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My NPR interview on how climate change affects wine

November 7, 2019

I was interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace by Kai Ryssdal on “climate change is fermenting the wine industry.”   Here’s the link:

Climate change is fermenting the wine industry

 

Remembering Jean-Bernard Delmas

October 8, 2019

One of the great men of modern Bordeaux has, sadly, left us. Jean-Bernard Delmas died last week on October 3, 2019, at the age of 83.

He was a meticulous innovator who revolutionized winemaking in Bordeaux, first at Chateau Haut-Brion, where his career debuted with the great 1961 vintage and continued for 42 years. After he “retired” in 2003, Martin Bouygues, the new owner of Chateau Montrose, persuaded Delmas to oversee its revitalization.

In 2009, I had lunch with him at Chateau Montrose. Here, in slightly different form, is the article I wrote about it that appeared in ZesterDaily that year:

 

In Bordeaux, I’m always on the lookout for château reputations on the rise. Yes, the 1855 Classification ranking of the top 61 has been in place for 150 years, but everybody knows wine quality isn’t static.

Château Montrose is the latest aiming for new heights and buzz.

Sure signs? A new owner with megabucks hired one of the region’s greatest winemakers and is throwing pots of cash at the vineyards and winery. This turns out to include going “green,” too.

That’s why I grabbed the chance to have lunch at the château in Saint-Estephe with world-renowned Jean-Bernard Delmas, who spent his stellar career perfecting first growth Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan south of Bordeaux. Many think he made its sister property La Mission Haut-Brion into such a star that it should be promoted to the short first growth list.

Is that his goal at Montrose? What’s he changing? Does he think of this will be his final wine statement? And are current vintages the bargains to buy before the wine gets more buzz and prices skyrocket?

Those were the questions on my mind as I drove the fast route north from the city of Bordeaux, avoiding traffic slog on the D2, which passes all the famous châteaux. It still took nearly an hour to reach the winding roads of Saint-Estèphe, the Médoc’s northernmost appellation, which feels like the middle of nowhere. Finally I arrive at the château office where I meet up with Delmas.

A solid man with a square face topped with white hair, he’s in gray linen jacket and jeans. Calm and courtly, he’s always reminded me of a patient, high-powered headmaster used to being in authority and ready to instruct.

First comes the history lesson as he outlines the château’s past, highlighting what he considers most important. Then he adds his perspective for the future as he reveals the new owners’ goals. Which, I feel sure, he has helped to shape.

The Charmolüe family owned Montrose for a century, during which they weathered an economic depression, a major cellar fire, and occupation by German forces, who set up a firing range in the vineyards. The ’80s saw restoration, renovation, modernization. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the wine was one of the best and most consistent in Saint-Estèphe, which has only five crus classés, fewer than any other commune, with no first growths and only two seconds.

All are noted for earthy, tannic wines. Montrose’s gravelly terroir produces dense, powerful, muscular examples that last for decades, but at this point (in 2009) the wines don’t yet have the flash and luxury buzz of ambitious neighbor Château Cos d’Estournel.

Still, Montrose’s reputation was pretty grand when French billionaire and construction tycoon Martin Bouygues (and his brother Olivier) forked over about  $170 million for 95 percent of it in 2006. (Negociant Jean-François Moüeix, owner of famous Chateau Petrus, owns the rest.)

Wine ambitious Martin Bouygues wasted no time before calling Delmas, who’d retired from Haut-Brion in 2003. Delmas had handed responsibility over to his son, Jean-Philippe and started a small consulting business. “I wanted,” he says, “a challenge that didn’t involve Haut-Brion.” To seal the deal, Bouygues offered to provide Delmas with a car and driver to ferry him to and from Montrose daily.

“The first thing I did as wine director,” Delmas says, “was to taste the three best wines Montrose ever made –1970, 1989, 1990.”

Then he persuaded the Bouygues brothers not to bulldoze the modest château to build a grand monstrosity, and got to work.

As we tour the property under cloudy skies, the sound of construction is everywhere, and, to my surprise, most of it is from making the cellars and buildings completely energy self-sufficient through solar, water and wind power by mid-2010. The estate expects to have excess energy to sell. Beneath the château is a geothermal source of water that’s a constant 14 degrees centigrade for keeping things warm in winter and cool in summer. Saint-Estèphe’s trademark stiff breeze has more uses than just drying grapes after a hard rain; it will provide wind power. All this puts Montrose at the cutting edge of green consciousness in Bordeaux.

“Most wineries can’t afford the initial investment in things like our planned 3,000 square meters of solar panels,” Delmas says, looking happy he’s advising one that can. The Bouygues brothers’ estimated personal fortune is a cool $2.7 billion in 2009, according to Forbes. It comes from their eponymously named international telecommunications and construction businesses, which now have similar environmental policies. Projects have included ports, nuclear power stations, the Channel tunnel and the Musée d’Orsay. The company take in 2008: 32 billion-plus euros.

Delmas ticks off dozens of the small changes that I know add up to greatness in wine—maybe. He’s reduced yields, cut out weed killers and is thinking about including more petit verdot in the blend, now that it ripens more easily because of global warming.

The 70-hectare vineyard was in good shape, he says, but every year Monsieur Charmolüe picked it all at the same time. “You never have the same maturity in each parcel every year, so now we pick according to maturity, as at Haut-Brion.”

That adds to costs, but, he claims, has improved the wine’s silkiness. I didn’t find that in the barrel samples I sipped and spit in the long, elegant tasting room, but Delmas’ certainty persuades me he has a better handle on the wine’s future. The just-bottled 2007 is ripe and scented but lacks heft. The 2008 ($75 as futures) is terrific—big, powerful, smoky, full of spice and ripe plums and purity of fruit, with lots of tannin that needs plenty of time to age.

Over lamb chops at lunch in the surprisingly modest château dining room, I savor the dark and dramatic 1995 and 1999 Montrose. Delmas, relaxed and smiling, tells amusing stories about his time at Chateau Haut-Brion,and then freely admits to his new ambition.

“Yes, I do want to make a Saint-Estèphe first growth.”

 

I’m interviewed in Japanese wine magazine

July 19, 2019

I was interviewed in May in Tokyo by The Wine Kingdom, a Japanese wine magazine.  The interview appears in the July 2019 issue.  Roughly translated, it starts “Elin McCoy, famous American wine journalist, visits Yamanashi for the first time.  Struck by the quality of Koshu and Japanese wine, etc.”

The Latest on the Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Wildfires

October 11, 2017

Fire and smoke behind Quixote winery in Napa

October 11, 2017 —The numbers are staggering: nearly two dozen separate fires, 21 dead, as many as 500 people unaccounted for, and more than 3,500 homes, businesses, and wineries destroyed or damaged according to CalFire, the state department of forestry and fire protection. More than 115,000 acres burned, vines singed and torched, more than 20,000 people evacuated, no power and cell service—and more to come, as winds pick up again today, sweeping still burning cinders onto dry grass and trees.

In videos of what’s going on you can hear the terrifying rush of wind, the crackle of flames licking hillsides, the crack of trees, and see the flying burning embers through a thick haze of smoke and ashes in the air that make familiar landmarks invisible.

And all this in some of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet, whose bottlings are enjoyed by millions of wine lovers around the world.

Those who visit often, like me, watch with sickening dread and worries for those we know, looking for news.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Napa Register, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle struggle to keep up. Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and email alerts provide scraps of the latest information. Esther Mobley of the SF Chronicle is on the scene tweeting; you can follow her @Esther_Mobley. You feel like cheering when a winery that was reported destroyed, like Gundlach Bundschu, posts a notice that it’s actually okay. Then you look again at the latest photos of destruction.

Among the most recent emergency alerts are a list of mandatory evacuations for parts of Calistoga because of the expansion of the deadly Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, and for Mount Veeder, Geyserville, and Sonoma Mountain

In Napa, Signorello winery is in ruins, but Ray Signorello’s already bottled 2015 red and 2016 white wines are safe in a storage facility in American Canyon, according to a statement from the winery, and he plans to rebuild. The winemaking and vineyard teams fought the fire Sunday night, but had to retreat when flames did not.

White Rock winery doesn’t appear so lucky. It’s destroyed, made clear by photos of bottled wine in ashy heaps. Ditto Vin Roc Winery on Atlas Peak, where the fate of giant Stagecoach Vineyard is still unknown.

Sonoma’s beautiful Paradise Ridge winery burned down on Monday, but its estate vineyards survive, and the Byck family vows to rebuild.

Three wineries in Mendocino didn’t make it.

Napa winemaker Aaron Pott emailed that his wines, which he makes at Quixote Winery off the Silverado Trail are fine, but battled to keep his diesel tank from exploding with two fire extinguishers and a garden hose. Now he has another worry: the flames from the fire that started in the Sonoma town of Glen Ellen has climbed up the back of Mt. Veeder and are threatening his vineyards and house there. The house, he says, is probably gone.

Also under threat is Pym-Rae, the Robin Williams property on Wall Road purchased by Bordeaux’s Chateau Pontet Canet, whose vineyards I toured just last month, iconic estate Mayacamas, the Hess Collection and its museum full of great contemporary art, Lagier-Meredith, and many more.

Last night Tom Gamble of Napa’s Gamble Family Vineyards spoke to me via phone. “Yes, there have been bad fires in the past,” he said, “but this one is special. I don’t remember one that’s destroyed so much.” (Gamble owns vineyards in Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and on Mt. Veeder, which he hasn’t yet harvested.) He points out that’s partly because back in the 1930s, and during big fires in 1964 and 1981, there were only a handful of wineries and little residential development.

“Vineyards are like firebreaks,” he sighed. “They burn slowly.” Gamble, like others, rushed to cover open tank fermenters to prevent falling ash from tainting the wine.

Every hour, it seems, brings new apocalyptic photos and information.

But wine industry people are fighting back.

They’re rounding up resources from unaffected wine regions for critical equipment like tractors, trailers, generators, as well asking vineyard workers to help in wineries now under siege ( http://bit.ly/2wNVda0).

Kimberly Charles, who represents a number of California wineries, has set up a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/fire-relief-napa-sonoma-counties) for people to donate money for basic items for evacuees in shelters.

It looks like it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fires Scorch Chile’s Vineyards

January 26, 2017

As you may have heard, forest fires are devastating Chile’s vineyards, including 100-year-old vines in the region of Maule, an area that has been undergoing a winemaking renaissance, with dozens of terrific small vintners. (They were also hammered by the earthquake in 2010.)

As I write this, the Chilean grape and wine growers association is in an emergency meeting to determine just who and how many vineyards are involved. It’s too soon to say what effect this natural disaster will have on the country’s exports, including its high-end Cabernet and Carménère. Stay tuned….

Tasting Wine in London with Richard Vines

April 30, 2015

Over lunch with Bloomberg restaurant critic Richard Vines at London’s Grain Store Unleashed, we worked through all the wine by glass selections.  Vines included my tasting notes in his don’t-miss review.

I’ll Drink To That! Talking Wine with Levi Dalton

February 24, 2015

Levi Dalton interviewed me for one of his much visited I’ll Drink To That! podcasts.  The link is here.