More thoughts on Georgia, California and The Tasting of 1976

I so relish this piece for it reminds me of the conversational pleasure of wine. To make or drink fine wine is not to dismantle another person, chateau or palate in an economy of quality. Wine can be a rich, sumptuous call and answer song to sing as anthem to the human experience, a song as neat to hear as it is to sing. This piece is a calm continuation of the words I last put to this page.

An excerpt from the fingers of Steven Spurrier via Berry Brother’s and Rudd Wine Merchants:

People talk about the judgement of Paris as being damaging to French wine: I would say absolutely the opposite. It was a wake-up call to French wine, and what the intelligent people did, rather than complaining that their honour had been besmirched, was they went to California to see what was going on. They saw that their cellars were brand new, there was no dirt on the floor and that they were trying everything modern to make the best possible wine. Back then, that wasn’t so in France.

Everything changed in 1982. It was the first great vintage in Bordeaux after 59; it was the first modern Bordeaux vintage. It also coincided with the rise of Robert Parker, who started his column in 1978. He called 82 exactly right. The combination of Parker and that vintage really changed the rules in Bordeaux – there were high prices and everyone made money. If people make money in Bordeaux the first thing they do if they’re a wine producer, is to invest it either in the vineyard or in the cellar. In the 1960s, the real washout vintages of 63, 66 and 68 had left them all bust; there was no spare money. So 1982 began the economic circumstances where the châteaux had a substantial income which they invested in the best possible way.

Things are changing again in California. A bunch of us went to an incredible tasting based on the book by John Bonne, the wine correspondent for the San Fran Chronicle, called The New California Wine. It turns everything on its head. At this tasting were Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Noirs even a Zinfandel – and yet there was hardly a wine around 15 degrees of alcohol – most were around 12.5. This a young generation of winemakers don’t want to go for ultimate ripeness; they don’t want sunny California in the bottle they want to put their terroirChardonnay and their terroir Pinot Noir. The new California is about wines that express rather than impress – Jancis Robinson said in her introductory speech: “I am very pleased that Steven Spurrier is in the audience because he held the ’76 tasting and, for him, this must be coming back to where it all started.” Back then, those wines were made by small wineries to express rather than impress. In the minds of the intelligent purchasers this puts California back on the map.

 

 

 

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Establishing an Identity During Wine’s “Belle Epoch”

Within the amalgam of words written about growing local communities through wine, I found several paragraphs that shaped a point of contention for me.

The entitled piece, “A Manifesto For Change in The Wine Industry” is written in “Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog,” by Tom Wark. Wark delineates the odyssey of California wine from prohibition through to the position of creative prosperity and influence that Californian winemakers enjoy today.

The identity and reputation of California wine arduously expounds through time from the leading producer of bland, portable, jug wine to the swelling hub of local, artisanal wineries, onward.

It would be a hateful thing to suggest, but its plausibility is too potent to ignore…

Earth, wind, and fire aside, in the element of restriction, do winemakers reflect the arduous success that they impose upon their vines? Perhaps. Did California need Prohibition just as much as California needed the tasting of 1979 in Paris? Perhaps. More aptly and less radically, I believe that the local-oriented, artisanal spark in Californian wine illuminated the beauty and pace of both a winemaker’s lifestyle and wine tourism in the New World. I believe it is this moment – more than any other – in the history of Californian wine that drove California to discover herself and formulate an identity for her wine.

Undoubtedly, California was the first example of New World. The French settled that score in the 70s. Without implying that those winemakers in Virginia or North Carolina or Georgia are attempting to recreate the tremor that pulsed from Paris to the polar icecaps at the tasting in 1979, east coast winemakers are not bashful about their appreciation for the candor of quality upheld in Californian wine. Reflecting on the brass, silver, and gold-laden bottles you encounter in tasting rooms throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, the caliber of California wine and of the competitions hosted in San Francisco is garishly displayed.

To the defense of those medal bearers, there are many rumors to straighten out regarding the climatic limitations, the education and the goals of east coast vineyards. By placing a bottle from say, Dahlonega, Georgia up against something from Sonoma or Napa Valley –and winning, that Dahlonega winemaker returns home to instill greater pride within their winery and a higher grade of quality for the region. With hopes of elevating east coast wine alongside expectations for it, many winemakers are logging sleepless nights to research into this admiration for the west coast and exploit the conditions of the east coast to their benefit (and, hopefully someday to their edge).

At the very least, I think these competitions are a wonderful way to be involved in the conversation: California wine drinkers stoke creativity, innovation, and audacity in their winemakers. Perhaps California wine can lend their trademark personality. Perhaps the east coast wine industry requires her cities and their “foodies” to bolster and drive the surrounding wineries into a profitable and pivotal position.

There is a polymorphous wake rippling from north Georgia and I am upended with interest in the first generation of winemakers throwing stones into this lake. Truthfully, I think Georgia wines are too young to be entering into competitions with California. Not because they’re not capable of winning medals, but because Georgia has not carved a true, discernable identity for her wine to carry. Craig Kritzer, the owner and winemaker of Frogtown Cellars in Dahlonega, GA, is a purist who thirsts for Georgia to recognize herself without smoke and mirrors. An honest winemaker preserves the integrity of his wines and the conditions that give it rise. It is a graceful philosophy that ensures the winemaker of one thing: quality.

I think they need more help. Whether we take lead from those local communities in California that enabled the small, artisanal wineries to endeavor through that moment of bland, jug wine or from the Australians, who strictly limit their consumption to their own juice. What could become of Georgia wine if we spent a weekend winding through the tasting rooms of Dahlonega as we might spend a weekend in Napa Valley? What could become of Georgia wine if we bought it by the case, in true Australian fashion?

We are led to believe that we are drinking in the “Belle Epoch” of winemaking. That may be true. However, since we’re being truthful, what can we expect from our future if we are already living within the most plentiful array of beautiful wines? A Belle Epoch, by definition, has a beginning and an end. With respect to the life and vitality of wine, let us not harp on the end, but bolster those who seek creatively, endeavor boldly, and yield opulently. For, it is in those efforts that we will see a revolution in our products and in our perception of what is possible. And that is truly a beautiful time in which to live.

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Reflections on The Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA Proposition

I came across an article detailing the proposition in the Atlanta Business Chronicle within hours of digesting a piece on the effects of Italy’s appellation system upon Italian wine and the wine market. I mention this by way of disclaimer for this piece lent an interesting voice to the petition for Georgia’s first American Viticultural Area (or, AVA).

This piece was originally published in September of 2009 from the Journal of Wine Research. It’s entitled, “Winemakers and Wineries in The Evolution of The Italian Wine Industry: 1997-2006”. It mused on matters of quality, the systems and actors that formulate a winery’s or wine region’s reputation, and the impact that the Italian appellation system has had on wine. Charting the evolution of Italy’s winemaking through time is an interesting exercise mainly because her appellation system was designed long before wine sold on a mass-market scale. A quantifiable tension surfaces on this timeline as the rules and regulations, which once raised the standard of high quality wines and elevated the economies of those wine-producing areas, now impedes Italy as her wine competes with the engrossing international market. In other words, as South Africa or Australia began showcasing high-quality wine with untamable creativity obviously unhindered by the same rule set, these new markets began painting Italian wine as your mother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe—good, but never changing. Italy boasts an extensive array of grape varieties, which complement most every event, palate, and dish. Moreover, with the distinguished mark of its quality reflected on the label, the risk and anxiety of buying bad wine for others vastly subsides. It is a positive aspect of the appellation system that remains as true today as the day it took effect in 1963. “No country produces a collection of wines as Italy does, due in part to its wildly varied topography and weather systems it jams two major mountain ranges, coastlines from five different seas, arid plateaus, lush riverbeds, and high altitude lakes into an area that’s less than half the size of Texas and only three-fourths the size of California. It’s ancient territory spans twenty regions, all of which grow grapes and make wine.”

The certainty involved with buying wine according to the standard of quality imposed by the regulations of an appellation is an idea that the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) emphasizes with the American Viticultural Area system. “The more knowledge you have about a wine’s origin by region and by grape the easier it is to buy even unknown brands with confidence.” It is as much a marketing tool for the wine producer and consumer to use as it is a symbol of distinction and pride. “These designations allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin” (Proposed Rules. “Proposed Establishment of the Upper Hiwassee Highlands Viticultural Area.” TBB. Vol 78, No. 134. 12, July 2013)

My earlier disclaimer becomes particularly relevant as I meditate on both Italy’s experience with an appellation system and the future of Georgia’s wine within—potentially—the American appellation system. In a controlled experiment, we would go back in time, divide Italy into two groups of wine producers, regulate one group in accordance with the appellation system, leave the other group to its own devices, and chart the successes of the groups over time. Would Italian wines enjoy the same quality and esteem today if there had never been an appellation system in place? What about the craft of winemaking… how different would that look today if there were no prevailing rules? Is it necessary to establish an infrastructure and system of governance, at first? Does the system need to change with the times or live out its life on the shelves of nostalgic cellars? Is there a debt of skills or values from a people who lost years of freedom in their wineries and vineyards to the name of profit and legacy?

In the end, what is the ideal setting to grow a new wine region?

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The road leads back to you, Oh Georgia

Imagine her vineyard, the fresh aroma about her land, the dramatic adjunct of the Dolomite Mountains… it is a reminder of a story I once read of the history of winemaking. First and foremost, vineyards and their wine proved to be a high-yielding and stable investment. But they were also retreats. Around the time of the Crusades, the Catholic Church would send its brightest minds to create, write, or sculpt–affording a man the perspective of a new place and the disruption of time. Whether you believe that it is the “newness” of change that inspires or the actual difference of the place, I believe the vineyard remains as more than just a relic to admire. I believe that it expands time, space and energy for its winemaker, seeping into every second, into every cell, swelling. You are reminded as a winemaker that you have only so many harvests in your life, 30…40, maybe, and yet, those few years distill even further into longer bouts of existence!

I am a great admirer of Elisabetta Foradori, a winemaker in the Dolomite Mountains of Trentino, Italy. I’ve never met Signora, toured her vineyard, or tasted her wines and before I continue with reasons for you to believe that my research is unversed or my voice off-topic I will begin with my only affirmation: she makes my soul smile. I cannot recall how I was introduced to her, but every moment thereafter is quite clear. Her life reads as a direct reflection of her environment and, in this way, I believe that she has found a way to live that is so serenely, so fully human. Her once impoverished soils are now teeming with microbes, opulent.  The bland, sterile wines that once detailed her cellar now hardly engage the light with such deeply concentrated colors. And the techniques she wields have trued the direction of her community’s winemaking with the clairvoyance of sustainability and affluence. Signora calls her life in the vineyards a renaissance. Undoubtedly, I have learned more about my standard of living from wine than from any other cut of cloth—and I don’t even make the stuff, yet!

I want from Georgia the same indulgence that I gather from Trentino’s story. It may be a credit to my youth, but I want a renaissance.

Last summer I returned home to Atlanta, glowing from an internship on a vineyard in Tuscany. It was a brilliant illustration for the lessons and books I scoured on enology throughout college. Within days I was tasting my way through the north Georgia wine country. Forgive me my abruptness, but the result was fuzzy teeth, a sour stomach, and no plan to ever return! That is, until my sister’s birthday celebration bribed me back to the area a year later. This round of flights not only surprised me—I was encouraged! Within a year, something had changed and I am so curious on what that “something” could be…

My first visit included a red flight, white flight, and a sweet flight from 3 vineyards. Vintages fluctuated. Varieties included Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin, Viognier, Malbec, Touriga… Styles included barrel and non-barrel fermentations, sparkling wine, rosés, long-macerations, carbonic macerations… I wrongly assumed that the diversity present in the wineries would carry over to the glass. Each wine—no matter the estate, vintage, variety, filtration—maintained to a large degree this wretched, dank must on the nose and palate. I was never able to anchor it down as earthy, salty, sour, cheesy… It was not entirely volatile, but aeration did help.

Then, as I said, a year passed and so did this quality. This difference was remarkable, and it inspired me to move to Blue Ridge, GA. I am not well-versed on the history of winegrowing in Georgia, but what an exciting moment to be a part of it! I want this new story to be as richly and indulgently “Georgian” as Zac Brown Band or peach cobbler. And, in less whimsical terms, I want for Georgia wine to be characterized by its quality, sustainability, and prosperity.

As I begin this conversation, allow me to admit my insecurities and prejudices about Georgia wine:

The wine is strenuously manipulated in the winery.

The vineyard does not adequately play to Georgia’s climate or terrain—thus necessitating excess manipulation in the winery.

Squandered marketing. Planting varieties that people recognize by name like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon play to new taster’s ignorance and do nothing to engage them, teach, provoke, inspire. I enjoyed the story of Signora Foradori’s mourning: Years wasted on making bland wine from international varieties (such as Chardonnay or Cabernets) could have been better served on making wine from local, native varieties… think of the nuances between wines, vintages, and estates… think of the patriotism of making something purely, historically, Georgian.

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