Ashes to Ashes

While many Bordeaux wines are certainly "to die for," the latest news coming out of the region may be taking things too far.

Plans for what is called an eco-crematorium have been announced for a vineyard site in the heart of the Entre-deux-Mers region, better known for its pleasant dry whites and easygoing reds than for gardens of remembrance. The proposal, headed by a member of the Leclerc supermarket family, has local wine producers up in arms.

The idea of the eco-crematorium, called by the French promoters a refuge aux étoiles (refuge in the stars) is bizarre enough, regardless of where it is situated. The plans include a hotel and restaurant where clients can stay the night before their loved one’s cremation, and return for reflection after the ceremony. And this process of cremation (it’s called sublimation) at a substantially higher temperature than conventional crematoria, is currently not even approved in Europe. The Entre-deux-Mers proposal is the first of 40 mooted for sites throughout France.

At packed meetings, the villagers of Saint-Quentin-de-Baron, better known at present for its 14th-century village church, protested the scheme, decried as "the McDonalds of crematoria" by the French due to the large numbers of cremations that it is designed to handle each year. They object to the estimated quarter of a million visitors who are expected to pack the village’s tiny streets, the transport of the highly flammable liquid needed for cremation, and the possible damage they fear an untried and untested technique might have on their vines.

Local wine producer André Lurton, owner of Château Bonnet, and member of the the largest landowning family in Bordeaux, promised to "defend the rights of the vine growers of the region against a plan that can only damage the image of the region." He was joined in his protest by Jean-Louis Roumage, head of the Bordeaux growers’ syndicate, who believes that "wine, which is a convivial product, does not go well with an industrial crematorium."

In true French tradition, the presentation of the plans is believed by some villagers to involve collusion between the local mayor and one of the wealthiest local landowners on whose land the eco-crematorium would be built. What could well be called Saint-Quentingate is far from nearing its end.

—Roger Voss

Vineyard with a (Cyber) View
You can’t get much closer to a winery harvest…unless you’re willing to get a little dirty.

Some exhibitionist chicks keep webcams in their bedrooms so that the world can watch them (à la The Truman Show) fixing their hair and getting dressed. Cat owners and nervous parents hide webcams at home so they can monitor kittens and little tykes (and often nannies and babysitters) while the grownups aren’t home. But a camera that helps Internet visitors watch grapes grow? Absolutely, thanks to Napa Valley’s Herb Lamb Vineyard—source of some kick-ass Cabernet Sauvignon—and Uniroyal Chemical, producers of fungicides and miticides used widely by grape growers around the country.

When I heard about Vinevue (www., a webcam that transmits live pictures of a St. Helena vineyard over the web every 10 minutes, I guess I was expecting to see workers pruning vines and tour groups tripping over themselves on the way out of a tasting room. Not so—at least, not yet.

This June, the pics were about as exciting as watching water boil (in theory, fun, but the novelty wears off quickly): There’s plenty of soil and green leaves, but human representation in the photos is rare. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t zoom or rotate—c’mon, this is St. Helena, where there’s no such thing as DSL. Instead, the photos are sent to the Web via a dialup modem. A Uniroyal Chemical spokesperson predicts that by the time you read this, the vines will be so full that you won’t be able to see the mountains in the background.

Our advice? Bookmark the page, and return to it in September and October—this will be about as close as you can get to watching grapes being harvested without doing it yourself.

—Daryna McKeand

L’Chaim in Napa Valley

Five thousand years ago, the French were still living in caves. But Jews in the Middle East were making wine; their ancestors boast the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. In Jewish tradition, wine is an important spiritual element—a sacred symbol that connects the earth and agriculture to Jewish culture and a higher metaphysical plane.

With this in mind, it is only fitting that Napa Valley’s Jewish population, which hovers around 1,500, intends to create a cultural center and synagogue in the heart of the region’s wine country. The project is known as "The Synagogue in the Vineyards."

Kicking off with a formal declaration of intent, Jewish vintners in Napa Valley staged an all-day, three-winery event May 6, which culminated in a dinner and live auction at Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga. The auction raised $25,000 for the synagogue.

Approximately 80 attended the festivities, which began with a tour and tasting at Rudd Winery, in Oakville, hosted by owner Leslie Rudd. Al and Boots Brounstein then received the group at Diamond Creek Winery for a sparkling-wine reception and guided tour of their esteemed property.

Vintner Jan Shrem picked up the baton at his own temple-like winery, Clos Pegase, by giving a slide presentation on wine and history, followed by dinner and the auction. "It is quite gratifying to see such an outpouring of support from both the Jewish and non-Jewish community," Shrem said, referring to the impressive array of mostly large-format bottle auction lots that were donated by vintners throughout Napa Valley. They included Bill Harlan and his winemaker Bob Levy of Harlan Estate, Jean Phillips of Screaming Eagle, and Joseph Phelps winemaker Craig Williams, whose contributions inspired the top bids of the evening. A magnum of 1996 Harlan Estate went for $1,200, three bottles of Screaming Eagle 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon sold for $3,000, and a 3-liter bottle of Joseph Phelps 1997 Insignia was snapped up for $1,000.

The event also featured a melodious kiddish, the traditional Jewish prayer over wine that introduces a meal, as well as a local saxophonist’s soulful klezmer rendition of an old Jewish melody. It was a meeting of faith, art and culture, and the beginning of a new era for the Jews of Napa Valley.

—Jeff Morgan

Vini, Vidi, Vici Vinitaly

Five days, 3,300 exhibitors, 135,000 attendees and more wine to taste than any tradespeople ever taste in a month: Vinitaly hit Verona this past April with more gusto than ever before. Many of the large wine producers had two-story exhibition booths, complete with mini-cafes and second-floor tasting rooms. Well-known producers such as Antinori and Ruffino were elbow-to-elbow with new and unknown producers on the prowl for distributors. More than 2,800 wines were entered into the show’s International Wine Competition, but only 86 went home with awards.
Mark Mazur, tasting director at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, led a seminar and tasting called "2001—Syrah Rising: This Decade’s Growth Red?" that was standing-room only. "It was exciting to see the turnout for a seminar at Vinitaly on a non-native grape," Mazur says. "Not only were three Italian examples included, but the global perspective of the tasting generated a lot of excitement." For information on next year’s Vinitaly, visit









Does Rosé Play?

Master Sommelier Larry Stone of San Francisco’s Rubicon Restaurant doesn’t see rosés catching on. "I’ve had to throw them away," he says of rosés that customer simply wouldn’t order. When asked about white Zinfandel, Stone bristles slightly and states that the cloying sweetness in white Zin makes it unsuitable for the restaurant’s cuisine. He did try to sell white Zin by the glass some years ago and says, "My customers were amused, but not interested." He sums up his view of rosé’s popularity with: "Right now it’s easier to sell Grüner Veltliner than rosé."

Out of 1,800 selections on Rubicon’s wine list, Stone offers only two rosés: Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare and Charles Melton’s Rosé of Virginia from Australia’s Barossa Valley. Because of lack of interest, "Neither," he laments, "is the current vintage."

David Gordon, wine director at Tribeca Grill in New York, says that only time he puts rosé on the list is during the summer. "Because nobody asks for it." Gordon also consults for The Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center, where he offers two rosés by the glass and one by the bottle. Mas de Gourgonnier’s rosé from Provence and Miner Family Rosato from Napa do moderately well by the glass and Domaine Tempier Rosé from Bandol has some fans who buy it by the bottle. These rosés are all dry wines and Gordon echoes Stone’s feeling that white Zin’s excessive sweetness limits its food friendliness. At sushi mecca Nobu, where Gordon also consults, he offered the Mas de Gourgonnier rosé by the glass with lukewarm results. "I just don’t see rosé catching on," he opines.

White Zinfandel seems to be a point of contention among many restaurant wine professionals. On the one hand, they have great respect for wineries and what they produce, but on the other hand, the continued production of white Zins that are too sweet and poorly balanced leaves them feeling contentious towards these same wineries. One unnamed restaurateur said he won’t even keep a bottle of white Zin at the bar: "The customer doesn’t always get what they want." The feeling is that their establishments have reputations for providing wines that are most suited to the restaurant’s cuisine. White Zin, they feel, is a clumsy foil to fine food and if customers don’t understand that, they can be educated.

For a different take on the current popularity of rosé wine in restaurants, I spoke with Bill Edwards, beverage director for Olive Garden Restaurants. Olive Garden has 469 restaurants throughout the country that serve over a million and a half diners a week. And a lot of those diners are drinking rosé. Edwards estimates that Olive Garden sells about 100,000 cases of rosé a year. Rosé accounts for about 20 percent of their wine volume overall, ahead of white wine and slightly behind red. "A year ago we added a third blush wine to our list—Monteviña White Zinfandel," says Edwards. "We could add more but we wouldn’t necessarily be offering more variety of style." Sutter Home White Zinfandel and Principato Rosé are the other two on offer. All are off-dry or slightly sweet. "The pink color and sweetness are closely associated. We tried offering a dry rosé a while ago, but people were surprised when they tasted it," Edwards recalls. He feels that half of his rosé customers will eventually graduate to dry whites and reds. "We may soon be ready to try another dry rosé," says Edwards, whose rosé sales are up about 10 percent this year.

National Public Radio recently ran a story in which they reported that half of Olive Garden’s beverage sales were wine sales. They may not have been far off when they stated that Olive Garden may be removing the intimidation that mainstream American diners have about wine. If this is true, it’s a very good thing—regardless of the color of the wine they are choosing.

—Josh Farrell

Grape Moments in History

The Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto, is hosting an exhibit entitled "Gift of the Gods: The Art of Wine & Revelry" through October 21, which features 400 artifacts that trace the history of wine from antiquity to the present. It covers the evolution of winemaking techniques and viticulture, the development of the wine trade and drinking traditions. Woven through the exhibition of art, decorative objects, winemaking equipment and accessories is the persistent, ever-changing image of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine who personified wine and revelry (known to the Romans as Bacchus).

Although winemaking in some form may have begun as early as 7,000 years ago, it is clear from the the exhibit that the process was not rudimentary for long: In translated text, a Greek author described 85 types of wine produced by ancient Greece and Rome, which shows that geographic origins and dates of production were known and appreciated at the time.

A full range of programs accompany the exhibition, including dramatic performances, wine tastings and seminars. Among the talks being given are "Bacchus the Rascal," "Women, Wine and Worship" and "Travels with My Corkscrew." The museum is running a number of singles’ events in connection with the exhibit—one Friday evening event is themed "The Truth About Roman Orgies."
The fifth-largest museum in North America, ROM contains 45 galleries of art, archeology and science. For more information call 416/586-8000, or check out the museum’s web site at

—Tim Moriarty

Texas Hill Country
Wine & Food Festival

The 16th Annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, a four-day bash that was dedicated to Spain this year, was held in Austin, Texas, and the nearby Texas Hill Country wine region from April 5-8. Events included lunches at Becker Vineyards, Fall Creek Vineyards and Spicewood Vineyards; a gala dinner and rare and fine wine auction benefiting The Texas Wine & Food Foundation and honoring the Torres family of Spain; seminars featuring Spanish wines and food; Stars Across Texas, which showcased the food of Texas chefs with the wines of Texas, Spain and California; a black-tie Savoring Spain Culinary Masters Dinner; and a Sunday Wine and Food Fair Salt Lick Pavilion.

Spain, the country being honored, made an impressive showing with its wines, which are currently in vogue both in the United States and in Europe. Featured Spanish stars included wines from Pesquera and Condado de Haza (Ribera del Duero), Miguel Torres and Freixenet (Catalonia), Marqués de Cáceres and Bodegas Montecillo (Rioja), Marqués de Griñon (Castilla-La Mancha), and several top producers in the Jorge Ordoñez Fine Estates From Spain stable.

While wines from Spain and California were featured, the big surprise at this year’s Texas Hill Country Festival were the wines from the host state. At the Stars Across Texas event at Austin’s Four Season Hotel, chefs from such top Texas eateries as Café Josie and Fonda San Miguel in Austin and Cafe Annie in Houston provided a uniquely Texan gastronomic twist that complemented nearly a dozen wineries showing a surprisingly wide range of wines from the Lone Star State. Among the white wines from Texas were dry Rieslings, Viogniers, Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios and Chardonnays. Red entries included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet-Merlot blends, Sangiovese, Syrah, Barbera and Shiraz.

A broad sampling of some two dozen wines demonstrated clearly that Texas wineries have made significant progress. Standouts among the whites included Spicewood’s 1999 Sauvignon Blanc, Messina Hof’s 2000 Pinot Grigio and Fall Creek’s 1999/2000 Sauvignon Blanc, all of which showed true varietal character. Other wines underscored the main problem faced by many Texas wineries—low acidity—which results in wines that fall flat on the palate.

Becker’s 1998 Claret was one of the most interesting and complex reds. It had a soft texture and spicy finish, but was still shaking off the woody harshness of 18 months in French and American oak. The sweet, softly tannic, food-friendly Spicewood Vineyards 1998 Texas Hill Country Merlot and the fruity, spicy, peppery Messina Hof 1999 Shiraz-Merlot blend were two of the other reds that starred in the Stars Over Texas show.

Cap*Rock, a winery from the Texas High Plains, which employed star California consultant Tony Soter for several years, had some of the best reds at the event. The 1998 Cap*Rock Toscano Rosso, a blend of 58% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Barbera, was soft, had nice sweet fruit, good grip, and was as food-friendly as any wine at the event. The 1998 Cap*Rock Cabernet Sauvignon was rich, ripe, fruity, and had a fine tannic backbone.

—Gerry Dawes

Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Festival Draws Record Crowd

Santa Barbara hasn’t typically drawn the kinds of crowds that turn out in Napa and Sonoma for wine events, but all that may be changing. Despite cool weather and unusually strong breezes, more than 2,000 people showed up at this year’s Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Festival, which was held on the expansive grounds at Firestone Meadow in Los Olivos this past April. Set up on folding tables under tents, nearly 60 wineries poured samples, while local restaurants and caterers offered tastes of the region’s cuisine.

At the far end of the massive field, one large tent housed the silent auction, featuring wines and other Santa Barbara-related items. A barn off to the side was the setting for a country-rock band that performed for several hours both days.

Among the wineries present were Babcock, Cambria, Au Bon Climat, Cold Heaven, Andrew Murray, Lafond and Tantara. In many cases, the wines were poured by the winemaker or winery owner.

The Hitching Post, known for its grilled meats, served sandwiches of prime top sirloin with caramelized onions, a good match with pretty much any of the local Syrahs. Miro, the restaurant at the recently opened Bacara Resort, offered spicy ahi tartare with celery and tomato water. Venison verde with tomatillos, anaheim and jalapeño chilies came from The Vineyard House, a soon-to-open luxury inn in the heart of the wine country. And tiramisu was served by JR’s Gourmet Catering.

Friday and Saturday nights featured winemaker dinners at various wineries and restaurants throughout the region, including one at the just-opened Lafond Winery & Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, featuring a wide range of Lafond’s vineyard-designated Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay paired with a menu featuring venison and grilled quail. At the Royal Scandinavian Inn in Solvang, the hotel’s chef, Randy Miller, collaborated on a five-course meal with brothers Matt and Jeff Nichols, who previously owned Brothers restaurant. All the wines came from the neighboring Santa Ynez Valley.

Sunday, many vineyards not usually open to the public, including Cold Heaven, held open houses, featuring wines and hors d’oeuvres, to accommodate festival-goers. The next big events in Santa Barbara are the 9th Annual Santa Barbara International Wine Auction, August 16-18, and the Celebration of Harvest on October 13. Call 805/969-WINE for information and tickets.

Published on August 1, 2001
About the Author
Dylan Garret

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