A Beginner’s Guide to Visiting Germany’s Wine Regions

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

Originally published in USA Today on August 18, 2016.

Seeking security, my right hand grasped at the nearest wooden pale as my left foot slid on the loose slate. I needed to stretch my camera two more inches beyond another row of stakes, each one supporting a heart-shaped Riesling vine, to get a clean shot of the valley.

I risked more than my dignity by dangerously leaning over the steep crest of the Mosel Valley’s fabled Piesporter Goldtröpfchen vineyards. Below, the region’s namesake river slipped around a wide curve with such stillness and grace, it appeared a watercolor of dappled blue and green. The quaint village of Piesporter straddled the bend, another fixed detail of the still life fanned out before me. The scene deserved the skill of a painter’s hand, not me and a Canon 70D, I thought.

Village of Piesporter in the Mosel.

Village of Piesporter in the Mosel.

Showstopping scenery abounds throughout Germany’s wine regions. Minimal development keeps the countryside bucolic; combined with the classic architecture and fachwerk homes (timber-framed), the effect transports visitors to another century. The other recurring theme across all thirteen appellations or anbaugebiete (“ahn-baw-jeh-beet”): Riesling. Deutschland serves as the spiritual home for the noble white grape, which accounts for almost a quarter of all plantings. The wines come in various styles from dry, off-dry, to sweet, and a range of quality levels. (Tip: Look for the acronym VDP with an eagle logo on the capsule. It designates a wine from a members only association committed to high farming and winemaking standards.)

However, climate change and the domestic predilection for red wine has given rise to black grape plantings, notably Pinot Noir (aka Spätburgunder.) A relative secret outside of Europe due to small production levels, Germany’s Pinot competes with the finest from Burgundy (and Switzerland). So, book your flight to Frankfurt and bring an empty suitcase; these three regions should top any first time visitor’s list.

VonWinning Vineyards in Pfalz.

VonWinning Vineyards in Pfalz.

Pfalz
Located in the far southwest corner, Pfalz, by German standards, boasts balmy weather. The climate favors a range of agricultural products like almonds, and citrus trees, as well as grapes. All those warm, sunshine days translate into bigger, more opulent wines with Riesling generally fermented dry. The region is a wine tourist’s paradise that few Americans have tapped into. It’s easy to navigate around the rolling, vine-covered hills. Wineries, open daily, are commonly staffed with English speakers and often have leafy, outdoor restaurants attached.

Base yourself in the cute village of Deidesheim, about 90 minutes driving from Frankfurt. There are several tasting rooms in town, relieving visitors of driving duty.

Weingut Von Winning in the Pfalz.

Weingut Von Winning in the Pfalz.

Weingut Von Winning
Walk from your hotel to the winery for a tasting, then stay for dinner at the excellent tavern called Leopold. If the weather cooperates, opt for a seat outdoors on the patio. Their wines have good distribution across the U.S., so don’t feel compelled to squirrel away bottles in your luggage. Von Winning takes the unique tack of fermenting its grand crus in oak. While the top wines can get expensive, the basic, delicious Win Win Riesling is affordable at less than $15. VDP member.

Modern marketing drives Schneider Wines.

Modern Marketing Drives Schneider Wines.

Weingut Markus Schneider
Markus Schneider has eschewed the heavy, nay somber interiors of classic German homes for modern, airy, and sleek. And that dismissal of tradition extends to his contemporary branding and gregarious personality, all of which nearly steal the spotlight from this striking project’s wines. If he’s on-site, feel free to engage with him on topics such as food, travel, and naturally, wine. Whether he’s a marketing genius or giving the people what they want, his atypically bold reds, especially the Syrah, have been wildly successful.

Exterior of Reichsrat von Buhl.

Exterior of Reichsrat von Buhl.

Reichsrat von Buhl
Founded 150 years ago, von Buhl Rieslings were served at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Today, the estate bottled wines are made from organically farmed grapes in a bone-dry style, which you can sample by walking to the historic winery (open daily) from your hotel in town. Don’t miss the sparkling wine Germans call Sekt. VDP member.

Vineyards in Rheinhessen.

Vineyards in Rheinhessen.

Rheinhessen
Rheinhessen sports a roster of the country’s most dazzling winemakers. With a focus on dry Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc (called Weissburgunder), a young group of open-minded, quality-driven producers helped stage the appellation’s resurgence with critics and collectors. While the prized red soils of the Roter Hang were once the dominant source of Rheinhessen’s top wines, good juice now can be found throughout. Two names to know — Wittman and Keller – make some of the most sought after bottles. Keller doesn’t sell at the cellar door, so consult wine shops or restaurants for his small production (and expensive) Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Wittman in his cellar in Rheinhessen.

Wittman in His Cellar in Rheinhessen.

Weingut Wittman
A local leader partially responsible for reviving the legacy of quality winemaking in Rheinhessen, Philipp Wittman’s reputation doesn’t preclude access to his wines by wine lovers of modest means. Tastings of the biodynamic line-up occur in a modern facility off a garden oasis, and can be had by anyone, by appointment. His entry-level Gutsriesling is a great value, as well as introduction to the Wittman style, at less than 20 Euros. VDP member.

Joch Dreissigacker at his winery in Rheinhessen.

Joch Dreissigacker at His Winery in Rheinhessen.

Weingut Dreissigacker
Former apprentice to icon Klaus-Peter Keller, the current proprietor of Dreissigacker, Jochen took over this family winery in 2001. He instituted critical changes, most notably converting the estate to organic viticulture. He is another example of Rheinhessen’s current generation of quality-over-quantity focused vintners. Taste through his well-priced range of dry Rieslings in the winery’s stylish tasting room in Bechtheim, by appointment.

A line-up of excellent wines at Schätzel.

A Line-up of Excellent Wines at Schätzel.

Weingut Schätzel
Step into the depths of Kai Schätzel’s centuries-old cellar, and smell the fragrance of history clinging to the damp earth and walls. Many vintages of Rheinhessen Riesling have passed through this room, and an earnest Schätzel will regale guests with stories of his family’s winemaking past. Kai, however, took over in 2008, raising quality and earning entry into the prestigious VDP. Tastings are conducted by appointment in the dark-timbered main house, appointed in traditional Germanic décor.

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

The Charming Village of Bernkastel-Kues.

Mosel Valley
At some point during a first trip to the Mosel, you’ll wonder if people actually live there. It has a quaint, quiet movie set perfection. And due to its cool location at 50 degrees latitude, Mosel is one of the northernmost quality wine regions in the world. But yes, people reside in the Valley and have made wine in it for nearly two millennia, since land-grabbing Roman conquerors spread cultivated grapevines to its slate-rich soils. In fact, the locations of recently excavated Roman presses discovered along the river, coincide with today’s top growing sites. The namesake river has two tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. All three valleys produce delicate, aromatic, and vivid wines, often enhanced by a touch of sugar. As reward for their singular character, Mosel Rieslings accompany Bordeaux and Burgundy in the cellars of prestigious restaurants.

Nik Weis in the Vines

Nik Weis in the Vines on Slate-Covered Slopes.

Weingut St. Urbans-Hof
Nik Weis, third generation vintner, has become a global ambassador for the Valley, traveling regularly to educate and promote Mosel wines. But his tasting room and winery in Leiwen remain open, even when he’s on the road. While he produces a variety of dry Rieslings, he believes Mosel wine has an inherent affinity for a cushion of residual sugar, and makes several examples dedicated to that style. Because the region’s Riesling has naturally high acidity, a touch of sugar serves to soften the sharpness, not make it taste sweet. VDP member.

Wine Bottles at Carl Loewen's Tasting Room.

Wine Bottles at Carl Loewen’s Tasting Room.

Weingut Carl Loewen
A father and son run this family winery founded in 1803. Based out of a modest property in Leiwen (not far from St. Urbans-Hof), guests can make an appointment to taste Riesling from some of the oldest vineyards in the world. Production hits the 8000 case mark, and the wines are imported into the U.S., but they are hard to find outside major cities. Definitely save room in your luggage for a few bottles, especially the “1896”. This Riesling, named after the year the vines were planted, is made in a style akin to methods used during that time.

Dr. Loosen's Cozy Living Room.

Dr. Loosen’s Cozy Living Room.

Dr. Loosen
Family-owned for over two-hundred years, the Dr. Loosen estate owns some of the finest, ungrafted, old vine sites in the Middle Mosel Valley, with six of its holdings equating to grand cru, or Grosse Lage quality. The current owner, Ernst Loosen, is building a beautiful new tasting room addition to the main house outside of Bernkastel. It should open to visitors this fall. In the meantime, tastings are available by appointment, booked via the website. Try to sample the small production “Reserve” line, denoting dry Riesling from top sites subject to extended aging. VDP member.

Mosel Valley Hotels

In the Countryside
Landhaus St. Urban
If you’re eager to enjoy more Nik Weis Riesling over an elegant dinner in the countryside, book a table at Rüssel’s Landhaus. Run by his sommelier sister Ruth and her talented chef and husband Harald Rüssel, the duo turns out gorgeous plates of locally-inspired fare paired to regional wines in a converted mill. Enjoy the terrace in the summer or sit inside the chic, recently renovated dining room. If you over-indulge, make a reservation at the adjoining hotel. The rooms are simple, but the scenery is the star anyway.

Weinromantik Hotel in Mosel Valley.

Weinromantik Hotel features a spa and several restaurants near the vines.

Near the Vineyards
Weinromantikhotel Richtershof
Near the banks of the Mosel River on the site of a winery dating from the 1600s, sits this mid-size, old-fashioned property. The floral motif in a pastel palette may evoke your grandmother’s notion of romantic décor, but its dated sensibility works in the setting. Several restaurants including a bistro bar, and an upscale dining room replete with wine cellar, keep guests busy after a day at the Roman-style spa and beauty salon.

Marchenhotel in Mosel Valley.

Marchenhotel has fairytale theme rooms and a snug restaurant.

In The Town of Bernkastel
Märchenhotel
Occasionally, you’ll want to dine in town and walk home rather than drive (because wine.) The village of Bernkastel-Kues offers a good selection of restaurants, wine bars, and time-capsule scenery without feeling garishly touristy. Towards the back of the Bernkastel-side and along the wall where the vineyards begin, is the Märchenhotel. The half-timbered, boutique property dates back to 1640. Room are decorated individually, each with a fairytale theme. (Märchen means folk- or fairy-tale.)

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The Ultimate Guide to Panama (Part 2): Coffee, Rum, Beaches

 

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In continuation from Part 1, and a repost of my original article in USA Today.

Here’s the ultimate list of where to eat, drink, play, and stay while enjoying Panama’s best coffees and rums.

ON THE COFFEE TRAIL

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Panama City

Because Panama’s best coffees are expensive and were, until now, marked for export only, the third wave coffee scene in the city remains nascent. Currently, only two noteworthy roasters with retail cafes operate around town.

Exterior of Bajareque in Casco Viejo

Exterior of Bajareque in Casco Viejo

Bajareque (multiple locations) Locals use the slang term “bajareque” to refer to the mist that shrouds the coffee trees in Boquete. Owned by Wilford Lamastus, son of Elida Estate producer (also Wilford Lamastus), the narrow flagship roastery and café in Casco showcases the family’s beans. Try a cup or buy a bag of Geisha from the famed El Burro Estate. On a hot day, grab one of the best pre-bottled cold brews you’ll ever drink. The coffee’s natural sweetness will convince you there’s sugar inside.

View from Cafe Unido into the American Trade hotel

View from Cafe Unido into the American Trade hotel

Café Unido (multiple locations) The second outlet of this local (and most prolific) coffee roaster is in the American Trade Hotel. They offer pour overs from a rotating selection of Panamanian producers, fermentation styles, and regions, and always have Geisha by the cup or as freshly roasted beans to take home.

Casa Sucre

Casa Sucre in Casco Viejo

Casa Sucre Coffeehouse Located on the ground floor of a renovated Spanish colonial home from 1873, the American owners of this airy café, have fostered personal relationships with specialty coffee growers including Cafe de la Luna, Bajareque, and Finca Lérida, to name a few. They focus on espresso-based drinks more than filter brewing methods.

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Bocas Town, Bocas Del Toro

Getting to Bocas requires a 4-hour drive from Boquete (or a short flight from Panama City.) The lure of the sea is strong, especially after residing in the cool mountains for a few days. The $20 bus service, run by Hola Panama, departs from downtown Boquete and shuttles back and forth daily between coast and hills.

The Coffee Shop, located in Bocas del Toro. Owned by the nephew Ernesto Velasquez, of Elida Estate owner Wilford Lamastus. PHOTO CREDIT: Ernesto Velasquez

The Coffee Shop in Bocas Town

The Coffee Shop Bocas This idyllic island sports Caribbean charm and a laidback lifestyle that’s infectious. People tend to show up and never leave. Such was the case for the nephew of Elida Estate owner Wilford Lamastus, Ernesto Velasquez. He has set up an outpost in the bohemian town with exclusive rights to sell his family’s coffee, naturally. Open daily, he offers different preparations from filtered brew to iced coffee. And there’s probably nowhere else in the world you can drink geisha from a tin shack by the beach.

Visiting a Coffee Farm

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Boquete

The easiest way to visit Boquete is to fly from Panama City to David on Copa or Air Panama, and then take a bus into the mountains. If you are staying at Finca Lérida, staff will collect you for the hour-long drive. Surprisingly, the town of Boquete offers few retail café opportunities to try great, local coffee (a major, missed opportunity). You need to head to the farms.

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Elida Estate World-renowned coffees from this property owned by the Lamastus family, can now be accessed by consumers in situ. Just two weeks ago did the family begin accepting tours, although anticipate a rustic experience, as expected from a working farm. They own two choice sites on steep hills skirting Baru Volcano, the highest area of the country, and grow Catuai, Typica, Bourbon, and the coveted Geisha. Tours last 2-3 hours, include a cupping, and the chance to buy coffees at the end. Book at local hotels or through Bajareque coffee shop in Panama City.

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Finca Lérida Not 200 meters from Elida, but a world away in experience, this farm specializes in coffee tourism, less so in export quality specialty coffee. Enjoy an informational walk through the coffee trees, followed by the processing center, and finish with a cup of joe in their café. Snag bags of beans for gifts in their store.

ON THE RUM TRAIL

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Panama City Cocktail Bars

Panama City’s drinking scene is on the cusp of a boom. For now, you’d call it burgeoning, but big names from New York hope to close a deal on a new spot imminently. In the meantime, the mood of the more sophisticated venues leans towards “yesteryear;” a nod to 1920s speakeasies born of American Prohibition coupled with the thriving social culture of Panama during that time.

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

American Trade Hotel Order a drink prepared with rum and fresh fruits in the breezy Lobby Bar. Restored details (tile floors, wainscoting), and a mix of modern and period furniture set to a soothing palette of cream and blue, summons the refined elegance of a bygone era.

Geronimo Bar in Panama City

Geronimo Bar in Panama City

Geronimo Designed to evoke a clandestine speakeasy, this bar behind an art gallery is not very well hidden. But you’ll forgive the concept flaw after sucking down a few cocktails imbued with Ron Abuelo, especially after joining one of the free salsa classes hosted on the gallery floor.

Hooch in Casco

Hooch The most recent to open, Hooch also boasts the most ambitious mixology program focused solely on the art of the drink. The name references Prohibition Era booze, the theme of the bar set in a former motorcycle shop. Owners produce homemade syrups and bitters for a range of signature creations.

Visiting a Distillery

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Ron Abuelo in Pesé

Whether through an organized group or driving yourself independently, rum connoisseurs should not miss visiting the Ron Abuelo distillery. Uniquely for the country, they control 100 percent of their production process: from growing and hand-harvesting the sugarcane, to distilling and aging the spirits at their estate. Workers continue to transport a small percentage of cane to the distillery by ox and cart, which you’ll see on your visit, along with the full production process, from field to still.

After the tour, head into the tasting room for a guided explanation of each of their four core expressions, all of them dark and oak-aged. As an additional reward for making the trek, you’ll get to sample their recently released trio of cask-aged rums using oloroso sherry, cognac, and port barrels.

WHERE TO STAY

Panama City

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The American Trade Hotel Set in a landmark building, this Ace Hotel property repackages old colonial bones into a stylish, modern throwback. Ornate tile floors, high ceilings, and indoor trees, create a movie set atmosphere. Amenities include an excellent restaurant, coffee shop, and jazz club, plus small rooftop pool.

Boquete

Room at Finca Lerida, Boquete

Room at Finca Lerida, Boquete

Finca Lérida For a quintessential coffee farm experience, stay in one of the expansive rooms of this lush hotel. Nestled into the mountains, rambling gardens host a diversity of avian life, especially hummingbirds. Join a coffee tour in the morning, hike the hills in the afternoon, and dine on fresh potatoes and locally caught trout in the updated restaurant. They also brew a decent coffee-infused beer.

Palo Alto Inn, the bar at sunset, in Boquete

Palo Alto Inn, the bar at sunset, in Boquete

The Inn at Palo Alto Slightly closer to the action of downtown, but far enough removed to be tranquil, this small inn has tropical flower-filled grounds set alongside the river. Rooms are modest but colorful and roomy. Take coffee and fresh cooked breakfast on the patio and watch the sun rise over the valley.

Bocas del Toro

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The Hummingbird on Bluff Beach Recently opened by two entrepreneurs who fled the corporate world, this off-grid eco-lodge boasts stylish details with modern conveniences on a wild stretch of surfing beach. At breakfast, good coffee and ripe exotic fruits are precursor to tasty egg dishes. Lunch and dinner also available. At night, locals and guests mingle around the bar.

HotelBocasdelToro

Hotel Bocas del Toro Billing itself as a boutique property, this hotel located downtown on the waterfront suits visitors who prefer to be within walking (or stumbling) distance of the bustling nightlife scene. Décor is mariner-inspired with accents of teak and hardwood floors.

 

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The Ultimate Guide to Panama (Part 1): Coffee, Rum, Beaches

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

This article first appeared in USA Today Travel on June 1, 2016

The release of thousands of documents exposing secret offshore accounts of politicians and actors, recently rocketed Panama onto the global radar. But the country’s best assets are not the ones bankers are hiding, rather the ones bartenders and baristas are pouring.

Connoisseurs of booze and caffeine have known what the rest of the world is just discovering now: Panama produces some of the finest coffees and rums in the world, and both beverages have become increasingly easier to enjoy in the country.

Easier to enjoy in Panama, you wonder? Because of the high quality and cost of the raw materials, coffee growers and several rum brands have largely exported their goods to markets capable of appreciating them — and paying premium prices for them.

But the revival of Panama City is underway, especially in the historic Casco Viejo district. A UNESCO recognized site, this “new” capital of Panama founded in 1673 (the first Panama City founded in 1519, burned down in 1671), evokes a smaller, grittier Cartagena. Indeed, Panama and Colombia were once united.

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Examples like the American Trade, a stunning Ace Hotel project spanning several restored buildings, testify to the gentrification of the historic quarter. Only two decades ago, building owners had all but abandoned the dilapidated, pastel-hued relics to squatters; on the opposite side of the peninsula, developers chased modern glass-and-steel dreams, instigating a high-rise building boom not unfairly compared to Miami’s.

Now that the city’s gaze has returned to its historical roots, local products have enjoyed increased appreciation. Both denizens and tourists who want to drink the country’s best coffees and booze, can visit my list of spots in Part 2 to do so.

HaciendaLENaturalCoffeeDrying

What makes Panamanian coffee so unique?

Volcán Barú, the highest mountain in Panama, soars heavenward near the western town of Boquete. On a clear day, hikers who tackle the grueling six-hour trek to the summit are rewarded with views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Further down its steep, emerald-hued slopes, rich in volcanic soil and bird life (some 250 species have been identified), grows the country’s most renowned and expensive coffees.

Panamanian coffee was not always so well known or capable of commanding remarkable prices. One estate, Hacienda La Esmeralda, caused a sea change, shifting perception of and demand for Central American beans. Owners, the Petersons family (largely run by Rachel Peterson), discovered an unusual variety of tree growing on their property called Geisha. Before recognizing its distinct (and later prized) cup profile, they initially replanted the cultivar across their farm for practical reasons: disease resistance.

River in Boquete

River in Boquete

In 2004, Hacienda La Esmeralda submitted Geisha lots to the Best of Panama competition. Organized by the country’s Specialty Coffee Association, judges ranked the entries and then put them up for auction online. The Petersons won the competition four years in a row, and several times since. At auction, the coffees broke record after record, jumping from $21/lb in 2004 to $350.25/lb in 2013 for a small lot of naturally processed coffee – one of the most expensive single estate coffees ever sold.

Farmers hoping to recreate the synergy between the Peterson site and the variety (and reap the resulting prices), have planted Geisha across Panama and neighboring countries. Due to the diversity of micro-climates, no two coffees will taste exactly the same.

Geisha does, however, have flavor and aromatic tendencies. The best examples tend to be bright and citrusy, often tea-like in delicacy and complexity, with a whiff of jasmine-like florals.

While Hacienda La Esmeralda only accepts trade visits, a number of farms in the region do offer tours and tastings. Their neighbors at Elida Estate, also an internationally respected producer, recently opened their doors to consumers.

Rum cocktail in Bocas

Rum cocktail in Bocas

The Provenance of Panamanian Rum

Because of the suitable climate, sugar cane has long been an important crop for Panama. Recognizing the “incredible abundance of this resource” said Simon Ford, co-founder of The 86 Co., he and his partners decided to look to the Central American country to create a ‘carta blanca’ style of rum in the spirit of Havana Club.

The 86 Co., founded by bartenders, develops spirits for bartenders. Their final product, Caña Brava, has been marketed solely overseas. Same goes for Don Pancho’s line of aged expressions called Origenes. Pancho distills both his brand and Caña Brava, and was the former Minister of Rum for Cuba where he crafted spirits for 35 years before relocating permanently to Panama.

Both of these brands are finding success. But according to Ford, The 86 Co. wants a route to the domestic market to supply the growing interest in specialty cocktails and artisan products.

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Not all rums have built their reputation outside of Panama, however. In 1908, a young Spanish immigrant named Don José Varela Blanco moved to Pesé and established the country’s first sugar mill. By 1936, he, along with three sons, began distilling alcohol from fresh pressed sugar cane juice. Nearly a century later, Luis Varela (his brother Juan Carlos is Panama’s current president), third-generation family member and head of the Varela Hermanos, S.A. company, continues to distill spirits from estate-owned crop, including the premium Ron Abuelo line.

Ron Abuelo is now one of the nation’s oldest and most popular rums. The sugar cane fields and distillery are located in a fertile valley of the Azuero Peninsula. The region features a unique climate called the Arco Seco, or Dry Arch, defined by the area’s lack of summer rain, and rum lovers who wish to taste the spirit in its place of origin, can visit the distillery or drink it in bars throughout Panama City.

Part 2: Where to Drink, Stay, Taste, and Play in Panama

 

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Does a Rum Brand Ambassador Have the Best Job in the World?

RonAbueloBrandAmbassadorMixingupDaquiri

Cristóbal Srokowski mixing a maracuya daiquiri in Panama City.

Today in the Village Voice, I explore the rise of Panamanian rum. In tandem, I interviewed the brand ambassador of Ron Abuelo, Cristóbal Srokowski, whom I met over a couple of ginger and passion fruit daiquiris in burgeoning Panama City.

Brand ambassadors, whether for spirits or wine, lead seemingly glamorous lives. They mingle with celebrities, host events, give seminars on booze, and regularly travel the world meeting new people. It would seem life is a full-time, professional party for these lucky individuals.

Cristóbal Srokowski hails from Spain where he was “discovered” by the Ron Abuelo team while bartending in Barcelona. He now serves as the brand’s global ambassador. Does he think he has the best job in the world? His answer: most of the time.

How did you get the gig with Ron Abuelo?

Four years ago, I found Ron Abuelo in one of the biggest beverage fairs in Barcelona. After tasting it, I immediately acquired it for my venue, Harry’s Bar Barcelona. A few days later, a Latin American gentleman appeared in the bar asking to drink rum. I offered him a “new” one that I just discovered: Ron Abuelo from Panama. After mixing him a few daiquiris with Ron Abuelo 7 and passion fruit, the guy asked if I would like to collaborate with Varela Hermanos (parent company of Ron Abuelo) as the bartender for some events. It turns out, he was Alexis Guerrero, European area manager of Ron Abuelo! Next, I met the Abuelo export director who decided to give me a chance as the brand ambassador. One month after signing the contract, I was traveling for my first time to China!

Is serving as a brand ambassador the best job in the world?

Being a brand ambassador is amazing, I cannot complain but…everything has a price in life. Traveling all the time and changing your home country every six months, gets tiring. It is not an easy job; you have to be the “Mr. Happy” and “Mr. Perfect” all the time. Remember: you’re the face of the brand so you cannot afford mistakes. But if you’re open-minded and hungry for adventure and love meeting new people, being a brand ambassador is a dream job.

What are your responsibilities?

For me, there are generally five components to ambassadorship:

  • Public relations and marketing, social media developing, brand building ideas, and brand development;
  • Sales;
  • Mixology: Developing drink recipes and rum applications in gastronomy;
  • Events creation and organization; and
  • Education: preparing masterclasses for consumers, sales teams, bartenders, and wholesalers.

On top of this, I must always have a good attitude and put forth a positive image, be willing to meet different people, listen to everyone, and be able to adapt to any kind of situation.

What are the drawbacks to the job?

Being far from my beloved Barcelona and my friends, and of course changing time zones and countries four times every month.

What do you like about Ron Abuelo?

This question can be answered in one word or thousands! In short, I would say that the most important part of my product and my company is that we are a family business. My boss, Luis J. Varela, has a certain charisma; he absorbs you and makes you feel part of the family. He falls between a scientist and a magician in the way he assesses the rum blends. And the rum itself has a unique profile and taste. All of the expressions have their own character and beautiful notes!

 

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Clearly ambassadorship has its perks and pitfalls, and it’s probably not the career choice for someone who is married or has children. To read more about the rums and story of Ron Abuelo, visit the Village Voice.

Below, Srokowski shares two of his favorite Ron Abuelo recipes, including the cocktail that earned him the job.

San Isidro (long drink)

1 ½ oz Abuelo 7

1 oz passion fruit liquer (Giffard brand, if available)

¾ oz lime juice

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Top with Fever Tree ginger beer. Garnish with mint sprig and fresh ginger.

Francis Drake

2 oz Ron Abuelo 7 years

1 oz Passion fruit juice

4/5 oz Cinnamon syrup (Giffard brand, if available)

Dash of curry powder

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Pour into martini glass and garnish with half a passion fruit of strawberry.

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Featured at Big Glou, Six Natural Wine Producers to Try Now

Image by Lauren Mowery

Trento in Trentino, Italy where Elisabetta Foradori produces natural wines.

The Big Glou, New York’s first fair dedicated wholly to natural wines, made its debut in February at the Wythe Hotel. Guillhaume Gerard (of Selection Massale) and Lee Campbell (wine director at Reynard) wanted to host a New York–based wine event akin to Dive Bouteille in Saumur, France, or Vini di Vignaioli near Parma, Italy. Thus, the Big Glou (that’s French for “gulp”) was born.

Throughout the weekend, a hundred vintners showcased their selections of natural wines at the Wythe. Icons of the natural-wine world — like Pierre Breton from the Loire Valley — were on hand to pour their goods and interact with wine lovers. The two-day affair drew sold-out crowds to the hotel, with long queues of enthusiastic oenophiles curling around the event.

Natural wine is generally derived from organic, biodynamic, or (at the very least) sustainable vineyards. Vintners eschew most modern technology in favor of doing vineyard processes by hand — from pruning to picking. Instead of adding commercial yeast, fermentation kicks off spontaneously, and wines are treated with minimal handling. The ethos of “nothing added, nothing taken away” is key, but if you’re still confused about what’s a “natural wine” and what isn’t — you’re not alone. Not even the French can arrive at a satisfactory definition.

Gerard describes the Big Glou as “controlled chaos,” comparing the festival’s vibe to that of a crowded bar where you can still manage to have a conversation. “I like to think that every table and every producer enjoyed a crowd for a certain amount of time,” he says. “Then the crowd moved on — like bar-hopping.”

Attendees were given tasting glasses —  a festival souvenir worth keeping — and sent on their way through a maze of rooms to sample dozens of wines. Afterwards, natural-wine-friendly venues around the city, like the Ten Bells, filled up with winemakers and bons vivants gathering post-Glou to keep the party going.

Gerard was thrilled by the event turnout and considers the first-ever Big Glou a success. So will there be a part two?

“We certainly have plans to do it again next year,” Gerard says. “It would be a mistake not to keep this going. For now, though, Lee and I just need to rest a little. Pulling this off was quite exhausting. For me, as a wine importer, it basically meant three weeks straight of entertaining winemakers and clients.”

Winemakers from around the world came to the Big Glou, and according to Gerard, they were pleased with the event, too. “It is a very European thing, what we did,” Gerard says. “It wasn’t so much about taking wine tasting notes and having a meaningful conversation with a winemaker — it was more of a big party where one could taste the newly released wines and discover new producers.”

A packed crowd inside the Wythe Hotel during Big Glou.

A few years ago, the natural wine category was much like the Supreme Court’s once-infamous characterization of porn: it lacked clearly defined parameters, but you knew it when you saw tasted it. Wines were funky, textured, cloudy, yeasty, and unpredictable. They were often fraught with bottle variation, fizzy when they shouldn’t be (or did the winemaker intend for the juice to referment?) Colors came in shades of Lipton tea, obscuring the wine’s identity as white, red, or rose.

The wines at Big Glou bore little relationship to the experiments and inconsistencies of the past. They were well-made, fresh, and deeply enjoyable while interesting. But mostly, they tasted alive. They reflected a vigorous energy that’s often lacking in the dull matte of highly commercial, conventionally-produced wines. Are they better? For the moment, that’s an insoluble idea; they are just different.

If you missed the fair or are new to natural wine, here are six producers who poured at the Big Glou and have natural wines available in New York City:

Jean Foillard of Beaujolais, France
A familiar name to longtime natural-wine enthusiasts, Jean and Agnès Foillard’s wine practically quivered with tension. In Beaujolais, the two own a large portion of old vine gamay (a type of purple grape) parcels and sites on Morgon’s renowned Côte du Py. Their Morgon Corcelette 2014 revealed a heady perfume of violet florals and red fruits underscored by a stony, mineral character. In short, it was absolutely beguiling. A single sip will summon memories of your first kiss. Or your first heartbreak. Importer: Kermit Lynch

Foradori of Trentino, Italy
Elisabetta Foradori’s focus is on teroldego, a red Italian grape, which she farms on biodynamic vines in the Northern Italian valley of Trentino. Foradori brought three reds to the Big Glou, and one of them was a true showstopper: the Granato 2011. Derived from her oldest vineyards, the wine had layers of savory earthiness over a pristine layer of bramble fruit and spice. The Granato 2011 is a winning argument to acquaint yourself with teroldego grapes. Importer: Louis Dressner

Enderle & Moll of Baden, Germany
Spätburgunder (or German pinot noir) gets far too little attention in the U.S. — perhaps because very little of it reaches our shelves. Those who can find it are rewarded by a Burgundy-like wine. Much of Germany’s pinot is produced in Baden, one of the country’s warmest growing regions, and that’s where Enderle & Moll is based. While the operation is small and fairly young — Sven Enderle and Florian Moll’s first vintage was in 2007 — it has already established a reputation for achieving the elusive taste balance between power and elegance. Enderle and Moll work everything by hand, turning out pinots (such as the Liaison) using an old basket press. Importer: vom Boden

Breton of Loire Valley, France
Pierre and Catherine Breton have been working on organic and biodynamic wines in the Loire Valley since 1990 and effectively spearheaded natural-wine production in the region. Just don’t call Pierre a legend. “That term is reserved for dead people whose portraits hang on walls,” he jokes. The Bretons make an extraordinary, site-sensitive cabernet franc and chenin blanc from eleven hectares of vines in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Vouvray (though only their leafy-fresh and fragrant cab made an appearance at the Big Glou). Importer: Kermit Lynch 

Andi Knauss of Swabia, Germany 
Swabia sits in the southwestern corner of Germany, and within its boundaries lie the territories Württemberg and Baden, the latter of which gets recognition for its pinot noir (like Enderle & Moll’s, above). Despite being one of the largest grape-growing areas, the designation “Swabian” has rarely been applied — until now. Andi Knauss hails from the Württemberg side of Swabia, producing wines typical of the area: namely lemberger (also called blaufränkisch) and trollinger. He makes several versions of lemberger, which he calls the pinot noir of his area, but Knauss only brought his “Lemberger G” (a Swabian beaujolais and one of his “estate” wines) to taste at the Big Glou. The wine’s mouth-tingling acidity showed freshness and liveliness with a core of fruits and tannins as fine-grained as Mexican drinking chocolate. Meanwhile, Knauss’s trollinger (a/k/a his “breakfast wine”) clocks in at only 9.5 percent alcohol — which means you can have a sip or two with your eggs benedict over brunch. He’s also turning out an excellent young vine riesling with 35-year-old young vines — a commodity that American vintners would love to get their hands on. Importer: Selection Massale

Montesecondo of Tuscany, Italy
This isn’t your parents’ Chianti. Silvio and Catalina Messana — formerly New Yorkers — run Montesecondo just outside of Florence, Italy. The family brought six wines to the Big Glou, including their Chianti Classico DOCG and Toscana Rosso IGT. Each selection had its charms, but the clay-amphora-aged Sangiovese TIN stood out against the rest. The Sangiovese TIN delivered an unusual harmony, with hints of earth, fruit, and acid. If this is the new face of Tuscan wine, we have a lot to look forward to. Importer: Louis Dressner 

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You Need a Little Big Glou This Weekend. NYC’s First Natural Wine Fair.

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New York’s first natural wine fair is coming to the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn this weekend. The brainchild of Reynard wine director Lee Campbell and Guilhaume Gerard of Selection Massale, they’ve dubbed the event The Big Glou.

One hundred producers from all over the world will showcase their wines. Inspiration for the gathering came from Dive Bouteille in Saumur and Vini di Vignaioli near Parma. The Europeans have been hot on the trend for far longer than the U.S., but with the proliferation of interest in natural, organic, and biodynamic wines from American sommeliers, wine directors, retailers, and wine bars catering specifically to the cause (Wildair, June), the time is now appropriate for a similar event to hit our shores.

Winemakers hail from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada and the United States, and the event is open to the public.

From the Wythe Hotel Glou page:

The featured winemakers are artisan producers who are committed to farming sustainably and utilizing non-interventionist techniques in the cellar. Inspiration for the Big Glou comes from beloved European natural wine salons such as the “Dive Bouteille” in the Loire Valley and “Vini di Vignaioli” in Emilia-Romagna.

Saturday, February 27th and Sunday, February 28th

11:00AM – 4:00PM

Tickets $25-$45

 

The goal of The Big Glou is to allow customers to meet these passionate winemakers and the pure wines they craft. The vibe will be fun, educational and relaxed. Tickets are $25/day, or $45/weekend pass. The line-up of producers will be different on each day; each winemaker will be showing wines on ONE day. (Check www.bigglounyc.com for winemaker schedule.)

Use the code THEBIGGLOU at checkout for a special rate.

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Five Tips on Finding Value Wines in Bordeaux

Château Beychevelle

Sun setting on Château Beychevelle in Saint-Julien.

New year, new you, right? How about new drinking goals instead, like finding ways to experience the fabled Bordeaux that sommeliers like to brag ignited their passion for wine — but without going broke. Left Bank or Right Bank, Pauillac or Pomerol, the finest bottles from the chateaux of these vaunted lands, at hundreds of dollars, occupy an aspirational category few can afford to indulge in regularly, if ever. Unfortunately, the cheaper wines miss more often than they hit since quality varies wildly by vintage and producer. Unlike the reliability of a $15 Chilean chardonnay, one needs guidance when shopping for Bordeaux.

Looking for tips on finding value (as defined by QPR, or quality-to-price ratio), I turned to Hortense Bernard. Bernard is the general manager of Millesima USA (1355 2nd Avenue; 212-639-9463), the American arm of France’s leading online wine retailer. Bernard knows a thing or two about wine, and not only because she grew up tasting it as a bébé. Representing the fourth generation of a venerable Bordeaux family, Bernard moved to NYC in 2011 to lead the company’s U.S. operations. Millesima USA offers an impressive selection of fine and rare wines from France, Italy, and the New World, both online and in the brick-and-mortar store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Bernard shared the following five tips, and does the homework for you by recommending wines she carries in each category. If you commit these to memory, however, you’ll be drinking better Bordeaux for a dime no matter where you are (well, more like a quarter).
(For an even deeper look at the region, check out the Bordeaux wine council’s website, which provides info on grapes, appellations, and deciphering a label).

Smaller Vintages: Smaller, according to Bernard, does not reference the actual size or quantity of production, but rather denotes a “classic” Bordeaux vintage that is perfect for drinking but did not make it to the investment market. These wines are ready to consume earlier, are less expensive, and easier to approach and understand by novices than the greatest vintages. Weather is a key factor in determining the characterization of the harvest, but winemakers also have a major impact. Bernard offers the 2002 vintage as an example: it did not get a lot of attention when it was released; the American market ignored it. However, she says 2002 is drinking “amazingly” right now. She adds that for some estates, the 2002 shows the typical aromas of mature Bordeaux without having to find (and pay for) a 20 to 30-year-old bottle. Bernard emphasizes that the wines won’t have the depth and complexity of long-lived vintages, but drinking them will help neophytes familiarize themselves with the pleasures of aged examples.

Chateau Haut-Batailley, Pauillac, Grand Cru Classé, 2006, $51.99
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne, Saint-Emilion, Grand Cru Classé, 2004, $37.99

Fifth Growth: The 1855 classification in Bordeaux is one of the most famous aspects of the region’s wine industry. All collectors want classified wines, and the top Grand Cru Classés like Château Margaux or Château Latour have prices commensurate with their prestige and demand. The historic ranking (commissioned by Napoleon III for a world’s fair of sorts) of Sauternes and top cabernet-dominant Left Bank estates into five classes, raises some contemporary issues like the exclusion of exemplary estates and appellations (for example, everything on the merlot-heavy Right Bank), and the fluctuation in quality by several ranked chateaux. Regardless, Bernard advises that it’s easier to learn about this very expensive category by starting with the fifth growths because “most of them are affordable and real treasures.” She offers Chateau Batailley in Pauillac as a fifth growth that consistently receives Parker scores ranging from 88 to 94.

Chateau Batailley, Pauillac, 2012, $43.

Cru Bourgeois: “They are the best-kept secret and most misunderstood of Bordeaux wines,” says Bernard, explaining “the Cru Bourgeois classification is a list of wines from the Médoc that were not included in the Classification of 1855, but are still of high quality and represent great and approachable wines that typically retail for under $40 per bottle.” The wines, she says, are all about fruit, perfect for everyday consumption. Cru Bourgeois gives drinkers the opportunity to experience a renowned vintage from a famous appellation and a famous proprietor, relatively (a key word) inexpensively. For example, one can try the highly-regarded 2009 vintage for $25 with Chateau Peyrabon, or a famed Bernard Magrez property (he is the sole owner of four Grand Cru Classé estates) with the 2010 Grand-Chênes for $35.

Chateau Peyrabon, Haut-Médoc, 2009, $25
Bernard Magrez Chateau Les Grand Chenes, Médoc, 2010, $35

MillesimaNYC

Inside Millesima’s NYC store.

Second Labels: Bernard says that one of the best ways to experience great Bordeaux without spending too much money (again, relative), are second labels. Drinkers can buy wines from top estates, top vintages, and top winemakers, at a fraction of the price. The concept of “second labels”’ came into being in the 18th century when winemakers were deciding what grapes to use for their first bottling. Instead of disposing of the leftover fruit or selling it in bulk, producers bottled a second wine, derived from the same terroir and winemaker. The grapes were not damaged; they simply did not make the flagship cut. Second labels used to be reserved for the family, but they are now a strong segment of the market. Croix de Beaucaillou is a good example of a second label. The first label, Ducru Beaucaillou, a Saint-Julien second growth, on average retails for over $200 per bottle and is consistently a top-selling and highly rated wine year after year.

Croix de Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien, 2008, $42. 
Lacoste Borie, (the second label of Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, a fifth growth), Pauillac, 2004, $34.99.

Lesser-known Appellations: Bernard suggests looking for quality-minded estates in lesser-known appellations such as Moulis, or any satellite of Saint-Emilion, Barsac, Médoc, etc. Generally, those areas do not have the same reputation as the best-known appellations, since they lack classified estates, but they still have great terroir. Treasures can be found, but hunters should engage a Bordeaux connoisseur to help discover them as most estates will not have scores.

Chateau Beaulieu Comtes de Tastes, Bordeaux Superieur, $17

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The Ultimate Swiss Wine Road Trip: Part 2

 

MatterhornHiking

Visit Switzerland for the wine, but don’t skip the Matterhorn. All images by Lauren Mowery.

In continuation from yesterday’s post, and a repost of my original article in USA Today

VALAIS

ValaisSunStartingtoSet

Dramatic vineyards aren’t solely the domain of Vaud. Given Valais is home to the ski resorts of Verbier and Zermatt, it is logical that the highest grapes cultivated in the country reside here, too. Not to mention some of the most remote, difficult-to-pick locations, often planted to tiny plots of obscure grapes, the sight of which leave you wondering about the sanity of the growers. Petite Arvine, Cornalin, and Chasselas, known locally as Fendant, are prevalent.

Wine isn’t the only prized product in the alpine region. Warm and creamy, Raclette du Valais carries its own designation of origin. Legend has it a Valais vintner conceived the concept on a cold day when he melted a slice of raw milk mountain cheese over a wood fire. As though melted cheese needed inventing.

Wineries

Domaine de Muses in Sierre (tasting by appointment)

Robert Taramarcaz’s wines deserve attention based on the merit of the juice alone. However, it didn’t hurt that one of Robert Parker’s top reviewers, David Schildknecht, reported back with praise for the vigneron’s Petite Arvine. While definitely a highlight from his wide range of wines, local grapes Heida and Humagne Rouge, plus Syrah and Merlot, merit tasting.

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Rouvinez in Sierre (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

As one of the region’s larger producers, Rouvinez also sports the sleekest tasting room. At the bar, visitors can sample wines sourced across the family’s multiple estates, while catching a price break on bottles: Rouvinez makes some of the best 14 Franc Fendant and Gamay in the valley.

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Jean-René Germanier in Vetroz (Friday, Saturday; or tasting by appointment)

Cornalin. You’ve never heard of it and won’t find your neighborhood retail shop stocking it next month, but this Swiss grape, in the hands of Jean-René Germanier and his nephew Gilles Besse, is worth tracking down. For those who doubt the mountainous country’s potential for full-bodied reds, this savory, plummy wine tastes even bigger than the 13.5% alcohol inside.

ValaisKellereiChantonWinery

Kellerei Chanton in Visp (Monday, Wednesday-Sunday; closed Tuesday)

In an era of vinous homogenization, the family behind Chanton pride themselves on preserving Switzerland’s diversity. No plot is too small, or too steep, no grape too obscure, for the chance to be turned into wine. Enthusiasts keeping scorecards on the number of varieties they’ve tasted, can add a dozen, like Gwass, Himbertscha, and Eyholzer Roter, in the tasting room.

Lodging

Alpes et Cetera If you don’t mind daily 25-minute drives, up and down hairpin-turn mountain roads, book this unique property. The young owners, both formerly in the architecture business, built eight cozy chalets, each decorated in a different theme highlighting an aspect of Valais culture.

Don’t Miss

Matterhorn1

Dinner at Château de Villa in Sierre. You’ll want to follow the aroma of fire-roasted fromage as soon as you arrive, but spend an hour in the vinothèque, or wine tasting bar, first. The thorough retail and by-the-glass selection covers the most important producers to the scarcest grapes. Inside the restaurant, let veteran waiters guide you through the distinct Raclette of each Valais village. Yes, that means multiple plates of hot cheese for dinner. But you get potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions, too.

ZermattGrazingSheep

Zermatt. If you came as far as Valais, you’d be remiss not to spend two days hiking around the spectacular Matterhorn. Bed down at the cozy, upscale Cervo Hotel; their restaurant features a host of Swiss wines to accompany the contemporary country fare.

BÜNDNER HERRSCHAFT, GRAÜBUNDENGraubundenHotelWeissKreuzWindowViewIn this picturesque slice of the Rhine Valley, producers cultivate an overwhelming 45 grapes, although visitors should focus on just two – one an international star, the other a local oddity.

Pinot Noir (aka Blaüburgunder) producers refer to their enclave as Little Burgundy for good reason. They make nuanced, elegant, age-worthy wines that win international honors, but limited production that is domestically consumed, keeps this corner of fine wine country in relative obscurity. But you wouldn’t know it walking the quartet of towns Malans, Jenins, Maienfeld (Heidi’s home), and Fläsch; each one is stacked with cellars, the streets supplied with maps and arrows to assist wine tourists. In addition to great Pinot Noir, Completer, a white grape first referenced in 1321, provides further wine geek bait. A handful of producers like Dontasch saved it from extinction to produce dry, high acid expressions that can evolve in the bottle for decades. Approximately five acres are cultivated, making it one of the rarest fine wines in the world.

Wineries

Weingut Donatsch in Malans (Tavern open Wednesday-Sunday; closed Monday, Tuesday. Tours by appointment).

“Everything I’ve bottled has at one point, been in my hand” explained Martin, the effusive, English-speaking younger half of the Donatsch family father-son winemaking team. Their winery and wine tavern are located in the center of Malans; beneath the property and city streets, runs a labyrinth of tunnels still in use. His dad Thomas is a pioneer among Swiss vintners as the first to experiment with classic Burgundian winemaking methods, notably with wooden barrels he received from La Tâche as a gift. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are in high demand due to big points scored with critics, but their Completer is the true rare treasure for collectors.

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Obrecht in Jenins (tastings by appointment)

Fifth generation winemaker Christian Obrecht partners with his viticulturalist wife Francisca, at their small, biodynamic winery. Their main vineyards range in age from 35-55 years old, and he works primarily with old Swiss Pinot Noir clones because, as he explained, “Burgundy clones are too drinkable” for his taste. See if you agree.

GraubundenFrommPinotNoir

Weingut Fromm in Malans (tastings by appointment)

Perhaps better known internationally for their recently-sold properties in Marlborough and Tuscany, the family now focuses all their energy on their Swiss enterprise. Walter Fromm runs the show, focusing on Pinot Noir; the lineup includes a village-level wine, and four vineyard-specific bottlings to showcase the influence of soil.

Lodging

GraubundenHotelWeissKreuz

Hotel Weiss Kreuz in Malans is a perfect base for exploring surrounding wine country. The boutique inn seamlessly blends old-world detail with chic style.

Can’t Miss

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Lunch on the terrace at Restaurant Alter Torkel overlooking the mountain-framed vineyards.

Book a half or full day wine country tour with Wine Tours Switzerland. Owner Gian Carlo Casparis speaks a handful of languages, is the only outfit in the region, and is well-connected.

 

 

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The Ultimate Swiss Wine Road Trip: Part 1

 

LavauxHillViewsofFrance

View of Lake Geneva from the Lavaux Vineyards. All images by Lauren Mowery.

First published in USA Today

Switzerland’s vineyards hide in plain sight. It seems impossible that tourists driving around the compact country wouldn’t notice the thousands upon thousands of green vines planted neatly across rows of stone terraces, yet Swiss winemakers report exactly that.

Perhaps the lack of alpine wine in travelers’ domestic markets coupled with their single-minded focus when visiting – whether it be to ski Zermatt, hike the Rhone glacier, or shop for watches – explains their failure to recognize how deeply Swiss wine culture is rooted. But the funny thing about finally noticing the obvious: once you do, you’ll see that object of your attention everywhere. And so it was during a recent trip to explore the wineries of Vaud, Valais, and Graub nden: vineyards were everywhere.

For a country few associate with fermented grapes, Switzerland has a long, rich history of cultivation analogous to its better known neighbors France and Germany. In fact, just as monks carefully planted, observed, and delineated the patchwork of venerated sites that now compose Burgundy, Lausanne’s bishops in the 12th century also ordered the architecture of vine parcels out of the wild terrain surrounding Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).


While vineyards are scattered across six regions, from Zurich to Geneva, and Neuchatel to Ticino, three cantons are particularly suitable for visitors due to their distinctiveness, the density and accessibility of the wineries, and quality of the wine.

Vaud, a French speaking canton in the southwest corner of the country, encompasses much of Lake Geneva and the UNESCO World Heritage site, the terraced vineyards of Lavaux. These stunning sites soar from the edge of the lake precipitously towards the firmament at inclines you’d believe only angels could harvest. Chasselas, a delicate white, and the best known Swiss grape outside of Switzerland, shines here.

Southeast of Vaud lies Switzerland’s warmest, most prolific growing area, Valais. The Rhone River cuts a wide, 100 km long swath of hospitable channel, allowing for valley floor and slopeside viticulture. Valais produces an enormous range of grapes (some argue too many). Several, like Petite Arvine, have the quality and charm potential for international markets, except for infinitesimal production levels. But trying a wine you’ve never had and will never see elsewhere is part of the area’s allure.

LavauxStSaphorin

Continuing northeast across two harrowing mountain passes leads to German-speaking Graubünden, and the source of the Rhine River. The premier wine region of Bündner Herrschaft earned the monikers Heidiland and Little Burgundy, for two obviously different reasons. Johanna Spyri set her tale of a little girl from the Alps not far from the country’s finest Pinot Noir vineyards. The Completer grape, an age-worthy rarity, is unique to the area.

Before you go, create a free account on SwissFineWine.ch. The multiple-language site aggregates hard to find data in one place, like information on grapes, regions, wineries, and wines. Users can track where they’ve been, where they want to go, along with the wines tasted with room to rate and comment. Contact information and maps are especially useful.

Here’s my guide to road tripping across Swiss wine country:

VAUD

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Fairytale scenery. Impossible vineyards. Alpine peaks and verdant pastures. Lake Geneva is trimmed in a landscape of contrasts that defines the clichéd term “indescribable beauty.” But there is nothing cliché about an 800-year old wine region of which few have heard.

Outsiders have heard of the Swiss Riviera, defined end-to-end by the elegant towns of Lausanne and Montreux. They descend in droves throughout the summer seeking incredible views balmy weather, and a lively music scene. Freddy Mercury spent enough time in Montreux to earn a permanent perch on the riverfront.

Another draw, the La Prairie anti-aging center lures moneyed clients in search of the fountain of youth. Perhaps they are in the right place, but looking in the wrong spot. “The secret to longevity is a bottle of Chasselas a day,” suggested local winemaker Simon Vogel. ”Or at least, that’s what my grandfather preached, and he lived to be 99.”

Wineries

Domaine Croix Duplex in Grandvaux (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

Perched high in the village of Grandvaux, family-run Croix Duplex offers infinite views from their flower-ringed tasting terrace. The son, Simon Vogel, makes the wine, focusing on terroir-driven Chasselas. They are members of Clos, Domaines & Chateau, a 23-proudcer strong association that adheres to strict production guidelines and quality controls. In addition to Chasselas, they make vivid Pinot Noir, plus red grape novelties Gamaret and Garanoir.

Clos Du Boux in Epesses (tastings by appointment)

Grand Cru Chasselas specialists, the son of this respected family winery, Benjamin, has recently stepped in to play a leading role in its future. He will guide interested parties through a comparative tasting of the most important and distinct appellations of Lavaux, from St-Saphorin (often light, with finesse) to Dézaley (known for structure and complexity).

Domaine Henri Cruchon in Échichens (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

“There are no bad varieties, only bad vignerons” declared Catherine, the plucky daughter of winemaker Raoul Cruchon. The well-traveled 28-year-old brought her experience abroad, home to the traditional region. She and her dad grow a range of local grapes using organic/biodynamic viticulture principles (in a vineyard with a view of Mont Blanc!), and experiment with unfiltered and low Sulphur wines. Try the Altesse (a grape known as Rousette in Savoie), for its honeyed aromas laced with apple and ginger spice, or the smoky, unfiltered Chasselas called Mont de Vaux.

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Cave de Rois in Villeneuve (tastings by appointment)

If Swiss Syrah could become a thing (so far, only the French can coax consumers into buying it), then Marco and François Grognuz, the father-and-son team behind Cave de Rois (King’s Cellar), will be those responsible. Working with tiny plots of land, they discovered that certain sites too hot for Chasselas, could bake Syrah into proper ripeness.

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Domaine de la Pierre Latine in Yvorne (tasting by appointment)

Owned by Philippe Gex, the vineyards sit high above the Rhône Valley adjacent to an ancient road used by the Romans to cross the Alps. Gex turns Grand Cru Chablais grapes (Chasselas), into a transparent, mineral-tinged wine that pairs brilliantly with Gruyere cheese. He makes perfumed Pinot Noir and Syrah, too. Andrea Scherz, the director of the Gstaad Palace, commissioned a 100th anniversary edition wine from Gex which proved so popular with guests, he continues producing it exclusively for the resort.

Lodging

Montreux and Lausanne both make excellent bases for exploring the region, although Montreux’s smaller size equates to less traffic and bustle.

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The Suisse Majestic Located in Montreux, the younger vibe, with commensurate price (slightly lower than nearby Grande Dames), plus killer views from terraced rooms, makes this an easy choice.

Gstaad Palace Technically in the canton of Bern, tack on an excursion to this century-old luxury property after visiting Pierre Latine, the last winery on the way up to the village. A recent renovation modernized the formerly classic rooms, most outfitted with balconies. For the ultimate escapist fantasy, plan a lunch outing to their rustic alpine pasture hut.

Don’t Miss

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A tour with Swiss Riviera Wine Tours. They handle the appointments and driving so you can relax. However, if you’re willing to part with a dear sum, schedule a ride across Lac Léman at sunset with company owner Nic in his restored vintage Riva. Viewing the terraces from the water is magic.

Lunch at Tout un Monde in Grandvaux. A new chef spins regional cuisine into polished dishes, accompanied by an all-local wine list. Book the three-course business lunch for the best value, and dine on the terrace.

Dinner at Auberge de l’Onde, housed in a historic 13th century building in charming St-Saphorin. Decorated sommelier Jérôme Aké Beda is a local celebrity; ask about his personal wine project.

Finally, for the wineries you miss, wine bar/retail shop Vinorama stocks over 260 Lavaux wines, many available for tasting.

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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)

Drew'sHandsRiesling

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

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