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Meet the wine pro behind Drops of God

Where so many fictional movies that explore wine have failed, Drops of God which is an eight-part series inspired by the New York Times bestselling Japanese graphic novel (manga) series has set the bar for its depiction of wine culture and sensorial appreciation.  

Originally created and written by Tadashi Agi and illustrated by Shu Okimoto, the manga series was adapted for Apple TV by Quoc Dang Tran and executive produced by Klaus Zimmermann with the collaboration of Sébastien Pradal, a career sommelier whose depth of experience defined the role wine plays in this tense family drama.

Sébastien Pradal defined the role wine plays in the Apple TV+ series Drops of God.

Pradal is general manager and owner of a handful of companies that import and distribute fine French wines to the trade in Paris, France, and Mexico, and the restaurant La Petite Régalade and sister bistronomie La Pascade which offer a wine list reflective of both his access and focus on smaller organic and biodynamic producers. Add vigneron to his many roles as he is a partner in Domaine Montrozier which lies directly north of Narbonne in the Côtes de Millau AOP. 

As wine consultant to the fictional series which was four years in the making, Pradal’s experience gave him what amounts to a no nonsense-approach to determining how the lead characters – Camille who is played by Fleur Geffrier and Issei played by Tomohisa Yamashita – would interact with wine as the series unfolds. 

Wine is just one of the many themes being explored in the tri-lingual storyline told in French, Japanese, and English which pits Camille against Issei in a competition like no other. Camille had not seen her father the iconic Alexandre Léger, author of the famous Léger Wine Guide, since her parents separated when she was nine years old. Upon his death, she is unceremoniously thrust into his world when she flies to Tokyo for the reading of his will which will determine the fate of Léger’s 87,000-bottle wine collection reputedly the finest in the world and valued at $148,000,000. To claim the inheritance, Camille must compete with Issei, Léger’s star pupil, in a winner take all duel that challenges their senses and their wits in three tests involving wine.  

In a phone interview conducted mid-way through the airing of the series, I asked Pradal about his approach to the monumental task of making fiction both believable and enjoyable given the inevitable scrutiny of the wine trade.

DPW: How did you arrive at the valuation of the Léger cellar at $148,000,000?

SP: First, let’s establish that the story is fiction but at the onset of the project we began by averaging the prices of the bottles depicted in the cellar at about $2,000 per bottle. Léger had been collecting for 40 years and his collection included bottles easily valued at $30,000 to $40,000. Five years ago, one bottle of the DRC Romanee Conti 1945 (only 600 bottles were produced) was auctioned for over $500,000 [1] so this is very possible.

(Editor’s note: A summary of the 12 wines featured in the manga series can be found here –

DPW:  As she is Léger’s daughter, Camille could benefit from having his genes whereas Issei is presented as a product of academic wine study under his tutelage. When it comes to their ability to decode the aromas and tastes of the wines, is this a case of nature versus nurture?

SB:  I can’t speak to genetics but of all the people I know who excel in this area, it boils down to a lot of hard work.  In real life, you have to work to be good; there is no substitute for training but it’s more about directing a part of the brain. In doing so, you can sometimes identify a wine. It’s like when you meet someone and you have a visceral reaction to them, to their pheromones. We don’t understand it but there is something deep inside us, some part of our reptilian brain that we don’t consciously exploit.

DPW: When it comes to the language of wine, do you think early exposure to wine provides an advantage versus coming to wine through academic study as an adult?

SB: Absolutely, I do think it helps. I teach wine occasionally and I ask my team to image what they smell. If it’s strawberry it’s a fuzzy memory of the aroma of strawberry that may remind you of your grandmother’s strawberry jam.  It’s a combination of all the things you learn over the course of your life with all the smells you can memorize. Together they help you recall aromas. 

DPW: We learn early on that Camille suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to her early experiences with wine. This seems like a tremendous handicap as she prepares to compete with Issei.

SB: Yes, initially she suffers from PTSD but it’s helping her later in the competition. This state is what takes her to synesthesia and enables her to perceive a flavor as a color.  When she finally comes to terms with it, she finds another level of perception. Both Quoc and Klaus wanted her to have superpowers, and this is her path.

DPW: Most viewers will be attracted to the show because it’s a dramatic story of love, deception, and competition but what are a few examples of how the characters interact with wine?

SP:  A close observer will see the moments when the characters do what professionals actually do in real life. A winemaker may not bother to cut the capsule from the neck of the bottle as a sommelier would, they will twist the capsule intact from the bottle.  You can see Fleur’s behavior evolve as she gains more confidence; she learns to hold the glass properly, to practice a consistent technique for tasting, and her visualization of the wine evolves as well. Tomo’s character Issei is a robot.

DPW: Fleur’s visualization process reminded me of the method of loci or memory palace, an ancient visualization technique developed by the Greeks and Romans. Was this used as a model for her character’s behavior?

SB: That material came from the writers after observing me taste wine. They saw that my eyes move around as if I’m searching. They decided the library was the best way of illustrating the process of her searching for and locating her memories. 

DPW: What is it that you liked best about this project?

SB: I saw this as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the audience what wine is, what it can be; a link to our humanity, to the earth, our history, and to the economy.  I began in food and wine as a cook, and then a waiter, and eventually a sommelier. This project presented itself to me as a crazy gift when I was asked to coach Tomo, Luca and Fleur whose father was a cook from Aveyron where my winery is located. Now that it’s completed, I’m content with the work that we did together, and I hope that people enjoy it.


Around the World with Alberto Antonini

Deconstructing Aged Amarone

In preparation for a vertical tasting of older vintages of Bertani Amarone della
Valpolicella Classico
presented by Bertani COO Andrea Lonardi last November, I revisited my notes for several of the wines, which I’d also tasted in a vertical flight in 2018.

Upon sampling them again, I was struck by their subtle evolution after an additional five years of bottle age; many of them seemed to have barely budged in terms of development, with the exception of a few very particular compounds.

Bertani Amarone, which ages for seven years prior to release, was characterized by Lonardi as having three stages. At seven to ten years old, it shows primarily cherry, plum, and orange; at ten to 20 years, it reveals sour cherry, chocolate, and fig; after 15 years of bottle age, it’s dominated by tertiary flavors of tobacco, truffle, and earth. The vintages I tasted in 2018 (’67, 75, ’81, ’98, ’05, and ’08) and the ones I tried recently (’67, ’75, ’87, ’98, ’00, ’05, ’11, and ’12) showed those characteristics and much more.

Bertani COO Andrea Lonardi brought an eight-wine vertical to San Francisco’s One Market Restaurant.

For Lonardi, the drying process known as appassimento that’s used to make
Amarone produces wines that are expressive of terroir. Researchers studying
the compounds found in Corvina—the indigenous grape that is the foundation of the wine’s blend—agree. Typical markers for Corvina include balsamic and tobacco notes that increase during appassimento, and the presence of these markers in aged wines points to specific vintage conditions.

Tabanones, compounds that contribute tobacco notes, are directly derived from the grape and are generally increased by oak aging. There’s a direct connection between levels of tabanones and vintage conditions; vines that have been subject to severe water stress in warm weather produce wines with higher levels of tabanones after several years of bottle aging.

These compounds can also be used as markers to identify vineyards that have a greater capacity to produce wines with tobacco aromas. I found tobacco notes to be more apparent in Bertani Amarones from warmer vintages.

Cineol, a eucalyptus note; p-cymene, which is minty; and the elusive vitispirane, with its camphoraceous aromas and earthy-woody undertones, all help to form the balsamic character of aged Corvina wines. They are generated from precursors that unlock over time, and they accumulate progressively as the wine ages. In the 1975 Bertani—a wine that shows orange zest, star anise, and bittersweet chocolate—they present as beautiful herbal notes reminiscent of Ricola lozenges.

Lonardi’s first vintage at Bertani was 2012, which was warm, with low rainfall. From that vintage onward, he revealed, he has eschewed malolactic conversion. Given his penchant for freshness in Amarone, which he describes as a “nervous profile,” this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a rare exception in red winemaking—one that is clearly working in his favor. The 2012 Bertani is characterized by its purity of red fruit, savory resinous herbs, complex bitterness, and characteristic freshness.

Bertani is not resting on its laurels. In 2023, Lonardi will introduce a new line of Valpolicella wines that he referred to as “an evolution of style,” one that captures the region’s earlier, warmer harvests, made from grapes that are crushed after just 60 days of drying.

Earthly Delights

An abundance of beauty ushered in the new year in Northern California

The closing moments of 2022 were, for me, marked by wine-centric experiences that were not only pleasurable but succeeded in exalting the mind and spirit. Although we rarely talk about beauty in relation to wine, both tend to rely on intersubjective judgments for valid standards, and they are inextricably linked by their connection to pleasure.

A dazzling floral display set the stage for Perrier-Jouët’s “1 With Nature,” an immersive tasting experience celebrating the 120th anniversary of the iconic painting of Japanese anemones by Art Nouveau leader Émile Gallé that has graced this Champagne house’s bottles since 1902. The al fresco event in San Francisco was the last in a multicity tour that paired the cuisine of Los Angeles–based chef Sophia Roe with Perrier-Jouët Champagnes selected by Séverine Frerson, who was appointed the eighth cellar master of the estate in 2020.

Guests were treated to a dramatic view of the Bay Bridge from the table staged on the terrace of 1 Hotel and outfitted in decorations and glassware inspired by the Belle Époque era. Each of three courses was accompanied by hands-on sensory exercises guided by Elise Cordell, manager–Champagne trade engagement and events at Pernod Ricard USA, that explored specific themes— Terroir, Awakening, and Florality —in ways that were both whimsical and visually engaging. The most alluring scents of the evening, however, were those of the Perrier- Jouët 2010 Belle Époque Rosé.

SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn, Sonoma’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, hosted a sold-out event celebrating the release of IWA 5 Junmai Daiginjo Saké #3 ($180/720-mL bottle). Using ingredients grown by his wife, Katina, chef Kyle Connaughton paired kaiseki-inspired cuisine with three IWA 5 sakés, Dom Pérignon 2008 from magnum, and a Château Yquem 2005 for a sublimely hedonistic experience. While the food was orchestrated to play second chair to the saké, the symphony that resulted was nothing less than perfect.

IWA 5 Saké.

With the release of IWA 5 #3, founder and creator Richard Geoffroy, best known as the chef de cave for Dom Pérignon, has realized a rich, medium-dry style that is unlike any in this taster’s experience. Beyond nuanced floral and tropical fruit aromas (that I’m told will become more integrated and refined over time), it displayed a focused freshness and a pronounced mineral expression on the palate that persisted through a seemingly endless finish, making it a standout in the ultra-premium category.

The evolution and refinement of the IWA 5 #3 was demonstrated by a side-by-side tasting of the first, second, Geoffroy attributes the brand’s success to the use of a blend of three rice varieties, Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, and Gohyakumangoku; no fewer than five different saké and wine yeasts that include Kimoto and experimental varieties; and reserve sakés in the final blend.

Geoffroy chose the town of Tateyama, in the lesser-known Toyama Prefecture, as the home for the IWA brewery, which opened in 2021. Arnaud Brachet of ABCK Corp. is IWA 5’s U.S. repre- sentative and importer.

Returning to Radici del Sud

Southern Italy’s native varieties were on parade at the annual wine competition

After a seven year absence, I returned to Sannicandro, Italy, last June to serve as a member of the international jury of Radici del Sud—otherwise known as the world’s only competition for wines made with native grapes from the Southern Italian regions of Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicilia.

Before 2015, when I first juried the competition, my exposure to many of Southern Italy’s native varieties—and the DOCs/DOCGs they come from—had been limited to my WSET studies and the occasional trade tasting. Radici del Sud provided my first immersion into the region’s wealth of grapes and wine styles. It was a defining experience, one that initiated years of study and tasting.

The winning wines at this year’s competition are memorable for several reasons: The whites were fresher, the rosés crisper, and the red wines seemingly more elegant than I recall them being in 2015. Granted, my impressions are surely influenced by the fact that I am now far more familiar with these varieties and their terroirs.

Radici del Sud, which marked its 17th anniversary this year, is unique in that it has a dual group of juries: one composed of Italian trade and press and another of international trade and press, which included several fellow Americans: Li Valentine, Lisa Denning, Matthew Horkey, Michelle Williams, my SOMM Journal colleague Lars Leicht, and Robert Camuto.

Scores determined the first- and second-place wines for both juries, and the results revealed a marked difference in palates: Not one wine received awards from both. If, like me, you’re passionate about na- tive grape varieties and their regions of origin—or even if you’re just curious—I’m providing a list of the wines awarded first place by the international jury for handy reference. Consider it a shopping list for the next time you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

All of these wines have the potential for enjoyment and represent good value.


Masciarelli Castello Semivicoli 2019 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Superiore

Casa Vinicola Roxan Corale 2020 Pecorino Colline Pescaresi

Azienda Agricola Guardiani Farchione 2011 DI TE & DI ME Riserva Montepulciano d’Abruzzo


Casa Comerci Abatia 2019


Pietreionne 2020 Maiorano Falanghina

Nativ 2021 Vico Storto Greco di Tufo

San Salvatore 1988 2021 Pian di Stio Fiano

Agnanum 2016 Piedirosso Campi Flegrei Agriter Aglianico 2020

Claudio Quarta Vignaiolo SRL 2015 Taurasi Riserva


Masseria Borgo dei Trulli 2021 Vermentino

Menhir Salento 2019 Filo Terra d’Otranto Riserva Negroamaro

Le Vigne di Sammarco SRL 2016 Archè Primitivo di Manduria

Cantina di Ruvo di Puglia 2016 Augustale Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva

Le Vigne di Sammarco SRL 2017 Marasia Salento

Santa Lucia 2021 Gazza Ladra Fiano


Contini 2020 Sartiglia Cannonau di Sardegna

Contini 1979 Antico Gregori


Coppola 1971 ’71 Settantuno Spumante Brut

Markham looks to the future

Still mad about Merlot after 45 years.

Merlot has been synonymous with Markham Vineyards since its first vintage in Napa Valley in 1980, and the charm of the variety has never been more apparent thanks to winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls. As the 2022 harvest wound its way to a close, she told The Tasting Panel that “it has been a fast-paced vintage—one that has allowed me to take lessons learned from prior vintages and make critical decisions at the right time.” With perspective derived from her longevity at the winery, Nicholls is well equipped to guide the portfolio’s style while mentoring her all-female winemaking team on best practices as they deal with the increasing unpredictability of Mother Nature. 

Farming for the Future

When it comes to sustainability, the trajectory of Markham’s star-studded collection of estate vineyards—now under the direction of viticulturist Taylor Abudi, who joined the team early in the 2022 growing season—is impressive. Twelve acres of the winery’s Hopper House Vineyard in Yountville, which are serving as a trial space for various sustainability practices, have seen no synthetic inputs since 2021. Named after the family home on Hopper Creek, whose habitat has been restored by neighboring Dominus Estate, this gently sloping benchland at the foot of the Mayacamas was one of first terroirs in the Valley to be planted to vines in the early 19th century.

“Our Hopper House Vineyard is a truly significant place in terms of viticulture in Napa Valley,” said Abudi. “It’s been farmed conventionally for decades, and now we’re pursuing sustainability practices to help replenish our natural resources, improve air and water quality, and protect our ecosystems and wildlife habitats.” To that end, farming practices continue to evolve at all the winery’s 260 acres of estate vineyards—Yountville’s Hopper House Vineyard, Yountville Ranch Vineyard, and Bryan’s Block at the Yountville Ranch Vineyard; Little Cannon Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District; Markham in St. Helena; and Rockerbox Vineyard in Calistoga—with a long-term focus on better vineyard and soil health. Among other things, the wineryy is marking its fifth year of drill planting a rotating cover crop of clover mix, brassicas, and insectary rows and is now moving to no-till farming for all of its sites.

The vineyards are certified through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which ensures sustainable winegrowing practices that benefit the environment, the community, and the development of high-quality grapes and wine. But sustainability involves more than the adoption of innovative technology and setting a timeline for achieving environmental and climate goals: The “people factor” is also an essential part of Markham’s ethos.

A Dream Team

In her role as head winemaker, Nicholls directs an all-female winemaking team that includes assistant winemaker Abigail Horstman and enologist Patricia Sciacca. The collaborative culture that thrives at Markham is a direct result of how she prioritizes the professional growth of her team.

During a technical tasting of the portfolio, the value of empowerment was demonstrated by the fact that everyone had a seat at the table and had an opportunity to offer insights into the winemaking process and the sensory characteristics of the wines. This scenario, which is rarer than you might think, ensures a high level of communication particularly but not only during the hectic months of harvest—it’s woven into the fabric of Markham’s operations.

As role models go, Nicholls is impressive for reasons well beyond her winemaking talent. In 1989, she was among the first women to enter the Napa Valley wine industry, accepting a position in the laboratory—a place where many women did (and still do) get their start—at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. She joined Markham’s founding general manager, Bryan Del Bondio, in 1993 and became one of the first women in Napa Valley to serve as a head winemaker in 2001.

Next year will represent a particularly significant milestone not only for Nicholls—who will celebrate 30 years of an impressive career that has made her synonymous both with Markham and with the heritage of Merlot in Napa Valley—but also for the winery, which will celebrate its 45th year in operation.

The Return of the Cannoneer

Leading up to the anniversary, Nicholls and her team have been revamping Markham’s portfolio with an emphasis on Merlot and Cabernet. It now includes four tiers that made their debut in 2021: the Napa Valley Series, the District Series, Marked Parcels, and the winery’s Bordeaux-style icon, The Character. The winery’s label artwork was also redesigned in a tribute to Markham’s historic cannoneer (who first appeared on the label in 1980): Winery founder and U.S. veteran Bruce Markham used to signal the start of harvest by firing a miniature cannon.

For The Character’s second vintage, 2018 ($135), only seven barrels were sourced from Markham’s Yountville estate vineyards. The wine is framed around Merlot (65%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (21%), with Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc completing the blend. Nicholls and her team fermented the wine in stainless steel, allowing it a generous amount of time on the skins, after which it spent 30 months in 100% new French oak. Prior to release, it showed a seductive and generous depth of flavor and freshness along with secondary notes of coffee and black pepper.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum is the Napa Valley Series, among them a 2019 Merlot ($29) that punched far above its weight with cherry blossoms, sapid red plums and cherries, black tea, star anise, and vanilla as well as a fresh, savory finish.   

In between, you’ll find the District Series, including wines from select Napa Valley sub-AVAs such as the 2019 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a cool, floral expression of lavender-scented red and black currants; blackberries; and lush, resolved tannins. The Marked Parcels series, meanwhile, represents Nicholls’ selections from each estate vineyard, of which the 2019 Yountville Ranch Merlot ($65) was a standout with cherries and raspberries, notes of dark chocolate, caramelized toast, and the chalky tannins so often cited as a marker of benchland terroirs. 

An Anniversary Makeover

While Markham’s vineyards and stone cellar—which was built by Bordeaux immigrant Jean Laurent in 1879—together represent the soul of its estate, the property has recently been renovated with an eye toward the future. Investments in the winery include the addition of modernized crush equipment, new presses, and smaller tanks. Nicholls explains the latter amount to a “a winery within a winery” for special projects that explore prized small lots to develop unique wine expressions.

The tasting room has also undergone a major renovation that showcases the talents of the winemaking team and their Merlot-centric identity. The space has been artfully upcycled, building on existing materials to give it and the surrounding courtyard and patios a warm, contemporary vibe. The interior design leans toward the mid-century modern and Bauhaus styles, featuring soothing neutral colors and statement artwork under soaring ceilings. Against this backdrop, flights of Markham’s District Series and Marked Parcels wines can be customized according to guest preference and optionally paired with cheese. Meanwhile, the adjacent historic barrel cellar can accommodate private functions for up to 175 people; it has been redesigned to provide a front-row view into where all the magic happens.

The winery’s generous grounds have also undergone a makeover to create intimate outdoor seating areas with soothing water features and water-efficient plantings, while outdoor fire tables invite visitors to linger even in cooler weather.

Between the portfolio revamp and the winery renovation, Markham has been polished to perfection for its 45th vintage and for decades to come.

Why is pu-erh the Pinot Noir of teas

Pu-erh tea is one of the most obsessed-over teas in the world – and one of the few that can improve with age.

Over the last decade, rapid modernization and rising incomes in China have made the production of labor-intensive artisanal teas like pu-erh far more costly. The quality of Chinese tea is also being impacted: by climate change, industrial farming practices and changes in production methods that favor quantity over quality.

For San Francisco-based tea master Roy Fong whose 45 metric tons of tea are slowly ageing in an atmospherically controlled warehouse, this means selling the pu-erh tea he bought in the 1990s back into the Chinese market.

Tea master Roy Fong

The history of Pu-erh

From its beginnings, pu-erh tea has been esteemed. The very first book on tea, The Classic of Tea, written in the eighth century by Lu Yu who the Chinese sometimes call the “father of tea”, extols this tea’s virtue above all other varieties. Pu-erh gets its name from a city in the remote southern mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, but it can come from anywhere in those mountains where for two millennia tea has been grown and produced. Pu-erh-style teas have also been produced for centuries in the neighboring provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and in the border areas of North Vietnam, but in 2003 the Chinese government defined authentic pu-erh as coming solely from Yunnan. Tea plantations and wild groves are cultivated at altitudes of more than 1,500m/5,000ft and flourish in Yunnan’s warm, humid climate.

While the term “wild” is common in labelling, older tea trees are cultivated trees that were left unmanaged for years and now grow naturally. One of Yunnan’s largest ancient tea plantations covers more than 4,050ha/10,000 acres in the forests of the Jing Mai and Man Jung Mountains. Yunnan’s oldest tea trees are treasured as living fossils: one of the oldest trees on record, discovered in 1961 growing on the Great Black Mountain of Bada San, is 1,700
years old.

The cultivation of pu-erh tea in China dates back as far as the first century. As trade routes developed throughout Central Asia, tea was one of the first things to travel along them. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.” To make their tea easier to transport – it could take a year for a horse-drawn caravan to reach Tibet – the Yunnanese began compressing it into bricks, cakes, bowls and, later, into more fanciful shapes.These long treks to market also led to the discovery that the broad, tough leaves of pu-erh trees had a singular ability to improve over time, becoming earthier and more complex.

Aged bings or cakes can command $5,000 USD.

Eventually, the finest teas were intentionally aged to increase their value. By the 17th century, aged pu-erh was being sent as tribute to the Chinese emperors. Production and styles Pu-erh comes in two basic styles: raw, known as sheng, and cooked, known as shou. All tea starts as sheng, when green tea leaves are wilted, dry fried, rolled and sun-dried. Then, there’s the option of “cooking” the tea into shou, a process invented in the 1950s but popularised in the 1970s to imitate the long ageing process of raw tea. Today, cooked pu-erh is more popular than raw in Hong Kong.

The tea ferments in a warm, humid environment for up to one year, in a process that deepens and mellows the flavors and adds increasing amounts of complexity. Whether raw or cooked, at this point, the pu-erh – which has a distinctively astringent and tannic character – can be sold loose. Normally, however, it is compressed into cakes – or into bamboo stalks or even hollowed-out citrus fruit – and allowed to sit for years for what is essentially an extended microbial fermentation. Just as a wine can evolve over time, pu-erh flavors can change dramatically as the compressed tea and the beneficial fungi it harbors continue to interact.

Complex microbiome

Researchers have identified 390 fungal and 600 bacterial organisms in the microbiomes of raw and cooked pu-erh teas. The most commonly observed fungal taxa belong to Ascomycota and the most commonly observed bacterial taxa belong to Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, and Proteobacteria. Interestingly, fungal diversity drops and bacterial diversity rises as a result of raw or cooked fermentation. The composition of microbial populations changes significantly
among fresh leaves, and raw and cooked pu-erh.

Microbiome of raw, fresh and ripened pu-erh tea.

The most sought-after tea, aged raw pu-erh, has a fungal population more like cooked than young raw pu-erh. This indicates that the accelerated microbial fermentation of cooked puerh results in a microbial community composition similar to that found in much older, raw pu-erh. It also provides an explanation for the rapid acceptance and widespread use of the cooked pu-erh process. Contrary to the beliefs of many collectors, ageing does not
significantly affect the communities of cooked tea, suggesting that ageing cooked tea is unnecessary.

Traditionally, ageing took place in mountain caves, but today most tea merchants use temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. It can take up to 30 years for a pu-erh to be considered fully mature – though some tea pros think it should not age for more than 15 years. When it reaches that point, the resulting brew tastes pungent and earthy, but also clean and smooth, reminiscent of the smell of rich garden soil or an autumn leaf pile and often with roasted or sweet undertones.

Despite its low profile, pu-erh is not a newcomer to the West; it most likely made its first appearance in America in the late 19th century with the wave of immigrants who arrived from China’s Canton province to build the railroads. Fong, who owns the Imperial Tea Court and operates tearooms in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, calls pu-erh the birthright of every Cantonese. “During my childhood years in Hong Kong, whenever tea was served, pu-erh was the automatic choice,” he says. “I think there would be violence if cooked [pu-erh] were ever banned in Hong Kong or southern China.”

Growing market

Fong, who markets his own brand of pu-erh as part of his San Francisco-based business, believes good-quality cooked pu-erh peaks at 20 years. “There is something magical that happens with shou after 20 years,” he says. “It becomes soft, smooth, silky and rich. Some teas can have delicate plummy and almond notes. They are still youthful and retain their floral qualities, but they are highly concentrated, with distinct layers of flavor.” However, pu-erh spent decades mostly confined to Chinese restaurants. But in 1993, when Fong opened his first San Francisco tea-house assuming that it would mainly attract Chinese expats, he was surprised to find most of his clientele was Caucasian.

Not only that, many were interested in pu-erh, and willing to pay market price for aged varieties. Most Westerners, if they’ve tried pu-erh at all, have only sampled poor-quality pu-erh. The tea’s pungent earthiness can be jarring for people who expect a delicate brew. Fong likens it to strong cheeses, or tannic
wines. Those who appreciate complex flavours, however, have ensured that interest in pu-erh has increased over the past decade.

Pairing Pu-erh

Pu-erh has also finally broken out of the dim sum houses. Alice Cravens, a former tea buyer for Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and other fine-dining restaurants, says pu-erh has pairing potential far beyond Chinese food – she likes to suggest it to restaurants that offer lots of wood-fired dishes, like grilled lamb. “Red-wine drinkers gravitate to the robust flavors and wine-like tannins of these rich, intense teas,” she says. “Pu-erh teas exhibit aromas and flavors that are found in wines like Pinot Noir: earth, forest floor, mushroom and even barnyard.”

Pu-erh has also made its way onto bar menus. The tea is a principal ingredient in drinks at New York hotspots like Pegu Club and the Flatiron Lounge. Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons has offered various tea cocktails, including the Hot Iced Tea, made with pu-erh, orange bitters and whiskey that was infused with Himalayan long peppers. “The pu-erh tea really grounded the drink and gave it a smokiness that helped mellow the spiciness of the peppers,” says
bartender Johnny Edlund. “It worked out really well.”

There is a downside to this new popularity: as pu-erh’s profile has risen, so have prices. Vintage teas from the 1960s, known as “Masterpiece Pu-erh”, can command as much as $3,000 to $5,000 per cake. Then there are the people who, while honest, have come to appreciate pu-erh only as an investment, buying up choice cakes to age and sell for a profit later. “This scenario happened all over China,” says Fong. No matter what happens to prices, Chinese consumers seem thirstier than ever for pu-erh. More and more westerners are immersing themselves, drawn by the mystique, the ritual, the prestige and, above all, the flavor – that nuanced, earthy complexity that makes pu-erh unlike any other tea.

Renaissance for Chile’s Itata Valley

The prevailing impression of Chile’s wine industry as one based on international varieties and conventional winemaking practices leaves little to the imagination. Yet all along, its ancestral wine culture has been hiding in plain sight.

Following a chain of valleys that runs from north to south, the Itata Valley denominación de origen (DO) is located south of the Maule Valley DO. It spans 60 miles of rolling hills and native forests, extending east from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes Mountains, where the Cerro Blanco, peaking at 10,500 feet, dominates the landscape.

Wine culture here in the northernmost of Chile’s three southern wine regions exemplifies what is known as “evolution in isolation.” Experiencing no phylloxera and only a modest incursion of international grape varieties, this isolated region has held on to its heritage grapes and ancestral winemaking practices seldom found beyond its borders.

The Itata Valley DO is centered on Ñuble, which became Chile’s 16th political region in 2018. Like the Ñuble River, which flows west from the Andes to join the Itata River as it winds its way north to the Pacific Ocean, the region takes its name from an indigenous Mapudungún word meaning “narrow river” or “stony river.”

While 97% of Ñuble’s vineyards lie within the province of Itata, the 13 communes comprising the Itata Valley DO extend beyond its borders and dip into the neighboring provinces of Diguillín and Punilla as well as the sunny coastal region of Bío Bío to the south. Here, the Mediterranean climate is like that of Maule and is cooled by the Humboldt Current that runs the length of Chile’s coastline, although any similarities to the northern valleys end there.

In contrast to the larger estates to the north, wineries in the Itata Valley are typically small and family-owned, with a production capacity averaging 60,000 liters per year. The average vineyard size here is just over 5 acres; plots are traditionally measured by the number of vines. Usually planted to old vines, organically farmed, plowed by horses, and handpicked, this rare patchwork of small estates has been instrumental in preserving the region’s culture and its distinctive wines.

Ancestral Varieties

The Itata Valley encompasses an extensive mix of head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards that are home to some of the oldest vines in Chile. The majority are ancient País (Listán Prieto), Muscat of Alexandria, and Torontel—varieties that arrived during the country’s colonial era. In the 1940s they were joined by Cinsault, Carignan, and Chasselas, which were introduced to improve the market price of the region’s wines, as well as by lesser plantings of the international varieties ubiquitous in many other areas of Chile.

Muscat of Alexandria and Cinsault form the backbone of Ñuble vineyards, especially in the Itata Valley, where they represent two-thirds of the grapes grown. Plantings of País, which came to Chile from Peru during the colonial era, are second only to those of Maule; Torontel, a natural cross of Muscat of Alexandria and País that originated in Mendoza, is considered indigenous. The heritage of these and other varieties is cataloged in Chile’s old-vine register; of the 22 producers from Itata listed there, ten care for vines 100 years or older, including Le Leona, which harbors a País vine dating back to 1798.

What’s Old Is New Again
One of the first major wine regions of Chile, the Itata Valley was initially planted by the Spanish in the mid-16th century. Wine culture flourished under the Jesuits during the colonial period, and viticulture became an integral part of the local economy.

Winemakers used the high-quality clay found in the region to make tinajas, or clay amphorae, and made barrels and vats from a native beech tree called raulí in which to ferment and age their wine. While these centuries-old practices were never fully abandoned, they are enjoying a renaissance today.

Producers to Know
Under his own name as well as the Rawüll and Kilaco brands, Gustavo Martínez is championing the use of ancestral varieties and production methods at his small winery in the Itata Province, where he ages País, Carignan, Cinsault, and Muscat of Alexandria in 20-year-old barrels.

Since 1992, the Pandolfi Price family has been making wines in Chillan Viejo, the easternmost commune in the Diguillín planted to vine. There, they produce Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Riesling under their Larkün and Los Patricios brands.

Juan José Ledesma, who works with Malbec from Bío Bío and Cabernet Sauvignon from Itata, explores the connection between music and wine at Terroir Sonoro, developing musical composition for each expression as part of his creative winemaking process.

Enologist Leonardo Erazo employs a combination of experimental and ancestral techniques at A Los Viñateros Bravos in the Itata Province to produce both modern and traditional wine styles. He works with aromatic white varieties planted on slate in the commune of Cobquecura as well as with fruit from Guarilihue, a cold coastal site in the Coelemu commune, where he recently completed a soil map.

Since 1983, Joel Neira and his family have tended Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Muscat of Alexandria vines at Viña Piedras del Encanto in the commune of Ránquil. They produce both still and sparkling wines under the Kürüf, Quartz Rouges, and Piedras del Encanto labels.

Built-in Sustainability
In a region that is home to a chain of 12 volcanoes, many of which are active, it’s a given that the parent soil is primarily granite. Its decomposed forms, including maicillo, or gravel rich in quartz, and rusty-colored, iron-rich clay, are found in the Cordillera de la Costa, the coastal mountain range. Further inland, there are pockets of sedimentary deposits along the rivers and caches of slate on the eastern slopes of the Andes.

The key to the Itata Valley’s natural sustainability lies in the location of the vineyards, which determines how much rainfall they receive, and the water-retention capacity of these soils. With approximately 33–43 inches of rain each year, the Itata Valley is one of the few regions in Chile that can be completely dry farmed. (Despite the presence of snowmelt from the Andes and many rivers, Chile does experience droughts, and water resources are increasingly scarce.)

With approximately 300 wineries, of which 26 export to 23 different markets and 38 are potential exporters, the future looks auspicious for the Itata Valley.

Five Decades for the Class of ’72

Of the California wineries celebrating their 50th birth year in 2022, six gathered to mark the occasion with a retrospective tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Each dazzled us with three wines while reflecting on five decades of harvests and providing a snapshot of their current vintages.

In his 2002 Decanter story on the 30th anniversary of the Class of ’72—as the Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries that either were founded in or presented their inaugural releases that year have come to be known—Paul Franson noted that it was a glowing report about the future of the wine business by Bank of America that emboldened many to make the leap of faith required to live their dream.

And yet 1972 wasn’t an easy vintage; on its 25th anniversary in 1997, Wine Spectator’s James Laube wrote that “if you turned back the clock to 1972, you’d find one of the—if not the—worst [Napa Valley] vintages in modern history.” His observation is a testament to the passion and determination that kept these post-Prohibition winegrowers, who were known for their camaraderie, going strong.

In fact, the vintage was a dry one, with intense summer heat spikes and rain during harvest, yet quality for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars remained excellent. Stag’s Leap assistant winemaker Luis Contreras and vineyard manager Kirk Grace presented the 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon. Representing the second harvest from vines planted by Warren Winiarski, the wine was showing well, having moved to fully tertiary flavors of umami, loam, clove, and black pepper, while its aromas pointed to evidence of bright red fruit and even citrus in its youth.

Made by founding winemaker Bill Sorenson, the Burgess Cellars 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by current winemaker Meghan Zobeck. With a deep ruby-garnet core and a fully garnet rim, the wine was very much alive, offering complex leathery notes courtesy of Brettanomyces, deep brown spice, earth, black tea, and, eventually, coffee. Like the mythical phoenix, Burgess has risen from the ashes after being destroyed in the Glass Fire in 2020 thanks to its new owners, Lawrence Wine Estates, and the arrival of Zobeck, now in her second vintage.

Chateau Montelena’s fame will forever be entwined with that of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, as together they conquered the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, which succeeded in shining a spotlight on Napa Valley. Presented by winemaker Matt Crafton, Montelena’s 1990 Chardonnay was made by Bo Barrett with destemmed fruit from the Oak Knoll AVA; vinified without malolactic conversion, the wine was both fresh and lush, with delicate notes of petrol and ripe pineapple (a classic marker of the Old Wente clone) and a dusting of nutmeg.

Diamond Creek’s 1993 Red Rock Terrace, made by Al and Boots Brounstein, was the product of a cool, wet vintage. Made from dry-farmed vines planted in 1968, the deeply extracted expression showed layers of dark, spicy fruit, including blackberry and cassis, and earth with resolved, dusty tannins. The winery was acquired by Maison Louis Roederer in 2020 and is under the guidance of president Nicole Carter, who presented the wine.

Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dave Stare was one of the only winemakers in the Class of ’72 to study at the University of California, Davis, prior to founding a winery—in fact the first winery in Dry Creek Valley since Prohibition. Winemaker Tim Bell presented the 1994 Fumé Blanc, renowned for its provenance as one of the first Fumé Blancs besides Robert Mondavi’s. Bright, beautifully golden, and vibrant, the wine was redolent of toasted hazelnut, golden apple, and aromatic dried herbs.

The retrospective tasting was organized by Lisa Mattson, creative director for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, who was not about to let the 50th anniversary of the Class of ’72 go unacknowledged. Founders Tom and Sally Jordan were already Francophiles when Tom read a Wall Street Journal article citing Bank of America’s aforementioned report on the bright future of the California wine industry. He planted vines in 1972,and Jordan’s first harvest was in 1976.

In 1980, when newly elected President Ronald Reagan chose the wines that would be served at state dinners, Jordan was among them, helping to make a name for Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The 1999 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by grower relations manager Dana Grande, who pointed out that 1999 was a “rebound” vintage after the notoriously cool 1998 and that it was the first vintage made from Jordan’s hillside estate vineyards. With a deep garnet core moving to a narrow garnet rim, the wine opened with lighter red-fruit and black olive aromas that deepened to a rich,
nuanced palate of black cherry, tobacco, and vanilla.

For tasters with an appreciation for older vintages, it will be a dream to revisit these and the spectacular 12 wines that followed them in 2044, on the 72nd anniversary of the Class of ’72.