In this occasional series, FnB's Pavle Milic spills about his current mission to learn how wine is made, literally, from the Southern Arizona ground up.
See also: - Maynard Keenan, Sam Pillsbury, Todd Bostock and other Wine Experts Give Pavle Milic Advice on Designing Wine Labels -- and Pavle Finally Names His Wine - Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella
Back in May 2012, I announced that Todd Bostock from Dos Cabezas Wineworks had agreed to help me learn about his craft -- by collaborating on a red wine blend. I even called it a "Quixotic Exploit" mainly because, aside from being a self-proclaimed oenophile that has never made wine, making wine is a craft that requires years of hard work and study. Needless to say, I felt very fortunate that Todd agreed to let me rub elbows with him in this endeavor to become better informed about what it really takes to make wine.
Todd wanted me to be part of the whole process. He took me out to the vineyard to show me the basics of pruning the vines. During the following months, I would go down to the winery to help whenever my schedule would permit. In February, I went down to help bottle the Dos Cabezas "Red."
In Marc,h I was able to see how filtering works (see image above). Meanwhile, the "Los Milics" Red Blend was in barrel.
Last summer, I reported that the blend would comprise 50 percent Tempranillo, 25 percent Syrah, and 25 percent Primitivo. (Although at the last minute, Todd said: "I think you should try something before we blend." I'll come back to Todd's proposal later.)
The following question caught me by surprise: "Want to go get some Vitis Arizonica?" Last time I checked, Elgin didn't have any dispensaries.
Todd was actually referring to a grapevine also known as the canyon grape, an indigenous rootstock that, according to Dr. M. Andrew Walker (faculty member of the Viticulture & Enology Department at UC-Davis), is resistant to Pierce disease and drought. The picture above shows Todd with some cuttings that he planted last spring. When these develop roots (rootstock), he will them use them to graft other vines onto this rootstock.
Why mention this? This is just an example of how our winemakers continue to strive for making better wine and continue to evolve and stay curious. Arizona as a wine region is tough. The challenges range from sharp cold frosts to unforgiving monsoon storms that can wipe out a year's hard work.
Back to the wine at hand. My wine.
It is no secret that I love pinot noir. While discussing the blend, Todd said: "I think you should try this Mourvedre, I think it's stylistically closer to the wine you want."
Let me go back in time a bit.
I have always been a fan of Kent Callaghan's wines. Last year, I visited Kent's winery in Elgin and he poured me a taste of 100 percent Mourvedre he'd made. I was stunned. The wine had panache and restraint all at the same time. It didn't have a lot of the earthy funk and dark tobacco olfactory attributes that sometimes I get from French Mourvedre. This wine's fruitiness and freshness made it ebullient and, for lack of a better word, sexy.
So when Todd said Mourvedre, the adventitious find at Callaghan's came back to mind and voila!
I love Mourvedre from Arizona. Pinot noir purists will have to forgive my peccadillo when I say that this grape -- stylistically speaking -- is redolent of pinot noir. So we went into one of the barrel rooms at the winery and extricated various samples. We tasted the Mourvedre, Tempranillo, Syrah, and some Primitivo. We went into that place where the vernacular turns to textural adjectives about tannins like "gritty" or "chewy" and where we talked about an early-picked Tempranillo as "zippy" and "focused." Primitivo was described as "giving" and "jammy."
This is where the blend began to take shape. I was pretty sure at this point that I wanted Mourvedre to take the driver's seat. The liveliness of its acidity and accessible fruitiness cater to my sensibilities.
Todd suggested I use Mourvedre that was aged in brand new Burgundy barrels.
"I don't know about brand new oak," I said with trepidation. Todd then proceeded to explain why he thought it was necessary.
"Pavle, you need some oomph," he said, making fists with his hands. It was after tasting various configurations of all the samples that we had pulled that I realized Todd was totally right. I was bit leery of brand new oak because too much can rip the enamel off of your teeth. I've had wine in the past so oaky that it took attention away from the grape's purity.
But these were Burgundy barrels, used to age French pinot noir -- the grape I love. Sure enough, the Mourvedre and Tempranillo's acidity, which made the blend lively, and the Primitivo's darker fruit and color were all embraced with the presence of new oak, as if providing a supporting structure that gave the wine backbone, chutzpah, and age ability. It gave the wine tension in a good way, as if begging to be swirled.
Todd then told me that over time that these tannins will soften a bit.The final blend: 50 percent Mourvedre aged in brand new Burgundy barrels, 25 percent Tempranillo (picked a bit early) aged in used American barrel, and 25 percent Primitivo aged in a used Burgundy barrel.
After deciding the final blend, Todd gave me a sample bottle to take back home to Phoenix. I had the wine that night and I thought, "This is tasty."
Meanwhile, I received some proofs of the label from Salt's owner and creative director, Ty Largo. I gave Ty some direction in terms of inspiration for the label. I said I wanted the label to feel a bit retro and timeless all at the same time. I wanted a little flair with the font. Joanna Eland from Quench Distributors -- one of the best wine geeks in town -- sent me an image of the Retromarcia label that also served as a muse. I sent Ty e-mails with pictures of labels I liked. It is no surprise that I sent him labels from pinot noir bottles. I told him that I wanted the label to be an offspring of Sea Smoke and Williams-Selyem -- both pinots I enjoy.
The words of Stefanie Kelly (director of operations at Brown Estate in Napa) came back to me:
"You have to be able to look at it in five years and still love it as much as you did when you signed off on it," she says. "Hey! It's kind of like a tattoo!"
Last Thursday, after dinner service at FnB, I drove down to Elgin. I left around 11:15 p.m. I wanted to make the night drive because there's less traffic. I arrived around 1:30 a.m. As I stepped out of my car, I couldn't help noticing the scintillating symphony of stars. I took a deep breath. I didn't have any issues falling asleep and 6 a.m. came quickly.
I woke up to 70-degree weather in late June. Woot woot. So I went out on the road for a run. I never tire of talking about the landscape down south. I had the road all to myself. At an elevation of 4,900 feet, I found myself gasping for air to fuel my run, but the expansive and openness of the landscape cleared my mind, as if I were experiencing suspension of reality -- one of the gifts of running.
I returned to the winery after a three-miler. Todd already was behind his desk catching up on e-mail. "Ready to blend?" Todd asked.
He had the four barrels ready, with each barrel housing 25 cases of wine. That's 1,200 bottles of wine. The barrels were placed near a stainless-steel tank. Todd asked me to make sure the tank was sanitized. He then began preparing the pump that would pump out the wine from all four barrels into the tank.
Before the wine is pumped into the tank, Todd added sulfur dioxide to suppress bacteria growth. SO2 also acts as an antioxidant, ensuring the fruit's integrity and protecting against browning.
After all the barrels were emptied into the tank, Todd asked, "Ready to taste it?"
I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that I was nervous. Todd poured a few ounces. I smelled the wine and was intrigued to see the band playing together. Todd said that the wine would be a bit tight because of the SO2. I tasted the wine, and my assessment, of course, may seem tendentious when I tell you that the wine was delicious.
Todd then asked me to rinse the barrels.
I can't help becoming retrospective. I remember nine years ago, when I first arrived in Napa with that sense of wonder. Wishing, dreaming of what it would be like to maybe one day be able to work in a winery. To offer my time pro bono during harvest (if someone would have me) with the promise of doing what I'm told and hopefully not getting in the way.
To this day, I thank Tadeo Borchardt for that opportunity at Neyers in Napa, which planted and cemented my interest in wine.
Maybe it's because Father's Day just a few days ago and my dad was on my mind. He passed seven years ago. He was an atheist who celebrated only one holiday. January 20 was the day that our clan in Montenegro celebrated our family heritage and last name -- Milic. (I don't know how that particular day was chosen.) My dad used to tell me how much my grandfather -- who I was named after -- loved wine. I would have liked to share "Los Milics" with him.
As you can see in the label, it says "Hannah's Blend." I wanted to dedicate the debut wine to my oldest child, my beautiful Hannah. Every day, I wonder how lucky I am to have her be part of my life. My treasured girl.
2012 was a year of tremendous change in my life. FnB Restaurant moved from its little quarters to a new location, and this community continues to support us. For that, both Charleen Badman and I continue to feel gratitude on a daily basis.
On a personal level, my life saw a major overhaul. In 2012, I ran two half-marathons. In 2011, I didn't even know what a 5K was. Looking back, I realize how blessed I am. My kids are healthy, intelligent, and pains in the bum sometimes (in a normal way). I will continue to say that I "married up" professionally. Charleen is one of the most caring, hardworking, talented cooks I've worked with. I am grateful for my friendship with Kelly and Todd from Dos Cabezas and honored that I was invited into their world.
And, finally, I need to mention Maggie. Thank you for your friendship, candor, companionship, support, and unconditional love. I am one lucky guy.
Jeez, this sounds like some goodbye letter or something. But seriously, vintage wine encompasses a moment in time. Encapsulated in the form of a cycle. The cycle of the vine from dormancy to budbreak to véraison, and so forth. Then the excitement of harvest.
And alongside that cycle are people, experiences, history.
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I can only say that this experience has surely enriched my life. And for that I am grateful.
Until next time, stay true.
Los Milics will be bottled in early July, and the first tasting will take place on July 16 at an event at FnB called Freaky Tuesday. Stay tuned to Chow Bella for more details. The wine will then be available at FnB and the adjacent AZ Wine Merchants.