Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Yellow Springs Secret -- Brandeberry Winery

“It’s a great job for an old engineer. I get to create things and tinker all the time…”            -Jim Brandeberry

I’m sitting across from Jim Brandeberry in the tasting room of his namesake winery. After delivering that quote, he pauses for effect as I watch a grin spread across his face. He chuckles briefly before musing, “…but it’s definitely not the way I imagined my retirement!”

Sharon & Jim Brandeberry

Brandeberry Winery sits adjacent to the home of Jim Brandeberry on Jackson Road in Enon. The winery and tasting room were built in 2008…just in time for a natural disaster.

“We finally had everything done,” Jim said, “We had the tasting room built, we had the tanks installed, and we were all ready to go. The weekend we were going to open – along came Hurricane Ike.” The wind drove a tree through the roof of the building and killed the power for over a week. All the while, he had an unstarted tank of Seyval grape juice ready to go. He decided there was no harm in fermenting what was there. The result was one of Brandeberry’s first big sellers – a dry table wine he dubbed “Windy Ike.”

Not long after, the Brandeberrys rescued a stray cat, who they named after the hurricane. The feline Ike spent a couple of years as “official greeter” at the winery until he was, sadly, hit by a car. They dropped the “Windy” from the name. The crisp, lemony wine is still called “Ike” and bears a picture of the critter on the label.

While Brandeberry’s intellectual pursuits now tend towards the oenological, ‘twas not always thus. Brandeberry moved to Dayton in 1969 to take a position at the Wright State in computer science. (As I’m a former tech geek, we spent a nice chunk of time reminiscing about the joys of FORTRAN programming. He honed his early punch card programming chops on an IBM 650 “drum computer” at the University of Toledo.)  In the 1985-86 school year, WSU established the stand-alone College of Engineering. Brandeberry served as Dean for 19 years until his retirement in 2005.

In the early 90’s, Brandeberry and his wife, Sharon, were driving to visit family in New York City. They’d stopped on the way in the Finger Lakes region. Jim said that he “saw a sign for the Cayuga Wine Trail” and they spontaneously decided to winery hop for awhile. In one of the winery gift shops, Jim spied a “Winemaking for Beginners” book. “It was only a buck!” exclaimed Jim.

The winemaking bug bit hard. Jim (the “Li’l Olde Winemaker,” according to his nametag) had been making cider from the apple trees on his property for years, so he started with fruit wines. After the apple came peace, pear, and strawberry wines. The jump was short from fruit to grapes. “I started by buying juice from Valley Vineyards (in Morrow) to make five gallons of wine at a time. After his two horse-riding daughters grew up and moved out, Jim converted his pasture into his first vineyard.

Through his engineering contacts, Jim became friends with Chris Joshi, president of Universal Energy Systems, a Dayton tech company. After making wine together, they decided to increase production to 50 gallon batches. “I’d built some racks in our basement to hold the wine. Well, those racks kept getting bigger and bigger. Before long, we were at capacity – 200 gallons per year. We just gave the stuff away to friends and coworkers at first – and people seemed to really like it -- so I started the process of getting the proper permits to start a winery so we could sell what we made.”
The Berry Monster!
Brandeberry Winery produces around 20 varieties of wine.  “A lot of the wines I make are sweet, because that’s what people want. Some of them are accidents – things that I hadn’t really thought about – but they end up selling like crazy.” One of his recent accidents was a wine called “Berry Monster,” with a label drawn by his 9 year-old grandson. Berry Monster was born when he accidentally pumped 50 gallons of substandard blackberry juice into a 200 gallon tank of raspberry. “We sold it all in less than a year. People are chomping at the bit to get more.”

On the “estate,” Jim currently grows Seyval, Vidal, and Cayuga – all white varietals. He says that he’s still searching for the right red grapes to grow on the property. He grows a small amount of a red varietal called Noiret (no-RAY), although it’s “sufficiently different from what people are used to that it’s not a big seller for me,” said Jim.

He sources the raw material from various places around the country. Much of his juice comes from vineyards near Cleveland – although he reaches as far as Lodi, California for his Syrah. He also still makes a number of fruit wines, including his best seller -- one of the aforementioned “unplanned wines” – a blackberry wine, He says that his blackberry accounts for about 20% of his total sales. “I had a guy in here today who was buying a bottle of blackberry. He told me…that it was his grandmother’s favorite wine while she was alive and that – when she passed -- he’d bought a whole case so that the family could all toast her with it.”

"The Li'l Olde Winemaker" at work.
Jim has swapped his computer lab for a sophisticated, albeit somewhat cramped, winemaking operation, located behind the Tuscan-themed murals on the tasting room walls. Instead of stainless steel, Jim makes his wine in 250-gallon plastic tanks. “The plastic doesn’t impart any flavor to the wine, it’s easier to clean, lighter to handle, and it’s made in such a way that it a little bit of oxygen can penetrate – which is necessary to the process.”

His tour of the setup was educational and informational. I’ve suffered through a number of bad winery tours. Jim’s clear pleasure while sharing a simple story about why his crusher/destemmer (which he calls his “Lucille Ball Machine”) that morphed into a history lesson about the practice of grape stomping was a refreshing change. At his “mad scientist station” where Jim adjusts the composition of his various creations, Jim asked for my opinion on his upcoming pinot grigio release, which I thought was greatly improved with the addition of a small amount of the traminette grape.

On the way back to the tasting room, I asked Jim what sort of wine he liked to drink when he wasn’t sampling his own. Jim said that he’s not personally a big fan of sweet wine. “I like dry reds like Sangiovese. Left to my own devices, I’d probably have made dry wines, served them out of my garage, and gone out of business in a hurry. Thankfully, Sharon and my daughters convinced me that I needed to make sweet wines and put together this tasting room. They clearly knew what they were talking about.”

At the tasting room bar, I met Jim’s vivacious daughter, Kelly. She began pouring samples of some
Kelly Brandeberry in the tasting room.
Brandeberry creations after brushing some hay from Jim’s shoulder. (“He must have been feeding the goats earlier,” she quipped.) Several of the wines are state-award winning and/or bearing an “Ohio Quality Wines” designation, meaning 90% or more of the content is from in-state fruit. Like Jim, I preferred his drier selections, especially his dry Vidal Blanc. (He also makes a semidry version of the Vidal, which wasn’t bad either.)

While not my usual proverbial cup of tea, I thought Brandeberry’s sweet wines were actually drinkable. Many local wineries’ “sweet” offerings are cloyingly thick, syrupy messes closer to Kool-Aid than wine. Jim took a more evenhanded approach to these wines. They’re still sweet, but they’re not heavy. Even their sweetest wines, the Cayuga/cherry blend called “Pink Passion” (Kelly’s favorite) and the top-selling blackberry, have some balance, structure, and flavors beyond sucrose.

Brandeberry Winery hosts live music every Saturday. Cookouts are regular weekend occurrences in the summer and fall. Wine is available for visitors both by the taste and by the glass. Light appetizers are also available for purchase, as is the official “Berry Monster” artwork t-shirt. The Brandeberrys also host an annual “Dogtoberfest” fundraiser for the Clark County Humane Society. This year’s Dogtoberfest master of ceremonies will be the winery’s newest official mascot, Mingo, an adorable 40-pound mutt who bid me farewell from the estate with many kisses.
Kelly with Mingo, winery mascot.

For directions to the winery or for more information, see http:///www.brandeberrywinery.com

This story originally published in the Dayton City Paper.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Naked Vine Does Naked Wines

Not long ago, my father-in-law sent me a voucher for “$100 off a case from Naked Wines” that he’d received in one publication or other. A Benjamin off a case? A name that already makes me feel like a cousin? Sure. I’ll bite. I wondered what the catch might be – but still…what’s the worst that can happen? I plopped myself down, opened up the ol’ browser, and got to work.

(In case you’re wondering…no, the worst didn’t happen.)

Naked Wines is an interesting online “wine club” of sorts. Rather than the typical wine club model where a customer receives a shipment every so often, paying along the way – Naked Wines works on an escrow model. The process goes something like this. If you become one of the “Naked Angels” club members, you agree to put $40/month into an account with them. You then can use this money at any point to purchase a quantity of wine via their website.

According to the site, the idea is to fund independent winemakers. In return, the club member receives wholesale pricing on the wines on the site, most of which are exclusively sold through Naked Wines. Seems like a good setup, potentially. (Although if the wines are generally not available for retail purchase, there’s no retail middleman to cut out in the first place…but I digress.) The discounts can be quite steep. The most expensive wine on the site “retails” for $75, but club members get it for $30. Club members also get $1 sample bottles with each case and free tastings if you’re lucky enough to visit one of these wineries.

You don’t have to become a Naked Angel to order from the site, though. You can use a voucher, as I did, or you can use a Groupon when one becomes available. You just pay the “retail” price, less whatever your voucher’s good for.

I decided to order one of their mixed cases – the “All American Highest Rated Wines” selection. This case “retailed” for $165, with an “Angel Price” of around $100. Still, $65 for a case of wine is a deal I’ll take. I have to give them high marks for promptness. The wine arrived within a week. Over the course of a month or so, we worked our way through the various bottles. Here’s what I thought:

Da Da Da 2011 Lodi Chardonnay – I thought this was a very nice wine, especially for the price. It’s very light bodied for a California chardonnay. I thought it was relatively refreshing flavorwise, with a restrained bit of oak. I also don’t expect a lot of mineral character from  California wine, but this sure had some. ($10, Club Price $6)

Da Da Da 2011 Lodi Merlot – Like its white cousin, the merlot is also well-constructed. This isn’t a fruit bomb by any stretch of the imagination. It gives you pretty firm, balanced tannins with ample amounts of blackberry on the palate. I found leather flavors throughout and a very dry, lasting finish. A well-balanced, not overly heavy concoction. ($10, Club Price $6)

Cockamamie 2011 Calaveras County Syrah – For a California syrah, this one’s made in a fairly lean style. Good flavors of dark fruit with a layer of graphite on the finish. Although it is relatively light in body for a syrah, it hangs in through the finish reasonably well. At least I thought it did when I opened it. I had some left over, and I remembered liking it much more the first day. When I tried it the second time, I wasn’t overly impressed. ($25, Club Price $15)

Matt Iaconis 2010 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir – Our old chocolate Labrador, Jessie, went to obedience lessons once during her puppyhood, which turned out to be an exercise in futility. Upon “graduation,” her instructor remarked “Jessie…wants to be good.” Well, this pinot wants to be earthy. It ends up more on the smoky end of things, and it’s a decent drinking wine. It’s not out of this world as a pinot (especially considering the pinots that we’ve laid in from Oregon), but it’s certainly a nice choice for a food-friendly red that you can serve with a quality meal. We had this with bone-in chicken breasts roasted with dried red pepper and marjoram. It was a tasty meal, and the wine was a fine accompaniment. ($24. Club Price $14)

William Henry 2012 California Riesling – This wine absolutely needs some air, but once it gets a few spins in the glass and a warms a tad, the nose really changes from green apples and flint to melon and honey. The nose belies the body, which actually has very little fruit to speak of other than little bit of lemon backed with a whole lot of mineral, which follows on the finish almost to the point of being metallic. It’s certainly an *interesting* wine. On its own, I don’t know if it would be for everyone. I liked it well enough. I had the rest of the bottle with a New Orleans barbecue shrimp – and it was downright tasty. ($11. Club price $6.50).

There were two other bottles in the case, neither of which I really took notes on -- F. Stephen Millier Angel’s Reserve Viognier ($10, club price $6) and Ken Dies 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40. Club price $20). Both wines were solid but unspectacular.

So, what’s the bottom line? The “retail” prices of the wines are obviously set artificially high to make you think you’re getting a good deal if you become one of the “naked angels.” Once you’re at “angel prices,” some of the wines become very good deals. That said, the notion of escrowing $40 a month to get wines of similar quality that you could get in a good wine store doesn’t exactly appeal to me. I’m lucky to have several very good wine stores within a small radius of my domicile. If you live in a locality where extensive wine selections aren’t readily available and you want a steady supply of decent juice, Naked Wines might be a good option. Otherwise, you’re probably better off with your handy brick-and-mortar store with a wine salesperson you trust.

You can check out Naked Wines at http://www.nakedwines.com. They currently ship to AK, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, KS, LA, MA, ME, MI, MN, MO, NE, NV, NH, NY, NJ, NM, NC, ND, OH, OR, TN, TX, VT, VA, WA, WI, WV, and WY.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Libra Wines

The sun’s setting on the last day of our Oregon vacation. I’m sitting on the back deck of the home of Bill Hanson with a fat glass of Libra Wines’ 2008 Momtazi Reserve. Bill, the owner and winemaker of Libra, looks out over the vineyard as sunset approaches and cracks a little smile.

“Yep. Livin’ the dream.”

Our long, twisty road from the baggage claim at PDX to Bill Hanson’s back deck began at Oregon Wines on Broadway in downtown Portland. One of the wines in their pinot flight was the Libra 2009 Willamette Valley Reserve. We absolutely loved it. Rich, perfectly balanced, and flavorful without being too heavy. We asked the fun-loving folks at OWOB if Libra had a tasting room. They said no, but indicated that they thought he showed his wines at the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio.

When our travels led us to that end of Willamette Valley, we discovered the aforementioned studio was a dead end. No Libra. They told us that he’d been working as the winemaker at Panther Creek and they sometimes poured Libra in the tasting room. We thanked them and moved on. At Panther Creek, we discovered that Bill and the higher-ups had had a parting of the ways. Thankfully, the Panther Creek pourer gave us Bill’s phone number. Which was disconnected. However, the pourer let Bill’s wife, Linda, know that we were trying to get in touch with them – and gave them our number, which we’d left at the tasting room. After a couple of phone tag calls, we were able to set up a tasting for the end of the last day we’d be there.

We made our way out into the Yamhill countryside, following directions which included, “take a hard left onto the dirt road… I’ll try to remember to leave the gate open for you,” which, thankfully, he did. We exchanged a few pleasantries before discovering that Bill and the Sweet Partner in Crime were both born in Danville, Illinois.

The ice officially broken, we made our way to the deck to enjoy a gorgeous afternoon and sip Libra’s selections. Not long after we headed outside, Linda joined us the porch, followed by their precocious smile-and-mop-of-dark curls Lily, both back from an afternoon trip to the local pool. Lily, a country music aficionado, came bearing a bowl of peanut-butter filled pretzels for noshing. She said that the best thing about waking up each morning and looking at her own vineyard is “knowing that we all did this together.”

The Libra Wines Crew -- Linda, Lily, and Bill
Bill caught the wine bug in, of all places, a community college Geography class. “[My teacher] really got me, as an 18 year old kid, fascinated with wine. When I was waiting tables at 18, I started learning about wines from all over the world, and I was just fascinated. I wrote papers comparing the climate of Oregon to the world’s other great wine regions. I was hooked. I got into it when I was 20 and I’m 49 now.”

Bill’s first job in the wine world was at Eola Hills’ Hidden Springs Winery in 1985, followed by a stint at Mendocino County’s Parducci. He decided to try the sales end of things for awhile, but the vineyard kept calling him back. He became assistant winemaker back in Oregon at Matello in 2002, then moved on to (and now away from) Panther Creek. He and Linda started Libra in 2007 and made wine from their first estate grapes in 2009. “I always wanted to live on my own vineyard and make wine,” Bill said, “And I just love being around wine people – from consumers who love wine to growers and producers. It’s a great feeling to be able to do what I love.”

Libra’s tagline is “Balanced Wines,” a hat tip to Linda’s Zodiac sign. Libra’s origin story also references the Greek goddess Persephone, who spends six months of each year in Hades’ timeshare, causing the changes in the seasons. “Bill originally had the idea for the Persephone tie in, he did a lot of research and the story really resonated with him,” said Linda, “the whole cycle of the seasons thing… the symbol of balance, and of course we all know how finicky Pinot Noir is to grow and to make.”

Bill says that he tries to craft wines as each vintage demands. “We just try not to get too crazy as far as doing ultra-low yields or overcropping. We’re more interested in flavor development than sugar development, although we hope they come together,” Bill explained. “This year, Mother Nature did a lot of our thinning for us. We don’t want too much alcohol. We just try to run with what Mother Nature gives us. We’re L.I.V.E. (low-input viticulture) certified sustainable.” Linda echoed Bill’s view: “Each of those plants are like one of his children! We do both love the land and firmly believe in only putting into the earth things that will not harm it. Even in my vegetable and flower gardens…we love the end result, a beautiful, natural product which you helped produce--your touch each step of the way had a hand in how it turns out.”
Libra's Lineup

Run with it they have. Bill started us with his Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, full of sunlight, citrus, and tropical fruit. We went from there to back-to-back tastings of his 2009 and 2010 Willamette Valley Reserve. These wines, a mixture of estate and Valley fruit, were completely different. The 2009 tasted fruitier, higher in alcohol, and (in Bill’s words), “a little slutty.” The 2010, thanks to cooler temperatures, had much more complexity. I thought it was an absolutely beautiful wine, even young.

From there, we moved on to Libra’s Umpqua Valley Tempranillo, sourced from the , and finally to his Momtazi Vineyard Reserve. The tempranillo was good stuff, full of chocolate and tobacco flavors. The Momtazi was nothing short of a rock star – smoky, sultry, and special. The most expensive wine in the Libra catalog is the Momtazi. At $35, it absolutely blew away many of the wines we tried on the trip that retailed for twice as much. After that, we retasted a few things – but we weren’t paying a lot of attention by that point. We were soaking up the sun, good conversation, and good company.

I asked Bill what it was like using his deck as a tasting room. You could hear genuine appreciation in his voice: “It’s awesome. It really helps us appreciate what we have. I mean, we are really living the dream out here, but sometimes the dream can be a lot of work! Having folks over, sharing our wines and good conversation with them – it’s fun! And it helps us remember just how much of a blessing this is.”

Bill said that his goal is to “keep it simple.” His hope is to produce more and more of the estate wines, eventually getting the production to 600-800 cases per year – in addition to doing some more vineyard specific wines like the Momtazi and Ribbon Ridge since they’re “big fans of that fruit.” He said that he’ll also keep crushing pinot gris because “you’ve always got to have some white wine around, you know?”

Libra’s a limited distribution wine, so it will likely be difficult to track down in local stores. The best way to find it is to order it straight from the source: http://www.librawines.com -- trust me, you’ll be glad you did. And if you happen to be in the Willamette Valley, give Libra a call. Bill will leave the gate open for you.

(Originally posted on October 18, 2012)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Le Drunk Rooster

I received a couple of sample bottles from Bourgeois Family Selections of a French tipple from the Languedoc–Roussillon region called “Le Drunk Rooster.” The wine’s moniker stems from an interesting cross section of symbols. The “state bird” of France is the rooster. (The Latin word for both “France” and “rooster” is “Gallus,” interestingly enough.) One of the winemakers that crafted these creations enjoys a good dance after imbibing. Alas, he apparently has (in a phrase I’ll steal from my mother) “more enthusiasm than rhythm on the dancefloor.” His style is, according to the information sheet, “the French version of the Chicken Dance,” hence the name.

How were they?

Le Drunk Rooster 2011 Chardonnay – This wine is in a light-bodied, lean style. No surprise, considering the region. After a little air opens it up, a considerable amount of oak starts to emerge. I’m not talking Meridian Chardonnay levels of oak – more like a Mersault from Burgundy (although it’s not creamy like a Mersault). It’s got a tart, green apple character on the palate with a lasting oaky finish. Even as light-bodied as it is, the backbone allows it to stand up firmly next to some pretty hearty fare. We poured this with a chicken and Italian sausage casserole, and it worked just fine. I thought it was a pretty solid food wine.

Le Drunk Rooster 2011 Grenache-Syrah – We opened this one during the midst of our kitchen remodel. Our first bottle of the evening had run dry, and we needed something to sip on as the evening wore on. I knew it was from the southern Rhone, so I figured it would make a decent sluggable. Turns out it was slightly better than that. If you’re a fan of peppery wines, this one will grow on you. This blend of 65% Grenache and 35% Syrah isn’t overly heavy, it’s got a good, strong blackberry backbone, followed up by a spicy “tailfeather.” It’s pleasantly smooth, medium bodied, and even on the tannins. We didn’t have this with food – but it was reasonable with evening chocolate.

Both wines retail for $10-11. Worth a try.