowds” in other industry segments so too will we see it in Napa.  Leading the way will be the tapestry of the Valley working together—the vineyard hand, the cooperage, the winemaker, and the solar panel installer, the wine salesman, the distributor and the social media director who, together, with a unified desire to become better, more sustainable, with a shared goal of excellence, will allow Napa Valley to continue to flourish while letting Mondavi and his legacy live on throughout this next adventurous chapter.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – As Seen Online Edition

More odds and ends from a wine-soaked life …

Relaxation Soft Drinks

It’s official.  The apocalypse is upon us … instead of energy drinks, we’re now seeing relaxation soft drinks.

From the Washington Post (excerpted):

(These drinks) fall in(to) an emerging category of “relaxation beverages,” concocted to soothe the overextended, overbooked and overworked masses that have been hopped up on energy drinks for the past decade.
“I wasn’t the only person speaking 50 miles per hour,” said Peter Bianchi, who invented Drank. “It was my personal quest to relax the world.”

(Many) similar nonalcoholic beverages are hitting the market just as Americans are being beaten down by the longest recession since World War II, and industry marketers have seized on the drinks’ purported calming properties as the antidote for a stressed-out society. Vacation in a Bottle calls itself “the happy relaxation drink.” For Superliminal Purple Stuff Pro-Relaxation Formula, the name says it all. And iChill, a relaxation shot, urges users to “unwind from the grind.”

I guess these “relaxation” drinks are trading on an amino acid called L-theanine which is said to have calming properties, and was approved for the FDA in 2006.

Hello?  Any of these relaxation drinking dudes ever heard of a restorative glass of vino at the end of the day?  Doubtful.

When I want to unwind from a long day, I can’t think of anything better than a nice glass of vino.  It works every time!

With the Resveratrol mania going strong, is there an over/under bet on when L-theanine will reverse engineer the process and find its way into a glass of wine?

Now, that may be the real apocalypse …!

Natural vs. “Normal” Winemaking

Speaking of additives to wine, last week I saw two very nice posts that neatly bookended natural wine versus “normal” winemaking.

Alice Feiring, at her blog, Veritas in Vino, codifies what it means to be a “natural” wine.  Meanwhile, Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia details some of the “dirty secrets” of winemaking including the use of a substance called “Mega Purple.”

Now, I fully realize it’s overly simplistic to polarize the natural movement by juxtaposing it against “normal” winemaking, but given the absolute imbalance in production volumes between the two, it’s probably more accurate than not. 

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Alice notes, amongst other things, very simply, a natural wine is a wine where, “nothing gets added to the wine and nothing gets extracted.”

Easy enough.  I’m fascinated by the natural wine movement, not for personal ideological reasons, but more because I’m fascinated by understanding both sides of extreme debates. 

Meanwhile, Keith Wallace highlights the use of some of the “secrets” that are in a traditional winemakers bag of tricks, pumping his comments through a sensationalistic filter, noting:

Wine from mass-produced bulk grapes is going to be a tad nasty. More often than not, it will taste harsh and vegetal; possibly like a dead squirrel dipped in kerosene. This is where modern winemaking comes into play. There is a standard toolbox of secret winemaking techniques to shape up such craptacular vino.

Most of what Wallace goes onto highlight is reasonably benign and well-known amongst wine enthusiasts like chaptalization and using oak additives.  However, what may be new to many wine enthusiasts is the use of a substance called “Mega Purple”

First highlighted by Dan Berger in a 2006 Wines & Vines article that went viral in the wine blogosphere, according to Wallace, “Winemakers use an estimated 10,000 gallons of the stuff every year—because only a tiny amount is needed to fix an entire barrel, Mega Purple is probably being added to over 25 million bottles of wine annually.”

He continues, “Mega Purple smoothes out the flavors, and give it a fruity wallop. It will also hide unwanted vegetal flavors and even mask certain types of spoilage. A former winemaker from California’s Central Coast tells me that ‘it’s used extensively around here. It pumps up a jammy quality and hides green flavors, especially in Cabernet.’”

Certainly, the use of Mega PurpIe gives cause to think about those jammy tooth-stainers from California and Australia for a tick longer than we may have otherwise.

Overall, be it a relaxation drink or a “natural” wine, the politics and the “side-taking” in wine is certainly one of the appealing draws for the intellectually curious.  And, while I sometimes struggle with classifying wine into an orderly system in order to make sense of it, more and more I’m accepting that the chaos inherent to the world of wine is one of the chief draws for me. 


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