Jun 3, 2009

Some Musings Over a Cabernet

It's great to be back in the US. The scent of newly cut grass, long afternoons capped by a Napa table red, some home baked crackers (rosemary, parmesan and oregano, crusted with sea salt), a selection of reasonably priced cheese, and home canned heirloom tomatoes (courtesy of my Tuscany-loving friend).

Not that you can't have these in Tokyo (well, except for newly cut grass, since my compatriots thought it necessary to cement over every open patch of land), but it would have been more a grand affair than a pleasant afternoon at home, not to mention, far less affordable. And the scent of woodlands with actual songbirds all around would be hard to replicate.

After considerable thought (and unquaffable Japanese wine), I've decided to submit to the immutable and wiser laws of winemaking, and go to where the grapes grow best. We are debating if that is southern France, Tuscany, or some undiscovered part of Eastern Europe bordering the Adriatic Sea. (Australia and So. America are on the list as well, but we are draw to the lifestyle in Europe that has been cultivated over centuries of slow and decadent decline.)

One of the silver linings of this great credit crisis, and now multi-year economic malaise a la Japan, is that the first growths of Bordeaux and Napa are slashing their prices, some by almost 50%. It is not a bad time to be researching the best.

On the Oregon Trail

Apologies for the long, long absence. Work, intermittent family crisis, etc. Well - back to wines, my favorite subject.

I have been reading up these long weeks on the wine business, in an effort to see if it is actually doable. There are businesses, like Crushpad or City Winery, which allow you to make your own wines, with all of the logistics - from getting the grapes, bottling, etc. - taken care of by the business. It does sound like a good way to start if you are a city dweller, but if you are in search of the Good Life, it's like drinking a bottle of Barolo in Tokyo to try to relive Tuscany. Not the same thing.

Then there is the idea of wholesale moving to southern Europe, to find a small patch of dirt, preferably with a ruin to renovate, and eke out a vineyard from which to grow grapes. (This, btw, is the premise of A Vineyard in Tuscany, which I had the pleasure of reading last weekend.) Not only is that a time sink, but you need a small fortune to back you up for the 5-10 yrs that you won't make a dime.

Still, this Armchair Vintner is enjoying her research into the wide world of winemaking.

On the business: This BBG article on a billionaire who is buying third and fourth growth wineries in France is interesting. The idea of making award winning wines without a vineyard or winery is also possible, as this American discovered in Portugal. I am also reading up on the Mondavi chronicles - The House of Mondavi, and Robert Mondavi's autobiography, Harvests of Joy.

On traveling: Oregon has some lovely wineries to bike through, as well as forests lined with chanterelle mushrooms. Not exactly Provence with truffles, but lovely nevertheless.

On Tuscany: I've never heard of the Antorini family, but apparently they are the oldest winemaking family business.

Feb 6, 2009

An American Vintner in Japan

From the WSJ -- an interesting story of a SF vintner in Japan. Btw Cakebread produces a fantastic cab. I look forward to visiting this winery.

Jan 31, 2009

The Trials - Take Two

I tried the white a few days ago, but not having the sushi I wanted, I ended up trying it with a Japanese dessert. It was a green tea and cherry blossom youkan, usually enjoyed with matcha (traditional green tea). It would be a bit sweet for the match, but it was worth a try.

The nose was a pleasant, somewhat strong mineraly bouquet, with a hint of buttery vanilla. Not unlike a chardonnay or some of the more expressive sauvignon blancs. It smells sweet. (I'm not surprised -- our nation has a big sweet tooth, although how the women here keep their waifish physique is beyond me.)

The body is medium to light, with a rich aftertaste and medium finish. It's got personality; a rather piquant elegance to begin with, easy on the finish. And not surprisingly, it reminds me of sake. All in all, not a slam dunk favorite, but definitely would not complain if we could make this kind of wine.

Unfortunately, I do not generally drink whites. The good news is, I will now have a lot of time to rectify this.

Today, I bought a sashimi plate (very local -- Tsukiji is only minutes away!). If I may digress, the plate was ¥800 (~$8.80) at the local fish shop, and it was far better than any sashimi I've had in the US, except perhaps the ultra-high end in NYC. That is one of the benefits of living so close to the center of the fish world. It makes me more than a bit worried that this may end soon.

Back to the wine. It was lovely with the salmon. A bit too strong for the hamachi. Sublime with squid. But the maguro (tuna) was too hearty for it, and it flattened out in protest. I suggest it with lighter fish, not too delicate and not too robust. It is hearty enough to have with light, non-chocolate desserts. Lemon chiffon or custard pudding, for instance.

Jan 30, 2009

How To Make Wine

The first of the books arrive.

Jan 22, 2009


So I felt really bad, trashing my first Japanese red. I mean, I'd been brought up on big Californian and Oregon wines, where the have everything going for them - climate, economy, lots of thirsty wineaholics. These Japanese grapes, they struggled. Not the California "my owner planted me in rocks and didn't water me for a while for the flavor", but really struggled for survival - against the tsuyu in June, the typhoons in September, all sorts of mold in between, and, worst of all - against the much higher prices that table grapes (i.e. those sold as fruit) command. (Remember, this is the land of $100 melons.) Pure economics - farmers prefer to sell their best grapes as fruit, not as wine; ergo the egregious practice of leaving the spoiled / unsellable ones for winemaking. Thankfully, this practice has been slowly changing as the Japanese drink more wine.

Plus I opened it with a great deal of prejudice; twasn't fair. I decided to retest the red with what it's made for - sushi. A few slices of salmon and crab, my favorites.

And it bombs. Once again.

That's it - we're going back and getting the best full-bodied Japanese red they have, and if that still bites, we're calling the red winemaking off.

Public Service Annoucement

From my friend Laura:

I got this PSA and thought it my duty to share with you.
To my friends who enjoy a glass of wine. . . and those who don't.
Valuable information even if you are not a wine or beer drinker.
Pass it on and share the wisdom.
As Ben Franklin said:"In wine there is wisdom, in beer
there is freedom, in water there is bacteria."

In a number of carefully controlled trials, scientists have
demonstrated that if we drink 1 liter of water each day, at
the end of the year we would have absorbed more than 1 kilo
of Escherichia coli, (E. coli) - bacteria found in feces. In
other words, we are consuming 1 kilo of poop
(that's over 2 pounds). However, we do NOT run that
risk when drinking wine & beer (or tequila, rum,
whiskey, or other liquor) because alcohol has to go through
a purification process of boiling, filtering and/or fermenting.
Remember: Water = Poop Wine = Health
Therefore, it's better to drink wine and talk stupid,
than to drink water and be full of shit.

There is no need to thank me for this valuable information:
I'm doing it as a public service.

The Trials

Today I finally went to the Cave de Relax and got my first bottles of Japanese table wine -- a white and a red. I was specifically looking for wines that were very Japanese, that expressed the terroir rather than those that tried to emulate European wines. The idea was to (a) see if Japanese wines were drinkable, and (b) see what kind of wines we would be able to make in Tokyo. Presumably, the table wine made by the professionals would be a grade above what we would make, and I wanted to make sure that we weren't going to make swill.

The staffer was very helpful, but I don't think he knew a lot about the wines. Next time I will ask the manager. He recommended the following:
Soleil Classic Red, Soleil Wines, Yamanashi (prefecture), 2008. Muscat Bailey-A 95%, Pinot Noir/Merlot 5%.
"A light, easy to drink wine with hints of strawberry. Good with light tomato sauces, sauteed vegetables, and seared meats."

Koshu Barrel Fermentation, Chateau Sakaori, Yamanashi, 2007. Koshu 100%.
"Aged in French oak. Fresh bouquet, fruity taste, slightly dry, well balanced."
Just as a precaution, I got a 2005 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, medium body, in the ¥1200 range (~$13). I'd had some in New York a few weeks ago, and it was a heady woody cab blend, reminicent of the big bold Napa wines from 1996-7, without their big bold price tag.

I was going to wait till the evening, but curiosity got the better of me. Besides, I had that pomodoro sauce I made last night, with fresh Japanese tomatoes...Opened the red, gave it a swirl and looked at the color. The color was fine -- a little too purple, but then again, the wine was extremely young. No legs, a bad sign. And then the taste.

Dear god. It was so light, no tannins. And yes, there was that strawberry taste. Pleasant, but a little too cute. No structure, no body, no nothing. I tried it with my pomodoro, and it got worse. Granted, the pomodoro was not a "light tomato sauce", but still.

Thank god for the Montepulciano. A beautiful ruby color, the first taste was full of wood and fruit, just the way I like it. The tannins were strong and needed some time, but all in all a decent bottle to have on a daily basis. At the same price, who on earth would try the Japanese wine?

I have higher hopes for the white, which is being refrigerated.

Jan 19, 2009

The Grapes

The right wine-grape variety for your area is the one that ripens well in your area. - From Vines to Wines

There are grapes specifically for wine, called vitis vinifera. Most of us are familiar with the European strains: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, etc. There are others, such as malbec, sangiovese, nero d'avola, etc. that have gained popularity recently. In Japan, the Koshu grape is a vitis vinifera, which only is used to make white wines. I am hoping there is one for reds that can ripen well here.

Apparently you can make wine from grape juice / concentrate, but I think we'll pass on that for now. Also, apparently non-vitis vinifera grapes generally make mediocre wines, although hybrids have been created that have done well.

Picture: Katsunuma winery

Prelude to a Vine

Some fun facts/thoughts collected so far:

(1) Wine tastes best in the region it's from. By corollary, homemade wine must taste best when drunk at home.
(2) "There are not many peak experiences available to us for dollar or so that homemade wine costs." (Homemade wine costs a dollar?! Sign me up!)

To start off, one needs, in order of importance:

(1) grapes
(2) climate
(3) soil
(4) the winemaker

- From Vines to Wines (excerpt as seen on the amazon.com site)

Well, we have here mediocre grapes (by international wine standards), bad climate for grapes, decent soil, and, well, inexperienced winemakers. I'm hoping we have beginner's luck on our side...

Picture: from last summer, in Provence

Jan 18, 2009

Drinkable Japanese Wine?

This must be a sign. While researching grape cultivars that would do well in Japan, I stumbled across this article -- published just yesterday.

Japanese Wine: Unadulterated and Ready to Go Abroad - The Japan Times

The long and short of it is that after years of being undrinkable swill, Japanese wines are now making ripples across the global wine industry. Most are made for pairing with sushi: one that has made it overseas is featured in a Michelin starred Japanese restaurant in London.

There are a few cultivars that are well suited to our climate -- Koshu for white wine and Muscat Bailey-A for red. There are some vineyards that grow European grapes as well (Merlot, Sauvignon), but I think only a few microclimates in Japan would suit these grapes, which like long, dry and hot summers to ripen.

Then there is this Robert Parker write up, which basically says Japanese wines are undrinkable for the most part. The only redeeming varietal seems to be the Koshu, which apparently makes delicious, light whites suited for the delicacy of sashimi and sushi.

Well, which is it? The good news is that Cave de Relax, which is featured in the Japan Times article as the go-to place for Japanese wine (150+ labels), is only 15 minutes away. I suppose my Sunday brunch will be a long and liquid one.

Picture: Katsunuma Winery

Jan 17, 2009

Armchair Vintner

Oh...my...goodness. A book after my own heart!

Vineyard in Tuscany, by Ferenc Mate

Hungarian-Canadian author and sailor Máté (The Hills of Tuscany) recounts in wry, candid detail how he rebuilt a Tuscan ruin into a world-class winery. Living in Tuscany with his artist wife and son while savoring the landscape, food and pleasant neighbors wasn't enough for Máté, who admits he thrives on adversity. He wanted his own castle and finagles the purchase of a 13th-century friary in Montalcino, with a proper forno (oven), a forest crammed with porcini and 60 acres of land—15 of which he fashions over three hard years of work into a vineyard sprouting robust harvests of Sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and Syrah grapes. His diary of sorts regales the reader on the process of restoring the ancient ruin, called La Colombaio: first by detailing how an Etruscan house was constructed, then by observing how the various workmen were hired (and what they ate for lunch). While hacking in the forest, he finds the remains of a 3,000-year-old city, inviting the interest of archeologists. Máté breaks from the construction and excavation for treks through the Dolomites before returning to prepare for the toilsome but ultimately satisfying vendemmia (harvest). - Publishers Weekly
This must be Tuscany's answer to Mayle's A Year In Provence.

Did I mention I've dreamt of owning a vineyard, complete with a resplendent villa and a large patio overlooking the hills of vines? (Yes yes, haven't we all?) At first I wanted to have one in France, but after a horrible vacation in Nice dealing with the "service" there, I was left wondering how on earth I could deal with the inevitable problems that would crop up in a renovation. In French. Do not underestimate the horrors of cross-cultural mishaps.

Luckily, I have a close friend who adores Italy and wants to spend his life there. Part Italian, he seems not to mind what I consider to be the even greater challenge of working and renovating in Italy. Va bene, we have our fearless vintner/partner. One day, we will go looking for a villa to call our own, with acres and acres of sangiovese and cabernet.

In the meantime, this book will have to do. Now, all I have to do is endure the two weeks it will take for these books to arrive...

First Blush

The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.
- Sun Tzu

As with all adventures, many issues crop up after the first blush of excitement wears off. Weather, for one. Japan (where we live) has the perfect climate for a litany of mouthwatering treats, but wine is not one of them. High humidity and a long wet tsuyu (monsoon) season make it difficult for grapes, which are prone to fungal attacks. Then there is the land problem. Tokyo is like New York -- a concrete jungle, all office and condo buildings, with scarcely a patch of dirt for gardening. Both K and I are blessed with balconies, so we do have space, just not ideal space. Grapes grown in containers tend to vine profusely, but bear little fruit.

Not exactly ideal conditions for embarking on a new venture. However, we weren't setting out to make the next Opus One or Screaming Eagle; just a nice organic table red for pleasant evenings. In Italy, for instance, where many families have their own vegetable patch, villages will pitch in grapes from their gardens to make a village wine, which is shared by all.

So, while K capered off to Hong Kong for the week, I busied myself in buying books and googling winemaking sites.

Books (thank goodness for Amazon for us living abroad):
The Way To Make Wine, by Sheridan Warrick
From Vines to Wines , by Jeff Cox
The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture
, by Ron Lombaugh

Some interesting sites:
On basic winemaking (including other fruits and flowers; perhaps we should make a rose wine too?).
On home bottling.
A winery in Yamanashi -- apparently some Japan wines have won awards recently. We'll have to go visit.

Let there be Wine

It all started so innocuously.

KB: we both like similar things
J: sure
KB: like coffee and wine
KB: why don't we make them?
J: make them? you mean grow them?
KB: yeah.
J: (long pause)
KB: I made melons last year, so why not grapes?
J: ok, actually, that may be a great idea.
J: crazy, but great.
J: maybe not coffee, but wine...sure, why not wine.

So it began, our great adventure.