The air is warm now and the slightly tangy smell of sulfur dusting is beginning to permeate the valley.
My weather update says it is 84 degrees today. After a super dry January and February we’ve seen a little bit of rain at the end of March and beginning of April. It was much needed and the vines are soaking it and the sunshine now right up. The Cabernet in front of the winery on the Tokalon vineyard are almost 4″ out already! It will be harvest before we know it. In the meantime, we’re watching for frost over the next few weeks although the forecast is currently not calling for any over the next few days. My husband and I are being brave and have put a few tomatoes out already. The winds have been very gusty but so far the tender little shoots seem to have escaped damage. If the weather stays like this it is on track to be a beautiful spring and a promising vintage.
The air is warm now and the slightly tangy smell of sulfur dusting is beginning to permeate the valley.
I’m amazed at the number of articles I’ve seen lately that are talking about Millennials as if they are doing a documentary for the discovery channel. Any second I expect to hear someone with a British accent say “as we observe the Millennials in their native habitats we discover their social patterns.” At worst we seem to be brushed off as “those kids.” I’d like to think at 30 and with a baby of my own that I have transcended above the “kid” stage.
However marketers seem obsessed with finding out what makes us tick as a generation. So I had to ask myself who are we? If we don’t define ourselves the world does it for us. Currently I’m not thrilled with the picture others have been painting so I’m going to try to outline what I see looking from the inside out. Let me state before I get up on my soapbox, that I am not trying to be the voice of the generation or anything. I just want to share my point of view and if you can’t do that on your own blog then where can you share it?
I’ve heard Millennials currently defined as those who were born during the 80s and 90s. I disagree with the extreme range here. Here’s my take…
Millennials are people who came of age during the 2000 millennial change so anywhere between 14-22 years of age on January 1st, 2000. We are old enough to remember a time pre Internet but young enough to not remember a time before computers. This may seem trivial but we are the last generation that can say that the Internet did not exist in our lifetime. We did not grow up with the instant access to information via cell phones and mobile technology although we adapted quickly enough when it came along. The generations behind us may never know the weight of 5 volumes of the encyclopedia britannica while trying to write notes on index cards. I hope they realize how lucky we are. Sad but I digress…
We’ve grown up with TV, radio, and now the Internet, all trying to be the vehicles of marketers trying to sell us something. Through this over exposure to advertisements we’ve developed a highly tuned BS radar. I generally tune out all commercials, channel surf, or multi task during commercials. I very rarely even notice online ads unless they are pop ups and then i only notice them long enough to find where the X is to close it. If your ad is good (and I mean REALLY good) I may give it a bit of my attention but the ones I generally pay attention to are ads that one of my friends have mentioned. I absolutely can’t stand low budget commercials and will actually avoid doing business at the places that air them. Key learning for marketing here? You’re better off not making a commercial than making a crappy one.
Another key point in the life of Millennials is that we experienced 9/11 at a critical point in our lives. I don’t know how everyone else reacted but that day is the moment where I realized that the world was no longer the safe place that we thought it was and war became a constant in our lives. This taught me that life is short and not guaranteed therefore what we spend our time and money on should matter.
Therefore I place the Millennial generation currently between the ages of 27-34. It’s a tight range, I know. Any older and we’re knocking on the door of Gen X. Any younger and you are into what I have heard termed the “wired” generation due to their exposure to technology at such a young age. Some call them the younger Millennials. I disagree. There are extreme differences in the generations created by technology which have been further magnified by the Great Recession. This generation was the hardest hit by the sinking economy right when they were ready to enter the job market. The Millennials were hit as well but there is a tenacity and willingness to contribute that will, I believe, eventually prevail through entrepreneurship and hard work. ( yes we DO know what that is)
It has been said we will not accumulate the wealth of previous generations. Maybe that is a good thing because we will be more selective about how we spend what wealth we do have. Bringing this back to wine, and after all, that’s what this blog is supposed to be about, most of my friends that are also Millennials seek out quality over quantity. We’d rather drink nicer wine less often than have something to drink every evening. We’d rather try something new, have a new experience, than repeat what we have already tried. Most of all we want an authentic story. Don’t sell us BS; tell us the truth then let us decide if we want to know more. We can always “Google” it if we’re interested so make sure we can find you and your product when we need to.
I’ve been having such great time with my new job I’ve been pretty terrible at updating my blog recently however now that my life is calming down a bit my plan is to update once per week.
Right now things are super busy in the winery. We’re finalizing the blends for 2011 and working on the 2012 Pinot Noir blends. I spend the majority of my time tasting which is so much fun. In the vineyard things have been quiet but are starting to stir. In talking with our vineyard manager for To Kalon, he expects budbreak to happen eminently. He and the crew have been working on getting things ready for the frost season and cultivating some of the blocks. He doesn’t want to the vines in these blocks to have to compete for water with the ground cover. In other blocks, he’s keeping the ground cover in order to remove some of the vigor of the blocks. I’m so in awe of this terroir! It’s so exciting to see this vintage begin. Budbreak should be starting in one of the Monastary blocks of Cabernet Franc. Vintage 2013 is kicking off!!!
The last few weeks of the year are always an incredible time of good food. First of all there is Thanksgiving swiftly followed by my anniversary, Christmas, New Years, and then my Birthday in January. Needless to say there are a lot of reasons to eat well. This year in lieu of gifts my husband and I decided to try a restaurant here in Napa that we had never been to before. Unbeknownst to us, his sister Katie (of ) and her Boyfriend, Victor, had a similar idea to treat us for our special day. We chose Bouchon. They chose Ad Hoc. Both dinners were the Prix Fixe. The following are the dishes, wines, and my impressions overall.
For those, like myself who have never been to Bouchon, the interior looks as though you have stepped into a classic restaurant in Paris complete with high, elaborately decorated ceilings and cozy tables to easily chat with neighbors (should you decide to do so). We decided on the Prix fixe with the wine pairings here. My thoughts were that these dishes would be the best the house had to offer to introduce us to the style.
We started with a glass each of vintage 2010 Cremant de Limoux Brut by Gerard Bertrand. It was a lovely easy to drink Light and Bubbly offering and the perfect way to start the meal. There were two offerings for each course so Brian and I split the list so we could sample a bit of everything. The menu was inspired by the Terroir du Perigord and leaned heavily on Truffle influence. I have a confession. I LOVE truffles. I rarely indulge but given my wedding anniversary falls during truffle season one must celebrate to the fullest when one can.
The first course was Soupe Garbure aux Truffles, a cabbage stew with ham, bacon, duck sausage and garden vegetables with truffle essence paired with a 2001 Savennieres from Domaine des Baumard (Savory). All I can say a out this was WOW! I would eat this every winter night if I could figure out how to reproduce the stock. So delicious. Brian started with a Terrine de Gibier, terrine of wild game, confit gizzards, black truffles, tasted pistachios and Brioche with apple marmalade paired with a Gewürztraminer from Alsace. The Cuvée de l’Ours from Beck-Hartweg 2007. This was equally excellent. Intact the starters were our favorite dishes of the night. I can’t pick a winner.
This has been a vintage year in so many ways and until now I have not had the time or opportunity to talk about any of it. First of all, my husband and I welcomed our first child, Nathaniel, in October. It has changed our lives dramatically and we have spent the last 8 week getting to know him. I would not have traded this time for anything.
The second major event this year was that I have finally passed the theory section of the MW exam. For those of you who have followed my blog over the past few years, you have read about my frustration with this particular section of the exam (for those who are new just look under the “MW studies” classified posts). It’s such a relief to only have the practical section of the exam left. I almost passed it this past time with a B, C, and C on the tasting exams respectively. Time to buckle down and get it done this next go round.
Finally, I am happy to announce that I am starting a new chapter in my career, in January, as the new red winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery. I am completely thrilled and humbled by this new opportunity. I have always been inspired by Mr. Mondavi’s viewpoint towards wine, food, and family and it has significantly influenced my personal path through the wine industry. I’m also excited about working with the team at Mondavi including Genevieve and Rich to help continue the legacy that Mr. Mondavi left for us. The vineyards and the winery are completely inspiring and I’m looking forward to getting to know all aspects of them.
Of course with every new chapter in life, another one must close. My time with Souverain, Chateau St. Jean, Beringer Knights Valley, and Emma Pearl is coming to an end. I’ve met and worked alongside so many great people and I will miss them all. I thoroughly enjoyed working with my fellow winemakers at Treasury Wine Estates. They are an amazing team. I want to particularly say that I’m very honored that so many of them trusted me with their wines and I always tried to treat them as they would have. I am eternally grateful to Ed Killian for sharing his extensive knowledge of winemaking and life in general whenever I had a question.
So in the spirit of new chapters, I am once again going to make a pledge to write a post once a week. To my long time readers, thanks for sticking with me. To my new readers, thanks for coming and if you have wine questions you’d like answered don’t hesitate to mention them.
Here’s to a fantastic year!
Three weeks ago I was one of the 98 students to attempt to pass the rigorous Master of Wine exam. Full details of the exam questions are posted here. However unlike the majority of other students (in Napa at least), I was taking the full exam for what will be my last time. I originally went over the possible exam outcomes in detail in an earlier post but the short version is I fail both sections again, pass one or the other, or pass both. Naturally, I’m hoping for the latter but only time will tell. I think very few people outside of the program truly understand the level of dedication and commitment it takes to even attempt to sit the exam, much less actually pass it. I was reminded of this while reading the comments generated by a blog from Dr. Vino last week.
There seems to be a great misunderstanding about the purpose of the tasting portion of the exam particularly. The Practical exam (as it is called) is not a parlor game where one has to name the wine, vintage, variety, and producer but a logical deduction based on what is tasted in the glass and clues given by the questions themselves. Case in point, one particularly popular question format in the past has been 4 wines in a flight, same variety but from 4 different countries. Initially this could mean any number of potential varieties however students are generally discouraged from chasing “flying zebras”. Thus while Gruner Veltliner may be found growing in 4 different countries it is highly unlikely that you are actually dealing with Gruner in this question. If it is Practical Paper 1, the white wine paper, the odds are that it is Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, or Pinot Gris since those are more internationally used varieties and incidentally the varieties that show up the most over the past 13 years of exams.
How do I know that?
Like any good MW student, I’ve studied the past 13 years of exams in great detail of course! They are available on the MW website in the student section and are really like manna from heaven to people interested enough to take the time to really get to know them. The exam is not a fixed thing however and changes can happen in the design from year to year. Imagine my surprise when this year’s Theory paper 4, Contemporary Issues, after 4 years of being pick 2 of 5 questions switched back to the 2005-2007 format of the “pre-fix menu” (Pick one from section A and one from section B) similar to that of the rest of the exam (Theory Papers 1-3 require 2 questions from section B). Of course that format only came into existence in 2005 where before that there was one compulsory question and then 4-5 options for the additional essays needed. Personally, I liked the 2008-2011 formats but not being an examiner I have no control over it. Also, since I did not pass my attempts in 2010 and 2011 perhaps this minor change will yield better results.
For myself, part of the fun of the exam (yes, I know, I’m crazy to think it is fun on some level) is seeing how the examiners are able to never ask the same question twice but cover the same material regardless. Take the following two questions from Paper 2 for example…
In order of priority, what quality assurance procedures should a producer have in place to avoid contaminated or defective wine? (Paper 2, 2011)
As the Quality Assurance manager of a contract bottling operation, what actions will you take when microbial contamination is found in routine samples taken off the bottling line? (Paper 2, 2009)
Both cover QA but each question needs to be answered in a very unique way. The first asks for an order of priority of QA procedures while the second asks for actions that will be taken once contamination is found. If one had written a practice essay for the 2009 question and then answered the 2011 question in the same way one would likely fail. Not because of lack of knowledge about QA but because you didn’t answer in the question that was asked. This is a common theme on the examiner’s report which is released after results are announced and goes over the common pitfalls and what the examiners were hoping to see in the answer to each question. It is another invaluable resource for the MW student and I think I can safely say that any student that does not read it is setting themselves up for failure.
Now, after 4 years (6 if you count the WSET programs) of all my free time being spent studying, tasting, analyzing, and compiling information in an effort to mentally “master” the wine industry, I find myself with some down time. Time that I’m sure will come to a swift and fast end around the middle of October when my husband and I are expecting our first child. I know I didn’t mention that but, yes, I did just sit the MW exam 5 months pregnant! It definitely added an extra dimension of challenge to the whole thing, if it wasn’t challenging enough. Regardless of the outcome of this exam, I’m happy. I’m happy with the level of knowledge that I’ve reached and skills I’ve developed through the program to constantly seek new knowledge which I know I will continue long after the stress of the program is forgotten. I’m happy to have met all the wonderful people that are in the program or involved with the institute in some way. I’m very blessed to have been given opportunities to travel and speak with some of the top experts in the industry worldwide. Most of all, I’m happy that I did not give up, ever, regardless of how depressing or challenging the program was. I’ve always been serious about getting the MW certification and I would have always regretted it if I hadn’t gone for it, 100%. I know that even if I fail this third time, I tried my best, studied my hardest, and worked tirelessly towards that goal. That is all anyone can be expected to do and it gives me peace to close this chapter of my life and move on, either through the rest of the program or not. I’m excited to see what the next phase of life brings with a more personal distinction…Mother.
Imagine my dismay when I read the initial headlines of the recent eater.com story…
The wine buyer in question is Annette Alvarez-Peters, a long time Costco employee, WSET graduate and fellow MW student. While I disagree with the tone of the article that seems to hint that Alvarez-Peters doesn’t really know what she’s talking about (which she does and has put the educational time in to be treated as a respected wine professional) I also disagree with the thought that wine is no different from toilet paper.
1) Toilet Paper is Not a Controlled Substance!
The biggest issue here is that wine is a controlled substance. While I’m sure that the state of Pennsylvania would have no problem with me shipping toilet paper to friends living there they sure do have a problem if you try to ship wine. Likewise if you’re an 8 year old I guarantee no one is going to prevent you from buying a small package of toilet paper (larger quantities will probably be questioned due to toilet papering houses) but you must be able to prove you’re over 21 to buy wine in any size or quantity.
2) There are a ton of choices with wine. Not so many with Toilet Paper!
I understand the comparison that wine and toilet paper are both consumer goods however I would be willing to bet that Costco only sells a few skus of toilet paper but close to 200 skus of wine. Even that paired down number is just a small fraction of what is available to the wine consumer today. What are the choices for toilet paper? White or tinted? Plain or scented? Quilted or regular? Organic? Recycled? All the small random changes you can think of and they probably only add up to the choices of wines available from one of the smallest wine producing countries in the world. I would imagine that people only have one favorite type of Toilet paper but many types of wine that they enjoy.
3) You don’t expect differences in Toilet Paper due to the year it was produced or where it was produced!
When I buy a package of BRAND X Toilet Paper I expect that to be the exact same as the last time I bought it and as the next time I’m going to buy it. Granted I know there are a large number of customers out there that want their wine the same way but for those of us who are excited about wine and really geek out with it, this is a key difference! Toilet Paper needs consistency. Wine should reflect its origin.
4) I Have Yet to Hear of a Moral, Religious, or Political Objection to Toilet Paper!
Wine (and alcohol in general) is polarizing. There are people who believe that drinking is a sin or that it is immoral. There are countries that have banned alcohol completely. Prohibition itself is a huge example of why wine is different from Toilet Paper. I have never heard anyone say toilet paper has ruined lives or corrupted society. In fact, if you ask most civilized folks I would imagine that toilet paper is among the most universally liked and used consumer goods regardless of race, religion, national origin, or political affiliation. Everyone can agree on toilet paper being a good thing! Maybe we’ve just stumbled upon the key to world peace?
5) The Use of Toilet Paper Will Not Inhibit Your Ability to Operate Machinery!
When it comes down to brass tacks, wine contains alcohol, which is a drug. We can have an entirely different debate about the harmfulness of alcohol versus other drugs but for the purposes of this argument, it is. I never worry about being on the road with people who have been using toilet paper. I do, however, worry about people who have been wine tasting too much. Napa is particularly prone to this on the weekends and I’ve already seen more than my share of cars weaving up and down highway 29 this season. Everyone feel free to continue to drive after using toilet paper but for all of our sakes, find a designated driver if you’ve been drinking wine!
6) Collectors don’t pay big money for old toilet paper
I’d love to see someone go to Sotheby’s and say they found a secret room in their cellar and within they found a pristine stash of 1800 era toilet paper (ok I’m sure SOMEONE out there would be interested but stay with me here) and ask how much it would be worth on the auction market. I guarantee it wouldn’t be worth as much as a pristine stash of wine would be. What’s my point here? Fine wine holds its value over time and the only reason it does hold and increase in value is because someone is willing to pay big money for it. Will I buy old wine? If I can afford it, absolutely! Will I buy old toilet paper? No.
While I agree with Alvarez-Peters trying to say wine is just another consumer beverage and everyone should stop acting like it is so special I don’t agree that it is the same as toilet paper or tin foil. Granted anything above general food, water, and shelter is not really a need but a consumer product but I categorize wine as a luxury good and toilet paper as more a basic household necessity. There are absolutely different levels of consumer goods and I think this is what was lost in the conversation.
The vineyards of the estate date back to the 17th century when Jacques de Pichon, Baron de Longueville, with the help of his father in law, Pierre de Rauzan, began to assemble the vineyards. The Chateau, where it exists today, was built in 1851, designed by Charles Burgeuet, by Raoul de Pichon-Longueville, one of the four children of Joseph de Pichon-Longueville. The estate remained in the family until 1933 when it was sold to the Bouteiller family. In 1987, AXA purchased the property and restored and furnished it in a style appropriate for a mid-19th century estate, under the management of Jean-Michel Cazes. The current Technical Director and Winemaker of Pichon-Longueville is Jean-Rene Matignon who has been with the estate since 1985. Matignon is a humble man who clearly loves the Chateau and is quite happy making wine with AXA and Pichon.
The Chateau is a renaissance-style mansion with four turrets and is thought to be the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle at Disney World. In 1989-1991, the cellar was completely redesigned by Jean de Gastines and Patrick Dillon, a Franco-American team chosen by competition organized with help from the George Pompidou Center in Paris. The goal was not only to create a world class cellar but to harmonize the buildings with the existing Chateau and grounds. It is one of the only underground cellars in Bordeaux. They chose stainless steel tanks to easily move and change the placement of them if needed. Originally the cellar was designed to receive grapes underground to be sorted by hand but they have since moved to an outside receival area complete with a 125,000€ optical sorter to augment the hand sorting. When asked if the machinery vs. hand sorting makes a quality difference Matignon shrugs and says “The way of using the equipment is more important than the equipment itself”. He says that the changing of the cellar from the old to the new has helped with dissolved oxygen (DO) considerably.
The Estate vineyards are comprised of 73 hectares of gravelly soil planted to 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot. The gravel is 5 meters deep over a bed of calcaire that helps the vineyard retain water during the summer months. The average age of the vines are 30 years with 9,000 vines per hectares however the oldest vines on the estate are 80 years old and consistently make the Grand Vin. The Grand Vin is Chateau Pichon-Longueville and usually is around 15,000 cases and is generally produced from the 45 ha of original estate vineyards. The second wine is called Les Tourelles de Longueville and usually is around 12,000 cases. Matignon has made several changes to the vineyards since he began. He has installed more drainage to control the water levels in the vineyards. “One must be flexible and close to the weather” he says. He has also halted mechanical harvesting, is using less herbicide, and is leaving more leaves on the vines than before. The estates stopped using insecticides in the mid 90s in favor of pheramones. Copper use has also dropped as a build up of copper in the soil has become a large problem throughout Bordeaux. Where they used to spray 10-12 kg/ha of Bordeaux Mix, they now only use .5-.7 kg/ha (around .2-.3 kg of Copper Sulfate/ 1kg of Bordeaux Mix). Studies have shown that soil bacteria will metabolize 2-3 kg of Copper per year so Matignon hopes that eventually the amount in the soil will decrease over time. His largest worry right now however is the Flavesance de Raie. The Flavescence is a bacterium that has become problematic due to the importation of the Scaphoideus titanus leafhopper species fromNorth America. The disease shows first symptoms through stunted growth, yellowing leaves, black pustules and inhibited lignification. The second season, the symptoms are more pronounced and can shrivel grape clusters after which the vine declines rapidly. It will kill an infected vine in 3-4 years. The estate is not only using pheromones to combat the leafhopper but is also using natural pyrethrum based insecticides to reduce the population as well as using traps to see how effective their spraying is.
In the cellar, we toured with both Matignon as well as AXA Millésimes current Managing Director, Christian Seely who has been at the helm since 2001. Prior to his current role he was the Technical Director of Quinta do Noval in Portugal since 1993. He took us through the library and showed us the oldest bottle in the cellar, a 1905 Chateau Pichon-Longueville. Traditionally the Chateau only bottled with a front label but opted to change to having a back label as well in 2005 as the list of legal requirements for labels grew beyond what they could reasonably fit on a front label. In the barrel cellar, we spoke a bit about oak aging. The estate uses 70-80% new French oak for the Grand Vin where all total there is around 50% new with the balance being 1-2 year old wood. “It’s important to keep the lots separate” says Matignon “That way you know how each parcel is turning out.” Six different coopers are used however both Matignon and Seely believe that it is the toast that matters the most in barrels rather than the forest or Cooper. “Different coopers are more appropriate in some vintages than others. Using many coopers helps maintain style and helps mitigate vintage variations” says Seely. We tasted two barrel lots of the same Cabernet Sauvignon lot to determine the difference. The first wine showed fine grained dusty tannins and a very low oak toast profile. The second wine was still low toast but higher than wine 1 with slightly more spice and dark chocolate bitterness on the finish. Wine 1 was aged in Saury Premium, a barrel bent by water. Wine 2 was aged in Tauransault TS, a barrel with 5 years of wood aging prior to forming the barrel with fire. On average the Grand Vin spends 16-17 months in barrel. The 2004 spent 15 months as it was a lesser vintage while the 06 spent 20 months. They built a completely new addition to the cellar in to allow for storing longer aging vintages. When asked how he justified it to the board Christian Seely said “It is difficult to analyze the ROCI on small changes but they make all the difference.” Today, stricter selections have led to half as much Grand Vin being produced than in the mid 90s. It took the journalists about 3 years to notice the change as it was made in 2000 and the scores didn’t reflect it until 2003. Seely laughs and says there were some tough moments during that time. “Success is measured by many factors, not just ratings of wines”.
The 2011 vintage was similar to 1999 but with more ripeness. Hot weather during June led to a loss of 1/3 of the fruit for the year. The Grand Vin for 2011 will be 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot which is barreled in November. The entire blend is de-barreled and assembled in February right before the en Primeur campaign during which it is re-barreled and racked a total of 3 times before final disgorgement for bottling. In 2011, the fermentations took between 17-30 days for both primary and ML which are co-inoculated. 2010 was a difficult fermentation year and they took much longer than average. Total Phenol levels are analyzed to help determine pressing. Matignon is also looking at the differences between must that is pumped and must that is gravity fed to fermentors. We were able to taste two of the lots he experimented with. The gravity fed wine was softer with more pronounced fruit while the pumped wine was more structured and seemed to have more depth. He believes that there is a place for both techniques to increase the complexity of the wines. We were also able to taste through several varieties of the 2011 vintage.
Grand Vin Merlot: Deep dense fruit with strong oak and structured tannins. Matignon feels that the oak is too much at this point but feels it will settle out over time. This Merlot comes from the older vines from the estate.
Grand Vin Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of violets and raspberries, with fine grained dusty tannins. It had just finished ML and had Sulfur added.
Cabernet Franc: Strong aromas of violets with intense oak and strong tannins. 1 month in barrel so far. Matignon believes that the vineyards are too dry for Cabernet Franc and that the tannins of this lot are too drying because of this.
Petit Verdot: Black fruits, and strong tannins. This wine comes from a four year old vineyard planted with selected clones. The original vineyard was virus ridden and mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon so it needed to be removed.
On climate change, Matignon says that Bordeaux needs to adapt to the weather. He predicts it will be a viticultural problem. Perhaps they will change the rootstocks or use older techniques to reverse the ripening trend in the vineyards such as halting leaf pulling or reducing the numbers of leaves at the top of the shoots.
Special Thanks to the Ch. Pichon-Longueville staff and AXA Millesimes for the information above.
WAAAAYYYY Back in November I went on one of the most exciting trips of my life to France based on the generosity of AXA Millesimes. I promised then that I would blog about it and now after several months I am going to fulfill that promise! The next few weeks will be short excerpts recalling this fantastic opportunity complete with tasting notes and way too much geeky wine information. Here is the first of many…
It took 31 hours of travel time for me from my house to the back door of Chateau Pichon-Longueville. The time consisted of Flights from SFO to Philadelphia,PA then to Munich, Germany. After that a quick flight to Toulouse there was a bus trip from Toulouse airport to the train station down town then a two hour train trip to Bordeaux. Once I had arrived at the Bordeaux train station it was another hour by taxi before I arrived at the Chateau. The taxi driver spoke little English and I apparently speak better French when exhausted so we had a pleasant chat about the area and when he learned I was here for wine he was happy to tell me that he and his family had worked in the vineyards their whole life. I asked what he was doing driving a taxi then and he replied it allowed more time for fishing. By the time we arrived at the Chateau I was exhausted beyond measure and it was 11pm in Bordeaux. As grueling as the travel was it was fantastic to get rid of any semblance of jet lag. I was greeted by the housekeeper who was kind enough to leave out a small endive salad, a slice of ham, and several slices of baguette for dinner. She also left a bottle of wine. Since it was already opened I felt it would be rude not to sample it however I thought that one entire bottle for a single tired guest was a bit optimistic on her part and a bit of a waste for the bottle. The room in the Chateau was like a fairy tale complete with the small meal laid out in a turret just off the room. It was the most relaxing shade of moss green with a fireplace, chandelier, and numerous antiques to match the period in which the Chateau was built. The bathroom was a periwinkle blue with claw foot tub complete with a large draping shower curtain. It truly was the bed room that you dream about as a little girl. After a quick shower I fell into a deep restorative sleep.
As I was the only one who had arrived that night, I had the Chateau to myself the next morning. While there were people working there they insisted that I eat breakfast in the formal dining room by myself. I’m not one to enjoy dining alone so I ate a quick traditionally French breakfast of a croissant, baguette slices, and yougert then went for a walk around the grounds. The back gardens of the Chateau were partially forested with a small pond which I could easily imagine must have been once used for small boats carrying ladies with parasols. I crossed over this pond by way of a small stone bridge to the back of the gardens. They were manicured just enough to make you believe you were in some fantastic forest but not so much that you realized you were in a formal gardens. The gardens were separated from the vineyards by a small split rail fence which I followed to find a route to the vineyards. I wandered through the vineyards for a while marveling at the small vines, some no more than a foot off the ground and so tightly spaced that it was difficult to walk down the rows. Turning back to the Chateau it seemed that Pichon-Longueville was a green island in the midst of a sea of brown dormant vines. On the eastern facing edge of the gardens there was a large Sycamore tree which I took advantage of to sit beneath, soak up the sun, and marvel at my good fortune. The breeze was soft and light, the sun warm, and the vineyards were spread out around the Chateau in undulating waves. There was a church steeple in the distance and the cross of Pichon-Loungueville closer to my right. It was a very relaxing moment. Soon though it was time to return to the Chateau to meet my fellow scholarship winners and begin the formal trip.
We gathered in the Study of the Chateau, surrounded by books, dark wood, and stuffed songbirds in glass boxes. There were four other students on the trip; Anne Krebiehl (Freelance Wine Writer), Ray O’Connor (Commercial Manager for the International Wine Challenge), Patrick Schmitt (Editor at the Drinks Business), and Nigel Sneyd (Winemaker for E&J Gallo). It was an eclectic and fascinating group and we all were able to meld our diverse backgrounds for an educational and exciting experience.
As I was perusing the produce section of my local Safeway this weekend I was trying to decide which fruit to get for the week. I love apples so I decided to go that direction. For the first time in quite a while I did not reach for the Pink Ladies or the Galas. I went back to my old staple. The apple that started my love affair with apples; the Red Delicious. I found myself being momentarily self conscious. I know I have friends that would be appalled that I chose the old standard rather than searching out a “more flavorful” or “less mainstream” variety. Now I usually love my Galas in CA, Empires in NY, and love of all loves the King apple that I’ve only found in Hendersonville, NC but something about that shiny, dark crimson flesh with the white spots spoke to me. There’s nothing wrong with the Red Delicious, it’s usually the sterlingly beautiful example of what a theoretical apple should be, absent of defects but also lacking in any really distinguishing factor outside of it’s color. It’s moderately sweet, moderately acidic, and moderately crunchy which appeals to the mass majority of apple consumers. I was instantly struck by how similar the Red Delicious apple variety is to Merlot.
Merlot is one of those varieties that people who are really geeky about wine love to disparage. It doesn’t have the power of Cabernet or the delicacy and finesse of Pinot Noir. It lacks the spiciness of Syrah and the depth of Malbec. Merlot has been turned into, in so many people’s minds, the standard red wine just like the Red Delicious is the standard red apple. However because Merlot possesses so many qualities that are widely appealing to the wine consuming masses it has some how been deemed uncool.
Go ahead, blame the movie “Sideways”. No one can dispute that it helped push Pinot Noir from relative obscurity to mainstream obsession but did it really hit Merlot as hard as everyone said it did? I was working in upstate NY when the movie came out and if I had a dollar for every customer who asked me if I had seen the movie I would be a wealthy woman right now. All these people tended to stay away from Merlot in favor of Pinot. But what about the regular average consumer? The people who are casual wine drinkers? The “Mr and Mrs Cul-de-sac” as one of my marketing people loves to say? What do they think of Merlot? Signs point to mainstream America loving Merlot.
Consider the data that started me off on this apple/grape comparison put forth so eloquently by Steve Heimoff in a recent post.
Here’s the direct quote from his Nielson Data breakdown that really got me thinking.
“Despite rumors of a “Sideways effect,” 45 percent of participants in Nielsen’s custom survey of Merlot drinkers never saw the movie, and 93 percent of those that saw the movie say it had no effect on their opinion of Merlot”
It is very easy, as avid wine drinkers, to assume that your tastes are the tastes of the rest of country. On the contrary, avid wine drinkers (and if you’re reading this blog that probably includes you) really only make up around 20% of the wine drinking population, which in turn, is only 30% of the population of the country as a whole. (Sources: Constellation’s Home and Habitat study in 2008 and the economics portion of the Mastering Wine Seminar at UC Davis a few weeks ago)
Now who feels like they are in the minority?
Turns out that like the Red Delicious apple, Merlot is hugely popular. More so, it never really lost popularity with the core group of people who were consuming it. So instead of looking down on Merlot, maybe we should rediscover it? If you haven’t had a Merlot in a while, try one this week! Maybe you’ll even try an Emma Pearl Merlot (SHAMELESS PLUG FOR MY OWN WINE). While you’re at it if you’re one of those Foodie types that thinks the Red Delicious is a dull flavorless variety that is not to be consumed by educated palates, go buy yourself one of those too! Let’s all branch out and try something that we haven’t in a while just to see if we had the wrong notion in the first place.
Let me know what you find!