Sunday, January 12, 2014

Not a Box of Chocolates

The deadline was quickly approaching.  I looked at my calendar and hoped I had enough time.  My search probably should have started months ago; however, the limited time period I had given myself had to work.  I started investigating.  I had a vague idea of what I needed to find, but could it be found?  Could this be done in time? 

My fortieth birthday was quickly approaching, and I had still not purchased a birth-year wine to enjoy on my day. 

The mission:  find a 1974 wine of (hopefully) stellar quality to be shipped to my home in Wyoming…in the middle of one of the coldest winters in years.   Yes, I had work to do.

Wine is always a mystery.  From the time a grape begins to grow on the vine, the mystery of the weather, the animals, the harvest, the fermentation, and the aging all create a vast unknown of what a wine will be. Add to this decades in the bottle after the initial production and aging, and it is quite clear what a true gamble getting an excellent bottle of well-aged wine really is. 

Mystery one solved:  I found the wine I was looking for—a 1974 Fontanafredda Riserva Speciale Barolo.  I love the Nebbiolo grape, and I knew that Barolos age with grace…as I like to think I have been doing.  The wine was located. 
Fontanafredda Barolo Riserva Speciale 1974.
The shipping took several days to hash out since the wine was coming from NYC to Wyoming in weather that was not only reaching well below freezing, but even below zero.  My nerves started to twitch the instant I received the shipping notice that my birthday bottle’s journey across the cold U.S. was underway.

Mystery two solved:  the wine arrived unscathed.  The two-day shipping actually ended up being three, but that is another mystery when living in rural America:  when will the package actually arrive?  Upon arrival, the bottle was pristine. 

On the back of the bottle was a special sticker that this wine was purchased from a private collection.  The plot thickened.  Where had my bottle been for forty years?  I could easily trace my own path the past four decades, but what about this vino?  Had it been with just one owner before the specialty wine shop (where I made the purchase) bought the bottle?  Had it been passed from cellar to cellar, only to end up in Wyoming as part of a mile-stone birthday celebration?  Perhaps I will never know.
Beautiful bottle!

Mystery three solved:  the bottle opened easily.  I left the bottle out at room temperature about half an hour before opening.  I decanted the entire bottle, and the first glass we (hubby and I) had without filtering. 

There was so much beautiful sediment left in the bottle and still some light, tiny sediment particles in that first glass.  I was so nervous about whether the bottle was still alive that I feared filtering it might actually aerate the wine, and I wanted to do anything to make sure the wine still showed well.   After being poured in the glass, the color of beautiful brown, Fig-Newton filling reflected back at me--slightly hazy, but looking good with no visible flaws.  I was on pins and needles to see if my wine gamble had paid off!
Beginning to decant.

Fig Newton filling colored.
Slightly hazy, but a wonderful aged, brown tone.

Mystery four solved:  the wine was very aromatic (so much so my daughter said she could smell it all the way across our dining room table!). 

The first sniff was of fig and baked plum; then the smoke and campfire aromas came through.  Next was dull earth, then cedar and automotive garage.  The complexity of the wine made me smile.  The mystery was so close to being solved.  Would this wine live up to my expectations?
Aromatic on the nose.
Mystery five solved:  the wine drank beautifully!  The first touch of the wine on the tongue was the fig and baked plum from the nose.  This was followed by a punch of acid, making my mouth water.  The earth, green pepper, and herbaceous flavors led into a lengthy finish of baked plum, wood chips, and sawdust. 
Drinking wonderfully.
We opened the bottle at 8:35 p.m. and finished the first glass after 9:00.  I did filter and funnel the second glass since I was no longer worried about the flavor dissipating.  The second glass was just as good; in fact, my hubby liked it better at true room temperature.  We finished the second glass each (and bottle) two hours after the initial opening.  The wine still had so much life.  The fruit flavors were somewhat muted, but the acid, earth, herbs, and wood were shining through.   

My mission was accomplished:  even though I almost sabotaged my assignment, the mystery of the birth-year wine was solved. 

Like life, wine is such a mystery.  (I would say that life is like a bottle of wine, NOT like a box of chocolates.)  We never know what is coming in our future, just as wine producers do not exactly know what the future of their wines may be.  Even the best and most experienced winemakers must deal with the unknown of the weather, the birds, and the aging process.  Two bottles of wine stored right next to each other over the course of forty years may age differently. 

Twenty years ago I had no clue what I would be doing when I turned forty…except maybe feeling old.  Life will throw us all curve balls and take us down paths we could never have imagined.  We will face life, death, and the unknown.  But at the end of that path, we are like that mysterious bottle of wine--better for our aging, with so much left to show, not quite knowing what tomorrow--or the next day--will bring. So…bring.  It.  On!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Catching Fire--Firehouse Wine Cellars and Brewing

Long before at home-brew kits and microbreweries began to dot the landscape of small and large cities alike, Firehouse Brewing Company, located in the historic fire hall on Main Street Rapid City, opened its doors as the first microbrewery in the state of South Dakota.  In fact, at that time (1991), one had to drive hours and hours and cross several states before finding an establishment of its kind.  No, this isn’t another blog where I “cheat” on wine and talk about beer…although I could.  The Firehouse is doing a little cheating of its own by getting into the wine business and fermenting grapes behind the backs of all the hops it loves!
Starting the fire--Firehouse beer brewing.
 The affair with wine officially started over a year ago when Firehouse owner Bob and brewer Mike decided to continue their experiment of fermenting just about anything and add grapes to the mix.  They contracted with a vineyard outside of Rapid to produce Firehouse wines with South Dakota grapes.  Due to a hail storm this summer, and more ambition than originally planned, the local grapes were supplemented with California juice to produce quite a variety of white and red wines.  Brewer Mike now splits his time between the grapes and the hops as he continues his education through a California winemaker’s program.  Mike also receives on-the-job training from a consultant from California who has frequented South Dakota during the first vintage of Firehouse wines.  The consultant just spent time in Rapid to oversee the bottling of the California Syrah and will be back at the end of February to continue work on the wines.  March is the projected, and hopeful, release date of the inaugural vintage of Firehouse vino.
Wine making facilities; the original plan was only a tank or two! 

Basement barrel room.

The Sweet Sommelier and her sidekick in the barrel room.

Firehouse wines should have something for just about everyone.  Brianna and La Crescent, South Dakota hybrids, will make a lighter-bodied, off-dry wine, while an orange Muscat and a Gew├╝rztraminer will be the sweet and citrusy whites.  Other whites will include the unique grape varieties of Chenin Blanc and Viognier.  Red wine lovers, don’t worry—there will be plenty for you, too!  Marquette and Frontenac, more South Dakota grapes, will start the list of dryer wines.  There will also be the usual and unique suspects of Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese.  A delicate rose from Grenache will round out the lineup of still wines.  I am also looking forward to the Port-style wine that is being barrel-aged until ready. 
 Tasting room area with tasting bar outlined in blue.
VIP room and additional tasting space.
The production and tasting areas are still works in progress.  The fermentation area sits behind the current Firehouse and upcoming tasting room.  The barrel room is in the actual basement under the historic buildings.  With the stone walls, this will eventually make a beautiful space for customers to see all steps in the wine-making process.  Future plans include staining the beams of this basement ceiling for better ambiance.  Though the tasting bar is currently under construction, the layout of the actual bar space is in place, and the storefronts will make a perfect new addition to downtown Rapid. 
Store front area--the future location of Firehouse Wines.
The Firehouse has been a trailblazer (fire pun intended) in the beer business in this area.  That spark has now started the fire for wine production.  Cheating on his great friend beer may keep Brewer Mike on his toes, but this new venture will fire up Black Hills wine lovers, just as Firehouse beer did for beer lovers two decades ago.  I am counting down to having yet another winery on the fast-growing Black Hills wine trail. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

It’s a Tough Job

Two years ago, my New Year’s wine resolution was to promote wine and wine-centric businesses in the Black Hills, Wyoming, and South Dakota.  In order to do this, I have traveled to different liquor stores, wine shops, restaurants, delis, kitchen-specialty stores, bars, wineries, and breweries.  All of these have been stops made on my own, many times without the business even knowing I was there or that I would eventually blog about my experience.  I have often teased what a “tough job” I have roaming the area to taste wine and eat food.  Many times, others have agreed with me, sometimes with a slight envious grin, sometimes tagging along with me on my journeys. However, as another wine-loving business (that I liked to frequent) closes, I realize I do, in fact, have a tough job!

First, Manchego, on downtown Rapid City’s square, closed and reopened as a Mexican restaurant.  I liked the idea of Manchego’s tapas style food, and I absolutely loved the idea of Machego’s automatic wine machine allowing customers the option to taste many different wines from the Enomatic. Granted, I know that running a restaurant efficiently is difficult, and something I know absolutely nothing about; I also know there were some problems with Manchego’s food, service, and prices that the new restaurant (under new ownership), Que Pasa, has overcome.  I never found the time to blog about Manchego before it closed, and always felt badly that I hadn’t done what I could to promote an establishment that promoted wine in the Black Hills.  (I have yet to blog about Que Pasa, only because now as a Mexican restaurant, it is a tequila bar, and other than my trips to Mexico, I am not a tequila expert…wink, wink!)

Now, Dakota Thyme, the backdoor neighbor to Machego/Que Pasa on Rapid’s square, has closed its doors. I did blog about Dakota Thyme and ranted about its great ambiance and wonderful food for breakfast and lunch.  It had a great revolving wine menu with the opportunity to purchase bottles for home consumption.  I really thought that it was a wonderful addition to downtown Rapid City and a wonderful addition to the wine community as well. 

Again, I realize I know absolutely nothing about what it takes to run a successful food-service business, but I do know I want to do what I can to help these businesses be a success.  I am sitting here wondering what I can do as a wine-lover to help other wine-lovers keep their favorite places alive and well.  I can be a good customer, I can be a good blogger, but what else can I do?  I will keep spreading the word, but I really am looking for suggestions.  If you have any, I would love to hear them.  You can leave them via this blog, my Facebook page (The Sweet Sommelier), or my e-mail (  Promoting wine in a predominately rural area sounds like a fun job…and it is!  However, it is proving to be a tougher job than I thought.