On The Cork Report: How Two MD Wineries Use Education to Attract Customers

fullsizeoutput_e9d

Featuring Old Westminster and Catoctin Breeze wineries, this piece is published in full on The Cork Report.

 

Winery tourism is a big deal for the Mid-Atlantic wine industry because these states’ wineries rely on the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model to stay financially afloat, meaning they sell out of their front door. Customers – a.k.a. tourists and visitors – must come to them. Ask any winery in the Mid-Atlantic how important “DTC sales,” which encompasses tasting room and wine club sales, is to their financial success and the answer is likely to range from “extremely” to “existentially.”

The reasons for this are myriad, but most importantly for my point: demand for (most) Mid-Atlantic wine does not result in prices and volumes high enough to retain sufficiently profitability after the cost of distribution to retailers and/or restaurants is taken into account.

DTC success hinges on close relationships with customers as it requires the customer to expend a good amount of effort to visit the winery repeatedly, and give the winery a good amount of trust to sign up for a wine club in which they may not get to choose which wines they automatically pay for and receive.

Time and trust are not things that we humans part with easily or flippantly. Continue reading on The Cork Report.

California’s Most Exciting Up & Coming Pinot Producer

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 2.26.26 PM

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

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

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

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

IMG_0715

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0718

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

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

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

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

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

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Four

IMG_0069

Gran Moraine (and Zena Crown) winemaker Shane Moore

The last winery stop of our 2018 summer Willamette Valley trip was to see Shane Moore of Gran Moraine and Zena Crown. You can read about our other winery visits on the trip here (Fausse Piste and Martin Woods), here (Tendril and Belle Pente) and here (Penner-Ash and Trisaetum). I’ve written about and mentioned Shane several times on Good Vitis, and he warrants yet another piece because he’s both that interesting and that good. Shane has been making wine since his teens, and he has such joy about him that you just couldn’t imagine him ever doing anything else.

The PG version of how he got into winemaking is that in preparation of leaving home for college, Shane learned how to make household wine. This made him a popular kid at college, where he learned more about wine making. After graduating, he decided to see if he could make wine the professionally, and now he does.

Shane has made wine in several corners of the world, including Israel. I wrote a piece about his experience there and it’s a fun story worth reading. Gran Moraine and Zena Crown are owned by Jackson Family Wines, the latter part of KJ’s Spire Collection, its most prestigious collection of wineries around the world. KJ isn’t your typical corporate owner, and when you meet Shane you tend to forget he works for a corporation altogether and assume he runs his own boutique winery. They give him the room to do his thing because they trust him, and he has their trust because he does things well. The winery, and both labels, are boutique wines in quantity, quality and price.

During one of the evenings of our Willamette visit, Shane came over to our Airbnb and had dinner with us. He brought a few wines with him, including a chardonnay from Canada that he proudly told us was a great wine at a great price. And it was very good; we all enjoyed it. A day later at a different winery, the dinner with Shane came up in conversation with the winemaker, who knows Shane, and before I could mention the Canadian chardonnay, he wondered if Shane “brought a bottle of that Canadian chardonnay he loves so much.” I told him that he did. “I figured he would. Guy can’t shut about it. Wants everyone to try it.” It’s a good example of when Shane gets interested in something, he’s instantly on a slippery slope that ends in obsession. I guarantee you, if Shane reads this, he’ll be  thinking, “Yeah man, that IS an awesome chardonnay! So glad they got to try it.”

The best winemakers’ wines speak for themselves. When I meet a winemaker with self-importance or one who reminds you about their wine’s reputation or prestige, it is almost without fail that I’m underwhelmed by the wine. Maybe it’s a phycological thing with me in that, because I hate boastfulness and self-aggrandizement as character traits, I hate the wine. Regardless, the the best wines I’ve had in the presence of winemakers come from winemakers who don’t talk about what other people think of their wine, or how well the wine sells, or why the wine is so important, or anything of the kind.

I’ve never heard Shane reference anyone’s opinions of his wines, or the success of the wineries where he’s made wines. When we talk about his wine, you can hear the excitement and pride about the wine in his voice, but you also get the sense that he’s never made a wine he’s convinced is good enough. I’ve heard him describe some of his wine in glowing terms, but it seems almost as if he’s surprised it’s as good as it is. He’s just really digging the juice. And then in the very next sentence, he launches into what he’s done in the years since that vintage to improve future vintages. He’s also probably been researching barrels and closures and everything else in the past week, too. The guy never rests on his previous efforts or existing knowledge.

What’s more, he’s creating narratives and themes with his wines that are important to him. As an example, the Zena Crown wines are themed according to the season that they most remind Shane of when he tastes them. And it’s not a marketing gimmick, either. Shane loves the outdoors and enjoys each season in Oregon, and if you taste all four blind and are asked to assign a season to each, you have a good chance of getting it right.

One of Shane’s newest kicks is a sparkling brut rose of pinot noir. When we arrived at the winery, we sat down for lunch before doing the tasting. Shane came running up from the cellar with a bottle of it that had recently been bottled. He was like a kid running to greet a friend on Christmas to show off his newest and best toy. It’s a special project, it’s limited production and availability, it’s abnormally good, and it’s almost as if you can taste his pride and joy in the wine. Can terroir include the human spirit? Maybe it can.

Such joy is alive and well at the winery under Shane’s direction. It’s not just he who is having fun. When we got to the crush pad (which Shane introduced as “So here’s another crush pad. Wooo. I’m sure it’s just soooo exciting. Oh look, tanks!”) we were met by several of Shane’s team. The love and joy and goofiness was on full display. Exhibit A: the Gran Moraine Manromper.

Regardless, the wines wouldn’t be as good if it wasn’t for Shane and his team’s meticulous attention to detail and constant quest for improvement. And that’s important because of the vineyard diversity they have for both labels, which offers what are effectively endless possibilities. The more options engaged, the more attention to detail matters.

Gran Moraine Vineyard measures in at precisely 195.43 acres, which is divided into 84 distinct blocks. 164 of those acres are planted to six different pinot noir clones (4, 114, 115, 667, 777 and faux828), while the remainder feature chardonnay clones 76 and 95. Most vines are on RG root stocks, though there are a few 114 and 3309 root stocks peppered in. Elevation ranges from 250 to 475 feet above sea level.

IMG_0068

We began the Gran Moraine tasting with the 2015 Yamhill-Carlton pinot noir, which is always one of the best pinots at its price. It’s an AVA blend and, as one would expect based on previous vintages and Shane’s style, it had bright acid, delicate florals, spice box, mounds of red fruit and a depth that slowly sneaks up to you;. It’s a wine that, by the time you’ve had a class, you realize you’re deeper into the wine they you expected or knew. For $45 it’s a hard to beat pinot noir.

The next wine Shane poured was a real treat, the 2013 Estate Reserve. It was funky in all the right ways and slightly delicate. Mushroom, dirt, cranberry, huckleberry, Acai and bitter flower petals made for a very intriguing and interesting wine. We talked briefly about the 2013 vintage, which followed the highly touted 2012. Shane and I agreed that we preferred the 2013s, which show more finesse and elegance compared to the bigger 2012s. The 2013 Estate Reserve is a good example of this dichotomy between vintages. Shane said that the 2012s were already as good as they would get, whereas the 2013 has many years left to improve. I don’t normally reveal whether I buy any wines from a visit to take home, but I’ll mention that we stuffed one of these into our carry-on and are anxiously awaiting 2023 to open it.

IMG_0065

We then moved on to the 2014 Estate Reserve. Though not as warm as the 2012 growing season, it was warmer than 2013, and the wine bore that out. A bit sweeter, rounder and plusher on the palate than its most immediate younger sibling, the structure was more robust with seriously dense tannin, which is hiding the flavors a bit at this stage. I imagine that within two to three years it will begin to show itself well, and improve over the following five to ten.

For the 2015 vintage, the name was changed from Estate Reserve to Dropstone, and it is just gorgeous on all fronts. The florals were bright and perfumed, setting up an elegant tannin structure that pulls the wine forward in the mouth. Violets and roses really show through at this stage, while the fruit will take some time to develop. This one offers tremendous promise.

In 2016, Shane made a bottling called Cascade from two south-facing blocks in the Gran Moraine vineyard of 115 and 667 clones. The fruit was fermented in topless wooden barriques in order to moderate the tannins. Requiring hand punch downs, the lots took 30 hours for fermentation to take. All-in-all, it was the most labor intensive and stressful wine of the vintage. The result is an impressively complete wine that really envelops the mouth. It’s more savory than the Estate Reserve/Dropstone, and the fruit is quite layered as well.

The final Gran Moraine we tasted was the 2016 Upland, which Shane called his most masculine wine from the label that can be “put up against serious protein” on the dinner table. It was certainly the heaviest and darkest of what we tried, but the baking spices and minty finish offered a nice balance against the dark and heavy fruit.

IMG_0066

The pinots didn’t stop at the Gran Moraine edge, and we transitioned right into Zena Crown. The Zena Crown vineyard, one of Oregon’s most prestigious sources of wine grapes, is 115 acres planted on a southwest-facing slope of volcanic soil that begins at 300 feet of elevation and tops out at 650 feet. It is divided into 17 blocks, each of which has a unique combination of gradient, aspect, soil depths. Vines include a variety of pinot noir clones. All told, the vineyard is quite capable in producing a wide diversity of pinot noir wine, and Shane uses it like a palate wheel. The wines produced from the vineyard are designed to be, if you can buckle down for it, more serious than those from Gran Moraine. Through the use of different winemaking techniques and oak treatments, the tannin structures are longer, the palates are rounder and the complexities deeper.

The first we tasted was the 2014 Slope, which Shane called a “fireplace wine.” Its luxurious sensation is built around long, lush tannins and substantive weight. The flavors and aromas touch on deep cherry, cola, violets and bitter chocolate mousse at this stage, though the upside here with another five-plus years of aging is substantial.

We then moved on to the 2015 vintage, which we tasted from barrel samples. Put aside the fun of tasting good wine, barrel tasting can be tricky. Wine develops dramatically in barrel, so tasting a wine relatively new to barrel is a completely different experience from tasting the same wine closer to bottling time. Therefore, when I see a review or score from a barrel sample I dismiss it because I don’t know the stage in which the wine was tasted. What was nice about this barrel tasting was we knew the stage of the wine, and so I was better able to judge its development and promise. All of the following were close to bottling, so the wines were fairly far along. I believe they went into bottle within a few months of our visit.

The first 2015 was a special treat: a new wine called Vista, which will be sent exclusively to Europe. My first note from tasting it was, “God that’s good, I hope Europe knows how lucky they are.” We’re missing out here in America. My second note: “In a year or two this will be truly spectacular.” The structure is near-perfect harmony while starbursts in the mouth between red and black fruit, dirty soil and graphite make for an exciting wine. It is a better match for the European palate than ours in America, so it makes sense why it’s headed there.

Then came the 2015 Block 6, which at this stage was all about the fruit, which was very purple and juicy (meaning great acid), and the tannins, which were nice and long and smooth. Undertones of spice box and tobacco developed with air. The level of structural development this early into the wine is what impressed most.

The 2015 Conifer was up next. This is Zena Crown’s summer themed wine. Slightly sappy and lighter in tannin than the others, it has elevated acid that delivers ripe fruit, light and sweet tobacco, and a nice depth of mineral tones. I’d compare this to Volnay in style. It seems the most ready to go of the vintage.

The penultimate pinot was the 2015 Sum. This is done with 50% whole cluster and takes a lot of inspiration from Cristom Vineyards’ approach, a Willamette winery that Shane admires. It is the fullest bodied, darkest, sweetest and most concentrated of the label’s wines. Cherry, raspberry, blackberry, cola and baking spices are in generous supply. Most intriguing, the acid has a slight juniper berry twang. Because of its significant weight, it’s not an everyday wine for our household, but for the occasions where we’d want a bigger wine, this would be a fascinating choice.

The final Zena Crown offering was the 2015 Slope, which stood out as the funkiest pinot in the house. The tannin structure is elegant, and it delivers immediate dark and slightly sweet cherry and plum to go with a variety of savory, salty and gamey notes. A lover of earthy wines would find a kindred spirit with the Slope. This is routinely my favorite Zena Crown wine.

We finished with the two chardonnays produced under the Gran Moraine label (Zena Crown is exclusively pinot noir). I love it when producers pour chardonnay after pinot in a tasting line up. We tend to think that whites must go before reds, but it’s really more about the acidity and brightness than anything else when determining a tasting order of dry (non-sweet) wines. Though generally uncommon, I get the feeling more and more Oregon producers are doing it this way and I think it is more effective in helping people experience multiple wines when combining both red and white in a single tasting.

The 2015 Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay remains a close friend of mine. At $45 it is by no means inexpensive, but it over-delivers and is my standard for domestic chardonnay at and around the price. I reviewed this wine in 2018 for an Oregon extravaganza piece, and gave it 93 points with an “A” value rating. I didn’t pick up on it at the time, but at the winery the nose was like a freshly opened box of Cheerios. There is also sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel’s influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose; it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot.

The second chardonnay was the 2015 Dropstone, of which only 50 cases was produced. It’s a single block effort, and has wonderful notes of salty caramel, green apple and lemon curd. The acid forms the foundation of a gorgeous and engaging texture that is smooth in the middle ringed by slightly twitchy edges. I didn’t have much time to spend with this one, but I wish I had because I got the feeling it had a lot to offer after a nice decant.

IMG_0067

Walking the property

Twelve pinot noirs under the same label showing distinctly different styles and profiles, the lineup of wines we tasted put on display Shane’s ability to showcase terrior, fruit and a variety of winemaking techniques and materials. Making that kind of portfolio requires an obsession for a single grape, and the intimate understanding of the grape to make it in so many different ways. He isn’t the only winemaker making a bunch of pinot noir, but he’s one of the few I’ve come across where the differences between each one are so noticeably and appreciatively different from the others.

The wine is also a demonstration of how much fun he has doing his job. I’m not sure you can achieve what he does every year without loving the hell out of what you do and having a blast doing it. And like any well-rounded individual, the guy has other interests. His priority is his family, loves taking advantage of living in an outdoor recreation haven, and always has interesting things to say regardless of topic is. Life is Shane’s obsession, and it shows through in his wine.

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Three

DCIM101GOPROGOPR2491.

Marveling at the view at Penner-Ash with Lynn Penner-Ash

Welcome to part three of Obsession in the Willamette Valley, so naturally we’re covering day two of the trip. In part one we discussed Fausse Piste and Martin Woods. Part two comprised Tendril and Belle Pente. Now, we’re on to Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

The story of Penner-Ash is historic. Lynn Penner-Ash is the winemaking muscle and brains behind the operation. She earned a degree in botany and then set off to make her mark on the wine industry. After stints at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Domaine Chandon, Chateau St. Jean and Rex Hill, she struck out on her own in 1998 with Penner-Ash, which has been integral in establishing and defining the state’s industry we know today, and remains one of the most prominent Oregon wineries on the national stage. In addition to her expensive small lot single vineyard pinot noirs, Lynn makes a pan-Willamette Valley pinot blend that sells for around $40. It is, I would bet, one of the most widely distributed and recognizable Oregon pinot noirs at or around that price.

Lynn and her husband recently sold the winery to Jackson Family Wines, but her vision persists as she remains the winemaker. She met us at the winery to give us a tour and take us through a tasting. To hear her tell the story, after several decades of building her winery, it is a bit of a relief to have to worry less about ownership considerations and have more time and mental energy to put into winemaking and grape growing.

IMG_0042

In the Estate Vineyard with Lynn Penner-Ash

In-line with the theme of obsession that we’ve taken with these Oregon posts, Lynn has demonstrated her obsession with wine as a cause of life through the role she’s played in the region. Spend a few hours with her at Penner-Ash and you get a good sense of how Oregon wine has become what it is today. When we arrived, we took a quick walk through a few rows of the Estate vines, which were just beginning verasion. She discussed in great detail the estate vineyard that they had spent many years cultivating, as well as other vineyards from which they source, the various experiences each were having during the current growing season, and what she expected out of each for teh vintage. The amount of diversity in the geographic distribution and site variances is significant, and understanding them to Lynn’s level takes real work – the kind of work done by someone who was involved in raising the vines and learning the geography, soils and weather. If I were a young Willamette Valley winemaker, I’d run to her my first unusual vintage to get advice and perspective.

While her wines are more voluptuous and rich than most we had on this trip, and not exactly on-trend with the minimal oak, high acid movement, no one can squabble with the quality, depth and complexity of her wines, nor should they. Her wines are as elegant as any, and deliver serious Oregon terroir. They pack that Oregon elegance into multiple layers, and hit every taste bud along the way. Penner-Ash has a style that is polished, grand and substantive. In order to achieve this profile, Lynn makes specific use of cellar tools like yeast and oak adjusted for each vineyard and vintage.

IMG_0043

We tasted eight wines, and I’m going to focus on four. The first is the 2017 viognier, which has set my standard for domestic viognier since I first tried it a few years ago. Viognier should be have a lush sensation, but too often it’s produced to the point of opulence, which is a mistake as the variety easily slides into flabby territory if not restrained before it enters that zone. Viognier can have trouble putting on enough acid to be interesting, even under the attentive watch of the winemaker. This makes the winemaker’s role a necessary but insufficient part of achieving nice acid. What has made Penner-Ash’s viognier the standard for me is that Lynn gets the right level of acid and body restraint, and finds a nice balance, every year. The 2017 is full-bodied, ripe and lush to the extent that it hits an unusual level of elegance for the variety. The acid is sharp, clean and maintains an engaging tension from first taste to finish. The flavors are tropical and spicy. I always look forward to a bottle of Penner-Ash viognier.

IMG_0044

The 2016 Élevée Vineyard pinot noir from the Dundee Hills offers a powerful level of prettiness. Coming from an area in the Willamette Valley that Lynn calls the “banana belt,” there is substantial depth of red fruit, especially Acai and pomegranate, to go with tobacco and violets. The tannins are very fine. Lynn dials back the extraction on fruit from this vineyard in order to prevent too much bitterness from the seeds getting into the wine, and uses extended cold soaks in draw out longer, smoother tannins to ensure the winery’s signature richness. It works quite well.

IMG_0048

The Estate Vineyard pinot from 2016 is elegant and develops impressively pure fruit and earth: plum, cherry, strawberry, Acai and a dirty minerality quality that evokes wet dirt from a minerally-diverse quarry. It’s a thoughtful wine I’ve had several times, always hoping that I’d be able to try it again with ten years of age on it.

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

IMG_0046

Penner-Ash delivers a sort of “now THAT is a wine” experience. They’re not hip in the sense of being part of this show-me-something-different moment I think the wine industry is having (think orange wine, pet nat, canned wine, minimal intervention, etc. – all things I geek out exploring), but they’re as good or better than any wine being created to fulfill some aspiration of new uniqueness that I’ve had. While it’s fun to geek out on and taste the theories and practices of this something-different movement, the industry doesn’t exist without consistently good wine, and it is the Penner-Ash’s of the world, not the something-different movement, that supplies it. Not all of Penner-Ash’s wines that I’ve tried are ones I’m excited in having again, but all deliver quality at high levels. The the viognier and Zena Crown in particular are best-in-show type wines, and the Willamette Valley pinot blend is one I’m always happy to order a restaurant or pick up to share with family and friends. If I ever get access to an Estate Vineyard pinot with some age on it, I’m running towards it. If you don’t believe me, or want to verify, I doubt you’ll be disappointed if you track these wines down.

IMG_0053

The second half of our day was spent at Trisaetum, a producer of pinot, chardonnay, riesling, a line of five sparkling wines, and a Bordeaux-style blend using fruit from Washington State’s Walla Walla AVA. The first thing that must be said about a visit to the winery is the property, which is idyllic. Located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, the winery is surrounded by its Ribbon Ridge Estate vineyard that is draped over rolling hills. The manicured and developed parts of property are beautifully done, with a tasting room that develops intrigue on entry and the winery built the way a winemaker would want it to be designed. The public spaces are adorned by the artwork of owner and winemaker James Frey. This isn’t an art blog, and I’m not remotely close to an art commentator, but I feel confident in say that James’ work is not that of a self-indulgent individual who can only display his art because he owns the building.

IMG_0055

Trisaetum’s Wichmann Estate Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA

In addition to the estate vineyard, Trisaetum sources from two other vineyards: Wichmann Dundee Estate and Coast Range Estate. Each is in a different AVA. The Ribbon Ridge Estate vineyard is located in Oregon’s smallest AVA (Ribbon Ridge) and has Drury volcanic soils that are roughly 15 million years old. The Wichmann Estate soils are also roughly 15 million years old, but are of the Jory volcanic variety. The Coast Range Estate vineyard is in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA with marine sedimentary and basalt soils that are, by comparison to the others, dinosaurs at 40 million years old.

While there is considerable focus on terrior, there is an intention in making sure that the winemaking is the same for each wine regardless of vineyard. To get an understanding of how they do it, here are a few notes. First, no sulfur is added to the wine until malolactic fermentation (essentially this means minimal sulfur additions to the wine, which keeps the grapes and juice exposed, unprotected, to the elements for a relatively long period of time, allowing those elements to influence the wine). There are no cold soaks done, either. And press cycles (grape pressings – how long, with how much pressure and how many times the grapes are pressed) are very specific (you’d think this were the case everywhere, but it’s not – and further, pressing decisions can impact the wine dramatically).All wine is fermented with native yeast, and no enzymes are used to feed the yeast. More pour overs than punch downs, which means more oxygenation. The point here is that things are done with great purpose, but also that they’re done the same to fruit from every vineyard so that there are no differences in the winemaking, only differences in the site selection.

The combination of varied vineyards uniform winemaking is the sources of this winery’s obsession: same grapes, different terroirs and same winemaking, so let’s try the difference. And that’s what we did. They poured three flights of three wines: dry riesling, semi-dry riesling and pinot noir. Each flight featured a wine from each of the vineyards.

IMG_0050

We began with the pinot flight, all from the 2016 vintage. To give one a sense of the diversity in Willamette Valley terroirs, the picking dates of the three vineyards can stretch as much as a month between the coolest site (Coast) and the warmest (Ribbon Ridge). This was quite evident as the most rustic and delicate wine was the Coast, the most voluptuous the Ribbon Ridge and the most moderate the Dundee Hills.

I found the Coast most to my liking as I appreciated the doses of iron and spice and the slightly rustic edge. The Ribbon Ridge was a significantly bigger wine with more fruit, darker fruit and less earth. The tannin was significantly denser and grittier as well. Dundee Hills had the savory and gamey flavors and mouthfeel of a syrah in the body of a pinot. The tannic structure in each of them is very fine and precise, and regardless of size relative to each other, they all offer a leaner, fleshier style that I’d call more Alsatian than Burgundian. Oregon flavors, Alsatian structure.

IMG_0052

The three dry rieslings with their corresponding soils

It was then on to the dry 2017 rieslings. All go through malolactic fermentation to temper and soften the acid. The results are balanced rieslings approachable in their youth. Still, acid heads may want to look elsewhere for their fix.

The mellowest of the three is the Wichmann Estate, which I could see offering the widest appeal. Lemon and vanilla curds, baking spice and some bitter herb feature among the fleshy acid. The Coast Range bottling has a very soft touch with fleshy and juicy acid that offers some melon-balling, peach-popping flavors that get just a bit steely on the finish. My favorite was the Ribbon Ridge, which is the leanest of the batch with focused citrus and stone minerality, though mango and pepper seep through. I’d put a bet on it being the most age worthy of the three.

The final trio was the 2017 medium-dry rieslings, all in the low 30s of grams of sugar per liter. Unlike the two previous flights, it was difficult to find a favorite. I found the medium-dries to be the most balanced, complex and impressive wines of our visit. The Coast boasted semi-sweet tropics, candied lemon and orange and marzipan, with a streak of acid that digs in the longer you hold the wine in your mouth. The Ribbon Ridge was fatter and rounder with more concentrated flavors of pineapple, honeysuckle, star fruit and broad stone fruit. My favorite was the Wichmann Estate with its green apple, cantaloupe, spicy white pepper, yellow peach and Jackfruit.

Trisaetum’s method of a single winemaking approach applied to three different vineyards in three different AVAs makes tasting the wines in this format especially interesting. I was told that many customers have their favorite vineyards, and tend to prefer that vineyard regardless of the wine made from it. I had the opposite experience. Three different varieties and vineyard combination preferences: Coastal pinot, Ribbon Ridge dry riesling and Wichmann medium-dry riesling (the latter being my favorite of the entire tasting, and a wine I could easily see as a table staple in our house). Tasting wines this way does help one understand the impact of sites and soils, and is something I recommend people seek out.

IMG_0051

The blanc de blancs from the Pashey sparkling wine program laying in rest in the cellar

Tasting at Penner-Ash and Trisaetum in the same day is a great way to ensure one gets a legitimate variety of Willamette Valley wines over the course of a few hours while minimizing the impact of palate fatigue. It is often challenging for me to maintain my focus when tasting so many wines in a short amount of time, especially when so many are of the same variety (pinot noir in the case of the Willamette Valley). In the lead up to Trisaetum, where I knew we’d be trying predominately riesling, our trip had been filled with mostly pinot noir, and I was craving white wine. This is all to say, Willamette Valley trips can be daunting from the perspective of SO MUCH PINOT (and a fair amount of chardonnay), so do seriously consider a visit to a significant riesling producer like Trisaetum (or Brooks or Chehalem a handful of others) if you make the trip in order to add those important spices of life that are variety and acid to your experience.

With that last point made, part four will feature WillaKenzie, Gran Moraine and Zena Crown and a heavy emphasis on pinot noir with some chardonnay thrown in.

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Two

IMG_0035

Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg, Oregon, sells some great sea stuff.

Welcome to part two of Obsession in the Willamette Valley. In part one, I covered a dinner with Fausse Piste’s Jesse Skiles and a visit to Martin Woods Winery. I used it to set up the concept of obsession of wine as a life’s cause for many in the Willamette wine industry. It was advantageous to be able to go from that concept into describing my interactions with Jesse and Martin Woods’ Evan Martin because they are living examples of it. The three winemakers that we’ll discuss in this article bring their own obsessions to the party.

In part one we left off with a Tuesday morning visit to Martin Woods, where the obsession is making as Oregonian a wine as possible. While this could mean many things to many people, at Martin Woods it means using Oregonian oak to age wine and limiting manipulation in the winemaking. The result are pretty and ethereal wines. From there, we drove to Tendril Wine Cellars, a project by Tony Ryders who also does custom crush and consulting across the Valley.

IMG_0039

Tony has a lot winemaking experience under his belt from across the world, but he seems best known for his ten years at Oregon’s famed Domaine Serene where he was head winemaker. During those years, Tony made one of the very few American pinot blancs available on the world market. This is white wine made from red pinot noir grapes, and his obsession with it has carried through to Tendril where it was the wine he seemed most enthusiastic to share and discuss.

Before discussing the wine, I do want to point out one of the elements of the tasting that I most appreciated. It is a fallacy to say that when tasting red and white wine that the white should be served before the red. While this can be true, and often is, it is not when chardonnay and pinot noir are the flight. These are two nuanced and often times subtle wines that also happen to be high in acid, and in the battle for the palate the main offensive weapon is that acid. When the chardonnay carries the higher acid, it must be respected as the dominating wine, and be poured after the pinot. I remain surprised that even in the Willamette Valley where pinot and chardonnay are royalty, the white often precedes the red. Tony served the chardonnay and pinot blanc after the pinot noirs, and it made a positive difference.

Tendril offers two lines, the higher end Tendril wines and the more accessible, lower priced Child’s Play line that’s made for restaurant glass pours. We tasted the Child’s Play chardonnay, rose, pinot noir and zinfandel, which are forward and fresh wines, even the pinot noir which sees 9-11 months of barrel aging. The wine I’d order if I found it in a restaurant would be the zinfandel, which has a big personality and a variety of flavors and aromas that are fruity, earthy and savory. Often times zinfandel can deliver big fruit and not much else, so it’s always refreshing to find one that offers more.

The Tendril line is built to mirror a progressive meal curve, which Tony described as beginning with bright, acidic courses followed by meat and then savory stuff. We tasted his 2014 pinots – Extrovert, Mount Richmond Vineyard, Tightrope and C-Note – in that order. We followed these with the 2015 chardonnay and Pretender (pinot blanc), and finished with his 2015 cabernet sauvignon made from grapes from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley.

The first thing I’ll say is that in comparison to much of the Oregon pinot I’ve had, Tendril wines are bruisers. Words like “full bodied,” “rich” and “gritty” are apt descriptors, and this does not make them pinots for every pinot lover. While they exhibited some of the signature Oregon flavors and aromas, their physical presence is unusual for the region in my experience. They seem appropriate for lovers of bigger wines looking to build an appreciation for pinot noir.

At this stage in life, the 2014s are loud and proud, and I would be curious to see them again in ten years to witness what kind of development they go through. I’d be especially interested to see how the grippy tannins, which for me were a bit distracting, develop. The wines certainly have the right levels of acid, alcohol and flavor to develop more with time, but my question is whether there are sufficient long-change tannin complex to overtake the relatively coarse phenolic tannins that currently dominate the wine. Only time reveals that answer.

The whites offered more appeal for me. The chardonnay stays in barrel for at least sixteen months, and it shows in the nice balance it demonstrates. The acid is bright but integrated and the palate seems comfortably settled. I enjoyed the juicy, tart caramel apple note. Tony’s best wine for my taste is the pinot blanc, which he calls Pretender. The grapes are picked at full maturity, pressed gently and then aged in neutral oak. The palate is lush and smooth, and the fruit is downright tropical with quince and passion fruit, which juxtapose nicely with vanilla custard and a white peppery spice. It was one of the most memorable wines from the trip. The last wine, which made use of Washington State cabernet sauvignon, was a nice display of what that variety can achieve from that part of the world.

From Tendril it was an easy ride to meet up with Brian O’Donnell at Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Though this wasn’t my first visit to Willamette Valley, my time there had always seemed a bit incomplete without a trip to this historic winery, whose first vintage was in 1996. Pronounced “bell-pont,” which means “beautiful slope,” is aptly named after its 70-acre hillside upon which the estate vineyard sits (it doesn’t cover all 70 acres).

Their wines are classically-styled along the lines of Burgundy and Alsace, and strongly reflect elegance and place. The standard wine program includes muscat, pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraimer, chardonnay, gamay and pinot noir.

Perched on the side of a large valley, the property is lovely. The winery isn’t open to the public beyond two weekends per year and through appointments. As one might say in the collateral of one of those sustainable, farm-to-table, organic, biodynamic, dolphin-friendly type-places, Belle Pente has a “working farm” feel. This allows the tastings to occur where the wine is made, which in my experience draws the visitor closer into the glass, and gives them a particularly intimate experience. We tasted outside, using a few wine barrels turned on their end for tables, next to some of the winery equipment with a nice view of the estate vineyard and basketball court.

IMG_0036

Brain, who with his wife owns the winery, is the winemaker. He first made wine, as the website intimates, in the 6th grade. This experiment led to a “20 year retirement” before resurrecting his talents in his garage in San Jose. This eventually inspired a full-on career change and a move from Silicon Valley to Oregon. Brian is active in the industry as well, serving as the president of the Yamhill-Carlton Winegrowers after having been on the board of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association for a few years. With over 25 years of Willamette Valley experience, he’s a widely respected winemaker, strong and active advocate for Oregon wine and all-around good guy.

If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment, scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs that look like their owners, and vice versa, and a good number have found surprisingly high correlations – up to 80% – between dogs and owners on their respective appearance and physical personalities. While the explanations vary, they are consistent in finding that yes, it appears to be true that dogs and their owners share a great deal in common physically.

It would be fascinating to conduct a study that looks into whether the personalities line up between winemakers and their wine. Tasted blind, does Caduceus wine from Arizona remind us of its maker, heavy metal band Tool front-man Maynard James Keenan? Is Drew’s Blend, a pinot noir from Carmel, California, as sweet and innocent and chaste from afar as its namesake, Drew Barrymore? Pretty hard to quantify personality this way, I know, but Belle Pente and Brian O’Donnell seem like a good enough case upon which to pontificate as any.

Brian is a pretty low key guy (at least he was with us), and brings a laisse-faire kind of serenity to discussing wine. He begins with basics, and as time goes on gets more in-depth. It seems like the conversation never has to stop if you keep asking questions and offering prompts because he has an incredible depth of knowledge, is thoughtful and indulges hypotheticals (though he deftly dismisses to the bad ones). This isn’t to say he’s long-winded or boring – quite the opposite – but rather that with time, you continue to learn. Yet, at any moment in time, the snapshot of what you’ve experienced to that point is substantive. His obsession with wine isn’t worn on his sleeve, but it is very plainly that wine is a cause in life. He certainly has the experience and library to prove it.

Belle Pente’s wines strike me as similar in personality to Brian. While the current releases are beautiful, nimble wines, he is still recommending his first vintage as a wine that is drinking well. These are quietly layered and complex wines, almost to the point that if you’re not paying attention to them, you’re missing their brilliance. If this sounds like a critique, that’s exactly wrong. These are wines made by a thinking winemaker, and seem likely to be enjoyed most by thinking wine lovers. Having no experience with aged Belle Pente, I’m kicking myself for missing the opportunity to pick up a few late 1990s bottles from auction a few months before our visit.

We were presented with ten wines, all good and some great. I’m going to call out my five favorites here. The very first pour was the 2015 Muscat, which is bottled with a screwcap. Not the most popular variety, it’s done particularly well in this case. Acid driven, minerally and completely dry, the profile of honeysuckle, jasmine and tropical fruits is exceedingly pleasing. Brian recommends it as a great wine to have on-hand for difficult food pairings like asparagus.

The 2009 Riesling (2010 is the current release) was among the very best domestic versions of this variety that I’ve had. It is just beginning to show secondary development as nuttiness, honey and slight creaminess are showing through as the acid, which remains the backbone, softens ever so slightly. We discussed riesling’s history in Oregon, which Brian called “checkered.” He explained that in its first incarnation, riesling was sweet and worked out pretty good. Then, as Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle began producing larger and larger quantities of inexpensive stuff, Oregon riesling began to go out of business. About twenty years ago, however, it was resurrected by several wineries that wanted to define and establish an Oregon-specific style closer to the dry styles of the big three A’s: Austria, Alsace and Australia. Belle Pente falls squarely within that kind of riesling profile.

A producer of numerous pinot noirs, I found two particularly captivating. The 2013 Estate bottle shows nice tannin integration and balanced acid, and is earthly, floral and slightly herbaceous. It built depth with as oxygen exposure ramped up, revealing subtle layers and drawing you deeper into the wine with time. This bottle typically sees about 25-30% new oak, which is a combination of majority French and minority Oregon.

IMG_0037

The 2014 Estate Reserve, which sees about 50% of new oak of a similar makeup, has a downright elegantly structured that is based as much on acid as it is on tannin, which is what I think makes for the best pinot. That this the case is striking given the warmer-than-usual vintage, which didn’t develop Oregon’s standard pH levels. The minerality is complex and seems predicated on sarsaparilla and birch roots, and the fruit is gorgeously ripe without being heavy. At most Oregon wineries, I tend to prefer the 2013s to 2014s because they skew closer to the prototypical Oregon style of high doses of earth, fruit and acid. Much of the 2014 vintage drops a lot of the earth and acid in favor of fruit and alcohol. Belle Pente is more resistant to that style drift that most I’ve had.

Finally, the chardonnay from the same year (poured last), showed beautifully. The tropical and juicy fruit, which rides a nice acid wave, paired advantageously with sweet lemon curd to create a texturally dazzling mouthfeel that led to a wonderful honeyed finish. While it’s evident this is from a warm vintage, like the Estate Reserve pinot, it retains the acid and mineral vibrancy that sets Oregon apart.

These are beautiful wines that remain, in region that is charging an increasingly high barrier to entry, fairly priced – even the Reserve bottle. The ageworthiness is obvious, and an appreciation for aging runs deep with Brian, who offers limited back vintages without surcharges (he’s currently selling the 2010 riesling and 2006 gewurztraimer). The tasting experience, the winemaker and the wine at Belle Pente is classic, old school Oregon.

As we finished up our time with Brian, our thoughts began drifting to dinner and our dinner companion. We stopped by Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg to pick up a variety of sea-based protein and raced back to receive Shane Moore, whom I’ve written about several times on this blog. Shane is the winemaker for Gran Moraine and Zena Crown and has made wine all around the world, including in Israel.

Unlike Brian, Shane “looks” less like his wine. I tend to think of Gran Moraine as elegant and pretty, and Zena Crown as starting with those attributes as a base but turned up just a bit on the power scale. Extraordinarily knowledgeable, Shane is a big personality from the opening moment: full of energy and peppered with the best kind and amount of crazy. What they do share in common, though, is thoughtfulness, intelligence and enjoyability. Whether Shane ages as well as his wine, though, remains an open question. Shane was the winemaker who completely changed my opinion on winemaker dinners (I’m now a yes vote) to the point that I was compelled to write a piece about it.

Shane was a vital part of planning this Willamette trip. Many of the wineries covered in these posts were Shane’s suggestions. He and I have discussed many aspects of wine and the industry over the last year or two, and he has helped me understand some pretty confusing wine stuff along the way (like tannins). So, when he suggested places I had no hesitation visiting them. I’m a big fan of Shane, and I wanted my wife (then fiancé) and friends to get to spend some time with him outside his winery, so I invited him to join us for dinner.

Dinner was great. Shane brought some great Canadian chardonnay (turns out he’s been pouring it blind all over the Valley in an effort to wow people) and local charcuterie (“it’s totally overpriced, but it’s so good I keep buying it in spite of myself”), all of which was great. Shane told us the story of how he became a winemaker, which is hilarious and probably rated inappropriate for this website. I’ll talk more about Shane in the last post about this trip. The next post will feature visits to Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part One

Anthony Bourdain on a Washington State ferry. Picture credit: Facebook/@PartsUnknownCNN via Geekwire.com

In the introduction of the No Reservations episode filmed in Seattle and Portland, the late Anthony Bourdain searched for a line that captured the Pacific Northwest. He tried out a few before deciding on one word. They were:

“Under steel grey skies, sheltered from the rain by majestic Evergreens…nah, trite.”

“Jacked up on java the petri dish from which Starbucks..naaaaah, how clichéd is that?”

“To the pounding riffs of flannel-clad grungoids…ehhhh, that’s so totally over.”

“Screamingly fresh King Salmon flies…didn’t Bobby Flay do this scene?” [A reference to the showmen fish stand in Pike Place Market who throw fish and back and forth for the crowds’ enjoyment].

“Heavily inked chefs and cooks, culinary lone wolves, maniacal attention to detail: something’s happening here and I don’t know what it is….yet….”

He finally settles on:

“Okay, I know what the Pacific Northwest is about. It’s about obsession.”

I am a big Bourdain fan. I preferred No Reservations to Parts Unknown because it seemed like he checked out in the latter. It had a feel similar to what I think The Chapelle Show would’ve had had Chapelle not chosen to step away when he did. I appreciated Bourdain because he seemed to capture the essence of a place well, although there, too, I can knit pick. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel, including a year living in Jerusalem, and his episode there was a disgrace. It was done by a guy who in this case didn’t know how to handle the politics of the area. He tried to find a middle ground, which is a straight, inevitable shot to absolute failure in that part of the world. You either go there, or you don’t. He did neither.

But episodes like the Pacific Northwest showcase Bourdain at his best. Having grown up there, I enjoy the PNW episode. I also think he got it reasonably right as a region of obsession. His disregarded caricatures aren’t inaccurate, though they are cliché: 300ish days per year without sunlight, beautifully lush and tall trees, an addiction to caffeine, grunge and flannel (the latter, however, the opposite of “totally over” – PNW hipsters, I see you), and salmon all were and remain quintessential PNW (though Amazon’s presence is significantly and unfortunately changing the cost, way and feel of life there). These elements, and many more, have combined to create a region of utmost quirkiness in which people tend to find one or two things and obsess over them to an extent that the people I’ve lived around in the Midwest and East Coast would find peculiar.

Bourdain was no wine lover, a fact he mentioned frequently in his shows, so it came as no surprise that his PNW episode made no substantive mention of either state’s world class wine scenes. It’s a shame, because there’s no better example of obsession in the PNW than it’s winemakers. And just like that, I’m stealing the concept of obsession to frame this article on a recent trip I took to Willamette Valley (it’s like you hardly noticed).

I landed in Portland on a Monday with enough time to meet up with Jesse Skiles, the owner and winemaker at Fausse Piste, a Portland-based winery that sources grapes from Oregon and Washington. Along with Seattle friends of mine who drove to Portland to join us for the trip, we met at Ok Omens, a self-described “naturally focused wine bar” and favorite among the wine-making crowd. This was my first time meeting Jesse, and over what turned out to be a multi-bottle dinner and, afterwards, an impromptu cocktail session with a group of winemakers who happened to be hanging out at the restaurant, I enjoyed getting to know him.

fullsizeoutput_6aa

Commiserating at Ok Omens

Jesse sells his wine in my area (Washington, DC) through Weygandt Wines, which makes perfect sense given his wine proclivities. While Weygandt sells a good deal of wine from classic Old World regions like Burgundy and Alsace and the Wachau Valley, it also brings in small, niche domestic producers like Fausse Piste, Arnot-Roberts, Cameron, Ceritas and others. These are small producers with, as Bourdain would say, a maniacal obsession of unique personality for whom winemaking is a cause. Attention to details – all of them – is rarely sufficient. Exploration and experimentation are constant, a total and humble fixation on trying to understand and do their craft better.

Take, for example, Jesse’s Duck Sauce, an insane skin contact viognier. The current vintage is 2013, which should raise eyebrows: it is fermented on the stems and skins for thirty days, basket pressed into 2 older French barrels where it sat on the lees for 3.5 years before enjoying a final six months in barrel without the lees, and is finally bottled unfined and unfiltered. Talk about an effort-riddled and unusual wine.

Our group closed Ok Omens down after many rounds of wine and cocktails, an unanticipated effort for a Monday night. The camaraderie among the Oregon wine scene is pretty extraordinary, as this night intimated and the following couple of days confirmed. On this evening, everyone knew each other, also a sign of the relative size of the state’s industry. Portland is roughly an hour from the northern area of the Willamette Valley, and many from the industry live in Portland. Fausse Piste isn’t the only winery to go one step further and set up shop in the city, though Portland remains a relatively small incubator of wine production.

The following Tuesday morning, after my fiancé arrived, we made our way down into the Valley for three winery visits before checking into our Airbnb. The remainder of this post will discuss our first stop, Martin Woods Winery. Part two will fill out Tuesday’s stops at Tendril Wine Cellars and Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Part three will cover Wednesday: Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Trisaetum Winery and an introduction to Shane Moore. The final and forth part will cover WillaKenzie Estate, Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, the latter two labels that Shane produces.

The owner and winemaker at Martin Woods Winery is Evan Martin. I couldn’t keep the respective names straight leading up to the trip, but once I arrived there it became clear: Evan Martin owns a nice plot of forty acres, much of which is hillside covered by trees at high elevation, and so it’s Evan Martin’s woods: Martin Woods Winery. Set high up on one of the Valley’s mountains, by the time we got to the top of the steep, winding gravel road, we were without phone reception.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR2485.

Evan Martin and his woods

Evan doesn’t produce vitis off his land yet, though it is in his future. He intends to plant at 500-600 feet, which he thinks is the ideal elevation for his property. At that level, the land is Ritner soil series and exposed to cooling breezes that come from the Pacific Ocean via the Van Duzer Gap, a break in the Oregon Coastal Mount Range (and the heart of a proposed new AVA) that allows vineyards access to Ocean winds that cool the vines. This exposure helps keep the vineyards cooler and builds thicker grape skins, which is desirable for the kind of wine Evan wants to produce.

IMG_0028

Staves are stacked outside and left to season for roughly three years

Evan does, however, produce barrels from trees on his land. How many wineries do you know that do that? The idea is to make a truly Oregonian wine. Obsession. The theory is that wine leaches terroir when something foreign is introduced to it. Oregon grapes in French oak, which is the standard in the Willamette Valley, makes for wonderful wine, but it’s less Oregonian than Oregon grapes in Oregon oak. Evan chose the Quercus garryana tree for its particularly tight grain, which does not allow as much oxygen to pass through to the wine as French or standard American oak. This creates an oxygen poor environment that produces more reductive wines.

The barrels create a unique tannin structure in the wine that Evan is still figuring out. He has yet to fill his barrel room entirely with his own barrels, in part because it takes at least three years to season (dry) the wood before it is ready to go to the cooperage, and Evan hasn’t been doing it long enough to make enough barrels to replace his French ones. The other reason that he isn’t fully Oregonian oak is that he hasn’t had enough experience with them yet to gamble his entire production on going 100% Oregon oak. But time is on his side, and it seems inevitable that he’ll get there if he wants to.

IMG_0032

Evan is a meticulous, thoughtful guy and we had high expectations when we got to the tasting portion of the visit. The juice did not let us down. We started with the 2017 Hyland Vineyard riesling, which is made with Coury clones from Alsace that were planted in 1973. The vast majority of Willamette Valley riesling is from German clones, so the Alsatian roots of his helps to differentiate the wine. Bracingly young, it’s texturally driven by the acid backbone. The skins were macerated at 50-55 degrees for four days and the juice fermented in flex (plastic) tanks that, unlike stainless steel, allows breathing so that the wine can develop, but without the impact of oak, which Evan believes overwhelms the variety. Flex tanks also prevent evaporation and the release of carbon dioxide, which helps keep the wine fresh and capture more of its nuances than stainless tanks. Though Evan isn’t sure flex tanks are the best vessel, they’re the best he’s found so far. The resulting wine is a serious one that will develop over time into a classic expression of the variety with a lot of depth, something that I don’t believe can or should be said about most American riesling.

IMG_0030

The next wine was the 2017 Eola-Amity Hills chardonnay, which came from a single vineyard of fifteen year old Dijon 76 clones. Due to the contract, he can’t designate it. This one was aged half in Oregon oak and half in French puncheons. I found it to be substantive, delicate and quietly elegant, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that a bit of lees were left in for the aging but not stirred as it settles into a very reasonable spot between lean and fat in the mouth. The layer of lees creates a reductive zone in the barrel that creates a flintiness that really set the wine apart.

We followed this with a 2016 chardonnay from the Yamhill Valley Vineyard. Perched on a very steep slope with a lot of sun exposure from a sparse canopy, it’s a particularly stressed vineyard. The berries are small, and develop thick skins. They appear burnt, but are actually bursting with acid. He ages the wine in third to sixth fill oak, all of it Oregonian. It’s a texturally tense wine that begs for twenty to thirty years of evolution. Restrained at this stage, it does already exhibit a mean streak of twitchy, nervous and zesty acid that tantalizes. Evan told us that in its youth it’s best enjoyed over a week of being open as the extended oxygen exposure fattens it out. I’d be thrilled to rediscover one of these, lost in the back of my cellar, after a couple of decades.

IMG_0031

From there we moved on to the reds, beginning with the 2017 Gamay noir. This is a blend of four vineyards, though in 2018 he will forgo this wine to create two vineyard designates. Evan goes full carbonic and full cluster, which initially produces a “tannic monster” that over ten months it barrel softens dramatically. It’s ripe and acidic with loads of bright red fruit and florals creating a pretty and ethereal wine.

And then it was time for pinot. The 2016 Yamhill Springs is made from Vadersville clones planted thirty years ago that tend to go through rather slow phenolic ripening on that site. Evan shies away from using whole cluster because he wants to keep the juicy acidity that this vineyard tends to produce. It has a lot of baking spice and dark fruit on the nose, which comes off chocolaty in nature. The wonderful texture sets up seriously layered flavors that are presented well on the back of sharply focused acid.

The final wine was the 2016 Jesse James vineyard pinot noir, which Evan describes as his “power and grace” wine. This one is almost entirely Oregon oak (7/8ths). It has a rich, full mouthfeel but maintains an elegant tension established by bright acid and dense, fine tannin. “Power” and “grace” are appropriate adjectives for it.

As we discussed the Jesse James, Evan gave me one of my favorite quotes from the trip: “acid is like salt in winemaking,” a statement that pairs well with another favorite quote about acid, given to me by a coffee roaster in Syracuse, New York: “acid is flavor.” There is serious substance to these wines, and it seems to come largely by way of the acid, which I believe contributes to the structure, flavor and feel more than the oak, which is delicate and refined. I think. After all, this was my first run-in with wines with Oregonian oak, and perhaps at least some of what I’m giving credit to the acid for ought to be fondly ascribed to the native wood.

IMG_0029

In a similar vein, the other theme that contributes to Martin Woods’ signature is the reduction that seems common among many of the wines. Not only does this enhance the balance and elegance of the wines, but when combined with the acid (and/or oak?) it builds wines that are set up for a long and mesmerizing aging curve.

My hope is that I have more run-ins with Martin Woods wine. With additional experience, I would hope to discern better what I’m tasting in Evan’s wines. Between the acid, fine tannin and reduction, these are wines that stand out as unique among the crowd. I’m just not sure now, yet, what each of these three factors are bringing to the party. Regardless, they’re doing well together, and Evan’s obsession with improving each element promises even better wines in the future.

In my mind, the ideal customer for Martin Woods wines is one that has copious amounts of two things: patience and cellar space. These are seriously underpriced wines given their impressive quality, ranging from $27 to $37 per bottle. This makes them no-brainer case purchases if you have the room. They will go through a fascinating evolution with long-term aging and therefore benefit from extended cellar time. True wine obsession embraces the living nature of wine and an appreciation that it thrives when given its best chance to live out its fullest and best life. Martin Woods is made for those obsessed with wine.

The visit to Martin Woods was a great way to kick off three days in the Willamette Valley. Look for part two, a completion of this first day of the trip, soon.

On Cork Report: Top Wineries in Monticello AVA, Virginia

Oqr%EpbCQNqaJVV5vgMJcw

Stinson Vineyards estate vineyard

Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report.

There is a debate among Virginia winemakers and wine lovers about where the best wine in Virginia comes from, but those are some rough seas for a wine writer to navigate (many have told me that there is no debate, yet they don’t all say the same thing).

Certainly among the most cited is the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA), Virginia’s first established AVA. Referencing Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, its name pays homage to that most famous and early proponent of Virginia grown and made wine. The AVA covers some really beautiful country. Dotted with several small to medium-sized urban areas, themselves quite lovely, most of the land is taken with large, upscale horse ranches, farms, and estates. This atmosphere certainly boosts the AVA’s pedigree.

Although I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia for most of the last twelve years, I haven’t spent much time at Monticello’s wineries. Earlier this summer, I set out to begin rectifying that and chose five to visit. During the long weekend trip, I also held a winemaker roundtable to discuss how Virginia tannin is built, which will I’ll report on in a future The Cork Report post.

For now, I’d like to talk about each of these wineries, some of the wines of each that stood out, and why each is worth getting to know as they all speak, in their own way, to what it means to make and drink Virginia wine.

Continue reading here.

An Epic Five Days in Napa

+LPJ8gpZSkeQ6qC0jxELCw

The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

“What is my Sideways experience going to be?” I wondered as I drove from Sacramento towards Napa Valley last month. I figured I’d encounter little varietally-labeled merlot after the movie famously made a demonstrable impact on demand for the grape. I wondered if I’d overdose on cabernet sauvignon or experience death by tannin. Would I entertain any Hollywood-styled shifts in life perspective like Miles? I really didn’t know what to expect – and to that point had no expectations for the trip. It had been ten-plus years since I had been to Napa, and on that occasion we did nothing more than stop at one winery and get lunch in St. Helena. For someone as obsessed with wine as I, it seemed almost a sin that I hadn’t spent time in Napa, or really even made a concerted effort to understand the Valley’s wines from afar. The reason it took me so long to focus on Napa is because, with rare exception, Napa’s wines haven’t been my thing. However, I like to keep an open mind, and so I sucked it up, flew across the country, and spent five days in the gorgeous weather and geography of Napa Valley coming to terms with one of the most famous and respected wine regions in the world. As I look through my notes from the trip, there are several themes that I’d like to explore. Consider this a Napa neophyte’s first impression.

Because this post is incredibly long, I’m testing out a technical feature called a “page jump,” which allows me to link to different sections of this post. I have a lot to report from my time in Napa, so if you’d rather not read this top-to-bottom, click on one of the following links to be taken to the corresponding section of the post. The wineries/businesses listed in parentheses are discussed in that theme. Note: once the link jumps you to the section, you may have to scroll up a few lines to hit the beginning of it.

Theme 1: Topography, geology and their connection to Napa terroir (Smith-Madrone, Rombauer, Kelly Fleming)

Theme 2: The wonderful people of Napa (Cary Gott/Calla Lilly, Ehlers, Barrel Builders, 750 Wines)

Theme 3: My generous and wonderful hosts and their great wine (Spire Collection, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey)

Theme 4: Holy tannin, Batman! (Freemark Abbey, Silverado Vineyards, Smith-Madrone)

Theme 5: Some cool winery business models (Silverado Vineyards, Castello di Amorosa, Hess Collection, Silver Trident)

The first theme that struck me was Napa’s topography and geology and its connection to the terroir. The Valley runs north-south with two main roads, St. Helena Highway and Silverado Trail, running in parallel the length of the Valley. Though the distance from one side of the Valley to the other is, I would imagine, rarely more than a mile or so East-West, it is deceptively long North-South. With good frequency, winds whip through the Valley. While many wineries and vineyards, including some of the most famous, are visible from one or both roads, many are up in the hills and out of sight, including some of the real gems. At some points, the floor and Valley walls meet with gentility; at other points, the two disruptively clash. Take any of a number of roads out of the Valley, towards the East or West, and you’re made to climb a number of steep inclines before, eventually, hitting steep declines, all the while twisting and turning the entire route. My rental Kia was surprisingly nimble on these roads, but I was wishing for a sports car that I could really slam around the corners.

The point is that the highly varied topography gives the impression of highly varied terroir, and though that is definitely true when the entire Valley is taken into consideration, I was and remain largely suspect that the vast vineyards in the Valley floor regularly differ in terroir in meaningful ways, even if they are miles north or south of each other. We tend to portray all of Napa by its predominant profile: lush and voluptuous wines dominated by fruit and oak. Though this is indeed the dominant profile, my experience was that two variables tend to drive a wine’s profile in Napa: whether the wine comes from the Valley floor or the mountains surrounding it, and whether the winemaker wants to highlight terroir or produce that famed Napa profile.

To offer a Valley example, there are a number of famous vineyards in the well-known and adjacent districts of St. Helena, Rutherford and Oakville, respectively, and many of the wineries that use them make an effort to specify both the vineyard and district on the bottle. However, as you drive through them the districts seem to blend into each other without geographic distinction, and though I imagine there are geological variances across the region, I failed to consistently taste differences based on the location of Valley floor fruit.

It is sometimes the case, however, that wineries choose to prioritize profile over terroir. One example of this, Cardinale, which is discussed below in greater detail, aims to showcase the vintage of Napa through a blend of a number of highly respected floor and mountain vineyards. To be clear, an absence of site-specific terroir is not a broad criticism, but I was struck that I did not find myself partial to any particular Valley floor district or site, and cannot identify with people who, say, prefer Rutherford wines over those made from St. Helena or Oakville fruit.

My suspicion is that labeled Valley floor site distinctions are often more about sales then taste, though also I say this without criticism. I took differences among floor wines largely as deriving from the varying winemaking approaches and processes, which is an important distinction for consumers because it’s a huge variable of the final product. Because of this, my sense from the Valley floor wines I tasted is that a consumer is wise to buy more on winery style than site selection. Put another way, in my mind Valley floor wine is distinguished more by the human element than the natural one. If that’s a turnoff, I would push back: Be honest with yourself, while “wine is made in the vineyard” (I have all the respect in the world for vineyard-driven wineries – skip ahead two paragraphs for proof), it’s also made in a winery (even a “natural” one) and there’s no avoiding that, or any reason to necessarily abhor it.

Where I noticed more prominent terroir-driven differences was in the wines made from grapes grown at elevation, on steep slopes and northern versus southern ends of the Valley. I experienced these differences at several wineries, though the three that stood out in this department were Smith-Madrone, Rombauer and Kelly Fleming.

9OfcNd3JQCC+BDb0IH612g

One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

I’ve written about Smith-Madrone Winery in the past, which is one of the most respected mountain wineries in Napa. Located on Spring Mountain and surrounded by other highly reputable producers, their vineyards vary in elevation, orientation and a number of other factors by design. When I arrived at the winery for my visit, Stu Smith took me on a tour of the property, explaining he and his team have spent decades learning about their soils, weather patterns, sun path and other factors, rejiggering when advantageous and, when called for, replanting vineyards to bring them closer to an ideal situation. The visit provided yet another data point about vineyard management that has me convinced, on balance, that the most interesting wines I’ve had come from wineries that are obsessing over their vineyards and vines. I’ve covered a number of wineries that share this obsession with Smith-Madrone, including Forge Cellars and Old Westminster. It’s no coincide that these winemakers/their wines have shown up on my 2017 most memorable wines and Tastemaker lists.

rGw7+x2wTseimJegs7hcuA

Koerner is the man

Rombauer sources fruit from all around Napa, and winemaker Richie Allen (another 2017 Tastemaker) led me through a big line-up of their wines, which included the best California sauvignon blanc I’ve had. In addition to a cabernet made of vineyards from around Napa Valley and a chardonnay with grapes from Carneros, they offer multiple single vineyard bottles of each varietal as well as a reserve-level multi-source blend of each that draws from sites that differ dramatically in location, orientation and elevation. Richie is very purposeful in site selection and meticulous in blending, and tasting through his wines revealed some pretty clear – and wonderful – differences brought out by vineyard selection.

1cTzCLwkQT6cXy5zgFWyQw

Richie is the man, too

I want to specifically call out a few examples from the tasting. On the chardonnay front, the 2016 Buchli Station Vineyard was eye-opening. A blend of three blocks from Rombauer’s most southern vineyard, including the “Mother Block,” it offers a wonderfully balanced juxtaposition of sea flavor driven by sharp acid and a nice lushness derived by a small amount of purposeful botrytis. It has fantastic flavors of salted caramel and lime curd. The show-stopper, though, was the Proprietor Selection. Ultimately a selection of fruit from Green Acres, Buchli, Home Ranch and Brown Ranch vineyards, it includes only the barrels Richie selected as the very best. The only note I wrote down was this: “Holy shit – more than the sum of its parts. The depth of flavor and concentration is flat-out off the charts.” It’s one of those wines that in order to take it all in, you can’t really notice any particular element because the experience of the whole is too overwhelming.

On the cabernet side, there were two standouts as well. The commonality among all of Richie’s reds, which I came to appreciate as I tasted more and more Napa wine, was that the tannins were restrained – and the finishes correspondingly long. The 2013 Stice Lane Vineyard, incidentally Richie’s favorite, is the site where he has seen the most correlation between the color of the grape and the quality of the wine. As a result, he is obsessed with determining how that correlation works and, importantly, if he can determine causation so that it can be replicated elsewhere. In order to learn more, Stice Lane is where Richie and his team try out new vineyard management techniques and technologies, making this bottle Richie’s most cutting-edge wine. I loved it. Florals, cassis and currant produce a wonderful bouquet while the wine is deeply layered on the palate. It seems to have endless depth. Dominant flavors included kirsh, cassis, plum, cherry, mocha and violets. The other cabernet I flipped for was the 2012 Meilleur du Chai, which is a French term that means “best of the cellar.” Like the Proprietor Blend chardonnay, Richie nailed barrel selection for this one. First note: “Really gorgeous stuff.” It is rich, dense, spiced, polished and endless.

FuAdWsIdRu29bUzrreFBEg

The last winery I want to call out under the theme of topography and geology is Kelly Fleming Wines. Located on a gentle slope rising from the Valley floor up into the hills in Calistoga, winemaker Becky George makes four wines: a sauvignon blanc from sourced Sonoma fruit; a saignee rose from estate cabernet sauvignon; a blend of estate cabernet with Oakville malbec and Coombsville syrah called Big Pour; and the flagship estate cabernet. The estate vines are planted over four blocks that sit near, on and over the top of a sort of plateau that forms a step as you work your way up from the Valley floor to the mountain above. Here’s an aerial shot.

FlemingMap

There is a lot of information here, but for the purpose of this discussion know that the elevation more or less increases as you work from the bottom of the image to the top of it. Notice that the orientation of the rows are different in each block, as are the spacing of the vines. Often times you see these gorgeous sweeping pictures of large vineyards with their vines flowing in seemingly endless straight lines. You certainly see this when you drive through the Valley floor. Sometimes that works. Other times, it’s best when the vineyards look like Kelly Fleming’s.

My tasting with owner Kelly Fleming and Becky was the first stop of the trip, and what a great way to start. First of all, these are two great people. Kelly talked me through the conception of her winery and her desire to make a top-notch cabernet from estate vines. This is not an easy, quick or inexpensive thing to do. The care with which Kelly approached execution can be seen in that aerial shot of the vineyard – details are important to her. Similarly, construction of the winery was done meticulously, combining incredible aesthetics with functionality. The winery’s structure is most famously known for its authentic cave, which took a huge amount of effort to carve into the hillside. The picture below captures roughly a third of it. As they took me through the winery, as someone who has made some wine, I appreciated the flow and design as one made primarily for a winemaker, not a tourist. Yet, the estate is beautiful, buildings included. It’s not an easy balance to strike.

Uw3m8ta3RziM3le7t9g

Kelly Fleming’s cave

Becky ended up in my 2017 Tastemakers for her Kelly Fleming wines and her pinot side project, Mojave. During my visit, we focused most of our attention on the red wines, beginning with the Big Pour. This was the wine that Kelly used to ease Becky into the lead winemaker role, giving her sole responsibility for it as she worked on the estate cabernet with consultant Celia Welch. Big Pour has been Fleming’s second label since 2006. The 2014 vintage manages to achieve super appealing ripeness without being jammy as the flavors hit on plum, big black fruit, kirsch, baking spice, menthol and a big pepper kick. The tannins are nicely integrated, and the finish persists.

We then moved onto a 2014-2015-2016 vertical of the estate cabernet sauvignon. Of the three, the most “normal” vintage was 2014, which is the current release. That year had stable temperatures with no dramatic heat spikes, roughly average rainfall and routine harvest schedules. 2015 and 2016 each had their own eccentricities, and given my own it was no surprise that the 2015, which is currently aging away in bottle, got the slight edge in the favorite department. These wines are refined, offer fantastic earthy complexity, pure fruit and a spryness that I found in precious few Napa reds. The mountain influence is evident in the texture and balance, which convey serious substance, depth and textual complexity without dominating tannin. When wineries asked me who I had previously visited, Kelly Fleming Winery was one that, almost without fail, elicited esteem. They set a bar matched by only a few wines from the remainder of the trip.

The second theme that stood out was the people. As with many places, the best part of Napa is its people. Kelly Fleming and Becky George set a great tone as my first visit, and straight through to the very last visit, to Silver Trident, it was the same. When I arrived at Silverado Vineyards, winemaker Jon Emmerich had assembled a group of five people representing winemaking, viticulture and oenology not only to welcome me, but to also accompany me throughout the visit to ensure any question I had would be answered. When we sat down for the tasting, Jon encouraged everyone to partake and speak their mind, which his staff clearly appreciated.

The generosity of people like prolific winemaking consultant Cary Gott and Rombauer winemaker Richie Allen to spend hours talking with me (and in these cases, dining and drinking with me as well) was very humbling – Good Vitis is not Wine Advocate, but that didn’t seem to matter. Cary Gott’s current project is a winery called Calla Lily Estate and Winery, whose wine I had informally over dinner with Cary one evening. Cary brought multiple vintages of their Ultimate Red cabernet sauvignon, Ultimate Red pinot noir and the flagship Audax cabernet sauvignon, all of which I enjoyed. Each had a level of refinement and purity that made them naturals with food – something that can’t be said, at least to my taste, about many California wines. This relatively new project is made from the estate vineyard that is a source of pride for Cary. Planted over 95 acres in Pope Valley on the eastern hillside of Napa County, it’s evidence that what is often considered Napa’s overlooked child is primed to grow premier fruit. Cary’s role in developing the vineyard and making the wine demonstrates his knowledge and skill that have helped him produce a long roster of successful clients.

XvNHIIq2QvOhymODPjr9Ew

The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

The kinship that forms among industry people in Napa, like the one I have with Elizabeth Smith who, at the time of my visit, was working at Ehlers and suspended work to host me for a last-minute visit, was on display everywhere I went. Ehlers, by the way, is one of the first Napa wines I had that made me question whether I was wrong in assuming that fruit bombs were dropped everywhere in the Valley. Their wine is marked by elegance and complexity. After receiving samples last year, I conducted a phone interview with winemaker Kevin Morrisey that I really enjoyed. The subsequent write up was one of my first serious reckonings with Napa that motivated this trip.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Napa’s walking encyclopedia, Kelli White, at Press restaurant, where she and her husband have put together one of the most famous restaurant cellars in the world, and witnessed that Press was the place where the wine industry gathers nightly to merrymake, gossip and scheme.

Organized only the night before, Phil Burton of Barrel Builders Cooperage met me for an early breakfast one morning and took me on a tour of two barrel-making facilities, which was fascinating and showed why and how a barrel can make or break a wine. As I’ve spoken with more and more winemakers I’ve come to learn just how important the right barrel is, and now, after spending a morning with Phil, I see that the good cooperages try to match the precision of a winemaker so that their barrels enhance, rather than detract from, the wine. At least that’s the approach Phil takes. It was rather ironic, but not all that surprising, that when I drove from Barrel Builders to Smith-Madrone, my next appointment that day, that Stu Smith was wearing a Barrel Builders fleece vest. These are two men who don’t sacrifice anything in their labor of love.

IGYN1ayPScecB6PKNk84HQ

Monica Stevens of retailer 750 Wines hosted me for a wide-ranging tasting of Napa wines. 750 Wines is an interesting retail concept. It runs on an appointment-only model, providing customized tastings for up to six people that lead to future you-only “club” shipments. Each prospective client is given a questionnaire to fill out ahead of time, which entertained me as I completed it on the plane ride out there. The tasting table is full when you arrive with wines from California based on your questionnaire responses. As you go through the guided tasting, your hosts are often inclined to pull a few additional bottles based on your feedback. Once the tasting is completed, they create a profile of the client and serve from that point forward as wine-buying advisors who source the wine and ship it to you. It’s effectively a wine club that can include multiple wineries, a model I find very appealing. I thoroughly enjoyed my tasting and time with Monica and discovered a few wines I’d never heard of, but enjoyed. If you’re in Napa, I suggest you look them up and make an appointment.

pvNuTWrAQcOrn2aLxg4L7w

The 750 tasting

I was truly blessed to meet so many great people in my short amount of time. From start to finish, the most consistently great element of the trip was the people, and even for a trip about wine I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The third theme is my hosts, the people responsible for the trip. They include the fine people at Spire Collection and Julie Ann Kodmur. I really can’t get over how well I was treated throughout the trip, and that is in large part owed to Spire and Julie Ann.

As a public relations professional, Julie Ann was one of the first industry people to engage Good Vitis. My day job involves a fair amount of public relations-type activities, and through this common language we found a number of overlapping interests both in and outside of wine. We’ve since formed a bit of a friendship as well as a professional relationship (like I said, the best part of the industry are its people). As Julie Ann and I got to know each other, the idea for this trip became a reality. I can’t thank her enough. The final evening of this trip was spent with Julie Ann and her husband Stu over a wonderfully tasty dinner and several of Stu’s wines, and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to bring my time in Napa to a close.

Spire Collection, which is owned by Jackson Family Wines, is an assembly of eighteen flagship wineries around the world that collectively “express the unparalleled terroir from some of the finest vineyards around the world — reflecting the family’s resounding commitment to quality and excellence.” Though individual wines from some of Spire’s producers are available for purchase at select retailers and direct from the producer, Spire operates a club membership program with a dedicated member-only tasting room in Calistoga. The gorgeous property has several acres of vines and is situated on the Valley floor with a magnificent view of both sides of the Valley. The tasting room, which requires an appointment, looks onto Mount Saint Helena. When a customer arrives, the first thing they are asked to do is choose a few records from the vinyl collection to set the mood. Then, they are taken through a customized tasting based on their stated wine preferences that draws on Spire’s wineries. From the tasting the customer’s allocation is then assembled.

Dale Cullins, Spire’s wonderfully entertaining and knowledgable Wine Educator, led me through a selection that included wines from South Africa, California and Australia. The first was the 2014 Capensis Chardonnay from the Western Cape of South Africa, which is an effort to realize Jackson Family Estate’s goal to make the best white wine in South Africa. They don’t hold back; at $80 a bottle, in fact, they’re all-in. Winemaker Gram Weerts sources chardonnay from several high elevation and hillside sites: Stellenbosch (Fijnbosch vineyard), Overberg (Kaaimansgat vineyard) and Robertson (E. Bruwer vineyard).  Fifty percent of the blend is aged in 100% new French oak for ten months. The malolactic/acid balance on the wine is spectacular. The exceptionally rich texture delivers hazelnut and Spanish almond fattiness, but avoids toast overload. Meanwhile, the limey acid is underscored by slate minerality. The balance between these two features is a thing of beauty, and it was the star of the tasting.

spire_barn2

The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

We then tasted the 2014 Maggie Hawk Jolie Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley in California. The grapes come from the hillside Maggy Hawk estate vineyard not far from the ocean, which is often blanketed with fog in the morning that is cleared by wind in the afternoon. The Maggie Hawk lineup features single block wines, with this one coming from the Jolie block. It was aged for fifteen months in French oak, 29% of which was new. The nose boasts a wonderful combination of tangerine peel and violets, while the body is quite velvety with crisp acidity. The first wave of flavors hit on cherry cola and florals, which were followed by crushed berries and tangerine. It finishes on a tar note.

Heading down under, we moved on to the 2014 Hickinbotham Brooks Road Shiraz sourced from Clarendon Vineyard in the McLaren Vale, a historic site that was first planted in 1858. This one is a tag-team effort between winemakers Charlie Seppelt and Chris Carpenter. The wine is stylistically a bit of a homage to more classical Australian shiraz that flourished before the fruit bombers came to dominate the market. Though double decanted before the tasting, it wasn’t until about 48 hours later, when I revisited the wine, that its personality had really emerged. This is one to stick away, out of sight in the back of your cellar, to forget about for at least a decade. The nose and body are equal parts savory and fruity, each hitting on hickory smoke, beef jerky, ripe cherries and huckleberries.

Then it was time to get down to Napa. The first local wine was the 2014 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. La Jota was established in 1898 and continues to focus on mountain and hillside fruit. This one is sourced from the estate La Jota vineyard and W.S. Keyes vineyard, and includes a bit of merlot and cabernet franc. Fermentation is done with native yeast, and each varietal is aged separately. Each sees 19 months in French oak, 91-97% of which is new. A bit of a baby, the nose is reserved while the palate oozes black and blue fruits and strong plum flavors. Graphite and smoke form the core of the wine’s bright minerality. The balance is nice and suggests it’s going to improve with time.

Finally, we tasted the 2014 Mt. Brave Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvingnon. Mt. Brave’s vineyard on Mount Veeder sits above the fog line at the northern end of the appellation where it receives less marine influence than many other Veeder sites, which is perhaps a reason for the intensity of the wine. It has some merlot and malbec blended with the cabernet. Like the La Jota, each component varietal is aged separately for 19 months, though (only) 70-91% of it is new. It offers signature Veeder menthol and mint, which comes out most strongly on the finish. The fruit is cherry-driven and sits on a foundation of dried soil and beautiful acid freshness. I’m a Veeder fan in general, and this Mt. Brave didn’t disappoint.

In addition to the tasting at Spire, I was able to visit Cardinale, a Spire property that produces two Bordeaux-style wines, one white and one red, that showcase the blending talent of highly-respected winemaker Chris Carpenter. The property is located in Oakville, but the wines are a relatively consistent blend of vineyards from throughout Napa Valley. The focus is on blending a number of premium vineyards to achieve and spotlight the vintage rather than any one site. This creates a lineage of Cardinale through which one can experience vintage variation.

In order for the customer to get some feel for Cardinale’s philosophy, the tasting room offers three wines: the Intrada white, the current vintage of Cardinale (the red), and a library Cardinale. I was offered the special treat of an additional library vintage. We started with the 2016 Intrada, a sauvignon blanc blended with 3% Semillon and aged on its lees in a combination of new French oak, concrete egg, stainless and neutral oak puncheons. It’s a full, lush wine with bright acidity, chalky minerality and a flavor profile of grass, lime and wonderful melon notes. We then moved on to the Cardinale red, beginning with the 2014 vintage that is a blend of 88% cabernet sauvignon and 12% merlot. This is the first vintage with Spring Mountain fruit “playing a big role.” The components spent 19-20 months in 90-98% new French oak, so this is no small wine. It was fermented with native yeast and is unfiltered. Red fruits, florals, menthol, cassis and keep kirsch featured prominently on the nose. The full body balanced bright acidity and delivered big baking spices and vanilla, cocoa and orange zest on first sip, but as it drew in more air there emerged sweet tobacco, sweet crushed cherry and blackberry, seasoned leather, menthol and pepper. Carpenter’s care and attention to detail are on full display on this one.

The last two wines were both from the library: 2007 and 2005. The younger wine is a blend of 86% cabernet sauvignon and 14% merlot, and is just old enough to have developed secondary notes on the nose and palate. The fruit is crisp and red and quite aromatic. The tannins have fined a bit and integrated nicely, though they’re still very much present. Some earthiness – graphite and loam – which weren’t there on the current vintage, have developed, as has a tangerine quality that brings out bright acid. The 2005, though, was my favorite (I’m a slave to older wine). It has a slightly stewed prune quality on the nose, but it’s as far from bad as good can be. There’s a toasted oak quality as well that goes nicely with tanned leather and sweet tobacco. On the palate, the fruit is rich, plump and deep. There’s a menthol, almost spearmint, flavor as well that I love. The tobacco and leather are very sweet, and it finishes with wonderfully big cocoa and cinnamon.

cardinale

A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

I appreciated what seemed to me to be a quintessential Napa experience at Cardinale, both in terms of the visit and the wine. The property, buildings and wines are what I envisage when someone says the word “Napa:” everything grand. The vineyard sourcing includes historic vineyards of exceptional reputation, and with Chris Carpenter’s extensive Napa experience guiding the process, the wines are Napa royalty. If you’re looking for a grand Napa experience, make an appointment.

Through Spire, I was able to visit another Jackson winery, Freemark Abbey, one of California’s more storied wineries that dates back to 1886 and includes a showing in the Judgement of Paris among other notable moments. The lower floor of the winery features a library that aims to capture much of the winery’s more recent history with bottles going back to my parents’ generation. There were two elements I encountered with each of the current red wine releases: bright acid and tannins so robust they quickly dry the finish. Finishing with library wines, I was able to see how important that bright acidity was in ensuring the wine had the ability to last long enough for the tannins to release and resolve. In fact, a hallmark of Freemark is a proclivity for harvesting on the earlier side to preserve acidity to build backbone and structure. These are wines that demand long rests in the cellar.

We started with two chardonnays, neither of which go through malolactic fermentation. Nevertheless, the 2015 Napa Valley is quite full and ripe, though the acid plays a leading role and balances an otherwise toasty profile that offers almond, pineapple and lime zest flavors. The 2016 Howell Mountain chardonnay struck a more elegant balance of crispness, cleanliness, freshness and acidity. The fruit was stonier, while the palate more round and lush. Flavors hit on white peach, apricot and vanilla.

From there we dove into the reds, beginning with the 2014 cabernet franc. The nose kicked off with savory aromas as the fruit backfilled. It was initially savory on the palate as well with a big hickory kick. Bruised cherry and crushed blackberry filled out the full body as a hint of green herbaciousness developed. The tannins were dense and grainy. The second pour was the 2014 Merlot Bosche Vineyard, one of Freemark Abbey’s flagship sites. The briny nose gave way to a mid-weight palate and playful acidity. Flavor-wise, it offers Acai, raspberry, plum, pepper and cinnamon. Although the tannins are polished, they do some significant drying on the finish that gives the impression of thinness. Best cellared for a while, it’s going to take years for this one to resolve itself and fill out.

Next up came a series of cabernet sauvignons, all following the theme of quickly-drying tannin. We began with the 2013 Rutherford bottling, which started off big, chewy, delineated and dense. The fruit is sweet with a noticeable orange zest character. The tannins are mouth-stripping. By comparison, the 2013 Spring Mountain Bordeaux-style blend was bright and pleasant. It featured red fruit, leather and tobacco leaf. The tannins are quite dense but more finely grained than the Rutherford. In contrast I would call this refined and elegant. This led into the 2014 Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon, the only 100% cab sauv of the line-up. The classic mint note is more prevalent on the nose than the palate, the latter of which also features cherry, plum and blackberry. The acid is a bit lean in comparison to the tannin, suggesting a lighter body than perhaps exists in reality. Only time will tell. The final current release poured was the 2013 Sycamore Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Freemark’s other flagship vineyard. With a velvety palate, this was the most polished of the current releases. The core of the wine is fruit that comes in waves of Acai, strawberry, cherry, blackberry and blueberry. There are also notes of graphite, currants and kirsch. While enjoyable now, it’s still a bit of a tannic beast and would do well with ten-plus years of cellaring.

Speaking of the Sycamore cabernet with a decade of cellaring, the 2007 Sycamore was all I need to confirm my suspicion that these Freemark reds need serious time. Downright mellow compared to the current releases, it has also achieved far more depth because the tannins have gone a long way towards resolution and no longer strip away the finish like they seem to with the current bottles. That said, full integration seems another decade in the making. Cinnamon and cocoa are up front, followed by sweet cherry, blackberry, plum, black currant and kirsch. Perhaps most importantly, the concentration of this one is noticeably better. We finished with the 2007 Bosche Vineyard, which I felt was the most integrated and complete wine of the tasting. The nose boasts secondary aromas as well as some funky herbaceous notes that gave it a more colorful personality. It is lush but beautifully balances bright acid. The flavors are more reserved than the Sycamore, giving off a general impression I can only describe as “ruby.” The concentration is impeccable, I’d call this one an exercise in grace over power.

5%wFZccaRvW4dL%%dNEJxQ

The lobby of the St. Helena Bank of America hosts a collection of classic Napa wines

The visit to Freemark is where I came across the forth theme: Napa’s tannins can be a huge obstacle to flavor and finish. The differences between the current and decade-old library releases at Freemark (and, to a lesser extent, Cardinale), were as obvious as obvious could be and to my palate entirely welcomed. However, not every wine, even one with robust Napa tannins, can improve with age like the Freemark cabs did.

From a point of pure pleasure in the mouth, tannins tend to show best in red wines that are lower in acid and higher in alcohol. All other factors held constant, the right balance between those three elements best shows off what the wine has to offer. In order for a wine to age well, however, while a decent amount of acid is beneficial, higher alcohol content tends to prematurely age wine or exaggerate it. Striking the right balance can be tricky.

It seems in the case of Freemark’s 2007 Sycamore and Bosche vineyard cabernets that they found a good balance because the wines are really nice ten years in, and seem primed to continue improving. Here are the numbers for the Bosche bottle, my favorite of the two: 14.5% alcohol by volume with a pH of 3.34. By Napa cabernet standards, that’s modest alcohol and high acid, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising, again all other factors held constant, that integration is proceeding nicely.

Tannins can be managed, though, too. Fining and filtration can all but eliminate tannin if a winemaker so desires. Tweaking the alcohol or acid levels will affect the tannins. Putting grapes through longer cold soaks and less maceration extracts color and flavor while resulting in less tannin. If and how pump overs (or punch downs) are done matters. Whether stems or seeds are included at certain points in the process has a huge influence. Consider this discussion a preview of an in-depth article I plan to write about tannins in 2018.

Stu Smith’s Smith-Madrone wines are an example of moderated tannins (Rombauer and Kelly Fleming as well). His 2012 Cook’s Flat Reserve came second on my most memorable wines of 2017, and although it has sufficient acid and stuffing to age for decades, its complexity and layers are discernible now and its finish very persistent. This isn’t to say this style is necessarily preferable, but it’s possible without sacrificing the ability to improve with age.

The visit to Silverado Vineyards cemented this realization for me. There we tasted 2012-2013-2014 verticals of their GEO and SOLO wines, which are both 100% cabernet sauvignon. GEO comes entirely from their Mt. George Vineyard, while SOLO is sourced exclusively from their Stags Lead District vineyard. Stags accumulates degree days (days that are hot enough for the grapes to develop) faster than Mt. George, and is historically harvested earlier. GEO tends to hit a slightly higher pH (lower acid) than the SOLO. I was also able to taste the 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages in barrel, and since the first vintage of the GEO was 2012, it meant I was lucky enough to taste every GEO made so far. The oak regime varies from year to year, but in general it’s a combination of new and used French and American oak, the foreign wood usually representing 80-90% of the total.

70tHau+3QDmx+m63IIGAMg

One of the barrels we tasted

I bring Silverado up in the context of the tannin discussion because I found all of the wines sampled to balance their tannins nicely: the structure is certainly firm, and all the textural bits are well ordered, but it doesn’t distract from the flavors or begin drying the mouth before you’ve hit the finish. My favorite of their wines was the 2012 GEO, though calling it a “favorite” is really just declaring a winner by drawing straws. The 2012 got the nod because of its savory and briny edge that surrounded cassis, kirsch, cherry, menthol tobacco, black fruit and a baking spice finish. The 2013 and 2014 vintages were very good as well. All three had lush entries, balanced crisp acid and solid tannic spines. I imagine these begin to hit their stride 5-10 years after bottling. The 2013 SOLO was my favorite from that side of the tasting mat. A nice velvety entry led to cherry, blueberry, coca, cassis, black currant, lavender and sweet tobacco. The tannins were relatively mellow compared to the same vintage of the GEO. Vintage-wise, the 2014 were the biggest and most round for both bottlings. What was consistent across all wines was a slightly rustic sensation that I really appreciated.

Silverado-Hero

Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

Silverado is where I came to realize there was a theme of interesting business models. Silverado brings a French chateau business model to California: multigenerational ownership that develops commercial self-sufficiency based on establishing a reputation for a house style from estate vineyards. Jon has been making Silverado’s wine for 28 years. His assistant, Elena Franceschi, has been with him for the last 24 of those. They trust their vineyard management and enology support, and I saw why. These decades of institutional knowledge produce a rustically-styled wine that fluctuates with the vintage and very little else. That said, don’t for a moment think that Jon and crew rely on how they’ve done it before to do it again in the future. There is constant inquisitiveness and experimentation in the vineyards and winery, and so the wines are always evolving. I think it’ll be a fascinating winery for me to begin following.

Seventeen miles north of the French-modeled Silverado you’ll find the Italian-styled Castello di Amorosa, known wide and far as “the castle winery.” It’s an epic and authentic 13th Century Tuscan castle built mostly out of materials brought over from Italy. Words can’t do justice to this massive building. Peter Velleno, the assistant winemaker, took me on a 30 minute tour and I think we saw maybe half of it. It has an armory complete with weapons made by Tuscan blacksmiths based on how weapons were built at the time the castle would’ve been considered modern. I can’t make this stuff up. It’s the brainchild of owner Dario Sattui, who has spent decades building and outfitting it, a process not yet complete.

HR-Castle_Wide_Fall_Full-e0581a2d5056a36_87e85a2c-5056-a36a-081d37b817e97024

The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

There are five different levels of tours that visitors can take, each of them themed. If you’re going to Napa with young kids, older parents, people who don’t like wine and people who do, this is your place because it offers so much more than just wine. I had a wonderful tasting with winemaker Brooks Painter, who does his best to ensure the castle doesn’t overwhelm the wine. We had some great conversation while tasting wine.

A few of Amorosa’s highlights included the 2015 Pinot Grigio made from fruit from Mendocino. The goal with this wine was to find the right combination of clone and rootstock to get the classic stone fruits and citrus, and they’ve achieved it. It is vinified in stainless and enters the mouth very clean and crisp with plucky texture. It has lemon, limestone, Meyer lemon curd, sweet grapefruit, peach and a peppery minerality. The 2012 La Castellana (“Lady of the Castle”) is a Super Tuscan-styled blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and merlot. I found it a soft, plush and hefty wine with a wide range of red fruit, orange zest and spice. My favorite, though, was the 2013 Sangiovese. Perhaps this was the environment coming through in the glass. The nose is varietally-authentic with cherry, leather and orange peel. It’s a blend of seven vineyards, and is full bodied, ripe and round. The acid is juicy and develops many layers of red fruits and berries to go with leather, tobacco and pepper. It also had a cool watermelon thing going on. Brooks told me Sangiovese takes time in Napa to reach phenolic maturity and requires serious patience. Apparently Brooks is a patient man. It’s varietally correct but yet still very Napa; I thought it was great.

hess

Hess

Hess Collection was a late addition to the itinerary, but I’m so thankful they were able to fit me in. I had reviewed several Hess wines last year in a post I wrote about the deadly fires that ravaged parts of California wine country and had good things to say (about the wine, not the fires). Located on Mt. Veeder, Hess is legend. The property’s connection to wine goes back to 1876 and has remained connected to the vine ever since. Hess gets its name from its owner, Donald Hess, who started Hess Collection in 1986. What makes the Hess model unique is the incorporation of Hess’ love of art into the winery. The top story of the wine is a magnificent art museum that is open, free of charge, to the public regardless of whether they taste or buy wine.  The museum is 100% professionally done, and the art is world class. Set into the side of the mountain, the entire property is beautiful. I had the added benefit of good timing as the sun was setting as I drove down the windy road back towards Calistoga following the tasting. What a great way to end a great winery experience.

HhV39Sl3Qf63WMk2fe3Sxw

Historic vines at Hess

Hess is a medium-sized producer but, frankly, one I hadn’t had until those samples arrived last year. I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me. At the winery, Hess’ winemaker, Dave Guffy, put me through a nice tasting. Man, did I feel stupid for underestimating the brand. Although we started out a bit formal, by the ten minute mark Dave and I were joking around between sips and wine discussion. The wines were really good, from their $10 bottle to their flagship series. Dave sent me home with a few of the bottles we had opened to taste, which I shared over dinner that night with one of the winemakers mentioned in this post and his assistant, who confirmed for me that, yes, I was stupid to have anything but respect for Hess Collection. The quality is top notch across the full line, and because they’re large enough to distribute nationally, they should be relatively easy for readers to find locally.

The wines you’re most likely to find are the Hess Select chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. These are wines priced around the $10 and $15 marks, respectively, and they’re absolutely killer for the price. When I asked Dave how they made such good wine for that price, the answer was pretty great: they try really, really hard. Hess Select wines get all the mental attention and much of the same physical attention as their higher end wines, and so they’re not afterthoughts or ugly step children. The chardonnay comes from a 300 acre estate in Monterey filled with clonal variety to achieve greater complexity and density. This allows them to avoid full malolatic fermentation (it goes through partial ML) and a ton of oak aging (it sees 30% French oak). I can’t image many $10 chardonnays getting enough attention to stop ML or seeing any actual oak barrels (as opposed to less expensive chips or additives), so these are pieces of evidence of “trying really hard.” It has lovely lime creaminess, banana peel and pineapple notes. The Select North Coast cabernet sauvignon comes from Mendocino and Lake County fruit, and has small amounts of malbec, petit verdot, merlot and syrah blended in as well. It’s lush and smooth, red fruited with tobacco, cocoa and leather. Entirely gulpable.

The other real standouts that I hadn’t reviewed in the prior Hess post included the 2015 Lion Tamer, which is just the second vintage of this blend of malbec, petit sirah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and the 2015 Small Block Reserve cabernet sauvignon. The Lion Tamer, aged for 18 months in 100% French oak (25% new) is quite lively and rich. The dense fruit is mostly red and black, though there is a strong dose of blood orange to compliment. Peppery on the finish, it has a nice herbal note of thyme as well. The Small Block Reserve is all Valley floor fruit, so it’s softer and more restrained than the hillside wines like Hess’ Mt. Veeder, which I said wonderful things about in the other Hess post. The components for this wine are aged 20-22 months in barrel and then kept for a year in bottle before being released into the wild. It’s an impenetrably dark wine, aged in all French oak, 60% of which was new. It has a very pretty mineral core that is balanced by black fruit, olive brine and a finish that is peppery and orange zesty. I’d really love to revisit this one in 5+ years.

Silver_Trident_0087

I’m going to end with the most unique business model of them all: Silver Trident Winery. I’ll be honest, when I found out that their tasting room was a Ralph Lauren Home showroom in the wealthy Napa Valley town of Yountville, I wasn’t so sure about life anymore. Thankfully, winemaker Kari Auringer put me at ease when we met for lunch first at a restaurant across the street. As it turns out, if a winery wants to open a tasting room in Yountville, it must sell something in addition to the wine that the local community would like to have available to them. Given Yountville’s residents and visitors, Ralph Lauren furniture and decor seem a good choice. By the time I left the “tasting room” (a two story stand-alone building), I was on board. Kari and I had our sit-down in a beautifully and tastefully decorated parlor sort of room, and the wines were accompanied by very tasty seasonal accoutrements that paired wonderfully.

Silver_Trident_30121

Our tasting room

My two favorites from Silver Trident were the 2015 Benevolent Dictator pinot noir and the 2014 Friends & Family Reserve cabernet sauvignon. The Dictator is made from Russian River Valley grapes of clones 667 and 777 from Dutton Home Ranch vineyard, which are fermented separately. It’s one-quarter whole cluster fermented and sees 40% new oak. Slightly earthy out of the gate, the nose blossoms with red berries and plum. The palate is velvety on entry and has a real depth of concentration. It’s classic Russian River pinot. The Reserve spends two years in 100% new French oak, but the tannins are modest while the texture is downright luxurious. The fruit is blue and black, and it’s a bit briny. It also boasts smoke, violets, currants and kirsch. It’s drinking nicely right now. If you’re passing through Yountville, I suggest checking out the unique experience of Silver Trident.

Well, over 8,000 words later, that’s pretty much a wrap. This post took me ages to conceive and write, which meant the trip was quite successful. Though I’m by no means a Napa expert, I now have a wealth more of knowledge than I did before. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone mentioned in this piece for the warm reception they gave me.

 

 

 

 

Forge Cellars and the Terroir of the Finger Lakes

ForgeBuilding

The Winery (picture credit: forgecellars.com)

Forge Cellars doesn’t have a sign on the road indicating where visitors should turn. It doesn’t have a sign at or on the winery. You’re supposed to just find it. And you’re supposed to be happy to have found it. And then after you’re there you’re supposed to be thankful for finding it. Well, we found it. We enjoyed it. And we’re thankful we did.

We were told that the majority of negative feedback they receive at Forge is about their the lack of signage. They’re not hard to find, it’s stupid. And the absence of location pointers helps keep unseasoned and uninformed tourists (read: annoying and disrespectful porch pounders (no offense)) from stumbling onto the incredibly cool facility and turning the place into a tourist trap and bachelorette destination, and ruining it for the rest of us. So, thankfully, no signs.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Forge is the view:

IMG_1822

And then you’re likely to walk to the front of the building, noticing this:

IMG_1813

Turning, then, to see this:

IMG_1815

The tasting table

Then Rick Rainey greets you. No pretense, no bullshit, just a huge commitment to finding the best vineyard sites, working with his partner Louis Barroul of Cheateau de Saint Cosme to make stellar riesling and pinot noir, intelligently designing and building a winery, giving back and adding substance to the region, and treating his guests to very fun tastings. Tastings require a reservation, and Rick does them very purposefully: everyone sits at the same table with each other, and the group has one conversation. This includes any media types, even the big ones, industry people, winemakers – everyone. They taste with the rest of us. It’s a tasting for wine people, and Rick makes no distinctions after that.

I was first introduced to Forge by my friend Drew Baker of Old Westminster Winery in Maryland (another self-professed soil geek like Rick), who brought a bottle of Forge’s Classique riesling to a wine dinner. Later, on the strength of that bottle, when I collected bottles for the Good Vitis Grand America Riesling Tasting, I emailed Forge soliciting contributions. Rick ended up responding after the tasting, and apologized for not getting to the email sooner. When we sat down with him months later, he told me that he rarely bothers to send out samples, especially to people who haven’t already visited. “Get on a plane or in your car and come out here. You can’t adequately appreciate wine without meeting the people, experiencing the land and spending time in the winery.” I heard the message: you were never getting samples. “But now that we know each other, who knows, I might be open to it.” Again, the message: we’re cool now.

IMG_1819

Rick leading us down the rabbit hole of Finger Lakes riesling

Rick facilitated an amazing tasting with a group of 9 of us who didn’t know each other. Across the table were a couple from Connecticut. Next to them was a man, who had Finger Lakes orchards for decades but had recently converted them to wine grapes, and his wife. Wrapping around the far end was a group of three, and then my friend and I set next to Rick. We were there for three hours, and once we went through the line up Rick pushed the open bottles towards the center of the table and asked people to hang out and help finish them (it was 7pm on a Friday – get home time – so he had to have been having a good time). The conversation was high level, geeky, friendly and collegial, and lubricated by Forge’s wine and Rick’s entertaining stories and anecdotes.

Forge goes for about as simple a winemaking approach as they can, but they don’t advertise it, and they certainly don’t boast about it. They use seriously neutral oak (8-10 years old, usually), with many barrels coming in the 500 and 600 liter sizes. All the barrels are sourced from France by Barroul. Sulfur is quite minimal and other additives are eschewed. Rick is the vineyard guy. They’ve recently planted 8 new acres by the winery with a high density of around 2,100 vines per acre. They also source from 13 or 14 other spots near the winery. Residual sugar in the rieslings are kept low, usually no more than 2-3 grams per liter (though they taste bone dry), and the pinots are made largely from Pommard clones.

IMG_1820

A recent barrel shipment from Cosme

To Rick’s credit, he was right about his samples point: they’re doing something special at Forge and the experience of being there drives it home. Rick spoke several times about their commitment to the region, and within the region finding the best sites for the kind of wines they want to produce. But that’s typical winery speak. It was everything else that followed that made it clear how Forge is really about the region. He talked at length about the people of the Finger Lakes, its economic history and the role a revitalizing wine industry is playing in helping some of the poorest counties in New York State stay afloat while bringing smart people to the area who are dedicated to helping it succeed and expanding what it has to offer its residents and visitors. Our fellow taster who owned vineyards added his own thoughts on this, largely driving the argument that the wine industry was bringing jobs and smart people to the region, all for the better.

Forge wines don’t just represent what Rick does in the Vineyard and Barroul does in the winery, they also reflect the trials and tribulations of the region and its businesses, families and individuals who are its fabric. The Finger Lakes and Central New York, which has an important place in my heart from the time I spent there for graduate school, has a long history of tough times and tough people. These are estimably down-to-Earth types with an almost spiritual commitment to harmonizing with their land, an unforgiving land whose climate toughens the skin and head and rewards those who treat it with respect. As cheesy as it sounds, Forge’s wines have a little something extra, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that its terroir includes these more human elements.

The first wine that Rick poured was the 2015 Classique riesling, which is a blend of multiple vineyards meant to be their gateway bottle and the one distributed most widely. At $19, it is an exceptional riesling and a great entry to the Forge lineup, offering notes of apricot, nectarine, Spanish almond, parsley and lime zest. The body was polished and lush, but offered balanced acidity.

The 2015 Leidenfrost Vineyard Dry Riesling is a step up at $24. The mineral-driven palate boasts flavors that are wild when put together in a riesling, boasting orange zest, raspberry, saline and apricot, finishing with a kick of smoked white pepper.

Sniffed blind, I would’ve called the 2015 Lower Caywood Vineyard Dry Riesling a chenin blanc from Savennieres. The palate offered a big glycerin sensation (not unlike some Savennieres, either) with big stone fruits and deep, deep minerality driving serious depth.

Next was the 2015 Sawmill Creek Vineyard, which was very ripe and dense. Rick believes it’s the most ageworthy riesling in the program from the vintage, and was best able to handle the larger barrels. The nose is powerful, almost sweet, while the palate offers a big structure and a nice amount of red fruits, which is a wonderful discovery in this varietal. The Sawmill is a bit of a fist in a velvet glove kind of wine, and I really liked it.

The best riesling, however, was the 2014 Les Allies. Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day.

We then moved on to the 2016 rose of pinot noir, which was a minuscule production of 85 cases. The wine saw 16 hours of skin contact, so this is no small animal. The nose is big on crushed berries, and the palate has a real captivating presence and density. It’s a sizable rose, but not heavy. The texture and weight are the real selling points on this one, and I’m told it sells out very quickly.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Classique pinot noir that, like the Classique riesling, is meant to be an entry pinot. It goes far beyond entry, with a brilliant, high toned classic pinot nose of red fruits and baking spices. On the palate it’s more savory, herbaceous and spicy with a small dose of baking spice on the back end. Burgundian in style, it delivers great finesse and bright acid. A very impressive pinot for the price.

We finished with the 2014 Les Allies pinot noir. My oh my. These vines are planted in shale. The nose is dirty and fungal, and the fruit is dark. The palate boasts big minerals and a nice dose of smoke. The fruit is dark here as well, and it’s just ever so slightly toasty. There’s a fungal streak, but overall this is a mineral-driven wine for those with patience. My closing note was “very good.”

The entire experience at Forge was impressive, from the views at the winery, to the winery itself, to the way the wines capture the region, to the people and, I think above all else, to the seamlessness with which the effort meshes with its home in the Finger Lakes. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle, capturing its toughness, its beauty and its tranquility. I went into the visit with nothing other than a taste of one of their wines a year or two ago and Rick’s lackluster email habits shaping my expectations, and came away with the notion that Forge is among the most exciting wineries I’ve come across in America, even though they purposefully remain hard to find and generally eschew the spotlight. I also came away with a case of their wine and a desire to visit again next year when I assuredly will need more.

Words Escape Me: The Country, Food and Wine of Georgia

The country of Georgia is, legit, the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I mean, just look at these mountains, which are part of Europe’s tallest mountain range, the Caucuses:

IMG_7383

 

We logged around 20 hours in the car in Georgia, a country of just 3.5 million people, which means we saw roughly a third the country. It didn’t matter which mile, though: what we saw out the window could have been the subject of an award-winning National Geographic photograph. Here’s another one from a totally different region of the country. This is Tbilisi, the country’s capital city:

IMG_1241

 

And this is the cave city of Vardzia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a valley away from Turkey:

IMG_7439

As if that weren’t enough, the view from the cave city looking across the valley:

IMG_1321

I could put together a photo essay entirely about Georgia’s beauty, and if I were more humble that might be all I’d do as I’ve been writing this post for a week and still haven’t found the words that can appreciably describe my Georgia experience. However, since this is a wine blog I need to suck it up and put something out on Georgia’s wine, which they’ve been making for 8,000 years and longer than anyone else. It’s in their blood, their DNA. Average household daily wine consumption in the country is measured in liters. (Or so I was told, but I mean come on, right? I’m not printing the number I was given because it just can’t be right, even though I was assured that it is. Amazing. Anyways…) It’s routinely served with lunch and always with dinner. It’s a major percentage of their economy (likely around 10% if you include the considerable homemade and black market stuff), and it’s their sixth largest export. It’s also one of the major drivers of tourism.

Alice Feiring wrote what is probably the go-to text on Georgian wine in the English language, a book called For The Love of Wine, which focuses on the two central elements of Georgian wine: natural winemaking and aging in qvevri, a unique and very special ceramic vessel buried underground. When both are used, the wines’ flavors and textures are a Georgian signature that is unique in the wine world. She contextualized the wine within the Georgian culture, appropriately so as wine is a natural fit with what is an especially family-centric, gregarious and warm people. It is the fluid that lubes the country, and that is no exaggeration. I’ve spent time in Italy and France, and wine is far more central to the Georgian identity and lifestyle than it is in either of those two countries.

These factors put Georgia on the top of my travel wish list for years, and two weeks ago it finally happened. We explored the country and the wine over eight days, and I’ll write more about the broader experience in a future post. For now, I’m going to focus on one evening that illustrates Georgia’s special nexus between wine and people: a supra with Gia Togonidze, owner and winemaker of Togo Winery, and his family at their home in Telavi in the Kakheti region.

IMG_1248

We met Gia on our first day of the trip at a wine festival in Tbilisi (more on that in the subsequent post). Gia doesn’t speak English, but some of his family does and were able to translate my questions while trying his wines. Of all wines I tried at the festival, Gia’s seemed the most honest, a trait that always appeals to me. And this is saying a lot because the boutique wineries at the festival weren’t trying to commercialize anything. Gia isn’t trading on Georgia’s reputation as a hip wine producer, and isn’t even trading on the country’s niche style as his wines get very little time in qvevri. He’s fully invested in his wine from vine to bottle and it’s an honest representation of what Gia seeks in wine. That’s wine to admire, even if it isn’t your style. Thankfully I liked it, too. After chatting with him and his family, we asked if we could visit the winery a few days later. Before we knew it we had invited ourselves to a Georgian traditional dinner called a “supra” that Gia and his family would prepare for us.

IMG_7585

Gia’s Saperavi resting atop qvevri that will soon go into the ground.

When we arrived Gia took us on a tour of his home and winery, which is spread across a few small buildings on his property in the Kakheti Valley. The house is, as much as I can mean this word, incredible. Gia is an artist, and makes his money by working in the world of colors while producing artwork on the side. As we toured his home, each room was a revelation unto itself.

IMG_7528

I have a hard time describing my design style, but at least now I know where to hire my interior designer. I don’t like conformity, consistency or straight lines in my interior if it can be helped. Show me a house decorated and outfitted with seemingly inconsistent and random objects, furniture and arrangements and it speaks to me. Compare the picture above of a spare bedroom to the one below of a sitting room. Nothing made to be a pair, nothing meant to highlight something else, yet all with individuality and in perfect harmony.

IMG_7537

Gia and his family also do a wonderful job of using objects as art, and displaying them in compelling ways. The eclectic nature of this style is captivating. Go ahead, linger on the next few pictures.

IMG_7520

Somehow the glass bottles and paintbrushes, which have nothing to do with each other, rest in harmony in what seems like the ideal pairing.

IMG_7531

This wouldn’t look nearly as good if the frames were level.

IMG_7534

I can’t begin to explain how this looks so good. With this kind of personality, attention to detail and artistry, it won’t be a surprise later when I rave about his wine.

Once we finished with the house and went out to the wine making area, Gia began by telling me about the vineyards he sourced from in the valley below. He supplies his growers with his own chemicals, none evasive and all used in moderation, and purchases the grapes at full market price to maintain quality relationships to ensure an adequate, reliable annual supply of high quality grapes (a hard thing to secure in Georgia). Recently, he found a different kind of Saperavi grape that is cylindrical in shape growing on a neighbor’s property, which he has purchased and will be planting himself.

IMG_7562

Gia’s winery takes its name from the beginning of his last name: Togonidze

None of his grapes receive irrigation. Grape pressing is done by his wife’s feet(!). Aging is a combination of tank and qvevri as Gia aims to impart the classic footprint of the qvevri in the wine without moving the wine into a common flavor zone found in heavily qvevri’d wines where Earth flavors completely overwhelm fruit and tannins are overly astringent. Fermentation is done with native yeasts and takes up to three months to complete(!). Production is a family and neighbor affair, which many people participating in the bottling and labeling process, which is all done by hand.

Gia only started making wine five years ago, but from a much younger age it stung him that he hadn’t followed his family’s tradition of winemaking. It got under his skin. When I asked him why he finally started making wine, he response was that he should have started a lot sooner. ‘It’s a shame not to make wine [in Georgia],’ he told me, ‘I should be doing it.’ He wasn’t speaking in English, but even through translation it was clear that he meant that it was his duty. Gia was taught by his grandfather, who was the family’s most well-respected winemaker through the generations. ‘Now that I make wine,’ he said, ‘I have another child. My wine is my baby, and I like to show it off.’

IMG_7576

Gia Togonidze

The word supra means “table” in Georgian, but it’s a feast (and a half). Supras have a master of ceremony who is responsible for giving multiple toasts, and everything gets toasted. The mother. The mother’s mother. The mother’s mother’s neighbor’s daughter who babysat the mother’s daughter. Love gets a toast. Wine gets a toast. Guests each receive a toast. If anyone else wants to toast they must ask permission, and are not guaranteed a permissive response. The table is filled with traditional Georgian foods, most of them usually regional.

IMG_7602

Gia, his wife, and the supra

In Kakheti that meant lamb in two ways: barbecued over a fire made of old grape vines, and a spicy herbed lamb stewed with greens. It also included about seventy-two local cheeses (only a slight exaggeration), the region’s bread (a salty bread not unlike ciabata, but better), and an arugula salad with ham. There was the local honey, which my friends from Seattle traveling with us ate by the spoonful and from which they will likely contract diabetes. There was also a traditional Georgian salad of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and a walnut paste that is to die for (as are the tomatoes, which burst with flavor in a way that makes American tomatoes taste like bitter water). A dish of fresh mountain strawberries nearly stole the show. And, of course, there was copious amounts of wine and, later in the evening after the meal, Georgia’s traditional liquor called chacha, a distilled spirit made of the pomace of the winemaking process (left over bits and pieces of grapes, stems, etc.) that tastes quite similar to grappa.

IMG_7582

Gia offered many toasts, featuring both his Mtsvane and Saperavi wines, a white and red, respectively, that punched with some serious alcoholic weight (14.8% for the white and 14.6% for the red). Round after round of toast had our heads spinning for a long, long time. Gia toasted our group, each of us individually. His wife, who made the fantastic meal. Zaza, our friend, driver and interpreter (more on him in the subsequent post. If you want to travel to Georgia you must use him). He toasted to a bright future for the country, and for US-Georgian relations. The conviviality on display wasn’t forced, it wasn’t rehearsed, and it sure wasn’t contrived. It was genuine, it was fun, and it was authentic (in every way). For that night I felt genuinely Georgian and surrounded by old, close friends. That’s the power of the Georgian people, and their wine. I’ve visited many countries and have spent extended periods abroad, but unlike anywhere else Georgia was warm and caring to the core.

Given all the toasts, thank goodness the wine was fantastic. Georgian wines taste distinctly different from elsewhere, and that’s mostly t to do with the grapes and the winemaking. Georgia has a lot of native grapes that aren’t grown elsewhere, and like most Georgian winemakers Gia focuses on those. His 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint. We had an amber wine (a white wine fermented with its skins, not unlike an orange wine but due to the particular skin pigment truly amber in color) made of Rkatsitelli that had an incredibly tropical nose of passion fruit, guava, papaya and strawberry, and also smelled of sweet vanilla bean and dried apricot. It was medium bodied with big skin tannin, and tasted of mellow honeyed melon, vanilla, baking spice, and trio of green, chamomile and jasmine teas. Another stunner. The Saperavi, a red grape, was picked at 25 brix and finished at 14.6% alcohol. It’s young nose was still a bit reticent, but the palate profile of hickory smoke, olives, bacon fat, strawberries and cherries spread across a lush and filling structure delivered by the meter.

I’m very glad Gia decided to show his wine off to us. I had over 30 wines while in Georgia, and Gia’s were among the very best. The only thing sad about the signed bottle he sent me home with is the understanding that it will be my last experience with his wine until I return for another visit, which will happen. Georgia is wild place, a country with only a recent history of democratic governance still advancing towards something we in America would recognize. It’s geography, it’s people, it’s food and its wine are all quite beautiful and distinctly Georgian, bound by a history of overcoming centuries of occupying forces, Soviet occupation, and a truly tough climate. Georgia is, at the same time, one of the longest-living cultures in the world and a people, held back by a Russian neighbor anything but keen on Georgian independence, persevering to build a rapidly modernizing and Westernizing home in the 21s Century. As I’ve meditated on the trip the ultimate realization I’ve had about my experience is that Georgia is its own place, its own beast, and it’s the differences that set it apart and the authenticity it doesn’t hesitate to ooze that make it such a special, wonderful place.

IMG_7342

The story Georgians tell about the creation of their country is that when God was dividing up the world to different people, the Georgians were the last to arrive, late and drunk, and so God gave them the only plot of land that was left: the land he had intended to keep for himself, the very best. It’s a cute story, some people offer it as a joke, others with a wink and a nod. It seems entirely capable of being true.