Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Part 2 of a series "There are three kinds of wineries in this world, my friend . . ."

 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a.k.a. the Authentic, the Vanity, and the Corporate.
(In Cal-Ital, we call them Il Buono, Il Brutto, y El Nino.)

In the scene above, the Vanity winery moves in next to the Authentic winery;  the guns represent the huge, deep new wells they drill, enabling them to flood their acreage in July in the middle of a drought and plant nursery-started green-growing vines instead of dormant cuttings in spring.  They're in a hurry!
Soon afterward, the Authentic winery's wells go dry.

"Hey, what happened to my vineyard?!?"

     The Vanity Winery's owner got rich doing something supremely, somnolently boring and/or utterly odious, according to your perspective, dear reader, (real estate development, environmental law, waste disposal, rock band management) and is heavily motivated to start his winery by the hoped-for purchase of social status and the drowning of nightmares.  (There are female examples of the type, but 'exceptio probat regulam';  they are rare and will go unmentioned.)
     The tasting room and offices generally represent an obscenely large fraction of the winery's cost, and there are ostentatious displays of questionable artworks that have no relation, symbolic or otherwise, to Elvis Presley.
Perhaps he wears a powerful cologne more expensive than any of his wines, but he almost always has little real knowledge of viticulture or enology; in the worst cases, he pretends to be or actually is the winemaker.  (If the latter, the visitor should be prepared to spit with 99.44% efficiency.)  
     In extreme cases, the owner will be seen to use horses in place of a tractor in the vineyard when there are cameras present, much as the Hollywood Morgul drives a Prius by day and a Bugatti by night.  In Napa, there will frequently be caves, unnatural, if not a Batmobile taking up valuable barrel space.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"You see, in this world there are three kinds of wineries, my friend . . ."

"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Just kidding - that's a takeoff on Clint Eastwood's line to Eli Wallach at the end of Sergio Leone's marinara masterpiece, and while a loaded (squirt)gun can be useful when confronted with an obnoxious wine writer, digging pomace is killing work.

Pardon me: that train of thought derailed before it left the station!  I'll start over.
The three kinds of wineries are:
"The Authentic, the Vanity, and the Corporate."
(There will be no pseudoscientific Venn diagrams here to tell you that the categories partially overlap - I just did.  Other types of wineries we will ignore: e.g. Hopeless Amateur Vinegar Works.)

The Authentic Winery's owner and winemaker are often the same person;  if not, the owner knows how to do some parts of the winemaker's job, not just lying to wine writers.  If there is a pristine copy of a book on biodynamic wine somewhere on the property, perhaps hovering in midair or buried in a compost pile of unicorn dung, there is also a much-worn copy of Professor Emile Peynaud's textbook in office or lab.  The wines are at least palatable, in proportion to the achievable quality in the region and the experience level of the Authentiste, and for the purposes of authenticity it matters not if the winery is in a garage in Bordeaux or a cement monolith on the edge of Death Valley.  I withhold judgement on the winery in downtown Chicago, and no, I did not make that up.

The next blog post will discuss Vanity wineries, which are a lot funnier.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Colossal philosophy: thoughts on high-alcohol wines

     The recent reputational suicide of the critic Robert Parker, known for his love of high-extract, high-alcohol wines, has freed some of us to produce in this style without opening ourselves to charges of pandering to the Noseless Emperor, and I am one of those - though unlike Mr. Parker I didn't spend my college years dropping candy bars into tumblers of Everclear and slamming them down at parties.  During my New Mexico enological sideshow in the '90's, I made a few wines under 12% in alcohol, as it seemed what the variety, chemistry, and ripeness required, and most of my best California wines of the last century (!) were under 14% ABV, though primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

     Upon devoting my overtime oenological energies to California (I'd never stopped making wine here;  our New Mexico harvests were in July leaving me free to return west in mid-August) and more importantly, moving to the Central Coast, I noticed that Syrah in particular often did not flavor-ripen until higher potential alcohols were reached, and in the case of the west Paso hills and mountains, the best examples were often over 16%.  (Saxum is perhaps the prime example;  I can say I was present at their creation while claiming no credit.)  The La Mort Du Roi and Colossus wines, which have ranged from 16.1 to 17.5, have I think been in the same league, or ballpark to abuse the metaphor.

     The percentage of alcohol by volume is usually the only scientifically derived number on a bottle of wine, and thus offers an easily misunderstood measure of its other features. The pretentions to expertise of wine writers being what they are, ignorant opinionation on the subject has multiplied like yeast cells in rich must over the last decades, and show no signs of stopping, though some of us smelled the off aromas of bad fermentation a long time ago.

    "As is well known" the alcohol in the bottle is the result of the sugar in the grapes;  without intervention the conversion rate is in the .55-.62 range, and so by reading the number on a label we can deduce a general idea of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, remembering that Buellton is not Barstow nor Sonoma Sacramento, and of course accounting for the variety.  The complicating factors make assumptions unreliable, to say the least: in wine as in so many other things, exceptio probat regulam: the exception probes the rule, puts it to the test, it does not prove or confirm it.  (A different kind of 'proof' though related.)  So to the anti-high-alcohol pontificators, let me offer the following:

    If you're getting too buzzed from a glass or three of 16% alcohol wine, drink a bit less or add an ice cube.  I won't judge you - much.

    Some high-alcohol wines are 'flabby' - low in acid, low in tannin if red, and/or low in C02.  That's not because of the alcohol.  (Repeat.) This goes for other faults as well, all of which can be found in lower alcohol wines.  Balance between structural elements is complex!

    High alcohol wines aren't food-friendly?  Who has a huge Shiraz with trout?  Would you have a dry Rose of Grenache with a BBQ glazed tri-tip?  If your sommelier suggested those pairings, he's just a busboy who won't shut the fuck up.

UPDATE: Several hours after writing this, one of my wines won a 'shootout' tasting at a swanky event in Solvang (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara) - over two dozen winemakers were asked to bring their 'best' wines, which were then tasted blind with each judge - the aforementioned winemakers, for the most part - being asked to vote for one wine.  The winning wine was 17.5% alcohol, and the vote wasn't close.  (It was a fraternal twin sister of the Colossus under one of my client's labels, different barrels being the only distinction.)


Sunday, December 21, 2014


Six months since my last post, really?  And to think I've spent my pithy wit on the ephemeral FB (I don't Twitter, and Instagram keeps self-deleting on my iPhone).  Below, one of my newer creations, though the wine is identical to the Pink Zeppelin with the Swilly Idle label.  I couldn't resist.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One of the ten best red wines I've made in thirty years, but I like it too!

Behold, the amazing 2013 Stillman “Zeppelin” Pinot Noir, San Luis Obispo County.

100% Clone 777 Pinot Noir, alc. 14.9%, $60 retail – for strangers, which you are not.  (Vastly preferable club price via email, with mention of the Secret Password, at the bottom of this post.)  The vineyard is extremely cool-climate and very low yielding,  1.6 miles from the Pacific, above the town of San Simeon;  I've had my eye on it for several years but only picked twice.

This is a very powerful but balanced style of Pinot Noir, both very ripe and deliciously tart.  Denser and riper than almost any other example of the variety, with very ripe red cherry, blackberry and pepper, and a moderate amount of once used French oak.  The nose is blatantly Pinot Noir; the structure is rich, full and balanced with minimal tannins.  It’s definitely one of the ten best red wines I’ve made in my thirty years of enological malpractice.  I’d be happy to prattle on and on, and may write a long blog post about the wine, but it’s time to share it:  $209/6 bottles, $399/12 bottles, temperature controlled shipping included.  Orders and questions, email me at StillmanB@aol.com
The secret password is:  lignification

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wine competition judges and critics explained by an actual expert?

As I thought it might, the 2014 Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition gave the 2013 Chateau d'Abalone Verdejo a silver medal;  I received the notice by snail mail today.  Having judged this California-only event since 1990, and other judgings open to international entries as well, I didn't take it too hard.  The OCF is not a consensus judging, where assorted winemakers, chefs, sommeliers and writers bicker and bargain over what to give, say, PN#105 in price class M.  The OCF has winemaker-only judges who score wines independently without discussion;  numerical scores are crunched in a non-smoke-filled back room and medals are awarded later.  At lunch, I overheard a judge on the panel that tasted the Vermentinos admit that she'd never had one before:  not exceptional, but unfortunate, as she certainly judged a wine I made for a client who'd entered several.  (Just found out that it actually did get a gold medal, so I really shouldn't complain.)

The Syrahs and Tempranillos I've done for this client have done exceptionally well in the last few years, by the way, and the Syrah, Tempranillo, Counoise and Vermentino did in fact win a gold medal at this same competition - the excellent Viognier only got a bronze despite that category being judged by my panel!  If the other three judges gave the Verdejo 92 points and she gave it 82, it gets a silver - in a consensus judging it gets a gold.  Oh well...

I only entered the wine at the direct request of the organizers, who guilted me into it.  Making very small amounts of wine means running out, and regretting giving it away for unneeded hype when a customer wants a few bottles and there's none left.  Critics ask for fewer bottles than competitions, but they naturally expect you to subscribe to or advertise in their publications, and that adds up too, and some of them are prima donnas who hold grudges against their betters for mocking them.  (Some of them are even more arrogant than winemakers.)  In the words of the great Rik Mayall (who passed away extremely recently) as Lord Squadron Leader Flashheart in "Black Adder": "Right! Let's dig out your best booze and talk about me till the car comes."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A flying V dream of acid rain?

Of the great wine varieties*, I have the least knowledge and experience of Riesling in growth and production; learning by osmosis is another matter.  In fact, this is only my second, the previous being the softer if not sweeter 2007 Red Zeppelin, also from Monterey.  I did not grow or purchase these grapes: the fraction of the wine that was picked and fermented which bears my label was the result of what I am pleased to call consulting;  my advice is worth its weight in copper sulfate.  (Which was not needed here, should you wonder.)  I wound up with barely more than a barrel's worth, though utterly unoaked;  those wishing a few more details about the wine should read my email offering it for sale.  The wine is acidic, and the vines didn't see a drop of rain from flowering until harvest.

'Fliegentraum' means 'flight dream' though the Germans don't make a single word of it;  considering the language it's a miracle there's only one more letter for the same meaning, instead of a full paragraph.  A hallucination would be another basis for the label's artwork, though in fact it started out as a different idea, was modified by a friend of the artist (and mine) after the piece was commissioned, and only named after the art was finished and the wine bottled.  If it makes sense to you, please explain it to us.

The Flying V guitars in the upper right look something like the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, said by some to be the loudest aircraft of all time;  the Flying V guitar in the foreground is modeled after one owned by one of the members of the late great rock band, Meth Leppard.**  They were pretty loud, too.

*I shouldn't have left out Chenin Blanc.
** No relation, cover, or tribute to Def Leppard; Meth Leppard was an outstanding band in their own right, with one of the most outlandish and only partially misleading names since Dread Zeppelin.

Band practice

Band practice