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 JancisRobinson.com 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.

Slow Wine California now online, prizes and producer profiles coming soon…

The following is a preview of one of my posts this week for the new Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California. Our site came online this morning. The Slow Wine prizes will be announced shortly. Producer profiles will follow.

Above: The western edge of the Santa Ynez American Viticultural Area. The Pacific coast lies just a stone’s throw away.

The time is right for the Slow Wine California.

Perceptions of gastronomy’s cultural value have changed radically since the Slow Food international movement was founded in the late 1980s in Piedmont, Italy as a champion of traditional foodways threatened by Italy’s growing appetite for fast-food. As a wide-eyed undergraduate student in Italy on my junior year abroad in 1987, I was keenly aware of the controversy sparked by the newly opened McDonald’s at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps. It was that year that I first heard the name Carlo Petrini, the essayist and political activist who had founded Slow Food the previous year. In 1989 he would publish the Slow Food Manifesto, a battle cry for an emerging generation of Europeans who saw their culinary traditions being eclipsed by the march of industrialism and the growing popularity of Coca Cola and assembly-line pseudo-sustenance.

“Speed became our shackles,” he wrote. “We fell prey to the same virus: ‘The fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest ‘fast-food’… In the name of productivity, the ‘fast life’ has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes [sic]. Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde’s riposte.

(Click here for the complete manifesto and click here for a Slow Food timeline.)

Borrowing from the fencer’s lexicon (with his “riposte,” the sport’s return thrust, made after parrying a lunge), he underlined the urgency of his cause and mission.

Click here to continue reading my post today for the Slow Wine California blog…

Whoa California wine! Skyline Ridge, Santa Cruz Mountains…

What a revelation for me to tour and taste through Skyline Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains yesterday!

So much of California wine is known for its manicured character. But up on the ridge that looks down to the east on Silicon Valley and to the west out to the Pacific Ocean (about 15 miles away), the landscape is wild and untamed.

It blew me away to find such robust mountain viticulture here. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

It was also really interesting to see the San Andreas fault here and learn how the collision of the tectonic plates brought ancient marine bed to the surface.

I’m spending the next few days between Sonoma and Napa working on a new project that I am really exited about. It’s a little too early to reveal it yet but stay tuned.

Thanks to everyone who tasted with me and showed me around yesterday. There is a soulfulness to the place and the people here and it definitely comes through in the wines.

That’s all I have time for today. Now it’s time to hit the road again, taste, and tread through some more vineyards…