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The Near-Death of California Cabernets

Some of the most riveting cabernets throughout California have all traced their parentage back to three clones (or genetic subtypes), simply known as clones 07, 08, and 11. The three were imported from Bordeaux (allegedly from Château Margaux) by Irish immigrant James Concannon, founder of Concannon Vineyard in the Livermore Valley, east of San Francisco. (He was also the first Irishman to own a California winery). Concannon’s agent in Bordeaux was the legendary San Francisco lawyer-turned-grapevine-dealer Charles Wetmore. While many clones died out during the Prohibition in the 1920s, the “Bordeaux/Concannon clones” survived the 13-year ban on wine. All thanks to Concannon’s reinvention of itself as the lead supplier of altar wine to the Archbishop of San Francisco.

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Things to Love

Harvest has just started in California. When some of the state’s winemakers were asked what’s best about harvest, here are a few things they said:

  • The smell of fermentation
  • Camaraderie
  • Breakfast burritos
  • Seeing the sun rise over a vineyard
  • Cold beer
  • Avocados
  • Spicy Cheetos
  • Chocolate
  • Knowing there’s an end…

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The Indescribability of Albariño

Albariño (al-bar-EEN-yo) is the great white grape of Rías Baixas in the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Albariños are light, snappy, dry white wines with terrific crispness. They aren’t full-bodied like most chardonnays, they aren’t green like a lot of sauvignon blancs, and they aren’t as fruity as rieslings can be. Rather, albariños have their own clean, fresh character with just a hint of peaches or almonds. Because fishing is the major industry in Galicia, it comes as no surprise that albariños are made with seafood in mind. Throw some shrimp on the grill, open a bottle, and you’ll see just what we mean.

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Washington has 14 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 his herd of horses eating native grasses on the hillside, he was so moved he decided to call 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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An Old Cork’s Best Friend

Just pulled this fantastic cork from a bottle of 30-year-old Sterling “Diamond Mountain Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). I’m sure it would have crumbled into a zillion pieces if I had tried to take it out with anything other than a Durand. This fantastic, easy-to-use type of corkscrew combines a standard waiter’s corkscrew and an Ah-So. So there’s a worm and prongs. It’s absolutely faultless and works miraculously with old wines. The Durand was founded in 2007 by sommelier Yves Durand to allow one to extract an old or compromised cork in one piece. It’s an indispensable tool for many wine lovers.

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Toast the Revolution

To celebrate tomorrow’s 229th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (a turning point in the French Revolution), consider popping open the most beautiful Champagne bottle ever designed—Perrier-Jouët’s Art Nouveau-style “flower bottle.”  The bottle, decorated with enameled anemones, was first designed in 1902 by glassmaker Emile Gallé as an homage to La Belle Époque (the artistic period from the late 1800s to 1914). However, due to the difficulty making them, the bottles were soon abandoned.  In the early 1960s, Pierre Ernst, former president of Perrier-Jouët, found an enamel specialist who could manufacture the bottles en masse. The modern version of the flower bottle premiered in 1969 and held the 1964 vintage of the House’s prestige cuvee called Belle Epoque. In 2012, a hundred years after its creation, the famous flower bottle was updated by Japanese floral designer Makoto Azuma, who added golden vines and delicate dotted flowers to the classic pattern.

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Kisses, Licks, Bites, and …

Although everything about Tuscany seems to put a person in the mood to drink red wine, there is an historic white wine to consider: vernaccia di San Gimignano, traditionally referred to as the wine that “kisses, licks, bites, and stings.” Actually, only the best vernaccia di San Gimignanos do that; plenty of others—which are utterly neutral—just don’t appear to be good at romance.

As its name suggests, vernaccia di San Gimignano is made from vernaccia grapes grown on the slopes surrounding the medieval hill town of San Gimignano, roughly an hour’s drive southwest of Florence. Though historically vernaccia di San Gimignano was made and aged in large old wood casks, the best modern versions are young and fresh. There are dozens of relatively small producers. One of my favorites has been Teruzzi e Puthod.

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Bloody Hell, College Was Brutal

Alas, it wasn’t this way for me (or you either probably) but in England historically, wine—and especially Port—played a notable part in college life. According to the Rare Wine Company (an importer/retailer specializing in Port and Madeira) in the early part of the nineteenth century, important universities like Cambridge and Oxford had breathtakingly enormous wine cellars, and there was ten times as much Port in those cellars than any other wine. Far from being a mere hedonistic indulgence, Port was “currency”—often used by students to pay off wages, bets, and fines.

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Tribology…Who Knew?

Despite its importance, the texture or mouthfeel of wine is one of the least studied aspects of sensory perception. At least until now. As reported in Wines & Vines, researchers at U.C. Davis are currently working to develop what they call a “tribology” method to analyze the physical aspect of red wine perception. In particular, Dr. Tonya Kuhl and Dr. Aude Watrelot hope to understand the physical interaction between tannin (astringency) and saliva (lubrication). The word tribology comes from the Greek word for “rubbing.” In engineering and biomedical research, tribology is the science that deals with the design, friction, wear, and lubrication of interacting surfaces in relative motion (as in bearings or gears or, for that matter, your knee joints).

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42nd Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris

Next Thursday, May 24, is the 42nd Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, widely considered the tasting that vaulted California wine onto the international stage. We asked Steven Spurrier, the creator and organizer of that historic event, what the Judgment of Paris has meant to him.  Steven responded:

“A couple of years ago my 8 year old grandson asked ‘Grandpa, why are you famous?’  All I needed to do was to show him George Taber’s book ‘Judgment of Paris’ whose subtitle was ‘the historic 1976 Paris Tasting that revolutionized wine.’ While this event did make me famous, it turned out to be a ‘win-win’ situation for both California and France, but more importantly it created a template whereby unknown wines of quality could be tasted blind against known wines of quality and if the judges themselves were of quality, their opinion would be respected.  The best example of this was Eduardo Chadwick’s 2004 Berlin Tasting.  Paris 1976 opened the game to all comers.”