Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Spiral Wine Cellars - The Journey Begins

My wife Jamie shouted down to me in my home office on a lazy Sunday morning “Skip, did you see the Sunday Seattle Times magazine section on the wine cellars?”

“Nope. Sure didn’t. Why? Should I have?” I answered.

“Take a look. I think it is the answer to what you’ve been looking for,” she replied.
I wandered upstairs and read the article about a Seattle couple who had installed a Spiral Cellar in their home. With each paragraph I got more excited. Finally, an answer to what we needed to keep from ruining my good wines in a house that has very rapid temperature shifts. We already had a great place for entertaining with a great view of the Puget Sound. We just needed a good place to store wines that could be installed in our house for a reasonable price and not a lot of construction disruption. At first blush, the design seemed to fit our needs.

So I jumped on the Internet to look at the information on the website. I found out that it was a UK company that had just set up a U.S. distributor who happened to be in Redmond, WA. The website was actually very informative including videos of the one week installation process. They also had a 30 page brochure which showed a number of installations along with one of the key features which is a completely passive cooling system for keeping the temperature relatively constant year round. The pricing looked good.

OK. I want one. So I immediately sent off an email to the US contact early Sunday morning. Within a couple of hours I had a response from the owner, Scott. We started an email dialogue about being able to visit an actual installation. Jamie pointed out that it wasn’t very clear from the photos how large the actual wine cellar was and could my increasingly overweight body actually get down to the bottom of the cellar and place bottles on the last row. Scott arranged a visit to an installation in West Seattle for the next week.

One of the things I love about the wine culture is the willingness of those who are passionate about wine to share their passions and what they are currently excited about. Rob was a most gracious host as we entered the house to look at his spiral cellar. They placed their Spiral Cellar right in the entry way which is where we were thinking of putting ours. We couldn’t believe what a great piece of carpentry work the installers had done retaining their hardwood floor and placing the pieces back in the door so that everything matched.

We lifted the door up and I couldn’t believe how spacious the cellar was. We slowly and carefully descended to the bottom of the cellar and there was plenty of room for both Jamie and I to stand comfortably at the bottom of the cellar. All of the “bins” were easily reachable. I couldn’t believe how cool the cellar was from such a simple passive air movement system. We were sold.

Scott and Rob were then kind enough to show us the whole installation below the floor level to see how they were able to put the cellar into even a six foot crawl space. About that time Rob’s wife came home and he was kind enough to invite us to share a bottle of 2004 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red Wine. Twist my arm.

As we left, we let Scott know that we were ready to buy. The next step was for a site visit to see how viable an installation site we had. That was arranged for the following week. Scott was still in start up mode so not only was he looking for customers, but for customers that would be willing to be showcase sites for Spiral Cellars. He also shared that his installer was going through the next level of training in the UK so it would be a while before we could get a set of plans and installation schedules set up.

Scott and Joel came by on a Saturday to take a look. I showed them where I wanted to place the cellar which was in our entry hallway. My ideal placement was to have the cellar with a see through glass door that would have the wine underfoot and my 13 feet high wall of books with a library ladder to the side. When guests would come to the house both of our passions would be on display in the entry way – books and wine – to set the tone for our entertaining. I also wanted the wine cellar in the hallway so that as we needed more wine I could go to the cellar in full view of our guests and pick the next wine.
The site visit indicated that there was enough room to place the cellar in the entry way and that there was an easy way to run the PVC pipes to the west wall for passive ventilation. Everything looked good and Scott shared that it would be a couple of weeks before we could write up a contract. He wanted to have his installer go through the two weeks of training in the UK so that we could do all of the estimates and planning accordingly. OK, but could you just hurry it up. I’m ready. “I want it ALL!” (to quote the Queen song).

After Scott left, Jamie and I reflected on the visit. It hit me like a ton of concrete blocks (or three tons as the case may be). It’s going to take months to get this installed. The special concrete blocks for the cellar are only manufactured in the UK which means not only do we have to go through a custom order but we have to wait for the blocks to be shipped from the UK to Seattle, WA. Arrghh! So we had just entered the old material realm of the global economy in “World Wide Wait” mode.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Wine Blending and Designing - A Contrast in Seminar Styles

"Hi. I'm Anna Matzinger, the winemaker for Archery Summit Winery. Today we're holding one of our annual wine blending seminars but I'm going to make it tough for you today. Instead of having wine from three different vineyards to blend, I've gathered wine from three different blocks of the Arcus Vineyard. Hopefully, you'll be able to tell the difference between each sample of wine. We wanted to introduce you to the subtleties of blending this year."

Seated in the caves which cellar the Archery Summit 35 gallon French Oak barrels for their luscious Pinot Noirs, 36 of us were eagerly awaiting guidance on how to blend wine. On either side of me were my 23 year old daughter, Maggie, and my 21 year old son, John. We'd chatted before hand with wine club members from Corvalis, OR, Vancouver, WA, and Portland, OR. We'd played the small world game and found some acquaintances in common. But we were ready to go now. In front of us were the basics for wine blending. We each had three 750 ml carafes of the three different wines from the Arcus Estate 40 acre bowl shaped vineyard. A 100ml graduated mixing column with funnel stood sharply next to the empty bottle we would fill with our blend of wine. A one page wine maker’s note was placed in front of us along with blank labels for our wine bottle.

All of my senses were in play as we got ready to blend. The smells from the aging wine continued to drift past, the faint lighting of the mined cellars provided a cool environment. Ground water dripped slowly on the one piece of exposed volcanic rock that surrounded us in the cave. Our taste buds were eager to encounter the fresh from the barrel wines having already been stimulated by a taste of the 2002 Red Hills estate wine. How sensory rich this experience was compared to the energy sapping seminar and workshop I'd just gotten back from.

Fleetingly, I reflected on the difference a hands on seminar was from an abstract, academic workshop that was talking about engineering, design and design education. I was at the fifth annual Harvey Mudd Design and Education seminar the three days prior to the wine blending seminar. I'd gotten up at 3:00am on Thursday morning to fly from Seattle to Claremont, CA. I stumbled into the Olin Science building and walked down steep steps into the auditorium. For three long days we sat in the elevated auditorium looking down on the speaker of the moment. Once the seminar got going and I had a chance to figure out the patterns of the presentations and questions, it felt like the audience was both the Romans and the Lions as one speaker after another was fed onto the coliseum floor to have their research and ideas chewed up. There was no easy way to carry on a conversation, even with one's neighbor. There would be no break out sessions. There was no place to even put flip chart paper onto the walls and start the flow of connecting ideas and thoughts and brainstorms to create new designs. For a conference about design and design education, there was no design going on. Just a bunch of very bright people broadcasting at each other. Even the meal times were structured with yet more talks. The saddest energy sapper was the last speaker getting up to make a presentation to us telling us what we'd learned in the three days.

As my mind quickly came back to the wine blending, I realized that here was a great way to run a design seminar. Anna started describing how she goes about tasting a given block of wine before thinking about how to blend them. "What I want you to do is taste each of the three wines. While it's not socially couth, here's the method that a winemaker uses to taste. First pour just a little bit of wine in the specially designed Riedel Pinot Noir Vinum Extreme glass. Swirl it around to really let loose the aromatics. Then pour the wine into your mouth and swish it all around your palette. Suck in some air with a low gurgling sound to let the wine get even more air across it as it passes over your palette."

"Now notice how each of the three wines affects different parts of your palette. The Arcus 667 affects the front part of your palette and you might taste blue fruit like blue berries. The Arcus 777 affects the back and sides of your palette. The WARC is woody so you will taste more tannins with it."

We tried each of the wines and realized that indeed each of them were quite distinct. And then as I stared at the chemistry class equipment in front of me, I realized that I was about to enter a "design of experiment" without any strategy. Do I systematically start mixing? How do I vary the percentages? Do I get the three of us to take very different strategies? Or do I let nature take its course and see what strategy each of us takes? How much time do we have? This could take hours trying to find a winning strategy to blend each of them. Oh my. This task is enormously complicated and we only have three wines to blend. I asked Anna how many components she used for the blending the 2004 Arcus Estate. She laughed and replied that this year she used 15 different components. And I thought three was a tough job. I got yet another glimpse of the complexity and the number of variables that a winemaker has to balance to get a great tasting wine.

Knowing that even with a couple of hours to do the blending, we would only scratch the surface of how many wines we could test, I dove into it. Anna suggested that a good blend would affect all parts of palette. "You noticed how each of the wines affected a different part of the palette. However, you are going to be surprised that just by blending an equal amount, it won't necessarily taste the same on all parts of the palette. The blend changes what is tasted." She then went on to describe her own method "As I'm tasting I'm always thinking in terms of shapes. Tasting is also a visual experience for me. Thinking of the palette in three dimensions, how is the blend creating a shape in my mind? I will usually sketch the shape of the blend so that I can remember the smell and taste that I want to achieve. The sketches also help me compare blends across different years."

It's been years since I was in a chemistry lab so trying to pour the wines into the measuring column was an unnatural and messy act. My first attempt was simply to mix 1/3 of each of the three wines. Nice try. Didn't smell very good and didn't taste very good. So then I took a strategy of using mostly the one of the three varieties that I liked the most (667) for 60% and then 20% of the other two. I really liked the nose and aroma of that blend, but it didn't taste very good. On it went until finally it was time to pick one of the blends and bottle it (time to ship, Skip). I landed on a 75% 667 and 12.5% of the other two components. Meanwhile, Maggie decided that she really didn't like the taste of the 777, so she blended just two of the components. John really liked what he ended up with and Maggie and I agreed that it was the best blend from the three of us. One of the couples at our table asked to try John's wine and he agreed that it was much better than what he had blended. Maybe we have a budding expert in our family.

So off we went to a family style three course dinner while Anna tasted our wines to see what the winemaker thought of our blends. It was a delight to have three of the Archery Summit wines with our three course dinner. As we finished up, Anna "awarded" the best in the class of the blends. There was a last place award for the worst of the bunch which was a pair of Archery Summit labeled boots. She smiled sweetly and said that this blend should be poured out and started over. We all got a great laugh out of that. Then the runners up and winner were announced. All of us really wanted to know what the winning blend was. The "designer" quickly shared that he blended 53% of the 777, 28% of the 667, and 19% of the WARC. I rolled my eyes as I couldn't even begin to make out the markings on my measuring equipment to get that precise.

We gathered up our private labeled wine bottles and had one last design to accomplish. They had fresh flowers of all varieties so Maggie was kind enough to design a bouquet to take back to Mom.

In the course of the blending, the side bar discussions with Anna were very informative along with her vineyard manager, Leigh Bartholomew. In talking about their strategy for picking the grapes and deciding which blocks of the vineyard will go together in the different fermentation tanks, they further revealed how many more variables went into designing each vineyard designate wine. I was so impressed with Anna's using a visual vocabulary to describe the blends I asked if I could come down and interview her for our book. She eagerly agreed and also agreed to show me several years of the sketches in her notebook.

On the way home I continued to marvel at the energy creating format of the wine blending and the energy sapping format of the Harvey Mudd workshop. There is a message here. At its heart, designing is about designing. Teaching design is about designing. You can't separate the abstract from the doing. While the wine seminar was only a couple of hours, I learned a ton and I walked away with a product of my learning. John Heskett's "Design is to design a design to produce a design" which we'd used as the structure of our paper at the Mudd conference was echoing in my mind. During the course of the blending seminar we got to experience each of the meanings of design. Each of us is our own winemaker. Each of us is our own designer. And best of all we produced a great tasting Pinot Noir "design" to take away with us.

Enjoying a Riedel Glass Tasting

The email arrived one dreary, rainy March day – come to a Riedel tasting at Archery Summit Winery. What’s a Riedel tasting? Don’t they make wine glasses? Are we supposed to eat the wine glass and then slug down some wine afterwards? Intrigued and looking for anything that would brighten my day I kept reading. Maximilian Riedel, designer of the Riedel “O” series crystal wine glasses, was giving a seminar on the differences that a wine glass makes to the taste of wine. This I’ve got to see. See? No, this I’ve got to taste. Of courese, everybody knows that the glass doesn’t make any difference to the taste of a wine.

Deciding it was time to discover something new, I RSVP’d and also signed up my 27 year old cognitive psychologist daughter. I figured that I might succumb to mass hypnosis about the difference that a leaded crystal glass makes versus a regular wine glass, but I knew that Elizabeth was too much of a scientist to let that happen to her. Her young palette is so different from mine that I figured that would also be a good test.

After a pleasant reception in the Archery Summit barrel aging caves sipping on their 2002 Red Hills Estate Pinot Noir, one hundred of us “Bad to the Beaune” Wine Club members moved into the fermentation room where long rows of tables were laid out. Each place setting had five wine glasses plus water glasses. Maximilian Riedel started the seminar with a history of the 11 generations of Riedel glass makers and how he got interested in designing wine glasses. As he switched from history to glass tasting, he reminded us that 70% of the taste of a wine actually comes from our sense of smell, the aroma, the nose of the wine, the bouquet (recent research suggests that 90% of our taste is actually smell). He then went into the basics of a good wine glass – it must be lead crystal; it must be completely clear; it must have the appropriate volume to allow the bouquet to collect but not overwhelm; and it must allow for “three fingers” of wine with plenty of room for the bouquet.

“OK. OK. Come on get on with it,” I thought. I’ve got these four great wines in front of me, let’s get on with the tasting. As if he heard my thoughts, Riedel said “Let’s cut from the theory and get to the experience." Our wines were laid out on a placemat with an empty “Joker” glass on the left at the start of a semi-circle. To the right of the Joker class were the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon glasses. Each wine came in its own differently shaped Riedel Vinum Extreme wine glass.

“We’re going to start with the Sauvignon Blanc in front of you,” Riedel directed. “Go ahead and pick up the glass and give it a good swirl. We want to really aerate the wine and get a good smell going. Now, stick your nose into the glass and drink deeply of the bouquet. Try that again two or three times. OK, go ahead and taste the wine. Wonderful, right?”

“On your left you have what we call a Joker glass. It is a glass that you will find in 95% of the restaurants that you go to and is probably the kind of glass you drink from at home. It is used for both red and white wines. Now I want you to pour your Sauvignon Blanc into the Joker glass and go through the same routine. Swirl, smell and then taste.”

Elizabeth and I nearly banged into each other as we turned to simultaneously exclaim –“There’s no taste to this wine! What happened to that wonderful tasting wine we just had? It’s a trick.” We quickly poured the wine back into the Riedel glass and Voila!, there was our great tasting wine again. I couldn’t believe it. So back and forth I poured the wine between the Riedel glass and the Joker glass. Riedel glass – tasty. Joker glass – barely tasteable, and a not very good wine. What was going on here?

Riedel asked rhetorically “So what’s going on here? Let’s run another experiment. Notice that the Joker glass has a rolled lip and the Riedel glasses have a cut, almost sharp edge. Try pouring some liquid from each glass. Note that with the Joker glass in order to pour the liquid you have to jerk the glass to get the liquid over the edge. With the Riedel glass the liquid pours smoothly to exactly where you want it to go. What this means is that with the Joker glass you are always “tossing” the wine into the back of your palette, to the back of your mouth. In front of you is a piece of paper that shows which part of the tongue and palette are sensitive to which tastes. We taste sweet things on one part of the tongue, bitter things on another etc. Riedel glasses are designed through the smooth edge and the shape of the opening to pour the wine onto the appropriate part of the palette that is best affected by the wine varietal (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon) that you are tasting.

“So let’s try the next experiment. Taste the Chardonnay in its Riedel glass – remember to swirl, smell, swirl, smell, swirl and taste. Then pour the Chardonnay into the Joker glass. Big difference, right? Now pour the Chardonnay into the Sauvignon Blanc Riedel glass. It certainly tastes better than the Joker glass, but not as good as the Riedel Chardonnay glass, right?” One hundred heads bob in unison. We were all clearly noticing the difference along with savoring the wonderful Chardonnay.

“So it is not just the quality of the crystal glass versus normal glass, it is also the shape,” Maximilian explained (having this much wine and fun we were now on a first name basis). “The shape matters. One of the things that differs between varietals is the alcohol content. So the more alcohol in the wine, the more we have to dissipate the alcohol smell. Many of your probably got some tears in your eyes when taking a good whiff of the Chardonnay in the Sauvignon Blanc glass. That’s the alcohol overpowering the unique fragrances of the Chardonnay. Notice that the Riedel Chardonnay glass opening is much larger than the Sauvignon Blanc and there is a much larger bowl. The larger opening allows the alcohol smell to escape and the larger bowl collects the subtler fragrances. Now reverse, put the Sauvignon Blanc in the Chardonnay glass. Notice that the Sauvignon Blanc aromas are dissipated. It doesn’t taste the same as in its own glass.”

Elizabeth was so excited, “this glass tasting is what I would dearly love to use in the psychology Perception class that I teach at the University of Oregon. It’s so hard to get across so clearly the differences in the world that affect our senses and perceptions.” Then she muttered, “Damn. I can’t do this with the undergraduate students because they are underage or might have religious restrictions. Not to mention how could I afford to get 150 sets of glasses and the appropriate wines.” We both laughed.

We continued with our education as we tried each of the four wines in each of the five glasses. Each variety of wine tasted far better in the glass designed specifically for it. As I was drinking the Archery Summit 2002 Arcus Estate Pinot Noir in the Riedel glass, I had one of those wonderful “Ah hah” moments. It seems every time I taste a fine wine in a tasting room and love the taste, I get home and it never tastes as good. It’s the glass. Oh, my bank account is in trouble now. The greatest gift of the evening was taking the Riedel Vinum Extreme glasses home. In the intervening months, I’ve run the “glass tasting” experience with over three hundred friends with ages ranging from 21 to 60 and interest in wine from the "I don’t care" to the serious wine lover. In every case, the glass tasters have noticed the big difference that an appropriately designed glass can make.

When we have friends over to the house to do a wine and glass tasting we usually try the wines in three types of Riedel Glasses - Vinum Extreme, the Sommeier Series, and the O series. These three series represent a range of prices and illustrate large differences in smell and tastes with the wines. My favorite is the Sommelier series. The photo on the left shows our dining room table set for a tasting with eight people with four of our favorite northwest wines.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Grounding Myself at Benzinger

Every once and a while I have to take an afternoon and ground myself in biodynamic wine making at the Benziger Family Ranch Winery outside of Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley California. Two weeks ago, Barney Barnett, Geoff Bock and I travelled from San Jose, CA up to the ranch to have Barney introduce Geoff to biodynamic wine grape growing and taste the Tribute series of biodynamic wines.

Benziger's Mike Benziger and Alan York were the cover subjects of a great series of articles on biodynamic wines in the Wine Spectator Magazine.

In the above picture, Barney is explaining to Geoff the finer points of how the vines are pruned to get quality rather than quantity for better tasting wine. The Benzigers have a great tour of the vineyards to show all of the aspects of biodynamics and farming for flavors.

The new addition on this visit was a gaggle of sheep to aid with natural care taking of the vineyard. As Mike Benziger explained to us later in the day: "One of the worst things that can happen in the vineyard is to compact the soil around the vines. That is exactly what happens if you have to use a tractor to mow the grass. With these sheep and the Scottish cows that we also have in the vineyard three great things happen. The animals keep the grass "mowed". The animals with their running around and their movement in the vineyard are automatically "tilling" the soil. And finally they all "poop" on a regular basis which provides needed fertilizer to the vines. What a wonderfully natural system."

Over the course of the next couple of hours we moved from the top of the vineyard, down to the crush pad and the barrel cellars cut back into the hillside, and then followed the flow of water to the holding ponds. The holding ponds are designed to recycle all of the water that hits the Benziger ranch back on to the vines. For that water that does leave the ranch it is cleaner than when it fell from the sky as rain.

As we walked back up to the tasting room, the Scottish cows came strolling by. From a biodynamic viewpoint, these cows have the cleanest and most fertile "poop" of any cow due to the length of their intestines.

By the time we hit the tasting room we were ready to sample the results of this commitment to the highest state of biodynamic certification. Unfortunately, all of the Tribute Bordeau blend had been sold. So we had to settle for the rest of what was being poured. We were fortunate to taste some of Joacquin's Inferno which is some Zinfandel planted at the very top of the vineyard. While only 70 cases were produced, I was able to snag six bottles. The real treat for me this day was the Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon. Rarely have I tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon that was not a blend with other varietals. This part of the vineyard is on the lower part of the bowl and closest to the Jack London State Park. These vines have a high concentration of obsidian in the soils. I couldn't resist giving myself a New Year's treat of six bottles.

If you are ever in the Sonoma Valley, I would heartily recommend spending an afternoon really understanding biodynamic wine making the Benziger way. This way of creating wines shows off what the French call terroir. The Benzigers are committed to producing wines that reflect the best of the terroir rather than trying to imitate what the popular wine reviewers rate homogeneous wines that could be grown anywhere.