California’s Foie Gras Ban, 6 Months Later

Sonoma Foie Gras - out of business with the stroke or a regulator's pen!Tomorrow night, I’m attending a “Speakeasy” dinner, one held at an address known only to the lucky attendees.  It invitation came complete with secret password for entry.  But unlike a prohibition-era Speakeasy, this dinner doesn’t feature illicit alcohol.  It features Foie Gras, a gourmet food ingredient turned into contraband last summer.

In July, it became illegal in California to farm, prepare, buy, sell or think about the artisanal delicacy known as Foie Gras – the liver of certain types of fattened fowl.  The ban was in response to the successful campaign by some very radical animal rights activists, the most extreme fringe even resort to hideous and violent measures against chefs who support and serve Foie Gras.  They even threatened their family members – imagine receiving photos of your kids at school along with a threatening note, and you’ll get an idea of what these chefs endured.

“But what of the fowl”, you may ask?  You see, the animal rights groups, with whom I find myself in sympathy on many issues, objected to the forced feeding – gavage, as the French call it – that is usually used to fatten the bird and their prized livers that become Foie Gras.  And to hear a description of gavage, well, it does sound quite cruel – forcing corn down a funnel and through a tube inserted into the mouth/throat of the bird in order to fatten it suddenly and quickly – resulting in a liver that is several times its pre-fattened size. 

But here’s the rub – left to fend for themselves, these birds naturally gorge every fall in preparation for their long migratory flight.  You see, they don’t stop to eat very often, sort of like our family vacations with Dad at the wheel.  

So, aside from the funnel and tube, gorging is a natural part of their birdly existence.  If you’re interested in such things, I encourage you to watch this great video by Dan Barber as he describes his visit to the award-winning Foie Gras farm in Spain, of all places, where no gavage is used at all.  It is well worth the time, as is his follow-up presentation about his failed attempt to replicate this experience back home in New York.

But even if your scorecard still comes down in favor of the animal activists, even if only slightly, I do have to wonder why they chose to do battle over such a minor part of our food chain.  Ever since Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” in the early 1900’s, we’ve yet to truly clean up the beef industry.  And you’d never eat cheap supermarket or fast food chicken again if you saw how they were raised.  And then there’s the issue of the sea lice infecting farm-raised salmon, and how they’re now spreading to the wild salmon outside the high-density farming containers.  All of which would have been far wiser bogeymen to pursue if you’re an activist whose goal is to reduce animal cruelty and improve the planet’s food supply.  (a thoughtful list of 8 foods to go after before Foie Gras appears here).

So I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s dinner, with Foie Gras served three ways.  And given the guest list, the wines are sure to be memorable, with at least one bottle of Sauternes and a domestic “ice wine” from Tudor Vineyards to provide the classic sweet-salty deliciousness that have attracted international gourmands to this classic combination.

Cheers!

Lila Farms Olive Harvest 2012

Lila Farms olive oil - blossoms in 2012Our olive harvest took place this past weekend.  We can not be sufficiently profuse in our thanks to those who trekked the 2.5 hours to our humble farm, and helped harvest 600 pounds of olives – enough for up to 10 gallons or 38 Liters of oil.  Work began a week earlier… no scratch that, it actually started with the Spring flowering, when our olive trees exploded with tiny little flower buds (see photo) that look deceptively like, in their early pre-flower stage, little baby olives.  Sadly, the vast majority are infertile, and will expire unexercised  so to speak.

Of the remainder, tiny olives will form, though they are a long way from finding their way into the picker’s bin and the olive press.  Betwixt and between, the fruit is subject to the whims of Anderson Valley’s barely hospitable olive climate, assuring that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory will once again prevail.

Laptops are critical for gathering field data in modern olive farmingWe’ve grown fairly adept at rating the spring bud break and the fall fruit yield of each tree on our farm (photo, left).  We walk the rows, laptop in hand, rating each tree on a scale of 0 – 3, and by a fairly simple set of calculations, we’ve been able to estimate with a fair degree of accuracy, the resulting amount of oil the farm will produce in a given year.

Preparing dinner for 70 - 2012 Lila Farms olive harvestAs December draws near, our harvest invitations go out to friends and family.  The event is a lot of work for all involved, but a lot of fun as well.  Food and drink flow throughout the day, and into the early evening, and conversations ebb and flow from tree to tree.  

This year produced a record number of guests who accepted our invitation – almost 70 – so a week before the harvest we bought more food than the US Army. Our 2012 menu included pulled pork sandwiches, and we started slow roasting the meat on Wednesday, with three 5-hour batches finding their way through our ovens over the course of two days.  Thanks go out to friend and neighbor Rick Wallace, who helped cook for six hours on Thursday evening in exchange for nothing but a bit of wine and a bite of dinner.  Ok, a lot of wine.  But still.  That same night marked the beginning of our wave of cancellations – illnesses, a theft, exhaustion, and competing holiday plans, all took their toll.  We knew early on we’d have way too much food!

Lila Farms olive harvest 2012 - daybreakThe weekend before our harvest saw one of the worst storms of 2012, with flash flood warnings, road closures and power outages.  So we were pleased to see the day break on Saturday with our farm sitting above the fog bank, and nearly clear skies.  We set out the first of three waves of food and then welcomed the ever-reliable Sverak family – the first to arrive by a long shot – and we commenced to pickin’.  It was about 10AM.  

Big Red, our 1978 F-250, rose once again from the ashes

Oddly, we have no photos from the 35-40 people who arrived to help during the day, and hope that our attendees’ sea of cameras produced some shots you’ll deem worthy of sharing.  But what we CAN tell you is that, as the afternoon wore on, it became very clear that we had far more fruit than daylight.  Even with 70-80 hands hard at work (well, assuming two each), we knew we would have to leave at least a hundred pounds on the trees, as we had to have the fruit to our milling appointment by 8:30 Sunday morning.  

Dusk at Lila FarmsHere’s the odd thing.  There was no management, no overseer, no verbal agreement to keep going – just a group of friends eager to share our challenge and hated to admit defeat.  Ever pick blackberries and find it difficult to leave because there was “just one more unpicked spot” around every corner?  Yeah it was sort of like that, only without the thorns.

harvesting Lila Farms after dark!After sunset, we worked by car headlight and headlamps until the cold crept into our knuckles and other aging joints, and we recessed to the warmth of our kitchen, den and living room.  I’d selected wines to accompany pulled pork – Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Phillips Hill, a Berger Zweigelt from my select import portfolio, and for those with contemporary palates, a Zinfandel from Speedy Creek – among a host of other wines from my portfolio.  And for the beer lovers, Anchor Steam’s Celebration Ale was a delicious pairing, offsetting the pork’s spicy dry rub with its round and rich Holiday spice notes.

2012 Lila Farms olive harvest partyOnce inside, we celebrated December birthdays (all five!) and rewarded our hard-working friends with some good conviviality.  It was a fairly early evening, however, as we had to get up by 7AM for the one-hour drive to our 8:30 appointment at the olive press the next morning.

Lila Farms 2012 Harvest goes to crushOur little four-car caravan toted almost 20 yellow bins to the press at Dry Creek Olive Oil Co., where our 579 pounds of fruit was turned into oil.  

Lila Farms 2012 Harvest gets a bathThe fruit gets washed before being crushed, because there aren’t that many people who like spiders in their olive oil.  

After crushing, the must is warmed up to 80 degrees (max) to help extract the oil – this is the process known as “Cold Press” you’ve likely seen on the labels of  better olive oils.  Though higher temperatures extract additional oil, its more bitter and lower in quality. 

How much oil did we get this year?  A gallon of olive oil generally results from each 60 – 80 pounds of fruit.  But this year’s heavy rains increased the water content of our olives so our yield required far more olives – 89 pounds – to produce each gallon of oil  So our total for this year’s harvest was just 6.5 gallons of oil for all our valiant efforts.  

Fortunately, a good time was had by all, and we thank all participants for their enthusiastic contributions. 

Cheers!  Dave

Lila Farms lost and found - 2012 olive harvest

P.S. Lost and found photo – add to this a pair of blue gloves (kid sized) and socks filled with rice.  Contact me if any of these are yours!

And now – our public photo gallery, courtesy of our talented volunteers:

Bucket Heads Sveraks Bucket Heads Lila Farm olives by Mo Sverak The Sverak Family 2 - some of our most reliable pickers! Tree on Lila Farm at the 2012 olive harvest IMG_1904 IMG_1912 IMG_1915 IMG_1918 IMG_1919

People’s Choice 2013 : Wine Member Favorites

Wines on display at Dave the Wine MerchantThe last guest is gone, the dishes are done, the aspirins are swallowed and the leftover wines re-corked.  Now it’s time to tally the winners…

As you know, I spend my days selecting wines for my curated portfolio, selections then shared with wine club members who want to “Discover their next favorite” – adventurous wine lovers interested in new experiences (Not yet a member?  Join here!).  Member’s experiences include our annual “People’s Choice” tasting, during which wine club members and customers eagerly try their hand at selecting wines for next year’s club shipment.

Tonight, a panel of 16 wine club members and loyal customers selected their favorite wines from among 40 contenders.  After evaluating each wine, our panel members were forced to select their top three wines, and since the field was generally considered quite good, selecting only three favorites was difficult, demanding a concentrated focus by each taster.

METHODOLOGY:

The tasting sheets listed each wine, in recommended tasting order, along with its suggested retail price.  Tasters first evaluated each wine on its own merits, then relative to its retail price – an exercise that lowered the ranking on some of the pricier wines.  After all the wines were evaluated, each taster selected their top three wines.  Each taster’s top choice received a weighting of 3, their second choice a 2, and their third a 1.  The total for each wine was then tallied to determine its overall ranking.  

2013 PEOPLE’S CHOICE RESULTS:

# Wine SRP TOTAL
1 Cabotieres Touraine Sauvignon Blanc $29 14
2 Croppy Fetcher, 2011 Pinot Noir, A.V. (Elke) $32 10
3 Sonnet, 2009 Pinot, SLH, Tondre’s Grapefield $29 9
4 Miro, 2010 Zin, Piccetti Vyrd, DCV $29 7
5 Orentano, 2008 Pinot Noir, RRV $34 5
6 Benton Lane, 2010 Pinot Noir, OR $39 5
7 d’Aragona, 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo $11 5
8 Orentano, 2007 Pinot Noir, RRV $34 5
9 Leucadia Red, 2010 Chardonay, Sonoma $17 4
10 Huge Bear, 2009 Cabernet, Sonoma $50 4
11 White Hart, 2010 Chardonnay, Central Coast $36 3
12 Jacella, 2009 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast $26 3
13 Zacherle Wines, 2009 Red Blend (Gren,Syr, Pet.Sir) $25 3
14 Plan Pegau, 2010 $30 3
15 Miro, 2010 Old Vine Zin, Grist Vyrd, DCV $29 3
16 Mary Elke, 2011 Pinot Gris, Donnelly Creek, A.V. $16 2
17 Antonio Mtn. Vyrds, 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast $20 2
18 Sapphire Hill, 2010 Chardonnay, RRV $25 2
19 Diamandes de Uco, 2010 Chardonnay, Mendoza Argentina $36 2
20 Andeluna, 2006 Reserve Cabernet, Tupungato Argentina $25 2
2 Pont de Chevalier, 2010 Chardonnay, Knights Valley $50 1
22 Grey, 2010 Carmenere, D.O. Maipo Vly, Chile $30 1
23 Pietra Santa, 2008 Estat Cabernet, Ciegnega Valley $18 1
24 Icaria, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alex Vly $29 1
25 Ca Momi, 2009 Cabernet, Napa Valley $24 1

Cheers!

Recipe : Roasted Pork Belly on Kale Salad

Dave the Wine Merchant - Roasted Pork Belly on Kale Salad with aromatic white wines
14 people. 6lbs of pork belly. Gone in 60 minutes!

This recipe is a bit time consuming but well worth it!

I first tasted this dish at the Anderson Valley Alsace festival (now known as “White Wine Weekend”). It was prepared by Beau MacMillan, the Executive Chef at Arizona’s Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa.  I’ve adjusted some of the ingredients and procedures to make the recipe a little more home-friendly, for those of us who don’t benefit from a team of prep cooks. 

Pork belly is generally available through most good butchers these days, but you may want to call ahead just to be sure.

The preparation begins with the rub applied to the meat, which remains on for a brief 2 hours before the meat is seared and then slow-roasted.  The recipe is broken into three sections – one for the meat, one for the dressing, and one for the salad (photo, left).

Wine Pairing

Pair this with a rich and aromatic white wine or a good dry to off-dry rosé.  Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, unoaked/lightly oaked Chardonnay or Riesling would be among my top picks.  Rosé fans will like the way the wine plays off the sweet-tart nature of the ingredients, and how the fruit complements the pork.

(Serves 4-6)

Ingredients – Pork Belly

  • 1-2 lb. Pork Belly (ask your butcher to remove the thin, tough skin on top of the fat)
  • ~1 Cup Salt
  • ~1.5 Cups Sugar (I use a mix of brown and baking sugar)
  • Zest from one orange, one lemon, and one lime
  • 2 Sprigs fresh rosemary, stripped from stems and chopped

Combine all ingredients, place half in a non-reactive pan, place pork top, meat-side up, and massage the remaining  rub into the top and sides.  Cure pork belly for ~2 hours. About 20 minutes before it’s done curing, pre-heat your oven to 475F.  Rinse the rub off the meat and place in a roasting pan, fat-side up.  Roast at 475F for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 250F and cook for another 30+ minutes – checking every five minutes after that, removing it from the oven when much of the fat is rendered and the meat is done but still a bit pink.  If the fatty top is not caramelized and bubbly, put it under the broiler for a minute or so – but watch it closely, and don’t take any phone calls from mom.

Ingredients – Soy Sesame Vinaigrette

Yield:  approx. 1 cup                                                                                       

  • 1-2 Tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1/2 Tbsp. Ginger, chopped fine
  • 1/2 Tbsp. Garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 Tbsp.   Green onion, chopped fine
  • 1 pinch   Red chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup   Rice wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup   Mirin
  • 1/4 cup   Soy sauce – low-sodium highly recommended
  • 1/4 cup   Brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp.   Cornstarch (dissolved in 1/4 cup water)

Heat a saucepan over medium heat for couple of minutes. Add the oil, wait about 30 seconds, then add the garlic, ginger, green onion and chili flake. Sauté until fragrant (about 30 seconds) and then add remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer a couple of minutes until thickened.  Strain and cool (alternative – I liked the idea of a wilted salad, and although kale isn’t prone to wilting, I opted to heat the dressing and apply it to the kale salad just before serving.)

Kale Salad Ingredients

  • 1-2 bunches of Kale (1/2 – 1 pound)
  • 1 C Fresh blueberries or golden raisins
  • 1/2 C dried cranberries or cherries
  • 1/2 C pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • 1/3 C Sliced almonds, toasted
  • 1 C Shredded carrots
  • 1 Tbsp Chopped mint

Wash kale, remove and discard stems, then chop.  Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, dress with the soy-sesame vinaigrette (hot, if you so choose) toss lightly and season with salt to taste.  Serve family style on a large platter, or on individual salad plates.  Top with pork belly cut into 1-inch slices.

Recipe originally from Beau MacMillan, Executive Chef.

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa
5700 E. McDonald Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ  85253
480.607.2302| Main

“#1 Resort in the United States” – Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards
“#1 Resor in Arizona” – Travel + Leisure 500 Best Hotels in the World for 2012

 

Memory Lane and the Oakville Grocery

Historic Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley wine country
Oakville Grocery reopens May 22nd!

You may have seen the news that the historic Oakville Grocery building, newly renovated, will be re-opening tomorrow.  I couldn’t help but smile at the news, as it brought back memories of my entry into the wine business.

Just across the street from the store, just about where the photo at left was taken, you’ll find the Cellar Door tasting room for participating producers from Napa Wine Company.  I worked there on weekends, under the patient and jovial tutelage of Andy Gridley (now of Gridley Family Cellars).  I spent my weeks working at Charles Schwab’s headquarters, and my weekends in Napa.  I stayed in the guest room of friends in St. Helena, and we spent my few non-working hours enjoying the many sites, sounds and tastes of the valley in the summer time.

Right around noon at the tasting room, Andy would say “I’ll buy if you fly”, and I’d venture out to forage for food at one of the small handful of nearby options.  Oakville Grocery was a favorite spot, full of hand-selected gourmet items targeted to tourists without budget restraints.  They also had a corner on the valley’s beautiful people, who seemed to rotate through their staff with regularity, and all of whom were surprisingly friendly, given the crush of people one encountered during peak hours.

I can’t wait to get to Napa soon, to see what the renovations have meant for this old icon.  Add it to your list as well, for your next trip to Napa wine country.  (and for help with your trip planning, check out the iPhone app – NapaWineries)

Wine Club Tasting Panel – Results for 2012 Selections

Three of the brave volunteers identifying wine characteristics from a black glass. With no visual cues, even telling white from red is tough!

Though I enjoy the task of selecting wines for our wine club members and online customers, it’s always nice to get their direct feedback.  So on Tuesday night of this past week I hosted 20 of them to participate in this year’s tasting panel.  They dutifully sniffed and sipped more than 30 wines – wines that are likely candidates for next year’s wine club selections.  

The experience was great fun for everyone and very useful for me.  Each tasting panel participant was invited to post their real-time comments to Twitter as a convenient and public way to track their opinions.  See the complete results by searching on @sidewayswines #DTWM next time you’re in Twitter.  

Or just read through the highlights I’ve posted below, beginning with the hands-down favorites I call the “No Brainers”, followed by other wines with sufficient ratings to have earned their way into our rotating portfolio before being parsed into their relevant wine club shipment based on price and varietal.

Dave the Wine Merchant - candidates for 2012 selections

No Brainers!

  1. Drew Family, 2009 Pinot Noir, “Fog Eater” $44.  The top vote-getter of the night.
  2. Mary Elke, 2009 Pinot Noir “Boonville Barter”, $17.  “Tremendous value”
  3. Violet-Green, 2006 Bordeaux Blend “Ultra-Violet”, Alder Springs Vyrd.  $26 (now a December selection for the “Collectible Selections” members – join here)
  4. Phillips Hill, 2009 Pinot Noir, Wiley Vineyard.  $39
Secondary Selections
  1. Scarpetta, 2010 Pinot Grigio, $19.  “Perfect for a ‘Deck Vacation” on a hot summer evening”
  2. Kynsi, 2007 Syrah, Edna Valley,  $28.
  3. Obsidian Ridge, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills, $31.
  4. Violet-Green, 2006 Cabernet Franc, Alder Springs Vyrd.  $29.
  5. Kynsi, 2008 Pinot Noir, Edna Valley, $32.
  6. B. Kosuge, 2009 Pinot Noir, Manchester Ridge Vyrd, $44
  7. Lacuna, 2010 Syrah/Petite Sirah, $28 (A December selection for the “Red-Only Collectible Selections” members – join here).  “Needs time, but a serious wine”
  8. 3rd Ave, 2009 Zinfandel Mendocino, $15.  “Great Value!”
There were a number of other “Fence Sitters” that may be called into duty, as they tended to be divisive wines with no consensus that drove intense opinions on both sides – exactly the type of interesting wines I like to throw into the mix!  
I thank all participants in this most successful event – both the tasting panel and those who submitted their wines for consideration.  So, until next year…
Cheers!
Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

10 Activities for A Perfect Fall

The Fall season – some dread it, others love its slow transition from summer to winter.  However you feel, here are ten seasonal activities that assure you’ll enjoy the weeks ahead.

  1. Take a Fall Color Tour – Colorful eye-candy – what better reason to love Fall?  If you’re from the Northeast or Midwest, this is a well-known Fall activity, with the smell of decaying leaves (and in the day before burning bans, the smell of smoldering leaf piles after a day of raking) etched into our collective memories.  And though Fall doesn’t provide such displays of color in most of California – let alone the bracing chill of daytime air – our state’s thousands of square miles of grapevines provide a spectacular show as October progresses.  Visit one of our many wine regions during the coming weeks- whether for a day trip or a weekend.  (If you choose to visit Napa, here’s an iPhone touring app you’ll find useful) 
    Abbey-Harris vineyard, Anderson Valley
    Early Fall colors in Anderson Valley - Abbey-Harris Vineyard. 10-8-11
  2. Attend A Football Game – Though our nation shares few common traditions anymore, this seasonal sport is one of them.  You don’t need to be a huge sports fan to enjoy the fun and festivity of this great game.  But forget the wine, a tailgate calls for beer!  Sure wine would be fine, and I can recommend a good hot dog wine if you’re interested (Loire Valley Rose), but there’s nothing wrong with a little Sierra Nevada with your grilled dog of choice – sauerkraut or no. And if the NFL is a bit to commercial for you, re-discover the thrill of your local college team (assuming you can still tell the difference).fun fall activities - football
  3. Prepare This Hot Lunch  Here’s a fast and affordable hot lunch that’s perfect after a cold morning spent raking leaves – Sweet sausage and apples with Gewurztraminer.  Simply poach German sausage (or sweet Italian sausage, if you prefer) in enough Gewurztraminer to cover – bring to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes before grilling or sauteing until browned. Meanwhile, peel, core and slice two firm, crisp apples per person.  Bring a wide, covered sauté pan up to medium heat, add a cup of the Gewurztraminer and the apples and cook until soft – 5-10 minutes, adding a dash or three of cumin and cinnamon and other sweet pie spices of choice (these form a nice bridge to the wine).  Serve with spicy mustard and a premium dry Gewurztraminer such as this one from Phillips Hill.
  4. Forage for Mushrooms – Foraging for wild mushrooms is an unforgettable experience.  But whether you decide to join a foraging group or simply forage through your local farmer’s market, these edible fungi give up their flavor to some of my favorite seasonal dishes.  And what wine goes best with mushrooms?  Without hesitation I tell you it’s Pinot Noir!  And while I specialize in this varietal in my online wine shop, I feature here a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot from Tudor Wines, as Dan Tudor is a well-known mushroom forager.Dan Tudor mushroom forager 
  5. Break Out A Favorite Sweater for Breakfast al Fresco! – A hot cup of coffee and a favorite sweater are the best way in the world to start a brisk Fall day.  Take both outdoors and enjoy the morning.
  6. Host a Halloween Party – Show me someone who doesn’t enjoy donning an alternate identity once in a while, and I’ll show you a stick in the mud.  Whether your party is family-themed or an adult-only re-creation of Burning Man in your living room, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about the food for your guests, as one cannot live by Butterfingers alone (believe me, I once tried).   Here’s a recipe for “Runaway Chicken Chowder” that always gets rave reviews.  It’s orange color lends itself to the season, so sprinkle some black sesame seeds on top, serve with a bit of toasted pumpernickel and you’re done.  Serves a crowd.   Recommended pairing – Chardonnay.
  7. Host An Elections Forum – Whatever your political leanings, the arrival of November marks the annual exercise of our right to vote.  And with the complex nature of contemporary ballot initiatives, it’s helpful to invite friends over to discuss the local ballot initiatives and candidates.  A meal isn’t necessary, but some cheese and crackers are wise, as well as favorite wines of course, though you may find it wise to avoid over-serving if the initiatives are controversial!
  8. Plan Your Thanksgiving Dinner – This meal can be intimidating, as much for its family dynamics as its multi-course meal preparation.  But it’s my favorite meal of the year, and we always begin it with the Macy’s parade, followed by a bit of college football and ending with the umpteenth viewing of “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original with Natalie Wood, not the dozen or so universally bad re-makes).  In our household, the Christmas holiday is dedicated to the family we’ve been given, but the Thanksgiving holiday is for the family we would choose if left to our own devices – both are equally important and worthy of honoring.  However you spend yours, here is some useful assistance with your Thanksgiving meal – some of my time-tested favorite recipes I’ve posted in my recipe section (enter “thanksgiving” in the upper right search box).  Happy Thanksgiving!
    NBC Telecast Thursday, 11-24-2011
  9. Shop on Cyber-Monday – Save gas.  Avoid crowds.  Save time.  Get all your holiday gifts while sitting in the comfort of your home, then go out and enjoy your  friends and family.  This single activity will make a huge difference in your enjoyment of the season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough as a way to eliminate stress from your holiday season!
  10. Whew!  Now Get Ready For Winter – OK, so this one isn’t such a fun seasonal activity.  But before it gets truly cold, now is the time to check boilers, storm windows, snow blowers, and other necessities of the season to come.  And in our house, this is the time the Christmas baking begins to fill our freezer!
Cheers!
Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

Any of these on YOUR wine list?

Thought you might like to know about this, a video taken at a Carmel CA Safeway, showing dozens of wines being sold at 30% off.  For my friends who are wine lovers, I recommend gobbling these up, as this price is lower than I often pay for great wine!

For those in the business, I hope that your brand is not among these, or your distributor and retailer have taken control of your pricing and left you with a deteriorating brand. Imagine how visitors to your tasting room will feel after they buy from you there, then go to Safeway and see your wine for THIRTY PERCENT LESS! I know we’re in a period of over-supply, but perhaps we’re ready for a new distribution model that helps the boutique producer get penetration while protecting margins and brand equity?  Otherwise, I shudder to think about the future of small wine brands.

Cheers,
Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

Video: Barrel Making for Jordan Winery

Here’s a great video that provides an insider’s view into how wine barrels are selected, bought and crafted.  Narrated by Jordan Winery’s Cellarmaster, Patrick Fallon (yes, I did notice he looks as if he could be my brother, but there is no family connection I know of!), this is five minutes well spent…

Cheers!
Dave the Wine Merchant

Gratallops – The Heart of the Priorat Wine Region

The Village of Gratallops
The Village of Gratallops - the heart of the Priorato

I highly recommend that any serious wine lover visit Priorat –  the wine region just 100 miles outside Barcelona.

Not only is Barcelona one of Europe’s great cities (Super-Wife says it’s her favorite, while Cole and I say Paris wins by a nose), but you hop in a car at the Barcelona airport and you’re in the wine country within a couple of pleasant hours.  Actually, that’s not saying much – you can be in “wine country” within a couple hours of anywhere in Spain – the country has 67 “DO’s”, or “regional designations” granted for the consistent quality of their wine.

Narrow streets of Gratallops in Spain's Priorat wine region
Rear-view mirrors cleared by just inches!

But just a few hours outside Barcelona one can find three of Spain’s notable wine regions – Priorat, Montsant (which forms a near-perfect donut around Priorat) or Penedés (where most of Spain’s best sparkling wine is produced).  But of these, Priorat is the most notable, one of but three wine regions earning Spain’s top-tier designation of “DOC” (Denominación de Origen Calificada, along with Rioja and (just recently) Ribera del Duero – see sample, here).  This top-tier classification is also known as “DOQ” in Catalan, which is still common in this Northeastern part of Spain.

But the wine pilgrim must be warned in advance – while some of Priorat’s wines justify their worldly reputation, many more are the result of carpet baggers seeking the advantage of Priorat’s reputation with wines that are less interesting but no less expensive.  To help avoid the clinkers, the wise traveler will form a bond of trust with a local, and ask for opinions.  Such time-saving advice will usually be offered within the first shared drink – not only a wise investment of your time and money, but also the chance to make a great and interesting connection – two good reasons for overcoming the initial hesitation for the mono-lingual traveler.

Though the wines of Montsant may be lesser known, they are highly affordable and the best far exceed the worst of Proirat.  Plus, wine fans will enjoy the agricultural paradise of Montsant.  This region is known for its olives, almonds, and honey in addition to its wine, grown in the local soil known as Licorella – just as rocky as the Schist found in Priorat’s vineyards.  And here’s an extra plus for Montsant – we found far fewer tourists in the towns of Montsant than in those of Priorat, though we suspect the next Peter Mayle is already hard at work on the book that will soon bring this region to the world’s attention, resulting in an influx of ex-pat settlers.

The agricole cooperative in Siruana, Spain
Different types of sherry at the Agricole cooperative

But until then, it is quiet and idyllic, an area with sufficient visual rewards to justify throwing away New World notions such as maps and schedules in favor of simply following your whim and a few roadsigns.  On these scenic agricultural backroads, you might drive for an hour before encountering another car. Visit old towns where shops still shut down during lunch hours, and where the store at the agricultural co-op sells a wide variety of local products, from wine to honey to almonds to olive oil.  Be sure to bring some empty bottles to be filled with the co-op’s community wines (photo, right) – usually very affordable and surprisingly good.

But this posting will run for pages if I don’t limit its scope to the picturesque town of Gratallops, in the very heart of the Priorat.  This town of just 250 permanent residents plays host to a large number of wine writers, tourists, and merchants over the course of an average year.

Schist - what passes for "soil" in Priorat - lends a distinctive minerality to area wines.

As with many agricultural areas, the Priorat (or Priorato, as it was known in the pre-revolutionary days) was an area in decline for  most of the 1900’s.  Then in the 1980’s the Pastrana family, who had been poking around the area for more than a decade, resurrected some old Garnacha, Cariñena   and Tempranillo vines on their property, re-introducing these premium grape varietals along with a modern, trellised vineyard and contemporary winegrowing techniques.  As owner Carles Pastrana tells it “We brought a focus on quality to the region and thought we were building a legacy for our grandchildren, or if things went really well, for our children.”

But things happened much faster than that. In 1989 their very first wine was released to rave reviews and huge scores from one rather influential wine writer named Robert Parker Jr.

Suddenly the family winery – Clos de l’Obac (photo, left) rocketed the Priorat region to the forefront of the wine world.  Other producers followed suit, and today the region is home to a handful of wealthy producers, living and working in towns very much like Gratallops, each connected to each other by miles of roadways so narrow you’ll be glad you didn’t opt for the upgrade at the rental car agency.  Caution – never be in a hurry here, as it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself chugging along behind some slow-moving piece of farm equipment.  Remember, Priorat’s roads of today were their mule trails of yesteryear.

Hotel Cal Llops in Gratallops - priorat wine country
Hotel Cal Llops - Click for web page

For such a small town, Gratallops is home to several great restaurants, even though schedules are somewhat vexing.  Spain is a wonderful country for foodies, and this region is no exception.  Clos de l’Obac has their own restaurant in town, and the chef at the village’s main hotel – Cal Llop (or Wolf’s Den – photo at right) – is quite accomplished in his own right.  We highly recommend the hotel both for its food and the charm and hospitality of its staff (hotel@cal-llop.com).

Gratallops art in town square - priorat wine country
Artist's rendition of the "scratching wolves" of Gratallops

Though the town of Gratallops (Grah ta yoops) was saved from ruin by the wine industry and its related tourism, its documented history goes back thousands of years.  In fact, its name is first found in a document dated 1258, though the town existed under a different name during the Moorish occupation of the region.

Gratallops translates, roughly, as “where the wolves (llops) come to scratch.  Apparently, this hilltop town was a popular claw-sharpening destination prior to being over-run with Homo sapiens.  Take 30 minutes to walk all the streets in this hilltop town and you’ll see multiple artistic references to said wolves in various scratching positions, including the one shown in our photo at left.

On a final note, it must be said that most of the wonderful wines you’ll discover here are unavailable in the U.S., such as those from Freddy Torres, a garagiste producer right in the heart of Gratallops.  And those that ARE found here are inevitably red, and invariably pricey.

So it was with great surprise and pleasure that one of my favorite distributors recently introduced me to the white wine from Igneus, a producer just up the road from Gratallops.  Their 2009 Barranc Dels Closos ($26) is a captivating blend of Macabao (Mack-ah Bay-oh – a white varietal rarely found outside Spain), Garnatxa Blanca (aka Grenache Blanc, or white Grenache), Pedro Ximinez and a trace of Muscat. It is both aromatically rich and yet medium-bodied and refreshing.  It may just be impossible to find a more perfect wine for the regional specialty of Barcelona – paella – though I’d thoroughly enjoy the challenge!