Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rigged for Success – Fairborn’s Flat Rock Distillery rides Ingenuity to Gold in National Distilling Competition

“Our major problem was that we weren’t making enough whiskey!”
– Shawn Measel, Flat Rock Distillery

“It’s so funny. We walk by the still every day, shake our heads, and say, ‘The damned thing actually works!’”

Shawn Measel, one of the three proprietors of Fairborn’s Flat Rock Distillery, was breaking down the origin of various pieces and parts of Flat Rock’s homebuilt distiller.

“These parts were duct work from a machine built in Stuttgart, Germany. Those were water pipes from a factory. Those were steam pipes.”

Brad Measel, Shawn’s older brother, chimed in, “Our still’s not one of the big, beautiful copper stills like the one they’re putting in at Party Source [aka NewRiff Distillery in Bellevue, KY]. Those are like $500,000. Ours comes from leftover pieces and parts from our old job sites.”

The Measel brothers, along with their former office manager, James Bagford, turned a floorful of repurposed rigging equipment into Flat Rock’s incubator for StillWrights, their now-available line of distilled spirits. The StillWrights lineup includes a straight bourbon, flavored and unflavored moonshines, and – soon – silver, spiced, and bourbon barrel-aged rums.

Four of StillWrights’ moonshines recently took awards in the 2014 American Distilling Institute  competition for independently produced spirits. Their key lime pie moonshine took gold and was named “Best in Class.”

Less than a decade ago, however, rather than winning medals, the three were hauling metal.

From Millwright to Stillwright

“Shawn and I are both millwrights,” said Brad. “My father was a millwright. My grandfather was a millwright.”

“Millwrights are industrial machinery movers,” explained Shawn, patiently, after I demonstrated my lack of knowledge about what a millwright was. “The origin is back in windmills, grist mills, sawmills. If you wanted one built, a millwright got everything in place and assembled the machinery. [Millwrights] evolved into what they are today during the Industrial Revolution. Today, say you’re putting together a tool and die shop – we’re the ones who will set up your punch press. We make sure factory lines run the way they should so the workers can do their thing.”

Shawn and Brad’s father, Don Measel, opened Pyramid Riggers in the early 1980’s. Shawn, Brad, and their other two brothers worked there. It’s a tense business, they said. Millwrights’ busy seasons are during factory shutdowns – 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas breaks, and the like – and they are required to hit very strict deadlines. Pyramid generally kept a core staff of 20-25 people on payroll, but that number would swell to 75 at peak times. 

“When the [heavy industry] started leaving Dayton…we had a lot of work for a few years – ‘05, ‘06, ‘07 – as plants were moving out of town. But we could see our niche going away, so we knew we had to come up with something else. We started to do some research on what works well in an economic downturn and alcohol production just kept coming up.”

“Landscaping also came up as recession resistant,” added Shawn, “but that was just too much work! So we started studying the microdistillery business. We wanted something we were passionate about that we could do with a minimum of employees and with less stress.”

As the plan emerged for the distillery, named for the family farm near Medway, they brought in their cousin, James Bagford, who worked at Pyramid as the office manager and compliance expert. “James was really good with regulations, and when you start distilling, there are all sorts of issues with the state and federal government. We needed James, because he’s good at that!”

James added, “It’s really different from homebrewing and home winemaking. With those, you go to the store, pick up a kit, and you’re good to go. You can have decades of practice before you open up a larger winemaking operation, but with distilling, you can’t do that. Legally, you can’t even practice, so you have to make sure you have everything in line before you start.”

Setting up the line
  
“As we were closing down the rigging business…we just kept our eyes open as we were going through our projects,” said Brad. “If there were ever any stainless steel or copper pipework or anything we thought might work, we just kept it! We laid out a whole building floor of stuff over a year.”

Brad Measel shows off the top
of Flat Rock's homemade still.
Shawn added, “We sketched it all out on paper and did a couple of designs. We’d start in and go, ‘Hey! We’ve got a new piece of pipe. Could we use this?’ and we’d make a few changes.” They first built an “experimental” 27 gallon still, which led to the construction of their 300 gallon main still, based on a design adapted from one they saw Louisville’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works.

On most distillery tours, guides spend a great deal of time talking about how the design and shape of a still yields a unique flavor. When I asked how that applied to the unconventional design of the Flat Rock still, Shawn laughed, noting that physics is much more important than aesthetics. “That whole mystique, the shape and all that -- it’s a lot of P.T. Barnum, “’Hey! Watch this hand!’ while my other hand is doing something else” stuff. I mean, if you dropped half a million on a still, you gotta say, ‘Our stuff is better because our still is shaped like an onion.’”

As they gathered the pieces for their operation and gradually converted their buildings from manufacturing to distilling, the Flat Rock team became students of the technical process from grain to barrel. “We’re largely self-taught,” said Brad, “I tell you, on the Internet, man, you can get on there and learn just about anything you want.”

In addition to powerful Google-Fu skills, they relied on their millwright experience to create an efficient system for production in quantity. “Shawn and I had been in so many industrial plants – auto plants, the Lima army tank plant, big bakeries – we’ve seen a lot of production, so we could say, ‘The flow should go like this, and we need racks for this, and these things should go here.’ We wanted to make it as easy on ourselves as we could.”

They also believe the attention to detail required in their millwright work translated neatly to distilling. With the batch size they produce, they’re able to keep tabs on everything from how “happy” the fermenting yeast is to precisely maintaining the proper temperatures during the mashing and distilling processes, since problems at any stage can create impurities in the final product.

“The big distilleries can’t do that in a million-gallon run,” mused Shawn. “Everything goes into their barrels – guts, feathers, and all. That’s why a lot of them age their whiskey for so long – they’ve got to mellow out those defects – aldehydes and acetones and other nasty stuff. We don’t have that problem.

“And our still kinda talks to us. In the still there’s a copper dome. As the vapor hits the dome and condenses, boils, and recondenses, it jiggles. And when we hear that thing rattling away like a jazz drummer going to town on a high hat, it’s letting us know that we need to really keep an eye on the temperature,” Shawn added, throwing in sound effects and air drums for good measure.

Throwing the switch

Flat Rock fired up the still for the first time in 2010. They sunk the savings from building the still into the purchase of barrels to age their final product. They originally planned to call their spirits “Flat Rock,” but a trademark dispute with a Canadian winery led to the coining of “StillWrights.”

“Our first plan was to make our bourbon, because we knew that had to age,” explained Brad. “Then we wanted to make our ‘Chateau Cash Flow,’ something we could get on the shelves and make money with. We thought that would be rum, but we struggled to come up with a rum that we liked…We decided to look for something else, and we tried making moonshine. We were on the second batch and we were like, ‘Wow. We should have done this earlier!’”

Moonshine, the spirit they describe as “American as Revolution, Apple Pie, and Badassery,” does not have a precise legal definition. It’s classified by the federal government, according to James, as a “distilled spirit specialty,” meaning there are no particular criteria for production and aging, which is different than rum, bourbon, and other distillates, which have very specific guidelines. StillWrights unflavored moonshine clocks in at 104.7 proof, while their flavored versions are 70 proof.

Putting the barrels down. (photo courtesy Dayton City Paper)
The bourbon caused some real trepidation for the team. “We’re six months in, and I start worrying,” Brad recalled, “What if this stuff isn’t any good? There’s our family business down the tubes. So we called in a consultant who worked with some big distilleries and he said that we might make a couple of minor tweaks to the process, but we were spot on.” Shawn excitedly interjected, “He told us that our major problem was that we weren’t making enough whiskey!”

The first batch of StillWrights 90 proof bourbon is aged in 15 gallon casks for two years. When that bourbon is all out of barrel, they’ll empty their 25 gallon barrels, which will have been aged for three. Eventually, they’ll move on to their four-year 53 gallon barrels, which will be their standard moving forward. Some of the used barrels are being used to age their rums, which should be released in July and August.

StillWrights’ unique bottle design, which neatly complements their “Coiled S” logo, has an international flavor. A French company has a design competition every year for college seniors and they mass produce the winning bottle. Flat Rock’s design company happened upon the bottle just as it was released, immediately saw the connection, and snapped it up.

The Goods

After giving me a tour of the facility, the Flat Rock team took me to their recently-completed tasting room for a sampling. Brad served as bartender, deftly pouring half-ounce tastes, his right forearm wrapped in a tattoo of tally marks – 31 of them, one for each year he’s been married. (“He initially did Roman numerals,” cracked Shawn, “He didn’t think it through.”)

The unflavored moonshine is dangerously easy to drink. It has a very even corn flavor with very little afterburn. The flavored moonshines were unique to my palate. I’m used to flavored liquors having one-note tastes, but these, produced in conjunction with Mother Murphy’s flavoring company, had multiple layers of flavor. The “Best in Show” key lime had complex flavors of graham cracker and meringue alongside the tart lime. The “peach cobbler” had savory notes of toasted oat to go along with the peach. The apple pie tasted like…well…apple pie. They also feature a margarita and a cinnamon version.

The bourbon is quite enjoyable. It has an undertone of a scotch-like peat, and a little splash of water brings out considerable floral and vanilla notes to go along with a backbone of newly harvested grain. The flavors are all very distinct and, overall, it’s a very clean bourbon, with some maple syrup, corn, and cognac flavors at the end.

They say that their lineup will change as the market changes. “Moonshines are a hit right now,” Brad said, “but they might end up as a fad. We want to be agile enough to make whatever’s hot. But there will always be demand for rum and bourbon.” They indicated that they might eventually try branching into gin, which Shawn enjoys. “When I drink gin, my face hurts from smiling so much.”

“Our two brothers kind of think we’re crazy,” said Brad, pouring a little more bourbon for us as we watched a storm roll in. “Dad passed in ’07. I hope he’d be proud of us. Give us a couple of years. When we’re making some money, I know he’ll be proud of us. Until then, he’d be like “Get your ass movin’!”

StillWrights bourbon retails for $35 per bottle; the moonshines for $25. StillWrights can be purchased at the distillery’s tasting room -- as well as Arrow Wine South, Belmont Party Supply, Air City Wine, the Lebanon Kroger and Vandalia Carryout.

Flat Rock Distillery is located at 5380 Intrastate Drive, Fairborn. Tours, which include tastings of all their products, are $10 and can be arranged at http://flatrockspirits.com/product/distillery-tour/ -- by calling (937) 879-4447, or by emailing tours@flatrockspirits.com.

[This story appears in November 11,2014 issue of the Dayton City Paper.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Debonair and Soave…

If you came of age in the era when MTV actually played videos, when you hear the pronunciation of “Soave,” an Italian white wine, you immediately get a mental image of this guy:

Rico....


Instead of these guys:

 
...Soave!

As with most Italian wines, Soave (pronounced “So-AH-vey”) is named after the region in which it’s made. Soave is the subregion of the Veneto near the city of Verona in northeastern Italy. The primary grape varietal in the wine is the native Italian grape Garganega, pictured above. By law, Garganega must comprise at least 70% of the blend. If a Soave is less than 100% Garganega, the bulk of the rest of the blend comes from a grape called Trebbiano di Soave, which is otherwise known as
Verdicchio.

[Side note: If you’ve seen Italian wines made from “Trebbiano” – those wines are usually made from a different Trebbiano grape: the more common Trebbiano di Toscana. Trebbiano di Toscano is also known as Ugni Blanc. Confused yet?]

In any case, Soave is generally a dry, relatively light white. You might stumble across a sparkling Soave or a sweet, late harvest Soave from time to time – but for the most part, the fruity still white is what you’re going to see.

Like most Italian wines, there are a couple of classifications to know. There’s a “standard” Soave. Next is “Soave Classico,” which is wine that comes from the originally designated vineyards of the Soave region. There’s also a “Superiore” classification, which indicates that the wines follow particular rules for composition, harvest tonnage, and a few other rules. To further complicate matters – most, but not all, of the Superiore vineyards are in the Classico area.

Thankfully, you’re not going to need to worry much about those ins and outs. The price range on Soave isn’t a huge one. You can find a straight Soave for $10-12, and even the high end of the Soave Classico Superiore isn’t going to set you back much more than $25 or so. For most purposes, you shouldn’t need to spend more than $15, and there’s really no reason to, as you’ll see.

I received a pair of Soave from Nicole at R/West. One was a standard Soave, the other was Soave Superiore. The verdicts?

Corte Adami 2013 Soave – This one started me out with a light nose of orange blossoms and lemon. I expected it to be along the lines of a pinot grigio, but it turned out to be more weighty on the tongue than I thought. I thought it certainly had a little bit of a “glycerine” texture, which I didn’t mind, but some might consider the flavor a little “flabby.” The main flavors are round and peachy with little tartness towards the back. The finish hangs on and has a little bitter nip at the end. All in all, pretty decent for $12. While it’s not the most memorable wine in the world, it’s certainly a quality quaffer.

Bolla “Tufaie” 2012 Soave Superiore Classico – By way of comparison, here’s one of the “higher end” Soave. This one also has a blossomy nose, but it seems
more fragrant and more substantial. I found some slightly richer flavors like pear. With the fuller aroma, the weight of this wine seemed to fit the nose a little more effectively. There’s a little more acidity, which rounds out the glycerine considerably. There’s a bit of honeyed sweetness underneath the peachy, lemony flavors and the finish is fairly long and a mite acidic, like a good pinot grigio. There’s also a little bit of spiciness at the end, which I liked quite a bit. It’s quite a nice little white. I preferred the Tufaie (named for the particular volcanic stone of the region) over the Corte Adami. The price difference between the bottles is what surprised me. The Tufaie is only a dollar more at $13, which is a killer value, if you ask me. (And since you’re reading this, you kinda did.)


Soave is currently promoting its wines as a Thanksgiving alternative to common table whites like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re looking for a white that’s a little different than the standard, you might want to consider trying out some Soave. Seeing how close the “high end models” are in price to the standard ones, I’d suggest you splurge on the inexpensive end of the Superiore. I think it’ll serve you well, whatever you’re plating up.

And, you know, just 'cuz:



Monday, October 27, 2014

A Side-by-Side of Super Tuscan and a Return of the Heavy Hitter

Fall! Air cooling a bit, leaves turning, and the menus around Vine HQ shifting from the scrumptious salads, soups, and lighter fare which the Sweet Partner in Crime regularly cobbles together during the warmer months. Autumn and winter cooking is my culinary wheelhouse. Casseroles, stews, rich pastas and other stick-to-your-ribs offerings give me flashbacks to my bachelor days when I’d whip up a big batch of something to nosh on for the entire week. (Of course, it was mid-July when I was making those dishes back then, but I digress...)

Fall also means bigger wines, so as I amble down the Italian aisle, my eyes start to drift over to the section often simply labeled “Other Italian Reds.” Wine stores use this section to stash Italian bottles that don’t fit the traditional Italian designations. They can be blends of grapes from across a region, or even across the country. Many will be labeled “vino da tavola.” This translates as “table wine,” as you might guess – and they’re usually light, inoffensive, and forgettable. In contrast, the bottles I go for are have “IGT” on the label. An IGT designation indicates that a wine is of high quality, but does not adhere to the winemaking guidelines of the region.

The most well-known IGT wines began appearing in the 1970’s in Tuscany. These wines became known as “Super Tuscans.” To illustrate, wines made in the Tuscan region of Chianti must be made from 75% or more Sangiovese juice to be labeled “Chianti.” IGT winemakers used grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to create bigger, fuller -- some traditionalists would argue “Americanized” – wines. Many of these Super Tuscan wines are made of a majority of grapes other than Sangiovese and command high prices. Prior to the creation of the IGT classification in 1992, any wine with less than 75% Sangiovese could only be labeled vino da tavola, regardless of quality or price range.

Super Tuscan reds were all the rage in the 90’s and 00’s, but I haven’t heard that term nearly as much in recent days. My guess is that the name “Super Tuscan” was seen as a bit faddish (much like “Meritage” was in California around that time), so wine companies eventually backed away from using that as a primary marketing term. I personally still use the name, since I like imagining Wile E. Coyote saying “Soooper Tuscan…” 

In any case, I received a pair of Super Tuscan wines recently from Colangelo (Thanks, Maggie!) with compositions that don’t resemble Chianti in the slightest. I thought the two demonstrated a very interesting contrast.

Luce Della Vite 2001 “Lucente” IGT – Lucente is the “second label” wine from Luce Della Vite. The “first label” wine, called “Luce,” is the first blend of Sangiovese and Merlot ever constructed in the commune of Montalcino. This wine, emerging from the partnership of well-known winemakers Robert Mondavi (now deceased) and Vittorio Frescobaldi, retails for close to $100. “Lucente” is the “little brother” wine, which goes for $20-25. For a little brother, Lucente shows some muscle. This blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Sangiovese comes on strong with big fruit, strong tannin, and high acid levels. That said, as powerful as it is, no sensation is really overwhelming. If you’ve got big foods, it’s got something for every occasion. You need some tannin for your eggplant parmesan? Done. Need some acid to go with that big tomato sauce? Check. Something dark and fruity for evening consumption? Gotcha. I had quite a bit of leftover tenderloin from the Barolo experiment, so we made steak sandwiches piled high with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, which made for an absolutely delicious pairing. I think the Lucente is an exceptional value for the price range.

Tenuta Frescobaldi Castiglioni 2011 Toscana IGT – The Tenuta stands in contrast to the Lucente. The Lucente, as big and round as it was, still tasted like an Italian wine to me. On the other hand, if I’d been blindfolded, I easily could have thought the Tenuta might have been a California red blend with its big, dark, Cabernet-ish fruit. This makeup is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. Sangiovese comprises a mere 5% of this wine. Even after decanting, the fruit on this wine overwhelmed the acid and minerality found in many Tuscan wines. We had it both with minestrone and as a side-by-side with the Lucente and the aforementioned steak sandwiches and it was just OK. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent wine, but at $25 – if I wanted a fruity Italian wine, I could find a similar-in-quality Barbera for ten bucks less.

Along with the pair of Tuscan tasties, tucked away in the package was a bottle of Perticaia 2009 Sagrantino di Montefalco, which retails for around $50. I wrote about the Sagrantino varietal about a year ago. This powerful red wine, which I dubbed “The Italian Heavy Hitter,” has the highest concentration of polyphenols – the compounds that make red wine so good for you – of any grape in the world. It also stains teeth more than any other red wine I’ve come across. Of the bottles I tried back then, the Perticaia was my clear favorite of the three. The 2009 vintage is very much along the lines of the 2007 I reviewed previously. While big and tannic, it had enough balance to make it drinkable, and the finish of spices and berries was very pleasant. I’m happy to report that the 2009 is very similar to the 2007 – which means that it’s worth the price for a special occasion. We also discovered a fabulous food pairing for the Perticaia: the humble pot roast.

If you want a funky twist for your next fall or winter dinner party, dust off your best pot roast recipe. Get your mom to divulge her secret recipe, or get your grandfather to divulge that twist that he brought over from the Old Country. Maybe you love a recipe that you found in a $1.99 slow cooker cookbook when you were in college. Find a recipe you can embrace. Serve it over rice, over noodles, over artisanal gluten-free amaranth shavings – whatever floats your boat. Before you start the roast, decant this wine. It needs a lot of air. When your roast is ready, plate it up, pass the platter and this bottle around your table of thankful friends, and enjoy your comfort food-laden bliss. It’s eyes-roll-back-in-your-head good.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Damilano Lecinquevigne -- A Modern Take on Barolo

A bottle of Barolo – the Italian “Wine of Kings” – recently made its way to Vine HQ for a visit.

Barolo doesn’t make many appearances around these parts. This wine from the same-named area of the Piedmont region commands respect on any wine list and an emptying of most wine drinkers’ wallets. Almost all Barolo are high-priced wines. Decent Barolo usually start at around $50 and go up from there. It’s not uncommon to see good vintages hung with pricetags upwards of $150.

When this particular bottle showed up, thanks to the good folks at Colangelo, I did a double-reason double-take. What was so different about the Damilano 2010 Barolo “Lecinquevigne”? First off, the vintage. 2010? Most Barolo, or so I understood, require around 7 years in bottle for its powerful tannins to chill out enough for the wine to become drinkable. Second – the retail on this wine was $35. Thirty-five clams for an actual Barolo? Inconthievable!

OK, so what gives here? Why is Barolo so expensive, and how’d this wine end up being so much less so? And why can I supposedly pop and pour this bottle, when I’d expect to wait until 2017 under normal circumstances?

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape, a small, thin-skinned grape that’s notoriously hard to grow. The juice from Nebbiolo is super-high in both tannin and acidity. In the traditional method of making Barolo, the fermenting juice soaks with the skins of the grapes – a process called maceration -- for almost a month in some cases, extracting the maximum amount of tannin from the skins. The resulting juice is then aged in large containers called botti for at least two years and sometimes much longer. Once bottled, the wine had to sit for a long time, as I’ve already mentioned. The resulting Barolo’s tannic, powerful flavors can be challenging for many wine drinkers.

[Side note: Interestingly, “traditional” Barolo-making technique has only been around since the 1920’s, when the French, of all folks, brought these techniques to the region. Prior to that time, the Nebbiolo-based wines in that area were sweet, light in color, and slightly fizzy.]

In the 1980’s, the region went through what some writers termed the “Barolo Wars.” A group of winemakers, again influenced by their Burgundian counterparts, decided to employ more modern harvesting and winemaking techniques. These techniques included green harvesting (removing unripe grapes from ripening clusters to improve the remaining grapes), temperature-controlled fermentation, and the use of commercial yeast for more control over the product.

Additionally, these modernist winemakers used smaller barrels called barriques. Barriques typically hold around 60 gallons of wine, compared to botti, which can hold up to 4,000 gallons. Smaller barrels and shorter maceration times combine to create wine that is more approachable flavor-wise and can be drunk after a shorter period of time. These “modern” Barolo tend not to have the extended aging capacity as their more “traditional” brethren.

Which brings us to the Damilano. Damilano Winery was founded in the 1890’s, yet clearly falls on the “modern” end of the spectrum winemaking-wise. They make four “cru” Barolo (interesting that they’d use the French term) which are in the $70-80 range. The wine I received, the “Lecinquevigne,” is a blend of grapes from vineyards across these “cru.” Hence, it has a lower price – as seen with most second label wines. The name “Lecinquevigne” translates as “Five Vineyards” and has given my spellcheck a somewhat permanent case of the yips.

I wasn’t hip to the history of the “wine wars” before starting this column, and the Barolo I’d tried previously had been, as far as I know, from the “traditional” end of the spectrum. I didn’t know the history when I took my notes, and I was somewhat reassured when I tasted this – because I thought there was something a little different about the Lecinquevigne.

The nose flew at me rich and fragrant. I initially got strawberries, cotton candy, and some woodiness. The traditional “tar and roses” aroma that Barolo is known for emerged a bit as the wine got more air. But the flavors were soft and subtly dark. There’s plenty of mouth-coating tannin in the medium body, with notes of licorice, cherry, and leather. The finish is super-long, lots of strong tea flavor that lasts a couple of minutes if you let it. That said, I wouldn’t call it overly complex, compared to many other Barolo.

This isn’t meant to be a slam; it is a really good wine. The intent of the modernist winemaker clearly shows through. Traditional Barolo’s power and harsh tannin is Exhibit A of the male end of the “masculine vs. feminine” wine divide. It is the “Wine of Kings,” after all. Modern Barolo has a much softer, “feminine” flair. I enjoyed the Lecinquevigne quite a bit, but it might not sit as well with traditional Barolo enthusiasts. I don’t know if it would pass the Uncle Alan test. We had this bottle over the course of two nights – once with a beef tenderloin braised in three wines, and again with a late-summer-veggie minestrone. Both worked very nicely with this more mellow version of Barolo.

At $35, I’d certainly recommend it. I think it’s a pretty darned good wine – especially if you’re still learning about Barolo and deciding whether it’s for you.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Freshly Independent -- The Wine of Moldova

Let’s play “Name that country:”

A)    Approximately 25% of the population works in the wine industry.
B)    Its citizens consume the most alcohol per capita in the world.
C)    Is preparing to send much more of its wine to the United States.

Your answer? Moldova – the Eastern European nation of three million people wedged between Romania and the Ukraine, currently preparing to make a much bigger splash in the American wine scene.



Moldovan wine, needless to say, is hardly a household bottle. Moldova does sit on some of the best agricultural land in Europe, and they’ve made wine there since the 1400’s. Vineyards cover more land in Moldova than in any country in the world. About 7% of Moldova’s surface area is under vine. (To put that in perspective, imagine removing all freeways, cities, and In-and-Out Burgers from California and Oregon and planting grapes as far as the eye can see.)

While some indigenous Moldovan grapes are still raised, the bulk of their wine production is of grapes brought in from France, Italy, and Romania after WWII – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, et al.

In the early 1900’s, Moldova had the largest grape-growing area in the Russian Empire – but the vineyards suffered during the two World Wars. The Soviet Union restored the wine-growing regions during the 40’s and 50’s. By the 1960’s, wine production had returned to pre-WWII levels.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, wine production became one of Moldova’s major economic drivers, accounting for 7.5% of the value of all exports. In 2013, however, Moldova declared that it was planning to join the European Union. Almost immediately, Vladmir Putin declared a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, of which it was the largest importer in the world.

Moldova clearly needs somewhere to sell its existing and future stocks of wine, and it has turned its sights to the West. With a handy assist from Secretary of State John Kerry, the Moldovan state publicity arm is launching its first campaign to promote their wines in the United States.

I was able to dip my toe into the Moldovan wine pool when Tiffany at Colangelo sent me a couple of bottles of Moldova’s big export. I received one bottle of red and one bottle of white. How were they?


We started with the white – the Albastrele 2013 Pinot Grigio. This 100% pinot grigio started off with peach blossoms and a little apple on the nose. I thought it had solid weight for a pinot grigio, and it was well-balanced enough that it doesn’t feel artificially heavy. The palate had some nicely rounded flavors of pear, apple, and a little bit of baking spice. The finish was quite nice – lasting and gentle, starting a tad tart but never developing into anything overly acidic. I thought this was a very nicely designed white with much more complexity than I’d expect from most wines that say “pinot grigio” on the label. A quick spin around the Internet yields some listed prices from $11-13, which is an absolute steal for a wine of this quality. High marks for this bottle.

The bottle of red – the Lion-Gri 2011 Saperavi Dry Red Wine – surprised me a couple of times. Saperavi is the grape varietal, native to Moldova’s sister country across the Black Sea, Georgia. When I saw the wine was only 12% alcohol, I expected to decant something that resembled Beaujolais. Turns out, “Saperavi” translates from Georgian as “paint” or “dye,” and I was a bit shocked when from the bottle poured squid ink! This is one of the “heaviest light wines” I’ve tried. The nose is heavy with dark fruit. The mouthfeel of this wine is fascinating. Everything hits at once: big cherry and plum fruits, strong upfront tannins, and plenty of acidity. It comes in strong like a young tannic cabernet, but then eases down into a gentle finish that isn’t overly strong. The second surprise was the price point. It retails for around $10, which is a ridiculously good price. Plus, I dig "Style & Quality" as a tagline. 

One of Moldova’s best known food items is called mămăligă, (meh-MEHL-eg-uh) a cornmeal porridge also well-known in Romania. Mămăligă is similar to a large polenta cake. On our recent trip to Sonoma, I enjoyed a roasted vegetable ragout on polenta at the Willow Wood Market Café. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I hoped to emulate this meal, which was as close as we were going to get to making mămăligă. We did our best copy job, using roasted eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and a green pepper for our ragout and cracked the Lion-Gri alongside. The big initial tannin meshed really well with the roasted eggplant and the acidity coupled well with the tomatoes. I’d also suggest giving the bottle a little bit of a chill before serving.


In the interest of improving international relations with a country very interested in aligning itself with our allies in the E.U., I think we all have a responsibility to support their economy. Based on the quality of these two inexpensive bottles, I think your diplomatic efforts will be well worth it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Up on the Rúfina



Good ol’ Chianti. You’ve got $15 in your pocket and you’re looking for a good table wine to go with a nice dinner you’re planning – and you know you can amble through la sezione italiana and come up with a decent bottle. If you’ve got a little more scratch to spend, though -- Chianti doesn’t stop with plain old table wine.

Thanks to Juliana at Colangelo PR, the wine fairy dropped off a bottle of Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2011 Chianti Rúfina, which was just released in the U.S. and is one of my first experiences in the deeper end of the Tuscan wine pool.

As I’ve covered before, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are usually named for the region from which the grapes are grown. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region. 

Chianti. Know it. Love it. Live it.


However, there are a few areas outside the Classico region known for making excellent Chianti. In some cases, some of the best. One of those areas is Rúfina – a small area that juts north from Classico into the province surrounding Florence. Rúfina, home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Tuscany, is one of the eight sub-zones of the Chianti region which is, like Classico, allowed to affix its name to a wine label as a quality designation.

Because of its altitude, Rúfina has a cooler climate than much of the surrounding area. In my experience, cool climate wines have more complexity and are less fruit-forward than wines made in higher temperature growing regions. If you’ve been keeping up with my recent travels, you know I’m a big fan of cooler weather wines – but most of my knowledge in that area comes from domestically produced grapes. I was curious how this translated to Italian wines.

I can report with confidence that I’m a fan of Rúfina’s cool-climate Chianti. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti I sampled is made from the oldest vineyards surrounding the Nipozzano Castle in the heart of the Chianti Rufina wine-growing areas. These vineyards are around 1000 feet above sea level, where most vineyards in Chianti average around 600 feet.

Chianti’s never struck me as a particularly fragrant wine, but the Vecchie Viti displayed a difference almost immediately. Although light, the nose smells like strawberry ice cream if it could sprout blossoms. It’s quite pretty. The flavor is medium-bodied with some of the typical Chianti flavors – cherry, cola, coffee, and chalk – and they’re exceptionally well integrated. This harmony continues through the finish, rather than the mouth-puckering acidity and chalky aftertaste of many Chianti. I’ve never considered Chianti a wine that I’d just open and drink on its own – it usually needs food to shine – but this one was very pleasant.

Just the same, Chianti is best known as a food wine. While any night can be a special occasion, the quality and subtlety of this wine would be best with a meal into which you’re trying to introduce some atmosphere. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to try this wine alongside one of her famous homemade pizzas (roasted tomatoes, roast chicken, capers, garlic). Just as an experiment, we also opened a bottle of perfectly decent table wine –the Zonin 2012 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo – which retails for $12 for a 1.5 liter. The difference in flavors, as the SPinC put it so eloquently, was “like the difference between a Vera Wang gown and a Nordstrom’s knockoff.”

That said, it was the end of a long week – and we were enjoying this pizza while spawled on the couch. While the Rúfina was excellent, the setting really didn’t do the best job of highlighting how good the wine actually was.

I’d recommend opening it for a sit down meal you’ve constructed to engage your senses. I see low light, some music in the background, a little romance in the air, and an Italian meal that’s got red sauce in it somewhere. This is a wine for a “special occasion” alongside someone you’re trying to impress – whether you’ve been with the person for weeks or decades. It’s going to improve whatever you might have on the table. Whether you end up on the table with your intended is an exercise left to the reader.

The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti retails for right around $30, along the lines of what you’d pay for a really good pinot noir. If you’re thinking in those terms, it’s a good value. Spend the few extra shekels to give this one a try.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bodega Bay Bookend and another Sonoma Snowball

You might remember the Naked Vine’s May trip to California, where the Sweet Partner in Crime and I plopped ourselves down in the town of Sonoma, tooled around a bunch, and tried some delicious wine thanks to the Naked Vine Snowball Technique, which I described thusly:

How does this work? Start at the place where you’re staying. These people live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. These people live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We decided to head back out west again just before school started – this time using the Sonoma Coast as our base of operations, since we’d not done much exploration of that area of this wonderful wine region. The evening drive through the fog from SFO to the town of Bodega Bay was a bit harrowing, but all's well that ends well! We got checked in to the Bodega Bay Lodge (which I recommend once you get used to the foghorn in the bay going off every 30 seconds) and got ready for our new tour of the county.
 
(c) the San Francisco Chronicle

The Sonoma Coast AVA (AVA = “American Viticultural Area” – the designation for a subregion within a growing areas), as you can see, is a fairly large portion of Sonoma County. Most of the vineyards in this AVA are at much higher altitude than the rest of the county You might remember, during my writeup of the last Sonoma trip, that I discovered a preference for “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit” wines. Mountain fruit grapes from the generally cooler, breezier climates like the Sonoma coastal region create wines that are less fruit-forward and more subtle in flavor. 

These areas favor cool weather grapes such as pinot noir, rather than the Cabernet and Zin that you’d find just a few miles inland as the crow flies. The climate also gives an interesting twist to the Chardonnay and Syrah some growers are producing. The region also produces some absolutely fabulous rosé.   Many of these wines also tend to be somewhat more expensive, as the grapes are more difficult to grow and harvest. It’s easy to burn through a lot of coin ordering stuff if you’re not careful.

 

We started the snowball in Bodega Bay at a wine and gift shop called Gourmet Au Bay. Their trademark is their “wine surfing” samples, in which you get three pours on a surfboart. After a couple of tastes and a discussion about what we liked, we talked to the manager, Sissy, to see what she might recommend. Out came the highlighter and the map of Sonoma County, and we were off. 
Just getting under way. Two down, one to go.
(Snowball forming on map...)

With the narrow, twisty roads of this part of Sonoma County, we didn’t hit as many wineries as we could have – but I was pleased with our finds. Here were some of our favorites:

Iron Horse Vineyards – The gorgeousness that is the Iron Horse property is right on the border of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River AVA’s, so I’m including it. If you remember, Iron Horse was the tasting experience which started The Naked Vine down its path of oenological debauchery. Nine years had passed since we were last there, and they seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the interim. Unlike nine years ago, when they were crafting incredible cabernets (one of which, “Benchmark,” was the celebratory bottle when the Sweet Partner in Crime made full professor), they only make wine from estate fruit now. This means that they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – much of which goes into the sparkling wines for which they’re well known. We were fans of the Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($45), a sparkling wine that has an attachment to the National Geographic Ocean Initiative. Their pinot noirs were exceptional, but quite pricey. The $70 pricetag on the Russian River Pinot Noir was steep, but it’s a great wine. (http://www.ironhorsevineyards.com/)

Our return to the scene of the crime...Iron Horse.
Lynmar Estate – I’ve talked before about my notion of “wood theory” – in that there’s generally an inverse relationship between the amount of burnished wood in a tasting room and the quality of the wine. Lynmar is an exception to the theory, as their tasting room and surrounding gardens (which include a rosemary shrub taller than I am!) are lovely places to linger. The wine, as well, is lovely to linger over. Their focus is pinot noir and chardonnay, although they’ve begun cranking out some cool-climate Syrah. We really enjoyed their spread. I thought their Russian River pinot noir at $40 was exceptional, especially for the price. Lynmar also was where we discovered that a lot of these wineries are producing some pinot noir for the express purpose of creating rosé, like the good folks in Provence. Lynmar’s rosé was top notch. Their Quail Hill chardonnay, while hardly a bargain at $55, is simply luscious. (http://www.lynmarestate.com/)

Red Car Wine – Red Car won the “most interesting tasting room” prize from us on this trip, with its funky collection of memorabilia and a vibe that stops on the playful side of hipster. Red Car focuses almost exclusively on production from high-altitude, cold-climate vineyards, which produces very bright, clean, flavorful wine at relatively low alcohol levels. For instance, I don’t see a lot of Syrah under 13.5% alcohol, and Red Car’s Estate ($50) clocked in at 13.3% with gorgeous layers of plum, earth, and chocolate. Their Chardonnay ($35) could have fooled me into thinking it was a white Burgundy along the lines of the clean but oaky Meursault. Their pinots, which start around $40, also have a bit of that lean Burgundian earth and smokiness – and fruits that are very clean and striking. Highly recommended. (http://www.redcarwine.com/)
Red Car's tasting room. Good fun.


Taft Street Wines – “Garagistes since 1979” is their proud announcement. Garagistes were winemakers inBordeaux who operated outside the strict French guidelines for wine production, often making their wines in garages rather than on chateaux. The American iteration, which moved from a garage in Berkeley to an old apple processing plant in Sebastapol, was the best overall value of any of our stops. Their estate pinot is under $35, and I took a shine to their Alexander Valley Merlot, which at $20 was the best QPR I found on the trip. Fruity and lush with a really nice cocoa backbone, it’s worth stocking up on. They also produced some of the few sauvignon blancs we tried on the trip -- a steal at $18. (http://www.taftstreetwinery.com/)

Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards – Joseph Phelps is a very accomplished Napa winemaker. He’s produced three cabernets -- his “Insignia” label -- that earned 100 points from Robert Parker, including his 2002, which was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. In 2007, Phelps opened a winery in the Sonoma Coast region for the grapes grown in his new Freestone Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The $55 Freestone Vineyards pinot noir was a delicate, wonderfully balanced offering – full of fruit and smoke. We also discovered Phelps’ “second label” wine – Fog Dog – which were perfectly decent pinot noir and chardonnay, although at the price point, there were better wines in the county. We also had the opportunity to try the 2006 vintage of the “Insignia” which would retail for $240 – making it the second-most expensive wine I’ve ever tried. Needless to say, it was a pretty damned good wine. (http://www.josephphelps.com/)  I’ll be writing more about Phelps in the future, so stay tuned.

Fort Ross Vineyard – Fort Ross was the one Sonoma Coast tasting room we visited that was actually on the coast – about a 35 minute drive from Bodega Bay up the windy Pacific Coast Highway up through Jenner (where you absolutely must stop and get a sandwich and a beverage at Café Aquatica) and then up into the mountain fog to the beautiful tasting room, where you can watch the sun burn away the clouds as you sip on some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. My favorite selection of theirs, however, was a grape I’d not seen anywhere else in the region: Pinotage, the national grape of South Africa – the native country of owners Lester and Linda Schwartz. I like South African pinotage just fine, but it’s usually a rough wine that calls for a big slab of meat from the braai. Planted in these coastal altitudes, the Fort Ross pinotage ($48) yields a rounder, smoother – yet still muscular – glass that features blackberry flavors and a really nice earthiness. Their pinot noir ($42-70) and rosé ($24) were also top notch. (http://www.fortrossvineyard.com/)


Fort Ross Vineyard -- Nice view, eh?

Fog Crest Vineyard – Our last stop was a lovely one, here at one of Sonoma’s newest tasting rooms. It’s so new (it just opened this year) that it’s not on the touring maps – and we only learned about it from our friends at Gourmet Au Bay. We were very glad that we made the turn up the driveway and planted ourselves on their lovely terrace overlooking the vineyard for our final tasting of the trip as we headed out of town. The view was a little reminiscent of Iron Horse – so yet another bookend. We really enjoyed the Estate Chardonnay ($39), chock full of crème brulee and spice and their full-flavored Estate pinot noir ($55) with its smoky layers that would be good to stash for a couple of years. The wine that made the biggest impression on me, however, was their Rosé ($21), Rich and fruity for a dry rosé, it’s clearly lovingly crafted. I pulled the trigger on a case for home, since one can never have too much good dry rosé around. (http://www.fogcrestvineyard.com/)

Saying farewells to Sonoma at Fog Crest.
If you’re over in that neck of the woods, I'd also recommend driving around Bayshore Drive in Bodega to get some oysters at Fisherman’s Cove (http://www.bodegabayoysters.com/), get dinner at Terrapin Creek Café (http://www.terrapincreekcafe.com/); and snag brunch at Willow Wood Café in Graton (http://www.willowwoodgraton.com/).

Cheers!



Monday, September 01, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Italian -- Three for September's Start

Pinot grigio usually isn’t my speed.

While I’ve come to enjoy Italian whites more and more (I feel pretty safe with almost any varietal starting with “V”) – the light white workhorse grape of Italy doesn’t usually catch my fancy. Simply put, most of the Italian versions I try lean towards the flavor of lemon water. It’s not that these are bad wines, they’re usually just uninteresting, especially at the inexpensive end of the wine pool. That said, if you’re going to be sitting by a pool or relaxing outside on a warm day, they’re usually thirst-quenching critters.

When I got the offer from Dana at Wagstaff of three Italian “whites to beat the heat,” I accepted, of course, but I went into this tasting experience wine with, shall we say, no delusions of grandeur. I had three bottles in the shipment – two pinot grigio and one white blend. Here’s how they stacked up.



Stemmari (NV) Pinot Grigio – This Sicilian offering turned out not to be half-bad. It’s not a complex wine by any stretch, mind you. It’s not going to make you think much, but you’ll be pretty comfortable while you’re thinking of other things. It’s certainly light, but some depth develops there after a couple of sips. Happily, there wasn’t the typical watery finish here – I found it to be rather crisp and tart. The flavors run to the lime and peach. It’s also a pretty good food wine. I made seared scallops and didn’t feel like making a Chablis run that day, so I popped this instead. It worked better than I expected. For around $10 in the summertime, it’s a solid sipper.


Cliffhanger Vineyards 2013 Trentino Pinot Grigio – Traveling back to the Italian mainland, Trentino is the province in the Dolomite mountains where this wine hails from. The wine’s name is drawn because, well, the grapes are largely grown on the faces of the steep granite hills of the region. The bouquet reminded me of lemon cake. It tastes initially like it has some residual sugar, although there’s nothing about that in the wine notes. The body is fuller than I expected, almost chardonnay-ish in weight. The flavor is largely citrus fruit, more of that lemon-cakey flavor, and peaches. The finish, at least at the first few sips, tasted more astringent than crisp. It doesn’t really have that pinot grigio “snap” and almost tastes like there’s a little oak there. It wasn’t at the top of my list for this sort of sipper. Retails for about $13.




Stemmari 2012 “Dalila” White Wine – Back to Sicily for the execution of an interesting idea. The backbone of this wine is 80% Grillo, an autochthonal grape from Sicily. Grillo is a white grape that thrives in the Sicilian heat. It yields a high-alcohol white that is rarely used as a single varietal, since the wines tend to be even less flavorful than pinot grigio. Most Grillo actually ends up in the production of Marsala, the Italian fortified wine. So, someone at Stemmari got the idea to blend in about 20% Viognier for bulk and bouquet. At first try, the added Viognier contributes its characteristic peach blossom scent, but the body is much more reminiscent in style to a pinot grigio. The flavor is primarily citrus, with some honey and vanilla adding a little bit of interest. The finish is quite crisp and fairly abrupt, with just a little flavor of orange peel at the very end. It’s refreshing enough for a hot day, and I liked it more than a generic pinot grigio. Still, at $14, I could probably find an adequate summer sipper for a few dollars less, like the initial pinot grigio from this set.