Friday, January 8, 2010

Kevin Begins 2010

People ask, “What is your typical day?” At small winery, no two are the same, and yesterday was classic. Most of us are back from the Christmas break (I swung through almost every day to check on the wines) and getting organized for the new year. After presenting our 2010 strategic imperatives to our awesome staff, I re-work my production calendar and decide that we really need to assemble the Sauvignon Blanc blend a week early so it will have a full month to settle and clear before bottling. Problem is only two of my three top guys in the cellar are back from vacation, and their English is not so good, and my Spanish is even worse. I try communicating with them in my customary Spanglish, and becoming desperate I try French, pronouncing the verbs with a Spanish accent until Aaron, Carlos and I feel completely stupid. Fortunately, we’re all pals and fluent in “winemaking” and understand working with our hands, and we manage to get the wine blended to two topped tanks, turn the temperature down to “cold stabilize,” and run a sample to the lab. Replaced the light bulb and fixed the door in the restroom. Karin and the girls arrived and we took down the Christmas tree and tasting room decorations. I’ve been here since 6AM, it’s now 6PM, (Leo is still upstairs crunching the year end financials) we head out with the kids for pizza and the best beer of the new year. Note to self: hire Spanish tutor, fix the exterior lights for Leo, restock beer fridge.

Three Kings Preparation

On Wednesday, we decided to kick off the new year with a very unique biodynamic preparation called, The Three Kings Preparation. There are so many beautiful pieces to this preparation that it's hard to know where to begin...a little history, first.

The Three Kings Preparation is one of a whole group of preparations created by Hugo Erbe (1885-1965) as a result of his lifelong work as a biodynamic farmer in Germany. He experienced a very close connection to the elemental world and sought ways of encouraging its beneficial influences. Following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Hugo Erbe was disturbed by the destruction and flight of beneficial elemental beings from his farmland. He felt that a deep wound to the living sheath of the earth had been inflicted and to help heal the damage done to the earth, and bring the elementals back into equilibrium, he developed a preparation made from the same gifts given by the three wise men to Jesus in Bethlehem.

The three gifts from the Magi were: Gold, a symbol for worldly wisdom, Frankincense, a devotional offering to the Gods and Myrrh, a symbol for the victory of life over death. For those of us who practice biodynamic farming, the application of the the Three Kings Preparation has a deep resonance within the biodynamic community. This is the one preparation that is applied on a global level and which unifies all followers of biodynamic farming at the same time. According to the Josephine Porter Insititue: When using the Three Kings Preparation, you are in essence sending a message to the elemental kingdom that here within a "'magic circle", they will be provided a safe haven as well as the profound spiritual nourishment of the biodynamic preparations.

From a practical perspective, this is what we hour of stirring, seated together in our organic garden, the sense of common purpose and community...a time of reflection and conversation, the feeling of participation in our greater world and cosmos. Kevin and Karin had painstakingly made the stirring tool from lemon branches and grape vine cuttings, had ground the three elements into a paste on new year's eve and brought inspiration and energy to the gathering as we hunkered down for an hour of stirring...The idea is to create a vortex with the water, stirring swiftly, and then to create chaos by reversing the stir. Then, restore balance to the chaos by stirring in the other is a peaceful and contemplative occupation!

But, the best part of the preparation is the application. To create the "magic circle" around our property, we each grabbed a bucket and a brush and walked to the south edge of our olive orchard. As we each dipped our brush into the water and began to splash the preparation from the center of the property outward, we all knew that we were even further bound to this magnificant place. The glory of the day, the quiet patience of the dormant vines and the desire to add protection and peace to our estate was glorious. Scott, Leo and I headed west toward the barn while Kevin, Catherine, Meghan and Brian went east. We all joined on the northern boundary, flushed cheeks and smiles...some days, you just love your job!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blind Tasting

Contrary to what one might think, we don't actually taste the wines blind...that is, we don't cover our eyes! What we do cover is the bottle and the key is to not cheat. It really takes all of the fun out of the tasting. So, if you're wondering what we did on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we blind tasted five Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. And no one cheated...All of the wines were beautiful expressions of Napa Valley terroir and any one of these would make a great companion to a hearty winter meal.
2005 Showket Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Viader
2006 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1886

Napa Valley is the place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, but what is often overlooked is the amazing Merlot that is also grown from this region. Generally used as a blending varietal, a well crafted Merlot can absolutely hold its own against the more prominent Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a lot like siblings...typically, one gets all of the attention up front, but often, there's another personality in the family that given just half a chance, can show strong character as well.

Blind tasting with friends is a great experience. It brings everyone together around the table for spirited debate and personal opinions. The wonderful thing about wine is that everyone is correct! But, it's also fun to see where your palate falls in a group ranking. Think about hosting a Napa Valley Merlot blind tasting this month. Here's how to do it:

Select between 4 - 6 Merlots. The 2006 vintage is widely available.Check with your local wine retailer. We recommend The Bounty Hunter or St. Helena Wine Center to source great wines. Some of our favorite Merlots are:
    1. Barnett
    2. Carter
    3. Duckhorn
    4. Ehlers Estate
    5. Paloma
    6. Shafer
  1. Set a well lit table with a white piece of paper at each place setting.
  2. Use a separate wine glass for each wine at the place setting
  3. Have a trustworthy accomplice pour each wine, to the same level, in each glass. No peeking!
  4. Create your own form, or download this one: Blind Tasting Sheet 
  5. Create your own form, or download this one: Blind Tasting Score Card

Take 10 - 15 minutes for everyone to evaluate each wine at his/her own pace. Try not to discuss the wines during this's very tempting, but it will quickly derail the evaluation process. At the end of the "quiet time", ask everyone to rank the wines. The group ranking is different than the score that you have given to each wine. Based on your scores from the Blind Tasting Sheet, try and rank the wines from first to last.

Now you get to chat! We usually start with the group's last ranking wine and move to the top. Everyone should contribute to the discussion. It's always amazing how many adjectives a group can have to describe a wine...and, this part of the discussion has plenty of moments where you realize, yes, I did smell the clove, or wow, I did taste the dark chocolate. It's also humorous because the conversation can move quickly from one person's sweet spice to another person's dark berry fruit. Remember, no one is wrong! Enjoy the process and let the adjectives flow.

The Holidays are a time for gathering, group interaction and shared passion. If you have minors in your tribe, do the same experience with sodas. Kids are incredible at picking out the 7-Up versus the Sprite. So, temp your family or friends this year with a blind tasting. It just might become a holiday tradition....

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Winter White

I have some winemaker friends who talk about making their particular style of Sauvignon Blanc. I could think and re-think myself into an early grave over that one word: style. From South Africa to Graves to Sancerre to New Zealand to California Fume, and back home again. I’m not after style, and I’m not trying to emulate or imitate anything or anyone; I’m after authenticity.

2009 Ehlers Estate St. Helena Sauvignon Blanc on right

We work hard to farm these grapes all year, and we want to taste what all that hard work and great terroir tastes like. The last thing I’m going to do is clutter the wine all up with new oak, malolactic character, or residual sugar. I want to pour you a glass of wine and then walk out the front door into the vineyard and show you where it grows. Kick the dirt.

You should be able to taste the big picture of our little estate. A little organic estate, I might add, which we farm biodynamically, and where chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are strictly verboten. Uncluttered land, uncluttered wine. This all sounds simple, but I sweat, lose sleep, and agonize over the process of turning this fragile grape into an “Ehlers quality” adornment for the dinner table.

If I press the grapes too hard or too long, there is the risk that a slight bitterness or a coarseness will creep into the juice. If the fermentation is too cold, the native yeast will never grow properly… Too warm and those same yeast will ferment too fast, produce too much CO2, and the delicate aromatics can actually cook off before I’ve even had my lunch. A little oxygen is good; more than a little is disastrous. Lees stirring: a little, but not too much, and for goodness sake, do it gently. It all happens so fast. By the winter solstice, I want to taste the finished wine, say “wow, we’re over the hump!” and sleep easy. A few more months of quiet, slow, steady, ageing, and I’m looking to put it to bottle. What a ride!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Go Big

Why get the big bottle? Is there any reason other than looking really cool at the party? Actually, yes!

Wine ages differently in different size vessels. Some of this is scientifically verifiable and well understood, and some of it is wonderfully mysterious. Aging begins early, during maceration and fermentation -- Kevin says even from the moment the grapes are picked. Red wines are loaded with tannins: thousands of different sized and shaped tannin species and similar color molecules. A major part of what we describe as ageing involves the getting-together of these tannin and color molecules. Generally, the small tannins contribute more bitterness and astringency, and the longer molecules contribute to a fuller body, and a silky, velvety mouth-feel. So as these molecules connect, larger molecules form and the wine softens. These are slow reactions that take place over years, and the parameters that guide how these reactions occur have a lot to do with oxygen. Winemakers are very careful to protect the wines from oxygen and ideally, wines get bottled completely void of oxygen, with only a trace amount in that little “air space” below the cork. Over time the dissolved oxygen in the wine gets involved, the trace amount of oxygen in the ullage space starts to mingle, the miniscule wisps of air that pass through the cork come to the party, and the miracle of bottle ageing is under way.

And with big bottles? The short answer is that the same amount of oxygen is in play in a small bottle as is in a large-format bottle, but the large bottle has a whole lot more wine to soak it up, so the ageing process happens much more gracefully. Large bottles seem to get better over a much longer period of time.

Of course, another reason people like big bottles is a bit more down to earth… There is the anticipation that it’s going to be’ve been saving it, you've gathered that special group together and you take pause to think about it before you pull that cork...there is the ceremony, the expectant eyes all on you, and then, you start in gently with your cork pull, you’ve passed the point of no return, you’re committed, and there’s no going back! The satisfying pop of the pulled cork and the drift of the unctuous aromas...ahhhhh, so good!

Large format bottles also have really cool names. You can have fun dropping these titles on your friends. Below is a chart which shows the nomenclature for the most common wine bottles and their respective sizes.

Magnums and Double Magnums are by far the most popular and economical size for both aging and entertaining. The presentation of a large format bottle at a party, family gathering or special occasion can provide an extra element of excitement and ceremony. The Ehlers Estate 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon 1.5L will age gracefully through 2020. Go Big at your next gathering!

If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our winemaker, Kevin Morrisey     at Enjoy!

Get Vertical

Typically, wine takes you horizontal, but that’s another topic…perhaps the Moody Blues said it best:

I remember the taste of the vintage wine
From ’63 to ‘69
And I’m proud of the things we believed in then
If I had the chance I’d go around again

So, why is it fun to collect a vertical of wine? Because the vintage is a one time occurrence…that bottle of wine will never be produced again. The circumstances of the vintage are a time arrested moment that has been captured in the bottle. When you reach a point in life where you appreciate fine wines made by winemakers who are interested in “terroir expression,” you can begin to view wine as a reflection of a time and a place. When a wine is made from the same small parcel of ground, year after year, you start to understand what that place tastes like. When you taste several vintages of wine from the same vineyard, you begin to really know it. You get to know how that terroir expresses itself in dry years, in wet years, in hot years, in complex years, in early years, in late years, in difficult years, in easy years. The vertical then becomes a liquid history, a snapshot of the moment and can evoke a deep connection to the original experience of discovery. It’s like a great photo album that you get to drink!

The Ehlers Estate vertical of our Cabernet Sauvignon 1886 is a perfect place to begin your long term relationship with our beautiful vineyard. The three vintages, 2004, 2005 and 2006 each have their own story to tell. Consistently sourced from Block 1, and planted on clones 15 and 337, our Cabernet Sauvignon 1886 is the ultimate expression of our terroir. We started our organic and biodynamic farming practices in 2003 and these vintages mark the first, early presentations of our commitment to the highest possible viticulture standards.

The 2004 harvest was marked by an early bud break followed by scattered heat spikes throughout the summer. Veraison was completed early with well developed sugars and higher acids. We had one of the earliest Cabernet Sauvignon harvests on the Estate with pick dates between September 7 - 13. We had average yields of 2.5 tons per acre with balanced fruit and well integrated tannins.

Conversely, the 2005 harvest saw record setting rain late into the growing season which delayed bloom and set. There were very few heat spikes during the summer and sugars were slow to rise. We had a later than normal harvest punctuated by an “Indian Summer” (warm fall) which allowed for extended hang time. We picked our Cabernet Sauvignon between September 30 – October 21 and our yields were exceptionally high at over 5 tons per acre. As a result, we had very developed fruit flavors which exhibit soft, round and dense tannins.

Finally, the 2006 harvest was beset by intense New Year floods and a late spring. July saw a record-setting 10 day heat wave which allowed the vines to “catch up” on the growing season. Cooler weather prevailed in August and September which again made for a later harvest. We picked our Cabernet Sauvignon between October 9 – 26, and although we had some rain in early October, the Cabernet Sauvignon was a lighter than average yield at just over 2 tons per acre and thus the loose clusters with small berries did not suffer. This vintage is more concentrated with a full body and velvety tannins.

We recommend drinking the 2004 and 2006 vintages between 2014 and 2018 and the 2005 vintage between 2012 – 2017.

If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our winemaker, Kevin Morrisey at Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vancouver/Whistler 2009

The thing about being “tricksy” is that sometimes you don’t always outsmart the process…I spent a chapter out of Trains, Planes and Automobiles as I flew from Santa Rosa airport on Thursday evening. After hopscotching my way north, I finally arrived in Vancouver 6 ½ hours later…saved time on the drive to the airport, but the flight had three stops!

I consider it a great omen when the cab driver has heard of your hotel but has no idea where it is…The Loden Vancouver is a gem, located in a great part of town. My view of the bay and groovy chic room are a welcome reprisal for the extra hours on the plane…up early next morning with fellow vintner, Jack Edwards of Miner Family Vineyards, and our shared agent, Todd Ramsay of Marram Wines, to make the trek to Whistler. Without a doubt, this is one of the most picturesque drives on the planet…snow dusted mountains, waterfalls that make Yosemite’s look like a bad fire hose, pine clad islands resting peacefully in a calm sea…it’s a balm for the soul.

Whistler is all a-bustle as the mountain is opening a full two weeks ahead of schedule and the Westin is hopping with amped up skiers, boarders and of course, wine worshippers in for the annual Cornucopia event. The best part about pouring wine at this event is the response from the wine loving Canadians…all locals from Whistler and Vancouver, this is a crowd that appreciates fine wine and food. The problem is that not too many small Napa Valley producers have representation here, so most people only know the big guys. Regarding the food scene, you can’t go wrong! Dinner on Friday night at Bearfoot Bistro was incredible…my appetizer, an heirloom tomato salad with olive oil powder (!) was fantastic. If you order sparkling wine you are escorted into the wine cellar where you can saber your bottle with a choice of swords from the movie 300. I brought a bottle of Ehlers Estate 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 1886 which was theatrically decanted in the crazy Riedel EVE decanter. The wine showed superbly…

Other amazing meals were had at Hy’s Steak House and Araxi. The wine service at both was informative and gracious. The food scene in Whistler is well above what one might expect for a ski village. As the snow turned to rain, we headed back to Vancouver on Monday. The volume of water sheeting off of the mountains was stunning…coming from water challenged California, the sight of so much drainage into the sea was mind boggling. And that beautiful drive never disappoints…

Back in Vancouver, Will Flatt, also of Marram Wines, led me around to introduce our wines to the thriving restaurant scene. I was again amazed at the high level of dining. Charming Pino Posteraro from Cioppino’s gave me a jar of house made honey to soothe my tired throat, Andrea from Blue Water Cafe commiserated with me about how to turn consumers back on to Merlot and Van Doren Chan from Elixir was ecstatic to have a new wine budget for the upcoming Olympic games. I also found great retail wine outlets run by passionate folks (Bruno at Firefly and Neal at Dundarave Wine Cellar) who are committed to offering the lesser known brands to oenophiles in Vancouver. But my biggest surprise was the meal at Vij’s…the Ehlers Estate 2005 St. Helena Merlot showed splendidly with the signature lamb popsicles! I never thought about red wine and Indian food, but then again, this was no ordinary street fare…but the best news is that Mike is on a mission to bring Vij's to the US!

This amazing week came to an outstanding end last night at West. I barely know where to begin…a portfolio tasting from Ehlers Estate shared with the top press from Western Canada, the 12 of us recreated our own version of the Last Supper! Chef Warren met the challenge of pairing multiple vintages (2005, 2006 & 2007 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1886) and multiple wines (Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc & Ehlers Estate Merlot) within the perfectly prepared 4 course meal…the highlights were the Yuzu Marinated Vancouver Island Octopus and the Loin of Salt Spring Island Venison, both very local ingredients that reflected a deep culinary passion. Wine steward Owen kept the wines in order and I think all of the other diners had to make do with water glasses as I’m sure we used every piece of stemware in the house!

Seated in the YVR airport, thinking about my twin prop flight home, I am already scheming of my return trip…Cheers to Vancouver/Whistler which is home to so much more than the upcoming winter Olympics!