Saturday, February 24, 2018

Route 15 Wine Road: Maryland Wine's Catoctin Breeze Vineyard

The 792 plus miles of Route 15 transverses through several wine regions at it helps transport people and products from Walterboro South Carolina to New York's Finger Lakes. This is not a recent conduit as there are many historical sites along it's path from Presidential birthplaces to Civil War battlefields. In fact, in Maryland General Meade used the thoroughfare to pursue Lee to and from Gettysburg. You can read a historical marker about this event at Catoctin Breeze Vineyard, a relatively new Maryland winery that has gained recognition for producing several distinguished estate wines.

The winery was founded in 2010 when Voytek Leon Fizyta planted two blocks of vines along a hill slightly east of the Catoctin Mountains. These blocks consisted of  Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Viognier.  The well draining, loose, alluvial soil contains some quartz deposits which assist in preventing frost prevention as well as the ripening of fruit.  The estate also receives a consistent breeze from Owen's Gap - keeping the vines ventilated helping to prevent mold formation - which is also limited by abundant morning sun. Today there are 7,000 vines carefully maintained by Vineyard Manager, Larry Sipe. The winery also augments their portfolio with fruit grown from a vineyard in St. Mary's Maryland - a sandy coastal region.

I paid a quick visit while heading to Liberty Mountain Resort - only 20 minutes away. For hikers, Cunningham Falls State Park is even closer, 10 minutes to the south. Visitors are offered three tasting packages: Signature ($10), Premier ($12), or Sweet ($8) - the later including three Mead wines. However, I chose the Premier tasting in order to sample their estate wines. For whites, this included the 2015 Serenade Sauvignon Blanc ($24) and the 2015 Estate Chardonnay ($24). And seeing my interest in their estate portfolio, the staff member provided a sample of the wine club only 2016 Estate Chardonnay ($24). The two Chardonnays exhibit completely contrasting styles as the 2015 is more full bodied (my preference) and the 2016 racier with cleaner fruit.

For reds, the Premier tasting started with the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc ($36) a relatively big Cabernet which was a little choppy with noticeable dark cherry fruit, tannins, and spices. I'd like to return to this wine after a few years in bottle. 2014 Concerto Bordeaux Blend ($35) is a blend of four Bordeaux grapes and is ready to drink now - a more textured character with a juicy clean tail. For several years Dr. Joe Fiola has encouraged Maryland vineyard owners to plant Barbera and Catoctin Breeze has leveraged that suggestion by producing that 2015 Oratorio Barbera ($38). This wine possesses the stereotypical high acids and low tannins while proving a decent fruit profile. The high end of the price range for sure. Finally, my attendant poured a sample of the case club only 2015 Estate Syrah ($34) - one of the wines they featured at the 2018 Winter Wine Showcase. Let's just say, I joined the case club in order purchase a couple bottles of this wine. This is by far the nicest wine coming from their estate. Cheers and as always theCompass Craft Beverage Finder will guide you to Catoctin Breeze Vineyard.

Friday, February 23, 2018

USBevX 2018: #Wine Writers, What Are They Looking For?

Photo Courtesy of  Kathy Lang Wiedermann -Virginia Made
A huge thanks to Jenn Nelson of Wine Antics for live blogging the Wine Writers, What Are They Looking For? session at the 2018 US Wine & Beverage Conference. This two-day conference in Washington D.C. is targeted towards wineries to provide education in the fields of vineyard management, wine-making, and marketing.  The Wine Writers session was one of a few that were very relevant to content providers and fortunately I was able to watch the proceedings live via Jenn's video.  This session was moderated by Eric Guerra, Chief Marketing & Sales Officer Terravant Wine Company, and featured Carlo DeVito Owner Hudson-Chatham Winery  plus three wine writers: Lenn Thompson, Frank Morgan, and Paul Vigna. A stellar cast.  I would strongly encourage interested readers to watch the entire video, but here are my comments on what was discussed and what was omitted. Cheers.

Educate Tasting Room Staff
This dictum should be obvious but even the organizers of USBevX realized it's lacking since they created a session on this very topic. Perhaps, turnover is a contributing factor, but I continue to witness this irritating display of ignorance.  On one extreme, I remember Dezel Quillen's (MyVineSpot) story how he mispronounced Virginia's signature grape Vee-og-ney for a substantial period because that's how a staff member pronounced it during his introduction to the grape. On the lesser extreme I've engaged staff who are unfamiliar with where a vinifera grape originated, a blend composition, or even what grapes are planted in the estate vineyard.  Simply unacceptable. And staff should be honest if they do not know the answer to a question. Do not guess. One tip that Lenn Thompson suggested was not only sending writers technical sheets, but post that information on your website. I would expand that and suggest having technical sheets available at the tasting room. At the very least, it would assist educating the staff and more importantly it can be distributed to wine geeks who ask more probing questions.

Tell a Story
How can wineries differentiate their brand from the hundreds or even thousands of competing options? That question not only was raised during this session, but has been overarching dilemma of the craft wine explosion.  In addition to producing the best wine possible, a common answer is to create compelling stories behind your establishment. Frank Morgan mentioned Old Westminster Winery as an example with their family story and social media engagement.  However, the story doesn't have to revolve solely around the family.  The region's history can be stressed as is the case at The Winery at Bull Run who display Civil War artifacts in their tasting room.  Another option is highlighting a particular grape variety. Hudson-Chatham's story revolves around Baco Noir -- although their Chelois is just as intriguing.  If you produce an Albarino, focus on the grape's Galicia home as well as how your wine differs from those from Riax Baixas - perhaps through annual comparative tastings. Even normally pedestrian grapes such as Pinot Gris can be a focal point. Recently I tasted a rather noteworthy Pinot Gris from Boordy Vineyards. When I mentioned this to Dr. Joe Fiola, his eyes gleamed as he enthusiastically discussed the specific vineyard block that produced that wine. Boordy should share that knowledge - perhaps present samples of dirt in the tasting room and explain how the soil and sunlight affect the wine. Provide us a reason to visit.

Expand Beyond Experienced Content Providers
A valid question was raised during the seminar on how to differentiate between the bloggers, particularly when new content providers seem to be appearing overnight. The panelists gave two equally valid responses. First, look for content providers who have organically written about your area as this demonstrates a degree of excitement towards your location. Paul Vigna's Penn Live is a nice example of an outlet that reports on winery tours in underrepresented locations. At the very least any state or regional winery board worth their salt should have a list of content providers that have written about that area.  The second response was to seek content providers who have large audiences. Now in some instances, these audiences may simply be the result of longevity, but at least the blogger\writer has sustained a passion for covering the wine industry.

However, I would caution about relying solely on these more experienced bloggers. You could easily overlook many talented and engaging content providers with small but growing readership. Being in the longevity camp, it is refreshing to encounter younger and perhaps more enthusiastic content providers who are not just seeking free samples. And in the DMV region there is no shortage of groups that you can contact to locate these individuals. A few Facebook examples are the Young Wino's of DC, Black Wine Lovers, and I have to include the more senior Virginia Wine Mafia.

Finally, the discussion was exclusively focused on print.  Yet there's a large array of media that are covering  craft beverage industries. Wine Antics is one example of live video blogging. There are also podcasters, social media providers, and others outside my realm. Try something different such as Winemaker's Drinking Beer. There are numerous outlets beyond experienced print bloggers.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Bierzo D.O., Bodegas Godelia, Mencia, and Godello

Who's familiar with Bodegas Godelia? Or for that matter Spain's Bierzo D.O.? Well not me as of last week -- until I received the two wines below. The Bierzo D.O. is situated east of Galicia in Spain's northwest corner. The region shares Galicia's humidity and rainfall as well as the hot, dry climate of Castile - located slightly southeastern. The vineyards are relatively low lying (450-1,000 meters) along hillsides planted on a diverse set of quartz, slate, granite, and limestone soils. Viticulture was first documented during the Roman colonization but expanded during the Middle Ages through the growth of monasteries. After the phylloxera plague basically decimated the vineyards in the late 1800s, modern viticulture resuscitated the region and the Bierzo D.O. was established in 1989.

Bodegas Godelia consists of 86 acres of estate vineyard plus an additional 37 acres under contract. The estate resides outside the village of Cacabelos centrally located to the D.O. and with old vines (20-90 years) planted on hillsides at 500-600 meters.

Two prominent grapes in the Bierzo D.O. are the white Godello and the red Mencia. The former is known for producing complex, mineral-driven wines and the later concentrated, yet juicy acidic wines.

Godelia Godello-Dona Blanco 2015 ($17) is a blend of 80% Godello and 20% Dona Blanca that spent five months on lees. This technique is clearly evident as the wine possesses a creamy backbone that is surrounded by floral and spicy-minerally characters. Solid acids provide a fresh finish.

Godelia Mencia ($19) is comprised of 100% Mencia harvested from 50-90 year old vines. And after fermentation the wine spends 12 months in various oak casks. This is a tasty combination of dirt and fruit with the high tannins settling leaving juicy acidity. Another tremendous value wine.

Monday, February 12, 2018

#NationalPizzaDay at Il Canale with Cusumano Winery Nero d’Avola

"Sicily is a continent. It has diverse climates, terrior, and food", Diego Cusumano
Just by happenstance, Terlata Wines had organized a trade tasting at Georgetown's Il Canale to showcase the pairing of pizza and wines from Cusumano Winery. That's where our small group met Diego Cusumano - the gregarious co-owner who returned to the family winery after studying Economics at the University in Palermo. The estate was founded 65 years ago by his father Francesco who sold fruit throughout Italy. After Diego's older brother Alberto received an Oenology degree, the family invested more resourced into the vineyard and released their first vintage in 2000. Today the Sicilian winery releases a dozen wines under the Cusumano brand featuring mostly indigenous grapes grown their 1,000 acres of vineyards located throughout the "continent" of Sicily. They are recently introduced the new Alta Mora winery featuring wines from grapes grown on the slopes of the largest active volcano in Europe: Sicily's Mt. Etna.

Returning to the pizza lunch, owner Joe Farruggio served four delicious pies each paired to a Cusumano Nero d’Avola and the Alta Mora Etna Bianco. The Nero d’Avola grape is particularly suited for pizza as its inherent acidity easily cuts through the tomatoes acids. This was apparent during our first selection as the 2016 Cusumano Nero d’Avola ($12) was paired with a simply satisfying Margherita pizza ($12 - tomato sauce, imported buffalo mozzarella, basil). This wine was made from grapes harvested in the calcareous vineyards of San Giacomo and besides the acidity provides a combination of jammy dark fruit and rustic tannins.

The next pairing featured a spicy Diavola ($13 - tomato sauce, imported buffalo mozzarella, spicy salami, basil) which was served with the 2015 Cusumano Benuara ($23). This wine is a 70-30 blend of Nero d’Avola and Syrah from grapes grown on the clay soils and rolling hills of Presti e Pegni. The addition of Syrah mutes the acidity slightly but adds enough spice to merge with the salami and allow the rich fruit to shine.

Next up, the rich and delicious 2012 Cusumano Sagana ($49) - 100% Nero d’Avola - and the house specialty Il Canale ($14 - tomato sauce, imported buffalo mozzarella, ricotta cheese, prosciutto di Parma, eggplant, cherry tomatoes). Lights out fantastic. The grapes were grown on 30 year old vines also from the calcareous vineyards of San Giacomo. The wine's texture was enhanced by 18 months in barrique casks and an additional seven months in bottle before release. A rich wine for a rich pizza.

And finally, before plates of traditional Italian desserts and espresso we were served the suburb Del Pizzailo ($21 imported Buffalo mozzarella, Burrata, arugola, bresaola, and grape tomatoes) and the Alta Mora Etna Bianco ($25). The wine is 100% Carricante grown in the black soil on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna. Needless to say, this is a rich white wine with intense aromas followed by rich flavors that transitions to an earthy and acidic finish.  Excellent.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Finding Craft Beer on Las Vegas Blvd: Sin City Brewing Company

After spending a few days in Las Vegas we found that most casinos craft beer menu is solely defined as Ballast Point Sculpin, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Lagunitas IPA. And on occasion you can spot the Joseph James Brewing Company Citra Rye from nearby Henderson and a very decent offering. But obviously not a diverse selection and not necessarily small and independent either. Fortunately there are a number of actual craft breweries in Sin City - 14 according to theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. And one of these offers four satellite tasting facilities directly on Las Vegas Blvd: Sin City Brewing Company. This craft brewery was launched by long-time Gordon Biersch Director of Brewing Operations Richard Johnson. 

Two different times we visited their Bally's location, a narrow bar with outside seating tucked in the far corner of the Grand Bazaar Shops fronting Bally’s. Just follow the smell of hot dogs. Not unexpectedly the styles follow what you would expect at Gordon Biersch with a Blonde, Weisse, Amber Ale, Irish Stout, and IPA. The beers were well made and clean with the Miller Lite and InBev drinkers moving seamlessly to the Never Pass Up A Blonde. The Dark Side of Sin Irish Stout passes as a Guinness and the Say Hello to Amber was a contrast to the sweet and malty amber ales that I try to avoid. Although The Ale With A Tale was a decent IPA, I stronger preferred the slightly heavier seasonal Imperial IPA which was big but providing a balanced mouth feel and soft finish.