Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The author, left, with Adam, right.

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine: Make Merlot Great Again

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Credit: giphy.com

I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” That’s a line shouted by a character named Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, in the exceptional Hollywood movie Sideways, a movie which came out around the time merlot sales began to tank in America. Because merlot bashing was a persistent storyline throughout the movie, many people believe it was responsible for merlot’s commercial failings.

While the movie condemned merlot, it promoted pinot noir in a parallel storyline. “Why are you so into pinot? It’s like a thing with you,” Miles’ love interest asked him mid-movie. He responded with a long, thoughtful answer that ends with “it’s flavors are the most haunting and brilliant, thrilling and subtle…” Sideways also came out around the time that pinot noir sales began to sky rocket.

“Merlot sales had nothing to do with Sideways,” winemaker Chris Carpenter told me not that long ago. Among many great wines like Lokoya and Cardinale that he makes, Chris makes some of the very best merlot. “It had everything to do with a lot of bad merlot being made at the time, and an over-investment in bad merlot vineyards by the industry in the decade or so leading up to Sideways.”

Chris and I were discussing merlot for an upcoming Good Vitis piece on the variety. The first (and only) wine I’ve made myself, from scratch, was a merlot. My mom’s go-to wine when I lived at home was merlot. And it’s a key contributor to many of my favorite red blends. Though it’s never been my favorite variety on its own, I do think that it gets an unfortunate shake these days and I wanted to understand why. Hence the upcoming piece focused on merlot.

Adam Lee, who I’ve written about in these pages before, has been producing pinot noir in California for decades, and I asked him what he thought of the Sideways theory. “I don’t buy it, but I’m not sure why,” he said. The more he thought about it, the more he saw parallels to what happened to merlot before Sideways and what happened to pinot noir after Sideways. “It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot,” he said.

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

Chris and Adam are two of many who I’m talking with for research on the merlot piece, so more on that in the future. In the lead up to that article, though, I want to suggest that people take another swing at merlot because it’s a great grape. One of the ironically hilarious nuggets of Sideways is that the pinnacle wine for Miles is Cheval Blanc, a wine from Saint Emilion in Bordeaux that is a predominantly merlot blend and among the most highly respected and sought-after wines in the world. The 2016 vintage, which retails for around $750 per bottle and received lavish praise from all the big critics, is 59.5% merlot.

The fact is that some of the most esteemed wines in the world have substantial portions of merlot in them, while many winemakers rely on merlot to make their best cabernet sauvignon. Though far more popular than merlot, cabernet sauvignon makes a less complete wine than merlot on its own. If not grown exceptionally well, cabernet feels like a donut in your mouth: substantial around the sides with a hole in the middle. Merlot fills that hole, and brings some nice flavors to the party as well. If I’m given the choice between a 100% cabernet and 100% merlot of equal caliber, I’m going with the merlot every time.

If I can motivate a few people to give merlot another try, then I’m going big with my pick: I want to suggest a bottle made by Chris Carpenter at the Mt. Brave Winery in California, which uses fruit from Mt. Veeder, a particularly great mountain site to grow red Bordeaux varieties.

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Mt. Brave’s vineyards on Mt. Veeder. Credit: Mt. Brave Wines

The 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot isn’t cheap at its $80 retail price, but it is worth it. You can find it for as low as $65 on wine-searcher.com (scroll to the bottom for some options). It is a substantial wine with layer upon layer of complexity. Give it a good two to three hours in the decanter now and it’ll sing for the following two days. This makes it contemplative wine as well, meaning that if you can nurse small pours over a long time and think about what you’re smelling and tasting throughout, then you’ll go through an intellectual exercise that demonstrates why wine can be magical: it’s a performance art just like ballet or an orchestra. It moves, it sings and it dances. Try this wine because merlot can be great, and this one is.

Tasting note:

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

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Where it buy:

You can order it winery direct here for $80. Check out wine-searcher.com for where to find it in your area, including stores that will ship to you. Below are a few shops around the country that carry it.

Fort Lauderdale, FL: Your Wine Cellars

Chicago, IL: Flickinger Wines

Greater Boston, MA: Wollaston Wine & Spirits

Wayne, NJ: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace

Bend, OR: RHC Selections

Nashville, TN: Cana Wine Company

 

 

The 2018 Good Vitis Tastemakers

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The author and Martin Evans

I’m blessed by this blog in a number of ways, most notably in that it provides me opportunities to meet friendly, fascinating, talented and remarkably knowledgeable people with whom I share a passion. In wine, like nearly all things in life, people matter most. Human beings crave connections to other human beings, and meeting and bonding with winemakers, wine writers and others is often more exciting than any one bottle of wine for me. The winemakers who made this list fall in that category.

For this reason, the annual Good Vitis Tastemakers post has to be one of my favorite posts to compile and write. I get to share this benefit with my readers by bring the words of winemakers directly to them.

The Good Vitis Tastemakers of 2018 include four individuals who helped further my knowledge and appreciation of wine: Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot and Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards, both of Virginia; Evan Martin of Martin Woods Winery in Oregon; and Adam Lee of Siduri and Clarice Wine Project in California. I sent each of them the same questionnaire, which bears some, but not all, resemblance to the questions our 2017 Tastemakers answered, and I’ve printed them verbatim below (with minor editing for clarity). For each person I’ve also given a brief introduction and explanation for why they made the list.

Matthieu Finot – King Family Vineyards and Domaine Finot

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Matthieu Finot (second from left)

When I agreed to cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, I didn’t know Matthieu. He came by way of several peoples’ recommendation as one of the first winemakers in Virginia I should meet. Matthieu makes the wine at one of the state’s very best and most respected wineries and consults for several others, which alone could be enough to make a list like this. However, his institutional knowledge of Virginia’s wine scene, its terroir, its history and all of its particularities, combined, makes him one of the most effective winemakers in Virginia because he can represent so many facets of it. The proof is in the bottle, three of which I mention in the Good Vitis Most Memorable Wines of 2018.

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King Family Vineyards (estate vineyards)

Further, the breadth of his experience outside of Virginia boosts the credibility of his presence in any discussion. Although it’s almost comical, I decided to include the full list of wineries he has worked at prior to King Family below (his resume covers the Rhone Valley, Bordeaux, Jura, Bandol, Burgundy, South Africa and Italy) because Virginia is a tough place to make good wine and that kind of diversity of experience equips him well to handle it. Matthieu has a response to every question – at least every question I’ve asked him – that is informative, if not instructive. While the regions he has previously worked in produce wines among those most respected in the world, I would argue that making exceptional Virginia wine is not something many winemakers from those regions could do.

1. Winery and role: King Family Vineyards, winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 24.

3. Previous wineries/roles: I should send you my resume!

Proprietor

Domaine Finot                 Bernin/Larnage(France)                                                                           -ISERE / CROZES-HERMITAGE-            

Winemaker

King Family Vineyards Vineyards                                Crozet (USA)                                     -VIRGINIA-            

Consultant

Multiple Clients                                                     Charlottesville (USA)

Instructor

Piedmont Virginia Community College                       Charlottesville (USA)

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Potomac Point Winery                                                 Stafford (USA)                                               -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker & Vineyard Manager

Afton Mountain Vineyards                                           Afton (USA)                                                   -VIRGINIA-

Winemaker

Hildenbrand Estate                                                      Wellington (South Africa)

Winemaker

Azienda Agricola Andréa Rizzo                                    Nimis (Italy)                                                -RAMANDOLO-

Assistant Winemaker

Fruitière de Pupillin                                                     Pupillin (France)                                           –JURA-

Winemaker and Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             COTES DU RHONE-

Cellar Assistant &  Vinegrower

Domaine Tempier                                                        Plan du Castellet (France)                            BANDOL-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           -BOURGOGNE-

Salesman

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                             -COTES DU RHONE-

Assistant Winemaker

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron                                Nuits St Georges (France)                           BOURGOGNE-

Shop manager

Le Relais Des Caves(wine shop)                                     Lyon (France)

AssistantWinemaker

Château Guillemin La Gaffelliére                                 St Emillion (France)                                    BORDEAUX-

Assistant Winemaker and Vinegrower (Internship)

Cave de Tain                                                                Tain l’Hermitage (France)                              -COTES DU RHONE-

4. What got you into the wine business: Bloodline. I come from a French farming family from Northern Rhone. Even if my parents weren’t in the wine business, my father’s love of wine and my farming roots with my uncle and grandfather were enough for me to pursue wine education after high school.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: My route was pretty easy, I wanted to get back to the farming world. But I didn’t have any estate or winery to get back to, I was young and wanted to travel. Winemaking makes it easy to travel. I moved to Beaune in Burgundy where I studied, and then decided to travel France to diversify my experience, winemaking style and techniques: Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, Jura. But that wasn’t enough, I decided to start working outside France: Fruili in Italy, Paarl in South Africa, and finally Virginia in the United States.

6. Description of your approach: It was a very organic approach; I didn’t have a master plan when I started traveling, However, with hindsight it did give me lot flexibility in my winemaking and also it helped me to be open minded.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: There is no end of learning. The more I know the more I realized that I know nothing…. ignorance is a blessing!

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): As I said, I realized that is still need to learn a lot. There are lots of wine regions I don’t fully understand. I also need to keep tasting “great and iconic wines,” though that’s difficult to do when you are young and don’t have the financial resources to get to these bottles.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: When I started to work in Virginia in 2003 it was supposed to be for 1 year…and I am still here after 15 years…so I guess I am not very good in planning the future. I could still be here. I could be back in France to work with my brother at Domaine Finot. I could be resuming my travel through the wine world with my family. I still would like to go to New Zealand…crystal ball help me!

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: There are so many….Domiane Romanee Conti, Domaine Leflaive le Montrachet Grand Cru and Gaja Sori San Lorenzo.

Ben Jordan – Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey

 

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Ben Jordan (credit: Lightwell Survey)

Ben and Matthieu were kind enough to help form a small group of winemakers for a roundtable I organized earlier this year to discuss how Virginia winemakers approach developing tannin in their wine. Later, I visited Early Mountain for a tour and tasting. You can read all about it here on The Cork Report. Months earlier, however, I had a phone call with Ben to discuss petit mensang, a white vitis vinifera variety that does particularly well in Virginia when grown and made by someone with a lot of patience and guts.

Petit mensang has been a fascination of mine since 2013. Around that time viognier was becoming the rage in Virginia after a certain then-governor thought it’d be a great idea to basically endorse it as the state grape. Viognier is a thin skinned, tightly clustered grape, which makes it perfect for Virginia’s cool and wet climate. Yes, that’s sarcasm. What a dumb call. Nevertheless, it led to a boom in viognier planting and production. There are smart people – smarter than myself on wine – who, while agreeing that this was a stupid announcement, believe that high quality viognier can still be a fixture in the state. I’d rather it be petit mensang, which I believe can produce more interesting wine in Virginia while coping much better with its climate.

All that said, petit mensang is an even more challenging grape to grow, and wine to make, than viognier if you want to make a dry wine from it. This is a major headwind against it among winemakers. The variety puts on sugar and acid at an incredible rate while on the vine, which makes fermenting it to dryness (no remaining sugar) very hard if you want to produce a wine that won’t melt your tongue with acid. Ben is known as one of, if not the, best petit mensang masters in Virginia. This is what drew me to him originally.

After the conversation and wines presented at the tannin round table, it became evident that he knew far more than just petit mensang. The more I’ve taken to examining tannin, the more I’ve realized that a winemaker’s knowledge of how to use the science of tannin can be a helpful marker in determining how purposeful they are in producing wines, and a harbinger of the quality of their wine. A winemaker that can make a top quality dry petit mensang that captures both the typicity of the grape and its terroir and a range of red wines that span the full tannin spectrum is one to watch. Enter Ben Jordan. And watch him for indications of a Virginia petit verdot revolution (see below).

1. Winery and role: Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards and Lightwell Survey. Winegrowing partner with my brothers for our vineyard/winery project in Fort Defiance in the Shenandoah Valley.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Michael Shaps Wineworks – Winemaker; Dutcher Crossing – Assistant winemaker; C. Donatiello – Assistant winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: My family wanted to plant a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley, and at the same time I moved to NYC with an MFA in playwriting. I needed income, so I started working in retail wine sales.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I fell hard for the world of wine when I was working retail and for an importer, and since my family wanted to plant a vineyard, I decided I needed to learn winemaking. I signed on to do a harvest in Sonoma County, because I was told that was the way to get a foot in the door. That worked, and I was offered a full-time position. Once I had a winemaking foundation, I contacted Michael [Shaps], because he had a finger on the pulse of Virginia.

6. Description of your approach: Evolving and open, leaning toward precision and purity. We are still in such a foundational place in the mid-Atlantic that I am of the opinion we need to remain exploratory, look for the next generation vineyards, and plant them with varieties that will make for a successful industry. We are building, and it is important that the work we do now is thoughtful and creative.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: Sustainable wine farming, because I want to feel comfortable with my daughters working in the family vineyards. This may mean non-vinifera, or new wave vinifera hybrids, because even materials that are sprayed in organic programs can be pretty nasty.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Blending. We do a lot of blending at Early Mountain, and every year I realize I want/need to do better. Growing, see above. Petit Verdot. Like Petit Manseng, this grape offers a lot of potential, but I still need to understand what it wants to be.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be in Virginia making the first wines off of next generation vineyards that I have helped plant in the next five years. I also want my family business to be in a healthy place.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Pretty sure I need to taste DRC [Domaine Romanee Conti] before I kick, so might as well be La Tache. I would love to go into the Sherry bodegas and taste some of their oldest soleras straight from cask. A wine made by the next generation of my family, whether it be my daughters or my brothers’ children, or both. And hopefully I can taste that wine with 20 years of bottle age on it, because that will mean I am decently healthy in my 80s or 90s.

Evan Martin – Martin Woods Winery

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Evan Martin on his property

Evan Martin’s approach to winemaking is one of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across in my exploration of wine, and likely the most interesting of my 2018. It’s not that it’s particularly genius (no disrespect to Evan) so much as it is, ‘why isn’t anyone else doing this?’ because it’s a logical extension of what is bedrock boutique winemaking, and something that many wineries could do if they wanted. It’s essentially this: true expression of terroir should include barrels (if applicable) made from local trees.

Nearly every winery I end up visiting, and nearly every winemaker I meet, talks about their particular terroir. When they do, they focus on the soil, vineyard particulars (aspect, slope, etc.) and climate, and how those elements effect the grapes they grow. Then they talk about the various ways in which they try to let that terroir come through in the glass. Evan has an additional talking point: he makes his own barrels from the trees on his property (in the Willamette Valley in Oregon). Oak has an emphatic impact on the wine, and so when Oregon wine gets put into French oak, it can’t really be called Oregon wine anymore if we believe in terroir: it has a component from France that is altering the taste and structure of the final product.

To be clear, Evan is not snobbish about this at all. He just has the interest, patience and resources (trees) to try it out, and so he is. I was impressed by the results, which I wrote about here, but I need a bigger sample size to really know whether Oregon oak makes a better wine. Nevertheless, he’s doing something quite different that’s worth thinking about and trying.

1. Winery and role: Martin Woods, owner/winemaker.

2. Number of years in the wine business: 15.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Seven Hills Winery ‘04/’05 harvest intern; Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery ’09-’11 harvest intern, ’12-’17 Assistant Winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: An Oz Clark wine book and a fantastic little wine shop in Seattle called European Vine Selections.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I became obsessed with the concept of terroir. Casey McClellan at Seven Hills gave me a great introduction to careful, attentive winemaking and the goal of making elegant wines above all. I then explored the buying/service side of the business for a few years, developing a keen interest in wines from the cool-climate regions of France in particular. And I was captured by the principles of the natural wine movement—which are still important to me today, although I don’t refer to myself a natural winemaker for certain reasons. That subject, like great winemaking, is nuanced and unfortunately the discussion about it is all too often shallow and polarized.

6. Description of your approach: The last couple of years, I’m making about 4,500 cases of wine by myself, so my approach is minimal by necessity! But actually, this is a conscious choice. I like to be present for every moment that something is happening or being done to my wine. Each of these moments is an opportunity for my senses to check in with the wines, to catch potential issues before they become problems or to confirm or re-evaluate my strategy for that particular wine. I never make wine exactly the same way twice; I’m always adjusting to try to support what I perceive to be the zeitgeist of the wine and the vintage. This flexibility carries through the entire elevage period to bottling. For me, extreme attentiveness allows me to be “hands-off” with the wines; it allows me to be ‘natural’ in my approach and at the same time produce unfined/unfiltered wines that are clean, classic, deeply compelling and long-lived. Most importantly, what paves the way for a “hands-off” approach is choosing vineyard terroirs that truly give the qualities that you’re looking for in the wines, so you don’t have to try to shape them in to something they don’t want to be. That’s why I mostly work with the coolest, latest-ripening parts of the Willamette which are the neighborhoods that are most influenced by the cooling effect of the Van Duzer winds—the Van Duzer Corridor AVA, the McMinnville AVA and the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. These terroirs give wines that are structure-driven, with aromas and textures that are discernibly ‘cool-climate’ in character.

I guess it’s also noteworthy about our approach that we’re using our local Oregon oak to age a lot of our wines because we’re trying to make the most distinctive, terroir-driven wines that we possibly can. I love the qualities of French oak, but I don’t think it makes our Oregon wines more distinctive; quite the opposite actually, it makes them more like wines from other producing regions, because everyone around the world is using French oak, its use has become quite formulaic.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: One question I’ve been thinking about lately is, ‘can we produce amazing cabernet franc in the Willamette Valley? Why?’ Great cab franc (and I’m thinking of le Loire here) stirs passions in men’s souls, the same way that great pinot noir can. We have to expect that our climate is warming slightly, so growing CF is looking increasingly attractive.

Otherwise, I’m realizing I can’t really figure out anything about wine, not to a scientific degree. I’m concerning myself less and less with lab numbers and just embracing instinct and sense. The real frontier in my experience is always trying to find out what vineyard terroirs produce the most compelling wine. The Willamette Valley now has fifty years of collective experience under its belt, but we’re still young at understanding our terroirs. I do think that fifty years from now the scene will be quite different than today.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Discipline. I drink too much, it’s part of the business and I love the craft and I love checking in with what my peers are producing, here and across the pond. I recently read an interview with Bobby Stuckey and he talks about discipline and how it relates to the craft of being a great sommelier. I think he was spot on with what he said about discipline and I feel the same about the craft of making great wine. It takes a lot of discipline to remain fresh, creative and responsive to the (extremely) challenging work load of harvest, when in a matter of weeks a winemaker is making dozens of decisions that determine the trajectory of a wine for the rest of its life. I admire the older (than me, I’m 37) winemakers in the community that have had the discipline and stamina to be highly successful in this profession for 20-50 years. The names are too numerous to mention.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Sarah (my wife, who is the vineyard brains in the family) and I would like to plant a small vineyard on our property in the McMinnvillle AVA. We’re taking our time with this, as there are a lot of things to ponder…chiefly among them, what to plant and what are the right clones? If I was planting tomorrow, I would probably mostly plant chardonnay, as our neighborhood seems to be just exceptional for it, being as we are tucked in to the foothills of the Coast Range as well as on the shoulder of the Van Duzer gap. The mountains and the wind make it a little cooler here, so the chardonnay here has great tension from bright acidity, but with good sun exposure you can also get fantastic weight and depth.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: I haven’t been very careful about cataloging a memory of great wines that I’ve had. There are so many wonderful wines that I can’t remember the producer. I tend to think more about regions…Alsace, Beaujolais, Bourgogne, Loire, northern Rhone. The few times in my life I’ve had first-growth Bordeaux the wines have been splendid—taught, fresh, balanced, structured.

Furthermore, I don’t spend money on cult wines. I don’t mean Screaming Eagle. I mean, I love Clos Rougeard, but I don’t buy it. I don’t hold it against them for charging what they can for highly sought-after wines that by necessity need to be allocated. But there are other producers making incredible wines at reasonable prices, without any hype, and I love finding those wines. That’s maybe the best thing that great Sommeliers and wine shops do, they connect consumers with unsung or underrated wineries that over-deliver.

Adam Lee – Clarice Wine Company and Siduri Wines

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The author, Adam Lee (far right) and some friends enjoying themselves

I met Adam when he and a mutual friend came to our apartment for a party that we held because we had a number of random people in town visiting and didn’t know how else to see all of them while they were here. A lot of fun was had, really fantastic wine was brought and consumed, and bonding occurred.

As I got to know him more after that evening, one of the things that stood out most about Adam is that, good God man, he can’t sleep much given all he’s doing. Good Vitis readers will learn more about Adam in the coming months. We’re sitting on a trio of pinot noirs from his newest project, Clarice Wine Company, letting them recover from their journey from one coast to the other. We’ll try them soon, interview Adam, and then write it up. So stay tuned for that exciting piece.

Siduri, a winery he founded and where he still makes wine, is no small deal: wines from six regions across two states, multiple wines from each region, and all good quality and compelling. The website currently lists 18 different wines – 17 pinot and one zinfandel – for sale. All, by the way, under screwcap, including his highest priced bottles. Add the Clarice Wine Company project, which is an unusual business model built around a rather robust wine club program (more on that in the upcoming piece), and this guy is making a lot of wine. Then, the many visits to France and elsewhere because Adam can’t ever stop learning (his Facebook page makes me wonder how much time he actually spends in America, let alone California where he makes his wine), and I just can’t imagine he gets to spend much time at home. It’s all rather inspiring to me: the level of passion for wine and business that this man exhibits is enviable.

1. Winery and role: Owner, Clarice Wine Company. Winemaker, Siduri Wines. Consultant for a few other wineries.

2. Number of years in the wine business: In one form or another since 1988. Started making wine in 1994.

3. Previous wineries/roles: Direct Sales Manager at Benziger, Tasting Room Manager at a few places before that. But really Siduri Wines as founder, owner, winemaker.

4. What got you into the wine business: I got into wine retail first as Assistant Manager at a wine store in Austin, Texas. I had developed a love of wine during a trip to California between my junior and senior years in college.

5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I think it chose me. I never really had a plan, never planned on making wine. The idea of making wine was actually Dianna’s idea (my wife). She thought that if I was going to write about wine (I was considering the lucrative career of wine writing) [ED’s note: don’t I know it] I should try and make it first. So we did so, with the 1994 vintage and 4 ½ barrels of pinot noir. We then proceeded to get drunk one night and take a sample to Robert Parker while he was staying over at Meadowood Resort. Fortunately, he liked the wine and wrote it up in the Wine Advocate. That was the beginning for us.

6. Description of your approach: Making pinot noir is a unique combination of remembering and forgetting. Remembering lessons from the past and implementing them into a similar vintage. But also realizing that each vintage is unique and thus not falling into a pattern of making wine a certain way but rather reacting to what is given to you each year. Finding that balance between remembering and forgetting is the challenge.

7. The one thing about wine you most want to figure out, and why: I am confused and fascinated by what truly makes winemaking work. Let me give you an example. Some winemakers swear by whole cluster in pinot noir and make remarkable wines doing so (Jeremy Seysses at Dujac). Other winemakers abhor whole clusters and will never use them and make remarkable wines following that route (Henri Jayer). How does that work? What commonalities are there at these places and are those the key to what makes great Burgundy? Or is the key truly intent and following with great devotion what you believe and in doing that you will make great wine? I ponder these things.

8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I write horrific wine descriptors. Ironic for someone who wanted to be a wine writer. I grew up in a time and place where all the fruit I ate came in a can and was floating in simple syrup. Consequently, describing the flavors of a wine is something I suck at. I am okay with the weight and tannin/acid structure of a wine, but describing flavors – geez, I am bad at that.

9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be making pinot noir. Not just making pinot noir but immersed in pinot noir. I want to be doing less, but more in-depth. I believe that is my passion and my calling. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I also hope to be spending time with my kids…then adults…and sharing and learning from them.

10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Good question:

1984 Rochioli Pinot Noir — First red wine that I ever fell in love with. Started my love affair with pinot noir and that has never ended.

Fall Creek Winery (Texas) White Zinfandel – The first wine I ever shared with a winemaker. Ed Auler, the owner/winemaker and I were walking through his vineyard in Tow, Texas on a typically hot Texas day and he reached into his backpack and pulled out a chilled bottle (ice packs). He popped it then and there and we passed it back and forth while walking the vines drinking it out of the bottle.

1986 Chateau Margaux – Maybe the first classic, great wine that I ever tasted. I loved the 1985 and thought it was amazing, but when I tasted the 1986 I was blown away. It was remarkable and made me realize that there’s a whole world of extraordinary wine out there for me to experience.