Mar 7, 2013

Aaron in Time Magazine and New York Times

Great mention in Time Magazine today for me. Check the link:

Their article talks about the newer trends in winemaking and features me as one their up-and-comers.

An excerpt:

"New grape varietals being grown in California as youthful winemakers take root in the area

Traditionally Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have been the hallmarks of California wine production. But many vintners are looking beyond this triumvirate and exploring new blends and grape varietals—Pinot Grigio, Tempranillo and Petite Syrah, to name a few—previously unknown to the area. A new generation of young winemakers are bringing an experimental, innovative sensibility to this pursuit as they exploit the state’s temperate climate and fertile soil—orthodoxy be damned! Several to look for are the Scholium Project’s Prince in His Caves, an exciting sauvignon blanc, and Aaron Wines’ Petite Syrah."

Also, if you missed the article mentioning me as one of the new wave of young winemakers in Paso Robles in the New York Times in September last year, here is the link:

Stoked to be getting some press!

Dec 4, 2012

Taking the Road Less Traveled.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the wine industry in Paso Robles and the incredible evolution that has taken place in the years since I began making wine. In the "early days" of my career (lets be honest it was THAT long ago), Paso Robles was barely a shadow of its current self. I remember Paso still being lost and confused, nothing more than a pre-pubescent teenager looking for acceptance and trying to find it's identity in the greater world of wine. But during that same time a birth and rebirth was going on across the entire industry, with many regions just beginning to come onto the main stage. And Paso was right there with them, fighting for its 15 minutes of fame and hopefully a big break. Remember, in the late 1990's and early 2000's, Argentina was still finding it's feet in the US market and consumers had barely an idea what Malbec was. New Zealand was not yet synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc as it is now. Even Australian Shiraz was a new face in the US to most consumers. Even now well-known California regions like Sta. Rita Hills were not even in existence yet.

Any what the hell was Paso Robles? As far as most people were concerned, it was a place where grapes were grown and wines were made, but the reputation was still less than stellar. And more than anything, the region wasn't quite known for any one varietal, style, or wine in particular. But as many of you know, the landscape has changed dramatically and now Paso Robles is seen as the Rhone-varietal hub of the US wine industry. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, etc, etc are the new dominant forces in Paso. The traditional grapes of France's Chateauneuf-du-Pape have taken hold in the limestone soils of Paso and have brought the region to international attention. Thankfully, it was the vision of a few people who dared to take the risk to plant these varieties and to make the wines that forever changed the shape of the wine industry here.

But the one thing that is interesting about Paso's recently found identity in the wine world is that it has set a precedent for the development of every new winery and/or brand that pops up. Just as in Napa Valley, where most new brands are focused on Cabernet Sauvignon - each new winery in Paso Robles seeks to produce Rhone-style blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Sure, it's waht the media has said does best, and it's what has brought Paso the fame it has today. But frankly, it bores me a bit.

Maybe I'd be better off just making traditional Rhone blends, focusing on what the media says is Paso's 'true calling.' Maybe I should have marched to the beat that was already playing and simply put my own twist on it. But I didn't. Instead, I decided I wanted to pull the needle off the record and try a new beat altogether.

There are times when I stand frustrated at the challenge I presented myself with when I chose to start a brand focused on Petite Sirah. Sure, it may have a longstanding history (and pedigree if you will) in the California wine industry, but nevertheless it still remains an underdog. I hope not perpetually so, but somehow Petite has continued to fly under the radar for 40 years and be a wine mostly for purists and cult drinkers. And there I was, a teenager-come-winemaker who thought "yeah, I'm going to make badass Petite Sirah and show all those bastards!" Was it overly ambitious? Hell yes. Was it admirable? Maybe. Was it a terrible decision? Time will tell.

But at the end of the day, I'm proud of the fact that I chose to do something different. I chose the path less traveled and I haven't wavered from it for a second. My goal today stands the same as it did when I started the Aaron Wines project, to prove that Paso Robles can make the best Petite Sirah in the world and show that it's a varietal to be taken seriously. Very seriously. And I'll keep preaching my gospel until I burn out or find out I was full of shit all along, but so far I'm still feeling pretty confident that I'll make believers out of you all. And when I'm old and grey, my wine career long gone, and my energies being focused mainly on not soiling myself, I'll at least remember that I took a risk in my career and followed my passion.

Hell, as far as I know I'm still the only Petite Sirah exclusive gig in town, and I'm fine if it stays that way. There's gotta be at least one person brave enough (or dumb enough) to do it.

Nov 16, 2012

The Evolution of the Approach

Last post was August. That's a big long time for me to slack off on writing here on the blog. But I was busy making some of the best wines I've ever made.

This harvest was full of changes, evolutions, experiments, and inspirations. It's a year where I've spent a lot of time considering why I make wine, what I've learned, where I've been, and where I'm going. I spent a lot of time moving out of my comfort zone in my winemaking and in turn I've had a few 'aha' moments. In the end, it's helped me to reinforce what Aaron Wines is all about and give me added motivation for the future.

Last week I was having a conversation with a good friend from San Fransisco regarding the nature of cuisine and the inspiration that guides the vision of a restaurant. My friend happens to be a fabulous chef, having worked in some of the best kitchens in Los Angeles, New York, and now SF, and he's seen many different iterations of high-end cuisine. The similarities between cooking and winemaking are strikingly similar, and I'm sure I've used the same analogy here on this blog before.

Let's look at a top-caliber French restaurant such as The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. It's an institution, a legend in its own right, and has one hell of an international reputation to uphold. A spare-no-expense operation, in traditional French fashion it focuses on sourcing quality regional ingredients and preparing them with impeccable technique. Food becomes art, elevated beyond it humble origins from the farm or sea. Everything must be perfect. There is a clear parallel in the wine industry as seen in some of the cellars of the Napa Valley, where the same mantra of impeccable technique and a spare-no-expense approach prevail. Harlan Estate, Opus One, Quintessa, and Vineyard 29 come to mind.

A few years ago, my friend was also involved in the opening of a new restaurant in Manhattan that was under the helm of a superstar restaurant group. The mantra here? Create something unique, hip, quality, and wow the press enough to make it an overnight success. Make it happen and make it happen fast, because the lease is $40,000/month. In NYC there is no such thing as "regional ingredients" so the canvas of where you can source ingredients from is essentially blank. It's the rat race for success, so the recipe is - hire a highly decorated chef, find prime real estate, invest in a great interior designer, and pump the PR. It's amazing how much we've seen this occur in wine industry in the past decade with an exponential growth of new wineries. The goal has become to hire on a superstar winemaker, source from great vineyards, put together a great label, and create enough press buzz to get the scores needed to make you into a superstar. It's happening every day in the California wine industry. I won't name wineries, but there are dozens of them following the "rat-race" model for industry success.

And then we started talking about Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Alice Waters' famous restaurant that helped redefine the regional approach to food in California. The purpose was locally sourced regionally cuisine presented simply, traditionally, and without much fluff. The food was more about the place and the "terrior" of that source than the preparation and technique. Stripped down, the food showcases a less pretentious and more pure approach than restaurants following the French 'haute-cuisine' style. This was a groundbreaking approach to food when Chez Panisse opened in 1971, and today we are seeing this approach infiltrating the wine industry more and more. Something you'll here more and more from winemakers these days is winemaking is 97% about the vineyard and 3% simply trying not to screw it up. This isn't a new approach by any means, but in a lot of ways we have come full circle. Traditionally, most winemakers in the early days followed a simple, vineyard-driven winemaking approach that prevailed through much of early-mid 1900's. This evolved to a more technical, hands-on approach that spawned from technological advancements in the industry and the rise of UC Davis and Fresno State's Oenology programs. And now we see many winemakers, many of whom have technical backgrounds, reverting to a more stripped down, terrior-driven approach that focuses more on letting the vineyard and vintage flavors shine through in a pure fashion.

Where to my wines lie you might ask? The more my career progresses, the more I find myself looking to the flavors of my vineyards to provide me with inspiration in my winemaking. From this, my focus has become more about both preserving and elevating the flavors that come each site and then blending the flavors from each vineyard to create a regional wine that really sings. So in essence, it's a mixture of the Chez Panisse and the French Laundry approach. More focused on keeping the ingredients pure and simple, yet still using my winemaking to elevate my wines to something than just wine itself.

Aug 21, 2012

Why Winemakers Hate Bottling

It's the worst winemaking event of the year, naturally. We loath it, we despise it, and we lose sleep at night over the mere thought of it. At least I do. And I like to believe that every other winemaker in the world feels the same.

Bottling is a pain in the ass for many reasons, each of which seems to compound upon the another to form a giant snowball of crap that descends upon your shoulders on one or two days a year. Thankfully it's for a very short period, unlike harvest which lasts for months. If bottling lasted for that long I'd have found a new career long ago.

One of the most favorable things about making wine is how long it takes everything to come together. We are given time to make decisions. We have an entire growing season, we have several weeks of fermentation, and we have 12-24 months of barrel aging in which we can think about our strategy and tweak things if necessary. But bottling is the culmination of all those decisions and the point where there is no turning back. Once the wine is in bottle, that's it. You've done all you can, and if you haven't put your best foot forward at this point, then basically you're screwed. Every time bottling comes around I find that my deepest insecurities about my winemaking suddenly burst to the surface. On bottling day, you have to accept that the final blend is what it is and you better like it. At these moments, oftentimes days or even hours before the wine is set to go to bottle I find myself back in the lab obsessively performing blending trials as if I'm going to arrive at some monumental decision just before the wine is bottled. I tell myself the wine can be better, that it lacks mid palate or back end finesse. On bottling day I'll find the wine too thin, not aromatic enough, or the alcohol too high. I come up with every scenario and every excuse as to why the wine is not good enough, usually ending with me coming to the conclusion that I won't bottle the wine at all. I freak myself out to no end. If you're ever around you should stop by the winery and watch the show, I'm sure it's quite entertaining.

Outside of that, bottling is also torturous because everything has to be perfect. Most other winemaking processes have a certain degree of flexibility and tolerance in them. You can pick your fruit on Monday, or you could pick on Wednesday, and in many cases it's probably okay. You can age your wines for 16 months, or you might age them for 18 months and things will generally be okay. But bottling is the time where the tolerances run out and everything has to fit together tightly. The wine must be consistent from bottle to bottle, each cork must seal perfectly, and every label must go on straight and true. Which means that every process on bottling day must go smooth and flawlessly. And as Murphy's Law states, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."

Murphy must have been a winemaker who had endured too many bottlings.

My experiences have taught me that if it doesn't rain, or contrastingly if it's not 100º F on the day of bottling, then the bottling truck will probably have broken equipment, or the power will go out, or you will run out of corks, or not enough labor will show up. Or a swarm of locusts will attack without notice. Call me crazy, call me paranoid, call me a hopeless pessimist, but in all my years I have only been proven right time and again.

But the reality is that in the end, all chaos and paranoia aside, everything is always okay and the wines taste great. Frankly, I just can't seem to come to terms with accepting all the hard I've put work in over the past few years. You'd think that after making my own wines for over 10 years I'd be over it, but I just can't seem to shake it. I liken it to a movie director who never wants to see the film actually released on the big screen, for fear that all of his hard work has actually amounted to nothing more than 2 hours of garbage.

All that being said, the bottling I performed yesterday on my 2010 Petite Sirah was perhaps the easiest I have ever experienced. The wine tasted great, everything went according to plan, and the all the wine was safely in bottle before 11:00am. No hang ups, no mistakes (that I've seen yet), and let's hope the wine ages gracefully for the next 6 months before it is released in February. I'm looking forward to sharing the fruits of my stress and anxiety with everyone then!

Aug 6, 2012

Where are Earth are my Vineyards?

"Where do you get your fruit from?" is a question that is asked by consumers, other winemakers, sommeliers, and my neighbors cat practically every day. Everyone wants to know, even though I wonder if anyone really cares to know. My typical answer is "From a bunch of small vineyards you've never heard of," because frankly that's the truth. There are hundreds of vineyards large and small all over Paso Robles, and unless I say the name James Berry, Booker, Dusi, L'Aventure, Denner, or Pesenti no is going to know what the hell I'm talking about. Thing is, pretty much none of these vineyards grow Petite Sirah, and if they do they are keeping all of it for themselves.

You see, Paso Robles is a huge region that is farming a lot of acres of winegrapes. Thousands and thousands. Interestingly, Paso Robles also has some of the most acreage of Petite Sirah of anywhere in the world (lucky me), but sadly much of this acreage is farmed for high production and marginal quality. Most of the Petite Sirah produced in Paso Robles ends up fattening up weak blends of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, just as it has for many many years. Thus, to find really great Petite Sirah vineyard, a winemaker such as myself must search high and low to discover them or plant the vineyards themselves. You see, there aren't many great Petite Sirah vineyards out there, and I've been on one hell of a mission to find the very best ones out there. So far, I've gotten the best in Paso Robles nailed down to a few choice sites, many of which I am lucky enough to get fruit from.

Unlike other varieties, I don't particularly play favorites with the whole Eastside vs. Westside thing. I get great fruit from all areas of Paso, and it has to do with a lot more than East vs. West. Shit, North vs. South makes as much or more of a difference oftentimes. Paso Robles is VERY diverse in a climatic sense, so to make great wine you best know each of your sites intimately. I've decided to take a snapshot on Google Earth that shows the vineyards I source fruit from and their location in the Paso Robles appellation. As you can see, they are spread out all over the place, and each lends a different flavor profile to my Petite Sirah. Generally, they are broken down into 5 distinct regions - Templeton Gap, El Pomar District, Creston, Adelaida, and San Miguel. I use a combination of Westside and Eastside vineyards, all of which add a certain depth and character to my wines.

The Templeton Gap vineyards (Briarwood, Live Oak, and 4 Hearts) produce noticeably acidic wines with black pepper, spice, game, and a fruit profile of dense blueberries or bright red berries, depending on site. Templeton Gap vineyards often have the firmest tannins. The El Pomar vineyards (Beato, Lime Ridge) produce softer wines due to deeper soils, but the climate is similar to Templeton Gap thus the wines are spicy with loads of blackberry fruit. In Creston (Roadrunner Farm), the soils are sandier and more intense, along with slightly more heat. The wines show dense fruit, excellent concentration, and a rich palate structure. In Adelaida (Webster and Rolph), the temperatures are similar to Creston but with more limestone and clay, resulting in concentrated and rich wines with higher acidities and dense, red and black fruit characters. San Miguel (Texas Road) is the warmest region I work with, and I will be using some of this fruit for the first time in 2012, so the jury is still out.

Notice that in the map that I do not source any fruit from the Northeast quadrant. This region is more or less along Hwy 46 East and is extremely warm and rather flat in topography, which I believe produces many of Paso's least interesting wines. That being said, there are good sites in this area but they can be difficult to find. Much of the larger, more commercial vineyards in Paso Robles are located in this area.

Jul 25, 2012

Visiting My Big Sur Vacation Home

I'm a born-and-raised Central Coaster. And I love to surf, so naturally I possess that certain nomadic surfer gene that drives one to spend endless hours driving around looking for the best waves. This has always struck me as an oxymoron to the hippie, naturalist image that surfers are tagged with. Don't get me wrong, I've got plenty of the hippie naturalist surfer in me, but logging a few hundred miles on the odometer each weekend driving to every beach on Central Coast doesn't exactly seem as friendly to the environment as say...gardening. Or knitting.

My nomadic surf hunting has always led me up and down the coast, but there is something about Big Sur being only 40 minutes away the always seems to pull me Northward. So consequently, I spend a lot of time up this rugged coastline. The contrast of steep ocean cliffs, empty surf spots, and sun drenched hillsides high up the ridges are my favorite stomping grounds. In the summer months (which is my favorite time to visit), the warmer inland temperatures collide with the cool ocean air, condensing into a dense marine layer of fog that blankets the coastline. This gloomy grey weather can be downright frigid and a far cry from the summertime heat of Paso Robles or Southern California, but it also keep the winds down, i.e. better surf conditions. Yet it only takes a 5-minute drive up the dusty ridge roads and above the fog line before you find summer sunshine and a empty meadow to warm you up after a cold surf. It's a humorous dance to drive up and down these ridge roads, layering up clothing for the cold, foggy beach below and frantically stripping down to bare minimums once you arrive on a balmy ridge above the fog.

Outside of their pure beauty, what I treasure most about these locales are that they are literally a world away from everything, and every visit epitomizes the meaning of "staycation." Over the past few years I've been returning to a particular site over and over during the year, so much so that I've dubbed it my "vacation home." Don't get me a wrong, its a pretty rugged place, and the 3-mile road up is deeply rutted and pretty much impossible without a 4WD vehicle. The "home" itself isn't the fanciest of places either given that there is no bathroom, running water, electricity, or any walls or roof. But as they say always about real estate - location, location, location. And let me tell you, the view from the piece of dirt that I call my vacation home sure as hell can't be beat. At 2500' of elevation, high above the thick summer fog that blankets the coastline below, you sit with a airplane-like view of the coastline below and bask in the 75-80º temperatures that scream at you to do a whole lot of nothing. Once you arrive, you are left with nothing more than what nature provides and the little that you pack with you. All you need is a tent, a good book, and of course a few good wines to pass away the day with.

I've spent so much time traversing the ridges, canyons, forests, and beaches of Big Sur that I've got a great grasp on the intricacies of the place, but even still it never ceases to amaze me every time I visit. It's as unbelievable a place as anywhere in the world, extreme and rugged, intense and captivating, yet beautiful and diverse. And thanks to it being almost entirely Federal land, it's also very accessible for most people. You just have to know where to go. I'm not giving away any secrets here, but I will say that if you have the courage and wherewithal to do plenty of exploration, you will eventually find yourself all alone in some of the most beautiful country on this entire planet. And luckily for me it's right in my backyard. Hell, it IS my backyard.

This past weekend at the vacation home was spent with a few great friends, some awesome wines, and a plenty of spirited adventures. Walking the ridges below our campsite and spending hour upon hour watching the sun bath the ocean and hillsides leading up to Cone Peak (the highest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states at 5100' feet and only 3 miles inland, see photo above) is enough to make you seriously consider complete abandonment of life's responsibilities. Between every ridge lies a valley is filled the brim with Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens, the tallest trees in the world), which only grow in a rather small coastal range that begins just a few miles south of the vacation home and extends northward to the California-Oregon border. In the southern reaches of Big Sur where I dwell, the redwoods are not the tallest (not enough rainfall), but are some of the oldest in the world. A humbling experience that truly lets you appreciate the power and stability of nature.
After logging numerous hours looking over the edge of the world and up into the canopy of redwoods, you begin to get a pretty good idea of what is important to you in life. Being with friends sharing beers and stories over a campfire, or digging into a few bottles of good wine along with a guitar and a harmonica, and life suddenly seems a lot less complicated. In a numbers-driven world of 3 Michelin stars, 95-point scores, and $100 price tags, it's nice to be in a place where there only number that seems to have any importance is how many beers you have left in the cooler.

Jul 13, 2012

Drinking an Australia Icon

Many of you know that I lived in Australia for a few years back in 2007-2008. It was one of the most exciting and memorable times of my life, without a doubt. I remember arriving as a naive, innocent, and thoroughly curious young chap who was ready to embark on a journey of wine and self exploration. My vector for getting to Australia was the Graduate program in Oenology at The University of Adelaide, and my mind was thirsty for a certain knowledge and experience that I felt I wouldn't get stateside.

I fell in love with Australia for many reasons beyond the gorgeous women, smiling faces, and furry marsupials. I was there for wine, and indeed the Australian wine world gave me what I was looking for. In a rather short period of time I found myself totally captivated by the Australian wine industry in a way I couldn't have fathomed before living there. And as I discovered how much I loved the world of Australian wine, I realized that it was for reasons that transcended the mere flavor and quality of the wines themselves. It became about everything else that was part and parcel to the industry, which of course is far more than simply cork, bottle, and label. It become about the stories behind the wines, often told through the cheeky smile and maniacal laughter of a winemaker with a larger-than-life personality. It was the gnarled look of old Shiraz and Grenache vines dotting the landscape of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. The ragged barrel cellars plopped next to these vineyards, which were always referred to as "Sheds" rather than the more pretentious French term "Chai" ('shay' means barrel room or cellar) as is common in the Napa Valley. The all around fun-loving attitude that seems to flow through the entire industry helps disguise the fact that Australians are still tremendously serious about wine. Frankly, it is like nowhere else I've been in the world.

And of course some of the wines are simply phenomenal, and for the most part unlike wines you will find anywhere else in the world. Great Shiraz, Grenache, and blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon (my personal favorites) are stunning wines, but often because they strike you in unique ways. They really are, not surprisingly, clearly and unabashedly Australian. I was lucky enough during my time there to try some very amazing wines, largely in part due to friends I had made or simply being in the right place at the right time. But as is with any area, there are some iconic wines that are simply untouchable by many people's hands and to even catch a glimpse of a bottle can send a rush of excitement through a wine geeks body. Partly due to the more laid back nature of the Australian wine industry, I was able to sample several of the more iconic wines, such as Penfold's Grange, Noon Shiraz, Two Hands Ares, Wendouree Shiraz, Torbreck Runrig, and a slew of others. For contrast, I've tasted nary a handful of iconic wines from California even though I've been making wine here my entire career! I've seen bottles of Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, and Sine Qua Non, but have never come close to tasting any of them.

Recently, a friend of mine bestowed up on my a great gift in the form of a bottle of a true Australian icon wine, and one that I have never seen nor tasted before. The wine, a 2003 Clarendon Hills Astralis Shiraz, is one of the most sought after (and expensive at $325+ per bottle) Australian wines, so needless to say I was pretty thrilled. Iconic wines are quite the interesting anomaly, as one of the main elements that make them so iconic is oftentimes their astronomical price. In Australia I was nothing more than a broke-ass student surviving on white rice and avocados, so the access I had to iconic wines was never on my own dime (although I'm thankful to those who purchased them). As much as I'd love to say that my personal cellar is stocked with verticals of Romanee Conti and other phenomenal wines, the reality is quite the opposite.

We drank the Astralis a few nights ago over a backyard bonfire, and the wine was quite good. "Quite good" you're probably asking? Why would a $300 bottle of wine simply be "quite good?" Well, the reality of many "icon" wines is that their price is usually the most impressive thing about them. Don't get me wrong, it was a very nice wine - classic Shiraz, with spice, jammy fruit, melted licorice, and incredible palate weight. I'd gladly drink another bottle any day. But as many of you might find at some point in your wine drinking lives, is that sometimes the biggest wow factor is the hit to your pocketbook. I've had similar experiences with other icon wines, where you are left wanting just a bit more from the wine. But I've also had the ethereal 'this-is-the-best-goddamn-wine-in-the-world' experience with icon wines as well, where you feel that every penny was worth it.

But as I was mentioning earlier, the beauty and fascination of a great wine often transcends the simple taste of the wine itself. Had a visited the Astralis vineyard, talked with the winemaker, and maybe even shared a bottle with him before this one, my experience with the wine today would probably be completely different. Tasting it may have conjured up memories of previous experience and maximized my overall enjoyment by a factor not measurable by simple $$ signs. But I was given the bottle, thus saving me from sticker shock, and I also kept my mind relatively free of preconceived notions when drinking it. I was able to look at the wine in a relatively objective way. Had I actually shelled out 300 bones for it I probably would have convinced myself that it was the greatest wine ever, because I had bet my hard-earned money on it.

So in the end, all I can say is that I'm happy to have checked the box next to Clarendon Hills Astralis on my wine drinking bucket list. If another bottle comes my way I'll happily drink it up, but I don't reckon I'll be trading in a monthly paycheck for a 6-pack of it anytime soon. I know I usually say "Go Big or Go Home," but I guess you gotta draw the line somewhere...

Jun 19, 2012

Finding the Perfect Woman...err, Vineyard

I spend a lot of time driving around. A shitload of time. Going on sales trips, looking at vineyards, delivering wine, to and from the winery, around California visiting friends, picking stuff up, dropping crap off. It's madness sometimes, and I rack up over 25,000 miles a year on my truck. I suppose that makes me an environmental hazard. But one thing that I love about driving so much (outside of being able to sing to horrendously loud music to my hearts delight) is that I get to see a lot of scenery and a lot of vineyards. Driving up and down California these days is like traversing an endless sea of vines, and along my drives I get plenty of time to stupidly take my eyes off the road and stare at the green rows dotting every field and hillside. 

Staring at vineyards happens to be like porn for a winemaker such as myself, so I'm more than content to spend hours upon hours exploring every sexy curve in a vineyards topography. I think winemakers often classify vineyards into female personas, analyzing them with the same sort of curiosity, judgement, and lust. Some of the beautiful, gorgeous sites I pass make me pant and drool in an excited way that I won't discuss in further detail. Others simply turn me off instantly or don't inspire a second glance. But with each site that really catches my eye, I can't help but wonder what it is that makes me want them so bad. Sometimes its the youthful beauty of a new vineyard, where everything is so perfect and filled with untapped potential. Other times it's the intensity of a steep hillside planting, looking so proud and confident that it seems to possess that untouchable supermodel personality. And yet other times its the haunting maturity of old vines, knowing that their age and experience could teach me things I could never imagine. And like any perverted winemaker, we all seek to know the answer to just one question at the end of the day. 


Creepy isn't it?

But finding that perfect site, the one that you know you want to be with forever and will bring you everlasting pleasure and happiness, is rarely discovered by a passing glance. As many of us know, love at first sight is a serendipitous event rarely seen in real life. And why? Because a perfect vineyard comes from a combination of many things that must come together in harmony. A beautiful looking vineyard that does not possess the correct elements of climate and soil will never be the perfect match for a winemaker that seeks to make quality wines. Because of this, the process of discovering a great vineyard comes down to evaluating both its potential and limitations and weighing the importance of those limitations. For those who are not driven by mere superficiality, personality is usually far more important than beauty, and you will find that many winemakers adhere to this mantra about vineyards. And personality is usually about compatibility, which translates to matching the right site to the the right soil and the right varietal. Values are also important, and in finding the right site it's usually necessary that the grower and winemaker share similar values or the relationship is doomed. 

The bottom line is that it's a combination of all the elements that determine whether it's the right fit and whether a vineyard will give the winemaker everything they want. And the end result is that the glove either fits or it doesn't. Being the ultra-picky, uptight winemaker that I am, I tend to rely the following factors, in order of importance, for evaluating a vineyards potential.

1. CLIMATE - no matter what, climate should always be #1. It's the personality element. No matter how perfect every other element is, if the climate is not right for the varietal you are trying to grow, or any varietal for that matter, than there is only so much you can do and ultimately it won't end up working out. Great climate = great personality, which means that the potential is there. 

2. SOIL/TOPOGRAPHY - this is next factor I always look for. This is another part of the personality element. Given the right climate, the next component (or "limiting factor") becomes the soil that the vine grows in, as we know this to be one of the biggest impacts on quality (or personality if you will). Great soil in Las Vegas means nothing to a winemaker. But soil is also a personal preference, based upon the wine you desire to make. Leaner, rockier soils can produce wines with lots of character, tannin, and intensity. But not all winemakers or consumers want this. Deeper, richer soils often make wines that are softer, gentler, and more approachable. Some people prefer this.

3. VARIETAL/ROOTSTOCK - I put this before farming because it's a more permanent decision that is less easily changed. Right site + right soil + wrong varietal = problems. So many vineyards I see are simply planted to the wrong variety or on the wrong rootstock, and this ends up being a make-or-break factor. Sure, if a wrong choice is made it can be changed, but at very high cost that many are reluctant to take on. Varietal is much like personal style or interests, which in many ways determine compatibility. 

4. FARMING - once the other factors come together, it comes down to farming. This is like the component of physical beauty or attraction. If the farming is top notch and the vineyard is managed to perfection, then you have one of final components to a great vineyard and great wines. Without good farming, you are only likely to achieve a portion of your needs. A sub-par climate and poor soil can achieve some success with great farming, but never greatness. The advantage of the farming aspect is that it happens to be the most manageable, or the most easily impacted. Climate and soil are permanent. Varietal and rootstock are semi-permanent. Farming can be changed and adapted on a whim, although not all growers are open to changing their ways or practices. 

5. VALUES - this is what I would call the "x-factor" in a vineyard, and it comes down to sharing the same values with the grower for achieving quality. This is very specific to each site, and can either mean very little or a very lot depending. Some people can have differences in values and have a very successful relationship. For others, values may be the #1 limiting factor. A winemaker that wants to farm for top quality will always butt heads with a grower who wants to grow for maximum yield, and to change either person's values can be a very tall order.

For a vineyard site that I was recently evaluating, I felt that I had just about every factor in check except for one, soil. Everything looks right, but with the soil at the property I don't know I will ever be able to achieve a level of quality that I want to produce. Even the topography is perfect, but the soil just won't cut it. And soil is permanent. I could plant the vineyard anyway, but I'm taking a pretty huge risk and it could easily end up being the wrong choice. So what can I say? Like many relationships, I think it just isn't meant to be.

May 30, 2012

Recalling 10 Memorable Wines

I drink a lot of wine. So much that it gets challenging to remember it all, even by time the end of the month rolls around. But thankfully most wines we drink still leave us with a cork that serves as a memento to the wine that it sealed, a token we can use for various purposes such as corkboards, home decor, or throwing at your friends.

All my corks are kept in a big woven basket that my girlfriend and I picked up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's pretty damn full, naturally. And from time to time on a relaxing Sunday, I'll peruse the basket and recall the memorable bottles that have left a lasting impression on me.

Recently, I dug up 10 corks and spent some time recalling what it was that made them special:
1. NV Krug "Grande Cuvee" Brut Champagne

This wine was cracked last year during a tasting group, whereby we opened about 14 bottles of bubbles, many of which I had never had before. However, this happens to be one of the wines I have been lucky enough to enjoy several times in my life. There is just something about Krug that allows it to stand out among all other Champagnes. Stunning richness, and the unique use of new oak allows the wine to have tremendous richness, with many low-toned aromatics of nuts, honey, toast, and smoke, which are a stark contrast to the brighter nature of many Champagnes. A classic wine and one that everyone should enjoy at some point in their life.

2. 2009 Alban "Patrina" Syrah, Edna Valley

I'm a big fan of John Alban, he's someone I have always looked up to over the course of my career as both a pioneer and also a sort of mystery man that doesn't look to be the coolest or most popular winemaker on the block. He just sticks to his guns and makes damn good wine. In the early days when Syrah and other Rhones were nowhere to be found, he was a visionary that wasn't afraid to step out of the box and go out on a limb. And he's done it with tremendous success. However, at this point I can't afford any of his wines, even though I am on the mailing list (my latest offering was Reva Syrah at $95/bottle)! My best bet this year was to pick up 7 bottles of his "entry level" Syrah at about $50, and holy hell was I not disappointed. This is most everything I could want in a Syrah, absolutely oozing with concentration, density, richness, and purity. A massive fruit explosion wrapped up with savory flavors of bacon, black pepper, olive, and delicious oak. As far as I'm concerned, a seamless wine. Thank you for being an inspiration John!

3. 2007 Domaine Ostertag "Muenchberg" Riesling, Alsace Grand Cru

The first time I had this wine I picked it up randomly at a wine shop in Newport Beach back when I was 21 or so. The owner recommended it highly. After taking it home and sitting on it for awhile, I ended up taking it a sushi dinner with my then boss, Christian Tietje of Four Vines Winery (now Cypher Winery). I plopped the wine on the table and his eyes lit up as he exclaimed "Where the hell did you get this, do you know how much I love Ostertag?" I had no idea, but he continued "Ostertag is the one who inspired me to even make white wine, he's a badass!" This was all a big surprise, but the fact that Christian felt so much passion for Andre Ostertag and his wines left me equally inspired. As it turns out the wine was absolutely phenomenal, beyond my expectations. This most recent 2007 Ostertag was enjoyed with Christian and his wife, which we happily guzzled down while recalling my first experience with the wines years ago with him. Alsatian wines are some of my favorites, but this one always takes the cake.

4. 2008 Pago de los Capellanes Ribera Del Duero Crianza

Last year, my girlfriend Amber and I spent 3 weeks in Spain, eating and drinking our way all over the country. In San Sebastian, we bit the bullet for a 5 course dinner at Bodegon Alejandro, and had one of the most unforgettable meals of our lives. Uncrowded, we sat in the corner and curiously watched a large table mumbling to the waitress over and over again in a strong Texas accent, "Don't you have an PEE-Not Know-EER??" The question fell on deaf ears over and over again. Embarrassed, we skipped the English and decided to speak only in Spanish, hoping our Americaness would not be discovered, knowing all too well that it was still obvious. A lover of Ribera del Duero wines, I ordered a bottle of this Pago de los Capellanes and the waitresses eyes lit up in approval. The bottle hit the table, the glass hit my lips, and it was as if my trip had been launched to new heights. We savored every sip as the 5-course meal actually unfolded into 8 or 9 courses and I felt the true meaning of hedonistic gluttony. I've have never been so full in my life, ever. Back Stateside, I stumbled upon a bottle of the exact same wine from the same vintage in a wine shop in Los Angeles and snatched it up happily. Amber and I savored it in the comfort of our own home, transporting us back to the Basque County, only this time without the gorgeous food, exploding bellies, and the memory of ridiculous Texans.

5. 2005 Chateau Lascombes Margaux Grand Cru 

I don't drink much Bordeaux, as I find it oftentimes disappointing and the price tag just totally unreachable for my thin wallet. But years ago, a wine shop owner convinced me to trade him a case of my Petite for some of his more expensive selections. One wine I picked up was a Chateau Lascombes, and I managed to cellar it for an astonishing 3 years before opening it. I chose our anniversary on July 19th, which we enjoyed in classic beach-bum winemaker style. We drove past every nice restaurant in town, made no reservations, and instead took a blanket down to a cold, foggy bluff near Morro Bay with a few pizzas in hand. There, laughing at ourselves for how we chose to spend our special day, we drank out of plastic glasses one of the finest Bordeaux wines I have ever tasted. Makes you think of the last scene in the movie/book Sideways. Merlot and cheap food, with all the pretentiousness of Bordeaux thrown out the window. What could be better?

6. 2008 Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley

Paul Hobbs is an interesting character in the wine world, one of those individuals who has become a superstar internationally. His wines here and in South America are high scoring, highly sought after, and consistent. I admire his desire to seek out the best vineyards in California and make a fantastic portfolio of wines that express the individuality of the sites. And his larger production wines have been impressive as well. I don't drink many of his wines, but I was gifted this bottle from a friend who works for one of Paul's wineries and it was a wine that gives a great glimpse into the style. Rich, ripe, and forward in it's flavors, its a classic expression of a full-bodied Russian River Chardonnay, which happen to be some of my absolute favorites. As much as I enjoyed this wine for its tastiness, I think I was most drawn to it's expression of the Paul Hobbs style and how it led me to gain some understanding of what the brand is known for. I geeked out it more than I was wowed by its flavors, although it was very good.

7. 2004 Yalumba "The Signature" Barossa Valley

I picked this wine up at a local wine shop after I saw it unexpectedly on the shelf. Seeing Aussie wines with this much age on them is rare, and usually they are some below-average junk that they couldn't sell. However, I remember this wine distinctively from my time living in South Australia, and always remember admiring it. Yalumba is a huge winery, yet they manage to pump out fantastic wines from $8 to $80. I've always felt that a large majority of the best wines in Australia are blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, and this is a classic example. Drinking this wine was like taking a trip back to Australia, providing all of the flavors of what the country does best but wrapped up in a beautiful and well balanced package. I remember drinking this wine and recalling it tasting much like Grand Cru Bordeaux, but with more fruit. Tight and acidic, with fine grained tannins and incredible balance, you'd swear it might not even be from Australia, and much less from Barossa. It doesn't smack you over the head with fruit, it was lithe, perfectly balanced, and built to age. One of the best Aussie wines out there.

8. 2002 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Aloxe Corton 1er Cru "Les Vercots"

I love Burgundy, as they are some of the wines I fell in love with at a young age. Sometimes I feel like a jackass because it seems cliche to even say it, as there are so many Burgundy snobs out in the world. So much so that people feel it is the only "truly" great wine in the world. But I love them because they show depth, complexity, and regionality unlike many wines in the world do, which probably why everyone else loves them too. I had this wine with friends at a blind tasting, and I remember simply savoring the flavors forever as the thought "THIS is Burgundy" repeated itself over and over again in my head. Complexity was through the roof, yet on that palate this wine had so much massive fruit and pure delicousness. It just kept my mind racing and jumping from one character to the next. When I think of when I visited Burgundy when I was in my early 20's, this is what blew me away.

9. 2007 Robert Biale "Monte Rosso Vineyard" Zinfandel Sonoma Valley

Zinfandel holds a special place in my heart. The very first wine I made under the Aaron label was Zinfandel. And early in my career I spent a significant amount of time working with some of the best Zinfandel vineyards in California at Four Vines. And when I was only 17, I met a man who today remains one of my big mentors, Frank Nerelli of Zin Alley in Westside Paso Robles. This guy has been making Zin for almost 60 years, and knows more about the variety than many can ever dream. He's the one who first introduced me to beauty of the variety. And while many people learn to love Zin and then tire of it over time, I find that I seem to come back to just a few quality Zins that always impress and captivate me. Robert Biale Winery in Napa makes a Zin from the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma that always makes stunningly bright and complex wines, and with a very rare element of having the ability to age. Most Zins last a good 5 years, with many of them showing signs of fading by this time. Yet Monte Rosso Zin, and especially the ones produced by Robert Biale are stunning in their youth and seem to improve greatly with 3-10 years of age. Each year I purchase a few bottles of Monte Rosso Zin before it sells out and I lay the bottles down for 3-4 years before consuming them. This most recent wine was a stunner, just a pure, unbelievable bottle of great Zinfandel.

10. 2005 J. Lassalle "Cuvee Angeline" Brut Champagne

I don't know a ton about Champagne producers to be honest. I do know that most of them actually produce hundreds of thousands of cases and sell them for astronomical prices to the Champagne-loving world. Most of them are focused on the image of luxury and wealth that goes along with drinking Champagne. But me, I drink Champagne and all other sparkling wines merely because they are freaking delicious. Lassalle is not a large producer, but rather a grower-producer, meaning that they make wine from their own grapes instead of just selling them to the giant Champagne houses like Moet, Bollinger, Roederer, and the like. This wine was in the same tasting as the Krug, and while it was a much smaller production wine, it displayed a purity that is hard to match outside of Champagne. The best way to describe it is having your palate wrapped in silk and having little fairies dancing on your tongue. How unbelievably corny is that? But seriously, one of the most perfect expressions of Champagne I've had.

So there is my list. If you get a chance to seek any of these wines out, I suggest you go for it, if you can find them. As the cork basket is ever changing and continuing to compile more memories, I know that this isn't the first time I'll have an entry such as this.


May 11, 2012

Alcohol Percentage: The War of High vs. Low

There a probably about 1,000 wine blogs that have written about this subject in the past year, as the debate over low vs. high alcohol wines seems to be the hottest subject around these days, no pun intended.

So why all the hoopla? I believe it's due to nothing more than the fact that trends in wine come and go. Moving towards lower alcohol wines, or better yet, bashing higher alcohol wines, is simply an easy target and something to go after. But, like most things in the wine world, it's really a bunch of pretentious bullshit. All over the place I hear people tearing down high alcohol wines, telling us winemakers we've sold our souls to the score, that we are Parker's bitch. They say that Europe has got it all right and we're all so full of ego that we don't know what true winemaking is, we've lost our way. I'm going to go ahead and digitally raise my middle finger to all that crap because I think it's nothing more than trendy gossip. Low alcohol is the "in" thing, so in an effort to support the cause, it becomes necessary to tear down the non-conformists. Sure, people have become tired of the higher alcohol wines in the marketplace, and when that happens they look for something else to be interested in, which in turn makes all of their former interests irrelevant and downright uncool. Look at Merlot, and how all the loyal Merlot drinkers suddenly turned out to detest the varietal and question its reason to exist. All a bunch of trendy crap.

So where did the trend arise? Most people would say that it's stemmed from drinking European wines, which are generally lower in alcohol and apparently more balanced. This is true in many regards. But have they ever drank Priorat wines? Amarone? Chateauneuf du Pape? Many of these wines tip the scales well into 15%+ and are praised for being some of the richest and most interesting wines in Europe. But that's not the point I'm making. What really gets me is that California has come a long way in winemaking, now to the point where we are making some of the best wines in the world. The last 15 years has progressed by leaps and bounds. In addition, other new world countries have made tremendous headway in terms of quality. This has, not by coincidence, occurred at the same time that alcohol levels have slowly creeped up from the early days of 13% wines. This is not to say that the only reason our wines are better is because of higher alcohols. But learning not to be afraid of high alcohol, and learning to pick our fruit when it tastes ripe on the vine has been one of the largest contributors to quality progression. The wines have become more serious, gaining intensity, flavor, and nuance. We now pay attention to what things taste like in the vineyard, and then what it tastes like in the winery. Pushing things riper and gaining flavor and intensity has been one of the main reasons we have built the great reputation we have today. And now people want to tear down one of the foundational components that supports the quality of modern day California wine, behaving like we've all made a big mistake.

But let me step back - I love low alcohol wines. Not because I listen to what some sommelier at the latest trendy, organic, farm-to-table restaurant tells me, but because I love to drink wine. And for me, loving to drink wine doesn't mean that I love getting wasted. Sure, I've spent my fair share of evenings enjoying so much good wine that I'm left trying to recall in the morning what the hell it was we drank and why I'm wearing my shoes in bed. But that aside, I don't really enjoy getting plastered on wine regularly, and one of the joys of lower alcohol wines is that you can simply enjoy more of it without the side effects. And therein lies the key word: enjoying it. We drink wine (well, most of us) because we enjoy it. We love the way it tastes, we savor its nuances, we relish in the flavors. We pair it with our favorite foods and our favorite people.

But therein lies the rub. Some wines taste great at lower alcohols. Some taste great at higher alcohols. So in the effort to seek maximum enjoyment from a wine, we as consumers want to drink wines that taste good, plain and simple. If a winemaker decides his or her wines show their most complexity and best flavors when picked ripe, which consequently results in a 15.5% alcohol, then so be it. I'll admit that I might not be able to kill 3 bottles with friends over dinner, but at least what we drink will taste great. On the other side of the coin, if I pick up a beautiful Austrian Riesling that ticks the scales at 12% (that's about 25% less booze), then hell, we are given a buffer of 25% more wine to drink. Open another bottle, or two.

But at the end of the day, it's about picking the fruit when it tastes best in that particular vintage, and make the best wines we can. If it's 15% or 12% who gives a damn, because all we are trying to do is make wines that taste great. Alcohol % is just a number, it doesn't define quality, it only defines how you are going to feel after drinking 4 glasses. Which is the only reason the alcohol % is on the label in the first place, because the government makes us tell people so. If some asshole wants to bash a 15% alcohol Pinot Noir because they think it's "just not right" then I must ask him why the hell it's wrong. Has he somewhere found the ancient "varietal instructions" for Pinot Noir that state "thou must not pickest thine grapes once ripened past 26.5 Brix?" I've tasted 13% alcohol Pinot Noir I liked and 15.5% alcohol Pinot Noir that I liked as well. The only difference is that I can drink more of one than the other. But again, being able to drink more wine doesn't mean it's better.

In 2008, a warmer, riper vintage, my Petite Sirah's tipped the scales in from the low 15% to about 16.5%. That is when the fruit tasted ripe and ready. In 2009, which was a cooler year, I again picked when I felt the fruit tasted ripe. The resulting alcohols were about 14.6%-15.2%. In 2010, the alcohols are about 14.9%-16%. In 2011, they are 14.6%-14.9%. So there I am, bouncing around between the high 14% range to the 16% range. I'm not following any trends, just making the best wine I can from when the fruit tastes best. Admittedly, I'm entirely at the upper end of the alcohol spectrum, but that is where I feel Paso Robles wines show their best. And in the effort to make the best wines from the region I'm in, I'm picking when the fruit tastes ready.

Ok, rant over.

Apr 18, 2012

The Tiers of Wine Snobbery

I'm a wine snob, naturally. Being a winemaker and a wine snob don't necessarily go hand in hand, but clearly one must possess a certain amount of wine snobbery in order to devote his or her life to making wine. A big part of being a wine snob means having opinions and preferences about tastes, flavors, and style. Winemakers must have these traits as well. Possessing a bias is a prerequisite, otherwise you would have no direction in what wines you want to produce.

I find that there are multiple levels, or tiers, of wine snobbery. Over time I've created my own in my head, and I have to say that I'm guilty of classifying my friends at times (shhh...don't tell). I'm happy to say that I have friends in every tier, and thankfully not too many in the higher tiers, because if I had to live in a world surrounded by wine snobs I would probably kill myself. 

Tier I. Your entry level tier is actually not much of a tier at all save for the preference that you actually drink wine on occasion. You may not even prefer it over other beverages, but you do enjoy drinking it from time to time. Anyone below this tier would not really be considered a 'wine drinker,' and therefore cannot really be classified as any sort of wine snob. This entry level tier probably recognizes the difference in flavor between red and white, and surely has some knowledge of a few different varieties, even though they may not recognize how a Chardonnay necessarily differs in flavor from a Pinot Gris.

Tier II. The next tier moves into more of a regular wine drinker. This drinker has a stronger preference of which wine they like to drink, even though they may only purchase particular varietal wines in the $5-10 range. They have probably had some positive experiences with certain varieties (usually more common ones) thus they choose them regularly. Maybe it's Toasted Head Chardonnay, or an inexpensive Argentinean Malbec. This type of wine snob usually begins to develop some brand loyalty, and certainly some varietal loyalty. This is where the first signs of snobbery begin. They choose the same wines over and over again because they feel confident that they will suit their palate and be a reliable choice for their hard earned money. Open for them a Tannat from Uruguay and they may shudder out of shear inexperience with wines outside of their preferential comfort zone. Yet even at these 'lower tiers' we see that bias exists and preferences can be strong.

Tier III. Moving upward, or should I say laterally - I'm not trying to imply that someone who is less of a wine snob is somehow inferior - we begin to step into a more serious snob zone. This drinker is more experimental in that they venture out of their comfort zone on occasion and try new wines, yet they tend to still be loyal to particular brands and varietals. This drinker usually feels comfortable spending $10-25 and has developed some understanding of regions and the differences in flavors between varietals, yet still possesses some strong preferences for brands and varietals. They may have moved away from drinking everyday varietals such as Cabernet or Chardonnay, and may instead prefer a good quality, midrange Tempranillo instead. The snobbery here usually lies in their purposeful avoidance of wines that are too mainstream or generic, yet they will still gladly drink them if the occasion arises.

Tier IV. The next level is recognized by a more thorough understanding of regions that can only come through educating oneself, either by drinking, reading, traveling, classes, etc. This drinker has begun to see how how Syrah from Sonoma Coast differs from Paso Robles, and can name producers from each region, usually their favorites. They are probably a member of several wine clubs, and have developed preferences for producers from their favorite regions. They will gladly spend $20-30+ on a bottle of wine, not daily, but at least regularly. At this level, snobbery begins to become more serious merely out of experience. This understanding of regionality that has been gained begins to strongly shape their drinking preferences, and this influences much of their behavior. At a dinner party, this wine snob can look at a bottle of Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley vs. Lodi and know which wine will most likely be of superior quality. As such, the bias between wines becomes stronger and the decision to choose one wine over more apparent, meaning that this drinker is become more of a snob, whether they recognize it or not. 

Tier V. After this following tier, the true wine snob begins to be seen. This wine drinker is educated - they understand regions both domestically and globally, they know dozens of varietals, and they have moved on to grasping and recognizing style, be it from a winemaker, country, or appellation. They can name producers from most regions they know, and have probably visited them at some point. They have a cellar, either large or small, and take notice of good and bad vintages. Spending money to get a good bottle of wine becomes important. This does not mean spending a lot money, but instead ensuring that they have done their research on the bottles they buy. This buyer spends anywhere from $10-50+, choosing more to focus on the producer, region, vintage, reputation, and possibly score over just price. They will peruse a wine list looking for reliable producers, good vintages, and wines from unique or interesting regions. Those who are less wine snobbish can begin to become annoyed by these individuals, even though they often rely on them to make the best wine choices. This wine drinker will usually bring wine wherever they go to ensure that there is at least one reliable bottle of wine available.

Tier VI. The next level veers into the point of no return, the ultimate wine snob that is absolutely serious about wine. They structure their vacations around wine regions. They collect wine like they are hoarding it for Armageddon. They seek out special and rare bottles, read wine books like novels, and know the nuances of vineyard properties within a particular region. They can nail wines in a blind tasting, and are damn proud of it. They know how, and why a Cote Rotie from the cote brune slope differs from the cote blonde slope next door, and can describe to you how different they taste. If they are not sommeliers professionally, they probably could be. They may scoff at your poor taste in wine, although probably when you don't notice. They will drop $100 on a special bottle, even if they can't afford it. If given the choice to drink only Meridian Chardonnay, they will probably drink water instead. At this level, wine is not a beverage to simply be consumed, it is a subject to be studied and understood. 

All this being said, being a Tier IV (don't you love my classy use of roman numerals?) wine snob does not actually mean you are a pretentious asshole. I know plenty of laid back Tier IV snobs that keep their mouth shut and usually drink beer at dinner parties, of will knock back Turning Leaf Merlot with smile on their face. Moreover, the level of wine snob you reach merely reflects the amount of energy you have put into educating yourself about wine, which in turn comes from investing a lot of time and money into seeking out and drinking wines from around the world. Through this process, strong preferences and bias are developed, which is a lot of where the concept of a 'wine snob' stems from.

Where do I lie? I'm somewhere between a V and IV. I still have lots to learn, but I possess elements from each of these two tiers. Especially that annoying part in tier V. My goals are to begin devoting a larger portion of my meager income into wine purchases, because in the end that is one of the few ways you can further your snobbish development. I don't want to become a Tier IV snob, but I have a thirst  to keep furthering my knowledge about wines in general, if for nothing else by my own winemaking.

What kind of snob do you think you are? Are you as serious as my friend Joel pictured above?

Apr 6, 2012

Pairing Wine With Rattlesnake!

Prepping Rattlesnake for Dinner from Aaron Wines on Vimeo.

Last night I got a strange phonecall from my friend Stuart Selkirk of Cayucos Cellars. Skipping standard phone formalities, the moment I answered he simply blurted "I just shot you a nice rattlesnake, what do you want me to do with it?" Not knowing exactly what to say or how to react to the mere oddity of this statement, I just calmly answered "Well...I guess keep it in the fridge and I'll cook it for dinner tomorrow." He obliged, I hung up, then asked myself "why did he just call me, and why did I say I wanted that snake?"

First off, I've never cooked a rattlesnake in my life. I've never even eaten it. Second, I have never mentioned having interest in cooking reptilian delights such as snake, nor have I have ever alluded to anything of this sort. Thus, I was a bit confused by the call, as the general tone of the conversation was such that you'd swear that I was a regular rattlesnake consumer. But the one thing that probably triggered Stuart's desire to call me is that he knows that I love snakes, although live ones. I spent many of my childhood years on his ranch in the hills outside of Cayucos, roaming the mountains and getting into trouble of many kinds. His kids and I have been friends since childhood, and on the many occasions when peculiar animals of the mammalian, amphibian, and certainly reptilian variety were found on the ranch, I'm sure he remembers seeing my overwhelming excitement. With these decades-old memories on his mind, it must have triggered him to think, "Aaron loves snakes, I bet he'd love a nice fresh rattlesnake." Once such occurrence actually happened when I was around 10 years old, when Stuart gave me a rattlesnake that he had stored in his freezer. Wanting to preserve the large snake in all its awesomeness, I then put it into my freezer at home for safe keeping. Several days later my mother opened the freezer to great surprise which resulted in scaring the living crap out of her and me getting screamed at quite thoroughly.

You see, every few years a rattlesnake will saunter into the area around Stuart's house, oftentimes choosing to inhabit the woodpile near the front door. With a herd of overly-curious dogs and an ever growing population of cats, he usually finds in necessary to dispose of the threat the rattlesnake poses to the four-legged members of the family. And like many old ranch households, there is always a rifle handy near the front door in case of the occasional visit from a mountain lion, which is in fact more common than they would prefer (they have never, and would never shoot a cougar, FYI). So to make a long story short, the rifle and rattlesnake made acquaintances and I ended up with what you see here.

Prepping the rattlesnake is actually quite easy in process, save for the fact that you're haunted by the continual slithering motion of the dead snake. That's right, I said slithering dead snake. I received the rattlesnake 16 hours after it had died, yet it was as active as ever, slithering around on my kitchen table as if to escape. Watch the vimeo video I've posted to see it in action. Creepy. I proceeded to remove the head, which I was told can still bite for many hours after the snake is dead, which has prompted people to recommend burying it. I settled for throwing it in the trash. While attempting to split the snake down the belly for skinning, the snake began to make a very concerted effort to get away from me, likely wanting to be back with its severed head. Skinning it barely slowed it down, nor did removing the entrails. In the end, I was left with a pinkish carcass resembling a giant earthworm, yet it still continued to move about on the table. It took nearly an hour before the snake finally realized that escape was futile and it calmly succumbed to its fate.

I have no idea what rattlesnake tastes like, and given that it's not quite dinnertime yet, I don't have anything to report. Sure, everyone give the generic answer of "it tastes like chicken," but in my mind means this simply means that it's a protien-rich, boring, and uninteresting meat that I don't care to consume much at all. But knowing that the snake itself is a far more interesting animal than any sort of poultry, I must believe that it is far more interesting than chicken. Most who actually know what things outside of chicken taste like say it tastes similar to alligator or frogs legs (this make more sense, naturally), and also a bit like cornish game hen, but with some gaminess.

So I must ask myself, what is appropriate wine pairing for such a meal? A gamey yet delicate white meat it appears to be, and having had alligator before I assume it may be similar. But I cannot resist being cheeky and reaching for one of the many rattlesnake-inspired wines that are the market, most of which happen to be quite good wines. Certainly appropriate would be Big Basin Rattlesnake Rock Syrah from the Santa Cruz Mountains, which happens to be one of my favorite California Syrahs (unfortunately I don't have any right now). And we can't forget the entire Rattlesnake Hills AVA in Yakima Valley, Washington which produces a range of great wines. But I did in fact happen to have in my cellar a bottle of Turley's 2009 Rattlesnake Ridge Petite Sirah from Howell Mountain. Perfect, maybe not for pairing with the rattlesnake but at least in paying homage to it. And hell, it's a Petite Sirah and if anyone should be exploring the variety of food pairings of this variety it should be me!

So onward with the rattlesnake feast! I'll post my thoughts on the meal at a later date.