Sunday, March 29, 2015

Elite Eight--Northern California Wineries

There is currently an epidemic in this country.  Recently, I have witnessed some behavior that has me gravely concerned about many of those around me.  It started a few weeks ago with strange symptoms of people spending copious amounts of time of ESPN or other sports outlets researching something very troubling…something called a bracket.  Most inflicted with this strange syndrome didn’t fill out a bracket (singular), but many fill out multiple brackets (plural), taking this strange behavior to a whole new level.  For some, this behavior is so extreme it could only be called “madness,” pure and simple.   

Then there are those like me, who get another kind of illness in March—spring fever!  This disease doesn’t show itself in the research of basketball teams and hours of sports watching (although I have watched my fair share of NCAA basketball games lately), my spring fever manifests itself in crazy thoughts of warmth, summer, and vacation.  As others are choosing their teams to reach the Elite Eight, I am doing my own study too, filling in my own bracket (in a way) of the eight wineries I would make a priority to visit in northern California wine country.

Similar to when people fill out their brackets for the NCAA tourney, I have a list of qualifications I used to choose my elite wineries:  1) I could not have been to the winery before; 2) I could not have even tasted the wine before; and 3) I had to have respected the wine on some level for a period of time.  However, even with this criteria, my special wineries cover a gamut of styles of wine, sizes of production, and popularity of products.  Any grape and any location in northern California could be contenders.  Each has a specific reason for being chosen, and each makes me thirsty just thinking of the amazing wine options available.  Here they are, in no particular order, the eight elite wineries I can’t wait to visit!

One—Ridge Vineyards:  Known for its signature vineyard Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, I remember the first time I heard of Ridge’s Monte Bello red blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc).  I read an online review that made the bottle sound like heaven.  Over the years, I learned this one review was the norm, and Monte Bello has been on my bucket list to drink ever since.  Produced by revered wine maker Paul Draper, Ridge has two locations for visitors, and truthfully, I want to visit both (but I’m only counting this is one of my eight).  Of course, the original Monte Bello location would be like Mecca for a wineaux like me.  At the same time, the Lytton Springs location outside of Healdsburg in northern Sonoma (purchased in 1991) looks like a worthy stop as well.  Read about both locations on the Ridge website here.
Ridge Vineyards
Two—Corison Winery:  Corison is Napa royalty.  With a female winemaker at the helm (which I love), Cathy Corison and her husband primarily make Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Francs.  However, they also produce a white from Gewurztraminer and a rose (among others).  Cathy is known for using sustainable growing and production practices in her quest to make wines that are complex and powerful, while at the same time have some elegance.  On my list to drink and see the facility, Corison is definitely worth an elite eight position.  Read more about Cathy and her wines here.

Corison Winery
Three—Littorai Wines:  Small, family owned Littorai is the baby of Ted and Heidi Lemon.  Ted learned the winemaking business in the Burgundy region of France.  Heidi spent some time in Germany for another job.  Together, they returned home and searched northern California for the perfect spot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; they found it in Sonoma and have a tasting room outside of Sebastopol.  They believe in a hands-off, more natural style of winemaking focusing on making the best wine after good vineyard practices.  Specializing in my favorite wine, Pinot Noir, Ted and Heidi source from the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley.  They also produce quality Chardonnays, in addition to a unique Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer blend.  Read about Littoria Wines here.
Littorai Wines
           Four—Copain Wines:  Also a Sonoma winery, the location is outside of Healdsburg (one of my favorite Sonoma towns).  Wells Guthrie is the winemaker here.  He traveled to the Rhone Valley of France to receive some of his training in winemaking.  Here, he learned to respect the French winemaking techniques.  These methods show up in his wines from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah (including a rose).  Guthrie’s ultimate goal of the wines (from grapes sourced from the Anderson Valley) is to reflect the terroir, to be a representation of the place where grown.  Tastings are given my appointment only, so to visit this winning winery, some advanced planning is required.  See how to get an appointment here.

Copain Wines
  Five—Red Cap Vineyards:  Located on Howell Mountain in Napa, Tom and Desiree Altemus started this winery after years in other careers.  Winemaker Rudy Zuidema is the winemaker, joining the Altemuses after his time in Australia.  The vines were planted on Howell Mountain in 2000, and Red Cap focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The production is incredibly small, only 250 cases a year.  There is no public tasting available, so this is definitely a truly elite group of wines to experience.  Look for special events and tastings in other locations, posted on their website here.

Red Cap Vineyards
Six—Dutton-Goldfield Winery:  Located in Sonoma, this is a team effort from fifth generation Californian Steve Dutton (wine grower) and Dan Goldfield (winemaker).  This producer made my elite list because of the focus on Pinot Noir wines, especially from one of my favorite areas, the Russian River Valley.  They also make wines from Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Gewurztraminer.  The tasting room is outside of Sebastopol and is open daily for tastings.  Find the hours here.

Dutton-Goldfield Winery
Seven—Venge Vineyards:  Kirk Venge, Napa born and raised and fourth generation Californian farmer, makes wines much like his ancestors, yet with his own stamp of originality.  Kirk has a true focus on sustainability; he uses dry farming, cover crops, and no herbicides.  Making wines in Napa primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, he also produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot.  By appointment only, the tasting experience here is more about education and enjoyment in a quiet, formal environment.  Learn more about Venge Vineyards here.

Venge Vineyards
Eight—Hirsch Vineyards:  In 1980, David Hirsch sought a growing area to farm grapes that would produce wines showing the specific site where the fruit was grown.  For decades, he sourced grapes to some of the most prestigious winemakers in northern California, including Williams Selyem (one of my bucket-list wineries I was able to visit last year).  Now he grows grapes that make amazing Pinot Noirs (so I have heard because, again, none of these wines have been in my glass…yet) with the Hirsch label under the direction of a team that includes winemakers, a vineyard manager, a gardener, and sales marketers.  I have followed his sales manager and daughter Jasmine on Facebook and Instagram for quite some time.  I can freely admit to the madness I feel about the pictures she posts of Hirsch wines!  Tastings are given by appointment only and require a trek far, far north into Sonoma, almost three hours north of San Francisco.  However, the travel is worth seeing the unique and remote vineyard where one can catch glimpses of the ocean at times.  Here is how to visit Hirsch Vineyards.

Hirsch Vineyards
Honorable mention—Patz & Hall:  I had to add a ninth winery to my list, Patz & Hall.  The reason it didn’t make the actual list of eight is only because I have had the pleasure of drinking Patz & Hall wines before, so having it on my dream team of wines that I can’t wait to taste would have been breaking my own rules.  However, this winery deserves a nod for several reasons.  First, it focuses on my favorite variety, Pinot Noir, making wines from grapes sourced from two of my beloved AVAs:  Russian River Valley and Carneros.  Patz & Hall also produces Chardonnays, focusing on single vineyards and smaller lots.  The team of James Hall, who makes the wine, and Donald Patz, who sells the wine, is joined by Anne Moses and Heather Patz.  They recently opened the Sonoma House outside of the town of Sonoma.  I am dying to visit this beautiful facility after following its construction via social media. 

Patz & Hall Sonoma House
Luckily, I was able to bypass the current epidemic of madness everyone around me seems to have contracted.  On the other hand, I caught my own—March wine madness.  Much thought and reasoning is used when those infected with this madness go to fill out their brackets; these are tough choices to make.  I put even more thought and reasoning into the selected eight producers here, all based on my personal tastes and interests.  I could have easily made a list of the sixteen sweetest wineries I want to visit.  Even easier to do would have been to bump up to thirty-two places, and sixty-four would have also been a cinch. 

These eight represent an incredibly short list of a very, very, very long line of wonderful wineries to visit in northern California.  The madness of trying to limit to just eight actually hurt me; it created a whole other list of symptoms, some similar to basketball fanatics' issues this month:  shaking, nervous twitches, and thirst.  Those of you following the NCAA tournament only have a few more games until your madness is cured; I still have months until summer comes to cure mine.  Bring on the prescription for travel and let these eight elite wine producers cure my madness—cheers!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Frankly My Dear…That Was Delicious--Juniper, Rapid City

Accomplished British chef and cookbook author Delia Smith said, “Food is for eating, and good food is to be enjoyed... I think food is, actually, very beautiful in itself.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Over the course of the last five years, Rapid City has become a hub in the Black Hills for restaurants producing beautiful food, not only for the eyes, but for the palate as well.  Though the restaurant business is perpetually changing in this area, one personality has remained a constant—Pete Franklin.  His arrival in the Black Hills in 1999 ignited his long and evolving career here.

Franklin arrived in the Black Hills after having worked in restaurants for years.  His initial food service-related job was as a dishwasher when he was fourteen.  This sparked the flame that would become a life-long passion.  His first restaurant here was Mad Mary’s Steakhouse in Spearfish in 2001.  Then he opened the Sunset Grill.  Next was Delmonico Grill in downtown Rapid in 2007.  During this time Pete also opened the new building and concept of Manchegos, also downtown.  In 2012, Pete sold both of these businesses and took a short break. 

However, in 2013 Debbie Michealree of Catered Two Productions and Uncorked in the Canyon Lake area was incredibly busy with her daytime catering business and nighttime restaurant business.  Pete stepped in to cook at Uncorked in the evenings so Debbie could focus on the catering aspect.  Then, the duo decided to split the same kitchen and run their businesses separately but together.  In February of 2014, Debbie focused on catering only, using the kitchen during the day.  Pete’s Juniper became the evening business. 
Juniper at Uncorked...a partnership made in the kitchen.
Running two full-time endeavors out of the same space is challenging at times,  but Pete’s love for the beauty of food and the Canyon Lake neighborhood have made it all worth it.  His goal after reopening in this space is to be ever-evolving while filling the needs of this part of town.  His regular menu is always changing, using seasonal ingredients and flavorful combinations.  Pete also strives for a certain level of consistency in service and food, even if the food options are ever-changing. 

To help reach this goal, Pete recently unveiled his Saturday Prix Fixe menu—a four course meal that is different every Saturday night.  No other menu items are available that evening, just the Prix Fixe.  Wine recommendations are given for these courses, but customers can still choose other options from the wine menu.  This menu is different every Saturday, so no two weekends will be the same. Pete hopes to have these menus posted online two to three weeks in advance so patrons can plan ahead.
Beauty is found in the environment, food, and service of Juniper.
I was fortunate to visit Juniper on the first Saturday of the Prix Fixe option.  It was a wonderful experience all around, from course one to the final sip of our dessert wine.  This evening was proof that Pete Franklin has met all of his goals at Juniper.  The food was beautiful, unique, and amazing, while the service was top notch.  From start to finish, Pete’s years in the hills and his appreciation of food was evident.

Course one:  lobster bisque—this large bowl of soup was filled with flavor, topped with truffle oil, and finished with slight spice.  Our table took the wine recommendation from Server Matthew and paired the soup with the Chateau Marjosse 2013 white Bordeaux.    This was a great pairing.  The wine muted the spicy note while being a nice light wine to start the meal. 
Lobster bisque and white Bordeaux.
Course two:  prosciutto wrapped chicken breast stuffed with Taleggio on top of tomato-olive salad.  This was a light yet filling course.  The combination of the flavorful chicken and spring-like salad was perfect.  We also paired this with Matthew’s recommendation of the Marjosse, the same wine as the first course.  The wine actually seemed sweeter when paired with the savory flavors in the chicken, tomatoes, and olives.  This was another great pairing, yet an interesting demonstration of the same wine going well with two different food options.

Marjosse white Bordeaux and stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast. 
Course three:  herb encrusted pork loin with caramelized apples, fennel, and haricot vert with fresh green beans.  This was paired with another wine endorsed by our server, the Cristom Willamette Valley 2010 Pinot Noir.  (Those of you who know me know how I feel about Oregon and Willamette Valley noirs.)  Another special pairing, the earth, mint, and red fruit of the wine was wonderful with the savory pork and slight sweetness of the apple. 

Cristom Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to pair with the roast pork.
Course four:  caramelize pear in red wine reduction sauce with mascarpone cream.  This dessert was wonderful without being too sweet and rich—a perfect way to end a delicious meal.  I tried this with the last few sips of my Pinot Noir, and really it was a better pairing than one might think.  However, the real pairing and second part of dessert came when the glasses of Chateau Doisy Vedrines Sauterne arrived.  It was a nice pairing with the dessert (as a port would have been as well), but the last few drinks of the Sauterne on its own were also incredibly special, like silk in a glass.
Caramelized pear in red wine reduction sauce.
Sauterne--silk in a glass.
 Pete Franklin proves that good food should be enjoyed for its beauty and its flavor.  His many years in the Black Hills have led him to know the area and what his patrons want.  He is not afraid to risk and try new endeavors, as shown with his Prix Fixe menu and the unique idea of sharing a kitchen with another business.  Pete’s goals of an excellent and evolving menu to meet a neighborhood’s needs show he understands the joy of excellent food.  He has definitely had a part in creating Rapid City as the culinary hub of the Black Hills and in increasing the beauty of Black Hills’ cuisine.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ssshhhhhh...Blind Lion Speakeasy

Around the corner we looked, hoping not to be noticed.  We slipped into the back alley.  Luckily, no one was there.  My companions and I saw the door we needed.  We quickly slunk inside.  Down the long stairway we walked, a bit apprehensive about what we might find along the way.  Then we saw it:  the door.  It looked just like a safe, but we knew the “treasures” hidden behind were more than money.  After entering the code, the heavy door budged.  On the other side, the dark room invited us in further; however, first we had to pass yet another test with a secret phrase. 
Super secret entrance to the Blind Lion...shhhhhh!
Down the long stairway...
to find the door to the "safe."
The year was 1923, and prohibition was in full swing.  Because alcohol for commercial ventures was illegal, people like my group of the evening had to sneak around just to enjoy a cocktail.  Speakeasies were not uncommon, just difficult to find and dangerous to be caught frequenting.  We were on edge.

Wait!  The year was actually 2015, and my friend, her husband, my husband, and I had just passed through all the obstacles to get inside Rapid City’s Blind Lion, the only speakeasy in the Black Hills. 
The rules of the Blind Lion help you go back in time.
Though the reservation was made through text only and the entrance codes were sent this way as well, the confusion of the year can easily be explained after this initial modern interaction.  The rest of the event truly felt like being transported back in time.  The instant we stepped into the Blind Lion, we indeed could have been in 1923.  The servers were all dressed in period clothing.  The furniture was authentic.  Even the room, located in the basement of an old brick building (Murphy’s), was sound proof from the floors above.  We couldn’t hear the outside world, and the outside world could not hear us!
Everything felt like it was 1923!
Hidden away in the Blind Lion.
 Once seated, our group was offered “The Axe.”  Not to be worried; this was nothing scary.  It was what the Blind Lion called its cheese and charcuterie board.  There was also a limited but lovely looking menu for those interested in food, desserts included.  Our main interest, however, was the unique cocktail menu. 

Filled with distinctive options, the cocktails were the main reason to sneak around to this establishment.  Premium liquors, house-made ingredients, and hand-chipped ice were the basis for these drinks.  Though beer and wine options were available, as our server told us, the cocktails here should not be missed.

The drink I enjoyed was the Lavender Star:  vodka, fresh lime juice, lavender simple syrup, and Champagne.  Of course, I had to do the sparkling wine cocktail on the menu.  It only seemed right.  Light, refreshing, and flavorful, this was a great way to mix wine and liquor.  
The Lavender Star--Champagne cocktail.
My friend Amy ordered the Pear Side Car:  pear brandy, orange sour, and brown sugar syrup with a rock brown sugar rim.  Beautifully served in a martini glass, this was a drink worth trying.

The Pear Sidecar--pear brandy and rock brown sugar rim.
Amy’s other half Bryce ordered the Burnt Apple.  This absinthe-based cocktail packed a kick as it was mixed with apple whiskey, Licor 43, Peychaud’s Bitters, and cinnamon.  Though this was a very tasty concoction, the art of creating this drink made it even more special.  Behind the bar, the inside of the glass was coated with liquor and then set afire.  This fire was put out when the mixed drink from the shaker was poured into the martini glass and then topped with a round apple slice.
The Burnt Apple--work of art in the form of a cocktail.
Brian, my other half, ordered the most unique drink on the menu—the Smoking Barrel.  A special machine was used to smoke the customer’s choice of tobacco.  The smoke was pumped into a small carafe with the liquor of choice—in Brian’s case Pendelton Whiskey—then swirled with the smoke to infuse the alcohol.  This infused whiskey was then poured over a large ice ball in a cognac-style glass, which held the smoke on top of the liquor.  This was beautiful!

Making the Smoking Barrel.
Our cocktails were sipped in pure indulgence as we enjoyed the exclusive environment of the speakeasy (including a dress code that requests patrons to at least be in business casual attire).  Many other wonderful options of cocktails were on the menu.  We just couldn’t try them all in one night…and still make it up the stairs!  This just means that another visit to the Blind Lion must be in our near future.

We felt as if we needed to hide even as we sneaked out of the hidden bar to end the evening.  It wasn’t until we hit Main Street Rapid City to view modern vehicles and numerous people taking selfies on cell phones that we realized we had been transported back to the modern era.  Whether prohibition was really a simpler time—or it just felt that way to us that night—I’m sure could be argued.  However, the Blind Lion is a hidden gem.  People who enjoy a special ambiance and artful cocktails instead of a dirty bar and cheap beer will rave about this clandestine experience.   Don’t be apprehensive to feel as if you are breaking the law.  Sneak a peek soon!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Leading the Way--Backwards Distilling Company

            Step right up, folks!  Come see the newest attraction under the big top:  Backwards Distilling in Casper, Wyoming!  Definitely not a sideshow act, Wyoming’s first clear spirits distillery deserves the attention of the center ring.  Two and a half years ago, the Pollock family started its own “circus” when the four conceived the idea of making spirits in the center of big, wonderful Wyoming.
Backwards Distilling Company--cool logo and even cooler spirits.
            The name Backwards comes from the four members of the Pollock family:  dad Bill, daughter Amber, son Chad, and mom Kathy—BACK.  They began looking for words that had the root of BACK, and when they saw backwards, they knew it was perfect.  The route the family has taken to get the spirits produced has been a bit backward.   Instead of having the background, knowledge, and experience in distilling and then getting the idea to go commercial, the Pollocks decided to go commercial first, and then get the background, knowledge, and experience in distilling. 
The family that distills together--Chad, Kathy, Amber, and Bill.
            Chad is the head distiller.  He spent a year and a half traveling around the United States and Europe getting hands-on education while sampling vodkas, bourbons, and rums to decide what type he wanted to make.  Experts such as former Maker’s Mark’s distiller, Dave Pickerell, were invaluable to Chad’s learning curve.  Also central to Chad’s spirit production was his time spent in the EU.  Chad knew he wanted to create a vodka in a similar style to Russian vodka, but since travel to Russia wasn’t meant to be, he learned much on a trip to Belgium, where he was able to visit a bar with over 400 vodkas on the menu.
Chad enjoying a taste of his Ringleader Vodka.
           Amber is the head of, and in charge of, the tasting room.  Her most important job is crafting the cocktail menu, which uses Backwards Distilling Ringleader Vodka exclusively.  With no background training, Amber educated herself to make drinks using all house-made and fresh ingredients.  For instance, the Backwards Mule uses ginger beer made on-site and fresh lime juice mixed with the Ringleader Vodka.  This ever-changing menu will change to include other Backwards spirits once those are ready.  Amber also maintains the website and social media outlets.  She has even created an event schedule for the upcoming months that will include everything from infusion classes to yoga sessions. 
Amber behind the bar crafting one of her signature cocktails.
Though Chad and Amber may be the heart of production and tasting, Mom and Dad, Kathy and Bill, are the head, arms, legs, hands, feet, and veins of the business.  Bill is the maintenance head, distiller rat, cellar worker, compliance agent, and overall right-hand man of the operation.  He cleans the facility, supervises the still, helps with bottling, labels the product, etc.—and by etc. I mean a little bit of everything else that happens at Backwards.  Bill also works with the TTB on all government reporting.  Kathy could be considered the efficiency agent; she keeps everything organized and on schedule, or as Amber claims, “tells everyone what to do” (as moms should!).  Kathy also did all the decorating of the tasting room, which created an ambiance lightly based on the circus theme of the business but also heavily based on the theme of super, super cool place to hang out!  A small supporting cast helps the Pollocks with accounting and tasting room hours.
Super cool tasting room area designed by Kathy.
The initial mission of the family and Backwards Distilling is to make excellent spirits in their home state.  All four—mom, dad, and both kids—graduated from Natrona County High School in Casper.  Bill and Kathy attended the University of Wyoming at Casper College, Amber graduated from UW, and Chad graduated from Wyotech.  The business plan these Wyomingites created had the Ringleader Vodka as the first release; this was in early November of 2014.  The reason Ringleader was first so income could be generated as early as possible for the business since vodka doesn’t require any aging.  Also, vodka is the “king of spirits” and the best-selling spirit in most markets.  Future plans include a Sword Swallower Rum, a Contortionist Gin, and a Strongman Gin.  Another line of spirits called Milk Can Moonshine is also in the works.  The rum and future bourbons are already aging in barrel and will stay there up to four years.  Chad recently tasted the gins to evaluate their progress; they aren’t ready just yet.  However, this spring a new product will be launched.
Vodka doesn't barrel age, but Backwards has bourbons already in barrel. 
This truly Wyoming endeavor then expanded that mission to also educate residents of rural areas like ours about spirits and the cocktail culture.  This is no easy feat in the most sparsely-populated state in the nation, where most drink cheap beer instead of high quality cocktails.  Amber’s events are primarily to promote the knowledge of this cocktail culture.  She wants people to know that worthy cocktails should taste good and be enjoyed slowly as she helps elevate palates of Wyoming residents.  Her upcoming infusions class will teach not only to infuse Ringleader Vodka with different flavors, but also to make balanced cocktails that are delicious.  Other future classes will also work to support this second goal.
At the tasting bar, ready to promote cocktail culture. 
Yet a third goal is to construct a place for people to hang out and enjoy these great spirits created into wonderful cocktails, to build a source of entertainment for the Casper area.  The tasting room is open Wednesday through Friday from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Saturday from noon to 9:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m.  In-depth tours of the production and barrel area are given free on Saturday and Sunday.  Bottling parties are also available so consumers can get even closer to the process—to see, smell, and touch the products. 
Tour the barrel and production area.
The Pollocks have definitely met their first goal of creating quality spirits in their home state.  The Ringleader Vodka just recently won silver at the American Craft Spirits Association 2015 meeting.  A part of Chad feels as if he is “not happy unless it’s gold.”  He plans to keep working on the quality of his product, but the tasting notes from American Craft Spirits claimed Ringleader wasn’t “neutral enough,” and Chad wants a product that has some character.  Even though vodka is supposed to be colorless and flavorless, when one compares four vodkas in a side-by-side blind tasting, differences are obvious.  Chad wants his vodka to be a blank canvas for drinks but also have a flavor all its own.  He sees Ringleader as part of the renaissance of high-quality vodkas that have some character, a step up from the “cheap” and mass produced clear spirits out there. 
Ringleader is a great vodka!  Even people like myself—who once had a bad experience with vodka and tend to shy away from it—can enjoy this.  Though it isn’t how this spirit is meant to be enjoyed, a straight tasting of the vodka (in an adorable tasting glass) shows it has a very-slight sweetness followed by a warm, not hot, finish as it goes down. In a cocktail, the Ringleader is even better.  We tried the Backwards Mule, a wonderfully refreshing take on the Moscow Mule made with Ringleader, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger beer on ice, served in the cutest Backwards Distilling copper mug.  Backwards’ entire cocktail list is very impressive.  The Punch of the Week is another option, served in an actual punch bowl with crystal mugs.  Still more choices include the coffee-based 24 Hour Man and the spicy Three Man High drink, Backwards’ take on the Bloody Mary. 
Backwards Mule--made with all fresh ingredients, including house-made ginger beer.
Not only does the product taste great and make great cocktails, the bottle is the coolest—and I mean the coolest—bottle I have ever seen!  Designed by Ignite Advertising in Portland, the embossed writing on the front label has the Backward Distilling logo (which is also super trendy in and of itself).  Turn the bottle to the back, and there he is—the ringleader peeking through the curtains with his whip.  Seriously awesome!
The ringleader peeking out of the back of the Ringleader Vodka bottle.
To buy Backwards Distilling Ringleader Vodka, the best choice would be to stop at the tasting room and production facility in Casper—actually in Mills—Wyoming at 158 Progress Circle.  The ability to see the stylish tasting room is unmatched.  However, also plan to go on a weekend tour to see the gin pot still made by Vin Dome from Kentucky, the gorgeous still made by Kothe all the way in Germany, and the barrels for aging made by Kelvin, also of Kentucky.  If a trip to the actual tasting room isn’t feasible, the spirit is available already in up to twenty liquor stores in Wyoming.  If your local store in Wyoming doesn’t carry Ringleader yet, it can be requested from the state liquor division and arrive quickly.  Plans for distribution outside of the state are in the making but are still quite far in the future.   
Being the first clear spirits producer in Wyoming might seem like a circus side show act, but the Pollocks have turned their plan into a performance worthy of center-ring billing.  The ringleaders of a craft spirit and cocktail movement in their home state, Bill, Amber, Chad, and Kathy turned a family dinner conversation into a high-quality product made in a facility all should visit.  Though they may have gone about their business venture in a backward way, they are definitely on a forward trajectory to build cocktail culture in big, wonderful Wyoming!
                                              Vodka for Dummies

             I asked Chad to give me the "how to make vodka for dummies" lesson. This is a truly over-simplified description of the production process; however, I’m the dummy who needed an easy lesson.

1. Water is brought to a boil in the mash tank. Grain is added. The boiling water breaks down the starches in the grain.
Grain and boiling water in the mash tank.

2. Enzyme or barley is added; this turns the broken-down starches into simple sugars.
3. Mash tank is cooled to ready for fermentation.
4. Yeasts are added to start fermentation.
5. Fermentation takes place for up to seven days in the fermentation tanks.
Fermentation tanks. 

6. The first pass through the columns of the still takes place; this boils off the liquid to concentrate the alcohol. First pass usually gets the alcohol to about 85%. This can take about eight hours.
Column still distills the spirit.

7. The low run drips spirit out of still.
8. Back to the still for the second run to concentrate alcohol. This second run takes substantially longer than the first—up to fifty hours!
9. After second run spirit should be 190 proof to be a legal vodka.
Vodka dripping from still.

10.  Light carbon filter to take out impurities.
11. Cool to proof slowly.
12. A second and different filter process takes place from the chill filtration—takes out more impurities and makes vodka clear.
Cold filtration tank.

13. Once down to 80 proof, goes straight to bottle.
14. Now is ready for consumption and sale.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

And the Oscar Goes To...

Here is what I hope is my successful entry for this month's Monthly Wine Writing Challenge--#mwwc15.  (Learn more about the #mwwc here.)I have looked forward to writing this each month I have participated--successful or not--and I look forward to the other successful bloggers' entries.  Keep writing!


           The glitz and glamor of the Oscars--actresses dolled up in designer gowns, draped in thousands of dollars of jewels, and actors looking dapper in tailored tuxedo suits…the red carpet…the acceptance speeches!  This is the pinnacle of moviemaking, the ultimate sign of success in Hollywood.  Getting to take home one of those little gold men, Oscar, means one has really made it. 

Though there are numerous wine awards across the globe—all the way from state fairs to regional conferences to prominent magazine honors—because wine is so subjective, there is no one “Oscar” for the wine world.  There is no single way a wine would be considered successful.  In fact, the definition of success in the wine world probably varies depending on whether you make wine, market wine, or drink wine.

The Marketer
           The marketing and selling of wine might be the easiest area in which to gauge achievement. Obviously if a wine makes money, there is some level of success.  Two years ago I blogged about the top-selling wines of Wyoming in 2012 (read that blog here).  I would say that most people wouldn’t consider Franzia chilled red a “successful” wine; however, people drink it!  So some level of accomplishment must be given here.  Maybe the accomplishment doesn’t go to the wine itself, but to the technology that allows wine to be kept alive for weeks after opening, or to the marketing of these products to a multitude of consumers, or to the frugality of drinkers when choosing what to enjoy (which is what I finally decided when I was contemplating wine sales of my home state). 

Maybe judging the success of wine through sales is a bit complicated too.

The Consumer
Then let’s judge the success of wine through the wine drinkers, the people spending this money on wine.  One wineaux (AKA, wine lover) said that a wine is successful when a producer has met the quality to have people enjoy it.  True...but we just learned that people may enjoy a wine based more on price level than actual quality.  Another wineaux said, “When multiple bottles sit on a table surrounded by happy friends and family savoring and enjoying each sip.”  This is a more correct statement.  Here the wine is not being judged on price, but on experience.  The experience of enjoying wine is one of the most important aspects of wine, and yet, it is another intangible, another level that can not really be measured. 

Some of my favorite wineauxs enjoying the experience of wine!
Sommeliers and wine critics would be more objective about wine quality, but even these experts have subjective points of view. 
The Critic

I learned very early in my wine career that there were generally two sides of taste:  the Robert Parker Camp and the Jancis Robinson Camp.  (This camp seems to be expanding; it could also be called the Alice Feiring camp, or the Jon Bonne camp, or the Eric Asimov camp.) Parker has become known for loving big, fruit forward, heavily oaked, generally more robust wines with high levels of alcohol.  Are there many quality wines with these attributes?  Of course!  However, do all wines with these characteristics exhibit excellence?  No. 

The Robinson et al. camp supports more natural wines:  wines with less inference after harvest, more organic or biodynamic grapes, higher acid levels, and lower alcohol in the end product.   Of course, both of these are over-generalized statements about these wine authorities, really doing neither camp justice. 

The point is that even those who spend years researching and honing their crafts and levels of wine knowledge have specific tastes in wine, making the idea of success still unclear.

Alice Feiring et al. books on wine.
The Wine Maker   
Another group of experts in the field of wine would definitely be the wine makers.  They are uncompromising judges of what makes a wine successful.  True, they also want to sell wine, but (I am going to claim) the majority of producers genuinely care about the products they make.  According to two very dedicated winemakers, success starts in the vineyard, no matter where grapes are grown.  William Allen of Two Shepherds (of Sonoma County, California) and Patrick Zimmerer (of Huntley, Wyoming) use grapes grown in very different environments, but both state that wine starts with the grapes, and this is the ultimate deciding factor on the outcome of the final product.

Allen, who primarily works with Rhone varieties, knows that if grapes are grown to show the purest expression of the variety and vintage year, his job is then to do as little manipulation as possible to the fruit when turning it into wine.  The real work happens in the vineyard, deciding when to pull leaves, change the canopy, thin the fruit, and irrigate the vines.  All of this is before determining the precise ripeness through flavor, sugar, and acid levels after Mother Nature has, inevitably, made the decision to pick a bit of a gamble.  (Read more about Two Shepherds wines here).

Two Shepherds wines--success starts in the vineyard.
 Though Zimmerer grows hybrid grapes in an environment that could be considered almost completely opposite of Sonoma County, he echoes the thoughts of Allen.  He agrees successful wines happen in the vineyard, but his gamble with Mother Nature is even more intense.  Wyoming grapes always take a chance of whether they make it to ideal ripeness due to so many more natural weather obstacles.  Hail storms, mid-May freezes, September snows, an early or late frost, and a short growing season all hinder ideal picking conditions.  However, sun, water, and soil enable Zimmerer to be the steward to help the grapes along the way, finally ushering the fruit through fermentation to the bottle.

Table Mountain Vineyards--Wyoming vines and wines.
The Ultimate Test
            Even winemakers agree that to truly produce a successful wine, it is enjoyed with friends, a meal, or a special occasion.  The wine should reflect the year the grapes were grown, the weather, and the work it took to make the end product.  Sometimes even this level of success takes the same patience as waiting for the fruit to grow and the wine to ferment. Often a difficult vintage year where Mother Nature was uncooperative and yields were low can turn into quite a victory in the bottle if just given some time.  Allen says this is accurate of his 2011 wines, wines that will eventually delight consumers as one of his best years yet.  Zimmerer also states that each harvest, especially in Wyoming, is very extraordinary, but with special care and attention every step of the way, the final product can be celebrated as a success!

            Winemakers are probably the last people to want to dress up and walk a red carpet in the fanciest of clothes…and maybe this is a good thing since truly successful wines are so subjective and difficult to choose.  A successful wine isn’t necessarily one that gets the highest rating, or makes the most money, or gets the most accolades.  A successful wine is one that shows where it is from, not only the region, but the time and the weather.  It is a wine that was loved from vine, to bud break, to leaf, to fruit, to harvest.  It is a wine that is cared for deeply after picking, even if that care is shown by the least amount of intervention possible.  A successful wine may have to sit in the bottle while the winemaker patiently waits for it to be ready to show its true sense of time and place.  Then, this wine is enjoyed by consumers—genuinely and deeply enjoyed—maybe with special people, maybe at a special location, maybe for a special event.  Whatever the case, it evokes memories as well as creates them.  The Oscar would be awarded with a “Cheers,” a sip, and a smile.