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Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Quick Visit to Knob Hall Winery in Maryland Wine Country

While traveling west on Route 70, a little past Hagerstown, I stopped for gas at the Clear Spring exist and checked theCompass to check my surroundings. And to my benefit Knob Hall Winery was only a short drive away. I first crossed paths with the winery at the the 2013 Conference, where I sampled their Chambourcin and sat at a dinner table with owners Richard and Mary Beth Seibert, with Mary Beth being one of only a few female winemakers in the state. The property has been in the Seibert family for more than 200 years when Jacob Seibert (an immigrant from Germany) settled there. The stone section of the house was built in the early 1800’s and the barn which houses the tasting room in 1865. They sure built solid buildings back then. 

In order to keep the farm self sustaining (profitable), they turned to grapes - not too surprising since Richard was an original partner in the old Wild Goose Brewery, one of my favorite escapes to the eastern shore. The estate backs to the eastern slope of Fairview Mountain and contains parcels of red clay and limestone.  It even resides in Maryland's most western AVA - the Cumberland Valley AVA.  The Seibert's planted mostly vinifera Albarino, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petite Verdot; but also a few hybrids: Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Viognier, and Chambourcin.

The winery produces a wide portfolio, from dry to sweet, all to satisfy local tastes. On my visit, I concentrated on the dry side and was particularly fond of the reds and rosés. Their Jealous Mistress is an  80-20 blend of Chambourcin and Merlot with a spicy berry aroma, followed by berry flavors and a slightly spicy finish. The N39 is an unoaked Chambourcin blended with oaked Cabernet Franc and Merlot. This is an easy drinking wine - probably serve slightly chilled. And then there's their single varietal Chambourcin, which was a decent amount of spice throughout. As for the rosés, there are two dry versions to sample. The Chambourcin Rosé is light and tart with nice acids. My favorite, however, was the Cabernet Franc Rosé - tart juicy with a creamy strawberry texture. This wine melts in your mouth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ballparks & Brews: PNC Park - Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh is home to several micro-breweries so we were expecting a large selection when visiting the Pirates home stadium at PNC Park.  The bars and stadium featured dozens of Iron City Light posters and signs so the former Pittsburgh Brewing Company icon, now brewed in Latrobe, seemed to be the beer of choice. And inside the stadium, both Iron City and IC Light were prominent - particularly with the Pirate branding. I'd rather drink this than an InBev product, yet was surprised to see so many Miller Lite drinkers. Even over Yuengling bombers.

While walking around the stadium I saw a familiar sign, Rivertowne Brewing was all over the Hall of Fame restaurant. Several of their beers are available at Seven Springs Mountain Resort - with the Babbling Blonde, Grateful White Belgian Wit, and Old Wylie's IPA India Pale Ale being very drinkable beers. They also producing a very unique Hala Kahiki Pineapple Ale that I can handle a few sips - then just a little too sweet. And all of these beers are usually available in the Hall of Fame club. I also had my first Church Brew Works, the Pittsburgh brewery located in the historical former St. John the Baptist Church. This was their popular Pious Monk Dunkel; a very mellow dark beer - very drinkable - which should be an everyday beer for locals.

The Church Brew Works Celestial Gold (a great lighter beer alternative) was also available at the only beer stand that was committed to craft beer. This Allegheny Beverage stand can be found between sections 116 and 117 and also includes several nationally distributed craft beers like Flying Dog Brewery, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Anchor Brewing Company, 21st Amendment, Breckenridge Brewery and more. The lines are long, but no wonder - that is literally your only choice for craft beer in the grandstand.  Cheers.

Update: In the comments, Dustin mentions that I failed to notice two major sources of craft beer at the stadium. Around section 130 look for Pops Plaza that hosts Pub 375, where you can find Victory Brewing Company,Rivertowne Brewing , Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Bell's Brewery, and a few others. And on the opposite side of the park around section 103, there's Beers of the Burgh, with craft beers  from Church Brew Works, East End Brewing Company, Penn Brewery, and others. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

More #SummerOfRiesling on #Winechat: Paul Blanck Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2010

This past Wednesday I participated in the weekly Twitter #winechat session which focused on Riesling and specifically the now unified Riesling core of France (Alsace),  Germany (Rheingau), and Austria (Kamptal). The session was sponsored by drinkAlsace, Wines of Germany US, and Austrian Wine USA with each contributing a wine from their region: the Paul Blanck Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2010 from Alsace, the Brandl Riesling Heilingenstein 2011 from Kamptal and the Schloss Schönborn Riesling Kabinett Erbacher Macrobrunn 2011 from Rheingau. I was fortunate to receive the first and learned several new facts about Alsace and the Schlossberg Vineyard. Alsace is located on the French-German border and has been governed by both countries over the centuries. The current border results from the aftermath of WWII with France gaining more territory so that Alsace lies between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east. As a quirk of this history, there are some German wineries whose vineyards are still located in Alsace (See Friedrich Becker Family). Alsace is also dry, the 2nd driest region in all of France. Riesling is the most widely planted grape in Alsace w/ nearly 22% of land under Riesling vines; and Alsace accounts for 10% of the World's Riesling production.

One if the highest prized Riesling sources is the Schlossberg Vineyard, which is the oldest and largest of Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru sites. The site lies on south-facing slopes stretching from Kaysersberg to Kientzheim and it's granite soils create elegant and floral Rieslings that are prized for their ability to age. The slopes are steep, so many vines require terraces.

One winery that utilizes Schlossberg is Domaine Paul Blanck. This estate traces its history to the 17th century and today is owned and operated by Philippe & Frédéric Blanck. According to several sources, the winery is known for producing wines that are "balanced, terroir-expressive, and versatile".  And after tasting the
Paul Blanck Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg 2010 ($34), I can agree with that assessment. The aroma leads with a breathe of fresh mint that is followed by lemon creamsicle on the palette. There's plenty of cream and depth in this Riesling. The wine then finished with silky effervescent acidity that holds for quite a while.  This is a very nice wine, highly recommended. Cheers.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Maryland's Rock Creek Trail - Two Breweries and a Distillery

theCompass View
of Rockville
I've been riding quite often on Virginia bike trails in the DC suburbs, but there are also miles of connecting trails across the Potomac. One such trail is the Rock Creek Trail, which links Silver Spring with Rockville. theCompass Winery, Brewery, & Distillery Locator mobile app also shows the trail links cyclists to two breweries and a distillery in this easy, but windy route.

I started in Silver Spring where Denizens Brewing Co. opened this summer at the intersection of East-West Hwy and Georgia Avenue.Co-owners Jeff Ramirez and Emily Bruno are planning a rather large facility, eventually brewing 15 barrels of beer at one time. While the brewery is ramping up production, their two current house beers, the Southside Rye IPA & Lowest Lord Extra Special Bitter are being brewed at Beltway Brewing Company. They augment their selection with regional offerings, and if lucky, the Brewer's Art Ressurrection may be on tap. And for food, the BBQ Bus brick and mortal establishment is now open downstairs.

When heading to Rockville, head toward Georgia Ave and turn right onto 13th Street, then a right onto Leegate Rd which turns into Myrtle St after 16th Street, then Kalmai Rd (all rights) until you reach West Beach Drive. Turn left onto West Beach Drive which leads to the Valley Trail and then the Rock Creek Trail. After about 14 miles of winding along the trail, it turns into the Westside Trail and a short distance later make a left onto the Gude Trail.

Once you get to Gude Drive cross over and take a left onto the Carl Henn Millennial Trail. Twin Valley Distillers,  the first distillery in Montgomery County since Prohibition, will be on your right (turn into the collision system and to the back of the warehouse). The distillery was started by Edgardo Zuniga who dreamed of the idea two years ago and after deciding to open in the county, spent a year getting the proper permits from the country and federal authorities. After five iterations he developed his final recipe for a 100% sugar cane molasses - the Seneca Bay Rum. Next came the Norbeck Vodka, a 100% wheat vodka distilled 8 times. Both of these spirits are available for tasting and sales directly at the distillery. Bring a backpack.

When leaving Twin Valley stay on the Carl Henn path for about a mile until you reach Taft Street, where you hang a right to reach Baying Hound Aleworks (back in the second group of warehouses). Operating for 4 years now,  the nano-brewery was started Paul Rinehart who's been homebrewing since he was 14 years old.  The brewery has an interesting lineup, with the most interesting the Ball Lick'r Raspberry Lambic. Don't see many of these outside of Belgium. And after a bike ride, the Dumb Blonde Witbier or Rockville Golden Ale are refreshing choices. 

Also note that Twin Valley and baying Hound are closed on Sundays. And if ready for food in Rockville, Branded 72 Pit Barbecue is available past Twin Valley towards the Gude Trail. Cheers and safe riding. 

Total miles: 36

Monday, August 11, 2014

Beer & Cider along the Torrey C. Brown Trail: Monkton to New Freedom

Ever since the 2013 Drink Local Wine Conference, held that year in Baltimore (Maryland Wine country), I've been trying to visit Millstone Cellars, a unique cidery located north of the city in Monkton. This weekend presented an opportunity and after a little research I discovered that Monkton is a stop on the Torrey C. Brown Trail, a converted rail line which runs adjacent to the Gunpowder River into Pennsylvania. Once in the Keystone state, the York County Heritage Trail commences giving cyclists 41 miles of trail -- 20 in Maryland, 21 in Pennsylvania.  Time for a bike ride.

Using theCompass, I saw that three Maryland wineries were near Monkton (Royal Rabbit Vineyards, Woodhall Wine Cellars, Basignani Winery) but not close enough to the trail for an easy side trip. I did find, however; a Pennsylvania brewery, Gunpowder Falls Brewing, located in New Freedom - the source of the Gunpowder River. Plus New Freedom is home to The William H. Simpson #17, a replica of the Civil War steam locomotive that carried Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address, which now rides along the York County Heritage Trail to York.

Monkton is located just after mile marker 7 on the Torrey C. Brown Trail, so I parked alongside the tubers and started pedaling north. The trail is an easy ride, the steepest sections are only 2-3% grade. There are restrooms every few miles, but the general store in Monkton is the only food shop until New Freedom. The trail itself is packed gravel and dirt; my hybrid had no problems and I did see several road bikes throughout the day.  The river flowing nearby is soothing and provides a nice landscape for the ride. When reaching New Freedom, I stopped to peek at The William H. Simpson #17 and get a quick snack at the Trail Museum and cafe.  Finding the brewery became a bit of a challenge since its 3.5 miles off the trail. Start by going east on W. Main Street and then turn left on N. Constitution and cycle along this rode for 1.7 miles. Turn left on S. Main Street then a right on E. Tolna Road. Enjoy the mile downhill ride, because you will need to pedal up on your return trip. Just before a mile, turn right on Elm and the brewery entrance is on the backside of the warehouse.

Gunpowder Falls Brewing is an American-German craft brewery operated by brewery Martin Virga.  Virga received his brewer training in Germany then returned to the states to help start the  Capitol City Brewing Company in Washington D.C. and later the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company.  He started Gunpowder Fallsto focus exclusively on traditional German style lagers. Each batch is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law of 1516) which dictates that only water, malt and hops may be used in brewing beer. The role of yeast came centuries later.

When I arrived at Gunpowder Falls Brewing, they were serving three beers, a Pilsner, Dunkel, and Helles.  I started with the later, clean and refreshing - a very nice representation of a standard lager. Over bratwurst, I slowed down with a Dunkel, a sweeter beer with plenty of malt flavor.  Knowing I had a hill to climb, I just sampled the Pils, noting the hoppier character of this beer.  These are solid beers and glad to see classic lagers featured.

The return ride back to Monkton was quite easy - once I made it back to the York trail. With the decreasing grade, the return trip was much faster.  Millstone Cellars is not far from the trail (.4 miles), take a left on Millstone Road - a couple short hills - then take a right to remain on Millstone. You can't miss the refurbished Monkton Mill, an old, 1840′s circa grist mill that Millstone calls home. The cidery is owned and operated by the father-son team of Curt and Kyle Sherrer. You won't find traditional ciders and meads here; instead the two focus on artisan versions of each. Let's start with my favorite, Hopvine ($16), a cask cider (York Imperial) aged with Maryland grown Cascade hops and blended with a little raw honey. The Farmgate ($16) is about as close a traditional cider you will find - distinct that it is unfiltered Jonathon, Stayman Winesap, and Smokehouse apples fermented and aged in American oak barrels. Dry, flavorful, and tart. The latest find is Thistle ($20), a session sour mead from wild and belgian ale yeast and aged in oak for almost a year. Love the acids and unique sour flavor.  This mead is another representation how Millstone is pushing the boundaries of traditional recipes adding interesting aspects from other brewing techniques.  Besides these three there are several other ciders and meads available - like the Sidra Americana, Rhuberry, Peche Cyser, Spruced, Gingeroot, and several more concoctions aging in the mill.  Cheers to that.

Total mileage: 35.
Photos: Facebook

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Getting to Know Moldovan Wine - Eastern Europe's Best Kept Secret

Last week the Moldovan National Office for Vine and Wine conducted trade tastings in Washington D.C. and New York City entitled Wine of Moldova Eastern Europe's Best Kept Secret. This presented an opportunity to learn more about Moldovan Wine far from the sweet Moldovan reds that I had tasted long ago.

Moldova is located in far southeast of Europe, with Ukraine providing an eastern border, Romania a western, and the Black Sea basin to the south. The climate is moderately-continental (46-47˚ latitude) with the Black Sea influencing vineyards in the southern regions.  Red wine grapes are primarily grown in these southern regions, with white wine grapes predominately in the central regions. And there are four primary wine regions: Valul lui Traian (southwest), Stefan Voda (southeast), Codru (central), and Balti (northcentral). One interesting note is that Valul lui Traian translates to Trajan's Wall and is located between two of these walls used to protect the Roman Empire from "barbarians".

List of Producers
Grapes have been grown in what is now Moldova for thousands of years - starting with the ancient Greeks. Known as Thracia, the Dacians (Thracians) produced wine perhaps over five thousand years ago and the Illiad highlights this in a verse: "Greek warriors went to Thracia to find wine”. This tradition continued with the Romans and peaked in the Middle Ages under Stefan the Great. Yet, even under Ottoman rule, wine production was still a strong component of the local economy.  In the early 1800s, Moldova found itself under Tsarist rule and the aristocrats thirst for wine drove production higher with wine being exported to throughout Europe when the phylloxera epidemic ensued. Following the two World Wars, Russia demand for sweet red wine dominated the Moldova wine production up until Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign in the 1980s.Moldovan producers started looking at international standards which received a further boost upon Independence in 1991.

Today Moldova has 112,000 hectares of vineyards planted with over 30 grape varieties - with 70% of these white varieties. The white varieties are preponderantly grown in the central Codru region with Rkatsiteli, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay the top grapes. Red varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Saperavi - mostly planted in the southern regions of Valul lui Traian and Stefan Voda. You can also see a Republic of Georgia presence with the Rkatsiteli and Saperavi.  Indigenous varieties account for only 10% of overall wine production, with many of these also shared with Romania: Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala, Feteasca Neagra, Rara Neagra, Plavai, and Viorica.

During the Washington D.C. tasting, I sampled wine from 13 wineries - ten listed above and three from the Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association. Most of the wines were seeking local distribution; but the retail prices for all the still wines range, or will range from $10-$15. For the international varieties,  I tended to prefer the Merlot over the Cabernet Sauvignon with some of my favorites being the Vinaria Nobila 2012 Merlot, et cetera (Stefan Voda) 2011 Merlot, Cricova (Codru) 2011 Vin Virgin,  Castel Mimi (Codru) 2012 Merlot, and the Vinaria Din Vale (Valul lui Traian) 2011 Merlot. That being said Bostavan was pouring a very nice 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon along with a bone dry, floral and tasty muscat - their 2012 Muscat Cocori.  At the next table, Chateau Purcari (Stefan Voda), on of the oldest continually operated wineries in Moldova (1827),  was pouring a very tasty rose along with three solid reds - my favorite being the indigenous 2012 Rara Neagra.

Speaking of indigenous grapes, there were several examples of the white Feteasca Alba (Castel Mimi (Codru), Vinaria din Vale (Valul lui Traian), Cricova (Codru)). I can see myself exploring this wine grape further, the wines were soft and creamy, with interplay between lemons and nuts. Acids are mild - not sure if that's relevant to the grape or vintage. Cricova is a producer to follow; the morning of the tasting I read this BBC article describing their unique underground city. In addition to the Feteasca Alba and Merlot, they poured a nice Pinot Noir sparkling wine - the Grand Vintage 2007.

I few other producers I spent considerable time with were Albastrele Wines (Stefan Voda), Chateau Vartely (Codru) and et cetera (Stefan Voda).  Albastrele poured a Merlot Rose, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a Pinot Grigio - all from the 2013 vintage. Each were fresh, clean, great acidity, and tasty - with the Pinot Grigio providing a nice creamy mid-palette. Chateau Vartely had the most unique collection, a Rara Neagra Syrah Merlot blend which was balanced between earthiness and fruit, a dry Traminer (perhaps my favorite wine of the tasting), and a true Muscat Ottonel Ice Wine. Very nice.  Finally, et cetera, is an example of the new spirit in Moldovan wine production. The winery was started by two brothers, Alexandru and Igor Luchianov, as they returned to their native Moldova after spending many years in the United States. They planted their first grapes in 2003, opened the winery in 2009, and now produce 8,000 cases annually. Many of these cases are sold out of their wine tourism based operation with restaurant located on the property and an inn in the works.

Each of us probably don't have access to many or any Moldovan wines in our local markets.  But pay attention, because if you see one, don't be dismissive and take a look. You will most likely have a nice value wine. Cheers.

Monday, August 4, 2014

#winestudio: The Independent Spirit | Wines of the USA

Protocal Wine Studio's weekly #winestudio twitter chat session went Americana this July by featuring several wines produced in the other 46 as selected by LeMetro Wine Underground: The Independent Spirit | Wines of the USA. These are all family operations, with interesting stories to tell.  I was familiar with all the wineries selected, except for Vermont's La Garagista, a producer of several french hybrid wines including the 2013 “Coup de Foudre” Pétillant Naturel. Michelle Williams, over at Rockin Red Blog has a nice recap on that wine.

La Garagista was the focus of week 1, and the second week featured Wisconsin's Wollersheim Winery and McPherson Cellars from Texas. I included the Wollersheim 2013 Domaine du Sac in my The United Grapes of America series. In short, this is a very pleasing juicy blackberry-blueberry flavored wine with cedar-spice notes and solid acids. McPherson is also included in the UGA series with their tasty Tre Colore - a southern Rhone blend of Mourvedre, Carignan, and Viognier. During our #winestudio session, we focused on their 2013 Les Copains Texas Dry Rosé ($15), another similar Rhone blend of Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. One interesting note, because of frost damage that year, the Viognier was sourced from owner and winemaker Kim McPherson's brother's vineyard in Temecula, CA. This is a dry rosé, with berry and tropic fruit aromas leading to soft cherry flavors, finishing with clean acidity. And at this price, a bargain.

The final week featured the Creekside Cellars 2011 'Franc' Colorado Cabernet Franc ($50) and Ankida Ridge Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir ($42).  These both are good examples showing how both Colorado and Virginia are producing excellent wine. I just featured Creekside in the UGA, but in short there's also a nice lift and creaminess to the wine which finishes with smooth tannins and fresh acids. The Ankida 2012 Pinot Noir is a fine example how a warm climate Pinot can maintain acids and structure.  The 1800 foot elevation and rocky, well drained soils is a perfect location for the grape - as the summer days are cooler than the surrounding area. The wine has a dusty character with black cherry flavors a hint of spice, and a juicy mouthfeel. A little Burgundy in the Commonwealth.

Tomorrow, #winestudio continues a tour of lesser known wine regions by focusing on the Hudson Valley. Hope to see you online. Cheers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

#VirtualVines with Old York Cellars & Hometown Heroes

This past week Old York Cellars hosted another #VirtualVines online tasting featuring their What Exit Wine brand: a Jersey-centric line of wines that raised $5.000 for the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. The winery has now turned their philanthropy support to Hometown Heroes, where $1 from each $18 What Exit White, Red, & Blush Wine where be donated to the charity. During the  #VirtualVines, Old York winemaker Scott Gares and Sommelier Laurin Dorman were joined by Hometown Heroes President & Founder, Mike Schwartz, to discuss wine and the charity's goals. The embedded video below describes the organization.

Photo courtesy of Old York Cellars
During the session Gares also answered questions on the current harvest and the affect of Sandy at the winery. During the hurricane, most of the grapes had already been harvested, but blocks of Malbec were sitting in the press when the winery lost power. The juice sat on it's skins for eight days - fortunately it was Malbec. Gares also had to use generators to operate punch downs for juice in fermenting tanks. As for this year, the cool, but dry summer will lead to an early harvest; the grapes are accumulating high concentrations of sugar already.

On to the wine, we started with the What Exit White, a 90-10 blend of Chenin Blanc and Cayuga White. It is completely dry, with a floral-apple nose with some decent depth on the palette. The finish is clean and acidic. The What Exit Red is a 6-40 blend of Barbara and Merlot. This is a fruit forward wine, with a slightly spicy nose, followed by dark berry flavors and finishing softly with nice acids. Our tasting finished with the What Exit Blush, basically the White with some Cabernet Sauvignon added for color. Thus, it's dark than most rosés, but don't let that full you to think this is a sweet blush. There is only 1% r.s. and it is closer to a Provence-style as it drinks dry with strawberry characters and a refreshing acidic finish.

These are very nice examples of local NJ wine. Remember, $1 from each bottle sold is donated to Hometown heroes and if you use the coupon code HEROES up until August 8th, you receive 20% off of any What Exit Wine. During our #VirtualVines tasting Old York Cellars donated $1 more to the charity for every #VirtualVines tweet that night. $300 was raised; good for them. Cheers.

Hometown Heroes is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose main purpose is to foster an environment of goodwill, generosity, and encouragement by supporting local communities in times of crisis. We provide assistance with meeting unexpected needs in our communities, and do not discriminate based on ethnicity, gender, or age. The organization provides an opportunity for all of us to give back to our neighbors through professional services, financial help, and advocacy. Hometown Heroes assists those in need to find solutions to problems that appear overwhelming. Our non profit has supported our neighbors through the Restore the Shore campaign, as well as providing assistance for individuals facing homelessness, domestic abuse, drug addiction, disability, and more.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The United Grapes of America - Colorado - Creekside Cellars Franc

During the 2012 Drink Local Wine Conference, I finally met Michelle Cleveland, winemaker at Creekside Cellars. We had communicated frequently through twitter, but this was the first chance I had to sample her wine; specifically a Cabernet Franc and Viognier during the event's live twitter tasting. As I recall, both were quite pleasing and nailed the varietal character of each grape variety.  This week I had another chance to sample her wine, this time through our friends at Protocal Wine Studio and their informative #WineStudio Tuesday twitter sessions. Michelle had donated the Creekside's 2011 'Franc' Colorado Cabernet Franc ($35) for July's The Independent Spirit | Wines of the USA

The United Grapes of America The United Grapes of America
Colorado is a unique region for grape growing. Most of the vineyards are located in the western part of the state in the Grand Valley and West Elk AVA's in addition to the Four Corners region in the southwest.  In general, as you would expect, these are cold climate vineyards - with vineyards in the West Elk AVA the highest in the northern hemisphere. The Grand Valley AVA is a warmer micro-climate, providing over 300 days of sunshine per year  and Creekside owns a vineyard in Palisade, aptly called The Vinelands.  Here, right next to the Colorado River,  they grow Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Muscat.

The winery itself was started by Bill and Anita Donahue with their son, Tim in 1996 and is located in Evergreen - a little southwest of Denver. Michelle started working for the winery in 2005 and became the head winemaker in 2008. Once the grapes are harvested at The Vinelands, they are trucked east to Evergreen to be processed.  2011 was a cold year, even by Colorado standards: thus the yields were low, and acids high. After fermentation, the wine for the 2011 'Frank' Colorado Cabernet Franc spent 24 months in half American oak and half French oak - providing more depth, tobacco, and spices to the already black cherry character. This is a ripe Cabernet Franc, meaning little traces of herbal or green peppery character. My kind of Franc. Cheers.

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 ocean thus cool with plenty of 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.