Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monterey stars shine brightly in the wine fermament

by Dwight Casimere

The eve of the 13th Annual Monterey Great Wine Escape Weekend began with a rather auspicious sign, the most incredible star-filled clear night of the fall season. The stars shone in all their glory. They shimmered in stark relief against the nighttime sky over Monterey Bay. Orion was visible with his belt and sword on full display--a rare astrological experience. The abundance of stars was a prelude to the multiplicity of wine ‘stars’ that would reveal themselves over the next few days.

A behind the scenes look reveals that Monterey is the heart and soul of America’s wine industry, with an ideal grape growing climate and a stellar array or award-winning wines.

Over the course of the next three days, the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association created a series of experiences that allowed the wines to show themselves in all their glory against the panoramic backdrop of Monterey Bay and the Carmel and Salinas Valleys. The total wine experience was akin to that of watching the stars shimmer in the nighttime sky.

A tour of Salinas Valley, conducted by D’Arrigo Brothers Andy Boy vegetable producers, led by Owners Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin and her father, John D’Arrigo meandered through the lush Salinas Valley, the literal market basket of the entire nation. Expansive fields of Broccoli, Broccoli Rabe, Cauliflower, Fennel, Romaine Hearts, Strawberries and a relative newcomer, Cactus, a staple on most Mexican American tables that is quickly gaining grown as a new gourmet discovery in specialty markets and kitchens around the country. “We’re starting to produce wine grapes on the slopes alongside our vegetables and we plan to release a vintage within the next year or two,” D’Arrigo-Martin told our group. “It will be interesting to see the reaction to our expansion into the wine making area. It just seems to us to be a logical extension to what we do here.”

The following day’s tour of Carmel Valley brought the entire experience into full perspective. Salina is the vegetable basket of the entire country. The valley and its surrounding hills are among the most picturesque locals in the world, rivaling the south of France and the rolling hills of Tuscany. It is home to a number of venerable Hollywood celebrities like Doris Day and Clint Eastwood. It is also home to many of the wine world’s biggest stars as well. Driving through the Carmel Valley, the names on the signposts roll off the tongue, Mondavi, Chalone, Morgan, Hahn, Estancia, Talbott. A visit to the tasting rooms nestled along the quaint streets of Carmel Village was a highlight of the weekend and a life-changing experience that will live long in memory, even as the taste of the superior wines lingers on my mental palette.

A fabulous luncheon hosted by owners Bob and Patti Brower at the Petite Chateau, Château Julien Estate, showcased their wines along with those of Jack Galante and Dawn White of Galante Vineyards and Cima Collina wines. “We created Chateau Julien 28 years ago when we moved from the East Coast to the Carmel Valley to follow our dream,” Brower told me, over a glass of his spectacular Private Reserve Chardonnay, while standing on the terrace with its expansive view of the vineyards and surrounding foothills. There were only 10 wineries here at the time, but now its grown to become one of the largest grape growing areas in California. More than 40 thousand acres of wine grapes are now grown here.

“Our winemaker, Bill Anderson, has been with us from day one. We enjoy what we do here and plan to stay for a very long time.”

The winery is very visible off Carmel Road and is marked by its distinctive buildings, which are right out of a picture book of the French countryside.

“’Chateau’ is what we’re all about,” Brower said emphatically. “Julien is the name that we liked for a son, at the time. So the idea is that this is our ‘baby’, our project.”

The Reserve Chardonnay is the most outstanding and award-winning wine to come out of Chateau Julien. “Our Reserve Chardonnay is stirred ‘sur lies’’ (A French wine term which means, literally, on the lees—wine that is allowed to ferment and age in contact with the dead yeast cells that remain after initial fermentation along with contact with the leaves and stems. It adds additional character and a toasty quality to the wine and is similar to the effect steeping tea).

“We started it as a project in ’89 or stirring the wine in the barrels. It gives a creaminess to the wine and yet, we are not letting the wine undergo malelactic fermentation. The result is that it gives a really lovely, light elegant character to the wine. Then we moved on to our ‘la conviviance’ program, which is the hallmark of what we do at Chateau Julien. La Conviviance in French means ‘enjoying the good life.’There is nothing more that we do in the wine business than enjoy the good life; good wine, good food, good people. That’s exactly what we’re all about here at Chateau Julien and this wine celebrates that.”

Chateau Julien wines are readily available at most stores that sell wine and specialty wine shops. There are several levels of offerings that are available at every price-point, making the wines approachable and a comfortable fit for consumers with an eye toward value. Vintner’s Collection and Private Reserve labels cater more to the discriminating palate of serious collectors and wine connoisseurs while the Estate Vineyard bottlings highlight more single vineyard characteristics that make them the perfect wine for dinner.

Château Julien's Estate Vineyard wines were released in Spring 2001, with the first harvest from the winery's vineyard in Lockwood Valley. Produced from low yield vines within various lots throughout the vineyard, these wines have been overseen by the winemaker since the vines were planted in 1996. Each varietal is aged in the winery's "Chai" (barrel room) in new and one year old French and American oak barrels, and produced in limited quantities to maintain the quality and true varietal character representative of the vineyard. Varietals include: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah.

Barrel Selected wines are produced from grapes grown on the estate and in the Carmel Valley. The wines are carefully managed to give consistency and value. Aged one to three years in French and American oak, they have won numerous accolades over the years for their mild tannins and forward fruit. They are wines that are extremely food friendly and approachable for the budget conscious who still want a great bottle of wine.

The winery also owns the Emerald Bay label, which is an exceptional value-priced wine for everyday consumption. There’s no ‘shame in its game’ with its bright fruit flavor from stainless steel fermentation and a hint of barrel agiing through blending. Available in Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and White Zinfandel, it’s a terrific ‘go to’ wine for all occasions.

A quick swirl in the glass and a hearty taste confirmed everything that was said by the owners about their wines. Bon Conviviance!

Next week: “Tie-ing’ one on in Carmel Village!

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