Adventures in wine and food pairing at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel

When LoCA’s Randy Caparoso asks if you might possibly have plans to be in Lodi the following weekend, you should probably say YES, even if you live in Los Angeles and did not, in fact, already have plans to be in Lodi.  If it were me, that is–and it was, and I did say yes.

Randy was leading a culinary wine and food pairing class (“exploration” might be a better word) at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel a couple of weeks ago along with Executive Chef John Hitchcock, and I happily accepted the offer to cover the event for Lodi Wine.

As part of Wine & Roses’ ongoing Cooking School offerings, the evening was somewhere between a class (ahem, exploration) and an elegant food and wine pairing featuring some of Lodi’s best offerings.  The hotel itself, an historic Lodi property which had its beginnings in 1903 as a private estate, is a gorgeous setting for such an event.  I had the privilege of staying at Wine & Roses that weekend, and it’s a wonderful destination in its own right with the on-site Towne House restaurant and spa.  The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with an unmistakable air of luxury.

The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi's Wine & Roses Hotel
The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi’s Wine & Roses Hotel

As I skimmed the menu for the dinner and pairing, three significant things jumped out at me.  One, there was a nod to classic pairings (caviar and bubbles, for starters); two, some challenging pairings–and by challenging, I mean dishes that employed unconventional flavors (and thus a challenge to find just the right wine) such as wasabi; and three, that some of Lodi’s best wines (and several of my personal favorites) represented the region quite well in the company of great cuisine.

Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR's Lodi Appellation sparkling wines
Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR’s Lodi Appellation sparkling wines

First up, and perfectly so, was the Yukon Gold blini with caviar, creme fraiche and lemon zest–this French Laundry recipe was paired with two Lodi sparklers, a Brut and a Blanc de Blancs from LVVR Sparkling Cellars.  The two non-vintage sparkling wines are produced in the méthode champenoise style and were an ideal accompaniment to the lighter-than-air blini and the hit of salty-briny caviar.  Both are fine sparkling wines with their traditional production method evident in the yeasty, bready nose; these were both new Lodi wines for me, and I still can’t decide on a favorite.  I thought both paired really well with this small bite, and provided a great introduction for the assembled crowd to begin thinking about the relationship between food and wine.

Billi Bi - a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup
Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup

The second offering, Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup, was served as a small bite on porcelain spoon, and was the first real wake-you-up flavor of the night with the mouthful-of-ocean taste of the mussel.  Paired with that was Markus Wine Co.’s 2016 Nativo, a bone-dry and intensely aromatic blend of German varieties (Kerner, Riesling and Bacchus) from the Koth vineyard in Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  This particular vineyard, which boasts more than 50 German varietals–many of them the only such plantings in the United States–is one of Lodi’s most remarkable hidden gems, and winemaker Markus Niggli creates some of the most compelling and original wines from them.  The Billi Bi is a tricky pairing, because it does best with a white wine, but needs a white that can stand up to the strong flavors of the dish.  The Nativo’s elegant and spicy acidity was the perfect choice (and I’m currently working on a profile of Markus Niggli, which I hope to publish next week).

Caparoso 1
Sommelier Randy Caparoso guides the attendees through a series of wine and food pairings featuring Lodi’s best wines (and cuisine).

This particular pairing, along with the oyster with wasabi that followed, was the ideal platform for Caparoso to go into a subject area that few in the business know better (not to mention had an active hand in developing)–how to pair wine with decidedly non-French, non-traditional (non-European) flavors of spice and umami.  After years as a sommelier and wine program manager for more traditional French restaurants, Caparoso joined up with Hawaiian Chef Roy Yamaguchi and would go on to co-found the Roy’s Restaurant franchise, ultimately reaching 28 locations across the globe.  Roy’s helped popularize the pan-Asian cuisine that now seems omnipresent, but that cuisine presents a spectrum of flavors that do not immediately and obviously bring to mind the kind of wine pairings familiar in more traditional Euro-centric restaurants.

Wine pairings, Caparoso told the class, should take into consideration contrast as well as similarity.  “Food should make the wine taste better, too” (not just the other way around).  Think of wine AS food, he said–or as an ingredient with the food.  With food featuring flavors of spice and umami, use that idea of contrast when you begin to search for wines that will pair well with those kinds of dishes.

Wasabi Oyster
The Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear (my favorite small bite of the evening)

And indeed, the next pairing was a great example of what Caparoso was talking about.  The fried Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear had exactly that pan-Asian personality, with the subtle but sharp heat of the wasabi lifting the savory fried oyster to a whole new level.  So what goes with wasabi?  Forget the Asahi and Sapporo.  Wine absolutely can be successfully paired with this flavor, and it doesn’t have to be the most oft-parroted suggestion of a dry Riesling.  With this, the 2016 Fields Family Wines’ Vermentino was dry, tart, and perfect.  Flavors of meyer lemon and lemongrass, a slight salinity and solid minerality–that citrus backbone balanced so well with the fried oyster, and held its own against the wasabi component of the dish.

Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class
Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class

We enjoyed a third wine in the mix with the appetizers before heading on to the main course–Acquiesce’s 2016 Grenache Rosé.  We were encouraged to try the two whites and the Grenache Rosé with both of the appetizers as a way of experiencing how a dish can pair well with a variety of wines.  This traditionally styled Rosé, with a strong nod to its French roots, is dry, with abundant fruit and a little of that trademark spice that the Grenache grape shows so well.  And it was a great transition into the wines featured with the next course.

Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille
Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille

The entree for the evening, seared squab with pan jus and ratatouille, was a simple, traditional and stunningly presented dish–instead of the traditional rustic presentation, Chef Hitchcock and his staff prepared a meticulously brunoised take on this dish; that careful and skillful touch elevated an already-great dish; the aesthetics and texture were simply lovely.  The squab was prepared sous vide and then seared and dressed with pan jus.  And to go with this hearty but not heavy dish?  Two stellar Grenaches: Bokisch Vineyards’ 2014 Garnacha (the Spanish name for the Spanish variety perhaps better known by its adopted Rhone identity), and McCay Cellars’ 2014 Grenache.  This is a lightish/mediumish-bodied variety, with lively spice and fruit, and both iterations of this wine tasted beautifully with the squab.  These wines are a wonderful testament to Lodi’s ability to produce high-quality reds that are a universe apart from the big Zinfandels which built Lodi’s reputation over the last century-plus.

Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
. . . to this
. . . to this

The final course (dessert, of course) struck me as a perfectly pitched, almost sentimental nod to Lodi.  The vanilla bean panna cotta with rhubarb and strawberry salad with micro mint and lavender was light and creamy, with the seasonal, local rhubarb and strawberries throwing a balancing note of tartness.  It was paired with perhaps the Lodi-iest of Lodi wines: the Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Tokay.  This grape–a Vitis vinifera variety that was more commonly grown and consumed as a table grape–was the leading grape crop in Lodi before seedless varieties eclipsed it over the last quarter century (I could, and very well may, devote an entire post to this fascinating grape).  It’s made in a white port wine style–so it’s lightly fortified–from 130-year-old Tokay vines, and never sits heavily on the palate.

New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening
New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening

It was a beautiful way to close out a great evening, and as the class lingered over the dessert, Wine & Roses proprietor Kathy Munson introduced James Beard Award-winning Chef Bradley Ogden, who joins Executive Chef John Hitchcock as the hotel’s new culinary director.  It’s exciting to look forward to what these two great culinary minds will come up with as a team (and also a good time to note that Wine & Roses has several dinners on its summer schedule, each featuring a particular Lodi winery).

Wine recap:

LVVR NV Lodi Sparkling Brut ($20)
LVVR NV Lodi Blanc de Blancs ($20)
Markus Wine Co. 2016 Nativo ($22)
Fields Family Wines 2016 Vermentino ($19)
Acquiesce 2016 Grenache Rosé ($24)
Bokisch Vineyards 2014 Garnacha ($20)
McCay Cellars 2014 Grenache ($35)
Jessie’s Grove 2011 Ancient Vine Tokay ($35)

 

 

Acquiesce: Through the looking glass with Lodi’s White(s) Queen

I hope Sue Tipton forgives (or at least has a chuckle over) the literary reference above.  As I sat down to write this piece, and thought about how to title it, I realized I was as confounded by how to properly describe her and her outstanding wines as I was the first day I tasted them.  And this is a very good thing.

Lineup of Acquiesce's wines
Lineup of Acquiesce’s wines

I have a great fascination with–and admiration for–winemakers who trust their vision enough to buck trends and defy norms and expectations.  Sue Tipton, owner and winemaker of Acquiesce Vineyards in Lodi, California, is one of those mavericks, and the resulting wines prove how great her vision is.

The day I visited her tasting room as part of last year’s wine blogger conference, it really was a bit of a through-the-looking-glass experience.  I knew very little about Lodi and its wines, but did know their reputation for producing tens of thousands of acres of red wine grapes, especially Zinfandel.  So, naturally, the first place I’m taken on the Lodi pre-conference excursion is Acquiesce, where you will find a lineup of outstanding Rhône varieties inspired by the wines of Chateauneuf de Pape–and not a single red among them.  (Way to shake things up, LoCA.)

That’s a bold choice for a Lodi winemaker.  Heck, that’s a bold choice generally speaking.

It all started with one sip of wine.

Like almost every winemaker I’ve talked to over the years, Sue began her journey as a winemaker after being wowed by a particularly memorable bottle of wine–in her case, it was an old-world white Rhône blend from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  She’d never tasted anything like it before, and wanted more.  She began seeking out more of those blends, both old AND new world wines, but that didn’t sate her growing fascination with this style of wine.

Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery (photo credit: Rodney Tipton)
Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery

So the wheels began to turn–she and her husband Rodney, who is her partner in the winery, had recently moved to Lodi and purchased a home that shared land with 18 acres of Zinfandel vines, which were already under contract to wineries and winemakers, a kind of built-in income source.  Soon, she began dabbling in home winemaking, using some of the Zinfandel grapes from their property to make a dry rosé.  But she couldn’t stop thinking about that white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so they made the choice eleven years ago to rip out some of those income-producing Zinfandel vines–an anxiety-producing move, to be sure–and planted Grenache and Grenache Blanc (the former of which is used in her bone-dry Grenache Rosé).

It didn’t take long for what had been a hobby pursuit to morph into something more–and they made the decision to go into business.  An old barn on the property was converted into a winery and tasting room, and they began purchasing the larger scale winemaking equipment needed to produce the increased amount of wine they were making.

Choosing to jump into a highly competitive business that’s subject to the vagaries of weather and consumer whims is not a choice made lightly, but it proved to be a very good choice indeed.  Tipton expanded her plantings to include Roussanne, Viognier, and Picpoul Blanc and they opened their tasting room in 2012.  As it would turn out, the demand for her wines exceeded their production every year, and Acquiesce was a bona fide success.

Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard
Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard

In 2015, she added two more Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties, Clairette Blanche and Bourbolenc.  Those varieties are rare even for their home turf in southern France, but as we already know, she’s not afraid to move ahead with what others might see as unconventional choices.  She hopes to see her first vintage of Clairette Blanche this year, and I cannot wait to taste what she does with it.

Let the grape speak.

Tipton chooses a minimalist approach to her wines–these beauties never touch oak, which lets the character of these grapes really shine.  Her location in Lodi’s Mokulemne River sub-AVA gives her near-perfect growing conditions with the area’s sandy loam soil and the added benefit of cooler nights thanks to the cool coastal air from the Sacramento-San Joachin River Delta that drifts in every evening.  Combined with the area’s Mediterranean climate, all these conditions come together to allow these varieties to be taken to appropriate ripeness (something that’s a challenge for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape counterparts), and this results in grapes that are bright and crisp with intense fruitiness, and great acidity and minerality.  If any of this surprises you, read all about Lodi’s Mokelumne River soils from LoCA’s Randy Caparoso.

Acquiesce’s very name comes from Tipton’s desire to let these grape varieties’ best qualities shine through:

Acquiesce verb: to surrender, to become quiet.  Acquiesce has become our mantra — to submit to nature, to yield to the vineyard, to acquiesce to the grapes so they present their own true character.  Attention to detail reigns here with sustainable vines that are lightly watered, grapes that are handpicked and then whole cluster pressed to create wines that are both classic and traditional.

Let the grape speak!
Let the grape speak!

So what about those wines?  They’ve won an impressive number of awards and accolades, and demand for her wines is so great that she had to close her wine club to new memberships for a long stretch.  She reopened the club to new members just two weeks ago, and the response has been so overwhelming that she told me she expects to have to close it again by mid-April.

Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé
Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé

My personal favorite of hers (although it’s really hard to pick a favorite) is the Picpoul Blanc–this is the wine that stopped me in my tracks when I tasted it last summer.  This variety is known for its sharp, citrus tartness–the name translates roughly to “lip stinger”–and hers is perhaps the best version of this variety I’ve tasted.  Dry, almost mouth-puckeringly tart, but balanced out beautifully with intense fruitiness and great body.  It is a gorgeous wine, and I’m impatiently awaiting her 2016 release of this one.

The entire lineup is impressive, though, and the 2016 Grenache Blanc, Grenache Rosé and Viognier are now available (and if you run REALLY fast, you can pick up one of the few remaining bottles of her 2015 Belle Blanc, a Rhône blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne).  Still to come this spring are the releases of that stunning Picpoul Blanc, the Roussanne, and the Belle Blanc.

Tipton produced 1400 cases of wine in 2015, and this grew to 2000 cases for the 2016 vintage.  She also has a sparkling Grenache Blanc in the works, méthode champenoise style, which she hopes to release in about a year (I may be excessively excited about this one, because BUBBLES).

Acquiesce is a most unexpected gem to find in the heart of Lodi’s red wine country.  The winery is open for tasting Friday – Sunday from 11 am – 5 pm, and each flight is expertly paired with a small bite, which is a wonderful touch (and a bargain at the $10 tasting fee).  Tasting fee waived with a bottle purchase–but I’ll bet you can’t buy just one.  They even have a Tesla charging station for your convenience.

Acquiesce is located at 22353 N. Tretheway Road Acampo, California 95220, Phone (209) 333-6102.

 

Greenbar’s Grand Poppy Liqueur–California in a bottle

I do not generally devote an entire blog post to a single wine, or a single bottle of spirits (unless it’s just a quickie kind of review).

Greenbar's Grand Poppy Liqueur
Greenbar’s Grand Poppy Liqueur

But this is different.  Really different.

First, a preamble and a bit of a explanation for why I am so besotted with Greenbar’s Grand Poppy bitter liqueur (or “bitter brandy”).  In my work as a nature photographer, my focus for the last year or so has been on my Land/Sea project.  The “land” part of that is centered on California’s chaparral ecosystem.  What is chaparral, exactly?  The technical definition, courtesy of the California Chaparral Institute, is this:

Chaparral is a special plant community characterized by drought-hardy, woody shrubs, shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate (summer drought, winter rain)

It is, in fact, California’s most common ecosystem–and belongs almost entirely TO California.  Chaparral stretches into southern Oregon and Baja California just a wee bit, but it’s almost solely a California landscape.  It’s also California’s most unloved ecosystem–it’s tough and scrubby, too dense to even hike through in many areas, and very prone to fire (always a concern in our drought-plagued state).  It’s strangely beautiful, with a muted rainbow of color, a host of edible and medicinal plants, and home to critical species of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.  I’ve been photographing this iconic California landscape for a while now, and continue to be amazed by its beauty and diversity.

Chaparral in muted winter colors, Los Padres National Forest
Chaparral in muted winter colors, Los Padres National Forest

So what does this have to do with a bottle of craft spirit?  Greenbar has taken everything remarkable about chaparral that you can taste and smell, and they’ve bottled it.  I’m already a fan of multi-sensory experiences; it’s why I end up photographing the wild areas surrounding every wine region I’ve ever visited.  You can experience a place through every sense–and the idea that I can taste that chaparral ecosystem in this beautiful bitter brandy is pretty exciting to me.

See, smell, tough the aromatics that make up the Grand Poppy right in Greenbar's tasting room
See, smell, touch the aromatics that make up the Grand Poppy right in Greenbar’s tasting room

Everything that I’ve captured with my camera, I can smell and taste in this spirit.  I am instantly taken back to hours spent bushwhacking through sagebrush and manzanita–the aroma of sage and wild fennel and thistle and California bay leaf and on and on.  Those things are literally in this bottle.  And it’s delicious.  As Greenbar describes it:

 

a California-inspired take on classic European aperitives. We made it by marrying the best of California’s bounty — citrus from our favorite Southern California farms, coastal herbs and berries we discovered on our hikes and one very bitter flower, the California poppy — to bring a new taste to cocktail lovers everywhere.

California Poppy
California Poppy

It’s not often (in fact, this may be a first) that I come across a spirit and find it significant beyond its own in-the-bottle merits.  I think this is a significant spirit–it embodies the state it celebrates, and shows off some of the underrated beauty of the chaparral ecosystem.  It’s nicely balanced between bitter and sweet, with a stunning range of herbs and other aromatics both on the nose and on the palate.  It’s delicious on its own, and divine mixed into cocktails.  You’ll find a recipe or three featuring this liqueur on the Greenbar website, and my personal preference for enjoying this remarkable spirit is to mix it with sparkling wine for a sort of champagne cocktail (three parts sparkling wine, one part Grand Poppy).

I would never have thought it possible to bottle the most representative and iconic landscape of California–but Greenbar has done just that.  Highly recommend.

If you go to one wine festival all year, go GARAGISTE!

Wine festivals are fun things to go to–an impressive number of wines to taste as you wander at your own pace.  Who wouldn’t have fun doing that?

But the California Garagiste Festival, which has its 6th annual event in Paso Robles this weekend, is a little different than your usual wine festival.

garagisteWhy?  Story.  Everything comes back to story (stay with me, I’ll explain).  As I’ve mentioned here previously, and as I detail on my “about” page, story is what took my interest in wine from whatever I could pick up at my local wine shop that tasted good to wanting to know everything about wine, and being able to do so with no pretense or intimidation.  By story in this context, I’m talking about the opportunity to find out the who/what/why behind a bottle of wine, the opportunity to talk to the person who made the wine, to hear their . . . story.  Story goes a long way in making wine approachable and engaging.

So if you like that, if you’re intrigued by the “why” that went into that bottle of wine on your shelf, you will find no better event to indulge that than the Garagiste Festival.

What the heck is a Garagiste?  From their website:

GARAGISTES – (garage-east) n, Fr. – A term originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot wine makers, sometimes working in their garage, who refused to follow the “rules.” Now a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world. Who’s laughing now, Francois? Syn: Rule-breakers, pioneers, renegades, mavericks, driven by passion.

The California version of this movement has embraced the name as a way to bring together micro-producers (usually no more than 1500 cases per year production, some produce much less) and use this festival platform as a way to bring their wines to the public in a way they’re not otherwise able to do individually.  Some of the Garagistes have tasting rooms, but some (the majority, I think) do not.  Many of them are new-ish to the winemaking game, but there are some seasoned old-timers as well, who continue to produce wine in small lots and with little interest of scaling up.  They do what they do because they love it, and the wines reflect this beautifully.

I attended the Los Angeles Garagiste festival this summer, and was so impressed with the wines I tasted, and had a wonderful time talking to the winemakers.  This is an up-close-and-personal event in a way that other wine festivals are not.

The Paso festival begins tonight with a wine and (grilled) cheese event in Atascadero–sadly, that’s sold out (but let’s just hope they repeat this particular party for next year’s festival, because let’s be honest–GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES).  There are still tickets available for Saturday’s events, which include a pair of seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.  Tickets are available at the door, but in the event of a sellout, I’d highly recommend buying them now via this link.  Your best deal is the day-long VIP pass, which gets you into both of the seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.

I haven’t tasted wines from every producer who’ll be there, but I’ve tried a LOT of them–here are my don’t-miss recommendations:  On Your Left, Pulchella, Caliza, Bodega de Edgar, Vinemark, and brand-spanking-new Garagiste, Serrano.  If you recall my profile of Rabbit Ridge winery, Serrano is RR’s second generation getting into the game (and their inaugural 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon has already racked up some impressive accolades–I’ve had it, it’s TASTY).

The always outstanding Vivant Fine Cheese will be serving cheese and charcuterie during the Grand Tasting, and other vendors will offer their wares as well (think: estate olive oils that will rock your world).

The all-day event runs from 11:00 a.m. (with the first seminar) to 5 p.m., The Grant Tasting is 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and the after party is 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All events are at the Paso Fairgrounds, 2198 Riverside Ave, Paso Robles, CA 93446

Greenbar Distillery–Los Angeles’ oldest craft spirits producer (since prohibition)–and they’re organic, too!

You could (and should) be excited that LA has a well-established and (really) high quality craft spirits distillery.  You should be excited that it’s downtown in the always-lively Arts District (location, location, location!).  And you REALLY should be excited that this distillery is not just organic, they’re so focused on sustainability that you reduce your own carbon footprint with every 2 ounces of their spirits you consume.

green-bar-logoDid you ever think it could be so easy, so fun, so delicious to be kind to the environment?  Well, WELCOME TO GREENBAR.

I know.  I’m excited about it, too.

Tasting Room Manager Bennett Rea takes patrons through a tasting of Greenbar's craft spirits
Tasting Room Manager Bennett Rea takes guests through a tasting of Greenbar’s craft spirits

Greenbar had its genesis over 14 years ago when husband and wife team (at that time newly engaged) Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Matthew decided to try their hands at producing spirits.  The endeavor arose out of a desire to find something a bit more palatable to drink at traditional celebrations with Melkon’s large Armenian family (yes, there’s a love story in the mix, too).  The celebrations involved beautiful toasts with high-proof (and often harsh) fruit brandies and vodkas, which were just too much for Litty’s palate (Litty has a culinary background and her palate is more attuned to fine wines–a woman after my own heart, clearly).  She was eager to fully take part in these family gatherings, so they set out to create some spirits that would make it easier for her to join in.

The large tasting room at Greenbar, which is also available for private events, overlooks the distillery production area.
The large tasting room at Greenbar, which is also available for private events, overlooks the distillery production area.

Their dabbling proved successful and delicious, and after a couple years, they decided to officially go into business–their handmade spirits using fresh, real ingredients (a pear and lavender vodka, for example) had impressed friends and family with their quality and the couple were now trying to keep up with requests for their spirits.

The distillery tour starts right on the production floor, where all the magic happens.
The distillery tour starts right on the production floor, where all the magic happens.

As one of the first distilleries in California since prohibition, Melkon and Litty were trailblazers (because they had to be) in going through the somewhat arcane application process.  Though the state legislature is slowly catching up with modern spirit production and sales practices, the laws that governed licensing dated back over a century and weren’t really designed to deal with the sort of market we know today, and certainly never had craft producers in mind–and which also favored distributors more than it does small producers.

Once they’d worked their way through the state and county/city requirements, they were, indeed, in business.  They’ve grown significantly over the years, and in 2012 moved from their original location in Monrovia and into their current location, a 14,000 square foot converted warehouse in the Arts District.

The education you get on Greenbar's approach is somewhat hands-on; take time to check out the jars of herbs and other aromatics that go into their products.
The education you get on the tour on Greenbar’s approach to making spirits is somewhat hands-on; take time to check out the jars of herbs and other aromatics that go into their products.

This is where you need to go, because you need to taste these spirits.  You have the option of taking a tour with tasting, where you’ll be introduced to all aspects of spirit production at Greenbar, starting with an introduction right on the distillery floor.  You’ll conclude with a tasting upstairs in their beautiful tasting room that overlooks the production facility (you can rent this space for private functions, too).  The cost for a tour with tasting is $12, or $8 if you want to drop by for a tasting only–but I highly recommend the tour.  It’s fascinating to learn all about their approach to spirit making (and then taste those same spirits).

You'll find some original and even exotic offerings at Greenbar Distillery.
You’ll find some original and even exotic offerings at Greenbar Distillery.

There is one particular spirit, a bitter brandy, that I’m going to tell you all about in a day or two in its own post, because I find it simply astonishing.  How’s that for a tease?  But they do a seriously large lineup including vodkas (neutral and flavored), gin, tequilas (the only spirit not produced on site, as it’s a legit tequila–Melkon and Litty travel to Jalisco every year to oversee production), one of the most interesting (and tasty) whiskeys that will ever pass your lips, rums, brandies and liqueurs.  There is, literally, something for every taste in their lineup.  They even produce a line of five custom bitters, created by bartenders around the country (there’s a contest, it’s serious stuff).

If you're a whiskey aficionado, you'll love Greenbar's Slow Hand whiskeys.
If you’re a whiskey aficionado, you’ll love Greenbar’s Slow Hand whiskeys.

My hot take/review on the spirits?  It’s really hard to pick favorites out of all the excellent offerings at Greenbar.  If you like whiskey, you’ll love their cask strength Slow Hand (they produce a white whiskey–you HAVE to try that one–a six-wood malt whiskey, and the cask strength six-wood).  Their commitment to using only local organic ingredients, including the grains for the whiskey, is evident right on the palate.  The flavors are clean and up-front, with a lingering and complex finish.

Gin, Vodka, Tequila--you'll find something delicious here no matter what your palate prefers.
Gin, Vodka, Tequila–you’ll find something delicious here no matter what your palate prefers.

Their savory Tru “Garden” vodka is a must-try, and works beautifully in savory cocktails like a bloody mary, and the vanilla vodka–infused with real organic vanilla beans–isn’t even in the same universe with the more cloying mass-produced vanilla vodkas you’ve encountered elsewhere.

The Crusoe spiced rum?  Big winner.  If you think you don’t like spiced rum, you’re wrong (where this one is concerned).  Again, it’s a huge departure from the overly sweet, chemical-overtoned spiced rums you’ve had in the past.

This is not your frat brother’s spiced rum. Greenbar’s Crusoe spiced rum is something special.

The Fruitlab liqueurs are all tasty (I’m a bit fascinated by spirits like this in general, and Greenbar’s really impressed me).  They produce a liqueur you can only purchase at the distillery–their “California” liqueur called Grand Hops, which should appeal to any IPA drinker.  It’s both bitter and sweet, as you might expect with anything involving hops–but it’s also herbaceous and skunky (in the BEST way) and unlike anything you’ve tried before.

If you're a fan of cocktails, Greenbar's bitters need your immediate attention. My favorite is the fennel, which has a beautiful anisette note.
If you’re a fan of cocktails, Greenbar’s Bar Keep bitters need your immediate attention. My favorite is the fennel, which has a beautiful anisette note.

Throughout their entire lineup–from the white Slow Hand to the Bar Keep bitters–you can taste the quality.  You can taste the difference that the organic (and local!) ingredients make in the spirits.  And it all comes in lightweight (read: easier on the environment) glass bottles with beautifully designed labels made from recycled paper and eco-friendly inks–and a tree.  Greenbar plants a tree for every bottle they sell, which means they’ve planted around a half a million trees so far.

The distillery brochure you’ll pick up when you’re there for a tour and/or tasting includes many cocktail recipes featuring their spirits, so make sure you take one of those home (some of them are just fabulous recipes, and some are new and interesting takes on old standards).

And if you’re into making your own cocktails, Greenbar hosts cocktail classes most Friday nights where you can try your hand at some mixology with the Greenbar spirits lineup.

Until you’re able to make it in for a tour, you can find their spirits at most Los Angeles-area Whole Foods stores (there’s a product locator on their website, and you’ll also find the aforementioned cocktail recipes there, too).

Tours and tastings are every Saturday at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m, 4:30 p.m., and 6 p.m..  Tastings are available Friday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the distillery store is open the above hours, plus Monday – Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  Greenbar is located at 2459 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90021, 213.375.3668.  You can book your tour (and cocktail classes!) online through their website; they do accommodate walk-ins for the tours, but reservations are strongly recommended.

Getting my feet wet

As I work my way through some preliminary and background posts in my Year in the Life of Wine project, this early work is as much for my own edification as it is my audience’s–and it’s got some fun photographic challenges.

I wanted to do some light coverage of this year’s harvest to feature in these preliminary posts, and that would mean shooting when they harvest at Tablas Creek.  They harvest at night.  And that is a tough thing to shoot–action shots in almost total darkness?  Hey, I’m always up for improving my skill set–and will need to if I’m going to shoot this intensively next fall.  First, thank goodness for cameras that perform well in low light.  That helps a great deal.  As for the rest?  Jump in the deep end of that figurative pool and get to work.

Macro bins full of Mourvèdre as day breaks at Tablas Creek
Macro bins full of Mourvèdre as day breaks at Tablas Creek

The payoff is that it gave me a much-needed handle on how to approach this kind of vineyard photography, and got the creative wheels turning as I think about interesting ways to photograph things next fall now that I have a feel for the technical requirements.

I may have nibbled a few Mourvèdre grapes (Counoise, too), and discovered that grape juice mud is a thing in dusty vineyards.  And it’s sticky stuff.  I was impressed again with the hard work and skill of the harvest crew (all of whom were so incredibly lovely to hang out with as they worked and I shot).

And, most of all, I’m excited to taste the wines that are made from these grapes I followed over the course of a night and morning.  I’m already a fan of Mourvèdre generally, and Tablas Creek’s is one of the best I’ve had.

So.  Never been present for a night harvest?  Go take a look right here, in that case.  Later this week: back at the winery with the fruit from the night’s harvest.

 

Beautiful wines and beautiful food, beautifully paired

I was invited to a trade luncheon last week featuring the wines of one of the oldest Chateaus in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau La Nerthe, at Georgie restaurant in Montage Beverly Hills.

The wines of Chateau La Nerthe
The wines of Chateau La Nerthe

More about the Chateau and Georgie in a moment, but first, about the lunch itself:  it was such a wonderful reminder of why I–and I suppose all of us–love wine so much.  I love to settle in with a glass of something delicious all by itself, but there’s something transcendent when you have just the right great wine with just the right food.  It can be downright revelatory.

If you’ve never dined at Georgie, it’s well worth a visit.  All of the dishes we had at the luncheon are available on the regular menu, so if you see something here that looks good–go get it!

Oyster Escabeche, which was as beautiful as it was delicious

We started out with a thoroughly impressive pairing–Prieuré de Montézargues rosé (one of the labels owned by the Chateau), with a single, perfect oyster escabeche, a Galician preparation topped with a meticulously brunoised pepper relish.  When an Amuse-bouche is placed in front of you and you reflexively grin at the sheer aesthetic loveliness, you know you’re in for a good time.

Herbed Labne on Pita
Herbed Labne on Pita

And so the rest of the lunch progressed–yellowfin poke and the Chateau’s 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc; kale and tabbouleh salad with the astonishing 2012 Clos de Beauvenir, a Roussane-dominant blend and the estate’s top white.  I will dream about this wine.  My favorite of the starters, the herbed labne–a riff on tzatziki topped with cucumber, cherry tomato and pickled red onion–was paired with the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, which has aged beautifully, drinks beautifully, and still has years of (delicious) life in the bottle.

Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe
Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe

And those were just the whites.

A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau's offerings
A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau’s offerings
The made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp
The Cotes du Rhone Villages made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp

On to the heavier plates and the lineup of the estate’s Côtes du Rhône Villages, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge (2012 and 2006), and their Châteauneuf-du-Pape des Cadettes, their premier Rouge, made from a dedicated 20-acre vineyard under vines ranging from 80 to 100 years old.  The food continued to impress as we moved into the heavier dishes, including some truly inventive pairings–especially the salsa verde marinated shrimp which made for a surprisingly spectacular pairing with the Côtes du Rhône Villages.  My favorite dish served with the reds was the short rib ravioli (because come ON you know this is going to be good!) and the des Cadettes.  FANTASTIC.

An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch
An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch

In short, Chateau La Nerthe produces some of the finest Rhône wines you’re likely to find–know that much (and those of you in the Los Angeles area can find them at Wally’s).  The Chateau has a wonderful history, and I’ll be interviewing their export director, Christophe Bristiel, here in the coming days about that in detail.

 

So I have this little project. It involves wine.

A few months before I started this blog, I was working away on a proposal for a new documentary project.  (If you’ve not read the “about” page here, you may not know that I’m a nature photographer!)  In fact, that proposal is what led me to create the wine-stained lens blog as an ancillary pursuit.

My previous documentary project, the Owens Lake Project, concluded for the most part after six-plus years.  While there will be some ongoing work for years to come, the major work on the project is finished.  Since I like to have a personal photography project going at all times, I wanted to jump right into something new as soon as possible.

The idea I’d kicked around for a few years–and what I finally decided upon–was an in-depth, year-long look at the winemaking process from grape to bottle.  A year in the life of wine, if you will.

logoThis project will be a slight shift away from prior work (conservation photography) in that it will involve writing as much as it would photography–but photography is still the primary focus.

Centered completely at the estate of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, home to some of the most stunning Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wines produced in the new world, The Life of Wine will take an up-close, in-depth look at a year in the life of the vineyard.  Follow along now with the introductory posts, setting the stage for the “new year” in the vineyard, which for our purposes will begin following this fall’s harvest as the vines go into dormancy.  We will go from dormancy to bud break to the end of next year’s harvest, with a parallel look at what’s going on in the winery lab and barrel room as the current harvest begins its next phase of life.

Tablas Creek Vineyard
Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek is a pretty special place, and I’m honored they’re allowing me to tell this story through their vines and wines.  I’m excited about showing you this life, and hope you’ll follow along over the next year.

Make sure you never miss a day in the life of wine–subscribe with the RSS button on this page!

Lovin’ la Vida Lodi (Part 2 of my adventure)

So I had quite the introduction to Lodi wine country last week, and my second day there only got better.

Filled with enthusiasm and warmth from the previous evening’s festivities, I bounded onto the shuttle at 5:30 a.m. the second morning, ready for a sunrise harvest at Michael David Winery.

Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery
Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery

Oh, who am I kidding. I dragged my zombified self onto the bus, clutching my to-go cup of hotel coffee like a life preserver and wondered what the heck I’d gotten myself into.

Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier
Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier

But the enthusiasm would soon return for real the moment we stepped into the vineyard, now bathed in a soft pre-dawn glow.  The air still had a bit of coolness (enjoy it while it lasts!), and field workers were already hard at work hand-harvesting Viognier grapes–which is the same task we were about to try for the first time, and general manager Kevin Phillips was there to crack that whip and make sure we got to work pronto.  A ruthless taskmaster, that man (not really; he was a riot, and a great sport for allowing us into his vineyard for some very sketchy beginner-level field work).

Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed
Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed

Let me just say this: those workers are GREAT at what they do, and the speed with which they do it will blow your mind.  I was already impressed just watching them work their way down the rows, but when the rest of us donned gloves and picked up clippers to give it a shot, I was even more impressed.  That is some seriously demanding work, and the level of skill and focus it takes to move with any speed down those rows comes from a lot of dedication and practice.  It is hard, hard, hard work.  They are Bad. Ass.  We, on the other hand, kinda sucked–but learned a little more about what goes into making our favorite liquid-in-a-bottle, and got a genuine appreciation for some of the most back-breaking work that’s such an integral part of the process of going from grape to bottle.  Everybody jumped in and gave it their best shot, and we almost, kinda-sorta filled up one big bin as a group.

Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work
Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work

After a field worker’s breakfast at the winery (coffee and a massive breakfast burrito), we were off to Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to check out one of the (if not THE) most unusual vineyards in all of California.  Bob Koth’s vineyard along the banks of the Mokelumne River is a living museum of German and Austrian varietals.  While it doesn’t include every such varietal in existence, the Koths do grow almost 50 different varietals (including several different Riesling clones)–many of which are the only such plantings in the U.S., and in one of the least likely places to grow these cool-weather grapes.  But grow them he does, and it’s become a varietal playground for winemakers, a few of whom greeted us at the end of our vineyard tour (where I hope nobody was keeping track of how many Gewurztraminer berries I was munching along the way).

Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines me makes from Mokelumne Glen's fruit
Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines he makes from Mokelumne Glen’s fruit
MVG Wines
Some of the wines made from grapes grown at Mokelumne Glen vineyard

We sampled wines made from Mokelumne Glen grapes by Borra Vineyards, Holman Cellars and Sidebar Cellars–my favorites were the Holman Uncharted, made from MGV Bacchus grapes (a new varietal for me), and Borra’s Nuvola–a crisp, dry 100% Gewurztraminer made from MGV grapes.  The excitement that these winemakers have about the opportunity to work with Mokelumne Glen’s rare varietals was palpable (and made the tasting that much more fun).

After we finished our tasting there, we stepped across a continent (figuratively speaking), meaning we walked across the road to Bokisch Vineyards’ Las Cerezas vineyard, planted with Spanish varietals Tempranillo, Albarino, and a new-for-me red varietal that Bokisch specializes in, Graciano.  Owner and grower Markus Bokisch took us through a tasting of these wines (again, such a great experience standing in the same vineyard where the wine you’re drinking was grown).  Bokisch spent several years in Spain, and came away with a passion for (and extensive knowledge of) Spanish varietals, and they are the centerpiece of the wines he makes.

Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards
Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards

We were soon off to Bokisch’s Terra Alta vineyard and tasting room for another vineyard and winery tour (including a FUN taste of freshly pressed Albarino juice!), and finally settled in under a massive oak tree in the middle of the vineyard where we enjoyed a Catalan-style repast prepared by Liz Bokisch, accompanied by more of those delicious Bokisch wines.  There were open-faced build-it-yourself sandwiches, a watermelon and feta salad, and an incredibly fresh, bright and perfect-for-the-heat gazpacho.  It was the perfect warm weather meal, and the al fresco vineyard setting was beautiful.  And I came away with a mild obsession for his Mourvedre-based Monastrell; we tasted the soon-to-be-released 2014, and I will be back for more of that.

So, what’s the best thing to do after feasting on a Spanish-inspired vineyard lunch?  Go see more vineyards!  Off we went again, this time to the Abba Vineyard where we were met by grower Phil Abba and winemaker Mike McCay of McCay cellars, who uses the Abba Syrah and Grenache in his wines.

McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache--bright, dry and delicious
McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache–bright, dry and delicious

We were back to triple-digit temps, so being met with McCay’s cold and delicious Rose of Carignane and Grenache to start off with was a welcome treat.  With refreshing rose in hand, we got a tour and quick lesson in trellising in the Syrah vineyard.

Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard
Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard

For this particular varietal, Abba uses an uncommon trellising system known as Smart-Henry, where the grapes are trained into two tiers.  And it’s the most aesthetically beautiful trellising I’ve ever seen.

McCay's Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass
McCay’s Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass

We had a taste of McCay’s Syrah from that vineyard, and then proceeded down the road a bit to Abba’s Grenache vineyard.  Not only did we again sample the wine from that vineyard while tasting the almost-ripe Grenache berries, we got to do something this wine geek has been fascinated by but never tried before–we played around with one of the winemaker’s and grower’s most important harvest-time tools, the refractometer.

Using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes
A fellow blogger using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes

This is used to measure the sugar level, or brix, in winegrapes and helps determine when the time is right to pick those grapes (and by the way, that McCay Grenache–currently one of my favorite varietals generally–knocked my socks off; big and spicy on the palate, with a cherry cola nose that I flipped for).

I can’t say enough good things about how Lodi Wine planned this excursion, by the way–our final vineyard stop of the day was yet another educational (and really interesting) lesson in wine.  We left the Abba vineyard and headed to the Rous vineyard of true ancient-vine Zinfandel.

Chris Rous, Steve Millier, Tim Holdener and Mike McCay tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel
Mike McCay, Tim Holdener, Steve Millier and Chris Rous tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel

Grower Chris Rous sells fruit from that vineyard to three different winemakers–Mike McCay, who seemed to be just following us around at this point (I KID, I KID!–McCay was one of my favorite people I met on this excursion), Steve Millier of Ironstone Vineyards, and Tim Holdener of Macchia Vineyards.  They all make an old-vine zin from this vineyard, and we were treated to a side-by-side tasting of all three.  There were definite differences in style between the three, all were delicious, and it was really interesting to taste the different takes on old vine zin from the same vineyard.  Yet another wine geek’s treat.

I may never stop raving about this experience.  Lodi Wine did an amazing job showing off their great wine region, and including lots of general in-the-field wine education as well.  I was so impressed not just by the wines, but by the wonderful people making them.  Lodi is a small town, and those winemakers all know each other and have built a wonderful community–and it shows.  I was honored to be included in that community, even if it was just for a couple of days.  I’m already planning a trip back later this fall to interview several of the winemakers so I can more properly introduce them to you here on winestainedlens.

 

Surprised by Lodi (Part 1)

I’m one of the first people who’ll urge you to put aside your assumptions when you go into any new situation, but even I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled to Lodi, California for the ninth annual (and my very first) Wine Bloggers Conference last week.

And boy, was I blown away by what I experienced.

Known in the past mostly for its (very) large-scale production of wine grapes, used mostly in bulk wines, it’s so much more.  Lodi was named 2015’s Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine–no small accomplishment–so I suspected I was in for a treat.  I already have a soft spot for underappreciated wine regions (see my love of all things Paso Robles), and Lodi just went straight to my heart.

I opted to participate in the pre-conference excursion in Lodi on Wednesday and Thursday (the conference officially kicked off on Friday morning), and I’ll spend this post filling you in on that first day and first up-close experience with Lodi wines (tomorrow you’ll hear about day 2).

Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state
Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state

The conference picked us up at our respective hotels (with the delightful Randy Caparoso, a wine journalist who writes for the Lodi Wine Commission and is also editor-at-large for SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel magazines as our guide) and we were off to our first winery and vineyard visit–Acquiesce Vineyards, where winemaker Susan Tipton produces Rhône whites only (okay, and one VERY tasty rosé).  Who even does that?  Susan Tipton does, and she knocks it out of the park, thank you very much.

Acquiesce's lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don't you just LOVE that bottle shape?)
Acquiesce’s lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don’t you just LOVE that bottle shape?)

Now, granted it was just ridiculously hot in Lodi last week, but those were some of the most crisp, refreshing white wines I’ve tasted in a very long time.  We took a quick stroll through her vineyard, and then escaped the heat to try the wines inside the (blessedly cool) tasting room.  Her Picpoul Blanc was easily my favorite (and currently sold out), but the entire lineup is a beautiful expression of everything that makes those wines simultaneously a perfect representation of both the Rhône region they hail from and the synergistic perfection of those varietals grown under optimum Rhône-like conditions here in California.

Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard
Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard

We were soon back on the bus and on our way to the Lizzy James Vineyard, where we were given a vineyard walk-and-talk with owner/grower Kyle Lerner of Harney Lane Winery and winemaker Chad Joseph.  There’s something truly special about tasting a wine while standing in the very vineyard in which the grapes were grown (and this would not be our only such experience).  These vines in particular are true old vine Zinfandel, planted in 1904, nice and gnarly and something Lodi still has in abundance–and part of what makes it such a special wine region.  And those old vines produce some of the most intense, complex fruit–and resulting wine–you’ll ever put to your lips.

Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane
Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane

After learning all about those vines, we headed on to the Harney Lane tasting room for our last stop of the evening.  We sampled the Albariño, then the rosé of Tempranillo, Petite Sirah & Zinfandel (bone-dry, rich and absolutely heavenly).  Glasses in hand, we decamped to the winery’s patio, where the Lerners had set an incredible dinner for all us bloggers.

Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu
Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu

I’ve enjoyed more than a few winemaker dinners over the years, and this one–well, it was fabulous and friendly and brimming with great food, great wine (including that Lizzy James zin!), and great conversation and laughter.

Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country
Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country

What a wonderful way to get acquainted with each other (beyond our electronic friendships) and the lovely and gracious Lerner family.

We ended the day with several in the group taking a ride on a harvester as it mechanically picked chardonnay clusters just as the sun was going down and the delta breeze from the Carquinez Strait kicked in (aaaahhhhh).

A sunset joyride on a chardonnay harvester at Harney Lane
A sunset joyride on a grape harvester at Harney Lane

WHAT a day.  It was an incredible introduction to Lodi, full of charm and killer wine.  And we were just getting started (Part 2 tomorrow!).