Wine Bloggers Conference '08

WBC '08: It's a New Dawn..Good Morning People....*

volunteers I happened to finish two things about the same time last week. The first Wine Bloggers Conference and a book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar. This was perhaps a coincidence as I did not find time to read a word at the conference. Drinking trumped reading in Santa Rosa that weekend, but I finished the book a few days later. It’s hard to think of a greater contrast between the event I attended and the events and people in the book.

The Wine Bloggers Conference was defined by an almost innocent enthusiasm and love for wine, while The Billionaire’s Vinegar represents The Dark Side of wine. You cannot be help but be stuck by the ugly greed, arrogance and ignorance of the wealthy posers chasing “great wine” in this book. It’s one of those plots were there is no protagonist, they’re all bad guys. I highly recommend this book as it’s a great story based around the excesses and greed of big time collectors who were sold faked old wines and were just too greedy and had such massive egos they couldn’t taste the obvious.

billionairevinegar One thing this book proves is that we are all too human in our abilities and no one can escape the trap of letting labels affect our perceptions. I’ll be the first to admit if someone told me I was getting a glass of 1787 Lafite purchased by Thomas Jefferson my esthetic distance would be right out the window. The trouble with the arrogant bastards in this book is that they thought that their palates were so great they could rise above human frailty. I can only guess they got stupid after they made their money, not before. The tacky glitz, excess and greed surrounding the elaborate tasting events described in the book cannot be overstated. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the attendance at these events of those that consider themselves wine “journalists” Certainly, attending such extravagant events gratis would not be acceptable under even the loosest code of journalistic ethics. It was clear to these writers that they would not be invited back if they offered even a hint of criticism in their reports. Rave reviews were the price of  next year’s admission and they were always invited back. It’s hard to be critical after enough foie gras and caviar.

The recent first ever Wine Bloggers Conference in America (there was one a few months before in Europe) painted a very different picture. The jaded arrogance that blinds so many established wine writers these days was replaced by the refreshing enthusiasm of the wine bloggers that descended on the Flamenco Hotel in Santa Rosa. Surrounded by the beauty and wonderful wines of Sonoma over 150 new media wine writers gathered to explore their emerging genre. The energy brought to my mind Gracie Slick and the Jefferson Airplane welcoming the dawn at Woodstock, “It’s a new dawn…” said Gracie before the band roared into that hippie political anthem, Volunteers.

winebloggersconference Every blogger that attended was there on their own dime as no one is make a living from wine blogging yet. Everyone was there because of their passion for wine. They are truly volunteers and the generous spirit of this group stuck out starkly to the outrageously expensive, competitive and ego driven wine world documented in The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

While there are many wonderful examples of wine bloggers making a difference I can’t help to pick out Deb Harkness, better known as Dr. Debs, who has created a blog called Good Wines Under $20.  For what I hope are obvious reasons I won’t describe what Deb’s blog is about. Deb’s day job is as a college professor, but by night she’s a consumer activist seeking out great wines at great prices for her readers. Yet what is even more impressive about her is her deep commitment to a personal standard of ethics. While most mainstream wine writers are mostly concerned about what others will think of them when it comes to ethics, Dr. Debs, and many bloggers like her are concerned what they think of themselves. Their ethics are in their hearts. They’re not in it for the money or glamour tastings, but out of a sincere love of food and wine. At the end of the day only self respect and personal pride can make ethics a reality. Deb and many bloggers like her are setting a new standard.

I’m well aware that I was one of the old guys at the Wine Bloggers Conference and most of my compatriots there were well under forty, but the energy and spirit there reminded me of an earlier time, before when some of them were born, when we thought we could change the world. The conference gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, that the pointy world of wine writing today can be brought down. Power to the bloggers.

It’s a new dawn for wine writing. Good morning people.


From an Acorn a Mighty Wine Grows

acorn logo The wrong Acorn has been in the news lately. The tiny Sonoma winery called Acorn was news to me as I tasted the wines for the first time at the first (annual we hope) Wine Bloggers Conference held in Santa Rosa last weekend. Betsy and Bill Nachbaur’s Acorn Winery is very good news indeed.

In a California wine world dominated by squeaky clean, but personality-free wines, the wines of Acorn are packed with personality. Producing wines exclusively from their estate vineyard in the Russian River they once again challenge conventional wisdom on so called “warm” climate varieties. In the cool Russian River Valley, which is known for its pinot noir, the Acorn Vineyard is planted with syrah, zinfandel, sangiovese, petite sirah and other varieties that aren’t usually associated with pinot territory. It seems zinfandel and syrah like a little fog too.

Acorn is doing some things that seem cutting edge in the new world, but actually go back to the very first wines. They are co-fermenting field blends instead of picking and fermenting each variety separately. There is no doubt that varieties that are co-fermented together have different characteristics than a wine made from those same varieties made separately then blended. The chemistry that takes place during co-fermentation is just different.

For example, their 2005 Heritage Vines Zinfandel (1005 cases) is 78% zinfandel, 10% alicante bouschet, 10% petite syrah and the remaining 2% includes carignane, trousseau, sangiovese, petit bouschet, negrette, syrah, muscat noir, cinsault and grenache. All of these varieties were harvested and fermented together. The wine is rich, but with a firm backbone of tannin and acid and loaded with layers of flavors and aromas like coffee, chocolate, porcini and deep ripe blackberries. The 2005 Sangiovese (1022 cases) is easily one of the most interesting New World examples of this variety I’ve tasted. Produced from 98% sangiovese (7 different clones), 1 % canaiolo and 1% mammolo, which is a blend I wish more Tuscan wineries would use instead of overwhelming their sangiovese with the strong varietal character of cabernet sauvignon. This is a decidedly robust, California style wine, but like their Zinfandel it has the zesty backbone to carry the heft. It is interesting to note that while these wines come from an Acorn they are blessedly not over-oaked. They are also not overpriced running around $30 a bottle.

All of the Acorn wines have just the right touch of what I call a rustic character. While being very well made they have just a bit of wildness or sauvage, as the French call it. Rustic does not mean brett or other wine faults, but means that the character of the varieties and vineyard really show through in the wine and are not polished away leaving only artificially gleaming simple fruit flavors. With this edge of wildness, the wines of Acorn are not only delicious, but interesting, which is just the way I like them.

Acorn may be small, but they’re making some mighty fine wines.


Serious Sonoma Syrah

morgan peterson Often when you think of Napa and Sonoma, the big corporate winery showcases come to mind. Palatial wineries costing tens of millions of dollars surrounded by gardens that compete with Versailles and gourmet kitchens better equipped than three star Michelin restaurants. Yet some of California’s most exciting wines are not being made in such wine palaces.

Working in leased space, crammed in with other small producers sharing space and equipment, some young winemakers are making a dramatic new generation of California wines. Some of the most compelling wines I tasted during a visit to Sonoma last weekend were some bottlings of syrah produced by some low tech, but high passion winemakers. I say this is a new generation because these are not the huge raspberry fruit bomb syrahs with little varietal character you enkidu have come to expect from California. These are big wines, just as they should be, but layered in with all that fruit was real complexity as they exhibited that earthy, butcher shop character that defines the finest wines from this variety.

Morgon Peterson at Bedrock Wine Company is crafting some of the most fascinating American wines I’ve tasted in some time. He’s making a tremendous range of single vineyard syrahs and a dramatic sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. Neighbor Phillip Staehle is making some compelling wines under the Enkidu label. His Odyssey Russian River Syrah is proof positive that the best syrah is made in cooler climates than conventional wisdom has called for in the past.

In the picture above, Peterson presses wines using a muscle powered basket press. Yes, he really makes wine that way. There’s a growing group of young winemakers in California who are well educated not only on winemaking science, but on the traditions that made European wines the standard for greatness in the past. They are on the cutting edge of California winemaking not because of their use of the latest technologies, but by their return to the methods of the past. They are making textured, complex wines that don’t bury the characteristics of the variety under excess and manipulations, but that proudly and clearly show their California personality. For me, these wines were nothing short of exciting. As you might expect, very little wine is produced at wineries such as these. I’d suggest you get on the mailing list now.

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