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Luscious Valentine Wines Have Tales to Tell

February 9, 2019

Francisco Goya’s “The Little Prisoner” graces the label of an excellent wine of almost the same name.

Red is the color of Cupid’s favorite holiday, and also should be the color of the wines you serve your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, especially if they come with an equally romantic story.

As a rule, red wines are richer, more flavorful and more complex than their white counterparts – just like most romantic relationships. Some of the very best can play a significant role in the seduction dance, often yielding the desired results.

But many also come with a story. Here are few uniquely named red blends with tales and flavors to set you taste buds – and hearts – aflutter.

The Prisoner ($49), a Zinfandel-driven 2017 Napa Valley blend that brings Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Charbono into the mix, at first stands out because of its label art. The design features Francisco Goya’s “The Little Prisoner”, an etching that shows a man shackled and chained, his facial features obscured by a mop of black hair and a thick beard.

We’re not sure why winemaker Dave Phinney chose this image to characterize a wine based on the “mixed blacks” style that Italian winemakers first brought to California. But The Prisoner’s rich, flavorful palate of pomegranate, raspberry and vanilla enhanced by a long, succulent finish certainly captured our taste buds and spoiled us for a lot of lesser varieties. Rumor has it that wine aficionados Kate Mara and Lady Gaga feel the same way.

Argentine organic winemakers Finca Decero decided to take a walk on the wild side with The Owl & The Dust Devil ($29), and the resulting wine has a little of that character in its nature. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (39%), Malbec (32%) Petit Verdot (19%) and Tannat (10%) was produced from grapes grown high in the Andes Mountains at the vintner’s Remolinos, or “whirlwinds”, vineyard. It’s there the legend starts.

Rumor has that a family of Lechuza owls makes its home in the vineyard, lording over proceedings with a watchful eye. When the high Andean winds stir up the occasional dust devil, the owls set off in pursuit until the whirlwind spins itself out of existence, making the vineyard a safe place once again. The colorful story accompanies a rich palate of dark fruits and spring flowers, resulting in a wine as compelling as its legend.

One of our favorite biodynamic wineries, Mendocino County’s Bonterra Vineyards, produces two wines with unique names. One of them simply replicates the name of the ranch on which it is grown, and the other is a name we can’t quite figure out.

The McNab ($50), a 2014 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Old Vine Petite Sirah and touches of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, is the product of and named for the unique terroir that comprises the McNab Ranch, which Bonterra calls home. The bold, black currant nose gives way to subtle flavors of raspberry, plum and spice, with a vanilla essence culled largely from the French oak barrels in which it is aged. With a fulsome mouthfeel, The McNab delivers well.

We had less luck identifying the naming source for The Butler ($50), Bonterra’s 2013 award-winning blend. Driven primarily by Syrah with touches of Mourvedre, Grenache and Zinfandel, the wine presents with a plum-cherry nose. The fruit follows through on the palate seasoned with oak and licorice spice. The mouthfeel is velvety and the finish long.

Regardless of their names, either of these wines are notable for their finesse. The four, taken together, constitute some of the best red wines we’ve had in some time. Our sweetheart loved them, and so, likely, will yours.

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MSO kicks off the holiday season in grand style

December 2, 2018

Maestro John DeMain conducts the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Say all you want about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the other shopping “holidays.” The Christmas season never officially starts until John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra kick it off with a weekend of holiday music both sacred and secular.

The annual event happened again this past weekend when A Madison Symphony Christmas took the Overture Hall stage, just as it has for the past 25 years, which, coincidentally, is the length of DeMain’s tenure with the orchestra. The usual cast of hundreds joined packed houses for three performances celebrating the music that helps us all better understand and appreciate the holidays.

DeMain and his musicians were in fine form throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance on a rain-soaked Saturday evening. Joining them was the Madison Symphony Chorus directed by Beverly Taylor, members of multiple sections of the Madison Youth Choirs led by Michael Ross, and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir, led by Tamera and Leotha Stanley.

Fronting the massive amount of musical talent was bass-baritone and Maria Callis Award-winner Kyle Ketelsen, who manages an international opera career while still living with his family in Sun Prairie, and soprano Cecelia Violetta López. Whether audience tastes ran to classical or contemporary, there was plenty of music to go around.

Classics dominated the evening’s first half with selections by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and two clips from Handel’s Messiah, including the famous “Hallelujah chorus” which closed the performance’s first half. DeMain gave audience members the option of sitting or standing during the work. Most audience members sat, but a few of the stalwarts took to their feet in the more traditional fashion.

The tone livened a bit during the second, more contemporary half, and the soloists really shone. Ketelsen exercised his silken pipes on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” while López, in her MSO debut, introduced the audience to “Mi Burrito Sabanero,” a lively Venezuelan Christmas song that found her dancing with DeMain during the chorus. The two performances were highlights of the evening.

One can sometimes forget the power of choral music, but the negligence was erased during this performance. Each choral group was different in its own way, complementing the others and adding artistically to the mix.

The youth choirs seemed especially accomplished for vocalists so young, and Leotha Stanley’s arrangements of traditional carols “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “O Holy Night” for Mount Zion added new vibrancy to the proceedings. The Symphony Chorus was the powerhouse ensemble that brought it all together.

As always, the evening closed with an audience sing-along with one verse each of seven very familiar carols. Each section of the orchestra donned its own version of festive headwear, which included Santa hats for most. But there were also variations such as tall green Christmas trees for the flautists and a Santa hat-beard-sunglasses disguise for the bass violinists.

Clearly, the musicians were having as much fun as the audience during what has become MSO’s annual – and much appreciated – holiday gift to the community.

David Crosby sings songs both old and new

November 23, 2018

Yes, Croz, that is a guitar.

Judging from the audience assembled for Tuesday’s concert by David Crosby and Friends at Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, most had been around when the 77-year-old folk rocker came on the scene with The Byrds in 1965 and likely followed him through his days as both a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and as a solo artist.

But “Croz” is with a new band now, a group of much younger musicians that includes guitarist Becca Stevens, keyboard player Michelle Willis and multi-instrumentalist Michael League, leader of the jazz-funk-rock-fusion band Snarky Puppy. Sure, he said in his opening remarks, he’d play a few songs we had all heard before.

But the lion’s share of show was new music written in partnership with his new band mates. And it was clear from the tender, insightful lyrics, solid melodies and beautiful harmonies that Croz, not satisfied with just playing his greatest hits, was still creating music.

The list of 18 songs performed included a number of them from Here If You Listen, the band’s newest recording. “Things We Do for Love,” “1974,” “Vagrants of Venice” and the haunting “By The Light of Common Day” were among the songs that seemed to most resonate with the older audience. The harmonies, particularly those by Stevens and Willis, were beautiful, contributing to the bands “wall of sound” that was more Enya than CSN&Y.

It wasn’t until he end that Croz and the group trotted out some of the old CSN&Y standards, including “Guinnievere,” “Carry Me” and “Déjà Vu.” And for an encore? How about a lovely, ethereal version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and a rocking sing-along to Neil Young’s “Ohio?”

We had, indeed, all been here before, and for many of us it was great to return.

John Cleese’s “No Hope” speech hopelessly funny

November 20, 2018

John Cleese

If you are one of those who think the current political, social and even meteorological climates clearly offer no hope for any of us, relax. Comedian John Cleese says you are right on the money.

Cleese, co-founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe, originator of the BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers, and screenwriter/star of the 1986 film A Fish Called Wanda, shared his wryly acerbic observations with an audience of about 1,500 at Madison’s Overture Hall this past Sunday. It’s safe to say that everyone felt much better about life’s hopelessness after the presentation.

A smartly dressed Jonathan Suttin, DJ at local radio station 105.5 Triple M, served as emcee to Cleese, who ambled out in a blue polo shirt, jeans, moccasins with no socks, and a sports jacket to wild applause waved, bowed and ambled off again. The move set the stage for 45 minutes of droll humor, philosophical observations and absurdist comments. The largely older audience, many clearly Python fans since the show’s premiere episode in 1969, relished the 79-year-old comic’s viewpoints.

Cleese’s lecture drew on skills learned as a visiting professor at Cornell University, and he backed up his assertions with scholarly research. His basic thesis – that the best of people underestimate their skills while the worst of them have no a clue how inept and incapable they really are – has been proved time and again, he says, most recently by the current presidential administration.

“The upcoming generation offers no hope of respite, either,” Cleese said. ”Millennials have an attention span of about 7 seconds, while goldfish have a span of 9 seconds. President Trump falls somewhere in between.”

No hope? To be certain, and the only thing we really can do about it is laugh.

Suttin and Cleese used the balance of the 90-minute program in general discussion about the comedian’s past and well as fielding a few questions from audience members. The discussion was instructive, but the audience Q&A was poorly handled

Given the high caliber of the rest of the presentation, the failure was unfortunate. But given the resounding audience laughter throughout, no one seemed to mind very much.

Cuvaison looks at 50

October 29, 2018

Cuvaison Winery celebrates 50 years in 2019.

In 2019, Napa Valley vintner Cuvaison Winery will celebrate 50 years in the California wine industry. We’ve asked winemaker Steve Rogstad to look back – and forward – on the award-winning winery’s past, present and future.

 

I was 8 years old in 1969 and living in North Dakota. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Vietnam War was on the television, like, every day. My sister and I liked a show called Dark Shadows about vampires in Maine. My brothers listened to Frank Zappa at high volume and giggled a lot.

Apparently, the 1969 vintage in Napa was stellar and I’ve even heard that the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon, made by eventual Cuvaison winemaker Philip Togni, was the greatest Napa wine ever made.

Cuvaison was founded in the same vintage year, and one could expect a terrific season with the opportunity to craft some beautiful wines.

There were only 20-some bonded wineries back then, no general consensus on what varieties to plant and grow and no real market of any note for the wines. Trained professionals were hard to come by so everyone was looking to the University of California-Davis and the handful of successful wineries for guidance and advice, making the industry more collegial than perhaps it is today. I experienced that to a large degree when I began in the wine industry and producers of Pinot Noir in particular were all pulling together to better their vineyards and wines.

Winemaker Steve Rogstad

Back then, Cuvaison was still in its infancy and experimental stage. We were making Napa Gamay and Grey Riesling, and trying to find our voice. That would happen with Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-1970s, but truly with Chardonnay, and with the founding of the Cuvaison Estate Vineyard in Los Carneros in 1979.

Napa old timers have told me that you couldn’t dine in your backyard on a summer evening without a warm jacket, and perhaps that is less true today. In my own experience the seasons seem more variable then when I started making wines 25 years ago.

The cold vintages can be quite cool, and the hot ones seem warmer, with more heat spikes. I would also say that Napa is far more Cab-centric than it was back then, and Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening variety. Stylistically, wineries are often harvesting at higher sugar levels than in the 1960s, so there’s a longer hang-time, but with likely lower yields than were averaged back then, which would help offset the longer ripening.

What’s ahead? I am a climate-change believer and, for me, the first real difference is that the winters are warmer and the vines come out of dormancy earlier, which shifts the whole growing season forward in the calendar. This has been true the previous five vintages and would have held true this year if we hadn’t shifted into a cold spring and our first generally cool vintage since 2012.

If the Pacific starts to warm off the California coast, we will have warmer seasons on average in Napa, which will still be quite suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon, but perhaps more challenging for Burgundian varieties 50 years hence. If the sea warms it will likely be wetter as well, which creates its own impacts.

One caveat is that the engine that cools Napa in the summer is the lifting of hot air in the central valley. As these thermals increase in strength or frequency, they will pull cool air off the Pacific and across the region. The biggest offset to this are high pressure systems that build over the desert southwest, funneling hot air eastward across the state and pushing the cool marine layer back out to sea.

I would guess the seasonal swings of these two climatic features will intensify and we will have seasons that are much bumpier weather-wise, and maybe not so boring. The old joke about California was that we didn’t have vintages like those in Europe because the weather was so benign. But now it feels like more of a roller coaster ride, and knowing your vintages will be more important to wine consumers in the future.

The business of growing grapes is becoming ever more technical with shade cloths of differing colors, micro-misters and emitters, and individual sensors for vines. As technologies like robotics, drones and AI continue to gain traction, the farming will be ever more responsive to the changing environment.

In 50 years I’ll be walking on the moon with all the old dogs that passed before me, but I believe the primary wines of Napa – Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends – will still rule the valley.

 

‘Something Rotten!’ is definitely not that

October 10, 2018

Shakespeare (Matthew Baker) basks in the adoration of the masses in “Something Rotten!”

You don’t need to be a Shakespeare scholar or a musical theater devotee to enjoy Something Rotten!, the first production of Overture Center for the Arts’ Broadway Across America season of traveling musicals. But being either or both does help. A lot.

The show, which takes place during the English Renaissance in the wake of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opening night, is rich with allusions to the Bard as well as references to musical theater. The more of those references you recognize, it seemed from the audience’s response, the more fun you’re going to have. The show is hysterically funny.

Specifically, the story centers on theatrical producer Nick Bottom (Matthew Michael Janisse) and his younger brother Nigel (Richard Spitaletta), who is a poet writing in the style of Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, the pair has achieved nowhere near the fan base of Shakespeare (a hysterical Matthew Baker), who is treated like the rock star of the age. The question for the Bottom brothers is how to follow Shakespeare’s act?

Nick takes all the money he and his wife Bea (Emily Kristen Morris) have saved for a cottage in the country and hires the nephew of the visionary Nostradamus named Thomas (an equally hysterical Greg Kalafatas) – yes, Thomas Nostradamus – to look into the future and foretell what would be Shakespeare’s most famous play. The slightly skewed seer comes up with Omelet.

But Thomas also predicts that the next big trend in theater will be the musical. Armed with that information, Nick and Nigel set out to create a musical version of Omelet.

You see where this is going, right?

Despite the fact that some of the humor is sophomoric and a little crude, Something Rotten! takes off at lightening speed with jokes, musical numbers and colorful characters that make the production a first class theatrical romp.

There is mass tap dancing, kick lines and a chorus of characters dressed as dancing eggs. It’s hard to believe that something basically this dumb can also be so much fun. But Something Rotten! is just that, proving to be an evening of theater well spent.

Tasting Tuscany

September 21, 2018

The Nipozzano vineyards produce one of Tuscany’s leading chiantis.

One of the best things about visiting Italy is sampling local foods and wines. But we can’t always visit when we want.

If we find ourselves aching for an Adriatic view from Venice’s Piazza San Marco or suffering an uncontrollable urge for Umbria, we know our next best thing is to bring the food and, especially, the wine to us so that we can travel vicariously.

We decided this year when those feelings hit that it was time to taste a little Tuscany. Three wines stood out from the list of many that made it to our table.

The Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco 2016 ($30) is the equivalent of a California Chardonnay – with small amounts of Pinot Bianco – aged in stainless steel. While the debate still rages over oaked versus un-oaked Chards, this wine slips quietly and comfortably onto the scene. It floral and fruity aromas give way to a palate of tropical flavors with a hint of apricot and raspberry aftertaste. It’s overall impression is bright, light and refreshing, and that’s enough for most of us.

A chianti well worth a pour.

Frescobaldi also delivers one of the best chiantis we’ve ever had. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2013 ($30), blended primarily from Sangiovese with complimentary red varietals, spent 24 months in large oak barrels prior to bottling, and the wood’s influence shows in both the wine’s refinement and fullness. Expect a nose of spice and coffee leading to a well-balanced palate of raspberries, licorice and juniper berries, along with well-managed tannins and a smooth, lingering finish.

The best of the trio by far was the 2015 Lucente ($30). The wine is built on a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese cultivated under almost ideal growing conditions. Lucente has a subtle nose of dark fruits with a touch of spice, and a palate almost silky in texture. The varietal flavors come through in a way that creates an overall flavor profile greater than the sum of its parts, yet the wine remains light and palatable, with a gentle mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish.

This was a vicarious trip well taken, and one that will lead us back to Tuscany sooner rather than later.