Author Archives: Alex
When I pour wine for people, or when I'm out tasting, often I hear people remark that they can "really taste the terroir" in whatever is in their glass. And they would be right ... if terroir meant "dirt."
The trouble with terroir is that it's a loanword from French that really doesn't translate precisely into English. It's absolutely derived from the word "terre," which is from the Latin and means "earth." But dirt is only one of several qualities that make up the concept of terroir. Soil types are important, but so are the weather and topography of a vineyard. Borrowing from Wikipedia, as they really do articulate it nicely:
Terroir can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.
Basically, where something is growing and what it's like there are just as important as what is growing. Anything that comes out of the ground expresses terroir, though certain crops are better known for it (coffee and chocolate are some of the most popular, but tomatoes are often cited. And I stand by my belief that the best peach I've ever had in my entire life was the size of a soccer ball and came from Stephen and Paula's orchard, which is home to my favorite Hawkes Cabernet).
Terroir is at the heart of European wines. France in particular has adopted terroir as the primary principle in its Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system, which is the model on which all other appellation systems are based. Terroir is the reason pinot noir-based wines from Burgundy that are classified as grand cru are labeled with the name of the vineyard; the varietal isn't immaterial, but it comes second to the place where the grapes are growing.
Terroir is also the heart of our Cabernet program. We farm three vineyards all located in southern Alexander Valley, and which are at most seven miles apart. And yet, if you've had the chance to try our single-vineyard Cabs side by side, either out of the barrel as Futures, or back when we first started making them (it's been nearly three years since I've had all three from one vintage open at the same time), you'll know from experience that they taste nothing alike.
I went for a walk with Jake on the Pyramid Vineyard a couple years back, right before harvest. He and Stephen were trying to decide what they wanted to pick for themselves. And it shouldn't have surprised me but it did: as we walked, the grapes we sampled from one side of the hill tasted different from other parts of the vineyard.
Good winemaking starts in the vineyard. For us, that means picking by hand and keeping individual blocks of the vineyard separate throughout the barreling process, all so that, two years later, we can taste through everything and pick the Cabernet that is the truest expression of the place where it's grown. And that is what terroir is all about.
It should come as no surprise that we're mostly known for Cabernet Sauvignon. That's probably what brought you to us in the first place. We're uniquely suited to growing Cab here in Alexander Valley, where it's a little warmer than our neighbors toward the coast, but where the Russian River still provides us with cool, foggy nights on our hillside vineyards. But while Stephen and Jake Hawkes love Cab—prefer Cab; live, breathe, and bleed Cab—there's another friend of ours from Bordeaux who flourishes down the hill from our favorite varietal.
It is largely accepted that Merlot's first appearance center-stage in the California wine industry was due mainly to Louis Martini, which produced the first of the "modern" Merlots in 1968. Merlot was planted initially in Napa (and later in the rest of the state) in a time when interest in Bordeaux-style blends was developing. Despite a century of success with Cabernet Sauvignon, folks back then pretty unanimously decided that California's wines were not of the same quality as those from France, partly because, more and more, people were noticing a rough side to Cabernet Sauvignon. A rough side that could be tamed with Merlot. And slowly, they noticed that this grape—the most widely-cultivated in Bordeaux and the prominent feature in Right Bank districts like Pomerol and Saint-Émilion—not only rounded out and gave complexity to Cabernet Sauvignon, they thought it made a pretty tasty wine all on its own, one that was supple and matured earlier than Cab.
As of 2010 in California, Merlot is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in the red grape category; it comprises 46,200 acres planted, with 6,300 here in Sonoma County. Around the country, the only grape consumed more is Chardonnay. And that big demand for Merlot may have led to its perceived downfall. Gundlach Bundschu made a brilliant short film that sums it up pretty nicely: Merlot, one of the five Bordeaux varietals, became soft and flabby over time. It was an easy-drinking wine without much to it, garnering a reputation as a "beginner's" wine.
Then came Sideways. Now, the rumors that this film was the nail in the coffin on the Merlot industry are greatly exaggerated. It was not the apocalyptic scenario people seem to think it was, but it wasn't insignificant. Sales of Merlot at the major retailers did fall nationwide, while sales—and prices—of Pinot Noir jumped something like 16% in the year following the film's release. Smaller producers—ourselves included—struggled to sell their fruit as the larger producers made less Merlot.
But since then, Merlot sales have recovered. More than that. They're growing, as they have been doing since Sideways was released. Merlot remains the third most popular wine in the country. And while the grape may have earned the reputation it had at the beginning of the last decade, more and more people are realizing that Merlot isn't any different from other wines: there's a lot of it, and some is good, and some is bad.
That's what makes it particularly fun to share our Merlot with the folks who come by the tasting room every day. It's a wine that everyone seems to have an opinion about, and that opinion is nearly always dismantled by our Merlot. We've got the 2008 Alexander Valley Merlot open daily at both tasting rooms, and we'd love to share it with you.
Chardonnay is the most popular grape in the United States. (A bold statement, I know, but the numbers don't lie.) Part of the reason for that popularity is the grape's versatility; it adapts readily to its surroundings and conditions, reflecting the terroir of wherever it grows. Globally it's planted in more regions than any other grape — yes, even more than our own beloved Cabernet Sauvignon.
A quick google search about Chardonnay from the Alexander Valley will tell you that it tends to be more Burgundian in style — meaning that, in general, they tend to be richer, rounder, fuller-bodied white wines that spend a part of their lives in new oak barrels. And a big part of that Burgundian (and now, more commonly, Californian) style is something I'm asked about on a daily basis: malolactic fermentation.
Malolactic fermentation (ML) is actually a bit of a misnomer. Really, it's a conversion process that takes place after primary fermentation is complete. I won't pretend to be more of a scientist than my English degree will allow, but the gist of it is this: the conversion is started by a group of bacteria which convert malic acid (think Granny Smith apples and Bartlett pears) into lactic acid. This process happens for several reasons: it serves to stabilize wines (and for this reason, all red wines go through ML) because all wines will go through the process in the bottle, of their own accord, if the lactic acid bacteria are present. This is, to say the least, not a desirable situation, as it tends to render the wine sour and undrinkable.
The other reason wines go through ML is to reduce unpleasantly high acidity, in both reds and whites. This is especially true of many Chardonnays, where the neutral composition of the grape may be overwhelmed by harsh malic acid.The malolactic process is what is responsible for the buttery aspect that is now traditionally associated with Chardonnay, especially those from California.
And for that reason, our Home Chardonnay never goes through ML. We don't have anything against ML Chards; we just don't think ours needs it. We're proud of our fruit, and we think our wines should be the truest expression of this region and of the varietals we grow. The 2012 Home Chardonnay is a great example of that philosphy. Released from the barrel six months earlier than previous vintages, the wine has more freshness and bright fruit, but it still has all the flinty, mineral traits that we associate with the Home Ranch.
On the other hand, our 2010 Gravel Bar Chardonnay had such concentrated fruit and intense acidity when it was picked, we knew it could hold its own against ML. It's a great Chardonnay with "exuberant fruit," a great candidate to lay down for a few years, or to drink now, while its citrus and mineral characteristics are at their brightest. And that's the beauty of Chardonnay. Its versatility promises that there's something for everyone.
Last November, we bottled our first "Hawkes-worthy pink wine," as Jake puts it. We did it just in time for Thanksgiving, and it's been a hit over the last couple of months as more and more people have the chance to try it. Our 2011 Vin Gris is a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon entirely from our Stone Vineyard, from a year that was ... well, a bit difficult. Late spring rains resulted in shattered fruit on the vineyards, and cooler-than-ideal temperatures meant that harvest was later than I can remember it being. But something about the long, cool growing season made 2011 a great year for pink wines; it seems like everyone released one for the summer.
And thank goodness. Call me a cheap date, but I love a good glass of pink.
We opted for the term "vin gris" for a few reasons. Stylistically, this wine reminds us of the dry, zesty rosés from the Provence region. Bright and refreshing, it's a versatile wine that's light enough to enjoy with salad but possesses enough body that it will hold its own against a burger. In fact, rosé's versatility is one of the reasons we released it when we did — the acidity tends to cut through the heaviness of wintertime foods, but the red fruit flavors hold up against the heavier dishes.
The other reason we went for "vin gris" over "rosé" is the method by which we produced this wine. Vin Gris is often produced by the saignée method, French for "bled" or "bleeding." It's not nearly as graphic as that though. Essentially, the saignée method starts with a red wine — in our case, Cabernet — right after the fruit has been pressed. In order to impart deeper color and better structure into the Cab, we removed a little of the juice, reducing the volume of the red wine and concentrating the must involved in maceration. The result was a Cabernet with the depth and intensity that we desired. And a little pink wine as a nice bonus.
In general, my personal preferences have always guided me toward rosés made from Rhône varietals — Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, or any combination thereof. Perhaps it's my inner Frenchwoman? The Provençal pink wines are primarily Mourvèdre, with the Bandol region being the only area "dominated" by that varietal, which is required by law to compose at least 50% of the blend for both rosé and red wines. But our Vin Gris is right up my alley: as light and crisp with refreshing acidity as I could want, and with ripe strawberry, watermelon, and even a touch of the mint that is a defining characteristic of Cabernet from Alexander Valley.
Not to brag or anything, but that's exactly what we've managed to achieve.
Grapevines are simultaneously extraordinarily delicate and astonishingly resilient. From the moment they produce leaf buds in the spring until the time those leaves drop off after harvest, they are susceptible to damage from pests, disease, rot, rain, frost, and wind. Even the sun can wreak havoc on a vineyard. You know: too much of a good thing is, well ... too much.
But in the winter, when the vines are bare, Vitis vinifera proves to be remarkably hardy for a species that originated in the Mediterranean and Near East regions and which are grown in scores of other locations that are dramatically different. Of course, Alexander Valley and much of California has what is designated to be a Mediterranean climate, so it makes sense that wine grapes would flourish here. But it is in wintertime that some of the most crucial work is done.
It's both a matter of vine health and the quality of the crop, and the process starts as soon as the fruit is picked. The vine continues to go through photosynthesis, building up nutrient reserves to get it through the winter. When that process is complete, the leaves change color and drop away, leaving the bare vines that you'll see all over the county right now.
It's the onset of cold weather that puts the vines to sleep. Dormancy is a critical period for the vine in the same way that we rely on sleep to re-energize ourselves. And that's where the health and quality factors connect. Grapevines are trained in different styles for different results. But the one thing all the systems have in common is that they are all done to regulate the canopy and control crop yields by promoting "favorable leaf-to-fruit ratios." And that's what happens in the winter.
Grapevines grow pretty vigorously. If left unattended, they'll eventually produce so much fruit that things won't ripen evenly — or at all — and the quality of the crop is diminished. So in the winter, when the frosts and the cold have put the vines to bed, the vineyard crews go through and prune back the canes (young growth that started as a bud back in the previous spring). Pruning is done with the next autumn's crop in mind by spacing things evenly to make sure the next year's growth is balanced and that the vine's energy will be concentrated on the fruit during the summer months.
I joke pretty regularly that wintertime grapevines are nearly indestructible, and that only a nuclear explosion could do any real damage. That is, of course, complete hyperbole. But grapes are grown in all kinds of areas, including places like New York, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, and even France — all of which have much colder, longer winters than my backyard. And while I'm counting down the hours until Daylight Savings kicks back in, our Cabernet vineyards are enjoying their time off, relishing the cold, and building back their strength for the coming harvest.
It's been cold this January. No, not the way it was cold this morning when my friend Noelle walked to work in Boston. That doesn't happen in Alexander Valley. But we've had temperatures down in the twenties for the last few weeks. The puddles on the roadside are covered in ice, and the frost at the ranch and down at the river seems to accumulate with each passing day. There's a fire burning constantly in the woodstove, and woe betide us if it should go out. I don't go a day without snuggly wool socks.
Folks who come into the tasting room ask me, "Won't the cold hurt the grapes?" And for a long time, the only thing I could tell them was, "No, not this time of year." But I never really knew why the winter freeze wasn't an issue until I bought a book called The Geography of Wine while I was perusing the local bookstore. I bought it on a whim, mostly to keep on the coffee table along with The River Cottage Meat Book and The Dude and the Zen Master, to flip through when idle.
Unsurprisingly, the answer to "why doesn't the cold hurt the vines" came by accident, when I wasn't looking for it. And once I read it, I thought, "Actually, that makes sense."
You see, cold temperatures are actually necessary for growing quality wine grapes. In The Geography of Wine, Brian Sommers breaks down the the five basic climates that exist throughout the world: tropical, desert, subtropical, continental, and polar. There are local variations and areas over overlap, but basically, everything can be categorized into one of those five. And of them. the majority of wine production occurs within "Subtropical climates with mean monthly temperatures between 26.6 and 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit."
So what happens in the winter? Dormancy. It turns out, the cold of the winter puts the vines to sleep for a while, and "without a period of dormancy or rest, wine grapes produce poorly for wine. Most plant species adapted to climates with a true winter cool period need that period to be at their best." Within those subtropical classifications are the Mediterranean climates, "typically found at 30 to 45 degrees latitude (either north or south)," with mild winters and dry summers, and winters that "do not have more than a couple months when the average temperature is below freezing."
In other words, Alexander Valley.
So the cold weather—from the chilly morning that keeps me in bed longer than I should be each morning and the ice that builds up on the bridge over Maacama Creek—is part of a necessary cycle. And for now, it shouldn't be a problem.
I wrote a few weeks ago about wandering in the woods and stumbling upon mushrooms. Specifically, a bearded member of the hericium variety, the Lion's Mane. I wrote that we haven't found many of these fluffy morsels in any given year, and articles that I read backed up my thought that these are a less-than-common find.
Well, I might have to retract that statement.
Two weeks ago, Peter went out for a ride around Lake Sonoma, and in the course of two loops, fifty miles of riding, and a net elevation gain of more than twelve thousand feet, he found ...
Four. Four lion's mane mushrooms. One was out of reach, far up the branches of a tree, but the other three went into his bag and came home. We ate them the other night in a sort of midnight-snack fashion with chorizo verde by the venerable Franco Dunn, and with Foggy River potatoes from the final CSA pickup, and our Thanksgiving day find.
We've gone for a ramble three years in a row now, and while Peter was skeptical we'd find anything, I was pumped this time around. We'd been surprised two years running. Why not a third time?
It was a strange haul.
Peter made the first find: a cluster of coccora, a member of the Amanita family (which contains, most recognizably, the red-and-white muscaria, popular in illustrations everywhere, as well as the aptly-named Destroying Angel and Death Cap). Peter is a well-seasoned hunter, and has been comfortably identifying and eating this particular mushroom for the last few years (but only the autumn one, as it is more easily distinguished from dangerous lookalikes than its springtime relative), and it was my first time finding them. Peter's always found them on their own, so we were surprised to see them in such a large group. Unfortunately, only one of the seven or eight had not been beset upon by bugs. Into the bag it went.
About thirty minutes later, after much poking and prodding, and passing up one of the larger oyster mushrooms I've ever found simply because they were super wet (they had almost a liquid appearance), a queen bolete followed the coccora into the bag. That was a first; we've hunted in this particular spot for more than two years, and this was the only Boletus we'd spotted to date. It was in an area which, in years past, has yielded enough chanterelles to tire out our arms on the walk home. The chanterelles from that spot had turned into our Thanksgiving hors d'oeuvres last year, and I was hoping for a repeat.
I was to be disappointed. Nearly an hour on the hillside, and only one small golden chanterelle. We moved on, and the final discovery was on the side of a fallen tree by the river: a spidery, white member of the Hericium family. Everyone calls this one something different, so I'm not sure what the proper scientific name is (and my book is at Peter's house now. I'm pretty sure it's Hericium ramosum, thought it might be H. coralloides). We've found them before on this exact same spot, so it wasn't exactly a surprise, but I still squealed like a kid when I saw it. Janne assures me that's okay because "we're proud, card-carrying mushroom nerds."
The chanterelle was my only find of the day, although it was a big one in the scheme of things. We might have been out a little too early last Thursday, but we've got more rain on the way this week. And that might be all we need for the first bonafide mushroom feast of the year. When that happens, there will be baked brie, Pinot Noir, and much rejoicing.
My friends and I have gotten together for "Friendsgiving" dinner three years in a row now, and this year was probably the best one yet. Come Thursday, since we all (well, nearly all) have family in the area, we'll all be doing the usual turkey-mashed potato-cranberry gorgefest with them. But to kick of the holiday season in style, we all met up at my house, brought out favorite dishes, and reflected on the past year.
It was a remarkable occasion. It was the first year we did a turkey. Last year I did two chickens, but our friend Jamie volunteered to tackle the big bird this time around, and I swear, she would have made Martha Stewart proud. I brought mac and cheese because, hey, why not. With one casserole dish in the oven and the other waiting to go in, my friend, Faya, remarked upon arrival, "Aw, you should have made two."
"Oh, don't worry," I said. "I did. I don't mess around when it comes to mac and cheese."
And neither did anyone else, it turns out. The people at the end of the buffet line marveled at the amount of bacon they got with their Brussels sprouts (it all fell to the bottom), and everyone was fooled by Jordan's roasted-cauliflower "mashed potatoes" (check out Aaron's recipe for them ... Jordan opted out of the potato). We all brought wine from the stashes we keep in our closets (Mark went for "craziest wine" this year and managed to bring a bottle of wine his dad brought him from China. We all agreed that it was, unfortunately, corked, though Mark vowed it wasn't the most corked wine he'd ever had).
And we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for. To some degree, we were all thankful for the same thing—each other, our adopted family, and the ability to have made the dinner happen in such a spectacular fashion. It was the first Thanksgiving for a couple friends who were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses, and they expressed the gratitude of having been welcomed into the group. Those of us in new relationships within the last year were grateful for that love (or, in Jenny's case, making it "Facebook official," which we all found immensely amusing).
But as usual, the person who summed it up perfectly for all of us was the youngest one at the table, my friend's eight-year-old son, who enthusiastically proclaimed, "I'm thankful for my shelter and my family."
Just so. And tomorrow, when I sit down with my family, I'll be thinking the same thing. I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful Thanksgiving. I know I speak for everyone at Hawkes when I say that this year, we're thankful for all of you and the support you have given us over the last year.
It rained a couple weeks ago. The day after the first storm passed, Peter and I went for a ride in Annadel State Park, something I've been dying to do for about a month but hadn't simply because the dust was making it so unpleasant. But that Tuesday it was perfect: cool, but not cold. Sunny, but not hot. And the sky looked like this:
You see, this is my favorite time of year. Jake waxes poetic about spring every year, but for me, it's autumn. There's still plenty of fresh produce coming in from the garden, but the heat of summer finally abates. Yes, the days are shorter, and there's a nip in the air, but that little rainstorm washed away the dust, and the hillsides and vineyards flushed green as the dead growth makes way for new grass. Barbecue makes way for roasts. Tequila goes back on the shelf, and the bourbon returns. Ah, the circle of life.
Autumn is a magical time. It's kind of like spring, in a way. There is new growth of a different kind. While harvest has come to a close, and the leaves have changed and are falling as I write this, the bounty of autumn is in full swing. The persimmon tree is heavy with fruit. My CSA share is chockablock-full of kale, chard, bok choy, winter squash, broccoli, and potatoes.
And of course, during a walk in the woods a week after that first rainstorm, I discovered the best part of the autumn is just beginning: mushroom season.
We went out expecting not to find anything. In fact, I may have made fun of Peter for bringing the mesh bag we carry with us for hauling back mushrooms.
"Isn't that a little overly optimistic?" I asked.
"We'll see," he replied. And of course, he was right. Hanging off the side of a stump, right where we found a massive one last year, was a perfect lion's mane mushroom. Fluffy and white, it looks more like something that would be growing in the Great Barrier Reef than on an oak tree. I consider them to be fairly rare, at least in the areas where we hike, since we only find two or three a year (as opposed to the pound upon pounds of other mushrooms we find nearby). I've also never seen them sold by the pound at the grocery store, unlike chanterelles or porcini. Lion's manes are meaty with great texture, and the flavors are quite mild. Cooked properly, they can take on a mild seafood flavor, similar to crab or lobster. Last year, Peter threw some in with halibut, another time with clams. It was perfection.
So I knew this recent find was the perfect excuse to open up a bottle of Chardonnay from our friends, the Rathburns. Don and Linda moved to Healdsburg from Michigan, and they've been longtime club members. So we were thrilled and flattered when they dropped off bottles of their 2010 Chardonnay. In fact, Jake liked it so much, he may or may not have nicked someone else's bottle so he could continue enjoying it.
Creamy, round, with balanced fruit and acid, it was the perfect companion to our dinner: polenta topped with sautéed lion's mane mushroom, spinach, and whatever else Peter threw in there. I'm pretty sure some sour cream was involved.
I've learned not to ask questions. Sometimes it's better just to kick back with a glass of something good and enjoy.
A few weeks back, I confessed that it was Cabernet Day and that I was not drinking Cabernet. I also mentioned something about tomato soup and drinking beer. Well guess what? I learned a valuable lesson that day, and it came in two parts.
1.) Homemade tomato soup is easy to make!
2.) Homemade tomato soup is more delicious than the stuff in a can.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a summer camp kid. Campbell's tomato soup out of a can and Kraft-singles grilled cheese on white bread will always have a place in my heart. Ah, the memories. But I'm an adult now (supposedly), and since I can't take three months off every summer to go to the prettiest place I've ever been, somehow that means it's time to start making my own tomato soup.
First things first, cooking is fun on its own, but it's more fun with a beverage. Whether it's tea, beer, or two fingers of bourbon, get yourself something to sip while you cook. Got one? Good.
And now for a list of ingredients:
unsalted butter (actually, I used salted. I don't salt things because I generally salt too heavily, so salted butter for me is okay)
one onion, coarsely chopped (you're drinking, try not to cut your fingers off)
1-2 cloves garlic (or 3-4 if you're me)
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (the recipe I used said "or water." The heck with that. Use chicken stock. And if you can, make your own. It's exponentially more delicious than whatever that bilge-water is that they label as chicken broth in the store)
1/2 cup heavy cream (my recipe said "optional." I say, live a little!)
Tomatoes. I used approximately five cups of my frozen heirlooms from my CSA basket last year. I had noble aspirations for canning them. I fancied myself a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder after having spent all summer hard at work picking up my veggies from the farm. Of course, time ran out on the tomatoes, so I threw them into gallon ziplock bags and chucked them in the freezer. When you pull them out, it's like they've been blanched: the skins slip off as they thaw. However, if you don't have a bunch of frozen tomatoes, the recipe I used calls for 28oz whole, peeled tomatoes. basil. (I don't know how much I used. I love basil)
The soup itself is easy — heat the onion and garlic in the butter in a stock pot until they're soft and translucent; add the tomatoes and stock, bring to a boil, then simmer for ten minutes; run it through the food processor until smooth; put it in a clean pot and whisk in the cream. The only thing that was challenging for me was the time it took. Though much of that must have had to do with the fact that I was using frozen tomato and had not taken them out to thaw before leaving for work. Either way, it was about 9:00 by the time I flipped my grilled cheese sandwich onto my plate and ladled soup into a bowl.
But it was totally worth it. Sorry, Campbell's. I'm a convert.