The Composition and the “Creek”: Listen, Sip and, by all Means, Weep

tear drop croppedThere are things in life that are so beautiful they make me weep. Two in particular are Adagio for Strings, a composition by the late Samuel Barber; and Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir, a voluptuous wine made by Jeff Emery, proprietor-winemaker, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.

Before I explain what it is about this composition and this varietal that bring me to my knees, I have to say a few words about their creators, both of whom found their passions early in life. Barber attempted to write his first opera at the innocent age of 10; Emery began a winemaking apprenticeship shortly before reaching the legal age of adulthood.

Samuel Barber (Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1944) U.S. Library of Congress

Samuel Barber. (Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1944; U.S. Library of Congress)


Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)









Each went on to produce unpretentious “works of art.” The late music critic Olin Downes wrote, “Adagio for Strings is honest music, by an honest musician.” I can say from personal experience that, regardless of vintage, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir (l lovingly call it “the Creek”) is honest wine, by an honest winemaker, who, like Barber, has a passion for music. I do not know if Barber knew anything about wine (I would like to believe he did), but he certainly knew how to manipulate the senses with a piece so delicately powerful that it is considered by many to be the most popular orchestral work of the 20th century.

B-Flat, consisting of the pitches B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G♭, and A♭ (Artur Jan Fijalkowski)

B-Flat, consists of the pitches B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G♭, and A♭. (Artur Jan Fijalkowski)

Adagio for Strings begins softly, like sexual foreplay, shifting and heightening as the melody suspends slowly upward. It is like being led blindfold down an erotic path by a sensuous, illicit lover—you just don’t know what’s around the corner. After a two-beat hesitation of the violins, cellos and basses follow, encircling you tighter in tense melodies and beautiful harmonies.

The music undulates, taking you from one emotion to the next, until culminating multiple times into significant climaxes—with the final one so powerful it pierces the soul. A long pause follows, and just when you think the concerto is about to end, the opening theme comes forward before softly fading away on a dominant chord that leaves you wanting for more. Adagio for Strings has a haunting finesse, just like the Creek.

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is Adagio for Strings in varietal form. While Adagio envelops the auditory senses, the Creek seduces the olfactory senses. The wine’s aroma is seductive and intoxicating: like a slow, soft, wet, steamy kiss bathed in lavender and rose petal, cola berry, dark cherry, and rhubarb pie—all of which ascend from the glass on angelic wings of perfume.

2010 Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)


Elegant and sophisticated, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is just as subtle as Adagio for Strings in the way that it manipulates those who experience it. Round, soft and sexy, the Creek caresses your palate with the “hands” of a skillful, tantalizing lover. Intriguing flavors and aromas of cedar and fennel move classically among the layers of deep red fruits, flowers, exotic spices and damp earth.

The unabashed pleasure one derives from the Creek does not stop after the first glass. This elegant Pinot Noir comes forward even more with some time in a decanter, or in-bottle the next day—revealing further nuances that not only arouse the senses, but also culminate in a supple and memorable long, warm finish reminiscent of being adrift in the afterglow of sex. The ultimate tempter, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is too delicious and beautiful to experience just once. Besides, you would not want your forbidden lover to ravish you only one time, would you? Like Adagio, the Creek leaves you wanting for more.

A vineyard worker (far left) serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo by Ken Swegles)

Listening to Adagio for Strings while sipping Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is a spellbinding experience filled with sensual flirtation, erotic foreplay, unadulterated passion and sheer ecstasy that will make you sigh with contentment and—above all—weep.

Adagio for Strings musical score. (New York Philharmonic)

Adagio for Strings musical score.
(New York Philharmonic)





Olin Downes once noted that “[with this piece], Barber achieved something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits.” For Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings may be a lifetime of music expressed in a concerto. For Jeff Emery, well, you would have to ask him. But I believe that Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is a lifetime of winemaking expressed in a varietal.


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August Briggs 2005 Napa Valley Syrah—A Wine Worth Waiting For

RoxypicklogoI bought this wine seven years ago and opened it last month for Open That Bottle Day Night. I feared that I may have kept it too long. Where’s the fruit, I mused? A heady aroma with a whiff of barnyard overtook my nose (and you know how sensitive my nose can be).

Strong tannins, loads of black pepper, earth and tar dominated my palate, masking any signs of fruit. The finish was slightly bitter. Fortunately, I have a patient nature, so I decided to let the wine breath. I waited, and waited and waited some more. After 20 minutes in the glass, the fruit was still fighting to emerge. So I put the cork back in the bottle and called it night.

“Patience” is the operative word with this opaque wine, the inkiest Syrah I’ve ever encountered. This wine is shy—it needs at least 24 hours to express itself. Had I not been blessed with patience, I may have missed out on an exceptional Syrah.

Meow! Oh what a difference a day makes. The next evening, the wine decided to speak to me. Luscious aroma of blackberry pie enveloped my senses. Not to be mistook for jammy—instead, think brambleberries soaked in a rich, thick, gooey balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with sugar to tame any tartness.

Let’s not forget the tannins, pepper, tar and earth—they were still obvious but had the graciousness to let the fruit shine. The finish—albeit a bit short—was warm and spicy, leaving my palate tingling. With firm acidity, this complex, well-structured Syrah kept on giving through Day 3.August Briggs 2005 Syrah 1

2005 August Briggs Page-Nord Vineyard, Napa Valley Syrah. It’s worth noting the Brix (28.5) and alcohol (15.1%).

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Tartrate Crystals May Not Be a Girl’s Best Friend, but They Sure Are Pretty

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aYou are enjoying your wine tasting when the next thing you notice are crystal-like deposits resting at the bottom of your glass. Don’t panic. Your wine pourer hasn’t slipped you a mickey.

Often referred to as “wine diamonds,” these solids are actually tartrates that form in wines that typically have not been treated.

Tartrate crystals, considered by the average consumer to be a fault in wine, can be mistaken as sugary particles or even broken glass. Many wine books shed light on the topic. However, I think David Bird says it best in his book Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained. Written for the non-scientist, Bird explains what tartrate crystals are and how they occur.

“This deposit is not tartaric acid, as is commonly thought, but is either calcium tartrate or, more likely, potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar), originating in the grape. This is caused either by a poorly conducted stabilisation process or by the initial presence of protective colloids, which have prevented the deposition of the crystals during the stabilisation process and which have subsequently denatured.” 

He goes on to explain what colloids and denaturization are, but I won’t numb you with the details. What’s important is that you gain a basic understanding of this phenomenon so that you can further appreciate wine.

To prevent tartrate crystals from occurring, winemakers can chill the wines to near-freezing—a process called “cold stabilization”—causing the tartrates to precipitate out. The wine is then filtered to eliminate the crystals. This procedure, however, can be costly and may not guarantee results.

Since cream of tartar originates in the grape, it would make sense that tartrate crystals would be a natural element in wine. Nonetheless, most consumers wince at the sight of these deposits. I can’t tell you how many times the phrase “Yuck! What’s that in my glass?” has been uttered across the tasting bar. For me, tartrate crystals register nary a blip on my “yuck” radar. Sulfur dioxide or “smoke taint” is more likely to make my nose curl.

Tartrate crystals won’t kill you or change the flavor of the wine. If anything, they may taste slightly bitter. There are two things you as a consumer can do to eliminate them:

1. For white wine, set the bottle upright for a while to allow the crystals to fall to the bottom. Then slowly pour the wine, keeping an eye on the deposits so that they do not flow toward the neck of the bottle and ultimately into the glass. For red wine, set the bottle upright as well and remove the entire capsule (foil). After a while, tilt the bottle using one hand—with your other hand, shine a flashlight on the underside of the bottle’s neck while pouring to spot any crystals.   

2. If you do not have a steady arm and a keen eye to do Step 1, you can filter the wine—either into your glass or into a decanter—using a wine funnel that has a removable screen.

Tartrate crystals can also end up on the underside of the wine cork. If so, brush them off with your finger. Just make sure your hands are clean; you don’t want to contaminate the cork if it’s going back in the bottle.  

I recently came across this beauty of a crystal that had been stuck to a cork. It’s nearly the size of a half-carat diamond.


Light orange in color, this tartrate crystal is from the underside of the cork from a bottle of 2010 Marsanne, Michaud Vineyard, Saratoga, Calif. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

So there you have it. Hopefully, I’ve been able to dispel somewhat the myth of wine diamonds. The next time you experience tartrate crystals, just embrace them. There are more important things in life to worry about.

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The 2008 Cienega Valley Pietra Santa Sangiovese Is a Party Pleaser

roxypicklogoThe other night during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, I opened my 2008 Cienega Valley Sangiovese from Pietra Santa Winery. My neighbor joined me in what we thought would be a “full-bodied” speech. As it turned out, the wine had a lot more to say.

However, there was no guarantee that the wine would outshine the President’s address. Just a few weeks earlier, I opened a bottle of 2008 Sangiovese from a different winery and the wine had fallen apart. While young Sangioveses are meant to be consumed fairly early in their lives, others such as the Super Tuscans have the potential to cellar for up to 20 years. So I figured that waiting five years to open one of my “Sangios” wasn’t too long. Then again, maybe so, given that I’m 21, which is ancient in cat years.

Anyway, I digress. The 2008 Pietra Santa did not disappoint, not in the slightest. Located 25 miles east of Monterey Bay, the winery has rock and limestone soils that keep yields low. The result is an expressive and flavorful wine produced from estate-grown grapes.

Viscous and full-bodied, with a pomegranate hue, the 2008 Sangiovese expresses aromas of cherry, cranberry, sage and anise. The palate explodes with sharp acidity (perfect for cutting through sassy tomato-based dishes), sour red cherry and bold tannins followed by hints of black pepper and cinnamon—leaving the mouth warm and tingling. For as bold as this wine is, I was surprised by its supple finish.DSC01267

The 2008 Sangiovese from Pietra Santa pairs well with a variety of fare. Now if only it can bring the “two parties” closer together.  


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Tasting Room Etiquette, Part 2


I’ve seen some pretty interesting things during my time behind the tasting bar. A few years back, I published a column on tasting room etiquette. Here’s an update based on some of my more recent experiences, and a rehash of one rather memorable moment (see, Hands Off of the Bottle Buster).

No Butts On the Tasting Bar. The tasting bar is a surface that gets a lot of traffic and thus can play host to germs. Because of this, the bar is wiped down nightly with disinfectant. To ensure cleanliness, please don’t seat your small children—especially those in diapers, or your tiny dog for that matter—on the bar during your visit. If your kids need to sit down, I’m sure the tasting room staff can provide chairs. And if need be, please change their diapers before entering.

Excuse Me, But Did You Just…? “Barnyard” is a word used to describe the manure-like aroma that may occur in certain red wines due to a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces, or “brett.” Barnyard can be pleasing to some and off-putting to others. Regardless, barnyard is a bouquet that belongs either in a wine or in a barnyard itself. Which leads to a not-so-pleasant topic: farts. Yes, it’s true. I had a customer who plopped her five-year-old daughter onto the tasting bar to adjust the kid’s stockings. The child proceeded to “let one go.” The mother just laughed and asked me if I “smelled it.” I kindly suggested that her daughter may need to use the restroom.

Bad Doggy. Many wineries are dog-friendly. And, I love animals (in fact, two of my regular customers have a pig that is leashed-trained and accompanies them on their visits to the tasting room). If Fido joins you on your tasting excursions, please see to it that the pooch has done its ‘business” beforehand. A male dog once peed on a barrel that had been standing upright. Fortunately, the barrel was empty. Nonetheless, we had to quickly wash down the area. I realize that you can’t always predict your dog’s potty times; just be cognizant of the fact that wineries are sensitive environments prone to contamination. And, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” In this case, the Dionysus kind.

Hands Off of the Bottle Buster. You know those old TV westerns where the guy in the saloon after having one too many shots grabs the whiskey bottle from the bar, swaggers involuntarily, and after hootin’ and a hollerin’, finds his balance long enough to raise the bottle to his lips and take a swig? I find that with more wine comes more courage.

During an extremely busy Passport event in which the tasting room (where I had been working at the time) was three rows deep in customers, I left a bottle of $50 Cabernet Sauvignon on the bar, just for a moment, to get glasses for some newly arrived guests. In that instant a buzzed, boisterous man (who was on a group limo tour of wineries) grabbed the bottle, stepped back into the crowd, raised the bottle over his head, and while pouring himself a generous glass a wine yelled, “Hey, does anyone want some wine!” I am not exaggerating. I was too shocked for words. However, I immediately retrieved the bottle and charged him for the glass of wine.

Not only were his actions brazen, they were also illegal and subject to fines (to both me and the winery) had someone been there from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. If you want to see the bottle, simply ask and your server will happily give you an unopened one to look at.

Shame on You Potty Mouth. While I want customers to have fun, please refrain from using profanity. One afternoon, a bachelorette party descended on me. It was obvious from their glee that they had been to a number of wineries beforehand, as the decibels in the tasting room had increased greatly. I was okay with that, but what surprised me was their vulgar conversation—one loaded with expletives—about certain parts of the male anatomy. They were attractive young women, but their potty mouths had belied their beauty. Their profanity was also making customers uncomfortable, and understandably so. But rather than ask them to leave (they didn’t mean any harm and were just having fun), my colleague (a good-looking guy with oodles of charm) donned a winning smile, approached their table, and began engaging them in conversation about the wines. The girls welcomed his presence; the group’s decibels quickly dropped and the four-letter word, among others, ceased to exist. Regardless of sex, please curb your urge to swear or talk dirty during your visit.

Please Pass the Crackers. The last time I covered this topic, I focused on kids. This time I’d like to address adults. Wineries usually provide free crackers so that customers may cleanse their palates between tastes. Crackers are not a meal, so please don’t hoard the basket and start grazing. One time a customer had literally encircled a bowel of crackers with her arms, hovering her face just above the bowel as she leaned forward over the bar to talk, and proceed to munch. Not only were her actions unsanitary, she put me in the uncomfortable position of continually having to coax the basket away from her so that it could be shared with the other guests. Unless you call ahead to see if the winery offers snacks, it’s best to always bring food with you.

March on the Winery. I don’t mind having a packed tasting room. I also don’t mind serving large groups. However, if you have a group of 10 or so, please call ahead so that the winery can be prepared to accommodate you. Aside from the tasting fee, there typically is no extra charge for large groups (unless you are doing a tour), but some wineries do have a minimum bottle purchase for groups of a certain size.

Two-Minute Warning. If it’s a few minutes before closing time and the tasting room is empty, or appears to be wrapping up, consider asking the staff if there’s still time to taste. Even though the “close” sign hasn’t been turned around and the clock hasn’t struck “shut,” the staff may be getting ready to close for one reason or another. If not, some pourers may not mind staying a bit longer to accommodate you. Just ask. But remember: tasting rooms (unless set up otherwise) are not wine bars, and staff do have lives. So, if you linger too long after closing time, don’t be insulted if you are kindly coaxed to finish your tasting and/or to make your final purchases.

(Photo of Cynthia taken by Tom Keenan)

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Roxy’s Pick—Books for Wine Lovers

roxypicklogoWhen I’m not catnapping, I’m usually engrossed in a good book.

This holiday season, I curled up with The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine. Written by Todd Kliman, the first line of this tale paves the way for an adventure that entwines the life of an obscure American native grape, the Norton, with the lives of those obsessed with resurrecting it. “Clouds of dust drift through the open window of my rickety Toyota as it shudders along the gravely path of Champe Ford Road like a washing machine on spin cycle, stirring up sticks and pebbles.” I felt as if I were sitting alongside Kliman as he describes his car ride to a vineyard in Virginia’s wine country where we first meet Jenni McCloud, a winemaker-grape grower whose personal journey, much like the Norton’s, is one of rebirth. Wild VineConsidered the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry, the Norton stirs up much emotion in the many characters whose lives it touches—from Dr. Norton who cultivated the grape in the early 1800s, Prohibitionists who nearly obliterated it, to present-day champions such as McCloud and others who grow the Norton in the Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic States, and northeastern Georgia.

Here are some of my other favorite wine tales.

Wine and warWine & War: The French, the Nazis & the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure

There are a number of stories about World War II and its heroes. Unique among them is the battle between the French and Germans over France’s most treasured commodity—wine—and the courageous vintners who fought to protect it from German plunder. In Wine & War, authors Don and Petie Kaldstrup weave a narrative through the stories of five prominent winemaking families from Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Champagne. These men and women risked their lives and livelihoods to save the French wine industry—from building giant walls to hide their prize vintages; collaborating with the French Resistance to sabotage the Germans’ attempts to pillage Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau d’Yquem and Romanee-Conti, among others; to reclaiming half a million cases of stolen wines from Hitler’sEagles Nest at the end of the war. Wine & War truly is one of World War II’s untold stories.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of WineBillionaires vinegar
The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, begs the question, “Did he or didn’t he?” At a heated auction at Christie’s of London a 1787 Lafite Bordeaux, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, goes for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The wine’s procurer, Hardy Rodenstock—a prominent wine collector, connoisseur and trader—ultimately becomes the prime suspect of what is suspected to be an elaborate fraud. Rodenstock never reveals the location of the Jefferson Lafite, or that of most of his rare finds. From one great city to the next, Wallace retraces Rodenstock’s life and the histories of these rare wines, all the while recounting the time Jefferson spent in France and deciphering the techniques for faking wine.

Tale of two valleysA Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma
While A Tale of Two Valleys chronicles the feud between Napa and Sonoma over which valley is the soul of wine country, it’s the story of the chickens of Sonoma that, for me, remains forever chicken-scratched on my mind. The chickens are just one absurdity of life author Alan Deutschman uncorks in this tale of eccentric characters and oftentimes jaw-dropping stories of the Napa Valley, a bastion of prestige and wealthy excess, versus Sonoma Valley, a bohemian backwater comprised of a motley crew stubborn to the core. Deutschman’s depiction of the black-and-white differences between the two cultures will leave you laughing, crying and cheering for either side, or perhaps both.

Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar Bacchus and me
If you want to explore the world of wine, pick up Bacchus and Me, by Jay McInerney. Each chapter is its own tale—from reds, wine and food pairings, and oenophiles to more—therefore you can start where ever you please without losing sight of the narrative. One caution: McInerney is a bit full of himself. If you can get past his ego—which rears its head throughout—and both his perceived idolization of Helen Turley and disdain for Chardonnay, McInerney is nothing but informative and entertaining, using colorful metaphors, anecdotes and satire to ruminate on wine culture and wine. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with watching the documentary Mondo Vino to put into perspective the many places, people and wine McInerney mentions along his personal journey.

Cultivated lifeA Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard
Typically, I would not recommend an out-of-print book, but A Cultivated Life is worth seeking out. Written by Joy Sterling—then CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol and daughter of the winery’s founders Barry and Audrey Sterling—A Cultivated Life was not what I expected. I was prepared to read a banal, blow-by-blow description of viniculture and viticulture. What I got, instead, was a colorful account of what happens in the vineyard from bud break to harvest to dormancy, not to mention the hoops through which the family jumps to negotiate Mother Nature. A Cultivated Life not only refers to a life of agricultural cultivation, but also a life of personal growth. The Sterling family was Parisian expatriates for five years, traveling the French wine regions and cultivating a life of French wine, art, cuisine, entertaining and more. In her book, Joy gives readers a big dose of winery life, recounting each seasonal moment.

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Holiday Gifts for Wine Lovers


Blitzen hand towel.
(Product courtesy of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines)
(Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

We all have a wine lover or two in our lives. Rather than give them wine this holiday season, consider a wine-related gift instead.


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