Like most family traditions our own began pretty organically, which to say they evolved from arguments between my older sister and I. For about as long as I can remember both Beth and I did our best to protect the normal Thanksgiving meal (with the exception of watching football). This resulted in a number of cultural adjustments our mother eventually relented to such as the famous Hamburger and Fires Thanksgiving of 2002. In a short time thereafter as Beth and I got a little older – but clearly not more mature – we inadvertently triggered one of our favorite family traditions.
Thanksgiving means certain things: big family gatherings, dinner at 2:00 in the afternoon, turkey, cranberry, spurning the Cowboys and still sitting at the kids table when you’re 30. These predictable components of the day, while tolerable, were not the direction we wanted to continue in a family meal. So the pre-Thanksgiving meal was born. The night before Thanksgiving we decided to enjoy the things we want in a family meal on a much more decadent scale…and we all get to sit at the adult table.
The first of these meals was celebrated with filet mignon, lobster tail and Cristal, the preferred Champagne of rappers and royalty alike. I’ll forgo my normal tirade on why Cristal is worthy of the price point until next time. The next year we substituted the gold cellophane wrapper for the more classic Dom Perignon, and if memory serves we dined on King Crab that year. In subsequent years the practice has been applied to Christmas Eve meals as well, most recently featuring Johnnie Walker “Blue Label” at home, an amazing Pine Ridge Cabernet at Club 33 Disneyland and the “Amalia” Chardonnay from Palmaz Vineyards and Reynolds Family Winery’s “Persistence” while vacationing in Seattle.
The secret seems to be out, however, as these little family meals are starting to grow in popularity. Maybe we’ll have to start a new tradition or be forced to get along with the rest of the family…
New tradition it is then.
In 2005 I had the tremendous opportunity to conclude my business school studies at a program at the École de Management in Lyon, France (a culinary capital of the world, just like Napa). Jumping on the chance to study overseas, I packed my bag and left for Europe for a course in international business practices. In addition to standard coursework our program director also included a couple days of “case study” in a village named Morgon just outside of Lyon. Unbeknownst to me at the time and of the future implications for me now working in the wine trade, Morgon is a premiere destination within the winegrape growing region of Beaujolais. This was my first adventure in wine.
A brief introduction to Beaujolais. The Beaujolais Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is a region south of Burgundy. Climate has a Mediterranean influence and soil is predominantly limestone and granite. Unlike Burgundy which focuses on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production Beaujolais is famous for the growing of Gamay, a red skinned grape that produces typically lighter bodied, lighter tannin, clean and fruity wines. Wine Expert Karen MacNeil refers to Beaujolais as “the only white wine that happens to be red.” From largest to most defined region, the AOC tier is Beaujolais, then Beaujolais-Village, then Cru Beaujolais, of which Morgon is considered one of the very best.
My interest in Morgon was strictly business… of course followed shortly by excessive tastings. In the business of wine, Beaujolais catapulted to fame with the introduction of “Beaujolais Nouveau:” an extremely light, fresh, sometimes slightly effervescent red wine released just weeks after harvest. The release was heralded as a celebration that harvest for the year had concluded. While not nearly as popular as it once was it can still be found at your local specialty wine merchant in time for Thanksgiving dinner. In the world of viticulture and vineyard management, the vines of Beaujolais are cultivated nearly exclusively in the gobelet style. This system trains vines closer to the ground with less shoots and zero reliance on a trellis system. The vines end up looking like small bushes which assists in air circulation to prevent rot and mildew. And in winemaking, this region championed the fermentation style of carbonic maceration. This is a nearly yeast-less fermentation style whereby the grapes undergo intracellular fermentation in an oxygen-less environment. This technique of reductive winemaking preserves the fresh and fruity aspects of the wine without extracting tannin.
What was my takeaway from my first adventure in wine? Well at first we were all amazed and perplexed by the rigidity of the AOC system which is notorious for regulation in grapegrowing and production in France. Despite those regulations, it’s important to note that AOC serves to protect the identity and history of these regions (Beaujolais was first planted by the Romans in the 7th century). Second not too many people identify themselves as “winemakers,” rather these owner-operators are “grapegrowers.” This concept along with the AOC system, one gets a feeling there is an underlying reverence and appreciation to the earth, the sites, the vines and vine growth. As we experienced at the end our “studies” wine is every bit of a daily lifestyle there. Opening bottles of wine wasn’t the occasion, rather a complement to living. It’s a concept still largely foreign to us in America where we like to sometimes hold onto bottles for special occasions, when we should just be enjoying them for the sake of enjoying.
A common discussion in premium wine production is the vintage, or growing season, of the grapes. If you live in or have visited California you know how spoiled we are for tremendous farming weather as evident not only by our wine production but all the fresh produce the state grows. But what are the hands down, elite, slam dunk wine vintages? For this post I will discuss three vintages that rocked the world, and the best part is that if you're fortunate to find them all three are in their drinking window this year.
1978 Piemonte (Runner-Up: 2010 Peimonte)
Argued by wine critic Antonio Galloni to be the greatest vintage ever of Piemonte, 1978 wines are still aging beautifully in the bottle. Piemonte is located at the Northern end of Italy with the Alps as their backdrop. Barolo and Barbaresco, two of the standout DOCG regions in Piemonte, focus on growing Nebbiolo, a highly tannic complex and age worthy grape.
Starting off as a colder spring season, lighter blossoming led to lighter yields. 1978 saw very consistent and nearly perfect growing conditions throughout the summer devoid of heat spikes or rain. As a result the grapes had slowly matured preserving the ideal balance of sugar and acid and harvest occurred later in the season. Already a region known for incredible long lasting wines, the wines of this vintage continue to deliver and evolve nearly 40 years later.
Not only was an important vintage for the French in terms of the growing season, 1982 was also important for the wine business of Bordeaux. The region which is usually dominated by a maritime influence saw a long, hot and dry summer creating these lush and rich wines which has been referred to as the "California Vintage." On most vintages a later harvest for red wines isn't possible as moisture is a problem in the morning hours creating rot (which greatly benefits the wines of Sauternes that we discussed last month). Instead the vineyards saw an extended growing season allowing their fruit to fully ripen and develop.
Noted enologist Emile Peynaud helped champion the practice of leaving the grapes on the vine a little longer (creating higher sugar content, which translates to higher alcohol and a fuller body), and also promote tiered production. Peynaud argued that wineries should divide their fruit into two quality levels and only allow the top quality into their wines. The second tier could be bottled under a second, less expensive label. The immediate impact were wines of higher quality and an increased production level. The critical and monetary success of '82 provided a large cash injection for many wineries in the region to improve their facility and vineyards thus cementing BDX as a global leader in modern premium wine production.
2007 Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon (Runner-Up: 2001 Napa Valley)
Using Robert Parker's vintage guide, since 1970 Napa Valley has experienced four "Average" growing seasons, eight "Above Average to Excellent," twenty-three rated "Outstanding" and three named "Extraordinary". It is worth noting that our region has not seen anything lower than "average," which has afflicted nearly every other major grape growing region in the world. 2007 was one of those "Extraordinary" years and was a wildly popular vintage for wine reviewers and consumers alike.
What we saw in 2007 was a dry and warm spring leading to a modestly early bud break starting mid-March, followed a really consistent warm summer with only one heat spike in early September. Harvest season was unrushed by a milder and cooler season allowing the grapes opportunity to relax and slowly mature on the vine. The harvest was not rushed as the Valley didn't see rainstorms so vineyards saw picking through the end of October. We saw less yield than in 2005 and 2006, but also saw a slightly lower finished alcohol level in the bottle. Tannin was seen as more supple and juicy than past vintages. Less fuit perhaps but of higher quality, specifically with Cabernet Sauvignon, created a banner vintage for hte Valley.
As Kellie discussed in last week's blog post, an often overlooked wine style is dessert or richly sweet wines. She used the example of Sauternes, the great sweet wine region of Bordeaux, and its significnace in history as well as at the dinner table. This week I want to delve a little futher into the most common sweet wines you'll come across at a restaurant, how they're produced, what to expect when you enjoy them...and why you should enjoy them!
Generally speaking, sweetness in wine is a factor of both growing condition and production tehcnique. Sugar is either residual, meaning fermentation did not completely convert it all to alcohol, or less commonly, a winemaker can add a small amount of sugar to the wine after fermentation (such as the dosage in sparkling wine production). Whatever the case may be, sweetness can add an important textural and flavor component to the wine.
There is a catagory of lightly sweet wines - both sparkling and still - that although not part of this discussion are still worth mentioning. On sparkling wine labels you can see wording such as demi-sec, doux or dolce to indicate a level of sweetness, whereas "brut" would indicate being closer to dry. On still white wines, most commonly Riesling, Viognier and Gewurztraminer (although not Baldacci's Gewurztraminer which happens to have nearly zero residual sugar) there can be a delicate, moderate sweetness.
With regard to richly sweet wines that often accompany a dessert pairing, two categories tend to dominate the discussion: late harvest and fortified wines. While this is a gross simplification, late harvest includes the famous noble rot botrytis and ice wine, whereas fortified includes Vin Doux Naturel, Sherry, Madeira and the most well-known, Port.
It seems that most people, even the most ardent wine lovers, forego these styles because they don't like the idea of an overly sweet, viscous, syrupy wine. The shame is that just as much care, time and handling go into the production of these wines (sometimes even more so than traditional still wines). However, when they are made properly and paired accordingly, you'll experience some of the most rich, luscious and fragrant wines in the world.
Late harvest means exactly that: grapes that are left on the vine and harvested much later in the season. The region that the grapes are grown in will determine whether that wine will become noble rot, an ice wine or a sweet red wine. Noble rot is the effect of a fungus called botrytis slowly dehydrating individual grapes to increase sugar content, and only happens in ideal environments (misty mornings with sunshine throughout the day). Sauternes, Tokaji from Hungary and some classification of German Riesling fall into this category, and the wines generally share a "honey" - like or honeysuckle flavor profile. The honey profile is best balanced by a complementary amount of acid. These wines command a premium due to the hand harvesting that occurs at the individual grape level as well as the small amount that a vineyard can produce.
Ice wine is popular in regions where the temperature drops to freezing after the harvest season and the wine is generally clear of botrytis. The grapes have a higher concentration of sugar as the moisture within the grape is frozen. Canada, specifically Ontario, has become a market leader in this segment. Although any grape variety could be used, usually you need a hearty vine like Riesling that can withstand the colder, continental climate.
With fortified wines, Port always leads the discussion. Fortified wines start their life as normal still wine with primary fermentation, but then receive a kick from a grape-derived spirit like brandy to halt fermentation, preserve sugar and boost the alcohol content. Although port-style wines are made around the world, Port's home is really in Portugal with roots dating back over 300 years. There are many styles of Port from ruby (young, fruity, fresh) to tawny (aged, oxidative, blended) to acclaimed Colheita (single vintage, aged). Each classificiation distinction would indicate any barrel aging, blending, or oxidative aging.
Cheers...and be sure to drink your dessert next time!
Looking over the vineyard and seeing beautiful new green growth means just like baseball that our season has started! And hopefully it’s approaching time for some of our veteran visitors along with the rookies to make their plans to indulge in everything the Napa Valley has to offer. As I would deem myself (loosely) a pro entering my fifth season at bat in the Valley, here’s what will make your next visit to see us even better.
1. Call Ahead
The most discussed issue in our Tasting Room is how a surprising number of wineries are now asking for appointments regardless of party size.
Although perhaps more prevalent now, this has been a legal requirement for most tasting rooms to stay within their permitted usage (of which Baldacci Family Vineyards must also comply) for a number of years and is more broadly referred to as part of the WDO, or Winery Definition Ordinance.
As a best practice, call ahead or use online reservation services such as VinoVisit or CellarPass to book your tasting appointment so you get to visit all the wineries on your wish list. The benefit of just a little advance planning will not only eliminate surprises but likely will offer different tasting experiences! Here at Baldacci we have our great patio and bar for tastings but also schedule private tastings and tours in our Cellar for those that inquire ahead of time.
PRO-TIP: Throughout the Valley you can discover more experiences beyond just tasting such as cave tours, ATV rides, food pairings, cooking demonstrations and more… it usually requires nothing more than asking for it ahead of time!
The Napa Valley is home to some of the most desired restaurant experiences and celebrated chefs, so hopefully planning for a great meal or two while you’re visiting is on your agenda. Since wine runs through the veins of the Valley it shouldn’t be too surprising that nearly every restaurant offers a great selection of vino, from the hamburger joint down the street to our three-star Michelin rated restaurants.
What may be surprising is that bringing an unopened bottle or two to the restaurant, even bottles you discovered that day, is perfectly acceptable. Each restaurant has their own policy on corkage so best to call ahead of time or check out their website to review. Corkage fees average $20 per bottle but are sometimes waived if you buy a bottle off their list. Attentive staff will see the bottle on the table and usually offer to decant for you. Some common corkage policies are to restrict the number of bottles you may bring in or that you may not bring in a wine they already offer. It’s a great way to ensure you have a bottle at your table you know that you enjoy at a fair price.
PRO-TIP: If you bring in a rockstar bottle, do be sure to leave a pour behind for the service staff especially if they did a great job… and sometimes they’ll waive the corkage fee to show their appreciation.
3. Appellation Education
With regard to grape growing and wine production, the Napa Valley is an American Viticultural Area (or AVA for short).
These geographic distinctions are approved by the federal government and are meant to recognize areas that share nearly identical grape growing conditions. With the immense soil diversity the Napa Valley enjoys along with changes in microclimate and elevation we currently have sixteen recognized AVA’s within the Napa Valley AVA itself totaling seventeen different named grape growing regions.
Baldacci Family Vineyards is privileged to be located within the historic Stags Leap District which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary as a designation this year, along with estate vineyards in the Carneros and Calistoga regions.
PRO-TIP: Schedule an entire day tasting within one AVA. You’ll develop a deeper appreciation and understanding to what makes that area unique and you’ll save on driving time between wineries.
4. Get a Driver
Responsible drinking means not driving drunk. A common misconception is that police in the Napa Valley are somehow lenient towards or permit impaired driving… nothing could be further from the truth.
A full day of tasting numerous wines at numerous wineries can and will takes its toll. There are a wide variety of driving services available, from professional chauffeurs to group tours to individuals hired to drive your vehicle for you. Beyond the immediate benefit of not driving impaired you additionally have a local expert who knows the roads, get help set your agenda, and can recommend new wineries.
A new mobile app service (Uber) just was introduced in the Valley this past month that will complement the late night taxi rush and help get up and down the Valley quicker.
PRO-TIP: Always be responsible.
5. Try Something New
Pretty self-explanatory. If you’re a regular to the Valley it’s easy to get caught up in the favorites and not venture out to experience new tasting rooms, restaurants, art exhibits, hiking trails or hot air balloon rides. Lean on the experience and recommendations of people out here and past visitors… word of mouth is still the number one driver of new guests.
PRO-TIP: Phone a friend.
I couldn't argue that beer, brats, chips and pizza have not been the tried and true approach to Super Bowl Sunday since the era of Lombardi. Overindulgence pairs beautifully with the emotional highs and lows of America's favorite sporting event. But I might argue that maybe just once... just forthis Sunday... you can turn your all day eat and drink fest into a five course event with wine pairing that could earn your home its own Michelin star.
So call an audible and raid the wine rack. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!
First Quarter: Sauvignon Blanc and Spinach Dip
Oft overlooked by even the most ardent vinophiles, starting with a glass of white wine is a great primer for your palate. A great Napa Valley Sauv Blanc (or perhaps a Spanish Verdejo or Burgundy Chablis) can exhibit limited dryness, moderate to high acid content and crispness to help cut thru the creaminess and richness of your spinach dip.
Second Quarter: Pinot Noir and Lamb Kebabs
Old World or New World, Pinot Noir is a wine grape that still favors a higher acid profile thus making it a perfect match-up for lighter cuisine. Nothing like the taste of terroir and lighter red fruit with the dry spices and smokiness of kebabs.
Third Quarter: Syrah and Buffalo Wings
The heat on the glaze coupled with blue cheese and the chicken make a dream pairing for Syrah. While not always possessing the body, dryness and power of a Cabernet, Syrah (and Zins for that matter) have always been a favorite pairing for the grill for how they exhibit supple tannin, rich fruit, and spices like pepper.
Fourth Quarter: Cabernet and Burgers
And now finally you can pop that Cab you've been sitting on... The classic pairing of Cabernet (and Cab-based blends) and red meat. If you followed the gameplan then your palate should have no problem enjoying the tannin, fruit and oak of your bottle against the sweetness of the grilled onions, texture of the lettuce, coolness of the tomato and juiciness of the patty.
Post Game Wrap-Up: Champagne
Your team wins or loses. You win or lose your office squares game. You're still upset your team didn't make it to the Big Game (even though it was obvious the refs should have called intentional grounding, roughing the kicker and a turnover... all in the same game). As Napoleon observed: "In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it."
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