Try this Wine: Skin Contact Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to refer to it: rosé

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

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

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

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The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of Peake Ranch Winery

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

Peake Ranch. CreditSanta Barbara Independent/Macduff Everton

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

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

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

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

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

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Peake’s tasting room

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

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

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

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

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

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Enter here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Streak Continues: Clarice’s 2018 Pinots Deliver

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Last year I wrote an in-depth piece about Adam Lee’s then-new project, Clarice Wine Company. It was an exciting piece to research and write because the wines were very good and, more importantly, compelling because they offered a kind of depth and complexity rarely found in today’s wines. I’m lucky to taste a lot of wines each year, and few have been as good as Clarice.

I titled last year’s piece “Clarice Wine Company: The Next Evolution in How We Wine” because Adam had designed a business model that uniquely responds to how customers are increasingly engaging the premium wine industry. While many wineries try to offer various ways for customers to experience their wine, Clarice aims to build community with and, unusually, among its customers. From the original article:

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

There’s no quick way to summarize the business model, so instead I’ll list the perks:

  1. Regular exclusive written content produced, at Adam’s request, from well-known winemakers and other wine professionals. Example: a post on winery financing written by the Silicon Valley Bank, which finances many wine projects;
  2. An online private Facebook forum;
  3. In-person parties, including a Clarice vintage release party and several others organized at various wineries; and
  4. Discounts at other wineries within Adam’s sizable personal and professional network.

Since Clarice has had a year under its belt, Adam and I figured it was time to talk through how things have gone, as well as taste through and discuss the 2018 vintage, which will be released later this year.

The first reflection he shared was that, at least until the COVID pandemic, the amount of people interested in the Facebook forum were less than expected. Based on feedback he received, it came down to the apprehension of many who did not have Facebook accounts to set them up simply to access the Clarice forum. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the BS of Facebook feeds, so a smaller fraction [of members] that I expected were participating,” he said, even though those using the forum were building and enjoying their own community of wine, food and travel aficionados.

However, he’s seen a big uptick in activity on the Facebook forum since the COVID crisis began. “The sign up period for the club is happening right in the middle of the pandemic and I’m seeing people signing up because they cannot visit wineries and are taking to the online forum. [In the last month or two] the forum has been more active than ever.” Leave it to Adam to find success in the midst of a global crisis.

He also found that “the people who were interested in the parties were very interested. However, some members who didn’t live near where the parties took place didn’t get the same benefits and a number of these people dropped out [of the club]. I’m making it a point to do some more events outside of California in the future once this COVID stuff dies down.”

New member sign-ups are down about 10% from where they were this time last year, but he hasn’t spent any time or effort pushing the sign up campaign. “I feel people need to adapt to the new normal before I ask them to sign up for a fairly expensive wine that’s a year from being delivered.” He has changed the payment process from six-consecutive monthly payments of $160 to 12 monthly payments of $80. To incentivize people to pay 100% upfront, he is giving those who make the single payment an entry into a drawing to win one of two etched three liter bottles of Clarice. “A fair amount have chosen to take that option,” he noted.

Garys

All-in-all, it seems the inaugural year of the Clarice business model faired well, and Adam is making tweaks rather than wholesale changes. It’s interesting to look at how other wineries are adjusting to social distancing. Many are doing online tasting events to keep communication with clientele up in the vein of where Adam was with Clarice over a year before COVID hit. Adam himself has set up a Zoom tasting for his customers, and is partnering with a number of wineries to do joint offers so that customers are able to get a wider variety of wine without paying to ship it independently from each winery.

Having tasted the 2018s for this piece, I can say with total confidence that the trajectory of quality is going in the right direction and it won’t be long before the club is full. The inaugural releases, which I reviewed in the previous article, were excellent and established a high bar for the label. While the those were very, very good – “It’s incredibly difficult to find pinot noir this good” I raved – the 2018s are even better.

“2018 was just a better growing year. 2017 had numerous heat spikes; it would not have been my vintage of choice for any new project based on pinot,” Adam told me. “2018 was a longer, cooler growing season in ways that are pretty much ideal for pinot noir. It wasn’t as cool as the historically cool vintages I’ve done like 1995, 1999 or 2005, but 2018 had no heat spikes or anything that forced us to rush. I would’ve even moved my picks by a few days if my growers had asked.”

The 2018 vintage appears to be a dream vintage for winemakers with patience and experience. “I saw some people struggling,” Adam told me. “They looked at the long, cool season and worried there would too much of this or that, so they got their picks in early. I figured, yeah maybe, but maybe not. At this rate the weather is cool, I can continue the hang time [of the fruit on the vine], so I gave it some time. Nothing bad is happen during slow ripening, just good stuff. It allowed for better ripeness for the stems, which allowed me to up the percentage of whole cluster a good bit and I found that it helped a lot.”

We agreed, ironically, that the 2017s actually tasted more stemy than the 2018s even though, as I learned, they had a lower percentage of whole cluster than the 2018s. Adam explained this was because the stems did not achieve the same ripeness in 2017 as they did in 2018. “I try to build more structure into Clarice than I did at Siduri, and I’m doing that through stem inclusion and tannin development.”

Stem inclusion contributes to tannin development (as well as aromatics and flavors) in good or bad ways depending on how it’s done. In explaining this, Adam said that “stem ripeness has more to do with hang time and less to do with brix than you would think; sometimes it’s antithetical to brix. Stem ripeness is entirely dependent upon hang time. If you have hot years and sugar builds quickly [in the grapes], you don’t have the opportunity for the stems to get ripe [because you’re harvesting on the early side, reducing hang time]. But if you can keep both in line with each other, it can work out incredibly well, and that’s what happened for us in 2018.” Just to be clear, I asked him, was this the most pivotal difference between 2017 and 2018? “Yes, absolutely,” he replied, though upon prodding he explained the few other differences.

First, his barrels were all a year older, which is a good thing for those who like softer, longer tannins and wines that express the grapes and terrior. Even more crucial is the hygienic advantages this gives a young project like Clarice.

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Barrels are often used for multiple vintages out of both economic and winemaking considerations. Because they are a great place for bacteria to grow and live, however, they need to be thoroughly cleaned between uses. So when a new winery starts, if they don’t want to produce wine using 100% new oak, likely because they want to produce wines that don’t taste like they come from 100% new oak, they have to find used barrels to purchase, which introduces greater bacteria risk because you never really know how well-maintained and cleaned the barrels were by their previous owner(s).

For his inaugural release, Adam purchased a mix of new and used barrels, the latter from the personal project of Ryan Zepaltas, who has been Copain’s head winemaker since 2018. “The only reason I felt good about buying barrels is because I could get them from Ryan, whose barrels actually came from our days together at Siduri. Ryan is extraordinarily conscientious about keeping things in good, clean condition.” Even still, “any winery would want to generate their own used barrels.” Coming into 2018, Clarice did that for the first time as the barrels Adam bought new for the 2017 vintage now had a full vintage under their belt.

The second difference was that the variations in growing seasons necessitated different vineyard treatment. Adam did not drop fruit in 2017 because it was the first vintage since 2012 to be a non-draught year: “I figured in 2017 the vines would be something akin to myself getting a food drop on a deserted island after having starved for a month – the vines would over-consume and I wanted to make sure the grapes still achieved good concentration.” Doing it this way slowed the growth of the shoots and leaves, giving the grapes priority access to water. Conversely, in 2018 Adam didn’t feel the same approach was necessary because it was a more normal year rainfall-wise.

Finally, Adam did more saignée in 2018, a reference to the method of discarding some of the juice early in the maceration phase in order to concentrate the future wine. “The yields were higher [in 2018 than in 2017] so I didn’t mind,” he explained, adding that “the fruit had hung clean [in the vineyard], there wasn’t a great reason to drop much of it, and so it looked more juicy in the tank than I wanted. I did quite a bit of saignée in the end, about 20%, because I kept going until I got it to a place I liked. It was like mixing instant oatmeal by eye.”

But, don’t get your hopes up for a Clarice rosé (many wineries use their saignée juice to make rosé). “I’ve made four rosés in my life. The first one was at Siduri and it was great and easy, so I figured I would be able to do it well again. The second and third attempts sucked so much that I threw them out. I busted my ass on the fourth attempt to do it right, but it was so expensive and distracted me from my main job that I decided that was the last time.” The saignéed 2018 Clarice juice was given to a friend who made it into rosé in exchange for a few bottles of the finished wine.

The end result in 2018 is a noticeable improvement across the three wines that had already dazzled in 2017. That said, I didn’t like each 2018 better than its 2017 version. Taking them alphabetically, the 2018 Santa Lucia Highlands bottle was stunning and received a point higher than its older sibling:

Aromas of scorched earth, red and black plums, high toned cherry, leather, lilac and strawberry. On the fuller side, this has fine grained tannin that spreads throughout the palate, spreading elegant and smooth acid. The structure is lovely and built for positive mid-term aging. The flavors are soft yet saturated, offering Bing cherry, mountain strawberry, red plum, ground cinnamon, leather and sweet cranberry sauce. This is quite nice now and I see it getting better over the next five years. 95 points.

Next is the Rosella’s Vineyard bottle. I actually liked the 2017 version of this more, awarding it two points higher than the 2018. Both vintages struck me as needing significant time in bottle to unwind, and the most difficult to score because of it. The difference in structural elegance is what gave the 2017 the advantage for me. Nevertheless, the 2018 is a stellar wine:

The nose remains reticent after having been opened 12 hours ago for a bit and then re-screwed closed. Aromas are a bit sappy, dripping crushed strawberry, sweet cherry, spiced plum jam and charcoal. The full body is round and plush with dense, tight tannin and slightly juicy acid. The structure warrants 5+ years of aging to unwind, and will then evolve nicely over another 5-10 years. Red-fruited flavors include strawberry, raspberry, not-so-tart Sweetart, blood orange, black pepper, red plum and wet earth minerality. Give this time in the cellar. 93 points.

Last but not least, we have the Gary’s Vineyard offering, which scored two points better in 2018. Where the Rosella’s 2017 structure beat out the 2018, the Gary’s Vineyard showed improvement in this department from the older vintage to the newer one:

The aromas jump out of the glass, wafting an array of dark scents: crushed blackberry, black plum, black currant, prune, baking spice and reduced strawberry. It’s full bodied with broad, fine grain tannin and precise acid. Tasted on the second night, it offers a substantive structure that suggests a solid decade or more of positive evolution. Flavors revolve around a similarly dark profile of blackberry, plum and currant, though the baking spice is more accentuated on the palate and some graphite/moist earth minerality emerges. This young wine deserves another 3-5 years of aging before it’ll start showing its best, but it’s quite tasty at the moment. 96 points.

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Grapes from Clarice’s section of Gary’s Vineyard

We briefly discussed the 2019 vintage, which Adam called “something of a hypothetical cross of 2017 and 2018.” While 2018 had no days over 100 degrees in the vineyards, 2017 had at least six of them. 2019 had a week of hot weather followed by 10 weeks of cooler weather, then another hot week and then another long stretch cool, then a hot week… “2019 is going to be fascinating, Adam said, “and it’s going to be a great vintage to round out Clarice’s first three-year vertical.”

I’ve been drinking a ton of pinot noir in 2020, and had a lot during the 2019 holiday season as well. Most of it has come from California, and nearly all of it has been current release samples. I wouldn’t call where I’m at pinot palate fatigue (yet), but it’s becoming harder for pinots to stand out from each other these days. That said, Clarice has been the clear standout of excellence, depth, quality and personality.

If you’re willing to spend $960 on case of wine (as well as the additional perks), the only potential downside to Clarice that I see may be that you don’t want to buy a full case of it. It is tough to commit to four bottles each of three wines, even though they are as different from each other as they are compelling. To be frank, this is the dilemma I face.

That said, I may be just a year or two away from membership myself because, as silly as this sounds, I’m not sure I can be indefinitely happy with a set of samples. Two years in a row now I feel like I’m getting teased because what I’d really love is have multiple bottles to age and enjoy over many years. I love variety in my wine life, but there are rare occasions like Clarice where I want more of the same.

I know it’s hard to take someone’s word when making a $960 bet, but I’m as confident recommending Clarice as I am any wine I’ve tasted for Good Vitis. These aren’t the best of economic times to drop that kind of money on luxury goods, so at least put Clarice in the back of your mind and on your wine to-do list for the future.

Try this Wine: Killer $22 Pinot

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It took real persistence to get this piece written. Not by me, but by Jesse Inman, who is one half of the sibling pair behind Lucky Rock Wine Company. First, he sent me their sauvignon blanc in July 2019, then their pinot noir a few months later. Except, it didn’t arrive, so he had to send another bottle. Then he had to pester me for, like, three months to get the interview scheduled. Finally, nine months after making first contact, we spoke. And the thing is, it’s not like the wine sucked and I didn’t know how to say “no.” I wrote this because, as the title of the post suggests, I want people to try this wine. It’s really good.

I’m neither a true snob nor judgment-free when it comes to wine, but somewhere between depending on the day. I’ll admit to huffing and puffing every time I see someone on Bachelor hold their wine glass by the bulb, yelling “BY THE STEM” at the television while my wife, who for the record agrees, rolls her eyes. And I’m often guilty of talking more about a wine that we’re sharing with friends that they care to hear, sometimes going on diatribes laced with nitpicks of the obviously wrong decision to do malo or the overly-judicious use of new oak on such a delicate grape.

That said, I also get great joy out of making the case against top of the line Bordeaux because the value proposition is garbage. And for the life of me, I cannot wrap my head around the people who rave about some of the most lofted California cult wines, which from my experience offer underwhelming sophistication and are often wildly out of balance (which is okay because they’re built in a way that the balance only gets worse with time).

I’m skipping ahead a bit in the interview with Jesse, but he peppered it with a two lines that explain the above paragraphs:

“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”

“We’re hoping that [our] quality is good enough that people [who usually pay more] are willing to drink down to it price-wise, but also [people who don’t normally pay our price] drink up to it because it’s so good that it justifies them spending a bit more than usual.”

If the suspense is killing you, here it is: Lucky Rock pinot noir retails for $22, but to my palate it’s better than a lot of $30 and $40 pinots I’ve had. More on the wine later.

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Lucky Rock is not trying to be your typical winery. Their Instagram profile describes themselves as “Wine, Tattoo, Food Truck,” and is filled with pictures of tattoos, their pick-axe (say it fast and it sounds like “kick ass”) logo and dudes in beards and trucker hats having fun. One post, featuring a (relatively) close up of the chest of a heavily tattooed woman wearing a Lucky Rock tank top, uses the line “Look! We’re a lifestyle brand that actually knows how to make wine?”

“Our whole model is no pretension and good wine at a good price,” Jesse told me. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of Ralph Lauren, the man and the company. Lauren has been very clear that he is not a fashion designer nor is he selling fashion. Rather, he explains, his clothes are about style within the context of a lifestyle that he wants the people who wear his clothes to experience. I had asked Jesse about their lifestyle approach because in the same way that Ralph Lauren ads are as much about the non-clothing elements of the visuals and language used, Lucky Rock seemed to be about a lifestyle package that includes wine as one of the many elements.

“You can’t just rely on brand [to make it in wine],” Jesse said. “Obviously we make wine, but the tattoo part [of the brand ID] is a parallel for modernizing the wine business. We cuss a lot, we’re covered in tattoos, we joke around, and that’s unusual for quality wine. My brother and I figured that if we’re going to put this amount of effort into it then we have to have fun and be authentic about who we are.”

“The food truck,” he continued, referencing the Instagram profile description, “is that great wine and food go together. But just because you’re eating great food doesn’t mean that you need a white table cloth. [There is a] correlation between food truck and Lucky Rock – French Laundry and Bond are synonymous the same way. We’re not trying to kid ourselves, we’re not Bond, not trying to be that, nor do you want to be. But we know that our wine goes with great food regardless of where the food comes from. There is really fantastic food coming out of trucks, just like we’re trying to make really fantastic wine that comes to you in an unpretentious way.”

I’ll be completely open about my own experience with Lucky Rock. I’d never heard of it until Jesse contacted me, and after looking at the website and Instagram I set myself up for disappointment. The sauvignon blanc was solid, maybe even good, but the pinot noir blew me away. The reality is that Lucky Rock is a legitimate winery that punches above its price point.

They’re able to do that because they take advantage of economies of scale built into their business model. They make a lot of wine for other brands, much of which comes from really good vineyards that are strategically chosen based on their ability to deliver high quality grapes at less than high-end Napa prices. Of the annual haul, a small amount is taken to produce Lucky Rock. By pooling the collective tonnage needs, they’re able to get grapes that a stand-alone winery could not afford to sell at $22 per bottle. Put another way, if they were buying these grapes just for Lucky Rock, the price point would be significantly higher.

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Starting from the goal of making a very reasonably priced wine, a few other elements of the business plan are critical to success. They are about 60% wholesale having made the conscious choice to prioritize that over being direct-to-consumer, which lowers overhead. They have to be high volume, as well, because they are low margin. “We want to be different,” Jesse explained, “if we ever opened a traditional tasting room we’d be letting ourselves down. If anything, we might open a tap room featuring different wines and beers to pour alongside our stuff.”

It is also critical to making a high quality $22 pinot that they actually know what they’re doing. Jesse cut his teeth making high quality, more expensive wine at August Briggs Winery, where he got his start thanks to a close family connection and where he continues to make the wine today. While the Lucky Rock lifestyle is more warehouse than Napa Valley, the winemaking is as advanced as those who sell the high society lifestyle. Jesse has been making pinot noir “for my entire winemaking life. We’re taking the high end mentality and finding vineyards where we can apply that approach without going as expensive.”

Jesse and I talked tannins for a solid ten minutes because one of the more impressive aspects of the 2018 pinot was the quality and elegance of the structure. Often times, pinot under $30 falls flat and thin, but not Lucky Rock. He takes tannin structure seriously and has been trying various trade craft over the last several vintages to build a consistent profile. Close relationships with fruit growers, careful use of highly selective tannin additives and lots of experimentation with various barrel cooperages and treatments has led to three consecutive vintages now of positive refinement of the tannin structure. It sounds like he’s getting to a place where achieving consistency will keep the wine at a great place.

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Here’s the thing: Lucky Rock’s lifestyle isn’t for everyone, though I do imagine that it is a major factor behind the label’s success thus far. What is for a wider audience, though, is the wine. Lucky Rock’s desire to capture customers based on the quality, whether it’s more or less expensive than you normally pay, delivers in the glass. Even if you aren’t into tattoos, food trucks or trucker hats, even if the label is a bit too aggressive for you, you need to try the wine because, and I feel confident saying this, you won’t find a better pinot noir for the price. And if you dig their vibe, all the better. Dive right in.

Here’s the tasting note on the 2018, which is currently for sale: The nose-filling aromas are dominated by bright cherry and raspberry, but also include subtle tar, rose petal and baking spice. The body is medium plus in weight with fine grained tannin and modest but well-integrated acid. This could age for another 1-2 years and do nicely, but it’s gulpable at the moment. Cherry and raspberry pop on the palate as well, and are bolstered by blood orange, lilac and something spicy. This punches well above its price point. 92 points. Value: A+.

Where to purchase:

Right now, help the brothers out and order direct. They’re offering a temporary COVID-inspired discount: 15% off 6 bottles with $6 shipping and 20% off 12 bottles with $12 shipping. Discount codes can be found here. They ship to a good chunk of the country.

If you’d rather find it locally, they have a retail finder here.

Siduri Likely to Keep on Winning

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Siduri founding winemaker Adam Lee (L) and new head winemaker Matt Revelette (R)

Siduri was started in 1994 by the husband and wife team of Adam Lee and Dianna Novy. With an exclusive focus on pinot noir and an approach based on site-designate wines, Siduri became a leading name in the burgeoning California pinot noir scene where it remains a vanguard producer today. Like many of Adam’s endeavors, Siduri was on the leading edge of a consumer-driven revolution. A few years ago, Adam and Dianna sold their successful winery to Jackson Family Wines, and late last year it was announced that after a few vintages of tutelage under Adam, Matt Revelette was taking over as the full time head winemaker as Adam would step away completely to focus on other projects.

In terms of experience, talent, reputation and character, Adam’s are big shoes for Matt to fill. Yet, when I sat down for dinner in early January with Adam, he was glowing over both his new freedom and the excitement he has for where Matt can take Siduri. The basis for this confidence in Matt is rooted in Matt’s winemaking prowess, but also in the friendship they’ve developed since Matt came on as his heir apparent. Adam, and later Matt when I spoke with him, referenced the long, fun days spent driving up and down California as Matt was introduced to Siduri’s long and impressive list of vineyard sources, and the time they’ve spent together socially. I’ve long believed that winemaker personality and character is a part of a wine’s terroir, and I don’t feel the least bit worried about that aspect of Siduri’s future with Matt taking over.

It came as no shock to me when I learned that Matt was a philosophy major in college. Adam’s mind moves one hundred miles per minute, coming up with all sorts of new business ideas while simultaneously mulling over ways to improve wine quality. The most substantial project he’s launched since selling Siduri is the Clarice Wine Company, which leverages three incredibly good pinot noirs made by Adam to create the next evolution in wine business models. You can read the Clarice profile I wrote last year here. In order for someone to earn Adam’s exuberant endorsement as Matt has, I can’t not see that person being a purposefully thoughtful and continuously curious person.

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To go further with this parallel, because Siduri makes over twenty wines from eight California and one Oregon AVA, all from vineyards owned by other people, it takes the mind of a thinker and a voraciously intellectually curious person to manage such a portfolio so productively. When Matt and I talked about his plans for Siduri, his first answer was that it all boils down to maintaining relationships with the growers. “It’s hard to make this many vineyard-designates without maintaining a lot of friendships. A lot of the onboarding has been getting to know the families that own the vineyards.” As if to make my point for me, Matt noted that “Adam didn’t build Siduri to what it is today without being forward-thinking, and I’m going to maintain that mindset of always moving forward and making those qualitative and incremental improvements.”

All of Siduri’s wine is made in its warehouse winery in Santa Rosa, to the west of Napa Valley, yet the vineyards it sources from are as far north as the Willamette Valley in Oregon to as far south as Santa Barbara (just north of Los Angeles). “That means lots of road time,” Matt told me. A common routine of his and Adams, was to meet up at 2:30 in the morning, get coffee and eat a breakfast sandwich, and arrive in southern California by 7:30. “We’d visit the vineyards, then travel down to Santa Barbara and see the vineyards there, then head to the Santa Lucia Highlands and drive back. We’d stop for a steak at The Hitching Post for dinner and then go to sleep.”

Despite schedules like that, “there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Matt said. “If given the opportunity to do this in my spare time, I would. It’s great to see the vineyards, make friends with growers, see the site differences that manifest themselves naturally at harvest. It’s just amazing.” If Matt can keep up with Adam, then he can run Siduri like a champ and continue the tradition of great site-specific pinot noirs. Siduri’s business model is premised on an indefatigable engine, and it appears they have that in Matt. I feel good in saying that Matt will both continue Siduri’s legacy of expressive, high quality pinot noir, and over time make incremental steps that will drive Siduri’s continued improvement and growth.

Although Matt’s first solo vintage isn’t commercially available yet, I recently tasted through four of Siduri’s entry level AVA blends from the 2017 vintage: Willamette Valley, Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands. Each of these range in price from $35-40, express their unique little corner of the world, and are accessible upon release.

For fun, I decided to taste them blind. I had decently high confidence that I’d be able to get them correct; after all, these are four distinctly different terroirs. I also wanted to eliminate any bias I might have. I’ve never been much of a fan of Russian River Valley pinots, love Willamette, have been tasting a lot of Anderson Valley recently for an upcoming profile of the AVA I’m working on, and tasted through a case of Morgan Winery Santa Lucia Highland wines a few months back. I wanted to eliminate whatever I thought I knew about these AVAs to give them a fare shake – and to test my tasting abilities.

In short: I failed miserably with my picks. I got the Anderson Valley correct, mixed up the Russian River with the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was totally off with the Willamette Valley. I told Matt this when we spoke, and though he may have just been polite, he told me that he didn’t think he’d get it 100% right with this particular line up and vintage. I’ve chosen to take him at his word.

The first lesson I learned, which I’ve learned in the past and clearly forgotten, is that I do actually like Russian River pinot. In fact, it was my favorite of these four wines. The second lesson was that Anderson Valley really does have a unique signature that cuts across producers in certain seemingly unassailable ways (Matt confirmed my thinking on this, which I’ll flush out in the forthcoming AVA profile). Finally, there’s something special still undiscovered by the masses in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and I’m barely a step into that room but very excited to explore it more.

I’d buy three of these four wines for future consumption, especially the Russian River bottling. I’ve never latched onto Siduri’s Willamette Valley pinot, and the 2017 hasn’t changed my mind despite me really wanting to have my mind changed. Nevertheless, they all represent good to great value, and one cannot complain about the quality of any.

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2017 Siduri Anderson Valley pinot noir: The slightly sweet nose wafts scorched earth, plum, currant, raspberry, blood orange juice, pencil shavings and top soil. The body is quite smooth and elevated with sturdy, precise tannins that take a minute to settle in. The well-appointed structure frames nicely flavors of semi-sweet raspberry, plum, cherry, roasted coffee bean, dark semi-sweet cocoa and tanned leather. Amazing value for a really good wine. 92 points. Value: A.

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2017 Siduri Russian River Valley pinot noir – The nose is just gorgeous, offering aromas of baking-spiced red and black fruit, including strawberry, blackberry and blueberry. There’s a moist earth note as well. The deeply layered body is full and round, but juicy acid adds levity, elevating the light and sweet tannin. Flavor-wise, it offers sweet and polished cherry, blueberry and strawberry, which are accompanied by black pepper and cigar tobacco. This is a very pure expression of Russian River pinot. 93 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands – The dark, almost hedonistic nose is laser-focused on a concentration of raspberry, black plum, black currant and black cherry. The full body is elevated by bright acid, and mellowed by smooth, long and well-integrated tannin. The structure is seamless. Flavors icnlude strawberry, plum, cherry, sweet rhubarb, graphite, black pepper and a bit of iron. It finishes with a spicy flourish. Great stuff. 92 points. Value: A.

2017 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir – The nose is blue-ish in tone, with blueberry, plum and rhubarb making immediate appearances. Below them rest a mild fungal element and a saline quality. The body is slightly over medium, and texturized by slightly gritty tannin that carries sweet and juicy acid. Structurally it’s a nice wine. Flavors include blueberry, Acai, general florals and top soil, while it finishes on a note that suggests menthol cigarette. 90 points. Value: C+.

Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

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


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

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

Other merlot reviews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rutherford Hill

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

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

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

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

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

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

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

Where to buy:

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

Try this Wine: Amazing Spring Whites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to buy

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

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

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

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

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

2018’s Most Memorable Wines – and Moment

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Public Service Announcement: Never hold the glass by the bulb! Picture credit: videoblocks.com

Dodie Smith wrote 101 Dalmatians, so she has game. However, she also said that “[contemplation] seems about the only luxury that costs nothing.” This contemplative piece, about luxury, is only possible because time and money was spent. But was it ever worth it. This is the third year in a row that Good Vitis offers a list of its top wines for a year-in-wine review, and there are some great wines on the list.

Last year’s post included the magic dozen wines that we believed would stick in our memory longer than any others tried in that year. While being remarkably memorable remains a requirement to make the 2018 list, we’re also keeping with the tradition of doing the annual retrospective a bit differently each time. This year, we’re adding categories. Fifteen wines have been spread out over seven categories. On an administrative note, if a wine is hyperlinked it will take you to the Good Vitis post in which it is featured. Let’s do this.

Vineyard of the Year

Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola-Amity AVA in Oregon has consistently produced some of Oregon’s most impressive wine for the Good Vitis palate. The 115 acre vineyard, planted in the early 2000s, was more recently purchased by Jackson Family Wines who created a winery, called Zena Crown, to showcase its qualities. Additionally, some fruit from the vineyard is sold to several notable wineries, including Beaux Frères and Soter, not to mention the wineries listed below. The vineyard is planted on a southwest-facing slope of volcanic soil that begins at 300 feet of elevation and tops out at 650 feet. It is divided into 17 blocks, each of which has a unique combination of gradient, aspect and soil depths. Vines include a variety of pinot noir clones. All told, the vineyard is quite capable in producing a diversity of pinot noir wine.

In 2018, we were lucky enough to try a variety of wines made from Zena Crown Vineyard’s goods, including some tasted in the region. Not all were scored, but several were written about on Good Vitis, including:

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2015 Zena Crown Slope – The youthful nose is still growing into itself, though it promises to be a thing of beauty. Detecting ripe cherry, raspberry, plum and multiple florals. The texture on this one is stunning; talk about velvety tannins, there’s no end to them or their silkiness. The acid is on-point as well. Simply stunning. The flavors will require a bit more time to match the texture, but they don’t disappoint at this stage with sweet plum sauce, dark cherries, chocolate mousse, graphite, cinnamon, nutmeg and just a hint of green onion spice. Not for the faint of heart, and worthy of ten years in the cellar. 94 points.

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2015 Hartford Family Winery Princess Warrior Block Zena Crown Vineyard – This has a deep, serious nose boasting aromas of briar berry compote, dark dusty cocoa, graphite, lavender, tar and candied red apple. It’s nimble on the palate, exhibiting youthful finesse. The gorgeous tannins provide a sturdy frame, but don’t overpower while the acid is spot-on. Though I wouldn’t call the structure elegant, it has skillfully found a balance between power and finesse that’s intriguing. In the flavor department you get black and boysenberry, very dark chocolate, rose petals, lavender, Herbs de Provence, and wet soil. Though it’s good now, it will be better in five years. 92 points.

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2015 Penner Ash Zena Crown vineyard pinot noir – Using fruit from [Lynn Penner-Ash’s] exclusive contract on block 8 of the esteemed Zena Crown vineyard, it’s a downright impressive and captivating wine: meaty on the nose, juicy on the palate and fun and serious at the same time. The diversity of flavors and aromas include graphite, salt and pepper, iron, baking spice, mint and a cornucopia of red and black fruit that are silky in their sweetness. It has a decadence to it, however the retained acid prevents it from actually becoming sappy or heavy. What a wine. Unscored, but worthy of mid-90s.

Try this Wine, Damnit!

In 2018 Good Vitis launched a new series of posts called “Try this Wine.” Each post in the series spotlights a single wine that we believe has one or two compelling reasons for people to try. We kicked the series off with one of our favorite white wines, Smith-Madrone’s riesling. For this 2018 retrospective, however, it’s the 2012 Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón that stood out among its Try this Wine peers because of its wow factor.

The Palacios wasn’t a sample nor the current release. We purchased it in 2014 and decided to sit on it for a bit to allow further development, and boy are we glad we did. It was one of 2018’s most delicious and pretty wines. While 2012 is one of the estate’s best vintages, we’re told that the 2014, which is more widely available today, could well be even better. Please, try this wine.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón – Such a gorgeous, elegant wine at a great stage on its life. It’s identity just screams “pastel.” The nose and palate supremely balance florals and dark earthy notes: pink, purple and yellow flowers; wet top soil; graphite; and darkly tanned tobacco leaf. It also features mountain strawberry, blood orange, dark cherry and pomegranate seed. The fine grained tannins add pleasure to the mouthfeel, and the acid is in perfect balance. A truly impressive wine. Decant for an hour now, and consume over the next three years. 95 points.

Well-aged Wine is the Bee’s Knees

Most wine isn’t made to get better with age. Not serious age, at least. In our mind, though, the best examples of magical wine come by way of age-worthy wine that’s been allowed to mature for the right amount of time. While “the right amount of time” can legitimately vary based on preference, as we’ve experimented with older vintages, we’ve come to realize that, at least for our palate, the right amount of time is longer than 99% of people believe it is. We have several theories about why this might be, and the one we’re willing to bet on is that people don’t have the desire and patience to find out that they’ve been having some of their best wine too young.

That’s a real shame because it means people aren’t enjoying wine the way it is meant to be enjoyed. Not many winemakers will say so publicly, but it can be quite frustrating for them when their wines are consumed too early in their respective lives because they know their customers are not getting the best experience possible. We’re issuing a real challenge to our readers: find some seriously aged wine (10+ years old) and give it a try. For a particularly fun time, find a bottle from your birth year. Not all of you will love seriously old wine to the point of changing your habits, but some of you will. We promise. These are several of the older wines we had in 2018 that blew our minds.

The 2007 Full Pull & Friends chardonnay was a gamble. I bought it at the end of May, 2017 but didn’t receive it until late summer 2018. Full Pull is a virtual retailer out of Seattle that sells through email offers. Most of its wine comes from Washington State, and they’ve branched out into their own labels as well. Full Pull & Friends is effectively a shiner model (they purchase fully bottled wine and put their own label on it), which makes it rare within the shiner market as it’s actually good, serious wine (most shiners are inexpensive and underwhelming). It was a gamble purchase because of three factors that, in combination, raise some concern: Washington isn’t particularly known for its white wine, it was a decade old, and I couldn’t be guaranteed that it was stored properly for its entire life.

Lucky me, the gamble paid off as it turned out to be an amazing wine. It had an oxidative nose of marzipan, lemon curd, cardamom, orchid and pine nut. The full body was plush on the palate, but featured juicy acidity at the same time. It really was something else: cardamom, banana peel, vanilla custard, tangerine, Meyer lemon and a big dose of Marcona almond. In several ways it reminded me of a nicely aged Savennieres chenin blanc. Quite tasty and worth the time of whomever decided to hold this back. 93 points.

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The 2010 Copain chardonnay was also amazing

2006 Franz Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd gruner veltliner – We drank this with some good friends and didn’t take any notes. It was barely old enough to consider opening. We have a 2007 of this that is going to get another five-plus years of aging. High quality Smaragd gruner deserves a long rest because it rewards with amazing concentration, harmony and complexity. Hirtzberger is among our most favorite white wine producers from anywhere in the world, and when we find older vintages of it we rarely leave without making it ours.

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1995 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Klipsun Vineyard – Really fantastic tertiary development, this is Washington State history in a bottle that remains impressively fresh. It has an evergreen quality that caps off a highly developed merlot. The nose has sweet oak, vanilla, rich chocolate, spearmint and muddled maraschino cherry. It’s medium weight on the palate and is driven by a backbone of youthful acid, with a fully integrated tannin structure playing a support role. It offers sweet and toasted oak, hot chocolate, tart cherry, lavender and brioche. Something special. 93 points. Note: It’s been long enough that I don’t want to re-score it, but I’d put $20 on having underscored this wine by at least a point or two.

1986 Faustino Rioja I Gran Reserva – This is why good Rioja deserves aging. Nose and palate are full-on tertiary: the acid, oak and alcohol are perfectly integrated, mellowed and balanced. This is all about the essence of wine rather than the constituent parts. That said, here’s an attempt at the notes. Nose: cinnamon, lightly toasted oak, maraschino cherry, sweet peppermint and musty attic. Palate: sweet cherry, sweet leather, well-aged tobacco leaf, tangerine peel and peppermint. Stunning wine, drink now. 94 points.

1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape – No notes taken, this birth year wine was consumed on the author’s 35th birthday. While it was, like the author, about 10 years past its prime, it delivered complexity, fruit, earth and funk and was remarkable. It inspired one of Good Vitis’ most-read articles in 2018, When is Wine Conceived?, which is a must-read for anyone looking for a birth year wine.

Bringing Back Real Rosé

The oversaturated rosé market is heavy with bad wine. The amount of pale salmon-colored wine with little to no flavor and overly sharp acid is so high that finding a good rosé of any color, especially the Provençial style that inspired the seemingly endless supply of flavorless salmon stuff, is incredibly hard. So much so, actually, that we avoided it in 2018, which was disappointing because one of 2017’s most memorable wines was a rosé.

So why are we about to feature two – yes, twice the 2017 total – rosés? Because we have awesome friends who made us try them. Both offer real substance, flavor and color; put another way, they are real wines. And if we’re honest, they are among the wines in this article most likely to be remembered for the longest period of time.

2017 Enfield Wine Co. Pinot Noir Foot Tread Heron Lake Vineyard – The nose has a lees quality to it, something almost malo about it, that adds intrigue, though it’s still quite clean. Strawberry and boysenberry round it out. It’s medium bodied, but the exquisite acid helps it maintain a light balance. The fruit is gorgeous, really quite pure: strawberry, sweet huckleberry and sweet plum dominate the palate, but the finish offers a wonderful combination of watermelon, white peach and kiwi. This is among the most substantive, interesting and complex rosés I’ve ever had. It’s just killer. 93 points. Note: if this weren’t a wine club only release, it would’ve earned a Try this Wine feature.

Old Westminster Rose Rarity No. 3 – We never took any formal notes on the multiple bottles of this one that we consumed, but it is a highly unusual wine. Old Westminster managed to make a rosé that is fresh, deeply layered and audacious without being over the top. From the winery website: This bold & savory rosé is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah and 33% Malbec produced in the saignée method. Fermented with wild yeast in stainless steel and subsequently washed over Cabernet Franc skins to macerate for four days. Aged sur lie in neutral French oak barriques for 18 months.

Appreciating Value

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The best value we came across in 2018 was the 2016 Château Peybonhomme-les Tours Le Blanc Bonhomme, which received its own Try this Wine feature. It’s not the easiest to find, but for around $20 you’re getting a $30-40 bottle of delicious white wine. Here’s the tasting note from the Try this Wine post: Gave this half an hour decant, and the nose really blossomed. Loads of endearing honeysuckle, orchid, mashed pear, rich lemon curd and candied orange peel. Very lovely nose. It is medium-bodied and round. The edges are just ever so gritty, which provides enhancing texture. The acid is nicely cut. Flavors hit close to the nose: honeysuckle, a big hit of pear, apricot and orange peel plus some great slate minerality. A very impressive wine. 91 points.

Something Really Different 

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I cover Maryland and Virginia for The Cork Report, so the hyperlink below goes to the story I wrote for them that includes these wines. King Family Vineyards, located outside Charlottesville, is a standard bearer for the region, but was a revelation for me in 2018. Its winemaker, Matthieu Finot, is a wizard with Virginia fruit and deeply knowledgeable. He is measured in his approach, but also enjoys being playful. The highly limited Small Batch Series is his creative outlet. Each wine produced with the Small Batch label is an experiment, an excuse for Matthieu to test uncommon winemaking methods like skin contact and no sulfur additions on high quality grapes. I was able to taste the skin contact viognier, dry petit mensang and whole cluster 2016 King Family Estate Small Batch Series cabernet franc. They are excellent wines in unusually interesting and fun ways.

A Story of Wine and Love

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It’s official. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

2018 was a particularly magical year because I met and got married to my amazing – AMAZING – wife, Kayce. Our first date was February 3rd. We were engaged on April 27th. And on October 4th, we eloped in Iceland. In order to introduce the wine for this category, you’re going to have to endure a love story.

The weekend after our first date, Kayce visited two friends in San Francisco. On the Tuesday before her Friday flight, she mentioned that they were interested in visiting Napa for a day while she was there. I offered to connect her with a few of my favorite wineries. The next day, as I sat down to email the wineries, I realized that I needed to be able to introduce her as more than just a friend to justify the ask. So, I shot her a quick text asking if, for this purpose, I could refer to her as my girlfriend. In my mind I knew that we were heading in that direction, so I didn’t feel bad about the temporary fib. She responded that yes, that would be fine, but also that we should talk about whether that moniker was appropriate outside this context. We had that discussion the very next day – five days after our first date – and decided that it fit. Wine had prompted the discussion.

One of the wineries that I contacted was Rombauer, which I’ve written about several times in Good Vitis, including a piece in January of 2018 about a visit to Napa in 2017 that included a stop at Rombauer. It was my first time tasting the winery’s top wines, which included the 2016 Proprietor Select chardonnay. Here’s what I said about it:

“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 [winemaker] Richie [Allen] 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.”

When I reserved the Rombauer visit for Kayce and her friends, I suggested that she read the post about my Napa trip so she had some background on Rombauer. I asked Rombauer to make sure that they poured the Proprietor Select chardonnay for Kayce and her friends. And, I asked Kayce to call me after she had tried it. When she did, I asked her if she remembered what I had written about the wine in the article, and she had. And then I told her that what I had said about the wine applied to my feelings towards her: that there is so much goodness in her that I cannot fully appreciate her in just one moment. To say she appreciated the remark is an understatement.

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Rombauer’s Proprietor Selection on the black sand beach of Vík, Iceland. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

When we choose to elope in Iceland, we decided to bring a few bottles of wine with us just in case we couldn’t find wines we loved once we got there. After all, we were getting married and wine is a mutual love: we should drink our favorite stuff. We were able to fit three bottles into our check on, which included a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Select to open after exchanging our vows at the black sand beach in Vík. Once the vows were done, and our photographer had taken the picture of the unopened bottle of wine that I had requested, we popped the cork and took a few pulls from the bottle. After returning to Reykjavik and doing the official ceremony, we enjoyed the remainder of the bottle, properly, in wine glasses. Some couples have a song, a restaurant, a whatever. We have some of that stuff, but we also have a wine: the Rombauer Proprietor Select chardonnay.

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Exchanging vows in Víc. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

We’d like to thank all our readers and supporters for a successful 2018. We are already working on a number of pieces for 2019 and are excited for the year ahead. Please continue to follow our work and tell your family and friends about it. We’ll do our best not to let you down.

Try this Wine: Melville Estate Syrah

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Credit: winery-sage.com

Syrah may be one of the most misunderstood – or perhaps confusing – red wines out there. Unlike cabernet or merlot, there is very little syrah produced domestically outside two buckets: mass-produced, sub $15 wines, and small production, high end bottles starting around $40 and going into the hundreds. The quality and style of these two buckets differ dramatically, and so it can be challenging to feel like you “get” the grape.

This is somewhat less true in France, where the Rhone Valley is syrah’s global epicenter and quality is not hard to come by at any price, but French wine labels are challenging for Americans because they usually do not list the grape(s) included in the wine and so they contribute to America’s misunderstanding of syrah. It is also less true in Australia, where syrah is called “shiraz” and is the most widely produced wine. However, because it’s labeled shiraz even when sold in the United State, it’s easily confused as something different, either varietally or stylistically, from syrah produced elsewhere. And thus the misunderstanding continues.

Syrah is not the most popular grape in this country, but its popularity is growing. On the production side, there are 106,00 acres of chardonnay grown in the United States, making it the most widely-grown wine-making grape in the country. Cabernet sauvignon isn’t far behind at 101,300 acres. Syrah sits at just over 22,000, which makes it the sixth most grown wine-making grape in America.

Syrah can be grown in different climates, and wears its terroir on its sleeve. In warmer climates, it is often big, round and fruit-forward. Most of the lower-end syrah tends to fall into this style because it’s relatively easy to make on a large scale with a good price margin. In cooler climates, it is gamey and savory and often smells and tastes of smoked or cured meat, iron and olives. This style is found most commonly in the more expensive category as it is more sought-after and costlier to produce than the other style. These dynamics mean that, depending on what one is spending, they are getting dramatically different experiences in terms of flavor profile, not just quality.

Within the premium wine world, syrah has been a stalwart regarded as a macro-level under-performer in that it hasn’t sold well despite its appeal. Syrah is also a very difficult sell because either the less expensive forward-style often smacks of generic red wine and makes no unique appeal, or a person is unaccustomed to, and perhaps initially turned off by, the savory taste and higher price point of the better quality stuff.

The niche appeal of high end syrah tends to emanate from that uniquely savory profile I described as well as its ability to change dramatically with extended aging. This has motivated articles along the lines of “American Syrah: Can It Ever Rival Pinot Noir?” that discuss and attempt to prognosticate syrah’s future.

Part of the tailwind pushing syrah lovers’ desire to see the variety perform better may be that we believe syrah offers bang for the buck, even at the high end, and that while it’s easy to find an underwhelming expensive cabernet or pinot noir, it’s much harder to be disappointed by an expensive syrah. This is at least something I’ve discovered as I’ve talked with other syrah lovers.

To test this out, I went to Wine Enthusiast and pulled review data for syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. I took this data and put together pie charts for each variety that show the breakdown of scores. Looking at the charts, for example, 2.83% of merlots reviewed by Wine Enthusiast received scores between 94 and 97 points (the orange slice on the graph).

To interpret these charts, it’s critical to know the sample size, so here they are:

Syrah: 11,991

Merlot: 15,992

Pinot noir: 24,332

Cabernet sauvignon: 27,682

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These graphs tell me two things, effectively. First, with the caveat that this is the perspective of just one journal, there isn’t a lot of great merlot on the market as measured by review scores. That’s a discussion for another time. Second, with the same caveat as the first, people have roughly the same chance of getting an enjoyable/satisfying bottle of syrah as they would cabernet or pinot if they were at a quality wine store that stocked roughly equal amounts of all three. This is to say, my friends and I may be wrong about there being a glut of high quality syrah relative to more popular reds.

All that said, it remains difficult to find a good syrah without dropping a good chunk of change, not unlike pinot noir, because wine stores stock much less of it than the more popular wines. Further, it remains difficult to find a savory syrah priced similar to the fruit-forward syrahs.

Melville

This edition of Try this Wine aims to shoot that gap as reasonably as possible with the 2014 Melville Estate Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara, California. After trying a bottle ourselves for the first time, we were motivated to write this piece because we believe everyone should experience the uniquely savory profile of quality syrah at least once, and now have a reasonably priced example to recommend.

Melville is legendary Santa Barbara, a wine region that deserves more attention and respect than it gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is eventually considered part of California’s top echelon of wine regions. Located a short drive north of the Los Angeles area, it sits just off the Pacific Ocean on plateaus and hill sides that jut up from the coast line. Direct access to ocean breezes keep the area cool, and much of the wine produced there skews more reserved and nuanced than the standard California reputation. Think producers like Au Bon Climat, Ojai, Donkey and Goat, Qupe and Jaffurs, none of whom are going to make inroads with the jammy wine crowd.

Try this Wine because: The Estate syrah from Melville clocks in around $30-35, which is a fair price for the quality. At this price you get great accessibility to the savory profile as well as good approachability – it won’t require aging to show itself off. While not as layered and complex as many more expensive syrahs, it represents one of the more modest price points for a wine of its profile and quality. We recommend that you try this wine if you want to access the savory syrah profile without spending a ton of money or waiting years for a bottle to develop into an enjoyable stage.

Tasting note for the 2014 Melville Estate syrah: Bright, shiny nose of Acai, raspberry, strawberry, wet soil, tanned tobacco leaf, bacon and cinnamon. It’s full bodied with pleasant, mellowed acidity and very plush tannin, striking a pleasing feel and structure. The flavors are predominantly savory and salty; the fruit is secondary. It offers doses of iron, saline, smoked beef jerky, black olive, pomegranate, raspberry and licorice. This is a nice, straight-forward New World syrah with some Old World stylings. There is a small amount of dusty tannin towards the finish suggesting good mid-term drinking. 90 points. Value: B+.

Where to buy:

The current release of the Estate syrah at the winery is 2016, which is available directly through the winery. Most of the vintages available in stores include the 2014 and 2015, which is nice because of the additional and complimentary age on them. Here are a few shops around the country that showed up on the wine-searcher.com search.

St. Louis, MO: Wine & Cheese Place, 7435 Forsyth Blvd, Clayton, MO 63105. Phone: 314-727-8788.

Los Angeles, CA: Woodland Hills Wine Company, 22622 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA 91364. Phone: 800-678-9463.

Tampa, FL: Craft & Curd, 2908 W Gandy Blvd. Suite B, Tampa, FL 33611. Email: Tom@craftcurd.com.

St. Paul, MN: Sunfish Cellars, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy, 55118 St Paul, MN. Phone: 651-600-5164.

San Francisco, CA: The Wine Club, 953 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94107. Phone: 800-966-7835.