Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

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I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

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Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

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Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-

When (and Why) You Should Attend a Winemaker Dinner

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A Gran Moraine vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton (Picture: oregonlive.com)

Winemaker dinners, usually advertised for $100-plus per person, are a thing of luxury and, unless you live in a decently sized wine market, a bit of a rarity. I’ve stayed away from them because they seem like a rip off. I imagined the wine pours, food portions, and the winemaker’s ability to give one-on-one attention are all limited, which means I’m likely to feel like I’m neither getting my money’s worth nor like I’m able to really familiarize myself with the wine. A recent experience, however, has shown me not to assume that this is the case.

The basic anatomy of a winemaker dinner is one in which people meet at a nice restaurant for a prix fixe menu paired with wines from a specific winemaker or winery (or wineries). The winemaker will introduce themselves, their winery and their approach, and then offer stories behind each wine as it is poured and share their own impressions of it. The dinners can vary in size and quality, but are generally scoped either to introduce wine to a market or, in some cases, to a targeted selection of people in the industry.

A few months back I interviewed Shane Moore, the winemaker a Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both in Oregon, about his prior experience making wine in Israel. Shane and I stayed in touch and when he was in town last week invited me to attend a small winemaker dinner. I had enjoyed my conversations with Shane and wanted to meet him in person; the chance to drink his wines, with him, was only going to be a bonus.

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Shane Moore (Picture: granmoraine.com)

The gathering was small, maybe fifteen people, most of whom were attached to the industry in one way or another. The atmosphere was collegial and anything but snobby. Our meal was three courses, though we had five wines (plus a bonus Champagne before we sat down). Shane regaled us with anecdotes about each wine and explained his approach and style. It became clear, immediately, that he has a passion for what he does that is matched by his knowledge, which is saying quite a bit. He dropped some Shaneism on the group when he told us that wine tasted best under at least one of three conditions: at the winery, when it’s labeled, and when drinking it with the winemaker. He proved the last one; drinking with the winemaker isn’t merely a bonus, as I had thought it would be, but the selling point for winemaker dinners.

As we placed our orders, Gran Moraine’s 2016 rose was poured. Shane told us his rose inspirations are Domaine Tempier in Bandol and Domaine Ott in Provence, and although his rose is made from a grape not found in either of those wines – pinot noir – the inspirations were demonstrated in the wine. The nose was especially boisterous, pretty and layered. I detected honeydew, kumquat, strawberries, and cherries along with nice florals. The palate was full but very crisp, a nice balance that comes from the use of breathable plastic bins for fermentation that allow extra oxygen to get into the fermenting wine to build up its body. It has nice astringency and just a bit of tannin, which isn’t surprising giving how it’s made: the grapes are picked early, most of it made into pinot blanc, and then blended with carbonic macerated pinot noir. It’s a grand slam at $29.

We then moved on to the 2014 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which might have been the wine of the night for me. Everything about it is classic Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay, which means it could double as a Montrachet in a blind tasting if it weren’t for its zing and salinity. This one had a gorgeous nose of white pepper, toasted hazelnuts and sesame, starfruit, apricot, green apples and some coconut barrel notes. The body is silky and full, evidence of battonage. It had a nice dose of chalk, sweet lemon, salty pretzel, stone fruits, a mint/basil note along with nice saline and great flintiness. The pH is quite basic at around 3.1, and the grapes were picked in the 21-22 brix range. Primary fermentation was all native and took “forever.” “One of the most stressful wines I’ve ever made,” Shane said. “It spent a lot of time without sulfur…” he said as his voice trailed off and his eyes rolled in the back of his head, remembering those nerve-racking times. Malolactic fermentation was partial. It’s an automatic selection at $45.

As the main course arrived we moved to the 2013 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton pinot noir. Shane called Yamhill-Carlton pinot an ephemeral style that he compared to Burgundy’s Volnay. Around 30% used on this was French, and the barrel aging went for approximately 9 months. This treatment gives the wine good structure but doesn’t overwhelm the more delicate elements of the profile. The nose offers really nice fruit and not an unnoticeable amount of funk reminiscent of wet soil, underbrush and fungus. It finishes with some nice pepper. The fruit on the palate is dark and just a little tart, showing Acai, huckleberries and cherries. Shane said they picked at just the right time to keep any greenness from working its way into the profile. Bravo. It also offers a classy amount of Asian Five Spice. There’s a good tannic backbone to this one but it’s balanced and smooth. Among the best $45 Oregon pinot noir I’ve had, and certainly the most developed of the 2013s at this price point that I’ve had to date.

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Zena Crown Vineyard (Picture: zenacrown.com)

We then transitioned to the Zena Crown label as they poured the 2013 Sum from Eola-Amity. I think it was around this time that Shane, Isaac Baker of terroirist.com and I discussed the 2013 Oregon vintage. The press raved about the 2012s, a warm vintage that produced very approachable and sweet pinots throughout Oregon’s AVAs while the cooler 2013 received a more tepid reception. I made the comment that I bought very few 2012s and was much happier, and more invested in, 2013 because the cooler vintage produced less hedonism on the body and structure of the wines and kept the brix in check so the acid could highlight the secondary and tertiary flavors. Shane wasn’t a fan of 2012 either, dismissing the wines from that vintage as “singular.”

The Sum’s nose was incredibly deep. Acai gave way to rhubarb, and then to chocolate covered raspberries and macerated cherries. There is also smoke, sweet tobacco, cinnamon and nutmeg. It took me a while before I was ready to remove my nose from the glass. The body is led by polished tannins, but is well balanced with good acidity. This one was 40% whole cluster using grapes grown in (volcanic) Basalt soils. The name “Sum” is meant to convey that every little thing, from cradle to grave, matters. The palate was as deep and complex as the body, and it’s $75 price tag is reasonable for the quality and complexity it offers. I’ve had a good amount of expensive Oregon pinot noir that isn’t nearly as good as this one.

We finished with Zena Crown’s top-shelf wine, the 2013 Slope, which retails for $100. Shane called this one his “winter wine” for it’s serious presence (each of the four Zena Crown wines represents a different season for Shane), and because it has no “elbows.” The nose is heavy and serious; I wrote down “serious flowers, serious species and serious fruit” when smelling it. It had some nice graphite, Herbs de Provence, and smoked meat as well. The palate? Also “serious.” Cherries, green herbs, graphite, iodine, saline, rose and lavender. I mentioned that I noted cola as well, though Shane kind of shook his head “no.” I’m sticking with it. Mark it cola, Dude. This one will be long lived, and is among the two or three most complete and complex 2013s I’ve had from Oregon. If stocking up on Zena Crown, I’d buy the Sum to have over the next five years, and the Slope for the following ten.

Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time. If you come across one of these dinners and are wondering whether to go, my suggestion is do some research into the winemaker and decide based on what you find.

Wine Adventure: 24 Wines from Ontario

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I grew up in Washington State, about 25 miles south of the US border with Canada. With our antenna, I lived through my formidable years on Canadian television. Though we admittedly watched little TV in my house growing up, the quirky (okay, cheesy) humor of the Red Green Show, brilliantly staged Just For Laughs’ gag segments and improv genius of Second City Television formed my sense of humor to a very large degree. When I was in high school and racing bicycles, I can’t tell you how many times we’d drive up to the Vancouver area for races. Vancouver, still my favorite city in North America and one I don’t get to visit nearly enough, is home to the best culinary scene I’ve experienced in any of my travels around the world, including my short stint living in Barcelona and my trip to Tokyo, two cities widely considered to be among the very best for food. And the people, so nice.

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Red Green and his nephew, Harold. Credit: tvtropes.org

I left the Pacific Northwest in 2005 and although I get back at least once a year I’ve still not made it to British Columbia’s wine country, which has an improving reputation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to experience some of their wines here in Washington, DC and have come up blank – BC wine industry folk, if you’re reading this, please help! However, I’ve also long been told that wine country in another province, Ontario, had something to say about making quality Canadian wine and I can say now, thankfully, that I’ve been able to experience some of what they produce.

It all started last November in the tasting room of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, California. I was in the area for work but was able to visit ABC and Jaffurs, two of my California favorites. While at ABC I met a woman who worked for a winery in Ontario. We got to talking, I told her about Good Vitis, my interest in trying Canadian wine and the difficulty I’ve had finding it where I live. We stayed in contact and she offered to put together a selection of wines from across Ontario and ship them to me as samples to review for Good Vitis.

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The reds

And boy, did she deliver. About two months ago two cases showed up at my office spread across ten wineries. There was pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, riesling, cabernet franc and red and white blends. As I looked through the treasures, I wondered how I was going to try all this wine. First world problems, I know. Eventually I was able to cobble together some friends from the wine industry here in DC, including a fellow blogger and the manager of a retail outlet for a well-respected East Coast importer, to share in the experience.

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I had also emailed my Internet friend Peter Vetch, a proud Calgarian and author of Pop & Pour wine blog (by the way, his posts on the Finger Lakes Region are a must-read for anyone considering or planning a trip there), to get some information about Ontario wine and show him the lineup. Ontario has three appellations: the Niagara Peninsula (with ten sub-appellations and two regional appellations), Lake Erie North Shore (one sub-appellation) and Prince Edward County (no sub-appellations). The history and terroir of the three appellations are pretty diverse. Peter confirmed that the wines were almost entirely from the Niagara Peninsula (three came from Prince Edward County) and were a decently representative sample of that appellation. While all three appellations lie in climates that are on the cooler end of the global wine growing spectrum, they experience differing amounts of warming, cooling, wind and rainfall, and have different soil types. That being said, my eight favorite wines in the lineup came from six different sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula, so I’m a bit confused, if I’m honest, about the impact these differences have on the final product. The answer may be clear to someone with more Ontario wine experience than myself, I don’t know. Terroir, also, can be changed dramatically in a winery and I imagine there was a fair amount of this factor in play.

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The whites

In the same vein, there was a massive range of quality in these wines. I rated wines as low as 75 points and as high as 92, and the distribution of scores is spread across that range. There were also significant stylistic differences among wines made from the same varietals. This could be accounted for by the fact that they were made by different winemakers, though the differences were so significant that even differences in sub-appellation and winery don’t seem sufficient explanations. The others at the tasting had similar reactions.

I have positive and negative things to say about the wines. Let me get the negatives out of the way. While all significant, they are also all relatively easily addressed by the winemakers and vineyard managers. Given that we had a number of high quality wines that we enjoyed, the location of the vines is clearly not the issue in wines that demonstrated problems. A number of wines showed very artificial flavors (one I described as smelling and tasting like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt), which are the result of winemaking, not terroir. Many were overly acidic, meaning that the body, alcohol and flavors were so out of balance with the acid that the best explanation seemed to be freewheeling acidulation. Several wines seemed watery, which in a couple instances was unfortunate because the diluted flavors were dynamic and could have been wonderful under greater concentration. This can be addressed either in the vineyard or the winery, or both, depending on the source of the phenomenon. Some wines clearly demonstrated poor yeast strain selections, while a few had obvious quality control issues in the winery, likely poor cleaning practices of the facilities. Finally, a few were over oaked, at least for my palate, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to confirm what I thought could have been some really delicious flavors that could have merited higher scores.

On the positive side, several wines offered truly interesting and unusual flavor profiles that captivated our attention. Many offered great complexity in their flavor profiles, though even the best, unfortunately, didn’t offer the concentration or depth needed to elongate the experience and transform it into something magical. I was sent three gamays, two of which blew us away (and this was an audience well acquainted with great gamay). As a varietal cohort in the lineup it was the most impressive, and we all agreed were wines we’d buy ourselves. The fruit notes were generally appealing, though some showed unusual and appealing combinations. The very best combined bright, focused fruit in harmony with savory and Earthy flavors.

The eight wines that stood out for me included Bachelder’s 2013 Lowery Vineyards pinot noir and 2013 Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard chardonnay, which demonstrated a deft winemaker’s hand capable of spotlighting the best their fruit had to offer. Cave Spring delivered the best pinor noir in the lineup. 13th Street Winery gave us two world class gamays that offered some awesome gaminess to go with its ripe fruit. Stratus delivered a very good cabernet franc that stylistically straddled the new and old worlds. Tawse supplied the best chardonnay, if not the best wine, of the lineup, and Charles Baker gave us an intriguing riesling. Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie had some solid efforts as well, and it isn’t hard to imagine even better wines coming out of their wineries in the not-too-distant future.

While ten wineries and two cases of wine is a pretty fantastic introduction, it is certainly not fully representative of a wine region as big as Ontario. Without trying a good deal more, and without speaking to a number of winemakers and vineyard managers, I wouldn’t want to pass any kind of declaratory judgment on Ontario wine other than to say this: there are clearly people in Ontario making good and interesting wine, and if more can sharpen their craft it’s a region that could well rise in status in the wine world.

A big thanks to all of the participating wineries and especially to Jennifer Hart of Flat Rock Cellars. All the wines were supplied as trade samples and tasted sighted. As many of these wines are not consistently distributed in the US, and because I could only find pricing in Canadian dollars for most of them, I’m going to avoid mis-valuing these wines by not assigning values to them as would normally be my standard procedure.

Wines

2015 13th Street Gamay Noir – Big cherry nose with beef smoked over hickory and some tangerine. It’s a little skunky, but not in a bad way. Funky and appealing aromas. The palate is slightly tannic and offers nice acidity in balance. Flavors offer ripe cherry, cranberry and quite a bit of raspberry to go with some game. Very interesting gamay offering flavors unusual in the varietal grown elsewhere. 89 points.

2014 13th Street Gamay Noir Reserve Sandstone – Wonderful nose of peppered salmon jerky, mushroom funk, cherries and black pepper. The palate offers fun flavors of acai, raspberry, blood orange, turkey jerky and iodine. Not a ton of depth but oh so enjoyable. Very intriguing terroir shows in this wine. 91 points.

2013 Bachelder Chardonnay Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard – The nose is quite pretty with mango, pineapple and perfumed flowers. There’s also a bit of chalk. The palate is lush without being heavy, and the acid is well balanced with sweet starfruit, pineapple, lemon and peach. There’s a diversifying kick of white pepper. A solid, complete chardonnay. 90 points.

2013 Bachelder Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyards – The nose offers macerated cherries, smoke, pepper, rose and dandelion. It offers a full, ripe and shiny mouth feel in a medium body that is nicely rounded with sweet cherries, black pepper and tangerine. There is also a bit of cocoa, pipe tobacco and tar. The flavor profile is a complex one, though it lacks significant depth. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, classy effort. 90 points.

2015 Cave Spring Riesling Cave Spring Vineyard – The nose smells of tennis ball gas, straw, honey, pepper, guava and a lot of citrus zest. The palate is a tad bit effervescent and dry with nice limey acidity. There seems to be more flavor here that could be teased out with just a touch of residual sugar. 86 points.

2015 Cave Spring Pinot Noir – This offers a very pretty nose of dark cherries, plums, a variety of baking spices and some herbal qualities. The body is full with polished tannins. The flavors include chocolate covered cherries, celery, Herbs de Provence, black pepper, cinnamon and orange zest. It has the requisite depth and acidity to improve over the next few years if cellared properly. 91 points.

2013 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard – Big tennis ball gas on the nose, a little kerosene and a lot of chalk. The palate coats the mouth with seeming sweetness in what is a dry offering. There is honeyed kumquat, white pepper, slate and peach. The acid is kicking on the finish which dries the palate a bit too quickly. A good effort. 90 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay The Rusty Shed – A modest nose of citrus and mothballs. The palate is light, lush and a little soapy. There is a little sour citrus and green apples combined with sweet peach. Starfruit and white pepper round out the flavor profile. Lacks in weight – feels a bit watery – and complexity but is pleasant enough to sip. 87 points.

2014 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Twenty Mile Bench – The nose offers macerated cherries, rhubarb and pickle juice. The palate is heavy and offers dark fruits. There are significant barrel notes of cocoa and hazelnut, although a bit of greenness, tar and smoke emerge. A bit too judicious use of oak on this as it seems to be beating down more interesting flavors lurking beneath it. 88 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Gravity – The nose is smoky, offering cherries, herbs and charred barrel notes. The palate is light but offers good density and robust grainy tannins. There is pickle juice, tart red fruits, smoke and tar. However, all of this is unfortunately beaten down by heavy toasted barrel notes. Less oak would have produced a more nuanced and complex wine. 88 points.

2016 Malivoire Pinot Noir Rosé Moira Vineyard – Smells and tastes like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt, likely the result of an unplanned rose in which leftover juice was hit with a random yeast strain. 75 points.

2012 Malivoire Pinot Noir Mottiar – Smells of a natural gas leak, burnt rubber and raspberries. Tastes of ground cherry pits and gasoline. 75 points.

2015 Malivoire Gamay Small Lot Beamsville Bench VQA – Pretty red fruit on the nose along with black pepper and orange peel. The palate is medium bodied with noticeable tannic structure. The raspberries and huckleberries are quite juicy, which give way quickly to a watery sensation with watermelon and orange juice flavors that suggest high levels of lactic acid brought on by inoculation through a foreign yeast strain or two. Detrimentally over-engineered. 85 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered – The nose is zesty and features straw and assorted roasted nuts. It’s lean bodied and offers exceptionally bright acid with textured lemon and lime zest. That the high level of acid is so out of proportion to the lean body suggests over acidulation. 86 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay County – The nose is dominated by malolactic influences and is supported by nutty aromas while the palate is extremely zesty and bright with almond and peanut flavors. It strikes me as being overly acidulated as the acid is far out of balance with what is a very light body. 85 points.

2015 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Fantastic nose of pretty red fruits and flowers with just the right amount of tar and smoke. The palate is quite juicy offering raspberry, huckleberry and cherry to go with a little cocoa and parsley. An easy and pleasant drinker. 89 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir County – The nose wreaks of Brett and manure while the palate is filled with plastic flavors and bright fruit. It is quite watery and has a hint of effervescence. Neither undrinkable nor desirable. 80 points.

2013 Southbrook Winery Chardonnay Poetica – Unfortunately corked, not rated.

2015 Southbrook Winery Vidal Orange Wine – Nose: Brett band aid, Styrofoam and big apple cider vinegar. Not particularly pleasant. The palate is light, lean and musty. Sweet and sour flavors, very reminiscent of a light mead. There were some issues in the winemaking with this one, likely some quality control lapses. 79 points.

2013 Stratus White – The nose offers abundant peach and plastic with a slight whiff of parsley. The palate is lush and smooth, but the low acid turns it flabby in a hurry. It tastes of peach, white pepper, honey and marzipan. This is potentially showing its age and should be consumed sooner rather than later. 88 points.

2013 Stratus Cabernet Franc – The nose is meaty, savory and dark in its bramble berry, blood and smoke notes. The palate is medium bodied with tannins that release with air. It offers flavors of asparagus, beef jerky, oranges, strawberries and cherries and shows discernible but constructive charred oak influence. A nice twist on cabernet franc, I quite enjoyed this despite its slight watery sensation. 90 points.

2012 Stratus Red – A reserved nose of dark fruit and smoked salmon jerky. The palate seemed nondescript, but still enjoyable. Dark fruit was in abundance as was a sense of loam and dark Earth, but it is all overshadowed by too eager a use of oak. It offers a bit of vegetal flavors and finishes with a big pepper kick. 87 points.

2013 Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard – Nose: very zesty Meyer lemon and lime, stone fruit and a lot of slate and chalk. There is also some smoke, petrol and a little lees must. The palate is lush, creamy and dense with nicely balanced acidy that keeps the wine from becoming heavy or cloying. The oak treatment and fermentation adds nice weight and structure to the palate without bringing any of the annoying butter, toast or oily peanut tagalongs. There is lemon curd, peach, dried apricot, parsley, celery, grass, a hint of spearmint and some nice limestone. This is good stuff. 92 points.

2013 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard – The nose offers mint and stewed dark berries and plums. The palate is quite tannic – give this a good decant or a few more years in the cellar – and full bodied. There is a little bit of kerosene kick, but it’s in good balance with ripe cherries, white pepper, bitter herbs, dandelion. Intriguing but not terribly complex. 88 points.

 

 

 

 

Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B

Wine is Performance Art

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Picture: Widescreen Wallpapers

One of the most interesting and intriguing aspects of wine is that it can taste of almost anything other than its constituent parts. Exhibit A: my note for the 2014 The Jack Syrah from Saviah Cellars, which would just as easily, if not more logically, describe the flavors of a charcuterie plate more than fermented grape juice:

“Aggressively aromatic with notes that are undeniably syrah, including bloody steak, olive tapenade, blackberry and smoke. Little bit of a barrel note as well. The palate is full bodied with nice acid, a touch of sweetness and fully integrated tannin and alcohol. The flavors are unmistakably syrah here, too. Loads of iodine, olives, black pepper, smoke and just a bit of dark, brooding fruit.”

The transformation of grape into wine is as magical and mystical to some as it is scientific to others, though the reality for many, including myself, is that the final product is scientific art. I consciously order those two words because while winemaking is a scientific process, there are countless variations to the process that a winemaker can choose, and the conscious choices are an expression of a winemaker’s imagination, inclinations and desires, or put another way, their creativity. The more creative they get, the further their art is from what might be considered normal or standard. This makes winemaking an art form and its product, wine, art.

You needn’t take my word for it, though, if you’d rather listen to mogul of Hollywood and wine Francis Ford Coppola, who is known to have said that risk is “an essential element of any art… If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?” Winemakers who engage their creativity take on not just artistic risk, but financial risk as well – under appreciated art in the wine industry isn’t particularly profitable.

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Picture: Coppola, center, on the set of The Godfather, which he produced. Curtesy of The Wrap.

These artistic choices made by the winemaker are some of the most interesting elements of a wine because they tend to determine its personality. The kind of person who reads Good Vitis likely understands what I mean because, like me, they probably make the effort to find out what those choices were before deciding whether to buy a particular bottle. Most wine consumers, however, don’t engage as much with the art of the winemaker as they do with the art of the wine label designer.

The importance of attractive, appealing labels to selling wine is debatable, but a look at wine shelves from Trade Joes to neighborhood high end retailers demonstrates that many wineries put a lot of effort into designing attention-grabbing labels. The 2015 Gallo Wine Trends Survey found that Millennials are four times more likely than Baby Boomers to purchase a wine based on the label, though the reasons labels matter extend beyond driving sales: a 2007 Cornell University study, for example, demonstrated that “environmental cues” such as being told where a wine was from, and the expectation created by that information, influence not only people’s impression of the wine but also the food accompanying it(!). In two separate tests, restaurant patrons eating off a prix-fixed menu and attendees at a wine and cheese reception, respectively, were offered a free glass of wine. Half were told the wine was from California and the other half North Dakota. Even though both wines were actually Two Buck Chuck, those who were told the wine was from California not only liked it better than those who were led to believe it was from North Dakota, but also enjoyed the (same) food more and consumed more of both. The bottom line is that perception matters, and for retailer shoppers often times their first and only perception of a wine prior to consuming it is what comes through on the label.

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Fire Mountain Wines of Arizona puts a lot of effort into their labels and their wines.

For a different but equally compelling reason the “fine wine” segment of the wine market, which is constituted mostly by small producers with limited distribution and often direct to consumer business models, treats its wine as though it is art as well. Higher ends goods like fine wine are often marketed by a very successful approach that sells products in the context of a lifestyle created to appeal to the target audience. Many producers of fine wine, besides genuinely believing their wine is art, offer “experiences” aimed at creating an appealing lifestyle – lavish tasting rooms to make the experience seem important and luxurious, thick and heavy bottles to create a sense of importance and substance through physical weight, wine clubs offering limited allocations and long wait lists to create the sense of exclusivity, etc. – that help to make their efforts profitable.  And, in some cases, wineries make the connection between wine and art directly by labeling a bottle of wine with an actual, and often commissioned, piece of art. A Wine-Searcher search for “artist series,” an industry term for this type of effort, returned 821 results starting at $10 and climbing above $100 dating back to the 1975 vintage.

I am not an avid collector of artist series wines, though I am partial to the very successful Artist Series wine from Soos Creek (thirteen vintages and counting), which not only tastes great but is an incredible value and ages well. Although I like an attractive label, the kind of wine art I appreciate remains the contents of a bottle. Wine’s artistic expression that speaks to me is its ability to evolve. Whether that evolution is over the course of an evening as it takes on air or the course of years in a cellar, wine is a performance art, which is not how people tend to think of it.

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Performance art “is about joy, about making something that’s so full of [a] kind of a wild joy that you really can’t put into words,” (Laurie Anderson) which is why even the most beautifully written tasting note can never adequately express a wine’s art. “Performance art is the ultimate in creativity. Since it has so many possibilities at creativity, it’s essence tends to become creativity,” (Jack Bowman) which is why you can taste a winemaker’s artistry in the decisions they make that guide their effort. Musician Andrew Castro said that “Performance art is a real-life, high-risk form of artistic expression,” and you can very easily swap out “performance art” for “wine” and make it as applicable to wine without changing Castro’s meaning. Good performance art is exciting, it engages the audience intellectually and spiritually, and that’s no different whether it’s the opera, ballet or a bottle of good wine.

 

Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

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This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

*****

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2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

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The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

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Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

Winter Wine Festival: A Survey of Maryland Wine

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As I wrote last month, Maryland is capable of producing world class wine; the Baker family at Old Westminster proved that to me. Outside of Old Westminster and Black Ankle, the other Maryland winery I’d tried, however, I wasn’t sure how other Maryland wineries fared. Thursday night I had the opportunity to find out at the Maryland Wineries Association’s Winter Wine Festival in Baltimore. Set up in the B&O Railroad Museum, wineries from around the state poured their sparkling, white, red and dessert wines to a nice crowd eager to consume. I went in with an open mind and walked away pleasantly surprised with a few of the wines I tried.

Several of the wineries’ produced wines of quality and intrigue that I can see breaking into national distribution. I therefore left optimistic about the trajectory of the industry in general because the standouts are clear proof that with a thoughtful approach centered around finding the most appropriate land, varietals and techniques, high quality wine can come from the state. However, most wineries offered wines that fell into several categories that don’t bode well for significant market expansion or the state’s reputation, categories like generally poor quality, insufficient character and flawed. These are largely the result of insufficient attention, or a lack of interest in, finding the right place to grow the right thing in the right way. Put another way, many of these wines were driven by the wineries’ desire to produce a specific product rather than determining the best product they are capable of delivering, and then pursuing that.

An example of a winery going about things the right way is Crow Vineyard and Winery. Crow produces sparkling and still vidal blanc, not the sexiest variety or one known for complexity or intrigue. Rather, it’s known more for its flabby and cloying body and simple tropical fruits, and thought of more as a sweet delivery device of alcohol to housewives (no disrespect intended to housewives) than a serious wine. Therefore, the decision to showcase it at a wine festival might be taken as a negative sign of the seriousness of the winery. As it turns out, though, they produce it because it grows well on their land and their winemaker knows how to get the best out of it. The still version was the white wine of the night for me, the only vidal blanc I’ve had that I’d spend my own money on, and the only vidal blanc I plan to have more than once. It had flavors like dandelion that balanced the peach and white pepper, and it had a mean streaks of salty acid and slate that cut through the tiny bit of sweetness and kept the wine lean. The sparkling version was good as well.

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Big Cork is another producer with promise, though for perhaps opposite reason of Crow. Their 2015 viognier was a proud counter argument against people like me who don’t believe in the case for viognier in the Mid-Atlantic region. It’s a difficult grape to grow because the skin is thin, the clusters are tight and it needs warmth to adequately ripen. This part of the country has volatile weather and a lot of rain, which means viognier can easily go bad on the vine (often from rot) before it even gets to the point, in the Mid-Atlantic, of not adequately ripening. While I’d never risk planting viognier at my hypothetical winery because year-in, year-out it’s inconsistent, Big Cork is all-in and the 2015 shows why. While it had a bit of volatile acidity on the nose, it blew off and revealed a lean body of sweet mango, melon, vanilla curd, white pepper and a really cool passion fruit feature. The acid was good and the wine wasn’t flabby at all, an unfortunately common feature of many viogniers. Big Cork has a mighty challenge to produce a good viognier consistently from vintage to vintage in Maryland, but they’ve clearly developed some know-how with this grape. What they still have to prove, however, is that they can make worthy viognier in the off years as well.

For many of the red wines I wrote lines like “good but not great” or “nice Earth but insufficient fruit.” Knob Hall’s 2013 petit verdot was one of those on the verge. They made the smart decision in holding the wine an extra year prior to release. It had good weight and acid, nice smoked pepper beef jerky and raspberry, but on the whole it was just a bit singular as cold climate petit verdot can be. Similarly, Thanksgiving Farm’s 2012 Reserve Meritage showed its age well with robust, drying tannins and saline to go with hickory smoke and peppered salmon jerky on the nose and palate. It was a unique and intriguing profile but it needed some fruit to broaden the flavor spectrum and body. Both of these demonstrate the promise of Maryland but also the challenge of being able to achieve adequate ripening in red grapes. There are tricks that can be played in the winery to help with this, but that’s a difficult decision that a lot of winemakers don’t make because it’s an act of distorting “nature’s intent,” if you will, in a way that paves over the wine’s uniqueness.

The final wine I want to highlight is Layton’s Chance 2014 Norton Reserve. Like Crow’s decision to feature vidal blanc, Layton’s Chance Norton is a statement about the importance finding the right grape for the land and then making it well. Norton is not an esteemed grape, and frankly even though it’s quite at home in the Mid-Atlantic most producers of it still don’t do it particularly well. Too often it’s a tannic mess of high alcohol and sweet dark fruit with nothing else going on. Layton’s Chance’s version is altogether different, a demonstration of measured constraint. The alcohol was integrated and the fruit was dark, but both were mellow which allowed some spice and saline to show through. The tannins are there, but are well-integrated as well.

Like Crow’s vidal, Layton’s Chance is evidence that when you embrace the right grapes, vineyard management and winemaking techniques for the land and climate, you can put out something quite good. This is the big lesson I took from the Winter Wine Festival, and is a lesson I hope more Maryland wineries embrace because that’s how the state will ultimately carve out its place in the wine world.