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“Well the Universe is shaped exactly like the Earth. If you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” – Isaac BrockAugust is the month of pre-harvest rest and reflection in the cellar. With this in mind I headed out to the local movie theater last night to catch a film with a friend. This writing I guess is an attempt to explain why I loved Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about the New York Times fashion photographer. The unadulterated passion for and mastery of subject, the honesty, the modesty, these are all the characteristics I can only hope to bring to my own work. I don’t think I’ve seen a more inspirational embodiment of my ideal in this funny little world we must work in. Sacrifices of life that must be made to keep to that ideal are too vast to follow myself, but I love to be reminded that there are so many paths to so many pinnacles.
It also reminds me of one of the underlying features of wine and wine making that I love so, the all encompassing nature of the craft. Try as I might, it would be extraordinarily difficult to apply lessons from the life of a Spartan fashion critic to my previous path of synthesizer of research pharmaceuticals. With wine though, whatever idea presents itself, there seems to be a relationship one can find to expound upon. One of the sub-currents of the film that fascinated me was that of the cyclical nature of the fashion world. How styles and designs come in and out of being the leading edge of the day. Along with that, one begins to see the cyclical nature of all those industries that are based upon aesthetics and taste. Styles of dress, art, writing, music, film, design, architecture and yes, wine all seem to be progressing in a self-referential way that by nature must look back upon itself as it moves forward.
Beyond the obvious agrarian cycle of wine production itself, there are other cycles in the wine industry we must confront. Varietals go in and out of vogue. What is considered balanced is a moving target because it has no true definition, being rather one of those Justice Potter Stewart subjects that you know when you taste it. Regional styles get acclaim, then become passé and fade. The techniques of the winemaker, from the treatment of the fruit to the materials of the containers are all in constant flux. From this we get the ideas, trends, and styles of wine that come, go, and then return.
This all flashed through my mind today when a taster asked me what “my goal was” when making the 2007 York Mountain Cab. I was stuck on the basic response of “just trying to make the best wine I possibly could.” (Sadly, in all honesty, this is still the best answer I can give without writing a long blog post about it!) But so much more was at play than just trying my best. The hundreds and hundreds of discussions and reactions I’ve been privy too involving our 2005 and 2006 Cabs obviously had some say. The lessons from the winemakers I learned from and the opinions of friends and peers all manifest themselves somehow. Even the monthly tracking of inventory depletions creates a most stark criticism which is difficult if not impossible to simply ignore. All these factors create the context from which my personal expression comes forth.
This frees me from worrying too much as we plan for the emmient harvest. The pre-season is done, it is time for the real games to begin. I’ve spent the last 9 months in reflection of all my previous harvests and in adding new life experience which are bound to bring new influence to what will come. Decisions about ripeness, acid, brix, stems, soaks, temperatures, extractions, pressing, oak, racking, oxygen, which beer to drink while hosing down the destemmer must all be made. All of which are choose your own adventure questions leading you to a mysterious outcome. The past is our only guide, thus in showing the way will make itself known. It cannot return in whole though, being more the candle casting light unto and creating shadows of the current vintage. Just like life itself, despite all the best plans and forethought, making wine is an act of constant improvisation.

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This fact, along with the rarity and one time nature of the vintage create such a unique excitement. A new start, all possible outcomes are again out there to be reached. This explains the butterflies in the stomach feeling that walking in the vineyard invoked this morning. The arrival of veraison, like the firing of a starting gun has officially set harvest in motion. It is time again to create the best possible wine we can, and I can’t wait to try.

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One of the side jobs that comes with becoming a winemaker is the position of chief of all family wine questions and situations. As someone who just plain loves wine, I’m not always the best suited for this job. When a family member does a bit of research and tells me, “Oh, let’s hold off on the Chardonnay right now because I heard that you can’t drink it with the salad dressing I used.” I can tell that they really don’t care, that they are just worried that I will look at them scornfully as they serve me the evil mixture of wine and vinegar. As if people expect me to fly off the handle yelling, “How dare you ruin the sanctity of my wine that I perfectly crafted. This meal is RUINED!” Instead, I usually reply with something like, “You know, that might be technically true, but who cares. Never hold off on drinking wine, bad pairings can be just as fun as a good one. You can see what difference the food makes in the way the wine tastes.” This is a great way to truly understand food pairing.Wine’s relationship to our palates fascinates me endlessly, so I’m not one to dogmatically follow the rules of food and wine. Like most trained scientists, I feel there is just as much to learn in failure as there is in success. Sadly, my offhand dismissal of hard and fast rules just makes everything more confusing for my family.These situations always get me thinking about why wine can be so confounding to those first exploring it. I think people are scared that they will demonstrate some form of wine ignorance by flubbing a basic rule. Well, rules like these are meant to be broken indeed. The world of food and wine is so complex, simple rules should only be the roughest of guidelines. As an example wines are often described as being “food friendly”. I guess this is said implying that some other un-named wine is unfriendly or just plain rude. Since wine is so completely intertwined into the culinary experience, this has to be one of the harshest critiques possible of a wine. The problem that immediately comes to my mind is this: What does the critic in this case mean by “food”?

When I lived in San Francisco, a typical 8pm question was, “What should we eat tonight?” I know this is a common problem in homes throughout the world, but the seemingly endless choices made available in my neighborhood invoked that same feeling of hopeless confusion as when choosing a toothpaste.

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Seriously, what’s the answer here?

Anyway, here is just a sample of the choice of restraunt styles that were within a 4-minute bike ride of my front door:

American, New American, Southern, BBQ, Californian, Cajun, Seafood, French, Italian, Vietnemese, French-Vietnemese, German, East German, Hipster German, Pizza, Southern Indian, Northen Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Nepalese, Cambodian, Thai, Ethiopian, Senegalese, Moroccan, Spanish/Tapas, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Mexican, New Mexican, Tacos, Burritos, Vegan/Raw, Cuban, Japanese, Mediterranean….(Man, now I need to spend a week eating in the Mission)

The idea that there is some formula out there that x and y features of wine make it good with “food” seems totaly absurd. I don’t care what the pH, TA, tannin, alcohol, balance, ten-cent wine descriptor, you can find a food that works for you with pretty much any wine. I’ve met people who swear by sushi and whiskey!  Not my ideal pairing, but if you love it, anyone who tells you otherwise can take a walk.  When one combines the entire spectrum of sustenance with all the styles and characteristics of wine, then throws in the full range of human taste and experience, I think you’d have to be a Numberwang champion to figure out all the possibilities.

So take this as a challenge to disregard much of what you’ve read or heard and just go exploring. Eat at places that are passionate about what they serve and express a unique point of view. That passion will lead them, and in turn you, to all sorts of interesting and unexpected places that simply following “the rules” would steer you away from. The role of the experts should not be to confuse you and limit your choices, but instead be a role of expanding and leading you to try something you might otherwise avoid. Any sommelier will tell you the greatest triumph in pairing is the success of the unexpected. Don’t be afraid of failure or of some snobby upturned nose at a bad pairing. Try anything and everything with the full confidence that failure and success are both wonderful outcomes when it comes to wine and food. This more than any book, video, magazine, or blog will lead you down the path of understanding your unique palate.

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I hate to dampen my general wine know-it-all credibility, but the last time I was in France, the Euro was just an exchange unit. The Franc was still the currency of notes and coins. My joy for and impression of the French was greatly increased upon receiving my first 50 franc note. What a country, the Little Prince right there in my hand. For whatever reason, my country would never embrace Maxon the 50, and I feel we suffer a bit for this. A culture that embraces the importance of its artistic contributions right along with the political is a grand and confident culture indeed.This image did its job, and I tracked down a different book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at an English language book store and learned why France would hold this author in such high regard. I was forever changed by a quote I found in that book. A quote that I would suspect came from Japan or Sweden, but in fact was French. “Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.” Translated in the book I read as “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This hit home with my own fledgling design esthetic and is still with me now when I consider making white wine.

I get a lot of surprised looks and disagreement when I tell people during conversation that I feel making white wine is much harder then red wine. I don’t mean physically harder, as minus the punch downs, whites are quite a bit less taxing on the body. But as for making decisions that must be correct, whites are much more demanding. I’m not the type of winemaker who will go on and on about how my immense cellar skills will take terrible fruit and craft perfect wines. I am of the firm belief that the ceiling for the quality of a wine is set the second you pick it. My experience is that my chief responsibility as winemaker is to not allow the wine to weaken in my hands once I have taken on stewardship from Mother Nature.

With red wines, you can get away with not perfectly timing your pick. You can adjust the length of cold soak and fermentation based on the ripeness level of skins, seeds and stems. You can hit your wine over the head with oak to fill holes in the nose or palate. You can just let the fruit hang for a long time in the vineyard and call it your “big, heavy, ripe style” and no one bats an eye. Whites are not so. White wines are like an ink on paper painting or calligraphy, if your lines are not skilled and beautiful, there’s no distracting with pretty colors to hide this fact. Any mistake made in the vineyard or cellar is plain to see, smell and taste. White wines, and roses for that matter, are a stripping away of everything that is possibly superfluous, leaving only the purest form of the wine behind.

Because of this I take immense pride in our white wines here at Calcareous. In particular, I stress over our white Rhone blend more than any other wine. After years of trying various varietals, I have narrowed the blend down to a yearly mix of Viognier and Marsanne. The Viognier sees no oak, as it is settled, fermented and aged in stainless for its life in the cellar. The Marsanne sees a single new French oak barrel, the balance being fermented in barrels used at least two times before filling with Marsanne. The two components are kept separate until a blending takes place a month before bottling.

This month we released our 2009 Viognier-Marsanne blend, and I could not be prouder of the wine. It took home Double Gold at the San Francisco International, then popped up last week on Steve Heimoff’s top ten of the week posting (the second straight vintage of our flagship white that Mr. Heimoff has so blessed). I also could not be prouder of Paso Robles in general. The creation of more serious white wines coming from the area is as bold a declaration of vineyard and cellar quality as any other critique. In last month’s Wine Spectator article on exciting new California Whites, Paso Robles was probably the single region getting the most acclaim. Local white wine champions like Caliza, Denner, Tablas Creek, Terry Hoage and Villa Creek were all rightly given their due for showing we here in Paso Robles have more up our sleeve than just powerhouse reds. So enjoy the summer months with these fine examples of our craft in its purest form.

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The vineyards this morning produced a most philosophical perspective in me. Sunrise amongst the greenery and expansive views sometimes bring forth thoughts beyond worries of heat stress and micro-nutrient uptake. My thoughts were constantly returning to what is this essence of wine that fascinates? Why don’t people spend weekends traveling the back roads of , books, and blogs have all been dedicated to idea that wine produces a unique signature of place, the terroir. But does a grape vine speak more to the terroir than an heirloom tomato or pasture raised beef? In this summer season of plenty, with the mantras of slow food and flavors of locality preached on each menu, you would be mad to suggest so. Any random combination of those offerings explains Paso Robles on the palate just as much as a wine can. So again I ask myself, why the captivation with this drink?

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The answer to these type of questions often lie in that time which formed my perspective, my youth. Maybe it’s the answer to the riddle the Jims () asked of me in childhood. I remember the strange anxiety that small skit created in me and my initial dawning of thought on the enigmatic complexity of life, time and space. This great mystery of the unflinching progression of things was always with me in quiet times. In order to remain calm, I convinced myself that there must be a path of grace () that could lead one away from fear and into understanding. Just because something is beyond comprehension does not mean one should recoil from it; the unknowable should be embraced. The wine we produce then is a product of that acceptance. The vintage is, in its essence, the capturing of the moment into some tangible state.

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There is something more to wine than mere ethanolic intoxication. The corked bottle represents a chance to return to a place and time, without trepidation that the past is lost forever. Wine with its intrinsic link between our senses and memory can provide a wonderful window unto personal contemplation and revelation.

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The idea of wine and the memory of my favorite wine experience are forever linked. This occurred on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. My future wife and I were enjoying a beach-front campground with a single little market from which to order our dinner. We sat eating a meal of fresh grilled octopus that neither of us would have ordered in different setting. Drinking a local wine, Samos Vin Doux (a fortified muscat!), that we picked off the shelf because it was the only bottle offered. Yet this perfect combination of all things new and beautiful along with the sun resting into the sea, created for us an experience that nothing could ever top. While not by any means the most technically superior wine I have ever had, it is perhaps the best wine I will ever drink.

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So maybe this isn’t madness, laboring as we do to create wine. As the spectre of harvest looms just weeks away and I prepare to be enveloped completely by its demands, these thoughts give me assurance that it is all worth it. That the sacrifices that must be made of time, energy, mind and family will be rewarded. The goal is sitting out there plain to see in my mind. For me it is the end of November, with fermentations few and a Thanksgiving table filled with family, friends, food, and of course, wine.

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Another milestone passed in the vineyard. This one is pretty exciting, fruit set. The flowers do their magic and become what will become the grapes. We finally can see what kind of harvest we will have yield wise. And as usual, it’s all across the board. Some things have just a hint of clusters; some things are just overflowing with grape potential. Take the Malbec here for example.
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Egads, that’s a lot of fruit! The Malbec is the one crop on the vineyard that every year produces a huge yield. It makes a certain amount of sense. If you look at the topography of the vineyard, the Malbec is the only block that is completely flat. Thus, the soil is deeper than everywhere else. In all the other blocks, the steep hillsides are no place for sediment to gather, so you basically have exposed limestone, or just a super thin skin of top soil. The flat spot where the Malbec is planted is at the base of the hill that the Cab Franc and Mourvedre are planted. Thus you get a richer top soil, healthier happy plants, and bigger crops. So a large portion of these clusters will have to be sacrificed for the greater good.
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As an example, look at this tiny cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon. This is from Block 7 which is quickly becoming known as the Lloyd block. It is used each year as the basis for our estate Cab based blend called the Lloyd. From now on we will have two wines named for our founder, Lloyd Messer, the Cab based Lloyd and the Syrah based Moose. Cabernet Sauvignon in general produces smaller clusters with small berries. This is what leads to Cab being such a big wine. Just like how Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah sound French and delicate, but when you drink them, you feel the power of small berries. Block 7 in particular is very stressed and the yields are always tiny from it. Tiny clusters with only a few berries forces the plant to put everything it has into the least amount of fruit. Thus it produces an extremely concentrated and heavy wine. Look out for the 2008 Lloyd, our first wine produced from Block 7, it is a SERIOUS wine.rb1KnGiwkXg

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