Thursday, June 7, 2012

Have you ever lost something?  A pair of sunglasses, a favorite coat.....the password for your blog?  Alas, the latter has been found!!

After nearly a two year hiatus, I am back.

More posts to come. Chronicles of the Traveling Winemaker will return.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Belize, Central America

At the moment, I'm in Belize taking a swipe at making fortified wine. Producing a port style elixir in the jungles of Central America may not sound like a typical endeavor for a winemaker, but Belize is not your typical sort of place and my time here is always marked by the beautiful and the unusual. I've been here a month so far, and though my time is coming to a close soon the "port" (and I use the term loosely) is actually drinking fairly well. What's left will probably be buried. Yes, buried. More on that later....

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mongolian Elixir

It seems that no matter where in the world one travels, it is possible to stumble across some sort of fermented beverage. Whether the beverage is that of grape, apple, honey or another fermentable product – and there are many – depends on just where in the world you may find yourself.

Earlier this year, after my winemaking duties were wrapped up in New Zealand, and before they began again in Oregon, I happened to find myself in Mongolia, that large central Asian country locked between Russia and China where visions of yurts, yaks and Genghis Khan often come to most minds. I was not there to investigate the potential for wine production, wine importation or anything related to wine, but rather to visit an old friend who had joined the Peace Corps and had been fortunate to find themselves posted to a country who’s charm grows on you the moment you arrive.

When I first began planning my trip to Mongolia a fellow winemaker asked me if I had ever tried fermented dairy products? No, was my obvious answer. Dairy is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind as a fermented beverage. However, in an area of the world where the number of livestock outnumbers that of people by 15 to 1 it may have been inevitable that the art of fermenting dairy was bound to be discovered.

There are few facts on just exactly how long the people of central Asia have been drinking fermented mare’s milk ( known as “kumis”), but it is agreed by most of those who study that sort of thing, that is has been a while.

Genghis Kahn, who unified the Mongolian people in 1206 and within two generations createdthe largest empire the world has ever seen, was known to have quaffed kumis with quite some regularity. Its consumptions today is just as regular, though one will not find it in a store. No, this is a cultural product made by individual hands in the exact same way it has been for, quite possibly, millennia.

Fermentation, at its most basic level, is not a complicated process. There are, however, some requirements, chief among them being sugar, yeast and a little warmth. The yeast feed off the sugars, multiply and produce two primary byproducts: CO2 and alcohol, the latter of which stays in solution while the former is released as gas and never makes it to the bottle, except for in the case of Champagne…and kumis of course.

As it was explained to me one evening over vodka (Mongolians other favorite drink) kumis is both easy and quick to make. The milking season for mares is in between mid-June and October. Once the milk has been obtained, it is poured into a horsehide container (other containers are used, but horsehide is traditional). Occasionally, additional sugar is added but often there are enough natural sugars in the milk to produce the 1% – 2% alcohol that will be in the finished product. Natural yeasts inoculate the milk inside the horsehide bag, which is usually hung just outside the entrance to a yurt, or just inside during cooler times of the year. Initial fermentation takes place with 2 hours once the milk has reached about 80F (27C). Traditionally, when entering or leaving a yurt with a kumis bag it is customary to stir the brew a few times, which stimulates the ferment and keeps the yeast happy. After a couple of days, the process is finished and presto, you’re done! Break out the Riedel.

Having been in the fermentation business for some time it is not hard to understand my curiosity for an alcoholic beverage that can take only days, and in some cases just hours, to make. If nothing else, winemaking does allow for the lesson of patience. Kumis, on the other hand, is all about the “now”. Milk your mare, throw it in a bag, wait a day and then have a bowl…or two. And if you are lactose intolerant, worry not. The fermentation process converts the lactose in mare’s milk (which is 40% higher than in milk of sheep or cows) to lactic acid, a necessity in a country where over 80% of the people are lactose intolerant.

So there I was in Mongolia. My friend and I were a few days into a two-week road trip that would eventually take us nearly 1000 miles around the country, camping most of the way. We had just finished up a long day of driving and had pulled well off the “road” to pitch camp (FYI: If you ever travel to Mongolia, remember that most roads there require patience and a 4x4).

We were currently two days drive from the nearest city, among what looked to be an endless expanse of sparsely vegetative rolling hills. This was the steppe. As the sun was beginning to set we noticed two boys on horses herding a group of horses in our direction. As they rode past out campsite, one of them peeled off and rode over. My friend spoke to him in Mongolian. The boy explained that they were retrieving some horses that had run off the day before. Their camp as still over an hour away and they had run out of water. They wanted to know if we had any to spare. In Mongolia, where nearly half the population still lives a nomadic lifestyle, it is customary to provide water, a meal or even place to sleep to someone who is traveling and in need. We gave the boys water to drink and some to take with them. They thanked us several times, then road off, literally into the setting sun.

The next morning we found a plastic two-liter bottle of white liquid on the hood of our jeep. Neither one of us had heard them, but one or both of the boys had returned to our camp later that night to give us a bottle of kumis. “Probably to thank us for the water,” my friend explained.

Curious, I opened the bottle up and poured a little into a small bowl. The white liquid popped slightly as CO2 still bubbled out. Obviously, this was a fresh brew. I tasted it. Hmm? Light in body, tangy in the mid-palate with notes of sour yogurt and a so-quick-you-did-not-see-it-coming finish, my first experience with fermented mare’s milk left me thinking…that wasn’t so bad. Champagne it was not, but then again, we were a long way from France. Despite the culture shock my palate was going through, I continued to drink the kumis, becoming more intrigued with these new flavors and even textures I was experiencing. Actually beginning to enjoy it, I quaffed the whole bowl and nearly asked for another. Nearly. One bowlwas plenty, for now.

For the rest of our trip we had a little kumis every morning, and sometimes even “enjoyed” a little in the afternoon. By the end of our road trip I was actually developing a taste for it. That said, I don’t think I will be milking any horses here in Oregon any time soon.

So, if you find yourself traveling in some far away land and someone offers you a drink of some fermented beverage, try it. Why not? You never know what you might discover.

By the way, did I mention the Mongolia vodka made from yogurt? No? Well, maybe another time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's 06:00 in the morning and the only sound I can hear is the coffee maker. Ahead is a day of checking on ferments and freshly destemmed grapes, tasting some tanks that may need pressing soon and figuring out a barrel program. It's harvest time again.

It's been a while since I posted and in that time I've made my way back to Oregon for another vintage among the vineyards I know best.
Often the path home does not follow a straight line, and this time that path took me to Mongolia. Mongolia does not sound like the kind of place where a winemaker would travel to explore wine. And, in fact, it is not. However, Mongolians love their fermented mare's milk, distilled yogurt vodka and a variety of other liquid treasures that would be difficult to find on the Spectators top 100.

Stay tuned....

Friday, March 20, 2009

The First Fruit

Yesterday afternoon our first Pinot Noir grapes arrived.  Here in Marlborough it is usually Sauvignon Blanc, the variety for which New Zealand is perhaps best known, that is the first to come off the vine.  But these Pinot Noir grapes, from the Omaka Valley (one of the sub regions of Marlborough), were ready.  And so were we.  It was not a lot of fruit really, only 4 bins or around 1.2 tons.  Put into perspective of the 1,200 tons of Pinot Noir we expect to crush this harvest, yesterday’s effort represents .1% of the Pinot we will see this season.  Put into perspective of the 26,000 to 28,000 tons of grapes the winery will process in total this harvest, that effort looks like…well, maybe just an excuse to get the equipment dirty.  Nonetheless, there was not a face among us that wasn’t smiling when we were finished.

Marlborough is an interesting wine region to work in.   One aspect that makes Marlborough unique is the number and variety of foreign winemakers, assistants, lab techs, cellar workers and general wine enthusiast who flock here every year to take part in the harvest, or “vintage” as it is called here.  Most stay just for vintage then travel on, but a few fall in love with the region and end up staying, becoming a permanent part of an evolving and growing wine region.  As a result, the cultural quilt of Marlborough is also changing nearly as fast as the vines are growing. 

When I arrived in Marlborough in 2007, my first vintage in New Zealand, I was one of 40 foreigners brought in to work vintage for the regions largest custom crush facility, Indevin Ltd.  This year the foreign vintage staff at Indevin has topped 100 with people from countries such as (are you ready for this list?) Ireland, England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, South Africa, India, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and, of course, the United States.  The diversity of a group such as this creates a fantastic and colorfully cultural environment in which to work vintage.  Countless years of experience from around the world, all in one place…it’s enough to make one want to open a bottle of wine and celebrate every day.  And we often do.

Yesterday, as the grapes began arriving word spread that the first fruit of the year was coming in.  Now, 1.2 tons of fruit does not require a lot of hands to process.  In fact, 2 - 3 people can quite comfortable prep, process and clean up the whole operation.

Nonetheless, it was not long before the crush pad was full of people wanting to observe or help with the year’s first fruit.  For years, I was used to seeing grapes come off the vine only once a year.  For me, that first glance of the new vintage has always been thrilling, and even though in the last couple of years I have had that opportunity twice a year, the experience has not become any less exciting.  By the look on the faces of everyone standing around the crush pad yesterday, I know I was not alone in my excitement.

As the grapes were tipped onto the sorting table and made there way toward the destemmer, hands from all over the world picked through them.  Bits of leaf, any unripe berries or the occasional bug were all plucked out.  With the number of hands involved these would no doubt be the cleanest grapes of the season.  In fact, as I watched, I began to wonder if these might not become the cleanest grapes in the history of winemaking.  Not being able to resist the temptation any longer myself, I squeezed in on the sorting line to get my own fingers sticky.  I stood there for a second, then picked a couple of grapes and popped them into my mouth.  The sweetness of sugar, that vibrant sensation of acid and the youthful bite of tannic skins filled my palate.  Over the excited chatter of more languages than I could count and the scent of freshly crushed grapes, I felt that wonderful feeling of knowing two things for certain: Harvest is here. And so am I.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Perfect Return - Marlborough, New Zealand

The have been countless words written about Pinot Noir.  It is unmistakably one of the great varieties of the world and has enchanted people for centuries, possibly millennia.  Most winemakers I know, once they have worked with it, develop a certain attraction for this delicate red.  It may, in fact, be one of the most seductive reds around.  Why?  Well, it just is.  And to a large degree, due to this attraction, I boarded a plane 10 days ago and once again crossed the equator, passed the tropic of Capricorn and landed, softly I might add, back in the Marlborough region of New Zealand.  During that flight winter turned to summer and I, having left on my 40th birthday, ended one personal era and started another.

I departed from Portland.  It was a quick flight to San Francisco and after a short layover, I boarded a Boeing 747 for the hop across the Pacific. I don’t sleep much on cross-Pacific flights.  Usually, I work my way through whatever wine and beer list the airlines have, watch a few movies, then review the wine and beer list again.  There are worse ways to travel, and I have.

I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand at 5:30 in the morning, just as the sun broke the horizon from which I had just come.  I made my way through customs, declaring (most of) the wine I had packed into my bags, found my new gate and waited there to board a small two prop puddle jumper that would take me the final leg south to Blenheim, Marlborough’s main city.

I had never flown into Blenheim before.  On my last journey to New Zealand’s south island I took the ferry from Wellington, across Cook Straight, through the Queen Charlotte Sound and into the small port town of Picton.  I remember what a beautiful way that was to arrive.  Arriving by air, I found, can be just as impressive as the approach to the airport takes you over, literally, thousands of acres of vines; a virtual sea of vineyards covering the Wairau River Valley.  It was a perfect return.

Having grown up in southern Oregon and cut my winemaking teeth on Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is still somewhat of a mystery to me.  I’ve worked with it, but only in limited amounts and certainly never very often.  That will all change in about six weeks.  I’ve returned to Marlborough to work for Indevin Ltd., the largest custom crush winery in the southern hemisphere.  On my first adventure to New Zealand I worked for Indevin as well, and that experience has lured me back.  Plus, there are few places an Oregon winemaker can be involved in the production of 2000 tons of Pinot Noir, and Indevin Ltd. is one of them.  And even though 2000 tons seems like a lot of fruit, especially to one who most of his career has dealt with 50 to 60 tons a season, it still pales in comparison to the 24,000 tons of Sauvignon Blanc the winery expects to see this year as well (Oregon’s total tonnage for 2007 was just under 39,000 tons, for perspective).

In a little over a month, the vines of Marlborough will begin offering their vintage bounty.  A flurry of activity will ensue and many winemakers, some of them far from home, will once again take part in what they are passionate about.  Some will also miss home, family, friends and pets, and spring.

But in the mean time, there is a lot to do, to see, to learn…and to taste.  Speaking of which, tonight, I am opening a bottle of wine called, “Odyssey”, a Pinot Noir from Marlborough.  The winemaker, a woman from New Zealand, created the label after working harvests around the world over a period of many years.  It’s not a stretch to understand why I bought it.  Salute! 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I remember reading once a quote about perspective.  The author, who’s name I unfortunately can’t recall, wrote something about how it is not so much the world around us that changes as it is the eyes through which we see it.  When I read the quote I thought it interesting, but did not give it any more thought.  Lately, however, it has been on my mind.

Earlier this year, I returned from Australia, where I had been working a harvest in the wine region of Margaret River, in Western Australia a few hours south of Perth.  There I worked with Shiraz, that ubiquitous Aussie grape that has become as synonymous with Down Under as kangaroos, though much nicer to have with dinner.  There was also plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and (my own personal favorite grape of the region) Chardonnay.  Though winemakers from Margaret River will tout the reds, it was this noble variety that seduced me more than any other.

The time I spent in Margaret River was my third harvest away from the vineyards of my home in southern Oregon and my second in the southern hemisphere.  As it has been with every region I’ve worked in since leaving Oregon and becoming a “traveling winemaker”, Australia broadened my view of wine, winemaking, viticulture and terrior.  The experience of “Oz”, as the Aussies call it, also helped me to gain a greater understanding of my passion for wine.

The same passion that took me to Margaret River to fall in love with her Chardonnay, enticed me back to Oregon this year to take on a new role. Word of my travels had spread and while I was road-tripping across Australia after harvest, on my way to the Great Barrier Reef, I received an email asking if I would be interested in coming back to Oregon to work as consulting winemaker, for harvest, for a couple of small start-up wineries.   And so, ever curious for something new, I soon found myself boarding a plane in Sydney for another trip across the Pacific, swapping winter for summer and gaining a day for the one I had lost some 6 months before. 

Not long after I arrived back in southern Oregon, I drove out to the Applegate Valley to visit a couple of vineyards I would be working with.  Just north of my hometown of Ashland, Stage Road cuts west from Old Highway 99 through orchards of pear and peach before meandering through Jacksonville and eventually winding its way to the Applegate Valley.  It is a drive I have taken countless times, but not often in the last couple of years.  In fact, as I was driving I began to realize I could not remember when the last time was.  As I drove I began to notice what I thought were new vineyards, which is not uncommon as new vines are going in all the time.  Then, I began to think I was noticing new hills, or at least different ones.  Angles of ridges looked different.  Some even looked taller, some smaller than I remembered and others familiar in ways previously not. And all this stirred me to ponder, about perspective.

When I was driving across Australia, I passed through many wine regions such as the Barossa, Coonawara, theYarra and Hunter.  Often while driving through these regions I found myself pulling over on the side of the road (the left side by the way), getting out of my car and looking not only at the vineyards, but also at the land they were planted on.  I wanted to take in all that was around me. In the nearly two months it took me to drive across Australia, I spent countless hours and days looking at different vineyards and valleys seeing all I could, and in doing so I began to change the way I would one day look at my own wine region of Oregon.  That was why I found myself that day standing on the side of the road looking at vineyards and hills and creeks for what felt like was the first time.  It was, however, not the first time.  In fact, I had seen them all before and, I had seen them all before many, many times.  But not like I saw them on that day, not like I saw them through those eyes.  I realized then that my experiences of the last couple of years have changed the way I see.  Though my home region will always be home, and I know it is basically the same as when I left, to me it is forever changed.

As I got back in the car that day to go on my way, any last tiny bit of doubt that I may have had about leaving Oregon to pursue my passion for learning, travel and wine drifted away.  I felt good, like I was exactly where I needed to be.  That I was in Oregon, made it sweeter still.

Harvest is nearly over now.  It has again been true to form and an invaluable learning experience. It won’t be long before the last of the reds are sleeping softly in barrel and bare vineyards feel winter’s cold breath. I will move on, exactly where may be a surprise, but one thing I know for certain is where ever I am I will view my world with different eyes.