Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Decoy

Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

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


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

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

Other merlot reviews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rutherford Hill

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

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

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

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

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

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

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

Where to buy:

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

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.

Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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The 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is riding a strong commercial tailwind. It’s cabernet sauvignon, which is second in popularity only to chardonnay in America, and it’s from California, which dominates America’s wine production, store shelves (commercial demand) and exports. If one’s focus was on making wine that would sell easily and in large numbers, they’d make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in California.

If there’s a headwind against this wine, it’s that at a suggested retail of $19 it is too expensive for the mainstream (though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it for $12-15 in many grocery stores nation-wide). Even at $12, it’s outside the 78% of total domestic wine sales that come in under $10 per bottle. However, the tide is turning. In 2017, purchases of bottles priced $15-19.99 saw double-digit growth. Things were never down for the Hess Select cabernet sauvignon, but they are nonetheless looking up.

With so many Americans buying California cabernet sauvignon, this instance of Try this Wine aims to be a twofer. First, for those who regularly buy grocery store cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a particular wine that over delivers. And second, for those who normally eschew under $20 cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a wine that demonstrates real quality can be had for a lower-than-expected price that is also available in serious wine stores.

I visited Hess last December during an epic five days in Napa, not knowing much about the producer and walking in with a critically wrong assumption about them. Here’s a line from the post that I wrote about Hess:

“I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me.”

Hess was awesome. A medium-sized producer, which by California standards is pretty large, they poured me nearly their entire range, beginning with several Select wines. The Select series is the winery’s entry point, and accounts for 65% of total Hess production, making it the company’s financial backbone. The series begins with the $12.99 Select chardonnay, and tops out around the $20 mark. We slowly climbed the ladder until reaching the top: the $185 Lion cabernet sauvignon. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch, and I found several to be inspiring. More than anything, though, I was impressed with the Select chardonnay because I was shocked that anyone could make a chardonnay of that quality that could retail for $12.99 – I’ve had many $25-30 chardonnays that are on all accounts no better than the Select.

I vividly remember asking Hess’ winemaker how they made such a good thirteen dollar wine and learning that they have vineyards dedicated to the Select line that get the same attention as their more prestigious vineyards, and an assistant winemaker who focuses on the Select line, giving it as much attention as the head winemaker does for the more expensive wines. Since then, I’ve included the chardonnay in several tastings I’ve led and talked it up on many occasions.

This is why it was fun to revisit the Select line with this cabernet sauvignon, which I received as a sample. They produce 175,000 cases of the Select cabernet, which represents 35% of the total Select series production. That’s serious quantity, so achieving equally serious quality is no small order, and rare at this scale. This alone is reason enough to try this wine.

Tasting note: This fresh, ripe nose gives off aromas of cherry and blackberry compote, toasted oak, potting soil, graphite minerality and blood orange zest. The body is very polished and lush, balanced nicely by good acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying or heavy. Flavors are focused the dark and juicy cherry and boysenberry, though tobacco, wet dirt and lavender peak through. 88 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

This is a widely distributed wine – available in all fifty states and twenty-three countries outside America – and is available at serious wine stores, grocery stores and online retailers, including wine.com. Below are a few places where it is available. As always, you can head over to wine-searcher.com and input your zip code and a radius to find nearby stores.

Chicago area: Sal’s Beverage World with locations in Addison, Elmhurst and Villa Park.

Denver: Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 E. Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80203. 303-831-7788.

Florida: Crown Wine & Spirits, nine locations on the Pacific Coast.

Los Angeles: Wally’s Wine & Spirits, three locations.

Memphis: Buster’s Liquors, 191 South Highland, Memphis TN 38111. 901-458-0929.

New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10065. 212-772-3211.

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

Life and Wine Done Right

Koerner Rombauer

Readers of Good Vitis know that I’m a fan of Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve written glowing things about the wine and the winemaker, yet I’ve not written about the man, the visionary, behind the business: Koerner Rombauer. I never had a chance to meet him prior to his death earlier this month at the age of 83, which comes as a great disappointment knowing what I know about him through the grapevine. The major publications have written stories about him in the last week, and I have nothing to add to those other than my appreciation for the winery he created, the way he enabled his talented staff to make great wine, and the philanthropic penchant that ran through his veins.

The most direct knowledge I have of Rombauer comes from his winemaker, Richie Allen. I’ve spoken with Richie a number of times over the last year, and several times he referred to his gratitude for the enormous support Rombauer gave Richie and his team to make better wine year after year. I tried to capture this support in a post from last summer called “Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers” in which I wrote that “I’ve come to understand that (nearly) no cost is too much to improve quality for the Rombauer family.” Richie is obsessed with improving quality in the vineyards and winery, and the zeal with which he offers evidence of that obsession, and the magnitude of evidence, are unmatched by any other winemaker I’ve met. It takes an owner of at least equal enthusiasm, and not a small amount of trust and vision, to enable Richie to do all that he’s done, and I got the feeling that more than a few times Rombauer said yes to a Richie hunch when other owners would’ve said no. We, the consumers, are the beneficiaries.

The other aspect of Rombauer that I’ve always admired is his philanthropy. It’s one thing to give to charity, and Americans do that in globally high numbers. But Koerner was a real philanthropist, not just giving to charity but starting his own as well. As someone who deals a good bit with philanthropy, the magnitude and breadth of Rombauer’s work is impressive. I joke with people that “you don’t get into winemaking to make money,” but some end up making a good amount, and Rombauer was one of them. Yet, to turn around and give a good chunk of it away, while relying on the low margin and inconsistent revenue source that is wine, is admirable. That he was able to give millions of dollars made in the wine production away suggests he was a very good businessman as well.

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Wine has a way of finding great people and then captivating them for the remainder of their life. We’ve lost one of those in Rombauer, and his passing was sad news for me. Thankfully, his spirit and passion live on through his winery. It’s that love of life that Kayce and I toast tonight with a bottle of Rombauer Proprietor Selection chardonnay, which has a special place in our relationship as a wine that early on paralleled the spirit and passion we share for each other and the life we’re making together.

From the Rombauer website:

KOERNER ROMBAUER, FOUNDER OF ROMBAUER VINEYARDS, PASSES AWAY AT 83

Napa Valley, California, May 17, 2018 —- Koerner Rombauer, the founder of Rombauer Vineyards and a beloved figure in the Napa Valley over the last four decades, died on May 10. He was 83.

Koerner is survived by his wife, Sandy, children Sheana Rombauer and K.R. Rombauer III, grandchildren Reagan, Drew, Seth, Lane, Ransome and sister Kay Thornton.

Koerner was born and raised in Escondido, California where he married Joan Ransome, his wife of 43 years. He served in the California Air National Guard as a pilot from 1956 to 1965, beginning his lifelong love of flying. Koerner and Joan had two children, Sheana and KR, who were born in Escondido and then later moved to Texas where Koerner began his commercial airline pilot career flying for Braniff International Airways in 1965.

The family relocated to the Napa Valley in 1972 where they settled in a hilltop property north of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. In between his commitments with Braniff, Koerner began spending time learning about winemaking at Conn Creek Winery. In 1980 they founded Rombauer Vineyards. They harvested their first grapes—-Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District—-in 1980 followed by their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1982. Joan died of pancreatic cancer after a three-year battle in 2002.

Rombauer wines, especially the Chardonnay, are beloved around the world. Such uncommon affection from the public grew partly out of Koerner’s outgoing personality, his contagious sense of pleasure for wine and gusto. Koerner was the kind of person you could recognize from a mile away. There would be no mistaking his optimistic and sunny personality, and the confidence and pride with which he wore his signature stars and stripes jacket. He was red, white and blue, through and through. From the time he first came to Napa as a commercial pilot, he would always share his personal love of life in everything he did. His habit of including everyone around him in his enjoyment carried through into a passion for the Napa Valley, and became one of the cornerstones of Rombauer Vineyards.

The connection with the legacy of his great-aunt, Irma Rombauer, and her American classic, The Joy of Cooking, often provided Koerner with an introduction to his customers and accounts. He explains that Joy, as the book is affectionately known around Rombauer Vineyards, helped him be perceived as someone with whom people were already familiar; he wasn’t a stranger, he was Irma’s grand-nephew. This emphasis on helping people feel at ease and like family is no small detail. It sums up the way he lived his life. The sense of graciousness and hospitality infused his decisions and his vision and became synonymous with the Rombauer Vineyards style—distinctive and inviting.

Koerner was known as an extremely generous philanthropist. Before Joan passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2002, they started the Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at University of California, San Francisco. The Rombauer Family has continued to be involved in fighting cancer and in 2010 established a $4 million endowment, the Joan Rombauer UCSF Endowed Fellowship. Other causes he supported included V Foundation for Cancer Research, Collabria Care (formerly known as Napa Valley Hospice and Adult Day Services), Napa Valley Land Trust and the St. Helena Montessori School.

Koerner’s community involvement has included serving on the boards of Napa Airport Advisory Board Committee and Tower Road Co-Op as well as being the 2011 Auction Napa Valley Chair. He was a long-time supporter of the St. Helena High School FFA and Agriculture Program and a recurring purchaser of livestock at the Napa Town and Country Fair.  For many years, Koerner was a familiar face at the Calistoga Fourth of July parade driving Congressman Mike Thompson.

His love for flying took him many places, allowing him to share his passion for life and generous spirit with countless people.  When Koerner was once asked to explain why both flying airplanes and making wine were so important to him, he answered that “Flying and winemaking are both mystical, magical things. The magic of flying is that it allows you to leave behind all that binds you to the earth. The magic of winemaking is that you create something with your own hands, from your own piece of earth, that lasts for years. If you turn out a wine that can score the highest points, or highest bid, it’s like breaking out at minimums, right over the runway numbers, knowing you’ve nailed the approach.”

Memorial church services will be held at 11:00 a.m. on June 5 at Grace Church in St. Helena, followed by a public Celebration of Life from 12:00 until 4:00 p.m. at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Interment will be private.

The family suggests donations can be made in Koerner’s honor to Rombauer Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at the University of California, San Francisco, V Foundation for Cancer Research or Collabria Care. Details: https://www.rombauer.com/memorial-donations/.

The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

An Epic Five Days in Napa

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The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

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

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Koerner is the man

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

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Richie is the man, too

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

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

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

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

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

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Kelly Fleming’s cave

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

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

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

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

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The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

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

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

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

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

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The 750 tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the barrels we tasted

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

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Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

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

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

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Hess

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

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Historic vines at Hess

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

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

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

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

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Our tasting room

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

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