Going Naked for All the Right Reasons

wine barrels

Oak wasn’t seen as a “flavor” agent. Not a couple of millennia ago, when it began to replace amphorae in the making and shipping wine.

Oak, writes Jamie Goode in The Science of Wine, “just happened to be the best way of storing and transporting liquid, and until the advent of epoxy-lined cement and stainless-steel tanks, winemakers lacked alternatives.”

Oak worked well for these purposes because it was plentiful, pliable and water-tight. Later, as oak use became more widespread, particular effects on wine began to be seen, if not fully understood (it was the slow exposure to air that was doing the trick): softer tannins, more intense color, greater clarity.

And new flavors. Through compounds like lactones and vanillin, oak was adding flavor notes to wine that people found pleasing. This worked well for years, decades, centuries even. But in the modern era, the use of oak began to get out of hand.

We knew this was this case when instead of putting wine into oak, some winemakers began to put oak into wine, in the form of oak powder or oak chips. Or, instead of fermenting or aging wine in barrels that had been used many times, and which thus imparted less powerful oak flavoring, they put the wine into a brand new barrel, and then racked it into another brand new barrel for yet more oak influence.

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Inevitably, there was a backlash. First it happened with Chardonnay, a notorious oak victim. Unoaked or “naked” Chardonnays began to turn up. While oaked Chardonnay remained the overwhelming preference of consumers, there even came to be a bit of a cool factor to ordering unoaked Chardonnay, a development that wine marketers noticed and began to play to.

But this was kind of missing the point. Because oak in and of itself isn’t a problem, even in Chardonnay. The Chardonnays acknowledged to be the best in the world – the rich white wines of the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy – see plenty of new oak. Meanwhile, in another part Burgundy – Chablis – flinty Chardonnays that get nearly as much acclaim see little to no oak at all.

The moral of the story being, whether to use no oak, a lot of oak, new oak or old oak shouldn’t be about marketing, or habit, or fad – it should be appropriate to the nature of the grape and the purpose of the wine.

So it is that protea’s Red blend and Chenin Blanc both see no oak.

For our Red, the right combination of Cabernet Sauvignon (53 percent) and Merlot (47 percent) is key to making the wine work. Importantly, too, the Red is aged a good 18 months in concrete vats. As the Wine Enthusiast noted, this is a material that, while not permeable like oak, offers advantages over stainless steel, as “tiny pinches of oxygen” in the surface of the concrete “help to preserve aromatics, tame tannins and improve mouthfeel.”

The result is a wine with big, bright fruit that offers immediate drinking pleasure and the ability to get along with a wide range of foods.

With the Chenin, we aim for a fresh, clean and lively wine. And we find that our bush-vine Chenin Blanc grapes come packed with enough innate richness and character not to leave the wine feeling, uh, naked without any oak.

Image: L’Ormarins, Anthonij Rupert Wines.

Grow Your Own: Herbs in an Upcycled protea Bottle

You know what’s crazy? Those little plastic packages of fresh herbs you see in the produce section at the grocery store. Two bucks for a few sprigs of thyme or tarragon! That’s practically criminal, especially when you can so easily grow your own.

You don’t even need a big ol’ backyard – Organic Gardening suggests ten great herbs anyone with a sunny window can grow indoors. And we’ve got just the “planters” to do it in: upcycled protea bottles. Like these:

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These planters are super simple. The overturned top half of a cut bottle is your planter proper; the bottom half can provide water for the plant, drawn up through an absorbent wick, or, if you find a particular herb preferring drier conditions, forgo the wick and the base will give you a ready-made drainage pan.

The only part of this DIY project that can be a bit challenging is cutting the bottle in half (assuming you don’t have a wet saw with a fine diamond saw blade, like our friend, candlemaker Loralee). There are a number of glass-cutting devices on the market, and in this wildly popular video, Dan Rojas at GreenPowerScience puts an inexpensive one to use to make a nice, clean cut (the real instruction begins at the 3:39 mark, if you want to skip ahead).

Once you’ve got your bottle pieces, you’re ready to set up your planter. Mesh, screening or even an old piece of fabric can provide a permeable foundation in the neck of the inverted top bottle piece. Next comes a layer of pebbles…

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… then plant your herb in a potting mix, preferably something lightweight, with good drainage.

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For more detailed, step-by-step instructions, check out this blog entry from the Kentucky pizzeria Smashing Tomato or this method from Design Sponge.

Organic Gardening recommends basil, bay, chervil, chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme as prime candidates for indoor herb growing. But given that our protea planters are a little on the shallow side, you might consider herbs that don’t need to stretch out their roots too much. The San Francisco Chronicle, citing experts from the University of California Cooperative Extension, says that “chive roots are the shortest of all at only 3 inches long,” while “oregano (Origanum x majoricum), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) and thyme (Thymus spp.) can all manage with 6 inches of wiggle room for their roots.”

Whatever you choose, don’t forget to share your protea upcycling efforts on our Facebook page!

For the Fourth, a Toast to Our Founding Oenophile


It’s a wonder we were able to throw off our colonial shackles and build a country, given how sloshed we must have been.

Consider: In the late 18th century, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, “United States government figures showed that annual per capita alcohol consumption for everybody over fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine.”

In this tally, wine shows up as practically an afterthought for the budding nation’s imbibing citizenry, but it was a different story for the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson loved liberty but he might have loved Burgundy even more.

Jefferson first established vineyards adjacent to Monticello in 1774. But it was after the revolution and before his presidency, during a five-year tenure as minister to France, that Jefferson the oenophile blossomed. In 1787 – the year a new U.S. Constitution was birthed in Philadelphia – where was Jefferson? Traipsing through the vineyards of the Côte d’Or, that’s where. “I rambled thro’ their most celebrated vineyards, going into the houses of the laborers, cellars of the vignerons, and mixing and conversing with them as much as I could,” he wrote.

On that trip, Jefferson connected with a negociant named Étienne Parent, who “would help Jefferson shape his cellar, shipping wine to Paris and the White House,” according to one account of Jefferson’s travels on the French wine route.

Successful as he was at honing his palate and building a cellar, Jefferson had poor luck as a vigneron himself – partly because he so wished to make wines like the French. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

Although Jefferson aspired to make a Monticello-grown wine, his continual replanting of the vineyards suggests a perennial and losing struggle with grape cultivation. But Jefferson was not alone. The successful cultivation of Vitis vinifera, the classic European wine species, was virtually impossible until the development of modern pesticides controlled such destructive pests as black rot and phyloxera, an aphid-like root louse. Many native grapes were more effectively grown, yet the poor quality of the resultant wine impeded progress in the development of an established industry.

The history of grape culture at Monticello suggests Jefferson’s unrelenting oscillation between a desire to grow the difficult yet rewarding vinifera, and the possibilities of well-adapted New World alternatives — the fox grape, Vitis labrusca, and the Scuppernong variety of the southern muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia. Although Jefferson probably never made a Monticello wine, the diverse collection of varieties he assembled and his influential advocacy of American viticulture were worthy accomplishments in themselves.

Were he around now, Jefferson might be impressed that at least by one measure, the United States has become a wine nation on par with France: Earlier this year it was revealed that in 2013,  the U.S. consumed more wine than France for the first time – at least, in sum. On a per capita basis, Reuters reported, “the average French person still gets through almost 1.2 bottles a week, about six times more than the average American.”

But the larger point remains: wine has become a real part of the American consciousness. Wine from California, Oregon, Washington and even from Jefferson’s beloved Virginia – and wine from countries all around the globe, not just France and Italy but Australia and South Africa, to name a few. On the Fourth of July, that’s yet another revolution Americans can raise a glass to, with a nod to Thomas Jefferson.

Design Spotlight: Jono Pandolfi

Bringing beauty to the table – that’s a key inspiration for the design of the protea bottles. It’s something we share with dinnerware designer and manufacturer Jono Pandolfi. We’re such fans of Jono’s work, we’ve asked him to create a dish especially to go with the protea bottles. Interested in getting your hands on it? You could have your chance in an upcoming sweepstakes. We’ll have an announcement and more information soon on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here’s a look at this unique artist.



“The inspiration behind so many of my designs is in the ceramic process. Ceramics often comes down to a negotiation between you and the clay. That concept is underlying in everything that I do.”
—Jono Pandolfi

Jono Pandolfi isn’t one of those consumer-product designers who comes up with an idea and then sends it off to a factory in China to be manufactured. From what he calls the “last standing industrial building in Union City, New Jersey,” right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Pandolfi makes the dinnerware that has smitten many a New York City chef; his work can be found at restaurants such as Terrace 5 and Café 2 at MoMA, Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad, Atera and wd~50.

“He himself sits at the wheel and shapes clay, dries it, bisque-fires it, glazes it, fires it again, and ships off finished ceramics in the very boxes that carry unshaped clay to his studio.”
Serious Eats

Pandolfi began working with clay when he was young, and in the early 2000s was a budding designer and teacher.  The restaurateur William Guidara, an old high school classmate and bandmate – in a ska band called Hydrant, as the legend goes – recognized his talent, helping make an initial connection with MoMA in 2004. Modern bud bases for the tables at Terrace 5 were a hit – soon to be sold at the museum Design store – and Pandolfi was on his way.

“I like to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple lines, simple surfaces. Think of a design as a recipe – use the materials available, practice it over and over, and eventually you’ll get it all right.”
—Jono Pandolfi

In addition to his unique designs for restaurant clients, Pandolfi has created works for Athropologie, Lenox and Calvin Klein, among others, and has a collection in the “Artists & Designers” series with Crate & Barrel. He continues to teach, as well, in the product design department at Parsons The New School for Design.

Image courtesy jonopandolfi.com.

Renegades Unite!

renegade chicagoTake a look the wine section at your local market, then check out a bottle of protea. Yeah, we’re different. You might even say we’re a bit of a renegade, presenting bright, flavorful wines in beautifully designed bottles that look great on your table – and that can be upcycled into all kinds of cool things.

We think this makes us a great fit for the Renegade Craft Fair, the world’s premier network of events serving the DIY craft community, and we’re proud to announce that we’ll be an official sponsor of the Renegade Craft Fair Mini Market coming up this weekend – June 21 and 22 – from noon to 6 p.m. at the Mana Contemporary art center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

If you don’t know Renegade, it all started in 2003 as a way to give the DIY craft movement, which was burgeoning online, a place in the real world to show and see great work. From its Chicago beginnings, the curated fair has spread to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and even across the pond to London. What do you find at a Renegade Craft Fair?

Everything at the fairs reflects our commitment to showcase the best and brightest in indie craft and design. This begins with our vendors, featuring products ranging from cutting-edge fashion and jewelry design to sophisticated ceramics and housewares, contemporary furniture and lighting, bath and body products, screen-printed art, paper goods, and more.

This year, in addition to the big twice-annual fairs, Renegade Craft Fair has begun doing Mini Markets, described as “condensed versions” of the regular events. According to RCF, the Chicago Mini Market “will boast 80+ indie-craft makers, delicious food + booze, shipping container art installations, bocce ball, community-based workshops, music and much, much more!”

Among the “more”: presentations and lectures from Version Festival, an annual festival in and of itself, put together by the Public Media Institute. The theme for Version Fest this year is The Placemakers, “the projects and people who are shaping the physical environment and social character of the city through art and cultural reinvigoration.”

At our booth, we’ll pour samples of our wines (which will also be available for purchase at the RCF bar), and show off some nifty upcycled protea bottles. If you’re in Chicago, we hope to see you!

Photo from Renegade Craft Fair Facebook page.