Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

May 2019 ©Rhoda Stewart

The Zinfandel Experience, as the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) event has recently been called, took place January 19 in San Francisco. This year, one of ZAP’s brightest stars was missing: Kent Rosenblum.

Kent Rosenblum – Photo copy of cover of “Celebration” program cover

One of the three founding members of ZAP, Kent died September 5th, 2018, unexpectedly, according to some reports. When I heard of his death, my heart went numb. W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” came immediately to mind:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. . . . .
[For] He is Dead”

Immortalized in the 1994 British film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the lines of this poem were etched in my memory when I left the first screening of that bitter/sweet film.

Last September, I felt as if it had been written for Kent.

Kent’ was one of the brightest stars in the world of Zinfandel, his contributions and his legacy a product of love of the grape and wine, not love of money. Kent’s work ethic was “Make wine; have fun; make money.” However, “make money” never turned into “get rich” in Kent’s ethic. In fact, his view of making money reminded me of Caleb Garth’s words to his wife in George Eliot’s 19th century novel Middlemarch (1875). Caleb, having 5 children all of whom he wanted to educate, depended on his reputation as good farm manager, work he loved, to support his family. Having just gotten a new and lucrative contract, he was joyous. As he said to his wife,

“It’s a fine bit of work, Susan! A man without a family would be glad to do it for nothing.”
“Yes,” she replied, “but mind you don’t.” (278, MM. Bert G. Hornback, ed. New York: W.W. Norton &Co., 1977)

When you have a family to support, making money is important. Getting rich is something else altogether.

Kent had established his career as a respected veterinarian of small animals and exotics; winemaking began as a hobby. But he caught the winemaking bug, and began devoting his evenings to his wine after a full day at his animal hospital. By 1984, with 2 small children added to his family his wife demanded that the winery yield a profit or be abandoned. Having no choice but to agree, Kent was ready to face the unhappy truth when he got a call about some bulk Hendry Napa Valley Zin available. This serendipitous phone call became the key to the commercial world of wine, enabling him to meet his wife’s demands and fulfill the last requirement of his work ethic: make money. And launch his tiny garage winery into the big time.

That he did get rich was, for him, merely a by-product of doing well what he loved. So it was a bitter pill for him to swallow, according to his winemaker daughter, when Rosenblum Cellars, born of love in his garage in Alameda, attracted the attention of the British alcohol beverage company, Diageo Brands, which in 2008 offered a price Kent’s chief investors couldn’t refuse, and he was forced to sell his beloved winery. (2008)

I had spoken to Kent for the last time just six months before his death, in SF at the 2018 Zap Experience event. Although I was momentarily shocked by his physical appearance that day—he was stooped, his face deeply lined, and he walked with a shuffle—he seemed to have aged 15 years since I had last seen him just 5 years earlier—his greeting was nonetheless as cheerful as always, and his hug as warm. Before I could ask him if he were OK, he indicated that there was something on his mind he wanted to talk to me about. He expressed concerns that ZAP had not given me the support that he felt I and my book (A Zinfandel Odyssey, San Rafael: Practical Winery and Vineyard, 2002) deserved. I knew what he was talking about, and understood his concern, but it was old history, and I wanted to tell him it was no big deal. But the event was a busy place, and he was helping his daughter with Rock Wall wines, so we talked only briefly. I did get a chance to taste a few of his daughter’s wines a bit later, and told Kent I would get over to Alameda soon to visit their winery. I didn’t, however, and the next news I heard of Kent was that he had died.

I felt as if a piece of my heart died along with him

Kent was truly one of the best. Not a perfect person, but one of the most decent and fair-minded you could ever meet. I can’t tell you how much of a gap in my life his death has left. When I met him fall of 1989, he was giving a lecture to a group of wine educators at his Rosenblum Cellars. I set up an interview with him that day for my second two-part report on Zinfandel, asking the question, “Where is the money in Zinfandel,” assigned by the publisher of Practical Winery and Vineyards (I suspect the same question his wife had been asking him in 1984), Kent told me in that interview about his joint venture with George Hendry, and how that gift from heaven, so to speak, saved his fledgling winery and established him as a premier Zinfandel producer.


Zinfandel clusters from George Hendry Vineyard – Block 22

©Rhoda Stewart

My Zinfandel report Part II came out in PWV, Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec 1991. Following the publication, Kent and a couple of enthusiastic Zinfandel producers from the Sierra Foothills region encouraged me to continue my research into a book. They told me I should interview all the old-timer growers and get their stories while they were still available. As well, one much respected Zin-loving journalist told me I would have to get “down south,” meaning Cucamonga Valley and Don Galleano, if I intended my book on Zinfandel to be complete.
So I decided to take the plunge, and applied to my college for a full-year sabbatical, knowing that I would have to see it through once approved and underway. But with support and encouragement by such as Kent Rosenblum, and accommodation by my English Department, I believed I could pull it off . . . and I did. A Zinfandel Odyssey (ZO), published by Practical Winery and Vineyard (PWV), came out in January 2002.

Cover, front and back, of A Zinfandel Odyssey

A veterinarian first, winemaker later, Kent soon became known as Dr. Zin, and for those who didn’t know, the license plate on his van would enlighten them.

One of my last interviews with him was on a warm and sunny day in April 2000.  We sat in front of the winery under umbrellas and enjoyed the mild breezes off Alameda Bay. Over a lunch of burritos and salsa, I was able to ask him the last question on my mind—was his winery was just one more stage along his adventurous road of life or was this going to be his final adventure. His answer was unequivocal.

“Oh, no!” he exclaimed, “This is a life-long venture. You don’t leave what you love!” So when I learned in 2008 that he had sold his Rosenblum Cellars, I was surprised. I never would have imagined that he would have followed in the path of a few of his Zin contemporaries and taken the money over his joy, the love of his life. At the Celebration of his Life event last October, his daughter cleared up my doubts: He didn’t want to follow the money over his joy but his shareholders did. A bitter pill to swallow, indeed, his daughter said.

But time moves on, the clocks don’t stop, and dogs still bark . . .and winemakers move on, too. In the spirit of a true optimist and adventurer, Kent immediately founded The Rock Wall Wine Company with his elder daughter also in Alameda (and with a better view of the Bay and the two Bay bridges!) . Together they made their first Rock Wall vintage that same year with fruit from a few of his favorite vineyards.

The other two “Rs” of the ZAP founding trio (Ridge and Ravenswood) have moved on, too.

Joel Peterson, founder/winemaker of Ravenswood in the mid-1970s, in 2001 received an offer from Constellation Brands that his investors couldn’t refuse, and acquired Ravenswood. Joel became General Manager and Head Winemaker of Ravenswood Winery for Constellation Brands. A remarkable achievement, but missing the joy of his earlier dream, Joel went back to his roots a few years later by establishing a new small winery named “Once & Future.” In his own words, Joel describes his new label as “the return to the original vision I had for Ravenswood so many years ago—a small project specializing in wines from unique older vineyards, made with sensitivity to place and in a style that I personally love and believe in.” (From https://www.onceandfuturewine.com)

Paul Draper, winemaker since 1969 for Ridge Vineyards, decided in 2016 that his 80th birthday was a good time to step down from active winemaking, while remaining Chairman of the Board and advisor to his winemaking team. Apart from change in ownership in 1986, when the original owners sold to a Japanese company, neither Paul Draper nor Ridge Vineyards have undergone any other significant changes . . . until 2016. Yet the team of winemakers that he brought up over the years is so schooled in the Paul Draper (Ridge) style that probably no one realized that the wines of the past 10 years were primarily the work of Draper’s team. As a result, its wines have remained balanced and consistent in the style envisioned, developed, and perpetuated by Draper. While his 80th birthday and retirement formed a momentous change for Draper, yet hardly a ripple will be felt in the style and character of the wines he brought to the global wine world. Despite changes, some things never change.

Then there is also Tom Mackey, winemaker for St. Francis Winery, Sonoma, who stepped down from that position in 2011. Not about to stop there, Tom today has his own label, Tom Mackey Cellars. “With starting our own winery in 2014,” writes Mackey, “we look to the future 41 years in this business.” (MackeyCellars.com)

As for ZAP’s legacy, it is far-reaching, as are the legacies of its three founders. Paul Draper and Joel Peterson are rightly credited with being among the first to recognize the historical value and viticultural potential in the pre-prohibition Zinfandel vines, vines dating to the 1880s, especially in the North Bay (including Mendocino County) and Sierra Foothills regions of Amador and El Dorado. Known for treating the fruit from their historic old Zinfandel vineyards with the same respect and priority treatment they gave to their French varieties, they nonetheless developed distinctive styles for their Zinfandels. While Draper was seeking balance and consistency in both the vineyards and his wines, Peterson was looking for a more extracted style, one that yielded a strong tannins backbone to sustain the wines through a few years in the cellar. Collectively, through ZAP, Peterson, Draper, and Rosenblum were the pioneers in developing awareness of Zinfandel as a world class red wine. As the number of serious Zinfandel producers increased from a few dozen in 1991 when ZAP was launched to several hundred members over the next 30 years, so did the number of consumers of red Zinfandel increase. Prices per ton of grapes from old (pre-prohibition) Zinfandel vines also increased dramatically for those growers who had the wisdom to keep their old vines in the ground through hard times. Acreage of new vines also increased dramatically.

As for Kent’s legacy, his style took a slightly different bent from his two ZAP co-founders. He believed that Zinfandel should taste good at every stage, from the harvested grapes to the fermentation tank to barrel to bottle. “The best red wines in general . . .will taste absolutely stunning right at the press, and they will taste and smell absolutely stunning all the way through the process until they are bottled. These are the wines that will still be absolutely stunning in 20 years,” said Kent during one of my many interviews with him.

In this philosophy, Kent shared a view with Jed Steele, owner of Steele Wines, Lake County, who also must be credited with establishing Zinfandel as a world-class red wine grape while he was winemaker in the 1970s for Edmeades of Mendocino County, and later Kendall-Jackson wines. “Everyone likes Zinfandel because it gives pleasure at every stage,” Steele told me when I interviewed him for my Zinfandel book. “You can savor it in the cellar as it matures, you can savor it at release, and you can lay it down for several years. Zinfandel represents a constant string of enjoyable moments. It’s the most hedonistic wine I know,” he concluded. (ZO 227)

Steele was one of the first, along with Paul Draper and Joel Peterson, to give Zinfandel priority treatment in winemaking, specifically, for Steele, ageing it in Nevers French oak barrels for 6 – 16 months, a bold step at that time. “Old Vine Mendocino ridge top Zinfandel,” he told me, “is a classic match of grape variety with a particular climate, one that leads to the ultimate in winemaking fruit.” ZO, 226. While other top Zinfandel producers have moved on by going back to their roots, Jed has moved on by staying with his Steele Wines and changing with the times with a second label (Shooting Star), and other practices to meet his goal of providing well-made varietal wines at affordable prices, Zinfandel being one of his small but consistent offerings.

As for Zinfandel itself, its great charm is still its luscious fruit, whether vinified into the more elegant style of a Ridge Zin, the more extracted style of Ravenswood, or as the fruit forward style of Kent Rosenblum Cellars (and taken to its extreme by Turley Wines).

All styles have their fans, and their detractors. Old-timers like the late George Zeni of the Mendocino Ridge Top appellation felt that modern zins had strayed too far from what Zinfandel was supposed to be like. In my last interview with him at his vineyard high up on Fish Rock Road in Feb. 1999, Zeni gave me his final pronouncement on the subject: “Zinfandel producers have lost the Zinfandel flavor in the last 40 years. They are making Zinfandel too sweet. You were supposed to feel Zinfandel going down over your tongue” (ZO 253)

On the other side of the coin, a sly and knowledgeable Zin grower once told me that “roadsides are littered with broken egos [of winemakers who believed that highly extracted, tannic Zins that required 10 years in the cellar was the way to go].”

But whatever your tastes in a red Zinfandel, with so many producers making Zinfandel from regions north to Mendocino and south to Baja . . . there is a Zin for just about every taste that enjoys, above all else, the rich, spicy fruit character that is the hallmark of a well-made red Zinfandel.

For this we have to thank those early stars in California’s wine history who saw the potential in Zinfandel to make an iconic California red wine, and devoted their lives to developing this potential into the best samples they could come up with, according to their own talents, lights, and available vineyards.

Kent certainly was one of the brightest of these early stars, and will live long in the memories of those who knew and loved him, and in the wines, born of love, that continue to carry his imprint, albeit with the slightly modifying feminine touch of his winemaker daughter, through Rock Wall Wine Company . . . .which is in keeping with the true historical legacy of Zinfandel itself. People grew it, made it, and stayed with it even through the 13 years of Prohibition and beyond, not for the money they could make from it, but because they loved it.


Barolo–In Baja?

©2018 Rhoda Stewart

The highly esteemed Nebbiolo grape is grown in just two places in the world as a  significant wine grape variety: the Piedmont region of Italy; and Baja California, Mexico. In Baja, its history dates only to the mid-1940s; in Piedmont, it history dates back hundreds of years.  In both regions, Nebbiolo is a challenging grape to work with.  It produces lightly-colored red wines that can be tannic in youth, and can take years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics.


Neviolo (Nebbiolo) vineyard, LLano Colorado, Baja 

My first encounter with Nebbiolo was during a visit to Baja California in April 2011, at the invitation of Camillo Magoni, winemaker and vineyard manager for Vinos L.A. Cetto in Valle de Guadalupe from 1965 to 2013.  Camillo had asked me to come down to see what was happening in the Valle since my visit there in 1996 as part of my Zinfandel research. Among the first vineyards he showed me was the Nebbiolo.   “Nebbiolo,” he declared, “makes one of the greatest wines in the world.”

But it is a wine you have to wait for, he said, which means you have to wait for your money.   “You have to wait for Nebbiolo.  It is late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for five years, occasionally longer.  One year, the wine needed an extra six months in bottle, so we waited, even though we were sold out of the last vintage.  Again, it cost us some money, but we maintained our prestige and reputation, which was important to us.  For this reason, and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir or Syrah. Even though it makes, I think, one of the greatest wines in the world, not too many producers like to wait five years for the money.”

Nebbiolo arrived in Valley de Guadalupe of Baja in 1946, brought from Italy by Esteban Ferro, winemaker from 1932 – 1954 for Bodegas Santo Tomás.  This original planting, a 50-acre dry-farmed block, was subsequently acquired by L.A. Cetto.  It was later converted to trellis, and drip irrigation was added.


1946 Nebbiolo vine – Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico (Rhoda Stewart photo)

Magoni, who had left his home in Milano to become Cetto’s winemaker and vineyard manager, believed that Nebbiolo was well-suited to Baja’s red clay soil and climate.  And so between 1971 and 2006, he established an  additional 270 acres of Nebbiolo in Cetto’s Llano Colorado and adjoining San Vincente Valleys vineyards, some 85 kilometers south of Ensenada. By 2011, Vinos L.A. Cetto had 330 acres of Nebbiolo, which is the largest planting of Nebbiolo outside the Piedmont region of Italy.


Nebbiolo Vineyard, Llano Colorado, Baja   (Rhoda Stewart Photo)

One of the best wine tasting experiences I’ve ever had was of 15 Nebbiolo wines Magoni made between 1991 and 2007 for Vinos L.A. Cetto.

IMG00046-20110715-1117 - 15 Nebbiolo - LA Cetto, Tijuana

15 Nebbiolos, Vinos L.A. Cetto, Tijuana (Rhoda Stewart Photo)

We had spent the July 2011 afternoon in Cetto’s Llano Colorado Nebbiolo vineyards, and later, back in Cetto’s Tijuana offices, he invited me to a vertical tasting of all his Nebbiolos. The wines were all sound—balanced, complex, with good fruit and integrated tannins, and a long, lingering finish.  And there wasn’t the slightest hint of new oak to interfere with the wines’ elegance and complexity.

IMG00052-20110715-1342 - Camillo presiding over Nebbiolo tasting with Javier Flores and me - Tijuana

Camillo Magoni presiding over vertical tasting of 15 Nebbiolos (Rhoda Stewart photo)

Compared to the farmers of Barolo, Camillo Magoni was fortunate in that there was no established tradition of winemaking in Baja, and no elder family members to offend, such as the Barolo boys had to contend with, when he arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in 1965 to become L.A. Cetto’s winemaker.  By the time the Barolo Boys had achieved their revolution in the Langhe Hills, Magoni had been making world-class Nebbiolo wines—Barolos—for decades.  Pretty much given sole authority on winemaking and viticulture practices in la Valle de Guadalupe, he felt no need to journey to the hills of Burgundy to discover winemaking secrets!

And he always knew not to smother his wines in oak.  His ageing protocol for his Baja “barolos” was American oak, just 30% new, and for 12 – 15 months.  “Wine comes from grapes, not from wood,” he once told me, when discussing his use of oak for his wines, including for Nebbiolo.

IMG00050-20110715-1317 15 vintages of Nebbiolo

15 Nebbiolos by Camillo Magoni for L.A. Cetto – Tijuana, Baja Mexico (Rhoda Stewart Photo)

Although he never did receive the fame, fortune, and the heady brush with glamour the Barolo Boys won with their blockbuster “smothered-in-oak” Barolos, his Nebbiolos, his “Baja Barolos,” have nonetheless won much local and international acclaim. And by providing his Nebbiolos with ample opportunity to express the distinctive character and flavor of the Baja terroir, he has succeeded in attracting aspiring Mexican chefs back to the region to continue their careers making Mexican food grown in the soil of Baja, perfect to accompany Camillo’s wonderful Baja wines—top red varieties produced by Vinos L.A. Cetto being Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel,

In Wine ValleysA Journey through Wineries and Other Points of Interest in Baja California (Puente, Esperanza Bustillo. Mexico: Ambardiseño, S.C., 2009), Hugo D’Acosta, Oenologist for Casa de Piedra, Valle de Guadalupe, and others, write,

“Mexican wine is representative of our cultural mosaic. . . . the presence of a national wine in the culinary culture, which finds itself enriched by its native products  . . .is a component that refreshes and solidifies our culinary patrimony.” (22)

Jesús Diez, Oenologist, Viticultura – Espacio del Vino, writes that he returned “to Mexico this century with the firm idea that national wine should be recognized by Mexicans. . . I know that the very nature of wine and its soils, sooner or later, makes our relationship with the terroir and our taste for the homegrown to be reborn. . . .Wine is a dynamic part of the new and changing Mexico.  (Wine Valleys, 24, 25)

Chilean-born José Durand, Oenologist, Sinergi (Valle de Guadalupe), finds in Mexican wines an “intensity, as well as the fact they are joyful, aromatic, full of shadings and subtleties, and with a solid structure and at the same time smooth.  As happens with food, people slowly have opened up towards their wines and, as a result, my expectations of growth of a year ago have been surpassed in terms of consumption, since Mexicans have made them a part of their lives and this is incredible.” (Wine Valleys, 27)

Guillermo Gonzáles Beristáin, Chef, Pangea Group, writes,  “ . . .the development of gastronomy goes hand-in-hand with that of winegrowers. . . . To be able to count with one’s own wines provides Mexican gastronomy with the possibility of being fuller and that a dynamics is created, as in a majority of other countries, where regional cooking is accompanied by the wines produced in their own regions.  We cannot forget that eating Mexican food requires Mexican wines.” (Wine Valleys, 29)

In the fog-shrouded hills of Langhe, second generation Barolo Boys (and Girls), have found their famous fathers difficult to work with.  Yet one thing remains true, writes Silvia Marchetti in her Guardian report, “The Langhe, Piedmont . . . ”:   “When a farmer offers you a glass of Barolo that he has made, he is offering you a piece of his soul.” (www.theGuardian.com)

When Camillo Magoni  offers you a tasting of his Nebbiolos made from grapes grown in the red soil of Baja California, sun-drenched and caressed by the sea breezes off the deep blue Pacific, he is offering you, if not a piece of his soul, then a ruby-stained window into his soul.  That, too, is a memorable experience!

I was having dinner Christmas Eve 2015 at restaurant in the beautiful Sonoma Valley, California.  My dining companion asked me to choose a red from the wine list. As I scanned the list my eye lit upon a Chianti Classico for about $45.  Then a Barolo caught my eye—for $190!  Both are excellent Italian red wines.  The price differential, however, was breathtaking, especially when one considers that it wasn’t that long ago, perhaps 30 years, that Barolos were pretty much unknown to the world, and locally in northern Italy only as (to paraphrase an old Barolo farmer) an unpleasant sweetish wine that tasted more like bad Marsala than one of Italy’s finest red wines.  I chose the Chianti Classico for our dinner, and, intrigued by the price differential with the Barolo, resolved on delving into the history behind this wine’s rapid emergence from obscure Italian red wine to Italy’s most prestigious.

Nebbiolo, the red grape native to the Langhe Hills of the Barolo appellation, travelled an uncertain road to recognition.  Until the 1970s, the region was dying from centuries of stagnation.  Barolo farmers were living in poverty.  They were lucky to get a dollar a bottle for their mediocre table wines.  Then something happened, a spark, that inspired one enterprising young Barolo farmer, Elio Altare, to take a short trip into Burgundy, a trip that revolutionized the course of history for the Langhe Hills of Barolo region, and its farmers.

This spark, according to Altare, was a hungry stomach, and is documented in a 2014 film The Barolo Boys.  (The Barolo Boys – Stuffilm Creativeye A.P.S., available through Amazon). The story that I discovered in this little film is intriguing.  In the opening scenes, we meet an older Elio Altare, whose family had farmed in the Langhe Hills of Barolo for 100 years. Altare explains to us that it was hunger that drove him as a young man in 1975 to do something about his plight as a Nebbiolo wine grape grower.  “All revolutions begin on an empty belly, “he says, speaking directly to the cameras.  “We were in real need, we were living in poverty. [Farming] was just about survival:  no profit, no investment, nothing.”  In 1969.when he was just 19, he says, they were still farming with ox.  By the time he had reached the age of 25 (1975) he was at the breaking point.  A buyer had come for the grapes, but the price was to be negotiated only after the grapes were picked.  “Can you imagine my frustration?  Nobody knew Barolo!” he exclaims.

So in 1976, driven by his frustration and his empty stomach, he got into his car and drove over the border to Burgundy, which was long known for its world-class wines.  Approaching one winery, he met the owner just as he was stepping into his Ferrari, and told him that he wanted to taste some wines.  The gentleman said he was just leaving for Cannes, where he kept his yacht.  Altare was shocked by the contrast between himself, who had to sleep in his car because he couldn’t afford a hotel room, and this French farmer.   “Why do these French [Burgundian] wines sell for as much as 20 times more than our Barolos?” he wondered to himself.

The answer was practically staring him in the face:  “Our Barolos didn’t bring pleasure,” he was forced to realize.  Altare didn’t bring back any secrets from France as to how the Burgundian winemakers achieved their success, but he did bring back a sense of a wine’s potential to achieve greatness, and when greatness is achieved, it brings pleasure.  And when a wine brings pleasure, wine lovers will pay a fair price for it. The question for Altare became how to bring out the greatness in his Barolos.

Barolo was traditionally just a table wine.  Every farmer had a vineyard, and the grapes and wine were a part of the farmers’ daily nutrition and income.  The wine sold for about  $1/bottle.  “For 100 years,” says Altare’s daughter in the film, “we had gasoline fumes [from the gasoline powered motors for the ventilation and heating fans], chicken shit, and wine in the same cellar.”  The containers for the wine were decades-old tonneaus and casks, the bigger and older the better. “No wonder the wine wasn’t good,” she added.

From wine journals being published about that time, Altare discovered two basic principles to producing greatness in wines, revolutionary principles for the Langhe Hills, commonplace by today’s standards:  green-harvesting (crop-thinning) to produce more richly flavored grapes; and ageing the wine in French oak barriques:  “We used to leave everything on the vine,” said one 89-year-old pruner in the film.  “We made a lot of red table wine.  Now, we have to leave grapes on the ground.”  This practice was bitterly opposed by older family members, who saw this practice as an “act of contempt,” said Chiara Boschis.  “There was this tension of searching for quality and more quality.  We really wanted to make the best wine in the world.”  


(The practice of cluster-thinning also caused great consternation even to California grape growers, especially Zinfandel growers, into the 1990s.)*

So the young Barolo farmers, understanding that such practices were necessary to create more alluring wines, persevered, going into their vineyards at dawn to take even more clusters off while their elders were still asleep. And since many of the best wines in the world were being aged in French oak barriques, Altare decided it was time for Barolo farmers to give them a try. “Why shouldn’t we experiment, too?” he queried.

In 1983, a wine-loving banker from Milan brought two French 225 liters barriques to Altare’s winery, the first such small oak casks brought into the Langhe Hills

The results of these combined practices of green harvest and ageing their Barolos in French oak barriques appeared in the enthusiastically-received 1985, ’86, and ’87 vintages.

Soon, French oak barriques had become a fixture throughout the wineries of the Langhe Hills, especially among the younger Barolo farmers.

Opus One Le Chai - Reduced

But implementing these practices, notably adopting French oak barriques for ageing, came with some heavy personal costs.  When Altare went into the family cellar and began destroying all the old casks and vats accumulated over decades, his father did not see these actions as a bold and progressive move towards making a great wine; he saw them as a gross affront. To these older Barolo farmers, should any of their oak casks be found to impart oak flavor to the wines, these wines were sold as bulk, and the casks destroyed.  Great wines can be aged in older, larger casks and tonneaux, since they can supply the oxygenation necessary for wine ageing.  It’s just that older, neutral casks and barrels do not impart any oak character to the wines—a character and flavor staunchly rejected by the traditional Barolo farmers.

So for the senior Altare, his son’s bringing in 225-liter French oak bariques for the specific purpose of imparting oak flavor and character to Barolo wines was an abomination. Within days, he had driven into the village to change his will, disinheriting his progressive son.  Two years later, he died, leaving Elio nothing.  “He was convinced I had gone crazy,” said Elio

But he hadn’t gone crazy, nor had the other young farmers who were seeking just such a new character and flavor for their Barolos. Young Barolo farmers like Elio Altare, explained the narrator, were ready to leave the tradition of agricultural poverty while having no wish to leave their land.  They had seen the possibilities in discovering the greatness in their Barolos through these two “revolutionary” steps, and were determined to wrest the region from the clutches of their fathers’ traditions, and from centuries of stagnation to establish a new direction.

As it turns out, these eager young farmers “ . . . were at the right place at the right time.”  In 1982, the film’s narrator explains, Italy had won the World Cup in Spain; by 1989, the Berlin Wall had come down, and the stock market was on the upswing.  There was an economic boom. Italy was riding high. People were experiencing a lightness and joy in their lives for the first time after the war.  They were in a good mood, looking for good times, and ready for wines that gave pleasure. In the midst of culture-shaping world events, the winds of change had definitely begun to blow. “After years of stagnation, nothing will ever be the same again,” concludes the narrator.   The cultural and economic changes in Italy had sufficiently developed to point where people could afford wine that gave pleasure.  The Barolo Boys were poised to begin making just such a wine, and in this way, to begin earning the living that they deserved as farmers.

Also, about this time there was an (infamous) occurrence that worked in the Barolo Boys’ favor:  the shock of the 1985 wine scandal in Italy, whereby some merchants were cutting the wine with ethanol.   To counter this scandal, the Barolo families came together for the first time ever, to dedicate themselves to producing only the highest quality wines from their Nebbiolo grapes.  They compared notes of their practices, tasted their wines, and determined as a group which French oak barrique practices seems to yield the best wines.  As the film explains it, this team effort—a first for Barolo farmers and what Altare labeled “The Langhe Miracle”—probably had as much to do with the revolution as did the barriques and crop thinning, since they were able collectively to determine what worked best for their grapes.

These new developments in the Langhe Hills soon caught the attention of an enthusiastic Italian/American wine importer, Marco di Grazio, who found the oak-infused Barolo wines  exciting, and believed that his American clients would also find them exciting.  He had recognized an interest in American wine patrons in moving beyond Chianti with spaghetti with meat balls to new and exciting Italian food and wines.  He believed that these new Barolos would become an American hit and yield riches and fame to the Barolo boys.  He was right!


By the early 1990s, some of the Langhe Hills  producers were receiving the the tres bichierie (3 glasses) award from emerging Italian wine journals such as Gambero Rosso’s The Vin d’Italia guide.  These scores were “like receiving an Oscar,” said Chiara Boschis, one of two female members of The Barolo Boys, and the first to win the tres Bichierie with the Barolos she had aged in 100% new French barriques. “We could double our prices for our wines, buy an additional hectare of vines, and recoup our investment in just a few years,” added Allessandro Ceretto.  “It changed the economy of a winery.”  Just a few years later, the 2000 Barolos received 100 points from the Wine Spectator, the first European wines to be awarded 100 points by this Euro-focused publication! 

The money brought in by these blockbuster Barolos exceeded all the money earned by the region over the previous 100 years!

The French oak barriques were key to this success, claims the film’s narrator. “Thanks to the barriques a new taste was created.  It was a more powerful flavor, more refined, fuller, rounder, let’s say, that is and was very popular with the Americans, with the ‘judges.’  This wine was made in a certain way so that Parker had to give it 100 points.  [Most subscribers to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate are Americans] Shit, you have to make a wine like this to get the tres Bichierie!”

However, it wasn’t just the improved prices that their awards brought them that helped along the Barolo Boys—and Girls.  It also brought a touch of glamour for these hard-working young farmers, who traveled to NY City to promote their wines, and where they were feted by their admiring fans.  “How great was that?” emphasizes the narrator of the film.

Not all Barolo farmers chose to pursue the 100-point wine scores, however; and as happened with many Barolo producers who courted the wine critics’ palates, their oak-infused Barolos began to lose favor with their fans. After making a big splash and enriching the Langhe Hills beyond Elio Altare’s wildest dreams, some ten years on (when The Barolo Boys film was released and the 19-year-old Elio Atare and his fellow Barolo Boys were in their 60s) many had begun to reconsider their winemaking practices.  Many warned of the “vanity of generations,” how each generation tends to forget the legacy of the past. “You have to get back to the origin of things,” says one of the elders.  “Without the talented greats, the Barolo Boys would have been just screwing about.” Others questioned the need to go to France to find out how to make wine from their Langhe Hills.

Some believed that the traditional approach to Barolo, which used older, larger neutral casks (preferred by such prestigious appellations as Chateauneuf du Pape) still made the best wines. Marta Rinaldi, one of the two female “Boys,” agrees.  She describes how she went back and tasted Barolos from the 1940s made by her father.  “Some of these wines made with longer maceration and left longer the neutral oak casks were absolutely sound and excellent,” she said.  “So the history of Barolo isn’t written just by modernists.” 

Their reminisces nonetheless provide a valuable insight into how a great wine region evolves, and also reminds us of just how recent is this evolution to our modern concept of what makes a great wine.  The biggest disagreement as to what exactly is the character and nature of a great wine still seems to revolve around what percentage of new oak to use in each vintage (and even if 225-liter barriques should be used at all).

British importer of Italian wines, David Berry Green, expresses best the dangers of the modernists’ practices of ageing their Barolos in an excess of new oak barriques.  When Marco de Grazio brought these new Barolos to Berry-Green, he found in them a common theme.  “They were all totally smothered in oak.  Where are these wines going?” he wondered.  “What do they represent?  They were all impressive blockbusters,” he acknowledged, yet “the Nebbiolo grape, its wine, the fruit, has this beautiful capacity to age elegantly.  Isn’t that part of the joy of Barolos?”  For David Berry-Green, a great wine should evolve naturally in the bottle, not be hastened to early maturity with barriques.

As well, in his Decatur Oct. 2016 report, journalist Stephen Brook notes that while there is still a discernible split in stylistic approaches to Barolos, “the distinction between traditional and modernist [has become] increasingly artificial.” He goes on, “Nor am I fiercely opposed to the use of new oak, so long as it’s not the dominant component.  In any case, ludicrously over-oaked wines are becoming scarce.  What I seek in a fine Barolo or Barbaresco is finesse . . . .”  (“My 10 Top Barolo & Barbaresco Producers,” 84, 85)

“We did go a bit overboard,” admitted Di Grazio, “with the barriques.  We needed to dial it back a bit.” 

Wine has been part of the civilized world for centuries, yet something revolutionary happened in the last half of the last century, dramatic enough to even penetrate the isolated Langhe Hills.  There seems to be no ready explanation as to why, so I turned to that flamboyant Italian/American Marco di Grazio, whose college majors were in Classic Greek Literature.  In the closing minutes of Barolo Boys, he ponders the same question.

“Perhaps there was this world, immobile, and all of a sudden we saw something extraordinary in change.”  He then turns to Dante’s Inferno, how as a student he was “pissed off that Dante put Ulysses in Hell,” as set out in the Inferno’s Eighth Circle (Counsellors of Fraud), the section on liars and deceivers:

Ulysses and Diomedes are punished together within a great double-headed flame; they are condemned for the stratagem of the Trojan Horse (resulting in the Fall of Troy), persuading Achilles to sail for Troy (causing Deidamia to die of grief), and for the theft of the sacred statue of Pallas, the Palladium (upon which, it was believed, the fate of Troy depended).” (From Wikipedia)

Later, he began to understand.  Ulysses, explains Di Grazio, “dragged along a whole series of people, because he made them dream. Come with me to the end of the world,” he said, without his knowing what lay at the end of the world.   “And if the crew later separated, and some stayed in one place and others in another, well, that’s what happens when you sail the seas.  It’s been a beautiful journey,” he concludes, smiling somewhat enigmatically.


In the fog-shrouded Langhe Hills, thanks to those audacious Barolo boys and girls, the journey still continues. Elio Altare, who stands by his French barriques, believes that, no matter the style, “a great wine is always good”; others stand by a more traditional approach: “I think Barolo should remain a difficult wine, austere, with its at times aggressive tannins, and with an immediate lack of pleasantness,” said Mr. Rinaldi.  “Also, because I believe that in life the easy things are boring” (perhaps the definitive take down of over-oaked wines?)**  Yet one thing remains true: “When a farmer offers you a glass of Barolo that he has made, he is offering you a piece of his soul.”  (Silvia Marchetti, “The Langhe, Piedmont, where Barolo wine ‘is a piece of a farmer’s soul’”   www.theGuardian.com)


*See “Limerick Lane Vineyards” in my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002)

**As Joel Peterson, founder/winemaker Ravenswood, points out in my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey  (2002), “You can cover up a lot of defects with too much oak.”


NOTE: “On 22 June 2014, Langhe were inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage list for its cultural landscapes, outstanding living testimony to winegrowing and winemaking traditions that stem from a long history, and that have been continuously improved and adapted up to the present day.  (Wikipedia)

Palace Hotel - Les Grands Crus de Blordeaux Tasting eventUnion Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – January 2017 – (with a couple of small digressions) ©2017 Rhoda Stewart

“These are classic wines, lean, structured, balanced, moderate alcohol [13 – 14%), balanced oak (mostly if not all French, from Centre de France.” (Bernard Portet, January 2011, founding winemaker for Clos du Val—est. 1972, Napa Valley, CA)

Held in the ballroom or in a spacious conference room in one of San Francisco’s grand hotels, where stunning chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceilings with their frosted glass skylights, the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting event is a wondrous affair.

Elegant even in daylight, the ambience is further enhanced with an enormous bouquet of dazzling red roses at the entrance.

Bouquet of Red Roses - Palace Hotel

Inside the room are tables covered with crisp white cloths for each of the presenting chateaux, and across the front is a table holding rows of gleaming wine glasses. Situated strategically throughout are enticing stands of cheeses, fruits, and thinly sliced baguettes, all adorned with more flower arrangements.

 All done to heighten anticipation for the main event: the wines themselves, and the particular appellation each represents.

The 2011 event was my first experience with the wines of Bordeaux.

Frankly, I was quite overwhelmed. Apart from the Sauternes, which are all sweet white wines, Bordeaux AOCs are predominately red wine appellations.  So many wines (upwards to 200); so many soil types (a dozen or more appellations):  how to distinguish! So I was delighted to have encountered Monsieur Portet; his words gave me a direction, and some sense of what to expect, and what not to expect. Certainly not the big, luscious, fruity wines of the annual California Zinfandel (ZAP) tasting, which represents most of California’s prime Zinfandel regions.  Most of these wines have forward fruit of red or black berries, ripe currants, and other luscious fruits, and carry alcohol levels of 15% or higher; some reek of oak.  Rather, expect a less fruity, less luscious wine, leaner, with perhaps more spiciness and earthy fruit tones, and with alcohol levels of from 12.5% to 14%.  And definitely NOT smothered in oak!

The primary appellations of Bordeaux are commonly referred to as “Left” and “Right” bank, which refers to the two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, running north-east through the Bordeaux peninsula. Left Bank are vineyards to the west of the rivers; Right Bank are vineyards to the east of these rivers.  There is also AOC Entre duex Mers, which occupies the land between the rivers.

The Right Bank appellations consist of the AOCs Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and The Côtes, together making up the region surrounding Libourne, the principal city of the right bank.  The wines of the Right Bank AOCs are Merlot-based, and are enhanced and balanced out with varying percentages of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prestigious are the heady wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion.  Pomerol, the tiniest Right Bank appellation, is distinguished by its iron-rich clay soil. The Merlot-based wines from this appellation are blended with small percentages of Cabernet Franc, and are renowned for their silky tannins and soft elegance.  It is not uncommon that they have some of the Zinfandel fruitiness, notable for flavors of prunes that are typical of Zinfandels made from super-ripe grapes.

There is no classification system for Pomerol. The most prestigious wines of this appellation are Petrus and Le Pin.

The soil of the adjacent and much larger Right Rank appellation of Saint-Emilion is mostly limestone-based, which produces more structured Merlot-based wines that are usually blended with varying percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, and in some instances, also with a bit of Cab Franc. The limestone-based soil also yields wines of higher acids and robust yet elegant tannins.  These wines, while showing less of the fruitiness and more structure than the Pomerols, are nonetheless softer wines than are usually found in Left Bank Bordeaux wines.

Marie Pourguet – Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion-Chateau Grand Pontet 2010

Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion – 2009 – Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion has a classification system; the highest accorded is Premiere Grand Cru Classé A. Château Cheval Blanc is the most consistent recipient this classification

For those of you whose perceptions of Merlot wines were soured by the raging invective against Merlots leveled by the character Miles in the 2004 Hollywood film Sideways, I recommend a second look, both at the wines and at the film.   For while Miles shrieks at his lecherous pal, Jack, as they approach their first bar to mark the beginning of Jack’s week-long pre-wedding sexual debauchery, “I am not drinking Merlot,” yet the prized bottle that he has been hoarding for his 10th wedding anniversary celebration is a bottle of the much-coveted 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, ironically, a Merlot-based wine. The variety (Merlot) is not the problem, as Miles unwittingly reveals in a conversation with his friend Maya a few scenes further on.  The problem he has, or thinks he has, with Merlot, is, of course, with himself!

Sadly, there is no mention in that scene, or anywhere else in the film, that Miles realizes that his Premiere Grand Cru Classé A Cheval Blanc is Merlot-based, which acknowledgement might have spared California’s Merlot growers some of the financial losses that Miles’ ignorant tirade against this variety cost them—not to mention greatly enhancing the screenplay!  The scene between Maya and Miles at Stephanie’s house (while Stephanie and Jack have retreated to her bedroom) could have been the perfect place for this revelation.  When Miles tells Maya that he has this 1961 Cheval Blanc in his tiny “gathering” of wines, I could envision Maya casually remarking how wonderful and long-ageing a Merlot can be under the right circumstances and in the hands of a knowledgeable winemaker.

It is tantalizing to contemplate what Miles’ response to such a comment from Maya might have been. Of course, such an addition to that scene would necessarily change the film into something quite different—and probably much better.  As Pulitzer Prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote in a magnificent little essay called “The Word”: An idea goes through a complete change because one word shifted its place, or because another settled down like a spoiled little thing inside a phrase that was not expecting her but obeys her.  (Pablo Neruda: Memoirs, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, 53.)

So, too, can a single line in a screenplay transform a film.

A further irony occurs at the end of the film when Miles, depressed with the realization that his ex-wife is never coming back and that there will be no10th anniversary celebration with his Cheval Blanc, he finally and surreptitiously drinks this prized wine out of a plastic cup while dining alone on a hamburger in a fast-food roadside restaurant.  And, the film suggests, does so with great enjoyment.  So a great Merlot can be enjoyed just about anywhere and with any food.  So much for Miles’ misplaced outrage, actually one among many, indicating perhaps that the film itself should have been “misplaced” into some obscure corner before it ever made it to the theaters.

But I digress . . . now back to the wonderful world of Grands Crus de Bordeaux!

The Medoc is the largest appellation in the Left Bank. It covers most of the peninsula between the Gironde (the estuary of the Garonne River) and the Atlantic Ocean.  It is broken into several sub-appellations whose distinctions are subtle, at least to me, and took me some time to perceive.

In contrast to Right Bank wines, wines of the Medoc are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon-based, and are tempered with the additions of varying percentages of Cab Franc and Merlot as well as with such lesser varieties as Petit Verdot and Malbec. And while you could find a few blends from the Left Bank AOC’s dominated by Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and others among the lesser percentages, the effect overall are nonetheless consistently leaner and more restrained wines than from the Right Bank, with a more distinguished tannin backbone, and with a lingering earthy, spicy component that is instantly recognizable in most Bordeaux reds.  These wines usually benefit from a few additional years’ of bottle-ageing in a cool, dark cellar—or a similar environment.

January 2017 Grand Crus de Bordeaux event was my third, and during this event, I felt that I was at last beginning to make some headway. I was detecting distinctions; and I was discovering some favorites among the appellations and within the appellations.

The first such distinctions that I noticed were the spicy, earthy, cocoa-like tannins and flavors in the wines from the warmer gravel-and-clay-based soils found in the AOCs of St. Estèphe and Pauillac, the two northern-most appellations. St. Estèphe is situated on a gravel-based soil next to the Gironde estuary and closest to the Atlantic.  Pauillac borders St. Estèphe along the estuary just to the south. These are widely described as powerful reds with a strong Cabernet Sauvignon backbone (upwards to 60%), softened and mellowed with varying percentages of both Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Chateau Malescot St. Exupery - 2008 Margaux

Chateau Malescot – St. Exupery 2008 – Margaux Grand Cru Classe

These two appellations are the ones I now search out.  Not that they are better wines than wines from other of the Bordeaux appellations; rather, it’s just a matter of taste. I am finding the earthy, spicy component that the gravel-and-clay-based fruit imparts to these wines irresistible.

Note:  the higher the percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Left Bank wines, the earlier the wines become approachable; the higher the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, the longer the bottle-ageing needed.

Although not immediately on my mind when I approached my first “Grands Crus de Bordeaux” tasting, some few years earlier, in summer of 2001, I made a 3-day sojourn to the Medoc while staying with friends in Saintes, a couple of hours’ drive north of Bordeaux. I had taken the tiny ferry from Royan, across the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, to debark on the very tippy-tip of the Medoc. From there, I followed a “D” level road through the flat terrains of the Medoc and past several of the famous Premier Growth chateaux to the village of Margaux, where I had booked a room in a Relais du Silence.  I arrived in time for dinner, and after, I went for an enchanting stroll through the famed vineyards of First Growth Chateau Margaux under a full moon. A memorable evening!

The next morning, my hotel concierge secured an invitation for me to join a small tour group at Chateau Margaux, just a couple hundred meters’ stroll from my hotel along a lane through vineyards. There, a charming professional tour hostess took us through the cellar, including the breathtakingly beautiful white colonnaded chai (the barrel room), and later poured me a full glass of the current release, which, I believe, was the1997.  Although it was still well before noon, I savored that wine to the last drop as the hostess and I chatted about wines of the region and also about my book on Zinfandel, which was due for publication by years’ end.

I did not, however, purchase a bottle of the Chateau Margaux, which would have cost me more than my few days’ stay at my small hotel. Instead, I later visited a couple of non-classified chateaux, and upon my return to the village, found a wine store where I purchased a two bottles of Cru Bourgeois recommended by the store sommelier as typical expressions of the Medoc, for about $30 each.

The visit left a vivid impression on me, but not quite what I expected. While the First Growth chateaux are grand establishments with impressive grounds, gardens, and landscaping, and, generally speaking, require appointments made months ahead of one’s visit, their wines are not the only great wines of the region.

Grand Cru wines, wines from grand vineyards, are as capable of producing superb wines as are the great vineyards, those recognized by the five classification “growths” established in mid-18th century. All that differentiates the Grands Crus from the Premiers Crus, actually, is the prestige associated with Premier Cru classifications—and the pricing.  The Grands Crus do not, however, lack the quality . . .and price never has been a score.

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, all lovely wines, all structured, balanced, and with long ageing potential (even the Merlot-based!), are available at prices that will leave you with a budget to shop for a dinner menu to accompany. And I still buy Cru Bourgeois whenever presented with the opportunity. And, yes, I do still think about that bewitching glass of 1997 Chateau Margaux, especially when I approach the Grand Cru Classé tables pouring AOC Margaux.







“[C] had written to her friend Valentine. ‘Come, they’ll be harvesting the grapes.’ ” . . . . “‘Harvesting the grapes?’ [Valentine] asked, astonished. ‘Really? Despite the war?’ ” . . . . “‘Despite the war, Valentine,’ [C] confessed. ‘What can you do? They haven’t found a way of gathering the grapes without harvesting them’” (Colette, “Grape Harvest,” circa 1916. The Collected Stories of Colette edited and with an introduction by Robert Phelps, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1983, p. 64)


Two Zinfandel Clusters – Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel vineyards are the oldest premium wine producing vineyards in California (and probably in the nation) because they were recognized in the 1800s for their winemaking potential by some of the earliest wine growers in the State, many of whom hailed from the best wine regions of Italy and Eastern Europe, and who were looking for something better than the ubiquitous Mission vines. Instinctively recognizing that most of the regions where Mission grew were also well suited to Zinfandel, they grafted their cuttings onto a native rootstock known as St. George, also well suited to Zinfandel. Watered only from the rains that fell during the winter rainy season, the vines were forced to send their roots deep into their piece of earth, which resulted in small crops of intensely colored and flavored grapes. The vines flourished over the decades under such vineyard management, and because the native St. George rootstock was phylloxera-resistant, they survived the epidemic that destroyed much of California’s imported vitis vinifera winegrape vineyards in the late 19th century.

Today, in the early 21st century, Zinfandel vines planted well over 120 years ago are therefore still flourishing. However, the harvesting of these old head-trained vines, whose fruit hangs hidden under the leaves and often low to the ground requires skilled pickers to gather in the grapes at optimum ripeness. When I first stepped into the Bill Moore Zinfandel vineyard that late September morning, I didn’t immediately see the picking crew, who were almost lost among the sprawling vines. When I did catch up to them, I was momentarily mesmerized by what I saw.

Their hands seemed to see by touching, so familiar were they with the structure of these old head-trained low-to the-ground vines. Swiftly and with precision their fingers sought out the plump, blue-purple clusters and severed them from their anchors.


Zinfandel Picker focussed on harvesting the clusters- Moore vineyard

Even their feet played a part as they deftly moved their tubs onto the next vine, playing them at times as if they were a soccer ball. I had trouble keeping up, so quickly did they clean a vine. It seemed no sooner had I gotten my lens focused on one of the workers, zooming in on his hands, than the hands disappeared and I had to move along with them and try again. It took no more than 5 seconds for a picker to clean a grape-laden, close-to-the ground old vine. I had to be fast, even with an auto-focus lens. The challenge became interesting and exciting.

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes - Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes – Moore Vineyard

It had been a startling revolution to me, when I got into my research on Napa Valley Zinfandel in the late 1990s for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey*, to discover just how many historic Zinfandel vineyards were (and still are) in Napa Valley (Napa Valley, after all, being famous for its Cabs and Chardonnays). One of the most historic and wonderful was the head-trained Bill Moore vineyard on the eastern benchland of the Napa River, just above downtown Napa. The vineyard consists of 10.6 acres of vines, 95% of which are Zinfandel, with the oldest being planted in 1905 (which inspired one customer to nickname it “Earthquake Vineyard”). I had visited the vineyard a few times in the late 1990s for Old Vine photos, one of which graces the introductory pages of my book.

So it was momentous that I encountered Bill Moore purely by chance in late September, a few days before the 2016 harvest of his vineyard was to begin.  After a half-hour chat of “catching up,” he invited me to come by for the early morning harvest, which was to take place over the next two days. I was delighted to accept his invitation, since, for various reasons, the Moore Vineyard harvest had been on my mind. I felt I had been given me a second opportunity to get the story of this amazing Zinfandel vineyard.

Although I was not early enough the first day for harvest photos, I did manage some stunning images of the clusters at peak ripeness.


Old Vine Zinfandel, with clusters at peak ripeness – Moore Vineyard

I actually had gotten into vineyard photography and wine writing when I first arrived in Napa Valley because of the beauty of the old head-trained Zinfandel vines and their clusters of luscious grapes.

The second day of picking, I arrived before the sun had cleared the eastern mountains and hot air balloons were floating high over the valley floor. The dozen or so pickers, too, were already hard at work gathering in the crop. After a few minutes of scanning the vineyard to see where they were,  I was soon in full pursuit, catching up to the gondolas creeping along the rows as they were being filled from tubs dumped into them, one after another.

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola - Hot Air Balloon in distance -  Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola – Hot Air Balloon in distance – Moore Vineyard

I was amazed by how quickly the tubs of grapes were coming in.

Two women, their heads hooded, their faces partly covered against the dust, stood on the sides of the gondola as “minders,” conducting a field sorting of clusters and debris. When they saw me, their uncovered their faces and gave me a big smile and a wave. They looked happy. It was a beautiful piece of earth to call your place of work!


Gondola “minders” – Moore Vineyard

But what struck me most profoundly was the concentration of the pickers as they went about their work. So singularly focused were the men on their vines that, in the words of Colette (“Grape Harvest”), my “entry into the vineyard caused no commotion.” The men hardly noticed me edging in with my camera in hand, seeking an iconic image or two of the grape harvest. When their tubs became full, they hoisted their purple treasures on their heads and moved quickly to the gondola, where they pitched their burden onto the rising mass of grapes. It was all done in one swift movement, then quickly back to the next laden vine in the row.

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

I pursued them tenaciously, and from time to time was rewarded for my efforts by a gloved hand holding a cluster of grapes, the other holding the shears, suddenly coming into focus; a quick snap of the shutter, and the image was made.


Grape picker severing a cluster from the vine – Moore Vineyard

This went on for about two hours; then suddenly it was over. The vines were bare of their fruit; the gondolas brim-full, and the pickers were going back to their cars and trucks parked in the lane that led to the residential buildings. I followed them, and watched as they paused for a drink and a snack, and then they were gone. The grapes were on their way to the winery, and I was left to peruse my images in hopes that at least a few represented something approximating what I was seeking.

And also to ponder a moment on how differently my day with the pickers had ended compared to how the day had ended for the two friends in “Grape Harvest.” In that intriguing story, the pickers take a few moments after their sumptuous lunch to cavort joyously with the visiting friends’ pretty maids, who had just arrived at the vineyard. Seeming to understand that the harvest is a happy time even during the war, the two maids arrived dressed in festive clothes that had been beautifully remade out of those their ladies had discarded, giving the elderly and silently grieving men a validation for their toilsome work in the hot vineyard: “The aged giant, suddenly animated, sat one of the maids down on an empty tub, and hoisted the whole thing on his shoulders . . . . The heavy air seemed light to them, now that two women’s laughter, affected, deliberately long, had set it in motion . . . .” (68)


Zinfandel picker with his tubfull of grapes – Moore Vineyard

When I looked again through my images a few hours later, I saw gleams of that same joy of the harvest on the faces of my pickers, a joy that brings these pickers back to the vineyards vintage after vintage, to gather the grapes at their peak ripeness. Yet how unlikely it is that people who drink the wine think even once about these dedicated men and women who arrive before dawn to pick the grapes, nor how important, even revered and celebrated, this stage is, in the grape’s journey from the vine to the bottle.

For myself, I thought of the steep, rocky hillsides of the Priorat DOQ in Spain, where I had visited in April. From time to time, my guide pointed out to me the workers toiling among the tiny Garnacha vines high above us. Yet when he and I shared a bottle of Priorat over dinner that evening, I was not thinking of the workers we had seen, but rather, how wonderful was the wine we were drinking. Only later did I stop to consider what it must be like to harvest those vines come fall, to gather in the Garnacha grapes that made the wondrous wine I had just enjoyed.

Now, when I read a back label that tells me how the wine in my bottle was made from grapes harvested from old head-trained vines, often grown on steep, rocky hillsides, I stop for a moment to acknowledge those crews of pickers who dragged their tubs over the difficult terrain, where no machine has ever served, in order to bring in the grapes. Carefully nurtured over the spring and summer months to reach perfect ripeness, the grapes must now be carefully gathered by the skilled pickers. Without them, the vintage  comes to naught.  With them, the grapes’ journey towards becoming a bottle of wine that may help someone, somewhere, to make the end of the day just little bit better than it began is officially underway.

The pickers’ work is finished. The celebration begins.  Salud to the pickers, to all!

“I could give up a lot of things today,” said Ray Coursen, Elyse Wine Cellars, “before I could give up my glass of red wine with my dinner.” (A Zinfandel Odyssey, 377)

*(San Rafael, CA; PWV, Inc., 2002),

El Priorat DOQ (The Phoenix of Cataluña, Spain)
Story and Photos by Rhoda Stewart ©2016

My first taste of Priorat DOQ wines was in 2014, when I noticed some bottles of H & G Priorat DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qalificada) in the wine section of my local Whole Foods. Intrigued by the DOQ classification, the back label (which indicated that H & G wines are “hand-picked small lots of wine sourced from prized appellations”), the vintage date (2008), and the under $30 price, I bought a bottle. After decanting it for an hour, I took my first sip, and discovered a richly flavored and bold wine of deep garnet color that bewitched my senses and lingered on my palate. I was smitten! I wanted to know more about this Priorat DOQ. So I looked it up on Google, and found a description of the region together with a few photos. One image in particular captivated me, an image of a winery nestled at the base of the massive Montsant Mountains, dwarfed, in fact, by this startling band of beige-colored peaks overlooking steep slopes densely covered with low-growing bushes and a few terraced vineyards.


Scala Dei winery situated in 10th century Carthusian Monastery, at foot of Montsant Mountains.

I felt a compelling need to visit that region.

Priorat was awarded DO (Denominació d’Origen) classification in 1954. In 2000, the Catalonian government ungraded this classification to DOQ, the Spanish central government in Madrid following suit in 2009 (DOCa in Spanish). Priorat is just the second wine region in Spain to be awarded the top classification DOQ, the other being Rioja.

Placard identifying DOQ region

DOQ Priorat, Catalunya, Spain

(For more information on European wine classifications, please see my posting dated June 2015.

It wasn’t until mid-April 2016 that I was able to fulfil my wish to visit the region. After a 10 ½ hour flight from SFO to Charles De Gaulle Paris, connection to Barcelona, I found myself on a beautiful Monday morning departing Barcelona for Priorat DOQ accompanied by the Catalonian guide I had engaged to create an itinerary and be my driver for my one-week visit to the region.

A couple of fascinating stops along the way and we arrived at our destination of Falset, a village set in the Montsant mountains at the edge of the Priorat, as darkness was falling. Our hotel was in Old Town, reached by foot-bridge just across a dry river bed that ran along the edge of the modern down-town area.


The author at Lotus Hotel, Falset, Catalonia, Spain, April 2016 (photo by guide, Cesar Escuin)

The air was fresh, clean, and chilly enough to grab a cozy pullover and jacket from my bag before stepping back out with my guide to shop in an Old Town green grocers’ for fresh salad and tomatoes, some tuna, and a baguette, enough for a delicious supper in our third-floor kitchen suite.


Green grocer’s cart – Old Town Falsett – Priorat region

Later, we enjoyed the view  from our terrace of the village below and the darkening mountains surrounding us. I felt as if I had discovered a long lost and still unspoiled paradise.

My anticipation of my first venture into this enchanting wine region on the morrow was high. I was eager to discover just what was it about this region that enabled it to emerge so quickly (since about the 1990s) from relative obscurity to one of two premium wine regions of Spain. Why was Priorat a “prized appellation,” how were the vineyards farmed, how were the wines a reflection of the top classification of DOQ, and who were the people who brought all this together to produce a red wine worthy of the prestigious denominació, the best of which are today considered among the very best red wines of Spain? And why, according to my guide, were the indigenous Garnacha and Cariñena vines of Priorat for decades nearly “lost?”

My first glimpse next morning of the stunning beauty of the region momentarily made me forget about the wines. The roadsides were scattered with Western Europe’s indigenous red poppies;


Red Poppies and abandoned old vines by roadside of Priorat DOQ

meadows were filled with them, their brilliant scarlet petals sparkling in the sun like a Monet painting come alive.

Meadow of Red Poppies - Monet Effect - Priorat DOQ

And under the incredible Montsant mountain light, the terraced vineyards and olive orchards on the steep slopes of the valleys beneath the barren peaks looked like nature’s own amphitheater, enchanting my senses and eliciting repeated pleas to my guide to stop for photos.


Terraced vineyards, orchards, Montsant Mountains – the challenge of Priorat DOQ

Fortunately, the narrow, twisting road was sparsely travelled, which allowed him to safely stop the car here and there for a quick (thanks to auto-focus) shot. But we had a mid-morning appointment at a family-owned winery, Clos Figueras, in the vibrant village of Gratallops, so I had to forego many image opportunities— at least until later.


Village of Grattalops, Montsant Mountains in background

Clos Figueras is owned by British couple Christopher and Charlotte Cannan since 1997. Here would begin my introduction to the wines of the region, winemaking practices, and an understanding of the all-important contribution the unique soil imparted.


View or Priorat DOQ from patio of Clos Figueras

After a few minutes enjoying the views of the mountains and the valleys below from the lavender-scented patio, we were greeted by Gisela, the hospitality manager, and taken down a steep ladder into the small barrel room, formerly a large cistern. Here were 500-litre oak barriques, chosen to minimize the amount of contact the wine has with the wood.


500 liter barriques at Clos Figueras, Priorat DOQ

The wines were made primarily from Garnacha (Grenache) “from vineyards planted on steep terraces overlooking the Montsant River valley,” and from 2,500 old vines of Garnacha and Cariñena, with some as old as 60 years. (From winery brochure) The winemaking practices sought to maintain the distinctive character of the region, using just enough oak to round out the body and flavors.

Back on the terrace, I was shown pieces of black llicorella (Catalan for “slate” or “schist”). Llicorella, of which there are several kinds, forms the basis of the soil of Priorat, and is unique to the region. This is the first and most important point I was to learn when seeking answers to the emerging success of the wines of el Priorat: it’s in the llorcella soil.  And what an amazing soil it is!


Llicorella, the rocky schist soil of Priorat, with Clos Figueres’ wines

The llicorella soil was produced beneath the sea that covered the region in the Paleozoic Era. It is a metamorphosed fractured slate containing crystalline quartz, and was formed from the extreme pressure exerted by two layered plates of limestone up to 50 kilometers below the earth’s crust, compacting clay deposits that had settled at the bottom of the sea from erosion of the ancient mountain sides. According to geologists, this soil formation was a rare occurrence, the clay soil first being compressed under extreme pressure while at the same time being heated to temperatures up to 900° Celsius from magma extrusions that metamorphosed the compressed slate. Such rocky schist, which glistens with quartzite crystals, provides one of the defining characteristics of Priorat terroir.

This happened hundreds of millions of years ago, and then millions of years later, after the sea had dried up, the llicorella, rich in minerals and metals from the shells and skeletons of sea creatures that formerly swam in the sea, was “floated” to the surface through subsequent tectonic plate movements, creating the mountainous topography that is today’s Priorat. This llicorella soil is unlike any other of Europe, according to geological experts, and is the last soil to emerge in Europe, a testimony to the strong geological convulsions of tectonic plates in procession that formed this region of mountains, great cliffs, a few small planes, and many rocks. It’s a land whose origins are as difficult to write about as the origins of the sun, claims Catalan author Ferran Mestres in his book, “El Curiós món dels vins del Priorat” (2012), and has been misunderstood by those living outside the region, who at one time regarded the region as a mal pais” (bad country). (49,50)

Mestres was our hospitality host during our visit to Scala Dei Cellars, described below.

What isn’t a difficut to explain, however, is why llicorella is such an amazing soil, and so suitable to grape growing. There are two reasons: its capacity to absorb moisture through its fissures from the irregular rain fall, and then to retain this moisture, up to one-third of its volume, in the thin layers of clay trapped within the fissures, allowing the vines access to moisture during the driest months of the summers; and its capacity to trap heat of the Mediterranean sun during the day, then release it back at night, enabling the vines to continue the maturation of the grapes even during the nighttime.

And because the top soil of decomposed llicorella is thin, perhaps just 20 centimeters (8 inches) the vines are forced to send their roots deeply into the llorcella (some 20 meters in the oldest vineyards) through the fissures in search of the mineral-rich nutrients. This austere environment results in tiny vines with small crops (less than 2 kilos per vine, and as little as 200 to 300 grams for the oldest vines) of intense flavors and complex character, or, as Mestres writes, “Poderiem dir doncs que al Priorat hi ha un rendiment molt baix de raīm peró alhora un raīm de molt bona qualitat.” (56) (Transl. RS: “One is able to say, therefore, that the Priorat produces few grapes but of very good/high quality.”)


Steep hillside vineyard of Priorat DOQ, showing small vines of Garnacha with new (spring) leaves.

From Clos Figueras, our next stop was Scala Dei Cellars, where I met Ferran Mestres.


Scala Dei Cellars Pacard at entrance to tasting room.

Scala Dei Cellars, which today occupies portions of a 12th century Carthusian monastery, is an impressive winery, as are its authentic wines. Here, I was to learn more of the history of this captivating region, and why is it called “El Priorat.” The following is my translation and summation from Mestres book (which is in Catalan). It also contains details from Wikipedia.

The region has a winemaking history stretching back to the Middle Ages, when monks of La Cartoixa D’Escaladei (the “Staircase to God” Carthusian monastery) began making wine for Mass. This was the first Carthusian order founded in Spain. The leader was called a prior, and ruled over his territory (his priorat), thus the name for the region. The monks planted Garnacha grapes and made wine from the 12th century until 1835, when the Spanish prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, under Queen Isabel II of Spain, issued a set of decrees (called desamortització) that resulted in the monastic properties being expropriated and privatized, and redistributed to nobles and merchants wealthy enough to afford the purchase (“noblesa i burgeses amb capital sufficient to acquirer , , , Mestres, 40)

Escala Dia monastery and vineyards were acquired at that time by five families who set up Societat Agricola l’Unió, and in 1878 bottled the first Priorat wine, which was presented at the Paris World’s Fair.

The vineyards flourished until phylloxera arrived in the late 1800s, effectively ruining Priorat’s wine industry, and costing many families of the region their patrimony. It was not until the 1950s that vast swaths of land were again devoted to vineyards, and the wines of Priorat again began to appear.

In 1974, Societat Agricola l’Unió was re-founded, the Scala Dei winery operation resumed, housed in what were the monastery’s stables; the barrel room in the cellar of the 17th century Charthouse.


The 17th century  Charthouse of Carthusian Monasery, now barrel ageing room for Scala Dei Cellars

Shortly thereafter, Scala Dei produced the first numbered and bottled Priorat wine in the modern era.


Scala Dei Priorat wine – vintage 1974

The wine was of the quality of the great wines of Bordeaux and Rioja, but was made 100% from Priorat’s indigenous Garnacha grapes gathered from the best of Scala Dei’s estate hillside vineyards, which included some of the oldest vines in Priorat.  Traditional wine-making techniques of Priorat were applied. The result was “a vi potent, explosiu i tànic, típicament prioratí.” (Mestres 65)


Terrace vineyards – Montsant Mts – Scala Dei Cellars

With this bottling, Scala Dei had moved to the forefront of a trend away from the region’s traditional, dark, intense and fairly alcoholic wines to a more balanced and elegant, yet full-flavored, style of Priorat wines.

During my visit to Scala Dei, Mestres emphasized the small stainless steel tanks today used for “microvinification” of grapes, “vineyard by vineyard” for its 60 separate vineyards.


Small stainless steel fermentation tanks, Scala Dei Cellars, Priorat DOQ

The vineyards range in altitude from 100 meters to 700 meters, and grow in several soil types of the region. The vines are up to 80 years old, and yield about 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of intensely flavored grapes/vine. The wines are fermented with extra yeast and allowed a short maceration (8 – 20 days) to control oxidation. Blending takes place after fermentation.  At the end of maceration, the wines are put into 500 – 1400-litre barriques for 7 – 15 months, to preserve the complexity and delicacy of the Garnacha grapes. The trend is away from 225-liter barriques.

Mestres explained that the region, generally, and Scala Dei Cellars in particular, is turning more towards its traditional grapes and “character wines,” that is, making wines that respect the grapes (primarily Garnacha and Cariñena), and preserve the character of the soil. “We are coming back to the land,” said Mestres, and are looking more to the “traditional ways of vinifying the traditional grapes of our region.” He cited three elements in achieving this goal: using the traditional grapes of the region (Garnacha and Cariñena); fermenting Garnacha with stems, and ageing the wines in 500- to 1400-liter barriques.

In 2000, Grupo Codorniu assumed the management of Scala Dei’s vineyards and winery, employing modern techniques and state-of-the-art equipment.
From: http://www.aveniubrands.com/wines/scala-dei/)

The early success of Scala Dei winery were augmented by the now famous producers Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier, who brought wine practices from France’s best regions to Priorat in the 1990s, where they planted vineyards and built their wineries in their efforts to make their mark and establish their names in this emerging DOQ region. The elegant rich reds made by these producers were part of the 1990s revolution that built upon the early success of Scala Dei, revitalizing the region and helping to bring Priorat wines out of the darkness that followed the devastation of phylloxera in the 1890s and to establish Priorat as Spain’s second DOQ region.

My guide also took me to a lovely historic family winery Sangenis I Vaque.


Sangenis I Vaque Placard at entrance to winery/tasting room.

Owned by the family with two daughters, this small winery (16,000 bottles) is finding a balance between the more traditional winemaking practices favored by the father and the younger daughter (Nuria Sangenise) and the newer methodology favored by the elder, university-educated daughter, Maria, which includes using 225-liter French oak barriques by Taransaud tonnellerie, rather than joining the trend to 500-liter and larger oak barriques.

The wines are made from Garnacha and Cariñena, and are corked with a natural Catalonian-grown cork. Nuria Sangenis, who provided us with a tour of the little winery and a beautiful tasting of their 7 Priorat wines, explained that their wines are neither fined nor filtered. “Wine is alive,” she said.


Nuria Sangenis in the historic tasting room of Sangenis I Vaques, Priorat DOQ.

After fermentation in small stainless steel tanks, the wines are aged 225-liter French oak barriques, from 15% to 100% new, for about 14 months, and one year in 2-year American oak barriques. When fermentation and oak-barrel ageing are complete, the wines are bottle-aged 6 years before release, a costly practice. “We are not money-oriented,” she said.


Sangenis I Vaque 2007 Clos Monlleo

Sangenis I Vaque family began planting vines in 1978, but the land has been in the Sangenis family, on the maternal side, since 1700. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the daughters joined in the winery operation, the family deciding that the new recognition of the Priorat region and its wines indicated that it was timely to begin investing in their vineyards and their wines. “We are proud of our wines, which are made to age, and we believe that our wines deserve to sell for much more.” said Nuria.  With their wines now being sought after by wine buyers as distant as the independent wine stores in Alberta, Canada, there is no question that the family will soon see the deserved increase in market value placed on their wines.

My last winery visit was to the modern facility Buil I Giné.


Buil I Gine winery with trellised vineyards, Priorat DOQ

Situated on a hilltop with panoramic views of its vineyards below and of the region around, including of all the local villages, Buil & Giné produces white, red, and sweet wines from both the Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ regions. The dry red wines, produced primarily from Cariñena and Garnacha, are aged in both French and American oak, some of it new, for up to 12 months, the sweet wines for 14 months. The wines are then bottle-aged at the facility. Our visit concluded with a tasting of both Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ wines. A favorite of mine and of my guide was the 2012 Montsant DO Baboix Negre, produced from Garnacha and Cariñena and small amount of Tempranillo, and aged 6 months in American oak casks. Giné Giné , DOQ Priorat, produced from old vine Garnacha and Cariñena, and without oak ageing, is readily available in California markets for under $20. It is among my locally available favorites.

The best of Priorat wines today are considered some of the best wines coming out of Spain, and also among the most expensive, relatively speaking. Because of the rugged terrain, all care of the vineyards and harvest of the grapes are done by hand, and the yield is small. Many of the producers also believe in the costly practice of bottle-ageing their wines for a few years to ensure they are ready to drink when released. The interest, globally, that Priorat DOQ wines are beginning to generate suggest that wine lovers are recognizing the value for Euro for these amazing wines. The returns are beginning to compensate the quality of the wines, and to recognize the work it takes to produce them.    For these producers, who have stood by their tiny (4,151 acres) region and their nearly lost patrimony during “El Trist Segle XX” (Mestres 46), the sad century of little profit and much hard work, the improving returns are a just and timely reward, providing money for investment in their prized region, for new vineyards, new barrels, bottle ageing facilities, and more.

Too soon Saturday morning arrived; my lovely week in this beautiful and enchanting region had come to an end. As I packed up my things, I felt exhilarated and spiritually rejuvenated. Yet there was also an underlying tinge of  wistfulness. It had been a great, if slightly bitter-sweet, experience. But given the intensity of the connection I had felt for the region long before visiting, it could not have been otherwise.

I had discovered what I had come to find out:  what it is that makes the wines of Priorat worthy of the DOQ classification: It begins, as it does with all great wines, in the soil of the vineyards. In the vineyards of Priorat DOQ, the soil, that “piece of ground the vines grow in, is llicorella.


Tiny vines and terraced vineyards – Priorat DOQ

But the amazing wines are not the only memorable experiences this spectacular wine region offers. The magnificent Montsant Mountain range that embraces it and its convoluted terrain offers an ancient and still pristine paradise of great mysteries, untouched wilderness, and breathtaking vistas.


Reservoir on Suryiana River – Montsant Nat’l Park – Catalonia,Spain

Hard to fathom, at times, how in the midst of all this history, culture, and spectacular natural beauty has been established one of Spain’s two DOQ wine regions.

Yet it is there, and will be for at least another millennium or two. And in the rich and robust wines of Priorat DOQ one may savor (I’m sure I did), in the aromas and flavors of the Garnacha and Cariñena, the smell and taste not just of the wine but also of the history, culture, and incredible beauty of the Priorat/Montsant region.


My guide, Cesar, in Falset, the heart of Priorat DOQ- Salud!


A few of my favorites from Priorat DOQ:
• Scala Dei – Cartoixa 2012 – A full-bodied “authentic” Priorat red wine. My personal favorite. About €40.
• Sangenis I Vaque – Clos Monlleó 2007 (made from 80-year vineyard), 50/50 Garnacha and Cariñena, is aged in new French oak barriques for 2 years, then bottle-aged 6 – 7 years. Will develop for an additional 10 years.
• Alvaro Palacios – Les Terrases – 2012 – An elegant style, smooth, like velvet. Reflects Palacios’ Bordeaux experiences. About €45.

White Ponies of the Camargue - France - in Appellation Cotes de Rhone

White Ponies of the Camargue – France – in Appellation Cotes de Rhone Controlee

I have long wondered what letters AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, France), DO/DOCa (Denominación d’ Origen/ Denominación de Origen Calificada, Spain),   DOC/DOCG (Denominazione di Origne Controllata/ Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, Italy) featured on the labels of wine bottles from France, Spain, and Italy respectively, signified.  I did know that European wines are identified by region of origin, not by grape variety, but beyond that I was perplexed as to what else these letters were telling me.

The perplexity lifted most unexpectedly one lovely September morning on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

The group I was travelling with had stopped in the village of Coulioure, France, to visit Domaine St. Sebastien, a small winery in the Banyuls Coulioure AOC. (See my 15 October 2013 post “A Visit to Domaine San Sebastien)

The tubs of grapes (Grenache) were just arriving in the bed of a small and somewhat battered truck when we arrived.  While the group went into the cellar to watch the crushing and to listen to vigneron indépendante Romauld Perrone explain the process, I remained outside to photograph the unloading.

When that was done, I stepped inside to hear what Monsieur Perrone was saying to my travelling companions.  I was just in time to hear someone ask, “What is AOC?”

“First of all,” he stated emphatically, “AOC is not quality.  It could be, but also might not be.”

I was all ears; never before had I heard or read of AOC being discussed in this way.

I wanted to hear more, but another question lead him to another topic.  So when I got home, I followed up this intriguing statement with further research in my French Wine Scholar Manual and elsewhere.  This time it made more sense, in that AOC indicates terroir, that is, the “delineated zone of production . . .with unique qualities and characteristics stemming from [the] geography, climate, and topography” that the grapes grow in.  It may also include delineation of viticulture and winemaking practices.  AOC refers both to the region itself and the product (wine) that comes from that region, and is the top rung in France’s classification pyramid.

The same is true for DO/DOCa (Spain) and DOC/DOCG (Italy), the top rungs in these two countries’ classification pyramids.

All wine classifications systems are a means to control (and protect) the quality of wines of the designated regions.   And by doing so, they also offer a means of assuring consumers that they are indeed buying an authentic wine of the region, and within certain quality standards.

At the same time, while these classifications are the top rungs on the wine quality control pyramids for these countries, in that the delineated zone of production is smaller in acreage and has tighter restrictions on maximum tonnage/acre production, minimum alcohol percentage, and the varieties and percentages of varieties allowed in the wines of these designations, compared to the lower classification rungs, or non-classified wines, the designations by themselves do not necessarily assure quality.  Factors such as vintage, technology, and winemaking practices are equally important in determining quality.


The French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée  (AOC) system was established in 1935.

As set out in my French Wine Scholar manual, the rules for this AOC system closely define which grape varieties, and viticulture and winemaking practices are approved for classification in each of France’s several hundred geographically defined appellations.

French law over the years developed four categories of wine quality, two falling under the European Union’s (EU) Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR) designation and two falling under the EU’s Table Wine category:

Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR)

  • Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée(AOC) – Wine from a particular area that has many restrictions, including grape varieties and winemaking practices.  This is the top classification
Appellation Madiran Controlee

Appellation Madiran Controlee

Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure(VDQS) – Fewer restrictions than AOC, usually used for smaller areas or as a “waiting room” for potential AOCs.

Table wine:

  • Vin de Pays – Carries with it a specific region within France (for example Vin de Pays d’Oc from Languedoc-Roussillon), and is subject to less restrictive regulations than AOC and VDQS wines.
  • Vin de Table– Carries with it only the producer and that it is from France.


“The mainstream quality wine regions in Spain are referred to as Denominaciones de Origen and the wine they produce is regulated for quality according to specific laws.

As with French wines, Spanish wines are classified into two categories:  Quality Wines Produced in a Specified Region (QWPSR); and Table Wine (Vine de Mesa). These categories are further classified into sub-categories depending on the strictness of the criteria applied in producing the type of wine in question:

Quality Wines Produced in a Specified Region (QWPSR, and regulated by the Consejo Regulador:

  • Vino de Pago (VP; also DO de Pago): these wine regions are centered on individual single-estates with an international reputation, and aspire to the very highest standards with extremely strict geographical criteria.  About 15 such estates exist.
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa); (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada—DOQ – in Catalan): regions with a proven track record of consistent quality are awarded a “Quality” designation. There are only two such wine regions with DOQ/DOCa status:  Priorat  – DOQ (in Catalonia District); and Rioja – DOCa (in the Community of La Rioja).
Priorat - Denominacio d'origen Qualificada

Priorat – Denominacio d’origen Qualificada

Priorat - Label Detail

Priorat – Label Detail

  •  Denominación de Origen (DO): mainstream quality-wine regions.  The greater percentage of Spanish vineyards is in the DO region.
Las Rochas - 2009  DO Calatayud

Las Rochas – 2009
DO Calatayud

DO - Calatayud - Label Detail

DO – Calatayud – Label Detail

  • Vino de Calidad  Producido en  Región Determinada. (VCPRD)  A “starter home” for wine regions climbing the quality ladder

Table Wine

  • Vino de la Tierra (VdlT): “Country wines” which do not yet have EU QWPSR status but which may use a regional name.
  • Vino de Mesa:  Table Wine is bulk-grown, usually drawn from a wide variety of regions and hence has no vintage or area designation on the label, apart from “Produce of Spain.”


The first official Italian system of classification of wines was launched in 1963. Since then, several modifications and additions to the legislation have been made, the last of which, in 2010, established four basic categories, which are consistent with the last EU regulation in matter of wine (2008–09). The categories, from the top level to the bottom one, are as follows:

  • Vini DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). This classification denotes the highest quality recognition for Italian wines. It is comprised of a relatively limited number of first-class wines, most of which are red wines and fall within the Piedmont region, which includes Barbaresco and Barolo wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape, and Barberas; and the  Chianti region, which produces Chianti Classicos wines produced primarily from the Sangiovese grape. Chianti Classico wines are DOCG wines produced in the historically oldest part of the Chianti territory, and carry the red rooster on their seals.  In Lombardy region, Franciacorta has DOCG status for its sparkling (Metodo Classico) wines. Franciacorta is the only Italian sparkling wine not obliged to declare its DOCG appellation on its label (as is the case with Champagne).
Barbera D'Asti - DOCG

Barbera D’Asti – DOCG

DOCG collar on Barbera D'Asti

DOCG collar on Barbera D’Asti

Chianti Classico Riserva - DOCG

Chianti Classico Riserva – DOCG

  • Vini DOC (Denominazione di Origne Controllata): DOC wines are made in government defined zones in accordance to specific regulations designed to preserve the character of the wines derived from each of Italy’s defined regions.
  • Vini IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica): This category is reserved to wines produced in a specific territory within Italy and following a series of specific and precise regulations.  It also serves as stepping stone to DOC status.  Most Italian wine falls into DOC and IGT classifications.
Monte Antico - IGT - Italy

Monte Antico – IGT – Italy

  • Vino De Tavola (VdT) Italian table wines whose only criteria is that they must be produced somewhere in Italy.

 In Summary

The classification systems for Spanish and Italian wines are relatively simple, since the top tiers are either DO/DOQ in Spain and DOC/ DOCG in Italy.

France’s top tier (AOC) classification has hundreds of sub-categories, in order to denote more highly delimited regions and higher quality wines.

No need to be overwhelmed, however: just remember that for each region, there is a general AOC that includes all classified wines of the region (some producers for various reasons do not seek classification of their wines). For example, all wines from Bordeaux are Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée; all wines from Burgundy are Appellation Burgundy Contrôlée; and all wines from the Rhône River region are Appellation Côtes de Rhône Contrôlée); and so on.

Within these broad regional classifications are specific small regions where particular grapes have proven to be a superb match with the soil and climate, and have been processed into high quality, limited-production wines for decades, and whose producers have consequently sought a narrower classification for their wines, and higher prices.

For example:

    • Premier Grand Cru Classé, Appellation Margaux Controlee, within the AOC of Bordeaux.  In a good vintage, price can be €1,500, or more.
    • a vineyard or Climat, Appellation Volnay 1er Cru Controlee, in AOC Burgundy.  Prices range from $45 to €200
    • or Appellation Cornas Contrôlée, a north Rhône wine from the small region of Cornas in  Côtes de Rhône AOC.  Price usually between $60 and $85
Apppellation Cornas Controlee (Cotes de Rhone)

Apppellation Cornas Controlee (Cotes de Rhone)

Nonetheless, neither a prestigious AOC nor DOCa/DOQ nor DOCG are guarantees of quality; nor is price a score!  So while some wine consumers spend thousands of dollars or euros to fill their cellars with only First Growth wines from Bordeaux or wines with a 98+ score from wine journals, or with wines from the highest classifications of Spain and Italy, they have no assurance that their wines are the best available in that vintage or region, or even if they will like them when they finally come to pour them.  Not to suggest that these costly wines cannot be superb wines.

But wonderful wines can be found from lesser classifications as well.   When I was in Bordeaux a few years ago, I was invited to a private tour of Chateau Margaux.  Following the tour, the host offered me a glass of the 1997 Margaux.  It was a lovely wine, with a retail price of US $300.  Although just 11:00 a.m., I drank every drop.  Not being in financial position to spend more on a bottle of wine than I was spending on three nights in my Hôtel du Charme in Margaux, I didn’t buy it.  Instead I drove to a wine store in the village of Margaux, and was directed to a Bordeaux “Cru Bougeoise” for US $30.  I stored it for a couple of years, and when I poured it, it was gorgeous.  I continue to buy this category of wine whenever I can find it.  A great many factors go into the setting of the price of a bottle of wine.

Classifications are perhaps just the first important step to making the best wine purchase of classified wines relative to price.

Although there is evidence that some of the first delineations of zones of production originated in Spain in the 14th century, this system was not developed into the consistent hierarchy that it is known by today until much later, at the beginning of 20c, in France.

Grand Site Sainte Victorie - in Provence, France

Grand Site Sainte Victorie – in Provence, France

Note:  In 2012, a new system of wine classification was introduced in France. The long standing AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system is being replaced by AoP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), designating the region as « protected » rather than “controlled.”

The AoP concept is to be adopted by all EU countries over the next few years.

To further read up on these changes, go to the link below: