Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Going Back to School on Wine Education

Just like the kids who every morning set off for the bus stop, wine writers have to go back to school every fall.

Oh sure, there are still things to study over the summer. Bottles keep arriving at my front door like so many textbooks -- some weighty tomes that need a lot of thought and analysis, others a quick read over dinner. And there's the occasional trip to the big city for a lunch-and-learn seminar at the DB Bistro Moderne or Per Se.

But things really heat up after Labor Day. First, we have to choose our field trips: Burgundy or the Mosel Valley or Mendoza? And the PR people who work for wine growers -- I think of them as my tutors -- always have suggestions about new things to try and new things to learn. Like Andy Rooney, they are always asking, "Have you ever thought about why...?"

Then there is this new education tool called a "webinar." In the old days, kids out in the boonies would be sent reading materials by mail, then they would turn on the radio Saturday morning to hear the lecture. With webinars, a winemaker in Chile or Australia, who could spend more money than Congress taking a plane north and still not catch up with all of us writers, merely has to set up a camera in front of a bunch of vines and lecture us via the internet.

Like a couple of weeks ago. The folks at Barossa Valley Estate make some really neat wines, especially two shirazes -- Ebenezer and E&E Black Pepper -- so the tutors set up a seminar for winemaker Stuart Bourne to talk to us via webcam from his Barossa vineyard while we sipped wine, trying not to get cracker crumbs in the keyboard.

I always do advance prep, and sometimes my friend Anthony helps with my homework. So here we are in my kitchen at 10 a.m. tasting these four wines before the noontime webinar. We immediately fall in love with the 2006 BVE E Minor Chardonnay, which has a sort of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc attitude. Next, there is the 2006 E Minor Shiraz -- lots of spicy fruit like a jazzed-up Russian River Zin. Wow!

Then we taste the 2004 vintage of Ebenezer and E&E Black Pepper, which regularly gets ratings in the 90s by the guys who write the textbooks. Eb has great, raw-meat, steaklike aromas, and Pepper has fruity balsamic and green olive notes. Both sport that trademarked Aussie fruit balminess, but neither is totally satisfying, like an apple pie with great filling but no crust. I turn on the computer to catch Stuart, but Anthony has to take off. What a guy -- helps me study even though he doesn't have to write a report!

Next day, I re-pull the corks on Eb and Pep -- education never sleeps -- then the next, then the day after -- and gradually they turn delicious. Should have decanted on that first day! But, if you study hard enough, you finally get it.

"No drinker left behind," I say.

This article appeared in slightly different form in my weekly wine column in the Delaware regional newspaper, The News Journal.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, October 3, 2008

Champagne Trail: Digging Pommery's Caves

On first-time visits, hosts always like to ask what surprised and impressed you -- two related, but yet quite different questions. This September, I was invited to visit the respected Champagne house of Pommery, which is part of the Vranken maison, which also includes the Vranken, Diamant, Charles Lafitte, and Heidsieck Monopole labels in Champagne as well as Listel table wines and Rozes port, among others.

So here is what impressed and surprised me.

1. I was impressed, but not surprised, by the wines, as I had tasted many of them before. Most wine writers never accept invitations from winegrowers we don't thoroughly respect (not that we can't be surprised), just as you wouldn't agree to spend the weekend at someone's house whom you don't like all that much. And quietly enjoying a vertical tasting of Pommery's luxury marque, Cuvee Louise, at the end of a hectic day with cellar master Thierry Gasco was certainly the wine high point of the visit.

2. I was surprised by the beauty of the Champagne landscape. I had been led to expect monotonous, rolling hills of nothing but vines -- but the narrow roads twisted and turned through lots of woods, past villages tucked into little corners of the countryside, and through vast cultivated fields that had been decreed years ago as unworthy of being prime vineyard land.

3. I was fascinated by the press houses. In addition to the big wineries that the large Champagne companies own, there are hundreds of press houses scattered among the villages and even in the vineyards. The idea is that the grape farmers, who still command most vineyard acreage, press the grapes quickly for juice purity before it goes to the winery, generally keeping a part of the production to ferment as their own house wines. I had thought these houses were surely relics of the past, superceded by refrigerated tanker trunks and neutral gases. Not so. Driving through the vineyards with Gasco, I noticed a yellow post-it note hanging from the rearview mirror of his Audi. It was his daily "do list" of 10 or so press houses he needed to visit to check harvest and production, two of which we saw. One, Lejeune Pere & Fils, was part of the grower's comfortable house in an upscale neighborhood, much like a large garage. Another, Pierre Arnoud, was a small winery opposite an ancient cemetery where a town gave way to hillside vines.

4. I loved the little city of Rheims, where Pommery and many other firms have their headquarters, with its beautiful, historic cathedral where the kings were coronated. "This is where France started," our guide said, "when Clovis converted to Christianity in the 5th Century," although the cathedral was built much later.

5. I had the best time at a luncheon at the newly rennovated Villa Demoiselle, just opened to the public, with Paul-Francois Vranken, his wife, Nathalie Vranken, and Vranken-Pommery managing director Paul Bamberger. Earlier, Nathalie took us on a delightful tour of the villa, detailing the fascinating work of dozens of craftsmen. The lunch, prepared by Chef J.J. Lange, was exquisite, and the conversation lively and free-ranging.

6. And I found the miles of caves -- Roman chalk pits connected by passageways -- under Domaine Pommery and the city to be awe-inspiring. Not only are there millions of bottles stored down here, but the caves, and the English-style castle above it, are the site of the Pommery Experience, a rotating international art exhibition sponsored by Vranken-Pommery. The current exhibit is much too diverse to explain in this short space, but imagine walking into a large room of this underground cavern and encountering the brighly lit beach scene below!

It's enough to make one call it a day and reach for a glass of Pommery Brut Royal!

Articles Update....

I've recently become Managing Editor of the electronic publication Sommelier News, the official newsletter of the International Sommelier Guild, and thus find myself selecting and editing my own articles among those of other writers. In the October issue, I examine "New Zealand's Right Bank Reds," which is about how the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawke's Bay has become home to Merlots that remind one of Bordeaux's Right Bank and Syrahs that are reminiscent of the Rhone's Right Bank.... Log onto and click on "article and guides - drinking" to see my recommendations for "Top 5 2005 Bordeaux for Under $50".... In my first article published in the beautifully photographed magazine, La Vie Claire, I profile Heidi Peterson Barrett , "The Queen of Napa Valley".... And, finally, in the October issue of Beverage Media, I look at what Kermit Lynch and Frugal McDougal have in common -- consumer newsletters -- in "You've Got Wine Mail."

Until next time...

Roger Morris