I think we’d all like to believe that wine is made to be the best wine that it can be. Unfortunately, I’ve come to learn that wine is made as much as, if not more so, according to the economics of wine as it is to the ideal vinicultural and enological standards and practices. I hate to de-romanticize good vitis, but I think it’s for the best because having a better understanding of the business of winemaking should make everyone a better wine customer. It took interning at a winery and writing this blog for a few years for me to learn and appreciate the impact of business-side factors on the wine that I drink, and it’s brought me to a greater appreciation of the industry and its product.
Knowledge of the business helps consumes because business-side decisions ultimately shape the product we buy: the type of glass and bottle chosen, its vineyard sources and how the grapes are harvested, barrel regime and winemaking methods, where it gets sold and how it is priced, and more. It turns out that many of the winemaking decisions winemakers talk about as being stylistic choices are made from a list of options constrained by the economic realities and business limitations imposed upon them by ownership, regulations, sales structures, distribution and the marketplace.
A good understanding and appreciation of wine therefore requires not just knowing where it is from and how it was made, but also the economics of making, marketing, distributing and selling it. With this in mind, I’m offering a list of what I believe are five pivotal wine business realities for consumers to know.
Myth #1: The Wine Business Makes People Rich
Fact #1: It is extraordinarily rare to make millions in the wine industry.
There’s a saying in the industry that the way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one. Though one might assume this joke (and rule of thumb) applies more to higher cost areas like Napa where choice acreage can go for as much as $1 million per, its applicability has as much to do with location as any other factor, of which there are many.
The wine business is a low margin one, and therefore requires sufficient volume to turn a profit. The largest wineries have tackled this with a model that produces a lot of wine that doesn’t require expensive inputs so they can sell higher quantities at lower prices. Making really good wines in this category is an art, though also a rarity.
On the other end of the spectrum, small boutique producers sell very high quality and expensive wine in very limited quantities. Between these two ends of the spectrum are a variety of sizes and models designed to turn a profit on the kind and quantity of wine they want to produce. Some are a hybrid of both ends, paying their bills with entry-level higher margin wines at bigger production numbers and while getting their high quality fix with higher end limited production wines. Hess Collection is a great example of this hybrid model, making good wines at price points from ~$10 to over $100 (click here for more on Hess). All this being the case, profit margins are driven by numerous factors of which the cost of production is just one.
Why this matters to consumers: It is helpful to know that 99% of wineries are not significant money makers even though you may be paying quite the tariff for a bottle or tasting fee because it contextualizes a number of things, among the most important (1) you’re not entitled to special treatment by a winery because you buy their wine or visit them (an expectation that occurs more than one might anticipate), (2) because wine is a hyper competitive market, what they’re offering you likely represents the most they can offer while maintaining profitability, (3) this is why discounts are usually small and connected to higher quantity purchases, (4) the wine industry is not full of wealthy people living a lavish lifestyle, so you’re not as disconnected from them as you may think, and (5) don’t look down your nose as necessarily selfish or shallow actions like cost-saving measures, decisions to “sell out” by selling to a parent company or advertising campaigns meant to attract customers who are unlike you.
Myth #2: Quality Wine is Overpriced
Fact #2: The price you pay for a wine – any price – is a realistic reflection of how much that bottle costs to produce multiplied by the winery’s need to sell it and the market demand of that specific bottle compared to its peers.
Though this formula is subjective, it is not as subjective as you might believe. Let’s take on pinot noir as an example. Pinot is an expensive wine to buy relative to most other red wines. This is mostly driven by the following factors:
It is more finicky to grow and more delicate to make relative to most other red wines, meaning there is more that can go wrong in its production relative to other red wines. Quality and quantity are not as consistent from year-to-year as they are for many other red wines. These factors create a high opportunity cost for pinot producers that gets passed on to consumers to maintain economic viability.
Many believe the best pinot noir is made by aging in French oak, which creates a self-reinforcing consumer expectation for it, and is expensive relative to most other barrels.
The demand side pushes cost because pinot is more desirable relative to most other red wines. This is a more subjective cost driver than input costs, and is increasingly subjective the higher in price you go. While the generally accepted best entry level pinot noirs from pinot regions like California, Oregon and Burgundy start at around $20-25, the biggest jumps in prices come towards the higher end and reflect scarcity and exclusivity more than quality. The difference in quality and uniqueness between a $75 pinot and a $150 pinot is generally less dramatic than the difference between a $25 and $75 pinot. The most expensive pinots, regardless of where they come from, reflect their scarcity and prestige in the price more than any dramatic difference in quality.
A number of people in the industry have told me that the most appropriate price for a wine is the amount people are willing to pay for it. Some brands carry certain reputations that allow them to charge more than their peers, which often means those brands are doing extra work to build and maintain their reputations, including (but not limited to) producing smaller quantities to maintain exclusivity. While these efforts don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the wine, they can reflect an added cost input. It’s no secret that part of what makes designer products so expensive is the amount they spend on advertising and promotion. The wine industry is no different in terms of the high cost of generating and maintaining excitement and desirability among certain customer demographics.
Why this matters to the consumer: The final price you pay is reflective of how much it costs to produce, where consumers place it among its peers and the extent to which the wine is desirable. This is to say, you’re likely paying fair market value even if you feel like you’re getting a bad deal.
Myth #3: The Framework for Distributing and Selling Wine in America Benefits Consumers
Fact #3: Our three tier system limits customer choice, hurts small wineries, and makes wine more expensive to buy.
With all due respect to my friends in the distribution and wholesale tier, and those in the regulatory agencies, the compromises this country made to get out of Prohibition suck. In addition to adopting the three tier system, the compromise that ended the federal prohibition on alcohol included giving each state the protected right to set most of the laws that affect the liquor business within their respective borders. Regardless of one’s political ideology, it shouldn’t be hard to understand why fifty independent sets of regulations, rather than one, is a bad thing.
The three tier system is made up of, yep, three tiers: the producer, the distributor/wholesaler, and the retailer. For a consumer to purchase a bottle of wine outside of a winery, the winery must first sell to a distributor or wholesaler, who must then sell to a retailer, who can then sell to the consumer. The middle man second layer adds an extra margin to the price while also doubling marketplace competition (the winery must offer a competitive price to the distributor/wholesaler who, in turn, must offer a competitive price to the retailer) that puts extra pressure on the producer to create room to bargain on unit price, often achieved by reducing costs (which can reduce quality). I could write a tomb on this, but won’t. I could also make a career out of ending it if someone had a decent number of billions of dollars to fund my efforts (anyone?). So, in brief, a few things to chew on:
(1) Corruption happens in highly regulated industries. Alcohol is very, very regulated. The ability to get a liquor license, distribution permit, import permit, retail license, permission to ship out of or into a state, and more, are all effected by corruption in one way or another. This artificial influence on the marketplace creates artificial – noncompetitive – distortions that skew consumer choice and inflate or deflate prices (depending on the situation).
(2) Fifty sets of regulations plus three tiers of selling means the financial and labor cost of meeting the regulatory burden and expanding one’s market (paying for distribution) is incredibly high. Further, because it raises the cost of doing business out of state the same amount for each winery regardless of size or profits, it disadvantages smaller and many medium-sized wineries that can’t afford the costs. This limits the geographic footprint of their prospective consumer base – and the number of consumers who both want their wines and are able to get them.
(3) The combination of #1 and #2 creates semi-monopolies for the large winery ownership groups/corporations that can pool resources from across their portfolio to ensure all of their labels are available everywhere. Depending on how the ownership group/corporation handles this advantaged position, this can be a good or bad thing for the industry. Some do it more humbly and intelligently than others.
(4) It incentivizes distributors and retailers to push larger labels (and wineries owned by larger labels) because they offer the distributor and retailer higher profit margins than smaller production wines that come at a higher per-unit cost but retail for the same price.
Why this matters to the consumer: Government regulation and an entrenched interest group (the second tier) are creating and enforcing a distorted marketplace in which you are forced to pay an artificially inflated price for wine you’re choosing from an artificially limited selection.
Myth #4: Growing Wine Grapes is Simple
Fact #4: Vineyard decisions are major decisions that can be significant drivers of cost and quality.
One of the most cliché things you hear about wine is that it’s made in the vineyard. But even though the point gets overused, it can be very true if a winery wants it to be true. And for many of us, our favorite wines tend to be legitimately made in the vineyard.
Vineyards are also where some of the biggest unknowns in winemaking exist because the unpredictable and cruel Mother Nature sets the course. Vines are susceptible to weather events, pests, bacteria, hungry wildlife, fires and much more. This makes vineyard management an inherently defensive, reactive enterprise even though there are strategies and tactics for setting a vineyard up for success before there’s a problem. To hear winemakers and vineyard managers describe any particular vintage, they talk about all the proactive stuff they do, but when the unfortunate and inevitable “but” drops, it is almost always an act of nature that couldn’t be prevented. This makes making vineyard-driven winemaking risky and challenging, and explains what can be dramatic vintage variation from low-intervention winemakers. Preparing for and coping with Mother Nature is one of the factors that separates the Winemakers from the winemakers.
Additionally, vineyards require a lot of money and planning and take at least three years to mature once planted before commercial wine can be produced, if not five. Terroir-driven wines benefit most from well-planned vineyards, meaning the right sites and soils are found, then prepared prior to planting, and planted with the right vines, clones and rootstocks, and given the TLC needed to raise them right. From site scouting to purchase; from doing the soil and climate research needed to identify the right varietals, clones and rootstocks and the year it takes to get them once ordered; from the planting to the nurturing of young vines for at least three years before production-worthy grapes are produced, it can take upwards of six or seven years easy before a vineyard is producing. It takes many more years before all the investment is paid off and a profit is turned.
Why this matters to the consumer: Knowing how wineries approach their vineyards and vineyard sourcing (buying grapes from other growers) helps one differentiate between wineries in terms of the planning, care and investment they make in their vineyards. Those wineries that do it right, meaning those that take the time to do the research and don’t rush the process, are more likely to produce a greater run of better wine than those that don’t, all other factors being equal.
Myth #5: If it’s on the Shelf, it’s Ready to Drink
Fact #5: Most premium wine will never be consumed at its best.
Estimates vary, but it’s safe to say that at least 90% of wine sold in America is consumed within a week of being purchased. The actual number is probably at least 95%, especially during COVID. The vast majority of that segment buy their wine from grocery stores and large wine sellers like Total Wines, which means most of that wine is sub or barely “premium wine” (a term that is usually defined as $20+ per bottle) and likely the current release (most recent vintage released for public sale). Sub or barely premium is fine (and in most cases probably best) to drink upon release like this.
However, most premium wine, I would argue red and white, improve over the three to five years following their release. I would put most New World premium red wine into this category, and a fair amount of wines from Old World regions. A smaller but sizeable chunk of premium wine doesn’t show its best for at least a decade. This is mostly Old World wine, with some New World in the mix.
It is impossible to know how much premium wine is captured in that 90%+ statistic, but I can offer significant antidotal evidence that it’s a statistically significant percentage. I’ve spoken with dozens of premium wine producers, and often ask them how many of their clientele, do they think, age their wines to full maturity. The answer is usually something like “very few” or “barely any.” Further antidotal evidence can be found looking at wine reviews on CellarTracker, a website used predominantly by discerning consumers that purchase the world’s better and best wines, where numerous reviews show evidence of premature consumption of wines that show their best years, if not decades, after release.
One could argue that the industry should shift to consumer preference and make more wines that are more accessible (meaning wines that require less aging to fully mature) upon release. That’s a fair argument, and a good chunk of premium wine producers make two levels of wine – somewhat less expensive and more accessible wines, and more expensive and age worthy wines. But for a small but dedicated segment of the market (where I reside), there’s nothing better than a fully mature premium wine. Thankfully, plenty of winemakers fall into that camp as well, and are able to make a few wines each that we fellow old wine lovers choose to age for years and years.
Why this matters to the consumer: Unless you thoroughly enjoy (or even prefer) young premium wine, you’re not getting the experience out of the wines you are buying that the wines – and the winemaker – intend you to have. Therefore, you may want to rethink your purchasing decisions because you may end up getting more pleasure out of different – and often less expensive – wine. Or, you should consider buying a wine cooler and putting some of your more structured wines to rest for a few years.
Author’s Note: This is the first Good Vitis piece focused exclusively on the business side of wine, which means it may be one of the more controversial pieces from this blog among our industry friends and followers. I hope it will be one of the more useful pieces for our readership. Regardless of whether you’re industry or a consumer, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please share it either with the group (post a comment) or send it directly to me at goodvitis(at)gmail(dot)com.
No white wine routinely gets the level of respect and reverence earned by the great red wines of the world. With the exception of Mosel, the generally accepted greatest wine regions in the world are all dominated by, and known for, their red wine: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja, Napa, Sonoma, Barossa Valley, Porto, Tuscany, etc. Even most of the smaller regions that earn great respect tend to come on the radar because of their red wines, places like Priorat, Duoro, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. Champagne is unique in this context because many of its great wines, which appear white, include at least some red-skinned grapes. Red wine just is held in higher esteem.
Global vineyard acreage underscores this consumer preference, with six of the ten most planted varieties around the world falling into the red category, and some of the world’s best white varieties absent. The most planted white, which falls forth on the list, is Airén and is so overplanted that it rarely finds its way into wines of any real quality that leave its native Spain. Riesling, the only white grape upon which a consensus top wine region is built (Mosel), does not land in the top-10. In 10th spot is trebbiano, a grape that is all-to-often and unfortunately made into unimpressive mass-produced wine. The most popular white wine among wine connoisseurs, chardonnay, comes after Airén and before syrah, the latter a grape that many producers outside Australia and Washington State say is tremendously challenging to sell if varietally labeled. Varieties that could be considered among the best whites, like chenin blanc, gewürztraimer and grüner veltliner, are far from making the list and likely never will.
Nina Buty of Buty Winery, which I’ll get to later in this article, pointed out another headwind for white wine when I talked with her for this article: “the preference to score reds higher than whites is very real [among wine critics], even among great white wine lovers,” she said, adding that “many believe that to be a serious wine appreciator one must be more focused on reds because they’re more serious wines…I see this even in professionals. It’s a salacious belief that the precious realm is red.”
Buty’s winemaker, Chris Dowsett, who also makes wine under his family label Dowsett Family Winery, added that wine critics “sometimes let things slip, like the top 3 or 4 points on their rating scale is reserved for wines that can be aged for 20 years, which leaves 99% of white wines out of contention. I had a professional reviewer tell me the other day that he would never give a pinot gris over 90 points because he doesn’t think the grape is a 90+ point grape.”
For white wine lovers, this reality creates opportunities and challenges. It makes affording the great white wines generally easier than the great reds because demand is less (and professional point ratings may not go as far north). However, because low demand suppresses supply it makes it harder to find the great whites, which are relatively fewer in options at the high-end range, and not always produced in the same quantities as their red counterparts. This in turn means whites generally do not receive the industry investment and attention that reds get, and so the status quo of fewer higher quality whites on the market persists.
One wine region that epitomizes this vicious circle is Washington State. Dominated in the reputation department by its cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and red blends to the point that the state’s white wines never enter a national (let alone international) discussion or achieve national distribution in any real way, Washington’s whites simply do not register in most of the wine world’s reality (unless someone wants to talk about the fact that Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest riesling producer in the world with its ~$9 grocery store price point).
Notable Washington wineries like Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and K Vintners/Charles Smith have produced many 100 point cabernet sauvignons and syrahs, helping to establish the state’s red wines firmly in the global discussion. It may be surprising, then, to learn that ~41% of the state’s vineyards are planted to white grapes, and it may be equally surprisingly to know that many of the state’s high quality producers make at least one or two white wines in the $25-50 range. Yet, one will be hard pressed to find Washington whites on retailer shelves outside of the Northwest that cost more than $20.
As a Washington native who left the state after college fourteen years ago, it was initially very frustrating as I could not find my go-to Washington white wines in Washington, DC, where I landed. After searching in vain up and down the Mid-Atlantic for the first few years I lived there, I gave in and started exploring white wines from elsewhere.
Initially hesitant to branch out, it was a huge blessing in disguise as I’ve come to find numerous white wines that excite me to no end. I found whites from the Loire Valley, Jura, Mosel, Sicily and Abruzzo, Willamette, Anderson Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita and Sonoma and Santa Cruz, Republic of Georgia, Austria and more, to be on balance superior in quality, enjoyment and value proposition to Washington’s whites as a category. For thirteen years, with the rare exception, I willingly forgot about my home state’s white wines. The periodic experiences with new Washington whites on trips home to visit family and friends mostly confirmed that I was smarter to look elsewhere for the best white wine, especially in the price range where Washington’s top whites reside.
Last summer I picked up a couple of aged white blends from Washington’s Delille Cellars on Winebid and was reminded that the state made quality white wine – that could also age. As I began to think about the next big exposé that I wanted to write for Good Vitis, it occurred to me that revisiting the white wines from where I grew up would be an interesting and overdue exercise. So, here we are.
In order to write this article, I tasted over thirty high end Washington white wines, representing a good swath of the somewhat limited high end Washington white wine market, and interviewed eight wine makers I greatly respect, all of whom have been making famously good wine in Washington State for years, some for decades. It has been a slog because in the midst of the COVID pandemic and a move from DC to Chicago, I have faced the frustrating experience of wanting more personality from many of these wines than they gave me. While basic quality is high, I wanted Washington’s high end white wines to be, as a body of work, more interesting. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be, much of which seems to be driven by the vicious circle I outlined earlier that is in full effect in Washington. While there are reasons to believe that Washington can up its white wine game, many of the winemakers see no interruption in the status quo any time soon and unfortunately I don’t see any reason to disagree with them.
While specific bottles stood out as great wines that many would argue are worth the price, the state’s whites largely operate on a separate and lower plane of intrigue and uniqueness than its red wines. Though this has not held Washington back from hard-earned and well-deserved praise for its red wines, it means that the incentives continue to line up against the required investments in better (and more purposefully managed) white grape vineyards and more dedication to the best white-specific methods of production that are required to up the state’s white wine game. From an owner’s or investor’s perspective, investing time and money in white wine when you make more money on your reds anyways makes little to no sense. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs confirmed by nearly every winemaker I spoke to about it.
Let’s begin our exploration with an instructive anecdote courtesy of Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which set up shop in Walla Walla in 1983 and has since appeared on numerous top-100 lists. By way of intimating just how large and diverse the vinicultural footprint of Washington State is, he informed me that the Columbia Valley AVA, the largest of the state’s 14 AVAs, is large and diverse enough terroir-wise to cover portions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. “That’s why you see such a wide array of wine in the state,” he said. It’s telling not only because it helps understand the scale and diversity of wine growing in Washington, but it’s also telling because despite the great white wines of Chablis, Montrachet, Graves and Condrieu, those French regions are known predominantly for their red wines, just like Washington State.
There are reasons for this: the market and the making, and I’ll discuss them in that order. As Clubb explained it, when serious vineyard planting began in Washington in the 1970s, those looking at the state’s historic weather data saw what suggested a relatively cool climate, and planned forward based on this rearward view. At that point, riesling was identified as a white grape with promising prospects and came to dominate the state’s white wine planting and production early on, setting in motion the reputation Washington still has for the grape.
However, it didn’t take long before the state began trending warmer, transitioning into what Marty described as a “high heat unit” area. What was originally a good idea to plant lots of riesling and a handful of other whites has turned into a somewhat unfortunate decision. However by the time the weather change was significant enough to affect vineyard outcomes (while simultaneously America’s wine drinking habits were changing), Washington had already built its winemaking facilities and its reputation on riesling. Because vineyard planting, maturation, production and reputation development are all expensive, front-loaded costs and long-term processes, it can be incredibly costly to quickly reverse planting decisions. As a result, there was never a dramatic shift away from riesling by its largest producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose business decisions have and continue to have extraordinary impact on the rest of the state’s industry. As goes Ste. Michelle, so goes the state’s industry, creating a delicate relationship between it and the rest of the industry that they usually handle pretty well.
Chris Dowsett of Buty and Dowsett Winey characterized this evolution from a small producer’s perspective: “early on, you looked for good places to grow grapes. You wanted a good variety [of grapes] so you could make a winery’s worth of wines and not put all your eggs into one basket. Then, we got into the mega growth stage, and people jumped into the industry looking to make what was popular; whatever variety is doing well, goes. That was cabernet. Then the economics hit you: if you do nine acres of cabernet and one of riesling, and get half the price for the riesling, you don’t consider planting more white. And very few people replanted it with another white.”
Those in the industry paying close attention, and who wanted to produce premium wine, were taking note of the state’s shift to a region with higher heat units and moved in parallel to adapt, focusing on Bordeaux and Rhone red varietals, especially as consumer demand for red wine grew. Jason Gorksi of Delille Cellars told me that “early on, the state’s best producers like Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, even Delille, did not make white wine because they did not take premium white wine seriously. A few of us eventually brought on a white wine so we’d have something to pour for winemaker dinners, [but Quilceda and Leonetti still haven’t, and probably won’t].” To Jason’s point, Quilceda hasn’t branched out beyond cabernet and a single Bordeaux-style blend, while Leonetti produces a $75 aglianico (aglianico!) ($75!), but still doesn’t do a white.
Morgan Lee of Two Vintners (and other projects) made the point that with such a red-dominated reputation, it can be hard for a winery in Washington to produce stand-out whites. “Good luck making heads turn with riesling at the top end [as an example], that’s been my philosophy since starting” despite the fact that Morgan and his wife generally prefer to drink white wine at home. Morgan, whose signature white grape pick is grenache blanc, asked himself “how was I going to enter the market with a white wine and have people talk about it? It’s like cabernet sauvignon. There are so many Washington cabs, and frankly a lot of them are so similar, how was I going to stand out? That’s why I’ve done syrahs and blends, zinfandel and even a white zin, and rosés.”
There is also the issue of volume. “If it’s a 200 to 400 case production, depending on the size of the winery, then a winery should be able to sell direct to consumer and sell it out,” Dan Wampfler of Abeja Winery told me. “But, if you’re making more than that and you’re not making chardonnay, or maybe riesling or sauvignon blanc, good luck selling that much Washington State white wine. There are amazing whites coming out of Washington that aren’t [those varieties] but they’re so small production because of the limited acreage,” he continued. One example he pointed to was a picpoul made by Rotie Cellars. “It’s outstanding and they can sell it overnight with an email. But, the amount of effort to boost production by the needed ten times to develop the required national brand recognition to sell it, they can’t do for a variety of reasons.”
Chris Peterson of Avennia, and formerly Delille Cellars, who produces a sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varietal blend, noted another economic headwind for high quality Washington white wine: even if a winery wanted to buy high quality white grapes, the economic incentives for growers aren’t there to farm high quality white grapes. “Growers aren’t willing to do crazy stuff [in terms of planting what isn’t normally planted], that’s the limitation,” he told me. “This could be the reason for [high end] riesling being held back. There could be vineyards [in Washington] like [those] in Germany, but why would you do that? You can’t sell those wines for $50 [like you can red wine].”
Further, Chris added, “in the commercial sense, white wine isn’t important to developing a reputation [in the Washington wine industry]. I have more respect for wineries that do both [types of wine] well, and sometimes it’s nice when I’m pouring out of state to have some of my own white wine to pour. But our industry’s experience with white wine is exemplified by [the author’s] experience: there’s almost no national reputation for them. Do you keep fighting the fight?”
Chis Dowsett, one of the most experienced white wine makers in Washington, made the important observation that “there are more wine growing areas in Washington that are better suited for reds than whites. There are exceptions in small pockets in various areas, but in general if you plant what’s best for the site, it’s likely to be red.” This is crucial to acknowledge because far too many producers in many regions try to plant varieties they like, and end up choosing varieties that aren’t well suited for the area or climate. It’s an easy recipe for underwhelming wine and terrible typicity.
One of Marty Clubb’s more striking observations was that, despite some promising white projects, his “real fear” is that the success of the state’s red wines mean that “there aren’t as many new white plantings except for possible chardonnay, so a lot of what [the industry] is doing is working with old vines that will eventually lose out, and create shortages of good grapes because the economics of planting new white acreage isn’t appealing.” Grounding this fear in reality, Mike Januik, who spent 20 years at Chateau Ste. Michelle prior to starting his own winery, told me that “there was time when I was making 50,000 cases of chenin blanc [at Michelle], but they stopped making chenin altogether before I left.” I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure the entire state’s chenin production today is a small fraction of what Mike alone made at Michelle several decades ago.
In oder to combat this decline in high quality white grape acreage, L’Ecole “makes sure it’s going to be economical for the grower to grow the varieties we want,” Marty said, adding that “we’ll pay extra to make sure the right work gets done to achieve the quality. Investing in quality grapes shows in the wines. We don’t work with sites that aren’t willing to put in the extra work to get the quality.”
Among other wines, Marty is known for his chenin blanc. “All the chenin produced [in Washington] over the last few decades has come from old vines, but they’re slowly being replanted to red varieties. [L’Ecole] is down to under 500 tons of chenin [for the 2019 vintage], and we produce about 15% of the state’s chenin blanc wine. If you’re willing to give a long term contract, you can get some security. I just signed a 10-year contract with Upland [Vineyard] just to secure their chenin site.” Plus, there’s the complication that “whites are trickier because in order to make them economical, you need to up the tonnage, but to keep quality at the valume, you really have to work the canopy, get even ripening, to make quality wine.” Not every vineyard manager is willing to put in that kind of work when the alternative is higher profit red grapes.
“Like many of these winemakers,” Chris Dowsett told me, “I’ve spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time scouting for the best white sites in the state.” The process is becoming less and less fruitful. “Land as expensive as Red Mountain or The Rocks, people are planting reds because the return on investment is better. The new whites you’re seeing, they’re commanding good money because they’re laborious to grow and limited in supply.”
Jason Gorski, who believes that the Rhone varieties grenache blanc and marssane are showing promise (Morgan’s granche blanc is “one of [his] perennial favorites”), made the point that “no one has done a concentrated effort to do a white project really well. We [Delille] have proven sauvignon blanc can be really good, Erica [Orr’s chenin blanc] is mind blowing because she found old vines and makes that style. Gorman’s [chardonnay] project is figuring it out,” though no one has found the winning model or fomula.
In addition to the challenge of finding the right site for white varieties, there is the element of making white wine. Nina calls doing so “a labor of love and a really interesting statement of the winemaker and house style because it’s more challenging to make it in beautiful and compelling and consistent ways than reds…because you don’t have the same tools available.” Morgan was more direct, noting that “making white wine is really hard; it’s much harder to hide your mistakes with white than red. Whites are a pain in the ass. A lot more can go wrong, and they take up a tremendous amount of tank space, you have to keep them stable, filter the shit out of them. And the demand isn’t even there, so why do it?”
Morgan and I discussed two wines that he has produced for Full Pull Wines under their Block Wines label, a semillon and a chardonnay. “Both are aged in concrete for stylistic choices. The eggs serve no purpose other than for these two whites” because, unlike steel, the porous material cannot be sufficiently cleaned in order to use them for red wines. “It’s just another example of why good white wine requires its own effort.”
Dowsett uses concrete for some of Buty’s white wines as well. “We were one of the early adopters of concrete, we brought cubes in in 2009 and 2010. They were actually intended for red wine from The Rocks but I wanted to test it first on white wine. I loved the results, the character of the wine, and decided to keep the cubes for the whites. We have one that’s designated for our chardonnay and another that’s for our Bordeaux-style blend.” Chris also tends to keep the wines on the lees for as long as possible, and grows his white grapes in a little more shade (“the early counsel I received was to have more shade on the grapes to develop skins more thinly so I’m not battling phenolics. At least one leaf over each cluster.”).
Gilles Nicault, the Director of Winemaking and Viniculture at Long Shadows since 2003, really hammered the point about purpose-making white wine, that in order to make great white wine, you need vineyard practices, equipment, and winemaking practices that are different enough from red wine making that a winemaker does not build the body of knowledge and experience through making red wine needed to produce top-notch white. Because the state’s focus has been on red for the past twenty-plus years, many winemakers and vineyard managers aren’t nearly as comfortable branching out into whites, or pushing the boundaries like they do with their reds.
Gilles’ Poet’s Leap Riesling is a great example of what it takes to make high quality white wine in Washington. Along with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s high end Eroica riesling, Poet’s Leap is Washington’s standard bearer for the variety. Both cost around $20 and in great vintages are a steal at that price. Their modest levels of residual sugar are enough to give them a decade or so of good aging potential, enable them to be quite versatile in the food pairing department and make them competitive on the global market. If there is one high quality Washington State white wine you’ll find outside of the Northwest, it’s likely to be one of these two rieslings.
Poet’s Leap began as a partnership in 2003 between Long Shadows Winery and Armin Diel, one of the most celebrated riesling producers in Germany’s Nahe wine region. For many years, Gilles and Diel would make the wine together, pairing an old world approach with new world fruit. More recently Gilles has taken over completely, but the wine retains some of Diel’s old world sensibilities. The viniculture remains as precise as it ever was, with Gilles and his team putting tremendous work into the vineyards. The canopy is managed with great care by hand to remove leaves, clusters and shoots to make sure the fruit zone is open and clusters do not come into contact with each other. With such a hot climate, these efforts are required to ensure the acid and sugar develop in harmony and reach their desired levels at, or at least around, the same time so harvest can come at the ideal time to create a balanced wine.
Once in the winery, the grapes go through whole cluster pressing, not the most common technique for riesling (or other white grapes). “The cool thing about whole cluster pressing [is that] you can extract more juice at lower pressure because the stem gives more structure and creates channels, so when the stems pop the berries, the juice escapes. Because we get so much juice at such low pressure, we avoid phenolic extraction.” However, to do this whole cluster pressing, Gilles needed to add a second press this winery, which is not something every winery wanting to add something different to its line up can afford or accommodate space-wise in the cellar.
It’s impressive that Poet’s Leap costs only $20 given the amount of human labor and additional equipment that go into producing it, but Long Shadows can price it at that level because it has the reputation to sell at high volume, and is therefore the highest production wine in what has historically otherwise been a profitable line up of $50+ red wines. It takes quite a bit of time to build that reputation, and for Washington wineries that do not already have it in today’s hyper competitive wine market, the return on investment on boosting red wine production is much higher than it would be to introduce a new white wine, let alone overcome the knowledge and experience gaps they may face with white wine production. Plus, it may require more experimentation and risk than simply expanding or improving the red program.
Where people have tried to grow the white wine market in Washington recently has so far largely focused on chardonnay and to a lesser extent sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties. “The fact is that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the queen and king of the industry; look anywhere, and that’s what’s consumed the most,” Morgan pointed out. Nina Buty, whose co-founded her winery in 2000, knew at that time that she wanted to take white wine as seriously as red wine, even though red was always going to dominate production. She was one of the few back then to feel this way. “When it came time to start Buty,” Nina said, “we knew we wanted to make our white blend and a chardonnay. In that moment, chardonnay was not the darling despite it being the most sold variety in the US. So a lot [of people] were surprised that we wanted to focus on a chardonnay.”
They launched with a partial malolactic fermented chardonnay that saw a low oak profile and single vineyard focus on Conner Lee, one of the state’s most respected sites for chardonnay. They put a lot of focus on learning the site’s viniculture and enology eccentricities. “It helped cement our style and direction,” Nina said.
Despite Nina’s success with her Conner Lee chardonnay, a number of winemakers interviewed for this piece agreed that it is a grape that many producers in the state haven’t gotten right, an observation that I would confirm by taste. “Producers have to make what they can sell and they’ll do their best, but am I thrilled by a lot of Washington chardonnay? No,” Morgan told me.
Even though I tasted chardonnays from a number of really great producers, I remain uninspired; though the quality is there, the uniqueness, and therefore intrigue, is largely not. The example that stood out to me as worthy of a national or international stage: the 2017 Januik Cold Creek Vineyard chardonnay from Mike Januik, who Marty Clubb called “a chardonnay master” during our conversation.
When speaking to Januik about Washington chardonnay, he called out two mistakes he regularly sees. First, “you have to get the clone selection right,” he explained. “How well Washington chardonnay does is really closely connected to the clones you use. [A lot] of the older blocks were planted before people were thinking about clones – they were just planting what was easily available. It makes a stark difference in quality, more so than clones do with many other varieties.”
Cold Creek Vineyard, which is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a mixture of Burgundy clones. Michelle was so thankful for Mike’s service at the winery prior to launching Januik/Novelty Hill, that they promised him fruit from whichever vineyards he wanted when he struck out on his own. Prior to that offer, he wasn’t planning on doing any whites, but “I jumped on the opportunity to do a Cold Creek chardonnay. I worked with a lot of vineyards, and it was always my favorite chardonnay. I get my pick of the block and the rows each year.”
“It’s a great, really special place,” Mike described, adding that “it has great aspect and the old vines there are at that point now where the self-regulate in terms of crop size. I always get small clusters of small berries, which gives me the right skin-to-pulp ratio. It’s so critical because most of the flavor comes from the skins.”
Second, barrel selection “is critically important” for Washington chardonnay. “Not all French oak is equal. I pay so much attention to that. I use a selection. There are some French barrels that should never be used fo chadonnay.”
Like a lot of his approach, he learned this while at Michelle. “We would ferment in various barrels, and look at every iteration – cooper, toast level, etc. We’d bottle five cases of each barrel type and taste them year after year. I have a pretty good idea now how a chardonnay is going to change over time purely based on the barrel used.”
Asked about how he detects whether the right barrels are used, he answered that “if I smell oak [on the wine], it was the wrong choice. I want to smell creaminess that gives me the impression of creaminess on the mouth. If the first thing you smell is oak, it’s probably not the right barrel to be using.” Mike uses a combination of new and once-used French oak, ferments in them and does batonage every few weeks. The chardonnay ends up spending between nine and 10 months in barrel depending on the vintage.
Biting at Januik’s ankles is Abeja Winery, whose long-time focus on chardonnay has grounded it as a flagship producer of the variety in Washington with somewhat of a national reputation for that wine. Abeja also makes a small production viognier, about 250 cases, off estate vines that is, in my book, very good and the best example of the variety from Washington State.
Abeja looks at their white program as a concentrated effort focused on chardonnay. “Communication with the grower can be tricky,” winemaker Dan Wampfler said. “Try to get a knowledgeable grower to plant anything of substantial acreage for a variety they’ve never worked with or don’t know much about, and they’re not confident in planting or sustaining it.” Effectively, many wineries are stuck with what’s already planted. In order to have control over their white program so they can develop it as best they can according to their preferences, and as part of “an effort to deepen our commitment to estate wines,” Abeja recently planted 40 acres a mile from the winery, including five clones of chardonnay. This acreage is higher elevation and cooler than the winery’s current estate vineyards as they look to produce an uncommon style among the current batch of Washington chardonnays.
The choice to go higher in elevation is a purposeful one “in part because of the effects of climate change. Traditional ripening patterns are changing. The way to retain the acidity is to slow ripening down through elevation, temperature or crop load, or all three. We’re seeing good outcomes when we do that,” Dan explained. “We’re seeing dramatic differences [from our other vineyards] already even though it’s a young vineyard with different clones. Ripening time and speed are different.” Dan is playing around with the style of the new fruit, figuring out “what it does in different blends” and “trying different aging vessels, press trials, oxidizing early on then hitting it with carbon dioxide and doing it anaerobically. The first vintage from the new vineyard was 2019 and I blended it into the Washington and Walla Walla chardonnays.” When it’s ready for showtime, it will become its own wine.
The winery is best known for its nationally distributed Washington State Chardonnay (a multi-AVA blend) that is quintessentially Washington in style, which Dan describes as “new world fruit, lush palate, partial malolactic fermentation” that he ages in a combination of neutral French oak, “a tiny bit of stainless” and concrete. It is widely respected among the industry as a standard bearer, and very good for those who appreciate a bold, lush chardonnay profile.
Dan has more recently branched out to produce the Chablis-styled Beekeeper White (100% chardonnay despite its non-varietally named label) and a Burgundian-style chardonnay with the Walla Walla AVA designation. Traditionally, Abeja’s whites are whole cluster press and get a combination of new and used oak, concrete and stainless aging vessels. The ultimate blend of aging vessels varies from vineyard to vineyard, block to block, vintage to vintage. “We do what the wine tells us to do,” Dan said.
While Abeja is building out a purposeful chardonnay program, Avennia is dedicating itself to figuring out sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties, one of several wineries included in this piece that have branched outside of riesling and chardonnay. Exploration by these small but talented wineries is going to be key to developing a new white wine scene for the state that will merit national interest.
Avennia’s interest in white wine began with sauvignon blanc, coming from winemaker Chris Peterson’s days as head winemaker at Delille where he helped to establish their Bordeaux-style Charleur Estate Blanc blend as the arguably the flagship high end Washington State white wine. “Plus, we started Avennia with a pure visionary focus on Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, so chardonnay and riesling didn’t fit. Though I still have yet to see where Washington can make really great riesling or chardonnay.”
2011 was the first vintage of Oliane, Avennia’s sauvignon blanc. “It was all Boushey [Vineyard], and the plan was always to do it in a premium way with longer élevage. It’s our highest production wine, 700 cases. We go through it every year with the $28 retail price,” Chris told me. The success of Oliane was a bit of a surprise for Chris and his business partner, Marty Taucher. “When we started it we knew it would be a challenge. We weren’t sure if our serious approach would work.” After a 2012 vintage in which Boushey Vineyard didn’t deliver a full crop, Chris added some fruit from Red Willow, and continues to blend the two vineyards today. “It’s a great match. Boushey has more fruit and weight while Willow has more acidity and minerality.”
Interestingly, Chris said that giving the sauvignon blanc a proprietary name, rather than labeling it according to its variety, helps it sell. “Calling it Oliane and making it in a Bordeaux-style makes it easier to talk about it as a complex, styled wine rather than a straightforward sauvignon blanc that most people in Washington think of as a back porch, stainless steel, drinking it by the pool kind of wine.” Regardless, sales for Avennia’s white wines are “predominantly in-state. One of our top distributors loves our white wine but won’t sell it because it’s too expensive for Washington white wine. In the Northwest, people know Avennia, plus we have a robust wine club that doesn’t opt out of our whites.”
Chris is making chardonnay for Passing Time Winery, a wine he called “interesting and fun, but that’s a different point of view [than Avennia’s] because it’s oaked and goes through malolactic fermentation. We’re going to launch it with the 2018 vintage. It’s going to be $50, and that’s the ceiling [for Washington white wine].” He recently did a Bordeaux tasting with a group, which included Domaine de Chevalier, a producer of (among other things) a ~$80 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. “It’s really good. They’re getting a level of extract that we’re not getting [in Washington]. But they know that at that price they can improve the vineyard by that rate as well. Right now, even the best Washington whites are second thoughts to red wine. There’s a pride in them, but they aren’t a core priority.”
Long Shadows’ Gilles takes great pride in his white wine endeavors, which have recently expanded to a chardonnay called Dance, which is a decade-long project that is just now reaching production-level readiness, and an inaugural sauvignon blanc called Cymbal, the latter augmenting the Oliane as a top-shelf sauvignon blanc that suggests the variety has a strong future in the state. “I hadn’t made sauvignon blanc in 18 years,” Gilles told me, “so it was truly an experiment. I fermented in stainless, new French oak barrels, neutral French barrels, and concrete just to see how each played out with the grapes [some of which come from a 1972 planting in Bacchus Vineyard]. I liked how it worked with the 2018 so I’m doing the same with the 2019.”
The 2018 Cymbal and 2017 Avennia Oliane are impressive in their youth but suggest good medium-term aging potential. Shortly after tasting the 2017 Oliane, I purchased a 2014 Oliane at auction. True to the nature of a Bordeaux-style sauvignon blanc, with the winemaking practices that go into producing such a style, it ages quite well. While the current vintage is good, it will get better with age, as the 2014 did. To those professional critics who told Chris Dowsett that they reserve points for wines able to age, I give you the Avennia Oliane to consider, as well as Chris Dowsett’s wines.
Speaking of Dowsett, his personal winery is one of the few that still produces high end riesling. His top of the line riesling comes from an estate vineyard called Aunt Diane that was planted in 1980. “I love the soil, climate and elevation [about 1,300 feet] of it. It retains acidity well and I can pick it late. I make it like a gewürztraminer,” which Chris also makes, even though the latter “is early ripening. If you let it go, the acid falls, sugar rises, and it gets very flowery. If you grow it in an area that cools down, you can hold the acidity. The Gorge [a wine growing area of Washington] is a perfect place for that. If there’s more white wine to be planted, I see more riesling, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and other grapes going into the Gorge in the future. It’s a great area for whites, a place to watch on that front.” Chris’ Celilo Vineyard gewürztraminer, from the Gorge, was the revelation among all the wines tasted for this article.
In my mind, if Washington State has one this-is-what-the-state-can-do, consistently stand-out white wine, it is Delille Cellars’ Chaleur Estate Blanc, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon made in the traditional style of Bordeaux white blends like Chevalier (French oak, barrel fermented, with bâtonnage). It tastes great from release all the way through at least a decade of cellaring, showing interesting evolution that is worth following through regular check-ins over multiple bottles. What sets it apart is the structure and texture, a full bodied wine with penetrating acid that evolves to reveal layer after layer of flavor.
It’s a $35 wine that easily competes with its competitors, yet requires periodic hand selling out of state where it has a national distribution because people are unaccustomed to seeing white Washington wine at that price point. “Part of the decision to distribute it nationally is the business side,” Jason explained. “The grapes for it are less expensive [than the winery’s red grapes] and we can make great wine from it, so we can make money going three tier. It’s been around since the late 1990s so there’s a good track record. Even still, it required hand selling it to stores and somms, so the education was big up front. It takes 20 years to prime a market, and we still have to education people when there’s turnover. Not a lot of wineries can afford that kind of effort. You see small and mid-sized wineries marching forward with red because it’s what sells and you can get good prices for it.” Nine years ago, Delille was making about 1000 cases of it. Now, they’re making 5000. It’s a rare national success story for Washington white wine.
A good indication of where the state’s industry is focused is the actions of the Washington State Wine Commission, which is the biggest industry group. Dan Wampfler helped me understand that the Commission has gone through three evolutions in its marketing efforts since he joined it. “At first, the goal was to influence the customer and purchaser by doing tastings around the country. Wineries would send in their best wines for those. Then, it was influence the influencer rather than spend money on tastings in other markers. They invited influencers to come in and amplify the message of Washington wine. Finally, they’ve turned inwards to influence the state and let Seattle know what we’re doing.”
Judging by how the market has responded to this evolution, Washington white wine remains a tough sell. I asked each winemaker for their thoughts on the prospects of white wine, and which white grape they’d focus on if given the choice. The answers were quite mixed. Some said chardonnay, others said they wouldn’t touch it with a very long pole. A few, like Morgan Lee, said they wouldn’t do more than they’re already doing. Some doubled down on their current approach, like Chris Peterson with sauvignon blanc (“the next step is finding the right micro climates that aren’t as hot, work to explore clones, keep the alcohols low”).
There was more consensus on the unlikely prospect of seeing a dramatic uptick in the production of white wines because the various headwinds are just too strong, making the path more difficult than sticking with the tried-and-true-and-profitable reds. As several winemakers explained to me, it is going to take a sizable investment to achieve white wine as spectacularly good as the state’s best reds. Someone needs to fund the decade long projects with differed economic returns needed to develop the right sites with the right varieties, clones and farming practices just to sufficiently boost the supply of high quality white grapes, and no one I spoke with had any idea of who might be walking around with those money bags looking to risk them on Washington white wine.
None of this is to say that some of the state’s white wines aren’t worth taking seriously, nor is that to say that there aren’t winemakers whose white wines won’t continue improving. I’d serve the Delille and Buty white blends to anyone, and I’d put Dowsett’s gewürztraminer against the world’s best. $20 grenache blanc doesn’t get better than Two Vintners’, and I’ll probably buy some of Januik’s Cold Creek chardonnay when distributor Winebow brings it to the Chicago market. Avennia sauvignon blanc is one that will test my wine-aging patience. Long Shadows’ Poet’s Leap will always be a compelling riesling at $20. Further, I trust all of the winemakers interviewed for this piece to continue efforts to improve their white wines. And, I know there are producers I did not connect with for this article, like the aforementioned Rotie Cellars and the about-to-be mentioned Syncline Cellars, that make white wine worth trying.
Putting aside individual producers, it seems evident that the state as a whole is not on the trajectory to elevate its white wine game. It’s not that people who care aren’t trying, nor that there aren’t good terroirs in Washington where it could be done, but Washington is a red wine drinker’s haven in a wine drinking world that, at the premium level, prefers red wine. The incentives to invest in producing unique and interesting expressions of high quality and price competitive white wine in Washington are just not there, running smack into a customer preference for red wine that disincentivizes white wine exploration and investment.
Where there may be some growth, at least in the variety of high end whites department, is from current red-dominate wineries that, as they “get older, they gain experience, and it’s more often the case that they realize they should be making a white wine,” Mike Januik prognosticated. “It’s kind of a drag not to have white wine to pour for customers. People want to taste whites, too.” It was as if Mike was doing his best Marie Antoinette: “let them drink white wine!” This approach explains how many Washington wineries began producing their whites in the first place, though I hate that we may have to rely upon this slow-moving source of natural growth to get more and better white wine, especially when it promotes the kind of approach – or rather lack of a serious investment approach – that has created a high quality but relatively uninteresting category of wine. But if this is the process, this is the process. I’ll itch my Washington white wine scratch from time to time with some of these better wines that are already on the market, and hope to see increasing variety and personality as time goes on.
Note: Syncline Wine Cellars, a pioneer of both the Columbia Gorge AVA and Rhone varieties in Washington, sent me several samples to review for this article. However, I was unable to secure an interview with them. Many point to Rhone varieties in the Gorge as holding the promise of Washington’s white wine future. Syncline’s first vintage came in 1999, long before the Gorge became a designated AVA. Since then, wineries have been popping up in the area, including some of the state’s most exciting small projects, though Syncline remains a lead drummer. I’ve included reviews of their samples below, and hope to one day feature them more prominently in a Good Vitis piece.
Other wines review for this article include:
2019 Abeja Bee Keeper’s White – The nose includes aromas of fleshy peach, cantaloupe, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. Barely medium in weight on the palate, the flavor profile is framed by a toasty barrel note, which gives way to lemon, tart lime, apricot, tangerine and salty yellow plum. With a greenish profile, lighter body and bright acid, this is probably best with food. 89 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2019 Abeja Viognier – The shy nose gives off aromas of sweet vanilla, banana and lanolin. Medium bodied with bright acidity for the variety, the mouthfeel is light and lifted. It delivers flavors of Meyer lemon, pineapple, banana peel and orange blossom white tea. A clean, very pure viognier. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2018 Abeja Walla Walla Valley Chardonnay – Pours a very pale and clear yellow, and is lighter in color than any chardonnay I can recall. The wine is quite elevated, with delicate aromas of guava, green apple, toasted oak and orange blossom. Medium in body, it takes on lushness and weight with extended air. The minerally-driven acid hits with early juiciness, but towards the finish gets linear and stiff. Flavors are on the slightly tart side, offering green apple, green mango, Meyer lemon, dandelion, Asian pear and white tea. I’d treat this like a high quality Chablis: drink it early for its freshness, or give it five-plus years to develop layers and put on weight. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2017 Avennia Le Perle (roussanne and marsanne) – The delicate nose offers a broad soapiness with pronounced honeysuckle, honeydew, vanilla, orangesicle and lavender. Medium bodied with round, juicy acid and a semi-lush mouthfeel. The flavors have an edge of sweetness, and feature an elegant and floral variety of orange blossom, pineapple cocktail, edible flowers, bitter lemon and tangerine. This is an intriguing rendition of a Rhone-style blend offering precision of flavor and feel. 92 points. Value: B.
2018 Buty Connor Lee Chardonnay – The delicate nose boasts lemon cream, lime zest, dried apricot, white peach and pear. Just short of full bodied, it offers a creamy mouthfeel elevated by broad and slightly juicy acid. Flavors include pear, Key lime, marzipan, peach pie and Opal apple. This is a really nice, subtle expression of chardonnay that’s well made and seamless. 92 points. Value: B-.
2018 Delille Cellars Roussanne – The muted nose offers pure aromas of honeydew, lily, white tea, tangerine pith and lemon icing. The medium body offers an acid profile that is highly pronounced for the variety, slightly corse in a way that contributes towards a nice backbone that completes an otherwise elegant structure. Flavors include sweet lemon, white peach and mild kelp. It’s a high quality wine that lacks an interesting or substantive punch. I’ve had better vintages of this wine. 90 points. Value: C-.
2018 Januik Cold Creek Chardonnay – The reserved, elegant nose wafts aromas of honeydew melon, rich vanilla bean, lemon curd and sweet lime. Full bodied in sensation, the beautiful acid somehow provides both linear tension and mouth-watering juiciness, creating a lively sensation that transitions nicely into gentle creaminess, though never leaves the mouth completely. The flavor profile is built on bright and salty notes of lemon, lime and clementine citrus, while slate minerality, a touch of toasty oak and fenugreek feature in the background. This is a very young wine that would do well with 2-3 years of cellar aging to help it unwind. Drink over the next decade. 92 points. Value: A.
2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay – A traditional chardonnay bouquet of creamy lemon, creme brûlée, apricot and crushed rock. Medium plus in weight, the structure is comprised of a creamy mid palate surrounded by modest but juicy acid that gets zesty and sharp on the finish. Flavors include buttered toast, big lime zest and pith, vanilla custard, slate minerality, white tea leaf and white pepper. 91 points. Value: A.
2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Sémillon – The nose offers lemon curd, Sprite, marzipan, tangerine peel, dandelion and mango. Medium plus in weight, it balances a creamy mouthfeel with juicy acidity. Flavors include sweet pineapple, yellow peach, apricot, Opal apple, white pepper and flint. 91 points. Value: A.
2017 Long Shadows Dance (chardonnay) – Almost hedonistically sappy on the nose at this early stage, it delivers a core of caramel apple that is surrounded by quince, toasted oak and honeysuckle. Medium bodied but broad-shouldered, the acid is put into a bit of a nose dive early on by a hit of creaminess. More time may allow the two to find better harmony. Flavors include spicy, almost spritzy lemon and lime zests, as well as lean vanilla, white peach and poached pear. Cantaloupe develops on the finish where the acid returns in a big way. A hard wine to pin down, I think it’s unsettled at this stage in its life. Wait to 2022 to open. 91 points. Value: D.
2018 Syncline Boxom Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – This benefited from an hour decant. The nose offers floral-tinged aromas of peach, nectarine and red plum. Barely medium in body, the acid is bright but integrated with smooth edges and just the right amount of grippy texture. The soft flavors include white peach, orchid, white pepper, crushed stone, Gala apple and just a touch of saline. This is a delicate, pretty grüner that is best consumed by itself or with subtly-flavored food. 92 points. Value: A-.
2018 Syncline Boushey Vineyard Picpoul – Aromas of cantaloupe, sweet sea mist, white peach, white tea leaves and lime zest constitute a pretty nose. Barely medium in weight, it’s fleshy in texture with tangy but smooth acid. Flavors include Meyer lemon, under ripe nectarine, lime pith, slate minerality and a big white pepper finish. A really enjoyable and decently substantive wine, it would be easy to go through a case of this over the summer. 91 points. Value: C.
2017 Syncline Scintillation Brut Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – Aromas of green and Opal apples, toasted almond, date, dried apricot and clementine. The voluminous mousse pours large bubbles that land more delicately in the mouth, releasing green and Opal apples, lime curd, nectarine, slate, white pepper and unsweetened vanilla. Balanced, linear acid adds cut and extends the finish. This presentation of gruner offers more approachability than many still versions, but doesn’t skimp on complexity. 91 points. Value: C.
You may also be interested in reading on Good Vitis:
Living Legends of Washington Wine: Our hugely popular coverage of the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Private Barrel Auction, which includes interview anecdotes and barrel tasting notes from over a dozen of Washington State’s best wineries.
A GRAND American Riesling Tasting: An epic blind tasting of over two dozen rieslings from across America, it includes a discussion of the commercial and quality status of American riesling as well as reviews of each wine tasted.
Last spring, Adam Lee told me briefly about one of his newer projects called Beau Marchais, and sent me barrel samples of the three pinot noirs that will be released this fall under the label. Last week, I joined a crowd of Adam’s Clarice Wine Company customers for a Zoom tasting with Adam and Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery to discuss Beau Marchais in depth. Adam had sent Mike barrel samples, and Mike gave us his thoughts as he tasted through them. The wide-ranging discussion touched on a variety of topics, and provided good entertainment for wine lovers like myself who have missed in-person wine tastings and gatherings.
It was the first virtual tasting event I’ve attended, a decision I made because I’d had the wines being discussed. I’ve been apprehensive so far to register for these events because either I haven’t had the featured wines, wasn’t interested in purchasing the featured wines, or wasn’t going to be able to get the wines in time to give them a proper rest prior to the tasting. While virtual tastings are, I’m sure, a lifeline for some wineries during this global pandemic, I’ve been loath to risk bottle shock and short rest periods during summer weather shipping. It’s brought a topic I think about often to real life, but alas, that’s a subject for a different post.
Beau Marchais is an unusual project because in a certain sense it is virtual winemaking, and is therefore a particularly appropriate one to launch during COIVD. Adam makes the wine, but he takes remote instruction from one of the most famous and respected winemakers in the world, Philippe Cambie, who lives in France’s Chateauneuf de Pape. Cambie currently consults for somewhere in the vicinity of 82 wineries according to Mike Officer, but nevertheless “the opportunity to work with him,” Adam told the gathered virtual crowd, “was too much to pass up.”
Adam and Mike had met Cambie on a trip to Chateauneuf de Pape, in the southern portion of France’s Rhone Valley. “He’s behind a lot of our favorite Chateauneuf de Pape’s,” Mike said, adding that “he’s taken a lot of okay places [throughout the Rhone Valley] and made them exceptionally good. It’s pretty fantastic to say that.”
The Lee-Cambie collaboration genesis, as Adam described it, was that during their trip to Chateauneuf, “we went to enough places that called grenache [the signature grape of the region] ‘the pinot noir of Chateaneuf de Pape.’ I began thinking, could we make California pinot noir in the style of Chateaneuf grenache?” Adam brought the idea to Cambie, and the two agreed that Adam would use his incredible fruit sourcing connections to secure choice California grapes, and Cambie would instruct Adam on how to make the wine. They would do the blending together in-person.
As Adam and Mike interviewed each other during the virtual tasting, Adam described the process that he, via Cambie, made the three Beau Marchais wines. “Philippe brought completely different ideas to the project, things I hadn’t thought to do with pinot noir before.” That’s a big statement coming from Adam, a winemaker who by nature is willing to try different things and has made, pretty much exclusively, pinot noir for numerous projects for more than two decades.
To begin with, Cambie had Adam pick the grapes “on the earlier side of things.” Once the grapes came in, “we didn’t do nearly as much whole cluster press as I normally do. Clarice is around 80% whole cluster, Beau Marchais were around 25%. Philippe uses a particular enzyme to extract more from the skins. It tends to give a very creamy texture, something I’d never thought of using before with pinot. We used it during cold soak.” After the addition of another yeast, “the wine stayed on the skin for about 45 to 48 days. Normally, I do about 17 days, maybe 21, of maceration. I’ve heard of people trialing durations this long, but they’re just trials. This is what Philippe does.”
The differences kept coming. “As you get close to fermentation, we’d do this thing where we’d pump out of the bottom valve [of the tank] and back into the wine below the cap to actually push the skins up [as opposed to pumping the juice over the top of the cap to push the skins down]. This meant no aeration during the pump over. Plus, we used completely different barrels then I’ve ever used before. No concrete, just oak, and a good bit of new oak.”
Adam was asked by an audience member what the biggest influence Philippe had on him during the process. In response, he said that “it’s made me look at pinot noir differently across all my projects. I’ve been making pinot since 1994, and I liked to sit there and say I looked at things different each year. But still, there’s a sense of falling back to what you know. So, this helped me really say, okay, there are real differences in how to make really great pinot. This was an opportunity to increase my horizons.” As Mike summed it up, “no dogma. I like that.”
The Beau Marchais line up consists of two pinot noirs from the famed Clos Pepe vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, and a third pinot from the equally esteemed Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Both regions are considered cooler climate for California, and add a sense of history and strong imprints of place to the project. The inaugural release will come from the 2019 vintage. “I’m thrilled to be at Clos Pepe, I’ve worked at it since 2000,” Adam explained. “Getting back to the Santa Rita Hills, I love Clos Pepe. They’re doing great farming, it’s a great opportunity to do something great.”
The two Clos Pepe vineyard wines, named Clos Pepe Est (“east” in French) and Clos Pepe Ouest (“west” in French), each represent unique areas of the already small vineyard. The Est comes from, you guessed it, the eastern edge and middle of the vineyard and is comprised of 115 and Pommard clones. This area of the vineyard “has some rolling hills, and the portion where the grapes come from is on the backside of the hill where it is more protected [than the west side where Ouest comes from]. It makes a big difference.” The Ouest is a mix of Pommard and 667 clones and “faces the Pacific Ocean, which means it gets direct wind. It produces smaller clusters and achieves higher brix. The wind is so strong sometimes that you can end up with poor fruit set.”
As Mike tasted the two Clos Pepe’s, he commented that the two wines were “totally different” even though they are “from the same hood.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is the Ouest more integrated at this stage – I get the sense that it responded to the extended maceration in a softer way – but the nose and fruit has developed more quickly as well, offering more differentiated layers at this early stage. It seems to be on the path to being more spicy and hedonistic than the Est, reminding me of Gigondas.
The Est shows a lot of gritty skin tannin, which takes up residence in a distinctly different region of the mouth than the acid. While the acid carries red fruit and florals, the higher level of tannin brings black tea and tobacco flavors than the Ouest has, the latter more dominated by black and blue fruit, with tar and black pepper.
“It was actually Philippe’s decision to split [the vineyard] like this,” Adam noted. “When we were together to blend, I was looking to make one blend, but Philippe said we should do an east and a west.”
The Soberanes Vineyard bottling was the hardest to put my finger on. While it initially struck me as the most delicate of three despite it’s darker color, it gained weight with air and developed a nose and palate with distinctively different profiles. I noted that “it is the most classically pinot-esque of the three.” While the nose is all pastels and florals and red fruit, the palate is a concentrated combination of dark fruit, teriyaki, rose, orange blossom, sweet tobacco and tar with sweet, long tannin and modest acid. At the end of my notes, I wrote that “it is the closest these wines come to being sappy though it isn’t cloying. Best balance of the three at this stage. It evolved more than the two Clos Pepe between the two rounds of tastings (which were two hours apart).”
The project is named after a man named Pierre Beaumarchais, a French playwright, inventor, musician, spy “and so much more,” who helped with the foreign financing of the American Revolution by creating a company that smuggled money from the French and Spanish governments across the Pacific and into the Colonies. “We thought it was a great parallel to Philippe helping to make pinot in America. Also, it means ‘the beautiful walk’ in French.”
I asked Adam and Mike for their thoughts on the ageability of the three Beau Marchais wines. “If I’m comparing them to the Clarice wines, I’d say enjoy Beau Marchais while you’re letting the Clarice wines age,” Mike said. Adam added that “Clarice is aging more on acid and the stem tannins. Beau Marchais will be aging on skin tannin, it’s going to be fascinating. I don’t know the answer yet. I’d guess Mike is right, but neither are certain.” I’d approach it the same way myself, though I’d be tempted to let the Beau Marchais sit for a year or two post-release to allow for more integration and softening.
The inaugural Beau Marchais release will come this fall. You can sign up on the website to be notified when they are available, and they will also be made available to Clarice Wine Company customers. Beau Marchais is a fascinating project that will appeal most to those who like experimental wine, but also appreciate the incredible experience that Adam and Cambie to bring to the experimentation. This isn’t some new technique applied by someone with five years of winemaking experience trying to make a name for themselves before they know what they’re doing.
I want to plug Carlisle Winery briefly, which I visited in early 2019. Located in Sonoma, it is primarily known for its zinfandel, which Mike aptly describes as “the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes” and California’s only true “benchmark grape (you think of Bordeaux for cabernet and merlot, Rhone for syrah, Mosel for riesling. But zinfandel, globally, it’s California).” While I really enjoyed several of Mike’s zinfandels during my visit, especially their estate Carlisle Vineyard bottling, I was most taken by two of his white wines, a grüner veltliner from the Steiner Vineyard and a field blend from the Compagni Portis vineyard, which is comprised of gewürztraminer, trousseau gris, riesling, roter veltliner “and several other varieties yet to be identified.”
The virtual tasting included a trio of Carlisle wines selected for Clarice customers, including a newly released 2018 syrah from Radiant Ridge, a high elevation vineyard in the Bennett Valley. Adam called it “my favorite syrah [Mike] has ever made” and “the most French-style syrah I’ve tasted from Mike.” A number of attendees chimed in, adding their praise for the wine. Carlisle is a fantastic producer, and one to dig into if you haven’t already.
I’m going to end by recommending these virtual tastings for those who miss winery visits and wine dinners with friends these days. Countless wineries are doing them, and offering expedited shipping on the wines chosen for the tastings. I won’t give a final verdict on whether I think a week or less of post-shipment resting is sufficient to clear the effects of bottle shock, but I will encourage people to order as far in advance of the event as possible. Besides that risk, there’s very little downside to taking advantage of the ability to virtually taste with winemakers around the world. It’s a great way to explore the wine world during a time when we cannot otherwise travel.
My wife and I recently moved to Chicago from Washington, DC, trading our District backyard for a Chi Town rooftop. Both have their pros and cons, and I’m not sure which I prefer. The dogs, I’m guessing, prefer the backyard because it allowed them to run outdoors untethered by leashes, though it’s close because they love the more complex aromas of the city that ride the breeze above backyard fences, as well as the city sounds here that were absent in our quieter DC neighborhood. Two clear rooftop upsides for me, though, are that it offers better vantage points and more contemplation-inducing scenery for outdoor wine sipping.
One of the beautiful things about wine is that the seemingly endless options mean there’s a an appropriate, and even sometimes perfect, wine for every occasion. As a wine drinking season, summer means white and rosé wine for many people. Were it not for the on-going health pandemic, many of us would be spending weekday evenings at patio happy hours with co-workers and weekend afternoons grilling with friends and family. Needless to say, during COVID my wife and I are especially thankful to have a private outdoor space. Regardless of your situation, though, if you’re a wine lover you’re probably constantly looking for summer sippers to add to your hot weather rotation. Good Vitis is here to help.
We’ve been enjoying our early and midsummer as best we can, especially on the wine front. I want to share some of the better wines we’ve had over the last few months, some of which are samples and others we’ve purchased ourselves. All of them have one compelling reason or another for why they’re worth trying. I’m even throwing in two ciders, plus one red that drinks well with a slight chill and will pair well with things like fried fish sandwiches and grilled meats and vegetables. Click on each wine’s hyperlink to find out where to purchase them (from the “all states” dropdown menu, select zip code and then enter your zip code and radius).
NV Pasqua Romeo & Juliet Prosecco di Treviso Prosecco DOC (sample). I’m slowly coming around to Prosecco, and this bottle gave me a not so gentle nudge in the right direction. It’s both fun and somewhat complex, and for the price is an incredible value that inaccurately suggests mimosa mixer. Drink this without juice, fruit, ice or anything else thrown in, and don’t be scared to have it with food. It’s structure and complexity will stand up to it. Tasting note:
Small, not quite fine mousse, wafting aromas of lime zest, slate, peach and pear. Medium body with round, fleshy acid and a flavor line up of white peach, strawberry, lime zest and spicy minerality. Very enjoyable, easy drinking and decently complex. 90 points. Value: A+
2019 Flora Springs Soliloquy sauvignon blanc (sample). The hyperlink offers results for multiple vintages, and though I can’t vouch for previous vintages, I suggest trying an earlier one as the 2019, while very good now, needs a few years of aging to really come into its own. The complexity is there, but right now it’s wound up tight within a robust and elegant structure. This is a serious sauvignon blanc. Tasting note:
A surprisingly full nose offers pretty aromas of lemon curd, white peach, tangerine peel and apricot. Full bodied with bright, round acid and a creamy mouthfeel, the structure is solid and mouth filling. The flavor profile includes lemon-lime citrus, white peach, tangerine, spicy stone minerality and white pepper. Although it’s good now, I’d love to see this again in five years as the flavors feel a bit tightly packed at the moment. 92 points. Value: C+.
2015 F.X. Pichler Loibner Loibenberg Smaragd Riesling. Pichler is a top-10 winery for me, though I’ve had far more of its grüner veltliner than rieslings and I prefer to age most of their vintages longer than five years. Nevertheless, this bottle was more than good enough it is youth to suggest drinking it now. Very few riesling producers know how to produce the grape with this level of depth, concentration and seriousness like Pichler does. It will only get better with time, but it’s damn good now and perfect when your summer sipping occasions a more serious wine. Tasting note:
Young, but surprisingly accessible. Aromas of white peach, tangerine, nectarine, slate and white tea leaf. Full bodied with round, thick and juicy acid that leaves a small tingling sensation. Seems to be a touch of residual sugar adding weight to the body as well. The structure is substantial, a just a bit weighty, suggesting a long life ahead. Flavors include yellow peach, nectarine, red plum, lime zest, orchid and lemon pith. This has a minerality deficit at the moment, though I imagine another five to ten years of aging will address this. Good now, good upside. 92 points. Value: B.
NV Vermillion Valley En Plein Air méthode ancestrale (sample). I need to do a profile of Ohio’s Vermillion Valley Winery, it’s only a matter of time. They sent me half a case of samples, which I’m still working through, but this one bottle is enough motivation to state the need for a write up. I can’t say much about the winery or this wine, though I know it is a blend of pinot noir, mustcat ottonell, lemberger and müller thurgau, and made in the méthode ancestrale, one of the oldest methods for producing sparkling wine in which the wine is bottled after primary fermentation with some residual sugar, providing the fuel for secondary fermentation and its by-product, carbon dioxide (the bubbles). I think this one is best consumed without food, but I can see it working well with cured meats. Tasting note:
A cider-like nose of baked apple, baking spice, lime zest and neutral oak barrel. Medium bodied with a fizzy edge, the acid is on the milder side, which works in this case. Flavors hit on Gala apple, cherry juice and spiced plum with a lime finish. Really enjoyable, fun wine. 91 points. Value: N/A.
2019 CVNE (Cune) Rioja Rosado (sample). I’ve never had a disappointing wine from CVNE, one of Rioja’s legendary producers, and this one continues the streak. I’ve written about the winery previously, so if you’re curious to know more click here. At roughly $10, this has got to be the best rosé values I’ve come across. It’s a very substantive wine, which is made apparent in the wine’s dark complexion. If you prefer the weightlessness of a non-Bandol Provençal rosé, this may not be for you. But, if you love the weightier pales, go get you some. Tasting note:
Beautiful ruby red tone, with aromas of rose petal, muddled mountain strawberry, blood orange and black plum. Full-ish body with bright, juicy acid and fleshy light tannin, it has a great mouthfeel with a decent amount of substance. Flavors include strawberry, rose water, orange zest and loads of red plum. Super tasty and very food versatile. 91 points. Value: A+.
2019 Pasqua 11 Minutes Rosé (sample). Another killer wine and killer value from Pasqua. A bit lighter than the CVNE, it doesn’t sacrifice weight for flavor. Two pieces of advice on this one. First, my experience was that it needed 20+ minutes to come into its own, so give it some time with the cork popped before consuming. Second, if you’re like us and keep your wine in an ice bucket while outside, the shape of the bottle means it takes longer for this wine to chill, so factor that into your plans. Tasting note:
Pale red in the glass, it wafts aromas of sugar dusted strawberry, red currant, red plum, rose water and kiwi. Medium bodied with zippy acid that delivers tart strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, red plum and lime zest. Nicely balanced, it finishes on a surprisingly fungal note. 91 points. Value: A+.
2017 Martin Woods Gamay Noir. I’m partial to Martin Woods, a (very) small winery in Oregon that I visited and subsequently praised. It’s the work of Evan Martin, who among other things is making his own barrels from trees on his property in order to make fully Oregon terrior wines. Among the many great wines he produces, he has developed a real talent for gamay, a grape dominated in the market by France’s Beaujolais region. This one is all Oregon, though, and I’m thankful for that because it works. Similar to the Soliloquy, if you want to drink it now, get an earlier vintage if you can. If you’re unable to get an older vintage, pop the cork the night before you plan to drink it, give it an hour or two of air, and then re-cork it overnight. While very tasty now, it will be exceptional in a few years. Tasting note:
This was good the first night, but came together unbelievably well on the second night. I’d suggest aging these for 2-3 years before thinking about opening. The nose offers beautiful aromas of bruises cherry, raspberry, fungal underbrush and nutmeg. Full bodied but ethereal in feel, the tannins are silky and long, seamlessly coating the mouth. The acid is perfectly balanced. Flavors are driven by raspberry, red cherry and red plum, followed by tomato leaf and blood orange. A delicate, pretty wine with short term aging upside. 92 points. Value: A-.
NV Domaine Christian Drouin Poiré. I’m developing a growing love for cider, especially those from the Normandy region in France where apples and pears reign supreme. Between the distilled Calvados and the ciders, it’s become a top beverage destination for me. I’ve had fun grabbing nearly every Normandy cider I can find, and so far, this is the best I’ve had. I’m no cider expert, but I’m pretty sure it’s good. Tasting note:
Aromas of yeasty cellar floor, white wine poached pear, spiced apple tea, lemon curd and green apple. Medium bodied with big, dense mousse and good acid balanced nicely with sweet tannin. A kiss of sugar sets off cinnamon dusted Granny Smith apple dipped in honey, pear tartness, mandarin orange zest, slate minerality and white pepper. Very tasty, great paired with salmon and Niçoise salad. 93 points. Value: A+.
NV Mesh & Bone Cidre Pomme & Poire. Another from Normandy, this one blends apples and pears. What I’m really appreciating about cider is that it is a great alternative to wine: they can be significantly lower in alcohol (both listed here are under 7%) and significantly less expensive (both listed here are under $20). Further, they offer similar appeal as wine: terrior is real, fruit selection matters (not all apples and pears are equal, and blending works) and they have aromatic and tasting notes to dig into. As an example:
A lifted nose wafts fresh crushed red apple, juicy pear and cinnamon. It’s full bodied with a decent amount of residual sugar and bright, mouth filling acid that adds nice minerality and a little spice. The mouse is denser on the mouth than it appears in the glass, giving the cider a substantive feel. Flavors include red apple, pear tartness, blood orange and apple pie spice. A straightforward cider that delivers some really nice flavors. 91 points. Value: B.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a (relatively) new winery in the Sta. Rita Hills called Peake Ranch that I said was on the path to becoming a winery with few peers. In this piece, I get to write about a winery that is already part of that exclusive club, Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards.
Merry Edwards the woman was a pioneer in the California wine industry in several ways. Not only did she enter a male-dominated industry in the 1970s when sexism was a both a systematic and casual force holding women back, but she also helped shape the development of pinot noir, especially in the Russian River Valley. It is anything but hyperbolic to say that without her, California’s wine scene wouldn’t be what it is today. The Culinary Institute of America inducted Edwards into their hall of fame in 2013 along with the impressive company of Robert Parker, who himself deemed Edwards “one of the masters and pioneers in California.” My recent exploration of a range of their wines from 2017 and 2018 vintages offer evidence of what makes the winery so legendary.
Merry’s path to Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards is a bit circuitous. She began at one of the most esteemed estates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Eden. While there, she formed a friendship and mentor-mentee relationship with Joseph Swan, a relationship that would often take her to Sonoma Valley in those years. Her interest in Sonoma and the Russian River Valley developed as a result of these travels, and led to her move from Mount Eden to Sonoma’s Matanzas Creek in 1977, where she was the winery’s inaugural winemaker, to fully immerse herself in the area.
In 1984, she launched Merry Vintners, though production lasted just five years before the financials went south, a victim to a wider downturn in the wine market that wiped out a good number of wineries in California at the time. After consulting for a number of wineries, she launched Merry Edwards Winery in 1997. Her impressive portfolio of vineyards would increase over time, growing to today’s count of twelve owned and leased.
It is hard to talk about the boom in Russian River Valley pinot noir without talking about Merry Edwards because of what she has done there under her own name. However, her earliest mark on the Valley came before she planted roots there. While working at Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of San Francisco, she helped treat and propagate a pinot clone that became known as UCD 37, or the “Merry Edwards selection.” It would go on to be a star of the Russian River Valley AVA.
In a sign of the significance of the Edwards brand, Merry and her husband Ken Coopersmith (who himself had been instrumental to the winery’s success) sold the business to Louis Roederer Champagne in 2019, which announced that no changes, including to the winemaking and vineyard staff, were going to be made.
One person thankful for Roederer’s staffing decision is Heidi Von Der Mehden, Merry Edwards’ head winemaker since 2018. Recruited by Merry in 2015 to be associate winemaker, she was promoted three years later when Merry retired from head winemaking duties. It went without saying that she was glad to remain on the payroll after the sale to Roederer.
I spoke with Heidi after tasting through a few of the wines sent to me for this article. One of the first questions I asked her was how closely she could identify with the sexism that Merry overcame in her career. Thankfully, Heidi herself had not experienced such systemic sexism. She observed that her career had been largely a series of positions under men who were looking to retire, and perhaps because of that did not see her as a threat, but rather for her talents and intelligence. It was some of the younger men around her who were more competitive, which could be a sign of sexism, or less harmful competition between talented people. At Merry Edwards, she says, it’s not gender that helps someone advance, but talent.
Her instinct was that the kind of sexism that Merry faced was both more numerous and more blatant than what exists in the industry today. “There is less of it today, but it’s probably more subversive and harder to prove. Now, it’s someone gets a job and you’re told it’s because they’re more qualified but you realize it’s actually because of gender.” Though she’s seen that kind of dynamic from time to time, Heidi says she hasn’t experienced it herself. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve not faced the kind of gender discrimination that Merry did. She has ridiculous stories.”
We also talked about her recent transition to head winemaker. Having taken over recently from a luminary, it would be understandable if the process was challenging. However, calling it “smooth,” Heidi noted that she had previous experience taking over head winemaking duties coming to Merry Edwards. “I had taken over for another luminary, Richard Arrowood, at Arrowood Winery, but in both cases I never looked at it as an opportunity to take over from a big name, but rather as an opportunity to learn from one of the best. I knew I wanted to get into Russian River Valley pinot, so when this opportunity came along, I was going to grab it.” Because Merry intended for Heidi to eventually take over when she was hired to be the assistant winemaker, “I learned a ton from her. She wants the brand to succeed; after all, her name is on it and it’s her baby. So we worked together very well to make sure the transition was seamless and the legacy of great pinot continues.”
Coming into the job, Heidi had very little pinot experience. While her first winemaking job was at Kenwood, a large(r) scale Russian River Valley winery that makes pinot noir among many other varieties, the approach was different than it is at Merry Edwards. Though both wineries did a few similar things like whole cluster, the scale was very different.
“It was very large format and we only had large, closed top fermented and did pump overs, things you wouldn’t do for high end pinot [like at Merry Edwards].” After Kenwood, she would work mostly with Rhone and Bordeaux varietals for a number of years, leaving pinot behind. However, “Merry actually liked the fact that I had little in the way of pinot experience because it meant I came in with few notions and ideas of how it should be made. I didn’t push back against her approach.”
Merry’s approach included a few things that surprised Heidi. One example she gave me was the use of relatively large five ton fermenters. “A lot of small producers like small fermenters and small lots, but Merry likes bigger fermenters to get as much phenolic extraction as possible.” Extraction requires heat, which is naturally produced during fermentation. So, in order to bigger extraction, larger fermenters are needed to achieve the requisite temperatures.
Another difference is how the vineyards are planted. Rather than the more traditional north-south orientation, Merry Edwards vineyards are planted at 20 degrees off magnetic north. Paired with appropriately oriented leafing, the fruit gets more sun protection during the hottest parts of the year while increasing exposure to the cooler morning sun, an approach to avoid sunburn while still developing sufficient tannin. An added benefit to this approach is that while it necessitates even more leafing than usual, it results in concentrating more nutrients in the grapes. They begin leafing right after fruit set, which also gives the young fruit early training in sun exposure, building the grapes’ tolerance to heat young to prevent sun damage later in the growing year.
These vineyard decisions and practices are instrumental to developing the tannin structure of the bottled wine. Heidi explained to me that one of the things that drew her to Merry Edwards was the in-house phenolics lab, which helps track what otherwise must be detected by taste and sight. Heidi and her team take full advantage of this capability, testing phenolic levels (the chemical compounds of tannins) on all pinot lots. “It’s awesome that we have our own lab, because it means we get real time numbers. I’ve trialed outside services, and it takes longer and is harder to trust.” Further, “the research that’s been done on phenolics is heavily weighted towards Bordeaux varieties, so there’s relatively little solid data available on pinot. That doesn’t help us very much, so being able to test as we want and build our own dataset is huge.”
Phenolics are tested as soon as the fruit arrives from harvest, giving Heidi a baseline to use throughout production as they are again tested at various points during the winemaking process. “I’ll run anthocyanin [the tannin extracted from the skins] to see how color is developing during cold soak [which occurs prior to fermentation] and whether we’ve gotten all we want from that phase to determine when fermentation should be started. I’ll run it again mid-fermentation to decide if we need to do delestage [a process that gently extracts tannins by adding oxygen to the juice], or hold back on punch downs, or implement any other extraction regime.” In addition to the taste test, the lab helps Heidi more preciously develop her tannin profile.
Perusing the Merry Edwards website prior to our conversation, I noticed lots of vineyard pictures showing generous cover crops, a term referring to the vegetation covering the ground between the rows of vines. Using covers (as opposed to not using them) is a tactic many winemakers and vineyard managers use because they want to add or remove something from the soil that is affecting the vines in a positive or negative way, for example adding vegetation that helps replenish potassium in the soil, or a using type of plant that improves aeration in soil that otherwise may suffocate the vine roots. They are often used as an alternative to fertilizer.
It turns out that Heidi is a big believer in cover crops. “I used to have a lot of organic vineyards at Arrowood, cover crops are a huge point of pride in that context [because without non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, they become very important]. At Merry Edwards, I’ve always wanted to do more cover crops. We decide on it vineyard by vineyard, focusing on what the vineyard in question needs.”
In one vineyard, “the soil was just so vigorous and the canopies were so huge that they kept the fruit from coming in, so we planted a modest amount of orchard grass to introduce competition for the nutrients and water so the fruit had a chance. We got a better crop and better flavors.” In another vineyard, “we had an issue with Pierce’s Disease–it was a big issue in the Russian River Valley in 2014 and 2015–so we targeted a cover crop that increased the number of beneficial insects and wasps by sprouting a lot of flowers, which in turn attacked Pierce’s.”
In her quest to continue improving the quality of the wine, Heidi is excited because she was recently greenlit to do soil sampling in the vineyards, which hasn’t been done in many years. While many wineries do a lot of soil sampling prior to planting a vineyard to inform which varieties, clones and rootstocks they choose to plant, it is rare that they are done once a vineyard has been up and running for as long as some of Merry Edwards’ plots. “The soil changes over time, especially when it is feeding vines,” Heidi told me. “I’m hoping I can start focusing more on each vineyard and giving them what they need to produce better fruit.” Updating the winery’s knowledge of its soils can uniquely help her achieve that ambition.
Merry Edwards wine is not exactly cheap. A major driver of cost is the choice to use a high percentage of new, versus previously used, oak barrels. If every vintage requires new oak, that means a larger barrel order each year. Merry Edwards uses “quite a bit of new oak,” Heidi explained, “with a minimum of about 45% new oak depending on the vineyard and vintage.” For the sauvignon blanc, one of the few non-pinot wines that Merry Edwards produces, “it’s about 18% [new oak] and 100% barrel fermented.”
The pinot noirs see exclusively French oak. “We work with different coopers and every year when we taste the vintage [before blending and bottling], we taste each barrel set blind so we can see the difference in cooperage.” She then ranks them, and that ranking informs her barrel purchasing decisions for the next year. “This process has also helped be see how the vineyards themselves change with age. As the vineyard matures, the tannin structure and fruit profile change, so a barrel that worked for the vineyard five years ago does not always work as well when the vineyard gets another ten years into its life.” Despite the judicious use of new oak, the wines show little in the way of oak-dominated aromas and flavors.
In addition to a range of pinot noirs, Merry Edwards produces a revered sauvignon blanc and a spectacular chardonnay from the sourced Olivet Lane vineyard. The sauvignon blanc entered the winery’s portfolio after Merry became frustrated pouring other people’s white wines at her winemaker dinners and industry events, feeling like she was giving free advertising to other wineries. Merry had worked with the variety at Matanzas Creek, and decided to give it ago. She originally produced just enough for these small events, but after receiving multiple requests from restaurants and others to purchase some for their lists, she decided to make it part of her annual production that now represents about half of all wine produced each year. In its own right, it has become a collectable wine widely recognized as one of the best examples of the variety from California and is, like the pinot noirs, very age worthy.
If there is any theme to draw out from my conversation with Heidi and experience with the wines listed below, it’s that we’re essentially talking about one effort undertaken over many decades to produce the best possible pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in a style that reflects the woman whose name is the winery. The approach is manically focused on fine-tuning every part and component of the process, and hyper localized to a distinct set of vineyards that, while each has its own personality, allow the winery to make a signature style of wine.
The wines have significant, sometimes stout, structures while displaying a harmonious array of fruit, earth and floral aromas and flavors at high levels of concentration. I was particularly taken by deftness of the tannins, which were long and especially thick for pinot, yet somehow elegant. The balance between power and beauty is a rare, rare find. All of them, even the sauvignon blanc, appear to benefit from at least short term aging, if not ten years. I found the 2017s to be significantly more accessible at this point than the 2018s, suggesting to me that the more recent vintage is going to need longer in the cellar to present their best selves.
It is hard to compare Merry Edwards’ wines to those of other wineries, even her neighbors, because the combination of Merry Edwards herself, the quality of the terroirs of the vineyards, and the meticulous and purposeful viniculture and winemaking of Heidi is unique, and uniquely effective. There are lots of reasons to choose one wine over another, but it is hard to be in the mood for Merry Edwards and settle for something else.
2017 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.
2017 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – The nose has a heavy backdrop of scorched earth, wet bark, graphite, dark cherry, blackberry and black plum. It’s medium in weight, but spreads across the palate with fine tannin and juicy acid. Flavors include salty and sweet cherry, blackberry, plum and raspberry; black pepper; black tea; and cassis. This is a very intriguing wine aromatically, structurally and flavorfully. There are a multitude of layers that will take a solid five years to start unwinding. I’d love to try this in ten years when everything has sorted out and come together. 94 points. Value: A.
2017 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.
2018 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir – This really benefited from a two hour decant. A dark, concentrated nose featuring Bing cherry, strawberry preserve, rose hip, smoke and blood orange. The aromas are reticent to give themselves up at the moment, there is more buried beneath the surface. Nearly full-bodied, it has a juicy quality that splashes the tongue, balancing nicely with the long, slightly grippy tannins that coat the cheeks. The structure holds a lot of promise. Flavors, like the aromas, are hesitant to present themselves fully but are edging towards a richness that should only develop further. Right now it offers cherry juice, Acai, raspberry, scorched earth, graphite, tar and a sort of blood orange burst on the finish. This one ought to be put in the back of the cellar and forgotten about for a good five years, and the consumed over the following five to seven years. 93 points. Value: B+.
2018 Merry Edwards Olivet Lane Pinot Noir – The under ripe and primary nose offers aromas of crushed strawberry, pastel florals, red plum and tar. Medium plus in weight, the broad tannin offers surprising depth and smoothness give their tender age. The acid is likewise smooth and lush. Together, they form a pleasant substantive structure. Flavors include bright muddled strawberry and raspberry, sweet huckleberry tartness, scorched earth, unsweetened cinnamon, red plum, and red currant. There is a lot going on with this wine, but in order to transform its prettiness into depth, the fruit will need to shed its tart edge. Only time will tell, and on that front I’d be tempted to give it at least four or five years of aging. 92 points. Value: C-.
2018 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – Really benefited from a 3 hour decant. The saturated nose features aromas of muddled black cherry, black pepper, blackberry liquor, scorched earth and a hint of juniper berry. Almost full bodied, it offers modest grainy tannins and robust, bright acid that gives the wine a sheen over its still-forming dark, earthy flavors of blackberry concentrate, Bing cherry, tar, graphite, lavender, rose petal and blood orange. Attractive at the moment, two to three years of bottle age should help the tannin and acid integrate better, which I imagine will help the flavors fatten a bit. On its way to a gorgeous RRV AVA pinot. Scored for today, but this has another 1-2 points of upside. Score: 92 points. Value: B+.
2018 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B+.
Amber wine in the making at G.Wine in the Republic of Georgia
“Skin contact wine” is all the rage these days, owing in part the significant fan base overlap it shares with “natural wine,” and the coinciding of both “movements” with a wider industry return to winemaking basics motivated by a consumer base that is socially repulsed by the engineering of food and beverage.
Wow, what a sentence, right? It’s like I’m writing a social justice doctoral dissertation on both the past and the present. Though this is no dissertation and I’m not your most fervent social justice warrior, I do hold these judgments. As I’ve said in multiple posts, good wine is good wine regardless of how it is made, and it can be made many different ways. To construct protections for wine based on winemaking approaches is to create artificial borders between wine that is deemed good or bad, real or fake or manipulated. The distinction would be silly if it didn’t have impacts on people’s livelihoods.
Though I love many skin contact wines, the category is regrettably a major driver of this nonsense. The problem starts, as can easily be the case in wine, semantically, but it quickly (d)evolves into an issue of substance. The term “skin contact” refers to wine made by letting the skins and the juice spend time together during fermentation. However, rather than being something new, it is actually a process known as maceration that has been around for as long as wine has been made; it is nothing novel. If we must label skin contact wines in a distinctive way, we can more easily refer to them as “macerated wines,” which make more sense because the term has been around for much longer, is well-defined and more descriptive.
One reason we don’t call them macerated wines is because baked into the term “skin contact wine” is the understanding that the grapes are of a white variety. Though that distinction is often left out because it is used by people in the know, it remains necessary because many people are not in the know and leaving them behind is classic wine douchebaggery.
Though semantic, precision in wine language matters a great deal. I often cannot help myself by responding to people who tell me they like skin contact wine by asking them if they prefer cabernet sauvignon to merlot. Wine gets a bad reputation for being precise in ways people do not comprehend and thus reject, but wine lovers do ourselves an injustice when we are not specific enough. More responsible wine professionals make sure they use the full term, “skin contact white wine,” or some of its acceptable alternatives like “orange” or amber” wine, which reference the color of the final product, or “Ramato” if referring to a skin contact pinot grigio made in the historical winemaking style of Fruili, Italy. Though it often does not, this category of responsible wine pro needs to include the 28-year-old clerk at your favorite hipster wine shop, and the twat bar tender at your favorite hipster wine bar.
In this spirit, I want to suggest some macerated wines for Good Vitis’ readers to try. I should first acknowledge the huge oversight that is the exclusion from the list of an amber wine from the Republic of Georgia, the most famous skin contact white wine-making country these days, and likely the original source of the style. Avid Good Vitis readers will know that I am a huge fan of that country and its wine, and everyone should know that the absence of a Georgian amber wine from this list has everything to do with not having any handy. Nevertheless, the wines listed below are all great wines worth the effort of sourcing, and have the power of demonstration of the points made above. Try these wines because they’re good, fun, and will help you better understand and more accurately describe “skin contact wine.”
How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, or skin contact or macerated roussane.
Yangarra is a historic estate in Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region focused on producing Rhone varieties off its single estate vineyard, which was first planted in 1946. In 2001, the estate was purchased by Jackson Family Estates. A year prior, it took on then-new winemaker Peter Fraser. I got to meet Peter in 2019 and try a new series of high end Yangarra wines, this one among them, that use techniques different from the rest of the winery’s lineup.
Half of the grapes for the 2017 Roux Beaute Roussanne go through 193 days of maceration (skin contact) in large ceramic eggs, which allows more oxygen to interact with the wine than the traditional stainless steel fermentation vessel used for most white wine. The remaining 50% of the grapes went through fermentation in ceramic egg, though without skin contact. This approach, combined with the use of wild yeast, gives the wine more structural layers than it would otherwise have, and adds flavors and aromas impossible without maceration. Tasting note:
A slightly musty aroma gives way to peach, apple cider, nectarine, petrol and something I can only describe as “dank.” Though medium in body, it floods the mouth with juicy acid and ripe skin tannin, forming a glycerin sensation. Flavors include white peach, apricot, sour tangerine, orchid, white pepper and dandelion. 92 points: Value: C-.
How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, skin contact or macerated gewürztraminer.
Two Vintners is a small producer in Washington State owned by winemaker Morgan Lee. Morgan makes wine for a number of labels, and his combined experience covers what I imagine is essentially the entire state’s geography and varietal offering. He is one of my favorite winemakers because his wine is exceptional, the prices overly competitive, he has a ton of fun doing it and his product is entirely bank-able; I don’t need to try his wine to know I’m safe buying it.
An early example of his fun-loving spirit was the creation of the O.G., a macerated gewürztraminer sourced from the Yakima Valley’s esteemed Olson Vineyard and named in a double reference to Orange Gewürztraminer and the Original Gangster. I believe the first vintage was 2012, which puts it on the cutting edge of this more recent skin contact trend. This 2018 vintage spent 55 days on its skins and was then aged in neutral barrel for 9 months. Tasting note:
The nose wafts a beautiful set of aromas including honeysuckle, orange blossom, orchid, gooseberry and raw cranberry. It is medium in weight on the palate with crispy acid and a smooth mouthfeel. The skin contact adds weight to an already structurally complex wine, while simultaneously bolstering the delicacy and florality of a profile that includes a slightly sweet and slightly salty combination of orange peel, vanilla, nectarine, red plum and gooseberry. This is yummy stuff. Give it an hour decant to help it blow off a slightly bitter edge. 92 points. Value: A.
Yes, rosé is skin contact wine. See why I think the moniker is silly? Rosé is what would be a full-blown red wine if the maceration lasted longer. That said, the best rosé starts in the vineyard where the grapes are treated differently than if it were intended for red wine to emphasize bright acid, lighter colored fruit and floral notes. This is intentional rosé. After thought rosé is made with grapes harvested for red wine, but for some reason are made into rosé. That route often produces flabby, out of balance wine that’s big in body and light in acid, which is exactly the opposite of what makes a good rosé. Either way, though, rosé is macerated wine.
L’Ecole No. 41 is one of Washington State’s original modern wineries and remains one of the industry’s standards today. This 2019 rosé is made from grenache harvested from the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which gives it great pedigree. Alder Ridge is among the very best grenache sites in the state, its fruit finding its way into wines from other esteemed producers like Gramercy Cellars. This newly released 2019 is both substantive and refreshing, and a great one to stock up on for the coming summer. Tasting note:
Pours a beautiful light pink hew. Aromas waft from the glass, featuring strawberry, rose hip, watermelon, guava and lime sorbet. It’s medium bodied for a rosé and coats the mouth with juicy acid and a fair amount of weight. Sweet cherry and strawberry come through immediately, followed by hits of chili flake spice, tangerine and yellow peach. It’s an interesting and entertaining profile that offers a significant presence. 92 points. Value: A.
The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy
The Trilogy is Flora Springs’ top of the line red wine blend, comprised in this vintage of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% petit verdot and 3% malbec. It is, by definition, a macerated, or skin contact, wine. In fact, it represents the standard macerated wine: red wine. Unless one says “skin contact white wine,” they can be reasonably assumed to mean the Flora Springs Trilogy.
And what a macerated wine it is. Flora Springs was founded in 1978, but its Napa Valley property was first planted with vineyards in the late 1800s so the terroir is for real (it has been replanted since). I’ve had several vintages of the Trilogy and they all deliver. Although it sells for not-so-cheap $85, it is reasonably priced within the context of its pedigree and competitors, and a good examples of a refined and elegant Napa red blend. Tasting note:
The potent nose offers scorched earth and graphite-infused blackberry, black plum, violet, kirsch and dark chocolate ganache. It is full bodied, balancing lush, smooth and broad tannin with juicy acidity. The balance is really on-point. Flavors include blackberry, coconut, (real) maraschino sauce, black pepper, teriyaki sauce and cigar tobacco. It has a strong core of wet earth minerality. This is nice now with an hour decant, but I imagine it’ll start hitting its stride in five years and drink nicely for the following five to ten. 93 points. Value: B.
How to refer to it: white pinot noir, or non-skin contact red wine
This is a contrarian wine, the rare example of a wine made from red grapes that escapes maceration. This is pinot noir that comes out of the bottle looking like a completely white wine. Is your mind not blown? If it’s not, a smell and sip will surely get the job done. But like our macerated Flora Springs, let’s not get carried away with this one’s revelatory power: much of the best Champagne in the world includes or is made entirely from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier, but pours white as well. The absurdity of skin contact being considered something new or different continues to grow.
Maggy Hawk’s winemaker is Tony Rynders, whose distinguished career includes Oregon’s Domaine Serene, a winery that sued him after he left alleging he stole the trade secret of making white pinot noir. See supra regarding Champagne to get a sense of the absurdity of the lawsuit. Tony has consulted for Zena Crown, also in Oregon, which is one of Good Vitis’ favorite Willamette Valley wineries. And, he is the owner and winemaker of Tendril Cellars where he makes a white pinot noir as well. I’ve had what I believe to be all of Tony’s white pinot noirs, and they are my favorite wines he produces.
Perhaps counterintuitively, what makes white pinot noir fun is what can make any skin contact white wine fun: a grape you know presented completely differently from what you know. The 2018 Maggy Hawk does exactly that in a very appealing package. Tasting note:
The nose offers plush fruit-forward aromas of cherry juice, guava, passion fruit, slate, orange zest and white pepper. Full bodied with round, juicy acid that creates significant structure and weight, it offers flavors of cherry, pineapple, mango, sea mist and loads of sweet tangerine juice and donut peach. This unusual and high quality wine is very enjoyable and almost too easy to drink; drink too quickly and you’ll miss some of its depth. 93 points. Value: A.
Peake Ranch. Credit: Santa Barbara Independent/Macduff Everton
A few days before speaking to Peake Ranch Winery’s owner, John Wagner, I tasted the estate’s 2016 John Sebastiano Vineyard pinot noir. It was my favorite of their pinots that I got to try, and offered a tomato leaf flavor I do not associate with the variety. The most vivid memory I have of tasting tomato leaf in wine is with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and especially Emidio Pepe’s bottling of it, which is a very different grape grown in a very different climate. Abruzzo is incredibly hot, whereas Central California, where Peake is located, is cool. It was one of those bizarre moments that makes you question yourself. However, because the wine was so good, I drank through the entire bottle, and from sip one to sip last, that tomato leaf was there. No fluke.
I told John about this tomato leaf note, how it reminded me of Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, how that winery has a special place in my heart because my wife and I stayed there during our honeymoon, and how drinking the Peake Ranch took me back there (you can read the Good Vitis coverage of Emidio Pepe here). “It is thrilling to touch people like that,” John responded, “That is exactly why I started a winery. It’s way cooler than rolling into Saint-Tropez on a yacht.”
That last thought requires some explanation. John runs a hedge fund in Los Angeles. I don’t know how many of you know “hedge fund guys,” but I know a few. Hedge fund guys have what some refer to as “stupid money,” meaning so much of it that no hobby is surprising, no display of station too absurd (so long as it’s fun). I should clarify that the hedge fund guys I know, like John, spend a big percentage of their stupid money on good causes and side projects that make the world a better place in one way or another.
I’ve been writing this blog for over three and a half years, and after a while I realized that there are wineries that just have it. They have a long-term vision, the right people and vineyards to realize it, and the will to survive the first ten to twenty years by making decent wine, which is frankly long how winemaking and grape growing takes before someone starts to get the hang of it. Think about it this way: winemakers and vineyard managers do their job but one time per year. Imagine a surgeon that cuts once a year? Would you lay on their operating table? Not that winemaking carries the significance of saving lives, but at that rate, it takes a lot of dog years to become truly good, let alone great. Despite harking from this decade, Peake Ranch is on that path. I knew the wine was good before talking to John, but after talking with him, I understood that the kind of long-term foundation needed to build and sustain an industry standard-setting winery is there with Peake.
John has some stupid money that he’s put into Peake, and had some stupid luck to balance the bad luck as he got it set up and running. However, as is key with any winery project funded by someone capable of losing money on the venture yet still keep it going, he wants to make at least a small amount of money, which is hard to do in the premium wine business. The formula I’ve seen that most closely correlates with a boutique winery that turns a profit combines great people, great vineyards, a drive to push quality even in the best of vintages, a track record of improving techniques and processes in worst of vintages, and not over-making the wine. If a winery does this, and it is far from a simple formula to get right year after year after year, and has some luck along the way, it can grow and strengthen its customer base, and that generates sustained profits, which are reinvested into the winery, and the beautiful cycle continues long enough to master the land and the craft.
Peake’s tasting room
Of all the indicators that Peake is set up to make the formula work, it was John’s staffing decisions that stood out. From the list of people involved, it is clear that John has decided to set his team up for success. Not only does he have the obligatory winemaker, vineyard manager and tasting room manager, but he has as head of marketing and a national sales representative, not to mention some “support” staff with impressive resumes in their own respective rights. For the kind of case production coming out of Peake, the quality and quantity are high.
“Eric [Grant, the head of marketing] is a longtime friend who needed something to do. He used to run some things at Goldman Sachs. We hired him to give me an excuse to talk to him twice a day.” As a wine blogger, I know my share of the industry’s marketing people, and when they are in-house they tend to work for much larger wineries than Peake. John also “had a national sales rep in the back of my mind because I figured to be taken seriously we would have to be distributed nationally, so I hired Rachael Pfaff who had done that for Merry Edwards.” Not many wineries Peake’s size have an in-house national rep.
What about Adam Lee, I asked, referring to our mutual friend who had actually introduced me to Peake Ranch several months back during a meal together and is a consultant to Peake for winery business-related matters. “Knowing Adam helps a lot,” he told me. “You miss a lot of the more obvious pitfalls [with someone like him on board]. So on some levels [getting Peake up and running] hasn’t been horrible.”
Referencing his vineyard manager, John told me that with Mike Anderson, “when I knew I needed a vineyard guy, I knew I wanted him. He has a PhD, 30 years’ experience and a lot of opinions.” Peake’s winemaker, Wynne Solomon, is maybe the most humble winemaker I’ve ever met, and I had that thought before I ever spoke with her: she has to manage John’s ego, Adam’s ego, and this guy Mike’s ego. John is like the other hedge fund guys I know: direct, opinionated, but accepting of and differential to expertise that proves itself. Adam, though he never offends with his opinions, has many of them and the experience and accolades to back them up. I haven’t spoken to Mike Anderson, but if John says he has an ego, he has an ego. It takes a good amount of humility to manage those three guys.
That fact is what gives me the feeling that Peake has it: the incredibly successful trio of John Wagner, Adam Lee and Mike Anderson bring their experience, knowledge, skills and resources to bear in ways that acknowledge their roles and limitations, and they give them to Wynne to empower her. People like that only give what they have to people whom they trust and respect. That’s a level of partnership rarely seen.
“I am super excited about what Wynne is doing,” John told me. “So much of making great wine is being meticulous, not making mistakes. Wynne is so detail oriented. If you give her high quality fruit then she is going to make really good wine. Not through blind strokes of genius, but through maniacal attention to detail. I have a huge amount of admiration for people who can do that; it is a special and under-appreciated quality. A lot of great authors don’t create good books because they write great detail, but because they write one really good sentence after another. That’s what Wynne is doing. A great idea that is poorly executed is shit. Good ideas fantastically executed are unreal. Wynne gets to obsess one sentence at a time, and that is what generates the experience you had with the John Sebastiano pinot.”
For his part, Adam called Wynne “young, dedicated to quality and cleanliness, which is so key and rare, and it is just fantastic to see it is big part of her regime and ethos.” John noted that “Wynne has been lovely in dealing with us fat old white guys. I really appreciate that. She works well with the tasting room people. She’s been a huge part of our success and we are really lucky to have her. At least she gets super good fruit.”
Wynne’s first vintage at Peake was 2018. She got her start at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars in San Luis Obispo. “I learned how to make beautiful, clean Burgundian style pinot and chardonnay there. We sourced from the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands,” both cool climates. She eventually got to Santa Barbara’s Melville, where she started to become acquainted with that region’s fruit. When John was looking for a new winemaker, a friend mentioned Wynne and the rest is history.
Her experience with these cool climates in California’s Central Coast must have been a positive sign for John, not just because of her familiarity with making wine there, but because it also demonstrated a commitment to the region where he focused his intentions of owning a winery. Having grown up in the region, he is fiercely proud of it and wanted to use his entry into the business to show “the rest of the world that it can make wine as good as anywhere in California. I’m a regional supremacist.” He landed on a spot in Santa Rita Hills, figuring “it was a combination of a marketable area – it is beautiful – that can make great wine, and has good vicinity to where I grew up. It already had a good reputation, which was key because I did not want to invent a new wheel. And it turns out that when properly done, the area turns out better wine than I expected.”
Peake Ranch Vineyard, located on the eastern end of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
Even with Wynne’s regional experience, the transition from Melville to Peake presented some challenges for her. “The two wineries get their grapes from different areas, different soils, slopes, elevations, etc. I was curious about [Peake’s] section of the AVA, I didn’t know anything about it. The biggest new thing on that front is the great structure of the sandy soil.”
The most challenging difference in the winemaking from Melville to Peake “was remembering what it is to work with new French oak. Everything is aged, fermented in oak. I [hadn’t had] that kind of spice rack [to work with in a while], so I had to dig into notes of prior vintages to recall the differences between coopers, toast levels, which types of barrels pair well with varieties, etc. We don’t use a ton of new oak, but still, it makes a huge difference [in the wine] so you have to get it right.” She works with five cooperages now, and had just completed their 2020 barrel orders before we spoke. “It’s very elaborate,” she explained, “the seasoning lengths, toasts, etc. There is a lot to play with in that sense.”
The facility “is very state of the art,” she told me. “It has a different barrel room for each vintage, which allows me to control temperatures for what each vintage needs based on where it’s at in the process. The winery is also a gravity flow facility. Making wine that way needs to be more intentional and planned out than in a normal set up; you have to really think through the whole life of the wine before you move into even the first step.”
Most importantly, though, Peake’s vision “for the wine starts in the vineyard. Mike has a huge contribution to it. His farming is so precise that it sets the tone for the wine’s entire life.” As if to emphasize a theme, she continued that “he’s keeping [the fruit] meticulously clean and each vine is tended to on its own. It’s my purpose in the winery to continue that. Mike’s contribution is the greatest.” Her focus “is to make the best wine that the property can produce rather than for any particular palate.
One of my favorite elements of Peake’s vision is the tannin profile, which is velvety and gorgeous. “The vineyard plays a huge roll in that,” she explained. “We want to develop tannins that are softer, more elegant, and we do that by not over or under cropping the vines. The right amount of leafing is key to achieve the appropriate balance between airflow and ripeness.” In the winery, “a lot of the tannin is developed and controlled through the pressing and temperatures. We keep ferments a little colder so extraction is lighter. Doing press fractions and treating those separately.”
And then, almost as if an afterthought, she dropped a big piece of knowledge: “longer aging really helps, we leave the wines in barrel for 18 months so they get more of the tannin and body from the oak rather than the oak’s aromatic and flavor expression.” It takes a lot of space, time and money to age your wine in barrel for 18 months. Wineries that do that are few and far between, even at higher price points. It is yet another example of John’s approach with Peake, allowing the right things to be done for the right reasons.
The results are impressive. Peake sent six samples, and the reviews are all below. The 2016 Sierra Madre chardonnay is easily one of the best wines I’ve had in recent memory, and the 2016 John Sebastiano pinot isn’t far behind. It is rare to find wines in which every element is as well-executed as these, especially for the price range.
Peake is following a formula for success. Time will be the true test: can the team continue to make great wine, year after year, and build up the kind of institutional knowledge necessary to hit that elevated state. It is impressive how far they’ve come in less than ten years, but it will be these next ten that determine how few peers they have. With people like John, Wynne, Mike and Adam involved, I’d bet on them leaving most in the dust.
Sierra Madre Vineyard on the western side of the Santa Maria Valley
2016 Peake Ranch Sierra Madre Chardonnay – Decanted in bottle for about an hour, it takes on increasing character and depth with time in the glass. Aromas include sweet honeydew, honeysuckle, orange blossom, mango, pineapple, and Jelly Belly buttered popcorn with an edge of lime zest and slate minerality. Full bodied with round, lush edges of juicy acid and a cream-filled mid-palate that gives way to a textural finish. Flavors include a flavorful variety of mango, pineapple, yellow peach, vanilla bean, strawberry lemonade and strong bites of lime zest and white pepper. A world class wine, this is gorgeous now with a solid five-plus years of positive evolution leading into a further five years of prime drinking. 95 points. Value: A+.
2017 Peake Ranch Sierra Madre Chardonnay – Beautifully sweet aromas of caramel apple, lime sorbet, orange creamsicle, dried pineapple, dried apricot and vanilla curd. Though nearly full bodied, it is decidedly leaner on the palate with a pleasant juxtaposition of precise, linear acid with a mouth-saturating glycerin sensation. The structure is elegant and the mouthfeel indulgent. Flavors hit on Fuji apple, Asian pear, lemon curd, marzipan, vanilla custard, lemon zest and clementine. A really, really good chardonnay with depth and intrigue. 93 points. Value: A-.
2017 Peake Ranch Santa Barbara County Chardonnay – The very prototypical nose features vanilla and lemon curds, lime sorbet and buttered toast. Nearly full-bodied, it offers tactile acid and an angular structure that is sturdily framed. Flavors include slightly unsettled Sprite, toasted oak, zesty lime, vanilla bean, Granny Smith apple and some unidentified bitter herb. Clearly a wine of quality, the slightly twitchy acid adds excitement, but needs a year or two in bottle to balance with the rest of the wine and allow the flavors to find a better harmony. 91 points. Value: B-.
2016 Peake Ranch Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – The nose features an intriguing juxtaposition of dark fruits and dark earth, wafting cherry, blackberry, plum and cassis with wet forest floor, BBQ burnt ends and saline. It’s barely full bodied with big, round acid and refined finely grained tannin. The structure is spot on, with a plush and buoyant ride that races along a precise acid path. Flavors include raspberry, strawberry, graphite, tar, black pepper, dark currant, cassis and bell pepper. This is a beautiful example of a serious wine that delivers loads of fun. I’d love to have two bottles a year for the next five years to enjoy its evolution. 92 points. Value: B-.
The John Sebastiano Vineyard, located on the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA
2016 Peake Ranch John Sebastiano Pinot Noir – The rich, pure nose offers aromas of saturated cherry, baking spice, red plum, black currant, blood orange and kirsch liquor. Full bodied in weight with plush, wide tannin, the slightly crispy tannin adds levity and cut. The balance is good now with a firmly-framed structure, but another 3-ish years in bottle will really elevate this. The flavor profile has a bit of a Burgundian edge that comes from an abundance of richly-delineated layers that feature black cherry, wet fungal earth, raspberry, red currant and black pepper, finishing with a strong dose of tomato leaf. One of the best pinot noirs I’ve had in a long time, this offers a promising ten-year horizon. 94 points. Value: A.
2017 Peake Ranch Bellis Noir (60% syrah, 40% grenache) – The inky nose offers muddled dark cherry, blackberry, raspberry, lilac, rose petal, iron and tar. The medium weight carries smooth acid and plush, modest tannin that gains grip in the mouth. Flavors include blackberry, strawberry, black plum, lilac, black pepper and sage. This is enjoyable now, but I get the sense it will benefit from short-term aging, maybe 2-4 years, as it seems just a bit tight at the moment. 91 points. Value: B-.
Last year I wrote an in-depth piece about Adam Lee’s then-new project, Clarice Wine Company. It was an exciting piece to research and write because the wines were very good and, more importantly, compelling because they offered a kind of depth and complexity rarely found in today’s wines. I’m lucky to taste a lot of wines each year, and few have been as good as Clarice.
I titled last year’s piece “Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine” because Adam had designed a business model that uniquely responds to how customers are increasingly engaging the premium wine industry. While many wineries try to offer various ways for customers to experience their wine, Clarice aims to build community with and, unusually, among its customers. From the original article:
“The winery offers three wines that are only available to its club members, and sold once per year in a single case shipment comprised of four bottles each of the three wines. Despite the wine being very good, being a Clarice customer is about much more than the juice. The membership includes a number of unusual benefits all designed to achieve a goal Adam believes is critical to building a bigger and more profitable wine market in the United States: creating a robust combination of customer education and genuine relationship formation.”
There’s no quick way to summarize the business model, so instead I’ll list the perks:
Regular exclusive written content produced, at Adam’s request, from well-known winemakers and other wine professionals. Example: a post on winery financing written by the Silicon Valley Bank, which finances many wine projects;
An online private Facebook forum;
In-person parties, including a Clarice vintage release party and several others organized at various wineries; and
Discounts at other wineries within Adam’s sizable personal and professional network.
Since Clarice has had a year under its belt, Adam and I figured it was time to talk through how things have gone, as well as taste through and discuss the 2018 vintage, which will be released later this year.
The first reflection he shared was that, at least until the COVID pandemic, the amount of people interested in the Facebook forum were less than expected. Based on feedback he received, it came down to the apprehension of many who did not have Facebook accounts to set them up simply to access the Clarice forum. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the BS of Facebook feeds, so a smaller fraction [of members] that I expected were participating,” he said, even though those using the forum were building and enjoying their own community of wine, food and travel aficionados.
However, he’s seen a big uptick in activity on the Facebook forum since the COVID crisis began. “The sign up period for the club is happening right in the middle of the pandemic and I’m seeing people signing up because they cannot visit wineries and are taking to the online forum. [In the last month or two] the forum has been more active than ever.” Leave it to Adam to find success in the midst of a global crisis.
He also found that “the people who were interested in the parties were very interested. However, some members who didn’t live near where the parties took place didn’t get the same benefits and a number of these people dropped out [of the club]. I’m making it a point to do some more events outside of California in the future once this COVID stuff dies down.”
New member sign-ups are down about 10% from where they were this time last year, but he hasn’t spent any time or effort pushing the sign up campaign. “I feel people need to adapt to the new normal before I ask them to sign up for a fairly expensive wine that’s a year from being delivered.” He has changed the payment process from six-consecutive monthly payments of $160 to 12 monthly payments of $80. To incentivize people to pay 100% upfront, he is giving those who make the single payment an entry into a drawing to win one of two etched three liter bottles of Clarice. “A fair amount have chosen to take that option,” he noted.
All-in-all, it seems the inaugural year of the Clarice business model faired well, and Adam is making tweaks rather than wholesale changes. It’s interesting to look at how other wineries are adjusting to social distancing. Many are doing online tasting events to keep communication with clientele up in the vein of where Adam was with Clarice over a year before COVID hit. Adam himself has set up a Zoom tasting for his customers, and is partnering with a number of wineries to do joint offers so that customers are able to get a wider variety of wine without paying to ship it independently from each winery.
Having tasted the 2018s for this piece, I can say with total confidence that the trajectory of quality is going in the right direction and it won’t be long before the club is full. The inaugural releases, which I reviewed in the previous article, were excellent and established a high bar for the label. While the those were very, very good – “It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good” I raved – the 2018s are even better.
“2018 was just a better growing year. 2017 had numerous heat spikes; it would not have been my vintage of choice for any new project based on pinot,” Adam told me. “2018 was a longer, cooler growing season in ways that are pretty much ideal for pinot noir. It wasn’t as cool as the historically cool vintages I’ve done like 1995, 1999 or 2005, but 2018 had no heat spikes or anything that forced us to rush. I would’ve even moved my picks by a few days if my growers had asked.”
The 2018 vintage appears to be a dream vintage for winemakers with patience and experience. “I saw some people struggling,” Adam told me. “They looked at the long, cool season and worried there would too much of this or that, so they got their picks in early. I figured, yeah maybe, but maybe not. At this rate the weather is cool, I can continue the hang time [of the fruit on the vine], so I gave it some time. Nothing bad is happen during slow ripening, just good stuff. It allowed for better ripeness for the stems, which allowed me to up the percentage of whole cluster a good bit and I found that it helped a lot.”
We agreed, ironically, that the 2017s actually tasted more stemy than the 2018s even though, as I learned, they had a lower percentage of whole cluster than the 2018s. Adam explained this was because the stems did not achieve the same ripeness in 2017 as they did in 2018. “I try to build more structure into Clarice than I did at Siduri, and I’m doing that through stem inclusion and tannin development.”
Stem inclusion contributes to tannin development (as well as aromatics and flavors) in good or bad ways depending on how it’s done. In explaining this, Adam said that “stem ripeness has more to do with hang time and less to do with brix than you would think; sometimes it’s antithetical to brix. Stem ripeness is entirely dependent upon hang time. If you have hot years and sugar builds quickly [in the grapes], you don’t have the opportunity for the stems to get ripe [because you’re harvesting on the early side, reducing hang time]. But if you can keep both in line with each other, it can work out incredibly well, and that’s what happened for us in 2018.” Just to be clear, I asked him, was this the most pivotal difference between 2017 and 2018? “Yes, absolutely,” he replied, though upon prodding he explained the few other differences.
First, his barrels were all a year older, which is a good thing for those who like softer, longer tannins and wines that express the grapes and terrior. Even more crucial is the hygienic advantages this gives a young project like Clarice.
Barrels are often used for multiple vintages out of both economic and winemaking considerations. Because they are a great place for bacteria to grow and live, however, they need to be thoroughly cleaned between uses. So when a new winery starts, if they don’t want to produce wine using 100% new oak, likely because they want to produce wines that don’t taste like they come from 100% new oak, they have to find used barrels to purchase, which introduces greater bacteria risk because you never really know how well-maintained and cleaned the barrels were by their previous owner(s).
For his inaugural release, Adam purchased a mix of new and used barrels, the latter from the personal project of Ryan Zepaltas, who has been Copain’s head winemaker since 2018. “The only reason I felt good about buying barrels is because I could get them from Ryan, whose barrels actually came from our days together at Siduri. Ryan is extraordinarily conscientious about keeping things in good, clean condition.” Even still, “any winery would want to generate their own used barrels.” Coming into 2018, Clarice did that for the first time as the barrels Adam bought new for the 2017 vintage now had a full vintage under their belt.
The second difference was that the variations in growing seasons necessitated different vineyard treatment. Adam did not drop fruit in 2017 because it was the first vintage since 2012 to be a non-draught year: “I figured in 2017 the vines would be something akin to myself getting a food drop on a deserted island after having starved for a month – the vines would over-consume and I wanted to make sure the grapes still achieved good concentration.” Doing it this way slowed the growth of the shoots and leaves, giving the grapes priority access to water. Conversely, in 2018 Adam didn’t feel the same approach was necessary because it was a more normal year rainfall-wise.
Finally, Adam did more saignée in 2018, a reference to the method of discarding some of the juice early in the maceration phase in order to concentrate the future wine. “The yields were higher [in 2018 than in 2017] so I didn’t mind,” he explained, adding that “the fruit had hung clean [in the vineyard], there wasn’t a great reason to drop much of it, and so it looked more juicy in the tank than I wanted. I did quite a bit of saignée in the end, about 20%, because I kept going until I got it to a place I liked. It was like mixing instant oatmeal by eye.”
But, don’t get your hopes up for a Clarice rosé (many wineries use their saignée juice to make rosé). “I’ve made four rosés in my life. The first one was at Siduri and it was great and easy, so I figured I would be able to do it well again. The second and third attempts sucked so much that I threw them out. I busted my ass on the fourth attempt to do it right, but it was so expensive and distracted me from my main job that I decided that was the last time.” The saignéed 2018 Clarice juice was given to a friend who made it into rosé in exchange for a few bottles of the finished wine.
The end result in 2018 is a noticeable improvement across the three wines that had already dazzled in 2017. That said, I didn’t like each 2018 better than its 2017 version. Taking them alphabetically, the 2018 Santa Lucia Highlands bottle was stunning and received a point higher than its older sibling:
Aromas of scorched earth, red and black plums, high toned cherry, leather, lilac and strawberry. On the fuller side, this has fine grained tannin that spreads throughout the palate, spreading elegant and smooth acid. The structure is lovely and built for positive mid-term aging. The flavors are soft yet saturated, offering Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, red plum, ground cinnamon, leather and sweet cranberry sauce. This is quite nice now and I see it getting better over the next five years. 95 points.
Next is the Rosella’s Vineyard bottle. I actually liked the 2017 version of this more, awarding it two points higher than the 2018. Both vintages struck me as needing significant time in bottle to unwind, and the most difficult to score because of it. The difference in structural elegance is what gave the 2017 the advantage for me. Nevertheless, the 2018 is a stellar wine:
The nose remains reticent after having been opened 12 hours ago for a bit and then re-screwed closed. Aromas are a bit sappy, dripping crushed strawberry, sweet cherry, spiced plum jam and charcoal. The full body is round and plush with dense, tight tannin and slightly juicy acid. The structure warrants 5+ years of aging to unwind, and will then evolve nicely over another 5-10 years. Red-fruited flavors include strawberry, raspberry, not-so-tart Sweetart, blood orange, black pepper, red plum and wet earth minerality. Give this time in the cellar. 93 points.
Last but not least, we have the Gary’s Vineyard offering, which scored two points better in 2018. Where the Rosella’s 2017 structure beat out the 2018, the Gary’s Vineyard showed improvement in this department from the older vintage to the newer one:
The aromas jump out of the glass, wafting an array of dark scents: crushed blackberry, black plum, black currant, prune, baking spice and reduced strawberry. It’s full bodied with broad, fine grain tannin and precise acid. Tasted on the second night, it offers a substantive structure that suggests a solid decade or more of positive evolution. Flavors revolve around a similarly dark profile of blackberry, plum and currant, though the baking spice is more accentuated on the palate and some graphite/moist earth minerality emerges. This young wine deserves another 3-5 years of aging before it’ll start showing its best, but it’s quite tasty at the moment. 96 points.
Grapes from Clarice’s section of Gary’s Vineyard
We briefly discussed the 2019 vintage, which Adam called “something of a hypothetical cross of 2017 and 2018.” While 2018 had no days over 100 degrees in the vineyards, 2017 had at least six of them. 2019 had a week of hot weather followed by 10 weeks of cooler weather, then another hot week and then another long stretch cool, then a hot week… “2019 is going to be fascinating, Adam said, “and it’s going to be a great vintage to round out Clarice’s first three-year vertical.”
I’ve been drinking a ton of pinot noir in 2020, and had a lot during the 2019 holiday season as well. Most of it has come from California, and nearly all of it has been current release samples. I wouldn’t call where I’m at pinot palate fatigue (yet), but it’s becoming harder for pinots to stand out from each other these days. That said, Clarice has been the clear standout of excellence, depth, quality and personality.
If you’re willing to spend $960 on case of wine (as well as the additional perks), the only potential downside to Clarice that I see may be that you don’t want to buy a full case of it. It is tough to commit to four bottles each of three wines, even though they are as different from each other as they are compelling. To be frank, this is the dilemma I face.
That said, I may be just a year or two away from membership myself because, as silly as this sounds, I’m not sure I can be indefinitely happy with a set of samples. Two years in a row now I feel like I’m getting teased because what I’d really love is have multiple bottles to age and enjoy over many years. I love variety in my wine life, but there are rare occasions like Clarice where I want more of the same.
I know it’s hard to take someone’s word when making a $960 bet, but I’m as confident recommending Clarice as I am any wine I’ve tasted for Good Vitis. These aren’t the best of economic times to drop that kind of money on luxury goods, so at least put Clarice in the back of your mind and on your wine to-do list for the future.
This piece was originally published on The Cork Report. You can read the full thing here.
A few weekends ago, my wife and I spent three nights in a cabin on a property called Getaway House in central Virginia, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. They pitch themselves as an off-the-grid escape with no Internet or television. The cabins are actually “tiny homes” with just two rooms: a bathroom and an everything-else room. The kitchen has a small two-burner stove and minifridge. There’s a table for two people and a double bed. Outside each cabin is a firepit. That’s it. It’s quite nice and well-executed.
Fifteen minutes down the road from the Virginia Getaway House is Early Mountain Vineyards, though our plan was to do nothing other than hang at the cabin and hike.
Our best -aid plans were just that, best laid, and on Friday my wife had to spend a few hours working. So, I jumped in the car and made the drive to Early Mountain hoping that Ben Jordan, head winemaker, would be there and available because I’m terribly behind on two Cork Report articles that require a conversation with him.
While he wasn’t there, I was lucky enough to run into the assistant winemaker and head viticulturalist, Maya Hood White. It turned out to be a very fortunate experience.
It took real persistence to get this piece written. Not by me, but by Jesse Inman, who is one half of the sibling pair behind Lucky Rock Wine Company. First, he sent me their sauvignon blanc in July 2019, then their pinot noir a few months later. Except, it didn’t arrive, so he had to send another bottle. Then he had to pester me for, like, three months to get the interview scheduled. Finally, nine months after making first contact, we spoke. And the thing is, it’s not like the wine sucked and I didn’t know how to say “no.” I wrote this because, as the title of the post suggests, I want people to try this wine. It’s really good.
I’m neither a true snob nor judgment-free when it comes to wine, but somewhere between depending on the day. I’ll admit to huffing and puffing every time I see someone on Bachelor hold their wine glass by the bulb, yelling “BY THE STEM” at the television while my wife, who for the record agrees, rolls her eyes. And I’m often guilty of talking more about a wine that we’re sharing with friends that they care to hear, sometimes going on diatribes laced with nitpicks of the obviously wrong decision to do malo or the overly-judicious use of new oak on such a delicate grape.
That said, I also get great joy out of making the case against top of the line Bordeaux because the value proposition is garbage. And for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the people who rave about some of the most lofted California cult wines, which from my experience offer underwhelming sophistication and are often wildly out of balance (which is okay because they’re built in a way that the balance only gets worse with time).
I’m skipping ahead a bit in the interview with Jesse, but he peppered it with a two lines that explain the above paragraphs:
“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”
“We’re hoping that [our] quality is good enough that people [who usually pay more] are willing to drink down to it price-wise, but also [people who don’t normally pay our price] drink up to it because it’s so good that it justifies them spending a bit more than usual.”
If the suspense is killing you, here it is: Lucky Rock pinot noir retails for $22, but to my palate it’s better than a lot of $30 and $40 pinots I’ve had. More on the wine later.
Lucky Rock is not trying to be your typical winery. Their Instagram profile describes themselves as “Wine, Tattoo, Food Truck,” and is filled with pictures of tattoos, their pick-axe (say it fast and it sounds like “kick ass”) logo and dudes in beards and trucker hats having fun. One post, featuring a (relatively) close up of the chest of a heavily tattooed woman wearing a Lucky Rock tank top, uses the line “Look! We’re a lifestyle brand that actually knows how to make wine?”
“Our whole model is no pretension and good wine at a good price,” Jesse told me. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. Lauren has been very clear that he is not a fashion designer nor is he selling fashion. Rather, he explains, his clothes are about style within the context of a lifestyle that he wants the people who wear his clothes to experience. I had asked Jesse about their lifestyle approach because in the same way that Ralph Lauren ads are as much about the non-clothing elements of the visuals and language used, Lucky Rock seemed to be about a lifestyle package that includes wine as one of the many elements.
“You can’t just rely on brand [to make it in wine],” Jesse said. “Obviously we make wine, but the tattoo part [of the brand ID] is a parallel for modernizing the wine business. We cuss a lot, we’re covered in tattoos, we joke around, and that’s unusual for quality wine. My brother and I figured that if we’re going to put this amount of effort into it then we have to have fun and be authentic about who we are.”
“The food truck,” he continued, referencing the Instagram profile description, “is that great wine and food go together. But just because you’re eating great food doesn’t mean that you need a white table cloth. [There is a] correlation between food truck and Lucky Rock – French Laundry and Bond are synonymous the same way. We’re not trying to kid ourselves, we’re not Bond, not trying to be that, nor do you want to be. But we know that our wine goes with great food regardless of where the food comes from. There is really fantastic food coming out of trucks, just like we’re trying to make really fantastic wine that comes to you in an unpretentious way.”
I’ll be completely open about my own experience with Lucky Rock. I’d never heard of it until Jesse contacted me, and after looking at the website and Instagram I set myself up for disappointment. The sauvignon blanc was solid, maybe even good, but the pinot noir blew me away. The reality is that Lucky Rock is a legitimate winery that punches above its price point.
They’re able to do that because they take advantage of economies of scale built into their business model. They make a lot of wine for other brands, much of which comes from really good vineyards that are strategically chosen based on their ability to deliver high quality grapes at less than high-end Napa prices. Of the annual haul, a small amount is taken to produce Lucky Rock. By pooling the collective tonnage needs, they’re able to get grapes that a stand-alone winery could not afford to sell at $22 per bottle. Put another way, if they were buying these grapes just for Lucky Rock, the price point would be significantly higher.
Starting from the goal of making a very reasonably priced wine, a few other elements of the business plan are critical to success. They are about 60% wholesale having made the conscious choice to prioritize that over being direct-to-consumer, which lowers overhead. They have to be high volume, as well, because they are low margin. “We want to be different,” Jesse explained, “if we ever opened a traditional tasting room we’d be letting ourselves down. If anything, we might open a tap room featuring different wines and beers to pour alongside our stuff.”
It is also critical to making a high quality $22 pinot that they actually know what they’re doing. Jesse cut his teeth making high quality, more expensive wine at August Briggs Winery, where he got his start thanks to a close family connection and where he continues to make the wine today. While the Lucky Rock lifestyle is more warehouse than Napa Valley, the winemaking is as advanced as those who sell the high society lifestyle. Jesse has been making pinot noir “for my entire winemaking life. We’re taking the high end mentality and finding vineyards where we can apply that approach without going as expensive.”
Jesse and I talked tannins for a solid ten minutes because one of the more impressive aspects of the 2018 pinot was the quality and elegance of the structure. Often times, pinot under $30 falls flat and thin, but not Lucky Rock. He takes tannin structure seriously and has been trying various trade craft over the last several vintages to build a consistent profile. Close relationships with fruit growers, careful use of highly selective tannin additives and lots of experimentation with various barrel cooperages and treatments has led to three consecutive vintages now of positive refinement of the tannin structure. It sounds like he’s getting to a place where achieving consistency will keep the wine at a great place.
Here’s the thing: Lucky Rock’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone, though I do imagine that it is a major factor behind the label’s success thus far. What is for a wider audience, though, is the wine. Lucky Rock’s desire to capture customers based on the quality, whether it’s more or less expensive than you normally pay, delivers in the glass. Even if you aren’t into tattoos, food trucks or trucker hats, even if the label is a bit too aggressive for you, you need to try the wine because, and I feel confident saying this, you won’t find a better pinot noir for the price. And if you dig their vibe, all the better. Dive right in.
Here’s the tasting note on the 2018, which is currently for sale: The nose-filling aromas are dominated by bright cherry and raspberry, but also include subtle tar, rose petal and baking spice. The body is medium plus in weight with fine grained tannin and modest but well-integrated acid. This could age for another 1-2 years and do nicely, but it’s gulpable at the moment. Cherry and raspberry pop on the palate as well, and are bolstered by blood orange, lilac and something spicy. This punches well above its price point. 92 points. Value: A+.
Where to purchase:
Right now, help the brothers out and order direct. They’re offering a temporary COVID-inspired discount: 15% off 6 bottles with $6 shipping and 20% off 12 bottles with $12 shipping. Discount codes can be found here. They ship to a good chunk of the country.
If you’d rather find it locally, they have a retail finder here.