What Wine Writers Want You to Know

Put 300 or so wine writers in the same room and you’ll know what people mean when they say, “Everybody’s a critic.” It’s especially true among those who understand what’s in your glass and how it got there. Opinions, interpretations and (sometimes) attitude will swirl about you like a funnel cloud.

Uruguay class

[Masterclass in Uruguayan Wines, taught by Amanda Barnes, South American wine authority]

But we all agree: we’re crazy about wine (that’s why we come together) and we love learning about it. I brought home plenty of new wine knowledge after the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference) in Walla Walla, Washington, and thought I’d share a few takeaways here:

— Walla Walla is a cute, walkable little town, but there’s more: in just a few blocks, you’ll find more than 30 tasting rooms in the core downtown. Sure, we all love to drive from winery to winery and sip great wine on patios overlooking lush vineyards–if we have unlimited time and cash. The beauty of a town like Walla Walla, where the streets literally are lined with tasting rooms, is that you can try the region’s best wines, buy some bottles to take home, and still get to the airport on time. Or just keep people-watching.

— Washington is almost ideally positioned to produce superior wines. The Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla catch the humidity, and no wineries sit in a rain shadow–that is, a “sheltered” slope that doesn’t get sufficient rain. There’s just one snag: the region also doesn’t get much fog, so the sunlight can be pretty intense. Vineyard managers have to pay close attention to the canopy (the parts of the vine above ground, especially the branches and leaves sheltering the grape clusters) so the grapes don’t get sunburned. As one winemaker put it, “These slopes are like a Disneyland for grapes.”

— If you don’t know wines from Uruguay yet, you have a real treat coming. Considering that Uruguayans are the world’s biggest consumers of beef (124 lbs./person annually, compared to 78 lbs./person in the U.S.), it’s no surprise that their wines are 80 percent red (mostly Tannat and Merlot) and just 20 percent white (largely Albariño). Uruguay also walks the walk in terms of educating kids: the government gives families one laptop per child. Cool, yes?

— Back in the U.S., winery owners will be interested to know that 45 percent of wine club members live with a couple of hours’ drive from the winery, according to Wine Business Monthly. And here’s a kicker: 35 percent of winery customers are under 50 years old, yet they bring in only 18 percent of revenues. Apparently they love the wine culture and trappings, but they’re not buying the expensive stuff.

— Another age-related message for all businesses: 50 percent of Gen Z (under age 25) and 42 percent of Millennials (currently age 25-39) think social media is the most relevant channel for ads. If you’re trying to reach the under-40 audience, forget buying print ads; that generation couldn’t care less about magazines and newspapers. Almost never touch ’em.

— Here’s a sobering statistic about websites: 74 percent of smartphone users will abandon a website that takes more than five seconds to load, according to Lewis Perdue, publisher of Wine Industry Insight. Some 42 percent of users expect mobile pages to load in under two seconds. (That figure was eight seconds in 1999–we’re getting more impatient!)

— During a quick visit to the Owen Roe Winery in the Yakima Valley outside Walla Walla, I learned that Yakima shares Walla Walla’s sunshine challenges. (Living in Cleveland, I can tell you it’s a “problem” we’d love to contend with.) The valley runs east-west, so vineyards enjoy a plethora of sunny, south-facing hillsides; some winemakers in this region cover their vines with little white tents to shield them from the intense sun. Driving past the vineyards, those hills blanketed with white tents make quite a sight. Grapes don’t do well on the Yakima Valley floor, where crops can face frost, floods, and soil that can be too deep and “soft.” The solution: many farmers plant hops on those lower elevations.

The next Wine Media Conference will happen next fall in Australia. I’m registered, so I expect to be writing like crazy after that one.

Wine Lingo = Teinturiergrapes whose flesh and juice are red. If you love red wines, you may not realize that your BigSexyRed usually gets its color from the skins. The pulp and juice of almost all grapes are clear; we get red wine when the skins are soaked in the grape juice and they stain the juice red. (“Teinturier” comes from the French word meaning to dye or stain.) One teinturier grape you might recognize is Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid.

Dama, medium

Vino ‘View: DAMA 2013 Cowgirl Cab (14.8 percent alcohol; $19) is a happy discovery from those tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla. A cowgirl, DAMA’s label explains, “may have an exterior as rough as the desert scrub, but underneath you’ll find an intense, alluring woman who loves deeply and fears little.” This inky-dark-purple wine doesn’t fool around; with such high alcohol you know it’s going to be robust, yet it’s silky with balanced tannins. Cherry and black olive aromas compete, then you settle in with cocoa, coffee and delicious tobacco on the palate and light smoke on the finish. I had it with a spicy chicken pesto and it stood up to the full-flavored dish beautifully.

Cheers!

Mary

Tempranillo Time!

If there’s a perfect antidote to my never-ending POTUS blues, it’s sipping $65 Rioja (“ree-OH-ha”) wines and learning about them from the incomparable Doug Frost, MS, MW. Not only is Frost the funniest, most exuberant wine expert anywhere, he’s also one of only four people on the planet who’s both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine–making him one smart wine dude.

 

And by Rioja wines, I mean Tempranillo. Like France, Spain sometimes does that annoying label thing where they name the wine according to the region where the wine is produced, not the grapes that go into it. In the case of red Rioja, the grape is Tempranillo–sometimes blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, more often associated with the South of France), and Graciano grapes to give the wine a certain structure or taste. Mostly, though, you’ll be drinking Tempranillo.

The grape has a bit of an identity crisis; its half-dozen pseudonyms throughout Spain and Portugal include Tinta de Toro, Cencibel, Aragon and Tinta Roriz. But it was Rioja that bestowed Tempranillo’s global reputation as one of Spain’s premier grape varieties. In fact, Rioja is one of only two Spanish wine regions, the other being Priorat, that’s been elevated to DOCa status (Denominación de Origen Calificada)–the country’s top-ranking regional classification.

We can thank Rioja for yet another type of label confusion: if it simply states the wine is Rioja, it was bottled fairly young, after aging just a few months in the barrel. Crianza is a step up: wines labeled Crianza spent a minimum of one year in oak and at least a few more months in the bottle. “Reserve,” we know, can often mean whatever the winemaker wants you to believe it means, but in Spain they follow rules; if they label a wine as Reserva it’s been aged at least three years–one year in oak, two in the bottle. And if the label says Gran Reserva it spent two years in the barrel and another three years in the bottle before it left the winery.

If you’ve drank Tempranillo more than once, you already know that the aromas and tastes can be as different as bacon and pork roast. In the Doug Frost tasting, the second glass I tried felt a little oily in my mouth, while the next was warm and spicy, heavy on the cinnamon. Two glasses later, a caramel aroma hit me in the face, but that wine’s finish had a cranberry tartness. Some drinkers taste cherries in Tempranillo while others notice earthier tastes–fig, tobacco, herbs. Wine expert Jancis Robinson notices a masculine character, more savory than sweet, like “fresh tobacco leaves.”

Tempranillo was my first red-wine love, partly because it was one of the few “real” wines I could afford to buy. It’s still surprisingly affordable: you can spend $65 on a rare Gran Reserva if you like, but you can find Crianzas and Reservas for less than $15 in nearly any wine shop. And Rioja (or any good Tempranillo) is always a welcome hostess gift–especially if you’re coming to my place.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Staves = the vertical wooden planks, or slats, that form the sides of wine barrels.

Tempranillo med

Vino ‘View:  Anciano Reserva 2010 Tempranillo (13 percent alcohol; $10.50-12.50). See what I mean? A fine Reserva, less than $13 online at Cost Plus World Market. I bought this bottle in person for $11. It’s from Valdepeñas (DO), (“valley of rocks”), so named because the soil there is rich in limestone rock, sandy loam and clay. That lends a leathery, dry-leaves taste to the wine, balanced with the darker fruits grown in the region, directly south of Rioja in Castilla-La Mancha. It’s velvety-soft–a sexy wine, so I snapped it with the sexy photo in my dining room, “Powerhouse Mechanic” by Lewis Hine (1921). But this bottle won’t keep much longer; buy the 2010 to drink now.

Cheers!

Mary

Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

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I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

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Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

Think Pink for Beaujolais Nouveau Day!

If it’s snowing outside your window, join the club – but tonight, instead of warming up with a glass of BigSexyRed, I’m switching gears and pouring some refreshing rosé. It’s light and floral, the low alcohol level won’t make me drowsy, and the sunshine-rosy-pink tone tells me spring is right around the corner. (It is, right?)

But don’t look at your rosé through rose-colored glasses. Go to a tasting and you’ll see what I mean: not all rosé is a deep pink, or salmon, or whatever color you’re expecting. I took this photo at a tasting recently, and some of the rosés could easily have passed for a Chardonnay or, at the other end of the rosé palette, a Pinot Noir:

Rose colors

That makes sense if you know how winemakers make rosé pink: the color comes from the grape skins. The intensity of the color is the winemaker’s choice: for darker wine, the grapes are gently crushed and the juice sits with the skins, macerating, for three days or more. For a pale wine, the winemaker might drain off the juice after just a few hours, at which point the juice (“must”) will ferment in a separate vat, away from the skins.

If you see the words “carbonic maceration” on the label, that means there is no deliberate crushing of the grapes to extract the juice. The winemaker simply loads whole clusters of grapes into a vat and the weight of the grapes on top slowly crushes those below. Instead of adding yeast to start converting the sugar into alcohol, the grapes themselves produce enzymes that function just as yeast would – they start converting sugar into alcohol. Winemakers in the French village of Tavel use this method to make the rosé that made the region famous.

Some rosé producers take a shortcut: they simply blend finished white wine with a  finished red until the wine is exactly the color and taste they prefer. It sounds like cheating, but some respected French producers use this approach.

The delectable result is a delicate, fruity wine with enough acidity to make it crisp and lively in your mouth. The Guardian in the U.K. calls it, “the booze of choice for millennials.” If your rosé was produced in Europe, chances are it’s on the drier side than if it were from, say, Australia.

Here’s why I’m writing about (and drinking) rosé: yesterday was Beaujolais Nouveau Day, the day winemakers in the French region of Beaujolais traditionally release “the first wine of the harvest.” For the first time, producer Les Vins Georges Duboeuf also released a Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé. Like their Beaujolais Nouveau 2018 (and every vintage), the rosé is made with 100 percent Gamay grapes.

I cracked my bottle and will buy more for Thanksgiving. Beaujolais Nouveau, as you know, doesn’t age well, so we’ll drink it next week. You should be able to find the rosé, reviewed below, at wine shops and supermarkets in time for the holiday. And be sure to read the label – don’t buy a “blush” wine or White Zinfandel unless you like to pair cotton candy with your turkey.

Wine Lingo:  Rosado = in France, the clear, pink color of rosé. Italians use a similar term: rosato.

BN Rose med

[This bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Vino ‘View: Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé 2018 (12.5 percent alcohol, $13.99). This affordable, hand-harvested, lipstick-pink wine is as vibrant as the label design implies, and it’s fruit-forward all the way. Stone fruit and strawberry aromas hit you first, quieting down to soft, tangy red raspberries on the palate with a touch of lime. Expect strong acidity. This light wine will pair nicely with your turkey, even better with pumpkin pie. It’s a safe bet with the slight sweetness of jellied cranberry sauce, too.

Cheers!

Mary

Wine & Spirits Exams: Not for Every Palate

Studying can be a greedy master. It devoured much of my time this spring, but the outcome was worth it: I passed my CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) exam, and the experience got me thinking about exams in general.

I hate them. When I’m not cramming for my next wine or spirits test, I feel a bit adrift. I love the studying part. But when it comes to the exam itself, no matter how well I know the material, I’m anxious and confused.

 

 

                         [From left: Three levels of Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) pins; Certified
                  Specialist of Wine (CSW) pin; Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) pin; CSS “pass letter”]

Each path to wine or spirits certification, whether you pursue credentials from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers, Institute of Masters of Wine, or college-based Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA), has its own strategy. One school might emphasize technicalities – soil types and grape varieties, winemaking styles, wine laws across the globe – while others focus on vintages and subtleties of restaurant service.

Their exams are just as diverse. The WSET Level 3/Advanced exam, for instance, is mostly about wine, divided into three segments: First up is a set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an “essay” portion (some questions are brief sentence completions, while others require lengthy answers, such as discussing wines from various regions of Italy – and you dare not leave out any important details or terms). The last part of the exam is a blind wine tasting, which isn’t nearly as scary as you would think. You’re given two wine pours, a red and a white, and when I took the test we were required to list 26 separate attributes of each wine – appearance, four aromas, five tastes, alcohol level, tannin level, acidity, and so on, ending with the wine’s grape and region. Fortunately, my instructor, Marianne Frantz of American Wine School, was mercifully generous with those tastes, because after nearly three hours of testing we were ready for alcohol.

The CSW and CSS exams from the Society of Wine Educators are multiple-choice, which implies they would be easier to pass. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: every question from the exams is drawn from the textbooks. The bad news: there’s a pool of about 5,000 randomly selected questions for each exam, so each candidate gets a different set of questions to answer. Your only hope of passing is to memorize the book.

For the spirits certification, you might be asked, which scotch-producing region delivers the highest-quality whisky? How long is bourbon required to age? Which country is best known for distilling barley to make vodka? What is the Lincoln County Process? Who was “Old Forester”? Which cocktails are typically made by shaking, rolling or stirring? Which types of stills are used for which spirits? What’s the difference between a doubler and a thumper? What are the aging requirements and bottled alcohol levels – both in the U.S. and Europe, because they’re different – of whiskey, vodka and gin? And you’d better know every detail about Prohibition and Repeal Day.

The most punishing is the Masters of Wine exam – which is why, at this writing, only 370 individuals in 28 countries (125 of whom are women) are MWs. Candidates write papers on such topics as the effects of a worldwide labor shortage on vineyards, or the role of enzymes in winemaking. But far more terrifying is the blind tasting: three flights of 12 wines each. Grapes, regions, characteristics, every detail a true expert would be expected to know. Lastly, MW candidates must submit a report of original research, up to 10,000 words long.

Like any academic pursuit, sitting for wine and spirits exams can be grueling. Is it worth the trouble? That depends on your personal goals, how hard you want to study, and frankly, how much money you want to spend. I spent several thousand dollars; by the time you become a Master of Wine or French Wine Scholar, you could spend a small fortune. For me, it definitely has paid off – but now I might be finished studying. Stay tuned.

Liquor Lingo of the Day: Angel’s Share = the whiskey that evaporates as it ages in the barrel. Wood is porous, so the angels get a sweet allowance – up to 4 percent every year. A smaller amount is sacrificed to the Devil’s Cut, the liquor that seeps into the wood and is absorbed by the barrel itself.

LVOV new

Liquor ‘View: Eating your veggies is one thing, but drinking them is a party! I couldn’t wait to try LVOV Vodka (80 proof, under $20), a Polish import distilled from beets. I wasn’t disappointed; you won’t detect any beet flavor (though I love beets, so I wouldn’t have minded a hint of beet) or color. Sipped on the rocks, the mouthfeel is satiny and creamy, reminding me of a sweet whipped cream. It had no aroma and little taste except a hint of wheat, so I expected it would be a versatile cocktail vodka. It was fine in Bloody Marys, but really shone in summery drinks. I mixed citrus coolers and later some boozy watermelon slushies, and the bottle emptied – always a good outcome!

[A bottle of LVOV Vodka was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

 

Cheers,

Mary

Wine Blogging: There’s Always Something

I’m on the road at the moment – my favorite place to be – and I’m remembering that until this week I hadn’t flown for almost five months, since the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma. That event is 50 percent fun, 50 percent learning, and of course, 100 percent wine.

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[Jeff Hinchliffe, winemaker at Hanna Winery, pouring Saint-Macaire for thirsty wine writers]

So what happens when wine bloggers connect? Here are my takeaways from the confab last November:

  1. I need to drink more Chateau St. Jean. When the elegant wine estate closed for several weeks because of the Sonoma fires, our excursion to the winery was canceled. But they were good enough to donate some bottles, and we partied virtually with their 2014 Cinq Cépages (14.7% alcohol, $85), a divine Bordeaux blend with big tannins, healthy acidity and fragrant with blueberries and cherry cola.
  2. If you’ve driven in Napa Valley, you already know this: avoid Route 29, the primary road that bisects the valley. Not only does it get congested, it’s also where police linger, waiting to pounce on speeding tourists. Take the Silverado Trail instead; it runs parallel to Route 29 and will give you a more tranquil drive.
  3. For a deeper understanding of what’s in your glass, listen to the person who made it happen. Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines, dispensed a few prize nuggets for anyone who considers producing wine: “If we wanted our wine to express the place,” he said, “we had to learn everything about the soil before we planted a vine.” Later he shared his position on Etude’s signature varietal: “Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir. You shouldn’t blend anything into it. If you have to mix something into it, you’re trying to fix something.”
  4. We learned about some effects of wildfires at Hanna Winery. In short, if the barrel room fills with smoke, not to worry – smoke taint won’t permeate the barrel to reach the wine inside. But if you pour already-tainted wine in a barrel, then empty it and pour fresh wine in, that second batch also will be tainted. The smoke flaws from the first batch will likely spoil the barrel. In the vineyard, ash left in the soil won’t affect next year’s harvest; it only affects fruit that’s on the vine during the fire.
  5. If you’re making wine from Malbec next fall, here’s a little advice from Hanna’s winemaker, Jeff Hinchliffe: “When you have an abundance, turn some into rosé. It makes a killer rosé.”
  6. I wasn’t familiar with Saint-Macaire, so I was excited to taste some from the barrel at Hanna Winery. The obscure Bordeaux grape grows in large, tight clusters and “in the tank it turns into a monster,” Hinchcliffe says. It’s the quintessential Big Sexy Red – dark ruby colored with an aroma of anise that lingers in the taste, along with dark chocolate, lettuce, black fruit and a bit of pink grapefruit. I want to taste it again after it softens.
  7. When you build your own winery, take a tip from Rodney Strong Vineyards and ferment your wine in square tanks instead of the traditional round ones. Square tanks maximize space, often a valuable factor as the business grows.
  8. I learned something even more important from the folks at Rodney Strong: I suck as a winemaker. They sponsored a blending seminar, and we competed in teams of four to concoct the best Meritage wine. We worked with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to reach the best possible balance, adding 4 percent of one varietal here, 10 percent of another wine there, back to soften it with a little Merlot, giving it more backbone with more Petit Verdot. We had to track the exact percentages, and after an hour of calculating and blending and tasting, we were exhausted. Our team placed second.
  9. If you want to sharpen your wine-detecting abilities, a suggestion from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson: buy liqueurs in various flavors, sip and smell slowly, and take notes. Flavors are more concentrated in liqueurs and you can distinguish specific tastes and aromas more easily than in wines.
  10. Wineries may soon feel the pinch from legalized marijuana: a few studies already show that because of competition from legal weed, people might reduce their alcohol consumption, or stop drinking altogether. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.

Wine Lingo: Red Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) = wine produced using two or more red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Gros Verdot, Carmenère and Saint-Macaire. If any other grapes are included in the mix, it’s not a red Meritage, though you also can find white Meritage made with Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and/or Sémillon. Neither red nor white Meritage can include more than 90 percent of any one grape. The wine style was created in the late 1980s when some American winemakers wanted a name for Bordeaux blends produced in the New World (i.e., not Europe). They attached criteria required of wineries in order to use the word “Meritage” on the label.

Virginia Dare bottle

[Photo courtesy of Emily Straffen]

Vino ‘View: When you need a reliable table wine, 2015 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir (13.5 percent alcohol, $24.99) is a safe bet. As I drank, I eventually tasted dark cherries, plums, black olives and toasted nuts, though I had to stretch to find those layers. One reviewer nailed it when he called it “a simple wine,” but it’s friendly and I would serve it to friends. More exciting is the story of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America in 1587. She belonged to the Lost Colony that disappeared from Roanoke Island soon after; legend says she was rescued and raised by the Native American tribe that might have attacked the settlement.

Cheers!

Mary

I Heard It Through the Grapevine – It’s Spring!

Ah…about four hours ago, spring arrived here in the northern states. It’s my favorite season because it’s the most forward-looking; already I’m getting jazzed about new projects, new discoveries – new possibilities!

Spring vineyard

[Photo: “The de Brye Vineyard” by Hanzell Vineyards, courtesy of flickr.com]

Vineyards love spring; it’s their time of rebirth and reconnecting with the world. Their new growth cycle has begun, and vineyard managers will respond with long hours of aerating the soil, planting and never-ending weeding. Soon they’ll begin trellising and training their vines so the leaves will be ready to soak up the sun.

In case you’ve forgotten your 6th-grade science lessons, today is the March equinox, also called the “vernal” or spring equinox, one of two annual occasions when the sun shines directly on the equator (the other equinox is in September). When that happens, day and night are almost equal the world over. Technically, it’s the moment when the sun crosses the “celestial equator” – an imaginary line in the sky that sits directly over earth’s equator.

The earth still is tilting at 23.4º, but today our tilt is perpendicular to the sun’s rays. We could go into the differences between “astronomical spring” and “meteorological spring,” but I think we’ve had enough science for one day.

March 20 also is World Storytelling Day, when we’re supposed to promote storytelling by, um, telling stories. Here’s one about a particularly fun spring tradition (though it’s likely give my sister Margie an episode of PTSD):

Chichen Itza small

[Photo: “Chichen Itzá” by Esparta Palma, courtesy of Flickr.com]

The ancient Mayans, you probably know, devised a remarkably sophisticated calendar. Each year on the vernal equinox, they sacrificed one of their own on top of their huge pyramid, El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Can you see those tiny people in the photo, slithering up and down the narrow stairs to the sacrificial altar? Margie slithered up – but then she was too scared to come down. No railing, no rope – just her and a few other brave souls who, unlike her, were not terrified and sobbing. I couldn’t help her; I’ve been called a lot of things, but brave-with-heights isn’t one of them. Fortunately, she enlisted the help of an older gentleman who helped her down. The temperature that day was at least 100º; it’s a wonder no one toppled over from heat exhaustion. Twenty years later she still accuses me of being unsympathetic.

We celebrate spring with a bit more restraint in Cleveland. No gruesome sacrifices here, though I do expect the high-spirited guys across the street to dance naked on the front lawn tonight. (You know who you are!) I like to celebrate in some way that acknowledges spring’s rebirth and renewal. Some years I pledge to meditate every morning – a vow I have to repeat, since my resolve usually breaks down over the months. This year I’m starting to clear my space and get some fresh energy into this place.

If that sounds like too much work, you can always kill some time trying to balance an egg on its pointier end. Folklore says this is the day when it’s possible.

Wine Lingo: Bud break = when dormant buds on the grapevine break open and the shoot begins to grow. It happens when spring rain sends water and nutrients up through the roots and into the vine; the buds swell and finally burst, liberating tiny, exquisite grape leaves. Bud break is the first stage of the vine’s growth cycle.

Missianer

Vino ‘View: Last year in early spring I visited Trentino Alto-Adige, a mountainous wine region in northern Italy. The landscape was adorned with wildflowers, and I wanted tonight’s wine to reflect that adventure. I chose 2016 St. Pauls Schiava Missianer (12.5 percent alcohol, $14), made from 100 percent Schiava, a red grape that thrives in Südtirol (South Tyrol) Aldo Adige DOC. One reviewer called this wine “lightweight” and I think that’s fair; it’s definitely light-bodied with strong strawberry and red cherry aroma and taste. I also got some floral hints, though it could have been self-suggestion; I was thinking of those wildflowers in the foothills. Treat it like a Pinot Noir but with more acidity. I chilled it for 30 minutes and paired it with broasted chicken.

[St. Pauls Missioner Vernatsch was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Happy spring!

Mary