What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
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By Dan Clarke


Bowmore 40 year old PicmonkeyA very special whisky.Spending $7000 for a bottle of whisky seemed preposterous to me. Accepting an invitation to taste from that bottle was a different matter.

Some years ago I joined a small group of wine and food writers and restaurateurs to sample a number of single-malt Scotch whiskies, among them a 40-year-old Bowmore which was indeed retailing for $7,000. That its bottle was cut-glass and came in its own handsome wooden cabinetry (with brass lock), mitigates the price somewhat. Oh, and the purchaser received an invitation for an overnight stay at the distillery. However, the product was incredibly expensive by any standard.

Single malts are where the action is. Though only four percent of Scotland’s whisky exports by volume, their U.S. sales had been growing at 15 to 20 percent a year for the past decade. Paul Pacult, writing in Kindred Spirits, described single malt whiskies as ranging “from the most feral and lusty of whiskies to the most serenely elegant.” Who could resist exploring such a category?

Traditionally, Scotland is divided into four whisky-producing regions: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Islay and Campbelltown. Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is a small island in the Hebrides lying due west of Glasgow. Its whiskies have the reputation of being especially robust—peaty, pungent and even a little briny. Bowmore is the most significant of seven distillers on the island and is, in fact, one of the most prestigious of all single malts. Pacult declared it among the finest malt whisky distilleries, one of his top six of nearly 100 rated.

We gathered in a narrow private room at San Francisco’s Postrio restaurant late in the morning. At each place setting there were a number of empty wine glasses. We had done this drill before—perhaps hundreds of times. But today we were to taste whiskies, not wines.

Jim McEwan master distiller PicmonkeyJim McEwan, master distiller.

Jim McEwan, Bowmore’s distillery manager, introduces us to the first of seven whiskies that we were to taste. He advises us to add a little water to our samples which tends to release whisky’s flavors. This is especially evident when tasting their Cask Strength, a very full-bodied whisky bottled at 56 percent alcohol (112 proof). It is approximately 15 years old and was matured in former American Bourbon barrels. Next we taste the Bowmore Darkest, a whisky of similar age that was transferred from Bourbon barrels to former Oloroso Sherry barrels for the final three years of maturation. These “specialty products” as the distillery refers to them provide us with a good introduction to the role that wood plays in the development of character and flavor in Scotch whisky.

We continute the sampling, proceding through the Bowmore 12-year old, the 17, the 21, the 25, the 30 and two from afiliated distilleries—the Auchentoshan 31-year old and Glen Garoch 29-year old. Retail pricing of these 750ml bottles ranges from $30-35 to over $200. The peaty character is present in all, but not overpowering in any. The breadth and diversity of flavors is startling. We need to use the vocabularies otherwise reserved for describing the complexities of wine and begin talking in winespeak, that flowery—if sometimes fatuous—way writers describe flavors, “ . . . vanilla . . . hints of pear . . . a little sweetness on the finish . . . somewhat chocolatey . . . peppery” and so on. Perhaps the only descriptor we haven’t applied to wine is briny or salty which actually is a subtle characteristic that some Bowmore whiskies have. Long storage in oak barrels in a warehouse next to the sea can do that.

Jim McEwan has regaled us with Robert Burns' poetry, Islay whisky lore and anecdotes of his own experiences as he moved from apprentice cooper to general manager of Bowmore. He's a great story teller and he is credible.

We've learned about single malts. Our tasting has ascended through several different and distinct Bowmore products. We are ready. Bring on the 40-year old!

It is sublime.

The nose is both subtle and complex. How does a beverage distilled from grain acquire these fruit aromas? The peatiness is there, but it's almost delicate. On the palate there is layer upon layer of fruit flavors, but the finish is unmistakably Scotch. The transition is seamless. The experience is almost ethereal. The finest Cognac wearing tartan.

McEwan calls the Bowmore 40-Year Old a chance happening. Originally laid down in a Sherry cask in November of 1955, it was transferred to a Bourbon cask when the Sherry butt sprang a leak twenty years later. (Normal procedure would have been to continue in Sherry cooperage, but none was available at the moment the leak was discovered. Better to have whiskey in any barrel than on the floor.)

Something of a hybrid thereafter, this whisky didn't readily fit into normal categories for inventory purposes and was overlooked for much of the next couple of decades. However it evolved, this is an extraordinary spirit. The cask yielded only 294 bottles of the 84-proof treasure, 60 of which were destined for sale in the U.S.

After we've concluded a magnificent lunch prepared by chef Mitch Rosenthal, Jim McEwan teaches a Highland toast. This is properly done, he assures us, by standing on a chair and placing your right foot on the table. After putting our napkins over Postrio's upholstered chairs we ascend.

Sues e Suas e Suas e” we begin as we raise our glasses of $7,000 Scotch above our heads.

We're speaking in tongues while walking on the furniture in one of the country's finer restaurants.

Nobody falls. Nothing breaks. We're not asked to leave.

It's a magical moment, one I'll look to repeat. If I'm a little short the next time, The Bowmore 40 Year Old may not be on the menu, but I'll carry on the best I can.

Editor's Note:This most unusual tasting was held about ten years ago. The author has seen Jim McEwan just twice since then.  On his return visit to San Francisco a year later he provided me the opportunity to take a test given to prospective Scotch whisky professionals and the occasional journalist. Tasting was not involved, but identifying 15 or 20 different aromas was required. These included camphor and butterscotch and so many others seldom included in a wine writer's vocabulary. I struggled, but Jim said I passed. A couple of years later I ran into him in Bordeaux at Vinexpo, the bi-annual wine show. He'd just left Bowmore and was representing Bruichladdich, a recently resurrected Islay distillery, in the spirits section of the event. As of the fall of 2013 he is still Bruichladdich's Master Distiller. 

Madera’s Ficklin Vineyards celebrated their 65th anniversary in the Port business last September. The focus now, as it was from the start, is to make authentic Ports from four traditional Portuguese grape varieties planted in the family vineyard in 1945. One of the most popular wines Ficklin still produces is the Old Vine Tinta Port, which was first released in October, 1951. It is an aged ruby style that originated with David Ficklin, the original winemaker. The solera system for that wine was started with the first Ports made at Ficklin in 1948.

Today, two-hundred and fifty-six American oak barrels and sixty-seven European puncheons provide a total puncheons at Ficklin SMALLPuncheons in the Ficklin solera.capacity of over 23,000 gallons for that solera system. Housed in Ficklin’s historic adobe brick winery building, these barrels and puncheons have provided for the consistent flavor development of the Old Vine Tinta Port for over sixty years.

A solera system for wine is a fractional blending system, meaning that only a fraction of the wines progress through to the level of ageing at any time. As the wine is slowly moved through this solera system, a newer three year-old Port from each of the four Portuguese grape varieties is carefully blended to be added to the solera. Current winemaker, Peter Ficklin looks at each varietal component, and how that individual wine will provide the rich and full flavors that will develop into the complex layers found in the Old Vine Tinta Port. This younger wine is used to top-off the sixty-seven puncheons that are the first layer in the solera system. Smaller fifty gallon barrels make up the last level of this sixty year-old solera system. The resulting Port withdrawn from this last stage shows tremendous consistency and character as it is readied for bottling. Consequently, every barrel and puncheon, every bottle, as well as every glass and sip of the Old Vine Tinta Port has a diminishing percentage of the every single vintage since 1948. It is truly a living picture of the history of wines made at Ficklin.

Highly regarded and esteemed through the years, the Old Vine Tinta Port has been a consistent award winner for many decades. It is truly a wine for all ages, as it pairs well with many

desserts, such as fresh fruit, cheesecakes, dark chocolate, as well as the traditional blue-veined cheeses.





Best In Class 2009 National Women's Wine Competition

Critics Gold 2008 Critics Challenge International Wine Competition

Top Fortified Wine 2007 Beverage Testing Institute World Value Wine Challenge

Best Of Class 2002 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition



2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition

2009 National Women's Wine Competition

2009 Best in Appellation Competition

2009 Lodi International Wine Competition

2004 International Eastern Wine Competition

2002 International Eastern Wine Competition

2000 El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition



2011 California State Fair, Sacramento

2009 Long Beach Grand Cru Competition

2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

2008 Critics Challenge International Wine Competition

2008 San Diego International Wine Competition

2008 Monterey Wine Competition

2008 Lodi International Wine Competition

2006 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition

2006 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

2003 Riverside International Wine Competition

2002 Long Beach Grand Cru

2002 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition

2000 Riverside International Wine Competition

2000 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition

1999 Dallas Morning News National Wine Competition

1999 Taster's Guild International Wine Judging

1998 American Wine Society

1998 Taster's Guild International Wine Judging

1997 New World International Wine Competition

1996 California State Fair, Sacramento

1996 El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition

1996 Jerry Mead's "On Wine"

1996 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition

1991 Beverage Testing Institute

1989 Orange County Fair Wine Competition


Editor's note: Links to websites of wineries in Madera County and other parts of Central Valley, as well as hundreds of links to lodging and dining options, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.




The Central Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) stretches roughly 250 miles along the coastline of California, from San Francisco County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south, averaging about 25 miles in width. A very large AVA, the Central Coast encompasses approximately four million acres, of which 90,300 acres are planted to winegrapes. The region produces almost 15 percent of the state’s total winegrape production and is home to about 360 wineries.


An area further south, loosely called the Southern California Region, includes five AVAs that cover 267,500 acres in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.


American Viticultural Areas are to appellations of origin like grapes are to fruit. AVAs are delimited grapegrowing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features, and the boundaries have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government. In size, AVAs range from extremely small to extremely large. AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. An appellation can also be a political designation, such as the name of a country, a state or states, or a county or counties within a state. More information on AVAs and appellations can be found on the Wine Institute website at www.wineinstitute.org/ava/index.html.


Central Coast AVA — San Francisco Bay The northern section of the Central Coast AVA includes: Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. There are around 5,000 acres of planted vineyards and more than 100 wineries, ranging from small start-ups to historic leaders of the California wine industry. Chardonnay is prominent with 1,300 acres. The most widely planted red winegrapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with roughly 700 acres of each variety. Approximately one percent of the total state wine grape production comes from this district.


Cooled by the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the warm days and cool nights provide classic grape growing conditions. The primary soil type is well-drained gravel that reduces vigor in the vines and increases flavor concentration in the fruit.


Central Coast AVA — Monterey and San BenitoContinuing south along the Central Coast AVA, Monterey and San Benito counties are the next two areas. Known for the rugged beauty of Big Sur, the charm of Carmel and the lore of Pebble Beach, Monterey County is also home to 38,200 acres of wine grapes and about 75 wineries and growers. San Bernabe, the world’s largest contiguous vineyard at over 8,700 acres, is also located in the area. Chardonnay is a very important variety, comprising 43 percent of total grape acreage with 17,350 acres planted. The second largest variety is Merlot with 6,300 acres planted in the warmer, southern area of the appellation. There are roughly 2,800 acres of winegrapes planted in San Benito County and eight wineries. Together the two counties account for 7.7 percent of the total state winegrape crush.


The climate of Monterey County reflects the cooling influence of the Monterey Bay and lack of abundant rainfall. There are enough warm days to ripen the grapes, however the marine influence predominates. Due to the cool growing conditions, harvest is typically two weeks later than other regions, allowing for a long season and slow fruit maturation. The steep slopes and rolling hills provide good drainage, and Monterey soil temperatures are cooler than other parts of the state, limiting crop size.


Central Coast AVA — San Luis Obispo and Santa BarbaraSan Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties make up the southernmost district of the Central Coast AVA. There are 26,400 acres of wine grapes planted in San Luis Obispo County and 17,900 acres planted in Santa Barbara County, totaling more than 44,000 acres. Together they make up 6.3 percent of the total state winegrape crush. The number one wine grape variety in San Luis Obispo County is Cabernet Sauvignon with 8,600 acres. Merlot is second with 4,000 acres. There are about 110 wineries in the County. In Santa Barbara County, Chardonnay is the predominant grape with 8,000 acres, and Pinot Noir follows with 2,900 acres. There are almost 90 wineries.


The city of Paso Robles, situated 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, is in San Luis Obispo County, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The area is characterized by warm, clear days, generally unencumbered by clouds, fog or severe winds. Nighttime temperatures drop by approximately 40 degrees, cooled by a marine layer that moves over the region after sunset. Proximity to the ocean, orientation of the numerous canyons and valleys, and varying elevations produce diverse macroclimates, allowing production of both cool and warm loving winegrape varieties. There are four general soil associations, primarily formed from the weathering of granite, serpentine, shale and sandstone.


In Santa Barbara County, the north-south coastal range of mountains abruptly turns to run almost east-west for 50 miles, framing the valleys in a unique transit to the Pacific Ocean. This is the only stretch of land from Alaska to Cape Horn constituting an east-west traverse. The unique topography allows the flow of fog and ocean breezes to shape distinct microclimates and makes the region one of the coolest viticultural areas in California. However, warmer daytime temperatures in the inland areas allow a wide variety of winegrapes to be grown. Terrain and climates vary widely, from steep, wind-swept hillsides to rolling inland valley vineyards where summer temperatures often reach the century mark.


Southern California RegionThe Southern California Region extends from the Malibu-Newton Canyon AVA, 850 acres, north of the city of Los Angeles to the southern border of California below the city of San Diego. Among the five AVAs located in the region, the South Coast is the largest with an area totaling 115,200 acres. Cucamonga Valley contains 109,400 acres of land. Temecula comprises about 33,000 acres and San Pasqual Valley around 9,000 acres. The region has about 44 wineries.


The coastal areas of California are highly prized winegrape growing regions due to their proximity to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean and a wide diversity of soils and topography. This long stretch of land is ideal for the cultivation of classic wine grape varieties and the production of world-class wines.


(Wine Institute sources contributed to this article.)


Editor's note: Links to the websites of wineries in these areas, as well as links to hundreds of lodging and dining options, can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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