Monthly Archives: May 2014

How Do I Drink, Shoot, and Eat My Way Around the World?

I  was asked to share a few secrets, so I did.

The saying “it takes a lot of great beer to make great wine” should be amended for a writer to: “it takes a lot of great coffee and tea to write a good story on beer and wine.” Booze and writing share a very small window of compatibility; I’ve found quality caffeine makes a better companion to prose.

Last week in Vancouver, I addressed the British Columbia Association of Travel Writers  as the keynote speaker at their 2014 symposium on The Taste of Travel: Describing and Photographing Food and Wine.

The full-day affair was held at the River Rock Casino (no, I didn’t sneak into the gaming area and bet it all on black, although I fantasize about doing that one day). The symposium featured a photo seminar by pro Craig Minielly and a beer, wine, and spirits tasting panel, along with my speech on how the heck I drink, shoot, and eat my way around the globe without being fat, broke, and lonely. I didn’t have great insights for the latter three (hotel gym!?), but could address the former trio of topics.

I spoke for 52 minutes, touching on the evolution of my wine and travel writing career: why I exchanged a soul-crushing job in the legal profession for one in the also thankless, and much less lucrative industry of writing.  The answer? I get to uncover and share what I find most fascinating in life: how culture is reflected through the lens of drink, and through the few lenses I’ve acquired for my Canon 70D. I also gave practical tips on what has helped me such as blogging, improving my photography, and networking.

Since jumping into the world of wine journalism, I’ve expanded my beverage repertoire to include coffee, tea, and beer  — they share fascinating similarities, and I’ve found that in general, a culture that respects one, will respect them all.

Dip into the video of my speech for a few minutes or the full 52; perhaps you’ll glean a few insights or relate to my experiences.  If you’ve got a story or suggestion to share, please comment — your ideas can only help propel me along my endless journey to touch every corner of our beverage loving planet.



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Finger Lakes Vineyard Going Organic at Bloomer Creek

Photo Credit: Dede Hatch

If you missed my column Unscrewed, here’s a second look at my interview with Finger Lakes winemaker Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek.

Kim Engle pauses mid-sentence as his eyes drift to the window. Looking uneasy, he peers through the foggy pane at his vineyards: “Sorry, the rain made me lose concentration; it makes me nervous.” For four summer days, the rain had been driving down in unseasonably high quantities; that morning, the sound of water pounding the roof was like marbles unleashed from the sky. For a vineyard owner, the weather was frightening — particularly when trying to farm organically.

I was visiting the Finger Lakes to understand firsthand this fast-growing region of New York. Much had been written about Finger Lakes Rieslings. Occasionally, critics bestowed upon the region honorific titles like “world-class” or references to “Riesling on par with the Mosel,” yet the wines weren’t commonplace in shops or on wine lists.

Asking colleagues in the wine industry for producers I should visit, the name Kim Engle, followed by the phrase “I love Bloomer Creek wines,” popped up repeatedly. Bloomer Creek wasn’t well-known, wasn’t publicly lauded like Weimer or Dr. Konstantin Frank, household Finger Lakes winery names. “Find Kim Engle. His Pinot Noir Freaked. Me. Out.” another wine writer gushed. I felt privy to a secret — like a hot stock tip written on a folded napkin.

Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in Tribeca, stocks a few Finger Lakes producers, including Bloomer Creek. “I love their wines. I like that they are working relatively naturally in difficult conditions, with small quantities, and are taking risks to make wines that taste of terroir.”

I found Engle at his winery on the east side of Seneca Lake. Standing inside the rustic re-creation of a French country carriage house he and his wife, Deborah Bermingham, finished building in 2007, we chatted through the outlandish storm. Engle seems humbled by it all — an artisan and farmer in awe of the earth.

Engle got his start in wine through farming; he started working local jobs during a leave of absence from Cornell at age 19. He milked cows, worked on an organic grain farm, and grew his own vegetables. “I got a job for what is now Hosmer Winery over on Cayuga,” he says. “At that point, it was just a vineyard, and I fell in love with it.”

Engle met his now wife, then a fellow Cornell student, through a friend. Although an accomplished artist, Bermingham decided to make wine together with Engle from the beginning. Different vineyard practices have come and gone since getting their winery license in 1999. “For 10 years, I was NOFA-NY certified organic, but I stopped certification for a variety of reasons,” he says. “With grapes, at the time, there was virtually no market.”

Giving up the certification meant Engle could combat vineyard disease pressure like downy mildew, a nasty microbe that thrives in the humid, wet weather prevalent in the FLX, with synthetic spray. But Engle has already converted one acre of his currently planted fourteen (they’ve recently bought another twelve acres) back to organic, and says he’s headed in that direction, and ultimately fully biodynamic, for the rest of their vines. “I tried using sprays but the problem with this kind of chemical—Pristine is one brand name—is that grapes develop resistance very quickly. The result is that everybody then adds more chemicals to the mix because Pristine may not control it [downy mildew] anymore. But nobody knows for sure, so why we are still using it?”

To ease the transition back to organic farming, Engle converted a number of his rows to a labor-intensive trellis system that separates the vines and allows for greater air circulation. This helps grapes dry faster in wet conditions.


Unlike his viticultural program, which has meandered back to the organic philosophy, Engle’s winemaking had a definite turning point. In 2008, a customer brought him a few bottles of natural wine from the Loire Valley. He had an epiphany, astounded at how fresh and alive the wines tasted; this led to a complete overhaul of their winemaking approach. “[Loire winemakers] took a minimalist approach to winemaking, and with a lot less rushing of the process overall,” he says. By 2010, Engle stopped using cultured yeasts; white wines saw some skin contact; he experimented with adding stems; and finished wines saw very little filtering or fining.

What was he doing before that? “There was a time, going back 20 years, when I worked at another winery, and we were all happy just winning medals and ‘making’ wine — highly processed, technical, safe wines.”

When I asked if people still produce wine that way, Engle shifted his weight, and gave a little cough. We’d obviously entered touchy territory: “I can’t say what my colleagues do. But, take a look at the Scott Labs catalogue—there are two pages devoted to tannin products.”

Engle picked up a bottle of his Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling, poured a splash, then continued: “Rather than take risks, it’s easier to start with a flavorless, boring base wine then add in the parts—the tannin, the acid. There was a winemaker who had been up here a long time who said at a conference one day ‘everyone says good wine is made in the vineyard, but I just want to be clear, I make the wine in the cellar.’ If that doesn’t tell you something… “

In addition to Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and now a little Grüner Veltliner, Engle and Bermingham produce a lot of Riesling, both dry and off-dry. “I am a Riesling lover, and it does well here,” he says. “Fortunately, the outside world is finally responding to it.”

The outside world includes Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of the NoMad Hotel, who was impressed enough to give Bloomer Creek Riesling a spot on the prestigious wine list. Scott Pactor of Appellation Wine and Spirits in Chelsea declared their Rieslings “some of the best in New York if not the entire U.S.”

My visit with Engle confirmed the sentiments of industry insiders. His wines taste and feel a bit different in the mouth: less precise and neat, rather, unfurling in waves of flavor like a blooming tea flower. Amazingly, the wines only trade around $20 a bottle; for wine lovers, that’s a lot of potential upside for such a minor investment.

 Planning to visit the region? Get itinerary advice and wine tips from my Wine Lover’s Guide to the Finger Lakes.

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Fool Bordeaux Lovers with These Wines (Hint: They Hail from NZ)


Bordeaux of the Southern Hemisphere:

An Overview of Hawke’s Bay, NZ

The best way to understand a wine is to meet its maker and step foot on its home turf; only then can one grasp the essence of its identity derived from the place in which it was borne. To this end, I spent a few days in Hawke’s Bay, situated midway along the East coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Aside from Waiheke Island, 30 minutes from Auckland by boat, Hawke’s Bay is the only other New Zealand wine region focused on making high-quality red wines from grapes other than Pinot Noir.

Acclaimed wine writer Oz Clarke penned a book entitled Bordeaux. In it, he lists the few rare wine regions of the world that have similar enough growing conditions to Bordeaux to be considered “lookalikes”. Hawke’s Bay (along with Waiheke Island) makes the selective cut; Clarke references Villa Maria’s Reserve Merlot-Cabernet off the Gimblett Gravels, as a favorite exemplary wine of the region.

Upon arrival, I met James Medina from the Hawke’s Bay Wine Growers Association at Trinity Hill Winery for a presentation on the soils, climate, styles, wines, and producers of the area. One of the warmest and oldest regions in NZ, Bordeaux-blends and Syrah garner the greatest attention, deservedly so, although their Chardonnay warrants watching as the style continues to evolve from oaked and weighty to the current trend of lean, mineral-driven, and fresh. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon show promise. The number one problem the region faces: small production and importers who lack the vision or confidence, or both, to gamble on bringing these wines to the States.


The vineyards of Hawke’s Bay sit, in what might appear as counterintuitive planting, largely on the riverbeds, rather than the hillsides. Medine explained that because New Zealand is a relatively young country, the rivers (now dry, of course), swept the productive soils out of the valley, while the rumpled hills surrounding it retained fertile topsoil. Thus, the valley floor suits grape growing better; that, coupled with the fact that very few hillsides offer the ideal north facing aspect (remember: we are in the Southern hemisphere).

Hawke’s Bay soils carry significant diversity of composition—there are 27 different types; mixed with climate variation, a sundry of growing conditions exist throughout. However, two soil types in particular are proffered as the most clearly defined and worthy of distinction: The first and most prized by producers lucky enough to have vineyards on them are the Gimblett Gravels.

The Gimblett Gravels are not a defined GI (the NZ wine industry is still young; all regions are grappling with delineating their sub-regions), but those who own vineyards within these 800 hectares, banded together in 2001 to promote the special qualities of the terroir.


The gravels, long ago laid down by the Ngaruroro River, became exposed after a huge flood in the 1860s. An immediate parallel can be made to the draining of the Haut-Medoc by the Dutch which led to the exposure of large tracts of gravel fields, also relatively flat, now currently planted to premier cru classé such as Château Latour.

Vines planted on the heavy gravel (with the right micro-climate conditions, of course) can translate into wines of structure, elegance, and good fruit concentration due to low-vigor thus low-yield, vine stress, and enhanced by the natural warmth of the region. The vines benefit in cooler years from the heat-retention properties of gravel, warming vines during chilly nights. The loose soil funnels rainwater providing good drainage, and contributes a dusty, tannic quality to the wines. The first Bordeaux varieties were planted in 1981, followed by Syrah in 1982.

The second important growing region is the Bridge Pa Triangle. It extends over 2,000 hectares on the western side of the Heretaunga plains and includes the largest concentration of vineyards in the area. Composed of several soils such as clay loam and sandy loam over red metal alluvial gravel, grapes from this zone are known for producing fleshier, plumper, more sensuous wines, especially in warm, dry years. Merlot performs especially well — would comparing the Bridge Pa to the Right Bank be a stretch?


If Hawke’s Bay winemakers seek to mimic St. Julien or Pauillac or St. Emilion on their home turf, they are turning out admirable replicas. The varied blends I tasted of Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cab Franc (some Petit Verdot and Malbec) showed lovely expressions of fruit knitted together by Bordeaux-like structure and tannin, yet with a touch of Hawke’s Bay charisma introduced by the winemaker’s hand and regional climatic conditions – and likely the local yeast and microbes in the soil.

I found the Mills Reef Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 in the tasting quite evocative of a Left Bank bottle – the relatively lean, austere character of the wine showing leafy, earthy notes under a layer of blackcurrant, with those aforementioned dusty tannins. The other nine wines demonstrated a range of flavors, most likely driven by the blends used and the winemaking styles as far as oak usage and ripeness, but they shared a thread of a fruit/acid/tannin structure built for longevity.

Comparing Hawke’s Bay to Bordeaux doesn’t mean only profiling the reds. Both regions grow Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, although in Hawke’s Bay, nobody seems keen on promoting either.


Unfortunately (depending how you look at it), Marlborough dominates the Sauvignon Blanc export market, the region synonymous with the grape. Winemakers around NZ have gratitude that the Marlborough behemoth brought global awareness to their country’s wines, but it often overshadows everything else produced in the country.

Hawke’s Bay producers of Sauvignon Blanc intimated that they’d prefer not to label their bottles with their region, believing consumers more likely to buy the wines if they are labeled simply “New Zealand” instead. I was disappointed to hear this because H.B. Sauvignon Blanc develops riper fruit with softer edges than Marlborough due to the warmer growing climate. The wines show a range of flavors from grapefruit and lime, to stone and passion fruit, and they offered a refreshing change of pace from many of their sharp, grassy cousins to the south. The winemakers also concurred that to their chagrin, they often leave a degree of herbaceousness in their wines because that’s what consumers recognize as New Zealand.

As for Semillon, I tasted a few instances of it that showed promise, although vineyard plantings don’t amount to much currently. Sileni Estates produces a very reasonably priced bottle (around $13), although they make very little of it. Clearview produces a characterful version that you’ll love or hate, according to Tim Turvey, winemaker and owner. I fell on the latter end of his appreciation scale.


Perhaps the greatest development in Hawke’s Bay beyond Bordeaux varieties came with the not long after discovery that Syrah in their soils and climate performs marvelously. Miraculously. Magically. I tasted ten during the overview plus a few more at winery visits, and wanted to buy a second suitcase to cart these gems home. Sadly, I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but I can go back and read my tasting notes and imagine a mouthful of rich, dark juice filled with black and blue fruit, some aromatic with florals and violets, others with freshly butchered meat, all dusted with cocoa and pervasive but ripe tannins, kept in balance by acidity.

I enjoyed the wines of Trinity Hill, Mission Estate, Mills Reef, Church Road and Esk Valley. But rather than list out the bottles I drank with their tasting notes, it would be more useful to list the wines actually imported into the States. As I pointed out earlier, the only thing difficult about drinking these wines is finding somewhere to buy them.


Here’s the list of Hawke’s Bay producers or producers with Hawke’s Bay wines in their portfolio, imported currently (as provided to me by the NZ Wine Growers Association):

  • Craggy Range
  • Te Mata
  • Mission
  • Elephant Hill
  • Bilancia
  • Alluviale
  • Villa Maria
  • Esk Valley
  • Maimai
  • Decibel
  • Crossroads
  • CJ Pask (soon)
  • Sileni
  • Glazebrook/Ngatarawa
  • Mills Reef
  • Clearview
  • Oyster Bay

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