Wineries are like writers

If I've been silent for the last week, it's for a good reason: I've been drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

But it's all in a good way. Really truly! Nothing but the finest of fine red wine. My wife the Goddess of Punctuation and I were invited, along with 250 other lucky souls, to the 25th birthday of Charles Melton Wines, which is an ultra-high quality winery in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, an hour's drive north of Adelaide, which is a 2 hour flight from where we live in Sydney. So a fair way from home. In times BC (Before Children) we used to go winery visiting once or twice a year, but this trip was only the second time in 11 years that we had both been away from our girls. The girls were fine with it; I had separation anxiety.

Charles Melton is best known for the amazing wine called Nine Popes, which is made from predominantly Grenache grapes, with some Shiraz and Mourvedre thrown in.

The Barossa has a reputation for producing very high quality wine. Penfolds Grange, which is widely considered one of the best wines in the world, is made just up the road, and Nine Popes does for Grenache grapes what Grange does for Shiraz.

I won't bore you with piles of wine talk (I hope) but there were two highlights I must mention.

The first was an international tasting. Charlie brought in 12 wines from all over the world for a comparative tasting of four grape types made in totally different ways in different places. Slovakia, France, Italy and the US were on the list. I'll particularly mention the 2005 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel from California, the 2008 Christian Morery Vallions Chablis from France, and the 2008 Aston Hills Reserve Pinot from Australia. All amazing wines. And Charlie imported all these for us to taste at his own expense. Every drop of wine all we 250 guests drank over three days, both the imports and his own, plus some amazing food was given us by the winery as a massive thank you for our support over the years.

The second highlight was the vertical tasting of every vintage of every wine Charles Melton ever made. He had Nine Popes on the table from 1996 to 2008, and it was an amazing experience to taste one after the other. You could even taste the difference between the normal sized bottle and the magnum of exactly the same wine, and believe me, the difference was very clear. Same goes for his Shiraz wines and his Rosé.

The Melton Rosé by the way is named for his wife: Rose of Virginia. He also has a Shiraz called The Father In Law. There's no law says fine wine can't have a sense of humour.

Charlie talked about how he was running a small business, which he said to us in a huge shed surrounded by large vats of fermenting wine. If that's his definition of a small business, he should try writing.

Here's the Goddess of Punctuation. I think she might be checking one of the Grenache vines for missing semi-colons.

Now all this caused me to think a lot about how wineries are like writers. (Yes, drinking nothing but lots of fine wine for three days straight inspires thoughts like this.) But really, the similarities are there:

Tastes differ. In wine as in books. No one can satisfy every taste.

When people like you, they come back for more.

It doesn't take too many bad vintages (or books) to destroy your following and wipe you out.

I don't know about where you are, but here in Australia there are a zillion small wineries, all producing good stuff, and how's one winery to get noticed over another?
It's a craft and an art.

It makes people happy.

So what lessons can I learn as a writer from how Charles Melton made it as a vintner? I don't know what he thinks, but here's the way I see it:

Go for quality. The highest quality you can reach.

Quality + Hard Work + Outstanding Service = Vast Success

Be generous to your supporters. Charlie funded a party for 250 people with world class wines. He now has 250 rusted on customers who will love him forever. (But I thank God I'm not his accountant).

Have fun. At the final dinner, the staff got a standing ovation. They deserved every bit of it and more. The smiles never left their faces. They put up with us all. They did the near impossible and even looked happy doing it.

Roman Wine Review: Carenum

Welcome to the third and last of the reviews of wine made in the ancient Roman style by Tourelles Winery in Provence.

Carenum is really, really nice. I would happily buy more of this.

Carenum is a sweet, white wine. The label says it is made from late harvested grapes, which is highly believable. It has the intense flavor associated with wines in which the water content was reduced prior to making the vintage.

My wife Helen thinks Carenum tastes a bit like sherry. This is the only one of the three Roman wines which she more or less vacuumed down.

Carenum has had quince added to it, as well as grape juice that's been concentrated by boiling. That gives you a much stronger grape taste than you get from the previous two wines, for which their added spices were a dominant factor.

You could easily serve Carenum in an anonymous bottle at a dinner party and get away with it. Your friends would assume it was a sweet desert wine, which fundamentally, is exactly what it is.

Highly recommended.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Turriculae.

Roman Wine Review: Mulsum

The second wine in our series of genuine (sort of) Roman wine from Tourelles is Mulsum, a red.

Mulsum tastes like a really nice cough mixture. You know the type I mean: you take a swig to stop your cough so you can sleep at night, and then you take a bit more because it tastes okay.

I'm not using good winey language, I know; I should have said something like, "This wine has a strong, perhaps almost pungent, aftertaste, reminiscent of nuts and pepper," but what I'd really be saying is this tastes like a nice cough mixture. (I can feel any offers of a regular column in Wine Monthly slipping away with every word I write.)

Mulsum is a "normal" red wine to which has been added honey, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, and other spices in lesser amount. I'm guessing the honey and cinammon gives Mulsum the initial smooth taste, almost like a modern wine, and the pepper and thyme deliver the cough mixture finish.

You could probably serve Mulsum at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle and many people wouldn't notice, or at least, not comment. The finish might raise a few eyebrows, and I can imagine someone saying, "This is interesting, what is it?" At that point you could reveal your wine's fascinating provenance from Provence (how's that for alliteration?).

Mulsum was used in Roman times as their equivalent of an aperitif. It would do fine for the same purpose today. The winery suggests drinking it with duck with figs, small quails (of course you cook quail at home, don't you?), spicy dishes or Roquefort.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Carenum and Turriculae.

Roman Wine Review: Turriculae

There is a winery called Tourelles, in Provence in Southern France, which makes wine in the old Roman fashion, with a wine press that duplicates Roman design, using the methods described by Roman writers, and adding the same ingredients as the Romans put into their own wines. It's probably as close as anyone can come today to making a wine that a woman or man of 2,000 years ago might sip and find familiar. This is all just very cool.

I visited them recently and tasted and bought bottles of their three Roman vintages. I've never been a wine critic, and I'm probably beginning with a challenge, but here for better or worse are Gary's Roman wine reviews, which I'll post in tasting order.

First off is Turriculae, a white wine with some interesting ingredients.

Turriculae is like no modern wine. The first taste is a surprise, courtesy of the fenugreek. Yep, that's right. Fenugreek. You probably know it as something you put in your curry, but the Romans added fenugreek to their wine. In fact the word fenugreek comes from Latin: foenum graecum means "Greek hay".

As the flavor of the fenugreek dissipates there is a salty aftertaste. That's because Turriculae is 2% saltwater. Saltwater, like, from the sea.

Ahh, they don't make wines like they used to.

This may sound yukky, but after a while, it grows on you. The second night my wife and I drank Turriculae, it tasted nicer than the first, and keep in mind that for hundreds of years wealthy, sane people within the Roman Empire bought this stuff and enjoyed it, so there must be something to it. It's all a matter of fashion and what you're used to.

Romans added seawater as a preservative (the salt), as well as for taste. It's known that the Greeks too sometimes cut their wine with seawater, and they too added spices, so my guess is Turriculae is as close as we can come to duplicating the taste of a Greek wine. (As far as I know, no one is making Classical Greek wines the way this winery is making Roman ones.)

There is no way you could pass off Turriculae as a modern wine. If you served it to friends at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle, the first person to take a swig would clutch their throat and choke; not because there's anything wrong with the wine, but because the taste is so very unexpected.

You might try to pass it off as a liqueur from an exotic locale: "I picked up a few bottles of this while passing through Gallia Narbonensis. Do have a splash, it's quite different."

If you get away with it you then can have fun when you reveal to your friends what they've drunk and what's in it, plus you get to show how erudite you are with the joke about Gallia Narbonensis. (It's the name of the Roman province that included Provence).

As you can probably tell, although it was way cool to be drinking Turriculae, I would not walk through ten foot snow drifts to drink any more. But that's only me, and since I dislike all liqueurs and spirits, and Turriculae reminds me a little bit of a liqueur in taste, someone who likes that kind of thing should try it. In fact, everyone should try it at least once if only so you can say you have.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Carenum.