The Incredible Crayères

In the 4th century, in order to have enough stone to construct Reims (the main town in the Champagne region), the Romans dug three hundred immensely deep quarries in the region’s famous chalky rock. These vertical chalk pits, called crayères, are used today by the houses to age Champagne. They are construction miracles that seem to defy physics, and descending into their eerily quiet, cold, dark, humid chambers is an otherworldly experience that no wine lover should miss. Because the best chalk was often well underground, many crayères go down as far as 120 feet (37 meters). They are shaped like pyramids, so the deepest parts of the crayères are also the widest and the tops of the pits are narrow. This shape limited air exposure in the quarry and kept the chalk moist and soft, thus easier to cut into large construction blocks. During World War I, when Reims was extensively bombed, about 20,000 people lived in the dark crayères where no sunlight penetrates for years. During this time, some of the crayères under Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart were makeshift hospitals, and under Pommery were a school.


The State Department???

Hard as this is to believe, the U.S. State Department used to publish a list of “Recommended Wines of the United States.” The introduction to the 1972 list notes that the wines recommended are based on “personal tastings by the State Department Selection Committee.” Twenty-nine wineries are listed; 22 in California and 7 in New York. Among the wines the Selection Committee loved: Almaden Solera Cocktail Sherry, Charles Krug Gamay Rosé, Louis Martini Gewurztraminer, Hanns Kornell Champagne, Gold Seal Champagne, Paul Masson Rare Tawny Port, Souverain Green Hungarian, and Widmer’s Catawba. The type of wine mentioned more than any other was Cabernet Sauvignon immediately followed by Riesling tied with Sherry. Wines called Pale Dry Sherry, Rare Dry Sherry, Cocktail Sherry, Flor Sherry, and Cream Sherry all made the list. (Needless to say, in 1972 U.S. wineries thought nothing of co-opting European appellation names such as Champagne, Sherry, and Port). My thanks to my friend and super wine educator Kevin Zraly who found this list in his files and used it in 1972 to plan a wine trip to California.


The “Wine” of July 4th

One wine, more than any other, is strongly associated with the history of the United States. That wine is Madeira. Drunk by the founding fathers during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Madeira was also what Francis Scott Key sipped as he composed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” George Washington (who reportedly drank a pint every night with dinner), Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all adored it, as did John Adams (who wrote to his wife, Abigail, about the copious amounts they consumed during the Continental Congress). By the end of the eighteenth century, nearly a fourth of all the Madeira produced was being exported to the American colonies. Among the colonial well-to-do, Madeira parties—forerunners of the American cocktail party—became commonplace. Today, you can buy extraordinary lMadeiras—dry and sweet styles—from three principal import companies: The Rare Wine Company, Broadbent Selections, and The Madeira Wine Company. Madeira is one of the longest-lived wines in the world and you can still buy bottles that will outlive you. And a final important fact: Madeira is one of the few wines in the world that go incredibly well with chocolate. See for yourself!


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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