Wednesday, November 30, 2011

James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner at Cress Restaurant: The Spinoff

In an earlier post on the Cress Restaurant James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner, I had described how my wife became caught up in a bidding war to secure two tickets to dine with Chef Hari Pulapaka of said restaurant.  Bill Budzinski, owner of Elusive Grape, had spiced the offer up by promising that Chef Hari and his wife Jenneffer would join the lucky "winners" for dinner.  Further, Bill and his wife would also join the party and he would supply the wine.  Hence a three-way bidding war.  One of the wiser combatants called a truce just as things were about to really go off the deep end and proposed that the three parties split the current bid amount equally -- that's how bad it had gotten -- and would all participate in the dinner.  I jumped at that deal on behalf of my wife before she had a chance to do any alpha-dog stuff.

The dinner was set for Sunday, November 27th.  One of the winning bidders could not make the date but gave us permission to press on.  So we did.  Eight of us in a downtown Deland restaurant that was closed to members of the public.  As I stepped into the restaurant I noted that it had been set up such that the focus was on a centrally located, tastefully appointed table.  The lighting in the restaurant was somewhat restrained.  The wines for the night were arrayed on the bar to the southern side of the restaurant. Napkins were carefully draped across every place setting and folded, sealed menus nestled comfortably on them.

We were the first to arrive, followed in rapid succession by our fellow diners.  We greeted each other with a sense of anticipation.  We were going in and we were going in together. I was ready.  I had eaten lightly during the course of the day because Chef had promised us a meal fit for a Rajah.

We were welcomed to the event by Jenneffer who thanked us for our contributions to the success of the original charity dinner and reminded us that the charities which had benefited from the event were The Taste of Orlando and Second Harvest Food Bank. We toasted ourselves with a bottle of Ca'del Bosco Brut Rosé and then followed up with a wonderful 1992 Bollinger.

There were no servers or other help around.  The Chef was doing all the cooking, plating, and serving.  He appeared unflustered as he brought out the Amuse Bouche: Two types of Croquettes (Applewood Bacon and Vegetarian), a Blooming Onion Pakora, Cranberry Compote, and South Indian Coconut and Ghost Chile Sauce.  The Onion Pakora was bound together with chick-pea flour and had a distinct ginger flavor.  I tried the Croquettes with both of the sauces and felt that the latter provided a better textural contrast.  This was very flavorful all around with a definite undercurrent of exotic Indian spices.  The Bollinger paired very nicely with this course.

The second course was a visually pleasing salad constructed with Smoked Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Grapes, Seasonal Local Lettuce, Sesame Sherry Vinaigrette, Chèvre, and Toasted Walnuts.  A distinctive smoked-herring and walnut flavor accompanied the crisp lettuce onto the palate.  The wines presented were a 1968 Vina Valoria Rioja and a 2007 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay.  Unfortunately the Vina Valoria was corked but the crisp acidity of the chardonnay carried the day.

Had I mentioned that this was going to be a seven-course meal?  That was big enough but, within the courses, the chef presented options from which we could choose.  For example, the options for the second course were: i) Cast Iron Roasted Grimaud Farms Duck Breast; ii) Pan Roasted Breast of Ashley Farms Chicken; or iii) Butternut Squash Ravioli.  Each of option was presented with a black habanero reduction and, additionally for the third option, Point Reyes Bleu Alfredo.  I opted for the Duck Breast and was treated to an explosion of flavor tinged with spiciness.  A mixture of crispy, crunchy texture close to the skin and softer moistness as you moved towards the center. Wonderful.  This course was paired with a Two Hands 2003 Lily's Garden McLaren Vale Shiraz.

The third course was Linguini with San Marzano Vodka Sauce and Parmeggiano Reggiano.  The pasta had great consistency with hints of pine nuts, lemon zest, and pesto.  Low-grade spiciness.  Paired with a 1997 Don Melchor Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

As was the case for the second course, the fourth course provided options: i) Kurobuta Pork Cheek Tikka Masala; ii) Cape Canaveral Wild Shrimp Tikka Masala; or iii) Vegetarian Kofta Tikka Masala.  Each of these dishes was offered with Poblano and Grilled Garlic Naan.  I went for the Pork Cheeks.  Its soft texture allowed it to become fully engaged with the Tikka Masala in a mutually beneficial relationship.  A Tikka-Masala-dunked Naan is a special experience when delivered with this level of care and expertise.  Excellent.  Paired with a 2009 Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer.

For the fifth course the chef asked us to choose between a Darling Downs Wagyu Ribeye and an Exotic Mushroom and Pistou Napolean, both prepared with a Smoked Onion Velouche and Truffled Porcini Foam.  You have probably noticed my penchant for meat. This course was paired with the 2003 Lokoya Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. An excellent steak which I only succeeded in polishing off today.

Following a cheese selection, our final course was Dark Chocolate Pots de Créme, Grilled Figs, and Salted Caramel Sauce.

This meal had unfolded in a somewhat surreal setting: the restaurant was empty -- save for us --and downtown Deland was empty -- save for us.  It was as though we were alone in the world, eating in a vacuum.  But this was of no account to us.  Chef had gone from strength to strength as we moved through the courses.  The pace had been somewhat languid with Chef spending a fair amount of time at the table shooting the breeze.  Our conversation was animated and far-ranging (as it is won't to be in Jenneffer's presence) and it was now midnight (The dinner had originally been scheduled form 6:00 to 11:00 pm).  I had to give up.  I was begging for mercy and aluminum foil.

This was a rich, opulent, and decadent meal fit for a Rajah.  And us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Have the World's best wine regions benefited from a previously unrecognized source of nitrogen?

Recently published research on sedimentary bedrock (Morford, Houlton, and Dahlgren, Increased forest ecosystem carbon and nitrogen storage from nitrogen rich bedrock, Nature, 9/1/2011, pp. 78-81) leads me to posit that some of the major wine growing regions of the world have been the unknowing beneficiaries of a heretofore unheralded source of nitrogen and that this has benefited them in their production of high quality wines.  Before expounding further on this hypothesis, I will provide some background.

As shown in the table below, nitrogen is an essential element in the growth of grape vines and an imbalance in its levels can lead to problems in the vineyard and/or in the winery.

Nitrogen and grape vines (Compiled from Grande Passione -- Soil minerals vs wine quality)

According to Schwarcz and Schoeninger (Stable Isotope Analysis in Human Nutrition, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 34, pp. 293-321), almost 100% of exchangeable nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or dissolved in the world's oceans and is transferred from these environments into the biological system through the processes illustrated in the figure below.  The commonly held view is that grape vine plants receive their nitrogen through the terrestrial nitrogen cycle but the Morford study calls this into question.


Nitrogen, as is the case for all plant nutrients, is sourced from the soil by the plant.  According to Christopher Bargman (Geology and wine in South Africa, Geoscientist 15(4), April 2005), soil is the major influence on the growth of the vine plant as it provides: (i) a supply of water; (ii) anchorage in the ground; and (iii) a source of nutrition. The classic soil profile is shown below.

Now back to the Morford, Houlton, and Dahlgren study.  According to the authors, sedimentary rocks contain considerably more fixed nitrogen than all of the fixed nitrogen in the biosphere due to the capture of "... organic matter in marine and freshwater sediments, where it is incorporated into rock as organic N or as ammonium in silicate materials."  Greater amounts of this rock-based N is contained in sedimentary rock (consolidated rock deposited in layers) than is contained in metamorphic ( a rock formed from preexisting solid rocks by mineralogical, structural, and chemical changes, in response to extreme changes in temperature, pressure, and shearing stress -- and igneous rocks (formed when molten minerals cool from a liquid into a solid).  Even though it has been known to geologists that this fixed N is secreted in bedrock, "... it is generally believed that rock N is not sufficiently important to alter the terrestrial N cycle."  The results of this study has shown otherwise.

The authors studied the nitrogen content of soils and forest foliage in forests that were underlain by both sedimentary and igneous bedrock and found the following: (i) the nitrogen content in soils and foliage that grow above sedimentary bedrock is 50% higher than soils and foliage that grow over igneous bedrock; (ii) nitrogen isotope values for rock, soils, and plants are indistinguishable among each other when located above a nitrogen-rich sedimentary bedrock but that is not the case for the same elements overlaying an igneous bedrock; and (iii) "forest responses to geological N inputs are manifested as higher foliar biomass production ..."

The authors conclude that "Our results raise the possibility that rock weathering may be a significant source of N to terrestrial ecosystems..." underlain by terrestrial bedrock.

I compiled the following table of wine regions that may and may not have benefited from the phenomenon described by the authors.  The table shows that some of the world's foremost wine regions are underlain by sedimentary bedrock and may have benefited from that "siteing.".

Additional study will be required to determine the benefits and disadvantages associated with subterranean nitrogen, the implications, and what, if anything, should be done to maximize its effects and minimize its disadvantages.  The information provided herein could be of benefit in making decisions regarding vineyard locations or vineyard retention in the case of a vine-uprooting program.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Search of the Missing Link(s): A Wine Tasting

There is an avid and motivated group of wine drinkers residing in the Orlando area who meet regularly to indulge in their passion.  This group has formed a syndicate which buys and holds wines for the benefit of the group.  Individual members can, and do, have wine holdings of their own. This group holds syndicated tastings wherein either the community wine is used or where the wine used is supplied by an individual who is then reimbursed by attendees.  The group also holds non-syndicated tastings where each attendee provides bottles from his/her cellar and the cost of the following meal is divided between attendees.  The event held last Saturday night fell into the latter category.

I am not a member of the group but was invited to last Saturday's tasting by Ron Siegel, a good friend who has written a guest post for this blog in the recent past..  The format of the event was a blind tasting wherein each attending couple brought three wines which were linked in some way and the tasting group was expected to decipher the linkages.  I had never tasted with this group before, nor had I participated in such a format, so I had some angst in putting my offering together.  I did not complete my final list of wines until 3:00 pm; the event was scheduled to begin at 6:00 pm.

The tasting was held in the basement cellar of the famed Winter Park restaurant LUMA on Park.  A total of 13 people participated in the event.  The cellar room at Luma has a beautiful cocktail area where we drank champagne and ate hor d'oeuvres prior to the start of the sit-down tasting.  At the completion of the cocktail hour, we were called to take our seats for the actual tasting.

This turned out to be a very challenging format.  In the blind tasting that we do at Antoinio's on Friday afternoons, you are asked to identify the varietal and age of a single wine at a time.  In this format, you are being asked to decipher the linkages between three wines and these linkages could include varietal, year, country, etc.   The difficulty posed is that the first wine may give one indication which may be totally reversed by the second wine which is then further set ablaze by the third wine.  Further, the conclusions are discussed publicly -- which serves to place further doubts in your mind about your conclusion -- before the actual revelation of the labels.  Each individual poured his/her own wines with assistance from the dedicated wait staff.

As the table below shows, an equal number of the offered wines originated in the US as did from France and the dominant varieties were Merlot and Pinot Noir.  A majority of the offered wines were from the decades of the 1990s (seven) and 2000s (also seven).

The distribution of the linkages is shown below and the most common linkages were a single varietal or a single varietal distributed between two countries.

The outlier linkage was the Steve's flight, the first flight tasted.  We were provided information that the bottles were priced at $6, $66, and $466 and we should identify which wine was associated with each price.  I approached this with a jaunty step because I was sure that differences between the high- and low-end wines would be easily discernible.  That was not the case.  I expected the $6 wine to be relatively young and fruity but no such characteristic showed up.  The flight (Flight 1) was revealed to consist of a 1979 Charles Krug Cabermet Sauvignon, a 1986 Chateau Margaux, and a 1980 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.  According to Steve, the effective price for the Krug when bought at auction is $6; I checked a retail site and it was $27 at that store.  The other difficulty is that old Napa Cabs can be very Bordeaux-like on the nose and palate.  The Chateau Margaux also did not show as well as it should. We were bamboozled.

The most consistent flight in terms of quality was Russell's Merlot flight which consisted of two St. Emilions (2000 Magrez Fombrauge and 2003 Bellevue Mondotte) and one Bolgheri (Masseto).  Russell had decanted these wines previously (the only one to do so) and had then returned them to the bottle and to his cellar.  These wines showed beautifully both on the nose and the palate and was the only flight that was retained in its entirety by the group for continuing consideration.

The most complex linkages were associated with Ron's offering.  His wines were the same variety (Cabernet Sauvignon) from the same year (1990) but from three different regions (Bolgheri, Napa, and Bordeaux).

The flights are presented in the pictures below.

Flight 1: 1979 Charles Krug, 1985 Chateau Margaux, 1980 Jordan

Flight 2: 1990 Louis Latour, 1989 Drouhin Vosne-Romanee, 2004 Evan's Ranch Pinot Noir

Flight 3: 2000 Magrez Fombrauge, 1996 Masseto, 2003 Bellevue Mondotte

Flight 4: 2006 Derenoncourt Merlot, 1995 Masseto, 1982 L'Evangile

Flight 5: 1994 Rex Hill Pinot Noir, 2001 Penner-Ash Pinot Noir, 2004 Vosne-Romanee Beaumont

Flight 6: 2006 Flor de Pingus, 1996 Castillo Ygay, 2006 Remirez de Ganuza Trasnocho

Flight 7: 1990 Dominus, 1990 Chateau Montrose, 1990 Solaia

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Prato. Work Ahead

Prato (124 North Park, Avenue, Winter Park, FL), because of its association with LUMA on Park, arguably one of the best restaurants in the Greater Orlando area, was highly anticipated by the restaurant-going community so it did not require a lot of effort from @wineontheway to gain my agreement to visit the restaurant on Thursday last to celebrate Mrs@wineontheway's birthday.  The restaurant had had two soft-opening events on the prior Saturday and Monday and was now open to the general public.

Prato seeks to "... seamlessly blend Italian classics with modern techniques and seasonal ingredients" in order to meet a perceived market need.  The restaurant is managed by Concentrics Hospitality Solutions (also manages LUMA), the sister organization to Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants, itself the owner of concept restaurants such as ONE. midtown kitchen, TWO. urban licks, and Tap.  The chef at Prato is Brandon McGlarney (also the chef at LUMA) with Matthew Cargo as the chef di cuisine.  The restaurant features a long bar, two Acunto wood-burning ovens imported from Naples (Italy not Florida), and patio seating.  Our long-term positive experiences at LUMA had us anticipating a stellar evening.

Dinner was at 7:00 pm and we arrived on time.  I was pleased to see that the restaurant provided complimentary valet service because that section of Park Avenue is a parking wasteland.  My first view of the restaurant was of the outside seating area which appeared to be pretty well full.  The signage on the building was understated and subtly lit.  The French doors had been retracted and this allowed a clear view deep into the restaurant.

We made our way to the Greeter's Station to see if our party had arrived.  They had and we were shown to the table.  I noticed the bar as we were being taken to our seats.  It ran almost the entire length of the front section of the restaurant, was well lit and stocked, and had three wide-screen TVs at the topmost portion of each side.

We sat down and exchanged pleasantries with our dinner companions and proceeded to open a bottle of 1995 Ducru.  The menu was on the table and, upon examination, seemed to have a more-than-adequate selection of trattoria-style offerings.  The beverage selection was on the back of the menu and I was impressed to see two (count them, two) Franciacorta selections: Bellavista Cuvee Brut NV and Ca' del Bosco Cuvee Prestige NV.  These guys were cooking with gas.

We ordered two Roast Pumpkin soups for our starters while the @wineontheways ordered Chicken Wing Candito and Escarole Caesar.  The chicken and salad arrived before the soups so we all dug into the chicken while we waited.  One soup arrived.  Where was the other?  The waitress had not heard my order so had not placed it.  But, no worries.  She would order it straight away.  It took another 15 minutes before the soup finally appeared and by this time the @wineontheway entrees had arrived.

For our main course we had ordered a Roast Chicken for two with Broccoli Siciliano and Marble Potatoes.  When the dish arrived it was very salty so we told the waitress to take it back and we would have two orders of the Chicken Candito instead (They had been excellent first time around; slightly crispy on the outside with a tasty topping and presented in a skillet sans handle.). Shortly after we sent the Roasted Chicken back, a second Roasted Chicken order showed up.  We are perplexed.  We explained to the server that we had already received our order, rejected it, and re-ordered so there was no way that this order was ours.  She appeared confused but we could provide no further assistance.  About 10 minutes later a second server appeared with another order of Roasted Chicken and we had to go through the spiel once again.  He looked even more mystified.  All the while we were still awaiting the two orders of Chicken Candito.  It finally arrived but it was on a white plate -- rather than the skillet -- and it appeared to be undercooked vis a vis the first order.  We finally requested a manager.  He listened to our concerns with a sympathetic demeanor then took the chicken away with a promise to set things right.

At this time our server tells us that we probably should have gotten the special.  What special, I ask.  She takes a note pad out of her apron pocket and proceeds to read the daily specials to me.  I point out to her that those are normally shared with customers prior to ordering rather than after they have returned two separate orders to the kitchen.  After what seemed like a lifetime, the Candito Chicken arrived.  It was good but it could not salvage the evening.

While I was disappointed with my food experience I know that this team will whip things into shape sooner rather than later.  There are some things, however, which may require a hard second look.  For example, the bar is impressive but there is very little space between it and the seats on its north side; and the problem is compounded by oversized barstools.  If someone is standing and speaking to a person sitting at the bar, the passageway is effectively blocked.  If the server is taking an order, the passageway is blocked.  The busboys have to pass the empty plates over the heads of the customers as they take dirty stuff towards the back.  This state of affairs will result in customer dis-satisfaction over the  long haul if allowed to continue.

I also had some issue with the chairs used for outside seating.  These plastic chairs are bright red in color and appear cheap and insubstantial next to the polished brown wood of the tables.  I am not a design expert so I could be wrong on this one but I did find the contrast jarring.

Because of the positioning of the TVs, they can be comfortably viewed from the booths adjacent to the bar.  Patrons seating at the bar, however, have to look up to view the TV in a fashion that would eventually put strain on the neck muscles.

I will give the restaurant a little time and then revisit.  This is a deep-pocketed organization so they will keep at it until they get it right.  The owners and management team have a reputation for quality and that will shine through once the bugs are zapped.  It will be interesting to see if/how the structural issues are handled.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Colli Orientali del Friuli Sub-Region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia

The agenda on the final day of the European Wine Bloggers 2011 post-conference trip to Friuli-Venezia Giulia called for: a visit to Bastianich Winery; a walking tour of Cividale del Friuli; and participation in a wine tasting and light lunch with members of the Schioppettino di Prepotto Producers Association.  All of the identified locations are contained within the Colli Orientali del Friuli, a region that competes vigorously with its southern neighbor Collio for the title of best zone in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine region.  The characteristics of the Colli Orientali del Friuli sub-region are detailed in this post.

Colli Orientali del Friuli -- the name translates to "eastern hills of Friuli" -- is a predominantly north-to-south, 2300-hectare strip of land that is located in the province of Udine and is famed for its rich, mineral-driven wines.  The region encompasses 14 communes that are arrayed in a crescent shape to the east of the capital city and is bordered by Friuli Grave to the west and Collio to the south.

As is the case for Collio, the region's climate is moderated by the Julian Alps and the Adriatic Sea.  It experiences hot summers and long autumns and the occasional hailstorm.  It is cooler and damper in the north adjacent to the alpine foothills.

The soil is similar to the soil of Collio, its southern neighbor.

Soil at Bastianich Winery, Colli Orientale del Friuli

Vineyards in the sub-region sit at elevations which average 400m and are terraced.  The vineyards are located in the row of hills bordering the Plains of Udine and run from Buttrico in the south to Tarcento in the north.  The best vineyards can be found in the south of the DOC in close proximity to the northern vineyards of Collio.

The DOC is permitted to produce red, white, and rosé wines which can be dry, off-dry, or sweet.  Sixty-four percent of the zone's production is white wine and 50% of the red is Merlot.  In addition to the DOC wines, three Colli Orientale del Friuli sweet wines have attained DOCG status: Ramandolo (Verduzzo), Colli del Friuli Picolit (Picolit), and Colli del Friuli Picolit-Cialla (Picolit from the Cialla zone).  Varietal wines must contain a minimum of 85% of the stated  variety with the remainder, if any, permitted varieties of the same color.

Colli Orientali del Friuli is sub-divided into three zones: Ramandolo, Cialla, and Corno di Rosazzo.  Ramandolo, located in the northeastern portion of the sub-region, is probably the oldest wine area in Friuli.  It is located in the hill country overlooking the town of Nimis and its steep slopes average 400 meters above sea level.  It is the coolest, and most rain-soaked, of the three zones.  Ramandolo has a DOCG classification -- Verduzzo di Ramandolo -- for wine grown from a local clone of the Verduzzo grape.  Cialla lies in a small valley that runs northeast to southwest in the middle portion of the sub-region and produces dry (Cialla Bianco and Rosso), off-dry (Picolit and Verduzzo), and sweet.  The southern zone, Corno di Rosazzo, is located in hill country and features east-, southeast-, and southwest-facing slopes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hybrid George M. Taber: Review of A Toast to Bargain Wines

George M. Taber, author of the famed Judgement in Paris, participated in a number of panels, and gave the Keynote speech at the recently held European Wine Bloggers conference (Brescia, Italy, October 12th - 14th), all on the same topic: storytelling.  In these public appearances, Mr. Taber mentioned his soon-to-be-released book A Toast to Bargain Wines -- even reading some passages from the book in an early morning workshop -- and I, at that time, resolved to acquire and read said tome when it became available.

The full title of the book is A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks.  I found some dissonance between the title and the layout of the book, on one hand, and the title and the content on the other. 

In Taber's three previous books (Judgement in Paris, To Cork or not to Cork, and In Search of Bacchus), an average of 280 pages was devoted to the telling of the "story." In this book, what I consider "the story" runs for approximately 158 pages, with another 123 pages taken up by a buyer's guide to bargain wines; material which, in my humble opinion, and based on the title, is referential and, as such, would have been better positioned in an appendix. I read the "story" component of the book and set the reference material aside for use when needed. It is not clear to me that this is the best medium for delivery of point-of-use information such as a wine-buyers guide anyway. If you are in the grocery store and decide that you want to purchase a bargain wine, an electronic reference source would have greater utility.

In contrast to its prominence within the book, the presence of the buyer's guide is not indicated in either the main or sub- titles. At the wine bloggers conference we were told that our stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This story has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a buyer's guide.

In terms of organization, the book is divided into three major sections: A Global Business in Turmoil; The Iconoclasts; and The Wine Revolutionaries.  Each of these sections is preceded by a short introductory paragraph which, in my view, could have been aggregated at the front of the book to provide an overall roadmap.  I needed a navigation aid through the first four chapters; something to tie them to the title.  The first chapter (titled Embarassing Moments in Wine History), for example, seemed to have no place in the book until Mr. Taber ties it to novice tasting capability in a closing paragraph.  In Brescia Mr. Taber had recommended using an anectdote as a "grabber" to start a story and, maybe, that was the intent here but, if so, it had me faked out.

The book was slow-moving and somewhat non-specific through Chapters 3 and 4.  In the chapter titled Unravelling the Mysteries of Taste, Mr. Taber spends a lot of time on Tim Hanni and his battle to have the wine establishment understand that people taste differently.  The inclusion of Hanni's Taste Sensitivity Assessment was interesting as it helped in understanding some of the differences between reviewers' reports and helped me to understand where I stood on his scale.  While interesting, this chapter seemed broadly applicable and no significant attempt was made to tie it to the main topic of the book.  I raise the same issue with the chapter on wine judging competitions.  At the end of the story Mr Taber tried to tie these all into the reader being an arbiter of his/her own taste but by this time the damage had been done.  The attempt to correlate should have been done up front.

The story reached its pinnacle in the wine revolutionaries section and, specifically, the stories around the introduction of Two Buck Chuck and [yellow tail].  This is George Taber at his best, tieing primary and secondary sources together in a tightly spun yarn which is both entertaining and revealing.

One of the sessions at the European Wine Bloggers conference was titled Stories Never Told.  One of the shortcomings of this book is that it does not adequately tell the consumer story.  Iconoclasts, winemakers, gatekeepers all get their day in the sun; not so the customer.  When the writer segments the market, it is from the producer/retailer perspective: luxury; ultra-premium; premium; low cost; and extreme value.  No attention is paid to population segmentation of the type that has been discussed by Lorey and Poutet and Marion Demoisser -- and written on extensively in this blog -- which segments customers by drinking profile: regular drinkers; occasional drinkers; and non-wine drinkers.  The issue that I would have liked to see addressed was whether the bargain wines covered in the book are penetrating the regular-drinker segment (as implied in the subtitle) or whether they are increasing the number of drinkers by positively impacting the actions of the occasional and non-wine-drinking customers. This is a story that is of exceptional importance, especially to markets such as France which is experiencing declines in regular drinkers and increases in occasional and non-wine drinkers.

I have bought George Taber's books in the past because of his capabilities in research and storytelling.  In this book, Mr. Taber makes himself a part of the story.  Beginning in 2009, he blind-tasted five or six wines per day in order to come up with the final best buy list included in the book.  In the section on gatekeepers, Mr Taber warned us about their role and positioning as arbiters of taste, yet he plays the role of gatekeeper in this book.  And he does not even alert us as to his Sensitivity Taste Assessment so that we can get a sense of where his taste lies; that is after warning us in the body of the document to pick a gatekeeper who is most aligned with our taste and to then stick with that individual. 

I get the storyteller Taber brand; the jury is still out on the hybrid (storyteller-gatekeeper) Taber.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fulvio Bressan, Bressan Wines: Top-15 Winemaker (Self-Styled) in Collio and Isonzo DOCs

We had started out the first day of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia EWBC 2011 post-conference trip behind schedule and things worsened as the day progressed.  After a drive through the Collio hills, a brief trip over the border into Slovenia, and a stop at our hotel to check in, we made our way to Enoteca di Cormons for a scheduled tasting and dinner with Collio producers.

The event was being held on the floor above the shop and, after climbing a flight of stairs, we debouched into a room decorated with banners and pennants in the ceilings and with producers manning wine-endowed tables arrayed adjacent to the room walls.  The producers were gathered together in little groups but quickly moved to man their respective tables when we arrived.  The producers were all conservatively attired, both in color and style, save one; an orange shirt stood out starkly amidst this sea of conformance.  This was my first glimpse of Fulvio Bressan.

The President of the Consorzio stepped to a makeshift podium and welcomed us to the region and then asked each producer to introduce him/herself.  The producers did so in a clockwise fashion and in reserved terms (matching their attire) except for the one wearing the orange shirt.  This individual stood out in that his physical makeup stood in stark contrast to a producer group that was greyhound-like in appearance.  His self-introduction was confident and strong in contrast to the rather tepid introductions that preceded and followed his.  He was Fulvio Bressan of Bressan Wines.  This is no shrinking violet, I thought.  More of a Barnum and Bailey type.  At the conclusion of the introductions, the President declared the tasting underway.

I began to work the room in a clockwise fashion beginning with the producer directly in front of me.  After working my way through a number of wines, I noticed a congregation around Bressan's table and he appeared to be holding court.  One of the bloggers at Bressan's table was @aleksimethonen (my newest best friend) so I ambled over to see what the fuss was all about. When I got to the table, @aleksimethonen suggested that I taste the Pinot Nero.  It had a great Pinot nose but with added richness and depth.  Ripe red fruit, but balanced, and the absence of oak associated with Pinot.  Fulvio stated that he picked his fruit late in order to ensure full ripeness.

As Bressan buttonholed passing bloggers and poured them his wine, he kept up a steady stream of conversation, with one liners ranging from outrageous to outrageously funny.  As he poured wine into the glass of one taster he remarked, "my surname is on the bottle, you think I will put shit inside."  He confided that he was a ninth-generation farmer and one of only 15 serious winemakers in the region.  "Most of the others are here to make money," he says.  "I need to live but beyond that ..."

Bressan properties cover 25 hectares in DOCs Collio and Isonzo, 20 hectares of which are planted to vine.  Fulvio insisted that quality wines are made in the vineyard ("A cellar is only a place where you store the wine until it is ready to be bottled.") and that it begins with the soil.  The Bressan soil is topped by a 1-meter layer of gravel through which the roots penetrate as they search for water and nutrients.  The gravel aids in the ripening of fruit (by reflecting the sun's rays) but also allows water to pass through to the clay and marl levels where it is captured and held.

The vines in the Brerssan vineyards are mostly between 50- and 100-years old.  Grapes from vines that are younger than 7-years old never make it into Bressan wines.  Guyot training is used on the estate with one shoot and four or five buds for each vine.  Plant density is 5000 vines/hectare.

In terms of vineyard management, Fulvio says that he used to be biodynamic but isn't anymore.  He claims to have visited many "biodynamic" farms and seen weed killer being used.  "You can gain biodynamic certification but the certifying agency is not with you 24/7," he says.  "Only the producer knows what goes into the wine and a lot of the stuff that makes it into the wine is the shit they put into the ground."  Fulvio does some winter pruning (by hand), but does no green harvesting ("Old vines are self-regulating"), has no grass in the vineyard, does not irrigate, and sprays copper only when necessary.

Fulvio feels that you can't have high volumes and high quality.  "It is a tradeoff."  He produces 3.5 tons/hectare, well below the DOC Collio limit of 10 tons/hectare.  In addition, his viticultural practices of no green harvest and no grass put him in violation of DOC Isonzo requirements.  In light of the foregoing Bressan declassifies his wines and sells them as IGT.

"I drink coke because it is made by a professional chemist and it is even and consistent every time I drink it.  I don't drink much of today's wine because they are made by a bunch of amateur chemists."  No chemical manipulation of Bressan wines is practiced.

The vinicultural practices of the estate are illustrated in the figure below.  After the grapes have been pressed (Step 2), they are delicately pumped into temperature-controlled stainless steel vats.  Indigenous yeasts are used to jump start alcoholic fermentation (According to Fulvio, using synthetic yeasts would be akin to giving his wife to his best friend.).  The time between harvesting and the completion of final maceration is approximately four weeks.

Bressan Viniculture

At this time Fulvio turned to a discussion of oak casks.  "What is oak really required for," he asked.  It was a rhetorical question.  "It is for oxygenation of wine." he said, answering his own question.  "Why then do I want wood tannins in my wine?  Why then do I need coconut and vanilla in my wine?  These flavors are not of the vine." In order to ensure that these flavors do not make it into his wines, he never uses 'uncleaned' new oak.  I raised a querulous eyebrow.  I had never heard of cleaning new oak.  Fulvio described his new-oak-cleaning process for my benefit:

  1. Fill the new oak barrel with a mixture of sea salt and well water and let sit for 10 days
  2. Dump out that mixture and fill barrel with water; let sit for five days
  3. Taste water after 5 days.  If still oaky, go back to step 1.  If no oak taste, the barrel is ready for use.
By this time the tasting was almost at an end.  I had spent most of the evening in dialogue with Fulvio and had not visited with all of the producers.  I looked around sheepishly and tried to quickly touch a few of them.

Fulvio's insights were extremely entertaining and his personality was captivating.  I had truly enjoyed our dialogue.

In addition to the Pinot Nero, Bressan produces the following wines.

Cabernet Crown Domains
No. 3 Bressan

Pinot Grigio

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Fulvio Bressan has posted ugly racial comments regarding the Italian Integration Minister on his Facebook page. After a number of defiant posts -- following a social media firestorm prompted by his comments -- Bressan apologized. Notwithstanding that apology, I have drunk my last Bressan wine. See my post here for the full details.