Wine Review: Shady Lane Cellars Cabernet Franc Reserve Leelanau Peninsula Michigan 2016

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shady laneIn the U.S., cool climate reds such as Cabernet Franc tend to be lean and less opulent than those from the warmer regions on the West coast. When produced at the reserve level they often suffer from too much oak since they lack the fruit power to balance it out.

Not so here. This is a beautifully crafted wine from an excellent vintage with seamlessly integrated oak. The bell pepper aromas that some people find off putting in Cabernet Franc are firmly under control replaced by understated herbaceousness.

Gentle pencil shavings and muted vanilla aromas support black cherry and violets. Traces of gravel notes appear as the glass nears empty. The medium weight palate shows a bit of chocolate and peppery spice before gliding through the elegant, compressed, medium length finish that features a fresh, vaguely minty halo with dried cranberry emerging at terminus. Vivid acidity, refreshing but never sharp, conspire with refined, low key tannins to complete the impression of a warm, gentle, relaxed sensuality ideally paired with Norah Jones Come Away with Me.

Technical notes: A blend of the best barrels, aged for 21 months in 50% new and 50% neutral French oak.

Score: 92

Price: $45 (inquire here)

Alc: 12.5%

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Are Natural Wines Terroir-Driven?

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natural wine 2One of the justifications for natural wine that you sometimes hear is that wines that are made without sulfur, filtering or other winery interventions reveal features of the vineyard site and local weather more readily than conventional wines. I don’t think this is quite true and this is not the best way to understand natural wine.

Even though natural winemakers start their fermentations using native vineyard yeasts, the dominant yeasts that complete the fermentation are not necessarily from the vineyard. The hardier yeasts that populate the winery and winery equipment can often take over the fermentation, especially as alcohols creep up and kill off the wild yeasts; they may be a different strain from the yeasts in the vineyard and can sometimes profoundly impact the flavors and textures of the wine.

Furthermore, in the absence of sulfur or filtering, bacteria blooms and oxidation can cause unusual flavors and aromas to develop. These flavors and aromas are often interesting and delicious but they are not coming from the vineyard. In fact the distinctive character of the vineyard or vintage may be more difficult to discern when masked by the strong aromas coming from bacteriological activity.

Thus natural wines don’t necessarily reflect the distinctive character of a vineyard—what they do reflect is the distinctive character of the total environment in which the wine is made. In the absence of intervention by the winemaker, ambient yeast and bacteria populations, ambient temperatures, availability to oxygen, etc. have some influence on the flavor of the wine.

This is not to say that vineyard site doesn’t matter. The quality of the grapes always matters. But what makes a natural wine distinctive may or may not be vineyard specific. Instead of capturing forces at work in the vineyard, natural wines capture a wider variety of causal factors in the environment that emerge as a result of the winemaker’s hands off approach.

If you have a great vineyard that produces wines of distinction, it’s an open question whether that distinctiveness can be captured by natural wine production. Only experimentation and a tolerance for risk will reveal the answer.

Can the Food and Wine Pairing Rules

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wine-food-pairingIncreasingly, I’m coming to agree with Anna Lee Iijama writing in Wine Enthusiast:

In a whirlwind of increasingly global food and beverage options, however, the landscape of pairing possibilities—and potential pitfalls—can be nerve wracking.

My suggestion? Stop following the rules.

Traditional wine/food pairings are fine but our wine and food options have expanded so much that the traditional rules like “what grows together goes together” are far too limited.

It’s more fun and more practical to allow happy accidents to happen by experimenting with adventurous pairings. Granted, occasionally, you might miss badly. But as long as you avoid serving very sweet food with a very dry wine, a pairing is unlikely to be disastrous. If a pairing is not working you can always treat the wine and the food as separate and enjoy each as if they were unrelated.

Most pairings occupy the vast middle ground of mediocrity—not soul stirring but not too bad either. The joys of finding an unlikely match far outweigh the risk of a bad experience.

And there is nothing wrong with a few less rules to follow.

On Defining Natural wine

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amphoraMy Twitter feed has been lit up for several days since Oliver Styles posted his rant against the Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth—the topic of course was natural wine. Is there any other topic of controversy in the wine world these days? I posted about the Styles piece on Monday so I won’t revisit that. But, as is usually the case with debates about natural wine, the controversy comes back to charges that natural wine is so ill defined or poorly conceived as a wine category that the term is meaningless.

Tom Wark got right to the point:

Natural wine: sulphur or no? Can a commercial yeast overtake the fermentation or no? Fermenting to dryness manipulation? Is pruning manipulation? Is planting a cover crop manipulation? What about spraying fermented cow sh*t? Give a definition & then we can talk “meaning”.

This charge that natural wine is poorly defined has been around since the early days of the natural wine movement. I think the charge was true years ago but no longer. But before saying more about how natural wine is defined we need some clarity about definitions.

The demand that definitions be precise and create clear conceptual categories in natural languages is misplaced. Words are defined according to how they’re used and that seldom creates clear conceptual distinctions. Is a bean bag “chair” a chair? Yes, because we sit in them but they don’t satisfy any other condition for being a chair—no flat surface, back, or legs. Yet, we sit on rocks but don’t refer to them as chairs. We just have a habit of calling bean bags “chairs” because in the context in which we encounter them it’s useful to do so. Is a golf cart an automobile? Well, an automobile mechanic might work on it but don’t try to get a license for it. There are clear cases of “chairs” and clear cases of “automobiles” but also ambiguous cases like bean bags and golf carts that fit one category for certain purposes but not others. Yet no one would claim the word “chair” or “automobile” is meaningless.

I’m making two points here. (1) Words are defined by how they’re used and to know the meaning of a word you have to look at the practice in which the word is embedded. And (2) even after gaining a good working definition of a term there will always be ambiguous cases where we don’t quite know what to say about whether a usage is proper or not.

Both points apply in the case of natural wine. You can’t discover what counts as “natural wine” by looking at the definition of “natural” in some other context. You have to look at the practice of making natural wine to determine how the term is used in that context. And even after seeing the practice whole there will be ambiguous cases that we can’t quite categorize. This is not peculiar to the word “natural”. It is how language works.

When we look at how natural winemaking has evolved there are two components to a definition. In the vineyard, largely for reasons having to do with ecology as well as human health, no chemical pesticides are allowed. If leaf pulling, pruning, planting cover crops, etc. have no ill effects on human health, vineyard health, or ecology there is no reason to forbid them. If it turns out that spraying fermented cowshit is harmful then we would expect natural winemakers to stop the practice. In the absence of such evidence why would this be an issue?

In the winery, Alice Feiring’s definition is helpful:

The category of natural wine is a somewhat slippery slope except predicated by the tenets of nothing added nothing taken away, a touch of sulfur as needed if needed.

No filtering or fining, no cultivated yeast, no enzymes, no acidification. These are strict criteria and relatively clear. But even with these criteria there is ambiguity. What is meant by “as needed, if needed”? There are many points in the winemaking process in which sulfur can be added “if needed”. That could add up to quite a lot of sulfur. But in talking to natural winemakers it seems to me something like 20-25 ppm is now a rough standard, and is usually applied at bottling to prevent storage or refermentation issues. And when we say “nothing added” does that include oxygen? That of course would be absurd. Pump overs introduce oxygen but they are needed to release carbon dioxide. No one thinks adding oxygen by moving the cap is an unnecessary intervention.

As to the issue of yeast, it is a well established fact that yeast strains in the winery and on winery equipment can take over the fermentation from vineyard yeast. That winery yeast colonizing the fermentation could be a cultivated yeast strain introduced years ago by previous occupants of the winery. But since that yeast is now part of the winery ecology, why would that be problematic? The point of natural winemaking is to allow the wine to develop according to its own trajectory, to allow the internal structure of the wine and it’s environment to determine how it will develop. The distinctive features of the winery are part of that environment; not an intervention.

Again, when you look closely at the practice of natural winemaking and what it’s point is, these apparent conceptual issues get resolved. It’s not about some abstract meaning of “natural”—its about what winemakers who practice natural winemaking do.

Which brings me to my final point. Winemaking is a process, a series of changes that the grapes and the wine undergoes. When we define natural wine we are defining a kind of production process. Like all artisanal winemaking, it is a process that involves interactions with a changing environment that profoundly influences the wine. Winemaking is about constantly reacting to those changes. Thus, winemaking is not a set of rules. There is no recipe for artisanal winemaking because the wine and the environment are changing in unpredictable ways. It seems to me what defines natural winemaking is not a set of rigid criteria but a commitment to minimal intervention. When there is a problem, the least intervention to solve it is the right one. But of course what counts as minimal intervention will change from vintage to vintage, from vineyard to vineyard, from region to region. Neither the problems nor the solutions are universal or even generalizable.

So how can we know if a wine is authentically natural? You have to look at the producer’s practice over several vintages, and know the challenges, problems, and her solutions to those problems in order to judge whether interventions are minimal. That is a complicated matter but wine is complicated.

What is the point of natural wine? The point is that there are expressive possibilities inherent in grapes—a potential that is not solely the result of human intervention, an inherited constitution. Natural winemaking is an attempt to isolate that potential and respect it.

You may or may not like these wines. They can be peculiar. But there is nothing incoherent or meaningless about respecting the inherited constitution of something.

Budget Wine Review: Ego Bodegas Marionette Monestrell/Syrah Jumilla 2017

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marionetteEgo Bodegas is a relatively new winery founded in 2011, with few resources but a burning desire to make money. Their marketing story is refreshingly honest. From their website: “Ego Bodegas is not the culmination of a rich tradition inherited by its owners. Nor was it the result of a burning desire to develop the marvelous vineyards or a mission to learn about the amazing world of wine….From TOP TO BOTTOM, we built the winery from the roof down, and not from the ground up, with one clear objective: SALES AND PROFITABILITY, targets which, when achieved, would guarantee the future of the Company”

No romance here. Their wine delivers that same in-your-face attitude. It’s all about vividness and punch, brash and pulsating with motoric energy. If you don’t care about elegance or finesse, this is for you.

The nose is simple but with clearly defined aromas of prominent black cherry and black pepper, with background smoke and vanilla notes. The palate delivers a load of vanilla and intense blackberry with charred wood notes. Medium plus weight yet powerful, the firm, medium grain tannins and a flare of incisive acidity give the wine a long, edgy finish.

By all means pair with Nine Inch Nails, The Hand that Feeds

Technical Notes: Jumilla is a hot, dry area in the Southeast of Spain of increasing importance, perfect for growing the thick-skinned Monestrell (known as Mourvedre in France.) 15-25 days of maceration in stainless steel tanks with 2 months in American oak. 50% Monestrell, 50% Syrah

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

The Wine Spectator Lives in a Bubble

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bubbleAt Wine Searcher, winemaker and writer Oliver Styles eviscerates the Wine Spectator’s Senior Editor James Molesworth for his apparent dogmatic attitude towards natural wine.

There should always be room for debate, he says, but, only 16 words down the line, he states that the reality is that natural wine “doesn’t work”. This is what natural wine fans have to contend with all the time: a reasoned demand for debate, for reconciliation, a meeting of minds over a nice glass of wine, and then the social equivalent of Molesworth flipping you – all of you – the bird.

For those of you unfamiliar with this debate that now rages in the wine world, natural wine enthusiasts are often accused of being dogmatic because they allegedly insist that there is only one way to make wine—their way. (I seldom hear them actually make this claim but perhaps I’m hanging out with the wrong people)

Styles points out how dogmatic Molesworth is in his comments on natural wine. He quotes Molesworth as saying:

the ones I like I simply consider good, soulful wines – not natural wines.

Molesworth seems to be saying if it’s good it can’t be natural; if it’s natural it can’t be good. In philosophy we call this “the no true Scotsman” fallacy—a logical fallacy in which the speaker attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition to exclude the counterexample.

Styles’ defense of natural wine is right on the mark, pointing out that it’s hardly dogmatic to be concerned about pesticide use.

But I want to emphasize another point he makes in passing.

Which is a shame because, as I’ve said in the past, if Wine Spectator – or any publication, for that matter – were to do a one-off, special edition, entirely devoted to natural wine, it would surely be wildly popular and gain that publication a slice of demographic hitherto closed to them. I don’t know where the advertising revenue would come from – which probably gets to the crux of it – but there it is.

I don’t read the Wine Spectator religiously so perhaps I’ve missed feature articles on natural wine. But my impression, confirmed by a quick Google search, is that aside from an occasional report from the Raw Wine fair and one or two winemaker profiles, the Wine Spectator pays little attention to natural wine. Of course, if you look at sales data, perhaps the thinness of the coverage is justified. Natural wine sales are a tiny fraction of total wine sales. But the Wine Spectator purports to be a journalistic enterprise and discussions about natural wine and its meaning are the hot topic in the wine world—natural wine is wine’s avant-garde.

Furthermore, given the growth in organic vineyards and bio-dynamic farming, along with the interest in natural wine shown by millennials and influential somms, it should be obvious that this is no passing fad. Conversations about natural wine within the wine community are likely to continue unabated and increase in importance.

Thus, the Wine Spectator and other publications that focus on conventional wines only are missing the most important story in the wine world. Regardless of whether their critics like them or not, natural wines pose a challenge to conventional tastes and represent a potentially important shift in our concept of wine quality.

It’s journalistic malpractice not to cover them.

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%

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%