Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ascendant Spirits, the Daily Beast, and "Craft" Whiskey

During the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference, I took a break from the wine activities to visit Buelton's Ascendant Spirits - Santa Barbara's first legal distillery since prohibition. The one year old company produces a range of spirits from aged bourbon, corn whiskey, and vodka. I was very impressed with their portfolio, starting with the Semper Fi - a corn whiskey distilled from red, white, and blue corn. Their Silver Lightning Moonshine is also smooth, with a sweet corn flavor and slow burn. The star could be the American Star Caviar Lime Vodka, a corn vodka, fermented with low acidic caviar limes, and distilled six times. This is not your everyday flavored vodka; subtle lime with herbal characters. However, there's also the five year aged Breaker Bourbon, a Double Gold medal winner at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. You may ask, "How is is possible for the distillery to sell a five year old aged bourbon if the operation has only existed for just over one year?"

Well this week, Eric Felten, posed that very question in his latest post for the Daily Beast, not only posing the question, but basically insinuating that Ascendant Spirits is committing fraud. In his post, Felton describes how many distilleries source whiskey from a former Seagram's distillery called MGP, located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Felton maintains that distilleries hide this fact from their customers and as for Ascendant, here's the money quote:
Or take Breaker bourbon, the “first bourbon produced in Southern California since Prohibition.” The Buellton, California company behind the brand, Ascendant Spirits, wasn’t started until 2013. Yet, they brag their “ultra small batch bourbon” is aged 5 years. So how do you open a distillery one year and have 5- or 15-year-old whiskey to sell the next? Not by making it.
Immediately after reading the article, I drafted an email to Paul Gertman, Ascendant's Chief Financial Officer asking for his response. He replied rather quickly, first thanking me for asking for a response, something that Felton failed to do. Then Gertman described how Ascendent is very forthcoming with MGP as the distillate source, and how many reviewers, such as, have mentioned the MGB connection.

You may still be thinking that something just doesn't seem right, and Dave Lieberman, over at OC Weekly, argues quite persuasively that, it really doesn't matter. Lieberman first compares MGP to food co-packers who are utilized when demand outpaces supply. He then follows the same line of thought that Gertman discussed in his reply, although Gertman was more direct: "What is misleading is the article's insinuation that all whiskey from MGP distillate is essentially the same product with new labels. That is not true."

Whiskey starts off as fermented mash - basically beer - from barley, rye, wheat (or over 51% corn for bourbon) which is then distilled. For many whiskeys like Ascendant's Breaker Bourbon, this distillation process occurs at a contract facility. Once the spirit is moved into barrels and aged, the geographic location of the warehouse and the physical location of the barrel within the warehouse have an affect on the final product.

Then the legal production process commences. I preface production with "legal" because there are federal statutes which dictate the differences between distillation and production and how the finished bourbon is labelled. Production is the artistic ability of master distillers and blenders to regularly taste the aging spirit and determine which barrels to blend. The idea is consistency and since the characteristics of the raw ingredients will differ year over year or each barrel will impart different flavors into the spirit, the art of blending is key. Master distillers and blenders, like Ascendant's Steve Gertman, impart their own blending skills and preferences into the final  product.  This is why whiskey, from one distillery to another, differs quite dramatically - regardless of the distillation source. And it is also why when Ascendant claims their bourbon is the “first bourbon produced in Southern California since Prohibition”, they are legally and technically accurate. The production process occurs in Buellton.

Both Gertman and Lieberman also illustrate how many of today's most popular bourbon brands (Pappy Van Winkle) are actually contract "crafted" at distilleries with extra capacity. Along with Pappy, my favorite bourbon, Black Maple Hill, is distilled by Buffalo Trace Distillery. Local DC area readers can compare this to Beltway Brewing Company's contract brewery and how they assist other breweries (Crooked Run Brewing and Denizens Brewing Co.) expand or commence operations.

That being said, it is quite distasteful for distilleries who contract through MGP to attempt to hide this fact from consumers. Both Lieberman and Felten mention a few and these companies should be admonished if true.

As for Ascendant Spirits, they are very candid in their use of MGB for the Breaker Bourbon.  Once the barrels arrive in Buellton (current releases of Breaker have aged in their facility for 18 months), the nightly diurnal temperature swings, which make Santa Barbara County ideal for grapes, also assists the aging bourbon. The full year temperature fluctuations allow more of the oak character to seep into the bourbon within a shorter period of time. Thus, expect more Double Golds, particularly since aging time in Buellton will lengthen for subsequent releases. Plus, a visit to the distillery is definitely recommended, not only to sample their products, but also to learn about their still which can be quickly converted to distill whiskey, vodka, and flavored vodka. For those of us in the DC market, their products are available -- I need to find some Semper Fi to pour for my marine buddies. Cheers.

Update: I received a comment why Ascendant doesn't display the actual State of Distillation on the Breaker Bourbon label as required by federal code - CFR 27 - 5.36 (d). The actual code is displayed below. The front label states "Produced in Buellton", but I do not know what the back label displays. I reached out to Paul Gertman and haven't received a response. This also leads to another question, why the TBB would approve labels that don't follow their own regulations?
(d) State of distillation. Except in the case of “light whisky”, “blended light whisky”, “blended whisky”, “a blend of straight whiskies”, or “spirit whisky”, the State of distillation shall be shown on the label of any whisky produced in the United States if the whisky is not distilled in the State given in the address on the brand label. The appropriate TTB officer may, however, require the State of distillation to be shown on the label or he may permit such other labeling as may be necessary to negate any misleading or deceptive impression which might be created as to the actual State of distillation. In the case of “light whisky”, as defined in §5.22(b)(3), the State of distillation shall not appear in any manner on any label, when the appropriate TTB officer finds such State is associated by consumers with an American type whisky, except as a part of a name and address as set forth in paragraph (a) of this section.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

#WBC14: The Terrior of Santa Barbara County

One of my favorite sessions at The 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference was Michael Larner's (Larner Vineyard & Winery) presentation on the Terrior of Santa Barbara County. Not only is Larner a winemaker, but also a trained geologist, so he was undoubtedly qualified to explain the geology, soil, and climate of Santa Barbara County.

He started by describing how the county was formed, specifically the land actually moved up from what is now San Diego. Then it was covered by deep marine sediment that moved east from the ocean. Wish I could locate his video that shows the movement of land. The final position created two significant geological results. First, a small notch of land sticks out into the ocean. Cold water from the north circles through on one side and warm water from the south circles around the other. The result is fog; daily fog.   Second, instead of running north-south, the two major mountain ranges run east-west, creating lanes for the fog to move into the valleys.  This fog helps generate a larger diurnal shift - allowing the grapes to mature over a longer period of time.

Larner then spoke about the five appellations within Santa Barbara County as well as the proposed Los Olivos District. The Santa Maria AVA is the northern most AVA and was established in 1981. This region receives the most rainfall, has sandy to clay soils, and is close to the ocean which provides cooling from winds and fog. The sandy soils in Santa Maria (from deep sea debris pushed west from moving plates) explains why Bien Nacido Vineyards could plant its original vines on their own rootstock. Chardonnay dominates the area for whites; whereas Pinot Noir & Syrah dominate for reds.

The Santa Ynez Valley AVA was established 1983 and has a Mediterranean climate but with distinct differences from east->west. This is why the SYV is sub-divided into three smaller AVA's plus the Los Olivos District.  The Sta. Rita Hills AVA was established 2001 and is the closest to the ocean; thus also the coolest within SYV. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the favored grapes with many popular wineries located in the Lompoc Guetto. For those questioning the spelling of the AVA, Chile's Santa Rita wine empire had an issue with the AVA's name and politely requested a name change.

Moving east, the Ballard Canyon AVA was pushed through in 2013 by Mr. Larner. The area has more diurnal shift than the western border and here Syrah dominates (over ½ of the vineyards planted are in Syrah) with GSM grapes as well as some Cabernet Franc. The AVA can be divided in half with the bottom portion composed of chalky soils and the northern area more limestone. The proposed Los Olivos District AVA is adjacent to the Ballard Canyon's eastern border and is home to Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. the district's eastern border is, itself, adjacent to the most eastern and warmest AVA, Happy Canyon. This AVA was created in 2009 and can count on summer temperatures in the mid 90's. Here, Bordeaux grapes flourish in the warm temps and red and yellow serpentine soils.

Looking forward to my next visit to Santa Barbara County. Click here to read about our bicycle tour of parts of the Ballard Canyon AVA from Buellton to Solvang.  Cheers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Brews at Zoos: National Zoo

My son wants to be a biologist\zoo keeper so me take very frequent trips to the National Zoo.  Seeing the same exhibits over and over again have become much more palatable once the zoo started serving craft beer. Yes, it's expensive, $7 a beer, but one or two makes the stroll more enjoyable. On our latest trip, Yuengling Lager, Sam Adams Summer Ale, and Starr Hill Brewing Northern Lights were available in the Panda Market and the first two were also available in the Mane Grill. The Sam Adams Summer Ale and Heavy Seas Brewing Company Loose Cannon were also available at the Hot Dog stand across from the small mammal house. At this same stand on a previous trip, they were pouring the Flying Dog Brewery Pale Ale - so local beer is a presence.  If all else fails, I usually find myself at the Zoo Bar Cafe - across from the Zoo entrance on Connecticut avenue. Not a great selection, but a few of the heavy players are available. Cheers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

W&OD Bike Trail: Leesburg to Purcellville -> Where the Sidewalk Ends

When extending your bike ride west past Leesburg, the terrain opens to over ten miles of rolling hills, horse farms, and vineyards. Yes, this is your first chance to visit wineries on the W&OD and there are three not too far away. theCompass Winery, Brewery, and Distillery Locator mobile app is a major help on this trip.  Dry Mill Vineyards & Winery is your first chance and you have two options to navigate. First, take a left on Dry Mill Road from the bike path and pedal the narrow winding road to the winery. The other is to ride to the Fairgrounds and make a u-turn on to Dry Mill Road and back track - in any event this is where you will return to the trail when continuing west.  The winery pours a couple nice Chardonnay's - perhaps with live music in the background.

Casanel Vineyards is the next stop and you may need a break after climbing Clark's Gap. Follow the signs by staying on Business Rt 7 with a quick left on Canby Road. The winery is just over one mile further, but beware - the paved road turns to gravel.  Once you arrive at the winery, relax in their brand new tasting room and enjoy the Don Lorenzo, Pinot Gris (75%) and Chardonnay (25%) blend.

When returning to the path, it's only a few miles to Hamilton Station Road. Turn right and the Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards is only a short ride away (be alert for vehicles -> they seem to exceed the speed level). Like the previous two, live music is on the agenda, as well as more refreshing wine (is it time for Viognier yet?).

From Hamilton Station Road, it's only 4 miles until the sidewalk ends at Purcellville. I can't seem to help myself with that one. On Saturday's a winery from DC's Wine Country is usually pouring in the train museum or have a seat at bike friendly Magnolias at the Mill.For the more adventurist, it's time to visit Loudoun County's  first post-prohibition distillery: Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. Just take a left on 21st street until it dead ends on Main Street. The distillery provides tours of the facility as well as sample flights, including a cocktail flight sometimes poured by a bartender from DC. I'm a rye type of guy, so the Organic Mosby's Spirit® or Organic Roundstone Rye® fill my needs.

For lunch, I chose to return to 21st Street, ride past the train station to Monk's BBQ. They just opened this brick & mortal location after selling from their food truck for the past few years.  Monk's sells quite a few craft beers to pair with the meat; or take to go and eat at two breweries in the area: Corcoran Brewing Company and Adroit Theory Brewing Company. The latter will be the first you meet after continuing on 21st Street and turning right on Hirst Road (look for signs on the right to find the brewery). Adroit Theory pours high octane, but very fascinating beers. There are beers aged in used rum barrels or whiskey barrels, Imperial Stouts, Smoked Porters, Imperial Ambers, Brown Ales..... All tasty - but beware the ABV.  Continuing on Hirst, at the intersection with Hatcher Avenue, ride behind the medical center to Corcoran. They also have an expansive portfolio, but more suitable ABVs for cycling. I'm a wheat type of guy so go for the Wheatland, or try the IPL - India Pale Lager (refreshing). To return to the bike path, just continue on Hirst, past the fire station until the path and road intersect.

Safe travels, and soon I will bike the wineries within biking distance of Purcellville. Cheers.

Update: I've been asked to include area bike shops available for emergency repairs. In Purcellville check out Trail's End Cycling Co and as the name suggests where the trail (sidewalk) ends. In Leesburg, Transition Triathlon is closest to the Trail with Bicycle Outfitters not too far away.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The United Grapes of America - Wisconsin - Wollersheim Winery Domaine du Sac

It's difficult to procure wines from across the United States; you either need to travel or pay shipping fees. But fortunately through the virtues of Protocol Wine Studio's #WineStudio twitter forum (focusing on The Independent Spirit | Wines of the USA), I was able to receive a Wisconsin wine from Wollersheim Winery. This was their 2013 Domaine du Sac ($14), a blend of French-hybrids Marechal Foch (90%) and Leon Millot (10%) from the Lake Wisconsin AVA. There are actual two AVAs (Lake Wisconsin and Wisconsin Ledge) within the Badger state as well as parts of the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA which spans parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin,  Illinois, and Iowa.

Wollersheim has a compelling history. The land was orginally planted with vines by Agoston Haraszthy in the 1840's. You may recall that Haraszthy would become the Father of California Viticulture by introducing more than three hundred varieties of European grapes and founding Sonoma's Buena Vista Vineyards - with Charles Krug as the winemaker. According to wikipedia, Haraszthy is also "remembered in Wisconsin as the founder of the oldest incorporated village in the state. He also operated the first commercial steamboat on the upper Mississippi River". One fact I never knew is that he died in Nicaragua while trying to develop a sugar plantation and rum distillery.

In 1972 Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim purchased the former Haraszthy Wisconsin property from the Kehl family who had possessed the land since Haraszthy sold it to Peter Kehl, his original vineyard manager. In 1899, a bitter frost destroyed the grape vines and the farm was converted to dairy and livestock. The Wollersheim's replanted grape vines immediately, soon opened the winery, and in 1985, hired the current winemaker Philippe Coquard. In the 1970's, Wollersheim experimented with viniferia varieties based on advice from Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer - with no long term success. Today the winery has 27 acres of hybrids and native labrusca grapes - mostly Marechal Foch, as well as Leon Millot, St. Pepin & La Crosse. 

The United Grapes of America The United Grapes of America
The  2013 Domaine du Sac is made in the Beaujolais style - cold soak and whole berry fermentation in order to express the grape character without the stem and seed tannins. The wine spends five months aging in American or French oak before bottling. The result is a juicy blackberry-blueberry flavored wine with a wet barnyard earthy aroma; finishing with a spicy, acidic character. And there are still a few tannins to balance the wine - and it is balanced. To a few of us, the wine resembled an Austrian Zweigelt - not bad for a Foch wine. Pair with Wisconsin's Bon Iver. Cheers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Approachable Value Wines from Arrogant Frog

Last week I discovered four solid value wines from Domaines Paul Mas through an #ArrogantFrog twitter tasting. Fourth-generation vintner Jean-Claude Mas launched the Arrogant Frog brand in 2005 and all wines are priced at $10. The wines come from the Languedoc region in southern France and are labelled Vin de Pays d'Oc - meaning "country wine". But don't think these wines are plunk. Mas stated that in order to gain traction in the value wine market a $10 wine wine be worth $20 and from my tasting these wines fit within this range. Each of the wines below were approachable, likeable, and consistent for that grape variety. 

  • 2013 Arrogant Frog Sauvignon Blanc  - grassy grapefruit on the nose and palette with some creaminess. Mas says creaminess comes from the maturity of grapes (combination of acids, sugar, flavors at harvest) plus three months on less.
  • 2013 Arrogant Frog Chardonnay - pineapple and vanilla aroma and flavors finishing with lemon acidity. 25% was fermented in new American oak and and underwent malolatic fermentation.
  • 2013 Arrogant Frog Pinot Noir - toasty cherry aroma; some earth and lift - medium tannins. Mas stated that this is a red wine masquerading as a white wine. The oak treatment was 60%-40% American-French oak. The grapes were harvested at night and then processed through cold maceration to extract flavor without tannins and fermented at cold temperatures. Aged in  neutral oak.
  • 2013 Arrogant Frog Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (55%-45% blend) - layers of blueberry jam aroma - slight spice; mocha (almost raspberry chocolate) - very soft. Another 60%-40% American-French oak with some staves.

Friday, July 18, 2014

#WBC14 Paso Robles Excursion: Tablas Creek Vineyard

One of my favorite experiences of participating in the Wine Bloggers Conference Paso Robles Pre-Excursion was our visit to Rhone Ranger favorite, Tablas Creek Vineyard. Although Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery was the first to plant Rhone varieties in Paso, Tablas Creek was the first to make their Rhone styled wine commercially viable in the Paso Robles AVA.

Tablas Creek Vineyard is a joint venture between Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, as they planned to create a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style vineyard in California. The partners eventually found a site in Paso where the elevation and limestone soils (a rare soil type in Paso) resembled those at Beaucastel. In 1990 the winery imported a substantial number of Rhone vines (Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc) and handed them over to the USDA. Three years later the vines passed the quarantine testing program and Tablas Creek began propagating their nursery. The vines from this nursery were eventually sold to many well known California Rhone producers.

Robert Haas' son Jason is the current winemaker and a former Wine Blogger Awards winner. His Tablas Creek blog won in the Winery Blog category in 2008 and 2011. On our arrival to the winery he briefly described to our group the winery's history and the vineyard's physical characteristics - demonstrating how the limestone soil absorbs water that the vines can then access later. Afterward he lead the group past the popular baby llama - llamas are used as "guard dogs" to protect the weed eating sheep from coyotes to a rootstock grafting demo. Rootstock and vines do not have to be taped together in the modern era.  Pretty informative.

Small Viniferia Nursery

Rootstock and vines grafted


After the rootstock demo, we headed inside to sample the wines from Tablas Creek, as well as three other Paso Rhone producing wineries: Calcareous Winery, Écluse Wines, and Caliza Winery. My favorite Caliza wine was their 2011 Azimuth, a delicious GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blend. The 2010 Lock Vineyard Syrah from Ecluse madee a powerful statement of "here I am and don't forget me"; whereas the Calcareous Lily Blanc (Viogner, Greneache Blanc and Roussanne) and Tres Violet GSM were more subtle but equally tasty.  The Tablas Creek Esprit Blanc was the first American Picpoul Blanc for me, although it incorporates only 5% to the majority Roussanne and Grenache Blanc blend. And it was also a thrill to taste my first 100% Terret Noir - usually a blending grape - but this barrel sample show promise with its tart cherry flavors. Cheers to Paso Robles, Tablas Creek, and Rhone styled wine.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#WBC14 Bike Tour: Santa Barbara County -> Buellton - Solvang

On Sunday of the conference, I took a few hours off and rented a bicycle at the Marriott. I wanted to explore both Buellton and Solvang since theCompass Winery, Brewery, Distillery Locator app showed that each is home to multiple establishments; and a bicycle seemed the best form of transportation.  I had planned to bike directly to Solvang on Route 246, but the valet recommended a more scenic route.

Starting on 246 and heading east, the first option you hit is the famous Hitching Post Wines available at the Hitching Post II. (I'll post more about these wines in a later post.) Shortly after is the joint Loring Wine Company & Cargasacchi tasting room. The majority of grapes from both of these wineries come from Sta. Rita Hills, so expect cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When leaving this tasting room take an immediate left on Ballard Canyon Road which will take you through a hilly, but scenic tour of part of the Ballard Canyon AVA. One of the vineyards you will ride by are those from Larner Vineyard & Winery whose proprietor, Michael Larner, participated in several informative sessions at #wbc14. In order to sample these wines you will need to take a left to continue on Ballard Canyon Road at the intersection of Chalk Hill Road and continue on to Los Olivos.  In any case, I would recommend turning left at this intersection and biking the two miles to  Rusack Vineyards. They weren't open yet, but based on tasting their Reserve Syrah during the Ballard Canyon Syrah seminar, worth a visit.


Upon leaving, retrace your route but continue onto Chalk Hill Road which will lead you directly into Solvang. Your first stop should be Lucky Dogg Winery which will be on your left at the intersection at 246. Brent Melville is part of the Melville Vineyards and Winery clan and spun this winery off to focus on the family's Verna’s Vineyard which is located just north of Los Alamos. Brent uses a minimalist approach with short periods of oak treatment for his reds and a stainless steel Viognier - all are very nice. You won't have trouble finding other wineries, Casa Cassara Winery and Vineyard is practically next door and Presidio Winery and Royal Oaks Winery are across the street. I would recommend crossing over 246 and then a left on Copenhagen Drive to visit Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. I tasted several of their wines over the weekend - and definitely worth a visit. Other Solvang wine options are Sevtap Winery, Toccata, and Carivintas Winery. To return to Buellton, just head west on 246. The one brewery, the Solvang Brewing Co, will be in your path on the right.  Although it's in a perfect location, and the wheat ale was refreshing, my experience was not pleasant. The bartender was a complete ass - arrogant and obnoxious - so I will never be returning.

Leaving Solvang look out for Shoestring Vineyard & Winery on the left as you get closer to Buellton and discover a little Italy in Santa Ynez. When entering Buellton, cross over Route 101 and hit straight until you see Ken Brown Wines on the right. No incentive more than the fact that Brown is one of the founders of the modern day Santa Barbara wine industry. Here you can taste several vineyard specific Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Moving on, turn left on Industry Way for four more tasting options. Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, a Richard Sanford enterprise, is immediately on the left. Sanford started the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot movement and his wines were predominately featured in Sideways.And in addition to the Pinot Noir, try the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Continue down Industry way to Figueroa Mountain Brewing and Santa Barbara's first post-prohibition distillery Ascendant Spirits.  My visit to FMB was the complete opposite of Solvang Brewing, hospitality at all levels - even Judie Dietenhofer approached to say hello after seeing me snap some photos.  The Kolsch was solid and the Wheat - spot on. There's even hard cider and bbq outside. I had to force myself to leave the walk next door to Ascendant Spirits. The distillery is a shade over one year old - but has made a large impression already (multiple awards). The corn whiskey is all sweet corn with little burn; while the Semper Fi is made from red, white, and blue corn and is even smoother. Their bourbon is highly rated and check out the American Star Caviar Lime Vodka, where the Caviar limes are cooked in the mash. This is not your ordinary flavored vodka. And to us Washington DC folks, their portfolio is available in DC and Maryland. At the end of the street, Terravant Wine Company & the Avant Wine Bar are waiting. I didn't stop in, but would expect a nice setting.

The last two stops are in the same building, Cold Heaven Cellars and  Standing Sun Wines. To navigate there, retrace to 246, turn right, then turn left on Avenue of Flags, and finally right on 4th street. Get ready for Viognier at Cold Heaven as well as some Pinot Noir. Standing Sun has a wider portfolio, and I suggest anything with a GSM in the name. The final stop before heading back to the Marriott is also a no brainer - the Firestone Walker Brewing Company Taproom. Try one of their barrel fermented and aged beers - and no, not all heavy used bourbon barrels. In fact, try the Bretta Weisse if available - a little oak goes a long way.

That's it - about 15 total miles so not a major undertaking, but check out the options. And if cycling isn't your thing, then check out the free Santa Ynez Valley Loop Shuttle courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing. Safe travels.