Thursday, June 10, 2021

By the Bottle: Alder Yarrow

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life.

I made Alder’s acquaintance through wine blogging, and have spent time with him in Napa and Italy. Alder is considered one of the pioneers of wine blogging with Vinography, and
has been a columnist for Jancis Robinson, since 2011, at He has traveled the world, to quench his thirst for wine and beyond. Alder is moved by wines that “have distinct personalities, strong voices, and reveal themselves in layers."


What wines do you have standing up right now?

At the moment I’ve got a bottle of 2019 Sandlands Red Table Wine in the fridge preserved with the new Coravin Pivot system, which is proving to be quite a handy device for keeping weeknight bottles fresh. In any case, Tegan Passalacqua has been making such wonderfully delicious wines under his Sandlands label, and this old-vine field blend from Contra Costa county is deliciously gulpable. It’s 55% Carignane and 45% Mataro and weighs in at only 12.8% alcohol. I like to drink it with a slight chill on it, and man, is it great.

In addition to that bottle, I’ve got the dregs of a couple of press samples that have been sent to me lately, a white Pinot Noir from Anne Amie Vineyards called “Prismé,” and a Vermentino di Gallura from the Sardegna producer Surrau.


What’s the last great wine you drank?

I’m not fully vaccinated yet (10 days and counting), so I’ve been easing my way back into social dining. I have a group of friends that have all been very careful and are partway through their vaccination regime too, and so we decided to go sit outside at The Morris restaurant in San Francisco a week or so ago, and we ordered some lovely wines. The star of the night was a 2011 Domaine du Collier “La Charpentrie” Saumur Blanc from the Loire Valley. It was just singing.


Describe your ideal drinking experience (when, where, what, how).

There are few things better than a long afternoon sitting around outside with good friends and great wine. If we’re talking ideal, it would be Spring, where the air is cool enough to keep the wines from getting warm, but warm enough to be comfortable. We’d be in the shade, at a picnic table, with an epic view, maybe of mountains or of the sea, and enough to eat so that we can keep drinking without needing a nap or to break away for a big meal.

I think if you had asked me this question 2 years ago, my answer might have been more grand, but right now, what I really want to do more than anything is just enjoy the company of great friends with no other encumbrances or obligations.


What’s your favorite wine no one else has heard of?

Most people have never heard of Juhfark, an obscure grape that comes from the little hill town of Somló in southeastern Hungary. Juhfark is unlike any other grape I’ve had, and the wines made from it give the impression of being liquid sunshine. In its youth it is honeyed with floral notes of bee pollen and chamomile and other yellow herbs layered over a deep, stony minerality. As it ages, it reverts to its mineral core, with incredible salinity and crystalline depth. It’s a magical wine, from a magical place.  


What wine should everybody drink before the age of 21?

Probably either a JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese, or a Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé. Life doesn’t really begin until you’ve enjoyed one of those, does it?


What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

I don’t think there’s any wine that someone should wait to drink, except those they can’t afford when they’re younger, which, these days, is an unfortunately large number of wines.


Who in wine — winemakers, winery owners, writers, retailers, collectors — active today do you admire most?

I’ve always admired Terry Theise for his writing, as well as the wines that he has chosen to champion over the years. I admire winemaker Cathy Corison for her integrity and vision, and willingness to stick to what she believed was the right way to make Napa Cabernet while the market took 20 years to realize that her wines were fabulous. I admire winemaker Roland Velich both for his tremendous wines but also for his passion that transcends national borders as he champions the wines of the Pannonian basin. Finally I continue to have an incredible amount of admiration for the women and people of color who continue to fight for their place and the recognition they deserve in a wine industry that has for so long been unhospitable to them. The stories that have emerged over the last couple of years are horrifying and heartbreaking.


Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?

The only time I feel guilty drinking a wine is when I realize I’ve finished a glass or a bottle before someone who wanted a taste got a chance to try it.


Has a wine ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Well, when I was first dating the woman who is now my wife, I was invited to officiate a dear friend’s wedding in Conegliano, Italy. Ruth and I had been dating for only about six months, but I suggested that perhaps she and I could go spend a week or so in Tuscany before heading up north to go to this wedding. She agreed, and we had a fabulous trip, which included her falling in love with Brunello di Montalcino. By the end of our jaunt around Tuscany, we had accumulated 29 bottles of wine that we needed to bring back with us. She enthusiastically suggested that she could purchase a duffel bag for most of her clothes, and use her suitcase to pack a substantial portion of the wine. That, as they say, sealed the deal.


What moves you most in a wine?

This is a tricky question to answer, because we’re talking about something more than just deliciousness. Which means we’re just going to slide right into the realm of metaphor with no apologies, here. Wines move me with their honesty and their energy. Honesty is, I think, something that comes through in a sense that the wine has not been gussied up in the winemaking process or shaped and stripped of its idiosyncrasies in the cellar. And energy is a combination of perhaps flavor and acidity, leavened with complexity, that provides a sensation of dynamism on the palate. The wines that move me have distinct personalities, strong voices, and reveal themselves in layers.


Which styles do you especially enjoy drinking?

The more wine I drink the more I love acid. At this point it’s pretty hard for a wine to have too much acidity for me. But beyond wanting some brightness in the mouth, I enjoy wines that are off the beaten path. Life’s too short to drink the same damn grapes all the time, and the wine world is about nothing if it isn’t about sheer variety. My favorite style of wine is the one that I am trying for the very first time.


How do you organize your wines?

Poorly. Or perhaps somewhat haphazardly might be a better way of describing it. The house to which we moved in 2017 doesn’t have a cellar space that stays cool enough during the heat of the summer, so I had to transition my passive cellar from San Francisco into three large wine fridges in the storage space under the house. In the process, I actually catalogued my wines for the first time, and put them on shelves that are labeled and numbered. So only recently do I know exactly which wines I have and where they are. But as for organization beyond that, it’s a bit sloppy. I have one fridge that contains the (generally more expensive) longer-term aging wines that I call my “reserve” fridge. Then the other two fridges have wines grouped very loosely on the shelves. I know the top left corner of one is where most of my rosés are, and the middle right side of the other is where most of my Riesling and Champagne are, but that’s about as methodical as I can bring myself to be. Unfortunately, like many wine lovers, I’ve also got random bottles stacked here and there in the cellar, as my fridges are at capacity.  Which tells me it’s time for a big “we’re all vaccinated now” party so I can make some room.


What wine might people be surprised to find in your racks?

A 1960s era bottle of non-vintage Korbel California Champagne. It’s something I found in my maternal grandmother’s wet bar as we were cleaning out her house following her death a number of years ago, and I’m hanging on to it more as a keepsake of her than with any thought of ever opening it.


What’s the best wine you’ve ever received as a gift?

A dear friend recently gave me a birth-year (1974) bottle of Petrus, which brought tears to my eyes. He swore it was in lousy shape, even possibly undrinkable, and that he got it for a song, but it was nonetheless an overwhelming gift. I have yet to taste a bottle of Petrus.


How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

I started with somewhat catholic tastes, and I think I’ve maintained that sensibility over time. I love the sheer diversity of what the wine world offers.  Having said that, I think I’ve become much less tolerant of overt oak signatures in most wines. I want to taste the grapes, not the wood.


What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

The journey that has taken me to where I am (wherever that is) in the wine world has been utterly magical, and I try very hard not to take for granted how lucky I have been to visit the places I have, and drunk the wines that I’ve gotten a chance to try. The fact that, say, I have only tried a couple of the First Growths, or never had a taste of Jayer isn’t embarrassing in the slightest. I’ve tasted more wine than some massive percentage of the people on the planet, and I’m not yet 50. I’ve got a long way to go, and there’s time to try a lot more stuff. I’m just a bit sad that because of market forces there might be some benchmark wines that are simply too expensive for me (and many others) to ever get a chance to experience. But I’m not losing sleep over those bottles.


What do you plan to drink next?

I have a couple of great bottles that I’m excited to share with a group of wine-loving friends once we’re all fully vaccinated and can get together. One is a 1995 Nikolaihof “Vinothek” Grüner Veltliner that I bought at the domaine when I visited a number of years ago. Another is one of my precious few bottles of 1995 Chateau Musar (speaking of a wine that moves me). And finally, I was given a magnum of Cristal when my book, The Essence of Wine, was awarded the Chairman’s Prize at the Roederer Awards a few years ago. If emerging from the pandemic isn’t a good time to bust that sucker open, I don’t know what is.

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