If Formula 1 Drivers Were Wine…

Picture by pedrik on Flikr

Note: Although this post isn’t sponsored by F1 sponsor Heineken, we agree with the message: When you drive, never drink.

While I’ve been a wine fan for over twenty years, I’m very new to Formula 1. Like many American fans of the sport, my first exposure was the Netflix series Drive To Survive, which follows the behind the scenes of the sport. My wife and I quickly became hooked on the show in 2021, which served as a gateway to a Formula 1 TV subscription that we use to religiously watch every race, usually live. Since signing up, we’ve traveled to the Grand Prix in Mexico City and Baku (Azerbaijan), and will be attending the Abu Dhabi race this coming November.

If it wasn’t apparent, we were instant and full converts to what is a fairly genius conceived sport. Like other types of motorsport, I think many don’t take Formula 1 very serious because how is it, after all, that there can be much to a sport that involves basically no human input during the actual competition? The drivers just put the pedal to the floor to push the cars around a track, right? Nothing could be further from the truth.

What makes the sport so compelling for me are the countless variables purposefully and strategically included in the sport and organized to make it nearly impossible for the best driver and car combination to be the guaranteed victor race in and race out. The sport is also set up to create a lot of off-the-track drama that is at the same time reality television for fans and psychological warfare for drivers, team principals, and crews.

Us at the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

As a spectator there’s a lot going on both during and between race weekends, the latter including three practice sessions, a qualifying session, and the race itself (plus the occasional sprint race) over three days, all of which serve different purposes and therefore require a variety of strategies and variables that mean each time the cars go out on track there is something unique for fans to follow.

It takes a little bit of time and dedication to pick up and understand the sport enough to get the most out of being a fan. The rules are complex and create rigorous complications for the teams and drivers, and are even subject to change (within limits) during the season. Each race weekend is an opportunity for the regulators to make track-specific interpretations of certain rules (though there is less of that this year), which keeps the teams and drivers on their toes. Teams are always retooling their cars (again, within limits that sometimes carry penalties, which teams will strategically accept), and no car can be ideally suited for the myriad of track types out there (being faster on the straights necessarily means sacrificing speed in the corners, for example), so you never really know how a given car or driver is going to perform from race-to-race. And between the 20+ races each season spread across the globe over nine months, variables like weather and altitude often result in finishing orders quite different from the prior race.

All of this means that Formula 1 can be as just as daunting a hobby to pick up as wine. Most people who drink wine don’t put much thought into what they drink beyond the most important question: do they like it or not? Many see the exploration of wine as a bottomless pit of daunting technical terms and financial expense that can turn the wine hobbyist into an elitist snobby wino. Many surmise that those in and around Formula 1, a sport that does require some financial investment to take on as a serious interest, are essentially the same.

Not so, at least necessarily so, with wine as much as with F1. Yes, those kind of people exist in both worlds, and they give the rest very bad names. Thankfully, it feels like these terrible reputations for both are being replaced with more kind ones that reflect the growing and increasingly diverse fan bases of both motorsport and wine.

Us at the 2021 Mexico City Grand Prix

This parallel between Formula 1 and wine got me thinking about other parallels I could draw on the pages of Good Vitis, and I’ve settled on what to me is the most interesting: if someone wanted to pair their favorite Formula 1 driver with a bottle of wine, what wine would best reflect that driver’s personality and driving style?

I sat down to think through this incredibly subjective question, and put some effort into crafting what I hope are fair narratives about each driver that I could parallel with a type of wine. I then choose three versions of that wine representing a range of price points and styles with the purpose of helping Formula 1 fans pick a wine to drink whilst watching their favorite driver or celebrating that driver’s success (or perhaps drowning their sorrows after that driver’s next poor result).

One important note before we begin: Though I’ve been able to observe a few drivers up close whilst at races, I’ve never met a single one, and so I’ve had to base my notions here on what I see on television and social media, and on what I’ve read in interviews and the press. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of them.

Nicholas Latifi (Team: Williams) Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi are the two Canadians on this year’s grid, and unfortunately for both of them they’re on teams likely to finish in last and second-to-last in the constructor’s championship. Like Stroll, Latifi is what is often called a “pay” or “paid” driver, meaning they bring sponsorships to their teams that effectively pay for their place on the team. This notion carries a negative tinge because it suggests that money matters more than talent. But neither of these two are a slouches behind the wheel, and both followed successful junior and Formula 2 careers into Formula 1 where they’ve shown promise and achieved the occasional impressive result.

Whereas Stroll’s father is a very visible part of F1 and provides a constant reminder of his son’s paid status, Latifi’s father is not such a fixture on race weekends. The apple doesn’t far fall from the tree in the Latifi family; Nicholas is quiet and mild-mannered, and spends more time focusing on the details of the car than showing his face to the media or crowd. He’s realistic in his assessment of his own development and the prospective success of his team. Behind the wheel he’s at the helm of what I’d suggest is the least racy car in Formula 1, and Latifi’s main job is to push the car without over-driving it and forcing a did not finish, and is therefore patient, even hesitant at times, during races.

When it comes to a wine parallel, I’m going with pinot gris, an understated white grape that most of the time doesn’t stir up much excitement because it has a knack for delivering steady, reliable results within a narrow range of prototypical styles. Pinot gris, it should be noted, is the same grape as pinot grigio. The best regions for pinot gris aren’t the most famous or flashiest, which means the best pinot gris wines tend to fly under the radar. The best pinot gris, a precious small percentage of which gets produced, is intensely age-worthy, and like Latifi’s preference for snacks can be made in a very sweet style.

Wines: WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris, Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio, Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris Altenbourg Quintessence de Grains Nobles.

Alexander Albon (Team: Williams) Alex Albon is one of the most likeable drivers in this year’s Formula 1. Off the track he’s outgoing and self-deprecating with a cunning sense of humor. He’s completely comfortable giving retrospectives on qualifying and races, but he’s most enjoyable in those media moments when he’s talking about other drivers and things unrelated to motorsport. He’s very family-oriented, and clearly loves spending time with them.

This is his second stint in Formula 1. After having progressed rapidly as a junior driver into an F1 seat with Toro Rosso in 2019, then the junior sibling team to Red Bull, he was promoted to Red Bull, one of the two teams at the pinnacle of the sport at that time. However, by the end of the 2020 season in which he both impressed and disappointed, Red Bull decided to demote him to reserve and test driver, and he sat the 2021 F1 season out.

He’s back this year with Williams where he’s had a few impressive results mixed in with some bad luck and car troubles. The man is a hungry, brave, and persistent driver, and it will be interesting to see if he can help push the Williams program back into the midfield after signing a multi-year deal that takes him through the 2024 season.

Like Albon, rosé from the Bandol appellation in France’s Provence wine region is for real. Rosé is often relegated to summer porch pounding and seen as a light-hearted, fun wine for social events to lubricate interpersonal interactions rather than dazzle the palate. Bandol’s rosé does not exactly fit this mold because the region produces very hearty grapes and favors a winemaking style that produces hearty wines across the full range, including rosé.

But this doesn’t mean that Bandol rosé lacks those floral aromas and red berry flavors that are essential to what makes rosé so perfect for fun times. Still, local laws require that the hearty mourvèdre grape make up at least 20% of every bottle of rosé, which means you can expect at least a little hit of peppery spice and dark fruit with each sip that reminds you it has some real substance behind its jovial façade.

Wines: Domaine La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé, Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé, Domaines Ott Chateau Romassan Bandol Rosé.

Lance Stroll (Team: Aston Martin) Lance Stroll has three F1 podiums (all third places) and 35 top-10 finishes in six-and-a-half seasons, and yet people think the only reason he has a spot on the grid is because of his wealthy father who invests in the teams he’s on.

I get the logic of those who think of him negatively as a paid driver because technically he is – every team he’s been on has either been owned, at least in part, or heavily invested in by his father, and he’s never not raced for a team that his father hasn’t invested in. But his drives also suggest he earns the seat he fills, and he’s only 23 years-old.

In his private life he’s into adventurous sports like mountain biking and snowboarding, and in school he was apparently considered a “cheeky” guy by his teachers. In the car he goes hard and more often seems limited by the car he’s in than his own skills. Stroll seems like a fun, good natured guy who works quietly and away from the cameras to be the best that he can be.

In wine terms, Stroll is fully New World; he’s about that fun but serious life and doesn’t seem to care much about what other people are doing or have done – he’s there to do him and to do that quietly and respectfully, and that’s what the Washington State wine industry is all about. Like Stroll, Washington’s winemakers know they are underrated and are constantly striving to show people through their performance that they’re better than they’re given credit for.

Wines: Two Vintners White Zinfandel, Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah, Delille Harrison Hill red blend.

Zhou Guanyu (Team: Alfa Romeo) Zhou Guanyu, a rookie, is a seemingly reserved guy. He is focused and patient when it comes to his development, but also clearly very driven. In the car he’s tough and confident –  his quick recovery from the Silverstone GP crash was both miraculous and impressive. He strikes me as quite technically adept, too. On a recent appearance on F1 Behind The Grid, he spoke a lot to the technical aspects of the car with great intelligence, making it clear that he spends a lot of time with the team’s engineers and designers.

As a rookie, I suspect his demeanor is driven by what seems to be a great amount of respect for the sport and his elders, as well as gratitude for the journey required to obtain his F1 seat. Further, with only a single season guaranteed in his contract, he’s in constant proving-himself mode. And as Formula 1’s first Chinese driver, the man is paving a brand new path for the world’s most populous country, which means there is no shortage of pressure on the young driver’s shoulders.

In essence, Zhou Guanyu is a new version of an old wine. And his technical approach to being an F1 driver along with the multiple types of pressure he faces suggest his wine parallels should be on the more technically adept side of things. Whether it’s famed French Rhone Valley winemaker Louis Barroul making riesling in New York’s Finger Lakes region, California pinot noir master Adam Lee partnering with the late Châteauneuf-de-Pape legend Philippe Cambie to make California pinot like Cambie made French grenache, or Oregon producers making white wine from the red pinot noir grape, they’re all reflections of Zhou Guanyu’s ground-breaking presence in a sport for which he demonstrates reverence and respect.

Wines: Forge Cellars Classique Dry Riesling, Left Coast White Pinot Noir, Beau Marchais Close Pepe Est (or Ouest).

Yuki Tsunoda (Team: Alpha Tauri) It’s no secret that Yuki Tsunoda, in just his second Formula 1 season, is both very talented and a work-in-progress. His rookie season saw a lot of Yuki-caused vehicle carnage for both himself and anyone unlucky to be near him, yet when he kept the car on the track and away from others his talent was easy to see by the naked eye.

Suffering from a lack of focus from afar, his team moved him close to their factory and he began seeing a psychologist to improve his work ethic and mindset. Although he’s not featuring close to the podium in 2022, he seems to be about as competitive as the Alpha Tauri car will allow, and he’s making fewer mistakes. He remains, however, known for pushing the car as hard as it will go, and so does particularly well in fast corners where a full throttle won’t put the car into the safety barrier.

At 5 foot 3 inches, he packs a big punch. A similarly punchy wine to pair with Tsunoda is the small-sized petit syrah grape (also spelled petit sirah), which delivers big flavors and structures that are hard to confuse for anything else. Yuki’s toughness and audacious style is mirrored by petit syrah’s thick skin and large seeds that deliver a bold slap across the face. Further, petit syrah’s big hit of pepper knocks one out even when they know it’s coming, which is another apt comparison to the mighty Tsunoda.

Wine: Aaron Wines Petit Sirah, Carlisle Winery Napa Valley Palisades Vineyard Petit Sirah, Turley Cellars Hayne Vineyards Petit Syrah.

Mick Schumacher (Team: Haas) Mick Schumacher has had an interesting 2022 season. It started off quite poorly despite his Haas team fielding a very competitive car. Several unforced errors led to costly crashes and ultimately his team principal calling him out publicly for these mistakes, effectively demanding an end to them because of the crushing financial impact they would have by pushing the team over the annual cost cap.

To a surprisingly impressive extent, Schumacher responded and has featured as a competitor for points (top-10 finishes) in the last few races going into the summer break. With his surname (he is the son of Michael Schumacher, a 7-time world champion considered by many to be the best F1 driver of all time), the spotlight can mean a lot of pressure to a driver who at the beginning of his career raced under his mother’s maiden name out of a desire to be judged by his merits rather than his father’s.

The entire paddock seems to be delighted in his rise to form, and rumor has it that many competitors consider him one of the most talented drivers in the sport today. I cannot therefore think of any wine better to describe Mick Schumacher than Beaujolais.

Like Mick, Beaujolais lives in the shadow of greatness, located just south of Burgundy. The grape grown in Beaujolais is a red one called gamay, and it has many similar qualities to the main red grape of Burgundy, pinot noir, which has a more sterling reputation.

Many, in fact, refer to Beaujolais as the poor man’s Burgundy. This unfair moniker, because in fact the two regions produce decidedly different wines, is based on a style of Beaujolais called Noveau, which is a wine that must be sold in the same calendar year the grapes are harvested. Functionally this means a red wine that has no meaningful time to age before it’s sold. These are inexpensive, simple wines that should be consumed almost immediately to be enjoyed at their peak.

The celebratory nature of Beaujolais Noveau (the region has a huge blowout the day they are released, which is always the third Thursday of November) has given the rest of the region’s wines a reputation of being unserious. However, Beaujolais has a good number of serious wines that get more thoughtful treatment than Noveau, the best of which earn the categorization “Cru.” While some of Schumacher’s 2022 races finished early and spectacularly so, like Beaujolais Noveau, other performances have shown a seriousness and brilliance that resulted in meaningful finishes, like Cru Beaujolais.

Wines: Jean-Marc Burgaud Mogon Les Charmes, Daniel Bouland Morgon Vieilles Vignes Corcelle Sable, Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon ‘Cuvee Marcel Lapierre.’

Sebastian Vettel (Team: Aston Martin) It’s hard to call someone who won four championships with the same team (Red Bull) “inconsistent,” but Vettel was frequently called that during his subsequent years at Ferrari where he made many mistakes that mystified those who had witnessed his successes. And certainly in the last two seasons at back-of-the-grid Aston Martin, his results have been consistently underwhelming. But you know with Vettel that you’ve got a driver with immense skill and experience, and so if the car is on, he’s going to finish well. When behind the wheel and at his best, he is precise, calculated, and on-point fast.

Although Vettel had plenty of moments of hotheadedness in his younger and more successful years, he’s considered to be one of the most conscientious, generous, friendly, and principled drivers in the modern era of Formula 1 – especially in the last stage of his career when he has taken on a number of significant causes. There is depth and complexity to the man.

He’s also the kind of guy who will sign and send back something a fan sends him in the mail. He prefers hand written letters to emails, generally dislikes technology, stayed off social media until using his freshly opened Instagram account to make his retirement announcement last month, and spends more time reading than watching television. In short, Vettel seems to, in many ways, be an old soul.

In the wine world I’ll point to what is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the sangiovese grape, Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello makes a big splash out of the gate with serious brawn and guts, and then goes through years of evolution to eventually become a matured wine of stateliness, a wine that no one can scoff at even if it’s not the shiny object at the table anymore. Esteban Ocon has said that his teammate Fernando Alonso has matured like a fine wine, and George Russell has compared fellow Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to “a fine wine,” but if anyone in the paddock embodies the notion of fine and mature wine, I’d argue it’s Seb.

Wines: Bartoli Guisti Brunello di Montalcino, Marchesi Antinori Pian delle Vigne, Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG.

Pierre Gasly (Team: Alpha Tauri) I find Pierre Gasly to be one of the more interesting and higher quality human beings on the grid this season. Of all the drivers, I’d be most interested to read an autobiography about Gasly. In researching this piece, I learned, to name just one thing, that when on his way to a Formula 2 race the car he was in with his family crashed badly enough that his mother was sent to the intensive care unit. Gasly would make his way to the track, qualify for pole position, and later win the race, only to find out that he had broken a vertebrae in the crash himself. He’s overcome a lot of adversity and personal loss to get this far, and it takes a certain quality of person to survive that type of path to become one of only twenty Formula 1 drivers.

His struggles with the brief move to Red Bull in 2019 have been heavily reported as has the impact of his close friend Antoine Hubert’s death in the F2 race in Spa in 2019. He’s spoken about the pressure that being an F1 driver puts on one’s mental health, and when he engages with the media he gives some of the most thoughtful commentary you’re going to hear from this paddock. At the same time, although obviously talented, it seems likely he’ll never win a championship or all that many individual races despite being a sedulous fighter behind the wheel because that just seems to be his luck.

This description of him reminds me of merlot, a grape with tremendous qualities that make it capable of being among the world’s best wines, yet rarely gets the treatment of other more popular grapes capable of similar results. As the sole or dominate grape in a bottle of wine (like those listed below), merlot can contend with any other. But like the impact Gasly has on the F1 world, many of the world’s best red wines wouldn’t achieve their height without a meaningful addition of merlot (the most famous example being Bordeaux’s Cheval Blanc).

Wines: Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot, La Jota WS Keyes Vineyard Merlot, San Guisto a Rentennano La Ricolma.

Daniel Ricciardo (Team: McLaren) I’m not going to do the easy thing and point to Ricciardo’s collaboration with the St. Hugo winery in the Barossa Valley, even though my description of Barossa shiraz in the (SPOILER ALERT) Kevin Magnussen section below might also seem to be a good fit for one of the most popular and beloved drivers in Formula 1 today.

Instead, I’m going to use a phrase my wife conjured for this article and the humorous, good natured, and affable Ricciardo to assign Arizona wine to Danny Ric: hard to take seriously, but seriously good.

Arizona doesn’t make most wine radars (because who grows grapes in the desert?), and so people might not take it very seriously. Yet those who try the good stuff often can’t forget about it for a long, long time. And Daniel is a man of the desert and a lover of the American West, which makes this all the better of a fit.

As one of Formula 1’s more crafty drivers known for incredible passing talent  (that double Alpine overtake in Hungary this year!), we need a wine that not everyone can make, and that’s Arizona wine. Only crafty winemakers who know how to navigate the high elevation and weather event prone plains in Arizona’s south and the really wet valleys (yes, it’s true) in the state’s north can produce Ricciardo pass-worthy wine. Like Riccairdo’s joly personality and racy driving style, Arizona wine is really fun and seriously good. Hard to take seriously, but seriously good.

Wines: Rune Calibri Grenache, AZ Stronghold Lozen, Page Cellars Dos Padres Syrah.

Kevin Magnussen (Team: Haas) Kevin Magnussen is on his second stint with Haas, having been dropped by the team (and not picked up by anyone else) at the end of 2020. He therefore missed the 2021 season entirely. During that time he did a few motorsport races outside the Formula series and had his first child. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Haas ditched Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and sponsor Uralkali, which is owned by Mazepin’s father who is very close with Vladimir Putin. Magnussen was offered the seat, and he returned to the sport with a fresh and more humble attitude.

Magnussen has been welcomed back into F1 with great enthusiasm by both fans and those in the paddock, most of whom, like Magnussen himself, didn’t think he’d ever make a return to the highest level of motorsport. He’s taken advantage of this chance to match the Haas car’s good pace with skill and persistence, showing great form and putting together some impressive races.

This sequence of events has produced two versions of Kevin Magnussen the driver: First Stint and Second Stint Kevin. First Stint Kevin was aggressive, and often considered so myopically self-prioritizing that he gave little thought as to the safety of those around him. Second Stint Kevin, though still a daring and uncompromising fighter, hasn’t put other drivers into unnecessary danger this season any more than anyone else.

Because there are two Magnussens, there are two different types of wine. First Stint Kevin screams shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia, which has a reputation for producing big, takes-no-prisoner wines that are proudly and uniquely themselves. Second Stint Kevin is more Muscadet Serve et Maine Sur Lie, a very specific type of wine made from the melon de bourgogne grape from the Loire Valley in France that exudes subtle confidence stemming from comfort in its own skin.

Barossa wines: Torbreck The Steading Shiraz, Yangarra Estate Vineyard Ironheart, Penfolds Grange.

Muscadet wines: Domaine La Haute Févrie Muscadet Serve et Maine Sur Lie, Domaine Gadais Muscadet Les Perrieres Monopole, Domaine Claude et Sébastien Branger Cru Chateau-Thébaud.

Fernando Alonso (Team: Alpine) I doubt it’s controversial to say that Fernando Alonso is a bit enigmatic. Never one to hold back an opinion, either verbally or with body language, the veteran driver and two-time world champion remains remarkably difficult to understand because of the language he speaks: Alonsopeak.

According to the authoritative piece on Alonsospeak by ESPN’s Nate Saunders, Alonsospeak is both the what and how of Alonso’s communication style. It includes his status as a living legend, his penchant to distract from problems, his keen ability to change the narrative, and his confidence in being the smartest person in the room. Yet even Saunders’ explanations leave the reader confused, such is Alonso’s ability to keep the world guessing about his true meaning.

As a driver he leaves nothing on the track, and is crafty, risk-acceptant, and precise. His two world championships are often considered fewer than his talent alone should have delivered. Even today, at age 41, some consider him the best driver on the grid.

Eliminate the purposeful deception behind Alonsospeak and Alonso reminds of the wines from Jura, France. As a tiny region that’s been around for a long, long time, its wines are highly regarded among an odd combination of young hipster winos and retiree aficionados. Most of the region’s grapes, such as trousseau, poulsard, and savagnin, aren’t really grown anywhere else in the world, and some of the techniques used in the winemaking are routinely shunned almost everywhere else in the world because they alter wines in ways that most winemakers want to avoid. Yet when you try Jura wines, you know they’ve gotten away with all of it, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself in their devious presence.

Wines: Domaine de la Borde Arbois-Pupillin ‘Sous la Roche’ Trousseau, Domaine du Pelican Arbois ‘En Barbi’ Chardonnay, Anne et Jean-Francois Ganevat Cotes du Jura Vin Jaune

Valtteri Bottas (Team: Alfa Romeo) Despite Valtteri Bottas’ respect of Champagne, I can’t give it to him, and not just because George Russell might as well be a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle (more on that below). Instead, the Alfa Romeo driver is a high end cabernet-driven red wine from Napa Valley.

Bottas is not just an F1 driver. He owns a coffee shop and takes their bean sourcing very serious. He is a very good cyclist, though not as good as his girlfriend, Tiffany Cromwell, who races professionally. He started a duathlon that raises money for various charities. He’s a former member of the Finish military and was voted “Top Soldier” by his fellow servicemembers.

The man has layers, and he’s also a damn good driver. He’s surgical and steady, but is comfortable taking calculated risks. He may be the best teammate of all time, a driver without whom I’d argue Lewis Hamilton would not have the results to be in the running for best driver of all time. Bottas is known to be a great partner to his team’s engineers and strategists. In short, people want him on their team.

The wine parallel for me is high end Napa Valley red wine. If you know where to look, you’ll find winemakers in Napa who do what Bottas does with their grapes to make layered wines that get more out of the grapes than one thought possible. And, if that reason wasn’t enough, Bottas guided me here by outing himself as a Napa fan.

Wines: Rombauer Le Meilleur de Chai, Cardinale Estate Red, Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve.

Esteban Ocon (Team: Alpine) Esteban Ocon is one of my favorite drivers because he lets his driving do most of the talking. Unlike many Formula Series drivers of the modern age, he doesn’t come from means. His family made tremendous sacrifices for him as he made his way to F1, so it’s especially endearing when he finishes well.

He’s humble, relatively so, in a sport that is one of the world’s most popular. But if you allow that humility to bring your defenses down, he’ll expose your mistake with calculated and smooth driving. Lewis Hamilton called him a “shining star” after his first Formula 1 win, which occurred in Hungary in 2021. Although he hasn’t won a second race yet, he is consistently in the mid-field mix.

This combination of quiet humility and cunning skill makes for a challenging pairing, though I feel good in my call to go with his home nation’s Gigondas, a region in the Southern Rhone predominantly producing grenache and syrah.

Both Gigondas and Ocon are never going to be the most expensive options, nor the most famous or flashy. Nor will they have the largest cult followings or consistently score the highest points. Yet, both are fortitudinous and when you take a moment to think about either, you realize there’s something uniquely special about them. Within the very famous Rhone Valley region, Gigondas plays a number of fiddles behind other areas, but it is one of the regions that you can almost always count on to produce something that performs well. When Ocon wins his next race, I’m toasting him with a bottle of Gigondas.

Wines: Domaine Saint Damien Gigondas Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Les Pallieres Terrasse du Diable, Chateau de Saint Cosme Gigondas la Cleaux (or le Poste)

Lando Norris (Team: McLaren) Lando Norris is a joyful, direct, and forthright individual, so let’s all forgive him for insinuating that he doesn’t care about wine in an interview when comparing himself to teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who does. There’s more to life than wine, I suppose.

For me, Norris is Prosecco because you don’t have to like wine to add a splash of orange or cranberry juice to it to have the kind of pleasurable experience that is Lando Norris. And whether he’s doing an interview, goofing around on social media, or racing to the only 2022 podium appearance not filled by a driver from Red Bull, Ferrari, or Mercedes. When driving, Norris has serious game face and is exciting, calculated, and insatiable in pushing the car. If he’s ever handed a consistently and highly competitive car, he is capable of winning loads of races.

When it comes to Prosecco, like Norris, there is both simple and silly, and exciting and serious, styles. If made by really talented people with really good grapes in a purposeful way, Prosecco can deliver in similarly massive ways. Really good Prosecco is really good wine by any standard, and the thing I most respect about Norris isn’t his fun personality or straight talk (although both make him a compelling person and sports star), but his willingness to talk about the very serious topic of mental health. Norris parallels Prosecco’s range.

Wines: Pasqua Romeo and Juliet Prosecco, Andreola Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Más de Fer Rive Di Soligo, La Marca Cuvee Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore. BONUS (if you can find it): Celebrate a rewatch of the Ricciardo-Norris 1-2 finish at Monza with a bottle of Andreola Monza Prosecco.

Lewis Hamilton (Team: Mercedes) Lewis Hamilton is by far the most successful driver on the grid this season, a seven-time drivers’ champion (achieved in seven consecutive years) known for his ability to win under any combination of variables. He’s a master at tire management, does equally well in wet or dry and hot or cold conditions, can win from a starting position at the back of the grid, and rarely makes an unforced error. His success has made him one of the most popular drivers as well, with dedicated fans at any track in any country. He also attracts a lot of hate, some of which is sadly racially motivated as he is the only black driver in F1.

Those on the hate him side of the spectrum (who aren’t racist) point to largely personality-based complaints. His behavior when not in a media environment can be at odds with his on-camera performance, a persona that never forgets to thank the fans or his team despite the fact that he’s not known to spend a lot of time with fans when the media isn’t also there. Earlier this year in Baku, Azerbaijan, I witnessed him ignore two adorable British children wearing Hamilton gear who tried to get his attention from well within eye sight and ear shot at a moment when he was casually hanging out after hours in the paddock.

He’s also known for proactively making negative and unconstructive statements during the race about the performance of his car and/or complaining about other drivers who he believes have violated rules that he’s been given a penalty for breaking himself, all of which seem to imply that he wants to make sure that setbacks he faces in races aren’t attributable to anything he’s done. And this year, for the first time since before he was a world champion, he is being routinely outperformed by his teammate, George Russell, who hasn’t seemed to experience the same issues with his identical car that Hamilton claims are going on with his.

Yet Louis Hamilton has the results to rightfully compete for the title of best Formula 1 driver of all time, a feat that he’s proven capable of achieving despite all of the unreasonable and unfair hurdles he’s had to overcome due to the racism he’s faced since his first days in the sport while karting. He’s gone well beyond addressing his own experiences to initiate and lead the push in Formula 1 to improve its racial and social diversity while fighting racism on a global scale on behalf of billions of people.

I’m choosing malbec as Hamilton’s wine parallel because of the keenness with which it (1) balances its structure of tannin, acid, and alcohol (comparable to Hamilton’s consistency), and (2) shows the uniqueness of where it’s grown and how it’s made (which parallels Hamilton’s skill of adapting his approach to whatever the circumstances require).

Wines: Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza, Chateau du Cedre Cahors le Cedre (vegan, like Hamilton himself), Zuccardi Finca Piedra Infinita Altamira.

George Russell (Team: Mercedes) No driver on this year’s grid screams Champagne more than George Russell. The man slings the dapper clothing line, Kingsman. Need I say more?

Although by all accounts a modest human being, Russell’s style, accent, dashing good looks, and calm demeanor exude British luxury. Russell is affable, both confident and modest, a man for the every-person to see as a peer as well as someone to look up to. Because of this, he’s more of a Champagne House Champagne than a grower producer, a bottle of bubbles that almost everyone is going to enjoy.

As a sportsman, he is driven by obvious ambition, and his training and preparation demonstrate rigorous commitment. If we set aside some youthful indiscretions, behind the wheel and in front of fans and the press he is a consummate professional, delivering both drives and hot takes that can be provocative and respectful at the same time. His driving style includes a penchant for aggression, but only within the bounds of meticulous calculations.

Champagne doesn’t need to be braggadocious for people to know it’s serious. It very naturally exudes luxury, like Russell, without having to say a word; a simple look is all either needs to tell you exactly what they’re about. You know Champagne is serious, but like Russel it can be quite fun; it isn’t the world’s synonym for celebration for no reason. And like Champagne’s staying power as the world’s most popularly-known and loved wine, Russell has earned a reputation as a talent more likely to deliver than not. He overcame his poor-performing car while on the Williams team to earn the name “Mr. Saturday” for his consistency in getting the most out of his car in single-lap qualifying and has been the most consistent driver on the 2022 grid, finishing in the top-5 in all but one of the thirteen races so far this season.

Wines: Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle (No. 24 if you can still find it, No. 25 if you can’t), Krug Grande Cuvée Edition Brut (currently the 170th edition).

Carlos Sainz Jr. (Team: Ferrari) With all due respect to Telmo Rodriguez, winemaker and business partner of Carlos Sainz Sr. in Pegaso, a winery outside of Madrid, Carlos Sainz Jr. is all Priorat. This wine region south of Barcelona is brutally hilly and rocky and known for powerful and complex red wines. If you like that kind of thing, it’s hard not to fall for the appeal of Priorat, just as it’s hard not to feel the appeal of Sainz if you like affable, thoughtful, and intelligent people who seem to have worked for the success they’ve had.

Due to its tiny production, limited distribution, and higher price points, Priorat never really features in discussions about the best red wine region even though its wines can hang with top wines from regions in contention for this distinction. The reality, however, is that if representative wines from these contending regions were to be put in a lineup and tasted blind, Priorat would likely feature in many a taster’s top wines. This sounds a bit like Carlos Sainz, does it not? Sainz is always capable of the win if all that matters are the merits of the driver.

Priorat’s topologically and climatically punishing spot on the globe means its winemakers must be diligent and laser focused, and leverage their experience to overcome difficult situations. The same could be said of Sainz, who often finds himself stuck between rocks and hard places, especially due to terrible team strategy and management decisions in this season. And like the red (and white) wines of Priorat, Sainz’s career has been one that’s continually improved as he’s matured.

Wines: Celler Celilio Black Slate Gratallops, En Numeros Vermells Classic Priorat Negre, Alvaro Palacios L’Ermita.

Sergio Perez (Team: Red Bull) Sergio Perez is known as the Mexican Minister of Defense after a heroic performance in last year’s season finale without which his teammate Max Verstappen may well have not won the race and taken home the 2021 driver’s championship. Those few laps in which he kept Hamilton behind him using a car with tires significantly more worn out than Hamilton’s are emblematic of much about Perez, from his commitment to his team to his mastery of tire management to his smooth and determined driving style and his ability to be as aggressive as the situation requires.

This well-respected driver lives a relatively private lifestyle. He’s generous with his charity and loves playing pranks. His interests vary widely, including active investing in financial markets. There’s more to Perez than what you see when he’s in the F1 press box, not unlike the right bottle of Sancerre, a small region within the Loire Valley in France known for its deceptively intricate sauvignon blanc.

You can chug a bottle of Sancerre with fresh oysters and not really think twice about it because it’s a classically good pairing. And you can also stick the right bottle in the cellar for five or twenty years because there are few wines that reveal as much complexity and depth. This makes Sancerre a stand-alone glass of wine that you can really delve into and appreciate for its own merits that stand up to the most impressive of Perez’s drives.

Wines: Domaine Vacheron, Francois Cotat Les Monts Damnes, Edmond Vatan Clos la Neore.

Charles Leclerc (Team: Ferrari) Charles Leclerc seems like a nice, genuine guy. He’s one of the quieter, more reserved drivers when not in the car. To the press he is friendly and respectful, and his social media is wholesome and almost exclusively reserved for boringly obvious reflections on his races and the occasional PSA related to things like safe driving. He routinely praises the crew of his Ferrari team, and rarely creates controversy in the paddock, though this last part seems to be slipping as the team strategy deployed throughout this season is ruining races for him. There is a wonderful picture of him passing the magnum of sparkling Ferrari Trento wine from the podium down to his team.

Yet things change a bit when he gets behind the wheel where, because of his persistence, precision, and unflappable mindset, he is more than comfortable taking tactical and strategic risks. As a result of this approach (and Ferrari’s play calls this season), he’s usually either on the podium or showered before the race finishes. In my research, I struggled to come across anything uniquely fun about him, though he seems to enjoy many friendships on and off the grid. In short, he’s a best-in-class German riesling: precise, pure, strongly-statured, well-balanced, and likely to improve with age. If you want the 2022 version of Leclerc, get yourself a 20+ year old Spatlese or Auslese and hope that its owner has done right by it in terms of storage as these can be boom or bust wines.

Wines: Markus Hüls Sonnenuhr, Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, Ergon Muller ‘Le Gallais’ Wiltinger Braune Kupp Auslese.

Max Verstappen (Team: Red Bull) Like Kevin Magnussen, there are multiple profiles for Max Verstappen because of how differently he’s approached the 2022 season compared to 2021, when he won his first world driver’s championship, in terms of both his driving style (less aggressive and risk acceptant this year) and his comments to the press (more measured and vanilla this year). But I think more than anything, the stress of getting that first championship is gone now, and we’re seeing the real Max. So, just one wine.  

Since he’s said that he likes “fizzy” drinks, I’m going with a sparkling wine called Cremant de Bourgogne: from the world’s finest wine region, on par with Verstappen as the reigning world champion, but not the wine that drives that designation, on par with Verstappen’s reserved approach to the 2022 season.

These Cremants aren’t in the spotlight of the world’s most famous sparkling wines, just as Verstappen hasn’t caught Hamilton-level fame, yet in practice can be extremely well-made, mirroring his meticulous preparation. Cremants can come in a wide range of styles: you can happen on a version with gentle carbonation and a smooth mousse, like Verstappen’s personality when not racing, while you can also find one with an aggressive sparkle and energetic mousse, not unlike Verstappen’s driving style when he needs to push. Unlike the wine that Verstappen sarcastically hoped the race stewards bought with the large fine he was forced to pay after 2021 Brazil Grand Prix, Cremants de Bourgogne won’t cost anyone an arm or a leg.

Wine: Louis Bouillot Cremant de Bourgogne Rose Perle d’Aurore Brut, Albert Bichot Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Reserve, JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset Caviar Sparkling Blanc de Blancs.

Enjoy the second half of the season, and get yourself some of the good wine to go with it. With that, it’s lights out and AWAY WE GO.

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Togonidze’s Full Expression of Terroir

Five Very Successful Years
Gia Togonidze in his element

On my first visit to the Republic of Georgia, in 2017, luck put our group at a wine festival hosted at Mtatsinda Park in the country’s capital of Tblisi. We only had time to visit one winery when a few days later we would swing through Georgia’s best known wine region, Kakheti, and therefore decided that we would choose that winery based on the wines we liked most at the festival.

Ultimately we struck gold when several days later we found ourselves in the house of Gia and Lika Togonidze enjoying their wine over a traditional supra dinner that lasted well into the morning. Several years later, Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler Importing visited the Togonidzes. And now, Togonidze wines are available in the United States (more on this below).

Since then, I’ve witnessed the growth of Togonidze over social media. While remaining truly small and family (and friend) operated, the growth in foot traffic to Togonidze has been rapid and significant. Instagram after Facebook post show people from around the world having lunch and tasting the wine at the family’s house. Many also express admiration and appreciation for the artistic esthetic of the Togonidze property, which I describe in my original post, with pictures, at some length. It’s been a thrill to see the family and business flourish.

Back with Old Friends
Left to right: Me, Gia, and our friend Zaza

Just over five years after that late night at Togonidze, I again found myself in the company of Gia, Lika, and their uniquely and authentically charming property. Unlike the first visit, this one was planned well ahead of time and the copious amounts of familiar warmth and good food and wine came as no surprise, though neither were any less meaningful or enjoyable that the first time-around.

In fact, they were more significant the second time because I was sharing them with my wife, Kayce, on her first visit to Georgia. As I put it to her, I was in my favorite place in the world with my favorite person for the first time – enjoying, with her, one of my favorite families in the wine business.

Kayce’s first visit to Georgia

Gia doesn’t speak much English, but little gets lost in translation when you’re discussing wine or life with him, especially when the translator is Zaza Kvelidze of Experience Georgia Group. Lika, equally Gia’s partner in life and business, speaks more English, and although she spends less time focused on the wine, she adds just as much to both the experience of others and to the life they lead together through her presence, thoughtfulness, intelligence, cooking, and art. The beauty of their house and its décor is in large part due to her talent and eye.

When we arrived, Lika was busy at work in the kitchen as Gia greeted us, showing us to the room where we’d spend the night. After settling in and getting cleaned up, Gia showed me the latest updates to his winery, which were significant since my last time there. The dirt floors and walls had now been finished, several qvevri (the traditional clay pot for fermenting and aging wine) had been newly buried, and the entire cellar finished.

Georgia’s Resurgence
Wine aging in bottles in the cellar

Gia couldn’t wait to begin pouring wine (nor was I interested in waiting any longer), and sat me down at a table in the cellar already arranged with glasses and cheese. He poured a sample from a tank of unfinished wine, a blend of 60% kisi and 20% each of mtsvane and rkasiteli, probably the most famous three native white grapes. Early in its journey to finished wine, it was big and round with gritty acid and a noticeable alcoholic kick. It featured big hits of pineapple, white pepper, and banana leaf, showing immense promise if not a need for some time to get there.

While I was tasting the wine, Gia was busy searching the cellar and pulling bottles he wanted to open, while telling me about the considerable work that the wine industry in Georgia, the first wine producing country in the world, has left to do in its effort to catch up with the “first world” of winemaking countries.

Although archeology and science date Georgia’s original winemaking efforts to roughly 8,000 years ago, “the experience [of winemaking in Georgia] during Soviet times meant that Georgia missed out on the modernization of winemaking that occurred in non-Soviet areas around the world [during the mid-to-late 20th Century].”

Because the Soviets made winemaking illegal in Georgia, except for the few state-owned wineries that produced mainly for the Russian market that functioned more like mass production factories than places where the art of winemaking was performed, only since Georgia’s independence in 1989 has the country been able to resurrect its own wine industry.

This means that upon their exit from the Soviet Union, not only was there an indeterminate need for winemakers, but also that those winemakers have had to establish a new foundation of knowledge and experience as the country dramatically scaled the planting of quality vineyards while resurrecting many that were left to themselves during the Soviet production ban.

While this dynamic is an incredible challenge in an industry where its participants only get to practice their craft once per year (and thus cannot accumulate knowledge quickly), it is also a rare opportunity for Georgia to take this relatively blank slate and create products unlike any other available on the modern market.

Labels awaiting the bottle aging to finish

Simply offering wine from grapes not really grown anywhere else in the world, as Georgia does (kisi, mtsvane, rkasiteli, saperavi, etc.), is often enough to stand out, but add to that the “oldest winemaking country in the world” moniker and its unique approach to making wine in qveri and the product is definitionally unique.

What they are doing is working; Georgian wine is catching on. According to one report, exports nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019, going from 50 million bottles to 93 million in that four year span. Exports to America during that same period nearly tripled, and in 2021 the value of the country’s wine exports hit $250 million with 2022 on pace to beat that number. In fact, wine is Georgia’s fourth largest export by dollar amount.

Togonidze’s Hybrid Approach
One of the very first wines Gia ever produced: a multi-vintage “wein” nearly ten years old and drinking brilliantly under the no longer used Papa Togondizes moniker

Some producers, and count Togonidze among them, use an approach that combines Georgia’s unique grapes with a winemaking style that blends native and international methods. While much of Georgia’s wine gets the full qvevri treatment, many of Gia’s wines are a blend of wines made both in qveri and steel tank, and some entirely without qvevri. However, like the traditionalists, he believes that Georgia’s native grapes do not perform their best when aged in barrel, and thus avoids oak treatments.

The result, at least in my estimation, are wines that showcase the best of what Georgia’s native grapes can be; while I love Georgia’s amber wines (Georgia’s name for what we in the West call “orange” or “skin contact” wine), and Togo’s are ambers, I often find those made entirely in qveri to be so imbued by the native clay that they become over-saturated to the extent that the beautiful nuance of those native grapes get lost to the massive structure of the wine. Togonidze’s wines do not fall prey to this dynamic, which sets them apart from many of Georgian wines I’ve tried both in the country and in the United States.

A great example of why I prefer Gia’s approach is the 2014 rkasiteli that he poured us, which was made entirely in steel tank and thus showcases the grape rather than the aging vessel. Its extended skin contact produced beautifully pure acid and flavor. 2014 was a late harvest in the Kakheti region where Gia’s grapes are grown. Gia picked in late October, and those grapes required an unusually long fermentation period that produced a very golden wine despite the absence of qvevri aging.

The results, Gia told me, “are special” and produced one of his favorite wines to date. The acid is beautifully pure with bright and perfumed floral qualities that are nearly impossible to find in fully qvevried wines. The nuance is there in full force as well, showing preserved lemon, walnut, apricot, spearmint, and vanilla bean pod. This may be my favorite Togonidze tasted to date, and is among the most memorable wines I’ve tasted in quite some time.

Let the Wine Flow

From that we moved to the 2016 mtsvane, another wine that saw no qvevri. It spent time on its skins, however, producing a very dark amber. Plush and smooth, the grapes were harvested with a higher-than-normal level of sugar, and the steel tank aging has allowed the subtleties to show through. If I had to choose one word to describe this wine, that world would be “honeyed.” Though a dry wine, honey manages to feature in the structure, aromas, and flavors.

Next we tried the 2018 blend of rkasiteli and mtsvane. 2018 as a vintage produced “overwhelming” aromatics, Gia told me, so much so that he limited the amount of qvevri time this wine saw to keep those aromatics at bay. It’s another pure and honeyed wine and a slightly gritty acid. We’ve had a few at home in the US, and it’s a top notch wine (the full tasting note and score can be found here).

The development of the 2014 and 2016 wines, along with a 2013 we were sent home with and the NV Wein pictured above, shows what Gia’s wines can do with some age. The first vintage imported by Weygandt-Metlzer is the 2017, and although we’ve been drinking through the cases we’ve purchased of that vintage, we’re now going to pause on the remainder for a year or three to give them some extra time, as well as age the 2018s we have for another couple of years before consuming.

The 2019 Rkatisteli-Chardonnay featuring one of Gia’s own paintings on the label

One wine that Gia told me isn’t for aging is a one-off blend of chardonnay and rkasiteli that Gia made from the 2019 vintage for export. Calling it an “experiment,” it went through the shortest fermentation Gia has ever done. The result is a particularly light white wine by Georgian standards and is meant to be drunk now. I took no notes on it, but enjoyed its refreshing qualities and versatility with dinner, and am looking forward to revisiting it with the bottle we brought home.

As Gia poured this wine, he pointed out that it was filtered, something he said was for the export market for which the wine is intended. Wine made for domestic production, he said, is not filtered. No wine he produces is fined.

By the time the Rkasiteli-Chardonnay was in our glasses, Kayce had joined and we were all seated at the dinner table. Lika was putting food in front of us and Gia, myself, and Zaza were already three or four glasses into our evening. As this wasn’t a media visit, but rather friends getting together to enjoy each other’s company (and Kayce to meet everyone for the first time), I wasn’t spitting the wine. So having the refreshing 2019 blend was a productive way to start the long meal.

More and More Wine
The cork has held up very well as the wine has aged beautifully

As we finish off the bottles Gia opened before dinner, he went back into the cellar and pulled more out. On my first visit, he gifted me a 2015 Saperavi, the lone red wine he produces. I’ve been aging it, so this was a phenomenal opportunity to experience its current developmental status without having to open, to my knowledge, the one bottle of this vintage physically in the United States. It was really, really good. It was kind of perfect. We’re likely to drink our bottle at home before the end of the year. Though not every vintage of each wine is the same, let the record show that seven years for a Togondize saperavi seems just right, or at least right enough.

Lika’s food, once again, was amazing. In addition to the traditional Georgian salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and walnut paste, and a few others, there was a lamb dish that blew my mind. I’m hoping to get the recipe, though I’m sure it includes native Georgian herbs and/or spices that aren’t available in the US and are impossible to replicate. Georgia’s food continues to be among my very top favorite national cuisines, and meals like this are the reason why.

Several dishes from dinner, including the most delicious lamb I’ve ever had (top left)

Upon our leaving the next day, Gia gifted us a few wines, including two unlabeled wines that he wrote on with gold pen. One had its vintage noted, and we opened it, a 2013, just this last week. I didn’t take any notes on it, but like the 2014 rkatsiteli it showed the refinement these wines can achieve with age.

A 2018 Saperavi and a mystery bottle we took home, with Gia and Lika’s artwork in the background
Passion for Place

As Gia is describing the Georgian experience, he weaved in references to, and anecdotes about, the country’s long and tortured relationship with its neighbor, Russia. Two major areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and Ossetia, have been occupied by Russia since 2008 when Putin cooked up and planted false physical evidence of Georgia “human rights violations” in those regions, “forcing” his hand to invade and take control to restore the perverse version of democracy most of us call autocracy.

That the approach of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine follows the same playbook used against Georgia is no coincidence. As Russia was invading Georgia some fourteen years ago, the Georgians were warning the world – and did up until this year – that this was how Russia would do it to more countries if the West did not intervene. Well, we didn’t, and now look at Ukraine is.

As we discuss Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, the emotion clearly runs deep in Gia, Lika, and Zaza. They oscillate between a range of emotions, from anger to frustration, bewilderment to familiarity, optimism to resignation, they alway end, however, on some version of love and kindness. Georgians have much to mourn and bemoan if they are willing to really dwell, but few do for very long.

But whether it was those at this dinner, a friend whom Zaza and I later had dinner with who was been one of the highest ranking government officials with a wealth of international diplomatic postings under his belt, or others with whom we struck up conversations on this trip, they tend to get around to love and kindness. It’s just the Georgian way, and it’s a phenomenal thing to experience.

At the same time as we were discussing geopolitics, Gia was talking about the wine. You could see, hear, and feel how humbling it is for him to make wine, like his family has done for many generations, in a country for which he has so much pride – pride in its history; its people, their culture, traditions, and heritage; and their food and wine. But you don’t need to experience with the wine with him to know this, it comes through in the bottle.

There’s Nothing like Togonidze

Few experiences have inspired me like the time I’ve spent with the Togonidze family. Their love for each other, their community, their culture, their country, their heritage, their food, and their wine is infectious and enviable. I’m a firm believer that terroir is more than the connection with the land and environment, that in the best of wines it includes those grapes’ relationships with the people who love to turn those grapes into wine, as well as the culture and heritage in which the wine is conceived and produced. While I’m marked by my intimate experiences with the Togonidzes, I’d like to believe that one who has never met them can at least taste some of these amazing qualities in the wine they produce. If I had to put one winery forward as evidence of this expanded view of terroir, it would be Togondize.

Where to Find Togondize in the States

Weygandt-Metzler has increased the range of Togonidze it’s importing. The brick and mortar shop in Washington, DC, which can ship, is stocking six bottles:

Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Kakhuri Dry White 2018 – $24

Togonidze’s Wine Kakhetian Mtsvane Amber Wine 2019 – $26

Togonidze’s Wine Saperavi Red 2019 – $25

Togonidze’s Wine Chardonnay Rkatsiteli Dry White 2019 – $25

Togonidze’s Wine Rkatsiteli Kisi Amber Wine 2019 – $26

Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Rkatsiteli Dry White 2018 – $24

All are worth trying, and I encourage readers to stock up on their favorites and enjoy them over a period of at least five years. These wines represent incredible value as well, not only from the perspective of quality-to-price, but also based on the amount of love and attention they get from the production side. If you’re interested in placing an order, I suggest dropping Weygandt an email.

Clarice is Three for Three

A few months ago Kayce and I got to enjoy an evening with Adam Lee here in Chicago. He was in town for a few days and his last night overlapped with my first night back from a work trip. Work had and continues to be hectic, hence the dearth of Good Vitis posts in 2021. Towards the end of dinner, Adam suggested I try the 2019 vintage of his Clarice label and do a quick write up. While I’ve said ‘no thank you’ to several sample offers this year, I wasn’t about to decline one of my favorite domestic pinot noir producers, nor a producer who I’ve been able to follow since their first vintage. You can find coverage on the 2017 and 2018 vintages here and here.

These are wines that consistently show the promise of at least three to five years of positive evolution, if not more. However, with Clarice only three vintages deep, we just don’t know whether and how that promise is fulfilled. One way to test a wine’s aging mettle is to taste it over multiple days, and I put the 2019s through the battery of five days. A few weeks later, Adam and I caught up by phone to talk them through. I’ll start with the conversation, and end with the wines.

The 2019 Vintage

As a growing season, 2019 split the difference weather-wise between the inaugural 2017 vintage and subsequent 2018 in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Clarice sources its fruit. “It wasn’t as hot as 2017 or as cold as 2018, but [we] got three to four more inches of rain. So there was ample water available for the vines,” Adam told me.

Adam farmed similar to 2017, which meant leaving more fruit on the vine and thinning at veraison, which is later than usual. “The vines had enough energy [due to the ample water], so if I had taken the fruit off earlier, I was afraid the vines would have directed the [water-driven] energy into growing more shoots and leaves, and not [maturing] the fruit.” So he left the fruit on the vine longer, and later in the season took thinning down to the normal level. And because the heat ran the gap between 2017 and 2018, he split the whole cluster difference between the two as well.

To help with concentration and structure, Adam did a small bleed off, leading to wines that he calls more structured than either the 2017s or 2018s were at this stage in their development. “I talked to another winemaker, who said it took a lot longer than usual to extract the color [from the skins]. It didn’t come until the very end of the maceration cycle [for me]. I don’t know why, but it’s weird.” Adam wasn’t bothered by it, though, because he had already started to get away from pushing color extraction. “It’s not the end-all-be-all [for pinot],” he noted.

He did, however, leave the juice on the skins “for a little longer [than usual], a couple of additional days” compared to the two previous vintages of Clarice. Beyond that, he “didn’t do much of anything to drive extraction” other than the bleed off. “It’s not an unusual method,” Adam said, about this approach vis-à-vis the nature of a growing season like 2019.

The Barrel Evolution

When Adam and I first connected in 2019 on the inaugural 2017 vintage, we discussed the challenge of making a winery’s first vintage using a significant portion of used barrels. When starting a new winery and wanting to use a mix of new and used barrels, one is faced with the challenge of sourcing used barrels and ensuring they are properly clean and free of bacteria, which is not the easiest thing to independently verify. With three vintages under Clarice’s belt, I wondered if Adam had safely gotten beyond the threat of unclean barrels. In short, he has. Adam had sourced those used barrels from a winery and winemaker he trusted (and had trained himself), and as Clarice entered its third year Adam has avoided the risks associated with purchased used barrels. As Clarice evolves, though, so too does its use of barrels.

“For the [2019] Santa Lucia Highlands [designate], [the barrel regime] was 27.5% new oak. That’s not out of the range of where it’s been before, and was kind of the plan all along. The SLH has never been a declassified wine, but rather its own wine that happens to be a blend [of multiple vineyards].” The Rosella’s Vineyard is about 50% new oak, “which is a lot less than it’s been [before]. Gary’s is 90% new oak, which is more than it’s been.”

Adam continues to experiment with cooperages. The breakthrough in 2019 was Marsannay. “A few years ago, I tried a 3-year air-dried Marsannay, playing with it with some Santa Lucia Highlands fruit at Siduri Winery [and I liked it]. With Clarice, the first couple of years, I did two Marsannay barrels each and didn’t love them. I was about to give up in 2019, and then the ultimate Rosella’s blend turned out to include a significant amount of Marsannay barrels. Something happened, something clicked, and the Marsannay went back and produced the way it had with Sirduri.” Marsannay, it should be noted, does not feature in either the SLH or Gary’s bottlings.

Total production is down in 2019 because Adam decided to steer five barrels he felt were subpar away from the released wines; these barrels are going to charity. SLH production was only eight barrels, while Rosella’s and Gary’s were ten apiece. “I spent a lot of time on the blends,” Adam explained, adding that “it always takes a lot of time, but some years the blends come together more easily.” 2019 was not one of those years. “I actually took a few weeks off between blending efforts because I needed to reset the brain and taste buds.”

The 2019 Wines

The resulting wines demonstrate consistency in the Clarice progression, meaning the development of deeply complex wines that reflect their terroirs as made by a winemaker with a sixth sense of how to read and react to the growing season to make something better than what other winemakers could achieve with the same fruit. While Adam called the 2019s the most structured of the label’s three vintages, I found them to be the most accessible. While “structured” and “accessible” don’t have to be antonyms, it’s hard not to treat them that way. Accessible does not mean a lack of structure, but by my palate I project a quicker evolutionary arc for the current release than the previous two. I always hesitate to disagree with a winemaker, an actual professional, when it comes to things like this, but I’m going to hold firm on this one and die on the sword if necessary.

On this point, I looked back at my notes from the 2017 and 2018 vintages, and made a few notes about projected evolution and longevity. For the Gary’s Vineyard, I projected the 2017 would take the most time to reach peak drinking, followed by the 2018 and then the 2019. Rosella’s was similar, with the 2017 and 2018 seeming to require more time than the 2019. Only with the SLH did I find the opposite to be true, projecting the 2019 in need of a year or two more than the earlier vintages. Take that for what it’s worth.

Santa Lucia Highland vineyard soil

While the SLH hasn’t consistently been the wine of every vintage for me, by year three I’m comfortable saying that it is my personal favorite of the lineup, and shines its best in the current release.  The dark nose features blackberry, boysenberry, cherry concentrate, Earl Gray, and cassis. It developed a secondary cocoa overtone on day two. Medium bodied, its thick tannin offers Earl Gray tea and star anise notes. By day two the tannins had disarmed a bit, smoothing and elongating nicely while picking up a peppery note on the back end. The juicy acid core delivers stewed plum, cherry, baking spice, and salmon berry. Day two added mountain strawberry. The balance and structure is impeccably built, this one should be set aside for at least three or four years and followed over the following five years, at least. 96 points, value A.

Like Adam, the 2019 is the first vintage in which I’ve preferred the Gary’s Vineyard to the Rosella’s Vineyard. The nose is a moving target at the moment with extended air exposure adding and subtracting in waves. The most consistent aromas include Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, lavender, black plum, weathered leather, and black currant. It is medium bodied with smooth, lush, and long tannin that parallels juicy, bright acid. The elegant and weightless structure dazzles right now. The flavor profile includes Bing cherry, blood orange, cranberry sauce, cardamom, and black pepper. It feels like the tannins are elevated at the moment, waiting to drop and broaden with some age. Very accessible for such a substantial wine at the moment, I can see this entering a dumb phase within the year that might last two or three years before emerging a weightier, more layered version of itself. 95 points, value A-.

Finally we have the Rosella’s Vineyard. More reticent on the nose than previous vintages at this stage, I was able to coax a briar patch of dark crushed cherry, blackberry, and plum sauce, with star anise and clove putting a toe in the pool. The fruit holds on the second day, while the spice is replaced with potpourri. Nearly full bodied, the tannins are dense and slightly grainy, taking their time to reveal a core of pleasant acid. Flavors include cherry, plum, blackberry, tobacco leaf, wet soil, and just a touch of graphite minerality, all with a slightly savory twinge. The density of this suggests this has an upward trajectory that, if you can sit on this for a solid three or four years, promises reward. 94 points, value B+.

What’s Next

Unfortunately there will be no 2020 vintage of Clarice due to the fires the swept through California. Combined with the slightly reduced 2019 production, that means availability of Clarice will be highly limited, especially outside the company’s club, until the 2021 vintage is released. As to any desire to expand the line up in the future, Clarice is “truly going to be these three wines, it’s never going to get any bigger,” Adam told me.

While we customers impatiently wait for the 2021 Clarice release, Adam continues to experiment and grow his list of special projects. His newest side project is called ENOW, which is a grenache and mourvèdre blend from Paso Robles that rolls out with the 2020 vintage. “Enow” means “enough” and is a homage, if you will, to the rough year of 2020. The label explains:

You can find Adam’s various projects online by heading to Clarice’s website, and the best way to track the wines down is to buy direct from the producer. I can’t recommend Clarice enough for those who like serious pinot noir, and his side projects like Beau Marchais offer opportunities to try serious if experimental wines and winemaking approaches for those palates looking to expand themselves.

2020 In Review: To Next Year

We’re nearing the end of 2020 and that means Good Vitis’ annual year-in-review piece. Every year I sit down to write one of these and I think, ‘how self-indulgent can you be?’ This hesitation has been particularly acute in 2020 because of COVID, the summer of social unrest, and the election that won’t end. My wife and I got a second dog this year, moved from DC to Chicago during COVID so my wife could start a new job, and some of my work touches on the social issues most hotly debated this year, as well as the election itself, so we’ve been in the thick of things. Thankfully we haven’t lost anyone to the pandemic or suffered in any direct way, even as we take our personal responsibility to public health seriously and diligently. Life remains good to us, knock on wood, and we feel deeply for those who haven’t fared as well. So…wine highlights? I’ll tell you why the answer is yes.

During these dark days, wine has been an important part of life because it has contributed some normalcy, and offered opportunities to connect with people and experience other parts of the world while quarantining. I spent considerable time on Zoom and the phone talking to winemakers across the country, helping me stay connected to the outside world as I meet new people who share my passion. Exploring new wineries through samples has been a rare source of adventure. Opening wine from our cellar that has been aging for five or ten or twenty years has given us the opportunity to have something special to look forward to, marvel over, and reminisce about how it was acquired and what was happening that year. And, even though we haven’t seen most of our wine-drinking friends since pre-COVID days, it hasn’t stopped us from making future plans to share our favorite wines together, which gives us hope for the future. None of this is unique to COVID, but all of it has taken on added significance because of it. We all need something to keep us attached to good memories and help us generate new ones, and wine has been there for me this year in that department.

That said, 2020 was not a particularly noteworthy year in wine for us because of COVID. Sure, we drank great wine, but our inability to travel and share bottles with special people meant few exceptional wine experiences. This matters because while wine hits our taste, smell, and sight senses, it’s a story in a bottle that connects us to – and with – place, people, and history. A complete experience incorporates some of those elements in addition to the cork pop and pour that so many of us do frequently at home. Unfortunately, this became collateral damage to COVID.

Nevertheless, on balance wine was an important contribution to the good things that occurred this year. As has become the tradition, every year-in-review piece is done a bit differently from previous years. 2019 was the most revelatory moments, 2018 and 2017 the most memorable wine, and 2016 the best reds, whites, and values. 2020’s theme: The Year Of. I put a lot of thought into whether to include the incredible fires of 2020 that affected wine country, but decided to punt on that until the full impact on the vintage is known.

2020: The Year of Pinot Noir

Pinot noir has a reputation as a wine that can take people a fair amount of time to warm up to. It’s a hard variety to put your finger on: its versatility can be made into many styles and its ability to reflect terroir can produce a multitude of profiles. With infinite style and profile combinations, there are bound to be pinots that pinot lovers dislike, and pinots that pinot haters can tolerate, if not enjoy. It’s also a variety that can be quite transformational with extended aging, meaning the same wine can evolve into multiple versions of itself. And it’s prolific, made nearly everywhere in the world.

With all its permutations, it’s easy to have a few bottles you don’t enjoy and decide that’s enough pinot for you. Plus, if you’re not ready for the more traditional pinot and that’s what you get, it can be a huge turnoff. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I hear that go something like ‘a friend poured me a glass of (insert wine here) and all I could taste was dirt and mushrooms and it was the last pinot I’ll have because it was gross.’

It certainly took me a few years to warm up to pinot (I took a flyer on a Volnay early in my wine days, which I’d probably love now, that didn’t go over well then). Because of the blog, the number and quality of pinot I tasted jumped significantly in 2019, and again in 2020 because of the number of Good Vitis articles that centered on pinot. This year’s pinot posts included a profile on California’s Anderson Valley (a pinot haven); research for a forthcoming profile on California’s Santa Lucia Highlands (another pinot mecca); and profiles of pinot specialists Clarice, Beau Marchais, Siduri, Peake Ranch, Merry Edwards, and a forthcoming profile of The Hilt. Those articles alone “required” tasting over 5 dozen pinots. We put in the hard work so you don’t have to; you’re welcome. And this doesn’t even include the exceptional pinot we drank from our private stash, including Oregon favorites Belle Pente, Cameron, Domaine Serene, Penner-Ash, and Zena Crown, plus some old Burgundy.

Beau Marchais barrel samples

One of the most surprising moments of 2020 involved pinot as well. Normally an expensive wine, the best value I came across in 2020 was actually a pinot noir. Made by Lucky Rock, this killer wine costs just $22 and is a purposeful thorn in the side of upper hoity toity wine society that turns both butt cheeks at such plonk.  

This year’s exploration further confirmed pinot noir’s bona fides as one of wine’s noble varieties for me. Pinot can give one an experience that doesn’t entirely make sense, which makes it quite hard to describe in a medium like this. Pinot flourishes as an a posteriori wine, giving us a lot to experience and learn from. But it’s real value is the a priori experience it can provide, going beyond what we can identify by giving us aromas, flavors, structures, and textures that are without comparison and require some theoretical deduction to wrap our heads around.

This seemingly illogical description is quite reflective of the experience one can have with pinot, able to pinpoint flavors, aromas, textures, and structures while feeling incomplete in one’s ability to describe the experience at hand. The more pinot I experience, the less I know about the variety.

2020: The Year of Zoom

You might have notice that Zoom is a thing. Many of us have spent countless hours on video conference as we work, socialize, or attend school and events from home. The same is true of the wine industry. With the limitation/inability of doing in-person tastings, wineries and public relations firms embraced Zoom tastings. I certainly did my fair share of them with wine glass in hand. I don’t have a ton of poignancy to add on this front other than two interesting anecdotes to share as data points.

Lot of time spent in front of this thing

First, when I profiled brick and mortar-less Clarice Wine Company and its inaugural release (2017 vintage) in 2019, I outlined the unusual business model that owner and winemaker Adam Lee designed to offer multiple touchpoints for customers. This included an online forum for Clarice members to connect with each other, which in its first year turned out to be less used that Adam expected. However, with COVID the forum lit up, and Adam combined that serge of community with another element of his unusual business plan, offering discounts to his members on other wineries owned by friends of his, to schedule an incredible amount of Zoom tastings with other winemakers to discuss their wines and experience. This effort helped his followers and customers expand their palates and knowledge while driving additional business to these partner wineries.

Second, in a very recent discussion with Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year Greg Brewer, Greg told me that while he badly misses the in-person interactions with customers and clients, the ability to pop in on an event via Zoom for five or ten minutes and provide some additional value for the participants is something he’s come to really appreciate, and imagines will continue to be something he does even when he’s Zoomed in on in-person events.

Zoom has been a Godsend for many people for many reasons, including the wine industry. And, it may be the gift that keeps on giving even when COVID is fully in our rearview mirror.

2020: The Year of Champagne

It became clear to my wife and I this year that when there’s something to celebrate, it should be celebrated. We shouldn’t be too picky about it. And when we think celebration, we think Champagne. It’s unfair to limit the use of Champagne to celebrations, although that’s the stereotype the industry has perpetuated in the name of sales and brand ID. It’s also a bit stupid because Champagne is one of the best food-pairing wines out there, full stop. But that’s another discussion.

At some point in 2020 we decided we wanted bubbles to be more of a fixture in our routine, and so I set out to assemble a dozen or so bottles for us to try. I went to social media, getting great recommendations from a number of people. Although we experimented with a number of non-Champagne bubbles, we always came back to three wines that have become our core sparkling wines, all of them from the region of Reims:

NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé: We tried a number of rosé’s, including Billecart-Salmon, considered by many to be the industry standard basic quality rosé, and didn’t find anything we liked nearly as much as Taittinger’s Brut Prestige Rosé. A combination of pinot noir and pinot meunier, it strikes a great balance between lean acidic cut and creamy body; has the kind of lush, fine mousse we love; and drinks equally well alone as it does with food. We rarely drink more than two or three bottles of any vintage of any wine because we prize variety, but we blew through more than a case of this in 2020.

NV Egly-Ouriet Premeir Cru Vignes de Vrigny: This cat’s-out-of-the-bag grower Champagne house was a no-brainer to try, and we fell hard for this rare Premier Cru-level 100% pinot meunier Champagne. It’s 38 months on lees is, according to the winemaker, a modern regional record. The result is a savory, substantive, and succulent Champagne with great minerality and depth that drinks well now, though I’m trying to exercise patience and keep a few in the cellar to open in five or seven years because it has that kind of promise for evolution.

NV Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve: This one came via an Instagram recommendation, and was my favorite new discovery. It’s a full-bodied, dense, cider-y, creamy, yeasty, and brioche-y Champagne that stands out very distinctively – and elegantly – from the far more common profile of what seems to be one of today’s dominant wine trends of strip-your-enamel acid. This is my favorite Champagne to drink on its own for that reason in particular.

2020: The Year of Residual Sugar

We are dedicated lovers of old sweet chenin blanc from Loire Valley, especially Domaine Huet Moelleux (the sweetest Vouvray designation). We fell in love with riesling after spending time in Mosel in 2019 while on our honeymoon, which also served as our introduction to Kabinett. This year, our official love affair with Kabinett and Spätlese rieslings began.

Kabinett and Spätlese are German designations for the amount of sugar content in the grape when it is harvested (note: neither distinction reflects how much residual sugar is left in the wine post-fermentation, meaning there are such things as dry Kabinett and Spätlese wines, which are given the additional distinction of “trocken,” “Grosses Gewächs,” or “Erstes Gewächs”).

The foundations for this love affair were laid by a 2007 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a 2003 Selbach-Oster Zelting Schlossberg Auslese, and a magnum of Peter Lauer Barrel X riesling that paired well as a BYO bottle with a meal at a Laotian restaurant known for exceptionally authentic and authentically spicy food. Now, about a third of what we’re buying for ourselves are residual sugar wines, especially riesling and chenin blanc. A 1996 Schaefer Kabinett really sealed the deal.

One aspect of the beauty of varieties like riesling and chenin is that, whether dry or sweet, when aged for ten-plus years they take on qualities that make them exceptionally diverse in the food pairing department, an improvement, if possible, upon their distinction as great food wines even when young. Really great, old riesling or chenin goes equally and extraordinarily well with steak au poivre as it does Thai, and are also exceptional to drink on their own. There are no other varieties, I’d argue, that you can say that about. And that’s especially frustrating because the modern trend is dry riesling, even in the most famed areas for residual sugar. This means supply of residual sugar bottlings, both old and new, is shrinking.

The other frustrating thing with these wines is that, at least for us, they are so much better when they reach ten or twenty (or sometimes more) years of age and are worth the wait. This means we have to buy them at auction to support our addiction since we didn’t order cases of them when we were in high school. Our approach is to go mostly to auction, while slowly building a stock of new(ish) releases that we’ll drink when we’re (much) older.

2020: The Year of “Next year”

We were supposed to go to Japan and Belgium in 2020. We were supposed visit family, and celebrate birthdays with friends and good wine. We were supposed to volunteer. We were supposed to…supposed to…supposed to… “Next year” has become a common idea expressed towards the end of many conversations. The yearning for a better and more meaningful next year is a common theme for Jews like myself, which made it a bit easier to swallow each time I said it, though no less consequential.

At the end of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Ne’ila service (two of the most important events in the Jewish year), diaspora Jews sing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” which translates to “Next year in Jerusalem.” An inherent, in-our-DNA connection to Jerusalem, the heart and soul of Israel, is a core part of many Jew’s identities, mine included.

Jerusalem means “the city of peace” and uniquely occupies the intersection of body, soul, heaven, earth, ideal, and reality. Although also biblical, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel has been around for a lot longer than the Jewish religion. It comes from a time of Jewish nationhood, which preceded the Jewish religion by many generations. This is why there are numerous secular Jews for whom Jerusalem and Israel hold a special place in their hearts and souls, and why attacks on the Jewish connection to Israel, and Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel, are attacks on Jewish identity.

A common description of Jerusalem’s Jewish significance is that you can be miles away from it even while living there, yet be on the other side of the world and be only a step away. When Jews left Egypt for the Land of Israel, they were escaping slavery and seeking the freedom of the Promised Land out of a yearning for the ancestral place where they could be free. In Egypt their bodies were owned and controlled by others, imprisoning their souls rather than being a vehicle for their expression. In Israel, and especially Jerusalem, their souls were free to pursue service to humanity, which is a core tenant of Jewish life. This sentiment remains a core value that Jews cherish today. Whether one actually lives there or not, Jerusalem is, in place and spirit, the best opportunity for Jews to live our best lives (in the parlance of our times).

In 2020, the secular “next year” took on a weightier significance then it had previously, at least in its common use. So much of what many of us have given up this year are things we do with and for other people – the things we do in service to humanity.

I’ve been working from home since 2017, so I’d been training for COVID for a few years on the work front. However, that didn’t cover things like having to keep physical distance from family, friends, friends’ COVID babies and dogs, seriously sick friends, and close colleagues. Even Next Year in Jerusalem, always a communal exclamation, became something we said in the solitude of our own homes while watching services on our television. It’s been a hard year to maintain relationships, though the shared experience of COVID at least provides for a universally understood reason (and excuse). It’s been a year where selfishness can be selflessness if done right and for the right reasons, but also a year where selfishness can be masked as selflessness or unmasked for what it is. It’s been an entirely mixed bag.

I’m really hoping that “next year” is prophetic and what we’ve had to postpone in 2020 can happen in 2021. Like you, I have a long list of people and places I want to visit, and things I want to do. I’m eager for a return to normalcy, though I anticipate it will be a new normal, with tweaks to the old normal based on what we’ve learned this year. As the year winds down, we’ll be raising our wine glasses to everyone in our family and yours, and channeling our strong desire and hope for a better 2021 for all, including a renewed focus on how we can serve each other. To next year.

Try this Wine: Fall Release from Merry Edwards

Earlier this year, I profiled legendary California pinot noir producer Merry Edwards and reviewed a number of their wines, including the spring release allocation. To conclude the article, I wrote that:

“It is hard to compare Merry Edwards’ wines to those of other wineries, even her neighbors, because the combination of Merry Edwards herself, the quality of the terroirs of the vineyards, and the meticulous and purposeful viniculture and winemaking of Heidi [von der Mehden] is unique, and uniquely effective. There are lots of reasons to choose one wine over another, but it is hard to be in the mood for Merry Edwards and settle for something else.”

This follow-up article reviews their six fall release wines. Merry Edwards was a pioneer in the California pinot noir movement, focusing on single vineyard designates. Over time, she added chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and a few other small production wines. For a long period of time, the winery was a pretty stable place in terms of ownership, management, winemaking, and general marketing and public relations. Merry put a lot of work and thought into building and strengthening the winery’s product, brand, and reputation, and like her vineyard approach kept the long game in mind. It worked.

Five Years of Important Transitions

Towards the end of her time in the business, Merry positioned the business for successful transitions to new leadership. In 2015, Merry hired Heidi to be her assistant winemaker, and it went well enough that in 2018 Heidi was made head winemaker when Merry decided to retire from those duties. In early 2019, she and her husband sold the winery, estate vineyards, and vineyard leases to Louis Roederer Champagne House. When Roederer purchased Merry Edwards, they kept Heidi, who is profiled in my earlier Merry Edwards piece, as head winemaker, and brought Nicole Carter in as President.

Merry Edwards President Nicole Carter

Nicole has been a long-time leader in the wine industry, previously serving as Chief Marketing Officer and Director of Winemaking at Hess Family Wine Estates after spending 18 years in global marketing and public relations for Treasury Wine Estates. Before her move to California, Nicole was a public affairs professional in Washington, DC, the same line of work that pays my bills.

Between the spring and fall releases, I had a chance to join Nicole on a Zoom tasting and later connect directly with her by phone. I have found her to be professional, insightful, and thoughtful: a combination of vinicultural, enological, marketing, management, and business skill rarely found in one person. Notably, Nicole is dual-hatting as President of the venerable Diamond Creek Vineyards as well. Merry Edwards is in great hands with her and Heidi at the helm. One exciting thing to watch for, in addition to future wine releases, is a label redesign in the next six to eight months that will bring some modernization while retaining the classic labels’ iconicism.

The 2020 Fall Release Wines
A map of Merry Edwards’ vineyards. The fall release vineyard designates include Bucher, Warren’s Hill, Meredith Estate, and Flax.

Getting down to the new wines, the release includes five pinots and a late harvest sauvignon blanc. I tasted the four vineyard designate pinots over a period of four days, which facilitated great evolution in all four, and gave me a good feeling about the promise they hold. These are seriously dense wines that are going to need time in the cellar to fully express themselves. Nevertheless, they spirit the fall season with some funkiness and earthiness, showing a nice dichotomy from the more fruit and spice-oriented spring release wines. For those who prefer more earthy wines, these fall release pinots are great New World picks. The fifth pinot which I reviewed in the spring, is the Sonoma Coast blend, but was included in this fall release.

While my preference would be to stick these in the cellar and forget about them until at least the 2025 Presidential Inauguration, if you want some seasonally appropriate wines that you can enjoy over a number of days this holiday season, look no further. These wines remain consistent with my previous claim that while there are many pinot noirs out there, there remain no others like Merry Edwards.

Let’s begin with the 2018 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir, a tiny parcel of a vineyard (just 2.13 acres) in the Russian River Valley. 2016 was the first vintage of this leased vineyard designate for Merry Edwards, making it one of the few vineyards as new to Merry Edwards as head winemaker Heidi von der Mehden, who was challenged by Merry to make the first rendition of it. Among this fall release, it was the most accessible vineyard designate, though that’s not saying much. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features raspberry, blackberry, tar, and black pepper. On the palate, it’s medium bodied with a nice core of juicy acid. The flavors are equal parts fruit, earth, and salt with plum and raspberry, graphite and pepper, and saline. Accessible now with a decant, I see this improving over the next three or four years.

3 Day Update: Left corked in the kitchen for three days. Original tasting note is solid, including the drinking window, though there’s a slightly fungal note on the backside of the palate that adds something interesting to the mix.

92 points. Value: B-.

Next is the 2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir, a vineyard at the center of the winery’s identity. Merry purchased 24 acres in the Russian River Valley in 1996 and planted 20 acres of vines on its eight to 12 degree slopes. In the spring article, I reviewed the 2017 vintage of this wine, calling it “full-throttle” wine that would benefit from three to five years of aging. While I awarded it and the 2018 93 points each, I found the 2018 to be even denser and  in need of more cellar time. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose features sweet plum, red currant, blood orange, dried cherry, and dried herb. Full bodied with spread out, densely grained tannin and significant acid, this is quite primary in structure and flavor, which includes salty plum, tar, rhubarb, raspberry and fungal forest floor. A bit backwards at the moment, this needs at least five to seven years of cellaring.

Day 3 Update: Corked and stored for three days in the kitchen. The nose remains sweet and decadent, as does the palate. Aromas and flavors remain consistent, but it has reversed its backwardness. Aging window seems spot on as it should help the structure resolve and the flavors deepen. Adding a point (from 92 to 93) because it deserves it.

93 points. Value: B.

Warren’s Hill Vineyard

As the funkiest of the bunch, the 2018 Warren’s Hill Pinot Noir was my favorite. The vineyard had been used for nearly two decades to produce top notch pinot, and was replanted in 2012 using vine cuttings from the original planting that were propagated in nursery before being planted. At the same time, the vineyard was renamed in tribute to Merry’s late son, who was named himself after two respective Warrens whom Merry was close with herself. Tasting note:

Day 1: The funkiest nose affixed to a Merry Edwards wine that I’ve come across, it’s as if the grapes have absorbed the mushroom mulch used to treat the vineyard’s soil. Aromas include black tea, burnt cherry, forest floor, marjoram, and dried oregano. Medium bodied, it coats the mouth in fine, grippy tannin and sparkling acid that delivers flavors of strong black tea, licorice, dried sage, blackberry and salty dark plum. There is a uniqueness to the wine that sets it apart among Merry Edwards pinots, and indeed apart from other American pinot noirs. I think its best days will come roughly five years from now.

Day 4 Update: Left corked in the kitchen and revisiting today. It’s softened a bit, but is still pretty tight. The funkiness, which remains noteworthy and tasty, is more integrated with the fruit, making it a more interesting and pleasant wine to drink. While it’ll be better in five years, I’m revising my drinking window to say that its best days are probably eight to ten years from now.

94 points. Value: B.

The final vineyard designate is the 2018 Flax Vineyard Pinot Noir, a site well known to followers of Williams-Selyem who have enjoyed its old block Flax designate for some time now. This year’s Merry Edwards is a great example of the wondrous wines that can be produced off vineyards where land, climate, viniculture, rootstock, and clone (Pommard 4 in this case) are well matched for each other. Vines themselves, the combination of rootstock and clone, get shortchanged in discussions on Good Vitis and in 99% of wine journalism and blogging, mostly due to the boring nature of the discussion that neither writer nor reader can easily appreciate. If you want to drink the discussion rather than read it, look no further than this wine. Tasting note:

Day 1: The nose is quintessential Russian River Valley Pommard, dropping seemingly endless dark cherry, plum, and mild cigar tobacco aromas. Extended air reveals wiffs of wet pavement minerality and clove. On the leaner side of pinot, the palate is tight at the moment with fine tannins that build grip with time, and lean and long acid. The flavor profile includes beautifully balanced blackberry, blueberry, tar, licorice and spiced plum. A bit light in the middle at the moment, a few years in the cellar will help the tannins move inwards from the outer edges to fill in the palate. Give this three to five years if you can.

Day 4 Update: Left this corked in the kitchen for four days. The nose is surprisingly muted, more so than when initially tasted. The mid palate has filled out a bit, thankfully, as the tannins have released a bit and moved inwards. It’s picked up a tasty cinnamon note. I think this is going need at least five, if not six or seven, years to hit a solid place. It’s got a ten year lifespan, easy.

93 points. Value: B-.

The 2018 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir represents a compelling high quality representation of the appellation. Tasting note:

A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B-.

Finally, we come to the super delicious 2018 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which achieves a level of depth and complexity that belies its existence as just a third leaf wine, and the first (production) harvest, from the Maefield Vineyard that Merry Edwards planted in 2015. Given its youthful source, the promise of this vineyard for late harvest wines is incredible, as is the amount of effort that goes into producing a late harvest wine in Sonoma.

Merry planting Maefield Vineyard

Normally, late harvest grapes are left to hang as long as possible to achieve high sugar accumulation in the grapes, and picked just early enough to preserve some acidity. In Sonoma, however, with the tapering of the hot weather (needed to develop sugar) in the fall and the concomitant fog development, it gets complicated to let grapes hang past the harvest dates used to make dry wine. To balance the need for extended hang time to achieve concentration with the need to harvest earlier in the grape’s development than would be ideal for a late harvest wine to safeguard against fog-induced disease, Heidi and her team reduce the crop by half and remove the canes (young branches that suck up nutrients but aren’t yet producing production-worthy grapes) to coax the vine into pulling less water into the plant, thereby dehydrating the remaining grapes and allowing them to concentrate more rapidly. They were also lucky to find that Noble Rot, a beneficial fungus that shrivels the grapes (thereby inducing concentration), was quick to develop in the young vineyard. I wasn’t able to let this one last more than one night. Tasting note:

The sweet, tropical nose offers boisterous peach, candied mango, orange creamsicle, white tea, and Sprite. Full bodied with gorgeously smooth and thick acid that envelops the mouth in silkiness before piercing the finish with crispness. The very sweet palate includes flavors of yellow peach, orange marmalade, Angel Food cake, guava, and salmon berry. This is downright delicious, but I imagine will do cool things in ten to twenty years. 94 points. Value: B+.

Myth vs. Fact: 5 Things Wine Consumers Should Know

mythfactchalk

I think we’d all like to believe that wine is made to be the best wine that it can be. Unfortunately, I’ve come to learn that wine is made as much as, if not more so, according to the economics of wine as it is to the ideal vinicultural and enological standards and practices. I hate to de-romanticize good vitis, but I think it’s for the best because having a better understanding of the business of winemaking should make everyone a better wine customer. It took interning at a winery and writing this blog for a few years for me to learn and appreciate the impact of business-side factors on the wine that I drink, and it’s brought me to a greater appreciation of the industry and its product.

Knowledge of the business helps consumes because business-side decisions ultimately shape the product we buy: the type of glass and bottle chosen, its vineyard sources and how the grapes are harvested, barrel regime and winemaking methods, where it gets sold and how it is priced, and more. It turns out that many of the winemaking decisions winemakers talk about as being stylistic choices are made from a list of options constrained by the economic realities and business limitations imposed upon them by ownership, regulations, sales structures, distribution and the marketplace.

A good understanding and appreciation of wine therefore requires not just knowing where it is from and how it was made, but also the economics of making, marketing, distributing and selling it. With this in mind, I’m offering a list of what I believe are five pivotal wine business realities for consumers to know.

Myth #1: The Wine Business Makes People Rich

Picture: Napa Valley Film Festival

Fact #1: It is extraordinarily rare to make millions in the wine industry.

There’s a saying in the industry that the way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one. Though one might assume this joke (and rule of thumb) applies more to higher cost areas like Napa where choice acreage can go for as much as $1 million per, its applicability has as much to do with location as any other factor, of which there are many.

The wine business is a low margin one, and therefore requires sufficient volume to turn a profit. The largest wineries have tackled this with a model that produces a lot of wine that doesn’t require expensive inputs so they can sell higher quantities at lower prices. Making really good wines in this category is an art, though also a rarity.

On the other end of the spectrum, small boutique producers sell very high quality and expensive wine in very limited quantities. Between these two ends of the spectrum are a variety of sizes and models designed to turn a profit on the kind and quantity of wine they want to produce. Some are a hybrid of both ends, paying their bills with entry-level higher margin wines at bigger production numbers and while getting their high quality fix with higher end limited production wines. Hess Collection is a great example of this hybrid model, making good wines at price points from ~$10 to over $100 (click here for more on Hess). All this being the case, profit margins are driven by numerous factors of which the cost of production is just one.

Why this matters to consumers: It is helpful to know that 99% of wineries are not significant money makers even though you may be paying quite the tariff for a bottle or tasting fee because it contextualizes a number of things, among the most important (1) you’re not entitled to special treatment by a winery because you buy their wine or visit them (an expectation that occurs more than one might anticipate), (2) because wine is a hyper competitive market, what they’re offering you likely represents the most they can offer while maintaining profitability, (3) this is why discounts are usually small and connected to higher quantity purchases, (4) the wine industry is not full of wealthy people living a lavish lifestyle, so you’re not as disconnected from them as you may think, and (5) don’t look down your nose as necessarily selfish or shallow actions like cost-saving measures, decisions to “sell out” by selling to a parent company or advertising campaigns meant to attract customers who are unlike you.

Myth #2: Quality Wine is Overpriced

When all the customers answer "Overpriced" - Meme Generator
Picture: meme-generator.com

Fact #2: The price you pay for a wine – any price – is a realistic reflection of how much that bottle costs to produce multiplied by the winery’s need to sell it and the market demand of that specific bottle compared to its peers.

Though this formula is subjective, it is not as subjective as you might believe. Let’s take on pinot noir as an example. Pinot is an expensive wine to buy relative to most other red wines. This is mostly driven by the following factors:

  • It is more finicky to grow and more delicate to make relative to most other red wines, meaning there is more that can go wrong in its production relative to other red wines. Quality and quantity are not as consistent from year-to-year as they are for many other red wines. These factors create a high opportunity cost for pinot producers that gets passed on to consumers to maintain economic viability.
  • Many believe the best pinot noir is made by aging in French oak, which creates a self-reinforcing consumer expectation for it, and is expensive relative to most other barrels.
  • The demand side pushes cost because pinot is more desirable relative to most other red wines. This is a more subjective cost driver than input costs, and is increasingly subjective the higher in price you go. While the generally accepted best entry level pinot noirs from pinot regions like California, Oregon and Burgundy start at around $20-25, the biggest jumps in prices come towards the higher end and reflect scarcity and exclusivity more than quality. The difference in quality and uniqueness between a $75 pinot and a $150 pinot is generally less dramatic than the difference between a $25 and $75 pinot. The most expensive pinots, regardless of where they come from, reflect their scarcity and prestige in the price more than any dramatic difference in quality.

A number of people in the industry have told me that the most appropriate price for a wine is the amount people are willing to pay for it. Some brands carry certain reputations that allow them to charge more than their peers, which often means those brands are doing extra work to build and maintain their reputations, including (but not limited to) producing smaller quantities to maintain exclusivity. While these efforts don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the wine, they can reflect an added cost input. It’s no secret that part of what makes designer products so expensive is the amount they spend on advertising and promotion. The wine industry is no different in terms of the high cost of generating and maintaining excitement and desirability among certain customer demographics.

Why this matters to the consumer: The final price you pay is reflective of how much it costs to produce, where consumers place it among its peers and the extent to which the wine is desirable. This is to say, you’re likely paying fair market value even if you feel like you’re getting a bad deal.

Myth #3: The Framework for Distributing and Selling Wine in America Benefits Consumers

Fact #3: Our three tier system limits customer choice, hurts small wineries, and makes wine more expensive to buy.

With all due respect to my friends in the distribution and wholesale tier, and those in the regulatory agencies, the compromises this country made to get out of Prohibition suck. In addition to adopting the three tier system, the compromise that ended the federal prohibition on alcohol included giving each state the protected right to set most of the laws that affect the liquor business within their respective borders. Regardless of one’s political ideology, it shouldn’t be hard to understand why fifty independent sets of regulations, rather than one, is a bad thing.

The three tier system is made up of, yep, three tiers: the producer, the distributor/wholesaler, and the retailer. For a consumer to purchase a bottle of wine outside of a winery, the winery must first sell to a distributor or wholesaler, who must then sell to a retailer, who can then sell to the consumer. The middle man second layer adds an extra margin to the price while also doubling marketplace competition  (the winery must offer a competitive price to the distributor/wholesaler who, in turn, must offer a competitive price to the retailer) that puts extra pressure on the producer to create room to bargain on unit price, often achieved by reducing costs (which can reduce quality). I could write a tomb on this, but won’t. I could also make a career out of ending it if someone had a decent number of billions of dollars to fund my efforts (anyone?). So, in brief, a few things to chew on:

(1) Corruption happens in highly regulated industries. Alcohol is very, very regulated. The ability to get a liquor license, distribution permit, import permit, retail license, permission to ship out of or into a state, and more, are all effected by corruption in one way or another. This artificial influence on the marketplace creates artificial – noncompetitive – distortions that skew consumer choice and inflate or deflate prices (depending on the situation).

(2) Fifty sets of regulations plus three tiers of selling means the financial and labor cost of meeting the regulatory burden and expanding one’s market (paying for distribution) is incredibly high. Further, because it raises the cost of doing business out of state the same amount for each winery regardless of size or profits, it disadvantages smaller and many medium-sized wineries that can’t afford the costs. This limits the geographic footprint of their prospective consumer base – and the number of consumers who both want their wines and are able to get them.

(3) The combination of #1 and #2 creates semi-monopolies for the large winery ownership groups/corporations that can pool resources from across their portfolio to ensure all of their labels are available everywhere. Depending on how the ownership group/corporation handles this advantaged position, this can be a good or bad thing for the industry. Some do it more humbly and intelligently than others.

(4) It incentivizes distributors and retailers to push larger labels (and wineries owned by larger labels) because they offer the distributor and retailer higher profit margins than smaller production wines that come at a higher per-unit cost but retail for the same price.

Why this matters to the consumer: Government regulation and an entrenched interest group (the second tier) are creating and enforcing a distorted marketplace in which you are forced to pay an artificially inflated price for wine you’re choosing from an artificially limited selection.

Myth #4: Growing Wine Grapes is Simple

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Fact #4: Vineyard decisions are major decisions that can be significant drivers of cost and quality.

One of the most cliché things you hear about wine is that it’s made in the vineyard. But even though the point gets overused, it can be very true if a winery wants it to be true. And for many of us, our favorite wines tend to be legitimately made in the vineyard.

Vineyards are also where some of the biggest unknowns in winemaking exist because the unpredictable and cruel Mother Nature sets the course. Vines are susceptible to weather events, pests, bacteria, hungry wildlife, fires and much more. This makes vineyard management an inherently defensive, reactive enterprise even though there are strategies and tactics for setting a vineyard up for success before there’s a problem. To hear winemakers and vineyard managers describe any particular vintage, they talk about all the proactive stuff they do, but when the unfortunate and inevitable “but” drops, it is almost always an act of nature that couldn’t be prevented. This makes making vineyard-driven winemaking risky and challenging, and explains what can be dramatic vintage variation from low-intervention winemakers. Preparing for and coping with Mother Nature is one of the factors that separates the Winemakers from the winemakers.

Additionally, vineyards require a lot of money and planning and take at least three years to mature once planted before commercial wine can be produced, if not five. Terroir-driven wines benefit most from well-planned vineyards, meaning the right sites and soils are found, then prepared prior to planting, and planted with the right vines, clones and rootstocks, and given the TLC needed to raise them right. From site scouting to purchase; from doing the soil and climate research needed to identify the right varietals, clones and rootstocks and the year it takes to get them once ordered; from the planting to the nurturing of young vines for at least three years before production-worthy grapes are produced, it can take upwards of six or seven years easy before a vineyard is producing. It takes many more years before all the investment is paid off and a profit is turned.

Why this matters to the consumer: Knowing how wineries approach their vineyards and vineyard sourcing (buying grapes from other growers) helps one differentiate between wineries in terms of the planning, care and investment they make in their vineyards. Those wineries that do it right, meaning those that take the time to do the research and don’t rush the process, are more likely to produce a greater run of better wine than those that don’t, all other factors being equal.

Myth #5: If it’s on the Shelf, it’s Ready to Drink

Neil Patrick Harris Drink Or Dish GIF by The Meredith Vieira Show - Find &  Share on GIPHY

Fact #5: Most premium wine will never be consumed at its best.

Estimates vary, but it’s safe to say that at least 90% of wine sold in America is consumed within a week of being purchased. The actual number is probably at least 95%, especially during COVID. The vast majority of that segment buy their wine from grocery stores and large wine sellers like Total Wines, which means most of that wine is sub or barely “premium wine” (a term that is usually defined as $20+ per bottle) and likely the current release (most recent vintage released for public sale). Sub or barely premium is fine (and in most cases probably best) to drink upon release like this.

However, most premium wine, I would argue red and white, improve over the three to five years following their release. I would put most New World premium red wine into this category, and a fair amount of wines from Old World regions. A smaller but sizeable chunk of premium wine doesn’t show its best for at least a decade. This is mostly Old World wine, with some New World in the mix.

It is impossible to know how much premium wine is captured in that 90%+ statistic, but I can offer significant antidotal evidence that it’s a statistically significant percentage. I’ve spoken with dozens of premium wine producers, and often ask them how many of their clientele, do they think, age their wines to full maturity. The answer is usually something like “very few” or “barely any.” Further antidotal evidence can be found looking at wine reviews on CellarTracker, a website used predominantly by discerning consumers that purchase the world’s better and best wines, where numerous reviews show evidence of premature consumption of wines that show their best years, if not decades, after release.

One could argue that the industry should shift to consumer preference and make more wines that are more accessible (meaning wines that require less aging to fully mature) upon release. That’s a fair argument, and a good chunk of premium wine producers make two levels of wine – somewhat less expensive and more accessible wines, and more expensive and age worthy wines. But for a small but dedicated segment of the market (where I reside), there’s nothing better than a fully mature premium wine. Thankfully, plenty of winemakers fall into that camp as well, and are able to make a few wines each that we fellow old wine lovers choose to age for years and years.

Why this matters to the consumer: Unless you thoroughly enjoy (or even prefer) young premium wine, you’re not getting the experience out of the wines you are buying that the wines – and the winemaker – intend you to have. Therefore, you may want to rethink your purchasing decisions because you may end up getting more pleasure out of different – and often less expensive – wine. Or, you should consider buying a wine cooler and putting some of your more structured wines to rest for a few years.

Author’s Note: This is the first Good Vitis piece focused exclusively on the business side of wine, which means it may be one of the more controversial pieces from this blog among our industry friends and followers. I hope it will be one of the more useful pieces for our readership. Regardless of whether you’re industry or a consumer, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please share it either with the group (post a comment) or send it directly to me at goodvitis(at)gmail(dot)com.

Try this Wine: Skin Contact Wine

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Amber wine in the making at G.Wine in the Republic of Georgia

“Skin contact wine” is all the rage these days, owing in part the significant fan base overlap it shares with “natural wine,” and the coinciding of both “movements” with a wider industry return to winemaking basics motivated by a consumer base that is socially repulsed by the engineering of food and beverage.

Wow, what a sentence, right? It’s like I’m writing a social justice doctoral dissertation on both the past and the present. Though this is no dissertation and I’m not your most fervent social justice warrior, I do hold these judgments. As I’ve said in multiple posts, good wine is good wine regardless of how it is made, and it can be made many different ways. To construct protections for wine based on winemaking approaches is to create artificial borders between wine that is deemed good or bad, real or fake or manipulated. The distinction would be silly if it didn’t have impacts on people’s livelihoods.

Though I love many skin contact wines, the category is regrettably a major driver of this nonsense. The problem starts, as can easily be the case in wine, semantically, but it quickly (d)evolves into an issue of substance. The term “skin contact” refers to wine made by letting the skins and the juice spend time together during fermentation. However, rather than being something new, it is actually a process known as maceration that has been around for as long as wine has been made; it is nothing novel. If we must label skin contact wines in a distinctive way, we can more easily refer to them as “macerated wines,” which make more sense because the term has been around for much longer, is well-defined and more descriptive.

One reason we don’t call them macerated wines is because baked into the term “skin contact wine” is the understanding that the grapes are of a white variety. Though that distinction is often left out because it is used by people in the know, it remains necessary because many people are not in the know and leaving them behind is classic wine douchebaggery.

Though semantic, precision in wine language matters a great deal. I often cannot help myself by responding to people who tell me they like skin contact wine by asking them if they prefer cabernet sauvignon to merlot. Wine gets a bad reputation for being precise in ways people do not comprehend and thus reject, but wine lovers do ourselves an injustice when we are not specific enough. More responsible wine professionals make sure they use the full term, “skin contact white wine,” or some of its acceptable alternatives like “orange” or amber” wine, which reference the color of the final product, or “Ramato” if referring to a skin contact pinot grigio made in the historical winemaking style of Fruili, Italy. Though it often does not, this category of responsible wine pro needs to include the 28-year-old clerk at your favorite hipster wine shop, and the twat bar tender at your favorite hipster wine bar.

In this spirit, I want to suggest some macerated wines for Good Vitis’ readers to try. I should first acknowledge the huge oversight that is the exclusion from the list of an amber wine from the Republic of Georgia, the most famous skin contact white wine-making country these days, and likely the original source of the style. Avid Good Vitis readers will know that I am a huge fan of that country and its wine, and everyone should know that the absence of a Georgian amber wine from this list has everything to do with not having any handy. Nevertheless, the wines listed below are all great wines worth the effort of sourcing, and have the power of demonstration of the points made above. Try these wines because they’re good, fun, and will help you better understand and more accurately describe “skin contact wine.”

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Traditional Skin Contact White Wine #1 : 2017 Yangarra Estate Roux Beaute Roussanne

How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, or skin contact or macerated roussane.

Yangarra is a historic estate in Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region focused on producing Rhone varieties off its single estate vineyard, which was first planted in 1946. In 2001, the estate was purchased by Jackson Family Estates. A year prior, it took on then-new winemaker Peter Fraser. I got to meet Peter in 2019 and try a new series of high end Yangarra wines, this one among them, that use techniques different from the rest of the winery’s lineup.

Half of the grapes for the 2017 Roux Beaute Roussanne go through 193 days of maceration (skin contact) in large ceramic eggs, which allows more oxygen to interact with the wine than the traditional stainless steel fermentation vessel used for most white wine. The remaining 50% of the grapes went through fermentation in ceramic egg, though without skin contact. This approach, combined with the use of wild yeast, gives the wine more structural layers than it would otherwise have, and adds flavors and aromas impossible without maceration. Tasting note:

A slightly musty aroma gives way to peach, apple cider, nectarine, petrol and something I can only describe as “dank.” Though medium in body, it floods the mouth with juicy acid and ripe skin tannin, forming a glycerin sensation. Flavors include white peach, apricot, sour tangerine, orchid, white pepper and dandelion. 92 points: Value: C-.

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Traditional Skin Contact White Wine #2: 2018 Two Vintners O.G.

How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, skin contact or macerated gewürztraminer.

Two Vintners is a small producer in Washington State owned by winemaker Morgan Lee. Morgan makes wine for a number of labels, and his combined experience covers what I imagine is essentially the entire state’s geography and varietal offering. He is one of my favorite winemakers because his wine is exceptional, the prices overly competitive, he has a ton of fun doing it and his product is entirely bank-able; I don’t need to try his wine to know I’m safe buying it.

An early example of his fun-loving spirit was the creation of the O.G., a macerated gewürztraminer sourced from the Yakima Valley’s esteemed Olson Vineyard and named in a double reference to Orange Gewürztraminer and the Original Gangster. I believe the first vintage was 2012, which puts it on the cutting edge of this more recent skin contact trend. This 2018 vintage spent 55 days on its skins and was then aged in neutral barrel for 9 months. Tasting note:

The nose wafts a beautiful set of aromas including honeysuckle, orange blossom, orchid, gooseberry and raw cranberry. It is medium in weight on the palate with crispy acid and a smooth mouthfeel. The skin contact adds weight to an already structurally complex wine, while simultaneously bolstering the delicacy and florality of a profile that includes a slightly sweet and slightly salty combination of orange peel, vanilla, nectarine, red plum and gooseberry. This is yummy stuff. Give it an hour decant to help it blow off a slightly bitter edge. 92 points. Value: A.

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Wouldn’t Have Put This In the Skin Contact Category Wine: 2019 L’Ecole No. 41 Alder Ridge Vineyard Rosé of Grenache

How to refer to it: rosé

Yes, rosé is skin contact wine. See why I think the moniker is silly? Rosé is what would be a full-blown red wine if the maceration lasted longer. That said, the best rosé starts in the vineyard where the grapes are treated differently than if it were intended for red wine to emphasize bright acid, lighter colored fruit and floral notes. This is intentional rosé. After thought rosé is made with grapes harvested for red wine, but for some reason are made into rosé. That route often produces flabby, out of balance wine that’s big in body and light in acid, which is exactly the opposite of what makes a good rosé. Either way, though, rosé is macerated wine.

L’Ecole No. 41 is one of Washington State’s original modern wineries and remains one of the industry’s standards today. This 2019 rosé is made from grenache harvested from the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which gives it great pedigree. Alder Ridge is among the very best grenache sites in the state, its fruit finding its way into wines from other esteemed producers like Gramercy Cellars. This newly released 2019 is both substantive and refreshing, and a great one to stock up on for the coming summer. Tasting note:

Pours a beautiful light pink hew. Aromas waft from the glass, featuring strawberry, rose hip, watermelon, guava and lime sorbet. It’s medium bodied for a rosé and coats the mouth with juicy acid and a fair amount of weight. Sweet cherry and strawberry come through immediately, followed by hits of chili flake spice, tangerine and yellow peach. It’s an interesting and entertaining profile that offers a significant presence. 92 points. Value: A.

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The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy

The Trilogy is Flora Springs’ top of the line red wine blend, comprised in this vintage of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% petit verdot and 3% malbec. It is, by definition, a macerated, or skin contact, wine. In fact, it represents the standard macerated wine: red wine. Unless one says “skin contact white wine,” they can be reasonably assumed to mean the Flora Springs Trilogy.

And what a macerated wine it is. Flora Springs was founded in 1978, but its Napa Valley property was first planted with vineyards in the late 1800s so the terroir is for real (it has been replanted since). I’ve had several vintages of the Trilogy and they all deliver. Although it sells for not-so-cheap $85, it is reasonably priced within the context of its pedigree and competitors, and a good examples of a refined and elegant Napa red blend. Tasting note:

The potent nose offers scorched earth and graphite-infused blackberry, black plum, violet, kirsch and dark chocolate ganache. It is full bodied, balancing lush, smooth and broad tannin with juicy acidity. The balance is really on-point. Flavors include blackberry, coconut, (real) maraschino sauce, black pepper, teriyaki sauce and cigar tobacco. It has a strong core of wet earth minerality. This is nice now with an hour decant, but I imagine it’ll start hitting its stride in five years and drink nicely for the following five to ten. 93 points. Value: B.

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The Reverse Skin Contact Wine: 2018 Maggy Hawk Emeades Vineyard White Pinot Noir

How to refer to it: white pinot noir, or non-skin contact red wine

This is a contrarian wine, the rare example of a wine made from red grapes that escapes maceration. This is pinot noir that comes out of the bottle looking like a completely white wine. Is your mind not blown? If it’s not, a smell and sip will surely get the job done. But like our macerated Flora Springs, let’s not get carried away with this one’s revelatory power: much of the best Champagne in the world includes or is made entirely from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier, but pours white as well. The absurdity of skin contact being considered something new or different continues to grow.

Maggy Hawk’s winemaker is Tony Rynders, whose distinguished career includes Oregon’s Domaine Serene, a winery that sued him after he left alleging he stole the trade secret of making white pinot noir. See supra regarding Champagne to get a sense of the absurdity of the lawsuit. Tony has consulted for Zena Crown, also in Oregon, which is one of Good Vitis’ favorite Willamette Valley wineries. And, he is the owner and winemaker of Tendril Cellars where he makes a white pinot noir as well. I’ve had what I believe to be all of Tony’s white pinot noirs, and they are my favorite wines he produces.

Perhaps counterintuitively, what makes white pinot noir fun is what can make any skin contact white wine fun: a grape you know presented completely differently from what you know. The 2018 Maggy Hawk does exactly that in a very appealing package. Tasting note:

The nose offers plush fruit-forward aromas of cherry juice, guava, passion fruit, slate, orange zest and white pepper. Full bodied with round, juicy acid that creates significant structure and weight, it offers flavors of cherry, pineapple, mango, sea mist and loads of sweet tangerine juice and donut peach. This unusual and high quality wine is very enjoyable and almost too easy to drink; drink too quickly and you’ll miss some of its depth. 93 points. Value: A.

The Promise of Peake Ranch Winery

Buellton, California; tractor pre-pruning Chardonay vines, Peake Ranch Vineyard

Peake Ranch. CreditSanta Barbara Independent/Macduff Everton

A few days before speaking to Peake Ranch Winery’s owner, John Wagner, I tasted the estate’s 2016 John Sebastiano Vineyard pinot noir. It was my favorite of their pinots that I got to try, and offered a tomato leaf flavor I do not associate with the variety. The most vivid memory I have of tasting tomato leaf in wine is with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and especially Emidio Pepe’s bottling of it, which is a very different grape grown in a very different climate. Abruzzo is incredibly hot, whereas Central California, where Peake is located, is cool. It was one of those bizarre moments that makes you question yourself. However, because the wine was so good, I drank through the entire bottle, and from sip one to sip last, that tomato leaf was there. No fluke.

I told John about this tomato leaf note, how it reminded me of Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, how that winery has a special place in my heart because my wife and I stayed there during our honeymoon, and how drinking the Peake Ranch took me back there (you can read the Good Vitis coverage of Emidio Pepe here). “It is thrilling to touch people like that,” John responded, “That is exactly why I started a winery. It’s way cooler than rolling into Saint-Tropez on a yacht.”

That last thought requires some explanation. John runs a hedge fund in Los Angeles. I don’t know how many of you know “hedge fund guys,” but I know a few. Hedge fund guys have what some refer to as “stupid money,” meaning so much of it that no hobby is surprising, no display of station too absurd (so long as it’s fun). I should clarify that the hedge fund guys I know, like John, spend a big percentage of their stupid money on good causes and side projects that make the world a better place in one way or another.

I’ve been writing this blog for over three and a half years, and after a while I realized that there are wineries that just have it. They have a long-term vision, the right people and vineyards to realize it, and the will to survive the first ten to twenty years by making decent wine, which is frankly long how winemaking and grape growing takes before someone starts to get the hang of it. Think about it this way: winemakers and vineyard managers do their job but one time per year. Imagine a surgeon that cuts once a year? Would you lay on their operating table? Not that winemaking carries the significance of saving lives, but at that rate, it takes a lot of dog years to become truly good, let alone great. Despite harking from this decade, Peake Ranch is on that path. I knew the wine was good before talking to John, but after talking with him, I understood that the kind of long-term foundation needed to build and sustain an industry standard-setting winery is there with Peake.

John has some stupid money that he’s put into Peake, and had some stupid luck to balance the bad luck as he got it set up and running. However, as is key with any winery project funded by someone capable of losing money on the venture yet still keep it going, he wants to make at least a small amount of money, which is hard to do in the premium wine business. The formula I’ve seen that most closely correlates with a boutique winery that turns a profit combines great people, great vineyards, a drive to push quality even in the best of vintages, a track record of improving techniques and processes in worst of vintages, and not over-making the wine. If a winery does this, and it is far from a simple formula to get right year after year after year, and has some luck along the way, it can grow and strengthen its customer base, and that generates sustained profits, which are reinvested into the winery, and the beautiful cycle continues long enough to master the land and the craft.

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Peake’s tasting room

Of all the indicators that Peake is set up to make the formula work, it was John’s staffing decisions that stood out. From the list of people involved, it is clear that John has decided to set his team up for success. Not only does he have the obligatory winemaker, vineyard manager and tasting room manager, but he has as head of marketing and a national sales representative, not to mention some “support” staff with impressive resumes in their own respective rights. For the kind of case production coming out of Peake, the quality and quantity are high.

“Eric [Grant, the head of marketing] is a longtime friend who needed something to do. He used to run some things at Goldman Sachs. We hired him to give me an excuse to talk to him twice a day.” As a wine blogger, I know my share of the industry’s marketing people, and when they are in-house they tend to work for much larger wineries than Peake. John also “had a national sales rep in the back of my mind because I figured to be taken seriously we would have to be distributed nationally, so I hired Rachael Pfaff who had done that for Merry Edwards.” Not many wineries Peake’s size have an in-house national rep.

What about Adam Lee, I asked, referring to our mutual friend who had actually introduced me to Peake Ranch several months back during a meal together and is a consultant to Peake for winery business-related matters. “Knowing Adam helps a lot,” he told me. “You miss a lot of the more obvious pitfalls [with someone like him on board]. So on some levels [getting Peake up and running] hasn’t been horrible.”

Referencing his vineyard manager, John told me that with Mike Anderson, “when I knew I needed a vineyard guy, I knew I wanted him. He has a PhD, 30 years’ experience and a lot of opinions.” Peake’s winemaker, Wynne Solomon, is maybe the most humble winemaker I’ve ever met, and I had that thought before I ever spoke with her: she has to manage John’s ego, Adam’s ego, and this guy Mike’s ego. John is like the other hedge fund guys I know: direct, opinionated, but accepting of and differential to expertise that proves itself. Adam, though he never offends with his opinions, has many of them and the experience and accolades to back them up. I haven’t spoken to Mike Anderson, but if John says he has an ego, he has an ego. It takes a good amount of humility to manage those three guys.

That fact is what gives me the feeling that Peake has it: the incredibly successful trio of John Wagner, Adam Lee and Mike Anderson bring their experience, knowledge, skills and resources to bear in ways that acknowledge their roles and limitations, and they give them to Wynne to empower her. People like that only give what they have to people whom they trust and respect. That’s a level of partnership rarely seen.

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“I am super excited about what Wynne is doing,” John told me. “So much of making great wine is being meticulous, not making mistakes. Wynne is so detail oriented. If you give her high quality fruit then she is going to make really good wine. Not through blind strokes of genius, but through maniacal attention to detail. I have a huge amount of admiration for people who can do that; it is a special and under-appreciated quality. A lot of great authors don’t create good books because they write great detail, but because they write one really good sentence after another. That’s what Wynne is doing. A great idea that is poorly executed is shit. Good ideas fantastically executed are unreal. Wynne gets to obsess one sentence at a time, and that is what generates the experience you had with the John Sebastiano pinot.”

For his part, Adam called Wynne “young, dedicated to quality and cleanliness, which is so key and rare, and it is just fantastic to see it is big part of her regime and ethos.” John noted that “Wynne has been lovely in dealing with us fat old white guys. I really appreciate that. She works well with the tasting room people. She’s been a huge part of our success and we are really lucky to have her. At least she gets super good fruit.”

Wynne’s first vintage at Peake was 2018. She got her start at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars in San Luis Obispo. “I learned how to make beautiful, clean Burgundian style pinot and chardonnay there. We sourced from the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands,” both cool climates. She eventually got to Santa Barbara’s Melville, where she started to become acquainted with that region’s fruit.  When John was looking for a new winemaker, a friend mentioned Wynne and the rest is history.

Her experience with these cool climates in California’s Central Coast must have been a positive sign for John, not just because of her familiarity with making wine there, but because it also demonstrated a commitment to the region where he focused his intentions of owning a winery. Having grown up in the region, he is fiercely proud of it and wanted to use his entry into the business to show “the rest of the world that it can make wine as good as anywhere in California. I’m a regional supremacist.” He landed on a spot in Santa Rita Hills, figuring “it was a combination of a marketable area – it is beautiful – that can make great wine, and has good vicinity to where I grew up. It already had a good reputation, which was key because I did not want to invent a new wheel. And it turns out that when properly done, the area turns out better wine than I expected.”

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Peake Ranch Vineyard, located on the eastern end of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Even with Wynne’s regional experience, the transition from Melville to Peake presented some challenges for her. “The two wineries get their grapes from different areas, different soils, slopes, elevations, etc. I was curious about [Peake’s] section of the AVA, I didn’t know anything about it. The biggest new thing on that front is the great structure of the sandy soil.”

The most challenging difference in the winemaking from Melville to Peake “was remembering what it is to work with new French oak. Everything is aged, fermented in oak. I [hadn’t had] that kind of spice rack [to work with in a while], so I had to dig into notes of prior vintages to recall the differences between coopers, toast levels, which types of barrels pair well with varieties, etc. We don’t use a ton of new oak, but still, it makes a huge difference [in the wine] so you have to get it right.” She works with five cooperages now, and had just completed their 2020 barrel orders before we spoke. “It’s very elaborate,” she explained, “the seasoning lengths, toasts, etc. There is a lot to play with in that sense.”

The facility “is very state of the art,” she told me. “It has a different barrel room for each vintage, which allows me to control temperatures for what each vintage needs based on where it’s at in the process. The winery is also a gravity flow facility. Making wine that way needs to be more intentional and planned out than in a normal set up; you have to really think through the whole life of the wine before you move into even the first step.”

Most importantly, though, Peake’s vision “for the wine starts in the vineyard. Mike has a huge contribution to it. His farming is so precise that it sets the tone for the wine’s entire life.” As if to emphasize a theme, she continued that “he’s keeping [the fruit] meticulously clean and each vine is tended to on its own. It’s my purpose in the winery to continue that. Mike’s contribution is the greatest.” Her focus “is to make the best wine that the property can produce rather than for any particular palate.

One of my favorite elements of Peake’s vision is the tannin profile, which is velvety and gorgeous. “The vineyard plays a huge roll in that,” she explained. “We want to develop tannins that are softer, more elegant, and we do that by not over or under cropping the vines. The right amount of leafing is key to achieve the appropriate balance between airflow and ripeness.” In the winery, “a lot of the tannin is developed and controlled through the pressing and temperatures. We keep ferments a little colder so extraction is lighter. Doing press fractions and treating those separately.”

And then, almost as if an afterthought, she dropped a big piece of knowledge: “longer aging really helps, we leave the wines in barrel for 18 months so they get more of the tannin and body from the oak rather than the oak’s aromatic and flavor expression.” It takes a lot of space, time and money to age your wine in barrel for 18 months. Wineries that do that are few and far between, even at higher price points. It is yet another example of John’s approach with Peake, allowing the right things to be done for the right reasons.

The results are impressive. Peake sent six samples, and the reviews are all below. The 2016 Sierra Madre chardonnay is easily one of the best wines I’ve had in recent memory, and the 2016 John Sebastiano pinot isn’t far behind. It is rare to find wines in which every element is as well-executed as these, especially for the price range.

Peake is following a formula for success. Time will be the true test: can the team continue to make great wine, year after year, and build up the kind of institutional knowledge necessary to hit that elevated state. It is impressive how far they’ve come in less than ten years, but it will be these next ten that determine how few peers they have. With people like John, Wynne, Mike and Adam involved, I’d bet on them leaving most in the dust.

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Sierra Madre Vineyard on the western side of the Santa Maria Valley

2016 Peake Ranch Sierra Madre Chardonnay – Decanted in bottle for about an hour, it takes on increasing character and depth with time in the glass. Aromas include sweet honeydew, honeysuckle, orange blossom, mango, pineapple, and Jelly Belly buttered popcorn with an edge of lime zest and slate minerality. Full bodied with round, lush edges of juicy acid and a cream-filled mid-palate that gives way to a textural finish. Flavors include a flavorful variety of mango, pineapple, yellow peach, vanilla bean, strawberry lemonade and strong bites of lime zest and white pepper. A world class wine, this is gorgeous now with a solid five-plus years of positive evolution leading into a further five years of prime drinking. 95 points. Value: A+.

2017 Peake Ranch Sierra Madre Chardonnay – Beautifully sweet aromas of caramel apple, lime sorbet, orange creamsicle, dried pineapple, dried apricot and vanilla curd. Though nearly full bodied, it is decidedly leaner on the palate with a pleasant juxtaposition of precise, linear acid with a mouth-saturating glycerin sensation. The structure is elegant and the mouthfeel indulgent. Flavors hit on Fuji apple, Asian pear, lemon curd, marzipan, vanilla custard, lemon zest and clementine. A really, really good chardonnay with depth and intrigue. 93 points. Value: A-.

2017 Peake Ranch Santa Barbara County Chardonnay – The very prototypical nose features vanilla and lemon curds, lime sorbet and buttered toast. Nearly full-bodied, it offers tactile acid and an angular structure that is sturdily framed. Flavors include slightly unsettled Sprite, toasted oak, zesty lime, vanilla bean, Granny Smith apple and some unidentified bitter herb. Clearly a wine of quality, the slightly twitchy acid adds excitement, but needs a year or two in bottle to balance with the rest of the wine and allow the flavors to find a better harmony. 91 points. Value: B-.

2016 Peake Ranch Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – The nose features an intriguing juxtaposition of dark fruits and dark earth, wafting cherry, blackberry, plum and cassis with wet forest floor, BBQ burnt ends and saline. It’s barely full bodied with big, round acid and refined finely grained tannin. The structure is spot on, with a plush and buoyant ride that races along a precise acid path. Flavors include raspberry, strawberry, graphite, tar, black pepper, dark currant, cassis and bell pepper. This is a beautiful example of a serious wine that delivers loads of fun. I’d love to have two bottles a year for the next five years to enjoy its evolution. 92 points. Value: B-.

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The John Sebastiano Vineyard, located on the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA

2016 Peake Ranch John Sebastiano Pinot Noir – The rich, pure nose offers aromas of saturated cherry, baking spice, red plum, black currant, blood orange and kirsch liquor. Full bodied in weight with plush, wide tannin, the slightly crispy tannin adds levity and cut. The balance is good now with a firmly-framed structure, but another 3-ish years in bottle will really elevate this. The flavor profile has a bit of a Burgundian edge that comes from an abundance of richly-delineated layers that feature black cherry, wet fungal earth, raspberry, red currant and black pepper, finishing with a strong dose of tomato leaf. One of the best pinot noirs I’ve had in a long time, this offers a promising ten-year horizon. 94 points. Value: A.

2017 Peake Ranch Bellis Noir (60% syrah, 40% grenache) – The inky nose offers muddled dark cherry, blackberry, raspberry, lilac, rose petal, iron and tar. The medium weight carries smooth acid and plush, modest tannin that gains grip in the mouth. Flavors include blackberry, strawberry, black plum, lilac, black pepper and sage. This is enjoyable now, but I get the sense it will benefit from short-term aging, maybe 2-4 years, as it seems just a bit tight at the moment. 91 points. Value: B-.

The Streak Continues: Clarice’s 2018 Pinots Deliver

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Last year I wrote an in-depth piece about Adam Lee’s then-new project, Clarice Wine Company. It was an exciting piece to research and write because the wines were very good and, more importantly, compelling because they offered a kind of depth and complexity rarely found in today’s wines. I’m lucky to taste a lot of wines each year, and few have been as good as Clarice.

I titled last year’s piece “Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine” because Adam had designed a business model that uniquely responds to how customers are increasingly engaging the premium wine industry. While many wineries try to offer various ways for customers to experience their wine, Clarice aims to build community with and, unusually, among its customers. From the original article:

“The winery offers three wines that are only available to its club members, and sold once per year in a single case shipment comprised of four bottles each of the three wines. Despite the wine being very good, being a Clarice customer is about much more than the juice. The membership includes a number of unusual benefits all designed to achieve a goal Adam believes is critical to building a bigger and more profitable wine market in the United States: creating a robust combination of customer education and genuine relationship formation.”

There’s no quick way to summarize the business model, so instead I’ll list the perks:

  1. Regular exclusive written content produced, at Adam’s request, from well-known winemakers and other wine professionals. Example: a post on winery financing written by the Silicon Valley Bank, which finances many wine projects;
  2. An online private Facebook forum;
  3. In-person parties, including a Clarice vintage release party and several others organized at various wineries; and
  4. Discounts at other wineries within Adam’s sizable personal and professional network.

Since Clarice has had a year under its belt, Adam and I figured it was time to talk through how things have gone, as well as taste through and discuss the 2018 vintage, which will be released later this year.

The first reflection he shared was that, at least until the COVID pandemic, the amount of people interested in the Facebook forum were less than expected. Based on feedback he received, it came down to the apprehension of many who did not have Facebook accounts to set them up simply to access the Clarice forum. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the BS of Facebook feeds, so a smaller fraction [of members] that I expected were participating,” he said, even though those using the forum were building and enjoying their own community of wine, food and travel aficionados.

However, he’s seen a big uptick in activity on the Facebook forum since the COVID crisis began. “The sign up period for the club is happening right in the middle of the pandemic and I’m seeing people signing up because they cannot visit wineries and are taking to the online forum. [In the last month or two] the forum has been more active than ever.” Leave it to Adam to find success in the midst of a global crisis.

He also found that “the people who were interested in the parties were very interested. However, some members who didn’t live near where the parties took place didn’t get the same benefits and a number of these people dropped out [of the club]. I’m making it a point to do some more events outside of California in the future once this COVID stuff dies down.”

New member sign-ups are down about 10% from where they were this time last year, but he hasn’t spent any time or effort pushing the sign up campaign. “I feel people need to adapt to the new normal before I ask them to sign up for a fairly expensive wine that’s a year from being delivered.” He has changed the payment process from six-consecutive monthly payments of $160 to 12 monthly payments of $80. To incentivize people to pay 100% upfront, he is giving those who make the single payment an entry into a drawing to win one of two etched three liter bottles of Clarice. “A fair amount have chosen to take that option,” he noted.

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All-in-all, it seems the inaugural year of the Clarice business model faired well, and Adam is making tweaks rather than wholesale changes. It’s interesting to look at how other wineries are adjusting to social distancing. Many are doing online tasting events to keep communication with clientele up in the vein of where Adam was with Clarice over a year before COVID hit. Adam himself has set up a Zoom tasting for his customers, and is partnering with a number of wineries to do joint offers so that customers are able to get a wider variety of wine without paying to ship it independently from each winery.

Having tasted the 2018s for this piece, I can say with total confidence that the trajectory of quality is going in the right direction and it won’t be long before the club is full. The inaugural releases, which I reviewed in the previous article, were excellent and established a high bar for the label. While the those were very, very good – “It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good” I raved – the 2018s are even better.

“2018 was just a better growing year. 2017 had numerous heat spikes; it would not have been my vintage of choice for any new project based on pinot,” Adam told me. “2018 was a longer, cooler growing season in ways that are pretty much ideal for pinot noir. It wasn’t as cool as the historically cool vintages I’ve done like 1995, 1999 or 2005, but 2018 had no heat spikes or anything that forced us to rush. I would’ve even moved my picks by a few days if my growers had asked.”

The 2018 vintage appears to be a dream vintage for winemakers with patience and experience. “I saw some people struggling,” Adam told me. “They looked at the long, cool season and worried there would too much of this or that, so they got their picks in early. I figured, yeah maybe, but maybe not. At this rate the weather is cool, I can continue the hang time [of the fruit on the vine], so I gave it some time. Nothing bad is happen during slow ripening, just good stuff. It allowed for better ripeness for the stems, which allowed me to up the percentage of whole cluster a good bit and I found that it helped a lot.”

We agreed, ironically, that the 2017s actually tasted more stemy than the 2018s even though, as I learned, they had a lower percentage of whole cluster than the 2018s. Adam explained this was because the stems did not achieve the same ripeness in 2017 as they did in 2018. “I try to build more structure into Clarice than I did at Siduri, and I’m doing that through stem inclusion and tannin development.”

Stem inclusion contributes to tannin development (as well as aromatics and flavors) in good or bad ways depending on how it’s done. In explaining this, Adam said that “stem ripeness has more to do with hang time and less to do with brix than you would think; sometimes it’s antithetical to brix. Stem ripeness is entirely dependent upon hang time. If you have hot years and sugar builds quickly [in the grapes], you don’t have the opportunity for the stems to get ripe [because you’re harvesting on the early side, reducing hang time]. But if you can keep both in line with each other, it can work out incredibly well, and that’s what happened for us in 2018.” Just to be clear, I asked him, was this the most pivotal difference between 2017 and 2018? “Yes, absolutely,” he replied, though upon prodding he explained the few other differences.

First, his barrels were all a year older, which is a good thing for those who like softer, longer tannins and wines that express the grapes and terrior. Even more crucial is the hygienic advantages this gives a young project like Clarice.

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Barrels are often used for multiple vintages out of both economic and winemaking considerations. Because they are a great place for bacteria to grow and live, however, they need to be thoroughly cleaned between uses. So when a new winery starts, if they don’t want to produce wine using 100% new oak, likely because they want to produce wines that don’t taste like they come from 100% new oak, they have to find used barrels to purchase, which introduces greater bacteria risk because you never really know how well-maintained and cleaned the barrels were by their previous owner(s).

For his inaugural release, Adam purchased a mix of new and used barrels, the latter from the personal project of Ryan Zepaltas, who has been Copain’s head winemaker since 2018. “The only reason I felt good about buying barrels is because I could get them from Ryan, whose barrels actually came from our days together at Siduri. Ryan is extraordinarily conscientious about keeping things in good, clean condition.” Even still, “any winery would want to generate their own used barrels.” Coming into 2018, Clarice did that for the first time as the barrels Adam bought new for the 2017 vintage now had a full vintage under their belt.

The second difference was that the variations in growing seasons necessitated different vineyard treatment. Adam did not drop fruit in 2017 because it was the first vintage since 2012 to be a non-draught year: “I figured in 2017 the vines would be something akin to myself getting a food drop on a deserted island after having starved for a month – the vines would over-consume and I wanted to make sure the grapes still achieved good concentration.” Doing it this way slowed the growth of the shoots and leaves, giving the grapes priority access to water. Conversely, in 2018 Adam didn’t feel the same approach was necessary because it was a more normal year rainfall-wise.

Finally, Adam did more saignée in 2018, a reference to the method of discarding some of the juice early in the maceration phase in order to concentrate the future wine. “The yields were higher [in 2018 than in 2017] so I didn’t mind,” he explained, adding that “the fruit had hung clean [in the vineyard], there wasn’t a great reason to drop much of it, and so it looked more juicy in the tank than I wanted. I did quite a bit of saignée in the end, about 20%, because I kept going until I got it to a place I liked. It was like mixing instant oatmeal by eye.”

But, don’t get your hopes up for a Clarice rosé (many wineries use their saignée juice to make rosé). “I’ve made four rosés in my life. The first one was at Siduri and it was great and easy, so I figured I would be able to do it well again. The second and third attempts sucked so much that I threw them out. I busted my ass on the fourth attempt to do it right, but it was so expensive and distracted me from my main job that I decided that was the last time.” The saignéed 2018 Clarice juice was given to a friend who made it into rosé in exchange for a few bottles of the finished wine.

The end result in 2018 is a noticeable improvement across the three wines that had already dazzled in 2017. That said, I didn’t like each 2018 better than its 2017 version. Taking them alphabetically, the 2018 Santa Lucia Highlands bottle was stunning and received a point higher than its older sibling:

Aromas of scorched earth, red and black plums, high toned cherry, leather, lilac and strawberry. On the fuller side, this has fine grained tannin that spreads throughout the palate, spreading elegant and smooth acid. The structure is lovely and built for positive mid-term aging. The flavors are soft yet saturated, offering Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, red plum, ground cinnamon, leather and sweet cranberry sauce. This is quite nice now and I see it getting better over the next five years. 95 points.

Next is the Rosella’s Vineyard bottle. I actually liked the 2017 version of this more, awarding it two points higher than the 2018. Both vintages struck me as needing significant time in bottle to unwind, and the most difficult to score because of it. The difference in structural elegance is what gave the 2017 the advantage for me. Nevertheless, the 2018 is a stellar wine:

The nose remains reticent after having been opened 12 hours ago for a bit and then re-screwed closed. Aromas are a bit sappy, dripping crushed strawberry, sweet cherry, spiced plum jam and charcoal. The full body is round and plush with dense, tight tannin and slightly juicy acid. The structure warrants 5+ years of aging to unwind, and will then evolve nicely over another 5-10 years. Red-fruited flavors include strawberry, raspberry, not-so-tart Sweetart, blood orange, black pepper, red plum and wet earth minerality. Give this time in the cellar. 93 points.

Last but not least, we have the Gary’s Vineyard offering, which scored two points better in 2018. Where the Rosella’s 2017 structure beat out the 2018, the Gary’s Vineyard showed improvement in this department from the older vintage to the newer one:

The aromas jump out of the glass, wafting an array of dark scents: crushed blackberry, black plum, black currant, prune, baking spice and reduced strawberry. It’s full bodied with broad, fine grain tannin and precise acid. Tasted on the second night, it offers a substantive structure that suggests a solid decade or more of positive evolution. Flavors revolve around a similarly dark profile of blackberry, plum and currant, though the baking spice is more accentuated on the palate and some graphite/moist earth minerality emerges. This young wine deserves another 3-5 years of aging before it’ll start showing its best, but it’s quite tasty at the moment. 96 points.

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Grapes from Clarice’s section of Gary’s Vineyard

We briefly discussed the 2019 vintage, which Adam called “something of a hypothetical cross of 2017 and 2018.” While 2018 had no days over 100 degrees in the vineyards, 2017 had at least six of them. 2019 had a week of hot weather followed by 10 weeks of cooler weather, then another hot week and then another long stretch cool, then a hot week… “2019 is going to be fascinating, Adam said, “and it’s going to be a great vintage to round out Clarice’s first three-year vertical.”

I’ve been drinking a ton of pinot noir in 2020, and had a lot during the 2019 holiday season as well. Most of it has come from California, and nearly all of it has been current release samples. I wouldn’t call where I’m at pinot palate fatigue (yet), but it’s becoming harder for pinots to stand out from each other these days. That said, Clarice has been the clear standout of excellence, depth, quality and personality.

If you’re willing to spend $960 on case of wine (as well as the additional perks), the only potential downside to Clarice that I see may be that you don’t want to buy a full case of it. It is tough to commit to four bottles each of three wines, even though they are as different from each other as they are compelling. To be frank, this is the dilemma I face.

That said, I may be just a year or two away from membership myself because, as silly as this sounds, I’m not sure I can be indefinitely happy with a set of samples. Two years in a row now I feel like I’m getting teased because what I’d really love is have multiple bottles to age and enjoy over many years. I love variety in my wine life, but there are rare occasions like Clarice where I want more of the same.

I know it’s hard to take someone’s word when making a $960 bet, but I’m as confident recommending Clarice as I am any wine I’ve tasted for Good Vitis. These aren’t the best of economic times to drop that kind of money on luxury goods, so at least put Clarice in the back of your mind and on your wine to-do list for the future.

On Cork Report: Early Mountain’s Secret Weapon

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This piece was originally published on The Cork Report. You can read the full thing here.

A few weekends ago, my wife and I spent three nights in a cabin on a property called Getaway House in central Virginia, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville. They pitch themselves as an off-the-grid escape with no Internet or television. The cabins are actually “tiny homes” with just two rooms: a bathroom and an everything-else room. The kitchen has a small two-burner stove and minifridge. There’s a table for two people and a double bed. Outside each cabin is a firepit. That’s it. It’s quite nice and well-executed.

Fifteen minutes down the road from the Virginia Getaway House is Early Mountain Vineyards, though our plan was to do nothing other than hang at the cabin and hike.

Our best -aid plans were just that, best laid, and on Friday my wife had to spend a few hours working. So, I jumped in the car and made the drive to Early Mountain hoping that Ben Jordan, head winemaker, would be there and available because I’m terribly behind on two Cork Report articles that require a conversation with him.

While he wasn’t there, I was lucky enough to run into the assistant winemaker and head viticulturalist, Maya Hood White. It turned out to be a very fortunate experience.

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