Category Archives: Wine Maker’s Corner

Cabernet – from rags to double gold

The Sierra Foothills are probably one of the least known wine regions in California.  It is not because it lacks the right components for creating world class wines.  In fact the desert-like climate of dry hot days and cool nights coupled with soils that are mainly sandy loam and decomposed granite are ideal for growing most wine grapes.  The real reason is that most of the wineries in the Foothills are owned by people who have chosen to be winemakers for the lifestyle and they produce just about enough wine to supply their tasting rooms and local wine shops and restaurants.  The good news is that this is gradually changing.  Wineries with larger production capabilities are moving into the region, and they are all getting better organized and making a concerted effort to brand the region.

Against this backdrop C.G. Di Arie submitted 5 wines to the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition held in January 2015 for which we recently received 2 double gold medals; one for our 2012 Primitivo and the other for our 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Any double gold is a remarkable achievement since it requires that all the judges in the group vote unanimously “gold” for the wine.

While getting a double gold for the Primitivo makes me feel very proud, I am elated to have received a double gold for the Cabernet.  The simple reason is that Cabernet Sauvignon which is the most famous grape variety on Earth is generally thought to be capable of realizing its potential only if it is grown in the Napa region and is therefore completely disassociated from the Sierra Foothills.  And here I am, a relatively newcomer in this field with only 14 years of winemaking experience receiving a double gold in Cabernet Sauvignon made in the Sierra Foothills and completely outclassing Cabernets made in Napa.

The journey to the double gold has not been easy.  While the climate in the Sierra Foothills is ideal for growing many varieties of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is not exactly one of them. Cabernet Sauvignon matures slowly and requires warm weather to reach the desired level of ripeness for a varietal wine.   But it has a hard time acclimating to consistently high afternoon temperatures of the Sierra Foothills that cause the plant to shut down thus slowing the ripening process.   When the grapes are not sufficiently ripe at harvest time the wines will exhibit green bell pepper and vegetal flavors.

From the time in 2001 that I planted my first acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, I knew that I would have to overcome the effect of the higher afternoon temperatures on the ripening process.  It took me 10 years to produce my first varietal Cabernet Sauvignon that was true to its identity without the herbaceous and bell peppery flavors.  I achieved this through proper clonal selection and creative trellising techniques.

Now that I have solved some of the technical problems associated with making a double gold quality Cabernet Sauvignon in the Sierra Foothills I have to learn how to deal with people that are stuck in their belief that Napa Cabernet is the only game in town.  So the story is not just about one grower.  Rather it’s about the Sierra Foothills.  And more so, it’s about breaking out of the bias that until now has respected only Napa Cabernets.  For me and my little winery it’s about expanding the potential of this great part of California, a place I am so proud to call home.

Cheers, Chaim

A Tale of Two “Wine Mavens” – A One Act Tragedy

In this Winemaker’s Corner, I am going to do something that I have never done before – I will pretend to be a playwright.   I have a story to tell which I would like to present it in the form of a play.  To make this perfectly clear, so that I am not accused of plagiarizing, the dialogues presented by the two main characters of this “play” were in part taken from quotes attributed to them in an article in New York Times Magazine entitled “The Wrath of Grapes” by Bruce Schoenfeld published on May 28, 2015.  This was accompanied by a generous amount of embellishments, products of my imagination.

The two principle characters of my play are both self-appointed olfactory prodigies.  Rajat Parr, a former sommelier turned winemaker and Robert Parker a most influential wine critic who for three decades was able to influence the tastes of the mainstream American wine drinkers.  They are having an argument about their different styles of wine.

Rajat  – “Robert, you brainwashed an entire generation of wine drinkers to like wines that taste like fruit bombs.  This is like terrorism on a global scale.   I decided to found a new movement to fight your style of wine and I will call this movement “In Pursuit of Balance”.  To belong to this movement, winemakers in California will have to harvest the grapes early not allowing them to ripen properly, exactly the way it happens in the old world wine regions.”

Robert  – “Rajat, don’t forget who I am.  I have been anointed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the most influential wine critic in the world.” 

Rajat  – “You claim that your style of wine is drunk for pleasure.  What a simplistic approach to such a sophisticated product as wine.  I say one should drink wine for intellectual stimulation and for its depth and intrigue and not because the wine is delicious and it gives you pleasure to drink it.”

Robert  –“You are like a jihadist gang trying to erase what I have accomplished in over 35 years.  You are the anti-flavor elite  making green under-ripe wines, low in alcohol insipid stuff promoted by this anti-pleasure police………..”

Rajat –  “Robert, the world will judge you for creating this abomination that you call wine which is like a soda pop loaded with alcohol, residual sugar and oak.  On top of all this, to promote this style of wine, you established the 100 point wine rating system. This seemingly precise but deceiving scoring system became the industry standard because of its simplicity.    And then you awarded high numbers to wines that followed your style making them an instant success in the marketplace.”

 The question is where do I stand between these two feuding gentlemen?  My guiding principles have been to make wines that have a sense of place, maximize the potential of the grapes, are true to their varietal identity, have good balance, a restrained level of alcohol and oak and are pleasing to drink.  Rajat  and I only agree on one aspect of winemaking, which is restraining the level of alcohol.  Robert  and I also agree on another aspect that wine should be made in a way that would give pleasure.  The problem is what gives Robert pleasure gives me displeasure.  In conclusion my style of wine is a world apart from their styles.

Cheers!

Chaim

Matchmaker! Make me a Match!

(Between Wine and Food)
Whenever I pour one of my delectable wines, our food-loving club members often ask me what food would best pair with this wine. In the following paragraphs I will outline a few of my ideas some of which may be quite different than what other people think about this subject. This is more of a philosophical discussion rather than a road map on how to pair food and wine.

Among wine drinking nations wine has always been an important part of the meal, where homemade dishes were consumed with locally produced wines. In our modern times food and wine pairing has been institutionalized with books and publications springing up and expounding the principles, guidelines and ideals of matching the perfect wine with the perfect food.

I read many of these publications and listened to various “experts” lecture on this subject. I don’t believe that it is possible to create a perfect pairing of wine and food unless the wine is perfect, or near perfect, to begin with. Thus before I would consider pairing a wine with a food I would have to like to drink the wine solo and derive a minimum level of pleasure. While my olfactory senses play the major role in my perception of this pleasure, my other senses or the circumstances that I am in may also participate in this pleasure. If I am in a company of people that I care for, or having an interesting conversation, or listening to music that I enjoy, or eating a food that I like, all of these will alter the intensity of this pleasure. Obviously the alcohol in the wine plays a role in getting me into a happy frame of mind which might enhance my sense of pleasure or….. blur it.

The big question is how do I establish this minimum level of pleasure? Unfortunately, the sense of pleasure like other emotional feelings such as anger and love are not objectively quantifiable. I decided to introduce the term Pleasure Index to subjectively quantify the level of pleasure derived by an individual when consuming wine. The scale for this index is 0 to 10 and the minimum Pleasure Index that I will accept for drinking a wine or pairing it with a food is 7. The attributes of a wine that determine the Pleasure Index are olfactory qualities such as the aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and lack of flaws, all of which determine the “balance” of the wine. To me a wine that is overly alcoholic, sweet or oaky is flawed and consequently would be out of balance.

Some experts on the subject claim that when pairing food and wine what needs to be considered is the balance between the weight and intensity of the food with that of the wine. Thus a robust food is often paired with a comparably intense wine. This is referred to as “complementary pairing”. The more adventurist approach is matching a robust food with a light wine or vice versa. This kind of pairing is known as “contrasting”. Whether complementary or contrasting in a perfect pairing neither food nor wine dominate like conducting an enjoyable dialogue where both sides get a chance to speak and listen to each other. In my enthusiasm about the wine I did not discuss the food side of this partnership. While I am responsible to get a perfectly balanced wine with a Pleasure Index of 10, it behooves you to do as well in your food preparation.

Cheers!

December 2014

When Your Heart’s on Fire, You Must Realize, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

When the fire was raging around our property on July 25 this iconic song from my youth came back to me as a reminder of how pain and joy can coexist together in so many different ways.

I refused to believe that the fire that started on Sand Hill Road and HW 49, 5 miles west of the winery on Friday July 25, a day before my birthday, was going to affect us. Friday morning we left the winery for a weekend of celebrations for my birthday. We were hardly a day in the Bay Area when I started receiving text messages from my neighbor Mike that has a house straight west from our house. At some point he texted me that with the help of “two giant bulldozers, 20 fire trucks and hundreds of firemen the fire was contained around his house and now moving towards ours.” His next text message came as we were on our way to have dinner at the One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. It said, “I can’t see your house, it is engulfed with flames that are 200 feet high.” Needless to say, my birthday dinner was less than joyous. By the time the dessert arrived his text message read, “We can still see the roof of your house behind the thick smoke.”

We could not wait until the next day. We cancelled all the events that we had planned and went back to the winery to see the damage with our own eyes. While both accesses to the winery from D’Agostini and Upton Road were blocked by police we were able to persuade them to allow us in. When we arrived the fire had been contained about 30%. We still observed about 100 helicopter sorties dumping water and chemicals on the surrounding areas of the house and the winery. By this time there were about 190 fire trucks and in excess of 1000 fire fighters fighting this fire.

Bottom line: Except for about 20 acres of forest that burned down on the west side of the house, the house and winery were spared. We had smoke damage inside the house with minor smoke damage in the winery. Most importantly, the vineyards were not touched by the fire. Actually, the fire didn’t even come close to any of the vineyards that can be seen from our winery which includes the Helwig and Rombauer Vineyards in addition to ours.

Our gratitude goes to the firefighters who saved our property from total destruction. They fought the fire for over 60 hours with extra-ordinary dedication and bravery. We thank our neighbors who have been so supportive during these difficult times. We also thank all of you, friends and customers who contacted us by phone, text and e-mails. Your good wishes were comforting to us and made us feel loved.

We have also been very fortunate that our insurance company has been very pro-active in the fire restoration activities. When you come to the Open House on September 6 and 7 I hope that will not notice any evidence of fire within the winery compound. You will notice however pockets of the burned forest on the south side of the winery which is there to stay for a few years.

Now we can go back to business as usual, beginning with the crush that I anticipate will start two weeks earlier than usual. After having had some painful moments it is a joy to walk the vineyards to see and taste the wonderful fruit hanging on the vines that will make the 2014 vintage the best in our history.

Cheers!
Chaim

Who Needs the 100 Point Scale?

Robert Parker was the first one to use the 100 point scale for evaluating wines in the early 70’s introducing it into his publication “The Wine Advocate”. It took 10 years for Marvin Shanken from the Wine Spectator to follow suit and ten years later in the mid 90’s the two remaining wine magazines Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits finally adopted this system. These magazines that review thousands of wines every month send their scores to retail stores ahead of time giving them an opportunity to purchase the highest scoring wines so that they have them in their stores before the publication goes out.   The wines that receive the high scores are promoted on the shelf by pinning a “shelf talker” under the bottle that announces the score along with a description of the wine. This becomes a strong advocate for selling these wines and not only rewarding the winery and the store but also the publication that rated the wine.

I have always been critical of the 100 point scale system for rating wines. I find this rating system flawed, deceiving and misrepresenting for the following reasons:

  1. It misrepresents the subjective nature of our gustatory and olfactory senses. It presumes that the judges are olfactory prodigies with an ability to objectify these senses.
  2. It acts as a driving force for creating wines that are uniform in style. It discourages diversity and creativity preferring cookie-cutter wines that please the reviewers.
  3. The system is skewed in favor of the stronger wines higher in alcohol, tannins and oak versus the more elegant and subtle wines truer to their varietal identity.
  4. By giving the wine a rating in the form of a specific number it creates the illusion that this number was scientifically measured and is absolute while in reality these ratings are totally arbitrary. A wine judged by one wine critic at 90 points may be judged 89 by another, making a world of difference on the sales of the wine.
  5. Unfairly it creates a strong market for the higher rating wines driving volumes and prices for certain wines higher while making other wines difficult to sell.
  6. It forces winemakers to make wines that are designed for the higher ratings abandoning their passion or their emotional connection for these wines.

Don’t get me wrong I am not against wine writers or wine critiques. I believe they are a very important part of this industry and make a valuable contribution to its growth and prosperity. I would like to see the 100 point system replaced by scoring the wines either with “stars”, from one to five stars, or assigning adjectives such as “excellent”, “very good”, “good”, “average” and “below average”.

While I don’t anticipate the 100 point scale wine rating system will go away, I believe that as the consumer in the US is becoming more educated about wines and gaining more self-confidence not to rely on a third party to make the decision as to what wine they should drink.   Also, I believe that with the advent of the social media the influence that the 100 point system has on the buying public will gradually diminish. People will pay more attention what their pears are saying when making buying decisions. Is this too optimistic?

Cheers!

Resveratrol Conspiracy – Re-visited

This is not the first time that I am writing about Resveratrol, the chemical naturally occurring in wine and a few other foods which has some amazing therapeutic and disease preventing properties. In an era where people for the most part have become strongly chemophobic the overwhelming interest received by Resveratrol is extraordinary. Right or wrong people look with anxiety and disdain at the presence of nitrates and nitrites used to preserve the red color in processed meat, MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate) used in instant soups and more to enhance flavor, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate added to various foods as microbial inhibitors – to name a few. But with Resveratrol the attitude is totally different. The fascination with Resveratrol comes from its multifaceted functionalities. It has the ability to fight cardiac disease, to block certain types of cancers, to protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease, to activate a “longevity” gene that extends the life span and recently discovered that it fights obesity. Resveratrol has very impressive credentials almost too good to be true.

The interest and discovery of Resveratrol can be attributed to a phenomenon that has been occupying scientists’ minds for a long time. The term “French Paradox” was first used by the French researcher Serge Menard in 1991 in a segment of 60 minutes where he stated that by US Standards the French do everything wrong in their diet habits eating fatty foods high in cholesterol while unexpectedly have 60% less incidents of heart attacks than Americans. What is it about the French that they can indulge in rich foods like pastries, cheeses and cream sauces while staying healthy and having a remarkably low obesity rate? This phenomenon has been investigated extensively and found to be related to both the lifestyle and wine drinking habits of the French people. For the French eating a regular meal is a celebration which is always accompanied with wine. France is the second highest wine consuming country in the world next to Vatican City, and followed by Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Portugal and Switzerland.

While Resveratrol may be a contributing factor for the French Paradox it may not be the whole story. The French have a very high opinion of themselves thinking that they have the best culture, food, wine and way of life. They eat less and longer than Americans with the whole family together making every meal a food experience. The wine and conversation which follows the meal slows things down and plays an important role in their social rituals. They feel that being French is a marker for a higher social level of more aware people living a fuller life which makes them happier and healthier. Does this sound like a case of self-aggrandizement?

Cheers!

Chaim Gur-Arieh
Spring 2014

The Judgment of Paris – Mt Aukum Style

Our beautiful wine region, the Sierra Foothills which includes Amador and El Dorado Counties with the corresponding AVA’s of Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown in Amador and Fair Play in El Dorado has always suffered from a lack of true recognition for its potential to make world class wines. Looking back we are now at the same place that Napa was in the sixties and early seventies. In 1976 a miracle happened that moved Napa to the forefront of wine regions in the world.   This was a result of the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, better known as “The Judgment of Paris”. The story which sounds almost like a fairytale goes like this:

Steve Spurrier, a British wine merchant living in Paris, owner of a wine shop and a prestigious wine school named L’ Académie du VIN, had an idea to compare Napa with Burgundy Chardonnays and Napa Cabernet Sauvignons with Bordeaux’s.   On May 24, 1976, he assembled a group of 9 French judges, all wine aficionados with credentials representing la crème de la crème of the French oenology community.     The judges were asked to grade the wines which were presented to them incognito on a scale of 20 points. The results were astounding. The Napa Chardonnays and the Cabernets were preferred over their French counterparts. This incident was reported by Time under the heading of “The Judgment of Paris” hit the wine world like an earthquake.

The question is whether “The Judgment of Paris” can happen for the Sierra Foothills. Could we have our own guardian angel “Steve Spurrier”? To me, what happened at “The Judgment of Paris” is like winning the lottery – a chance in a million that will never happen again. How is it that 9 French wine aficionados could not tell the difference between Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux’s? How could have they missed the regional identity of Bordeaux’s?   The differences between these wines, especially the ones from the 70’s are striking.   If they knew which wines were Bordeaux and which were from Napa, wouldn’t have they picked the Bordeaux’s to be the winners?

That’s why “The Judgment of Paris” will always remain a mystery. That’s why there isn’t much that we can learn from it. To advance the cause of our region, we should build on our strengths and educate our customers and the wine judges to accept the diversity that different wine regions offer. In California we are very fortunate to consistently have warm weather enabling the grapes to ripen on time for harvest. Within California there are regional differences in the weather and soil composition that affect the styles of wines that are created. This diversity gives each region an identity which should be celebrated. This diversity can only enhance the pleasures of drinking wine. The wine judges should be educated to accept this diversity so that they can judge wines not based on their region of origin but on their true attributes.

Rather than waiting for miracles to happen, let us all in unison communicate this to the general public to get the Sierra Foothills from anonymity to fame.   Cheers!

Cheers!

Chaim Gur-Arieh
February 2014

Taste Buds – A Gift from Heaven

Isn’t it a miracle that we, humans, possess the senses of taste and smell that enable us to perceive, identify and enjoy (or reject) the foods that we eat? Actually, we could have survived with only senses of hunger and satiety which we lack. The senses of taste and smell have been given to us as a luxury, a gift from heaven that we take for granted. These two senses while they are separate, each with their own receptors, they are nonetheless intimately entwined and work in concert together. What is also surprising that our tongue, which is our tasting organ, has only 5 kinds of receptors with the ability of tasting basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (Japanese for savory).

Imagine biting into a tomato or juicy orange or tasting wine. In either case you expect to taste more than just sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. And chances are you will, unless you have a bad case of a cold and your nose is completely plugged. The reason you taste tomato, orange and wine is because your sense of smell is participating in the tasting process. Actually while the sense of taste has only 5 receptors the sense of smell has 388 receptors and 80-90% of the taste that you perceive comes from your sense of smell. Here is a perfect case of a synergistic cooperation between two senses that outweighs by far what each sense could contribute by itself. Think about it. Whether some of us have a gift for a more refined sense of taste and smell is a matter of debate. Maybe we have amongst us some olfaction prodigies that have an exceptional talent to smell and taste. If we only had a way of identifying these olfaction prodigies we could delegate to them the task of choosing for us all the foods that we consume and especially the wines that we drink. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to identify an olfaction prodigy as it might be the case for a musical prodigy.

While there are many self-proclaimed olfaction prodigies running around I predict that very soon, as we are getting close to deciphering the entire DNA code, there will be organizations licensed to grant certifications for different levels of mastery in olfaction based on the DNA. This will take away the burden of making choices as what foods we should eat or what wines we should drink. But until this happens, as I have always said don’t be a wine spectator, be an activist. Trust your own senses when judging a wine and don’t allow anyone to obstruct the uncovering of your own taste.

Socrates once said: “The expression of taste is an expression of freedom; the moment You abdicate responsibility for your own taste, you voluntarily abdicate your freedom”.

Cheers,
Chaim Gur-Arieh
January 2014

A Love Song to my Vineyard – For a Well Deserved Vintage

Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved has a vineyard on a very fertile hill
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted with choice vines;
He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;


“Isaiah 5,1 and 5,2”

 

If you are familiar with the Old Testament, I am sure you will understand that Isaiah was not writing a love song or having anything to do with the romance of having a vineyard. But rather he was using these as metaphors to make a contrarian point. But I am taking this quote literally for its beauty and its relevance to my life. The vineyard that I planted meticulously and which I cared for with outmost attention gives me a lot of joy and at times considerable pain. This year I am truly overwhelmed with love for my vineyard because it has given me a level of joy that makes me forget all the pain that I suffered over the years.   Because this year it has given me a crop of grapes that I have longed for since I planted the vines. Just continue reading and you will find out…..

 

Harvest 2013 is over. We picked the last lot of Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc last Thursday.

I am so excited about our wines this year that during our recent Open House event last weekend, instead of pouring the regular wines that we had on the menu, I was taking groups of people to our fermentation tanks to taste the brand new 2013 vintage wines, some of which have not even been pressed. Those of you that came to this Open House will attest that we tasted more than half a dozen wines including, the Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga National, both the wine and the Port, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Primitivo and Syrah.   I have always been a fan of my own wines but I tried to keep it to myself. This year I cannot contain myself.

What all these wines have in common are loads of fruit, bright acidity, a big body to fill your mouth, a high degree of refinement, balance and strong varietal identity. And the wines are not even one month old.

I am looking forward to the next opportunity to show you my 2013 wines straight out of the tank during our Open House in November. In all likelihood this will be your last chance to taste these wines before they go into barrels.   I am afraid this time they will have stiff competition from the 2010 Proprietor’s Blend that will be released that day.

Cheers!

The King is a Savage …

This month’s club release is my 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite its prominence, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is a relatively new variety. DNA studies conducted in 1997 at Davis by Carol Meredith concluded that Cabernet Sauvignon is the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc which most likely occurred in the 17th century. The name “Sauvignon” is attributed to the French word “Sauvage” which means “savage” or “wild”.

For me the release of my 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon is a reason to celebrate. It has taken me a lot of effort to get to the point where I can make a Cabernet Sauvignon with distinctive varietal characteristics that doesn’t taste like green bell pepper. Maybe it’s because I am too fussy. After all this is a flavor that naturally evolves in this variety and there are many Cabernet Sauvignons selling for big bucks from some of the “best” appellations that reek of bell pepper. So what’s the big deal? It’s all about my personal preferences.

How does the bell pepper flavor get into the wine? The culprit is a chemical called pyrazine which is created by the plant in the early stages of the development of the fruit. From my flavor chemistry days I remember that pyrazines are a very prolific family of aroma chemicals. While some members of this family may taste herbaceous, grassy and vegetal, others are nutty, chocolaty, caramel-like and even sweet. On the vine when the grapes ripen the pyrazines are transformed into other compounds eliminating the bell pepper flavor. Since Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety that ripens late in the season sometimes in cool climates when the weather conditions are not favorable, the season may progress without materially depleting the level of pyrazines. In that case the wine produced will have bell pepper flavors. Strangely enough the same thing happens in very hot climates. The excess heat causes the Cabernet Sauvignon vines to shut down bringing the ripening process to a halt.

You might ask and rightly so, how was I able to make a Cab devoid of any bell pepper flavor in this hot weather region. The answer is first by appropriate clonal selection (using clones that are less prone to generating pyrazines) and second by shading the fruit that gets a high level of sun exposure. After 8 years of trying I think I have arrived. I like the Cab that I made and hope that you will like it too. Cheers!