Fifty Years of American Winemaking, All in One Hour on October 29

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is 50 years old this year. As part of the birthday celebrations, the museum’s food and wine history project will host a discussion of “Fifty Years of American Winemaking” on Wednesday, October 29, from 2-3 p.m.

I will moderate the discussion along with Paula Johnson, who heads the team that brought us the marvelous exhibit, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.” If you haven’t seen that exhibit, you should – it includes Julia Child’s kitchen as well as a fascinating section on the growth of the U.S. wine industry.

Our discussion on the 29th will include representatives of pioneering wine families from the 1960s who helped shape American wine as we know it today: Robert M. Cook of Chalone Vineyard in California, Fred Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes; Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon, Kathleen Heitz Myers of Heitz Cellars in Napa, and Jeffrey Patterson of California’s Mount Eden Vineyards.

The discussion will be held in the American History Museum’s Warner Bros. Theater. There’s no wine tasting, unfortunately, but admission is free. They do request you register, however, to be assured of seating. Here are the details.

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Drink Local Wine Week: The Importance of Vintage. Or Not.

Virginia and Maryland vintners have become adept at turning challenges into advantages. Case in point: The region’s variable climate. We get hot vintages, humid vintages, even hurricane vintages that have us looking for arks rather than barrels. (Anyone remember 2011?) Harsh winters can take their toll, as can late spring frosts. Cicadas, ladybugs, stinkbugs — yep, we get those too.

Increasingly though I don’t hear winegrowers complaining about these challenges. Rather, they’re embracing them, content to make whatever wine the vintage gives them, a reflection of terroir and time. This embrace of the local climate is a sign of the increasing maturity of our local wine industry, as winegrowers learn to adapt to what a vintage gives them rather than wringing their hands over Nature’s caprices. 

And yet, if you have some barrels of 2010, a super-hot year where alcohol levels spiked as high as 15 percent, aging in your cellar next to 2011s that lacked extract because it rained for 36 out of 30 days in September, why not blend them? Do we care if a winery can’t put a vintage date on the label? Should we? Or should we embrace the experimentation that produces something new and delicious?

I explored this question in a recent column in The Washington Post. Here it is:

When Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron were blending their 2007 wines, the second vintage for their Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, Md., six barrels refused to play well with the others. The wines tasted awkward and didn’t add value to the various blends the couple were crafting. So they put the barrels back in storage and forgot about them.

After a few years in barrel detention, however, the wines had “come around,” as wine lovers like to say of late-blooming vino, like troubled teenagers who mature into successful adults. So Boyce and O’Herron blended them with some wine from 2008 and a bit from the super-ripe 2010 vintage. The result was Slate, an unusual melange of Bordeaux grapes — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot — with syrah comprising a third of the blend. Labeled without a vintage date, the wine was so successful that it won the Maryland Governor’s Cup competition in 2011. It was Black Ankle’s third cup win: Its flagship Bordeaux blend, called Crumbling Rock, won in 2008 and 2009 for the 2006 and 2007 vintages, respectively. The 2010 Crumbling Rock took top honors in the 2013 competition.

BlackAnkleLogoToday, Black Ankle offers Slate 2, a blend primarily of wine from the rainy harvest of 2011 (a year when Boyce and O’Herron decided to “declassify” wines and not to make a Crumbling Rock blend) with some from the successful 2010 season blended in.

“If one vintage gives too much alcohol, and the following not enough concentration — as happened in 2010 and 2011 — why not blend them to correct both problems?” Boyce says. “Blending vintages helps our wines avoid being Jekyll and Hyde from year to year.”

The idea of “non-vintage” or “multi-vintage” wines is not new. Champagne producers typically blend wine from three or more harvests to create a house style that can be consistent from year to year in Champagne’s fickle northern climate. If you buy a bottle of Bollinger Brut or Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, you know what you’re getting. Marietta Cellars in California is up to Lot 62 on its popular Old Vine Red, an old-style zinfandel-based blend. Spanish winemakers traditionally blended the best vintages to make a reserva especial, a technique still used by cult producer Vega-Sicilia.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Bordeleau Vineyards & Winery blends its reds across vintages to achieve consistent quality and has started labeling its wines with lot numbers to distinguish different blends. (However, the winery won this year’s Governor’s Cup competition with a vintage 2008 cabernet sauvignon made with raisined grapes in the style of amarone.)

“Blending multiple vintages gives a winemaker another set of tools to achieve the goal of making excellent wines year in and year out,” says Tom Shelton, Bordeleau’s owner-winemaker.

Federal regulations allow some intermarriage of vintages. When a wine is labeled with an appellation, or American Viticultural Area, 95 percent of it must be from the vintage on the label. However, if it is labeled just with the state of origin, the minimum is 85 percent from the vintage. A skosh here or a dollop there from an older year can add complexity or even a hint of age to a younger wine. Black Ankle’s Slate and Marietta’s Old Vine Red go beyond that minimum and challenge our preconception that fine wine must carry a vintage date.

Vintages might be irrelevant with supermarket wines that emphasize consistency over thrills. Many cheap box wines have abandoned vintages for freshness dates. With fewer people collecting wines to age, do we even pay attention to vintage differences? We might just decide that we don’t like a particular winery any more because this year’s wine wasn’t as enjoyable as the last.

Even so, vintage dating is so ingrained in wine culture that we are unlikely to see a widespread move to vintage blending. Wine fiends love comparing one year with the next, choosing vintages to drink now or to hold. And for winemakers, the year’s weather is part of terroir, that special character of place they try to coax from their vineyards.

In a recent online chat hosted by Frank Morgan, author of the Drink What You Like blog, winemakers from the Veritas, King Family and Grace Estate wineries in Virginia voiced their preference for vintage-dated wines.

“I’m trying to express the character of each vintage,” said Emily Pelton of Veritas — a sentiment echoed by Jake Busching of Grace Estate. Matthieu Finot of King Family expressed it best.

“The wines from 2011” — a rainy harvest — “reflect the vintage,” Finot said. “I don’t want a standardization of my wine to taste the same year after year. “Wine . . . is interesting because of the expression of the vintage.”

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Drink Local Wine Week: Texas Tempranillo

In her Financial Times column and on her website this week, Jancis Robinson describes how Tempranillo has in the last 25 years or so become the third-most planted grape in the world, in terms of acreage, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It even now beats out Airén, the white grape of Spanish brandy. And yet Tempranillo is essentially “a one-country grape,” Robinson says. Despite a strong incursion into Portugal, “about 90 percent of the world’s Tempranillo is grown in Spain.”

Tempranillo is one of the grapes Texas winemakers are increasingly enthusiastic about, as they continue to explore warm-climate grape varieties from the Mediterranean countries. When I visited Texas to attend TexSom in August, I had the opportunity to try a few Texas wines, and was particularly impressed with the Tempranillos from Pedernales Cellars and Brennan Vineyards.

These were rich, deep and savory wines, with blueberry and tobacco leaf flavors typical of the grape. My imagination tends to kick into high gear when I taste such delicious wines, but even in the climate-controlled atmosphere of the Four Seasons near Dallas, I could almost taste the gritty sunshine and sweat of my Hollywood-infused image of the Texas landscape, but without the overstated Texas swagger. These are delicious, elegant wines.

This is Drink Local Wine Week, the annual call to bloggers and writers across the country to feature local wines. It is sponsored by Drink Local Wine, the group Jeff “The Wine Curmudgeon” Siegel and I co-founded in 2008, before local wine became mainstream. You can find a running list of articles for Drink Local Wine Week on the organization’s website.

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This Year’s Vintage Didn’t Begin With Bud Break

Harvest has begun, not just in California but also here in the East. We think of a vine’s growing season as bud break to harvest, but the 2014 vintage throughout much of the United States has been shaped and even defined by what came before — the harshest winter in memory.

I had seen reports of the devastation in wine regions such as Michigan and northeastern Ohio, but I wanted to see for myself winter’s effects and learn how vintners were coping. So last month I went to Michigan’s Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas (and reported on winter’s effects here) and Ohio’s Grand River Valley, where as late as May many growers were thinking of quitting rather than replanting. But then the vines began to grow, from the ground. There will be no crop this year, and probably little if any in 2015. But the vineyards will survive.

The first Ohio vintner I met was Arnie Esterer, who began planting vinifera vines near the shores of Lake Erie in Conneaut (I learned it’s pronounced Connie-at, as in, “Where’s Connie at?”). This is outside of the Grand River Valley AVA, where several other growers told me it was impossible to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I just chuckled, because Arnie’s Markko Vineyard Cabernet was among the best I’ve ever tasted, from anywhere. He poured me his 2010 and a 1991, which tasted almost as fresh. And he is justly proud of his Chardonnay, which he calls Homage in honor of his mentor back in the 1960s, Dr. Konstantin Frank.

Arnie Esterer of Ohio's Markko Vineyards

Arnie Esterer of Ohio’s Markko Vineyards

Here’s the piece I wrote for The Washington Post about my visit to Ohio. I mentioned it on social media when it was published, so I apologize for any repeats. But this is an important story about the growth of wine in the Eastern United States, one that cannot be told adequately through weather reports.

Arnie Esterer considered giving up. He and his 45-year-old vineyard had survived the winters of ’94 and ’03, but now the vines were ravaged, reduced to blackened, bare stumps following the record low temperatures that struck the eastern United States in early 2014. There clearly would be no crop this year, and the vines themselves were lifeless.

Until late April. That’s when shoots began to emerge from the ground, giving hope that the vineyard could be revived. So Esterer, the first vintner to plant European vinifera grape varieties along the Lake Erie shore in northeastern Ohio, began training those shoots up the trellis wires in hopes of growing new trunks and cordons that might bear a crop in 2015. Having planted the vineyard near Conneaut in 1968 as a young man and built a cult reputation for his Markko Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling, Esterer, 82, was starting over.

This year’s severe winter, with its “polar vortex” that brought record low temperatures to much of the eastern half of the country, was devastating to wine grape growers.“Once every 10 years” is a common refrain of vintners describing the likelihood of harsh winters and their effects on viticulture. It echoes a decades-long debate over whether eastern U.S. vineyards should be planted with European varieties or native American or French-American hybrids. The vinifera advocates have won that debate, but they pay the price in years like 2014. Native grapes, such as concord, and hybrids like chambourcin and vidal blanc survived this winter in fair shape.

Esterer was a disciple of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Russian immigrant who championed the vinifera varieties for the Finger Lakes in New York and other areas along the east coast throughout the 1960s and into the early 1980s. Dr. Frank gave him advice and sold him his initial vines. Today, Esterer makes a stunning cabernet sauvignon in a region where other vintners are still quick to say, “You can’t ripen cabernet here.” His chardonnay, aged for three years before release, is savory and rich, as though the vines managed to transmit a message from deep within the Earth.

A soft-spoken man who is not shy about dropping a few profanities into his discourse, Esterer resembles Robert E. Lee, with his white hair and beard. His winery is essentially a backwoods cabin, where he offers guests a tasting at a rough-hewn wooden table that promotes conversation more than sales. To get inside, I had to pass inspection by two shaggy sheepdogs, one of whom goosed me to check my bona fides. Once there, Esterer produced a notebook full of spreadsheets with data about every one of his vines.

“I know exactly how many were killed,” he said. The toll: Out of 10,000 vines, more than 3,000 will never grow another grape. One third of his life’s work, destroyed.

A harsh winter can harm a vineyard in two ways – by killing the buds that form the previous year and carry this year’s crop, and more seriously, by freezing the sap and shattering the vine from within. The extent of damage from last winter is still uncertain. In northwest Michigan, growers on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay (which actually froze in late February) are expecting to harvest a 2014 crop only 30 percent the size of a normal vintage. Yet these areas have apparently escaped major vine kill, thanks to heavy snow cover that protected the vine roots and the sensitive area where the American rootstock is grafted to the European grape vine.

Winter damage in Virginia was worse than initial assessments indicated, according to Virginia Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf. The true extent of damage may not be known for years. Johannes Reinhardt, owner/winemaker of Kemmeter Wines in New York’s Finger Lakes, remembers the harsh 1985 winter in Germany’s Franken region. “Three years later, when we had the next heavy crop, vines damaged that winter simply collapsed,” he said. Damaged vines may also be susceptible to crown gall, a disease that can eat away at a vine’s nervous system.

No region was hit harder than northeastern Ohio, along Lake Erie and the Grand River Valley northeast of Cleveland. After a mild December, temperatures plunged from 42 degrees to minus 19 over a period of 36 hours in early January, and stayed there for several hours. There was no snow cover to protect the vines. Subsequent cold spells magnified the damage.

“As late as mid-April, we feared an entire growing wine region had been destroyed,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “Now there’s at least hope for the future.”

Restoring vineyards with the shoots emerging from the roots will not be easy, nor inexpensive. “I’m spending five times as much in labor costs to retrain these vines than if I had planted from scratch,” laments Art Pietrzyk, owner of St. Joseph winery in the Grand River Valley.

At Markko Vineyard, Esterer says he has enough inventory from two productive vintages in 2012 and 2013 to sustain him through a cropless 2014 while he restores his vineyard. “I’m retired, I have nothing else to do,” he says.

Yet he knows the damage could have been avoided, or at least lessened, if he had followed the advice of his old mentor, Konstantin Frank.

“We didn’t mound up enough,” he says, referring to the practice of piling dirt around the vine trunk to protect the sensitive graft union from winter’s wrath. “I didn’t follow Dr. Frank’s rules. After 40 years, I got lazy. I’m the only one to blame.”

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Barboursville Opens Its Cellar

Luca Paschina, the talented winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards north of Charlottesville, has long argued that Virginia needs an iconic wine that is consistently good across vintages and can age well. Such a wine is necessary for Virginia to earn a reputation as a truly world-class wine region, he says. Paschina has offered his Octagon, a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend, as such an icon. Other wineries are aiming as high with their top cuvées, but Octagon has a head start if only because Paschina has been making longer than most.

Barboursville Vineyards Winemaker Luca Paschina. (From Barboursville’s website.)

Barboursville is now ready to make a statement about the age-worthiness of its wines. In July, the winery opened Library 1821 (named for the year James Barbour took residency in the mansion designed for him by Thomas Jefferson) for weekend visitors to enjoy selected older wines from the winery’s cellar. And in August, Barboursville made older vintages of Octagon, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Malvaxia (a passito-style dessert wine) available for sale online.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy some retrospective tastings at Barboursville over the years. Octagon, the Nebbiolo Reserve and Viognier Reserve age impressively well, remaining fresh while developing complexity and additional character over time. The Malvaxia develops an exotic richness as it mellows. Virginia wine fans are in for a treat.

 

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Michigan’s Varietal Variety

My recent visit to the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas in northwest Michigan led to me Lansing, where I helped judge the 37th annual Michigan wine competition. Michigan’s emergence into our wine consciousness seems too recent for the state to have had a competition for 37 years, but maybe I just don’t want to admit that would be about when I graduated high school.

The competition results are on www.michiganwines.com, I don’t have the code list to match the wines that particularly impressed me with their names, but I of course have extensive notes from my winery visits and discussions with winemakers.

A very enjoyable tasting of wines from the Leelanau Peninsula

A very enjoyable tasting of wines from the Leelanau Peninsula

Rather than present a complete list of all those wines, I thought I’d list wineries by grape variety. So here are my favorites from a three-day immersion into northwestern Michigan wines.

Riesling: With the cool climate and a topographical resemblance to the Finger Lakes, it’s no surprise that Riesling excels on the OMP and the LP. It comes across the sweetness spectrum; some winemakers I spoke to thought Michigan could fill a market gap left by Germany’s move to a bone dry style. Look for Rieslings from Left Foot Charley, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Blustone (Best of Category Winner), Chateau Grand Traverse, Brengman Bros., Verterra.

Pinot Blanc: I was surprised at how much I loved the Pinot Blancs I tasted in Michigan. This grape can make a nondescript crisp white, or it can be intensely fruity with bracing acidity. Alois Lageder from northern Italy is my personal benchmark for Pinot Blanc, but now I have several to add from Michigan, where the wine seems a bit riper, fuller and fruitier. Recommended Producers: Left Foot Charley, Brys Estate, Blustone, Verterra, Chateau Grand Traverse (Ship of Fools, a blend with Pinot Gris).

Pinot Gris/Grigio: Several wineries are producing Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, and the winemakers I queried were generally honest enough to acknowledge that the choice of name was more a marketing decision than an indication of the style of wine. Generally, I wasn’t thrilled with this category. The best I tasted was the Pinot Grigio 2013 from Ciccone Vineyards on Leelanau, where Tony Ciccone plays the Italian-American patron presiding over the good life. (There was a large and raucous wedding party when I visited.) This was the first time I tasted his wines, and by accounts they have improved since his daughter Paula joined the team. (Yes, you’ve heard of his other daughter.) “She’s an enologist,” he explained, shaking his head, “always going through the vineyard plucking leaves off the vines.” Well, I replied, “giving her a title is easier than arguing with her.”

Gewurztraminer: Gewurz is a no-brainer for this cool-climate area. Most are done dry, and they tend toward the lychee flavor rather than the rose petal, soapy character. Recommended Producers: Brengman Bros., Bel Lago, Verterra, Black Star Farms (Arcturos).

Grüner Veltliner: The Austrian variety is coming on strong in northwest Michigan, as is its sister red, Blaüfrankisch. I’ve tasted delicious GV from California, Oregon, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, but the ones from Michigan come closest to capturing that lemongrass, talc-like character that make Grüner one of my favorite white wines. Recommended Producers: Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Chateau Fontaine, Chateau Grand Traverse, Water Fire.

Chardonnay: This is not such a big variety here, as the growers seem to have resisted the “People expect it, so I have to grow it” logic. However, the Chardonnays I tasted from the Leelanau Peninsula showed an impressive intensity of flavor, especially in their unoaked versions. Unoaked chardonnay, according to Paul Hamelin of Verterra and Jay Briggs of 45 North, are especially popular with younger drinkers, another example of Millennials driving the market. Recommended Producers: Verterra, Chateau Fontaine, 45 North, Brengman Bros.

Auxerrois: With the emphasis on Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc), it’s not a stretch to think Auxerrois would do here. There isn’t a whole lot planted. Charlie Edson at Bel Lago has staked a claim to it as his signature wine, and it is excellent. I also tasted a very nice Auxerrois from Chateau Fontaine. Both are on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir does well here, mostly in a light style both in color and intensity. Some wineries have moved toward Dijon clones, which give deeper color and more familiar Burgundian flavors instead of the stewed tomato notes from older clones. Results were uneven, ranging from spectacular to “Stick with whites .. ” Recommended Producers: 2 Lads, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Brys Estate, Blustone, Chateau Fontaine.

Blaüfrankisch: I only tasted BF from two wineries: A tank sample of the 2013 from Left Foot Charley and two from Shady Lane. All three were excellent, and I hope they inspire more vintners to plant this variety. Despite its name — or the alternate, Lemberger — this is a deep-colored red wine that emphasizes fruit and spice and handles a moderate oak treatment with ease. These were by far the best BF’s I’ve tasted from the United States. The LFC, especially, transported me mentally to Austria’s Burgenland region with a single sniff.

Sparkling: Not a grape variety of course, but a style worth mentioning as Michigan does it well. There’s primarily one man to thank for that: Larry Mawby, who was one of Leelanau’s pioneers back in the 1970s, first with hybrids, later with vinifera and then sparkling. Mawby makes several Champagne-method sparklers under his L. Mawby label. My favorite was an explosively fruity blanc de noirs. He is also producing a wine called “TALISMØN,” using a solera begun more than two decades ago. “There’s probably a molecuie of 1992 in there,” Mawby quipped. He also makes a line of wines called M. Lawrence using the cuve closed or tank fermentation method. The most famous of these is called “Sex,” and you can imagine the

Other grapes: Michigan is still in an experimental phase, trying different grape varieties to see what will thrive in the cold climate and occasional harsh winters (such as the most recent one). Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc make cameo appearances. Chateau Grand Traverse, which planted the first commercial vinifera vineyards in 1974, makes a delicious Gamay, and I’m surprised others haven’t followed suit. CGT also has small plantings of Nebbiolo on the Old Mission Peninsula. Ciccone, true to its Italian heritage, makes a nice Dolcetto, though I didn’t hear of anyone else growing that grape. There are still some hybrids, though the ones I saw were mostly used in dessert wines. Interestingly, hybrids survived the winter better than vinifera did, so they may be more prominent on the 2014 vintage.

There’s plenty of potential vineyard land for expansion, especially on the Leelanau Peninsula. After my visit last week, I hope we will see many more wines from northwest Michigan on the national stage in years to come.

Posted in Local Wine, Michigan, Riesling, Sparkling Wine, Wine | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Michigan Reels from Winter’s Fury

Northwest Michigan wine country — the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas around Traverse City — is as beautiful as you’d expect. Vineyards are interspersed among fruit orchards (yes, it’s cherry season!) and McMansions. Driving up the OMP, the Grand Traverse Bay is on your left one moment, then visible to the right the next. As you drive up the Leelanau, water is seemingly always “just over there”– either Lake Leelanau or Lake Michigan itself. All this water, and its moderating effect on temperature and climate, is a primary reason wine grapes grow so well here.

Until last winter, when Lake Michigan froze.

“We had two events of 19 hours when temperatures were 9 below or less, one in late February, then one less than a week later in early March,” explains Craig Cunningham, who manages several vineyards on both peninsulas. I met Craig, a wry, soft-spoken man with the ruddy complexion of a farmer, at Left Foot Charley winery during my tasting with Bryan Ulbrich.

“Then we had a long winter, and as the vines were losing their domancy in April, we had periods of 5 degrees,” Cunningham said. “The longer days didn’t help, and the snow cover was going down. That’s what sealed our fate.”

A panoramic view of Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula

A panoramic view of Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula

Today, in early August, the vineyards look lush, with lots of foliage. But you practically have to search for grapes. There simply aren’t many hanging on the vines, and the clusters I could see looked scrawny and appeared to this untrained eye to be ripening unevenly. The summer has been pleasantly mild, which hasn’t helped the remaining grapes to ripen.

Winemakers I spoke to over three days of winery visits told a similar story of bud loss to the extreme cold of the past winter. Most estimated they would be able to harvest about 30 percent of a normal crop this year. Bordeaux varieties were apparently hardest hit, with Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer taking strong losses as well. The damage varied across each peninsula according to site and proximity to the water, but the most optimistic estimate I heard was for 50 percent crop loss.

Strong winter winds magnified the cold and desiccated the vines, but heavy snows protected most of the trunks from suffering severe damage. And in at least one case, at Brengman Brothers winery on Leelanau, the wind helped by drifting snow up the slopes where their Gewurztraminer vines are planted.

“We had five-foot snow drifts on that slope, so it covered the fruiting zone of the vines,” explains Bob Brengman. They are expecting a normal crop of Gewurztraminer this year.

Hybrid grape varieties fared better than vinifera, but without evident trunk damage affecting the long-term outlook, I didn’t hear of anyone giving up on the European varieties. This is still Riesling country.

And Pinot Blanc country. And Pinot Noir. And don’t rule out Gruner Veltliner or Blaufrankisch. Or Gamay.

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