Clarice is Three for Three

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

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

The 2019 Vintage

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

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

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

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

The Barrel Evolution

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

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

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

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

The 2019 Wines

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

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

Santa Lucia Highland vineyard soil

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

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

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

What’s Next

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

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

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

The Wines & Words of Greg Brewer

Late last year, Wine Enthusiast named Greg Brewer its Winemaker of the Year. The nominees he beat out included South Africa’s first black lead winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela; Gary Farrell Vineyard winemaker Theresia Heredia; David Ramey (of Ramey Wine Cellars and formerly of Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd); and Patria Tóth, the Hungarian-born winemaker at Planeta who is driving significant quality improvements in Sicily, one of the wine world’s hottest things these days. So, it’s not like he beat a bunch of chumps. If that weren’t enough of a reason to care, there’s this: he effectively re-gifted the award to the Sta. Rita Hills wine region, and that’s a bit unusual. We ought to take notice.

It’s Not About Greg Brewer

Brewer launched Brewer-Clifton in 1995 with Steve Clifton and $12,000 in the (then and, to a certain extent, now) little-known Sta. Rita Hills, a small wine growing region about an hour and half north of Los Angeles. His response to the award has been to give credit to Sta. Rita Hills, going so far as to say the award is actually for the region, not Greg Brewer. It’s a gracious response to be sure, but isn’t grace how a winner is supposed to respond? Is he actually serious?

Yes, he is. “I was born there, professionally,” Greg told me when spoke not long after the award was announced. “I started in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery, by chance, when I was 21. I fell in love with it on my first day and new it would be my profession. And I’ve loved it every day since.”

Specifically, he’s loved Sta. Rita Hills winemaking. “I’ve been working a four mile stretch of road for 30 years. It’s kind of like breathing: very straight forward. I don’t know it all, but I’ve been able to focus. I’ve only worked in Santa Barbara [the hub of Sta. Rita Hills], and only will.”

Greg has had opportunities to branch out geographically, but has always passed. “I’ve been tempted with fruit from other places, but it feels like a one night stand to me: the fruit should remain where it is with someone who lives among those vines. It’s just not me.” Feeling that Sta. Rita has everything a wine region could hope to offer, and being in love with its fruit, wines, and people, he’s remained steadfastly focused on showcasing what it does all on its own by removing himself from the equation to the greatest extent possible.

At Brewer-Clifton, “the core ethos and energy is steeped in a Japanese mindset; I don’t see myself as that important, more as a steward of a place. I’m like the 80-year-old Japanese sushi chef with an apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo and a bike I ride to the fish market where I drink tea, buy fish, and then spend the day doing everything I can to present all of the fish’s inherent beauty. That’s Brewer-Clifton’s engine.”

“We don’t see ourselves as making anything. We’re deliberate in the location of our vineyards, their clones, spacing, farming, but at the winery it’s about removal of self, maintaining a quiet voice. Everything is raised in neutrality. Barrels are 15-20 years old. Everything is raised the same each year, so no prejudice from vineyard to vineyard, block to block. We don’t blend [among parcels]. Who am I to be the judge [of which sections should and shouldn’t go together]?”

To be clear, though, Greg does “understand that mindset [of blending]. It actually makes more sense than what I do. Adam [Lee, a mutual friend] is a great example. He’s seeking the best in things, and he’s done it beautifully at a whole host of wineries and appellations because he can see those beautiful attributes that can be separated or combined. But I’m not comfortable with [doing] that [myself because] it makes me a bigger part of the process than I’m comfortable with. That’s why the [Winemaker of the Year] award is about this place, not me. All I’m doing is displaying Sta. Rita in a very vulnerable, naked, barbaric kind of elementary way.”

Greg’s approach “might be restrictive” to some, but he finds it liberating. “When you truly espouse yourself to a person or vocation, you have confidence in that thing. Then you put a ring on it. That’s what I’ve done in Sta. Rita. I find it liberating, giving into it and being vulnerable, [because] you make decisions based on benefit of doubt, flexibility, and trust.”

Although Greg hasn’t been in the Sta. Rita Hills since they began growing wine there, he’s been “pretty embedded in a lot of the evolution over time. Seeing it go from four or five vineyards in the early 1990s…[I’ll put it this way:] in terms of the wine world it’s the opposite of dog years, no time at all. To see that, the awareness [of the region] globally swell up this quickly is really exciting. It’s a testament to the place, the people, the diversity of the people there, the kind of unanimous qualitative goals that people there have. That’s really it, that’s what this award is about.” Put another way, if the “place wasn’t so special,” he “wouldn’t have won the award.”

It’s About the Sta. Rita Hills

When Brewer-Clifton launched, they “never blended vineyards. We only did designates. However, starting in 2007 we began doing the appellation blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, but those wines have never been built using wine pulled out of designates. They’re made using the best stuff we have because they have to be smoking good ambassadors [for the region]. They’re the most important wines we make.”

Putting the region’s best foot forward has been so critically important because “wines have never been better, and there’s never been more of them. People’s attention span is generally become more abridged; access to information, the media, people check in on something and move on quickly because there’s more of everything and it’s easier to access.” For Brewer-Clifton, putting out wines that showcase the specialness of Sta. Rita Hills is their secret sauce for success. Greg’s “main emphasis is making very singular things” that stand out in this challenging market.

Part of Brewer-Clifton’s approach to showcasing the Sta. Rita Hills is to keep it affordable for people. “I don’t come from money or industry, I’ve always been a scrapper. I’ve been able to do wine and make it work financially with very little. Our [viniculture and winemaking] systems have never been better, and our pricing is lower than ever. That really excites me because ten years ago [the wines] were more expensive, and not as good.”

Brewer-Clifton’s appellation pinot and chardonnay sell for $40 and $36, respectively, on the winery’s website, and are competitive in quality with other appellation wines from pinot and chardonnay regions like Sonoma, Willamette Valley, and Burgundy. “I love picturing a couple in their 20s or 30s: one is an accountant, another an engineer, and they’re into wine,” Greg told me. “I love to see these people go into a store and connect with Sta. Rita Hills because the quality is high and price point is reachable; it’s not nothing, but it’s not $80, either. That part of the market is exciting because I can still give the full Brewer-Clifton experience and encourage people to trial us and hopefully generate some repeat customers if people like it, like a special occasion wine.”

In 2005, Greg launched a separate brand himself called Diatom, a reference to a fossil common in the soils of Sta. Rita Hills. Diatom is an exclusively chardonnay project aimed at producing “a more stark exploration of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay. Old vines, raised in a pent-up fashion – picked ripe, steel aged, blocked malolactic [fermentation], etc.” It’s an attempt “to capture a wave before it breaks.” Diatom’s line up starts at $32 and doesn’t go north more than $10 from that, offering a different style of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay still financially feasible for that lovely couple he envisages (pre-COVID) meeting at the store after a hard day’s work on their way home to make dinner.

Won’t you try it?

When we were setting up the interview and samples for this article, I requested that Greg pick the two to three wines that he felt would give people the best introduction to his wines so that if I liked them, I could say “and if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first.” (By the way, if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first).

I didn’t have the backstory outlined above before I received the samples, so I didn’t know what to make of the selected wines when they arrived. Knowing what I know now, it makes perfect sense that he would choose his Brewer-Clifton appellation blends and a Diatom as those that give a good representation of what he does in the wine world: he dispatched his ambassadors.

Greg with the author’s favorite wine writer, Jay McInerney

I’ve spent just a single day in Santa Barbara, which is also the entirety of my physical experience in the Sta. Rita Hills. I visited the tasting rooms of Au Bon Climate and Jaffurs Wine Cellar, finding wines at each that I really enjoyed, especially the former (whose nebbiolo, made under the Clendenen Family name label, is an undercover gem). I’ve also had the incredible pleasure of tasting the wines of, and with, Michael Benedict (Sanford), wrote recently on the new Beau Marchais project, and tried a four-bottle suite of The Hilt wines (look for an upcoming profile). All told, I’ve probably tried no more than two cases’ worth of Sta. Rita wine. This means I was an open slate for these wines, no preconceived notions or biases.

After trying them, I can say that I’m eager to try more. While I’m not in love with either chardonnay, I do want more experience with body of chardonnay work of Greg Brewer. As far as $40 pinot noirs go, I’m not sure it gets better than the Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills appellation blend. Where I felt the appellation chardonnay’s quality outshined its depth (the structure is quite good, building desire for an extra layer of depth that ultimately didn’t show up), such a description would be unfair for the pinot.

My favorite element of the pinot noir was while it gave a very inviting and salivating illusion of fruit-forwardness, the actual amount of (gorgeous) fruit was restrained in a way that framed the terroir-specific elements that Greg is so focused on delivering in his wines. I just didn’t get the same sensation from the chardonnay, though I would not be surprised if that’s a function of the wine’s relative youth; perhaps another year or two would be enough time for that hinted-at depth to emerge.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Diatom Bar-M presented as a challenging wine. Meant to be a stark representation of Sta. Rita chardonnay, it is certainly a stark wine: prolific acid, bitter flavor overtones, and damp earth. It is certainly not for everyone. I do wonder if youth is a factor in my mixed reaction to it: I couldn’t bring my attention away from the acid that I felt hadn’t integrated, an unfortunate circumstance given the appealing bouquet and flavor profile of the wine. I would be very curious to try it again in three years.

Both Brewer-Clifton and Diatom make a range of wines, and certainly what I tried for this article has piqued my interest in both labels. They also continue the streak, albeit limited, of great wine I’ve had from the Sta. Rita Hills. Greg Brewer is certainly a leading figure in the region, and his Winemaker of the Year title lofts him to perhaps the very top of his peer group, a position he seems unlikely to enjoy. Rather than celebrate his own achievement, he’s made the effort to leverage it to boost the region’s notoriety. It helps that his own wines show he’s worthy of being an ambassador himself.

Wine Reviews

2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – This pours beautifully ruby and translucent. The bright nose includes aromas of plum, cherry, mulling spice, white pepper, and scorched earth. Medium-bodied with smooth, velvety tannins that envelope the mouth with smoothness pair well with a nice core of restrained but bright acid. The structure is spot on. The flavor profile leads with brilliant strawberry, blueberry, and red and black plums, but the wine doesn’t give the sensation of fruit-forwardness. There’s a touch of black pepper and licorice as well, and kiwi skin on the finish. Drinking really well now with a short bottle decant. 93 points. Value: A.

2018 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay – The nose wafts a dessert table of caramel apple, lemon meringue, and graham cracker crumble. Medium bodied with slightly crisp acid nestled nicely in the center of a lush palate. Flavors include green and Opal apples, lime sorbet, gravel minerality, and white pepper. It finishes on orange marmalade. A nicely profiled and structured chardonnay, the quality outshines the depth. 91 points. Value: B.

2019 Diatom Bar-M Chardonnay – The high-toned nose features of honeysuckle, caramel, chamomile, and lime pith. Medium bodied with lightweight, juicy acid that flutters about, refusing to integrate with the structure; even on the finish it remains apart. May be a sign of youth. Flavors include slightly bitter green apple, lemon verbena, damp earth, and white pepper minerality. It finishes on a sweet orange note. I’d love to revisit this in two or three years because if that acid integrates, this improves dramatically. 90 points. Value: C+.

Try this Wine: Value Holiday Sparkler

Vines with a view at Domaine Bousquet

This is the time of year we talk about wines for entertaining large groups of family, friends, and co-workers. Crowd-friendly, fun, and bright wines usually dominate that category, and sparkling is usually near or at the top of many of the recommended lists for such purposes. In 2020, the group celebrations are likely to be smaller, with a higher percentage of virtual settings. Nevertheless, we still gather and enjoy wine, and we still look for crowd-friendly, fun, and bright wines for these occasions. In that spirit, we present the Non-Vintage Domaine Bousquet Brut Rosé from Argentina.

Domaine Bousquet was on the forefront of the modern Argentinian wine movement. It was founded by Frenchman Jean Bousquet who, while on vacation in Argentina in 1990, determined that the high altitude Gualtallary Valley in Mendoza would be an exceptional location for growing organic wine grapes. Now run by Bousquet’s daughter, Anne, and her husband (Labid Al Ameri), it is the largest exporter of Argentinian wine at 5.6 million cases annually. With that kind of volume, the NV Brut Rosé is able to achieve a stunning price point, somewhere between $10 and $15 depending on where you look, for the quality.

It is a Charmat-method sparker, which means that the carbonation is formed when still wine is put into stainless steel tank with additional sugar and yeast to start secondary fermentation. The production of carbon dioxide caused by secondary fermentation is then trapped in the form of carbonation in the wine while in tank. The wine is then sent straight to bottle. Because it is bottled without aging, it comes out quite fresh tasting, making it refreshing and something zingy and bright that is capable of catching peoples’ attention even as they socialize, though not enough to distract them from what’s happening in the room.

The result is a wine whose price may suggest it’s not meant to be taken seriously, but whose quality argues otherwise, representing a rare addition to a small group of similarly serious bargain sparkling rosés that include Gruet and La Marca. It’s no wonder that the Bousquet landed on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys of 2020.

The wine is a blend of 75% pinot noir and 25% chardonnay, both organically grown, from estate vineyards that sit at 4,000 feet of elevation in the Uco Valley near the border with Chile. It drinks nicely on its own, and will go well with light charcuterie, vegetables and dip, fried finger food, and the like. Try this wine if you’re looking for an exceptional value at a low price point that can appease a wide range of people and vie for just the right amount of their attention among a boisterous social gathering, in-person or otherwise.

Tasting Note

A spritzy nose offers aromas of strawberry, Key Lime pie, and cranberry. The medium body features a medium mousse with fine bubbles and brisk but integrated acid that builds texture on the finish. The flavor profile is quite similar to the nose, featuring strawberry, lime, and cranberry with the addition of white pepper and sharp peach. This is quite enjoyable, albeit straightforward. Very drinkable. 89 points. Value: A+.

Where to Buy

Bousquet’s website offers a search feature for its products. Check it out here.

Try this Wine: Fall Release from Merry Edwards

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

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

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

Five Years of Important Transitions

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

Merry Edwards President Nicole Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92 points. Value: B-.

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

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

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

93 points. Value: B.

Warren’s Hill Vineyard

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

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

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

94 points. Value: B.

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

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

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

93 points. Value: B-.

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

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

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

Merry planting Maefield Vineyard

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

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

Updated: The Beautiful (Virtual) (Wine) Walk

“A portrait of a man, traditionally identified as Pierre de Beaumarchais”

Note #1: This article originally ran on August 4th, 2020. At the time, I had only tasted barrel samples, and had done so in May. My standard practice of not scoring barrel samples being what it is, I provided only tasting notes. Recently, I had a chance to take my time tasting through the finished wine, which were formally submitted as samples, giving me the chance to update this article with scores. I’ve kept the barrel sample notes so that we can all see how the wine continued to develop.

Note #2: Given the uniqueness of the winemaking of these Beau Marchais wines, it is very difficult to provide a value rating of these wines. As a refresher, Good Vitis offers a value rating from A to F based on how how I perceive the wine based on comparing its quality to its price in the global market. In this case, I should be comparing these pinot noirs against the global pinot noir market, which means I’d be trying to compare a trio of pinot noirs made in a vastly different method than any other pinot that have a demonstrable impact on the wine, producing pinot that is fundamentally different from any other, and hardly comparable. It important to note that while these wines are very expensive ($95 retail per bottle), several things are true. First, the methods used are more time consuming and labor intensive than those used in making pinot the standard way, making this a more expensive pinot to produce than others, including pinots sourced from the same vineyards. And second, for pinot lovers and lovers of unusual methods with the resources to acquire these wines, these are the only wines on the market of their kind. As they are are the only wine of their kind, they are the global market, and therefore set the original benchmark. For this reason, I cannot (yet) provide value ratings. The most I can say is that if you fall in the category of the pinot lover or lover of unusual winemaking methodology and want to spend the money on them, you absolutely should for the experience, if not the wine as well.

Last spring, Adam Lee told me briefly about one of his newer projects called Beau Marchais, and sent me barrel samples of the three pinot noirs that will be released this fall under the label. Last week, I joined a crowd of Adam’s Clarice Wine Company customers for a Zoom tasting with Adam and Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery to discuss Beau Marchais in depth. Adam had sent Mike barrel samples, and Mike gave us his thoughts as he tasted through them. The wide-ranging discussion touched on a variety of topics, and provided good entertainment for wine lovers like myself who have missed in-person wine tastings and gatherings.

It was the first virtual tasting event I’ve attended, a decision I made because I’d had the wines being discussed. I’ve been apprehensive so far to register for these events because either I haven’t had the featured wines, wasn’t interested in purchasing the featured wines, or wasn’t going to be able to get the wines in time to give them a proper rest prior to the tasting. While virtual tastings are, I’m sure, a lifeline for some wineries during this global pandemic, I’ve been loath to risk bottle shock and short rest periods during summer weather shipping. It’s brought a topic I think about often to real life, but alas, that’s a subject for a different post.

Beau Marchais is an unusual project because in a certain sense it is virtual winemaking, and is therefore a particularly appropriate one to launch during COIVD. Adam makes the wine, but he takes remote instruction from one of the most famous and respected winemakers in the world, Philippe Cambie, who lives in France’s Chateauneuf de Pape. Cambie currently consults for somewhere in the vicinity of 82 wineries according to Mike Officer, but nevertheless “the opportunity to work with him,” Adam told the gathered virtual crowd, “was too much to pass up.”

Adam and Mike had met Cambie on a trip to Chateauneuf de Pape, in the southern portion of France’s Rhone Valley. “He’s behind a lot of our favorite Chateauneuf de Pape’s,” Mike said, adding that “he’s taken a lot of okay places [throughout the Rhone Valley] and made them exceptionally good. It’s pretty fantastic to say that.”

The Lee-Cambie collaboration genesis, as Adam described it, was that during their trip to Chateauneuf, “we went to enough places that called grenache [the signature grape of the region] ‘the pinot noir of Chateaneuf de Pape.’ I began thinking, could we make California pinot noir in the style of Chateaneuf grenache?” Adam brought the idea to Cambie, and the two agreed that Adam would use his incredible fruit sourcing connections to secure choice California grapes, and Cambie would instruct Adam on how to make the wine. They would do the blending together in-person.

Mike Officer (L) and Adam Lee (R) with Philippe Cambie

As Adam and Mike interviewed each other during the virtual tasting, Adam described the process that he, via Cambie, made the three Beau Marchais wines. “Philippe brought completely different ideas to the project, things I hadn’t thought to do with pinot noir before.” That’s a big statement coming from Adam, a winemaker who by nature is willing to try different things and has made, pretty much exclusively, pinot noir for numerous projects for more than two decades.

To begin with, Cambie had Adam pick the grapes “on the earlier side of things.” Once the grapes came in, “we didn’t do nearly as much whole cluster press as I normally do. Clarice is around 80% whole cluster, Beau Marchais were around 25%. Philippe uses a particular enzyme to extract more from the skins. It tends to give a very creamy texture, something I’d never thought of using before with pinot. We used it during cold soak.” After the addition of another yeast, “the wine stayed on the skin for about 45 to 48 days. Normally, I do about 17 days, maybe 21, of maceration. I’ve heard of people trialing durations this long, but they’re just trials. This is what Philippe does.”

The differences kept coming. “As you get close to fermentation, we’d do this thing where we’d pump out of the bottom valve [of the tank] and back into the wine below the cap to actually push the skins up [as opposed to pumping the juice over the top of the cap to push the skins down]. This meant no aeration during the pump over. Plus, we used completely different barrels then I’ve ever used before. No concrete, just oak, and a good bit of new oak.”

Adam was asked by an audience member what the biggest influence Philippe had on him during the process. In response, he said that “it’s made me look at pinot noir differently across all my projects. I’ve been making pinot since 1994, and I liked to sit there and say I looked at things different each year. But still, there’s a sense of falling back to what you know. So, this helped me really say, okay, there are real differences in how to make really great pinot. This was an opportunity to increase my horizons.” As Mike summed it up, “no dogma. I like that.”

The Beau Marchais line up consists of two pinot noirs from the famed Clos Pepe vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, and a third pinot from the equally esteemed Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Both regions are considered cooler climate for California, and add a sense of history and strong imprints of place to the project. The inaugural release will come from the 2019 vintage. “I’m thrilled to be at Clos Pepe, I’ve worked at it since 2000,” Adam explained. “Getting back to the Santa Rita Hills, I love Clos Pepe. They’re doing great farming, it’s a great opportunity to do something great.”

Beau Marchais’ inaugural 2019 release

The two Clos Pepe vineyard wines, named Clos Pepe Est (“east” in French) and Clos Pepe Ouest (“west” in French), each represent unique areas of the already small vineyard. The Est comes from, you guessed it, the eastern edge and middle of the vineyard and is comprised of 115 and Pommard clones. This area of the vineyard “has some rolling hills, and the portion where the grapes come from is on the backside of the hill where it is more protected [than the west side where Ouest comes from]. It makes a big difference.” The Ouest is a mix of Pommard and 667 clones and “faces the Pacific Ocean, which means it gets direct wind. It produces smaller clusters and achieves higher brix. The wind is so strong sometimes that you can end up with poor fruit set.”

As Mike tasted the two Clos Pepe’s, he commented that the two wines were “totally different” even though they are “from the same hood.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is the Ouest more integrated at this stage – I get the sense that it responded to the extended maceration in a softer way – but the nose and fruit has developed more quickly as well, offering more differentiated layers at this early stage. It seems to be on the path to being more spicy and hedonistic than the Est, reminding me of Gigondas.

The Est shows a lot of gritty skin tannin, which takes up residence in a distinctly different region of the mouth than the acid. While the acid carries red fruit and florals, the higher level of tannin brings black tea and tobacco flavors than the Ouest has, the latter more dominated by black and blue fruit, with tar and black pepper.

“It was actually Philippe’s decision to split [the vineyard] like this,” Adam noted. “When we were together to blend, I was looking to make one blend, but Philippe said we should do an east and a west.”

2019 Beau Marchais Clos Pepe Vineyard Est – Violet and lilac immediate jump out of the glass, followed by cherry, strawberry preserve, tanned leather and cassia cinnamon. The body has polishing juicy acid and late-developing grippy tannins, contributing to the softest pallet and most elegant structure of the three 2019 Beau Marchais wines. Bursting with tangy cherry, strawberry and plum, the deep flavor profile also includes violet, orange zest, graphite, moist earth, fresh leather and green bell pepper. This is the most unusual of the three wines, though the combination of tanginess and bell pepper may make it the most divisive. Two to three years of cellaring should help it coalesce. 92 points.

2019 Beau Marchais Clos Pepe Vineyard Ouest – This deep, nearly hedonistic, nose runs deep with Maraschino Cherry, strawberry preserve, prune, black pepper and nose-tingling spice. Smooth and very fluid, the full body combines densely packed gritty tannin with smooth, velvety acid to form a seriously statured profile. Red cherry, red plum, orange zest, tar and rhubarb form the backbone of the wine’s flavors, finishing on a graphite and earthy minerality. I think this will be at its best in two to three years. 94 points.

Soberanes Vineyard. Picture credit: Santa Lucia Highlands

The Soberanes Vineyard bottling was the hardest to put my finger on. While it initially struck me as the most delicate of three despite it’s darker color, it gained weight with air and developed a nose and palate with distinctively different profiles. I noted that “it is the most classically pinot-esque of the three.” While the nose is all pastels and florals and red fruit, the palate is a concentrated combination of dark fruit, teriyaki, rose, orange blossom, sweet tobacco and tar with sweet, long tannin and modest acid. At the end of my notes, I wrote that “it is the closest these wines come to being sappy though it isn’t cloying. Best balance of the three at this stage. It evolved more than the two Clos Pepe between the two rounds of tastings (which were two hours apart).”

2019 Beau Marchais Soberanes Vineyard – The grapey, saturated nose features aromas of Bing cherry juice, rich baking spice, black plum, rhubarb, tobacco leaf, graphite and black pepper. Full bodied, though the result of pairing big, round and lush tannin with equally big, but juicy, tannin, is that the palate retains liveliness and buoyancy. The tannin slowly dries the mouth, allowing the flavors to smoothly fade as the finish persists. Flavors include Bing cherry, raspberry, graphite, blood orange, moist earth and plum. Best over the next five years. 93 points.

The project is named after a man named Pierre Beaumarchais, a French playwright, inventor, musician, spy “and so much more,” who helped with the foreign financing of the American Revolution by creating a company that smuggled money from the French and Spanish governments across the Pacific and into the Colonies. “We thought it was a great parallel to Philippe helping to make pinot in America. Also, it means ‘the beautiful walk’ in French.”

I asked Adam and Mike for their thoughts on the ageability of the three Beau Marchais wines. “If I’m comparing them to the Clarice wines, I’d say enjoy Beau Marchais while you’re letting the Clarice wines age,” Mike said. Adam added that “Clarice is aging more on acid and the stem tannins. Beau Marchais will be aging on skin tannin, it’s going to be fascinating. I don’t know the answer yet. I’d guess Mike is right, but neither are certain.” I’d approach it the same way myself, though I’d be tempted to let the Beau Marchais sit for a year or two post-release to allow for more integration and softening.

The inaugural Beau Marchais release will come this fall. You can sign up on the website to be notified when they are available, and they will also be made available to Clarice Wine Company customers. Beau Marchais is a fascinating project that will appeal most to those who like experimental wine, but also appreciate the incredible experience that Adam and Cambie to bring to the experimentation. This isn’t some new technique applied by someone with five years of winemaking experience trying to make a name for themselves before they know what they’re doing.

The trees adjacent to Carlisle Winery

I want to plug Carlisle Winery briefly, which I visited in early 2019. Located in Sonoma, it is primarily known for its zinfandel, which Mike aptly describes as “the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes” and California’s only true “benchmark grape (you think of Bordeaux for cabernet and merlot, Rhone for syrah, Mosel for riesling. But zinfandel, globally, it’s California).” While I really enjoyed several of Mike’s zinfandels during my visit, especially their estate Carlisle Vineyard bottling, I was most taken by two of his white wines, a grüner veltliner from the Steiner Vineyard and a field blend from the Compagni Portis vineyard, which is comprised of gewürztraminer, trousseau gris, riesling, roter veltliner “and several other varieties yet to be identified.”

The virtual tasting included a trio of Carlisle wines selected for Clarice customers, including a newly released 2018 syrah from Radiant Ridge, a high elevation vineyard in the Bennett Valley. Adam called it “my favorite syrah [Mike] has ever made” and “the most French-style syrah I’ve tasted from Mike.” A number of attendees chimed in, adding their praise for the wine. Carlisle is a fantastic producer, and one to dig into if you haven’t already.

I’m going to end by recommending these virtual tastings for those who miss winery visits and wine dinners with friends these days. Countless wineries are doing them, and offering expedited shipping on the wines chosen for the tastings. I won’t give a final verdict on whether I think a week or less of post-shipment resting is sufficient to clear the effects of bottle shock, but I will encourage people to order as far in advance of the event as possible. Besides that risk, there’s very little downside to taking advantage of the ability to virtually taste with winemakers around the world. It’s a great way to explore the wine world during a time when we cannot otherwise travel.

Washington’s Challenging White Wines

No white wine routinely gets the level of respect and reverence earned by the great red wines of the world. With the exception of Mosel, the generally accepted greatest wine regions in the world are all dominated by, and known for, their red wine: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja, Napa, Sonoma, Barossa Valley, Porto, Tuscany, etc. Even most of the smaller regions that earn great respect tend to come on the radar because of their red wines, places like Priorat, Duoro, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. Champagne is unique in this context because many of its great wines, which appear white, include at least some red-skinned grapes. Red wine just is held in higher esteem.

Global vineyard acreage underscores this consumer preference, with six of the ten most planted varieties around the world falling into the red category, and some of the world’s best white varieties absent. The most planted white, which falls forth on the list, is Airén and is so overplanted that it rarely finds its way into wines of any real quality that leave its native Spain. Riesling, the only white grape upon which a consensus top wine region is built (Mosel), does not land in the top-10. In 10th spot is trebbiano, a grape that is all-to-often and unfortunately made into unimpressive mass-produced wine. The most popular white wine among wine connoisseurs, chardonnay, comes after Airén and before syrah, the latter a grape that many producers outside Australia and Washington State say is tremendously challenging to sell if varietally labeled. Varieties that could be considered among the best whites, like chenin blanc, gewürztraimer and grüner veltliner, are far from making the list and likely never will.

Nina Buty of Buty Winery, which I’ll get to later in this article, pointed out another headwind for white wine when I talked with her for this article: “the preference to score reds higher than whites is very real [among wine critics], even among great white wine lovers,” she said, adding that “many believe that to be a serious wine appreciator one must be more focused on reds because they’re more serious wines…I see this even in professionals. It’s a salacious belief that the precious realm is red.”

Buty’s winemaker, Chris Dowsett, who also makes wine under his family label Dowsett Family Winery, added that wine critics “sometimes let things slip, like the top 3 or 4 points on their rating scale is reserved for wines that can be aged for 20 years, which leaves 99% of white wines out of contention. I had a professional reviewer tell me the other day that he would never give a pinot gris over 90 points because he doesn’t think the grape is a 90+ point grape.”

For white wine lovers, this reality creates opportunities and challenges. It makes affording the great white wines generally easier than the great reds because demand is less (and professional point ratings may not go as far north). However, because low demand suppresses supply it makes it harder to find the great whites, which are relatively fewer in options at the high-end range, and not always produced in the same quantities as their red counterparts. This in turn means whites generally do not receive the industry investment and attention that reds get, and so the status quo of fewer higher quality whites on the market persists.

One wine region that epitomizes this vicious circle is Washington State. Dominated in the reputation department by its cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and red blends to the point that the state’s white wines never enter a national (let alone international) discussion or achieve national distribution in any real way, Washington’s whites simply do not register in most of the wine world’s reality (unless someone wants to talk about the fact that Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest riesling producer in the world with its ~$9 grocery store price point).

Notable Washington wineries like Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and K Vintners/Charles Smith have produced many 100 point cabernet sauvignons and syrahs, helping to establish the state’s red wines firmly in the global discussion. It may be surprising, then, to learn that ~41% of the state’s vineyards are planted to white grapes, and it may be equally surprisingly to know that many of the state’s high quality producers make at least one or two white wines in the $25-50 range. Yet, one will be hard pressed to find Washington whites on retailer shelves outside of the Northwest that cost more than $20.

As a Washington native who left the state after college fourteen years ago, it was initially very frustrating as I could not find my go-to Washington white wines in Washington, DC, where I landed. After searching in vain up and down the Mid-Atlantic for the first few years I lived there, I gave in and started exploring white wines from elsewhere.

Initially hesitant to branch out, it was a huge blessing in disguise as I’ve come to find numerous white wines that excite me to no end. I found whites from the Loire Valley, Jura, Mosel, Sicily and Abruzzo, Willamette, Anderson Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita and Sonoma and Santa Cruz, Republic of Georgia, Austria and more, to be on balance superior in quality, enjoyment and value proposition to Washington’s whites as a category. For thirteen years, with the rare exception, I willingly forgot about my home state’s white wines. The periodic experiences with new Washington whites on trips home to visit family and friends mostly confirmed that I was smarter to look elsewhere for the best white wine, especially in the price range where Washington’s top whites reside.

Last summer I picked up a couple of aged white blends from Washington’s Delille Cellars on Winebid and was reminded that the state made quality white wine – that could also age. As I began to think about the next big exposé that I wanted to write for Good Vitis, it occurred to me that revisiting the white wines from where I grew up would be an interesting and overdue exercise. So, here we are.

In order to write this article, I tasted over thirty high end Washington white wines, representing a good swath of the somewhat limited high end Washington white wine market, and interviewed eight wine makers I greatly respect, all of whom have been making famously good wine in Washington State for years, some for decades. It has been a slog because in the midst of the COVID pandemic and a move from DC to Chicago, I have faced the frustrating experience of wanting more personality from many of these wines than they gave me. While basic quality is high, I wanted Washington’s high end white wines to be, as a body of work, more interesting. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be, much of which seems to be driven by the vicious circle I outlined earlier that is in full effect in Washington. While there are reasons to believe that Washington can up its white wine game, many of the winemakers see no interruption in the status quo any time soon and unfortunately I don’t see any reason to disagree with them.

While specific bottles stood out as great wines that many would argue are worth the price, the state’s whites largely operate on a separate and lower plane of intrigue and uniqueness than its red wines. Though this has not held Washington back from hard-earned and well-deserved praise for its red wines, it means that the incentives continue to line up against the required investments in better (and more purposefully managed) white grape vineyards and more dedication to the best white-specific methods of production that are required to up the state’s white wine game. From an owner’s or investor’s perspective, investing time and money in white wine when you make more money on your reds anyways makes little to no sense. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs confirmed by nearly every winemaker I spoke to about it.

Marty Clubb, one of the Walla Walla legends

Let’s begin our exploration with an instructive anecdote courtesy of Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which set up shop in Walla Walla in 1983 and has since appeared on numerous top-100 lists. By way of intimating just how large and diverse the vinicultural footprint of Washington State is, he informed me that the Columbia Valley AVA, the largest of the state’s 14 AVAs, is large and diverse enough terroir-wise to cover portions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. “That’s why you see such a wide array of wine in the state,” he said. It’s telling not only because it helps understand the scale and diversity of wine growing in Washington, but it’s also telling because despite the great white wines of Chablis, Montrachet, Graves and Condrieu, those French regions are known predominantly for their red wines, just like Washington State.

There are reasons for this: the market and the making, and I’ll discuss them in that order. As Clubb explained it, when serious vineyard planting began in Washington in the 1970s, those looking at the state’s historic weather data saw what suggested a relatively cool climate, and planned forward based on this rearward view. At that point, riesling was identified as a white grape with promising prospects and came to dominate the state’s white wine planting and production early on, setting in motion the reputation Washington still has for the grape.

However, it didn’t take long before the state began trending warmer, transitioning into what Marty described as a “high heat unit” area. What was originally a good idea to plant lots of riesling and a handful of other whites has turned into a somewhat unfortunate decision. However by the time the weather change was significant enough to affect vineyard outcomes (while simultaneously America’s wine drinking habits were changing), Washington had already built its winemaking facilities and its reputation on riesling. Because vineyard planting, maturation, production and reputation development are all expensive, front-loaded costs and long-term processes, it can be incredibly costly to quickly reverse planting decisions. As a result, there was never a dramatic shift away from riesling by its largest producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose business decisions have and continue to have extraordinary impact on the rest of the state’s industry. As goes Ste. Michelle, so goes the state’s industry, creating a delicate relationship between it and the rest of the industry that they usually handle pretty well.

Chris Doswett

Chris Dowsett of Buty and Dowsett Winey characterized this evolution from a small producer’s perspective: “early on, you looked for good places to grow grapes. You wanted a good variety [of grapes] so you could make a winery’s worth of wines and not put all your eggs into one basket. Then, we got into the mega growth stage, and people jumped into the industry looking to make what was popular; whatever variety is doing well, goes. That was cabernet. Then the economics hit you: if you do nine acres of cabernet and one of riesling, and get half the price for the riesling, you don’t consider planting more white. And very few people replanted it with another white.”

Those in the industry paying close attention, and who wanted to produce premium wine, were taking note of the state’s shift to a region with higher heat units and moved in parallel to adapt, focusing on Bordeaux and Rhone red varietals, especially as consumer demand for red wine grew. Jason Gorksi of Delille Cellars told me that “early on, the state’s best producers like Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, even Delille, did not make white wine because they did not take premium white wine seriously. A few of us eventually brought on a white wine so we’d have something to pour for winemaker dinners, [but Quilceda and Leonetti still haven’t, and probably won’t].” To Jason’s point, Quilceda hasn’t branched out beyond cabernet and a single Bordeaux-style blend, while Leonetti produces a $75 aglianico (aglianico!) ($75!), but still doesn’t do a white.

Morgan Lee of Two Vintners (and other projects) made the point that with such a red-dominated reputation, it can be hard for a winery in Washington to produce stand-out whites. “Good luck making heads turn with riesling at the top end [as an example], that’s been my philosophy since starting” despite the fact that Morgan and his wife generally prefer to drink white wine at home. Morgan, whose signature white grape pick is grenache blanc, asked himself “how was I going to enter the market with a white wine and have people talk about it? It’s like cabernet sauvignon. There are so many Washington cabs, and frankly a lot of them are so similar, how was I going to stand out? That’s why I’ve done syrahs and blends, zinfandel and even a white zin, and rosés.”

There is also the issue of volume. “If it’s a 200 to 400 case production, depending on the size of the winery, then a winery should be able to sell direct to consumer and sell it out,” Dan Wampfler of Abeja Winery told me. “But, if you’re making more than that and you’re not making chardonnay, or maybe riesling or sauvignon blanc, good luck selling that much Washington State white wine. There are amazing whites coming out of Washington that aren’t [those varieties] but they’re so small production because of the limited acreage,” he continued. One example he pointed to was a picpoul made by Rotie Cellars. “It’s outstanding and they can sell it overnight with an email. But, the amount of effort to boost production by the needed ten times to develop the required national brand recognition to sell it, they can’t do for a variety of reasons.”

Chris Peterson of Avennia, and formerly Delille Cellars, who produces a sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varietal blend, noted another economic headwind for high quality Washington white wine: even if a winery wanted to buy high quality white grapes, the economic incentives for growers aren’t there to farm high quality white grapes. “Growers aren’t willing to do crazy stuff [in terms of planting what isn’t normally planted], that’s the limitation,” he told me. “This could be the reason for [high end] riesling being held back. There could be vineyards [in Washington] like [those] in Germany, but why would you do that? You can’t sell those wines for $50 [like you can red wine].”

Further, Chris added, “in the commercial sense, white wine isn’t important to developing a reputation [in the Washington wine industry]. I have more respect for wineries that do both [types of wine] well, and sometimes it’s nice when I’m pouring out of state to have some of my own white wine to pour. But our industry’s experience with white wine is exemplified by [the author’s] experience: there’s almost no national reputation for them. Do you keep fighting the fight?”

Chis Dowsett, one of the most experienced white wine makers in Washington, made the important observation that “there are more wine growing areas in Washington that are better suited for reds than whites. There are exceptions in small pockets in various areas, but in general if you plant what’s best for the site, it’s likely to be red.” This is crucial to acknowledge because far too many producers in many regions try to plant varieties they like, and end up choosing varieties that aren’t well suited for the area or climate. It’s an easy recipe for underwhelming wine and terrible typicity.

One of Marty Clubb’s more striking observations was that, despite some promising white projects, his “real fear” is that the success of the state’s red wines mean that “there aren’t as many new white plantings except for possible chardonnay, so a lot of what [the industry] is doing is working with old vines that will eventually lose out, and create shortages of good grapes because the economics of planting new white acreage isn’t appealing.” Grounding this fear in reality, Mike Januik, who spent 20 years at Chateau Ste. Michelle prior to starting his own winery, told me that “there was time when I was making 50,000 cases of chenin blanc [at Michelle], but they stopped making chenin altogether before I left.” I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure the entire state’s chenin production today is a small fraction of what Mike alone made at Michelle several decades ago.

In oder to combat this decline in high quality white grape acreage, L’Ecole “makes sure it’s going to be economical for the grower to grow the varieties we want,” Marty said, adding that “we’ll pay extra to make sure the right work gets done to achieve the quality. Investing in quality grapes shows in the wines. We don’t work with sites that aren’t willing to put in the extra work to get the quality.”

Among other wines, Marty is known for his chenin blanc. “All the chenin produced [in Washington] over the last few decades has come from old vines, but they’re slowly being replanted to red varieties. [L’Ecole] is down to under 500 tons of chenin [for the 2019 vintage], and we produce about 15% of the state’s chenin blanc wine. If you’re willing to give a long term contract, you can get some security. I just signed a 10-year contract with Upland [Vineyard] just to secure their chenin site.” Plus, there’s the complication that “whites are trickier because in order to make them economical, you need to up the tonnage, but to keep quality at the valume, you really have to work the canopy, get even ripening, to make quality wine.” Not every vineyard manager is willing to put in that kind of work when the alternative is higher profit red grapes.

“Like many of these winemakers,” Chris Dowsett told me, “I’ve spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time scouting for the best white sites in the state.” The process is becoming less and less fruitful. “Land as expensive as Red Mountain or The Rocks, people are planting reds because the return on investment is better. The new whites you’re seeing, they’re commanding good money because they’re laborious to grow and limited in supply.”

Jason Gorski, who believes that the Rhone varieties grenache blanc and marssane are showing promise (Morgan’s granche blanc is “one of [his] perennial favorites”), made the point that “no one has done a concentrated effort to do a white project really well. We [Delille] have proven sauvignon blanc can be really good, Erica [Orr’s chenin blanc] is mind blowing because she found old vines and makes that style. Gorman’s [chardonnay] project is figuring it out,” though no one has found the winning model or fomula.

In addition to the challenge of finding the right site for white varieties, there is the element of making white wine. Nina calls doing so “a labor of love and a really interesting statement of the winemaker and house style because it’s more challenging to make it in beautiful and compelling and consistent ways than reds…because you don’t have the same tools available.” Morgan was more direct, noting that “making white wine is really hard; it’s much harder to hide your mistakes with white than red. Whites are a pain in the ass. A lot more can go wrong, and they take up a tremendous amount of tank space, you have to keep them stable, filter the shit out of them. And the demand isn’t even there, so why do it?”

White wine cold stabilization

Morgan and I discussed two wines that he has produced for Full Pull Wines under their Block Wines label, a semillon and a chardonnay. “Both are aged in concrete for stylistic choices. The eggs serve no purpose other than for these two whites” because, unlike steel, the porous material cannot be sufficiently cleaned in order to use them for red wines. “It’s just another example of why good white wine requires its own effort.”

Dowsett uses concrete for some of Buty’s white wines as well. “We were one of the early adopters of concrete, we brought cubes in in 2009 and 2010. They were actually intended for red wine from The Rocks but I wanted to test it first on white wine. I loved the results, the character of the wine, and decided to keep the cubes for the whites. We have one that’s designated for our chardonnay and another that’s for our Bordeaux-style blend.” Chris also tends to keep the wines on the lees for as long as possible, and grows his white grapes in a little more shade (“the early counsel I received was to have more shade on the grapes to develop skins more thinly so I’m not battling phenolics. At least one leaf over each cluster.”).

Gilles Nicault, the Director of Winemaking and Viniculture at Long Shadows since 2003, really hammered the point about purpose-making white wine, that in order to make great white wine, you need vineyard practices, equipment, and winemaking practices that are different enough from red wine making that a winemaker does not build the body of knowledge and experience through making red wine needed to produce top-notch white. Because the state’s focus has been on red for the past twenty-plus years, many winemakers and vineyard managers aren’t nearly as comfortable branching out into whites, or pushing the boundaries like they do with their reds.

Gilles’ Poet’s Leap Riesling is a great example of what it takes to make high quality white wine in Washington. Along with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s high end Eroica riesling, Poet’s Leap is Washington’s standard bearer for the variety. Both cost around $20 and in great vintages are a steal at that price. Their modest levels of residual sugar are enough to give them a decade or so of good aging potential, enable them to be quite versatile in the food pairing department and make them competitive on the global market. If there is one high quality Washington State white wine you’ll find outside of the Northwest, it’s likely to be one of these two rieslings.

Poet’s Leap began as a partnership in 2003 between Long Shadows Winery and Armin Diel, one of the most celebrated riesling producers in Germany’s Nahe wine region. For many years, Gilles and Diel would make the wine together, pairing an old world approach with new world fruit. More recently Gilles has taken over completely, but the wine retains some of Diel’s old world sensibilities. The viniculture remains as precise as it ever was, with Gilles and his team putting tremendous work into the vineyards. The canopy is managed with great care by hand to remove leaves, clusters and shoots to make sure the fruit zone is open and clusters do not come into contact with each other. With such a hot climate, these efforts are required to ensure the acid and sugar develop in harmony and reach their desired levels at, or at least around, the same time so harvest can come at the ideal time to create a balanced wine.

Once in the winery, the grapes go through whole cluster pressing, not the most common technique for riesling (or other white grapes). “The cool thing about whole cluster pressing [is that] you can extract more juice at lower pressure because the stem gives more structure and creates channels, so when the stems pop the berries, the juice escapes. Because we get so much juice at such low pressure, we avoid phenolic extraction.” However, to do this whole cluster pressing, Gilles needed to add a second press this winery, which is not something every winery wanting to add something different to its line up can afford or accommodate space-wise in the cellar.

It’s impressive that Poet’s Leap costs only $20 given the amount of human labor and additional equipment that go into producing it, but Long Shadows can price it at that level because it has the reputation to sell at high volume, and is therefore the highest production wine in what has historically otherwise been a profitable line up of $50+ red wines. It takes quite a bit of time to build that reputation, and for Washington wineries that do not already have it in today’s hyper competitive wine market, the return on investment on boosting red wine production is much higher than it would be to introduce a new white wine, let alone overcome the knowledge and experience gaps they may face with white wine production. Plus, it may require more experimentation and risk than simply expanding or improving the red program.

Where people have tried to grow the white wine market in Washington recently has so far largely focused on chardonnay and to a lesser extent sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties. “The fact is that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the queen and king of the industry; look anywhere, and that’s what’s consumed the most,” Morgan pointed out. Nina Buty, whose co-founded her winery in 2000, knew at that time that she wanted to take white wine as seriously as red wine, even though red was always going to dominate production. She was one of the few back then to feel this way. “When it came time to start Buty,” Nina said, “we knew we wanted to make our white blend and a chardonnay. In that moment, chardonnay was not the darling despite it being the most sold variety in the US. So a lot [of people] were surprised that we wanted to focus on a chardonnay.”

They launched with a partial malolactic fermented chardonnay that saw a low oak profile and single vineyard focus on Conner Lee, one of the state’s most respected sites for chardonnay. They put a lot of focus on learning the site’s viniculture and enology eccentricities. “It helped cement our style and direction,” Nina said.

Despite Nina’s success with her Conner Lee chardonnay, a number of winemakers interviewed for this piece agreed that it is a grape that many producers in the state haven’t gotten right, an observation that I would confirm by taste. “Producers have to make what they can sell and they’ll do their best, but am I thrilled by a lot of Washington chardonnay? No,” Morgan told me.

Even though I tasted chardonnays from a number of really great producers, I remain uninspired; though the quality is there, the uniqueness, and therefore intrigue, is largely not. The example that stood out to me as worthy of a national or international stage: the 2017 Januik Cold Creek Vineyard chardonnay from Mike Januik, who Marty Clubb called “a chardonnay master” during our conversation.

When speaking to Januik about Washington chardonnay, he called out two mistakes he regularly sees. First, “you have to get the clone selection right,” he explained. “How well Washington chardonnay does is really closely connected to the clones you use. [A lot] of the older blocks were planted before people were thinking about clones – they were just planting what was easily available. It makes a stark difference in quality, more so than clones do with many other varieties.”

Cold Creek Vineyard, which is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a mixture of Burgundy clones. Michelle was so thankful for Mike’s service at the winery prior to launching Januik/Novelty Hill, that they promised him fruit from whichever vineyards he wanted when he struck out on his own. Prior to that offer, he wasn’t planning on doing any whites, but “I jumped on the opportunity to do a Cold Creek chardonnay. I worked with a lot of vineyards, and it was always my favorite chardonnay. I get my pick of the block and the rows each year.”

“It’s a great, really special place,” Mike described, adding that “it has great aspect and the old vines there are at that point now where the self-regulate in terms of crop size. I always get small clusters of small berries, which gives me the right skin-to-pulp ratio. It’s so critical because most of the flavor comes from the skins.”

Second, barrel selection “is critically important” for Washington chardonnay. “Not all French oak is equal. I pay so much attention to that. I use a selection. There are some French barrels that should never be used fo chadonnay.”

Like a lot of his approach, he learned this while at Michelle. “We would ferment in various barrels, and look at every iteration – cooper, toast level, etc. We’d bottle five cases of each barrel type and taste them year after year. I have a pretty good idea now how a chardonnay is going to change over time purely based on the barrel used.”

Asked about how he detects whether the right barrels are used, he answered that “if I smell oak [on the wine], it was the wrong choice. I want to smell creaminess that gives me the impression of creaminess on the mouth. If the first thing you smell is oak, it’s probably not the right barrel to be using.” Mike uses a combination of new and once-used French oak, ferments in them and does batonage every few weeks. The chardonnay ends up spending between nine and 10 months in barrel depending on the vintage.

Biting at Januik’s ankles is Abeja Winery, whose long-time focus on chardonnay has grounded it as a flagship producer of the variety in Washington with somewhat of a national reputation for that wine. Abeja also makes a small production viognier, about 250 cases, off estate vines that is, in my book, very good and the best example of the variety from Washington State.

Abeja looks at their white program as a concentrated effort focused on chardonnay. “Communication with the grower can be tricky,” winemaker Dan Wampfler said. “Try to get a knowledgeable grower to plant anything of substantial acreage for a variety they’ve never worked with or don’t know much about, and they’re not confident in planting or sustaining it.” Effectively, many wineries are stuck with what’s already planted. In order to have control over their white program so they can develop it as best they can according to their preferences, and as part of “an effort to deepen our commitment to estate wines,” Abeja recently planted 40 acres a mile from the winery, including five clones of chardonnay. This acreage is higher elevation and cooler than the winery’s current estate vineyards as they look to produce an uncommon style among the current batch of Washington chardonnays.

The choice to go higher in elevation is a purposeful one “in part because of the effects of climate change. Traditional ripening patterns are changing. The way to retain the acidity is to slow ripening down through elevation, temperature or crop load, or all three. We’re seeing good outcomes when we do that,” Dan explained. “We’re seeing dramatic differences [from our other vineyards] already even though it’s a young vineyard with different clones. Ripening time and speed are different.” Dan is playing around with the style of the new fruit, figuring out “what it does in different blends” and “trying different aging vessels, press trials, oxidizing early on then hitting it with carbon dioxide and doing it anaerobically. The first vintage from the new vineyard was 2019 and I blended it into the Washington and Walla Walla chardonnays.” When it’s ready for showtime, it will become its own wine.

The winery is best known for its nationally distributed Washington State Chardonnay (a multi-AVA blend) that is quintessentially Washington in style, which Dan describes as “new world fruit, lush palate, partial malolactic fermentation” that he ages in a combination of neutral French oak, “a tiny bit of stainless” and concrete. It is widely respected among the industry as a standard bearer, and very good for those who appreciate a bold, lush chardonnay profile.

Dan has more recently branched out to produce the Chablis-styled Beekeeper White (100% chardonnay despite its non-varietally named label) and a Burgundian-style chardonnay with the Walla Walla AVA designation. Traditionally, Abeja’s whites are whole cluster press and get a combination of new and used oak, concrete and stainless aging vessels. The ultimate blend of aging vessels varies from vineyard to vineyard, block to block, vintage to vintage. “We do what the wine tells us to do,” Dan said.

While Abeja is building out a purposeful chardonnay program, Avennia is dedicating itself to figuring out sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties, one of several wineries included in this piece that have branched outside of riesling and chardonnay. Exploration by these small but talented wineries is going to be key to developing a new white wine scene for the state that will merit national interest.

Avennia’s interest in white wine began with sauvignon blanc, coming from winemaker Chris Peterson’s days as head winemaker at Delille where he helped to establish their Bordeaux-style Charleur Estate Blanc blend as the arguably the flagship high end Washington State white wine. “Plus, we started Avennia with a pure visionary focus on Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, so chardonnay and riesling didn’t fit. Though I still have yet to see where Washington can make really great riesling or chardonnay.”

Boushey Vineyard

2011 was the first vintage of Oliane, Avennia’s sauvignon blanc. “It was all Boushey [Vineyard], and the plan was always to do it in a premium way with longer élevage. It’s our highest production wine, 700 cases. We go through it every year with the $28 retail price,” Chris told me. The success of Oliane was a bit of a surprise for Chris and his business partner, Marty Taucher. “When we started it we knew it would be a challenge. We weren’t sure if our serious approach would work.” After a 2012 vintage in which Boushey Vineyard didn’t deliver a full crop, Chris added some fruit from Red Willow, and continues to blend the two vineyards today. “It’s a great match. Boushey has more fruit and weight while Willow has more acidity and minerality.”

Interestingly, Chris said that giving the sauvignon blanc a proprietary name, rather than labeling it according to its variety, helps it sell. “Calling it Oliane and making it in a Bordeaux-style makes it easier to talk about it as a complex, styled wine rather than a straightforward sauvignon blanc that most people in Washington think of as a back porch, stainless steel, drinking it by the pool kind of wine.” Regardless, sales for Avennia’s white wines are “predominantly in-state. One of our top distributors loves our white wine but won’t sell it because it’s too expensive for Washington white wine. In the Northwest, people know Avennia, plus we have a robust wine club that doesn’t opt out of our whites.”

Chris is making chardonnay for Passing Time Winery, a wine he called “interesting and fun, but that’s a different point of view [than Avennia’s] because it’s oaked and goes through malolactic fermentation. We’re going to launch it with the 2018 vintage. It’s going to be $50, and that’s the ceiling [for Washington white wine].” He recently did a Bordeaux tasting with a group, which included Domaine de Chevalier, a producer of (among other things) a ~$80 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. “It’s really good. They’re getting a level of extract that we’re not getting [in Washington]. But they know that at that price they can improve the vineyard by that rate as well. Right now, even the best Washington whites are second thoughts to red wine. There’s a pride in them, but they aren’t a core priority.”

Long Shadows’ Gilles takes great pride in his white wine endeavors, which have recently expanded to a chardonnay called Dance, which is a decade-long project that is just now reaching production-level readiness, and an inaugural sauvignon blanc called Cymbal, the latter augmenting the Oliane as a top-shelf sauvignon blanc that suggests the variety has a strong future in the state. “I hadn’t made sauvignon blanc in 18 years,” Gilles told me, “so it was truly an experiment. I fermented in stainless, new French oak barrels, neutral French barrels, and concrete just to see how each played out with the grapes [some of which come from a 1972 planting in Bacchus Vineyard]. I liked how it worked with the 2018 so I’m doing the same with the 2019.”

The 2018 Cymbal and 2017 Avennia Oliane are impressive in their youth but suggest good medium-term aging potential. Shortly after tasting the 2017 Oliane, I purchased a 2014 Oliane at auction. True to the nature of a Bordeaux-style sauvignon blanc, with the winemaking practices that go into producing such a style, it ages quite well. While the current vintage is good, it will get better with age, as the 2014 did. To those professional critics who told Chris Dowsett that they reserve points for wines able to age, I give you the Avennia Oliane to consider, as well as Chris Dowsett’s wines.

Speaking of Dowsett, his personal winery is one of the few that still produces high end riesling. His top of the line riesling comes from an estate vineyard called Aunt Diane that was planted in 1980. “I love the soil, climate and elevation [about 1,300 feet] of it. It retains acidity well and I can pick it late. I make it like a gewürztraminer,” which Chris also makes, even though the latter “is early ripening. If you let it go, the acid falls, sugar rises, and it gets very flowery. If you grow it in an area that cools down, you can hold the acidity. The Gorge [a wine growing area of Washington] is a perfect place for that. If there’s more white wine to be planted, I see more riesling, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and other grapes going into the Gorge in the future. It’s a great area for whites, a place to watch on that front.” Chris’ Celilo Vineyard gewürztraminer, from the Gorge, was the revelation among all the wines tasted for this article.

In my mind, if Washington State has one this-is-what-the-state-can-do, consistently stand-out white wine, it is Delille Cellars’ Chaleur Estate Blanc, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon made in the traditional style of Bordeaux white blends like Chevalier (French oak, barrel fermented, with bâtonnage). It tastes great from release all the way through at least a decade of cellaring, showing interesting evolution that is worth following through regular check-ins over multiple bottles. What sets it apart is the structure and texture, a full bodied wine with penetrating acid that evolves to reveal layer after layer of flavor.

It’s a $35 wine that easily competes with its competitors, yet requires periodic hand selling out of state where it has a national distribution because people are unaccustomed to seeing white Washington wine at that price point. “Part of the decision to distribute it nationally is the business side,” Jason explained. “The grapes for it are less expensive [than the winery’s red grapes] and we can make great wine from it, so we can make money going three tier. It’s been around since the late 1990s so there’s a good track record. Even still, it required hand selling it to stores and somms, so the education was big up front. It takes 20 years to prime a market, and we still have to education people when there’s turnover. Not a lot of wineries can afford that kind of effort. You see small and mid-sized wineries marching forward with red because it’s what sells and you can get good prices for it.” Nine years ago, Delille was making about 1000 cases of it. Now, they’re making 5000. It’s a rare national success story for Washington white wine.

A good indication of where the state’s industry is focused is the actions of the Washington State Wine Commission, which is the biggest industry group. Dan Wampfler helped me understand that the Commission has gone through three evolutions in its marketing efforts since he joined it. “At first, the goal was to influence the customer and purchaser by doing tastings around the country. Wineries would send in their best wines for those. Then, it was influence the influencer rather than spend money on tastings in other markers. They invited influencers to come in and amplify the message of Washington wine. Finally, they’ve turned inwards to influence the state and let Seattle know what we’re doing.”

Judging by how the market has responded to this evolution, Washington white wine remains a tough sell. I asked each winemaker for their thoughts on the prospects of white wine, and which white grape they’d focus on if given the choice. The answers were quite mixed. Some said chardonnay, others said they wouldn’t touch it with a very long pole. A few, like Morgan Lee, said they wouldn’t do more than they’re already doing. Some doubled down on their current approach, like Chris Peterson with sauvignon blanc (“the next step is finding the right micro climates that aren’t as hot, work to explore clones, keep the alcohols low”).

There was more consensus on the unlikely prospect of seeing a dramatic uptick in the production of white wines because the various headwinds are just too strong, making the path more difficult than sticking with the tried-and-true-and-profitable reds. As several winemakers explained to me, it is going to take a sizable investment to achieve white wine as spectacularly good as the state’s best reds. Someone needs to fund the decade long projects with differed economic returns needed to develop the right sites with the right varieties, clones and farming practices just to sufficiently boost the supply of high quality white grapes, and no one I spoke with had any idea of who might be walking around with those money bags looking to risk them on Washington white wine.

None of this is to say that some of the state’s white wines aren’t worth taking seriously, nor is that to say that there aren’t winemakers whose white wines won’t continue improving. I’d serve the Delille and Buty white blends to anyone, and I’d put Dowsett’s gewürztraminer against the world’s best. $20 grenache blanc doesn’t get better than Two Vintners’, and I’ll probably buy some of Januik’s Cold Creek chardonnay when distributor Winebow brings it to the Chicago market. Avennia sauvignon blanc is one that will test my wine-aging patience. Long Shadows’ Poet’s Leap will always be a compelling riesling at $20. Further, I trust all of the winemakers interviewed for this piece to continue efforts to improve their white wines. And, I know there are producers I did not connect with for this article, like the aforementioned Rotie Cellars and the about-to-be mentioned Syncline Cellars, that make white wine worth trying.

Putting aside individual producers, it seems evident that the state as a whole is not on the trajectory to elevate its white wine game. It’s not that people who care aren’t trying, nor that there aren’t good terroirs in Washington where it could be done, but Washington is a red wine drinker’s haven in a wine drinking world that, at the premium level, prefers red wine. The incentives to invest in producing unique and interesting expressions of high quality and price competitive white wine in Washington are just not there, running smack into a customer preference for red wine that disincentivizes white wine exploration and investment.

Where there may be some growth, at least in the variety of high end whites department, is from current red-dominate wineries that, as they “get older, they gain experience, and it’s more often the case that they realize they should be making a white wine,” Mike Januik prognosticated. “It’s kind of a drag not to have white wine to pour for customers. People want to taste whites, too.” It was as if Mike was doing his best Marie Antoinette: “let them drink white wine!” This approach explains how many Washington wineries began producing their whites in the first place, though I hate that we may have to rely upon this slow-moving source of natural growth to get more and better white wine, especially when it promotes the kind of approach – or rather lack of a serious investment approach – that has created a high quality but relatively uninteresting category of wine. But if this is the process, this is the process. I’ll itch my Washington white wine scratch from time to time with some of these better wines that are already on the market, and hope to see increasing variety and personality as time goes on.

The Columbia Gorge

Note: Syncline Wine Cellars, a pioneer of both the Columbia Gorge AVA and Rhone varieties in Washington, sent me several samples to review for this article. However, I was unable to secure an interview with them. Many point to Rhone varieties in the Gorge as holding the promise of Washington’s white wine future. Syncline’s first vintage came in 1999, long before the Gorge became a designated AVA. Since then, wineries have been popping up in the area, including some of the state’s most exciting small projects, though Syncline remains a lead drummer. I’ve included reviews of their samples below, and hope to one day feature them more prominently in a Good Vitis piece.

Other wines review for this article include:

2019 Abeja Bee Keeper’s White – The nose includes aromas of fleshy peach, cantaloupe, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. Barely medium in weight on the palate, the flavor profile is framed by a toasty barrel note, which gives way to lemon, tart lime, apricot, tangerine and salty yellow plum. With a greenish profile, lighter body and bright acid, this is probably best with food. 89 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2019 Abeja Viognier – The shy nose gives off aromas of sweet vanilla, banana and lanolin. Medium bodied with bright acidity for the variety, the mouthfeel is light and lifted. It delivers flavors of Meyer lemon, pineapple, banana peel and orange blossom white tea. A clean, very pure viognier. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2018 Abeja Walla Walla Valley Chardonnay – Pours a very pale and clear yellow, and is lighter in color than any chardonnay I can recall. The wine is quite elevated, with delicate aromas of guava, green apple, toasted oak and orange blossom. Medium in body, it takes on lushness and weight with extended air. The minerally-driven acid hits with early juiciness, but towards the finish gets linear and stiff. Flavors are on the slightly tart side, offering green apple, green mango, Meyer lemon, dandelion, Asian pear and white tea. I’d treat this like a high quality Chablis: drink it early for its freshness, or give it five-plus years to develop layers and put on weight. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2017 Avennia Le Perle (roussanne and marsanne) – The delicate nose offers a broad soapiness with pronounced honeysuckle, honeydew, vanilla, orangesicle and lavender. Medium bodied with round, juicy acid and a semi-lush mouthfeel. The flavors have an edge of sweetness, and feature an elegant and floral variety of orange blossom, pineapple cocktail, edible flowers, bitter lemon and tangerine. This is an intriguing rendition of a Rhone-style blend offering precision of flavor and feel. 92 points. Value: B.

2018 Buty Connor Lee Chardonnay – The delicate nose boasts lemon cream, lime zest, dried apricot, white peach and pear. Just short of full bodied, it offers a creamy mouthfeel elevated by broad and slightly juicy acid. Flavors include pear, Key lime, marzipan, peach pie and Opal apple. This is a really nice, subtle expression of chardonnay that’s well made and seamless. 92 points. Value: B-.

2018 Delille Cellars Roussanne – The muted nose offers pure aromas of honeydew, lily, white tea, tangerine pith and lemon icing. The medium body offers an acid profile that is highly pronounced for the variety, slightly corse in a way that contributes towards a nice backbone that completes an otherwise elegant structure. Flavors include sweet lemon, white peach and mild kelp. It’s a high quality wine that lacks an interesting or substantive punch. I’ve had better vintages of this wine. 90 points. Value: C-.

2018 Januik Cold Creek Chardonnay – The reserved, elegant nose wafts aromas of honeydew melon, rich vanilla bean, lemon curd and sweet lime. Full bodied in sensation, the beautiful acid somehow provides both linear tension and mouth-watering juiciness, creating a lively sensation that transitions nicely into gentle creaminess, though never leaves the mouth completely. The flavor profile is built on bright and salty notes of lemon, lime and clementine citrus, while slate minerality, a touch of toasty oak and fenugreek feature in the background. This is a very young wine that would do well with 2-3 years of cellar aging to help it unwind. Drink over the next decade. 92 points. Value: A.

2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay – A traditional chardonnay bouquet of creamy lemon, creme brûlée, apricot and crushed rock. Medium plus in weight, the structure is comprised of a creamy mid palate surrounded by modest but juicy acid that gets zesty and sharp on the finish. Flavors include buttered toast, big lime zest and pith, vanilla custard, slate minerality, white tea leaf and white pepper. 91 points. Value: A.

2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Sémillon – The nose offers lemon curd, Sprite, marzipan, tangerine peel, dandelion and mango. Medium plus in weight, it balances a creamy mouthfeel with juicy acidity. Flavors include sweet pineapple, yellow peach, apricot, Opal apple, white pepper and flint. 91 points. Value: A.

2017 Long Shadows Dance (chardonnay) – Almost hedonistically sappy on the nose at this early stage, it delivers a core of caramel apple that is surrounded by quince, toasted oak and honeysuckle. Medium bodied but broad-shouldered, the acid is put into a bit of a nose dive early on by a hit of creaminess. More time may allow the two to find better harmony. Flavors include spicy, almost spritzy lemon and lime zests, as well as lean vanilla, white peach and poached pear. Cantaloupe develops on the finish where the acid returns in a big way. A hard wine to pin down, I think it’s unsettled at this stage in its life. Wait to 2022 to open. 91 points. Value: D.

2018 Syncline Boxom Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – This benefited from an hour decant. The nose offers floral-tinged aromas of peach, nectarine and red plum. Barely medium in body, the acid is bright but integrated with smooth edges and just the right amount of grippy texture. The soft flavors include white peach, orchid, white pepper, crushed stone, Gala apple and just a touch of saline. This is a delicate, pretty grüner that is best consumed by itself or with subtly-flavored food. 92 points. Value: A-.

2018 Syncline Boushey Vineyard Picpoul – Aromas of cantaloupe, sweet sea mist, white peach, white tea leaves and lime zest constitute a pretty nose. Barely medium in weight, it’s fleshy in texture with tangy but smooth acid. Flavors include Meyer lemon, under ripe nectarine, lime pith, slate minerality and a big white pepper finish. A really enjoyable and decently substantive wine, it would be easy to go through a case of this over the summer. 91 points. Value: C.

2017 Syncline Scintillation Brut Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – Aromas of green and Opal apples, toasted almond, date, dried apricot and clementine. The voluminous mousse pours large bubbles that land more delicately in the mouth, releasing green and Opal apples, lime curd, nectarine, slate, white pepper and unsweetened vanilla. Balanced, linear acid adds cut and extends the finish. This presentation of gruner offers more approachability than many still versions, but doesn’t skimp on complexity. 91 points. Value: C.

You may also be interested in reading on Good Vitis:

Living Legends of Washington Wine: Our hugely popular coverage of the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Private Barrel Auction, which includes interview anecdotes and barrel tasting notes from over a dozen of Washington State’s best wineries.

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting: An epic blind tasting of over two dozen rieslings from across America, it includes a discussion of the commercial and quality status of American riesling as well as reviews of each wine tasted.

The Beautiful (Virtual) (Wine) Walk

“A portrait of a man, traditionally identified as Pierre de Beaumarchais”

Last spring, Adam Lee told me briefly about one of his newer projects called Beau Marchais, and sent me barrel samples of the three pinot noirs that will be released this fall under the label. Last week, I joined a crowd of Adam’s Clarice Wine Company customers for a Zoom tasting with Adam and Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery to discuss Beau Marchais in depth. Adam had sent Mike barrel samples, and Mike gave us his thoughts as he tasted through them. The wide-ranging discussion touched on a variety of topics, and provided good entertainment for wine lovers like myself who have missed in-person wine tastings and gatherings.

It was the first virtual tasting event I’ve attended, a decision I made because I’d had the wines being discussed. I’ve been apprehensive so far to register for these events because either I haven’t had the featured wines, wasn’t interested in purchasing the featured wines, or wasn’t going to be able to get the wines in time to give them a proper rest prior to the tasting. While virtual tastings are, I’m sure, a lifeline for some wineries during this global pandemic, I’ve been loath to risk bottle shock and short rest periods during summer weather shipping. It’s brought a topic I think about often to real life, but alas, that’s a subject for a different post.

Beau Marchais is an unusual project because in a certain sense it is virtual winemaking, and is therefore a particularly appropriate one to launch during COIVD. Adam makes the wine, but he takes remote instruction from one of the most famous and respected winemakers in the world, Philippe Cambie, who lives in France’s Chateauneuf de Pape. Cambie currently consults for somewhere in the vicinity of 82 wineries according to Mike Officer, but nevertheless “the opportunity to work with him,” Adam told the gathered virtual crowd, “was too much to pass up.”

Adam and Mike had met Cambie on a trip to Chateauneuf de Pape, in the southern portion of France’s Rhone Valley. “He’s behind a lot of our favorite Chateauneuf de Pape’s,” Mike said, adding that “he’s taken a lot of okay places [throughout the Rhone Valley] and made them exceptionally good. It’s pretty fantastic to say that.”

The Lee-Cambie collaboration genesis, as Adam described it, was that during their trip to Chateauneuf, “we went to enough places that called grenache [the signature grape of the region] ‘the pinot noir of Chateaneuf de Pape.’ I began thinking, could we make California pinot noir in the style of Chateaneuf grenache?” Adam brought the idea to Cambie, and the two agreed that Adam would use his incredible fruit sourcing connections to secure choice California grapes, and Cambie would instruct Adam on how to make the wine. They would do the blending together in-person.

Mike Officer (L) and Adam Lee (R) with Philippe Cambie

As Adam and Mike interviewed each other during the virtual tasting, Adam described the process that he, via Cambie, made the three Beau Marchais wines. “Philippe brought completely different ideas to the project, things I hadn’t thought to do with pinot noir before.” That’s a big statement coming from Adam, a winemaker who by nature is willing to try different things and has made, pretty much exclusively, pinot noir for numerous projects for more than two decades.

To begin with, Cambie had Adam pick the grapes “on the earlier side of things.” Once the grapes came in, “we didn’t do nearly as much whole cluster press as I normally do. Clarice is around 80% whole cluster, Beau Marchais were around 25%. Philippe uses a particular enzyme to extract more from the skins. It tends to give a very creamy texture, something I’d never thought of using before with pinot. We used it during cold soak.” After the addition of another yeast, “the wine stayed on the skin for about 45 to 48 days. Normally, I do about 17 days, maybe 21, of maceration. I’ve heard of people trialing durations this long, but they’re just trials. This is what Philippe does.”

The differences kept coming. “As you get close to fermentation, we’d do this thing where we’d pump out of the bottom valve [of the tank] and back into the wine below the cap to actually push the skins up [as opposed to pumping the juice over the top of the cap to push the skins down]. This meant no aeration during the pump over. Plus, we used completely different barrels then I’ve ever used before. No concrete, just oak, and a good bit of new oak.”

Adam was asked by an audience member what the biggest influence Philippe had on him during the process. In response, he said that “it’s made me look at pinot noir differently across all my projects. I’ve been making pinot since 1994, and I liked to sit there and say I looked at things different each year. But still, there’s a sense of falling back to what you know. So, this helped me really say, okay, there are real differences in how to make really great pinot. This was an opportunity to increase my horizons.” As Mike summed it up, “no dogma. I like that.”

The Beau Marchais line up consists of two pinot noirs from the famed Clos Pepe vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, and a third pinot from the equally esteemed Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Both regions are considered cooler climate for California, and add a sense of history and strong imprints of place to the project. The inaugural release will come from the 2019 vintage. “I’m thrilled to be at Clos Pepe, I’ve worked at it since 2000,” Adam explained. “Getting back to the Santa Rita Hills, I love Clos Pepe. They’re doing great farming, it’s a great opportunity to do something great.”

The new Beau Marchais label

The two Clos Pepe vineyard wines, named Clos Pepe Est (“east” in French) and Clos Pepe Ouest (“west” in French), each represent unique areas of the already small vineyard. The Est comes from, you guessed it, the eastern edge and middle of the vineyard and is comprised of 115 and Pommard clones. This area of the vineyard “has some rolling hills, and the portion where the grapes come from is on the backside of the hill where it is more protected [than the west side where Ouest comes from]. It makes a big difference.” The Ouest is a mix of Pommard and 667 clones and “faces the Pacific Ocean, which means it gets direct wind. It produces smaller clusters and achieves higher brix. The wind is so strong sometimes that you can end up with poor fruit set.”

As Mike tasted the two Clos Pepe’s, he commented that the two wines were “totally different” even though they are “from the same hood.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is the Ouest more integrated at this stage – I get the sense that it responded to the extended maceration in a softer way – but the nose and fruit has developed more quickly as well, offering more differentiated layers at this early stage. It seems to be on the path to being more spicy and hedonistic than the Est, reminding me of Gigondas.

The Est shows a lot of gritty skin tannin, which takes up residence in a distinctly different region of the mouth than the acid. While the acid carries red fruit and florals, the higher level of tannin brings black tea and tobacco flavors than the Ouest has, the latter more dominated by black and blue fruit, with tar and black pepper.

“It was actually Philippe’s decision to split [the vineyard] like this,” Adam noted. “When we were together to blend, I was looking to make one blend, but Philippe said we should do an east and a west.”

Soberanes Vineyard. Picture credit: Santa Lucia Highlands

The Soberanes Vineyard bottling was the hardest to put my finger on. While it initially struck me as the most delicate of three despite it’s darker color, it gained weight with air and developed a nose and palate with distinctively different profiles. I noted that “it is the most classically pinot-esque of the three.” While the nose is all pastels and florals and red fruit, the palate is a concentrated combination of dark fruit, teriyaki, rose, orange blossom, sweet tobacco and tar with sweet, long tannin and modest acid. At the end of my notes, I wrote that “it is the closest these wines come to being sappy though it isn’t cloying. Best balance of the three at this stage. It evolved more than the two Clos Pepe between the two rounds of tastings (which were two hours apart).”

The project is named after a man named Pierre Beaumarchais, a French playwright, inventor, musician, spy “and so much more,” who helped with the foreign financing of the American Revolution by creating a company that smuggled money from the French and Spanish governments across the Pacific and into the Colonies. “We thought it was a great parallel to Philippe helping to make pinot in America. Also, it means ‘the beautiful walk’ in French.”

I asked Adam and Mike for their thoughts on the ageability of the three Beau Marchais wines. “If I’m comparing them to the Clarice wines, I’d say enjoy Beau Marchais while you’re letting the Clarice wines age,” Mike said. Adam added that “Clarice is aging more on acid and the stem tannins. Beau Marchais will be aging on skin tannin, it’s going to be fascinating. I don’t know the answer yet. I’d guess Mike is right, but neither are certain.” I’d approach it the same way myself, though I’d be tempted to let the Beau Marchais sit for a year or two post-release to allow for more integration and softening.

The inaugural Beau Marchais release will come this fall. You can sign up on the website to be notified when they are available, and they will also be made available to Clarice Wine Company customers. Beau Marchais is a fascinating project that will appeal most to those who like experimental wine, but also appreciate the incredible experience that Adam and Cambie to bring to the experimentation. This isn’t some new technique applied by someone with five years of winemaking experience trying to make a name for themselves before they know what they’re doing.

The trees adjacent to Carlisle Winery

I want to plug Carlisle Winery briefly, which I visited in early 2019. Located in Sonoma, it is primarily known for its zinfandel, which Mike aptly describes as “the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes” and California’s only true “benchmark grape (you think of Bordeaux for cabernet and merlot, Rhone for syrah, Mosel for riesling. But zinfandel, globally, it’s California).” While I really enjoyed several of Mike’s zinfandels during my visit, especially their estate Carlisle Vineyard bottling, I was most taken by two of his white wines, a grüner veltliner from the Steiner Vineyard and a field blend from the Compagni Portis vineyard, which is comprised of gewürztraminer, trousseau gris, riesling, roter veltliner “and several other varieties yet to be identified.”

The virtual tasting included a trio of Carlisle wines selected for Clarice customers, including a newly released 2018 syrah from Radiant Ridge, a high elevation vineyard in the Bennett Valley. Adam called it “my favorite syrah [Mike] has ever made” and “the most French-style syrah I’ve tasted from Mike.” A number of attendees chimed in, adding their praise for the wine. Carlisle is a fantastic producer, and one to dig into if you haven’t already.

I’m going to end by recommending these virtual tastings for those who miss winery visits and wine dinners with friends these days. Countless wineries are doing them, and offering expedited shipping on the wines chosen for the tastings. I won’t give a final verdict on whether I think a week or less of post-shipment resting is sufficient to clear the effects of bottle shock, but I will encourage people to order as far in advance of the event as possible. Besides that risk, there’s very little downside to taking advantage of the ability to virtually taste with winemakers around the world. It’s a great way to explore the wine world during a time when we cannot otherwise travel.

The League of Merry Edwards

Mery Edwards, legend.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a (relatively) new winery in the Sta. Rita Hills called Peake Ranch that I said was on the path to becoming a winery with few peers. In this piece, I get to write about a winery that is already part of that exclusive club, Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards.

Merry Edwards the woman was a pioneer in the California wine industry in several ways. Not only did she enter a male-dominated industry in the 1970s when sexism was a both a systematic and casual force holding women back, but she also helped shape the development of pinot noir, especially in the Russian River Valley. It is anything but hyperbolic to say that without her, California’s wine scene wouldn’t be what it is today. The Culinary Institute of America inducted Edwards into their hall of fame in 2013 along with the impressive company of Robert Parker, who himself deemed Edwards “one of the masters and pioneers in California.” My recent exploration of a range of their wines from 2017 and 2018 vintages offer evidence of what makes the winery so legendary.

Merry’s path to Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards is a bit circuitous. She began at one of the most esteemed estates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Eden. While there, she formed a friendship and mentor-mentee relationship with Joseph Swan, a relationship that would often take her to Sonoma Valley in those years. Her interest in Sonoma and the Russian River Valley developed as a result of these travels, and led to her move from Mount Eden to Sonoma’s Matanzas Creek in 1977, where she was the winery’s inaugural winemaker, to fully immerse herself in the area.

In 1984, she launched Merry Vintners, though production lasted just five years before the financials went south, a victim to a wider downturn in the wine market that wiped out a good number of wineries in California at the time. After consulting for a number of wineries, she launched Merry Edwards Winery in 1997. Her impressive portfolio of vineyards would increase over time, growing to today’s count of twelve owned and leased.

Today’s pantheon of Merry Edwards Russian River Valley vineyards

It is hard to talk about the boom in Russian River Valley pinot noir without talking about Merry Edwards because of what she has done there under her own name. However, her earliest mark on the Valley came before she planted roots there. While working at Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of San Francisco, she helped treat and propagate a pinot clone that became known as UCD  37, or the “Merry Edwards selection.” It would go on to be a star of the Russian River Valley AVA.

In a sign of the significance of the Edwards brand, Merry and her husband Ken Coopersmith (who himself had been instrumental to the winery’s success) sold the business to Louis Roederer Champagne in 2019, which announced that no changes, including to the winemaking and vineyard staff, were going to be made.

One person thankful for Roederer’s staffing decision is Heidi Von Der Mehden, Merry Edwards’ head winemaker since 2018. Recruited by Merry in 2015 to be associate winemaker, she was promoted three years later when Merry retired from head winemaking duties. It went without saying that she was glad to remain on the payroll after the sale to Roederer.

I spoke with Heidi after tasting through a few of the wines sent to me for this article. One of the first questions I asked her was how closely she could identify with the sexism that Merry overcame in her career. Thankfully, Heidi herself had not experienced such systemic sexism. She observed that her career had been largely a series of positions under men who were looking to retire, and perhaps because of that did not see her as a threat, but rather for her talents and intelligence. It was some of the younger men around her who were more competitive, which could be a sign of sexism, or less harmful competition between talented people. At Merry Edwards, she says, it’s not gender that helps someone advance, but talent.

Her instinct was that the kind of sexism that Merry faced was both more numerous and more blatant than what exists in the industry today. “There is less of it today, but it’s probably more subversive and harder to prove. Now, it’s someone gets a job and you’re told it’s because they’re more qualified but you realize it’s actually because of gender.” Though she’s seen that kind of dynamic from time to time, Heidi says she hasn’t experienced it herself. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve not faced the kind of gender discrimination that Merry did. She has ridiculous stories.”

Heidi Von Der Mehden

We also talked about her recent transition to head winemaker. Having taken over recently from a luminary, it would be understandable if the process was challenging. However, calling it “smooth,” Heidi noted that she had previous experience taking over head winemaking duties coming to Merry Edwards. “I had taken over for another luminary, Richard Arrowood, at Arrowood Winery, but in both cases I never looked at it as an opportunity to take over from a big name, but rather as an opportunity to learn from one of the best. I knew I wanted to get into Russian River Valley pinot, so when this opportunity came along, I was going to grab it.” Because Merry intended for Heidi to eventually take over when she was hired to be the assistant winemaker, “I learned a ton from her. She wants the brand to succeed; after all, her name is on it and it’s her baby. So we worked together very well to make sure the transition was seamless and the legacy of great pinot continues.”

Coming into the job, Heidi had very little pinot experience. While her first winemaking job was at Kenwood, a large(r) scale Russian River Valley winery that makes pinot noir among many other varieties, the approach was different than it is at Merry Edwards. Though both wineries did a few similar things like whole cluster, the scale was very different.

“It was very large format and we only had large, closed top fermented and did pump overs, things you wouldn’t do for high end pinot [like at Merry Edwards].” After Kenwood, she would work mostly with Rhone and Bordeaux varietals for a number of years, leaving pinot behind. However, “Merry actually liked the fact that I had little in the way of pinot experience because it meant I came in with few notions and ideas of how it should be made. I didn’t push back against her approach.”

Merry’s approach included a few things that surprised Heidi. One example she gave me was the use of relatively large five ton fermenters. “A lot of small producers like small fermenters and small lots, but Merry likes bigger fermenters to get as much phenolic extraction as possible.” Extraction requires heat, which is naturally produced during fermentation. So, in order to bigger extraction, larger fermenters are needed to achieve the requisite temperatures.

Another difference is how the vineyards are planted. Rather than the more traditional north-south orientation, Merry Edwards vineyards are planted at 20 degrees off magnetic north. Paired with appropriately oriented leafing, the fruit gets more sun protection during the hottest parts of the year while increasing exposure to the cooler morning sun, an approach to avoid sunburn while still developing sufficient tannin. An added benefit to this approach is that while it necessitates even more leafing than usual, it results in concentrating more nutrients in the grapes. They begin leafing right after fruit set, which also gives the young fruit early training in sun exposure, building the grapes’ tolerance to heat young to prevent sun damage later in the growing year.

A Merry Edwards vineyard

These vineyard decisions and practices are instrumental to developing the tannin structure of the bottled wine. Heidi explained to me that one of the things that drew her to Merry Edwards was the in-house phenolics lab, which helps track what otherwise must be detected by taste and sight. Heidi and her team take full advantage of this capability, testing phenolic levels (the chemical compounds of tannins) on all pinot lots. “It’s awesome that we have our own lab, because it means we get real time numbers. I’ve trialed outside services, and it takes longer and is harder to trust.” Further, “the research that’s been done on phenolics is heavily weighted towards Bordeaux varieties, so there’s relatively little solid data available on pinot. That doesn’t help us very much, so being able to test as we want and build our own dataset is huge.”

Phenolics are tested as soon as the fruit arrives from harvest, giving Heidi a baseline to use throughout production as they are again tested at various points during the winemaking process. “I’ll run anthocyanin [the tannin extracted from the skins] to see how color is developing during cold soak [which occurs prior to fermentation] and whether we’ve gotten all we want from that phase to determine when fermentation should be started. I’ll run it again mid-fermentation to decide if we need to do delestage [a process that gently extracts tannins by adding oxygen to the juice], or hold back on punch downs, or implement any other extraction regime.” In addition to the taste test, the lab helps Heidi more preciously develop her tannin profile.

Perusing the Merry Edwards website prior to our conversation, I noticed lots of vineyard pictures showing generous cover crops, a term referring to the vegetation covering the ground between the rows of vines. Using covers (as opposed to not using them) is a tactic many winemakers and vineyard managers use because they want to add or remove something from the soil that is affecting the vines in a positive or negative way, for example adding vegetation that helps replenish potassium in the soil, or a using type of plant that improves aeration in soil that otherwise may suffocate the vine roots. They are often used as an alternative to fertilizer.

It turns out that Heidi is a big believer in cover crops. “I used to have a lot of organic vineyards at Arrowood, cover crops are a huge point of pride in that context [because without non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, they become very important]. At Merry Edwards, I’ve always wanted to do more cover crops. We decide on it vineyard by vineyard, focusing on what the vineyard in question needs.”

In one vineyard, “the soil was just so vigorous and the canopies were so huge that they kept the fruit from coming in, so we planted a modest amount of orchard grass to introduce competition for the nutrients and water so the fruit had a chance. We got a better crop and better flavors.” In another vineyard, “we had an issue with Pierce’s Disease–it was a big issue in the Russian River Valley in 2014 and 2015–so we targeted a cover crop that increased the number of beneficial insects and wasps by sprouting a lot of flowers, which in turn attacked Pierce’s.”

In her quest to continue improving the quality of the wine, Heidi is excited because she was recently greenlit to do soil sampling in the vineyards, which hasn’t been done in many years. While many wineries do a lot of soil sampling prior to planting a vineyard to inform which varieties, clones and rootstocks they choose to plant, it is rare that they are done once a vineyard has been up and running for as long as some of Merry Edwards’ plots. “The soil changes over time, especially when it is feeding vines,” Heidi told me. “I’m hoping I can start focusing more on each vineyard and giving them what they need to produce better fruit.” Updating the winery’s knowledge of its soils can uniquely help her achieve that ambition.

Merry Edwards wine is not exactly cheap. A major driver of cost is the choice to use a high percentage of new, versus previously used, oak barrels. If every vintage requires new oak, that means a larger barrel order each year. Merry Edwards uses “quite a bit of new oak,” Heidi explained, “with a minimum of about 45% new oak depending on the vineyard and vintage.” For the sauvignon blanc, one of the few non-pinot wines that Merry Edwards produces, “it’s about 18% [new oak] and 100% barrel fermented.”

The pinot noirs see exclusively French oak. “We work with different coopers and every year when we taste the vintage [before blending and bottling], we taste each barrel set blind so we can see the difference in cooperage.” She then ranks them, and that ranking informs her barrel purchasing decisions for the next year. “This process has also helped be see how the vineyards themselves change with age. As the vineyard matures, the tannin structure and fruit profile change, so a barrel that worked for the vineyard five years ago does not always work as well when the vineyard gets another ten years into its life.” Despite the judicious use of new oak, the wines show little in the way of oak-dominated aromas and flavors.

In addition to a range of pinot noirs, Merry Edwards produces a revered sauvignon blanc and a spectacular chardonnay from the sourced Olivet Lane vineyard. The sauvignon blanc entered the winery’s portfolio after Merry became frustrated pouring other people’s white wines at her winemaker dinners and industry events, feeling like she was giving free advertising to other wineries. Merry had worked with the variety at Matanzas Creek, and decided to give it ago. She originally produced just enough for these small events, but after receiving multiple requests from restaurants and others to purchase some for their lists, she decided to make it part of her annual production that now represents about half of all wine produced each year. In its own right, it has become a collectable wine widely recognized as one of the best examples of the variety from California and is, like the pinot noirs, very age worthy.

A Merry Edwards tasting featuring its own sauvignon blanc

If there is any theme to draw out from my conversation with Heidi and experience with the wines listed below, it’s that we’re essentially talking about one effort undertaken over many decades to produce the best possible pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in a style that reflects the woman whose name is the winery. The approach is manically focused on fine-tuning every part and component of the process, and hyper localized to a distinct set of vineyards that, while each has its own personality, allow the winery to make a signature style of wine.

The wines have significant, sometimes stout, structures while displaying a harmonious array of fruit, earth and floral aromas and flavors at high levels of concentration. I was particularly taken by deftness of the tannins, which were long and especially thick for pinot, yet somehow elegant. The balance between power and beauty is a rare, rare find. All of them, even the sauvignon blanc, appear to benefit from at least short term aging, if not ten years. I found the 2017s to be significantly more accessible at this point than the 2018s, suggesting to me that the more recent vintage is going to need longer in the cellar to present their best selves.

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

Wine Reviews

2017 Merry Edwards Chardonnay Cuvée Olivet Lane – The decadent nose offers toasted aromas of creme brûlée, burnt lemon peel, marzipan and lime spritz. Full bodied and creamy, it is offset high-toned acid that runs through the core of a structure that is as elegant as it is substantive. Flavors include a roof-coating brioche and a very pure core of sweet clementine, mango, slate, white pepper and lime zest. Tasty enough to be tempting now, there is huge upside to those who wait five-plus years, after which time the oak influence will integrate and allow more complexity and depth to develop. 94 points. Value: A-.

2017 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.

2017 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – The nose has a heavy backdrop of scorched earth, wet bark, graphite, dark cherry, blackberry and black plum. It’s medium in weight, but spreads across the palate with fine tannin and juicy acid. Flavors include salty and sweet cherry, blackberry, plum and raspberry; black pepper; black tea; and cassis. This is a very intriguing wine aromatically, structurally and flavorfully. There are a multitude of layers that will take a solid five years to start unwinding. I’d love to try this in ten years when everything has sorted out and come together. 94 points. Value: A.

2017 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.

2018 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc – A beautifully refined nose wafts aromas of guava, pineapple, green apple, banana peel, crushed chalk, lime ice and white pepper. It’s on the heavier side for the variety owing to barrel fermentation and routine lees stirring, but the acid is juicy and keeps the structure feeling flirty. Flavors include sweet green and Opal apples, pineapple juice, lime sorbet, canned mandarin wedges, spring florals and white pepper. A beautiful and beautifully made wine, this has the stuffing to improve over the next 5-7 years and hold tough for another 3-5 beyond that. 93 points. Value: A-.

2018 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir – This really benefited from a two hour decant. A dark, concentrated nose featuring Bing cherry, strawberry preserve, rose hip, smoke and blood orange. The aromas are reticent to give themselves up at the moment, there is more buried beneath the surface. Nearly full-bodied, it has a juicy quality that splashes the tongue, balancing nicely with the long, slightly grippy tannins that coat the cheeks. The structure holds a lot of promise. Flavors, like the aromas, are hesitant to present themselves fully but are edging towards a richness that should only develop further. Right now it offers cherry juice, Acai, raspberry, scorched earth, graphite, tar and a sort of blood orange burst on the finish. This one ought to be put in the back of the cellar and forgotten about for a good five years, and the consumed over the following five to seven years. 93 points. Value: B+.

2018 Merry Edwards Olivet Lane Pinot Noir – The under ripe and primary nose offers aromas of crushed strawberry, pastel florals, red plum and tar. Medium plus in weight, the broad tannin offers surprising depth and smoothness give their tender age. The acid is likewise smooth and lush. Together, they form a pleasant substantive structure. Flavors include bright muddled strawberry and raspberry, sweet huckleberry tartness, scorched earth, unsweetened cinnamon, red plum, and red currant. There is a lot going on with this wine, but in order to transform its prettiness into depth, the fruit will need to shed its tart edge. Only time will tell, and on that front I’d be tempted to give it at least four or five years of aging. 92 points. Value: C-.

2018 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – Really benefited from a 3 hour decant. The saturated nose features aromas of muddled black cherry, black pepper, blackberry liquor, scorched earth and a hint of juniper berry. Almost full bodied, it offers modest grainy tannins and robust, bright acid that gives the wine a sheen over its still-forming dark, earthy flavors of blackberry concentrate, Bing cherry, tar, graphite, lavender, rose petal and blood orange. Attractive at the moment, two to three years of bottle age should help the tannin and acid integrate better, which I imagine will help the flavors fatten a bit. On its way to a gorgeous RRV AVA pinot. Scored for today, but this has another 1-2 points of upside. Score: 92 points. Value: B+.

2018 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – A deeply-rooted nose offers aromas of concentrated cherry juice, mountain strawberry, baking cinnamon, cigar tobacco, scorched earth and prune. Surprisingly light and tangy, it offers long, finely grained tannin and sharp, juicy acid. The good bits are all there, but need time to come together. Flavors include bright Bing cherry, strawberry, black plum, blood orange and tar. Not as welcoming as the 2017, but needing just as much time, this will be a very good wine. 92 points. Value: B+.

Try this Wine: Skin Contact Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to refer to it: rosé

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

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

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

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The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of Peake Ranch Winery

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

Peake Ranch. CreditSanta Barbara Independent/Macduff Everton

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

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

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

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

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

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Peake’s tasting room

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

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

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

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

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

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Enter here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John-Sebastiano-Vineyard

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

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

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