I'd say we have a drinks revolution on our hands except that the whole process moves at such a crawl. Deep in Mexico, a small core of liquor iconoclasts is challenging the accepted wisdom that regal tequila is the country's true spirit by rallying round a quaff—mezcal, sometimes spelled mescal—that revels in its primitive traditions, its low-tech methods and even its quirkiness.
Picture a village thousands of feet up in the mountains of Oaxaca, a smoldering wood fire smoking the cores of the spiky agave plant, a horse slowly turning a grinding wheel, and a lone craftsman working at a still made of clay and you see the new face of mezcal. The snail's pace and the centuries of culture are the charms of this alternative to tequila.
Mezcal has long been considered the raw peasant drink of Mexico, the one with the worm in the bottle. (Don't eat it, don't even drink the usually bottom-grade stuff it steeps in.) Meanwhile, tequila was refining itself, becoming an appellation of origin in the image of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Cognac. Now, proponents of artisanal mezcal advance the category by decrying tequila's so-called industrialization, while celebrating the latitude allowed mezcal as a sort of antiappellation.
These spirits spring from a common plant type: agave, or maguey. In a sense, tequila is a subset of mezcal, specifically made from blue agave and produced in the state of Jalisco and in certain other regions. It takes its name from the city of Tequila, near which most of the spirit arises.
Mezcal was originally a generic name for agave spirits made in Mexico. However, Mezcal (capital M and with a z) has recently acquired an appellation, and while the type of plant used is not regulated, its origin is. Mezcal is officially made in Oaxaca (from which the majority comes) as well as in several municipalities of other states. The name derives from the native language Nahuatl's word for maguey, mexcalmetl.
The latitude in choosing maguey can be an asset. Former sommelier Richard Betts, who now makes wine and imports Sombra Mezcal, looks at blue agave as sort of an easy out. The plant used for tequila is larger and yields more spirit. The smaller espadin agave, typically used to make mezcal, has lower yields and is harder to work with.
Ron Cooper, who has a collection of seven single-village mezcals called Del Maguey, refers to espadin agave as the genetic mother of tequila, explaining that there are as many as 30 different types used to make mezcal. "They're not stuck with a monoculture that grows weaker. With tequila, everyone is looking for a flavor profile that is very narrow."
John Rexer, who developed Ilegal Mezcal, points to proper harvesting—at full ripeness—as another plus to mezcal done well. "In el campo, in the countryside, they call it sin prisa, without rush," he says.
The obvious flavor differential is in mezcal's smokiness. This comes from the process used to to extract juice from the agave, and is considered a selling point. It takes days and yields little. Rexer describes the mezcal method as being like a clambake, featuring an oven lined with rock, burning mesquite or wild oak. The hearts of agave are piled in and covered with earth.
The juice is extracted by grinding the hearts in millstones turned by a horse or donkey. The juice is then fermented outdoors, often using airborne microbes as yeast. The stills—copper pot, or clay with bamboo pipes—can also vary, as will the techniques of the particular mezcalero making it. He can distill it once or twice and to varying strengths, and will cut different portions of run to achieve his middle cut.
Betts, Cooper and Rexer all say that altitude is key, or in Betts' words, "The higher you get, the prettier it is." This sort of sense of place is a draw to Betts, who makes connections between wine and mezcal. "I wanted intellectual value, a background. Mezcal is as transparent as wine with its terroir."
These fans of mezcal play up the role of flavors other than smoke. Rexer reels off a litany of tasting notes, including chocolate, earth, mineral, pepper. "It's not one-note, it's very complex." His Mezcal Añejo ($110), while toasty and smoky, pops with sweet fruit, banana, cocoa and even leather. Betts' Sombra ($45), a clear Mezcal, is slightly smoky, but more clearly delivers bright citrus, mint and bread dough flavors. Cooper's Chichicapa ($70) brings mint, citrus, salt and oak as well.
These men wax poetic about the centuries of experience and the culture that goes into producing mezcal. And they have steeped themselves in this culture to develop their liquids. Rexer recalls going from village to village, asking who made the best mezcal, seeking out that person and then hanging around for a couple of days. Cooper describes another kind of transparency between the spirit, the makers and their heritage: "You look in people's eyes and you see back thousands of years."
March 30, 2011
What Holds True for the Future of Sake?
What happened in Japan is tragic and devastating. Fortunately all of the people associated with the breweries we work with have been accounted for and are safe. However there is still the future of sake to think about. Many people might have worries about consuming Japanese food and drink for fears of radiation. So we ask, "How bad will the situation in Japan be for the future of sake?"
John Gauntner, the world's leading non-Japanese sake experts, has enlightened us with an answer.
"I will be honest with you: the effect this has on exports is a function of the perception that folks overseas have on the situation. There is no danger to any sake produced in Japan. Sure, tons of product - both fermenting and in storage - was lost in the earthquake. But from what made it through, the main real problem will be shipping it amidst a damaged infrastructure and priorities of getting food and fuel, etc. to those that need it in the part of Tohoku area that was affected. Again, please remember this is a fraction of the region - while the devastation there is hard to describe, most of the Tohoku region and the rest of Japan were not affected. Water comes from deep wells and is not affected (unless the wells have collapsed of course, but they could be re-dug). The areas damaged by the tsunami are about 4 km (2.5 miles or so) inland along the ocean in Tohoku, and represent a miniscule amount of total rice farmland; furthermore, the best sake rice is grown way out in the western half of Japan, nowhere near the devastated region. So neither rice nor water will be an issue. There are four breweries near the power plant, but none are exported. But the question will be how people overseas react to the tone that much of the media is adopting toward all of this. So the only ones that might speak of future problems are those looking for headlines that get attention. I realize that this might not make the best story, however, it is the truth.
Also the secondary economic impact is worth speaking of. Most sake is consumed locally, or rather, most breweries sell most of their sake locally, even if they export or distribute nationally. But no one in that region feels like drinking sake now, so more than one brewer has asked to promote the sake of the region within and without Japan to help ensure that they can still maintain some sales.
So how can we help? By guarding assiduously against the hype that is sure to come. There will no doubt be a whole host of folks avoiding sake and anything else from Japan for fears of radiation. While it is not my intention to underplay the reality and significance of those dangers, nor to comment on the persons, organizations or technology behind them, it is very much my intention to assert that by the time it gets to consumers in the US it has been verified for safety several times. Sake is brewed in thick-walled kura, with water and rice very, very far from the nuclear disaster. (Anyone having gone through SPCI and especially SPCII will be aware of this!) To ignorantly and/or fearfully bias against sake, Japanese food, or anything Japanese because of what is happening in a very small and contained region can only be detrimental to Japan, Japan’s recovery, the economy everywhere, and of course, the sake world. If you want to help, vigilantly guard against hype."
WALLA WALLA, Wash. (March 21, 2011) L’Ecole N° 41, one of Washington State’s leading producers of hand-crafted wine, announced the spring roll-out of an updated logo and package design today. The classic new look not only evokes the winery’s heritage but also reflects the quality of the wine in the bottle, explains Marty Clubb who owns the winery with his wife Megan.
The new label features an elegant, upscale illustration of the historic Walla Walla schoolhouse and continues to tie L’Ecole to its iconic location. At the same time, the redesigned package reflects the Clubbs’ investment in L’Ecole’s Walla Walla estate vineyards and their commitment to state-of-the-art winemaking. “Our label’s whimsical schoolhouse drawing has served us well for many years and will always be an important part of our history,” says second-generation owner and managing winemaker Marty Clubb, “but as the Washington wine industry has matured, so has L’Ecole. Our redesigned label reflects the extensive experience and knowledge we have gained since the winery was founded nearly three decades ago and the ultra-premium quality of our wines that our customers have come to expect from L’Ecole, vintage after vintage.”
The new label design creates a clear delineation between the winery’s Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley product tiers. L’Ecole’s Columbia Valley wines rely on the winery’s relationships with the state’s top vineyards to craft richness and complexity in such favorites as L’Ecole Columbia Valley Semillon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Walla Walla Valley wines showcase L’Ecole’s hometown vineyards, including such acclaimed wines as Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot and Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Also included in the winery’s Walla Walla tier are L’Ecole’s signature blended reds, Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee and Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee. The new package was inspired, in part, by the Apogee and Perigee labels, though they too have been slightly revised to feature the new schoolhouse illustration.
Most consumers will begin to see the new package on shelves and in restaurants in May of this year with the full portfolio transitioned to the new design by the end of the summer.
Founded in 1983 in the Walla Walla Valley, L’Ecole N° 41 is one of Washington State’s pioneering, artisan, family-owned wineries. Housed in the historic Frenchtown School depicted on the label, L’Ecole has earned international acclaim for producing consistently expressive and distinctive wines. L’Ecole has been honored nine consecutive years by Wine & Spirits Magazine as Winery of the Year, becoming the second Washington winery inducted into its prestigious Hall of Fame.
March 17, 2011
Stephen Tanzer Int'l Wine Cellar Mar/Apr 2011
Focus on Southern Italy - Ian D'Agata
2009 Valle dell'Acate Il Frappato Vittoria Frappato Sicilia - 90
2009 Valle dell'Acate Case Ibidini Nero d'Avola Sicilia Rosso - 89
2008 Valle dell'Acate Cerasuolo di Vittoria Rosso Sicilia - 87 (2007 in stock- 90 WA)
2008 Alberto Longo Cacc'e Mitte di Lucera - 88 (2005 in stock)
2007 Alberto Longo Le Cruste Puglia Rosso - 91 (2007 in stock)
To all Vine Connections suppliers, distributors, and the VC Team,
Many of you have been following the news of the devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan, and we appreciate your concern for us (Ed fortunately got back a week ago) and our brewers. I confirmed this past Saturday that our sake/logistics/Buddhist/Shinto gurus, John Gauntner and Mark Schumacher and families, are fine. I got word this morning that all of our brewers are accounted for and are ok. Some who were in the relative vicinity lost power/water and had some damage to their brewing facilities, but nothing major from what I have heard. Some are still cut off from basic supplies, so that is a developing issue. And of course, we are praying that the nuclear power plants in that region get shut down properly and soon.
So for now, the news is better than what it could have been for our friends over there. Still plenty to worry and pray about for the people of Japan, though, so keep thinking positive thoughts and wishes for them.
We will notify further when we get updates, and any news regarding how this may affect our shipments of sake out of Japan, if at all.
Ed & Nick
Moris family (with just one R) came from Spain more than 250 years ago. The family owns a big estate in the pretty hills town of Massa Marittima in the heart of Maremma, since generations. The owners of Moris Farms are 3 brothers and 3 sisters. One of the brothers chose the English name Moris Farms in 1971 when they bought a new estate located few miles South Grosseto, for this reason the name of the company has an S at the end.
The Moris family has dedicated itself for generations to agriculture and over the years have increased their interest and specialization in viticulture. With this investment of interest, attention and ambition, they have been rewarded with the utmost of satisfaction of sharing their quality product with wine enthusiast around the world.
This article covers the town and wine region of Maremma - the other part of Tuscany, less touristy, less chic, less rich than say Florence, Sienna or Chianti - but no less fascinating. One charming Sangiovese - the 2006 Moris Farms Morellino is highlighted (we have the 2009 in stock).