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  • Q&A with Brut Force Author Peter Stafford-Bow

    Posted: 2018-12-17 19:15
    Peter Stafford-Bow knows satire. And he knows the machinations of most facets in the wine trade. These truths are self evident in the author's initial release Corkscrew: The highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer and its sequel Brut Force. This release once again follows wine buyer Felix Hart as blackmailers put him in precarious situations involving a corrupt wine tasting between old and new world Pinot Noir. Like its predecessor, Brut Force is a compelling read; I found myself leaping into the next chapter -- even as late night drowsiness set in. It is also entertaining, at times silly (don't be surprised if you laugh out loud), but Stafford-Bow keeps the focus on the wine industry throughout the various plot twists. This focus and the author's inherent knowledge of the wine trade led me to submit several questions regarding his background and his highly recommended current release.


    1) When did you develop an interest with wine?
    I started working in a liquor store while studying at university. At the time, my experience of wine was limited to hosting house parties where we’d buy bag-in-box Don Darius (a cheap, La Mancha red), blend it with brandy and orange juice in a trash can, and tie a ladle to the side of the bin. Not exactly the fine wine end of the spectrum. But the liquor store management were big on training, even for part-time staff, and they persuaded me to study for a basic wine exam. After that, I was bitten. I gave up my ‘proper’ university studies (and the trash cans full of gut-rot) and dedicated myself to wine full time.

    2) In Corkscrew, the main character, Felix Hart, becomes a supermarket buyer and retains that occupation in Brut Force. Are his experiences anecdotal to any events you experienced as a supermarket buyer?
    Yes, I’ve based both books on my experience of buying wine for supermarkets in the 1990s and 2000s. The main plotline in Corkscrew is based on real experience. We used to find stowaways in containers of Italian wine quite frequently – you’d receive a call from the depot saying a bunch of Afghans wearing bobble hats had just leapt out of a shipping container full of Pinot Grigio and legged it out of the warehouse. I lived in Cape Town for a while and the South African adventures in Corkscrew are based on my time there.

    3) The plot lines in both books are very complex with multiple twists that require extensive resourcefulness and imagination. Do these attributes come naturally to you?
    That’s very complimentary of you, thank you. I hope the plots aren’t TOO complex! I love spy thrillers, especially John le Carré, so maybe I’ve brought a little of that to my novels.

    4) In Brut Force! the plot begins with Hart's Pinot Noir vine that he planted in his backyard. How prevalent is Pinot Noir in actual English vineyards?
    Pinot Noir is quite widely planted now, thanks to the focus on sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. South-East England is less than 200 miles from the Champagne region and the soil is the same geological formation as that in Champagne – i.e. chalk – so that’s what English vignerons are concentrating on. The total area under vine in England is only 5,000 acres, so still tiny compared to the US or European countries, of course. Around one quarter of that is Pinot Noir.

    5) People may be surprised that there is a vibrant English sparkling wine industry. Are there any estates you recommend?
    Yes, most English sparkling wine is excellent quality – it’s all Traditional Method (i.e. Méthode Champenoise). Good estates include Hambledon (their rosé is superb), Camel Valley, Hush Heath (who make the Balfour brand) and Hoffman & Rathbone – though that last one is very boutique.

    6) Moving along with the plot in Brut Force!, there's a blind tasting between new and old world Pinot Noirs. Did you conduct a similar tasting to get a sense in your mind what Hart would experience?
    I didn’t set up my own tasting, but there are lots of people doing similar ‘face-offs’ these days. Just last month, at a posh London hotel, there was a Champagne versus English Sparkling blind tasting, with several eminent Masters of Wine in attendance. The French won, I believe, but it was pretty close. Perhaps the English will triumph next year…

    7) In both books, you discuss wine regions such as South Africa or in Brut Force!, Pinots across the globe. Did you travel to these locations in order to research - obviously Burgundy but also New Zealand, Germany, California, or Oregon?
    I’ve been lucky enough to travel very widely during my career. I’ve been to every major wine producing region, and plenty of minor ones too! So yes, with hindsight I consider my whole drinking career to have been literary research…

    8) Staying with wine regions, do you have a personal favorite(s)?
    That’s a tricky one. I love the rolling hills of Beaujolais, while the picturesque villages and vineyards of Tuscany are wonderful too. Central Otago in New Zealand is gorgeous, but the breath-taking scenery of South Africa’s Cape probably takes the top slot for sheer beauty.

    9) Brut Force introduces organic wine fanatics. Do you have an opinion on organic, biodynamic, or natural wines?
    Yes – Organic is good, Biodynamic is better, and non-intervention, Natural wines are best! Of course, you have to know what you’re doing in the vineyard and winery. But any movement that respects the environment, minimizes additives, and allows the true nature of the wine to shine is on the side of the angels in my opinion.

    10) The characters in both books are quite distinctive, from Hart to his companions to his adversaries. Do you follow a process when creating each character or are they based on actual acquaintances?
    I wouldn’t say there’s a process, as such. All the main characters are based on a real person or, more commonly, a combination of people – usually work colleagues or wine trade folk. Many of the characters in the novels are thoroughly despicable, of course, whereas in real life most people are reasonably pleasant, so that’s where I have to make a few dark tweaks – for legal as well as artistic reasons!
  • Lucas & Lewellen Brut Sparkling Wine 2016 Santa Barbara County

    Posted: 2018-12-14 08:09
    Lucas & Lewellen is one of the more prolific wineries in Santa Barbara County as evident by their large wine portfolio and popular Solvang tasting room. Most of the winery's 40+ wines wear the Lucas & Lewellen label signifying that they are produced from estate grapes from either Goodchild Vineyard, Los Alamos Vineyard, or Valley View Vineyard. I recently received a sample from their Los Alamos Vineyard -- the Lucas & Lewellen Brut Sparkling Wine 2016 Santa Barbara County ($36).

    This sparkling wine is composed of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay that according to the winery, "is a clear expression of the estate Los Alamos Vineyard terroir". These 278 acres stretching for over a mile of Highway 101 just south of Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez AVA. Over 20 varieties of grapes are planted - with the Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux regions well represented - and with some of the vines planted from cuttings brought over from Europe over 25 years ago. This Burgundian styled sparkler is delicious as creamy apples vibrate against a slightly bready interior and then lifted by the refreshing effervescence. Very nicely done.
  • Down on the Redskins? Then Detour to TCOB & Dynasty Brewing

    Posted: 2018-12-12 06:00
    As the Redskins implode this football season, any residual pain is overcome by two relatively new craft breweries that reside just around the corner from the 'skins' Ashburn facility. First, we recommend Drinking, Playing, and Brewing at The Craft of Brewing (TCOB Brewery ™) and #VABreweryChallenge #66. TCOB provides a craft brewing experience where visitors can drink from one of twenty self-service taps, play pool or shuffleboard, or brew beer themselves using  TCOB's 20L or 50L kettle systems. During our visit we sampled several very interesting and unique beers -- being able to pour anywhere from two to sixteen ounces each. A few standouts were the Dead Center (Nitro) Schwarzbier, Imperial Pumpkin Stout, Hopitis IPA, Chowderhead NE IPA, and the Respect My AuthoriThai Gose. The last was brewed with lime peel and Thai basil providing Pad Thai in the glass. I hope to visit again very soon with a lager recipe in hand.

    A few doors down sits Dynasty Brewing (#VABreweryChallenge #67), named after the Virginia dynasty regarding four of the first five American presidents. This establishment is a partnership with one partner longtime Loudoun brewer Favio Garcia (Director of Brewery Operations).  Garcia is well known in the area from his experience with Old Dominion, Lost Rhino, and Beltway Brewery. And as expected their portfolio is rock solid starting with the DynastyFest Helles Lager. There's nothing to hide with this satisfying quaffer. The Data Center Pale Ale was well balanced as was the Random Allusions IPA. Getting into the more intriguing, they offered My Brother's Neighbor Kettle Sour Pale Ale, The True Story Milk Stout, the Holliday Farm Caramel Corn Peanut Stout, and the Maintenance Mike Milkshake IPA. Lactose does wonders in IPAs and the Holliday Farm is a delicious treat.

    As always these breweries can be visited easily using theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. Sorry iPhone 11 iOS and iPhones 5S and greater users. Cheers.
  • A Trio From Spain's Gonzalez Byass

    Posted: 2018-12-08 09:00
    In 1835 at only 23 years old Manuel María González Ángel founded the precursor to Gonzalez Byass creating the Tío Pepe (Uncle Joe) sherry brand inspired by his uncle uncle, José Ángel. In fact the winery’s foundational solera is still inscribed with “Solera del Tío Pepe”. Nearly ten years into his operation Manuel united with his English Agent Robert Blake Byass to form González Byass as they shipped "exceptionally pale..." Tío Pepe wine to the United Kingdom. Together they built the company to be the leading exporter of sherry wines in Jerez.  González Byass focused exclusively on sherry until the 1980's when they started incorporating wineries from other notable Spanish wine regions into the corporate umbrella. These included Bodegas Beronia - D.O.Ca. Rioja and Viñas del Vero - Somontano. And during the same period "the Byass family withdrew from the business and the winery passed into the hands of the direct descendants of Manuel María González". For this winter season we received three samples that will warm your palate.

    Beronia Crianza 2015 ($14.99) & Beronia Reserva 2013 ($19.99)
    Rioja is situated in the Ebro Valley hemmed to the north by the Cantabria mountain range and to the south by the Demanda range and creating an enclave for the eventual production of quality wines. Yet in ancient times it was inhabited by a Celtic tribe called Berones who called the area Beronia. In modern times (1973) as the region now know as Rioja became the preeminent Spanish wine producing region, members of a gastronomic society founded Bodegas Beronia -- which was eventually incorporated into the González Byass portfolio. The winery is specifically located in Rioja Alta -- the western most of the three major Rioja sub-regions -- and it's high elevation and Atlantic climate assists in the development of acidity, color and moderate alcohol levels. Like most of Rioja, the Tempranillo grape reigns supreme and is the majority grape in both these wines.  As expected, the Beronia Crianza was aged one year in oak and is excellent (what a value). Expect bright cherry fruit with slight black pepper and very comfortable tannins.  Reserva wines must spend three years aging with one of those in oak and the Beronia Reserva spent 20 months in various oak treatments and then aged an additional 18 months in bottle.The wine is darker where the fruit and dirt mingle with black pepper and expect more depth and noticeable tannins. Nicely done.

    Viñas del Vero Secastilla 2010 ($39.99)
    "Viñas del Vero owes its name to a river in the Somontano district of Spain. The source of the Vero river lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and it is famous for its ravines, canyons and gorges. The Secastilla valley lies at the far north-eastern limits of Somontano, nestling half way between the two main roads that link Somontano to the Pyrenees. It enjoys a special Mediterranean microclimate that is quite distinct from that of the rest of the region and is ideal from growing vines and olive and almond trees". Garnacha is just one of several Spanish and International grape varieties planted at Viñas del Vero and is the sole grape in the Secastilla. Even though the wine was only aged eight months in oak, it is very complex with dense cherries, spices and chocolate floating through various depths and lingering tannins.  This is a delicious wine - if your ready to splurge - it comes highly recommended.
  • Settle Down Easy with Local #VACraftBeer

    Posted: 2018-12-06 06:38
    There are now 266 brewery tasting rooms in the Commonwealth and sadly we have now only visited our 65th in the #VABreweryChallenge. The latest is quite close to home, the recently opened Settle Down Easy Brewing Co. (SDE). Located in Falls Church, the brewery's name is derived from lyrics in the Grateful Dead song Ramble on Rose -- but not so fast. Odell Brewing Company had trademarks rights from their Settle Down Brown, yet in a rare sign of trademark fellowship, granted the new proprietors rights to the name.

    There were two positive aspects I noticed when entering the brewery. The first was its spacious and open floor plan that allows visitors to flow easily between tables and the bar. Plus it provided an extensive view the brewing equipment.  The second was the two British-styled beers that were listed on the color-coded tasting wall. English styles seem to be overlooked within the current craft beer market but SDE was pouring the Gallows Pale Ale and the Do Yourself a Favor Porter. I wonder if Head Brewer Henry Jager perfected these recipes at his stints at Twisted Pine Brewing Company and Heavy Seas Brewing. They are excellent examples of each style.

    The brewery's overall portfolio is expansive with several hopped beers to meet the current IPA fever. There are multiple IPAs, a Dry Hopped Kolsch, and a hopped Martian Monster Red.  They also offer experiments with honey with the Sweet Scoville Sting Honey Jalapeno Ale (it has a kick) and the Raspberry Ramble Raspberry Honey Ale (aroma-centric and tart). But if the Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout is available on nitro, don't leave without a taste.

    And as always these breweries can be visited easily using theCompass Craft Beverage Finder. Sorry iPhone 11 iOS and iPhones 5S and greater users. Cheers.

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