When the northern latitude vineyards begin their harvest, the weather during the months of September through November is particularly critical for grape ripening and wine making.

Autumn also ushers in the season when fundraisers and benefits are held in support of many worthy causes. I enjoy very much the annual Atlanta Best Cellars Dinner to help fund the continued research at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory. Music industry personalities attend and significant dollars are raised through the generosity of corporate and individual donors.

Celebrating with wines from their personal cellars were renowned Atlanta restauranteur Pano Karatassos, founder of Buckhead Life Restaurants; Hal Nowak, the “Hal” of Hal’s The Steak House and George McKerrow, founder of Longhorn Steaks and a managing partner of Ted’s Montana Grill. I was also thrilled to share a glass of Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 with Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris, a friend, wine lover and a generous supporter.

In the early hours of Oct. 9, major wildfires fueled by gusting winds of 70 mph exploded in Northern California wine country. Several wine friends were threatened, thousands of acres of land scorched and thousands of people displaced from their homes due to forced evacuations. Apocalyptic devastation to homes and businesses left large communities in Santa Rosa with thousands of residents displaced and suffering from shock and horror.

The speed of the fire, fueled by the dry ground cover and fierce winds, gave sleeping residents little warning other than the frantic appeals of local police and volunteer fire brigades calling for immediate evacuation in the middle of the night.

In November, during a visit to Atlanta, I had an opportunity to spend a few hours over lunch with Margo Van Staaveren, who recalled for me the surreal memory of how she and her husband were forced to evacuate their isolated home in the town of Glen Ellen. With windblown embers swirling and falling in every direction, while watching the orange glow of the fire in the Western hills above the town of Kenwood, she described her vision as a frightening glimpse of hell.

After two weeks, when the fires had been extinguished and it was safe to return, she and her husband discovered their home was spared. The blazes were responsible for the destruction of 8,400 buildings, the deaths of 42 people, and the burning of more than 200,000 acres. Of the 1,200 wineries in the affected counties, only 11 were heavily damaged or destroyed. In Sonoma only 5 percent of the vineyard acres were in the fire zone. It is impossible to calculate the combined effects of this existential tragedy.

The 2017 harvest was more than 80 percent complete; however, the remaining unharvested grapes might be affected by smoke taint. As of this writing, the jury is out on the results of those preliminary tests of these fermented grapes.

My annual harvest trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley introduced me to a new winery in the Yamhill Carlton American Viticultural Area called the Willakenzie Estate. An important and historic producer of site specific vineyard designated Pinot Noir made for a memorable visit and tasting. During the tasting tutorial, I experienced seven different Pinot Noirs each exhibiting a unique personality. Their motto, “Dirt Matters,” highlights the multiple geological complexities of the Willakenzie and Jory soil profiles. The soils contribute to achieving root stock compatibility which is translated to the fruit and impacts the intensity to the aromas, textures and flavors of the finished wines.

Their passion for Pinot Noir with a sense of place defines the wines produced on the estate, a family oriented, boutique winery utilizing sustainably grown grapes, reflecting old world traditions in new world Oregon.

Dick Shea’s business card states “winegrower” and it messages his belief that all wines are born in the vineyard. The Shea Vineyards clients reads like a who’s who in the super premium production of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Penner Ash, Ken Wright Cellars, Rex Hill, St. Innocent and Raptor Ridge are among the producers all proud to add Shea Vineyards designation to their labels.

With 140 acres planted, only 25 percent of the estate is used to produce the wines destined for Shea Wine Cellars. A vineyard force in sustainable farming practices, they have recently been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their involvement in the Conservation Security Program.

While visiting, I was treated to examining several bubbling, open-top fermenters of Pinot Noir. Winemaker Blair Trathen was very generous with his time explaining the reasons he was fermenting a few barrels with whole clusters and stem contact. He explained this technique adds enormous amounts of aroma and texture to the finished wine.

These wines are worth seeking out from your favorite wine retailer.

Thanksgiving dinner was enjoyed with both Willakenzie Estate and Shea Wine Cellars Pinot Noirs complementing the culinary traditional turkey and all the trimmings. Patti made a wonderful cranberry sauce by reducing fresh berries with Ruby Porto and orange juice, it was a lovely compliment to these two very fine wines.

As we end another year on the wine road, I am looking forward to sharing wines with friends during the Christmas holidays, with Champagne being my favorite go-to beverage during the month of December.

Crystal Ball 2018

The U.S. sparkling wine market will continue to expand with consumers realizing that there is no better way to begin a meal than with French Champagne or sparkling wine. Italian Prosecco will continue to grow with Spain entering the market with a heavily promoted campaign for their bubbly called Cava. It will find some traction in 2018.

Millennials are driving wine consumption growth and many singles groups attend wine tastings, participate in wine weekends and enjoy local wine “mixers” all in the search of the next great wine experience.

Cans, Screw Tops and Alternative Packaging

Wine will enter a new packaging era as many producers will market their wine less in cork-sealed bottles and opt for more user-friendly containers.

Harvest 2017

Largely disappointing in Western Europe with EU countries such as Italy, France, Spain and Portugal seeing reduced yields due to challenging weather throughout the growing season. Northern California counties also will experience smaller harvest which might affect pricing for certain high end wines.

Historic Discovery – From Vine to Wine

About 50 kilometers south of Tibilisi, the capital of Georgia, in the region of the Caucasian, pottery fragments belonging to vessels and containers contained DNA fingerprints of tartaric acid. This signals that grape juice was fermented and wine made 8,000 years ago.

A glass of wine connects you to 8 millennia of history, culture and the celebration of human civilization. A toast to all Cobb Life Magazine readers for a healthy 2018 filled with new wine discoveries.

Photography by Michael Venezia

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