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The Personal Pursuit of Balance

2014 August 26

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This blog has been on a summer hiatus. After four years of devoting the bulk of my free time to this effort, I decided it was time to take stock of how much effort it requires, how little I am receiving monetarily from my writing and what else I could be profitably doing with that time.

I was also realizing I’m significantly heavier than I was when I started the blog, in much worse shape physically, and that I’d been spending precious little time in recent months with friends, or potential new friends, because I was so focused on getting to tastings, wine-related travel and meeting deadlines.

It’s also been clear to me for some time that I’m not really a blogger at heart. I don’t live to opine on the same things others in the wine blogging community are writing about. I like to write about things others aren’t exploring. I also like to take the time to be thoroughly conversant with my subject and get all my facts right.

This site has evolved in the four year since it started into more of a collection of long, reference quality pieces about producers, regions or varieties. Those pieces on a weekly basis have run from 5-12,000 words, are thoroughly researched and, usually, supported by extensive tasting notes. There’s no other wine blog that has had that kind of content, on a regular basis. I’ve started to see there’s a very good reason for that.

I’ve also been doing a condensed version of my weekly pieces here—less than 1,000 words—for the Huffington Post. That seemed like a great opportunity to reach a more general audience when it was first offered, and I am proud of the pieces I did for HuffPo.

HuffPo pays virtually none of their bloggers, me included, and after briefly highlighting wine related columns in their own Wine section, and promoting many of the pieces I wrote in their daily emails to subscribers, columns like mine eventually got relegated to the Taste section, where the main emphasis is on food, dieting and recipes. So my pieces have received significantly less traffic there than they did in the first year and a half or so on the site. And yet they require a lot of effort to condense, punch up for a general audience and completely reformat for HuffPo. I expect to still do some on occasion when I think it’s a particularly newsworthy topic for HuffPo, but not with my prior frequency.

Aside from the writing, tasting and research required as background for the writing, there’s been all the time required to set up and maintain a blog.

Initially I had to learn WordPress to get the site going. WordPress and its thousands of plug ins keep changing and expanding—which is a good thing, but also requires one to keep up.

When I was disappointed by my rankings on search engines after the first several months of writing for this site, I also had to learn about search engine optimization, which ultimately required weeks of re-doing my site, and its “metatags.”

Pictures are also vital to a successful blog, so I have spent a lot of time editing and uploading photos over the past four years too. Unfortunately, the site that had hosted my thousands of pictures for 10 years decided to go out of that business, so I lost the hundreds of photo links on my site overnight and had to spend weeks of time I could ill afford uploading my photos to a new site and rebuilding my photo links on Flickr, which I hope will be around for awhile.

In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed an unexpected opportunity that came to me as a result of my writing here: being invited on media press trips to wine regions in various parts of the world.

The invites started to come pretty regularly after pieces I did on trips to places like Rioja and Uruguay, and I had begun to set aside all my vacation time from work for those trips—trying to do one of these trips nearly every other month.

Two particularly arduous trips this year, however, made me rethink the wisdom of taking advantage of those opportunities.

RJ with circa 1960 Citroën convertible that was provided for a day of winery visits in Cahors

RJ with circa 1960 Citroën convertible that was provided for a day of winery visits in Cahors


The organizers typically overschedule us media types, and on my last couple trips, not only were we going at a breakneck pace, from early in the morning to very late at night, but also nearly half the time was spent on activities the organizers insisted we attend, even over protests, that were not something of interest to me or my readers. Traveling for an entire day each way, as was required to get to Israel or Cahors, in Southwest France, is also pretty arduous in itself. Between that and the non-stop pace when one gets there, I was feeling completely exhausted when I got back (after taking a week of “vacation” time).

Although I have particularly enjoyed and learned a lot on well organized trips to places like Rioja and Champagne, in the future I will mainly organize my own trips focused on the producers and topics that most interest me. I’m still open to a particularly interesting wine press trip, where I’m clear on the itinerary in advance (and said yes last week to an October trip to Tuscany that promises to be very well organized by the Chianti Consorzio), but will otherwise be turning down these opportunities in the future.

So what else have I learned in my several weeks off from the weekly grind of banging out pieces for this blog and HuffPo?

I am thrilled to have started to get in shape again. I’ve lost over 25 pounds so far, and am now working with a professional bodybuilder as my personal trainer to help me take off another 20 or so and to take advantage of all the new science of bodybuilding that seems to have developed since the last time I had a trainer.

working out, photo by James Hurst

working out, photo by James Hurst


I am going to fewer tastings, and being much more selective and strategic about what I attend. I continue to receive a lot of samples for tasting, many of which are quite excellent, and I’m trying to keep up with that flow and my reviews on CellarTracker without it negatively impacting my weight and health.

I’ve also begun to experiment with formats for reaching other and younger audiences with messages about wines of note. That means I’m now on Instagram and Tumblr, learning how to best take advantage of those apps. And I’m still trying to keep up a presence on Facebook and Twitter, which have helped drive traffic to my site and other writing efforts in the past.

Ironically, in this hiatus period, I’ve been interviewed/profiled by a couple of online wine websites. The first to appear was my responses to Jameson Fink’s very thoughtful questions for Grape Collective, where I also did a Top 10 list of wine and food destinations in the greater San Francisco Bay area. The second was Snooth.com, for which I wrote on assignment on a paid basis for about a year and a half, before they lost their budget for those assignments.

And I’ve been reconnecting with friends and family members, as well as making at least a couple nights a week “date night.” I’m thoroughly enjoying the time being social again.

So what’s ahead for me as a wine writer and this site, now that I’ve taken some time to think about it and put some balance back in my life?

I don’t plan to try to keep up with a weekly grind of pieces of the length and thoroughness that I was doing. It’s simply not sustainable, not if I want to continue to lead a balanced life, and I’m not sure there’s that much of an audience for them anyway.

Instead, I will be revamping this site from a blog into a wine reference website, with sections that highlight quick recommendations for some amazing, characterful and reasonably priced wines. That revamping will take several months to finish, including making my full database of tasting notes finally available on the site. I’m looking forward to the changes and creative process though.

I will also continue to work on longer pieces, but will do so with an eye to publishing them as eBooks on wine regions. I’ve got close to enough material on the wonderful Santa Barbara County wine region to make that my first eBook, to test out the format. I would probably follow that with an eBook on the terrific but still relatively low profile California wine region I happen to live in: the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

RJ getting a pump on at Gold's Gym, photo by James Hurst

RJ at Gold’s Gym in Santa Clara, photo by James Hurst

Now that I’m feeling much healthier again, I also want to explore wine as a part of a fit lifestyle—how to get the health benefits of wine without the negative consequences of overindulgence. And I will pitch stories to print and online publications on some of the regions and producers I’ve become expert on—something I’ve had little time to properly do while I was churning out my lengthy “blog” pieces.

I continue to be enthused about wine as a topic, and as one of the major delights of life. I also remain fascinated by the stories of artisanal winemakers and of wine regions and traditional types of wine. And I want to do a better job than I’ve done to date of highlighting excellent, reasonably priced wines that display exceptional character. By writing at such length here, I think I’ve buried the lead on occasion about some of those amazing wines. It’s time to shorten my coverage and punch it up, so those wines can hopefully benefit from greater attention.

I am thankful to my readers, wine writing colleagues, and the many whose work in wine continues to inspire me. Now that I’m feeling more fit, more balanced and clearer about how I can help get out the word about worthy wines, I look forward to doing a better job of that in the coming months.

The Singular Greatness of Champagne Salon

2014 May 21

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Champagne is the hardest wine to make. To produce truly great Champagne requires top vineyard sources and the kind of ideal vintage conditions that used to occur only two or three times per decade. Of course you also need expertise and specialized equipment. And after you’ve made the wine, you must wait several years for it to age on the spent yeast cells from the secondary fermentation in the bottle before it’s ready to disgorge.

Wouldn’t it be totally outlandish, then, if someone decided to create such a truly great wine for only their own personal consumption? One would, of course, have to have both exceeding wealth and the connections necessary to access vineyard sources that are virtually unavailable. Even then, you would also have to possess tremendous patience.

Spending all that money and time to create the greatest anything in the world exclusively for one’s private enjoyment is virtually impossible to imagine. While it might serve as an unlikely premise for an elegant novel about the world’s most single minded epicure, it would hardly be believable as a true story.

Strangely enough, though, a man with such resources and widely acknowledged taste did pursue such a quest in the early years of the 20th century. He ultimately succeeded in producing—initially for his own enjoyment, then as a gift for friends with similarly refined tastes–what eventually became acknowledged as possibly the single greatest Champagne of its time.

Perhaps even more bizarrely, though, given modern demands of commerce and expectations for swift returns on capital, this rarefied bubbly continues to be made–in tiny amounts, in only excellent years–more than 100 years after this unlikely personal project began. What’s more, this unusual wine is still sourced from the identical vineyard sources originally selected by the legendary connoisseur who created it.

I’m talking about Champagne Salon, which began as the private and obsessive project of one Eugène-Aimé Salon.

Monsieur Salon was born in 1867 in the Champagne region village of Pocancy. As a boy, he assisted his brother-in-law, Marcel Guillaume, who was chef de caves for a small Champagne house that produced a single vineyard Champagne called Clos Tarin.

Salon went on to make his fortune in the Parisian fur trade at a firm called Chapel, where he started out as a messenger boy but eventually became its very successful head. He also had a political career.

In 1905, Salon acquired a one-hectare plot in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger—the great grand cru village in the Côtes des Blancs region where the best Chardonnay for Champagne is thought to be grown. His plan to make the greatest Champagne was to use only Chardonnay, only from this great grand cru village, and to produce the wine only in ideal vintages.


vineyards in the Côtes des Blancs region near Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

Up to that point, Champagnes were typically a blend of Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay was thought to contribute acidity, minerality and elegance, but producers deemed Chardonnay too light on its own and felt Pinot was needed to round out the wine and enable them to produce the fruitier style of Champagne that was most popular through the first half of the last century. What is now called “Blanc de Blancs,” a white sparkling wine made exclusively from Chardonnay, was unheard of until Salon began to produce his ideal Champagne.

The first vintage Salon created was a 1905. This was followed by a 1911. The latter, disgorged after lengthy aging on its lees, became so popular with Salon’s friends that they encouraged him to produce it commercially.

The first commercial release was the 1921. The fruit came from Salon’s one-hectare plot and from 20 other smaller parcels in le Mesnil located above the church, where the ideal balance of ripeness and acidity was most likely to be achieved. One of those plots was Clos Tarin, sold by the Tarin family to Krug in the 1970s, now the source for Krug’s single vineyard Clos du Mesnil bottling. So the vineyard sources for Salon to this day remain the plot Salon purchased in 1905, known as Le Jardin de Salon (Salon’s “garden”), and 19 of the remaining 20 le Mesnil plots Salon originally selected.

Eugène-Aimé presided over the House of Salon until his death in 1943. He lived to see the 1928 vintage released to wide acclaim. He arranged for Salon to become the house Champagne of Maxim’s of Paris, the celebrated restaurant of its time, which was the only customer of Salon until 1957.

Today, Champagne Salon is owned by the Laurent Perrier Group, the holding company of the Nonancourt family, which also owns Delamotte and De Castellane. Only about 60,000 bottles of Salon are produced in vintages deemed worthy, of which 2008 was the last of the past several years. In other vintages, Delamotte gets right of first refusal on wines made from Salon’s vineyard sources.

Salon is currently made by Laurent-Perrier cellar master Michel Faurconnet. The head of both Champagne Salon and Delamotte for the past 17 years has been Didier Depond.

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Antonio Galloni and Didier Depond at Pebble Beach Food & Wine seminar

I was fortunate to attend the seminar at this year’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine featuring a vertical of Salon at which Monsieur Depond presided. The seminar included the U.S. debut of Salon’s latest release, the 2002. Both it and the 1983 Salon poured at the seminar from magnum are among the greatest Champagnes I have ever tasted.

Depond explained that the decision whether wines from a particular year justify the production of a Salon vintage are made after tastings conducted the following February through April. He planned to decide whether there would be a 2013 vintage when he returned to France later in April. What they will be looking for—Salon’s guiding principles—are “freshness, cleanness, elegance and precision.”

The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, with the temperature kept below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure freshness and the development of very fine, tiny bubbles—the “prix de mousse.” Prior to the mid-1990s, neutral oak demi muids were used, but Depond indicated he was not a fan of oak for fine Champagne. Malolactic fermentation is also typically avoided.

The wines are kept on their lees for a minimum of 10 years. The 2002 was only disgorged in the Fall of 2013, in preparation for its Spring 2014 release. Depond also revealed that they disgorge in batches every six months for a two to three year period, holding back 10 to 15,000 bottles from the initial release.

The dosage—sugar addition—for Salon is typically quite low, around extra brut level: from five to seven grams. For London’s Sketch Restaurant, Salon bottled a special zero dosage version of the 2002, being offered by the glass for a limited period starting this month in special Salon-branded Zalto flutes alongside the 5.5 grams dosage regular bottling.

The 2002 is only the 38th vintage Salon has released since the house’s 1921 founding. The average price per bottle in the U.S. is $403—a staggering amount even for fine Champagne, but a relative bargain, I suppose, if you consider that top Bordeaux and Burgundies, made every year and not just in select vintages like Salon, now fetch upwards of $1,000 a bottle on release.

Typically only a small percentage of Salon’s production is released in magnum. We were privileged to sample the 1999, 1995 and 1983 from this format at the seminar. The 2008 will only be released in magnum—the ideal format as far as most Champagne aficionados are concerned.

For my tasting notes on the six vintages of Salon we sampled, see below. We also tasted three Champagnes from sister house Delamotte at the seminar, including the extraordinarily youthful 1970 from magnum.

While the vintage expressions of each of the Salon bottlings was different, all six are elegant, exhibiting precision, vibrant acidity and lengthy finishes. The 2002 and 1983 displayed the greatest complexity of all. I am quite confident Eugène-Aimé would be very proud of these bottlings. I also suspect, however, that even he would be amazed that, more than 70 years after his passing, those responsible for guiding the house he founded continue to adhere so closely to his original, obsessive criteria.

Tasting Notes from April 13, 2014, Pebble Beach Food & Wine Seminar

Salon vertical

2002 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; light lemon yellow color; very appealing, almond, autolytic, almond cream, light ginger, tart pear nose; rich, tasty, delicious, poised, pear cream, light ginger, tart pear, tart lemon very tart lemon drop, mineral, saline palate; long finish (one of the greatest Champagnes ever) 99 points

1999 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; autolytic, dried mushroom, hazelnut, ginger nose; delicious, rich but focused, tart lemon, lemon curd, mineral, lemon drop palate with medium-plus acidity; long finish 95 points

1997 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light medium lemon yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, savory, autolytic, hazelnut, sauteed mushroom nose; rich, gorgeous, creamy textured, complex, autolytic, lemon peel, ginger, mineral, almond palate; long finish (disgorged in 2009) 98 points

1995 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light lemon yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; autolytic, mature, lifted, hazelnut, dried shitake mushroom, porcini mushroom, butter nose; rich, poised, autolytic, tart lemon, dried mushroom, porcini, mineral palate; long finish (disgorged in 2007) 97 points

1988 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light medium golden yellow color with few, steady, tiny bubbles; mature, autolytic, oxidative, sauteed mushroom nose; rich, mature, creamy textured, tasty, savory, coriander, preserved lemon palate; long finish 96 points

1983 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – light medium golden yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; aromatic, savory, coriander, saffron, autolytic, almond sauteed mushroom nose; delicious, ethereal, weightless, lemon curd, mineral, light ginger, melted butter palate with medium acidity; very long finish 99 points

NV Delamotte Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs – France, Champagne, Côte des Blancs
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; tart lemon, light ginger, lightly yeasty nose; tasty, tart lemon, lemon drop, lemon curd, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (based on 2008 vintage) 93 points

2004 Delamotte Champagne Blanc de Blancs Millésimé – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, ginger, lemon zest, lemon cream, autolytic nose; delicious, complex, tart lemon, mineral, lemon zest palate with medium acidity; long finish 94 points

1970 Delamotte Champagne Blanc de Blancs Millésimé – France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger
From magnum – medium golden yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; mature, savory, nut butter, dried mushroom, honey butter nose; rich, mature, tasty, lemon peel, preserved lemon, mineral, coriander, kumquat, tart kumquat marmalade palate; long finish (no dosage; disgorged June 2012) 95+ points

Pebble Beach: Nation’s Premier Food & Wine Event When it Comes to Wine

2014 April 18

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Opening Night Reception at Pebble Beach Food & Wine (all photos courtesy PBFW)

The country’s greatest annual food and wine event with an emphasis on wine—featuring some of the world’s finest and most exclusive wines–ended this past Sunday in Pebble Beach, California.

This was the seventh edition of Pebble Beach Food & Wine (PBFW) based at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, but utilizing additional locations throughout the area.

When this annual event began in 2008, it followed in many ways in the footsteps of the legendary Masters of Food & Wine extravaganza that was likewise very much focused on the world’s most elite wines. That event had taken place in nearby Big Sur for two decades until 2007.

As far as other food events featuring the world’s top chefs, PBFW probably runs second only to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. That event, in late June, has been running for over 30 years. Its wine seminars, however, led mostly by celebrity somms, are easily outshown by those of PBFW.

The event is well supported by local residents, but I met many attendees who had flown in from the East Coast and elsewhere. Conrad Kenley is a longtime food and wine event veteran and prominent wine collector based in Washington, D.C. He told me he previously attended the Masters of Food & Wine and now regularly attends PBFW because of the wine seminars and presence of representatives from some of the world’s great estates. He credits the latter with a lot of what he’s learned about wine.

This year’s high end wine seminars included a vertical tasting back to 1990 of arguably the greatest, and certainly most innovative, of the Bordeaux First Growths: Château Latour, with Latour President Frédéric Engerer on hand.

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Château Latour’s Frédéric Engerer

Spain’s most famous wine was featured in a seminar on the wines of Vega Sicilia Unico with samples going back to 1983. Napa’s storied Mayacamas—which began in 1889 on Mt. Veeder–was the subject of another tasting seminar, with a panel that included internationally renowned wine critic Antonio Galloni and winemaker Andy Erickson. That tasting included wines representing five decades of Mayacamas.

Galloni himself was featured at four different wine seminars, including one devoted to top Barolos from the excellent 2008 vintage where some of the bottles tasted were from Galloni’s own cellar. Other wine experts and leading sommeliers on hand for wine seminars included renowned somm turned winemaker Raj Parr, wine book author Jordan McKay, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor Ray Isle, Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Somm film stars Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback.

For me, the single most memorable wine seminar this year was a vertical tasting of one of Champagne’s rarest and most sought after top cuvees, Salon. Champagne Salon head Didier Depond was on hand for this very unusual retrospective, which included magnums of this fabulous Champagne going back to 1983 and the first public showing of the soon-to-be-released and highly anticipated 2002 vintage.


Antonio Galloni and Didier Depond at Champagne Salon seminar

For a little perspective on the level of wines poured, I taste over 7,000 wines per year. Usually only one or two of those per month merit a rating of 96/97 points. At this event alone, I got to taste 13 wines I rated 96 points or higher–i.e., for me, essentially a year’s worth of very top wines–including two I rated 99 points (both of them Salon Champagnes).

Like other major food and wine events across the country, PBFW also includes grand tastings featuring hundreds of wines. PBFW actually hosts three such tastings that go for three hours each: a welcome event Thursday evening, and Saturday and Sunday afternoon grand tastings. The latter two took place in the 66,000 square foot Lexus Grand Tasting tent erected on the grounds of the Equestrian Center.

Big commercial brands are among the wines featured at these large scale tastings, but there were also many high quality, smaller production wineries represented. This year those included Archery Summit, Arietta, Blackbird Vineyards, Carlisle, Donelan, DuMol, Hestan, Jonata, Kistler, Kosta Browne, Pisoni, Ridge and Sandhi. I also enjoyed a very interesting lineup of Aussie wines thoughtfully selected by Wine Australia.

For these grand tastings, top chefs from restaurants around the country create specialty dishes for attendees to nosh on between sips of wine, cocktails or spirits.

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Guy Fieri cooking at Saturday Lexus Grand Tasting

Among the dozens of chefs creating dishes this year, many of whom also offered cooking demonstrations during the event, were the following San Francisco Bay area luminaries: SPQR’s Matthew Accarrino, Plumed Horse’s Peter Armellino, Tracy Des Jardins, Hubert Keller and Charles Phan. They were joined by other prominent national chefs like José Garces, Masaharu Morimoto and Nancy Silverton, as well as by TV celebs Guy Fieri, Tyler Florence and Andrew Zimmern.

The special lunches and dinners at this year’s PBFW included one in memory of Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter. Restaurant 1833, where I enjoyed a delicious meal on the Friday evening of the event, hosted a “4 Martini Lunch” featuring some of their signature cocktails alongside those of Las Vegas’s new club at The Cosmopolitan, Rose. Rabit. Lie. Stars of the Los Angeles food scene were featured at another dinner that included Ori Menashe of Bestia, Animal’s Jon Shook and Michael Voltaggio of ink.

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setting for Grand Finale Dinner

I attended the Grand Finale Dinner, which was held in the relatively intimate dining room of Pebble Beach’s The Beach & Tennis Club. The glassed walls there afford diners a glittering view of Carmel Bay. Chefs Masaharu Morimoto, Dean Fearing, José Garces, Ken Frank and Johnny Iuzzini each prepared a dish for this dinner, which included wines from Champagne Louis Roederer, Rochioli, Burgundy’s Domaine de Bellene and Napa’s Brand.

The event’s co-founders are Robert Weakley and David Alan Bernahl, II, and it is currently owned and run by Coastal Luxury Management. Major sponsors include Food & Wine Magazine and Lexus. Although passes for the entire weekend run about $5,000, tickets to individual events are priced as low as $100. PBFW has also raised over 1.5 million dollars for local charities since its inception.

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Profile of Antonio Galloni & VinousMedia.com

2014 April 13

Antonio Galloni May 2011

Below is the profile of Antonio Galloni I wrote for epicure, the magazine/program of Pebble Beach Food & Wine, whose 2014 extravaganza (PBFW2014) ended today. Antonio led four seminar panels for the event, and I can confirm he did a terrific job as I attended three of them. I particularly appreciated the wealth of background he brought to the 2008 Barolo seminar, where some of the fabulous wines on hand were from his own cellar.

Pebble Beach Food & Wine is fortunate to have Antonio Galloni on hand for four of its wine events this year. Antonio has ascended to prominence as an internationally renowned wine critic faster than anyone since the meteoric rise of his former employer, Robert Parker, Jr., in the mid-1980s.

Some might say part of Antonio’s success was a matter of luck. Antonio launched the first English language publication on Piedmont wines at a time—2004—when there was something of a vacuum in English language coverage of this important region. Subscriptions grew faster than Antonio ever imagined. And he was fortunate to be introduced to Robert Parker through a professor at his business school.

Antonio was well poised for success, however, having grown up in his family’s wine business and being able to speak four languages, including his native Spanish, Italian and French. In my view, however, the real key to Antonio’s growing influence in the world of fine wine, besides his keen intelligence, is his tremendous work ethic. When asked about the latter, he attributes it to the example of his dad.

Antonio was born in Caracas, Venezuela, to an American citizen mother and Italian-born father. Antonio’s dad built up his own wholesale and import/export fish and seafood business, serving Latin America generally. By the time Antonio was 11, business conditions in Venezuela had become less favorable so his parents moved to Sarasota, Florida, where they had close friends.

Antonio’s parents opened a food and wine store there specializing in Italian wine and Bordeaux futures. Antonio worked at the store evenings and weekends during high school. He continued to work there on breaks after he went away to study music in Boston at the Berklee School.

Antonio became fascinated by wine as a result of this exposure. His mother’s father was a fine wine aficionado who introduced him to the great wines of Burgundy. For Antonio’s dad, though, the world’s greatest wines were Barolo and Champagne.

After graduating Berklee in 1992, Antonio played gigs with his rock band and waited tables. That’s when he became acquainted with the hot new California wineries that began to receive a lot of attention in the mid-1990s.

In 1997, his then girlfriend convinced him to get a “more serious job.” He applied for an entry level position with Putnam Investments, and moved quickly from there into the firm’s sales and marketing training program. From 2000 to 2003, he was posted to Putnam’s office in Milan, Italy.

In this position, Antonio wined and dined clients at some of Italy’s great restaurants. He spent many of his weekends visiting winemakers.

Ultimately, he decided it was time to get a formal business education. When he was accepted at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, it seemed only natural to return to Boston to reconnect with his network there.

While at Sloan Antonio started writing about wine for himself. Eventually he started sharing pieces with friends, who encouraged him to continue and to think about making his passion for wine into a business.

At that time, the only person writing regularly about Italian wines in English was James Suckling. Antonio thought there was room for another voice reporting on this important area, so by the end of 2004, he started an online publication called The Piedmont Report.

Much to Antonio’s surprise, within several short weeks he had picked up subscribers in over a dozen countries, and producers and retailers were starting to quote his ratings and tasting notes. Antonio’s Italian wife, Marzia Brumat Galloni, who had been born into one of Friuli’s top winemaking families, served as the publication’s editor.

A Sloan professor whose class Antonio audited referred him to a Sloan alum who was running Parker’s website. This introduction led to Antonio meeting Parker, who invited him to write for Parker’s publication, The Wine Advocate. Upon his graduation from business school in 2005, however, Antonio decided instead to take a job with Deutsche Bank in New York City.

After the birth of Antonio’s first child in 2006, he re-evaluated the demands of having a full-time job and running a newsletter business. He therefore accepted Parker’s offer and started reviewing Italian wines for Parker as a consultant beginning in September 2006.

In 2008, Antonio’s portfolio for TWA expanded to include Champagne. In early 2011, Parker stepped down from writing about California wine and turned that prestigious assignment over to Antonio, along with coverage of Burgundy. Antonio by then had left his bank job to write about wine full time.

Many presumed Parker planned to eventually put Antonio in charge of TWA. It was a major surprise, then, when Parker announced the publication’s sale to Singapore investors toward the end of 2012. Antonio subsequently announced he was leaving TWA and starting his own Internet publication.

Launched in May 2013, VinousMedia.com contains everything Antonio has published since beginning The Piedmont Report, including his TWA reviews in which Antonio had wisely retained copyright. It is also beautifully designed and a tremendous resource for those of us interested in the wines of Italy, Champagne, Burgundy and California.

Antonio and his team have built a platform aimed at making the experience of fine wine and food more immediate and accessible through updates a few times a week. The site employs a variety of tools, including video and interactive vineyard maps. Antonio writes in a welcoming, conversational style that readily conveys his enthusiasm for particular wines and fine wine in general. It is also the first major wine publication to be fully optimized for smart phones.

With his reputation as a wine writer and critic already firmly established, Antonio has set his sights on nothing less than raising the bar on wine media. Given the results so far, and knowing how hard Antonio works, following his father’s example, I have no doubt that Antonio will be a leading voice in the world of wine for decades to come.

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Antonio moderating 2014 Pebble Beach seminar on Salon Champagne, with Salon/Delamotte head Didier Depond

Santa Barbara’s Happy Place for Bordeaux Varieties

2014 March 31

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane

view of Happy Canyon from northernmost vineyard at Star Lane


Santa Barbara area grape growers nearly gave up on Bordeaux varieties planted here in the 1970s after they failed to ripen sufficiently to eliminate green flavors more vintages than not. There are exceptions, of course, and Jonata in Ballard Canyon proved there are warmer areas where Bordeaux varieties can do very well.

Santa Barbara’s hottest growing region, on the far eastern edge of Santa Ynez Valley, has also shown that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, can produce superlative results.

Some Cabernets and Bordeaux blends I’ve rated highly in the past year–93 points and higher–hail from this region. This includes Goodland Wines’ 2011 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red, and Star Lane’s 2007 Astral and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the works is the new Crown Point flagship wine, based on the 2013 vintage, being made by former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel. It is rumored to have a planned sales price in the $200 range. Our next stop then on our in-depth tour of Santa Barbara’s sub-AVAs is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines

Matt Dees and Ruben Solorzano of Goodland Wines


This appellation sped along a fast track, going from vineyards first being planted in 1996 to approval by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), effective November 9, 2009. How did a fairly tiny area—with only about 500 total planted acres—accomplish this in barely 13 years?

It helps there are some very deep pockets amongst winery owners here. The group also enlisted the aid of Sta. Rita Hills’s successful TTB petition scribe—Wes Hagen. Foremost in its favor is the fact the area does have a real variety focus, and climate and soils that are readily distinguishable from those of their neighbors outside the appellation.

Bordeaux varieties planted here include Sauvignon Blanc, which has shown very good results. My favorites to date have been the 2012 Grassini Family (92+ points) and the 2012 Star Lane (91+ points). In addition, there are some acres of Rhone varieties here, primarily Syrah, but also Viognier, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

According to Wes Hagen, who extensively researched the area in compiling the petition for appellation status, the area’s name originated during the Prohibition era when it harbored the only still in Santa Barbara’s north county. According to an area realtor whose father told him what he’d heard from his own father, if you lived north of Santa Barbara and wanted some alcohol in those days, you had to “take a ride up Happy Canyon.”

The TTB initially objected to designating the area as Happy Canyon because there are 10 locations in a total of six states that have the same name, including a wine growing region in Oregon. The petitioners agreed to add “of Santa Barbara” to the name, figuring it would help not only identify the location for those outside the area but also link it to a region with growing cachet in the wine world.

The TTB, in its finding, indicated they were impressed with an unusual feature of the soils here, which is their Cation-Exchange Capacity (CEC). A cation is a positively charged ion (e.g., NH4+ or Ca2+). Since soil particles and organic matter have negative charges, minerals with positively charged ions can easily be asorbed by and stick with these soil particles. Soils in Happy Canyon, which have elevated levels of exchangeable magnesium, had CEC levels nearly three times those of Wes’s own vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Temperatures in Happy Canyon, due to north-south mountain ridges lying 12 miles east that block the Pacific coastal breezes, can run into the 90s during the summer, but are tempered by wind that typically arises at 4 pm, and low evening temperatures. Doug Margerum, who makes wine for Happy Canyon Vineyards and his own Margerum label, claims that what’s great and unusual about the combination of the varieties grown here and the climate is that “the grapes become physiologically mature and ripe before they get a tremendous amount of sugar.”

It should be noted that many of the landowners in this area have traditionally been in the thoroughbred horse raising business. These wealthy landowners and horse fanciers don’t appreciate tourists, so none of the wineries here—and there are only three brick and mortar wineries so far located in the appellation—are permitted to have tasting rooms.

The first vineyards planted here outside of a very small planting dating to the mid-1970s were the McGinley Vineyard, originally called Westerly, and Happy Canyon Vineyards, both started in 1996.

McGinley was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Roussane, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This vineyard is now owned by Roger Bower, a Texan who made millions producing fire-fighting foam. Bower also recently purchased the former Cimarone Vineyard here, renaming it Crown Point. The Westerly label is being used by Bower for wines both from Happy Canyon and the Sta. Rita Hills. Former Harlan assistant winemaker Adam Henkel is winemaker for both the Crown Point and Westerly labels.

Happy Canyon Vineyards is planted to Bordeaux varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet Sauvignon plantings on their own roots. Doug Margerum serves as winemaker. The two top wines here are Brand and Ten-Goal, together with two other Bordeaux blends, Piocho and Chukker.

The next two major vineyards in the area, both planted beginning in 1998, are Star Lane and Vogelzgang.

Star Lane represents half the planted acreage in Happy Canyon, with about 250 acres of vines. It’s the furthest north and east of the area’s vineyards, and includes several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are planted at the top of the vineyard at an elevation of 1500 feet on a 25 degree slope. There are also multiple clones of Cabernet Franc and Merlot planted, along with about 25 acres of Sauvignon Blanc that start on the lowest part of the vineyard, just as you enter the gate. It is 2.4 miles from this gate to the northern tip of the vineyard, which is fortunate to have access to water from 42 springs on the property. I visited here about a year ago and was very impressed by the quality of the plantings, as well as the Cab Franc and Merlot I sampled from barrel.

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane

rotunda entrance to extensive barrel rooms at Star Lane


Star Lane is owned by Jim and Mary Dierberg, bankers who got their start in wine by owning the Hermannhof Winery in Hermann, Missouri, since 1974. They purchased the Star Lane property in 1996, and built a magnificent winemaking complex here, complete with hand excavated caves. This showcase facility is unfortunately not open to the public because of the area’s ban on tasting rooms. The Dierbergs also own a similar amount of acreage in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations, from which they produce wines for their Dierberg label.

The new winemaker for both Dierberg and Star Lane is the talented and articulate Tyler Thomas, who was formerly winemaker at Donelan in Sonoma. Tyler started here last summer. I got to visit with him briefly at Star Lane at the end of last year, tasting some terrific barrel samples with him. I look forward to the new Star Lane and Dierberg wines he will produce over the next few years.

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas

Star Lane & Dierberg Director of Winemaking Tyler Thomas


Vogelzgang was founded in 1998 and now has 77 producing acres of vineyards, planted to both Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. Winemaker Robbie Meyer, formerly assistant winemaker at Peter Michael, is working on estate wines for Vogelzgang, which first produced a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2005 vintage. Most of their grapes are currently sold to area wineries, including Foxen, Dragonette, Gainey and Ojai.

Grassini Family is among the newest arrivals, having started planting vineyards in 2002. They completed their winery in 2010. The vineyard includes 15 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and I think that’s the best thing they make, by far, at this point.

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Grassini CEO Katie Grassini

Two other small vineyards in this area, for which I can find little info, are Three Creek Vineyard and Tommy Town. The former grows Bordeaux varieties as well as Syrah and Sangiovese. The latter produces a small amount of estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Kirby Anderson is the winemaker.

With all that’s going on in this area, I predict you will be hearing a lot more about Happy Canyon wines in the coming years.

Since there are no tasting rooms here, you should plan to visit Grassini and Vogelzgang’s tasting rooms in the City of Santa Barbara. Star Lane’s tasting room at 1280 Drum Canyon Road in Lompoc is open daily.

For my tasting notes on 23 wines from this appellation, see below.

Anacapa

  • 2011 Anacapa Vintners Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Bright, light lemon yellow color; fresh, ripe grapefruit, tart peach nose; fresh, tart peach, ripe lemon, ripe grapefruit juice palate; medium finish (14.5% alcohol) 86+ points

Dragonette

  • 2012 Dragonette Cellars Rosé Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light pink color; appealing, ripe peach, ripe pear nose; tasty, juicy, refreshing, tart pear, ripe pear, mineral, light pink grapefruit palate; medium finish (75% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 5% Syrah; 2 hour skin contact, neutral barrels; age on lees for 5-6 months) 91 points
  • 2012 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; tart peach, lemon grass nose; ripe peach, fleshy palate; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 75% neutral oak, 25% stainless steel) 90 points
  • 2011 Dragonette Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Vogelzang Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; pungent, fresh grapefruit, mint nose; tasty, poised, ripe grapefruit, mint palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (11 months on lees; after barrel selection, blended and held another 6 months in 25% new oak) 91+ points

Foxen

  • 2011 Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon 7200 Grassini Family Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark ruby color; lifted, ripe cassis, cherry, VA nose; ripe cassis, ripe cherry, berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.2% alcohol) 89 points
  • 2011 Foxen Range 30 West Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe red currant, light olive nose: tasty, juicy, light-medium bodied bright, ripe red currant, cassis, cherry palate with firm, sweet tannins; good now but could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc) 91+ points

Goodland

  • 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, tart peach, tart yellow apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, focused, tart peach, tart pear, mineral palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a Sancerre, with that level of acidity, but w/o the smoke; no malolactic fermentation; Musque clone and clone 1; all stainless steel and very neutral barrels; 3.3 pH) 91 points
  • 2011 Goodland Wines Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Red
    Opaque purple red violet color; wonderful, loamy, tart black currant, cedar nose; rich but very poised, elegant, ripe black currant, loam palate with a sense of salinity and good acidity; could use 1-plus year in bottle; medium-plus finish (100% Cabernet Sauvignon clone 4 grown at about 1600 feet; 14.7% alcohol; twice used barrels; like a throwback to traditional California Cabs of the 1960s and ’70s with good acidity) 94 points

Grassini Family

  • 2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light lemon yellow color; appealing, smoky, lime, tart green fruit nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart green fruit, lime, mineral, lightly smoky palate with rich mouth feel and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; clone 1 planted in 2001) 92+ points
  • 2011 Grassini Family Vineyards Articondo Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark maroon color; appealing, black currant, mulberry, tobacco nose; plush, ripe black currant, ripe berry, blackberry, light tobacco palate, lacking structure; medium-plus finish (50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.5% alcohol; 25% new oak) 89 points
  • 2010 Grassini Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Almost opaque maroon color; stewed black fruit, baked black fruit, tart berry nose; medium-plus bodied, baked black fruit, baked berry palate with sweet oak and lowish acidity; medium-plus finish (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot; 15.4% alcohol; 75% new oak) 87+ points

Happy Canyon Vineyards

  • 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (good value at about $20; 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol) 90 points
  • 2010 Happy Canyon Vineyards Merlot Barrack Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Dark ruby color; aromatic, black currant, black raspberry, light menthol nose; rich, medium bodied, tight, tart black currant, black raspberry palate with firm, sweet tannins; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (55% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec; 14.1% alcohol; pH 3.65, TA 6.5) 92 points

Kunin

  • 2012 Kunin Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Slightly hazy, very light yellow color; smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass nose; tasty, medium bodied, smoky, tart grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol) 90+ points

Liquid Farm

  • 2012 Liquid Farm Mourvèdre Rosé Vogelzang Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light orange pink color; appealing, Tavel-like, tart cranberry, tart pink grapefruit nose; tasty, poised, tart pink grapefruit, tart currant, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (95% Mourvèdre, 5% Grenache) 92+ points

Margerum
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  • 2012 Margerum Sauvignon Blanc Sybarite Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Pale green-tinged yellow color; tart green apple, lime, light smoke nose; tasty, bright, clean, light-medium bodied, tart lime, bright citrus, mineral, tart green fruit palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.1% alcohol; pH 3.4, TA 6.5; 9% neutral oak; clone 1 picked at different stages, early and late; battonage every two weeks) 91 points
  • 2010 Margerum Merlot Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Very dark red violet color; stewed black fruit, plum jam, blackberry jam nose; tasty, ripe blackberry, blackberry jam, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot; 14.1% alcohol; good value at $14) 90 points

Star Lane
Star Lane bottlings

  • 2012 Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light straw yellow color; tart gooseberry, smoke, tart green apple nose; tasty, medium bodied, ripe gooseberry, smoke, reduction, lime mid-palate, mineral palate with lime acidity; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol) 91+ points
  • 2009 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Opaque black red violet color; ripe black currant, deep berry, pencil lead, bittersweet chocolate nose; bittersweet chocolate, tart black currant, ripe berry palate with firm, fine, chalky tannins; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot; 15.1% alcohol) 93 points
  • 2007 Star Lane Vineyard Astral Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, pencil lead, cassis, tart black currant, mocha, dark chocolate nose; rich, ripe black currant, mocha, violets palate with sweet tannins; good now and should go for years; long finish (15.2% alcohol; blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) 93 points
  • 2005 Star Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez
    Opaque purple red violet color; appealing, black currant, blackberry, boysenberry nose; rich, delicious, tart black currant, berry syrup, dark chocolate palate with sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (15.1% alcohol) 94 points

Westerley

  • 2012 Westerly Vineyards Fletcher’s White Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Light yellow color; smoky, lime, lemon grass nose; smoky, lime, lemon grass palate; medium finish 89 points
  • 2010 Westerly Vineyards Syrah Côte Blonde Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
    Dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar nose; roasted black fruit, pepper, tar palate; medium-plus finish (93% Syrah, 7% Viognier) 91+ points

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