On the Trail

The Next Generation: Delphine Brulez of Champagne Louise Brison

champagneKate Soto
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Delphine Brulez, winemaker at Champagne Louise Brison, hails from the Aube, a southwestern enclave in Champagne that has always had a touch of a rebellious streak. Closer in geography, soil, and spirit to Burgundy than to Reims, many winemakers here are leading the grower-producer revolution that is focusing on terroir—that is, single-vineyard, single-vintage, even single-varietal Champagne—in a region where blending has defined the style for centuries. The Aube is, at the very least, making us rethink what we know about Champagne.

It’s within this context that we find Champagne Louise Brison, a family winery in the town of Noé-les-Mallets making beautiful vintage-focused Champagnes. Delphine Brulez is the great-granddaughter of Louise Brison, who started the family vineyards with one hectare of grapes. Delphine’s father, Francis, began making wine in 1991, and his philosophy of showcasing terroir has defined the winery. Delphine says, “We have a special exposition, on a beautiful hill. We make only vintage Champagne. That’s the best way to have a real picture of terroir, and of the weather. If you want to have a real picture you have to take weather into consideration. We don’t do any year blends. We work like Burgundy. We are closer to Burgundy. We studied in Burgundy. It’s a big influence.”

The respect for the vintage has informed their decision to hold all their wines back for five years before release, plus an extra year for the Blanc de Blancs. Delphine says their wines need this time in bottle, and that the 2012 vintage is looking excellent for ageing: “The 2012 vintage was amazing, very fresh, great potential. For good aging you have to have acidity. It’s a natural preservative. You have to have complexity, structure, and flavor. You have those three parts in 2012, much like the 2002 vintage, which is still the best of the best since we began. When it reaches its full potential, you’ll get flavors like quince and honey. When it’s younger it’s a completely different flavor, more fruit forward. In a sunnier vintage like 2009 you get more apricot, and in a fresher vintage like 2012 you get more citrus flavors. The range of flavors is completely different. If you make a standard, blended Champagne you can’t see that because it’s sold at maybe two years old and the wine has no time to age, and if it’s blended they can manipulate the flavor.”

To this end, farming is crucial. If the yield is too high, the concentration won’t be right and it won’t be ageable. The average age of the vines is important, as fruit from only young vines won’t make an ageable wine, either. Plus young vines are vulnerable to storms, which have become more violent and unpredictable each year, especially in the last ten, due to climate change. This year, for instance, her vineyards were plagued by summer storms and hail, and she expects they’ll lose up to 75 percent of their crop. Luckily the third that is left will be very high quality, but it will nonetheless be a difficult year. Weather impacts a grower-producer in a very particular way. Large Champagne houses have reserves from which they can blend if one vintage is bad, or perhaps they can find other sources of fruit. But to Delphine it is so important to encapsulate what happens in each year. She says: “Each year has a right to exist, but not each is the year of the century.”

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They farm organically—not manipulating their land with chemical pesticides or fertilizers. “The goal is quality. It’s all about the next generation. Each year we think about what we can improve, for the future, for the environment,” Delphine says. “My dad has been working the same soil for over 30 years. When you use a lot of chemicals and then stop, the vines need maybe 10 years to recover. Like if you stop an antibiotic, it takes along time for your body to recover. Healthy soil has a lot of microorganisms. When you go organic, you have to be prepared. You must begin somewhere.” Currently, organic growers comprise only 1.3 percent in Champagne.

Delphine has two young sons who might be the next generation, though she’s making no demands. “My dad didn’t tell me I had to be the next generation. It just happened piece by piece, working the vines, growing up with it, and I caught the virus. We don’t work for us, we work for the next generation. We hope our children will be the next generation but I won’t force them. We have a very hard job. It can be difficult. But it’s so much more. Each day when I wake up I do something different. Go to the vines, go to the cellar. The variety is so important that the job is perfect for me. I studied the production side but we are just two with my father, so we have to do everything.”

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Whatever may happen with the next generation, Delphine is a strong leader in this one, bringing this generation’s ideas of sustainable farming and terroir-driven wines to the fore of the conversation. Delphine is part of a group called Les Fa’bulleuses, a winemaking collective comprising women who occupy leadership roles. She says, “The taboo of taking the family estate when you are a woman is not there anymore, but it’s still not easy. You have to have a strong temperament. We are all winemakers in different terroir in Champagne. We are in the same situation so we all work together. It’s nice to be together to share and solve problems together.” This group is part of a new generation who wants to make a real difference in Champagne, who wants to represent their terroir. “We have the quality. We know our terroir. It’s the future. We are small compared to big brands, but we sell something that is so real and important for us.”

- Kate Soto

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Ordaz Family Wines: A Personal Terroir

domestic, producer profileOn the Trail
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Terroir is a complex concept. It’s commonly translated as “a sense of place,” and most understandings of the term are largely dependant on how the vine’s physical environment affects the expression of the resulting wine. Soil type, aspect, climate and farming regime all contribute to the raw material—grapes. Then it’s over to the winemaker to preserve these distinctive markers of that particular place and encapsulate them in a bottle. Though it’s quite difficult to measure or quantify, I’m convinced that terroir exists and that wines can convey a complex sense of place. I’m also interested in a broader concept of terroir that includes culture, people and emotion: the emotional input of a farmer or winemaker or team of people that become an integral part of the wine; the culture that exists in the place where the wine is grown and made. This dimension of terroir certainly defies empirical analysis and yet I’m equally as convinced that it affects the way in which wines express themselves and how we perceive them. Wine is inherently a human product. Nature produces grapes, humans make wine, so any concept of terroir without the inclusion of human input seems incomplete.

Very few times in my life has this concept of a more holistic definition of terroir made more sense than on a recent trip to visit Ordaz Family Wines in Sonoma. My visit with the Ordaz family was initiated a few months back with an email from Eppie Ordaz asking to schedule an appointment to taste me on his family’s wines. A few weeks later we met in Redwood City and began talking as he opened the wines. Though I had vaguely recognized the name “Ordaz” it wasn’t until chatting with Eppie that something clicked…he is the son of legendary grape grower Jesus “Chuy” Ordaz. Chuy’s name is known to many due to his namesake Chardonnay vineyard 1,400 feet up in Sonoma’s Moon Mountain AVA, made famous by producers such as DuMol, Failla, Neyers and Bedrock. Chuy has farmed those vines for more than four decades. On the same rugged mountain Chuy also looks after legendary vineyards such as Fredericks Vineyard (a designate of Turley), Maus Vineyard, and perhaps the jewel in the crown, Montecillo Vineyard. Montecillo was planted back in the 1960s and is home to some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Chuy’s vast experience and knowledge of this mountain is second to none. He has literally spent a lifetime establishing vineyards and growing grapes here. Eppie now works closely with his dad to buy very small parcels of fruit (normally a ton or less) from the best blocks on the property. They are minimally but thoughtfully crafted into wines that intricately reflect this rugged, rocky, mountain terroir. After buying some of the wines on the spot I invited myself to visit the vineyards and hopefully meet Eppie’s dad.


The following week we all met at a tiny gas station in Kenwood, California, and headed for the vineyards. Parking at the foot of the mountain where the sealed road abruptly finished, Chuy playfully gibed at his son for not wanting to get his truck dirty! We all climbed into Chuy’s somewhat more “weathered” truck and snaked our way up a steep and rutted gravel road. As we rumbled along, historical commentary about the mountain and vineyards was interspersed with friendly banter and personal anecdotes. It was impossible not to be in awe as we stood on top of the mountain looking at these 50-plus-year-old dry-farmed vines with the man who had been their lifelong caretaker. Eppie and Chuy joked about who makes the call what exact parcels to select and when to pick them. They lamented about previous eras when the fruit was less sought after and cost one third of the price per ton that it commands today! When the conversation turned more toward the winemaking side of things Chuy drifted off and before we knew it he was down a nearby row, pulling sucker shoots and leaves off of the vines. “He doesn’t like to stand still,” Eppie laughed as his dad disappeared deeper and deeper into the vines. The sun was starting to set and we had to hit the road. Eppie called out to his dad, “You’ve got the keys to the truck, come back up here.” Eppie was on the hook for cooking family dinner that night and knew how difficult it could be to get his father out of the vineyard. The connection between people and place is flourishing here. I feel truly lucky to have witnessed it first hand. The Ordaz wines represent the dedication of a lifetime’s work, the love and respect between father and son—truly magical.

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2017 Ordaz “Maus Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Rosé ($19.95) Made from 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre, a beautifully pure, refreshing, quaffable style of rosé with plenty of texture and layers to go with the crunchy acidity and zippy drive. Speaks distinctly of the incredibly shallow soils with fractured sandstone in which the vines struggle. A summer favorite for sure!


2013 Ordaz “Montecillo Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($34.99) Powerful yet fresh. Pure yet wild. This fascinating mountain fruit Zin is simply captivating. It’s taken entirely from the older blocks of Zinfandel at Montecillo Vineyard, and there is an effortless concentration to the wine that seems to come from the quality of the fruit rather than extreme ripeness or extraction; more structured than your typical Russian River, Dry Creek or Lodi Zin, really expressing its mountain home. 91 WE

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2013 Ordaz “Montecillo Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($54.99) From hand-selected parcels of old-vine Cabernet high on Moon Mountain in the famed Montecillo Vineyard. Planted in the late 1960s at 1,800 feet in elevation, this site produces some of the most distinctive and sought-after Cabernet in the state. Packed with briary dark fruit, graphite, cigar box, chicory and dry earth. Medium-bodied, with firm tannins and a linear shape. Quite savory and “old school” with plenty of traditional varietal character complementing the muscular mountain fruit.

—Ryan Woodhouse

Field Trip Part II: A Sneak Peak of the New Tasting Room at Hitching Post II

Kate Soto
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It’d be a darn shame to visit the Santa Ynez Valley without stopping at the Hitching Post II, Buellton’s iconic steak and wine haven made famous by Sideways. That’s how we saw the situation anyways. So Sharon, Diana, and I made our way to Highway 246 from Stolpman Vineyards and had ourselves a visit.

Hitching Post II is famous for more than just its role in Sideways, of course. Owners Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley serve a mean steak and have been making their own wine since 1979. We were treated to some of their generous hospitality, and we got a sneak peak of their upcoming tasting room, which will be opening any day now! They are putting the finishing touches on a property directly next to their current restaurant, which includes an airstream trailer soon to be a kitchen for small bites. There’s a barn for events with some dubiously punctuated but warm-hearted signage. The furniture is being made by hand on site. You’ll be able to sit outside and enjoy the breeze or sit inside in the modern, cozy interior. And, not to mention, you’ll get to sip on Hitching Post wines, a lineup that mostly pays homage to their favorite grape, Pinot Noir, sourced from some of the best vineyard sites in the Valley. In 1981, when they found their first Pinot vineyard, they fell in love with the grape and it’s been the core of their wine program ever since.

Gray met us with a cool bottle of their Pinks rose--a refreshing, fruity blend of Valdigue and Grenache--then Frank joined us and we toured (Gray’s word was “sauntered”) around the new place. It doesn’t hurt that it’s on a beautiful plot of land, overlooking toasted rolling hills with oak trees and the neighboring ostrich farm. The day was sunny and breezy, and, with Gray and Frank’s friendliness and the smell of barbecue from the restaurant’s grill, plus a bit of extra amiability from the wine, we were pretty instantly enjoying ourselves. I have no doubt that patrons of the new tasting room will feel the same way. There’s a great welcoming feel to the space, with lots of room for your own sauntering.

Gray told us the story of how he and Frank met many moons ago when Gray was dining at his restaurant. Gray could tell that a jumpy customer looked like he was about to try an old dine & ditch. When he did just that, Gray ran after him and got his license plate number! Frank and Gray struck up a friendship and have been working together ever since. Gray was a salmon fisherman in Alaska for 28 years, when the season was over he’d come back to California and make wine with Frank. If any filmmaker out there ever wanted to make a wine-duo buddy comedy they should look no further than Frank and Gray! They are great friends and great fun.

We finished our tour with dinner and wine at the restaurant, and I had a filet mignon that knocked it out of the park. Great food, great wine, great views, great people--the Hitching Post II is a special place, and I can’t wait to head back to see the tasting room in action. Thanks again, Gray and Frank!

- Kate Soto

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Field Trip! Among the Vines at Stolpman

Kate Soto

I first tried Stolpman’s wines when I moved back to California from Chicago four years ago, and I was in a phase of discovering just how good, how exciting California’s small producers could be. Jon Bonné’s the New California Wine was still pretty hot off the presses, and I was devouring it. I met Pete Stolpman at a tasting and his wines were balanced and complex and delicious at that first introduction, but here’s the thing: I honestly think they are getting better every year.

Recently, K&Lers Sharon Kelly, Diana Turk, and I had the chance to visit Pete and his grower, Ruben Solorzano, to tour their vineyards in Ballard Canyon and taste their wines. Not only did we get the awesome opportunity to ask questions directly to the grower while we were there among the vines, but we then tasted through a lineup of their new/upcoming releases with them, so we could connect the dots between what was happening in the vineyard and what was happening in the glass. What I learned is that Pete and Ruben are people whose wheels are always turning, who are excited about new ideas in both the cellar and the vineyard.

About those vineyards. Wine people read and talk and write about terroir quite a bit, but it is truly a different story to be out among it. Ballard Canyon is a cool but sunny AVA, benefitting from its position next to the Sta. Rita Hills and the Pacific Ocean. Out there among Stolpman’s sprawling 220 acres, we could see hawks flying overhead in the bright July daylight and really feel how cool that ocean breeze is. It was a beautiful array of rolling hills, studded with California oak trees and an olive grove. Pete shuttled us around in his pickup truck to various spots, and we discussed the projects that they were working on—connecting the concepts to the actual plants. A particularly exciting one is a Mother Vine project, where a whole block of vines will slowly but surely be propagated from one vine by running it shoot-by-shoot through the soil and redirecting it to grow upward. Then repeat ad nauseum. There’s not another project of its kind in the U.S. that they know of, and at the end they will have an entire block of different generations from the same parent vine.

It’s easy to forget that winemaking is farming when you’re in a wine bar discussing current events, but it is. And farming is important to this family. They practice organic and dry farming, so our tennis shoes crunched the dried weeds and wildflowers in between rows as we admired the clean clusters of fruit. Much of their vineyard is own rooted, meaning the vines require much less water than grafted ones. These sustainable farming practices are important factors in the identity of their wines. But equally important to Pete and Ruben is sustainable labor. Each and every vine is cared for by a full-time crew of 20 workers. Labor is a big, often-undiscussed issue in the wine industry, but Pete wants to discuss it. When his dad started this winery in the nineties, he was clear that he didn’t want to use migrant labor, but wanted to employ full-time vineyard workers who were paid a living wage and were part of the permanent team. Each year, these are the people who are out there rotating each and every cluster by hand, and they really know and care about these vines. In turn, they’ve been able to set down their own roots in the area. Ruben says, “I’ve worked for a lot of vineyards, and they all say they are family run but it’s not true; they’re just writing the check. But here the owners, especially once Peter came on board, they care about everyone, including the crew. They walk the vineyard every day.”

This relationship has been the inspiration for several of their projects, including their La Cuadrilla (“the crew”) bottling, which was born when Pete went back with Ruben to Jalisco for a visit to his family (tequila may have been involved in this stroke of brilliance). They decided to dedicate a two-acre block for the crew to farm. Ruben considered it a training ground, supporting them, but letting them learn to cultivate it on their own. The fruit from this vineyard was made into wine, and was initially given to the workers. But the wine kept getting better and better, and they were eventually convinced to sell it. Now it sells out every year, and all profits go directly to the crew.

Ruben wanted to learn how to make wine so that he could be an even better grower, and, in 2008, the Hecho Por Ruben label came from that effort. He’s traveled to work with vintners in Europe, worked closely with Stolpman’s former winemaker Sashi Moorman and international winemakers like Alberto Antonini and Michel Rolland, all to understand the relationship between his efforts in the field and what’s in the bottle. Along the way, he’s acquired the nickname “Grape Whisperer.” Since arriving in the U.S. at 19, he’s become a grape savant, a U.S. citizen, and a huge part of the local community—he’s a partner at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, a landlord, and supplier of grapes to many of the iconic wineries around the area. His wife, Maria, is also integral to Stolpman’s operation. Pete calls Ruben’s wife the “unsung hero” of the vineyard. As vineyard manager, she’s in the field, heading the day-to-day operations and the crew. When Ruben and the Stolpmans joined forces to make a wine together, they named it Para Maria as an ode to Ruben’s wife.

Pete took us all around the property. We could see the pond and the zipline where the family hosts barbecues. We could see the hills surrounding the vines and their neighbors, Jonata and Beckman vineyards. We could see their plots of new plantings, which are mostly Jura varietals that haven’t been bottled yet. We were able to ask Ruben all the geeky questions of our hearts’ desire about trellising and canopy and the like while getting a good sense of Pete’s vision for the winery.

We then got to taste tasted through a lineup of wines that really showcased the freshness and complexity of the house style. We started with a just-bottled, golden Roussanne from the 2017 vintage—a “super punchy” vintage according to Pete. It was luscious and zesty with minerality and dried apricots, and incredibly refreshing after a day in the vineyards. The next wine was equally thirst-quenching: the 2017 Syrah San Soif: Syrah So Hot is their unfiltered, natural, carbonic Syrah. It was delicious! Light and buoyant like freshly pressed mulberry juice or blackberries straight off the vine, and juicy with hints of melon. We tried their 2015 Hilltop Syrah, which was perhaps my favorite in how spot on it expressed its grape. Brambly, herbal, and olive notes in the glass with good structure but graceful tannins—I accidentally stuck it in the fridge that night, thinking I’d grabbed the carbonic Syrah, and I was surprised at how well it drank with a chill the next day. We tried a Trousseau from their new, highly allocated collaboration with sommelier Rajat Parr called Combe, also super juicy and fresh with a sour cherry/baking spice quality and a lifted, svelte body.

What a pleasure it was to get such a first-hand understanding of the place and the people. I always say that wine is great because it still provides a ton of pleasure even if you know nothing about it, but the more you learn: man, it’s so freaking rewarding. The way that Stolpman approaches their company, with integrity for the people and the vineyards and the vinification—I could see that in every step along the way. And I thoroughly enjoyed the wines.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Santa Ynez adventure, a visit with Gray and Frank of Hitching Post II as they get set to launch their first tasting room!

- Kate Soto

 This dude was as tall as me!

This dude was as tall as me!

A Visit with Séverine Bourrier of Château de l'Ou

languedoc-roussillonKate Soto
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We recently had the rare treat of having Château de l’Ou’s winemaker/owner Séverine Bourrier here in LA for a whole week. She poured for the staff last Wednesday and for customers on Saturday, then joined us for a staff get together. It was a great chance to really get to know her and her wines. It was likewise a chance for our customers to try her wines and get the full story behind each one–vintage, winemaking, you name it. Séverine was so open and friendly that it was easy to spend time with her and learn from her.

Her wines, too, can be described as open and friendly, though there’s clearly a complexity underlying them. Grown in the dry, sunny, windy climate of Roussillon, her wines are deep and concentrated but show a bright freshness that is truly appealing. She credits her long, cold macerations and her use of a technique called vinification integral (closed-barrel fermentation) for this sense of lift, which is present even in her deepest Syrah-based blends. Syrah, in fact, is her favorite grape–”a sexy grape.” she says. “It’s different in different soil.” Other grapes that they grow on their two estates are Grenache (Noir, Gris, and Blanc), Carignane, Muscat, and Chardonnay.

She’s been in this region at the base of the Pyrenees since 1998. She and her husband Philippe met at a wine fair, and he had just bought a winery in Roussillon. She joined him there and they developed everything from scratch. They removed the cellar and vineyard and spent 10 years establishing it to their own specifications. They were the first producer in the region to get organic certification.

In 2008 her mother died and she invested her inheritance in a high-altitude, schist-soil vineyard in the Agly Valley. It was a place that her mother greatly liked, and the terroir was like magic, producing elegant, earthy Syrah with an easy balance. Their first vintage of “Secret des Schist” was released in 2010, and Séverine considers each bottling an homage to her mother.

A turning point for the winery was in 2012 when wine critic Jeb Dunnuck came to visit. His subsequent article proved to be a great opportunity for them internationally. “It changed everything,” Séverine said. “People didn’t know about Roussillon before. It changed our life.”

Roussillon is a relatively small community of winemakers, but there’s a new generation making different wines–more qualitative than quantitative. And in the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of organic production. It’s paradise for organic farming because it is dry and there’s a strong wind called the Tramontane that keeps pests and rot and mold at bay. Still, climate change becomes more of a concern every year. Séverine says the last eight were particularly intense. There has been more of everything: more rain, more sun, more wind. It was 47 degrees Celcius in Perpignan while she was here in LA–that’s 117 Fahrenheit. They are worried, but they are looking toward the future. Séverine thinks that different, more drought-resistant grapes might be the solution. Recently they’ve planted the grape Marselan, a cross between Cabernet and Grenache that needs little water, and it’s looking very promising. “All of France is trying to find a solution. Different grapes will be the future, but France is slow to change. We need to be open minded,” she says.

She is deeply invested in Roussillon, though was born in Bordeaux and lived in Africa until she was 15. As a teenager trying to figure out her future, wine was far from her mind. She didn’t even like the stuff. After various internships, she met a professor from a local wine school. He saw some spark in her that led him to believe she’d be a good match for winemaking. It changed her life. “My father said, how can you do it, you don’t like wine?!” But it was a revelation. She was the only woman at the school. In France in general, people were not accustomed to female winemakers, so she had to blaze the trail on her own. She’s now at the center of a women’s wine initiative in Roussillon called Vinifilles. It’s a supportive community where female winemakers work together to find solutions. Severine says, “We don’t feel the need to protect our secrets, but work to help each other. It goes faster to work together.”

Needless to say she has grown to like wine. Love it, in fact. And with her talent and passion, she’s breathing life into Roussillon wines. Where they could be overripe and overwrought, hers are fresh and full of energy. It was a pleasure to drink them and a pleasure to meet the force behind them. They are well worth checking out!

- Kate Soto

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Barolo's Barale Sisters Respect the Past and Look to the Future

italyKate Soto

Eleonora and her sister, Gloria, represent the fifth generation to take the reins at Barale Fratelli, a Piedmontese winery whose history in the Barolo region runs 150+-years deep. The fact that they are not fratelli at all, but sorelle (sisters), is as important as the fact that they are still making exceptional, traditionally styled Barolo. They uniquely represent the new generation in Barolo: proud women holding leadership roles in what was once a very male-dominated context, but with ties to the past and great respect for tradition. If they are indeed the future of Barolo, then there’s a beautiful symbiosis of past and present in store.

The sisters inherited their winemaking style from their father, Sergio, who inherited it from his. Aside from implementing more modern technology, their wine is made in the same way. They use large oak vats for fermentation and botti for aging, eschewing barriques because they do not want to extract foreign tannins. The natural tannins of the grape are softer and sweeter than what you get from oak. They employ temperature control during fermentation and use only indigenous yeast from their own vineyards. The wine takes the tannins, aroma, and complexity from the skins. They do a gentle shower over the cap of the skins instead of a pumpover, not wanting to break the skins. These steps lead to a very elegant and complex wine–the house style for the Barali can be summed up by finesse. “My father taught me this way,” Eleonora says. “He learned from his father to respect the grape. The grape will teach you how it wants to be produced.”

This connection to tradition is important to Eleonora, who also does not plan to change the name to reflect the sorelle of the current generation. They are part of the house’s lineage, one that started when her great-grandfather, Carlo Barale, married Margherita Rinaldi, and then left the family winery to their sons, Battista, Giuseppe, and Francesco. Yet women are increasingly becoming a presence in Barolo’s wine production. Eleonora says, “Female power is changing everywhere. There is an evolution of the work. I’m excited to work because nowadays women are able to do something that belonged to men in the past. A lot of cellars now are managed by women in a very good way. It’s exciting to continue something that started 150 years ago, and I try to do it in my best way. It’s what I like in this job.”

She has seen the region change in her lifetime. “To be honest it’s not the same here, it was a poorer region, lots of people were leaving to go to more industrial places, but now more and more young people are staying here. There are more young families. They are investing more energy in new technology, with a new vision. More young people have a green point of view.” Eleonora encouraged her father to to get certified organic. “It was a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork, but it’s important to us. We are making wines that are more healthy, but also made with respect. What is important here is the land, we have to respect it.” Their land comprises calcareous marl, a lime-rich, clay-based soil. The Langhe hills were once part of the sea bed, and you can still find fossils in the hills. A certain sense of salinity and minerality is translated into the glass. Nebbiolo loves it here. And, thanks to the work of this generation, the vineyards and vines will be healthier for the next.

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The next generation could potentially be her two children, a four year old and a two month old, though she makes no predictions or demands of them for their future. In fact, when she was a child, winemaking was not her dream job. “I wanted to be a scientist, a business person. But I put my feet on the terra, and my destiny was in the wine. I’m the oldest daughter. I’m the ambassador. It’s very special. For me it was a great opportunity.”

When I asked her about the future of Barale, she said it lies in partnerships–not in more volume, not in conquering the world, but in continuing to make small lots of high-quality wines, then finding the right partners who care about good, artisanal Barolo. “You can’t make Barolo for everybody. The region is small and you can only make so much. In the 90s people wanted to sell Barolo everywhere: more oak, in a more international style, but it’s important to keep the tradition of Barolo, respecting the grape.” This sense of respect is defining throughout her work, and it’s clear when you have a glass of her wine in your hand.

- Kate Soto

For Sake’s Sake! Try Some of the Amazing Sake We Have on Our Shelves

sakeKate Soto

A long grain of rice is about a third of an inch long. To make what is arguably the finest grade of premium sake, daiginjo, you must polish away half of that grain, removing the protein and fats from its outer layer until its starchy core is left. That’s one-sixth of an inch of material left to work with per grain. Needless to say, you need a lot of rice. According to some estimates, it takes about 3.5 pounds to make one liter of sake. This varies wildly, as there are different types of rice and different styles of sake, but at the heart of this Japanese beverage is rice and the act of polishing it. It’s a beverage focused on process.

I think there’s enough of a parallel here to say that it seems like a zen process: to take one grain of rice, something so important in Japanese society that it was once a form of currency, and to work it until only the finest part is left; then to gently guide it through a series of steps until it is transformed—it seems, well, meditative. It takes patience, and, according to the excellent documentary Birth of Sake, the sake makers spend about 6 months living at the brewery each year, shaping their lives as they transmogrify these grains of rice into something sublime—something that has been around for maybe 2500 years and that has been imbued with ideas of spirituality for nearly as long. According to a wonderful essay by World Sake Imports: “The release from everyday reality that alcohol grants must have been enthusiastically endorsed by the village healers, bestowing on sake an aura of sanctity from very ancient times. Seasonal rites to propitiate the gods, as described in the Kojiki and Manyoshu, contain references to sake, which is seen as cleansing, pure, and a catalyst to communication between human beings and the Shinto gods. But admiration for sake's salutary effects was hardly limited to the shamans. While an ordinary man may not be able to abandon his body, he does need to abandon his cares for awhile and obtain, if only in his own mind for a few hours, release from the constraints of family, society, and his own limitations. And sake would do it. Just a few sips and the tribulations of daily life were forgotten as the euphoria of sake enjoyment set in.”

Sake is fermented rice, but it is not wine. It is brewed like beer but it is not beer. It is its own category. Sake rice undergoes a transformation from starch to sugar (with the help of a mold called koji), but then ferments all in the same vessel, called dual simultaneous fermentation, unlike any other beverage in the whole world. Those are the four ingredients in a junmai sake: rice, water, yeast, and koji. A brewer may also add distilled alcohol, but can’t call it junmai sake. Apparently it’s quite complicated.

Thankfully, we have Kerry Tamura. He’s our K&L sake guru and is the source of a wealth of information and enthusiasm for our staff. The best part about Kerry is that he makes sake fun. He enjoys it so much that you can’t help but enjoy it, too (I mean, it’s delicious, so it’s not a tough sell). He was in house last week to pour a few for us, so I pulled him aside to find out more about this delicate, complex, not-so-well-understood beverage.

KS: How have you seen the role of sake evolve in the U.S.?
KT: In 2009, when I started the sake lounge in Chicago (Murasaki), I knew how special sake was, but I hadn’t seen the concept for a sake-centric bar anywhere in my travels. My passion for sake grew out of necessity. We had a family-owned bar, and we needed to change our concept in order for it to succeed. Luckily, Chicagoans took to sake. It’s a drinking town. It was a wonderful experience.

I’ve been in LA now for seven years. The first few years in LA were the honeymoon phase, then it was hard for a few years, now I am loving it like crazy. Los Angeles has best Asian food outside of Asia in the whole U.S. Every Asian country is strongly represented in LA. But, when I came here, the bar for sake was very low, restaurants had mediocre lists. In the last five years, it has really evolved. LA people are so quick to pick up new things. Sake has been embraced in the unique way that Southern California embraces new food. People take aspects from all these cultures and bring them into their concept and tweak it until it is Californian. Animal, for example, is such a Southern Californian representation of American cuisine. They, for me, represent cosmopolitan Southern California in that they can gracefully blend Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern foods and cultures—if anyone wants to understand Southern Californian cuisine, it’s there. The Loco Moco is so damn good. They have 7 or 8 sake there. The fact that restaurants that are not Japanese are carrying sake is very encouraging, because it pairs so well with food.

KS: What would you pair sake with, besides Japanese food?
KT: Pair it with anything spiced: Thai, Szechuan, Oaxacan, Indian, Korean. Because there is lactic acid, it goes well with cheese, and that is an often overlooked pairing. Try cheese with junmai ginjo and daiginjo.

KS: What about how its role has evolved in Japan?
KT: It is so entrenched in Japanese culture. With economic recessions and a world war, sake has seen extremely hot and extremely cold periods over the years. Sake is very traditionally brewed, but there are a few embracing the nouveau, such as sparkling, flavor-infused, different yeasts. In Japan they are open to these experimentations.

KS: So is that the future of sake?
KT: No, the future will be all about the traditional style because the world still needs to understand what traditional sake is. And it’s so damn good.

KS: Is sake popular in other markets outside of the U.S. and Japan?
KT: It’s blowing up all over. People love microbrews. There’s been an uptick in the U.K, Portugal, Mexico, France, Canada, China…

KS: Should we age our sake?
KT: Master brewers make sake every year and it must be fresh. Wine has tannins that preserve it, and sake does not. With sake it’s ready to drink when it’s made. Sometimes master brewers will age the bottle for a few months. The decision is based on the style they are trying to achieve. If it’s a junmai, and they want to be bold, then they release it young. Sake mellows with aging, but it depends on temperature. The colder the storage, the slower aging. When it is super cold (15-20 degrees), sake becomes reserved. At wine cellar temperature, it’ll take on bolder flavors. It’s almost always aged in glass. I’ve tasted it aged in cedar, aged in french oak, but it is too woody.

KS: Can you recommend a few sakes to start with?

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Masumi/Miyasaka Yawaraka “Sake Matinée” Junmai ($22.99)
This is from a 356 year old brewery that is very well regarded. The 24th-generation heir to the throne has been very innovative, collaborating with DJs, for instance, and rebranding a few of their sakes. It’s completely 2.0 for the sake business. The Miyasaki family has been making Masumi traditional sake, and he wanted to do something avant garde, so he introduced the Sake Matinée, made in a session style (as in a session-style beer) with lower alcohol. It has a smooth, mild character and delicate flavors of citrus, wild plums, and vanilla.

Tedorigawa Iki Na Onna “Lady Luck” Daiginjo Sake ($42.99).
This is the brewery that Birth of Sake is about. Named after a 1000 year old river. It is sweet and creamy on the palate, with vanilla, salinity, and white blossom. They are near the Sea of Japan, and the coastal influence makes the sake pair well with seafood. It’s a 100+-year old family brewery.

Kokuryu “Crystal Dragon” Tokusen Junmai Sake ($39.99)
This was the Emperor’s sake brand. It’s rare, even in Japan. Very floral and pretty on the palate.

Tamagawa “Red Label” Heirloom Yamahai Genshu Sake ($34.99)
Very expressive, earthy, notes of mushroom. It’s full bodied and gamey. Would be excellent with cheese. Made by Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese brewmaster in Japan.

KS: What’s your desert island sake?
KT: The 5-year-aged Dewazakura Yukimanman.

KS: Parting words?
KT: Sake is not a fad. It’s another vocabulary to the alcohol language.

 

- Kate Soto



 

Alfaro Family Vineyards is Heating up Corralitos

producer profileOn the Trail

“You see that? You see that? That’s the deer. They come in, they take everything. We had to individually cordon off each of the vineyards with deer fencing, because they just keep getting through.” Alfaro is the owner, winegrower, and winemaker at Alfaro Family Vineyards. After a founding and selling a successful wholesale bakery and restaurant in Watsonville, he purchased a small ranch in the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, just outside the little town of Corralitos and began growing grapes. A few weeks earlier, I had tasted his wines in Redwood City and loved them. So, I had headed south towards Santa Cruz to spend the morning with one of the region’s most acclaimed winegrowers.

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The deer weren’t the only thing on Alfaro’s mind that morning. What was meant to be a twenty-five cent tour around the property was turning into an extended opportunity to inspect deer damage, fix irrigation lines, and comb over nearly every acre of his estate vineyards. This was business as usual for him. Alfaro has a frenetic intensity about him—an extreme attentiveness to detail. He considers himself a farmer. And, after twenty years of farming, he is earning high acclaim.

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Recently, Alfaro’s vineyards begun showing up on labels of some of the most sought after wines in California. Ceritas, Arnot-Roberts, and Kusch Wines all have vineyard designate wines from Alfaro vineyards.  And with neighbors like Saveria and Lester Family Vineyards attracting top producers as well, Corralitos is quickly becoming a hot spot for cool-climate, coastal-influenced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Despite being appreciative of the newfound press, Alfaro is not looking take on new producers. “I have a huge list of people who want to buy grapes, but I’m not going to expand. I’m selling as much as I want to.”

Under his Alfaro Family Wines label, Alfaro primarily produces estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in addition to small lots of Syrah, Merlot and even a little Grüner Veltliner. He also purchases fruit from a handful of other top vineyards, like Saveria and Garys’ as well as the old-vine Gimelli Vineyard in Cienega Valley. His wines are delicate, bright and terroir-expressive; a style Alfaro has developed over time. “We used to do major cold soaks and tried to extract all of these different flavors. Today we tend to go the opposite direction. I’m making better wine by being more gentle with the grapes and trying to let them work on their own,” he explained. The results are pretty astounding. It’s no wonder he has a line out the door of winemakers who want buy his grapes. And when you compare a bottle of his estate wines to those of his clients, the value is off the charts.

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The “A” wines are the first stop for anyone who wants to try Alfaro’s wines. The 2017 Alfaro Family Vineyards "A" Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir Rosé ($14.99) is produced from estate Pinot Noir with just a splash of Bates Ranch Grenache. Bright and snappy with cherry and strawberry notes, it has the acid-driven character of Corralitos.

The 2017 Alfaro Family Vineyards "A" Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($19.99) is the most compelling wine of the “A” line-up. Bigger and rounder with just a touch of oak, it shows off the vervier, racier side of big-fruit Chardonnay.

The 2017 Alfaro Family Vineyards "A" Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($19.99) is stunning and beautiful. This wine is textbook Santa Cruz Mountains. Bright and airy, it’s full of pure, red fruit and subtle black-fruited undertones, with an electric acidity. Just a hint of tannin makes for an absolutely delicious, yet serious glass of Pinot Noir.

Last year, Alfaro’s son Ryan graduated from a winemaking program at the University of Auckland and has been in the cellar non-stop for the past six months. Alfaro is looking forward to his son playing a bigger and bigger role in the business. But for now, Alfaro isn’t interested in slowing down. “I retired from my first career and planted vines. In 2003, we built the winery and tasting room and just kept going. Now my wife is trying to get me to retire again and I said, ‘retire from what?’ I’m doing what my dream is.”

-Thomas Smith

Roussillon Meets Hollywood: A Visit from Jean Marc Lafage

languedoc-roussillonKate Soto

I love meeting winemakers. There is so much to understand about a glass of wine but learning about the person and story behind it appeals to me as much as what’s in the glass. And winemakers are a passionate, interesting bunch. Their stories are usually full of twists and turns, and, at the very least, a whole lot of heart. Jean Marc Lafage certainly is a winemaker full of heart, though he’s smart and thorough and works as precisely as possible in both the vineyard and the cellar. This week, I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

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First thing on Monday morning, we sat down at K&L and talked brass tacks. Both Jean Marc and his importer, Jean Philippe from European Cellars, were basking in the glow of France’s recent World Cup win, but we quickly got down to the meat of the meeting: what Jean Marc does at his winery in Roussillon and what he’s trying to do with his wine. We talked vineyards and soil and cellar. He took over his father’s bulk wine business around 2000, and he quickly turned the barebones operation into something completely state-of-the-art. His team members walk around with remotes on their belts that can monitor the exact level of oxygen in the wines at every stage of the process. Yet, these are not over-produced wines that he is making. His main objective is to correctly match the right varietal to the specific terroir in the first place, so that the vines thrive. If he’s planted correctly, he doesn’t need to mitigate various climate influences, just manage the vines. He and his team work organically and sustainably and think about the long-term health of their vineyards. His description of process really seemed like a symbiosis between raising good material in the field, then protecting it every step of the way.

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I learned so much about Roussillon while speaking with him and researching. What a wild, unique place. It has one metaphoric foot in Catalonia and one in France. Though it’s lumped in with Languedoc, it’s a very different place culturally, historically, and vinously. Per Jancis Robinson: “Quite unlike the flat coastal plains of the Languedoc, Roussillon's topography can be guessed at by the fact that today it is effectively the département called Pyrénées-Orientales, the eastern section of the Pyrenees, a mountain range so high that much of it remains snow-covered throughout the summer.” It is France’s sunniest climate, and it also bears influence from the nearby Mediterranean sea. Plus, rocky soils, fierce wind--it has so many different climatic factors giving it a very unique sense of terroir.

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Then, the next day, we got to sit down to dinner and I learned more about who Jean Marc is. He’s a warm, charismatic person. He is a passionate Catalan who learned French, Spanish, Catalan, and English growing up. His daughter is beginning to chart her own course in the winemaking world, just off to start an internship at Gary Farrell winery, and his teenage son loves tennis. He and his wife, who is from the Languedoc, make wine together, so the children really grew up immersed in this world, watching their parents build from the ground up, seeing both their struggles and triumphs. In 2001, they produced 2000 bottles; this year they produced 5 million.

We ate at Bavel, a new Mediterranean restaurant in the Arts District by the good folks at Bestia. The meal was just completely on point that night. The wine list had an eclectic selection, pulling from France, Spain, and Italy, but also Greece, Lebanon, and the Canary Islands. The food—grilled octopus, lamb neck shwarma, mushroom kebab, duck confit, duck sausage hummus, citrus-marinated olives, topped off with a mulberry ice cream—harmonized beautifully with the bottles we chose. We drank the 2016 Yves Cuilleron St-Peray “Les Potiers” 2016: Marsanne and Roussanne from a phenomenal producer in the Rhone, showing stone fruits and blossoms on a luscious palate. We moved on to the 2013 Glinivos Vlahiko from Ionnino, Greece—an indigenous grape to the Epirus region, not usually bottled as a single varietal, so a rare find. A delicious, medium-bodied wine that sang with ripe mixed berry fruit and black peppery spice, with soft tannins that made it the perfect match for the food. Both are producers we carry at K&L, but it was fun to try different cuvées from them.

It was truly lovely to sit down and break bread with Jean Marc, Jean Philippe, and Keith, our French Regional Buyer/Guru. If there’s a better way to learn about wine, I can’t think of it! So, a big thank you to all three for your knowledge and friendship. Stay tuned for more on Lafage in our French Regional newsletter, which will land hot off the presses very soon!

- Kate Soto

For the Love of the Vineyard: Champagne Pierre Paillard

champagneKate Soto

Quentin Paillard cares about his vines. His family has been growing grapes and making wine in the village of Bouzy since 1799—so it’s fair to say that he’s deeply rooted (pun intended!) in its soil. But upon speaking to him, it’s clear that their soil and their vines are truly the driving force behind the domaine. His passion for the work they do in the vineyards is palpable, and this is indeed the unique advantage of being a grower-producer among Champagne’s many negociants. Quentin and his brother, Antoine, farm their 11 grand cru hectares organically and biodynamically, although they are not certified and not seeking to be; they consider this work an investment in the immune system of the vines. All their wines are made from this devotedly grown estate fruit, with a heavy emphasis on preserving the character of the vintage, even in their nonvintage offerings. And there’s some alchemy that happens between soil and fruit and year that makes these Pinot-driven wines perennial staff favorites here at K&L.

The brothers took over the domaine in 2008. Their father is now retired, but the focus on quality they learned from him is still paramount. They are extremely particular about vine material, using only hand-selected massal cuttings from an old family vineyard (50-60 years old) or a special clone from Burgundy called Pinot Fin for more aromatic concentration. This is important because much of Champagne was replanted to high-yielding clones in the early eighties, many of which now need to be ripped out. As a product of the negociant system, many growers have historically had incentive to favor quantity. According to Quentin: “The economy in Champagne is such that 90 percent of land is owned by farmers selling to negociants, not making their own wine. Their main goal is to meet the allowance, and they overproduce to be safe in case of hail or rot.” But this is not always the best choice for the long-term health of the vineyard. I’d imagine that this longer, more holistic perspective is one earned when your family has been working with vines for eight generations, as Quentin’s has. And, as they aren’t selling their grapes, quality becomes the driver of all their decision making.

Part and parcel of that approach is plowing the soil and not using herbicides. “My father’s vineyards have never seen herbicides,” says Quentin. Plowing disrupts the root system and makes it dig deep for nutrients instead of fanning out horizontally. "The roots that stay in the top soil can’t pull minerals from the chalk below, so they will be more fatty, with less acidity. Same thing when you irrigate. When the roots are not going deep you cannot express the terroir. You have pure chalk under the clay in Bouzy. Sometimes Bouzy is seen as a place that can grow Pinot very rich, very ripe. But we can also get the bright acidity if the Pinot goes down to the chalk.”

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The Paillards use organic compost and tea preparations to preserve the health of the soil so that the grapes are not as dependent on the growers, but on their own immune system. The soil is naturally balanced, and nutrients go to the grapes. They prioritize picking ripe, and Quentin says this translates to the glass. “When you taste some entry level negociant wines, you can get that bready, yeasty quality with no vintage variation. And that’s because the fruit is underripe. So the fruit gets overshadowed by winemaking choices.” Picking the fruit at perfect ripeness, minimal intervention in cellar, using native yeasts—all of their actions are about stepping back and letting their material do its thing. Since 2014, they’ve only fermented in stainless steel and oak. “The way that we’re making wine is to make the best possible still wine that then becomes Champagne.”

I love Paillard’s grower-producer point of view. Blending is indeed an artform, but to be able to raise your fruit from ancestral vineyard material, nurture it to be its best, and preserve as much about the nature of the year’s produce as possible--it’s an expression of  terroir that can sometimes be elusive in Champagne. And it translates into an excellent glass of wine.

 An excellent introduction to this producer is their " Les Parcelles ," as it is a good representation of the estate, and of what Bouzy tastes like. It provides a snapshot of their vineyards, with two-thirds Pinot and one-third Chardonnay. Because they pick the fruit when it is ideally ripe, they don’t need to add sugar. Look on the label and you’ll find a Roman numeral that represents the vintage that comprises 80-90 percent of the wine. In Champagne, it is forbidden to only make vintage wines, yet Quentin loves the expression of a vintage, so prioritizes using wine from mostly one vintage per cuvee.

An excellent introduction to this producer is their "Les Parcelles," as it is a good representation of the estate, and of what Bouzy tastes like. It provides a snapshot of their vineyards, with two-thirds Pinot and one-third Chardonnay. Because they pick the fruit when it is ideally ripe, they don’t need to add sugar. Look on the label and you’ll find a Roman numeral that represents the vintage that comprises 80-90 percent of the wine. In Champagne, it is forbidden to only make vintage wines, yet Quentin loves the expression of a vintage, so prioritizes using wine from mostly one vintage per cuvee.

 

- Kate Soto