Archive for May, 2009


John’s May Pick of the Month

Posted on May 28 2009 | By

Gadino Cellars

2008 Pinot Grigio

img_0070_1Bill Gadino, proprietor and winemaker, has taken his ancestral country’s popular grape and produced a spot-on Italian version of the perfect summer wine. Released in concert with the 40th anniversary of the Virginia is for Lovers tourism slogan, this limited edition anniversary wine is a winner. Pale lemon in color, it is replete with lemon, apple and citrus on the palate. Stainless steel fermented, this dry white was hanging in the vineyard just last September. This as close as you’ll get to drinking wine as fresh grapes.

Gadino Cellars is located in the beautiful rolling countryside of Rappahannock County, at 92 Schoolhouse Road, Washington, VA 22747. The winery is opened Friday to Sunday, and Monday holidays, 11:30am to 5 pm. Saturdays 11:30am to 6pm. 

(540) 987-9292.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Seasons of the Vine

Posted on May 28 2009 | By

The skill required in growing a successful home garden earns the backyard horticulturalist the rightful claim to a green thumb. 

But, put that same skill to commercial use and your success or failure simply keeps you in business, or not. And if you happened to choose to grow the delicate European wine grape, the challenge is magnified greatly. Growing wine grapes is an exacting business. Plunge in at your own discretion.

grapes1Why all the heartache in nurturing a simple fruit like a grape? In Virginia, it’s because, frankly, the vine is not particularly fond of our neighborhood. Don’t take it personally. Virginia is still for lovers. It’s just that if it had its way, the delicate Vitis Vinifera wine species would move back to its Mediterranean and European haunts. Virginia’s climate is a bit too rustic for its noble blood.

Fortunately, there are several hundred Virginia wine growers who ignore this grapey attitude. Mighty good news for us wine drinkers. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s wine is produced from this delicate species. Without it, here in the Middle Atlantic States, we would be drinking wines made exclusively from hybrids and native fruit. In fact, for the better part of 350 years, that was the only wine crop cultivated in the Old Dominion. And even then, it was a minuscule amount. Some hybrids do make excellent wine, but much of it can’t match the finesse of the old world grapes.

In the wine industry, the winemaker is often the person to receive the accolades and gold medals. But, the vineyard manager is equally–if not more so–responsible for the finished product.  The old adage, “You don’t make great wine, you grow it,” is such a time worn expression simply because it’s true.  The job of the viticulturist is a demanding, year-round occupation and critical to the success of any winery.

So, let’s pull on our Wellingtons and spend a quick year in a virtual Virginia vineyard.

We’ll begin our internship after the harvest, which occurs in September and October.

The months of November and December are the quietest of the year. The trellis system now supports a scramble of naked vines that during the growing season held a canopy of dense leaves and grape clusters. In the early winter, however, the vines simply remind us of Phyllis Diller’s electrified hair. These vines will remain untouched until January to allow them to winter harden. During this period, maintenance of equipment, repairing the trellis system and patching holes in the deer fencing will be our primary focus. And yes, taking an occasional sip of last year’s wines, to make sure they are aging nicely, is also on the “to do” list.

In January, with the coldest part of winter upon us, we begin to venture into the vineyard and start the annual pruning. Pruning is undertaken to remove last year’s growth so as to stimulate the entire vine to produce an abundant new crop. If we did not prune, during the summer the vines would quickly be overgrown, and the quantity and quality of the fruit would decline.

Legend has it that pruning was first employed hundreds of years ago after a monk, visiting a neighboring monastery during the Christmas season, tied up his donkey to the last post in a vineyard row. The animal worked itself free and spent the day happily munching on the bare vines. Upon the return of his owner, the beast of burden had eaten its way down an entire row, now shorn of its jumble of dried vegetation. The following year, this row produced the heaviest crop of grapes, and winter pruning was recognized as a key element in establishing a successful vineyard.

With solar energy increasing each day during April and May, the vines begin to surge with life. This can be the single most fearful time of the year for us. Our enemy is a spring frost. With the buds just on the cusp of breaking open, flowering and pollinating the entire vineyard, they are extremely vulnerable to death by freezing. If this happens, our entire vineyard can be wiped out overnight. Wineries employ a variety of strategies to prevent this catastrophe from occurring; including the use of smudge pots, wind machines, and spraying water on the plants to act as an insulator. Even helicopters have been employed to sweep back and forth over a vineyard at night, forcing warmer upper air down on the shivering vines.

img_0129_2It’s with a great sigh of relief that June and July arrive. The summer will find us spraying the vines to protect them from an assortment of mildews and insects. In Virginia, sustainable agriculture is employed, not organic. Most vineyards apply chemicals and pesticides in a judicious manner. But, to attempt growing the vulnerable vines organically, without any protection from the army of beetles, aphids, fungus and mildews would be to oversee a devastated crop. More ominously, it would mean no wine. I thought you would understand.

During August we begin to see the grapes dress themselves in their traditional colors-golden yellow for the whites and deep purple for the reds. This process is called veraison, or the turning of color, and signals a softening of the fruit with a concurrent increase in sugar production. The plant is shifting from growing to flavor development. As we prowl the vineyard, we will look for clusters that are underdeveloped or excessive in number, cutting, or dropping, the fruit. This thinning process provides the vine additional energy to fully ripen the remaining crop.

In September and October, all of our labors are coming to fruition. During this period, both the vineyard manager and the winemaker regularly walk the vineyard, taking samples of the fruit and measuring and tasting its quality. Technical analysis of the levels of sugar, acid and pH are also monitored. When all of these parameters come into harmony, the signal is given to harvest.

The whites are taken in throughout September. The reds are harvested in October, to provide additional ripening time.

The actual harvest occurs during the cool morning periods, if possible. Fruit taken during the heat of the day can lessen its quality and reduce the caliber of the wine produced. During this period-called the Crush-activity at a winery is hectic. Tractors, forklifts, crusher/destemmers, presses, winery workers and thousands of frenetic bees, collide in a dance of excitement and anticipation of the wine to be created. OK, the bees are simply sugar crazy.

As the harvest draws to close and the fermenting wine joyfully bubbles away day and night, its time to slip off our boots and reflect on the year behind us. If we paid careful attention to each step in the fruit’s production, our reward will be blue ribbons and gold medals arriving in the mail next year.

mountainBut, our greatest satisfaction is knowing that our labor will provide wine lovers around the state with another vintage of enjoyment. We have successfully transformed the vine into the wine.


Published May 28, 2009, in the Culpeper Times

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Half in the Bottle

Posted on May 25 2009 | By

img_0060_1Unlike professional wineries, home winemakers don’t typically bulk age their wines for extended periods. To do so requires extra storage vessels. Moreover, bulk aging for longer than a year takes precious space many amateurs do not have available.

Thus, my goal each year is have all twenty-four of my six-gallon carboys cleaned and ready to receive new wine by August. One six-gallon container produces thirty bottles of wine. In Virginia, white grapes are harvested throughout September and the reds in October, so this schedule gives me some breathing room before next year’s wines are ready to flow into their waiting cocoons.

With this pending pressure on capacity, I have now bottled all of my white wines and about twenty-five percent of my reds. Wine will age nicely in the bottle and most of my ’08 reds under cork will not be consumed until  2010 and beyond.  The 2008 vintage will produce a total of sixty-five cases, which sounds like a lot wine-and it is. But fortunately, all of my extended family enjoys wine, so a great way to recoup some of my production costs is to provide my “social lubricant” at parties and celebrations. A mixture of commercial wines and Hagarty Cellars bottlings can keep an entertainment budget in balance.

My ‘08 whites include a four-wine blend I dubbed, “White Quadrille.” It is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Verdejo and 10% Albarino. My other bottlings include Pinot Grigio, Seyval Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay for a total of thirty-two cases of whites.

There is an array of white wine styles. My personal preference is for the leaner, crisper style similar to many French offerings. These wines are wonderful thirst quenchers during the summer months and pair exceptionally well with food. I have almost ceased making oaky, buttery whites, and this year limited production to just two and a half cases of a lightly oaked Chardonnay. I enjoy mouth-watering acidity in my whites. Just as a juicy squeeze of fresh lemon on Mahi Mahi brightens the flavor of the delicate fish, so a nicely balanced white displaying crisp acidity turns an average white into an exuberant deck wine.

img_0027-640x480Reaction from folks who have tasted my ’08 whites has been positive. Of course, a decent little wine that is free is generally well received. Unlike the big boys, I don’t have to earn gold medals or make a profit to stay in business. Just another benefit of home fermentation. Sweet.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Great Party, By George!

Posted on May 17 2009 | By

On May 15, 16 , and 17, 2009, Rappahannock Cellars participated in the thirteenth annual Spring Wine Festival & Sunset Tour at historic Mount Vernon.

The festival is considered one of the most prestigious wine events in Virginia. The number of participating wineries is limited to seventeen fortunate few who are selected by lottery.

Gordon Murchie, President, Virginia Vinifera Wine Growers Association, and the driving force behind the unique event says, “The festival has grown each year and every event sells out.”  This was evident by the 1,500 wine lovers who sipped and picnicked on the historic lawn of Mount Vernon each evening. Blankets and reserved tables dotted the sweeping lawn with its panoramic view of the Potomac River below. The weather cooperated all three days. And while Sunday was cool, no rain disrupted the 4,500 total attendees over the three-day event from enjoying a memorable experience. Time and again I heard comments such as, “I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I’ve been coming here for years.”

img_0149During Saturday evening, I was fortunate to sit down and spend some time with George and Martha Washinton.  They enjoyed a bottle of Rappahannock Cellars wine as they greeted guests, regaling them with stories of the early—and mostly unsuccessful—days of wine grape growing in the Old Dominion. “While I tried for many years to make quality wine, I did not succeed.  But, I knew it could be done. I feel vindicated by the success we see here tonight,” George told the crowd.

Each evening, candlelit tours of the mansion were conducted, with the former First President and his wife greeting each visitor personally.

The festival is held twice a year in May and October. The next gala will be held October 2,3, and 4. If you had not enjoyed this most unique wine experience, I recommend you save a date and purchase tickets soon. One thing is certain; it will be sold out.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Wedding Wines

Posted on May 07 2009 | By

wine-bottlesPlanning and executing a wedding involves a beaucoup amount of work.  Fortunately for the guys, it usually is simply a matter of writing checks and following directions. As with many of life’s more important occasions, the ladies take control and make things happen. In this instance, it was a superb effort by Team Jean-Colleen. Nary a single participant or guest had even a murmur of concern. All had a ball.

Nonetheless, sometimes the guys get involved just a wee bit. In my case, it was the assignment to select two wines; a white and a red that would be the featured pours for the evening. While the bar was fully stocked, I viewed the wines as the crown jewels of the libations. My task was to focus on high quality and moderate cost–the goal of any serious wine drinker. I enjoyed the hunt.

Here are the two little beauties I settled on. As typical for a commercial event, our actual cost was about double the retail price tag you would expect to pay. But, both these wines are reasonably priced and widely available. I recommend on your next trip to the wine shop you grab a bottle of each.

’07 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc/Marlborough New Zealand: The Land Down Under produces some wonderful wine, and New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs lead the pack. Our white for the evening demonstrated why these exuberant wines are so popular. The light straw color and lemon/lime aromas telegraphed the grapefruit and gooseberry flavors that cascaded on the palate. This stainless steel fermented and aged wine was perfectly matched with the cheeses and light hors d’oeuvres served during the reception.  Average retail price $17-$20. Drink now.

’06 Cline Cashmere/California: Here we have a geographical anomaly of a French Southern Rhone coming out of CA.  But, it works beautifully. The blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre produces a wine worthy of the best of the Old World, yet evoking the rich, soft feel of expensive cashmere from a boutique shop on Rodeo Drive.  Aromas of black cherry, plum, coffee and mint all follow through on the palate.  And the 15% alcohol is seamlessly integrated into the wine, producing no heat on the finish. It paired nicely with our filet mignon and grilled salmon entrée.  Average retail price $17-21. Drink now through 2014.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

The Hobby You Can Drink

Posted on May 03 2009 | By

wine-bottles1It all began with a friendly comment. “John, you can make wine. Give it a try.”

My instant reaction was, “Me? Are you kidding?”

Thus, what started as a brief midday exchange of pleasantries, during a work day lunch hour, launched me on a hobby that I have grown to enjoy and devote endless hours to.  And who was my mentor? It was the proprietor of the first winery I worked at.  She knew I loved all things wine.  And she also knew that my love would grow  if I became involved in creating it.

Nevertheless, working at a commercial winery with its array of thousand gallon stainless steel tanks, dozens of oak barrels, pumps, hoses, a forklift and professional wine lab does not lead one to think, “Hey, I can do this.” If anything, it intimidates. The thought of making wine can be a bit scary.

But, in reality, it’s now easier than ever for anyone to become a home winemaker. And the quality of the wine produced can be good.  But, don’t let me mislead you. Turning out a 93 point Napa Valley cabernet is probably not in the cards.  Nonetheless,  producing wine that you and your family will enjoy, is not difficult.

wine-kitMy first advice is to follow my lead and search the web with the query, wine kits.  Boom. You will immediately be hit with numerous offers for home winemaking gear. Kit production has advanced enormously in last decade. It is hard NOT to make a decent little wine by following the very specific directions included with all kits manufactured today.

Purchasing a starter kit and ordering your first concentrate/juice blend will run less than $300. If this sounds a tad steep, consider that if you follow the simple instructions that accompany your mini-winery, in three to four months you will be placing 30 bottles of very drinkable wine in your wine rack—for about $10 a bottle. And the equipment involved in your initial purchase can be used again and again with your next kits, dropping the per bottle price into the $4 range. Hey, forget Two Buck Chuck. Let’s drink Chateau Home-in-Stead.

As you become more adept at making kit wines, you will be drawn into considering fresh grapes. This is where you may ultimately want to go.  But, not yet. I would not encourage you taking this step in the early stages of your enologist career. Each kit of wine you produce will add to your knowledge base. You’ll gain an understanding of the fermentation process and the importance of sanitation, wine additives/preservatives, bottling techniques and building a wine library. And you will come to understand if you really want to pursue the hobby at a more serious level. In the beginning, it’s slow, slow catch monkey.

carboysWhen I reflect on the early days working in my “cellar”—any available space in your home or apartment—one of the most intriguing memories was the sight of a fermenting carboy. These five or six gallon glass vessels are the mainstay of home winemakers. After dinner I would slip down to my dark basement with a flashlight in hand and shine a beam of light through the top neck of the bottle. There in all their glory, were tens of millions of yeast cells roaring away as they consumed the sugar in the juice. The scene was riveting to me—and still is—as the bubbles foamed upward and the airlock bubbled away, releasing carbon dioxide in the air. To view the scene is like looking at a glass of champagne on steroids. This passionate gormandizing of the yeast on the sugar can last up to ten days. For me, just looking at the fermenting wine was reward enough in buying a kit.

If I have tickled your interest in winemaking, here are some of my go-to resources that can help you get started.

· Home Winemaking Step by Step by Jon Iverson
· The Way to Make Wine by Sheridan Warrick
· The Winemaker’s Answer Book by Alison Crowe
· WineMaker Magazine
· Presque Isle Wine Cellars, a winemaking supply house

vineyardsAnd,  if you happen to let this joyful pastime get the best of you, just remember it all started with these words of encouragement. “You can make wine!”

Categories : WINE ARTICLES