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Article – The Grapes of Wrath

April 6th, 2011

As I write this I am reading about the bank stress tests and the potential billions we will need. I am also reading a book, but not at the same time, for that would be truly wonderful – to be able to read two things at once. The book I am reading in my spare time is called “The Grapes of Wrath” and was written by John Steinbeck.

The Banks

There is a very apt quote in the book about how decent people ended up destitute through no fault of their own. “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” In another bank reference they talk about how “They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air.” This was all written back in the 1930s.

Some light social commentary to start the day. On a personal and local level, I like my bank very much and could not stay in business without them. Let us shift quickly from this potentially uncomfortable paragraph. I should mention that The Grapes of Wrath is also about wine so is relevant.

Praying for Rain

It is about wine in the sense that it is about migrant people from Oklahoma who search for a new life out West among the vines. As Dean Martin, and my uncle Pa sang. “I’m praying for rain in California, so the grapes can grow and they can make more wine”. These are the people who picked the grapes for very little money.

I can highly recommend the book but I warn you, it is not a happy read. It is a sad and depressing novel but also very dignified. I mention it because I have tasted a lot of Californian wines this week and I rarely mention wines from the Sunshine State, and as Obama is coming, I thought, why not.

The Silicon Chip Inside my Head

I have traditionally stayed away from Californian wines as they are often the epitome of the very worst in winemaking or the superb but overpriced excess of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. This is a massive generalization, and I know it. However, the tanned and laid back West coasters are slowly realising that the Silicon Valley revolution does not have an unlimited bank account and they need to flog some wine in Europe. They are beginning to get real with prices.

I was in the very efficient ProWein wine trade fair in Dusseldorf last week, and it really has some of the very best in wine in a very structured environment. I tried to call to Angela Merkel and see if she would reduce our interest rate, but I couldn’t get close enough. I will revisit this show and its treats in another article anon, as the writers of fairytales might write. But for now, I will describe some of California’s better wines.

California accounts for 90% of the entire American wine production and as a state is nearly three quarters of the size of France. The more famous regions include Sonoma and Napa. Just as it started to grow as a region the advent of Prohibition kicked in and by the end of it there were only 140 vineyards left in operation. Up until the 60s, it was seen as a place to get rubbish wine. But as the music of the sixties waned, the vineyards flourished and some serious wines emerged.

The Judgment of Paris

Names like Krug, Mondavi, and Bruce started to make some really serious wines and then a small English wine merchant in Paris had an idea that turned into a revolution. Englishman Steven Spurrier, who owned a small shop in Paris, invited Californian winemakers to compete in a blind tasting against French iconic wines. In a huge surprise, the US wines beat the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy in what became known as “The Judgment of Paris”.

The rest, as the say, is history and US wine came into its own. It had a renaissance in a way, but to be honest it never had an ‘aissance’ to begin with. With the exception of people like Al Capone and bootleggers, up until this moment, it struggled for price and for acceptance. There might even have been an issue with quality.

Having ignored these wines for commercial and personal reasons for a long time, I got stuck into the tasting in Germany and tried both cheap and moderately prices Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and of course Zinfandel. I have to say I changed my opinion and while I am not sure I will go very heavy on an order, do watch this space. I think I may start bringing them in and offering a chance to taste the difference.

The wines that were celebrated at the famous tasting were the Chardonnays ( against their Burgundy counterparts ) and the Cabernet Sauvignons ( up against the giants of Bordeaux ).

Fruit and Alcohol

The reliably warm weather allows many wineries to use very ripe fruit which brings up a more fruit forward rather than earthy style of wine. It also creates the opportunity for higher alcohol levels with many Californian wines being 1 or 2 degrees above Bordeaux. The style of Californian Chardonnay differs greatly from wines like Chablis with Californian winemakers frequently using malolactic fermentation and oak aging to make buttery, full bodied wines.

When the Baron met the Mogul

The Cabernets are known for their concentration of fruits and structure which produces lush, rich wines that can age well. In fact, Baron de Rothschild of Mouton fame came together with Robert Mondavi ( of Falcon Crest ) fame to create Opus One, which is a Bordeaux style wine that is made in California and commands huge prices across the world. With the Chinese buying up all of the top end Bordeaux ( and driving prices crazy ) maybe the world will look West for their top end Cabernet.

The Judgment of Tipperary

In the meantime, I will announce when I bring in some affordable Californian wines and we can have our own challenge. We will look for a suitable venue and have “The Judgment of Tipperary”. We are starting to plan our winemaker trips so watch this space for tastings, wine dinners and lots more. Cloughjordan is playing host to the Totally Tipperary Food ( and wine ) festival in late June. More on that to follow.

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“Life is much too short to drink bad wine”

Article 93 - nationalist Apr 6 2011

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