Monday, January 20, 2014

I love these people -- or, notes on Apothic Red

Another whopper of a post, the granddaddy of them all in fact -- 5300+ views.


We're talking about the good people at Gallo, of course. (Why do I add "of course"? Perhaps because we're going to talk about a delicious wine at a good price. That's Gallo. They spend their working lives going to the mat for us.)

Their newest endeavor, at least at our store, is Apothic Red. It's a blend of zinfandel, syrah, and merlot, and I was hugely proud of myself when I first tasted it in an upstairs office because I guessed right about the zinfandel. The aroma of chocolate was my clue. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong about the rest of the blend.

I'm not sure that anyone's brilliantly recognizing the grapes contributing to the rest of the blend, nor even the nature of the grapes themselves, matters much anyway. Not that syrah and merlot don't add their own characteristics, not that zinfandel overwhelms all or that I wouldn't have been thrilled to guess right about it all, but: I think the winemakers intended to create just one experience here. They intended to give us a friendly, jammy, sticky-luscious, California fruit bomb red. We might even put it more dramatically, the way hysterical newspaper headline writers sometimes do. California. Fruit. Bomb. Red. Syrah and merlot and zinfandel, on their own you know, or in more judicious mixtures, can do far different, more austere, flinty and noble things. Here they have been thrown together into a kind of sumptuous, blowsy purple mess, which I hasten to admit I entirely enjoyed.

As we sat there tasting that afternoon, the good man from Gallo hoping to "place" Apothic Red on the shelves allowed calmly that "It's nice. It's got a touch of residual sugar ... " I looked at him somewhat askance albeit deeply respectfully and thought, It's got more than a touch of residual sugar. It's loaded with it, I daresay not only because that makes it tasty but because -- I have since been told -- it is intended to compete with the other luscious fruit bomb reds just down the aisle, wines like Menage a Trois or (I would think) Marietta Old Vine Red. At the $9 to $10 price point, it should compete very well.

But I've saved the best for last. I've saved for last the reason why I love the fine people at Gallo. They make yummy inexpensive wines, yes. More importantly, who else would have the sheer gall to tell us, on the back of Apothic Red's label:

Inspired by the "Apotheca," a mysterious place where wine was blended and stored in 13th century Europe, Apothic Red offers a truly unique wine experience.

Well of course it does. Why wouldn't wines have been blended and stored in a mysterious place called the Apotheca in 13th century Europe? What the hell, it's possible. That was a long time ago and Europe is a big place. I can just picture some brand new hire buried in the marketing department somewhere amid the giant tanks and pipes and office blocs in Modesto, on her first day on the job, thinking this one up, emailing it to her boss and him replying, "Hey, go for it." And there it is, on the label. I wonder if she was told to keep it to exactly 25 words.

Now the good people at Gallo are no fools, so before we begin laughing out the other side of our mouths, we ought to remind ourselves it's quite possible they have done their homework and actually have some sort of reasoning behind this extraordinary and insouciant claim. Can we recreate their homework?

Apotheca sounds like apothecary, an old word which means druggist, stemming from Latin and Greek roots having to do with shopkeeping, warehousing, "putting away" (apotheke). That seems small help. I hurriedly consult the indexes to some large books of European history and some large books on wine, and I find no place, however mysterious, leaping out from the 1200s called such. When I consult the internet's far flung sources, I get quite a few references to the word, but all lead back to this particular wine. One reviewer thinks the verbiage about the Apotheca is unprovable but "pretty cool," tastes everything in the wine from blackberry sorbet to fern and elder fruit, raves about its excellent value, and thinks it will "drink well through 2013." I daresay. But they will no doubt keep making it through 2013 anyway.

What's remarkable is that if we keep on surfing our far-flung resources, we find there is another wine called, not "Apothic," but Apotheca. Named also for that mysterious place in 13th century Europe? Who knows? At any rate, you can't have any of this one. It is the creation of Andy Erickson, a Napa Valley winemaker renowned for the achievements of his own Favia winery as well as for the glorious juices he concocts for a roster of clients, among whom Screaming Eagle stands paramount. A  Manhattan-based blogger and wholesale wine merchant at Drink the good stuff! got a chance to taste this Apotheca about a year and a half ago (March 2009), at the same time she was tasting a first release of another of Mr. Erickson's wines, Ovid. Mr. Erickson seems to appreciate classical or medieval references.

Anyway, of Apotheca, she writes:

"We moved on to taste a barrel sample of a 2007 wine that was made solely for the Premier Napa Valley Auction. Apotheca is a blend of Andy and company's favorite lots [vineyard areas and their grapes], all of which were fermented in concrete. This wine is super concentrated, WOW! Too bad it will not be available commercially because this stuff is killer.

"Too bad it will not be available commercially." With this we approach an extremely rarefied world, the world of superfamous, superexpensive, luxury trade Napa Valley wine making. Art wine, literally. We are beyond anything so mundane as cliques, boutiques, tastings closed to the public, or industry secrets. We are in a world where the best wines are simply not made to be sold to mere people at all -- they are made, as medieval stone cutters carved cathedral gargoyles that would never be seen again once the scaffolding was taken down, for the joy of artistic creation and apparently the pleasure of God. Screaming Eagle, Dancing Hares, Ovid, Pritchard Hill (where Apotheca was made) -- these are wines released perhaps 5 cases at a time, and sold for tens of thousands of dollars to wealthy collectors once a year, at beyond-exclusive trade auctions that are California's equivalent to France's annual en primeur, straight-from-the-barrel Bordeaux sales. The Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo bought 5 cases of Toto's Opium Dream (cabernet sauvignon) for $80,000. The navigation buttons for the website of Napa Valley Vintners' "Premiere Napa Valley Auction" are in (I presume) Japanese. 

Perfectly fine. But since I can't find, and think it highly unlikely that I will find, any proof that there was ever a mysterious and inspirational place called the Apotheca in 13th century Europe where wines were made and stored, I can only guess that as we come down to earth and drink a glass of scrumptious Apothic Red, we are enjoying, with the good people at Gallo, a little joke at Andy Erickson's expense. Maybe at Screaming Eagle's, at all Napa's expense. And yet maybe it's a more serious joke than we think. After all, what is in the bottle of Apotheca that is not in the bottle of Apothic Red? Yes, yes, "artisanal, handcrafted, soulful expression of the land," etc., and yes, we understand for a start that trainloads of grapes from all over California will not have the taste and strength of a few baskets of grapes lovingly seen to their destiny at one favored vineyard in Russian River valley. But. In the end, we do have two bottles filled with grape juices that the winemaker likes to experiment with, juices that earn some of the same enthusiastic adjectives -- power, opulence, ripe berries -- whether from the genteelly whispering Napa Valley Vintners or from the rather more chest-thumping Las Vegas Review-Journal. It's your ten dollars, for you can only experiment with the one; you decide if you like it.

A joke then, a jab, a gauntlet thrown down? How medieval. Not that Napa will deign to notice. However I do hope that that first time hire in Modesto who got this brilliant idea, or possibly the upper-echelon, gray-flannel-suit man who had it and then delegated it, each get a raise. Who knows but that this is the closest most of us will ever get to the legendary Screaming Eagle?

Dear Gallo. I love these people.

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