Archive for February, 2009

Barrel Ownership at City Winery

Friday, February 27th, 2009

City Winery, appropriately named, is very urban. Located on Varick Street in Soho, just above the entrance to the Holland tunnel, it’s hard to imagine a more urban setting for a winery.  Entering the space, depending on the day and what is happening there, doesn’t necessarily remove you from the urban aspects (yet).  The place is huge – 21,000 square feet altogether – and on the ground floor there are two wine bars, a cheese bar, a restaurant, and a performance space.  There is a surprising amount of activity during the day as well as the evenings. And, as Eric Asimov noted in The Pour, it is “a very cool space”.

The star of the stage, at least for the oenophiles amongst us, is the winery itself. This is a bona fide, fully functional winery, with fermentation tanks, hoses, sorting tables, basically all the kit and accoutrements necessary. There is even a small lab (complete with espresso machine).  It is when you step into the winery that you feel like you have left New York behind. The knowledge that Varick Street is right outside only adds to the magic.  Downstairs the barrels, now full of wine, lie with their contents maturing.

The founder, Michael Dorf, is a music promoter, and it is obviously something he does very well – witness the Knitting Factory, which he started, the amazing tributes that he has put on at Carnegie Hall and other places, and now the performers that he has beckoned to City Winery.  He has managed to combine two of his passions into one venture; Michael is nothing if not innovative and a true entrepreneur. 

I have a great deal of respect for Michael – first of all for the brilliance of the idea, and secondly for executing it.  Not many people would have taken on the challenge. When he first told me about the concept, my initial reaction was two-fold: (1) fantastic and (2) that the grapes would be damaged on their long ride from California or Oregon or even upstate New York.  Working with experts across various sectors within the industry, they have worked out a system though that does treat the grapes gently – involving scheduling picking at night when it is cooler, cooling the grapes immediately, and then keeping them cool and packed in small containers for their journey. Grapes have been moved from growers to negociants for centuries, and transported long distances across Australia, where they do not have wineries set up in every vineyard.

It was when we saw the winery that we became really convinced and thought “we have to do this!”. The magic, the alchemy, the excitement that goes on in a real live winery is contagious. And inspiring – what other chemical process results in such a profound and different product each time?

As barrel owners, one of the first decisions you get to make is what kind of varietal you want, and which vineyard you want the grapes to come from.  We chose Syrah for our varietal; specifically, Syrah from Madder Lake Vineyard in Lake County, with an AVA [American Viticulture Area] of Clearlake.  Mollie Battenhouse, our wine director, was familiar with this vineyard so we know what it is capable of.  We also chose used French oak for our barrel – we wanted something a bit toned down and weren’t at all sure our wine would have the power to stand up to new oak. 

David Lecomte is the winemaker at City Winery. He grew up in the Rhone Valley (one of Syrah’s favorite homes), and has a degree in Viticulture and Winemaking from the University of Davaye in Burgundy and a Master Degree of Enology and Winemaking from the University of Montpellier.  

David has an interesting challenge: to provide guidance and educate his clients, to let them make as many decisions as possible, but at the same time to turn out very good wine. Because while the experience of making your own wine is great, if it isn’t very good, that novelty will quickly wear off. David Lecomte seems to handle this challenge admirably.  Luckily for all the barrel owners, he is not content to sit back and let people completely dictate what they want done with their wine. If he believes that a decision will negatively impact the wine, he will not do it. So while being an active participant and helping to make decisions is part of the experience, David is really the one in charge and takes responsibility for the quality of the wine (which I for one completely appreciate).

On a recent barrel tasting, on a Friday morning in New York (and spitting – it was not yet 10:00 AM), we tasted from our own barrel, along with several house barrels. David noted that Syrah in the U.S. can be “stinky”. He seems happy with his Syrah barrels though, including ours, which had peppery aromas and a bit of musty earth. No stinkiness. David relies on his nose a lot of course. He also “listens” to the barrels – he actually sticks his ear on top of the “bung hole” (the hole in the top of the barrel that gets plugged with either a glass, wood, or plastic ‘bung’).

One very important part of the process that we will get to participate in fully is blending. David is recommending blending, potentially with another Syrah vineyard, or possibly even another barrel from the same vineyard. The importance of blending has been realized throughout the history of winemaking. In regions such as Bordeaux, blending is done from different grape varieties to mitigate the risk of one variety not doing well in any given vintage. Because Bordeaux’s climate is so variable, and somewhat marginal, if in one year the Cabernet Sauvignon does not do well, it may be that the Merlot actually has a good year.  The ability to use these different varieties gives the winemakers more flexibility and ability to make a good (or great) wine in more years. In regions such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, blending is done with up to 13 different varieties, both red and white. Grenache and Syrah along with Mourvedre are predominant, but other lesser-known varieties such as Cinsaut, and white varieties including Grenache Blanc and Roussanne are also used.  Here it is partly done for complexity – the different grapes contribute different qualities such as acidity, firmness of structure, perfume, complexity in the flavors. Even in the northern Rhone, where Syrah is almost exclusively used, most communes (with the exception of Cornas) are permitted to use up to 15% Viognier, a white grape. In practice it is not usually more than 5% but nonetheless, the art of blending is still practiced.

Part of the appeal and synergy for us (Maslow 6) to own a barrel is the community aspect – part of the fun and enjoyment of wine is sharing it with others and City Winery provides a new spin on that. Being able to pop open a few (dozen?) of our bottles, complete with our own label sounds like a great reason to have a party.

Another synergistic aspect is the education. As mentioned, David is committed to guiding his clients about the winemaking. He is also doing a set of classes to cement that. One of the principles on which Maslow 6 was founded is the importance of education – it can/should be fun and social, and contribute to one’s enjoyment of wine. City Winery certainly satisfies those criteria: learning about winemaking no doubt adds to the experience. And really that is what this is all about: the experience.

As were were tasting from our barrel one thing we all noticed was the rumble of the subway.  The holders that are used for the barrels at City Winery have been custom built, partially to reduce the vibrations caused by the subway.  Perhaps though, they will lend a little urban terroir – we shall see in about 8 months time!



A Day with Olivier Cousin

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Last October, I had the good fortune of spending an afternoon and evening with Olivier Cousin, whose vineyards, winery, and home are located in the village of Martigne-Briand in Anjou, in the Loire Valley. 

We arrived at Cousin-Leduc in the late afternoon, after having visited Joel Menard of Domaine des Sablonnettes (also a talented winemaker) and only by following Francois Ecot –through several villages, and along many windy roads.  Cousin-Leduc is one of the wines in the portfolio of Jenny and Francois Selections [aka World Wine Wine ltd].  Jenny Lefcourt takes care of the U.S. side and Francois handles the export side and details in France. Jenny also spends a good deal of time in France, and together they have discovered some really wonderful winemakers, all of whom use ‘natural winemaking’ methods. They have a focus on the Loire and the Languedoc, and also Burgundy.


Domaine Cousin-Leduc

Domaine Cousin-Leduc

A fair amount of activity was going on in the courtyard – a truck was being worked on by several teenagers, and Olivier, along with two young vintners, were in the middle of various tasks in the winery, located in a small building on one side of the courtyard.

We were introduced to Olivier and to his protégées, and received a wonderful tour of the winery, with lots of tasting and lots of explanations.  Olivier was happy to talk about his philosophy on viticulture and winemaking. Cousin-Leduc is biodynamic, and Olivier’s philosophy reflects these principles.

Some of the major principles of biodynamie are:
-        The grapes are hand-harvested
-        Ambient yeasts are used (i.e. those found naturally in the winery)
-        The ‘residue’ of the winemaking is brought back to the vineyard
-         A balance is strived for in the vineyards and there is a recognition that there are certain “energies” that actually make a difference to the resulting wine
-        No tractors are used; horses are used for plowing.

One of the things that became clear after a short time, is that Olivier is a true mentor. He spends a good deal of time with his protégées – teaching, discussing, showing, actually practicing – and they are no doubt benefiting greatly from the experience.

Another thing that became clear is that Olivier is a very generous man.  He shared his time with us, showing us around and taking the time to explain things.  He is generous with his willingness to teach others, and – in a very poignant gesture of how committed he is to winemaking in the region, and to his ideals — he has given some of his vines to the two young vintners so they can have a reasonable start.

Tasting the different varieties from tank, with various stages of fermentation underway, was quite a learning experience. We tasted Grolleau (his ‘Cousin’). This was on the lighter side, with a lovely concentration of cherries, balanced by some earth and smokiness. A bit different, almost quirky – something to drink when you are in the mood for something a little different, and not too serious. We also tasted his ‘Pur Breton’, 100% Cabernet Franc (one of the signature varieties of the Loire), which was beautiful. I could reach for this every day and be very happy.  Cedar, brambly, earthy, a bit of leaves, lovely concentration of fruit and earth and very balanced.


Olivier getting a glass from the fermenting barrel

Olivier getting a glass from the fermenting barrel

After our tour and tasting, we headed out to the vineyards.  There is something exquisite about being in a well-taken care of vineyard, in the Loire, on a beautiful autumn day. I would place it in the list of things not to be missed if you have the chance. Being there just after harvest, and tasting the grapes in the midst of them being turned into wine, I felt like I was on the brink of something. There was a sense of anticipation about how the vintage would turn out, a sense of discovery, and exhilaration that we were able to share in that particular moment of time in that particular place.

After checking in on the vines, and giving us the lay of the land as it were, Olivier checked in on his horses.  His horses, appeared to me to be very happy and content with their lot in life. They are very important to him. In addition to the plowing, they transport the grapes to the winery at harvest time, and conversely bring back the residue and compost to be incorporated back into the vineyard.

One of his horses is not quite as well trained as the others yet, and he likes to bring this one back to the stable at night. One of (my many) favorite images from this visit is watching Olivier walk through the streets of the village with his horse.


Olivier walking with his horse

Olivier walking with his horse

Once back at the winery and house, we took a little break, hanging out with Francois and receiving some recommendations for restaurants in Paris. Of course there were bottles brought out to be tasted during this time as well.  We were preparing to say good-bye when Olivier invited us to stay for dinner.  Francois assured us he sincerely meant the offer, and yes, he was staying also. We accepted.

His wife had arrived home. She is lovely – tall, striking with a strong yet comforting presence. They had just acquired a wood-burning stove which functioned not just as a heating mechanism for the house but as an actual cook-stove as well.  They were still figuring out exactly how it worked and how to use it most effectively so there was some experimenting, which they seemed to enjoy.  It wasn’t just the stove that was responsible for the warmth of the kitchen, but it did its part on an evening that had turned chilly.

A relaxed preparation of dinner followed. Some vegetables from their garden were served to keep us going, along with yes, some more wine. This time a gorgeous Coteaux du Layon.

As we were about to sit down for dinner, another six people turned up with uncanny timing. They were welcomed, and what had turned into a rather large party sat down for a delicious meal, of a hearty stew. It inspired me to hold my own dinner party for 12 a month later in New York, and I also made a stew (which was received very well I’m pleased to say).  Several more bottles of wine were brought out.

It wasn’t too far from midnight when we reluctantly pulled ourselves away with the promise from Olivier and Francois that they would be in New York in February (and would do a wine dinner with us!).  We made our way back through the villages and along the many windy roads – luckily our Tom Tom and the voice of John Clease did a stupendous job of finding our hotel.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, “When they die, all good Americans go to Paris”. Perhaps some of us will get to go the Loire, and to a small vineyard in Martigne-Briand.




Natural Winemaking by Mollie Battenhouse, DWS, Advanced Sommelier

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

What is Natural Winemaking?  Is it organic or Biodynamic or sustainable?  Carbon neutral?  What does it even mean and why would wine NOT be natural? 

There’s actually quite a bit about wine that isn’t natural at all, from the way the vines are shaped in the vineyards to the tweaking of flavors in the winery.  But some practices are acceptable – even commendable – while others should be restricted or eliminated altogether. 

The shaping of vines in the vineyard through pruning and trellising, the practice of limited irrigation and careful selection of vine materials are manipulations that are not harmful to the vine or the environment, while the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides may be very hazardous, as would be the misuse of water or destroying the landscape or genetically modifying vine material.

Agrohemicals (herbicides, fungicides, pesticides) have been used in a wide-spread fashion by wineries because they kill things that are a problem for the vines: weeds, rot, pests. And they are fairly easy to use and cheaper than some of the alternatives.

Other than being carbon neutral, the other three approaches (Sustainable, Organic Biodynamic) arose from the recognition that over time, the vineyards will in fact degrade with the use of too many agrochemicals, and the wines will deteriorate in terms of quality. These three could be considered a continuum as it were, of striving for environmental balance and  heading away from things artificial. Where to fall on the scale of balance is a decision each winemaker and vineyard manager makes, and depends on many factors such as climate. If for instance, a winery is located in a very damp area that gets a good deal of rain, it will be harder to keep the rot at bay without some kind of spraying.

Sustainable Viticulture

Sustainable viticulture seeks to avoid any form of destruction to the environment while promoting a healthy and economically viable vineyard.  UC Davis’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program defines it as a way to “meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations”.   Many wine regions have developed programs to foster more awareness of sustainable agriculture and have adopted best practices for wineries to follow in order to belong to a supporting organization, such as Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand or Napa Green.

Practioners of sustainable viticulture minimize the impact that their wineries have on the environment by limiting the use of agrochemicals to times when not using it would cause financial distress (although there are no strict rules as to determining when this applies).  Recycling waste water, composting in the vineyard and using integrated pest management techniques are other ways to be sustainable.  There are many more steps to take to follow a plan of Integrated Pest Management, including hosting predatory insects in the vineyard, providing ground cover crops to prevent erosion of soil and protecting the nearby watershed and natural habitats.

Organic Viticulture

Organic viticulture takes sustainability a bit further, by completely outlawing the use of agrochemicals.  Genetically modified vine materials are also prohibited (as they are for Sustainable), and natural fungicides like copper and sulphur are used, but at greatly reduced levels.  The health of the soil and the building of organic, living matter in the soil is an emphasis of organic viticulture.  This approach is a preventative, rather than a curative approach to viticulture – creating vines that are healthier, stronger and more resilient, reducing the need to intervene with chemicals. 

Compost is used instead of chemicals to the soil. Because a uniform set of chemicals is added no matter where they are used, some proponents also believe that organic wines are more likely to show their ‘terroir’ and specific site qualities.

The viability of achieving success with organic production partially depends on the climate. Warm, dry climates are more likely to be able to support organic farming.

Biodynamic Viticulture

The practice of Biodynamics, founded on the principles of Rudolf Steiner, views the vineyard as a living organism capable of achieving self-sustenance.  This is considered the most extreme of the three approaches, and indeed many of the practices are seen as a little farfetched.  For example, filling a cow horn with dung or silica and burying it for six months to ferment the contents, then making a tea out of it and spraying this on the vineyards at precisely the right moment in the lunar calendar, strikes many people as implausible.

In addition to the emphasis on soil fertility and ecological diversity that it shares with the other two categories, biodynamic viticulture adds the perspectives of ‘an energy system’ [Nicolas Joly] and the “cosmic background of astronomy” [The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson].

What is striking however, is that the results can be fantastic.   Many of the producers that practice biodynamie are recognized as some of the world’s great producers. Examples include Domaine Leroy and Olivier Leflaive in Burgundy, Domaines Zind Humbrecht and Marcel Deiss in Alsace, and Chapoutier in the Rhone.

Both organic and Biodynamic agriculture got their start in the early 1900’s, mainly as a response to the industrialized farming that began to take place.  Momentum began to build after World War II, when mass production of food pushed the farming industry into unhealthy practices.

Being ‘green’ or carbon neutral is a more recent phenomenon and is not always in line with the others.  For example, plowing is the most common way of dealing with weeds in the organic community.  But in terms of emissions, plowing by tractor can be much worse than spraying.  Compost from animals is also used by the organic and biodynamic wineries. But the gastric gases produced by said animals have been sited as “potentially big climate-change offenders” [Wine Report 2009, edited by Tom Stevenson, p. 346].

Burgundy. A brief intro.

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Burgundy is a wine for chronic romantics – those for whom hope perennially triumphs over experience. If you are a sensible person with a family, a full-time job, and a sound belief in cause and effect, you might want to avoid the Cote d’Or.
-        Jay McInerney, A Hedonist in the Cellar

The subject of our first series of themed posts is Burgundy – certainly worthy of a few if not a year’s worth!

Burgundy – a place that has acquired mythic stature amongst wine lovers, a place that is probably associated more strongly with ‘Terroir’ than any other wine region, a place with complex, expensive, and completely beguiling wines.

Velvet, spices, red fruits, summer pudding, seductive, perfume, silky, delicate.  Just a few of the terms that often appear in tasting notes of red Burgundies.   For the whites: minerally, stony, pure, apricot, taut, racy, and nuanced, nutty, and honeyed (with age).

In one way, Burgundy is simple – there are only two varietals that you have to know:  Pinot Noir for the reds, and Chardonnay for the whites.  (If you leave out Gamay or Aligote, which for the most part you can ignore, with the exception of Beaujolais).  Perhaps it needed one dimension of simplicity because the rest of it can be somewhat complicated. Or perhaps it grew to what it is today because it could focus intensely on getting those two right.

As it turns out, you don’t need to know very much about all the complications to like or even love Burgundy.  (And Burgundy does inspire passion — beware!)  There are some rules of thumb that if you follow will let you enjoy some great bottles and you can take your time learning. And no, that doesn’t always mean spending a great deal of money, although that is easy to do where Burgundy is concerned.

Fragmented may be the term that best describes Burgundy’s organizational structure.  It actually is quite logical once you become familiar with it, but it is without a doubt fragmented.  The land is divided not into large estates, as in Bordeaux, but into small parcels.  Each piece of the land, along with the wines it yields, has been observed and classified.  The monks back in the eleventh and twelfth centuries had the time, wherewithal, and inclination, to painstakingly catalog much of Burgundy, and to observe the quality of the wines coming from each small division of land.  As with most other wine classifications, that of Burgundy can be thought of as a pyramid.  At the base of the pyramid are the regional wines, the ‘Bourgongne Rouge’ and ‘Bourgogne Blanc’ (along with a few others, but the point is that the grapes from wines that have this classification can come from anywhere in Burgundy).  At the next level are the Village or Commune wines – wines that are made from grapes within a particular commune.  Then come wines made from grapes from particular vineyards — plots, parcels, sites, or climats – pick the term that appeals most to you.

In addition to the land itself being divided and categorized, Burgundy came under the Napoleonic Law, which directed that land inheritance be shared equally between all children.  So, each plot has been further sub-divided with each generation, often resulting in many owners (the oft-quoted example is Clos Vougeout which has over 80 owners).  The exceptions to this, where a single vineyard is owned by just one owner or domaine, is called a ‘monopole’.

Because the domaines vary to large degrees in quality, one of the best ways of ensuring that you are going to get a reasonable bottle is to know it comes from a reasonable producer (a domaine or negociant).   Where to start?  As any trip to a wine store will show, there are many many Burgundy producers.

Stay tuned for the promised rules of thumb.