An Epic Five Days in Napa

+LPJ8gpZSkeQ6qC0jxELCw

The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

“What is my Sideways experience going to be?” I wondered as I drove from Sacramento towards Napa Valley last month. I figured I’d encounter little varietally-labeled merlot after the movie famously made a demonstrable impact on demand for the grape. I wondered if I’d overdose on cabernet sauvignon or experience death by tannin. Would I entertain any Hollywood-styled shifts in life perspective like Miles? I really didn’t know what to expect – and to that point had no expectations for the trip. It had been ten-plus years since I had been to Napa, and on that occasion we did nothing more than stop at one winery and get lunch in St. Helena. For someone as obsessed with wine as I, it seemed almost a sin that I hadn’t spent time in Napa, or really even made a concerted effort to understand the Valley’s wines from afar. The reason it took me so long to focus on Napa is because, with rare exception, Napa’s wines haven’t been my thing. However, I like to keep an open mind, and so I sucked it up, flew across the country, and spent five days in the gorgeous weather and geography of Napa Valley coming to terms with one of the most famous and respected wine regions in the world. As I look through my notes from the trip, there are several themes that I’d like to explore. Consider this a Napa neophyte’s first impression.

Because this post is incredibly long, I’m testing out a technical feature called a “page jump,” which allows me to link to different sections of this post. I have a lot to report from my time in Napa, so if you’d rather not read this top-to-bottom, click on one of the following links to be taken to the corresponding section of the post. The wineries/businesses listed in parentheses are discussed in that theme. Note: once the link jumps you to the section, you may have to scroll up a few lines to hit the beginning of it.

Theme 1: Topography, geology and their connection to Napa terroir (Smith-Madrone, Rombauer, Kelly Fleming)

Theme 2: The wonderful people of Napa (Cary Gott/Calla Lilly, Ehlers, Barrel Builders, 750 Wines)

Theme 3: My generous and wonderful hosts and their great wine (Spire Collection, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey)

Theme 4: Holy tannin, Batman! (Freemark Abbey, Silverado Vineyards, Smith-Madrone)

Theme 5: Some cool winery business models (Silverado Vineyards, Castello di Amorosa, Hess Collection, Silver Trident)

The first theme that struck me was Napa’s topography and geology and its connection to the terroir. The Valley runs north-south with two main roads, St. Helena Highway and Silverado Trail, running in parallel the length of the Valley. Though the distance from one side of the Valley to the other is, I would imagine, rarely more than a mile or so East-West, it is deceptively long North-South. With good frequency, winds whip through the Valley. While many wineries and vineyards, including some of the most famous, are visible from one or both roads, many are up in the hills and out of sight, including some of the real gems. At some points, the floor and Valley walls meet with gentility; at other points, the two disruptively clash. Take any of a number of roads out of the Valley, towards the East or West, and you’re made to climb a number of steep inclines before, eventually, hitting steep declines, all the while twisting and turning the entire route. My rental Kia was surprisingly nimble on these roads, but I was wishing for a sports car that I could really slam around the corners.

The point is that the highly varied topography gives the impression of highly varied terroir, and though that is definitely true when the entire Valley is taken into consideration, I was and remain largely suspect that the vast vineyards in the Valley floor regularly differ in terroir in meaningful ways, even if they are miles north or south of each other. We tend to portray all of Napa by its predominant profile: lush and voluptuous wines dominated by fruit and oak. Though this is indeed the dominant profile, my experience was that two variables tend to drive a wine’s profile in Napa: whether the wine comes from the Valley floor or the mountains surrounding it, and whether the winemaker wants to highlight terroir or produce that famed Napa profile.

To offer a Valley example, there are a number of famous vineyards in the well-known and adjacent districts of St. Helena, Rutherford and Oakville, respectively, and many of the wineries that use them make an effort to specify both the vineyard and district on the bottle. However, as you drive through them the districts seem to blend into each other without geographic distinction, and though I imagine there are geological variances across the region, I failed to consistently taste differences based on the location of Valley floor fruit.

It is sometimes the case, however, that wineries choose to prioritize profile over terroir. One example of this, Cardinale, which is discussed below in greater detail, aims to showcase the vintage of Napa through a blend of a number of highly respected floor and mountain vineyards. To be clear, an absence of site-specific terroir is not a broad criticism, but I was struck that I did not find myself partial to any particular Valley floor district or site, and cannot identify with people who, say, prefer Rutherford wines over those made from St. Helena or Oakville fruit.

My suspicion is that labeled Valley floor site distinctions are often more about sales then taste, though also I say this without criticism. I took differences among floor wines largely as deriving from the varying winemaking approaches and processes, which is an important distinction for consumers because it’s a huge variable of the final product. Because of this, my sense from the Valley floor wines I tasted is that a consumer is wise to buy more on winery style than site selection. Put another way, in my mind Valley floor wine is distinguished more by the human element than the natural one. If that’s a turnoff, I would push back: Be honest with yourself, while “wine is made in the vineyard” (I have all the respect in the world for vineyard-driven wineries – skip ahead two paragraphs for proof), it’s also made in a winery (even a “natural” one) and there’s no avoiding that, or any reason to necessarily abhor it.

Where I noticed more prominent terroir-driven differences was in the wines made from grapes grown at elevation, on steep slopes and northern versus southern ends of the Valley. I experienced these differences at several wineries, though the three that stood out in this department were Smith-Madrone, Rombauer and Kelly Fleming.

9OfcNd3JQCC+BDb0IH612g

One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

I’ve written about Smith-Madrone Winery in the past, which is one of the most respected mountain wineries in Napa. Located on Spring Mountain and surrounded by other highly reputable producers, their vineyards vary in elevation, orientation and a number of other factors by design. When I arrived at the winery for my visit, Stu Smith took me on a tour of the property, explaining he and his team have spent decades learning about their soils, weather patterns, sun path and other factors, rejiggering when advantageous and, when called for, replanting vineyards to bring them closer to an ideal situation. The visit provided yet another data point about vineyard management that has me convinced, on balance, that the most interesting wines I’ve had come from wineries that are obsessing over their vineyards and vines. I’ve covered a number of wineries that share this obsession with Smith-Madrone, including Forge Cellars and Old Westminster. It’s no coincide that these winemakers/their wines have shown up on my 2017 most memorable wines and Tastemaker lists.

rGw7+x2wTseimJegs7hcuA

Koerner is the man

Rombauer sources fruit from all around Napa, and winemaker Richie Allen (another 2017 Tastemaker) led me through a big line-up of their wines, which included the best California sauvignon blanc made today. In addition to a cabernet made of vineyards from around Napa Valley and a chardonnay with grapes from Carneros, they offer multiple single vineyard bottles of each varietal as well as a reserve-level multi-source blend of each that draw from sites that differ dramatically in location, orientation and elevation. Richie is very purposeful in site selection and meticulous in blending, and tasting through his wines revealed some pretty clear – and wonderful – differences brought out by vineyard selection.

1cTzCLwkQT6cXy5zgFWyQw

Richie is the man, too

I want to specifically call out a few examples from the tasting. On the chardonnay front, the 2016 Buchli Station Vineyard was eye-opening. A blend of three blocks from Rombauer’s most southern vineyard, including the “Mother Block,” it offers a wonderfully balanced juxtaposition of sea flavor driven by sharp acid and a nice lushness derived by a small amount of purposeful botrytis. It has fantastic flavors of salted caramel and lime curd. The show-stopper, though, was the Proprietor Selection. Ultimately a selection of fruit from Green Acres, Buchli, Home Ranch and Brown Ranch vineyards, it includes only the barrels Richie selected as the very best. The only note I wrote down was this: “Holy shit – more than the sum of its parts. The depth of flavor and concentration is flat-out off the charts.” It’s one of those wines that in order to take it all in, you can’t really notice any particular element because the experience of the whole is too overwhelming.

On the cabernet side, there were two standouts as well. The commonality among all of Richie’s reds, which I came to appreciate as I tasted more and more Napa wine, was that the tannins were restrained – and the finishes correspondingly long. The 2013 Stice Lane Vineyard, incidentally Richie’s favorite, is the site where he has seen the most correlation between the color of the grape and the quality of the wine. As a result, he is obsessed with determining how that correlation works and, importantly, if he can determine causation so that it can be replicated elsewhere. In order to learn more, Stice Lane is where Richie and his team try out new vineyard management techniques and technologies, making this bottle Richie’s most cutting-edge wine. I loved it. Florals, cassis and currant produce a wonderful bouquet while the wine is deeply layered on the palate. It seems to have endless depth. Dominant flavors included kirsh, cassis, plum, cherry, mocha and violets. The other cabernet I flipped for was the 2012 Meilleur du Chai, which is a French term that means “best of the cellar.” Like the Proprietor Blend chardonnay, Richie nailed barrel selection for this one. First note: “Really gorgeous stuff.” It is rich, dense, spiced, polished and endless.

FuAdWsIdRu29bUzrreFBEg

The last winery I want to call out under the theme of topography and geology is Kelly Fleming Wines. Located on a gentle slope rising from the Valley floor up into the hills in Calistoga, winemaker Becky George makes four wines: a sauvignon blanc from sourced Sonoma fruit; a saignee rose from estate cabernet sauvignon; a blend of estate cabernet with Oakville malbec and Coombsville syrah called Big Pour; and the flagship estate cabernet. The estate vines are planted over four blocks that sit near, on and over the top of a sort of plateau that forms step as you work your way up from the Valley floor to the mountain above. Here’s an aerial shot.

FlemingMap

There is a lot of information here, but for the purpose of this discussion know that the elevation more or less increases as you work from the bottom of the image to the top of it. Notice that the orientation of the rows are different in each block, as are the spacing of the vines. Often times you see these gorgeous sweeping pictures of large vineyards with their vines flowing in seemingly endless straight lines. You certainly see this when you drive through the Valley floor. Sometimes that works. Other times, it’s best when the vineyards look like Kelly Fleming’s.

My tasting with owner Kelly Fleming and Becky was the first stop of the trip, and what a great way to start. First of all, these are two great people. Kelly talked me through the conception of her winery and her desire to make a top-notch cabernet from estate vines. This is not an easy, quick or inexpensive thing to do. The care with which Kelly approached execution can be seen in that aerial shot of the vineyard – details are important to her. Similarly, construction of the winery was done meticulously, combining incredible aesthetics with functionality. The winery’s structure is most famously known for its authentic cave, which took a huge amount of effort to carve into the hillside. The picture below captures roughly a third of it. As they took me through the winery, as someone who has made some wine, I appreciated the flow and design as one made primarily for a winemaker, not a tourist. Yet, the estate is beautiful, buildings included. It’s not an easy balance to strike.

Uw3m8ta3RziM3le7t9g

Kelly Fleming’s cave

Becky ended up in my 2017 Tastemakers for her Kelly Fleming wines and her pinot side project, Mojave. During my visit, we focused most of our attention on the red wines, beginning with the Big Pour. This was the wine that Kelly used to ease Becky into the lead winemaker role, giving her sole responsibility for it as she worked on the estate cabernet with consultant Celia Welch. Big Pour has been Fleming’s second label since 2006. The 2014 vintage manages to achieve super appealing ripeness without being jammy as the flavors hit on plum, big black fruit, kirsch, baking spice, menthol and a big pepper kick. The tannins are nicely integrated, and the finish persists.

We then moved onto a 2014-2015-2016 vertical of the estate cabernet sauvignon. Of the three, the most “normal” vintage was 2014, which is the current release. That year had stable temperatures with no dramatic heat spikes, roughly average rainfall and routine harvest schedules. 2015 and 2016 each had their own eccentricities, and given my own it was no surprise that the 2015, which is currently aging away in bottle, got the slight edge in the favorite department. These wines are refined, offer fantastic earthy complexity, pure fruit and a spryness that I found in precious few Napa reds. The mountain influence is evident in the texture and balance, which convey serious substance, depth and textual complexity without dominating tannin. When wineries asked me who I had previously visited, Kelly Fleming Winery was one that, almost without fail, elicited esteem. They set a bar matched by only a few wines from the remainder of the trip.

The second theme that stood out was the people. As with many places, the best part of Napa is its people. Kelly Fleming and Becky George set a great tone as my first visit, and straight through to the very last visit, to Silver Trident, it was the same. When I arrived at Silverado Vineyards, winemaker Jon Emmerich had assembled a group of five people representing winemaking, viticulture and oenology not only to welcome me, but to also accompany me throughout the visit to ensure any question I had would be answered. When we sat down for the tasting, Jon encouraged everyone to partake and speak their mind, which his staff clearly appreciated.

The generosity of people like prolific winemaking consultant Cary Gott and Rombauer winemaker Richie Allen to spend hours talking with me (and in these cases, dining and drinking with me as well) was very humbling – Good Vitis is not Wine Advocate, but that didn’t seem to matter. Cary Gott’s current project is a winery called Calla Lily Estate and Winery, whose wine I had informally over dinner with Cary one evening. Cary brought multiple vintages of their Ultimate Red cabernet sauvignon, Ultimate Red pinot noir and the flagship Audax cabernet sauvignon, all of which I enjoyed. Each had a level of refinement and purity that made them naturals with food – something that can’t be said, at least to my taste, about many California wines. This relatively new project is made from the estate vineyard that is a source of pride for Cary. Planted over 95 acres in Pope Valley on the eastern hillside of Napa County, it’s evidence that what is often considered Napa’s overlooked child is primed to grow premier fruit. Cary’s role in developing the vineyard and making the wine demonstrates his knowledge and skill that have helped him produce a long roster of successful clients.

XvNHIIq2QvOhymODPjr9Ew

The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

The kinship that forms among industry people in Napa, like the one I have with Elizabeth Smith who, at the time of my visit, was working at Ehlers and suspended work to host me for a last-minute visit, was on display everywhere I went. Ehlers, by the way, is one of the first Napa wines I had that made me question whether I was wrong in assuming that fruit bombs were dropped everywhere in the Valley. Their wine is marked by elegance and complexity. After receiving samples last year, I conducted a phone interview with winemaker Kevin Morrisey that I really enjoyed. The subsequent write up was one of my first serious reckonings with Napa that motivated this trip.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Napa’s walking encyclopedia, Kelli White, at Press restaurant, where she and her husband have put together one of the most famous restaurant cellars in the world, and witnessed that Press was the place where the wine industry gathers nightly to merrymake, gossip and scheme.

Organized only the night before, Phil Burton of Barrel Builders Cooperage met me for an early breakfast one morning and took me on a tour of two barrel-making facilities, which was fascinating and showed why and how a barrel can make or break a wine. As I’ve spoken with more and more winemakers I’ve come to learn just how important the right barrel is, and now, after spending a morning with Phil, I see that the good cooperages try to match the precision of a winemaker so that their barrels enhance, rather than detract from, the wine. At least that’s the approach Phil takes. It was rather ironic, but not all that surprising, that when I drove from Barrel Builders to Smith-Madrone, my next appointment that day, that Stu Smith was wearing a Barrel Builders fleece vest. These are two men who don’t sacrifice anything in their labor of love.

IGYN1ayPScecB6PKNk84HQ

Monica Stevens of retailer 750 Wines hosted me for a wide-ranging tasting of Napa wines. 750 Wines is an interesting retail concept. It runs on an appointment-only model, providing customized tastings for up to six people that lead to future you-only “club” shipments. Each prospective client is given a questionnaire to fill out ahead of time, which entertained me as I completed it on the plane ride out there. The tasting table is full when you arrive with wines from California based on your questionnaire responses. As you go through the guided tasting, your hosts are often inclined to pull a few additional bottles based on your feedback. Once the tasting is completed, they create a profile of the client and serve from that point forward as wine-buying advisors who source the wine and ship it to you. It’s effectively a wine club that can include multiple wineries, a model I find very appealing. I thoroughly enjoyed my tasting and time with Monica and discovered a few wines I’d never heard of, but enjoyed. If you’re in Napa, I suggest you look them up and make an appointment.

pvNuTWrAQcOrn2aLxg4L7w

The 750 tasting

I was truly blessed to meet so many great people in my short amount of time. From start to finish, the most consistently great element of the trip was the people, and even for a trip about wine I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The third theme is my hosts, the people responsible for the trip. They include the fine people at Spire Collection and Julie Ann Kodmur. I really can’t get over how well I was treated throughout the trip, and that is in large part owed to Spire and Julie Ann.

As a public relations professional, Julie Ann was one of the first industry people to engage Good Vitis. My day job involves a fair amount of public relations-type activities, and through this common language we found a number of overlapping interests both in and outside of wine. We’ve since formed a bit of a friendship as well as a professional relationship (like I said, the best part of the industry are its people). As Julie Ann and I got to know each other, the idea for this trip became a reality. I can’t thank her enough. The final evening of this trip was spent with Julie Ann and her husband Stu over a wonderfully tasty dinner and several of Stu’s wines, and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to bring my time in Napa to a close.

Spire Collection, which is owned by Jackson Family Wines, is an assembly of eighteen flagship wineries around the world that collectively “express the unparalleled terroir from some of the finest vineyards around the world — reflecting the family’s resounding commitment to quality and excellence.” Though individual wines from some of Spire’s producers are available for purchase at select retailers and direct from the producer, Spire operates a club membership program with a dedicated member-only tasting room in Calistoga. The gorgeous property has several acres of vines and is situated on the Valley floor with a magnificent view of both sides of the Valley. The tasting room, which requires an appointment, looks onto Mount Saint Helena. When a customer arrives, the first thing they are asked to do is choose a few records from the vinyl collection to set the mood. Then, they are taken through a customized tasting based on their stated wine preferences that draws on Spire’s wineries. From the tasting the customer’s allocation is then assembled.

Dale Cullins, Spire’s wonderfully entertaining and knowledgable Wine Educator, led me through a selection that included wines from South Africa, California and Australia. The first was the 2014 Capensis Chardonnay from the Western Cape of South Africa, which is an effort to realize Jackson Family Estate’s goal to make the best white wine in South Africa. They don’t hold back; at $80 a bottle, in fact, they’re all-in. Winemaker Gram Weerts sources chardonnay from several high elevation and hillside sites: Stellenbosch (Fijnbosch vineyard), Overberg (Kaaimansgat vineyard) and Robertson (E. Bruwer vineyard).  Fifty percent of the blend is aged in 100% new French oak for ten months. The malolactic/acid balance on the wine is spectacular. The exceptionally rich texture delivers hazelnut and Spanish almond fattiness, but avoids toast overload. Meanwhile, the limey acid is underscored by slate minerality. The balance between these two features is a thing of beauty, and it was the star of the tasting.

spire_barn2

The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

We then tasted the 2014 Maggie Hawk Jolie Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley in California. The grapes come from the hillside Maggy Hawk estate vineyard not far from the ocean, which is often blanketed with fog in the morning that is cleared by wind in the afternoon. The Maggie Hawk lineup features single block wines, with this one coming from the Jolie block. It was aged for fifteen months in French oak, 29% of which was new. The nose boasts a wonderful combination of tangerine peel and violets, while the body is quite velvety with crisp acidity. The first wave of flavors hit on cherry cola and florals, which were followed by crushed berries and tangerine. It finishes on a tar note.

Heading down under, we moved on to the 2014 Hickinbotham Brooks Road Shiraz sourced from Clarendon Vineyard in the McLaren Vale, a historic site that was first planted in 1858. This one is a tag-team effort between winemakers Charlie Seppelt and Chris Carpenter. The wine is stylistically a bit of a homage to more classical Australian shiraz that flourished before the fruit bombers came to dominate the market. Though double decanted before the tasting, it wasn’t until about 48 hours later, when I revisited the wine, that its personality had really emerged. This is one to stick away, out of sight in the back of your cellar, to forget about for at least a decade. The nose and body are equal parts savory and fruity, each hitting on hickory smoke, beef jerky, ripe cherries and huckleberries.

Then it was time to get down to Napa. The first local wine was the 2014 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. La Jota was established in 1898 and continues to focus on mountain and hillside fruit. This one is sourced from the estate La Jota vineyard and W.S. Keyes vineyard, and includes a bit of merlot and cabernet franc. Fermentation is done with native yeast, and each varietal is aged separately. Each sees 19 months in French oak, 91-97% of which is new. A bit of a baby, the nose is reserved while the palate oozes black and blue fruits and strong plum flavors. Graphite and smoke form the core of the wine’s bright minerality. The balance is nice and suggests it’s going to improve with time.

Finally, we tasted the 2014 Mt. Brave Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvingnon. Mt. Brave’s vineyard on Mount Veeder sits above the fog line at the northern end of the appellation where it receives less marine influence than many other Veeder sites, which is perhaps a reason for the intensity of the wine. It has some merlot and malbec blended with the cabernet. Like the La Jota, each component varietal is aged separately for 19 months, though (only) 70-91% of it is new. It offers signature Veeder menthol and mint, which comes out most strongly on the finish. The fruit is cherry-driven and sits on a foundation of dried soil and beautiful acid freshness. I’m a Veeder fan in general, and this Mt. Brave didn’t disappoint.

In addition to the tasting at Spire, I was able to visit Cardinale, a Spire property that produces two Bordeaux-style wines, one white and one red, that showcase the blending talent of highly-respected winemaker Chris Carpenter. The property is located in Oakville, but the wines are a relatively consistent blend of vineyards from throughout Napa Valley. The focus is on blending a number of premium vineyards to achieve and spotlight the vintage rather than any one site. This creates a lineage of Cardinale through which one can experience vintage variation.

In order for the customer to get some feel for Cardinale’s philosophy, the tasting room offers three wines: the Intrada white, the current vintage of Cardinale (the red), and a library Cardinale. I was offered the special treat of an additional library vintage. We started with the 2016 Intrada, a sauvignon blanc blended with 3% Semillon and aged on its lees in a combination of new French oak, concrete egg, stainless and neutral oak puncheons. It’s a full, lush wine with bright acidity, chalky minerality and a flavor profile of grass, lime and wonderful melon notes. We then moved on to the Cardinale red, beginning with the 2014 vintage that is a blend of 88% cabernet sauvignon and 12% merlot. This is the first vintage with Spring Mountain fruit “playing a big role.” The components spent 19-20 months in 90-98% new French oak, so this is no small wine. It was fermented with native yeast and is unfiltered. Red fruits, florals, menthol, cassis and keep kirsch featured prominently on the nose. The full body balanced bright acidity and delivered big baking spices and vanilla, cocoa and orange zest on first sip, but as it drew in more air there emerged sweet tobacco, sweet crushed cherry and blackberry, seasoned leather, menthol and pepper. Carpenter’s care and attention to detail are on full display on this one.

The last two wines were both from the library: 2007 and 2005. The younger wine is a blend of 86% cabernet sauvignon and 14% merlot, and is just old enough to have developed secondary notes on the nose and palate. The fruit is crisp and red and quite aromatic. The tannins have fined a bit and integrated nicely, though they’re still very much present. Some earthiness – graphite and loam – which weren’t there on the current vintage, have developed, as has a tangerine quality that brings out bright acid. The 2005, though, was my favorite (I’m a slave to older wine). It has a slightly stewed prune quality on the nose, but it’s as far from bad as good can be. There’s a toasted oak quality as well that goes nicely with tanned leather and sweet tobacco. On the palate, the fruit is rich, plump and deep. There’s a menthol, almost spearmint, flavor as well that I love. The tobacco and leather are very sweet, and it finishes with wonderfully big cocoa and cinnamon.

cardinale

A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

I appreciated what seemed to me to be a quintessential Napa experience at Cardinale, both in terms of the visit and the wine. The property, buildings and wines are what I envisage when someone says the word “Napa:” everything grand. The vineyard sourcing includes historic vineyards of exceptional reputation, and with Chris Carpenter’s extensive Napa experience guiding the process, the wines are Napa royalty. If you’re looking for a grand Napa experience, make an appointment.

Through Spire, I was able to visit another Jackson winery, Freemark Abbey, one of California’s more storied wineries that dates back to 1886 and includes a showing in the Judgement of Paris among other notable moments. The lower floor of the winery features a library that aims to capture much of the winery’s more recent history with bottles going back to my parents’ generation. There were two elements I encountered with each of the current red wine releases: bright acid and tannins so robust they quickly dry the finish. Finishing with library wines, I was able to see how important that bright acidity was in ensuring the wine had the ability to last long enough for the tannins to release and resolve. In fact, a hallmark of Freemark is a proclivity for harvesting on the earlier side to preserve acidity to build backbone and structure. These are wines that demand long rests in the cellar.

We started with two chardonnays, neither of which go through malolactic fermentation. Nevertheless, the 2015 Napa Valley is quite full and ripe, though the acid plays a leading role and balances an otherwise toasty profile that offers almond, pineapple and lime zest flavors. The 2016 Howell Mountain chardonnay struck a more elegant balance of crispness, cleanliness, freshness and acidity. The fruit was stonier, while the palate more round and lush. Flavors hit on white peach, apricot and vanilla.

From there we dove into the reds, beginning with the 2014 cabernet franc. The nose kicked off with savory aromas as the fruit backfilled. It was initially savory on the palate as well with a big hickory kick. Bruised cherry and crushed blackberry filled out the full body as a hint of green herbaciousness developed. The tannins were dense and grainy. The second pour was the 2014 Merlot Bosche Vineyard, one of Freemark Abbey’s flagship sites. The briny nose gave way to a mid-weight palate and playful acidity. Flavor-wise, it offers Acai, raspberry, plum, pepper and cinnamon. Although the tannins are polished, they do some significant drying on the finish that gives the impression of thinness. Best cellared for a while, it’s going to take years for this one to resolve itself and fill out.

Next up came a series of cabernet sauvignons, all following the theme of quickly-drying tannin. We began with the 2013 Rutherford bottling, which started off big, chewy, delineated and dense. The fruit is sweet with a noticeable orange zest character. The tannins are mouth-stripping. By comparison, the 2013 Spring Mountain Bordeaux-style blend was bright and pleasant. It featured red fruit, leather and tobacco leaf. The tannins are quite dense but more finely grained than the Rutherford. In contrast I would call this refined and elegant. This led into the 2014 Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon, the only 100% cab sauv of the line-up. The classic mint note is more prevalent on the nose than the palate, the latter of which also features cherry, plum and blackberry. The acid is a bit lean in comparison to the tannin, suggesting a lighter body than perhaps exists in reality. Only time will tell. The final current release poured was the 2013 Sycamore Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, Freemark’s other flagship vineyard. With a velvety palate, this was the most polished of the current releases. The core of the wine is fruit that comes in waves of Acai, strawberry, cherry, blackberry and blueberry. There are also notes of graphite, currants and kirsch. While enjoyable now, it’s still a bit of a tannic beast and would do well with ten-plus years of cellaring.

Speaking of the Sycamore cabernet with a decade of cellaring, the 2007 Sycamore was all I need to confirm my suspicion that these Freemark reds need serious time. Downright mellow compared to the current releases, it has also achieved far more depth because the tannins have gone a long way towards resolution and no longer strip away the finish like they seem to with the current bottles. That said, full integration seems another decade in the making. Cinnamon and cocoa are up front, followed by sweet cherry, blackberry, plum, black currant and kirsch. Perhaps most importantly, the concentration of this one is noticeably better. We finished with the 2007 Bosche Vineyard, which I felt was the most integrated and complete wine of the tasting. The nose boasts secondary aromas as well as some funky herbaceous notes that gave it a more colorful personality. It is lush but beautifully balances bright acid. The flavors are more reserved than the Sycamore, giving off a general impression I can only describe as “ruby.” The concentration is impeccable, I’d call this one an exercise in grace over power.

5%wFZccaRvW4dL%%dNEJxQ

The lobby of the St. Helena Bank of America hosts a collection of classic Napa wines

The visit to Freemark is where I was came across the forth theme: Napa’s tannins can be a huge obstacle to flavor and finish. The differences between the current and decade-old library releases at Freemark (and, to a lesser extent, Cardinale), were as obvious as obvious could be and to my palate entirely welcomed. However, not every wine, even one with robust Napa tannins, can improve with age like the Freemark cabs did.

From a point of pure pleasure in the mouth, tannins tend to show best in red wines that are lower in acid and higher in alcohol. All other factors held constant, the right balance between those three elements best shows off what the wine has to offer. In order for a wine to age well, however, while a decent amount of acid is beneficial, higher alcohol content tends to prematurely age wine or exaggerate it. Striking the right balance can be tricky.

It seems in the case of Freemark’s 2007 Sycamore and Bosche vineyard cabernets that they found a good balance because the wines are really nice ten years in, and seem primed to continue improving. Here are the numbers for the Bosche bottle, my favorite of the two: 14.5% alcohol by volume with a pH of 3.34. By Napa cabernet standards, that’s modest alcohol and high acid, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising, again all other factors held constant, that integration is proceeding nicely.

Tannins can be managed, though, too. Fining and filtration can all but eliminate tannin if a winemaker so desires. Tweaking the alcohol or acid levels will affect the tannins. Putting grapes through longer cold soaks and less maceration extracts color and flavor while resulting in less tannin. If and how pump overs (or punch downs) are done matters. Whether stems or seeds are included at certain points in the process has a huge influence. Consider this discussion a preview of an in-depth article I plan to write about tannins in 2018.

Stu Smith’s Smith-Madrone wines are an example of moderated tannins (Rombauer and Kelly Fleming as well). His 2012 Cook’s Flat Reserve came second on my most memorable wines of 2017, and although it has sufficient acid and stuffing to age for decades, it’s complexity and layers are discernible now and its finish very persistent. This isn’t to say this style is necessarily preferable, but it’s possible without sacrificing the ability to improve with age.

The visit to Silverado Vineyards cemented this realization for me. There we tasted 2012-2013-2014 verticals of their GEO and SOLO wines, which are both 100% cabernet sauvignon. GEO comes entirely from their Mt. George Vineyard, while SOLO is sourced exclusively from their Stags Lead District vineyard. Stags accumulates degree days (days that are hot enough for the grapes to develop) faster than Mt. George, and is historically harvested earlier. GEO tends to hit a slightly higher pH (lower acid) than the SOLO. I was also able to taste the 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages in barrel, and since the first vintage of the GEO was 2012, it meant I was lucky enough to taste every GEO made so far. The oak regime varies from year to year, but in general it’s a combination of new and used French and American oak, the foreign wood usually representing 80-90% of the total.

70tHau+3QDmx+m63IIGAMg

One of the barrels we tasted

I bring Silverado up in the context of the tannin discussion because I found all of the wines sampled to balance their tannins nicely: the structure is certainly firm, and all the textural bits are well ordered, but it doesn’t distract from the flavors or begin drying the mouth before you’ve hit the finish. My favorite of their wines was the 2012 GEO, though calling it a “favorite” is really just declaring a winner by drawing straws. The 2012 got the nod because of its savory and briny edge that surrounded cassis, kirsch, cherry, menthol tobacco, black fruit and a baking spice finish. The 2013 and 2014 vintages were very good as well. All three had lush entries, balanced crisp acid and solid tannic spines. I imagine these begin to hit their stride 5-10 years after bottling. The 2013 SOLO was my favorite from that side of the tasting mat. A nice velvety entry led to cherry, blueberry, coca, cassis, black currant, lavender and sweet tobacco. The tannins were relatively mellow compared to the same vintage of the GEO. Vintage-wise, the 2014 were the biggest and most round for both bottlings. What was consistent across all wines was a slightly rustic sensation that I really appreciated.

Silverado-Hero

Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

Silverado is where I came to realize there was a theme of interesting business models. Silverado brings a French chateau business model to California: multigenerational ownership that develops commercial self-sufficiency based on establishing a reputation for a house style from estate vineyards. Jon has been making Silverado’s wine for 28 years. His assistant, Elena Franceschi, has been with him for the last 24 of those. They trust their vineyard management and enology support, and I saw why. These decades of institutional knowledge produce a rustically-styled wine that fluctuates with the vintage and very little else. That said, don’t for a moment think that Jon and crew rely on how they’ve done it before to do it again in the future. There is constant inquisitiveness and experimentation in the vineyards and winery, and so the wines are always evolving. I think it’ll be a fascinating winery for me to begin following.

Seventeen miles north of the French-modeled Silverado you’ll find the Italian-styled Castello di Amorosa, known wide and far as “the castle winery.” It’s an epic and authentic 13th Century Tuscan castle built mostly out of materials brought over from Italy. Words can’t do justice to this massive building. Peter Velleno, the assistant winemaker, took me on a 30 minute tour and I think we saw maybe half of it. It has an armory complete with weapons made by Tuscan blacksmiths based on how weapons were built at the time the castle would’ve been considered modern. I can’t make this stuff up. It’s the brainchild of owner Dario Sattui, who has spent decades building and outfitting it, a process not yet complete.

HR-Castle_Wide_Fall_Full-e0581a2d5056a36_87e85a2c-5056-a36a-081d37b817e97024

The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

There are five different levels of tours that visitors can take, each of them themed. If you’re going to Napa with young kids, older parents, people who don’t like wine and people who do, this is your place because it offers so much more than just wine. I had a wonderful tasting with winemaker Brooks Painter, who does his best to ensure the castle doesn’t overwhelm the wine. We had some great conversation while tasting wine.

A few of Amorosa’s highlights included the 2015 Pinot Grigio made from fruit from Mendocino. The goal with this wine was to find the right combination of clone and rootstock to get the classic stone fruits and citrus, and they’ve achieved it. It is vinified in stainless and enters the mouth very clean and crisp with plucky texture. It has lemon, limestone, Meyer lemon curd, sweet grapefruit, peach and a peppery minerality. The 2012 La Castellana (“Lady of the Castle”) is a Super Tuscan-styled blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and merlot. I found it a soft, plush and hefty wine with a wide range of red fruit, orange zest and spice. My favorite, though, was the 2013 Sangiovese. Perhaps this was the environment coming through in the glass. The nose is varietally-authentic with cherry, leather and orange peel. It’s a blend of seven vineyards, and is full bodied, ripe and round. The acid is juicy and develops many layers of red fruits and berries to go with leather, tobacco and pepper. It also had a cool watermelon thing going on. Brooks told me Sangiovese takes time in Napa to reach phenolic maturity and requires serious patience. Apparently Brooks is a patient man. It’s varietally correct but yet still very Napa; I thought it was great.

hess

Hess

Hess Collection was a late addition to the itinerary, but I’m so thankful they were able to fit me in. I had reviewed several Hess wines last year in a post I wrote about the deadly fires that ravaged parts of California wine country and had good things to say (about the wine, not the fires). Located on Mt. Veeder, Hess is legend. The property’s connection to wine goes back to 1876 and has remained connected to the vine ever since. Hess gets its name from its owner, Donald Hess, who started Hess Collection in 1986. What makes the Hess model unique is the incorporation of Hess’ love of art into the winery. The top story of the wine is a magnificent art museum that is open, free of charge, to the public regardless of whether they taste or buy wine.  The museum is 100% professionally done, and the art is world class. Set into the side of the mountain, the entire property is beautiful. I had the added benefit of good timing as the sun was setting as I drove down the windy road back towards Calistoga following the tasting. What a great way to end a great winery experience.

HhV39Sl3Qf63WMk2fe3Sxw

Historic vines at Hess

Hess is a medium-sized producer but, frankly, one I hadn’t had until those samples arrived last year. I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me. At the winery, Hess’ winemaker, Dave Guffy, put me through a nice tasting. Man, did I feel stupid for underestimating the brand. Although we started out a bit formal, by the ten minute mark Dave and I were joking around between sips and wine discussion. The wines were really good, from their $10 bottle to their flagship series. Dave sent me home with a few of the bottles we had opened to taste, which I shared over dinner that night with one of the winemakers mentioned in this post and his assistant, who confirmed for me that, yes, I was stupid to have anything but respect for Hess Collection. The quality is top notch across the full line, and because they’re large enough to distribute nationally, they should be relatively easy for readers to find locally.

The wines you’re most likely to find are the Hess Select chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. These are wines priced around the $10 and $15 marks, respectively, and they’re absolutely killer for the price. When I asked Dave how they made such good wine for that price, the answer was pretty great: they try really, really hard. Hess Select wines get all the mental attention and much of the same physical attention as their higher end wines, and so they’re not afterthoughts or ugly step children. The chardonnay comes from a 300 acre estate in Monterey filled with clonal variety to achieve greater complexity and density. This allows them to avoid full malolatic fermentation (it goes through partial ML) and a ton of oak aging (it sees 30% French oak). I can’t image many $10 chardonnays getting enough attention to stop ML or seeing any actual oak barrels (as opposed to less expensive chips or additives), so these are pieces of evidence of “trying really hard.” It has lovely lime creaminess, banana peel and pineapple notes. The Select North Coast cabernet sauvignon comes from Mendocino and Lake County fruit, and has small amounts of malbec, petit verdot, merlot and syrah blended in as well. It’s lush and smooth, red fruited with tobacco, cocoa and leather. Entirely gulpable.

The other real standouts that I hadn’t reviewed in the prior Hess post included the 2015 Lion Tamer, which is just the second vintage of this blend of malbec, petit sirah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and the 2015 Small Block Reserve cabernet sauvignon. The Lion Tamer, aged for 18 months in 100% French oak (25% new) is quite lively and rich. The dense fruit is mostly red and black, though there is a strong dose of blood orange to compliment. Peppery on the finish, it has a nice herbal note of thyme as well. The Small Block Reserve is all Valley floor fruit, so it’s softer and more restrained than the hillside wines like Hess’ Mt. Veeder, which I said wonderful things about in the other Hess post. The components for this wine are aged 20-22 months in barrel and then kept for a year in bottle before being released into the wild. It’s an impenetrably dark wine, aged in all French oak, 60% of which was new. It has a very pretty mineral core that is balanced by black fruit, olive brine and a finish that is peppery and orange zesty. I’d really love to revisit this one in 5+ years.

Silver_Trident_0087

I’m going to end with the most unique business model of them all: Silver Trident Winery. I’ll be honest, when I found out that their tasting room was a Ralph Lauren Home showroom in the wealthy Napa Valley town of Yountville, I wasn’t so sure about life anymore. Thankfully, winemaker Kari Auringer put me at ease when we met for lunch first at a restaurant across the street. As it turns out, if a winery wants to open a tasting room in Yountville, it must sell something in addition to the wine that the local community would like to have available to them. Given Yountville’s residents and visitors, Ralph Lauren furniture and decor seem a good choice. By the time I left the “tasting room” (a two story stand-alone building), I was on board. Kari and I had our sit-down in a beautifully and tastefully decorated parlor sort of room, and the wines were accompanied by very tasty seasonal accoutrements that paired wonderfully.

Silver_Trident_30121

Our tasting room

My two favorites from Silver Trident were the 2015 Benevolent Dictator pinot noir and the 2014 Friends & Family Reserve cabernet sauvignon. The Dictator is made from Russian River Valley grapes of clones 667 and 777 from Dutton Home Ranch vineyard, which are fermented separately. It’s one-quarter whole cluster fermented and sees 40% new oak. Slightly earthy out of the gate, the nose blossoms with red berries and plum. The palate is velvety on entry and has a real depth of concentration. It’s classic Russian River pinot. The Reserve spends two years in 100% new French oak, but the tannins are modest while the texture is downright luxurious. The fruit is blue and black, and it’s a bit briny. It also boasts smoke, violets, currants and kirsch. It’s drinking nicely right now. If you’re passing through Yountville, I suggest checking out the unique experience of Silver Trident.

Well, over 8,000 words later, that’s pretty much a wrap. This post took me ages to conceive and write, which meant the trip was quite successful. Though I’m by no means a Napa expert, I now have a wealth more of knowledge than I did before. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone mentioned in this piece for warm reception they gave me.

 

 

 

 

Gateway Duero: Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial

Abadia

Abadia Retuerta (Picture credit: ledomaine.es)

We like a good weeknight wine at Good Vitis. Something thirst-quenching, something fun, something that brings grace after a long, hard day. We also like a versatile food wine. Something with enough complexity to pair with a variety of food, something a bit acidic and juicy, something fun. A little bit of weight, real physical substance.

The wine at hand makes a compelling case for an elevated weeknight wine, a complex food wine, and, I think a good Thanksgiving wine. And, at ~$25, it’s well priced as a gateway to a prestigious wine region. The Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial from Spain’s Sardon de Duero region, which is part of the Duero valley located just west of the more well-known Ribera del Duero, provides more than a hint of the Duero profile and plenty of intrigue.

The Selectcon Especial is essentially Abadia’s field blend sourced from across the estate’s more than 500 acres and 54 unique plots that begin at the Douro river and cascade up the valley to altitudes as high as 2,800 feet. With such a variety of soil types, slopes and elevations from which to source fruit, Abadia is able to put together a blend each year that represents the best of what the winery believes it has to offer.

IMG_1976

The 2013, which I tasted, is three-quarters tempranillo, and is filled out with 15% cabernet sauvignon and 10% syrah. I sampled it over the course of several hours to see how it evolved, and enjoyed it at every stage. Upon initial uncorking, it was a big wine that showed mostly saline, fruit and tobacco. As it took on air, relaxed, and released itself, it developed a wider variety of flavors and aromas, showing a strong note of tomato that I found quite enjoyable. Not especially tannic at any point, it retained nice structured and good acid throughout, leading me to believe that it will stand up to hefty meals like a steak, pasta or barbecue.

The wine was provided as a trade sample and tasted sighted. Here is my formal note:

The nose offers hyper aromatics of tobacco leaf, crushed cherries, tomato leaf, scorched Earth and black plums. The full-bodied palate offers nice acidic cut while the alcohol is tamed and integrated. Tannins are nicely polished and round. Savory notes of iodine, saline and tomato juice kick things off and stick through the finish. The fruit department is stocked with strawberries, huckleberries and blueberries. Cigar tobacco, espresso beans and dusty cocoa play supporting roles. 90 points. Value: B.

While you can find the Selecion Especial at retailers around the country, Abadia is selling it on its website as well, offering vintages going back to 1995. With the structure of this wine likely giving it the ability to stand up to time, I imagine tasting through a range of vintages of this wine would be a fascinating experience. Whatever the vintage, though, it’s a wine worth trying.

California is Burning

SWP.10-10-17.AtlasFire.002

The Atlas Fire. Picture credit: Wired.com/Stuart Palley

California wine country is in bad shape right now. The region is national news, and for all the wrong reasons as fires sweep through wreaking absolute destruction. The latest death count is 40 and hundreds are still missing. Video footage and pictures make it clear that the results of the fires are, in many places, the complete elimination of neighborhoods. While communications are down in the area making reaching the missing people via phone and email nearly impossible, it is incredibly unsettling for those of us with friends in the area whom we still haven’t heard from. Worst of all, the fires continue to burn and it will be days, likely weeks, before we have a full sense of their human cost.

Many wineries that, thankfully, haven’t been damaged remain shut down indefinitely. The list of those affected is growing but still impossible to know with certainty. Even less certain is the fate of the region’s vineyards. Underscoring the difficulty of communicating with people in the areas are messages like the following one that you can find on many a winery’s website or Facebook page. When a winery needs to communicate with its employees with a notice on their website, things are bad:

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 11.53.35 AM

There will be a number of various fundraising efforts to help the communities affected by the fires rebuild. A few are already underway. Here’s one if you’d like to help those who’ve fled their homes, with only what they could grab as they ran from the flames just feet away, to feed, clean and cloth themselves.

It seems a very insensitive time to talk about wine. Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post and a friend of Good Vitis struck a very tasteful balance in his column about what is happening, ending with this:

“This was supposed to be a column about the effects of the fires on the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma. And, well, it is, because the effects will be mainly on the people, not the wineries burned, damaged or spared, the grapes tainted or scorched…

“Wineries that burned down lost not just their 2017 wines, but also their 2015 and 2016 vintages of reds aging in barrels or bottles but not yet released. Even wineries that were spared may see their wines affected by smoke. Extended power outages may also affect wines in the cellar as they rise in temperature. And future vintages could be affected – destroyed vineyards may take several years to recover.

“Vines may be more resilient that we expect, however. Daniel Roberts, a viticulturist based in Sonoma County, has helped restore four vineyards damaged by fire in the past. “It’s hard to kill vines,” he says. “The fire may kill the current foliage but rarely the vine itself.” Moisture within the trunk of the vine helps it stay alive even through the stress of a fire. “You may lose a year or two of crop, but the vines recover,” Roberts says. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for the people of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. After all, this is a story about them.”

I’m trying to figure out a way to bring this around to my review of three wines sent to me earlier this year by Hess Collection. In a world in which California isn’t burning, there is no way that they or I thought reviews of their wine would end up in the same post as a conversation about fires destroying the lives and land around them. However, I’m going to do it because, as Dave intimated, the story about the affected people includes their wine. One way of supporting the wineries that have been or will be affected by the fires is to buy their wine to help them remain financially afloat and keep their employees, who aren’t in the business to get rich, on payroll.

As Dave asked in his piece, “[what] about the winery workers who live in the valley, or the migrant laborers who came north for the harvest?” These people are likely to be among the most negatively impacted as affected wineries are forced to cut back until things turn around, which will be a multi-year process for many.

Any wine writer with a decent moral compass includes some kind of disclaimer on their website for those interested in sending trade samples that says, effectively, ‘just because you send me free wine doesn’t mean I’m going to like it and doesn’t mean I’m going to write good things about it.’ So it’s very rare for wine writers to suggest any quid pro quos to the sources of their samples, let alone to do it publicly as I’m about to do.

I’ve chosen to feature Hess in this post for three reasons. First, because they sent me three good wines that under any circumstances are worth drinking, and I’ve given them all positive reviews, which I’d do even if there weren’t any fires. Second, because Hess has already announced that they are giving $25,000 to help fire victims and are encouraging others to give as well. And third, the fires aren’t out yet, and in fact are quite close to the winery itself. Below the reviews is a list of wineries that have reported an impact. My request to consumers who are looking for ways to help: donate money to relief efforts and then please go buy their wines. My request to wineries: please do what you can to help your community get through this. Whatever you do for them, you’re going to to get it back ten-fold.

IMG_1903

2015 Hess Collection Napa Valley Estate Grown Chardonnay – The nose boasts banana, Meyer lemon, toasty oak and chalk. The body is full and has a very pleasant glycerin sensation that is well-balanced with bright acidity. Flavors include banana leaf, vanilla custard, starfruit, pineapple, dried Turkish apricots all crowned with a big dollop of butter. All-around a well-made and pleasant wine, this is for fans of oaky, buttery California chardonnay. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Hess Collection Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – The hedonistic aromatics bloom with ripe black cherries, black plums, cola, scorched Earth, orange zest and black drip coffee. The body is full but doesn’t feel too heavy thanks to bright acidity. Tannins are fine grain and mouth filling, and give this a very pleasant, velvety structure. The fruit is black and blue with black cherries, stewed black plums, blackberries and blueberries. It also features mocha, black tea and cracked pepper. It’s wound a bit tight at the moment, it’ll surely release some nice flavors and fill out with another 1-2 years in bottle. 90 points. Value: B+

2014 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – The wonderful nose screams big vintage kept at bay. Scorched Earth, Maraschino cherry, violets, rose petals and spearmint. The palate is surprisingly delicate for its mouth coating feel and weight thanks to brisk acid that drives through the finish. The tannins are very fine grained but velvety. The flavors center around a core of bright red and blue fruit with cherries, currants, blueberries, plums and boysenberries. In the periphery there’s espresso, graphite and just a touch of mint. This is really good right now with an hour decant and offers enough complexity to deliver pleasure through the entire bottle. 92 points. Value: B

The following list of affected wineries comes courtesy of the Mercury News and was last updated at 6am on October 14th.

Napa 

Darioush Winery, 4240 Silverado Trail, Napa: The winery reported landscape and vineyard damage, but the winery building itself is still standing.

Hagafen Cellars, 4160 Silverado Trail, Napa: The winery building and tasting room survived the fire, but the crush pad partially burned, some agricultural equipment was destroyed, a guest house and chicken house were lost and about an acre of vineyards burned. “We have been humbled by nature once again but we remain resilient, adaptive, creative and happy to be alive,” the winery wrote on its website.

Helena View Johnston Vineyards, 3500 CA-128, Calistoga: According to the owner’s brother, this organic winery burned to the ground early Monday morning and “all is lost.”

Mayacamas Vineyards, 1155 Lokoya Road, Napa: The winery atop Mount Veeder survived the fire, but a private tasting and events building known as “the residence” was destroyed.

Paras Vineyard, 2340 Mt. Veeder Road, Napa: The winery is believed to have had severe damage after an Agence France-Press photo showed the main building on the family farm engulfed in flames and fire burning in the vineyard.

Patland Estate Vineyards, Soda Canyon Road, Napa: A view from Soda Canyon Road shows extensive damage to the estate and vineyards.

Pulido-Walker’s Estate Vineyard, Mt. Veeder, Napa: The Estate Vineyard of Mark Pulido and Donna Walker was destroyed, along with their residence, according to Christi Wilson, executive director of The Rancho Santa Fe Foundation. The Napa vineyard was one of three operated by Pulido-Walker. On the winery’s website, the property was said to “boast extensive kitchen and ornamental gardens as well as a producing olive grove.”

Robert Sinskey Vineyards, 6320 Silverado Trail, Napa: Only some vegetation around the winery had burned by Tuesday.

Roy Estate, 1220 Soda Canyon Road, Napa: Caught in one of the worst fire zones, the winery was extensively damaged.

Segassia Vineyard, 3390 Mount Veeder Road, Napa: A company spokesperson confirmed that the winery owned by the Cates family has burned.

Signorello Estate Vineyards, 4500 Silverado Trail, Napa: The winery and residence in the Stag’s Leap District burned to the ground Monday. According to spokesperson Charlotte Milan, winery and vineyard employees fought the fire Sunday night into Monday morning but had to retreat when flames overcame the building. All 25 winery employees were safe and proprietor Ray Signorello says he will rebuild.

Sill Family Vineyards, 2929 Atlas Peak Road, Napa: Photos provided to the Napa Valley Register show the winery destroyed by fire, and owner Igor Sill told the paper by email, “We will rebuild as soon as we’re allowed to return.”

Stags’ Leap Winery, 6150 Silverado Trail, Napa: The main winery and tasting room in the Stags’ Leap District are intact, but some outer buildings on the property were lost.

VinRoc, 4069 Atlas Peak Road, Napa: Proprietor and winemaker Michael Parmenter had to evacuate late Sunday night and confirmed Tuesday that his Atlas Peak district winery and home were destroyed. “Total loss, everything gone except our (wine) cave,” he said.

White Rock Vineyards, 1115 Loma Vista Dr., Napa: Owned by the Vandendriessche family since 1870, the winery confirmed it was destroyed by the fire that ravaged nearby Soda Canyon Road.

William Hill Estate Winery, 1761 Atlas Peak Road, Napa: Damage to the winery’s entrance sign led to reports that the winery was destroyed. Owner E. & J. Gallo released a statement saying, “William Hill sustained only minor cosmetic and landscaping damage, in addition to minimal vineyard damage.”

Sonoma

Ancient Oak Cellars, 4120 Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa: Ancient Oak Cellars’ home vineyard at Siebert Ranch, in the Russian River Valley, experienced significant loss because of fire. “I’m very sad to report that our house, two big beautiful redwood barns, gorgeous tasting counter, etc, etc are gone,” the winery wrote Tuesday on Facebook. The bottled wines and wines in barrel, however, were safe at other locations and the owners said Wednesday they believe the vines were spared.

Chateau St. Jean, 8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood: Despite early reports that the winery was destroyed, a drive-by Tuesday showed damage to some outbuilding and archway entries from the parking lot, but the main structure appeared unharmed. The main structure appeared unharmed. Blackened earth rimmed the property and billowing smoke still rose from the nearby hills as a helicopter dropped water on the flames.

Gundlach Bundschu Winery, 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma: Despite earlier reports of significant fire damage, the winery buildings are structurally sound, said Katie Bundschu. But the property was on the fire line so Bundschu said the family is still assessing crop damage.

Nicholson Ranch, 4200 Napa Road, Sonoma: A Facebook post on the winery page clarified that damage was not significant. “The winery was in the path of the fire but escaped being engulfed by the flames. We have some damage to fix,” the post read.

Paradise Ridge Winery, 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive, Santa Rosa: The winery was completely destroyed on Monday by the Tubbs Fire. The Byck family, which owns the winery, posted on their website that they will rebuild. “The winery may be broken but our estate vineyards survived, which is foundation of our wine.”

Sky Vineyards, 4352 Cavedale Road, Glen Ellen: The family-owned winery has sustained fire damage but is still standing; the extent of the damage is unknown because the fire is still active in that area.

Mendocino

Backbone Vineyard & Winery, Redwood Valley: In a statement, Sattie Clark said the small family winery that had replaced the former Cole Bailey winery was lost in the Redwood fire. “Our winery burned to the ground along with all our wine made over the past five years.”

Frey Vineyards, 14000 Tomki Road, Redwood Valley: The country’s first organic and biodynamic winery lost its winery and bottling facility but a wine-storage warehouse is still standing; owner Paul Frey also said he is hopeful the vineyards received only minimal damage. All wine orders have been suspended temporarily until the family can fully assess the loss.

Golden Vineyards, Redwood Valley: The vineyards themselves “are scorched but they are not ruined,” reports owner Julie Golden. There is no winery on the vineyard property; it is located in Hopland.

Oster Wine Cellars, 13501 Tomki Road, Redwood Valley: Ken and Teresa Fetzer’s winery, which specializes in limited-production Cabernet Sauvignon, was destroyed in the Redwood Fire.

 

Living Legends of Washington Wine

DSC06683

The term “first ballot hall of famer” is a sports term. I don’t know about professional sports leagues outside the United States, but in America each of the major sports leagues has their own hall of fame, and every year new members are selected by a group of electors. Many hall of famers don’t make the cut the first year they’re eligible, but those who do are called “first ballot hall of famers” and the phrase is often used to refer to active players who will undoubtedly be elected in their first year of eligibility. Last Friday I attended a Washington wine event outside Seattle and the room was stocked with first ballot hall of Washington wine famers. I fanboyed pretty hard.

The occasion was The Auction of Washington Wines. Spread out over several days and several events, it is christened by Wine Spectator as the fourth largest charity auction in the United States. This year was record-setting for the auction, raising over $4.1 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program. The event I attended, the Private Barrel Auction, was a trade-only event that a few media types were invited to attend as well.

DSC06751

Twenty wineries each donated a barrel of wine to the auction, but the catch was that each barrel had to be a wine that was made specially for the auction and would not be made available to anyone other than the winning bidder, meaning these were unique barrels. We were treated to samples of each in the lead up to the auction, and clearly many of the winemakers had fun with the project. When an industry-leading winemaker gets to play with a barrel’s worth of world class fruit, the results can be good. When they know they’re putting their wine up against their friends and competitors in an auction where the participants are retailers and restauranteurs who are considering only the sellability of the wine, the motivation to perform skyrockets.

Real quick, because I know some readers are wondering, the following wineries participated: Force Majeure, Delille Cellars, Forgeron Cellars and The Walls (a collaboration), Mark Ryan, Va Piano, Col Solare, Long Shadows, L’Ecole No. 41, Fidelitas, Woodward Canyon, Sleight of Hand, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, Owen Roe, Januik, Pepper Bridge, Brian Carter, Leonetti, Dusted Valley and Betz. All of these, in one room at the same time, with the winemaker from each pouring their unique one-off projects. Holy crap, right? Exactly. Januik was our wonderful host for the tasting and lunch, which was prepared at their in-winery restaurant by their very impressive chefs using a range of local ingredients. We later transitioned to Chateau Ste. Michelle for the auction. Kudos to both for providing barrels and such generous hospitality.

DSC06715

I made it through seventeen of the twenty wineries before lunch was served as I enjoyed talking to the winemakers not just about their barrels, but other topics as well, and couldn’t keep pace. The most magical moment came at Sleight of Hands when, after tasting my favorite wine of the day and catching up with one of wine’s most fun-loving personalities, Trey Busch, the legendary champion and producer of Washington wine Bob Betz stopped by to endorse Trey’s talents and have a sip of Busch’s wine with us. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity for a picture with the two of them.

DSC06720

The author with Bob Betz (L) and Trey Busch (R)

The vast majority of the wines came from the 2016 vintage, which Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly told us began early. He has about 10 acres of cherries that he uses as his indicators of when the vitis will kick off, and in his 45 years he’s never seen it start so early. He braced for a really hot growing season, but by summer temperatures had regressed towards the mean. By the end of August, evening temperatures were in the 40s and harvest stalled. This gave the fruit extended hang time, preserving aromatics and flavors. The end result are wines lower in pH than normal with extremely deep colors (this was very evidence in the samples). He described the vintage as “unmistakably ripe, but every element sings at very high levels.” Rick Smalls of Woodward Canyon compared the vintage to those from the days of when he started his winery forty years ago, saying that now, across the industry, consumers are getting real senses of place in Washington wines as winemakers and vineyard managers learn more and more about their sites and fruit.

DSC06748

L-R: Bob Betz, Ted Baseler, Rick Small, David O’Reilly

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, attributed this evolution in part to Washington State University’s (WSU) Viticulture and Enology Program, saying that when Michelle brought viticulturists onboard not that long ago, they needed five-plus years of training, whereas now, getting them out of WSU, “they’re turnkey.” Baseler, whose prescience of the Washington wine industry is well respected, predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years, the state would see an increase in planted acreage from the 60,000 it has today to 200,000 (nearing parity with today’s Napa). He also predicted a rise from today’s ~900 Washington wineries to 3,000. These are bold predictions, but given the state’s growth to this point, it’s not impossible if current consumer trends continue.

The vast majority of wines on offer were cabernet sauvignon-dominate, not surprising for Washington, which is best known for the varietal. The outliers included a 100% grenache dubbed “Duex Dames du Vin” produced in partnership by the female winemakers of Forgeron and The Walls, a very impressive 100% petit verdot from Mark Ryan, a Bordeaux blend featuring majority cabernet franc from Brian Carter, and 100% syrahs from Force Majeure, Sleight of Hand and Quilceda Creek.

All of the wines showed like barrel samples, which is to say far from complete integration and with dense, mouth-coating tannins. I’m continually impressed when I see highly descriptive notes from barrel samples as it’s a significant challenge to get into the complexities of young, brutish red wine. From a small but growing amount of first-hand experience, I still take barrel sample scores with a great deal of salt, but that said, there were some real standouts in this bunch.

DSC06705

Enter a caption

On the cabernet front, Long Shadow’s “Winemaker Selection” blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot showed a lot of developing complexity and intrigue that, with ten-plus years, is going to be spectacular. Woodward Canyon’s 100% cabernet from 40-year old vines in Champoux Vineyard had a real presence with layers of savory flavors, cassis, blackberry, mocha and spice. Leonetti’s barrel was filled entirely with cabernet from block 7 in the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. My first scribble is “oh my, good.” It’s dark, dark stuff with smoke, iodine and bacon that could be mistaken for a syrah at this stage, though it had the fruit, mocha, graphite and mineral core that one would expect from Walla Walla loam soils that I imagine will emerge more prominently and eventually dominate with time. Col Solare’s Estate Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon clone 2 and 30% cabernet franc clone 214 offered refreshing herbaciousness and spice, and I imagine I’d enjoy this quite a bit in the future.

DSC06724

The three standout wines, however, had no cabernet in them. Mark Ryan’s 100% petit verdot was perhaps the most complex varietally bottled PV I’ve had (and it’s still young!). The nose was wild and briary, the tannins lush and already polished. The acid drove this pretty wine, delivering pepper, violets and loads of purple fruit. Quilceda Creek, known for its many 100-point single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, had fun with syrah in an effort that fetched the highest bid at the auction. They delivered what they described to me as “a cabernet lover’s syrah,” evident in its structure and mouth feel. Yet, it offered smoked meat and iron. It was very cool and quite delicious. The wine of the night, though, was Sleight of Hand’s 100% syrah from Lewis Vineyard that was raised entirely in concrete egg. Super funky stuff, it’s my kind of syrah. It’s level of polish and integration was the most impressive aspect of any wine of the day given its youth, and it will develop with time into something truly special.

As if this born-and-bred Washingtonian needed more evidence that Washington wine rocks, this event provided ample amounts. What it did expose me to, though, for the first time at such a high level, is the amount of camaraderie that exists at the pinnacle of the industry. No one in the room believed that Washington wine had reached peak quality, and they’re working together as much as anyone could reasonably expect in what is really a foolish effort to summit that mountain. The reality is that the mountain keeps getting higher.

Many thanks to The Auction of Washington Wines for allowing me to attend, to the wineries and winemakers for putting in great efforts to raise money for worthy causes, and to my friend Jesse for taking some great pictures.

 

 

 

A Study in Value: Argentina at $25 & Under

Grapes

Grapes of Bodega Santa Julia. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

America has pretty strong knee-jerk associations between countries and wines. New Zealand is sauvignon blanc. Australia is shiraz. German is riesling. And Argentina is malbec. The converse is sort of true as well, as people associate what the grape is supposed to taste like by where it’s from: sauvignon blanc is limey and tropical and lean, shiraz is big and fruity, riesling is sweet and malbec is dark and spicy. Sample a smattering of what’s available in a grocery store wine isle and these stereotypes hold pretty solidly. Pour a Safeway customer a Sancerre sauvignon blanc, Cote Rotie syrah, New York riesling or Cahors malbec and they’re likely to get lost based on their geographic associations with those grapes. It’s enough to drive a wine snob mad because terroir does matter, especially in the four examples I used above. Then add in price point associations and we’re now far off from what could be someone’s wine reality with a little adventure and knowledge.

I’ve fallen pray to some of these shortcut assumptions myself, and because I’ve never loved the standard NZ sauvignon blancs I haven’t looked into what the good ones might be, except for Greywacke’s Wild sauvignon blanc. I’ve spent a little more time on Australian shiraz and found gold with well-aged Kaesler and Kilikanoon. I still haven’t invested substantial time into German riesling, but certainly more than Argentinian wine which I don’t think I’d had for several years prior to the wines tasted for this article.

Maipu wineyards

Vineyards in Maipu. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

With this in mind, I tasted through ten different Argentinian wines sent as samples to Good Vitis. Two whites, eight reds, with suggested retail prices ranging from $10 to $25. The idea was to assess some of the wines available to the entry level wine shopper to see if there might be some diversity beyond the simple association people have of Argentina wine. I was hoping to find some variety.

There were three wineries represented among the ten wines: Santa Julia, Colomé and Amalaya. My favorites from the group included Santa Julia’s 2016 Organic Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points, Value: A), 2014 Valle Uca Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points, Value: B+), Colomé’s Torrontes (88 points, Value: A) and Malbec (91 points, Value: A) Estate bottles, and Amalaya’s 2016 Malbec (89 points, Value: A). Honorable mention goes to the 2016 Santa Julia Tintillo (88 points, Value: B+), a 50/50 blend of malbec and bonarda that would go well with red food (see pairing suggestions in the review below). These wines represent some decent variety, with some showing flavors beyond big, juicy fruit, and I would be happy to spend an evening with any of those mentioned in this paragraph. All were provided as trade samples and tasted sighted.

The largest contingent came from Bodega Santa Julia, a winery in Mendoza founded less than thirty years ago.

IMG_1465

2016 Santa Julia Tintillo Malbec-Bonarda (50/50 blend) – Whole cluster fermented and designed to be consumed chilled, it pours with some translucence. I couldn’t confirm with a website search but I imagine there’s some carbonic maceration involved in the process. The aromas hit on macerated strawberries and huckleberries with whiffs of tar, tobacco leaf and white pepper in the background. The body is round and polished with little tannin and medium acidity. The fruit is a general consensus red variety, though strawberries and huckleberries do peak through. It has a really pleasant pluminess to it, along with some lavender and rose. This is a lovely, easy-drinking wine probably best alone or with something like margarita pizza, a simple red pasta or simple grilled meats. I’ve seen this one at DC-area Whole Foods stores. 88 points. Value: B+

2016 Santa Julia Malbec – The nose is a bit reticent at the moment, but suggests development of strawberries, blackberries and tar with extended air exposure. The body is quite round with fine grained tannins. The acidity is spot-on, making this red or white meat-friendly. The fruit is generally red and black, although cherries and plums dominate. There’s a bit of pepper and nice little dose of minerality. Solid if unspectacular. 87 points. Value: B

2015 Santa Julia Valle de Uca Reserva Malbec – Sourced from vineyards ranging from 3,130 to 4,600 feet above sea level. A lot of fruit on the nose, almost macerated or crushed strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Loam and graphite as well. The palate is medium in body and polished with moderate acid. The fruit is just a bit sweet, offering boysenberries, huckleberries, strawberries and cherries. There’s great minerality on this along with tar, tobacco and smoke. The profile is really nice but it lacks the concentration I’d expect on a reserve. 90 points. Value: C

2015 Santa Julia Cabernet Sauvignon – The nose is more Malbec than classic cabernet sauvignon: macerated red berries and plums, not much else. The body is medium in stature, with a light dusting of grainy tannin. There’s also some serious acid on the back end. The fruit is similar to the nose, with the additions of loam and pepper. 86 points. Value: C

2016 Santa Julia Organic Cabernet Sauvignon – Nice Earth on the nose: wonderful mushroom funk, loam and wet soil goes along nicely with dark cocoa powder, overripe strawberries and cherries. Full bodied with bright acidity, this is a pleasantly juicy and floral wine with strawberries, raspberries, rose and Spring flowers. There’s some Sweet Tart going on as well. Fun, funky stuff. 90 points. Value: A

2014 Santa Julia Valley Uca Cabernet Sauvignon – A complex and funky nose with dark cherries, pork fat, smoke, chalk and brambleberry. The palate is pleasingly tannic, it has real structure and presence delivered with quality acid. Cherry crushes over limestone with lavender and thyme. It’s smokey and delivers nice saline as well. 91 points. Value: B+

IMG_1464

Colomé and Amalaya are part of the Hess Family collection of wineries. Colomé is the result of a three year “quest to find the source of an exceptional Malbec that [Donald Hess] had at a dinner in a small bodega in Salta.” The winery was founded in 1831 and grows its grapes at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level using biodynamic practices. Some of the vines are 160 years old. Amalaya is an attempt to highlight the weather and soil conditions unique to the Northern Calchaqui Valley, which is part of the foothills of the Andes Mountain range. Make no mistake, though, elevation is still significant: it ranges from 5,250 to 5,580 feet above sea level. The vineyards are sustainably farmed as well.

2016 Colomé Torrontes Estate – Lovely nose of honeydew, lime zest, pear, dandelion and a lot of chalk. This full-bodied wine offers crisp acidity on an otherwise soft palate. The fruit – lime sorbet, Granny Smith apple and cantaloupe – is bright and sweet, though the wine is dry. There’s also just a bit of hay, limestone minerality and white pepper. The finish is just a bit hot but is otherwise a very pleasant wine offering a lot of refreshment. 88 points. Value: A

2016 Colomé Malbec Estate – A blend of four estate vineyards ranging from 3,740 to 5,940 feet above the sea. Pouring a beautiful deep crimson, it offers up a high octane nose with strawberries, cherries, plums, smoke, loam, mushroom funk and an amount of blood that would bring all the vampires to the yard. The structure is set by polished tannins with real grip and well-placed acidity. It achieves a juicy full body while serving up juicy strawberries, cherries, blackberries and blueberries, along with aggressive cracked pepper, saline, graphite and just a hint of iodine. I’m a fan. 91 points. Value: A

2016 Amalaya Torrontes-Riesling blend – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. The nose is a bit reticent at first but with air offers up a pleasantly sweet profile filled out by pear, big honeysuckle, mandarin orange, papaya and hay. The body is svelte, integrating classy acidity driven by the riesling with a bit of lushness. The palate offers Key Lime, a bit of petrol, bitter greens, underride orange, vanilla and coriander. Finishing a bit zesty, this isn’t a porch pounder as much as it’s a wine that will benefit from a conscious food pairing. 86 points. Value: B

2016 Amalaya Malbec – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. Includes 10% tannat and 5% petit verdot. After aggressive swirling to blow off some barnyard (Bret?), it opens up with dark cherries, Spring flowers, blood, orange zest and a fair amount of black pepper. The body is full with nicely structured grainy tannin and juicy acidity that gives the wine a substantive presence not always found at this price point. It offers a cornucopia of sweet fruit: cherries, strawberries and loads of plums. Hints of smoke, tar, and black pepper augment the appealing flavor profile. Nicely done. 89 points. Value: A

Consistently, and damn, good wine: Napa’s Ehlers Estate

o1

I have to admit to having not known of Ehlers Estate prior to meeting their Wine Club and Social Media Manager, Elizabeth Smith, at Taste Camp Maryland earlier this year. We had a BYOB night during the Camp and Elizabeth brought Ehlers’ sauvignon blanc and flagship 1886 cabernet sauvignon. Having had a small glass of the sauvignon blanc and a glass of the 1886, insufficiently decanted, Elizabeth offered to send samples for Good Vitis and I accepted with the caveat of setting up an interview Ehler’s winemaker, Kevin Morrisey, to round out my profile of the winery. My interactions with Elizabeth and Kevin have been fantastic and so it wasn’t a surprise when the wine lived up to the reputation.

Ehlers has been around for a long, long time – the late 1800s, actually; pretty hard to speak about Napa’s pioneers without referencing Ehlers. The building that is Ehler’s winery today is a stone barn completed by Bernard Ehlers, who bought the property, in, yes, 1886. One hundred years later, the French couple Jean and Sylvaine Leducq bought the estate and are absolutely committed to producing Bordeaux varieties that can stand up to the best in the Valley. To that end they brought on Kevin Morrisey in 2009 to make their wine.

Kevin comes with some pretty good pedigree, having interned at Chateau Petrus (yes, that Chateau Petrus) before landing at Stags’ Leap Winery where he became assistant winemaker. He was eventually poached by Etude Winery to take up the head winemaker position there before going to Ehlers because of the opportunity it presented to focus on terroir-driven, site specific, estate wines.

*****

Spotlight: Ehlers rose

IMG_1419

A rose fanatic, Kevin proudly takes credit for starting the rose programs at both wineries, a tradition he continued at Ehlers. He loves rose. Loves it. When I poured his rose the color was so impressive I didn’t want to consume it because then I’d have nothing but the picture left. The picture above doesn’t do it justice. It was, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t much care about the visuals of wine, one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. It looked like artificial watermelon coloring, but it glistened and gleamed in the sunlight and it was just one of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen. I asked Kevin about the color and he beamed through the telephone as he explained some of the geeky science behind the color of wine.

There’s something that goes on in the color of wine that isn’t fully understood by science. If you dilute red wine, the color change is not linear, but no one is exactly sure why. Further, if there’s not enough color in a wine it ends up being an unstable wine. For example, some older red wines turn brownish-orange in a way that doesn’t look natural for grape juice and is a sign that the wine is declining. Kevin really does not want his wines to turn those colors, so he aims to ensure long-term stability. He prefers low alcohol, high acid wines (meaning a low pH). When you have lots of acid and a low pH you can get a redder hew in a rose because deeper red colors come out at higher levels of acidity. Ehlers’ rose is indeed very high in acid, more than any other rose I’ve had, which explains why I’ve never seen one with such a brilliant color.

Selling rose has become easier over the last decade as there has been enough consumer education for people to reach the point where they no longer expect a sweet wine when it is poured for them. However, good rose remains the hardest wine for Kevin to make: you want the fruit and aromatics of a red wine with the great acid you get on a crisp white; or, put another way, you need the tannin and color of a red wine in a wine that shouldn’t be red. It’s a very tricky line to find, but Kevin has nailed it.

*****

Ehlers is a small producer bottling only 100% estate wines off their 40 acres of vineyards. Kevin and I discussed how he approaches the Leducq’s vision of creating best-in-show Bordeaux varietal wines from Napa and he begins the story with their vineyards. They do not source fruit nor plan to source fruit, which sets Ehlers apart from many, many other Napa producers, even some very good ones. Kevin named several reasons for this, but the one that caught my attention, that I found most interesting, is that he isn’t interested in dealing with subpar fruit. At first read that sentence isn’t surprising. If anything it seems like a ‘well duh’ line. However, vineyards known for producing a top-notch varietal will often require clients who want access to that fruit to purchase their subpar fruit as well, and so if your goal, like it is at Ehlers, is to sell only your best effort, you can’t get roped into a situation like that, and so to ensure his wines are consistently good he sticks with the one source he can control: his own vines.

o2

Ehlers’ terroir is entirely their own, the only winery producing from those vineyards. Farmed organically, the vineyards’ location is critical to Ehlers’ success as well. Located on a bench in Napa Valley and planted on well-draining soils with a good deal of cobbled rock, the vineyards sit at the narrowest point of Napa Valley, which creates a venturi effect (if I can apply that reference to wind) that whips the wind through the vineyards with regularity, helping to moderate temperatures. This doesn’t necessarily make it easier to identify an Ehlers’ wine in a blind tasting, but it helps Kevin and his team nail their consistency from year-to-year, which in turns helps build and sustain a loyal consumer following.

That consumer following comes also from the winery experience they receive. Kevin is known for spending a lot of time in the tasting room himself, which on its own isn’t likely enough to drive sales, but it is indicative of the amount of effort the Estate puts into its consumer experience. I’d wager that generally speaking winemakers avoid the tasting room, so when you have someone like Kevin eagerly making time for it you know there’s a real commitment to the constomer. That commitment is clearly shared by the rest of team, and is certainly something I’ve experienced with Elizabeth.

As someone with limited cellar space, I wanted to know why someone would purchase an Ehlers wine over the competition, and Kevin began by explaining that it’s because of the wholistic, hands-on approach that goes into producing a bottle of Ehlers. From the vines to bottling, Ehlers is entirely hand made by a small group of hard working and nice people dedicated to delivering their best in every bottle (he used the term ‘farm-to-table’ more than once). One of the most satisfying parts of the job is when he can authentically attach the wine to the place and the people for a customer. When you buy a carton of Horizon organic milk (his example, not mine), with the cute and happy cows on the carton, you think there’s a dairy somewhere out there with endless rolling hills where these cows churn out the best milk, yet that’s not the reality of Horizon’s operations. Kevin and the Ehlers team, however, deliver the wine version of that and helping people see that is of critical importance to everyone at the winery. With this in-house approach becoming less common in Napa, Ehlers is able to leverage their farm-to-table reality to earn a lot of respect among fine wine consumers who remain loyal to the winery because they are treated as though they are family.

visit11

I asked Kevin the same ‘why would someone want Ehlers’ question a second way: why would a sommelier pull a bottle of Ehlers over a competitor’s wine? The answer is consistency. A sommelier can go to Ehlers because they know the bottle is going to be what it should be: a pure expression of a special part of Napa.  When Kevin was told this by a somm, it was a great compliment because that’s exactly what Kevin is trying to do: be true to the craft, be true to the vines, and deliver good, site-specific wine at a consistently high level.

The wines do speak for themselves, I can attest to that now. They showed dramatically high levels of quality across the lineup and each delivered great pleasure. I found the reds to be approachable now, especially with a few hours in the decanter, but I can see all improving with at least a few years of aging, especially the 1886. The consistently well-executed balance and structure of each wine seems to be a hallmark of Kevin and his team at Ehlers, and is a dead give-away that they know what they’re doing.

Now that I’ve spoken to Kevin and Elizabeth and tried their wines, I’m looking forward to visiting on my next trip to Napa to get that final, and key, Ehlers experience. All the wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2016 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc: The nose offers lemon curd, dandelion, Starfruit, limestone and chalk. The palate is medium in stature but well-structured with significant skin tannin and racy acidity. Big Meyer lemon, bitter spring greens, apricot, Granny Smith apple and a lot of white pepper spice. This is great stuff would be fun to follow over the next five years. 91 points. Value: B+

2016 Ehlers Estate Rose (of cabernet franc): I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

2014 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc: The nose is dark and brooding with black cherry, black plum, smoke, teriyaki sauce, wet soil, black pepper and potpourri. The palate is medium bodied with slightly grainy tannins and plenty of mid palate grip. The alcohol is neatly kept, and balanced by keen acidity and a bit of sweetness on the fruit. It delivers flavors, dark and brooding like the nose, of dark cherries, acai, tar, sweet tobacco, soy sauce, black tea and graphite. This is a fantastic wine all-around, and definitely a cabernet franc for those who don’t like the vegetal profile the grape can produce. It offers a very appealing profile on the nose and palate, and a structure that is good for both solo drinking and pairing with food. This is drinking nicely now, but it has the stature to age and evolve for many years to come. It’d be fascinating to follow it over a good ten, fifteen-year period. 92 points. Value: C+

2014 Ehlers Estate Merlot: Not your typical full throttle merlot. The nose is refined with chocolate covered cherries, high toned orange zest, light cigarette tobacco and cedar. The palate is medium-plus in stature with thick, dusty tannins and crisp acidity. Flavors hit on cherries, strawberries, raspberries, graphite, tobacco, soy, orange, cocoa and Herbs de Provence. The alcohol is a respectful 14.2% but there’s a bit of a bite on the finish, though I can see it integrating better with a few more years in bottle. 90 points. Value: C-

2014 Ehlers Estate 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is a bit reticent at this point, but it offers a variety of aromas: cherries, acai, blackberries, blueberries, black currant, dusty dark cocoa and violets. In the mouth it is anything but heavy despite its full body. The tannins are tight but polished and balanced with good acidity. The structure is just gorgeous, giving it a real professional presence. The first hits on the palate are blackberries, cherries and dark chocolate, followed by a sweet orange zest burst, graphite, and thyme. It finishes with a big salty streak of minerality. It’s a clenched fist at the moment and while several hours of decanting does release a real fresh, juicy wine, I’d recommend giving this at least five to ten years in your cellar. 93 points now, but this will go up with time. Value: B

Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers

Rombauer 1

Picture credit: rombauer.com

I started Good Vitis to document my journey to find as much good wine as I can. Much of this journey had been underway well before the start of the website, although the winemaker dinner has been a new excursion owed entirely to this blog . Until Good Vitis I had avoided these events because they seemed like a rip off: doing the calculations, the wine and meal seemed overpriced, even when packaged with a tasting guided by the winemaker. Four winemaker dinners (or, rather, three dinners and a lunch) later and I’ve gone one-hundred and eighty degrees: if you come across one featuring wines you like, it’s a must-attend event.

As I wrote in the post about a dinner I attended with Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine, “Shane was right – drinking with the winemaker makes the wine better. If this post hasn’t made it clear, he’s a very engaging guy, and loves talking about his craft. The banter was as fun as the wine, and the combination made the night. It seems to me this is why you go to winemaker dinners. I imagine the more engaging and fun the winemaker, the more engaging and fun the dinner. So long as the wine can keep up, you’re going to have a good time.” A subsequent winemaker dinner with Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone reinforced this point. A recent lunch with Richie Allen, head winemaker of Rombauer Vineyards in California, further confirmed these findings while introducing me to another example of why California deserves its reputation for outstanding wines.

The first thing to know about Rombauer is that it is obsessively focused on quality. You can say that about a lot of wineries, and a lot of wineries say that about themselves, but few walk the walk like Rombauer. I’ll give you a poignant example: somewhere between the merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Richie told us about the winery’s optical sorting machines. These machines fire the berries pasted a high resolution and high speed camera at 10 meters per second (roughly 22 miles per hour) that take a picture of each berry and, in a fraction of a second, accept or reject it based on size, color and shape. These factors combine to eliminate problematic berries that may be raisined due to heat stress, may be sunburnt, are under or over ripe, etc. Those that are rejected get a little jet of air to send them in a different direction to become what Richie called really expensive compost, while the good fruit goes on to become wine. Depending on many factors, rejection rate is between one and thirty percent at Rombauer. The machine is calibrated with each new lot of fruit that passes through the machine. As you can imagine, these machines ain’t cheap, and Rombauer has three of them. I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.

Rombaeur 3

Joan’s Vineyard, a Rombauer estate vineyard. Picture Credit: rombauer.com

I’ll give you a second poignant example: Richie’s obsession with improving barrel quality. There are three important elements to a barrel: wood origin and selection, how it is seasoned, and how much it is toasted. The last factor has the biggest impact on the outcome and has therefore seen the most industry research. However, the first two factors, Richie believes, have such an impact that the absence of sufficient research means the industry has missed the boat on taking them into adequate consideration. So, over the last ten or so years Rombauer has spent considerable time and resources looking into them because they believe it’s another way to improve consistent and desirable outcomes in the wine.

Despite it’s 150,000 case production, Rombauer has always been a family-owned winery, though it does operate with a board of directors comprising zero family members. This arrangement seems to have struck a successful balance between authenticity, quality and profitability that has allowed the winery to produce consistently excellent wine from year-to-year. Rombauer’s wines have always struck me as perhaps a bit underpriced given the quality of the juice, and so I asked Richie about their pricing logic. He explained their basic pricing structure as, I’m paraphrasing, “cost plus profit margin equals price,” which seems pretty simple but also illuminates the modest profit quest Rombauer seeks. The winery uses grapes from some of the most expensive vineyards in the country (and in the world, for that matter), yet their wines are usually, and noticeably, less than many of their competitors (and often times better tasting). Many winery owners, especially in California, satiate their ego through the price point of their wine. As Richie explained, there’s no ego when it comes to price point of Rombauer wines. When costs go up, as they inevitably will, so too will Rombauer’s prices, but rest assured the extra cash you’ll shell out isn’t being demanded to feed someone’s ego.

Richie is obviously a big reason for the winery’s good vitis. I arrived early for the lunch and had a chance to chat with him before tipoff. Richie is a charismatic guy and clearly loves what he does. Vastly experienced in a few climates (and hemispheres), he has zeroed in on what he needs to do to produce the best possible wines with the significant resources Rombauer provides. Rombauer’s confidence in Richie seems to equal his own confidence in himself, as the quality of the wines can attest. The consumer is the beneficiary.

Rombaeur 2

Richie Allen. Picture credit: J.L. Sousa/Register/Napa Valley Register

Richie started with Rombauer in 2004 and took over as head winemaker in 2008 where he has earned near carte blanch control over winemaking and vineyard management. He’s stayed with Rombauer because they’re giving him the opportunity and means to make the best wine he can, which is support and trust he knows many of his colleagues in Napa don’t enjoy. The family and board take the same approach to this goal as Richie, which is to say that every year the wines get better, but they are never good enough. Richie has his sights set on making wine that can compete with the very best, and he knows Napa is one of the few places capable of providing the raw material to do that. With the support he has at Rombauer to do that, he knows he’s lucky and he’s seizing it to pursue his goal.

The first wine we tried over lunch was the 2016 sauvignon blanc. I’m not a fan of 99% of sauvignon blanc on the market today, largely due to the flood of myopically limey sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and California. I feared this might be another wine in that category given Richie’s Southern Hemisphere roots and winemaking experience. Does the world really need another sauvignon blanc, especially one that retails for $25? It turns out yes, yes it does. Richie has strong opinions about sauvignon blanc’s place in the pantheon of wine and a very clear idea of where good sauvignon blanc should be grown, when to pick it, and how to produce it. So far Rombauer has sourced their grapes, and while Richie is very pleased with the quality of the fruit he is on the voracious hunt for land to purchase for sauvignon blanc plantings that is “well drained and too cool for cabernet sauvignon,” which means there isn’t much of it in a place like California. Richie aims to pick his sauvignon blanc at a lower brix when it is “at peak varietal intensity” to ensure good aromatics, the most important element of sauvignon blanc. He claims that any new winemaker should learn to make a good aromatic white, and that if they can’t do it then they shouldn’t be a winemaker.

Rombauer’s 2016 sauvignon blanc offered the gorgeous aromatic profile Richie is going for with tropical and stone fruits and an undercurrent of chalk. With a small percentage aged in 5 to 6 year-old neutral oak, the body is medium in stature with firm structure and zippy acid. It offers nice depth with Key lime, apricot, peach and salty vanilla. It’s one of the very best New World sauvignon blancs out there that’s worth its price tag, and I’d up there with my personal favorites: Greywacke’s “wild” bottling and Efeste’s Feral bottling.

The 2015 chardonnay was, as always, a gold standard for California chardonnay, an all-around iconic wine. Richie explained Rombauer chardonnay has having five core components that fall into a natural balance: (1) ripe fruit, (2) vanilla oak, (3) a creamy palate, and (4) buttery finish all bound together by (5) good acid. “If you don’t have all five, you have a Rombauer competitor.” Well, mission accomplished. It’s weighty without being overwhelming. It has green apple, butterscotch, zesty lemon-lime and toasted oak. It’s among the best values in quality chardonnay from anywhere in the world, and a go-to high value answer for lush but non-butter bomb California chardonnay along with Smith-Madrone Winery.

We then transitioned to the red wines with the 2013 merlot. Like all Rombauer wines, this one was hand-picked and the berries were de-stemmed using a berry shaker instead of a de-stemmer. One-third of the vintage was fermented in barrels that were rolled instead of pumped over, an approach Richie pursues to fill out the mid palate of the finished product. The end result is quite good. The nose is bursting with cocoa, cherries, black current and plum, graphite and a small amount of iodine. The palate is full bodied offering just enough acidity to balance great density that doubles down on dark cherries, mocha, and smoke. There’s a nice dose of saline in the mid palate. This is a great wine to pour blind for people who claim they don’t like merlot, and just as great to pour for those who say they do.

Like the merlot, the 2013 cabernet sauvignon saw barrel fermentation. 70%, to be exact, was fermented in barrel. This one is still young. The nose is still reticent but its dark aromas tease what will likely blossom into a tantalizing bounty of full-blown scents. It’s full on the body, very smooth and round. Richie called it an “iron fist in a velvet glove” which seems exactly right to me. It offers candied cherries, blackberries and dark plum, along with cinnamon, cocoa, graphite and a refreshing amount of orange zest. I imagine this will offer a lot of depth while retaining its refinement as it ages.

Rombauer 4

An optical sorter. Picture credit: rombauer.com

The star of the lineup was the 2013 Diamond Selection cabernet sauvignon. My first note from the tasting is “that’s a special wine,” followed by “so dynamic, so young.” As Richie said, this will outlive us all. It offers ripe red, black and blue fruits buried deep in an elegant tannic structure balanced by perfect acidity. It also features toasted hazelnuts, blood orange, dark chocolate, and anise. This would be a shame not to try, and an even bigger shame not to age for as long as you can be patient.

This Rombauer line up was superb, but only a fraction of what Richie and his team produce. Much of their wine, including single vineyard wines and a late harvest chardonnay, among others, are available exclusively at the winery and through their wine club. Based on this experience, the limited productions wines are likely worth the trip.

My conclusion after this experience is really quite simple: the wine of Rombauer is so good because the people behind it are obsessively focused on delivering their very best to their customers and they put their all into the effort. As I said above, many wineries speak like this about themselves, but few offer products that are convincing. Rombauer leaves no question.

Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

smith_madrone_sign

I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

smithmad-hr17

Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

smithmad-hr06

Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-

Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

img_6826

This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

*****

img_6835

2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

*****

The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

*****

img_6834

2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

*****

img_6833

2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

*****

Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

*****

img_6836

2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

The Best Reds, Whites & Values of 2016

happy-new-year-2016-new-year-celebration-wine-glasses-picture

Picture credit: Punjabigraphics.com

It’s January 3rd, 2017 and as a wine blogger it is my formulaic obligation to put together a list of the best wines I consumed in 2016. This isn’t a top-100 list compiled by an established wine blogger. Rather, it is a relatively short list and the pool from which they came is limited to the wines I sought out myself. Hence, I feel confident recommending them seeing as I put my own money into them. Click on the wines to see where they’re available.

The Ten Best Red Wines

1. 2000 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir. I’ve written already in these pages that this is the most memorable wine I’ve ever had, and probably the best as well. I’m probably cheating Cameron by not also including the 2003 Abbey Ridge, which was barely one notch below the 2000, in the list but I don’t want to be redundant, especially since neither is likely to be available outside private cellar purchases and auctions. Full tasting note.

abbey_ridge-1018px

Abbey Ridge Vineyard (picture credit: cameronwines.com)

2. 2007 Arns Melanson Vineyard syrah. The 2007 Arns Melanson syrah from California fleeced a group of wine collectors all in a blind tasting I participated in. We had a good number of syrahs from around the world lined up and paper bagged and the only unanimous guess was that this was Northern Rhone. It was also perfectly aged. Pure bliss, a top-5 all time wine for me. I didn’t take notes but it would’ve received at least a 95, and I just found another one to stash away for an important occasion in 2017.

3. 2009 Reynvaan The Contender syrah. Savory goodness, and this vintage is still around to be gobbled up if you look hard enough for it. A few Washington wineries are producing syrahs that balance classic Northern Rhone notes with Washington State’s dark fruit, iodine and graphite added it, and Reynvaan is as good as any. Full tasting note.

4. 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateanuneuf-du-Pape. Proof that good CdP improves with extended cellaring, this delivered the best of what you find across the full range of CdPs all in one profile as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I’ve seen this up for auction and suggest you track one down. Full tasting note.

5. 2010 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale. I’m not an avid drinker of nebbiolo but this one has me wanting to try more. Impressively complex profile that hits on flavors and aromas from quince to Allspice to watermelon (seriously). Changing with each passing hour, it is an adventure that becomes increasingly engaging and enjoyable with each sip. The value on this one is out of this world, too.

6. 2001 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis. I’ve listed two American savory syrahs above this one, but there’s no getting around the fact that older Guigal like this, the stuff done before the winery embraced the Parker profile, is as good a savory profile comes. Old World brilliance. Full tasting note.

chateau-dampuis-2

The Chateau d’Ampuis (picture credit: guigal.com)

7. 2013 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Franc (wine club only). This was unbelievably good. It isn’t Chinon-styled funky cabernet franc, but it isn’t big fruit and no Earth California cabernet franc, either. It’s a nice tweener that was one of the more satisfying wines I had in 2016. Full tasting note.

8. 2012 Psagot Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. As many Israeli wine as I’ve had, and I’ve had more than a few, this wine was a revelation for me. I’ve found a lot of good and a lot of bad Israeli wines, and my complaint throughout is that the country’s wine industry still hasn’t developed a signature style that people want to seek out. This bottle from Psagot doesn’t solve this problem for me, but it provided the best counter argument yet that I should just shut up and enjoy what’s in the glass. This is world class cabernet and it won’t set you back much. Full tasting note.

9. 2011 Lauren Ashton Cabernet Sauvignon. From a difficult vintage this one far surpassed many Washington cabernets from better years. I ended my tasting note with “exactly what I hope for when I open a cabernet sauvignon from Washington.” This producer consistently turns out fantastic wines but this may be the best executed yet. Full tasting note.

10. 2009 Delille Cellars Harrison Hill. Always one of my very favorite wines, though this vintage didn’t blow me away (is still too young). Nevertheless, it still delivered on the best aspect of the Harrison Hill blend: it’s a master blending job by winemaker Chris Upchurch in the sense that the profile is always somehow so much more than combination of the parts. Full tasting note.

The Five Best White Wines

1. 2010 Eric Morgat L’Enclos Savennieres. I didn’t take tasting notes, but my memories of it remain stronger than many wines for which I do have tasting notes, which is why it’s #1. Aged chenin blanc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley has been one of the more profound wine revelations I’ve had because of its deep complexity, it’s ability to improve with age, the evolution it goes through in the glass and the way it balances richness with streaky acidity. Morgat consistently makes complete wines Savennieres and shouldn’t be missed.

26057-650x330-autre-eric-morgat-savennieres

Monsieur Morgat’s vines (picture credit: Le Figaro)

2. 2013 Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge chardonnay. This was my first introduction to Cameron’s whites and it led to a frantic effort to buy up as many as I could find. It’s revelation was how it brought everything good about chardonnay into one glass, including, most impressively, the richness and depth of fruit and nutty flavors of Cote de Beaune with the nervous, tense streaks of a Chablis. I keep adding Oregon chardonnay to my cellar. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Latta Roussanne. Often times 100% roussanne is singularly dense, rich and sweet. Andrew Latta, formerly of Washington legends Dunham Cellars and K Vintners, avoids all that in this bottle of what roussanne can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty citrus and stone flavors that liven up the malo-like hangover of this full bodied varietal. Full tasting note.

4. 2015 Penner-Ash Viognier. Your eyes are seeing (nearly) double: often times 100% viognier is singulrarly dense, rich and sweet. Penner-Ash avoids all that in this bottle of what viognier can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty acidity and streaky tension that livens up the prototypical “tropicallity” of viognier. Give this another 1-2 years and it’ll be even better. Full tasting note.

5. 2008 Francois Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Clos du Breuil. Between this wine and the Morgat my next trip to France will include a few days in the Loire. What made this one stand out is the incredible promise it still holds at age eight for the ability to evolve into something even better. Full tasting note.

The Five Best Values of 2016

1. 2014 Barkan Pinot Noir Classic. If I had tasted this blind I would’ve called expensive California pinot. Instead it’s from Israel and it’s roughly $12. Check out these tasting notes: “Nose: very expressive. Blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries. Big rose petals and Spring pollen. Smoke, iodine. Fruit punch. White pepper. Freshly tanned leather and young tobacco leaf. Licorice root. Beautiful bouquet. Palate: medium body, medium acidity. Integrated, modest tannin. Fruit is tart blueberries, huckleberries and red plums. Blood orange. Tar, hickory smoke. Herbs de Provence. Celery.” All that for $12; buy this for big events. Full tasting note.

barkan-negev-vineyard

A Barkan vineyard in the Negev desert where the grapes for its 2014 Classic pinot noir are grown (picture credit: Barkan Winery)

2. 2010 Fausse Piste Garde Manger syrah. Sadly this vintage isn’t available anymore, but that won’t stop me from trying the current release in 2017. For ~$20 it’s hard to find a syrah with this much complexity. What’s more, 2010 wasn’t an easy year, making this all the more impressive. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Two Vintners Make Haste (unavailable). This 100% Washington cinsault elicited the biggest smile induced by a single gulp of wine in 2016, it was just so much fun; I can’t even stop smiling when I just think about this wine (it is literally impossible to can stop smiling). Full tasting note.

img_0473

Two Vintners and the sun makin’ haste over Washington, D.C.

4. 2012 Bergstrom Old Stones chardonnay. It’s $22 Oregon chardonnay and I didn’t want to share it with my girlfriend’s family, which I was supposed to do, after I had m first sip. All this for twenty three bucks: limestone, saline, Meyer lemon, vanilla custard, Starfruit and Granny Smith apple tucked into finely balanced medium bodied wine. Full tasting note.

5. 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier. Another impressive value from Israel, this is a go-to medium bodied viognier for $15 that has enough acidity to please the refined palate and enough sweet tropical flavors to please the Millennial drinker. Huge recommendation as a wedding wine. Full tasting note.