If you have visited Paso Robles in the past 5 years, you probably at some point have crossed paths with Tacos Al Pastor. Be it at a restaurant, the rehearsal dinner of a friend's wedding, the club pick-up party of one of your favorite wineries, they seem to be everywhere. My first experience with them locally was at the now defunct Restaurant Tenexepa off Creston Road during the 2007 harvest. After a 14 hour cellar shift, nothing could compete with a plate full of these $1.50 pork tacos washed down with ample Negra Modelo.
Having moved here from San Francisco, I was more accustomed to the overstuffed Mission style burrito, but I quickly fell in love with these simple tacos. The perfect mix of spice and fat in the pork is matched with ample fresh onions and cilantro, then comes that special touch, the amazing addition of big slice of grilled onion and pineapple.
At Tenexepa, the kitchen was hidden from view, so I was ignorant of the true magic behind this now staple of mexican street food. I was also constantly told, "Just you wait, the King of Paso Robles Al Pastor is remodeling and when they reopen, you'll taste the real deal." Well, the King did reopen and I have found myself taking almost all first time visiting friends or family to the patio of Los Robles Cafe near downtown. There, for all to see is the cooking technique that sets Al Pastor apart in the cannon of Mexican cuisine. The pork for Tacos Al Pastor is slow cooked on a vertical spit.
The first thought I had was, "These guys must have a friend who owns a Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant and figured he could cook pork the same way." Well, the actual story is more beautiful than that. And it speaks to how the strange search for authenticity in cuisine is a fleeting dream. Food is merely a reflection of the ever changing evolution of culture. The roots of this now ubiquitous food trace back, amazingly enough, to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the time surrounding WWI, large numbers of Lebanese and Syrian Christians immigrated to Mexico, mainly to the areas around Puebla and Mexico City. They brought with them the Doner Kebab style of cooking. Over time, the locals incorporated these spits for roasting pork instead of lamb and a new food was born.
I was reminded of all this just last week as a new institution has just moved into Paso Robles. During my college days just 30 miles south in San Luis Obispo, one of my standard lunch spots was Jaffa Cafe for their famous shawarmas.
Well, Jaffa Cafe has finally opened a branch here in Paso just a couple blocks from Los Robles, and it is a must visit for lunch or dinner the next time you are in town. Plus you can enjoy this great living example of how food, culture, and history all intertwine to make this world a much more interesting place to eat, drink and live.
Where To Go:
Los Robles Cafe: 1420 Spring Street, Paso Robles
La Reyna Markey Y Carniceria: 532 24th Street, Paso Robles
Jaffa Cafe: 1344 Park Street, Paso Robles (Shared with Panolivo)
It looks like the new year is upon us. Besides the difficulty of remembering to end written dates with /13, I got to thinking about what the future holds for us winemakers. I spent the majority of my December online time looking at various "best of" lists for 2012, thinking about what has happened. This gave me the desire to put my thoughts on the future in writing, see if what I think is the future will come to pass.
One of the culinary movements that really took full hold this year was nose to tail cooking. That is, not thinking of anything as waste but using everything you get in the kitchen as a possible ingredient. This probably began as a simple reaction to economics, tougher times usually leads people to think about how to stretch things out a bit more. Then it seemed like every restaurant I went to was using things in entrees and appetizers that only a couple of years prior were solely available at various street taco vendors on Mission and 23rd.
I'm seeing something similar happening in wine as well. Here in Paso Robles, making Pink wines from bled off red juice that would normally go down the drain is now common place. Most producers have used the trick of shoveling in your pressed off Viognier skins into Syrah ferments. Now that is expanding out as more white skins are ending up in all sorts of different red ferments. You are also seeing much more whole cluster fermentations these days. That involves using the stem, which usually goes straight to compost, along with the fruit in order to add tannins and spice to your wines. It also changes your fermentation dynamics, but that's another post for another day. Grapes that have shriveled on the vine to become raisons are easily sorted out by using shaking tables and tossed onto the compost pile as well. Not anymore, they are ending up in all sorts of places now. From straight "late harvest" dessert wines to being used almost like a spice added to ferments to add hints of rich sun ripened flavors to Zins and Syrahs. These are all part of the unending experiment that is wine making.
During this upcoming 2013, the waste product I plan to be trialing around with is lees. Lees is the heavy clay like sediment that settles out of wine over time. Traditionally, wine is continually racked off the lees. That is, over time, the wine is pumped off the top of the bottom sediment layer which aids in clarification and avoids strange flavors that may develop. Well, I for one am not afraid to embrace strange flavors. At a much larger winery, that could be dangerous, but that is the beauty and freedom of making wine at a smaller winery. If an experiment fails, the business does not fail along with it. By virtue of small size, we can afford to try different ideas and techniques.
Incorporating the unique flavor profiles developed in the lees is almost universal in Chardonnay production. The weekly stirring of barrel fermented chards to mix the lees back into solution is a key element in adding body, richness, and a little funk for a more complex white. I'm predicting that this the year that "sur lie" aging makes the crossover to reds.
Misery makes for the best of times, I just didn’t know it until about 5 years ago. This realization occurred after about the 3rd day of hiking along the Snake Indian River in Jasper National Park. Expecting to see glorious views of the Northern Canadian Rockies, trudging along in a swampy mosquito cloud, trapped in a dense forest was a bit of a letdown. While I was lying in a tent, practicing knots, wondering why we just drove 1500 miles to experience this, my friend Ethan explained that this was some serious type 2 fun. That is, pure misery that when viewed from the future will be remembered as a great time. Amazingly, he was right. We eventually did climb out of the river valley, into the peaks and camped near glaciers and graced with awe inspiring views of a pure rugged country.
I look back at the whole trip now with nothing but positive feelings. Every year after harvest I’m reminded of this because that is what harvest is, 3 straight months of Type 2 Fun.
Winemaking is joined with most craft industries in the current consciousness in beign over romanticized pursuits. One of those things people say they wish they were doing until you actually have to do it. It’s hot, cold, wet, relentless, exhausting, unyielding, nerve racking, body breaking, repetitive, all with no room for error. There are no days off because nature takes none itself. It reminds me of the stories my Mom tells me of the “back to the land” movements of the 60’s and 70’s. It was all fun in theory until her friends that were not raised on farms realized the animals needed attention every single day and what you ate and wore all had to be make by you. Basically it wasn’t just sitting around the fireplace playing guitar with free love for all. It was hard, hard work, all the time.
But the thing is, if you dedicate yourself to the craft and embrace the misery in the work, there is no greater reward. All great crafts are like this. Farming, carpentry, baking, tailoring, working metal and stone, etc. all require great skill and greater patience. And each comes with their unique challenges, physical, mental and environmental. The overcoming of these, which leads to the act of creation is what makes the product special. In this season of giving I have made an effort to give products of craft. They speak more of how you view your loved ones. The sacrifices and attention to detail given to these items allows them to express more, to mean more than mass produced items. Gifts should be personal, thus need to have the personality which inanimate objects only gain through the craft process. So here’s to all the patient creators in this world that make life truly interesting and beautiful. And here’s to Type 2 Fun, in all its forms, for being the basis of all great crafts, experiences, and stories told.
Good luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity. - Bret Harte
The more interviews I read and wine seminars I attend; the more it seems that non-interventionist winemaking is the over riding zeitgeist of the moment. Every other sentence is “…letting the vineyard speak”, “…showcasing the fruit”, “….creating natural wines”, “…nothing added, unfiltered, unfined” Looking back at tech sheets I’ve written on our wines, and if such a thing existed, transcriptions of speeches I’ve given, there would probably be an ample sprinkling of those phrases to be found. I too shied away from stating that the wines we make here come from the cellar as well as the vineyard. There seems to be some fear of conveying the idea that winemakers actually do anything. I’ve even heard prideful declarations of just putting grapes in a tank, sitting back and seeing what happens.
Well, that’s all fine and good, but I've recently learned to stop worrying about imprinting my personality on my wines and love the craft of making wine again. I firmly believe that great wine is by no means a simple product of entropy. It is attained through determination, skill, guile and the type of luck that pioneer poet Bret Harte was talking about. Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside of it, the sculptur is simply tasked with finding it. True as that may be, to me the prisoners were interesting to look at, but David was trancendent. The complete unveiling of that which is hidden in the raw material is the gift of the talented and engadged artist. In this way, winemaking approximates art and craft. The vineyard and cellar crew here just spent three straight months working 12+ hour days. Backs are strained, hands are cracked, and boots are worn thin and letting water in. Exhaustion has set in, immune systems are on empty, and there is still work to be done. If non-intervention is the answer, what the hell have we been doing to ourselves? Maybe we could just ship some grapes in a jar and everyone would be happy?
A full description of all the decisions and actions taken during harvest would be quite a tome. If anyone out there is willing to give me an advance on publishing a cellar masterwork like that, please feel free to email me. But since we are using the quick read blog format here, I’ll just touch on one aspect of winemaking, the actual making of the wine.
Those responsible for the physical creation of wine are little single celled creatures called yeast. They perform the alchemical magic of turning sugar to alcohol. The friend of the non-interventionist winemaker is “native yeast”. Here is a video clip of me recently over hearing someone going on and on about the grandeur of native yeast.
I'm not against native yeasts in theory, but in practice here in Paso Robles, something seems a bit off. First, our vineyard and winery is located on what was an oak and manzanita covered hill just 12 years ago. It seems a bit disingenuous to speak of some native culture of yeast that exists here. Much like the cloned vines planted in perfect rows in the vineyard, whatever yeast may be here is a recent transplant to the area. If this vineyard and winery are still here in 50-60 years, then well, maybe we could have something interesting to call our own.
Secondly, inoculating with different yeasts is analogous to having more options in the spice rack. Sure, you might grow some amazing oregano in your home garden, but if that's all that's added to every dish you make, things get a bit repetitive. Each vintage, I make 30-40 different wines from about 15 different varietals. Each varietal and style of wine needs to be treated and prepared in a unique way in order to exemplify the varietal characteristics and stylistic goals. Of course, if your stylistic goal is "Hey, let's see what happens this year", I guess that native route is cool. It just seems to me that using a single dominant yeast that lives in the cellar could work great in a place where you make a single field blend wine, but seems a bit unnecessarily limiting in my case.
I've got nothing against natural winemaking, just as I have nothing against natural medicine and the like. It help to be reminded of the roots of our profession and the basic ideas upon which this craft is based. But it seems that much natural winemaking is rooted in being a response to large scale factory winemaking. An attempt to reintroduce soul and personality in a world where such things are being slowly taken from us via targeted marketing and focus groups. But when you counter dogmatic approaches with a new dogmatic approach, you sadly come full circle to a place of limited opportunity and expression. I’m not afraid to admit that we have progressed many ideas and techniques in winemaking that were not around 100, 50, even 10 years ago. And I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater to go back to some romanticized “good old days” that never really existed. Well, at least until my back get’s a bit older and I start looking for a way to explain why I don’t want to work as hard as I just did this harvest.
It's officially the last week of harvest. This Thursday we'll pick the Estate Mourvedre and that will be a wrap on the 2012 vintage as far as the vineyard goes. The winery is still running full on, as our tanks are filled with fermenting grapes. But the last pick of the year is that special marker that the bulk of the work is done, and normal life is lighting that tunnel mouth in the distance.
I'm just now starting to wrap my head around what has gone down these past few months. It always begins with such vigor and confidence that quickly turns into survival mode. That being said, we still found time for little trials. When you grow and work with your own fruit, you pretty much get to try whatever comes to your mind. There were some small juice transfers I've always wanted to try. This involves fermenting Zinfandel juice on Cabernet Skins and vice versa. With a wine like our Main Squeeze blend, I can get away with weirdness like that. The 2012 Lloyd ended up being a field blend as the Merlot and Cab Franc were picked right along with the Block 7 Cab, so we able to co-ferment them together. Still fermenting now, but is tasting amazing so far.
We are starting to dive back into the white wines as well. Starting to perhaps put together some early blends of the Rhone varietals. Tasting through them reminded me of this, one of my favorite pictures of this harvest:
That's the freshly delivered Marsanne glowing in the morning sun. Of course, our winemaking dependence on beer contiuned as usual. Through the magic of the internets, we got to watch a couple days of Mick Fanning do this in Tahiti:
Which led to me tracking down a six pack of these:
I'm sure these taste great after spending a day paddling in paradise, but tasted a bit like Gameday when enjoyed in the cellar. Also went to a wedding in New Orleans this spring and thought maybe a couple of these would taste as good here as they did while listening to street jazz band in Jackson Square:
No such luck, not a good beer. I'm going to have to get a few high quality beers to mark this Thursday. And, if you are in town, come on by on Thursday as we'll be celbrating some time around 4 or 5 with food, drinks, and general positive vibes!
Here at Calcareous, we are not specialists in any single varietal. In the cellar we produce a wide range of varietals and styles. This keeps things exciting and challenging for us winemaking types. From keeping the Grenache clusters shaded on the vine to the hyper-oxidative pump overs for the York Mountain Cab, you have to constantly remind yourself that each wine has its special needs and techniques. My overall mantra to winemaking is that it always comes down to the skins. They contain all the magic that makes grape wine the most intricate of the fruit based alcoholic beverages. How to approach producing and then extracting out the compounds that are locked in the skins is where the different approaches for each wine in the cellar comes in.
One varietal that has kept me guessing the past few years has been Malbec. With other varietals, if I get confused, I usually meet up with a winemaking friend in town, buy them a few drinks and try and trick them into telling me their secrets. Sadly, most of the Malbec in this world is in Chile, and that would be some expensive beers, so I'm on my own pretty much. Each vintage comes along, and while walking the vineyard, tasting fruit, chewing skins, and spitting, I probably get most excited about our Estate Malbec. It is always so amazingly dark and rich, my mind starts racing about how I can capture this flavor out of the berry and into the resulting wine. Then each year I have a major let down. The Malbec is never bad; it just hasn't matched my expectations. The one job of the winemaker is to produce wine that is in accordance with the quality of the fruit, and in my mind I have failed to accomplish this these past few vintages. For 2012, things have changed.
I changed from a gentle punching down maceration to a more extractive pump over and delastage routine. As the fruit ferments, the carbon dioxide produced gets caught up by the skins causing them to float to the surface. While floating on top, the compounds in the skins are not in contact with the juice, thus you can't extract out what you want. Punching down is the process of physically pushing the skins back down into the must, like making French press coffee. Pumping over is just what it sounds like, using a pump to spray the must over the top of the tank. Pumping over gets you much more extraction, but is dangerous because it extracts everything, good and bad. So if there are any green, vegetal, or overly bitter flavors in the skins, they too will end up in the wine.
To get away with this more extractive technique I risked things in the vineyard by pushing the ripeness. I let the Malbec hang on the vine about a week longer than I usually would. Once the bells in my head started ringing and telling me to pick now, I forced myself to wait 6 more days. A lot of the resulting clusters looked like this.
The first thing you'll notice is that I should probably be trying to put these grapes into something like this:
But we don't have the equipment to open and shut all those little boxes so we'll still aim for the bottle. Amaizingly, the juice came out at about 26.8 brix with a 3.42 pH. This should come out to about 15.0% alcohol, these are not weird, over ripe numbers at all for Paso Robles. By pusing the skins this little bit more, they were a bit softer which allowed for better extraction, and there is simply no under ripe or simple characteristcs at all to the wine after completion of primary fermentation. I had to battle my gut instinct, but in the end, I think a discovered a little piece of the puzzle on how to make Malbec here at the Calcareous Vineyard.
Gallo del Cielo was a warrior born in heaven so the legends say -Tom Russell
When we decided to put in the chicken coop in spring, I was adamant about no roosters. Didn't want the crowing or the "cocky" attitude. But as fate would have it, of our 14 chicks, on developed into this king of the coop:
My early fears were put to rest as he quickly won me over. He seems to rule the roost with a positive attitude. And with the coyote yelps in the distance, I'm sure his pressence lends a calming influence at night. Also I think he has been a bit of a good luck charm for my Hotspurs. It can be no coincidence he first started crowing about the time the pride of Nacogdoches arrived in North London. I have to say there is a bit of a resemblance:
So yes, from Casa Grandes to San Diego, from the Rio Grande all the way north to Little Rock, the legend of Gallo del Cielo lives on. I mean, what a good looking dude.
The miracle sight today!
Two little brown eggs signified that all our work with the chickens this spring is coming home to roost, so to speak. Funny what a magical feeling it is to see suddenly an egg sitting in the nest box. Once a few more are collected, the big first omelette of harvest will be created.
We also pressed out our first Syrah fermentation today. So I guess it is time to continue my series of press photos. We pressed some Grenache Blanc before this but for some reason clear juice makes for a much more boring photo! Anyway, here is the creative outlet of our Block 6 Syrah:
One thing interesting to notice is the incresed amount of solid material streaked with the wine as compared to the pinot photo below. The Syrah spent over 20 days on skins and macerated at negative brix which means a high ethanol percentage in the must. This ethanolic maceration is much rougher on the grape material. The pinot on the other hand was pressed out at 6 brix and only spent 12 days on skins. There was obviously a lot less breakdown of the skin in the pinot which indicates a less heavy extraction.
I don't know why, but one of the most beautiful sights of harvest for me are the streaks left on the press after a full cycle:
It's probably just the fact it is right in my aesthetic wheelhouse. Simple image of two colors, wine and stainless steel, all produced by random chance. But I also love how each press load produces a unique image. Each varietal really shows itself off. This is our Carver Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the bright yet deep pink tint is as unmistakable as the spicy earthy aroma from the drip pan. I'll try to capture all the different varietals during harvest so you can see all this for yourself.
To celebrate our first red wine completing primary fermentation, I was saving some refreshies in the back of the fridge:
Anchor has only been making this beer for a few years. I got initially excited about this because a friend of mine bought me the Arion Press printing of Moby Dick, or The Whale (the trade edition, I'm no fat cat yet!) and it made me obsessed with everything Melville. Seriously, that book is really really good. It was something you were "supposed" to read, so my contrarian spirit forced me to avoid it until my schooling days were over. I guess sometimes those English professors know of what they speak. Wait, where am I going with this. Oh, yeah, Humming Ale is one of those anitquated beer styles that has a chapter in a classic Melville biography named after it. So life came all full circle for me as my favorite brewery made a beer connecting to my favorite author of the time, and it lived up to expectation.
Things have been just beautiful here at the vineyard. Warm days and the nights now getting that little sting of real cold. Things could not be going better harvest wise. So to top off the cheers, here is a beautiful little jam.
The grapes keep rolling in, and I conitnue to be amazed at how well everything is handling this unrelenting heat. Since the start of August it seems like it has been at least 95 every day. I keep looking at forecasts and feeling doomed as the high temps slam shut the ever narrowing windows of optimal ripening. But so far the worrying has been for naught. Everytime we run the numbers after cold soaks and settlings, we get beautiful balanced sugars and acids. So far a magical harvest and the Block 6 Syrah that is going to press tomorrow is probably the best tasting Syrah we've ever made here. Full of richness, depth and power without even the slightest hint of over ripe jam. Simply amazing.
In honor of our first red ferment coming to completion, cracked open a bottle of ESB:
During a summer trip this year, I stopped by Woodinville Washington to check out what was happening there. I was pretty ingnorant of the scene but lucked out on reccomendation from my cousin in Seattle to check out Januik Winery. An extremely impressive line up. Right in the neighborhood, and I mean right in the neighborhood as in next door were Chateau Ste. Michelle, Coumbia and lo and behold the Red Hook Brewery. Not a bad place to put a bunch of wineries. Stopped by the brewery and was reminded how much I enjoy their ESB. A good, rich, tasty brew that usually comes a real reasonable price. I wish more brewers would produce a lower priced session beer like that. A perfect way to toast some Syrah that I'm feeling is sky's the limit right now.
For that, here's a song with the word sky in it.