Monday, January 25, 2016

It's All About Soul--William Chris Vineyards

           “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard,” claimed poet Anne Sexton.

            Yes, those who listen can hear souls.  The souls of people…the souls of animals…the souls of places.  Places do have souls.  The soul of a location is a reflection of its past, a representation of its present, and an anticipation of its future. 

William Blackmon and Chris Brundrett have found the soul of Texas in the wines they produce at William Chris Vineyards.  The two make wines that represent the soul of Texas itself.
Texas is known for its independence.  The state has flown under six different flags in its history—including being an independent republic for a time—yet has always fought to be its own, unique place.  Statements like “everything is bigger in Texas” and “don’t mess with Texas” are still around because they truly show the soul of the state.

This stubbornness, this strength, this individuality are all evident in William Chris wines.  The characteristics began with Bill and Chris, both good, strong Texans living their wine dreams.  They did it not in the way this dream would be lived in France or California, but only in the way it could be lived in Texas...a dream as unique and persistent as these two winegrowers themselves.
Chris in the tasting room.
Bill has over thirty years grape growing experience in Texas.  His agriculture degree at Texas Tech set the stage for him to be a Texas winemaker from the time he graduated in the 1970s.  He grew vineyards all over the state before finally settling in Hill Country and planting Granite Hill Vineyards, now a William Chris estate vineyard.

Chris is just as much an example of a Texas self-made man.  He went to Texas A&M to earn his degree in horticulture and gained experience in wineries all around Hill Country.  He helped his own family establish a quality vineyard—Brundrett Family Estate—which also grows estate fruit for William Chris.

Though from two different generations, the souls of these two Texans recognized similarities in each other.  They formed William Chris Vineyards in 2008 and began the journey to make wines unique to Texas and to Hill Country, to show the soul of the region.  They truly believe that “wine is not made, it’s grown,” and they strive to make “wines with soul” that show Texas terroir. 
Tasting barrel by barrel in the production area quickly showed this soul of the Texas terroir that Bill and Chris strive to display in every bottle.  It starts by growing grapes that fare well in Texas, even though these grapes may not be what’s coming out of California. 
Bill and Chris grow grapes that thrive in Hill Country and the High Plains, like Rousanne, Orange Muscat, Blanc du Bois, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Mourvedre, and Carignane.  These vines love the Texas heat and still withstand some of Mother Nature’s crazy antics every year.  They express the headstrong character of Texas.

William Chris also shows the soul of Texas hospitality by inviting people to the quintessential Texas tastingroom—a 1905 farmhouse.  When renovating and adding to the farmhouse, hundreds and hundreds of shoes were found under the floor.  These acted as old-fashioned insulation, and once again, added to the personality of the property.  The tasting space has many cozy rooms for sipping, as well as an indoor area with a beautiful view of the rolling Texas hills and an outdoor area for Texas-style picnics.
After experiencing this soul and hospitality, choosing only a few wines as super stars is difficult.  Every wine sipped, whether from barrel or bottle, was unique to the terroir yet true to the grape…a goal for which excellent winemakers strive.  William Chris produces everything from stellar blends, to single varietals, to rosès, to pet nat (petillant natural) sparklers.  There are so many excellent examples from which to choose, but here are a few that stood out as exceptional. 
            Shining Star Wine One:  2014 Mourvedre—Bill and Chris know that Texas can grow great Mourvedre.  Lighter bodied than one might expect, but filled complex flavors and smells of smoke, dust, dried fruit, coffee, and spice, this is a great wine.  (I am saving it for a year or two, but can’t wait to have it with a medium-rare ribeye…what a truly Texas pairing!)

            Shining Star Wine Two:  2014 Carignane—sourced from the High Plains of Texas, the red fruit, tart cherry, and orange pith join the dust and talc on both the nose and the palate of this wine.  That dust and talc are a sure sign of the Texas terrior that Bill and Chris like to showcase, one that I enjoyed identifying in many of WC’s wines.

            Shining Star Wine Three:  2014 Mary Ruth—this is a blend of white grapes:  Orange Muscat, Blanc du Bois, and Muscat Blanc.  The nose is full-on sweet honeysuckle, yet the palate is surprisingly filled with fresh flowers.  A light yet complex wine that would pair well with a Texas afternoon or a cheese plate, it is a worthy example that shows Texas can produce quality whites, too.

            Shining Star Wine Four:  Tatum Rosè—yes, another rosè makes the list of shining star wines, perhaps showing my bias for the color pink.  However, this pink is the prettiest shade of barely-there, baby pink.  This is assistant wine maker Josh’s “baby,” his special project for the tasting room. It is even named after Josh’s baby, his daughter Tatum.  It is a wonderfully dry rosè that would give any Provence pink a run for its money.
            William Blackmon and Chris Brundrett put their ear to the ground of Texas.  They listened to the land. They listened to their vines.  They listened to their surroundings. They listened to their customers.  In doing so, they found the soul of Texas wines, the soul that shows in each unique bottle of William Chris wine.  By putting their hearts into their home state of Texas, they found the soul of the Texas wine industry. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Super Star Wines in the Lone Star State--Texas Hill Country

            A ten-gallon Stetson hat sitting on the head of a tall, lean cowboy; a slow armadillo crossing the hot, flat prairie; oil rigs pumping silently along the shrubby plains…these are all images many may have in mind when the word Texas is heard.

            The Lone Star State is represented by all of these descriptions, but the second-most-populated state in the nation has become so much more.

            It has flourishing metropolitan areas.  It has world-class restaurants.  It has top-notch chefs.  It also has a booming—and blooming—wine trade.  Texas Hill Country, just outside of Austin, is one such place that illustrates all of these. 

            It has multiple super-star stops and is a region that is just beginning to shine.  With over forty wineries, it is hard to choose just a few to taste.  Never the less, here are two terrific examples of Texas wines.

            Named for the Pedernales River, this winery was started by the Kuhlken Family when they planted a five acre vineyard outside of Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country.  Husband and wife team Larry and Jeanine worked hard to see what grapes would grow well in Texas.  They quickly learned that these varieties were different than what was so popular in California at the time.
            Larry and Jeanine made the business a family affair when their adult children, David and Julie, joined.  A true team effort, David is the winemaker and Julie is the marketer, while Larry and Jeanine still work the vineyards.  Soon after David, Julie, and their spouses entered the family business, the endeavor began to grow, and grow, and grow; 15,000 cases were bottled last year.
            The tasting room, technically in Stonewall, Texas, is an original 1880s farmhouse that was moved from Fredericksburg.  Expansions to this facility were made in 2012 to include a tasting bar, a VIP tasting area, and a private meeting space.  The outdoor patio has a fantastic view of the rolling Texas hills for which the area is named.
Proof that the land and terroir are most important here is shown from just looking at a bottle of wine.  The striking label is a mix of arrowheads with a grape leaf.  This represents the artifacts found on the original vineyard site and those found on the tasting room site, as well.  It shows the perfect correlation between the dirt and the vines growing in it.
Superstar Wine: 2014 Vermentino—A variety known for its Italian roots, this wine is processed in stainless steel.  This technique helps to bring out the grapefruit, wet rock, and green grass on the nose and palate.  The long, orange finish is a great end to the wine.

Superstar Wine:  2014 Rosè—I believe in rosè all year around, and the Pedernales is one for every season.  It is made from tempranillo and mourvèdre grapes, giving it a dark, dramatic pink hue.  Beautiful earth and strawberry shortcake flavors lead to a slight strawberry-orange finish.
Superstar Wine:  2013 Tempranillo Reserve—The grapes for this special wine are sourced from both the High Plains and the Texas Hill Country.  After spending over a year in oak, the rose, talc, dust, cherry, and pepper lead to a fabulous white pepper finish. 

            Family is key in Texas, shown also through Kuhlman Cellars.  Chris and Jennifer Cobb, along with Chris’s parents Diane and Reed, managed a vineyard in Texas Hill Country before starting their own label:  Kuhlman Cellars—named for another body of water, Kuhlman Creek.
            In 2012, the Cobbs hired their winemaker, Bènèdicte Rhyne, a Provence-raised enologist with experience in Sonoma and Texas.  Her French background followed her all the way, showing itself in her love of blending wine for the perfect finished product. 
            To get started, Sonoma grapes were used while the Texas grapes were growing.  The transition is currently in progress to Texas wine from Texas fruit, all the while focusing on the soil where the grapes were grown.  This focus on terroir is shown in the names of the wines:  Calcaria (limestone), Alluve (alluvial), and Kankar (caliche). 
            The tasting room is a beautiful, modern facility with ample space and a gorgeous rooftop deck that allows sweeping views of miles and miles of Hill Country.  Another special aspect of Kuhlman is the wine and food pairing experience with a small—and delicious—tidbit to highlight the essence of each wine.  (Foodie note:  purchase the herbed almonds by the case.  They are to…die…for!)
            SuperstarWine:  2014 Viognier—Growers quickly realized that viognier is a superb grape for the Texas terroir.  Kuhlman’s is sourced from the High Plains and is full of peach, flowers, and  herbs.  Good acid balances the silky smooth finish.

            SuperstarWine:  2015 Hensel Rosè—This wine is not yet ready for consumers to purchase; however, rosè lovers need to have a head’s up for this dry, Provencal-style wine.  Made from cinsaut grapes, the wine is beautiful from its color of baby-pink to its taste of peaches and flowers.
            SuperstarWine:  2012 Kankar—The flagship Kuhlman wine, it is, of course, a blend that will change each vintage depending on that year’s climate, grapes, and harvest.  The goal is to always have a robust wine with good acid structure.  The 2012 has these along with ripe-red fruits, dark chocolate, and fresh violets.
Texas, the Lone Star State, has quickly found the shining grapes that grow well in its climate.  In between the Stetsons and spurs, great wine is being made.  It is being made in its own way—a way original to Texas—a way that shows Texas will always follow its own path to blaze its own trail.  Not content to be just like any other wine region, Texas is well on its way to world-class status. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Size Matters: The Journey to a New Frontier--Cartograph Wines

The third installment in my series on microwineries features Alan Baker and Serena Lourie of Cartograph Wines, perfect examples to illustrate the path to making wine is rarely a straight and simple journey.  Cheers to another great wine story!

Size Matters:  The Journey to a New Frontier--Cartograph Wines

Surrounded by the silent woods on a lake in northern Wisconsin, Alan Baker opened a bottle of 1998 Riesling from the Alsace region of France, a wine that had traveled well over 4,500 miles to be poured.

Alan still remembers the wine’s flavor as a “cacophony of citrus blossom, pear, black tea, and petrol.” He was also acutely aware of how much that one wine “engaged his senses.”  It spoke to him and intrigued him.

His official wine journey had started.

At this time, Alan was working in Minnesota Public Radio, after being a vocal music major in college.  His radio job found him working with many orchestras and composers, including two projects that earned Alan prestigious awards.  Though he found much gratification and success in this work, he still was nagged by the fact that wine needed to be a part of his future. 
In 2005, he changed courses by selling his home in Minnesota and moving to Healdsburg, California.

He was able to take this step after meshing his radio career with the wine career he was trying to pursue.  As a way to finance his interest in wine and get hands-on learning, he created  Part of his web site was a blog while the other part was a podcast, a then-new concept.

Alan’s goal was to offer his services as a “cellar rat” to wineries.  In addition to the work, Alan gave publicity through his blog and podcast.  Sonoma producers Peterson and Unti were first to give Alan a chance.
Alan never expected to make a great deal of money on this leg of his journey; he just wanted to learn everything he could about the industry.  He was still so good at his public radio job that NPR picked up the podcast, which turned into a lucky break for his wine-making career.
At this point, Alan knew he wanted to make wine full time; however, he could no longer do both radio and wine.  He would have to commit to one completely.  He took yet another giant leap and asked his online audience for help.  His supporters purchased wine futures, basically paying for his first vintage of wine before it was made, enabling the production to be completed.

Alan used this early form of crowd sourcing to produce his first vintage at Crushpad.  About 100 of those who purchased futures—called The Rat Pack—helped do cellar work to make the vintage, all documented in a video podcast called Pinot 2.0.  The Cellar Rat Cellars label production was 100 cases of Wentzel Vineyard’s pinot noir.
Immediately following, Alan became the director of Crushnet, a web site that virtualized “the winemaking process so anyone across the globe could create their own customized barrel of wine.” This kept him at Crushpad for three years and introduced him to another wine lover, a meeting that would forever change his course.
Serena Lourie’s wine journey started an ocean away, as a child in France.  Having a grandmother that lived in Brittany, Serena’s family spent four months every year there.  Serena’s French experience with food and wine would follow her home and to adulthood. 
In Washington D.C., Serena found her interests in health care, specifically adolescent psychiatry, a field in which she worked for fifteen years.  At 18, her first job was in an adolescent unit.  She finished her degree at Georgetown, then later went on to get an MBA.  This led her to be in charge of programs for teenagers, often creating these programs herself.

D.C. was also home to Serena’s wine aha! moment.  At a table of friends overlooking the beautiful city harbor, she ordered a bottle of Shafer Cabernet from Napa to celebrate her graduation.  The taste and smell was amazing, but she still recollects how the finish lasted two full minutes—an amazing wine.  The ultimate irony came years later when a Napa cab was the first wine she made.
In order to take a break from her high-stress job, Serena traveled cross country to Crushpad, getting her hands dirty while enjoying her wine passion.  She and Alan found themselves working together and noticed all they had in common:  a zest for life, a love for wine, and a palate for pinot noir.

After a long day of wine work in 2009, Alan and Serena mapped out their plan to launch a label together, focusing on Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.  They knew they wanted their wines to tell a story—not just any story—but the story of the paths they took to end up in Healdsburg making wine.
Their first vintage consisted of “two barrels, 50 cases, of pinot noir…which would become the inaugural release under the Cartograph label. The logo on the front of each bottle is a visual encapsulation of the winding road that brought the two of them together and how they joined forces to launch the new brand.”

Cartograph’s primary focus is pinot noir; it is the reason they produce in the heart of Sonoma and from the Russian River Valley.  Alan and Serena both love the versatility of these wines.  They also love the challenge of producing wines from such a finicky—and prestigious—grape.
Alan uses his musical background to explain:  Making Pinot noir is the winemaking equivalent of a composer writing a string quartet. Any composer who decides to write a string quartet is instantly putting their work up against some of the greatest composers who have ever put pen to paper: Beethoven, Bartok, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Haydn, Brahms.”

Cartograph’s pinot noirs are wonderful works.  The Mariah Vineyard (my personal favorite because my sister’s name is Mariah) is wonderfully delicate and complex.  The Choate Vineyard and Perli Vineyard are also excellent examples of terroir-driven wines.  The Russian River Valley pinot is yet another quality wine.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Cartograph also makes an amazing riesling.  In true Alsatian style, the wine is bone dry and elegant with a hint of petrol and wet rock, a wine both novices and experts will enjoy.

A sangiovese from Upton Vineyard (my husband’s hometown name) brings the Cartograph story back to the beginning, as the first wine Alan and Serena made together at Crushpad was from sangiovese grapes. 
The Cartograph journey continues its course with the recent purchase of an estate vineyard.  Alan and Serena will be growing their own fruit on just under ten acres in western Sonoma County, fourteen miles from the coast.  In addition to the four clones of pinot noir, there are also 180 olive trees.  (Yes, there will also be Cartograph olive oil!)
This vineyard will continue to help Alan and Serena reach their wine-making goals:  to produce wines of quality that can be called great, unique, memorable and meaningful…it is the most important element of our winemaking at Cartograph.”

The journey of a thousand miles literally started in different locations for Alan and Serena.  Their lives were on a direct course to collide, over the most exceptional of topics—wine.  Together, they have traveled far and wide on a winding path to get to where they are today: making beautiful wines in a beautiful place. 

See another great look at Cartograph Wine's story by watching American Wine Story.