Customer Profile: Maray Restaurants

Mark Jackson, Bar Operations, Maray Restaurants

Questions – longer form responses:

How would you describe your wine list?

A: At Maray, our wine list features wine primarily from regions that our food is inspired by: Middle Eastern small plates. We try to balance unusual exciting wines with familiar key grape varieties. We want to create wine stories for guests and make it a memorable experience!

How do you lay out your wine list? And why does this work well for your guests?

A: We offer all wines in 175ml glass, by the carafe or bottle. This really opens the list up for guests to try something new without committing to a full bottle, and place key grape varieties at higher price points to encourage them to try something new or unfamiliar. With red and white we structure the list into sections, such as ‘Big & Bold’ or ‘Spice & Fruit-Forward’ to help direct guests toward flavour profiles they enjoy. Keeping the layout clear and concise also so not to overwhelm our guests with pages and pages of words.

Where do you think is the next up-and-coming wine region?

A: With the issues currently impacting New Zealand and parts of Europe, we may see a move from consumers, as they look to more up-and-coming wine regions such as parts of South Africa. It is also an opportunity for us to recommend different wine producing regions – we have a red from Croatia on our list which I love to introduce people to!

What are guests ordering most from your wine list?

A: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are our strongest sellers, closely followed by a Merlot and Blanc de Blanc from Château Oumsiyat in Lebanon. We have a really good spread of sales across the whole list, some guests may have three glasses of different wines in the same sitting, which is exactly what we are trying to achieve: take them on a journey.

What are your biggest learnings from the pandemic in 2020 and 2021?

A: The value of investing time and energy into team training has proven invaluable and has helped create a wine culture within our company. We focus on the stories behind the wines, the people that produce them, and create wine experiences for guests. Consumers love to learn new things that they can pass on to their friends and family.

Have you seen wine tastes change over the last three years?

A: Consumers are more educated and much more open to discovery than we first thought. Moving away from those same old wines they have drank time and time again, and are in search of something new. We are very well placed at Maray to deliver that. Consumers are also very environmentally conscious, so being able to offer wines on our list that are socially and environmentally responsible has become more important to our guests and will continue to do so.

If you could have any wine on your wine list (past or present), what would it be?

A: All our wines from Château Oumsiyat in Lebanon; particularly the Merlot we currently have is stunning!

What would you like to see guests ordering more of?

A: We have some really interesting wines from Greece, Turkey and North Macedonia that I love. I’d would like to continue directing guests to those wines from that area of world from which our food is so heavily influenced by. What grows together, goes together.

What is your personal favourite wine/food pairing?

A: As a vegetarian and working in restaurant that primarily celebrates vegetables on the menu, I really enjoy a Disco Cauliflower (our top selling dish) with a glass of chilled Kayra, Beyaz Kalecik Karasi Rosé from Turkey. Belter.

Quick-Fire Questions – short responses:

Dinner party or wild party?

A: Dinner party

Cornwall or Ibiza?

A: Ibiza

Pinot Noir from Cote de Beaune or Central Otago?

A: Central Otago, New Zealand

James Bond or Jason Bourne?

A: James Bond

English bubbles or Champagne?

A: Champagne

Rich and robust or delicate and nuanced?

A: Rich and bold

Negroni or Pornstar Martini?

A: Negroni

Time to get back out there!

One of the greatest things about going out to your favourite (or new) restaurant is the absolute excitement, and minimal effort required in getting a superb meal being served to you and cooked by professionals with extreme passion for the end product. And generally getting to share it with the people you love or like… There really is nothing quite like it!

You start browsing the food menu, then onto the wines – oh the decisions… Sometimes the wine choice can be hardest element of the adventure, but should we be looking at this differently? With extreme pressure on staffing levels across our industry, we need to try and make things as fun and easy for guests as possible, and help guide them to a wine that is going to elevate their whole experience. Let’s be honest, most people are incredibly nervous when it comes to ordering wine. It is the “face off” of not wanting to look silly in front of your server and mates…”Just go for the wine you can pronounce”, your head says.

This is where I think operators can have some fun. I am certainly not saying we need to reinvent the wheel, and a huge number of operators do this already, but having some fun with your guest is where we can make that lasting experience for them. By simply recommending glasses of wine on your food menu that might otherwise be overlooked, or by having a ‘by the glass’ selection that challenges the ‘norm’ and not being afraid to change these regularly, the customer experience can be greatly enhanced.

I’m not suggesting a complete overhaul of the wine list as I do think having a core wine list and ‘by the glass’ offering is crucial, but a little bit of stardust to make things fun is where it is at for me. It can also make things more interesting when matching wines to your food dishes and can push your customers to be that little more adventurous and out of their comfort zone.

We are very lucky in the UK to have such a huge variety of wines to choose from. Literally, every wine producing corner of the world is accessible to us here in the UK and they are making some insane wines. We should be celebrating this, but also understand how utterly daunting this is for someone not in the wine trade. For a little perspective, I was not scared to omit Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec from a restaurant’s ‘By the glass’ selection. These wines have this unique gravitational pull that guests would automatically select without fully engaging with all that is on offer. This then helps free up a couple of slots by the glass and allows the operator to have some fun by selecting more esoteric wines!

I do appreciate that some might think that the food and wine matching scene is quite tricky, however it is very ambiguous and subjective. Yes, that Sauvignon Blanc will go perfectly with that Goats Cheese but the Assyrtiko from Lebanon will be much more fun and do the exact same job. Rib-Eye steak and Malbec you say? Why not go Tannat instead…

I’m not saying that we have to go completely rogue here as there as there are producers in the well-known regions of both the Old World and the New World doing some really cool stuff as well, but all I can emphasise is giving your guest that little X-Factor experience when dining with you.

I always used to liken a service in the restaurant as a show, of sorts that people have come to experience. So surely, doing something different to what they might have been to on their last outing is more attractive whether that’s on the food or wine side of things? Serving sizes is also key to me. By recommending 100ml or 125ml glasses of wine gives people the option to try and have a couple of different glasses throughout their meal.

For me, I always enjoyed the part of my previous roles within the restaurant trade where I had the opportunity to guide customers out of their comfort zone. It created conversations with guests, and also gives you the chance to share some of your expertise and wine discoveries. Of course, staff training (especially wine specific training) is crucial to this working well. I think every operator should invest more time in this aspect as it builds the foundations for our industry as well as creating confidence in your guests and team. Also, it makes the whole experience more engaging and fun for your team which will ultimately rub off on your guests. After all, we all started not knowing a lot at some point in any career path you choose.

So, have some fun and make it easy for your guests to choose something that they might not necessarily have chosen without you!

The Heat is On

Scene One: Simpsons Wine Estate, Kent, October 2020.

Walking amid the vines in the Roman Road vineyard with Charles Simpson, we are interrupted by none other than Oz Clarke, here to film a piece for ITN news about the rise of English wine.

Clarke, who opened the winery in 2016, said: “I grew up around here and I know the Elham Valley well. It is seriously chalky, well protected and south facing – very similar to Champagne.”

In his book on English wine, Clarke states that he had been making speeches about the effects of climate change since the early 1990s “to deaf ears, frankly.” But he knew that Champagne was about one degree warmer than southern England. Yet Champagne had been warming up all through the 1980s and 90s, so didn’t that mean that England could now produce what Champagne did a generation earlier? And – unlike Champagne – English winemakers tended to make still wine, too.

Expanding on this, Clarke suggests that the effects of climate change and global warming could be catastrophic for parts of the world – but if there is “one place where climate change has completely transformed a way of life for the better, it would be in the vineyards of England and Wales.”

Later, in the tasting room, sampling the stunning Simpsons wines in advance of listing them, we are reminded just how far English wine has come. Are these chardonnays from Chablis or from England – they are simply amazing! Is this all down to climate change?

Is this because of the Heat?

Scene Two: Hallgarten tasting room, Luton, just about any time in the last five years.

Before us are rows and rows of wine samples, some in unlabelled lab-type sample bottles, and some in their finished labelled bottles. The tasting team take one last glance out of the window at beautiful downtown Luton and then begin the process of spitting and slurping as we make our selections.

This morning we face dozens of wines from France; some we accept, some we reject. But one thing is constant: time and again Steve will say: “This does not taste like Sancerre.  This is too rich, it’s too fat.” They’re not necessarily bad or faulty, Steve says. “But they don’t taste like they used to when I came into the trade. Have the French forgotten how to make Sancerre?”

Or is it now just too warm to make Sancerre as we know it? And is this caused by climate change? The Heat?

Scene Three: Chateau Lestrille, St. Germain du Puch, summer 2021.

Estelle Roumage looks out over her vineyards in the Entre-Deux-Mers and explains to us how she is trying to cope with global warming.

“We are planning to plant other varietals in order to adapt to climate change, and avoid over alcoholic wines. We are aiming to introduce Castets in our future plantings, most probably in 2023.

“Also, one of the adaptations we have done over the past years is to not thin the leaves automatically on every plot, which was a common practice in the 90s and 2000s. We only do it now on the eastern side of the row (morning sun), or sometimes not at all.”

Estelle Roumage: coping with Heat!

Scene Four: The New York Times, October 2019.

The discussion moves into the mainstream when Eric Asimov brings the topic to the attention of his readers in a series of articles in which he discusses how climate change has affected the wine trade, describing how producers have experimented with adaptations, not only to hotter summers, but also to warmer winters, droughts and the sort of violent events that stem from climate change: freak hailstorms, spring frosts, flooding and forest fires.

“Farmers have been on the front line, and grape growers especially have been noting profound changes in weather patterns since the 1990s. In the short term, some of these changes have actually benefited certain regions.”

Places, like England, said Asimov, which were historically unsuited for producing fine wine, have been given the opportunity to join the global wine world. The Simpsons are certainly proof of that!

In other areas like Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne and Germany, where great vintages were once rare, warmer growing seasons have made it far easier to produce consistently exceptional wines.

But “even with such success, the character of these wines has evolved in part because of the changing climate — in some cases subtly, in others deeply.”

Is this what Steve is picking up with Sancerre?

Scene Five: Geneva, August 2021.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its long-awaited report on climate change. In summary, whether you accept that the human race is responsible for global warming, it is undeniable that the world is warmer than it once was. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the average global temperature has risen about 1.4° F, with about two thirds of that rise occurring since 1960. Though predictions vary widely, the IPCC states that in the 21st century average global temperature could rise by 11.5° F. If mankind acts, this rise could be reduced to 2° F. However, even at the lowest rise, the planet faces catastrophic, results.

The primary cause of global warming is the “greenhouse effect,” caused by burning of fossil fuels (which is the greatest contributor), widespread deforestation, the loss of natural “carbon sinks,” oceanic acidification, the use of landfills, and large scale cattle and sheep ranching, which infamously causes the release of methane, a non-CO2 greenhouse gas.

Not stated in the report – but highlighted elsewhere – is that one ultimate and terrible consequence of global warming could be a rising sea level. A five metre rise in sea level would inundate some of the planet’s greatest vineyards and wine producing regions with flooding. These could include portions of Bordeaux, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia׳s Swan district, and California׳s Carneros appellation. Added to the coastal flooding, more inland vineyards could face heightening levels of salinity in ground water which could affect vine growth. Earthquake is another threat, triggered by rising sea levels.

Scene Six: Glasgow, November 2021.

Negotiators from nearly 200 countries sign the Glasgow Climate Pact, aiming to turn the 2020s into a decade of climate action and support.

Nations reaffirmed their duty to fulfil the pledge of providing 100 billion dollars annually from developed to developing countries. And they collectively agreed to work to reduce the gap between existing emission reduction plans and what is required to reduce emissions, so that the rise in the global average temperature can be limited to 1.5 degrees. For the first time, countries are called upon to phase down unabated coal power and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.

Scene Seven: Here. Now.

They are already happening. The consequences.

The wine map has been extended (witness Simpsons Wine Estate). Wine grapes have always grown in narrow geographical and climatic ranges where temperatures during the growing season average 12-22°C (54-72°F). But winemakers are growing grapes in places once considered too cold for fine wines. In pursuit of the best sites, wine producers are moving north in the Northern Hemisphere, and south in the Southern.

Producers are now planting vineyards at altitudes once considered inhospitable to growing wine grapes, seeking relief from long exposure to the sun, and – crucially – where the night time temperatures plunge. Today, vineyards in the regions of Salta, such as those of Piattelli, are at altitudes of over 6,000 feet.

Winemakers are looking at different varietals, sometimes planting varietals which can withstand warmer temperatures (witness Estelle Roumage). In Bordeaux, where producers may use only use permitted AC grapes, seven additional grapes have been selected for experiments to determine whether they can be used to mitigate the effects of climate change: The four red and two white approved varieties are well-adapted to alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles. The red grapes are Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional, and the whites are Alvarinho and Liliorila.

It is undeniable that climate change will impact the costs of production. As we have seen, winemakers are already adjusting their practices and adapting their winemaking business for a warmer world.

But the big question is: will wine drinkers accept a new style of wine (witness Steve Daniel)? Will they happily quaff wines from grape varieties suitable for hotter climes, such as Nero d’Avola, Vermentino, Fiano, Vranec and Xinomavro? Will they accept a different flavour profile from their Pinot Noir grown in Burgundy? Or can they bring themselves to drink a Pinot Noir from England?

The Heat Is On.

Putting the Customer, into Customer Service

The Customer Service department is the beating heart of any business; processing customer sales orders, ensuring deliveries arrive in the right place at the right time and, above all, making sure our customers are looked after from start to finish.

The Customer Service team are a close-knit group, working alongside each other every day. Some of the team have been with the company for one year, some for over 25 years – a testament to just how close-knit they all are. Adding all these up, their combined experience at Hallgarten totals over 138 years of service!

The team of 16 have varied roles within the department. The majority are on hand daily to accept, prioritize and input orders within the area deadlines, accounting for any special requirements, promotions, pricing, samples and doing their upmost to make sure all orders are entered correctly.

As part of our Customer Service, our Delivery team ensures all orders are sent across to the warehouse as swiftly as possible, all stocks are correct and work closely with our logistics partner, LCB, to make sure delivery planning is carried out efficiently.

However, we are not resting on our laurels, as we are constantly working on projects to help improve our in-house systems, led by our order and delivery Supervisors, and the Customer Services Manager. The team take great pride in offering the best service possible and are always looking at ways to build better relationships with customers and colleagues.

The pandemic has hit the country hard in the last two years, and our Customer Service team was no different as we dealt with much publicised issues with stock availability due to HGV driver shortages and port delays. Working closely with our Shipping and sales teams, we were able to ride out the storm and offer suitable replacements where we could. Whilst the challenges we faced were new to all of us, we retained our over-riding desire to ensure Customer Service was not affected. The hospitality sector may have been in hibernation, but our partnership with these businesses did not stop as we pulled out all the stops to help them diversify their businesses, whether into local delivery or online wine shop!

With the Customer Service team, and the full company, moving to working from home during this time we were able to utilise video calls to kept our spirits up – sometimes just from sharing what we watched on TV that week. From being such a tight group in the office, it was great to see nothing changed when we moved to our home offices. Over the last year we have worked hard with the support of our sales teams and other departments, building ourselves back up and know we can now handle anything that comes our way!

In spite of all the issues in 2021, it ended up being a huge year for order entry, processing over 54,000 invoices (equating to over 380,000 product lines), and with everything else going on we still managed to keep our team accuracy at 99.01%.

To say I am proud of the team for everything they have achieved in the last two years would be a huge understatement. They continue to increase levels of customer service each and every day, and with exciting plans in-store for 2022, I know this is going to be another incredible year.

Onwards and upwards!

Katherine Hughes, Customer Service Manager

A Sense of Place

Sometimes wine has the capacity to delight. Sometimes it has the capacity to surprise.

And sometimes it has the capacity to amaze.

We’re at the Senses Wines vineyard in Sonoma County with owner Christopher Lloyd Strieter. We are surrounded by a Gods-Own country of redwood trees, organically grown vegetables and artisanal breads. But I don’t really register any of that. All I am thinking is: How can something be this good? How can they have come so far so quickly?

The story of “they” is brief. Senses Wines was founded in 2011 by three childhood friends from Occidental: Christopher Lloyd Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs. All were just 22 years old. All either had family ties with the wine industry or at least some related work experience. (Christopher, for instance, had majored in Finance, Economics and Physics, before slogging away in inventory at VinFillment warehouse and working with Williams Selyem and Jess Jackson of Jackson Family Wines.)

Now here’s the first BIG FACT. They had one major advantage: Max’s family had planted and owned a stunning vineyard – the BA Thieriot vineyard, five miles from the Pacific Ocean, and next to the town of Bodega of Hitchcock’s The Birds fame – which at that time sold grapes, but not wine. “Wouldn’t it be cool to turn those grapes into wine, we thought,” says Christopher.

Here comes the second BIG FACT. The three decided not to seek investors, but to pool all of their limited savings into the scheme. To this day they have no investors (and no safety net.) They made 112 cases in 2011 and reinvested everything over the years. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We just concentrated on paying the bills.”

Third BIG FACT coming up: Max Thieriot became a well-known actor, starring in Bates Motel and SEAL Team. So they are guaranteed publicity.

As well as the BA Thieriot vineyard, they began to source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit from high quality vines throughout the Sonoma Coast and Russian River areas. Quality was always the key. Now they deal with about twelve different vineyards.

But a turning point came with the fourth BIG FACT: ace winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown approached them to make their wines. “He offered to make wine for us if we sold him some of our premium fruit for his other wines.” Brown was once named ‘winemaker of the year’ by Food & Wine Magazine, and has received perfect scores from The Wine Advocate and many others.

Fifth BIG FACT: they decided to sell their wines directly rather than through wholesalers or Cellar Door (they don’t have a cellar door.) “We sell primarily through the mailing list to thousands of people within the U.S.” Today, their business is booming, while the waiting list for their vintages grows.

Senses Wines (on the label the second letter ‘e’ has been substituted with the number ‘3’ representing the three founders and the three wine senses of sight, scent and sip) first became a boutique, and then a cult.

All of this is interesting, of course, but what turns interesting into fascinating is to learn of it while tasting the wines. Because they taste extraordinary.

 Christopher pours a 2020 Russian River Chardonnay. I immediately think: Puligny-Montrachet. It’s a lovely floating-on-air wine, a hint of ice cream sundae with a smidgeon of lime. Firm acidity. Brilliant lightness of touch.

A 2020 Charles Heitz Chardonnay is pure Burgundian, with a honeysuckle and cream nose, balanced by perfect acidity.

But Christopher is keen to state “We shouldn’t ape Burgundy. We are Occidental, Sonoma County, West Sonoma Coast. We don’t want opulent and rich. We want elegance”

A 2020 UV El Diablo Chardonnay has more body to it, a whisper of toast, more creaminess, more Meursault-like (I merrily ignore Christopher’s non-Burgundian plea.)

Finally, their estate 2020 BA Thieriot Chardonnay: I only rarely get to taste Le Montrachet, but I can’t help being reminded of it. A staggering combination of pure fruit and perfect acidity.

As we taste, and then walk the vineyards (with Christopher pointing out where he used to play as a kid) I still can’t get my head round it. “How come you’ve become so successful so quickly?”

He laughs. “We are meticulous about everything and we do it all in-house. I’m the spreadsheet guy and the lucky one to host events around the world. I do the numbers and we keep things very tight. Max does all things branding and gets us air time. Myles is in the vineyard, and helps with production and events.”

Yes, they have had a couple of advantages, but Christopher is keen to stress a couple of things: “We didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas, no history baggage. And we did work hard with our winery friends and always made sure we kept on friendly terms.”

But these wines are so good, and I still don’t get it. But there is one other thing at the back of my mind. Christopher had also told us that they have 50,000 followers on social media. It was always going to be that way, of course, for three young educated hipsters. But not many others wineries have that clout. I was reminded of the success that Barack Obama had had when first running for president with a new form of politicking via social media. A new way. But the point is that no matter how savvy your marketing and selling skills are, the wines have got to match up.

And if the Chardonnays are good, the Pinot Noirs are mind-blowing.

A 2019 Terra de Promissio Pinot Noir has sturdy young fruit, raspberries and rose petal, such lightness of touch!

A 2019 MCM88 Pinot Noir is sturdier and creamier with a lovely plummy finish. This wine hails from the vineyard formerly known as Keefer Ranch, top-of-class Russian River Valley fruit and terroir.

Finally, from their other estate, the 2019 Day One Pinot Noir has beautiful texture and mouth feel. Lovely dark velvety chocolate fruit, tannins firm and sweet. Supreme balance.

So: we end the tasting with me stunned. We stand on the veranda of the small house in the middle of the winery and gaze out over a beautiful landscape. “We’re farmers first and winemakers second,” says Christopher.

What a place in which to farm. What wines! And I still can’t work out how they’ve done it.

Zero Manipulation

So, we drive away from the Hollywood of Napa, via a homely breakfast of eggs over easy at Calistoga’s famous Café Sarafornia, heading to the more rugged Dry Creek area in the northern part of Sonoma County. Serious Zinfandel country.

If edgy Sonoma is Neil Young to Napa’s The Eagles, then Fred Peterson is your archetypal good ‘ole country boy who really couldn’t give a damn. Built like a brick outhouse, profuse and cussed, he looks like he has never seen a tie in his entire life. Curmudgeonly doesn’t even come close.

At 72, Fred now limits himself to mainly viticultural duties, including that of “main grape sampler,” having handed over winemaking to his son Jamie 15 or so years ago.

We are in their homely winery on Dry Creek Road. But Fred is quick to point out: “At my age, if I’m in the winery for more than 12 hours, I become a danger to myself and others.”

You can’t help but grin as you listen to him volunteering his views on the world, all delivered in a booming baritone. Marketing-speak this ain’t. And you think to yourself: it would be easy to underestimate him. But then you remember: this is the guy who was once vineyard manager at Monte Bello and Lytton Springs, of Paul Draper and Ridge fame, and you think: he must bring that expertise into his own wines, surely.

And you’d be right:

The Old School Zin 2017 – very competitively priced – has a beautiful redcurrant nose, a hint of salami, great mouthfeel and a long lingering red fruit finish.

Whereas the Bernier Vineyard Zin 2016 has touches of mint and cigar and is a more mature and bigger wine. Complex and reflective.

And the Bradford Mountain Zin 2016 is a bigger beast altogether, dark and deep, more black fruit than red, with a beautiful soft and supple mouthfeel.

Fred has an old world winemaking philosophy and a Zero Manipulation approach, meaning that he uses the most gentle, traditional low-tech/high touch winemaking practices to maximise the vintage and the vineyard. The result: No Soulless Wines. Tellingly, he tells us that in the domestic market, his wines fare better with distributors who sell more European-style wines.

He drives us up to Bradford Mountain, where he settled in 1983, building his home and planting vineyards, before founding Peterson Wines in 1987. The views from here towards Mount Saint Helena, are spectacular. But there is also lots of evidence of the terrible damage caused by forest fires.

“The advantages we have here are: first, the poor soils mean we don’t have to worry about excessive yields; second, these vineyards are so high you don’t have to worry about pests.”

He points to the vineyard on which he planted Vermentino, Verdelho and Vernaccia, resulting in the 3V White blend, whose 2019 vintage has a lovely soft melon nose and really good acidity. “We pride ourselves in the natural acidity in our wines,” explains Fred.

Two other wines which caught my attention:

The Zero Manipulation Carignan Grenache blend (2017) has amazing blackcurrant bubblegum and sherbet fruit, very well balanced and very very moreish.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Mendo Blendo (Petite Sirah and Syrah) has a lovely open nose of mint chocolate and a touch of anise. Good acidity, great mouthfeel. Great name!

Even after 45 years in the winemaking game, Fred is still searching, and has just returned from a four-week trip to Alsace, the Loire, Corbières and the Rhone to “re-charge the old batteries.”

Which is exactly what you feel after you’ve spend some time with Fred. Your battery has have been definitely recharged.

Going back to the middle.

“I am lucky in that I don’t have to make a house style. I am free to tell the story of the year.”

Most winemakers have an affinity with their vineyards. Most will extol their virtues, pay homage to them. And others go a little further. But Elizabeth Vianna is in love with her vineyards.

She stands before the Ganymede vineyard right outside the winery at Chimney Rock and describes Ganymede and its neighbours including Tomahawk, Clone 4 and the fantastically named Cardiac Hill, in a reverence which borders on poetry.

And the story of Ganymede is an interesting one on that it has a planting regime that I’ve not come across before. Initiated by Elizabeth’s predecessor, Doug Fletcher, Ganymede is planted on an asymmetrical trellising system, named the Fletcher Lyre, in which one side of the trellis is planted a few inches higher than the other side, which ensures fruit from both sides of the vine ripen at the same pace.

Situated on the famed Silverado Trail in Napa Valley’s renowned Stags Leap District, Chimney Rock was established in 1984 with the goal of creating wines that would compete against the best Bordeaux. All the vineyards in the 131-acre site are all within a quarter mile of each other, but each has its own unique terroir which has led to the creation of 28 distinct vineyard blocks on the property.

“So if you look at Tomahawk and Alpine, they are 100 yards from each other but they are chalk and cheese. Yin and Yang, if you may.”

Elizabeth became head winemaker at Chimney Rock in 2005. She has also served as President of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association. Sell effacing, yet obviously a star, she startles us when telling us that her husband was born in Burnley.

“Burnley in England?”

“Yes.”

Which you don’t expect when you are discussing wine on the Silverado Trail. Not only that, but her husband’s father was Frank “Tiger” Hill, who played professional for Arsenal and Scotland. He apparently got his nickname from the way he tackled.

All of which provides a humorous distraction when you are swirling a beautiful Elevage Blanc 2020 round the glass. The wine – 78% Sauvignon Gris, 22% Sauvignon Blanc – has stylish fruit, a touch of spice and cardamom, and beautiful texture in the mouth.

As you might expect, Elizabeth is keen to promote the idea of sustainability. “We do not use technology to bypass Mother Nature.” She is aiming for a net irrigation deficit in the vineyards; the winery is Green Certified by the California Land Stewardship Institute; they are100% solar powered; they have an Integrated pest management; they use cover crops planted between vineyard rows to help improve soil health; they foster predatory bird inhabitants to help with rodent control. (It often amuses me to learn how much of a nuisance in these parts are gophers – friendly looking mole-like chappies.)

You can’t help but chuckle when you listen to Elizabeth describing her babies. The youngest wines are aged in the Nursery barrel room, before being moved to the Teenager barrel room. Wines from the Alpine vineyard are unruly students running off in all directions, whereas Ganymedes are quieter, more reflective students.

We taste the Elevage Rouge 2020: dark, dense, broody kind of fruit. I sense a lot of rhubarb-type Cabernet Franc, but am surprised to learn it contains only 3% (as against of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot and 18% Petite Verdot.

As we move on, Elizabeth explains that she uses only free-run juice in the Chimney Rock-labelled estate wines.

The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 has supple, inviting fruit on the nose. Masses of currants, red and black. Lovely integration of soft oak tannin. Beautifully balanced.

The Alpine 2016 has an epic nose, dark chocolate, black plums, tobacco. Sensuous, silky. Touch of anise on the palate. Delicious.

The Ganymede 2016 is softer, more delicate than the Alpine. Red fruits, lovely balance on the palate, lovely soft aftertaste.

“I’m not a fan of high alcohol wines,” says Elizabeth. “When I started, everyone wanted high alcohol, power, dark inky wines, and ripeness. But how much ripeness do you need? We lost freshness in favour of power. So we’ve been going back to the middle for a long time now.”

I love that expression: going back to the middle.

The Ganymede 2018 is pure Bordeaux, silky smooth tannins, cigar box and blackcurrants. Soft tannins.

The Clone 4 2018 is more extreme, dark heady black fruit, tannins very firm. “Small berries,” explains Elizabeth.

The Estate 2018 is serious fruit, pure black fruit, tobacco and cedar, ripe tannins and very soft.

As we conclude a superlative tasting, we all agree that the wines have supreme balance, a lovely combination of freshness added to the unmistakeable structure of Napa fruit.

What would Frank “Tiger” Hill make of all of this?

Now, here’s a thought, gentlemen…

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA appellation is a mighty area around half an hour south of Monterey which makes some of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

We’re here to meet with Tony Franscioni, a fourth generation farmer whose family owns large plantings in the Gabilan Mountains in the eastern part of the Salinas Valley, and who is responsible for the Old Stage brand. The property is right across the valley from the Talbott vineyards and just below Chalone.

After Tony shows us around his estate – during which we shelter from the strong cooling breeze (it’s not called a cool-climate area for nothing!) – we get down to taste the wines with veteran winemaker consultant Dan Karlsen.

Dan tells us that the Franscioni vineyards have the right components to produce great wine. The Chardonnay vineyard is planted on deep sandy soils exposed to the full brunt of the Salinas valley winds, perfect for Chardonnay, preserving fruit character and acidity The Old Stage 2019 has really good no-nonsense fruit, touches of stone fruit, cream and a hint of vanilla. It has excellent balance, the acidity adding a lovely refreshing note.

The Pinot Noir comes from vineyards further up Chualar Canyon, more protected from the wind. Wind toughens up the skins, which is good for Chardonnay and bad for Pinot Noir. The 2019 vintage is a textbook example of the grape; strawberry and raspberry fruit balanced out by that uplifting acidity. Very more-ish.

As we taste, Dan – a hardwired gnarled 41-harvest veteran of Norwegian stock, takes us through his potted history. He has worked as a winemaker at Chalone, Estancia, Domaine Carneros, Talbott and Taittinger among others, retiring once before he got bored. Now he is a consultant, meaning no employees or HR stuff, just winemaking. The fun stuff. As our conversation rambles, a mixture of business and simply chewing the cud, he gives us his views on a wide range of topics and provides us with some fabulous one-lines, which I jot down in between laughing.

On how to be a winemaker: “Grow a good grape. Then don’t screw it up. Simple.”

On the difficulties of winemaking: “Vineyards are like a bell-shaped curve. You get under-ripe grapes, ripe grapes, and over-ripe grapes. And the main problem you have is: homogeneity. How do you ensure that every grape is at the same ripeness? How do you get that in a large vineyard? What I used to try to do to achieve consistency was to pick from the centre of the rows and leave both ends until the end.”

On the influence of oak: “There’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine. There are only under-wined wines.”

On malolactic fermentation: “I only do a partial malolactic fermentation. Malo steals the life-force from the wine.”

But he reserves his strongest views on cork: “Cork is good for Birkenstocks and dartboards. And that’s it.”

He tells us what he used to say to customers who bought wine from him. “I will guarantee that wine in screwcap for 30 years. I will guarantee that wine in cork for 30 feet.”

He finishes by telling us of a great story from a few years back. A bevvy of executives flew over from Portugal to take him to task for not using their cork closures. They gave him all of the statistics, how they had improved the quality of the cork, how things were much better, and he should really try them again. “Then I said to them? “When are you flying back home?” They told me: “Oh, tomorrow evening.” “Well here’s a thought, gentlemen. Would you get on an aircraft if it only had a 5% failure rate?”

Priceless!

The Language of Yes

We’re zipping up 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley Winery to taste the fruits of a very unusual relationship. Iconoclast extraordinaire Randall Grahm, whom you would think revels in chaos, has joined forces with E&J Gallo, a company for whom efficiency is written into its corporate DNA.

The odd couple.

From Cigars (Flying) to the Rhône Ranger, Grahm has a long history of reimagining the traditions of France in a distinctly personal way. And this is his latest gig. The collaboration has resulted in a range called The Language of Yes. Bear with me; it takes some explaining.

According to Grahm, “The Language of Yes” or La Langue d’Oc, is the term that the medieval people of southern France used to describe who they were by how they spoke. The Language of Yes,” a precursor of modern Provençal, is a window to a particular sensibility – the language of the love poetry of the troubadours. “Great wine can only come from vignerons who love their land deeply, and whose love poetry is the vinous expression of their passion.”

On the collaboration with Gallo, Grahm states: “I am particularly interested in vine and grape research, and Gallo’s research capability is unrivalled. Yes, I know, it’s a bit of a Bambi meets Godzilla scenario, but so far, so good, and there are some really astonishing wines arising therefrom and it has been a great experience.”

Doesn’t even begin to explain what we are about to taste.

We meet with the affable Matt Steel, who bears the title Gallo Director of Wine, Central Coast, but who in real life is a down-to-earth no-shit Aussie. He will take us through three wines.

“Working with Randall is such a privilege and a great challenge. He will come up with something we’ve never heard of and say: “This is what we’re going to do.” And we’d laugh and say: “What?” And he’d reply: “No, really, this is what we’re going to do.””

Matt puts the three wines in front of us.

And I taste one of the most remarkable wines I’ve ever come across – made from a grape I’ve never even heard of.

2020 Pink, “Le Cerisier”

Tibouren is an obscure southern French varietal, found sparsely in Provence, but also showing up in Liguria, where it is called Rossese, producing haunting, lighter-bodied reds reminiscent of Burgundy transposed to a slightly rustic octave. Tibouren, of which there is only one hectare in the whole of the United States,  is a grape perfectly suited to pink wine; fruity and juicy but also expressive of a slightly herbal note, sometimes evoking the garrigue or underbrush of the limestone soils of southern France.

This wine is a blend of 65% Tibouren and 35% Cinsault (which Grahm describes as a “tragically misunderstood variety, which might be the Rodney Dangerfield of grape varieties.”)

Raised on its lees for more than nine months, the wine underwent complete malolactic fermentation and was bottled without filtration.

The colour is very odd. It’s definitely not pink. It might just get under the radar as a rose, but you have to look mighty hard. To all intents it looks like a white wine. On the nose the first impressions are of style and restraint, with a hint of rose petal and then a feral perfume. The fragrance is drawing you in. It’s seductive. On the palate it appears first to have an evocative elegance, but as you hold it in the mouth a certain texture announces itself. What on earth is going on here? It seems almost like a contradiction. But what a contradiction!

Now we come to the two reds – and this is where it gets tricky. According to Grahm: “The effort is to eschew the intrusive effects of gaudy vinous maquillage, and instead use more gentle techniques to coax out complexity. One such technique is the practice of passerillage, or post-harvest drying of the grapes before crushing; we do this by placing the grapes on paper raisin trees in the shade of the vine itself. This practice allows for a slight dehydration and concentration of the grapes and as significantly, a maturation of the stems. When the stems are more or less lignified, they are an excellent source of tannin, supporting the overall structure of a wine; the inclusion of the whole clusters allows for a slow release of grape sugar into the fermenting must, which improves the kinetics of the fermentation, thus creating a much slower and controlled process, less stressful for the yeast and winemaker. “Clean” (non-stressed) fermentations are a particularly helpful complement to the process that we term “reductive élevage,” central to the style of the Language of Yes.

“This reductive élevage protects the “fruit” and freshness of a wine as it ages, as well as allows for the formation of earthy complexing notes. Minimization of oxygen ingress is generally accomplished through substantial lees retention (they’re oxygen scavengers), infrequent (or no) racking, more frequent barrel topping and the utilization of larger and less porous storage vessels.”

Those paragraphs were taken from Grahm’s written thoughts, which Matt now tries to interpret in layman’s terms as we taste.

2020 Grenache, “En Passerillage”

Here we have touches of bramble, but it’s a very subtle nose. Like a great poem or novel, it requires a bit of work. You need to search before it all makes sense. Peach and blueberries. A hint of cream teas. Then: spice, cloves perhaps. Superlative balance, supple tannins.

According to Grahm, “Grenache is said by some to resemble Pinot Noir, in so far as its need for gentle extraction and susceptibility to oxidation; the variety does not have the “density” of more structured varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, thus any edges or flaws (such as astringency or bitterness) tend to stand out in greater relief.”

No way can you put this down and leave it; you need to keep going back to it.

2020 Syrah, “En Passerillage”

A blend of 87% Syrah and 13% Viognier, this has lovely purple colour, black fruits to the Grenache’s red fruits. Balsamic vinegar. Liquorice and flowers, resembling, though not slavishly, the Rhone. Beautiful weight in the mouth. Again, it is so subtle it washes over you like a soft turquoise-coloured wave on a Caribbean beach. Soft and sensuous. And yet there is the power of the thoroughbred there, too.

By the end of just three wines, I am reeling. I can only hope we can secure some of this stock. When I was lucky enough to import Jean-Francois Coche-Dury’s Burgundies into the UK, I always used to get a sense of his wines being elevated or lifted. Like angels sitting on clouds and gazing serenely down at the mortals. I get this impression again. But – and here’s the thing – these wines are so sublime that they are beyond my words. Some wines are great. Some wines are outstanding. Some winds are beyond my comprehension.

What I do know is this: from this day onwards I will be counting down the days until I can taste these masterpieces again

Like something out of Dr. No

Balance is sometimes defined as a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportion. In art, “balance refers to the use of artistic elements such as line, texture, colour, and form in a way that renders visual stability” (Eli Anapur). In motor racing the balance of the car is measured to the milligram. Listen to Hamilton: “Something is wrong. The balance doesn’t feel right.”

I am musing on this as I sip another perfectly balanced Sanford Pinot Noir. A wine is said to have good balance when all the different components – alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness – are working in harmony. For me, if a wine tastes beautiful but I cannot really single out any particular element which makes it so, then I will write “perfectly balanced” in my tasting notes. And if I’m feeling a bit artsy then “equilibrium” will also appear.

But to get back to the gig – and those Sanford Pinots. Yup, in terms of wine, we are visiting Californian royalty. Before we reach the winery I ask Steve to pull over so I can photograph the sign: “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.” I stand and stare for a moment. This very spot is where the now world-famous Santa Rita Hills area was “invented” in 1971.

Looking for the best location to perfectly ripen grapes, botanist Michael Benedict, working with his friend Richard Sanford, toured the cool coastal regions of California, eventually deciding on a part of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.  The first vines were planted in 1971, and soon the Pinot Noir from this remote vineyard created a buzz. Others soon followed, and the original Sanford & Benedict Vineyard formed the backbone of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. It has been named one of the five most important and iconic vineyards in California by Wine Enthusiast.

In 1997, La Rinconada Vineyard was planted next door. It was to this vineyard that the affable and gregarious Trey Fletcher, chief winemaker at Sanford, took us when we first arrived. Home to 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones, La Rinconada is primarily Pinot Noir. Trey jumps out of the jeep and we bend down to look at the soil. The lower portion of La Rinconada is a sandy loam, which transitions to more clay loam mixed with diatomaceous earth and shale on the hills closer to Sanford & Benedict.

We climb towards that vineyard, climbing, climbing. Again, we jump out of the jeep. “Notice the difference,” says Trey. Here, there is more calcium rich clay soils with shale and chert- a result of the sloughing off of the top half of the mountain ten thousand years ago. “Also, look at the vines – they were planted on their own root stock. Phylloxera really has never been an issue here.”

Also in the jeep with us is Chuck Cramer, the guy who represents Sanford in the UK. Looking more and more like a character from an Elmore Leonard movie, Chuck is very Californian. Extremely so. Very much. Never stops. Chuck is such a common American name. Think: Chuck Berry, Chuck Norris, Chuck Connors. But as a northern England lad, Chuck for me will always mean Coronation Street. “Oh, ‘eck, Chuck…” (As a Shakespeare enthusiast I’ve never been able to get my head around Othello’s request to Desdemona: “Pray chuck, come hither.” Where did that come from?)

We climb to the top of the hill, to the original winery barn which looks drop dead gorgeous. It gives amazing views over both vineyards down towards the winery. And everywhere is the breeze. It is the east-west orientation of the Santa Ynez Valley which provides a pathway to the Pacific Ocean and its maritime cooling influence, allowing cool air to be drawn inland. Later we will see the fog which is common in these parts.

Back at the winery we are joined by associate winemaker Laura Roach. Here, Trey shows us something neither Steve nor I have seen in any other winery – a series of “elevators” containing four tanks which are installed on hydraulic lifts within the winery tower. Trey explains that this unique gravity flow system allows him to gently move the wine from tank to barrel or bottle without pumping and agitating the wine. We step into one of the tanks and the lift takes us up to the roof. It is like something out of Dr No.

Back down in the cellar, the tasting is a sublime experience. The 2020 Pinot – just about to land in our warehouse – is a beautiful expression of red and black cherries, so soft and supple.

The 2017 S&B Pinot is a step up in intensity, just a touch more body, just a touch more firmness, just a touch more tannin. But always just a touch.

A 2019 S&B Block 6 has a feel of strawberry liquorice about it, and ever such a hint of salt. Or am I imagining it?

A 2019 Dominio Del Falcon (what a name!) feels as though it has a touch more alcohol. But only a touch. Balanced by just a hint more acidity. It is in perfect balance. There’s that word again.

Pinot Noir is so damned difficult to get right. Over the years it has probably caused me more disappointment and frustration than any other grape. Sometimes it can be thin, but more often the major issue is that the wines can often appear over ripe, even gloopy. But here every one of them is textbook – beautiful examples of what that grape can achieve.

On to the Chardonnays. The 2018 has a lovely ice cream sundae feel to it, lovely balance of fruit and acidity.

A 2019 Long Rows Block Chardonnay has a Meursault-type character to it, a touch of creaminess.

A 2019 Founders Vines Chardonnay has “more satin and less merino wool,” according to Trey. Not gonna argue with that.

Note: “gonna” rather than “going to.” Rubs off on you, this place.

L.A. is a great big freeway

“So. California. Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.”

Back on the road again after two years of COVID lockdown – how exciting is this! – and one of our first trips is a belter. Our California list has not been updated for some time, and Steve and I are here to put that right. Like a couple of schoolkids.

First port of call after negotiating LA’s freeways is with Andrew Murray at his Foxen Canyon Road winery near Los Olivos.

If you were looking at someone who represents the very opposite of the admittedly clichéd and out-of-date notion that California is all about blockbuster Cabernets and heavy Chardonnays, then this is your guy. Andrew fell in love with Rhône varieties like Syrah and Viognier in the late 1980’s while traveling through France. Leaving his UC Berkeley palaeontology studies behind, he pursued his new mistress, Syrah, with an internship in Australia. Returning to the States, he founded his eponymous Santa Ynez winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara County, which reminded him of the Rhône Valley.

His film-set style winery looks almost too gorgeous to be true. He explains it used to be an art gallery and points to the space where an Andy Warhol exhibit was once hung. In the very same space he now produces his own masterpieces.

We taste a Riesling from a series of wines on tap which has proved tremendously popular with the public. God, this is scintillating – my first California wine on this trip and I definitely hadn’t expected this!

But he surprises me with one of his first comments. “Actually, while I really love the reds of the Rhone Valley, I’m often not that keen on their whites.” He finds some of the whites from the Rhone – especially involving Roussanne – a little heavy, and now gravitates towards Chablis and Meursault because “they are so bright.”

And it is that expression which comes back to me time and again as we taste his whites – “so bright.”

“What I do is to try to take white Rhone varietals and put my own stamp on them,” he explains. “I’m a neophyte in that respect.” An Enchanté blend of Roussanne and Grenache from 2020 defines his point. It has the haunting and ethereal character you often get in that type of blend – but it also has a wonderful strip of minerality and zing.

He bring out some of his E11even series of wines, including a 2020 Sauvignon Blanc which is sub-branded Unplugged. I am surprised that he got away with this branding and mention the Unplugged series of albums. “That’s what inspired me to take up guitar playing,” I volunteer. “I can do a version of Layla.” But thankfully Andrew – and Steve – look singularly unimpressed. On the other hand, Steve is impressed with the wine: “It’s not often I say I really like California Sauvignon Banc – but I really like this wine.”

“I’m not looking for typicity; I’m looking for atypicity.” I wonder for a second if Andrew has invented a new word.

He describes one of the flavours in his Esperance Rose 2021 as watermelon rind, which morphs into a nod towards Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, at which we all nod knowingly, like guys do.

Now we move onto the reds.

An Espérance 2019 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) has an incredible dandelion and burdock nose and on the palate is an inky mouthful of blackcurrants and blackberries.

An E11even Cabernet Franc 2019 is described by Andrew as “not so much bell pepper as roasted pepper.” Wow! Hints of rhubarb and nettles and sherbert. A cracking wine.

A Tours Les Jours 2018 – coming soon to us! – is ridiculously drinkable. No, absurdly drinkable. No, no, hold on –  insanely drinkable.

A Roasted Slope Syrah 2019 is young and sturdy, full of cereal aromas. “Class,” says Steve.

An Etranger 2019 (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah) is highly perfumed, masses of yellow plums, strident, edgy. Andrew explains the name. “I am a fan of Albert Camus and was a moody existentialist when I was young.”

Thankfully, he appears to have grown out of it, I think, as we finish the tasting.

What a tasting. Too many wines to describe fully here. What a start to our trip.

But then tiredness takes over. It’s great to be back on the road again – but, crikey, we are so out of practice!

 

WOTM: Ippolito 1845 ‘Mare Chiaro’, Cirò, Calabria 2021

Our May Wine of the Month is a new addition to our portfolio, located in the southern tip of Italy – Ippolito 1845 ‘Mare Chiaro’, Cirò, Calabria 2021. The Greco Bianco grapes for this wine come from the ‘Feudo’ and the ‘Difesa Piana’ vineyards, two renowned viticultural areas in the Cirò Marinatwo renowned viticultural areas in the Cirò Marina region.

In a nutshell

This crisp and refreshing Greco delivers intense aromas of tropical fruit, pear, peach and floral notes through to a vibrant palate with a delicious saline note on the finish.

The producer

With over 170 years of history, Ippolito is the oldest winery in Calabria. Located in the historic centre of Cirò Marina, the heart of Calabrian viticulture, the farm comprises a 100-hectare agricultural estate near the Ionian Sea. Winemakers for five generations, the Ippolito family values its heritage and follows a sustainable philosophy to protect the terroir, enhance the native vines and preserve the ecosystem. Balancing a traditional approach with investment in research in the vineyard and the cellar, they strive to create wines of elegance, exclusivity and identity. The Ippolito family are passionate about preserving the extraordinary heritage of the region, they only cultivate native vines such as Gaglioppo and Greco Bianco, and for the past 15 years have been engaged in a research project on native vines.

The wine

The wine is a blend of grapes harvested in two steps; the first enhanced the freshness and aromatics, while the second tranche of harvested grapes imparted structure. The grapes were hand-picked and carefully sorted, crushed, destemmed and cooled to 14°C before being gently pressed. The must was cool settled at 8°C, prior to fermentation with selected yeasts which lasted for three weeks in stainless steel tanks. Post fermentation the two wines were skilfully blended before being aged for four months in stainless steel tanks.