Friday, April 16, 2010

It Ends

In August of 2004 I started writing this blog. In April of 2010 I wrote my last post. There are several reasons for the end of the blog. The most notable one was that Blogger stopped publishing blogs to external servers. I could have moved my blog to different software, or any number of solutions, but I didn't.

One of the reasons I let the blog die on the vine (pun intended) was that I had said almost everything I had to say. The other reason is that I moved to Argentina and most of what I have to say about wine concerns Argentina, and rather than just blog I have actually started a magazine: Mendoza Wineries Magazine it is a free emag that can be viewed on any computer or smart phone (but is designed and created with the iPad in mind). It features not only my writing, but my wife's incredible photography.

It was quite the ride, the five years of bogging (those adept at math might protest that it was closer to six years, but with some huge gaps without writing in there, five is plenty generous). I covered a huge mount of topics. The blog is no longer searchable as it was when Blogger still supported it, which is a shame. If you poke around you wil be rewarded with all sorts of articles.

I will eventually repurpose this book as an ebook. Keep an eye out for it. In the mean time come join us on the magazine, where we not only talk about the wines and wineries of Argentina, but I share some of my favorite recipes as well (I am a trained chef too, for those visiting the for the first time).

Mendoza, the next Hollywood?

Lights, camera, grapes! Grapes? The bodegas of Mendoza have made it to the limelight in the form of a major motion picture from Argentina. El Camino Del Vino is a docudrama that will tell the story of the real Charlie Arturaola having a fictional crisis of wine. Only a few of Mendoza’s many wineries will be featured, and it is no accident that Domaine Jean Bousquet will be one of them.

Regular readers may remember the story of how I came to be at Jean Bousquet, for the rest of you let’s just say it was fate that brought me to the foot of the Andes. The very first thing to cross my path as the newly minted Director of Hospitality was this movie. It would seem that fate was not quite done with me yet.

Nicolas and Sabastian Carreras had a vision of a movie that would not only highlight the amazing bodegas of Mendoza but would be entertaining in its own right. They cast the world renown sommelier Charlie Arturaola to star and convinced other notables such as the world’s best known wine consultant Michel Rolland to play themselves.

The plot revolves around Charlie loosing his palate during the Masters of Food & Wine event here in Mendoza. In a panic Charlie realizes that the only way to regain his ability to taste and discern the nuances of wine is to reconnect with the passion that originally inspired him. It is with this goal that Charlie ventures forth on the Wine Roads in search for that allusive quality that took him to the pinnacle of his profession, only to abandon him cruelly and publicly. Fortunately for Charlie this is all a bit of fiction.

When I first heard about the project I knew that Domaine Jean Bousquet would be the perfect fit. Visually it was ideal, with the majestic views of the Andes at their best in the Tupungato region and the quaint family owned organic vineyards and rustic bodega as a backdrop. Add to this the incredible story of Jean leaving France after a successful career as a winemaker, in search for the ideal conditions that only Argentina could offer. The movie people didn’t know it yet, but they were dreaming of a location like ours.

It almost didn’t happen. The offer to talk to the producer and pitch our winery had been put on the back burner and forgotten about. I happened upon it and fervently set out to make a pitch for our part in the project. My passion came through on both ends and soon I had the Bousquets and the producer of the movie as excited as I was.

After a few preliminary site inspections the day came at last to film our portion of the movie. It was early March, and every morning prior to filming had been typically cloudy with no sign of the looming mountain peaks. Whoever is in charge of the weather was obviously in favor of our endeavor, because the morning could not have been more perfect. Tupungato and the other peaks rose into the crystal blue sky, commanding attention. It was almost as if they knew the importance of their part in the show and like any seasoned veteran were ready and able to play their rolls on demand.

The film crew spent time with Charlie against the backdrop of the Andes and got plenty of footage with the whole Bousquet clan. They filmed Jean sharing his story with Charlie and even got Anne Bousquet and her husband Labid to pick some grapes and interact with the plot. I had my moment of fame, but I would not be at all surprised if my two-seconds ends up on the cutting room floor. All told it was exciting and a great deal of fun, with the crew becoming part of our extended family, as so many visitors to the winery do.

Principal photography is now over, and the hard work of editing and post production looms, but there is plenty of incentive to get it right. The most prestigious film festival of them all, Cannes, has already accepted the movie as one of its selections. This is just the beginning of the festival tour the movie will attend, as it makes its way from one continent to the next before finally being released to the public some time around November 2010.

The film Sideways always comes up when talking about wine movies, as well as it should. Sideways single handedly changed the drinking habit of millions of wine lovers and it put one of my favorite regions, Santa Maria, on the map. El Camino Del Vino has the potential to do the same for Argentina, Mendoza, Tupungato and especially Domaine Jean Bousquet.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Oh, oh, oh, O2

For years my debates over wine have mostly taken place at the august levels of academia, or at least with wine pros. Now that I am the world's most over qualified wine guide most of my skills of rhetoric are aimed at consumers.

I like to think of myself as a scientist. I don't actually get to work in the winery's lab, but every time I walk pass it I look at all the bubbling concoctions in the glass apparatus and think to myself how cool it all looks. Chances are it would look less like fun if I actually had to do all of that hard work, but from outside looking in, it is fascinating.

So, not a chemist or even a lab rat, but a scientist none the less. I regularly test assumptions, and wield reason like a sword. My debunking has ruffled more than a few feathers on this blog, and in other journals as well. Now I take my aim at a most controversial subject.

That the roll of oxygen in the aging process of wine is even controversial surprises me. My great hero, the late Emile Peynaud spent decades experimenting with wine and he stated unequivocally that wine ages without the presence of oxygen, and that a hermetic seals is most desirable.

Since I extoll the virtues of experimentation over the pronouncement of experts I certainly do not fault those that wish to prove the veracity of the roll of oxygen. I think somewhat less of those who just take it for granted that oxygen is required for wine to age.

The debate often hinges around screw caps and corks. There are those who state that a small amount of oxygen travels through the cork and helps wine age. Screw caps being perfect hermetic seals do not allow this passage of O2 and therefore are not well suited to aging wine.

Those in the O2 camp will go so far as to suggest that gas permeable membranes should be used in screw caps to allow for better aging and to lessen the chance for the wine to develop reductive odors (more on that soon).

For those that know, or want to know, a whole lot more about the chemistry involved, start with one of the most important aspect, the redox potential.

Reductive odors in a practical sense are nasty rubber smelling off odors that hopefully you will never experience in wine. If you ever come across a wine that smells like that try putting a piece of copper (a penny will work) into the wine. If the smell goes away the odors were indeed the result of reduction. If not it was another similar off odor.

Since the copper trick works even before bottling, there is no excuse for a winery to release a wine with that has this fault. In all my years I have only come across it a few times.

One of the ways a winery can ensure that the wine doesn't smell like a shower cap is to give it plenty of oxygen during the wine making process. For wines aged in barrel the small amount of gas that passes through the wood, combined with careful racking (moving to new barrels) is usually enough. For wines that don't see wood, it is not uncommon to let the wine splash about before bottling.

If a winemaker is complaining about reductive odors in their wine, it may be more a matter of winemaking that is to blame than the hermetic seal of a screw top.

As is my want, I have taken a long winded approach to get to the point I wanted to make. I am about to apply a bit of logic to the argument about oxygen and wine aging.

Oxygen turns wine brown (just like the bite out of an apple turns brown).

To say that oxygen is required for aging wine is to say that an aged wine should be brown.

A brown wine is not considered good by any measure, therefore oxygen is not beneficial to the aging process.

I would expect someone to point out that it is a question of degrees, and that some oxygen may be beneficial while too much is not. To them I would reply, how much exactly, and how do you ensure that said amount and no more or less is introduced to the wine?

I usually toss around big words like esterification when talking about wine aging (the reaction of alcohol and acids) but I honestly don't know about the roll of oxygen in the process one way or another. No doubt it will come up in the debate.

I really want to hear from others more learned on the subject, although few have deigned or dared to debate me on this forum, but I always welcome it.

Screw caps are a good thing because they keep air, including oxygen out. I have yet to be convinced that any seal less than hermetic is as good or even better.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stressing Out

For the last six months I have been busy creating a hospitality program for Domaine Jean Bousquet here in Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina. It hasn't left much time for blogging, but I have managed to mull a few things over in my mind as I play tour guide.

I have long subscribed to the axiom that you don't really understand a subject if you can't explain it to a complete novice. This has been regularly tested as I explain the details of wine making and grape growing to a range of people with wildly different levels of experience in and around wine.

Specifically what draws me to the keyboard today is the concept of stress. It is common to hear vineyard people talk about the importance of stressing the vines, but what exactly does that mean, and why would it be important?

Vines are stressed in several ways. Poor soil, lack of water, and pruning are among the most important. It seem counter intuitive to plant grapes on soil that wouldn't sustain most other crops. It further boggles the uninitiated to learn that water is doled out to the vines in miserly proportions. The pruning thing is usually a step too far and honestly few people do more than nod when I mention it.

So why treat the vines so badly? Why not give them everything they want? After all it is the vines that produce the grapes that make the wine that we sell to make a living. Common sense would suggest that happy vines make lots of happy grapes which in turn will make lots of wine to sell.

The equation actually works out. If what you are after is quantity then by all means spoil your vines with loads of everything they could ever desire. On the other hand if what you want is quality then be prepared for one of life's constants, quality is diametrically opposed to quantity. Raise one, and you lower the other.

Ok, so stress is good for quality, if not quantity, but why?

It is easy for us to forget that grapes are offspring. They are the children of the vine, and its best chance to reproduce, that strongest of all biological imperatives. In years of plenty almost everything in nature puts less energy into reproduction. Instead it takes advantage of the climate and conditions to grow and improve itself, rather than the next generation.

For vines this means that with plenty of fertile soil, lots of water, and abundant leaves the grapes it produces are relatively watery, fat and flavorless. This requires less resources for the vine and is all that is necessary to ensure the future.

Plant the same vine in poor soil, reduce the amount of water it gets, and cut back some of those leaves, and the vine will put all of its energy into making sure that its offsprings are dark and flavorful, increasing its chances for reproducing (by attracting birds).

Better grapes make better wine, even if it is a trade off with how much wine you get. It is this careful balance between quantity and quality that all wineries struggle with. Great wine is a goal, but if you don't make money you are not going to get a chance at another vintage.

A simplistic explanation of a complicated issue to be sure, but it is an important way to think of it as you look over those rocky fields with their near non existent top soil that marks all of the best vineyards in the world.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Appearing Daily at Domaine Jean Bousquet

Three months ago I let you know I was moving to Argentina. I wish I could say I had mastered Spanish in that time, but stumbling through it is more accurate. Not that this has stopped me from putting myself in a position where speaking the language is an issue.

I am now the Hospitality Manager for Domaine Jean Bousquet in Tupungato, Mendoza. I am in charge of visits, including tours in any language I can muster.

The fun doesn't stop there, I am opening a tasting room with a small restaurant in it. We will serve a very nice little cheese plate for those who just want a nibble with their wine. A selection of tapas will be available for a slightly larger appetite, while sandwiches, quiches, omelets and crepes round out the daily menu.

Not one to rest on such a simple note, I will also be sharing my famed 7 course food and wine pairing extravaganzas for those who give me enough notice. Not quite up for a full 7 courses? Then the basic 3 course pairing menu is for you.

Friends, family, students and others who have sampled my fare may be surprised at the basic bent of the menu. My philosophy is that too many chefs over reach in their offerings. I would rather elevate simple foods so that they are done so well that they reach the level of gastronomy.

That and boy oh boy am I going to have a tiny kitchen. It is a tasting room after all, not a full blown restaurant.

Even if you just want to come by for the best Taco you have ever had, or one of the only Croque Monsieurs in all of Argentina, reservations may be a good idea. If you are hoping for one of the wine tasting menus, reservations are a must.

For a tour in English (or slowly improving Spanish) and a bite of food unlike any other in the country drop me an email for a reservation to sreiss (at) (replace the (at) with @ and close up the spaces).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Argentina, My New and Future Home

After a whirlwind year of touring wineries around the world, and frequent posts, I have been noticeably absent from this venue. Where I am I and what am I up to is easy to state but hard to predict.

We have returned to Argentina. We enjoy the wine, the country and the people here so much that we have decided to make it our home. For how long, and what it will lead to remains to be seen.

We are staying in Tupungato, my favorite part of the Mendoza wine region. Nestled against the Andes with 6,570 meter (21,555 ft) peaks looming just over our heads we feel completely at home after decades of living in the Rockies.

Unlike the years I spent in Aspen, here I am surrounded by vines and well immersed in the wine culture. It is the depth of Winter here now and the vines are dormant. In a few months I will be able to witness their cycle on a daily basis. For all of the years I have been teaching and writing about wines, I have never had this opportunity.

I have seen each stage, and dutifully recorded it in photographs (more often than not with my wife Janet Engelhard who is a photographer). There are few mysteries for me when it comes to vines or making wine, but being there full time is far different than visiting now and again.

What I will be reporting on from now on is hard to say, although considering that there are almost no wines in the area that are not local, chances are this blog will start having a noticeable Argentinean bent.

My wine school too is on hiatus. I doubt I could teach the same sort of courses here, since I don't have the wines from around the world as an example. That doesn't mean I won't be able to create a new curriculum, and chances are that I will at some point.

If you are planning on a trip to Mendoza, and I recommend you do, feel free to contact me to ask for suggestions, tips or just to say hi. Consider me your contact in this up and coming wine destination. Bring your love of wine, and if you are a meat eater, be prepared for plenty of it, but most of all bring your sense of adventure. Argentina will supply the rest.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Argentina: Wrapping it Up

Argentina is coming to a close, as is for that matter our entire year long adventure. It has been an epic journey of wines around the world, and it is fitting that we finish with what to my great surprise is the best. I knew the wines of Argentina were decent, after all I had tasted a few before coming here, but I was not expecting what we found.

It turns out that Mendoza is a veritable oasis for wine making. At least for the varieties that do well here. There is well drained soil at high altitudes with enough difference from one region to another to add complexity to the wines. Malbec is the undisputed champ here, and while I have enjoyed other varietals, it is the Malbec that Argentina is rightfully known for.

I am a lover of Zinfandel. Those big jammy wines at reasonable prices that represent for me the best that a drink now style of wine can offer. Malbec is Argentina's Zin. It can be big and jammy, or like Zin in can be made in many other styles. Unlike Zin the other styles are also quite successful.

Style is exactly what makes Malbec so enticing. We have tasted at least 50 different styles from 25 different producers and every one is distinct. Like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Malbec in Mendoza is very sensitive to the terroir it is grown in, and the hands it is made by.

When Malbec is produced with an eye on structure it is a surprisingly decent candidate for aging. I have tried many that go back seven or eight years, a point to which my revered Zinfandel rarely survives to. More astonishing is the 35 year old example that tasted like a well aged Bordeaux, and still has plenty of life in it.

Big and jammy is what I crave in a Zinfandel, and as it turns out, in a Malbec. Often accompanied by a black pepper aroma and finish, these intense wines are a fruit lover's delight. With just enough structure to keep them from being flabby, they fill the mouth with delicious flavors and keep you coming back for more.

If fruit is your thing, you also want to try a Bonarda from Argentina. Once the most planted grape here and intended only for use in the sea of indifferent red wines that Argentina used to produce, Bonarda is finding its way into some well made and serious wines. And yet, for all the world it tastes exactly like grape juice.

A little too much like grape juice for my taste. Those who are fans of these wines applaud the fresh grape flavors and extoll the virtues of the grape. I don't exactly count myself a fan, although I understand the appeal. I tried a sample that was 10 years old and it had layers of complexity from softening tannins I never even knew were in there. It gave me more respect for the grape, even if I don't exactly love it.

Torrontes is the white grape of Argentina, and here we turn from fruit to perfume. A highly floral wine with a tart finish in most examples, although more than a few I have tasted have had acid added to accomplish the necessary structure. Almost everyone agrees that this grape is best when grown well north of Mendoza in the Salta region, but I suspect as more cool growing areas open up, Torrontes will find a new home.

Espumante, the local phrase for sparkling wine is another winner in Argentina. The quality is decent, and the prices are very good. This is not Champagne, but it does easily rival anything made anywhere outside the august region of France. The low prices may not survive the many hands involved in exporting and selling abroad, but if these wines ever do make it to your shore, make a point of trying a few.

Then there are the up and coming grapes. Merlot here is hit or miss, but I have tried a few versions with potential. I know of at least one producer that is convinced that Merlot is the future, and he may be right. Certainly Cabernet, which is as ubiquitous here as anywhere, is not the answer. They are decent enough, but nothing to write home about.

Pinot Noir is mostly relegated to the sparkling wines, and rightly so for the most part. I have tasted a few that are not bad, but Pinot is a tough grape and a tough wine. Energy may be best spent elsewhere. The Pinot I have tried tends to be light, but with a dark component that doesn't so much add complexity as it changes gears abruptly.

Sauvignon Blanc is another hit or miss example. Without acidification it is hard to get a decent balance, and with it it is hard to get a decent wine. I have had a few very good examples, so it is possible, but I think t requires more attention and patience than some are willing to give. Above all it needs the cooler growing regions.

I have tasted a few bottles of Tempranillo here, and they were good. Not once did a any of the score or more of wineries I visited present their Tempranillo for tasting. I think it is a red headed step child of the country. Full of potential but a completely different style of wine than they are used to handling or enjoying. That is a shame, because from what I tasted it has possibilities.

Hot and dry makes me think of Grenache, and judging from the few test plots here and there, I am not the first. Alas, the extremely cool nights interrupt the ripening and it never quite gets the color or intensity here that make it so interesting in the south of France or the north of Spain.

There you have it, my look at the wines of Argentina through the lens of three months of living among the natives and visiting their bodegas. The tiny glimpse I had from tasting the few examples that had made their way to the US was far from complete enough for me to see the full picture. The Argentinean spectrum of wines is diverse and complex even while relying on just a few choice grape varieties.

Run down to your local wine shop and put together your own tasting, or even better yet, call up your travel agent and start working on your own visit down here, below the equator and nestled up against the Andes. Plan on escaping the dreary winter of 2010 with a trip to sunnier climes with even warmer people and fabulous wines to explore. They will be waiting for you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On the Question of Ethics

There is a bit of a buzz going around the wine blogosphere about ethics. It started in part because of a post from Dr. Vino and led to among other things this post from the inestimable Jancis Robinson.

I am no Robert Parker, nor Jancis Robinson, but this does not mean that I do not have my own code of ethics I strive to live by. In general I am very careful to not accept anything from a winery or any wine company. I pay for the wines I taste unless they are being offered to everyone at a tasting, and I generaly do not accept any form of hospitality.

I say generally, because on this trip around the world, it has been somewhat a different story. I am driven to the wineries who almost always also offer us lunch. There are a few ways I rationalize this in my own narrow scope of ethical standards. First and foremost every winery that we visit is offering us the same treatment, ensuring that there is not one over another that I would feel beholding to.

The second and most important factor is that I am a ruthless critic. I can easily taste a wine, smile at the winemaker, and perhaps even say something diplomatic about the wines, and then come back to my keyboard prepared to write the truth as I see it.

This trip has cost us a small fortune, and the wineries are far afield. I could have just written about the wines we buy, and indeed I keep them separate in my reviews, but that would only have given a small glimpse into the wine regions, especially Chile and Argentina.

Some wine reviews are only conducted blind, and there is a lot to be said for and against this. First there is the definition of a truly blind tasting, it has to be double blind that is sorted by random to really qualify, in my opinion. It is easy to orchestrate a blind tasting to favor a result. Assuming that the tasting is as blind and fair as it can be, some wine styles tend to do better than others.

A big heavy wine will tend to stand out and if there are many heavy ones, the fruitier, easier to enjoy wine may stand out. Every blind taster has a story about how one of their favorite wines has failed to do well in a blind. Some of this is because removing prejudice is the point of a blind tasting, and some of it has to do with the fact that the criteria of what we drink is not always the same as what we look for in a blind tasting.

I am all for removing the variables that effect a tasting. I go out of my way to train myself to taste in as objective a way as possible, but I am only human. I taste blind when it is possible, and open when the circumstances dictate it.

How do you as a reader judge my efficacy? Simply by deciding for yourself that my taste is similar to yours. If our palates are compatible then you can trust my taste and tasting notes, if not, look for a different critic. I have been giving this same advice for the 19 years I have been writing about wines. And considering how many of my newsletter readers are still with me, for them at least I am providing a valuable service.

The flack on wine writing ethics started not because anyone did anything wrong in accepting a trip to a wine region, but because it was against their written and stated code of ethics. If you are going to have a code, you have to stick to it.

My code? I only accept hospitality when I am going to accept it from everyone equally. I will whenever possible spend my own money to acquire and rate wines. I will always be transparent about any connections to a winery and where I got the wines I am rating. I will remain brutally objective and loyal to my readers first, and that the proof of this will always be my ratings themselves.

I have a great many friends in the wine business, because that is the circle I travel in. Most of these people are friends in spite of what I have said about their wines, not because of it. There are also those that I have become better friends with because I am enamored of their wines. This too is only natural, since I tend to want to hang out with those that have the best wine. When I write about a friend's wine, I always say so.

So yes, I have accepted lunch and a ride to visit the 40 or so wineries I have been to here in South America. It really helped the budget, but it didn't cover the many of thousands of dollars in airfare and hotel bills. It is enough outside my ethical comfort zone that I feel compelled to mention it, but not so far outside I want to apologize for it.

We all have to look to our own conscience when it comes to ethics. The fact that I think about it at all may be to my credit, but on the Internet even more than in a printed journal I believe that you are only as credible as your actions. I applaud those that have brought this thorny issue to a fore, and hope that I pass their standards, but more importantly, that I pass yours.