Posted by: David Stewart | December 31, 2013

30 days of push-ups for runners

Does the runner in your life take on strange personal challenges for no apparent reason other than to challenge themselves?

Traditionally the winter is supposed to be about base building. Under this rule of thumb, a runner will use the cold months to gain strength so that when things warm up, training miles will be on a stable base. Or so the thinking goes.

This Christmas, the plan was to spend a full two weeks visiting friends and family in Colorado. My experience last year was that the altitude and cold in the Denver area is not something that I’m used to, and it makes it very hard to train effectively, so I didn’t have high expectations for good running.

Then I chanced upon this 30-day Push-Up Challenge on the internet. It was pretty simple: 100 push-ups a day for 30 days.

Oh, gee, push-ups. Push-ups are something my running coaches have advised me to do for years but which I have not done regularly or well. Like some runners, I am built with the T-Rex look: big thighs and itty bitty little arms. My wrists are probably the tiniest in my family. The story I told myself is that it was probably too late for me to ever have much upper body strength.

The nice thing about the 30-day challenge was that it allowed for beginners like me to start off with “cheater” push-ups, on my knees. It also allows that you don’t need to do them all in one session.

I am nearing the end of the 30 days and I’m really pleased with my progress. I started out not even able to complete 100 knee push-ups. Within the first week I was able to finally complete 100 cheaters and started mixing in regular toe push-ups. Currently I am doing about 80% toe push-ups and I’m hoping I’ll be at 100% by the time I complete 30 days. (Admittedly, I only did 50 on Christmas Day!)

Of course, although I might dream of having bulging biceps, the reality is that I have a typical ectomorph body type which means that all the workouts in the world will not easily build muscle mass. But the goal was to build core strength and do something to improve fitness which would leave me with no excuse due to weather.

Thanks to push-ups and short 8:30 pace maintenance runs, I’m spending this holiday season with a pleasant kind of soreness on my arms, chest area and legs. The kind of soreness you feel when you are working muscles and improving fitness. A nice feeling versus being discouraged because of lack of exercise.

Where to now that the 30 days are almost up? I feel more confident that I might be able continue to improve. I’m not sure I’ll continue 100 per day forever, but what about extending things to 100 days? It’s worth considering.

Posted by: David Stewart | December 18, 2013

Leaving home to learn more about … Oregon Wines

How is it that when you travel someplace, it can sometimes give you insights into where you come from.

For example, vacationing in the front range of Colorado I met a couple of Oregon surprises.

I had a marvelous dinner at the Summit Steakhouse which I am told is one of the one or two nicest places to eat in Aurora, Colorado. They had a single Oregon Pinot Noir on the wine list, a Sokol Blosser. I wasn’t particularly stuck on having something Oregonian, but I enquired as to what year they had. Waiter returned and said they had a 2008. Score! Why not enjoy a bottle from one of Oregon’s historic wineries from a historic vintage? It gave us a chance to reminisce about our first visit to their tasting room in 1984 (which was one of the first purpose-built tasting rooms in the state) and the pioneering work of Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol-Blosser in establishing a winery in the Willamette Valley, their fight with phylloxera and ultimately their brand new tasting room.

The wine itself was a wonderful and powerful 2008, well balanced with both fruit, acidity and complexity. A true Oregon classic and truly unexpected.

Honestly, in spite of their history, Sokol Blosser rarely pops up at the top of my wine preferences these days. Although they are amazingly historic and their tasting room view was eye popping when we visiting in July, I’m sad to say I have none of their wines in my cellar. I might need to reconsider based on this bottle.

The other surprise came when I raided my sister’s cellar. She really prefers Bordeaux, Rhone blends and Barolo, so I wasn’t surprised when the only pinot noir I found was a single bottle from Oregon. I saw it was a 2006 so I suggested she should drink it now.

The 2006 Andrew Rich Willamette Valley “Cuvee B” was a muscular wine, not surprisingly, but with enough acid to provide balance and not flab. The nose was excellent Oregon forest floor and the palate is rich with red fruits and cherry notes.

I’ll need to visit Andrew Rich at the Carlton Winemaker’s Studio and check out their other wines. I think it’s another score.

Posted by: David Stewart | December 10, 2013

My Favorite 2010s

As the year 2013 runs to a close, the press feels compelled to send out their “Top 10 of the year” lists. In the vinous world, Wine Spectator released their Top 100 wines list for the year, and a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir landed at number 3. What should be surprising here is the year of that wine.

Those of us who lived through the “summer” of 2010 in the Portland, Oregon area remember that there was just not a lot of summer to be had.

Like any other kind of agricultural product, wine grapes mature and ripen more quickly in direct sunshine and heat. Sometimes too quickly – the sunny 2009 vintage featured fruity wines with lower acid. But the general assumption is that these wines should be consumed relatively young because their acid and tannin structures would not build in complexity with age.

When those 2010 wines were first released, they were honestly not very impressive. Mostly they seemed pretty acidic and not very fruity. One of my friends was even more critical. But the common wisdom says that these cooler years take a little longer to develop, but in the end they can be wonderfully fragrant with a couple of years of bottle age.

Now, three years from the harvest date, many of those 2010s are really drinking nicely now. If you can find them. The fragrances are enchanting and the acids have softened. The lesson here is that in cool years like 2010 and 2011, what you taste at first release may not yield a very good idea of how the wines will turn out.

Here are a few of my favorite 2010 Pinot Noir wines from the Willamette Valley. Most of these were in the $20 or so range depending on where you can find them.

  • Four Graces Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – Although this wine listed for around $30+ in the tasting room, I discovered that around this time of year last year you can grab it for under $20 at Safeway. This makes it an amazing go-to wine for mid-week dinner. (Note: Local Safeway stores just made the 2011 version of this wine available for under $20 when you buy at least 6.) The Black Family do a consistently excellent job with their entry Pinot. Here are the community reviews:

  • Boedecker Stewart Pinot Noir – Husband and Wife winemakers Stewart Boedecker and Athena Pappas make a series of highly regarded single vineyard Pinots, but they also create a his and hers blend from the year’s grapes. I had the privilege this autumn of touring through the couple’s urban Portland winery during fermentation – tasting through the various lots. At the end, we sipped Stewart’s wonderful cuvee and I was hooked. List price is a bit steeper here but it’s worth it. Community tasting notes:

  • Thistle Pinot Noir – I am a big fan of Jon Jennison’s highly praised Pinot Noir. Even though their Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris wines are great, the Pinot Noir is an excellent value. Jon and Laura are wonderful hosts in their tasting room and their 2010 Pinot Noir is tasting really quite good now. As with several producers on this list, the price is less if you join their wine club.

  • Atticus Vineyard Pinot Noir – I am a big fan of Ximena’s winemaking style and the 2010 represents yet another terrific accomplishment. I remember the first time I tasted Atticus at a Father’s Day event in Carlton, Oregon. I brought home a bottle from the tasting and pulled it out some months later and was blown away by how much the wine had improved with time. Another husband and wife winery partnership, Ximena and Guy produce amazing wines every year. This one is a little more expensive than the others but also worth it if you can find it.

  • Twelve Pinot Noir Reserve – John Lenyo makes the wine and Linda Lenyo greets you in the tasting room with their high-value Pinots. This year they introduced a series of single clone bottlings and a “Reserve” designate. Frankly the $25 Willamette Valley is terrific, but as a member of their wine club I was able to get a good price on the single clone and reserve bottling.

Posted by: David Stewart | November 30, 2013

Thanks for New Wineries

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was thankful for my friend Joe’s list of potential new (to me) Willamette Valley wineries to try.

Anne and I planned our effort with precision: Like hitting your favorite rides during high season at Disneyland, it helps to have a strategy on the biggest weekend of the Oregon vinous season. Make a wrong move and you can get caught behind limousines full of woozy tasters.

Our wicked clever plan was to span nearly all of the sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley, starting from the furthest out and working our way back towards home.  Here was our rundown and recommendations after our Friday after Thanksgiving expedition:

J. Wrigley MacMinville AVA – ­ Plan your trip carefully because it takes some time to get here, and Google Maps can steer you into a locked gate. Just drive into Sheridan and look for the sign to J Wrigley as you enter town.  But in spite of the difficulties, it’s worth the journey, both for the smashing view and terrific wine. John and Jody have just enclosed the tasting room this year although they have been releasing wine since 2009. Like most of that cool vintage, their 2011 Pinots are still emerging and will take time and patience to come together. They also previewed their unreleased 2012s, which are really drinkable now.

Fab find: MAC Cuvee at $28, though I will wait on the 2012s to be released.

Ghost Hill Cellars – Yamhill-Carlton AVA – Also with a new (and uninsulated) tasting room. Maybe it was just me, but the vibe came off as much Ozarks as Oregon. “Your cat just caught a chipmunk” was the comment from another couple who came in after us. That pretty much summed up the scene. The Pinot Noir Blanc was pretty special, and had more structure than a typical Oregon Pinot Gris.

Monk’s Gate – – Yamhill-Carlton AVA (Although it looked like it was over the line in Dundee Hills) – Back when Ron and Linda Moore cleared their land in the late 90s, they discovered that their property had been a shortcut for the nearby Trappist Abbey whose members do not use vehicles. Rather than limit their access by their deer fence, the Moores built a gate. Thus “Monk’s Gate” was born. The tasting this weekend was a vertical of pinots from 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012 futures. The 2012 was coming along nicely, though perhaps not as far as the J Wrigley ’12. The 2011 had a terrific nose with a nice smokiness on the palate. These $34 pinots were a reasonable value. I’ll probably be back.

Saffron Fields – Yamhill-Carlton AVA – This brand-new tasting room is indeed a jewell. In fact they have a room called the “jewell box.” Adorned with distinctive modern art, surrounded by a Japanese garden from a famous landscape architect, it would not be hard for the venue to overshadow the wine. And in fact, the wines poured and sold there are from four different winemakers under four labels: Roots, EIEIO, Tendril and and Saffron Fields, all from grapes grown in the vineyard above the tasting room. The styles from Roots and EIEIO were nearly opposite from each other, Roots was austere and Burgundian while Jay MacDonald’s EIEIO was quite a bit more fruit forward. Tendril “White Label” is one of the prestige pours in the valley. But I will probably give this place a little more time to come together, both in terms of the room and the wine.

Omero Cellars ­ – Ribbon Ridge AVA – We first met Omero winemaker Sarah when she was an assistant winemaker at Belle Pente and had just planted her Ribbon Ridge vines. She is working very hard now, producing 6,000 cases. The 2011s she was pouring in a tent on her vineyard were fragrant and delicious. This is an outstanding new addition to the Willamette Valley and one we’ll be very interested to track. If you visit outside of the Thanksgiving weekend, they have a tasting room in Carlton.

Tresori Vineyard – Chehalem Mountains AVA – Another husband and wife team, Joseph and Maureen Longo, named their vineyard Tres (three) Ori (gold) to reflect their heritage and their triplets. I liked the palate of the 2011s they were pouring, with a flavor element which might come from some of what they use for fining. With the altitude of the vineyard, they have a terrific view from their property, but since the tasting room is uninsulated and the temperature was a bit nippy, the wines were a little too cold to taste properly. If Pinot is too cold, the aromas really are not as open. Joseph was working hard to warm up the wine with his hands to try to address some of this.

Posted by: David Stewart | September 28, 2013

Name Game in Willamette Wineries

ImageIf you are tooling around the back roads of Willamette Valley wine country with its stacks of blue tourist directional signs pointing to different wineries, you might be forgiven for being confused. Not only are there scads of wineries in the Valley but some of the have very similar sounding names.

Three of these, Soter, Stoller and Solena had for years been a particular point of confusion for me. I couldn’t keep them straight!

This weekend I was doing a little cellar reorganization and ran across bottles from all three. Having visited them, it’s now a lot easier to keep them straight in my head. Because they are really quite distinct.

Solena – In an industry filled with characters, Laurent Montalieu extends his expansive gallic persona to visitors privileged to meet him. Solena’s winery has a unique open-sided design, visible from a distance. It is built with the philosophy that Oregon’s natural temperature is ideal for wine fermentation. Not only are their wines tasty, you can learn a lot from them at their “Saturday at Solena” events. These events offer an insight into some focus topic. For example on one Saturday they had “Clone Wars”, and poured tastes of each of the Pinot Noir clones they grow on the property before they are blended into their final wines.

In a stunning move, the Jackson Family (of California’s Kendall-Jackson wines) has purchased the Solena winery plus 50 acres of Laurent’s vines. They are promising to build a new tasting room close to the old one, but it’s a sign that Willamette’s star is rising in the wine world.

Stoller – The Stoller Family has deep roots in Oregon agriculture, so it is no surprise that they reflect small town hospitality at their winery. The rolling hillside location, just outside of Dundee was the host site for the Fueled by Fine Wine Half Marathon in 2012, which means they opened their fields to hundreds of sweaty runners and family members sipping wines from about 20 other wineries. Welcoming indeed!

Their new tasting room is also a joy with its vista of the vineyards. It’s just off Highway 99W, the spine of northern Willamette’s wine route, so it’s easily accessible. The Stoller JV Estate Pinot Noir is from some of the younger vines, but is a nice value at $25. They also have a older vine SV Estate Pinot plus several other varietals.

Soter – You might be forgiven for missing out on Soter Vineyards. Its tasting room experience is by appointment only so they can seat you at a table with other tasters and have a relaxed tasting experience with a staff member. We were able to attend a free tasting during June of this year, thanks to our membership in the Domaine Serene wine club. Their tasting room had its walls swung wide open to the surrounding vineyards on that warm summer afternoon. Not only was the setting perfect for tasting wine but we got to swap stories and tips with another couple sitting across from us.

Tony Soter is known as a top producer of Oregon sparkling wines but the still wines (red and white) were excellent. We ended up buying a couple of bottles of the 2010 Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir, which was recently highlighted as a “top 50 Oregon wine” in this month’s Portland Monthly Magazine.

Posted by: David Stewart | September 2, 2013

Story Bottles

I admit it – I’m a sucker for a good story.

Part of the fun of living so close to a world-class wine producing region is the opportunity to meet the people making the wine and to hear their stories. Sometimes the best stories are about wines which will never make it big outside of Oregon. Here are two that we encountered for the first time this weekend.

Redman Wines – We all have dreams. For the future, for our children. Perhaps for our legacy. There are more than a few small wineries in Oregon which represent the dream of a lifetime.

The story of the Redman Wines stems from Bill and Cathy Redman’s dream to do something with their lives that they really loved: owning a vineyard and making wines. Instead of regret, they took a leap and bought land, planted grapes and built a winery.

The dream suffered a blow when Bill died of cancer. When he was suffering in the hospital during the justly famous 2008 vintage, the winemaking community came out of the woodwork to help bring in the harvest and make the wine.

This is as much a story of a tight-knit agricultural community who will help each other out, even in the busiest of times for themselves.

Cathy was a warm and welcoming presence in the tasting room, talking with us newcomers and making us feel at home. They have one of the broadest selections of varietals of any local winery, from the rare Arneis grape, Chardonnay, Pinot, Blanc, Pinot Noir, Termpranillo and Barbera. The Labor Day event included tastings of all of these plus a generous selection of library wines, including that infamous 2008 vintage. The wines are good value.

The winery is located in the Ribbon Ridge area, near Ayres, Brick House and Styring. They are well worth a visit.

VX – It’s not every day you can get a history lesson with your wine. VX is named for the legendary hero of Burgundy, Vercingetorix. During the Roman conquest of the Celtic tribes in France, Vercingetorix defended the people, using a “scorched earth” policy to make the land uninteresting for the invaders. The only part of the land which was preserved were the grapes.

And thus a hero is born – albeit with an unpronounceable name.

The family was brilliant to invent “VX” as the more accessible moniker for their wines and winery. I first sampled their reds at Pinot in the City back in 2011. I have wanted to visit ever since and finally got the chance when our friends Scott and Mary Lee suggested we meet there.

Finding the tasting room can be a little challenging as it’s off the beaten path, but quite close to Portland. Off the Wilsonville / Newberg road, down a shady and twisty lane, past farm houses is a beautiful home which is available as a vacation rental.  With a good map – or a reasonable GPS – it’s not a problem.

The wines are good and an excellent value. John Grochou is the winemaker, who used to share facilities with Boedecker in NW Portland and shows a deft hand. Well worth checking out.

Posted by: David Stewart | August 26, 2013

Why Hood to Coast is a Big Thing

I’ve gone back and forth for years as to whether the “Mother of All Relays” was truly a worthwhile experience or not. This year, 2013, I come out as net positive. Here’s why:

So you get a flavor of what this means in person, here was my schedule for running Hood to Coast this year. It’s pretty typical from other years:

Friday 11AM – our team’s first runner starts from the parking lot at Timberline Lodge.
Friday 1:30PM – my van departs from SW Portland to Sandy
Friday 3:30PM – our team’s first van of runners meet us in Sandy and hand off to us
Friday 8:30PM – I finish the last run of our van in Portland and hand off to the other van
Friday 9:00PM – we rest at a friend’s house in SW Portland where we eat a simple meal, take showers and try to sleep
Saturday 12:15PM – we depart SW Portland for St Helens.
Saturday 1:30PM – we arrive in St Helens and take the handoff from the other group of runners.
Saturday 7AM – I finish the last run of our van in Mist, Oregon and hand off to the other group of runners. We drive for Olny Oregon for some sleep
Saturday 9AM – Olny, Oregon for a little sleep
Saturday 11AM – we wake and meet the other van for the last set of legs
Saturday 5PM – I finish for our team and we cross the finish line together.
Saturday 7PM – head home for Portland

If you were tracking that progression, you could see that there was only a few hours here and there for rest, furtive attempts at sleep, try to avoid the worst of injury, dehydration and other pains.

My own run totaled about 13 miles in three separate legs. 13 miles is not too difficult for me usually, but since I was running this race all-out, it takes a little more out of me. I would assume that a lot of runners of Hood to Coast are not experienced marathoners, so 13 to 21 miles of weekend running is probably a lot for them.

Obviously there is a lot this year for my team to be happy about – the weather was much cooler and rainier than I remember for the past few years so it was a real pleasure not to be overheated. Our van had a couple of first-time Hood to Coast racers, and they loved the experience.

So based on this year, I really enjoy Hood to Coast. It’s not without improvement areas. But I dearly hope we get in to the race again next year.

Posted by: David Stewart | July 27, 2013

Understanding the Connection Between Running and Technology

I just completed a little ritual that I have performed weekly for the last three years which probably brands me as either a geek runner or a runner geek.

I uploaded the week’s running results into the cloud and sent them off in a spreadsheet to my coach.

Not too strange I suppose, there are plenty of runners who do this. But the act itself betrays how tied up my running is with technology.

I first started running in my mid-30s as a way to keep active and stave off the health impacts of a desk job. I picked running primarily because I thought it was cheap. Hey, you only need a pair of sneakers and a T-shirt and you’re good to go! The open road beckons, no need for fancy equipment or a gym membership.

Then in 1998, I thought it might be a great goal to run a marathon. So I joined a marathon training group (Portland Fit) and got going. 

Running 26.2 miles in days gone by was a simple matter.  But today there is a vast army of casual athletes attempting to check this off of their life list. Technology has stepped up to help the runner be safe, comfortable and aware of their body.

  • Let’s start with those shoes: I remember the first time I went to a technical running store in my dependable old Nikes, and the clerk asked to see me run in them. “Stop!” she soon cried. “It’s too painful to see you running in those.” Unless you were blessed with perfect feet, shoes can mean the difference between a comfortable run and injury. My current shoes are Mizuno Wave Inspire – I love their light weight. Running shoes have come a long way since Bill Bowerman experimented with a waffle iron to make the first Nikes. Material science, physiology, mechanics all figure into these high tech babies.
  • Clothing: I remember the first time I ran Portland’s venerable Shamrock run. My all cotton T-shirt became soaked and leaden, mixed with the blood from my raw, chafed nipples. Today’s micro-fiber shirts, shorts, socks and hats use their ever-improving technology to wick away sweat and stay light.
  • GPS: The belle of the running technology ball is the GPS-based speed and distance monitor. Want to hit a particular pace on your next run? These babies have improved greatly from the first version I bought which looked like you were wearing a candy bar on your wrist. My current Garmin will tell me my running pace, heart rate, and record elevation and location. Uploading this now into the cloud, I can reference the data any time and share it with my coach so she can monitor my progress.
  • Race results are now recorded with “chip time,” a little RFID transmitter attached to the runner’s shoe or bib. With this advance, races can more quickly put race results up for all the world to see.
  • There are plenty of examples on the nutrition and hydration side – sports drinks, gels, electrolyte tablets, Muscle Milk.

Has all this technology spoiled the simple act of going for a run? There are times when I do feel like a slave to my equipment sometimes. But when I look at my running improvements, I feel like the treadmill of constantly improving technology has helped me get better as well.

What about the future? 

  • As cool as the GPS-based speed, distance and heart rate monitor is, there are other things which would be helpful to monitor. Besides heart rate, what about monitoring the runner’s hydration level? How about blood oxygenation? If my GPS monitored the weather and temperature conditions besides just road elevation, I might have more data to help me in those kinds of conditions. And health monitoring might not only be helpful to me to drink more but might give race officials a heads up that someone is struggling and might need the sag wagon to rescue them.
  • Shoe models designed for every runner’s feet are great. But what about a shoe which adapts automatically to running conditions? Like Marty McFly’s inflating shoes in “Back to the Future,” we could have adaptation to keep us injury free.
  • I wouldn’t want an unfair advantage in the food or drink I take, but I am sure to look for any legal advantage I can get from nutrition and hydration technology.

If I keep running, maybe I’ll still be running in my 80s. Of course, maybe if technology keeps improving, I can figure out a way to stay fit without running.


Posted by: David Stewart | July 23, 2013

“Cynical, ignorant, expensive lies”

I try to be an informed consumer. Who doesn’t? I want to make buying decisions based on some objective criteria. I read the calorie count on food packaging. I look for reviews of equipment I’m considering buying. Some buying criteria is simple but I like there to be some thought process going into it.

If I spend more than about $10 on a bottle of wine, I would certainly like to taste it before buying it. Tasting is a fine measure for some wines, but some of them don’t actually taste very good when they are young. Once they have spent a bit of time in the cellar, many wines will open up their flavors. The natural tannin in the wine will mellow and the result will be terrifically complex, with layers of flavor.

But it’s not always the case.

A Willamette Valley vineyard region where the most expensive wines in the state of Oregon are grown

For example, when Oregon’s 2007 vintage of Pinot Noir was bottled and released, it was universally panned by the wine press as a poor year. The wines seemed weak, acidic and unpleasant. But some savvy winemakers advised patience.

Sure enough, the 2007s have really improved over time. Today they are very nice to drink, with very pretty aromas and interesting flavors.  For example, a week ago Deb and I tasted through a vertical of Ayres “Pioneer” Pinot Noir from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. The year we liked the best was 2007 (and I was able to score a couple of bottles to take home).

In contrast, 2008 was heralded as the “year of the decade” for Willamette Pinot. The weather was not too hot, not too cool, wines of this vintage were declared to be awesome and would age nicely for a decade. This past weekend, one of the winemakers I respect a lot suggested that 2008 might not be the year that everyone thought it would be. He posited that the wine press felt so badly about giving 2007 a bad name that they hyped 2008. So for the consumer, you should consider drinking your 2008s instead of holding on to them until 2018. In fact, they might not last so long.

What about a wine you might want to buy without tasting it first? Maybe it’s a very unique wine at a very high price. You will likely count on the reputation of the winemaker and the vineyard, but you would normally find a trusted reviewer like Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate to provide some objective perspective.

Part of the review is a suggestion for how long the wine should be aged before opening. After all, if you open a bottle too early, you might lose out on all of that wonderful complexity had you waited. On the other hand, wait too long and you might end up with vinegar.

A recent post from a wine writer has declared that the emperor has no clothes. There is no validity in these aging suggestions. He suggests that these are “cynical, ignorant, expensive lies.” Read it for yourself and decide if you agree.

But I assume that most reviews are ridiculously subjective anyway. Wine reviewers typically roll out a list of flavors, sometimes running on to ten to twelve flavors or aromas. And if you read two independent reviews, they usually are completely different in terms of the flavors.

Maybe it’s because I can’t imagine spending $200 and up on a trophy wine and salting it away in a cellar until I’m dead.  I’d rather enjoy wine sooner, and preferably at a lower price. Take any review and treat it as a suggestion rather than the gospel truth. Try not to wait until the bitter end to drink your fancy wine – if possible, get enough bottles of a good wine and open one per year to see how they are developing.

Posted by: David Stewart | July 19, 2013

The Dirty Secrets of Champagne?

It’s clear to me now: French Champagne is the triumph of turning trash into treasure.

The first time I can remember buying a bottle of champagne was in 1988. I bought it in anticipation of the birth of our first child. The hospital staff offered to let me keep the bottle in their refrigerator (so long as it was wrapped up in foil) and we toasted Anne’s arrival in the universe.

Of course, it wasn’t actually champagne, but an Oregon sparkling wine from Argyle Winery designated “methode champenoise.” That’s because the Champagne region of France has been quite successful in prosecuting unauthorized uses of their region’s name.

Is it only exclusivity that makes Champagne’s sparklers so expensive?

The theory advanced on the English Wikipedia page for Champagne’s origin is that the region is too cold and wet to produce mature grapes with sufficient sugar and ripeness to product good quality wine. How could Champagne compete with the likes of Burgundy to the south with their more favorable climate?

The answer of course is in the “methode” of a second fermentation. The first fermentation is quite natural and produces a lower alcohol wine. Then man intervenes and engineers a secondary fermentation, which produces bubbles. In a flash, a poor wine becomes the tipple of kings and hip hop stars.

Of course, “a flash” takes at least 15 months of bottle aging, a week of mechanical riddling, disgorgement of the sediment, dosing with sugar, corking and labeling. Such processing means that there is considerable investment of capital and time. Repeated for over 300 million bottles per year.

But this is only part of the story. The consumer pays for this investment by the vintner, but also for the reputation French Champagne has built up. After all, the kings of France were crowned in Reims, which is the largest city in the region. How better to advance your fortunes than to make your local beverage the literal “drink of kings.”

There are other ways in which the farmers of Champagne are turning lead into gold. One recent blog post complained about the dumping of Paris garbage on the vineyards, injecting liquid iron into the soil to push yields and extreme use of pesticides. I’m not sure any of these are any more surprising than the practices of factory farms in the US but they are not flattering.

There are many less costly options. I tasted a wonderful sparkler from Volnay recently. Some French houses have offshoots in California. Spanish cava and Italian proseco are terrific options. And here in Oregon, there are fine choices from Argyle, Soter and the Dobbes Family. I suppose if I had to toast a grandchild some day, I would have many options to consider.

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,070 other followers