Smoke & Mirrors

Robert Mondavi “invented” Fumé Blanc because he wanted to

Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc

distinguish the high-quality Sauvignon Blanc he was making in the French-style from the other California Sauvignon Blanc that was widely viewed as ordinary “run of the mill” sweet wines. Mondavi decided that changing the name wouldn’t be enough to change people’s idea of California Sauvignon Blanc so he decided to age it in oak barrels. His bold move to rename his dry-fermented barrel-aged wine Fumé Blanc quickly paid off as demand for this “new” wine grew in California and across the United States. Mondavi’s decision not to trademark the name was a stroke of brilliance on his part because more people could use the name and by doing so increase its name recognition and acceptance worldwide. The name Fumé Blanc is commonly associated with oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc made in the United States since the late1960’s. Robert Mondavi never intended to imply that Fumé Blanc was a specific style or method of making wine but only a name for his wine. There is nothing that dictates Fumé Blanc must be oak-aged. You can find Fumé Blanc that is not aged in oak and that is perfectly acceptable because under current U.S. law the terms “Sauvignon Blanc” and “Fumé Blanc” are synonymous. 

If you are curious I suggest you try Fumé Blanc from the winery

Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc

that started it all, the Robert Mondavi Winery. 2017 Fumé Blanc Napa Valley from Robert Mondavi Winery has aromas of peach, citrus and of course, smoke followed by crisp acidity and flavors of pear, citrus, and vanilla/buttery oak. 

The wine world is full of interesting stories like this and others where you may find yourself asking is it “Lemberger” or “Blaufränkisch”? Don’t even get me started with the marketing genius behind the “Syrah” or “Shiraz” campaign.LOL My advice is to ignore the marketing hype and drink what you like no matter what is printed on the label.  

Winemaker Interview: Jerry Pompa

Pittsburgh born and raised winemaker Jerry Pompa started his wine journey at his childhood home in the close-knit neighborhood of Morningside. After earning multiple degrees including an MS in Comp. Sci. at the University of Pittsburgh Jerry made his home in the Pittsburgh area. While building a successful career and raising a loving and supportive family his passion for winemaking only grew stronger. Jerry’s path to becoming a winemaker is very similar in many respects not only to winemakers here in Western Pennsylvania but around the world. His first exposure to winemaking was when his father brought home a bucket of wine grape juice from a supplier in the “Strip District” of Pittsburgh. Today Jerry returns to that same part of the city to procure his supply of wine grapes with the same goal every year of making the best wine he can possibly make. After thirty years of making wine, countless events, seminars, and shows that saw Jerry become one of the co-founders of the American Wine Society’s Pittsburgh-East Chapter no one can tell Jerry Pompa’s story better than Jerry himself. The following is my interview with him in his own words.

How did you get started making wine?

The short version is that about 30 years ago, my Father who owned a small Italian groceria on Larimer Ave in East Liberty, would go to the Strip (we called it the Yards then) and one of his suppliers gave  him a bucket of juice and told him…” put it in your basement and in the spring it will be wine”…so he gave it to me and said the same. I figured there may be a bit more to it so I did some research, bought a kit (carboy, yeast, hoses, etc) and made my first Cabernet.  Really not knowing anything about it I joined the American Wine Society, entered that first wine in a competition, won a 2nd pace ribbon and was therefore encouraged to continue.
I have made wine since. The first 10 years or so from juice but now from grapes. Again, the rest continues as a long story.

Winemaker Jerry Pompa Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Primarily “big” reds are what I make. I have made whites and in fact this year I am making a Rosé (like everyone else) using a saignee method from a red Sangiovese I am making. Other style comments would be dry, tannic, and intended to be good food wines.  Consistency drinkable wine is another goal, maybe not style but each year I am trying to make the best wine possible.

 

 Who and what influenced your style of winemaking?

I suppose a lot of personal taste.  Doing it for so long and visiting so many wineries around the world I have learned a lot and still learning. But all of those experiences have certainly influenced my style. I have a strong Italian heritage, again growing up in an Italian Groceria started by my Grandfather in 1905 (which I worked in from – I claim – before I could stand on my own until the business was sold in 1990) I have been around food and wine all of my life. So again we make wines to go with food. That is the biggest influence.
Other people that have influenced me are Eric Miller, Rick, and Ron Lanza, Ron Casertano, “the Winemaker’s Podcast” and many more.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What are your favorite varietals to work with?

For the past 10 years or so I have a group of very close friends who help out with the winemaking. Together we decide on the varietals for the particular year but generally, my favorite to make are Cabernet blends.  We also make Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Super Tuscans, and others.  Again all “big” reds. But my favorite is Cab because of its ability to show so much fruit, integrate the oak, age well, have a beautiful nose and taste, go well with food, etc.

What are your favorite wines, regions, and producers?

I wish I knew more about French wines but in life, there is only so much time. My focus has been on California, Italy, and Australia for the most part. I enjoy wines from everywhere, red, white, dry, sweet, etc. I really consider it food on its own and have taught my children (now all drinking age 😉 the same.  It is all about how it accompanies a meal.
It is so hard to specifically name producers since I try so many and tend not to just buy from the same.  Windy Oaks from Santa Cruz makes an amazing set of Pinot Noir, Wooden Valley (the Lanza brothers) from whom we recently buy our grapes does a fantastic job with Petite Sirah, Sangio, Cabernet, and really anything they grow. Gregg Hobbs (no relation to Paul in California) from Australia does a fantastic Shiraz.  Domain Huet makes an amazing Chenin Blanc, Antinori wines of any kind from Italy are excellent. Really there is not any one  or two from a producer or region.

 

Do you have any tips for someone just getting into winemaking as a hobby or as a profession?

Wow, now that is a question. Those are 2 very different questions.  As a hobby, I have plenty to say.  As a profession, I would love to do it myself but without the large fortune, I would never be able to make a small fortune.
Actually, I don’t like to say that I make “homemade” wines. Yes, I make wines at home but really people have a preconceived notion that a “homemade” wine will taste “bad, strong, vin
egary, etc” and often they are right. I instead prefer to say I make “Handmade” wines. I am doing exactly what a professional would do except on a smaller scale and I don’t sell it. But the tips are first to buy the best fruit you can afford (actually spend more than what you can afford) since wine is mostly made in the vineyards. Winemakers can stylistically change a few things, enhance some characteristics, but mostly they can either guide the grapes into a very nice wine or screw it up. Most of the work is in cleanliness, sterilization, good process control (e.g. with regards to yeast nutrition, oxygen management, temperatures, bacteria, etc). I have taken many classes (some at Penn State Enology), gone to both amateur and professional conferences, and read many many books to learn the proper process and techniques and am adjusting and learning more every vintage.

Jerry with his “Crew” Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What wines are you working on now and what are your expectations for them?

Our 2019 wines are an 87% Sangiovese/13% Merlot (and a small experiment Rosé from the same) and an 80% Barbera/20% Primativo (Zinfandel).  The 2018 vintage, still aging, is a Cabernet blend and a Petite Sirah.  Expectations are high otherwise why do it ;-). Seriously so far they are coming along very well.

The interview continues after photos. Please scroll down.

 

Can you share what you’re planning next as a winemaker?

Well, as far as what I plan next as a winemaker is not much different than now. So, for now, because of a very busy day job, I will continue to make wine as an amateur but one day I will work in “the industry”. Not sure if that will be making wine myself and selling it, or working as a winemaker for one of the urban wineries, or working for some company in the wine industry one way or another. This all very much depends on my day-job for now. As an amateur, my next step is to finish the 2019 vintage and start planning for the 2020 vintage.  The plan is to improve in some way each year.

What are some of your most memorable experiences as a winemaker?

Most memorable experiences… I have fond memories of the classes I have taken, the people I have met at conferences, the camaraderie in making wine with my close friends. As far as a single event, although I don’t spend much time competing in wine competitions, I did win best of show twice at a regional conference. If you are not familiar with best of show, they take all of the best wines (first place winners) and then judge them and select one over-all “best of show”.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

 

You can follow Jerry on Instagram @jerrypompa

Exploring Wine Podcasts

If you ever want to listen to some really interesting stories take some time to explore the great wealth of podcasts about wine and the people behind them that is available on the internet for free. What makes these broadcasts so special is that you get to hear the guest and host accounts of their wine journey in their own words. Many of the podcasts post on a current schedule and have a library of archived shows that you can access. Some of these podcasts have ceased production but you can still download their shows and surprisingly they hold up well when played today. You can listen to podcasts in a variety of ways but I use the podcast app on my iPhone simply due to the ease of use.

Here are a few that I find entertaining and informative. The Weekly Wine Show has gone on hiatus but you can still listen to past episodes of this interview and wine review podcast hosted by Tony and Betty Notto. Wine Enthusiast (Podcast) is just what you think it would be, an extension of the magazine’s format. If you are looking for in-depth interviews with winemakers then checkout The inside Winemaking Podcast with Jim Duane, The Stories Behind Wine or The Winemakers on the Radiomisfits podcast network.

These are only a few suggestions to get you started. Once you delve deeper into the podcast universe you will be amazed by the content being offered by an eclectic group of contributors. Since these shows are free to listen to you can treat podcasts like free wine tasting. If you don’t like it at first sip you can try another one until you find some that you enjoy. Happy Hunting!

Peace, Love and Fizzy Wine

During a recent mid-winter afternoon visit to Bella Terra Vineyards in Hunker, PA. I had the pleasure of talking with owner Jay Bell during one of the rare times when his trendy winery wasn’t bustling with activity. Jay walked behind the bar and over to a row of taps where he grabbed a brightly colored pull and filled a glass with his latest offering Hunker Hippie. The catchy name brought a smile to my face as did the bubbling wine in my glass and the thought process behind it. Hunker Hippie is a lower alcohol carbonated light red wine with 6% ABV and a hint of blackberry.

Jay and his team used a Ripasso style of winemaking to utilize the same grapes that were used to make several of BTV’s full-bodied wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Barbera grapes from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California were re-passed and made into a light red wine that is the base wine for their Rosé Cider and Harvest Rosê Cider. This year Jay reserved 130 gallons of that wine to make his initial offering of Hunker Hippie. Hunker Hippie is the perfect wine for a warm summer day at the winery when you want to drink a refreshing light wine that won’t fill you up. It is on tap now by the glass but is also available in a growler at a great price. If you’re curious about Hunker Hippie don’t wait until summer to try it because this first batch is going fast.

Saperavi Expands South & West

As this years’ harvest nears its end I thought it would be a good time to report on the new

Greendance Winery Saperavi vines grow out of tubes Photo Courtesy: Greendance Winery

Saperavi plantings that have come to my attention. The Spring of 2019 was undoubtedly the most prolific planting season for Saperavi in its relatively short history in North America. 

Saperavi’s first stop on its trek south from the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York is at the Ripepi Winery & Vineyard in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. Rich Ripepi added one half-acre of Saperavi to his vineyard that is located approximately twenty miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. Just east of Monongahela, Dr. Rick Lynn at Greendance Winery Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania added one hundred Saperavi vines to his already diverse vineyard that includes the intriguing cold-hardy Petite Pearl grape and PA’s largest planting of Marquette.

Continuing south our next stop is the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where Dr. Tim Jordan has planted an acre of Saperavi in his Fort Defiance vineyard. While to the east in nearby Ruckersville, Justin Falco has added two thousand Saperavi vines with plans for more at his Montifalco Vineyards. The four-year-old Saperavi vineyard at Whitebarrel Winery in Christiansburg will yield Virginia’s first substantial harvest of Saperavi grapes this fall (2019). Dr. Rik Obiso has been anticipating this day for years and has submitted two research grants for funding with the intent to bring Saperavi vines to his vineyards from Armenia and Georgia. In the same area of Virginia that these three growers call home, John Kiers III of Ox-Eye Vineyards in Staunton has planted “a couple of hundred vines” and is in the early stages of evaluating them.

You will probably be as surprised as I was when Rich Nunamaker at Grand Mesa Vineyards Cedaredge, Colorado contacted me to ask my opinion on the viability of planting Saperavi on his property in Spring 2020. Rich successfully grows Rkatsiteli in his vineyard on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains so he logically assumed Saperavi would also be a good fit for his conditions. I told him I believed he would be able to grow Saperavi in his environment and altitude based on his success with Rkatsiteli and referred him to Jim Baker, Chateau Niagara Winery, for the technical side of the project. It will be extremely interesting to watch the development of Rich’s vines as he writes a new chapter in the story of Saperavi.

After a long trip around America Saperavi always finds it’s way back home to New York. When Jeff Sawyer, owner/winemaker Wellsprings Vineyards Sterling, New York, ordered six hundred Saperavi vines and only received two hundred seventy-five he changed his plans and planted three hundred Dornfelder vines the next year. Now he has the enviable problem of deciding which one he likes the best in his vineyard on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario.

In other Saperavi news of note, August Diemel, Keuka Springs Vineyard (Finger Lakes New York) made a 2018 Saperavi from grapes grown by Harry Humphrey on Seneca Lake. He made one hundred twenty cases that quickly sold out. Also on Keuka Lake, Weis Vineyards has recently released its 2017 Saperavi after twenty months in the barrel.

2019 has been a banner year for Saperavi in the U.S. It continues to expand its footprint and attract the attention of wine drinkers as more producers recognize the potential of this versatile grape. If you know of any growers or producers please contact me at wpawinepirate@gmail.com 

First Cut is the Deepest

When I arrived at the farm on Deer Field Road in Mount Pleasant, PA

Beautiful & productive vines like these are the result of careful pruning. Photo courtesy of Greendance Winery

that Sand Hill Berries and Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill both call home, the windchill was hovering near O° and a thin layer of snow covered the ground. Rick Lynn had invited me to his vineyard to show me how he uses the VPS (Vertical Shoot Pruning) technique to prune his Marquette vines. Vintners prune their grape vines every year to make them more productive and to control how the vine develops during the growing season. The trimming is done during the winter when the vines are dormant. Pruning is a cold and labor intensive job that is essential to the success of the current year’s crop but is also necessary for the training and development of the vines for the future. Rick demonstrated how last year’s growth is removed and two of the best canes are left to be bent and attached to the trellis wire. The vine shoots that grow from the cane that was tied to the lower trellis wire are then trained to grow upward by having them attach themselves to catch wires above the cordon wire (lowest wire). The vines proceed to grow upward in a vertical curtain with the fruiting zone below the canopy. On the day we were pruning a lot of old growth had to be removed because Marquette vines are known for their vigorous growth. Greendance uses the VSP method on all of their vines except the American varieties (Vitis labrusca).

VSP pruning is the most common pruning method for cool-climate wine grapes but it is by no means the only one. Rick and I discussed some new ideas for managing vines in the field. I found the practice of planting vines very close together, about two feet apart, then pruning every vine back to one cane and tying down that cane to the right one year then doing the same the next year but tying the one cane to the left and continuing to alternate direction every year.

Another intriguing idea is “Wild Tail” pruning. Wild tail pruning leaves all the buds on the lateral cane that is tied to the cordon wire so the end buds develop first and delays the budding of the lower buds to protect them from a late frost. After all danger of frost has pasted you walk the vineyard and clip off all the “Wild Tails” back to the number of buds you want on each lateral. I am extremely curious to see if these methods would be successful in a cool-climate vineyard.

The goal of my visit was two-fold and with the first part completed we now turn our attention to the second part, Greendance’s planting of Petite Pearl. If you haven’t heard of the Petite Pearl wine grape you’re not alone. This hybrid grape from renowned Minnesota grape breeder Tom Plocher is just beginning to take root in Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the Midwest where it’s cold tolerance is greatly appreciated. I will be posting about my barrel tasting of Greendance Petite Pearl soon.

 

One Way Or Another

     Riesling has long been a stalwart for anyone frantically searching a wine list to pick a bottle that would pair well with everyone’s dinner. Riesling is hard to beat when you need a versatile food-friendly wine that can be easily found in styles ranging from sweet to bone-dry. In the past this varietal has labored under the misconception that the lower-quality sweet offerings that filled store shelves was the best this grape had to offer. This

Riesling Grapes

view of Riesling has begun to change as world-class Riesling are being added to restaurant wine lists, websites and store shelves worldwide.

     Riesling is a cool climate grape that has excels in rocky soils, like the ones found in the Rhine Valley and Mosel Region of Germany and the Alsace region of Northern France for centuries. Wine makers in the Columbia Valley of Washington, the Willamette Valley of Oregon and the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York have found great success with their Riesling vineyards. All three regions produce very good Riesling, each with its own special personality that is sure to please any wine lovers palate.

You could make a strong case that Riesling with its many incarnations is the most food-friendly of all wines, either red or white. It is the safe choice when following the rules for white wine by pairing it with seafood, chicken and salads. My favorite twist is to pair a sweet Riesling with spicy Mexican, Chinese or Thai cuisine. The extra sweetness cuts through the heat to give balance to your meal.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Dry: Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2016. (From a legendary FLX winery that received a Robert Parker Wine Advocate 90pt rating)

Off-Dry: Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling (A trendy favorite with a Wine Spectator 89pts)

Sweet: Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select Riesling 2016 (Wine Spectator 87 pts and a bargain at $10.00 or less)