Late last year, Wine Enthusiast named Greg Brewer its Winemaker of the Year. The nominees he beat out included South Africa’s first black lead winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela; Gary Farrell Vineyard winemaker Theresia Heredia; David Ramey (of Ramey Wine Cellars and formerly of Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd); and Patria Tóth, the Hungarian-born winemaker at Planeta who is driving significant quality improvements in Sicily, one of the wine world’s hottest things these days. So, it’s not like he beat a bunch of chumps. If that weren’t enough of a reason to care, there’s this: he effectively re-gifted the award to the Sta. Rita Hills wine region, and that’s a bit unusual. We ought to take notice.
It’s Not About Greg Brewer
Brewer launched Brewer-Clifton in 1995 with Steve Clifton and $12,000 in the (then and, to a certain extent, now) little-known Sta. Rita Hills, a small wine growing region about an hour and half north of Los Angeles. His response to the award has been to give credit to Sta. Rita Hills, going so far as to say the award is actually for the region, not Greg Brewer. It’s a gracious response to be sure, but isn’t grace how a winner is supposed to respond? Is he actually serious?
Yes, he is. “I was born there, professionally,” Greg told me when spoke not long after the award was announced. “I started in the tasting room at Santa Barbara Winery, by chance, when I was 21. I fell in love with it on my first day and new it would be my profession. And I’ve loved it every day since.”
Specifically, he’s loved Sta. Rita Hills winemaking. “I’ve been working a four mile stretch of road for 30 years. It’s kind of like breathing: very straight forward. I don’t know it all, but I’ve been able to focus. I’ve only worked in Santa Barbara [the hub of Sta. Rita Hills], and only will.”
Greg has had opportunities to branch out geographically, but has always passed. “I’ve been tempted with fruit from other places, but it feels like a one night stand to me: the fruit should remain where it is with someone who lives among those vines. It’s just not me.” Feeling that Sta. Rita has everything a wine region could hope to offer, and being in love with its fruit, wines, and people, he’s remained steadfastly focused on showcasing what it does all on its own by removing himself from the equation to the greatest extent possible.
At Brewer-Clifton, “the core ethos and energy is steeped in a Japanese mindset; I don’t see myself as that important, more as a steward of a place. I’m like the 80-year-old Japanese sushi chef with an apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo and a bike I ride to the fish market where I drink tea, buy fish, and then spend the day doing everything I can to present all of the fish’s inherent beauty. That’s Brewer-Clifton’s engine.”
“We don’t see ourselves as making anything. We’re deliberate in the location of our vineyards, their clones, spacing, farming, but at the winery it’s about removal of self, maintaining a quiet voice. Everything is raised in neutrality. Barrels are 15-20 years old. Everything is raised the same each year, so no prejudice from vineyard to vineyard, block to block. We don’t blend [among parcels]. Who am I to be the judge [of which sections should and shouldn’t go together]?”
To be clear, though, Greg does “understand that mindset [of blending]. It actually makes more sense than what I do. Adam [Lee, a mutual friend] is a great example. He’s seeking the best in things, and he’s done it beautifully at a whole host of wineries and appellations because he can see those beautiful attributes that can be separated or combined. But I’m not comfortable with [doing] that [myself because] it makes me a bigger part of the process than I’m comfortable with. That’s why the [Winemaker of the Year] award is about this place, not me. All I’m doing is displaying Sta. Rita in a very vulnerable, naked, barbaric kind of elementary way.”
Greg’s approach “might be restrictive” to some, but he finds it liberating. “When you truly espouse yourself to a person or vocation, you have confidence in that thing. Then you put a ring on it. That’s what I’ve done in Sta. Rita. I find it liberating, giving into it and being vulnerable, [because] you make decisions based on benefit of doubt, flexibility, and trust.”
Although Greg hasn’t been in the Sta. Rita Hills since they began growing wine there, he’s been “pretty embedded in a lot of the evolution over time. Seeing it go from four or five vineyards in the early 1990s…[I’ll put it this way:] in terms of the wine world it’s the opposite of dog years, no time at all. To see that, the awareness [of the region] globally swell up this quickly is really exciting. It’s a testament to the place, the people, the diversity of the people there, the kind of unanimous qualitative goals that people there have. That’s really it, that’s what this award is about.” Put another way, if the “place wasn’t so special,” he “wouldn’t have won the award.”
It’s About the Sta. Rita Hills
When Brewer-Clifton launched, they “never blended vineyards. We only did designates. However, starting in 2007 we began doing the appellation blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, but those wines have never been built using wine pulled out of designates. They’re made using the best stuff we have because they have to be smoking good ambassadors [for the region]. They’re the most important wines we make.”
Putting the region’s best foot forward has been so critically important because “wines have never been better, and there’s never been more of them. People’s attention span is generally become more abridged; access to information, the media, people check in on something and move on quickly because there’s more of everything and it’s easier to access.” For Brewer-Clifton, putting out wines that showcase the specialness of Sta. Rita Hills is their secret sauce for success. Greg’s “main emphasis is making very singular things” that stand out in this challenging market.
Part of Brewer-Clifton’s approach to showcasing the Sta. Rita Hills is to keep it affordable for people. “I don’t come from money or industry, I’ve always been a scrapper. I’ve been able to do wine and make it work financially with very little. Our [viniculture and winemaking] systems have never been better, and our pricing is lower than ever. That really excites me because ten years ago [the wines] were more expensive, and not as good.”
Brewer-Clifton’s appellation pinot and chardonnay sell for $40 and $36, respectively, on the winery’s website, and are competitive in quality with other appellation wines from pinot and chardonnay regions like Sonoma, Willamette Valley, and Burgundy. “I love picturing a couple in their 20s or 30s: one is an accountant, another an engineer, and they’re into wine,” Greg told me. “I love to see these people go into a store and connect with Sta. Rita Hills because the quality is high and price point is reachable; it’s not nothing, but it’s not $80, either. That part of the market is exciting because I can still give the full Brewer-Clifton experience and encourage people to trial us and hopefully generate some repeat customers if people like it, like a special occasion wine.”
In 2005, Greg launched a separate brand himself called Diatom, a reference to a fossil common in the soils of Sta. Rita Hills. Diatom is an exclusively chardonnay project aimed at producing “a more stark exploration of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay. Old vines, raised in a pent-up fashion – picked ripe, steel aged, blocked malolactic [fermentation], etc.” It’s an attempt “to capture a wave before it breaks.” Diatom’s line up starts at $32 and doesn’t go north more than $10 from that, offering a different style of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay still financially feasible for that lovely couple he envisages (pre-COVID) meeting at the store after a hard day’s work on their way home to make dinner.
Won’t you try it?
When we were setting up the interview and samples for this article, I requested that Greg pick the two to three wines that he felt would give people the best introduction to his wines so that if I liked them, I could say “and if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first.” (By the way, if you’d like to get to know Greg and his wines, these are the ones he suggests trying first).
I didn’t have the backstory outlined above before I received the samples, so I didn’t know what to make of the selected wines when they arrived. Knowing what I know now, it makes perfect sense that he would choose his Brewer-Clifton appellation blends and a Diatom as those that give a good representation of what he does in the wine world: he dispatched his ambassadors.
I’ve spent just a single day in Santa Barbara, which is also the entirety of my physical experience in the Sta. Rita Hills. I visited the tasting rooms of Au Bon Climate and Jaffurs Wine Cellar, finding wines at each that I really enjoyed, especially the former (whose nebbiolo, made under the Clendenen Family name label, is an undercover gem). I’ve also had the incredible pleasure of tasting the wines of, and with, Michael Benedict (Sanford), wrote recently on the new Beau Marchais project, and tried a four-bottle suite of The Hilt wines (look for an upcoming profile). All told, I’ve probably tried no more than two cases’ worth of Sta. Rita wine. This means I was an open slate for these wines, no preconceived notions or biases.
After trying them, I can say that I’m eager to try more. While I’m not in love with either chardonnay, I do want more experience with body of chardonnay work of Greg Brewer. As far as $40 pinot noirs go, I’m not sure it gets better than the Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills appellation blend. Where I felt the appellation chardonnay’s quality outshined its depth (the structure is quite good, building desire for an extra layer of depth that ultimately didn’t show up), such a description would be unfair for the pinot.
My favorite element of the pinot noir was while it gave a very inviting and salivating illusion of fruit-forwardness, the actual amount of (gorgeous) fruit was restrained in a way that framed the terroir-specific elements that Greg is so focused on delivering in his wines. I just didn’t get the same sensation from the chardonnay, though I would not be surprised if that’s a function of the wine’s relative youth; perhaps another year or two would be enough time for that hinted-at depth to emerge.
Meanwhile, the 2019 Diatom Bar-M presented as a challenging wine. Meant to be a stark representation of Sta. Rita chardonnay, it is certainly a stark wine: prolific acid, bitter flavor overtones, and damp earth. It is certainly not for everyone. I do wonder if youth is a factor in my mixed reaction to it: I couldn’t bring my attention away from the acid that I felt hadn’t integrated, an unfortunate circumstance given the appealing bouquet and flavor profile of the wine. I would be very curious to try it again in three years.
Both Brewer-Clifton and Diatom make a range of wines, and certainly what I tried for this article has piqued my interest in both labels. They also continue the streak, albeit limited, of great wine I’ve had from the Sta. Rita Hills. Greg Brewer is certainly a leading figure in the region, and his Winemaker of the Year title lofts him to perhaps the very top of his peer group, a position he seems unlikely to enjoy. Rather than celebrate his own achievement, he’s made the effort to leverage it to boost the region’s notoriety. It helps that his own wines show he’s worthy of being an ambassador himself.
2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir – This pours beautifully ruby and translucent. The bright nose includes aromas of plum, cherry, mulling spice, white pepper, and scorched earth. Medium-bodied with smooth, velvety tannins that envelope the mouth with smoothness pair well with a nice core of restrained but bright acid. The structure is spot on. The flavor profile leads with brilliant strawberry, blueberry, and red and black plums, but the wine doesn’t give the sensation of fruit-forwardness. There’s a touch of black pepper and licorice as well, and kiwi skin on the finish. Drinking really well now with a short bottle decant. 93 points. Value: A.
2018 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay – The nose wafts a dessert table of caramel apple, lemon meringue, and graham cracker crumble. Medium bodied with slightly crisp acid nestled nicely in the center of a lush palate. Flavors include green and Opal apples, lime sorbet, gravel minerality, and white pepper. It finishes on orange marmalade. A nicely profiled and structured chardonnay, the quality outshines the depth. 91 points. Value: B.
2019 Diatom Bar-M Chardonnay – The high-toned nose features of honeysuckle, caramel, chamomile, and lime pith. Medium bodied with lightweight, juicy acid that flutters about, refusing to integrate with the structure; even on the finish it remains apart. May be a sign of youth. Flavors include slightly bitter green apple, lemon verbena, damp earth, and white pepper minerality. It finishes on a sweet orange note. I’d love to revisit this in two or three years because if that acid integrates, this improves dramatically. 90 points. Value: C+.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
No white wine routinely gets the level of respect and reverence earned by the great red wines of the world. With the exception of Mosel, the generally accepted greatest wine regions in the world are all dominated by, and known for, their red wine: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja, Napa, Sonoma, Barossa Valley, Porto, Tuscany, etc. Even most of the smaller regions that earn great respect tend to come on the radar because of their red wines, places like Priorat, Duoro, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. Champagne is unique in this context because many of its great wines, which appear white, include at least some red-skinned grapes. Red wine just is held in higher esteem.
Global vineyard acreage underscores this consumer preference, with six of the ten most planted varieties around the world falling into the red category, and some of the world’s best white varieties absent. The most planted white, which falls forth on the list, is Airén and is so overplanted that it rarely finds its way into wines of any real quality that leave its native Spain. Riesling, the only white grape upon which a consensus top wine region is built (Mosel), does not land in the top-10. In 10th spot is trebbiano, a grape that is all-to-often and unfortunately made into unimpressive mass-produced wine. The most popular white wine among wine connoisseurs, chardonnay, comes after Airén and before syrah, the latter a grape that many producers outside Australia and Washington State say is tremendously challenging to sell if varietally labeled. Varieties that could be considered among the best whites, like chenin blanc, gewürztraimer and grüner veltliner, are far from making the list and likely never will.
Nina Buty of Buty Winery, which I’ll get to later in this article, pointed out another headwind for white wine when I talked with her for this article: “the preference to score reds higher than whites is very real [among wine critics], even among great white wine lovers,” she said, adding that “many believe that to be a serious wine appreciator one must be more focused on reds because they’re more serious wines…I see this even in professionals. It’s a salacious belief that the precious realm is red.”
Buty’s winemaker, Chris Dowsett, who also makes wine under his family label Dowsett Family Winery, added that wine critics “sometimes let things slip, like the top 3 or 4 points on their rating scale is reserved for wines that can be aged for 20 years, which leaves 99% of white wines out of contention. I had a professional reviewer tell me the other day that he would never give a pinot gris over 90 points because he doesn’t think the grape is a 90+ point grape.”
For white wine lovers, this reality creates opportunities and challenges. It makes affording the great white wines generally easier than the great reds because demand is less (and professional point ratings may not go as far north). However, because low demand suppresses supply it makes it harder to find the great whites, which are relatively fewer in options at the high-end range, and not always produced in the same quantities as their red counterparts. This in turn means whites generally do not receive the industry investment and attention that reds get, and so the status quo of fewer higher quality whites on the market persists.
One wine region that epitomizes this vicious circle is Washington State. Dominated in the reputation department by its cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and red blends to the point that the state’s white wines never enter a national (let alone international) discussion or achieve national distribution in any real way, Washington’s whites simply do not register in most of the wine world’s reality (unless someone wants to talk about the fact that Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest riesling producer in the world with its ~$9 grocery store price point).
Notable Washington wineries like Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and K Vintners/Charles Smith have produced many 100 point cabernet sauvignons and syrahs, helping to establish the state’s red wines firmly in the global discussion. It may be surprising, then, to learn that ~41% of the state’s vineyards are planted to white grapes, and it may be equally surprisingly to know that many of the state’s high quality producers make at least one or two white wines in the $25-50 range. Yet, one will be hard pressed to find Washington whites on retailer shelves outside of the Northwest that cost more than $20.
As a Washington native who left the state after college fourteen years ago, it was initially very frustrating as I could not find my go-to Washington white wines in Washington, DC, where I landed. After searching in vain up and down the Mid-Atlantic for the first few years I lived there, I gave in and started exploring white wines from elsewhere.
Initially hesitant to branch out, it was a huge blessing in disguise as I’ve come to find numerous white wines that excite me to no end. I found whites from the Loire Valley, Jura, Mosel, Sicily and Abruzzo, Willamette, Anderson Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita and Sonoma and Santa Cruz, Republic of Georgia, Austria and more, to be on balance superior in quality, enjoyment and value proposition to Washington’s whites as a category. For thirteen years, with the rare exception, I willingly forgot about my home state’s white wines. The periodic experiences with new Washington whites on trips home to visit family and friends mostly confirmed that I was smarter to look elsewhere for the best white wine, especially in the price range where Washington’s top whites reside.
Last summer I picked up a couple of aged white blends from Washington’s Delille Cellars on Winebid and was reminded that the state made quality white wine – that could also age. As I began to think about the next big exposé that I wanted to write for Good Vitis, it occurred to me that revisiting the white wines from where I grew up would be an interesting and overdue exercise. So, here we are.
In order to write this article, I tasted over thirty high end Washington white wines, representing a good swath of the somewhat limited high end Washington white wine market, and interviewed eight wine makers I greatly respect, all of whom have been making famously good wine in Washington State for years, some for decades. It has been a slog because in the midst of the COVID pandemic and a move from DC to Chicago, I have faced the frustrating experience of wanting more personality from many of these wines than they gave me. While basic quality is high, I wanted Washington’s high end white wines to be, as a body of work, more interesting. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be, much of which seems to be driven by the vicious circle I outlined earlier that is in full effect in Washington. While there are reasons to believe that Washington can up its white wine game, many of the winemakers see no interruption in the status quo any time soon and unfortunately I don’t see any reason to disagree with them.
While specific bottles stood out as great wines that many would argue are worth the price, the state’s whites largely operate on a separate and lower plane of intrigue and uniqueness than its red wines. Though this has not held Washington back from hard-earned and well-deserved praise for its red wines, it means that the incentives continue to line up against the required investments in better (and more purposefully managed) white grape vineyards and more dedication to the best white-specific methods of production that are required to up the state’s white wine game. From an owner’s or investor’s perspective, investing time and money in white wine when you make more money on your reds anyways makes little to no sense. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs confirmed by nearly every winemaker I spoke to about it.
Let’s begin our exploration with an instructive anecdote courtesy of Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which set up shop in Walla Walla in 1983 and has since appeared on numerous top-100 lists. By way of intimating just how large and diverse the vinicultural footprint of Washington State is, he informed me that the Columbia Valley AVA, the largest of the state’s 14 AVAs, is large and diverse enough terroir-wise to cover portions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. “That’s why you see such a wide array of wine in the state,” he said. It’s telling not only because it helps understand the scale and diversity of wine growing in Washington, but it’s also telling because despite the great white wines of Chablis, Montrachet, Graves and Condrieu, those French regions are known predominantly for their red wines, just like Washington State.
There are reasons for this: the market and the making, and I’ll discuss them in that order. As Clubb explained it, when serious vineyard planting began in Washington in the 1970s, those looking at the state’s historic weather data saw what suggested a relatively cool climate, and planned forward based on this rearward view. At that point, riesling was identified as a white grape with promising prospects and came to dominate the state’s white wine planting and production early on, setting in motion the reputation Washington still has for the grape.
However, it didn’t take long before the state began trending warmer, transitioning into what Marty described as a “high heat unit” area. What was originally a good idea to plant lots of riesling and a handful of other whites has turned into a somewhat unfortunate decision. However by the time the weather change was significant enough to affect vineyard outcomes (while simultaneously America’s wine drinking habits were changing), Washington had already built its winemaking facilities and its reputation on riesling. Because vineyard planting, maturation, production and reputation development are all expensive, front-loaded costs and long-term processes, it can be incredibly costly to quickly reverse planting decisions. As a result, there was never a dramatic shift away from riesling by its largest producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose business decisions have and continue to have extraordinary impact on the rest of the state’s industry. As goes Ste. Michelle, so goes the state’s industry, creating a delicate relationship between it and the rest of the industry that they usually handle pretty well.
Chris Dowsett of Buty and Dowsett Winey characterized this evolution from a small producer’s perspective: “early on, you looked for good places to grow grapes. You wanted a good variety [of grapes] so you could make a winery’s worth of wines and not put all your eggs into one basket. Then, we got into the mega growth stage, and people jumped into the industry looking to make what was popular; whatever variety is doing well, goes. That was cabernet. Then the economics hit you: if you do nine acres of cabernet and one of riesling, and get half the price for the riesling, you don’t consider planting more white. And very few people replanted it with another white.”
Those in the industry paying close attention, and who wanted to produce premium wine, were taking note of the state’s shift to a region with higher heat units and moved in parallel to adapt, focusing on Bordeaux and Rhone red varietals, especially as consumer demand for red wine grew. Jason Gorksi of Delille Cellars told me that “early on, the state’s best producers like Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, even Delille, did not make white wine because they did not take premium white wine seriously. A few of us eventually brought on a white wine so we’d have something to pour for winemaker dinners, [but Quilceda and Leonetti still haven’t, and probably won’t].” To Jason’s point, Quilceda hasn’t branched out beyond cabernet and a single Bordeaux-style blend, while Leonetti produces a $75 aglianico (aglianico!) ($75!), but still doesn’t do a white.
Morgan Lee of Two Vintners (and other projects) made the point that with such a red-dominated reputation, it can be hard for a winery in Washington to produce stand-out whites. “Good luck making heads turn with riesling at the top end [as an example], that’s been my philosophy since starting” despite the fact that Morgan and his wife generally prefer to drink white wine at home. Morgan, whose signature white grape pick is grenache blanc, asked himself “how was I going to enter the market with a white wine and have people talk about it? It’s like cabernet sauvignon. There are so many Washington cabs, and frankly a lot of them are so similar, how was I going to stand out? That’s why I’ve done syrahs and blends, zinfandel and even a white zin, and rosés.”
There is also the issue of volume. “If it’s a 200 to 400 case production, depending on the size of the winery, then a winery should be able to sell direct to consumer and sell it out,” Dan Wampfler of Abeja Winery told me. “But, if you’re making more than that and you’re not making chardonnay, or maybe riesling or sauvignon blanc, good luck selling that much Washington State white wine. There are amazing whites coming out of Washington that aren’t [those varieties] but they’re so small production because of the limited acreage,” he continued. One example he pointed to was a picpoul made by Rotie Cellars. “It’s outstanding and they can sell it overnight with an email. But, the amount of effort to boost production by the needed ten times to develop the required national brand recognition to sell it, they can’t do for a variety of reasons.”
Chris Peterson of Avennia, and formerly Delille Cellars, who produces a sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varietal blend, noted another economic headwind for high quality Washington white wine: even if a winery wanted to buy high quality white grapes, the economic incentives for growers aren’t there to farm high quality white grapes. “Growers aren’t willing to do crazy stuff [in terms of planting what isn’t normally planted], that’s the limitation,” he told me. “This could be the reason for [high end] riesling being held back. There could be vineyards [in Washington] like [those] in Germany, but why would you do that? You can’t sell those wines for $50 [like you can red wine].”
Further, Chris added, “in the commercial sense, white wine isn’t important to developing a reputation [in the Washington wine industry]. I have more respect for wineries that do both [types of wine] well, and sometimes it’s nice when I’m pouring out of state to have some of my own white wine to pour. But our industry’s experience with white wine is exemplified by [the author’s] experience: there’s almost no national reputation for them. Do you keep fighting the fight?”
Chis Dowsett, one of the most experienced white wine makers in Washington, made the important observation that “there are more wine growing areas in Washington that are better suited for reds than whites. There are exceptions in small pockets in various areas, but in general if you plant what’s best for the site, it’s likely to be red.” This is crucial to acknowledge because far too many producers in many regions try to plant varieties they like, and end up choosing varieties that aren’t well suited for the area or climate. It’s an easy recipe for underwhelming wine and terrible typicity.
One of Marty Clubb’s more striking observations was that, despite some promising white projects, his “real fear” is that the success of the state’s red wines mean that “there aren’t as many new white plantings except for possible chardonnay, so a lot of what [the industry] is doing is working with old vines that will eventually lose out, and create shortages of good grapes because the economics of planting new white acreage isn’t appealing.” Grounding this fear in reality, Mike Januik, who spent 20 years at Chateau Ste. Michelle prior to starting his own winery, told me that “there was time when I was making 50,000 cases of chenin blanc [at Michelle], but they stopped making chenin altogether before I left.” I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure the entire state’s chenin production today is a small fraction of what Mike alone made at Michelle several decades ago.
In oder to combat this decline in high quality white grape acreage, L’Ecole “makes sure it’s going to be economical for the grower to grow the varieties we want,” Marty said, adding that “we’ll pay extra to make sure the right work gets done to achieve the quality. Investing in quality grapes shows in the wines. We don’t work with sites that aren’t willing to put in the extra work to get the quality.”
Among other wines, Marty is known for his chenin blanc. “All the chenin produced [in Washington] over the last few decades has come from old vines, but they’re slowly being replanted to red varieties. [L’Ecole] is down to under 500 tons of chenin [for the 2019 vintage], and we produce about 15% of the state’s chenin blanc wine. If you’re willing to give a long term contract, you can get some security. I just signed a 10-year contract with Upland [Vineyard] just to secure their chenin site.” Plus, there’s the complication that “whites are trickier because in order to make them economical, you need to up the tonnage, but to keep quality at the valume, you really have to work the canopy, get even ripening, to make quality wine.” Not every vineyard manager is willing to put in that kind of work when the alternative is higher profit red grapes.
“Like many of these winemakers,” Chris Dowsett told me, “I’ve spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time scouting for the best white sites in the state.” The process is becoming less and less fruitful. “Land as expensive as Red Mountain or The Rocks, people are planting reds because the return on investment is better. The new whites you’re seeing, they’re commanding good money because they’re laborious to grow and limited in supply.”
Jason Gorski, who believes that the Rhone varieties grenache blanc and marssane are showing promise (Morgan’s granche blanc is “one of [his] perennial favorites”), made the point that “no one has done a concentrated effort to do a white project really well. We [Delille] have proven sauvignon blanc can be really good, Erica [Orr’s chenin blanc] is mind blowing because she found old vines and makes that style. Gorman’s [chardonnay] project is figuring it out,” though no one has found the winning model or fomula.
In addition to the challenge of finding the right site for white varieties, there is the element of making white wine. Nina calls doing so “a labor of love and a really interesting statement of the winemaker and house style because it’s more challenging to make it in beautiful and compelling and consistent ways than reds…because you don’t have the same tools available.” Morgan was more direct, noting that “making white wine is really hard; it’s much harder to hide your mistakes with white than red. Whites are a pain in the ass. A lot more can go wrong, and they take up a tremendous amount of tank space, you have to keep them stable, filter the shit out of them. And the demand isn’t even there, so why do it?”
Morgan and I discussed two wines that he has produced for Full Pull Wines under their Block Wines label, a semillon and a chardonnay. “Both are aged in concrete for stylistic choices. The eggs serve no purpose other than for these two whites” because, unlike steel, the porous material cannot be sufficiently cleaned in order to use them for red wines. “It’s just another example of why good white wine requires its own effort.”
Dowsett uses concrete for some of Buty’s white wines as well. “We were one of the early adopters of concrete, we brought cubes in in 2009 and 2010. They were actually intended for red wine from The Rocks but I wanted to test it first on white wine. I loved the results, the character of the wine, and decided to keep the cubes for the whites. We have one that’s designated for our chardonnay and another that’s for our Bordeaux-style blend.” Chris also tends to keep the wines on the lees for as long as possible, and grows his white grapes in a little more shade (“the early counsel I received was to have more shade on the grapes to develop skins more thinly so I’m not battling phenolics. At least one leaf over each cluster.”).
Gilles Nicault, the Director of Winemaking and Viniculture at Long Shadows since 2003, really hammered the point about purpose-making white wine, that in order to make great white wine, you need vineyard practices, equipment, and winemaking practices that are different enough from red wine making that a winemaker does not build the body of knowledge and experience through making red wine needed to produce top-notch white. Because the state’s focus has been on red for the past twenty-plus years, many winemakers and vineyard managers aren’t nearly as comfortable branching out into whites, or pushing the boundaries like they do with their reds.
Gilles’ Poet’s Leap Riesling is a great example of what it takes to make high quality white wine in Washington. Along with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s high end Eroica riesling, Poet’s Leap is Washington’s standard bearer for the variety. Both cost around $20 and in great vintages are a steal at that price. Their modest levels of residual sugar are enough to give them a decade or so of good aging potential, enable them to be quite versatile in the food pairing department and make them competitive on the global market. If there is one high quality Washington State white wine you’ll find outside of the Northwest, it’s likely to be one of these two rieslings.
Poet’s Leap began as a partnership in 2003 between Long Shadows Winery and Armin Diel, one of the most celebrated riesling producers in Germany’s Nahe wine region. For many years, Gilles and Diel would make the wine together, pairing an old world approach with new world fruit. More recently Gilles has taken over completely, but the wine retains some of Diel’s old world sensibilities. The viniculture remains as precise as it ever was, with Gilles and his team putting tremendous work into the vineyards. The canopy is managed with great care by hand to remove leaves, clusters and shoots to make sure the fruit zone is open and clusters do not come into contact with each other. With such a hot climate, these efforts are required to ensure the acid and sugar develop in harmony and reach their desired levels at, or at least around, the same time so harvest can come at the ideal time to create a balanced wine.
Once in the winery, the grapes go through whole cluster pressing, not the most common technique for riesling (or other white grapes). “The cool thing about whole cluster pressing [is that] you can extract more juice at lower pressure because the stem gives more structure and creates channels, so when the stems pop the berries, the juice escapes. Because we get so much juice at such low pressure, we avoid phenolic extraction.” However, to do this whole cluster pressing, Gilles needed to add a second press this winery, which is not something every winery wanting to add something different to its line up can afford or accommodate space-wise in the cellar.
It’s impressive that Poet’s Leap costs only $20 given the amount of human labor and additional equipment that go into producing it, but Long Shadows can price it at that level because it has the reputation to sell at high volume, and is therefore the highest production wine in what has historically otherwise been a profitable line up of $50+ red wines. It takes quite a bit of time to build that reputation, and for Washington wineries that do not already have it in today’s hyper competitive wine market, the return on investment on boosting red wine production is much higher than it would be to introduce a new white wine, let alone overcome the knowledge and experience gaps they may face with white wine production. Plus, it may require more experimentation and risk than simply expanding or improving the red program.
Where people have tried to grow the white wine market in Washington recently has so far largely focused on chardonnay and to a lesser extent sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties. “The fact is that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the queen and king of the industry; look anywhere, and that’s what’s consumed the most,” Morgan pointed out. Nina Buty, whose co-founded her winery in 2000, knew at that time that she wanted to take white wine as seriously as red wine, even though red was always going to dominate production. She was one of the few back then to feel this way. “When it came time to start Buty,” Nina said, “we knew we wanted to make our white blend and a chardonnay. In that moment, chardonnay was not the darling despite it being the most sold variety in the US. So a lot [of people] were surprised that we wanted to focus on a chardonnay.”
They launched with a partial malolactic fermented chardonnay that saw a low oak profile and single vineyard focus on Conner Lee, one of the state’s most respected sites for chardonnay. They put a lot of focus on learning the site’s viniculture and enology eccentricities. “It helped cement our style and direction,” Nina said.
Despite Nina’s success with her Conner Lee chardonnay, a number of winemakers interviewed for this piece agreed that it is a grape that many producers in the state haven’t gotten right, an observation that I would confirm by taste. “Producers have to make what they can sell and they’ll do their best, but am I thrilled by a lot of Washington chardonnay? No,” Morgan told me.
Even though I tasted chardonnays from a number of really great producers, I remain uninspired; though the quality is there, the uniqueness, and therefore intrigue, is largely not. The example that stood out to me as worthy of a national or international stage: the 2017 Januik Cold Creek Vineyard chardonnay from Mike Januik, who Marty Clubb called “a chardonnay master” during our conversation.
When speaking to Januik about Washington chardonnay, he called out two mistakes he regularly sees. First, “you have to get the clone selection right,” he explained. “How well Washington chardonnay does is really closely connected to the clones you use. [A lot] of the older blocks were planted before people were thinking about clones – they were just planting what was easily available. It makes a stark difference in quality, more so than clones do with many other varieties.”
Cold Creek Vineyard, which is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a mixture of Burgundy clones. Michelle was so thankful for Mike’s service at the winery prior to launching Januik/Novelty Hill, that they promised him fruit from whichever vineyards he wanted when he struck out on his own. Prior to that offer, he wasn’t planning on doing any whites, but “I jumped on the opportunity to do a Cold Creek chardonnay. I worked with a lot of vineyards, and it was always my favorite chardonnay. I get my pick of the block and the rows each year.”
“It’s a great, really special place,” Mike described, adding that “it has great aspect and the old vines there are at that point now where the self-regulate in terms of crop size. I always get small clusters of small berries, which gives me the right skin-to-pulp ratio. It’s so critical because most of the flavor comes from the skins.”
Second, barrel selection “is critically important” for Washington chardonnay. “Not all French oak is equal. I pay so much attention to that. I use a selection. There are some French barrels that should never be used fo chadonnay.”
Like a lot of his approach, he learned this while at Michelle. “We would ferment in various barrels, and look at every iteration – cooper, toast level, etc. We’d bottle five cases of each barrel type and taste them year after year. I have a pretty good idea now how a chardonnay is going to change over time purely based on the barrel used.”
Asked about how he detects whether the right barrels are used, he answered that “if I smell oak [on the wine], it was the wrong choice. I want to smell creaminess that gives me the impression of creaminess on the mouth. If the first thing you smell is oak, it’s probably not the right barrel to be using.” Mike uses a combination of new and once-used French oak, ferments in them and does batonage every few weeks. The chardonnay ends up spending between nine and 10 months in barrel depending on the vintage.
Biting at Januik’s ankles is Abeja Winery, whose long-time focus on chardonnay has grounded it as a flagship producer of the variety in Washington with somewhat of a national reputation for that wine. Abeja also makes a small production viognier, about 250 cases, off estate vines that is, in my book, very good and the best example of the variety from Washington State.
Abeja looks at their white program as a concentrated effort focused on chardonnay. “Communication with the grower can be tricky,” winemaker Dan Wampfler said. “Try to get a knowledgeable grower to plant anything of substantial acreage for a variety they’ve never worked with or don’t know much about, and they’re not confident in planting or sustaining it.” Effectively, many wineries are stuck with what’s already planted. In order to have control over their white program so they can develop it as best they can according to their preferences, and as part of “an effort to deepen our commitment to estate wines,” Abeja recently planted 40 acres a mile from the winery, including five clones of chardonnay. This acreage is higher elevation and cooler than the winery’s current estate vineyards as they look to produce an uncommon style among the current batch of Washington chardonnays.
The choice to go higher in elevation is a purposeful one “in part because of the effects of climate change. Traditional ripening patterns are changing. The way to retain the acidity is to slow ripening down through elevation, temperature or crop load, or all three. We’re seeing good outcomes when we do that,” Dan explained. “We’re seeing dramatic differences [from our other vineyards] already even though it’s a young vineyard with different clones. Ripening time and speed are different.” Dan is playing around with the style of the new fruit, figuring out “what it does in different blends” and “trying different aging vessels, press trials, oxidizing early on then hitting it with carbon dioxide and doing it anaerobically. The first vintage from the new vineyard was 2019 and I blended it into the Washington and Walla Walla chardonnays.” When it’s ready for showtime, it will become its own wine.
The winery is best known for its nationally distributed Washington State Chardonnay (a multi-AVA blend) that is quintessentially Washington in style, which Dan describes as “new world fruit, lush palate, partial malolactic fermentation” that he ages in a combination of neutral French oak, “a tiny bit of stainless” and concrete. It is widely respected among the industry as a standard bearer, and very good for those who appreciate a bold, lush chardonnay profile.
Dan has more recently branched out to produce the Chablis-styled Beekeeper White (100% chardonnay despite its non-varietally named label) and a Burgundian-style chardonnay with the Walla Walla AVA designation. Traditionally, Abeja’s whites are whole cluster press and get a combination of new and used oak, concrete and stainless aging vessels. The ultimate blend of aging vessels varies from vineyard to vineyard, block to block, vintage to vintage. “We do what the wine tells us to do,” Dan said.
While Abeja is building out a purposeful chardonnay program, Avennia is dedicating itself to figuring out sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties, one of several wineries included in this piece that have branched outside of riesling and chardonnay. Exploration by these small but talented wineries is going to be key to developing a new white wine scene for the state that will merit national interest.
Avennia’s interest in white wine began with sauvignon blanc, coming from winemaker Chris Peterson’s days as head winemaker at Delille where he helped to establish their Bordeaux-style Charleur Estate Blanc blend as the arguably the flagship high end Washington State white wine. “Plus, we started Avennia with a pure visionary focus on Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, so chardonnay and riesling didn’t fit. Though I still have yet to see where Washington can make really great riesling or chardonnay.”
2011 was the first vintage of Oliane, Avennia’s sauvignon blanc. “It was all Boushey [Vineyard], and the plan was always to do it in a premium way with longer élevage. It’s our highest production wine, 700 cases. We go through it every year with the $28 retail price,” Chris told me. The success of Oliane was a bit of a surprise for Chris and his business partner, Marty Taucher. “When we started it we knew it would be a challenge. We weren’t sure if our serious approach would work.” After a 2012 vintage in which Boushey Vineyard didn’t deliver a full crop, Chris added some fruit from Red Willow, and continues to blend the two vineyards today. “It’s a great match. Boushey has more fruit and weight while Willow has more acidity and minerality.”
Interestingly, Chris said that giving the sauvignon blanc a proprietary name, rather than labeling it according to its variety, helps it sell. “Calling it Oliane and making it in a Bordeaux-style makes it easier to talk about it as a complex, styled wine rather than a straightforward sauvignon blanc that most people in Washington think of as a back porch, stainless steel, drinking it by the pool kind of wine.” Regardless, sales for Avennia’s white wines are “predominantly in-state. One of our top distributors loves our white wine but won’t sell it because it’s too expensive for Washington white wine. In the Northwest, people know Avennia, plus we have a robust wine club that doesn’t opt out of our whites.”
Chris is making chardonnay for Passing Time Winery, a wine he called “interesting and fun, but that’s a different point of view [than Avennia’s] because it’s oaked and goes through malolactic fermentation. We’re going to launch it with the 2018 vintage. It’s going to be $50, and that’s the ceiling [for Washington white wine].” He recently did a Bordeaux tasting with a group, which included Domaine de Chevalier, a producer of (among other things) a ~$80 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. “It’s really good. They’re getting a level of extract that we’re not getting [in Washington]. But they know that at that price they can improve the vineyard by that rate as well. Right now, even the best Washington whites are second thoughts to red wine. There’s a pride in them, but they aren’t a core priority.”
Long Shadows’ Gilles takes great pride in his white wine endeavors, which have recently expanded to a chardonnay called Dance, which is a decade-long project that is just now reaching production-level readiness, and an inaugural sauvignon blanc called Cymbal, the latter augmenting the Oliane as a top-shelf sauvignon blanc that suggests the variety has a strong future in the state. “I hadn’t made sauvignon blanc in 18 years,” Gilles told me, “so it was truly an experiment. I fermented in stainless, new French oak barrels, neutral French barrels, and concrete just to see how each played out with the grapes [some of which come from a 1972 planting in Bacchus Vineyard]. I liked how it worked with the 2018 so I’m doing the same with the 2019.”
The 2018 Cymbal and 2017 Avennia Oliane are impressive in their youth but suggest good medium-term aging potential. Shortly after tasting the 2017 Oliane, I purchased a 2014 Oliane at auction. True to the nature of a Bordeaux-style sauvignon blanc, with the winemaking practices that go into producing such a style, it ages quite well. While the current vintage is good, it will get better with age, as the 2014 did. To those professional critics who told Chris Dowsett that they reserve points for wines able to age, I give you the Avennia Oliane to consider, as well as Chris Dowsett’s wines.
Speaking of Dowsett, his personal winery is one of the few that still produces high end riesling. His top of the line riesling comes from an estate vineyard called Aunt Diane that was planted in 1980. “I love the soil, climate and elevation [about 1,300 feet] of it. It retains acidity well and I can pick it late. I make it like a gewürztraminer,” which Chris also makes, even though the latter “is early ripening. If you let it go, the acid falls, sugar rises, and it gets very flowery. If you grow it in an area that cools down, you can hold the acidity. The Gorge [a wine growing area of Washington] is a perfect place for that. If there’s more white wine to be planted, I see more riesling, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and other grapes going into the Gorge in the future. It’s a great area for whites, a place to watch on that front.” Chris’ Celilo Vineyard gewürztraminer, from the Gorge, was the revelation among all the wines tasted for this article.
In my mind, if Washington State has one this-is-what-the-state-can-do, consistently stand-out white wine, it is Delille Cellars’ Chaleur Estate Blanc, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon made in the traditional style of Bordeaux white blends like Chevalier (French oak, barrel fermented, with bâtonnage). It tastes great from release all the way through at least a decade of cellaring, showing interesting evolution that is worth following through regular check-ins over multiple bottles. What sets it apart is the structure and texture, a full bodied wine with penetrating acid that evolves to reveal layer after layer of flavor.
It’s a $35 wine that easily competes with its competitors, yet requires periodic hand selling out of state where it has a national distribution because people are unaccustomed to seeing white Washington wine at that price point. “Part of the decision to distribute it nationally is the business side,” Jason explained. “The grapes for it are less expensive [than the winery’s red grapes] and we can make great wine from it, so we can make money going three tier. It’s been around since the late 1990s so there’s a good track record. Even still, it required hand selling it to stores and somms, so the education was big up front. It takes 20 years to prime a market, and we still have to education people when there’s turnover. Not a lot of wineries can afford that kind of effort. You see small and mid-sized wineries marching forward with red because it’s what sells and you can get good prices for it.” Nine years ago, Delille was making about 1000 cases of it. Now, they’re making 5000. It’s a rare national success story for Washington white wine.
A good indication of where the state’s industry is focused is the actions of the Washington State Wine Commission, which is the biggest industry group. Dan Wampfler helped me understand that the Commission has gone through three evolutions in its marketing efforts since he joined it. “At first, the goal was to influence the customer and purchaser by doing tastings around the country. Wineries would send in their best wines for those. Then, it was influence the influencer rather than spend money on tastings in other markers. They invited influencers to come in and amplify the message of Washington wine. Finally, they’ve turned inwards to influence the state and let Seattle know what we’re doing.”
Judging by how the market has responded to this evolution, Washington white wine remains a tough sell. I asked each winemaker for their thoughts on the prospects of white wine, and which white grape they’d focus on if given the choice. The answers were quite mixed. Some said chardonnay, others said they wouldn’t touch it with a very long pole. A few, like Morgan Lee, said they wouldn’t do more than they’re already doing. Some doubled down on their current approach, like Chris Peterson with sauvignon blanc (“the next step is finding the right micro climates that aren’t as hot, work to explore clones, keep the alcohols low”).
There was more consensus on the unlikely prospect of seeing a dramatic uptick in the production of white wines because the various headwinds are just too strong, making the path more difficult than sticking with the tried-and-true-and-profitable reds. As several winemakers explained to me, it is going to take a sizable investment to achieve white wine as spectacularly good as the state’s best reds. Someone needs to fund the decade long projects with differed economic returns needed to develop the right sites with the right varieties, clones and farming practices just to sufficiently boost the supply of high quality white grapes, and no one I spoke with had any idea of who might be walking around with those money bags looking to risk them on Washington white wine.
None of this is to say that some of the state’s white wines aren’t worth taking seriously, nor is that to say that there aren’t winemakers whose white wines won’t continue improving. I’d serve the Delille and Buty white blends to anyone, and I’d put Dowsett’s gewürztraminer against the world’s best. $20 grenache blanc doesn’t get better than Two Vintners’, and I’ll probably buy some of Januik’s Cold Creek chardonnay when distributor Winebow brings it to the Chicago market. Avennia sauvignon blanc is one that will test my wine-aging patience. Long Shadows’ Poet’s Leap will always be a compelling riesling at $20. Further, I trust all of the winemakers interviewed for this piece to continue efforts to improve their white wines. And, I know there are producers I did not connect with for this article, like the aforementioned Rotie Cellars and the about-to-be mentioned Syncline Cellars, that make white wine worth trying.
Putting aside individual producers, it seems evident that the state as a whole is not on the trajectory to elevate its white wine game. It’s not that people who care aren’t trying, nor that there aren’t good terroirs in Washington where it could be done, but Washington is a red wine drinker’s haven in a wine drinking world that, at the premium level, prefers red wine. The incentives to invest in producing unique and interesting expressions of high quality and price competitive white wine in Washington are just not there, running smack into a customer preference for red wine that disincentivizes white wine exploration and investment.
Where there may be some growth, at least in the variety of high end whites department, is from current red-dominate wineries that, as they “get older, they gain experience, and it’s more often the case that they realize they should be making a white wine,” Mike Januik prognosticated. “It’s kind of a drag not to have white wine to pour for customers. People want to taste whites, too.” It was as if Mike was doing his best Marie Antoinette: “let them drink white wine!” This approach explains how many Washington wineries began producing their whites in the first place, though I hate that we may have to rely upon this slow-moving source of natural growth to get more and better white wine, especially when it promotes the kind of approach – or rather lack of a serious investment approach – that has created a high quality but relatively uninteresting category of wine. But if this is the process, this is the process. I’ll itch my Washington white wine scratch from time to time with some of these better wines that are already on the market, and hope to see increasing variety and personality as time goes on.
Note: Syncline Wine Cellars, a pioneer of both the Columbia Gorge AVA and Rhone varieties in Washington, sent me several samples to review for this article. However, I was unable to secure an interview with them. Many point to Rhone varieties in the Gorge as holding the promise of Washington’s white wine future. Syncline’s first vintage came in 1999, long before the Gorge became a designated AVA. Since then, wineries have been popping up in the area, including some of the state’s most exciting small projects, though Syncline remains a lead drummer. I’ve included reviews of their samples below, and hope to one day feature them more prominently in a Good Vitis piece.
Other wines review for this article include:
2019 Abeja Bee Keeper’s White – The nose includes aromas of fleshy peach, cantaloupe, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. Barely medium in weight on the palate, the flavor profile is framed by a toasty barrel note, which gives way to lemon, tart lime, apricot, tangerine and salty yellow plum. With a greenish profile, lighter body and bright acid, this is probably best with food. 89 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2019 Abeja Viognier – The shy nose gives off aromas of sweet vanilla, banana and lanolin. Medium bodied with bright acidity for the variety, the mouthfeel is light and lifted. It delivers flavors of Meyer lemon, pineapple, banana peel and orange blossom white tea. A clean, very pure viognier. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2018 Abeja Walla Walla Valley Chardonnay – Pours a very pale and clear yellow, and is lighter in color than any chardonnay I can recall. The wine is quite elevated, with delicate aromas of guava, green apple, toasted oak and orange blossom. Medium in body, it takes on lushness and weight with extended air. The minerally-driven acid hits with early juiciness, but towards the finish gets linear and stiff. Flavors are on the slightly tart side, offering green apple, green mango, Meyer lemon, dandelion, Asian pear and white tea. I’d treat this like a high quality Chablis: drink it early for its freshness, or give it five-plus years to develop layers and put on weight. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).
2017 Avennia Le Perle (roussanne and marsanne) – The delicate nose offers a broad soapiness with pronounced honeysuckle, honeydew, vanilla, orangesicle and lavender. Medium bodied with round, juicy acid and a semi-lush mouthfeel. The flavors have an edge of sweetness, and feature an elegant and floral variety of orange blossom, pineapple cocktail, edible flowers, bitter lemon and tangerine. This is an intriguing rendition of a Rhone-style blend offering precision of flavor and feel. 92 points. Value: B.
2018 Buty Connor Lee Chardonnay – The delicate nose boasts lemon cream, lime zest, dried apricot, white peach and pear. Just short of full bodied, it offers a creamy mouthfeel elevated by broad and slightly juicy acid. Flavors include pear, Key lime, marzipan, peach pie and Opal apple. This is a really nice, subtle expression of chardonnay that’s well made and seamless. 92 points. Value: B-.
2018 Delille Cellars Roussanne – The muted nose offers pure aromas of honeydew, lily, white tea, tangerine pith and lemon icing. The medium body offers an acid profile that is highly pronounced for the variety, slightly corse in a way that contributes towards a nice backbone that completes an otherwise elegant structure. Flavors include sweet lemon, white peach and mild kelp. It’s a high quality wine that lacks an interesting or substantive punch. I’ve had better vintages of this wine. 90 points. Value: C-.
2018 Januik Cold Creek Chardonnay – The reserved, elegant nose wafts aromas of honeydew melon, rich vanilla bean, lemon curd and sweet lime. Full bodied in sensation, the beautiful acid somehow provides both linear tension and mouth-watering juiciness, creating a lively sensation that transitions nicely into gentle creaminess, though never leaves the mouth completely. The flavor profile is built on bright and salty notes of lemon, lime and clementine citrus, while slate minerality, a touch of toasty oak and fenugreek feature in the background. This is a very young wine that would do well with 2-3 years of cellar aging to help it unwind. Drink over the next decade. 92 points. Value: A.
2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay – A traditional chardonnay bouquet of creamy lemon, creme brûlée, apricot and crushed rock. Medium plus in weight, the structure is comprised of a creamy mid palate surrounded by modest but juicy acid that gets zesty and sharp on the finish. Flavors include buttered toast, big lime zest and pith, vanilla custard, slate minerality, white tea leaf and white pepper. 91 points. Value: A.
2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Sémillon – The nose offers lemon curd, Sprite, marzipan, tangerine peel, dandelion and mango. Medium plus in weight, it balances a creamy mouthfeel with juicy acidity. Flavors include sweet pineapple, yellow peach, apricot, Opal apple, white pepper and flint. 91 points. Value: A.
2017 Long Shadows Dance (chardonnay) – Almost hedonistically sappy on the nose at this early stage, it delivers a core of caramel apple that is surrounded by quince, toasted oak and honeysuckle. Medium bodied but broad-shouldered, the acid is put into a bit of a nose dive early on by a hit of creaminess. More time may allow the two to find better harmony. Flavors include spicy, almost spritzy lemon and lime zests, as well as lean vanilla, white peach and poached pear. Cantaloupe develops on the finish where the acid returns in a big way. A hard wine to pin down, I think it’s unsettled at this stage in its life. Wait to 2022 to open. 91 points. Value: D.
2018 Syncline Boxom Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – This benefited from an hour decant. The nose offers floral-tinged aromas of peach, nectarine and red plum. Barely medium in body, the acid is bright but integrated with smooth edges and just the right amount of grippy texture. The soft flavors include white peach, orchid, white pepper, crushed stone, Gala apple and just a touch of saline. This is a delicate, pretty grüner that is best consumed by itself or with subtly-flavored food. 92 points. Value: A-.
2018 Syncline Boushey Vineyard Picpoul – Aromas of cantaloupe, sweet sea mist, white peach, white tea leaves and lime zest constitute a pretty nose. Barely medium in weight, it’s fleshy in texture with tangy but smooth acid. Flavors include Meyer lemon, under ripe nectarine, lime pith, slate minerality and a big white pepper finish. A really enjoyable and decently substantive wine, it would be easy to go through a case of this over the summer. 91 points. Value: C.
2017 Syncline Scintillation Brut Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – Aromas of green and Opal apples, toasted almond, date, dried apricot and clementine. The voluminous mousse pours large bubbles that land more delicately in the mouth, releasing green and Opal apples, lime curd, nectarine, slate, white pepper and unsweetened vanilla. Balanced, linear acid adds cut and extends the finish. This presentation of gruner offers more approachability than many still versions, but doesn’t skimp on complexity. 91 points. Value: C.
You may also be interested in reading on Good Vitis:
Living Legends of Washington Wine: Our hugely popular coverage of the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Private Barrel Auction, which includes interview anecdotes and barrel tasting notes from over a dozen of Washington State’s best wineries.
A GRAND American Riesling Tasting: An epic blind tasting of over two dozen rieslings from across America, it includes a discussion of the commercial and quality status of American riesling as well as reviews of each wine tasted.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a (relatively) new winery in the Sta. Rita Hills called Peake Ranch that I said was on the path to becoming a winery with few peers. In this piece, I get to write about a winery that is already part of that exclusive club, Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards.
Merry Edwards the woman was a pioneer in the California wine industry in several ways. Not only did she enter a male-dominated industry in the 1970s when sexism was a both a systematic and casual force holding women back, but she also helped shape the development of pinot noir, especially in the Russian River Valley. It is anything but hyperbolic to say that without her, California’s wine scene wouldn’t be what it is today. The Culinary Institute of America inducted Edwards into their hall of fame in 2013 along with the impressive company of Robert Parker, who himself deemed Edwards “one of the masters and pioneers in California.” My recent exploration of a range of their wines from 2017 and 2018 vintages offer evidence of what makes the winery so legendary.
Merry’s path to Merry Edwards Winery and Vineyards is a bit circuitous. She began at one of the most esteemed estates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Eden. While there, she formed a friendship and mentor-mentee relationship with Joseph Swan, a relationship that would often take her to Sonoma Valley in those years. Her interest in Sonoma and the Russian River Valley developed as a result of these travels, and led to her move from Mount Eden to Sonoma’s Matanzas Creek in 1977, where she was the winery’s inaugural winemaker, to fully immerse herself in the area.
In 1984, she launched Merry Vintners, though production lasted just five years before the financials went south, a victim to a wider downturn in the wine market that wiped out a good number of wineries in California at the time. After consulting for a number of wineries, she launched Merry Edwards Winery in 1997. Her impressive portfolio of vineyards would increase over time, growing to today’s count of twelve owned and leased.
It is hard to talk about the boom in Russian River Valley pinot noir without talking about Merry Edwards because of what she has done there under her own name. However, her earliest mark on the Valley came before she planted roots there. While working at Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south of San Francisco, she helped treat and propagate a pinot clone that became known as UCD 37, or the “Merry Edwards selection.” It would go on to be a star of the Russian River Valley AVA.
In a sign of the significance of the Edwards brand, Merry and her husband Ken Coopersmith (who himself had been instrumental to the winery’s success) sold the business to Louis Roederer Champagne in 2019, which announced that no changes, including to the winemaking and vineyard staff, were going to be made.
One person thankful for Roederer’s staffing decision is Heidi Von Der Mehden, Merry Edwards’ head winemaker since 2018. Recruited by Merry in 2015 to be associate winemaker, she was promoted three years later when Merry retired from head winemaking duties. It went without saying that she was glad to remain on the payroll after the sale to Roederer.
I spoke with Heidi after tasting through a few of the wines sent to me for this article. One of the first questions I asked her was how closely she could identify with the sexism that Merry overcame in her career. Thankfully, Heidi herself had not experienced such systemic sexism. She observed that her career had been largely a series of positions under men who were looking to retire, and perhaps because of that did not see her as a threat, but rather for her talents and intelligence. It was some of the younger men around her who were more competitive, which could be a sign of sexism, or less harmful competition between talented people. At Merry Edwards, she says, it’s not gender that helps someone advance, but talent.
Her instinct was that the kind of sexism that Merry faced was both more numerous and more blatant than what exists in the industry today. “There is less of it today, but it’s probably more subversive and harder to prove. Now, it’s someone gets a job and you’re told it’s because they’re more qualified but you realize it’s actually because of gender.” Though she’s seen that kind of dynamic from time to time, Heidi says she hasn’t experienced it herself. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve not faced the kind of gender discrimination that Merry did. She has ridiculous stories.”
We also talked about her recent transition to head winemaker. Having taken over recently from a luminary, it would be understandable if the process was challenging. However, calling it “smooth,” Heidi noted that she had previous experience taking over head winemaking duties coming to Merry Edwards. “I had taken over for another luminary, Richard Arrowood, at Arrowood Winery, but in both cases I never looked at it as an opportunity to take over from a big name, but rather as an opportunity to learn from one of the best. I knew I wanted to get into Russian River Valley pinot, so when this opportunity came along, I was going to grab it.” Because Merry intended for Heidi to eventually take over when she was hired to be the assistant winemaker, “I learned a ton from her. She wants the brand to succeed; after all, her name is on it and it’s her baby. So we worked together very well to make sure the transition was seamless and the legacy of great pinot continues.”
Coming into the job, Heidi had very little pinot experience. While her first winemaking job was at Kenwood, a large(r) scale Russian River Valley winery that makes pinot noir among many other varieties, the approach was different than it is at Merry Edwards. Though both wineries did a few similar things like whole cluster, the scale was very different.
“It was very large format and we only had large, closed top fermented and did pump overs, things you wouldn’t do for high end pinot [like at Merry Edwards].” After Kenwood, she would work mostly with Rhone and Bordeaux varietals for a number of years, leaving pinot behind. However, “Merry actually liked the fact that I had little in the way of pinot experience because it meant I came in with few notions and ideas of how it should be made. I didn’t push back against her approach.”
Merry’s approach included a few things that surprised Heidi. One example she gave me was the use of relatively large five ton fermenters. “A lot of small producers like small fermenters and small lots, but Merry likes bigger fermenters to get as much phenolic extraction as possible.” Extraction requires heat, which is naturally produced during fermentation. So, in order to bigger extraction, larger fermenters are needed to achieve the requisite temperatures.
Another difference is how the vineyards are planted. Rather than the more traditional north-south orientation, Merry Edwards vineyards are planted at 20 degrees off magnetic north. Paired with appropriately oriented leafing, the fruit gets more sun protection during the hottest parts of the year while increasing exposure to the cooler morning sun, an approach to avoid sunburn while still developing sufficient tannin. An added benefit to this approach is that while it necessitates even more leafing than usual, it results in concentrating more nutrients in the grapes. They begin leafing right after fruit set, which also gives the young fruit early training in sun exposure, building the grapes’ tolerance to heat young to prevent sun damage later in the growing year.
These vineyard decisions and practices are instrumental to developing the tannin structure of the bottled wine. Heidi explained to me that one of the things that drew her to Merry Edwards was the in-house phenolics lab, which helps track what otherwise must be detected by taste and sight. Heidi and her team take full advantage of this capability, testing phenolic levels (the chemical compounds of tannins) on all pinot lots. “It’s awesome that we have our own lab, because it means we get real time numbers. I’ve trialed outside services, and it takes longer and is harder to trust.” Further, “the research that’s been done on phenolics is heavily weighted towards Bordeaux varieties, so there’s relatively little solid data available on pinot. That doesn’t help us very much, so being able to test as we want and build our own dataset is huge.”
Phenolics are tested as soon as the fruit arrives from harvest, giving Heidi a baseline to use throughout production as they are again tested at various points during the winemaking process. “I’ll run anthocyanin [the tannin extracted from the skins] to see how color is developing during cold soak [which occurs prior to fermentation] and whether we’ve gotten all we want from that phase to determine when fermentation should be started. I’ll run it again mid-fermentation to decide if we need to do delestage [a process that gently extracts tannins by adding oxygen to the juice], or hold back on punch downs, or implement any other extraction regime.” In addition to the taste test, the lab helps Heidi more preciously develop her tannin profile.
Perusing the Merry Edwards website prior to our conversation, I noticed lots of vineyard pictures showing generous cover crops, a term referring to the vegetation covering the ground between the rows of vines. Using covers (as opposed to not using them) is a tactic many winemakers and vineyard managers use because they want to add or remove something from the soil that is affecting the vines in a positive or negative way, for example adding vegetation that helps replenish potassium in the soil, or a using type of plant that improves aeration in soil that otherwise may suffocate the vine roots. They are often used as an alternative to fertilizer.
It turns out that Heidi is a big believer in cover crops. “I used to have a lot of organic vineyards at Arrowood, cover crops are a huge point of pride in that context [because without non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, they become very important]. At Merry Edwards, I’ve always wanted to do more cover crops. We decide on it vineyard by vineyard, focusing on what the vineyard in question needs.”
In one vineyard, “the soil was just so vigorous and the canopies were so huge that they kept the fruit from coming in, so we planted a modest amount of orchard grass to introduce competition for the nutrients and water so the fruit had a chance. We got a better crop and better flavors.” In another vineyard, “we had an issue with Pierce’s Disease–it was a big issue in the Russian River Valley in 2014 and 2015–so we targeted a cover crop that increased the number of beneficial insects and wasps by sprouting a lot of flowers, which in turn attacked Pierce’s.”
In her quest to continue improving the quality of the wine, Heidi is excited because she was recently greenlit to do soil sampling in the vineyards, which hasn’t been done in many years. While many wineries do a lot of soil sampling prior to planting a vineyard to inform which varieties, clones and rootstocks they choose to plant, it is rare that they are done once a vineyard has been up and running for as long as some of Merry Edwards’ plots. “The soil changes over time, especially when it is feeding vines,” Heidi told me. “I’m hoping I can start focusing more on each vineyard and giving them what they need to produce better fruit.” Updating the winery’s knowledge of its soils can uniquely help her achieve that ambition.
Merry Edwards wine is not exactly cheap. A major driver of cost is the choice to use a high percentage of new, versus previously used, oak barrels. If every vintage requires new oak, that means a larger barrel order each year. Merry Edwards uses “quite a bit of new oak,” Heidi explained, “with a minimum of about 45% new oak depending on the vineyard and vintage.” For the sauvignon blanc, one of the few non-pinot wines that Merry Edwards produces, “it’s about 18% [new oak] and 100% barrel fermented.”
The pinot noirs see exclusively French oak. “We work with different coopers and every year when we taste the vintage [before blending and bottling], we taste each barrel set blind so we can see the difference in cooperage.” She then ranks them, and that ranking informs her barrel purchasing decisions for the next year. “This process has also helped be see how the vineyards themselves change with age. As the vineyard matures, the tannin structure and fruit profile change, so a barrel that worked for the vineyard five years ago does not always work as well when the vineyard gets another ten years into its life.” Despite the judicious use of new oak, the wines show little in the way of oak-dominated aromas and flavors.
In addition to a range of pinot noirs, Merry Edwards produces a revered sauvignon blanc and a spectacular chardonnay from the sourced Olivet Lane vineyard. The sauvignon blanc entered the winery’s portfolio after Merry became frustrated pouring other people’s white wines at her winemaker dinners and industry events, feeling like she was giving free advertising to other wineries. Merry had worked with the variety at Matanzas Creek, and decided to give it ago. She originally produced just enough for these small events, but after receiving multiple requests from restaurants and others to purchase some for their lists, she decided to make it part of her annual production that now represents about half of all wine produced each year. In its own right, it has become a collectable wine widely recognized as one of the best examples of the variety from California and is, like the pinot noirs, very age worthy.
If there is any theme to draw out from my conversation with Heidi and experience with the wines listed below, it’s that we’re essentially talking about one effort undertaken over many decades to produce the best possible pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in a style that reflects the woman whose name is the winery. The approach is manically focused on fine-tuning every part and component of the process, and hyper localized to a distinct set of vineyards that, while each has its own personality, allow the winery to make a signature style of wine.
The wines have significant, sometimes stout, structures while displaying a harmonious array of fruit, earth and floral aromas and flavors at high levels of concentration. I was particularly taken by deftness of the tannins, which were long and especially thick for pinot, yet somehow elegant. The balance between power and beauty is a rare, rare find. All of them, even the sauvignon blanc, appear to benefit from at least short term aging, if not ten years. I found the 2017s to be significantly more accessible at this point than the 2018s, suggesting to me that the more recent vintage is going to need longer in the cellar to present their best selves.
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 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.
2017 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.
2017 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – The nose has a heavy backdrop of scorched earth, wet bark, graphite, dark cherry, blackberry and black plum. It’s medium in weight, but spreads across the palate with fine tannin and juicy acid. Flavors include salty and sweet cherry, blackberry, plum and raspberry; black pepper; black tea; and cassis. This is a very intriguing wine aromatically, structurally and flavorfully. There are a multitude of layers that will take a solid five years to start unwinding. I’d love to try this in ten years when everything has sorted out and come together. 94 points. Value: A.
2017 Merry Edwards Meredith Estate Pinot Noir – There is a deep core in the nose of crushed dark cherry, muddled blackberry and seasoned leather. There are also light notes of violet and scorched earth. It’s full bodied with big, dense and round tannin balanced nicely by bright acidity. There is strong graphite minerality that establishes a serious tone, allowing the bold fruit flavors of blackberry, plum and cherry to feature prominently without entering jammy territory. This full-throttle wine is quite tasty, but warrants another three to five years of bottle age to hit its early stride. 93 points. Value: B.
2018 Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir – This really benefited from a two hour decant. A dark, concentrated nose featuring Bing cherry, strawberry preserve, rose hip, smoke and blood orange. The aromas are reticent to give themselves up at the moment, there is more buried beneath the surface. Nearly full-bodied, it has a juicy quality that splashes the tongue, balancing nicely with the long, slightly grippy tannins that coat the cheeks. The structure holds a lot of promise. Flavors, like the aromas, are hesitant to present themselves fully but are edging towards a richness that should only develop further. Right now it offers cherry juice, Acai, raspberry, scorched earth, graphite, tar and a sort of blood orange burst on the finish. This one ought to be put in the back of the cellar and forgotten about for a good five years, and the consumed over the following five to seven years. 93 points. Value: B+.
2018 Merry Edwards Olivet Lane Pinot Noir – The under ripe and primary nose offers aromas of crushed strawberry, pastel florals, red plum and tar. Medium plus in weight, the broad tannin offers surprising depth and smoothness give their tender age. The acid is likewise smooth and lush. Together, they form a pleasant substantive structure. Flavors include bright muddled strawberry and raspberry, sweet huckleberry tartness, scorched earth, unsweetened cinnamon, red plum, and red currant. There is a lot going on with this wine, but in order to transform its prettiness into depth, the fruit will need to shed its tart edge. Only time will tell, and on that front I’d be tempted to give it at least four or five years of aging. 92 points. Value: C-.
2018 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – Really benefited from a 3 hour decant. The saturated nose features aromas of muddled black cherry, black pepper, blackberry liquor, scorched earth and a hint of juniper berry. Almost full bodied, it offers modest grainy tannins and robust, bright acid that gives the wine a sheen over its still-forming dark, earthy flavors of blackberry concentrate, Bing cherry, tar, graphite, lavender, rose petal and blood orange. Attractive at the moment, two to three years of bottle age should help the tannin and acid integrate better, which I imagine will help the flavors fatten a bit. On its way to a gorgeous RRV AVA pinot. Scored for today, but this has another 1-2 points of upside. Score: 92 points. Value: B+.
2018 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – 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+.
Peake Ranch. Credit: Santa 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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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-.
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-.
We’re deep into the holiday season, which is a period when a lot of wine gets consumed. Between office parties, potlucks, family dinners, Friendsgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Years and everything else going on, the opportunities to pull corks are seemingly endless. Kayce and I hosted Thanksgiving this year, which meant having enough wine on hand for eight very thirsty people.
Back in the spring, Morgan Winery asked if I’d like to receive samples. Morgan is located in the Santa Lucia Highlands of California, one of California’s lesser known wine producing regions. My only prior exposure to Morgan was their Santa Lucia chardonnay, which is available by the glass at a place I frequent and performs strongly in that role. I figured sure, why not. Then, two full cases showed up. Twelve wines, two bottles of each. Perfect, I thought, one set for Good Vitis and one set for Thanksgiving.
The Menenberg-Seifert Thanksgiving p/b Morgan Winery went well. The food and the wine delivered. Morgan makes a wide range of wines, and we were lucky enough to receive the grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc, Metallico (un-oaked chardonnay), Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay, rosé of grenache, dry Double L riesling, off dry Double L riesling, Cotes de Crow’s southern Rhone-style blend, tempranillo, Twelve Clones pinot noir, Double L pinot noir and G17 syrah. No matter the food you put on your plate, there was a Morgan for it.
Part of what made the Morgan line up well-suited for the diversity of a Thanksgiving meal is the style the winery produces, which is driven by the climate and terroir of the Santa Lucia Highlands – referred to as “the SLH” to those in the know – and the broader Monterey area from which they grow and source their grapes. The SLH has, probably among others, two elements going for it that helps winemakers produce elegance and refinement: natural warmth absent the wind, and routine wind patterns that bring in cool air. The result, if leveraged like Morgan does, is bright acid combined with sturdy but smooth tannin. That’s a recipe for good food-pairing wine.
To understand how Morgan gets this profile, it helps to talk a bit about the SLH. The wine growing areas in the SLH are located on the inland slopes of the Salinas Mountains, which run north-south, paralleling California coast. Across the Salinas Valley from the vineyards lie the Gabilan Mountains. The warm air of the Salinas Valley pulls the cold air from cooler Monterey Bay located to the north down into the vineyards, which moderates temperatures.
I spoke with Sam Smith, Morgan’s winemaker, who told me that were it not for this wind phenomenon, SLH would be a warmer wine growing region that produced bigger wines. “The wind gives us a cool climate. We have foggy mornings that blow off by 11am, giving us generally a few hours of sun and low wind. But by 2pm, the wind starts ripping down the Valley off Monterey Bay and continues southward.”
“It has a big effect on ripening,” Sam explained. “It can close the stoma [little valves in the grape skins that regulate gas exchange] on the vines, which effectively helps develop acid and serious phenolic [tannin] structure” without a quick rate of sugar production. This explains why Morgan wines can exude a precise style consisting of both depth and restraint.
Morgan’s own, and the SLH’s only certified organic vineyard, Double L Vineyard
Morgan’s premier vineyard is called Double L. The 48-acre vineyard is long and skinny, effectively divided into two halves. The entire vineyard has loam soil, though the “upper field” has more clay and a higher water-retaining capacity, giving it more fertility than the “lower field” and its more lose sandy soil. Double L is the only certified organic vineyard in the appellation, and Morgan reserves its fruit exclusively for its own wines. Most of the Double L fruit goes into Double L designated wines, though the non-vineyard designate SLH chardonnay and Twelve Clones pinot noir receive a small amount of Double L fruit. The vineyard produces pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling.
With prior experience in Santa Barbara and the Northern Rhone, Sam Smith brought some of the right kind of know-how to Morgan and the SLHF, where he has been the head winemaker for the last four years. “The amount of natural acidity [in the SLH] is incredible,” Sam said when asked to compare the new-ish digs to his old ones, adding that “it’s one of the things I love about growing and making wine here.”
Sam pointed out something about this natural acidity that hadn’t crossed my mind: “[The naturally high acid] can be tough to make wine [in the SLH] without it being over-ripe” because the naturally high acidity gives growers the ability to extend hang time for the fruit on the vine, which leads to higher sugar accumulation in the grapes that results in “big, rich and boozy” wines. “If you have the intention [of making more restrained, elegant wines] and you are on top of sampling, you can nail your pick [dates] and hit great balance while retaining fruit-driven profiles. The balance that we can get in most vintages is killer.”
Speaking to this killer balance, we enjoyed the case of Morgan over a period of three days, and nearly every wine improved over the first 48 hours, if not the entire 72 hours, as we exposed it to more and more oxygen. This included some of the white wines as well, and is a sign of overall quality for a number of reasons. One important reason is that it indicates a hard-to-find quality in the balance of the structure of the wine, which is composed of acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit. Initial exposure to oxygen can help some wines fully express themselves, but extended exposure will degrade all wines and expose imbalances in the structure. 48-72 hours is a long period of exposure for a wine to survive, even with the bottles re-sealed, and Morgan gets two enthusiastic thumbs up for taking the oxygen and making the most of it.
I want to focus in on four wines that stood out to me. The first two are the Double L rieslings, the dry and off-dry versions. People don’t think of California in the discussion of riesling, and it’s to their detriment. I’ve been an advocate for several California rieslings, especially the bottle produced by Smith-Madrone off Spring Mountain in Napa. But in full disclosure, I haven’t looked to the SLH for the variety, so I was surprised when the Morgan shipment included two rieslings. After tasting them, I can add “pleasant” to “surprised.”
Sam treats the riesling similarly to the other grapes planted in Double L. He typically does not drop fruit, getting between 4 and 5 acres a ton while retaining sufficient acid and aromatics. Sam noted that part of the Double L riesling signature is an herbal, minty quality and white tea freshness, which struck me on the finish of both wines, especially the dry version. The balance of these wines is what really impressed. Riesling can be a controversial grape for some: if it has high acid and poor balance, the acid is accentuated in unfortunate ways. In America, where the prevailing palate is highly sensitive to acid, that balance better be spot-on. I put the Morgan rieslings in the category of those I’d pour for riesling skeptics.
2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Dry – The nose boasts a nice range of tropical fruits – think honeyed pineapple and guava – plus lemon-lime citrus, mint and dried green herbs. It’s a full-bodied wine with medium weight and lush acid that carries traditional varietal flavors of lime pith, banana leaf, herbal tea, crushed rock minerality and an unusual nice hit of spearmint. A very well-balanced riesling with immediate appeal and medium-range upside. 89 points. Value: A-.
2018 Morgan Riesling Double L Vineyard Off Dry – The very pleasant nose offers guava, pineapple, honeysuckle, limeade, yellow peach and some stone minerality. It gets towards the heavier end of medium body with the residual sugar adding body and balance to the modest acid, the latter of which could be turned up just a bit. Flavors hit on honeyed tropical fruits, including guava, pineapple and banana, plus white tea leaf, sea mist and some slate minerality. In a welcomed turn of events, the acid comes on a bit more on the finish and leaves the mouth with a slightly gritty sensation and herbal flavor. 89 points. Value: A-.
Staying on the Double L train, I want to talk briefly about the Double L pinot noir, which was the strongest wine in the lineup. The depth and seamlessness of the tannins, especially after 48 hours of oxygen exposure, where what stood out as quite impressive. The grapes for this wine, and generally all of Morgan’s reds, are entirely destemmed. This means the tannin development comes primarily from the skins which accumulate high quantities of something called anthocyanin, which is the smoother type of tannin as compared to the corser phenolic tannins that come from seeds and stems.
We discussed how Sam gets these gorgeous tannins, and he walked me through his vineyard approach which revolves around opening the canopy (the leaves) while protecting the grape clusters from sun burn. On the side of the grapes that get morning sun, which presents a low risk of sun burn, Sam and his team completely clear the leaves. On the other side, which gets the more radiant afternoon sun, they do what is called “tunneling,” which means removing the leaves that are between the clusters and the vine, while leaving the leaves on the outside of the clusters.
Sam finds that this approach strikes the right level of tannin development and produces tannins that mature in the vineyard, which he points out are the easiest to extract when making the wine and require little else be done in the winemaking to achieve tannin development. The Double L pinot gets a relatively short amount of maceration, just one to one-and-a-half weeks on the skins. He limits fermentation temperatures to 85 degrees in order to avoid over-extraction and retain aromatics. Most agitation is push down, with just a bit of pump over at the beginning. Cold soak comes only in the “voluntary” form, meaning the time between crushing the grapes and when fermentation begins. The goal is to “nail the structure and aromatics. If you do, that’s the holy grail.” He seems to be on the right track with this one.
2017 Morgan Pinot Noir Double L Vineyard – Smells like a cool climate pinot with crushed red berries and plums, baking spice, tangerine peel and dark cocoa. It’s medium bodied with dense, fine grain and balanced acid. I think another 2-3 years of cellaring will help this unwind a bit. I’d love to have it in five years. Right now it’s offering juicy strawberry and blackberry to go with baking spice, dark cocoa and scorched earth. The depth is there, the complexity is there, it just needs more time. 72 hours out from initial opening, it’s really singing a beautiful structure and aroma. This is promising stuff. 92 points. Value: A-.
If the Double L pinot noir was the strongest Morgan I tasted, the G17 Syrah may be the most promising. It also happens to be the wine with which Sam is doing some whole cluster experimentation because syrah “sucks up whole cluster” better than the other red varieties Morgan is producing. The goal with the experimentation is to add aromatics and flavors without adding woody or green notes. “Whole cluster is similar to new oak,” Sam explained, “you want new oak to help frame the wine, but if it tastes like oak then that sucks.”
While whole clusters are an interesting experiment, picking the grapes on time is the most important thing. “There’s a real risk of waiting too long to pick. To a large extent the earlier you pick it, the more savory and floral it’s going to be. You have to check the syrah’s ripeness pretty closely and that’s what helps retain the elegance.” I asked Sam about the future of syrah in the SLH, and he pointed out that the granite origin of the loam soil is “a natural for syrah; you pair them and it’s a no brainer.” His Rhone experience shows through in the quality and profile of this wine.
2017 Morgan Syrah G17 – The nose is a bit meaty, offering bloody red meat and gamey aromas to go with dark cherry and strawberry. I get the sense the nose is a bit underdeveloped. It’s almost full bodied with clean, juicy acid and fine grained tannins that have reached an advanced stage of integration for the youth of this wine, though it seems to lack just a bit in depth. The overall structure finds good balance and a slightly grippy texture. Sweet cherry and strawberry, blackberry, saline, tar, black pepper and blood orange. Another great value from Morgan. 90 points. Value: A.
I’ll conclude by making a genuine pitch for trying Morgan’s wines. In addition to the four discussed above, I’d also recommend the SLH chardonnay as a great value American chardonnay (yes, it’s not buttery or heavy, don’t worry) and the grenache blanc as a great entry-level wine for experimenting with something a bit different. Regardless of which wines you ultimately pick up, they represent an honest effort to produce high quality wines from an area where elegance and balance are achievable in unique ways.
Other wines reviewed:
2017 Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (grenache, syrah and tempranillo) – The ripe nose offers ripe cherry, raspberry, spiced plum sauce, freshly tanned leather and purple florals. It’s medium bodied but coats the palate with vibrant acid and finely grained tannin that together form a good balance and pleasant mouthfeel. The fruit is mostly red and slightly sweet, featuring plum, raspberry and cherry. There are some earthy notes of wet dirt and chai spice that come in on the finish. 89 points. Value: A.
2017 Morgan Grenache Blanc – The mineral-driven nose wafts seashell, petrol, sharp lemon, Marcona almond and slate. Blind I might’ve called a 5 year-old dry riesling based on the aromas. It’s on the lighter side in terms of weight with clean, pure acid that leaves a juicy finish. The flavors include lemon, raw yellow corn (minus the sweetness), thyme, orange pith, sea water and a riesling-esque minerality. Blind I might’ve called it a young riesling based on the flavors. A very intriguing if simple wine that with extended air takes on additional complexity. 89 points. Value: A.
2018 Morgan Rosé of Grenache – The nose shows signs of watermelon, strawberry fresca, lime sorbet and white pepper. It’s barely medium bodied with juicy acid and a modest acid backbone. The balance and texture are both nice. Flavors include cherry Sprite, tart strawberry, tart cherry and white pepper. Overall a fresh rosé with flavors that pop off the acid. 89 points. Value: C-.
2017 Morgan Metallico Chardonnay – The nose offers classic chardonnay aromas of lanolin, creme brûlée, banana peel, white tea and buttered popcorn. Surprisingly heavy for an un-oaked wine, the acid is appropriately leveled and nicely integrated. Unencumbered by oak, Meyer lemon, grass, limesickle, firm peach, cantaloupe, white tea and a streak of salinity fill the palate. An expressive Chardonnay. 88 points. Value: A.
2017 Morgan Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc – A slightly soapy aroma blows off early, revealing white peach, starfruit, honeydew, lemongrass and just a hint of spearmint. The body is almost medium in weight with a slightly creamy finish and bright acid. This is a clean wine. Flavors include bitter herbs and greens, lemon, firm peach, honeysuckle and white flowers. An impressive wine for the price. 88 points. Value: A.
2017 Morgan Santa Lucia Highlands chardonnay – Classic chardonnay aromas of vanilla curd, lemon, creme brûlée, lime zest, preserved apricot and salted popcorn. It’s medium bodied with crisp acid that provides a bit of textural grip. There’s just a slight edge of creaminess. Lemon-lime, orange sorbet, green apple, vanilla curd and a sea spray kind of minerality that brightens the wine. This is tasty stuff. 90 points. Value: A.
2017 Morgan Tempranillo – Aromas include blackberry, black plum, prune, Maraschino cherry, sweet leather and tobacco. It’s a bright medium body with densely grained fine tannin and nice acidity. Flavors are a variety of cherry pie filling, raspberry, leather, tar, violet and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper. This is a fun chugger that offers a lot of food pairing coverage. 90 points. Value: B.
2017 Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir – The nose wafts crushed red berries and plum, scorched earth, underbrush fungal aromas and baking spices – pretty much everything you would figure in a pinot noir. Very true to type. It’s a round, soft medium body with nice acid and fine tannin. I get the sense there’s some extra depth to this one that a few years will unwind. Right now, it offers strawberry, raspberry, huckleberry, rhubarb, cinnamon, bell pepper and moist earth. Excellent value. 90 points. Value: A+.
Pairing wine and food can be daunting, even for the well-trained. The most famous guidance, to match red wine with meat and white wine with seafood, actually turns out to be relatively true in theory but also misguided in reality. It’s too unscientific to be universal, and misses the critical factor that how something is seasoned and cooked is as, if not more, important than what it is before it’s cooked.
One of my favorite pairings is steak au poivre with a really well-aged dry or semi-dry riesling, which is a perfect example of why that famous guidance is misleading. In general, wine should be more acidic than the food. This is especially true when the food is fatty, like this steak example, because the acid helps our taste buds and digestion process the fat, allowing more flavors to be detectable while making the meal go down a bit easier. Also, white wine tends to provide more contrast to the food, any food, than does red wine, so if you want the wine to stand up to, and stand out from, the heavy steak, a white is better suited to do that.
This last point on contrasting versus complementary wine and food pairings is really the main point of this post. When people think about pairing food and wine, they often default to finding the complementary pairing. Not only is it easier, but it’s more natural – we tend to look for compatibility in nearly every aspect of life – and can be very satisfying if achieved.
However, what I want to suggest in this post is that successful contrasting wine and food pairings can be both more fun and more satisfying. Here is another example: there’s nothing better than a fried fish sandwich with a good bottle of trousseau to wash it down.
Pre-planned pairings aside, sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a good pairing. One of my wife’s favorite games to play is getting through dinner and a glass of wine, and then asking if she can have (insert random snack) with another glass. It can drive me crazy, especially when it’s a special bottle of wine and she asks about a poorly fitting snack.
Earlier this week, I opened a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Gap’s Crown chardonnay, a nice bottle from a now non-operational winery using grapes from a phenomenal vineyard. I had made a big salad topped with sautéed radishes, roasted acorn squash, tomatoes, apples and shrimp. The wine was a bit too acidic and lean for the salad, so the plan became to enjoy the wine after the meal was over.
When we finished the salad, Kayce began her game. She asked if the wine would go with Goldfish crackers. My instincts kicked in and I nearly defaulted to “no,” but I hesitated as I thought about it. “You know what, that might actually work.” She grabbed the Goldfish, and oh man, it was awesome. We had stumbled on to brilliance.
Let me show you what I mean by comparing the tasting notes of the wine pre and post Goldfish. Here’s a note on the aromas, which don’t change with the food, just to get it out of the way: a high-toned and slightly austere bouquet combining sharp lemon and lime zests, slate and crushed gravel, spring flower petals and honeysuckle.
Pre-Goldfish palate: barely medium-bodied with very crisp, slightly juicy acid that is quite long and precisely linear. Flavors include Meyer lemon, tangerine juice, slate minerality, Kaffir lime leaf and starfruit.
Now, here is the post-Goldfish palate: medium-plus in body with rounder, softer and buoyant acid that cuts through the cheese flavor nicely. The palate broadens, adding just a bit of sweetness and more acidic grip to the texture. It’s a more pleasant version of itself with the Goldfish pairing, and more enjoyable to drink.
I had so much fun with the pairing that I posted the above picture of the bottle with the Goldfish on Instagram and had a back-and-forth with friend and fellow wine blogger Isaac Baker of Terroirist.com. Isaac has done this kind of pairing before, and added that Goldfish go particularly well with Champagne. I’m curious to try that combination, and experiment with other cheesy crackers and bright white wines.
These unexpected wine-food combos that work because they contrast each other, rather than complement each other, are really satisfying because they are surprising and don’t hew to normal comfort zones. Try some contrasting wine-food pairings because no one should live their culinary lives according to what they already know. To provide some motivation, here are a few good places to start:
A sharp chardonnay with a cheesy cracker – look for wines that are lightly oaked or made in stainless or concrete. Quality producers in go-to regions make this easy. You can find these wines really anywhere in the world, but for short cuts check out Chablis, Oregon and the following spots in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma.
Fried fish sandwich with trousseau – there isn’t a lot of trousseau out there, but from my experience those who make it do it in the traditional fashion (i.e. light to medium bodied with good acid and fine tannin), which is what you want for this. We had a 2017 Arnot-Roberts trousseau from the North Coast of California with our fried fish sandwiches last weekend, and the duo brought the house down with my in-laws. Traditionally most trousseau comes from the Jura region in France, but there are good producers of it elsewhere. For the record, we make our fried fish sandwiches with lightly breaded and pan-fried white fish (catfish, porgy and cod all work well), processed cheese, Portuguese rolls and a sauce made in equal parts of ketchup, whole grain mustard and mayonnaise. Don’t dare use real cheese, I promise you it isn’t nearly as good.
Fried chicken and Champagne (or other acidic sparkling wine) – this is one of those under-the-radar classic food pairings. The acid and bubbles cut through the fattiness and crispiness of the chicken beautifully and can help you put down that last drumstick you wouldn’t otherwise consider a smart move. The beauty of this pairing is you can be flexible with the chicken and the wine. For the chicken, even the KFCs and Bojangles deliver in very real ways. For the wine, you need good acid and bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne, but Cremants from Burgundy, Loire and Jura work beautifully as well, as do some of the better sparkling wines made elsewhere.
Steak au Poivre and an aged dry or semi-dry riesling – this isn’t easy to pull off, but if done right the fattiness and pepper of the steak goes just perfectly with the acid and nuttiness of an aged riesling. For this, quality matters because cheap beef tastes bad and cheap riesling can’t reach the point of maturation needed. The cut of beef matters less than the quality and preparation, but for my money I go with hanger steak. On the wine side, go for trusted producers with at least ten years of age (15 or more is preferable) that have been properly stored the entire time. Don’t go sweeter than German’s Kabinett classification (maximum 188 grams of sugar per liter).
Potato chips and Champagne (optional: and caviar) – late night snack craving meets fine wine meets decadence. In an ideal world, I’d start every dinner party with a plate of potato chips topped with caviar and glasses of Champagne.
Dry sparkling wine with mac and cheese – this works best if the cheese is a soft and creamy variety.
Full bodied chardonnay and bacon – I’ve not tried this yet, but a friend of mine swears by it. I’m told it’s critical that the chardonnay be rich enough to stand up to the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, which makes good sense. Just make sure not to lose chardonnay’s acid as it is key to handling the bacon’s fat.
I’ve been to all shapes and sizes of wineries. One of my first winery visits in Virginia was to a small producer whose tasting room was the top floor of the small farm house with a nice view where the owners lived, and the winery an adjacent utility building. Outside my hometown of Seattle, I’ve been to the two-million-cases-per-year Chateau Ste. Michelle, which sits on acres and acres of land manicured for visitors’ delight. I’ve been to Napa’s Castello di Amorosa, which is an enormous authentic rendition of a 13th Century Tuscan Castle that takes several hours to fully explore. In Oregon, I’ve gone to the large and stately Domaine Serene, and hung out on the hillside perch that is the tiny Martin Woods. My favorite Israeli and (Republic of) Georgian wineries are effectively in the homes of the owners.
Some wineries source all of their grapes from vineyards they don’t own, while others produce all their wine from grapes they grow themselves (the term for the latter is “estate”).
The lesson I’ve taken from this range of experiences is that good wine is made by dedicated people independent of their winery resources. That said, while the quality of wine is one thing, it’s not the only thing that makes for interesting wine. There are loads of business models variables that are interesting in and of themselves that add to the intellectual experience that can come with wine. Through a range of samples and a conversation with winemaker Joe Wright, I’ve started to get to know Left Coast Cellars, which is located in the Willamette Valley, and their business model. They do it all themselves, and then some.
Founded in 2003, the 500 acre property has 160 acres under vine, which is farmed under both LIVE and Salmon Safe certifications. This effort to farm in environmentally-friendly ways is indicative of an approach to managing the entire property with an eye towards responsible environmental stewardship.
Two projects, encompassing 170 non-vine acres, are managed in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service with the goal of turning them into a permanent wildlife refuge. The first, measuring 100 acres, is an ecological compensation area, while the remaining 70 acres are dedicated to an old growth oak forest restoration effort. Every year, the winery hosts a 5 and 10k race called the “Run for the Oaks” to support this latter project. Further, a good portion of the estate runs off electricity produced by solar panels mounted on the winery. The estate also produces honey, and offers customers a $1 credit for each empty Left Coast wine bottle that is returned.
Run for the Oaks 5/10k
Speaking of customers, Left Coast offers a variety of “experiences,” including a wine and pizza pairing, property tours in a 1950 Chevy flatbed truck and live music, that allow visitors to turn winery visits into a time to enjoy the property and atmosphere. This is all in addition to a wide array of wines produced exclusively off estate fruit and the tasting room where wine is the focus. The whole Left Coast package, if you will, is a responsibly-run comprehensive business that takes not just the wine into account, but also the health of the property and how it can provide enjoyment, tranquility and sustenance to humans and nature alike for the long term.
The vines stretch out over nine different vineyards on the property, which yielded about 350 tons of fruit in 2018, good enough for about 20,000 cases of wine. Pinot noir represents 65-70% of production in a given year (which is made into pinot noir rouge, rosé and pinot noir blanc), with the remainder spread across pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc (not to be confused with pinot noir blanc), viognier and syrah. This gives winemaker Joe Wright and his team a lot to play with.
Joe has been making wine for 23 years in Willamette Valley, and counts himself quite lucky to be at Left Coast. “I’m sick and tired of manipulating wine,” he told me when we spoke, adding that “I want to make them in the vineyard,” meaning that the focus is on harvesting the best grapes possible. “I get to do that here,” he said.
The Orchards vineyard
As our conversation continued, he proved this point several times over. When asked about tannin development, he explained that the vineyards produce grapes with naturally thick skin, which means naturally high tannin potential, and that means ensuring that crop levels are low enough to produce ample space around the clusters for air to circulate and cool the grapes, which keeps the skin tannin at bay. It means picking enough leaves to allow airflow to get in to the backside of the clusters so they ripen similarly there as they do on the frontside, which helps produce higher ratios of anthocyanin to phenolics, the former being the more pleasant and interesting of the two types of tannin.
While on this subject, Joe told me (and the samples I received supported him) that Left Coast’s wines are capable of decades of positive evolution. He had recently opened a 2002 pinot noir and it was brilliant. “Wines aren’t wine until they’ve been bottled for five or six years,” he said. “When wine goes into the bottle, it’s basically just fermented juice. If you taste base wines, they’re not complete. It’s the things that happen over time during aging that makes it wine.” Right now he’s drinking Left Coast’s 2008s.
I was sent eight different bottles: four whites, one rosé and three reds. Two stood out above the rest: the 2018 White Pinot Noir and the 2015 Right Bank pinot noir. The 2018 Rosé of pinot noir was also impressive. Based on these three alone, it’s evident that Left Coast is making serious wine while also spending considerable time and resources on non-wine related projects. This balance, to say the least, is impressive.
Tasting notes and scores:
2018 Left Coast White Pinot Noir – A white wine made from pinot noir, the reticent nose offers aromas of tangerine, yellow and white florals and white pepper. Full bodied with a slightly zesty, or twitchy, sensation. The acid is well-defined, but spreads out wide and really coats the mouth nicely. Flavors are slightly sweet-edged, though the lemon zest and stony minerality are both strong and welcomed balancing agents. Strawberry, sweet banana, Sprite, lemon curd, cherry blossom, green herbaciousness and orchid. An unusual, interesting and serious wine. This would be interesting to revisit in a year or two. 93 points. Value: A+.
2015 Left Coast Right Bank pinot noir – This has a dark and hedonistic nose. The aromas are saturated cherry, blackberry and strawberry compote, baking spice and graphite-laced smoke that is polished by blood orange zest. This is full-bodied with enormously juicy acidity. The tannins are effectively seamless and highly polished. The structure on this is complete. The flavor profile is slightly bloody in nature, which highlights red plum, strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry fruit. There is a dose of saline to go with bacon fat on the back end. This is an impressive wine with an in-your-face orientation. 93 points. Value: A.
2018 Left Coast Rosé of pinot noir – The nose is a summery concoction of strawberry, cherry, watermelon and wet crushed rock. Nearly full-bodied, this lush and brightly acidic rose gives generous doses of sweet cranberry, strawberry, orange peel and mean and steely streaks of flint and white pepper. Nudges towards the serious end of rosés, this could handle a wide array of even more serious food. 91 points. Value: B+.
2015 Left Coast Truffle Hill pinot noir – This is a very young 2015. I put it through a Venturi four times and then decanted for two hours, and it still seems a bit closed and young. The nose offers blackberry, raspberry, kirsch, red currant and Allspice. It is medium bodied with well-integrated and smooth tannin and slightly bright acid. The structure is refined. Flavors hit on a bunch of red berries and plum and are highlighted by slightly tart Acai. Hard to call this a fruit bomb given its structural finesse, but it is fruit-forward at this stage with only a slight undercurrent of baking spice. I suspect this will start to reveal itself around 2022 and impress in 2025. 91 points. Value: B.
2016 Left Coast Cali’s Cuvée pinot noir – Not the most saturating of noses, but it’s a touch hedonistic. The fruit is dominated by blackberry, with undertones of boysenberry and strawberry. There’s a theme of spiced mulberry as well that’s really nice and works well with the black pepper. It’s of medium weight. While it’s smooth on entry and exit, the tannins break out a bit and give it some nice gritty texture while it’s in the mouth. The acid is a touch sharp, though it doesn’t ruin the wine. The flavors are on the darker end of the pinot spectrum and balance dense fruit with restrained spice nicely. The fruit is brambly and plummy and saved from saturation by the acid. The baking spices really come in strong on the mid palate and finish. This is a great value among pinot from anywhere, especially Oregon. 90 points. Value: A.
2017 Left Coast Truffle Hill chardonnay – A slightly reserved, if prototypical nose of Meyer lemon, key lime pie, white pepper spice and flint. It’d medium bodied and quite round and smooth. The acid is well-placed. Flavors are light and delicate and very pleasant: sweet lemon, sweet white and yellow floral notes, honeysuckle and key lime. A very enjoyable everyday chardonnay. 89 points. Value: B-.
2017 Left Coast The Orchards pinot gris – A very reticent, high-toned and linear nose, it wafts stone minerality and citrus zest. On the palate it’s a juicy medium body with well-fitted acid. Flavors are strawberry nectar-forward, touching on Meyer lemon, orange zest, banana peel, slate and white pepper as well. The finish holds a nice juiciness for an extended period of time, turning slightly savory at the end. 88 points. Value: C+.
2017 Left Coast Queen Bee Bubbly (of pinot noir) – A surprisingly honeyed nose of…honey. Like, straight from the jar honey. Beyond that it’s slightly perfumed by way of jasmine and sweet Thai chili sauce. Quite pretty if a bit monolithic. It’s medium-bodied with bright and streaky, linear acid that the fine bubbles accentuate. Flavors hit on tart cherry and huckleberry, limesickle and slate/crushed gravel minerals. A fun, easy wine sparkling rosé. 88 points. Value: C.
Last summer, an aunt and uncle of mine gifted us a booked called Champagne that was written by Peter Liem. In the opening chapter, Liem is already addressing a widely-held assumption that because most champagne are blends of tens, if not dozens, of various vineyards, terroir matters less in champagne wines than others.
“While both consumers and producers were content in the recent past to treat champagne as a brand, or as an object of lifestyle, or as an entity in the wine world that was somehow less serious than Burgundy or Barolo,” he writes, “the prevailing attitudes have shifted, at least in the arenas that matter. Champagne is now subject to the same questions asked of any other wine and held to the same standards” in terms of, among other things, terroir.
Flip just two pages ahead and Liem expands on these standards in the context of Louis Roederer champagne. “It’s often assumed,” he says, “that base wines are essentially neutral, light wines with low alcohol and little fruit flavor” after quoting Roederer’s winemaker, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, who remarked that “I have 410 different parcels and 450 different vessels in which to ferment them.” His larger point: terroir matters as much in champagne as it does in other wines.
A short and roughly 5,188 mile hop, skip and jump from Reims puts you at Youngberg Hill Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is one of the more terroir and parcel-based wineries I’ve come across recently, and it shows positively in the wines. With an estate draped atop a hill, Wayne Bailey and his family are putting a lot of effort into their vines and turning out some gorgeous wine.
Youngberg Hill’s vineyard covers 20 of the estate’s 50 acres and is comprised of three blocks of pinot noir and one block of pinot gris and chardonnay. Three of the blocks are named after the three Bailey children: Natasha, Jordan and Aspen. When talking about the vineyards with Wayne, it became strikingly evident how much attention he pays to the eccentricities of each block, as if they were three unique children each requiring unique attention (…or something like that).
Each vineyard is at a different elevation and has a different mix of soil types, grape clones and clone-rootstock combinations. Though three pinot noir blocks get their own vineyard designated bottles, they are also blended into the estate’s cuvées. It’s within this context that I think of Liem’s champagne discussion because of the Youngberg vineyard’s variety. Though it’s not quite Roederer’s 410 unique parcels, there is a lot of variety packed into Youngberg’s 20 acres. Depending on the block and vineyard, you could find Pommard, Wadenswil, Dijon 777 or Dijon 10114, plus some purchased Dijon 115, among 20 acres with high terroir diversity. Let’s break the sites’ soils and elevations down pictorially:
Youngberg has made the move from organic farming and winemaking to biodynamic. Wayne made a great point in explaining his rationale for the change by pointing out that “organic tells you what you can’t do, not what you can, and because it addresses only the cant’s, it ends up depleting the soil.” Conversely, biodynamic “adds what you can do to enhance the biomass, to maintain the ratios of calcium to potassium, those kind of things. It’s a tool that helps you do.”
The differences in impact between organic and biodynamic “are very prevalent very quickly,” he said. “First, we saw it in the health of the vines, which then translates into healthier fruit. We’re harvesting healthier and healthier fruit every year, which is great because it then minimizes the issues we face in the winery. As a result, we’re starting to see the quality of the wines enhanced as it ages in bottle and you taste the vitality and liveliness when it comes time to enjoy it.”
Although he’s been making wine at Youngberg since before Y2K, he’s recently put more attention into the tannins he develops in his wine. “I’d been chastised a bit for my tannins being aggressive,” he told me, adding that “I’ve worked diligently over the years to adjust that.” In the vineyard, he’s tried to adjust the root structures of the vines so they produce less aggressive skin tannin by clearing between the vines. Harvest pick dates have been pushed later and later as well with the aim of harvesting fruit with browner seeds to avoid the harsh tannins of younger seeds.
He has also dialed up his use of new oak barrels, which may seem a counterintuitive tactic for dialing back tannins. With his location in the McMinville AVA and the particulars of the Youngberg vineyards, he naturally gets intense, aggressive wines to start with, which drove reticence in using new oak on the fear that it might enhance the robustness and overwhelm the more subtle flavors and aromas. His prior experience in Burgundy, where oak is used with a light touch, heightened this sensitivity.
However, when he decided to start reducing the stoutness of his tannins, he experimented with more new oak – 40% or less, so still not much – and found that it helped refine the tannins and smooth them out without taking away from the complexity of the wine. Because of the robustness in the estate’s fruit, the wine can handle the new oak without losing its personality. He has also shortened the length of his cold soaks, a process that extracts tannins from the skins and inserts them into the wine. The color of the skins is naturally quite high, and even with shorter cold soaks, he’s getting all the color he wants.
While he’s shortened cold soaks, he’s extended warm soaks post-fermentation. The skins are allowed to remain with the wine for as much as 10 days after fermentation is complete before they are removed. Doing this helps the mouth become rounder and the wines become deeper and more complex in part because it tends to help the tannins integrate into the wine quicker.
Wayne and I had a fairly lengthy discussion about tannins at my prompting because the tannins on his wines were one of the aspects that stood out the most – these are seriously structurally pinot noirs. I had the opportunity to try two of the single vineyard bottles – Natasha and Jordan – as well as the entry-level cuvée.
The 2015 Jordan pinot noir offers a mineral-driven nose of loam, iron, graphite, cherry and blackberry juices and dry Cap’n Crunch. It’s medium bodied with balanced acid and a slightly gritty tannin structure that drapes the mouth with an engaging structure. Not for the faint of heart pinot drinker, the flavors of cherry, blackberry, pomegranate, smoke, damp soil and saline are saturating. This has a real physical sensation and serious splash of flavor that, while it works, could stand a year or three to better integrate. 91 points, value B.
My favorite pinot, the 2015 Natasha, has a pleasantly pungent nose of tart strawberry, rhubarb and blackberry to go with Sweetarts and damp underbrush. Medium bodied and mouth-filling at the same time, the balanced acid contributes a slightly coarse element to the structure, which is framed by sturdy tannin. The flavors are a bit sweeter than the nose, offering muddled blackberry, blueberry and raspberry to go with mild cedar and tobacco. There is discernible smoke on the finish. This will only get better over the next five, if not ten, years. 92 points, value B+.
Given its price, the 2015 Cuvée is the most impressive pinot, though. Youngberg’s entry level pinot noir has a nose of gorgeously ripe, gushing raspberry, strawberry, cherry, scorched earth, rose petal and Sweetarts. It is medium bodied with round edges, smooth tannin and linear acid, forming a very pleasant and enjoyable structure. The fruit is juicy, oozing raspberry, strawberry and muddled cherry. There are also a slightly dark, wet earth theme. Just a wonderful wine. 92 points, value A.
I’ve saved my favorite for last: the 2016 Aspen chardonnay. Wayne takes his chardonnay seriously. The blocks of chardonnay were originally planted to pinot gris in 2006, and he grafted them over to chardonnay in 2014. Where other people might plant pinot noir, Wayne made the choice to plant chardonnay. The Aspen vineyard is south-eastern facing, between 525 and 600 feet in elevation and planted on marine sedimentary soil with 25% volcanic rock. It’s a great site, and one that screams “pinot noir” to many, but Wayne wanted to make exceptional white wine, and so he choose this exceptional site for it.
The 2016 Aspen chardonnay shows malolactic and barrel notes on the nose, which is dominated creme brûlée, toasted oak and Key lime pie. Full-bodied and lush with a high glycerin sensation, the palate is quite polished. Well-balanced bright acid provides levity. The flavors hew close to the aromas with brioche and Key lime, adding salty lemon and just a touch of slate minerality. This is quite nice now with a decant, but it offers real promise of evolution over the next five-plus years. 92 points, value A.
Tasting through Youngberg Hill’s wine is tasting through a diverse 20 acres of vineyards. It’s a fun and rewarding experience. The wines are distributed in pockets around the country, and are also available direct from the winery, which ships. Oregon wine is finding its way to more markets, and Youngberg is a great representative of what the state offers.
Spring is here, and if you live in a climate like ours’ in Washington, DC, you know that it unfortunately will not last long. I see the humidity on the horizon. Though we’re a winter white wine house (we drink a lot of white when the temperature drops), this is the season of transition for most people when they go from red to white wine. Rosé is often the transition wine, and I’m sure your local wine store is stocked deep with it.
Sometimes there’s no better pairing than a warm spring Sunday afternoon and a magnum of rosé, I’ll admit, but other times nothing beats an acid-driven full-bodied white wine. A really good one is going to offer more complexity that most any rosé, and when you want a more serious spring wine, that’s when whites out-perform rosé. The heat of spring isn’t so strong as to prevent enjoyment of a wine with some barrel aging, so you can go that route if you like, nor is it too hot for a wine with substantive depth.
The profile of white that I’m suggesting – some weight, multiple layers of flavor, thick acid – is also more versatile food-wise than many other wines. This is to say, it can hold its own with grilled vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish as well as red-fruited wines like pinot noir, trousseau, gamay, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Just because you’re going to a friend’s grill-out doesn’t mean you should avoid white wine.
I’m sharing four wines that I’ve had recently that blew me away for one reason or another. Three are from California, two of which I tasted in-person at the wineries in March. The forth is from Australia. All represent above-average values despite costing between $30 and $50 each. Some are easier to find than others, but all are worth seeking out.
The first is Carlisle Winery’s Sonoma Mountain Steiner Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2017. A friend in the California wine business suggested I visit Carlisle on my most recent trip, and it did not disappoint. Known predominantly for complex and age-worthy zinfandels, I was blown away by the two white wines we tasted, this grüner and a field blend from a small little vineyard they split with Arnot-Roberts called Compagni Portis. I could’ve listed either or both here, but I went with the grüner solely because I have better notes on it.
The Steiner Vineyard has less than two acres of grüner, so there isn’t much of this wine. It’s almost as if the small amount of vines somehow inspire a similarly concentrated wine. It is produced in all stainless steel, and does not go through malolactic fermentation. The wonderful nose hews close to varietal typicity with stone fruit, vanilla, a cornucopia of citrus zests and white pepper. The palate is full bodied, plush and nervous. Flavors are similar to the nose, with pronounced white pepper and peach. The flint-infused acid provides a robust backbone. 92 points. Value: B+.
The next wine comes from Chimney Rock, a historic winery located in the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley. Established by a couple from South Africa in 1989, they built the gorgeous winery in the Cape Dutch-style architecture. The estate is known almost exclusively for its cabernet sauvignon and cabernet-based red blends, and has built a strong wine club following on that reputation. These wines have elegance woven into them, but for me their signature is more about robust tannin structure that for my palate needs a good ten-plus years post vintage to sufficiently soften.
My tasting there was bookended by a rosé on the front end and a white wine on the tail end. The rosé, made of cabernet franc, was spectacular. Really, one of the best rosés I’ve had in recent memory. It has substance and some weight, two qualities I think are too often shunned to our detriment when it comes to rosé. That said, I’m equally excited to share their one and only white wine, a blend of sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris called Elevage Blanc, because I might have liked it even more than the rosé. It offers incredible smoothness in personality and feel. With a deft full body, it boasts loads of stone and tropical fruits, spicy zest, marzipan, slate and flint minerality and a smoky finish. If you tend to find sauvignon blanc too bitter and cutting, this is one that may change your mind. 93 points. Value: A-.
The final California wine comes from the prolific Copain Winery. It was founded in 1999 in the Russian River Valley, but it sources fruit from cool climate vineyards in Mendicino County, Anderson Valley and Sonoma. To give you some idea of why I call it prolific, the website currently lists 40 different wines for sale, including chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and rosé. I happen to know they also make trousseau. Copain represents incredible value, especially with their chardonnay.
Until I was sent a selection of recent and current release samples last year, I had been entirely spoiled in my Copain experience by having only well-aged wine from this estate. Copain makes age worthy wine as they produce wines with good acid and elegance, traits required to age well. In 2018 I had a 2010 Brousseau Vineyard chardonnay from them and loved it so much that when another of the same bottle showed up on Winebid earlier this year, I snatched it up. I imagine we’ll drink it before the summer is over. Most of their syrahs from the 00’s are drinking phenomenally right now. As I tasted my way through the younger samples, it became evident to me that I preferred age on their wines.
One of the few exceptions to this is their Les Voisins chardonnay, of which I had the 2015. It was drinking gorgeously. The nose is just wonderful and engaging with rich honeyed cantaloupe, honeysuckle, lemon zest, crushed gravel, lemon curd and daffodil. It’s slightly on the heavy side of medium bodied. The level of polish on the structure elevates this to elegant status, and the slight streak of acid that runs through it keeps it interesting from first to last sip. The flavors are multifaceted: honeysuckle, peach, fresh apricot, honey dew and sweet lemon curd. It finishes on a wonderful green apple note and a textual sensation and flavor that conjures licking a slate slab. A fantastic wine. 94 points. Value: A.
For our last wine, we go to Australia and the Yangarra Estate in the McLaren Vale region, which focuses exclusively on southern Rhone Valley varieties. I had the pleasure of meeting Yangarra’s winemaker, Peter Fraser, to taste a new line of top-end wines, including the $72 Roux Beauté Roussanne and Ovitelli Grenache, $140 High Sands Grenache and $105 Ironheart Shiraz. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, talking with Peter or tasting these wines, but both made for a wonderful evening. Peter is one of the more detail-oriented winemakers I’ve met. I’ve tasted other wines priced like these with their respective winemakers, but few have made impressions like the one Chris did that justifies the price of their wine. The amount of effort and thought he puts into his craft is evident in his wines, but you don’t have to spend top dollar to experience it, either.
Yangarra makes an Estate Roussanne for less than half the price of the Roux Beauté. I tasted the 2016. On first sip, it didn’t impress because it needed oxygen. With several hours of decanting, it began to reveal itself as a dynamic wine capable of putting on complexity and intrigue with more air or age. That is a clear sign of quality and precise attention to detail. The nose wafts lean aromas of sweet dandelion, mild Meyer lemon, tangerine peel and under ripe mango. It’s medium weight on the palate, with balanced and crisp acid that forms a nicely textured backbone. The flavors are just beginning to define themselves, and there is enough nuttiness already to suggest a really cool evolution over the following five-ish years, if not longer. Fresh almond, lean lemon, tart mango and pineapple, unsweetened vanilla, salty minerality and bitter greens form the basis of the flavor profile. Tasty now, it will develop complexity and a more dynamic structure as it ages. 90 points. Value: B-.
Each of these four wines are wonderful in their own ways, though none of them very similar to the others except for their ability to handle spring’s weather, parties and food. On those fronts, they are remarkably adept. Try these wines because the season calls for them.
Where to buy
Normally, I list half a dozen or so places where one can find a Try this Wine featured bottle, but with four I’m going to hyperlink directly to their respective winery-direct pages and wine-searcher.com links where you can search by state, zip code and/or ability to ship to your state.