A Harvest Tank Tasting

October 9, 2007

When I told my husband I was going tank tasting with Erik at 8:30 this morning he chuckled sardonically. “You’d better eat a big breakfast . . . and spit a lot.” What he knew, and what I didn’t, is that tank tasting at the end of harvest means a lot of sipping—as in several dozen sips from several dozen tanks. Panic. I’m a very disciplined pourer-outer when tasting a wine or two or three, but I’ve never been a very lady-like spitter. (In fact, I’m determined to hit Erik up on tips for a spitting primer).


But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. So I caught up with Erik and two of his team—Jimmy and Maureen—amidst the rows of stainless steel tanks. Inside each, freshly pressed wine was bubbling and churning as it ferments the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol. All in all, the process takes about 6–7 days for a red, so there’s a lot of pumping and swapping and moving of wines as more of the harvest comes in and as each tank works its way through the process.

As I joined them, Erik twisted a valve on a tank and crimson liquid shot into a plastic tub. Then he gave each of us a shot (in our own plastic tubs) while Jimmy read the vital stats off a clipboard—varietal, which vineyard it was from, brix level, etc. I swirled and swished and spit through a few tastes and then finally turned to Erik and asked what, exactly, he was looking for.

It turns out that the purpose of tank tasting during fermentation, for the winemaker, is two-fold. First, if the wine has completed fermentation, tasting it helps him decide whether it’s ready to be pumped over to barrels or whether it needs to mellow out for a few more days. Second, it gives the winemaker a sneak preview, in a way, of the palette he’ll have to play with come blending time in terms of flavor, density, tannins and balance.

As we moved down the rows, this second purpose became more and more clear (either that or I just wasn’t spitting enough). One Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley, for instance, could be deep and concentrated and plummy while another right next to it from Dry Creek might be lighter and more vegetal—two totally different hues for Erik to use in crafting various wines. I was surprised to notice subtle differences even in the early stage wines with higher brix, where the sugar and fruit are still so prominent. Yet there they were.

Weather-wise, it’s been an ideal vintage—an early start followed by a long, dry summer with consistent heat. But an added bonus to the lengthy season has been that Erik and has team were able to stay in close touch with the vineyards as the fruit ripened, so they could pluck the berries from the vines at the perfect moment for each block. Which translates into juice that is at its prime from its very infancy. In the tank.

I can vouch for that . . . I tasted it today.


Congrats Calcaire!

October 2, 2007

I admit it. I never made it to that glass of Pinot Noir I had intended to sip after salmon. I never even made it to the salmon. On Saturday, I found out that Clos du Bois’ Calcaire Chardonnay won the coveted Best in Class sweeps at the Sonoma County Fair, and all weekend long I was dreaming up the perfect dish to pair with the winning wine.

When I talked to Erik, he and his team were all smiles. “We never thought it would happen, especially for a Chardonnay.” In fact, he and his wife had snuck out after winning golds on Calcaire and three other wines (including one of my favorites . . . Tempranillo!)—but before the announcement of the sweeps—to get home to the kids. “I got a call on my cell phone while we were still in the parking lot saying I’d better get my a** back inside to accept the award for Best White Wine!” Woops. I have to say, though, I’m not a bit surprised at the win.

What I know of Calcaire from a recent tasting is that it’s minerally on the nose, with a hint of ripe peach. On the palette it spreads out to several layers of flavors: clove, kumquat, honeydew. It’s silky and rich without being overly buttery, and it has a gloriously crisp, acidic finish that makes it fabulous with food—unusual for a California Chardonnay.

As I’ve mentioned before, you can take a couple of different routes when pairing wine and food, the two most well-trodden being complementing or contrasting. But I made it my mission this weekend to complement not just one of Calcaire’s traits, but as many of them as I could in one dish.

Maybe it was Orangette’s ephemeral gush about last-of-the-season corn. Maybe it’s because they’re the same color as a Chardonnay, but I couldn’t get the little kernels out of my mind. So I ended up making this:


And I’ll tell you what, it was GOOOOOD. The brininess of shrimp hits the slate-like element of the wine, the earthiness of pancetta and mushrooms harmonizes with the deeper spice-notes, and corn plays up the sunnier flavors of Calcaire’s palate while the caramelization keeps it rooted in richness.

So congrats to Erik and the team at Clos du Bois . . . and to everyone—enjoy!Mushroom-shrimp-corn-fett-l

{ Shrimp and Mushroom Fettuccine with Caramelized Shallots and Corn }

2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 pound large shrimp, shelled, deveined and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ounce pancetta, minced
4 cups wild mushrooms, sliced
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/4 cup shallots, finely chopped
2 ears of corn, shucked and kernels removed from the cob and reserved
10 ounces dried fettuccine
1/2 cup dry white wine (preferably a Chardonnay)
3 tablespoons cream
a tiny dash of nutmeg
2 tablespoons chives, minced
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat and saute shrimp until just opaque. Lightly dust with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add olive oil to pan, raise heat to medium-high and add pancetta, mushrooms and thyme. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute until pancetta is crisp and mushrooms are well-browned, about 10–12 minutes. Add to shrimp.

Melt remaining tablespoon of butter in pan and add shallots and corn. Saute until shallots are well-bronzed and corn is tender and browned in places—about 10–12 minutes—while cooking the pasta to al dente. Add wine to pan and deglaze, cooking until liquid is almost evaporated.

Reduce heat to low and add cream and nutmeg to pan. Add shrimp and mushrooms and toss to coat. Transfer fettuccine back to pasta pot over low heat, pour the sauce over the top and toss to coat again, adding in the chives. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper and serve in warmed pasta bowls.

Serves 4

{ PS . . . I’ve been wanting to participate in Presto Pasta Night at Once Upon a Feast for a while now, so here’s my chance! Stop by and check out the roundup. }

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My dad just sent me this link and I found it fascinating. Scientists recently mapped the Pinot Noir grape (the first fruit to be mapped), and it turned out to be more complex than the human genome (30,000 genes versus 20–25,000 in humans). Hmmmm . . . think it can edit my novel for me?

If you were drinking a glass of wine RIGHT NOW, what would it be? My friend Agent Red White (woops) from The Wine Spies sparked this train of thought. When I was describing Swirling Notions to him—a place where we ponder the thoughts that swirl around after the cork is popped . . . what’s on the table, what’s happening in our lives, where we’ve been and how we balance it all—he said he loved the idea and that now he just had to pick a wine to sip while checking it out. When he asked me what I’d choose, I went blank. I have to admit, I’ve never been good about picking wine . . . or favorite books or movies or songs . . . on the spot (you’ll see those are all blank on my profiles . . . I’m still working on it). I just kind of freeze. He, of course, was totally suave and knew exactly what wine he’d be sipping (an Amarone).

So now I pose the question to you: since Swirling Notions is about enjoying conversations over a virtual glass (or bottle) of wine, what wine would you be (or are you) drinking right now as you read?

I’ll answer first. I’m drinking water right now, since I’m writing this and I always find that my typo ratio increases exponentially with each sip of alcohol. But later, when I come back to browse your blogs and read what you’ve all written here, I hope to be drinking a CdB 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast (I reviewed it here on Cork’d the first time I tasted it a few days ago, if you want to take a look) . . . if there’s any left after dinner. Noe and I are about to go to the farmer’s market and I plan to hit my fish man up for salmon. We’ve been all about halibut (and halibut cheeks) all summer long, but now with autumn I’m craving something a bit heartier. I’m thinking some type of sweet/savory preparation . . . maybe something with figs and shallots . . .

Anyway, I digress. So . . . what’s in YOUR glass right now?


A “Tempranillo” Autumn

September 25, 2007

Normally, here in Sonoma, it doesn’t really feel like fall until October or November. That’s when the leaves begin to turn and wood smoke tickles your nose. But this year is different.

Last week, when the calendar marked the official start to autumn, the clouds hung low and dark and the air smelled wet. And when the sun burned through the next morning, exposing a sky brittle-cold and blue, I noticed its lackadaisical angle, like it was leaning back on its elbows and taking on a more mellow mood.

Summer tempranillo0002

Fitting, then, that in the midst of this shift we should enjoy a simple meal of late-summer fare from the garden with a bottle of Tempranillo—a grape whose name derives from the Spanish word temprano, which means “early.” I couldn’t bring myself to make a braise; not just yet. So we sliced up a couple of eggplant and an almost-oversized zucchini and slathered them with olive oil before setting them on the grill next to a couple of sausages.

Then we popped the cork. A Clos du Bois 2004 Reserve Tempranillo from Alexander Valley, of which only 1000 cases were produced. Tempranillo is a popular grape in Spain, but still a find here in the US. It can be finessed into a thing of wonder by both viticulturist and winemaker, and this one was (Clos du Bois’ Tempranillo vines are some of Keith’s babies). We swirled and there were blueberries, lingonberries and marmalade on the nose. We sipped and it was surprisingly balanced, with more acid and tannin than I expected. The flavor was full and leathery, with black cherry and tarragon on the palate and a lingering fruit finish.

With candles lit, simple summer sustenance kissed by the last of the season’s fire on our plates, it was a perfect pairing.

And now? I’m ready for autumn . . . bring it on. 



I was driving through Alexander Valley noodling this month’s challenge for P5290476Wine Blogging Wednesday—to write about an indigenous grape variety. At first, my thoughts went far afield to the unusual varietals I’ve discovered in foreign lands—Kekfrankos in Hungary, for example, or Assyrtiko in Greece. But as I watched the emerald carpet of vines whiz past me and thought more about the meaning of the word indigenousto belong naturally to a place—I was hit with the urge to celebrate a a grape closer to home. One that, like me, may not originally have come from Sonoma County, yet nonetheless belongs here more than anywhere else in the world.

But what? I wondered . . .

Then I remembered Keith Horn, Clos du Bois’ viticulturalist, smiling like a proud papa as he cradled a plump bunch of berries in his hand. “This is the workhorse of Sonoma County Chardonnay,” he said. “It grows perfectly here on the ranch.” When I pushed him for more detail about what “this” was, he answered, “Clone 4.”

Clone 4 was one of many unique selections taken from a block of Chardonnay in southern Sonoma County, long before viticultural research in its present form existed. The farmer had gotten his bud wood from another vineyard whose owners had sourced their vines from the Wente Brothers in Livermore, via France. Over the years, the grower noticed certain vines would consistently exhibit certain cluster and berry sizes, distinct flavors, growth patterns, leaf size, etc.

Intrigued with these findings, he began working with Harold Olmo at UC Davis. Olmo labeled and observed the vines over several years and then eventually took several samples back to UC Davis. From those Sonoma County cuttings, Clone 4 was selected and propagated.

Why are there clones in my wine?
Glad you asked. Just as there are different varietals of grapes, there are also different subsets—called clones—of those varietals, selected and propagated to thrive in various growing conditions or to impart a particular character to a wine. Chardonnay clones that were developed and propagated in Burgundy, the motherland of Chardonnay, have a complexity and finesse to them. But the vines do best in a climate more akin to Central France than the valleys of Northern California.

The Clone 4 selection, on the other hand, thrives in the foggy mornings, hot afternoons and dry, sunny summers of Sonoma County. It’s known generally for heavy, big-berried clusters (compare the Clone 4 cluster in the foreground of the photo compared to the Burgundian Clone in the background), fine quality fruit and ability to retain acidity in a warm climate. But its qualities still vary greatly depending on the particular terroir of where it’s grown, which gives the winemaker a palette of characteristics to play with. Beyond those variations, there’s even further opportunity for adding nuance with the Burgundian clones.

So . . . does Chardonnay as a varietal come from Sonoma County? No. Does Clone 4 Chardonnay belong here? Yes.


The other night, inspired by the Roasted Tomato Roundup I was putting together (and by a recipe from Figs Olives Wine), I made an impromptu Slow-roasted-tomatoes0009dinner, tossing cherry tomatoes and chunks of eggplant with olive oil, garlic, thyme and olives and roasting it all in a well-worn Le Creuset pan until the mixture was fragrant and saucy and delish. Then I spooned the luscious concoction next to a divine piece of halibut I’d bought that afternoon from my Farmers’ Market Fish Man (I finally paid him . . . I told him I was self-imposing a $5 interest for being so late and he laughed. He’d forgotten I owed him.).

The flavors so clearly screamed SOUTH OF FRANCE to me that I pulled a Grenache (a Garnacha actually; the Spanish—and original—name of the grape that’s called Grenache in France, where it’s grown extensively in the Southern Rhone) from the closet without even thinking. But it was a warm night, and my husband wanted something fresher, so he popped a Sauvignon Blanc that he’d stashed in the carport fridge.

What to do? Take out four glasses of course.

It was an interesting lesson in wine and food pairing. Many people are under the impression that there’s a “perfect match” for any given food. Not so. A wine’s flavor profile may complement or contrast with the flavors in a dish—and both are valid. In our little experiment, the flavors of the Grenache were a mellow match, in a sort of lock-step with the earthiness of the eggplant and olives and the fruitiness of the roasted tomatoes. The Sauvignon Blanc, by contrast, was like a palate cleanser after every sip, leaving you ready to experience the flavors of the dish anew with each bite.

If you’ve never looked at wine and food pairing from a complement or contrast perspective before, I heartily urge you to give it a shot. And let me know what you find!