Try this Wine: Fall Release from Merry Edwards

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

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

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

Five Years of Important Transitions

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

Merry Edwards President Nicole Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92 points. Value: B-.

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

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

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

93 points. Value: B.

Warren’s Hill Vineyard

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

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

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

94 points. Value: B.

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

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

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

93 points. Value: B-.

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

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

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

Merry planting Maefield Vineyard

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

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

The Mystique of Anderson Valley (Part 1)

Welcome to Part 1 of our profile of California’s Anderson Valley Appellation. This piece covers some of the history, geography, weather, and other factors that set the quality and uniqueness of the region’s wines apart.

Under the Radar

At some point in 2019, I came to realize that some of my favorite American pinot noirs and chardonnays were coming from Anderson Valley, California, almost irrespective of producer, because I was drawn the region’s unique stylistic signature. Anderson Valley wine has a certain refinement, bordering on elegance, that when combined with its flavor profile is unmistakably Anderson Valley. The next closest in style are Willamette Valley and, to a lesser extent, Santa Lucia Highlands.

The pinots are black-fruited with good doses of baking spice and scorched earth minerality, while the best chardonnays can have unusually incredible depth (more so, I would say, than most of the pinots), and often feature penetrating stone minerality, baking spice, and nuttiness to go with its fruit. Both tend to carry high levels of acid and relatively low levels of alcohol and tannin, making them great candidates for up to a decade of cellaring.

Once this realization occurred, I decided to reach out to producers of the region to see if they would be willing to submit samples and their winemakers’ time to help me put this piece together. Thankfully, a good number agreed, and here we are. Part 2 will cover the wines themselves along with the future prospects of Anderson Valley.

Writing a piece about a wine region that you’ve not visited is challenging, and all the more so when the region in question is a bit of an enigma. Anderson Valley is an off-the-beaten path pocket in the world that hasn’t seen the kind of commercialization that America’s other wine regions have despite the incredibly high quality wine it produces. While Anderson Valley’s wineries and vineyards are as modern as any other, there remains paltry wine tourism infrastructure, and therefore limited fan fair outside dedicated winos. Anderson Valley lives a weird dichotomy in which the wine is widely recognized as among America’s best, yet the region is almost always an afterthought in the discussion of which American regions produce the best wine.

The Wild West

The remoteness of the Valley is often the first explanation for the region’s unremarked status, which usually begins with a description of Highway 128, the road one would drive if heading there from the Napa/Sonoma area. Here are comments from the winemakers interviewed for this piece about Anderson Valley’s location.

Highway 128

“It’s the land that time forgot” Tony Rynders, who consults on Jackson Family Wine’s Maggy Hawk project, explained. “The way [Anderson Valley] is physically set up, the logistics of getting there, you have to endure forty minutes of switchbacks that disincentivizes people from going there.”

The final stretch into Anderson Valley coming from the south includes “this incredibly windy and treacherous road,” Katey Larwood of Goldeneye told me, referring to Highway 128.

“The last 45 minutes is a mountain logging road, essentially,” FEL Wines winemaker Ryan Hodgins said.

To get there, “you have to go fifty miles past Healdsburg on really windy roads that scare people, then you get to a very small town with not much around it commercially,” Julien Howsepian of Kosta Browne said. “But it’s absolutely gorgeous, rural California. Kind of like turning back the clock a bit.”

Siduri Wines’ Matt Revelette pointed out that “when you’re on the 128 up to AV, it’s wine growing for the sake of wine growing…[you’re] not going to stay at the [non-existent] Four Seasons, not going to have a bachelorette party up there… Not many people end up there by accident.”

According to Ashley Holland of Read Holland Wines, Highway 128  “is pretty treacherous. Visitors aren’t increasing because of it. It means Anderson Valley has an untouched feel to it… It has an X factor.”

These descriptions immediately piqued my interest, helping to explain why Anderson Valley is what it is, why more people aren’t visiting, and why the traditional kind of tourism industry that sets up shop in a wine region hasn’t materialized. This has left the region to the people who inhabit it, preserving what seems to be an incredibly unusual and quirky population.

“The people are as much part of the region as anything,” Katey told me. “It’s an area built around community populated by an odd medley of people that you wouldn’t think would live harmoniously, but do. It’s fascinating.” Today’s Anderson Valley community received an injection of hippies who left the Bay Area in the 1970s and ventured north, forming an agrarian society in which the locals lived off their land in a somewhat collective manner. “These are hippies that own guns because there are wildlife and you have to protect your land,” Katey explained.

“Candidly,” Tony confessed, “it’s dope growing country, and that helped make it an early adapter of wine. The volumes were small, it didn’t really have a voice of its own, nor were people listening. But fast forward to today, [the wine industry is] tapping into a coming-of-age type of energy.”

“I really love Anderson Valley,” Matt told me, “and I really appreciate it for being what it is. It has a kind of anti-developmental attitude, but in a charming way. I wrote my senior thesis on why people should live in eco villages, and Anderson Valley reminds me of that thinking: remote, not congested.”

A story from The June 19th, 1990 New York Times

When the hippies showed up, they joined the historic logging community that founded the modern area, which is northern Redwoods country. Katey describes these loggers as “quasi-environmentalists that wear tie die,” which perhaps explains how hippies and loggers could live, at least somewhat, harmoniously. Additionally, “there’s the apple and sheep communities, and then along with the wineries, a wonderful Latino migrant population. The people make the region special.”

The feel of Anderson Valley “is very rustic, very old time,” Katey said. “You come in first through Boonville [if you’re coming from the south]. It’s five stores, no stop signs, and you drive right through it. It opens up into a wonderful valley where you see a long floor and wonderful hills and ridge tops. My first time there was to explore the area, we camped and tasted and were really in the soil and breathing the air.” It was a magical experience for her, and “immediately knew I wanted to come back.” Howsepian called it “tucked away, quiet, super peaceful and tranquil,” the kind of feeling that you can “only find in these remote places.”

For Ashley, whose path first went through New Zealand and other parts of California, and included major producers like Gallo and small ones like Three Sticks, Anderson Valley “is special, it’s untouched; there’s a lot of Californian history there.” This shows through in the wine, she said, which “shows the spirituality” of the region.

From talking to these winemakers, I got the sense that Anderson Valley today might be what we consider a “throw back” to the 1970s Napa as it appears in stories like Bottle Shock, meaning a wine scene full of risk-acceptant serious people who are figuring out how to make the best wine the region can produce, while not worrying about how they might appear to the observers who aren’t visiting. You can hear in the voice of the winemakers as they describe what they’re doing that they feel like they’re in the early days of establishing a truly world class wine region, even as their wines are receiving world-class reception among wine critics.

The Rustic Borderland

The region focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir, just like America’s better known pinot and chardonnay regions, Sonoma and Willamette Valley, though there are a few other varieties, namely pinot gris and riesling. And just as those better known regions are distinctly and uniquely their own, so too is Anderson Valley.

The Valley is historically a cool climate region, especially within the context of California, but to leave the analysis at that is to skip over the geography, which has an incredible impact on the singular profile of Anderson Valley wine. FEL’s Ryan Hodgins sees Anderson Valley as “the tipping point between California and Oregon,” not just because it’s one of California’s most northern wine regions, but because it sits between the better known Sonoma and Willamette styles.

Anderson Valley is only “15 miles long, running south east to north west, so that the north side that faces the south west is dry brown grass hills that look like they belong in Santa Barbara or San Diego County.” Meanwhile, “the south side of the Valley is protected from the afternoon sun and is old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir country, the most northern the Redwoods really grow. I look at these 250 foot-tall trees from our vineyards.”

Just north of the Valley, the forest begins to harken the famously wet Northwest forest. “It’s the tipping point between the warmth and dryness of California and the coolness and moisture of the Northwest,” Ryan added, which means that in the wine “you get some of the elegance, prettiness, and delicacy of the great Willamette Valley wines to go along with some of that California ripeness, though [the ripeness] isn’t turned up to the ten or eleven that the more southern applications can give you.”

Goldeneye’s Larwood noted that the region “is commonly referred to as the Oregon of California from a pinot perspective.” The natural result of this geography is a wine profile that Ryan aptly describes as “light on its feet, with really fresh acid. The fruit tends to be darker – a signature for AV is black cherry, compared to, say, Russian River Valley signature red Bing cherry.”

This geography has a lot to do with why Anderson Valley wine stands out uniquely from other American pinot and chardonnay. In addition to its northern location, Anderson Valley opens up directly to the Pacific, which means it gets the brunt of the storms in the winter that can often lead to a growing season that starts later in the year than its southern compatriots. “Our phenological markers like bud break, bloom date, verasion date, etc. line up more with the Willamette Valley than with Sonoma or Napa,” FEL’s Ryan told me, referring to the pre-2014-2018 draught vintages.

Another aspect of Anderson Valley’s outlier status among California’s other regions is what Larwood described as the Valley’s “really extreme diurnal shifts” that come “mainly during the summer growing season.” She noted, for example, that “on May 5th [of 2020], I came to work at 6:30 in the morning and it was 32 degrees and we had our fans and sprinklers on to protect the grapes from the fog. By 1:00 pm, it was 80 degrees, and when I left at 6:00pm it was windy, foggy and 55 degrees.” While the number of “growing degree days are pretty average compared to the Russian River Valley [for reference], the highs are really high and the lows are really low, and that makes it the perfect pinot place because we are able to ripen and get fruit complexity without cooking any of the grapes; they’re able to hangout, relax and ripen.”

Copain winemaker’s Ryan Zepaltas has a lot of experience with Anderson Valley and Sonoma, which together comprise about 70% of the wines he makes. As a point of distinction between the two, he highlighted the impact of Anderson Valley’s frequent fog. “We work with a lot of Sonoma fruit that comes from nearer the ocean, but even still, those vineyards are just above the fog lines. In Anderson, however, a good amount of pinot sits below the fog line and gets shorter windows of sun exposure. Whereas our Sonoma fruit is concentrated and softer, Anderson is a little more about tannin management and working with fruit that never really gets fully phenologically ripe. It can be ornery.”

“Everything, all weather and temperatures, are determined by proximity to the ocean [in Anderson Valley],” Ryan Hodgins noted. “Boonville fuit gives you a little more California, tends to be more black cherry and fruit forward. As you get to what the locals call ‘the deep end,’ close to the ocean, you get more baking spice, cigar box. The mid-point of the Valley has a bit of both.”

The Balance Challenge

Maggy Hawk’s Tony Rynders called Anderson Valley’s tannin profile “the most striking thing [about the wines of the region],” adding that they “need mitigating” because he “doesn’t want gritty tannins dominating the profile, which can be an inherent property of the appellation.” To achieve the desired tannin profile at Maggy Hawk, the project where he consults, they “have moved away from punch downs” to “lower the extraction.” Instead, they do “gentle pump overs and whole cluster fermentation to reduce crushed skins,” which prevents more tannin from leaching into the juice.

The house Copain style is a restrained, almost elegant structure, with doses of dark fruit and earthiness. To achieve that in Anderson Valley where grapes can have a hard time fully ripening, Zepaltas has to balance the need to “push ripeness” in the grapes on the vine, meaning allowing the fruit to hang long enough to build sugar “to get good concentration,” with ensuring that the fruit doesn’t ripen to the point that it gets too sugary. Compared to other parts of California, Anderson Valley’s wines are “more tannic, less concentrated, and more transparent.”

This balance is a challenge that all Anderson Valley winemakers face from time to time. If they let the fruit hang too long, it loses its Anderson Valley uniqueness. But, if they harvest too early, they end up with high levels of pyrazines and low limits on alcohol and tannin. Under ripe fruit tends to produce less fruit and more green flavors like bell pepper. “If it’s too green [then] it’s gross, but if it’s just on the edge [of ripeness] then it’s snappy and fresh,” Zepaltas said.

The ripeness that he’s looking for is a certain level of “fruit maturity that translates into flavor development.” He likes to pick the fruit “al dente, which is right when the clusters start to soften but still have some snap to them.” The juice of the fruit “will taste like pink lemonade right before this moment hits, and then it turns a corner and picks up fruit flavor and concentration before it starts losing acidity.” That’s the exact time he aims to pick.

Getting to that point is “really about monitoring weather.” While cool weather usually doesn’t stunt maturation, “[if the fruit is at a good spot when cool weather hits] you could pick it and it won’t matter.” However, if “there’s a heat spike, a one or two day difference is huge.” Zepaltas does “a lot of tasting and weather monitoring, which means spending a lot of time in the vineyards. There are differences block by block in terms of ripeness based on the aspect, rootstock, clone, etc.”

“You always have to look at the weather stations to see what the temperature is [of your vineyard’s little micro climate],” Zepaltas explained. “The weather is not only different depending on where you are, but changes a lot throughout the day and throughout the year.” Generally speaking, it’s coolest near Navarro at the most Northwestern part of the valley and warmest near Boonville in the Southwest.

Skycrest Vineyard

Copain is a good example of how this climatic variance impacts viniculture because it produces wines from vineyards spread across the Valley. “I harvest every or every other day [up and down the Valley]; there are lots of things to schedule,” Zepaltas said, explaining that “at Maggy Hawk [Vineyard], say we have eight different blocks, I’m probably picking that eight different times. Skycrest has five blocks, those are five different pick times. Scheduling so that we pick each block at optimum rightness is a huge challenge” that he doesn’t face to nearly the same extent in Sonoma.

Another important element to grape growing in Anderson Valley is the intense sun, which similarly differs from vineyard to vineyard. “We have to make sure that the fruit is shaded from the sun so it doesn’t get burnt from the really intense four to five hours of sunlight each day.” At the same time, though, “fog and wind are big deals here, so we have to make sure that the shading we put on the grapes [by leaving leaves on the vine to cover them] does not trap the moisture around the grape [which causes mildew and mold]. About half the Valley is frost protected by water, the other half by fans.”

Water can be challenging as a factor because it isn’t always plentiful. The climate is commonly referred to as a “maritime desert” in which an average growing season only sees about 40 inches of rain. “With that influence,” Larwood explained, “we have disease pressure and extreme sun exposure.”

Distinctively Anderson Valley

All of these climatic and geographic realities, complications, and challenges add up to an appellation that does not suffer fools. Not a single one of these winemakers got their start in Anderson Valley, and though each’s path to the Valley is different, they are all some variation on a theme of ‘once I got to Anderson Valley, I knew I had to make wine there.’

Another point of distinction for Anderson Valley is that a lot of wine from there is not made by wineries dedicated to Anderson Valley, let alone located there. With notable exceptions like legendary French sparkling wine company Roederer (who began producing in 1988) and Domaine Anderson (which planted roots in 1981), and boutique producers like Read Holland, most Anderson Valley wines are made by big labels that have decided to include some Anderson Valley in their lineup.

Along with Roederer, Jackson Family Wines (JFW) has made enormous investments in the Valley. A number of their projects source from JFW-owned vineyards, leading to cross-pollination across the portfolio. For example, JFW owns Maggy Hawk Vineyard, which is the source of a lineup of JFW-owned Maggy Hawk-labeled wines as well as a Maggy Hawk Vineyard-designate for JWF-owned Copain. JFW-owned Siduri produces an Anderson Valley appellation blend pinot sourced from several JFW-owned vineyards. And the list goes on.

Entire articles could be written on Roederer’s and JFW’s histories in the Valley, but suffice it to say that these major names making major investments have given the region a huge boost in credibility and visibility. “The reputation of AV is growing with JFW’s thoughtful effort,” Ashley Holland (of the very small and boutique-y Read Holland) told me. That effort includes hosting tasting panels and other industry events to which non-JFW producers are invited. FEL’s Ryan Hodgins has “done some panels with them; they’re commitment to quality as far as the bigger wineries out there, and they continue to invest in the Valley.”

FEL is itself a label under Cliff Leade, which owns a number of wineries. Goldeneye is owned by Duckhorn, and so own. Wineries like Siduri, Kosta Browne, Litterai, Failla, William Selyem, and others have made the decision to add Anderson Valley-designate to their line up. “This investment [by larger and reputable wineries] in the Valley is good, it’s driving the reputation in a sustainable way,” Hodgins said. “In the last ten years, there has been a substantial improvement. Attention from great producers in other pinot regions that source from Anderson Valley “has contributed to the growth in the Valley’s reputation.”

“Even down in Santa Barbara,” Goldeneye’s Katey noted, “there are wineries sourcing from Anderson Valley. You have these wineries [from outside Anderson Valley] with the marketing capabilities, clientele and wine clubs that know their wines, and then they see an Anderson Valley wine and it opens their eyes to the fruit profile and the wines that can be grown here. People learn about Anderson Valley through brands that are outside the Valley.”

Kosta Browne’s Cerise Vineyard

This is certainly the Kosta Browne model, from which the Cerise Vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay are the only Anderson Valley wines in their sizeable lineup. They are also the newest, and most expensive. Even still, “we don’t have a problem selling it,” Howsepian told me. “Only our most senior club members [and select retailers] get it. These are the members who, for the most part, have already been with us for five to eight years. We’ve had success selling it and telling the story.”

Further, Katey noted that “most [wineries in Anderson Valley] are still today mom and pop-run businesses, which makes it special because people can still do that there whereas down in Napa, Sonoma, it’s pretty difficult to do that now [because the cost to produce is too high].” The absence of substantial tourism and remoteness has, thus far, allowed small producers to stay in the game.

There is no wine region I know of that shares many similarities with the story of Anderson Valley. In the course of writing this piece, I am often reminded of Tony’s line about the Valley being “the land that time forgot.” It’s obvious that a lot is happening on the wine front, yet the wine world remains largely ignorant about it. Its remoteness isolates us, allowing us to enjoy its wines while never actually connecting with the place.

Or, do we connect to the place through the wines? Anderson Valley wines are distinctly Anderson Valley because the terroir is incredibly strong, and there are no mass produced wines to obscure it. This is a testament to those involved in the Valley’s wine scene, suggesting that the place is really that special that it must be showcased rather than manipulated. In Part 2, we’ll go in-depth into the wines themselves, and discuss what kind of future Anderson Valley may have.

The Beautiful (Virtual) (Wine) Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Beau Marchais label

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

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

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

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

Soberanes Vineyard. Picture credit: Santa Lucia Highlands

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

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

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

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

The trees adjacent to Carlisle Winery

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

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

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

Try this Wine: Skin Contact Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to refer to it: rosé

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

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

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

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The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of Peake Ranch Winery

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

Peake Ranch. CreditSanta Barbara Independent/Macduff Everton

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

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

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

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

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

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Peake’s tasting room

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

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

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

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

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

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Enter here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Streak Continues: Clarice’s 2018 Pinots Deliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grapes from Clarice’s section of Gary’s Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine: Killer $22 Pinot

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

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

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

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

“Take your ascot off and drink our wine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to purchase:

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

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

Siduri Likely to Keep on Winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

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


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

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

Other merlot reviews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rutherford Hill

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

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

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

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

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

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

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

Where to buy:

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