Tag Archives: Norton

Bottle Shock Redux: Missouri Wines Triumph in Blind Tasting

22 Jun

In yesterday night’s regional wine special and blind tasting on ‘The Local Show’ on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT), Belvoir Winery’s Plumeria and Stone Hill’s 2008 Norton received the most points in their white and red blind tasting sections.  What a great result! Both sections included competition from well respected Californian – Rodney Strong Vineyards – or awarded French wine makers – Baron Rothschild and Gerard Bertrand.  The ‘wild card’ randomly chosen wine – $3 chuck from Trader Joe’s – was cause for a bit of giggling and the five blind tasters from Belvoir customer Lucinda to former football star Eddie were chatty and articulate about he wines and their scoring.  Show hosts Nick Haines and Randy Mason lucidly knitted the show together and wine expert Doug Frost provided engaging commentary and explanation as to what was going on as the wine tasters responded and scored the various wines.  Emily Ghertner and Eric Mater produced the show with flair and calm (a good combination!)  and the editing job was great.  It was a lot of fun and hopefully helped to squeeze out some of the stigma against local wines and show that Midwest wines can rub shoulders with the best!  Hopefully we can have another round some time.

Here are the full points scores and wine descriptions courtesy of KCPT:

THE WHITES

A Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Bordeaux, France
THE WINE: Mouton Cadet Blanc, 2007 – $12.99 retail

From one of France’s legendary and most well known winemakers, a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc (40%), Semillon (50%) and Muscadelle (10%)

Total Score: 10

B Belvoir Winery, Liberty, Missouri
THE WINE: Plumeria – a blend of Traminette, Vignoles and Seyval – $18 at the winery

The wine is named after the owner, Dr John Bean’s, late wife’s favorite flower. The winery is located in an impressive Jacobethan Revival style building that was a former orphanage for the International Order of Odd Fellows.

Total Score: 21

C Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery, Basehor, Kansas
THE WINE: Seyval, Kansas Table Wine – $12.95 at winery and retail (only available in Kansas)

Holy-Field is a father and daughter team – Les and Michelle Meyer – who pride themselves on their canine ambassadors who feature on some of the wine labels. The dogs are: Vinnie, Bacchus, Corkie and Sinbad

Total Score: 17

D Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 11

E Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington State
THE WINE: Chardonnay, 2010, – $12.99 retail

A respected wine making region of the US. This winemaker is often in grocery stores and on restaurant wine lists in Kansas City.

Total Score: 18

THE REDS

A Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sonoma County
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 – $17.99 retail

A California Sonoma red that is often seen in Kansas City grocery stores, liquor stores on on restaurant wine lists.

Total Score: 11

Jowler Creek, Platte County, Missouri
THE WINE: Chambourcin, 2010 – $19 at the winery and retail

Jowler Creek emphasize their sustainable vineyard practices. They use Olde English Babydoll sheep to control grass and weed growth.

Total Score: 4

C Stone Hill Winery, Hermann, Missouri
THE WINE: Norton, 2008 – $18.99 at the winery and retail

Stone Hill is Missouri’s second biggest winemaker producing 260,000 gallons of wine in 2011. They’ve been making Norton for decades. A Stone Hill Norton is thought to have won the prestigious award for best red wine “of all nations” at an international competition in Vienna in 1873.

Total Score: 21.5

D Gerard Bertrand, Languedoc Pic Saint Loup, Narbonne (Languedoc-Roussillon region, on the coast, south of Marseille) France
THE WINE: Grand Terroir, 2005 – $16.99

European Winery of the Year for 2012 in Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards. Wine Spectator magazine’s ‘Best Value Winery From France’ in 2008.

Total Score: 14

E Charles Shaw Winery, Napa and Sonoma, California
THE WINE: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 – $2.99 at Trader Joe’s grocery store

The wine is affectionately known as ‘two buck chuck’

Total Score: 20

Midwest Wines vs The Rest of the World

20 Jun

Tomorrow, Thursday June 21st from 730pm on Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) it’s the battle of the grape.  Two blind tastings, one for reds and another for whites, will determine if wines from Missouri and Kansas can compare with the best wine making regions in the world.   The show also tackles the issue of why most restaurants in Kansas City (and in cities all over MO and KS) are happy to serve local food, but don’t serve local wines.  The blind tastings will help determine if the preference for Californian, French and other international wines is actually fair and based on quality and customer preferences, or just a result of inertia, snobbery, ignorance – or all three.

White paper bags look quite classy don’t you think?

Surely if French and Californian wines are so good and the local wines so poor, the blind tasters will prefer those? The restaurants will be proved right afterall…but if MO and KS wines do well hopefully it will be a small wake-up call to consumers and restaurants alike.

So tune in to KCPT on tomorrow! Or come to Belvoir Winery in Liberty where we’ll be watching the show.

Lucinda, Stretch and Katie Van Luchene rehearse raising their numbers

I tried hard to make this a fair contest.  The five reds and five whites in each tasting cost between $12 and $20 retail, except for a ‘wild card’ that could cost anything.  Two of the wines in each red or white tasting are from MO or KS, one is from California, one from France  and one that ‘wild card’ that could be from anywhere.

The basis of prejudice against MO and KS wines is often based on their tendency to be sweet.  People seem to think that sweet is all the Midwest does well and discount the quality dry stuff that has emerged and is emerging all over the place.  This tasting will be meeting Californian and French wines on their own terms: all the reds competing are dry and all the whites are dry or semi-dry.

I was also conscious of how the order in which the bottles would be tasted could confer an advantage.  It is probably not ideal to be the first wine tasted, or the last.  The order of the tasting was determined by me reaching blindly into a case where I’d place the bottles and pulling the bottles out, lottery style, one by one.

The bottles were placed in white paper bags and each labelled with a letter – A to E.

From left to right: Nick Haines, KCPT host, Stretch, Lucinda, Stephen Molloy, Katie Van Luchene, Eddie Kennison and Doug Frost.

The 5 blind tasters were chosen to be widely representative of wine lovers and to be fun – there’s a mixture of celebrities (Eddie Kennison and Stretch), wine and food experts (Stephen Molloy and Katie Van Luchene) and Lucinda, a young woman and regular customer at Belvoir winery, chosen to represent ‘normal’ people (possibly like you?).  They all like a wide range of wines.  Overseeing them and to offer his analysis, wine brain and expert, Doug Frost.

The blind tasters are not comparing the wines to each other, they’re just making a very simple judgement: how much do they like each wine and why? In other words, how does the wine they’re blind tasting compare to their idea of the perfect white or red?  They mark each one with 1 to 5 points, 1 being ‘not to my taste or ‘I don’t like it’, up to 5, which means ‘excellent ‘ or ‘I love it’.

So tune in! Will this be a humiliation for the Midwest wine industry?  Or will this be a case of Bottle Shock and a humbling experience for  French and California? Find out on Thursday at 730pm…

Missouri’s Norton Workshop Revealed

22 May

For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage.  For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.

The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines.  Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism.  The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country.  At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.

Jacob Holman, President, Missouri Wine Technical Group and winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The vineyard’s restaurant is in the background

Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?

Jacob Holman:  What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba.  The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight.  Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.

RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them.  What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?

JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries.  The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store.  Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.

“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”

RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?

JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations.  There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine.  So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions.  We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!”  And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals.  That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.

RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?

JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines.  As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it.  Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.

RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make.  At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?

JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state.  I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.

RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)

JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton.  After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level.  The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level.  Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage.  When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.

“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”

RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?

JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example.  And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.

RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?

JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years.  I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem.  That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.

RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly?  Or that was notably different to previous workshops?

Norton vines at Les Bourgeois vineyard

JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops.  We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.

RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?

JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011.  It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure.  Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.

RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?

JH:  I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.

RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?

JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.

RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?

JH:  Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.

Norton vines in my backyard

RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?

JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…

RWT: Which ones?

JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.

RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?

JH: Yes it is.  This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years.  When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.

RWT:  Thanks very much for your time President Holman! 

JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.

The World’s Largest Selection of Missouri Wines

23 Apr

Grand heading isn’t it?  I can imagine a wine lover from outside the state of Missouri, unfamiliar with the wines here, finding such a dramatic title quite amusing.  Missouri? Who ever thought they made wines at all let alone had enough to warrant even a small selection of them! Well, actually, with over 100 wineries in the state now there are plenty of vinos to choose from, but (as far as I know) there’s only one place where you can drink a very wide range of them.

Daphne at Liberty Square's 'Let's Wine About Winter' event

Seven years ago Daphne and Jim Bowman opened an antiques store in Excelsior Springs, but rather than prosper, business was so bad they were going hungry to stay open.  Needing a radical shift of gear, four years ago they decided to refashion their shop around what they really liked.  “So the store became a culmination of everything that we know and love.  We love people, to entertain, we love wine and coffee and food.”

But above all, Missouri wine.  I stumbled on Willow Spring Mercantile (the name of their establishment) by accident and I couldn’t believe my luck.  As you enter their rustic café-bar-shop on East Broadway, you’re struck by a wall of dozens of bottles of local wines that you can taste for free and buy by the glass or bottle. “We love wines from all over the world but because we have friends that own wineries we thought this would be a little more unique,” explains Daphne.

When they started converting into a wine focused store everyone said they’d never make  it as a business selling Missouri wines.  They were wrong.  “It quickly turned into a very successful business. We now have the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines.”  They stock over 160 different wines from twenty-five wineries.  Taking into account the well over 100 wineries in the state – the number has gone up dramatically in the last decade –  they’ve only just scratched the surface of Missouri wine possibilities.  Down the road Daphne and Jim would like to stock Kansas wines too, but the liquor laws make that complicated because for their shop to buy them, a Kansas winery needs to have a Missouri distributer and Daphne only knows of a couple that do.  At the moment the couple venture over the border to buy Kansas wines and legally can only enjoy them at home.  That’s a pity.

 “We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”

Jim in his shop

Daphne says the consumer wine market in Missouri is a little confusing and isn’t sure if they’ve created a market for their wine bar and bottleshop or if it was there already and no-one had tapped into it.  “I give a lot of credit to the Missouri Wine & Grape Board for their success getting the information out to the consumer” she says and adds that every day Willow Spring Mercantile receives visitors taking Missouri Wine’s winery tour route.   “We’ve become a destination where you can sit, relax, listen to live music, have an hors d’oeuvre or lunch, sample wines and learn about the wine industry.”

Daphne insists that the key to their success is a combination of loving what they do, which rubs off on customers, and also making sure they take care of their customers, who then spread the word about their shop.  “I spend more money taking care of customers than I ever do on any kind of advertising campaign because they are a better source of advertising for me than any advertisement I could run in a newspaper.”

Rather than stock bottles from Missouri wineries that have already found their way onto supermarket shelves they tend to select wines from the smaller wineries that don’t have wide distribution.  To buy their stock they drive to the wineries and usually choose the best-selling wine together with a couple of their favorites.  The biggest selling wines in the Midwest are the sweeter varieties so they’re well stocked with those, but you can find a full range of flavors, including the dries (which Daphne prefers). “We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”

During our conversation Daphne gave an informative summary explanation of Missouri as a wine region. “If you do a little bit of researching about Missouri history you’ll find that the grapes that are grown in certain regions of the state are very similar to the settlers who settled those areas.” She says the sweet wines in the Midwest are very comparable to German Rieslings and Traminers  because of the large numbers of German immigrants settling around Hermann.  But if you travel to Saint Genevieve south of St Louis, that area was mostly settled by the French, so there are a lot of French style hybrid grapes in the wines.  By contrast, around St James, Italians were the main settlers so the wines often reflect Italian styles.

…not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all. 

I also asked Daphne about the Missouri grape, the Norton. “You’ll find that a lot of people disagree about whether it is the best grape in Missouri, but it’s one of my favorites” she says.  “It’s so rich it reminds me of a red Zinfandel with even more berry components and a little more earthiness.  It’s got a lot of spice, hints of tobacco and hints of cranberry in it,” she added.  “A lot of people say the Chambourcin is the best grape, it’s in the Pinot Noir family, a French grape and more comparable to California dry wines.  It’s easier to sell, lighter and more of a balanced wine.”

While Daphne can discuss local wine history and styles with ease, she’s far from a wine snob – quite the opposite – and understands that the industry is still young in Missouri.   (see the Todd Kliman video for more about the history of Missouri wine and its great days in the mid 19th century).  When her store first became a wine focused shop she says it was difficult just getting people to try the wines because of the lack of familiarity with wine culture in the state.  “We’re a relatively a new industry trying to come back so we have a lot of young wine drinkers, and I don’t mean young by age, I mean young as in new, it’s a new experience for a lot of people.”  Over the years, Daphne and Jim have watched wine tastes change.   “In our Wino Club it’s really fun to watch because the wine part of our business has been going for about four years now and we keep notes on the back of every person’s wine card,” says Daphne. “We’re watching our customers’ palates change right before our eyes and some of our customers have gone from very, very sweet to very, very dry in the last four years and some of them are moving a little more slowly.”  Daphne says the rate of change often depends on how much wine is consumed on a regular basis and what it’s paired it with.

Daphne and Jim's shop in Excelsior Springs

On the somewhat prickly topic of the general absence of Missouri wines from the majority of wine lists at top restaurants in Kansas City and the midwest, Daphne says part of the problem is that small wineries are so busy they don’t have enough time to market their wines properly. She says getting Missouri wines into restaurants is an important next step for the whole industry.   “The key to getting more people who have educated wine palates to understand how good our wines are is getting them in the restaurants and not just in the liquor store or the wine shop” she says.  “It’s going to take the customer base who are visiting restaurants saying, ‘We want to see a Missouri wine on here!’ or, ‘ This is my favorite winery, I would love you to have those wines on the list!’  A customer inspired revolution in wine thinking plus wine distributors taking on some of the smaller wineries are the way things will change, says Daphne.

Which means at the moment Willow Spring Mercantile wine shop is not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all. That’s a shame.

Norton Heaven: Stone Hill Winery’s 10-Year Vertical Tasting

18 Apr

On Saturday, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann Missouri held its annual Norton 10-Year Vertical Tasting and Dinner.  It’s the sort of event any Midwest wine fan would have enjoyed attending.  I couldn’t be there because of my wedding anniversary, so instead I’ve gone for the next best thing: an interview with Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill for the last three decades, who hosted the event.

The Norton Warm Up: sparkling wine reception

To define our terms here (which I didn’t fully understand myself before embarking on this story), a vertical tasting is a taste test of wines of the same type and from the same winery, but from different years (vintages).  This is different to a horizontal tasting where usually you taste wines of the same type from different wineries but from the same vintage.  So the objective of a vertical tasting, like this Norton event, is to see how a wine type from a particular winery changes over the years.

“It’s really one of the most fun events of the year and one of the most educational,” says Dave.  “You can stand there and pick up each glass and look at the wine against the white table-cloth and see how the youngest wine is this purple, red color of Norton grapes and as it ages the color changes until towards the oldest wines it has more of the traditional red brick color.”

The winers and diners at Stone Hill sat down to their own row of 10 special Norton Glasses (a glass that is slightly torpedo shaped, designed by the crystal maker Riedel), each containing a Norton vintage from the years 2002 to 2011.  The most recent two years – 2010 and 2011 – have not yet been bottled so those tasting samples were taken directly from the winery’s barrels.

Dave Johnson speaks

Dave Johnson speaks while a magnum bottle of 2001 Norton and its younger sibling look on

Most people did prefer the older Nortons, but there were plenty of punters who liked the youngest ones best.  The youngest and oldest Nortons had very different flavor profiles.  Dave characterized the 2011 barrel sample as having that fresh Norton grape character, similar to a Beaujolais Nouveau  (the light, fruity French wine, usually made from the Gamay grape, that’s designed to be drunk as soon as its harvested and put in a bottle) but really full-bodied and much darker in color.  Some people would say the younger Nortons have an almost ferocious, fruity dry taste.

By contrast, after spending time in oak (twelve months for Stone Hill’s Nortons) and then the bottle, the clear fruit character of the younger Nortons disappears. The older vintages had developed a new layer of oak flavors and aromas and then another layer of complexity developed in the bottle (bottle bouquet) like subtle cigar box, spice and floral smells.  The more senior wines had lost their acidic impact on the palate and had a much smoother, velvety feel in the mouth.

Across this ten-year span of Nortons many of the changing characteristics were following a predictable pattern that comes with aging.  However, like human beings, different wine vintages don’t age at the same rate or in the same way. Some people get grumpy as they get older, others mellow, some people are wrinkled prunes by the age of thirty, others look okay into old age.  It’s the same with wines.  Depending on the weather, crop load (the amount of fruit on the vines), fermentation processes and other factors, different vintages will express different tastes and smells.  “One Norton might be lighter and more delicate, another might be more muscular and tannic, regardless of how old they are”, says Dave.  So of these ten vintages, which are his favorites?  One of the older wines, the 2005, was Dave’s choice for drinking now. “It was at the perfect stage and was a very nice vintage” he says. The 2011 showed great potential. “At this stage it’s very young and not terribly complex, but with barrel aging and time I think it is going to be a great vintage.”  Dave was especially happy with this Norton because about 15 years ago Stone Hill started trying to make the younger Norton wines more enjoyable and less acidic to adapt them to suit the wine drinking habits of most customers.  “There might be a few people who buy Norton and lay it down in their cellar,” says Dave, “but the reality is probably most bottles of Norton are aged about as long as it takes to get from the cash register to the tables out in front of the winery.”  One thing Dave will be watching is how this particular Norton deals with the aging process because while he likes the basic style of the wine he says it may not age as long as some of Stone Hill’s older vintages.

Ten Norton glasses for each taster

Ten Norton glasses for each taster

This vertical tasting is a unique opportunity for Stone Hill’s winemakers to assess a cross-section of Norton vintages, observe the reaction to them from customers and inform their winemaking process.  While Dave made no suggestion that there’ll be any radical changes to their winemaking on account of this Norton taste test, he said one method they’ve been using to tweak the flavor of their Nortons is pneumatage. This technique is part of what’s called wine cap management, where the word ‘cap’, refers to the grape skins that float on the surface of the juice during fermentation and need to be pushed back down into the juice to impart their flavors and contributions to the fermentation process. Dave explains: “When you ferment a red you end up with a cap of skins floating on top of the liquid, the CO2 clings to the skins and they float to the top.  So you have to mix that back into the liquid in order to extract from the skins all the things that you want.  Of course the original method for doing that many, many centuries ago was treading the grape juice.  Another method is the small lot technique of punching down, when you simply push the skins – or cap – down into the liquid with some kind of punch down device, often just a board on the end of a two by four, something like that.   There’s also pumping over, when you pump the liquid out from under the cap to over the top.  Pneumatage is a method where we inject a sudden burst of filtered, compressed air to the bottom of the tank.  It goes “bang!” almost like the sound of a gun and this huge bubble of filtered, compressed air goes into the tank and rapidly rises up and breaks through the cap, and causes a folding over motion that blends the cap back down into the juice.”

The Norton tasting

If like me you missed this tasting and are planning on testing Stone Hill’s Nortons yourself, the 2008 is the one most likely to be available in retail outlets across the Midwest (usually for $19), but the 2009 through to the 2002 are currently for sale and all available at the winery, although the older vintages are in limited supply (and range in price from $25 to $30).   2001, 2000 and 1999 are available too, but they’re not usually for sale.  Perhaps if you asked them nicely?

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Stone Hill’s 10 Year Vertical Norton Wine Tasting.  Dave is especially proud of this milestone because it will mean they’ve been making a Norton capable of aging for 10 years, for 35 years.  “That’s a unique situation for many wineries, let alone a Missouri winery”, he says.

As we finished our conversation I told Dave I’d do my very best to get to next year’s big 25th anniversary scheduled for the same time in April.  He politely reminded me that this was unlikely as wedding anniversaries don’t generally change dates.

All photos courtesy of Lucinda Huskey, Stone Hill Winery’s Public Relations Manager

The dinner

Interview with Todd Kliman, author of The Wild Vine

29 Mar

Here’s the video interview with Todd Kilman about his book The Wild Vine and its “untold story of American wine”.  As explained in the previous posting, Todd wanted to be incognito, so that’s why there’s a little too much of me early in the interview.  Also, I didn’t follow-up the first question and clarify what exactly Todd was doing and how he got hooked on the Norton grape.  Todd got hooked on the Norton when he was drinking wine with friends during the fifth consecutive night of a blackout in Washington DC.  Here’s how he tells what happened in The Wild Vine:

“Whether it was the lateness of the  hour, the subtle power of the wine, the sense of being at the mercy of the elements, my drunkenness, or all of these things working on me at once, I can’t say, but it was as if what I was drinking was an embodiment of the moment, the mystery, a correlative to our primal condition.  It was dark, it was earthy; there was something wild, something alive, in the glass.

I had seldom tasted this earthiness in California wines.  I did taste it in European wines…but the Norton was bigger than most of those wines…

The conversation had moved on by this time, to talk of other meals, of movies, of how long we could live without our modern comforts, but I hadn’t moved on.  I was still thinking about the Norton.”  (page 8, The Wild Vine, Todd Kliman)

An appropriate teaser for the full interview.  Here it is:

The Wild Vine author Todd Kliman

21 Mar

Over the weekend I quizzed Todd Kliman about his book, The Wild Vine, a creatively written history of the American wine industry focusing on its native grape, the good old Norton.  The book was published in 2010 under the byline, “A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” and has been recommended to me by several wineries as required reading.  The interview was looking unlikely for a while but Todd ultimately agreed to take time off from museum hopping and barbecue sampling in Kansas City to meet me on the lawn of The Nelson Museum.  I took my video camera along and the result should be ready for viewing soon.  The, at first odd, but understandable thing about the video is that you don’t see Todd’s face!  This wasn’t because of Todd’s undoubted modesty.  As food editor and restaurant critic for DC’s The Washingtonian he didn’t want his identity revealed (even by humble D. Wood in Kansas City) or it would compromise his efforts to review restaurants fairly.  So without the face of the star, the creative demands on the interviewer/film maker were intense!

I’d bought his book the other week and really enjoyed it. The Wild Vine is an enticing combination of investigative journalism and creative, history story telling.  I learnt a lot about numerous American wine characters, living and dead, including Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Norton, Jenni McCloud and the Held family.  Also, the details of the now surprising rise of Norton and the all conquering Missouri led US wine industry in the mid-19th century and then the disappearance into obscurity until very recently.  It was difficult to cover the scope of the book in a few minutes of video, but hopefully the Nortonian flavor comes through.  Watch this space…