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Speakeasy: Fred Swan, NorCal Wine

If you are looking for an education in California wine, getting to know Fred Swan of NorCal Wine Blog is a must. A teacher, a tour guide, and a taster, Swan provides a plethora of information about the regions shaping California wine scene past, present, and future. Whether it's Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, or Sonoma, in this latest installment of our SpeakEasy series of blogger interviews you'll come away more informed and more than a little curious about California wine.

As an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School focusing on the California Wine Appellation Specialist certification program, what do you find is the hardest part of teaching people about the varied winegrowing regions within the state?

The two biggest challenges always show up right away. One is the still prevalent stereotype that terroir isn’t significant with respect to California wine. It’s certainly true that winemaking style and ripeness can overwhelm the nuances of terroir. However, one can absolutely taste region or vineyard in the many hundreds of California wines made with restraint.

The next challenge is again an Old World bias best exemplified by “this doesn’t taste like Pinot Noir because it doesn’t taste like Burgundy.” Burgundy can be fabulous, but they don’t own a patent on Pinot. Pinot Noir should taste like Burgundy in Burgundy and Anderson Valley in Anderson Valley. And of course people tend to refer to Burgundy as if it’s just one vineyard without its own diversity in flavor and style.

All that said, teaching the classes is loads of fun and the students get so much out of them. Naturally, we cover every AVA in appropriate depth and that will include information on acreage, soils and climate. But the classes are also filled with anecdotes about winemakers, truly interesting historical information and, occasionally, pointed commentary on the wines. My goal is not just to educate but to bring the areas alive and get students excited to learn more, taste more and visit the AVAs. We’ve got an excellent track record for that.

In addition to teaching many of the classes, I put together the wine lists and source all the wines. I’m having a good time working with wineries and retailers on that and, especially, crafting lists that demonstrate not just what is typical in any given region but things that make it exciting: new projects like Wei Chi Semillon from Lake County and Lodi Native Zinfandel or classics like Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain or a 14-year old Concannon Petite Sirah from my cellar that blows people away.

I do want to make it clear though that, despite how fun and engaging the classes are, I and the school take them and the students needs very seriously. Most of our students are in the trade and looking toward career advancement, outside the industry but wanting to make a career change, or winery personal trying to broaden their perspectives. They are there to learn. The certification classes are good for consumers too, but we take a very professional approach rather than one that’s more casual and oriented to “wine appreciation.”

Are there too many appellations in California?

From a strictly numerical standpoint, I don’t think so. And there are certainly plenty of areas that should have their own AVA but don’t for one reason or another. Some spots within the Sonoma Coast, Pritchard Hill, Los Alamos… Soon we’ll see in an explosion of AVA’s as Paso Robles finally gets sub-divided. The upcoming Los Olivos District AVA that lies between Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon makes good sense. Fred Brander’s behind that and I don’t expect too much resistance.

There are benefits to both producers and consumers in creating AVAs. If the wines are well-made, allowed to reflect their home turf and the region also has the marketing power to create public awareness, it’s a win-win.

On the other hand, the creation of new AVAs is very nonjudgemental on the government’s side with respect to the actual wine. If you can clearly define an AVA, offer some commercial validation and escape the public comment period alive, you’re in. There are some AVAs that have no commercial significance beyond one or two producers of icky juice. I don’t hesitate to point those out. (Pacheco Pass, I’m looking at you.) Sometimes, the only thing you need to know is where an AVA is, why it’s not good, and that you shouldn’t drink it. And then there are ghost AVAs, like Benmore Valley, which are no longer of commercial significance. Once created, AVAs can be modified but I’ve never seen one eliminated.

Swan's ten favorite places to go for food and wine in the Bay Area.

What still needs to be done when it comes to Napa, the wine industry, and the people who work and live there regarding recovery from the earthquake?

For the wineries, I think it’s about doing the best they can with what they have left and not allowing the quake to unduly impact the 2014 harvest and vinification. What’s gone is gone. All they can do is rebuild, move forward and sell what they have. The good news is that, after a couple of strong vintages, inventories were pretty healthy. So, though losses may have been significant, most wineries have plenty to sell.

Earthquake insurance is expensive, not always efficacious and many wineries didn’t carry it. There’s going to be serious financial strain for some. But again, the only thing they can do now is sell wine. That and re-examine how they stack their barrels, how their tall tanks are secured, etc. This quake did a lot of damage but was not nearly as large as it might have been. The situation could be much worse. Other Napa businesses are in the same place, trying to get sales back up while fixing what’s broken.

The really unfortunate people are those who are either unable to return to their home or place of business because the building is condemned or needs significant repairs to be habitable. We tend to think about winemakers, winery owners, etc. The vast majority of people in Napa are “regular workers,” be that in an office, retailer, restaurant or somewhere in a winery. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. If you take away their apartment in a market that’s already expensive and limited in availability, where do they go? And some have lost their jobs too. This is a big impact, but a silent one because those folks don’t have much of a voice and their plight isn’t sexy. Charities that support those people are key. I commend the Napa Valley Vintners for their $10 million donation and anyone else who has contributed, opened up a room, a couch, etc.

For those who would like to help from outside the area, I suggest contributing in some way to either Community Action Napa Valley or the Napa Valley Community Fund.

How do you get inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes?

It’s an honorary organization dedicated to promoting the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I’m totally behind that because there are some fabulous wines coming from the area. I was invited to join and sponsored by a California winemaker/proprietor who knows my enthusiasm for Rhone variety wines and makes some killer Syrah himself. He was inducted years ago.

The sponsor fills out an application which is reviewed by the induction committee. If all goes well, you’re invited to attend a ceremony—and this is dang cool—a formal ceremony and dinner in the cellar of the old castle in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. That building is so iconic, just getting to go in is exciting. During the ceremony, most prospective inductees are required to taste two glasses of wine and identify which is actually from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not many people blow it.

A lot of the inductees are mayors, renowned scientists, industrialists, etc. Since I was a “ringer” with serious Rhone chops, they gave me just one glass and asked me what the varieties were. I guess I did okay. Actually, the hardest part was answering in French which is not one of my languages.

You mentioned finding a presentation by Clark Smith on wine and music very interesting. Elaborate on what the crux of Smith’s talk was and how you look at wine and music together.

I had always looked at music with wine experientially. Music might add to the experience of drinking wine by relaxing you, putting you in a certain frame of mind, etc. Or, if you’re tasting carefully, music might distract you. I have generally done all my formal tasting in silence so that I can focus entirely on the wine. A little gentle background music can be nice, but I don’t want something that captures my attention.

I didn’t know what to expect going into the seminar. I assumed it was going to be some sort of “pairing” thing based on the mood any given piece of music might set and the general character of the wine. Aged Bordeaux with a cello concerto, Beaujolais with Django Reinhardt…I don’t know. But, with Clark Smith leading the session, I should have known better.

I still don’t understand how it works. There wasn’t time for that in the seminar. But it goes way beyond mood. The concept is that different types of music stimulate the brain in different ways and that has an impact on how we perceive other things, such as the wine in our mouth. It’s not about changing our mood but rather influencing the way our brain interprets taste and texture.

Clark and Karl Wente put together a series of play lists and two flights of wine: three budget (sub-$10) Chardonnay and three red wines (a couple steps up in quality). Each of the wines had a particular notable attribute. In the first flight, one Chard was quite sweet, one was very buttery, one was too tart. Then, Clark played different songs and we tasted each wine again with each song. One was a Beach Boys tune, one something jazzier, etc.

The music changed the way the wines tasted. One style of music emphasized the sugar in that sweet wine. But that same song added enough sweetness to the tart wine that it became very tasty. Another song somehow masked the butter in the final wine. Some music added body.

When it came to the reds, one song made a medium-bodied Pinot Noir feel full-bodied. Another softened the tannins in a Cabernet Sauvignon. But the very next song amplified the tannins in that same wine, making it nearly undrinkable. Perhaps, people should forget about buying a $50 aerator and just sort their CD collection instead.

I have no idea what mechanism makes this work, whether its enhancing one set of receptors/processors or distracting another. Also, while it seems Clark has a pretty good idea of how the dominant aspects of different songs will affect wine, he made it clear there was quite a bit of trial and error in finding just the right songs for an impactful demonstration with those wines. This is far from an exact science. But it was seriously freaky. So, like Joe Roberts who has talked to Clark about this same issue, I’ll no longer be playing any music when I taste for review. I want to be sure I’m scoring the wine, not scoring the score.

Lodi, Livermore Valley, and Santa Cruz Mountains AVAs: What makes each of them distinct? Underrated? What prevents people from exploring these wine regions more, and what are they missing out on?

That’s a really interesting comparison. As you suggest, each is underrated and each distinct geographically. They have very different stories too.

For me, Lodi is evolution plus revolution. Lodi has been an important source of winegrapes for well over 100 years. But it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that Lodi has worked toward creating an identity. The winegrower’s association began to focus not just on steady improvement of quality to raise crop values, but on building the Lodi brand.

To most people, that brand represents robust red wines and that’s very appropriate. Lodi’s warm climate is excellent for producing rich, ripe red wines with soft tannins. Because of the deep, sandy soils, phylloxera hasn’t been a major factor in the Mokelumne River AVA, so there is acre after acre of ancient Zinfandel vines capable of producing great wine. Gradually, local wineries have begun reserving some of that fruit for themselves and grooming those vines for the highest quality. With all of that, both the quantity and production volume of wineries has grown. Prices have gone up too. You can still get Lodi Zinfandel for under $20, but there are some priced over $50 that deliver accordingly. That’s the evolution.

What really has me excited though is the revolution. Building on the increased status, tourism, grape quality and infrastructure, a small but growing number of winemakers are pushing the envelope in three key areas: quality, originality and expression of terroir. You’ve got internationally trained winemakers, and winemakers that long worked in Napa or Sonoma, moving to Lodi for the lifestyle and affordable fruit. They’re trying to move the wine quality along at a rapid pace. Largely, their doing this by focusing on the vineyard and then practicing restraint in the winery.

In the process, they’re also highlighting terroir. The most transparent Lodi Zinfandels I’ve ever had, and some of the most beautiful Zins I’ve had from anywhere, are from the Lodi Native Zinfandel project. At the urging of Randy Caparoso, a handful of producers agreed to put terroir in the spotlight by producing single-vineyard Zinfandel with native yeast, no new oak, no additions and no subtractions. Those wines are a revelation. I bought two of the 6-pack assortments myself.

The division of the Lodi AVA into multiple AVAs with clear distinctions in soil, topography and weather has also encouraged planting of unexpected grape varieties based on what thrives best where and, to some degree, the whims of the grower. Land prices are still low enough that you can get away with planting something out of passion rather than with an eye on maximizing profit. The result is Portuguese varieties in the Alta Mesa AVA, Spanish varieties in Clements Hills and Borden Ranch, German varieties in Mokelumne River, and so on.

Winemakers are taking these grapes and making beautiful wines: Vermentino, Picpoul Blanc, Graziano, Alvarinho, and dozens of other varietal wines. And there are delicious blends, too. Portuguese red blends from Forlorn Hope and others, Swiss-inspired whites from Markus Niggli at Borra Vineyards. Where else in this country will you find a gorgeous blend of Kerner, Gewürtztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus? No place. And they’re both delicious and affordable, though limited in availability.

As for visiting, it’s only 60-90 minutes from SF. It’s easy to see multiple, top-notch wineries in one day and there’s no need to hassle with appointments or fork over for mammoth tasting fees. There are a couple of good restaurants and multiple motel options, plus the Wine & Roses hotel and spa which is superb.

Livermore is about rebirth. It was one of California’s most important grape-growing regions in the 19th century, up there with Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. The very first American wine to win a gold medal in international competition (Paris) was a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend from Cresta Blanca in Livermore. The vines were grown from cuttings sourced directly from Chateau d’Yquem. Then Prohibition came. Urban sprawl followed. What had been a region of 50 wineries and 5,000 acres at the turn of the 20th century was just three wineries (Wente, Concannon and Fenestra) and a fraction of the acreage by 1973.

Today, Livermore is back to 50 and 5,000. It’s thriving. The downtown has been re-developed and is a lovely, fun place to be.

From a wine perspective, there’s still work being done on figuring out what grapes and styles of vinification are best for the area. Of course, some wineries are betting than others but things are generally moving in a really good direction. There are some really exciting wines. To me, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Petite Sirah and red blends using Bordeaux or Portuguese varieties really thrive out there. To get an idea of what high-end Livermore Valley wine can be like, try Lineage from Steven Kent Winery. It’s a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that’s expressive of terroir and vintage. And it’s really, really good. It delivers good value, despite being priced around $150.

Livermore too is only 60-90 minutes from San Francisco. There are several good restaurants, and a new performing arts theatre, as well as all the wineries. As with Lodi, it’s easy to visit many in one day and tasting fees are low.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is very different from Lodi and Livermore in nearly every respect. It’s cool-climate. Because it’s so mountainous, large contiguous vineyards are impossible. So, although the area has a long history as a wine region, it was never really high production. SCM is more of a slow but steady improvement story too.

For a long time, high quality wine in the area came from just a few producers, Ridge and Mount Eden being foremost but certainly not the only ones. There are some relatively new, low-volume wineries really stepping up now though. Varner has been excellent for a while. There’s also Rhys, Clos de la Tech, Santa Arcangeli and others. To me, most of the exciting stuff is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is challenging to visit because of its vast expanse and the winding roads that separate many of the wineries. Ridge and Thomas Fogarty are very near each other as the crow flies, but I don’t think you could drive from one to the other in an hour. You want to pick your visits very strategically, based on location. There are also a lot of wineries that aren’t regularly open because they’re too small. This is one of the few regions for which I strongly recommend taking advantage of a passport weekend.

Let’s talk about Santa Barbara County. For those who didn’t attend the Wine Bloggers Conference held there (ahem, me) tell me why you are so passionate about the region and the wines.

The diversity, quality and vibe have gotten me excited about Santa Barbara County wines and the wine country there. They combine to create an area that’s very unique and never boring with respect to wine. I’ll take the three aspects in order.

Santa Barbara County is, in general, quite a cool-climate growing area relative to most of California. The region is positioned at a confluence of extremely cold waters from both poles that, due to the earth’s rotation, geographical features, etc. rise up from the depth creating especially cold water at the surface. That supercools the ocean breezes. Those breezes sweep inland because of the area’s unique transverse mountain ranges. They run west-east rather than north-south, thus funneling cold air in rather than blocking it as does most of California’s coastal range. But, further inland there are north-south hills which do just that. So you get very pronounced temperature gradients over a relatively short distance.

Sta. Rita Hills is very cool with a long growing season and produces excellent Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and cool-climate Syrah. Beyond the first set of north-south hills is Ballard Canyon. It’s further from the ocean, largely blocked from fog. It’s a great zone for Rhone variety wines, including a richer version of Syrah. Going east further still, there’s Happy Canyon. It’s blocked by an additional set of hills and has vineyards that get afternoon sun. So it’s Bordeaux-variety territory with a Winkler index very similar to St. Helena, but the wines “taste cooler” because of a 40-50 degree diurnal shift (peak high in the afternoon to lowest temp in early morning). I’m fairly certain that you could make really good wine with just about any vitis vinifera grape somewhere in Santa Barbara County. It’s just a matter of finding the right zone.

People are doing exactly that. Gewürtztraminer? Yes. Riesling, absolutely. Crisp sparkling, earthy and zesty Italian-variety reds. And don’t tell Miles, but the Merlot can be pretty good too.

Most every region has good and bad wine. To me though, the ratio of good to bad is very high in Santa Barbara County. I think it’s due to the combination of clearly defined climate zones, most plantings having come after climate and soil research had been done, excellent winemakers and that fact that a lot of the vines are getting to a really interesting age. Look at Bien Nacido Vineyard, Sanford, etc. They were planted in the early 1970’s but, because phylloxera doesn’t like the sandy soil, those vines are still thriving. Quite a few are even own-rooted.

The vibe comes from the people; genuine, open, well-educated winemakers/proprietors/vineyardists with varied interests, quirky personalities and a commitment to making wine because they love doing it, not because they’re looking to build a brand to flip or to impress their wealthy friends. Tasting appointments involve great wine and loads of information about the grapes and terroir. But they may also delve into Babylonian winemaking, animal husbandry, literature, local or global politics and who knows what else. They don’t all agree with each other either, but they let each other talk and have respect for each other.

It’s still a young wine region—you didn’t see a critical mass of grape growing accumulate until the 80’s. Santa Barbara County is still trying to get the attention it deserves. It’s still carving out AVAs. Even the best winemakers and proprietors are accessible, pretty laid back and cool to hang out with. The number of good dining options is increasing. It’s also an easy area to navigate. Santa Barbara County is a great place for a wine country vacation.

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