Friday, March 28, 2008

The Art of Fire

“I tell my doctor, I only drink at work,” Chris Hansen jokes. We’re at the bar in Mustards Grill awaiting a table for lunch – the popular Napa Valley restaurant is, not surprisingly, jammed with people. In front of Chris are three open bottles of red wine, obviously attracting attention. Chris works for Nadalie Cooperage, and the three bottles are barrel samples of cabernet sauvignon brought along for tasting. Working over lunch is not unusual for Chris – and yes, I can hear scoffing, we are working. “My wife calls sometimes asking if I got to go to lunch today,” Chris says innocently, “and I say, ‘yeah, but we only had time for a quick bite – just an hour and a half at Bistro Don Giovanni’.”

I laugh along with Greg Lawson, a winemaker in the valley who’s with us at the bar. Chris grins, “My boss, who is something of a gourmet – we’ll go out to lunch, usually with a couple bottles of wine, when before you realize it,” he glances at his watch like his boss imitatively, “Could it be two-thirty already?”

Not only are we there to taste barrel samples, Greg’s brother Rob Lawson, a stellar winemaker of cult standing at the Napa Wine Company, has a pinot grigio on the menu being offered by the glass, so each of us start off with that. Try to remember we’re working. Greg tells us about it, “My brother made 6000 cases of this, just released it 3 weeks ago.” Chris and I nod, sticking our noses in our glasses. Greg then adds dramatically, “They’re already sold out.” Off our raised brows, he nods. So we taste, and it’s no wonder – the wine is delicious.

Greg has his own label “Valley Legend” a vineyard designated cabernet sauvignon that’s having its debut release in August. And like his brother Rob, Greg is meticulous about his winemaking – not only does he sort each cluster as it is brought in from the vineyard, but also each individual berry (meaning he’s removing individual berries that don’t make the grade) – yeah, fanatical. Greg says that he and his brother tasted through the wines before he came to Mustards and they were both very pleased. I can’t wait to try them myself.

The three Nadalie barrel samples Chris has with him are all of the same cuvee’ of cabernet sauvignon, the only difference being the barrel sources: the first being a barrel called Colbert, a blend of wood from different French oak forests chosen with one thing in common – extra tight grain. Chris explains that this mostly influences the wine’s body and mouth feel. The second sample comes from another French oak barrel called Troncais sourced from a single forest in the Troncais region – also tightly grained for slow extraction, giving the wine a light touch of oak, in a word finesse. The third barrel sample is of American oak, sourced from a forest in Missouri and of the three samples has the biggest, boldest flavors – very showy, but not so different than the French barrels. All three are unique, and each fantastic in its own right, but the exciting part is imagining how they could be used in unison to develop flavors. I’m impressed, like I was earlier in the week, when Chris gave me a tour of Nadalie’s barrel making facility.

The smell of sawdust was in the air. “Growing oak and making barrels is a lot like growing grapes and making wine,” Chris says, rubbing at the oak dust getting into his eyes. “There is a terroir for oak barrels, just like there is for wine.” I nod in agreement. Chris goes on, “Certain forests and certain types of trees, where they are harvested, which way the ground slopes, the elevation, the climate, and finally how the wood is seasoned and coopered, all influence the final quality. A lot of experience is necessary to build quality barrels.”

Located just north of Calistoga, next to Chateau Montelena, Nadalie Cooperage was the first cooperage to start building barrels in the Napa Valley, and is one of several branches of the family run business based in France, with another cooperage in Chile, and satellite offices in South America, Australia, Japan, and even China. The cooperage in Calistoga can build up to 80 barrels a day, which doesn’t sound like much, until you consider that each barrel is made almost entirely by hand. “What’s surprising,” Chris explains, “is that barrel making has remained basically the same for more than 2000 years with only minor changes. Barrels used to be made entirely with hand tools, but now, wood is often split with hydraulic power, and machines are used to plane and groove the pieces, yet the barrels are still fitted together by hand, and toasted and bent using fire.” Sounds positively primitive.

An oak barrel is basically made up of strips or planks of wood called staves – narrow at the ends (the chime) and fatter at the middle (the bilge), so that when bent and bound by hoops of steel, the barrel bulges in the middle in that familiar way. The staves get squeezed together by these hoops so tightly that they won’t leak. The ends of the barrel called heads are also made of staves, squeezed together though not initially bound by steel hoops, but instead held with headless nails called gudgeons. A number of gudgeons are placed between the staves, along with a strip of a grass-like reed, and then squeezed together to form a flat table-like plank. The gudgeons hold the staves tight, but the reeds keep the wine from leaking through staves. The heads are then cut into rounds and tapered at their edges before being set into grooves (called croze) cut into each end of the barrel. Then the hoops of steel are hammered down tightly, holding the heads firmly in place.

I came away from the tour amazed and impressed. Watching the toasting and bending of staves over open fire, the skill needed to feel the heat through the wood with bare hands and to know precisely how long the wood still needed to go. The brute strength needed to hammer down the hoops and muscle barrels to and fro. The hard won knowledge of proper technique. The marriage of innovation and tradition. Essentially, Nadalie builds barrels the same way barrel makers have been making them for thousands of years, but at the same time they are making them better for winemakers than ever before.

(When I told Chris I had forgotten to get a picture of him at the cooperage, he said to do like a friend of his once did, and use a picture of a dog. So, here’s my picture of Chris Hansen.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Trahan: Wine Trapeze Artist

“Before this, I was an engineer in the bio-medical industry,” Chuck Custodio says above us, already ten feet off the winery floor. He’s scaling his way up a stack of wine barrels to secure some barrel samples. “I built the high-tech equipment drug manufacturers use to create designer drugs.” On the ground, a small group of patrons (and me of course) watch with trepidation, wondering just where he’s headed. Apparently the barrel he’s after is near the top, plenty precarious without also toting along a fistful of wine glasses and a wine thief. Chuck then quips, “That equipment I handled -- eventually gave rise to the drug Viagra!,” which of course gets a belly laugh.

Moments later, stepping down from the stacks without spilling a drop, Chuck dispenses the samples. A woman in our group takes her glass and asks, “How many bottles of wine can you get out of a barrel?” “Absolutely none,” Chuck quickly retorts. Off her bewildered look, he tells her straight, “Bottles are way too big to fit through such a tiny bung hole.” More laughs all around. Then he answers the question thoroughly and honestly, “Each barrel is slightly different in size, but on average, around twenty-four cases of wine can be bottled from a single barrel. Twelve bottles to a case makes it -- two hundred eighty-eight bottles give or take.”

He holds up his glass. “This Petit Verdot for example, will run a little over two hundred fifty cases--” “Which means you have …” The woman does the math, “ten barrels!” “That’s right,” Chuck nods, flashing a warm smile. The woman grins back thoroughly charmed.

Just what is it about Chuck Custodio -- winemaker, owner and apparently trapeze artist of Trahan Winery? Is it the Versace eyewear? Or maybe the killer long ball he often muscles on the golf links? Or is it the rocking wines he makes? I meet many people in the wine trade, some colorful, many talented, but for some reason Chuck stands out. Maybe it’s the quick wit and easy confidence. The charisma. The charm. Whatever the appeal, there are those few who just seem to put more of an electric charge into the air. His beautiful wife Janna, when asked how she and Chuck first met, will say without hesitation, “At a strip club.” For a second I ask myself, ‘Is that true?’ Janna’s coy grin belies the truth. (She’s actually a surgical nurse.) Then there’s Sadie, Chuck’s German shorthaired pointer and barrel bung fetcher extraordinaire, who can often be seen around the winery greeting guests and cajoling them into throwing her slimy silicone barrel bung she loves to chase.

Maybe it’s that everybody who likes wine has that secret fantasy of dumping their current job and running off to Napa Valley to make wine; it’s just that Chuck Custodio went ahead and did it. “My Dad thought I was cracked,” he remembers. “Throwing away a good paying job, to work for peanuts for four straight years? Commuting four hours a day from San Francisco? He was from the school of hard knocks, conservative, tough -- became a Staff Sergeant in the Army before taking a job as a Santa Clara Firefighter. He retired as Deputy Fire Chief. My mom on the other hand was a creature of the sixties, artistic and liberal to the core. When I told her what I was planning to do, she was so proud of me she cried.”

A young woman, no doubt influenced by the current climate of political antagonism, pipes up incredulously, “If your parents were so different politically, how could they get married in the first place?” It’s the type of candor that can kill a festive mood. Chuck pauses only a second, “Great sex, obviously!” meeting cheek with cheek. Then he throws up his arms with a mad twinkle in his eyes. “I’m proof of that!” Touché.

Besides, I see both of his parents alive in Chuck. In his father, the natural leadership -- currently Chuck is Vice President of the Silverado Trail Winery Association, and often you can find him acting as ringleader behind many golf games with winemakers and others in the trade, or getting a group together for networking over burgers and beers at some club or restaurant. His mother’s artistic side can be seen in his choice of profession. Though Chuck was never one for throwing pots or painting watercolors, making wine is an art and one he’s very good at.

The best part though is watching his easy way with people. Tasting wines with him demystifies the whole experience. A joke here, a practical insight explained over there. I think it’s because Chuck makes you feel like an insider. You’re part of the in-group. You feel hip, just like him. And you get the comfortable feeling there’s no pressure to buy. He’s pouring wines for you because he’s proud of them, for good reason. His wines are all like his personality: big and bold –- there is nothing shy or restrained about them. His Merlot for instance is one of the best I’ve ever tried. Most people who try his Merlot for the first time think it’s one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons they’ve ever had. Then Chuck tells them with a crafty grin that it’s 100 percent Merlot. Mouths drop open. His Petit Verdot is also 100 percent, which is rare. His Petit Verdot can wrestle satisfactorily with your taste buds without any help. His Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both daring as well. These wines are never muddy, overly extracted or clumsy. They are honest, straightforward wines, nothing manipulated or phony. Chuck’s winemaking philosophy is let the wines be what they are, don’t get in their way (or I might add, don’t hold anything back). When someone in our group jokes, “Just like Viagra, you enjoy bringing pleasure to people.” Chuck says with candor, “Hey, I’m in it strictly for the booze.”