Don't call it a comeback

Don't call it a comeback

Sometimes my 18-month-old gets so excited that she doesn’t know what to do. She squinches up her nose, tightly squeezes the source of excitement against her tummy, and then squeals with unbridled glee. My reaction to certain wines is not dissimilar, much to the horror of many a wine distributor. I can’t help it—some wines are just that good. For instance, one mention of the wine Arneis and I abandon all professionalism and carry on like a giddy little girl.

Though not strictly obvious from this photo of the region in Northwest Italy, the Piedmont area has 1,500 acres of Arneis vines after decades of near extinction.

A grape indigenous to the Piedmont region in Northwest Italy, Arneis dates back to the 1400s, but is only recently getting the spotlight it deserves. Originally, the vintners in Piedmont interspersed Arneis vines to keep the birds and bees away from their prized Nebbiolo vines. Often, Arneis was blended with Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco to soften their massive tannins. Gradually this practice became obsolete and by the ‘70s, the number of Arneis plantings dwindled to virtual extinction.

Between 1989 and 1998, production quadrupled and now Piedmont boasts more than 1,500 acres of Arneis vines. Most lay their roots in the sandy soils of the densely forested Roero zone west of Alba, but some grow in the chalkier soils of the Langhe (not to mention outside of Piedmont in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand). With a recent upgrade to DOCG status (a.k.a., winemaker-tested, government-approved), Roero holds the higher esteem of the two zones. 

Difficult to grow, Arneis means “stubborn, little rascal” in Piemontese dialect. I like to think of it as viticultural revenge for being bird food for so many years. Besides, who really likes a cooperative grape? The harder to grow, the sweeter the reward.

Playing it cool in the shadows of the Alps, Arneis manages to strike that glorious, hard-to-get balance between a crisp, lip-licking wine and a rich, luscious wine. It feels like a mouthful of gelato, but refreshes like a scoop of sorbetto. So, it is only appropriate to continue in this confectionary vein to describe Arneis’ flavor profile: melon meets mango meets pear meets apricot meets almond meets orange blossom. Is it any wonder that I am clutching the bottle to my tummy and shrieking like an over-sugared toddler?

Three ways to drink with glee:

— Paitin Roero Vigna Elisa Arneis 2008. tavola, $24

— Vietti Arneis 2008. Special order from your favorite local wine retailer, $25

— Rocche Costamagna Arneis Langhe 2008. Foods of All Nations, $14.99

Another charm of this wayward little live wire is its ability to pair with food. Arneis dances confidently from course to course, gracefully partnering with antipasti, pastas and seafood, but can also expertly take the hand of a richer dish, like veal milanese. A sweet passito version also exists, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting, but do imagine it to be just as squeal-worthy as the dry versions. Also, Arneis’ heftiness makes it the perfect summer-to-fall transition wine, when it is still too warm to snuggle up to reds, but just cool enough to crave a white with a little oomph. 

There are few things that I find as heart-warming as watching my little girl overcome with delight, but a white wine with a similar zest for life is a close second. Finally getting its deserved space on Piedmont’s top shelf, Arneis holds its own next to Gavi di Gavi, Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara in this region with an embarrassment of riches. Not bad for a grape once considered only fit for the birds.

Don't call it a comeback

Don't call it a comeback

Brad McCarthy’s current state is what you might call scattered. He’s a hard man to keep on topic sometimes, one of those hyperactive types who tend to talk with the rhythm of a pinball machine. On top of which right now he’s driving his white BMW at a fairly high rate of speed from one corner of Albemarle County to another, checking on his far-flung wines. McCarthy is making his new wine, called Bradford Reed, at three different wineries, begging and borrowing to get the operation off the ground. “Do you have any idea,” he asks me, “of the economics of my plan?”

McCarthy’s life plays kind of like a rap song.

Part I: Local boy uses skills to get out of the projects. MC McCarthy moved here at the age of 2 and was working in a restaurant at 21 when he fell in love with wine. An ad in The Daily Progress led to a job helping in the cellar at now dead Montdomaine, one of the

Crash into success: Brad McCarthy’s career got
a boost when in 1991 he was asked by his old friend Dave Matthews to be the winemaker/part owner of his new business, Blenheim Vineyards.

area’s top wineries in the ’80s. He worked a year at Acacia Vineyard in California before coming back to Virginia and scoring a gig as the first winemaker at White Hall Vineyards. Medals were won, a career was launched.

Part II: Local boy becomes a star. In 1999, his old friend Dave Matthews asked McCarthy to be the winemaker/part owner of his new business, Blenheim Vineyards. Success ensued—write-ups in major magazines, his name on the label.
Part III: Creative differences (and a settlement stipulating that he and they cannot talk about those differences). The star (winemaker) parts ways with his record label (winery) and brings it all back home with nothing but his BMW and his love of music. “I was 40 years old and feeling burnt out,” McCarthy says of his time at Blenheim.

Part IV: Here we go again.

McCarthy is driving around in his sedan/coupe/convertible checking on his wine. Here are what he calls the economics of his plan. First to Virginia Wineworks to pick up some cases of the 2006 Merlot and Meritage he made at Michael Shaps’ rent-a-winery, the sale of which will help pay for the 2008 Riesling and Chardonnay he has fermenting in borrowed tanks at First Colony Winery. Then it’s over to the new Mountfair winery where his Cab Franc sits in barrels. It’s all done through favors and trade. “My landlord is a de facto investor,” he says, which I take to mean he’s been a little late with the rent.

Brad McCarthy is a winemaker without a winery and that fact seems to scare him and excite him simultaneously. “I put my heart into it,” he says one night, smoking American Spirits and pouring his own Merlot. “I’m not just going up to a cubicle every day. Every moment I spend, every vintage I spend, is very precious. I’m 42. I don’t have that many left in me.” Spoken like a true rap star, albeit one whose hair is mad scientist messy and whose demeanor is more manic indie rock star than smooth hip-hop artist.

McCarthy pulls the bimmer into Jefferson Vineyards, where he’s been helping out winemaker Andy Reagan for a little pocket money. Dragging hoses, fetching supplies, etc. There is a lot of good-natured ribbing of the guy with 21 years winemaking experience doing the jobs he used to pawn off to assistants. “You guys just come in and see me working and say, ‘Oh, how the mighty has fallen,’” McCarthy says, acknowledging in the same breath that he is both destitute and a star.

“Fetch me a paper towel,” Reagan replies.