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Interview by James Melendez

I was very flattered by the kind words and interview by blogger and vlogger James Melendez!

"Craig has a grand passion for the best that wine and great food can offer. His European experience has show his devotion to the art of creating great wines. I think many producers believe they craft the best wines but the attention to detail is essential. Producing crowd pleasing wines is not a check mark for Craig. I have talked with him and it is clear that he has a clear sense of a 360 view of wine–his involvement in wine is admirable of working on the back and front end of many wine businesses." James Melendez

The Meaning of Life

Lisette Oropesa as Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera

Lisette Oropesa as Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera

A lone, elegant women stands on the stage facing over 3,000 people in a majestic old concert hall. From her rises a voice so pure and strong that each of the thousands listening can hear every note and word with no amplification. Here in front of us is the perfection that can only be achieved when great craft and skill combine with extraordinary passion to become something sublime - great art. 

The singer was the sensational young soprano Lisette Oropesa performing the role of Susanna in Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera. Her performance was a study in complexity as she wove tone of voice with nuances of movements and facial expressions that brought layer after layer of experience to your senses. The ability to bring all of these things together are what makes something rise above a simple performance and transforms it into great art. 

As with most experiences in life that move me, this extraordinary performance made me contemplate the process and meaning of winemaking. Experiencing such a complete, fulfilling and elevating experience is what I am seeking in a wine and it is the combination of those things that makes a wine great. 

I am not seeking profundity in every song I hear or wine I drink. I think life is better with both the emotional impact of Deh! vieni non tardar in Nozze de Figaro (which was stunningly performed by Lisette in San Francisco) and the pure fun of The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In their own way I enjoy them with equal pleasure. 

These define the way I perceive making meaningful wines. You’re either reaching for the emotional intensity of ”Deh! vieni non tardar”or you’re making a wine that wants to hold your hand - and make you simply happy. As proven here by both Mozart and The Beatles, if you are truly successful at making something meaningful at either end of the spectrum your art will live on from generation to generation. By the way, it’s worth noting that Mozart penned more than a few “I Want to Hold Your Hand” pieces and The Beatles also achieved the heights of ”Deh! vieni non tardar”.

In Leap First, Seth Godin says, “ Meaningful work is changing something for the better.” Indeed this is the definition of making meaningful wines. A profound aria or a fun pop song can change something for the better. Something profound may change our lives, but something fun can change our day. The combination of the two makes us better people.

Great opera and great wine should be enjoyed with reckless abandon. Sensational pop music and delicious everyday wines should get their due respect. It’s the combination of these experiences that elevate our lives. Drinking only great wines or experiencing only profound art actually dulls our ability to experience their true greatness. The reverse is true with popular art, without experiencing profound art you don’t comprehend the unrestrained joy of simpler pleasures.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if those with the means to only experience the profound spent a little more time with everyday pleasures and that if those denied access to profound art due to economics could have that world opened to them. A ticket to a great opera or the cost of a great bottle of wine can easily run several hundred dollars. In a better world, everyone would get at least an occasional taste of both.

Wine offers an amazing range of experience, but one end without the other seems to me empty and boring. That experience does not include the “beverage alcohol” industrial wines produced by people with the same passion that Budweiser makes beer or industrial music produced by formula by people like Rihanna. There is a difference between art and industrial production that is not connected to price. 

It is worth the effort to discover things produced with passion instead of a formula. These things are not always rare and more often than not, not expensive. It’s more than rewarding to take the little extra time required to seek them out. Putting the best art, the most creative things you can afford, into your life changes your experience of life. You may not be able to afford the opera, but you can listen to it free online. You might not be able to afford Grand Cru Burgundy, but, if you want, you can find wines made with similar passion at a fraction of the cost.

It takes great effort and dedication to make meaningful wines no matter the price they command in the market. To enjoy compelling wines and art instead of industrial plonk requires only a little effort, not more money, on the part of the consumer. It is more than worth this small effort.

Not everyone may appreciate the sublime beauty of Lisette Oropesa singing ”Deh! vieni non tardar” the way I did. She literally brought tears to my eyes. Yet, I believe that experience made me a more complete person. In the same way, falling in love with The Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand in 1963 has done the same thing. Greatness can be found in the big and small, but with effort you can find it everywhere. There is no excuse to settle for mediocrity in today’s totally connected world. It is worth noting there is a lot of very expensive, mediocre formula wine produced. Price and popularity is not related to quality or pleasure. 

To fully engage with life we must be mindfully open to big and small experiences. All we need to ask of them is that they add to our lives instead of dulling our experience of it. Industrial products dull us to life, artisan products open our minds to life. While price can often be an issue, in today’s world every day it is easier to find art, food and wine that can add to our quality of life without breaking our budget. 

Experiencing Lisette Oropesa brought a moment of beauty into my life. What I love about wine is the small moments of beauty it brings into my life. For me, these things are something that is more than worthwhile - they’re meaningful.

Monty Python brilliantly showed us the absurdities of seeking The Meaning of Life, but the simple answer is in the search for beautiful moments, be they great or small.

Personal Hygiene

It was so clean. The color was not just healthy, but a brilliant, radiant garnet. I was struck by its purity.

I'd spent most of the last several weeks drinking wines from west coast wine rebels. These are winemakers that distain convention and I admire their dedication to making natural wines. These winemakers see the over-oaked, over extracted wines of most New World winemakers as brutish bores. I agree with them.

Yet there is something to be said for purity, brilliance and, yes, simple personal wine hygiene. By hygiene I don't mean making wines sterile, boring carbon copies of the accepted commercial norm of industrial wine beverages. Certainly there is no need for any more of those. What I value is purity.

The wine mentioned above was a 2013 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon imported by Kermit Lynch. This is a wine stunning in its clarity and focus. After the wines from trendy California producers that I'd been drinking I was immediately struck by its brilliant, clean color. There was no browning, no haziness, just a perfectly clear and beautiful garnet wine.

What is important to note here is that Baudry is also a winemaker in the natural winemaking vein. This is a Kermit Lynch selection and Baudry uses natural yeasts and does not fine or filter. So why are his wines so brilliant and pure while so many wines from our winemakers following the same winemaking concepts are cloudy and brown? Beyond appearance there was the rest of the wine - a lively, complex clear expression of cabernet franc. A charming wine full of clarity of purpose and personality.

The winemaking techniques used to make a wine are not in themselves a justification for liking a wine. The commitment of the winemaker to natural techniques is a heavy burden to bear as it is not easy to make wines in this way. However, as much as that commitment is to be respected it does not free the producer from making wines that purely speak of the vineyards and varieties that they sprang from. Wines full of faults including excessive brett, V.A., protein hazes (and others) and oxidation hide terroir and varietal character every bit as effectively as the bag of tricks used by companies like Enologix. In both cases it is the winemaking not the vineyard that defines the wine.

We always seem to be caught up on extremes. On one end of the spectrum are the 100 point wine fanatics easily suckered in by the manipulations of Enologix and others. On the other are the natural wine terrorists who value doing nothing to a wine more than they value how it actually tastes. As usual the sweet spot is in-between these two extremes. That’s where wines like the Baudry Chinon come in as it’s a wine made naturally, but also professionally with great competence and care. It is a pure expression of that variety and that vineyard in that vintage. For me, nothing is more exciting in a wine.

I don’t like to drink spoofulated wines, but I also don’t enjoy muddy, faulted wines, which are the exact opposites. Spoofulated has long described manipulated wines, perhaps we need a new term for under-manipulated wines. Any ideas?

Bitter Pleasures

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It really irritates me. Standing in line at the coffee bar when all I want is an espresso. In front of me there is long line of people ordering incomprehensibly complex drinks, of which the least important component is coffee. I think there should be an express line for those of us ordering a simple expresso. It's a bitter fact that we espresso lovers have to live with. Because Americans don't like bitter we have to wait in line while they bury their shots of espresso under anything and everything that will hide the actual flavor of coffee.

In Italy bitter flavors are embraced by the culture. They love bitter herbs and salads and bitter drinks. The prelude and conclusion of many a meal is a bitter beverage. Start with Campari and end with Fernet Branca. In between there you'll probably find some radicchio or arugula among the long list of bitter flavors loved by Italians. There is another thing always on the Italian table that often has bitterness too - their wine.

I notice that bitter element in my favorite Italian wines and it's that character that makes them such an extraordinary match with food. That little touch of bitterness in Barolo or Brunello is magic at the table. It also adds another layer of complexity beyond simple fruit flavors left on their own. I find this character in my favorite red wines, and many of the whites, from anywhere in the world.

Just as we Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide any hint of bitterness in our coffee we've done the same things with our wines. Overripe, over-extracted fruit bombs with excessive alcohol, new oak and significant residual sugar are wines with no edge, no bitterness. Round and jammy wines with no acidity, no tannin and not even a hint of bitterness satisfy palates that bury a shot of espresso under milk, chocolate and whipped cream. We've turned our coffees and our wines into desserts.

Bitterness is what brought me to southern Oregon. Not personal bitterness, but the fact that I tasted it in the wines grown in this region. Not as hot as California and not as cool as the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon seems to be just the right place to grow wines that are richly flavored, but that still possess a little tartness from natural acidity and that have that wonderful streak of bitterness to hold up and enliven the natural sweet fruit flavors in the wines grown here.

Once I finally get my espresso, I'm glad I was patient enough to wait in line while they were making milkshakes masquerading as coffees for those in front of me. The same goes for the Applegate Valley, I'm glad I was patient enough find my way here. The best things in life always have an edge to them. Things that are round, soft and easy are rarely of lasting value. You need just the right amount of bitterness in life to keep things interesting. Minds and palates that are unchallenged quickly become bored.

There is nothing boring about making wine in the Applegate Valley.

Varietal Vigilantes

In the United States we tend to think of wines being driven by a single variety. That there is somehow something purer about being made from one type of vine. The varietal vigilantes are always asking, “is this 100%?” Due to the heavy emphasis on varietal labeling they don’t realize is that historically wines made from a single variety were the exception, not the rule.

Some of the greatest names in the world of wine: Bordeaux, Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rôtie, Chianti, Rioja, Porto and Champagne are, and have always been blends of varieties. There are classic marriages like: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot; marsanne and roussanne, syrah and viognier that have defined their wine regions. Without a doubt there are great mono-variety wines like Burgundy and Barolo, but many a classic wine region discovered over the centuries that blending produced not only the best wines for them, but a more consistently good wine vintage-to-vintage.

I believe that the Applegate Valley is one of those regions where blending creates the most complete and complex wines. In almost all of our wines at Troon Vineyard you’ll find more than one variety in the blend. We think deeply in making these choices looking for varieties that together create wines with greater nuance and personality than they could on their own. My goal in blending is to make the wines come alive and to craft wines that could only come from the Applegate Valley as making a wine of place is at the center of everything for me.

Blending is one thing, but I believe you need to go farther and actually co-ferment the varieties that you believe make will make your best blends. When you blend finished wines you can make wonderful wines, but when you can ferment the different varieties together they meld in a new an magical way that simple blending cannot reproduced. When fermenting together Mother Nature’s natural chemistry is amplified and a whole new wine emerges from the fermenter. When co-ferments are combined with natural yeasts and natural malolactic fermentations a unique purity of place and variety is expressed in your wine.

One of the better examples of this magic is our Troon Vineyard Longue Carabine, conceived by winemaker Steve Hall, which is created by blending several different co-fermented lots. The characteristics of each variety in the 2014 blend (38.5% vermentino, 33% viognier, 33% marsanne, 1.5% roussanne) shows their distinctive highlights in the expansive aromatics and rich texture. Longue Carabine is a one-of-a-kind wine totally unique to the Applegate Valley, Troon Vineyard and Oregon.

Being able to create wines like this is one of the inspirations that led me from Napa to the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon. The freedom to constantly experiment and push your wines forward is truly exciting - and truly fun!

2014 Troon Blue Label Longue Carabine, Applegate Valley 

Apple Wine Geek

I'm a geek when it comes to technology. On top of that I'm an Apple geek. As my desire is to use my Apple products to the max I listen to many podcasts on Apple products. I've learned a lot from the many hours I've spent listening to these podcasts.

I've learned to be more efficient and to use the software and hardware available to me the way it was meant to be used. Investing this time has made me a power user. I've learned another thing too, the hard way. While I'm a technology geek, the hosts of these podcasts are technology addicts. When they use hardware and software they are looking more intensely for what is wrong with it than what’s right about it. They inevitably get bored with any piece of software and constantly need to fiddle with new products just because they are new. If you follow their impassioned comments podcast to podcast you'd be changing your software weekly.

I’m just as much a geek when it comes to wine and the wine addicts as compared to the wine geeks work the same way. Too often newness alone is considered exciting and, all too often, a blind eye is turned to winemaking faults. They get bored with Bordeaux, Napa Cabernet and Oregon Pinot because they simply need to fiddle constantly to entertain themselves. When you have to write a new article every week shiny new toys are always more interesting than the old ones.

More and more I find myself settling down with my technology and my wines and focusing on understanding more deeply what they have to offer. I’m finding it more rewarding to dig deep into what each has to offer me and truly come to know all they have to teach me. With software the more I work with it the more I learn about the real power written in the code. With a wine, the more often I revisit it the more nuance I find. I am finding this approach deeply rewarding.

All things considered, I think I’m becoming a bigger geek than ever.

Swearing Like an Italian

I'm a unabashed fan of Luca Currado and his wines at Vietti. I had the pleasure of spending hours tasting through his cellar with him when I lived in Italy. He is a thoughtful and talented winemaker making extraordinary wines. Do not miss the current interview with Luca on I'll Drink to That with Levy Dalton, the consistantly excellent wine podcast. You can find it here.

In Italy, swearing is an artform as compared to English, where it is usually simply vulgar. In Italian swearing decorates the language adding life, spice and personality. In this interview, Luca leads us on a educational tour of this Italian artform. It's a delight!

The Vietti family story is very compelling and this interview touches on the entire modern history of winemaking in Piemonte, beautifully told by the colorful and delightful Luca Currado.

Drink and Yelp

She was nasty; complaining and putting us down. No matter, it's only your life's work; better get a thicker skin. But then I thought better of it, when someone's full of it you should stand up for yourself.

Of course I'm talking about a Yelp review. I can't really complain as, after over 122 reviews, Cornerstone Cellars has a four and half star rating. Honestly you can't do any better than that. Indeed it's an accomplishment of which I am extremely proud.

At a winery tasting room, odds are pretty good that that outlier one star review was by someone who had too much to drink and was refused anything more to drink. Nothing pisses off a drunk more than cutting them off.

So I have decided to stick up for myself and, contrary to Yelp's recommendation, take on the that rare dissatisfied customer. Now, obviously if you're getting bad review after bad review you'd better do some soul searching, but in our case nothing could be further from reality.

For Cornerstone Cellars, out of the last twenty-five Yelp reviews eighteen have five stars and four have four stars or better. Take a look here and be sure to read the one star review. Perhaps they were not feeling so great when they woke up the next day and wrote them.

Yelp is powerful and for us, for the most part, a great thing. The only real issue I have with Yelp is that they don't take into account that usually the people that write bad reviews for winery tasting rooms are the ones that have indulged in a bit too much fruit of the vine. They need to find away to take that into account and banish such wine induced rants.

In Sideways Miles drank and dialed, the equivalent of drinking and Yelping. We do not recommend either.

Singularity

Purity and delicacy are wine descriptors that do not appear often in reviews of top scoring wines. Terms like powerful, opulent and dense are the genre of pointy wines.

Poor Beaujolais seems destined to miss the mark for ratings defined by such descriptors. Youthful, fresh, lively, fruity, zesty and, the phrase that always damns a wine for the point obsessed, a "food wine", means low 90s at best.

Big points are the black holes of the wine universe. In the heart of the black hole the wines are dense and no light can escape from them, only points seem able to escape. Before all the lightness of wine is sucked away, down into the black hole itself, is the point of singularity where lightness can still exist. That's where wines like Beaujolais become relative.

If young Beaujolais finds relativity a problem, where can old Beaujolais find its place in the universe? It turns out Einstein was wrong when it comes to Beaujolais, Einstein's formula E=MC2 does not compute in this case where less mass creates more energy.

Recently I did a double take when I got a club shipment from Kermit Lynch. Côte de Brouilly? No surprise there. But wait! The vintage was not 2014, but 2006. The 2006 Côte de Brouilly Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes is indeed a singularity. It's a lacy, high strung ballerina of a wine. It was pure pleasure to let her dance through my dinner.

Black holes warp space time just as the 100 point scale warps wine time. Lightness is a concept that suffers in a universe dominated by black holes. They have indeed warped the wine universe.

I prefer to experience wines at the point of singularity.