Friday, October 12, 2007

Smokin’ Wines

Recently, I attended the J.Moss Wines release party, where James and Janet Moss (the “J” getting double billing for James and Janet) poured their newly bottled 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, and I had the added delight along with the many fans of J.Moss Wines on hand, to taste all their Cabs going clear back to their first release in 2001.

Tasting the 2001, their debut wine, was a rarity, precisely because of how rare the 2001 Lauer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon actually is. Tragically, nearly all of the 2001 bottles were burned up in a warehouse fire in Vallejo in October 2005.

“This was our first vintage, our first commercial release,” Janet said to me, a touch of emotion still in her voice. “We had just hand labeled the bottles the week before, and then, when we heard about the fire, we thought it had to be a joke.” Not only were the J.Moss Wines debut Cabs lost, but also over $200 million worth of wine from other wineries and private collectors. In March 2007, a Sausalito businessman was arrested for the arson, charged with 19 felony counts. Some of the larger wineries could afford insurance and absorb the loss, financially anyway, but many of the smaller wine businesses were completed ravaged.

Janet went on. “How could somebody do such a thing? So many people lost everything.” Hearing her recount the story, it was clear that the anger hadn’t gone away with time. But unlike Janet, who needed to talk about the arson fire to cope with the loss, James reacted to the tragedy exactly the opposite. He wanted to put the terrible episode behind him. “I wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened. I was so sick of hearing about it. I just wanted to move on.”

After the fire, James and Janet immediately raced down to the warehouse and of course no one was being allowed in. But determined to see if any of their wines could be salvaged, they eventually pushed and cajoled their way past the gatekeepers, and saw the devastation firsthand. “Everything was burned up,” James said, “with all these stacks of wine toppled down into huge piles. Broken glass was everywhere.” He shook his head at the memory. “We had to dig down through these stacks of toppled burned up bottles, which was very dangerous, just to find our wines. We managed to save a few cases on the bottom of the collapsed piles, that had escaped the heat of the fire.” Only then did James’ eyes light up. “But, tasting the 2001, dude, that wine blew me away. I mean, it was smokin’.” I smiled back at him, not sure if he had caught the double meaning in what he had just said.

But I knew exactly what he meant after tasting the wine for myself, and not only that, but tasting all the wines straight through to the 2004s. These are vineyard designated wines, meaning that the grapes from one vineyard are not blended together with other vineyards or varietals, but are kept separate to highlight their uniqueness. The Spicer Vineyard in Stag’s Leap (photo above of the Spicers with Janet and James), the Puerta Dorada and Galleron Vineyards in Rutherford, or the Lauer Vineyard in St. Helena that makes up the 2001. Only you can still recognize James’ hand at the helm, because all his wines have qualities in common, the foremost of which is clarity. They are the perfect example of terroir, that hard-to-wrap-your-mind around French idea of totality, that includes vineyard site, soil, climate, weather, and winemaker that make up a given wine’s individuality.

If you hang around the Napa Valley, you’ll soon discover that the topic of wine is the constant background conversation. But every once in awhile, a wine comes to the foreground. The very first time I tasted a J.Moss wine, it commanded my full attention - one of those moments when the world seems to withdraw, and you’re left alone with the wine thinking, “wow”.

One evening, I asked James how he does what he does, and he gave me an example. “A while back, I decided to taste grapes from all over the Valley, from all these different appellations, just asking friends and farmers and winemakers I knew if I could walk their vines and sample some grapes just before they were harvested. And what I discovered is that you can really tell the difference. Dude, just from tasting the grapes.” He went into the vineyards, and saw how different places had distinct flavors and elements. I feel thrilled when I hear stories like that, when winemakers build sense memories and build their palates, so that they can make wines that stop the world.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Ninth Hawaiian Island

There was something faintly Hawaiian in the air during harvest this year in the Napa Valley. And it wasn’t just my imagination. I was with Terry Kakazu, and her seven-year-old son, Nick, and we were at the Mansfield Winery on Conn Valley Road, a few miles east of the town of St. Helena. Terry is owner of Paul and Terry’s Place and HASR Wine Company out of Honolulu. HASR is short for Highly Allocated Spoiled Rotten. Terry is the proverbial “juice queen” visiting wine country once again on her continuing pilgrimage to procure the best of the very best wines Napa Valley has to offer for her eager wine shop patrons. Being curious to see firsthand how she goes about making everybody a member of her extended family, I decided to tag along, and apparently, so did Hawaii.

We were visiting with Leslie Mansfield, who had been kind enough to give us an amazing walking tour of the old winery built in the late 1880s that she currently owns with her husband, Richard. This is the last of the great ghost wineries that had been built before Prohibition and, unfortunately over the years, had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Leslie had been filling us in on their ambitious plans to restore the old stone winery and surrounding grounds, bringing everything back to its proper glory. And what a magnificent project it will be. I plan to go into more depth in a later blog.

But what struck me just then wasn’t anything about the old winery or the fantastic wines Leslie had been pouring for us, or the even more fantastic ghost stories that Leslie and Richard had personally experienced. It was what I had noticed occurring and reoccurring all over Napa Valley often enough that I could no longer shrug it off as mere coincidence. It was happening inside the Mansfield’s house. One of their guests visiting from Alaska was playing…a ukulele. Yep, and singing Hawaiian ballads…in native Hawaiian! Ah, Hawaii. There it was again. It seemed that wherever Terry Kakazu and her son traveled in wine country, Hawaii wasn’t far behind. Or maybe it was already there in front of us.

Terry catches my eye and laughs at the familiar tune coming from the house. The “aloha spirit” springing up again is not lost on her either. Then it dawns on me. Maybe this isn’t purely a coincidence. Maybe this connection Napa Valley has with Hawaii has deeper roots, to use a vineyard metaphor. Maybe, dare I say it, Napa Valley is the ninth Hawaiian island. I know this sounds like crazy talk, but I’ve just thought of this. Bear with me. There’re a lot of similarities. I mean, Hawaii is volcanic. And Napa Valley is volcanic. And look at all the hot springs in Calistoga.

And I could give you other examples. Like when Terry, Nick, and I stopped in at Schramsberg Vineyards for a tour of the two miles of wine caves under the mountain, and tasted some terrific bubbly with CFO Fred Zammataro (in the photo above with Terry), and he greeted us warmly wearing…get this, a flower print Hawaiian shirt. Yeah, I know, everyone has one of those in his closet. But, he was wearing it that day, and it wasn’t planned in advance. And what about Carneros della Notte’s harvest party a couple of weeks ago, when the women on hand were asked to see if they would like to stomp grapes, a la “I Love Lucy”, and nearly all who did, amidst much laughing and carrying on, turned out to be…Hawaiians. Terry Kakazu was one of them, and none of these “wahine” had met before. What are the chances of that? If you don’t believe me, the whole thing was caught on film by the NBC TV show, “In Wine Country”. So, I’ve got them to back me up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2007 vintage of Carneros della Notte pinot noir turns out to have a faint tropical flavor. And have you tried Hawaiian sushi with pinot noir? Wow. Such a perfect match can’t be coincidental. Still not convinced? How about the non-scientific survey I conducted of Napa Valley winemakers, and it turns out their favorite food is…poké. Yep, if I had been asked to guess beforehand, I would have said Kobe beef sliders, but poké? Then there’s Terry and her son Nick, greeting winemakers all across the Valley, with wide grins and warm embraces, calling them “uncle” or “auntie”. I mean, the whole Valley is her extended Polynesian family. Oh, and one last thing, back to the Mansfield Winery. One of their most successful wines, besides their small lot Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Zinfandels, Rieslings, and Chardonnays, is their…pineapple wine. Pineapple wine in Napa Valley? I’m telling you, it’s more than mere coincidence.

Everybody knows of the Big Island, Hawaii, and of course, Oahu, Maui, and Kauai. And many know of the smaller islands, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe. But I bet you didn’t know about the furthest island to the east. Napa Valley could very well be the lost ninth Hawaiian island. Think about it.