On the Trail

Pick, Press, Pour in Jerez

Olivia Ragni

It seems the more I learn about Sherry, the more confusing it becomes and the more I realize I know nothing. It can be a complex and difficult wine to understand: the vineyards, the aging systems, the different styles, the bottling and shipping regulations, even the fact that it’s called vino de Jerez in Spain and Sherry elsewhere. Luckily, there is no better cure to fix this feeling of hopelessness than una copa de vino de jerez

For years, I have been learning everything I can about Sherry bodegas—the warehouses where the wines are stored, blended and aged. The more I learned about the bodegas, the more curious I became about an often overlooked aspect of Sherry production; the vineyards. Sherry is always included in wine reference books and wine certification course, but other than a quick reference to the famous albariza soil, there is never any focus on the vineyards. Part of this is because the mystique of Sherry is connected to the mysterious bodegas, but what about the vineyards? All wine starts in the vineyard, so it must be somewhat important. This desire to understand the Sherry vineyard is what spurred me to work a harvest in Jerez, rather than in some other area of the world.  

Due to antiquated regulations which were only recently lifted, if a bodega wanted to bottle their own wine for sale, they needed to continually have 250,000 liters of wine in barrels. Many small Sherry producers couldn’t meet this demand and needed a third party to sell their product, which led to the industry being divided. There were and still are people who only own vineyards, as well as those who only own bodegas, and those few large producers who have the capital to purchase from those who do not bottle and label their wine as their own. Although the new regulations have now reduced minimum amount of wine to 25,000 liters, the industry is still quite divided. That division presented an obstacle to my goal of seeing the whole process of Sherry production, from vine to bodega. I needed to find one of the rare producers who does everything themselves, from beginning to end. My best bet was to find a small producer that would have once been an almacenista; producers that have their own bodegas but don’t meet the production requirements to have their own label, so their wine is sold to other producers for sale and export. With the help of friends in the Sherry industry, I was able to secure a sort of internship with a longtime almacenista that has just recently begun bottling their own Sherry under the label Cruz Vieja, named after the neighborhood in which the bodega resides. 

Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez is potentially the smallest producer in Jerez that has its own label. Beginning in 2014, they’ve bottled their own very tiny production of incredibly high quality Sherry. This is a family owned bodega that began this passion project in 1971 after acquiring an old solera dating back to 1789. Now run by the second generation, mainly by Jaime Gonzalez with the help of his brothers and sisters, the bodega cares for seven hectares of vines, two of which they use to produce the very traditional Cruz Vieja wines. They are one of only a few producers who controls every step of the process from vine to bottle, and I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with them. 

For years, the important role vineyards play in Sherry production has been overlooked. Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez produces single vineyard Sherry, something that very few producers do these days. I only wish they included this information on the label so people could know how special this is! There are a few producers that will sometimes identify the pago, or designated vineyard zone, on the label, such as Valdespino and Equips Navazos. While I can’t tell you for certain if a single vineyard or single pago Sherry is necessarily better than one that is a blend of vineyards or pagos, I can definitely say quality Sherry does begin in the vineyard. Even those great producers who do not own their own vines do all they can to know where their juice is coming from and how the vineyards are cared for. Bodegas Urium is an example of this. They are another phenomenal small producer, one who does not have their own vineyards, but has a business partnership with a vineyard owner whom they trust and who gives them the ability to control how the vineyards are being managed. This points towards growing interest amongst the new generation of winemakers to put an emphasis on the vineyards. I met three young oenologists who were excited to tell me about their project that focused on the terroir of different pagos. The idea is to create unfortified white wine from palomino grapes, with each bottling containing a single pago, in order to express the terroir of each pago. Hopefully more projects like this one will help bring attention to the importance of the vineyards and the terroir of the different pagos.  

I was lucky enough to see the process of winemaking at Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez from pick to press to fermentation. The 2016 vintage had been difficult, with excessive rainfall in May, followed by too much of the levante (the southern, hot, dry winds), which led to grapes maturing unevenly and low yields, but ultimately the harvest resulted in fruit of a high quality and concentrated sugar. The harvest started early this year in many places. By the beginning of my second week in Jerez we were ready to harvest the grapes (see this post to learn little more about the preparation for harvest). Harvest work is some of the most difficult work I have ever done in my life—sweating, bending, crouching, and getting bit by ants and wasps. It is certainly less then glamorous. This year there was a heat wave during harvest, meaning at times temperatures reached 116 degrees fahrenheit. My first day, I thought there would be a master class in how to cut the grapes properly off the vine, but I was simply given a ten second demonstration and a pair of clippers and told to cut everything off the vine. There were a few things I was to watch out for, such as grapes overly dried on the vine, rot, or infestations. These were to be cut off the vine and discarded, but the majority of sorting and cleaning is done after the picking. I was always given only one row of vines to work at a time. I would work as quickly and as carefully as I possibly could, but I always finished much later than the professionals. Later, I learned that they were actually taking two rows at once, and I was still finishing a half hour later than them with my single row.  

The professional harvesters are some of the sweetest people I’ve met and they had a wealth of knowledge to share with me about the vines, the grapes, and the critters in the vineyards.  Working in a vineyard like Jaime’s was an incredible lesson in biodiversity. They use only organic compost and very little, if any, insecticide or pesticides, so the vineyard is crawling with critters. Each morning as we pulled into the vineyard before sunrise we would see rabbits scurry into the bushes at the sound of our steps. We found loads of chameleons, many wild partridges, and various types of insects and lizards I had never seen before. We even found a few bird nests nestled in-between the vines when we were cutting. 

All the grapes at Jaime’s vineyard are hand-picked, but I had the opportunity to watch how machine harvesting works. It is quite a site to see—fast, efficient, and accurate; but it also seems a bit harsh on the vines. Hand picking is certainly more delicate. We mainly picked palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes, while also picking a little moscatel and a few grapes primarily for eating. The palomino and Pedro Ximenez look almost identical, but taste incredibly different.  While harvesting you can even smell the difference; the PX has a sweet, aromatic smell while the palomino is neutral.

One of the cooler experiences was being able to harvest PX grapes for pacificación, or more well-know by its french term, passerillage, a process by which the grapes are picked and then lain on a mat in-between rows to dry out in the sun for a week or two in order to concentrate the sugars. 

The day after we picked the Palomino grapes, Jaime took me to see exactly what happens next.  A truck comes to the vineyard to pick up the grapes and then drives them to the press site. We hopped in Jaime’s car and followed closely behind. We were greeted at the press facility by a jolly, plump man and a table full of food and wine. Like any social interaction in Jerez, nothing could take place until everyone was sufficiently fed. After several copas de vino de jerez and a plate of chicken and rice, the grapes are dumped into the sorter and then filtered into the press.

Once pressed, the juice is separated into the first press juice, which is reserved for fino, and second press juice, which is reserved for oloroso. The following day, the juices are pumped into a truck and transported to the bodega. Jaime still does fermentation in barrel, an old technique that has mostly been eradicated because it requires a lot of attention. 

At the bodega, the truck closes down the entire street for hours in order to pump the juice directly into the fermentation barrels. I was able to assist Jaime in filling the barrels, which he does single handedly each year. This process takes hours, and when we were finished, there were twenty-five barrels of must waiting to ferment. This is a tiny production. Jaime only bottles about 4,000-6,000 bottles per year. Once the juice hits the inside of the barrels, fermentation begins almost immediately. It's a testament to the ideal climatic conditions in the bodega that allow wild yeast to thrive. By the time we were finished pumping the must into the barrels, we could hear the sizzling and smell the funk of fermentation. The sound and smells are captivating and indicate the end of a successful harvest, so we decided to celebrate with a little venencia lesson, from venenciadora, Momoko, jamon y queso, and some of the old, family-only Amontillado, which Jaime let me saca, or pull out of the barrel and pour myself—a nerve-racking task when you know you are drinking wine that dates back to 1890. 

The wine will finish fermenting to complete dryness in about a week, then it will be fortified with grape spirit and sit and wait for its classification. But what is next for the vineyards? Now comes the important task of preparing the vineyards for the rainy season, which is in the autumn and winter. As I briefly mentioned before, the vineyards in Jerez have this beautiful, chalky, albariza soil. Before the rainy season hits, the soft albariza soil is pressed into rectangular pits between the rows of vines, helping to trap the water and reduce run off—a process called aserpiado. In the summer heat, the soil will then harden and protect the water from evaporating. In the hot July and August months, the roots will reach deep into the soil for water, sometimes as far as thirty meters down.

If you should visit the Sherry region, take the rare experience to visit not only the bodegas, but the vineyards of the region. Sink your feel in the soil, feel the soft, calcareous albariza soil in your hands, keep your eyes open for the creatures of the vineyards and taste the grapes off the vine, most importantly appreciate that the vineyard is the place where painstaking work, year-round, goes into in order to produce the incredible vinos de jerez

~Olivia Ragni

Scotland's Whisky Mecca Set For New Distillery

David Driscoll

We were having lunch at the Ardbeg cafe when Andrew Laing got the call from his dad Stewart. I watched his face for a reaction—good or bad—but I couldn’t read anything from his expression. We’d been waiting all day for this moment; the decision from the Argyll & Bute Planning Committee concerning the future of Ardnahoe distillery on Islay. For more than a year, Stewart and his two sons, Scott and Andrew, have been working to approve what would become the island’s ninth distillery. They’d purchased a piece of land just south of Bunnahabhain and north of Caol Ila, between the two stalwarts along the northeast coast across from Jura. They’d created a design, gathered a list of necessary equipment, and submitted the plans to the council back in January. Since then they’d been working to troubleshoot and tweak the plans to fit with the department’s feedback before the final hearing was scheduled. A yes or no vote was set for 11 AM this morning in Lochgilphead, and we were past midday at this point. While no one was expecting any conflict or issues, the boys were still a bit on edge because the reality of an Ardnahoe distillery would not be (and could not be) official until permission was granted. It was still possible for any potential protesters to file a grievance or air a complaint and now Stewart was calling from the main office with the news. “Hello? Hello?!” Andrew began saying repeatedly after only a few seconds of conversation. His phone had cut out. “The signal on Islay is terrible!” he exclaimed. Apparently the message had not been transmitted. Both Andrew and Scott tried calling back, but there was no service. “We’ll go to Iain’s,” Andrew said. “My dad’s surely called him already.” We paid our tab, rushed to the parking lot, and headed north back towards Port Ellen.

We drove hastily past the former distillery site and along the coast to the home of Iain Hepburn, the architect and designer for the Laing’s Ardnahoe distillery, who coincidentally shares the same last name as the boys’ maternal grandfather. “His car is here,” Scott said as we approached. After a few knocks, Iain answered the door with a huge grin.

“Is it a yes?” Andrew asked half with excitement and the other half shattered nerves.

“It’s a yes!” Iain exulted and with that announcement cheers were immediately shouted, hands were shaken, hugs were given freely, and a bottle of Champagne was quickly produced. We gathered in Iain’s conservatory overlooking the Islay countryside towards the Mull of Oa to celebrate. Andrew popped the Veuve Cliquot, handed us each a glass, and together we toasted the future of Ardnahoe: the first distillery for a historic whisky family, but not the Laing's first thought of ownership. Stewart’s father started the family’s first whisky business in 1949, a blending house that purchased and matured both single malt and grain whiskies from other producers, but the family’s current operation—the Hunter Laing Company—had been considering the purchase of a working site for years. “We realized about eighteen months ago that we were going to have build if we wanted to own a distillery,” Andrew told me as rode the ferry from Kennacraig. “For several reasons, Islay was the clear choice. We have family connections to the island. Our father worked and trained at Bruichladdich in the sixties, and we had relatives living in Bowmore in the 1800s. We vacationed there as kids. It's the only location we ever considered.” Andrew and Scott are also partial to the island’s peated whiskies, which made building on Islay that much more romantic.

After an exhaustive search for the perfect site, the Laings teamed with acclaimed Islay engineer Iain Hepburn to create a vision for the family’s long-held dream. Having designed projects at both Ardbeg and Laphroaig, as well as the beloved pedestrian path from Port Ellen down to the southern distilleries, Iain’s reputation on the island is that of someone who can get things done, and get them done well. “As far as the aesthetic design, we took our lead from him,” Scott told me. “He’s the expert and the one with the experience.” The boys knew they wanted a classic pagoda roof as part of the appearance, but beyond that their goal was to find a design that fit the atmosphere—one that would blend in with and enhance the scenic property. Iain not only provided the design for the distillery, he also engineered it to be as efficient as possible in terms of production. While the logistics were important, his goal from day one was to enhance the visitor experience at Ardnahoe. In spite of the slope on to which the facility would be built, Iain's intent was to put as much of the experience on one main floor so that the vistors wouldn't have to continually walk up and down various flights of stairs, or meander their way through multiple levels. "I wanted it to face northeast and look out on to both Jura and Mull, and beyond towards Skye,” Iain told us when we met him at the group’s planning office yesterday. “It’s an absolutely beautiful location, and it’s a rather dramatic view as you come down over the hill and see the water for the first time.” He walked us through the blueprints and outlined the inner workings of the facility before we made our way out to visit the estate.

The name Ardnahoe comes from the name of the adjacent loch, which will serve as the water source for the distillery. In Gaelic, the name means “height of the hollow,” referring to the site’s dramatic topography. Having access to a natural water source is perhaps the most important aspect of choosing a distillery site, and Ardnahoe will be built directly across from an immensely deep lake of clean, fresh, pure Islay water. Due to the important role that water plays in a whisky’s ultimate flavor, there’s a rich tradition in Scotland of naming a distillery after that vital resource. “The name was an obvious choice,” Scott said as we gazed out over the grey expanse. “We didn’t spend too much time deciding on that.” As I continued to think about Scotland's tradition and heritage of distillation, I realized that—once built—Ardnahoe will become the only Scottish-owned distillery on the island. "We didn't take any outside investors," Andrew said, "because we didn't want anyone else telling us how to do this." A major new distillery free from venture capitalism, a lengthy Kickstarter campaign, or any other attempt to solicit donations from potential whisky drinkers before actual producing a drop of whisky? What a concept in this day and age where monetary investment is considered the burden of others!

Between the main distillery site and the loch of Ardnahoe is an old farmhouse that dates back hundreds of years and currently serves as a makeshift office for the project. While the distillery won’t be open until 2018, the rustic edifice has tasting room written all over it. We all thought it would make a great event destination for Ardnahoe promotional parties in the meantime, imagining a candlelit hall crowded with whisky fans at next year's Feis Ile festival. While the official distillery buildings are still being finalized, the Laings have announced that they intend to make both peated and unseated styles of whisky like their neighbors at Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila respectively. Perhaps the addition of a third distillery on the northeast coast will finally give Islay's heralded south beach a run for its money! I can sense a new rivalry in the making.

After going over the details and the design of the visitor’s center, we waded through the weeds and made our way down to the future home of the distillery. The view from the hill is simply majestic; the mountains of Jura standing stark across the Straight of Islay with the current moving quickly north out to sea. Iain’s design will be classically styled, but with a modern approach in terms of an aesthetic. “We want to honor tradition, but we also want to give people a reason to come out here and see us,” he said as he outlined the vision for us. After almost ten years in this business, I can't say if I've ever been as excited for a new whisky distillery as I am for Ardnahoe, mainly because of the philosophy that the Laings are approaching the project with. As longtime fans and bottlers of whisky, all three men know full well what constitutes a great dram. As veterans of the whisky blending business, they're tailoring that vision from the perspective of the consumer. Plus, I don't believe I've ever met three more level-headed and kind people from one family before. I've known the Laings for about five years at this point, but after spending the last three days with them I can safely say that this is one of the first distillery projects I've witnessed completely free of vanity, ego, or delusion. The Laings don't envision Ardnahoe as an investment to be flipped, or a last ditch attempt to capitalize on a hot whisky market. It's simply the logical next step for a Scotch whisky family that's been part of the industry for over six decades. They've devoted themselves to the single malt community because they believe in its necessity.

As Andrew poured the Champagne and Scott finally began to smile, we all took a deep breath and relaxed into our seats. You could sense that a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, despite the encouragement and support that the Islay community had emitted over the last few days. Everyone from the Scotch whisky community has been rooting for the Laings since day one, as have consumers in the know. As we rode the ferry back to the mainland, we continued to discuss potential strategies and ideas in the ship's main lounge. A group of Scottish men sitting nearby, who were clearly dedicated whisky fans, happened to overhear our conversation and asked about the progress. Since I knew Andrew and Scott were both too modest to brag a bit on their own behalf, I informed the group that the plans for Ardnahoe had just been approved and that a celebration was in order. Within seconds the men had produced a hip flask and poured a dram for everyone in the group, wishing the boys their very best and promising to stop by the site on their next visit. You could sense the men were just as excited by the idea as the Laings themselves, and why wouldn't they be? A new distillery on Islay is a big deal. It's the spiritual home of single malt whisky, a veritable Mecca for Scotch drinkers. Everywhere we went, the news about Ardnahoe was met with a reaction and congratulatory bliss normally reserved for pregnancy announcements.

In a sense, the Laings are indeed adding on to the family. They've got a few more exciting announcements up their sleeve, to boot. Buckle up, everyone. There's still more to come.

-David Driscoll

The Jerez Way of Life: Tabancos, Tapas, & Sherry

Olivia Ragni

In Jerez, life moves a little bit slower. In the summer, between the hours of 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM, the city is desolate. The majority of Jerezanos are in their homes, hiding from the oppressive sun, eating a decadent lunch and taking their siesta. The only people left wandering the city streets are los guiris; the tourists. These newcomers to the city are left to fend for themselves if they want a bite to eat or a refreshing drink. Any attempt at either will be met with shuttered windows and locked doors. Dinner begins late here in Jerez—around 9:00 PM is when you see the city come alive with people taking up every part of the street, cars struggle to drive through the sea of people hopping to and from their favorite tabancos. A tabanco is a type of tavern indigenous to Jerez. These local joints are focused around selling Sherry straight from the barrel while also serving simple, traditional food. In addition to the food and drink, tabancos serve the community with a place to socialize and mingle. At every tabanco you will find a Sherry menu on the wall, but don’t expect to see a detailed listing of various producers. You will simply see a listing of each style accompanied by a price per glass. Make your selection and watch the bartender pour you una copita from the barrel. 

Each one usually sells for well under 1.50 Euros per glass. The lack of an identifiable producer is commonplace. There’s a house Sherry for each style, and the public is rarely, if ever, privy to such information. It is only important to pick the style you would like to pair with your tapas. This is because dinner in Jerez is a much smaller affair than in the United States. It’s more a time to socialize with friends while picking on tapas and having una copa de vino de jerez (a glass of sherry) or small beer called una caña. The tabanco is small, the glasses are small, and the plates are small. While you can find larger restaurants with more in-depth Sherry lists and more fancily crafted food, the dinner pairing remains the same: Sherry is an accompaniment to food and food is an accompaniment to Sherry. Never one without the other.

I quickly learned after a few nights in Jerez that it is impossible to drink and eat separately.  The first few times I was invited out for a drink, I declined food.  This was met with strong backlash and several orders of tapas anyway. I’ve also learned to tread lightly when I’m hungry, because the first stop for food and drink is never the last stop.

It seems Jerezanos never stop eating or drinking throughout the day, yet somehow are never too drunk nor too full. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as el puntito. For every glass of fino, manzanilla, amontillado, and oloroso, there are equal plates of carne mechada, coquinas, queso payoyo, chicharronesjamon iberico de bellota. As the Sherry continues to flow, so too does the food in order to balance the Sherry.

This inseparable pairing is in contrast to the United States where food and drink are often consumed separately, often to the point of being either stuffed or drunk. It's beginning to change as people are returning to the pre-Prohibition days of drinking with their food.  Maybe this is why only recently Sherry has begun gaining popularity in the U.S. Sherry was born from a culture where eating and drinking together are important, and moreover, eating and drinking well.  There’s an apocryphal story in Jerez that says there was once a McDonald’s in the center of the city, but it quickly closed down—the only McDonald’s in Spain to do so. You’d be hard pressed to find a Jerezano who would choose a McDouble over a succulent plate of chicharrones. 

Sherry should not be thought of as an aperitif or after dinner drink, but a drink to be paired with your lunch or dinner, (or breakfast for that matter). It deserves a place on our dinner tables alongside the French and Italian table wines we think of as more food-friendly. Sherry is extremely versatile, pairing well with things that are notoriously difficult, like asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, and anything with umami flavors. But perhaps the best pairing for Sherry is the combination found in every tabanco all over Jerez; good conversation with good friends. So grab a plate of jamon iberico, a few friends, and a bottle of Sherry to recreate a traditional Jerezano experience.

-Olivia Ragni

Condrieu's Labor of Love

Keith Mabry

When I got out of my car and walked towards this vineyard, I looked out over this breathtaking landscape and said to myself, “I know we are going to buy this wine.” I hadn’t even tasted any of the wines yet, but I knew something special was going on here and I had a strong feeling what was inside the bottle would match the beauty I saw in front of me.

Alright, let’s back up a minute. In the spring of this year, I visited many of our existing direct import producers in the Rhone Valley, while meeting a few new ones along the way. One such new producer is Domaine Clos de la Bonnette in the appellation of Condrieu. Condrieu is located just to the south of Cote-Rotie in the northern part of the Rhone Valley. It is a particularly small region that solely produces Viognier; but not just any viognier. Simply put, these are the best viogniers in the world and Condrieu is the benchmark by which all other viognier is measured.  Located on the west side of the Rhone River, most of the appellation’s 160+ hectares are grown on the steep granite hillsides for which much of the northern Rhone has become famous. The hillsides are terraced meaning the earth is held back by stacked stone walls, many of which were built when the Romans then occupied the region. Many of these original walls still exist today.  

The Domaine of Clos de la Bonnette was purchased in 1992 by wife and husband team, Isabelle Guiller and Henri Montabonnet. Isabelle had her eye on this abandoned vineyard site for many years before they moved forward; the main reason being the site had remained unoccupied because the hillsides were in complete disarray, as many of the stone retaining walls had collapsed over the decades due to neglect. Restoring this property could only be done as a labor of love, not a commercial venture. Henri did most of the restoration himself, rebuilding the walls by hand.  This work is usually handled by specialists but Henri is quite the tinkerer and taught himself how to do it.  While he worked on rebuilding the walls, Isabelle took on the task of cultivating the indigenous flora around the property making it more biodiverse. After years of restoration, they were finally replanted in 1999. Because of the location of the vineyard, Henri and Isabelle have no direct contact with their neighbors. They are surrounded by a forest, a creek, and another hillside of ruins. This natural barrier allows them to more easily produce organically, a process by which they have farmed since they began replanting.  It took another decade but they finally now have 1.5 hectares under vine—just over three acres and definitely not a commercial venture. In Condrieu, there are only a few organically certified vineyards in the whole of the appellation and Clos de la Bonnette is the only estate to produce all of their vineyards organically. The quality of the fruit is so high that Marcel Guigal wanted to purchase their fruit and put them under contract.  Thankfully, they politely declined. 

Isabelle toured with me through the vineyards where she showed me the restored walls, as well as an ancient ruin of what used to be a stone house. To do any kind of restoration of this structure would require some visits from a whole different department of the local conservancy.  She decided to quit while she was ahead in this case. It was early spring so wild flowers were plentiful, the leaves on the vines were just beginning to show, the insects were buzzing about, and the light bubbling of the creek down in the canyon whispered through the air.  Henri showed me one of his favorite inventions—a modified tiller which allows them to turn the earth more easily in the confining spaces of the terraces.  Another note on organics in the northern Rhone:  I was speaking to another producer who works organically and one of the biggest challenges he cited is plowing the vineyards.  This alone leads many producers to use chemicals to deal with what is known as the “grass problem.” Grass competes for water during certain key parts of the year and to hand plow these stony vineyards is too impractical for many producers so they rely on scientific solutions.  

After our tour we sat down to taste and started with the two Condrieus they produce. Both were 2014s put in bottle in the fall of 2015.  The 2014 “Les Roches d’Arbuel” is the core wine for the estate.  Its elevage is mostly stainless with about a third of production aged in barrel.  he wine showed gorgeous white flower, honeysuckle, peach and nectarine notes.  A light dusting of minerality and a fine thread of acidity and just a touch of the barrel for spice.  The 2014 “Legende Bonnetta” is the more limited production which had a richer texture, a fuller body as well as long finish.  When Condrieu often gets this full, it sometimes picks up too much alcohol and astringency along the way. Not here.  This wine was supple all the way through. We did a little tank sample of the 2015 base cuvee and it showed everything I had hoped for, the fresh stone fruit and glycerine. When I saw that they made a red as well, I asked if we could taste.  Isabelle explained that they were sold out of the 2014 because they have even smaller yields from this vineyard.  We tasted anyways and I was floored. The syrah comes from a plot of 40 year old vines that has Cote-Rotie soil but not the right exposition, so it sits just outside the appellation.  Needless to say, I asked if we could be first in line for the 2015.  

We bought the 2014s, which are now on the shelves, and I committed to the 2015s, which will arrive early next year.  Keep your eyes open, get on the waiting list, or send me a reminder email, but don’t miss these wines. My visit in the vineyards was all too short but I left knowing that I had met wonderful people who have the drive and desire to produce something truly special and to leave a legacy that will be remembered until the next Henri has to rebuild those stone walls.  

-Keith Mabry

Champagne Summit 2016

Gary Westby

This past Tuesday K&L’s whole Champagne team; Scott Beckerley from San Francisco, Diana Turk from Hollywood, and Alex Schroeder and myself from Redwood City assembled to taste nearly all the current releases we carry from the grand marque houses. We started off the night before with a dinner at my house featuring Champagnes from the famous clos or walled vineyards of the region, but that is another story entirely! This was the 5th annual K&L Champagne Summit, and the biggest ever—we met sixteen producers and tasted sixty Champagnes at a combined retail value of just under $6000! While this was hard work, we were up to the task!

Our first appointment of the day was with Champagnes oldest house: Ruinart, which was founded way back in 1729. They have been shipping Champagne for 47 years more than we have been a country! I thought that their 2004 Ruinart "Dom Ruinart" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne stood out. It is composed of all Grand Cru Chardonnay with 69% sourced from the Cotes de Blancs and the balance sourced from Sillery and Puisieulx, two sites on the north face of the Mountain of Reims. With ten years of ageing on the lees, the wine has wonderful vanilla cake dough richness, but is still vibrant and fresh. The characteristic chalky drive of the classic 2004 vintage makes for a long, bright finish, and this wine should continue to improve for decades. Unlike many big names, their vintage program, which this Blanc de Blanc is just one part of, represents only 1% of their production. The high degree of selection really shows!

From Dom Perignon we were fortunate enough to taste the 1995 Dom Pérignon "P2" Brut Rosé Champagne which they have held back for nine more years in the cellar than the current “P1” release of 2004. It still had the signature DP yeastiness, but after twenty one years of ageing in perfect conditions, the savory, complex smokiness and delicate red fruit were in perfect harmony with the lees character. It was one of the most elegant, delicate and long finishing Champagnes of the whole day.

We also revisited the 2008 Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé Champagne which I first had with Mr. DeMarville, chef de cave of Clicquot, paired with a long roasted chicken. The 2008 vintage has rightly been hailed as a great one in Champagne, and this Veuve Clicquot Rose is a great example of this fantastic harvest. The wine has incredible power and a nearly Burgundian savor to it which was very satisfying with the food. It also has the clarity and lift of the highest acid vintage since 1996. This is a wine for the ages, but it will be very difficult to keep my hands off of now!

The Krug Grand Cuvee nearly stole the show—the one we tasted was ID 115003, the 163rd edition of this great wine. It was fabulously rich and showed some barrel spice and Chevalier-Montrachet like lime fruit. This bottle was based on 2007 and composed of 12 vintages going back to 1990. The blend was 37% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay and 31% Meunier- darn near 1/3 each. Of all the great, mature wines in the world, Krug has to be the best deal of all. They do so much of the ageing for us Champagne lovers!

My favorite vintage wine of the day was the 2004 Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It epitomized the ideal of elegance in wine, and had a creamy ease and subtle restraint that would leave even the most jaded of palates asking for another glass. The incredible fruit sources in the Grand Cru’s of Chouilly, Mesnil and Avize and the natural balance of the classic 2004 vintage undoubtedly contributed top quality ingredients, but the cold fermentations and judicious use of top quality cooperage at Billecart delivered the wine. This is a bottle I hope to drink again soon.

The most meticulously prepared of all of the presentations was Champagne Laurent-Perrier, and after the tasting and talk I was left with a new appreciation for the history and commitment to quality at this great house in Tours-sur-Marne. I loved the 2006 Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne for its laid back balance and excellent texture. It is composed of half each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir entirely from Grand Cru sites and aged for eight years on the lees. If you like your Champagne with a great balance between meyer lemon zing and creamy richness, this has it all.

For many years now, Champagne Louis Roederer has been leading the way in progressive practices in the vineyard in the region. This approach showed in the wines at this year’s staff summit, and in a quite spectacular way. The wines of Roederer really have a shine to them, and the soon to be released 2009 Louis Roederer "Cristal" Brut Champagne exemplifies this luminescent style. Roederer has been the largest organic vineyard owner in Champagne for many years, and this is the first year that Critstal has been made exclusively from these organic, mid slope, pure chalk sites. The ripe vintage of 2009 has made for a precocious wine that is already showing much more aroma and giving much more pleasure than Cristal normally does when first released. That being said, this is a chalky, complex, detailed Champagne that has decades and decades of time to shine!

It is no surprise that at 10 years old, many of the 2006 Champagnes are really starting to show well. The best I tasted at this year’s staff summit was the 2006 Pol Roger "Extra Cuvée de Réserve" Brut. This is one of the most masculine, vinous, broad and powerful Champagnes of the day. It is composed of about 60% Pinot Noir to 40% Chardonnay, but that Pinot is powerful Mountain of Reims Grand and 1er cru stuff and it shows! I loved the big, hazelnut and black cherry savor in this rich, yet very dry Champagne. This will be a top recommendation for anyone married in 2006 or with a child born in this year, because while it drinks well now, it will be great for a long, long time.

The best non-vintage of our whole Champagne summit was the Drappier "Carte d'Or" Brut Champagne. That is saying a lot, since we tasted so many greats! This combination of 75% Pinot Noir, 15% Meunier and 10% Chardonnay is made with the lowest sulfur counts of any grand marque Champagne. The fruit for this is all from the Aube and Kimmeridgian clay rather than the chalk of the Marne. It is also mostly estate grown. This gives Champagne not only with the lovely red fruit expression one would expect from so much Pinot, but also layers of nearly Chablis like minerality. If you like dry, yet full flavored Champagne, you it to yourself to try the Drappier!

The historic Ay property Ayala has made quite a comeback since Bollinger purchased and invested in so many upgrades. While they are from a Pinot Noir town, they have always been famous for their Chardonnay driven, lighter style that contrasts with their sister property Bollinger. Their 2008 Ayala Blanc de Blancs Champagne was the star of the lineup for me, and is sourced exclusively from the Grand Crus of Mesnil and Chouilly. While this Champagne has the great chalky drive of the 2008 vintage, I was surprised by how open it showed. I love the creamy, nearly brie like nose that is framed by high quality toast and the medium to full bodied texture. This should last—if you can keep your hands off of it!

Perhaps the most complex wine of the whole staff summit was the 2004 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Rosé Champagne. While Lilly Bollinger refused to make rose at the property during her lifetime, calling it “Champagne for prostitutes” this ultimately classy bottle proves that even the greats of the Champagne world could get it wrong from time to time. The wine has a lovely copper pink color and a beguiling bouquet of savory black truffle, brioche and subtle Corton like dark fruit. On the palate the wine is not nearly as vinous as the Grand Année blanc, and has an amazingly tiny bead. What a treat.

We were very lucky to have Gosset export director Bertrand Verduzier come from Epernay to present his Champagne at the summit this year, and we learned a ton about this very old grand marque. Their flag ship wine is the Gosset "Grande Réserve" Brut Champagne, and it is an exceptional wine. The current batch is composed of 43% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir and 15% Meunier with 20% reserves that are blended in the solera style. They never do any malolactic fermentation for this wine, and as such need to age it for a minimum of four years on the lees before disgorgement. It has an almost green color in the glass, and has a great tension between opulent toast and chalky, nearly apple like crunch. If you like this Champagne, be sure to put some in the cellar, I have had them going back thirty years and they are spectacular with age as well as young!

The most decadent bottle of the whole staff summit was the 2005 Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne. This blend of eleven crus is composed of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and aged for eight years on the lees. It is loaded with buttered toast aromas and is deep, rich and broad. The bead is very precise and fine while the wine itself is full bodied. If you love the full English style of Champagne, this is the best bottle in the store!

Our final appointment of this year’s summit was with Taittinger, and the 2006 Taittinger "Comtes de Champagne" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne was the perfect bottle to perk up tired mouths. I found the limey, Puligny-like drive of this Champagne compelling and refreshing, and was happy to see this vintage living up to the legend of the Comtes de Champagne. This all Cote de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne is sourced from primarily estate vineyards in Avize, Chouilly, Oger and Mesnil. It is 95% fermented in stainless, but sees 5% small oak to add richness. The combination of toast from 8 years on the lees and lime zest from the top Chardonnay make for an exotic, yet elegant beauty of a Champagne.

It was a long day of tasting, but I came away with the impression that times have never been better for quality in Champagne. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it!

-Gary Westby

The Two-Headed Eagle of Jura

Keith Mabry

Sometimes you meet a guy and you just know he’s doing something right. That's exactly what I thought when I met Henri Le Roy, the man behind Domaine de l'Aigle a Deux Têtes, earlier this year in LA. I was first introduced to Henri’s wines when a friend and I shared a bottle his chardonnay one night in Paris at a little bistro called Le Bon George (I mention the bistro because it is truly worth seeking out). I tasted the Griffez chardonnay and was blown away, telling my dining friend Thomas (who had also recently discovered the wine and became Henri’s agent in the United States) that this was a producer we needed to have on our shelves. Then Henri himself came to town, we had dinner at a wine bar in the mid-city called Marvin (I mention it because it is also worth seeking out and has one of the most progressive lists of Jura wines anywhere in the LA area), I told him how much I loved his wine, and it began from there! We placed an order with him, the wines came in and—of course—the Griffez blew out. It was the beginning of something special, you could tell.

Understated but extremely thoughtful, Henri had no real personal background in wine when he started a domaine, nor did he have a multi-generational family history in the subject. For all intents and purposes, he's a first generation winemaker. He does have a background in science though and a passion for wine. He worked in pharmaceuticals, but eventually decided he had had enough of that racket. A true self-starter, he forged ahead and began his search for vineyards. Loving the style of Burgundy, but not possessing the resources to pay for some of the most expensive land in the world, he landed in Jura; partly because the land is much cheaper, but primarily because you can make true terroir-driven wines in the style of Burgundy.  I should also mention that Henri is not a fan of the sous voile style of wines from the region.  He prefers the more expressive, clean style of wine that he and a few other producers make, believing this to be the future of the region. I decided to meet Henri at the domaine on my recent trip to the Jura to catch up and check on his operation.

We met early in the morning to tour some of the vineyards. The winery dog ran up to greet me and Henri’s son came out of the cellar to say hello. He called his father to let him know I was there. While we waited, he showed me that they were actually labeling the new order for K&L, soon to be picked up (and now, actually in the stores).  I would have loaded it all into my car and brought it back with me if I could have, but it seemed impractical for my next two weeks on the road. Henri arrived, so we hopped in the car and went in search of his great vineyards.   It was a bit rainy that morning so he outfitted me with a pair of galoshes. There is a ton of marl in the vineyards which is a sedimentary form of calcareous soil. It’s like a really compact form of clay. The surface really sticks to your boots.  We drove back into the canyons behind his village to visit a site he had acquired a few years ago, a vineyard is named Derrier les Roches that is almost entirely surrounded by woods.  Sadly, the last few vintages from this site have either been struck by hail, or been picked clean by the birds from the surrounding forest.  Derrier les Roches is planted to Chardonnay with the average age of the vines over fifty years of age on blue marl, one of the region’s most desirable soil types. Taking protective precautions last year by netting the vines, Henri will release a 2015 bottling of this wine.  

We proceeded to the Les Clous vineyard which is home to his savagnin and poulsard varietals.  We charged up the hill, surrounded by wildflowers and wild grass. Henri pointed out some animal tracks and asked me if I could identify them.  My first and almost always my best guess is wild pigs but the tracks were not hoof shaped. They were from badgers!  Though it took us awhile to figure out the word in English. The Les Clous is on a mix of blue and red marl. Ideal for the two regionally classic grapes. There is a third vineyard which Henri had recently acquired but it was a bit too far off for us to visit this day.  We headed back to the cellar to do a little barrel tasting instead. We started with the 2015 chardonnay from the newest vineyard, Lices et Peria. It was full of distinct apple and pear notes with great intensity and nerve, but it was still going through malolactic so full judgment will have to be reserved. Great potential seems to be there. The 2015 Derrier les Roches was to die for, delivering such minerality and weight that I can see why the birds were so fond of eating these grapes. We moved into 2015 Les Clous Savagnin. It was vibrant with notes of fresh figs, melons, and lemon rind. This clone produces small berries which means more concentration. Unfortunately, he only has five barrels of this vintage when normally there are fourteen.  Next the 2015 Les Clous poulsard.  I’ve never experienced the weight and intensity of poulsard like this; such dynamic flavors and so much weight. It was the best young poulsard I have ever tasted.  We finished with his macvin, a local specialty of grape juice fortified with marc (grape spirit) from the region.  His macvin, though not technically macvin because he doesn’t boil the grape juice down, was loaded with sweet candied fruit—like those Japanese hard candies with melon and plum flavors.  Not boozy at all, this had wonderful acidity.  

After tasting, we adjourned to his house for a lightish lunch.  We opened a bottle of the 2014 poulsard (the one being labeled at the time, but which has now arrived).  It had beautiful high note spices of cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice.  Red fruits of strawberry and bing cherry permeated the nose.  The texture was pure with its bright acidity.  It reminded me of a Cru level Marsannay with its tone and resonance.  We had a bright cauliflower salad with shallots and balsamic and olive oil, a salad of endive and then a delicious Beef Bourguignon. I asked if he used any of his wines for the stew?  Of course not. Too precious. Can’t spare a bottle. Henri’s son joined us and we talked about music, the culture of the region, and his desire to make great wines. Also his love for Absinthe. If you find your way to the region and visit, he would never say no to sharing a little if you brought some along.

-Keith Mabry

Secrets of the Bordeaux Negociant

David Driscoll

As the spirits buyer for K&L, I travel to Scotland quite frequently in search of whisky. While most of our customers seem to imagine me visiting distilleries and tasting single malt right off the still (which does happen every now and again, I'll admit), most of my time is spent dealing with middlemen and their storage facilities. I visit nondescript warehouses full of booze and owned by independent bottlers—the companies that buy and store whisky from producers and bottle it under their own label. As a distiller who specializes in aged goods, you can imagine it might be tough to wait ten to fifteen years to recoup expenses. You need some money coming in up front. It's for that reason that many distilleries sell filling contracts to middlemen who sit on that supply like real estate for as long as necessary until it's ready for sale. As I learned during my first K&L trip to Bordeaux this past Spring, there's a similar system in place for the esteemed region's wine producers. Allocations are purchased by third party companies known as negociants and warehoused for years until a buyer is found. As a major Bordeaux retailer, K&L purchases much of its wine from these industry players. While we also buy directly from a number of chateaux, sometimes we need more inventory than what they can offer. Other times we're looking for more value-oriented wines from producers who don't have the budget to market their own goods. In these cases the negociant also functions as a sales rep. It was the latter circumstance that brought us to Barriere this past April.

Much like I spend much of my time searching for under the radar deals from unknown distilleries, Ralph and Clyde (our two Bordeaux experts) dig deep each time they travel to Bordeaux, on a quest to find quality from the highest of high end to the most basic everyday bargain. I was really impressed by some of the wines we pulled out at Barriere, especially for the price. I wasn't familiar with a number of the properties, as many of them were wines not normally seen on the general market, but who needs name recognition when the wine tastes as good as it does? One of the most impressive values was from an estate owned by the well-known vigneron and consultant Stephane Derenoncourt called Domaine de l'A, a ten hectare operation in the Côte de Castillon. Just east of St. Emilion, the wine is an overachiever in every way. The 2012 vintage for example is a soft, easy drinking, and complex merlot-based cuvée that comes from serious stock. For less than twenty-five bucks, it's a hot deal that drinks well in the short term, and one that I never would have known about were it not for Barriere. Another new discovery for me was Domaine Andron, an Haut-Mèdoc property owned by the folks at Cos Labory brings serious bang for your buck action. We snagged a 2010 Andron for $19.99 full of rich fruit and deeper, more complex notes of tobacco and earth. I couldn't believe how delicious and well-priced it was—especially given the quality of 2010. 

But that's why you have to taste everything. As I've learned in Scotland over the years, the most romantic visits and the most exciting visits aren't always one in the same. The real business—the type the yields great booze for great prices—often gets done in a boring old warehouse. They're not so boring, however, once you start thinking about what may be lying inside of them, waiting to be discovered by the dedicated merchant.

-David Driscoll

Denver's Distillation Secret

David Driscoll

Meet Todd Leopold, co-owner and distiller of Leopold Bros distillery in Denver, Colorado. You may think you know him and his products, but I assure you: you do not. While you may be aware of his family's many achievements and the incredible portfolio of spirits they've produced over the last few years, I can promise you this: you have yet to really experience and appreciate just what Todd Leopold's family can do. Sure, his father is a landscape architect who helped decorate one of the most pristine campuses in the industry. Yes, his mother is a textile expert who put together the distillery's stunning interior piece by piece. Of course, his brother Scott (co-owner of the brand) trained as an environmental engineer at Stanford and constructed one of the greenest, most eco-friendly distilleries in the country. This information is common knowledge to the many people who think they know the Leopolds and their business. But what I learned this week is that the products that will ultimately come to define the Leopolds and their distillery have yet to be released. They're sitting in wood, racked in a dunnage style warehouse immediately next to the production facility. They are magnificent spirits, steeped in flavor, tradition, and an incredible amount of historical accuracy—painstakingly researched with a level of sophistication usually reserved only for savants. What we think we know of the Leopolds is founded in the present. We know their current work quite well at this point. What we will come to know them for, however, has yet to be unveiled.

The Leopolds have moved around a great deal in their lives. Their father worked for the government when they were kids and was forced to relocate frequently, rendering the two brothers almost defacto best friends. Their work together has also migrated; the current incarnation of the Leopold Bros distillery is the third of its kind. The first was located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The second was also in Denver, just a few blocks down the road. The latest facility (and hopefully final) has only been operational for about two years now, meaning the whiskey currently being made has yet to hit the market. That’s an important point to consider when evaluating their previous work because the strides they’ve taken since then are unparalleled in the American whiskey scene. Leopold Bros does everything from scratch. 100% of the grains used are floor malted by hand, meaning rye, wheat, and barley. With the exception of their grape-based absinthe and maraska cherry liqueur, all of their base spirits are made in house. Even their silky Silver Tree vodka starts off as a fermented barley, wheat, and potato mash in a Vendome pot still before finishing its distillation on the column. While you may have guessed chemistry, Todd Leopold’s background is actually in malting. From 1995 to 2008, he made beer for a living. He has studied and worked in Germany as well, including a stint at Würzberger Hofbräu, perfecting a number of hefeweizen and pilsner recipes before moving over to distillation. In fact, he's so good at malting that a number of breweries are now coming to him for their base malt. As he if he wasn't busy enough, contract malting has now become a side business for the company.

Properly malting one’s grains also involves drying them in a kiln. Just like at Port Ellen and many of the beloved Japanese distilleries, Leopold is adorned with a romantic pagoda roof through which the warm air is released during that finishing process. While Todd does make single malt whisky, he uses a fan rather than peat smoke as as a heat source because once that smoky, peaty, campfire aroma gets in, there's no getting it out. Seeing that the grains for all his whiskies must pass through the kiln, peat is strictly forbidden. I was curious as to why exactly Todd preferred old fashioned floor malting to the more modern and efficient practices maltsers have developed over the years. Was it just for rusticity's sake, or was there indeed a better flavor that came from more antiquated methods? “A floor malt has its own unique environment," he said to me; "It's cooler than a malting house and it's inconsistent, which is the point." Apparently the malting temperature can vary by two or three degrees throughout the floor, meaning different kernels malt to different levels. "It's inconsistent, but it's not imprecise; I'm monitoring it so there's just enough difference to add depth of flavor," he added. Those small differences create a variance that ultimately adds richness and complexity of flavor in the final spirit. "It's more hands on," he continued, "and a combination of technical science with hands on experience is important when making whiskey.”

The other thing to keep in mind about Leopold Bros is that it isn't all that small of an operation. There are eight different stills operating and about a dozen wooden fermenters, making a number of different spirits at any given time. The variety of different shapes, sizes, and pots allows Todd complete versatility at a level I've never seen at any facility ever. A distillation run might begin on one still, then receive it’s second distillation on a completely different machine, depending on which flavors he's looking for in that particular batch. Believe me—he's constantly geeking out about this stuff. I would explain it to you but it involves a lot of talk about esters, acids, and various chemical compounds. I understand it in theory, but I’ll leave it at that.

Let's talk about this guy now: the big secret that everyone's dying to know more about, from whiskey historians like David Wondrich and Mike Veach, to whiskey super nerds who masterbate over production details and spec sheets. This girthy piece of equipment is called a chamber still and it was once used in a number of American distilleries around the turn of the 20th century and into the mid-1900s. Few people, however, seem to understand exactly how or why it was used. Fortunately for us, Todd is a dedicated researcher and reader of old documents. He spends his free time digging out the recorded minutes from forgotten community farmer meetings, or various malting essays written by brewers in the 1920s. Even Vendome, the heralded American still company that made the equipment for him, doesn't really understand how the chamber still works—and that's exactly how Todd likes it. This is his baby—his reenactment—and he thinks its going to set Leopold Bros apart from the general market in a major way. Working from a design he located in an old diagram of Hiram Walker's former plant in Peoria, Illinois back in 1910, Todd helped to create this three column monster that—despite its look—distills in batches rather than continuously. I don't want to give away too many of Todd's secrets, but lets just say that there is mash loaded into each level and as the liquid vaporizes it passes through the mash as it moves up through the chamber. Think of gin vapor moving through a botanical basket, but instead it's actual whiskey vapor moving the same flavorful whiskey mash from which it was originally boiled. Todd has been distilling rye on this beast for the last six months and the result is pretty ungodly. We're still many years away from a release to market, but expect heads to explode once Todd finally decides to share it. The resulting spirit is far more flavorful and oily than any rye whiskey I've ever tasted. I can't even imagine what it will taste like after four years in wood.

Fermentation technique also sets Leopold Bros apart from many of its colleagues. Todd chooses to ferment his whiskey mash at a much cooler temperature than most Kentucky distilleries, for example. He also lets it go for more than 120 hours which is longer than I've heard of for any whiskey producer. The result is a fruity and complex liquid that has more inherent flavor than just about any whiskey beer I've sampled in my distillery visiting days. It’s slow and low, baby; just like Texas barbecue! Then take into account the other factors that Todd is utilizing like the fact that he's purposely planted fruit trees outside the distillery wall so that, when the windows are opened, the wild and native yeasts from the fruit make their way into the building, embedding themselves in the wooden fermentation tanks. At this point there's so much organic matter playing an active role in Todd's mash that it actually forms a layer of bacteriological flor! I've never even heard of that happening at a whiskey distillery, but apparently it's common in the brewing of sour beers with all that lambic action.

Regardless of what the Leopolds are doing now, it’s what they’ve already created and sold that customers know them by. Two world class gins made by distilling each botanical separately into its own spirit, then blending those resulting spirits into two completely different small batch products. A ridiculously vast and delicious portfolio of liqueurs including three fruit-macerated whiskies that taste like heaven. A Campari-like aperitivo. A pristine vodka and, of course, a small batch American whiskey. However, it’s what’s sitting here in barrel that I believe will some day elevate Leopold Bros from a devoted boutique distillery into the upper echelon of serious American whiskey culture. It’s inside the dunnage warehouse—an exposed floor building with no electricity and all natural lighting—where the temperatures fluctuate greatly between the hot Colorado summers and frigid Denver winters, creating the perfect environment for whiskey maturation. It’s there that you’ll find Leopold Bros single malt, Tennessee style whiskey, Maryland style rye whiskey, Bottled in Bond Bourbon, and the coveted Leopold chamber rye still whiskey still in its infancy. All five whiskies are beyond anything Leopold has brought to the general market thus far, and—with the exception of the Maryland rye—four of them have never been released whatsoever. But it’s not just the fact that Todd Leopold is making Bourbon, or Tennessee whiskey, or chamber still rye that has me excited. It’s that Todd Leopold is going back into historical manuals, doing his homework, researching even the filling proofs of these former whiskey styles, and incorporating a number of traditional and overlooked techniques long forgotten by the current generation of distillers in order to do so.

From the particular strain of the barley and rye, to the hands on specifics of floor malting, to the kilning and the milling of the grain, to the cultivation of yeast, to the time and temperature of fermentation, to the type of still, to the charring of the barrel, to the natural conditions of the warehouse, Todd Leopold has geeked out about the minute details of whiskey production to a level perhaps unseen in this business. He’s not only the co-owner of his company; he’s the bonafide expert of every single process of its production from front to back. In the process, he’s become a beacon of American distillation knowledge; a veritable sponge of semantics. But does that maniacal level of dedication make the whiskey taste better, you ask? I don’t want to ruin the ending of such a great story so far in advance, but you’ll know in a few more years—right about the time the Leopold brothers take over the world. What you should be most excited about is this: everything that American farmers, maltsters, brewers, and distillers have discarded and removed from whiskey production over the last century in the name of efficiency and economics has been painstakingly researched, rediscovered, and reinserted back into the process by Todd Leopold. Come bottling time circa 2019, you’re all going to find out exactly what you’ve been missing. You’re going to find out a lot more about the Leopolds and their incredible spirits than you thought you knew.

-David Driscoll

The Seaside Spirit of Sanlúcar de Barrameda

Olivia Ragni

It was my third day here in Jerez, and I was ushered into a car at around nine in the morning.  Now, full disclosure: I am only ever about 85 percent certain of exactly what is happening at any given time because everything is being told to me in Spanish, and my Spanish—while existent—is certainly less than fluent. So I hopped into the car and got super excited when I realized we were heading to Sanlúcar de Barrameda for the day. Sanlúcar is only about a twenty minute drive from Jerez and is famous for its stunning sunsets and horse races on the beach. But that’s not what we were in search of. Sanlúcar is also synonymous with a type of Sherry called Manzanilla. Unique to the region of Sanlúcar, it is a fino aged exclusively in this seaside town. I was lucky enough to be in the area during the famous carreras de caballos (horse races), but until now hadn't had the time to actually see any of the bodegas.  

There is a refreshing lack of pretense in the wine industry here. Everyday I’m lucky enough to be shown around the Sherry Triangle by so many incredible people in the industry who are knowledgable and passionate about Sherry yet incredibly humble. On a daily basis, I have to take a moment to stop and look around at my company because I can’t believe how bad-ass these people are, yet how generous and sweet they are to be showing me around. This time local enologist Manuel Torres Zarzana would be showing me around Sanlúcar. He had two bodegas on the schedule for us.

Our first stop was at a Bodega Manuel Cuevas Jurado where my guide is the Technical Director. This bodega is an almacenista for Emilio Lustau.  An almacenista is a small, artisanal producer that doesn't have its own label, but sells its wine to larger producers.  Lustau works with many fantastic small almacenisitas including Bodega Manuel Cuevas Jurado.  The capataz Pepe showed us around—an extremely sweet, jovial man who knows this charming bodega like the back of his hand. With extremely delicious and complex wines, it's easy to see why Lustau sources from this bodega consistently.  

At this point you may still be wondering exactly what makes Manzanilla special. I got all the low-down from Pepe. Sanlúcar de Barrameda is situated at the confluence of the ocean and the Guadalquivir river.  It is the river that sets Sanlúcar apart from its neighbor, El Puerto de Santa Maria; a town that also makes Sherry on the coast. The river provides perfect conditions for flor to thrive. Flor is a surface yeast that forms on top of the the wine while it ages in barrels and protects the wine from oxidation. For flor to survive the bodega needs humidity, cool air and certain level of alcohol (around 15% abv) which is why fino styles thrive on the coast, especially in Sanlúcar. 

En rama is a term you can find on some bottles of Sherry, literally meaning raw.  The idea of en rama Sherry is that the wine will have little to no fining or filtration. Above is a photo of manzanilla en rama straight of out the barrel (never bottled), you can see the little white flecks of the veil of flor it has been aged under.  This photo was taken at our next appointment at Bodegas Baron. 

Bodegas Baron is a family owned winery that is now run by two brothers and, as luck would have it, my host Manuel is the enologist for Bodegas Baron. The team that runs Bodegas Baron has a passion for Sherry and the lifestyle that comes with it. Their wines burst with character and everything that makes Sanluqueño special. These wines stand out from the wines of Jerez because they are a bit finer and softer. This bodega has some extremely old solera systems which date back to 1631 so even their standard wines have more age on them than what is typical. Bodegas Baron also makes an incredible Manzanilla Pasada from that very solar system, another speciality of Sanlúcar. Typically, Manzanilla is aged for about three to five years, a Pasada is anything that has been aged longer than usual, as a result the flor beings to dissipate. Bodegas Baron’s Manzanilla Pasada clocks in at about eight years of age.

You can only stay in the bodegas for so long before everyone is a little buzzed and someone suggests heading to get some tapas to balanced it out. The Baron guys lead us to their favorite spot on the beach to show us how to eat and drink like a Sanluqueño. We entered a bustling beachside tapas bar and the buckets of cold Manzanilla and fresh shrimp started flowing.

In true Andaluz style, you can’t just stay at one bar. Before I knew it, we were down the street at another seaside joint eating langoustines, clams, mussels, raw shrimp, anchovies and chasing it all down with Manzanilla. Soft, salty Manzanilla and fresh local seafood is quite possibly one of the best pairings I’ve ever had. They go together the way passionate, free-spirited people go with the Sanlúcar: effortlessly.

~Olivia Ragni

Ghosts of Kentucky

David Driscoll

In the new age of whiskey appreciation few subjects are more provocative and fascinating than that of "lost" distilleries—once operational facilities that no longer operate, but whose whiskies still exist for consumption and contemplation. The idea that a whiskey could live on in the bottle or continue maturing in cask long after the distillery itself has been shuttered is an exhilarating one. Collectors and avid fans alike have flocked to purchase lost legends like Scotland's Port Ellen and Brora—two of the most famous "lost"whisky distilleries in Scotland—and the lore of Pappy Van Winkle has made the old Stitzel Weller site a mecca for Bourbon drinkers, even though the plants themselves haven't operated in decades. Tasting the whiskies is almost like drinking a ghost; it's the leftover spirit from a once living being that continues to haunt your palate and tease your sensations from the afterlife.

While many of the world's "lost" distilleries are serious tourist attractions for serious whisky drinkers, most are either still used for storage by their parent companies, or they've been demolished and removed from the earth entirely; the land was either too valuable to waste or the abandoned buildings simply became an eyesore. Port Ellen, for example, is still used by Diageo as a malting center. Brora is used for warehousing space. Stitzel-Weller functions as the head office for Bulleit Bourbon. The Old Taylor distillery in Kentucky's Woodford County was one of the few accessible ruinous sites up until a few years ago when an investment group purchased the dilapidated buildings and began refurbishing them under the name Castle and Key. The main offices were right on the road, so all you had to do was park and explore the rubble. I remember digging through the old records of the accounting building back in 2013, completely flabbergasted that something so cool was just sitting there wasting away. But there was another seriously haunted-looking old distillery nearby that I'd been itching to break into for years: the Old Crow distillery. It was completely fenced off and deeply set into a small valley between the hills. You could make out some of the brick buildings through the chain link barrier, but not much more. 

The Old Crow distillery went out of business in 1985 when the plant's owner National Distillers decided to get out of the whiskey industry. The site was sold to Jim Beam, who still uses the nearby bonded warehouses for storage, but the production center was completely fenced off and left to decay for more than three decades. No one ever went in or out. The empty edifaces just sat there like the set of an old horror movie, calling my name each time I visited the area. This was the year, however, that I was finally going to man up and hop that fence. I was going to summon some courage, grab my camera, and do a little documentary journalism about one of Kentucky's fallen soldiers. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the distillery to find the gates wide open. I pulled in cautiously, parked the car, and looked around for signs of life. I noticed a few guys going into a newer-looking office near the lot, so I made my way inside. "Hello?" I called out. "Anyone here?"

It turns out that another distilling outfit recently made a cash offer to Beam for the crumbling Old Crow distillery in the hopes of revitalizing the property and eventually giving tours of the attraction. I asked if I could have a look around and they were happy to oblige, so long as I didn't meander too deeply into the buildings. Many of the structures are still unsafe and a number of the buildings have asbestos, so the last thing they needed was for me to get hurt on their newly legalized property. As for what exactly I was exploring, I'll tell you: the Old Crow distillery was built in 1860 by Oscar Pepper, who also operated a second distillery near Frankfort. You'll still see a few whiskies on the market using the Pepper name (particularly that of his son James), but neither of his distilleries have operated in generations. Old Crow distillery obviously made Old Crow Kentucky Bourbon, but the brand you see on the bargain shelves today is made by Jim Beam who inherited the rights to the label when they purchased the site in '85. In its day the whiskey was considered one of the very best.  

Walking into the larger production center, what instantly grabs you is the boiler room. It's a sign of exactly how massive an operation the distillery was, even compared to today's standards. Four coal-fired ovens pumped heat into the gigantic boiler that still hangs overhead today. It's very much a remnant of the American industrial age, like something out of an Upton Sinclair novel. According to Chester Zoeller's book Bourbon in Kentucky, Old Crow was churning out 1,400 bushels of corn a day by the early 1900s. That's about 112 barrels of whiskey daily, and the warehouse capacity had grown to over 125,000 barrels at that point. Zoeller also notes that the distillery was purchased by another company in 1935 and was expanded further. Old Crow was obviously a serious player in the early days of the Kentucky Bourbon industry. 

Both the Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries sit along Glenn's Creek, a small tributary of the Kentucky River from which both facilities drew water for mashing and cooking. The damn and pumping equipment are still there and the water still gets drawn into the well behind the fermentation building.

While the well hasn't been used to make whiskey in more than thirty years, it has now become sort of a makeshift pond for numerous fish from the river. According to the guys who bought the place, they've become pets. They bring chairs out, drink beer, and feed the fish when its time to have a company meeting. I can see why. It's a very tranquil and inspiring place to sit.

The giant fermentation tanks are still there as well, albeit they've slowly been eaten away by rust and vegetal growth from the surrounding forest. 

Since whiskey became big business again, historical legitimacy and the ability to link one's product to the past carries a lot of value with hardcore fans of the genre. I knew the day would eventually come when someone would try to revamp the Old Crow site, which is why I wanted to get in and snoop around before that happened. While the new investors have done some work to clean up the property, they still have a long way to go. But I wish them luck on their incredible undertaking. The Old Crow distillery is a historical gem. I'm happy I got the chance to finally see it in person.

-David Driscoll