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What's new in iJamming!...
Sun, Apr 21, 2002
iJamming! Wino/Muso:
"New world wines are just too techno for me."
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Featured wine region 4:
Featured wine region 2:
The Geography
The Villages
Featured vine:
Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.

Now with updated reviews
Featured wine region 1:
Featured wine web site:
What wine fans and music devotees have in common.
Featured wino: TIMO MAAS
Featured party wine:
CLINE's Cotes d'Oakley
And how Cline does it
Featured wine web site: VIGNOBLES BRUNIER
The full iJamming! Contents
The iJamming! featured

There are three good reasons to investigate Honig Wines:
1) The Napa Valley is America's cradle of high quality, highly expensive Cabernet Sauvignon - but Honig specializes in high quality, inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc.
2) The Napa Valley is home to some of the most high-tech wineries you'll find on the planet; Honig is a down-home, husband-and-wife business dedicated to sustainable farming.
3) While Californian Sauvignon Blancs usually get the oak treatment (sometimes being renamed as Fume Blanc along the way for the smoky tendencies that result), Honig's widely available basic Sauvignon Blanc is virtually unwooded, delivering that rare thing - a Loire style wine from California. That it's priced at $13 - the starting price for good Loire sauvignon blancs in the States - renders it exceptional value too.

I first picked up Honig's Sauvignon Blanc while assembling an all-American cast for a Thanksgiving dinner in honor of my visiting mother. I asked a local store owner (at Prospect Wines in Park Slope) for a non-oaked sauvignon blanc, and was rightly pointed to the Loire section. When I stated my intent to provide all-American wines, I was directed instead to the Honig. Good advice, Amy. It's a lovely wine, crisp and fresh, with the grape's tell-tale gooseberry aroma balanced by some nice melon/papaya/lemongrass style flavors too. A lemony/grapefruit zip on the palate accompanies a mineral wash; the effect is cleansing and satisfying. Tasted recently alongside the Dashwood from New Zealand and a Menetou-Salon from the Loire (at identical prices) it clearly belonged in the latter camp. The Honig bottles, not so incidentally, are lovingly packaged, with the back of the back label showing an artist's rendition of the vineyards, visible through the clear bottle (see pic at left); pouring the wine, one feels unusually close to the source.

Honig also makes a Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (at around $18), which does get the oak treatment, and a Cabernet Sauvignon, which has for three years in a row received an 88pt rating from the Wine Spectator (wow! consistency at the WS!) and though its $28 price tag will stretch many people's budgets, is actually inexpensive for a Napa cabernet. How do I know all this? Well, the back label, and indeed the cork, offer up the web site address. And there's a fourth reason to investigate Honig: the family's wonderfully informative and friendly cyber domain.

Arriving at the home page, we might be mistaken for thinking we've honed in on some off-the-beaten-path hippy commune, not a wine-maker at the heart of the California's most expensive farming real estate. As Honig's signature bee (Honig=honey in Germany; the family keeps bees too) flys across the top of the screen, Robert Parker's rave review of the sauvignon blanc types across the bottom. ("This delicious, crisp, light to medium-bodied, melon, flint, and mineral-imbued Sauvignon Blanc is a delight to drink. Refreshing and clean, it will be flexible with an assortment of dishes. ") So they know the business of selling, too.

Honig's home page: like a hippy Woodstock farm - but not so hippy they don't scroll Parker's favorable review along the bottom

How does such a down-home family get to own so much prime real estate? For that you can credit Louis Honig, an "advertising genius" who in 1964 bought 68 acres of land in Rutherford, in the geographical center (and valley floor) of the Napa, planted them with sauvignon blanc, and then died before he could realise his dream of wine-making. His immediate offspring would appear to have been ambivalent about the business potential of the vineyards, which may be why Louis' grandson Michael Honig took over the ranch in 1984 at the age of just 22. At the time, he recalls, "the property was a funky ranch with a crooked house, a rickety barn and a tired old vineyard. the bookkeeping system was a box marked "Miscellaneous" and the winery office was in an old meat locker." Elaine Honig hails from an Oklahoma City family "that drank cases of Diet Coke and ate macaroni and cheese," but along with discovering good food and wine when taking a job in San Francisco, she met Michael, and at 21, married him - and into the fledgling business. Though it's evidently been hard work, they couldn't have timed their devotion better: the last fifteen years have seen the Californian wine industry explode, and Napa become synonymous with sauvignon - so it's no surprise that they got to planting the cabernet kind as well.

Surf to the "wine and grapes" section and you're into some potentially deep and informative territory. The reviews section is short; Honig is not yet famous. The wine notes section is longer: my sauvignon blanc, it turns out, has 3% semillon in there, 40% of the sauvignon was from Honig Estate (meaning they bought in the rest), fermentation was predominantly in stainless steel, and then the wine was aged sur lies in old large oak barrels and new small oak casks. If some of this is getting beyond you (cold-fermented? Sur lies? What's the difference between a cask and a barrel - and why does it matter?), then this is where the site turns from promotional tool to wine-lover's library. Click on any of those selected words and you're taken to a glossary. (Oak containers are the best way to age wines, but casks have a much lower surface-to-wine volume than do barrels, thereby imparting less of the oak flavor into the wine; new oak of course imparts more oak flavor than old oak. For the growing body of oak-haters, this is key information.) The "wine notes" is for the hardcore, but just as music fans want to know the gory details of a recording session, wine fans occasionally like to be informed of the trials and tribulations involved in making a wine. The '98 Sauvignon Blanc is such a treat that I actually forgot that it was the worst vintage in California in a full decade; winemaker Kristin Belair calls it "a double prozac year," but more credit to her for still delivering such a succulent (Honig likes to call it "sassy") end product. If you want to know yet more - such as their use of the Quadrilateral Lyre Trellis System or their introduction of the clone Sauvignon musque - then it's all here.

Fans of organic wines might be enthused by the section on "sustainable farming." Honig's philosophy is "to find solutions to common farming issues within the natural process of life and regeneration," to which end, a few years ago, the family hired in an organic consultant, Amigo Bob - who prefers to be called simply Amigo and considers himself both a "farm psychologist" and a "pollinator of ideas." He looks the part too (which has not stopped prominent wineries like Turley and Schaffer from also hiring him.) But consider his tactics in ridding the vineyards of Pierce's Disease, which is carried by the blue-green sharp shooter leafhopper, and is currently devastating vineyards all over California. As the Honigs describe it, "Amigo discovered that the sharp shooters are attracted to vegetation that is high in nitrogen. They also prefer tender, green shoots to tougher, more developed leaves, which are harder for them to feed on." The vines get tough around June or July, so "the goal is to keep the sharp shooters busy until then." At Amigo's behest, Honig planted a hedgerow along its riverbank, where the sharp shooter lives, "consisting of plants that are nitrogen rich and succulent. . .the all-you-can-eat sharp shooter buffet!" Not only does this enticing hedgerow satiate the sharpshooters' appetite before they wonder off to the vineyard, but the plants therein also attract insect predators, "which feed on the sharp shooter and naturally work to lower their population." As Honig points out, "One of the fundamental problems with insecticides is that they not only kill the sharp shooters, they also can kill the insect predators. Without predators to keep the sharp shooter population in check, the numbers soar, and they go looking for food in the vineyard."

Two additional advantages of the hedgrerows are the profusion of butterflies and birds that have resulted, and the feast of pollen it provides for Honig's honey bees. The hedgrerow seems such a simple solution to such a devastating problem, but most importantly, Honig claims it's working; they've put the conventional sticky paper insect catchers up around their vines themselves and see little evidence that sharpshooters are making it through to attack the vines.

Admittedly, all the above is serious, in-depth information that might scare you away if you just wanted something easy-going from the web site like the wine that brought you there. You'll be relieved to know then that Michael and Elaine Honigs are carefree fools at heart. Over the years, Elaine had developed a postcard series featuring everyone associated with the company in fancy dress - be that tutus, Elvis wigs or superman costumes. The results, sometimes spoofs ("drink different"), sometimes original ad campaigns ("from geek to chic in just one drink") are irreverent and arguably irrelevant - but they look like they had a fun time making them. (And for what it's worth, from the web-site you can e-mail them to others.) The web site also leads you to their point-of-sale materials - shelf-hangers that eschew the usual austerity but still include the good review lines. (See further below.)

The staff of Honig get dressed up for one of the winery's spoof postcards

And you can always check in on the journals - what's happening in the winery and in the vineyard. Though updates are sporadic, they give a clear idea of the work involved both indoors and outdoors. For example, during frost season - from March to May - a thermometer registers when the vineyard drops beneath 35 F, and the vineyard manager, regardless of time of night, gets into a vehicle and drives round the vineyards, checking the buds to see if sprinklers or wind machines need to be turned on to prevent the buds freezing. Early reports on vintage 2000 suggest the Honigs have their best Sauvignon Blanc yet but that the weather was far more challenging for the red wines: "this year will test the skills of California winemakers," writes Elaine. Unlike many Californian wineries that discourage visitors and charge for tastings, the Honigs actively encourage your presence: "We'll give you a private tour and barrel tasting, or take you on a walk through our vineyards. "

So does any of this web stuff matter? Well, if the wines weren't any good to begin with, then none of it - not the sustainable farming, the extensive wine-making notes, the glossary, the postcards, the shelf-hangers or the diaries - would mean a thing. But because the wine is so good (and I'm clearly not the only one to think so), then I for one appreciate them putting so much time into the web site too. I further appreciate their evident lust for life - and nature. You can't change the world by buying things, but you can certainly try not to harm it: I'm not buying any more wines by Caymus because of their stupid multi-million dollar law suit over the apparently mis-labeled Roussanne vines. Picking up a sauvignon blanc from Honig, however, I feel like I'm buying into a philosophy at one with nature, and yet that knows how to emjoy itself. Plus I'm getting a great wine in the bargain. As Lloyd Cole would say, "what's wrong with this picture? Nothing at all."

Previous wine web site: Vignobles Brunier

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