The best Zinfandel I tasted in 2017…

From the department of “my other son, the wine writer”…

It’s not the first time that my fingers glide across my computer keyboard and deliver the following mea culpa to the screen: “California wine, I was wrong about you. And I’m sorry.”

My role as the coordinating editor of the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California has been an eye-opening and humbling experience for me (you can read our winery profiles for the 2018 guide, soon to be published in print, as they come online — free access — on the Slow Wine guide blog).

When Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio first contacted me about joining the project, I asked him, “are you sure you have the right man?”

When he pressed on, I wondered out loud, “will we even find enough wineries to fill the pages of the guide?”

But I finally succumbed to his insistence, despite my skepticism and reluctance.

Man, was I wrong!

In early June I began visiting wineries in southern and northern California, tasting and talking with grape growers and wine makers. In late June, I joined my fellow editors — Giancarlo, senior editors Elaine Brown and David Lynch, and field editor
Elisabeth Fiorello-Sievers — for a tasting of more than 200 wines we had requested.

Over the summer, we traded notes, I wrote and I edited our contributors’ profiles, and we decided on the top wines and wineries that would be awarded the guide prizes.

I was simply blown away by how much great wine we tasted. And I was also impressed by how many wineries in California employ sustainable farming practices. In many cases, I learned, the sustainable legacy stretched back at least one or even two generations.

Although it didn’t win awards in this year’s guide, one of my favorite wines was the 2013 Moon Mountain Zinfandel by Winery Sixteen 600, made with fruit grown by biodynamic pioneer Phil Coturri. Named after the family’s address “on the mountain” (one of Sonoma’s most famous and storied houses, with ties — and tie dyes — to the Grateful Dead), the winery and tasting room is managed by one of Phil’s sons, Sam (whom you might recognize from yesterday’s post).

Not only was this lithe and fresh yet meaty wine utterly delicious, with buoyant red fruit and tasty minerality, but it reminded me of the Louis Martini Zinfandel from the 1970s that Darrell Corti (the renowned Sacramento retailer) once poured for me in his home.

When I shared that red thread with Sam, he smiled broadly and revealed that the cuttings for this wine actually came from the same vineyard where Louis Martini farmed its wines back in the day — before the overwrought, highly alcoholic and concentrated style of Zinfandel emerged as the new hegemony in the 1980s.

For years, the Coturri family has advocated for the Moon Mountain District and I believe Phil had a hand in lobbying for and creating the Moon Mountain AVA (in 2013). Not a lot of California wine lovers are aware of this newish appellation. But I believe it’s one of California’s most exciting wine growing regions, where more and more marquee-name wineries are looking to source higher-altitude, volcanic-soil fruit.

The Winery Sixteen 600 2013 Moon Mountain Zinfandel isn’t cheap. But it’s one of the purest and most elegant expressions of California’s antonomastic grapes. I loved it and highly recommend it.

Check out the 2018 Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California here. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti… have a great weekend, everyone!

Killer trees and a long road to recovery in California wine country (Slow Wine California Guide now online)

Beyond the myriad hand-painted posters thanking first responders for their efforts during the October wildfires, there weren’t a lot of signs that Sonoma wine country had been devastated by a natural disaster when I visited last month.

But when winemaker Sam Coturri invited me to jump into one of his company’s off-road trucks and we headed “up the mountain,” it didn’t take long for us to come upon blackened areas and “killer trees,” like the one above.

State recovery crews, he told me, remove some of the most dangerous burned-out trees. But many property owners are left to clear out the precarious “snags” as they are known in wildfire terminology. The government team marks them for you. But you have to remove them yourself.

Burned out trees and acre upon acre marred by damaged fences and cattle guards were just some of the issues that Sam was dealing with the day we visited in early December.

“Fuel… all I see is fuel, all around us,” he kept saying as we toured his family’s property and the farm where he grew up. He pointed to the dry brush that could instantaneously turn into kindling. The Coturris nearly lost their estate and beloved home in the October fires.

Word of the southern California wildfires had just begun to hit social media as he and I met up that morning. And it was abundantly clear that he, his colleagues, and his family were freaked out by the news they were receiving via text and private messages.

“Up here they call the Santa Ana winds the Diablo Winds,” he explained, referring to the notoriously hot dry air that arrives from the east this time of year.

The weather conditions that day were eerily similar to the day the Tubbs Fire first broke out.

At a certain point, Sam’s wife called him while we were in the car together. You could hear the fear in her trembling voice as Sam helped to soothe her nerves with loving words.

It’s going to be a long road to recovery for the California wine trade — financially and emotionally. As Sam pointed out that day, winemakers won’t know whether or not their 2017 vintage will be affected by smoke taint for many months to come. They have to let the wine age before they can properly test it.

There are also many other challenges they are facing, including a drop in tourist dollars and a housing shortage, just to name a few.

I’ll be catching up with Sam for updates to post here in coming weeks.

In the meantime, please check out the Slow Wine Guide blog where we have begun to post producer profiles nearly every day (many of the profiles online have been written by Elaine Brown, David Lynch, or myself). Some of the featured wineries will be joining us for the Slow Wine U.S. Tour in late February and early March.

There’s no better way to help in their recovery than by buying and drinking California wine.

Annus horribilis: posting from So. Cal. where wildfires continue to threaten life and property

Those aren’t clouds. That’s smoke from the wildfires in Ventura County, photographed yesterday from my Southwest flight from Oakland to LAX. You could smell the smoke in the cabin.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said the captain over the loudspeaker, “if you smell something that smells like a camp fire.”

In the photo below, you can see the smoke hanging over Los Angeles.

Here’s the LA Times wildfire live updates link.

The hotel where I always stay when I’m in town isn’t far from where the Skirball fire, still not contained. I used to go to shul up there when I was an undergrad and grad student. My alma mater U.C.L.A., also not far from there, has cancelled classes today.

In my hotel room this morning, you can smell and taste the smoke and my throat is scratchy, my eyes and nose irritated and itchy. I’m 100 percent safe where I am but the fires continue to rage not far from here.

Will this year of natural disasters — this annus horriblis — come to an end?

Hurricane arvey, the wine country wildfires, the Mexico City earthquake, Charlottesville, and now the LA fires… It seems like 2017 has been a revolving door of natural and human tragedy and catastrophe.

G-d bless Southern California. G-d bless us all… Please stay safe.

Slow Wine California guide coming online: first profiles now published

Last week, Slow Wine editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio and I began publishing the first winery profiles from the 2018 Slow Wine guide to the wines of California on the Slow Wine blog.

Click here for the blog.

Even though we will be publishing a hardcopy version of the guide (slated for release in early 2018), each one of the profiles of the 70 wineries featured in the book will be published online. In keeping with the spirit of Slow Wine, the guide and its editorial mission, the idea is to make the book an open source of information about the estates, the wines, and the evolving California wine trade. As with the Italian and Slovenian sections of the guide, the entire California guide will ultimately be available online.

We plan to publish nearly one a day, four-to-five every week.

In other news, the New York public relations firm who handles logistics for the Slow Wine U.S. tour, Colangelo, has launched a website devoted to the annual tasting itinerary. This year, the tour will be visiting Atlanta, New York, Houston, and San Francisco. I’m so glad that Giancarlo decided to include Houston for 2018: our city is a major hub for fine wine in general and a great destination for Italian wine in particular. I’m also glad that Colangelo has agreed to publish the site and update it regularly. It’s an important resource for info that’s bound to come in handy.

That’s a photo I shot earlier this year at Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma (Sonoma Coast). You can see the sloped growing site; the proximity to the Pacific Ocean (and the resulting maritime influence); you can see the naturally occurring grass and plants growing between the rows. What you can’t see is the ancient-seabed subsoil, ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The presence of ancient seabed there is owed to the nearby San Andreas site.

I’ve written here before that I was wrong about California wine. At another time in my life, in the early years of my career as a wine writer, I wrote-off California wine as being too jammy, too oaky, overly concentrated, too hot (alcoholic), and lacking balance.

My experience this year as the coordinating editor of the guide and one of its contributors has really reshaped my thoughts and impressions of the California wine industry.

And California wine country needs us all — you and me — more than ever before. Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to northern California to survey the damage and recovery in the aftermath of this year’s terrible wildfires.

Stay tuned: I’ll be posting about the trip here and on the Slow Wine blog as well.

Thanks for reading and thanks for drinking California wine.

Please see my post, from earlier this year, California wine, I was wrong about you. I’m sorry…

“Slow” awards, the Slow Wine guide’s top prizes now online (and a new urgency in our mission to help wine country)

Yesterday, after a month-long hiatus, we’ve picked up on the Slow Wine California blog where we left off before the northern California wildfires shifted our attention to wine country’s recovery.

Yesterday, we published the 2018 debut guide’s “Slow” awards. Please check out the post and the site.

In the aftermath of the fires, there was no question that it wasn’t appropriate to follow our planned editorial schedule of publishing our editors’ top picks and our producer profiles.

Instead, we decided to focus on relief efforts and how all of us can help in the wine trade’s recovery.

And the bottomline is this: the number-one thing all of us can do — every Californian winemaker I’ve interacted with says exactly the same thing — is to buy California wine.

With every “depletion” (as we call it in the wine trade), retailers and restaurateurs are prompted to re-order the wines. And with their orders, capital flows back to the region. It’s exactly what the industry needs — from farmhand and hospitality worker to vineyard and winery owner.

This devastating natural disaster has given new urgency to our mission as editors of the guide (I’m the coordinating editor and one of the contributors). Initially, we had conceived the guide as a way to raise awareness of the vibrant “slow ethos” that thrives already in California. Today, we hope the guide will become the inspiration for bottles to be purchased and wine country trips to be planned.

Please stay tuned into the Slow wine blog as we publish the final prizes and we begin to publish our producer profiles (next week).

Thanks for reading and clicking. And thanks most of all for drinking California… (Tracie and are currently drinking Bedrock Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc.).

California wine needs us now more than ever before…

As Houstonians, we know all too well that recovery from a natural disaster is long and hard — even after media attention has shifted elsewhere. Please read my post today for the Houston Press, “California Wine Needs Us More Than Ever Before.” I was wrong about California wine and California wine needs me and you more than ever before…

Above: the selection of California wines at the Houston Wine Merchant is excellent, with a wide range of styles and price points. The Signorello winery in Napa was one of the estates destroyed in the northern California wildfires, “the most destructive wildfire in the history of California” according to the Wiki.

Last week, Sonoma resident and leading California wine writer Elaine Brown published “After the Fires” on her blog, one of the most moving posts I’ve read about the aftermath of the deadly California wildfires.

I highly recommend it to you. In it she writes: “Please help the North Coast rebuild in whatever ways you can. Keep buying California wine, especially from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, or Lake County, all of which were impacted by these fires. If you ever travel through the region, please consider buying gift certificates for your favorite locally owned businesses so they can get the funds now, and you can enjoy them when you next visit.”

Her call to buy California wine echoes what so many people on the ground in Sonoma and Napa have been writing in their e-blasts and blog posts: nothing helps more than purchasing and consuming California wine.

This week, I made a run to my local wine shop, the Houston Wine Merchant, for a mixed case of California wines. Tracie and I generally drink mostly Italian, some French, and the occasional Californian and Austrian. But last month, as we followed the news from the Golden State (my home state), we turned our focus to the west.

Every bottle that you or I purchase (every “depletion” as we say in the trade) delivers much needed support to the industry — from the vineyard worker to the tasting room staffer to the trucker who hauls the wine eastward. All of those people have been affected by this natural disaster. And that’s not to mention the hospitality workers (wine bars, restaurants, hotels, etc.) and the service employees who reside in Napa and Sonoma.

“I hate to say it,” said Antonio Gianola, one of the senior buyers for the Houston Wine Merchant, “but if you buy the wine directly from the wineries, you’ll help them even more.”

He was referring to the fact that direct sales deliver the best margins for the wineries.

Not all California wineries are registered in Texas and Texas has some of the most restrictive shipping regulations in the country (thank you, Texas wholesaler lobby!). But there is ample availability of great California wine in Houston: please visit Spec’s, the Houston Wine Merchant, and Vinology for nearly every style and price point.

Matthiasson, Ceritas, Bedrock are some of my favorites and they are all available at the Houston Wine Merchant. And if you want to go with a bigger-style California Cabernet Sauvignon, I recommend the Frog’s Leap (also available at the Houston Wine Merchant). I tasted the wine last summer as part of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California tasting panel (I’m the guide’s coordinating editor and Elaine is our senior editor). Our panel awarded the winery one of our “best value” prizes: at around $56 a bottle (compared with $80-120 for similar pedigree and quality), it’s a steal for how good it is (organically farmed, btw).

Wherever you live, I hope you’ll join me tonight and in coming months as I pull a cork and enjoy a wine from northern California.

Thanks for reading and for enjoying Golden State wines. Please check out my post today for the Houston Press.

California wine country wildfire updates @ Slow Wine (Slow Food). And please don’t forget the cannabis growers…

Yesterday, we posted an update on the California wine country wildfires over on the Slow Wine California blog, where I served as the coordinating editor of the guide and contributing editor to the site (image via Vino Girl’s Instagram).

We had been planning to continue publishing the 2018 debut guide prizes this month. But we took a break in order to shift coverage to the developing and ongoing crisis in northern California.

I highly recommend reading Eric Asimov’s piece “Wildfires Spared the Vineyards, but the Wines Could Suffer.” And please be sure to check out Alder Yarrow’s post on how to help with relief efforts, “Helping Northern California Wine Country After the Fires.” (“Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal disaster relief,” wrote Alder. “That’s why UndocuFund exists.”)

The fire may be mostly contained. But the human crisis continues. And that includes human and financial challenges for cannabis growers as well.

I visited a biodynamic cannabis farm in Sonoma earlier this year (images above and below): just as growers were investing heavily in their farms in preparation for the launch of recreational cannabis in California on January 1, their nascent industry had been literally decimated by the wildfires. Because cannabis is still considered to be illegal by the federal government, growers and other entrepreneurs are not eligible for federal aid.

It seems that states rights only matter to conservative Christians when it comes to putting down blacks and Mexicans and restricting reproductive rights and access to health services. States rights don’t matter much to them when it comes to the cultivation of one of G-d’s creations — a plant that occurs naturally — and its medicinal and recreational applications. Most conservative Christians are okay with wine (which doesn’t occur naturally). But cannabis? It’s the devil’s lettuce.

I was glad to see this excellent piece published by Washington Post (#AmazonWashingtonPost #fakenews!), “Wildfires scorched marijuana crops, possibly complicating California’s rollout of legal sales.”

And although I was surprised not to see more coverage on the excellent blog The Cannabist, the editors were among the first to repost this article by AP, “At least 31 legal cannabis farms have been destroyed in the California fires.”

What a year 2017 has been… Now, more than ever, all voting-age Americans need to look deep into their souls and reflect on what kind of country and legacy they want to leave for their (and our) children. Thanks for reading and clicking.

Wine country fires: “Buy Napa and Sonoma wines” to support their communities

Image via the Matthiasson Facebook. They posted the photo yesterday afternoon local time in Napa.

It seems like yesterday that Steve and Jill Matthiasson, grape growers and winemakers at Matthiasson in Napa, were sending out an e-blast informing subscribers that they were donating 100 percent of the sales of a library release to Texas hurricane relief. As a Houstonian, their solidarity and generosity meant a lot to me. That was August 30.

Last Friday, they sent out another blast letting readers know that so far their family has made it safely through the ongoing fires in Northern California. They included a link to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund (their recommended donation resource). And they also offered this appeal to fans of California wine:

Beyond donations to the above,

“the other thing that would help all of us is to BUY NAPA AND SONOMA wines at restaurants, wines shops, and through your favorite winery websites, and finally we hope that you will VISIT Napa and Sonoma after the fires are put out. This is the height of our tourist season and the middle of harvest. The workers in our wineries, vineyards, and hospitality are not getting paid, small businesses and restaurants are either closed or have limited hours. Please consider a trip here during our ‘off-season’ so local businesses, wineries and all the employees can make up some of the lost income.”

Tracie and I are praying for all our friends in Northern California and for all of our fellow wine professionals impacted by the fires.

Click here for list of information and relief effort resources that I posted today over on the Slow Wine California blog.

Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino: thoughts and prayers for our sisters and brothers affected by the fires…

The image above comes from the Instagram of my dear friend Vino Girl who lives on the east side of Napa, just west of the Napa River. She and her family were evacuated yesterday at 4 a.m. She took the photo from her house. They’re back in their home now (thank goodness) as authorities are trying to assess the extent of the damage.

In an article updated late last night, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “a swarm of fires supercharged by powerful winds ripped through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties Monday, killing at least 10 people, injuring dozens of others, destroying more than 1,500 homes and businesses, and turning prominent wineries to ash.”

“Sonoma County officials received more than 100 reports of missing people as of Monday evening,” wrote the editors of the paper.

It’s been heartbreaking this morning to scroll through the #NapaFire thread on Instagram. Vino Girl’s post is just one of thousands of images that document the devastation.

Another dear friend and colleague, Elaine Brown, California contributor to and senior editor for the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California, posted this dispatch yesterday morning on the Slow Wine blog (I’m the coordinating editor for the guide) and she posted this update on Jancis’ site late last night.

Elaine lives in Sonoma with her family and they evacuated voluntarily yesterday. They’re alright today (thank goodness).

One of the most stirring posts came from Carlo Mondavi’s Instagram.

“Wildlife and mankind are as one kind,” he wrote, “and we are all running for cover.”

As we follow the news reports today, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to all of our sisters and brothers in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.

Fires threaten iconic California wineries: A Dispatch from Sonoma by Slow Wine senior editor Elaine Brown

The North Coast of California was hit last night by a rash of wildfires. Most of the fires were sparked by gusting winds taking down trees hitting above-ground power lines. Fires spread quickly with one of the largest, the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, spreading to over 25,000 acres in a matter of hours. The Tubbs Fire has burned portions of the northern part of the city of Santa Rosa and forced the evacuation of two area hospitals and thousands of people…

Click here to continue reading a dispatch from Sonoma this morning by Slow Wine senior editor Elaine Brown.