By ALICE FEIRING
Published: April 14, 2006
THE first time I hunted for ramps with dinner in mind, upstate New York was barely emerging from an Arctic-like winter. It was late April 1996, and the ground was still sprinkled with snow. It seemed as if Delaware County, where I inhabited a friend's house, would never see spring.
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Ramps that have been cleaned and are ready for sauteing.
The elongated leaves of the ramp, or wild leek, found in early spring on the forest floor.
I walked into the forest with little hope. But suddenly I saw a green carpet a multitude of ramps (or wild leeks, as they are also known), looking perkily optimistic with their wild, floppy leaves. I tore off a fat bouquet. I ran from the forest, waved them overhead and yelled: "Ramps! Ramps!"
Armed with a shovel, I returned to the forest and got to work. Gently, I lifted them by their complex roots, which knit and curl like a web of intestines. Back in the house, I set to cleaning their mud-encased membranes in cold water. They must be stripped of that protective sac it's like husking an ear of corn down to the milky white, purple-edged bulb. Every bit that is left of the ramp, from bulb to leaf, is edible.
This cleaning is almost as messy as gutting a fish, but it is sensual and oddly satisfying. (If you buy them in the Greenmarket, the cleaning has been done for you.) I arranged them in bouquets around the house until I was ready to cook them.
Ramps Allium tricoccum are prized for their white bulbs and their tender greens. They burst through the earth in early spring with majestic greenness. They can be foraged for about five weeks in April and May.
Years earlier, after watching Greek peasant women comb the hills of Crete picking wild greens, I returned to the States and, emboldened by their example, began looking down at the ground in search of supper. My efforts were fruitful. The hills surrounding my friend's house, in Walton, N.Y., had offered endless free food from June through November in addition to fruit, from strawberries to tiny plums, there was purslane, watercress and wild mint.
But until the year before that successful ramp hunt, I had never considered ramps. The day they first entered my consciousness I was on a spring walk in that munificent forest. That year, the spring was especially warm. Blue and yellow trout lilies bloomed. I entered a part of the woods resplendent with greens I'd never seen before shooting out from the bed of matted dead leaves. What on earth were they?
This was before ramps were fashionable. I knew that they were celebrated in West Virginia, and other parts of the Appalachian region, and that they were perhaps similar to the rampion picked by Rapunzel, but I was far from the mountains of West Virginia, and I was no Rapunzel.
The something I'd found looked suspiciously like the poisonous lily of the valley, whose leaves are aroma-free. I put a leaf close to my nose and breathed in an earthy, oniony smell, one topped off by a high note of white truffle. The oils clinging to my nose and fingers were muskily compelling.
MY hypervigilant boyfriend barred ramps from the dinner table until we could establish their safety. So I opened Steve Brill's trusty book "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places," and learned that nothing smelling like onion or garlic is poisonous. The next spring, I was ready for them.
Ramps, which are rich in vitamin C, were for many years the first potently nutritious edibles to rise up after the winter dearth. The Indians made tonics; Southerners cured scurvy with them, built festivals around them and foraged them so thoroughly they nearly disappeared. Meanwhile, in the Catskills, where they also grew in abundance, the locals forgot about them.
Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farms in Roscoe, N.Y., had passed them by for decades (as I had, and as had his neighbors), until a Southern-born employee grabbed him by the elbow and whispered, "Come here, I'll show you something that saved my life."
Mr. Bishop took the ramps to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan in 1986, but it wasn't until the late 90's that ramps really took off, and even then it was with city folk rather than country folk. As chefs fell in love with them, a new star was born.
Ramps are transformative, even magical. Once, as I was carting pounds of them back to the city, their intense garlic smell turned floral, almost like the scent of lilacs.
In many ways, ramps present an exquisite balance between pain and pleasure. They are delicious and addictive but beware, they are also highly cathartic. I love to prepare them simply: sauted with extra-virgin olive oil and a teeny crush of sea salt. A potato gratin with the sauted ramps and a hefty shredding of aged strong Cheddar is another happy marriage of flavor.
My favorite wine pairing is one that would perplex a white-wine-with-ramp sommelier a beautiful northern Rhone red made from syrah grapes, like a St. Joseph.
My friend has reclaimed her house, but she has given me visitation rights at ramp time. So, with the early ramp season upon us, I and two friends, who have taken to the ritual like nymphs to woods, will soon sit on the damp earth. We'll go ramping until blisters swell on our palms. We'll clean and cook them. We'll eat and eat. And once again, we'll drink St. Joe.
Alice's Ramp and Potato Gratin
½ pound ramps
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Gruyre or extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
Ό cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (or potato of choice) of similar size
2 cups half-and-half
3 sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional: red pepper flakes.
(Note: You can never use too many ramps or too much cheese in this dish. Adjust up or down depending on taste.)
1. Saut ramps in olive oil until wilted, with a dash of pepper flakes if you like a kick. Combine the cheeses and reserve a cup for the topping.
2. Wash the potatoes, peel if you like (I don't) and slice them into very thin rounds, using a mandoline or a sharp knife.
3. Oil a 9-by-12-inch heavy, shallow baking dish, preferably earthenware or cast enamel.
4. In a small saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a simmer with thyme and add, generously, salt and pepper. Remove the thyme and set the mixture aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
6. Arrange about one-fourth of the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the dish. Season as you go. Evenly layer in about one-third of the ramps, sprinkling cheese and a few spoons of half-and-half; repeat twice, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pour the rest of the half-and-half over the potato mixture, allowing the liquid to hit just below the top layer of potatoes. Top off with the remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake until the potatoes feel tender, about one hour.
7. Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees, remove the foil and bake until the top begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Business; For Better or Worse, Winemakers Go High Tech
By ALICE FEIRING (NYT) 1835 words
Published: August 26, 2001
WINEMAKERS like to say wine is grown in the vineyard. But more and more of the wine produced in the United States is grown in the lab.
In the last five years, new treatments and additives ranging from smoky oak chips to tropical-flavored fermenting yeasts have spread through the 500-million-gallon-a-year American wine industry, whose epicenter is California. They have enabled winemakers to adjust the taste and texture of their products in response to consumer demand, obscuring the line between what is natural and what is not.
While these changes have helped minimize the wine industry's risks of a bad vintage and contributed to a 25 percent increase in annual domestic wine production over the last decade, they have also inflamed an emotional debate about whether winemakers are erasing the mystique of regional differences in wine.
''Anytime I taste a wine that has nothing distinctive about the place or the climate, I call that deception,'' said Roger B. Boulton, professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, who opposes what he calls a creeping homogeneity in wine. ''When everything becomes the same because of winemaking practices, that's a pretty sad day.''
Nearly 90 percent of wine produced in the United States originates in California, and the state's wineries have good reasons to produce wines that they know will sell. The volume of imports has nearly doubled over the last decade and now accounts for more than 20 percent of all wine sold in the country, according to Impact, a trade publication of M. Shanken Communications. Many of those imports, particularly Australian wines, are also produced with the new techniques.
The Wine Institute, a trade group in San Francisco, estimated that the retail value of all wine sold in the United States was $19 billion last year, up 5 percent from 1999.
A trend toward homogeneity in wine may be driven in part by a perception that influential wine critics like Robert M. CENSORED Jr. and magazines like Wine Spectator prefer particular flavors and aromas. Winemakers seeking good reviews may be exploiting new technologies not only for damage control, but also to shape their wines from birth.
There is nothing illegal about human intervention in the natural fermentation of wine. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates the industry, does impose some limits. It is not permissible, for example, to use food coloring to perfect a wine's color. And artificial flavoring cannot be added to replicate a particular taste, like that of blackberries.
What is allowed, however, is the use of oak, either raw or charred to varying degrees, which can impart flavors reminiscent of coconut, vanilla and coffee, for example. But while winemakers still use oak barrels, oak chips are increasingly used to save money on lesser wines -- the chips are sprinkled into stainless steel vats to flavor a wine and give it an ''oak flavor profile.''
Adjustments are also permitted in the level of carbon dioxide in fermenting wine, which affects a wine's acidity and fruitiness. Adding unfermented grape juice sweetens the wine. Enzymes lock in color. Yeasts control the level of fermentation. Tannins, naturally occurring chemical compounds in grape skins and wood, are used in powdered form to further enhance a wine's taste and feel in the mouth.
Advances in yeast cultivation have now made it an ingredient for taste as well. Chardonnay producers looking for a toasty, buttery taste use a special yeast that enhances those qualities. Another example is a yeast that gives a banana flavor and aroma, originally introduced 10 years ago in Beaujolais.
Marty Bannister, the founder of Vinquiry, a wine analysis and consulting firm in Sonoma, Calif., said yeast was ''the essential fermentation tool.'' But now, she added, ''people also look toward it for flavor.''
Diana Burnett, fermentation products manager at Scott Laboratories in Petaluma, Calif., a leading distributor of wine yeasts, said that in the past, winemakers relied on nature, soil and skill to make the best wine they could. Now, she said, they decide in advance what flavor they want, then choose the materials and tools they need.
CALIFORNIA's wine industry has embraced the technology of wine enhancement partly because ripened California grapes often have a higher sugar content than grapes grown elsewhere. Until recent years, the sugar was a chronic source of production problems for many winemakers -- it contributes to high levels of alcohol in fermentation, which can kill the yeast prematurely and produce acetic acid, turning wine to vinegar. Wines with more than 14 percent alcohol, the normal amount, can taste hot and harsh.
High alcohol levels also raise the price to the consumer. A federal excise tax of $1.07 a gallon is levied on wine sold in the United States that is no more than 14 percent alcohol. The tax is $1.57 a gallon when the alcohol content exceeds 14 percent.
But now a technique called reverse osmosis, in which high pressure is used to separate the alcohol and acid from the wine, has helped many winemakers salvage crops that nature might have ruined. Use of the technique, originally intended to make nonalcoholic wine, has spread in recent years.
''The only thing to do with a batch of wine with acetic acid is to use reverse osmosis,'' said Lisa Van de Water, the founder and owner of Wine Lab, a consulting company in Napa, Calif., that specializes in emergency rescues of wines. ''It's a godsend.''
Many winemakers will not acknowledge using reverse osmosis, fearing that they will be perceived as having tampered with the wine. But even the best of them acknowledge that the technique is an important advance that has helped avoid calamities.
Steve Doerner, the winemaker at the Cristom Winery in Salem, Ore., known in the industry for his dedication to natural wine making, said he once had to resort to reverse osmosis. But he said such technologies should be used for disaster control, not for fine-tuning taste and texture.
''Whenever you take something out of the wine, you're changing it,'' he said. ''And not necessarily for the best.''
Vinovation, a Sebastopol, Calif., consulting and production services company that introduced reverse osmosis, disagrees, saying the technique's application is much wider than just emergency use. Clark Smith, the president of the company, said it could produce ''a better wine than you would have in the first place.''
In 1997, Vinovation introduced micro-oxygenation, in which bubbles of oxygen are released into oak barrels used to store wine. This eliminates the need for a labor-intensive practice called racking, in which the wine is pumped out of one barrel into another to separate it from residue and yeasts.
Vinovation sold about 100 micro-oxygenation systems last year at $2,000 each and said it expects to double sales this year. Michael Havens, owner and winemaker of Havens Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley, who produces one of California's most sought-after merlots, said he started using micro-oxygenation in 1996 after hurting his back during racking.
Mr. Havens defended the use of micro-oxygenation as just another part of modern winemaking. He said it helped to minimize the weather uncertainties that can make the difference between a good year and a bad year. ''It is better to make conscious rather than random choices,'' he said.
Others, however, say the interventions have compromised the ethics of the industry, creating tastes and textures in wines that otherwise would not have them.
''People now think toasty oak is synonymous with a wine's taste,'' Professor Boulton said. ''That is wrong. Should you add grape tannins as an adjustment? Maybe. But wood tannins? I have trouble with that.'' Techniques like reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation ''can make a good wine, but not a great wine,'' he said.
''If you have to resort to these methods,'' he added, ''what does that say about your winemaking and grape growing?''
Winemakers say privately that the industry's effort to manipulate the taste and texture in wine reflects the influence of leading critics like Mr. CENSORED, whose rating scores can mean the difference between success and failure. Mr. CENSORED said he advocates minimal intervention in winemaking and does not consider himself responsible for homogeneity in wine.
''My scores have led to higher quality at all price levels, as well as to more informed wine customers,'' he said.
Enologix, another Sonoma company that caters to the wine industry, has developed computer software that predicts how a wine will score in reviews even while it is still juice. Enologix's founder, Leo McCloskey, said the software offered a noninvasive way to let winemakers know early if they have a potential hit. Mr. McCloskey said 65 wineries had bought his software, including leading boutique wineries like Diamond Creek, Ridge and WillaKenzie.
THE ability of new technologies to create critically acclaimed wines is evident in the prosperity of E.& J. Gallo Winery. The privately owned company does not disclose financial information, but with an estimated $1.5 billion in annual sales, it is the nation's biggest winemaker.
After mastering the supermarket brand of wines, it has segued into the fine-wine category. Its highly rated 1996 and 1997 Estate Cabernets, for example, retail at $70 a bottle.
Terry Lee, vice president for research and development at Gallo, said a successful winemaker now creates a focus group and finds what flavors the public wants, then produces them. Wine critics, in Mr. Lee's view, ''are gatekeepers who have an influence on the buying public.''
''I've heard the complaints that all wine is tasting the same,'' he said, ''But that's because most people don't understand what wine is about and don't understand what a good winemaker is trying to do. People who make those comments are ignorant of the facts.''
That assertion angers those who believe that fine wine is about the land and not about the laboratory. Mary Ewing Mulligan, co-author of ''Wine for Dummies,'' said a result was a loss of distinctiveness.
''There should be a distinction between a beverage and fine wine,'' Ms. Mulligan said. ''From the beverage viewpoint, it is easy to buy a technologically sound wine, just as it is orange juice. That's great. However, with fine wine it's terribly misguided.''
Photos: Michael Havens, owner of Havens Wine Cellars, uses a system that percolates oxygen bubbles through his wine as it ages in barrels.; Devices called diffusers, inserted into each barrel, emit microscopic oxygen bubbles. Mr. Havens says the system reduces uncertainties caused by weather. (Photographs by Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)
Chart: ''Fruit of the Vine''
Nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in the United States orginates in California.
Graph shows figures for California and the remainder of the U.S. from 1989-1999. (Source: Wine Institute; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms)
A Poor Man's Porcini, in a Silly Hat
By ALICE FEIRING
I FIRST saw the paper-white mushrooms, the shape of small garden gnomes, at the upscale markets. But at $16 to $20 a pound, I passed. However, when I saw a mountain of them at $5.50 a pound at a couple of indoor Chinatown markets, I biked home with a basketful.
Called king oyster mushrooms, they are the big brothers of oyster mushrooms, about seven inches long with bulbous, springy stems, topped by a dwarfed cap. They smell like fresh cream and taste of sweet earthiness, a poor man's porcini at about a quarter of the price.
After slicing them into mushroom silhouettes, I sauted them with shallot, thyme and a touch of soy. As fatty as porcini, they seared like crispy bacon. Dinner guests fought me for the last morsels. But it nagged me; I'd had these before - where?
King oyster mushrooms, or Pleurotus eryngii, are the same cardoncellos I had gorged myself on in Puglia about five years ago, when I had them deep-fried. They can be found wild in the United States, but now they are mostly cultivated mushrooms.
American chefs have recently caught on to them. Order mushrooms in 5 Ninth, Cru or Aureole, and you're likely to find king oysters beefing up the dish.
Dante Boccuzzi, the chef at Aureole, sometimes uses them as crusts for tofu or treats them like sirloin. But his pickled version with rosemary, garlic and coriander, with a swirl of late spring ramps, surprised my palate. "They sponge up the brine," he said. Yet in the seared dish, the mushrooms stayed crunchy.
After being smitten I now think that whether they are $5 a pound or $20, king oysters are a versatile indulgence.
Adapted from Aureole
Time: 15 minutes, plus 2 hours for marinating
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
8 ounces king oyster mushrooms, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 ramp leaves (or substitute scallion greens)
1 cup olive oil
12 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup red wine
1 cup red-wine vinegar
Dash soy sauce
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons salt, or as needed.
1. Toast coriander seeds in a dry skillet over low heat just until fragrant. Transfer to a plate and set aside. In a medium heatproof bowl, combine mushrooms and ramp leaves and set aside.
2. Place oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and saut until golden. Add toasted coriander seeds, wine, vinegar, soy sauce, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf and ½ cup water. Add 2 tablespoons salt, tasting and adding more as needed, taking care not to under salt.
3. Increase heat and bring mixture just to a boil. Pour hot liquid over mushrooms and ramp leaves. Allow to stand uncovered for 2 hours. Strain and serve, reserving liquid for salad dressing or pickling.
Yield: 4 servings.
Designer Shoes in Romans, France
By Alice Feiring
Published: May 1, 2005
he name Romans, a shoecentric town in France, should be branded into the gray matter of the shoe obsessed. Forty-five minutes southeast of Lyon in the Rhone Valley, it was the country's leather-tanning center during the 1800's. By the next century the town turned to manufacturing bespoke and high-end shoes.
Now, ever so slightly seedy, Romans is home to a nifty shoe museum, Muse International de la Chaussure. But more to the point are the factory outlets crammed with gorgeously made shoes. Some names to get the juices going are Stephane Klian, Paraboot, Charles Jourdan, Accessoire Diffusion and a relative newcomer, Laure Bassal, whose colorful flapper-era-inspired designs rarely make it to the United States.
But it is the Robert Clergerie store (also stocking J. Fenestrier shoes for men) just on the outskirts of town that spikes my adrenalin. While the fluorescent lights are reminiscent of to stateside outlet stores, the rich range of sizes and options (including some terrific bags) on the shelves do not. This is a true factory store and not where style mistakes go to die.
Sylvie Bret, store manager, has been with the company since 1981. When I stopped in, she was in a great mood, eagerly sharing the news: her old boss was back. Mr. Clergerie, 70, had just bought back the shoe business he sold seven years before.
Amused by my visit, she said few Americans know Romans. Her best customers are Parisians detouring to the store from their Alps or Provence destinations to shop for boots and shoes generally discounted from 40 to 70 percent. When France goes on sale in mid-January and July, subtract another 40 to 75 percent at the outlets. During these sales, she said, she is very likely to sell 200 pairs daily.
I was thrilled to find a particular pair of ankle-grazing, man-styled oxfords I'd coveted for years for only 95 euros, or $126, at $1.32 to the euro - about $530 off the usual price. A little snug? No problem. She had them stretched, gratis, resulting in a perfect fit. Five pairs later, with prices ranging up from $24, my splurge topped out at $292, far less than a single pair at the full cost.
Robert Clergerie, at Rue Pierre Curie, (33-4) 75.05.59.65, www.robertclergerie.com, is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 to 7 p.m. on Monday. Closed on Sunday.
Vive le Rapprochement!
Alice Feiring, for Forbes Magazine 11.24.03
We can't hate the French forever. Plan now for the day you'll drink their wine again.
Sooner or later the diplomatic rift between France and the U.S. will heal, and the two nations will be able to resume their traditional roles. The French will send us burgundy, and we will send them dopey comedies to pay for it. Americans who love French wine--but whose political scruples have restrained their palates--can act now to reserve a future treat, one they can enjoy guiltlessly once hostilities are over.
We refer to the Bouilland Symposium, a semiannual weeklong immersion in the glories and secrets of wine from Bourgogne. It costs $7,600 or so, depending on the exchange rate, and accepts just ten participants per session, many of them returnees who book at least six months in advance (email@example.com). The fee includes lodging, food, wine and tuition.
The setting: a 15th-century farmhouse in Bouilland, France, home to Becky Wasserman, American expat and naturalized wine trader. She migrated from the States to this tiny village 35 years ago, when the wine world was still so innocent that she and her friends could picnic in the now-sacrosanct La Tche vineyard. Wasserman got her start by selling oak barrels to the California wine industry. She later segued into exporting wine. Ten years ago she and her husband, Russell Hone, together with their friend Clive Coates, editor and publisher of the Vine (a monthly magazine published in England), began offering their wine course.
The spring symposium takes place in June, when the grapes are the size of baby peas. The fall course is in September, right before the harvest. The formula for each is simple: Live, walk, eat and drink burgundy for an entire week. The vineyards are pilgrimage worthy, and the winemakers who come to dinner at Becky and Russell's table each night include such regional stars as the Seysses family of Domaine Dujac, Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot, Anne Gros of Domaine Gros and Christophe Roumier of Domaine Roumier.
Attendees are a varied bunch. At past symposia they ranged from auctioneer and Napa Valley cabernetist Ann Colgin to an emergency room doctor from Texas. Spring 2003 had a semiretired burgundy fanatic from Hawaii, a couple from Costa Rica who own a coffee plantation, two young investment banker types (one from Chicago, one from Los Angeles) and Thomas J. Stewart, chairman of Services Group of America, a food distributor.
Near the end of the kick-off dinner Stewart, a newcomer, began to crow about the Screaming Eagle he had bought back home for $800 a bottle. No one was impressed. Burgundy lovers view California supercabs as overoaked and overpriced.
Roger Forbes (no relation), a third-time participant, broke the awkward silence. "Anyone with money," said he, "can buy a Napa cabernet or Bordeaux. Burgundy is about being clever." Not quite true. To score the rare bottle, money obviously helps. But to get bottles from a winemaker who produces just 30 cases a year--from Richebourg, say--one must have connections. "So who do you buy your wine from?" Stewart asked innocently. Forbes swirled his glass, smiled and said nothing.
If you think you could arrange your own high-caliber burgundy orgy, forget it. Franois Faiveley is not going to pop the cork for just anybody on that rare 1923 Corton (it faded after 20 minutes, but, oh my, with dried sweet rose petals--on the nose and in the mouth--delicate as a wisp, it was thrilling). And you wouldn't get to taste the 1949 Le Musigny from the obscure ngociant Camille Giroud, or the 1990 Richebourg from Domaine Gros.
Nor, on your own, would you realize that whites from Domaine Ramonet are probably overpriced ($125 a bottle for 1996 Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru Boutdriotte), or that you'd be better off buying something like an Hubert Lamy St. Aubin Premier Cru at about $85 less--assuming you have the backbone to drink something with an unflashy appellation.
Local gossip isn't bad, either. You'll find it's highly fashionable in this part of the world to dismiss the advice offered by both the Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr. Do understand that Wasserman's business is to represent tiny estates in the export market, and that some of these are not rated by Parker. Still, she makes the legitimate point that in 1995 Parker mostly panned the 1993 burgundy vintage, which today is drinking just beautifully, thank you. Critics who rate higher with locals include Coates and Allen Meadows, a former southern California banker who now writes exclusively about burgundy at burghound.com.
The daily routine of the symposium is both simple and luxurious: After breakfast at the hotel, a few steps up the road from Becky's, it's into the van for the morning vineyard romp. One day it was off to the intense Jacques-Frdric Mugnier's pink-petunia-strewn Le Musigny. Back at his domain, he offers a few wines from 2000: Chambolle-Musigny, Les Fues, Les Amoureuses, Bonnes Mares and Le Musigny. The latter is a knockout, its sweet, rosy aroma tempered by a touch of caramel and rosemary.
After a lunch of plump coq au vin, it's nap time. Five o'clock brings Clive's nightly tutored tasting, followed by a Russell-prepared multicourse supper--stuffed veal, perhaps, or duck confit. The guest winemaker of the evening arrives, bearing bottles. By the time Romain Lignier of Morey St. Denis had poured us a 1989 Clos de la Roche, all of us had become fondest friends. Great burgundy can be a great unifier.
Proof? Tom Stewart and Roger Forbes. After Stewart's blooper about Screaming Eagle, he had asked intelligent questions and taken notes. By week's end he could tell an old burgundy from a young one and had drafted a list of wines he wanted. Forbes, won over, directed him to a California buyer. If burgundy could bridge the gap between these two, there's hope for French-American relations.
Alice Feiring, Special to The Times
When the powerful wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. first tasted Wells Guthrie's 2000 Copain Wine Cellars wines, he turned up his nose, giving the winemaker's various bottlings scores that ranged from 87 to 89 out of 100 possible points a sorely disappointing response to Guthrie's second vintage. Worse, Parker showed no interest in giving the neophyte winemaker a second chance by retasting his wines.
Last spring, Guthrie's distributor sought damage control for the next vintage. He brought the riper, lusher 2001 Copains to lunch with Parker in Hagerstown, Md. They dined and tasted, of course at the critic's regular haunt, Oregon Grill, where he frequently holds informal tastings.
Parker took notice and, within six months, was sitting with Guthrie in the Copain winery and custom crush facility, a bare-bones outfit in a dumpy Santa Rosa, Calif., industrial park. Parker swirled and spit, talked tannin and high-altitude grape growing and extolled the glories of single-vineyard wines.
The result: Parker rated Guthrie's 2002 Hawks Butte Syrah an attention-getting 96 points in his December 2003 newsletter, proclaiming it Hermitage-like.
And so a new winemaking star is born.
The surprise in this success story is 33-year-old Guthrie's wines. Rather than the high-alcohol fruit bombs everyone associates with Parker's darlings, the Copain wines are, for the most part, elegant, firmly tannic, European-style Syrahs, Pinots and Zinfandels.
Unlike most California winemakers, who fear the hard edge tannins can impart to a wine, Guthrie reveres it. He crushes whole clusters, including the pips and stems; these, he says, "give wine delineation and hem in the overly fruity aspect you can get from most California wines." Serious tannins also are necessary for long aging, a big plus because many California wines don't have great aging potential.
If that weren't enough to make him feel like the lone wolf of the West Coast, Guthrie also picks earlier than many of his peers. He does this in a concerted effort to avoid the high alcohol levels typically associated with California wines, while keeping acidity higher. Last year his grapes came in at around 23 brix (a measure of sugar concentration), while, he says, some neighboring winemakers pushed ripeness to over 30 brix. His 2003 wines are labeled at 13.5% alcohol levels, not low by European standards, but they have ample acidity to balance it.
Seeking the complexity that stressed vines can bring, Guthrie's strategy is to source his wines from high elevations, such as Eaglepoint Ranch in Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, which is at 1,800 feet. He also favors unsung viticultural areas such as Booneville, where he can farm on his own or at least exert some measure of control over the farming.
Although he's proud of his tiny, five-acre vineyard in Sonoma's Moon Valley and wants to purchase more acreage like it, he's thrilled to work with any grapes from edgy, minerally, rock-laden land, such as the Hawks Butte Vineyard in Mendocino's Yorkville Highlands.
He so prizes such grapes that his single-vineyard Copain wines come from as far north as the Walla Walla Valley and as far south as Paso Robles. Priced from $25 to $35, they are wines that Caroline Styne, partner in A.O.C. and Lucques, says work for both fans of European wine and ready-for-the-next-step drinkers of California wine.
The 2001 Arrowhead Mountain Zinfandel (originally priced at $25 but now found at the Wine Commune in Berkeley for $50), squeezed out of a rocky, steep vineyard overlooking the town of Sonoma, has Zin's hallmark delicious brambly fruit, with a good dose of spice-dusted raspberry. But the wine is tempered by its serious structure, and a squeeze of great acidity brings it all into balance.
The 2002 Cailloux & Coccinelle Syrah ($35) also comes from a stony vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. More like Chteauneuf-du-Pape than Cornas, the young wine is full of personality, with a racy animal undercurrent, a fierce, stony, dusty component, touches of violet and a substantial but not in-your-face dose of blackberry.
Syrahs from the Rhne are in fact Guthrie's passion.
On the heels of his first job in the wine business, a low-paying two-year stint as a tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator magazine, Guthrie accepted an apprenticeship in 1997 in the northern Rhne Syrah central at the venerable ngociant M. Chapoutier. Chapoutier is an organic and biodynamic operation.
By the time Guthrie returned to California, he had become a devotee of low-intervention wines, organic when possible, biodynamic perhaps. That means no laboratory yeast, no inoculation, no enzyming, no tricks.
When he was back home and looking for work, Helen Turley made him an offer he couldn't refuse: his first California winemaking job. He stayed with her for only one year.
"Helen was very instrumental in encouraging me to start my own label," he says. "It wouldn't have happened without her. She let me use her bin trailer for harvest, she tasted crushed samples of my fruit and gave me her unsolicited opinion. She gave me the Zin vineyard we have today, saying she thought it could be the equal of Jackass Hill or Hayne Vineyard."
Sticking with his own style
Stylistically, however, the two were worlds apart. "I love Helen and her work for Marcassin," he says, "but I learned more about what I didn't want to do with my wine than what I wanted to imitate." He distanced himself from Turley's "hot fruit and oak-driven wines," like Martinelli, "that are just not my style."
Through mutual friends, he found business partner Kevin McQuown, who took a chance and sank his entire million-dollar nest egg from the high-tech industry into Copain.
"It was a big risk putting that much money into a person with two years of experience," says Guthrie. "We're not completely there, but as long as the wine stays, we'll be OK. So far, so good."
Before his Parker anointment, Guthrie liked having enough of a supply for his word-of-mouth fans. His 1999 vintage sold out because of a rave review posted on Robin Garr's Wine Lovers website.
Paul Roberts, wine director for Thomas Keller's restaurants, created special blends of the Copain Syrahs and Pinots for the French Laundry in Napa; they'll also be offered at Per Se, Keller's new restaurant in New York.
With the 2003 vintage, Guthrie's Copain has grown to 3,000 cases. His latest addition is a $15 label called Saisons des Vins, from a biodynamic vineyard in Mendocino's Potter Valley, yet another unglamorous area.
Guthrie continues to draw inspiration from the Rhne. At the 2003 Hospices du Rhne, Thierry Allemand, a renegade Rhne winemaker who works with little or no sulfur (a controversial practice that can make a scarily unstable wine), admired the Eaglepoint and mentioned he was looking to do a project in California. "After a few glasses of wine," Guthrie says, "he asked if I'd be into it."
Starting work with Allemand in California this fall, Guthrie is eager to explore no-sulfur winemaking, a hot topic in today's natural-winemaking circles.
"I am not familiar with the details of the technique. That's why I'm fired up to work with Thierry, who is a bit of a master on it," he says. He notes that it involves leaving carbon dioxide in solution, "like that of a Moscato d'Asti," to keep the wine stable.
"It helps to be in touch with French winemakers to remind me that I'm not just about reviews and press," says Guthrie. "America is just taking baby steps when it comes to wine. We don't know anything."
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