Earlier this spring, we launched Vine Geeks -- in which AZ Wine Merchants' Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic share advice, news and a little levity from the world of wine. Today, we bring you Romancing the Grape. In this occasional series, Milic will spill about his current mission to learn how wine is made -- literally from the Southern Arizona ground up.
To say that I have been around wine all my life is a severe understatement. But it was not until my early 20s that wine spoke to me. It grabbed my senses, all of them. At the time, I was already a decade into my career in the restaurant industry (a business that chose me -- my first restaurant job was working for my stepfather at Franco's Trattoria in Scottsdale) working as a server at Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale. Then co-owner Tom Kaufman, a die-hard pinot-phile, asked me if I liked wine. I said no.
Let me paint a picture. I used to wear red Dr. Martens, sleeveless plaid shirts, pierced ears, platinum-white bleached hair (yes, I had hair) and a pearl white Honda CBR 600. Oh, and Morrissey and the Cure were my Discman buds. My drink of choice was Red Stripe beer from Jamaica, and it always seemed to taste better at TT Roadhouse.
One night after the shift at Rancho Pinto, Tom opened a bottle of Calera Pinot Noir.
It was served with the staff meal, which at the time was cooked by either Chrysa Robertson (who still owns and runs Rancho Pinot) or Chris Bianco, who worked for her at the time. I don't recall the food, but I still remember how good that wine tasted -- ethereal, refreshing, and fruity.
Even more engaging was the amalgamation of both food and wine. Peter Kasperski, owner of Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierez World Wine Bar, calls it the "third plane," where wine by itself tastes a specific way.Food by itself also taste a specific way, but the two combined are a whole new recipe and sensory experience.
I also didn't mind that wine with dinner left you with a delightfully soporific buzz.
Kasperski became an influential mentor. It was during two different tenures working for Pete both at Cowboy Ciao and briefly at (the now sadly defunct) SeaSaw, that I was exposed to the whole world of wine, and by that I mean, Pete's Bible, a.k.a. the Cowboy Ciao wine list composed of over 2,700 selections. Virgen santisima, it was daunting but also exciting. Daunting in scale but exciting in selection. Cabernet Sauvignon from China, check; Lebanese Bordeaux Blend, check; Laser-beam Pinots from New Zealand, check. Arresting Grenache from Australia, check. Enamel-ripping Petite Syrah from California, check. Focused acid-driven Riesling from Austria, check.
The list can go on and on. Let's just say that if any of you want to work in a restaurant that has the best wine selection in town, managed and owned by one of our state's most seasoned and knowledgeable self-taught wine authorities, go apply at Cowboy Ciao.
Ciao was wine boot camp.
In 2004, I moved to Napa Valley with my wife, Emily. It was dreamy there. Napa reminded me of Colombia with its abundance of flora. I fell in love with wine country. I loved going to the wineries and walking the vineyards. The pseudo-rural lifestyle resonated with my soul. I had served wines from Napa Valley before, but the only association I had was the wine label and any additional knowledge about the wine I read either on line or a wine publication. Now I was meeting the people that actually made the wine. Mike Silacci from Opus One used to come to the charming bistro Angele, where both Emily and I worked. He was classy and engaging. Heidi Barrett, a star in the wine world and partially responsible for the cult-wine craze with her Screaming Eagle sensation, was a delight to wait on; I had the privilege and honor to take care of Robert Mondavi and his family; they were quintessentially Napa, and by that I mean, their generosity of spirit. The Brown family from Brown Estate made you feel like you were royalty. (Wait, but I'm the waiter.) Tadeo Borchardt, winemaker for Neyers Vineyards, let me come to the winery on numerous occasions to hang out.
Harvest was magical. The whole valley, it seemed, was under the spell of aromas that emanated during harvest. Yes, it was crazy-busy in the valley, but also exciting.
Making wine was a collaboration of farmer, vineyard manager, winemaker. Every vintage not only told a story about the climate and how it impacted the grape, but it also told a story about the people involved. Wine was history in a bottle. Wine was life encapsulated. The bounty of a specific place on Earth. And then you get to open that wine two (or 10) years later, and you get to remember and experience that specific year, the people that surrounded you, the successes and failures. It is the conviviality that is created when you share wine with others, coupled with the history of the wine, that speaks to my soul. I find it terribly romantic. I will admit that part of me was very sad when I moved back to Phoenix in late 2006. I still think of Napa often, but more so like a good friend that I am grateful to have even though she lives far away. Imagine my surprise when I moved back to Arizona and discovered that we have an emerging wine-growing region in the making.
Dick Erath said that the wine movement in Arizona was redolent of what was going on in both California and Oregon in the '60s. The challenge of not knowing exactly what grapes were going to do well here, for one, but also the pioneering spirit that build the aforementioned wine regions. It is no secret that I drink the Kool-Aid.
Charleen Badman (my business partner extraordinaire) and I have been serving Arizona wine at FnB for a little over two years and feel honored to be part of the community. During this time, I have come to know a lot the winemakers and some have become friends.
Our wine regions in Arizona are stunning. If you go to Elgin, you can't help appreciating the majestic landscapes. Arizona also is a wine region to be respected. We experience extreme weather, and by that I mean, the unforgiving propensity for frost during the winter; or in the summer, the eminent likelihood of hail, which can obliterate vineyards.
Am I beginning to sound like a wine groupie? Yes. I am not ashamed. The truth is, I always wanted to make wine. I have dreamt about it. I have been romancing the idea of actually doing it for a long time.
I finally mustered up the courage to ask winemaker Todd Bostock (more on him in future posts) something to the effect of, "How much would it cost to make a barrel of wine?" (That's 25 cases.) The answer to that question was followed up by more conversations and e-mails. Finally, this is the result of that conversation:
It would not only be disingenuous for me to say that I am making wine this year -- it would be an outright lie. The thing is, I have never made wine. I can go and purchase grapes, but where will I turn them into wine? Am I going to f@#* it up? Who will assist me in making this wine? Can I make good wine without any formal training? Hell, I don't have a winery.
First things first.
How do you find out if you really want to pursue a dream? You go and give it a try. You can volunteer your time in a winery and find out if it is as romantic as you thought.
In my case, I get to collaborate with Todd in making 100 cases of wine or 1,200 bottles that I will purchase from him. Todd is showing me the process from vine to bottle. I will spend time in the vineyard learning about pruning and the importance of being in the vineyard. I will be able to participate in blending decisions, the type of barrels utilized, label design, and take part in the actual wine making as a cellar rat, or intern of sorts.
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I must admit that it seems a bit quixotic to follow this urge, especially when I have four businesses to run in Phoenix and a family that pines for more Papa time, But then again, how do I turn down the opportunity to rub elbows with Todd, learn from him, and follow a dream?