Wine

I feel fortunate to have spent a life doing the thing(s) I most love for a living. First it was in the music business and, last, in my incarnation in the world of wine. It’s given me great pleasure and a great sense of accomplishment to work with something that I’m passionate about. With passion comes idealism and that’s where idealism and reality butt heads. Riesling is one of those places.

It’s no secret that most of the world’s wine enthusiasts, wine critics, restaurateurs and all around hipsters now agree that Riesling is one of the world’s great (if not the greatest) wine varietals. Yet in America there has been a disconnect between that fact and the wine-buying public.

It’s not unlike the disdain once held for rosé. Rosé became associated with white zinfandel, a wine for unsophisticated, beginning wine drinkers back in the ’80s. The same thing happened to German Riesling with the import of sweet but vapid wines like Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun.

Now, thanks to dozens of food and wine writers, sommeliers and enthusiastic wine retailers, that misconception has passed. Consumption of rosé grew 10 percent last year alone. (Hell, even Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are making one.)Likewise, the time for Riesling to take its place on the wine stage has also come.So what does Riesling have that other white wines don’t, you ask? First of all, complexity. No other grape (with the exception of Pinot Noir) reflects the terroir (soil, mineral composition, surrounding ecosystem, etc.) so brilliantly as Riesling.

Secondly, balance. With Riesling, you get bone-crushing acidity (essential to enjoying great food) and primary fruit without the need for oak or other wine-making tricks. Think of it as a beautiful girl who doesn’t need makeup or fashionable clothes.

Delicate Rieslings are some of the longest-lived wines in the world. A 10-to-20-year-old Riesling is only beginning to show its stuff. You’d be hard-pressed to say the same of most New World Chardonnays. When it comes to authenticity, truly great wine is more than a product. It must tell a story. Riesling does this in spades.And then there’s the price—Rieslings are an absolute bargain. The world’s best German and Austrian Grand Cru Rieslings (wineries that have been producing great wine for generations) barely fetch $50 on the shelf. Compare that with the average entry level estate Chardonnay from California (with little track record) weighing in around $50. You can buy a fantastic Riesling in the $20 range all day long. No other white wine gives so much complexity while at the same time being so approachable.

Now a new, younger, wine-loving public is waking up to this fact. This new wine drinker isn’t burdened with the prejudices of the previous generation, which depended on wine scores or peer approval when choosing what wine to drink. These days, no self-respecting restaurant or wine bar would be without a good Riesling (or more) on its list.

There’s even a “Summer of Riesling” movement (launched by Paul Grieco, owner of New York City’s famed Terroir) to promote the virtues of Riesling. There’s a Summer of Riesling in practically every state of the union as well as Canada and even Sweden.

So with all of that said, what’s keeping you from experiencing some of the world’s greatest wine? I thought so. Here are a few of my favorite Rieslings to get you started on what I promise will be a lifelong adventure:
Leitz “Dragonstone” Riesling 2011
(Rheingau) $23.99
Johannes Leitz was voted “Winemaker of the Year” by Germany’s Gault Millaumagazine and one taste of the 2011 Dragonstone Riesling will show you why. Produced from grapes grown on volcanic soil (hence the name), this wine is bursting with tangy citrus flavor with an underpinning of saline and slate minerality that lingers on the palate.


Reichgraf von Kesselstatt Josephshöfer Riesling Spätlese 2005
(Mosel) $26.99
Reichgraf von Kesselstatt is one of the oldest wineries on the Mosel (1349) and this Library release from their monopole vineyard on the slopes above Graach is a great example of how complex Mosel Riesling can be. It’s just beginning to show its age, and ripe peach and stony minerality are its hallmarks with real spätlese weight and sublime balance.


Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett 2011
(Ruwer) $30.99
One of the most distinct wineries in the Ruwer River Valley. Totally self-sustaining, using native yeasts for fermentation, Maximin Grünhäuser has been turning out classic Rieslings for generations. Bright herbal aromas with an earthy wet stone undertone spring from the glass. Brilliant acidity with the flavors of Granny Smith apples and a long, lingering finish.


Schäfer-Fröhlich Bockenauer Felseneck Riesling Spätlese 2009
(Nahe) $39.99
From another Gault Millau Wine Maker of the Year, Schäfer-Fröhlich produces wines of complexity with nervy acidity and tension. Bold and crisp with notes of grapefruit, orange, lime cassis and a myriad of other flavors. Big and weighty but maintains superb balance. A real treat.

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC 28226.
704.365.6550
www.thewineshopatfoxcroft.com

A challenge when recommending a wine is describing the qualities of that wine and how it tastes. In other words, describing why I think a customer should buy it and why I think he or she will like it. For a lot of wine retailers today, that job has been reduced to touting the wine’s review and score by one of the industry’s well-known publications like Wine Advocateor Wine Spectator.

A recent online debate about a wine’s poor scoring and why it deserves a higher score prompted thoughts about wine “scores” or ratings on a 100-point scale, about why I got into this business in the first place.

Before I got into the wine business, I worked at a local brasserie and jazz nightclub in downtown Charlotte called The Artist’s Cafe. On my birthday, the staff chipped in to buy any bottle of wine off the list that I wanted. Though I loved good food, my knowledge of wine was poor at best.

Naturally, I went for the most expensive one I could find — a bottle of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. Little did I know, that wine had been called “the quintessential insider’s wine” by British wine critic Jancis Robinson. Lucky me.

That first sip was something I had never experienced from a wine before. It tasted old and complex with a sense of wet stones and earth. I envisioned musty wine cellars with cobwebs and old bottles covered with dust. I didn’t wonder what number the wine had scored. I was lost in the pleasure. I was hooked.

I started seeking out wines (mainly other Bordeaux) that could recreate the experience I got from that first bottle. I read everything I could find about this wonderful liquid’s history, how it was made. I discovered critical publications like Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate.Here, I thought, was the answer to all of my questions.

Parker began his publication as a reaction to what he saw as a flaw in the way wine was professionally viewed and discussed. What he saw was an “old boys’ club” of wine critics with vested interests, serving the industry and maintaining the status quo. Parker saw himself as a Ralph Nader figure and wanted to level this playing field.

Revolutionary at the time, his publication reviewed wine by merit and accepted no advertising dollars from outside interests. Wines were reviewed by the 100-point scale and, during the next two decades, the magazine became the number one source of information for wine lovers and industry professionals. Fortunes could be made or lost overnight based solely on the score a wine received from Parker. And there’s the rub. At the end of the day, even a super taster like Parker is predisposed to preferences.

But big scores sold wines and the industry paid attention. As a result, more wines began to appear in the market that were made in the style favored by critics like Parker. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. “Everything,” I would answer. The marketplace and wine production have largely become a monoculture. In trying to quantify and level the playing field, powerful publications destroyed the diversity and uniqueness that made wine so compelling in the first place.

I don’t want to have the same taste sensation every time I drink wine any more than I want to eat the same meal over and over. I want wine to take me somewhere. I want to be told a story. But when wine gets reduced to a formula, that opportunity is taken away. Yes, the wine shows well and fits all of the criteria of a “well-made” wine, but in doing so, it loses its soul. (Yes, wines do have souls.) It’s a myth that wine can be assigned an absolute value and rating. And that’s the reason I fell in love with it.

If you want to experience wine fully, throw away the score cards and reviews and open yourself to it. There’s still unique wine out there to be discovered. Wine will meet you wherever you are, on any level. Find yourself a reputable local retailer who can learn your tastes and, when you’re ready, guide you into the world of wine beyond the numbers.

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC 28226.
704.365.6550
www.thewineshopatfoxcroft.com

I’ve always held to the idea that wines are like people; the most interesting ones are products of diversity and extreme conditions. If that theory holds true then California’s rugged Sonoma Coast is producing some of the country’s most interesting wines today. I first traveled there more than 18 years ago on a vacation with my wife and was blown away by the sheer beauty of its majestic, rocky coastline. Along with the stretch at Big Sur, this is Highway 1 at its most beautiful and most extreme. The highway twists and turns with switchbacks and hairpin turns that seem to defy gravity.

It’s an isolated place; the small hamlets along the route are sparse and seldom reach a population of 100. Most of the people who live there like it that way. (In the 1970s, the area attracted a lot of the counterculture seeking an alternative life.)

It’s hardly a logical choice for growing wine grapes when you compare it with much warmer places such as Napa Valley, just an hour or so to the east. The weather here can be inhospitable with lots of fog and a long rainy season in the spring and fall followed by drought through the summer. Then again, winemakers are a different breed and rarely does logic play a part when it comes to chasing a dream. Luckily, in this case, the results have been spectacular. It turns out that these extreme conditions have produced some of the most distinctive and beautiful Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah in the country.

Although there have been vineyards planted there and attempts to produce wine much earlier, the real beginnings of serious wine production began less than 35 years ago. Prior to that, the area was written off as being just too cool for wine production. Most of the land was devoted to agriculture and sheep farming. Just to clarify, when I refer to the Sonoma Coast, I’m talking about the West Sonoma Coast (or “true” Sonoma Coast, as the locals like to refer to it). This is in contrast to the much larger Sonoma Coast AVA, which encompasses lands that have little or no maritime influence.

The West Sonoma Coast runs north from the Petaluma Gap to the border with Mendocino County at Gualala. In the 1800s, the Russians controlled this area, harvesting the abundant sea lions for their fur — it was all the rage in Europe. They gave the Russian River its name and Fort Ross, a former Russian fort, is a reminder of the area’s past. Most of the wineries are within a mile of the Pacific Ocean with many much closer, making the ocean their biggest climatic influence. There’s lots of fog in the mornings and saltwater breezes that keep the area cool with bright sun during the day. These conditions are perfect for producing top-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, giving the grapes a long “hang time” in order to develop their full phenolic potential. The Syrah grown here have more in common with the Northern Rhone than their cousins to the south.

One of the early pioneers was David Hirsch, who purchased land near Fort Ross in 1980 through an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. He was merely looking for a getaway but soon recognized the area’s potential. Another early pioneer was Daniel Schoenfeld, who went there looking for an escape from San Francisco. After 30 years, he still operates his winery, Wild Hog Vineyards (named for the local creek that runs through his property) without electricity. It’s not that he’s against it on principle; it’s just that his property is too isolated for Pacific Gas & Light to provide cost-effective service. The neighboring Hirsch Vineyards fare only slightly better, maintaining their own link to the grid with frequent outages during bad weather. Only Flowers has anything close to what people have come to expect as a “winery” compared to Napa Valley. Isolation makes visitors rare. Most of the wineries aren’t open to the public, so call in advance. If you choose to make the journey, make time to soak up the sights along the coast as well. You’ll be happy you did.

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC
28226. 704.365.6550
www.thewineshopatfoxcroft.com

There are two schools of thought out there when it comes to choosing wine to accompany food pairings. Since the last decade there has been a trend to throw out the rules and drink what’s interesting or whatever you like with any combination.

Occasionally this can yield interesting results but most times I’ve found this to be a disaster. I’m of the school that says you need to know the rules before you can break them. When you break down the way we taste (sense) food and wine scientifically smell is big part of the equation but speaking strictly about taste, there are only four different tastes that we experience: sour, sweet, salty and bitter (current fashion also includes a fifth, umami, which can be described as a “pleasant, savory taste”). The combination of these sensations along with our much more complicated sense of smell creates the phenomenon we call flavor.

The key to creating pleasurable flavor experiences when it comes to food and wine pairing is creating a sense of balance. Balance can be achieved several different ways; by matching components in the food with those in the wine (earthy wines with earthy foods) or also by contrasting components (salty vs. sweet, earthy, etc.). You can also match a dominant flavor in a dish with a complimentary wine as opposed to the type of meat or vegetable. In the end, balance is the defining rule above all. Here are some qualities to take into consideration when pairing food and wine.

Weight: One of the simplest ways to create balance is to choose wine that matches the weightiness of a dish. Lighter wines with lighter dishes; heavier wines with heartier dishes. Although this seems simple, you’d be surprised how often this principle is overlooked in many well-established restaurants. This is the reason the tradition of pairing white wines with fish and bigger red wines with lamb and steak developed. Although many other factors come into play, this is a good place to start. Heartier dishes need a wine that will stand up to them, whereas salads and lighter dishes need wines that won’t overpower them.

Acidity: You hear this term in wine-people banter. Acidity is the key to a wine’s ability to quench the thirst and refresh the palate. It’s produced in vineyard and the amount of acidity is, generally speaking, the bi-product of the climate in which the grapes were grown. In warmer climates, winemakers struggle to preserve acidity, whereas in colder climates (50th parallel — Champagne, Alsace, Germany, etc.) they struggle to balance acidity. The more sugars produced via sunshine and longer “hang time” equal higher alcohol and lower acidity.

Alcohol: The level of alcohol in a wine is also the result of where the grapes were grown in most cases (modern winemaking techniques allow for the manipulation of a wine’s alcohol level). The level of ripeness in the vineyard translates to high sugar levels. High sugar levels in turn translate to higher levels of alcohol if the wine is fermented to dryness. That’s why wines from places such as Napa and Australia tend to have some of the highest naturally occurring levels of alcohol. When trying to pair with spicy dishes or savory Asian cuisine, this isn’t a good thing, as the alcohol tends to amplify the oils that make spicy food hot. A lower alcohol wine would be a better choice in this case.

Tannins: Tannins are the astringent component in red wine that come from skin contact during the fermentation process. They give wine structure and grip. Where a bold red wine would tend to overpower a delicate dish, it could be the perfect complement to rich, fatty meats like beef or lamb. Tannins tend to refresh the palate when paired with these foods. These classic combinations developed over centuries by matching wine to the local cuisine, as wine was the drink of choice. A good example of this is the way Italian wines pair with traditional Italian dishes.

Introducing SOCIETY Café

I’ve teamed up with our chef, Justin Solomon, to give you some examples of food and wine pairings. We’ve also provided the recipes so you can try them at home. Before you know it you’ll be pairing food and wine like a pro!

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC 28226.
704.365.6550
www.thewineshopatfoxcroft.com

It’s no secret that Pinot Noir has become the number one wine varietal in America (notwithstanding popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet in the united States). That popularity was growing well before the movie “Sideways” helped its meteoric rise to the top. The movie focused on the wine-growing region between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, a popular destination for Los Angelinos. This month, though, I’d like to call your attention to their neighbors to the north: Oregon’s Willamette Valley. There, Pinot Noir is king.

As a disclaimer, I had the opportunity to attend Pinot Noir Camp (an industry event) in 2008 and experience firsthand the vital and thriving wine community in the Willamette. I’ve been a devotee ever since. Although vines have been planted in Oregon since the 1840s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Oregon’s wine industry began to blossom. David Lett (Eyrie Vineyards) and Charles Coury (Charles Coury Winery) began planting Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley in 1966. They believed that cool-weather French varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could successfully be grown there.

Anyone who’s spent time in that area during the rainy season can recognize the similarities in climate between the Willamette Valley and Burgundy. Soon the planters were joined by pioneers like Dick Erath (Erath Vineyards), Dick and Nancy Ponzi (Ponzi), Joe and Pat Campbell (Elk Cove), David and Ginny Adelsheim (Adelsheim) and many more. They worked mostly in obscurity until 1979 when David Letts Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir won first place in Gault Millau Grand Tasting in Paris, beating out all of its French contemporaries. After protests by Burgundy négociant Robert Drouhin, a second contest was held in 1980. This time Eyrie came in second, only to Drouhin’s 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. It was a benchmark event that helped to launch Oregon’s modern wine industry.

Robert Drouhin was so impressed that he purchased land in the Dundee Hills in 1987 and established his own winery. (There’s a strong connection in the valley with France to this day.) In addition to Lett and Coury both spending time in France as they learned their craft, winemaker David Adelsheim developed a strong relationship with Oregon State university, where many of the Alsatian and Burgundian clones that today enjoy popularity in the Willamette Valley were developed as a result. Prior to that time, most of the material used in Oregon came from uC Davis and as a result made the ripening of the grapes difficult. The winemakers in Willamette found that the new clones (Dijon) worked much better in the climate conditions that existed in the valley and today we’re seeing the fruits of their work. It’s been barely 40 years since the Willamette Valley came into focus, so it’s safe to say there’s a bright future ahead.
There’s a new generation of winemakers taking over the helm from the old guard and, every year, new refugees from California (and France) are setting up shop there. Arguably, the most consistently brilliant Pinot Noirs are being produced in the u.S. today, and I would encourage anyone who wants to see the future of American winemaking to visit the Willamette Valley. There’s a “can do” culture of innovation and cooperation there that reminds me of what it must have been like in the early days of Napa Valley. Until you can, here are some (but certainly not all) of the Pinot Noirs that reflect the character of the Willamette Valley.

My favorites
Patricia Green Cellars
Reserve
Pinot Noir 2011 - $26.99 bottle
Located in the Ribbon Ridge district of the Yamhill Carlton AVA, Patricia Green Cellars was established in 2000 as the result of a partnership between Patty Green (former Torii Mor winemaker) and partner, Jim Anderson. They are known for producing a broad range of Pinot Noirs that reflect the soil characteristics and microclimate of the vineyards. Their Reserve is a great introduction to the Patty Green style. It’s pure and natural with a minimal amount of manipulation. This is pure Oregon Pinot Noir at its best.

Adelsheim Willamette Valley
Pinot Noir 2010 - $33.99 bottle
Established in 1971, Adelsheim has been a benchmark for Willamette Valley wines for years. Located just outside of Newberg, they follow sustainable vineyard and cellar practices with minimal handling. Their Willamette Valley Pinot is a blend of estate and purchased grapes. A reference point for the “Oregon” style, it’s rich and complex, never losing its focus and upple balance.

Bethel Heights Estate Grown
Pinot Noir 2010 - $35.99 bottle
About a 30-minute drive south of Newberg lies the Eola-Amity Hills just outside of Salem. Founded in 1977, Bethel Heights is the oldest winery in the district. It was the dream of brothers Ted and Terry Casteel along with their wives Pat Dudley and Marilyn Webb, all refugees from academia back in Minnesota. It’s been family owned and operated for more than 30 years and produces some of the most Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs in Oregon. Their Estate wine is a blend from different parcels of their 70-acre property that captures the essence and quality of Bethel Heights from their young vines at “Grand Cru” Justice Vineyard to the brooding earthiness of their original old vine plantings.

Domaine Serene Yamhill
Cuvee
Pinot Noir 2009 - $44.99 bottle
Located in the iron-ore-rich Dundee Hills, Domaine Serene is the vision of Ken and Grace Evenstad. It’s a beautiful, state-of-the art winery on prime real estate. Coming somewhat late to the valley from a background in the pharmaceutical industry, they were naturally viewed with a bit of skepticism by their neighbors. Those fears were soon laid to rest as Domaine Serene set the bar for their neighbors and the world with their award-winning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Their signature Yamhill Cuvee is a great introduction to the Domaine Serene style and the “little sister” of the Evenstad Reserve, capturing the rich minerality and vibrant red fruit flavors, a hallmark of its location.

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC 28226.
704.365.6550

During the course of running a wine retail operation and busy wine bar, I sometimes encounter the one thing that all wine business professionals dread: the “bad” bottle. It’s one of wine’s hazards and the cost of doing business. But what’s troublesome is that when three out of four times we get a wine back it’s not flawed technically. Rather, it’s that the customer’s experience with wine is limited.

Most people who drink wine purchase it at a supermarket or at a large box store. It’s extremely rare that they would encounter a bad bottle because these types of stores stock wine that is produced on a large scale using industrial methods, whereby the wines are manipulated, filtered, stabilized and, in general, robbed of any element that could produce variations.

While these large-scale wines are almost always pleasant and technically consistent, they lack character and, for lack of a better word, “soul.” As a wine professional, my goal is to bring my customers the best wines in the world, most of which are produced by artisanal means. With real winemaking comes vintage variation, differences in taste and style as well as some byproducts that are far from being flaws. They are, in fact, indications of a wine’s quality and natural origin.Wine sales and wine consumption is at an all-time high in the United States so now is a great time to talk about these byproducts and about what is and isn’t a flawed wine.

“Cooked” Wine
This is wine that has been exposed to high temperatures either in storage and handling or in shipping. This leaves the wine with a “baked” or “stewed” flavor. This can happen in hot weather if the wine was shipped without temperature control. There will often be a bitter sediment residue from the exposure if the wine is unfiltered, which is something factory-produced wines seldom see. Another telltale sign is wine seepage from the cork and along the bottleneck, though this isn’t always the case. Wine seepage can occur when there is a high fill at bottling and a wine is stored horizontally. When in doubt, always taste the wine before assuming it is flawed.

“Corked” Wine
This wine has the smell and taste of a moldy, musty stench reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement. This is caused by faulty corks that have been in contact with a fungus, which usually comes from the cork producers rather than the winery itself. This is commonly referred to as “TCA.” The level of taint can vary, from a strong obvious odor to a “dried-out” taste to a lack of fruit to a slight hint of mold. This is the primary reason why so many wineries choose to bottle with screw caps and that takes this problem out of the equation.

“Oxidized” Wine
Although oxidation is an important process in the production and maturing of wine, helping to soften a wine’s tannin or integrate its acidity, unintentional oxidation can occur, causing the wine to be flawed. To prevent this in the winemaking process, wine is “topped off” in tank or barrel to prevent excessive exposure to oxygen. Exposure to oxygen can also occur over time when a wine has been on the shelf for too long or opened for a long period of time without any form of preservation (nitrogen, argon, etc.). Some wines are produced intentionally with this style, which was the norm hundreds of years ago. Examples are Sherry, Madeira and wines from the Jura and northeastern Italy. A good rule of thumb is to know the wine style from experience and weigh the wine in question against the normal characteristics of the wine. When in doubt refer to your wine retailer or sommelier.

Sediments and Crystals
Sediments and crystals are the natural byproduct in the production of handcrafted wine. Neither of these are true faults, but both have the potential to spoil the experience unless they are understood. Sedimentation within the bottle is a natural occurrence in many wines, generally those designed to withstand some ageing, and it simply reflects the solid matter settling out of the wine. It’s a sign of a naturally produced wine and is really a plus. The cure for this is decanting. Tip: This is not a cause for returning the wine.

Terroir
This one is a little trickier. For those accustomed to drinking New World wines that emphasize fruit and lots of new oak, the first taste of Italian or French wine may be a bit different. (This is a good thing.) Many wines tend to be drier and oftentimes reflect the place they come from. That can be the soil including rocks and minerals as well as the vegetation that grows nearby. This taste of place is generally called “terroir.” For someone expecting the sensation of drinking a “fruit bomb” this may be a disappointment, but it isn’t a failure on the wine’s part.

As I often say, it would be a boring world if all wine was produced with identical results and identical sensations. We all value our customers and seek to make sure that their experiences are pleasant but wine styles and flavors vary greatly. There is no guarantee that every wine will be to everyone’s taste. But that’s the beauty of wine: It’s ever-changing and will meet you on whatever level you’re prepared to go. When it comes to trying new wines, the best way to ensure a great experience is to find a retailer who will learn your tastes and your level of adventure.

Conrad Hunter is the owner/operator for The Wine Shop at Foxcroft in SouthPark.
7824 Fairview Road, Charlotte NC 28226
704.365.6550
www.thewineshopatfoxcroft.com

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