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In Honor of National Chartreuse Day—A Few Secrets

There are only two people alive who know the identity of all 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make Chartreuse, the world-famous, emerald-green liqueur from east-central France. They are monks of the Chartreuse Order (the Carthusians), which was founded in 1084, in the Chartreuse Mountain Range near the Alpine vineyards of Savoie. The Order received the original recipe for an “Elixir of Long Life” in 1605 as a gift in the form of a cryptic manuscript believed to have been written by a sixteenth-century alchemist. A hundred and fifty-nine years later, the Order’s monks finally decoded the mysterious instructions and began to produce “Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse,” a medicinal tonic. The tonic’s descendent—today’s Green Chartreuse liqueur—still calls for a dizzying cornucopia of botanicals (including rosemary, green bell pepper, licorice, and lavender) to be macerated in alcohol, distilled to 55 percent alcohol by volume (110 proof), and aged for several years in oak casks. Made at the Monastery in Voiron, it’s the only liqueur in the world with a completely natural green color.

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Malbec Around the World

Sunday is International Malbec Day. Herewith, some information on the grape variety. Malbec is indigenous to southwestern France, where it is known by its original name: Côt. Côt (Malbec) is the offspring of two obscure French grapes—Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Prunelard. While Côt/Malbec is one of the five grapes that can be legally blended to make red Bordeaux, plantings of it in Bordeaux have been declining for a long time. In the mid-nineteenth century, the grape was brought from Bordeaux to Argentina where it is now the leading grape for fine red wines. There, Malbec is grown in the dry, sunny, extremely high-altitude vineyards that, like steps, descend from the peaks of the Andes. And, in contrast to Bordeaux, Malbec in Argentina is almost always made as a single varietal, rather than as part of a blend. Malbec tends to be low in acidity and slightly less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, it’s prized for its soft, mouthfilling texture (the wine equivalent of molten chocolate cake), its deep inky color, and its plummy, mocha, and earthy aromas and flavors.

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The Godfather of Fermentation

On this day in April in 1858, Louis Pasteur published his findings on fermentation, significantly advancing the science of winemaking. Pasteur’s research in the 1850’s led to the discovery of single-celled fungi called yeasts which metabolized grape sugars, resulting in alcohol. Previously, winemakers understood very little about the chemical mechanisms behind fermentation. Pasteur also solved one of the food industry’s biggest economic problems: spoilage. He recommended a gentle heating process—it would later be named pasteurization after him—that stopped bacteria from growing.

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The AVA Alphabet

Washington has 19 American Viticultural Areas, several of which have fascinating names. To wit:

Snipes Mountain— Named after cattle baron Ben Snipes who came to Washington in the 1850s in search of gold but ended up striking it rich by grazing cattle and supplying beef to the mining camps.

Walla Walla— A Native American name meaning “place of many waters” after several small rivers that flow into the Columbia River.

Horse Heaven Hills— Ok, another cowboy tale. In 1857, when cowboy James Kinney witnessed a herd of wild horses eating native grasses on the hillside, he was so moved, he named the area “Horse Heaven.”

Red Mountain— It’s not a mountain and it’s not red (although you can drink some very nice red wine there). So named because of cheatgrass, a droopy, reddish-colored grain-like plant that grows all over the area.

 

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The Chinese in Wine Country

Chinese New Year begins next week, so we wanted to share some of the little-known contributions that the Chinese made to the early California wine industry. It is not a story that makes the industry proud. With the Gold Rush of 1849, Chinese immigrants began to come to California in large numbers. Many were poor laborers and farmers who, after working in the mines, and helping to build the transcontinental railroad, went to work for the new winery owners in Sonoma and Napa. From the 1860s to the 1880s, Chinese vineyard workers cleared fields, planted vineyards, built wineries, harvested grapes, and dug by-hand many of northern California’s most impressive underground cellars, including parts of the cellars at Schramsberg and Buena Vista.

A section of Napa Valley’s prestigious Meadowood resort was once a Chinese camp where several hundred Chinese vineyard workers lived. These workers were treated poorly and paid terribly. A few miles away, at the grand, historic winery Inglenook, handwritten payroll ledgers from the 1870s show Chinese winery workers were paid considerably less per hour than their fellow workers. According to the historian Jack Chen, an economic crisis in the late 1870s resulted in agitation against Chinese labor, and ultimately in the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. By 1890, in search of better, safer conditions, most of the Chinese in wine California country had fled.

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Lanzarote—Hit by a Thousand Meteorites?

Lanzarote, the easternmost island of Spain’s Canary Islands, is known for its startling landscape of ten thousand curious, dark pits spaced closely together. From a distance, the scene looks as if thousands of meteorites have hit the region. But in fact, these are some of the most bizarre vineyards in the world—vineyards that are an ingenious response to the island itself.

Lanzarote, and its most important wine district, La Geria, lie just 78 miles off the coast of Africa. The rainfall here is less than in some parts of the Sahara Desert. In the 1700s, a volcanic eruption covered the island, including the best farming land, with ash and lava. Instead of giving up, local farmers invented a dry cultivation method called enarenado (literally, “covered with sand”). As it turns out, the island’s volcanic soil, called picón, is extremely good at absorbing and retaining moisture from the night air.

Today, Lanzarote’s vineyards are planted primarily with Malvasia grapes. Indeed, Malvasia, along with Listan Prieto (known as Mission in the United States) were the grapes brought by Spanish explorers from the Canary Islands to Mexico in the 1500s. From Mexico, these grapes became the foundation of the wine industries in Chile, Argentina, and the U.S.

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The Repeal of Prohibition— This Week 88 Years Ago

This week in 1933 on the 5th of December the 21st Amendment was ratified formally ending Prohibition. The 13-year social experiment in forced abstinence was, by all measures, a failure. Prohibition quashed the country’s once-promising future as a wine-drinking culture and left the U.S. wine industry crippled. It took pioneers such as Cesare Mondavi, Louis M. Martini, the Beringer family, and Hans Kornell to help attempt to rebuild the California wine industry to its pre-Prohibition success. Meanwhile, during Prohibition, the number of saloons and speakeasies in New York City alone rose to 32,000.

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To Wine, or Not to Wine—That is the Question

While it’s tempting to assume that, when it comes to wine, the French invented almost everything, there’s one pursuit they largely overlooked: wine writing. For that, we have to thank the ancient Greek and Roman writers, then later, the English. The first book on wine in the English language was A New Boke of the Natures and Properties of All Wines, written in 1568 by William Turner. Turner’s book is thought to have been a guide for William Shakespeare, who laced his texts with numerous references to wine. Then, during the 18th century, dozens of major wine books were written—many of them, interestingly, by English physicians.

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A Remarkable Ascent

Curiously, some of the world’s most powerful organizations start out the most humbly.

In the world of wine, there’s no better example than the Napa Valley Vintners which began 77 years ago as a modest association of just seven members. The year was 1944 and their agreement, pecked out on an old manual typewriter, listed five ways in which they could help one another. The first one— “to advance the interests of the Napa Valley through publicity, advertising and such other methods as may seem best…”—has been, by any measure, wildly successful. Today some 500 members of the association work to continue to achieve that purpose. Not surprisingly, the initial Napa Valley Vintners meeting happened over lunch with bottles of wine from the late 1930s and early 1940s. (One hopes the legendary 1941 Inglenook—a wine of the century—was there). The vintner’s spirit of camaraderie and shared determination must have been impressive for at the time the Napa Valley was a rural backwater better known for prunes and cattle than Cabernet. The valley has clearly changed. Enormous strides have been made in the last seven decades. And yet the organization that Joe Heitz (NVV Board Chair 1970-1971) described as “a great moving force to keep us working together,” remains as vital as ever.

 

The Original Seven

The original seven member wineries of the Napa Valley Vintners Association were:

  • Beaulieu Vineyard
  • Larkmead Vineyards
  • Napa Valley Cooperative Winery
  • Mondavi & Sons
  • Inglenook
  • Louis M. Martini Winery
  • Louis Stralla
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Tempranillo: The Quick Inside Scoop

Next Thursday is International Tempranillo Day. Ahead of that excuse for drinking a great Rioja, here are a few thoughts on the variety. The name Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish temprano, meaning early, and is Spain’s best-loved and most-prized grape variety. In Rioja, Tempranillo makes mellow, long-aged red wines that are show-stoppers for their elegance. In Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo makes powerhouse reds. There, the grape is known as Tinto Fino. After centuries of adaptation, the Tempranillo clones that exist in Ribera del Duero are quite different from those in Rioja. Next door in Portugal, Tempranillo is called Aragonez or Tinta Roriz and is one of the grapes, along with other indigenous grapes, blended together to make the country’s renowned Ports.

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Trick-or-Treating

A blend of religious and superstitious beliefs, the traditions of Halloween have evolved over several centuries. One such tradition, trick-or-treating, most likely took its cues from All Souls’ Day festivities in England. During the revelries, less fortunate families would beg for food and be given pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the gifting family’s dead relatives. The church encouraged distribution of soul cakes as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine out for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling,” was eventually adopted by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. Ale and money were dropped from the tradition in the U.S. but collecting candy door-to-door still occurs of course. One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween. With an estimated $6 billion spent, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas in the U.S.

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Champagne Charlie

In honor of International Champagne Day, here’s a story about one of the men who made the beverage popular in the United States. Charles Heidsieck founded his Champagne house, by the same name, in 1851 and promoted his Champagne extensively in the United States. He was dubbed “Champagne Charlie” by the American press. Champagne Charlie was an energetic, smooth-talking entrepreneur—by 1861 he had sold over 300,000 bottles in the U.S., and his Champagne had become a wild success. From an avid winemaking family, Charles Heidsieck was related to the founders of the two other Champagne houses that eventually came to be known as Piper-Heidsieck and Heidsieck & Co. Monopole. During the U.S. Civil War, Charlie was arrested and accused of being a Confederate spy on his travels through New Orleans. He was finally released from prison after President Lincoln received a letter from Napoleon III, then the Emperor of France, on his behalf. Returning to France penniless and ill, Charlie still managed to save his Champagne business when he was repaid a debt using land deeds. The repayment included one third of a small village in the U.S.  “Colorado Territory.” Shortly thereafter, silver was discovered in that same then little-known village of Denver, saving Charlie’s Champagne empire.