Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Natural Wine: 2 Winery Visits

My recent reading of Isabelle Legeron's book, Natural Wine, inspired me to visit a couple of the California producers she recommends. The term "natural wine" attracts a lot of controversy, but it is a nebulous one, meaning whatever its supporters or detractors wish. Therefore, I wasn't that surprised that my two visits did not help me form any conclusions on what natural wine is or is supposed to be - instead, it hardened my belief that natural wine is impossible to categorise. However, I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the wines of the two wineries were, especially as they were in areas of California that don't attract attention for quality wine. The other thing the two had in common was the beauty and isolation of their wineries.

a dog and ducks: what every winery needs

La Clarine

Located on the edge of the Eldorado National Forest (nearly a three-hour drive from Napa), the farm at La Clarine has about a hectare of vines planted, with the rest of the grapes bought in from neighbouring vineyards. It's run by Hank Beckmeyer, who worked in the music business with his French wife but got out before the industry could make him "into too big of an asshole." The two of them fell in love with wine on business trips to Provence, making their first wine in a flat in Hamburg. They bought this property in 2001, with the aim not of making wine but cheese. Although there are plenty of goats still grazing on the farm, they abandoned the cheesemaking project after three years because it was too hard and expensive to produce commercially.

Hank is reassuringly unphilosophical about his winemaking. I asked him what inspired him to make wine, and received a one-word answer: "drinking." He admits he learnt winemaking on the go, and his way of making wine was motivated by a desire "to do as little as possible - only what's necessary," as he gradually concluded that most winemakers indulge in too much intervention. For him, the aim seems to be not to make "natural wine," but to find the answer to the question: "how far back can you take" the winemaking process? Is it possible to fulfil the "goal" of doing "absolutely nothing"?

Despite that goal, there is a definite methodology to his practices. The black grapes are crushed by foot and fermented in the "ambient temperatures" outdoors, while the whites are fermented indoors where fermentation can take six months. Sulphur is not used except in bottling, "as you just don't know what will happen" when the bottle reaches the consumer. There's no filtering or fining.

La Clarine make 2,000 cases a year, distributed to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, as well as Chicago and Boston. They have also just started distributing to Australia. Hank's distribution policy is simple and one I would follow: sell the wine where he and his wife want to visit.

the wines

visiting in February, most of the wines I tasted were still in barrel

2014 Jamabalaia White

An anarchic blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Petit Manseng, Arneis, and Fiano, this is a wine that Hank has been playing around with over the years, experimenting with skin contact, different sites, and grape varieties as they become available. This is an appealing, edgy wine with lots of complexity. As good as it was, however, there was clearly a "natural" aspect to it: it was very nutty, with some oxidation, and a slight sherry nose. For me, that just added to the appeal, but for most drinkers that would be an issue. Hank's take was that most drinkers seeking out his wine expect some funkiness on the nose or a haziness in the glass, but anyone coming to the wine knowing nothing about it would likely to be troubled - something he seemed quite relaxed about.

2014 Counoise Rosé

Oak is too much of an intervention between grape and bottle, so almost none of La Clarine's wines are aged in oak, either new or old. However, the one wine that is aged in oak is the style that usually least sees oak: rosé. Both fermented and matured in old oak barrels, this rosé is a surprisingly pale golden colour, with a  yeasty nose, but with a balanced creamy texture: a very interesting wine that I'd like to taste once it was ready to be bottled.

2013 Syrah Sumu Kawr ($28)

The one wine I tasted from bottle, this is a superb raw expression of Syrah - a grape that the rest of California has trouble figuring out. The name of the wine means "place of the summer pines" - there's a pine tree in the middle of the vineyard. There's no new oak: the tannins come from whole cluster fermentation. Wild and bitter, the wine has intense black fruits, black pepper, and liquorice aromas, with a strange but enticing bark and quinine element. The wine is different, intense, but compelling, and one that will age well for many years.

Clos Saron

Nearly another three hours north of La Clarine lies Clos Saron, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The winemaker here is Gideon Beinstock, a French-Israeli who became captivated by wine when living in Paris in the late 1970s. Then an artist, he became friends with Steven Spurrier as well as taking the opportunity to visit some of the best wineries in France.

A softly-spoken, engaging character, Gideon is at pains to express his discomfort with the concept of natural wine, which he describes as controversial and ambiguous. Most interestingly, he criticises natural wine as being "low in terroir" as winemakers are too interested in the winemaking methodology rather than the soils, grapes, and climate that produce the taste of wine. He told me that the way he makes wine has nothing to do with philosophy, but about how the wine tastes. Like Hank at La Clarine, he believes in stripping the winemaking process as far back as possible so that the wine expresses the grapes and soil it came from. He does, however, spray some sulphur on the vines - "about a third of what is normal" - and the wines are aged in old oak barrels.

The plantings at Clos Saron are small, though undergoing expansion. The new, young vines take time to develop as they are ungrafted - therefore not receiving the high vigour of American rootstocks - and the phylloxera-free soil is difficult and infertile. Despite this and the ongoing drought, the young vines are watered just four times a year, while the older Pinot Noir vines from the 1970s haven't been watered in four years. With sheep grazing in the vineyards and ducks, geese, rabbits, and vegetables serving as food, Clos Saron is a largely self-sustaining farm - Gideon may be sceptical of the notion of the natural wine, but it's no surprise that supporters of the movement have tried to herald him as a leading light.

the wines

2014 Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah

young Viognier vines
From eleven-year-old vines planted on a steep, difficult, rocky southern-facing slope exposed to the sun, I feel this is one of those rare wines that will over time compare to the great wines of northern Rhône. Viognier vines have also been planted in the same vineyard, which will begin to be co-fermented with the Syrah. The vineyard is still a work in progress but the wine is one to watch out for: an intense perfume with great, dry, gripping tannins, and a winning combination of power and finesse.

2011 Old Block Pinot Noir ($75)

From ungrafted, phylloxera-free vines is Clos Saron's most intense, expressive, and developed wine. It's a young and intense, earthy wine, with wild strawberries on the nose. It has a beautiful mouthfeel, with elegant dry tannins and complex red berry fruits, flowers, pepper, and spices. A difficult wine that may take some years to express itself fully, but one whose intensity and closed structure mark it out from even many of the other best Californian Pinots.

the thick vines are older, from the 1970s; the thinner ones from the 1990s

As at any winery, tasting the wines from these two producers was a mixed bag (especially as so many of them were still in the barrel developing), but constant throughout was a willingness to experiment and a profound ambition to express the nature of the land. There was also a healthy scepticism towards the idea of natural as well as commercial wine: these were two winemakers doing their own thing rather than following any movement.

I think as the wines age, the differences between them and more standard wines will become less noticeable - instead the character of the wines, rather than the winemaking philosophy, will express itself further. However, the lack of sulphites and general intervention may cause difficulties: Gideon admitted that his wines had not shown well in France and the UK unless they had been given a month to settle. These are sometimes difficult and particular wines but ones that deserve respect - no less than any wine should. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Wine Writers Symposium

Last week I attended the Wine Writers Symposium, an annual event held in the luxurious settings of Meadowood hotel in Napa Valley. Featuring editors and established writers, including Jancis Robinson whom I was very excited to meet, the event aims to help writers improve their work and to open up avenues for publication. There was also plenty of great wine to taste, mostly from Napa. A hard life, I know, but I won't need to taste any Cabernet Sauvignon for a while. 

croquet lawn at Meadowood

The first day offered a series of seminars on how to better our writing, focusing particularly on finding a distinctive voice. The highlight of the day was the session featuring two of Napa's wine families. We saw Molly and daughter Carissa Chappellet interviewed by Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, between them providing a familiar insight into the workings of a winery and the development of Napa's wine culture - Molly Chappellet recalled that when she and her husband moved to the Valley from Los Angeles with five children in tow (and a sixth to come) there wasn't a restaurant in the area. We also saw Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post interview Nils Venge of Saddleback Cellars and his son Kirk of Venge Vineyards. As they spoke, we tasted Saddleback's recently released 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, a sophisticated, oaky wine, alongside another Cabernet from Venge Vineyards, much richer and more powerful if less subtle: very much a case of old and new Napa. 

just the three white wines...

From a wine tasting rather than writing perspective, the highlight of the week was a blind tasting of twelve Napa Cabernet Sauvignons with Jancis Robinson. Four wineries had donated three of their wines - one from the mid-1990s, a second from the mid-2000s, and a third from the unreleased 2013 vintage. The wines from the 90s were mostly holding up impressively well and maturing nicely; the 2000s were beginning to showcase their complexity and ageing potential; while the 2013s were just too young and tannic to assess properly. The next day I attended another tasting of nearly a hundred wines from 2003 to 2012. My conclusion is that, for understandable commercial imperatives, Napa Cabernets are released far too young: the 2012s have already been released, but it was only with the 2009s and older that the tannins, oak, and fruit of the wines were beginning to coalesce into a balanced, appealing structure. 

US Poet Laureate (2001-03) Billy Collins addressed the Symposium on the opening day, giving a witty speech about the nature of writing. He also set us a writing challenge - to write an over-the-top review of either a very bad or an exceptionally good wine. My naturally cynical nature found it easier to write the former; it didn't win the challenge but here is my review of Tesco's Valpolicella, which remains the worst wine I have ever tasted:

As the concept of hell becomes unfashionable even in the Catholic Church, it is reassuring to be occasionally reminded by major wine producers that hell does exist, and it's here with us in a wine bottle. Pouring a putrid purple, like the blood of a sorry anaemic, the wine sags sadly in the glass. I nervously sniff: and it smells like the winemaker has attempted to douse the flames of hell with sulphur. A reluctant slurp in the mouth - the tannins are the cold tickle of a dying man. The lethargic imitation of fruit persists, the rasping phlegm of someone condemned never to die. This is not wine, but Satan's bloody piss, available in a major supermarket near you.
The conclusion I drew from the Symposium: writing is hard but it can, and should, be fun.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Pliny the Younger

It's 9:30 in the morning and I'm at the back of a queue that snakes around the block. A couple in front of me have flown in from Ohio, two gentlemen who join the queue a few seconds later have made the three-hour drive from Modesto. The person at the front arrived at 2; a woman far in front of me is still lying in her sleeping bag. It's 9:30am, and we're queuing to get into a pub that doesn't open until 11:00.

the beer geeks line up

why the hell am I here?

Every February, Americans make the pilgrimage from all around the country to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa to get a taste of Pliny the Younger. This is a beer that has taken on mythical status among beer geeks; brewed once a year by the US's leading craft brewery, it's released for a two-week period only, available solely in kegs. It's distributed to a few select bars, who sell out almost immediately. A few weeks ago, I was in an excellent bar called Lucky 13 in Alameda outside San Francisco. The barmaid described how last year they opened one of their two allocated kegs early on a Monday evening. Despite limiting each customer to one glass, the keg was finished within 36 minutes.

Pliny the Younger is a "Triple IPA," a style of beer which the brewery themselves say is very difficult to make, hence the limited production. Given the outstanding quality of Russian River's other beers, I had to have a taste of this almost unattainable beer.

"this is when I begin to question my better judgement"

Such is the demand for Pliny the Younger, I was prepared to have to wait a little while before I could my hands on a glass of the beer. I had no idea just how long I would have to wait, however.

At 10:30, we move forward about a hundred metres - but only because the people at the front have packed up their chairs in readiness to enter the pub. At 11, when the pub opens, we move forward another hundred metres till we can even see the entrance in the dim distance. Then, standstill. By 12:30, we have probably moved another 20 metres. A representative comes round to tell us that there will be another three to four hour wait, but any "parties of one" can make their way forward. It is at this point I first contemplate ditching my two friends I've come with; instead, another lone gentleman rather shamefacedly walks past the waiting would-be drinkers.

Every so often, we move a few paces forward, everyone packing up their chairs and then reopening them a paving stone further on. At some point, Aly the Traveling Marimba Busker appears. I have seen her outside Russian River before, usually playing to an audience of no one, but today she has a captive crowd. She has an impressive repertoire of classic hits converted to the joys of the marimba, half-singing along as she plays. Most memorable is her rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody," which like the song itself strays a dangerous line between comedy and genius. She plays all afternoon.

Between 2 and 3, things get moving - drinkers are limited to a three-hour stay, as well as three half pints of Pliny. By 3:30, we are stood next to the outdoor terrace, dryly watching other drinkers drain their small glasses of Pliny, unembarrassed by our salivating gaze. The marimba chimes as we watch drinks being served. It is another hour before we are allowed in: a full seven hours after we started queuing.

what did it taste like?

It's very bitter with a long hoppy dry finish. There's a real depth to the beer, with tropical fruits of pineapple and mango and a tart grapefruit backbone. The hops provide aromas of pine nuts and bitter almonds. The alcoholic sweetness (it's 10.25%) gives it a caramel maltiness that takes away from the beer's dry bitterness and also rounds out the body and structure. At the end, there are subtle and surprising spices of cumin and curry.

so happy, close to delirium

was it worth the wait?

Absolutely not: nothing is worth waiting seven hours for. The beer is extremely good - complex, balanced (despite the high alcohol), and refreshing - but it's impossible to justify the extremes people will go to in order to taste this beer. I don't regret the experience, but I doubt I'll be queuing up all day again next year.

There's little question Russian River Brewing make the best beers in the US, but they do need to rethink their game. They refuse to expand production beyond their annual 3,000 barrels, a commitment to quality over quantity I admire. They also refuse to move to larger premises more able to accommodate the nationwide legion of fans. Like the brewery, Pliny the Younger has become a victim of its success and Russian River need to do something about it: if you're going to release a beer just once a year to such high demand, you need to come up with a way of providing it that doesn't involve people sleeping on the streets.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Generic Wine

The rise of New World wines over the last few decades has seen one marked shift in the way consumers drink wine: the single varietal. The US and Australia have led this trend, causing wines labelled Chardonnay, Merlot, or Shiraz to sell more quickly than those called Chablis, Fronsac, or Crozes-Hermitage.

In France, Italy, and Spain, the name of the place the wine comes from has always been of more significance than the name of the grape(s) in the wine. In part, this is because many of the best wines from these countries are blends of several different grape varieties. It's also because wine, more than any other drink, is an expression of place and not just of product.

"How much more individual still was the character that they assumed from being designated by names, names that were only for themselves, proper names such as people have" - Proust, Swann's Way

California Champagne and Sherry

These place names are protected in EU law in order to prevent fraud, which has long been an issue for the great wines of France. In the 1890s, Cognac producers fought against German merchants who labelled imported - and often quite dangerous - fortified wines as "Cognac." At the same time, 1891 saw an agreement signed in Madrid by 56 different countries to give international protection to trademarks such as Champagne - an agreement the USA did not sign up to until 2004. In the 1920s, the widespread adulteration of wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape saw local producer Baron Pierre Le Foy devise rules to protect the wine that became the foundation for the French appellation system, now followed by many countries around the world.

a rather confusing California wine list

Until varietal labelling became fashionable, American wines were named after French places with which they had nothing in common. Before the Cabernet revolution in Napa, the most planted grape was Chenin Blanc, put into blends with Riesling and Gewürztraminer for wines labelled "Chablis" (ironically enough a French wine that's 100% Chardonnay). It wasn't just the US who did this: in the 1950s and 60s, Spain would market its inferior white wines as "Spanish Chablis" and "Spanish Sauternes."

These imitations are called "generic wines" and have thankfully been in decline since California began making its own confident expressions of place. However, they have not completely disappeared. Wines labelled "Burgundy," "Sherry," and "Champagne" still exist on Californian supermarket shelves. Seeing such wines is shocking: they break international rules, trash the great wine names they shamelessly abuse, and show no respect for the consumer. 

A throwback to California's juvenile wine culture, these wines have long been controversial. As far as back as 1941, Frank Schoonmaker, an influential American winemaker and writer, complained that, "American vintners insisted on selling their wines under European names to which these wines had no moral right"; the effect was to confuse the consumer, belittle historically great wines, and undermine American wine itself. "European names for California wines ... mean absolutely nothing ... they give the consumer no idea what he is buying, no guarantee, and no information." Schoonmaker's final point, that it also prevents American winemakers from making great wine, still stands today: "they give the producer of superior grapes and the owner of superior vineyards no advantage and higher prices ...."*
It was Schoonmaker's idea to label Californian wines varietally, in order to distinguish them from European wines - a great marketing idea as well as one that preserves the integrity of the wine.

A 2005 trade agreement between the EU and the US outlawed the use of European place names for American wines. Remarkably and controversially, however, they still exist. Brands that carried generic names before 2006 are allowed to continue to do so, although the EU is looking to outlaw their use entirely in the next set of trade negotiations.

"Like so many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts.” Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Like Champagne, Napa also realises the importance of protecting its name

Tom LaFaille, of California's Wine Institute, a powerful lobbying group representing big brands, disingenuously says that "American wineries are doing much more than European producers to introduce these products to American consumers." Likewise, Korbel, a Californian sparkling wine producer, vigorously defends its continued use of Champagne on its labels, stating that it has been making "California champagne" since the 1880s.**

The success of Californian wine over the last forty years has been based on a gradually increased self-confidence, as the state learns what it does best. Producers have come to realise that high-profile areas such as Napa need protecting if they are not to be undermined. Yet it is major Californian brands who are holding back the advancement of the state's wine by deliberately marketing an inferior product as something genuine.

Although Champagne is overly litigious in protecting its name, there is a good reason for it: wine at its best is all about place of origin. Over the centuries, too many unscrupulous producers have taken advantage of the fame and quality of the wines of renowned regions. Ensuring wine comes from the place it says it's from protects the producer from being undermined and the consumer from being shortchanged. That California producers, some of them large brands, some of them small family, still insist on using European names for their wines does the image of Californian wine no good.

*Frank Schoonmaker, "American Names for American Wines," in History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet, p.10.
** "Sonoma County wineries keep close eye on trade negotiations," The Press Democrat (16 November 2014).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Globalisation, nature, and trade: Wine & Books

The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber

Having watched the wildly inaccurate Bottle Shock, I had to read a more authentic and reliable account of the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting. George Taber was the only journalist present at the legendary event, and so is ideally placed to give his take on what actually happened. The Paris Tasting was one of many such contests between Californian and French wine that took place during the 1970s, but the tasting was in Paris and featured some of France's leading members of the wine industry, including Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's leading négociant Joseph Drouhin, Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy's most exclusive winery Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Odette Kahn of La Revue du Vin de France. California came out on top: Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay won, by some distance, the morning's tasting of white wines, while Stag's Leap's 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon more narrowly won the tasting of Bordeauxesque reds.

Taber gives a reliable, if slightly one-sided, background to the event. A chapter each focuses on Steven Spurrier, a well-to-do young English wine merchant who organised the event, and a potted history of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Much of the spine of the book concentrates on the Californian wineries, producers, and winemakers who triumphed at the tasting: Jim Barrett, lawyer and co-owner of Montelena, Mike Grgich, their Croatian winemaker, and Warren Winiarski, owner of and winemaker at Stag's Leap, as well as the many people who laid the foundations of the Californian wine industry in the 1950s and 60s.

Taber peddles the American dream a little too relentlessly in these chapters: hard-working, honest Americans who achieved in less than twenty years what the French had spent two thousand working towards. All that knowledge the French had handed down from generation to generation was worthless: the Americans learnt it all in no time and did it even better. Grgich's European upbringing also becomes part of the fairy-tale: just look at what America allowed him to do that Croatia wouldn't have. Underneath this mythologising is the fact that the Californians looked towards and learnt much of what they knew from the French, using those thousands of years of knowledge to establish winemaking in nascent California.

Taber then awkwardly uses the Californian victory to herald the subsequent, glorious globalisation of wine. Fear not, Taber tells us, that wine made from ubiquitous grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon all taste the same no matter where they come from "because they make outstanding wine, and consumers enjoy them." Forget fusty Old World wines, drink ultraclean New World brands like Yellow Tail. Overlook the near collapse of the Napa wine industry in the 1980s due to phylloxera because growers and UC Davis professors refused to listen to the French. Ignore the advances in grape growing and winemaking introduced by the French over the last few decades, and instead dismiss French wine as on death's door (France still produces twice as much as the USA).

Moving away from the US, in Taber's eyes all this makes Cloudy Bay the ultimate success story, whose history he swallows unquestioningly. As revolutionary a taste as New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc was when it was launched on the world in the 1980s, it's wrong to say that, "France's Sancerre ... lacks any personality and is often too acidic." Just as it's wrong to believe that "wineshops run out of their allocation a few weeks after [Cloudy Bay] arrives each spring" - there's plenty of Cloudy Bay (now owned by France's Moët-Hennessey) out there, it's just that it's dripped into the market to create a sense of scarcity. And it's ironic that Cloudy Bay has become what Taber accuses French wine of being: priced on reputation rather than quality.

Ending the book with a sweeping, one-dimensional appraisal of the globalisation of wine feels out of place in what is supposed to be an account of a 1976 tasting and the development of Californian wine. The follow-up tastings in 1986 and 2006 are referred to only as further evidence of California's superiority, rather than delving more deeply into how the wines, their producers, and indeed the rest of the Californian wine industry has developed in that time. In the end, Taber's book had the opposite effect of the Paris tasting: to drive me back to quirky, odd French wines he believes the New World has seen the back of.

Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally by Isabelle Legeron

Which leads to a book that details a very different development in the world of wine over the last twenty years. The book is presented even more one-sidedly than Taber's, but with the passion of someone who fervently believes in a subject she knows inside out.

Natural wine is an ill-defined movement led by French and Italian winemakers reacting against the use of chemicals and sulphites in winemaking. The purpose of natural wine is to make wine that represents the purity of the land and the grape, with as little human interference as possible.

This a beautifully presented book, which passionately argues in favour of all natural wine - not just the ethics, but its superior quality too. The latter I am yet to be convinced about (Legeron lists natural wines she recommends at the end of the book, which I will be interested to try), but her arguments for natural winemaking (and farming in general) are persuasive and even invigorating.

It's certainly a welcome antidote to Taber's espousal of the homogeneous globalisation of wine, a reaction against what one natural winegrower, Tony Coturri of Sonoma, describes as "Over-ripened, then diluted with water, acidified and 'corrected,' this is the premium Napa product, sold at 100 bucks a bottle."

As well as Legeron's passionate defence of natural wine, the book features several first-hand accounts from winemakers describing not just their approach to winemaking but also other aspects of farming: plants, herbs, bread, cider, and horses. Although highly subjective, the book has an inspirational core: making wine and growing things is something everyone of us can do if we work with nature, just as we have been doing for thousands of years. Sadly, my subsequent attempts to make bread have thus far disproved this theory.

Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine by Alex Liddell

Madeira was perhaps the first "New World" wine. A small, rocky, woody island colonised by the Portuguese in the 1400s, Madeira quickly became known for the quality of its wines, particularly from the Malvazia grape (known as Malvasia elsewhere). The development of its industry was based solely on trade with Portugal's and Britain's new American colonies. It was these long distances which led to Madeira's unique taste: the wine is fortified and then aged for many years at warm temperatures to mimic transatlantic journeys.

Sadly, Madeira is too small an island to sustain its own domestic wine industry and its wine economy has been displaced over the centuries by wines from around the world. The wine too, while being one of the world's greatest, is too quirky, individual, and different to compete with wines that are released at a much younger age.

This leaves the Madeira wine industry in a sorry state: vineyards at the bottom of cliffs with unidentified varieties planted alongside bananas and vegetables; plantings are still dominated by American varieties that aren't actually allowed into the wine; there are only seven exporters; and what market there is in the UK and the US dwindles each year.

Liddell's style is as old-fashioned, determined, and sometimes difficult as the island's best wines - and like the wines I doubt this is a book that will fly off the shelves. But the book exists for a very good reason: the wines have their addicts like me, and the wine's rich history, which is such a vital part of Madeira's culture as well as the development of global trade, needs to be recorded. And unlike with Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, Californian brands are never going to successfully replicate the island's great, long-lived wines.

In two forthcoming blogs, I will be looking more closely at some Californian natural wines and California's historic and continuing use of European place names for low-quality wines.