The Newest Super Tuscan Wine Has Roots in Family Farming

Wine-Hero

The Newest Super Tuscan Wine Has Roots in Family Farming

February 28, 2019

The partnership that resulted in the Tuscan winery Urlari started on a ski lift in Portillo, Chile, and today its wines are imported by a company based in Teton Village, Wyoming, the small community at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Italian co-founder Roberto Cristoforetti is both a certified fruit farmer and handcrafts custom ski boots for the world’s best ski racers. (Since the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, 83 Olympic medals have been won in Cristoforetti-made boots by skiers including Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, and Julia Mancuso; he plans to retire after the 2019-2020 race season.) Urlari’s other co-founder, Mary Kate Buckley, has skied her entire adult life and this past summer started as president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In 2002, the two found themselves on a lift together in Portillo.

Initially they chatted—in German, because that was their common language—about athletic footwear. At the time, Buckley was Regional Vice President and General Manager for Nike’s Americas Region and was curious that top World Cup racers all had custom boots. As their friendship grew, Buckley soon learned of Cristoforetti’s passion for wine, which had its roots in his friendship with Italian ski racer Alberto Tomba (who was known as much for being an oenophile as for his dominance in skiing’s technical events). 

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Tomba invited Cristoforetti to accompany him to wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Chile, and California. Buckley had been introduced to fine wine in the mid-1990s when she was working for Disney and based in Hong Kong but often working in Tokyo. “In Tokyo, I sat in an office next to Guy [Aelvoet, president of Disney Consumer Products in Japan] and he became my mentor and a friend,” she says. “Guy shared his appreciation for fine food and fine wines. When [he] introduced me to a new wine, he’d not only introduce me to the quality of its attributes, but could speak articulately about the winery that produced it and details that translated [it] from being simply a great product in a bottle to a reflection of the deep passion and rich histories of its owners.”

By the time Cristoforetti and Buckley met, he was a partner in a start-up Tuscan winery. Later, he mentioned to Buckley that he was thinking about planting his own vineyards. (He grew up in a family of fruit farmers.) Inspired by his passion and always looking for new challenges, Buckley encouraged him, offered to be his partner, and to help—initially with marketing, and, eventually, sales. (Of course Buckley checked in with her wine mentor, Aelvoet: “When I told him I was thinking about starting a winery in Tuscany, he weighed in, first to warn me how challenging it would be to start a winery from nothing, but then to support with advice and cheer me on at every stage,” she says.)

Cristoforetti began searching for suitable land and, in 2004, found it. It was while Buckley and Cristoforetti stood on a 25-acre plot of sheep pasture in Riparbella, in Tuscany’s coastal Maremma region 4 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea, that they created the product vision for Urlari. The sloping pasture has an elevation between 700 and 800 feet and is surrounded by dense forests in which locals hunt for wild boars.

As the pasture was being transformed into vineyards—15 of the 25 acres were planted—evidence of it being cultivated since Etruscan times was found, including fragments of a wine vessel, a hairpiece, and a coin dating to 200 B.C. that eventually inspired the winery’s labels. Unusual for the region, Cristoforetti planted grapes very close together. (This is seen more often in Bordeaux.) “When the plants are so close, they fight for the limited water, so only the strong plants and grapes survive, and those that survive are going to be more intense than they otherwise would be,” he says.

To make Urlari’s first wines, Cristoforetti approached winemaker Jean-Philippe Fort, even though the Bordeaux native had never before agreed to work with a winery outside of France. (More than 40 percent of the wines Fort consults for are Grand Cru Classe, including Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru.) Intrigued by Urlari’s terroir and facilities, Fort agreed, officially bringing together the three world wine cultures Cristoforetti most esteems: Italian, American, and French. In 2010, using the 2008 vintage, Urlari produced about 8,000 bottles of its first wine, Pervale, a blend of Sangiovese (28%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (15%), and Alicante Bouschet (7%). “Roberto sold these mostly from the back of his car throughout Italy,” Buckley says. Urlari’s second vintage, 2009, produced 24,000 bottles, and the winery extended its distribution. Its first export customer was Aelvoet’s son-in-law, who owned a restaurant in Belgium. “He bought 50 cases based solely on Guy’s recommendation,” Buckley says.

Not all sales were so easy though. “We thought the hard part would be making the wine, but the really hard part is selling it,” says Buckley. “There are so many wine labels in the U.S., and nobody needs another one.” She briefly looked for an importer, but was unsuccessful. “So I got my importer license,” she says. “If you look at the label today, you’ll see it says ‘Imported by Urlari USA, LLC Teton Village, WY.’” (Buckley bought a home at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the year after she and Cristoforetti bought the land for Urlari and she became a full-time Wyoming resident in 2009.) Her strategy was to sell wine to stores and restaurants in Jackson Hole and also to restaurants in New York City. “It’s the most competitive market in which everyone wants to sell their wine,” she says. “While I had never sold wine or anything else, I had confidence that the most sophisticated wine directors in New York would recognize and buy a truly unique, high-quality wine.”

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In Jackson Hole, Buckley was able to walk into wine shops and restaurants without appointments and talk with owners and sommeliers. Dennis Johnson, the now-semi-retired manager of Dornan’s Wine Shop, which has a 1,500-plus bottle list and has earned a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence every year for 31 years, remembers the first time Buckley came in. “She walked into the shop and told me she had started a winery in Italy,” he says. “We like helping out smaller, individual wineries that are giving it a go, so I tasted the wines. It was nice stuff, a really, really good quality wine. I had no doubt it would sell.” Other bottle shops and restaurants in Jackson Hole quickly followed.

Making inroads in New York was more difficult. “I got a copy of Wine Spectator’s list of best restaurants for wine,” Buckley says. “And then I cold-called the ones in New York City.” Most restaurants wouldn’t see her, but “the ones I got in front of with the wine bought it,” she says. After Buckley had gotten Urlari onto the wine lists of restaurants like Keens Steakhouse, Delmonicos, Bar Italia, and Caravaggio, importers took notice. Today Urlari’s three wines—Pervale, L’Urlo (100% Merlot), and Ritasso (100% Sangiovese)—are sold through distributors in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, and importers in the NY/NJ/ CT area and Pennsylvania. The 2017 New York International Wine Competition recognized Urlari as the Tuscan Winery of the Year, and its 2011 vintage Pervale won a “Double Gold” from a panel of top wine critics. James Suckling, regarded as one of the world’s top wine critics, has awarded scores of 93 points for Pervale, 93 points for L’Urlo, and 92 points for Ritasso.

On the phone in the middle of the most recent harvest, I asked Cristoforetti if Olympic skiers or grapes are more difficult to work with. He didn’t hesitate: “Grapes.” And that makes Urlari’s success all the sweeter. Buckley says, “Building a new business from scratch—literally going from standing in a sheep pasture and envisioning a wine made from grapes of plants that have yet to be planted and encountering hurdles along the way, to winning awards and having people enjoy all of our work—that’s so much fun.”

One of the World’s Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

Douro-Hero

One of the World's Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

December 28, 2018

No landscape in the world expresses the idea of mind over matter more powerfully and poignantly than northern Portugal’s Douro River Valley. Over the course of centuries, human grit, gumption and genius have completely transformed the valley’s almost-vertical hills of gnarled schist into terraced vineyards. Humans have massaged the hills’ coarse granite and slate soils into yielding the wines used to make the region’s signature product, Port. Port is the most storied of fortified wines, which differ from standard wines because a grape spirit, or brandy, is added during the production process. Adding the spirit during, and not after, fermentation kills off the active yeast cells and leaves the wine with high levels of residual sugar, making it sweet and strong in alcohol—Port’s special character.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the uniqueness of these landscapes when it classified the Alto (upper) Douro Valley as a World Heritage site. UNESCO specified that the upper valley constitutes “an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region” that’s been growing grapes for over 2,000 years. The group also noted, “The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking—terraces, quintas [wine-producing farm complexes], villages, chapels and roads.” More simply said, the visual harmony of this countryside quietly exalts with its aura of peaceable permanence. Staring out over such well-groomed and -tended vineyards is profoundly soothing, too. Subliminally, they convey a gentle definition of eternity based on a profound respect for nature transmitted from one generation to the next. There have been vineyards here since almost the founding of the Roman Empire.

This bucolic backdrop makes for an unlikely setting for a revolution, but during the last 30 years a wave of change has jolted the valley’s conservative and genteel traditions of Port production. The bold band of winemakers who launched the charge still leads it. They came together in 2003 and christened themselves “the Douro Boys.” Their shared goal was to put the unfortified wines of the Douro on an equal footing with Port. The wines had the pedigree to achieve a level of recognition appropriate to their inherent quality. And they have. Today the region is rebooted; the Douro’s unfortified wines are on par with the best vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Piedmont and other storied Old World wine lands.

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Consider that wines from one or more of the Douro’s quintas have made it onto Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines of the Year” list every year for over a decade. This feat casts them as rivals of the Pauillacs, Gevrey-Chambertins, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Barolos. The highest Douro Valley unfortified wine score to date? Wine Spectator rated a 2011 vintage Quinta do Vale Meão 97/100. From the magazine’s tasting notes: “A lush, seductive red, filled to the brim with an array of dark fruit and kirsch flavors, accented by plenty of cream and spice notes. Silky tannins and molten chocolate hints add richness. The long finish echoes with mineral and white pepper. Best from 2015 through 2022.”

During the recent week I spent among the Douro Boys—men, really—as a fledgling but eager student of Douro Valley wines, I’ve never met a more passionate, worldly-but-earthy and intelligently innovative group of winemakers. Each one taught me something different about the essential character of Douro wines. All of them exemplified the same consistent elegance, charm and graciousness as the superb quaffs I sampled.

The “Boys” are a convivial group of cousins, brothers and friends, and did not jump into winemaking on a whim. Between them, they represent five of the most respected wine estates in the Douro—Quinta do Vallado (Francisco Ferreira and João Alvares Ribeiro), Niepoort (Dirk Niepoort), Quinta do Crasto (Miguel and Tomás Roquette), Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Cristiano van Zeller) and Quinta do Vale Meão (Francisco Olazabal). Although descended from some of the most famous Port-making families in the region, none of these men find their ardor for making unfortified wine incongruous with their families’ history. “Innovation is actually very much a part of our heritage,” observed the amiable Cristiano van Zeller when I visited him at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, where he makes wine from 50-year-old vines on property that has been in his wife’s family for 150 years. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker said of the Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2009, “It will be a contender for wine of the vintage” and rated it 96 points.

“From generation to generation, we have been documenting every single square foot of this valley, because even if they are just a few feet apart, different parcels of land can produce wholly different wines,” van Zeller said. “This is why we have to mix and match different barrels from different plots to get the right balance in a wine.”

“Everything changed in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union,” explained Carlos Raposo, the brilliant young cellar master who oversees production as part of his collaboration with winemaker Dirk Niepoort at the latter’s Quinta de Napoles vineyards. The EU abolished the monopoly that funneled Ports produced in the Douro region to the big Port houses that blended, matured and marketed them from their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto. “Wine producers were finally able to bypass the houses founded by the English and Dutch Port merchants and were free to sell independently,” Raposo said.

To appreciate the magnitude of this change, it helps to know a little bit about the history of winemaking in the valley of the Douro River, which originates at Picos de Urbión in Spain and then flows 557 miles west across northern Portugal before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. Archaeological evidence indicates wine has been made in the upper valley since the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago, but the region’s vineyards really thrived when Portugal became part of the wine-loving Roman Empire in the 3rd century B.C. What sealed the fate of the Douro as a producer of fortified wine for centuries was a series of treaties signed between England and Portugal that gave Portugal privileged access to the lucrative British market.

The 1703 Methuen Treaty put Portugal on a preferential basis in supplying Britain through lower tariffs on wines from Portugal than those from other countries. After a quality scandal in the region in the early 1700s caused Port sales to plummet, the Marquis de Pombal, a Portuguese nobleman, founded the now legendary Douro Wine Company to regulate the Port trade. The company, for the first time, officially delineated those regions of the valley that had the legal right to call their fortified wine “Port.” (The Douro is one of the three oldest established wine appellations in the world.) The thriving commerce between England and Portugal led to the establishment of a community of English and other European wine brokers in Porto, and the founding of the great Port houses, which enjoyed a monopoly some winemakers describe as quasi-feudal with the quinta producers until 1986.

“In 1987, when Dirk told his father that he wanted to buy the 70-acre Quinta de Napoles and begin producing wine, the older gentleman first thought his son had taken leave of his senses, but eventually he came around,” explained Raposo. “After several years of hard work, Dirk’s Redoma wines showed everyone the incredible potential of the Douro to produce unfortified white wine, which surprised everyone, because almost none had been made here in the past—the Douro was considered red-wine territory par excellence. Niepoort whites are made with local varietals like rabigato, codega do larinho and viosinho. These grapes come from very old vineyards planted in mica schist soils at high altitudes, which yield delicate mineral-rich wines of great complexity.”

It isn’t just the grapes and terroir, the French idea of a very specific geographical place. “We still work according to traditional methods, including crushing the grapes by foot in large, open, waist-high stone tanks called lagares,” said Raposo, who worked at wineries around the world before joining the Niepoort winery. “The reason we work this way is the foot never crushes the grape pips [seeds], releasing bitter oils the way that mechanical presses do, and the granite used to make the lagares gives the wine more character, too.”

On a chilly autumn afternoon, a fire crackled in the fireplace of the elegant dining room at Quinta do Vale Meão. August oil paintings on the walls and silver-framed family portraits on the sideboards brought generations of family to the table even though today’s owner, Francisco Olazabal, entertained a single guest—me—for lunch. The meal began with a soothing country soup made from potatoes, stock and turnip greens.

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A main course of braised partridge hunted by the host in the surrounding hills followed. The succulent bird was served with a Quinta do Vale Meão 2013, an elegant red wine made from touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinta roriz grapes grown on the estate. “This wine shows off the best elements of New and Old World style. You’ll find it’s full- bodied and fresh without any cloying jaminess,” said Olazabal, and he was right.

For the Douro, Olazabal’s estate is relatively recent. The 650- acre quinta was founded in 1877 by Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, his great-great grandmother. “She was from the Ferreira Port family, and her plan was to create a model vineyard. Almost all of the grapes grown here were sold to Ferreira to make Port until 1998, when my father resigned as director of Ferreira to dedicate himself to producing great still [unfortified] wines on the estate,” Olazabal said. “My great-great grandmother was sort of a visionary,” he added, explaining that the quinta lies on a geological fault with two distinctly different soil types: schist in front of the house and granite out back. “She knew this, and by buying this land she gave us great tools, because different grapes prefer different soils,” he said.

“We’re quite different from other Douro producers, because our vineyards are young and vinified according to individual parcels and then blended,” Olazabal told me while we visited his recently renovated aging cellars, where the air smelled deliciously of dried red fruit, especially cherries. “The real genius of the new Douro wines is that they can present such a strong sense of terroir but also be discreetly modern.”

While Olazabal maintains individual parcels of varietals, the other Douro estates still use the traditional local “field blend” system of grape growing. In this, different varieties are planted in a single parcel and picked at the same time. “These parcels are so precious that we have catalogued every single vine in case we need to replant. There are some dozen different grape varieties in those parcels, and together they make magic,” Miguel Roquette told me as we stared out over the vineyards that produce the grapes from which his family’s most highly lauded wine, the Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa, is made. (Wine Spectator awarded the 2005 and 2011 vintages 96/100 and the 2007 vintage 95/100, while Robert Parker rated the 2001 as 95/100, the 2003 as 96/100 and the 2005 as 94/100.) Until I actually tasted the 2005 vintage in a Porto restaurant a few days later, the most interesting thing about my visit to Roquette’s estate was botanical.

“Come, Alexander. It’s important that you see this. This will tell you more about what makes the Douro the Douro than anything else,” Roquette said. I followed him into the dark on a cool, autumn night with a fine sliver of a new moon in the star-studded sky above. Using his cellphone, he lit the way through the gardens outside of the family house on the farm. “Here we are,” he said, shining the light on an amazingly long, thick and gnarled slate gray root exposed in the side of a snaggly cliff. “The vine that sent down that root is at least a hundred feet above us on the hillside. Do you feel the power in this root, the obstinacy of nature? This is the Douro, a harsh place where the vines struggle but end up producing some of the world’s best grapes, from which we’re now making some of the world’s best wines,” said Roquette, sounding as awed as if he were seeing the root for the first time.

This is why you might honestly say that the Douro is living up to its name, since “douro” means “golden” in Portuguese, and this wine region, at once venerable and brilliantly avant- garde, is clearly just on the cusp of a new golden age.

How to Vacation in Sonoma’s Wine Country​

Sonoma-Hero

How to Vacation in Sonoma’s Wine Country

December 19, 2018

Locals often say, “Sonoma is for wine, and Napa is for auto parts.” (Of course, people in Napa have been known to respond, “Sonoma? I think I’ve heard of it.”) Good-natured rivalry aside, there’s no question that Sonoma is less famous than Napa. But it’s also a premier wine region that draws people back again and again. And though there are plenty of well-known wineries in the county, it’s easy to get off the beaten path to discover California’s original winemaking culture with family-run wineries, sprawling estates and hidden gems. 

In fact, Medlock and Ames put as much thought into the food they produce as the wine. A flight may include fresh vegetables from their garden, some local cheese, or salami produced by a neighbor. The wines tend to be fruit forward, with a sauvignon blanc you will never forget. They also make a rose that pairs with just about everything they serve. 

In Sonoma, a winery is typically much more than a place where they produce wines. At Medlock Ames, this is especially true. The young winery has only produced six vintages, but their wines convey a mature sophistication. And they grow a lot more than grapes on the 335-acre plot at Bell Mountain. They also grow produce and herbs, using principles of organic farming that brought owners Ames Morrison and Christoper Medlock James together at Tulane University.

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Along with the wine, they offer a selection of organic produce for sale in the tasting room, but that’s not the only thing that will surprise you here: There’s also a secret bar. The Alexander Bar is hidden away, in speakeasy form, behind a tasting room wall. It opens in the evening, when they serve handcrafted cocktails, also using their fresh-grown ingredients, as well as artisan spirits and local brews. It’s just one more unexpected treat at Medlock Ames in the Alexander Valley. 

There is no prettier winery in the spring and early months of summer than Matanzas Creek, located in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. Grapes are, of course, the primary crop at the vineyard. But the lavender fields have their own fan club. The lavender gardens come to peak bloom in late June, which handily coincides with the annual Lavender Festival. Soon after the lavender harvest it’s time to start picking grapes and making wine. The lavender is used in the kitchen as well as in a line of spa products available at the winery as well as a couple of local spas. Bennet Valley received an American Viticultural Area designation in 2003. Sonoma, Bennett and Taylor mountains grab the fog and cool air, courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. This cooling effect, known as the Petaluma Wind Gap, produces a microclimate similar to the Russian River Valley’s. It allows for a long growing season as grapes ripen a little at a time. Matanzas Creek wines are both interesting and well made, capitalizing on the superior fruit the vineyards offer. 

It’s hard not to be immediately taken by the beauty of the Michel-Schlumberger estate, even before you discover what makes this winery unique. The vineyards stretch across 100 acres on the foothills of Dry Creek Valley and, as you walk through the vast land, you’ll find breathtaking views from every angle. Beyond the 20 blocks of grape vines lie an olive orchard and vegetable gardens, alive and vibrant with butterflies, bird and bees, chickens, sheep and goats.

The fauna at Michel-Schlumberger serves a purpose: The bees naturally pollinate the landscape; the chickens eradicate outbreaks of pests; the goats clear the scrub on the hillside; and the sheep mow the grass. Jim Morris, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, sums it up: “Our world is all about building a healthy ecosystem.”

And that’s exactly what the Michel Schlumberger estate is: a self-sustained, eco-friendly environment that runs with little electricity, gasoline or excess water. They have earned some impressive awards in sustainability, but let’s not forget that it’s all about making wine — excellent award-winning wine. 

The acclaimed movie director’s estate is certainly no secret. But it’s an experience in its own right and worth the visit. Over the past 25 years, Coppola has reclaimed all of the original Inglenook vineyards. And in a nod to the estate’s storied history, it was renamed Inglenook in 2011, but still very much carries the Coppola brand name.

When you enter the big gates of the winery, you aren’t quite sure if you’re going into a movie set or an Italian castle. Unlike most wineries, this one is built with the entire family in mind, a place where you can spend the day with excitement for kids of all ages to enjoy. 

Outside of the winery is a swimming pool, café and changing “cabines,” which include pool passes and towels. There are also four full-size bocce ball courts and special events and concerts throughout the spring and summer. Rustic Restaurant, inside of the winery, serves “Francis’ Favorites,” such as Marrakesh Lamb and Braciole with Rigatoni in Meat Ragu. Indeed, the Coppola estate is a destination in its own right.

Midway between Sonoma and Santa Rosa is Kenwood, home to wineries such as Landmark and Saint Francis. Though St. Francis offers some nice food-and-wine pairings, there are other food options. The Restaurant at the Kenwood Inn and Spa is a beautiful spot for Mediterranean cuisine.

Open to the public for lunch and dinner, the large fireplace is usually going during the area’s short winter. The rest of the time, the dining room is open to the picturesque courtyard. At the other end of the spectrum is Cafe Citti. There is nothing elegant about it: Order at the counter and then take a seat inside or outside among what is bound to be mostly locals. But don’t confuse basic with lessthan-wonderful. The rotisserie chicken is great, as are any of the pastas. The white clam sauce is a staple, made with shelled clams sautéed with white wine and olive oil. The Casear salad is excellent, as long as you’re a fan of garlic.

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Sonoma Square is a sleepy little spot, just like the town itself. With a variety of restaurants and shops, it’s easy to spend time just cruising, tasting and exploring. Those wanting to fend for themselves in the kitchen should make a stop at The Sonoma Market, which specializes in higher-end products at reasonable prices. The selection of produce, meats and specialty items is excellent.

Vella Cheese Company has been a Sonoma mainstay since 1931. Made exclusively with milk from happy, livin’- large cows at nearby Merten’s Dairy, Vella cheeses have garnered a heap of awards over the years. Tucked just off the square on Second Street, the shop offers cheese samplings. Still owned and operated by the hands-on Vella family, the cheese company is most famous for its Dry Jack. Created accidentally during World War I when Italy stopped most of its exports to feed its soldiers, Dry Jack became a domestic option to Parmesan cheese. And during World War II, the cheese’s reputation got another boost in both popularity and national pride. These days the cheese isn’t used as a Parmesan substitute but as a cheese worthy of its own place at the table — or in the omelet, atop the pasta, or with some crackers. Vella Cheese Company is also the only commercial cheese outfit in the U.S. to make Toma, a soft, slightly ripened artisanal cheese that originated in Piedmont. Italian Table Cheese, Asiago and a whole fleet of full-moisture Monterey Jacks round out the company’s selections.

LaSalette Restaurant specializes in the fairly obscure cuisine of Portugal. Named for the chef-owner’s mother in honor of her heritage, the restaurant has garnered a reputation for excellent seafood. Portuguese food draws from the culinary histories of its former colonies throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, India and the New World. The result is a truly unique dining experience, especially in Sonoma surrounded by a plethora of French and Italian-influenced California cuisine. They do a lot of cooking in the wood-fired oven, and serve several Portuguese national dishes, such as the feijoada completa with smoky sausage and caldo verde, literally translated as green soup. 

People argue about Cafe La Haye — nobody can agree on a favorite dish. Some stick to the risotto of the day, period. For others, it’s all about the seafood special. Even the roasted chicken with caramelized chicken jus has a fan club. And that’s before anyone even mentions dessert, which ought to include butterscotch pudding. Foodies agree that Cafe La Haye is a special place. Owner Saul Gropman is usually the one to greet guests as they come through the door, and he knows how to welcome people in and make sure they’re well tended.

Girl + the fig brings vineyard-style eating to downtown Sonoma. Originally opened on the Glen Ellen estate, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein moved girl + the fig to the square when the Sonoma Hotel evacuated its spot. (She now has The Fig Cafe at Glen Ellen). Girl + the fig is a magical little spot, with a welcoming patio and warm service. Time slows down in deference to what is often referred to as a French country menu, though Bernstein insists it’s actually a Sonoma menu with a French passion. Sonoma’s farms supply most of the ingredients the restaurant uses, and the food is topnotch. But what has always distinguished the eatery is the hospitality. The staff, from hostess to bartender to server, literally welcomes each guest. Of course Sonoma wines are highlighted, and imbibing is encouraged through extensive by-the-glass options as well as a selection of wine flights. During the spring and summer months, wait for a table on the patio. It’s worth it.

Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

Winery-Hero

Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

October 16, 2018

“Go get ’em, Bruno!” winemaker Bruce Cohn calls to his old black lab as the dog chases a rubber bung (a stopper for a wine barrel) across the olive tree-shaded courtyard at the B.R. Cohn winery in Glen Ellen. “He’s 14 and he thinks he’s 3!” Cohn exclaims. “He drank red wine all his life, that’s why.” Bruno barks excitedly when he hears the word “wine” as Cohn notes that the dog has his own wine, called Bruno’s Blend.

These are good days for Cohn, 69, a Chicago native who has had two successful careers, the first as the manager of the rock band The Doobie Brothers and later Night Ranger, the second as a winery owner in Sonoma County. Cohn’s family relocated to San Francisco when he was 10 and a year later moved an hour north to rural Forestville where his father, who had been in the shoe business in Chicago, started a goat dairy. The family lived in an old farm- house, and Bruce had to get up at 4:30 every morning to milk the goats—he also picked grapes on a neighbor’s vineyard.

But he never imagined that one day he’d be a winemaker. It happened almost by accident. He’d become the manager of The Doobie Brothers in 1970 when he was just 22. “We had 38 guys on the road, two planes and four semis, it was a lot of responsibility for somebody that young.” The Doobie Brothers “were pretty crazy, wild guys at that time. Now they’re just crazy,” he says with a laugh, “boring and crazy.”

Cohn also worked as the sound mixer at the Doobies’ shows. After four years of incessant touring he decided to buy some land in the Valley of the Moon, a crescent of paradise in eastern Sonoma County. The idea was to have a place to decompress. “I was on the road with the band about 250 days a year,” he says, “and I just wanted a place where I could raise my kids like I was raised.”

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“I call this the center of the earth,” Cohn says. “This is like Tuscany. I tell people, don’t go to Italy, just come to B.R. Cohn. We have better wines; we have great olive oils.” That sounds boastful, but Cohn seems like a down-to-earth guy who can’t quite believe his luck and is grateful for how well his life turned out. When he acquired the property, some of the land was planted with grapes that were sold to Sebastiani, a nearby family winery. The patriarch, August Sebastiani, sagely told Cohn he wouldn’t make much money on the grapes, but that he’d do well with the land. “When I got my first check for the grapes,” Cohn says, “I understood what he meant.”

In the early 1970s, Cohn read thick books about viticulture on flights with the Doobies. Not long afterward, he was introduced to Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, and asked the veteran winemaker to mentor him, but Wagner was taken aback by Cohn’s appearance. “I sure didn’t look like a farmer,” Cohn says. “I had an afro up to here, leather pants, high-heeled boots.” Cohn soon won him over, and Wagner, who died in 2002, tutored Cohn for four years. “In 1978, I’d brought him three tons of pinot and three tons of cab grapes,” Cohn says. “I drove a ’48 Dodge over the mountain” to Caymus in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa’s wine country. “I burned the brakes up going down the Oakville Grade.”

Six months later Wagner called Cohn and said: “Get over here, you gotta try this wine.” So Cohn drove back over the Mayacamas Mountains, and Wagner poured him some pinot. “I didn’t know anything about red wine. I was drinking tequila and Dos Equis with the band,” Cohn says.

“So, I tried the pinot and said, ‘oh that’s good.’ He said ‘yeah, it’s pretty good. Now try this cab of yours.’ He poured me a glass of the cab. I said, ‘Oh, that’s real good.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not real good. That’s the best cab I’ve ever had from Sonoma County.’” Wagner advised Cohn to have Sebastiani make the wine under Cohn’s Olive Hill name, “but August laughed and said, ‘Bruce, I don’t even have a tank small enough to put your grapes in.’” So Cohn had other local wineries do it and started winning gold medals.

In 1982 The Doobie Brothers broke up; the next year Cohn began managing the band Night Ranger. In 1984, he decided to launch his own winery and named it B.R. Cohn. “It was my second chance with enough money to do it,” he says. “But it takes a lot more money than I thought.”

His first year, Cohn made 900 cases of cabernet and 2,000 cases of chardonnay. “The chard you could take the paint off your car with, literally. I couldn’t sell it,” he says. “And the cab got a 94 rating from Wine Spectator. Nobody in Sonoma had gotten a rating that high for cab.” Cohn says he’s fortunate to have purchased land in an area that’s perfect for cabernet, not the just warm days and cool nights but where frost is rare. He has hired talented wine- makers but says, “The vineyards make the wine. If you don’t have great grapes, you’re not going to have a great wine.”

Dan Weiner, a booking agent for the Doobies, Foreigner and other bands, has known Cohn since 1972 and says, “He has laser vision. He looks out at the horizon and sees a future that no one else can even imagine. He bought a farm, but in his eyes he could see the grapes, the vines; he was seeing it all. That’s just the way he is.”

Cohn inspires intense loyalty in people with whom he works. “I love the man. I’d take a bullet for him,” says Tom Montgomery, B.R. Cohn’s chief winemaker from 2003 until last year. “He does practice what he preaches. He believes in rock ’n’ roll music, truth, justice and the American way. I don’t know of any- body who better describes the lifestyle I’d call the good life.”

In 1990, Cohn decided to use the olives that were dropping off his eight acres of 140-year-old French Picholine trees. “The kids were staining the carpet with black olives in the house over there,” he says pointing to what is now the tasting room. “It was pick up the olives or buy new carpet. So I picked up the olives and shipped them to Modesto to the only guy making extra-virgin olive oil in California.”

He didn’t have enough olives on his property to distribute nationally so he began buying from throughout California to make a blend of oil, vinegar and spices for dipping. He launched an olive oil festival in his grove that initially attracted about 10 producers but soon grew so large that it’s now held in downtown Sonoma. The 15th annual Sonoma Valley Olive Festival was held last January.

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Cohn’s success is “no freaking accident,” says Herbie Herbert, who managed Steve Miller and Journey in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s a marriage of determination, talent, organizational skills and management skills. There are a lot of people who may not realize it, but Bruce Cohn is the most important person they’ve ever met in their life. The guy is a seriously gifted entrepreneur.” Starting in the 1970s when Cohn was still in his 20s, he wanted to share his good fortune. He held a golf tournament to benefit the United Way and had members of The Doobie Brothers sing Christmas carols for gravely ill kids at Stanford Children’s Hospital.

In 1987, Doobies drummer Keith Knudsen wanted to help Vietnam veterans so Cohn suggested he try to reunite the band, which had split up five years before. Cohn says the Doobies felt their time had passed, but they agreed to do one show at the Hollywood Bowl. “It sold out in two hours,” Cohn says. “So they said maybe we should do one for Stanford Children’s Hospital. So I booked Shoreline (in nearby Mountain View, California), and it sold out, 19,000 seats.” They ended up doing 10 shows, all benefits, raising millions of dollars. The band played on, going back into the studio to record and continuing to tour; they now play about 85 shows a year.

Cohn next wanted to do something closer to home. He rented the field at Sonoma High School and held a benefit with Graham Nash and Little Feat. But there was “no ambiance,” so Cohn built an amphitheater on a gently sloping hill at his winery and got permits for 3,000 people to come onto his land one weekend a year. The B.R. Cohn Charity Sonoma Music Festival has attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago and Gregg Allman, and naturally The Doobie Brothers. Last year Ringo Starr performed. “We had a Beatle in Sonoma!” Cohn says.

In 2015, the Sonoma Music Festival moved to downtown Sonoma. Toby Keith will play at this year’s festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the festival has raised almost $7 million for veterans, food banks and other worthy causes. Today, though the winery still bears his name, Cohn no longer owns it. He sold 70 acres of vine- yards and the rights to his name last year to Vintage Wine Estates, but he retained 21 acres and still lives in a home on the property. “I grew the winery from 500 cases a year to almost 85,000. That took a lot of money that I didn’t have so you take on a lot of debt,” he says. “Pretty soon you got a great lifestyle, but you’re working for the bank. There isn’t that much profit in wine.”

Costs were “going through the roof,” he says. “Dollar-wise, it was just too much pressure. I was like the hamster on the wheel and never knew from one year to the next if I was going to be able to make it. Family wineries are selling out. Corporations are coming in and buying market share. It makes it hard on the little family guys; we couldn’t compete.” So now Cohn is a consultant paid by Vintage. “I am the spokesman, the figurehead. I’m on the payroll, but I have almost no responsibilities,” he says, surveying the land he owned for 41 years. “It’s kind of wonderful,” he says with a laugh, “kind of great.”

Bordeaux’s $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education

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Bordeaux's $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education

October 16, 2018

When the dramatic $93 million multimedia Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened on the banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux this June, it signaled an epic shift in the way the world’s most famous wine-making city thinks about wine. For centuries, the feeling of Bordeaux’s wine culture has been that connoisseurship is the prize of hard-earned and exigently disciplined study; it was a privilege neither accessible nor comprehensible to all comers. La Cité du Vin takes a dramatically friendlier and more inclusive approach to both consuming and understanding wine. It is designed to be as rewarding for the novice as it is for the expert.

It also provides previously flummoxed travelers and wine pilgrims with a glamorous 21st-century focal point for their interest in wine. Though Bordeaux has always had a variety of fine wine bars and other places in which to buy or sample wine, and a small wine museum—the charmingly musty Musée du Vin et du Négoce—visitors to the city never had an oenological epicenter to visit. Until now.

Designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Des- mazières, founders of the Paris-based architectural firm XTU, the Cité du Vin is a horn-shaped, 180-foot-tall, 10-story metal- and-glass structure perched on the banks of the Garonne just north (and pretty much out of sight) of Bordeaux’s exquisite 18th-century heart. Marvel at its exterior and then head inside, where 19 permanent spaces, many of them interactive, cover various wine themes. The center has three tasting laboratories that include specially designed multisensory experiences for a total immersion in wine; a viewing platform; a boat dock from which to embark on visits to the wine chateaux up and down river; a temporary exhibition center; a wine bar and snack bar with an outdoor patio; a wine cellar with more than 800 different wines, including 200 from France, and a panoramic restaurant on the seventh floor that offers a superb variety of wines by-the-glass.

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Photo Source bordeaux-tourism.co.uk

“La Cité du Vin is transformational for Bordeaux,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilizations, which operates La Cité du Vin, and the doyenne of one of the most famous wine-making families in the region. Her company, the Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owns a variety of the most prestigious vineyards in the Bordelais, including Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Les Ormes de Pez, along with Le Chapon Fin, one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished restaurants.

The project originated in 2008 under the auspices of Bordeaux’s then mayor, Alain Juppé [France’s former prime minister]. “He recognized that wine tourism was vitally important for Bordeaux, both for economic reasons and also as an affirmation of the city’s viniferous identity,” explains Cazes. In 2009, a feasibility study group was created and the results were presented to the Bordeaux Interprofessional Wine Council and other partners in the project, including the Aquitaine region of which Bordeaux is the historic capital.

“The guiding idea for the project was the decision that the content of the cultural center would be international, or treat the wines of the world and not just the Bordelais or other regions of France, and this was overwhelmingly approved by all of the partners in the project,” Cazes says. “The point of La Cité is to present the complexity of wine in an appealingly simple way.”

What she found more delicate to expound upon during a recent pre-opening chat was the extent to which this decision was strikingly radical; Bordeaux is a city fiercely wedded to tradition. Or it had previously. One well-known local wine- maker observes, “There was a fair amount of pretty strident back-and-forth with regard to what the aims of the Cité du Vin should be, with some of the old guard insisting that it should be a showcase for Bordeaux wines, and this makes
the final decision on the pedagogy of La Cité that much more surprising and innovative.”

The center also amplifies the new urban boldness of Bordeaux, which was an aristocratic sleeping beauty of a city before Alain Juppé launched a wholesale renovation of the town. Under Juppé, Bordeaux got a new tramway system with discreetly chic forest-green carriages, carefully cleaned thousands of its darkened facades and also re-landscaped its river embankment. Formerly the riverbanks through the city were an ancient venue of commerce or, more recently, a busy roadway. Today they are a stylish promenade of gardens and bike paths and walkways. Then, too, Cité du Vin will accelerate a shift in the city’s center of gravity—from its traditional core around the Palais de la Bourse and the Opera northward to Bassins à Flot, a rapidly developing new neighborhood in a former docklands district.

Where the Cité du Vin succeeds immediately is that a visit to the permanent exhibit will be just as interesting for you as for your 12-year-old. This is because the lighting and graphics of the displays are sophisticated and modern, but warm and approachable. Similarly, the themed content is presented in a layered, didactic way that achieves just the right pitch of seriousness without ever becoming academic or too complex.

The exhibit includes a section devoted to drinking responsibly. “The place that wine occupies in different cultures varies a lot, so of course we address the possible dangers of alcohol and drinking responsibly,” Cazes says. This message is communicated with great Gallic subtlety at the module “The Chair of Despair,” a reference to the most common result of overdrinking, the hangover. The stop includes an actual Chair of Despair, where you sit alone and listen as artists and poets who drank too much tell their woeful tales of the damage it did them. It is certainly thought provoking.

London-based Casson Mann, which specializes in the design of museum interiors and exhibition spaces, conceived the displays and content of the center in collaboration with the Cité du Vin’s staff. Visitors are taken through time and space with a state-of-the-art, hand-held, infrared audio guide that detects their location and automatically launches the appropriate content as they explore the civilizations of wine.

The first stop of any visit, “World Tour of Vineyards,” includes a short film shot from a helicopter by the same production team on five continents. The only continent where wine is not produced is Antarctica. Shown on three huge screens, it conveys the universality of wine and also highlights the dramatically different geographical and climactic regions where it’s produced. (Annually, La Cité showcases three temporary exhibitions and a different wine region. “The first guest of honor is Georgia, which has been making wine since 7 B.C.,” Cazes explains.)

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Next up, “The Terroir Table” introduces the concept of winemaking’s geographical specificity. Where grapes are grown affects the flavors of the wine made from them. French winemakers cherish terroir, and it is also the natural structure upon which the classification of French vineyards is officially based. To wit, a great winemaker will have an encyclopedic knowledge of the differing personalities of the grapes produced by every square foot of his or her vineyards, and this knowledge underpins the blending that creates a truly magnificent wine. Terroir explains why French wines are marketed and sold according to the geographical regions from which they originate and are named for the farms where they were produced instead of by grape variety (cépage). New World wines made in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa are often described by cépage.

“Our approach at La Cité du Vin is reportorial,” Cazes explains. “So there are no judgments offered in terms of different wine-production methods. It is our intention that the Cité become a place where people make connections and that it should be a place of learning, sharing and having a good time,” she says.

Answering a question about how La Cité du Vin addresses the qualitative differences between the world’s wine-producing regions, she continues, “I think that it’s in every winemaker’s best interests to sell to the most educated consumer possible.”

The “Terroir” segment is ultimately one of the most important. It’s comprised of video interviews with winemakers from 10 renowned wine regions, including Spain’s Rioja and Australia’s Barossa Valley, who explain how the geographical and climactic conditions in their particular area impact vines. This may sound dry but their passionate knowledge makes it extremely interesting.

Subsequent modules cover grape varieties, the wine trade, wine in history, wine in art and wine in love, or as part of the art of seduction. The most interactive exhibit is “The Five Senses Buffet.” Here, everyone becomes an expert-in-training on the “nose,” or scent, of wine. A series of glass bell jars contain different products wine experts commonly use to describe the perfume of a wine, including flowers, strawberries and wood shavings. Squeeze the rubber bulb attached to the display and you get a bracing burst of the scent of the product displayed.

At the end of the average two- hour-long visit to La Cité du Vin’s permanent exhibition, odds are you’ll be ready for a nice glass of wine. The Belvedere, on the eighth floor and the entrance to which is included in the ticket price, offers a selection of quaffs by the glass. For a more formal and meditative viniferous experience, book a table at Restaurant le 7, which has an expectedly excellent wine list. For a final surprise, stop by the wine shop. Run by Régis Deltil, a famous wine merchant from nearby Pessac, three-quarters of the wines on sale here come from countries other than France.