Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Inside Look at Michel-Schlumberger

One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers' Conference this past weekend in Sonoma was the vineyard walk Saturday morning. The early birds got to pick from 5 options, but chronically late me got there when the vans were pulling away and hopped in one of the last ones. Turns out I stumbled upon the best one by pure dumb luck--as we turned onto the Michel-Schlumberger property nestled into the Wine Creek Canyon part of Dry Creek Valley, Allan of Zephyr Wine Adventures confessed that M-S was the company's top-rated wine walk in Sonoma. He didn't want to influence people's choices by telling them that ahead of time, but I'm sure that's the reason he and conference co-founder Joel Vincent of Open Wine Consortium were along for the ride--and walk.

Winemaker Mike Brunson, a fourth-generation Sonoman, led us through a 20-acre parcel on Bradford Mountain that was formerly a tractor-repair property that had never hosted vines until 1998, a year after Jacques Schlumberger and his wife Barbara purchased it. The winery is committed to organic farming and also employs some biodynamic practices. Mike pointed out that the adjacent winery is also organic, providing a haven for wildlife and peace of mind for M-S as there is no chemical drift.

The permanent cover crop in the vineyard preserves the soil structure and ensures that the water run-off into Wine Creek is clean, important for the salmon and steelhead that spawn in the creek during the spring. M-S is critter central, with fish, sheep, raptors, chickens, etc. all on the property. The winery has four resident Babydoll sheep who, along with another 10 the winery brings in periodically, roam the rows nibbling on the grass and cover crop, keeping it down to a manageable level and "fertilizing" as they go. "They're the basset hounds of the sheep world," Mike said, explaining that they have short legs that let them pass under the irrigation lines but don't allow them to reach the berries. He pointed out the blocks the sheep graze in are more healthy than those that don't get paid a visit by the Babydolls.

The down side of a permanent cover crop is that it provides a gopher-friendly environment. In 2002 M-S lost 700 vines to gophers, Mike noted, so after that year they doubled the number of raptor perches in the vineyards. "They came and ate like it was a burger stand," he laughed, pointing out that the big trees on the property also encourage the presence of raptors. M-S has resident chickens that the winery uses for insect control, manure for fertilization, and egg white fining for the red wines. Mike noted that organic farming means you have to be proactive rather than reactive, so the crew at M-S builds up the soil with nitrates and an insectory mix rather than dumping fertilizer on it.

After pulling a bit of a hill in warmer-than-expected temperatures that led to many of us working up a decent sweat, we paused to taste some barrel samples waiting for us on a picnic table in the shade under a big oak. The '07 Petite Verdot was an inky purple color with roses and voilets on the nose; M-S uses that varietal for clout in the middle of some of their wines. Malbec is also used for that same purpose, and the '07 sample had serious spice on the nose and palate. Mike said Malbec does very well on the property, with that varietal's vines so balanced that they stop growing on their own at the desired height of about 18-leaves up. Even during this very dry season (no rain since February), which saw the M-S vineyard crew watering more than ever, the Malbec didn't need more hydration than usual. The taste of the '07 Cab Franc was lighter than the other two, but has the unmistakable green pepper quality of that varietal, although Mike said M-S keeps the green component down using tactics like canopy management in the vineyard and the use of newer oak in the winery. The brown spice notes are more highly desired, but getting that takes careful berry sorting, as Mike notes just two green berries in the whole bunch will produce green flavors.

After the walk we were treated to a scrumptious lunch catered by Santi Restaurant in Geyserville. Sitting at a long communal table under another goregous oak giant on the side lawn of the elegant winery building (with a courtyard reminiscient of the enclosed Carmen villa garden at the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain) conjured up feeliings of being in the Provencal or Tuscan countryside. We were served baby greens salad with goat cheese, fig, and almond; braised pork shoulder on a bed of rapini and fennel; bread with M-S' own home-made olive oil; and a chocolate torte for dessert. Ha, some of the other conference attendees got a boxed lunch!

I guess I really did luck out...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live Blogging from First-Ever Wine Bloggers' Conference!

Arrived late to the 1st-ever North American Wine Bloggers' Conference due to horrendous traffic -- my style as usual. :-p Jessica Yadegaran (wine writer for the Contra Costa Times,) and I traipsed in and went to the first person we saw who looked authoritative. Turned out to be the co-founder of the conference, Allan Wright from Zephyr Wine Adventures. Score. Sitting right in front and here we go...

'04 Bonterra McNabb -- 60% Merlot 26% Cab & 14% Petite Sirah. Alcohol 14.1%; 500 cases; $45 retail; all organic and biodynamic. Original rootstock, does have phylloxera but keep orig. stock since like the fruit so much and biodyanmic practices allow vines to resist the phyllox. Cherry, black pepper, spice, good structure -- nice grip on the finish but not overpowering. Would go excellent with roasted meats, maybe rosemary-grilled beef or even chicken.

'05 Clos LaChance Estate Cab Sauv -- 100% Cab; retail $30; 1212 cases; 14.5% alcohol. Family winery started in 1992 with a small vineyard in backyard -- "winery that run amok," went from 100 cases to 60,000 to 80,000. Now in San Martin about 1 hour south of San Jose. Hummingbird is trademark, territorial animal, keeps the bad, grape-eating birds away. Name: "clos" = enclosed area, LaChance is maiden name of matriarch. Leather, stone on the nose, also seems pretty hot. Better on the palate with currants, spicey finish but not quite balanced.

This "speed-dating" version of wine tasting isn't moving quite as fast as I thought. Our table (one of 16) has been neglected 3 rounds -- granted we missed a few before actually sitting down and powering up, but it seems like they need more pourers! We're ready and raring to go, here folks!

Boho Vineyards -- one of first premium-wine box formats; $24 retail ($6/bottle, holds 4 bottles); ecological, efficient, more bang for your buck; easier to ship. Good for the wallet & the planet. Lovely nose, lots of vanilla, stone fruit, oak. Toasty on the palate but not buttery -- the fruit shines through.

Jessica is a star here, tons of people know her through her wine features and her CoCo Times blog. Man I need cards for Wineclubbie and JC Cellars.

'07 Muscat James David Cellars. 14.5%, .17% RS. Very FIRST wine, 105 cases, Paso Robles -- new winery. Going up to 185 then 380 and that will be max. Also going to do a meritage. Tobin James also sources from same vineyard. Honey & apricots on the nose, light, fairly crisp finish. Had to dump out to make room for the next wine, unfortunately. Selling direct from Inertia Beverage Group, distributed in some Sac restaurants -- Nugget markets. Would go lovely with sushi, seafood, Thai food. James David is looking also to foothills for another brand with Cal Poly-grad sister with soil science and viticulture degree.

'05 Bink Weir Vineyards (Yorkville HIghlands of Mendocino) Pinot (blend of 3 diff clones); dusty on the nose not much fruit, but lots of strawberry on the nose and SPICE. Long finish, but think it needs to breathe for a bit.

'06 Twisted Oak The Spaniard; 2/3 Tempranillo, rest Graciano & Grenache. Calaveras County. Clove, big red & purple fruit on the nose; chewy palate, just right touches of oak. Hold up to 10 years -- Jeff Stai (the larger-than-life guy known to most as "El Jefe") says the '02s are tasting great right now.

'06 Small Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - 150 cases, out of Graton, released in November. Mailing list only, $65. 3,680 vines per acre, 4-foot tractor row, 3 feet between vines, avg. in CA is l,000 per acre; lower pounds per vine b/c pinot is most yield-senstive grape. Biodynamic -- converted from organic last year, felt better Great, classic nose to this one. Not terribly complex on the palate -- lacking some in the mid-palate. Would drink but not buy at that price point.

'07 Cupcake Chardonnay -- founded on idea of making wines that would make you feel like you did when you were a kid and mom gave you a cupcake. Approachable but layered with different flavors -- not so astute that they intimidate. Central Coast -Mnterey & SLO fruit, whole fermentation to preserve aromatics. 30% ML, 100% into small, premium American oak. Aged 6-8 months. Very typical Chard nose, the diacetol really comes throuhg (some might think that's bad, others good). Good dose of butter and oak, but not overpowering. Want popcorn with this wine.

OK, we're done. Supposed to go 'til 5:15, but it's the first year, there might be some kinks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The palate, it is a-changin'

I daresay my palate is changing, perhaps with the season, the advent of fall. Usually a fan of big wines -- mainly New World, although I do love me some Spanish wines like no other -- I'm feeling a shift toward lighter, but more complex wines. Perhaps I can blame it on Derrick Schneider a bit, but after just two of his classes, I don't think I can really chalk it up to him.

I went up to El Dorado County tasting recently and, while I wasn't surprised to find some Grenache and Mouvedre I liked (from David Girard), it was interesting to note that the bottles I bought of those varietals were of a much lighter variety than what I usually gravitate to. Don't get me wrong, they had every bit as much flavor, but weren't as weighty and oakey as what I used to prefer.Even Twisted Oak's allocated new release River of Skulls that I'm sipping on now (quite appropriate this close to Halloween), isn't the massive wine I expected, but rather a very well-balanced blend of cocoa, clove, and raspberry with a surprisingly silky mouthfeel.

So I came home from wine class last week really wanting a wine that tasted as light but complex as some of those that we sampled in class, but the bottle of Dry Creek Zin we opened didn't exactly fit the bill (b/f Brian does not share my changing palate). Some of the more unusual -- at least to me -- and in my book, the best wines we've tasted in the Cal extension course have all been white. They include the '04 Stephane Tissot Les Graviers Chardonnay from Jura, with its vegetal, kerosene & mineral aromas, high acidity and flavors of lemon; the '07 Domaine des Cassagnole Reserve Selection Gros Manseng from Gascogne which gave off yeasty, chemical aromas and lemon & apple flavors on the palate; and the '04 Domaine de la Charriere Cuvee Clos St. Jacques from Jasnieres, a Chenin Blanc with notes of roses under a chemical veil that jumped out of the glass, but was exceptionally balanced with a long finish. The Jasnieres turned off other folks in the class who couldn't get past the unique smell, but I relished its unusual qualities.

So as much as I hate to see summer go (and for the Bay Area, September & October is our summer!), I'll welcome in fall as it seems to be waking up new taste buds and experiences.