Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 2)

This story is continued from “Wine is too cheap: Working Harvest in South Africa (Part 1)


Cradling Riesling. Paul Cluver makes far too little of this wonderful wine.

As a tasting exercise during meals, Burger pulled two bottles of wine for me and the assistant winemaker Drew to sample blind and guess the grapes and origin. We could ask four strategic questions to narrow down the answer. Swirling and sniffing, we discussed the attributes in each glass. “This wine has the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc,” I’d comment, and we’d ponder whether it included Sémillon as a blend. The cellar hands, peculiarly, had little interest in tasting wine with us, despite spending all day in the pursuit its production. Only one team member extended his glass for a sample, although he contemplated the wine quietly at the other end of the table. The rest preferred to drink hard cider (a new Cluver product using their orchard apples.)


The inside of the Cluver cellar.

In my mind, I could ascribe reasons for the local black employees’ lack of interest: they perceived wine as a white person drink or possibly it seemed complicated or expensive or maybe they felt intimidated to talk about it around their white, educated employers. Maybe they didn’t like the taste, or maybe working at a winery was as much a job to them as picking apples or working in a factory; a job they desperately needed in a country with 25 percent unemployment. Too desperate to worry whether the Pinot showed red or black cherry fruit. Whatever the impetus, their disinterest carried a tinge of sadness that seemed to allude to a larger socioeconomic dynamic within the country.


Part of the cellar crew.

When I first arrived at the farm, I asked Burger if any other interns would be joining us. “A few months ago I had two German wine students emailing me about flying down” he said. “However, this season I decided to give the work to the local men who needed the position – and pay – more than a foreign intern student [interns are unpaid].” His decision demonstrated a smart and solicitous attitude towards the welfare of his community.

Speaking to some of the cellar staff over punch downs or mopping, they seemed happy for the work they had. But few believed moving up in the wine industry – beyond a cellar rat role – would ever be possible. Did they want for enterprise, or believe in the existence of an employment ceiling, knowing better than I with my American optimism, that black South Africans just don’t get assistant winemaker jobs? (It’s important to note that most winemaking positions require viticulture and oenology degrees, and have become scarce even for those holding one, due to increased competition. Of course, aspiring winemakers need money to attend school in the first place.) Clearly these are complicated questions with roots deeper than my time in South Africa afforded me to dig.

According to Burger, programs to provide training and certification to cellar staff interested in pursuing long-term employment in the industry are growing. Also, the Cape Winemakers Guild, of which Burger is chairman, instituted a protégé program to help young students with demonstrated aptitude, finish school and gain winemaking experience through a three-year paid internship at Guild member wineries. It seems there is progress afoot.


Most gals sorted and cleaned, but she ran the forklift.

For two weeks, I aided a tight knit team of people in the process of moving grapes from vine to barrel (obviously I wasn’t there long enough to see any wine through to bottling). Ascending and descending ladders; lifting, bending, squatting, and standing all day on one’s feet. Winemaking isn’t for out-of-shape acrophobes afraid of injury and long hours. And, frankly, it is still a male-dominated industry, from the head winemaker, down to the cellar hands (at the majority of wineries I’ve visited around the world, not just in South Africa). It’s not that women can’t do the physical labor (yes we can, dammit), but it could be a limiting factor for some women when considering winemaking versus wine marketing, as a career path.

The experience also cemented my belief that consumers demand too much wine for too little money. The number of hands (and risks) involved in turning healthy grapes into a characterful, lively drink, let alone one with a soul that speaks of a singular time and place, are numerous.

Vines only bear usable grapes several years after planting. Pruning, pests, disease, weather, and now a changing climate: all these variables demand management and determine the quality of the fruit. Add training in proper picking and sorting technique, ensuring healthy ferments, keeping the power on so your temperature controlled tank stays cool. There are many critical points in the process where mistakes (not catching bacterial spoilage in the wine), accidents (falling into a tank and dying), and natural catastrophes (birds wiping out a vineyard), can lead to long-term consequences. Producers only get one vintage a year from which to earn an income.

Winemaking IS washing.

Winemaking is washing.

And what about the farm workers: the cogs in the wheel of the wine industry? Minimum wage for agricultural labor in South Africa is 130 rand a day (about $10 U.S. dollars). Many employees live on the farms of their employers; those that don’t, and can’t afford cars (most), are transported by trucks en masse from their villages to work and then home again at night. The Cluvers commendably provide education and health care for employees and their children, but these basic securities aren’t accessible to many others around the country. (Not to single out South Africa, the U.S. has a troubling reliance on cheap Mexican and Central American labor.)


Fermentation cap on an ambient yeast Chardonnay.

The wine business is fraught with fragility, tenuously held together by people who share a common devotion to its cause, not big salaries and handsome margins. But that doesn’t justify forcing producers to price wine arbitrarily at $11.99 because consumers have decided that’s all they want to pay or because they perceive, to use South Africa as an example, the wines to be cheap because they historically were. Government and our three-tier distribution system all take big bites out of that figure, too. Writers that argue solely in favor of drinking cheap wine do an injustice to the industry at large by perpetuating the notion that wine should be inexpensive and accessible to all at all times, while failing to acknowledge that often the only way to achieve low price points is at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, or quality, or worse, both.

Shouldn’t the producer turn some profit to compensate for their risk and investment in the business? Shouldn’t winemakers afford to pay off education loans and save for their future? Shouldn’t a laborer earn a living wage to buy a $20 dollar bus ticket to see a sister in Johannesburg, the equivalent of two bottles of weeknight Merlot from the supermarket?

Before my sojourn to South Africa, I admired winemakers for their labor of love, but mostly as a notion, an ideal. After spending two weeks with one – especially one making wines of purity and finesse (now that I’ve tasted Burger’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), while balancing the well-being of his team and minding the pesky bottom line – I’ve found that ideal chiefly congruent with reality. While I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps permanently back up that ladder, I might work another harvest; after all, in their line of work, I’m cheap labor.


Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 1)

Looking at its narrow frame and spindly rungs, lashed to the top of a seemingly skyscraper-high steel tank by a single, knotted rope, I was briefly prompted into panic. But winemaker Andries Burger’s comment echoed in my head: “the two French girls we had last season did everything the men did. They carried buckets up those ladders.” With my right leg trembling, I fought the instinct to remain grounded and clambered to the top, balancing the metal handle of my plastic container of nitrogen addition (to keep yeast happy and functioning), awkwardly in the crook of my elbow.  It would be a small, short-lived victory. By the end of the day, ladders posed no more challenge than climbing into a car. I had a new problem: how to punch down Pinot Noir grapes without falling into the tank (and suffocating from CO2).Winemaking is a physically demanding job. Particularly during harvest when hours are long and grapes are waiting; days can start as early as five in the morning and continue well past the last rays of light for months. As a writer on the topic, I felt understanding the finer details of the process, set within the broader framework of the wine industry as I already knew it, would make me a better, more insightful journalist, and possibly more sympathetic to the challenges and choices winemakers face.

Riesling grapes waiting to be sorted.

To sample the experience, I elected to join Paul Cluver in Elgin, South Africa for an unpaid, two-week internship during the recent 2015 vintage. My participation was part of a larger initiative aimed at encouraging women to work in the wine industry, the brainchild of Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
The “women in wine” mentoring program elicited applications both from around the world and locally, in conjunction with the support of Jancis Robinson (the world’s most notable woman wine journalist), to join harvest with a member winery of PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa, a collection of likeminded producers pooling their marketing dollars and power.) Applicants needed to hold either a winemaking degree or the WSET Diploma. I carry the latter.My résumé was selected by a winery nestled in the cool-climate Elgin Valley. Burger, the longtime winemaker, earned a reputation for producing elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with one of the finest sought after Rieslings in the country. Not being available in the New York market, I banked on the Cluver reputation by flying to the southern hemisphere to work at a winery without having first tasted its wines.

Tall and burly with vivid blue eyes, I figured Burger for the winemaker as I exited Cape Town airport. We drove off in his bucky (South African for truck) and 45-minutes later arrived for lunch at the local Elgin farm stall/bakery/pie shop Peregrine. Eager to jump into the rhythm of the country’s meat-hearty diet, I opted for a taste of the native game and ordered springbok pie (antelope-gazelle, ubiquitous around southwestern Africa).


Zebras and an ostrich sharing a feeding bowl in the sanctuary. Likely a tenuous friendship.

My accommodations (like many of the winery employees, as well as the entire Cluver clan) sat two kilometers deep into the family farm, a sprawling property of apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, defined partially by mountain borders. The Cluvers carved out space for a wildlife sanctuary (home to two zebras and two ostriches, comically fed from jumbo bowls) and built a challenging mountain biking course to tempt ripped athletes in colorful Lycra from around the world. A natural amphitheater set within towering ghost gum trees drew a large domestic audience for monthly summer concerts.

I was assigned a modest cottage, an old laborer’s dwelling that sat at the base of several vineyards (the same Pinot grapes I’d be fighting with later in the week). A rondavel formed the attached bedroom. It had a conical thatched roof like those that capped traditional dwellings in the bush or luxury safari properties mimicking the experience for well-heeled tourists. My temporary home fell midway on the spectrum between the two (I had hot, running water, but lacked a dedicated gin and tonic butler.)

That first night, I collapsed on the bed; I hadn’t lain down in nearly thirty hours since departing New York. Peering into the shadows of the cone-shaped ceiling, I wondered if I might find a bird (or a bat) nesting in its cavity. Outside, the wind surged and retreated, beating at the hut’s walls like the pounding of ocean surf against an intruding rock. At that point, the reality of my location finally switched from dream state to “on.” I was alone, in the dark, on a wine farm, in Africa. Mercifully, sunlight washes clean the dramas of the nocturnal mind and I awoke fresh for the start of my first day.

Mornings at the winery started just past seven. One facet of the harvest experience I would escape was grape picking. Hand harvesting of bunches occurred in the chilled air of night. Local workers were trucked out to designated rows at ten o’clock P.M. where they snipped with shears and headlamps until dawn.  It looked difficult; exhausting. But the grapes, ranging from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, remained cool, plump, and taut for pressing the following morning, while the workers avoided the grueling daytime heat.


The ladies found me hilarious for a number of unfavorable reasons.

The days took on a fairly predictable, labor-intensive routine. After the dawn delivery of fruit (the pickers would head home to snooze until dusk), grapes were hand-sorted to pull out rotten, infected, shriveled, or generally defective specimens. Pictures posted near the table reminded workers what flaws to identify. The female team, composed of permanent and seasonal employees, always sorted. Never the men, who made up the core team of cellar workers. The ladies chatted and laughed about the daily soap opera viewed the night before (so they said). Speaking Afrikaans, their dialogue was inscrutable, but they seemed amused at teaching me words so they could snicker at my atrocious pronunciation.

After the sorting table, grapes went through the de-stemmer (unless left intact for whole bunch pressing, e.g., Chardonnay). White grapes then went to the Vaslin press, and red grapes went into tanks to start cold maceration. The rest of the day was spent monitoring the progress of presses, cleaning, tasting and recording the development of ongoing fermentations, cleaning, punching down red grapes (the act of puncturing the thick “cap” of grape skins and solid matter that float to the top of a tank so as to integrate it back into the juice below), cleaning, making additions with buckets on ladders (like the aforementioned nitrogen), transferring wine between tanks, cleaning, and then washing down equipment, followed by cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I started to believe winemaking was 50 percent cleaning. (Another winemaker I met estimates it at 75 percent).

We spent lunch as a family, or at least I felt like I carried the Cluver surname given the warmth they extended and interest they took in my city life back in New York. Burger actually is family: he married Inge Cluver, the eldest daughter of Dr. Paul Cluver (the patriarch and a former neurosurgeon), who works in the office alongside her brother Paul (the managing director), Karin (production director), Inge (financial manager), and sister Liesl (marketing director). For a family that lives a short stroll away from each other, and works an even shorter distance apart, they maintained a remarkable harmony.


Night picking by headlamp to avoid the heat of the day, for both worker and grapes.

Repast discussions toggled between updates on the vineyards to updates on the orchards. The other hot topic: installation of a new solar panel system. South Africans have endured a year of “load shedding,” a polite term for the equivalent of rolling power blackouts scheduled (and sometimes not) around the country, instituted by the mismanaged, national power company to deal with an aging, overloaded grid. With many more years of blackouts projected, the Cluvers had the foresight (and wherewithal) to reduce their carbon footprint as much as to protect their investments.

The energy at dinner was different. The cellar staff and winemaking team gathered for evening family meal (exclusive of the women who cleaned and sorted). Offerings cooked or purchased by the daytime staff, were simple and hearty — sausages, chicken, hot dogs, and salami sandwiches. Most nights, dinner only provided a break in the work before the men returned to the floor to finish the last press and then, of course, clean.

Continued tomorrow in Part 2: The life of a cellar worker.


Harvest ink.


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Women & Wine: Three New Books Explore the Fermented Drink

Three New Wine Books by Women

Recently published in the Village Voice

The year of the sheep is turning out to be the year of the woman wine writer. Yes, talented females published plenty of books prior to 2015. For decades, in fact. But a recent spate of tomes illustrates how the ladies aren’t just catching up to their male counterparts, they are setting sea change momentum to outpace them.

Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World Through the Lens of a Wine Glass (Provisions Press)

Two weeks ago, contributor Cathy Huyghe toured New York wine shops and bookstores and met with the local chapter of the #WineLover group for the launch of her first full-length literary effort, Hungry for Wine. I confess to a slight bias toward her work; we first met on a week-long excursion through Turkish wine country exactly a year ago. I knew she planned to capture in her book an especially poignant exchange with a winery owner near the tip of Gallipoli, so I was anxious to read her illustration of that moment.

Wine books often take an educational tone primarily useful for the student or serious oenophile, making for dull reading. Wine is a pleasure studied by the senses; how could words compete? Yet Huyghe makes reading about the fermented drink rewarding. Her memoir/travelogue reveals twelve stories about twelve wines, and the people and places that produced them, to deliver heartfelt and humbling allegories for our lives.

From Chapter 1: How to Live Your Wine Life With No Regrets, the author urges us to reexamine how we live — do we oscillate between regretting the past and pinning redemption on the future? Huyghe describes an elderly man’s cellar. He filled it long ago with fine wine, kept under lock and key, while he awaited a special occasion. Sadly, no visit from a friend, nor celebration, ever met his standard of worthiness, and eventually, every wine expired past its prime. Life shouldn’t be left for enjoying later, a time that may never come, she reminds us.

In Chapter 8: How to Make Wine When Your Country Is at War, a Syrian winery continues with the business of grape growing and winemaking despite the civil conflict at its door. Huyghe explains how the war has complicated the simplest matters of production. For example, grapes must be sent over the Lebanese border on ice via taxi for testing and sampling. Yet the owners of Chateau Bargylus persist. They entrust day-to-day operations to trained locals, paying them above-market salaries to keep them there, hoping “to create a sense of cohesion and purpose.” People facing intractable hardships still go on with the business of living; war doesn’t define them; our difficulties don’t define us.

North of the Syrian border lies Turkey, another country undergoing a political battle, though of a different sort. Turkey has a nascent wine culture that draws from its ancient viticultural past. New wineries have sprung up to embrace indigenous grapes and create a compelling, modern wine industry. But the pro-Muslim, anti-alcohol government has banned alcohol marketing, which Huyghe’s seventh chapter, How to Market Wine When It’s Forbidden to Market Wine, addresses. In it, she touches on the themes of perseverance and defiance, raised by the founder and owner of Suvla Wines in Gallipoli. I’ll defer to the reader to judge the point of the story.

Despite the weight of several of her topics, the paperback is a fairly quick and easy read. Both neophytes and experts can derive value from it, whether by introduction to a new wine region or by inspiration to create a “special” occasion on a Tuesday night to open that long-awaited wine.

Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking (Rizzoli Ex Libris)

Earlier in the year, Lettie Teague, longtime wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal, published a collection of essays called Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking. Although her assemblage of thoughts on a range of topics, from wedding wine to New Zealand’s screw cap contribution, reads like sketches logged over years in a frayed notebook, they’ve been compiled into a butter-yellow, textured hardback (jacketless, thankfully) intended to endure.

The entries are organized into three parts: Fun to Know, Need to Know, and Who Knows. Since these categories reveal little about their content, the book is best sampled by whimsically flipping it open with a “feeling lucky” attitude, landing on a random page. Readers who seek more structure might find this frustrating.

By conventional standards, her essays aren’t necessarily useful; some, like the entry on wine and food pairing or another on grocery store wine, merely stimulate the reader to think about the topic independently, choosing whether or not to use the tools of her annotation. The thing about wine — the thing Teague gets — is that there isn’t always one “answer.” It’s not a mathematical problem to be solved. While she doesn’t hesitate to share her opinion (she really doesn’t like pinotage), she doesn’t force it on readers as the sole possible conclusion, like many bombastic (often male) wine industry vets.

So how should the reader enjoy her compendium of tidbits? Comparing the book to the drink itself, she suggests her essays be digested in sips, making Wine in Words the perfect bedside dresser companion to color one’s dreams with wine.

Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island (Cider Mill Press)

One of Long Island wine’s most vocal champions, Eileen M. Duffy, editor of Edible East End and Edible Long Island, has bestowed the region with a detailed depiction of its rise from the first optimistic plantings in the Seventies to the world-class region it has become, in her spring publication Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island.

Rather than give a textbook chronicling of the region’s evolution, however, her sharp prose brings to life the complexities of this singular place through the stories of a dozen local players and their wines. Duffy tapped community relationships, fostered for over a decade, to score revealing interviews with growers and winemakers. She has broken the book into four parts: The Pioneers, The Craftsmen, A Vision of a Sustainable Island, and The Future of Long Island Wine, each section highlighting contributors to the overarching concept.

Duffy opens with Louisa Hargrave under The Pioneers. Hargrave, the original architect of the North Fork wine industry, converted the first potato field to Vitis vinifera in 1973. Her vineyards are long sold, but Hargrave had an indispensable hand in shaping the region, as do younger entrants like Kelly Urbanik Koch, a Napa-bred winemaker working with the organically- and biodynamically inclined Macari Vineyards. At just over forty, East End wine is still fairly young — but catching up to the world fast. Lovers of Long Island cab franc, or tales of American ingenuity, should read this book before Duffy is compelled to pen the update.

More New Releases From Women…

Madeline Puckett, founder of website Wine Folly, known for pairing digestible distillations of complex wine topics with colorful infographics, has just released her first book with partner Justin Hammack:Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine.

Finally, students of the ferment should update their libraries with two more contributions to the reference book genre: the revised edition of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine and Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.

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Like Christie Brinkley, White Wine Can Age Spectacularly

King Estate Winery in Oregon produces age-worthy pinot gris.

As beach season draws to a close (today, September 23rd, is the Fall Equinox, not Labor Day), I want to address a global wine-related epidemic that hits its zenith in summer. Throughout July and August, I visited several white wine producing regions in Oregon, Germany, and Switzerland (the Swiss not only make wine, but I’d argue it’s better than their chocolate and more affordable than their watches). With each vintner visit, our discussion of their carefully crafted whites and demand for their latest vintages inevitably led to the following conclusion: Consumers are sucking them down long before they should be opened. In other words, we drink white wine too young.

This deduction contradicts conventional wisdom. We’ve been taught the rule that the majority of whites should be consumed within a year or two of production, and that only sweet wines and expensive Old World expressions — the finest white Burgundy (chardonnay) in particular — truly deserve cellar time. During the summer, writers and retailers tout young, fresh wines as “porch pounders” and “poolside sippers,” employing reader hooks by comparing sauvignon blanc to a Harlequin beach read or pairing it to OMI’s catchy seasonal tune, “Cheerleader.” While such descriptors seem innocuous and fun, and may be meant to demystify wine, they also perpetuate the “white wines are simple and best drunk young” stereotype that shapes consumer behavior and the cycle of the industry.

A gift from Swiss winemaker Philippe Gex — he made me promise not to open it for at least four years.

A few weeks ago, I tasted a vertical of Oregon pinot gris (the same grape as pinot grigio). The King Estate Winery near Eugene presented me and several other journalists with a lineup of butter-hued bottles spanning a decade, pulled from their library. The wines were not their most expensive single-vineyard or domaine bottlings, but rather represented their entry-level “signature” line, retailing upon debut for approximately $17.

The current release, a 2014, drank straight, snappy, and undemanding, evocative of an electrified bellini (more voltage than fruit, due to high level of acid). Without the opportunity to compare it to older vintages, a regular Jane in the tasting room probably would conclude the wine good, but simple and best drunk young, and pick up a bottle or two to quaff at her upcoming weekend patio party.

As a journalist — admittedly with insider access — tasting the ’14 alongside the ’11, ’08, ’07, ’06, and finally the ’05 proved not only that Oregon pinot gris ages spectacularly (really, spectacularly!), but that comparatively, with no disrespect to the taut and vibrant ’14, drinking the latest release tasted akin to biting an underripe peach. Extra time in bottle — even just two more years — gently softens sharp edges, while allowing the wine to develop weight, texture, and layers of flavor (marmalade, tropical fruits, nuts, and honey), transforming that tart rock into a juicy, sun-kissed, tree-picked pleasure. Unfortunately, wine requires more time and patience to “ripen” than does a piece of fruit.

So why do we drink our wines so young, and what can we do about it? (To clarify, this discussion does not encompass cheap, mass-produced wines of vague origin.) Certainly, the freshness of a wine may be its chief draw, depending on the occasion; I won’t deny the pleasures of a young Txakoli or Muscadet paired to lemon-spritzed seafood. But we also have a culture that embraces youth and perpetuates the myth that complexity is somehow too demanding on the senses, especially in the summertime. “I want an easy wine that doesn’t challenge me or make me think” is a commonly sung refrain. But complexity in wine doesn’t equate to a tedious, cerebral exercise; “complex” is a synonym for evolving aromas and flavors, which tend to deliver more deliciousness, resulting in more pleasure. Yes, there are some wine drinkers who love the sharp, steely edge of an austere infant wine. But even the makers of such wines argue they need — deserve — a few years to harmonize in the bottle, too.

Tending the steep vineyards in the Valais, Switzerland, requires hard work and handpicking.

Unfortunately, producers and retailers don’t make it easy to find older vintages on the market. Winemakers admit they release wines far earlier than they’d like, often to meet demand, citing customers (including exporters, distributors, and consumers) who refuse to buy previous vintages once a new one comes due for release. But they also do it for the infusion of cash. The old adage that vintners in Europe could count on one vintage in the vineyard, one in the cellar, and one in the bank no longer holds true given the tough economics of the modern winemaking business.

Retailers generally don’t have the space or financial means to take on the task of cellaring wines, especially ones that won’t yield a worthwhile profit from the time investment — to wit, white wines lacking in pedigree and price point like Soave, or, frankly, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, which ages surprisingly well. Restaurants are a better source for indulging in developed examples, but prices can be off-putting. Other ideas include calling up wineries to ask about purchasing library wines and seeking placement on email lists with specialty retailers like Chambers Street Wines, to be notified when they make cellar acquisitions. Ultimately, however, the onus falls on us to change our drinking behavior. Try holding back a bottle or two, even for just a year (assuming you have the storage space and optimal conditions, like a wine fridge, to do so), to increase the wine’s pleasure factor. After all, isn’t deriving pleasure the point of drinking wine?

Below are a few examples of whites worthy of extra time in the bottle, but the list goes on: grüner veltliner, Muscadet, assyrtiko, savatiano, chasselas, gewürztraminer, Bordeaux grapes (sauvignon blanc, semillon), Rhône grapes (viognier, roussanne, marsanne), albariño, savagnin (a/k/a heida, paien, traminer). If you find older examples of these wines (ranging from two to ten years, depending on variety, producer quality, and vintage) in a reputable retail shop or restaurant, don’t hesitate to select one; they likely stocked it on purpose.

The Swiss grape heida, also called traminer and savagnin

Riesling With its high acidity and propensity over time to reveal layers of exotic flavor like a vinous Dance of the Seven Veils, riesling is one of the most suitable — and rewarding — wines to age in the world: the Christie Brinkley of grapes. Aromatics range from mineral, spice, and smoke to citrus, stone fruit, and honeyed, luscious tropical notes, depending, again, on the region, producer, and vintage, but also the amount of residual sugar left in the wine, a factor found mostly in German riesling.

David Salinas, wine buyer for Chambers Street Wines, not only agrees (not about Christie Brinkley), but pointed out that Jancis Robinson does, too. Salinas said that a few years ago the English wine critic “conducted a head-to-head tasting of older red Bordeaux and older Riesling with the aim of evaluating, as a group, which wines had aged more gracefully, and for her panelists, the winner was riesling.” Look to Germany, Austria, Alsace, Australia, and American regions/states like the Finger Lakes, Oregon, and Washington.

Garganega Known for dry, medium-bodied, moderate-alcohol wines showing lemon-citrus, yellow fruits, bitter almond, and often a whiff of white flowers or chamomile on the nose, you probably know Garganega better as the predominant grape grown in Soave, a historic region in Italy’s Veneto. Soave has suffered an image problem as a cheap wine region; producers capitalized on the wine’s popularity in the Seventies and churned out insipid, industrial-quality wine. But the region has enjoyed a quiet revival, with quality-minded producers like Gini, Pieropan, and Inama making a range of age-worthy wines from Classico DOC, Superiore DOCG, and single-vineyard sites experimenting also with oak-aged styles.

According to Evan Goldstein, MS, “quality Soave can age and age well…high-end cru Soave can age for a much longer time than people think. Volcanic soils produce bigger, richer, ‘oilier,’ longer-lived wines.” Recent vintages have expressed riper, weightier, and richer wines balanced with a minerality that builds a solid case for the aging potential in the region, thanks in large part to Soave’s ancient volcanic soil.

Viura Also known as macabeu/maccabéo in southern France’s Roussillon, and macabeo in much of Spain, viura is the primary grape variety of white Rioja. Dry, fruity, and low in acidity (for an age-worthy grape), many simple, low-quality wines have been made from it due to the vine’s troublesome nature in the vineyard. But in the hands of producers like Lopez de Heredia, Allende, and Marqués de Murrieta, the wine develops character and verve in the bottle. Rioja as a region has touted its aging of tempranillo-based red wines as a reason consumers should buy them. Lopez de Heredia does the same for its whites, regularly releasing older vintages onto the market. (Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit in Chelsea recently stocked the 1999.)

Carrie Strong, wine director at Aureole, loves aged expressions of white Rioja, and rotates them into her list when available. “Older Rioja blanco wines are absolutely beautiful, showing off like a sassy chardonnay wearing a flamenco dress complete with castanets, daring white Rhone Valley varietals to age nearly as well. These sultry whites show off their salty, almond, and herbaceous notes with an irreverent snare but embrace the dance that is a perfect food-and-wine pairing.”

Chenin Blanc Thanks to Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director for Rouge Tomate and staunch advocate for chenin blanc, many wine lovers now have a deeper appreciation for this versatile grape. It’s light body and naturally high acidity, especially when grown in its spiritual home the Loire Valley in France, means chenin can produce dry, sweet, still, and sparkling wines, all of which can age successfully, sometimes for decades. South Africa may be the biggest competitor to the Loire in terms of quality, especially from old bush vines found in places like Swartland. Mullineux, Sadie Family, and Botanica are all putting their personal stamp on the grape.

Juliette Pope, wine director at Gramercy Tavern, likes to introduce chenin to customers looking for older whites. “Chenin, like riesling, typically has that very food-friendly acidity level, as well as buckets of fruit, honey, and minerality, especially when we are talking Loire Valley, which is where any of our older ones come from. All of this can meld with age into such savory, layered, lamb’s-woolly beasts that cry out for drinking with all manner of stronger cheeses, dark-meat poultry, fattier pork, and lobster.”

Pinot Blanc In youth, this grape often comes off bland and neutral, offering, at best, white florals, delicate fruit, and fresh, moderate acidity; but with age, the best examples from Germany, Italy, and Alsace shed their ugly-duckling feathers to take on a nutty richness, roundness, and creaminess. However, it took a deep dive into Austria’s terroir and treatment of pinot blanc, especially around Styria and Burgenland (look for wines from Leitner, Heinrich, and Beck), where the wines often see oak aging, to convert me into a pinot blanc believer. During a recent conversation with an Austrian producer, the vintner reminded me why they call the grape “weissburgunder,” or white Burgundy: “because it mimics Burgundian chardonnay without the price tag,” he exclaimed gleefully.

Rosé I added this category of pink wine after Tom Geniesse, owner of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirits, pointed out that the same question regarding the aging of white wines applies to rosé wines, too. “Some rosé,” he said, “improves with a little bit of age. Not all. But to generalize and say they all MUST be new, new, new is an oversimplification of this complex beverage.”


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Postcard: Sunset over Burano Island and Venice, Italy


Sunset over the Venetian lagoon island of Burano, known for traditional, handmade lace, and located a short walk from the Venissa Wine Resort, where I stayed over the weekend.


Venice and the 118 islands that constitute its whole, testify to the ingenuity, artistry, and humor of humanity. The city is exquisite in every light, in every circumstance; quixotic in its ornate persistence, and seductive in the details of its decay.


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Postcard: Il Castello di Soave, Veneto


The famous castle in the wine region of Soave, “Il Castello di Soave,” was built in the 10th century to ward off invading Hungarians. Now, tourists stroll its walls during breaks from the town’s enotecas and wineries.

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Postcard: Abbey of Follina in Prosecco Country


View of the fountain inside the Abbey of Follina in the province of Treviso. We ran in for a brief look on a drizzly day while touring Prosecco country. The monastic complex dates back to the 12th century, during which the grape-loving Cistercians replaced the Benedictine monks

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Postcard: Prosecco Grapes in Conegliano Valdobbiadene


The Perera grape, allowed for use in the Prosecco blend (in addition to Glera, the primary grape.) The winery Marchiori makes the only single-varietal bottling of Perera.

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Postcard: The UNESCO Vineyard Terraces of Lavaux, Switzerland


The stunning UNESCO Vineyard Terraces of Lavaux, Switzerland, along Lake Geneva.

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Six Boutique Paso Robles Wineries Shipping DTC

Morning view of westside Paso Robles vineyards

All images by Lauren Mowery.

If you missed my article in the Village Voice

Halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, bucolic Paso Robles has exploded with wineries over the last twenty-five years. The region, long home to cowboys and farmers, grew from a handful of pioneering grape growers who arrived in the late Seventies to over 200 hopeful winemakers working in eleven recently delineated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Although new plantings have stalled due to serious water woes, to locals and visitors, vineyard saturation is palpable, especially when driving along one troublingly expansive, deep-pocketed project. But to East Coast drinkers, the area’s wine boom has largely gone unnoticed.

Because most of Paso’s wineries are small to mid-size, their offerings rarely penetrate the competitive, Eurocentric NYC market. Only a few famous names stick in the minds of drinkers. For example, Justin, known for its red Bordeaux “Isosceles” blend, and Saxum Vineyards, the label that earned a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award in 2010, put Paso on the map for wine collectors. Tablas Creek, a successful endeavor founded by the Perrin family from Châteauneuf-du-Pape winery Château de Beaucastel, helped drive the red and white Rhône blends that have come to characterize the area’s wines. Now, with the expanded reach of direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping and growing interest from local retailers, New Yorkers can tap into Paso’s wealth of up-and-coming, boutique brands.

“Paso Robles is an interesting alternative to other California regions because there is a lot of experimentation going on with different grape varieties right now,” said Jennifer DiDomizio of downtown Manhattan retail shop California Wine Merchants. “Of course there are the Rhône varieties and the more traditional zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, but we are seeing more French, Italian, and Spanish grapes and blends coming out of Paso.” DiDomizio also noted Paso’s big improvements in quality, “particularly as producers match their micro-climates to suitable grape varieties. I’ve heard very high praise for these newer projects, and there is an excitement about the energy that a new generation of winemakers are bringing to the region.” California Wine Merchants currently sells a handful of Paso wines, and rotates its selection regularly, but DiDomizio said the percentage of Paso wines in the shop will continue to grow, reflecting the region’s dynamic growth.

From Italian grapes and organic vineyards to unique bottling methods, here are six exciting Paso wineries to watch, all now available at your doorstep.

Tucked into the back of Tin City, an industrial zone recently revitalized by a flurry of new tasting rooms, Giornata specializes in varietally correct Italian grapes stamped decorously by the California sun. A darling D.I.Y. clan, because of their practical-and-fun-and-good-for-the-environment ethos, owns the winery. Husband and wife Brian and Stephy Terrizzi, along with their small children, take a hands-on, sustainability-minded approach to every facet of the business, from the vineyard to the cellar. The family even uses a bicycle-powered grain mill (read: good for exhausting energetic kids) to experiment in making flour from locally grown whole grains.

Giornata produces the finest American iterations of nebbiolo and barbera I can recall tasting. “Joyful” is not an adjective I use often in a note, but the 2014 Barbera’s ($25) electric cherry fruit and silky texture elicited the descriptor. Even a simple white, the 2014 Il Campo Bianco ($20), provided delights in its floral and citrus echo of an Italian garden, and over-delivery on price.

Alta Colina
This small, family-run estate winery in West Paso focuses, like many, on Rhône grapes. Founder Bob Tillman departed the high-tech business world after 35 years to launch the label in 2003, and claims to embrace “the big, extracted style that naturally follows from this terroir.” I found the wines robust, but not pushy, which I attributed to their impeccable balance. For example, the 2011 Toasted Slope syrah ($45), featuring a splash of viognier à la Côte-Rôtie, pushed the boundaries of alcohol on the label, but not in the glass, where traces of booziness floated effortlessly away into a perfume of smoke and blackberries.

Tillman and his daughter Maggie, who runs their marketing program, believe in long-term stewardship of the land, and thus converted the entire mountain farm to organic. “It is a way of life, not just a business,” Tillman explained, adding that “this enterprise is intensely personal. We are constrained by only two things: The fruit must come from our vineyard, and we must be self-financed.” In addition to syrah, Alta Colina produces a viognier and grenache blanc for its whites, and a range of GSMs (grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah blends) and petite sirah.
While limited direct shipping is available, their NY distributor is Wine Source Group.

Field Recordings
Canned wine might not seem like the obvious choice for a dinner party, and perhaps it’s best left relegated to pool, park, and beach events where glass is prohibited, but the juice inside this innovative company’s packaging is worthy of a glass bottle.

The winery name, Field Recordings, came from analogizing the term used for audio recordings produced outside of a studio, and often of natural occurrences, to the thought process behind the vino — “the wine being the stories of people, places, and grapes, captured in a bottle,” explained founder Andrew Jones. With regard to using an aluminum conveyance, Jones said he was impressed with all the positives he discovered when researching the canning process. “It is extremely gentle on the product versus a bottling line, it is infinitely recyclable, it provides huge savings to the end consumer, and overall, it is the most convenient packaging around for enjoying wine,” he said. Not all of his offerings come with a pull tab (most don’t), but the FICTION blends, like the red made from zinfandel and a vintage dependent rotation of five to seven other varieties, do. FICTION white and a rosé are also available. Four 500 mL cans are $40.

The Kentucky Ranch Barn owned by Thacher Vineyards

Tired of working as a Silicon Valley cubicle drone, Michelle, along with her brewmaster and winemaker husband Sherman, sought to leave their urban lifestyle in Santa Cruz permanently. In 2006, they purchased an old horse ranch in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles, and opened a winery and tasting room by 2008. “We showed up and it was trial by fire,” said Sherman, “but we embraced it.” Despite the picturesque backdrop of dips and hills, complete with a historic barn emblazoned with “KR,” denoting “Kentucky Ranch,” the emblem of the former owners, Thacher buys most of their grapes. Their land isn’t as suitable for farming as it is for photographing. But the world of fine wine has proven repeatedly that solid grower contracts can be as good, if not better, than estate fruit.

Uniquely for the area, Thacher produces a medium-bodied, savory, tea- and spice-evocative 2012 mourvèdre ($45). Blended with a dollop of lively, strawberry-leather-scented grenache, it’s a nice break from the rich, fruity overtones of the region’s reds. The 2013 grenache blanc ($28), from La Vista Vineyard, also offers a refreshing take on this local white grape, with its bright salty-lime- and green-apple-soda-tinged flavors.

Ranchero Cellars
Ranchero Cellars is the tiny, personal label of Amy Jean Butler (only 650 cases a year), who is better known for making other people’s wine. Butler adheres closely to the wishes of her clients, but when it comes to her grapes, which she buys through longstanding contracts, she strives for an acid-driven, restrained style — a tough combination to find in Paso.

Butler learned to love acid, she says, working at California sparkling house Schramsberg, and her wines prove it. The 2014 grenache blanc “chrome” ($28) rips with zippy citrus fruit, and her 2013 La Vista Vineyard viognier ($30) portrays the leaner, more delicate side of the too often blowsy grape. But Butler’s real passion project is working with little-respected carignan, or, as she describes the grape, “the wild, brambly, and gnarly red beast.” Her vivid 2012 Carignan ($32) expresses crushed blackberry Pez and an herb crust akin to one you might find on a lamb roast. If the description sounds weird, the wine tastes delicious.
Purchase wines online or contact NY distributor Vine Collective

Clos Solène
Successful wine brands have compelling backstories, made more so when the tale incorporates true romance with a superb product. Such is the case for Clos Solène, a label born of two aspiring French winemakers, lovestruck Guillaume and Solène Fabre. Clos Solène began in 2007 with two barrels housed in a nearby winery; doubling in size each year, the pair now have their own tasting room in Tin City.

Their wines are unabashedly voluptuous, embracing the region’s propensity for naturally high alcohol without transforming the Rhône grape-based blends into diesel fuel (unlike a few of their peers). Flavors are intense, like the red-berry-concentrated 2013 La Petite Solène ($65), an SGM. While the wines sit at the top of the price pyramid for the region, they have received critical acclaim, resulting in regularly sold-out offerings. Production amounts are small, so if you love their wines, join the mailing list.

Afternoon view of vineyards on Paso’s east side


Filed under California, Paso Robles