Have you ever noticed how close the word “travel” is to the French word “travail?” “Travel” of course conjures up images of white sandy beaches and exotic destinations. “Travail” on the other hand literally means “work” in English*. This “connection,” however, seems appropriate when Maggie and I
head out tasting in the wine world.
Yeah, we know that from some points of view, our travels to some of the most beautiful grape-growing regions look like a lot of fun and not just work. I suppose we could take credit for hiding all the “work” aspects while simply proliferating the romantic dream of owning a winery (at least to those who don’t own a winery). Or we could be upfront and honest and tell everyone, “yes we enjoy our travels.” But it would also be honest to say, “We enjoy traveling to these selected locations to learn more about the wines and grapes of the world.”
One of the easiest traps a winery can fall into is believing it makes the best wine possible. Of course awards and sales back up this premise, but this is akin to making wine with blinders on. There is always something to learn from other wineries and especially other regions. For years, our former winemaker Hugh Chappelle has emphasized how important it is to get out and try other styles of wines. Not only does this broaden your palate for new flavor profiles, but it can bring in a whole host of environmental and cultural aspects that impact the characters of the wines. And even science-oriented California-based wineries
can’t ignore hundreds of years of experience and tradition in these regions.
So we travel: Northern Italy for Nebbiolo, Burgundy for Chardonnay, the Rhone for Syrah, the Rheingau for Riesling, Alsace for Gewurztraminer and Riesling, Cahors for Malbec and Seattle last week for Riesling.
Each experience is different, providing us with new ideas and renewed excitement. Most recently, while driving through Cahors and soaking up the landscape, we realized how similar it felt to the Sierra Foothills. This is only possible since we were actually there. And then tasting the Malbecs and noting similar characters to ours only helped reinforce that Malbec will be a winner for our region. And then you talk to winemakers and find out that many bleed their tanks to make a rosé and intensify the density of the red, or that only the hillsides make the top quality wines, or that some of these old chateaux have absorbed new technologies with gleaming stainless steel tanks in the cellar, and we start getting a sense of the region making the wine. Add in the cuisine coupled with a splash of history, and we find we have much to learn about making our Malbec.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I think we make a very good Malbec, but it excites me to know that there are aspects that our vineyards may or may not be able to produce as well as knowing that our grapes will be unique compared to those of famous regions around the world.
Nothing made this clearer than Maggie and my tasting dry Rieslings at the Riesling Rendezvous last week. Each seminar had had 10-16 glasses splayed out in front of us, poured with samples of great Riesling from around the world. Now to be forthright, we felt we knew a reasonable amount about the variety, having made it for years and tasted it around the world. But nothing had prepared us for the wonderful (yet bracing) acidity that these wines exhibited. Fresh and bright, many almost herbaceous, some very dry, and all very acidic, their wide range of styles and flavors showed why Riesling is considered to be the most terroir-driven variety out there.
I now have a feeling as to where our region fits into the world of Riesling. Our climate and soils give us riper characters of apple, pear and honey, partly because of the summer warmth we have. This also gives our wines a richer mouthfeel and higher alcohols. Stylistically, we almost fit more into an old-world style (Alsace/Germany) than we do new-world (New Zealand, Michigan, Washington). But just listening to the world-famous winemakers speak about their wines makes us consider our approach to grape-growing and wine-making.
But does this really make for solid/tastable differences that Madroña drinkers will notice? I would say, the proof is in the wine. Taste our style versus others in California. It’s more food-oriented, less flashy, and we certainly don’t do that for sales (because that’s not trendy). But it is what we believe in, and it is what we drink.
So I guess that our continuing education is a pretty sweet deal. There are no sterily-lit classrooms or monotonous professors, just pure experiences combined with tastes, smells, sights, history and education. That excites us! And hopefully that excites you too!
P.S. One huge bonus with this too is that we get to experience these regions with our kids. But if I had started talking about the importance of “quality of life” and “owning your own business”, it would have taken over the whole article.
P.S.S. Real changes for the 2010 Riesling and Dry Riesling—no leaf-thinning on vineyard, pick a little earlier on one lot, less oxidative work on juice, trial new yeast, and an earlier bottling.
P.S.S.S. We plan to take the kids to Cahors for almost 3 months next year to learn even more about French culture and Malbec (if everything falls into place). Watch for these blogs next winter!
*Please note that I’m not really advocating that there is any relationship between the words “travel” and “travail.” I just thought it was fun.