Tag Archives: Jeff Birkemeier

Full Disclosure

In the days since I was writing these articles I have been hired as a sommelier at Casanova Restaurant in Carmel, which is owned by the same folks that own the Georis winery.  I have written about Georis in the past.

I have also achieved the Advanced Level Sommelier Certification.  One more big step to take as I prepare for the Master test.  I am just beginning that journey and I intend to make that the focus of a resurrected Bacchanal Babble.

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Go Slowly

My journey began at a whirlwind pace that pushed me to spend as much time documenting the adventure as I did living it.  Many important points did not make their way into the sprawling posts that attempted to record whole weeks on the road.  The pace has gradually slowed and now I have decided to set up shop in Monterey for as long as I can manage so that I may recount the details in my woefully scattered notes.  Of course I will continue to seek new experiences while I am here.

Croque MonsieurCurrently I am in the Paris Bakery, where I have found the best food this side of the Seine.  The Croque Monsieur is a ham and swiss sandwich topped with a  Béchamel sauce and served warm.  Magnifique!

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Scouring The Central Coast

For the time being I have put Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in my rearview mirror.  I left with a much more positive view of L.A. than I expected.  The most intriguing cultural aspect is the extent to which the “industry” permeates daily life; many people act as though they are auditioning every time they walk out the door.  The culture and the weather allow Angelenos to wear anything they want – you can never be the most bizarre looking person on the streets of LA.

I would be remiss to head north before extending a fervent thank you to my friends Doug and Pam Niedzwiecki for their support and hospitality.  The journey would have a very different dynamic were it not for them and I am in their debt.

P5152057My last days in Santa Barbara were dedicated to the Santa Maria Valley AVA.  Like the Santa Rita Hills to the south, its vineyards are planted as far to the west as the climate will allow.  Most of the best-known vineyards are on a south-facing bench of the mountains.  Byron, Cambria and Kenneth Volk, collectively the oldest and largest of the county’s wineries, hail from these hills.

Any list of top flight Santa Barbara producers would surely include Au Bon Climat and Qupé, which are operated by Jim Clendennon and Bob Lindquist, respectively.  Their shared production facility lies within the Bien Nacido vineyard.  Au Bon Climat focuses on grapes from Burgundy and Qupé on those from the Rhone.

I arrived for a visit on Friday morning that began with barrel samples of the 2008 vintage.  The most interesting was the Qupé Roussanne from Bien Nacido.  It was creamy, but had a piquant acidity atypical of Roussanne.  Perhaps that is a stage of the wine’s development that will change over time.  I will be checking back in on it.

My favorite wine of the day was a white called ‘Hildegard’.  While teaching classes in my Wine Merchant days I often poured wine from a vineyard called Corton-Charlemagne because I enjoy its etymology.  Charlemagne’s favorite wine was from a hill in Burgundy called Corton.  Late in life he had a long gray beard that became stained when he drank the red wine.  His wife, Hildegard, found that to be unsightly so she had a large portion of the vineyard converted to white grapes so he could enjoy Corton and look good doing so.  That parcel is now called Corton-Charlemagne.  The ‘Hildegard’ at Au Bon Climat is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté, which are thought to be the grapes used in Charlemagne’s day.

My final appointment in Santa Barbara turned out to be the most hospitable. Rather than meeting at a vineyard, winery or tasting room, I spoke with Lane Tanner and her husband Ariki Hill around their kitchen table overlooking the valley.

P5162064Lane has always been dedicated to Pinot Noir;  her car is burgundy.  Before founding her own label, she was the winemaker at the Hitching Post.  We tasted her 1987 Hitching Post Sierra Madre Vineyard, which she said used to be a better vineyard.  Even after twenty years the wine had plenty of ripe fruit which was surrounded by the leather and herb notes that come with that much time in bottle.  We compared it to her 2007 Lane Tanner Bien Nacido, which showed the ripeness and concentration that 2007 is known for, but was still crafted in the elegant style that Lane advocates.

Ariki is from Australia and is also a winemaker.  His winery is Labyrinth and he makes wine in both countries.  He comes from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, where drought and bush fires caused massive damage to the crop six months ago.  Like Lane, Ariki loves to work with Pinot Noir.  We had his 2005 Pinot from the Yarra Valley.  It was one of the rare Australian Pinots that I have had and it was quite good.  It had a strong red cherry nose.  Ariki said that the clay soils of the region make for more subdued aromatics.

I find Santa Barbara to be a fascinating wine scene.  It is a young region – many of the founding personalities are still living and working in the appellation. The various meso-climates allow grape varieties from throughout Europe to be planted.  In the vineyards closest to the ocean, the growing season is the longest in the world.  The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from these extraordinary sites have redefined my idea of California wine.

The wines of Santa Barbara will only get better as their vineyards mature.  In the mean time they are struggling through the busted Sideways bubble.  The popularity of the wine was so great that they raised the price until the market could not support it.  Now winemakers are holding on to expensive juice that the consumers would love to drink, but not at $50 per bottle.

On Saturday it was time to hit the 101 and head north to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.  My next realm of interest lies between here and San Francisco.  Some of the regions, like the Santa Lucia Highlands, are well regarded and well known, but many of the AVAs in the Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties are small and obscure.  I began with a broad overview of the Highlands at a gala event.

One of the best known producers in the area is Hahn Estates.  On Saturday they hosted the Santa Lucia Highlands Gala Tasting, a public event for 300 people.  Thirty producers were on display, so it provided an overview of the appellation.  From previous experience I was familiar with eleven of the wineries and I was able to sample most of those I had not tried before.  The tasting conditions were difficult; outside in a hot and crowded tent.  Most of the wines were too warm and the alcohol levels, which are generally high to excessive in the SLH, were particularly potent on this day.  Two wineries made an especially good impression on me and I’ll be attempting to visit with them in the coming days.

P5162069It was time for a return to the most beautiful place I had ever seen.  I was fifteen at the time when our family came to California for two wonderful weeks.  No amount of words, pictures or memories can do justice to the scenes south of Monterey on Highway One  – but I’ll be happy to try.

P5162095These are stubborn mountains that refuse to be swept into the ocean; their beaches washed away long ago.  The waters are clear, you can see the ocean floor for a few hundred yards.  Every shade of blue and green mingle with each other in the water.  The vegetation is lush.  The air is mild and a bit damp.  The road is narrow and dangerous.  I finally saw the great California sunset that I had been longing for since the day I arrived.  I slept on the side of the road at one of the many places you can pull off to take in the sights.

PisoniMy Sunday began with a slow exit from Highway One as I returned to the Santa Lucia Highlands for a cookout at the Pisoni Family Vineyard.  The family have been in the area for generations and were early adopters of the vine.  Their vineyards are tucked into a canyon with a warmer climate than those out on the bench.  We didn’t talk much about the wines, but we sure tasted plenty since the price of admission was an open bottle.  One couple was celebrating their anniversary and sharing their Ruinart (!) as well.  I brought a great rosé given to me by Mike Whitehead and made by Charles Smith of Washington and Charles Bieler of The Three Thieves.  Lunch was chicken, beef and sausage with asparagus on the side paired with lots of Pisoni wine out of magnum bottles for over 50 guests.

The next morning I learned that if I keep my sunroof open all night, my battery dies.  Luckily a tow truck with a powerful battery was nearby to jump the car.

It was time to hit San Francisco to visit with my uncle’s family for a couple of days.  Parking there is a nightmare so he let me pull into his garage and forget about the car.  It felt great to do some walking.  He lives in the Castro district, which is where I did my exploring the first evening.  I found a wine bar called Swirl where I enjoyed a glass of Bastianich Friuliano (formerly called Tokay Friuliano before the Hungarians beat them in court) which was a great sipping wine – no food necessary.

YodaSpeaking of food, I returned to my uncle’s home for a pork tenderloin dinner paired with a bottle from Rasteau.  The next day I set out on foot, determined to absorb the city by walking across it.  I felt the need for pictures of the Golden Gate bridge, which is five hilly miles from the Castro.  It took a couple hours, but I found a wise sage who said, “If going to San Francisco, you are, to wear flowers in your hair be sure.  Herh herh herh.”

Golden GateThe day had been foggy to begin with, so I was uncertain that the walk would yield a decent picture.  Over the course of my time on the street, the air cleared and by the time I arrived the bridge was in full, sunny regalia.

During a break in the walk, I was catching up on Eric Asimov’s blog and learned of a wine bar called Terroir located downtown.  They were hosting a tasting with Catherine Breton, a producer from Chinon in the Loire Valley where I had visited last year.  The Cabernet Francs were laden with green herbs, spices and dark berry fruits.  The shop had great merchandising, with empty display bottles lining the walls and the stock in the cellar.  They only deal with organic wine, mainly from Europe.

Just up the street on Folsom is a unique business that could really catch on.  It is called City Beer and it is set up like the typical wine bar with beer instead.  They had a great selection and owner Craig Wathen is well versed in his wares.  He and his wife, Beth, are the sole proprietors and employees.

P5212202I left town yesterday to return to the central coast.  I am wrapping up this week’s article on the shores of Monterey Bay as I prepare to head into Carmel Valley to taste some wine with Damien Georis.

For more photos from the week, click here.

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Angelica!

I solved it!  The back seat of my car is huge and I slept like a rock.  I awoke early Wednesday morning and took a tour of Solvang, which is about five miles east of Buellton.  It is the most tourist driven town that I have visited in the county, but it seems to have missed the boat when it comes to the wine crowd.  Lots of quaint inns and faux-medieval architecture, but only one wine bar and few tasting rooms.

My first winery of the day was Buttonwood, a producer who focuses on grapes from Bordeaux.  This is an oddity in the Santa Ynez Valley, but they are in a warm, well-elevated pocket.  Their flagship wine is a tasty Sauvignon Blanc.  They also offer a wine called Sibling Revelry, which is the best wine I’ve ever had under $5 per bottle. They only sell it by the case.

For me, the best wines are those that communicate the climate and the history of the vines’ surroundings.  My next stop provided a taste of the very early days of California wine.

Old Mission VinesGrapes are not native to California, but they have been grown here since the Spanish ruled.  One grape variety, called Mission, produced the wines used by missionaries in their church services.  Most of it was simple red wine, but the missionaries made a small amount of Angelica for themselves.  It was fortified and exposed to oxygen; similar to the sherries made in Jerez.  One very small producer, Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, is making a modern homage to this lost classic.  She undertook the project when she discovered a Mission vineyard on her property that was planted in the 1880s and had been forgotten since Prohibition began.  Prickly ShoesWe took a tour of the vines to the chagrin of my shoes.  A more complete description of the wine and its production is coming tomorrow.

The next day I met with Peter Cargasacchi, who farms two of the best vineyards in the county.  The more winemakers I meet and the more wines I taste, the more I learn how direct the effect of the vineyard is on the finished wine.  The planting, pruning and trellising decisions do not simply produce good or bad grapes.  They determine if the wine will be fruit forward or earthy; full-bodied or light.

Shale HillsPeter began our visit on a mountain road, where we pulled over to see a side of the hill that had been cut away when the road was built.  Here we saw layer upon layer of marine sediment that had turned into shale over millions of years.  It was thrust out of the ocean when the Pacific plate collided with the North America plate.  This is the primary soil type in the Santa Ynez Valley.  It is very crumbly and has a high calcium content, which lowers the perceived acid level in the finished wine.

Bottling LineI was due back in Paso Robles that evening so I could get an early start on the bottling line at Dubost.  They do not have the equipment at the winery so they hire a mobile unit in a trailer. I was chosen to feed the foiling machine and to serve as quality control after the wine was corked.  If the fill level was too low or a cork was missing, I pulled it off the line and sent it back to the beginning.  The foil machine is an ingenious invention that pulls the foil from its stack and places it on top of the bottle for another machine to twist it down.  It worked really well – for the first three hours.  Then it didn’t.  My cushy quality control gig devolved into an I Love Lucy episode on the assembly line.

Wildfire HillsOn Saturday I returned to Los Angeles to relax, which sounds weird.  On the way I drove through the hills where the Santa Barbara fires had burned days earlier.

In the days since, I have been focusing on getting A Really Goode Job.  Murphey-Goode is a winery in Sonoma that is going to hire someone to live on their property for six months, tour Sonoma wineries and picnic sites, and make a wine to commemorate the harvest.  The Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent will be charged with blogging about the experience.  They are paying $10,000 per month!  The selection process has three stages.  The first involves submitting a resume and a sixty-second video showing your production prowess (or lack thereof) and personality.  It is progressing well and I will certainly have a good piece in time for the June 5th deadline.

To view more photos from this week, click here.

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Thank You St. Louis

I have decided to leave St. Louis on an extended journey through wine country on the West Coast.  The expedition will begin in the middle of April and you can follow it here as I will be writing extensively about the experience.

Thank you to every member of the St. Louis wine industry.  Our conversations over the wines we’ve tasted together have provided unforgettable experiences and have nurtured my understanding.  Thanks in particular to those I have studied with in tasting groups.  Keep up the good work!

I am proud to have served wonderful customers at Cafe Napoli, Remy’s and The Wine Merchant.  I thank you for your patronage and for the opportunity to help you choose your wines.  Extra thanks to those who attended my classes.

I do not know the outcome of this journey – it may well end with a return home.  If that is the case, then I will have settled in a vibrant wine community.

Thank you all.

Jeff

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Ruinart and LVMH

What better way to begin a blog than with a celebration of a new favorite wine. The non-vintage Ruinart Blanc de Blanc is a stunner. I’ve never been so excited by a Champagne.

As this is my first entry, I’ll give you some background info. I never thought much of the idea of working with wine or food. I took restaurant jobs that were supposed to tide me over until I found some elusive passion. It never crossed my mind that waiting tables would lead me to that enterprise. During a staff training three years ago, my boss gave us a taste of the 2002 Adrian Fog Pinot Noir from the Savoy Vineyard in Mendocino. It was a revelation; the most profound sensory experience of my life. I have been immersed in wine ever since.

Now I’m working in a retail shop. Every day the local distributor reps bring wines by for us to taste and decide if we want to carry them in the store. The other day, one of these reps brought the Ruinart and a Frenchman named Roc Hennessy. I was surprised that someone from such a prestigious background would be out selling his wares. He turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve met in the wine business. I took the opportunity to talk to him about LVMH.

Hennessy is one of the better known brandies from Cognac. Over the past twenty years, Hennessy has merged with Moet & Chandon and Louis Vuitton to create the luxury goods group LVMH. The holdings of the group have increased significantly since the merger. Aside from wines and spirits, they have controlling interests in Christian Dior, TAG Heuer, Fendi, Donna Karan and a bunch of other names I didn’t recognize that I’m sure make very expensive things. The quality level of the company’s wine holdings is staggering. In Champagne they control Moet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart and Krug, which I along with many others regard to be the epitome of sparkling wine. They have Chateau d’Yquem of Sauternes, often called the world’s best wine, and Chateau Cheval Blanc, whose 1947 is the most acclaimed wine of the 20th century. Two months ago they acquired Numanthia, one of Spain’s best bodegas.

Usually when a fine product is acquired by a larger company, one expects the quality to decrease. In the case of LVMH, the commitment to quality takes such priority that it is not a concern. The influx of capital that the group brings typically results in a quality rise.

It’s my understanding that Ruinart is currently being reintroduced to the American market, hence Roc’s presence in the country and my opportunity to taste it. It has everything you look for in a great blanc de blanc. The color was a pale gold and the bubbles were extremely fine. The nose was delicate, but complex. When I smelled it, I knew it was going to be good, but the quality of the palate still caught me off guard. It was precise and focused. It massaged every crevice in my mouth. Undoubtedly the best Champagne I’ve had under $100,(it retails for $70) and certainly in my top ten overall. Thus far it is the wine of the year for 2008.

It may be difficult to come by at the moment. We are waiting for more to return to the distributor before we can start selling it. If you are looking to find it, let your local retailer know its part of LVMH to ease their search.

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