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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hooked on a Feelin' ... (1800 words on authenticity and Matthiasson wines)

Authenticity is one of the words buzzing its way around the tiny little realm that we call the wine industry. The term even made its way into a Huffington Post story yesterday about common food terms that have lost all meaning. In our little world, one camp (producers, consumers and writers) clamors for authentic wines, while the other (more producers, consumers and writers) bemoans the abstract idea of a wine's authenticity. The whole argument over "authenticity," as it concerns wine, is really over the definition of what is "authentic."

Well, I'll dip my toes into the water on this subject. Authentic wines are wines of undisputed origin and wines (and producers) worthy of trust. Authentic wines can be made in small quantities by an individual or, albeit more difficult, in an industrial setting by a team of enologists in a lab. Authentic wines can be single-vineyard, single-clone wines or blends of unlikely varieties. To me, the idea of an authentic wine is tied to the relationship between the consumer and the producer. This is where trust in the origin of the wine comes into play. I find it easier to have a connection with people, but as my buddy Joe Roberts so eloquently put it (I'm sensing a Pulitzer...) consumers can have a "relationship with a f*cking bag of candy." Proponents of authentic wines want to feel connected to a wine's origin, whether that be the soil, the grower or the producer. They want to know everything they possibly can about how, and perhaps more importantly why, a wine was created.


Experiences and relationships. Two more buzzwords no doubt, but those two words are really at the heart of the matter when it comes to authenticity in wine. To put it another way, the existence of authentic wines precedes the essence of those wines. That's not to say quality is unimportant, but authentic wines create their own value to a consumer because wine is inherently just a beverage. There is lots of tasty wine to be drunk. Hedonism, in wine, is more than just what the wine tastes like. As much as we'd all like to think otherwise, it's about what's on the label. That's why people pay exorbitant amounts of money to drink First Growth Bordeaux or boutique Napa cabernets. It's also why people drink more esoteric wines. The story behind a wine is what makes wine so interesting. The label is the cover of the book. That story can be about putting an infinite amount of capital into a project in order to produce the most divine liquid ever fermented or about scraping by, getting your hands dirty and making wine out of a passion so deep that you're willing to swim upstream when you know the current is carrying a bedload of boulders that are going to just keep knocking you back.

People looking for authentic wines want to look into the wine's eyes and see the wine's soul. A deeply rich and concentrated cabernet sauvignon from Napa may tickle your tongue, put a fire in your belly and impress your date (or boss). A slightly bitter white from a grape you've never heard of grown where cabernet could make more money might sound like the oddest thing you've ever heard of, but when you look up the word authentic in the International Encyclopedia on Everything Vinous, you'll see a picture of the producers of that unexpected white wine.



All winemaker dinners should be like the one I was able to attend with Jill Matthiasson of Matthiasson Vineyards a few weeks ago at Linger in Denver. I shouldn't be surprised based on the things I've read about the Matthiassons (husband Steve is the winemaker while Jill does more of the marketing and the nitty gritty of the business), but talking with Jill and tasting her wines made me feel like I had been friends with her for years. It made me feel like I was having dinner in her farmhouse in Napa on a Tuesday night. Many winemaker dinners involve a group of people that pay to dine and listen to a winemaker stand up and talk about the brix levels at harvest, the barrel regiment and what they taste in the wines when each wine is poured for each course. While Jill did briefly talk about each of her wines that we tasted, she talked of her children crushing ribolla gialla grapes with their feet, she talked about the jams and jellies that were on our dessert plates that came from orchards on her farm, she brought us into her experiences rather than just spew case productions and try to sell. She revealed herself to be worthy of trust.

Steve and Jill Matthiasson
My first (and only prior) experience with Matthiasson wines was in April of 2012 when David White graciously brought a bottle to Denver when he was out here for the Drink Local Wine conference. His enthusiasm for the white blend, and of course the unique story behind it and amazing quality it presented got me interested in Matthiasson. Every time I saw something written about Matthiasson (usually by David White, Alder Yarrow, Eric Asimov or Jon Bonné), my attention was piqued. I also thoroughly enjoyed the 47-part series Attending Ribolla Gialla University by . When I saw during a Twitter discussion between the Mattiassons (both Jill and Steve lend their fingers to their account) and Bruce Schoenfeld that Jill was going to be in Denver, I chimed hoping to get to meet when she was here. Lo and behold, she responded (funny how social media works...).

Jill was in town to pour some of her wines at a trade event to launch the official distribution of Matthiasson wines into the Colorado market. To make a complicated story short, Ryan O'Connor, sommelier at Linger had tasted Matthiasson's White Blend and wanted it on his wine list. Well, the only way for a wine to make its way to a restaurant or retailer (thanks to the antiquated three-tier system) is through a wholesaler. Colorado wineries, luckily, have the option of self-distributing, but California wineries like Matthiasson do not. So now, Matthiasson wines are available to all accounts in Colorado through CS Wine Imports. For you pinot noir aficionados, you may know that CS Wines puts on the annual Pinot Posse events in CO every January.

I met with Jill after the trade tasting at Euclid Hall for a beer before the dinner at Linger. We both sipped on a refreshing 8 Second Kölsch from Elevation Beer Company and talked about Matthiasson wines, Colorado wines and even a little bit about fruit wines (yup, they're wines too!).

Most of the press highlighting Matthiasson wines has to do with ribolla gialla. Growing Friulian cultivars and making wine from them in Napa Valley is certainly newsworthy, but ribolla gialla was not the impetus for Steve to start making wine. His background is as a viticulturist and his career is that of tending vines for a variety of clients in Napa. In 2003, Steve told Jill that he had tasted the best merlot that had ever crossed his lips and he had to make wine from it. That is when the Red Blend - a blend of that merlot and cabernet sauvignon - was born. Released in 2006, the first wine from Matthiasson was actually a red wine.

2011 White Wine
After deciding to get into the winemaking business, Jill and Steve decided that they wanted to make the type of wine - a Graves-style white - that they really loved. Steve started working with George Vare in 2002 as a vineyard consultant. Vare (who passed away earlier this year), is perhaps best known for his 2.5 acres of ribolla gialla and the seven different producers that make wine from those grapes. In 2005, Vare took Matthiasson, along with Abe Schoener, to Friuli to meet with winemakers. It was after this trip that Steve became captivated by what may be possible with ribolla gialla in Napa. The White Blend, an amalgam of Graves and Friuli cultivars produced in the most unlikely of places - Napa Valley - is a blend of sauvignon blanc and ribolla gialla, with small amounts of semillon and tocai fruilano and is probably Matthiasson's flagship wine. The citrus flavors combined with a saline quality make this a unique wine that you just don't want to stop drinking.

Jill and Steve have come along way since the early days of having just the two blends. They've added a rich and creamy, but slightly nutty skin-fermented ribolla gialla from their own vineyards, a cabernet franc, a cabernet sauvignon, a single-vineyard merlot, an easy-drinking, fruity refosco, a rosé, a single-vineyard semillon, a Sonoma Coast chardonnay and a dessert wine made from a unique cross between semillon and gewürztraminer called flora that is full of orange, mint and smokey cinammon. They are also starting a new line of wines, called Tendu, with a one liter bottle of vermentino and a red blend to be released in 2014. Expect other Friulian cultivars to find their way into the wines somehow in the future, as well.

Chez Matthiasson
They also make wine from peaches. Yes, lowly type of wine made from fruit other than grapes that people in Colorado still associate with crappy, sweet Colorado fruit wine. Jill was quite interested in trying Colorado peach wine, but was unable to pick any up during her short (and non-checked luggage) stint in Colorado. So, last month when I was in Napa I brought her a bottle of 100% Colorado-grown peach wine. I was fortunate enough to meet her at Chez Matthiasson, a 113-year old yellow farmhouse in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley at the edge of a suburban subdivision.

I met Jill as she was sitting down with perhaps the most unlikely threesome of wine consumers that had ever looked at refosco grapes in stilettos and listened to the details of t-budding. After the out-of-place (but friendly) guests finished tasting, Jill and I went to go look at her garden that was still offering a small bounty. We found Steve hiding in his car, with Koda, catching up on email (or at least that was his story why he was hiding in his car). We chatted about TTB rules regarding the labeling of fruit wines (a bottle of Matthiasson peach wine is now resting in my cellar), the possibility of teroldego in the Grand Valley AVA of Colorado and the beautiful, but windy weather that the valley was experiencing. Just standing on that land, looking at the vegetables, the persimmon tree weighted down by orange delicacies waiting to be picked, and the few rows of sagrantino vines fading into dormancy was quite the experience.

The Matthiasson wines are not wines to be lined up with 20 other wines and consumed devoid of context. These wines are not wines to be given to someone that equates points to quality. No, these wines are meant to be shared with friends and family around a table. They are meant to have their stories shared just as David White shared his experience with a group of wine nerds over a bottle of a weird, slightly funky, but nevertheless delicious white wine over a year ago. Yes, the Matthiassons are what I would call authentic people and they produce authentic wines.

4 comments:

  1. Wine is like writing, my friend. The best wine, like the best writing, is authentic. The rest can be enjoyable, but lacks that edge.

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  2. I can say that Jill and Steve are authentic friends. That above all is what matters. However, they do make kick ass wine-Authentically

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  3. Thank you, Kyle for the kind and generous words.

    It was truly a pleasure to have you attend and enjoy the Matthiasson wines as much as I have come to as well.

    Cheers.

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  4. Jeff, Thanks... I think.

    Kat, Friends that make good wine is always a plus!

    Ryan, I should have mentioned more about the dinner and the food! The pairings were splendid, though there might have been a bit too much food; my bike ride home was less than comfortable. For 10 dishes and 6 wines, $75 was an amazing deal (and for inquiring minds, I paid for my own meal...). It was great meeting you and I'm sure I'll be in again sometime soon!

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