Tasting @ Punchdown Natural Wine Bar

Last night was a successful Tuesday Tasty Tasting (TTT) in Oakland for me and a few other natural wine twitterers, organized by David (@100aocs). We all gathered around a few tables at The Punchdown, a natural wine bar in Oakland which opened not even 3 months ago. Small detail: as John tweeted, they have an orange wine section on the menu 🙂

A few drops left in the glass

The owners, DC and Lisa, had prepared a fantastic list of French wines for us. Disclaimer for the score crusaders: yeah, I use scores, because I like this simple and succinct way to remember what I thought about it at that moment.

Le Cloux Delorme, Albane & Bertrand Minchin, Sauv Blanc, Loire Valley, AOC Valençay, 2009

  • flinty clay soils
  • little animal, mint on the nose, smells like Spring, a hint of maple tree sap, dry. Made for me. Loved it!
  • 4/5

Château Graville-Lacoste (Hervé Dubourdieu), Sauv Blanc, AOC Graves, Bordeaux, 2009

  • gravelly soils
  • green, skunk on the nose, not as short as the previous one, and longer in the mouth. Good one.
  • 3/5

Domaine Bernard Baudry (Cab Franc), Loire Valley, AOC Chinon, 2008

  • barny, sausage on the nose, dry tannins
  • 3/5

Domaine Henri Prudhon & Fils “Les Argillers”, Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, AOC St-Aubin,  2007

  • strong alcohol, paint on the nose, bitter caramel, did not find it balanced
  • 2/5

Maxime-François Laurent “Pourpre” (Grenache), AOC Côtes-du-Rhône, 2009

  • parsley on the nose, fruity, tannins, high alcohol, but still balanced. My fav of the reds!
  • 4/5

Ch Peybonhomme les Tours, Merlot/Cab Franc, Premières Côtes de Blaye, 2007

  • rustic, very masculine, a subtle taste of brandy that I always like
  • 3/5

Ghislaine & Jean-Hugues Goisot, Chardonnay, Bourgogne, Côtes d’Auxerre, 2007

  • limestone-clay soils
  • spring water directly from the mountains on the nose, very mineral, rich and supple
  • 2/5

Jacques Puffeney “Cuvee Sacha”, Chardonnay 70% / Savagnin 30%, Jura, AOC Arbois, 2005

  • jurassic limestone
  • 3/5

Frederic Lambert, Savagnin, Cotes du Jura AOC, 2007 (courtesy of Raphael, @returnToTerroir)

  • Typical Savagnin, so for me that can’t be bad.
  • 3/5

Pyramid Valley Vineyard “Late Harvest Semillon”, Marlborough, New Zealand (courtesy of John @sfWineBlog)

  • herbaceous, classic late harvest sweet sugars, but still refreshingly bitter (amazing), delicious!
  • 4/5

Yum. Yeah, that’s what I call a nice Tuesday Tasty Tasting (TTT).

Posted in natural wine, wine tasting | 1 Comment

A visit to Dashe Cellars

A few days ago I visited Michael Dashe from Dashe Cellars. We had plans to have the interview in the middle of their wonderful Louvau vineyard in Dry Creek, but unfortunately, it was raining by the time we got there. So instead I quickly took a few pictures between the drops and we postponed the interview until later.

Louvau vineyard under the rain, Dry Creek

Back at the winery, I had the privilege to taste their Zin from the McFadden vineyard 2010, only 3 days after bottling! Fresh, light, clearly acid, and with an pleasant grenadine finish. Delicious, and certainly a good candidate to accompany a salad dish on the summer terrace.

After lunch, we tried to get rid of just every sound as possible: we closed one of the garage doors facing the street, we sent some of the rat cellars staff for a break, and we requested the loud pump from the neighbor winery to be moved further away. After disturbing virtually everyone in our sight with our low noise level requirements, we finally did the interview.

Here is an excerpt of it, where Michael Dashe talks about the future of natural wine.

Thanks Michael for such a great day!

Posted in interview, winery | 2 Comments

Natural winemakers: empirical and avant-gardist

I’ve been reading about and exploring natural wine for about half a year now. With modesty, I can say that I know the spiel by now. Today I read an article from Shea Coulson which resonated with me. The kind of article which succinctly sums up many of our natural winemakers interviews, as well as many good articles I read in the past. With a touch of poetic wisdom on top.

Here is, I think, something of value:

If we do very little to the grapes, then we can see their potential more clearly. It is for this reason, I believe, that most of the best naturalists are actually incredibly empirical. They test and experiment and take risks in order to discover potentials in their grapes that no one else has discovered. It is for this reason I believe that naturalists could end up being the most important forward thinkers in wine: they believe in their subject and they want it to teach them rather than for them to dominate and control it. This is a radical shift away from current wine making practices. Are the results perfect? Not at all. But they are almost always interesting and the best are constantly progressing and learning with each vintage. This is why we can’t define natural wines: they have not yet defined themselves.

How about that?

Posted in natural wine | Leave a comment

Legal additives to wine according to the TTB

A key point in natural wine is to avoid adding stuff to the wine during the process of making it. Many winemakers told me that they did not add anything to their wine. In other words, if they had an ingredients label, it would just say grapes (with no or very little sulfites). But this is by far the exception in the wine industry, as most winemakers tinker with their grape juice at different stages in the process. So what is that stuff? Those additives?

I looked it up at the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and I found two relevant lists:

  • Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice (62 items).
  • Materials authorized for the treatment of distilling material (11 items).

A copy of each of those very long lists (valid on April 1 2010) are below.
Sec. 24.246 Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice.

Materials Use
Acacia (gum arabic) To clarify and to stabilize wine.
Acetaldehyde For color stabilization of juice
prior to concentration.
Activated carbon – To assist precipitation during
fermentation. 

– To clarify and to purify wine.

– To remove color in wine and/or
juice from which the wine was
produced.

Albumen (egg white) Fining agent for wine.
Alumino-silicates (hydrated) e.g., 

Bentonite (Wyoming clay) and Kaolin:

To clarify and to stabilize wine
or juice.
Ammonium phosphate 

(mono- and di basic):

Yeast nutrient in wine
production and to start secondary
fermentation in the production of
sparkling wines.
Ascorbic acid iso-ascorbic 

acid (erythorbic acid):

To prevent oxidation of color and
flavor components of juice and
wine.
Calcium carbonate (with or
without calcium salts of
tartaric an malic acids):
– To reduce the excess natural acids
in high acid wine, and in juice
prior to or during fermentation. 

– A fining agent for cold
stabilization.

Calcium pantothenate: Yeast nutrient to facilitate
fermentation of apple wine.
Calcium sulfate (gypsum): To lower pH in sherry wine.
Carbon dioxide (including food
grade dry ice):
To stabilize and to preserve
wine.
Casein, potassium salt of casein: To clarify wine.
Citric acid: – To correct natural acid
deficiencies in wine. 

– To stabilize wine other than
citrus wine.

Copper sulfate: To remove hydrogen sulfide and/or
mercaptans from wine.
Defoaming agents (polyoxyethylene
40 monostearate, silicon dioxide,
dimethylpoly-siloxane, sorbitan
monostearate, glyceryl mono-oleate
and glyceryl dioleate):
To control foaming, fermentation
adjunct.
Dimethyl dicarbonate To sterilize and to stabilize
wine, dealcoholized wine, and
low alcohol wine.
Enzymatic activity:
Carbohydrase (alpha-Amylase): To convert starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Carbohydrase (beta-Amylase): To convert starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Carbohydrase (Glucoamylase,
Amylogluco-sidase):
To convert starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Carbohydrase (pectinase,
cellulase, hemicellulase):
To facilitate separation of juice
from the fruit.
Catalase: To clarify and to stabilize wine.
Cellulase: To clarify and to stabilize wine
and to facilitate separation of
the juice from the fruit.
Cellulase (beta-glucanase): To clarify and filter wine.
Glucose oxidase: To clarify and to stabilize wine.
Lysozyme: To stabilize wines from malolactic
acid bacterial degradation.
Pectinase: To clarify and to stabilize wine
and to facilitate separation of
juice from the fruit.
Protease (general): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Protease (Bromelin): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Protease (Ficin): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Protease (Papain): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Protease (Pepsin): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Protease (Trypsin): To reduce or to remove heat
labile proteins.
Urease: To reduce levels of naturally
occurring urea in wine to help
prevent the formation of ethyl
carbamate.
Ethyl maltol: To stabilize wine.
Ferrocyanide compounds (sequestered
complexes):
To remove trace metal from wine
and to remove objectionable
levels of sulfide and mercaptans
from wine.
Ferrous sulfate: To clarify and to stabilize wine.
Fumaric acid: – To correct natural acid
deficiencies in grape wine. 

– To stabilize wine.

Gelatin (food grade): To clarify juice or wine.
Granular cork: To smooth wine.
Isinglass: To clarify wine.
Lactic acid: To correct natural acid
deficiencies in grape wine.
Malic acid: To correct natural acid
deficiencies in juice or wine.
Malo-lactic bacteria: To stabilize grape wine.
Maltol: To stabilize wine.
Milk products (pasteurized whole,
skim, or half-and-half):
– Fining agent for grape wine or
sherry. 

– To remove off flavors in wine.

Nitrogen gas: To maintain pressure during
filtering and bottling or
canning of wine and to prevent
oxidation of wine.
Oak chips or particles, uncharred
and untreated:
To smooth wine.
Oxygen and compressed air: May be used in juice and wine.
Polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone (PVPP): To clarify and to stabilize
wine and to remove color from
red or black wine or juice.
Potassium bitartrate: To stabilize grape wine.
Potassium carbonate and/or
potassium bicarbonate
To reduce excess natural
acidity in wine, and in juice
prior to or during fermentation.
Potassium citrate: pH control agent and sequestrant
in treatment of citrus wines.
Potassium meta-bisulfite: To sterilize and to preserve wine.
Silica gel (colloidal silicon
dioxide):
To clarify wine or juice.
Sorbic acid and potassium salt of
sorbic acid:
To sterilize and to preserve wine;
to inhibit mold growth and
secondary fermentation.
Soy flour (defatted): Yeast nutrient to facilitate
fermentation of wine.
Sulfur dioxide: To sterilize and to preserve wine.
Tannin: – To adjust tannin content in
apple juice or in apple wine. 

– To clarify or to adjust tannin
content of juice or wine
(other than apple).

Tartaric acid: To correct natural acid
deficiencies in grape juice/
wine and to reduce the pH of
grape juice/wine where
ameliorating material is used
in the production of grape wine.
Thiamine hydrochloride: Yeast nutrient to facilitate
fermentation of wine.
Yeast, autolyzed: Yeast nutrient to facilitate
fermentation in the production
of grape or fruit wine.
Yeast, cell wall/membranes of
autolyzed yeast:
To facilitate fermentation of
juice/wine.


Sec. 24.247 Materials authorized for the treatment of distilling material.

Materials Use
Ammonium phosphate (mono- and di basic) Yeast nutrient in distilling material.
Benzoic acid, potassium and sodium salts of benzoic acid To prevent fermentation of the sugar in wine being accumulated as distilling material.
Enzyme activity:
Carbohydrase (alpha- Amylase) To convert starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Carbohydrase (beta- Amylase) To convent starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Carbohydrase (Glucoamylase,
Amylogluco-sidase)
To convent starches to fermentable
carbohydrates.
Copper sulfate To eliminate hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans.
Hydrogen peroxide To reduce the bisulfite aldehyde complex
in distilling material.
Potassium permanganate Oxidizing agent.
Sodium hydroxide Acid neutralizing agent.
Sulfuric acid To effect favorable yeast development in
distilling material; to prevent
fermentation of the sugar in wine being
accumulated as distilling material; to
lower pH to 2.5 in order to prevent
putrefaction and/or ethyl acetate
development.

Posted in chemistry, ingredients, natural wine | Leave a comment

A visit to Coturri Winery

Last weekend I visited Tony Coturri from Coturri Winery, in Glen Ellen, just East of Santa Rosa. Two minutes after my arrival on top of his hill, I had a glass in hand and I was tasting a handful of his wines near his cellars. Tasting detail: I noticed that all his wines had a common thread: an intriguing late finish of chocolate and rubber. My pick to take home was a bottle of his 2007 zinfandel from the Testa vineyard in Mendocino.

I really had a good time questioning and listening to a winemaker who has been in the field for so long. We talked about the Prohibition, the European notion of food culture, the world of the big guys in the California wine industry, and… sulfur! I wanted to make sure I would properly cover this topic, so relevant to natural wine. And Tony Coturri is actually the only California winemaker I know who does not add sulfur to any of his wines.

For the usual “visit video”, I chose a joyful excerpt where Tony Coturri relates a story involving Francois from Jenny & Francois, the famous natural wine importer in New York.

Thanks Tony for the great discussions amid your zinfandel vineyard during that sunny and windy afternoon!

Posted in interview, winery | Leave a comment

Real wines and friends @ Heart

Last night was packed with real wines and friends @ Heart. 5 wineries (La Clarine Farm, Donkey & Goat, Edmunds St. John, Old World Winery, NPA) were there pouring their wines. Real wines.

I had prepared a short video beginning with Tony Coturri, whom I visited a few days before, and certainly one of the fathers of natural wine in America. And I asked Tony to say a few words to the crowd for my fundraising event. Touching. Have a look:

Thanks to all for coming last night! I can assure you, there will be more events like this.

Posted in event, San Francisco | 1 Comment

Fundraising @ Heart

As you probably know, the film is currently in post-production. I, Martin, am working everyday and weekends full-steam on it. Editing in Final Cut Pro to assemble the clips together, trying to fix noisy soundtracks, crafting an interesting story to tell to natural wine fans and all of you foodies. A lot of work has been done since we started in October last year. You’re probably wondering: how has he managed to live in San Francisco with no salary for almost half a year now?

Well, we raised 1020$ with our kickstarter campaign, but the vast majority of expenses were paid with our own savings, which have become quite thin by now. But we believe the film has potential, since we feel we have the necessary footage to make a good portrait of the natural wine world in California.

In order to continue to work on the project for a couple more months, I am willing to borrow some money as well as politely ask for your generosity during our forthcoming fundraising event.

Fundraising @ Heart on Feb 22

  • where: Heart, in the Mission District in San Francisco.
  • when: between 6pm and 10pm
  • I will present a video made especially for the event @ 8pm
  • suggested entrance fee: 10$ (which will go entirely to the project)
  • there will also be donation boxes, if you feel the urge to be generous!
  • Hank Beckmeyer from LaClarineFarm will be there pouring his wine!
  • Jared Brandt from Donkey And Goat will be there pouring his wine!
  • Steve Edmunds from Edmunds St. John will be there pouring his wine!
  • Darek Trowbridge from Old World Winery will be there pouring his wine!
  • Hardy Wallace from the NPA will be there pouring NPA wine!

I would be both thankful and honored to see you there. Bring friends, and come to see some footage from the forthcoming film, hear the latest news about the project, and enjoy a glass of natural wine poured by the winemakers or from Heart’s nice selection.

Thanks in advance!

Posted in event, project evolution, San Francisco | 2 Comments

Blind tasting shooting @ Terroir

Last Saturday was most probably our last day of shooting, but certainly not the least! We organized a blind tasting at Terroir in San Francisco. We thought it would be an interesting framework to talk about natural wine and figure out if it is possible to detect where a wine actually comes from. Indeed, if the goal of natural winemakers is to make a wine of terroir, one could expect drinkers (at least the wine experts) to be capable of recognizing the terroir or the location of a wine with only their nose and palate.

So we gathered 5 wine experts at the table:

  • Ian Becker, Arlequin’s wine director
  • Hank Beckmeyer, winemaker at La Clarine Farm
  • Chris Deegan, Nopa’s wine director
  • Dagan Ministero, one of Terroir’s founders
  • Angela Osborne, winemaker at A Tribute to Grace Wine Co.

We wrapped the following 6 bottles in brown bags. All natural wine from California:

  1. Chardonnay, BroadSide, 2009
  2. Carte blanche, Clos Saron, 2009
  3. Rocks And Gravel, Dry Creek Valley, Edmunds St. John, 2009
  4. Wylie Syrah, El Dorado County, Edmunds St. John, 2009
  5. Les Enfants Terribles, Zinfandel, Dashe, 2009
  6. Syrah “Sumu Kaw vineyard”, La Clarine, 2009

Blind tasting @ Terroir

Blind tasting results

The experts often agreed on the characteristics of the wine, e.g. the minerality, the presence (or lack) of oak, the presence of fruit, the level of alcohol. But only sometimes could they correctly identify the grape/s or the type of climate where the grapes were grown. And never could they identify the specific California terroir.

On one hand — getting down to specifics — Ian somewhat assertively picked the Chardonnay in the first wine. Angela picked the predominance of Syrah in the third one. And Dagan easily picked the carbonic maceration by the smell and mouth feel in the fifth one. So they had a few things right.

On the other hand, a few people were thinking about a blend of Rhone varietals for the second wine despite a good amount of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Most were clueless. In the fourth wine a few people could pick up the variety. And nobody even mentioned zinfandel (which was admittedly atypical) for the fifth one. Our wine selection had them stumped.

Showing terroir versus guessing terroir

There was no discernable embarrassment on the part of our wine experts though. An important point was made by both Chris Deegan and Ian Becker when they distinguished between the capacity to guess where a wine comes from versus the idea that a wine shows terroir. Indeed, the California wine world is so new, large and diversified that it is nearly impossible to guess the correct location for a wine. However, this is not to say that natural wine cannot express terroir.

Chris Deegan explained that in Burgundy, people have been making wines the same way for a very long time, with only 2 different grapes, on a relatively small area. Hence, it is certainly much more feasible to pick the correct location for a wine in Burgundy than it is in California.

American terroir

Putting things into context, Dagan Ministero commented that the concept of American terroir is like writing a graduate thesis based on other people’s work which is more prominent than yours. He thought California winemakers were lucky to have the possibility to tap into a long-established knowledge base.

That idea was supported by Ian Becker and Hank Beckmeyer, stressing that the American wine world is really new when you compare it with the wine world in Europe. California is still experimenting and learning from the European masters.

Hank Beckmeyer also highlighted — pleasantly realizing — that the notion of American terroir today meant that we could sit together around the table and have fun guessing a flight of wines of terroir from California. In other words, some California wines were expressive enough of their terroir to make it imaginable to have such a blind tasting event.

And indeed, we as moderators had a lot of fun, and it was easy to tell that the wine experts had fun as well. Moreover, we are confident that some of the footage from this blind tasting will make it into our final documentary.

Film crew

On a more technical note, since Matt and I knew we would be acting as moderators during the discussion, we hired a crew to help us with lighting and cameras (Brent Bishop, Pete Horner), as well as sound (Darcel Walker). Special kudos to Brent Bishop who has been incredibly helpful in terms of sharing advice, competence and reliability.

Long day, but a worthwhile one. Thanks to all!

Posted in project evolution, wine tasting | Leave a comment

A visit to Edmunds St John

We recently paid a visit to Steve Edmunds at his home in Berkeley. A lot of people had been telling us how Steve was an inspiration to a lot of natural wine makers. So we decided it was time to interview the man on camera.

Steve was very generous of his time and we ended up talking for a few hours. He’s been around for a long time so it was nice to hear stories about how it used to be. He treated us to a very good Edmunds St. John rosé and his wife Cornelia prepared some delicious goat cheese, several types of crackers and some fresh fruits. We also bought a few bottles from him. One we kept for ourselves and two we ended up using for our blind tasting. More on that later.

All in all, it was an easy afternoon and we recorded good footage for the documentary. Thanks Steve!

Posted in interview, winery | Leave a comment

Don Heistuman’s inspiration for his Bebame

Last Tuesday I attended a 2-hour wine workshop from 18reasons. It turned out to be a pretty decent night. The purpose of the event was for Don Heistuman to introduce us to some of the wines which inspired him to make his own baby: Bebame.

Don Heistuman entertaining the group

So Don prepared 4 wines (around the 20 dollars mark) in addition to his Bebame which we got to taste last. Here is the list:

  • Domaine des Terres Dorees, Beaujolais, L’Ancien, 2009
  • D. Ventura “Pena do Lobo” Ribera Sacra (Galicia), 2009
  • Franck Peillot Vin du Bugey Mondeuse, Savoie, 2009
  • Bernard Baudry Chinon, Loire Valley, 2008

Those wines were a pleasure to drink. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the first one. Strawberries, delicate, silky but still light, lots of pleasure. And I was happy to get my palate on the Mondeuse varietal for the first time, which reminded me of the masculine Syrah. Let’s say that: I really enjoyed his inspiration!

Poured and ready

Don talked a fair bit at the beginning, but we got into some discussions in the second half. All people around the table had a strong interest in the topic and we heard a diversity of opinions.

Take that one: is the winemaker part of the notion of terroir? I’d personally say no because I believe terroir should be restricted to the land, the climate, the soil type, the topography. But this perspective certainly has to do with my experience with natural winemakers who repeatedly told me during the interviews that the goal was to make the winemaking processes as discreet as possible. Only that way, they often said, can it be possible to make a wine of terroir. However, as the wikipedia page for terroir describes it these days, some people expand the concept and will include some human-controlled elements. And that’s Don’s opinion too. As you can tell, that was an interesting debate.

One thing which was challenging to me was the fact that Don didn’t consider his wine to be a wine of terroir, even though he had a hands-off approach and used indigenous yeasts. He said it would take a few vintages before he could make a wine of terroir. I guess I’ll need to sit down with Don around another glass of his Bebame so that we can discuss that further…

Posted in San Francisco, wine tasting | 1 Comment