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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, Forbes.com 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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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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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


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Southeastern Europe Lures Wine Drinkers with Unique Grapes, Good Prices

Images by Lauren Mowery. Istanbul's Bosphorus at Dawn

Images by Lauren Mowery. Istanbul’s Bosphorus at Dawn

Looking to inject spice and exoticism into your staid wine-drinking routine? This June, head east. Pass Long Island, cross the Atlantic, skip over Spain, France, Italy…then stop. You’ve hit a cluster of emerging wine regions vying for the attention of sommeliers and tastemakers that are superseding Georgia as the new “It girl.” Start with gorgeous Croatia, a wine-rich culture blessed with a long Adriatic coastline, and continue east, curving around the Black Sea with Moldova, Bulgaria, and Turkey; each country offers indigenous grapes at affordable prices, allowing imbibers to visit far-flung locales, via wine, for less than $20.

Local experts weigh in on why these wines will intrigue you, and what bottles you can find on the market now.

Cliff Rames is a New York City sommelier certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. He has devoted most of his free time to his labor of love, Croatian wine. He’s both founder of and brand ambassador for Wines of Croatia, and he has conducted masterclasses in NYC on behalf of the Association of Winemakers of Croatia.

“The wines of Croatia may be new to international consumers, but vino has been an embedded part of the region’s lifestyle for more than 25 centuries. The tradition continues with a new generation of winemakers focused on preserving indigenous varieties, such as graševina, malvasia istriana, and plavac mali — an offspring of zinfandel, which originated in Croatia — grown in some of the world’s most unique terroir. From the cooler continental region, look for certified organic Enjingi Graševina 2012 [SRP $13], a savory, refreshing white with dusty notes of dried apple, pear, honey, and petrol. From Croatia’s hot, island-studded coast, the Bibich R6 Riserva 2011 [SRP $20] is a tasty glimpse into the potential of indigenous reds: a blend of babić, plavina, and lasina, it’s vibrant and balanced, finishing with notes of ripe cherry, dried fig, roasted Mediterranean herbs, and distinctive friškina — ‘scent of the sea’ — minerality.”

Last October, the promise of tasting seldom-exported indigenous grapes lured me to three different wine regions scattered across Turkey’s vast, rumpled landscape. What I found was a country in the midst of a vinous renaissance, enjoying a decade of boutique-winery growth stretching from the Aegean to Georgia.

Bulgaria’s southeastern boundary adjoins Turkey, but viticulture doesn’t stop at the border despite the predominantly Muslim population that lies within. In fact, winemaking in Turkey dates back nearly 7,000 years to the time of the Hittites. International grapes have sneaked their way in; cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc commonly share vineyard space with hard-to-pronounce natives like the juicy, cherry-flavored öküzgözü and the tannic red boğazkere. In the Ankara province, however, Vinkara Winery focuses exclusively on local grapes like narince, a refreshing, stone-fruit- and citrus-laced white, perfect for summer sipping, and kalecik karasi, an earthy, berry-fruited red with a delicacy reminiscent of pinot noir. Try the Vinkara Winery “unoaked” Narince 2013 (SRP $15) and Kalecik Karasi Reserve 2011 (SRP $25).

Although winemaking is still legal, recent years have seen the Muslim government lead an anti-alcohol campaign in the name of public health, marked by the passage of new, restrictive laws that threaten to strangle the burgeoning industry. For example, wineries cannot market themselves or their product: It is illegal to hand out business cards and informational brochures, or host websites referring to wine. Their future is uncertain, making the international market extremely important to their survival. Drink Turkey and lend your support!


Turkish Grapes

Turkish Grapes


Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen earned their moniker, “World Wine Guys,” the hard way: by traveling to every corner of the planet in search of exciting wines (tough, but someone must do it). They’ve shared their wisdom in books and magazines, on television, and, most recently, during a seminar they hosted on Moldovan wine in NYC at the Astor Center.

“Wines from Moldova face more of a challenge in the U.S. at the moment because there are fewer of them in the market. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, but with financial help from the European Union they are holding trade tastings in countries such as the U.S. and England. If you can get your hands on a bottle or glass of feteasca alba or feteasca neagra — respectively, white and red grapes indigenous to Moldova and Romania — give them a try. Feteasca alba is a pleasing aromatic white, while feteasca neagra is vinified into a complex red with flavors of cassis and dark berries. They are hard to find, but one producer that has a presence in New York is Purcari Estate, like the Purcari Rara Neagra 2012 [SRP $17]. Wine drinkers who like to ‘drink their way around the world’ should definitely seek out indigenous varieties from Moldova.”

Hot on the heels of their Moldova presentation, the World Wine Guys hosted a Bulgarian wine lunch at Corkbuzz.

“Although Bulgaria is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, with archeological evidence of winemaking dating back 9,000 years, its wines are almost completely new to the American market. Wines are made from international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and viognier, as well as native grapes such as mavrud, a rich, deep red. One of the best things that Bulgarian wines offer to wine drinkers is value for price, with a surprising number of recent ‘Best Buys’ in Wine Enthusiast, where Jeff tastes wines from the ex–Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. A terrific bottle to try is Chateau Burgozone Chardonnay 2012 [SRP $14] from the Danube River Plain, which has tropical fruit flavors and a crisp, clean finish.”


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What Happened on My Visit to Turkish Wine Country?

Sneak Peek: My piece on the clash between Turkey’s blossoming wine culture and the current government’s politics, debuts in Melbourne-based drinks journal Alquimie in one week. If you’re not a subscriber, order a copy of the fifth edition here. In addition to my article, the issue covers tequila’s smoky, rustic cousin mezcal, Rhone Valley Syrah, and a range of fun apéritifs. Gorgeous photography and fine writing guaranteed.


Image by Lauren Mowery of Vinkara Winery near Ankara, Turkey


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Mindful Drinking Will Make Your Wine Taste Better


Over the last few years, the term “mindfulness” has steadily crept into mainstream American lingo, becoming an accepted secular pursuit rather than a “New Age” hippie philosophy ripped from the pages of Eastern religions (i.e., Buddhism). Articles outlining the benefits of mindfulness and techniques for observing it in daily life are published across a spectrum of media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal to the estimable HuffPo, which felt compelled to declare 2014 the year of the timeless concept of “mindful living.”

Mindfulness, at its core, is a simple idea: It means to be present, in the moment, intentionally and non-judgmentally. Tasting wine can be an exercise in mindfulness.

Wine professionals are trained to engage their senses, noting the details of color, smell, texture, and taste, blocking out distractions to do so, while putting aside evaluation and conclusion for afterwards (even if it is a mere minute or two later).

How often do you actually taste what you are drinking?

Perhaps you recently gulped down a glass with a friend while rehashing last weekend’s drama or fretting about a looming work deadline, without knowing whether the red wine the waiter dropped in front of you was the Côtes du Rhône. Or did you ask for Rioja?

Our brain runs like an endless chyron, constantly distracting; our thoughts filled with agonies and regrets of the past or worries about the future. If last week no longer exists and next year is still fiction, why do we avoid the present so frequently?

The constant barrage of technology and social media doesn’t help us focus either, while supplying us with new ways to manifest guilt.

The growing number of wine apps encouraging users to photograph, record, grade, and transmit each tasting experience, while earning “likes” and “followers,” makes it difficult to just sit and be quiet with the wine. Can the bottle be as dazzling as we claim if we ignore it while submitting to the compulsion to tweet, Instagram, and Facebook the details of our good fortune? And if it was dazzling, and we — gasp — didn’t take a photo and mark our impressions, are we lazy failures doomed to repeat a cycle of self-reproach?

Moving on to tasting techniques: If you want to be a more mindful drinker, but don’t (yet) trust your ability to analyze wine, consider how you might engage with a pet.

When I need to disconnect from the overload of the world, I break to pet my red Dobie. She’s usually curled up (adorably) and dozing on her bed nearby. I sit down on the floor, observe the warm chocolate color of her fur, and run my hand down her soft head, feeling her warmth, her life, and perhaps catching the scent of her breath (which, admittedly, has its bad days, but I’m not judging, remember?). I pet my dog mindfully, and doing so delivers a few minutes of calm and awareness of the moment.


Apply this same technique to wine tasting; “pet” your wine, if you will, noting its qualities without worrying about your lack of training or whether the wine fits some subjective notion of good or bad.

Consider the color: Maybe it sparkles in the glass, and mirrors the deep golden hue of straw bales or the Burmese ruby your grandmother wore on her finger.

How does it smell? Is it dull and lifeless? Perhaps a funky Roquefort cheese or barn odor floats from the glass, or a lively fragrance of flowers and citrus inhabits the wine.

Taste it. Do strawberries, stewed with rhubarb and baked in a pie, spring to mind? What about leather, or smoke from a campfire? Lemons and lime? (Highly unlikely you’d detect all of these flavors at once, unless someone mixed white and red in a glass and cruelly gave it to you blind.)

How is the texture? Are the tannins astringent, like oversteeped tea, or silky and smooth? Does the wine linger in the mouth a few minutes, or vanish like a phantom?

The truth of the wine lies in these details.

While you needn’t judge the wine while tasting — we are being mindful, not awarding scores — you should evaluate the experience afterwards. Did you like it? Why did you buy it: because of the price or brand or grape? If you discover you don’t like it (which you may, when drilling down into the details), then why not try something else next time?

Paying attention to your wine, consuming it consciously, will also reward you with another benefit: awareness of your level of intoxication. It’s easy to get carried away with a second or third round of drinks or crack that second bottle, so savoring each sip keeps you focused on your intake.

Along with the rest of your 2015 resolutions (how are those going, by the way?), consider adding mindfulness when drinking your next glass of wine. You may find you love — or loathe — that Chardonnay more than you’re now unsure if you remember.

(For more information on mindfulness, and meditations that help you achieve it, start by looking into the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He launched a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program back in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s written lots of books on the topic that are easily downloadable onto Kindle for subway self-improvement sessions.)


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Your Guide to Cru Beaujolais, Plus Where to Buy it and Drink it in NYC


If last week’s article on Cru Beaujolais piqued your interest, here’s my guide to the Crus, plus where to buy it and drink it in NYC.

Despite burgeoning quality, the Cru Beaujolais category remains relatively unknown to the general consumer, thus prices hang terrifically low. Skip the $11 Nouveau and other entry-level stuff. At twice the price, you get five times the complexity, structure, and balance, plus all the fruit, with Gamay grown in the granite and schist soils of the Crus.

Winemaking methods significantly affect flavors, and range from the region’s hallmark carbonic maceration (fermenting whole berries in closed tanks to produce a light, fruit-forward style) to Burgundian methods for more serious, structured wines (e.g., destemming the grapes). Interest in organic and biodynamic farming is growing, with a number of fine producers tipping into the natural winemaking category. As younger generations — and energized, historic families — pay closer attention to the attributes of their land and seek quality over quantity, Cru Beau will continue to be a category to watch.

The following list of villages includes expected characteristics in flavor and structure of the wines, with inevitable generalizations. Like anywhere, producer matters. Try to remember a handful of names (producer or region) or just ask your retailer or sommelier for assistance (find our three fave shops and restaurants, below).

The Ten Crus of Beaujolais
Brouilly Wines can vary greatly; it is the largest and most southerly of the Crus. Generally, expect soft and fruity wines with mineral notes. Producers: Georges Descombes, Domaine de Vissoux (Chermette), Jean-Claude Lapalu.

Chénas A small appellation, the wines are hard to find in the U.S. Known for red fruits, earthiness, and a heavier body/tannins. Sandwiched between Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent. Producer: Domaine Piron-Lameloise.

Chiroubles The high altitude contributes great acidity to the wines, which can be tart in cool years, or fresh, perfumed, and bright in sunnier ones. Producers: Daniel Bouland, Damien Coquelet, Cret de Ruyere.

Côte de Brouilly Small appellation in Brouilly on the slopes of Mont Brouilly. Structured wines with strong mineral character, cherries, and firm tannins that allow it to age. Producers: Chateau Thivin, Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun).

Fleurie Floral (think violets), rich, and round, some can be elegant and feminine, others more masculine. Prices higher than most. Producers: Sunier, Chateau de Fleurie (Barbet), Clos de la Roilette (Coudert), Potel-Aviron.

Juliénas Full-bodied, sturdy wines; sometimes rustic; can age. Flavors lean toward raspberries, cherries, and spice. Producers: Clos du Fief (Michel Tête), Pascal Granger.

Morgon Slightly less powerful than Moulin-à-Vent; mineral-laden wines come from the slopes of the Cote du Py. Known for a group of producers called the “Gang of Four,” protégés of natural wine pioneer Jules Chauvet: Jean-Paul Thevenet, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, and Guy Breton. Chamonard deserves to make it five.

Moulin-à-Vent Most powerful, tannic (for Gamay), and structured of the Crus, with classic fruitiness. Ages well. Producers: Jean-Paul Brun, Diochon and Domaine de Vissoux (Chermette).

Régnié The newest Cru, wines often have a soft, round, and spicy profile with light tannins. Generally drunk young to enjoy the strawberry and cherry notes. Producers: Charly Thévenet, Guy Breton, Descombes, Chateau de la Pierre (Barbet).

Saint-Amour Northern tip of Beaujolais with limestone soil similarities to southern Burgundy. Intense red fruits and florals with well-integrated tannins. Producers: Domaine des Billards (Barbet), Chateau des Rontets.


Where to Buy
When you’re ready to stock up on a few bottles or even a case of wine, you’ll find the investment in Cru Beau is minimal; the finest bottles fall predominantly around the low- to mid-twenties price range. Sadly, producers are hardly paid what the wines are worth (in fact many are struggling), but until (or if) the market corrects, it’s a buyer’s paradise.

Chambers Street Wines (148 Chambers Street, 212-227-1434) Owner David Lillie pointed out several selections: Roland Pignard, Tradition, Morgon, 2012 for $22: “Certified biodynamic, it’s a beautiful wine showing complex red and black fruits with saline minerality.” Chignard, “Les Moriers,” Fleurie, 2012 for $26: “from very low yields…it has gorgeous raspberry, wild-strawberry and violet aromas and a beautiful light- to medium-bodied palate with bracing acidity.”

Flatiron Wines (929 Broadway, 212-477-1315) The Cru Beau evangelists at Flatiron have a diverse array of bottles, like the elegant and earthy Michel Tete, Clos du Fief, Juliénas, 2011, showing savory beef bouillon and fruity cherry notes for $23, and Jean-Paul Brun’s bright, mineral-driven, raspberry-laced Domaine des Terres Dorées, Cote de Brouilly, 2012 for $22.

Astor Wine & Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) Cavernous and competitively priced, Astor carries a handful of options, including the dense, floral, cassis-imbued Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, 2013 for $22, and the vibrant and taut, cherry-soaked Domaine Des Billards, Saint-Amour, 2011 for a mere $20. A no-brainer.

Where to Drink
Cru Beau is a growing darling of sommeliers citywide. Three wine directors who love the stuff weigh in on their favorites.

Partner and beverage director at Racines (94 Chambers Street, 212-227-3400), Arnaud Tronche particularly enjoys:
Chateau Thivin, Côte de Brouilly: The wine has amazing purity, minerality, plenty of fruit, and can age.
Marcel Lapierre, Morgon: Round, joyful with bright fruit; it’s a classic Morgon.
Guy Breton, Régnié: Earthy with dark fruits; dense, complex, and age-worthy. A minimal amount of sulfur is added.

Sommelier at Claudette (24 5th Avenue, 212-868-2424), Seth Liebman’s list includes at least one wine from all 10 Crus.
Chateau des Rontets, Saint-Amour, 2011: A pretty wine; very soft and beautiful with a nice center of character and structure. It is organic and “natural” in that they do not add any sulfur.
Joseph Chamonard, Le Clos de Lys, Morgon, 1997: The wines from this Chateau…are nothing short of heart-stopping. The 1997 vintage is terrific, though lean and focused with high acidity. It demands your attention.
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Croix Rameaux, Brouilly, 2012: Not to be confused with Lapierre, Lapalu makes wines with guts and strength; they are great drinking and deserve global attention.

Lelañea Fulton, wine director for the Dirty French (180 Ludlow Street, 212-254-3000)highlights:
Damien Coquelet, Vielles Vignes Chiroubles, 2012: The stepson of Georges Descombes, he makes a mean Chiroubles Vieilles Vignes.
Stephane Aviron, ‘Côte du Py, Vielles Vignes’ Morgon, 2011: An old-school vigneron, his Crus drink much like Burgundies.
Pascal Granger, ‘Grande Réserve,’ Julienas, 2009: Granger produces wines of deep dark fruit and amazing structure. They are powerhouse wines.


Filed under Beaujolais, France

The 2014 Long Island Harvest Through the Lens of Macari Vineyards

All photos by Carl Timpone

In case you missed my column Unscrewed, here’s a second chance to read about the 2014 Long Island harvest.

For the New York wine industry, nervous anticipation of fall isn’t about the return of fireside cocktails, knee-high leather boots, and felt fedora hats, or tacit permission to eat like a grizzly headed into hibernation. Autumn equals harvest, and depending on the quality of the growing season, which runs right up until the minute each cluster of plump berries is separated from its life-giving vine, that can be a joyous or heartbreaking occasion; a single, severe storm at or before picking can decimate a year’s worth of toil.

As the last grapes of the season were collected, I consulted the family and winemaker at New York’s Winery of the Year (awarded by the New York Food & Wine Classic), Macari Vineyards, for a report on the vintage and the future of Long Island’s 2014 wines. Prognosis: Expect deliciousness.

Winemaker Kelly Urbanik-Koch gave a resoundingly positive weather account: “We experienced a relatively cool and dry summer. We usually receive rain in September and October, and summer humidity is frequently an issue, but this year, humidity was mercifully lacking, resulting in little to no disease pressure in the vineyards.” Urbanik-Koch is one of few female winemakers in the region. She’s also young, at 34, making her a refreshing anomaly in the older, male-dominated Long Island wine industry.

The Macari family has owned and worked the 500-acre waterfront farm in the North Fork since 1963, although the winery wasn’t established until 1996. Joseph Macari Sr. planted the vineyards with his son Joe Macari Jr., fulfilling a lifelong dream that began in a Depression-era basement in Corona, Queens, where he made his first batch of wine.

A shining example of the term “family business,” Macari Vineyards is now run by three generations, including Joe Sr., now 87 years old, and each contributes to its success. Joe Jr. manages the vineyard and cellar teams, while his wife, Alexandra, oversees the tasting rooms and wine club and gives feedback on blending decisions. Their four children — Joe Macari (yep, a third Joe, and also a vineyard manager), Thomas Macari, Edward Macari, and Gabriella Macari — all keep the gears greased, especially during the intense, backbreaking hours required by harvest.

Gabriella, who oversees distribution and marketing, expects the 2014 wines to be elegant and expressive with intense and complex flavors due to a slow and steady ripening season. She said their biggest challenge of the year was being restricted in the amount of experimentation they normally do: “With such gorgeous fruit, we weren’t limited by nature, but rather time. All those healthy grapes kept us too busy pressing to think about anything else. It’s a good problem, but it made for a very laborious year.”


Adding to the strenuous nature of vineyard work is the Macari philosophy of farming along biodynamic principles, a practice Joe Jr. incorporated long before the concept gained mainstream awareness. “We are by no means certified biodynamic and do not follow it rigidly, but we believe small implications have helped our vines tremendously,” says Gabriella. The family tends a herd of cattle that contributes manure to the composting program. They also keep bees and sell a small amount of honey to local restaurants, the remainder given as gifts to fortunate friends.

Continuing unintentionally ahead of the trend curve, the Macaris produce a low-alcohol Chardonnay they release right after harvest called Early Wine; it sells out quickly every year. (Low-alcohol wines have been a growing category around the country.)

However, it’s Long Island’s classic grape, Cabernet Franc (if there is a designated “classic” yet), that has the family excited about the new vintage.

When young, Cab Franc expresses North Fork terroir with savory herbaceous notes mixed with bright red fruits and refreshing acidity. With age, olive and dried herb notes can develop, while high-quality wines retain balance and acidity, have length, and develop silky tannins, like the Macari 1997.

“We opened our ’97 Cab Franc for a tasting last March at Astor Center and it blew me away,” says Gabriella. “The wine could have held on a couple more years. It’s proof that our wines have world-class longevity, and it is motivation for my family to keep producing the grape as a single varietal.”

For those eager to sample the vintage without waiting for the 2014 Cab Franc, not likely available until late 2017, Macari just released the Early Wine last week. The wine can be purchased in one of its two tasting rooms or on its website.

Fortunately for most Long Island vintners and their fans, 2014 was an excellent vintage. If the best wines age as well as the 1997, made in an average year, then expect remarkable results.



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