A long weekend in Napa

I moved to the US 5 years ago, and I have been annoying people about my love for wine for about as long. A question I always get is “Have you been to Napa?” And my answer was always “No”, quickly followed up by “Not yet.”, followed by “But I’ve been to Oregon”, followed by crushing waves of self-loathing as my inadequacy as a wine lover becomes obvious. My point is, when you think wine + US, Napa pops up, it’s the flagship region for the US industry, so I need to get my butt there. Also, my point is, I have crushing self-doubt.

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As of last week one of these issues has been fixed, I have visited Napa Valley, and Sonoma too for good measure. I still have crushing self doubt but that’s ok, there was wine in Napa and Sonoma.

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Right off the bat a few thoughts on the general experience, I’ll give details on some particular wineries in subsequent posts. I had a great time. A good friend of wine actually works at a Napa winery and she was able to take us on some visits that we definitely would have missed otherwise and it made me realize a few things :

  • Takeaway number one : It’s easy to miss some awesome spots if you don’t have an insider to help guide you along.

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  • Takeaway number 2 : it’s easy to end up at wineries that remind me of Disneyland rather than wine country.

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  • Takeaway number 3 : Even in the most Disneylandy wineries, everything is still beautiful. I mean, villas, sprawling grounds, lovely tasting rooms, everything is built to be pretty, which I guess weirded me out after more casual tasting experiences in Europe.

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  • Takeaway number 4 : People say Sonoma is more chill than Napa. Well, people are right, Sonoma feels more chill than Napa.

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  • Takeaway number 5 : Napa wines are expensive given their quality and I’m not a huge fan of the wine club approach. It seems exploitative at the very least.

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  • Takeaway number 6 : Generally speaking, I’m not that into Napa wines. The price points compared to quality are part of it, but a bigger component is stylistic approach. With some exceptions (Hello Fume Blanc), I’m not a huge fan of the Napa style

I know most of these takeaways sound negative, but I have to say that my overall impression was still positive. Napa is beautiful, it is the closest we have to a wine themed amusement park, and who doesn’t like a good amusement park ?

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Maybe it’s my formative years when a winery visit took place in damp cellars between agricultural equipment and industrial quantities of cobwebs that makes the “family-friendly” look hard to process. Maybe I’m just a French snob. I just know that I look forward to going back.

Wile E Coyote, the Road Runner and wine

Meep-Meep!

Road Runner is the most philosophical cartoon in the history of cartoons and philosophy both. The character you root for says a lot about your outlook on life. When I was a kid watching Looney Tunes on Sunday evenings, I was rooting for the Road-Runner. Hey, he was the good guy; after all, the coyote was trying to eat him. Will E Coyote was definitely the villain, menacing, predatory, and hungry for road runner roast. It seemed very clear cut to me, especially since the road runner ended up winning all the time. It’s a cartoon, if you win; you must be the hero, right?

That's an actual Road Runner bird

That’s an actual Road Runner bird

Now, I realized that, in my ripe old age, I root for the coyote. He’s trying so hard! He’s using guile, smarts, technology, and cunning to reach his goal, usually with very little regards for physics or personal safety. He’s doing his best, and he’s redefining the word failure each and every time. On the other hand, the road runner is kind of a dick to the coyote, mocking him, teasing him (did you know that in French, the trademark “Meep-Meep” is translated to “Bip-Bip”?) and ultimately “winning”. The road runner doesn’t try hard, it doesn’t even try at all, it just does what its nature dictates: he runs, on the road. It’s so good at running on that road that it can just coast on that talent, when Wile E has to think outside the ACME box, Road Runner can just rely on its gifts. How is that fair?

I think that’s why my allegiance switched to poor Wile E. As a (nominal) adult, I have to work hard for the things I want; I have to put in effort with no guarantee of reward. Granted, I’m not going to crash at the bottom of a canyon with an anvil following a few seconds behind me, but failure is a possibility. I cannot be the Road Runner, to whom everything comes easy. Life is unfair, no matter how hard you try, you can’t always get what you want and some people are just naturally gifted. That’s the message of the Road Runner. When you think about it, it’s pretty bleak, as Weird Al said : “Right now I’d like to show you one of my favorite cartoons. It’s a sad, depressing story about a pathetic coyote who spends every waking moment of his life in the futile pursuit of a sadistic roadrunner who MOCKS him and LAUGHS at him as he’s repeatedly CRUSHED and MAIMED! Hope you ENJOY IT!!!”

Wile E

Wine is unfair too. Some vineyards are blessed with climate, soil, drainage and exposition, so much that whatever the winemaker does, he can do no wrong, or at least, his level of effort can stand to be minimal. Other plots need constant care, anything less than perfect word by the winemaker results in catastrophe (see: canyon, boulder, anvil). Once again, how is that fair? It’s nature and nurture all over again. Let’s take two wines of similar quality; they can hide completely different stories, from painstaking efforts to overcome bad conditions all the way to cruising easily on a blessed situation and of course, everything in between.

Sometimes I think about that when tasting wine, I wonder if what I’m drinking is a Road Runner wine or of a Wile E. Coyote wine. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, but I have a soft spot in my cold and calculating Burgundian heart for people who try too hard. Also, to this day, I still think that combining roller skates and a jet pack is a great idea.

Willamette Valley Wine Tour

After the city, and a quick presentation of the region, let’s do a quick overview of the three wineries we visited in the Willamette Valley.

First up was Rex Hill, just outside of Newberg. I have to say, it was the winery that impressed me the least. It’s a lovely building, an old hazelnut drying house, and they have a nice terrace and an aroma display that I thought was a very nice touch: you could sample a few different common wine aromas, a nice idea.

The aroma wheel

The aroma wheel

 

The issue was that the wines didn’t really make an impression. We tried a few of their pinot noirs and Chardonnays but the Pinots especially where underwhelming, too harsh for my taste. It was our first stop and I was worried. Fortunately, things improved quite a bit when we got to the next winery.

Winters Hills, deep into the Red Hills of Dundee did a lot to alleviate my worries, all the wines were very quaffable : Pinot Grigio (of which I’m usually not a fan), Pinot Blanc (not something you see often), rose from Pinot Noir (very interesting). All of these were more than decent and are great summer wines if you can get them. The rose in particular was bright and fruity with a bit of smoke, I highly recommend it.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir grapes, 1 week from harvest !

Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir grapes, 1 week from harvest !

 

Then we moved on to the Pinot Noirs. First up the basic Pinot Noir 2009, a solid, affordable ($15) offering, then the Cuvee du Vigneron 2009, fuller, more complex and serious, with ageing potential, and finally, the 2008 Reserve, smooth with aromas that go way beyond the basic red berries. We’re talking cedarwood, cola, spices… Great wine, definitely could age more.

The tour concluded at the lovely Stoller Estate. Definitely the most impressive building of the three. The view is fantastic, and the building is brand new, built to be sustainable and ecofriendly (solar panels, natural materials…). The tasting room opens up to a great view of the Dundee Hills, it’s spacious, airy, and it looks damn cool.

View from the tasting room

View from the tasting room

The wines themselves were decent, nothing to write home about, but very solid if uninspiring to me. This place gave out a pretentious vibe to me, like trying too hard, and maybe that prevented me from enjoying myself, I don’t know, I’ll give Stoller an incomplete!

There it is, the three parts tale of my Oregon trip. Let’s week we will resume our regular programming of wine reviews, enjoy the weekend!

 

Meet the Willamette Valley

After exploring Portland and its wonders, it was time to make our way to the Willamette Valley for some wine tasting action. Conveniently, wine country is about 20 minutes outside of Portland, it made the whole thing a short trip. The Willamette Valley AVA is the biggest and most famous of Oregon’s wine growing region. It follows the Willamette Valley and is sheltered by two mountain ranges, the Coastal Range to the West and the Cascade Range to the East. This situation shelters the region and provides mild winters, cool and cloudy summers and damp autumns, sounds like good Pinot Noir Country.

The AVA is pretty big, as I mentioned, and there are even a few sub-appellations. Our wine tour actually took us to two of these smaller AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, centered on the town of Newberg which is really the heart of the Willamette wine country, and Dundee Hills, famous for its red soils and admittedly the top ranked sub-appellation.

The red Hills from the bottom

The red Hills from the bottom

Winemaking in Oregon is a recent development. The first modern attempts were made in the late sixties by rogue UC Davis students and they didn’t realize the potential for Pinot Noir until the mid-seventies. Once it happened though, it happened fast with the number of vineyards growing exponentially. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that exploitations tend to be on the smaller side, just like in the other Pinot Noir paradise, Burgundy.

Another Oregon-Burgundy connection is the Drouhin family, from Beaune, who decided to buy a vineyard in the Dundee Hills (we actually passed the vineyard during the trip). The legend says that it was the performance of Oregon Pinots in the 1979 Paris Wine Olympics (where an Oregon Pinot took second place) that prompted the interest of the Drouhins in the region. Whatever the cause was, the result is that they are there now, and that their wines are top notch.

The Red Hills from the top

The Red Hills from the top

That’s it for the region, next week I’ll finally talk about the wines and the three stops we made during our tour. A lot of wine was tasted and a lovely picnic was had on those famous Red Hills.

 

A visit to Portlandia : part 1, the City

At the beginning of summer, I spent a weekend in Portland, Maine with my sidekick. For Labor Day weekend, we decided to make things symmetrical by spending 4 days in Portland, Oregon. This one is further away from Boston, but it’s got a sizable advantage, it’s right outside of Oregon wine country. Of we went then. This is our story, a story of red eye flights, food trucks, runs along the Willamette River, street art, Subaru Outbacks, ironic facial hair, craft beer, thigh tattoos, plaid shirts and pinot noir. This is the story of a long weekend, in a few parts. First up, the city itself.

He's real !

He’s real !

Portland is named after Portland. I mean Portland, Oregon is named after Portland Maine. The two founders of the city were from New England, from Portland and Boston to be precise. They both wanted to name their new city after their old cities. How did they settle this? How did they chose between Portland and Boston? They flipped a coin. Of course they did. Best out of three and Portland it was. You can actually see the penny they used at the Portland Historical Society.

This is a happy BBQ pig

This is a happy BBQ pig

The city is parted by the Willamette Valley that runs North to South and is crisscrossed by bridges (Nickname alert: City of Bridges). It’s the most populous city in Oregon, but then again, Oregon has less than 4 million people. The main thing about Portland is that it’s weird. Intentionally weird even, the unofficial motto is “Keep Portland weird”, and portlandites do a good job of it. My vaguely preppy, non-descript appearance shouted out my non-portlandism to the world. Neither before have I felt such need for a weird mustache, a plaid shirt and a beanie. The city is the hipster capital of the US, and it shows.

Even the stores are plaid

Even the stores are plaid

The hipster/hippy/granola thing is actually a good thing. First of all, it’s fun, there are a million little details that will make you chuckle as you walk around, from quirky, to cute, to funny, to just what the hell was that. Second, the food scene is fantastic! Insistence on fresh, organic, locally grown means farmers markets, gourmet grocery shops and fancy restaurants. We actually visited 3 or 4 grocery shops. I swear, they are like temples to the God of good food. Another illustration is the food truck thing. Now, many cities have those trucks, even Paris got in on that recently, but Portland is the hub. They actually have little pods, tiny villages of those trucks, with tables and all. I had an awesome wood fire pizza at one of them. It haunts me.

The food trucks pod

The food trucks pod

Last, but not least, Portland, or PDX as the local call it everywhere, has the highest number of microbreweries of any city in the US. We sampled a few, Burnside (excellent), Deschutes (decent). Rogue (very good) and Cascade (original, because the brew almost exclusively sour beers). We went for the beer flights at all of these and there was much rejoicing.

Beer flight at the Burnside Brewery

Beer flight at the Burnside Brewery

That’s it for the city, next time, we dive into the Willamette Valley wine country.

MWWC10 : Values, tradition and the value of change

It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.

MWWC

Values, tradition, and the value of change

“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.

“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”

And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?

Mad Men old fashioned

It’s old fashioned

There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.

French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.

To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions.  Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.

And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.

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It says Chateau and it shows a chateau

Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.

Old-timey much ?

Old-timey much ?

Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.

Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.

SO2

Notice the difference?

Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.

And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.

I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !

In the Game of Thrones you drink or you die

As I mentioned before, I’m a big Game of Thrones fan (both books and show). To give a little bit of context, the story deals with a few great families vying for power in what is basically a late middle-ages setting. Fortunes rise and fall, politics, treason, violence, war… I don’t want to get into any details from the story; it’s not the point of this blog.

Game-of-Thrones-Season-4-Logo

Of course each great family comes with heraldry, words (a fancy word for motto) and is associated to a region, a type of character. That gave me an idea, since I like matching wines to songs, or character traits, why don’t I try to match a wine to some of these families. It might have been done already but here’s my attempt.

Starks : The Starks are the ruling family of the North, the largest, coldest, bleakest region of the world. They are Cold, unforgiving, and have a tendency to go on about climate change (Winter is coming). The North remembers and memories will be grim. That’s the easiest association for me, when I hear the word “stark” I think of Chablis, it’s clean, bone-dry and unforgiving character. Chablis is a stark wine.

Tyrells: The Tyrells come from the Reach, a bountiful region filled with orchards, vineyards, gardens and castle. In a way, they represent the archetypes of classical chivalry. Their knights are renowned for their prowess and gallantry. To me, this description fits the Loire Valley quite well. It also helps that the Tyrells are not as grim as most of the other houses! A nice, easygoing Cabernet Franc for our friends from the Reach it is.

Lannisters: rich and proud, very (maybe too much) into family, a perfect fit for Bordeaux with its dignified Chateaux, proud traditions and storied history. Their patriarch’s obsession with legacy and passing on the family name is a good reminder of the Bordeaux emphasis on “brand” through the chateau image.

Game-of-Thrones-drink

Baratheons: 3 very different brothers, one boastful and loud, one stoic to a fault and one easygoing and fabulous. This family can take several forms; we need a versatile grape, probably Chenin Blanc. I can see Robert as a sweet, rich Montlouis, Stannis as a dry Savennieres and Renly as a bubbly Vouvray.

Martells: The Martell family is from the southernmost part of the world, Dorne. And like Dorne, the Martells run hot. They are a passionate, fiery and sensual people. Hot is probably the word that is used to describe everything Dornish: weather, tempers or food (Dornish peppers are mentioned repeatedly). We need a wine that brings the heat. I will go with the Rhone valley here; warmth and spice seem like a good fit.

Greyjoys: Nobody cares about them; I don’t see why I should.

Targaryens: As a nod to the real life Habsburgs, this family has a history of insanity brought on by the practice of inbreeding. I don’t really know how to go with that… Well, it is said that for every Targaryen born, a coin is flipped; will it be madness or greatness? Basically the Targs (that’s right, there’s a nickname) are hit or miss. In a way that reminds me of Burgundy where every wine comes from the same stock (Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) but results may vary from one parcel to the next, or from vintage to vintage.

Tyrion