The challenges of working with wine - the responses

There can be too much of a good thing, according to the responses we received to the “Challenges of working with wine” article, which raised the question of how we stay healthy when we work with copious amounts of food, alcohol and socializing. The volume of response has been staggering, with winemakers, C-suite executives, presidents, importers, advocacy groups, distributors, tour leaders and journalists adding welcome voices to the conversation.

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The challenges of working with wine

Two weeks ago I attended the third annual symposium of Women of the Vine & Spirits in Napa, California. An alliance that “empowers and equips women worldwide to advance their careers in the alcohol beverage industry”, it’s the vision of founder Deborah Brenner, an author and 20 year veteran of television and film production. Membership has grown exponentially in the past three years, and in 2016 the group expanded to include spirits.

A forum for career-minded women working in beverage alcohol is well overdue, if the time it took the recent event to reach capacity was any indication. Indeed the two and a half days were filled with inspirational stories of entrepreneurship, tenacity, challenge, failures, setbacks, triumphs, tools and tricks, and the forum gave career professionals an opportunity to listen to accomplished speakers and presenters.

Krug CEO Maggie Henriquez spoke of breaking the mould, being resourceful, tenacious, and managing time and conflict for success. Consultant Jeffery Tobias Halter presented the business case proving the value women bring to the workplace, and Dr Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela shared the difficulties of developing a wine business despite the assumed ‘head start’ that the legacy of a famous father and world leader might bring.

However, with the chapter about to launch in Europe, and Dr Mandela’s call to start a chapter for the Africas, it struck me that one important topic was not being broached – the demands that working with alcohol has on your health.

The health challenge

To stay well and healthy in this industry, particularly when travelling to markets where tasting and drinking is part of the job, is not easy, as it requires restraint, mindfulness of environment, body awareness, and knowledge of self. The conference made admirable efforts to provide much better quality food than I have experienced at other industry gatherings:  it was not uncommon to see salad and fruit bowls emptied before the sandwiches or bread/pastry baskets, and water was never short on offer.

Hats off to Frederick Wildman who sponsored a morning of “Yoga in the Cave”, where 70 people could gather and practice their breath, asana, and meditation practice, washed down with an optional glass of Cavicchioli U & Figli sparkling Italian wine mimosa. I joined the pre-dawn class and did not imbibe, but sincerely appreciated the mat and prop provisions, and opportunity afforded to start the day well. It sure beat meeting a colleague, or the CEO, on a sweaty grinding treadmill in a windowless room in a nameless hotel gym.

However, for all the great work and developments, we are still failing to discuss how we stay fit and healthy while working in this hedonistic and pleasure-filled industry, particularly for those who work in sales, marketing or promotional roles. This means more than just going for a run to stave off a morning after “wine flu”, getting solid sleep while on the road, taking a restorative vitamin concoction, or balancing family demands, but truly addressing and advancing the needs for mindfulness, health, nutrition and balance in what is an indulgent, competitive, alpha-male-biased commercial industry.

As someone who has studied and built a career in wine marketing since my late teens, I’ve had incredible mentors who have advanced and supported my development, yet I was never taught how to run the gamut of career development, self care, discipline, restraint and awareness. Now as I face my early forties, changing priorities and a desire for better long term health has me looking at my lifestyle very differently, and raises the question: How do I continue my career while staying healthy?

As I started to raise the subject with close professional friends in sales and marketing, themes began to emerge:

“I’m out four nights a week working eating the same meals people may only eat once a month, or once a year and my weight is constantly an issue.”

“If I don’t stay out and keep drinking with my colleagues then I’m not working hard”

 “My 20+ years of travel and wining and dining is catching up with me, and the health issues only now coming to the fore”

“I can’t NOT drink, even at home when my work day is done and a bottle is a quiet night.”

How do we teach up-and-coming professionals to know that the daily glass recommendation does not equal “two industry glasses” and that you can have a successful career in wine and spirits without excess, when some of those in the industry who are considered “successful” also demonstrate existing or developing issues, or unhealthy habits that may cause problems in the future? This is a problem for everybody, not just women in the business.

The spirits business is taking small steps in this direction with community networks dedicated to raising the importance of wellness. This includes “Barma”, a closed Facebook group of American bartenders and liquor industry professionals who courageously discuss and raise the challenges of industry demands, the expectations, and the toll the lifestyle can take. While the lifestyle may be considered by some wine insiders to be more extreme, this needs to be done for wine.

What can we do?

For the 2018 WOTV Symposium, heck even at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America event, I want to see a panel speaker series on wellness – a discussion around the topic so we can start to see and learn we are not alone. A perspective on the challenge that traveling for 100+ days can take on the body and how you can manage it; the medical information on metabolism and what actually happens to our bodies as we consume and we age; how to deal politely with the excess fine food we’re continually offered; the signs to look if we feel we are hitting a place of excess; and the tools and mechanisms we can use to bring mindfulness to our careers.

So let’s start this discussion. We need the courage to step forward and share stories, challenges, ideas, and tools, so we can ask for change that we need and deserve. Not only will we make better bosses, leaders, employees and contributors in the workplace, but also more balanced partners, friends and community members to help support an industry we all love so dearly, and plan to stay in for the long haul, in a manner that is healthy for mind, body and spirit.

This article appeared online here:

https://www.meininger.de/en/wine-business-international/challenges-of-working-wine

 

 

Just say “OM” - a lighter look at my yogi path

This is a reprint of an article I penned in 2008 as my yoga journey was unfolding. A lighter look at the practice. Enjoy!

As I have shared with many of you over the last few months, I have discovered the San Francisco past time of choice – yoga,  Scary but true, it even has me spending more time at the studio in downward dog and less time sabreing champagne bottles at bars.

And while my interest may be newly discovered, it seems the well known joke “how do you find a yoga studio in your area? Just follow the patchouli tracks!” is certainly alive and well, as countless windowless, wooden floored retail spaces are converted into zen spaces for meditation and practice; owned by people who are named Harmony and Ashtala... clearly San Francisco in the 60s was a place of free love and grass!

Growing up in a family where basketball and physical exercise was a regular part of life, reconciling myself how lying on a six-foot rubber mat with your arms wide and legs splayed open could be considered exercise, was always going to be a challenge to this young lass.

Needless to say, with six months of classes under my belt (or bolster) have me actually bending and twisting in newfound ways.  With pose names like “upward dog”, “baby cobra”, “crow” and “frog” sometimes it feels like you are more at home in a wildlife park than in an “OM” inspired studio.

So here’s a few tips for those of you inspired to channel your inner yogi:

The studio is a great way to meet new people, but being immersed in the LGBT community, my friends are primarily straight single gals, so guys, if you’re willing to don the shorts and can cope with a group of fit, hot chicks all breathing heavily for an hour dressed in tight fitting tops and short pants, this may well be the past time for you! (and it’s a heck of a lot easier to explain on your credit card bill than some other past times of the above-mentioned scenario).

For those of you even considering it? Turning up for yoga with a hangover is never EVER a good idea - not only do people not need to smell last night’s mohitos sweating from your skin, but more so, you tend to fall over in any position in which your head is lower than your elbows…

For those of you who have ever become hooked on a pastime or sport, you also know how the obsession to push harder, get faster, own the better or bigger equipment takes over – all of which goes against the yogic way of life; so don’t! 

My advice? Get yourself a good mat that’s super sticky, unravel it and drag it through numerous parks, gravel driveways, or maybe give it to the dog to chew to instill an immediate illusion of your tenure in the yogi world – that is, until you land in a face plant after failing to negociate your way out of Warrior 1 pose.

People don’t really drink alcohol (GASP!) and in fact, going to get a drink “after the game” normally consists of a choice between organic white tippy leaves, chai with soy or some other lassi-inspired beverage.  However there is nothing in the yogic way of life that says you can’t slip open a quiet beer as a reward when you land home – after all, you are rewarding yourself for doing the practice right!?

Finally, if it gets difficult, it is absolutely fine for you to stop.  Never in another sport has my instructor / coach / leader praised me for listening to my body or told me they think I’ve gone far enough, so “child’s pose” is a great way to get out of really hard positions – mind you, there’s almost have a sense of guilt as you lay there eyes closed dreaming about your dinner.

Like any good sport, don’t eat just before class – I have witnessed first hand the outcome of this experiment, and trust me, there is only one thing less desirable than being next to a hung-over person sweating hard liquor, and that’s someone who needs to dash to the restroom to re-live their curry dinner…

So there you go – six top tips to get you on the path to pretzel posing and hand standing your way through life.

And for those girls looking to improve their dating scenario?  Improved hip flexibility and inner leg strength are benefits they don’t tout in the booklets, which of course helps in all manner of intimate positions… So be warned if your significant other starts buying you 10 class cards!

Trust everyone is well, as we head into Summer (which really is Winter in San Francisco) I hope everyone is well and looking after the place in my absence!

180 days of yoga discovery - Finding a new path when there are no limits

In August 2016 I was ready to give up my studio yoga practice. Rising personal expenses no longer allowed what seemed a luxury, and austerity measures were overdue. At that time an email arrived for a 14-day #YogaThon challenge - the prize being six months of unlimited practice at any YogaTree or YogaWorks. Existing work commitments had me scheduled to travel 50% of that time, so it was a long shot. Taking the leap, I decided to rearrange my schedule, raincheck social plans, and do anything to see what was possible.

With classes complete and ticket submitted, the email arrived a month later telling me I had won the “Grand Prize”. Clearly surprised, in the ensuing days my mind played over the outcomes this opportunity would provide. From jump backs to crow pose, a repaired shoulder injury and full wheel now all in reach I was ready. However with six months and unlimited access over, I can happily report NONE of the above happened, but so much more transpired.

Exploring new studios and teachers, I found new energy from immersing myself into unknown spaces. Becoming a more regular student means practicing with other students I recognize, and while it may only be in class, there’s a familiarity as we come together to breathe, share, find space and support each other’s journey.

My physical and mental strength is more than I believed, and my understanding of the structure, breath, reasoning and movement is strengthening. A frequent practice has also moved me to establish a home practice when getting to class is not possible.

The discipline of practice has brought me closer to being in my physical body. I now recognize signs in my body when I am feeling less than balanced, and can address it through mindful practice, yoga, or breath work, on or off the mat.

I’ve realized my favorite parts of a practice are pranayama, mantra, meditation and kirtan. Work travel has become less stressful, particularly on long haul trips or multiple days away. I find myself in simple asana or pranayama mid-flight to alleviate tight hips, an aching back or meddled mind.

Friendships have waned and others strengthened. Those who see and understand the importance I place on practice enquire more, share more about their lives, and I’ve led some of my closest confidants onto a mat for the first time.

The nagging shoulder injury has become part of my practice of self-care. Learning how to back off, listen to my body and understand the difference between pain, self-imposed limits, and the potential possible in a pose's full expression.

For teachers’ guidance I am incredibly thankful, and to Robin Duryea, Mike Richardson, Jackie Rowley and Brenna Geehan, you are all beaming lights in my life for whom sufficient words of gratitude fail. You have all given me strength, self-belief, guidance and love on this journey – even when frustration took over, or all I could do was lay in child’s pose and weep. I take comfort and peace in your wisdom.

Above all, there’s a newfound respect for myself, a deeper understanding of the philosophy of the practice, as I now explore the texts, wisdom and teachings of this ancient way of being.  While I still fall out of poses, admire advanced arm balances of teachers and texts, I know it’s all within reach in the decades to come, and unlike a forearm plank or pistol squat, it’s journey that I hope never ends.

Namaste

The one laundry trip you look forward to

Voluminous reviews have been written on Yountville’s famed establishment, and while there are some aspects of the Wine Country that are considered overdone “Food and Wine Disneyland” this is the antithesis, so if you’re contemplating the marathon effort to book a table (MUST be made three months to the day in advance) and the trek to the unassuming property perched upon a rivulet, my advice is get dialing!! 

From the moment white gravel crushes underfoot, you are instantly transported to a place more at home in old school France than the West Coast of Krispy Crème-land.  Swinging open the solid timber door, you are greeted with the soft smile and hushed tones of the eminently professional maitre d’, as the staff whizz by in silence and with an air of reverence to their place of employ. 

Whisper quiet footsteps lead you to your table, as eyes of seated diners meet yours with a slight nod of the head and inaudible welcome, and as you position your handbag or jacket and settle into the luxuriously upholstered chairs, you sense your appetite’s anticipation of the courses ahead.

Clearly, one of the benefits of dining in the company of two fellow wine industry “professionals”, is, you know the wine selection will be made with great insight and wisdom, but as we agreed, (and you should follow suit) we handed appetites, vinous desires and wallets to the incredibly talented team to board the First Class cabin toward culinary “heaven”.

To read the wine list is to reacquaint oneself with the greatest names in the wine world – and are instantly reminded of why you work in the greatest Industry there is.  Bringing in bottles is not totally banned, however you’d best be sure the wine is not on the list in any capacity, and prepare to pay the deservedly hefty corkage fee. But really? Save that behavior for the neighborhood pizza joint.

So with pleasantries and enquiries on potential allergies complete (mine being “bad food”), the degustation began.   To me, there’s nothing more boring than reading an extended discourse of some other lucky soul’s dining experience, so let’s just say if it was seared, grilled, double baked, confit’d or stuffed we probably experienced it;  and if it was decadent, seasonal, flown-in, rare or endangered, we probably consumed it.

A couple of highlights which simply cannot go unspoken was the fifth course - white truffle custard with a ragout of black perigord truffles washed down with D'Oliveira, Verdelho, "Reserva" Madeira 1973.  A wine before my time and complexity of flavors that beguiled my palate.    

The other stand-out was course ten - moulard duck “foie gras en terrine” served with sunchoke glaze, asian pear, toasted hazelnuts, watercress and white honey.  Accompany that with a tasting glass of 1986 Sauterne from  Château Raymond-Lafon and you can pack me up in the box right now.

Needless to say, 16 courses plus sweet treats, and my tummy was full, expanded and sated.  

We drifted from the restaurant on a cloud of soporific joy, and as my thoughts turned to my impending birthday, I knew we had experienced a true master in action.  Not exactly a weekly occurrence, but surely something everyone who has the opportunity to do, really should take up. And yes, it really is worth the money. 

And then again? there are times when all you really crave is simplicity.   

That place where fluorescent lights, laminex tables and the incessant blaring of a Vietnamese pop song complements the clunking and clinking of spoons and chopsticks against ceramic white bowls of steaming noodle soup and bottomless pots of Chinese tea is strangely comforting.  

 Upon making the choice from the numbered bi-lingual menu, by the time you assemble the cutlery and accouterments from the array of smoked, preserved, dried and sweet sauce offerings, your meal has arrived and soon you have sipped, slurped and sucked your way through a steaming bowl of the most delicious Chicken Pho - all for $8.00 including tip!  

 It may not be French Laundry, but it’s a heck of a lot quicker than the $1 dryers across the road.

 

 

A chance Farmer's Market meeting

I have been developing a food project in my personal time for the last four years, looking at women and their relationship to food, from the farmers, to the cooks, those with abundance, deprivation, food security and cultural connection. On my last trip home to McLaren Vale earlier this year, I was headed to shoot video with my dear friend and renowned chef Karena Armstrong www.salopian.com.au at her home in McLaren Vale as my first subject. (more on that in a noter post) My morning was running early, so I stopped by the Willunga Farmers Market -my old Saturday ritual when I lived in the area. Superb coffee in hand, I ran into Sharon Lambert and her daughter Jay Kimber – founder and owner of www.thegardenfarmers.com.au . Also check her out on Instagram at @GrowtoHealth. @thegardenfarmers. 

Their premise is simple: "We are young farmers passionately growing fresh, clean and tasty produce for our local community.", so over sips of green juice samples, I learned more about Jay’s business plans, tales of her upcoming relocation to Hawaii. and relentless love of farming, health and wellness. On a whim Jay kindly obliged to have her photo taken and we managed a couple of fun shots.

I meet so many people in the food business, but Jay stands out as someone with an incredible intuitive sense for health, wellness and I look forward to watching her success continuing to grow, just like the produce she is connected to. 

Independence Day - a celebration of all things Red, White & Blue

(NB: Re-posted from my Pisco Diaries 2007-2011)

 

As we come to the close of another 4th July celebration, Friday’s National holiday meant many people took a long weekend for travel, leaving the city in the hands of the transient, a million tourists, and a few locals who took solace in the fact that you could find parking in the 7x7 city.

Bizarrely enough, three day weekends encourage people to do things they wouldn’t normally attempt.  Local television programming is overrun with adverts for replacing “that ol’ carpet”, or “renovating the kitchen” – both tasks normally left to professionals, or at least Summer break when the kids come home from boarding school.

Like any good Aussie long weekend, Independence Day wouldn’t be such without mega-plex chain stores selling barbeques you could roast a small dinosaur on, and bags of charcoal so huge, even BHP Directors look to invest. 

At hardware stores across the city, men of all sizes groaned under the weight of hardwood and fire lighters, while ladies of the city loaded their double-chassis supermarket carts scouting the aisles for the jumbo bags of corn chips and the “maxi value packs” of meat.  Anyone would have thought a natural disaster was upon the city, not a three day weekend.

It also appears 4th July is the day where the American tradition of grey-market trading hits pay-dirt, as parking lots are brimming with people scouting for deals, willing to part with hard earned cash in exchange for a potential pyromaniac bonanza.  Instruction manuals lay strewn across an array of opened boxes and small children jump in glee at the impending display, as police turn a blind eye to man’s long standing temptation to blow things up.

With city officials managing the “official” fireworks, it seems not even San Francisco’s signature Summer fog could deter those destined to test out their new fireworks’ setting skills.  For a city that proclaims harm minimization, environmental awareness and all things liberal, these values all go out the window for 40 minutes on July 4th when patriotism and spectacle replace any thoughts of sustainability or carbon footprint.  Oh, and the fact the California Fire Service is battling over 200 bushfires.

As the swarm gathered on the wharves across San Francisco preparing to celebrate another year of freedom, CBS 5 broadcast the Independence Day Festival, complete with Huey Lewis & the News, and everyone’s favourite washed up teen idol, Rick Springfield.  It seems recycled pop stars never die, they just do more Celebration gigs…

No gala event would be complete without a stirring rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” sung by a young starlet, backed up with an assembly of Marines which made even a newcomer Aussie become somewhat misty eyed.  Somehow Nicky Webster’s version of “Advance Australia Fair” didn’t quite have the same impact…

So with the 4th over, it seems America gathers its collective hangover and does what every good long weekend encourages – goes shopping! 

For those who have visited the U.S., you know that stores go on SALE more often than Lindsey Lohan goes into rehab, however this does not stop those with pockets stashed with cash to part with “must have” seasonal items.  I did have to laugh, when in true “freedom tradition”, most supermarkets and chain stores actually traded on the 4th – I guess someone has to get this economy out of recession!

Another bizarre past time of the weekend seems to be museum and gallery visiting.  Whether it is a lack of other activities, or people’s conscious desire to tap into creativity, (after all, those fireworks were VERY well timed) public spaces across San Francisco were overrun with people looking to get a bit of kultcha

With full disclosure, I too was one of the guilty, but reasoned that with so many locals out of town, maybe waiting times for the Frida Kahlo exhibition at MOMA would be short, or that Dale Chihouly’s glass exhibition at DeYoung could be seen up close.  How wrong I was…

Upon entering both museums it quickly dawned on me that this was where the rest of California came to vacation.  MOMA was overrun with eager museum goers – some of whom seemed more pre-occupied with giving their own narration of each exhibit rather than listening to the narrative.  A young girl with unfortunate fellow in tow, felt it necessary to shout out each installation’s title – as the 6 foot young lad was either hard of hearing, looking for the nearest exit, or both. 

The exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work was interesting but somewhat disturbing.  I am sure not even a decade of therapy could go toward peeling the onion of emotion that lay within a woman who clearly was a retirement cheque for many a therapist.  Ironically, the comment of the day came from a young lass teetering on heels and weighed down by makeup, who asked “why didn’t she just wax?” Upon leaving the MOMA, it was also a weekend for a trip to the DeYoung museum set in picturesque Golden Gate Park.

For anyone who has seen Dale Chihouly’s work, it really is quite breathtaking in its scale and workmanship, but it seems colour still attracts the masses and the DeYoung museum was packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of his mastery and maybe re-live the LSD inspired color hazes his work evokes. 

Crowds here were less frantic and a whole lot more gracious – was it the medium or the subject?   Cash registers chimed as Chihouly’s studio works were devoured at the end of the tour, and for just for one minute people forgot they lived in an earthquake prone city...

So another weekend over, San Franciscans return from Monterey, wine country or wherever their gas guzzlers have taken them, unload the people movers and prepare for another week ahead. 

Thanks to everyone who has come and visited me over the last month, either at conferences, quick coffee stops or fleeting dinner encounters and a very special thanks to Nina and Ann-Marie, both who both re-instated my faith that normal Aussie chicks really can drink most American men under the table…

Harvest 2015 - coming out of the shadows

Being "seen" was something I struggled with growing up. Mum tells stories of how in my early years we would go to a party or family gathering, and I would be the one standing back, wary of people and my surrounds, and seemingly preferring my own company than others. I never really considered myself an introvert, it was the only way I knew, but I did know that noisy people really drove me crazy.  

I chose not to be seen but millions of people don't have that option. I recently ended a relationship with someone who would tell me I didn't understand what it is like not to fit in, not to be accepted, seen for their talents, recognized for their individual being (not doing) and it frustrated me that this divide exists in what should be our  "evolved" first world country. I

Living in California and working in Napa Valley, the rich and poor divide is evident in daily life. Many local workers, predominantly migrant, many undocumented, cannot afford to live where they work, and travel for hours to be able to provide services to those few who own, develop or manage the properties that keep the economy turning and the Valley thriving.

In Napa Valley, harvest would simply not be possible without the local worker community who keep the viticulture and winemaking wheels turning.  Harvest this year started two to three weeks earlier than normal, and with a ton of travel taking me out of the region, I captured only a brief glimpse of the 2015 harvest. Between the fires, a long drought and somewhat early start, I missed much of the action, but did manage one morning at Atlas Peak to photograph the Michael Mondavi Familys 15-acre prized Cabernet Sauvignon being harvested.

The sun was still an hour from hitting the horizon, and yet when I arrived at the 15 acre vineyard site, 40+ men were already assembled at the end of the vine rows, huddling over thermoses of coffee, chatting in Spanish and ready to work. I spotted only one white picker in the sea of hispanic gents, ranging in age from 21 to 70+. Many crews are paid on time to quantity picked, so the more efficient, the better the pay. Thankfully this morning was very cool, a welcome reprieve for what is certainly hot, sweaty and relentless work. The physical intensity of picking cannot be underestimated. Endless hours, days and weeks of bending over rows less than 3 feet high to capture and secure the fruit, moving with deft hands an swift knives, always conscious not to damage the fruit, or cut themselves. They move quickly, clearing completing 500 meter rows in less than 10 minutes, emptying an endless sea of grey picking buckets to dump in tractor bins that will be soon loaded on a flat-bed truck to head to the winery for processing.

Boxes are kicked along the ground as the men move swiftly, the sounds of bunches dropping into buckets, intermittently interrupted by what sounds like Spanish show-tunes, or a joke. They pause only to allow another full bin to pass by, or to commence a new row.  The men smile and joke as they graciously let me take their photo or dart between the rows, jumping on the back of a moving tractor, or find myself on the ground, all in an attempt to capture some of the action; I often wondered what they thought of this strange lass laden with cameras, tripods and lenses.

At one point, one of the crew leaders jested to the group that every photo taken of him would cost me $100, as he was famous. The other team members laughed and as he made eye contact with me, he winked, dispelling any concern or confusion I may have harbored that the joke was on me. In fact he was delighted to see the crew being finally captured doing great precise, efficient and flawless work.

The enormity of the happiness in being seen didn't strike me until I returned home to process the images. Amid all the chaos, the bustle, hustle and noise of a vineyard being picked, arose these images of men smiling, poised, you can see the light in their eyes and the beauty in their soul. A beauty that deserves to be seen. To be celebrated. People with pride in their work, pride of their culture, and the life they were creating, simply by being who they were and doing the work. 

My harvest 2015 was a very humbling one. I am in the process of printing every man's photograph and give it to them to do with as they please. I secretly hope that one image will end up framed on a mantle piece, so that relatives, friends and loved ones can see the same beauty that I saw that morning. That would fill my heart more than any fancy bottle of 2015 vintage wine.

 

 

A welcome return to Champagne

My love affair with Champagne has spanned nearly 20 years. I first traveled to the region in 1996 as the inaugural Student winner of the Australian CIVC “Vin de Champagne Award”. My prize? 10 days exploring the Champagne region alongside a Professional and Non-Professional winner, each of whom were women 10+ years my senior. For two weeks, I ate, drank, listened, learned, scribbled and digested everything possible on all things Champagne, returning to Adelaide with notebooks crammed with notes and a mind stuffed with memories and a waistband irrevocably stretched.  

While many memories were certainly fond, one of my top two favorite visits was to Champagne Charles Heidsieck. Founded in 1853 by entrepreneur Charles Camille Heidsieck, his namesake House is the smallest of the Grand Marques and one only five producers whose underground cellars include crayeres - chalk pits dug by slaves in the Roman times. The cavernous spaces were more than 30 meters deep, housing hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne, and snaking their damp, dark way underneath kilometers of the Reims city center and beyond. 

Venturing into these pits is still a 100+ step descent into the darkness, with hand carved stairs bearing the wear of teams of men, women and children who had taken the trek before me. The high humidity initially a refreshing respite from the 35+C tempeartres above, but a coldness that soon gets under your skin and chills your bones.  Standing in these damp, dark pits, you could feel the silence of the chalk surrounds, and as your eyes adjust to the yellow light, you begin to decipher the gouge marks of the workers’ picks, many who must have died creating these majestic architectural marvels. 

Throughout war times the pits were used as refuge, with some champenoise families calling them home as safety from the wars above. I was blown away by the silence, majesty and sheer scale of the pits. The stories they held, the history that had been survived and the lives that had lived below ground.

I returned to Charles in 2003 with a small group of fellow Australians to receive a “Dame Chevalier" medal for my services to the region, and again in 2014 with a larger group, also past winners, to celebrate 40 years of the uniquely Australian / CIVC Awards.

Returning last month I landed on Charles’ doorstep with my work colleagues, having signed a contract only a month earlier to be the official national importer for the House. I was excited to return and see how the House had changed over 19 year since my first visit, and the potential for great wine in the future…

The trip did not disappoint; so many familiar places and faces, it was like only months had passed. Our trip was only brief, but the memories of region remain as fresh today as they ever did.

Oh Negroni - My Italian Lover

I remember my first negroni. It was in Florence in the mid 90s and I was walking the piazza after dinner with my Italian wine producer host.  She was English and had moved to Italy 10 years earlier, looking for love, and staying for wine. A wise, complex, kind, and brilliant minded lady, she drank, she smoked, didn’t mince her words and drank negronis. Her knowledge on wine and life held me captivated and I wanted to be just like her.  So when she suggested “one last drink” at her favorite bar, I couldn’t refuse. 

We walked a dimly-lit block in the cool night air before happening up on “her place”. Stepping onto the gray marble porch and swinging open the heavy oak door, we found ourselves the subject of attention for the near all-male crowd, bellied up to the bar, smoking and conversing at varying decibels. Many held half empty glasses of assorted amaro and digestifs, but for Alex and I it was the negroni we were there for. 

In flawless Italian tinged with a hint of Oxford, Alex ordered our drinks and the room fell silent. A few quizzical glances ensued, then the fellow next to Alex turned and jested in Italian, she with retorts. I later learned he had asked what kind of ladies we were to be ordering such a drink so late on a Tuesday night, for surely we had a home to go to and a husband to feed.

Too busy to notice I was transfixed by the bartender.  The mid 60s man was a looming 6’2”; the lines on his face had earned their place, his fleshy worn hands dried from years of acid, sugar, and the vagaries of bartending life.  He went about his craft with the precision and concentration of a cardiac surgeon; the crystal-clear ice cubes stacked into an impossibly clean old-fashioned glass.

With a seasoned silver measure and keen eye, he coalesced one-third each of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin to their final resting place. Navigating the solid silver swizzle between the glass walls and ice, his hands came alive, pirouetting the swizzle to an imaginary tune, clockwise for certain turns then counter clockwise.  Then, just as an appreciative opera audience tosses flowers to stage, in front of us landed two white cocktail napkins and atop, a pair of the most exotic adult drinks I had seen. 

Catching my gaze, the youthful sparkle in his eyes told you he was proud of his handiwork.  There was no request for money, no waiting on applause. He was gone. Off to create another cocktail for the throngs he knew would also appreciate his handiwork.   

The heady aromas of orange, mandarin, rose and juniper filled my senses, and the unctuous liquid hit my lips, instantly warming my insides and flooding memories of my first sip of “real liquor”. But better.  

My host raised her glass, took a sip, a deep look of contemplation and a wry grin before announcing: “it’s a good one”. The perfect juxtaposition of sweetness, bitterness, absence, presence, simplicity and complexity. Life’s metaphor; we knew one would suffice.

Much like the martini, the negroni is a dangerous dance partner. Orson Welles, who discovered the cocktail while filming Black Magic in Rome in 1947 said: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.” Smart man.

The negroni has been my loyal cocktail friend over the last 17 years. She comforts me, surprises me, and is always the yardstick by which I measure a great bartender. In its birthplace of Florence, it is served in a tumbler glass on the rocks with a slice of orange - never will it come “up” or served with citrus peel. I find the new bartenders and hipsters tend to want to mess with fancy vermouths, highly aromatic gins, replace Campari with sweeter Averna or, as they do in San Francisco, serve it blended and barrel aged, or on tap.

But nothing will replace the original. A classic negroni, like a classic martini is a crowd leveler, and for me, a friend selector. I give thanks to Count Cammillo Negroni and the day he strolled into Caffe Casoni in Florence and asked to replace the soda in his Americano with Gin. He may have been a philandering Italian turned American rodeo rider, but the Count sure knew a great drink when he saw one.

 

Precision & Patience at a Price – the wines of DalForno Romano

Located in the township of Ilasi in the Veneto region, DalForno Romano produces of some of the most coveted wines in the world. The family produces three gems from their small property – Valpolicella Superiore DOC, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC and "Vigne Seré" a reccioto produced in extremely limited quantities from the classic varieties of Corvina, Rodinella and Oseleta and Croatina.

Romano, who grew up adjacent to the land they currently farm, honed his craft under the tutelage of Giuseppe Quintarelli before striking out on his own in 1983. Relentless in his commitment to quality, every penny earned is put back into the business; no shiny suits, polished shoes, or sparkling jewelry here. Only the family is allowed to work in the winery, with workers brought in for harvest and pruning seasons but never allowed to work in the cellar. The expansive barrel room has been under construction for over a decade and the meticulous engineering of pointed brick work, large Roman style troughs (for maintaining humidity) and steelwork honed by Veronese craftsman are all works in progress.


Romano's own winemaking engineering is evident, his custom vinification area is purpose built to omit any form of oxygen ingress during fermentation. Vacuum, nitrogen, and computer intelligence are used extensively to control the process, and small nitrogen tanks are a permanent fixture in the barrel room.


For the traditional appasimento process, the drying room is a testament to geometry and precision. Located on the second floor of the winery, 60+ computer controlled air fans hang perpendicular from the ceiling, moving over the plastic fruit baskets to cool and dry the year's harvest through the appasimento technique.

Every fan is individually controlled and adjustable for speed and movement, and the floor at every turn shines and squeaks with cleanliness. Quite a juxtaposition in a region known for using oxidative methods and open window "natural" drying. However these processes also lack control, something the DalForno family does not desire.


In the barrel hall one level below ground, meticulously clean French oak barriques are uniformly stacked in individual cradles. No two barrels touch, no stack higher than three, every barrel seemingly given its own space to contemplate, and all accessible at any time for a checkup. It would make the most space-efficient of cellar masters scratch their heads at the use of open space.  However this is the DalForno way - every move deliberate and meticulous in approach, and driven by precision, intent and focus.


Sitting with Romano DalForno over a glass of his wine is an exercise in mindfulness.  A rugged man with strong hands carved through decades of work, contrasted with bright eyes and a giant heart filled with kindness and adoration for his wife, their three sons, and the wines they produce. Over the dining table, Romano shares his struggle to navigate the balance of managing sustainable growth for his future generations with the desire to keep the business within the control of his direct family.


The wines are a hedonistic, sophisticated journey into Amarone the wine, and this great man.  As son Michele proclaims, these wines cannot be simply opened and consumed, one must sit with the wine, contemplate it, admire its depth and allow it to tell you a story.

So we sat. And the 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella revealed itself in the heady aromas of black cherry, cassis, compote, with undertones of leather, fruitcake spice and nutmeg. The tannin profile certainly strident, but somehow, like a velvet curtain spilling its form over a bay window, it was timeless and yearned to be left to rest in a cellar for at least a decade. Taking the lead from Romano DalForno, not opening these world class gems before their time is a true exercise in patience.

Source: http://eng.dalfornoromano.it/

Rex. The other great Amarone gem

There's one treasure at DalForno Romano that cannot be bottled.  

 

Rex has been with the DalForno family since he was a pup, and seen a few harvests in his time. Only two-legged family members are allowed in the cellar, so Rex is that of guard dog, but one look into his deep brown eyes you see the yesteryear moments running around the property, making mischief, burying bones and generally enjoying his life on the farm.

 

 A strictly outside dog, Rex sleeps on a custom wooden plank bed, his only heat source a self-made wooly fur coat to keep him warm through the rainy,windy, and sometimes sleety mornings of Ilassi. Rex is also one of the kindest, sweetest dogs I have met. He adores attention and will raise his old weary bones from his resting place to slowly move his ancient body to you. Just to lean, to take a pat, have you plunge your friendly palm into his thicket of a well-worn coat and raise his gorgeous brown eyes to meet yours, to put his weathered, scarred nose into your hand to understand a piece of your history.

 

When enquire of his age, winemaker Michele DalForno laughs and tells me "Rexxy is tired." Their loyal all companion has seen so much over the years, and I try to imagine what those eyes have witnessed. Like great old Amarone della Valpolicella he has aged from a hulking energetic brute to a retiring, complex and stunningly beautiful expression of his surrounds. 

Source: http://eng.dalfornoromano.it

Returning home - a summer sojourn

It is always emotional experience heading home to Australia. To hear those aircraft cabin doors close, feel the steel buckle of the seatbelt against my waistline,  and hear the captain explain that in 16 hours I will be home to my native land, I exhale a full breath.

While San Francisco and the US has increasingly started to feel like my adopted home over the last eight years, Australia is the place of my family, dear friends, familiar sights, smells and sounds. 

Returning home is like checking in with my own life. To rediscover all that has changed, and all that remained the same. For this trip I was determined to take my new Canon 5D III camera body and 75-200mm 4.5L lens, alongside my trusty Rebel T3i and 18-35mm lens, and continue my relentless journey of learning. 

I also made the decision to hire an 85mm 1.8 prime lens for portraits from an Adelaide based film hire location, to hopefully  capture the energy and emotion of my family and friends in their element and familiar places.

Whilst the lenses did get used on occasion, sadly not as much as I had planned. Collective schedules, sickness, general jetlag, and distractions only had me shoot about 1/10 of the frames I had taken in my mind and I returned home with what are often considered "glory shots", absent from my cards. Having spent a week editing, I start to see a few bright spots. 

Most of my favorites were shot without extensive amounts of planning, other than right place, right light, right time. Maybe this is how I am destined to shoot. Less pre-meditation, more spontaneity. Less angst, more vulnerability. Less focus, more space. 

The shot accompanying this post was taken at Port Noarlunga in South Australia, a beach where I spent umpteen years of my childhood and youth snorkeling, swimming, building sandcastles and getting totally, naively, sunburned. Unlike many kids of our neighborhood, my brother and I were never allowed to "jetty jump" so we would pop down to the end of the jetty, snorkel and fins in hand, and simply discover a mysterious underwater world, then swim back to shore.

We knew never to swim at dusk, for that is surely prime time for sharks, but in high Summer, by the time the sun hit the horizon, we were well at home, showered, applying burn cream and noshing on hot chip sandwiches.   

This image reminds me of Summer in full swing, and that magical hour when mother nature takes one enormous exhale, sinking over the horizon line, retreating to rest, and create the next perfect day.

 

Mexico DF - Cuba & New York meet in a bar...

After more than two years of insistence I finally took the plunge to travel to Mexico to visit the birthplace of my best friend. I am still not sure what took me so long to agree, but I was thrilled to experience a complete immersion into the beauty, design, history, revolutionary outlook and deep-seeded emotional and cultural melting pot of Mexico DF. 

With an absence of middle class, there is only the wealthiest of wealthy and the poorest of poor. Yet the cultural richness, wealth and intensity of this incredible place cannot be put in a box. Much like the people we met and places we visited, my sense of Mexico is one of an incredibly proud country, of immense beliefs, culture and commitment to retaining the richness of history. Many others could learn many things from this incredible place. One memorable day trip was to the borough of Xochimilco - a remaining remnant of the city when it was navigated via lakes and canals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xochimilco The afternoon spent floating on a river boat, steered by a young local who knew the meandering, gentle tidal waters well. Entertained by floating mariachi bands and dining on quesadillas made by a neighboring vendor, washed down with the nation's cerveza, the sun's rays replaced by looming thunder clouds and we returned to shore, sun kissed and relaxed.