On the Trail

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

The Last of the Cult Cabs

Ryan Moses

A few weeks ago, we were treated to a visit and tasting with the Alex and Graeme at their eponymous and historical MacDonald Vineyards.  After travelling to about a dozen palatial estates throughout Napa, the humble and straightforward approach that the brothers apply to their craft was a breath of fresh air to say the least.  The visit took a vineyard-first approach in a way that spoke to the core of what makes their wine so singular. The 2015 vintage they shared with us was a meticulous expression of their treasured To Kalon parcel - aromatically brilliant, immensely layered and expressive, with each sip seemingly exposing another dimension that was intriguing and compelling.  It is a special place, a unique story, and a fantastic wine. It also just happens to be one of modern Napa’s biggest success stories and one of the wines most coveted by collectors these days.

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What makes what the MacDonald brothers’ work even more compelling is the lack of recent parallels.  A decade ago, every collector was lining up to get a piece of the most cherished mailing lists. Today, except for a select few, the floodgates are opening up on readily available, formerly “cult” wines.  One of the great proponents of this is the age of information – everybody knows what something costs, how much there is, and what other people are trading it for. The other piece of the puzzle is the decline of Robert Parker’s critical contribution.  His points still move the market, but he is not actively reviewing new vintages. Wines that once saw a 150% premium for receiving a magical RP100 mark are now selling at mailing list prices regardless of the score from other industry experts. In some ways, it makes for a more honest marketplace.  No longer are people buying $300 wines because they might be $500 wines. They are buying $300 wines because they have a genuine appreciation and affinity for them, and perhaps the resources to not have to think twice when pulling a cork.

It also makes the burden of proof that much more for these elite wines.  It requires more consumers to gravitate towards their own tastes instead of what the market dictates.  In some cases, even the most pricey wines seem worth every cent. Kapcsandy is a great example – their wines approach the $400 to $500 range at retail for Roberta’s and the Grand Vin, but I would have no problem stacking up either against the wine world’s finest and feeling like they’re a luxury that’s worth paying for.  On the other hand, there are plenty of wines that ask for First Growth prices that come off as anonymous and have you thinking of all the more modestly priced wines that deliver that kind of experience. At the heart of it, that’s what many of us are looking for as collectors on a daily basis – that elite bottle without the elite cost.  Which brings us back to MacDonald…

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The MacDonald brothers are quick to admit that they probably could charge more for their wine.  But as we enter a stage where points are becoming less impactful than they’ve been since the Parker era began, there has to be some other imperative that keeps wine collectors engaged with wines that you don’t always get to taste before you buy.  And oftentimes, nothing engages collectors more than the feeling like they're buying something that is worth more than what they paid for it. Being able to sustain that over the years is something that few properties can claim and one of the most difficult things to achieve.  Dunn is a great example – for decades they were the wine world’s worst kept secret in that many wouldn’t hesitate to pay more for what was in the bottle. Dominus, for years, was a $300 wine with a $150 price tag.  Mark Aubert still charges what many would call an obscenely low price for his Grand Cru caliber releases.  And while there are plenty of examples internationally that seem like they’ve been under-priced for way too long – Felsina’s Rancia, Pontet-Canet, Taittinger’s Comtes, Muga’s Prado Enea – they’re technically playing a different game, since they produce on a larger scale than you'll find in most of Napa.

Hopefully the MacDonalds’ story inspires more producers in Napa to reinvent the high-upside, collectible value proposition that the “cult cab” movement created back in the day.  It could very well be that it is just not in the cards for a modern economy in the region. And in the end, what makes a wine special has more to do with the dedication and tireless work that goes in to the vineyard and the bottle.  If that wine is $600, it is no less good for that, but it is slightly less exciting. If that wine is $150 in a region that is dominated by the $300 bottle, then you have a thrilling, multi-dimensional wine that engages the collectible marketplace on a large scale.  That is the magic that Alex and Graeme  captured, and perhaps their example will inspire others to see the value of attracting a "cult" following once again.

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Discovering Switzerland

On the Trail

Perhaps this isn’t an obvious comparison to your wine-producing United States of America, but hear me out. Switzerland is new territory to most wine adventurers, and undiscovered Old World is something akin to El Dorado. As a nation, strong thirst and a stronger currency mean that Switzerland consumes more than twice as much wine as it can produce itself. The vast majority of wine production is consumed domestically, just like in the USA. But with an Old World sensibility, prized terroirs in populated areas of Switzerland mean that if you live in a pricey condo on the sunny bank of Lake Geneva, there might be two rows of Chasselas vines squeezed between you and the bakery next door.

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Switzerland produces mostly white wines, and Chasselas is the most common variety. Similar in profile to Pinot Blanc, it renders a wine that is gently tailored to Swiss culinary sensibilities which could not possibly care less for the modern international wine expectations of power and points. Subtle and chiseled, Chasselas pairs with the specific refinement of Swiss cuisine that speaks to the elemental purity of high-quality ingredients rather than the alchemy of more rich or rustic cooking.

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Finding myself in the so-called “Swiss Riviera” of eastern Lake Geneva in the AOC of Lavaux (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sensibility of Old World wine history is unmistakable. The Dézalay vineyard is Grand Cru-classified and was originally built by Cistercian Monks in the middle ages with terraces that no one would dare build in any recent century. Its name is as boldly signposted as the hills of Hollywood or the vineyards of the Mosel or Côte-Rôtie. With time and good weather at a premium on my trip, I decided to explore the terroir itself and subsequently retreat to the best local shopkeeper to broaden my tasting horizons. I admit this approach made it easier to enjoy the terroir from the splendor of my hotel balcony, but on that day it beat knocking on cellar doors and I was thrilled with the results.

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Both a 100% varietal Chasselas and Pinot Noir from the Dézaley Grand Cru proved to be quintessential expressions of terroir and quality. The Pinot Noir was a particular surprise to me as an un-French Old World rendering of the varietal. Rather than my previous Swiss experiences similar to German Spätburgunder which typically offer some light red cherry atop an iron fist of dandelion greens, this example was deep and ripe with fully developed aromatics and polish. These Grand Cru-classified wines that I’ve always been told can’t compete on the international market because of price ran only about 30 Swiss francs, which is basically one-to-one with the US dollar. A sum of 30 Swiss francs is also one-to-one with the price of a hamburger over there, so they clearly delivered a lot for the money. This justifiably leads me to believe that the Swiss just want to keep all of their wines for themselves. If there are two major takeaways here, that’s the first.

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So you’re wondering why I taunt you with tales of wines you rarely see back home? My second takeaway is that I often experience wines at home the same way. Put boot to soil to experience a place and usually the local shopkeeper can do a lot to steer you to the finest wines. How about some Santa Cruz Mountains? We have tons of that and it’s fantastic. It’s okay to support the home team and be greedy about it.

- Adam Winkel

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Jean-Louis Denois: Excellent Bubbles, Excellent Price

sparkling wineKate Soto

Our Direct Import program is really the backbone of K&L. It’s one of the most significant ways that we are able to bring you wines that we believe in at such great value. Our buyers build relationships with producers all over the wine-growing, wine-loving world. Most of these are small producers whom we only find out about because we have feet on the ground. Our buyers travel and make relationships that connect them to that friend of a friend of a friend who turns out to be making astonishing wine.

We’ve been working with Jean-Louis Denois for about 15 years, and there’s one easy reason—his wines are fantastic. He found his way to Languedoc’s Limoux region from Champagne, after adventuring all over to learn the winemaking craft. He studied in Burgundy then South Africa, but was drawn to Limoux for its sparkling wine potential. This cool region along the Aude River in the foothills of the Pyrenees is Languedoc’s answer to Champagne. Despite its southerly position, it has a unique microclimate that keeps temps cool (the nearby Atlantic Ocean plays a big part) and allows vineyards to grow at the highest elevations in the Languedoc, making it ideal for racy bubbles. Temps rise in the summer, but strong winds keep it moderate. Wine historians (and locals) say this may even be the home of the world’s first sparkling wine. Records have sparkling wine from here dating back to 1531 at the Abbey of St-Hilaire.

Sparkling Limoux is often made from the Mauzac grape, but Denois chooses to focus on Pinot and Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Meunier. He is, after all, a sixth-generation Champenois (You can take the man out of Champagne but can’t take the Champagne out of the man…right?) He is committed to farming organically and biodynamically, using techniques such as higher vine trellising to increase canopy exposure and wild ground cover. His sparklers are complex and ultra high-acid, but they won’t break the bank—perfect refreshment for this heat wave. We carry five of his wines, all coming in under $20.

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Jean-Louis Denois "Tradition" Extra Brut Reserve $17.99
Pinot and Chardonnay grown on estate vineyards then aged on the lees for three years. This is marked by a sense of precision, with fine bubbles. A touch smoky, but also floral and appley. It has a luscious palate.

Jean-Louis Denois Pinot Noir Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine $15.99
100% Pinot Noir grown at St-Pierre and Borde-Longue vineyards in the town of Roquetaillade. It’s very pretty and aromatic, redolent of strawberry and white flower. High acid and robust mousse.

Jean-Louis Denois Syrah "Rose d'Une Unit" Brut Rosé $14.99
All Syrah grown in Fenouilledes. Ripe strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, pepper, savory and a bit herbal on finish.

Jean-Louis Denois "Bulles d'Argile" Extra Brut (Sans Soufre) 19.99
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in Roquetaillade and Magrie on calcareous clay soil. Denois keeps the yield small and uses no sulfites. This is round and complex with ripe pear fruits, almonds, and pepper, a touch of toastiness.

Jean-Louis Denois "Eclipse" Extra Brut $19.99
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. Extra brut, made in very small quantities. Grown in Roquetaillade. Aged in barrels for a minimum of 10 years. Super high acid and crunchy, toasty sweet nuts aromas, ripe apples and a round palate.

- Kate Soto

The Scoop on Chartreuse

On the Trail

“Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.” –Death Proof, script & film by Quentin Tarantino

 The Voiron Distillery

The Voiron Distillery

Conceived 400 years ago as an elixir of long life, I suspect that the mention of Chartreuse in Death Proof is allegorical for the film’s theme of immortality and invulnerability. Having returned to fashion in recent years, this fascinating liqueur drew me on an inconvenient and magnificent side-trip during my recent time in France. In the sub-alpine city of Voiron, the distillery of Chartreuse Diffusion includes the largest liqueur cellar in the world... for now. The big surprise of my visit was the fact that the immense, immobile casks that have been used to age their storied spirit for more than half a century are being drained for the last time. Production has already started seamlessly at a new facility.

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The problem is that the residents of Voiron realized that the largest liqueur cellar in the world was housing millions of liters of 110-proof spirit within city limits and it might be an incendiary hazard. I don't know if the flames of a Chartreuse apocalypse would burn green, but the residents of Voiron didn't want to find out.

Voiron is actually the fourth facility that the Carthusian Order has utilized to make their liqueur commercially, so this isn't a lament that enthusiasts need to panic because Chartreuse will be ruined. One previous facility in Fourvoirie was built in 1860 but abandoned when the Carthusians were expelled from France in 1903. They moved to Tarragona, Spain at that point and the Spanish bottles made in that era are very coveted and valuable today. The order eventually returned to France and their Fourvoirie distillery in 1930 only for it to be wiped out in a landslide five years later (d'oh).

 Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse

Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse

After being treated to tastes of some special Chartreuse bottlings and custom libations at the Voiron distillery, I proceeded almost an hour's drive into the French Alps to the Carthusians' sprawling, palatial (and walled) 12th century monastery that would make any Bordeaux Chateau look like a tool shed. It is here that a group of fewer than 100 monks live in solitude; only two of whom are entrusted to blend and keep their recipe of 130 herbs that comprise their namesake liqueur. The order once defied Napoleon to divulge the recipe as seized property of the French State, and they certainly don't answer the door.

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Chartreuse is thought to perhaps be the only distilled spirit which improves with age in bottle like fine wine. Collectors have devised a methods to identify the serial numbers and other  markings on the bottles in order to determine their precise age, and old bottles demand all levels of premium. After the last casks in Voiron are drained, the home of the new distillery will appear on the front label and another era will begin. I know I'll set aside some Voiron bottles for posterity before that happens.

- Adam Winkel

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Bastille Day — A Great Day to Taste French Wine!

Gary Westby
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K&L is crazy about France any day of the year, but this is a special time. With France doing so well in the World Cup, our love of everything French is reaching a fever pitch. Add on top of that the start of the Tour de France tomorrow and it is almost too much. Luckily, we will be able to let the tricolor fly next Saturday for le quatorze de juillet — Bastille Day.

We will be having a Tour de France of our own, starting (naturally!) in the north with Champagne, traveling down through Burgundy, the Loire, over to Alsace, down to Bordeaux, across to the Rhone and even out to Corsica. With a little bit of luck, les bleues (the French national soccer team) will be resting for the World Cup final while we are enjoying our wine, and we will be able to toast a French winner in Amiens for the days Tour de France stage.

This is what we will be pouring:

2012 Louise Brison Brut Champagne

2015 Guiraud "Le G" Blanc Bordeaux

2015 Alain Chavy Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatieres

2014 Domaine Vincent Carême "Le Peu Morier" Vouvray Sec

2016 Julien Schaal Riesling Grand Cru “Sommerberg Granite”

2016 Charles Audoin Bourgogne Rouge - new vintage

2015 Reserve d’O Terrasses du Larzac Rouge

2013 Domaine Santamaria Patrimonio Rouge (Corsica)

2016 Moulin de la Gardette Gigondas Tradition

2006 Pontet-Canet, Pauillac

The tasting runs from noon to 3 pm in San Francisco, from 1 pm to 4 pm in Redwood City, and 3 pm to 5:30 pm in LA. Diana will pour in Los Angeles, Joe will pour in San Francisco and I will be pouring in Redwood City. Come and join us — it is going to be a great time!

- Gary Westby

A Jaunt to Hermitage and Saint-Joseph

On the Trail
 Delas Frères tasting room and Saint-Epine vineyard

Delas Frères tasting room and Saint-Epine vineyard

Driving south from Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, I decided to take the slow road along the western bank of the Rhône river to my destination of Hermitage. This took me through the swath of the Saint-Joseph AOC, which is a long patchwork of mostly hillside vineyards of varying pedigree. The sight of fruit-laden apricot and cherry trees along the flatland of the river valley was a comforting sight reminiscent of home in California.

Upon arriving at my 18th century hotel in Tournon, I was pleased to find it situated near the base of E. Guigal's Vignes de l'Hospice monopole, which sits at the southern end of the Saint-Joseph AOC and faces the hill of Hermitage across the river. I had the privilege of tasting the current Vignes de l'Hospice bottling in Guigal's cellar in Ampuis earlier in the day, so serendipity was upon me.

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The next morning was kicked off by a visit to Delas Frères. Delas is owned by Louis Roederer and a full-scale tasting room and retail center was actually a welcome change after some moments in Côte-Rôtie the previous day led my wife to ask me than once, "Are we in the right place?"

Delas' sizeable holding in the Les Bessards lieu-dit of Hermitage is the crown jewel of their estate, but their Domaine de Tourettes Hermitage bottling was as exciting to me as anything else I tasted on the trip. Les Bessards is known for being particularly strict in its youth, but the Tourettes was open-knit and didn't need to be coy in reminding me why I made this journey.

Chapoutier also offers a commercial tasting room in the town of Tain l'Hermitage where they (almost overwhelmingly) showcase their portfolio of wines from the many AOCs up and down the Rhône and across the South of France. The wines showed very well on my visit and one can never begrudge the large producers for their hospitality skills.

 The hill of Hermitage and iconic town footbridge

The hill of Hermitage and iconic town footbridge

The towns of Tain l'Hermitage and Tournon offer some traveler-friendly atmosphere and sightseeing opportunities. My educational experience at the Valrhona Chocolate factory involved studying the nuances of about 30 individual chocolate blends by repeatedly stuffing my face with each of them. Ultra-premium chocolate is good fuel to propel one to their next winery visit or a schlep up a hill of vines.

 The hilltop chapel of Hermitage

The hilltop chapel of Hermitage

A quick drive and partial hike up to the famous Hermitage chapel owned by Jaboulet is possible by travelling up and around the back of the hill. As you behold the contiguous 136-hectare entirety of the Hermitage AOC, the hostile mid-day sun exposure on the low, stake-trained vines is almost other-worldly. The story of the 13th century knight that returned from the Crusades to live on this hilltop is well-known. Less-known is the fact that wines grown from here to Côte-Rôtie near Vienne were famously known in the Roman Empire as early as the 1st century B.C. as Vienne wines. This isn't merely Old World terroir. It's Ancient World.

-Adam Winkel

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Adventures in Valle de Guadalupe

mexican wineKate Soto
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Tranquilidad. Tranquilo.
I don’t know how to start talking about Baja California without bringing up this concept. Last week I spent three days in the Valle de Guadalupe for the annual Baja Uncorked conference—a joyous event that felt like sleepaway camp meets Roman bacchanal—where I learned about the community of winemakers, the grapes, the vineyards, the food, the architecture, and the wines themselves. But first I had to learn to let go. The itinerary was rough, the details scarce. The bus driver had no map (and got lost nearly every trip). But he was kind, and warm, and after a few trips I realized it didn’t matter. We would end up where we needed to be, and, when we arrived, there’d be plenty of wine, there’d be plenty of food and sun and scenery and other kind, warm people who wanted to chat. So I let go. I watched the scenery out of the bus window. I met whomever was sitting next to me. I thought about winemaking in this brave new world.

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Mexico has the oldest winemaking tradition in the Americas, apparently, beginning with the conquistadores in the 16th century. But, the explosion that’s happening in the wine scene—that’s very, very new. And, much like the landscape, the Valle de Guadalupe now exists in a hybrid canvas of old and new. Out the window of the bus I watched land pass by that very much resembled Southern California, where I’m from, if maybe a bit on steroids. The geology is relatively similar. The man-made structures are completely different. In the Valle, about 14 miles from Ensenada, we passed incredibly contemporary architecture, mostly geared toward the burgeoning hospitality industry—tourist cabanas in concrete egg fermenters, for instance; a winery made from an overturned ship—to haphazardly built wooden shacks covered in dried banana leaves. It’s clearly an area where there’s a dissonance between the new and the old—and that adds to its charm. It’s only in the last half dozen years, maybe more, that the Valle has truly exploded into a tourist mecca. The winemaking and the gastronomy scenes have grown hand in hand with the tourism industry. In fact, most wineries have a restaurant and many also have lodging. For enotourism, it’s a dream. The views are stunning, the weather is warm and breezy, and the food is out of this world. We had dishes such as blowfish tacos and broccoli mole and sopes that made my mouth ecstatic. More seafood than I can remember.

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And the wines—a truly varied bunch in terms of grapes, style, and quality—were made to go with the food. The best ones truly did. It’s hard to summarize the style with so much variation happening, but a few things you can say for sure: they have no trouble getting grapes ripe and tannins tend to be soft (even reds work well chilled), which works well with spicier food and hot days. There’s also an interesting saline quality to both reds and whites, with different theories about its origin—could be the influence of the ocean, which is only about 20 miles away. One winemaker told me that certain grapes give off a salinity under stress, and, with an extreme drought, it’s fair to say these grapes are under stress. The Pacific provides fog and cool nights, but water is a huge factor for the future of the Valle. So, the winemakers are under their own stress, too.

Since there are absolutely no laws governing how the wines are made (except a tax on any ABV level above 14%), and there’s a general spirit of experimentation, you can find about 125 different grapes growing there. Nebbiolo is a common red varietal, and that left me a bit flabbergasted, considering how different the climate is where it comes from. There was some scuttlebutt about a “Mexican Nebbiolo” clone being different from the Italian. When pressed, a winemaker admitted that the strain of Nebbiolo they are using can actually be traced back to Lambrusco! Which, honestly, makes more sense. A few winemakers have more recently brought over Italian Nebbiolo, and it’s more dark and brooding than the Mexican Nebbiolo, which is super cherried. Chenin Blanc is a popular grape on the white side of things. Henri Lurton makes a very good example of one that captures freshness and the purity of the varietal but also the salinity of the region.

There are winemakers from all over the world, some with a lot of experience, and some making their first vintages. But if there’s one winemaker who’s going to revolutionize Mexican wine, it’s Lourdes Martinez Ojeda, or Lulu, from Bodegas Henri Lurton. She comes from one of the 13 founding families in the Valle, and spent 10 years working with Henri Lurton at Brane-Cantenac in Bordeaux before convincing him to invest in Baja. She helped start Bodegas Henri Lurton, and is also the winemaker for several other wineries. She is dynamic, talented, and has the technical know-how to make the finest wines in Baja while capturing a completely unique expression of its terroir. The fact that she’s also a mother of two young kids served to just increase my awe for this woman all the more. Across the board her wines were my favorite of the trip. In addition to Bodegas Henri Lurton, I tried two of her wines from Bruma--a Sangiovese rose’ and a Chardonnay—both fresh and pure, and more interestingly, a rose from the Mission grape made at the Palafox winery. Mission was the first grape planted in Mexico, and the first vitis vinifera in the New World (planted in 1540). By 1620 it had moved to Baja California. It’s vigorous, productive, and tolerant of drought. It’s also been much maligned over the years as being musky, but in Lulu’s hands it’s capable of a highly elegant expression. It’s funky, don’t get me wrong, with a golden raisin, beeswax, and mint character on the nose, but also a dry, lifted finish and bright acid. It’s delicious. I also tried a white, no-skin contact Mission from Santo Tomas that evinced a similar golden raisin, honeyed character but a balanced, dry finish. I think Mission could really be a uniquely Mexican contribution to the wine world (in the right hands).

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The winemaker from Casa de Piedras called Baja California “an El Dorado,” saying “options are as big as huge Mexican sombreros.” And that’s really accurate. There’s an intoxicating energy here to make great wine and to get the word out. I spoke with Kristin Magnussen, the winemaker at Lechuza (who’s also a mom and a very pregnant, very passionate spokesperson for the Valle), and she said that when her family started out in the early 2000s, there were maybe 35 wineries in the Valle. Now there are over 200, and she has a wine on the French Laundry’s menu. Things are happening here. And, much like you hear about Napa and other regions when starting out, these folks are in it together, realizing that when one succeeds, they all do. It’s a beautiful time to visit, with so much energy and imagination and experimentation and hospitality, and I hope you all do. In the meantime, try the wines!

- Kate Soto

Sipping Bubbles, Saving Bees

hollywood, sparkling wineKate Soto

With a light, zesty texture and just a hint of sweetness, Honey Bubbles is easy to like. It’s a new sparkling Moscato on our shelves, and it’s an incredibly amiable wine with an elegant hold on its sweetness--citrusy and floral notes with enough acid to balance its residual sugar. When Greg St. Clair poured it for the staff a few weeks ago, it was a hit all around.

But it’s also a brand that’s very easy to support. Honey Bubbles is the pet project of two WSET-trained wine geeks who fell in love with the Moscato grape, but also had a yearning to do good. Scott Roughgarden and Christiana Gifford care about wine and wanted to make a good product, but they also wanted to give back. When they settled on the name Honey Bubbles for their wine, the light bulb went on: this project would be about making good wine while supporting the bees that make it—and about 80% of the food we eat—possible.

The two started the project about four years ago, but they’d met much earlier in a serendipitous tangle of turns that led them both to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. Christiana was visiting from Las Vegas, and, while sitting on the beach, her BFF asked her to help decide between two beachfront restaurants for her wedding. Christiana was drawn to Shutters, so they went up and had a glass of Champagne. And guess who was their server--none other than Scott. Two years later, when Christiana decided to move to LA, she knew that if she was going to work as a server to support herself (and her then-dream of being a makeup artist), she wanted to do it at Shutters. When she got hired and showed up in uniform, Scott remembered her! He trained her on the job, and they became fast friends. Years later, they both took the WSET courses together.

It was during these courses that they hatched their plan. One of their instructors waxed poetic about the Moscato grape--its ancient roots, its flavor profile--and the two decided that the U.S. market needed a wine that highlighted the beauty of the grape without the often-cloying sweetness. “We bought every bottle of Moscato on the U.S. market that we could,” Scott said. “We felt like it had become the Coca Cola of wine in the U.S. because what we were getting was so sweet. It’s a noble grape varietal, one of the most produced grapes on earth. We said to each other, ‘let’s do a fresh take on it.’” They raised money and drove the first cases around in their car. But all it took was a foot in the door: once they could pour the wine for people, buyers started picking it up.

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From the start, they wanted to be cause driven. They give part of their proceeds to organizations that lobby for less strict beekeeping regulations, to beekeepers themselves, and to programs that promote education on Colony Collapse Disorder. They also support an organization called Honey Love that does non-harmful removal of bees without fumigation in Los Angeles, relocating instead of killing the unwanted bees. “Some people don’t even know about what’s going on with the honey bee, how quickly they are disappearing,” said Christiana. “They are essential to our ecosystem. We try to let the people we work with know how vital bees are, for instance, in any farm to table menu. We work with Honey Love to try to breakdown the barriers of fear around honey bees, especially in children, and to host events for National Honey Bee Day (August 18th).”

While doing good, they’re making good wine. They source their grapes directly from the Asti and Veneto regions in Italy, and work very closely with the winemaker. Because they are not trying to give their wine the Moscato d’Asti DOCG status, they are not beholden to Italian regulations—meaning that they can make their wine higher in alcohol (about 11% vs the max 6% of the DOCG), and they can hold back the residual sugar. These two factors make for a more balanced, food-friendly expression of the grape—it’s good with dessert but also with cheeses or spicy food. They make it in the traditional Charmat method, which allows this aromatic varietal to really express its personality. The basic motto behind the whole operation? Quality at a good price.

This motto seems to be paying off. They’re new to the market, but all they need to do is pour a glass for people—then the line starts to form. This is what happened at an Italian wine competition in Florida recently, where they truly had a line all the way around the event of people waiting to try their wine, and where they ended up winning the People’s Choice Award. They’re humbled by this, and expressed a lot of gratitude for how people have embraced the brand so far. Christiana will be pouring this lively wine on Thursday in our Hollywood tasting bar, so you’ll have a chance to try it for yourself! 5:30-7 $20. Come check out the buzz!

- Kate Soto

Passing through Côte-Rôtie

On the Trail
 Looking northeast across the entire Côte-Rôtie AOC

Looking northeast across the entire Côte-Rôtie AOC

Despite its fame and finite scale, Côte-Rôtie is still preserved by the culture of small, family wine producers. As I rolled into Ampuis in early June, I felt a shared experience of every spaghetti western movie villain who saunters into town to silent and deserted streets, save for the half-doors on the saloon still swinging from a resident who took fast cover. Fortunately I was holstered with appointments, so I knew where to knock on a friendly door. (I'm told there's a new vinothèque in town pouring the local wines for more casual visitors and passers-through)

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Even the presence of an operation the size of E. Guigal in the center of town is inconspicuous. Finally stepping through their doors, the bottling line was roaring with their trusty Côtes-du-Rhône that gets filled three times per week and shipped to the four corners of the Earth. But you wouldn't know it from outside. The cellars below are a labyrinth with a tunnel that goes under the road from their original family cellar to the larger facility that is necessitated by their vast and prestigious holdings of estate vineyards of the Northern Rhône as well as the negociant bottlings of both the Northern and Southern Rhône. The highlight of the visit is of course tasting through Guigal's superlative estate lineup in front of their large, decoratively carved casks in the spacious modern cellar.

 The cellars of E. Guigal

The cellars of E. Guigal

I explored the 10-hectare estate of Domaine Garon, a producer whose wines K&L first carried with their recent (and celebrated) 2015 vintage. Kévin Garon's family winery sits beside the base of the Côte Blonde. Vine holdings surround their facility and their most important terroir in the Lancement lieu-dit, which sits higher on the slope above. He demonstrated his vine-training and cultivation with the philosophy that the wines are made in the vineyard. With a new cellar that was built and outfitted with new equipment in the last five years, Domaine Garon is an estate to watch with each coming vintage. The bottled 2016 vintage shows tremendous freshness and purity which will be earlier-drinking than 2015. The 2017 barrel samples show extremely well and demonstrate an uncommon polish and persistence.

 Estate vines of Domaine Garon

Estate vines of Domaine Garon

Upon my visit, the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie were lush and vigorous after particularly heavy rains in France earlier this year. But the mistral breeze from the south reliably dries out the moisture on the surface and the "roasted slope" earns its namesake every summer. Kévin Garon feels that it's beneficial to start the season with a good supply of water in the soil so the vines can better withstand the heat stress that the summer often brings. The foliage looks pristine and seems like the vines should have no trouble setting healthy grapes.

 

 

- Adam Winkel

 Barrel sampling with Kévin Garon

Barrel sampling with Kévin Garon