Things that are appealing just because they’re different rarely last.

The simple pleasure of unoaked Chardonnay is obvious if one has had his fill of the richer, woodier, malo-y versions.

In the case of the ole Chardonnay switcheroo, though, choosing stainless steel is like turning your cell phone off while you’re on a date with your wife: you’ll be thinking only about the last tweet you missed, the date will end, and your twitchy fingers will be grasping for the on-button faster than you can say uncle.

There is a middle path, however. Chardonnay is one of the most noble grape varieties because when it is done exquisitely well, there are few wines that can match its elegance, richness, and sense of vivacity. In an earlier post, I wrote about wines that show balance and life by the momentum with which they move through the mouth; great Chardonnay has this “alive” quality, with richness, too, to make it even more compelling.

The La Rochelle 2010 Chardonnay – Dutton-Morelli Lane is absolutely one of these wines. Grown in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley appellation, this Hyde selection (of an old Wente clone) Chardonnay is farmed by the renowned Dutton family. We only got 2 tons each of the first two years and made just over 100 cases of wine. I wrote in my original tasting notes:

In the nose, this Chardonnay has a staid elegance to it that is driven by the aromas of pear, peach, and subtle orange marmalade. The wine was sur lie aged for an extended period of time, and the notes of brioche and fresh bread are in great balance. This offering was aged in 100% French oak barrels, 40% of which were new (Billon, Rousseau) for about 18 months.  
 
In the mouth, this wine shows a wonderful tension between fruit and acidity. On entry there is a magical liveliness to this wine; its momentum through the mouth is compelling, lean but not austere. The purity of fruit, mineral-laden mid-palate, and gorgeous acid contribute to one of the finest Chardonnays we’ve yet made.  
 
 
 
 
 

The solemnity that obtains just before you cut the perfect limes in half and open them up to the world is over soon…and probably not remarked upon if you are characterized by the adult arrow of focus and not looking for material. But if you are looking…and open to the chance that the all inhabits even the infinitely small, you may notice the way the juice from a freshly cut and freshly squeezed Key Lime ecstatically shades an otherwise gorgeously monochromatic G&T…rendering it subtly but inescapably other…a citrus uncanniness

blossoming.

My wife bought this squeezer, and it seemed silly to me being so small. It made a brief little wave in the force field of our every day, occupying a space at the bottom of the sink before it was rinsed off and put away in a drawer filled with all the detritus of culture…the crab forks, and the tongs that hold snail shells, and the gauges to monitor the progress of raw flesh to charred briands.

I am not an aficionado of tequila drinks so don’t know the value of the Margarita…a class of drinks in which citrus plays a contrapuntal, though necessary, role to the spiny nectar. My idea of the lime is to see it floating ever so coyly in a bath of fine gin, giving over its spunk to the juniper and the ice. It is the peeking garter, the fine young lass just on the edge of the intimate knowledge.
Well, that silly squeezer mechanism does the most wonderful things for the G&T. There is a beautiful fall of juice at the outset. It just goes in so nicely with this metal gadget…so much better than you would get from your hands, and I am a FAN of the do-it-by-hand-I-am-being-an-apologist-for-all-that-is-modern kind of guy. This crisp cataract of citrusy loveliness, way more juice than you’d expect from a lime that occupies the space of a quail’s egg, joins the tributary of gin and the islands of ice, and the barge-y tonic. And into this frothy completeness, I squeeze one more lime and get the perfectly astringent, perfectly clear, clarity-inducing G&T.

When I think of UC Davis, I envision this proudly tree-shrouded citadel of learning inhabited by monks wearing brown robes and cinched by raw cord, their tonsures browned from exposure to the gentle rays of the sun and the breezes wafting off the coast. When you get there, you realize it’s an f’ing oven. There are trees, cork oaks that have never been harvested, but they hunch over in obeisance to the unremitting solar energy. The profs share a sensibility with the monks of Middle Age France; in many ways they are still the keepers of the sacred books and some of them lament the state of the relationship between the learned (them) and the crass money counters who can only sell and do not value the value of wisdom.

Tom Stutz and I went up today to attend a series of lectures on the effects of oxygen exposure to fermenting wines, the intricacies of

The UC Davis Winery

pressing, and the different kinds of tannin that are present in grape skins and seeds and oak barrels and how to manage those to make the best possible wines. There is something undeniably magical about being in this particular academic environment. These are the Avengers of the wine-education world, the best of the best. The image of the cloister isn’t really right. A lot of what these scientists are dealing with is of real-world concern to people trying to make saleable wine. There is a symbiotic relationship: the industry (the Mondavi and Gallo and Jackson families, in particular) has funded the construction of  several of the buildings the department uses as well as endowing a number of the professorial chairs. These assets are used by the faculty and students to help the industry be more profitable and to make better wine, and thus seeding the virtuous research cycle.

Despite the mutual benefit that the faculty and winemakers receive from each other, there is also a very real respect issue that undergirds some of the presentations that we see today. One of the professors mentioned a number of times the “stupidity” of the people on the business side of the business who don’t know what they don’t know, and who don’t recognize the value of what was being summarized in the presentation today. This was a proud and accomplished dude who (I imagine) felt as if he were casting pearls before swine. The oinking chorus was concerned only (again, I’m projecting) with the bottom line and didn’t understand the short-sighted nature of saying no to more research. This professor described himself as cynical and Tom mentioned that you become how you act, referring to his observation that this professor has carried this cynical streak with him his whole tenure at the college.

And while the presentation was valuable in at least a knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake kind of a way, one could question whether that knowledge would lead to wine that was sufficiently better in quality as to make its academic integration worth the effort of the acquisition and the putting-into-practice. As I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more that the real bottom line is that I’m making wine for an audience willing to pay its hard-earned money for it. My own passion to know it all is really only of value in respect to how much service I can put that knowledge to in the pursuit of making that bottle of wine you buy from me the best wine-drinking experience you can have.  We still render unto Caesar what is his and have and will. It’s the only way, in the end, of sustaining that which is given over to the pure.

I was looking out the window the other day at our vineyards growing lushly in the late Spring. The vines were trellised and the vineyard was uniform and the riotous odor of bloom was carried on the breezes. We work hard to make sure our vineyards provide the best fruit possible for as long as possible, and their planting was well conceived and well executed about 15 years ago. This manicured imagining is duplicated all over wine country and the fruit from these many thousands of acres of vines is worth billions to their owners.

A day or two later as I was walking up to my office, I noticed a rogue vine creeping along through the landscaping. It was probably the product of a seed that had passed out the ass of a Starling and it was doing what its many millions of grandfathers had done over millions of years, programmed to spread copies of itself across space.

What struck me in the juxtaposition of the vineyard and the vine is the constantly evolving attitudes of man to nature. Hawthorne saw chaos and uncivility and Godlessness in the forests of Massachusetts in The Scarlet Letter. Contemporaneously, Thoreau saw the immanence of the Creator in the very same woods; his Walden Pond relationship was a reconciliation of man to the original Garden.

Today there is a healthy debate going on between “conventional” growers and those “natural” winemakers and grape growers who

Wild grapevine overtakes path

preach (sometimes with a shrill timbre) a minimalist philosophy about their crafts. These latter would

Ghielmetti Vineyard Rows

contend that the natural energies of a vineyard site become misaligned and depredated by the use of chemicals to ward off infestations of malign insects, mold, and fungi. Perhaps rightly, they believe that the farmer’s vigilance in the vines is the greatest prophylactic and vitiates the need for chemicals. These biodynamists are convinced that the addition of esoteric teas derived from natural products and applied at times corresponding to the cycles of the moon are the only sprays a vineyard needs to produce healthy vines and grapes and wines of unique energy and liveliness. There’s no real way of telling whether these wines, which are then generally made without or with very little sulfur, are in any way superior to wines made from conventionally grown fruit. The religious implications inherent in the “natural wine” philosophy along with the purely subjective and individualistic nature of tasting and evaluating preclude a non-subjective, non-emotional conclusion.

Despite the lightest touch of man in the vineyard and the cellar, the vineyard and the wine are man-made objects. The vine I saw creeping along the ground searching for some vertical guide to bring it Sunward has no chance to produce fruit that will be made into wine. Modern wine is a product of rational thought, experience, specialized equipment, chemistry; the vine is pruned and leaf-pulled, and shoot-thinned, hedged and sprayed, harvested by hand and machine.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Jurassic Park when the Jeff Goldblum character, weary of the hubris shown by the scientists who switch off the sex of some of the dinosaurs they have created so only one gender remains, says that no matter how advanced the science, no matter how thoroughly these scientists have assumed the role of God, nature finds a way to endure. It was true in the movie, but not true in the vineyard. No number of monkeys banging on keyboards can ever create a First Growth. This takes intention and the guiding hand of man.

Ultimately, the natural world deserves our concern and protection. The vineyard and the winery, though, are not truly part of that world. No matter how careful the farmer and non-interventionist the winemaker, the relationship of the man to the material is a benignly exploitative one.

I just never had gotten around to it until this past week. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am thinking it’s time now to begin to slowly (and, hopefully, intelligently) move into territories outside of California with our Steven Kent Portfolio wines. One of our basic and

Le Moyne, the Founder

most important criteria for deciding on new markets is “Do we know anybody there?” The fact that New Orleans, which is home to relatives and friends of our Vice President – Retail Sales, Tracey Hoff, is also a great food city and the home of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience to which we were headed to pour wine, made it potentially a slam dunk. The proof is in  the pudding, as they say, but I’ve never had a better start to a distributor/supplier relationship.

Business potential aside, I have a new love. My wife, June, and I had the pleasure of spending a week a year -about 10 years ago- in Key West. It was exotic, had great food, warm people, a tiki bar, and, you could drink the water. New Orleans is all that…on steroids (tiki hut to be found on the next trip).

Like all great places, New Orleans has layers. There is the sublime shlockiness of Bourbon Street (5 minutes here is all anyone ever needs, ever),

THE bbq Shrimp – Mr. B’s

the hidden gardens of Chartres; the incredible artistry of Stella! and THE BBQ Shrimp of Mr. B’s. There’s the music that both commiserates and stirs the loins; the humidity that pushes you down to the ground but connects you to the streets. There’s the graciousness of the people – “darlins” all around – and an easy rhythm lost north of Virginia and west of the Rockies.

Then there is the wine part. I traveled down to New Orleans ostensibly to pour at the New Orlean Food & Wine

Dessert at Stella!

Experience, and on the way we gained an enthusiastic new distributor and made a lot of fans with our portfolio of wines. There were a lot of thank yous from folks who were pleased to have small California wineries represented and a willingness to try wines they’d never heard about.  It felt as if we had begun to make a new home for our wines here, and that is a rare and blessed feeling, indeed.

“Peaceful, easy feeling…”

In the aftermath of Katrina there was talk about letting New Orleans go. She was an elderly auntie and had had her time but there were younger folk to worry about now. One should not scatter treasures to the dirt, and youth is not served on the headstone of the old.

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.

Above all, a wine should be balanced. There should be a sense of momentum through the mouth too. Balance is about fruit and acid and

Ferrington Vineyard – Spring 2012

wood and tannin working in harmony (not necessarily of equal measure) to create a sense of beauty and inevitability. While balance might be understood as the Apollonian father, Momentum is about Dionysus; it is what puts the sex in sex-appeal

We know that wine is a living thing. What should be explicit in this, but is often unacknowledged, is that living = energy = purpose. If only in the microcosm of one’s mouth, there should be an energy inherent in the wine (its Momentum) and a purposefulness as it moves from lip to gullet (its Balance). The best of wines tell a complete story. Though a marvel in their youth, these wines (and their stories) only gain in richness and complexity as they evolve and mature.

With the 2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay – Ferrington Vineyard, Tom Stutz was able to craft a wine with great elegance and intent. The Ferrington Vineyard in the Anderson Valley is perhaps better known for Pinot Noir at this point, but it is, as Tom has shown, a wonderful place for Chardonnay too. Made from the Robert Young clone, this wine has a propriety to it. This Chardonnay doesn’t jauntily flaunt its fruit, and its youthful reticence now is in great service to the honed acidity and persistent length. Proper storage will allow this wine to continue to bloom for years.

Great wines compel. La Rochelle – Ferrington is such a wine.

Wine Note

Press Review

Acquire

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.