A First Taste of Michigan Wine: St. Julian Winery Riesling Reserve Lake Michigan Shore 2017

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st julianI have just arrived in Michigan for my first taste of Michigan wine. While provisioning from the local supermarket I came across this bottle as my introduction. And appropriately so.

St. Julian is the oldest and largest winery in Michigan. It was founded by Mariano Meconi, an Italian immigrant, in 1921 and has been owned and operated by his family for four generations. Their current winemaker, Nancie Oxley, is Michigan’s first female head winemaker.

The winery has received many awards for its wines and uses only Michigan fruit so I’m rather excited to try it. But of course I lack the context to compare it to other Michigan wines. My judgment will inevitably be a comparison with Riesling from New York’s Finger Lakes, which I have tasted extensively. It will be a comparison of wines from similar climates but vastly different soil types.

So how does it taste?

The nose is surprisingly tropical showing fruit cocktail, guava and a hint of tangerine with a mineral halo. The palate is plump and juicy with grapefruit and lemon-inflected acidity and intriguing bitter hints as the finish fades.  With 1.2 grams of residual sugar, it creeps into the off-dry range,  or in less technical jargon, it’s a little sweet at opening although it finishes dry and refreshing.

A changeling, fleshy and giddy  but surprisingly agile and a goodbye look that makes you wonder if it was an act. Pair with some summery samba-inflected funk from Bebel Gilberto.

As to the comparison with the Finger Lakes, one can’t generalize about one wine. But the St. Julian reminded me of some of the fruitier, exuberant expressions from the Finger Lakes. some of the best wines in the Finger Lakes have an austere mineral character. It will be interesting to see if Michigan can match that range of expression.

A steal for $10

Score: 88

Price: $10 (purchase here)

Alc: 12%

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Eric Asimov is On a Roll

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wine criticism 2New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov has been rolling out the advice lately for how wine reviewing ought to change. In a series of articles and interviews he provides an alternative vision of what wine criticism could be. His views are fresh and very much needed.

In his column entitled “It’s Time to Re-think Wine Criticism” he argues that the standard wine reviews offered by major wine publications do little to educate consumers. He questions the value of reviewing single bottles, which he thinks gives the impression that wine quality is random. He advocates instead for more focus on wine types and styles and evaluations of producers and their approaches rather than individual bottles that would give consumers general knowledge they can use to develop their own preferences. He also argues that critics taste too many wines at a sitting, lose crucial context by tasting blind, and by tasting individual bottles provide only a snapshot of a product that is continually changing.

In an interview in Meininger’s Wine Business Daily, Asimov endorses the idea that wine criticism is about discovery:

[Interviewer] What about the role of the critic as somebody who discovers things worth trying, who says, “I found a wine you should know about”?

I think that’s a more important role for a critic than simply reviewing bottles. Critics can expose you to wines that you never considered or never heard of. They can get you to look at wines in a new and different way.

And then he adds.

One of the things that I am working against is this expectation that a wine writer’s job is to recommend a bottle that people will be able to find at their convenience. And you know, I can understand the frustration [of readers not being able to find that bottle], but I also think there’s educational value in knowing what is made in this world, what is available in this world and how different people are thinking about wine. [emphasis added]

I’ve been making these points for several years. Does Asimov read this blog?

Finally, in 15 Helpful Words for Talking About Wine he advocates replacing precise, analytic fruit descriptors with a vocabulary better suited to giving an overall impression of the wine. After all, as he rightly points out, most people experience wine as a holistic entity rather than a vehicle for individual properties. The descriptors he promotes include energetic, tense, plush, lean, structure, linearity, length, depth, focus, power, precision, life, sweet, savory, and minerality.

They sound a lot like the vitality forms I use in my reviews although I focus more on how the wine changes on the palate.

I couldn’t agree more with all of this; it’s great to see someone with actual influence making the case for more useful wine reviews.

Winemaking: The Vital Difference

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living cellsWine is about continuous variation–differences between regions, varietals, vineyards, winemaking styles, weather and climate variation, soil variation, bottle variation. Wine enthusiasts devote most of their attention to tracking variation.

Life, vitality, is also fundamentally about variation. Thus, the art of winemaking is basically the art of expressing vitality.

(Fair warning, there is metaphysics up ahead)

Reality is not merely a collection of objects dispersed in space and time. Reality is also a field of potential differences, latent, unactualized dispositions that inhere in material objects and their relations to be unlocked when some new event traverses a threshold. New relations expose new dispositions like when you meet someone new and they bring out a hidden dimension in your personality, or when weather variations expose new flavor potential in a vineyard.

Living things have a special role to play in this economy of change. Living things have an active internal structure that uses matter and energy to resist degradation while accelerating and directing change. As Darwin showed, life is creative, a continuous process of developing novelty, that pulls the past into the present, using it as springboard for the future, without plan or program.

Any individual entity that emerges out of the chemical soup is merely a passageway, a stage, a provisional outcome within a larger process of change. But that individual is also a solution to a problem posed by the convergence of conflicting forces. Living things contract, select and harmonize the conflicting forces that create them thus making a life for themselves.

Yet, a living thing never quite achieves self-identity. There is always disparity, a new problem to solve, a variation that must be integrated—it’s difference and disparity that drives the life process. Resistance to degradation, continuous variation, and continuous yet failed integration are the hallmarks of all life.

I think it could be argued that all art infuses matter with life, not by imposing form on an inert substance but by unlocking hidden dimensions of the artist’s materials. An artist’s materials are a swarm of unactualized dispositions, a capacity for variation, that the artist intensifies and actualizes. Art intensifies and transforms the artist’s materials, giving something non-living a life of its own, integrating conflicting forces in the process, and those materials in turn intensify and transform life.

This is certainly true of wine. The winemaker’s job is to find the singularities, the variations in their vineyards and grapes that promise a new direction, intensify those variations and then integrate them into something people want to drink, building in to the wine a capacity to resist degradation and support continuous change as the wine lives on in barrel and bottle.

Winemaking is the quintessential expression of vitality, harvesting living organisms, accelerating variation and change through the fermentation process, and then taking the resulting inorganic liquid and building back in the features of an organism—life becomes art becomes life becomes….

Budget Wine Review: William Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast 2017

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william hill cabNapa Valley Cabernet is almost always over-priced and is often generic despite the hefty price tag. This wine has a generic flavor profile but without the hefty price tag, and it has enough fresh acidity and edgy structure on the finish to grab your attention. The grapes are mostly from Napa’s next door neighbor Lake County so think of this as a poor man’s “Napa Cab”.

The nose shows ripe blueberry and blackberry, caramel, and a bit of dusty earth. It’s soft and smooth upfront with a medium body and prominent vanilla notes. Herbal notes are hinted at but obscured by the oak flavors. Much of the action happens on the finish where it sheds some softness via the punchy acidity and tannic bite revealing a bit of charred wood in the process. The tannins are medium grain and persistent.

This wine delivers a lot of richness for the price exuding a casual, contented, benign vulgarity like the Stones Miss You:

Score: 88

Price: $15

Alc: 14%

Bordeaux Evolves, sort of

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bordeaux chateauSince the mid-20th Century when the French AOC regulations were established, there have been 5 permitted grape varieties for red wines with “Bordeaux” on the label. (There are 9 permissible varietals for white wine) That is about to change. Bordeaux wineries recently authorized seven new wine grapes for Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur wines. (Subject to approval by government regulatory agencies)

The newly permitted red grapes include the Portuguese varietal Touriga Nacional, Marselan (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache), Arinarnoa (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat), and the obscure Castets. White varieties include Petite Manseng, Lillioria, and most importantly the Iberian grape Alvarinho.

The justification given for the change is that these additional varietals will help Bordeaux cope with the consequences of climate change. For red wines, the worry is that Bordeaux’s bargain wine workhorse, Merlot, ripens too early in hot weather thus producing too much alcohol and too little flavor. The white grapes tend to lose their floral characteristics when they get too ripe. The newly permitted grapes are late ripeners that will increase the options for winemakers trying to correct perceived flaws in hot vintages.

Bordeaux is, of course, well known for its commitment to tradition. So this change seems like a big deal. But in fact the change is quite limited. It applies only to entry-level wines. The classed growth wines are not affected. Growers can plant only 5% of their vineyards with these new grapes and they can make up only 10% of a blend. In other words, they are unlikely to significantly alter the flavor profile of Bordeaux wines. Evolution is a mighty slow business.

W. Blake Gray argues that these changes indicate a willingness on the part of the Bordelais to experiment and think long-term while Napa remains bound to the pursuit of short-term profits continuing to produce the heat-intolerant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If Napa growers were thinking about their vineyards in a timeline of decades, they’d be planting more Zinfandel now so they could leave behind old vines. Or they’d plant Touriga Nacional. But for short-term profits, nothing makes as much sense as Cabernet. In Portugal, they say people buy Port wines for their grandkids. In California, we just assume we won’t have any, and if we do, they’re on their own.

I agree that U.S. wineries don’t think of themselves as multi-generational institutions. But I’m not persuaded the recent changes in Bordeaux show that it’s evolving more quickly than Napa. Napa can already include any grape they want in a blend. AVA rules stipulate that a wine labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon” must include only 75% Cabernet grapes. The remaining percentage can be made up of any of the hundreds of varietals registered by the TTB. Furthermore, it’s estimated that 36 distinct varietals are grown in the Napa Valley many of them more heat tolerant that Merlot and Cabernet.

Bordeaux is not evolving faster than Napa. It’s barely started to evolve at all. This doesn’t excuse Napa’s short-term thinking. But I doubt Bordeaux provides an inspiring model of innovation for Napa to emulate.

Wine is a Process; Forget About Consistency

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process metaphysicsWine statistics guru David Morrison has done great work evaluating the degree to which wine scores are consistent between critics and repeatable by the same critic when re-tasting. His data shows a lack of consistency and repeatability.

The main issue, as I see it, is the lack of repeatability of the ratings between tasters. I have previously noted (The poor mathematics of wine-quality scores): Most wine commentators’ wine-quality scores are personal to themselves. That is, the best we can expect from each commentator is that their wine scores can be compared among themselves so that we can work out which wines they liked and which ones they didn’t.

In this recent post he shows that when wines are re-tasted by the same critic there is nevertheless substantial variation in wine scores:

So, about half of the wines were better and half were the same or worse when re-tasted 2 years later, which is what might be expected from random chance. While bottle variation may be a factor here, it is unlikely to change the results (although it might determine which wines did better or worse).

His conclusion, which is almost certainly true, is that wine scores lack the mathematical precision suggested by the use of a quantitative score.

It’s good to have this statistical analysis of wine scores. But we really shouldn’t be surprised by this lack of consistency. It conforms to everything we know and generally acknowledge about wine. Wine grapes change from year to year because of weather variations. Fermentations,  barrel ageing and bottle ageing involve constant, unpredictable variation. Even once in the glass, wine continues to change and so do we as we taste it. Our impression of a wine can fluctuate depending on what else we’ve been tasting, and our preferences change over time as well. Wine is inherently a vague object, some of its features difficult to detect even with training. Unlike the clarity of objects directly in our visual field, wine gives us only hints of flavors, scents, and textures all of which can be influenced by environmental factors.

Wine will not sit still for our analysis. Understanding a wine is like tracking a ghost through fog. It’s the variation that makes wine interesting.

Anyone who has spent much time around wine knows all of this already. So why would anyone expect wine critics to be consistent? Why would we want them to be consistent? The demand for consistency and precise judgment violates everything we know about wine. Yet that demand never goes away.

In this wine, is not alone. Our civilization is based on the idea that behind the churn and flux of life there must be something stable and unchanging. Despite evidence to the contrary we still can’t get free of that assumption.

Midwest Chow

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broasted chickenRegardless of where you are in the U.S., diners will offer a stable core of dishes—pancakes, eggs, burgers, fries, tuna melts, salads, grilled cheese sandwiches, malts or shakes, ice cream sundaes and pies will be on every menu. It’s what else they serve that makes regional diner food distinctive—frito pie and chicken fried steak in the South, quesadillas and eggs benedict in California, green chili stew in the Mountain West, creamed chip beef in the Northeast, for example.

When I travel through the Midwest I always look forward to broasted chicken—I seldom see it outside the Midwest. “Broasting” is a trademarked term for frying chicken in a pressure cooker using equipment and ingredients obtained under license from the Broaster Company of Beloit, Wisconsin. Frying under pressure seals the surface of the food holding in its moisture while producing a crisp exterior and absorbing significantly less fat.

south side food and drink limon coloradoOrdering fried chicken in diners is a hit or miss affair. It’s often soggy and or greasy. But I’ve never had a broasted chicken that wasn’t delicious.

I found my broasted chicken at South Side Food and Drink in Limon, Colorado, a sleepy burg about 90 miles east of Denver. And since Eastern Colorado is still, sort of, in the Mountain West, I found my Green Chile Stew there.

That’s a good day on the road.

A Nomad Thought

utah pixThis thought occurred to me today as we cruised along Route 70 in central Utah.

“If a man owns land, the land owns him.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

There is so much beauty in this country I would never see if I were tied down to a piece of property.

Nomads are bound to things that move, not to things that anchor.

Six Days on the Road

camper-clipart-5th-wheel-camper-494499-8508449This morning we leave San Diego headed as far east as Nova Scotia, Canada with wine-focused stops in Traverse City, Michigan, Niagara, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Toronto and Montreal.

It’s too damn hot to set up camp so we will keep moving for six, 8-10 hour days with motel stays until we reach Cincinnati, where we will visit a friend before heading north.

Blogging may be light for a few days unless I feel inspired after a long day behind the wheel.