Monthly Archives: February 2010

Vintage Burbles Along, Lower Yields, High Quality

7.27am, Saturday, February 27th, Fresno, CA, USA
We had a huge storm belt through last night, and it’s still bleak outside, but this region needs all the rain it can get, so absolutely no one is complaining. When I said I was coming out to Fresno – given that I’ve never been here before – a lot of folks said “what for?”

Fresno's Tower District

This “big small town” has a thriving food and wine fraternity and a neat artsy “Tower District” (named after the full on 1940s neon marquee theatre) – both a pleasant surprise compared to what I was expecting. But more about that tonight when I get home – I’ll catch up on my day in the trade with reigning “Sales Rep of the Year for HWG” Chris Coppola.

For now, it’s the promised ‘Meanwhile Back At The Ranch Vintage Burbles Along’ report.

First, from Chief Winemaker Louisa Rose: We’ve already harvested half the grapes, given that that the fruit has ripened reasonably quickly due to very healthy vines and lower than average crops in most regions – but with the added bonus of natural acids being preserved, and some exciting flavours about. Whilst the Barossa vintage is in full flight, some of the Wrattonbully vineyards down south are starting to come in, and across in Tasmania, the grapes destined for Jansz – whilst still several weeks away from harvest – are already showing fine and gorgeous flavours appearing, just waiting for their bubbles. The WIP (wines in progress) are shaping up to be great quality with personality and true varietal expression.

So it looks like overall – we’re travelling well.

In particular – this is how Teresa Heuzenroeder’s CHARDONNAY world is looking: After looking for a while that the fruit was never going to get flavour ripe – bam, it happened and vintage hit hard and fast. Unlike last year when our chardonnays took quite an extended period to ripen, this year it’s like a rocket. Hard to explain but we think it’s because the vines have responded to really good winter-spring rains after several drought years with more healthy and robust canopies than we’ve seen for a while. Combine that with lower than average yields and some perfect balmy days with mild to cool nights, and you’ve got happy grapes ready for picking. In two weeks time, all of the Eden Valley fruit for the Wild Ferment Chardonnay will be pressed and fermenting in barriques and stainless tanks. Last week the first blocks of Adelaide Hills fruit for FDW 7C came in, and the last vineyard block for that wine will be picked in two or three weeks. The great thing about the these chardonnay parcels is that we have some really good natural acid pH balance, so additions will be minimal. I think that means that we will have more intensely flavoured wines from this vintage, but they will be well balanced with lovely natural acidity. Fingers crossed!

And in the RED CORNER with Kevin Glastonbury: I’m always really relaxed when Kev starts with “I’m very confident that Shiraz is going to be hitting the heights … crops are coming in a bit light in weight … but are balanced with teriffic depth of flavour, colour and mouthfeel. A chunk of Grenache has already been picked this week for Bush Vine, and on Monday we kick off the picking all the Nursery Grenache … and it’s only the end of Feb/start of March! Grenache is also going to be a bit light in weight – think only 1 to 2 bunches per vine off the Tricentenary block! … but they show wonderful varietal flavour. We picked the first Barossa Cabernet three days ago – one of the blocks destined for Signature – and again this is as good as I’ve seen it and it’s been our best cab block for years. As for Shiraz, we picked one of the really old blocks for Octavius last week and it’s top end stuff. We also picked one of the older blocks of Shiraz from the Angaston foothills on Monday, and that’s the best I’ve seen it look coming in … certainly since 2006. So it’s all looking very promising … at this stage.”

So folks, it sounds like at this stage, vintage 2010 is burbling along nicely … at this stage … fingers crossed.

I’m off to hit the road for the three-hour drive through the rain back to San Francisco, so I’ll see you when it’s time to talk Fresno.

**PS The big buzz over here is the rematch between the USA and Canada tomorrow afternoon to fight out the gold medal in the Winter Olympics Ice Hockey. I’m going with the Canadians 4 -3!

The Mother Lode of Yalumba Wines

9.35pm Fresno, CA, USA

Sonora (image from openroad.tv)

Made it! What a day! My trek started in Pleasanton, then up through the Altamont Pass (1100 feet) with its wind farm, and down into the fog and the San Joaquin Valley, through miles of almond orchards in full blossom, and on to Oakdale – self professed “cowboy capital of the world”. There I met up with our man who looks after the Sierra Foothills – “Dashing” Dave Perra – and we were off up into the mountains (4000 feet) to the area in the heart of the Goldrush Country – “The Mother Lode” of Sonora, Twain Harte and Jamestown.

I’m going to give you the highlights because I met some absolute gem folk today, good palates all round:

  • The Diamondback Grill in Sonora and chef-owner-wine guy-appreciator of old architecture – yes he impressed me greatly – Eric. Thanks for the bottle of late picked viognier to compare to our Botrytis Viognier;
  • Azzo’s in Jamestown, swinging winebar and tribute shrine to the whole Summer of Love San Francisco scene;
  • Stogie’s in Jamestown, Geri and Tony – wine bar out front, cigar bar out back, Frank Sinatra always on the wireless – enough said!

Suffice to say that when anyone goes to the Mother Lode, Yalumba – including today’s popular choices Bush Vine Grenache, Antique Tawny, Botrytis Viognier, Y Series Viognier, Wild Ferment Chardonnay, Patchwork Shiraz – is in the top spots! And we’ll see all those folks again when they come down from the mountain to the big smoke in San Francisco for the massive Taste the World of HWG on March 22 at the very flash Four Seasons.

**Interesting fact about California #2: A lot of TV shows are filmed in this state. For example, anyone of my age would remember that great old TV show “Petticoat Junction”. Well, the locomotive ended up in Jamestown and you can see it anytime, and they filmed the show between Oakdale and Sonora.

But the trek doesn’t finish there. I headed off on the 90-mile leg from Oakdale to Fresno and stopped for dinner in Turlock. Now I think fate sends me to these neat places, as I pulled into Latif’s Restaurant because it looked like an old diner – which it was. And apparently they’re famous for their fruit pies. And I sat in the seat at the counter next to the seat that past President George H.W (the first one!) Bush sat in when he was on his election campaign trail on the 15th October 1988. How did I know he sat there? Because there’s a plaque on the seat, plus the one next to it where Barbara sat. How neat’s that?

I had a teriffic bubbly young waitress fill me in on the story and the autographed photos of star diners over the years (includes the Village People, Doobie Brothers, Glen Campbell, Keith Urban!) and a lovely old cowboy sitting two seats over gave me a shortcut through to the highway. Add in a bowl of homemade potato soup and some peach pie to go – and this is Northern hospitality for you. Magic!

Another 47 odd miles through to Fresno, and here we are ready to go tomorrow.

***Vintage Update – meanwhile, back at the ranch – three days ago, Rob Hill Smith (Eden Valley) and Geoffrey Grossett (Watervale, Clare), two of the biggest riesling nuts in the world, picked the fruit for the 2010 Mesh Riesling. They pick the fruit from alternate rows in the same Eden Valley Riesling vineyard, and take that fruit back to their respective wineries and produce several parcels of wine each. Then they reconvene 8 months later to compare each of their finished sets of wine parcels, and proceed to blend together the best possible expression of that Riesling vineyard they can, for that vintage – hence the label Mesh.

The Contours Vineyard

Also, today, Louisa Rose is picking the fruit for the Contours Riesling label from the Pewsey Vale vineyard, also in Eden Valley. This parcel of fruit has traditionally been the one with the best tendency to age and is released as a 5 year old wine.

I have more news on the big red gun front from Kev Glastonbury (well done today in the trade with the 2008 Bush Vine Grenache and the 2007 Patchwork Shiraz) and Teresa Heuzenroeder’s Chardonnay world (two days in a row for you with the 2008 Wild Ferment Chardonnay – winning hearts!) – but bear with me, I’ll fill you in tomorrow morning before I go to work. Gotta hit the sack!

****Hey Sportsfans! The Australian Rules Football season 2010 looms! The pre season cup has started, and St Kilda beat their nemesis Collingwood by 1 point in the opening round, and we play Sydney this Saturday at home. We made the grand final last year, but were the bridesmaids. Watch this space as we hopefully go one better this year!!

Busy Days and Gorgeous Views of the Bay

8.38pm, Wednesday, 24 February, Pleasanton, CA, USA
Just made toast and Vegemite for dinner after getting home from working the East Bay area with Aaron, our HWG man on the ground in Berkeley/Piedmont, North Oakland. Had a great day in the trade, the weather co operated, and we ended up doing a staff training and trade tasting at a spot called Skates on the Bay, where I had a perfectly sunny clear view of – left to right – the Oakland Docks, The Bay Bridge, The city with its Pyramid and Coit Tower landmarks, and across to the Golden Gate Bridge. Lovely.

And yet, yesterday was the total opposite. I’d made the decision Monday night to catch the BART train into the city to avoid another traffic battle each way – what an inspired choice. I found out early Tuesday morning that someone had crashed into the powerlines and they’d dropped across the freeway near where I would have been getting on, and the rainy old morning turned into a drenched day. So I parked Jimmy the jeep in space 2889, paid the $1 a day to park, and headed into town – read the paper cover to cover, and met up with Deena my first “work with” for the trip – very civilised.

Then we really covered some ground! In the wet!

I’m just going to list where went, and if something tickles your fancy – check it out on the google machine. Our job is to try and get extra placements at restaurants and retail stores that are still ticking along, and to also make friends on the street and in the wine biz for Yalumba – changing perceptions of what the “Australian wine category” is along the way if we can – and that’s what we did! A:

  • Mexico DF – going back to try some of the home style cuisine
  • Bushi Te – food is worth tracking the place down, but it’s the bathrooms with the heated seat toilets and ‘console controls’ that also have to be seen to be believed!
  • E & O Trading Co – thanks Karen for letting us present 12 wines and a host of tasting plates for some discerning palates
  • Restaurant Lulu – we’ve had something on the list here for ages, thanks Joe, and worth visiting just to see what the daily special from the wood fire roasting rotisserie is
  • Coi – very hot, small – 9 tables – similar to Tetsuya’s in Sydney
  • The Plant Cafe – where we finished with a staff training.

The Plant have our Organic Viognier on the list, so we covered that, plus whatever we had left in the bag for the day. We had a great turnout, and showed the team of 12 all sorts of things – and added a couple to their list – purely on the taste paired up with Plant’s desserts! And they make great (not just good) coffee mocha.

We sat out on the enclosed patio afterwards and watched the Bay get whipped up by a nasty squall before braving it and heading across town to dinner with some wine biz folks at a new place near The Mission called Tuba. It’s all authentic Turkish food, and I can see maybe our Bush Vine Grenache being shown here, once they get their licence. Then it was onto the BART train home – without any grief. “Work with” #1 – tick that box, and thanks Deena – rookie of the road no more.

Back to today, and it was into a part of the Bay Area I’d never been to – Berkeley, Piedmont, North Oakland. Nice neighbourhoods, and a lot of the places look like those old bungalow houses from the older parts of Beverly Hills in LA. Aaron has been with HWG just on a year, and is a bit of a dynamo – and also throws the car round like he wants to be a taxi driver when he grows up. We did some interesting things today that will build on some solid ground in this area, and a couple of things that might just get spooky (good!).

We also covered some ground:

  • Star Grocery – thanks Nick & Adrian – lovely old neon sign
  • Piedmont Market – lovely blokes – sharp palates
  • University of California Faculty Club – just a bit older than our Clocktower building, and their men’s basketball team is poised to do great things, so much excitement on campus
  • Farmer Joe’s – home of Y Series
  • Ninna – thanks gals – had us in various forms by the glass for ages, right now it’s the Y Viognier by the glass with Thai Mediterranean fusion
  • Vino – lovely blokes, delightful conversation
  • Skates on the Bay – we’ve got Wild Ferment Chardonnay going on by the glass.

Whew!And we had time to stop at Katrina Rozelle, specialist cakemaker in the neighbourhood, for a slice of her Lemon Chiffon – alternate layers of lemon mousse so lemony it made me squint and fluffy sponge – I will be back! Thanks a huge amount Aaron as well, and we’ll see you both at the big Taste the World of the HWG in three weeks time at least.

I’ve been on Google maps tonight, and planned out the next two days – Pleasanton to Oakdale for tomorrow’s job, then on to Fresno tomorrow night for Friday’s job. So it’s pack the stuff we need, early night, roadtrip tomorrow. See ya.

Food Lessons with an Old School Italian

9.12am,, Monday, February 22nd, Napa, CA, USA
Yesterday was a bleak old rainy day in San Francisco, and navigating downtown on the top five-lane deck of the Bay Bridge for the first time – an experience in itself – the city looked like a black-and-white photograph. The bay and the low cloud were matching gunmetal grey, and the whole thing just looked miserable. I had two things on the to do list:

  1. The Plant cake

    I wanted to take our distributor – referred to from here on as Henry or HWG (short for the whole Henry Wine Group privately owned by the Henry family thing) – so Henry’s “Rookie of the Year” salesperson to lunch, as they’ll be my first “work with” tomorrow as well. We took Deena “ex-recording star, ex-hair stylist, now wine gal” Smith to The Plant Cafe Organic, which is a restaurant on one of the old piers along the Embarcadero around from the Ferry Building. They have a seasonal menu that features local organic produce, and on a rainy old afternoon on the bay, we ploughed into a roasted beet salad, some eggs benedict perched on turkey bacon (yep – turkey bacon) and one of their wicked soft centre baked chocolate cakes. Our Viognier is one of the few non-California wines on the list here, and we’ll be back tomorrow night to do a staff training session on the wine, as well as a bit of background on Australian wine in general. A nice way to say thanks very much the the Rookie, and get to know some lovely folks that have one of our wines on a list with a great view of the San Francisco Bay … once spring breaks and summer comes!

  2. How to eat chicken wings!

    Then it was up and around the corner to one of the best known eaterys in Little Italy – Lorenzo Petroni’s North Beach Restaurant. Our mates from the retailer JJ Buckley – Chuck & Paige – were taking the whole sales team out for a master class on the wines that Petroni makes up in the Napa and Sonoma, and I was allowed to gate crash. Each wine was tasted with one of Lorenzo’s signature dishes, and I got a shot of his demonstration of how to best vacuum the meat off his Tuscan chicken wings! One of the “star turns” (Australian for “highlights”) of the tasting was his just-bottled 2009 Sangiovese/Cabernet rose.

    The stash

    We tried it with his own secret stash of house proscuitto that’s hung for 9 months and cured with salt, pepper and olive oil. Just magic. Lorenzo is old school Italian, and it was a treat to sit in on this tasting. I learned just as much about food by trying the outstanding porcini mushroom risotto and two of his pastas – no cheese! “”Cheese was invented for bad pasta,” he says. Don’t take my word for it – drop in and try it all for yourself.

Then back across the Bay Bridge and out home’to the suburbs.

**I saw on the news this morning that a high tension cable blew up last night and the lights on the Bay Bridge went out just after I went back over – so thrilled that I wasn’t on the lower deck heading out when that happened!

Napa cherry blossoms

And today – more fog on the way up to Napa, but it’s burnt off, and it is a beautiful day. Spring is definitely just around the corner – I took this photo of these flowering trees that are everywhere, and apparently they’re wild cherries. The perfume is really sweet without being sickly – I like it. There’s my flora moment for the week!

Early night planned tonight because we’ve got four “work withs” planned over the next four days.

**A “work with” is what they call it in the USA wine biz when a person from the winery (that would be me) gets into a car with a wine rep who looks after a certain territory, and helps educate and make friends for the wine in the trade. Sometimes you know the rep, and sometimes you’re getting in the car with a complete stranger – but it’s always an adventure. Tomorrow it’s downtown San Francisco with Deena, Wednesday it’s the Berkeley/East Bay area with Aaron, then Thursday and Friday I’m heading further out east to Oakdale and the gold rush towns with Dave, and then Fresno with Chris – roadtrip!

She Can Drive 55 But No One Else Can

8.54pm, Saturday Feb 20th, Pleasanton, CA, USA
Interesting fact about California #1 (I’m starting a new list for this job): Whatever the speed limit is on the freeway signs, it’s not to be taken seriously at all. Over the last four days I’ve done a lot of miles on the freeways with posted speed limits of 55 and 65 miles per hour, and NO ONE else sticks to them. I’ve sat on ten miles above, and the cars, motorbikes and trucks are whizzing by sucking my doors off. Even the dodgy old cars pushing out black smoke!

So this afternoon I went for a bit of a look around, and found some top local food.

The doughnut

Christy’s doughnuts – see the picture – now that’s what I call raspberry jam FILLED. Then I pulled in to a little Mexican joint for lunch – Taqueria Las Vegas. I tried something new – a ‘sopes’, which is like a deep-fried corn toast topped with fresh salsa, lettuce, avocado, sour cream, tomato and your choice of meat, so I went with the favourite right now, ‘carnitas’ – which you all now recognise as fried pork. At $2.79 that’s a bargain lunch. At this rate, I’ll come in well under budget! Then back to the hotel for the dreary stuff – washing & ironing. Yep on a Saturday night. But tomorrow it will be my first driving trip into the city with a list of 3 chores on the agenda, so that should be an adventure in itself.

Switched on With the Henry Wine Group

11.48am, Saturday 20th February, Pleasanton, CA, USA
The big sleep in this morning was way overdue, and with any luck, means I’ll be in the local time frame from here on. Yesterday was the first official job with the distributor. We went out to their headquarters and warehouse in Benicia, which is more or less halfway between San Francisco and Napa. The plan was to present a whole set of wines to the Corporate Sales Team, which is a specialised division that looks after the group buyers in California – like BevMo & Cost Plus.

The ubiquitous taco truck

I got on the road early because you never can tell with the traffic, so was able to stop for a late breakfast at a taco truck . These trucks are everywhere in California, and the food is great.

At this one, besides the usual list of meats that you can get in your taco/ burrito/ tostada – which is generally ‘al pastor’ or marinated pork, ‘carnitas’ or fried pork, ‘asada’ or beef, and ‘pollo’ or chicken – this one had some exotic options as well – ‘cabeza’ or beef head, ‘lengua’ or beef tongue, and ‘buche’ or pork stomach. At the very least, I’ll be leaving at the end of this with more Spanish – at least food words anyway! Here was my gourmet 3 course brekky – $1.50 carnitas soft taco, cinnamon milk Mexican coffee and a fresh churro.

HWG meets Success

Then I went around to the Henry Wine Group warehouse – still early – so I was offered a tour of the whole place. It’s always interesting to see behind the scenes, and Peter the logistics king showed me how it all works. Our containers of wine destined for California leave Yalumba, get packed on a ship, and head to the USA, landing at the Port of Oakland, which is on the opposite side of the bay to San Francisco. Then they come up to Benicia and are unloaded into Henry’s warehouse.

Some of our wine - ready to go

Then, how well they are selling determines where they’re stacked. The top 200 wines in their portfolio are stacked in the front of the warehouse for easy access. The sales reps and trade place orders in the front office up to 3pm on any given day for next day delivery anywhere in California (up to 6pm for next day in the Bay Area!). I went up and down the front aisles with Peter, and it was great to see that we had 9 wines in the top 200 already – I even stopped and took photos! I said it would be great to catch up at the end of this 7 weeks to see what impact we’d made, and how many more of our wines we’d moved into the top 200.

The Henry Wine Group team - switched on

Then we got into the presentation to the sales team – and seeing as only one person had been to Australia, we went right from where our region is in Australia to how each wine is put together. We condensed 160 years of Yalumba family history into 30 minutes, and answered every question thrown at us – What is a wild ferment? Why do you add shiraz to viognier? Why is there a horse on the front label? Why is Scribbler Cabernet Shiraz called Scribbler? We had a really great session, because you only get questions like that from interested folk – and the nice thing is that this is just job one. The team is switched on and knowledgable, they have a great sense of humour, and are keen to get out and about with us in the trade – so that’s a great result in itself. A nice start!

Back down south afterward to the long-term stay hotel which will be ‘home’ for the next 7 weeks, and I completely crashed out. Pleasanton is in the suburbs outside of San Francisco, but pretty central for what we’ll be doing, and it’s got all the good stuff – free washers and dryers, free wireless internet in the room, and free business centre. Well, off to explore the local neighbourhood to see what’s what, nice quiet day, seeing as we’ve got three appointments in the city on Sunday.

Tea and Chocolate at Ferry Plaza

8.46am, Thursday February 18th, NUSA office, Napa, CA, USA
Fog! Fog City! That’s where I’m going to be living for the next 53 nights! Boy yesterday was just the shape of things to come. This morning I drove through that thick creamy layer that looked so neat laying over the Bay. Just for the record, it’s nothing like driving through the fog in the Adelaide Hills at home. In this scenario you have 5 lanes of traffic belting along through this muck, and vehicles loom up out of nowhere behind and on every side of you! Picture me clutching the wheel with both hands, totally focussed on holding my speed and lane, and letting the rest of the traffic spaghetti weave around me! I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it in no time.

But let’s get back to last night – my first trip into San Francisco city. I went in to catch up with Chuck and Paige (Australia and Barossa specialistas ) from JJ Buckley, and was allowed to gatecrash a consumer tasting at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants that was being conducted by Pam Starr – the winemaker for Crocker & Starr from the Napa.

This is going to be a great opportunity to really scratch the surface of the food and wine world in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and be a “local” for a while. This city has a great wine fraternity, and it will be tremendous to get amongst it all – having the luxury of this amount of time on the deck.

Pearl Jasmine tea

Whilst I was waiting for Chuck and Paige, I wandered about the Ferry Building – one of San Francisco’s landmarks – which is chock full of artisan food and wine producers. Seeing as I’m having an infatuation with tea at the minute, I started with ‘ a cuppa’ at the Imperial Tea Court – where I found their Blossoming Collection: Lychee Blossom, Dancing Blossom, Valentine Rose and Flower Of Prosperity. I asked for something to introduce me to this sort of thing, and they gave me the hand-rolled Pearl Jasmine tea. It was presented in a custom-made lidded porcelain cup designed to completely capture the aromatics. I’ve had jasmine tea before, but nothing with this volume of pungent perfume that was savoury and not sickly at all. Didn’t need any food with it – it was a flavour thing as well.

Then it was unavoidable!

Michael Recchiuti's artisanal chocolates

I had to see Michael Recchiuti’s artisanal chocolates. I chose four to start with, but rest assured, I’ll get through the complete range by the time I get home. In the photo, top left is one of his signature chocs, the Fleur De Sel Caramel, in which the French sea salt tangs up the dark chewy molassesy caramel. The top right is the Pearl Mint Tea'(staying with the theme). Dark chocolate skin cracks open to a softer choc inner with a mint hit through it – apparently it’s infused with spearmint, peppermint, and green tea leaves. The other two are “plain” milk squares, the only difference being the origin of the chocolate. On the left is Ecuador, the right is Madagascar. From Ecuador, it’s a bit finer, sweeter and silkier. From Madagascar, it’s heavier, a touch bitter (in a nice way) and darker. There also are two more countries to try – next time.

After the tasting, we ended up in the Italian end of North Beach for dinner, and I saw something quite interesting that I’ll be back to photograph on Sunday to show you – but for a first night out and about, I thought we went well. I met a lot of folks and will be exploring the Mission one night next week with them after working in the San Francisco city trade, so I’ll just have to make sure I never leave my camera home.

Back to the books now, as we’ve nearly got the visit itinerary completed – and then back to Oakland tonight. Hopefully the fog will have burned off, and we’ll have a clearer run!