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• Actor-vintner Kurt Russell plays Mr. Nobody in the just-released Furious 7, but he was anything but at the second-annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend’s Grand Wine Dinner held April 18 at Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta, Calif. The hotel cohosted the charity event with beneficiary the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, and Russell poured a lineup of his GoGi wines, made in partnership with Rebecca and Peter Work of Ampelos Cellars in Sta. Rita Hills. “I [presented my wines at a dinner like] this in Aspen and it got a standing ovation,” Russell told the sell-out crowd of 300 guests, “but tonight has a greater sense of the wine world. I love that it’s about pairings.” Russell introduced each wine, paired with dishes by chef Johan Denizot, such as GoGi Chardonnay Goldie 2012—named for Russell's longtime partner Goldie Hawn, who was there to cheer him on—accompanied by seared striped bass; Rebecca Work, who makes the GoGi wines, was on hand to pour her own Ampelos Syrah Sta. Rita Hills Gamma: The Complex 2010 with dessert. “Kurt likes to say he’s our apprentice,” she joked to Unfiltered. "He's the most down-to-earth guy you could ever imagine. Kurt will sleep on our couch in the living room [when he visits] … he's worked really hard to learn [about winemaking]." Russell worked the ballroom throughout the night, and the event raised more than $10,000 for the Julia Child Foundation. Not bad for an apprentice.
• On March 19, a middle-aged woman walked into the shop at Château de Chantegrive in Bordeaux's Graves region, saying she needed wine for a wedding and only the best would do. The employee proposed 20 cases of Chantegrive 2010. The customer negotiated an extra 4 cases as a gift. When it came time to settle the $4,232 tab, the woman paid with a (rubber) check. The wine was loaded into a small van driven by two men. That same day, the trio tried the same exact con at the Maison des Graves, but the clerk refused to accept a check without a call to the bank. Yet, in most cases, the scam worked astonishingly well over a period of several weeks. Wine co-ops and châteaus—including a classified growth in the Médoc hit for a rumored $13,000—were duped by the wedding story. At one château in the Entre-Deux-Mers, when the owner left the office to call the bank, the trio fled, their van loaded with wine, the fraudulent check still sitting on the counter. Their local prospects turned cold when Marie-Helene Lévêque, director of Château de Chantegrive, filed a criminal complaint soon after she learned that not only had the check bounced, but the account had been closed shortly after the March 19 visit, and the address on the account was a mail drop at a welfare center for the homeless.
This past Thursday, however, the grifters walked into the wrong château, already on alert, and the manager kept them talking until the gendarmes arrived. “They were arrested, but then quickly released,” Lévêque told Unfiltered. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t get back the money or the wine. They have [no assets] officially, and the wine—they must have gotten the equivalent of a shipping container full—has likely been sold in a parallel trade at heavily discounted prices. And writing a bad check is only a minor offense."
• Chef Thomas Keller is taking to the sea, partnering with luxury cruiseline Seabourn to open signature restaurants on some of their ships. For those of you who think of cruiseship cuisine as unlimited midnight chicken tenders with a side of norovirus, it’s actually embarked on much more ambitious sea fare in recent years: Keller follows cruisegoing fellow superchefs Jacques Pépin (aboard Oceania Cruises), Todd English (Cunard) and Guy Fieri (the S.S. Guy Fieri’s Smokin’ Iceberg Slammer). Keller—whose Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Napa are known for their cutting-edge tasting menus that cost about as many pounds as a steerage bunk for a family of eight crossing the Atlantic from the old country to Ellis Island—has not yet publicly revealed what sort of food he plans to serve or how he plans to deal with the challenges of sourcing and storing food at sea. But Unfiltered can’t think of a more appropriate venue for “oysters and pearls.”
• Tim and Steph Busch founded Napa's Trinitas Cellars in 2002, devoting their winery as much to their faith as to fine wine, with a chapel on the winery grounds and a line of wines they call the Faith Collection, which includes a RatZINger Zinfandel they presented to Pope Benedict XVI (né Joseph Ratzinger) in 2008. When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, Tim Busch said, “We need to make a wine for the new pope now,” Trinitas marketing manager Trevor Terrill told Unfiltered. Tim’s son Garrett came up with the idea to make Cabernet FRANCis, from Knights Valley grapes grown by John Pelkan. Last year, the Busches, who make an annual pilgrimage to the Vatican, presented His Holiness with a bottle of their new wine made in his honor, and the Bishop of Rome immediately requested more. They had already given away all the other bottles to other church officials, but they made some calls and retrieved all the unopened bottles, bringing them with them on their most recent visit to Vatican City. And even Pope Francis apparently isn't immune to the allure of a celebrity wine: "Me vino! Me vino!" he reportedly exclaimed upon seeing his new bottles of Cabernet FRANCis. Faithful wine lovers can get their own bottles of Cabernet FRANCis through Trinitas' website ($75 each), or find a heavenly substitute at France’s Catholic church-backed wine bar, Le Comptoir de Cana.
• Vintners know as well as anyone the importance of water management, but wine people problems are relatively trivial in light of the world’s many regions where potable water is in scarce supply. Vintner Dave Stare, founder and owner of Dry Creek Vineyard, was inspired to do something about the dire need for access to clean water when he became involved in Sonoma-based Global Partners for Development, a non-profit organization that supports community-driven development work in east Africa. Together with Stare and other wine-industry partners, Global Partners for Development has launched the Vineyards to Villages (V2V) Initiative. V2V aims to turn “Sonoma County wine into African water.” While some large wineries have opted to give directly to the program, smaller, boutique wineries have contributed by designating a V2V wine in their tasting rooms. Christopher Creek, Deux Amis, Esterlina, Fritz Underground, Merriam Vineyards, Pedroncelli and Viszlay Vineyards are each donating one-third of the sales price of these designated wines to V2V. With the money they’ve raised so far, V2V has constructed a water infrastructure system at the Apondo Primary School in western Kenya. They’ve also improved sanitation facilities and provided hygiene education in the surrounding village. Dominic Foppoli, co-owner of Christopher Creek, and John Viszlay, owner of Viszlay Vineyards, traveled to the village in February to see the results. “Being able to meet the families and witness firsthand the impact that a project like this has on a region makes me and my family very happy to have played a small part in it,” Viszlay told Global Partners.
• A wheelchair hasn't stopped sommelier Yannick Benjamin from competing in marathons, nor from passing the Court of Master Sommelier's advanced exam, including the service portion which, to Benjamin's knowledge, he was the first to perform in a wheelchair. But the New York sommelier, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2003 car accident, isn't content to rest on his own accomplishments. Benjamin is the cofounder of Wheeling Forward, an organization that provides a range of services to people with disabilities, and this Saturday, May 2, will host his fourth-annual Wine on Wheels fund-raiser. He has rallied some of New York's finest (and most civic-minded) wine stewards, including Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin, Hristo Zisovski of Marea, Jessica Certo of Del Frisco's and Levi Dalton of the I'll Drink to That podcast. Held at City Winery, the event begins with a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir seminar, followed by a walkaround tasting. Guests will have the chance to taste 200 different wines, such as Ferraton Père & Fils Condrieu 2013, Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 2004, La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino 2009 and Schloss Schönborn Riesling Auslese 1994. Seminars—including a blind-tasting challenge with sommeliers—will be ongoing throughout the afternoon, and many of Wheeling Forward's beneficiaries will be present. "I've got such a big network of support," Benjamin told Unfiltered, citing the generosity of the importers and distributors who donated wine to the event. "They have a real connection to it, being with me, and getting to know the members of Wheeling Forward." About 1,000 people benefit from the organization's services, which include physical therapy and free use of a fitness center, a scholarship program, a wheelchair donation program (which Benjamin says is the largest on the East Coast) and, yes, wine-appreciation classes. "There are so many different ways that we have touched people," Benjamin said. Tickets and information for Saturday's event are available at wineonwheels.org.
• William Sokolin, wine expert, retailer, author and key figure in the fine-wine business from the 1960s through the 1980s, died at his home in New York on April 28. He was 85. Sokolin’s wine-investment books included Liquid Assets and The Complete Wine Investor. He is perhaps best remembered for an incident at the Four Seasons in New York in 1989, when he attended a Bordeaux dinner at the restaurant and brought along a bottle of 1787 Chateau Margaux—one of the famed Thomas Jefferson bottles—to display to fellow guests. At the dinner, Sokolin accidentally bumped into a tray table and broke the bottle, whose asking price had been more than $500,000. (This item originally appeared in the April 30 edition of Wine Spectator sister publication Shanken News Daily.)