Sunday, April 22, 2012

Let the Wine Lead Your Way - Boston Wine Riot

In my pre-Riot post I laid out a game plan for working through the abundant offerings at the Boston Wine Riot this weekend. I suggested having a plan, and further recommend that beverage festival goers have a plan for three things, what to drink, what to eat, and additional hydration. I definitely made good on my plan, enjoying an afternoon with my friend Marie from The Life of Vines Blog.

I thought the use of the space for the Second Glass 2012 Boston Wine Riot at the Park Plaza castle was good, and I liked that venue better than the Cyclorama; but it’s really a tossup based on how each supports the event. After a short wait the doors opened and we checked in, got glasses and set about figuring out where to go next. As I had, Marie had also been reviewing the festival schedule and wines using the Second Glass mobile app. Attracted to the Bubbly Tour Marie mentioned a few of the wines listed on the guided tour. Off we went.

The hit of the Bubbly Tour was the Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling. The product has only been out about a year and I had yet to even hear that it existed. The Dr. L QbA Riesling is one of my all time best performing wines. Consecutive vintages of this wine have been more consistent performers for me when you also consider that the wine itself is interesting with a bit of complexity. Inexpensive wines often lack that last part. 

The still Riesling usually leads off with citrus and some minerally or slate-like aromas. I typically pick up peaches and island fruits in the mouth with a moderate and tart finish containing both the fruits and a noticeable citrus-laden exit. The sparkling version presented much of the same, although apple was more predominant with the activity in the mouth of the bubbles and the wine. The finish was clean and lively. I was as surprised to find this product as I was the sparkling Viognier from Virginia and Horton Vineyards in 2011. Both grapes have very different aromas than the classics used in sparkling wine, and I think those aromas coming through early as they do are an asset in the moments of enjoyment the wines are intended to make. The captivating nose draws you in.

( Overhead of tasters learning about different wines, regions and styles. )

At the end of the Bubbly Tour we went on a local wine mission. Wines (actually wines, meads AND ciders because that’s how we roll in New England) from Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Maine were being poured at tables adjacent to each other.

Our first stop was the Finger Lakes table where we found our mutual friend Lorie from the Wining Ways blog. She looked so happy to be engaging rioters about wines from the Finger Lakes including those from Glenora, Dr. Frank, Ravines and Red Newt. The Rieslings and Gewurztraminer were my faves. The full-bodied mouth of the Red Newt Circle Riesling reminds me of my early days of wine drinking, fruity, sweet Rieslings that had a touch of character in both nose and palate. The dry Rieslings from Dr. Frank and Ravines are examples of the finesse that the Finger Lakes wines bring to the table. I remarked to Marie that I’d bet big on the Finger Lakes right now. I am betting that the steady growth curve of recognition, publicity and enjoyable wines is meaningful and should be a focus of pride and inspiration for all East Coast agriculture and related businesses. The Glenora Gewurztraminer tasted very lively, and I feel that the Cabernet Franc from the same producer could continue to benefit from aging.

We moved on to the Farnum Hill Ciders table and I was so happy to hear the server re-enforcing that the product is grown and produced in New Hampshire. Yeah it is, and it is one of the finest examples of cider in the nation, and yes, New Hampshire is just that cool.

Next stop was the Travessia Urban Winery table. Owner and winemaker Marco Montez was at the table talking to tasters and promoting his locally made wines. I have to sadly report once again that I have yet to get to Travessia. Marco and I have met two or three times now at tastings and I enjoy his wines, so getting a chance to chat again was happily taken. 

Marie and I had just been talking about wines made locally, and suggestions for what she might take to Taste Camp. Travessia makes one of my all time favorite wines and a contender for the top New England wine in my experience. Vidal Blanc. Grown in Massachusetts and produced at the winery in New Bedford. I taste this wine whenever I see it. There are lots of hybrid grapes that don’t make classically styled dry or medium-dry wines, but Vidal is one of the rare exceptions. The fact that it can also be made in sweet and late harvest or ice-wine styles too makes it a slam dunk of a grape to make a tasty local wine from. The 2011 isn’t bottled for commercial sale yet and the early taste once again brought me joy. It is drier this year compared to 2010, something Marco noted in regards to the weather in 2011, but no less enjoyable. The missing sweetness lets the acidity come through more, almost making the wine taste a bit herbal.  You can’t mistake it for a different wine if you know it, but the vintage versatility of this wine in different pairings and courses of the same meal is the first thing that comes to mind here. I’m going to have to try just that as soon as the 2011 is released.Marie, that was and is my recommendation for Taste Camp. 

Before I left for the Wine Riot I was tweeting with friends about it and Brian from A Thought For Food mentioned enjoying wines from both Huge Bear Wines and Mouton Noir. Marie and hit the Huge Bear Wines table together. Unfortunately we were both left with a concern about the amount of oak in the wines. The Sauvignon Blanc was aged in neutral barrels, which is funny because oak treatment was the first thing I picked up. I visited the Mouton Noir table after Marie had left and as my ultimate last stop . I liked the Other People’s Pinot the best, and not just for the 90’s music reference. It was light, smooth and full of flavor.

As we roamed we took note of the breakout spaces being prepped for crash courses and educational tastings. I didn't attend any this year, but can vouch for the variety of subjects you might further indulge your tastes for in this way. In 2010 thew Quady vermouth seminar was enlightening. I make 50/50's with their vermouths at home because of it. A simple refreshing cocktail made from aromatized wine and citrus that has a stomach settling effect like many classic aperitifs do. Very cool. 

The Asian-food and red wine pairing tips session from that same year was hands on, one of the best ways to learn. I've enjoyed pairing Asian take-out with my homemade reds several times since. Again this year there were sessions for everyone, including tips for shucking off "rules" about how to pair, use and enjoy wines and closeups on regions like the Laungedoc. Signs like "How to Taste" to the right were displayed throughout the room. Helping less experienced consumers learn how to hone their senses and determine what they like is just damn good business!

Marie and I tasted the blends at Cypher next. Marie had tagged them to get more experience about Paso Robles. I’m not as familiar as I could be with Paso so it made great sense to me! My fave was the Anarchy, a Zin, Mourvedre, Syrah blend. Big, fruity, and spicy, it overflows its Rhone mold, but does retain a bit of grace in the finish to give it some cred. Hmm, is ZMS a Paso original? The Peasant is their classic GMS Rhone blend, and Heretic is a Petite Sirah that clocks in as dark as you might expect it to be.

We made quick visits to the Yellow + Blue table, tables with both Greek and Italian wines including wines made with the Assyritiko, Agiorgitiko and Soave grapes. Nothing really jumped out at me, and I didn’t find the distinctive nose on the Yellow + Blue Torrentes that I have enjoyed in the past. It was time for lunch.

Roxy’s Grilled Cheese had the Panini presses cranked up and plenty of traffic to keep them busy. Marie went with a grilled mushroom and cheese while I opted for the Green Muenster, a cheese, bacon and avocado melt. While I waited I hit the table for Sweet Wines, wines that are exactly as they are advertised, sweet. Moscato and Cabernet. The first is best for me when sweet, and the second should only be sweet if it was intended as a late harvest oddity. Both wines were tasty, but the sweet Cab just didn’t convince me. If people genuinely like these wines and are loyal buying them, I won’t argue. It’s just not my preference.

From there Marie and I hopped Air France and hit the Loire. The Sauvion Vouvray was straightforward and quietly enjoyable. The Rose d’Anjou from Monmoussea was pleasant and peaked my interest for the Rose of the region. Neither the Louvetrie Muscadet or Landron Chinon did anything for me. Admittedly I don't have any more than surface Loire expertise and will definitely need to seek out recommendations of good performers to try to help me better understand the region.

( More tips, tricks and information to contextualize and approach the wines later. )

Marie took her leave and I planned a few more taste-bys before I headed out myself. The Alsatian wines were next. I’m a big fan of the wines from Trimbach, including their Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. The Riesling made me happy once again. I also enjoyed the Willm Pinot Gris. Lots of white flowers, tropical fruits and plenty of acidity from beginning to end.

My second to last stop was to the  Maine Mead Works table for a flight of their HoneyMaker meads, all produced in Maine.

The dry mead is a good starter, especially for those new to mead. The profile of fermented honey is accessible in this style. I always have trouble describing what un-flavored fermented honey tastes like. It’s a combination of a few distinct aroma groups. First is something akin to freshly dried flowers, musty is a word some people would recognize. A soapy, perfumy essence is another common one, something like how lavender in high concentration might smell. Different herbal and fruit aromas and flavors can be evident in meads made from varietal honeys or different blends, and some very distinct and unique ones at that. A truly dry mead isn’t going to taste sweet at all, and a certain measure of acidity from the bee’s processing of the honey should be expected. Once you begin to taste finished meads with residual sugar you most certainly will recognize the composition of these aromas and flavors as honey.

( If you don't know about mead, just ask, or just wait. Visibility is growing, especially in New England. )

Next up was the Blueberry. This is a standard strength melomel with plenty of blueberry flavor, but not a super sweet finish as some tasters might expect or want. From there I moved on to my favorite, and an inspiration for a summer project, a hopped mead. Hops that deliver lots of citrus and floral aromas can be used to make a light, white-wine-like mead that does not taste outright like a massively hopped pale ale. Lively like a citrusy, herbal Sauvignon Blanc is the most ready wine analogy. If you don’t really like hops you might not like this mead, but it isn’t some hop head fantasy and very much worth trying. I finished up with the Semi-Dry Mead and Margot’s favorite (making her jealous at my afternoon), the Lavender Mead. The latter is inspiration for yet another upcoming project. The floral and spice aromas that come from that mead are gentle and inviting. The aroma of lavender is distinctive and it comes through decisively. The mead finishes sweet, but not cloying. Based on what I said about the underlying flavors of fermenting honey above, it is no surprise that it and lavender work together.

Thank you very much to Rachael Cohen and the whole team at Second Glass for putting on another great riot and offering me press tickets to cover the event. When this event comes around again I strongly suggest folks that want to discover, learn AND have a good time all in the same place attend. Thank you to the vendors, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, Cabot, The Upper Crust, others (if I missed you, sorry!) and all the wineries and distributors who participated. The wines, food, music and people made for a fun afternoon exploring and socializing.

 Eat, drink, socialize!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pairing with Whites Wines from the Finger Lakes

I’ll be joining several other wine writers on Twitter tonight for a virtual tasting of selected white wines from Finger Lakes region. The tasting is being hosted by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. I thought I might whet some appetites and get the juices flowing with a pre-tasting post.

As many of my readers already know I have only recently (last 9 months or so) spent time getting to know the Finger Lakes region and its wines. I’ve talked with several winemakers and winery owners from the region, and between the tasting room and the wines we brought home; both my wife and I are actively enjoying the fruits of their labors. I’ve been in the region twice in the last six months and will be back there in about five weeks or so for the WineMakerMagazine Annual Conference as both an attendee and a speaker. I am very much looking forward to meeting more of the people behind the wines and networking with the other conference attendees who I hope will be primed to explore the area. The two post-conference days of touring and tasting are going to give me lots of opportunity to visit wineries that are new to me and expand my understanding of the wine story of the region.

When the opportunity to participate in the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance tasting came along I jumped at it to further educate myself on the region. I will be posting a complete report on the wines, the conversation during the event and how the pairings I highlight below actually turned out, in the WineMaker Magazine blog early next month. Here’s what I am prepared to make based on the wines provided for the tasting and my experiences in the region to date.

Shrimp (cooked, cold) with a ginger sesame dipping sauce. There are four Gewurztraminers in the lineup, including wines from Sheldrake Point, Rooster Hill, Wagner and SenecaShore. I have had the first three and generally know that this style of wine in the Finger Lakes trends to the dry side with any sweetness well balanced by a healthy dose of acidity. I think the potential range will work well here with both the ginger in the dipping sauce, and the shrimp. The Pinot Grigio from Goose Watch and Reserve Chardonnay from King Ferry, both new to me, should also pair well with the shrimp, but maybe with just a bit of traditional cocktail sauce or melted garlic butter. Ginger might be a bit overpowering for the wines with a different aromatic profile from Gewurztraminer.

California rolls and spicy tuna rolls. With the consideration of white wines came an unusually immediate consideration of sushi or the like. It isn’t a common food on my table so I am not sure why it came to mind so readily. I went with it though. I am thinking the Gruner Veltliner from Dr. Frank and the Gewurztraminers mentioned above will also work here.

( Can't wait to check out the view from the deck at Dr. Frank again real soon! September 2011. )

Cheeses, Brie and blue in particular. I am betting all the wines will pair well with the cheeses, including the Pinot Blanc from Glenora, which I found to be unusual in the region when I first had it in 2011. I’m going to warm some of the Brie up to allow it’s naturally pungent aromatics to be part of the pairing equation.

White bean & garlic dip. This is a Provencal style dish and my immediate thought was the Glenora Pinot Blanc, and also the Goose Watch Pinot Grigio. The Gewurztraminers might present an unbalanced nose to the herbs and garlic in the dip.

I’m destined to try quite a few combinations tonight because I’m willing to be as wrong as I am right, so long as I enjoy the experience!

To check out the conversation and get tips on wines and wineries to experience in the Finger Lakes use the Twitter hashtag #flxwinevt tonight (April 18th, 2012) at 8PM.



Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

Friday, April 13, 2012

What Is The Relay For Life?

( Yes we must believe and we must have hope. Friends of ours from our event. )

The Relay For Life is the flagship fundraising event for the American Cancer Society and the largest community driven fundraiser in the world. The Relay For Life is a celebration, a remembrance and a promise for the future. In the first two parts of this series about my cancer journey and how I’m fighting back (Part 1, Part 2) I shared the beginning of the story and the history of the team I helped form to volunteer and fundraise in our local communities. Through the Relay For Life I’ve learned so much and met so many great people that I couldn’t think of giving this experience back.That's why I'm sharing it with you!

The Relay For Life is a place where all of us who share in the cancer story can go to give support, get support, fight back and make a difference. Teams raise money for months leading up to the event, hosting fundraisers and soliciting family, friends and co-workers. I’ll get to where the money goes in a future post, but just to keep it simple, your money goes to fund programs and research that make you and a whole shitload of other people heroes to people with cancer. I’ve been, there and it sucks, and having caring, well trained people there to help makes a huge difference.  Be that hero.

( I was asked to be the survivor speaker at the kickoff in 2011. 
Shaved my head for it. Just because I could.)

Our local event is held at the track of Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH. We kick off the event with a survivor lap which is one of the most emotional events I’ve ever been party to. It’s hard to write about the survivor lap now because several people I loved and who also shared the pleasure of this most cruel of best things ever, are no longer here to walk it with me. So when I tell you this all sucks, don’t underestimate what I mean. But it is the people who you get in with at this event that make you realize its power. Caregivers join survivors for a second lap, and then all the team and event participants get into it from there. Survivors and caregivers are invited to a celebratory reception following the kickoff and initial laps. After that I always look forward to walking a few laps with my whole team making noise and letting people know we are there and fighting back.

The walking in circles will go on now for 17 more hours. Teams are obliged to have one member on the track at all times until the event loses at noon the next day.

In 2010 after being astonished at what our scrappy little team had accomplished I fashioned up the following slideshow/video as a tribute to what we had done. Here we are two years later with me thinking about needing a bigger sign to fit We raised $100,000.00!!!!! on.

Throughout the night there are games, activities, fundraisers, music, dancing and lots of laughing. We do turn off the lights at 9PM and use the glow from luminaria bags to walk in silence for an hour remembering those who can no longer be with us and honoring those on the front lines in this fight.

Then there is more walking, a bit more walking; what is it with all the walking? Man, I have never walked so much and not physically gotten anywhere like I do at Relay. Each lap has a theme, with the turning of each debuting new costumes, music and activities. A warm cup of coffee is a welcome friend at 2 AM when there are only 100 people on the track.

When morning finally comes we are all usually pretty happy, and more or less so based on the overnight weather. You aren’t technically camping, more like bivouacking or manning a field outpost. We’ve had thunderstorms come right across the field, pouring rain, steady but constant rain, fog, cold and wind. We’ve heard reports of other events seeing snow. You will want to be a bit hardcore to deal with it. And walk 30+ miles in any or all of it. Morning snacks are brought in by team relief that heads back to our house overnight. Boxes of donuts are made scarce in short order.

Cancer affects all of us sooner or later. Don’t believe me? The latest statistic from the American Cancer Society is that 1 in 2 people will be affected by cancer in our lifetime. None of us live alone forever, so it affects all of us sooner or later. I tell people that I feel that everyone should support a cause they can get behind, but truly support it. And for many people that means putting their support with someone else who is making just the difference they can be part of. I can’t thank you, my family, my friends and all the people who have continued to support me in this fight enough. We are ALL making a difference.

To be someone’s hero donate to the Relay For Life using the online form at

Be an even bigger hero and send this post to your friends. Facebook it, Tweet it, send and email, make a call, write a letter, send a carrier pigeon with a blank money order, what ever it takes. We need to more fighters and more ammo in this fight!



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jump in on a Riot in Boston

The Second Glass Boston Wine Riot, that is!

In 2010 I shared my experiences from the Boston Wine Riot in two posts (post 1, post 2) here at the Ancient Fire Wine Blog. The event was a generous blend of local wines, wines of the world, some of Boston’s edgy and new food purveyors, educational sessions, wine-loving people, music and online networking; making for a fun afternoon of mixing, mingling and tasting.

The Wine Riot has been in Boston again since 2010 and I’ll be making it to this year’s installment. I’ve found that having a festival game plan is the best way to get the most out of a general admission event with so many tastes available. What is my game plan for this event?
  • New local wineries and newer vintages of those local producers with which I am already familiar. This is smart business. Eating & drinking near where you work and live is a constant source of adventures you can take on short notice.
  • Unfamiliar wine regions. This is a frequent festival approach for me. Exposure to new wine regions means exposure to history, culture, people and food that I am also not likely already familiar with. You can learn a lot about a place through its food and drink. Eventually I am going to run out of these, but I'm not there yet!
  • New producers from regions known to me. Broadening my knowledge of wine-making regions to which I am already somewhat familiar helps continuously fill in the blanks dynamics of the place and what the region does best. Keeping an eye on new producers also means seeing new styles and spins on the local scene of the producer.

For folks not familiar with Second Glass and the Wine Riot events held in several cities nationwide, here are the pertinents:
  • Second Glass brings wineries and wine drinkers together through social media and in-person events across the nation by helping people uncover their new favorite wines, remember what they drink and share all of that fabulous info with their friends.
  • Guests can look forward to tasting over 250 wines from across the globe while tagging, rating and remembering them for later purchase using the free mobile app at
  • This year’s Boston Wine Riot is April 20th & 21st at the Boston Park Plaza Castle on Arlington Street. There are three riots Friday 7p to 11p and two on Saturday from 1p to 5p and 7p to 11p. Ticket information and additional details can be accessed at
If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, what are you waiting for? Crash the Boston Wine Riot with friends and find something new and tasty to drink for the great Spring weather coming!



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wanabe Rant about High Alcohol Wines

I think I’ve always been a little put off by red wines that trend to and beyond 15% alcohol. I'm not a fan of whites like that either, but I don't feel I come across them as much. Most often I get in this mode when wines are driven by the aromas and textures of too much fuel. In most cases the wines are otherwise sound, balanced and enjoyable. Until recently I casually dismissed the alcohol as just a consequence of a warm growing climate where super-ripening is just business as usual.

Not this week! During a recent Boston Sommelier Society tasting I experienced three wines in a row (our whole red flight and second half of our blind tasting) that were all 14.5% or higher as stated on the label. Factoring in the +/- margin allowed in alcohol labeling in the US (and they were all domestically made) they could all have been well over 15%, with one potentially reaching 17.1%!!! I was offended at how the wines screwed with my nose and palate. One of the wines had enough wood in it for a genuine fear of fire!

The wines were again laden with fruit, earth, noticeable tannins, healthy acidity and otherwise enjoyable characteristics, but I had trouble getting past the alcohol. Frankly, the wines didn’t need all of it to be enjoyed. For me that meant they weren’t well balanced. There was healthy confirmation of the alcoholic strength of the wines at the table, but varying opinions on the balance of the wine despite this fact.

My wanabe rant ends here. The subject of high alcohol wines is not new. As a hobbyist winemaker I understand the processes at work here and figured a different take on the issue would be required to make an attempt at a rant a worthwhile read in the end.

I began writing this post on the bus ride home after the tasting and got the first three paragraphs out before I had thought much about where to take it. The next day I read "In Pursuit of Balance" at Steve Heimoff’s blog, which kicks around the same topic. The link was shared on Facebook by Andrew Murray (AndrewMurray Vineyards) and the comments from both he and Adam Lee (Siduri Wines) got me thinking.

How should consumers react to a wine when their final impression is that it is unbalanced. Is high alcohol a singular issue with a simple remedy? 

( Vines near Los Olivos, California )

The comments to the original post were most useful fodder for the consideration of how to make my argument meaningful. The final product here is the combination of vineyard fruit in concert the winemaking staffs' decisions and actions. The alcohol level is part of that. The need to take action to balance wine must pre-fermentation for any reason, sugar and the resulting alcohol being just one, is nothing new and is the charge of the people tasked with making the best wine they can. The decision not to intervene then becomes a corresponding creative choice, a choice with the same risk to that of action; that if the final wine is out of balance in some way it may be presented to customers in that form.

In one comment on the Heimoff post Adam provided harvest numbers for fruit from Hirsch Vineyard in the years 2009 through 2011. I've summarized that information here.

In 2009 when the Brix (sugar level) of the grapes was at its highest, thus more alcohol, the acidity was also the strongest eliminating the need to add acid to balance the must they fermented the wines from. The Brix trend in 2010 and 2011 was down (by 1.2% potential alcohol from 09 to 11), yet these were the recent vintages that required an acid addition. From the winemaker’s perspective Adam makes it clear that the 2009 grapes came in from the vineyard better balanced, requiring less intervention. Fair enough. Adam didn’t mention any objective differences he observed in the products, and without tasting them myself it would be hard for me to really say what difference this could make to the consumer.

I wondered would the 2011 wine with 1.2% less alcohol offer the same fruit character, acidity and tannins as its older sibling from 2009? If so, I might prefer the wine at 13.3% alcohol and would see the intervention as a positive act, producing what I thought was a better balanced wine. Or I might not.

The point being made was that when action was needed based on the balance of sugar, pH and strength of the grape’s acid content, it was NOT the year the sugar was the highest! The lingering question which Adam left the reader with was “So in which vintage was the juice more balanced and in which vintage will the wine be most balanced?”

Good point. The sweet spot in any year for what a winemaker might be seeking in fruit could naturally contain the potential for higher alcohol. Will the final wine be any better or worse balanced in this situation? A winemaker’s decision to act or not should tell us something. They think the final product is going to be made best with or without a particular intervention. We indulge their passion and experience because we want to enjoy the outcomes right? 

The ultimate perception of balance is on the palate of the consumer though, and exactly what that means in any one situation is just as dynamic as the choices made to produce a wine. It is likely that between two wines made from the same fruit by different winemakers, making different decisions that neither would be consistently labeled balanced or unbalanced by a panel of tasters. From this I conclude that there is no objectivity in discussing what someone should have done to make a “better” wine. Unless a wine is universally flawed, all impressions of it are personal and in some case may be unique enough that they can’t be reconciled by others.

( Vines at Michel-Schlumberger in Sonoma )

I exchanged a series of e-mails with Adam as I was trying to coalesce the ideas bouncing around in my head on this topic. Some of my initial thoughts were tangential or were narrowly developed and didn’t make good sense. Adam called me on several and offered his experience and opinion on others as requested. Yes, typically warm growing regions experience high levels of ripeness in grapes, but the balance of those grapes should be our primary concern. And as Adam pointed out, you get what you get and a lot of that is out of your control. Yes, there are people who claim that interventionist winemaking is some new demon and that there is a historical context for consistently high-quality natural wines not made with all the fuss. Actually there isn’t. Interventions in winemaking have been around since the origins of the craft (thanks again for the reminder Adam!), and producers have adopted lots of technology in the last several hundred years to actually improve their wines. Once again we benefit here, because their prior practices didn’t produce pleasant wine as frequently.

Ultimately Adam indentified a couple of considerations in how vineyard practices and winemaking decisions are a big risk mitigation puzzle, and you have to start over each year.

In 2011 we had two sections at two different vineyards (Keefer and Rosella’s – both 115 clone coincidentally) where the yields were so low, due to poor weather at set, that the vines never fully shut down, even after coloring up.  So we had active shoot-tips and laterals all the way up until harvest.  We discovered that these sections, even with a tiny crop, needed to hang longer to truly taste ripe.  It was odd…but much more of a vineyard/vine thing than it was a grape thing, even.

In 2010 we had fairly small crops across the board in California.  Despite an incredibly cool growing season, we had two tremendous heat spikes – one in late August and one in early September.  These, combined with the small crop load, pushed sugars up dramatically in Pinot Noir (however, not in later ripening varieties such as Cabernet or Syrah).  The heats spikes didn’t noticeably change acids, however, nor did they change the YAN numbers (yeast available nutrients)…thus we ended up with high alcohol, high acid, fast fermenting Pinots.

My point is that sometimes it starts with the physiology of the plant and other times with the grapes and sometimes things are out of your control but other times you can do things that help the situation (we prune 2 months later now at Pisoni than we did years ago….hoping to delay ripening.  That seems to help in most years).

Detailed examples of where weather and growth of specific vines in a particular season presenting new and different challenges to the winemaker before, during and after harvest. The change in pruning regimen in one vineyard is a great example of learning to work with the plant to push it to a balanced place at harvest. Note that it isn’t expected to work every year.

As far as the sacrifices of intervention go….any intervention has potential positives and potential negatives.  Any non-intervention has potential positives and potential negatives.  Choosing not to do something is making a choice with potentially negative implications.  The winemakers’ job is, in part, weighing the consequences of any decision or non-decision and deciding which course make the most sense.  In my opinion, a dogmatic approach (we always filter, we always fine, etc.) is just as problematic when it is equally dogmatic about not-intervening (we never chaptalize, never add water, never add acid, etc).  Both instances are occasions where listening to and learning from the plant and the grapes is a more prudent course than making wine based on safety or philosophy.

I think these statements bring closure to what I’ve learned after thinking about this subject. As wine drinkers we can describe whether we personally think a wine is balanced or not, can share what our sensory feedback is telling us to support out assessment, but there is no way (unless we are the winemaker) that we can be positive that the out of balance attributes were because of or in spite of any one potential choice by said winemaker.

Many such assertions could be the a cause, or it could be the weather, the shipping and storage of the wine, or personal taste. Assuming a fair taste at every turn, it may be that I personally find I don’t like high alcohol wines because they too often seem out of balance to me. If that is the case then I would need to take that as a personal reminder of what wines to buy for my own enjoyment. I would also need to keep that in mind when I reviewing wines that trended towards higher alcohol. Being fair to readers and expressing a sensory bias would at least make me look honest. Thankfully this is not currently the case and I expect I will be seeking out some tasty high alcohol wines to enjoy real soon. Who knows if I will find a three-peat like the wines above in my travels again!

Thank you to Adam Lee of Siduri Wines for taking the time to answer my questions and share his winemaking experience for readers.

In this pursuit of balance it is clear that both the producer and the consumer will benefit from better understanding each other, keeping the focus on the shared goal and not forgetting the new challenge to making great wine each year.



Friday, April 6, 2012

The History of Team Survivors Rule!

( Survivors Rule! 2004 )

This is the second part in a series about what my experience with cancer has helped me find in my own life, and how it has given me an opportunity to fight back. You can read part 1 and the beginning of the story in Second Chances, Giving Back and How You Can Help.

In 2003 I took my first walk as a cancer survivor participating in the Boston Prostate Cancer walk. As my wife and I researched this and other events we noticed that many likeminded people formed teams with catchy names. Most of the teams raised money all year and participated in charity walks or runs in their local communities. Lets do that! We started team “Survivors Rule!”. I was a newly minted cancer survivor and to me this name had power, positivity and a no-nonsense appeal.

( Boston Prostate Cancer Walk 2003)

And we got right to work. Team Survivors Rule! finished 2003 with a homemade apple pie drive to benefit the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Margot and I also participated in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events in both Boston, MA and Manchester, NH.  We were off to a roaring start.

( Pies for Cancer 2003 )

At the Making Strides event in Manchester, NH I met the volunteer chairperson (Nicole Spaur) for the 2004 Manchester Relay For Life. I had heard of this event before, but never participated in one. During the long week of recovery from my initial surgery my mother had mentioned this event (thanks Mom!) and we talked about finding one to get involved in. With recovery ahead of me still, we decided 2004 would be a good year to organize a team and Relay for the first time. As I talked to Nicole about Relay I was energized. She asked if I was interested in joining the committee. Blinded by my desire to make my experience mean something more I said yes. I went home and proudly told Margot that she was talking to the new chairperson of the Survivorship Committee of the Manchester Relay For Life. Her initial reaction took the wind of out my fight-back sails, but she was right; I had likely gotten ahead of myself. As we headed into 2004 I tried my best to balance my time between work, home, chairperson duties and getting our team organized for the Relay. In the end it all came together, and despite all the hard work I felt good. As I said in part 1, my cancer diagnosis changed my life. When I walked in that first Relay For Life, my life changed again. I walked all night with my father, Margot, friends and all the new people I met walking around in those circles. To top that all off Survivors Rule! had raised just shy of $5000 in our first Relay. This was just the beginning.

( Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, Boston. 2003. Rain & our walks seem to go hand in hand... )

Later in 2004 the team made apple pies again, and Margot and I helped with day-of logistics and walked in the Making Strides event in Manchester. After two years the team was able to proudly proclaim that we had helped raised just over $8000 in the fight against cancer. We were building and growing, getting stronger and arming ourselves. Cancer was in the bullseye.

In 2005 the team needed to make a change. Due to a family wedding we needed to participate in a different Relay, and the change brought us closer to home, to the Relay For Life of Great Derry & Londonderry. As 2005 wound up the team made chocolate treats to sell, and pounded the pavement for donations. We rocked our new Relay all night raised over $7,000 more in the fight against cancer. The team again came out for a pie drive in the fall and the annual participation in Making Strides, which is still strong as it ever was.

In the years of 2006 through 2009 the team put up remarkable efforts and raised over $10,000 in each of 3 out of 4 of those years. Our highest annual total was $12,500. Our success has always been bittersweet because we were fighting a disease that was taking our family and friends, but it is success and we enjoy it! My advocacy worked blossomed. I testified to the finance committee of the NH legislature on the importance of supporting cancer programs with tax dollars, helped with the event organization and marketing, and participated in several other advocacy events as a speaker. The team never made pies again after 2005, but continued to flirt with chocolate baskets, parties (on the right) and other treats. Spa days at a local spa were arranged with proceeds benefitting the Relay For Life. We also began using our homemade beverages to host socials to share the fight with others and solicit their support. Our team continued to grow and change. Unfortunately this was most often due to new cancer stories in our circle, but I’m always happy to go to war with these people, knowing them makes the effort worth it.

One of the other things I should just get out of the way is that I walk at Relay, and I walk a lot. My average mileage since 2004 is over 25 miles per event, and generally more if I help with day-of setup of both the greater event and for my own team. 

( And I track it. 37.85 miles from 6PM Friday to 6PM Saturday. 2005 or 2006)

During the first few years after my treatment I learned a lot about the emotional side to cancer's effects on people and families. So many stories were shared with me. I was the “cancer guy” for friends, co-workers and strangers. I had chosen to educate myself on what we were up against and use that knowledge to fight back. It was hard to hear so many heart breaking stories, especially early on. A large measure of mental toughness had to be developed. That toughness came with heightened emotions all around, especially to the particular issue of cancer. Most people don’t know that cancer kills 1500 American’s every day. No one other disease does that. How many families is that? How many friends? How many jobs in our economy? How many voters, volunteers and fundraisers is that? You’d get torn up over this like I do if you thought about it too long.

( I met a lot of fellow cancer survivors who I became friends with. Thank you for being my friend Gerry!)

To many people knowing the “cancer guy” was just the relationship they needed to have because they were dealing with cancer in their own circle. The most powerful thing I learned was that it isn’t understanding that we should seek, although between survivors and caregivers there is plenty of potential for that, it is celebrating the shared moment. It’s me being able to tell you my story in my own words. As the American Cancer Society so beautifully puts it, it’s about more birthdays. It’s about being seen and seeing others again. It’s about living with dignity and hope.  I can’t necessarily understand what someone else has been through, but anyone can understand the need to cherish what you have. Like any medical condition, cancer is nasty physically, emotionally and can take a huge toll on everyone involved. Fighting back in the way we do ensures people affected by cancer are given hope and the chance to live with dignity. With our collective support more people are living longer and suffering less.  I cherish my second chance and through my advocacy work with the American Cancer Society I have now become a shepherd for others who want to fight back.

In 2010 and 2011 the team again posted incredible fundraising numbers with an inception to date fundraising total of just over $87,000 in just 8 years! I can see $100,000 from here.

Wine tastings have become our flagship fundraising event and we are honored to have family and friends who volunteer top open their homes to host these events. Sharing my homemade wines, wine travel stories and wine enjoyment tips for an afternoon is a very enjoyable backdrop for some advocacy and fundraising work. And our guests love the tastings!

We two tastings planned this spring and one of them will be splitting its donations between two different Relay For Life events! The work of team Survivors Rule! has been infectious and led to family and friends participating in and working as organizers of Relay events in their own communities. That is making a difference! If you are interested in either event send email to jasonphelps (at) yahoo (dot) com for more information. I will be posting about fighting cancer with wine this year’s events in May after I have pictures to share from each.

( AM at Relay in 2008. Weary, cold and tired, but still fighting back! )

In the last couple of year’s team members have used a variety of methods to reach out into the circle of influence and solicit support. Personal stories are the best way to share the reality of the fight with others. The programs and services of the American Cancer Society are an excellent way to make a personal story stick, we tell people where their money goes. Look for details on the mission of the American Cancer Society and how Relay is part of that mission in an upcoming post.  Our goal now is to continue to grow our success and reach for that $100,000 mark. Funds of that size are comparable to the size of recent grants given to researchers at Dartmouth and other facilities in NH. Think about that, you can then understand the magnitude of how that money, your money, in the right hands could lead to big steps in this fight. We are all making a difference and we know it

I’ve personally taken to challenging donors with a matching donation. It’s no surprise that I put my money where my mouth is (actually, it is a surprise to some people) and donate several thousand dollars to Relay and Strides annually. Early in the fundraising year, which is right now, I offer to match all or a portion of donations in an attempt to further raise awareness and multiply the impact of people’s dollars.

Here’s the new challenge. I will match half of every $50 donation made between today (4/6/2012) and one week from now. The link to donate is below. You must leave a comment here letting me know you have taken my challenge and made your donation. That ensures I count it and allows me to recognize and thank everyone for sharing in my story and standing with me to fight back. A donation of $50 might be large for some, but there is a trick, ask your family and friends to pool donations. Get everyone involved. Maybe you get enough for two $50 donations which means I have to match it with $50! Your support will ensure programs and services are there for people who need them. You will be offering hope and dignity to others in a time of need. You will be someone’s hero.

Here is the link to make the donation online. Will you be someone’s hero today? The site is secure and run by the American Cancer Society who will issue each donor a receipt. Don’t forget the matching challenge and coming back here to tell me to open up my wallet and match your move!



Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Follow Your Nose, Field Work for Wine Lovers

Follow your nose. Learn using your nose. Let your nose participate in sensory fusion with the rest of your senses. Aside from the obvious neurology, physiology and chemistry underlying the themes of the work described in Neurogastronomy: How The Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, author Gordon Shephard makes the conclusions tangible in everyday terms. Synthesia, a type of literal sensory fusion, is defined in Chapter 13 using the analogy of someone declaring that a sweet taste, tastes blue. Got it.

I’ve written several times (1, 23, 4) about techniques people could use to create sensory pictures of wine aromas and flavors for themselves. Simply put, experience is key. Any technique that focuses primarily on direct sensory exposure will, when applied in equal measure, consistently trump all other methods. Why do I think that?

One of the things I found most interesting about the olfactory system is what was covered on page 103 in Chapter 11 of Neurogastronomy. The idea that the olfactory cortex (the part of the brain the initially processes smell) is memory based, yes you read that correctly, is summarized in six points, which I will further summarize as:
  1. The processing of the same smell continuously is not given the same amount of effort continuously. Most effort is given to changes in smells.
  2. The system learns and adapts to better handle repeated exposure to different smells.
  3. The learning creates maps of smells and allows for finer distinctions between smells that are similar.
  4. The adaptations also promote the improvement in the identification of individual smells amongst a palate of smells.
  5.  Much like the way we know vision to be the fusion of different wavelengths of light and intensities, odor objects are created from a composite of different smells.
  6. Odor objects can combine with other sensory input, like the basic taste and tactile sensations in the mouth, to produce the sensation of flavors.
My initial thoughts were the following:

I see the emphasis of effort on changes in smell as transition, and the system consistently trying to reconcile changes with the known and the different combinations that triggers in one’s memory. Accepting that there are some key physiological and neurological differences in how the olfactory system information is processed versus other sensory information, the adaptations make me think humans underrate their sense of smell and can evolve the sense considerably. With practice these natural adaptations in our own bodies can lead to remarkable experiences. The third point is striking in the acuteness with which memory can be tuned using the nose. When you add that not only can you expect to pick out olfactory compositions better, but the individual parts or solos better as well, it is hard not to consider what more experience can do. Brought together, and it does come together but I’ll save some for another post, the overall sensory experience of smell, taste and flavor has immense emotional implications.

The conclusion is that if you want to have a more refined palate and improve your senses for wine the best way is to get out and taste lots of everything!

One of the basic foundations in the book is the concept of retronasal smell, and simply stated it means you actually have to eat and drink stuff for the complete experience. The interaction of the food or beverage at the back of the mouth and aromas back up into the nasal cavity is the function involved here. Specifically for wine industry professionals this is a challenge. You can fashion a tasting method that incorporates retronasal smell by making sure you exhale over wine in the mouth without swallowing it, but to me it is more straightforward to take small sips and swallow at least one to fill in the sensory blanks that spitting creates. All day tasting might not be possible that way, but the solution is out there.

I followed my nose tonight. I saw a review last week for white Bordeaux. I can’t even tell you what the label was, and I don’t remember what magazine the review was in. But, it came back to me tonight and I grabbed a bottle that I had recently purchased off the rack to try. I’ve had white Bordeaux all of ten times in my life so I couldn’t really say off the top of my head what it should smell and taste like. But I knew if I opened a bottle and gave my initial impressions some attention I could improve the chances that I would be able to identify it in the future. I also know that young, simple white Bordeaux isn’t the same as exceptional and aged versions. Therefore, I am improving the chances that I will be able to identify young, straightforward white Bordeaux in the future.

The prior sentence was an attempt at humor. Sorry, I’ll get back to the program. And because I was following my nose I used my phone camera for the pictures. They suck, but that isn’t why you are here, seriously, I know this.

I opened a bottle of Marquis de Chasse 2010 Bordeaux. My first smell impressions of the wine were lime, grapefruit, citrus and herbs. In the mouth the wine has considerable acidity, a wet smooth stone minerality with lots of citrus, field greens and unripe pear. The vegetal qualities of this wine are there, but spread out very well. You’ve got the herbs in the nose, some bitter greens in the mouth and a touch of wet grass in the finish. It isn’t the most distinct combination in this young form, but I bet with aging the distinction would become more clear based on the percentage of Semillon, a grape not common to most wine regions.

I hit the web to remind myself about the history of white Bordeaux. It was clear that the number of times I had had it was a treat considering it is usually outnumbered 20 or more to 1 to white Burgundy across a large and varied group of restaurant wine lists. Typically a healthy blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, this wine should be dry, tart, projecting  fruit when young and a more nutty or dried fruit character later in life. Oak aging is common, but variations do exist. Graves is the one sub-region producing notable white Bordeaux wines.

What does this wine remind me of? Remember that smell processing is memory driven when this question is asked. Well, the lime narrows it for me to foods with a tropical spin and warm weather. The greens inspire more of a spring-time vibe for me and drew comparisons to Torrentes, South African white blends and of other wines from the Bordeaux region.

I’ll need more practice with the whites from Bordeaux, but at least I know that my practice will pay-off both short and long term. It is most sweet to know that you can enjoy a pursuit that will enable you to enjoy it more each day.