An Unlikely Lesson in Winemaking from a Grizzly Bear For the First Time Ever, the Sophisticated, Lumbering Icon of Punch Vineyards Opens Up to the Media

An Unlikely Lesson in Winemaking from a Grizzly Bear For the First Time Ever, the Sophisticated, Lumbering Icon of Punch Vineyards Opens Up to the Media

What’s rarer than a grizzly?


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Grizzly bears are sadly few and far between these days – not an animal most of us are likely to encounter from day to day. What’s rarer than a grizzly, however, is a grizzly who’s earned the right to call himself a celebrity – albeit a reluctant one.

Such is the case for Punch, the icon of Punch Vineyards of Napa, California, whose fetching face appears on every bottle of wine they sell. “I really wanted to maintain my anonymity,” Punch confided in me. “You know how shy bears can be. So they just did an illustration of my face. I’m much more handsome than the bear you see on the label.”

Developed a love of the grape

According to the Punch Vineyards website, Punch the Grizzly has “developed a love of the grape. Not just any grape, though. Notice the knowing look on his face. He’s a wise bear who’s figured out where to find the best fruit and he settles for nothing less. He’s a good time grizzly with an uncanny sense of taste.”

It’s said that Punch’s uncanny sense of taste is what several wine industry insiders rely upon when creating wines for Punch Vineyards. In my interview with Punch – my first ever with a bear, I’m excited to say – he explained to me what he knows about Punch Vineyards and how his exceptional palette has contributed to their success.

Napa Valley winemakers got tired of paying really high prices

“From what I understand, a group of high-end Napa Valley winemakers got tired of paying really high prices for the wines they were making, even with an employee discount,” Punch told me. “So they banded together. They knew the best vineyards, (which, frankly, are my hangout), and they make wine from those vineyards. They keep their sources secret, and then they use their high-end winemaking techniques to make Punch.”

Just then I detected a proud sniff on the other end of the line, and Punch boasted, “They named the wine after me, because they know I know where the best grapes are. Wherever they see my bear tracks, that’s where they go for the grapes. That’s my theory. But they would tell you something else. They would tell you that they look for beautiful hillside Napa Valley wine grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon in particular — great drainage, small berries, older vines, this kind of thing. But really, I think they’re just following me.”

As Punch the Grizzly talked drainage, I remembered something I’d read on the Punch Vineyards website that surprised me. Keep in mind, I’m not a wine expert – just a gal who knows what she likes when she tastes it. So having a lot to learn, it struck me as odd that the Punch winemakers prefer grapes grown on slopes, because “Slope makes ordinary vineyards extraordinary, draining away nutrients and water, lowering yields and adding character and intensity to wine grapes.”

Draining away nutrients and water?

Adding character and intensity – well, that I could understand. But draining away nutrients and water? That didn’t necessarily sound like a good thing. I looked to Punch to provide a better understanding.

“When I was a young cub,” he began, “strawberries were tiny and they were bursting in flavor. Nowadays they’re grown on big farms and they’re as big as apples and they have no flavor. Well, the difference there is a couple things. Number one, the water content in the fields these days is much higher and also the strawberries are grown from mass production…they’re fertilized, et cetera. Now, go up to the hillside where all the nutrients and all the water drains out. There’s not much left for those little berries, whether they’re strawberries or grapes…not much for them to grow. So, they stay small on the hillsides and small is the real key here. Even with my big bear hands, it’s worth taking the extra time to pick those tiny berries because they are bursting with flavor.”

Punch went on to explain that “Fewer nutrients mean less vigor on the vine, which means fewer grapes. Fewer grapes means whatever energy the vine can muster from the earth and the sun has to go into the grapes because, of course, the grapes are their means for continuing the species, so to speak. So, those grapes, they gotta survive, and even if there’s very, very little for those vines to hang onto for life, they’ll make sure they can churn out those grapes. And small as they may be, those few small berries have all the energy of the vine. They have a ton of flavor, and that’s what makes for richly flavored wine because they are starting out as richly flavored grapes.

Small berries means there’s a smaller flesh-to-skin ratio

I was fascinated. Punch clearly loved talking about grapes and wine, and I was learning so much – so I let him go on. “And then there’s another aspect…the small berries means there’s a smaller flesh-to-skin ratio. In other words, there’s more skin than juice, and all that color and almost all those flavors come from the skins, which is something many people don’t know. So, I encourage you, particularly this time of year, in summer, to buy a table grape, and peel it. You’ll notice that the skin is red; the flesh is kinda light green or a neutral color…go ahead and try tasting the flesh and then taste the skin, and you’ll see they are two very different experiences. That will help you understand why the higher skin-to-flesh ratio in the wine grapes is so key to concentrated flavor.”

I began to wonder how much of Punch’s education in winemaking came from Punch Vineyards’ proprietor, Lee Nordlund.

“He is the meanest guy you ever wanted to meet. He’s a real slave driver,” Punch joked, revealing a deep baritone chuckle. “I don’t see too much of him, actually. I think he’s kinda shy and he’s not real talkative — at least with the bears. But I know from word in the valley that he is very, very strong on quality. That’s number one to him. He’s also a native Californian. He grew up by the ocean and he loves anything fresh and natural. They tell me that the Punch wines are very pure, that you really taste the flavor of the grapes, and that’s because of Lee’s attitude toward nature. And not just Lee, but also his partner Miguel Caratachea…between the two of them, they’ve got a real vision for wines…He likes to play volleyball but he’s gettin’ too old for that, they say. That’s a bummer, but as an older bear, I can relate to that. And he loves flavors – just loves flavors. He drives his English wife nuts because he’s always picking out new flavors and things and looking over her shoulder while she tries to cook the dinner meal.”

And speaking of meals, I began to wonder what foods Punch enjoyed with his namesake Cabernet Sauvignon. I’d seen bears on TV snagging leaping fish from roaring streams and wondered, was Punch an ideal wine for seafood?

“The nature of the wine – beautiful acidity and low tannin – goes with so many foods,” Punch said. “So, it’ll surprisingly even go with fish straight out of the stream. It can go with vegetarian food, which I know some people in California are fond of…I like to carry a bottle of Punch with me when I’m roving the wineries at the floor of the valley, because a lot of picnickers leave extra sandwiches.”

Then there was a long pause, and I imagined I could hear Punch licking his wide bear lips. Hmm. Maybe I’d made him hungry. I was suddenly glad this was a long-distance conversation.

Grizzlies do like to eat, but we like to eat well

“Grizzlies do like to eat, but we like to eat well,” he said next. “We’ve been known to make our own special sauce. If you’re going to serve Punch with, let’s say, a salmon or halibut – an oily fish – then I would recommend making a little butter sauce with tarragon in there. Like a hollandaise sauce with tarragon, or a béarnaise sauce, even. That would be just delicious.” (Yep. He was definitely licking his chops.) “You could take a big Napa Cab like Punch and put it with a white fish – a halibut or sea bass or any number of fish — and it works really well because of the sauce. Conversely, if you have, let’s say, a lean steak or something like that, you could do a sauce that’s based on, let’s just say, black cherry jam. But not too sweet. You put a little wine in the jam and so forth. That could be another angle to bring out more flavors in the wine. I would not put a sauce with lemon and mix that with Punch. I think that would be a clash in flavor and it would hurt the palette.”

I expressed an interest in visiting Punch Vineyards, but as Punch the Grizzly informed me, “There is no winery to visit. It’s all done without bricks and mortar.” He revealed that lately, most of the actually winemaking has been done by Miguel Caratachea, who works in the cellar around the corner from Nordlund’s house. “(Caratachea) is the one who crushes and ferments most of the grapes and then sees them all the way through to bottling.”

But what about all those other wine industry insiders who help make Punch Vineyards a reality? What’s their role in all this?

Punch might just be one of the best-kept secrets in California wines

“Our insiders help us find places to make the wine…also, when they have extra lots of wine…they’ll alert the Punch team and Punch Vineyards will have access to those barrels. And mind you, these barrels sometimes are destined for very, very elite wine, but there are always a few barrels left over for various reasons. The Punch team also participates in tasting those lots. So, they taste about a hundred lots per year and choose two or three extra to go on top of the wine that Miguel makes.”

Punch might just be one of the best-kept secrets in California wines. Even so, you can get your paws on some right here.

There was one other secret I tried to pry from Punch’s jaws: how could I score an invitation to one of these fabulous Napa grizzly dinner parties?

“Why would we tell you? That is a real secret…but if you go up the hillside, and if you see some trees start to bend a lot, we’re probably climbing them. Then you’ll know that Punch is being served.”

Lee Nordland, Punch Vineyards

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By: Uncorked Monthly

Uncorked Monthly

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