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Murder in Myrdal!

[fjaerland panorama]Clinging to the edge of a steep, forested hillside about halfway through the journey, our train grinds to a surprisingly rapid halt. There’s no announcement of the reason, not even in Norwegian, and heads are craning. Presently, we see the conductor walking past our window. We peer forward, then back; there are sheep scampering down the hillside, a few men and dogs doing their best to herd them down the precarious slope.

Our guess is correct: the train has hit a sheep, and there’s a collection of shepherds and train personnel gathered a few dozen meters behind us. As we’re pondering the length of the delay, and whether or not it will affect the scheduling of our onward journey, the conductor approaches our window once more. He yells ahead, and in response the train inches forward for a minute…just far enough to take us out of a line-of-sight view of what’s about to happen. For now, gripped in each of the conductor’s hands, is a pair of rather fierce-looking hatchets.

…continued here.

Children of Doon

[cigare blanc bottle]Here are some notes from a brief visit to Bonny Doon’s soon-to-be-former tasting room in a beautifully forested back corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I’ve requested an appointment (identified as press), rather than just dropping in, and the only benefit seems to be that I taste a few more wines than casual visitors, though no more than their wine club members (one of whom stops in for a tasting while I’m there). It’s a shame, because I’d have liked to learn a little bit more about what they’re doing. But many of my questions are not answerable by the tasting room staff (who are otherwise quite engaging), and others go unasked because I’m not the only customer.

The only facts I really discover are the details of the winery’s recent and rather extreme downshift over the last few years – 500,000 cases in 2006, 30-35,000 cases in 2008 – and that biodynamic certification was received for one of their vineyards (Ca’ del Solo) in 2007, with more on the horizon.

Bonny Doon 2006 “Le Cigare Blanc” (California) – 75% grenache blanc, 35% roussanne, from vineyards in Arroyo Seco. Stone fruit, sand, and spice…then intense apricot and blood orange with slightly less spice…then slight vegetation as the wine winds down. This sort of phase-shifting isn’t, I find, unusual with Rhônish whites that aren’t pushed to (or past) the limits of ripeness. All that said, the most appealing element of the wine is actually its gravelly texture. There’s enough acidity for balance, and great persistence, but I think this wine is not everything it could strive to be. (9/08)

Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2007 Orange Muscat (Monterey County) – Less than 1% residual sugar despite all organoleptic evidence to the contrary, which actually isn’t all that unusual for muscat. Orange peel perfume and medium-sweet fruit make this overwhelmingly approachable, but the wine’s fatness is only broken by acidity late into its finish. Some crystals – which they just love at Bonny Doon – are perhaps present as a sort of foundation. This could be better. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2006 “Vin Gris de Cigare” (California) – A pinkish blend of grenache, cinsault, syrah, grenache blanc, and roussanne. Dried grapefruit and other citrus rinds, with some of them in candied form. Lavender, as well. Good weight and balance. Long. The wine turns more rind-dominated on the finish, but this is only to its benefit. Elegant and quite tasty. (9/08)

Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2005 Sangiovese (San Benito County) – There are dollops of nero d’avola, cinsault, and colorino here. What do they add? I’m not sure. An intense nose of mixed jellies – plum, blueberry, blackberry – fades to simpler multi-hued cherries by the finish, there’s a tannic bite that grates with underripeness as the wine lingers, and a fairly significant amount of acidity adds to what eventually becomes a general and growing sensation of off-putting weediness. Eh. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2005 Syrah Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Soulful. A beautiful nose (a sequel to the tedious Russell Crowe flick) of blackberry and leather, plus mint, promises much. The texture is plush, but without sacrificing a pleasantly herbal earthiness not usually found amidst this level of luxuriance. Balanced and very structured, with the clear intention of and potential for ageability. If there’s a flaw, it’s a touch of stretch and green to the tannin, which is worth keeping an eye on as the wine matures. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2004 “Le Cigare Volant” (California) – 38% grenache, 35% syrah, 12% mourvèdre, 8% carignan, 7% cinsault. Surprisingly Rhônish. Meat, underbrush, herbs, and sap. Juicy and approachable, but very well-knit. I like this a lot, less because the elements are superior than because the wine carries itself with palpable confidence. (9/08)

Beauregard 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (High Valley) – A little cross-promotion from the winery up the driveway from Bonny Doon’s tasting room. I can’t say I’m a fan. Coconut, dill, and stale chocolate are not aromas I crave. A juicy texture, sour acidity, and overly-rounded tannins aren’t the droids structure I’m looking for, either. And the finish is weird. Don’t just avoid, run away. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2005 Viognier Doux (Paso Robles) – 12.2% alcohol, 12.8 grams residual sugar, 500 ml bottle. All the aromatics here are in the honey genre. While big, the wine’s got an extremely appealing silken texture with a little edge of bitterness on the finish. There’s little more to it, but it hardly seems to matter. Pure fun. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2004 Recioto of Barbera (Monterey County) – 14.5% alcohol, 7.2% grams residual sugar, 500 ml bottle. The nose here is lovely – full of crushed raisins – despite the bottle being open for twenty-four hours. This probably explains the bit of fade to the palate and a perimeter that’s more enticing than the center, but the wine retains a certain crispness and edge, with apple-toned acidity. More remarkably, this lacks the persistent (and to me, a sensitive, often deal-breaking) flaw of recioto-styled wines: volatile acidity. If there’s any here, it’s below my threshold of detection…and that threshold is legendarily low. Nicely done. (9/08)

The current “buzz” on Bonny Doon is that shedding its mass-market brands (primarily the Big House lineup) and a lot of the experimental tomfoolery has made them more focused and, overall, better. But I always liked the mass-market wines as very tasty examples of the genre, and I don’t know if I see clear evidence of re-dedication to top quality; Bonny Doon has usually made “good” wines, and these continue in that vein. Every wine – except perhaps the rosé – lacks something that would push it into a higher qualitative echelon. That said, there’s time enough to see what happens; the new paint here is still very wet.

After my tasting, I buy a bottle, unpack some lunch, and enjoy a mostly restful meal at a picnic table adjacent to the tasting room. “Mostly restful” because I’m interrupted by a full twenty minutes of battle with an inquisitive (or hungry) bee. Anyway, a revisit:

Bonny Doon 2006 “Le Cigare Blanc” (California) – Honeydew melon, pear, spice, and tan earth rumbled with gravel. Warmth does not help the wine, though air seems to, so I’d suggest decanting and then the fridge. (9/08)

Kind of blue

[waterfall]We’re in a car, driving into the hills, with people we’ve never met. I’ve seen this horror plot at the cinema, and it never ends well for the passengers. It’s true that our hosts don’t seem particularly threatening…but I’m sure that’s just what they want us to think.

…continued here.

Slo food

[ljubljana sculpture]Where are we? Judging by the featureless beige on our GPS’ screen, the answer is “nowhere.” The road we’re on doesn’t exist. Yet it quite obviously does, and we’re on it, and it doesn’t look so new that our allegedly Europe-covering maps wouldn’t include it. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we now have no idea if we’re headed to Ljubljana or…oh, I dunno, Salzburg. The tension in the car rises a bit.

So much for Italians and their “shortcuts.”

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Meat castles

[tombstones]Set in an otherwise quiet residential area of town, Le Tournedos et H. Le Tassigny isn’t the easiest restaurant to find. Not that I think it’s particularly big with the tourists in any case; everyone stares when we walk in, there’s certainly no English being spoken at any other tables, and the English we speak to each other draws a surprised glance from every waitperson that approaches our table.

The name of the game here is meat, and a lot of it. In fact, I can’t imagine wanting to eat here except if in search of the namesake tournedos, which feature on the menu in many, many incarnations. I start with a salade de gésièrs, itself a massive and extremely filling (but excellent) undertaking, and while waiting for my next course I realize I’m really not all that hungry. Oops.

So, when presented with a slab of beef about the size of my head…

…continued here.

Sticky fingers

[(varner) neely and foxglove wine bottles]No more than twenty seconds after exiting my car, I’ve got a glass in my hand. In it is a dense, sticky liquid straight from a rumbling crusher a few feet above my head, with a good number of uninvited floaters: bits of stems, skins, seeds, and perhaps a few dozen fruit flies. There’s also a fair amount of the sugary goop on my hand, which means it’s now on the pen I’m using to take notes. Which means it’s also on my notebook. Which means the pages are getting a little sticky.

But there’s nothing to be done about it now, so I shove my nose in the glass and take a lusty sniff. Freshly-crushed grapes, with a bit of a edge to them. I sip, ignoring the potentially complexing elements of bug protein and stem roughage. Dense fruit, very sweet, but vivacious. It’s a wine in embryonic form, just waiting to be born. And it’s delicious.

Varner is a eponymously-named winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, run by brothers Jim and Bob. Jim seems to handle the business side of things while Bob works the vines and the cellar equipment, though as with any family winery the actual practice is a little more collaborative than that. In any case, today Jim’s the one leading me around, while Bob grows increasingly spattered and spackled with the sticky residue of an ongoing crush. They’re bringing in chardonnay today, and in-between brief visits to chat, thief some barrel samples, or hand me a glass of fruit flies, Bob’s spending most of his time wheeling a forklift around the small parking lot, hoisting bins overflowing with grapes to an elevated platform, and then scampering up and down a ladder to check on his grapes’ plump befores and slurried afters.

But you wouldn’t know that there was a winery here unless you knew it. Local fiat disallows any hint of a public face, so access is only granted via appointment and the presence of someone with permission to open a forbidding gate. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep people out; Varner’s been given no choice in the matter by the civic worthies of Portola Valley. As a result, whenever the din of winemaking pauses – say for the workers’ lunch break – a peaceful isolation settles over the winery and its forested grounds.

Varner’s vineyards – which their business partner owns (see below) – were planted in stages beginning in the early eighties, and benefit from the Santa Cruz Mountains’ cooling effects, which assists in the preservation of acidity. In the Varners’ case, the stylistic intent came first and the vines came later, on a series of sites above the San Andreas Fault, though a few plots have been replanted as tastes and intents changed (for example, a block of gewürztraminer was supplanted by pinot noir). Two of the higher-elevation vineyards are on their own roots.

In the beginning, Jim & Bob spent a good deal of time selecting clones, including 115 and 777 for their pinot noirs, and a range of what Bob calls “old California clones” for the chardonnays. Subsequent plantings of the latter have been from a massale selection of those vines. And they try to take on “one creative endeavor a year,” which is sometimes a varietal exploration, and other times a speculative modification to technique, just to see what happens.

Experiments aside, Varner works very, very simply. Irrigation was gradually abandoned after the initial five years of vine growth (“our water patterns,” notes Bob, “are like natural deficit irrigation anyway”), and grapes are picked at around three tons per acre in temperatures between 50-60º. Back at the winery, each block of grapes is destemmed by hand, crushed, and pressed all in the same day. Varner’s particular vineyard sites don’t suffer from fog, but frost can be a problem…“though not this year,” notes Bob.

Yeasts and malolactic fermentations are natural rather than inoculated, barrels (a combination of medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, 1/3 new) are getting new wooden bungs for better control over oxygenation, and everything up to and including clarification is accomplished via gravity – no fining or filtration, just racking. Alcohols, which tend to hover around 14 to 14.5% (though 2008 has brought several wines under that threshold), are controlled in the vineyard, rather than with water or more technological means.

The tactile, sun-made-manifest fluid in my glass is chardonnay from the Bee Block, already nearing the end of its journey from grape to barrel, and from this site the Varners look for “peaches up front, lemon curd on the finish, and a sensation of chopped-up apples,” whereas the Amphitheater Block showcases its minerality in a package of less overt lushness. Pinot noir from the Hidden Block tends to show “perfectly ripe black cherry,” while the Picnic Block brings a crisper, yet still “perfectly ripe red apple” element into play. At least, that’s the intent. As we move into tasting, I’ll have the opportunity to judge for myself.

There are three projects here. Two, Varner and Neely, are just different names for the same range of wines; the latter is named after a third investor (who joins us midway through the tasting), though the label nomenclature differs between the two brands. The third is Foxglove, a larger, appealingly-priced label for purchased grapes that emphasize clean varietal character.

[chardonnay crush at varner]Varner 2007 Chardonnay Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Still thick and lush. Peach, apple, lees. Opaque. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a new François Frères barrel, 115 clone. Still wood-marked. Elegant. Spicy cherry (again, the wood influence). Seems lighter-styled. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a three year old François Frères barrel, still the 115 clone. Balanced fruit with light tannin. A mix of black and red cherry, strawberry, and perhaps some more exotic berries that I can’t quite put a name to. Very long. Grey soil. A persistent bit of wood influence lingers late on the finish, but it’s very minor in comparison to the new-wood sample of this cuvée. (9/08)

Varner 2008 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Hidden Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Actually, not even really a wine, as it was pressed just yesterday. Crisp apple with a touch of milk-soaked strawberry. Light. (9/08)

“This is a year to cut back on the oak,” notes Bob, in reference to the 2007s.

Neely 2006 Chardonnay Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Very restrained. Apple and apricot, but not just the fruit…skins and other plant-parts as well. There’s good acidity and a lot of minerality. Medium-bodied, steady-state, pure, and fabulously balanced, but this needs more time to develop into what it’s becoming. (9/08)

Wine “can be balanced and [still] dull,” notes Bob, who looks for simultaneous “tension and equilibrium” in the end product.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – A blend of clones 115 and 777. Intense cherry…really more like an explosion thereof…with just a hint of tar. Vivid. Beautiful texture and huge, deep-black minerality. Starts bright and blinding, then turns structured in the middle, and finishes with supple gentility. (9/08)

“Interesting aromatics with lushness on the palate…that’s the goal of California pinot noir,” claims Bob.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (Santa Cruz Mountains) – 777 clones on 5C rootstock in “the poorest soil on the property.” Dark blackberry, blueberry (both with seeds intact), and broodberry. No, that’s not a word, but it applies here. Lush indeed, but very well-balanced, and frankly gorgeous. Is that a little tail of licorice? Long, vivid, and intense. Impressive. (9/08)

Neely 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Anise. Red fruit with black skins, or so it seems; definitely not the other way around. Beautiful acidity, long, silky, and supple. A fine particulate texture pairs with flawless structure. “We’re looking for an interplay between raspberry and dark red plum skins.” (9/08)

The chardonnays, according to both Jim and Bob, are built for around seven to ten years’ aging, but they’re less sure about an endpoint for the pinots. “Ten, fifteen years?”

Foxglove 2007 Zinfandel (Paso Robles) – 15% petite sirah, 14.6% alcohol. Big boysenberry fruit, with a nicely bitter espresso edge. A little short aromatically, but eminently drinkable. (9/08)

The Varners consider their work an always-interesting combination of art and science. And in fact, science is often paired with the duo’s occasional lapses into old-style California winemaker cant, e.g. their desire for “tannic equilibrium and some synergistic energy.” But both Varners describe their philosophy in an appropriately simple way, insisting that what they do is no more than “really paying attention to natural conditions.” Their wines – pure, complex, unadorned – reflect their sites, but they also exemplify this well-tested hypothesis.

Now if I can just get this chardonnay residue off my fingers…

Disclosures: lunch at Lavanda paid for by Jim Varner, several bottles purchased at a significant discount.

The rites of springbok

[table mountain obscured]The truck shows no signs of stopping. In fact, it might be speeding up. A horn blares. The right wheel is aimed directly at me, the left at Theresa’s glasses, which are still skipping and swirling over the pavement, buffeted by the howling gales that cyclone around us. There’s nothing to be done except save myself, and I leap back onto the sidewalk…just as the glasses are given their most violent wind-whipping yet. They sail skyward, hurdling the truck and crashing to the ground right at my feet. I reach out to grasp them…

…continued here.

Funky, cold, & Medina

[qantas]It has actually come to this? So many great experiences, so many wonderful people (except for that one), so many unforgettable memories. And yet, New Zealand’s final farewell for us is this: for the second time in three opportunities, Air New Zealand has failed to put our bags on the same plane as us. Even with a three-hour layover in Auckland. How does that happen? Have they employed tuatara to handle luggage and cargo? Three hours is usually enough even for Heathrow, for heaven’s sake, and Auckland’s not exactly the world’s biggest airport.

“They’ll be on the next flight,” assures the man clicking away at a computer with the sleek lines and processing power of the eighties. The early eighties. It’s got a green screen, it’s slower than Air NZ baggage handling, and the printer issuing my lost luggage report is a noisy old dot matrix model. Dot matrix. And yes, the paper is the appropriate relic, which I wasn’t even aware was still produced: alternating green and white stripes with perforated holes down the sides. What sort of bizarre time warp have we entered? Have all the country’s IT consultants gone walkabout?

…continued here.

Ski patroll

[ski troll]The problems start at the Oslo train station. I’d bought our tickets to Bergen the day before, and we arrive at the station with our bags and plenty of time to spare. But when we finally reach the giant schedule board to figure out where to go, our train is the only one without a departure track. This continues until said departure is close enough that we’re in danger of missing the train should it appear on one of the more distant tracks.

I approach the ticket desk with my questions, but am greeted with possibly the only person in all Oslo who doesn’t speak very much English. Eventually, she writes some things down on a piece of paper and gestures emphatically. If I understand her correctly – and there’s reason to suspect that I don’t – we’re supposed to get on a different train, get off that train and onto a bus, and then get back on the train that was supposed to take us to Bergen all along.

Um, OK.

We head for the indicated track, and seeing our destination town – Asker – mentioned on the side of an arriving train, we board.

It’s not the right train.

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Clivi wonder

[i clivi bottles]We’re sitting around a table, debating politics. Which we’ve been doing for…oh, about four hours now. Technically, we’re having lunch. But it’s quite dark outside, the dinner hour – even the late Italian one – has already arrived for many in the neighborhood, and neither the wine nor a regularly-replenished supply of hearty, crusty bread has stemmed. The crusty remains of a rich, Friulian style bean soup solidify along the interiors of our bowls, long since abandoned and forgotten amidst an occasionally heated conversation.

…continued here.