The Power and Elegance of Chianti Classico

The author and the Black Rooster
A Bit About Terroir

Few wine regions, and their wines, combine power and elegance as well as Tuscany. The land best known for sangiovese is remarkably hilly, the roads featuring few straights or flats of consequence. It experiences the kind of challenging weather one might expect from such topography that rises, at various points, over 1,000 feet above sea level. While this makes traveling the region by car both exhilarating and stressful, it also helps explain the meat and starch dominate local diet that demands the area’s naturally powerful wines. The region’s rich history of both nourishing its inhabits and challenging their existence is an added plot line.

Tuscany’s picturesque vistas bely the challenges of living among them, challenges that might not seem so obvious if we focus on our Hollywood association of Tuscany with self and romantic discovery. It’s a land populated for millennia and plagued, until relatively recently, by frequent bloody fighting among neighboring villages. Yet in more recent times, Tuscany has benefited as much from modernity as anywhere else in the world, becoming a tourism haven based on its natural beauty, incredible history, unique traditions, amazing food and wine, and welcoming people. Enter the elegance.

In Tuscany terroir is more than the connection between land and grape; it permeates the elements of daily life. This is especially evident in the region of Chianti Classico where I spent the week of Thanksgiving last year. I am a newcomer to Chianti Classico, a sub-region of Chianti within Tuscany defined essentially as a portion of the land between Siena and Florence. It has a history of second class wine world citizenship behind its Tuscan neighbor, Montalcino, comparable in many ways but almost always overshadowed by it due, in part, to centuries of decidedly second class quality.

Chianti’s Path To(wards) the Top

Before the first Chianti was bottled and labeled as such (in 1398 – a white wine, in fact), the Tuscan power centers of Florence and Siena, at war since the Middle ages, decided in the 13th Century to settle their territorial dispute in an unusual way: Each city would chose a rooster and a knight, and on the same day each knight would set off towards the other city on horseback when their respective rooster crowed. Wherever the two knights met would become the border.

To gain an advantage, the Florentines put their rooster in a box with no food for the few days leading up to the event so that it would crow earlier than usual out of hunger when the day came. It worked, giving their knight a head start and allowing him to get to within just 20 kilometers of Siena before encountering the Sienese rider. Four centuries later, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, formalized Chianti as a wine region with its southern tip located where the riders met.

In 1565, an artist named Giorgio Vasari chose the Florentine black rooster that had given the city’s knight a head start to depict the region in a painting that eventually served as the inspiration for Chianti’s winemakers who formed Italy’s first consortium of winemakers in 1924 and adopted the rooster as their logo.

In 1932 the Italian government expanded Chianti beyond the Cosimo III-defined area, and in 1984 gave that original Cosimo III Chianti the designation of Chianti Classico to reflect its origins. At this time both Chianti and Chianti Classico received the Italian government’s highest certification of quality, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).

By the time the DOCG designation was made, Chianti Classico had not yet fully recovered from the reputation the region had developed over centuries of producing mediocre wine, especially when compared to their southern neighbors in Montalcino. Although the wines were improving, the region was still suffering from this second class reputation.

The requirements on what could be bottled and labeled as Chianti Classico underwent several rounds of refinement with the goal of improving quality and credibility. For the vast majority of the region’s existence, white grapes made up considerable portions of red blends; in the 1950s, trebbiano was often a third of a red wine’s contents, for example.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the production of 100% red wine was even authorized – limited to sangiovese. In 2005, the region’s consortium set a requirement that all Chianti Classico wines must include at least 80% sangiovese, with the following year becoming the first that producers began leaving white grapes out of their red wines.

As part of its efforts to improve quality and reputation, the consortium established designations for wine sbased on a variety of factors, including maximum vineyard yields, alcohol levels, extraction rates, duration of aging before the wines are both bottled and released. In 2014, the latest designation was made: Gran Selezione, which sits above Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico.

The oldest Chianti Classico I’ve tried is 2007, so I cannot speak to the evolution of quality from first hand experience. This limited exposure, however, was enough to pique my interest, and so when I decided to take a solo trip it last November wasn’t terribly difficult to settle on Chianti Classico.

Landing in Panzano
One of Panzano’s many breathtaking views

My first destination after landing in Rome was the small hilltop town of Panzano, a sort-of mid-point between Siena and Florence. I had heard about a butcher there, Dario Cecchini, who has become famous in part due to a visit by Anthony Bourdain. The Cecchini family has leveraged that fame to launch several restaurants and a bed and breakfast in Panzano, and I figured there might be no better entry point to November in Tuscany than a hearty and traditional local meal.

Upon arrival in Panzano, I checked into the Cecchini’s Rosso del Chianti and made my way by foot down the hill and into town where I stopped by a wine, cheese, and meat store called Wine Gourmet la Ripa to kill some time before dinner. The proprietor put together a small plate of delicious local meat and cheese, and paired with it a glass of 2019 Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico. I’d never heard of Monte Bernardi before, but liked it so much that I decided to fit a quick visit into my itinerary. More on that later. La Ripa was a wonderful find.

Wine Gourmet la Ripa in Panzano

My dinner was at Officina della Bistecca, the Checchini’s restaurant located the floor above their butcher shop, which offers a 50 euro set menu that includes four different beef courses plus a few quintessential Tuscan side dishes, bread, dessert, and a metal plant pot full of raw vegetables to gnaw on.

The open kitchen, where diners sit at rustic tables, features an open grill where your main courses are prepared in real time. I wound up seated next to a family that lives in a town close to where I grew up, and thoroughly enjoyed the friendly conversation. The drink menu is BYO, so I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from their store downstairs. The meal was exceptional, and I particularly enjoyed the traditional Tuscan tartar.

The combination of Rosso del Chianti, la Ripa, Officina, and the beautiful views from the small town were a fun way to start the trip, and the next day I made my way to Siena, which would be my home base for the remainder of the trip.

Officina della Bistecca

My time in Siena lasted five nights, and the plan was to sleep in each day, enjoy the hotel’s extensive breakfast, leisurely make my way to one winery where I would spend several hours, return to nap, and then walk to the historic old city for exploration and dinner. The only changes to this itinerary ended up being the addition of two wineries, both of which I’m very glad to have visited.

One note before proceeding: In lieu of scoring each wine I tasted, I’ve adopted a formatting meant to draw attention to the wines I found particularly compelling. Those in bold are wines that left a mark, and ones that I hope to encounter again. Bolded and italicized wines are those that I plan to seek out. Bolded, italicized, and underlined are those that I prioritized adding to our collection, purchasing them at the wineries at the time of tasting.

Cecchi

My first winery visit was Cecchi, one of the largest conglomerates in Chianti featuring a range of wines produced by a number of properties. The gorgeous property of Cecchi itself (spoiler alert: every property I visited is gorgeous (it’s Tuscany!)) has been planted with vines since 1081, and features facilities both modern and traditional. I was given a nice tour and then an extensive seated tasting with the chance to taste through a range of wines, from entry level to the highest end.

The Cecchi line-up

We started with the 2019 Cecchi Sangiovese di Toscana, a sangiovese from Chianti Classico not produced according to the region’s specifications and therefore unable to be labeled as such. It sees no oak, and is designed to be an easy-drinking wine for any occasion. The nose was fruit-forward, plum-driven, and featured rhubarb. The palate was smooth, low on tannin, and its red fruit and easy spice made it refreshing.

Next up was the 2020 Cecchi Chianti, a blend of grapes mainly from the Siena province that also see no oak. The nose was a bit more saturated than the Toscana and featured dried herb and juniper along with the tradition red and black fruits of the region. The palate was quite smooth, bordering on lush, but elevated by its bright acid. The tannins were long and lean, featuring tobacco along with the fruit.

Chianti Classico wines are known for significant tannins, and their arrival with the 2019 Cecchi Storia di Familglia Chianti Classico signaled things were getting local. The plum-led nose featured more depth and complexity than the prior two wines, featuring prune and star anise aromas that kept my nose going back for more. Those substantive tannins were balanced by good acid, and the wine poured quite dark. Flavors included blackberry, licorice, black strap molasses, violet, and dark fruits. Roughly 1 million bottles of this, a homage to the Cecchi family’s history, get produced each year. The grapes come entirely within the Castellina sub-region, and the blend is at least 90% sangiovese each vintage.

From there we ventured to the 2017 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Fagmilia. This one is a blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% cabernet sauvignon that is produced entirely off the estate vineyard and aged 12 months in oak. The earthy nose offered some fungal notes along with plum, cassis, currant, and violet. The sturdy and broad tannins framed a highly structured wine, thankfully elevated by juicy acid. The profile included lots of similarly earth-forward flavors along with a nice note of blood orange. This really shined on the palate, and is one I’d like to enjoy over a long evening in 2027.

By this point my mouth was filling up with tannin, but I was eager to soldier on when the 2016 Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Valore di Famiglia was poured. It comes from older and higher elevation vines, and although the oldest wine of the lineup, it will require the most aging. The reticent and floral note is similar to the Riserva di Fagmilia, though time will likely expose more complexity. The most substantive and layered of the Cecchi Chianti Classicos, the graceful palate layers blood orange, raspberry, cherry, tobacco, violet, pepper, and tomato leaf. I wouldn’t touch this one for at least ten years.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Coevo, the pinnacle wine of the Cecchi brand. Always a blend, this vintage is 50% sangiovese, 20% each cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and 10% petit Verdot. The sangiovese qualities are apparent on the nose, though the cherry is turned up, and augmented by fresh herb, sweet flower, and a variety of marmalades. The smooth, substantive, and elegant palate shows the sangiovese DNA at its core, which is surrounded by strawberry, cocoa, sweet leather, and black pepper. This is a very elevated wine; the tannins do serious work as they mix with oxygen, but the acid keeps the wine lively and juicy. There should be no rush to drain these bottles.

We finished on a very different note with a pour of the 2014 Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Sagratino. From the Montefalco Sangratino area of Umbria (way outside Chianti), this sturdy variety reminded me of several wine tastings I’ve done in Virginia that feature mostly Bordeaux varieties but end with tannat, a grape historically from Uruguay that is dark, tannin-rich, and peppery.

The Sagratino, of which roughly 13,000 bottles are produced each year, has a dark set of aromas that include tar, licorice, plum, blackberry, fungus, and blueberry; effectively a more complex version of tannat. On the palate it’s very structured and incredibly tannic, but surprisingly balanced because of the bright acid – something rarely achieved by tannat. Similar to petit verdot, it’s very peppery, and also carries loads of tar, mulled blackberry compote, licorice, and dark moist earth. I was told that it pairs well with boar dishes.

The Cecchi range represents a number of characteristics: High quality, differentiation between each bottling, varietal (and location) signatures, and value. Emphasis on the value. Cecchi’s three Chianti Classicos, for example, showed the characteristics you would expect for high quality examples of the region’s quintessential wines, but at price tags you’d expect to find on lesser wines. And bonus: With the exception of the Sagratino, these are widely distributed within the United States.

Villa di Geggiano (Geggiano pronounced “jay-ja-no”)

Villa di Geggiano was my introduction to Chianti Classico. I took a flyer on their 2007 Riserva when I came across it a few years ago on Winebid, and it was one of the most memorable wines I drank in 2020 – and still counts as one my favorite red wines. That bottle led to more exploration of the region that ultimately inspired the trip, so after I booked my flights and accommodations, they were the first winery I reached out to schedule.

Though the winery and estate came into the Bianchi Bandinelli family in the 1500s as a dowry, its history as a winery goes back further – its cellar, for example, dates back the 1300s. The property itself has several gardens, both ornamental and functional, and is a declared National Heritage site. When I arrived, Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli gave me a tour of the area immediately surrounding the unbelievably gorgeous villa, which is a functioning guesthouse. We walked through several gardens, Andrea telling me about the history of the property and some of their future plans for it.

One of the estate’s highlights is an outdoor raised theater, the Teatro di Vezura, that was built in the 18th Century and is surrounded by incredibly tall Cyprus trees and hedges. Playwright and poet, Vittorio Alfieri, the founder of Italian tragedy, was a frequent guest of the property in the 18th Century and even performed one of his tragedies there. Live concerts and other performances are still held at the Teatro year-round.

The Geggiano Villa

While I’m glad the place I stayed at in Siena was within walking proximity to historic Siena, in hindsight I should have spent at least a night or two at Geggiano. The family puts its heart and soul into not just its wine but its entire property, committing the long hours – and money – to maintain everything, including the villa’s flour-to-ceiling (and ceiling-covering) frescos, intricate flooring, and everything else in and around the building. My favorite mural, among many, in the villa was done in 1780 by a traveling Austrian painter depicting the four seasons.

Although Geggiano began exporting its wines to the United Kingdom in 1795, exportation lagged during the winery’s more recent history until Andrea and his brother took over in 1989. Chianti Classico producers of its size – around 40,000 bottles per year – typically sell locally and have just a few big clients, but Andrea, who speaks great English and is well-traveled, saw exporting as an important diversification strategy and took it on. The effort has been so successful in England that the family opened an outpost in London in the form of a restaurant in 2014.

The Grounds

One of Andrea’s early connections was to Kermit Lynch, who liked what he tasted so much that Geggiano became Lynch’s second Italian client. “Kermit tasted the wines and told us to stop filtering, and we did,” Andrea told me. “Before that we only filtered half our wines, but after trying it we agreed with Kermit that it was better to not filter any of our wine.”

One winemaking technique used at Geggiano that stood out to me is the addition they make of dry ice to their three-day cold soak, putting the dry ice in the destemmer so it comes out with the berries. “When the dry ice melts it releases carbon dioxide, which acts as a natural preservative and means we don’t have to use as much sulfites,” Andrea said, explaining that this allows the fermentation to extract “more flavor and aromas in more delicate ways.” There is a sense of uniqueness to Geggiano wines, a more precise window into the wine’s terroir than I’m used to experiencing with most wine, and perhaps this dry ice technique is a reason why.

A large cistern helps provide for the estate’s water needs

After spending considerable time walking and talking, we sat down at a table in one of the side rooms of the villa to taste. The first wine poured was the 2019 Bandinello Toscano, a blend of 60% sangiovese and 20% each of syrah and ciliegolo. This blend of younger vine fruit is intended to be an early drinking wine with great freshness, and delivers a textural footprint framed by deceptively light tannin and elevated acid, byproducts of a three month stay in “very old” barrels before bottling. Andrea told me that he likes to serve it slightly chilled in the summer. I found its combination of fruit and earthly aromas and flavors, which produce a nice spicy plum undercurrent, very enjoyable. I usually default to Rosso di Montalcino when I am in need of a light red, but as I tasted it I couldn’t help but think how great it would go with marinara dishes and grilled meat.

From there we sent to the 2017 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico, a bottling of 100% sangiovese from the mid-age range of their vineyards. This wine poured quite dark, and the immediate seriousness of what I had experienced with that 2007 Riserva struck me. “2017 is not considered an easy vintage,” Andrea warned me, as I smelled the wine. “However, it didn’t produce enough Riserva-level fruit so we put all those grapes into this wine.” No wonder it reminded me of the Riserva!

It is a full, round, and flavorful wine with a beautifully perfumed nose (a signature of Geggianio Riserva). The surprisingly mature structure seemingly belied the immaturity of the prototypical Chianti Classico flavors, which remained buried under the tannin that, although substantive, avoided most of the astringency one might find in young Chianti Classicos from even the top producers. This will have a long and interesting evolution.

Wine aging in the Geggiano cellar built in the 1300s

Next was the 2016 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico Riserva. When I tasted it, it had been in bottle for only three months and Andrea cautioned me against making too many conclusions about it. The grapes for the Riserva come from the oldest at the estate. The blackish-red wine was bigger, rounder, and juicier than the Classico, and showed the Geggiano team’s effort to produce “a more elegant and aromatic” wine.

Unlike the Classico, a small percentage of the winery’s 40-year old cabernet sauvignon vines, 5% of the blend in this vintage, is added “to give more breadth to the bouquet.” Florals showed through in both the aromas and flavors, while the tannins showed elegance and refinement rarely found in Classico and balanced well with the beautifully deft acid. This one struck me as particularly age worthy – I wouldn’t touch it before 2030.

We finished with a 2008 Classico, a treat from the cellar that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience. The then-13-year old wine showed a beautifully mature bouquet and a level of freshness worthy of a much younger wine. In fact, the palate remained tight after an hour of aeration in both structure and flavor, but also showed some mid-life qualities of baking spice and sweet balsamic reduction. I got the feeling it would continue to mature and improve at least through its 20th birthday. Like every Geggiano I’ve tasted, there’s less blood orange than I typically experience in Chianti Classico wines, and I found myself noting but not missing it with this or any of the other Geggiano wines tasted.

One topic of discussion throughout my time with Andrea was the impact of climate change on their vineyards and winemaking, which Andrea said he and his brother have experienced, in often wild waves, ever since taking over the estate.

“The previous generation would harvest in October, but now we typically do that September 10th-15th or so. There’s been a lot of draught, heat waves, and big rains,” he told me. They have employed a variety of techniques to account for these dramatic weather events, for example pruning later so that flowering isn’t killed by the increasingly frequent spring frosts, and leaving clippings on the soil to slow evaporation (“our clayish soil helps us with this as well” as it retains moisture very well).

Geggiano has not yet produced a Gran Selezione, making its Riserva the highest end of its range. Taking the designation seriously, that a Gran Selezione should be notably and noticably better than a Riserva, the family has taken its time determining where it might develop fruit that qualifies. “We’ve wanted to have an established new normal [of weather] before putting the time and investment into a Gran Selezione,” Andrea told me.

The time for one, though, appears to have come. They are now working on what Andrea described as a “cru” 1-hectre vineyard on a southeast-facing slope right up against the villa, with the intent to eventually produce such a wine. The Geggiano Riserva is such a good wine, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better version, though I am quite keen on tasting it what they put together.

I went into my Geggiano visit excited and left even more so. Too often I come across a single bottle of wine I love, and then as I explore the producer come to realize that whether founded in reality or perception, no other wine from that producer will top my initial experience. With Geggiano that is not the case. As a note from for those in or visiting New York, Andrea told me their wines can be found now at 11 Madison Park.

San Guisto a Rentennano (Guisto pronounced “jew-stow”)
San Guisto a Rentennano’s concrete tanks

As I was leaving Villa di Geggiano, Andrea and I discussed my remaining plans for the trip including both winery visits and restaurant reservations. The one winery he really pushed me to add to my itinerary was the renowned San Giusto a Rentennano. Close friends of his, he called one of the family members and set the visit up for me the very next day. There was zero way I was saying no.

As one leaves the main road to drive the private road up to the estate, taking in the sweeping landscape, vineyards, and olive tree groves, it is impossible to not feel the history and tension of Tuscany. San Giusto’s property was originally a monastery for nuns called San Giusto a Monache that opened in the late 900’s. Later, in 1204, after signing a border treaty with the Sienese, the Florentines fortified it and used it as a defensive post. It was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 1600s. Although most of the Florentine fortifications have fallen prey to time, some remain, and a portion of those along with other old foundations were used to create the 800+ year-old cellar still used today, which I was able to visit in total awe.

A corner of the cellar

Later, when I sat down to taste, I was able to see oyster shells, frequently unearthed on the property, that date back toa period roughly 60 million years ago (yes, you read that right) when this part of Tuscany was under the sea. The shells make the cellar seem modern.

The current family of owners, the Martini di Cigalas, took the property over when it came to them through marriage in 1914. In 1957 it was inherited by Enrico Martini di Cigala and his nine children. Today, six family members form the owner partnership including Anna, who showed me around the property and its facilities and gave me a tasting I’ll never forget.

The family tree

The property is 160 hectares with an average elevation of 270 meters, or just shy of 900 feet above sea level, of which 31 are planted to vine, 11 to olive trees, 40 to woods, and 78 reserved for grazing and “cultivated” purposes. Like much of Tuscany, the property experiences dramatic differences between day time and night time temperatures, and because of its geographic aspects gets a lot of wind.

The oldest vines on the property are now about 50 years old. Beginning in 1989, the family began replanting one hectare of vineyard per year using land that had undergone five to six years of revitalization prior to replanting. The vine density is between 5,000 and 7,000 vines per hectare, which is high, to drive competition by forcing the roots to grow deep into the ground to find sustenance. This tactic shines through in the wines, which demonstrate incredible depth of flavor.

Producing wine is clearly a labor of love for the di Cigala family. During the summer months, for example, the vines are thinned by as much as 50% in a practice known as “green harvesting” to limit resource dissemination in the vines and boost the quality of those grapes that ultimately end up in the wines. Each row is eventually harvested three times as the team looks for different selections to serve their range of wine: The larger bunches of sangiovese go into the Chianti Classico, the medium sized into the Riserva, and the smallest into the flagship Percarlo. 

The Vin Santo drying and barrel room

Perhaps the most inspiring example of the care put into San Giusto’s winemaking is their Vin Santo, a traditional sweet Chianti wine made of sangiovese that has been air dried before it is pressed to concentrate the flavors and sugars. In this winery’s case, the grapes are dried for three months and then pressed into small barrels, many of which are over 100 years old and none of which are ever cleaned.

The fermentation is jumpstarted with an addition from the “mother” barrel, something similar to a sour dough starter, that is a family product dating back multiple generations. Filtration takes a month-and-a-half to two months to complete and requires a canvas-like filter that needs multiple cleanings during the process.

Producing vin santo “is more [about] passion, not economics,” Anna told me as we stood in the drying room in the top floor of the winery. It’s a process in which San Giusto “ends up with a wine measuring 10-12% of what could have been produced using the same grapes to make a dry wine.”

~60 million, give or take, year-old oyster shells

Anna and I sat down to taste in a room with wonderful views of the property and display cases of oyster shells and other paraphernalia from the property. We started with the 2019 Chianti Classico, a blend of 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo that spends 10 months in oak. Considered a good vintage, the structure, as with all of the San Giusto wines I tasted, was absolutely seamless, melding its tannin and acid to produce serious grip and lifted floral notes that included lavender, violet, and rose. The flavor profile also included warm leather and blood orange to go with sweet cherry. This was better than many of the Riservas and Gran Seleziones I’ve had from other Chianti Classico producers, and was (and remains) the most serious-smelling Classico I’ve put my nose over to date.

Next came the 2018 Riserva le Baròncole, which is 97% sangiovese and 3% canaiola. While production is similar to the Classico, it receives an additional six to ten months of French barrel and cask aging. Once bottled, San Giusto lets it rest for six months before moving it out the door. The berries used for it are smaller in size than those that go into the Classico, and this choice shines in the concentration and depth of the wine. The nose seems infinitely layered, showing promise in its youth of a variety of sweet and leathery aromas. The mouthfeel and structure is otherworldly, allowing the wine to be both thicker than the Classico and somehow more delicate at the same time. Similarly seamless, the amazingly pure fruit – a cornucopia of red and black types – plays well with the sweet earthy aromas. It hits that magical point that few wines do of being more than the sum of its parts. While the Classico might go from really good to great in the next five years, this Riserva will need twice as long to achieve its best, if not more.

The 2017 Percarlo, meaning “For Carlo” and named after a family friend who died one year before the first vintage of this wine, is 100% sangiovese and befitting of a wine named after a special person. It spends 23 months in oak and then one year in bottle before becoming available to the public, and is a cuvée of the smallest berries from the best parts of the vineyards.

My first written note is “this is quite something – incredibly substantive in every direction; the vista is incredible.” The nose was more reticent than the palate at this stage, with a focus on delicate violet florals and that crushed Sweetart thing. The acid was bright, maybe brighter than the Classico or Riserva, but remained perfectly balanced. On the tannin side it was the most refined of the three sagiovese wines (quite a feat); “pure perfection on that front,” I jotted down.

I never found a rhythm going back and forth between the Percarlo, the Classico, and the Riserva, because all were so good that I couldn’t stay focused on one for very long before grabbing the next glass to check in. Thankfully, the next two wines were the 100% merlot 2018 and 2015 La Ricolma, which pulled me out of my sangiovese circuit.

These two wines were the most pleasant surprise of the trip and examples of a wine I’d put up against any other merlot in the world with great confidence that they’d stand up to, if not defeat, their challengers. The Ricolma is the result of a decision to plant merlot for the purpose of blending into the Chianti Classico. “We never did produce a Classico with any merlot because [when we tried it] we didn’t like it. Instead, we turned it into a unique project that we call “a Chianti merlot,” Anna explained.

It was fascinating to taste a traditionally smooth variety like merlot that was grown in a region known for robust tannin. Rentennano are able to build a very smooth mouth feel into this regional peculiarity by developing just enough of the right acid to smooth out a classically Chianti tannic profile. This is a merlot like no other.

The 2018 has some of the sweetness of the Rentennano Chiantis as well as some of their florals, but there remains sufficient quintessential merlot typicity that while one might be confused about its physical origin, they would be unlikely to confuse the variety. Despite age being on its side, the cooler vintage 2015 struck me as more austere and angular, more grippy and earthy, and less sweet than the younger 2018. Both are going to benefit with time, but are already quite special.

We finished with the 2013 Vin Santo, a sweet wine unlike any I’d had before – Vin Santos included. Vin Santos have a an almost gelatinous mouth feel that is not for everyone; I tend to describe them, and especially San Guisto’s, as slimy wine, for better or worst.

San Guisto purposefully fills their Vin Santo barrels only two-thirds of the way full to oxidate the wine. By the time it gets bottled, the sugar is around 400 grams per liter. By way of comparison, that’s roughly four times the sugar of a typical Port; the far end of Wine Folly’s chart of sugar in wine notes that “very sweet” wine falls within the 120-220 grams per liter range. Thankfully this one has brilliant acid, which appropriately redirects the high sugar with depth and crispness; you “feel the structure of the sugar more than you taste the sweetness,” I wrote.

Since returning from Tuscany, I’ve spent more time thinking about and purchasing San Giusto a Rentennano wines than any other wine I tasted on the trip. The time spent there was one of those life-changing events, up there with the likes of our visits to Emidio Pepe and Markus Hüls a few years ago. I went to Chianti knowing I loved Villa di Geggiano, and I came back knowing that I’d never get board of Chianti Classico again because now I have San Giusto as well.

Monte Bernardi

As mentioned earlier, I enjoyed a single glass of Bernardi Chianti Classico my first night in Tuscany, when I was staying in Panzano and visited a small wine and charcuterie shop. I asked the proprietor to pick the wine for me, and as he told me about his selection I could see a couple at the table next to me listening and chuckling. After the proprietor left, they leaned over and told me how hilarious they found it that even though I had traveled to Italy, I had been given a wine made by a winery owned by a fellow American. The wine was good, so I didn’t care.

As I sat there, I did a 30 seconds of Googling and noticed two things: Monte Bernardi was less than five minutes down the hill from where I was sitting, and it seemed to be popular among the natural wine crowd. I wasn’t really looking to add another winery visit, but I figured that if I found myself out and about and interested in another tasting, I could pop in for a quick tasting. Towards the end of the trip I indeed did find myself in that position, and made the stop.

Monte Bernardi’s name as an estate goes back to 1085, though the first wines produced under that name were made with the 1992 vintage. Prior to that, grapes grown on the property were sold to wineries. Perched on their own mini hilltop, the tasting room has direct line of vision to some of the winery’s estate vineyards. Monte Bernardi only produces wines from its own vineyards and does so biodynamically. The 53-hectare estate has 9.5 of them planted to vines, which average 40 years in age. The estate was indeed purchased by an American family, the Schmelzers, in 2003, and remains under their ownership.

I didn’t get into many details with the person in the tasting room, but a few things stuck out that are in keeping with a biodynamic approach to winemaking: minimal human intervention, very neutral oak, concrete tanks, and low sulfur dioxide. One thing that did surprise me was the duration of wood aging, which is significantly longer than the legally required amounts. For example, the portion of the Retromarcia Chianti Classico that gets oak aging spends 18 months in large casks. The Sa’Etta, my favorite of the lineup and a riserva, can spend as long as 30 months in wood.

On a future trip I plan to reach out to the winery to see if I can spend more time on the property as my brief encounter with the wines left me wanting more. They are not the hardest niché Chianti Classicos to find in the US, and for those looking to try something a little different I highly recommend them.

Sorelli and Felsina

I also made visits to Cantina Sorelli and Felsina, though my notes from those visits have somehow vanished. I spent time at Sorelli with Matteo Sorelli, one of the younger generation of the Sorelli family who is undertaking considerable efforts to modernize and refine the long-time operation that produces a range of wines of wide quality and type, mostly in the lower tier of price points, across a range of brands. A conglomerate, they own (among many others) Castello di Uzzano, makers of serious Chianti Classico. I really enjoyed my time with Matteo, and left very impressed with his business, and wine, acumen. I’ll be curious to see where he steers the company has he seems to take a minority view among the company by prioritizing quality over quantity.

Just one portion of the sprawling cellar of Felsina

Felsina is an industry standard of Chianti Classico. Their wines are widely available in the United States, and are held up as a standard bearer of the region. I had a nice tour of the cellar, and then a guided tasting of three Chianti Classicos, their Tuscana red blend called Fontalloro, their chardonnay, and their non-vintage spumante. I will admit to both a subpar experience with previous bottles of their Rancia Riserva, and an extremely good prior experience with their spumante. I hoped that this visit would give me a more rounded experience with their wines. While I wasn’t able to taste many of their wines that would have been new to me, I took to the 2018 Fontalloro and 2016 Spumante Brut, both of which are now aging in our cellar.

I’ll Be Back

In the last two years, the quantity of sangiovese in our collection has multiplied by a factor of six. Much of that growth has happened since this Tuscan trip. I brought back some Geggiano, Monte Bernardi, and Felsina, and have gone on a mini Rentenanno buying spree as I continue to look for more Geggiano domestically.

Two of the many beautiful things about Chianti Classico are its affordability and its long lifespan. It’s financially feasible to stock up on Chianti Classicos relative to, say, Brunello, and the affordability allows you purchase more wine and experience them at more stages of their development. This is true of even the highest end Chianti Classicos, and it permits you to get to know the wines, their winemakers, and terroir more intimately, connecting you more deeply with the varietal and a region of the world that is enticing, inviting, beautiful, and challenging. Chianti Classico is a gift that keeps on giving in this regard.

My favorite city in Europe is Florence, and I was very tempted to make that my home base for this trip. But I knew that with my daily trips to the wineries, I would have to battle the traffic of whatever city I stayed in. My terrible experience with Florence’s traffic is what pushed me to Siena, a city I had never been before. I’ll just say that I am quite pleased with how it worked out.

Siena is smaller than Florence, but offers its own brand of charm and history. The old city is quite beautiful, and I really enjoyed getting to know it by foot as I ate and drank my way through it. Geggiano’s Andrea Bianchi Bandinelli, in addition to connecting me with Rentennano, sent me to a restaurant in old Siena called Osteria Le Logge, owned by a friend of his. It was one of my last dinners of the trip, and definitely the best; those traveling through Siena should not miss it. Le Logge has its own multi-floor underground cellar, located a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant, and I was treated to a tour of it by its master. I ultimately selected and enjoyed a Faccoli Franciacorta Riserva Extra Brut 2005, yet another example of how underrated Italian sparkling wine can be.

Italian sparkling wine is vastly underrated

While I was able to cover a lot of ground in Chianti Classico, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. My first trip won’t be my last, and I look forward to visiting the friends I made on this trip while making new ones as I eat and drink my way through a region that deserves every bit of the legend it has.

The Legend of Abruzzo & Beyond: Emidio Pepe

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When Kayce told me she booked us for two nights during our honeymoon at the Emidio Pepe agritourismo in Abruzzo, Italy, I thought, ‘no way.’ Seemed too good to be true. Emidio Pepe is a legendary wine producer. Legendary Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine, and legendary trebbiano white wine. It’s essentially the winery of Abruzzo, at least according to what I know, and it’s not always easy to find bottles in the United States. I had heard great things, but had never actually verified them since I’d never tasted any Emidio Pepe. I was hoping this wasn’t going to be too good to be true.

Months later, as we drove up the winding road on our final approach to the winery, I allowed myself to transition from skeptical to hopeful; if my first step inside the place carried any trepidation, I’d jinx it. The Pepe estate, which consists of the family home, winery, vineyards and an agritourismo (essentially a full service boutique hotel serving food grown on and near the property), is perched on top of one of the many hilltops in the rolling countryside of Abruzzo. The property has an idyllic setting: affixed atop a hill with a roughly 270 degree view of the surrounding rolling hills, which are mostly draped in vineyards and topped with either agricultural estates or small villages. Beyond them are large mountains, some of which go into the several thousands of meters above sea level.

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The view from our room

Even though our stay at Emidio Pepe was part of our honeymoon, Kayce was understanding in recognizing that, given the weight of Emidio Pepe in the wine world, it should be leveraged for a Good Vitis piece, and so I sent an email ahead of time asking for some one-on-one time with a representative of the property in order to collect information for a post. We were paired with Gianluca, who runs the commercial side of the property, for a tour and tasting the day after our arrival.

A side note on Gianluca: He appears to be a true asset for the company, and for its visitors. Though not part of the Pepe family, he was hired to run the agritourismo and represent the winery around Italy. Having spent time in England for work previously, he speaks very good English and knows how to connect with Anglos, an important skill for Pepe because of the high percentage of visitors they get from the US, UK and other countries with whom the common language with Italians is English. He is a gracious and warm host who cares about every visitor’s experience.

A second side note on Gianluca: He also really knows his wine stuff. He took us on our tour of the winery, explaining numerous aspects of the process and providing answers to questions that are only known by people who study the craft. We had a great discussion with him about skin contact wines from Italy, and he wrote down several suggestions that we are eager to pursue. It’s clear he’s a true wine lover.

As a wine region, Abruzzo hasn’t had much recognition in America, at least the type of recognition that a winery focused on quality and uniqueness like Emidio Pepe would want. Most of America’s experience with Abruzzo comes by way of inexpensive and fairly simple wine, the three most common of which are made as varietally-labeled wines from the signature grapes of the region: white grapes pecorino and trebbiano, and the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In Washington, DC, where we live, it’s much easier to find these wines on a bar’s happy hour menu for $8 a glass than it is in a wine shop for more than $15 a bottle. Abruzzo is vastly overshadowed by Italy’s better known region, though Emidio Pepe is one that transcends this reputation of simple wine.

Part of what sets Emidio Pepe apart is the focus they have on making wines that transcend themselves with significant aging – we’re talking twenty-plus years for the better vintages of montepulciano and five-plus years for trebbiano.

To say “transcend” with age rather than “improve” or “evolve” is to imply more gravity, namely that there is a significant transformation that happens from an early stage of the wine’s life to a later stage. This kind of change can be exemplified by two tasting notes, two experiences, that are almost, if not completely, different: the structure, aromas and flavors show little resemblance to each other as the structure becomes more regal and the common themes are reduced to (critical) things like quality and style. Transcendence on this scale is limited to the best wines in the world – some, but not nearly all, Bordeauxs, Burgundys, Barolos, Brunellos (lots of B’s now that I think about it), Riojas, Vouvrays, etc. Pepe’s transcendence puts it in the most elite of company.

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Gianluca and the author walking the Emidio Pepe cellar

Nearly half of each year’s production is placed in Emidio Pepe’s cellar for future release, and when I say “future release,” I’m talking five to twenty years later depending on the vintage and variety. Each year, these older vintages are made available to a maintained list of collectors. America is the biggest destination of these library releases.

I’ve come across serious library programs before, but none come close to this level of dedication to releasing “wine that is very good and elegant,” as Gianluca put it. Walking the cellar is an experience: rows and rows of unlabeled bottles segregated by vintage. Every vintage since the first in 1964, save the eight they skipped due to poor quality, are there. Finding the section reserved for a personally important year is a lot of fun. I scoured the room for 1983, my birth year, while Kayce was disappointed to learn that her birth year, 1989, was one of those skipped.

To go even further, the wines are bottled unfiltered and made in a very reductive manner, which are factors that contribute to the wine’s ability to improve with age. “Reductive wine” refers to wine that is made with techniques that limit its exposure to oxygen. Because oxygen inherently and irreversibly kills wine (it ages wine to death just like it does humans), the less the oxygen exposure, the longer-lived the wine. Also, oxygen exposure forces a wine to release its aromas, flavors and textures, and so if you’ve had a wine that becomes significantly more interesting as it sits in your glass or decanter, you’ve likely experienced a reductive wine opening as it takes in oxygen for the first time.

When the older Pepe vintages are released, it is because the winery believes the vintage is beginning to hit the early part of its drinking window. Before bottles of old vintages are shipped, each wine is opened, decanted and re-corked with a new cork. This process helps rid the wine of the significant amount of sediment that has built up. Given the amount of reductiveness in Pepe wines, the brief decanting does little to stunt its growth. By the time a bottle of 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo makes its way to a customer in 2019, for example, it’s beginning to reveal its promise. I can attest to this example as the 2000 was one of the wines we tasted.

Making wine for the long haul is centered on the belief that when good wine ages, it gets better. While “good” is the operative term in that sentence, the underlying premise is that the wine is made in a way that allows it to become better with age. “Good,” therefore, carries the implication that the winemaking is done intelligently and purposefully with the goal of the final product being better later than it is sooner. This leads to practices in grape growing and winemaking that may not otherwise be followed. I point this out because unless this conscious choice is made, the wine likely won’t improve much beyond a more limited amount of time.

This is the starting point from which Emidio Pepe makes its wine. At the winery level, there seems to be some correlation between interest in making reductive wines and interest in making what is being referred to these days as “natural wine,” an approach characterized by minimal human intervention and minimal use of “unnatural” products (e.g. synthetic pesticides, fining agents, etc.). Emidio Pepe is often considered a “natural” wine producer. Though there is no definition of natural wine (a fact that in my view undercuts the argument for natural wine), when a wine is good, it’s good, regardless of how it’s made.

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A Pepe vineyard

Natural wine proponents argue that following minimalist techniques, like limiting pesticide use in the vineyard or refraining from additives in the winery (some go so far as to exclude all additives, including sulfur, a natural element and effective preservative in even small doses) produces a wine more inclined to taste like the terroir and vintage than if more human intervention and manipulation were used, and is better for nature and human health.

This means that unless someone really, really knows what they’re doing, a poor vintage of natural wine can taste like a poor wine. It also means that if something goes wrong in the vineyard or winery, the winemaker has few tools to correct it. I’ve had truly terrible natural wines that would’ve been better with some human intervention, and I’ve had great natural wines that would’ve been worse under a heavier human hand. I see no reason why natural winemaking is inherently better. If a property can produce better wine by following some natural winemaking process, I’m all for it. If they can’t but still chose to, then they should re-evaluate the business.

We had an interesting discussion with Gianluca about the topic of natural wine during our tasting with him because Emidio Pepe is often categorized by others as a natural wine producer. We got an answer not that different from the paragraphs above. It effectively went like this.

Part one: We’ve been making wine from these vines for a long time (the trebbiano vines are 35 years old, the montepulciano are 50) using the same vinicultural and winemaking techniques, and so we’ve learned what we need to do to get the best harvests. Further, because all these vines and our winemakers know is what we’ve always done, both have learned how to adapt effectively to nature’s various curveballs.

Part two: Because we love our grapes so much and want to show them off, we only do what is necessary to showcase them as they are, and nothing more.

Part three: If at any point we decided a change in the vineyard or winery would lead to better wine, we’d probably make it, but only after serious study.

Part four: This process is the original winemaking process – it is organic and biodynamic by its own nature, not by a desire to get a certification – and we like its outcome. If this happens to fit someone’s definition of natural wine, great.

Though Pepe could easily be called natural wine and few would argue with it, I think a more appropriate term, if we need one, is old school winemaking. Emidio Pepe was established in 1964, and though today’s vines aren’t the originals (the montepulciano is 50 years old and the trebbiano is 35 years old), it is easy to maintain organic and biodynamic methods, as they do, when that’s all the vines have known their entire lives. Pepe has effectively been organic and biodynamic since 1964 in practice, though actual certifications came later (when organic and biodynamic became a thing requiring certification to commercially claim). The idea is a “natural expression of the viniculture” as Gianlucca explained it.

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Gianluca explaining the foot treading phase over one of the wood vats

The winemaking process is similarly straight-forward and consistent from year-to-year. All grapes are handpicked and foot tread, which represents the entirety of the pressing process. The whites and reds are tread in different vessels, both made of wood. The skins from the white grapes are not reintroduced to the juice, while the red goes through fifteen to twenty days of maceration. Naturally occurring yeast is allowed to initiate and complete fermentation. Tightly-trimmed stems are included with the white grapes in the treading, but removed for the red. The whites are aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel while the red is aged entirely in concrete.

These aging vessels are critical to their respective varieties because of Abruzzo’s searing heat and the desire to make reductive wines. While we were there in mid-June, temperatures were consistently in the mid-90s. They rise through July and August. It is imperative that the whites go into cold jacketed tanks in order to maintain safe temperature, and the concrete tanks that the reds age in are fantastic for maintaining low temperatures on their own. Given Abruzzo’s heat, it shouldn’t be surprising that canopy management in the vineyard is imperative as well to protecting the grapes from sun burn and keeping sugar levels reasonable, which can build quickly in this kind of heat. Vines in Abruzzo are allowed to maintain thick layers of leaves across their tops to provide shade and protection for the grapes.

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Pepe vines

Additionally, because montepulciano is so strongly expressive and naturally inclined to produce big wines, concrete is preferred at Pepe because it tames this tendency by allowing little oxygen to come into contact with the wine compared to what oak barrels would allow (more oxygen means bigger wine in this context). Punchdowns are used once per day, and no batonage (stirring of the wine while aging) is performed. This combination of stainless steel for whites and concrete aging for reds (versus oak for either), a small amount of punch downs (versus pump overs) and zero batonage (versus some) are all reductive techniques relative to their alternative methods.

The moral of the Pepe story is that the two things that do not change from vintage to vintage is the unique qualities that come from this approach and Pepe’s terroir. What does change is the influence of the vintage on the wine. The dinner we ate the first night of our stay included the current releases of the pecorino, trebbiano and montepulciano. Later, when we met with Gianluca, we tasted some different vintages.

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We started with the 2016 Trebbiano, which pours a dark, golden honey color that belies the absence of skin contact in the winemaking process. The aromatics are tropically themed with a linear spice that cuts through the center. Pineapple, mango, marzipan, Key Lime and a petrol-like quality not unlike that found in high quality riesling waft at first sniff. Over time, a gorgeous sweet aroma develops as well. So saturated, the bouquet has its own structure, a quality I’m not sure I’ve experienced before and one that blew me away. On the palate, it is medium bodied with round and sturdy acid that creates great tension. The flavors lead with a crisp mineral Key Lime pie, followed by peppery spice, saltiness and pineapple. It broadens with as it takes on air, coating the mouth with sweet peach and vanilla spice notes. This brilliant wine is among the very best I’ve had, red or white. 95 points. Value: A+.

From there we moved to the 2015 Pecorino. This variety is normally planted at 500-700 meters in elevation in Abruzzo, but Pepe put theirs at 250 meters because it packs on sugar very quickly. This lower elevation helps with limiting direct sun exposure on the grapes, and they harvest the pecorino before their other grapes to keep sugars low as well. Aromatics are tricky when producing pecorino, and Pepe actually shuts fermentation down a bit early in order to do that. Given all this, I know now why I’ve never had great pecorino until I tried Pepe’s, which is phenomenal.

The nose starts off slightly funky and a bit muted, but with air it takes on mushed banana, lanolin, apricot, orange plum, orange marmalade, sweet Thai chili sauce and Kiwi. The body is plush and soft, offering less acid than the Trebbiano. The flavors are similarly soft and a bit salty. Citrus carries the day despite the preponderance of tropical flavors, including banana, quince, passion fruit, zesty lemon peel and white pepper that really pops. It has a wonderful light oiliness sensation. 93 points. Value A+.

At this point, we transitioned to the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Gianlucca opened the 2000 and 2010, both exceptional vintages for the estate that he called “among the best for Abruzzo.” The 2010 will be re-released soon. There are six sectors of the oldest vines on the property, and the grapes from them are made into a separate batch that goes into the lot that is held back in the cellar for future release. The 2000 and 2010, taken together, exemplify the transcendence I discussed earlier. You’ll see in the tasting notes below a number of differences that could suggest two different wines. I had a difficult time picking a favorite as each has so much to offer and left me wanting nothing more than another glass. What was evident in tasting them side-by-side is that 2000 was a warmer year: the body, structure and alcohol are all more significant than the 2010.

The 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has an exquisite nose showing signs of sweet tertiary aromas with a sherried/carmelized note. I also picked up roasted and jarred piquillo peppers, sweet mint and canned cherry. The palate remains quite robust in structure and weight; in fact, it appears to just be hitting puberty. The flavors are similarly sweet as the aromas, but the spice is really taken up a notch. The fruit is mostly red and crisp, but somehow also saturated and dense. The acid and tannin spine is keeping everything perfectly framed and structurally integral, developing a slight chewiness as it takes on oxygen. There are strong elements of scorched earth and wet pavement, with smaller doses of tomato paste and mint. This is a perfectly balanced wine with serious depth and elegant structure. It has another ten-plus years of great life ahead of it. 96 points. Value: A.

We finished with the 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The nose offers an interesting combination of primary, secondary and tertiary notes with some funk thrown in for very good measure. Nevertheless, it remains a bit muddled and needs time to delineate and develop clarity. The palate delivers a full-bodied wine that is quite broad, but also surprisingly soft for its youthful age compared to where the 2000 is right now. A funkiness similar to the nose is found in the mouth, and and pairs nicely with red fruit, tomato leaf, blood orange and loads of pepper spice. Extended oxygen brings out fine, slightly chewy tannin and elevates the peppery kick. Those who decide to buy this should consider laying it down for at least another ten years. 96 points. Value: A.

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Some old and new vintages that are ready for release

We were completely taken with Emidio Pepe’s wine (as well as the agritourismo, which we can’t suggest strongly enough). Putting aside the romanticism added by the fact that it was our honeymoon, the tranquility and beauty of the estate and surrounding area, and some of the best food we’ve ever had, I don’t remember a winery that I’ve been more excited to follow and collect since my discovery of Oregon’s Cameron in 2017. Pepe has immediately jumped into my top-5 favorite producers, maybe even top-3. Their wines are especially appealing for me as my favorite wines are those built to age, and then aged. Emidio Pepe deserves the highest marks on quality, personality, process and business model. If only more wineries did it this way…

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Four

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.