Saturday, May 28, 2016


Tetilla is a mild cow's milk cheese from Galicia in the far northwest of Spain.  Before the creation of the DO (denomination of origin) laws, Tetilla was made in just three neighboring towns.  Now with the maturing of the worldwide cheese market it is produced throughout Galicia.  Tetilla received its DO in 1993 and its EU protection (DOP) in 1996.

Tetilla is unique for its shape.  It's like a 1 1/2# Hershey's Kiss (sans foil wrap and chocolate color).  The name of the cheese means small breast, which it also resembles, as well as appearing to be somewhat like a slightly flattened pear.  It is that appearance that catches people's eye.

The cheese is mild compared to others and that limits its appeal to a lot of us.  If given a chance, however, Tetilla offers an inviting aroma of fresh butter and cow's milk.  Tetilla's flavor profile includes buttery, slightly bitter, tangy flavors wrapped in an enticing creaminess that one could imagine pouring over asparagus or some other veggie or melted over a baked dish of some kind.  While the cheese is soft-ish, it can be carefully sliced for sandwiches.  Tetilla is considered to be a dessert cheese in Spain so pairing it with apples or some other fresh fruit sounds good also.

Tetilla is a pale ivory-straw in color with a thin natural rind.  The paste is even and compact with thick moist fattiness.  In hot and humid Galicia, Tetilla is served with Manzanilla Sherry or Albarino or some other light dry white wine.  By extension a light red or rose should also work well.

(Blogging means not having to footnote sources which is both liberating and a little unfair to those who do the research ahead of guys like me.  Every once in a while a resource seems to be so good a "shout out" seems necessary. is one of those websites that everyone should know about if just to have it at hand for researching the next Spanish cheese you bring home.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The San Andreas Fault

As everyone knows, southern California is going to fall into the Pacific Ocean any day now so we thought it would be timely to report on the cause of it all.  The San Andreas Fault is the eight hundred mile long tectonic "seam" between the Pacific and North American plates.  That seam is actually quite sizable beyond its length.  At its widest it is one mile across; at its deepest it's ten miles down.  We'll have to trust the geologists on this since the only markers above ground are bodies of water that line up perfectly over the fault and some mountain ranges which we'll get into later.

The eight hundred mile length extends from the gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico, to offshore northern California.  If it were a straight line it would exit the state just south of San Francisco.  As it is, it has a couple crooks in it but otherwise it is remarkably straight.

Technically the San Andreas is a "transform" fault which means the two plates are side by side or horizontal to each other as opposed to a subduction fault which involves one plate going over another.  That is the more destructive type.  In the San Andreas case, the Pacific plate is moving north (and west) at a clip of two inches a year.  The North American plate is also moving north but much slower so the seismic rubbing of the two against each other is almost continuous and, for all intensive purposes, eternal.  Geologists have figured that the total movement of the plates has resulted in a three hundred fifty mile change in terrain which means this has been going on fifteen to twenty million years!

So the normal rubbing results in the "creeping" northward of the Pacific plate but that creeping is more in the way of fits and starts as opposed to smooth sailing.  Some of those seismic "fits" just barely register on the graph while others like the 1906 and 1989 San Francisco quakes resulted in disaster.  As for southern California, 1857 was the last time they were hit with a quake so they're w-a-a-y overdue. The 1994 Northridge quake we remember was related to a different fault.

So why are we interested in this now?  Because we just got in the 2013 Firestone Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Ynez Valley which exists as a direct result of San Andreas seismic activity.  That valley is a lengthy east-west valley in southern Santa Barbara county.  The north-south mountain ranges separating the Central Valley from the coast make perfect sense as a result of the San Andreas fault.  It's like when two people in bed rub up against each other creating a ridge in the quilt over them.  The east-west valley, however, also makes sense if either or both individuals kick the covers toward the foot of the bed.  The fits and starts of seismic activity create valleys like that too.

Firestone Vineyards also benefits from being located over the Pacific plate west of the fault.  The North American plate geology to the east in southern California is uninteresting, to say the least.  The Pacific plate features an easy draining shallow ancient marine sediment like much of Europe.  On top of that, the valley opens up to the ocean providing a trough of cool breezes making Santa Ynez Valley cooler than most of the state.  Firestone is one of a hundred wineries taking advantage of these optimal conditions in Santa Ynez Valley.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Elyse, Naggiar, & the Sierra Foothills AVA

Elyse Winery ( was established in Napa Valley in 1987 by Nancy and Ray Coursen, transplants from Boston.  Their history is available at their website.  We became interested in Elyse after tasting and subsequently purchasing three of their wines.  The structure, fruit, minerality and fineness (finesse) of these three wines so impressed us we decided to take a look at Naggiar Vineyards in Nevada County where much of the fruit was sourced.  That, in turn, led us to a brief look at the Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area), home to Naggiar, and then to new insights regarding the future of that region.

The three wines we purchased included a very impressive white, 2012 L'Ingenue (naive girl), which was sourced entirely from Naggiar.  It's a Rhone-style blend of 45% Roussanne, 24% Marsanne, 23% Viognier, and 8% Grenache Blanc.  The Elyse website characterizes their wines individually and uses philosophical language like "big but balanced" and "vineyard-driven" to emphasize their point of view.  We thought the white was the best of the three.

The 2012 C'est Si Bon (It's so good!) is a red Rhone-style blend of 47% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 14% Syrah, 7% Cinsault, and 4% Counoise.  The 2011 Nero Misto (mixed black) is 42% Petite Sirah, 42% Zinfandel, 7% Carignane, 4% Syrah, 2% Barbera, 2% Grenache, and 1% Mourvedre.  C'est Si Bon is 100% Naggiar fruit; Nero Misto carries a California label designation, which reflects the Elyse desire to source fruit based on longstanding grower relationships.  The website includes a map proudly showing where their growers are located within Napa along with a nod to Naggiar, the outpost in the Sierra Foothills.

The Sierra Foothills AVA was established in 1987 but the vineyards actually began in the 1850's when European immigrants arrived with vines in tow.  They came for the gold rush, of course, but they ended up starting the wine industry.  Napa and other esteemed wine venues were developed years later.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is the third largest in California after the Central Coast and North Coast.  It contains five smaller AVA's within it: Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba.  It also spans parts of eight counties: Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolcemne, and Mariposa.  Two hundred fifty wineries call the Sierra Foothills AVA home.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is actually a segment of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains.  Since the foothills face west, the border to the east is the actual mountain range.  On the west the border is the Central Valley AVA.  Producing 70% of California's grapes, the Central Valley would be the largest AVA if it weren't subdivided.  By contrast, Sierra Foothills produces just 5%.

Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery clearly likes the quality of Naggiar fruit.  It is the only vineyard he uses outside of Napa.  Naggiar is located in Nevada county towards the northern end of the Sierra Foothills, where we have learned the best quality comes from.  As underdeveloped as the area is, it seems only a matter of time until it's discovered by all kinds of winemakers.    

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Grower Champagne, Part 1

"Consolidation" is a huge movement in both the wine and cheese industries.  When the industry giants come calling on the little guys with dollars in hand, the prevailing wisdom is to take the money and get out.  It's not rocket science, as they say.  Just trying to compete with the big guys is like beating your head against the wall anyway so take the money and go.

For those who choose to stay in the game, part of the reasoning has to be altruistic; artisan production is frankly superior to the mass production of the conglomerates.  If a small independent producer can keep the doors open he will inevitably provide a better product for discriminating American consumers, even if that row is a little tough to hoe at times.

This trend toward consolidation seems to be the case everywhere except in Champagne, France where the movement is in the opposite direction.  Champagne is a wine production region dominated by large negotiant companies (Maisons) that mass market brands that offer up a "house style" of sparkling wine.  Easily ninety percent of the production of Champagne is made by the behemoths who can source their juice from close to two thousand different vineyards.  Even the vaunted Dom Perignon falls into this category.  Now the peasants with pitchforks are coming after the aristocracy as growers are now making and bottling their own sparkling wines.

Perhaps I overstate the case with the pitchforks imagery.  Anyway, for the past twenty years an increasing number of grape growers now make and market their own estate Champagnes.  They number about five thousand growers who produce 3,700 brands, which while seeming like a lot, actually amounts to about three percent of the total production of Champagne.  Less than ten percent of that production comes to America.

So, are these Champagnes better than the giants?  Yes, in most cases.  By definition, estate wines are subject to the weather every year so there are better vintages and lesser vintages.  Most traditional Champagnes are made by skillfully blending vintages resulting in an average quality that is remarkably good.  So why would a grower choose to make his own wine?  Because, of course, he knows he has superior fruit so why cheapen what he has by blending lesser juice into it.  As a matter of fact, the entire grower movement is a reaction to under-flavored, non-distinct mass market Champagne.  

Grower Champagne, Part 2

So the growers in the estate Champagne (Growers) movement want to show off the quality of their production.  Essentially what that means is the wines are "terroir-driven".  Like all estate bottled wines, single barrel whiskeys, and assorted micro-brews; there is an "authentication/idiosyncracy of place" as the motivator for this production process.  For Champagne makers, that usually means the product is a drier, brut nature-style which shows off terroir better than do the mega-producers' blends, which are often less dry.

The Champagne appellation, itself, is divided into alternative districts devoted to the two primary grapes of Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Montagne de Reims and Vallee de la Marne in the center of Champagne and just north of the Marne river are the best Pinot Noir districts.  Just south of the river and south of Epernay lie the Cote des Blanc and Cote de Sezanne, the great Chardonnay districts.  It makes sense for growers in these districts to market their wares through the Grower Champagne movement.  In their optimal environs the pinots tend to accentuate the complexity of the Pinot Noir fruit while the Chardonnays show a crisp, pure minerality.

Eighty-eight percent of the vineyards of Champagne are independently owned; they number about 1,900 parcels total.  There are seven categories of Champagne related to production arrangements.  We have said that more than ninety percent of Champagne is made by the Maisons, the large negotiant houses.  Less than three percent are Grower Champagnes.  The other categories are hybrids, of sorts.  Since villages are meeting places for growers; either the village, itself, may claim production or a co-operative within the village can effectively become the Champagne producer.  Unions of growers can also produce as a unit.  Private labels made by industry or restaurant/retail stores can also be labelled as producers.  For identification purposes, all of these alternatives should be depicted on the Champagne label with two capital letters; examples include NM for "Negotiant Manipulant" or Maison and RM  for "Recoltant Manipulant" in the case of Grower Champagne.

So going back to the main question about Grower Champagnes, are they better than the Maisons?  Objectively, yes they are...and they are growing in number and popularity.  And they don't have the advertising costs worked into the finished product price that the big guys have.  Now here's a "be careful what you wish for" thought - could there be a "tipping point" in the future where the popularity of Grower Champagne could drive up prices to the point where the non-vintage Maisons become the better buy?