Pétillant naturel from Natalie Albertson

We first met Natalie Albertson at the Women Winemakers Celebration earlier this spring. She makes an amazing pétillant naturel, or pét nat, under her Wildflower Winery label, a very small production winery in Ventura County.

Natalie Albertson, of Wildflower Winery, explains pétillant naturel.
Natalie Albertson

The fun thing is Albertson and Michael both buy albariño grapes from Riverbench Vineyards and Winery, in the Santa Ynez Valley. Albertson also buys chardonnay from Riverbench, which becomes her pétillant naturel. So, when we met up with Albertson again at a winemaker dinner put on by the Riverbench folks for the people who buy their grapes, we couldn’t resist asking her about pét nat.

“It means a wine that was bottled before fermentation completely finished,” Albertson explained. “We did at about one point eight brix or one point five, six and it put a crown cap on it and it finished fermenting inside the bottle and creates those lovely bubbles that we all love.”

Brix being the unit that measures how much sugar there is in a liquid. Zero brix means there is no sugar present. Most grape juice starts fermenting at 20-24 brix, depending on the variety and the planned end result. One point five brix means that fermentation has almost completely finished. Most still wines are aged a little bit in vats or barrels before being bottled so that you don’t get bubbles.

Pét nat is a different process than the famed Methode Champenoise, in which wines that have been completely fermented and somewhat aged get a second bit of sugar and yeast, then are fermented again with caps, which create the bubbles.

What to expect inside the bottle

So, when you see pétillant naturel on a label, Albertson said that you can expect to see some yeast, or lees, the remains of the fermenting process.

“Some fine lees, you know, not not too much. That’s why we decided to disgorge our chardonnay this year. There was just too much, it wouldn’t be enjoyable,” she said. “Sometimes they can be a little little active, a little excited. So carefully, open them in your backyard. There are some that you… have to open in your backyard or your shower because they’re just going everywhere.”

In fact, she has opened, or disgorged, some of her pét nats to release some of the pressure so that when people open them, they don’t lose half the bottle.

She chose to make pétillant naturel for one simple reason.

“I love bubbles. Yeah, it’s just so fun. My first wine was bubbles. It was a champagne or sparkling wine at Christmas,” she said. “You know that it’s for celebration. It’s celebrating a new job. It’s for holiday. It’s gathering with people. It’s lively, you know?”

And that’s pétillant naturel.

July in the Home Winery – Time to Label the Bottles

July in the home winery is normally the month when winemakers prepare for the next harvest, which is typically late August to early September typically, but can differ if you’re making sparkling wine or live near the High Desert AVA in Southern California. That’s when we do our last-minute orders of chemicals, cleaners, supplies. We inspect and clean our tools, and sharpen the one we use in the vineyard. We get the equipment out of storage, cleaned and tested. You notice the pattern that involves cleanliness, I assume? Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

Labeling equipment for labeling the bottles

Last month, we showed you bottling. But once the botting is finished, labeling is an optional step. This can happen at any time, not just in July. We know winemakers who use a variety of media for identifying their wines: green painter’s tape; blue painter’s tape, duct tape, metallic markers or just little stickers that may only say “99 PN”. Some of our winemaker friends specialize in a few varieties where this works.

Michael’s labels

Michael’s labels tend to be full-blown to satisfy his own ego, he says. He has no natural skill in graphics but does believe in “faking it until you make it.” So all labeling of wine is purely decorative unless you are a professional and then all the fun is taken away. Yet another reason to avoid the urge to go pro.

Finished labeled bottle

The outsides of the reused bottles sometimes have some glue residue from the previous commercial label. A spray of Goo Gone and a paint scraper takes care of that. A glue stick applied to the back of the regular paper label and applying it as straight as possible. Being hand crafted, variation is always possible and two bottles are rarely side by side anyway.

So labels really only serve the winemaker’s ego and sense of craftsmanship. No wrong answers in this exercise. And that’s July in the winery.

Lane Tanner Talks Pinot Noir and Ginger

Last March, we got the opportunity to go to the Women Winemakers Celebration (from which you will several interviews). But one of the questions we asked many of the winemakers there was who blazed the trail for you? Almost everyone said Lane Tanner, of Lumen Wines.

And when we told her that, Tanner laughed.

Lane Tanner pouring at women winemakers event.

“I just… I’ve been here a long time,” she said. “You never think of yourself as a legend or a trailblazer. I just happened to get here in 1980 and I’ve been here ever since and, you know, I’ve survived year after year.”

Tanner also credits Alison Green, at Firestone Winery, with being the first female winemaker in Santa Barbara County. Tanner became enologist at Firestone after Green became the winemaker. After that, Tanner went to Zaca Mesa for a year.

“Then in 1984, I started my own company making wine,” Tanner said. “And so I was the first independent female winemaker Santa Barbara County, so that’s kind of how that worked.”

Tanner started out making pinot noir because that’s what she liked.

“I just fell in love with pinot noir and that’s all I wanted to make,” Tanner said. “So, really the first 10 years of the Lane Tanner label, I made nothing but pinot noir, so I was probably the only winery in California that was a single type winery.”

Tanner’s current label, Lumen Wines, does include other wines besides pinot noir. In fact, one of her most interesting wines is Hey Ginger Chardonnay, 2021, which actually has ginger in it.

“You have to get a special permit to say that you’ve actually put ginger in it, so the people know there’s something in it besides grapes,” Tanner said. “This is just really unique in the sense that… Well, ginger. I mean, yes, it is used as a flavor, but it’s also used as a preservative. So actually, it’s doing two different things. I’ve been playing with this for years. The way I came up with it is I go to Hawaii every year after harvest. And I always bring back a lot of gingerroot. I just love it, but I always had a problem preserving it. So one day, I chopped a bunch of big chunks, put them in a mason jar, and put riesling over them, and then I kept them in my refrigerator. Then whenever I needed, ginger, I would pull a chunk out.”

Then Tanner noticed that the riesling was also keeping very well. So, she tried making the wine with ginger in her winery, and this year decided to make the wine on a commercial level.

And that’s Lane Tanner.

Alicia Wilbur on Kosher Wine

We’ve written about kosher wine before as part of a Celebrity Wine FAQ with actor Mayim Bialik. Then we got the chance to interview Alicia Wilbur, winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars, and we jumped at it. With Passover starting this Saturday, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn more about kosher wine and wine that is also kosher for Passover.

As it turned out, we had to do the interview by email – and it worked out great! Our questions are bolded, with the responses by Alicia Wilbur.

What makes a wine kosher?
Photo of winemaker Alicia Wilbur, who shares about kosher wine
Winemaker Alicia Wilbur

Grapes on the vine are inherently kosher – our job is to ensure they remain kosher throughout the winemaking process.  The fundamental difference in the kosher winemaking process is who does the physical work:  anyone who handles the juice or wine must be Shabbat observant.  There are some further considerations with winemaking ingredients (such as yeast) which must be certified kosher. And lastly, our calendar follows the Jewish calendar, which prohibits work on the Sabbath and holidays.  In general, one can say that Kosher is a high level of scrutiny, or attention to detail.

Is there a difference between kosher and kosher for Passover when it comes to wine?

Being kosher for Passover is another level of detail, making sure that any winemaking ingredients are not only kosher, but kosher for Passover.  Our barrels must also be kosher for Passover!  The traditional glue used in barrel heads is made with flour – obviously this isn’t possible for KLP wines, so we have our barrels specially made for us with Rabbinic supervision.

How do you know a wine is kosher?

The best way to tell a wine is kosher is to look for the certification.  The Orthodox Union (OU) and many other agencies certify wines and wineries and their labels will be displayed on the label.

Photo of the Variations line up of Herzog kosher wine.
Herzog Wines
Two things we have heard about kosher wines is that they tend to be sweet, or that they have a cooked flavor (as we understand it, from the meshuval process). Do you as a winemaker go with the sweet or how do you work against it?

When Jews arrived in the United States, they settled mostly on the East Coast.  The grapes they found growing wild are type Vitis labrusca, native eastern North American grapes, as opposed to Vitis vinifera which are native European grapes.  Vitis labrusca grapes are commonly known as Concord and have a distinct flavor profile.  One way to make the juice taste better was to allow for lots of sweetness in the finished wine.  Since wine and grape juice are required for Jewish ritual observance, the wines our early American ancestors made was from concord grapes made extra sweet and this style was associated for many years with kosher wine.  

Nowadays especially for us at Herzog sweet wine is a stylistic choice and made intentionally. Some of the wines we make are sweet, bust most of the wines we make are not sweet at all.  And all of our varieties are Vitis vinifera (Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Muscat).  It’s important to note that fruity notes or expressive fruity flavors do not mean the wine is sweet!  Our palates/taste buds often equate fruity and sweet, but they are different tastes and sensations.

As for making wines mevushal, this generally has no perceptible impact on the flavor of the wine being made.  It is absolutely possible for mevushal wine to be age-worthy, point worthy, impressive, expressive – our 2014 Alexander Valley Special Reserve was written about in Wine Spectator, receiving a 92 point score and hailed as a 20 year age worthy wine.

What are the best wines to pair with a Seder dinner, which has a lot of varying flavors?

For Seder, I love starting out with lighter, lower alcohol wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine.  Then I move into a rose or more structured white such as an oaked Chardonnay for the second cup.  Third and fourth is when I bring out the big, opulent red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, depending on the main course.  The meal is long and relaxed, and the perfect opportunity to try new things.  

And so, a special thanks to Alicia Wilbur, a winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars for her thoughts.

Tiquette Bramlett and Changing the Face of the Wine Industry

Tiquette Bramlett

For Tiquette Bramlett, President of Vidon Vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Pandemic spurred her to take action.

“It’s been a slow burn,” she said. “I think because of the stereotype of what wine has been.”

Namely, that it’s been made by White men and advertised to White men. As a Black woman, Bramlett knows first hand that not all winemakers and even more consumers are neither White nor male. So, she, her mother, Charlotte Bramlett, and friends Diana Riggs and Britt Kemper founded Our Legacy Harvested, which will help match interns who are people of color with wineries both on the production side and the Direct to Consumer (DtC) side.

“If you want to get into the organization, if you’re curious about the industry, this is the organization for you,” Bramlett said.

Bramlett, herself, has worked in tasting rooms and as a brand ambassador since 2015 and became president at Vidon in 2021. In 2020, with everything shut down and the Black Lives Matter movement growing, Bramlett and her friends wanted to take action.

“We had been talking about wanting to go do something, bringing some levity to the community, but also fostering the community,” Bramlett said.

Inspiration from her past

She took her inspiration from her grandfather, who was one of the first Black general contractors in the state of California.

“I always respected the way that he would foster and mentor people,” Bramlett said. She asked him why he did and he explained that the people he chose were “Our Legacy Harvested.”

So, when Bramlett decided the time had come to foster people who looked like her in the wine industry, it was only natural to use her grandfather’s phrase.

Applications are currently open for the first group of six interns, who will work harvest 2022, with a deadline of March 15, 2022. Bramlett is working with several wineries in the Willamette Valley to find the right mentors for the interns. She expects to announce the interns and the wineries around May 7.

“I love to make wine approachable and just share how unintimidating it is,” Bramlett said.

Smoke Gets In Your Wine

A quick cautionary tale about jumping to a conclusion about a new wine.
Once in a while we will buy several low cost bottles from our local Trader Joe’s. Rosés, a french wine and maybe a Chilean red or something to round out the home inventory. This specific bottle is a 2014 California Pinot Noir from Monterey County.

We don’t know the producer as it is under TJ’s private label. The price was under $6 so not a great risk of grocery money. It didn’t get long for us to notice a strong smokiness in the wine that really got in the way in any fruit flavors that would been present. This was not a smoky barrel flavor but something else and not a good something else.

Being aware of any number of wildfires burning in wine country over the last few years, including 2018, I thought I would consult our friends at wikipedia about any 2014 wildfires in Monterey County.
Here’s what I found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soberanes_Fire

What does this have to do with this Pinot Noir? Smoke particles can become of part of the grapes as they approach ripeness in the vineyards even if they are many miles from the fire source. It’s the timing that makes a difference. The October 2017 fires near Santa Rosa took place after most of the grapes had been picked and being fermented. If the fires are early enough, they won’t have an impact. The 2014 fires started in late July and weren’t controlled until early October – during the harvest time for Pinot Noir.

So, knowing this, we decided to try different foods to find something that would work with this wine. The savior in this case was regular potato chips but any flavored chips might work as would some really smoky BBQ.

So why are we bringing this up? The long term forecast calls for bigger fires burning any time of the year so this is only one example of a tainted harvest. So, as wine lovers, we need to be aware of the growing conditions here in California where “vintage” isn’t as variable as it has been in France where bad weather such as rains and hail are affecting grapes somewhere each year. So maybe a 2014 Monterey County may not be such a great wine except at $6 when Pinots normally sell for much much more.

But it’s also a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. What foods go with a flawed wine? More generally, who decides what’s a flawed wine? Smoke taints have their fans as do brett and cork taint wines. Staying informed and being aware of a vintage in a specific region may be unusual for Californians but this is normal for the Europeans.

So don’t avoid a mystery wine if the price is right. If it sings to you, great. If not, maybe it’s a teachable moment in our wine education that can lead us to a better understanding of what’s in our glass today. Tomorrow is a different day and a different wine.

We Are on Temporary Hiatus

Vicissitudes Alert –

Well, as it often does, Life has Happened to us. Nothing unexpected or truly terrible, but time-consuming enough that we must focus on other things than the beloved passion project this blog is.

We should be back around August 23. You can also sign up for blog alerts on the Robin Goodfellow Newsletter, in the box to the right of your screen. Or maybe below it, if you’re on a phone right now.

Changes coming to Gypsy Canyon

Deborah Hall has announced her retirement as a winemaker after her most recent vintage is released this Spring. Besides the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay famous throughout the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Gypsy Canyon Winery also has a historic plot of Mission vines dated 1887 or thereabouts. This is the source of her “Ancient Vines Angelica”.
We at OBG had the pleasure of having lunch and a tour one May afternoon several years ago. Ms. Hall was and is a fine hostess and generous with sharing her knowledge and passion for the wine, the vines and her rescue project of saving dogs destined for the dog meat trade in South Korea. Her Ground Boots label series of wines is her fundraising source for this effort and they are no lesser wines than her Gypsy Canyon label.
We have heard that both the Angelica and Ground Boots labels will be continuing into the future. Make the effort to find Gypsy Canyon wine and, if you see Deborah in person, be sure to thank her for her work.
We posted this video of our tour back in 2015….

Wine Country Fires Update

wine country fires, wine bloggers conference, vacation planningLess than a month after devastating fires ravaged Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, the Wine Bloggers Conference was held in Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas in the wine country fires.

We watched with the rest of the country as the news of the fires came through our various screens. Needless to say, our first concern was for our friends in the area (they were okay), then the countless others who lost their lives, their homes, and their businesses. But as the flames died down, we began to wonder whether Santa Rosa would still be able to host WBC 2017.

The answer came pretty quickly – not only was the hotel able to host, the surrounding associations and wineries were eager to have us. Even better, while no one wants to diminish just how bad the fires were, the vineyards did what vineyards do. They acted as a firebreak, meaning that the fires could have been even worse.

Yes, there were some wineries that were damaged, including a few, such as Paradise Ridge, that were completely destroyed. But the vast majority of the wineries remain intact and open for business.

Please Come

Which was the big message out of the session at the conference put on by the local vintners associations – please come. The reality is, the wine community is very closely knit and has banded together to help everyone who needs it. The Sonoma Winegrowers Association recently sent out a release that their foundation not only raised over $400,000, they’re already distributing it to ag workers affected by the fires.

But they all say the best way to get the region back on its feet is something we like to do anyway – visit and buy wine. Heck, even Sean, from Paradise Ridge, said that they had some inventory that had been stored elsewhere and they could really use the sales now. The site is fully operational and even has a whole section on the fires and how they’re planning to come back.

Since this is the time of year people like to plan vacations, think about Northern California’s wine country.

In Honor of Marisa Taylor

A couple years ago, we met winemaker Marisa Taylor, whose makes awesome merlot for Rutherford Hill. We were also privileged to feature her here on the blog. Well, the news is not good. Ms. Taylor is battling not one, but two forms of cancer and her friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the family during this really, really tough time. Given what a great interview we got from Ms. Taylor, we thought we’d run the piece again. In the meantime, here’s the link to the campaign, Go, Marisa, Go.

Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill
Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill

Today’s lesson is about the much-abused merlot grape and it’s coming from a winemaker who makes some of the most glorious merlot wine we’ve tasted in a very long time.

We met Marisa Taylor, winemaker for Rutherford Hill, at a tasting event for a local TV station. She’s one of the three winemakers featured in Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, a six-part documentary on winemaking. We met her again at the Wine Bloggers Conference in July, where she led a tasting on Napa merlots with P.J. Alviso, Director of Estate Viticulture for Duckhorn Vineyards. It was one of those rare tastings that gives conspicuous consumption a good name. Taylor does not make cheap wine, let us tell you. But it is worth it. So was the chat we had with her after the tasting.

“You can expect a luciousness…  juicy,” Tayler said about what to expect when you open a good bottle of merlot. “I think merlot tends to be more of a red fruit flavor.”

That’s tasting more like cherries or strawberries, rather than dark, heavy blackberries. In short, it tends to be a somewhat lighter wine than its blending pal cabernet sauvignon.

“You’ll know it when you taste it,” Taylor said about the red flavor profile. “Is it just darker or, hey, no. It makes me feel happy and it’s nice and rosy and red. In general, I think that merlot is a nice complement, companion with food. And I think that it’s something that will fill your mouth and be full-bodied. And it’s not like a hard… Cabernets can be tannic and tough and just dry your mouth out. And merlot doesn’t generally do that.”

The merlot grape is one of the five traditional components of Bordeaux wine, where it is grown and blended in varying strengths with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Outside of France and Europe, it’s frequently made as a stand-alone variety.

The wine, alas, got a really bad rep in the late 1990s when it got really popular and everyone started growing and making merlot. And a lot of it was really bad wine. Then, in 2004, the film Sideways came out, about two guys dealing with their issues while wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. And in one memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti), the so-called expert of the two, trashes merlot.

But Taylor thinks that the bad old days are gone when it comes to merlot.

“I think bad merlots have been weeded out from that Sideways effect,” she said. “And I think that we are seeing better and better merlots on the market.”

Taylor’s tips for finding a good one? She suggested looking for the appellation, or where the grapes are grown, such as the Napa region Or…

“Look for Rutherford Hill on the label,” she joked.

Which is not entirely bad advice. We tasted their Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, which is at least 75 percent merlot, but this one also has a little bit of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah blended in. Mike noted its dark color – pretty typical of merlot wine – a caramel chocolate nose, with good acids with smooth, abundant tannins, and a nice finish. Plus it’s got great aging potential. It was Mike’s favorite.

Anne, however, preferred the Atlas Peak Merlot, 2010, which was 100 percent merlot. Mike noted a bit of anise and tar (it’s actually a good thing) on the nose, with good fruity, earthy flavor. The tannins were still there. And while Mike thought this had a shorter finish (the taste didn’t linger as long on the tongue), he also thought this one had even better potential for aging.

Now, the Napa Valley Merlot retails at $28, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the Atlas Peak was second least expensive, at a mere $50 for wine club members. Yipes! The rest of the bottles in the tasting all retailed at $95 and up. Oddly enough, the two above wines were our favorites – and that’s before we knew what they cost.