Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tasting Notes

Customer Paul has asked about our note taking and how one might fashion notes of their own when tasting wine. Paul said, this would make an excellent blog entry. Well, here are our notebooks we use everyday and a few ideas on how to take notes of your own. Remember your notes are personal just like tasting wine.

In formal wine tasting training the CAT system is used. But as they say, there are many ways to skin a cat. CAT stands for Color - Aroma - Taste (& Finish.) The Color of a wine reveals much about its age, how the wine was aged as in tank vs. barrel, filtration, and possible clues as to the grape type. All wines brown as they age and oak can also add an amber quality at times. At the very least we know if were drinking a white (actually yellow), rosé, or red wine. By the way, most tasters cannot blindly taste red and white wine, served in a dark glass, at the same temperature, and accurately tell what color it is. Your notes need to be in your own voice so they are a useful reference. If brassy yellow brings a color to mind, use that. If brick red is familiar use it when you see this color. If Linda Blair pea soup green is appropriate, well don't drink that wine.

The Aroma is what you smell in a wine. The best way to get the aroma is to swirl a glass with an ounce or two of wine. This will release the aroma and by raising the glass to your nose, you can smell the subtleties of the wine. This can be as technical or simple as you desire. We try to be specific with aromas. Citrus is good, but lemon and lime is better. Herbal is good, but rosemary and lavender is better. We also encourage people in our classes to use familiar smells. If a wine reminds you of spending your summers with grandma and the smell of laundry drying on the clothesline in the summer sun, use that. If it smells like plastic Tupperware just out of the dishwasher, use it.

Finally, there is the Taste and finish. The taste is actually three parts. First, the tongue senses sweetness (sugar) or dryness (no sugar) or somewhere in between. This perception is relative to the taster. Let's just say that most American diets are filled with foods that have some sweetness so we tend to think wines with a bit of residual sugar are still "dry" vs. many European palates. The tongue (and cheeks) also sense acidity. This is what makes your cheeks salivate. We love acid! Acid in wine is like salt in food. It can bring out flavors and make the wine come alive. Tannin is a type of acid usually only found in a red wine and this can be felt on the roof of our mouth. It's furry and rough like a cat's tongue. You also recognize tannin from making tea. If you steep your tea bag too long, you can extract those furry tannins. That's about all that the tongue actually tastes when it comes to wine. The second part of tasting comes from swirling the wine in your mouth. While you swish it around, like mouthwash, you release aroma just like in the glass. These aromatics rise into your olfactory senses and that's when you "taste" the fruit, the earth, the herbs, the citrus, the licorice, the oak, etc. You don't actually taste these things, but you do smell them when the wine is in your mouth. The final part of tasting is after you swallow the wine (we spit our wines so that we are able to keep from getting too happy at work). The finish is a measure of how long you still perceive the flavor of the wine post sip. The finish is the #1 indicator of a wine's quality. The finish should be appropriate to the grape or type of wine, but if it is short or harsh you may be onto something less than appropriate for that type of wine.

One last tip is to taste wines at the same time of day if you can. Most professionals try to taste in the morning after breakfast when you senses are awake and you are not tired, nor full of food from the day. This will keep your notes more consistent.

And the best way to get good at tasting wine is to practice, practice, practice.

In the photos you see Craig's style of note keeping at the top. His notes are condensed, tight and uses his own abbreviation system. This is an evolution of tasting wines over many years and thousands of bottles. My style is in the second picture. I have a big ol' fat notebook with spread out notes. Since we also need some information for the point of sale system at the store, I keep track of things like alcohol percentages, UPC codes, importers, etc. At home, I wouldn't normally take down all these things, but it's appropriate for our current needs. - Salamanzar

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wine Hero

It's not everyday you get to say you met one of your heros, but I did last week at the store.

I have spoken with Mr. Patrick Campbell on the phone. I have spent a day selling his wines with his daughter, Arya, in the Triangle. I have tasted his wines many times and felt like I really knew him, but I never actually shook his hand until last Tuesday.

Patrick Campbell is the owner and founder of Laurel Glen winery on Sonoma Mountain. Sure the wines are excellent. I won't even get into that part. Let's just say the wine part is a given. Patrick has played a major role in our wine culture today and most people don't even know his name. Ever so humble and kind, Patrick comes across as quiet and mild mannered. He established the Sonoma Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area, the US wine appellation system); he fought the government when they proposed a more lengthy and perhaps even more unreasonable sounding alcohol warning on wine bottles. He is greatly responsible for getting it whittled down to the current warning you see today. In fact on his Counterpoint Cabernet bottling he has a statement regarding sulfites being naturally occurring in wine and a part of food for millennia. He is the only person with this statement on a wine bottle and the ATF is just itching to make him take it off. Patrick explained that he has never updated the Counterpoint label because if he makes the slightest change, it will have to go through re-approval and "they" will ban his sulfite statement. Way to give 'em hell Patrick.

Patrick describes his winemaking start this way, "I was born in Baltimore in 1947, grew up on the fringes of the southern California wine industry, and studied English Literature at Pomona College and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University. I have a degree in neither viticulture nor enology. In short, I have the proper credentials for winemaking." Patrick farms his estate organically and started on top of Sonoma Mountain in 1977. He told me the grapes planted there were so incredibly inappropriate, Palomino in fact, but at that time matching vineyards and climate to the proper grape vine wasn't really discussed. He was the first American winemaker to go to Argentina to work with farmers and to bring the wine back home to the US for bottling. Bringing the wine back in bulk tanks as ballast for the ship below the water line ensures a proper temperature half way around the world and makes environmental sense due to the lack of shipping glass and boxes. To this day, he still stands for reasonably priced wine and thinks everyone should be able to drink well in the $10 range.

Patrick was also stricken by Polio as a child and walks with assistance. About three minutes after meeting him, you quickly forget, as he can be so engaging and his list of accomplishments include professional ocean kayak racing, concert Violist with several San Francisco Bay area symphonies, and winemaker making it seem like he has done much more than most people without the crutches. He has been a leader in the world of wine on so many issues that he received the first ever, Wine Industry Integrity Award. Today he is wrestling the legal system as an advocate for making wine shipping legal to all states.

I just love his wines and I'm never going to wash my hand again. - Salamanzar

For further reading check out the Press Democrat Article, and his website Laurel Glen Winery.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

BLT Awesomeness

Wine Authorities sells a selection of artisanal bacons, which we store in a chest freezer called "Pork Knox" (thanks to Randy for the name). One such bacon is the North Country Smokehouse's Peppered Bacon. Hmm, such a bacon must be an ideal B.L.T. candidate, no?

We had all the makings this weekend at home - fresh tomatoes from the garden, fresh arugula from the garden (a twist on the lettuce), sourdough whole wheat bread and the bacon was thawed.

One culinary tip to share. If you want nice flat strips of bacon, bake it in the oven between two sheet pans to keep the bacon flat and even. I baked this batch at 375º F for 17 minutes. I like it a little meatier, so go a full 20 minutes if you like it crisp. A picture is worth at least 1,000 BLT dreams.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Salamanzar Guest Chili Judge

I was asked to guest judge the May 30th 2009 Bull City Chili Challenge at the Durham Farmer's Market this year. It was a great time and the chilies were excellent. Here's a video telling a little bit of the story. - Salamanzar

Salamanzar Guest Judges @ Bull City Chili Challenge from Wine Authorities on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

3 minutes & 52 seconds that will change your life

Here is what we do in our free time to promote our love for Dry Rosé wine and the practice of Roséism.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can you guess what this is?

photo: Justin Mott, NY Times
Is this picture,
A. An Exxon Oil Refinery?

B. A Dow Chemical Plant?

C. The Yellow Tail wine facility in Yenda, New South Wales?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fired up About Fred

I recently finished the May 18, 2009 issue of the The New Yorker Magazine which features an article titled "Drink Up" by Dana Goodyear on Fred Franzia, the man behind Bronco Wines (Two Buck Chuck, Crane Lake, etc. [see below]) Wow am I fired up. You need to read this article if you are interested in the business of wine. The article abstract is here. If you register with New Yorker, you can read it all. I don't know Fred personally, but Dana certainly paints a less than flattering image of the man. Fred is a business man and makes no apology for taking advantage of others' difficult times. His coarse language and approach to the business of wine is a reality. If you drink his wines you may be shocked at who you are supporting. In June Wine News, Fred just announced he is releasing a new wine, "Down Under by Crane Lake" starting in July. The wine will retail in the $3 range per bottle and he is bringing this Australian wine to the US to show that Americans have overpaid for Aussie wines for too long. That article can be found here.

Bronco Wine Company Brands
Albertoni Vineyards
Alexander and Fitch
Almond Creek
Bad Dog Ranch
Bears' Lair
Black Mountain
CC Vineyards
Cedar Brook
Charles Shaw, AKA Two Buck Chuck
Chateau California
Coastal Ridge
Coastal Vines
Congress Springs
Crane Lake
Down Under by Crane Lake
Domaine Laurier
Domaine Napa
Dona Sol
Douglass Hill
Down Under
Fat Cat
Forest Glen
Forest Hill
Grand Cru
Grove Ridge
Harlow Ridge
JW Morris
JFJ Winery
Napa Creek
Napa Crossing
Napa Landing
Napa Ridge
Napa River
Oak Vineyards
Pacific Oasis
Quail Creek
Quail Ridge
Raymond Hill
Rock Brook
Rutherford Vintners
Salmon Creek
Santa Barbara Crossing
Santa Barbara Landing
Sea Ridge
Silver Ridge
The California Winery
Thousand Oaks
Three Knights Vineyards


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rosé Garden Erection Video

Each year we show our allegiance and love of dry rosé wine by building a rosé garden.  The garden usually blooms just before Memorial Day and comes down around Labor Day.  Our garden features pink wines from around the world coming and going all summer long.  Unfortunately, in the US many people still associate pink wines with sugary sweet flavors.  We are passionate for the drier versions - the best of a white wine with some of the qualities of a red wine.  Pink wines are food friendly, easy to drink in social situations, they don't weigh you down, and offer lots of bright acidity so you taste every sip.  Chill them like a white wine, but not quite as cold for serving.  A little warmer than fridge temperature lets all the grape's goodness come forth.  We like to think of ourselves as ordained clergymen in the church of rosé and preachers of "roséism," the practice of drinking dry pink wine.  More on our religious teachings to come.  (Wink, wink foreshadowing)  Without further ado, here is our video showing this year's Rosé Garden erection, err, construction! - Salamanzar

Wine Authorities Dry Rosé Wine Garden from Wine Authorities on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confessions from a Wine Pro

Last night after we poured wine for the cast party/post A Prarie Home Companion live from DPAC event, I was beat from a long day of wine. The first thing I did was pour some left over Ceci, Lambrusco from Saturday's free tasting and sit down for a glass.  Now here's the reality.  In a humbling manner, I look back at my youth and think of all the terrible mistakes I made of putting wine on a pedestal.  I scorned if someone didn't use the proper glass, even for a $5.99 Chardonnay.  Or if the wine's drinking temperature was incorrect, mercy me, how could they?  Prices, big prices in fact, impressed me and I would never see why someone could enjoy an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Last night I drank my Lambrusco, of all wines, in a ball jar with three ice-cubes to give it a chill. And you know what?  It was the best glass of wine I tasted all week.  I've come full circle and encourage  you to do so the same.  Let's just drink wine and enjoy it without all the fuss, the snobery and pomp & circumstance.  I enjoy wine more now than ever. 

At the event I found out that Garrison Keillor doesn't drink alcohol, he has soft hands and a rather flabby handshake. - Salamanzar

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Steininger Non Frozen Disgorge Video

In Thursday night's Austrian wine seminar, we debuted this video in its world premiere opening.  Now we have it for you to view in the safety of your own home.  This video was taken during Seth's Austrian trip in January 2009.  It shows the Steininger family disgorging their Sekt.  Disgorging is the method of opening the bottle to shoot out the plug of dead yeast before corking the wine.  Sekt is the German word for their Champagne style wine.  There's also a little humor on the side. 

Steininger Non-Frozen Disgorge from Wine Authorities on Vimeo.

Mon Sherry

I've been drinking Amontillado Sherry lately.  The bottle of Hidalgo, Napoleon Amontillado had been sitting unopened in my basement office for a long time now.  After a well overdue office cleaning, I decided this bottle needed to be opened.  Two sips in, I realized I had kept this lady in waiting for too long.  I have badly been missing such a satisfying after dinner drink.

With a small glass, while working late at night, this bottle has become my work associate.  Dry, rich, satisfying, and not overly heavy, Sherry is art in a glass.  This is not the sweet "cream" sherry grandma drank.  

I am almost as guilty as the next person for not helping to preserve this treasured wine from Spain.  Sherry is one of the three main fortified wines (+ Port & Madeira).  She is losing ground daily in the fight for survival.  It is possible Sherry might disappear from our planet due to lack of demand.  I pledge to do my part and drink more sherry hoping to help in some small way preserve history, a style of wine and a special flavor.  

Take a sherry pledge of your own. - Salamanzar

Monday, April 6, 2009

Austria Pat VI - the end

We are winding down the trip with just one full day before flying out of Vienna in the morning. Klaus is clearly not going to let up on us as the day starts with a full walking tour of the Loisium for those can get up and make it, followed by a tasting in the hotel with a brand new rising star, Paul D., and then a bus ride to Vienna to meet the Austrian Wine Board, and finally meet and taste with the Strauss family. All this of course before we go to dinner.

A small group of maybe six, actually makes it to the entrance of the Loisium museum in time to take the tour. The idea is that we are all grapes and were just harvested, now we will go through the process of fermentation. This was very “Disney” like with real looking electrical panels, consoles, a water show, video screens etc. After we find our way to the tanks and barrels, the tour then becomes a visit to the history of Austrian wine with re-created wineries, and a typical village house. Everything is so real it’s like stepping back in time. This museum is definitely worth visiting. Seeing the old tools, the techniques and such is fascinating. The tour is about 75 minutes.

At the hotel we all assemble to meet and taste the wines of Paul D. Paul is not old enough to legally drink wine in the US. We are truly seeing a rising star. He finished agriculture school and under the tutelage of Anton Bauer, Paul is making wine on the family farm. We are presented one liter bottles of Zweigelt and Gruner Veltliner with crown caps (beer caps). The wines are excellent and I personally love the crown cap because it is actually better than even a screw cap, but clearly I am in the minority as Paul apologizes for the crown caps and our wines will come with screw tops. (I did ask Klaus if he could send all the Wine Authorities bottles with the crown cap and got that look of “this guy is crazy, who invited him.”) Paul is actually presenting the wines with his mom. It’s sort of a funny thing because it reminds me of “bring your parent to work day.” They are both very kind to pose with their bottles so we will have their pictures up next to the one liters when they arrive. Winemakers like Paul are very much a part of the Wine Authorities philosophy. I expect nothing but better and better wines from Paul as we get to know each other and help to introduce a young winemaker with a bright future to the United States. Now Paul, keep your prices reasonable and don’t let the fame go to your head!

The bus ride to Vienna is a chance to grab some sleep for most of the bus. Staring out the window, I see frozen parts of the Danau river. Amazing to see huge ice chunks floating; a reminder of how cold it remains. In the city we get about 30 minutes to walk to our next stop and take some photos, see some history. Fortunately 30 minutes is plenty of time in a city like Vienna with very little history. For example, Klaus points out a building that was a prison and tells the story of the architect committing suicide after it was built because they forgot to add bathrooms. Not sure if it’s true, but a good story.  We have time for a quick coffee and I insist on have authentic Sacher Torte in Vienna.  Klaus recommends ordering it 'mit schlag' or with a pile of whipped cream; a very nice pick me up.

We arrive at a wine bar and head to the basement where the Austria Winemarketing Board, presents “Wine from Austria, A taste of Culture.” We are treated to a powerpoint presentation/sales pitch of Austria’s growth in the wine market, and maybe a last kicker just in case we weren’t sure if we would sell Austrian wine back home. Currently Austria is working on promoting their individual wine regions, working to set wine laws specific to each region, using peer panels to taste wines for approval, and finally trying to build regional varietal identity. They make the comparison that Marlborough, New Zealand is now synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc and they want folks to think of Gruner Veltliner when you mention Kamptal, Austria. They are well on their way, at least in our store.

Gustav Strauss waits patiently and as the AWB finishes their presentation we are ready for his wines from Steiermark (Styria) located southeast in Austria. Positioned in the foothills of the Alps, they see cold nights and very hot days. Many of our customers are probably familiar with Strauss’ Sämling 88, aka Scheurebe, grape. We have sold a lot of this wine. There are only 20 vintners in Gustav’s area and the steep hillsides equates with all hands-on manual labor. Gustav tells us the people in his town have one leg shorter than the other to help them stand on the hills. I tried to watch his gate to see an obvious limp, but didn’t see it. Maybe he has a lift in one shoe. This region is making a name for its Sauvignon Blanc and Muskateller varietals. All of his wines are excellent and I am very excited about the 2008s coming to the store.

Klaus then takes the group on a walk and “illegal” train trolley ride getting lost in Vienna to find our dinner restaurant. It’s our last meal together and the troops definitely look worn. The smiles at the table are many, but the conversation is a bit more quiet than usual. I don’t think we have the energy to muster much talk and those awful thoughts of getting back to work are creeping into our reality.

Thank you Klaus and company for a most memorable and perfect trip to Austria. As it was my first time there, I have nothing to compare it to, but I can’t imagine a more passionate, quality driven, fun and educational trip than this one. Before boarding the plane, I made sure Klaus promised to take Craig next January. Craig, be sure your passport is ready to go, and bring your long underwear.

Klaus will be at Wine Authorities on Thursday, April 30th for a special Austrian Wine seminar. Details on our website calendar.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Austria Part V

What if a couple of winemakers were up drinking late one night and concocted an idea to create an underground museum to celebrate the making of wine, where tourists would walk through the museum from the perspective of being a grape?
And what if the same two fellows roped architect Steven Holl from New York into designing a hotel for the museum, which he repeatedly refused to design, but after a bunch of wine Steven had sketched the hotel on a cocktail napkin before dawn? Meet the Loisium (loy-zee-um). It’s an interactive tour of wine, a museum of Austrian wine making history and a deluxe ultra modern hotel/spa. I got to stay there for two nights!
Located in Langenlois, Austria, the museum was built first. The problem was that: A) it was underground; invisible to tourists and B) there was no place to stay. So the vision to build a hotel and include the Aveda wine spa came to life. The museum’s welcome center and gift area has no regular windows and not a single 90 degree, true angle. The hotel won a major architectural award for its design. All I can say is you have to see it to believe it.  Mostly concrete with heated floors, the hidden bathroom, and the room service just for your bed comfort are fantastic. You can order a special pillow, a different mattress, various comforters, you name it, they accommodate. The breakfast was outstanding and I found one of my favorite food signs ever on the buffet. 

With Mr. Karl Steininger of Steininger wines as our host, we got to know the late night/early morning crowd at the Loisium both evenings. His long drinking session reputation preceded him and we were warned. The second evening I went to sleep in the low digit morning hours, but several of the group never went to sleep and continued on with Karl tasting each and every barrel of wine in the cellars. Once you have tried your 11th tank of 2008 Gruner Veltliner, it’s a little difficult to taste 
how it is different from the first 10 tanks. These guys weren’t even close to hungover yet. That would come around 3 PM that afternoon once the alcohol wore off.  In time we came to be very fond of the entire Steininger family. There were the daughters Ana, focusing on the red wine production, Eva who focuses on white wines, and Leeza who was the youngest daughter and still learning everything. We met Brigetta, the matriarch and the always jovial Karl. The Steininger estate not only makes great reds and whites, but also focuses on Sekt sparkling wine production in the Champagne method. We were treated to watching the disgorgement process and each of us allowed to finish a bottle of Sekt on the bottling line so that we could take home our very own personal bot
tle. [I hope to finish a video for you in the next month showing the process.] This was followed by a seven course dinner prepared by Brigetta and Leeza with seven different Sekts for each plate. One of my culianary/wine lifetime highlights will forever be the 2006 Sekt Cabernet Rosé paired with smoked trout and horseradish cream.

The family produces their Sekt only in the best of vintages and ages the bubbles for an extended period in the barrel or tank, then on the lees for just 1 year in the bottle. Karl explains that his preference is to “taste the wine in the sparkling wine” and not the yeasty quality. They produce a vintage “Grand Cru” only in magnum and hand sign each bottle. The base wine is aged for four years in 2,000 Liter wood barrels made from local forest wood. At the Loisium bar we must have downed 4 or 5 magnums our first night. I knew it was good, but didn’t realize...

In between our time at the Loisium and the Steiningers, we snuck away to the Wachau region to walk the terraces with Martin Mittelbach of Tegernseerhof estate. It’s wicked cold as we depart the bus and Martin marches us up the hillside into the vines. Seeing the hills, the
 terraces and all the surroundings, we now feel like we have seen both spectrums of Austrian vineyards. From flat to mountainous, this area has traditional stone walls surrounding special vineyards similar to Burgundy, France. Each “clos” carries significant meaning and often a price. This is some of the top Austrian wine in the world all around us. When we drive to the Mittelbach house, we cross the Danube river which has frozen in places. Martin says this hasn’t happened since 1986. We meet the father, Frankl, who now watches over the family operations, along with his mother Dita and sister Eva in a house that was former monastery. Back in 1970 Frankl produced straight forward wines, but today Martin has taken the winery to new heights using spontaneous fermentations, bigger extracts, later harvests and innovative winemaking. The house is set up for us with tasting stations in each room. We are welcomed by tasting single grand cru vineyard wines from various vintages at each stop. As we go around the rooms, Martin tells us about the rainfall that year, how the harvest went, what happened during the fermentation and how he feels the vintage is aging. Tasting white wines from 2001, 2003, etc we are seeing that these austere, minerally whites are just babies, but aging wonderfully.
We sit down for a formal tasting of new vintage wines and eat some of the best bread I have ever had. I can’t stop eating the basket of rolls. Klaus Wittauer is obsessed with a video promoting Austria and he literally comes to tears as we watch it for the fifth or sixth time. I admire his passion for the homeland and the video is great to watch (see below). After a dozen or more wines, it’s time for lunch. In a beautiful setting complete with candles and fine dining catering, under a giant antique wine press, we dine and drink the great Tegernseerhof wines. Martin is young and ambitious. He has brought on an assitant, Annika, to help make wine so he can pursue his ideas in the vineyards. As much as I enjoyed the wines, I am left wondering if customers are ready to pay for a single vineyard “Steinertal” Riesling 2002 from Austria. Baby steps, baby steps. For now we’ll stick to the T26 Gruner Veltliner and his rosé, both coming this spring. - Salamanzar

Monday, February 23, 2009

Austria Part IV

We have an early start at Hillinger with a strudel brunch and obligatory wine. The day starts right off the bus and into the vineyards where it is unholy cold again. There are ice crystals forming on the vines which look like water was misting at some point last night. One of Leo’s vineyards is pure chalk and one is pure shale. Walking the earth we see bits of both under foot. Inside we warm up with a little of Leo’s sparkling Secco which is a dry Pinot Noir Sekt (sparkling wine). The color is a dreamy pink and this is one we have sold back home in Durham very well. The good news? The price is going down and we will now be able to sell this for $15.99 per bottle. A steal when it arrives in March.

Leo regales us with the story of his beginnings and how he eventually built the winery into the hillside. His logo is all caps with the “L” letters backwards in his surname. Apparently this caused quite a stir among his peers at the time. For Leo it’s all about his hills and the play on the name. He makes red wines with the names Small Hill 1, Small Hill 2, and Small Hill 3. When asked why those names he simply replies, “well, I grow the grapes each on their own small hill and I couldn’t come up with a better name than Hill 1, 2 and 3.” Sometimes things are too obvious. I consider a second bowl of goulash, but no one like a goulash glutton.

We have a leisurely morning and then we are off to Wagram to meet Mr. Anton “Tony” Bauer, man of mystery. The winery is a short walk from the main road and we come to a rather subtle cellar as compared to the high fashion wineries we visited so far. The cellar walls have a thick black mold like shag carpet. Visitors have pressed euro coins into the walls for “good luck.” But if you ask me, Tony is saving the Euros to build a new 
winery.  Turns out I was half correct, later at the tasting room, Klaus and Tony roll out architectural drawings for the all new Anton Bauer estate. Needless to say it is grand! We spend some time in the cellars talking and tasting barrel samples of his 2008 vintage wines still working away. It’s dark, shadowy, cold and damp. A
 perfect cellar. Primed and ready, we have a short trip to the Bauer tasting room complete with food of course. We start with a sparkling and work through seventeen wines this afternoon, and that’s after the barrel samples. It’s tough work.  The wines are outstanding and Tony’s work is quickly rising to the top of 
the trip thus far. His wines maintain traditional flavors at times and in others I taste the future. I am completely blindsided by a sample of 2007 Grüner Veltliner, Grande Reserve simply because he has used oak barrel aging! But Tony, you can’t do that! Gruner Veltliner doesn’t come from oak barrels. Are you nuts? That’s like making oaky riesling, or grilling an egg or peanut butter on chopped liver. You just don’t do that. Tony explains that he wants to have a white wine that is “age-able for up to twenty years for his children” and this is how he thinks it should be done. Perhaps it was the twelve wines before it or even the “vineyard effect” of loving every wine because you are standing there,
 but the Grand Reserve was a show stopper. I sat at the table quietly mulling it over and trying to come to terms with a wood aged Gruner Veltliner. If I can like this, I guess I can come to terms with my daughter dating one day. (One day many, many years from now.) We are told the 2007 Grande Reserve was picked as one of the Top Ten wines in all of Austria last year. Tony continues on with the tasting leading us to odd grapes like Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet from Austria! At this point I have to remain open minded and as we taste vintages of his Wagram Cuvée 12 (Zweigelt/Blaufrankish/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend) as it’s the twelfth vintage of course, and the Wagram Reserve (Cab/Syrah/Merlot/Zweigelt blend) I find myself with the same stunned feeling. I am quiet and smiling inside. If anyone asks, I’ll say my glow is the alcohol’s affect. The real test of these wines is yet to come as Tony is taking all of us to Toni Mörwold’s restaurant for dinner. Chef Toni is the “Emeril Lagasse” of Austria, complete with his own TV show and fine dining restaurant. His is a real celebrity and this Sunday night dinner is a special treat just for this group.

As we arrive, we are treated to an Amuse Bouche of baby greens with Foie Gras. And it’s a good thing because my Foie intake on this trip was getting low. Tony Bauer arrives with his beautiful golden retriever named Sammy after his favorite actor Samuel L. Jackson. Sammy even joins us on the floor during dinner. The first course is a foamy Gruner Veltliner cream soup with a cracker thin slice of fried bread floating in the middle. As I finish my bowl I quickly scanned the table to see if anyone was not finishing theirs. No luck. I seriously tried to order 10 gallons to take back to the US, but I am told it won’t make it through customs. This is absolutely one of the best soups I have ever tried and as much as I love soup, rarely do I rave about the dish. The 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages of the Gruner Veltliner Grande Reserve are served beside the soup. Yes, they are still oaky, and yes the wines are a perfect match for this dish. I am in awe. Not only are they great, but the 2004 (the oldest vintage) is the perfect wine at this moment. I still can’t believe it. [I have ordered some Grande Reserve to arrive in March. I think Craig thought I was crazy for ordering an expensive, oak-aged Gruner. We’ll see what he says when he tastes it this spring. I could be in big trouble. Please be sure to try this one out, there will be very little available.] We are told the meal is halting for a special break and asked to leave the room. As we file into the adjoining banquet room, we see it is a makeshift movie theater. Tony Bauer debuts his newest short film called “Private Selection.” Tony made the film just for fun and to show off his rarest of all wines. You can watch the movie here.

The film was a blast and we return to the dining room where they are treating us to magnums of the legendary Private Selection at the table. I didn’t actually think we would get to taste it. The entrée arrives and we dig into Venison ragout with bread dumpling and lingonberry sauce. 
It’s like an Austrian Thanksgiving. The Wagram Reserve is served in multi vintage as well and all of them were drinking beautifully. I am a newcomer to Tony Bauer’s wines but now I have seen the future and this guy is going to help put Austrian wine on the tips of wine drinker’s tongues around the world one day. (photo above shows Tony Bauer, Toni Morwold and Klaus Wittauer after dinner)

Next stop, the Loisium hotel. - Salamanzar

(thanks to Doug D. and Karen M. for letting me use a photo or two)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Austria Part III

Arriving at the Steindorfer winery in Burgenland we share a brief stop and tasting.  Modest in scope and size, but clearly of the highest quality, Steindorfer is run by Ernst Steindorfer, a master of dessert style wines. Because of his close proximity to lake Neusiedl and its moisture, the vineyards are easily susceptible to noble rot or botrytis.  This is a mold which covers the grapes and sucks out the moisture leaving sugars behind. If you saw the grapes on the vine you would say, “yuck, those are rotten,” but the wine made from such grapes can be one of the most powerful and often costly wines produced.  His best friend and winemaking companion was non other than Alois Kracher, who sadly passed away last year at the young age of 48.  The Kracher dessert wines are legendary and far beyond my drinking budget.  It turns out that some of those legendary wines were actually made here at Steindorfer and aged in these pristine cellars.  Ernst continues on with the dessert wine honor.  You could eat off the floors and if you spilled a drop of his dessert wine, you just might consider licking it up.

Klaus handles the translation from Ernst as we take a quick look around the winery, aging cellar, the tanks and see a stainless steel tank fitted with a stirring mechanism to keep the lees (sediment in a wine and yeast cells) moving during the aging process.  Stirring the lees adds richness to the finished bottle and a distinct character.  The group is ready for more wine and we start with his dry whites. The Chardonnay we sample is a proud moment for Ernst as he claims it is being compared to the finest of white Burgundy.  All his dry wines, white and red, are excellent, but we are anticipating the sweet stuff and finally the traditional tall, thin 375 ml bottles emerge.  We work through them with ooohs and aaaahs.  It’s tough to spit these, so I force myself to swallow the tastes justifying that I have worked hard today and could use a little reward this time.  The excitement in the group grows with each opened bottle, then the talk of Steindorfer’s “best wine he ever made” starts up.   Klaus is egging him on and we join in. Finally Ernst either felt generous, or the wine was kicking in, but he goes to the cellar and emerges with his 1991 Trockenbeeren Auslese (TBA), the claimed "best ever."  The color is a deep amber and pours from the bottles like a watery version of maple syrup. I am practically intoxicated just by smelling the aroma. I take a picture through the glass with the label behind the bottle. A fine finish to our visit at Steindorfer.

The day is not over, oh no, the night is just beginning when we arrive at Leo Hillinger’s winery for an introduction, tour and dinner. This is just the start. The real tastings will take place tomorrow.  We arrive at an ultra fancy shmancy modern looking winery established by Leo Hillinger, former super-model and now wine maker/wine fashion superstar.  If anyone knows how to build a brand, it’s Leo.  With things like the Hillinger name everywhere from the entrance to the floor of the winery, to the continually running video loop of Leo projected on the wall, to the slick black hats, several hundred dollar Hillinger jackets, you name it, Leo is creating it with his name on it. Leo is opening Hillinger wine shops in Europe and wants to have one in NY as well. Several women in the group nearly faint when they first see Leo in real life. Sure has more hair than me, it’s blonde and he is tall, square jawed, thin and owns a top winery, but really does he deserve all the gawking?  It must be tough for him.  By the way he is married with two beautiful children.

We visit an underground cellar with rows of shiny stainless steel tanks, then retreat to the barrel room for even more rows of oak barrels. The barrel tasting is a blast and we get to spit the wine on the floor!  Always a treat and I feel like a little kid breaking the rules.  The floor will later be washed down by the oompa loompas or some sort of mystery crew that must come out late at night to shine the joint.  The tasting room has a glass wall looking out over the vineyards behind the hill.

Leo tells us his story of risking it all with a bank loan and starting out on his own. I admire the man. He had a vision, would not compromise on quality and took a big gamble. He still hints at the tenuous nature of all that he does and of being at the mercy of mother nature every harvest. We can tease him about the glamour aspect of his winery and its presentation, but clearly the wine is quality while he can smile all the way to the bank.  Leo is focused on building the Hillinger brand.  

We move back upstairs to the tasting room for a catered three course dinner.  The entrée has a side of applesauce with shredded horseradish.  I can't get enough of the stuff.  By thirds, or was it fourths?, I was really feeling my sinuses cleared out and the "wasabi snorts" kicking in.  Good stuff, sweet and spicy.  The actual meal takes about 45 minutes, then the consumption began.  I think we left around midnight or 1 AM.  Not sure, but by the end we had empty magnums of wine lining the table.  Half the group goes out to the Safari club.  Don't ask, but if you are ever in town and want to meet the locals, ask about the Safari. We'll be back tomorrow to learn more. 
- Salamanzar

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Austria Part II

Christian’s white whale forges onward to our afternoon stop at Michlits/Meinklang winery. The winery is actually named Michlits, or is it Meinklang? I don’t know why, but in the US the name has to be altered to Michlits for distribution.  The winery is ultra modern looking, but uses all natural materials.  As we approach the flat, winter brown fields I have no warning that my life is about to be changed forever.

"Graupert" is German for sort of uncombed hair. It was explained that as a little kid, if you came to the breakfast table, your grandmother would say you were looking “graupert” and you needed to comb your hair to look presentable. Werner Jr. takes us into the vineyards to see his Graupert Pinot Gris vines. There’s really no way to explain this other than someone has let their hedges grow wild. We are just east of lake Neusiedl, very close to the Hungarian border. The land is very, very flat and this is clearly not what we usually picture for vineyard country. In fact, Werner Jr. explains that winds swoop down into this flat plain and create havoc on the farms in giant gusts and actually drown people in the shallow Neusiedl lake as surprise 
waves topple boats. Between rows of perfectly manicured vines on both sides, the Graupert vineyard stands out like a punk rock spiked mohawk on the set to Leave it Beaver. In a deep spiritual moment with his vines, Werner Jr. thought that if he lets the vines go wild, eventually they will become self-limiting and reduce the stress of pruning each year which was hurting the vines. Essentially, if left to grow wild the grapes will be better. And you know what? It’s working. The vines unkempt look are criticized by his neighbors and he is accused of being lazy. In fact, last year some locals set fire to part of the Graupert vineyard to make their point. The proof is in the bottle and the Meinklangs remain committed. And, there is talk of letting all their vines grow Graupert style. Oy, the potential bonfire! You will see some Graupert Pinot Gris coming to Wine Authorities this spring.

Meinklang farm is a fantastic story. Post WWII, the family estate was in ruins and as borders with Hungary moved back and forth, the parents, Annalies and Werner Sr., made the decision to move forward and plant fields while working around the bombed out roads and the bomb craters in the fields, not knowing if tomorrow they would lose everything. At this time grapes were not the main product. About ten years ago the father converted the farm to complete biodynamic agriculture using Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, and embraced the philosophy of creating a complete interdependent closed cycle farm. They grow about 8 types of grains - wheat, barley, rice, spelt, etc., they brew really, really good craft beer, they maintain a herd of 300 Angus cows, they raise the rare Mangalitza pig breed, they make wine of course, and they make cider from their Topaz variety apple orchards. All this ag
riculture and children running around growing up on the farm paints a Rockwell-esque picture. With each family member taking on specific responsibilities, the farm is complete and each area is dependent on the next. This family, the parents, the three sons, their wives and the grandchildren, are organic, natural, down to earth, and clearly have found their happy place. There is an energy and a harmony in the air. You can taste it. Okay, I am ready to start packing the bags.

We visit the winery and get a fantastic explanation of what biodynamic farming is. I plan to release a video of this in the future showing Werner with his cow horns and manure in the cellar. We see the horns which are packed with manure and aged before being mixed with water to spread in the fields. The farmers refer to this stuff as “magic poo.”

We head underground to the wine tasting room and sit among the giant concrete eggs. The tasting starts with a frizzante style pinot noir rosé. This lightly bubbly, a touch off-dry, pink wine was actually first made for Werner and Angela’s wedding. We meet Angela and find out she is the actual winemaker in the family and appropriately named as she is a winemaking angel. Her wines are lovely across the table. All show balance and character. She greets us briefly before having to run off and chase their two young daughters who are peaking at us through the glass ceiling from their house above ground.  As the tasting moves forward we are treated to a selection of sausages made from the farm’s Angus beef and from their wonderful fatty Mangalitza pigs. I can’t stop eating. The center of the plate has a tub of rendered pork fat, which looks like hummus, and is spreadable like butter on bread. A little goes a long way. The Meinklang Gruner Veltliner is a stand out and absolutely atypical in style. They say other Austrian regions laugh about the thought of Gruner in this area, but the lip-smacking acidity and gulps of fruit are just right for me. I’ll take Gruner from Burgenland any day.

As we sit at this long, large table for 20 people, we are surrounded by giant concrete eggs. These eggs are wine tanks and I can’t help but feel like we are in a scene somewhere between Aliens and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The egg shape fits the 
"perfect mean" or "Phi" from Leonardo Fibonacci. Werner’s explanation details the concrete’s micro pores and as the wine ages in the egg, there are microscopic level oxygen exchanges which work the wine slower than using a wood barrel. In additional chemical chains form in the wine which get heavy and fall downward, forcing the wine to churn slowly up the sides of the egg to the top and fall back into the center, a sort of natural convection type movement. Using the eggs, they have learned that very little sulphur dioxide is needed as compared to their other wine making techniques. We taste the “Konkret St. Laurent,” and this is the best St. Laurent wine I have ever had, hands down. I am a believer. They started with a couple of eggs and now the winery looks like a chicken coop. The good news is that you can adopt an egg for just 3,000 Euros which gets you 2 cases of wine per year from your egg, over 10 years. That’s a deal!
I leave feeling like I need to put in a job application. I’ll take just about any job to be a part of this family farm. It speaks to my soul. The bus ride is quiet all they way to the the next winery. I clutch my Meinklang micro brew and savor every sip. Can we replicate this in Durham? Someone is probably ahead of me already. Meinklang will become a great addition to our store. They fit right in with us. Steindorfer winery awaits the whale’s arrival. - Salamanzar
(Thanks to Karen M. for letting me use a couple of her great photos in this posting.)