Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

Up until I had that 21st birthday bottle of Delille Harrison Hill 1998, a gift from a family friend, merlot dominates my wine-associated memories. My mother kept a bottle of merlot – the winery, I don’t remember, but I imagine a rotating selection of places like Chateau St. Michelle, J. Lohr, Mondavi and Charles Shaw – in the refrigerator with some frequency. I never took much interest in its presence there. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole pulls from the liquor cabinet, adding a quick stream of facet water to the half-full bottle of vodka in a futile effort to deceive my parents. I didn’t keep a six pack of Busch Light in my closet.

The merlot sitting in the refrigerator never tempted me, either. I just wasn’t into drinking in my youth. I know I tasted it, once in a while, but with my mom’s approval. I remember that it was cold and a little bitter, and not to my liking. It had a mysterious bite that today I can recognize as the alcohol. That’s about it. To my young palate, it wasn’t anything to crave. It was red liquid that my mom liked.

I preferred orange juice. My mother didn’t drink juice, too much sugar. I had to cut mine with water or my mom wouldn’t allow it in the house. Unlike the wine, I cheated with the orange juice when I could get away with it. No watering it down for me. That’s where I went off the reservation. Not the easiest child, I know.

When I was in my middle teens, a couple moved into the neighborhood and began having us over for dinner. The husband was a wine collector and opened wine whenever we came over. My mom enjoyed drinking it, though my dad wasn’t a wine fan (he remains unimpressed). And even though the merlot in the fridge back home never captured me, our friend’s wine did. Over the following several years, I was introduced to what I would find out later was some of the best wine made in the world. Depending on how one looks at it, my palate was either spoiled rotten or ruined for life before I was old enough to purchase any of it from a store.

The bottle of 1998 Delille Harrison Hill was a gift from this neighbor, and it became the first great wine that I associated as my own. Delille is one of Washington’s most respected and awarded wineries known predominantly for Bordeaux-style wines. Harrison Hill is one of its flagship blends, and routinely includes 25% merlot. As one of my early introductions to great wine, it set a personal benchmark for blends that lasted at least a decade. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it helped me form the respect I have today for the role merlot plays as a blending grape.

Fast forward to 2013. I had been unemployed for about five months at this point, having lost a job I didn’t much like and taking my time, albeit stressfully, finding a job I would be excited to start. As money was tight, I made it through this period satiating my wine needs with a small wine collection I had been building for the previous five years (inspirational, I know). I decided that since I had the time, I would find a winery nearby my apartment in Virginia where I could intern and learn firsthand how wine was made.

After scouting a number of wineries, I approached one and made my offer: I would work for free in the cellar a few days a week if they schooled me in winemaking and paid me to work in the tasting room on the weekend. They accepted. I did this for two consecutive harvests, and learned a ton about wine. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

During my first harvest there, we unexpectedly received a few extra tons of merlot from one of the vineyards where we sourced the grapes we needed beyond what our estate vineyards produced. The truck showed up, the man got out and asked a stupid question: did we want this extra merlot? In a state with a growing wine industry where grape demand far surpasses supply, you say yes. Even if the grapes aren’t great, you make a bad blush out of it because it will sell out once the temperature is high enough for picnicking and stoop-sittin’.

Thankfully, this was good merlot, so our affirmative answer was delivered with extra enthusiasm. As I helped unload the bins off the truck, an idea struck. I asked the winemaker if I could take a small amount of the juice from the extra merlot and make a side batch of my own wine. After consulting with the owner, I was given the green light and three 6-gallon carboys (glass jugs) of merlot juice was mine.

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With the winemaker’s guidance, we made three different merlots. Each carboy was inoculated with a different strain of yeast and given a different wood chip treatment. We went low-ish sulfur (40ppm), only once, and after about 8 months of aging in a dark corner of the cellar with the carboys covered by boxes, I syphoned the contents directly into bottles and hand corked them. I made eight or nine different wines from the three carboys: a case of each carboy was bottled, and then I started blending. We ended up with eighty-something bottles if memory serves.

All but half a dozen bottles were drained within a year of bottling. I was down to just a single bottle remaining until this article; I used the occasion to open it with my wife and in-laws. It is my greatest wine achievement to date because I didn’t screw it up; it’s actually a decent wine. I know this because I threw it into several blind tastings with legitimate wine people and got a range of reviews, none of them bad.

Making my own merlot is the true source of my appreciation of merlot: in the hands of a first time and under-trained “winemaker,” it graciously allowed me to make it into wine. It did its very best with what I gave it, maybe more than its very best, and I am eternally grateful. This article is dedicated to that batch of wine.


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2014 Aaron Menenberg Merlot #6 – The nose offers a compelling combination of floral, funky and crunchy red fruit notes, including aromas of wet saw dust, moist fungal dirt, cherry, raspberry, dehydrated strawberry, baking spice, rose water and spring flowers. The body is barely medium in stature, and the structure is driven by keen acid and scattered fine-grained tannin. The balance is essentially there, but the acid pulls the wine a bit out of its comfort zone. The flavors are similar to the aromas, featuring floral, fruit and funk. Specifics include dry dirt, mirepoix, tart strawberry and raspberry, cinnamon, rose hips and sautéed portabello mushroom. 88 points. Value: N/A.


Beyond my own appreciation of merlot, and certainly in spite of it, the noble grape deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries across the world. A perpetual performer, it is prized by many winemakers and largely disregarded by consumers. It is a classic example of the consumer doesn’t know best.

I recently published a Try this Wine post on Rutherford Hill’s 2018 Rosé of Merlot, one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. A press person from Rutherford’s parent owner sent me this note a few weeks later:

“I was in the Rutherford Hill tasting room the other day and a customer was bragging to his friends that he doesn’t drink “wimpy pink wine” (referring to our rosé of merlot, of course).  Right then, our tasting room manager pulled up your story and had him read it.  Not only did he change his mind, he purchased a few bottles.  So AWESOME!!!!!!!!”


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but it’s balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed. This is among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.


The case for merlot goes well beyond a great rosé, though that bottle does make a statement as one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. Well before the Rutherford rosé, though, I decided that I wanted to take a stab at exploring merlot after hearing an extemporaneous diatribe on merlot from one of the grape’s very best producers earlier this year.

When I decided on doing this profile, my mind naturally went to the movie Sideways, a popular Hollywood movie released in October of 2004 assumed by many to be the death nail of merlot’s profitability and popularity because of a well-acted and entertaining scene demonizing merlot and the timing of it its release coinciding with a period of steep decline in merlot sales. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” is the famous line. Miles, the main character played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, is on a trip to Napa with a friend, both of whom are escaping various aspects of their lives. In a pivotal scene, Miles screams this line.

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Part of what I wanted to get into with this piece was industry views of whether this Sideways correlation was also causation, and so my first element of research was to ask. Over the course of the last six or so months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of America’s, and the world’s, very best merlot producers. The orator of the aforementioned merlot diatribe was Chris Carpenter of Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and other great wineries fame.

“[Sideways] wasn’t a bad thing from the perspective of what it ended up doing to merlot in general,” Chris said when I spoke to him on the phone a few months post-diatribe. “Did I go through the history of merlot with you?” He asked, somewhat dauntingly. Merlot has been around for a while, so I wondered how far back he would go. Nevertheless, I opened the door. “No,” I said, and off we went.

Thankfully, his starting point was California: “At one point back in the mid-1990s, the wine industry was looking for the next silver bullet as far as a wine that would be the starter wine for another generation that was coming onto wine. They had had white zinfandel for a while – a lot of people started drinking wine because white zin was on fire and it was tasty and accessible and not too expensive – and it made the industry a lot of money. So, people were looking for what the next white zinfandel was going to be because its popularity was starting to decline and the industry needed something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The industry tried a number of things. “They started planting sangiovese,” one example he told me about, “but that didn’t go over well because they made it too much like cabernet [sauvignon] and sangiovese just doesn’t react that way. They went through a number of iterations like this and eventually hit on merlot.” It had a number of positives going for it: “it’s easy to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to grow from a tonnage perspective, it grows in places across a bandwidth of temperatures and sunlight that are different enough but allow it to get to a certain ripening point. And so you can grow a lot of it.”

The California wine industry ran with it. “They went out and planted merlot every in Napa, particularly in the Carneros region.”  Today, Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s hard to believe it was once the center of the California merlot scene. “Carneros is on the cooler side and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” Chris explained. “Merlot is an early ripener, and so they figured they’d put it down there. It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, but they thought they could still get it ripe.” Problem was, they couldn’t.

“They forgot that merlot needs a certain amount of light to get past the green flavors. The change in flavor character from vegetative to fruit is driven by light energy, and there just isn’t light energy in Carneros. A lot of how grapes gain weight and develop depth is by heat reaction and it doesn’t get the heat down there.”


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points. Value: A.


Renée Ary, winemaker for the esteemed merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards, noted additional considerations for merlot when I spoke with her. “Merlot is susceptible to heat stress, so water is a big issue. Because of that, it likes to grow in soil with better moisture-holding capabilities. Clay works well, but if you have a good vineyard team that can stay on top of irrigation, you can do it with better draining soils. They wanted to grow merlot like cabernet, but it’s not the same.”

At this point, though, the industry had invested a lot of money in planting merlot vineyards. “So, they pumped out a lot of merlot and put it on the market, and a lot of people drank a lot of bad merlot.” Chris said, adding that “it was lean and green, and it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t have weight, it didn’t have complexity, it was very unidirectional. And then the movie (Sideways) came out.”

But it wasn’t what you think. This is when Chris turned into a movie critic, and an astute one at that. “The movie wasn’t really speaking to the bad merlot out there. What Miles’ comment was reflecting on was the [troubled] relationship with his wife. His wife drank a lot of merlot. So, when he went into that tasting room and said he wasn’t drinking any merlot, it was because merlot is what his wife would’ve drank. It had nothing to do with the industry. But, it came at a time when people were starting to react to this wine that wasn’t that good.”

When Miles makes his comment, the industry had already spent a solid decade, or more, laying the groundwork for the merlot market to crumble. Chris noted that “when Sideways drops, merlot falls apart as far as a varietal people are taking seriously, and pinot noir rockets. Nobody was drinking pinot noir back then, but suddenly it just took off. And the good thing that happened was that a lot of that merlot that was planted in the wrong places went away, and they replanted it with pinot noir.”

Enter winemaker Adam Lee, a prolific California pinot noir wizard responsible for great wineries like Siduri and Clarice. “I don’t buy [the theory that Sideways ruined merlot]. It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot already,” he said.

As an aside, in a cruel twist of fate for lovers of traditional pinot noir, the timing of Sideways’ pinot praise was terrible. “When Sideways came out,” Adam pointed out, “the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

Poured this through a Venturi into a decanter, and it showed nicely right away. The dark nose offers saturated aromas of mocha, cherry preserve, dark chocolate bark, graphite, black plum and boysenberry that draw your nose deep into the glass. It’s full bodied with thick, polished tannin and bright acid that runs the full length of the wine, forming a really luxurious mouthfeel and structure. Flavor comes by way of plum, cherry, strawberry, dark cocoa, graphite, cassis and nutmeg. If this wine were a person, it’d be a soldier-scholar: broad statured and muscular with a high intellect and high society manners. With another three to five years it will develop some real grace. 93 points. Value: A.


As Carneros transformed in the wine region we know it to be today, those winemakers still in love with merlot had to turn to smaller pockets around Napa Valley. “These little gems of vineyards that were ideal for merlot” became the hot finds, Chris told me. “When I found gems, more often than not, they were high up in the mountains. There are some things about mountain viniculture that go well with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s Ary referenced these gems herself. “[Sideways] ended up being a positive for merlot. The unserious producers threw it to the wayside. It helped us get access to new vineyards [that were great for merlot] that we hadn’t had access to previously.”

One reason merlot does well in the mountains is because as you gain elevation, the volume of what’s called “radiant energy” increases. If you remember back to Chris’ point about Carneros not getting a lot of sunlight, we’re coming full circle here because one of the types of radiant energy is sunshine.

“You’re higher up [in the mountains] so your volume of radiant energy is much greater and you’re going to have, theoretically, more of the light reactions happening,” Chris explained. “You get a very different expression of merlot than what they were getting in the Carneros, which in some days never sees the sun. Heat drives sugar, it drives acid, it drives tannins. It does not affect flavor to the extent that radiant energy does. Radiant energy drives the change in the flavor compounds.”

The portfolio of wineries that Chris covers with his winemaking is focused on mountain fruit. “We have vineyards on Howell, Spring and Veeder [mountains] that have exceptional merlot and I was, for a while, blending it into cabernets because it adds interesting things,” he said. Explaining the evolution to varietally-labeled merlots, he continued, “but I like underdogs, and merlot is an underdog, and I realized I had some outstanding wines that were 100% merlot and I wondered why we were blending them away. Why do the French and the Italians have a monopoly on really expensive bottles of merlot at the quality level that really can carry that price point? Here in the States [we couldn’t do that]. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to reintroduce merlot at that same level as we think about brands like Petrus or Masseto or Cheval Blanc to a certain degree, because we have those kinds of vineyards. If you’re growing it and making it right, you have the kind of quality here [in Napa] that we do with cabernet.”


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

This really benefited from a 3 hour decant, which allowed the tannins to smooth and integrate nicely. The modest nose features cocoa dusted cherry, light roast ground espresso bean, graphite, blood orange and faint camp fire. This is full bodied on the palate with juicy acidity and tannins that are initially broad and densely grainy, but which smooth around the edges with air. The structure has achieved a uniform feel. The flavors ride the boisterous acid with evident joy as they hit on red currant, plum, cherry, strawberry, graphite and dry dirt, finishing with a small floral flourish. 91 points. Value: A.


Pahlmeyer, a member of this pantheon of benchmark merlot producers in California, is like Carpenter keen on producing merlot that competes with the quality of the great merlots of the world. Cleo Pahlmeyer told me she believes that Sideways wasn’t the catalyst for the merlot market’s collapse, but rather just well-timed with a saturation of bad merlot in the marketplace. Cleo is now the general manager of the winery, which was started by her father.

“Our first vintage at the winery was 1986, and my father’s dream was to make a Bordeaux-style red wine. Back then, Napa wasn’t known as place for cabernet, so this was a relatively novel goal,” she said. “We made our first merlot in 1988 or 1989 after a barrel tasting with our then-winemaker Randy Dunn. He and my father came across a barrel of merlot [that was going to be blended] that blew them away. It was a complete wine.”

“There’s one merlot descriptor that I hate,” Cleo said. “It’s my snobby wine self saying this, but it’s “smooth” and I hate it.” She hates it because “smooth” implies a level of simplicity that merlot can surpass. Benchmark bottles offer more complexity and texture than the simplistic profile that merlot used to carry when “smooth” first became a widespread attribute of the grape.

Pahlmeyer grows their merlot at the higher elevation points in their vineyards, just like Chris’ wineries. “We grow our merlot on the upper part of our estate vineyard,” Cleo explained. “It’s at about 2000 feet of elevation and sits on top of the mountain. You can see it from vantage points along Highway 29. It gets a lot more sunlight and it stays above the fog. The soil has relatively poor natural nutrients and we keep the yields low by dropping fruit. The clusters are small, the berries are small, and so it develops great tannin and body and quality.”

In Washington State, north of California, merlot has held a special place since the early founding of the industry there dating back to the 1800s. “In Washington, they stayed the course on making quality merlot. They didn’t rip out vines, just kept growing and going. What goes into varietally labeled [Washington] merlot is the best of the best.” This is what Constance Savage of Washington’s historic L’Ecole No. 41 told me.

“Washington State is a great producer of Bordeaux varieties. We are actually a more consistent supplier of those wines at better prices than California. We have no coastal weather issues and because we get no rain, we can control the vines’ water intake [through irrigation]. We have great wind, our soil is well-draining. We’re further north so we get more light and our grapes ripen every year. It’s the perfect place for merlot. As merlot comes back, Washington is going to be the leader in quality.”


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High Value: 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley

The reticent nose offers an array of red and blue fruit, baking spice, vanilla and hot cocoa. It’s full bodied on the palate as the tannins are fine grained, dense and mouth coating. The acid is bright and juicy. It boasts an engaging texture. The flavors include blueberry, strawberry, plum, boysenberry, cinnamon, cassis, black currant and graphite. The more serious of the two L’Ecole merlots, it offers some upside with three to five years of aging. 92 points. Value: A.


Those are fighting words, but Washington State has been producing high quality merlot for decades, and L’Ecole as long been recognized as being at the tip of that spear. Washington wine industry people have long praised L’Ecole’s role in the industry but they’ve long been recognized well outside the state as well. Wine & Spirits Magazine put L’Ecole on its list of the top-100 wineries of 2019, the 15th time that L’Ecole has been placed on that list, making it one of 15 wineries to be included in it that many times.

“We’ve been in merlot since 1983 [at L’Ecole]. That was the first vintage at the winery, and we led with merlot and semillon.” Located in the southeast corner of the state in Walla Walla, L’Ecole remains one of the most consistent produces of high quality and reasonably priced wines in the state.

Coming from over two decades in the importing business, Savage feels that “Sideways obliterated the market for merlot. It was really tough until four or five years ago. But it improved the quality of merlot everywhere.” Five years after the movie, she began to realize it was time to start re-ordering merlot again because wineries “were really putting their best wines forward.”

“When I worked with the producers, we would talk about what to do with their merlot vines. [A common discussion was whether they] should they rename their bottles with proprietary names rather than varietally? Yet every year, when I would get my sales team of over 100 people together and get their feedback, in the early 2010s, there was noticeable turn-around for merlot.”

Ary from Duckhorn also noted the five year mark as an important one. “The last couple of years, merlot sales are way up – they are starting to plateau, I think, but the last five years, the number really rose, especially in the luxury merlot tier. Super premium merlot is selling better and better.” In 2017, Wine Spectator made Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms merlot it’s wine of the year. “The number one award helped push [sales] along, but it had been trending that way previously. It gave a nice boost.”


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Worthy Cellar Buy: 2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot W.S. Keyes Vineyard

A nose more reminiscent of Saint-Julien than most of Napa Valley, the fruit is just spectacular. It’s as if an entire farmer’s market fruit section comprised of perfectly ripe fruit has been bottled in this wine. This vision is augmented by kirsch liqueur, cassis, cardamom, pencil lead and light roast coffee. It is full bodied with dense and well-tuned fine-grained tannin. The acid is similarly precise, and the balance stands up to some of the finest of the Old World. The flavors pop in an unusually juicy manner with blackberry, boysenberry, licorice, cherry jam and charcoal. This has two decades of positive evolution ahead of it. I’d wait at least six years to crack this one open. 94 points. Value: C.


An important element of L’Ecole’s business model, especially with merlot, is to “keep the price point low” and the quality high, Constance told me. “We produce 45,000 cases per year, which is pretty big for Washington in terms of family-owned, mid-sized wineries. We want to be able to move and sell our wines so we know the quality-to-price ratio needs to be great.”

Another top tier merlot house is Rutherford Hill, located in Napa Valley, where the grape comprises 75% of wine production. I spoke with their winemaker, Marisa Taylor, who started at Rutherford “right around the time of Sideways” and had come from making pinot noir. “Like pinot drinkers, merlot drinkers are very loyal,” she explained. “They seek you out, they hold you to a standard, and they’re rarely disappointed.”

“Merlot used to be a generic word for red wine, especially in a tasting room, like “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux,”” Taylor observed, noting that it’s still important to dispel this myth. “We try to show the diversity that merlot can develop by farming it in different locations and bottling single vineyard designates. For example, our Atlas Peak is very different from our Oakville. Our tasting room pourers do a lot of education – they actually approach it like a bartender by asking about preferences and choosing wines to pour.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and I discussed the Napa price points and bang for the buck, and she offered a point of view I consider very on-point. “If you’re looking for a good wine with a budget around $75 and you want to buy a Napa cabernet, don’t buy it. Buy merlot because at that price point you’re going to get so much more quality and better wine with a merlot at the price point.”

Duckhorn’s Ary made a similar argument when I spoke with her. “Merlot has become really polarizing out there [because] there is not good mid-[price] range quality merlot. There is either really good, well-made merlot, or the flip side of that. Sideways was good in a sense that it helped weed out the less serious producers.”

On the topic of sales, Palhmeyer note that “we’ve never had a problem selling out merlot. It has a following that’s remained steady of the years in part because it is regarded as a classic Napa Valley wine.” Giving a nod to the role Duckhorn has played in promoting merlot, she said that because of what Duckhorn has done for the varietal, “Palhmeyer doesn’t have to do much.”

With merlot having rebounded significantly over the last five or so years, I wanted to ask the people I spoke to for this article about the grape’s prospects for the future. It has been well documented that Millennials, now the largest purchasers of wine in the United States, have very different buying habits from their predecessors: they spend less, are more experimental, care less about winery and vineyard prestige, want unusual grapes and seek out wines made using unusual techniques or technology. Merlot is expensive, traditional, found among prestigious producers and anything but unusual. It seemed to me that there is reason for merlot producers to be concerned about the long-term commercial prospects of the grape.


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

A slight reticence on the nose tells me this needs at least another two to three years in bottle to come out of its shell. So far, it’s giving muddled cherry and blackberry, clove, nutmeg and scorched earth. An elegant medium-plus body, the tannins are nicely refined and line up well with the smooth and integrated acid. This has a serious structure that demands some patience. Serious loam and dry earth mineralilty goes well with cherry, blueberry, blackberry, dried seaweed, tobacco and blood orange zest. Already very tasty, this offers great promise with short to medium-term aging. If drinking in the next two years, decant this for an hour or two if you can. 92 points. Value: A.


Ary was the first to admit that Millennials are “a different market. They are looking for different things.” She explained that Duckhorn is more traditional than trendy, and that is in part because “wines tend to represent their winemakers. I’m more traditional of a person,” even though she knows traditional wine “doesn’t always appeal to Millennials.”

Nevertheless, Ary and Duckhorn are not planning to change the way they make wine in any big ways. “If our tastes didn’t evolve,” Ary noted, “then we would still be drinking sweet wine,” a reference to America’s preference for sweet wine for the better part of its history. “[Tastes] may ebb and flow, but ultimately if it’s a classic wine then it’ll stick around.”

Carpenter had similar thoughts. “Millennials are drinking different, more esoteric wines,” he said, which certainly seems true if you read the wine blogs and visit the hipster somm wine stores and bars popping up across America. “But there are not a lot of people producing these esoteric wines [relative to the size of the industry], and those that are don’t do it in big volumes. You can speculate as to what variety is going to go where and how Millennials will jump on it, but the fact of the matter is there isn’t any one variety or style that has started to dominate the Millennial demographic.”

Chris made an important point about not just what grapes go into these “esoteric” wines, but also how the winemakers approach them. “The wines I produce focus first and foremost on the land. These new wines that appeal to Millennials, however, are more about techniques than terroir. If you start to involve techniques or technology [that go beyond basic winemaking] , what you’re doing is you’re changing that understanding of the land. A lot of natural wines I’ve tasted, they don’t taste like the vineyard; they taste like the winemaker. Some of them are good, but my style is to highlight the land [rather than myself].”

This fundamental difference is key to understanding where merlot is going as a commercial product. If we look at France, where wine has been around much longer as a mainstream consumer product than in the United States, Chris noted that “traditional grapes and winemaking have done well for a couple hundred years. That’s because Bordeaux is the right place to grow cabernet and merlot, and Burgundy is the right place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.” His larger point: long-term success in wine is about finding the right match of varieties with locations.

Every winemaker consulted for this article shared an appreciation for merlot as a blending grape as well. Carpenter blends it into several hugely successful blends and cabernet sauvignon-designates under various labels. “I use merlot to add complexity and another layer of experience [for the consumer].” One way it’s useful is in the tannin department as a way to smooth out, or “mitigate” to use Chris’ term, the heavy and sometimes grippy sensation of cabernet tannin. “It helps make it a little more texturally silky.”

Ary stated boldly that “it takes a good merlot to make a good cabernet. Merlot is good for midpalate, weight and plushness. It is the go-to for filling out a holey cabernet.”

Carpenter explained that “merlot has different phenolics, and by blending it you’re layering those in. That’s what I use all my blenders for [regardless of grape]. I don’t blend just for fun – though blending is kind of fun – I’m doing it because each one of those [five Bordeaux grapes he uses across his portfolio] adds something unique to the base blend of cabernet. It’s like a spice component in cooking.”

Many cooks have their go-to spices that they are always sure to keep on hand. For producers of Bordeaux (and Bordeaux-style) wines, merlot is certainly one of them. If you start taking a look at how much merlot is in the wines you already drink – especially if you drink varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon – you may feel a bit remorseful about the last bad thing you said about merlot. It is one of the most important red grapes grown today.


Decoy

Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

A very fruit and oak-forward nose, giving cherry, black currant, plum, and toasted oak. It’s full-bodied with a smooth combination of tannin and acid, it delivers in the structure department and with just a bit of grip is made for a burger. Flavors hew close to the nose: cherry, black and red currant, black plum, baking spice, black pepper spice and a small hint of sweet mint on the back end. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with some simple red meat or barbecue. 89 points. Value: A.


And if you haven’t had a high quality merlot recently, you might be surprised. The wines I tasted for this article demonstrated compelling varietal typicity, senses of place, layers and complexity, refinement, elegance and, yes, intrigue. Some of them are better than many, if not most, similarly priced cabernet sauvignons. I make this last point because when it comes to food pairings, the Venn Diagram of merlot and cabernet shows a lot of overlap. If you placed the wines reviewed in this article in a blind tasting with cabernets of equal quality, the merlots would do better than many would expect.

So, heading into the winter when temperatures drop and we start reaching for heavier reds, it is the perfect time to give merlot another try. Let go of your previous notions of the grape, open your mind and head for the merlot isle (or section on the website). Take a deep breath, put a few in your cart and share them with your family and friends. And, pay attention to the role merlot places in the red wines you drink; it’s not by accident that talented winemakers everywhere use it in their best wines. Let the final few months of 2019 be the time you reacquaint yourself with merlot.

Other merlot reviews:

2014 Alcance Merlot Gran Reserva (Chile) – The dark nose boasts penetratingly deep sweet oak, maraschino cherry, smoke, black plum, black currant and cassis. It’s full bodied and lush on the palate with fully integrated tannin and surprisingly tart acid, which throws the balance a bit on what is otherwise a nice structure. Flavors are a combination of raspberry, strawberry, tar, tobacco leaf and ground slightly bitter espresso bean. It finishes with a slightly floral note. Were it for less sharp and better integrated acid, this would be a really enjoyable wine. 88 points. Value: C.

2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard – The exquisite nose offers aromas of lilac, rose petal, crushed Sweetarts, dehydrated strawberry, boysenberry, loam, pink peppercorn and graphite. It has a plush full body with sweet, fine grained Earl Grey tannin that blankets the palate and fine, precise acid that establishes needed tension. The structure is elegant and refined. The flavors are deeply layered and more confrontational than the nose, offering sweet plum, strawberry, tar, bitter cocoa, loam, black pepper and cassis. This is an expertly crafted with great potential to elevate itself over the next 10-20 years. 93 points. Value: C-.

2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosché Vineyard – The aromas carry a sensual air about it, offering sweet cherry, mountain strawberry, crushed gravel, smashed flower petals and potting soil. On the palate, it has a full and svelte body with tightly-woven tannin and well-balanced acid. The structure holds a lot of promise with more age. The flavors check in with bruised cherry and blackberry, mocha, clove and pipe tobacco. While enjoyable now with a few hours in the decanter, I think this will improve demonstrably with at least five more years of bottle age. 92 points. Value: B.

2016 Hickinbotham Merlot The Revivalist (Australia) – A boisterous nose, it wafts sweet hickory smoke, eucalyptus, chewing tobacco, boysenberry, cherry preserves and orange zest. It hits a medium plus stature, the tannins are long, dense and restrained while the acid is slightly elevated. The structure and balance are professional and suggest the making of a wonderful steakhouse wine. The flavors balance nicely between cherry, strawberry, plum, iron, wet dark soil, toasted oak and unsweetened peppermint that collectively produce a deep, penetrating wine. This needs a few hours in the decanter, or better yet, at least five years in the cellar as there’s more there to develop. 92 points. Value: C.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Merlot Grand Reserve – The nose boasts toasted oak, wet gravely soil, strawberry and cherry. Its medium bodied with bright acid and weighty, but fairly imperceptible, tannin. The structure is solid and mouthfeel smooth. The flavors mostly ride the juicy acid and come in slightly sweet: fruit punch, finely ground dark roast coffee bean and cocoa powder. The finish adds sweet orange zest. Easy drinking. 89 points. Value: B.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Estate Walla Walla Valley – The deeply saturated nose wafts dark cherry sauce, black plum, cassis, beef jerky, graphite minerality and smokey black pepper. It’s not quite full-bodied, featuring round and broad tannins that are well integrated and nicely balanced with modest acid. The structure is classic high quality merlot. Flavors are as much savory as sweet due to strong doses of saline and dried tarragon. On the fruit side there’s cherry pit, strawberry, Acai, red plum and dried goji berry. Structurally this wine is ready to go, I say drink over the next five years. 90 points. Value: B.

2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot – The nose offers really bright red and black currants and plums, red beat juice, graphite and mocha. Just short of full-bodied, this is a flirty wine on the palate due to lip-smackingly juicy acid that feels a few years shy of full integration. The tannins are just slightly chewy and sneak up on you with time in the mouth. The components and stuffing are there to build a top-shelf structure with another 5-10 years of aging. Flavors hit on cherry, plum, currant, bitter cocoa, graphite and wet, dense soil. The finish brings a tangy and incense-driven twist. 93 points. Value: B.

2015 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot – A very plummy nose that also offers graphite, black tea bag and muddled cherry. Medium bodied with modest, smooth tannin. The acid, unfortunately, is bracingly sharp and seemingly volatile. It’s just off. Fruit flavors are on the darker and purpler sides with blueberry, plum and firm blackberry, while strong doses of cigar tobacco and graphite provide variety. The acid being off doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. 84 points. Value: F.

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Bennett Valley – The nose has a nice combination of black plum, boysenberry, muddled and mulberry-spiced blueberry and violet, though it has a slightly alcoholic kick at the very end that I imagine will fade with time. Its medium bodied with slightly thin acid and diffuse, fine-grained tannin. The structure has everything it needs to be complete but isn’t actually cohesive or substantive. Similar to the nose, The fruit flavors are blue, though the blueberry far out plays the boysenberry here. Mocha swirls around the fruit, as does pencil shavings and purple florals. There are attractive elements to this, but it’s hard to get past what feels like a missed opportunity to build a more substantive structure. 90 points. Value: D.

2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot – This is a stiff, tight wine. I ended up decanting it for 24 hours and it’s still very closed. This needs years. At the moment, it has a subdued nose of muddled cherry, loam, graphite, tar, turkey jerky and mountain strawberry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with dense and fine-grained oak tannin that coats the mouth and finishes slightly bitter, all the while overpowering the juicy acid. This has the structure of a wine that can evolve over two decades. Flavors hit on cherry, espresso, black pepper, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I wouldn’t touch this for another seven years (at least). It has tremendous upside. 91 points. Value: D.

2016 Rutherford Hill Merlot Cask Reserve – A potent nose delivers hedonistic aromas maraschino cherry, fruit leather, sweet dark cocoa, wet soil and graphite minerality, black pepper and sweat leather. It’s full bodied with significant fine grained tannin and juicy, sharp acid. The fruit is quite pure, dominated at the moment by red varieties of plum, strawberry, tart cherry and rhubarb. There are shadows of blood orange, cigarette tobacco and espresso grounds. This is showing a lot of promise, it will grow into something really impressive in another five plus years. 92 points. C-.

2015 Rutherford Hill Merlot Napa Valley – The nose features sweet aromas of spiced cherry and blackberry compotes, leather, cola and vanilla. The full body offers refined grainy tannin that is well integrated with modest acid that combine to produce a seamless and velvety mouthfeel. Raspberry, cherry, orange zest, spicy black pepper and bitter cinnamon. It’s a complete if singular merlot. 91 points. A.

2014 Rutherford Hill Oakville Merlot – This does benefit from decanting. The nose is perfumed and elevated, quite beautiful and delicate. It offers red currant, red plum, holiday fruit cake, loam, well-worm leather and violet. The full body is built on a dense and cocoa powder-dusty tannin structure and moderate acid. The flavors include raspberry, strawberry, under ripe boysenberry, dark cocoa, graphite minerality and a blood orange kick on the finish. This is tasty, but it needs 3-5 years to unwind and really express itself, and will then evolve nicely for another 5-10 years. 92 points. Value C.

2013 Rutherford Hill Merlot Atlas Peak – The reserved but elegant nose offers cassis, pipe tobacco, dark chocolate cocoa powder, cherry compote, violet and high toned blood orange. The medium-weighted body offers densely packed fine grain tannin that oozes class. It balances beautifully with broad acid. The flavors are only starting to delineate: ripe strawberry, red plum, red currant, moist dark earth, graphite, unsweetened baking chocolate and a tomato leaf burst on the finish. This needs a few more years to fully unwind. 93 points. B+.

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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Here are two things most people don’t buy: merlot, and rosé that costs $34. I’m going to try to convince you to do both, at the same time, with the 2018 Rosé of Merlot from Napa’s Rutherford Hill. Rutherford is one of the most respected merlot houses in the United States, and they graciously sent me six different merlots for my research on the variety and the upcoming merlot article I’m writing. Tucked among this half case was the rosé, like an oasis amongst the sand. I opened it with some friends and after polishing off the bottle in no time, knew it deserved a stand-alone piece.

Part of the reason I’ve been focused on merlot recently is that the variety has gotten a terribly unfair shake, and though its reputation has improved among aficionados, it hasn’t recovered in the mainstream consciousness despite the ratio of good and bad merlot in the market having flipped, in a positive sense, over the last decade or so. People are missing out on terribly good wine.

The problem, to certain extent, starts with the polarizing reaction to the word “merlot.” This knee jerk reflex often comes from one or both of two factors: what we associate mentally when we hear the word, and what we expect to taste when it is poured for us. If the mental association is off, it’s hard to get the taste right, and so it begins with what we say and think.

Terminology gives us words and creates thoughts, and in the wine business terminology is confusing and complicated, which is unfortunate because it is crucially important to connecting customers with wines that meet their preferences and standards. Americans have never been great about this, a great example being that in America in the early 1900s to even as late as the 1980s, “Chablis” meant white wine and “Burgundy” meant red wine for many people. Though wholly inaccurate and also illegal given the French laws governing the use of those names, it wasn’t baseless in the sense that Chablis, France, produced white wine and Burgundy, France produced red wine.

Though our wine parlance has come a long way since then, becoming substantially more specific and accurate, in the interim period merlot was commonly used as a generic reference to red wine as much as it was intended to refer to the specific variety, leading people to associate merlot with generic red wine. Merlot’s market saturation in the 1980s and 1990s, a conscious industry choice because it was cheap to mass produce, led to copious amounts of generic-tasting red wine made from the grape, which didn’t do many positive things for the variety’s reputation.

Now, though, thankfully and finally, it’s because of high quality, diligent and passionate producers like Rutherford Hill (and Duckhorn, and Mt. Brave, and Leonetti, and others) that merlot has a reputation specific to itself (at least among those paying attention), affording it a greater opportunity to shape what people think about it rather than the other way around.

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Rutherford Hill

Merlot not only makes a complete and complex wine on its own, but it fulfills two really critical additional roles: a blending work horse and a savior for many a cabernet sauvignon. Many of the best red wines, whether labeled as a single variety or a blend, significantly and uniquely benefit from merlot’s participation. Even if you don’t buy wines labeled as merlot, you likely get your fair share of it if you’re drinking other reds. Where it doesn’t show up very often, though, is on the label of rosé. And if the 2018 Rosé of Merlot from Rutherford Hill is any indication, that’s a real shame.

In the same way that merlot can be a complete and complex red wine, it can be a complete and complex rosé as well. Rutherford’s winemaker, Marisa Taylor, walked me through the winemaking process, which begins by a goal of making an intentional rosé. It’s unsurprising that the start of any good rosé’s story begins with the winemaker’s intent to make rosé. Many wineries produce their rosé with the leftover wine from their red wine production, which is the first step in making bad rosé. The reason for this comes down to acid and sugar. Red wine is served best by less acid and more sugar in its grapes that rosé, so the point of grape maturation is important for both. Ideally, a rosé comes from grapes harvested earlier than grapes harvested for red wine, when acid is higher and sugar is lower.

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

Like they do in the rosé mecca of Provence, a region known for pale-colored rosé with bright acid, juicy red fruit flavors and floral aromas, Marisa harvests the grapes for this wine on the early side, at night when the temperature is cool, and puts them straight into the press where they receive a very gentle pressing (on par with Champagne-level pressure) so as not to extract too much color or tannin. This is the ideal genesis story for many who love rosé wine.

The block where the grapes come from was specifically chosen to make a special rosé because of Marisa’s association of drinking rosé by the water while relaxing with family and friends on vacation. She honed in on this specific block because it is boarded on two-and-a-half sides by a pond and blankets a rise in the terrain, a setting that she described as very peaceful. The grapes from it are known to produce wonderful aromatics as well, a key component of a compelling rosé.

The concept and execution pays off. The wine manages to offer both a substantive and complex profile and the refreshing brightness and juiciness of a stellar rosé. This is likely every bit as rewarding and compelling as your favorite $34 white or red wine. Try this wine because substantive rosés are rare in availability and especially good, and because it’s a great way to experience an unfairly stereotyped grape.

Tasting note: This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but is balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed, and form a wonderfully layered palate. Among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal if you can wait long enough for the meal to be made. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

Simple: direct from the winery. It’s available in-person and online.

The Legend of Abruzzo & Beyond: Emidio Pepe

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

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

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The view from our room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gianluca and the author walking the Emidio Pepe cellar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pepe vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pepe vines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some old and new vintages that are ready for release

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

Oregon Hill Country Wine

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Last summer, an aunt and uncle of mine gifted us a booked called Champagne that was written by Peter Liem. In the opening chapter, Liem is already addressing a widely-held assumption that because most champagne are blends of tens, if not dozens, of various vineyards, terroir matters less in champagne wines than others.

“While both consumers and producers were content in the recent past to treat champagne as a brand, or as an object of lifestyle, or as an entity in the wine world that was somehow less serious than Burgundy or Barolo,” he writes, “the prevailing attitudes have shifted, at least in the arenas that matter. Champagne is now subject to the same questions asked of any other wine and held to the same standards” in terms of, among other things, terroir.

Flip just two pages ahead and Liem expands on these standards in the context of Louis Roederer champagne. “It’s often assumed,” he says, “that base wines are essentially neutral, light wines with low alcohol and little fruit flavor” after quoting Roederer’s winemaker, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, who remarked that “I have 410 different parcels and 450 different vessels in which to ferment them.” His larger point: terroir matters as much in champagne as it does in other wines.

A short and roughly 5,188 mile hop, skip and jump from Reims puts you at Youngberg Hill Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is one of the more terroir and parcel-based wineries I’ve come across recently, and it shows positively in the wines. With an estate draped atop a hill, Wayne Bailey and his family are putting a lot of effort into their vines and turning out some gorgeous wine.

Youngberg Hill’s vineyard covers 20 of the estate’s 50 acres and is comprised of three blocks of pinot noir and one block of pinot gris and chardonnay. Three of the blocks are named after the three Bailey children: Natasha, Jordan and Aspen. When talking about the vineyards with Wayne, it became strikingly evident how much attention he pays to the eccentricities of each block, as if they were three unique children each requiring unique attention (…or something like that).

Each vineyard is at a different elevation and has a different mix of soil types, grape clones and clone-rootstock combinations. Though three pinot noir blocks get their own vineyard designated bottles, they are also blended into the estate’s cuvées. It’s within this context that I think of Liem’s champagne discussion because of the Youngberg vineyard’s variety. Though it’s not quite Roederer’s 410 unique parcels, there is a lot of variety packed into Youngberg’s 20 acres. Depending on the block and vineyard, you could find Pommard, Wadenswil, Dijon 777 or Dijon 10114, plus some purchased Dijon 115, among 20 acres with high terroir diversity. Let’s break the sites’ soils and elevations down pictorially:

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Youngberg has made the move from organic farming and winemaking to biodynamic. Wayne made a great point in explaining his rationale for the change by pointing out that “organic tells you what you can’t do, not what you can, and because it addresses only the cant’s, it ends up depleting the soil.” Conversely, biodynamic “adds what you can do to enhance the biomass, to maintain the ratios of calcium to potassium, those kind of things. It’s a tool that helps you do.”

The differences in impact between organic and biodynamic “are very prevalent very quickly,” he said. “First, we saw it in the health of the vines, which then translates into healthier fruit. We’re harvesting healthier and healthier fruit every year, which is great because it then minimizes the issues we face in the winery. As a result, we’re starting to see the quality of the wines enhanced as it ages in bottle and you taste the vitality and liveliness when it comes time to enjoy it.”

Although he’s been making wine at Youngberg since before Y2K, he’s recently put more attention into the tannins he develops in his wine. “I’d been chastised a bit for my tannins being aggressive,” he told me, adding that “I’ve worked diligently over the years to adjust that.” In the vineyard, he’s tried to adjust the root structures of the vines so they produce less aggressive skin tannin by clearing between the vines. Harvest pick dates have been pushed later and later as well with the aim of harvesting fruit with browner seeds to avoid the harsh tannins of younger seeds.

He has also dialed up his use of new oak barrels, which may seem a counterintuitive tactic for dialing back tannins. With his location in the McMinville AVA and the particulars of the Youngberg vineyards, he naturally gets intense, aggressive wines to start with, which drove reticence in using new oak on the fear that it might enhance the robustness and overwhelm the more subtle flavors and aromas. His prior experience in Burgundy, where oak is used with a light touch, heightened this sensitivity.

However, when he decided to start reducing the stoutness of his tannins, he experimented with more new oak – 40% or less, so still not much – and found that it helped refine the tannins and smooth them out without taking away from the complexity of the wine. Because of the robustness in the estate’s fruit, the wine can handle the new oak without losing its personality. He has also shortened the length of his cold soaks, a process that extracts tannins from the skins and inserts them into the wine. The color of the skins is naturally quite high, and even with shorter cold soaks, he’s getting all the color he wants.

While he’s shortened cold soaks, he’s extended warm soaks post-fermentation. The skins are allowed to remain with the wine for as much as 10 days after fermentation is complete before they are removed. Doing this helps the mouth become rounder and the wines become deeper and more complex in part because it tends to help the tannins integrate into the wine quicker.

Wayne and I had a fairly lengthy discussion about tannins at my prompting because the tannins on his wines were one of the aspects that stood out the most – these are seriously structurally pinot noirs. I had the opportunity to try two of the single vineyard bottles – Natasha and Jordan – as well as the entry-level cuvée.

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The 2015 Jordan pinot noir offers a mineral-driven nose of loam, iron, graphite, cherry and blackberry juices and dry Cap’n Crunch. It’s medium bodied with balanced acid and a slightly gritty tannin structure that drapes the mouth with an engaging structure. Not for the faint of heart pinot drinker, the flavors of cherry, blackberry, pomegranate, smoke, damp soil and saline are saturating. This has a real physical sensation and serious splash of flavor that, while it works, could stand a year or three to better integrate. 91 points, value B.

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My favorite pinot, the 2015 Natasha, has a pleasantly pungent nose of tart strawberry, rhubarb and blackberry to go with Sweetarts and damp underbrush. Medium bodied and mouth-filling at the same time, the balanced acid contributes a slightly coarse element to the structure, which is framed by sturdy tannin. The flavors are a bit sweeter than the nose, offering muddled blackberry, blueberry and raspberry to go with mild cedar and tobacco. There is discernible smoke on the finish. This will only get better over the next five, if not ten, years. 92 points, value B+.

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Given its price, the 2015 Cuvée is the most impressive pinot, though. Youngberg’s entry level pinot noir has a nose of gorgeously ripe, gushing raspberry, strawberry, cherry, scorched earth, rose petal and Sweetarts. It is medium bodied with round edges, smooth tannin and linear acid, forming a very pleasant and enjoyable structure. The fruit is juicy, oozing raspberry, strawberry and muddled cherry. There are also a slightly dark, wet earth theme. Just a wonderful wine. 92 points, value A.

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I’ve saved my favorite for last: the 2016 Aspen chardonnay. Wayne takes his chardonnay seriously. The blocks of chardonnay were originally planted to pinot gris in 2006, and he grafted them over to chardonnay in 2014. Where other people might plant pinot noir, Wayne made the choice to plant chardonnay. The Aspen vineyard is south-eastern facing, between 525 and 600 feet in elevation and planted on marine sedimentary soil with 25% volcanic rock. It’s a great site, and one that screams “pinot noir” to many, but Wayne wanted to make exceptional white wine, and so he choose this exceptional site for it.

The 2016 Aspen chardonnay shows malolactic and barrel notes on the nose, which is dominated creme brûlée, toasted oak and Key lime pie. Full-bodied and lush with a high glycerin sensation, the palate is quite polished. Well-balanced bright acid provides levity. The flavors hew close to the aromas with brioche and Key lime, adding salty lemon and just a touch of slate minerality. This is quite nice now with a decant, but it offers real promise of evolution over the next five-plus years. 92 points, value A.

Tasting through Youngberg Hill’s wine is tasting through a diverse 20 acres of vineyards. It’s a fun and rewarding experience. The wines are distributed in pockets around the country, and are also available direct from the winery, which ships. Oregon wine is finding its way to more markets, and Youngberg is a great representative of what the state offers.

Try this Wine: Amazing Spring Whites

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Spring in the vineyard. Credit: Christoph Wurst (unaltered).

Spring is here, and if you live in a climate like ours’ in Washington, DC, you know that it unfortunately will not last long. I see the humidity on the horizon. Though we’re a winter white wine house (we drink a lot of white when the temperature drops), this is the season of transition for most people when they go from red to white wine. Rosé is often the transition wine, and I’m sure your local wine store is stocked deep with it.

Sometimes there’s no better pairing than a warm spring Sunday afternoon and a magnum of rosé, I’ll admit, but other times nothing beats an acid-driven full-bodied white wine. A really good one is going to offer more complexity that most any rosé, and when you want a more serious spring wine, that’s when whites out-perform rosé. The heat of spring isn’t so strong as to prevent enjoyment of a wine with some barrel aging, so you can go that route if you like, nor is it too hot for a wine with substantive depth.

The profile of white that I’m suggesting – some weight, multiple layers of flavor, thick acid – is also more versatile food-wise than many other wines. This is to say, it can hold its own with grilled vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish as well as red-fruited wines like pinot noir, trousseau, gamay, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Just because you’re going to a friend’s grill-out doesn’t mean you should avoid white wine.

I’m sharing four wines that I’ve had recently that blew me away for one reason or another. Three are from California, two of which I tasted in-person at the wineries in March. The forth is from Australia. All represent above-average values despite costing between $30 and $50 each. Some are easier to find than others, but all are worth seeking out.

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The first is Carlisle Winery’s Sonoma Mountain Steiner Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2017. A friend in the California wine business suggested I visit Carlisle on my most recent trip, and it did not disappoint. Known predominantly for complex and age-worthy zinfandels, I was blown away by the two white wines we tasted, this grüner and a field blend from a small little vineyard they split with Arnot-Roberts called Compagni Portis. I could’ve listed either or both here, but I went with the grüner solely because I have better notes on it.

The Steiner Vineyard has less than two acres of grüner, so there isn’t much of this wine. It’s almost as if the small amount of vines somehow inspire a similarly concentrated wine. It is produced in all stainless steel, and does not go through malolactic fermentation. The wonderful nose hews close to varietal typicity with stone fruit, vanilla, a cornucopia of citrus zests and white pepper. The palate is full bodied, plush and nervous. Flavors are similar to the nose, with pronounced white pepper and peach. The flint-infused acid provides a robust backbone. 92 points. Value: B+.

The next wine comes from Chimney Rock, a historic winery located in the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley. Established by a couple from South Africa in 1989, they built the gorgeous winery in the Cape Dutch-style architecture. The estate is known almost exclusively for its cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-based red blends, and has built a strong wine club following on that reputation. These wines have elegance woven into them, but for me their signature is more about robust tannin structure that for my palate needs a good ten-plus years post vintage to sufficiently soften.

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My tasting there was bookended by a rosé on the front end and a white wine on the tail end. The rosé, made of cabernet franc, was spectacular. Really, one of the best rosés I’ve had in recent memory. It has substance and some weight, two qualities I think are too often shunned to our detriment when it comes to rosé. That said, I’m equally excited to share their one and only white wine, a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris called Elevage Blanc, because I might have liked it even more than the rosé. It offers incredible smoothness in personality and feel. With a deft full body, it boasts loads of stone and tropical fruits, spicy zest, marzipan, slate and flint minerality and a smoky finish. If you tend to find sauvignon blanc too bitter and cutting, this is one that may change your mind. 93 points. Value: A-.

The final California wine comes from the prolific Copain Winery. It was founded in 1999 in the Russian River Valley, but it sources fruit from cool climate vineyards in Mendicino County, Anderson Valley and Sonoma. To give you some idea of why I call it prolific, the website currently lists 40 different wines for sale, including chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and rosé. I happen to know they also make trousseau. Copain represents incredible value, especially with their chardonnay.

Until I was sent a selection of recent and current release samples last year, I had been entirely spoiled in my Copain experience by having only well-aged wine from this estate. Copain makes age worthy wine as they produce wines with good acid and elegance, traits required to age well. In 2018 I had a 2010 Brousseau Vineyard chardonnay from them and loved it so much that when another of the same bottle showed up on Winebid earlier this year, I snatched it up. I imagine we’ll drink it before the summer is over. Most of their syrahs from the 00’s are drinking phenomenally right now. As I tasted my way through the younger samples, it became evident to me that I preferred age on their wines.

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One of the few exceptions to this is their Les Voisins chardonnay, of which I had the 2015. It was drinking gorgeously. The nose is just wonderful and engaging with rich honeyed cantaloupe, honeysuckle, lemon zest, crushed gravel, lemon curd and daffodil. It’s slightly on the heavy side of medium bodied. The level of polish on the structure elevates this to elegant status, and the slight streak of acid that runs through it keeps it interesting from first to last sip. The flavors are multifaceted: honeysuckle, peach, fresh apricot, honey dew and sweet lemon curd. It finishes on a wonderful green apple note and a textual sensation and flavor that conjures licking a slate slab. A fantastic wine. 94 points. Value: A.

For our last wine, we go to Australia and the Yangarra Estate in the McLaren Vale region, which focuses exclusively on southern Rhone Valley varieties. I had the pleasure of meeting Yangarra’s winemaker, Peter Fraser, to taste a new line of top-end wines, including the $72 Roux Beauté Roussanne and Ovitelli Grenache, $140 High Sands Grenache and $105 Ironheart Shiraz. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, talking with Peter or tasting these wines, but both made for a wonderful evening. Peter is one of the more detail-oriented winemakers I’ve met. I’ve tasted other wines priced like these with their respective winemakers, but few have made impressions like the one Chris did that justifies the price of their wine. The amount of effort and thought he puts into his craft is evident in his wines, but you don’t have to spend top dollar to experience it, either.

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Yangarra makes an Estate Roussanne for less than half the price of the Roux Beauté. I tasted the 2016. On first sip, it didn’t impress because it needed oxygen. With several hours of decanting, it began to reveal itself as a dynamic wine capable of putting on complexity and intrigue with more air or age. That is a clear sign of quality and precise attention to detail. The nose wafts lean aromas of sweet dandelion, mild Meyer lemon, tangerine peel and under ripe mango. It’s medium weight on the palate, with balanced and crisp acid that forms a nicely textured backbone. The flavors are just beginning to define themselves, and there is enough nuttiness already to suggest a really cool evolution over the following five-ish years, if not longer. Fresh almond, lean lemon, tart mango and pineapple, unsweetened vanilla, salty minerality and bitter greens form the basis of the flavor profile. Tasty now, it will develop complexity and a more dynamic structure as it ages. 90 points. Value: B-.

Each of these four wines are wonderful in their own ways, though none of them very similar to the others except for their ability to handle spring’s weather, parties and food. On those fronts, they are remarkably adept. Try these wines because the season calls for them.

Where to buy

Normally, I list half a dozen or so places where one can find a Try this Wine featured bottle, but with four I’m going to hyperlink directly to their respective winery-direct pages and wine-searcher.com links where you can search by state, zip code and/or ability to ship to your state.

Carlisle Gruner Veltliner winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Copain Les Voisins Chardonnay winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Yangarra Estate Roussane winery direct and wine-searcher.com.

Loveblock Is New New Zealand Wine

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A Loveblock sauvignon blanc vineyard. Credit: loveblock.com

Though I would be surprised if Erica and Kim Crawford were not sick of hearing about their old winery, Kim Crawford Wines, I need to mention it in this discussion. Kim Crawford the wine label put New Zealand on the world wine map with its lean and green sauvignon blanc in a way that has transformed an entire country’s industry like no other wine has transformed a country’s industry in the world (source: me).

That’s a bold statement, I know, but consider these two facts: 86% of New Zealand’s global wine exports are sauvignon blanc, while 95% of what they send to the United States is sauvignon blanc. When people think “wine” and “New Zealand,” they think sauvignon blanc. And then almost immediately they probably think Kim Crawford, which, as the largest selling New Zealand sauvignon blanc in America, is the country’s the most ubiquitous.

Erica and Kim no longer own Kim Crawford, nor do they have any role in its operations, so it’s understandable if they’ve grown tired of talking or hearing about it. But the success of the label is their own doing, so I imagine they’ve learned to deal, if for no other reason than it gave them the resources necessary to start a new winery called Loveblock, which, while an endeavor to make money, is at its soul a passion project.

“Loveblock is completely different [from Kim Crawford], it’s a philosophical thing,” Erica explained to me over breakfast in Washington, DC. Reflecting back on their Kim Crawford experience, it was clear that Erica and Kim wanted to do things differently with Loveblock. The first main difference: they now follow organic farming practices and treat the land with much greater care and deference.

“New Zealand grows things. We grow grass to feed the cows to make milk for the world. It’s an agrarian economy, but I firmly believe that what we do to the soil is not good, it is not right. I did a deep dive into what we do with the soil, and it was actually devastating.”

With viniculture more attuned to nature, it is then “about doing what we want to do, drinking the wine while we’re making it, and making wine in the style we want to drink.” What is that style? When it comes to sauvignon blanc, it is “moving away from the bell pepper and getting to the peach and passion fruit.” Meaning, they’re moving on from Kim Crawford Wines sauvignon blanc.

Erica noted that “the world has been drinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc now for twenty years and there are people who want something different from the big lean style. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.” Though “both styles are still growing” from a market perspective, “there’s lots of room for an evolution of style, that’s for sure.” That said, “at some point people will tire of [the lean style], which is why it’s really important that we work on an evolution of style.”

Loveblock and Kim Crawford are indeed dramatically different wines. My wife, Kayce, who does a spectacular job with the pictures on this website and Good Vitis’ social media, is not a sauvignon blanc lover. In general, it’s too bitter for her. But when we tried the Loveblock sauvignon blanc, not only did she finish a full glass, but she asked for a second.

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The Loveblock style of sauvignon blanc is rounder, more tropical and complex. My tasting note on the wine describes an expressive, jovial and entertaining wine with more intrigue than the typical New Zealand profile tends to inspire in me:

The aromas leap from the glass, wafting notes of bright lemon and lime citrus, slate and chalk minerality, pear peel, white pepper and faint tarragon. Relatively full-bodied for the variety, it bucks NZ sauv blanc stereotypes with its mouth-filling lushness and juicy, rather than lean, acid that balances nicely with just the lightest touch of sweetness. The texture and structure are gorgeous. The flavors offer substantial depth, featuring lemon, lime, peach and mandarin citrus to go with subtle vanilla, hay, pepper, crushed gravel and mango. An impressive effort. 91 points, value: A.

Beyond the differences in farming practice, in order to achieve this profile, the Crawfords do two things differently from their former approach. First, they manage the canopy quite differently. Canopy refers to the leaves of the vine, and is important for a number of reasons. Notably, they help regulate grape temperature and sun exposure and use up some of the nutrients extracted by the vines from the soil in order to grow themselves. Removing leaves, a process called “leafing,” increases the sun exposure and temperature of the grapes and allows more of the nutrients to flow into the grapes. Most notably in the Loveblock case, they leaf because following organic protocol means feeding the vines less nitrogen, and the grapes therefore need a higher level of sun exposure in order to stave off high levels of something called pyrazine, which is an acidic organic compound that develops in the skins. Pyrazines give wine a bitter taste, and whereas they are purposefully developed to create that famous New Zealand lean style, they are something Loveblock looks to avoid at high levels.

The second difference in approach has to do with oxygen exposure in the winery. By exposing the wine to more oxygen, it develops the tropical fruit flavors that the Crawfords are seeking in the Loveblock profile that they avoided with Kim Crawford. They also use a small amount in oak (around 10%) and let the wine go through full malolactic fermentation, techniques not used at Kim Crawford either.

“I don’t see Loveblock competing against Kim Crawford,” Erica said. “They’re completely different styles and price points, and they are sold in different places. Loveblock is within the trade, at smaller speciality stores. Kim Crawford is at the big chains and groceries.” The differences are night and day.

Sauvignon blanc isn’t the Crawford’s only passion, nor is it the only wine they make. Their initial offerings send to the US include a pinot gris and pinot noir, both of which are on par with the quality and innovative style of the sauvignon blanc. A theme consistent among the three is just how expressive the wines are. From the moment the cap is unscrewed, the wine leaps out of the glass aromatically and dances on the palate.

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The pinot gris has a very expressive, fresh nose featuring beautiful flower petals, various melons, stone fruits and just a bit of soap. On the palate it’s a crispy medium weight with bright acid and serious structure. The flavors are almost a direct match of the nose, but differ a bit of toasted marshmallow and custard that add depth. It finishes with big hits of white pepper and stone minerality, the latter of which adds some palate grip. 88 points, value B+.

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The pinot noir may actually be my favorite of the three because of just how good a value it is, and how well it balances new and old world styles. The nose is an interesting juxtaposition of fruit and funk, offering ripe cherry, cranberry and tutti fruiti on one hand, and wet asphalt, fungal underbrush and barnyard on the other (unlikely to be Brett-induced). It smells more strongly of funk than it tastes, but there is a slight indication of it on the palate as well. I happen to like how this wine wears that profile. In the mouth, it is medium bodied with bright acidity and fine, densely grained tannin. Flavors touch on a cornucopia of fresh and bright red plum, muddled red cherry, cranberry sauce, mild baking spice, wet fungal dirt and moist cedar. The finish remains very juicy. A nice, earthy pinot noir with an interesting profile and great value. 91 points, value A+.

Much more varieties of wine are listed on their website, including some like an orange sauvignon blanc that suggest future experimentation over the years. When I say “over the years,” Erica stressed that Loveblock “is an intergenerational project. We’re playing the long game.” Their son, who is 25, is a qualified winemaker and currently “doing his vintages around the world,” after which he intends to land at Loveblock.

The project is also going to be entirely estate for the foreseeable future, and beyond. “Present plantings produce about 65,000 cases,” Erica told me, adding that “there’s a long way to go in terms of expanding because there’s a lot of space left to plant. This will allow us to remain estate as our production increases.” Further, “estate is important because it allows us to control the viniculture and winemaking from end to end.”

The sense I get from talking with Erica and trying the initial Loveblock lineup of wine is that we should plan to see Loveblock around for a long time, to expect the already good wine to get better, and, most excitingly, to view Loveblock as it evolves as an early indicator of where the New Zealand wine industry is going.

Erica and Kim have established their credibility in that latter regard with their trend-setting Kim Crawford Wines, and though they have to build the reputation of a new label from scratch, their skills, experience, vision and global connections will surely allow them to scale Loveblock a bit quicker than most could with a new label. These initial three wines are all good, with the sauvignon blanc and pinot noir particularly compelling wines. I’m excited for future vintages and the new varieties as they arrive in America. More than that, though, it’s a compelling project in terms of its goal to get ahead of the curve, find a new style for New Zealand and continue the evolution of one of the world’s great and under-appreciated wine regions. Loveblock will be an interesting winery to follow.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine

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All bottle shots were taken in the Octagon suite of the historic 1804 Inn at Barboursville Winery in Virginia

 

“The way we are selling wine in this country is failing.” That’s how Adam Lee started the interview. For a guy who makes a lot of wine – he is the winemaker of four distinctly different projects – he would have some ideas about the state of the wine industry, and he should care.

We’re on the phone to discuss Clarice Wine Company, a new project for a guy who has been making pinot noir, primarily in California, for over two decades. Adam and I first met when he joined a potluck that my now wife and I hosted, and we’ve stayed in touch. A number months ago he sent me samples of the three pinot noirs made under his new Clarice label, which are demonstrably different from the pinots made under the Siduri label, a well-known winery he and his wife, Diana Novy, opened in 1994, and where he still makes the wine despite selling it to Jackson Family Wines.

The two companies, Clarice and Siduri, are demonstrably and fascinatingly different in business model as well. While Siduri is a more traditional winery (direct to customer, wine club and retail sales with international distribution), Clarice is unique – and I mean that in the definitional sense of the word: one of a kind.

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Clarice H. Phears, Adam’s grandmother and namesake of Clarice Wine Company, whom he describes as “one of my closest friends growing up.”

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

First, membership includes exclusive written content commissioned by Adam for his members. Adam solicits written pieces from experts in the wine industry and has a forum set up for members to interact with the authors and among themselves. “My members develop an interest in the complexities of the wine business as well [as the wine itself],” Adam told me. “For example, I had one guest blog post about winery financing from the Silicon Valley Bank, and there was a lot of back and forth between the members and the author [over our online forum]. I thought it might be a dry subject, but it wasn’t for the members. It solicited more responses [than many other more mainstream topics].” He also takes requests from members. For example, although he doesn’t make chardonnay, several members expressed interest in knowing more about how chardonnay was made, and so he asked Donald Patz of Patz and Hall fame to write about it.

Second, members have a private forum in which they can discuss anything they want among themselves. This feature of the membership feeds Adam’s desire for his customers to interact with each other – not just with Clarice. In addition to wine and the guest writer content, members have taken to discussing travel and other tips. “The members are crowd sourcing information,” Adam said. “I didn’t appreciate the power of the forum when I first put this thing together. People are getting better experiences when they travel to wine regions, even when it’s not related to Clarice, because of the forum.”

Third, there are parties: the Clarice wine release party and parties hosted at another wineries. This component of the membership is designed to help members expand their palates beyond Clarice with the added bonus of helping to create a sense of community among the members.

When asked about how he picks the wineries he approaches to host his members, he said that “it’s really about finding someone who is doing something interesting and educational. I don’t want anyone who will give a big sales pitch,” so it’s about finding people he knows who will provide an educational experience and extend deals to the members and really engage them.

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“I’ve always felt that when people are in the tasting room, if they leave with a bottle or case then that’s fine, but if they ask interesting questions and are engaged and really want to know what I’m doing, that’s the kind of experience I want my members to have. The [other winemakers and wineries] I select for my members feel the same about their interactions with Clarice members, and want to generate real interest.” Adam plans to add events outside California for members who aren’t local to the Golden State.

Finally, Adam negotiates discounts for his members with other wineries beyond these events. “It’s important that my members explore wines beyond those that I and my friends make,” Adam told me. “My wine universe is too small for anyone to have a well-rounded experience,” which any follower of his social media should find surprising.

Knowing the basic parameters of these benefits going into the interview, which are more expansive than any winery membership I’ve come across, I had to ask him why he was making such an investment in his members, especially when he’s capped it at roughly 625 slots (the cap is actually lower than that because he needs to base it on the worst case production scenario of a poor growing season). The answer comes down to how the wine industry is changing, and Adam’s love for the human element of the business.

“We had a period of time where tasting rooms – through the cellar door – was the primary way [that we sold wine in California], back in the 1970s. That was it,” he continued. “Then we moved into a time when wine critics really took over with [Robert] Parker, [Wine] Spectator and the like. Now I think the period of wine critics truly driving sales, though they’re not unimportant, has ended.”

When I began Good Vitis in October, 2017, I firmly believed that the handful of people in the industry who might came across the blog would dismiss it with no afterthought, because who cares about what yet-another-hobbyist thinks about wine, right? They weren’t going to hang a 93 point Good Vitis wine review around their wine on the store shelf, so what use was I to them? I couldn’t have been more wrong in my presumption that my opinions were what concerned them. Adam can explain:

“And [the point about critics driving sales] is not just wine. If you think about it, Siskel and Ebert use to drive movie viewership as well. And now we go to a model where it’s much more group recommendation [e.g. Rotten Tomatoes, online forums, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth], that type of thing. It’s been true with wine as well. I don’t think a 94 or 95 point rating all of a sudden means you sell out anymore. So people have gone back to more direct sales, but the problem is that the number of tasting rooms is so ubiquitous that people get lost.” Good Vitis, Adam is essentially saying, is part of the crowd that is being sourced these days.

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These observations get to the heart of Clarice Wine Company. “I think we need to come up with some new models to attract people to wine,” he told me. “We underestimate the importance of personal relationships that are developed around wineries. I never purchased software because I liked Bill Gates better than Steve Jobs, but with wineries you need to have that level of personal interaction to establish that personal connection that drives customers’ purchasing choices,” he said. I take his point that personalities (and likely world views) like those of Steve Jobs do tend to draw followers. To Adam’s credit, he has a personality that I have no doubt draws fans.

The cost to join Clarice is a very specific number: $962.92. I had to ask about this. The $2.92 comes from the portion that is taxable, which is the case of wine. The membership benefits themselves are not taxable because they provide legitimate benefits to the members. With another nod to his customers, Adam figured out what was the lowest reasonable amount he could charge for the wine so as to minimize the tax burden.

The bottles and labels themselves received serious design consideration and effort as well. The labels are beautifully designed and executed (despite Adam’s color blindness), and are true pieces of art. And the bottles bear a Chateauneuf de Pape -inspired custom cartouche. Both myself and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the ascetics of the Clarice Wine Company labels and bottles, Kayce because she photographs the bottles written about on Good Vitis and because she has a keen eye for visual design, and me because Adam and I share a love of Chateauneuf de Pape.

The juice inside the bottles are the best I’ve had from Adam. They are more structurally dense and layered than those in the Siduri line up. I wanted to know if this was a stylistic choice. “I wanted to pick earlier for Clarice than Siduri because, while I love Siduri wines, I wanted Clarice to be really age worthy,” he said in response to my observation. “I do more whole cluster – in the 54% to 58% range – as well. And I don’t pick at specific brix or pH levels.” Age-worthy wines require significant more structure and balance than other wines, meaning volumes of tannin, acid and alcohol in the right relations to  each other. Picking grapes earlier sets a winemaker up to make age-worthy wine by securing higher acid and tannin and minimizing sugar, which has an inverse relation to the final alcohol level.

At this juncture, I interrupted to ask how he thought the 2017 Clarices I tasted would age. “So far, my experience with this vintage, I drink them over 72 hours and they evolve nicely over that time.” This was ironic because I had decided to sample them over a 3-day window as well after having the first sip of each. The density on them is incredible, and it is immediately clear that they have a lot of stuffing to unpack, which only extended aging will do. Extended decanting helps dramatically in the short term, but isn’t a full substitute for cellaring when it comes to wines this complex.

“I felt good with the materials [grapes] and fermentation. I had native [primary] fermentation, native malolactic fermentation [a.k.a. secondary fermentation] and I did all hand punch downs. Three times per day during a five-day cold soak, then I dropped it down to twice per day during fermentation, then to once per day after that.” These efforts extract long-chain tannins from the skins, which are the softest and most pleasing of wine tannin types, and they are evident in the wine as the tannin structure is both substantive and elegant, which is a great sign for how these wines can improve over time.

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Another element that contributes to tannin development is oak. Going over the three bottles, Adam explained that “the Santa Lucia pinot has the least amount of new oak, about 30%. Gary’s Vineyard is in the sixties and Rosella’s is 83% new. All of it is French where I source barrels from two cooperages. This gives me two distinctly different styles. I have one that comes in with very light toasting and one that’s more heavily toasted. Both are air dried for three years.”

He explained that “although Gary’s and Rosella’s are both single vineyard wines, I still do a lot of barrel blending trials on them as well as the Santa Lucia, which is an appellation blend. After tasting barrels the first time, I put some blends together and wait a few weeks to see how they coalesce in oak. Then I taste and re-blend, wait a couple of months, and do it a final time.” Obsessive? Maybe a little, but the benefits are evident in the bottle.

The Gary and Rosella vineyards are well-known to Adam. He has an incredible list of vineyards that he sources from for Siduri, and I imagine narrowing down the list down for Clarice was challenging. “I have amazing relationships with the families that own the vineyards I use for Clarice.” Adam performed the wedding ceremony for a member of one of the families, and chaperoned a 21st birthday for another. “They were the first to understand what I wanted to do with the vineyards.”

What he wanted to do began with paying by the acre, not the tonnage, because he is all about dropping fruit when needed in order to ensure the fruit he gets is the best it can be. “Dropping fruit” means cutting grape clusters off the vine during the growing season so the remaining fruit can absorb more of the nutrients and become more concentrated and flavorful. Further, it increase the ratio of skins to juice, which makes for higher tannin levels.

A vineyard manager is unlikely to drop fruit under their own volition. If a vineyard sells its fruit by weight, rather than the acre, the incentive is to grow lots of big grapes so they have more weight to sell, and therefore make more money. Think of the typical grocery store grape, which we pay for by weight. The grapes are large with loads of juice – meaning, very heavy.

But large grapes are not those that Adam wants because relatively to smaller grapes they’re flavorless and lack good tannin. In order to ensure he gets what he wants – and we get his best wine – Adam pays by the acre, which gives him control over how much fruit he brings in. It’s more expensive for Adam this way because the vineyards calculate acreage rates based on what they would make if selling by the ton, but he doesn’t get the production that a winery buying by the ton would.

“2017 was a good example” of why he purchases by the acre, Adam said. “It was the first year we emerged from a long drought, and I was concerned that the vines, after finally getting a good drink, would get vigorous and put out tons of fruit. My vineyard families understood this, and agreed to drop fruit.” The concentration and depth of flavors in these wines show why the decision to drop fruit was the right one.

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The author, left, with Adam, right.

As I’ve eluted to, the three 2017 Clarice wines are very, very good. I’ve posted my notes and ratings below. It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good. The cost to acquire a case may seem high, especially if you don’t live near or travel frequently to California wine country and cannot take advantage of the in-person benefits. But, the $80.24 per bottle is entirely justified by the quality. Add, then, the benefits if you can take advantage of them and Adam is offering a deal. Adam’s personal investment and the time he takes to not only make exceptional wine for his customers, but to engage them in new and innovative waves, makes Clarice an intriguing prospect: it is an investment not just in good wine, but in your own education and enjoyment as well.

2017 Gary’s Vineyard – Very pretty nose.: boysenberry, blueberry, dark plum, blue raspberry, nutmeg and unsweetened cinnamon aromas. Medium bodied with juicy and tart acidity paired with slightly gritty tannin that coats the mouth. With further integration, the balance will be on-point as the wine grows into its significant density. The flavor profile has a slightly dirty edge. The core is features blackberry, black plum, muddled strawberry, blood orange zest and purple flower petals. This is doing well at the moment, and I foresee a nice, but subtle, evolution over the next five-ten years. 94 points.

2017 Santa Lucia Highlands – The nose is young and seems almost impenetrable. The first aroma I get reminds me of the smell that comes from a freshly opened bag of grape-flavored fruit snacks. Beneath that lies graphite or wet soil (I can’t be sure which) and mountain strawberry. The palate is young as well, though slightly more developed. Dense, it offers slightly less sharp acid than the Gary’s, but with more tannin structure it results in what feels like a more settled wine at the moment. Flavor-wise, we’re talking vibrant strawberry, raspberry and red plum in the fruit category, which is enhanced by rose, lavender and wet soil. I think this one merits 3-5 years in the cellar. 94 points.

2017 Rosella’s Vineyard – The bright nose boasts high-toned, nose-tickling blood orange, raspberry, strawberry, underbrush and lilac. The palate is the most delicate of the trio, but still carries what seems to be the signature density of this label. The tannins in the Rosella are the most seamless and integrated of the three wines, as well as the most persistent. Their lineation carries the flavors for a very long time, which gives you ample moments to enjoy the red and black plums, mature strawberry, rose petal, wet forest floor and well-established dark raspberry. This may be the most layered of the three Clarice wines, and one that will mature with grace over at least a decade. 95 points.

Value note: All three warrant an A value rating. Even if a customer did not avail themselves of the benefit, these come out to roughly $80/bottle. As explained earlier in the article, though not cheap, the quality matches the price, if not exceeding it.

California’s Most Exciting Up & Coming Pinot Producer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Four

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Gran Moraine (and Zena Crown) winemaker Shane Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking the property

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

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