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.

When is Wine Conceived?

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Credit: sayingimages.com

On July 11th, I celebrated my 35th birthday with a birthyear 1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf de Pape, one of my favorite French estates. Though it drank well and was special because of its vintage, it would have probably shown its best, not unlike myself, ten or so years ago. As an unreasonable comparison, the 1995 Seven Hills Klipsun merlot from Washington State we drank later that evening was more prime-like. Over the wine and grilled lamb chops, my fiancé and I debated what was actually older: myself or the birthyear wine? My birthdate is July 11th, 1983, but what was the actual birthdate of the Beaucastel?

The question can be put another way: when does wine become wine? I certainly had my theories, as did Kayce. One potential answer is the day fermentation begins because wine is alcoholic, and we couldn’t consider pressed grape juice to be wine, right? I’ve never heard someone make the argument Welch’s grape juice is wine.

If one grants that fermentation is birth, there remains an important question: is the beginning of fermentation the point of wine’s conception, or when fermentation completes or somewhere between? If I can reference the abortion debate for this discussion (CONTROVERSY ALERT), some people argue that conception is the beginning of life, while others say life doesn’t begin until birth. If we want to use those respective logics, life at conception means wine is born at the beginning of fermentation, whereas life at birth results in wine being born at the completion of fermentation.

My fiancé hypothesized that a wine’s birthday is the day no more additives or methods are introduced because that is the point at which it receives no more human nurturing and stands, if you will, on its own legs (get it?). Prior to that, the required human support means it is not matured yet into wine. For a wine that goes into barrel and then bottle without any additions or further manipulation (even racking), its birthday is the day it is put into barrel. If a wine receives a hit of sulfur prior to bottling, then bottling is its birthday.

Neither of us was able to convince the other, and it became clear Kayce and I weren’t going to settle the debate. So, I decided to put the question to a few winemakers. The breadth of responses were akin to a joke we Jews make about ourselves: two Jews, three opinions. That is to say, no consensus (so thanks, winemakers, for your “help”). Below are the responses, which I found very entertaining to read. I hope you do too.

If readers have their own opinions, I’m on board with doing a subsequent piece featuring thoughtful reader responses if a sufficient number are received. Please email them to goodvitis (at) gmail (dot) com.

Charlie Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain in Napa wrote, effectively, that wine is born when fermentation ends:

“The  consensus opinion, of course, is that the year the grapes are picked is the year that the wine is born. It’s always seemed to me, though, that within that year the day that the last yeast cell stops converting sugar to alcohol [is the birthdate]. Or, to put it another way, the day the primary fermentation ceases, is the first day in the life of the wine. It is the first day grape juice is fully, finally converted to wine and day-one in the life of the wine. It becomes ‘finished’ wine on the day it is bottled, but as wine, it was born days, weeks, even years, before.”

Adam Lee of Siduri Wines and Clarice Wine Company in California had, as is wonderfully typical of Adam, a philosopher’s answer:

“I’ve been on a Julian Barnes kick lately, re-reading many of his works, and I came across this quote in The Sense of an Ending: ‘Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born.’ I thought of this quote when you described a somewhat too old birth-year wine and asked when is a wine actually born.

“A wine dies most often when the cork is popped, or the cap is unscrewed and the wine drunk. I have participated in a wine’s death in joy with friends, and killed an entire bottle myself in sadness and depression. The occasions change, and I interact differently with them each time and with every bottle. And yet every time, wine remains a constant for me in all of life’s moments. As someone who makes wine, the death of those bottles inspires me every year to take what nature provides and birth that into wine. For me, the wine is born in my mind and in my memory’s museums (thanks Kanye) before a new season’s grape is ever grown.”

Mattieu Finot of King Family Vineyards in Virginia not only answered the birthday question, but outlined a wine’s lifespan:

“The period of bud break to harvest this is the pregnancy stage. The process of birth, which is fermentation, takes a little bit longer than it is for humans. Once alcoholic fermentation is complete, then it becomes wine. When alcoholic fermentation is complete, that is the wine’s birthday.

“Malolactic fermentation is like losing your baby teeth in that it doesn’t really change who you are because you’re human already.  Receiving an ‘addition’ [e.g. sulfur] is like having braces because it is optional and doesn’t say anything about whether you’re human (or wine) or not; not everybody needs them and at the end this is just esthetic.

“Once the wine is bottled this is when the wine is an adult and it can take care of itself. Wisdom comes with age…. not when you are 20…. still crazy, strong and all over the place! But, when you get too old, you are losing your muscle and sometimes forget things… a little less substance, even if you were a strong brilliant person!”

Fellow Jew, Garry Cohen of Maryland’s Mazzaroth Vineyard, called it a “nice question” and included a bit of spirituality in his answer:

“I maintain that it’s wine once the fermentation has finished. From then on, it will always be changing. Whether through the use of oak, ml, additives, aging, etc. But at the risk of being a bit spiritual, once it’s finished fermenting and you can do a blessing over it, then it is born.”

Amen.

Barboursville’s Luca Paschina in Virginia answered, mostly, with a story and a wicked curveball:

“When is a wine birthed? What an interesting question it is. Well, let me tell you what happened earlier this year. The daughter of very dear friends, which we have not seen in a while, came to our house for dinner. Since her parents have hosted us at their home several times with great food and wines, I decide to serve her a wine from her birth year, 1990.

“I searched in my cellar, which is predominantly occupied by Barboursville Vineyards wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but could not find any good ones from 1990. After initial disappointment, suddenly I realized that since she was born in March of 1990, she was conceived/born in summer of 1989 and happily I reached for a 1989 Barolo which, by the way, was one of the most fantastic growing season of the past 40 years in Piedmont. The wine was beautiful, meaningful  and truly appreciated by all of us.

“Therefore, when is a wine born? Perhaps the Beaucastel was born at bud break on April 8th 1983.”

Not far up the road from Barboursville, Ben Jordan of Early Mountain, began with an analogy:

“For me the best analogue is when the fruit is cut from the vine. Before that the flowers are fertilized, the fruit is formed and develops with a connection to the plant, and the time on the vine is basically gestation. Like birth, harvest is a dramatic change, because the fruit will never be connected to the vine again, and it begins the (hopefully slow) march through life to death. If the vineyard is well cared for, then the point that the grapes hit the picking container marks the point when the microbiome can begin to transform the fruit into wine. This is its birthday.

“Like a newborn, the wine grapes are most fragile right when picked and the winemaker/parents must work attentively, focus on little else, and spend every day (and night) with the newly forming wine. It is the decisions and approach during this short but critical time, along with the fruit’s genetic makeup, that will determine the personality of the wine.

“Fermentation is the childhood. Early on it is almost unbearably charming as the wine is rapidly changing into something more recognizable, becoming more stable, yet still vulnerable and needing of constant attention. The wines emerges from fermentation as the awkward teenager. No one really loves them, except their winemakers, and some days even they are not so sure.

“After that, the wine must grow up, and there is less and less the winemaker/parent can do. They can intervene, yes, but it becomes harder and harder to effect change in a positive way. Once the wine is bottled, it leaves the house, there is not much else winemakers can do other than hope that it will go out into the world and make them proud.

“As a note: If we are trying to make this analogy only with the plant and fruit (and not wine), I would still say that birth begins when the fruit falls or is plucked from the vine. At that point the offspring is no longer connected to the parent, and the question of whether it survives no longer depends on this connection. At this point the fruit and seed have the ability to grow up into a plant. Apologies to biologists.”

Drew Baker of Old Westminster in Maryland went the fermentation route:

“Wine is alcohol made from fermented grape juice. When looking at the tense of the verbiage, you notice that ‘fermented’ is in the past-tense – meaning that the fermentation of the juice has been completed. With that being said, I believe a wine is born when the fermentation is complete – aging in oak, concrete, stainless steel, bottle, etc. does impact a wines flavor profile, but to my mind the wine is already born.”

Finally, Forge Cellars’ Rick Rainey in the Finger Lakes weighed in:

“I will give you the short version.  The wine is ‘birthed’ once we put it into bottle.  Then it is finished and can be enjoyed as we exactly intended it.  Yes, it may not be ‘optimum’ and need aging to give the full pleasure but ideally it is ready, give or take a few weeks to recover from bottling.”

Late addition: Brent Kroll, Sommelier and Founder of Maxwell Park, one of DC’s most respected wine bars, and one of Food & Wine’s 2018 Sommeliers of the Year:

“I believe a wine is birthed when the grapes are harvested from the vine.  Wine can always be manipulated or adjusted past that. Often what happens past that is beneficial to protect the wine but sometimes they are over enhanced and that year of the harvest can be hidden. Those grapes are what speaks for that year in my opinion and lines get too blurred if you open the door past that. On the other hand, the only exception I might grant, even though I wouldn’t, is sparkling wine. I can see how something being 10 years old past disgorgement or being disgorged 10 years after the harvest are completely different. It’s hard then to judge the age by the vintage but I still stick to my initial thought. If you have to put a vintage on mixed vintages I would take the average based on the quantity of each vintage in the wine.”

And there you have it: no consensus on a wine’s birthday. Like the abortion debate, it rages on.

Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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The 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is riding a strong commercial tailwind. It’s cabernet sauvignon, which is second in popularity only to chardonnay in America, and it’s from California, which dominates America’s wine production, store shelves (commercial demand) and exports. If one’s focus was on making wine that would sell easily and in large numbers, they’d make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in California.

If there’s a headwind against this wine, it’s that at a suggested retail of $19 it is too expensive for the mainstream (though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it for $12-15 in many grocery stores nation-wide). Even at $12, it’s outside the 78% of total domestic wine sales that come in under $10 per bottle. However, the tide is turning. In 2017, purchases of bottles priced $15-19.99 saw double-digit growth. Things were never down for the Hess Select cabernet sauvignon, but they are nonetheless looking up.

With so many Americans buying California cabernet sauvignon, this instance of Try this Wine aims to be a twofer. First, for those who regularly buy grocery store cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a particular wine that over delivers. And second, for those who normally eschew under $20 cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a wine that demonstrates real quality can be had for a lower-than-expected price that is also available in serious wine stores.

I visited Hess last December during an epic five days in Napa, not knowing much about the producer and walking in with a critically wrong assumption about them. Here’s a line from the post that I wrote about Hess:

“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.”

Hess was awesome. A medium-sized producer, which by California standards is pretty large, they poured me nearly their entire range, beginning with several Select wines. The Select series is the winery’s entry point, and accounts for 65% of total Hess production, making it the company’s financial backbone. The series begins with the $12.99 Select chardonnay, and tops out around the $20 mark. We slowly climbed the ladder until reaching the top: the $185 Lion cabernet sauvignon. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch, and I found several to be inspiring. More than anything, though, I was impressed with the Select chardonnay because I was shocked that anyone could make a chardonnay of that quality that could retail for $12.99 – I’ve had many $25-30 chardonnays that are on all accounts no better than the Select.

I vividly remember asking Hess’ winemaker how they made such a good thirteen dollar wine and learning that they have vineyards dedicated to the Select line that get the same attention as their more prestigious vineyards, and an assistant winemaker who focuses on the Select line, giving it as much attention as the head winemaker does for the more expensive wines. Since then, I’ve included the chardonnay in several tastings I’ve led and talked it up on many occasions.

This is why it was fun to revisit the Select line with this cabernet sauvignon, which I received as a sample. They produce 175,000 cases of the Select cabernet, which represents 35% of the total Select series production. That’s serious quantity, so achieving equally serious quality is no small order, and rare at this scale. This alone is reason enough to try this wine.

Tasting note: This fresh, ripe nose gives off aromas of cherry and blackberry compote, toasted oak, potting soil, graphite minerality and blood orange zest. The body is very polished and lush, balanced nicely by good acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying or heavy. Flavors are focused the dark and juicy cherry and boysenberry, though tobacco, wet dirt and lavender peak through. 88 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

This is a widely distributed wine – available in all fifty states and twenty-three countries outside America – and is available at serious wine stores, grocery stores and online retailers, including wine.com. Below are a few places where it is available. As always, you can head over to wine-searcher.com and input your zip code and a radius to find nearby stores.

Chicago area: Sal’s Beverage World with locations in Addison, Elmhurst and Villa Park.

Denver: Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 E. Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80203. 303-831-7788.

Florida: Crown Wine & Spirits, nine locations on the Pacific Coast.

Los Angeles: Wally’s Wine & Spirits, three locations.

Memphis: Buster’s Liquors, 191 South Highland, Memphis TN 38111. 901-458-0929.

New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10065. 212-772-3211.

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Arizona Continues its Evolution at Aridus

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Arizona’s wine scene remains a bit of a black hole for me. I’ve written about visits to AZ Stronghold and Fire Mountain, which began to clue me into the state’s potentially bright wine future, but beyond that and a few bottles of the state’s most famous winery, Caduceus, that had been it for me. When samples arrived from Aridus Wine Company, I was excited for the opportunity to try another producer.

In preparing to write this post, I wanted to see how much wine the state was producing, and it is paltry. In terms of bulk wine, Arizona produced less in 2017 than Arkansas. Florida produced five times more in the same year than did Arizona. Indiana nearly quintupled Arizona’s production. In total, the state produces 0.0000003% of the nation’s bulk wine. In terms of what goes into bottle, the percentage drops a bit to 0.00000026%. Though I don’t have numbers, I know a decent amount of the state’s wine comes from grapes sourced outside the state. Still, that Arizona has any national reputation for wine, and it does have a budding one, is staggering giving its contribution by volume.

Having had good wine from Arizona, when I spoke to Aridus’ winemaker, Lisa Strid, I asked her the same questions I’ve asked other winemakers from the state: is Arizona ready for the national stage, and what’s keeping it from mainstream conversation? She boiled it down to the state’s biggest limitation, water. Arizona has long had water issues, and it’s scarcity, especially where grapes grow best, limits volume and quality. Water availability hasn’t been an entirely solvable problem for the state in general, so marshaling more for the luxury that is wine production hasn’t been a winnable fight. Without sufficient water, they can only make so much wine. Full stop.

Working with what water they do have available, Aridus gets juice from its own vineyard and other sources both in and out of the state. Right now, only some of its whites are coming from estate fruit, while the reds haven’t come online yet, though Aridus is making a concerted effort to ramp up planting and production of more of its own vines. Their vineyard is in Pearce, located up against a stream-fed hillside where there is slightly less water pressure. The site is also at a higher elevation than the rest of the AVA, which helps to moderate the temperature a bit. All of this helps the site do a better job at retaining acid in the grapes, a constant challenge faced by Arizona wineries in achieving lower pH levels. As more of their estate fruit comes on-line, hopefully the wines will hit lower pH and achieve more brightness.

Aridus produces a wide range of wines, and the four I tried are best described as “big.” All of the reds get oak treatment, typically around 18 months in anywhere from 40% to 100% new oak, most of which is French. On the white side, they go for “a lot of expression of the grape – bold aromas and flavors.” They’re bold in structure, too.

Lisa is high on their Malvasia, which I tried along with the Rosé (of mourvedre), malbec and petit sirah. I was able to confirm that the house style described came through in the wines. The Malvasia was indeed expressive, and had an interesting texture that gave substance to its volume. The Rosé was a very nice full-bodied sipping wine, and one that I think is probably best had on its own due to its lower acid. Both the malbec and petit sirah are big bodied wines that show their extensive oak, which dominates at the moment. While alcohol levels on both are modest, I do wonder if the higher pH can facilitate better integration of oak and drive more expressiveness with age.

What I find most exciting and interesting about Aridus is the evolution it could take as more estate fruit is cultivated, which sounds like promising material from which to make wines of increasing quality. Lisa is working with a big variety of grapes, not all of them from Arizona, and so she’s having to deal with a plethora of evolving challenges and conditions. This is standard for experimental winemakers in emerging wine regions. Lisa recently returned from a harvest in Australia where she learned a few new tricks that she wants to try out at home. More vines will go into the ground at the Aridus vineyard. She’ll have another vintage under belt at the end of this year. Other Arizona winemakers will try and share new knowledge with each other. All of these are necessary to developing a wine region and house styles, and it’s fun to watch it happen.

2016 Aridus Malvasia Bianca: Ripe, tropics-drive nose of honey, melon-dew, cantaloupe and big pineapple. Rich vanilla curd swirls around the edges, while there’s just a wiff of green vegetalness. It’s medium weight on the palate. The acid is modest and well-integrated into a slightly sweet and round structure that has a bit of a grainy texture that’s diversifies things nicely. Flavors are bitter-sweet lemon, vanilla, Starfruit, green papaya, apricot, white flowers and dandelion flower. A pleasant sipper with an interesting texture. 88 points. Value C-

2016 Aridus Rosé (of mourvedre): Classic Mourved rose nose of crushed blackberry, cherry and bramble berry, pepper and a little vanilla. Towards the end of the full body rose spectrum, it’s round and lush and well-polished – a velvety mouth feel. The acid is light but enough to add needed mid-palate lift. The tannins get slightly grainy on the finish. Flavors are all sorts of crushed berries – red, blue and black – along with vanilla pudding, marzipan and a slight hit of saline. Downright lovely, it’s probably best on its own rather than with food. 88 points. Value: C-

2014 Aridus malbec: The reticent nose boasts a hedonistic compote of blackberry, blueberry and cherry that is lifted by heavy baking spices. This one is medium bodied with a bit of extraction, it wears its malolactic fermentation and oak influence on its sleeve: baking spice, oak vanillin and a buttery finish. Acid is modest. The fruit is modest cherry, red currant and Acai. With air it develops some very welcomed graphite minerality. Not quite sure what to make of this one, the oak influence is dominating at this point. It may have enough acid to survive some evolution, which hopefully would allow the oak to better integrate. 89 points. Value: B

2014 Aridus petit sirah: What an inky nose, it saps with wild berries, high-toned orange zest, cracked pepper and sea brine. Closer to full-bodied, the acid is bright and the tannins grainy and chewy, likely smoothed out a bit by the oak. The fruit is a bit darker on the palate, coming in the forms of blackberry, cherry, strawberry and blueberry. Oak baking spices are quite prevalent, while black tea, pepper and cocoa finish things off. As time goes this gets more savory. It develops mesquite and iodine. While this has under half new oak, it has a big impact. Not the truest to type, it is nonetheless well-done and enjoyable. 89 points. Value: B

What Role Should Vidal Blanc Play in the Future of Maryland Wine?

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Note: this article appears in full on The Cork Report

There is a tension in the Maryland wine market. On one hand, consumers want the wines they know – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and the Vitis vinifera like – while on the other hand, Maryland doesn’t necessarily produce versions of these varieties that meet consumer expectation.

The Mid-Atlantic shares very little in common climatically with the more popular areas producing the baseline vinifera for these consumers – places like the American West Coast and Europe – and that makes it quite difficult to hit the structure and notes that people expect (unless a winery is willing to manufacture it with special winemaking techniques and additives, or source the grapes or juice from out of state and bottle it as “American wine” as some do).

The fantastic Maryland wines made with state-grown Bordeaux varieties that do exist are fantastic because they embrace the state’s terroir, not because they’re exceptional renditions of more popular styles, which makes them distinctly different from those other places. I’ve found these differences are particularly acute in red wines because warmer weather is especially beneficial in developing the fruit flavors and structure that are so directly associated with red wine. I’ll get more into this in an upcoming article on East Coast tannins.

On the white grape side, however, Maryland wineries are showing a slightly more pioneering attitude and venturing further afield to discover grapes might help them hit their own goals of quality while offering appeal to customers. Keep reading here.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t in always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is be the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

On The Cork Report: Orange Wine Trials at Veritas Winery

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Note: This article was originally published on The Cork Report on February 26th, 2018.

In May of last year, I went on vacation to the Republic of Georgia. Most people are surprised when I use “vacation” to describe my time there, but for me and, for a lot of people, it’s a bit of a fantasy world. Between the breathtaking beauty, geographic diversity, outdoor activities, history, gregarious and caring people, and delicious and unique cuisine, it has it all — in a one-of-a-kind way.

Archeology has proven that the Georgians began making wine more than 8,000 years ago, making them the oldest known winemakers in the world. They made red and white wine, but at some point were also the first to make orange wine, which I’m referring to in this article as “skin contact” wine. Red wine gets its color from the skins of grapes, which interact with the juice and over time leach their color (as well as textual, structural, flavor and aroma components as well). Although no one I know refers to red wine as skin contact wine, it could be labeled as such.

When white grapes are put through the skin contact method, they often times come out orange(ish) in color, hence the term “orange” 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.