Category Archives: GrapeTales

Pondering Peynaud: Drink Less But Be Fastidious

Carlo Rossi Chablis“Drink less but be fastidious in your choice; every time you purchase an inferior bottle, you compromise the reputation of good wine in general.”

So what is good wine? Peynaud has his parameters, which I know now and will share with you.

But I will tell you first that I have drunk, and bought, plenty of inferior wine. In my first memory, I actually stole it.

You see, I did not grow up in a wine-drinking household. My parents’ drink of choice was bourbon and water, with a side of Granny Goose potato chips. But my paternal Motherland – Croatia – is ground zero for wine discovery. The cradle, my instructor once called it.

My father was laying in the cradle when he had his first taste of wine. As any Old World European would, my Croatian grandmother would dilute wine with water, wet her index finger, and rub it lavishly on my teething father’s gums as his yelps of pain silenced under the salve. I would like to think they did the same for me – but I can’t be sure.

So I deduce my first taste of white wine was from a jug of Carlo Rossi Chablis stolen from a Catholic confirmation party in the 8th grade. During the party, my best friend Tina and I knew the exact moment when all adults would be cleared out of the Clubhouse kitchen located directly across from where Tina lived.

We each took two. I can still see us, hoofing those seemingly 40-pound jugs across the street as fast as our Top Sidered feet would take us – our thumbs desperately wrapped in the rings of their handles.

The Carlo Rossi tasted of granulated aspirin tablets, especially when it was warm, which it always was, because we stored the four jugs in Tina’s closet. Looking for a tennis racket a month later, Tina’s father found the stash, and quickly confiscated them.

And that was the end of my white wine drinking until Bartles and James wine coolers came into fashion in high school.

Acidity and sweetness makes white wines harmonious, Peynaud writes. “Because they possess little or no tannin, white wines have a simple balance of flavors by comparison with red wines. Their support structure is conditioned solely by substances that are sweet and those that are acid.”

The Carlo Rossi had none of the pure fruit sweetness, and – from what I remember – was as high in acid as a Woodstock Summer of Love hippie.

It’s My Fault

Sally Ottoson’s Pacific Star Winery isn’t in Napa, a region still recovering from losses from the summer’s earthquake. But along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Where do you get your grapes?” tasting room visitors at the Mendocino County winery want to know: “Where’s the fault?”

Answer: They’re standing right on top of it, and they’ll taste a wine in honor of the Pacific Star fault’s discovery, aptly named “It’s My Fault.”

“When customers ask for the wine, they don’t say “I would like a bottle of ‘It’s My Fault,” said Robert Zimmer, Ottoson’s friend, colleague, and tasting room employee. “They ask for a bottle of “It’s Not My Fault.”

(Even I, in an e-mail to the winery, said I wanted more information on “It’s Not My Fault”).

“It’s human nature to decline responsibility for many things,” Zimmer said.

Sally Ottoson didn't know the winery she founded in XXXX was right on top of an earthquake fault.
Sally Ottoson didn’t know the winery she founded in 1987 was right on top of an earthquake fault.
PDF of Fault Map
San Francisco Chronicle article in 2006 detailing the fault where Pacific Star Winery lies on top of.

Zimmer takes full responsibility for naming the blend, – after all, he was partly responsibility for helping find the fault. A student of geology, Zimmer and many in the community had heard grumblings about the a fault running under the ocean-bluff bordered winery as far back as 2003. A month before Stanford University geologist Dr. Dorothy Merritts visited the winery 12 miles north of Fort Bragg, Ottoson and Zimmer had suspected the fault lay in a nearby cove. So when Merritts arrived , Zimmer was able to take her right to it.

Merritts revealed the Pacific Star fault officially at the 100th Anniversary Conference commemorating The Great Earthquake of 1906, held in San Francisco in April 2006 –same year “It’s My Fault” was first blended. So as Napa vintners now clamor for names to commemorate the 6.0 tremblor that shook the grapes making up the 2014 vintage and sent cellar barrels crashing to tasting room floors, this fall “It’s My Fault” is in its 8th release.

its my fault

Like the fault up until its discovery, “It’s My Fault” remains somewhat of a mystery.

“She doesn’t even tell us what’s in “It’s My Fault,” said a tasting room employee on a visit to Pacific Star during a recent visit. “We call it Sally’s Secret Sauce.”

Sally, also the winemaker, uses grapes left over from some of Pacific Star’s best-selling single varietals, including Charbonno, Carignane, Zinfandel, and Petite Syrah – grapes that were “usually planted by someone’s grandfather many years ago,” Ottoson said. So a $15 a bottle of “It’s My Fault,” is made up of the same grapes that go into $28 bottle single varietals.

Ottoson says the Napa quake, which some believe connects to the San Andreas Fault, didn’t change any of her storage and production practices.

“We’re inspected by County Hazardous Materials storage,” said Ottoson. “We don’t have any…but they make sure everything is secured.”




Gio’s Fish

As a 10-year-old in the early ‘80s, Gio Martorana fished in Grape Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek in the Russian River Watershed in Sonoma that runs near acres of Chardonnay and Zinfandel vineyards his parents started maintaining in 1983.

“We’d see Coho salmon and steelhead trout,” said Martorana as he walked Grape Creek on a rainy November day, recalling the trips he’d make from San Francisco to Sonoma until 2004 when he and his family founded Martorana Family Winery. “Slowly it seemed like they were going away and I started to pay attention.”

Martorana Family Winery won the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency’s 2014 Stewardship Award for watershed restoration.


Martorana Family Winery winemaker Gio Martorana standing in the creek he helped restore.
Martorana Family Winery winemaker Gio Martorana standing in the creek he helped restore.
photo 2
A fish ladder in Grape Creek will help returning Coho salmon and steelheads return home.

“Last year, the award went to a cattle rancher from South Dakota on 50,000 acres,” said Martorana.

Steelhead and Coho are threatened and endangered. Creeks such as Grape Creek had degraded to uninhabitable for fish to play out their natural life cycle: grow to fry that instinctively hide, brave river currents, learn to school together, and lay their eggs in clean gravels, along with many other survival skills until they are old enough to migrate and return to reproduce.

When adult fish have finished growing in the ocean, they then swim back to the rivers in which they originally came. In 2014, no fish were released at all in Grape Creek at all.

Now a 30-foot fan moves air into the vineyards to prevent frost from freezing this years new growing vines instead of being hosed down with creek water. Other restoration features include weirs, which allow water to flow at an optimum level that provides a safe haven for fish returning and creating deeper pools. When they swim back from the Russian River and Pacific, the fish more efficiently reenter their home on a new fish ladder. Replanted native brush cradles the environment fish need to thrive in.


Frost Fan (Brock Dolman)


Martorana wasn’t an expert in environmentalism or watershed restoration. He’d done college projects on steelheads at Muir Woods and The Headwaters Project in college, and never thought his interest would make the difference that it has in balancing the needs of the wine-making economy and the environment.

“I learned as I went on,” said Martorana. “Watershed by watershed, you create a healthier system.”




Bracero Working In Fields Leonard Nadel 1956

Conrado Caratachea drove his sons to the movies in a Gran Torino, planted chilies and corn for his family’s table, and fixed neighbors’ leaky toilets and rusty front doors in their tiny village in Michoacán, Mexico.

But it wasn’t enough work to feed a family that would grow to seven daughters and four sons. In the late 1950s, Conrado crossed the border every day from the Mexican state of Sonora into Arizona to harvest fruits and vegetables under Bracero – a federal program that allowed 4.5 million guest workers to farm America’s fields. In 1961, Conrado landed in the vineyards of Napa Valley.

“A lot of other Braceros from Michoacán were going to Napa, so my father followed them. He wanted to know – what is there?” said Miguel Caratachea, 38, Punch Vineyard’s chief winemaker, who knows about his father only through stories passed down from his brothers and sisters. Miguel was 9-months-old when Conrado died at 60.

Conrado Caratachea as a young Bracero. He died when his son Miguel, below (right), was a baby.


Miguel and Lee
Lee Nordlund, proprietor of Punch Vineyards, (left) and Miguel Caratachea, head winemaker.

“People said he was a very nice guy who would help anyone. I was told he could do anything.”

Like father, like son.

Unlike many winemakers, Miguel guides every step of Punch’s Cabernets and Chardonnays from vineyard to bottle. He decided to name its premium Cabernet Bracero in honor of Conrado. Grapes for Punch’s releases are all bought from vineyard owners that Miguel has known since he was 12 and followed his brother, Hijinio to Napa Valley. Wine and Spirits Magazine named Bracero one of the top Cabernets of 2014.

Hijinio was the assistant winemaker at Frogs Leap Cellars, taught Miguel the trade and encouraged him to get a college degree. Miguel attended UC Davis’s enology program while commuting from Napa, graduating in 2000. He met Punch winemaker Lee Nordlund in 2007 and has been chief winemaker ever since. Hinijio died three years ago.

Bracero – which has Hijinio’s name on the back as well as Francisco, Miguel’s other brother who bottles it – was a label that almost wasn’t.

When he applied for Bracero, the government board regulating labels let Miguel know a winery was already bottling under “Braceros.” But Miguel didn’t mind – he only wanted to honor one Bracero with Punch’s $120 bottle. At the release party in the fall, Miguel had to tell people why Bracero was made in honor of his father.

“Many people at the party had ever even heard of the Bracero program,” said Miguel.

But Miguel and his family think about Conrado all of the time. Miguel’s 80-year-old mother Maria Catarina Curiel has kept all of Conrado’s pay stubs from the Bracero checks he sent to her in Michoacán and Miguel named his son Conrad.

Feature photos from iconic photographer Dorothea Lange, First Braceros 1942.