The Demystified Vine

Taking the mystery out of wine exploration!

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The fires were definitely burning on the night of the Rodney Strong Vineyards dinner at Black + Blue Restaurant as part of the Vancouver International Wine Festival. As one proceeded off of the elevator onto the rooftop patio, a buzz of anticipation greeted eager wine loving guests.

About the Winery

Hailing from Sonoma County in California, Rodney Strong Vineyards makes crisp, white wines and delectable reds. Hence the theme for the night, “Fog and Fahrenheit”, attendees were able to experience how influential location is for grape growing and winemaking.

A story that began more than 50 years ago with a celebrated dancer named Rodney Strong, Rodney Strong Vineyards owns land from north to south in Sonoma County. They source their grapes from a number of different vineyards, but watch for their wines coming out of Alexander’s Crown, Chalk Hill, and Russian River.

Furthermore, Rodney Strong Vineyards is leading the industry to shift perspectives with regards to energy consumption. The winery is energy and carbon neutral, as they use solar panels to cultivate electricity for the winery.

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Smoked bacon wrapper Diver scallop with jalapeno, burnt shallot, lemongrass salad with “Charlotte’s Home” Sauvignon Blanc 2015

While many wine consumers have experienced flabby Chardonnay or overly ripe Zinfandel at some point, wine lovers should know that place really does matter. Coastal areas of California have the added benefit of being near a large body of water which naturally assists grape growers with fine tuning the ripening of fruit. As we were informed mid-dinner, cool breezes sweeping down from Alaska greet the grapes in Sonoma County. The effect is that the grapes receive amazing sun and heat during daylight hours, but those northerly breezes keep acidity under control during the growing season and at night. Sonoma County could be considered similar to a “Mediterranean climate”.

Jasper grilled salmon, warm chicory green salad, chive emulsion, crispy potato with Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013

Additionally, Rodney Strong Vineyards is doing something very different with their Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Put aside visions of buttery Chardonnay that you could practically pour on your air-popped popcorn. Imagine, instead, the essence of oaked Chardonnay without the overbearing weight of wood.

In practice, Rodney Strong soaks the oak barrels for their Sonoma Coast Chardonnay in water to extract some bitterness from the staves. They then proceed to oak age the wine. The result is elegant. Honestly, I wish more California Chardonnays were like this very wine: refined and polished.

Cherry braised short rib, crispy onion, sour shallot jam, pave potato with Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

The star chef of the evening was Black + Blue’s own Executive Chef, Jason Labahn, who pulled out the stops on the food front. I’ve done a few of these wine dinners before, but I must say, kudos, Chef Labahn, you did a phenomenal job with the pairings! Every single dish so intricately paired with these Rodney Strong wines that both the wine and the food became one with the other without drowning out the flavours of each party.

Of particular note was the braised short rib with the Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon. This inky, blackcurrant, rosemary & sage driven wine was full of flavour and complexity. The cherry braising and sour shallot jam set off the black fruit notes on the palate, and the long finish left a lot to remember.

The grounds at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Between courses, Rick Sayre, VP Director of Winemaking, told the audience stories of his early days working alongside Rodney Strong. The focus has, and will be for the foreseeable future, on the grapes. Sayre told an attentive audience that he has been with Rodney Strong Vineyards for 38 years. Sayre has learned that the “grapes come first, winemaking comes second [and] […] not all vineyards are the same”. He appreciates the opportunities to work with unique, small sites, or “sweet spots”, where he can focus in on bringing out the language of the land through the winemaking process.

With the tremendous variety of terroir at their fingertips, Daniel Wildermuth, Vice President for Marketing, reiterated that Rodney Strong Vineyards endeavors to “express the essence of Sonoma County. We try to let the land speak”.

Left: Head winemaker Rick Sayre examines fruit from the vineyards; Top right: Rodney Strong with his prized grapes; Bottom right: Rick Sayre takes a look at some barrel samples

A Few Other Words on the Wines

The ‘Charlotte’s Home’ Sauvignon Blanc 2015 was bright and citrus driven with perfect acidity. Hints of grapefruit pith and a mineral-driven finish made me want sip after sip. I definitely see why this white wine is a great companion for seafood. It went with both the canapes as well as the scallop, which I’m sure you drooled over in the photo above.

The Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014 was invigorating and crisp; its essences of lemon rind, yellow apple, hints of peach and baked apple crumble were delectable. I thoroughly enjoyed this classy Chard.

If you’re a Burgundy fan, you’ll definitely love the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. On the medium side of wines, this Pinot boasted of various types of cherries, lush raspberry, and the palate exuded darker fruit notes of plum, black tea, and spice. A classic, age-worthy Pinot.


The team at Black + Blue did a phenomenal job of hosting the dinner; they were not only attentive, but also on the ball with changing scraped-off dinner plates and silverware. The fluidity of the evening was impressive.

Keep your eyes peeled for more on Rodney Strong Vineyards on The Demystified Vine.

Many thanks to the Vancouver International Wine Festival for organizing such a fantastic winery dinner at such a chic establishment!

It took a lot of courage not to dive into tasting the Grand Cru Alsatian wines that sat before me during the most recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California.

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Representing Wines of Alsace, wine educator May Matta-Aliah, DWS, stood before a packed room ready to share not only her love of these wines, but all the nitty-gritties about the region with us keen wine bloggers in the seminar entitled “Discovery Session: Au Natural Alsace – Organic and Biodynamic Wines”. And it shall be known, I was keen to taste those wines! (I heart Alsace.)

Being the most eastern wine region in France, it practically lives in Germany. In fact, Alsace has a huge German influence. This is no trivial matter; historically, Alsace was passed back and forth between the French and the Germans as they decided who the region belonged to. As Karen MacNeil puts it, “[Alsace] has also at various times in its past belong to Germany. The two powers have repeatedly battled each other over this small strip of land, for Alsace is one of Europe’s strategic geopolitical crossroads” (The Wine Bible, pg. 277).

Rivalling Bordeaux – The Specialists of White Wine

Alsace has long held a reputation for being a fine-wine producing area, but the world has not necessarily accepted it as such. Bordeaux has stood muscular and proud with its ageworthy, multi-varietal red blends, whereas Alsace has stood quiet, but steadfast, in the corner with its confidence bottled in Rhine-styled bottles. While Alsace is making 90% white wine, how can we even dare to compare heady Bordeaux to barely docile Alsace?

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

We should. As Matta-Aliah stated during the seminar, Alsace is, “very, very French”. Being specialists in white wine, the viti-and viniculturalists are focused on making “wines with excellent freshness and structure”. Of course, mon ami! There wouldn’t be 19 Michelin starred restos in the region if they weren’t! <wink> All great food dishes deserve a great wine.

Soil is Dirt … and Dirt Definitely Counts!

Matta-Aliah generally stressed how diverse the terroir is in France, however, it was clear that she was also leading into how complex Alsatian dirt is. With 13 distinct soil types, including granite, gneiss, schist, volcanic sedimentary, and sandstone around the mountain range, there is definitely a focus for Alsatian winemakers on, as Matta-Aliah expressed it, “site expression of that grape in that soil”.

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Photo Courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Alsace is mostly organic. “There’s a lot of organic viticulture in the area,” Matta-Aliah stated, “and organic Alsace excludes the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. The goal is to live in harmony with nature.”

With quite a bit of focus on biodynamic viticulture, there is a healthy respect for the dirt in which the grapes are grown. In essence, biodynamic viticulture is based on the theories that one needs to recreate balance in the vineyard, to activate soil life, reinforce the resistance of plants, and to support natural cycles.

Grapes, Grapes, Grapes!

The seven main grapes of the region are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir.

Hard cheeses pair well with Alsatian wines.

Hard cheeses pair well with Alsatian wines.

There are “logical reasons” for this, as Matta-Aliah conveyed to us, and that is simply that “different grapes grow better in different soils”.

As the grape vines are growing in ideal conditions, they are not being subjected to harsh weather patterns like other regions. Alsace is protected, weather-wise, by the Vosges Mountains, and the area gets an annual rainfall of 20-26″. Known as the “high and dry” region of France, this guarantees that there is not a lot of rot going on.

Photo courtesy of Wines of Alsace

Photo courtesy of Wines of Alsace

“Every winemaker is striving to not just give you a true expression of the grape variety, but also of the place where that grape variety grew,” Matta-Aliah stated. “You’re getting a true […] expression of that grape in that soil.”

Steadfast Alsace

I can’t agree more when Karen MacNeil called Alsace the “great unsung hero of France” (pg. 277). With their focus on white wines, one cannot simply make the assumption that the wines of this particular region are wimpy or not meant for aging. On the contrary, the wines of Alsace can age for decades just the same, and offer just as much complexity that can rival Bordeaux’s reds. While I haven’t been to Alsace (although that is in the works), I have been to Bordeaux. I am no stranger to the reds of this region. What I can tell you is that Alsace offers just as much excitement, if not more, in its stone fruit-driven, honeyed whites (that do not actually seem sweet) if you only give them a chance. Happy discovering!

Cheers!

I read a lot of literature on wine. If you know me personally, you know that I carry around a wine-related book in my purse, so that I can read about wine for that 10 minutes while I’m riding the train to work. Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible is getting to be a bit heavy to trek around with…

As of late, I’ve been indulging myself on the vine-hopping stories of Jay McInerney in his book A Hedonist in the Cellar.

McInerney inspired me to try Condrieu!

McInerney inspired me to try Condrieu!

In between his tales of sipping Condrieu while in the Rhone Valley of France or having dinner with Michel Chapoutier, McInerney does conjure a very big truth about wine: it is always, and always will be, accessible.

Wine accessibility? So freakin’ what, you say?

Well, you see, I’m always struggling to find that sweet spot for talking about wine snobbery (see here, and here) because I think we, as wine lovers, have a duty to help others feel more comfortable with the libation we so proudly sip & savour. Wine snobbery is alive and well, and I, personally, can’t help but be excited to spread that enjoyment. (Hey, you don’t know if you really like something unless you try to understand it!)

Wine accessibility is important, and I’ll tell you why in a few moments, but first…

Wine is accessible through food pairings

Wine is accessible through food pairings

Pop Quiz!

Winelover, how many people have you heard say the following? Choose all that apply:

a) “I don’t know anything about wine”
b) “I don’t understand wine”
c) “I don’t drink wine”
d) “I’m not good at tasting wine”
e) All of the above
f) All of the above (plus more)

Recall in your mind the impression that these comments left you with. Chances are good that the reason that folks were saying these things is because they don’t feel wine is accessible to them. I get it. Not everyone needs to like wine or drink it for that matter, but how many of those people might actually want to learn about wine but are simply too intimidated by it? Confidence plays a big role in this, and in my experiences, all it takes is a little understanding and guidance.

“[Wine] can provide intellectual as well as sensual pleasure; it’s an inexhaustible subject, a nexus of subjects, which leads us, if we choose to follow, into the realms of geology, botany, meteorology, history, aesthetics, and literature. Ideally, the appreciation of wine is balanced between consumption and pleasure on the one hand and contemplation and analysis on the other.” [pg. xiv, A Hedonist in the Cellar]

Golden kiwi fruit; a taste descriptor for white wine.

Golden kiwi fruit; a taste descriptor for white wine.

My suggestion for you, winelover, is a simple one. The next time someone says one or another of the multiple-choice options in your pop quiz above, which I’m sure you passed with flying colours, help dismantle his or her fears by creating that accessibility. Help that person make the connection that wine is not just all about the extremely specific descriptors of brioche and vine-ripened golden kiwi that may sputter out of our mouths. Wine is, at the very least, about enjoyment, and at the most, about connecting with the world around us.

Cheers!

September 3, 2016

During the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, Master of Wine Andrea Robinson stated, “Wine is much more niche than sports.” Of course, this got me to thinking about wine snobbery and what exactly that all means.

I’ve spent hours reading about wine (and wine snobbery for that matter), and it is a concept that continues to come up in conversations, whether they be direct or indirect.

Good cheap red at a cafe in Paris

Good cheap red at a cafe in Paris

This morning on the rainy bus ride heading to the ferry terminal to go to Vancouver Island, I started chatting with the lady beside me. An easy conversation around, “What do you do?” ensued, as per usual when new people meet, and it was a pleasant conversation with a stranger. She is a 3D animator who hails from Edmonton but lives in Vancouver. Lo and behold, the time came for me to mention that I am a teacher, but I am also in the “wine business”. Like the hands of the clock striking midnight, the question arose as to whether or not I like (and consume) cheap wine.

Without sounding exasperated (and really, I was inside), I approached the question openly by addressing that yes, I do indeed consume cheap wine. I can name “cheap” bottles, as one would say, that are my “go to” wines to have with a meal. (Cono Sur Viognier stands out at this very second. Ten bucks CAD for that bottle – a real deal!)

I paint abstract pieces that are wine-themed!

I paint abstract pieces that are wine-themed!

“At some point, you know the differences between a quality wine and a cheap wine and how it is made,” I stated gently, “and when you know that difference, you tend to simply enjoy the quality wine more.” She nodded, trying to understand where I was coming from, after blankly stating that she is “not a wine person”.

“Generally speaking, everywhere in the world, there are big wine producers and small wine producers. Big producers throw whatever grapes they can get into a wine, whereas small producers make small batches typically from local grapes in their area, if not their own estate. People who really enjoy wine tend to enjoy wines that express a sense of where they came from, as opposed to a ‘generalized’ flavour of something.”

Grand Cru? Yeah, of course!

Grand Cru? Yeah, of course!

“It’s all about preferences,” I continued after some pause, “and enjoying wine is like the person who is into art but prefers abstract pieces to pastoral scenes, or the sports fan who will watch every hockey game but loathes football.”

“When it comes to wine, you like what you like.” She concluded.

“Exactly!” I enunciated. “There’s nothing wrong with football or hockey, or liking or not liking art. Wine is all about personal preferences. And as an addition, small wineries can make crap wine, too! One just needs to learn what they prefer and enjoy that.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people conclude ‘Oh, you are really into wine? You must not like cheap wine’ when they talk to me.”

Clearly, she wasn’t headed in that direction. After all, she appeared to be a level-headed girl who can think for herself. But this whole “wine snobbery” concept has to, at some point, go into the bucket that is being kicked.

In his novel, A Hedonist in the Cellar, James McInerney candidly addresses how a delight for wine seeps into the hearts of those who appreciate this realm:

Our love of wine is the fraternal bond that brings us together, and it is the lubricant that stimulates our conversation, but it’s a polygamous relationship that encourages and enhances our other passions. It leads us to other subjects and leads us back to the world. It lifts us up and delivers us from the mundane circumstances of daily life, inspires contemplation, and, ultimately, returns us to that very world, refreshed, with enriched understanding and appreciation.” [pg XV]

Much like art brings artists together, or sports fans gather to celebrate the World Cup, wine lovers come together in the same way to enjoy the bounty that grape harvests bring.

And so, if you like what is cheap and cheerful, enjoy it. And if you like ridiculously expensive Condrieu, enjoy that, too.

That lady and I never exchanged names once the bus reached the terminal, but I am fairly certain that we didn’t need to. We were just two human beings having a friendly conversation on the bus. Phones not included.

Cheers!

AcquiesceBottles

Photo courtesy of Acquiesce Winery

Lodi may be full of Zinfulness, and be the largest grape growing area in California at 110,000 acres, but Acquiesce Winery is breaking down preconceived notions about the AVA, and is surrendering itself to being a stand-alone, small-production winery.

What Does it All Mean?

According to dictionary.com, the word “acquiesce” is a verb meaning to “submit or comply silently, without protest”. Why would one name a winery with such a term? After all, everything is in a name, as one of my memorable university professors so duly noted one day during a Shakespearean lecture.

Sue Tipton, the winemaker at Acquiesce Winery, tells us a bit more.

We named the ranch Acquiesce when we purchased the property and at the time, we had no intention to become a winery. The name comes from a K.D. Lang song of the same name and its fun how it ended up being our guiding philosophy when it comes to our wine making

Tipton says the goal for her wine making is to use what nature has provided her and take a “minimalist approach” to crafting beautiful wines.

Acquiesce has become our mantra — to submit to nature, to yield to the vineyard, to acquiesce to the grapes so they present their own true character.

Vines With History

With having sourced their vines from Chateau Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley in France, one can only imagine how intriguing Acquiesce’s wines must be. I mean, let’s be real. Sourcing vines from one of the best chateaus in all of France must contribute to some divine energy in Lodi! (Well, being a huge fan of Beaucastel, I’ll keep thinking that anyway.) And since Lodi has straightforward weather patterns, they need not worry about freakish hail storms or frost-bitten vines.

Sue Tipton in Vineyard

Winemaker, Sue Tipton

So what, you say? Well, this certified green winery is, for a fact, only making white wines. Being an area of California that is highly valued, shall we say, for its Zinfandel production, it is fascinating that Acquiesce’s wine production is only white wine-based, but also making white wines using Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulanc, and Viognier grapes. Tipton recognizes that Lodi’s land is more than a place to produce grapes for boozy reds.

The Lodi region has very good soil and temperatures for growing white grapes and with the cool delta breeze that blows nearly every evening, the average temperature of the grapes themselves during the growing season is optimal.
Here at Acquiesce we chose to do all white and all Rhone varietals because they are our favorites and because whites work so well here. We are not the only ones who think so as there are a good number of whites done in Lodi that are quite delicious.

As their production totals 1,500 cases per year, Acquiesce’s wines are small-batch and well-cared for. Tipton, in addition, practices a “no oak” rule in order to ensure her wines are showcasing the fruit and terroir that Lodi has to offer.

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Rhone Inspired Winemaker Dinner at Acquiesce Winery – Friday, August 12th, 2016

As a result of creating fresh, lively wines that reflect the land, this also leads to Acquiesce’s creations to be, as Tipton calls it, “a chef’s dream companion”.

 

Rhone Inspired Winemaker Dinner

The lot of us that landed dibs on the “Pick a Peck of Picpoul” excursion during the recent Wine Bloggers Conference were pleased when we arrived at Acquiesce for the winemaker’s dinner. I’m sure the natives of Lodi could hear us on our limo bus chanting “Ac-qui-esce! Ac-qui-esce!” as we roared down the streets drawing nearer to the winery on that hot evening.

The wines were so perfectly paired, that many of us were silenced as we delighted in the prosciutto wrapped melon with mint basil pesto paired with the crisp 2015 Picpoul Blanc. Being food and wine lovers, we are no stranger to the bliss that culinary delights can afford us. Lest we not forget the Heirloom tomato Panzanella salad with the 2013 Grenache Blanc, or the crisp duck confit with the 2014 Roussanne. I’m drooling just dreaming about it. Yes, I’m drooling while dreaming about duck. (I like alliteration.) A bow of gratitude to Chef Jennifer Kupka, from Chef Lodi Airport Cafe, for preparing such a phenomenal meal.

My wine-loving friends, if I may be so bold, I encourage all of you to visit Lodi. Its charming vineyards and welcoming winery owners will not only fill your boots with wine, but also fill your hearts with pleasure!

Cheers!

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