wine

Langhe Rosso: Piedmont’s “other” great wine

Piedmont is perhaps best-known for its Nebbiolo vineyards and the famous wines made from them – Barolo and Barbaresco. However, the region does produce other high quality wines, one of which is Langhe Rosso.  Our partner The Vinum winery sources grapes from small growers in Piedmont to produce this luscious wine.

2010 The Vinum Langhe Rosso DOC

 

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This is the third Piedmont red wine from The Vinum that we offer on our site, Topochines Vino.  While the Barbaresco and Barolo are 100% Nebbiolo, this Langhe Rosso is an inventive blend of two traditional Piedmont grapes – Nebbiolo and Barbera.  Together, these two varietals create an elegant, full-bodied wine with an impressive finish.  This 2010 wine is ageing beautifully and certainly ready to drink now.  Here are our tasting notes:  “On the nose, aroma of ripe blackberry, raspberry and red cherry with a hint of vanilla. The explosion comes in the mouth, where it is open, full-bodied, and velvety. The elegance of the two varietals combines beautifully to deliver a strong finish.”

Price: $25.00

We are offering a 15% discount to our readers – simply enter Friends15 at checkout to get the discount on this or any of our other wines.  Our wine web store is here:  Topochines Vino Web Store

 

Chianti Superiore DOCG

Our partner the Vinum produces some very high quality Italian wines from their estate vineyards in Abruzzo as well as from grapes sourced from small producers in other wine regions.  This 2015 Chianti Superiore DOCG is a classic Tuscan wine made from grapes grown in Fiesole, high in the hills above Florence.

2015 The Vinum Chianti Superiore DOCG

 

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A 100% Sangiovese, this wine is made from organic grapes and only produced in years in which The Vinum team believes the grapes are of sufficient quality.  Simply put, this Tuscan wine is super.  Here are our tasting notes:  “Ruby-red color with a garnet rim, this wine’s bouquet displays ample aromas of rasberry, violet, wild berries, tobacco, chocolate, and vanilla. On the palate is rich, full-bodied, and velvety.”

Price:  $30.00

A 15% discount on this or any of our wines is available to our readers – simply enter Friends15 at checkout.  Our online wine store is here: Topochines Vino Web Store

 

 

Stunning Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC

The Montepulciano grape is grown in several regions in Italy but most vineyard plantings are in the Abruzzo region.  Our partner The Vinum produces this lovely 2016 Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC, a dry, rich and powerful red wine.

2016 The Vinum Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC

 

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This wine, produced from 100% Montepulciano grapes, is referred to affectionately at The Vinum as “Il Rosso” – the red wine.  Made from organic grapes grown on The Vinum’s estate vineyards, this is a powerhouse wine.  Our tasting notes:  Visually this wine is stunning, dark, almost inky, with a silky appearance when swirled. On the nose, wild berries meld together with earth in this solid savory red. The juicy straightforward palate doles out ripe black cherry, crushed raspberry, anise and cinnamon alongside chewy tannins. This wine has a lush, almost syrupy mouthfeel.”

Price $25.00

15% discount available to our readers – simply enter Friends15 at checkout.   Our wine store is here: Topochines Vino Web Store

92 Point Barbaresco!

One of our favorite producers is The Vinum winery in Italy.  In addition to harvesting grapes from their estate vineyards in Abruzzo, they also source grapes from small producers in other Italian wine regions, including Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont.  One of our favorite wines is this classic Barbaresco:

2009 The Vinum Barbaresco DOCG

 

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As wine nerds know, “DOCG” means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) and is the highest designation of quality for Italian wines.  By several measures, the quality of The Vinum’s 2009 Barbaresco is superior.  At the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards, The Vinum’s Barbaresco received an impressive Silver Medal.  After tasting this Barbaresco, James Suckling, one of the most respected reviewers of Italian wines, gave The Vinum Barbaresco a score of 92.

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An impressive 92 points for The Vinum Barbaresco

Supporting this score were the following notes:  “This is seriously rich and ripe now with plenty of cooked cherry and flower character. Full body, round and flavorful. Plenty of dried fruit, spice and cedar flavors. Long and persistent finish. Chewy. Drink or hold.”  We concur with Mr. Suckling that this wine is ready to drink or hold, and we would like to add our own tasting notes.  Aromatically, the 2009 The Vinum Barbaresco DOCG is sensual and complex, with aromas of forest fruits, sweet red cherries, licorice, mineral and coffee.  On the palate, the wine provides a long and complex finish with a dense structure, good acidity and soft tannins.

This wine features 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the Piedmont region in northern Italy.

Price:  $36.00

Our readers can enjoy a 15% discount on this or any other wine on our web store by entering Friends15 at checkout.  www.topochines.com

Meet our winemakers: The Vinum

The ability of social media to connect people across countries and continents has several very powerful proof points for us.  One of these proof points is a seemingly random “like” and “follow” that we received after one of our tweets in the summer of 2016.  We do not remember what the particular tweet was, but it resulted in a message from an Italian winery, The Vinum, letting us know how much they liked our wine blog.  We looked them up and saw the range of wines they produce in Italy and asked a fateful question via Twitter:  “Where can we find your wines in the U.S. – we would love to try some?”  They answered that they did not sell their wines in the United States.  Well, we said, we’re going to be in Italy in a few months, maybe we can connect.

Vassilios Dragani, one of the principals of The Vinum, asked where we were staying and offered to ship some wines to our hotel for us to try.  As our trip got closer, Vassilios let us know that he changed his mind and would not be shipping the wines.  Instead, he would make the 6 hour drive from his home in the Abruzzo wine region and have dinner with us in Venice where we were staying.  About a week before we arrived in Venice, Vassilios emailed and asked if it was okay for him to bring his wife Natalia along on the trip, as she is also a partner in the business.  We thought this would be even better as it would make for an easy foursome at dinner.

On a lovely night in Venice, at the restaurant atop the famous Hotel Danieli, we met Vassilios and Natalia and enjoyed a fantastic dinner with them which included several of their wines.  After a wonderful evening we left our new wine friends and went back to our hotel with a mixed case of The Vinum wine.

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Saying goodbye after dinner

This case would travel with us for the next 2 1/2 weeks from Italy to Slovenia to Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, making a final stop in Istanbul before we flew back to San Francisco.

Immediately after meeting Vassilios and Natalia and tasting their wines, we knew we wanted to import those wines to the United States.  To our taste, the wines were perfect expressions of their terroir and incredibly high quality but at price points that were super-competitive compared to U.S. wines of the same quality.  But we wanted to validate the quality of the wines with some real experts and had a high-pressure tasting with a Master Sommeliers (there are just over 200 in the entire world).  This Master  Somm owns his own wine store and a few hours after we presented our wines, someone on his team reached out to us and ordered several cases of wine (our very first order as importers).

Today, we offer a range of The Vinum wines on our online wine store, Topochines Vino.  These are the wines currently in stock:

2009 The Vinum Barbaresco DOCG

 

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As wine nerds know, “DOCG” means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) and is the highest designation of quality for Italian wines.  By several measures, the quality of The Vinum’s 2009 Barbaresco is superior.  At the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards, The Vinum’s Barbaresco received an impressive Silver Medal.  After tasting this Barbaresco, James Suckling, one of the most respected reviewers of Italian wines, gave The Vinum Barbaresco a score of 92.

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An impressive 92 points for The Vinum Barbaresco

Supporting this score were the following notes:  “This is seriously rich and ripe now with plenty of cooked cherry and flower character. Full body, round and flavorful. Plenty of dried fruit, spice and cedar flavors. Long and persistent finish. Chewy. Drink or hold.”

This wine features 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the Piedmont region in northern Italy.  Vassilios and team source the grapes from small growers in those regions that produce the highest-quality fruit.

Price:  $36.00

 

2011 The Vinum Barolo DOCG

 

 

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As with the Barbaresco, The Vinum Barolo is also of the highest quality – DOCG – and a favorite with wine critics.   The aforementioned James Suckling had this to say about The Vinum 2011 Barolo, to which he awarded 90 points:  “Lots of tar and rose aromas. Full body, silky and chewy tannins and a long and flavorful finish. A compacted and young Barolo. Lovely now.”

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90 points for The Vinum Barolo

This wine features 100% Nebbiolo grapes from Piedmont, sourced from vineyards high up on the slopes in La Morra.

Price:  $38.00

 

2014 The Vinum Colline Pescaresi

 

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This wine is produced from grapes grown on The Vinum’s estate in Abruzzo.  Think of this wine as a cousin of the Super Tuscan wines, which are generally blends of indigenous Italian grapes with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  While a Super Tuscan might contain Sangiovese and one or more international varietals, The Vinum’s “Super Abruzzo” is a blend of Montepulciano (60%) with 25% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Price:  $25.00

 

2016 The Vinum Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC

 

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This wine, produced from 100% Montepulciano grapes, is referred to affectionately at The Vinum as “Il Rosso” – the red wine.  Made from organic grapes grown on The Vinum’s estate vineyards, this is a powerhouse wine.  Visually this wine is stunning, dark, almost inky, with a silky appearance when swirled. This wine has a lush, almost syrupy mouth-feel and a beautifully smooth finish.

Price $25.00

 

2015 The Vinum Chianti Superiore DOCG

 

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This wine is produced from grapes grown in Italy’s Tuscany region in the small town of Fiesole, in the hills just outside of Florence.  A 100% Sangiovese, this wine is made from organic grapes and only produced in years in which The Vinum team believes the grapes are of sufficient quality.  Simply put, this Tuscan wine is super.

Price:  $30.00

 

2010 The Vinum Langhe Rosso DOC

 

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This is the third Piedmont red wine from The Vinum that we offer on our site, Topochines Vino.  While the Barbaresco and Barolo are 100% Nebbiolo, this Langhe Rosso is an inventive blend of two traditional Piedmont grapes – Nebbiolo and Barbera.  Together, these two varietals create an elegant, full-bodied wine with an impressive finish.  This 2010 wine is ageing beautifully and certainly ready to drink now.

Price: $25.00

 

2016 The Vinum Moscato D’Asti DOCG

 

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If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ve had Moscato before,” we have to point out that this is not just Moscato, but Moscato D’Asti.  There are two important differences about this wine and other Moscato wines we have tasted. First, this wine is slightly sparkling, or “frizzante” as our friends in Italy like to say.  Second, this wine has only 5.5% alcohol – far less than some beers we have consumed lately.  At this alcohol level, it makes for a delicious and refreshing dessert wine.

Price:  $18.00

 

There are several other wines from The Vinum that we are planning to bring over in our next shipment, including a delicious Prosecco and our favorite take on Rosé – a Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo made from Montepulciano grapes.

We look forward to long and fruitful relationship with The Vinum, grape growers and wine makers who share our passion for small production, organic wines that are true to their varietal and the terroir in which the grapes were grown.  For us, the people and the stories of grape growers and wine makers shape our overall experience with the wines themselves.  Today, the driving force behind The Vinum is a new generation of growers and vintners, led by Vassilios Dragani and joined by his wife Natalia, his sister Cristina and his friend Pina Paolucci.  The Dragani and Paolucci families have had vineyards and wine cellars in Abruzzo going back to 1812. In the middle part of the 20th century, the families expanded their vineyards and started selling their wines across the Abruzzo region.

Now the Dragani and Paolucci vineyards have been merged together and this generation has pushed The Vinum beyond Abruzzo:  they are now purchasing grapes from select producers in other regions to make excellent terroir-driven wine with a constant attention to quality.  In Italy it is not uncommon for a wine group to own vineyards in different regions and produce wine under multiple brand names.  The Vinum, though, wanted to produce all of its wines under a single label and make “The Vinum” synonymous with quality and care for the environment.

John & Irene Ingersoll

February 8, 2018

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Vassilios and Natalia hard at work

 

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Natalia is “hands on”

Wines of Croatia, Part II: “Original Zin”

We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon.  It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.”  This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.”  As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.

 

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Some people take their grapes really, really seriously!

The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple.  In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape.  As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.

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Meeting the legend himself at Grgich Hills

In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property.  Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.”  To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same.  Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia.  For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.

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Okay they do look alike …

In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954.  To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal.  On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison.  His conclusion?  The same grape.

Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong.   This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.  Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics.  As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are.  She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.

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Professor Meredith receiving the Order of Danica Hrvatska medal from the Croatian government

In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali.  This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle.  She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar.  Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion:  Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grapeWhat she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related.  As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali.  So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong.  But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.

Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization.  The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it!   Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel.  As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia.  Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century.  What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.

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Crljenak/Tribidrag grapes growing in Croatia

We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could.  We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea.  Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines.  Our favorite?  Crljenak Kastelanski (or Zinfandel if that’s easier to pronounce).  We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela.   We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.”  We have to agree.

Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations.  Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine.  Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine.  Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.

You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com.  Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale.  Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount.  For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo.  We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 11, 2018

Croatia Wines: Part I

We import white and red Croatian wines and make them available to U.S. consumers at our Topochines Vino online wine store: www.topochinesvino.com.

 

In late 2016 we made our first ever foray to the Balkans, a trip that was planned more or less on a whim and without any goal in mind but to explore the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia.  When this former communist country imploded in the early 1990’s, a number of countries formed out of its ashes – either six or seven, depending on whom you ask.  Yes, in that part of the world, everything is up for dispute.  At a minimum, the former Yugoslavia now comprises Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.  For reasons too complicated to explain here, Macedonia is usually referred to as the FYROM – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  Counting Macedonia, there are six countries that have sprung from the boundaries of the old Yugoslavia.   We’ll save the story about Kosovo for another day, but you can see on this map that it is considered an autonomous province of Serbia.

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There is a lot going on in this region!

On our 2 1/2 week trip we visited half of the countries that make up former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.  During this trip – which originated in Venice – we met wine makers and other wine experts that opened our eyes up about this truly fascinating region. We were somewhat familiar with the history of the region, going back to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked WWI, extending all the way through the recent Balkan war.  A very important detail, though, had escaped us:  the region’s viticulture and enology.

During our trip we learned that grape growing and wine making in Croatia, for example, go back 2,500 years to the time of the Ancient Greek settlers.  All along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, grapes were planted and quality wine was made for both domestic use as well as export.  In more recent times, private wine production was hampered by the communist Yugoslav government, resulting in much of the wine industry being cooperatives, with private ownership discouraged.  After the collapse of Yugoslavia, private ownership of land once again emerged and the commercial production of wine once again became vibrant.  For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on Croatian wines:

Wine Regions.  While there are 300 recognized sub-regions in Croatia, they can be broken down into two broad categories:  Continental and Coastal.  Historically, much of the hype has come from the Coastal region as it encompasses the well-known Istria region (very similar in many ways to Tuscany) and the Dalmatian coastal and island vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Croatia.  However, in the past several years producers in the Continental part of Croatia – primarily Slavonia and Plešivica – have begun making wines that are getting international attention.  We have recently tasted some of these wines, including some delicious sparkling wines, and plan to import them here to the U.S. and offer them on our Topochines Vino online wine store.

Even with the recent surge of quality in the Continental region, the focus in Croatia is still on the Coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia.  Many visitors to Istria compare it to Tuscany, both for its physical resemblance as well as the quality food and wine available.

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Stunning views of Istrian vineyards in Croatia

Both red and white wines are produced in Istria, and vineyards feature both indigenous and international grape varietals.  The most common indigenous white grape grown in Istria is Malvasia; the most common red varietal is Teran.  We are offering a crisp, refreshing Istrian Malvasia from producer Benvenuti:  Buy Malvasia. 

Farther down the coast of Dalmatia one encounters some of the most famous regions and vineyards in all of Croatia. most of them producing wine from indigenous Croatian varietals.  Dalmatia breaks into three geographic sub-regions:  Northern Dalmatia, Interior Dalmatia, and Central/Southern Dalmatia.  These regions are largely dedicated to producing indigenous Croatian white varietals such as Bogdanuša, Debit, Grk, and Ninčuša and red varietals including Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavina and Plavac Mali.

Geographically, the vineyards and wineries in Dalmatia are stunning and unlike anything we have ever seen.  One of the places we visited was Grgic Vina, the Croatian winery owned by Napa winemaking legend Mike Grgich (of Grgich Hills).  Their winery is a literal stone’s throw from the Adriatic sea and their vineyards a few hundred meters up the slope from the sea.

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Grgic Vina on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia

Along the coast, many of the vineyards can be found on unbelievably sloped hills, some of them with upwards of 45 degree slope with vines running straight up and down the hill.

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Plavac Mali vines in Dingac (Croatia)

Obviously, harvest must be done by hand and in most cases the pickers have to be harnessed and tethered due to the extreme slope.

In all of our travels to U.S. and foreign wine regions, we have not seen anything quite like the Dalmatian region of Croatia.  While many vines are on the mainland close to the sea, some of the most famous vineyards are on islands and/or peninsulas:  Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Vis, and the Peljesac Peninsula that houses the Dingac vineyards above.

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Island of Korcula, home to Grk and Posip (Croatia)

 

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Island of Hvar  (Croatia)

 In our second installment on Croatia wines, we will go deeper into some of the wines that we think are most special and give more information about some of the most important indigenous varietals.
John & Irene Ingersoll
December 29, 2017

Vidon Vineyards – Making Wine is Rocket Science

One of the wines in our Topochines Vino Wine Store is from Oregon winery Vidon Vineyard whose winemaker Don Hagge we met recently and enjoyed a tasting of over a dozen of his wines.  The 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir is available here for $20.00 per bottle.

We recently ran across a book that asserts “wine is not rocket science.”  After our recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, we are not so sure.  One of the wineries we visited as we were scouting wines for our Topochines Vino Wine Store is Vidon Vineyard, located just outside of the town of Newburg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA.  Vidon’s founder and winemaker, Don Hagge, is a rocket scientist.  Referring to Don as a rocket scientist is not a generic way of saying that he is a really smart guy.  Don is a rocket scientist. Literally.  Before starting his wine career at the age of 69, Don worked at NASA as Chief of the Physics Branch at the Manned Space Flight Center (now called the Johnson Space Center).  So, you see, he really is a rocket scientist.

After completing a 2-year tour in Korea in Naval aviation, Don returned to the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!) to complete his engineering degree.  While at Berkeley, Don had the opportunity to study and work with Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (for inventing the cyclotron) and the founder of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  After receiving his PhD, Don did post-graduate work at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the Centre d’Etudes de Physique Nucléaire in Paris.  He then joined NASA and supported a number of key space Apollo space missions including Apollo 11 (Armstrong’s moon landing) and Apollo 13.  Transitioning from government to private work, Don moved to Silicon Valley and had a long, successful career managing high tech organizations.

When we first heard Don’s story, we wondered how this stellar scientific career would translate to winemaking.  After tasting his wines, we can say the translation is perfect.  In everything he does, Don applies his scientific knowledge and challenges pre-existing assumptions about the best way to grow grapes and make wine.  His goal is to continue finding ways to do things more efficiently through a test-and-learn approach:  try something new, measure the result, and implement the new solution if it is indeed better.  Although several wine makers told us their preference for screw tops vs. corks, Don made his case the way a scientist would – with data.

 

Most wine consumers are aware that a certain percentage of wines are ruined each year as a result of “cork taint,” which involves the cork being tainted by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole.  While the cork industry claims taint occurs in only 1-2 percent of all bottles, the above data suggests otherwise, with 2007 showing a nearly 10% frequency of taint.  For their white wines, Don uses a screw top; for the red wines, he uses a glass stopper rather than the traditional cork.  In addition to avoiding cork taint, he points out that the use of cork results in unacceptable variability in aged wine.  As he explains, a case of red wine that has been aged 10-15 years will have 12 different wines because each cork is different and the oxygen entry will vary by bottle.  Generally, wine consumers that age wine are looking for consistency not variability.  If there is a theme to Don’s use of science at the winery, it is to eliminate variability in the process so that each wine tastes the way that it should.

To strengthen the scientific fire power in the tasting room, Don decided to double the number of PhD’s from one to two by hiring David Bellows to assist with the wine making.  A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Dave received his PhD from the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine.  Complementing Don’s physics training, Dave is a molecular biologist and has long had an interest in wine.  Together, these two run Vidon’s cellar like a lab with more emphasis on predictability and and little to no worry about following conventional methods simply for the sake of tradition.

During our visit at Vidon, we tasted at least a dozen wines, starting with the several 2016 Vidon white whites:  Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier.

These wines were exquisite examples of their variety – aromatic, crisp and dry – and very nice values at $20.00.  We also tasted the 2015 Chardonnay, a lovely “French-style” Chardonnay with crispness and nice acidity but also a lovely yellow/gold color and a full-bodied texture.  Before moving on to the red wines, Don poured for us his 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir, easily our favorite rosé from among the many we tasted during this Oregon excursion.  We made room in our car for a few cases of the 2016 Vidon Rosé so that we could get them up on our website as soon as we got home.  This wine has a gorgeous light-salmon color and a beautiful aroma of cherry and apricot with a hint of strawberry.  On the palate, the wine is clean and crisp, balancing the fruit flavors with nice acidity to provide a long finish.  While perfect for summer, we think this rosé drinks just fine in Fall and Winter as well.

Moving on to the red wines, we tasted the entire range of Vidon Pinot Noir offerings, three of them named after a different Hagge grandchild – Brigitta, Mirabelle and Hans.  Measured by total case production, the top Pinot Noir is the “3-Clones.”

This particular Pinot Noir is produced from three different Pinot Noir clones, while the “grandchildren” wines are produced from a single pinot noir clone (777, 115, Pommard) from grapes grown in different blocks on the 20-acre property, of which 12.5 acres are planted to vines.

We thoroughly enjoyed these wines and they clearly reflect Don’s hands-off approach to winemaking.  We could definitely discern differences between vintages of the same wine as well as the difference between, for example, the Mirabelle Pinot Noir (clone 115) and the Hans (Pommard clone).  As part of Don’s non-interventionist approach to making wine, he generally avoids new oak in fermentation resulting in subtler wines rather than the bolder, fruit-forward wines that many Oregon producers favor as they search for high scores from wine reviewers.  Despite this approach, however, the Vidon wines have managed to accumulate an impressive array of scores from the top wine publications.

This is one of Don’s favorite fact sheets in the tasting room as it shows the price difference between his 94-point-rated Pinot Noir and wines from some well-known names in Willamette Valley whose prices are 2.5 times higher per bottle.  For us, this was one of the key takeaways of the visit to Vidon:  the focus on making high quality at prices much more approachable than many places we have visited in the past.

As we drove away from the Vidon tasting room, one of us said to the other, “When I grow up, I want to be Don.”  We were mesmerized by his incredible life story, but even more captivated by the courage and passion to try something so different at the age of 69 and to be still fully engaged at 85.  Make no mistake, Don is no figure head or chairman emeritus at Vidon Vineyard.  He can still be seen riding a tractor in the vineyards or doing punch downs in the cellar.

Irene & John Ingersoll

December 6, 2017

Making a small fortune in the wine business

You’ve heard the old joke, right?

Q:  How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

A:  You start with a large fortune and lose some of it.

A clear sign of our dubious sanity is our decision to become wine importers and online retailers, despite not staring with a large fortune.  Today we are launching an online wine store at http://www.topochinesvino.com.

What would compel two (relatively) reasonable wine bloggers to abandon the comfortable world of drinking wine, visiting wineries, and writing about it, and jump into the competitive world of wine importing?  As the Grateful Dead sang, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”  In truth, though, the trip has been more strange than long.

If we had to identify the start of this strange trip, it would have to be the fall of 2016, which was marked by a series of encounters with wine makers across the globe.  Just over a year ago, during a trip to Willamette Valley in Oregon, we met a fantastic grape grower and winemaker.  In the course of several hours of conversation, we talked a lot about the challenges facing wineries.  We guessed his biggest challenges would be weather; bugs; mold and mildew; or any number of other pestilences conjured up by Mother Nature.  Uh-uh, our friend told us.  His biggest challenge?  Distribution.  Given how many distributors and retail outlets there are, we figured it would be easy for a winery to get its product into the hands of clients through restaurant, retail or online channels.  Apparently, though, finding reliable partners that are in it for the long term, and want to grow with the winery, is not as easy as it should be.  We left Oregon with the distribution problem in the back of our minds but still not thinking about a life-changing shift to becoming importers or sellers of wine.

Next stop, Europe!

About three weeks after the Oregon trip, we embarked on a long trip through some of the oldest wine growing regions in the world.  Our first stop was Italy – the magical city of Venice to be exact.  At a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal, we had dinner with a young couple who are grape growers and vintners from the wine region of Abruzzo.  They shared several of their wines with us and we enjoyed them so much we asked where we could find them in the United States.  They told us that they do not sell their wines in the U.S. because their small production, artisan wine making approach would not interest the “big guys.”  Our next stop was Slovenia, where we tasted some truly unique and fabulous wines made from indigenous varietals and using traditional methods that go back generations.  With a few exceptions, most Slovenian wines do not make it to this country either.  By the time we made our third stop, in Zagreb, Croatia, a theme was starting to emerge:  there are some very impressive and unique wines to which the American consumer does not have ready access.  In Zagreb, we stopped at the coolest wine bar in the city, The Basement.  Their proprietor, Dario Drmac, poured quite a few wines for us, some of them traditional Croatian varietals and others made from varietals that are more international.  Again, we were shocked to hear that none of the wines we tasted was available in the United States.  Three weeks later, after driving the entire length of Croatia and half of neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was time to go home.

As we boarded our plane, we turned to each other and said, “We have to become wine importers and sellers.”  While it may sound corny (okay, it IS corny), we fell a little bit in love with the people we met, their personal stories, their love and passion for wine, and their dream to share their wines with consumers in America.  In a way, we feel like we did not choose importing, it chose us.

While we had some idea of the complexity of setting up this type of business, we severely underestimated the many steps involved, the volume of paperwork, the layers of Federal and state licensing, tax rules and regulations, and the logistics of getting wine from Point A to Point B, especially when Point A is 7,000 miles and another continent away.  If we had known the extent of the work required, we might not have even started, but in this case, ignorance has definitely been bliss.  We took each chunk of work/activity one step at a time and that is probably what saved us from folding up our tent and throwing in the towel (to mix a couple of metaphors).

The ABC’s (and TTB’s) of Wine Importing

In order to import wine into the U.S., one must learn a new set of alphabetic acronyms:  ABC, TTB, COLA, FDA, CBP, BOE and probably others we have yet to encounter.  The very first and most basic requirement to be able to import wine into the U.S. from other countries is to obtain a Federal license – referred to as a Federal Basic Permit.  If said importer wants to sell those wines to other wholesalers or retailers, an additional Basic Permit is required.  We decided to pursue both an importer and a wholesaler permit and filed our application with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the aforementioned TTB that is one of the ingredients in our alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies.  We had never heard of the TTB before; it turns out they are part of the Department of the Treasury, and they have become quite an important part of our lives this past year!  After a couple of months, we were granted our Federal import and wholesale permits and proceeded to apply for our state permits. You see, the Federal permit gives you the right to bring wine into the U.S., but each state has its own requirements for importing the wine into the state.

Getting a state license required us to leave behind the TTB and embrace the elementary sounding (but in reality very complex) ABC – California’s Alcohol and Beverage Commission.  This state agency regulates almost every aspect of alcohol production and sale, including licensing.  To support our business plan – importing wine, selling wine wholesale to restaurants and stores, and selling wine online directly to consumers – we needed three California licenses, all of which we now possess.  Probably the most amusing part of this process is that we needed to post a giant sign on the front of our house for 30 days with big block letters stating “Public Notice of Application to Sell Alcoholic Beverages.”  Everyone has seen one of these signs, most commonly on the front door of a bar or restaurant seeking a liquor license.  We were wondering if one of our neighbors was going to see this sign and freak out, thinking we were opening a bar or on-premises wine store in our garage.  Fortunately, we live in Napa Valley and this is probably a very common sight.

So finally we had our two federal and three California licenses, and quite a few wineries that wanted to send their wines from foreign lands to us. What next?  Before wines can enter the United States, the foreign winery must register with the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration.  Yes, really, wine is considered a food and a foreign winery is classified as a “food storage facility.”  Hey, who are we to argue, some days wine is the only fruit we consume.  Once the foreign winery is registered with the FDA, the TTB (remember them?) enters the picture again.  Every single wine label for every single bottle must receive the TTB’s prior approval of the front and back labels on the bottle.  There are quite a few rules for what must be on the label (and what cannot be on it), and after multiple submissions and re-submissions we could give seminars on the COLA process (Certificate of Label Approval).

Okay, all foreign wineries registered with the FDA? Check.  All labels approved? Check.  A temperature-controlled warehouse to store the wine when it arrives? Check.  So how do you get the wine to the United States?  If you are thinking airfare – think again!  It costs about $1,000 to ship five cases of wine. Let us save you the math – that is $17 a bottle just for the shipping.  Imagine what our wine would ultimately cost if we shipped it via air.  No, our goal is to make our partners’ wines affordable, and the only way to do that is via containers on giant shipping vessels.  Which means we needed to find a trans-Atlantic shipping company.  We secured a shipping partner and finally felt like we were all set to bring some wine to the U.S  We placed an order with our Croatian and Italian partners for one pallet each – 112 total cases of wine (or 1,344 bottles).  We figured if we never sold the wine to consumers, we would slowly drink it ourselves; even if our business were a total flop, we would have enough wine to last a lifetime!

We had a few hiccups along the way.  Trying to ship in August was one of them: somehow, we forgot that August is a vacation month for most of Europe but literally all of Italy (our departure port is in Livorno).  Our wine sat in a warehouse (air conditioned, at least!) for almost a month before the dockworkers were back in action and ready to load the wines on the container ship.  Before they could, though, the port city of Livorno suffered some of the worst flooding in over a century as over 10 inches of rain fell in just two hours.  When all was said and done, six people died and there was massive destruction to property in the city.  Oh, and total destruction to 56 cases of our wine.  All of our Croatian shipment was spared, apparently because it came in later and was stacked higher.  Most of the Italian wine sat underwater for days until the waters receded.  Due to the miracle of insurance, our wine was replaced at no cost to us, other than lost time.

Our Croatian shipment made the safe voyage from Livorno to New York City in mid where we encountered another alphabet acronym:  CBP (Customs and Border Protection).  All shipments have to clear customs and we must pay applicable taxes and duties on the wine (calculated according to alcohol percentage).  Once through customs, the wine was placed on a truck and made its way across the entire continental United States, ending its journey in our Napa Valley warehouse.  The Italian wine arrived just a bit later and is sitting safely in our Napa warehouse.

Now that we have this wine, what do we do with it?  While we will make some wine available to restaurants and retail stores, most of the wine is being made available direct to consumers via our wine store.  We spent several months researching platforms to help us sell our wines – front end, back-end web store, payment processing, inventory management, invoicing, sales tax, shipping, etc.  In the end, we have built out an online wine store we are proud of:  www.topochines.com.  In addition to the Croatian and Italian wines, we are offering a luscious Spanish wine from Rioja; a sparkling Cremant de Bordeaux from France; a few Napa Valley wines; and a delicious red blend from Sonoma County.

All of the wines on our site are similar in that they are small-production wines from producers we know personally, and the winemaking approach is very similar:  respect for the varietal and the terroir in which the grapes are grown.  We will be adding wines that meet these criteria as demand from our customers grows.  We just returned from a trip to Oregon wine country to see old friends and meet new ones; we bought some fantastic wines on the trip and they are now available for sale on the wine store.

Irene Ingersoll

December 1, 2017

#NapaStrong. Proud of my community.

As most everyone knows, it has been a devastating four days in Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County. Devastating wildfires have raged through our communities since late Sunday night, initially driven by winds that gusted at nearly 70 miles per hour.

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