Our Visit to Anderson Valley, California and Handley Cellars

Anderson Valley photo

It is not often that one comes across such a magical, delightful, almost secret place, but we recently discovered Anderson Valley, California and were absolutely enchanted.  Handley Cellars is nestled at the northwest end of Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County.  The first time I was in Mendocino County, I was 12 years old and was deeply concerned about running into Bigfoot.  The area’s huge redwoods, steep hillsides, and haunting beauty left a lasting impression, as did the poison oak that covered my body. I made several trips to the coast as an adult, mostly to see family get married on the postcard perfect coastline, but the last thing I thought I’d find there was wine country! In fact, Mendocino County and Anderson Valley produce some of the premier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the planet. It’s a secret! And after experiencing the incredible hospitality and simple farming lifestyle, I hope it never changes; so shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

The Anderson Valley is an hour and a half drive north of Santa Rosa, and runs roughly West-Northwest to the Pacific coast.  The valley is surrounded by ridges that climb as high as 2500 feet above sea level.  This produces a dramatic climate effect when the cold sea air rolls in at night and fills the valley with chilled moist air that settles between the ridges. Many of the vineyards are planted on top of the ridges and are exposed to bright sunshine while the valleys below remain enshrouded in fog.  This has led to the name “Islands in the Sky” because the vineyards look like green islands floating on the clouds when viewed from above.   The temps can swing 40 degrees in one day, and the vineyards at the colder west end produce much different wines than the vineyards at the warmer, southwest end.  Single vineyard aficionados don’t want to hear this, but the winemakers at Handley, and a lot of other true “wine artisans” believe that better wine can be made by blending from the different blocks because the subtle variations in exposure and elevation can add a lot to the complexity of a Pinot.

Handley Cellars was founded by Milla Handley more than 40 years ago.  Imagine what it must have been like to build a vineyard at the end of a 1.5 hour drive on a windy road though logging country, so rural that every necessity had to be trucked in, or done without?  Milla’s pioneering winemaking techniques used grapes that fully ripen at lower brix, which produced amazing wines with lower alcohol levels and dynamic, subtle flavors.  She passed on the magic to her student and assistant winemaker, Randy Schock, who, after spending a decade under her tutelage, is now the lead winemaker after Milla’s recent retirement.  We had the good fortune to sit down with Randy and sample some of his amazing Pinots.   My first impression of Randy is that he is a farmer, and then an artist.  His humble working class demeanor hides the fact that he is one of the most preeminent and talented winemakers in the area.   He grew up in LA, graduated from Cal Poly SLO with a degree in agricultural science, and ended up in the Bay Area rooming with friends, looking for direction.  His mother’s friend took him under her wing and taught him to appreciate fine wine and cooking, which led him to seek a job in the wine business in Healdsburg.  From there he jumped into winemaking and has spent the last 20 years with his hands in the grapes.  He admits there is more to winemaking than chemistry, and says it is as much art as science.  It took him years to fine-tune the ability to not “over crush”, or press the grapes too hard, so as to not get the harsh-woodiness found in a lot of Pinots. This also helps with the clarity of his wines, so less fining is needed.  What he loves about Handley’s Anderson Valley location is that the acidity he gets from his fruit is the key to the beautiful color of his Pinots. The higher the pH – the darker the Pinot.

Handley winemaker Randy Schock and us

“There’s no shortcut to exposure to wine,” he says.  “You have to think outside the box.  I push my wines, and like my kids, sometimes they push back.”  Randy is referring to his custom, post-fermentation technique of adding back a layer of lees on the bottom of the barrel, then introducing a heavy dose of SO2 to stop the fermentation and stabilize the process, which breaks down the cell walls and creates the creamy mouth feel, without high sugar.  At this point I just kept nodding like I understood what he was talking about – but the proof is in his wines, which are delightful!

Of the four Pinots we tried, all were amazing.  Each was its own expression of the winemaker’s craft and the location of the vineyard. Randy has created a remarkable range of flavors that makes you think of forest floor, mushroom broth, vanilla, root beer, molasses, plum, or on the brighter end, cherries, baking spices, coco nibs, and violets.   All the wines are low in alcohol and will age gracefully for years.  He says he and his fellow winemakers in Anderson Valley (with tongue in cheek) make “artisan Pinots” not warm climate “Zinots!”

I can’t say enough nice things about the wonderful staff at Handley, their hospitality, wonderful wines, beautiful tasting room, scenic locale, and their crafty, unique Pinots. (If you go, be sure and try the Chardonnay too!)  If you find yourself the wine country, take the road less traveled and treat yourself to a visit.  Or, if you don’t want to drive 1.5 hours through the redwoods, order your Handley Pinot Noir at www.WineFactor.com today!

Tom Reid, Wine Factor

May 2017

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Wine Corks vs. Screw Caps: Which Would You Choose?

cork 5How many of you who have wine collections actually have wines in them with screw caps? Please… let us know! At Wine Factor, we have sampled very good balanced exquisite Pinot Noirs from New Zealand and a couple from the States with screw caps that were of the quality to add to our wine lists (see more).

There is an ongoing debate about the feasibility of offering high quality wines with Stelvin caps (the correct terminology for wine screw caps), the brand now owned by Amcor. The caps have an elongated outside skirt, which resembles the traditional wine capsule or foil, and uses plastic PVDC (Polyvinylidene chloride) to act as a neutral impermeable liner.

A little history; Stelvin caps were first introduced in the 1970’s when there was an outbreak of “cork taint” in Europe which brought the alternative wine-stopper into the public eye.

The Stelvin Screw caps met with customer resistance in New Zealand and Australia, and were phased out in the early 1980s, only to be reintroduced gradually in the 1990s. Now, since reintroduction, there has been an increase in the numbers of wineries utilizing the screw cap in those countries, but mostly because of the difficulty in obtaining quality corks and costs due to tariffs etc.

cork4 picAllegedly, 3 to 5 percent of all bottles with corks have shown some degree of spoilage over 5 years. One of the culprits is trichloroanisole, commonly known as TCA. This complex chemical comes from reactions within corks, which involve natural molds and the chlorine bleach used in cork manufacture (or found in the winery itself from poor hygiene).

But the fact is that many wineries are extremely conscious of the cost of their corks, thus the poor quality cork choice comes into play. Wine corks can cost anywhere from 5 cents to 50+ cents for the best quality and a large percentage of wine corks used are not anywhere near highest quality. Preventing spoilage in wines stored over 5 years with poor quality corks can be a challenge.

The good news is there has been a significant increase in quality in the last 5-6 years, incork pic3 that the cork manufacturers in Portugal have put forth strict requirements for quality in cork production.  Also there has been a huge headway in the production of quality synthetic corks as of late. Cork producers have changed from bleaching the corks from hypochlorite to using peroxide bleaching, thus reducing a large percent of the cause of TCA.

cork 2

Some wineries including Plumpjack Winery, Bonnie Doon Vineyards and others have embraced the Stelvin cap on their reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and white wines, but to date there is still resistance in Napa, Sonoma, the Central Valley and Willamette to their use in quality Cab and Pinot Noir bottles.

Positive points:

The Stelvin is super inexpensive.

There is no gas exchange so the wine can’t spoil as easily as those with corks.

No cork taint (TCA).

Less loss of inventory from wineries and retailers.

 

Negative points:

Largely associated with cheap wines, (bring one the next dinner party and see the reaction, right?)

Susceptible to easily dent – thus breaking the seal.

Oxidation reduction can lead to reductive characteristics, including sulfur odors and tastes.

In age-worthy wines, (like all the wines found on Wine Factor’s web site winefactor.com) the need for natural oxidation or the “breathing of the wine” through its capsule is a must. We want it to age, not sit in a time capsule!

Corks are a renewable natural product – Oak Bark.

The tradition and presentation of opening a wine with a cork is superior to the metal grating sound of opening a Stelvin cap at the table.

Ok, we might be a little bias towards the natural cork, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Let us know your opinion!

An excellent article that goes into “cork taint” in great detail by wine expert Richard Gawel is found at http://www.aromadictionary.com/articles/corktaint_article.html

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Did the Pilgrims Drink Wine at the First Thanksgiving?

Did the Pilgrims Drink Wine at the First Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving-Wine-Wallpapers[1]

I think it’s pretty safe to say that most Americans enjoy wine with their Thanksgiving  feast. (We at www.winefactor.com are especially partial to Pinot Noir as our go-to wine for the holiday). Have you ever wondered if the Pilgrims drank wine that day?

Unfortunately there is no clear documentation about what they ate or drank, but there is enough information to speculate.

First a little background. The Mayflower was a cargo ship used for transporting wine and other goods between France and England. It was capable of carrying 180 casks of wine. However, when it was commissioned for the trip across the ocean to the New World in 1620, there was not much room for wine. Take into account that there were 130 passengers squeezed onto an approximately  90′ x 25′ ship! They spent 66 grueling days at sea before spotting land on November 9, 1620. It is documented that one of the reasons they decided to stop where they did was because they were almost out of beer! (No mention of wine – if there was any on board when they set sail, it was probably gone before they lost sight of England). God forbid they drink water – everyone knew that plain water was poison! (And so it was back in their home country).

The Mayflower was their home through the first winter in the New World. If there was any beer or wine unconsumed after the voyage across the Atlantic, you can bet it did not last long in that cold, dark winter on board the ship.

The first Thanksgiving took place a year after the Pilgrims arrived. It was a 3-day feast, and it is generally thought that the menu’s main courses consisted of fowl such as duck and possibly turkey, shell fish, and venison. (I know Pinot Noir pairs really well with duck and turkey, but I’m not sure about venison…)

Earlier settlers elsewhere in the New World had tried to make wine from the native grapes they found in America, but the taste just didn’t cut it for them. So the Virginia Company exported French grapevines to Virginia in 1619. Sadly, not soon enough to bottle up a vintage for the big feast up in Plymouth!

So it makes sense to conclude that, sadly, the Mayflower Pilgrims did not drink Pinot Noir or any other wine with their Thanksgiving feast. Some people are pretty sure that the Pilgrims and their Native American friends drank hard apple cider during their celebration.  A pity, if you ask me – a celebration as important as Thanksgiving deserves a great wine, like Pinot Noir!

-Beverly Hurley

Wine Factor

www.winefactor.com

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Wine Tasting in Oregon – Wine Factor’s experience at Coeur de Terre Winery

IMG_1306 (1)I’m a lucky guy.  I get to travel and taste Pinot Noirs with my good friends the Hurleys, proprietors of Wine Factor. We’ve spent the last decade traipsing around California, visiting
wineries large and small, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of what a
good Pinot Noir tastes like. A California Pinot Noir, that is.   Then Pat Hurley turned me on to a Coeur de Terre 2009 Estate Pinot Noir and my whole world changed. That’s a great Pinot! And it didn’t taste a lot like the rich California Pinot Noirs I’d been drinking.  What I knew about Oregon Pinot Noirs could be written on the end of a cork.  I found out that the Willamette Valley produces Pinot Noirs in the Burgundian style, which means dryer, more acidic, less sugar, and less alcohol than your average big bomb Russian River or central California Pinot Noirs. These are wines with finesse, with layers of delicate flavors of cherry, wood spices, and minerals.

So we planned a trip to the Willamette Valley to taste real Oregon Pinot Noirs. Getting there was easy.  A quick hop on Alaska Airlines and we were there in a couple of hours, rented a car, and in less than an hour we were deep in Pinot Noir country, the Willamette Valley AVA.  After sampling about 40 different Pinots from 12 different wineries in the Willamette Valley, I was impressed.   The 2010 Pinots are just starting to drink well, in my opinion.  The 2011 and 2012 vintages showed great promise, but were still young.  These wines are only 12.5% to 14% ABV (alcohol by volume), mostly closer to 13%.  Compare that to a popular “drink now” California Pinot at 14.5% or 15% ABV and you will taste the difference immediately.  The lower alcohol means less sugar, which allows the tannins and the other nuances to show.  And you can really taste the terroir.   If I had to sum up the taste of an Oregon Pinot in one word, it would be “soil”. Most Oregon Pinots will age gracefully for many years and will just get better and better.

Our first stop was Coeur De Terre, owned by Lisa and Scott Neal.  Scott met
us at the door with his two big labs, Jack and Blue.   Scott is a salt of
the earth, seat of the pants entrepreneur who went from zero production in
1998, to selling a dozen cases a week to some of the finest restaurants in
California, like George’s at the Cove.  His single block wines have reached
cult status and he sells out every year.  He’s a do-it-your-selfer, and he’s
learned how to make spectacular Pinot Noirs since he and Lisa planted their own
grapevines in the pouring rain over a decade ago.   His secret is maximizing the
effect of the varied terroir, which in Oregon is usually metamorphic,
volcanic substrate, or ancient marine sediment.  The rolling hills offer a
wide variety of slopes, exposures, and elevations, and the mixed geology
makes for many possible combinations of soil and sun for a maestro like
Scott to plant different Pinot clones.  He planted familiar clones like 777,
Pommard, and Wadensville, with a few other varieties thrown in for flavor.
He and Lisa concentrated clones on different blocks to create specific
flavors and textures than can be blended at harvest, or bottled by
themselves.  He grafts grapevines they think taste best to older vines.  His
vineyards are organic and mostly dry farmed, and are protected by Jack and
Blue.   Scott says you are tasting the block, not the clone, when you taste
his wines, and that his wines reflect the place and the year they were grown
more than anything else.   He is a self-admitted control freak and oversees
all aspects of the wine making.  He tastes the grapes before doing any
scientific tests, so the tests don’t influence his opinion.   He cold soaks
the extraction for better color and flavor, and carefully monitors
temperatures through the process.  I was impressed by how small the whole
operation is, and how few people work there.  Not counting Jack and Blue,
they have five crew members working the vineyard.  Lisa runs the business,
Scott runs the winemaking, and they make magic with their Pinot Noirs.

But enough about that, you want to know what a great Oregon Pinot tastes
like, right?  Scott & Lisa’s Coeur De Terre 2011 Estate Pinot is a classic
Burgundian Style Pinot.  It was amazingly crafted, light and delicate with a
nuanced vanilla undertone, even but not overpowering tannins, a hint of
mushrooms, washed over by bright cherry and strawberry fruit.  The nose was
amazing, and suggested how well this wine will age.  I think this was one of
the best wines we tasted.  And it does not cost an arm and a leg.  I hope
you get the chance to enjoy a bottle soon!

The 2009 Coeur De Terre Estate Pinot Noir is available now, and the 2011 will be available  in July 2014 at www.winefactor.com!

Cheers,

Tom Reid, Wine Factor Wine Taster #3

 

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“Retronasal” Wine-Tasting

Surprised guy image for blogWant to get a real blast of a wine’s flavor? Try retronasal breathing! Sounds pretty funny, huh? It can be! If you’re with friends, you’ve had a few glasses of wine already, and you try this for the first time, you probably WILL crack up! Here’s what it’s all about:

“Retro” means backwards or behind. “Nasal” means nose, of course. Retronasal breathing literally means breathing behind the nose. So how and why would you do this?

First the why: Wine-tasting experts employ this technique in order to extract all the aromas and flavors of a wine. The mouth is connected to the nose through the retronasal passage. When you take a sip of wine, you do actually smell it somewhat as you are tasting it. As the wine warms up in your mouth, a broad spectrum of aromas is released. These can go unnoticed in the absence of retronasal breathing.

Now the how: Inhale as you take a sip of wine and hold it in your mouth (swirl it around with your tongue a little) to warm it up and release the aromas. Swallow. Exhale forcefully with your mouth closed, through your nose. BAM! Taste that blast of flavor! Smell those aromas! They will blow you away!

I challenge you to try the retronasal breathing wine-tasting technique without your eyes flying open in pleasant surprise!

Beverly Hurley

Wine Factor

www.winefactor.com

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