The Wine Show: Episode 3 Series 2
In the third show in the new series of The Wine Show, James Purefoy and Matthew Goode think they’re in for a fabulous lunch at the glamorous Palme D’Or restaurant in Cannes. Little do they know the chef has decided they need to work for their lunch. But they each find a wine to take back for Jancis Robinson to assess as a match to the fish course of Stephane Reynaud’s epic six-course lunch. Meanwhile Joe Fattorini has been to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, to find out if it really can lay claim to being the cradle of wine. And Joe joins wine expert Amelia Singer in California to find out how one sheriff is helping a local wine maker find people to work in her vineyard at a time of historic labour shortages. Back in London, Matthew Rhys is at Berry Brothers & Rudd in London’s St James’s looking at historic and modern gadgets.
The Birthplace of wine
In the heart of downtown Tblisi there’s a wine bar called ‘8000 Vintages’. Georgia is the only country in the world where you could call your bar 8000 Vintages. It’s the only country in the world that’s had 8000 vintages.
In the archives of Georgia’s museums are grape seeds and artefacts that point to this being the birthplace of wine. But it’s not only the archaeology. Everywhere you look in Georgia you find grapes, vines and wine. Poeple claim the country’s unique system of writing is modelled on the twisted form of vines. The country’s most prized relic is a vinewood cross. It’s bound with the hair of St Nino, who converted Georgia to Christianity seventeen centuries ago. At a feast – a ‘supra’ – toasts are made to the memory of warriors who defended Georgia with a vine cutting sewn into their armour. If they died, the vine would take root, growing through their heart.
And it’s in Georgia that you’ll find winemaking at its most basic, most primal. Pheasant’s Tears is one of the wineries making wine using kvevri. It’s an ancient technique. Whole bunches of grapes are crushed into vast earthenware vessels buried in the ground. They ferment on their own, the process managed not by man, but by close interaction with the earth around the kvevri. It’s ‘natural winemaking’. But it’s also winemaking in symbiosis with nature.
The writer Sir Fitzroy Maclean described Georgians as “much the hardest-drinking nation on earth”. A night at a supra suggests he was right. But the songs and dances and toasts reveal a people with a deep connection to the land. People who’ve defended it from marauding invaders, Persian kings and Russian aggressors. And a people with a deep, spiritual connection to vines, grapes and wine.
Pheasant’s Tears Polyphony
Once tried, never forgotten. Wild, alive, complex. But where to begin? The 417 grape varieties (I won’t list them here)? The months on skins in a Kvevri, the earthenware vessel used to ferment wines for 8000 years here? It’s brick-red tinged, with a sourness that catches you at first, then melds into the complex flavours of a Georgian supra or feast. You have to try this. Even if it’s only once.
Mendocino – Thinking outside the Bottle
Not many people have heard of Mendocino. Whereas neighbouring Napa is the most-visited tourist attraction after Disneyland, Mendocino’s bucolic beauty belies a region of grit – winegrowers here are traditionally paid lower prices for fruit. However, attracting labour is the biggest issue, especially when many vineyard workers are being seduced by marijuana growers. The average price of grape picking is $10 an hour but you can earn $25 trimming weed.
To deal with this crisis, local sheriff, Tom Allman, had a creative solution – why not use prisoners from the county jail as pickers? Driving Joe and I in his police car, Tom explains how he concocted this scheme with Martha Barra, whose family-run winery was being seriously affected. Together they chose several prisoners to do the harvest and paid them a fair wage. It worked so well that the number of prisoner pickers has increased and three other sheriffs have incorporated this scheme.
As effective as this scheme sounded, I couldn’t help but ask Martha Barra if she felt safe in the vineyards. According to Martha, Tom had a rigorous selection system but I was unconvinced.
My doubts persisted until I had seen the prisoners themselves. Out in Martha’s vineyard I could see how studiously they worked. They displayed an impressive knowledge of viticulture but they also really enjoyed it. As one prisoner said “it feels like you’ve accomplished something.” Perhaps the most impressive story was Jaime’s who enjoyed the work so much he then became the vineyard manager as soon as he left jail.
I now view this moody region in a new light. It could perhaps be the innovator of the greatest labour initiative in California. I understand why Martha Barra takes delight in writing cheques for these pickers. This scheme has created sustainable labour but it has also given local people a second chance in life.
Barra of Medocino Petit Sirah
Brawny, bold and no-holds-barred. Petite Sirah is the signature grape at Barra and they don’t hold back. Mocha and leather wrap up a full-bodied palate of blackberry fruit and mocha flavours. You’ll need plenty of flavour to match up to this, and hearty mouthfeel too with lots of rippling, muscular tannins. It’s smooth, but in the way a V8 engine roar is smooth. This feels American and all the better for it.
Grapes vs a different kind of weed
Working in a vineyard isn’t glamorous. Harvesting looks lovely in the pictures. By the evening everyone looks like they’ve run a marathon. And photographers find the biting cold and twiggy vines of pruning time aren’t so photogenic.
So what happens when your pickers and pruners find other, easier, better-paid work to do? That’s the problem facing growers in Mendocino County, California. Mendocino has legalised regulated medical marijuana plantations. And former vineyard workers are moving. Much of the work of marijuana is indoors, sitting down and less punishing on your back and hands.
Vineyard owner Martha Barra and Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman have an innovative answer. Martha has vineyards that need skilled workers and Sheriff Tom has inmates in the county jail who need to learn skills before their release. Each morning a carefully selected group of prisoners arrive at Martha’s family-owned winery and head into the vineyards. And each week Martha pays them money they can send home to look after their families, homes and even their pets.
But how does Martha know that the inmates who come to her vineyard are going to work hard? And how do the inmates and Sheriff Tom know that they’re not just going to be used as cheap labour? Does Martha feel safe? Do the inmates feel valued?
Medical marijuana legalisation will not stop in counties like Mendocino. And vineyard work is becoming less and less attractive to traditional groups of migrant workers like Mexicans who used to make the annual trip to northern California for the harvest. Amelia and I head off to see if the partnership between Martha and Sheriff Tom will be one way we continue to enjoy wine in the future. And one way the inmates of California’s jails can develop the skills to enjoy their future.
THE WINE SHOW CASE – Challenge Three
Whether it’s a tower of shellfish, or a perfectly grilled sole, there’s not much more gastronomically synonymous with the south of France than a beautiful plate of fish. And for this, the third course in our epic French lunch, Stephane Reynaud opts for baby squid. Not perhaps the prettiest of dishes, but its complexity in terms of the ingredients incorporated – squid ink, red wine, cream and ginger – meant the wine match is a bit of a challenge.
Matthew and James head to a familiar stomping ground – Cannes on the Côte d’Azur – where Matthew attempts to secure a table at the fabled La Palme d’Or restaurant. But it’s never as simple as that on the Wine Show. Head Chef of this 2 Michelin Star restaurant, Christian Sinicropi, has other plans, and with their toques and aprons, they are faced with creating a sauce for one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – Sardines with Squid ink sauce.
Eventually they sit down to eat the fruits of their labour. The tastes in the dish echo the flavours in Stephane’s recipe so the restaurant’s sommelier chooses three wines from which they can choose. James decides to take a risk in choosing the red and Matthew went with the Clos Saint Josef.
Clos Saint Joseph Cotes de Provence Villars-sur-Var Blanc – Winner
“I like the fact that James picked a red that is very marine, a wine surrounded by the sea. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed Matthew’s choice of the white wine. It has that little bit of chewyness at the end which isn’t a bad thing.
They’ve both got strong attributes, but my final choice and the one that is going into the Wine Show case is Matthew’s Villars-sur-Var Clos Saint Joseph.”