The Lastest on the Avila Adobe Old Vines Project

The 2016 Avila Adobe Wine Symposium (l-r) Deborah Hall, Dr. Thomas Pinney, Stuart Byles, Santo Riboli, Wes Hagen and Michael Holland

We’ve mentioned, but never really did a full post on the Avila Adobe Old Vines. And this being the second vintage with the things looking really good for vintage #3, well, it’s probably time.

The running gag around the Old Homestead here is that we make the things most sane people buy. One of those things is wine. Michael is the winemaker, and in his real life, he’s the archivist for the City of Los Angeles. That’s how he happened to talk to Chris Espinoza, director of the El Pueblo State Park in downtown L.A. about the grape vines on Olvera Street, the oldest street in the city. Michael specifically asked about the vines growing in the courtyard of the Avila Adobe, the oldest building still standing in the city.

Well, Chris said it was okay if Michael harvested the grapes on the vines to make wine. Michael did some research and found out that these are possibly the oldest vines currently growing in the state. In fact, they’re so old, that the University of California, Davis, did the DNA test on them for free, with the results being that the vines are a match for the old vine at Mission San Gabriel. Alas, we’re not sure of the date of that one, either. But we’re guessing the Avila Adobe vines are around 150 years old.

So, that’s how Michael came to make angelica, a local version of sherry, from the grapes he picked. In addition, last year, he organized and moderated a symposium on historic wines at the Adobe as the El Pueblo foundation’s first fundraiser. The silent auction even featured a few bottles of the first vintage of angelica – which was (and is) insanely tasty. At least, Anne thinks it is, and even accounting for bias, there is the reality that she hates stickies and really hates sherry.

This second vintage is coming along just as nicely, with bright fruit flavors and just enough tang to kill any cloying sweetness.

Better yet, the vines which Michael has been caring for, along with winemaker and friend Wes Hagen, are doing really well and it looks like we’ll get another good harvest this September.

If you happen to be in Los Angeles next Thursday, July 20, be sure to check out this year’s symposium, which will be celebrating the centennial anniversary of one of the oldest wineries still operating in the state, San Antonio Winery, which opened its doors in Los Angeles in 1917. The event will take place in the courtyard of the Avila adobe from 6pm to 8pm

Lori Reynolds, of Sonoita Vineyards, and the Mission Grape

Lori Reynolds, of Sonoita Vineyards

The trip to Arizona was supposed to be about vacation, time spent relaxing, visiting Michael’s family. So when we went to check out the state’s three main wine regions it was supposed to be for the fun of it.

So, naturally, we stumbled onto Sonoita Vineyards. It was the first winery in Arizona after Prohibition. They make a wine with one of the most unusual grapes out there, the Mission grape. And the winemaker is a woman.

Well, it took a while, but Anne finally connected with Lori Reynolds, the winemaker, who told us how Sonoita Vineyards was started by her grandfather, Dr. Gordon Duff.

“We had a thriving table grape industry here in the sixties and seventies,” Reynolds said.

However, she explained, competition from the California table grape industry was undercutting the Arizona grapes. So the governor went to the University of Arizona and met with a team there that included her grandfather, Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil specialist who had been working with the table grape farmers.

“My grandfather said that if table grapes will grow in Arizona, then wine grapes will,” Reynolds said.

The winery was started in 1974 and opened in 1983. Reynolds came on as winemaker after she got her bachelor of science, then realized that she wasn’t as interested in becoming a veterinarian as she’d thought.

“I was having a hard time finding something to do,” she said.

But her grandfather insisted that she was born to make wine, so she studied winemaking through the U.C. Davis Extension, became the assistant winemaker, and in 2013, finally took over the job on her own. She works with her husband, Robi Reynolds, who took over as vineyard manager around the same time after an injury interrupted his plumbing career.

The vineyard grows grapes on 40 acres of the 60 acres they have, Lori Reynolds said. But the most interesting grape they have is a little-known variety that used to be widely planted across the Southwest – the Mission grape.

According to the experts we know, the Mission grape is a hybrid of a grape brought from Spain by Franciscan missionaries in the Eighteenth Century. And, actually, they were growing it in Arizona before it came to California.

We have an unusual connection to the grape via Deborah Hall and Michael’s project with the old vines in downtown Los Angeles. So to taste some of Reynolds’ wine was a treat, indeed. And it was quite tasty.

Reynolds doesn’t ferment her Mission wine to full dryness. Instead of letting the yeast eat up all the grapes’ sugar to make alcohol, she stops the fermentation leaving what’s called residual sugar behind.

“It’s very bitter and astringent without the residual sugar,” Reynolds said.

It can be a bit of a trick to get folks to try the wine until Reynolds explains what to expect.

“I always let [customers] know it’s not dry,” she said. “I also let them It’s not very deep in color. It’s always a ruby red. I let them know that it’s a lower acid, it’s got the sweetness and it depends on the vintage. The 2016, it smells a little like chili pepper. And my ’15 is very clove and cherry with some cranberry.”

 

What Oak Does for Wine

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. Not only were there some amazing wines, the winemaker was there and led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone is going along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. I don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But I’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room is going along with it.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker wasn’t trying to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Now, here’s the thing about oak. Once upon a time, all wine was aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood was particularly good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And because steel was insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery because old habits die hard and there wasn’t a clear benefit to using big-ass metal containers, at least, not right away, there wasn’t. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries and winemakers realized that they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. The red wines, not so much.

What oak barrels do is add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air-tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates and the wine left inside is left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that it’s actually a plant and it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.

Julia Iantosca Blending and Pioneering

For winemaker Julia Iantosca, it’s all about the blending. So when her bosses, John and Nancy Lasseter hired her to work at their newish winery, Lasseter Family Wines, it was their preference for blends that got her on board.

“My interest in blending dovetailed with theirs,” Iantosca said. “It’s been wonderful… Certainly for the style of wine I want to make.”

It’s an interesting fact that European wines (which are known primarily by their place names) are almost all blends. Burgundy is the big exception to the rule, being made almost exclusively out of the pinot noir grape, with whites made out of chardonnay. Iantosca said that the Lasseters came into wine drinking in Europe, which was how they got interested in drinking wines that are blends of grapes.

“As a winemaker, [blending] allows you a fair amount of latitude in honing a wine to an ideal,” Iantosca said. “And by working with the grapes, you can really steer the direction and the personality of the wine. And that’s a really enticing way to personalize your style.”

Iantosca came into winemaking at a time when women winemakers were pretty rare. She was mentored by Merry Edwards, who was a pioneer among women winemakers in California.

Iantosca said that many of these early women got their start working in winery laboratories.

“Merry came at it from the cellar side,” Iantosca said, adding that a lot of men didn’t think women were up to the heavy work of moving barrels and other such tasks. “You just have to work smarter. There’s a reason that forklifts were invented, for example.”
She added that there are a lot more women working as winemakers than there used to be.

“There are certainly far more opportunities for women coming into the wine business than when I started,” Iantosca said. “It was just such a male-dominated industry. The idea of being in charge didn’t seem all that possible. It’s just taken time and a lot of women who have a lot of talent and determination to keep putting their head down and moving forward and having the quality of their work.”

But while there are a lot more women in the business, Iantosca pointed out that there are also a lot more wineries. Still, the business does remain male-dominated. Iantosca said that she noticed something when went to some large wine-business functions recently.

“It’s the only time when the line for the men’s restroom is longer than the line for the women’s,” she said.

By the way, if the name John Lasseter sounds familiar, he is best known for his day job – running Pixar Studios and Disney Animation.

Idaho Wine? Really?

From the Idaho Wine Commsission

[Please note that we received the below wines in exchange for honest reviews – something the sender may eventually regret… ;-)]

With the spring and summer travel season coming up, wouldn’t Idaho be fun? It’s well known as a great destination for fishing, camping, hiking and…wine. Yeah, wine.

The Idaho Wine Commission recently offered us a mixed case of Idaho’s wines mainly from the Snake River AVA. That’s actually on the border near Washington State, and the area has a similar desert climate to Washington’s.

Since we don’t have plans involving Idaho this year, we accepted the case and we’ll be tasting through the various wines and bringing you our short tasting notes and, hopefully, some winemaker stories.

Truth be told, it’s taking us a while to get through the case. That’s twelve bottles and to taste them thoughtfully with appropriate food doesn’t happen overnight. Also, truth be told, while the wines are mostly pretty darned good, we haven’t been that impressed with everything we’ve tasted so far.

But in terms of the early results, we’re discovering that Idaho isn’t just about the potatoes. There’s some darned good wine there, too.

Leslie Sisneros on Murderously Good Pinot Noir

Leslie Sisneros of Murder Ridge Winery

We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). This is a great event, by the way, especially if you’re new to wine. The $75 for the ticket might seem like a lot, but we’ve seen smaller tastings that cost a lot more, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater breadth of wines. Plus, you’ve already paid for them all, so you might as well try even the ones you don’t think you like.

But back to Ms. Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery. She’s been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.

“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”

Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.

“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”

But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.

“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”

She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.

“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”

She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.

“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”

Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.

 

Deborah Hall, of Gypsy Canyon, Shows off Her Vines

Deborah Hall is the owner and winemaker for Gypsy Canyon. She’s not only a super nice lady, she makes some amazing wines, in particular, her Old Vines Angelica. This is a sherry-type wine that was made by the mission fathers throughout the southern parts of California. In fact, Angelica was supposedly named for the city of Los Angeles. 

Check out the video below and she tells about how she found the old vines of Mission grapes on her property. BTW, head-trained grapes are ones that are not put up on trellises. More about Deborah and how we got to know her below the video.

We got to know Deborah Hall when Michael started his own little ancient vines project here in Los Angeles. Michael got permission to harvest the grapes off of two vines at the oldest building still standing in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street. We’re pretty sure the vines were planted when the adobe was built in 1818, but there’s no way of knowing. The vines are well over 100 years old and are quite possibly the oldest vines in the state.

Once Michael found out that he was dealing with Mission grapes – a variety grown here by the Franciscans who built the California missions, he contacted Deborah Hall to get some pointers on how to make Angelica. Deborah was not only kind enough to share her recipe, she invited us up to lunch at her home and winery. She not only fed us and poured us her incredible wines, she took us out to see the grapes she’d found while clearing brush on her property. Anne had the video camera and we had a blast talking about old vines.

Wine Vending Machines – A Peek Inside

Ever wonder what’s inside one of those machines that sell wine by the glass? We did, and back in August 2015, we had a chance to see the inside of one at a restaurant show. And then promptly forgot about the pictures.

So, just for the fun of it – here they are:

Picking Wine for the Wine Snob

 

2013-04-27 21.49.12 This is a re-post from a few years ago, but it’s (sigh) still relevant. Hope this helps. For other gift ideas, check out our friend Krista Lamb Davis’ blog Upkeep: Wine, Body and Soul. 

It’s holiday gift giving time and one of the biggest problems with all the elitism and snobbery surrounding the world of wine is that it makes the simple gesture of offering a gift of wine so fraught with terror. And it’s so very unfair and unnecessary.

Wine geeks that we are, we have gotten our fair share of kindly-meant white zinfandel (and if you’re not a wine person and don’t know why this is not a good thing to do, relax, you’ve hit the right page). Yet we have not mocked anyone who has ever done so, nor have we cut said people off or thought less of them. But then, we try to be nice and accept the gift as an attempt to respect who we are.

At the same time, we recognize that there might be a boss, a future in-law or just somebody you would like to know better and you’d like to please and/or impress said person and you know this person likes wine. And the sad truth is, this person may also be a wine snob.

The problem is, there are wines that are pretty “safe,” in that almost anybody who likes wine will be reasonably impressed with a bottle of, say, a cabernet sauvignon from Silver Oak winery. But you’re talking about wine that can get pretty pricey. And, truth be told, there are those who think Silver Oak is trading on its label, so you’re still not safe, as it were.

So the first thing to do, if you’re not a wine drinker or know much about wines, is give up on the notion that you’re going to be able to convince a real wine snob that you “know” wines. Because no one knows wine like a wine snob does, unless that person happens to agree with said snob often enough. And that includes people like us who make wine and know what “fine” wine tastes like. That’s what a snob is and why we generally don’t cater to such people. We get that said snob may have a son you’re planning on marrying or may be the manager you’re hoping will promote you. We’re just pointing out that you’re not likely to get on said snob’s good side by trying to impress this person with knowledge you don’t have (and you can’t have it because the only knowledge this person counts as valid is his or her own).

That doesn’t mean you can’t give this person a gift of wine that shows some thought and care in the giving. After all, it’s the thought that counts and while you don’t want to send the message that you weren’t thinking, the vast majority of people out there, including wine snobs, are willing to accept that you made an effort on their behalf. As long as it’s clear that you made the effort. Again, we recognize that there are some people willing to attribute the worst motives to you no matter what you do, and at that point you may want to start looking for another job or settle in for a rocky relationship with the in-laws or re-think the potential relationship. But the following tips should help you with the vast majority of folks.

So when you don’t have knowledge, sometimes the easiest thing to do is ask. If you really, really want to keep it a surprise, you can try framing the question as a request for another friend who likes wine. But simply saying you don’t really know that much about wine and want to learn will generally warm the cockles of even the grinchiest of hearts because there are few things wine snobs love to do more than pontificate about their preferences. You might try asking where a good place to get wine is or what’s a good wine for someone who’s really into wine.

Now, if said snob responds with several different preferred wine shops and asks about budget, or asks what your friend likes, then you’re probably not dealing with a true wine snob. Which means you can go to yet another wine store and ask the person behind the counter to guide you to a good bottle of something unusual. If said snob says things, “Well, the only place to go is…” or “Obviously, your friend will only want….” then you are, in fact, dealing with a snob, and it might be time to check out that tie or purse.

You can also respond with the “Gee, I’m not sure what my friend likes. What do you like?” Listen carefully, because your target snob will give you plenty to go on. As soon as you feasibly can, write down anything you remember. Then you’ve got two options. If your budget is wide open, then you can go to said snob’s preferred store and ask the sales person to help you. Most are pretty cool and get it. Sometimes you’ll run into a fellow snob, but then you can walk and shop elsewhere.

Any decent wine store will have someone willing to help a newbie purchase a bottle for someone else. And the good ones won’t make the noob feel like an idiot. Because you’re not an idiot. You’re trying to please someone with a bottle of wine and it really shouldn’t be this complicated. And it shouldn’t break the bank, either, because there are lots and lots of great wines for under $20 and several under $10. If you get a really obscure label from a truly tiny producer, you can also proclaim it a boutique wine, which might forestall some lip curling.

Now, you’ll note we’re not recommending any specific wines here. Why? Because there are far, far too many to list and every time we read one of these lists, we find we have a heck of a time finding a given label – which doesn’t help when you’re looking at the rows and rows of bottles without a clue what to buy.

So worse case scenario? You don’t know what the target snob likes, just that he or she likes wine. Go with a Bordeaux red, if the person tends toward stuffiness, go with a premium California cab sauv if the person loves labels and status, go with a red made from something unusual, such as negrette or tempranillo, if your giftee likes taking chances and adventure. And, again, try and ask your friendly wine store employee for suggestions. They can offer you ideas even we haven’t thought of.

The only hard and fast rule (unless you know for a fact otherwise) is never, never buy white zinfandel for a wine snob. As a wine, it tends to be just dreadful, sick sweet stuff, which is why we don’t like it. There may be good ones out there and you might even like it, which is cool. But most people who like wine don’t tend to like white zin.

Oh, and for the record, there’s a reason we’re the OddBallGrape. We love trying stuff we’ve never heard of.

How to Choose Your Wine for Thanksgiving

wine for ThanksgivingThis is the time of year when all the wine pundits are falling all over themselves writing about the best wine for Thanksgiving dinner. And everyone writes about a different wine. And at least one or more of those choices you look at and wonder what planet is that writer from?

No need to stress out on this one. You can pick out your own wine for Thanksgiving. Seriously. It’s easy.

You do a blind tasting. Now this is something you want to do with friends because it involves multiple open bottles of wine. But that will also make it a lot more fun.

Choosing wine for Thanksgiving Dinner is actually kind of tough because several of the traditional elements are sweet and do not go well with dry wines, whereas the savory elements are often overwhelmed by sweet wines. And just to confuse things, while turkey is technically at least part white meat, its stronger flavor tends to do better with dry reds.

There are a few exceptions. Sparkling wines go with pretty much everything. Some really fruity dry reds, such as syrahs or zinfandels, do okay with the sweeter foods as well as the savory. Anne doesn’t agree – her palate is more sensitive to the sour of acids, and to her, that’s how anything dry tastes after anything sweet.

Now since dinner is what this is all about, you will need some food to go with your tasting. We recommend turkey pot pie, something cranberry, and baked sweet potato. Pretty much everything you’re going to be eating that day is combined in those three elements.

Next, you need a few wines to try. Check in with your favorite wine merchant or see what the local Trader Joe’s is recommending. Pick up, say, three different bottles. Or have your other friends each bring one. Or get the same number of different whites and different reds, if you want to get that fancy. Because a lone white in a tasting of reds kind of gives itself away.

Doing the blind tasting

Once you’ve got your food elements ready, open the wine bottles, unless they’re white wines. Red wines usually need a touch of air to taste their best. Now, here’s the fun part. Have one person put each bottle into a different paper bag. Have another person shuffle the bottles around and number the bags. That way, no one really knows what’s in each bag.

If you have them, get out enough glasses so that each person has one glass for each wine. So, if you’ve got three wines, each person gets three glasses. But don’t stress. If you don’t have that many glasses, you don’t. Just rinse between tastes.

Then eat the food and taste the wines along with it. Make notes about what you like and don’t like.

That’s it. Simple. Then you serve the wine you liked best and to heck with what the pundit said you should be drinking. Pundits can only offer suggestions. You and your family are the only palates that count in this one.