Tag Archives: Wine tasting

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…

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Amigoni Declares Cabernet Sauvignon Crop Best in Years

14 Jun

Michael Amigoni of Amigoni Urban Winery in Kansas City, Missouri has declared that his current crop of Cabernet Sauvignon is the “best fruit in years.” Amigoni Winery is unique among vineyards and wineries in the state for chosing not to grow local grape varieties like Norton and Chambourcin that are better adapted to the humid summers and cold winters.  Instead, Amigoni defies Missouri’s often extreme climate and exclusively grows European vinifera including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Malbec and others.  Many local winemakers say the common European grape varieties are simply too difficult to grow and too many buds and plants succumb to the winter freeze.  Amigoni Winery has had success growing these grapes for more than a decade and agreed to talk about the recent crop with Regional Wine Taster… 

Amigoni’s current crop of Cabernet Sauvignon

How long have you grown Cabernet Sauvignon for and how much do you have planted?

We have about 1/2 acres of Cab Sav  now.  It is a clone 337 which we planted about 8 years ago and it seems to be as cold hardy as the Cab  Franc.

Can you describe how your fruit looks and what exactly warrants your expression of confidence in it? 

The mild weather in the winter allowed little if any bud death on the  plants.  So the buds were very healthy and with no frost to nip them this spring, the even fruiting allowed a very good fruit set of the  Cab Sav.  The clusters are long and full.

“It is double work or more to grow vinifera, but the rewards are awesome.”

How can you tell the fruit is the best in years? In terms of  quantity or quality? Both?

It is hard to say what the year will bear, but looking at the fruit at this time of year indicates that we will have a very good year and  I cannot remember when our fruit set was so good and healthy.  We would prefer the weather to stay dry to prevent any fungal pressure with black rot or powdery mildew.  It does seem that there is a little pressure from Japanese beetles but we will add more insecticide to the  tank mix to ward them off

Can you briefly explain a couple of techniques you use to help  your European vinifera survive the extremely cold winters here?

Since the vinifera is grafted to rootstock to prevent phylloxera we have to hill up dirt over the graft union so as to have  an insurance policy in case the buds were killed by a low temperature  winter.  This hill technique was started in the Finger Lakes of NY and  we actually purchased 8 years ago a side hoe to do this process.  We  have no fear of plant death, just bud death that would have us miss a  season of fruit. The hilling on dirt over the graft union would allow  us to keep the plant alive above the graft union in case of -11  degrees or lower.

Do you have to accept that a proportion of the crop will die each year to frost damage? Or not?

No. We fear the most a low winter temp to prevent a good budding of the crop.

How do your Cab Sav and other European vinifera cope with the  humiditity in summer?

The advancements of chemicals have allowed us to have a good toolbox of techniques to ward off the rots in case of a wet spring, summer or  fall.

To what extent do you believe the prevailing view among many winemakers that it is too  hard to grow European vinifera is wrong?

It is double work or more to grow vinifera, but the rewards are awesome.

How are your other grapes looking at the moment – your well-respected Cabernet Franc  for example?

We have across the board great fruit this year. Our Cab Franc, Mourvedre, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Viognier and Cab Sav are the best in years. We have new blocs of Mourvedre and Petit Verdot coming  on-line this year. We also planted Tannat and Teroldego this year.  The Tannat has the highest level of resveratrol of any grape in the world, so in a few years, it will be our health wine.

“The Tannat has the highest level of resveratrol of any grape in the world, so in a few years it will be our health wine.”

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

Midwest Wine Appearing in More Top Restaurants

21 Feb

The author of this article is Mary Mihaly of Midwest Wine Press (MWP), based in Chicago.  MWP is the first business publication dedicated entirely to the art and business of winemaking in the Midwestern United States.  The editor of MWP is Mark Ganchiff, whose stated goal is to help winery owners, grape growers and cellar masters be more effective and profitable. The story first appeared in Midwest Wine Press in December and provides a positive tonic to, as well as supporting, the dark findings revealed in the blog posting “Wine Lists of Shame”.

Salt of the Earth Rustic American Eatery and Bakery in Fennville, Michigan has a dozen Michigan labels on its wine list. The event was an upscale food expo in Cleveland. I was pouring wine samples; the fellow pouring at the next table owned an award-winning winery in northeast Ohio. Our conversation turned to restaurant wine lists—specifically, why don’t we see more local wines listed?

“Beats me,” he said, “and it makes no sense. They talk about using local produce, local meats, farm-to-table everything—and they carry wines from France, California, everyplace but Ohio.”

His point is valid: why don’t more restaurants carry regional Midwest wine—and more importantly, how can regional wineries get onto their wine lists?

“I suspect it’s probably a little more expensive, takes a little more legwork to carry regional wines,” says Jon Trasky, general manager of The State Room Restaurant and Lounge in East Lansing, Michigan. His 17-page wine list features dozens of Michigan wines; they show up in nearly every category from Riesling to rosé. Trasky concedes that as part of the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center at Michigan State University, it follows that he would carry Michigan wines.Still, he has a choice, and he sees buying local as good business: “What’s good for Michigan is good for us,” he says. “We live here, so we want to do all we can to support Michigan businesses.”

Every restaurant and winery owner we interviewed agreed on the chief reason for carrying a local wine: because it tastes as good as wines from the “major” wine regions. “That’s the biggest factor for us,” says Nolan Cleary, beverage manager for Lola Bistro in Cleveland, one of several restaurants owned by Michael Symon, TV’s “Iron Chef” and star of  ”The Chew.”  “For us, quality is a big motivator; we’re not going to bring in local products if they’re inferior.”

For Cleary, carrying local wines was serendipitous. An owner of Laurello Vineyards in Geneva, Ohio is a regular at Lola and brought in some Vidal ice wine for Cleary to taste. It landed on the wine list. The other winery whose wines Cleary serves—Harpersfield Winery, also in Geneva—is on the wine list because, according to Harpersfield owner Patty Ribic, the Iron Chef himself “heard the buzz” and visited the winery.

“We’re a very small producer, just 3,000 gallons. Since we only use our own grapes, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.  There’s a finite amount so we watch where our wine goes and I guess that impressed [Symon],” Ribic recalls.  Symon’s bar manager called, they met, and as a result, Lola Bistro became Ribic’s only restaurant outlet.

Farmhouse Tavern, one of Chicago’s newest hot spots (open just 10 weeks at this writing and pictured on the homepage), is trying a more inclusive tactic, offering wines from throughout the Midwest. “All of our sparkling wine is from Michigan,” says Robert Diaz, manager, “and we carry wines from Indiana, and even a Riesling and Pinot Noir from Firelands Winery in Ohio.”  Wine selection,  he says, can be easy.  “Put together some reds and whites from Argentina, Australia, and France, and your customers will be reasonably happy. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to seek out the smaller players, offer something different.”

Taste is Diaz’s top priority, and he speculates that perhaps more restaurants don’t offer local wines “because a lot of the root-stock in the Midwest isn’t old,” he says. “Europe and California have been growing grapes for a very long time, and older vines sometimes make better wine.”

Michigan wines “sort of fly under the radar,” says Mark Schrock, owner of Salt of the Earth in Fennville, Michigan, “but we produce some of the finest Riesling out there.” One of the most expensive wines on his wine list—“Shou,” a Bordeaux-style blend from Wyncroft Winery—is a Michigan wine with limited production. “You feel like the winemaker has examined every grape when you drink it, it’s that well crafted,” Schrock says. “If you want to be on a good wine list, quality is everything.”

Carey Amigoni, whose family owns Amigoni Urban Winery in Kansas City, agrees. “There’s no question,” she says, “a Cab Franc is a Cab Franc. If you make a pretty good one, people will want it.”

That view is echoed by the Wine Business Institute, which surveyed sommeliers of 74 restaurants in 2009. The results were unanimous: 100 percent ranked “tasting good” as the top factor in selecting wines for their lists. Nearly 98 percent ranked “matches with food menu” as the second priority, followed closely by “competitive price fit” and “balance of varieties.” Sixty-two percent said they prefer to buy locally—a bit surprising, since relatively few high-end restaurants offer regional wines—and only 35 percent said they would list a particular wine to maximize profits. Zero respondents said they relied on a supplier’s recommendations in buying wine.

Marketing, however, is critical to getting on wine lists, especially for small wineries. “Usually, a small distributor will do a good job for small wineries,” Carey Amigoni says, “where with a big distributor, the small wineries sort of disappear.” Amigoni likes her distributor, but she sometimes accompanies him on calls to new restaurants: “You have to go with them, personalize it, enjoy the wine with the bar manager, help sell it.”

That means talking up anything that would appeal to customers. If your wine is certified organic or Biodynamic, mention that to the bar manager. If Justin Timberlake or Bette Midler ordered a glass, or if it was fermented in barrels made of a special wood, that’s worth a mention. Anything that helps create a memorable experience for the customer will help sell your wine.

Megan Zander, bar manager at Blue Bird Bistro in Kansas City, offers wines by Amigoni as well as locally brewed beers and liquor from a local distillery. “Everything’s of the highest quality,” she says, “but we also want to talk to the winery owner and other producers. It’s about building relationships—you have to be as passionate about your wine as we are about our restaurant.”

Patty Ribic agrees: “Let’s face it, there are a million wineries out there. You have to have passion for your wine—put out a product you’re proud of.”

As for the future, Mark Schrock believes, “more and more, `local’ translates to sales,” he says. “Our guests are asking for it—but you’ve got to bring your best stuff.”

“I think you’re going to see people take notice of local wines over the next 10 years,” Robert Diaz predicts. “Wineries should start now, creating and developing relationships with restaurants and restaurant groups, and good things will happen.

“Get into a few good restaurants and people will start noticing—and buying—your wine.”

Reprinted with permission of  Midwest Wine Press.


Midwest Wine Conference: Missouri’s First Mobile Bottling Trailer

17 Feb

In the foyer of the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference, to the right of the registration desk, there was a large, white vehicle that looked to me like an ambulance.  It was ready for action with its back door open and I could see a man inside, who I assumed was a medic, probably checking heart monitors and other instruments.   I know health care in this country is expensive and problematic so I thought to myself, “This is great! At least this conference is concerned about peoples’ health – they even have an ambulance standing by in case people get a bit too excited about the free bar.”  I realized my mistaken assumption a bit later when Danene Beedle from Missouri Wines told me that the vehicle I’d seen in the foyer was in fact a brand new, mobile bottling trailer belonging to Old Woolam Custom Bottling  – the first bottling operation of its kind in Missouri.

Brent Baker's mobile bottling trailer

Brent Baker, the man inside the vehicle, turned out to be the head bottler (rather than a medic).  He said their service is for wineries that don’t have their own bottling machinery. “We can run about 1200 bottles an hour and that is filling, corking, capsuling and labeling.  So we have empty bottles after the rinse go into the machine, they get filled and when they come out they’re complete and ready to sell.”  Brent says their operation can save winery owners a lot of time. “When you’ve got to bottle, you can spend a full day doing 150 to 200 cases by hand, when we can do about 600 in a day”, he says, “and so they can focus more on perfecting the craft of making wine, going out and doing sales and marketing and self-distribution.”

Brent’s business is a Missouri first, but he said mobile bottling is widespread across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and also California, where there are about 100 mobile bottlers and many of the wineries, even the larger ones, prefer this method to either having their own machinery or sending their grape juice away to be bottled. “Mobile bottling is very big in California, Washington, Oregon and becoming very big in Virginia, New York and Texas”, he says.  “It’s becoming a really big thing because the cost factor of buying a fully automated bottling line is cost prohibitive and, in a lot of cases, you may only run it two weeks out of the year.  They can be anything from $50,000 to several hundred thousand to install.”  It’s also quicker than sending the grape juice away to be bottled and ensures it gets into bottles as quickly as possible.  “It’s very high quality, the fill height is perfect, the cork depth is perfect every time, the label, it  just makes a really professional product,” adds Brent.

The high-tech insides of Brent's bottling trailer

The mobile bottling machine can even do screw caps, although Brent estimates screw cap bottles still only cap about 20% of wine bottles in the USA.   As you probably know, in Australia and New Zealand screw caps, even for quality wine, are very popular and my Australian dad – who’s a big wine drinker – is a big fan of them.  There’s interesting further reading on the history of the screw cap and the pros and cons versus the cork and other bottle-sealing devices here and here.

For anyone who’s had the opportunity, it’s always fun to watch a bottling process in operation: the upright bottles like soldiers clunking along, the corks being squashed in, the conveyor belts going this way and that.  In this BBC News  report about how climate change is effecting Spain’s wines (from my former life as a Madrid correspondent), at the end of the video there are some neat shots of the bottling operation in Penedes, Catalonia, of Miguel Torres, one of the world’s biggest winemakers. Of course, there are big bottling plants like the Torres winery and then there are much smaller mobile operations like Brent’s.  Comparing the two and their difference in size and flexibility reminded me of the US Army compared to the Navy Seals, or perhaps a real train (here’s one leaving Kansas City’s Union Station) compared to a model train (here are some model train sets inside Union Station, annual event).  That’s what it felt like anyway, when I contemplated the much bigger, factory style bottling operations as I stood inside Brent’s high tech, shiny, mobile bottling trailer.  Here’s a video of Brent’s trailer in action.

Brent Baker of Old Woolam Custom Bottling

Brent has long been connected with the art of putting alcoholic beverages into bottles.  He used to own a brewery and for the last decade has worked at a number of wineries, helping them with their bottling processes, often by hand.  Brent can remember being taken to Stone Hill Winery as a kid, where his parents’ friends, Jim and Betty Held, were renovating the buildings and reviving what is now one of Missouri’s most respected wineries.  It could help explain why he’s a patriot for Missouri wines.  “There’s always been good wine in Missouri,” he says.  “The thing about the Missouri wine industry is that sometimes it gets poo pooed by California and other states, but we’ve got some very good varietals in Missouri and a lot of really good winemakers who are trying different things – even pumpkin wines.  Kansas is growing, Iowa’s growing, Illinois is growing, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky. It’s pretty amazing what we’re doing here in Middle America.”  And Brent’s mobile bottling trailer is ready to help things along.

The author, Danny, is an Australian gun for hire who’s just moved to the Midwest from Spain via San Francisco.  Apart from being a wine lover, he’s a former BBC News reporter and a history documentary maker. If you need videos for your website to tell the unique stories about you and your winery, its people and history, highlighting your quality wines and awards, please get in touch.  Or if your winery’s website or blog is languishing without any content, and needs articles or blog entries, also get in touch.  I can also set up your internet social media for you, from websites to Twitter. Email danjwood@hotmail.com or call 816 863 2496