Having spent the last several days in the Southland (with another 4 to come next week), there were a number of things I liked:

  • The Ford Crown Vic from Thrifty Rent-a-car. On the road for hours at a time a very comfortable ride. Much better in the front seat than in the back…
  • The 100% Malbec from Buoncristiani Winery. All the blueberry compote one could want, and a plushness in the mid-palate that suited the variety beautifully.
  • The Aperol/Campari-Reposado-sweet vermouth concoction that Barry Richter of Testarossa Winery and I came up with while sitting at a bar. Weird, but delicious, take on both the Negroni and the Margarita…a Margaroni?
  • The camaraderie from other members of the In Vino Unitas group. We’re all small brands trying to sell wine direct in CA…a tough job when the overwhelming force of the large distributors and brands are brought to bear.
  • The Charcuterie platter – and especially the chick liver pate – at The Winery Restaurant in Tustin. Coupled with a traditional Negroni…the sweet, bitter, ginny, creamy, liver-y goodness was mind blowing.
  • The Patland Winery 2007 Cabernet, Stagecoach Vineyards. Showed gorgeous breadth of texture and flavor from mid-palate to finish. Better than their 2009 from the same site.
  • The response to our wines from the generous wine buyers in Orange and LA counties. We all believe ourselves (in our own heads) to be first string; it’s nice to find out other people think we can start too!

A Matter of Taste?

January 30, 2013

File this one under “Too Much Time Stuck in LA Traffic and Does Budweiser Know the Implication of Their Ad?:”

Like Budweiser, who produces 47% of all beer sold in the US, mega-wine companies are in a pitched battle everyday for the wallet of the consumer (the heart, mind, and tastebud rarely factor into this pursuit). And because the amount of shelf space in the big chains is limited, mega wine companies (the top 6 wine companies account for more than 80% of wine sold in the US) often buy small wineries to “add” more space to the shelves (Mirassou Vineyards increased the number of Gallo facings in 2002). What is important is the Nielsen scan data not the integrity of the brand or the way the wine actually tastes. We all do have to actually sell wine, ultimately.

Part of me is in awe of the crassness of the whole exercise as embodied by Budweiser’s campaign. The tagline: “Taste Makes an Entrance….” So, up to this point, we can infbudweiser-black-crowner that all of the other Bud beers had no taste (the other possibility, if we are thinking qualitatively, is that they tasted of sh*t).  It is rare that a company comes right out and says, “hey, this stuff tastes like crap, but look at the shiny new bottle.” Awesome.

And speaking of taste…in this case good and educated being the operative words, Joe Roberts, the blogger extraordinaire behind 1winedude.com, shares some thoughts about a few La Rochelle wines here and Steven Kent wines here.

Wine is a potent liquor, and the least reason is for its alcohol content.

Wine recalls histories both personal and societal; it lubricates the engine of discourse and oils the gears of intercourse – verbal and otherwise. Wine puts a pin in the most cherished memories and is the symbol of success and celebration.

Wine is almost always a forward-looking indicator. When you buy wines from the birth vintage of your children, it is with the intention of celebrating – with them – when they come of age. In the responsible house, though, the lessons of wine and what make it potent and great should come early and often.

My only son has just turned 21 and has just now begun to express a desire to know more about wine. He has tasted in the past, but wine was not of particular interest to him then. He asked to bring samples home from the winery so that he would be able to convey to our guests what our wines tasted like. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.

As is my custom I started making plans in my mind about how to break a wine down into its constituent parts; what makes it balanced; why this wine is less good than that one, etc. I caught myself though. At its very core, wine is a delicious beverage that makes life better, a little better, anyway. That is the first and most important lesson about wine. And that is a lesson that needs no teaching. Just a little bit of tasting with a kindred soul.

Steven Kent Winery started as a wholesale brand. It was the only kind of sales stream I knew back in 1996.

I found out over the first few years that pouring wine for guests and future club members at our tasting room was a much more re

warding way to build relationships and fans of the wines. What was once a network of about 25 distributors dwindled down over the years to just a couple.

The other thing I found out is that for a small brand (that wasn’t yet a darling of the press or didn’t have a huge marketing budget), my wines would succeed in a market if there were a winery employee doing the heavy lifting. There are too many gigantic brands out there that suck the air out of the room for a distributor to really succeed with a tiny brand.

There is that thing about building lasting relationships, too, that we can do well in person, but that are exceedingly difficult if we go into a market cold. The growth for the brand is slow, but the growth is also solid and gratifying. As an example, the industry average for wine club member retention is 18 months. The average for the Steven Kent Portfolio wine clubs is 46! We have been able to build a lot of great friendships with our club members, some of whom later became members of our team.

I think we’ve hit on a strategy that combines the need to spread our wings again and the desire to spread them among friends. We are, in fact, seeking out our friends. We’ve begun a small movement outside of California to the Las Vegas (NV) and New Orleans (LA) markets specifically because of relationships we have built with restaurateurs over time and with family and friends. We are trying to duplicate the dynamic that occurs when you join passionate producers of wine with an already-familiar-with-the-wines group of folks passionate about producing great food.

I have audacious goals for my brands that will take a career to fulfill. The next small steps are Sin City and the Big Easy.

Wine serves many roles…religious, culinary, historical, enhancer of life, enhancer of food, object of science…so many as to have no

Matisse’s “Open Window”

bounds. The role it serves best, though, is that of the window.

All of things that it shows us about life and history and family and the earth and things that are delicious are so much more interesting than the things we force it to tell the world about us.

Asking wine to be your reflection is to reduce you and it to some stale representation. Open up the window instead and let your wine tell you stories of the world.

The Words of Wine

May 13, 2012

Let’s start with this truth: WINE – as a beverage, as a product, as a pinner of memory, a celebrator of special days, a living thing… – is so expansive that it is bottomless.

Ron Rosenbaum, in his book, The Shakespeare Wars, refers to the Bard in the same way. One of the marks of Shakespeare’s great

ness is that every time one re-reads one of his plays, one finds greater depth, more truth, more art. Great Wine has the same genius.

By its nature, the truth about a wine can never be fully known. It is a constantly evolving thing that exists in a subjective realm open to as many interpretations as there are people to interpret. The best that anyone can do, I think, is to illuminate a moment. To do that that well is exceedingly difficult. There are a number of them out there who do a better job than most…Mike Steinberger, Benjamin Lewin, Steve Heimoff, Charlie Olken, and Keith Levenberg, to name five.

Notwithstanding the immensity of Wine as a subject, it is also a playful thing; the thing that allows the officious cares of the day to be called out and sent skulking away.

In my role as the amanuensis and ambassador of the wines of the Steven Kent Portfolio, I often get to try to shed a little bit of light on what makes these wines special, what makes our growing area special, what makes our relationships with growers special, and how humbled and gratified I am by the interactions I have with my club members and guests at the Winery. And sometimes…I get to be a little silly doing it.

At a recent wine dinner at the Winery, my team gave me the challenge of using a list of words during the between-course gab sessions. I am “proud” to say, I did – in fact – use them all. For those who attended and were a bit mystified as to why anyone would use the word muffin in a description related to Chardonnay, you have your answer. Thanks for indulging me.

Thankfully, the prospect of a new car or the shiny girlfriend half my age holds about as much joy as as a root canal. Nonetheless, I’ve been staring into the gaping maw of a mid-life crisis recently.

It started strangely and innocently enough with an aversion to eating the meat that I had loved for so long. I just can’t get past certain ethical dilemmas that, being aware of but not compelled by, before, have now wrapped me up tight – and discomfited – in a vegetarian knot.

More relevantly, I’ve noticed a subtle shift in my attitudes about the wines I make. It happened again yesterday while working with my

Craig taking notes on 2010 Merlot

newest winemaking team member, Craig Ploof, while evaluating barrels of Merlot for our 2010 Bordeaux Varietal Series offering. I have repeatedly been questioning the relationship of fruit to wood and to structure recently. We made a couple of mock blends of Merlot, both of which were very nice. But I concluded, ultimately, that I liked the idea of the one that would have been most characteristic of a Steven Kent release better than I liked the actual wine.

The other blend, the one I eventually chose, is a terrific wine. The important issue for consumers of Steven Kent wines is that the wine is a beautiful example of the varietal, year, and site. My job…my passion is to make GREAT wines…and those can come in any number of different presentations. The subtle shift in emphasis – big for me – may not be detectable to anyone else. In the end, that’s more than okay.

Under the heading of “there is no wrong answer,” I realized – while writing notes on about 25 different Cabernet barrels the other day – that I am an emotional taster…or at least an emotional tasting note writer.

Larded among descriptions of tannin and mid-palate structure, fruit intensity and aromatic purity were a ton of words and phrases that related to the quality of those experiences…”gorgeous,” “great,” “meaningful,” and how  those organoleptic-specific sensations made me feel. I may have even cried once or twice..(just kidding!?).

I’m just curious. When you are tasting for the purpose of evaluation, do you cry or not?

Lineage and Faulkner

April 14, 2012

I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and was struck again by the beauty of the language, the uncanniness of characters and the fluidity and the multi-directionality of Time’s arrow.

And we’d sit in the dry leaves that whispered a little with the slow respiration of our waiting and with the slow breathing of the earth and the windless October, the rank smell of the lantern fouling the brittle air, listening to the dogs and to the echo of Louis’ voice dying away. He never raised it, yet on a still night we have heard it from our front porch. When he called the dogs in he sounded just like the horn he carried slung on his shoulder and never used, but clearer, mellower, as though his voice were a part of darkness and silence, coiling out of it, coiling into it again. 

Steven at Faulkner's Rowan Oak residence

That is beautiful stuff…

Deeply woven into the gorgeous prose of this book is the one central leitmotiv: dissolution. Whether it is under the weight of history, prosaic greed, a longing for a chivalric code  that doesn’t exist anymore, all of the major characters (except, notably, one) are borne off on the tides of time into nothingness.

The lone exception is Dilsey. The true matriarch of the family, and the witness to the generations of madness that culminate over the roughly twenty years chronicled in the novel in Quentin’s suicide, Caddy’s promiscuity, Benjy’s institutionalization, and Jason’s financial ruin. It is Dilsey we see caring for the “idiot” Benjy (most memorably in the church sermon scene toward the end of the book); making sure that Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Quentin, is not harmed by Jason, and taking over the role of “mother” for the white and black families described in the book.

In an appendix that Faulkner wrote 16 years after the original publication of the novel, he explains what

Faulkner Statue - Oxford, MS

happened to the major characters, a sort of Where Are They Now reckoning. The explications are of varying lengths, pages for the Compson children, paragraphs for Dilsey’s kin. For Dilsey herself, there is only her name followed by a period then a new paragraph consisting of They endured. 

There are many readers who believe that They endured is Dilsey’s epitaph, that this denotation describes her adamantine nature; that she is, indeed, a force of nature. I think the reality is different. I think that her epitaph is the period itself. For the Compson family and this bit of Mississippi history, Dilsey is not only adamantine, but also inevitable. She is a part of the Compson experience, the family history. But there is also the sense that she transcends the purely personal evocation to become a symbol of the steadfastness that outlasts the emotionality of the family  saga, the region’s history, and the region itself . Only she, among the time-lost, lost-to-time Compsons rises above the temporal; she is a fixed pin in the flow of time; a maternal symbol, Mother Earth herself. Dilsey is ineluctably connected to her place and time. Her presence is so necessary that the place and time would cease to exist without her.

Faulkner - a fan of Burgundy

Because I have the blessing and curse to reduce practically every encounter to how it informs my chosen passion, it in the character of Dilsey that I see Lineage, my flagship blend. The great brands…the Bordeaux First Growths, Grange from Australia, Harlan Estate and Ridge Montebello from California have achieved – through their longevity and quality – a certain inevitability that transcends individual vintages, maybe even transcends “wine” itself. They belong to the great flow of Time now. This is my goal for Lineage…that it both overcomes and belittles my desires for it…that it becomes meaning itself.

Terroir as Excuse

April 5, 2012

There are special wine places. These sites are situated more favorably to wind and sun, the dirt is better, the variety is perfect, the winemaker has a vision that is in accord with the natural conditions.  This combination of place, dirt, wind, sun, winemaker is the terroir of the site, the whyness of place.

There’s been a lot of chatter on the web recently about natural winemaking.  There is no real definition of what is  “natural” about those wines or the process, nor what makes some winemaking unnatural. Because of a lack of specificity there is every chance that the term will soon devolve into a meaningless marketing slogan, saying nothing in its commodiousness.

There is generally one aspect about which most producers agree and that is the desire to let the terroir of the vineyard show through the wine as purely as possible by manipulating the wine as little as possible. For these producers, purity of wine – underscoring of terroir – comes about by strictly minimizing the use of additives of any kind – including sulfur – throughout the production process. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, but they are not present generally in high enough concentration to protect a wine from spoilage yeasts or the ravages of time over the long term.

And while I can understand the holistic desire to let Nature takes its course, to reduce the human footprint, in other words; I can’t understand the idea that one would allow a potentially flawed product to be sold when the means for producing a sound one have been proven and are easily reproducible. These kind of wines are worse than the clotheslessness of the Emperor…in the latter case, the dude was just naked, in the former the choice to leave the wines open to all manner of microbial spunk is being dressed up as some kind of virtue.

Ironically, the net effect of runaway Brett contamination and other microbiologic challenges, so easily eliminated with the judicious use of natural additives, is the obviation of the supposed rationale for making these kinds of wines in the first place. For what shows through in the end – in fact overwhelms all that is pure and of the place – is that flaw.

Terroir is about balance as much as it is about anything else. When dogma gets in the way of pragmatism and results in unbalanced, de-terroired wines, it is the consumer that ends up paying for the mistake.