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.


Decoy

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.

The 2018 Good Vitis Tastemakers

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The author and Martin Evans

I’m blessed by this blog in a number of ways, most notably in that it provides me opportunities to meet friendly, fascinating, talented and remarkably knowledgeable people with whom I share a passion. In wine, like nearly all things in life, people matter most. Human beings crave connections to other human beings, and meeting and bonding with winemakers, wine writers and others is often more exciting than any one bottle of wine for me. The winemakers who made this list fall in that category.

For this reason, the annual Good Vitis Tastemakers post has to be one of my favorite posts to compile and write. I get to share this benefit with my readers by bring the words of winemakers directly to them.

The Good Vitis Tastemakers of 2018 include four individuals who helped further my knowledge and appreciation of wine: Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot and Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards, both of Virginia; Evan Martin of Martin Woods Winery in Oregon; and Adam Lee of Siduri and Clarice Wine Project in California. I sent each of them the same questionnaire, which bears some, but not all, resemblance to the questions our 2017 Tastemakers answered, and I’ve printed them verbatim below (with minor editing for clarity). For each person I’ve also given a brief introduction and explanation for why they made the list.

Matthieu Finot – King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot

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Matthieu Finot (second from left)

When I agreed to cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, I didn’t know Matthieu. He came by way of several peoples’ recommendation as one of the first winemakers in Virginia I should meet. Matthieu makes the wine at one of the state’s very best and most respected wineries and consults for several others, which alone could be enough to make a list like this. However, his institutional knowledge of Virginia’s wine scene, its terroir, its history and all of its particularities, combined, makes him one of the most effective winemakers in Virginia because he can represent so many facets of it. The proof is in the bottle, three of which I mention in the Good Vitis Most Memorable Wines of 2018.

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King Family Vineyards (estate vineyards)

Further, the breadth of his experience outside of Virginia boosts the credibility of his presence in any discussion. Although it’s almost comical, I decided to include the full list of wineries he has worked at prior to King Family below (his resume covers the Rhone Valley, Bordeaux, Jura, Bandol, Burgundy, South Africa and Italy) because Virginia is a tough place to make good wine and that kind of diversity of experience equips him well to handle it. Matthieu has a response to every question – at least every question I’ve asked him – that is informative, if not instructive. While the regions he has previously worked in produce wines among those most respected in the world, I would argue that making exceptional Virginia wine is not something many winemakers from those regions could do.

1. Winery and role: King Family Vineyards, winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 24.

3. Previous wineries/roles: I should send you my resume!

Proprietor

Domaine Finot                 Bernin/Larnage(France)                                                                           -ISERE / CROZES-HERMITAGE-            

Winemaker

King Family Vineyards Vineyards                                Crozet (USA)                                     -VIRGINIA-            

Consultant

Multiple Clients                                                     Charlottesville (USA)

Instructor

Piedmont Virginia Community College                       Charlottesville (USA)

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Potomac Point Winery                                                 Stafford (USA)                                               -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Afton Mountain Vineyards                                           Afton (USA)                                                   -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker

Hildenbrand Estate                                                      Wellington (South Africa)

Winemaker

Azienda Agricola Andréa Rizzo                                    Nimis (Italy)                                                -RAMANDOLO-

Assistant Winemaker

Fruitière de Pupillin                                                     Pupillin (France)                                           –JURA-

Winemaker and Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             COTES DU RHONE-

Cellar Assistant &  Vinegrower

Domaine Tempier                                                        Plan du Castellet (France)                            BANDOL-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           -BOURGOGNE-

Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             -COTES DU RHONE-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           BOURGOGNE-

Shop manager

Le Relais Des Caves(wine shop)                                     Lyon (France)

AssistantWinemaker

Château Guillemin La Gaffelliére                                 St Emillion (France)                                    BORDEAUX-

Assistant Winemaker and Vinegrower (Internship)

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                              -COTES DU RHONE-

4. What got you into the wine business: Bloodline. I come from a French farming family from Northern Rhone. Even if my parents weren’t in the wine business, my father’s love of wine and my farming roots with my uncle and grandfather were enough for me to pursue wine education after high school.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: My route was pretty easy, I wanted to get back to the farming world. But I didn’t have any estate or winery to get back to, I was young and wanted to travel. Winemaking makes it easy to travel. I moved to Beaune in Burgundy where I studied, and then decided to travel France to diversify my experience, winemaking style and techniques: Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, Jura. But that wasn’t enough, I decided to start working outside France: Fruili in Italy, Paarl in South Africa, and finally Virginia in the United States.

6. Description of your approach: It was a very organic approach; I didn’t have a master plan when I started traveling, However, with hindsight it did give me lot flexibility in my winemaking and also it helped me to be open minded.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: There is no end of learning. The more I know the more I realized that I know nothing…. ignorance is a blessing!

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): As I said, I realized that is still need to learn a lot. There are lots of wine regions I don’t fully understand. I also need to keep tasting “great and iconic wines,” though that’s difficult to do when you are young and don’t have the financial resources to get to these bottles.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: When I started to work in Virginia in 2003 it was supposed to be for 1 year…and I am still here after 15 years…so I guess I am not very good in planning the future. I could still be here. I could be back in France to work with my brother at Domaine Finot. I could be resuming my travel through the wine world with my family. I still would like to go to New Zealand…crystal ball help me!

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: There are so many….Domiane Romanee Conti, Domaine Leflaive le Montrachet Grand Cru and Gaja Sori San Lorenzo.

Ben Jordan – Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey

 

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Ben Jordan (credit: Lightwell Survey)

Ben and Matthieu were kind enough to help form a small group of winemakers for a roundtable I organized earlier this year to discuss how Virginia winemakers approach developing tannin in their wine. Later, I visited Early Mountain for a tour and tasting. You can read all about it here on The Cork Report. Months earlier, however, I had a phone call with Ben to discuss petit mensang, a white vitis vinifera variety that does particularly well in Virginia when grown and made by someone with a lot of patience and guts.

Petit mensang has been a fascination of mine since 2013. Around that time viognier was becoming the rage in Virginia after a certain then-governor thought it’d be a great idea to basically endorse it as the state grape. Viognier is a thin skinned, tightly clustered grape, which makes it perfect for Virginia’s cool and wet climate. Yes, that’s sarcasm. What a dumb call. Nevertheless, it led to a boom in viognier planting and production. There are smart people – smarter than myself on wine – who, while agreeing that this was a stupid announcement, believe that high quality viognier can still be a fixture in the state. I’d rather it be petit mensang, which I believe can produce more interesting wine in Virginia while coping much better with its climate.

All that said, petit mensang is an even more challenging grape to grow, and wine to make, than viognier if you want to make a dry wine from it. This is a major headwind against it among winemakers. The variety puts on sugar and acid at an incredible rate while on the vine, which makes fermenting it to dryness (no remaining sugar) very hard if you want to produce a wine that won’t melt your tongue with acid. Ben is known as one of, if not the, best petit mensang masters in Virginia. This is what drew me to him originally.

After the conversation and wines presented at the tannin round table, it became evident that he knew far more than just petit mensang. The more I’ve taken to examining tannin, the more I’ve realized that a winemaker’s knowledge of how to use the science of tannin can be a helpful marker in determining how purposeful they are in producing wines, and a harbinger of the quality of their wine. A winemaker that can make a top quality dry petit mensang that captures both the typicity of the grape and its terroir and a range of red wines that span the full tannin spectrum is one to watch. Enter Ben Jordan. And watch him for indications of a Virginia petit verdot revolution (see below).

1. Winery and role: Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey. Winegrowing partner with my brothers for our vineyard/winery project in Fort Defiance in the Shenandoah Valley.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Michael Shaps Wineworks – Winemaker; Dutcher Crossing – Assistant winemaker; C. Donatiello – Assistant winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: My family wanted to plant a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley, and at the same time I moved to NYC with an MFA in playwriting. I needed income, so I started working in retail wine sales.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I fell hard for the world of wine when I was working retail and for an importer, and since my family wanted to plant a vineyard, I decided I needed to learn winemaking. I signed on to do a harvest in Sonoma County, because I was told that was the way to get a foot in the door. That worked, and I was offered a full-time position. Once I had a winemaking foundation, I contacted Michael [Shaps], because he had a finger on the pulse of Virginia.

6. Description of your approach: Evolving and open, leaning toward precision and purity. We are still in such a foundational place in the mid-Atlantic that I am of the opinion we need to remain exploratory, look for the next generation vineyards, and plant them with varieties that will make for a successful industry. We are building, and it is important that the work we do now is thoughtful and creative.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: Sustainable wine farming, because I want to feel comfortable with my daughters working in the family vineyards. This may mean non-vinifera, or new wave vinifera hybrids, because even materials that are sprayed in organic programs can be pretty nasty.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Blending. We do a lot of blending at Early Mountain, and every year I realize I want/need to do better. Growing, see above. Petit Verdot. Like Petit Manseng, this grape offers a lot of potential, but I still need to understand what it wants to be.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be in Virginia making the first wines off of next generation vineyards that I have helped plant in the next five years. I also want my family business to be in a healthy place.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Pretty sure I need to taste DRC [Domaine Romanee Conti] before I kick, so might as well be La Tache. I would love to go into the Sherry bodegas and taste some of their oldest soleras straight from cask. A wine made by the next generation of my family, whether it be my daughters or my brothers’ children, or both. And hopefully I can taste that wine with 20 years of bottle age on it, because that will mean I am decently healthy in my 80s or 90s.

Evan Martin – Martin Woods Winery

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Evan Martin on his property

Evan Martin’s approach to winemaking is one of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across in my exploration of wine, and likely the most interesting of my 2018. It’s not that it’s particularly genius (no disrespect to Evan) so much as it is, ‘why isn’t anyone else doing this?’ because it’s a logical extension of what is bedrock boutique winemaking, and something that many wineries could do if they wanted. It’s essentially this: true expression of terroir should include barrels (if applicable) made from local trees.

Nearly every winery I end up visiting, and nearly every winemaker I meet, talks about their particular terroir. When they do, they focus on the soil, vineyard particulars (aspect, slope, etc.) and climate, and how those elements effect the grapes they grow. Then they talk about the various ways in which they try to let that terroir come through in the glass. Evan has an additional talking point: he makes his own barrels from the trees on his property (in the Willamette Valley in Oregon). Oak has an emphatic impact on the wine, and so when Oregon wine gets put into French oak, it can’t really be called Oregon wine anymore if we believe in terroir: it has a component from France that is altering the taste and structure of the final product.

To be clear, Evan is not snobbish about this at all. He just has the interest, patience and resources (trees) to try it out, and so he is. I was impressed by the results, which I wrote about here, but I need a bigger sample size to really know whether Oregon oak makes a better wine. Nevertheless, he’s doing something quite different that’s worth thinking about and trying.

1. Winery and role: Martin Woods, owner/winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Seven Hills Winery ‘04/’05 harvest intern; Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery ’09-’11 harvest intern, ’12-’17 Assistant Winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: An Oz Clark wine book and a fantastic little wine shop in Seattle called European Vine Selections.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I became obsessed with the concept of terroir. Casey McClellan at Seven Hills gave me a great introduction to careful, attentive winemaking and the goal of making elegant wines above all. I then explored the buying/service side of the business for a few years, developing a keen interest in wines from the cool-climate regions of France in particular. And I was captured by the principles of the natural wine movement—which are still important to me today, although I don’t refer to myself a natural winemaker for certain reasons. That subject, like great winemaking, is nuanced and unfortunately the discussion about it is all too often shallow and polarized.

6. Description of your approach: The last couple of years, I’m making about 4,500 cases of wine by myself, so my approach is minimal by necessity! But actually, this is a conscious choice. I like to be present for every moment that something is happening or being done to my wine. Each of these moments is an opportunity for my senses to check in with the wines, to catch potential issues before they become problems or to confirm or re-evaluate my strategy for that particular wine. I never make wine exactly the same way twice; I’m always adjusting to try to support what I perceive to be the zeitgeist of the wine and the vintage. This flexibility carries through the entire elevage period to bottling. For me, extreme attentiveness allows me to be “hands-off” with the wines; it allows me to be ‘natural’ in my approach and at the same time produce unfined/unfiltered wines that are clean, classic, deeply compelling and long-lived. Most importantly, what paves the way for a “hands-off” approach is choosing vineyard terroirs that truly give the qualities that you’re looking for in the wines, so you don’t have to try to shape them in to something they don’t want to be. That’s why I mostly work with the coolest, latest-ripening parts of the Willamette which are the neighborhoods that are most influenced by the cooling effect of the Van Duzer winds—the Van Duzer Corridor AVA, the McMinnville AVA and the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. These terroirs give wines that are structure-driven, with aromas and textures that are discernibly ‘cool-climate’ in character.

I guess it’s also noteworthy about our approach that we’re using our local Oregon oak to age a lot of our wines because we’re trying to make the most distinctive, terroir-driven wines that we possibly can. I love the qualities of French oak, but I don’t think it makes our Oregon wines more distinctive; quite the opposite actually, it makes them more like wines from other producing regions, because everyone around the world is using French oak, its use has become quite formulaic.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: One question I’ve been thinking about lately is, ‘can we produce amazing cabernet franc in the Willamette Valley? Why?’ Great cab franc (and I’m thinking of le Loire here) stirs passions in men’s souls, the same way that great pinot noir can. We have to expect that our climate is warming slightly, so growing CF is looking increasingly attractive.

Otherwise, I’m realizing I can’t really figure out anything about wine, not to a scientific degree. I’m concerning myself less and less with lab numbers and just embracing instinct and sense. The real frontier in my experience is always trying to find out what vineyard terroirs produce the most compelling wine. The Willamette Valley now has fifty years of collective experience under its belt, but we’re still young at understanding our terroirs. I do think that fifty years from now the scene will be quite different than today.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Discipline. I drink too much, it’s part of the business and I love the craft and I love checking in with what my peers are producing, here and across the pond. I recently read an interview with Bobby Stuckey and he talks about discipline and how it relates to the craft of being a great sommelier. I think he was spot on with what he said about discipline and I feel the same about the craft of making great wine. It takes a lot of discipline to remain fresh, creative and responsive to the (extremely) challenging work load of harvest, when in a matter of weeks a winemaker is making dozens of decisions that determine the trajectory of a wine for the rest of its life. I admire the older (than me, I’m 37) winemakers in the community that have had the discipline and stamina to be highly successful in this profession for 20-50 years. The names are too numerous to mention.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Sarah (my wife, who is the vineyard brains in the family) and I would like to plant a small vineyard on our property in the McMinnvillle AVA. We’re taking our time with this, as there are a lot of things to ponder…chiefly among them, what to plant and what are the right clones? If I was planting tomorrow, I would probably mostly plant chardonnay, as our neighborhood seems to be just exceptional for it, being as we are tucked in to the foothills of the Coast Range as well as on the shoulder of the Van Duzer gap. The mountains and the wind make it a little cooler here, so the chardonnay here has great tension from bright acidity, but with good sun exposure you can also get fantastic weight and depth.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: I haven’t been very careful about cataloging a memory of great wines that I’ve had. There are so many wonderful wines that I can’t remember the producer. I tend to think more about regions…Alsace, Beaujolais, Bourgogne, Loire, northern Rhone. The few times in my life I’ve had first-growth Bordeaux the wines have been splendid—taught, fresh, balanced, structured.

Furthermore, I don’t spend money on cult wines. I don’t mean Screaming Eagle. I mean, I love Clos Rougeard, but I don’t buy it. I don’t hold it against them for charging what they can for highly sought-after wines that by necessity need to be allocated. But there are other producers making incredible wines at reasonable prices, without any hype, and I love finding those wines. That’s maybe the best thing that great Sommeliers and wine shops do, they connect consumers with unsung or underrated wineries that over-deliver.

Adam Lee – Clarice Wine Company and Siduri Wines

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The author, Adam Lee (far right) and some friends enjoying themselves

I met Adam when he and a mutual friend came to our apartment for a party that we held because we had a number of random people in town visiting and didn’t know how else to see all of them while they were here. A lot of fun was had, really fantastic wine was brought and consumed, and bonding occurred.

As I got to know him more after that evening, one of the things that stood out most about Adam is that, good God man, he can’t sleep much given all he’s doing. Good Vitis readers will learn more about Adam in the coming months. We’re sitting on a trio of pinot noirs from his newest project, Clarice Wine Company, letting them recover from their journey from one coast to the other. We’ll try them soon, interview Adam, and then write it up. So stay tuned for that exciting piece.

Siduri, a winery he founded and where he still makes wine, is no small deal: wines from six regions across two states, multiple wines from each region, and all good quality and compelling. The website currently lists 18 different wines – 17 pinot and one zinfandel – for sale. All, by the way, under screwcap, including his highest priced bottles. Add the Clarice Wine Company project, which is an unusual business model built around a rather robust wine club program (more on that in the upcoming piece), and this guy is making a lot of wine. Then, the many visits to France and elsewhere because Adam can’t ever stop learning (his Facebook page makes me wonder how much time he actually spends in America, let alone California where he makes his wine), and I just can’t imagine he gets to spend much time at home. It’s all rather inspiring to me: the level of passion for wine and business that this man exhibits is enviable.

1. Winery and role: Owner, Clarice Wine Company. Winemaker, Siduri Wines. Consultant for a few other wineries.

2. Number of years in the wine business: In one form or another since 1988. Started making wine in 1994.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Direct Sales Manager at Benziger, Tasting Room Manager at a few places before that. But really Siduri Wines as founder, owner, winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: I got into wine retail first as Assistant Manager at a wine store in Austin, Texas. I had developed a love of wine during a trip to California between my junior and senior years in college.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I think it chose me. I never really had a plan, never planned on making wine. The idea of making wine was actually Dianna’s idea (my wife). She thought that if I was going to write about wine (I was considering the lucrative career of wine writing) [ED’s note: don’t I know it] I should try and make it first. So we did so, with the 1994 vintage and 4 ½ barrels of pinot noir. We then proceeded to get drunk one night and take a sample to Robert Parker while he was staying over at Meadowood Resort. Fortunately, he liked the wine and wrote it up in the Wine Advocate. That was the beginning for us.

6. Description of your approach: Making pinot noir is a unique combination of remembering and forgetting. Remembering lessons from the past and implementing them into a similar vintage. But also realizing that each vintage is unique and thus not falling into a pattern of making wine a certain way but rather reacting to what is given to you each year. Finding that balance between remembering and forgetting is the challenge.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: I am confused and fascinated by what truly makes winemaking work. Let me give you an example. Some winemakers swear by whole cluster in pinot noir and make remarkable wines doing so (Jeremy Seysses at Dujac). Other winemakers abhor whole clusters and will never use them and make remarkable wines following that route (Henri Jayer). How does that work? What commonalities are there at these places and are those the key to what makes great Burgundy? Or is the key truly intent and following with great devotion what you believe and in doing that you will make great wine? I ponder these things.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I write horrific wine descriptors. Ironic for someone who wanted to be a wine writer. I grew up in a time and place where all the fruit I ate came in a can and was floating in simple syrup. Consequently, describing the flavors of a wine is something I suck at. I am okay with the weight and tannin/acid structure of a wine, but describing flavors – geez, I am bad at that.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be making pinot noir. Not just making pinot noir but immersed in pinot noir. I want to be doing less, but more in-depth. I believe that is my passion and my calling. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I also hope to be spending time with my kids…then adults…and sharing and learning from them.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Good question:

1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir — First red wine that I ever fell in love with. Started my love affair with pinot noir and that has never ended.

Fall Creek Winery (Texas) White Zinfandel – The first wine I ever shared with a winemaker. Ed Auler, the owner/winemaker and I were walking through his vineyard in Tow, Texas on a typically hot Texas day and he reached into his backpack and pulled out a chilled bottle (ice packs). He popped it then and there and we passed it back and forth while walking the vines drinking it out of the bottle.

1986 Chateau Margaux – Maybe the first classic, great wine that I ever tasted. I loved the 1985 and thought it was amazing, but when I tasted the 1986 I was blown away. It was remarkable and made me realize that there’s a whole world of extraordinary wine out there for me to experience.

 

2018’s Most Memorable Wines – and Moment

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Public Service Announcement: Never hold the glass by the bulb! Picture credit: videoblocks.com

Dodie Smith wrote 101 Dalmatians, so she has game. However, she also said that “[contemplation] seems about the only luxury that costs nothing.” This contemplative piece, about luxury, is only possible because time and money was spent. But was it ever worth it. This is the third year in a row that Good Vitis offers a list of its top wines for a year-in-wine review, and there are some great wines on the list.

Last year’s post included the magic dozen wines that we believed would stick in our memory longer than any others tried in that year. While being remarkably memorable remains a requirement to make the 2018 list, we’re also keeping with the tradition of doing the annual retrospective a bit differently each time. This year, we’re adding categories. Fifteen wines have been spread out over seven categories. On an administrative note, if a wine is hyperlinked it will take you to the Good Vitis post in which it is featured. Let’s do this.

Vineyard of the Year

Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola-Amity AVA in Oregon has consistently produced some of Oregon’s most impressive wine for the Good Vitis palate. The 115 acre vineyard, planted in the early 2000s, was more recently purchased by Jackson Family Wines who created a winery, called Zena Crown, to showcase its qualities. Additionally, some fruit from the vineyard is sold to several notable wineries, including Beaux Frères and Soter, not to mention the wineries listed below. The vineyard is planted on a southwest-facing slope of volcanic soil that begins at 300 feet of elevation and tops out at 650 feet. It is divided into 17 blocks, each of which has a unique combination of gradient, aspect and soil depths. Vines include a variety of pinot noir clones. All told, the vineyard is quite capable in producing a diversity of pinot noir wine.

In 2018, we were lucky enough to try a variety of wines made from Zena Crown Vineyard’s goods, including some tasted in the region. Not all were scored, but several were written about on Good Vitis, including:

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2015 Zena Crown Slope – The youthful nose is still growing into itself, though it promises to be a thing of beauty. Detecting ripe cherry, raspberry, plum and multiple florals. The texture on this one is stunning; talk about velvety tannins, there’s no end to them or their silkiness. The acid is on-point as well. Simply stunning. The flavors will require a bit more time to match the texture, but they don’t disappoint at this stage with sweet plum sauce, dark cherries, chocolate mousse, graphite, cinnamon, nutmeg and just a hint of green onion spice. Not for the faint of heart, and worthy of ten years in the cellar. 94 points.

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2015 Hartford Family Winery Princess Warrior Block Zena Crown Vineyard – This has a deep, serious nose boasting aromas of briar berry compote, dark dusty cocoa, graphite, lavender, tar and candied red apple. It’s nimble on the palate, exhibiting youthful finesse. The gorgeous tannins provide a sturdy frame, but don’t overpower while the acid is spot-on. Though I wouldn’t call the structure elegant, it has skillfully found a balance between power and finesse that’s intriguing. In the flavor department you get black and boysenberry, very dark chocolate, rose petals, lavender, Herbs de Provence, and wet soil. Though it’s good now, it will be better in five years. 92 points.

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2015 Penner Ash Zena Crown vineyard pinot noir – Using fruit from [Lynn Penner-Ash’s] exclusive contract on block 8 of the esteemed Zena Crown vineyard, it’s a downright impressive and captivating wine: meaty on the nose, juicy on the palate and fun and serious at the same time. The diversity of flavors and aromas include graphite, salt and pepper, iron, baking spice, mint and a cornucopia of red and black fruit that are silky in their sweetness. It has a decadence to it, however the retained acid prevents it from actually becoming sappy or heavy. What a wine. Unscored, but worthy of mid-90s.

Try this Wine, Damnit!

In 2018 Good Vitis launched a new series of posts called “Try this Wine.” Each post in the series spotlights a single wine that we believe has one or two compelling reasons for people to try. We kicked the series off with one of our favorite white wines, Smith-Madrone’s riesling. For this 2018 retrospective, however, it’s the 2012 Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón that stood out among its Try this Wine peers because of its wow factor.

The Palacios wasn’t a sample nor the current release. We purchased it in 2014 and decided to sit on it for a bit to allow further development, and boy are we glad we did. It was one of 2018’s most delicious and pretty wines. While 2012 is one of the estate’s best vintages, we’re told that the 2014, which is more widely available today, could well be even better. Please, try this wine.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón – Such a gorgeous, elegant wine at a great stage on its life. It’s identity just screams “pastel.” The nose and palate supremely balance florals and dark earthy notes: pink, purple and yellow flowers; wet top soil; graphite; and darkly tanned tobacco leaf. It also features mountain strawberry, blood orange, dark cherry and pomegranate seed. The fine grained tannins add pleasure to the mouthfeel, and the acid is in perfect balance. A truly impressive wine. Decant for an hour now, and consume over the next three years. 95 points.

Well-aged Wine is the Bee’s Knees

Most wine isn’t made to get better with age. Not serious age, at least. In our mind, though, the best examples of magical wine come by way of age-worthy wine that’s been allowed to mature for the right amount of time. While “the right amount of time” can legitimately vary based on preference, as we’ve experimented with older vintages, we’ve come to realize that, at least for our palate, the right amount of time is longer than 99% of people believe it is. We have several theories about why this might be, and the one we’re willing to bet on is that people don’t have the desire and patience to find out that they’ve been having some of their best wine too young.

That’s a real shame because it means people aren’t enjoying wine the way it is meant to be enjoyed. Not many winemakers will say so publicly, but it can be quite frustrating for them when their wines are consumed too early in their respective lives because they know their customers are not getting the best experience possible. We’re issuing a real challenge to our readers: find some seriously aged wine (10+ years old) and give it a try. For a particularly fun time, find a bottle from your birth year. Not all of you will love seriously old wine to the point of changing your habits, but some of you will. We promise. These are several of the older wines we had in 2018 that blew our minds.

The 2007 Full Pull & Friends chardonnay was a gamble. I bought it at the end of May, 2017 but didn’t receive it until late summer 2018. Full Pull is a virtual retailer out of Seattle that sells through email offers. Most of its wine comes from Washington State, and they’ve branched out into their own labels as well. Full Pull & Friends is effectively a shiner model (they purchase fully bottled wine and put their own label on it), which makes it rare within the shiner market as it’s actually good, serious wine (most shiners are inexpensive and underwhelming). It was a gamble purchase because of three factors that, in combination, raise some concern: Washington isn’t particularly known for its white wine, it was a decade old, and I couldn’t be guaranteed that it was stored properly for its entire life.

Lucky me, the gamble paid off as it turned out to be an amazing wine. It had an oxidative nose of marzipan, lemon curd, cardamom, orchid and pine nut. The full body was plush on the palate, but featured juicy acidity at the same time. It really was something else: cardamom, banana peel, vanilla custard, tangerine, Meyer lemon and a big dose of Marcona almond. In several ways it reminded me of a nicely aged Savennieres chenin blanc. Quite tasty and worth the time of whomever decided to hold this back. 93 points.

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The 2010 Copain chardonnay was also amazing

2006 Franz Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd gruner veltliner – We drank this with some good friends and didn’t take any notes. It was barely old enough to consider opening. We have a 2007 of this that is going to get another five-plus years of aging. High quality Smaragd gruner deserves a long rest because it rewards with amazing concentration, harmony and complexity. Hirtzberger is among our most favorite white wine producers from anywhere in the world, and when we find older vintages of it we rarely leave without making it ours.

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1995 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Klipsun Vineyard – Really fantastic tertiary development, this is Washington State history in a bottle that remains impressively fresh. It has an evergreen quality that caps off a highly developed merlot. The nose has sweet oak, vanilla, rich chocolate, spearmint and muddled maraschino cherry. It’s medium weight on the palate and is driven by a backbone of youthful acid, with a fully integrated tannin structure playing a support role. It offers sweet and toasted oak, hot chocolate, tart cherry, lavender and brioche. Something special. 93 points. Note: It’s been long enough that I don’t want to re-score it, but I’d put $20 on having underscored this wine by at least a point or two.

1986 Faustino Rioja I Gran Reserva – This is why good Rioja deserves aging. Nose and palate are full-on tertiary: the acid, oak and alcohol are perfectly integrated, mellowed and balanced. This is all about the essence of wine rather than the constituent parts. That said, here’s an attempt at the notes. Nose: cinnamon, lightly toasted oak, maraschino cherry, sweet peppermint and musty attic. Palate: sweet cherry, sweet leather, well-aged tobacco leaf, tangerine peel and peppermint. Stunning wine, drink now. 94 points.

1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape – No notes taken, this birth year wine was consumed on the author’s 35th birthday. While it was, like the author, about 10 years past its prime, it delivered complexity, fruit, earth and funk and was remarkable. It inspired one of Good Vitis’ most-read articles in 2018, When is Wine Conceived?, which is a must-read for anyone looking for a birth year wine.

Bringing Back Real Rosé

The oversaturated rosé market is heavy with bad wine. The amount of pale salmon-colored wine with little to no flavor and overly sharp acid is so high that finding a good rosé of any color, especially the Provençial style that inspired the seemingly endless supply of flavorless salmon stuff, is incredibly hard. So much so, actually, that we avoided it in 2018, which was disappointing because one of 2017’s most memorable wines was a rosé.

So why are we about to feature two – yes, twice the 2017 total – rosés? Because we have awesome friends who made us try them. Both offer real substance, flavor and color; put another way, they are real wines. And if we’re honest, they are among the wines in this article most likely to be remembered for the longest period of time.

2017 Enfield Wine Co. Pinot Noir Foot Tread Heron Lake Vineyard – The nose has a lees quality to it, something almost malo about it, that adds intrigue, though it’s still quite clean. Strawberry and boysenberry round it out. It’s medium bodied, but the exquisite acid helps it maintain a light balance. The fruit is gorgeous, really quite pure: strawberry, sweet huckleberry and sweet plum dominate the palate, but the finish offers a wonderful combination of watermelon, white peach and kiwi. This is among the most substantive, interesting and complex rosés I’ve ever had. It’s just killer. 93 points. Note: if this weren’t a wine club only release, it would’ve earned a Try this Wine feature.

Old Westminster Rose Rarity No. 3 – We never took any formal notes on the multiple bottles of this one that we consumed, but it is a highly unusual wine. Old Westminster managed to make a rosé that is fresh, deeply layered and audacious without being over the top. From the winery website: This bold & savory rosé is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah and 33% Malbec produced in the saignée method. Fermented with wild yeast in stainless steel and subsequently washed over Cabernet Franc skins to macerate for four days. Aged sur lie in neutral French oak barriques for 18 months.

Appreciating Value

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The best value we came across in 2018 was the 2016 Château Peybonhomme-les Tours Le Blanc Bonhomme, which received its own Try this Wine feature. It’s not the easiest to find, but for around $20 you’re getting a $30-40 bottle of delicious white wine. Here’s the tasting note from the Try this Wine post: Gave this half an hour decant, and the nose really blossomed. Loads of endearing honeysuckle, orchid, mashed pear, rich lemon curd and candied orange peel. Very lovely nose. It is medium-bodied and round. The edges are just ever so gritty, which provides enhancing texture. The acid is nicely cut. Flavors hit close to the nose: honeysuckle, a big hit of pear, apricot and orange peel plus some great slate minerality. A very impressive wine. 91 points.

Something Really Different 

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I cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, so the hyperlink below goes to the story I wrote for them that includes these wines. King Family Vineyards, located outside Charlottesville, is a standard bearer for the region, but was a revelation for me in 2018. Its winemaker, Matthieu Finot, is a wizard with Virginia fruit and deeply knowledgeable. He is measured in his approach, but also enjoys being playful. The highly limited Small Batch Series is his creative outlet. Each wine produced with the Small Batch label is an experiment, an excuse for Matthieu to test uncommon winemaking methods like skin contact and no sulfur additions on high quality grapes. I was able to taste the skin contact viognier, dry petit mensang and whole cluster 2016 King Family Estate Small Batch Series cabernet franc. They are excellent wines in unusually interesting and fun ways.

A Story of Wine and Love

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It’s official. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

2018 was a particularly magical year because I met and got married to my amazing – AMAZING – wife, Kayce. Our first date was February 3rd. We were engaged on April 27th. And on October 4th, we eloped in Iceland. In order to introduce the wine for this category, you’re going to have to endure a love story.

The weekend after our first date, Kayce visited two friends in San Francisco. On the Tuesday before her Friday flight, she mentioned that they were interested in visiting Napa for a day while she was there. I offered to connect her with a few of my favorite wineries. The next day, as I sat down to email the wineries, I realized that I needed to be able to introduce her as more than just a friend to justify the ask. So, I shot her a quick text asking if, for this purpose, I could refer to her as my girlfriend. In my mind I knew that we were heading in that direction, so I didn’t feel bad about the temporary fib. She responded that yes, that would be fine, but also that we should talk about whether that moniker was appropriate outside this context. We had that discussion the very next day – five days after our first date – and decided that it fit. Wine had prompted the discussion.

One of the wineries that I contacted was Rombauer, which I’ve written about several times in Good Vitis, including a piece in January of 2018 about a visit to Napa in 2017 that included a stop at Rombauer. It was my first time tasting the winery’s top wines, which included the 2016 Proprietor Select chardonnay. Here’s what I said about it:

“The show-stopper, though, was the Proprietor Selection. Ultimately a selection of fruit from Green Acres, Buchli, Home Ranch and Brown Ranch vineyards, it includes only the barrels [winemaker] Richie [Allen] selected as the very best. The only note I wrote down was this: ‘Holy shit – more than the sum of its parts. The depth of flavor and concentration is flat-out off the charts.’ It’s one of those wines that in order to take it all in, you can’t really notice any particular element because the experience of the whole is too overwhelming.”

When I reserved the Rombauer visit for Kayce and her friends, I suggested that she read the post about my Napa trip so she had some background on Rombauer. I asked Rombauer to make sure that they poured the Proprietor Select chardonnay for Kayce and her friends. And, I asked Kayce to call me after she had tried it. When she did, I asked her if she remembered what I had written about the wine in the article, and she had. And then I told her that what I had said about the wine applied to my feelings towards her: that there is so much goodness in her that I cannot fully appreciate her in just one moment. To say she appreciated the remark is an understatement.

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Rombauer’s Proprietor Selection on the black sand beach of Vík, Iceland. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

When we choose to elope in Iceland, we decided to bring a few bottles of wine with us just in case we couldn’t find wines we loved once we got there. After all, we were getting married and wine is a mutual love: we should drink our favorite stuff. We were able to fit three bottles into our check on, which included a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Select to open after exchanging our vows at the black sand beach in Vík. Once the vows were done, and our photographer had taken the picture of the unopened bottle of wine that I had requested, we popped the cork and took a few pulls from the bottle. After returning to Reykjavik and doing the official ceremony, we enjoyed the remainder of the bottle, properly, in wine glasses. Some couples have a song, a restaurant, a whatever. We have some of that stuff, but we also have a wine: the Rombauer Proprietor Select chardonnay.

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Exchanging vows in Víc. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

We’d like to thank all our readers and supporters for a successful 2018. We are already working on a number of pieces for 2019 and are excited for the year ahead. Please continue to follow our work and tell your family and friends about it. We’ll do our best not to let you down.