Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sub-Zones versus crus: A conversation with a Brunello di Montalcino insider

I recently read Cathrine Todd's Forbes article titled Brunello di Montalcino's Grand Cru Vineyard, a paean to Montalcino's Montosoli vineyard. Having tasted the "creme de la creme" of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino's with Antonio Galloni, a tasting which did not include any of the Montosoli producers, I forwarded the article on to a Montalcino-resident estate manager to get their input on the cru. The response from my interlocutor expanded the discourse beyond my initial narrow query to one encompassing alternative mechanisms for interrogating the rich vinous diversity of Montalcino. Before exploring my colleague's discourse, I provide some context.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is, unquestionably, one of the leading red wine regions of Italy and the world but defining a typical Brunello is a challenge. According to Monty Waldin (Brunello: The many crus of Montalcino, Decanter, 3/19/15), 30 - 35% of Brunello is sourced from the cooler grounds north of the town (yielding paler Brunellos) with the remainder from the warmer south (darker colored, more overtly fruity, savory wines). Of course, producers can blend grapes from the two areas to ameliorate stylistic differences.

In an effort to gain an even finer definition of the wines, a sub-zoning proposal (spearheaded by wine writer and educator Kerin O'Keefe) -- with the nomenclature and relative characteristics indicated in the chart below -- has been advanced.

But all hands are not on board with this proposal. According to Waldin, "Vineyards zoned in less highly regarded spots may be penalized by the media and then by the marketplace." In a blog post passed on to me by my Montalcino whisperer, Stefano Cinelli Colombini, owner and winemaker at Fattori dei Barbi, states that sub-zoning only works on paper, given the diversity in Montalcino vineyards. In a response to one of the comments on his post he notes that, in mapped areas, soil and geography stays constant but weather and things associated with humans are changeable. "You cannot make a reliable map of quality areas," he says. Stefano foresees journalists creating a ranking between zones and it being very difficult to change these down the road "because important economic interests will be involved."

Waldin proposes a different path forward for those seeking to comprehend Montalcino's rich vinous diversity: "... break the region down into its constituent parts by familiarizing oneself with Brunellos from single vineyards or single terroirs." And he has provided the roadmap summarized in the table below.

My Montalcino compatriot is torn: "I will admit that I am confused and a little resistant to the Montalcino Cru argument while agreeing wholeheartedly about the very real and multiple manifestations of terroir in Montalcino. Montosoli is indeed a great site (depending on vintage) but there are many others emerging and the most sought after land these days is high altitude (see the €1 million/ha purchase price at Villa Le Prata) due to the sad effects of climate change. However, in Montalcino it is always about the vintage/position combo so I am reluctant to see one area lauded above all others. Nature tends to give all areas a turn at greatness."

Continuing: "I agree ... that it is not useful to apply a podium paradigm to Montalcino wines, vis-à-vis single versus blended, vineyard against another -- what I enjoy sharing with visitors are the differences between the sub-zones and the different aspects of each that emerge depending on vintage and canopy management."

That being said, my Montalcino friend is considering creating a new label for some of the estate's high-altitude vines. Sometimes Montalcino leaves the best of us "confused."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A tasting of selected F. E. Trimbach wines with Jean Trimbach and George Miliotes MS at Wine Bar George (Orlando, FL)

I have been a fan of Trimbach wines since an epic, Jean-Trimbach-led tasting of the estate's high flyers (Clos Ste Hune, "Cuvée Frédéric Emilé") at the 2015 edition of TEXSOM. The quality of the wines, and Jean's dry-humor presentation style, render Trimbach tastings must-attend events. Jean recently brought his wines and style to a tasting at Orlando's Wine Bar George. I report on that tasting in this post.

The tasting was late getting started due to a delay in Jean transiting from a Disney event to Wine Bar George. That fact was quickly buried once Jean took the microphone into his hands.

Jean Trimbach and George Miliotes MS

The Trimbach family has been making wines in Alsace since 1626 and, according to Jean, three generations are currently involved in the functioning of the enterprise: the 11th generation, Bernard and Hubert, remain integrally involved in the business; the daily operations are managed by the 12th generation, the brothers Pierre and Jean; and Anne and Julien, members of the 13th generation, have recently entered the business.

Jean was fulsome in his praise of the microclimate governing the Alsace vineyards. He especially mentioned the Vosges Mountains which serves to protect the vineyards from cold winds and also, through its rainshadow effect, minimizes the amount of rainfall to which the area is exposed.

Trimbach's 55 ha of vineyards are located primarily in Ribeauvillé and surrounding towns (limestone-dominant soils) with a 2-ha plot in the granitic Grand Cru of Schlossberg. The distribution of the Trimbach vineyards are shown in the chart below.

As shown in the table below, Trimbach produces a wide array of wines. In general, the estate hand-harvests at maximum ripeness and transports the resulting fruit to the winery for further processing. At the winery the grapes are gently pressed and fermented in stainless steel -- and/or concrete vats -- for 2 to 3 weeks. The wine is bottled early to preserve freshness and retained in the cellar for a number of years before release on the market.

The figure below shows the subset of Trimbach wines that were included in the tasting.

Tasting Lineup

The first flight was comprised of the 2014 F. E. Trimbach Pinot-Gris "Réserve" and the 2012 Pinot-Gris "Réserve Personnelle" paired with a Big Board of Charcuterie.

The Big Board

According to Jean, Pinot Gris is a natural mutation from Pinot Noir and is very sensitive to rot. It takes on sugar rapidly and ripens easily. Fruit for the Réserve is sourced from estate and grower vineyards while the Réserve Personnelle is made from estate fruit only. 2014 was not an easy vintage, visited as it was by heavy rains and grey rot. In comparison, 2012 was a serene vintage.

The "Réserve Personnelle" was harvested close to vendages tardives (late harvest) level. This wine had a golden color with sweet white fruit and a honeyed nose. Rich, thick, honeyed on the first pass, giving way to a chalky minerality with citrus skin and spice.

The 2014 Réserve was fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete vats. Mustier smelling than its stable mate with lower levels of honey. More acid on the palate with a hint of oxidation. Relatively austere. Lime and a chalky finish.

The second flight included a 2015 Riesling Réserve and a 2015 Riesling Sélection de Vieilles Vignes, paired with a Frisée Salad.

Frisée Salad

Jean stipulated that 50% of Trimbach's production is Riesling. The 2015 vintage experienced very hot conditions but the grapes surprised winemakers by retaining high levels of acidity.

All grapes for the Riesling Réserve were rigorously selected from Trimbach vineyards in and around Ribeauvillé. The wine shows a waxiness, dried herbs, lime, and stone fruits on the nose. Light and crisp with a lengthy finish. Jean sees this wine as the steelier of the two.

The Vieilles Vignes label was produced for the first time in 2009 and the wine is always "softer" than the Réserve. Grapes were sourced from 50-year-old vines grown on marl and limestone parcels in Ribeauvillé-area vineyards. This wine had a clean nose with a lime-infused freshness, stone fruit, and minerality. Powerful and concentrated on the palate with a hint of pear. A lengthy mineral finish.

Next up was the 2011 Gewürtztraminer "Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre", accompanied by Crispy Mac & Cheese Bites.

Crispy Mac & Cheese Bites

Named in honor of the Lords of Ribeaupierre -- governors of Alsace during the Middle Ages -- this cuvée is only produced when the vintage is deemed to be of high enough quality. Grapes for this wine were sourced from 40-year-old vines from Ribeauvillé vineyards -- including Grand Cru Osterberg parcels.

Jean noted that 2011 had been a ripe vintage. The wine showed faded lychée and honeysuckle on the nose. Delicate and elegant on the palate. Balanced, with a lengthy finish.

The final dry-wine flight was the 2010 Riesling "Cuvée Frédéric Emile" and 2016 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg, both paired with an Ibérico Pork Pluma.

Iberico Pork Pluma

Grapes for the Riesling "Cuvée Frédéric Emile" were handpicked from the Geisberg and Osterberg Grand Cru vineyards. On the nose, petrol, citrus, and white flowers. Citrus, minerality and good acid levels on the palate. Medium weight. Mineral finish.

Schlossberg is the largest (80 ha) of the Alsace Grand Crus and Trimbach owns 2 ha therein. It was the first granitic vineyard that the estate owned so they had to learn its characteristics. Over time they have reduced the yields and have increased wine quality as a result. Only 400 cases are produced annually.

Restrained on the nose with hints of lemon-lime and petrol. Also restrained on the palate. Faded citrus and a mineral finish. I liked this wine a lot.

The dessert pairing was the 2007 Gewürtztraminer "Vendanges Tardives" with an Orange Blossom Trifle.

Orange Blossom Trifle

This late-harvest Gewürtztraminer is made with grapes sourced from Grand Cru Osterberg in Ribeauvillé and very old vines planted at the Muelforst site in Hunawihr. Lychee, apricot, peaches, and honey on the nose. Fresh and elegant, with purity of fruit. Honeyed, with a lengthy finish.

Jean Trimbach and the author

Wine Bar George staffers

Group pic

This was a wonderful tasting. The wines showed well, Jean showed well, the food was excellent, and the group's rendition of "Bring back my Trimbach to me" -- led, of course, by Jean, was memorable.

I have been to a few of these tastings at Wine Bar George and I am pleased at the commitment that George has shown by leveraging his contacts and acquaintances into high-quality tasting experiences for Orlando residents.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Alsace: Landscape creation

At a recent tasting of Trimbach wines held at Orlando's Wine Bar George, Jean Trimbach noted that the Alsace region was geologically unique and home to 800 different soil compositions. Wines of Alsace supports this contention: "Experts say if you walk 100 feet in any direction, you'll find a different soil composition, making Alsace a complex mosaic unlike any other wine region." I explore the origin of these soils in this post.

I have elsewhere described the Variscan Orogeny (380 - 280 mya) -- the mountain building resulting from collision of Gondwana and Euramerica and the formation of the supercontinent Pangea -- and note that at its conclusion, the current Vosges Mountain (France) and Black Forest (Germany) was a single north-south mountain range.

Nothing is ever static in nature though. Over millions of years, the range was eroded. Further, warming temperatures resulted in sea level rise and the submersion of the mountain range. The following chart shows depositional activity on the range over the ages.

Sedimentary deposits on the north-south mountain
and the succeeding Rhine Graben, Vosges Mountain,
and Black Forest (Source: moore.no)

During the Triassic period, sandstone, limestone, and marl layers accumulated over the mountain range. Eroded sand from the continents were transported to, and deposited in, the shallow seas (Bunsandstein). The remains of shelled organisms compressed the sand below -- while creating a layer of their own (Muschelkalk) -- leading to the creation of sandstone. This shelled layer eventually became a limestone layer. The Keuper (marl) layer is the youngest of the three and was formed by 'clay-sized particles of clay minerals, limestone, and organic material."

Another 570 - 790 m of sedimentation were laid down during the Jurassic area. Deposits were marls and limestone containing gypsum, iron, and fluorite.

The third of the significant European-landscape-creating Orogenies was the Alpine Orogeny which occurred about 50 mya and resulted from the collision of the European and African plates. This collision uplifted the north-south mountain range, cracking the Jurassic rock and causing a collapse of its central portion along two fault lines. The Jurassic and Triassic strata overlying the uplift were shed, with the shoulders of the graben bared to the basement granites. These shoulders became the Vosges of Alsace and the Black Forest of Germany.

Uplift was less intense in the north and, as a result, some of its Triassic sandstone was retained. Based on this uplift dichotomy, the southern Vosges is referred to as the High or Crystalline Vosges while the northern portion is referred to as the low or Sandstone Vosges.

"... the western side of the graben was not one clean break but a series of somewhat sinuous faults stepping down to the central gutter. The westernmost fracture is a major break along the base of the mountain known as the Vosges Fault. A second major break, sometimes as much as 3 km east of the Vosges Fault, is known as the Rhine Fault" (Wilson). The step faults -- "fault bundles" -- show minor displacement but are cut into criss-cross patterns by cross faults. Differential erosions of these fault blocks have produced low hills  -- the sub-Vosges Hills -- each with its own erosion-determined dominant strata, upon which the bulk of the Alsace vineyards lie.

The extent and a cross-section of the Rhine Graben are shown in the two charts following.

Cross-Section of Rhine Graben (Source:vinsalsace.com)

During the Oligocene era, the Jurassic and Triassic rocks in the lower parts of the valley were converted to limestone-rich marly conglomerates. At this time, the rock composition of the structural units were as follows:

  • Vosges Mountains -- Granite and sandstone; sometimes shales
  • Sub-Vosges Hills -- Incredible soil diversity
  • Rhine alluvial plain -- Marl and alluvium.

During the Quaternary period the Vosges was subjected to glaciation down to the 1000 m altitude with a resultant scraping of the Triassic layers and revelation of the underlying granite. Below 1000 m the granite remains covered by sandstone.

The valley floor has been filled with water on numerous occasions with the associated carriage and deposition of fertile soil material.

In this post I have identified the origin and interplay of rock types in the Alsace region. In an upcoming post I will describe how these rocks relate to the soil types in place today.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Augustan Wine Imports as seen through a rearview mirror: Interview with Proal Perry, founder

I recently saw that Proal Perry and his wife are now engaged in managing a B&B in North Carolina. That brought to mind an interview I conducted with him nine years ago to gain his perspective on the current and future state of the regional wine market and to expound on what actions, if any, he had taken to ensure that the company retained its relevance in those tumultuous times.  The interview took place at one of the most beautiful outdoor restaurant locations in the metro-Orlando area: the dock on the lake at the then Houston's.  Augustan had brought its local customers together on the dock for a lunch-time introduction of the Talley Vineyards offerings. I reported on that interview in three separate posts but have consolidated them herein in my effort to honor him for his contributions to the Orlando Wine Scene.

Once the customers and Augustan staffers had vacated the premises, Proal and I had the dock to ourselves and settled down for what turned out to be a wide-ranging discourse on the origin and evolution of Augustan Wine Imports, the company philosophy and operating principles, and the state of the broader wine industry.

Proal Perry has a restaurant background and one of his frustrations while in that space was the unavailability of small-producer, estate-bottled wines in the Florida market.  Proal was trying to exit the restaurant business and began looking at opportunities to address this niche.  Bruce Neyers, the National Sales Director for the then fledgeling Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, came to Florida at that time seeking a distributor for the company's products and suggested that Proal form a company for that express purpose.  Proal listened and Augustan Wine Imports was launched in 1993.  Proal's wife Connie joined the business 1 year later to focus on business operations while he focused on sales.

A number of factors contributed to the early-life success of Augustan: (i) the timing was right; (ii) Augustan was exploiting a niche that was unserved; (iii) there was little competition; and (iv) Augustan was not viewed as a threat by the large distributors.  Augustan was, according to Proal, one of the first small distributors in the state and after its initial success a number of smaller players entered the market.  There are now over 200 licensed distributors in the state.

As Augustan began doing business across the state, its business model became problematic.  The logistics costs associated with a small company trying to distribute small-estate wines across the state was steadily eroding profitability.  By this time, the company had brought on a number of European and domestic producers but had only one distribution center in South Florida from which to dispatch products across the state.  Distributing product to the Panhandle could mean that a truck would be gone for three days and be empty for two of those days.  If the company wanted to extend the model across the state efficiently and effectively, another path would have to be pursued.

The chosen path was a partnership with Premier Beverage.  Premier saw prestige value in Augustan and preserved that value by allowing its management to retain a high degree of autonomy and independence.  Augustan saw value in Premier's distribution muscle (4 distribution centers across the state) and willingness to provide an environment wherein the founding vision of the company could be pursued in an untrammeled fashion.  Further, the partnership would allow Augustan to become even more specialized as it would now be representing a smaller group of suppliers.

Augustan Wine Imports” goal is to be the most-valued company in the space where their upper-tier customers are doing business. Meeting this goal requires, according to Proal, that the company exhibit the following characteristics: quality of service; knowledge; education; creativity; and innovativeness.

The critical success factors (CSFs) for goal attainment are (i) provision of high-quality wines to the market and (ii) the fostering of an entrepreneurial culture within the organization. The first CSF is of paramount importance and the company has implemented a rigorous screening process to ensure that only the highest-quality wines are offered to its customers. The second CSF is being addressed by giving a strong sense of ownership to the people in the field. The message from management to the field is “We are lending you a $1 million+ business that you should treat as your own. Invest in yourself by continually acquiring wine and industry knowledge and we will give you the support required to ensure your success.” A forcing function for this new management approach was Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

According to Proal, “The carrot and stick approach does not work; a perception of mastery of your environment does.”

Proal believes that commissioned sales forces spend too much time “chasing the money” and not enough time servicing the customer. In the Augustan scheme, salespersons are salaried and this allows them to devote whatever time is necessary to ensure a satisfied customer. In addition to salaries, salespersons have benefits packages and expense accounts. Proal sees the latter as an essential element of the salesperson “managing his/her own company.”

Augustan has a strong support structure facilitating the activities of the field force. The General Manager/Sales Manager reports directly to Proal and is charged with balancing responsibilities across the company. Two Portfolio Managers – one responsible for the U.S. and the other for the rest of the world – handle issues such as inventory, profitability, costing, and supplier contact and coordination. The Marketing Specialist handles referrals (The Company only solicits “iconic” wines.). New opportunities are assessed as a group. A prospect wine is tasted blind and assessed both on its own merit as well as against other potential entrants. Price does not enter the assessment until after the wine has been judged to have the type of quality that Augustan is pursuing.

When asked to categorize Augustan’s customers, Proal indicated that this was an issue they have been wrestling with for a while and had not fully resolved. Historically, a disproportionate share of the business had been with the restaurant trade but that is now down to 60% from the 70% level. On the retail side, they only do business with independent fine wine retailers. The retailers who depend on Wine Spectator “shelf talkers” are not their preferred customers. He wants customers who: (i) understand what distinguishes Augustan from the competition; (ii) want to partner with Augustan; and (iii) Augustan wants to partner with. Proal cites Tim’s Wine Market as an example of the ideal Augustan customer. Tim’s has been an Augustan customer from day 1 and, 15 years on, remains one of the company’s best customers.

Prior to the onset of the current recession, there was already a move to greater concentration in the industry.  This was a troubling trend, in Proal's view, because larger companies tend to be less forward-looking than their smaller, nimbler counterparts.  Proal likes the idea of a large number of distributors in the Florida market as it results in more wine choices for the consumer and leads to stronger wine consumption.  On the other side of the equation, wine sales are inhibited by a lack of consumer knowledge and an intimidation factor.  Retailers have seized the opportunity to increase their sales by allaying the fears of, and providing education to, retail-level customers.

According to Proal, high-end wineries have historically been loath to sell their wines to independent retailers.  Rather, they have wanted their wines sold in restaurants because of the belief that that channel provided the greatest exposure for both the wine and the winery: the wine is prominently displayed on the wine list; the bottle is brought to the table and consumed by multiple persons; and while the wine is being consumed, the bottle is on display on the table for other diners to see.  Not so for the independent retailer, according to the wineries.  These high-end wines are never displayed on the racks in the store.  Rather, the retailer makes them available only to his/her best customers in a dark back room from where it goes into a collector's cellar never having seen the light of day.  And having provided no broad-based exposure to the winery in that market.

In today's straitened environment very few wineries are placing restrictions on where their wines can be sold due, in large part, to the current restaurant environment.  It has been a difficult time for small operators who, in many cases, lack the capital to ride through the rough times.  Further, it is toxic for startups who, even in the best of times, require two years from startup to profitability.

Proal Perry with the Talley Vineyards winery Rep.

On the consumer side, Proal sees the "top-end" buyers continuing to spend on their favorite collectibles.  It is the "aspirants," as he calls them, who have retreated from the market.  This particular type of customer lacked wine knowledge but bought it because it was "cool" and bestowed "status" on the consumer.  In today's environment this type of consumer has fallen back to wines that are more moderately priced.

With the "aspirants" retreating to the lower-priced end of the market, this segment is showing a marked propensity for trying a more diverse array of wines: diverse both in terms of styles and geography.  And producers are responding.  Good value wines from around the world have increased their presence significantly over the past two years, with independent retailers leading the way in providing customers with exposure to these products.

Proal sees the current market dynamics enduring for some time.  As he sees it, the $50-$75 retail price range has been hurt badly and may never regain its prior elevated levels.  The <$30 market, on the other hand, will continue to be robust going forward, especially given the fact that the quality of the wines produced at that level has improved dramatically over the past 5 years.  It has, historically, been been difficult to get "big spenders" to try lower-priced wines but as the quality of these wines have improved, they have become more open to giving them a try.

Given the foregoing market dynamics, and a strong sense that the <$30 market will continue to grow, Augustan has focused all of its referral assessment activity on that space.  Iconic (read high-end) wines will continue to be pursued as the opportunities present themselves.  A full listing of the Augustan portfolio can be viewed here.

With market positioning set, Augustan has to take all of the necessary steps to ensure that its customers are on board and are prepared to carry that message on to the ultimate consumer. Augustan eschews the trade-show-type approach in favor of education-themed interactions with its customers which provides those retailers with the tools to then educate the end customer.  For example, last year, the company brought many of its producers to Florida for a three-city road show where small groups of customers had dedicated interaction time with each producer over a four-hour period.  This year the company is doing a number of education-themed sessions with customers in various markets to include a Fall show in the Orlando market where Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara will be leading a seminar on Grower Champagne and South America.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Differing perspectives on the constituent components of the historic To Kalon Vineyard

The recently amended lawsuit filed by Jeremy Nickel (Vineyard House Winery) against Constellation Brands has revealed a divergence in the narrative as to the constituent parts of the historic vineyard. As shown in the chart below, William Heintz, a famous Napa historian, ajudged the To-Kalon Vineyard to be comprised of the 1868, 1879 (rather than 1881) and 1891 parcels. On the right side of the chart, Nickel postulates that the 1991 parcel is excluded and replaced by an 1868 Crabb purchase of a 168-acre parcel. I will explore these two positions in this post.

1881 Parcel was actually bought in 1879

Sizing the historic To-Kalon Vineyard
The To-Kalon Vineyard National Register nomination proposes that the To Kalon Vineyard did measure 500 acres during Crabb's lifetime and cites a number of sources to support that position:
  • An 1883 article in the San Francisco Merchant (12/21/1883) refers to a 500-acre Crabb estate (prior to the purchase of the Baldridge Tract) as did the San Francisco Call, Volume 68, Number 141 (10/19/1890).
  • According to the nomination, "Multiple primary source references corroborate that at its peak, the pre-Prohibition To-Kalon Vineyard included approximately 500 acres of planted vines ..."
The case for the inclusion of the Baldridge Tract (1889 purchase)
Let's begin with the Nickel story. According to the Nickel telling, Crabb bought the 168-acre hillside property from William Baldridge in 1889, bringing his total holdings to 527 acres, a number close to the 500 acres that is mentioned in multiple contemporary sources as the size of the To Kalon Vineyard. In this telling, this new purchase became a part of the To-Kalon estate. According to the Nickel telling, the 1891 purchase was not part of the historical To Kalon because Crabb sold it back to the Davis family one week after purchase.

The case for the inclusion of the 1891 purchase
The nomination also stipulates as to why the 1891 purchase was included as a component of the historic To-Kalon Vineyard:
  • Crabb had planted the first vines on this property (at that time owned by his in-laws-to-be) in 1873 and had been purchasing the fruit to include in his To-Kalon wines since 1879.
  • Crabb purchased the land at auction in 1891 and immediately sold it back to his daughter-in-law via a mortgage valued at one-third the price he had paid for the property just seven days earlier. In 1893 he filed a quitclaim deed for the property and Margarethe Davis (his daughter-in-law) sells the property to A. L. Williams in November of the following year.
  • Prior to the 1891 purchase, Crabb regularly referred to the parcel as his own
  • According to the nomination,, "Additional primary sources state that the historic To-Kalon Vineyard was contiguous and stretched from the highway back to the foothills."
Factors that mitigate against the inclusion of the Baldridge Tract
Based on the nomination:
  • "Additional primary sources state that the historic To-Kalon Vineyard was contiguous and stretched from the highway back to the foothills"
  • The Crabb probate lists the To Kalon Vineyard (359 acres after the sale of the 1891 purchase) and Baldridge Tract separately
  • The Baldridge Tract is "valued to lumber and having no vines planted on it"
  • A 1917 mortgage from the Churchills separates the To-Kalon Vineyard and the now-Sullivan Tract
  • Aerial photographs from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s show the hillside plot under forest
  • The first vines were planted on the hillsides (now the homes of Harlan, Futo, and Vineyard House Winery) by Doug Stelling sometime around 1980.
This Blog's Position Going Forward
Based on the apparent use of the fruit from the 1891 plot in To Kalon wines during his lifetime, and the apparent introduction of vines to the Baldridge Tract during the Stelling Period in the 1980s, this blog will consider the historic To Kalon Vineyard as being comprised of the Crabb tracts purchased in 1868, 1879, and 1891.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Cress Restaurant (DeLand, FL) is back (and is serving lunch to boot)

Cress Restaurant is back. Long one of the leading restaurants in the Greater Orlando area, this creation of Chef Hari Pulapaka, and his wife Jenneffer, had been withdrawn from daily operations and, instead, presented as a special-events/limited-operations entity. This "retreat" was driven by the growth in civic and charitable causes to which the owners had became devoted while still holding down full-time jobs (he as a Math Professor at Stetson, she as a Podiatrist).

But buttressed by a brand new team, Cress has resumed normal dinner operations (Tuesday through Saturday) and has expanded to now include lunch service (Tuesday through Friday). The new members of the team are:
  • Tom Brandt, General Manager and Co-Owner
  • Suran Brandt, Manager
  • Sam Bove, Executive Sous Chef
I had not dined at the restaurant since its return to full service but corrected that by making a reservation for the first day of its lunch service. The city was in the midst of a road-beautification project on the day of my visit so we had to park some distance away from the destination and lug our wine bags back. Our pain was diminished significantly by Suran's warm welcome. There were some changes to the decor but overall it was the same inviting space that I had come to know and love.

We were shown to our seats and presented with the lunch menu. I loved it at first sight: substantial offerings in categories titled Soups, Salads, Appetizers/Sharing Plates, Sandwiches, Signature Mains, and Sweet Plates. I sat back and popped a cork. It was going to be a long day.

I started out with the Bell & Evans Chicken and Andouille Gumbo: chunks of chicken and sausage in a thick, rich, spicy sauce. A slightly rustic taste with a note of acidity. Parlo went for the North African Lentil Stew for her soup course. I tasted and it was awesome.

Bell & Evans Chicken and Andouille Gumbo
with steamed rice and parsley

North African Lentil Stew with harissa toast.
mint, lemon

Parlo and I shared the Signature Escargot. This dish has always been one of my favorites on the dinner menu and it did not disappoint this time. Mushroom as a through line.

Signature Escargot with clarified butter, garlic,
mushrooms, and grilled bread

I have had Pork Belly at Cress before but not suited up in this manner. I do not like bread getting between me and my pork belly so I disrobed it to reveal the thick juicy slab of PB nestled within. It went well with the accompanying fire-roasted vegetables. Substantial and tasty.

Berkshire Pork Belly Banh Mi with sauce
 Manchurian, house slaw, spiced peanuts,
cilantro, mint

For my main dish I had the Tikka Masala curry but also snared some of Saru's Creole Shrimp and Cress Grits. The Tikka Masala is a Cress staple and was just as good as ever. The Shrimp and Grits did not disappoint.

Tikka Masala Curry with Tofu and vegetables,
steamed basmati rice, garlic naan, cilantro

At the end of the service Chef Hari came over and spent some time with us. He was in a very relaxed mood and seemed especially pleased with the current state of affairs. As we lauded him on the dishes, he again stressed the importance of spices in his cuisine (the through line, he said).

Chef Hari

The team

Orange Infused Vanilla Bean Créme Brûlée with fresh berries,

We also got to spend some quality time with Suran once her duties were complete. We sat around talking and drinking and then took the party over to The Elusive Grape. Just like we always do.

I am wishing this incarnation of Cress Restaurant all the best. They have all of the ingredients in place to be successful. Tom brings significant restaurant management experience to the table, as does Suran. This frees up Chef Hari to focus on the menu and training the Sous Chefs and Jenneffer to focus on the wines and wine pairings. It also allows them to travel to civic/charitable commitments knowing that things will continue apace on the home front.

If you have not visited the restaurant, now is as good a time as any. If you have visited previously, try lunch. Please note that this is not an unbiased review of this restaurant: I like the people and I like the food.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

To Kalon: Land or Brand?

Constellation Brands, the company behind brands such as Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, The Prisoner, Corona Extra, and SVEDKA Vodka, is currently engaged in a Goliath-versus-David battle to overturn the creek-naming iniative of the MacDonald brothers and, in so doing, strengthen its argument that "To Kalon is a brand, not a place." In this post I provide some background to this 'conflict."

I like to say that I have written the second best history of Oakville's To Kalon Vineyard, with Matt Stamp's effort on Guildsomm being demonstrably the best. What both efforts have in common, though, are the testimonies and documents on the vineyards provided by the MacDonald brothers, Alex and Graeme. In addition to providing 90% of the fruit for the Robert Mondavi To Kalon label, a large portion of the fruit for the Mondavi Reserve, and the fruit for their limited-production wine, the MacDonalds are avid preservationists and curators of the history of the land on which they ply their trade.

The MacDonalds believe that "... there is a genealogy of the land and that we have a responsibility to preserve that history for future generations." Towards that end they have conducted extensive research on the origin, owners, and utilization of the To Kalon Vineyard through the ages and have freely shared their findings with all interested parties.

In addition, they have:
  • Registered the creek running through the vineyard as To Kalon Creek with the US Board of Geographic Names
  • Published the To-Kalon Vineyard Historic American Landscape Survey
  • Submitted a To-Kalon Vineyard National Register of Historic Places nomination with the National Park Service
Constellation has appealed the creek-naming effort on the grounds that To Kalon Vineyard is a brand and not a place.

The To Kalon name has been embroiled in a number of legal battles over the years. Robert Mondavi registered the name To Kalon in 1988 and To Kalon Vineyard in 1994, trademarks that came into the possession of Constellation with its purchase of Robert Mondavi in 2004. The first of the trademark battles was with Andy Beckstoffer.

Beckstoffer requires that winemakers purchasing his fruit designate the vineyard of origin on the wine label.  Schrader Cellars followed this dictate and placed the To Kalon name on the label of its 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon which was made from Beckstoffer-sourced grapes. Robert Mondavi promptly filed suit against Schrader and Beckstoffer for infringement of copyright.  After a year of back and forth the suit was settled with Mondavi granting a perpetual, royalty-free trademark license to Beckstoffer allowing him to use the To Kalon Vineyard designation for grapes grown on his part of the original Crabb estate.

In 2011 Constellation applied for three new trademarks -- To Kalon Wine Company, To Kalon Vineyard Company, and Rooted in To Kalon -- but abandoned those applications in the face of staunch opposition from Andy Beckstoffer "who argued that To Kalon is 'geographically descriptive.'"

More recently, Vineyard House Winery filed a claim to gain the right to use the To Kalon name based on (i) its small plot being in the original Crabb holdings, (ii) large portions of the current To Kalon Vineyard falling outside of those original holdings, and (iii) an assertion that the original trademark names were obtained fraudulently because To Kalon has always been a place name and, as such, is not "trademark-able." This case is still pending before the courts (The To-Kalon Vineyard Historic American Landscapes Survey stipulates that Crabb had purchased 165 hillside acres in Oakville, proximate to present-day Harlan Estate, but that his probate specified this land as used for timber production rather than being planted to vines.).

In an attempt to lure the brothers into their camp, the Constellation legal team, in a meeting at their New York offices, offered them the rights to use the To Kalon designation on their label in exchange for support of the removal of the To Kalon Creek name. In other words, to trade in their integrity for future monetary benefits (as the use of the word To Kalon on their label would allow the brothers to immediately increase the price of their wines into the range of current To Kalon offerings). The brothers demurred.

The MacDonalds' efforts to memorialize To Kalon as a place has received broad-based support, with 9 of 11 owners signing on for the National Register nomination and Constellation being the sole dissenter in the To Kalon Creek appeal. On a more global level, Antonio Galloni has spoken out in an Instagram post in support of To Kalon as a place:
What is at stake is not just the legacy of To Kalon but the entire concept of place in American wine... My position is clear: To Kalon is a place not a brand, no matter what might be written on some legal document somewhere. Napa Valley and the US need to protect the integrity of our sites ...
I also believe in To Kalon as a place and had provided Constellation with a path-forward to leveraging the brand acquired with the purchase of Schrader while further entrenching To Kalon as a place. In 2017 Schrader Vineyards sold its business to Constellation Brands for a little less than $50 million dollars (even though it owned no vineyard or winery). Schrader was a brand built on the marketing prowess of Schrader, the winemaking reputation and skills of Thomas Brown, and the quality of fruit and name recognition of the Beckstoffer Vineyard.

My thought process at that time was that Constellation intended to leverage the Schrader name into creating new branded products with fruit obtained from its own vineyards. Much as I had proposed in my discussion of the Vietti sale, Constellation could create a number of high-end vineyard designates from fruit that is "underutilized" today based on the prices that Beckstoffer To Kalon wines command.

In this model, Constellation would treat To Kalon as a cru with multiple owners (much as is done in Burgundy and Barolo), each practicing its own discipline but leveraging the reputation of the vineyard into ever-increasing rewards from the marketplace. The current commercial owners of To Kalon land are Andy, the Macdonald Family, the Detert Family, Opus One, and Constellation.

If Constellation focused on delivering premium lines from the property it owns in the historic vineyard -- the two large plots on either side of the Beckstoffer et al block -- it could designate a number of sub-cru plots and label the products as Schrader Alpha To Kalon, Schrader Beta To Kalon, etc., and these would line up seamlessly with the naming convention established with the Schrader Beckstoffer To Kalon wine.

This opportunity is still available to Constellation.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme