Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: Grape Varieties

A Non-Thanksgiving-Wine-Pairing Story

A tedious chore for the wine-scribbler is the Best-Wines-for-Thanksgiving-Dinner story. It’s a statutory requirement, probably because some jealous, sour, water-drinking prig attached a rider to the Repeal Bill back in ’32. And there’s no need or desire for it, because the old Norman Rockwell-stylezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzglutton2 Thanksgiving dinner is a banquet of excess, with too many dishes that don’t get along with each other. And it stirs the Pairing Urge in many writers.

Not all Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinners were sentimental scenes of big birds and bigger grins. This 1923 magazine cover from the Rockwell Museum shows a darker side [nrm.org].

Pairing always seems a rather dubious enterprise to me. For one thing, it generates too much talk. Or prattle.* So instead, I’ll just tell you what went down, Chez Bill on The Day: All-American wines made from America’s own wine grapes, Zinfandel and Norton, because Thanksgiving is an all-American holiday. That simple.

image Zinfandel, American? you ask. Of course. Ours is an immigrant nation, and Zin, an obscurity of low degree, of murky origin and uncertain name, ignored by most and respected by none, is that American favorite, the immigrant success story. Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski, which went to Italy as Primitivo, came to the U.S. as Zinfandel. On our East Coast it was a mere table grape until it went west and Californians began to vinify it. Then it became a hit—but not for long. Planted to excess and in all the wrong places, it faded, reduced to the status of anonymous blender.

Although Ridge Vineyards bottled its first single-vineyard Zinfandel in 1964 [it has 10 singles today], a real revival began only in the 1970s. Kent ‘Dr. Zin’ Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars told me that late-comers to California’s wine boom, priced out of the French varieties, turned to Zin at $300 a ton. ‘Many of the old Italian immigrant vineyards’, Rosenblum said had ‘maybe 40 or 50 different clones, many with distinct identities, often about a hundred years old.’ And small. Rod Berglund, owner and winemaker of Joseph Swan Vineyards, has a plot from 1872. How small is it? ‘I really can’t say,’ Rod told me. ‘I’d have to count the vines.’ Joel Peterson, whose Ravenswood Zins have been single-vineyards from his first vintage [1976], says most Zin grapes were sold to Big Blender ‘until smaller producers began to recognized their quality and character.’ Growers who appreciated being appreciated, so to speak, who wanted the pride that came from having their names on the labels, ‘often sold to the little guys at the same price despite the risk of non-payment and the added trouble of working with small lots’. A list of those old vineyards—Teldeschi, Frediani, Varozza, Bacigalupi, Mencarini, Saitone, Bacchi, Piccheti, Ciapusci, Forchini, Pagani, Galleani, Ponzo, Baldinelli, Gamboggi, Belloni, Gamba, Nichelini—reads like a field blend from Ellis Island.

I’m partial to many Zins, both rationally and irrationally. To Ravenswood, from the entry-level Vintner’s Blend that opens the double figures to the vineyard designates that threaten the triples, because of Joel Peterson’s bold motto: ‘No Wimpy Wines!’ [Also one of his cronies is thisclose to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzrattler Jessica Lange, and if you ask nice he might throw in a free rattlesnake with your multi-case order.] Amapola Creek, too. Richard Arrowood’s wit is as good as his wine: He once told me how he arranged the financing for his first winery on a napkin at Windows on the World, adding ‘Today it would be all lawyers. Talking to a lawyer is like talking to a fencepost with glass eyeballs.’ Also, he and his wife, Alis,

Ravenswood: no wimpy
visitors, either.  

have my favorite pairing on their website. Bonny Doon? Randall Grahm didn’t just break wine’s Mr. Stuffy mold; he shattered it with his flagrant puns and his Cardinal Zin. And Don Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyard is a sailor; he puts some of his favorite classic sailboats on his labels: I’m something of a salt myself, so I can’t resist.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzarrow

Isn’t it romantic? Richard and Alis Arrowood, a pair for the ages.

The price range for Zins is equatorial; i.e., wide. For about $10: Smoking Loon, Cellar No. 8, C.K. Mondavi, Concannon, Bogle, Dancing Bull, Barefoot and Marietta; $15-$25 fetches Robert Mondavi, Buena Vista, Frei Brothers,  Kenwood and Renwood, Liar’s Dice,Rodney Strong,  Trentadue, Valley of the Moon, Ancient Peaks, Boeger, Rosenblum, Château Souverain,  DeLoach, Cardinal Zin, Gnarly Head, Green & Red, Sausal, 7 Deadly Zins, Sledgehammer, Sebastiani, Rancho Zabaco, Edmeades, Mariah, St. Francis, and The Federalist. For a little more, Ridge and Franus; then come your pricier Sbragia, Seghesio, Rafanelli, tuxedo-styled Tyler Florence [demurely labeled ‘TF’], Louis M. Martini, Wild Horse Unbridled, Don Coppola’s Edizione Pennino [in honor of his maternal grandfather], Rochioli, and Williams-Selyem. So drink up!

The Norton grape is native but obscure. When and where Thomas Jefferson expensively failed with Vitis vinifera, the recently widowed Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Va. successfully dealt with his grief by retreating to his farm and immersing himself in viticulture. There he’s credited with having created Norton [or Norton’s Virginia Seedling, Norton’s Virginia, or Norton’s Seedling,] from the native Vitis aestivalis and an unknown vinifera, now extinct. First ‘published’ in 1830, in the noted New York nurseryman William Prince’s ‘A Treatise on the Vine’, Norton went west to Missouri, then a center of American wine. It was adopted by the German immigrants who in 1837 founded the town of Hermann and, at essentially the same time, the Missouri wine industry. But not by intent: they’d planned to farm, which requires fields, not the steep hills they found. No crybabies, they! Instead of mounting violent protests and demanding a government bailout [this wasn’t France, after all] they took note of the thriving wild vines all around and concluded ‘God gave us a vineyard, so let us make wine’. If not in so many words. Their Norton was much admired in time, and was called ‘the Cabernet of the Ozarks’.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzstonehill Then came decline. One reason was the rise of California and the heady success of its Zinfandel; another was a change in tastes that favored hard liquor. Many wineries converted to distilleries to stay alive. There was a wave of anti-German hostility during World War I: especially after the Mauretania was torpedoed, there was more to it than merely re-naming sauerkraut, which was called Liberty Cabbage. Finally, Prohibition, the Depression and World War II put paid to the state’s vinous prominence.

Unlike Zin, Norton hasn’t really recovered. Few have even heard of it. Confusion doesn’t help: Argentina’s fine Bodega Norton has a large online presence, and some Norton is called Cynthiana. Under either name, it’s found these days in Arkansas and Texas, but the Show Me State is its real stronghold. It is Missouri’s State Grape, grown by six dozen or so wineries. Stone Hill, Augusta, Montelle, and Adam Puchta are some of the leading producers, and some others that are well regarded include Cave, St James, Westphalia, Chaumette, Native Stone and Mount Pleasant. ‘We hand-sell it’, says Tony Kooyumjian, Augusta’s owner-winemaker. ‘It can be too tart by itself but is excellent with food. With a well-marbled steak, with sausages and with rich cheeses, it’s a very satisfying wine.’  Still, the grape remains an obscure one. After all, who these days associates Missouri with wine? Stone Hill’s winemaker, Dave Johnson, says Norton wine is unknown ‘even to some people who live across the street from the winery.’

In Virginia, its manger, it’s largely ignored, despite the fact that a Virginia Norton won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873. In fact, it took a Hermann boy, Dennis Horton, to re-introduce Norton to Virginia, when he founded Horton Vineyards in 1988. Most of the state’s other zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzznorton  Dennis Horton not only restored Norton to Virginia, he restored and updated this handsome old label.

wineries played it safe, planting the French varieties that did so well for California. They were, after all, established as public favorites. But Horton wasn’t alone. Jenni McCloud, owner, founder and head evangelist of Chrysalis Vineyards, put in 69 acres of Norton; other producers include Cooper, Keswick and Abingdon, although there are not so many as what McCloud calls ‘this gem’ deserves. In Virginia as in Missouri, the internet is the best friend of wine-lovers whose states are sufficiently advanced to allow direct shipment from beyond their borders. Those who don’t might well look into www.freethegrapes.org and wine hero Tom Wark’s winefermentationblog.com. Both of them tirelessly attack the Three-Tier System, the oligarchy that makes sure consumers pay more for less choice.

So—Norton and Zin for next Thanksgiving. Why not? On the other hand, why wait?

*When Doug Pendleton, owner of the famous Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville, Indiana asked a clerk for his favorite pairing The fellow rubbed his nose, pulled his beard and stroked his chin [this is made up] and said ‘I’m torn between cedar-roasted salmon with a corn-and-scallion soufflé and a Russian River Pinot Noir ‘or a grilled ahi-tuna sandwich with havarti and Conundrum.’ [not made up]. Torn, is he? Well he’s not invited to my house. I’m fresh out of ciabatta rolls and wouldn’t give havarti house-room.

©2012 Bill Marsano

Golden State Tax Crackpots


Amazing, is it not? Our republic enshrines separation of church and state yet is equally devoted to sin taxes. The latter originate with the Puritans, a group of crackpots who fled religious persecution in England so they could practice it here. Their mean, joyless ethos lives on. H.L. Mencken deftly described it as ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’

Enter Josephine and Kent M. Whitney of San Diego, whose fevered wish it is to send California taxes on alcohol to the moon. Currently those taxes are 65 cents a bottle for liquor, 11 cents a six-pack for beer and 4 cents a bottle for wine. Claiming that alcohol use and alcohol-related problems cost California $46.7 billion a year, the Whitneys want to impose increases that the word astronomical is helpless to describe. If by August 23 they can collect the signatures of 433,971 registered voters who also happen to be loons, they’ll put on November’s ballot an initiative calling for taxes, respectively, of $17.57 (a 2700% increase), $6.08 (5500%) and $5.11 (12,775%).

Yes, I know it’s awfully close to April 1, but the Whitneys launched their application last December.

The money raised would, according to the Whitneys’ pious hopes, go to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs for the doing of good. How much money would that be? An extra $7-$9 billion, the state estimates. But I suspect the state is smoking fairy dust and basing its guess on such gorgeous unlikelihoods as a] full compliance and b] consumption remaining at 2010 levels. Gros chance! as they say in France.

Prohibition via taxation is not going to work—not as the Whitneys think, anyway. For confirmation I turned to my legal prognosticator, Silo Vance, the ruminative ace detective of California’s Cattle Feed Marketing Board. ‘If Californians live up to their reputation for lunacy and pass the measure, what you’ll get is not more revenue but less, so the state will have to tax trail mix, organic fruit juice and Miley Cyrus instead. ‘Californians are a creative lot, so there’ll be tax avoidance (which is legal) and tax evasion (not) on a scale unparalleled since the 1920s. Lawyers will get rich inventing ways for people to get wine without actually buying it. Like forming winery investment clubs that people can buy shares of and then take their dividends in product. Or they’ll sell raffle tickets that pay off in bottles and cases; whatever. They’re lawyers, remember. They will figure it out.

Puncheon Judy, the producer of a ‘California reddish table wine’ called Motley Cru for the benefit of the BATF but known to its constituents as One-Buck Chuck, expects ‘no decline in consumption—just in taxable consumption. If people will drink my stuff [whose label boasts “made from any grapes from anywhere”] they’ll drink anything—Old Spice, Aqua Velva, vanilla extract. Wine they make in the kitchen sink and gin they make in the bathtub.’

It wouldn’t be the first time, Thirsty Reader. During Prohibition, many California wineries shut down and wine  production plummeted, but the grape harvest actually increased. The smart money cleaned up by not making wine. Instead they grew grapes by the long ton—getting millions in federal loans for new vineyards–and sold DIY wine kits. Ukiah Grape Products Co. sold fermentable juice and got clean away with it until a federal judge thought it a bit much that Ukiah agents, in outstanding displays of on-site service, made house calls to bottle their clients’ wine. Fruit Industries Ltd. also sold juices and concentrates, and is even now fondly remembered for Vine-Glo—‘bricks’ of dried grapes sold complete with pacWine Brick (Vine-GloAd) smkets of yeast and stern warnings to keep the two away from water lest the unthinkable occur. (Actually, what occurred was the undrinkable.)

There was a varietal aspect. Zinfandel was a favorite for such foolery because, given its head, it will crop like mad–12 tons an acre will shoot out of the ground with such vigor as to constitute a menace to migrating game birds and local poultry. (Indeed schismatic philologists insist that the word zinfandel derives from the Croatian for birdshot). The resulting wine, or ‘wine-like beverage product,’ did much damage to the grape’s reputation.

But I digress; taxation is our screed. Suppose the Whitneys’ taxes to come to pass and California does reap $7-$9 billion from them. How much do you suppose will go to ending alcoholism and its related problems? I’d guess about as much as goes to ending smoking.

Every year every state in the union gets a handsome bunch of bucks from Big Tobacco as part of the agreement with the states’ attorneys general to take an annual settlement rather than sue tobacco companies day in and day out. The money was needed for and would be directed to fighting tobacco addiction and keeps kids from smoking.

A few years later the New York Times took a look-see, hoping to find a sea of butt-less, clean-lunged teenagers, only to discover that 46 of the states had found higher and better uses for all the money. There are many things to be said against politicians, but few of them are so stupid as to kill a golden goose.


Credits. Upper: photo by Joe Gibson of Cracked Pots, made by his wife, Karen Gibson, the Quilt Queen of Hendersonville, Tenn., to a design from Rosie’s Quilts. A Vine-Glo advertisement.