The 8 Most Revelatory Moments of 2019

Us

The author and his wife, Kayce, at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia

There’s no doubt I have a lot to be thankful for in life: family, health, friends and general happiness. Add that my hobby is writing a wine blog, and there’s no seriously arguing that I don’t have a good existence on this planet. I’m especially happy with 2019 because it marks the first full calendar year of being married to a great woman and the attendant benefits of great in-laws in my life. 2019 carried with it some challenges, but all-in-all I loved it. And because 2019 was also a great year in wine for me, I’ve been especially excited to write this year’s retrospective best-of post.

These retrospective pieces are admittedly a bit self-indulgent; they are effectively an exercise in bragging (look at all this great wine I got to have, and all these great places I got to go!). I justify writing them nonetheless because if you’re into wine like I am, and I know some of the Good Vitis readers are, you want to read about the wine experiences of others because wine is a unique way of appreciating the world, and it can be inspiring. It adds, literally and figuratively, flavor and beauty to life in ways that can make one feel better about, and more appreciative of, the people around them and the planet they inhabit.

Some of this impact can be revelatory, and these experiences are almost always more meaningful and impactful when shared with others. All of the experiences below were made better because of the people I shared them with, and I hope reading about them will motivate readers to seek out more special moments of their own in 2020.

With this in mind, and in keeping with the Good Vitis tradition of doing each year’s retrospective a bit different from those before it, this year’s piece will focus on the eight most personally revelatory wine experiences of the year. Here we go.

Revelation No. 1: Sauvignon blanc is amazing

Aaron before February 6th, 2019: I don’t much care for sauvignon blanc. It’s unbalanced and too acidic, it’s green, it’s lean and it’s monolithic in profile.

Aaron on September 14th, 2019 after a sip of 2005 Edmond Vatan Clos la Néore sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley: This is the best wine I’ve ever had.

In 2019, I’ve had four sauvignon blancs that collectively have turned me from a hater to an appreciator. I’m a lover of these four, and more willing to try sauvignon blanc in general. The first to show me that the grape could be more complex and enjoyable than I’d previously known was the 2017 Loveblock sauvignon blanc. In the article I published about the winery started by Erica and Kim Crawford of New Zealand sauvignon blanc fame, I said of the wine that “[the] Loveblock style of sauvignon blanc is rounder, more tropical and complex [than that made famous by the Kim Crawford label]. My tasting note on the wine describes an expressive, jovial and entertaining wine with more intrigue then the typical New Zealand profile tends to inspire in me.” I gave the wine 91 points with a value of A.

Loveblock

Around the time that I published the Loveblock article, my wife Kayce and I had dinner with Sam Teakle, the winemaker at Capture Wines in Napa. Although Capture mostly makes red wine, it has two sauvignon blancs and Sam brought with him the entry level bottle which is called “Tradition.” Kayce, who like me wasn’t a sauvignon blanc lover at the time, loved it, as did I, and so in following up later I asked for a full bottle so I could write a Try This Wine feature on it, which I did.

In the short piece, I noted that the Tradition “offered more substance, weight and depth than I had been accustomed to finding in the variety. I had always thought of sauvignon blanc as a lean, citrusy and acidicly- sharp wine that was simple and even sometimes unpleasantly bitter. The Captûre Tradition proves all this wrong – it proves the haters wrong – at an incredibly reasonable price of $25. It will over-deliver as a pop-and-pour summer white wine, and has sufficient seriousness and complexity to be decanted for an hour and enjoyed over the course of an evening.” I gave it 94 points with an A+ value rating.

Clos de Neore

Picture poached from Isaac Baker’s Instagram

Several months later, I visited a friend of a friend, with the mutual friend, who wanted to swap some wine from his cellar for stuff he’d never had before. I’m not sure what was traded for it, but we walked away with a bottle of 2005 Edmond Vatan Clos la Néore. This is a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley, and to be fully transparent, I’d never heard of it before (waiting for the gasps and looks of disproval to subside…). We ended up drinking it that night with another wine loving friend at his suggestion. I took one sip and thought, “well holy fucking shit, I don’t even know…I mean…wow.” I pulled out my phone, opened the CellarTracker app, and wrote a tasting note:

This is otherworldly. The nose wafts a crazy cornucopia of waxy golden raisin, Thai basil, honeycomb, kiwi, peach, crushed rock minerality, cantaloupe and spearmint. The palate is spry but delivers seriously hefty layers in a mind-blowing juxtaposition. The flavors are crazy cool, delivering serious star fruit, Sichuan spicy, honeyed melon, poached pear, poached peach, grapefruit, Calvados, rose water, kiwi and spearmint. It’s entering a transcendental phase. 98 points.

That’s the highest point total I’ve ever given to a wine, and the taste and texture and complexity and mouthfeel remain incredibly fresh in my mind. As I said above, it’s the best wine I’ve ever had. I want more, I will always crave this wine. And I feared that I’d never enjoy another sauvignon blanc again after the Vatan.

Chimney

Then, about a month and a half later, I opened a bottle of 2009 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc that I’d bought at auction and realized that the Vatan had not ruined the variety for me. I’d visited Chimney Rock in Napa in March of 2019. Known as a red wine house, I was most impressed with their rosé and the Elevage Blanc, their only white. I included the latter in a Try this Wine post about what I called “spring whites” that included the Chimney Rock along with others from Carlisle, Copain and Yangarra, all of which fit my conception of a white wine perfect for the season between winter and summer:

“The profile of white that I’m suggesting – some weight, multiple layers of flavor, thick acid – is also more versatile food-wise than many other wines. This is to say, it can hold its own with grilled vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish as well as red-fruited wines like pinot noir, trousseau, gamay, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Just because you’re going to a friend’s grill-out doesn’t mean you should avoid white wine.”

Chimney’s Elevage Blanc is a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris, and I gave the 2016 that I tried at the winery 93 points with a value of A-, and said of it:

“It offers incredible smoothness in personality and feel. With a deft full body, it boasts loads of stone and tropical fruits, spicy zest, marzipan, slate and flint minerality and a smoky finish. If you tend to find sauvignon blanc too bitter and cutting, this is one that may change your mind.”

Based on this experience, I bought the 2009 off Winebid hoping that it would be something cool, and it was. The note:

“The saturated and tropical nose offers aromas of paraffin wax, dried kiwi, dried papaya, dried pineapple, white pepper and orange preserves. It is full bodied on the palate with lush acid that gets slightly gritty on the finish. The balance is on-point and the mouthfeel is sumptuous. Flavors come in fascinating waves of pear, cantaloupe, barely ripe papaya, green chimichurri sauce, Key lime, almond paste, Mandarine orange and flint minerality. This is a super cool, interesting wine that is at the very end of its prime life.” (I gave it 93 points).

I did an Instagram post about it in which I said “[this] fascinating 10-year-old Napa blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris delivers captivating balance, a lush mouthfeel and deeply layered flavors that only come from the combination of great fruit, terroir and winemaking.” I tagged John Terlato of Terlato Wines who owns Chimney Rock, and he was nice enough to post this comment on it:

“Thank you for the kind words. Our goal was to make a white wine for red wine drinkers – a wine which was at the same time complex, sublime and possessed the ability to age. Glad you enjoyed our work. Elizabeth Vianna’s hand clearly showing here. Inspiration + talent + vineyards = potentially extraordinary wines. Thank you again.”

Although the Elevage Blanc wasn’t as good as the Vatan, it seriously juiced my newfound love of sauvignon blanc and boosted my interest in trying more. If 2019 was the year of any grape for me, it’d be sauvignon blanc. A year ago I never would have predicted that.

Revelation No. 2: Judging a wine competition is weird

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I was honored to be asked to participate in the judging of the 2019 Maryland Governor’s Cup competition. It was my first wine competition judging experience, and made me realize (a) just how hard it is for a competition to be worthwhile for the consumer, (b) just how hard it is to design and run a competition that allows the best wines to actually win, and (c) just how frustrating it must be for the industry that competitions are what they are. That said, I tip my hat to the gentlemen who is hired to organize and run the competition. Given the limitations impressed upon him by the factors involved, he did a hell of a job. I learned the following things:

  1. The Maryland competition and many like it are open only to wineries who want to pay to enter, so it does not cover every winery that otherwise could be part of it.
  2. Many use volunteer judges, and because it’s often a full day event that judges must travel to, when judges judge for free you rarely get the best overall quality of judges.
  3. At this competition, no judge tasted every wine. In fact, we tasted at most half of them each. I’m not sure about other competitions, but I imagine many of them are the same. This, when combined with #1 and #2, meant for me that only two of the eight winners deserved to make the final round.

These competitions are helpful for many in the industry, especially up-and-coming regions like Maryland and for really saturated markets like California where the best wines don’t need competition awards to sell out every year and the lessers are looking for ways of impressing customers. If I sound pessimistic about all of it, I am, but I do believe at the end of the day they’re a net positive for the industry, especially Maryland because of where it is in its maturation as a wine producing state. It needs these opportunities to compete against itself so that the bar is continuously raised.

Revelation No. 3: Even you can import wine

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Okay, so not really. I didn’t import any wine. I can’t, I don’t have the permits or the business license to do it. But, my friend Peter Wygandt of Weygand-Metlzer Importing does. When I found out that he was traveling to the Republic of Georgia, I wanted to him to visit my friends over there who make incredible wine, the Togonidze family. I told him that if he could squeeze one more winery visit in while he was there, he’d taste the best wine he’d have on the trip and that there would be no way he’d be able to bring any of it into America because they don’t make enough to export. Peter said he’d try, and I sort of forgot about it.

If the name Togonidze rings a bell, it might be because you read the Good Vitis post about my visit there, which is called “Words Escape Me: The Country, Food and Wines of Georgia.” I truly love Georgia. The people, geography, beauty, food and wine are individually incredible and collectively breathtaking. The main feature of the piece is the night I spent eating and drinking with the Togonidze family at their home. Their Mtsvane (a white grape with very green skin) is among my very favorite wines and probably the most unusual wine I’ve had that actually works despite how unusual it is.

Togo

Peter (left) with Gia Togonidze in Georgia

A few months after talking with Peter, I saw that the Togonidzes had posted pictures of them with Peter at their home. I got the biggest grin. How cool is that?! Still, I thought, no way Peter is signing an account with them, they don’t make enough. But then, another month or two later, I get the email from Peter: I’m importing Togonidze. I rejoiced. When the wine arrived, Peter hosted a tasting at his brick and mortar store in Washington, DC and sent me a note making sure I would show up. Of course I would, and of course I did. Peter was gracious enough to acknowledge my role in bringing Togonidze to America to the crowd that was there when I arrived. We happily bought a case and half and are reserving the bottles to share with the people closest to us.

Revelation No. 4: Mosel is for real

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The Master of Mosel, Markus Hüls

Speaking of Peter Weygandt, after Kayce and I decided our honeymoon was going to include Germany, I asked Peter if he could connect me with one of his producers in the Mosel Valley because we were going to spend three days there. He chose a producer named Markus Hüls and set a tasting up for us with Markus himself. For a while I hadn’t cared for riesling, but I’ve slowly grown to appreciate it over the last three or so years. Before you think “he doesn’t like sweet wines,” I do. The issue for me was acid – the riesling I was told was the good stuff was too acidic for me.

I started to turn the corner, actually, after a conversation with a coffee roaster in Syracuse, New York, in 2012 who told me that “acid means flavor,” which translated means that acid carries flavor to our taste buds, almost like salt. I started paying more attention to acidic foods and wines and how the flavors might be different in those compared to others with lower acid, and I noticed that he was often right. Acid is also part of a wine’s physical structure and sensation, and in white wine its impact is particularly felt because of the absence of tannin. I wouldn’t say I’m a raging aid head, but I certainly like acidic wines much more now than before.

I wrote a feature piece on Hüls in September in which I praised the acid profile in the wines and Marcus’ ability to harness acid to drive aromatic and flavor profiles that build gorgeously structured wines. “Markus Hüls is a revelation in steep slope Mosel wine,” I wrote, “that delivers an acid profile defining something both unique and exceptional.” We now have a case of Hüls aging in our cellar, and I’m on the hunt for more riesling.

While crystalizing a desire to add more riesling to our cellar, the three days spent in Mosel clarified for me why it is considered by many to be the best place on earth to grow and make riesling. Riesling is one of those grapes with enormous range, and the impact of the winding rivers and steep slopes on the vines explains how one grape can be made to taste so many different ways.

Revelation No. 5: Cayuse can age well

Let me apologize now for small size of the crowd for which this revelation is relevant. Growing up in Washington State and getting into wine through the state’s industry, chances are good that you come to revere Cayuse Vineyards even if you don’t taste their wines. They are among the most legendary wineries in the state, and also among the most closeted and elitist. Its founder and winemaker, Christophe Baron, famously happened upon Walla Walla, Washington, on his way from his home in Champagne to Oregon where he intended to make pinot noir. Captured by an internship in Walla Walla, he never left. He now owns several labels, all of which receive numerous mid to upper 90s scores from the major reviewers, including several 100’s. He sells almost exclusively through a wine club that maintains a wait list that is five to ten years long.

I waited on the list for seven years myself before I was offered 3 bottles of a single wine of my choosing. My choice was the God Only Knows Grenache, and I came in at the 2013 vintage. At some point in the last year or two, I received an email saying that I could opt into a lottery for older vintages of wine because they were clearing out the library. The rule was: you get what you get, up to six bottles, and you have to take them all. I sent a note to two friends asking if they wanted to split the spoils, and we went for it. We ended up with the 2000 Coccinelle Vineyard syrah, 2004 Cailloux Vineyard syrah and 2008 The Widowmaker (En Chamberlin Vineyard) cabernet sauvignon. One friend added his own 2011 Cailloux Vineyard syrah.

Cayuse

The Cayuses, and other great wines from that remarkable night

There is some debate as to whether high end Washington wine gets better with significant aging. The best stuff has the tannin and acid, but some worry that the warm climate produces too much tannin as well as too much alcohol for a wine to get better over ten-plus years. Within this discussion, Cayuse is hotly debated. This library lottery gave me the chance to find out for myself, and the answer is an unqualified “yes.” They are magical wines. To be able to say that with absolute clarity is a big deal for me, even if it only matters to a handful of people. We were all impressed by the wines, and though we didn’t taste any of the Cayuse I have in my cellar, it gave me confidence to sit longer on the wines I’m hoarding. If you’re curious, you can find tasting notes here.

Revelation No. 6: Old wines rock

I’m just starting to get to the point where I know what to look for in old wine, and I say this both from the perspective of buying it and tasting it. It began a few years back with an extraordinary flight of 2000, 2002 and 2003 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir from Oregon, and it’s taken off since then. 2019 was the first year in which seriously old wine became a somewhat regular thing in our household.

It’s hard to describe the qualities that make old wine worth the wait, especially because different types of grapes go through different kinds of changes, and because winemaking becomes a bigger factor when it goes up against the test of time. We get to see how the structure of the wine plays out. Did the components – tannin, acid, alcohol and fruit – find harmony, or fall apart? Did the depth of the wine reveal itself, allowing the drinker the opportunity to smell and taste everything it has to offer but needed time to reveal? Really good wine that is aged appropriately takes on qualities and physical sensations that no young wine, regardless of what it is or how it was made, can have. It’s the nature of the difference that is so special to me.

A contributing factor to my love for old wine is the revelation, good or bad, of tasting a wine that’s spent so much time by itself. What has it done with that time? Did it make the most of it? There’s also the game of when to open it. Is ten years enough? Fifteen years too many? There’s only one way to find out: pull the cork. The anticipation, and the result, are fun to experience.

Allowing wine to age teaches you a lot about the winery, the vintage and the region. In 2019, we drank 23 bottles of wine that were at least 10 years past their vintage. In addition to the older wines discussed above, I’m listing several below along with the lessons I learned from having them.

Chablis

2009 Vincent Dauvissat Les Preuses Grand Cru Chablis – Chablis is one of my favorite regions, but can be hard to judge on ageability. My favorite aspect about Chablis – its twitchy, nervous acid – tends to fade fairly quickly, so aging it means losing that. On the flip side, as this wine proved, Chablis can take on a multitude of dimensions with age that are special.

2008 JD Varja Ruggeri Langhe – I love nebbiolo, but it can be a tough grape. It’s quite tannic and acidic, and so it can age for a long time, and often should. But on the lower end, while it can retain sufficient tannin and acid, it doesn’t always develop the requisite fruit to go the distance. This was an example of that. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It was ideal probably five years ago.

Willi

2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett Riesling – This was one of the best wines I’ve had, and a perfect example of how quality riesling gets amazing with age: so many deeply developed flavors with acid that keeps them raging, seemingly indefinitely. It could’ve gone for another ten great years.

2006 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils Cuvée de mon Aïeul Chateauneuf du Pape – This was a good vintage for Chateauneuf du Pape, and Usseglio is known for producing particularly age-worthy wines. The case with this one, though, was disappointing because I opened it too early. It was only just starting to awaken, and it had miles of depth left to unravel.

2005 Lucien Le Moine Burgundy – Maybe the most frustrating wine of the year for me. When it was released, I’m told by the person who bought it, it was maybe $15 or $20. It’s Moine’s entry level Burgundy. Today it goes for $50+. It was damn good, much better than nearly all of the sub-$50 pinots I’ve had from anywhere, and better than many $100+ Burgundies I’ve tasted. If I could go back to the mid-2000s, when a lot of great Burgundy was still being made without a ton of oak, I’d buy it by the pallet so I could start opening it now.

2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – The lesson to be learned here is that the size of the bottle matters. Because the cork allows oxygen into the wine, the ratio of oxygen to wine is the highest when the size of the bottle is the smallest. I had this out of a half-bottle, and while it was delicious, it was past its prime. It would not, however, been past its prime if it had come out of a regular or large-format bottle. Lesson being, don’t age your half bottles as long as you would larger bottles.

Huet

1989 Domaine Huet Le Mont Moelleux Premiere Trie – I got this birth year bottle to celebrate my wife’s 30th birthday. Loire chenin blanc is her favorite wine and among my favorites, so it was a no brainer. This particular bottle is pretty special; I think it’s safe to say that Huet is universally regarded as among the best Vouvray producers and one that gets better and better over its first 30-plus years of life (incidentally, not unlike wife). I had personally verified the quality of Huet previously, and can now verify its ageability. This bottle will make it hard to drink Huet that isn’t decades old.

Margaux

1967 Chateau Lescombes Margaux – This bottle was a gift I received less than a minute into meetings its original owner. We crossed paths at Domaine Storage in DC where we were both storing wine. I got a locker there about six months ago, and he was in the process of emptying his out. He was a bit into retirement and realized it was time to drink through the remainder of his collection, most of which he’d forgotten about. We were having a nice conversation and he reached down into a box and pulled out two of these bottles and handed them to me with the advice to not forget about the wines I was buying, like he had, so that so many wouldn’t go to waste. These 67’ Margauxs were past their prime and he knew it, but figured it would be fun for me to take a flyer on them since I wasn’t paying for them and he had so many. We haven’t opened the second bottle, but the first bottle was both past its prime and delicious (especially the nose). I doubt I’ll find myself in the position he was with someone like me decades from now, but his advice is a great reminder that collecting wine is about finding your sweet spot and reveling in it.

Revelation No. 7: Barboursville Vineyards

I wrote about a two-day stay at Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyards over on The Cork Report back in February in which we tried multiple vintages of the winery’s best red wines (in my opinion at least): cabernet franc reserve, nebbiolo reserve and Octagon, their Bordeaux-style flagship wine, going back to 1999. I’ve visited some of the best-known and most respected Virginia wineries, but I didn’t appreciate how good Virginia wine could be until the Barboursville visit. Their signature is no flash, all substance. As I wrote in the piece, “[a] trip to Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia feels to me like what a visit to Gaja in Piedmont, William Fevre in Chablis or López de Heredia in Rioja might: the chance to experience an especially iconic, historical, traditional and consistently high-performing estate in its respective region.”

Barboursville

#NoFilter

Barboursville has been around forever relative to the Virginia wine industry, and the know-how they’ve developed through low personnel turnover and farming the same vineyards for decades has translated into the rare Virginia wine that deservedly belongs in lineups with the best producers in the world. The 2010 Nebbiolo Reserve and 2007 Octagon were particularly revelatory for me and I’d love to see how they would perform in blind Barolo and Pomerol tastings, respectively. Viniculture and winemaking are labors of love for the people at Barboursville, and for their long-term winemaker-turned general manager Luca Paschina, it’s a way of life. He has shown what Virginia is capable of, and the more Luca’s the state has, the better.

Revelation No. 8: Emidio Pepe

During our honeymoon this summer we spent three days at Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, Italy. I wrote all about it in a profile I did of the winery so I don’t need to go in depth here. What is most important to say now is that it may have become my favorite winery. There is an obvious bias in play because we spent time there, and it was wonderful. Amazing food and wine, great service and people, unreal setting, the romance of the honeymoon, etc. – I have names, faces, vineyards, views, aromas, flavors and emotions to connect to the wine that can’t be replicated by a retail experience. But even still, for my palate it doesn’t get better than Pepe.

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The characteristic of Pepe’s wines that I most connect with are the evolution they go through as they age. As I explained in the linked profile above, Pepe purposefully makes reductive wines that work with the naturally high acid and tannin of Abruzzo and their vineyards to make wine that transcends itself over periods measured in decade increments, giving the depth and complexity of the grapes times to marry and sing. The beauty of the wine is then amplified by winemaking choices – pressing technique, aging vessel, etc. – that are chosen because they assist the grapes and vineyard in putting their best selves forward. It’s as if they extract all of the best qualities of the grapes and terroir…and then some. This is the good kind of human intervention. While there is beautiful wine made from human decision-making that goes beyond, or around, expressing the grape and vineyard, there is something especially extraordinary and rare about a wine that wows you without needing cosmetic surgery. Pepe pulls it off better than any other wine I’ve had.

Closing

Let me finish with a quote that brings home the point of these retrospective pieces:

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.” – French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Wine brings people together and plays the role of a properly adjusted saturation filter for life. Make sure you enjoy some (safely) with the people who matter most this holiday season.

Finding Structure and Balance in Morgan Wine

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We’re deep into the holiday season, which is a period when a lot of wine gets consumed. Between office parties, potlucks, family dinners, Friendsgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Years and everything else going on, the opportunities to pull corks are seemingly endless. Kayce and I hosted Thanksgiving this year, which meant having enough wine on hand for eight very thirsty people.

Back in the spring, Morgan Winery asked if I’d like to receive samples. Morgan is located in the Santa Lucia Highlands of California, one of California’s lesser known wine producing regions. My only prior exposure to Morgan was their Santa Lucia chardonnay, which is available by the glass at a place I frequent and performs strongly in that role. I figured sure, why not. Then, two full cases showed up. Twelve wines, two bottles of each. Perfect, I thought, one set for Good Vitis and one set for Thanksgiving.

The Menenberg-Seifert Thanksgiving p/b Morgan Winery went well. The food and the wine delivered. Morgan makes a wide range of wines, and we were lucky enough to receive the grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc, Metallico (un-oaked chardonnay), Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay, rosé of grenache, dry Double L riesling, off dry Double L riesling, Cotes de Crow’s southern Rhone-style blend, tempranillo, Twelve Clones pinot noir, Double L pinot noir and G17 syrah. No matter the food you put on your plate, there was a Morgan for it.

Part of what made the Morgan line up well-suited for the diversity of a Thanksgiving meal is the style the winery produces, which is driven by the climate and terroir of the Santa Lucia Highlands – referred to as “the SLH” to those in the know – and the broader Monterey area from which they grow and source their grapes. The SLH has, probably among others, two elements going for it that helps winemakers produce elegance and refinement: natural warmth absent the wind, and routine wind patterns that bring in cool air. The result, if leveraged like Morgan does, is bright acid combined with sturdy but smooth tannin. That’s a recipe for good food-pairing wine.

SLH map

To understand how Morgan gets this profile, it helps to talk a bit about the SLH. The wine growing areas in the SLH are located on the inland slopes of the Salinas Mountains, which run north-south, paralleling California coast. Across the Salinas Valley from the vineyards lie the Gabilan Mountains. The warm air of the Salinas Valley pulls the cold air from cooler Monterey Bay located to the north down into the vineyards, which moderates temperatures.

I spoke with Sam Smith, Morgan’s winemaker, who told me that were it not for this wind phenomenon, SLH would be a warmer wine growing region that produced bigger wines. “The wind gives us a cool climate. We have foggy mornings that blow off by 11am, giving us generally a few hours of sun and low wind. But by 2pm, the wind starts ripping down the Valley off Monterey Bay and continues southward.”

“It has a big effect on ripening,” Sam explained. “It can close the stoma [little valves in the grape skins that regulate gas exchange] on the vines, which effectively helps develop acid and serious phenolic [tannin] structure” without a quick rate of sugar production. This explains why Morgan wines can exude a precise style consisting of both depth and restraint.

Picture Double L Vineyard (37)

Morgan’s own, and the SLH’s only certified organic vineyard, Double L Vineyard

Morgan’s premier vineyard is called Double L. The 48-acre vineyard is long and skinny, effectively divided into two halves. The entire vineyard has loam soil, though the “upper field” has more clay and a higher water-retaining capacity, giving it more fertility than the “lower field” and its more lose sandy soil. Double L is the only certified organic vineyard in the appellation, and Morgan reserves its fruit exclusively for its own wines. Most of the Double L fruit goes into Double L designated wines, though the non-vineyard designate SLH chardonnay and Twelve Clones pinot noir receive a small amount of Double L fruit. The vineyard produces pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling.

With prior experience in Santa Barbara and the Northern Rhone, Sam Smith brought some of the right kind of know-how to Morgan and the SLHF, where he has been the head winemaker for the last four years. “The amount of natural acidity [in the SLH] is incredible,” Sam said when asked to compare the new-ish digs to his old ones, adding that “it’s one of the things I love about growing and making wine here.”

Sam pointed out something about this natural acidity that hadn’t crossed my mind: “[The naturally high acid] can be tough to make wine [in the SLH] without it being over-ripe” because the naturally high acidity gives growers the ability to extend hang time for the fruit on the vine, which leads to higher sugar accumulation in the grapes that results in “big, rich and boozy” wines. “If you have the intention [of making more restrained, elegant wines] and you are on top of sampling, you can nail your pick [dates] and hit great balance while retaining fruit-driven profiles. The balance that we can get in most vintages is killer.”

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Speaking to this killer balance, we enjoyed the case of Morgan over a period of three days, and nearly every wine improved over the first 48 hours, if not the entire 72 hours, as we exposed it to more and more oxygen. This included some of the white wines as well, and is a sign of overall quality for a number of reasons. One important reason is that it indicates a hard-to-find quality in the balance of the structure of the wine, which is composed of acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit. Initial exposure to oxygen can help some wines fully express themselves, but extended exposure will degrade all wines and expose imbalances in the structure. 48-72 hours is a long period of exposure for a wine to survive, even with the bottles re-sealed, and Morgan gets two enthusiastic thumbs up for taking the oxygen and making the most of it.

I want to focus in on four wines that stood out to me. The first two are the Double L rieslings, the dry and off-dry versions. People don’t think of California in the discussion of riesling, and it’s to their detriment. I’ve been an advocate for several California rieslings, especially the bottle produced by Smith-Madrone off Spring Mountain in Napa. But in full disclosure, I haven’t looked to the SLH for the variety, so I was surprised when the Morgan shipment included two rieslings. After tasting them, I can add “pleasant” to “surprised.”

Sam treats the riesling similarly to the other grapes planted in Double L. He typically does not drop fruit, getting between 4 and 5 acres a ton while retaining sufficient acid and aromatics. Sam noted that part of the Double L riesling signature is an herbal, minty quality and white tea freshness, which struck me on the finish of both wines, especially the dry version. The balance of these wines is what really impressed. Riesling can be a controversial grape for some: if it has high acid and poor balance, the acid is accentuated in unfortunate ways. In America, where the prevailing palate is highly sensitive to acid, that balance better be spot-on. I put the Morgan rieslings in the category of those I’d pour for riesling skeptics.


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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Dry – The nose boasts a nice range of tropical fruits – think honeyed pineapple and guava – plus lemon-lime citrus, mint and dried green herbs. It’s a full-bodied wine with medium weight and lush acid that carries traditional varietal flavors of lime pith, banana leaf, herbal tea, crushed rock minerality and an unusual nice hit of spearmint. A very well-balanced riesling with immediate appeal and medium-range upside. 89 points. Value: A-.

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2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Off Dry – The very pleasant nose offers guava, pineapple, honeysuckle, limeade, yellow peach and some stone minerality. It gets towards the heavier end of medium body with the residual sugar adding body and balance to the modest acid, the latter of which could be turned up just a bit. Flavors hit on honeyed tropical fruits, including guava, pineapple and banana, plus white tea leaf, sea mist and some slate minerality. In a welcomed turn of events, the acid comes on a bit more on the finish and leaves the mouth with a slightly gritty sensation and herbal flavor. 89 points. Value: A-.


Staying on the Double L train, I want to talk briefly about the Double L pinot noir, which was the strongest wine in the lineup. The depth and seamlessness of the tannins, especially after 48 hours of oxygen exposure, where what stood out as quite impressive. The grapes for this wine, and generally all of Morgan’s reds, are entirely destemmed. This means the tannin development comes primarily from the skins which accumulate high quantities of something called anthocyanin, which is the smoother type of tannin as compared to the corser phenolic tannins that come from seeds and stems.

We discussed how Sam gets these gorgeous tannins, and he walked me through his vineyard approach which revolves around opening the canopy (the leaves) while protecting the grape clusters from sun burn. On the side of the grapes that get morning sun, which presents a low risk of sun burn, Sam and his team completely clear the leaves. On the other side, which gets the more radiant afternoon sun, they do what is called “tunneling,” which means removing the leaves that are between the clusters and the vine, while leaving the leaves on the outside of the clusters.

Sam finds that this approach strikes the right level of tannin development and produces tannins that mature in the vineyard, which he points out are the easiest to extract when making the wine and require little else be done in the winemaking to achieve tannin development. The Double L pinot gets a relatively short amount of maceration, just one to one-and-a-half weeks on the skins. He limits fermentation temperatures to 85 degrees in order to avoid over-extraction and retain aromatics. Most agitation is push down, with just a bit of pump over at the beginning. Cold soak comes only in the “voluntary” form, meaning the time between crushing the grapes and when fermentation begins. The goal is to “nail the structure and aromatics. If you do, that’s the holy grail.” He seems to be on the right track with this one.


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2017 Morgan Pinot Noir Double L Vineyard – Smells like a cool climate pinot with crushed red berries and plums, baking spice, tangerine peel and dark cocoa. It’s medium bodied with dense, fine grain and balanced acid. I think another 2-3 years of cellaring will help this unwind a bit. I’d love to have it in five years. Right now it’s offering juicy strawberry and blackberry to go with baking spice, dark cocoa and scorched earth. The depth is there, the complexity is there, it just needs more time. 72 hours out from initial opening, it’s really singing a beautiful structure and aroma. This is promising stuff. 92 points. Value: A-.


If the Double L pinot noir was the strongest Morgan I tasted, the G17 Syrah may be the most promising. It also happens to be the wine with which Sam is doing some whole cluster experimentation because syrah “sucks up whole cluster” better than the other red varieties Morgan is producing. The goal with the experimentation is to add aromatics and flavors without adding woody or green notes. “Whole cluster is similar to new oak,” Sam explained, “you want new oak to help frame the wine, but if it tastes like oak then that sucks.”

While whole clusters are an interesting experiment, picking the grapes on time is the most important thing. “There’s a real risk of waiting too long to pick. To a large extent the earlier you pick it, the more savory and floral it’s going to be. You have to check the syrah’s ripeness pretty closely and that’s what helps retain the elegance.” I asked Sam about the future of syrah in the SLH, and he pointed out that the granite origin of the loam soil is “a natural for syrah; you pair them and it’s a no brainer.” His Rhone experience shows through in the quality and profile of this wine.


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2017 Morgan Syrah G17 – The nose is a bit meaty, offering bloody red meat and gamey aromas to go with dark cherry and strawberry. I get the sense the nose is a bit underdeveloped. It’s almost full bodied with clean, juicy acid and fine grained tannins that have reached an advanced stage of integration for the youth of this wine, though it seems to lack just a bit in depth. The overall structure finds good balance and a slightly grippy texture. Sweet cherry and strawberry, blackberry, saline, tar, black pepper and blood orange. Another great value from Morgan. 90 points. Value: A.


I’ll conclude by making a genuine pitch for trying Morgan’s wines. In addition to the four discussed above, I’d also recommend the SLH chardonnay as a great value American chardonnay (yes, it’s not buttery or heavy, don’t worry) and the grenache blanc as a great entry-level wine for experimenting with something a bit different. Regardless of which wines you ultimately pick up, they represent an honest effort to produce high quality wines from an area where elegance and balance are achievable in unique ways.

Other wines reviewed:

2017 Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (grenache, syrah and tempranillo) – The ripe nose offers ripe cherry, raspberry, spiced plum sauce, freshly tanned leather and purple florals. It’s medium bodied but coats the palate with vibrant acid and finely grained tannin that together form a good balance and pleasant mouthfeel. The fruit is mostly red and slightly sweet, featuring plum, raspberry and cherry. There are some earthy notes of wet dirt and chai spice that come in on the finish. 89 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Grenache Blanc – The mineral-driven nose wafts seashell, petrol, sharp lemon, Marcona almond and slate. Blind I might’ve called a 5 year-old dry riesling based on the aromas. It’s on the lighter side in terms of weight with clean, pure acid that leaves a juicy finish. The flavors include lemon, raw yellow corn (minus the sweetness), thyme, orange pith, sea water and a riesling-esque minerality. Blind I might’ve called it a young riesling based on the flavors. A very intriguing if simple wine that with extended air takes on additional complexity. 89 points. Value: A.

2018 Morgan Rosé of Grenache – The nose shows signs of watermelon, strawberry fresca, lime sorbet and white pepper. It’s barely medium bodied with juicy acid and a modest acid backbone. The balance and texture are both nice. Flavors include cherry Sprite, tart strawberry, tart cherry and white pepper. Overall a fresh rosé with flavors that pop off the acid. 89 points. Value: C-.

2017 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay – The nose offers classic chardonnay aromas of lanolin, creme brûlée, banana peel, white tea and buttered popcorn. Surprisingly heavy for an un-oaked wine, the acid is appropriately leveled and nicely integrated. Unencumbered by oak, Meyer lemon, grass, limesickle, firm peach, cantaloupe, white tea and a streak of salinity fill the palate. An expressive Chardonnay. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc – A slightly soapy aroma blows off early, revealing white peach, starfruit, honeydew, lemongrass and just a hint of spearmint. The body is almost medium in weight with a slightly creamy finish and bright acid. This is a clean wine. Flavors include bitter herbs and greens, lemon, firm peach, honeysuckle and white flowers. An impressive wine for the price. 88 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay – Classic chardonnay aromas of vanilla curd, lemon, creme brûlée, lime zest, preserved apricot and salted popcorn. It’s medium bodied with crisp acid that provides a bit of textural grip. There’s just a slight edge of creaminess. Lemon-lime, orange sorbet, green apple, vanilla curd and a sea spray kind of minerality that brightens the wine. This is tasty stuff. 90 points. Value: A.

2017 Morgan Tempranillo – Aromas include blackberry, black plum, prune, Maraschino cherry, sweet leather and tobacco. It’s a bright medium body with densely grained fine tannin and nice acidity. Flavors are a variety of cherry pie filling, raspberry, leather, tar, violet and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper. This is a fun chugger that offers a lot of food pairing coverage. 90 points. Value: B.

2017 Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir – The nose wafts crushed red berries and plum, scorched earth, underbrush fungal aromas and baking spices – pretty much everything you would figure in a pinot noir. Very true to type. It’s a round, soft medium body with nice acid and fine tannin. I get the sense there’s some extra depth to this one that a few years will unwind. Right now, it offers strawberry, raspberry, huckleberry, rhubarb, cinnamon, bell pepper and moist earth. Excellent value. 90 points. Value: A+.

Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

Up until I had that 21st birthday bottle of Delille Harrison Hill 1998, a gift from a family friend, merlot dominates my wine-associated memories. My mother kept a bottle of merlot – the winery, I don’t remember, but I imagine a rotating selection of places like Chateau St. Michelle, J. Lohr, Mondavi and Charles Shaw – in the refrigerator with some frequency. I never took much interest in its presence there. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole pulls from the liquor cabinet, adding a quick stream of facet water to the half-full bottle of vodka in a futile effort to deceive my parents. I didn’t keep a six pack of Busch Light in my closet.

The merlot sitting in the refrigerator never tempted me, either. I just wasn’t into drinking in my youth. I know I tasted it, once in a while, but with my mom’s approval. I remember that it was cold and a little bitter, and not to my liking. It had a mysterious bite that today I can recognize as the alcohol. That’s about it. To my young palate, it wasn’t anything to crave. It was red liquid that my mom liked.

I preferred orange juice. My mother didn’t drink juice, too much sugar. I had to cut mine with water or my mom wouldn’t allow it in the house. Unlike the wine, I cheated with the orange juice when I could get away with it. No watering it down for me. That’s where I went off the reservation. Not the easiest child, I know.

When I was in my middle teens, a couple moved into the neighborhood and began having us over for dinner. The husband was a wine collector and opened wine whenever we came over. My mom enjoyed drinking it, though my dad wasn’t a wine fan (he remains unimpressed). And even though the merlot in the fridge back home never captured me, our friend’s wine did. Over the following several years, I was introduced to what I would find out later was some of the best wine made in the world. Depending on how one looks at it, my palate was either spoiled rotten or ruined for life before I was old enough to purchase any of it from a store.

The bottle of 1998 Delille Harrison Hill was a gift from this neighbor, and it became the first great wine that I associated as my own. Delille is one of Washington’s most respected and awarded wineries known predominantly for Bordeaux-style wines. Harrison Hill is one of its flagship blends, and routinely includes 25% merlot. As one of my early introductions to great wine, it set a personal benchmark for blends that lasted at least a decade. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it helped me form the respect I have today for the role merlot plays as a blending grape.

Fast forward to 2013. I had been unemployed for about five months at this point, having lost a job I didn’t much like and taking my time, albeit stressfully, finding a job I would be excited to start. As money was tight, I made it through this period satiating my wine needs with a small wine collection I had been building for the previous five years (inspirational, I know). I decided that since I had the time, I would find a winery nearby my apartment in Virginia where I could intern and learn firsthand how wine was made.

After scouting a number of wineries, I approached one and made my offer: I would work for free in the cellar a few days a week if they schooled me in winemaking and paid me to work in the tasting room on the weekend. They accepted. I did this for two consecutive harvests, and learned a ton about wine. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

During my first harvest there, we unexpectedly received a few extra tons of merlot from one of the vineyards where we sourced the grapes we needed beyond what our estate vineyards produced. The truck showed up, the man got out and asked a stupid question: did we want this extra merlot? In a state with a growing wine industry where grape demand far surpasses supply, you say yes. Even if the grapes aren’t great, you make a bad blush out of it because it will sell out once the temperature is high enough for picnicking and stoop-sittin’.

Thankfully, this was good merlot, so our affirmative answer was delivered with extra enthusiasm. As I helped unload the bins off the truck, an idea struck. I asked the winemaker if I could take a small amount of the juice from the extra merlot and make a side batch of my own wine. After consulting with the owner, I was given the green light and three 6-gallon carboys (glass jugs) of merlot juice was mine.

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With the winemaker’s guidance, we made three different merlots. Each carboy was inoculated with a different strain of yeast and given a different wood chip treatment. We went low-ish sulfur (40ppm), only once, and after about 8 months of aging in a dark corner of the cellar with the carboys covered by boxes, I syphoned the contents directly into bottles and hand corked them. I made eight or nine different wines from the three carboys: a case of each carboy was bottled, and then I started blending. We ended up with eighty-something bottles if memory serves.

All but half a dozen bottles were drained within a year of bottling. I was down to just a single bottle remaining until this article; I used the occasion to open it with my wife and in-laws. It is my greatest wine achievement to date because I didn’t screw it up; it’s actually a decent wine. I know this because I threw it into several blind tastings with legitimate wine people and got a range of reviews, none of them bad.

Making my own merlot is the true source of my appreciation of merlot: in the hands of a first time and under-trained “winemaker,” it graciously allowed me to make it into wine. It did its very best with what I gave it, maybe more than its very best, and I am eternally grateful. This article is dedicated to that batch of wine.


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2014 Aaron Menenberg Merlot #6 – The nose offers a compelling combination of floral, funky and crunchy red fruit notes, including aromas of wet saw dust, moist fungal dirt, cherry, raspberry, dehydrated strawberry, baking spice, rose water and spring flowers. The body is barely medium in stature, and the structure is driven by keen acid and scattered fine-grained tannin. The balance is essentially there, but the acid pulls the wine a bit out of its comfort zone. The flavors are similar to the aromas, featuring floral, fruit and funk. Specifics include dry dirt, mirepoix, tart strawberry and raspberry, cinnamon, rose hips and sautéed portabello mushroom. 88 points. Value: N/A.


Beyond my own appreciation of merlot, and certainly in spite of it, the noble grape deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries across the world. A perpetual performer, it is prized by many winemakers and largely disregarded by consumers. It is a classic example of the consumer doesn’t know best.

I recently published a Try this Wine post on Rutherford Hill’s 2018 Rosé of Merlot, one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. A press person from Rutherford’s parent owner sent me this note a few weeks later:

“I was in the Rutherford Hill tasting room the other day and a customer was bragging to his friends that he doesn’t drink “wimpy pink wine” (referring to our rosé of merlot, of course).  Right then, our tasting room manager pulled up your story and had him read it.  Not only did he change his mind, he purchased a few bottles.  So AWESOME!!!!!!!!”


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but it’s balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed. This is among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.


The case for merlot goes well beyond a great rosé, though that bottle does make a statement as one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. Well before the Rutherford rosé, though, I decided that I wanted to take a stab at exploring merlot after hearing an extemporaneous diatribe on merlot from one of the grape’s very best producers earlier this year.

When I decided on doing this profile, my mind naturally went to the movie Sideways, a popular Hollywood movie released in October of 2004 assumed by many to be the death nail of merlot’s profitability and popularity because of a well-acted and entertaining scene demonizing merlot and the timing of it its release coinciding with a period of steep decline in merlot sales. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” is the famous line. Miles, the main character played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, is on a trip to Napa with a friend, both of whom are escaping various aspects of their lives. In a pivotal scene, Miles screams this line.

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Part of what I wanted to get into with this piece was industry views of whether this Sideways correlation was also causation, and so my first element of research was to ask. Over the course of the last six or so months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of America’s, and the world’s, very best merlot producers. The orator of the aforementioned merlot diatribe was Chris Carpenter of Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and other great wineries fame.

“[Sideways] wasn’t a bad thing from the perspective of what it ended up doing to merlot in general,” Chris said when I spoke to him on the phone a few months post-diatribe. “Did I go through the history of merlot with you?” He asked, somewhat dauntingly. Merlot has been around for a while, so I wondered how far back he would go. Nevertheless, I opened the door. “No,” I said, and off we went.

Thankfully, his starting point was California: “At one point back in the mid-1990s, the wine industry was looking for the next silver bullet as far as a wine that would be the starter wine for another generation that was coming onto wine. They had had white zinfandel for a while – a lot of people started drinking wine because white zin was on fire and it was tasty and accessible and not too expensive – and it made the industry a lot of money. So, people were looking for what the next white zinfandel was going to be because its popularity was starting to decline and the industry needed something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The industry tried a number of things. “They started planting sangiovese,” one example he told me about, “but that didn’t go over well because they made it too much like cabernet [sauvignon] and sangiovese just doesn’t react that way. They went through a number of iterations like this and eventually hit on merlot.” It had a number of positives going for it: “it’s easy to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to grow from a tonnage perspective, it grows in places across a bandwidth of temperatures and sunlight that are different enough but allow it to get to a certain ripening point. And so you can grow a lot of it.”

The California wine industry ran with it. “They went out and planted merlot every in Napa, particularly in the Carneros region.”  Today, Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s hard to believe it was once the center of the California merlot scene. “Carneros is on the cooler side and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” Chris explained. “Merlot is an early ripener, and so they figured they’d put it down there. It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, but they thought they could still get it ripe.” Problem was, they couldn’t.

“They forgot that merlot needs a certain amount of light to get past the green flavors. The change in flavor character from vegetative to fruit is driven by light energy, and there just isn’t light energy in Carneros. A lot of how grapes gain weight and develop depth is by heat reaction and it doesn’t get the heat down there.”


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points. Value: A.


Renée Ary, winemaker for the esteemed merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards, noted additional considerations for merlot when I spoke with her. “Merlot is susceptible to heat stress, so water is a big issue. Because of that, it likes to grow in soil with better moisture-holding capabilities. Clay works well, but if you have a good vineyard team that can stay on top of irrigation, you can do it with better draining soils. They wanted to grow merlot like cabernet, but it’s not the same.”

At this point, though, the industry had invested a lot of money in planting merlot vineyards. “So, they pumped out a lot of merlot and put it on the market, and a lot of people drank a lot of bad merlot.” Chris said, adding that “it was lean and green, and it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t have weight, it didn’t have complexity, it was very unidirectional. And then the movie (Sideways) came out.”

But it wasn’t what you think. This is when Chris turned into a movie critic, and an astute one at that. “The movie wasn’t really speaking to the bad merlot out there. What Miles’ comment was reflecting on was the [troubled] relationship with his wife. His wife drank a lot of merlot. So, when he went into that tasting room and said he wasn’t drinking any merlot, it was because merlot is what his wife would’ve drank. It had nothing to do with the industry. But, it came at a time when people were starting to react to this wine that wasn’t that good.”

When Miles makes his comment, the industry had already spent a solid decade, or more, laying the groundwork for the merlot market to crumble. Chris noted that “when Sideways drops, merlot falls apart as far as a varietal people are taking seriously, and pinot noir rockets. Nobody was drinking pinot noir back then, but suddenly it just took off. And the good thing that happened was that a lot of that merlot that was planted in the wrong places went away, and they replanted it with pinot noir.”

Enter winemaker Adam Lee, a prolific California pinot noir wizard responsible for great wineries like Siduri and Clarice. “I don’t buy [the theory that Sideways ruined merlot]. It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot already,” he said.

As an aside, in a cruel twist of fate for lovers of traditional pinot noir, the timing of Sideways’ pinot praise was terrible. “When Sideways came out,” Adam pointed out, “the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

Poured this through a Venturi into a decanter, and it showed nicely right away. The dark nose offers saturated aromas of mocha, cherry preserve, dark chocolate bark, graphite, black plum and boysenberry that draw your nose deep into the glass. It’s full bodied with thick, polished tannin and bright acid that runs the full length of the wine, forming a really luxurious mouthfeel and structure. Flavor comes by way of plum, cherry, strawberry, dark cocoa, graphite, cassis and nutmeg. If this wine were a person, it’d be a soldier-scholar: broad statured and muscular with a high intellect and high society manners. With another three to five years it will develop some real grace. 93 points. Value: A.


As Carneros transformed in the wine region we know it to be today, those winemakers still in love with merlot had to turn to smaller pockets around Napa Valley. “These little gems of vineyards that were ideal for merlot” became the hot finds, Chris told me. “When I found gems, more often than not, they were high up in the mountains. There are some things about mountain viniculture that go well with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s Ary referenced these gems herself. “[Sideways] ended up being a positive for merlot. The unserious producers threw it to the wayside. It helped us get access to new vineyards [that were great for merlot] that we hadn’t had access to previously.”

One reason merlot does well in the mountains is because as you gain elevation, the volume of what’s called “radiant energy” increases. If you remember back to Chris’ point about Carneros not getting a lot of sunlight, we’re coming full circle here because one of the types of radiant energy is sunshine.

“You’re higher up [in the mountains] so your volume of radiant energy is much greater and you’re going to have, theoretically, more of the light reactions happening,” Chris explained. “You get a very different expression of merlot than what they were getting in the Carneros, which in some days never sees the sun. Heat drives sugar, it drives acid, it drives tannins. It does not affect flavor to the extent that radiant energy does. Radiant energy drives the change in the flavor compounds.”

The portfolio of wineries that Chris covers with his winemaking is focused on mountain fruit. “We have vineyards on Howell, Spring and Veeder [mountains] that have exceptional merlot and I was, for a while, blending it into cabernets because it adds interesting things,” he said. Explaining the evolution to varietally-labeled merlots, he continued, “but I like underdogs, and merlot is an underdog, and I realized I had some outstanding wines that were 100% merlot and I wondered why we were blending them away. Why do the French and the Italians have a monopoly on really expensive bottles of merlot at the quality level that really can carry that price point? Here in the States [we couldn’t do that]. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to reintroduce merlot at that same level as we think about brands like Petrus or Masseto or Cheval Blanc to a certain degree, because we have those kinds of vineyards. If you’re growing it and making it right, you have the kind of quality here [in Napa] that we do with cabernet.”


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

This really benefited from a 3 hour decant, which allowed the tannins to smooth and integrate nicely. The modest nose features cocoa dusted cherry, light roast ground espresso bean, graphite, blood orange and faint camp fire. This is full bodied on the palate with juicy acidity and tannins that are initially broad and densely grainy, but which smooth around the edges with air. The structure has achieved a uniform feel. The flavors ride the boisterous acid with evident joy as they hit on red currant, plum, cherry, strawberry, graphite and dry dirt, finishing with a small floral flourish. 91 points. Value: A.


Pahlmeyer, a member of this pantheon of benchmark merlot producers in California, is like Carpenter keen on producing merlot that competes with the quality of the great merlots of the world. Cleo Pahlmeyer told me she believes that Sideways wasn’t the catalyst for the merlot market’s collapse, but rather just well-timed with a saturation of bad merlot in the marketplace. Cleo is now the general manager of the winery, which was started by her father.

“Our first vintage at the winery was 1986, and my father’s dream was to make a Bordeaux-style red wine. Back then, Napa wasn’t known as place for cabernet, so this was a relatively novel goal,” she said. “We made our first merlot in 1988 or 1989 after a barrel tasting with our then-winemaker Randy Dunn. He and my father came across a barrel of merlot [that was going to be blended] that blew them away. It was a complete wine.”

“There’s one merlot descriptor that I hate,” Cleo said. “It’s my snobby wine self saying this, but it’s “smooth” and I hate it.” She hates it because “smooth” implies a level of simplicity that merlot can surpass. Benchmark bottles offer more complexity and texture than the simplistic profile that merlot used to carry when “smooth” first became a widespread attribute of the grape.

Pahlmeyer grows their merlot at the higher elevation points in their vineyards, just like Chris’ wineries. “We grow our merlot on the upper part of our estate vineyard,” Cleo explained. “It’s at about 2000 feet of elevation and sits on top of the mountain. You can see it from vantage points along Highway 29. It gets a lot more sunlight and it stays above the fog. The soil has relatively poor natural nutrients and we keep the yields low by dropping fruit. The clusters are small, the berries are small, and so it develops great tannin and body and quality.”

In Washington State, north of California, merlot has held a special place since the early founding of the industry there dating back to the 1800s. “In Washington, they stayed the course on making quality merlot. They didn’t rip out vines, just kept growing and going. What goes into varietally labeled [Washington] merlot is the best of the best.” This is what Constance Savage of Washington’s historic L’Ecole No. 41 told me.

“Washington State is a great producer of Bordeaux varieties. We are actually a more consistent supplier of those wines at better prices than California. We have no coastal weather issues and because we get no rain, we can control the vines’ water intake [through irrigation]. We have great wind, our soil is well-draining. We’re further north so we get more light and our grapes ripen every year. It’s the perfect place for merlot. As merlot comes back, Washington is going to be the leader in quality.”


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High Value: 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley

The reticent nose offers an array of red and blue fruit, baking spice, vanilla and hot cocoa. It’s full bodied on the palate as the tannins are fine grained, dense and mouth coating. The acid is bright and juicy. It boasts an engaging texture. The flavors include blueberry, strawberry, plum, boysenberry, cinnamon, cassis, black currant and graphite. The more serious of the two L’Ecole merlots, it offers some upside with three to five years of aging. 92 points. Value: A.


Those are fighting words, but Washington State has been producing high quality merlot for decades, and L’Ecole as long been recognized as being at the tip of that spear. Washington wine industry people have long praised L’Ecole’s role in the industry but they’ve long been recognized well outside the state as well. Wine & Spirits Magazine put L’Ecole on its list of the top-100 wineries of 2019, the 15th time that L’Ecole has been placed on that list, making it one of 15 wineries to be included in it that many times.

“We’ve been in merlot since 1983 [at L’Ecole]. That was the first vintage at the winery, and we led with merlot and semillon.” Located in the southeast corner of the state in Walla Walla, L’Ecole remains one of the most consistent produces of high quality and reasonably priced wines in the state.

Coming from over two decades in the importing business, Savage feels that “Sideways obliterated the market for merlot. It was really tough until four or five years ago. But it improved the quality of merlot everywhere.” Five years after the movie, she began to realize it was time to start re-ordering merlot again because wineries “were really putting their best wines forward.”

“When I worked with the producers, we would talk about what to do with their merlot vines. [A common discussion was whether they] should they rename their bottles with proprietary names rather than varietally? Yet every year, when I would get my sales team of over 100 people together and get their feedback, in the early 2010s, there was noticeable turn-around for merlot.”

Ary from Duckhorn also noted the five year mark as an important one. “The last couple of years, merlot sales are way up – they are starting to plateau, I think, but the last five years, the number really rose, especially in the luxury merlot tier. Super premium merlot is selling better and better.” In 2017, Wine Spectator made Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms merlot it’s wine of the year. “The number one award helped push [sales] along, but it had been trending that way previously. It gave a nice boost.”


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Worthy Cellar Buy: 2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot W.S. Keyes Vineyard

A nose more reminiscent of Saint-Julien than most of Napa Valley, the fruit is just spectacular. It’s as if an entire farmer’s market fruit section comprised of perfectly ripe fruit has been bottled in this wine. This vision is augmented by kirsch liqueur, cassis, cardamom, pencil lead and light roast coffee. It is full bodied with dense and well-tuned fine-grained tannin. The acid is similarly precise, and the balance stands up to some of the finest of the Old World. The flavors pop in an unusually juicy manner with blackberry, boysenberry, licorice, cherry jam and charcoal. This has two decades of positive evolution ahead of it. I’d wait at least six years to crack this one open. 94 points. Value: C.


An important element of L’Ecole’s business model, especially with merlot, is to “keep the price point low” and the quality high, Constance told me. “We produce 45,000 cases per year, which is pretty big for Washington in terms of family-owned, mid-sized wineries. We want to be able to move and sell our wines so we know the quality-to-price ratio needs to be great.”

Another top tier merlot house is Rutherford Hill, located in Napa Valley, where the grape comprises 75% of wine production. I spoke with their winemaker, Marisa Taylor, who started at Rutherford “right around the time of Sideways” and had come from making pinot noir. “Like pinot drinkers, merlot drinkers are very loyal,” she explained. “They seek you out, they hold you to a standard, and they’re rarely disappointed.”

“Merlot used to be a generic word for red wine, especially in a tasting room, like “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux,”” Taylor observed, noting that it’s still important to dispel this myth. “We try to show the diversity that merlot can develop by farming it in different locations and bottling single vineyard designates. For example, our Atlas Peak is very different from our Oakville. Our tasting room pourers do a lot of education – they actually approach it like a bartender by asking about preferences and choosing wines to pour.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and I discussed the Napa price points and bang for the buck, and she offered a point of view I consider very on-point. “If you’re looking for a good wine with a budget around $75 and you want to buy a Napa cabernet, don’t buy it. Buy merlot because at that price point you’re going to get so much more quality and better wine with a merlot at the price point.”

Duckhorn’s Ary made a similar argument when I spoke with her. “Merlot has become really polarizing out there [because] there is not good mid-[price] range quality merlot. There is either really good, well-made merlot, or the flip side of that. Sideways was good in a sense that it helped weed out the less serious producers.”

On the topic of sales, Palhmeyer note that “we’ve never had a problem selling out merlot. It has a following that’s remained steady of the years in part because it is regarded as a classic Napa Valley wine.” Giving a nod to the role Duckhorn has played in promoting merlot, she said that because of what Duckhorn has done for the varietal, “Palhmeyer doesn’t have to do much.”

With merlot having rebounded significantly over the last five or so years, I wanted to ask the people I spoke to for this article about the grape’s prospects for the future. It has been well documented that Millennials, now the largest purchasers of wine in the United States, have very different buying habits from their predecessors: they spend less, are more experimental, care less about winery and vineyard prestige, want unusual grapes and seek out wines made using unusual techniques or technology. Merlot is expensive, traditional, found among prestigious producers and anything but unusual. It seemed to me that there is reason for merlot producers to be concerned about the long-term commercial prospects of the grape.


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

A slight reticence on the nose tells me this needs at least another two to three years in bottle to come out of its shell. So far, it’s giving muddled cherry and blackberry, clove, nutmeg and scorched earth. An elegant medium-plus body, the tannins are nicely refined and line up well with the smooth and integrated acid. This has a serious structure that demands some patience. Serious loam and dry earth mineralilty goes well with cherry, blueberry, blackberry, dried seaweed, tobacco and blood orange zest. Already very tasty, this offers great promise with short to medium-term aging. If drinking in the next two years, decant this for an hour or two if you can. 92 points. Value: A.


Ary was the first to admit that Millennials are “a different market. They are looking for different things.” She explained that Duckhorn is more traditional than trendy, and that is in part because “wines tend to represent their winemakers. I’m more traditional of a person,” even though she knows traditional wine “doesn’t always appeal to Millennials.”

Nevertheless, Ary and Duckhorn are not planning to change the way they make wine in any big ways. “If our tastes didn’t evolve,” Ary noted, “then we would still be drinking sweet wine,” a reference to America’s preference for sweet wine for the better part of its history. “[Tastes] may ebb and flow, but ultimately if it’s a classic wine then it’ll stick around.”

Carpenter had similar thoughts. “Millennials are drinking different, more esoteric wines,” he said, which certainly seems true if you read the wine blogs and visit the hipster somm wine stores and bars popping up across America. “But there are not a lot of people producing these esoteric wines [relative to the size of the industry], and those that are don’t do it in big volumes. You can speculate as to what variety is going to go where and how Millennials will jump on it, but the fact of the matter is there isn’t any one variety or style that has started to dominate the Millennial demographic.”

Chris made an important point about not just what grapes go into these “esoteric” wines, but also how the winemakers approach them. “The wines I produce focus first and foremost on the land. These new wines that appeal to Millennials, however, are more about techniques than terroir. If you start to involve techniques or technology [that go beyond basic winemaking] , what you’re doing is you’re changing that understanding of the land. A lot of natural wines I’ve tasted, they don’t taste like the vineyard; they taste like the winemaker. Some of them are good, but my style is to highlight the land [rather than myself].”

This fundamental difference is key to understanding where merlot is going as a commercial product. If we look at France, where wine has been around much longer as a mainstream consumer product than in the United States, Chris noted that “traditional grapes and winemaking have done well for a couple hundred years. That’s because Bordeaux is the right place to grow cabernet and merlot, and Burgundy is the right place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.” His larger point: long-term success in wine is about finding the right match of varieties with locations.

Every winemaker consulted for this article shared an appreciation for merlot as a blending grape as well. Carpenter blends it into several hugely successful blends and cabernet sauvignon-designates under various labels. “I use merlot to add complexity and another layer of experience [for the consumer].” One way it’s useful is in the tannin department as a way to smooth out, or “mitigate” to use Chris’ term, the heavy and sometimes grippy sensation of cabernet tannin. “It helps make it a little more texturally silky.”

Ary stated boldly that “it takes a good merlot to make a good cabernet. Merlot is good for midpalate, weight and plushness. It is the go-to for filling out a holey cabernet.”

Carpenter explained that “merlot has different phenolics, and by blending it you’re layering those in. That’s what I use all my blenders for [regardless of grape]. I don’t blend just for fun – though blending is kind of fun – I’m doing it because each one of those [five Bordeaux grapes he uses across his portfolio] adds something unique to the base blend of cabernet. It’s like a spice component in cooking.”

Many cooks have their go-to spices that they are always sure to keep on hand. For producers of Bordeaux (and Bordeaux-style) wines, merlot is certainly one of them. If you start taking a look at how much merlot is in the wines you already drink – especially if you drink varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon – you may feel a bit remorseful about the last bad thing you said about merlot. It is one of the most important red grapes grown today.


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Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

A very fruit and oak-forward nose, giving cherry, black currant, plum, and toasted oak. It’s full-bodied with a smooth combination of tannin and acid, it delivers in the structure department and with just a bit of grip is made for a burger. Flavors hew close to the nose: cherry, black and red currant, black plum, baking spice, black pepper spice and a small hint of sweet mint on the back end. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with some simple red meat or barbecue. 89 points. Value: A.


And if you haven’t had a high quality merlot recently, you might be surprised. The wines I tasted for this article demonstrated compelling varietal typicity, senses of place, layers and complexity, refinement, elegance and, yes, intrigue. Some of them are better than many, if not most, similarly priced cabernet sauvignons. I make this last point because when it comes to food pairings, the Venn Diagram of merlot and cabernet shows a lot of overlap. If you placed the wines reviewed in this article in a blind tasting with cabernets of equal quality, the merlots would do better than many would expect.

So, heading into the winter when temperatures drop and we start reaching for heavier reds, it is the perfect time to give merlot another try. Let go of your previous notions of the grape, open your mind and head for the merlot isle (or section on the website). Take a deep breath, put a few in your cart and share them with your family and friends. And, pay attention to the role merlot places in the red wines you drink; it’s not by accident that talented winemakers everywhere use it in their best wines. Let the final few months of 2019 be the time you reacquaint yourself with merlot.

Other merlot reviews:

2014 Alcance Merlot Gran Reserva (Chile) – The dark nose boasts penetratingly deep sweet oak, maraschino cherry, smoke, black plum, black currant and cassis. It’s full bodied and lush on the palate with fully integrated tannin and surprisingly tart acid, which throws the balance a bit on what is otherwise a nice structure. Flavors are a combination of raspberry, strawberry, tar, tobacco leaf and ground slightly bitter espresso bean. It finishes with a slightly floral note. Were it for less sharp and better integrated acid, this would be a really enjoyable wine. 88 points. Value: C.

2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard – The exquisite nose offers aromas of lilac, rose petal, crushed Sweetarts, dehydrated strawberry, boysenberry, loam, pink peppercorn and graphite. It has a plush full body with sweet, fine grained Earl Grey tannin that blankets the palate and fine, precise acid that establishes needed tension. The structure is elegant and refined. The flavors are deeply layered and more confrontational than the nose, offering sweet plum, strawberry, tar, bitter cocoa, loam, black pepper and cassis. This is an expertly crafted with great potential to elevate itself over the next 10-20 years. 93 points. Value: C-.

2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosché Vineyard – The aromas carry a sensual air about it, offering sweet cherry, mountain strawberry, crushed gravel, smashed flower petals and potting soil. On the palate, it has a full and svelte body with tightly-woven tannin and well-balanced acid. The structure holds a lot of promise with more age. The flavors check in with bruised cherry and blackberry, mocha, clove and pipe tobacco. While enjoyable now with a few hours in the decanter, I think this will improve demonstrably with at least five more years of bottle age. 92 points. Value: B.

2016 Hickinbotham Merlot The Revivalist (Australia) – A boisterous nose, it wafts sweet hickory smoke, eucalyptus, chewing tobacco, boysenberry, cherry preserves and orange zest. It hits a medium plus stature, the tannins are long, dense and restrained while the acid is slightly elevated. The structure and balance are professional and suggest the making of a wonderful steakhouse wine. The flavors balance nicely between cherry, strawberry, plum, iron, wet dark soil, toasted oak and unsweetened peppermint that collectively produce a deep, penetrating wine. This needs a few hours in the decanter, or better yet, at least five years in the cellar as there’s more there to develop. 92 points. Value: C.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Merlot Grand Reserve – The nose boasts toasted oak, wet gravely soil, strawberry and cherry. Its medium bodied with bright acid and weighty, but fairly imperceptible, tannin. The structure is solid and mouthfeel smooth. The flavors mostly ride the juicy acid and come in slightly sweet: fruit punch, finely ground dark roast coffee bean and cocoa powder. The finish adds sweet orange zest. Easy drinking. 89 points. Value: B.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Estate Walla Walla Valley – The deeply saturated nose wafts dark cherry sauce, black plum, cassis, beef jerky, graphite minerality and smokey black pepper. It’s not quite full-bodied, featuring round and broad tannins that are well integrated and nicely balanced with modest acid. The structure is classic high quality merlot. Flavors are as much savory as sweet due to strong doses of saline and dried tarragon. On the fruit side there’s cherry pit, strawberry, Acai, red plum and dried goji berry. Structurally this wine is ready to go, I say drink over the next five years. 90 points. Value: B.

2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot – The nose offers really bright red and black currants and plums, red beat juice, graphite and mocha. Just short of full-bodied, this is a flirty wine on the palate due to lip-smackingly juicy acid that feels a few years shy of full integration. The tannins are just slightly chewy and sneak up on you with time in the mouth. The components and stuffing are there to build a top-shelf structure with another 5-10 years of aging. Flavors hit on cherry, plum, currant, bitter cocoa, graphite and wet, dense soil. The finish brings a tangy and incense-driven twist. 93 points. Value: B.

2015 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot – A very plummy nose that also offers graphite, black tea bag and muddled cherry. Medium bodied with modest, smooth tannin. The acid, unfortunately, is bracingly sharp and seemingly volatile. It’s just off. Fruit flavors are on the darker and purpler sides with blueberry, plum and firm blackberry, while strong doses of cigar tobacco and graphite provide variety. The acid being off doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. 84 points. Value: F.

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Bennett Valley – The nose has a nice combination of black plum, boysenberry, muddled and mulberry-spiced blueberry and violet, though it has a slightly alcoholic kick at the very end that I imagine will fade with time. Its medium bodied with slightly thin acid and diffuse, fine-grained tannin. The structure has everything it needs to be complete but isn’t actually cohesive or substantive. Similar to the nose, The fruit flavors are blue, though the blueberry far out plays the boysenberry here. Mocha swirls around the fruit, as does pencil shavings and purple florals. There are attractive elements to this, but it’s hard to get past what feels like a missed opportunity to build a more substantive structure. 90 points. Value: D.

2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot – This is a stiff, tight wine. I ended up decanting it for 24 hours and it’s still very closed. This needs years. At the moment, it has a subdued nose of muddled cherry, loam, graphite, tar, turkey jerky and mountain strawberry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with dense and fine-grained oak tannin that coats the mouth and finishes slightly bitter, all the while overpowering the juicy acid. This has the structure of a wine that can evolve over two decades. Flavors hit on cherry, espresso, black pepper, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I wouldn’t touch this for another seven years (at least). It has tremendous upside. 91 points. Value: D.

2016 Rutherford Hill Merlot Cask Reserve – A potent nose delivers hedonistic aromas maraschino cherry, fruit leather, sweet dark cocoa, wet soil and graphite minerality, black pepper and sweat leather. It’s full bodied with significant fine grained tannin and juicy, sharp acid. The fruit is quite pure, dominated at the moment by red varieties of plum, strawberry, tart cherry and rhubarb. There are shadows of blood orange, cigarette tobacco and espresso grounds. This is showing a lot of promise, it will grow into something really impressive in another five plus years. 92 points. C-.

2015 Rutherford Hill Merlot Napa Valley – The nose features sweet aromas of spiced cherry and blackberry compotes, leather, cola and vanilla. The full body offers refined grainy tannin that is well integrated with modest acid that combine to produce a seamless and velvety mouthfeel. Raspberry, cherry, orange zest, spicy black pepper and bitter cinnamon. It’s a complete if singular merlot. 91 points. A.

2014 Rutherford Hill Oakville Merlot – This does benefit from decanting. The nose is perfumed and elevated, quite beautiful and delicate. It offers red currant, red plum, holiday fruit cake, loam, well-worm leather and violet. The full body is built on a dense and cocoa powder-dusty tannin structure and moderate acid. The flavors include raspberry, strawberry, under ripe boysenberry, dark cocoa, graphite minerality and a blood orange kick on the finish. This is tasty, but it needs 3-5 years to unwind and really express itself, and will then evolve nicely for another 5-10 years. 92 points. Value C.

2013 Rutherford Hill Merlot Atlas Peak – The reserved but elegant nose offers cassis, pipe tobacco, dark chocolate cocoa powder, cherry compote, violet and high toned blood orange. The medium-weighted body offers densely packed fine grain tannin that oozes class. It balances beautifully with broad acid. The flavors are only starting to delineate: ripe strawberry, red plum, red currant, moist dark earth, graphite, unsweetened baking chocolate and a tomato leaf burst on the finish. This needs a few more years to fully unwind. 93 points. B+.

Try this Wine: Contrasting Food & Wine Pairings

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Pairing wine and food can be daunting, even for the well-trained. The most famous guidance, to match red wine with meat and white wine with seafood, actually turns out to be relatively true in theory but also misguided in reality. It’s too unscientific to be universal, and misses the critical factor that how something is seasoned and cooked is as, if not more, important than what it is before it’s cooked.

One of my favorite pairings is steak au poivre with a really well-aged dry or semi-dry riesling, which is a perfect example of why that famous guidance is misleading. In general, wine should be more acidic than the food. This is especially true when the food is fatty, like this steak example, because the acid helps our taste buds and digestion process the fat, allowing more flavors to be detectable while making the meal go down a bit easier. Also, white wine tends to provide more contrast to the food, any food, than does red wine, so if you want the wine to stand up to, and stand out from, the heavy steak, a white is better suited to do that.

This last point on contrasting versus complementary wine and food pairings is really the main point of this post. When people think about pairing food and wine, they often default to finding the complementary pairing. Not only is it easier, but it’s more natural – we tend to look for compatibility in nearly every aspect of life – and can be very satisfying if achieved.

However, what I want to suggest in this post is that successful contrasting wine and food pairings can be both more fun and more satisfying. Here is another example: there’s nothing better than a fried fish sandwich with a good bottle of trousseau to wash it down.

I'm glad we're the kind of people who aren't above pairing wine with nachos.

Source: someecards.com

Pre-planned pairings aside, sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a good pairing. One of my wife’s favorite games to play is getting through dinner and a glass of wine, and then asking if she can have (insert random snack) with another glass. It can drive me crazy, especially when it’s a special bottle of wine and she asks about a poorly fitting snack.

Earlier this week, I opened a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown chardonnay, a nice bottle from a now non-operational winery using grapes from a phenomenal vineyard. I had made a big salad topped with sautéed radishes, roasted acorn squash, tomatoes, apples and shrimp. The wine was a bit too acidic and lean for the salad, so the plan became to enjoy the wine after the meal was over.

When we finished the salad, Kayce began her game. She asked if the wine would go with Goldfish crackers. My instincts kicked in and I nearly defaulted to “no,” but I hesitated as I thought about it. “You know what, that might actually work.” She grabbed the Goldfish, and oh man, it was awesome. We had stumbled on to brilliance.

Let me show you what I mean by comparing the tasting notes of the wine pre and post Goldfish. Here’s a note on the aromas, which don’t change with the food, just to get it out of the way: a high-toned and slightly austere bouquet combining sharp lemon and lime zests, slate and crushed gravel, spring flower petals and honeysuckle.

Pre-Goldfish palate: barely medium-bodied with very crisp, slightly juicy acid that is quite long and precisely linear. Flavors include Meyer lemon, tangerine juice, slate minerality, Kaffir lime leaf and starfruit.

Now, here is the post-Goldfish palate: medium-plus in body with rounder, softer and buoyant acid that cuts through the cheese flavor nicely. The palate broadens, adding just a bit of sweetness and more acidic grip to the texture. It’s a more pleasant version of itself with the Goldfish pairing, and more enjoyable to drink.

I had so much fun with the pairing that I posted the above picture of the bottle with the Goldfish on Instagram and had a back-and-forth with friend and fellow wine blogger Isaac Baker of Terroirist.com. Isaac has done this kind of pairing before, and added that Goldfish go particularly well with Champagne. I’m curious to try that combination, and experiment with other cheesy crackers and bright white wines.

These unexpected wine-food combos that work because they contrast each other, rather than complement each other, are really satisfying because they are surprising and don’t hew to normal comfort zones. Try some contrasting wine-food pairings because no one should live their culinary lives according to what they already know. To provide some motivation, here are a few good places to start:

  • A sharp chardonnay with a cheesy cracker – look for wines that are lightly oaked or made in stainless or concrete. Quality producers in go-to regions make this easy. You can find these wines really anywhere in the world, but for short cuts check out Chablis, Oregon and the following spots in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma.
  • Fried fish sandwich with trousseau – there isn’t a lot of trousseau out there, but from my experience those who make it do it in the traditional fashion (i.e. light to medium bodied with good acid and fine tannin), which is what you want for this. We had a 2017 Arnot-Roberts trousseau from the North Coast of California with our fried fish sandwiches last weekend, and the duo brought the house down with my in-laws. Traditionally most trousseau comes from the Jura region in France, but there are good producers of it elsewhere. For the record, we make our fried fish sandwiches with lightly breaded and pan-fried white fish (catfish, porgy and cod all work well), processed cheese, Portuguese rolls and a sauce made in equal parts of ketchup, whole grain mustard and mayonnaise. Don’t dare use real cheese, I promise you it isn’t nearly as good.
  • Fried chicken and Champagne (or other acidic sparkling wine) – this is one of those under-the-radar classic food pairings. The acid and bubbles cut through the fattiness and crispiness of the chicken beautifully and can help you put down that last drumstick you wouldn’t otherwise consider a smart move. The beauty of this pairing is you can be flexible with the chicken and the wine. For the chicken, even the KFCs and Bojangles deliver in very real ways. For the wine, you need good acid and bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne, but Cremants from Burgundy, Loire and Jura work beautifully as well, as do some of the better sparkling wines made elsewhere.
  • Steak au Poivre and an aged dry or semi-dry riesling – this isn’t easy to pull off, but if done right the fattiness and pepper of the steak goes just perfectly with the acid and nuttiness of an aged riesling. For this, quality matters because cheap beef tastes bad and cheap riesling can’t reach the point of maturation needed. The cut of beef matters less than the quality and preparation, but for my money I go with hanger steak. On the wine side, go for trusted producers with at least ten years of age (15 or more is preferable) that have been properly stored the entire time. Don’t go sweeter than German’s Kabinett classification (maximum 188 grams of sugar per liter).
  • Potato chips and Champagne (optional: and caviar) – late night snack craving meets fine wine meets decadence. In an ideal world, I’d start every dinner party with a plate of potato chips topped with caviar and glasses of Champagne.
  • Dry sparkling wine with mac and cheese – this works best if the cheese is a soft and creamy variety.
  • Full bodied chardonnay and bacon – I’ve not tried this yet, but a friend of mine swears by it. I’m told it’s critical that the chardonnay be rich enough to stand up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, which makes good sense. Just make sure not to lose chardonnay’s acid as it is key to handling the bacon’s fat.

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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Here are two things most people don’t buy: merlot, and rosé that costs $34. I’m going to try to convince you to do both, at the same time, with the 2018 Rosé of Merlot from Napa’s Rutherford Hill. Rutherford is one of the most respected merlot houses in the United States, and they graciously sent me six different merlots for my research on the variety and the upcoming merlot article I’m writing. Tucked among this half case was the rosé, like an oasis amongst the sand. I opened it with some friends and after polishing off the bottle in no time, knew it deserved a stand-alone piece.

Part of the reason I’ve been focused on merlot recently is that the variety has gotten a terribly unfair shake, and though its reputation has improved among aficionados, it hasn’t recovered in the mainstream consciousness despite the ratio of good and bad merlot in the market having flipped, in a positive sense, over the last decade or so. People are missing out on terribly good wine.

The problem, to certain extent, starts with the polarizing reaction to the word “merlot.” This knee jerk reflex often comes from one or both of two factors: what we associate mentally when we hear the word, and what we expect to taste when it is poured for us. If the mental association is off, it’s hard to get the taste right, and so it begins with what we say and think.

Terminology gives us words and creates thoughts, and in the wine business terminology is confusing and complicated, which is unfortunate because it is crucially important to connecting customers with wines that meet their preferences and standards. Americans have never been great about this, a great example being that in America in the early 1900s to even as late as the 1980s, “Chablis” meant white wine and “Burgundy” meant red wine for many people. Though wholly inaccurate and also illegal given the French laws governing the use of those names, it wasn’t baseless in the sense that Chablis, France, produced white wine and Burgundy, France produced red wine.

Though our wine parlance has come a long way since then, becoming substantially more specific and accurate, in the interim period merlot was commonly used as a generic reference to red wine as much as it was intended to refer to the specific variety, leading people to associate merlot with generic red wine. Merlot’s market saturation in the 1980s and 1990s, a conscious industry choice because it was cheap to mass produce, led to copious amounts of generic-tasting red wine made from the grape, which didn’t do many positive things for the variety’s reputation.

Now, though, thankfully and finally, it’s because of high quality, diligent and passionate producers like Rutherford Hill (and Duckhorn, and Mt. Brave, and Leonetti, and others) that merlot has a reputation specific to itself (at least among those paying attention), affording it a greater opportunity to shape what people think about it rather than the other way around.

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Rutherford Hill

Merlot not only makes a complete and complex wine on its own, but it fulfills two really critical additional roles: a blending work horse and a savior for many a cabernet sauvignon. Many of the best red wines, whether labeled as a single variety or a blend, significantly and uniquely benefit from merlot’s participation. Even if you don’t buy wines labeled as merlot, you likely get your fair share of it if you’re drinking other reds. Where it doesn’t show up very often, though, is on the label of rosé. And if the 2018 Rosé of Merlot from Rutherford Hill is any indication, that’s a real shame.

In the same way that merlot can be a complete and complex red wine, it can be a complete and complex rosé as well. Rutherford’s winemaker, Marisa Taylor, walked me through the winemaking process, which begins by a goal of making an intentional rosé. It’s unsurprising that the start of any good rosé’s story begins with the winemaker’s intent to make rosé. Many wineries produce their rosé with the leftover wine from their red wine production, which is the first step in making bad rosé. The reason for this comes down to acid and sugar. Red wine is served best by less acid and more sugar in its grapes that rosé, so the point of grape maturation is important for both. Ideally, a rosé comes from grapes harvested earlier than grapes harvested for red wine, when acid is higher and sugar is lower.

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

Like they do in the rosé mecca of Provence, a region known for pale-colored rosé with bright acid, juicy red fruit flavors and floral aromas, Marisa harvests the grapes for this wine on the early side, at night when the temperature is cool, and puts them straight into the press where they receive a very gentle pressing (on par with Champagne-level pressure) so as not to extract too much color or tannin. This is the ideal genesis story for many who love rosé wine.

The block where the grapes come from was specifically chosen to make a special rosé because of Marisa’s association of drinking rosé by the water while relaxing with family and friends on vacation. She honed in on this specific block because it is boarded on two-and-a-half sides by a pond and blankets a rise in the terrain, a setting that she described as very peaceful. The grapes from it are known to produce wonderful aromatics as well, a key component of a compelling rosé.

The concept and execution pays off. The wine manages to offer both a substantive and complex profile and the refreshing brightness and juiciness of a stellar rosé. This is likely every bit as rewarding and compelling as your favorite $34 white or red wine. Try this wine because substantive rosés are rare in availability and especially good, and because it’s a great way to experience an unfairly stereotyped grape.

Tasting note: This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but is balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed, and form a wonderfully layered palate. Among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal if you can wait long enough for the meal to be made. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

Simple: direct from the winery. It’s available in-person and online.

Try This Wine: Captûre Tradition Sauvignon Blanc

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Note: Several of these pictures were lifted straight from Captûre winemaker Sam Teakle’s Instagram, which is a great IG follow.

It happens to the best of us: you think you don’t like X, and then you have an X, and it’s really good, and you kick yourself for being close minded. I didn’t like mushrooms growing up, but something happened in college (not what you’re thinking) and I turned the corner. I’m sure everyone has a story like that. For years, I hated sauvignon blanc unless it was blended with semillon and aged in oak for a bit. Then, in 2017, I got to try Ehlers Estate’s sauvignon blanc from Napa and, poof, epiphany moment. Eat crow, Menenberg.

Since then, I’ve been more open to sauvignon blanc, which is to say, I’ve tried many more, and been disappointed a great many times. I’ve had a few compelling ones from Sancerre, but the next great sauvignon blanc came by way of the New Zealand project Loveblock by Erica and Kim Crawford. This was the sauvignon blanc that captured (no pun intended) me intellectually: it was tremendously interesting and very tasty. It represents a new, exciting and wholly welcomed rendition of New Zealand sauvignon blanc after an overwhelming wave of green and lean stuff from the Kiwis. Eat crow, Menenberg.

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A Captûre vineyard

That said, the best sauvignon blanc I’ve had to date is an even more recent revelation to me: the 2017 Captûre Wines Sauvignon Blanc Tradition. Captûre was founded in 2008 in California’s Mayacamus Mountains, and includes some of the most remote and high-elevation vineyards in California. In 2015, Australian Sam Teakle took over winemaking responsibilities. Earlier this year, Kayce and I had the chance to have dinner with Sam and taste his wines along with our friend Ryan O’Hara of The Fermented Fruit.

Sam came in to dinner star struck over a recent chance encounter with the Australian womens hockey team. Though it took a glass or two of wine, and many laughs, to move on from this airport run-in to politics to a good number of other entertaining conversations, we eventually and reluctantly got down to wine business. We talked tannins, Napa viniculture, oak programs and a good number of other items.

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We tasted one of his sauvignon blancs, but quickly moved on to the stellar red blends and cabernets, which use fruit from high elevation and often steep vineyards and are made with traditional winemaking methods and a light touch. I found them to be elegant and refined and are wines I’d be happy to have in my cellar for a decade or two. Sam had a good deal to say about them, but when he asked me at the end if I wanted to revisit any of them, I found myself wanting to go back to the sauvignon blanc. Eat crow, Menenberg.

Captûre’s Tradition sauvignon blanc, like the Loveblock I had tasted a few months earlier, offered more substance, weight and depth than I had been accustomed to finding in the variety. I had always thought of sauvignon blanc as a lean, citrusy and acidicly- sharp wine that was simple and even sometimes unpleasantly bitter. The Captûre Tradition proves all this wrong – it proves the haters wrong – at an incredibly reasonable price of $25. It will over-deliver as a pop-and-pour summer white wine, and sufficient seriousness and complexity to be decanted for an hour and enjoyed over the course of an evening. Try this wine for an incredibly refreshing AND substantive white wine.

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Picture Credit: wine-searcher.com

Tasting note: This has a wonderful, rich nose of pineapple, green apples, flint shavings, green mango and green pepper corns. It’s full bodied for a sauvignon blanc, with precise and slightly gritty acid that plumps up the juiciness of the fruit, which comes by way of apricot, lemon curd, sweet mango and just a slight kick of blood orange. It maintains great salinity to balance the sweet fruit, and finishes with wet slate, marjoram and white pepper. The mouthfeel on this is spectacular, with a round plumpness and lean, slightly twitchy acid finding harmony with each other. A very impressive wine. 94 points. Value: A+.

Where to buy

The most obvious place to get this wine is direct from the winery itself, which ships. The current vintage available on the website is the 2018. The 2017 can still be found at a few places courtesy of wine-searcher.com.

Berkley, CA: Solano Cellars

Minneapolis area, MN: Ace Wine, Spirits & Beer

Nationally: Wine.com

You can find the 2016, which I’m sure is still singing beautifully, here:

Los Angeles, CA: Mission Wine & Spirits

Chester, NJ: Shop-Rite

Clark, NJ: Wine Anthology

Metuchen, NJ: Wine Chateau

Bronx, NY: Skyview Wine & Spirits

New York, NY: Sherry-Lehmann

Try this Wine: Amazing Spring Whites

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Spring in the vineyard. Credit: Christoph Wurst (unaltered).

Spring is here, and if you live in a climate like ours’ in Washington, DC, you know that it unfortunately will not last long. I see the humidity on the horizon. Though we’re a winter white wine house (we drink a lot of white when the temperature drops), this is the season of transition for most people when they go from red to white wine. Rosé is often the transition wine, and I’m sure your local wine store is stocked deep with it.

Sometimes there’s no better pairing than a warm spring Sunday afternoon and a magnum of rosé, I’ll admit, but other times nothing beats an acid-driven full-bodied white wine. A really good one is going to offer more complexity that most any rosé, and when you want a more serious spring wine, that’s when whites out-perform rosé. The heat of spring isn’t so strong as to prevent enjoyment of a wine with some barrel aging, so you can go that route if you like, nor is it too hot for a wine with substantive depth.

The profile of white that I’m suggesting – some weight, multiple layers of flavor, thick acid – is also more versatile food-wise than many other wines. This is to say, it can hold its own with grilled vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish as well as red-fruited wines like pinot noir, trousseau, gamay, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Just because you’re going to a friend’s grill-out doesn’t mean you should avoid white wine.

I’m sharing four wines that I’ve had recently that blew me away for one reason or another. Three are from California, two of which I tasted in-person at the wineries in March. The forth is from Australia. All represent above-average values despite costing between $30 and $50 each. Some are easier to find than others, but all are worth seeking out.

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The first is Carlisle Winery’s Sonoma Mountain Steiner Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2017. A friend in the California wine business suggested I visit Carlisle on my most recent trip, and it did not disappoint. Known predominantly for complex and age-worthy zinfandels, I was blown away by the two white wines we tasted, this grüner and a field blend from a small little vineyard they split with Arnot-Roberts called Compagni Portis. I could’ve listed either or both here, but I went with the grüner solely because I have better notes on it.

The Steiner Vineyard has less than two acres of grüner, so there isn’t much of this wine. It’s almost as if the small amount of vines somehow inspire a similarly concentrated wine. It is produced in all stainless steel, and does not go through malolactic fermentation. The wonderful nose hews close to varietal typicity with stone fruit, vanilla, a cornucopia of citrus zests and white pepper. The palate is full bodied, plush and nervous. Flavors are similar to the nose, with pronounced white pepper and peach. The flint-infused acid provides a robust backbone. 92 points. Value: B+.

The next wine comes from Chimney Rock, a historic winery located in the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley. Established by a couple from South Africa in 1989, they built the gorgeous winery in the Cape Dutch-style architecture. The estate is known almost exclusively for its cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-based red blends, and has built a strong wine club following on that reputation. These wines have elegance woven into them, but for me their signature is more about robust tannin structure that for my palate needs a good ten-plus years post vintage to sufficiently soften.

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My tasting there was bookended by a rosé on the front end and a white wine on the tail end. The rosé, made of cabernet franc, was spectacular. Really, one of the best rosés I’ve had in recent memory. It has substance and some weight, two qualities I think are too often shunned to our detriment when it comes to rosé. That said, I’m equally excited to share their one and only white wine, a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris called Elevage Blanc, because I might have liked it even more than the rosé. It offers incredible smoothness in personality and feel. With a deft full body, it boasts loads of stone and tropical fruits, spicy zest, marzipan, slate and flint minerality and a smoky finish. If you tend to find sauvignon blanc too bitter and cutting, this is one that may change your mind. 93 points. Value: A-.

The final California wine comes from the prolific Copain Winery. It was founded in 1999 in the Russian River Valley, but it sources fruit from cool climate vineyards in Mendicino County, Anderson Valley and Sonoma. To give you some idea of why I call it prolific, the website currently lists 40 different wines for sale, including chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and rosé. I happen to know they also make trousseau. Copain represents incredible value, especially with their chardonnay.

Until I was sent a selection of recent and current release samples last year, I had been entirely spoiled in my Copain experience by having only well-aged wine from this estate. Copain makes age worthy wine as they produce wines with good acid and elegance, traits required to age well. In 2018 I had a 2010 Brousseau Vineyard chardonnay from them and loved it so much that when another of the same bottle showed up on Winebid earlier this year, I snatched it up. I imagine we’ll drink it before the summer is over. Most of their syrahs from the 00’s are drinking phenomenally right now. As I tasted my way through the younger samples, it became evident to me that I preferred age on their wines.

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One of the few exceptions to this is their Les Voisins chardonnay, of which I had the 2015. It was drinking gorgeously. The nose is just wonderful and engaging with rich honeyed cantaloupe, honeysuckle, lemon zest, crushed gravel, lemon curd and daffodil. It’s slightly on the heavy side of medium bodied. The level of polish on the structure elevates this to elegant status, and the slight streak of acid that runs through it keeps it interesting from first to last sip. The flavors are multifaceted: honeysuckle, peach, fresh apricot, honey dew and sweet lemon curd. It finishes on a wonderful green apple note and a textual sensation and flavor that conjures licking a slate slab. A fantastic wine. 94 points. Value: A.

For our last wine, we go to Australia and the Yangarra Estate in the McLaren Vale region, which focuses exclusively on southern Rhone Valley varieties. I had the pleasure of meeting Yangarra’s winemaker, Peter Fraser, to taste a new line of top-end wines, including the $72 Roux Beauté Roussanne and Ovitelli Grenache, $140 High Sands Grenache and $105 Ironheart Shiraz. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, talking with Peter or tasting these wines, but both made for a wonderful evening. Peter is one of the more detail-oriented winemakers I’ve met. I’ve tasted other wines priced like these with their respective winemakers, but few have made impressions like the one Chris did that justifies the price of their wine. The amount of effort and thought he puts into his craft is evident in his wines, but you don’t have to spend top dollar to experience it, either.

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Yangarra makes an Estate Roussanne for less than half the price of the Roux Beauté. I tasted the 2016. On first sip, it didn’t impress because it needed oxygen. With several hours of decanting, it began to reveal itself as a dynamic wine capable of putting on complexity and intrigue with more air or age. That is a clear sign of quality and precise attention to detail. The nose wafts lean aromas of sweet dandelion, mild Meyer lemon, tangerine peel and under ripe mango. It’s medium weight on the palate, with balanced and crisp acid that forms a nicely textured backbone. The flavors are just beginning to define themselves, and there is enough nuttiness already to suggest a really cool evolution over the following five-ish years, if not longer. Fresh almond, lean lemon, tart mango and pineapple, unsweetened vanilla, salty minerality and bitter greens form the basis of the flavor profile. Tasty now, it will develop complexity and a more dynamic structure as it ages. 90 points. Value: B-.

Each of these four wines are wonderful in their own ways, though none of them very similar to the others except for their ability to handle spring’s weather, parties and food. On those fronts, they are remarkably adept. Try these wines because the season calls for them.

Where to buy

Normally, I list half a dozen or so places where one can find a Try this Wine featured bottle, but with four I’m going to hyperlink directly to their respective winery-direct pages and wine-searcher.com links where you can search by state, zip code and/or ability to ship to your state.

Carlisle Gruner Veltliner winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Copain Les Voisins Chardonnay winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Yangarra Estate Roussane winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine

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All bottle shots were taken in the Octagon suite of the historic 1804 Inn at Barboursville Winery in Virginia

 

“The way we are selling wine in this country is failing.” That’s how Adam Lee started the interview. For a guy who makes a lot of wine – he is the winemaker of four distinctly different projects – he would have some ideas about the state of the wine industry, and he should care.

We’re on the phone to discuss Clarice Wine Company, a new project for a guy who has been making pinot noir, primarily in California, for over two decades. Adam and I first met when he joined a potluck that my now wife and I hosted, and we’ve stayed in touch. A number months ago he sent me samples of the three pinot noirs made under his new Clarice label, which are demonstrably different from the pinots made under the Siduri label, a well-known winery he and his wife, Diana Novy, opened in 1994, and where he still makes the wine despite selling it to Jackson Family Wines.

The two companies, Clarice and Siduri, are demonstrably and fascinatingly different in business model as well. While Siduri is a more traditional winery (direct to customer, wine club and retail sales with international distribution), Clarice is unique – and I mean that in the definitional sense of the word: one of a kind.

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Clarice H. Phears, Adam’s grandmother and namesake of Clarice Wine Company, whom he describes as “one of my closest friends growing up.”

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.

First, membership includes exclusive written content commissioned by Adam for his members. Adam solicits written pieces from experts in the wine industry and has a forum set up for members to interact with the authors and among themselves. “My members develop an interest in the complexities of the wine business as well [as the wine itself],” Adam told me. “For example, I had one guest blog post about winery financing from the Silicon Valley Bank, and there was a lot of back and forth between the members and the author [over our online forum]. I thought it might be a dry subject, but it wasn’t for the members. It solicited more responses [than many other more mainstream topics].” He also takes requests from members. For example, although he doesn’t make chardonnay, several members expressed interest in knowing more about how chardonnay was made, and so he asked Donald Patz of Patz and Hall fame to write about it.

Second, members have a private forum in which they can discuss anything they want among themselves. This feature of the membership feeds Adam’s desire for his customers to interact with each other – not just with Clarice. In addition to wine and the guest writer content, members have taken to discussing travel and other tips. “The members are crowd sourcing information,” Adam said. “I didn’t appreciate the power of the forum when I first put this thing together. People are getting better experiences when they travel to wine regions, even when it’s not related to Clarice, because of the forum.”

Third, there are parties: the Clarice wine release party and parties hosted at another wineries. This component of the membership is designed to help members expand their palates beyond Clarice with the added bonus of helping to create a sense of community among the members.

When asked about how he picks the wineries he approaches to host his members, he said that “it’s really about finding someone who is doing something interesting and educational. I don’t want anyone who will give a big sales pitch,” so it’s about finding people he knows who will provide an educational experience and extend deals to the members and really engage them.

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“I’ve always felt that when people are in the tasting room, if they leave with a bottle or case then that’s fine, but if they ask interesting questions and are engaged and really want to know what I’m doing, that’s the kind of experience I want my members to have. The [other winemakers and wineries] I select for my members feel the same about their interactions with Clarice members, and want to generate real interest.” Adam plans to add events outside California for members who aren’t local to the Golden State.

Finally, Adam negotiates discounts for his members with other wineries beyond these events. “It’s important that my members explore wines beyond those that I and my friends make,” Adam told me. “My wine universe is too small for anyone to have a well-rounded experience,” which any follower of his social media should find surprising.

Knowing the basic parameters of these benefits going into the interview, which are more expansive than any winery membership I’ve come across, I had to ask him why he was making such an investment in his members, especially when he’s capped it at roughly 625 slots (the cap is actually lower than that because he needs to base it on the worst case production scenario of a poor growing season). The answer comes down to how the wine industry is changing, and Adam’s love for the human element of the business.

“We had a period of time where tasting rooms – through the cellar door – was the primary way [that we sold wine in California], back in the 1970s. That was it,” he continued. “Then we moved into a time when wine critics really took over with [Robert] Parker, [Wine] Spectator and the like. Now I think the period of wine critics truly driving sales, though they’re not unimportant, has ended.”

When I began Good Vitis in October, 2017, I firmly believed that the handful of people in the industry who might came across the blog would dismiss it with no afterthought, because who cares about what yet-another-hobbyist thinks about wine, right? They weren’t going to hang a 93 point Good Vitis wine review around their wine on the store shelf, so what use was I to them? I couldn’t have been more wrong in my presumption that my opinions were what concerned them. Adam can explain:

“And [the point about critics driving sales] is not just wine. If you think about it, Siskel and Ebert use to drive movie viewership as well. And now we go to a model where it’s much more group recommendation [e.g. Rotten Tomatoes, online forums, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth], that type of thing. It’s been true with wine as well. I don’t think a 94 or 95 point rating all of a sudden means you sell out anymore. So people have gone back to more direct sales, but the problem is that the number of tasting rooms is so ubiquitous that people get lost.” Good Vitis, Adam is essentially saying, is part of the crowd that is being sourced these days.

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These observations get to the heart of Clarice Wine Company. “I think we need to come up with some new models to attract people to wine,” he told me. “We underestimate the importance of personal relationships that are developed around wineries. I never purchased software because I liked Bill Gates better than Steve Jobs, but with wineries you need to have that level of personal interaction to establish that personal connection that drives customers’ purchasing choices,” he said. I take his point that personalities (and likely world views) like those of Steve Jobs do tend to draw followers. To Adam’s credit, he has a personality that I have no doubt draws fans.

The cost to join Clarice is a very specific number: $962.92. I had to ask about this. The $2.92 comes from the portion that is taxable, which is the case of wine. The membership benefits themselves are not taxable because they provide legitimate benefits to the members. With another nod to his customers, Adam figured out what was the lowest reasonable amount he could charge for the wine so as to minimize the tax burden.

The bottles and labels themselves received serious design consideration and effort as well. The labels are beautifully designed and executed (despite Adam’s color blindness), and are true pieces of art. And the bottles bear a Chateauneuf de Pape -inspired custom cartouche. Both myself and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the ascetics of the Clarice Wine Company labels and bottles, Kayce because she photographs the bottles written about on Good Vitis and because she has a keen eye for visual design, and me because Adam and I share a love of Chateauneuf de Pape.

The juice inside the bottles are the best I’ve had from Adam. They are more structurally dense and layered than those in the Siduri line up. I wanted to know if this was a stylistic choice. “I wanted to pick earlier for Clarice than Siduri because, while I love Siduri wines, I wanted Clarice to be really age worthy,” he said in response to my observation. “I do more whole cluster – in the 54% to 58% range – as well. And I don’t pick at specific brix or pH levels.” Age-worthy wines require significant more structure and balance than other wines, meaning volumes of tannin, acid and alcohol in the right relations to  each other. Picking grapes earlier sets a winemaker up to make age-worthy wine by securing higher acid and tannin and minimizing sugar, which has an inverse relation to the final alcohol level.

At this juncture, I interrupted to ask how he thought the 2017 Clarices I tasted would age. “So far, my experience with this vintage, I drink them over 72 hours and they evolve nicely over that time.” This was ironic because I had decided to sample them over a 3-day window as well after having the first sip of each. The density on them is incredible, and it is immediately clear that they have a lot of stuffing to unpack, which only extended aging will do. Extended decanting helps dramatically in the short term, but isn’t a full substitute for cellaring when it comes to wines this complex.

“I felt good with the materials [grapes] and fermentation. I had native [primary] fermentation, native malolactic fermentation [a.k.a. secondary fermentation] and I did all hand punch downs. Three times per day during a five-day cold soak, then I dropped it down to twice per day during fermentation, then to once per day after that.” These efforts extract long-chain tannins from the skins, which are the softest and most pleasing of wine tannin types, and they are evident in the wine as the tannin structure is both substantive and elegant, which is a great sign for how these wines can improve over time.

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Another element that contributes to tannin development is oak. Going over the three bottles, Adam explained that “the Santa Lucia pinot has the least amount of new oak, about 30%. Gary’s Vineyard is in the sixties and Rosella’s is 83% new. All of it is French where I source barrels from two cooperages. This gives me two distinctly different styles. I have one that comes in with very light toasting and one that’s more heavily toasted. Both are air dried for three years.”

He explained that “although Gary’s and Rosella’s are both single vineyard wines, I still do a lot of barrel blending trials on them as well as the Santa Lucia, which is an appellation blend. After tasting barrels the first time, I put some blends together and wait a few weeks to see how they coalesce in oak. Then I taste and re-blend, wait a couple of months, and do it a final time.” Obsessive? Maybe a little, but the benefits are evident in the bottle.

The Gary and Rosella vineyards are well-known to Adam. He has an incredible list of vineyards that he sources from for Siduri, and I imagine narrowing down the list down for Clarice was challenging. “I have amazing relationships with the families that own the vineyards I use for Clarice.” Adam performed the wedding ceremony for a member of one of the families, and chaperoned a 21st birthday for another. “They were the first to understand what I wanted to do with the vineyards.”

What he wanted to do began with paying by the acre, not the tonnage, because he is all about dropping fruit when needed in order to ensure the fruit he gets is the best it can be. “Dropping fruit” means cutting grape clusters off the vine during the growing season so the remaining fruit can absorb more of the nutrients and become more concentrated and flavorful. Further, it increase the ratio of skins to juice, which makes for higher tannin levels.

A vineyard manager is unlikely to drop fruit under their own volition. If a vineyard sells its fruit by weight, rather than the acre, the incentive is to grow lots of big grapes so they have more weight to sell, and therefore make more money. Think of the typical grocery store grape, which we pay for by weight. The grapes are large with loads of juice – meaning, very heavy.

But large grapes are not those that Adam wants because relatively to smaller grapes they’re flavorless and lack good tannin. In order to ensure he gets what he wants – and we get his best wine – Adam pays by the acre, which gives him control over how much fruit he brings in. It’s more expensive for Adam this way because the vineyards calculate acreage rates based on what they would make if selling by the ton, but he doesn’t get the production that a winery buying by the ton would.

“2017 was a good example” of why he purchases by the acre, Adam said. “It was the first year we emerged from a long drought, and I was concerned that the vines, after finally getting a good drink, would get vigorous and put out tons of fruit. My vineyard families understood this, and agreed to drop fruit.” The concentration and depth of flavors in these wines show why the decision to drop fruit was the right one.

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The author, left, with Adam, right.

As I’ve eluted to, the three 2017 Clarice wines are very, very good. I’ve posted my notes and ratings below. It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good. The cost to acquire a case may seem high, especially if you don’t live near or travel frequently to California wine country and cannot take advantage of the in-person benefits. But, the $80.24 per bottle is entirely justified by the quality. Add, then, the benefits if you can take advantage of them and Adam is offering a deal. Adam’s personal investment and the time he takes to not only make exceptional wine for his customers, but to engage them in new and innovative waves, makes Clarice an intriguing prospect: it is an investment not just in good wine, but in your own education and enjoyment as well.

2017 Gary’s Vineyard – Very pretty nose.: boysenberry, blueberry, dark plum, blue raspberry, nutmeg and unsweetened cinnamon aromas. Medium bodied with juicy and tart acidity paired with slightly gritty tannin that coats the mouth. With further integration, the balance will be on-point as the wine grows into its significant density. The flavor profile has a slightly dirty edge. The core is features blackberry, black plum, muddled strawberry, blood orange zest and purple flower petals. This is doing well at the moment, and I foresee a nice, but subtle, evolution over the next five-ten years. 94 points.

2017 Santa Lucia Highlands – The nose is young and seems almost impenetrable. The first aroma I get reminds me of the smell that comes from a freshly opened bag of grape-flavored fruit snacks. Beneath that lies graphite or wet soil (I can’t be sure which) and mountain strawberry. The palate is young as well, though slightly more developed. Dense, it offers slightly less sharp acid than the Gary’s, but with more tannin structure it results in what feels like a more settled wine at the moment. Flavor-wise, we’re talking vibrant strawberry, raspberry and red plum in the fruit category, which is enhanced by rose, lavender and wet soil. I think this one merits 3-5 years in the cellar. 94 points.

2017 Rosella’s Vineyard – The bright nose boasts high-toned, nose-tickling blood orange, raspberry, strawberry, underbrush and lilac. The palate is the most delicate of the trio, but still carries what seems to be the signature density of this label. The tannins in the Rosella are the most seamless and integrated of the three wines, as well as the most persistent. Their lineation carries the flavors for a very long time, which gives you ample moments to enjoy the red and black plums, mature strawberry, rose petal, wet forest floor and well-established dark raspberry. This may be the most layered of the three Clarice wines, and one that will mature with grace over at least a decade. 95 points.

Value note: All three warrant an A value rating. Even if a customer did not avail themselves of the benefit, these come out to roughly $80/bottle. As explained earlier in the article, though not cheap, the quality matches the price, if not exceeding it.

Try this Wine: Make Merlot Great Again

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Credit: giphy.com

I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” That’s a line shouted by a character named Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, in the exceptional Hollywood movie Sideways, a movie which came out around the time merlot sales began to tank in America. Because merlot bashing was a persistent storyline throughout the movie, many people believe it was responsible for merlot’s commercial failings.

While the movie condemned merlot, it promoted pinot noir in a parallel storyline. “Why are you so into pinot? It’s like a thing with you,” Miles’ love interest asked him mid-movie. He responded with a long, thoughtful answer that ends with “it’s flavors are the most haunting and brilliant, thrilling and subtle…” Sideways also came out around the time that pinot noir sales began to sky rocket.

“Merlot sales had nothing to do with Sideways,” winemaker Chris Carpenter told me not that long ago. Among many great wines like Lokoya and Cardinale that he makes, Chris makes some of the very best merlot. “It had everything to do with a lot of bad merlot being made at the time, and an over-investment in bad merlot vineyards by the industry in the decade or so leading up to Sideways.”

Chris and I were discussing merlot for an upcoming Good Vitis piece on the variety. The first (and only) wine I’ve made myself, from scratch, was a merlot. My mom’s go-to wine when I lived at home was merlot. And it’s a key contributor to many of my favorite red blends. Though it’s never been my favorite variety on its own, I do think that it gets an unfortunate shake these days and I wanted to understand why. Hence the upcoming piece focused on merlot.

Adam Lee, who I’ve written about in these pages before, has been producing pinot noir in California for decades, and I asked him what he thought of the Sideways theory. “I don’t buy it, but I’m not sure why,” he said. The more he thought about it, the more he saw parallels to what happened to merlot before Sideways and what happened to pinot noir after Sideways. “It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot,” he said.

“When Sideways came out, the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”

Chris and Adam are two of many who I’m talking with for research on the merlot piece, so more on that in the future. In the lead up to that article, though, I want to suggest that people take another swing at merlot because it’s a great grape. One of the ironically hilarious nuggets of Sideways is that the pinnacle wine for Miles is Cheval Blanc, a wine from Saint Emilion in Bordeaux that is a predominantly merlot blend and among the most highly respected and sought-after wines in the world. The 2016 vintage, which retails for around $750 per bottle and received lavish praise from all the big critics, is 59.5% merlot.

The fact is that some of the most esteemed wines in the world have substantial portions of merlot in them, while many winemakers rely on merlot to make their best cabernet sauvignon. Though far more popular than merlot, cabernet sauvignon makes a less complete wine than merlot on its own. If not grown exceptionally well, cabernet feels like a donut in your mouth: substantial around the sides with a hole in the middle. Merlot fills that hole, and brings some nice flavors to the party as well. If I’m given the choice between a 100% cabernet and 100% merlot of equal caliber, I’m going with the merlot every time.

If I can motivate a few people to give merlot another try, then I’m going big with my pick: I want to suggest a bottle made by Chris Carpenter at the Mt. Brave Winery in California, which uses fruit from Mt. Veeder, a particularly great mountain site to grow red Bordeaux varieties.

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Mt. Brave’s vineyards on Mt. Veeder. Credit: Mt. Brave Wines

The 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot isn’t cheap at its $80 retail price, but it is worth it. You can find it for as low as $65 on wine-searcher.com (scroll to the bottom for some options). It is a substantial wine with layer upon layer of complexity. Give it a good two to three hours in the decanter now and it’ll sing for the following two days. This makes it contemplative wine as well, meaning that if you can nurse small pours over a long time and think about what you’re smelling and tasting throughout, then you’ll go through an intellectual exercise that demonstrates why wine can be magical: it’s a performance art just like ballet or an orchestra. It moves, it sings and it dances. Try this wine because merlot can be great, and this one is.

Tasting note:

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and becoming cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points, value: B+.

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Where it buy:

You can order it winery direct here for $80. Check out wine-searcher.com for where to find it in your area, including stores that will ship to you. Below are a few shops around the country that carry it.

Fort Lauderdale, FL: Your Wine Cellars

Chicago, IL: Flickinger Wines

Greater Boston, MA: Wollaston Wine & Spirits

Wayne, NJ: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace

Bend, OR: RHC Selections

Nashville, TN: Cana Wine Company

 

 

California’s Most Exciting Up & Coming Pinot Producer

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A few weeks ago I visited Napa Valley with two friends who had never been to the area before. The idea was to visit two wineries per day that would collectively give them a decent spectrum of what Napa and its environs have to offer. Wineries include Napa’s Rombauer, Failla and Chimney Rock, and Sonoma’s Carlisle, Arnot-Roberts (which makes wine from fruit from several parts of California) and Mojave, which is an Anderson Valley and Santa Cruz pinot noir project made in Napa.

Those wineries cover a pretty good diversity of styles, vineyard sourcing, business models and production levels. Next to Rombauer and Chimney Rock, Arnot-Roberts may stand out as a particularly niche and small producer. By all accounts that observation would be right, but if we want to think small in this context, Mojave is miniscule in comparison to all of them. Arnot-Roberts measures its production by the thousands of cases, at least; Mojave barely hits the second hand when counting barrels (figure roughly 25 cases per standard barrel).

Mojave is the side project of Becky George, who is the winemaker at Kelly Fleming Wines. I first met Becky in late 2017 at Kelly Fleming to taste those wines. It was my first winery visit on that five day trip, and I consider myself very lucky to have started the trip there. The wines are anything but the prototypical tannic fruit bomb that I expected to be inundated with during the visit. It was very helpful to start with Kelly Fleming’s reserved and elegant wines because it helped to calibrate my expectations and put me in a much better mindset to evaluate subsequent wines.

While on that 2017 trip, I was able to try Becky’s inaugural Mojave release, the 2016 Monument Tree Vineyard, and enjoyed it enough to buy three bottles when I returned home. My experiences with Becky on that trip were enough to name her one of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers, a distinction given to those individuals who changed how I thought about and appreciated wine that year.

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I still haven’t opened any of my 2016 Mojaves, so when I was planning this more recent trip and received the 2017 release email, I sent Becky and note and asked if she’d be around to taste it with me. When I arrived, she had opened the 2016 and 2017, and we were able to try the 2018 in barrel as well as a 2018 pinot from Santa Cruz that she’s making for the first time.

One of my favorite things about Becky is a seeming contradiction: her wines are exceptional – both Mojave and Kelly Fleming – yet she’s only really getting going as a winemaker. She is very open to others’ thoughts, and is very outgoing in terms of soliciting advice from more experienced winemakers. The amount of promise she holds is unusually high.

Another of my favorite things about Becky is her decision to focus her side project on pinot noir because it is a very different grape compared to those she makes at Kelly Fleming. Fleming wines are almost entirely Bordeaux varieties (the exception is the Big Pour blend, the current release of which includes 15% syrah), and have a classically constructed profile hedging towards the Bordeaux style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes.

Similarly, Mojave pinot also hedges towards the Burgundian style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes. Yet this pinot noir profile is, at least from my experience, rarer than the Fleming profile of its type in the context of California. I appreciate that in both labels Becky pursues what seems to me to be the same goal: make old school wines that retain their inherent Californian DNA, meaning all the natural characteristics of the grapes that get lost when pushed towards higher alcohol and tannin levels.

Monument Tree Vineyard is located in the northern end of Anderson Valley, which makes it notably cooler than Napa. Making it cooler yet, the vineyard is northeastern-facing and planted on a hillside, which protects the vines from afternoon sun. This location and orientation does all sorts of things for the grapes, namely that it slows maturation and prevents high levels of sugar development, which helps develop higher acid levels, lower alcohol and more non-fruit nuance and complexity than vineyards further south. Becky uses certain processes, like modest amounts of whole clusters during fermentation and significant portions of neutral oak, that highlight these cool climate eccentricities in the wine, which are readily apparent.

The 2016 vintage was, according to many winemakers in northern California, a near-perfect vintage in that it had desirable temperatures that were consistent, the right amount of timely rainfall, and no real weather incidents to speak of. It was a great vintage for Becky to launch her brand, allowing her to put a solid foot forward into the market on day one.

The 2016 Mojave has developed nicely since I tasted it roughly a year ago, and as good as I remembered it being. Mojave Monument Tree pinot noir is California pinot for Burgundy and Oregon pinot lovers, which means it is a bit funky. It is full bodied and ripe because even Anderson Valley has real warmth despite its cool California climate, but the acid is juicy and the wine remains agile. It has huckleberry, herbal and damp earthy flavors and aromas that harken me to the Nuits-Saint-Georges and Volnay regions in Burgundy. It is drinking well now, though I will try to refrain from opening the first of mine until at least 2020, if not longer, as I think it will get better with age.

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2017 was an entirely different and more challenging year. Heat spikes started in June and routinely lasted three to five days. Periods this long are enough for the vines to go defensive and shut themselves down, and this start-stop pattern prolonged veraison (the onset of ripening when the grapes turn from green to red and begin to develop sugar), which took up to six weeks depending on the location (an exceptionally long time).

Tasting the 2017 was challenging, not unlike the vintage, because it kept changing. Start the fruit! Stop the fruit, start the earth! Now, add the fruit! At first I called it more fruit-forward than the 2016. Fifteen minutes later, I changed my mind. Twenty minutes later I was returning to my initial impression. The fruit is darker in the 2017 regardless of whether it’s more prominent in the profile than the 2016 (I’m still undecided). I get serious plum and dark cherry. There is a spicy note that isn’t apparent in the 2016, and it does seem more brooding in stature and flavor. But the Burgundy funkiness is there, like the 2016, albeit it slightly quieter at this stage. I do suspect the wet forest and floral aromas and flavors will become more prevalent with age.

The 2018 barrel sample produced the most brambly of the three vintages. I also picked up a saline quality, though that could be residual carbon dioxide, and some tobacco and violet flavors. But that’s all you’re going to get from me because I don’t place much value in barrel samples, and I don’t think you should too, either. Especially when critics score them. I’m on my high horse here. Wines go through an incredible amount of development in barrel, so placing any credence in reviews based on barrel samples risks getting a wrong impression. Some wines get better in barrel, some get worse. It can go an infinite amount of ways. Here’s what I’ll say about the 2018 Monument Tree Vineyard in barrel: it’s good now, and I imagine it will get even better and I’ll like it even more after it’s been bottled if things don’t go wrong.

We also tasted Becky’s first non-Monument Tree pinot noir, a 2018 from the Hicks Vineyard in Santa Cruz. The site sits just five miles from the ocean, which puts it squarely in a maritime climate. If you like cold climate pinot, this is as legit as they come. One of her two barrels of this one is neutral, the other new. The neutral barrel has spectacular gamey and floral notes and a masculine structure driven by acid. The new barrel (medium toast) is rounder and softer with more apparent tannin. She is making the Hicks Vineyard in the same fashion as the Monument Tree because, as she described it, it’s like going on a first date: since you don’t know the person (wine), you stick with what you know in your interactions with them. I’m really excited to try this when it’s released.

Becky is a great winemaker, and will only get better. I imagine her wines will follow a similar trajectory. If you get excited by discovering something new on the ground floor, and if you like old school pinot noir, then Mojave is a great project to sign up for now.