Obsession in the Willamette Valley, Part Two

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Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg, Oregon, sells some great sea stuff.

Welcome to part two of Obsession in the Willamette Valley. In part one, I covered a dinner with Fausse Piste’s Jesse Skiles and a visit to Martin Woods Winery. I used it to set up the concept of obsession of wine as a life’s cause for many in the Willamette wine industry. It was advantageous to be able to go from that concept into describing my interactions with Jesse and Martin Woods’ Evan Martin because they are living examples of it. The three winemakers that we’ll discuss in this article bring their own obsessions to the party.

In part one we left off with a Tuesday morning visit to Martin Woods, where the obsession is making as Oregonian a wine as possible. While this could mean many things to many people, at Martin Woods it means using Oregonian oak to age wine and limiting manipulation in the winemaking. The result are pretty and ethereal wines. From there, we drove to Tendril Wine Cellars, a project by Tony Ryders who also does custom crush and consulting across the Valley.

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Tony has a lot winemaking experience under his belt from across the world, but he seems best known for his ten years at Oregon’s famed Domaine Serene where he was head winemaker. During those years, Tony made one of the very few American pinot blancs available on the world market. This is white wine made from red pinot noir grapes, and his obsession with it has carried through to Tendril where it was the wine he seemed most enthusiastic to share and discuss.

Before discussing the wine, I do want to point out one of the elements of the tasting that I most appreciated. It is a fallacy to say that when tasting red and white wine that the white should be served before the red. While this can be true, and often is, it is not when chardonnay and pinot noir are the flight. These are two nuanced and often times subtle wines that also happen to be high in acid, and in the battle for the palate the main offensive weapon is that acid. When the chardonnay carries the higher acid, it must be respected as the dominating wine, and be poured after the pinot. I remain surprised that even in the Willamette Valley where pinot and chardonnay are royalty, the white often precedes the red. Tony served the chardonnay and pinot blanc after the pinot noirs, and it made a positive difference.

Tendril offers two lines, the higher end Tendril wines and the more accessible, lower priced Child’s Play line that’s made for restaurant glass pours. We tasted the Child’s Play chardonnay, rose, pinot noir and zinfandel, which are forward and fresh wines, even the pinot noir which sees 9-11 months of barrel aging. The wine I’d order if I found it in a restaurant would be the zinfandel, which has a big personality and a variety of flavors and aromas that are fruity, earthy and savory. Often times zinfandel can deliver big fruit and not much else, so it’s always refreshing to find one that offers more.

The Tendril line is built to mirror a progressive meal curve, which Tony described as beginning with bright, acidic courses followed by meat and then savory stuff. We tasted his 2014 pinots – Extrovert, Mount Richmond Vineyard, Tightrope and C-Note – in that order. We followed these with the 2015 chardonnay and Pretender (pinot blanc), and finished with his 2015 cabernet sauvignon made from grapes from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley.

The first thing I’ll say is that in comparison to much of the Oregon pinot I’ve had, Tendril wines are bruisers. Words like “full bodied,” “rich” and “gritty” are apt descriptors, and this does not make them pinots for every pinot lover. While they exhibited some of the signature Oregon flavors and aromas, their physical presence is unusual for the region in my experience. They seem appropriate for lovers of bigger wines looking to build an appreciation for pinot noir.

At this stage in life, the 2014s are loud and proud, and I would be curious to see them again in ten years to witness what kind of development they go through. I’d be especially interested to see how the grippy tannins, which for me were a bit distracting, develop. The wines certainly have the right levels of acid, alcohol and flavor to develop more with time, but my question is whether there are sufficient long-change tannin complex to overtake the relatively coarse phenolic tannins that currently dominate the wine. Only time reveals that answer.

The whites offered more appeal for me. The chardonnay stays in barrel for at least sixteen months, and it shows in the nice balance it demonstrates. The acid is bright but integrated and the palate seems comfortably settled. I enjoyed the juicy, tart caramel apple note. Tony’s best wine for my taste is the pinot blanc, which he calls Pretender. The grapes are picked at full maturity, pressed gently and then aged in neutral oak. The palate is lush and smooth, and the fruit is downright tropical with quince and passion fruit, which juxtapose nicely with vanilla custard and a white peppery spice. It was one of the most memorable wines from the trip. The last wine, which made use of Washington State cabernet sauvignon, was a nice display of what that variety can achieve from that part of the world.

From Tendril it was an easy ride to meet up with Brian O’Donnell at Belle Pente Vineyard and Winery. Though this wasn’t my first visit to Willamette Valley, my time there had always seemed a bit incomplete without a trip to this historic winery, whose first vintage was in 1996. Pronounced “bell-pont,” which means “beautiful slope,” is aptly named after its 70-acre hillside upon which the estate vineyard sits (it doesn’t cover all 70 acres).

Their wines are classically-styled along the lines of Burgundy and Alsace, and strongly reflect elegance and place. The standard wine program includes muscat, pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraimer, chardonnay, gamay and pinot noir.

Perched on the side of a large valley, the property is lovely. The winery isn’t open to the public beyond two weekends per year and through appointments. As one might say in the collateral of one of those sustainable, farm-to-table, organic, biodynamic, dolphin-friendly type-places, Belle Pente has a “working farm” feel. This allows the tastings to occur where the wine is made, which in my experience draws the visitor closer into the glass, and gives them a particularly intimate experience. We tasted outside, using a few wine barrels turned on their end for tables, next to some of the winery equipment with a nice view of the estate vineyard and basketball court.

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Brain, who with his wife owns the winery, is the winemaker. He first made wine, as the website intimates, in the 6th grade. This experiment led to a “20 year retirement” before resurrecting his talents in his garage in San Jose. This eventually inspired a full-on career change and a move from Silicon Valley to Oregon. Brian is active in the industry as well, serving as the president of the Yamhill-Carlton Winegrowers after having been on the board of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association for a few years. With over 25 years of Willamette Valley experience, he’s a widely respected winemaker, strong and active advocate for Oregon wine and all-around good guy.

If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment, scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs that look like their owners, and vice versa, and a good number have found surprisingly high correlations – up to 80% – between dogs and owners on their respective appearance and physical personalities. While the explanations vary, they are consistent in finding that yes, it appears to be true that dogs and their owners share a great deal in common physically.

It would be fascinating to conduct a study that looks into whether the personalities line up between winemakers and their wine. Tasted blind, does Caduceus wine from Arizona remind us of its maker, heavy metal band Tool front-man Maynard James Keenan? Is Drew’s Blend, a pinot noir from Carmel, California, as sweet and innocent and chaste from afar as its namesake, Drew Barrymore? Pretty hard to quantify personality this way, I know, but Belle Pente and Brian O’Donnell seem like a good enough case upon which to pontificate as any.

Brian is a pretty low key guy (at least he was with us), and brings a laisse-faire kind of serenity to discussing wine. He begins with basics, and as time goes on gets more in-depth. It seems like the conversation never has to stop if you keep asking questions and offering prompts because he has an incredible depth of knowledge, is thoughtful and indulges hypotheticals (though he deftly dismisses to the bad ones). This isn’t to say he’s long-winded or boring – quite the opposite – but rather that with time, you continue to learn. Yet, at any moment in time, the snapshot of what you’ve experienced to that point is substantive. His obsession with wine isn’t worn on his sleeve, but it is very plainly that wine is a cause in life. He certainly has the experience and library to prove it.

Belle Pente’s wines strike me as similar in personality to Brian. While the current releases are beautiful, nimble wines, he is still recommending his first vintage as a wine that is drinking well. These are quietly layered and complex wines, almost to the point that if you’re not paying attention to them, you’re missing their brilliance. If this sounds like a critique, that’s exactly wrong. These are wines made by a thinking winemaker, and seem likely to be enjoyed most by thinking wine lovers. Having no experience with aged Belle Pente, I’m kicking myself for missing the opportunity to pick up a few late 1990s bottles from auction a few months before our visit.

We were presented with ten wines, all good and some great. I’m going to call out my five favorites here. The very first pour was the 2015 Muscat, which is bottled with a screwcap. Not the most popular variety, it’s done particularly well in this case. Acid driven, minerally and completely dry, the profile of honeysuckle, jasmine and tropical fruits is exceedingly pleasing. Brian recommends it as a great wine to have on-hand for difficult food pairings like asparagus.

The 2009 Riesling (2010 is the current release) was among the very best domestic versions of this variety that I’ve had. It is just beginning to show secondary development as nuttiness, honey and slight creaminess are showing through as the acid, which remains the backbone, softens ever so slightly. We discussed riesling’s history in Oregon, which Brian called “checkered.” He explained that in its first incarnation, riesling was sweet and worked out pretty good. Then, as Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle began producing larger and larger quantities of inexpensive stuff, Oregon riesling began to go out of business. About twenty years ago, however, it was resurrected by several wineries that wanted to define and establish an Oregon-specific style closer to the dry styles of the big three A’s: Austria, Alsace and Australia. Belle Pente falls squarely within that kind of riesling profile.

A producer of numerous pinot noirs, I found two particularly captivating. The 2013 Estate bottle shows nice tannin integration and balanced acid, and is earthly, floral and slightly herbaceous. It built depth with as oxygen exposure ramped up, revealing subtle layers and drawing you deeper into the wine with time. This bottle typically sees about 25-30% new oak, which is a combination of majority French and minority Oregon.

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The 2014 Estate Reserve, which sees about 50% of new oak of a similar makeup, has a downright elegantly structured that is based as much on acid as it is on tannin, which is what I think makes for the best pinot. That this the case is striking given the warmer-than-usual vintage, which didn’t develop Oregon’s standard pH levels. The minerality is complex and seems predicated on sarsaparilla and birch roots, and the fruit is gorgeously ripe without being heavy. At most Oregon wineries, I tend to prefer the 2013s to 2014s because they skew closer to the prototypical Oregon style of high doses of earth, fruit and acid. Much of the 2014 vintage drops a lot of the earth and acid in favor of fruit and alcohol. Belle Pente is more resistant to that style drift that most I’ve had.

Finally, the chardonnay from the same year (poured last), showed beautifully. The tropical and juicy fruit, which rides a nice acid wave, paired advantageously with sweet lemon curd to create a texturally dazzling mouthfeel that led to a wonderful honeyed finish. While it’s evident this is from a warm vintage, like the Estate Reserve pinot, it retains the acid and mineral vibrancy that sets Oregon apart.

These are beautiful wines that remain, in region that is charging an increasingly high barrier to entry, fairly priced – even the Reserve bottle. The ageworthiness is obvious, and an appreciation for aging runs deep with Brian, who offers limited back vintages without surcharges (he’s currently selling the 2010 riesling and 2006 gewurztraimer). The tasting experience, the winemaker and the wine at Belle Pente is classic, old school Oregon.

As we finished up our time with Brian, our thoughts began drifting to dinner and our dinner companion. We stopped by Northwest Fresh Seafood in Newberg to pick up a variety of sea-based protein and raced back to receive Shane Moore, whom I’ve written about several times on this blog. Shane is the winemaker for Gran Moraine and Zena Crown and has made wine all around the world, including in Israel.

Unlike Brian, Shane “looks” less like his wine. I tend to think of Gran Moraine as elegant and pretty, and Zena Crown as starting with those attributes as a base but turned up just a bit on the power scale. Extraordinarily knowledgeable, Shane is a big personality from the opening moment: full of energy and peppered with the best kind and amount of crazy. What they do share in common, though, is thoughtfulness, intelligence and enjoyability. Whether Shane ages as well as his wine, though, remains an open question. Shane was the winemaker who completely changed my opinion on winemaker dinners (I’m now a yes vote) to the point that I was compelled to write a piece about it.

Shane was a vital part of planning this Willamette trip. Many of the wineries covered in these posts were Shane’s suggestions. He and I have discussed many aspects of wine and the industry over the last year or two, and he has helped me understand some pretty confusing wine stuff along the way (like tannins). So, when he suggested places I had no hesitation visiting them. I’m a big fan of Shane, and I wanted my wife (then fiancé) and friends to get to spend some time with him outside his winery, so I invited him to join us for dinner.

Dinner was great. Shane brought some great Canadian chardonnay (turns out he’s been pouring it blind all over the Valley in an effort to wow people) and local charcuterie (“it’s totally overpriced, but it’s so good I keep buying it in spite of myself”), all of which was great. Shane told us the story of how he became a winemaker, which is hilarious and probably rated inappropriate for this website. I’ll talk more about Shane in the last post about this trip. The next post will feature visits to Penner-Ash and Trisaetum.

Oregon Wine Month Extravaganza

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Willamette Valley is my favorite American wine region to visit. It has a near-optimal balance of beauty, tranquility, quality wine, quality people and proximity to a decently-sized airport. Though not mountainous in the snow-capped sense, it is an obvious valley with beautiful slopes, rolling hills and a discernible floor. Though remote in feel, its northern tip is barely an hour from Portland. Though dominated by world class pinot noir and chardonnay, it offers fantastic examples of other varieties as well, notably gamay, syrah, pinot gris and riesling in my book. Though world class in quality and price and winery aesthetics, its wine professionals are accessible and friendly and the pretense low. The Willamette Valley is what comes to mind when I think of a trip to wine country.

For those who cannot make it in-person, May was Oregon Wine Month (or so says the industry) and an excuse to delve into the State’s wines. I’m lucky enough to be planning a trip to Willamette in late July, but that didn’t mean I was about to let May slip by without spending serious time with Oregon wine. Jackson Family Wines (I’ll refer to them as “KJ” for Kendall-Jackson, their main label) was kind enough to send me an array of wines from their Oregon portfolio, and I divvied them up into sets of three to explore over five evenings at the end of the month. I posted comments and partial reviews on our Instagram and Facebook accounts, and promised this full write-up in June. Here we are, barely over deadline.

Some words on KJ before I talk about Oregon. I think the content on this blog demonstrates that a large majority of my focus is on the little guy. This isn’t so much a conscious decision I make, something born out of a David and Goliath complex or a distaste for corporations, but rather one driven by the reality that smaller producers tend to push the limits and experiment in interesting ways that catch my attention while producing wines that are, on balance, more engaging and satisfying than the big guys. Yet this is my second piece that heavily features KJ wineries, and in this case it has an exclusive focus on them. So what gives?

I was introduced to KJ corporate through a winemaker dinner I attended in Washington, DC featuring Shane Moore, winemaker at Oregon’s Zena Crown and Gran Moraine wineries, both of which are KJ properties. I wrote a piece on that wine dinner making the case for attending winemaker dinners, and have included Shane in several additional Good Vitis pieces, including a solo profile, because I respect the guy so damn much as a winemaking talent and all-around good dude. This led to a relationship with several people at KJ headquarters, which led to help organizing an incredible Napa trip in December of last year and the upcoming Willamette trip this summer. Through my interactions with KJ corporate people and the wineries they own, I came to appreciate just how much Barbara Banke, the chairman and proprietor of KJ, and her staff respect the soul of the wineries they purchase and don’t impinge, as far as I can tell, much on the wineries. Instead, KJ spends time and money on promoting the wines and authentic stories of the wineries and personalities that originally put them on KJ’s radar while providing the resources to foster growth and quality improvement. I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and puppies, and I certainly don’t want to project a sense that I know more than I do, but I enjoy many of the wineries they own on the merits of the wine and approach taken to make them.

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Source: Oregon Wine Press

Oregon has more than one wine region, though I imagine Willamette is the best known. Oregon boasts eighteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are spread among three main areas. One runs the length of the Interstate 5 corridor (generously conceived for this purpose) between the Washington and California borders,  another comprises a good chunk of the northern border with Washington along the Columbia River, and the other along the state’s Eastern border. This geography covers a number of different terroirs. My favorite Oregon syrah is made by Cowhorn, which is located about 15 miles north of the California border, while my favorite pinot producer, Cameron, is a six hour drive to the north. Some of the most famed syrah produced by Washington wineries is, in fact, grown just south of the Washington-Oregon border in Northeastern Oregon. The Columbia Gorge, which runs East-West across the top of the State, is a growing wine region with a burgeoning reputation on both sides of the border. The wines covered in this piece, though all come from Willamette Valley, represent the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity AVAs as well as a few that are blends from across the Valley.

Yamhill-Carlton was established as an AVA in 2004. It’s about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and gets some weather buffering from the Coast Range Mountains, which top out at 3,500 feet above sea level, that stand between it and the ocean. To the north, Chehalem Mountain adds some additional protection, as do the Dundee Hills to the east. The soils are mainly marine sedimentary that lies on top of sandstone and siltstone, a combination that tends to moderate acid development.

Eola-Amity came online as an AVA two years after Yamhil-Carlton. It’s home to Oregon’s longest continuously operating winery, Honeywood Winery, and is located to the south and east of Yamhill-Carlton. Though more inland, it still receives good air flow through a break in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. This keeps the summers and winters temperate, and luckily for producers the rain tends to fall mostly outside the growing season. The soils are a mix of volcanic basalt, marine sendimentary and alluvial deposits, a combination leading to shallow and well-drained soils that help build concentration.

For the first night of this Oregon Wine Month project, I chose Yamhill-Carlton designates from Siduri and Gran Moraine and a Willamette Valley blend from Penner-Ash. Regarding the first two, it’s always fun to see how producers in the same area compare to each other, and in these two I got the contrast I wanted.

Siduri is a California winery focused on pinot noir started by Adam Lee, who also makes the wine. Adam recently sold Siduri to KJ, but agreed to stay on as winemaker. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible evening of wine and discussion with Adam when he visited my area earlier this year, and so was excited to try his Oregon pinot. We exchanged some emails subsequently, and I asked him how he made Oregon wine living in California. It’s an interesting explanation, so I’m going to quote him:

“I’ve been making wine from Oregon grapes since 1995 (the second year of Siduri). We made our first wine, in 1994, at Lambert Bridge Winery where we worked in the tasting room. The GM at Lambert Bridge owned some land in Oregon that he had planted with pinot noir and was impressed enough with what we did in 1994 to sell us grapes in 1995. That’s how we got into Oregon. Since that 1995 vintage we always shipped grapes back to California using a refrigerated truck. The shipping itself is pretty easy, and if the truck is set right around freezing the grapes arrive in fantastic shape. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the sale to Jackson Family Wines, and the larger quantity of wine we were making, we started making more of the wine up in Oregon. So we trucked some of the stuff down but made more of it up in Oregon. I’d fly up every week on Monday, back on Wednesday. Ryan Zepaltas, our assistant winemaker, flew up on Wednesday and back on Friday. So we basically spent the entire week up there.”

I also asked Adam how he might make his Oregon wines differently than he does his Californian bottles. “There are many years where we do have to do things differently with Oregon fruit than California fruit….but in the last few vintages (2014-2016) there were more similarities in the grapes than in other vintages. Thus there wasn’t nearly as much to do differently,” he told me. “One thing we do always is take a look at malic percentages. Oregon can come in with higher malic levels – so although the grapes come in with great acidity, a lot of it falls out through malolactic fermentation. That really wasn’t an issue in 2015.  In fact, 2015 was just about as ideal of a harvest as you could imagine. Arguably the best year we’ve ever had in Oregon.”

The Siduri and Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carltons, like most of the wines in this article, come from the 2015 vintage. I asked Shane Moore, Gran Moraine’s winemaker, about the vintage, and he threw a serious of adjectives at me: “Expressive. Super heady. Great acidity. Transparency.” Capped off with “Pinot lovers rejoice!”

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Siduri’s Yamhill-Carlton is a blend of Gran Moraine Vineyard and the vineyard at Gran Moraine Winery (yes, these are two distinctly different vineyards). Adam explained that “the vineyard at the winery is entirely dry farmed and, even early in the growing season, I knew it was going to be the first grapes picked. You could tell by looking at the early yellowing leaves. That fruit did, indeed, arrive early. We destemmed it all. We let the fruit at the Gran Moraine hang longer (with careful irrigation), which allowed us to get riper stems and utilize more whole clusters in those ferments.”

I found the nose of the Siduri to be deep and hedonistic, offering sweet cherry, cola, ink, cassis, kirsch and rose. It’s full bodied with smooth and plush tannin and bright acidity, everything appearing in good balance that I think will improve even more with time. Flavors are tarter than the nose, delivering cherry, cranberry, huckleberry, wet pavement, pastel florals and a small dose of wet soil. 91 pts, value B+.

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The Gran Moraine, in my experience with this and previous vintages, delivers incredible value for pinot noir. The slightly restrained nose wafts boysenberry, dark earth, olive brine, lightly tanned leather and orange zest. Boarding on full bodied, it has velvety tannins and shiny acid that’s well integrated. The substantial depth of this one demands a good decant, and benefits from keeping it in your mouth for an extended period of time to experience its development. I think this has good medium-term aging potential. Flavors hit on pomegranate, acai, plum, black olive, currant, wet soil and juniper berry. 92 pts, value A-.

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The Penner-Ash Willamette Valley pinot noir is distributed nationally and shows up on a lot of restaurant wine lists around the country. It serves as Penner-Ash’s entry point pinot, and is one that tries to strike a widely appealing profile. I’ve had a number of vintages and it tends to show very little variation from year-to-year, making its consistency an appealing asset for consumers who like knowing what they’re getting each time. Nevertheless, it usually offers good depth for the price, and is one that I always wish I could have a few years of bottle age.

The 2015 has a saturated nose of plummy cherry, Dr. Pepper, graphite and lavender. It’s rocking a full body that enters thick. The tannin is restrained but mouth-filling and slightly grainy, and the acid strikes a good level. Flavors are a briar patch of blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry complimented nicely by baking spice and just a touch of saline. While it’s nice now, I’d love to try this one again in 2020 and expect it to do well for a few additional years. 91 points, value: B+.

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On night number two, I took a similar but more narrow approach in choosing two wines that come from the same vineyard, but then added a white into the mix. The latter, a pinot gris, was my first introduction to WillaZenzie Estate, a winery that quickly became a revelation. All of WillaKenzie’s wines come from their own vineyards, and many of their wines are vineyard-designates. I’ll get to a number of their pinots later, but the 2017 pinot gris has a voluminously perfumed nose of grapefruit, peach, gravel, slate lime zest and marzipan. Lean on entry, it gains body as it sits in the mouth. The acid is nicely balanced, neither subdued nor overbearing. Key Lime pie, starfruit and grapefruit dominate the fruit profile, though the stony minerality really drives the length of this linear, focused wine. Impressive effort. 90 points, Value A.

The two reds hark from the famed Zena Crown vineyard. I asked Shane what makes the vineyard so special. “It’s all about the terroir! Fantastic soils (both volcanic and sedimentary); Great SW facing aspects; cold evening wind at night during the summer; in the sweet spot for Oregon viticulture in terms of elevation at 200-800ft,” he said.

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

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

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Shout out to Zena Crown for the short foil. I’ve long wished wineries eschewed them altogether so customers could see the condition of the cork.

On the third night, I randomly selected three wines: two pinots and a chardonnay. Some Burgundian producers prefer to serve these varieties in what might otherwise be reverse order: red first, then white. Because pinot isn’t a heavy or cloying red, it can be followed by a white that brings sharper acidity and good body. I’ve always preferred this method and followed it again this time to great success.

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The 2015 Willakenzie Pierre Leon was the revelation of this entire Oregon Wine Month line up for me. It offers a very ripe and pretty nose wafting raspberry, cut cherry, perfumed rose and tangerine peel. It’d medium in weight with very juicy acidity, I just love how it coats the mouth. The tannins are subtle, but the wine is no wimp. The flavor profile is also ripe and pretty with raspberry, cherry, potpourri, tangerine, light tobacco, white pepper and Chervil. This is an elegant wine in structure, aroma and flavor. It reminds me of Musigny. I’d love to have it with another 5-8 years of age. 94 points, value A.

Next was the 2015 La Crema Willamette Valley pinot noir, which is another nationally distributed bottle that aims to find all sorts of middle ground and appeal to a wide audience. It has a fairly dark nose featuring cherry compote, raspberry chocolate cake and wet tar. The mouth is round and smooth, the acid bright and the tannins restrained. Flavors are fruit-forward with sweet cherry and strawberry, while subtle pepper and Herbs de Provence drive the finish. Not the most complex wine, but enjoyable. 89 points, value B+.

Finally came the white. The 2015 Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton chardonnay is benchmark Oregon chardonnay in my book and the twinkle in the Gran Moraine eye. Priced in the mid $40s, it’s not cheap, but routinely out performs many of the State’s more expensive chardonnays. This vintage is a stellar one. The nose gives off sweet oak, dried mango, honeysuckle, vanilla custard and a smidge of Earl Grey tea. It’s a plush medium weight on the palate with a bit of a glycerin sensation that I just love. The barrel influence is restrained but present in the structure and flavors as well as the nose, it’s managed just right for this profile. There’s oak vanillin, Meyer lemon, sweet cream, Thai basil, persimmon and dried apricot. 93 points, value A.

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Night number four introduced a rosé. I’m finding more and more that pinot has a pureness about it that other red varieties don’t deliver in rosé form. The 2017 WillaKenzie Estate Rosé delivers serious pureness on the nose, which I completely dug, though the palate seems a bit disjointed at this stage and may need a few months in bottle to merge. It has a nose of bright crushed strawberry, cantaloupe, crushed limestone and coriander. It’s on the fuller side of the rose spectrum, and quite lush. The acid is kicking. The fruit zeros in on strawberry, cranberry and salmon berry, while there are touches of nutmeg and parsley that seem out of place. 88 points, value C.

The 2015 Siduri Willamette Valley pinot noir seemed a little thin and hasn’t quite delineated itself yet on the palate to the point of flavors becoming individually discernible. It has, though, achieved an impressive balance that suggests it can fill out. I suspect it may just need a few more months in bottle to come together. The round, ripe nose is mostly about the strawberry, raspberry and cherry, though dark, wet soil adds some depth. It’s of medium weight on the palate, largely due to the juicy, bright acidity that brings levity. The tannins are quite refined, and the balance is impressive, though ultimately this feels a bit thin. The flavors are slightly muted at this stage. The fruit is a bit generically red, though there are some pretty florals – rose petals mostly – trying to peep through. I think three to six months in the bottle will bring this together, though longer aging is likely unnecessary. 88 points, and on the assumption that it will come together, it gets an A value.

The 2015 Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard pinot noir offers a boatload of potential for the patient. The nose boarders on hedonistic, and offers some killer aromas of iron, black strap molasses and bruised strawberry and blackberry, though it’s obvious that with some bottle age there will be more to come. The body is as full-throttled, and the tannin structure and acid suggest a minimum of 5-6 years is required for it to really come together, though I’d give it a decade to allow the full range of fruit and Earthy flavors to shine: Acai, pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, tar, black tea and black pepper all duck and weave through a robust tannin structure and acid that will need to relax for this wine to show its best self. This will be an all-star if one can wait a solid decade. Penner-Ash’s Estate Vineyard has some cool stuff going on. 92 points, value A-.

For the fifth and final night I reserved all WillaKenzie pinots, though as it turns out, night three’s Pierre Leon was my favorite from the producer. Those four are all part of the estate’s single vineyard bottle program that draw from estate vineyards that are very close to each other, though each has its distinct personality and profile. For those unconvinced of terroir, pouring the Pierre Leon and these three blind, and then showing the vineyard map, ought to be enough to suspect the French were on to something.

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Of the three tasted together, the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Aliette is the most delicate. It’s quite perfumed with a bouquet of Spring flowers and rose potpourri, cherry, strawberry, juniper, clove, and allspice on this high-toned nose. The palate is modest in weight, but round and smooth. Tannin is well integrated, while the acid is pleasantly juicy and slightly tart. The range of red fruit is impressive: strawberry, cranberry, huckleberry and raspberry, plus a not-so-minor role for plum. Tar, pepper and mulled spices feature on the back end. Pretty, but uninspiring at the moment, I suspect it will reach a higher elevation with three to five years of aging. 92 points, value A-.

The 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Kiana gives the impression of purple-ness. Its nose is reserved at the moment, though it offers promise with fruit punch aromas, uncured bacon and molasses. The tannin is fine grained and refined, the acid juicy and the overall weight modest. The flavors a bit more alive than the nose at this stage, with raspberry, boysenberry and pomegranate driving a profile supported by tobacco leaf and tar. Coming together nicely, I think it’ll continue to develop positively over the next five to ten years. 93 points, value: A.

While the 2015 WillaKenzie Estate Emery is a bit reticent on the nose at the moment, it delivers licorice, molasses, blackberry and pepper. The body is big and round, though the acid keeps it plucky and the tannins are integrated sufficiently to maintain the smooth profile. Slightly savory on the palate, it offers uncured bacon, red currant, red plum, Acai, black pepper and tarragon. This is a compelling package that I’d love to revisit in five plus years. 94 points, value A.

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I love Oregon wine. This line up of 15 bottles reaffirmed that. The quality is there. The terroir is there. The talent is there. It’s just a fantastic place to produce high quality pinot and chardonnay that has distinction from the world’s other pinots and chardonnays, as well as, as mentioned above, a number of other varieties (for fans of savory syrah, old school riesling, and refined pinot gris, Oregon has stones worth turning over). It has a soul, which is not something that every wine region can legitimately claim. I think this is in part because the world seems to have left the State relatively alone long enough for it to find its identity and strengths and settle in on its own terms. It’s probably insulting to say that its wine is ready for the world, since it has been for a while now, but commercially it has a lot of unrealized potential and I’d like to see more wine drinkers across the world take note. Oregon Wine Month 2019 is another eleven months away, but don’t sit on Oregon wine until then.

An Epic Five Days in Napa

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The view from my accommodations: Mount St. Helena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of Smith-Madrone’s younger vineyards

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

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Koerner is the man

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

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Richie is the man, too

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

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

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

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

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

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Kelly Fleming’s cave

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

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

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

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

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The author with Elizabeth Smith at Ehlers

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

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

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

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

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The 750 tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spire tasting room (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A gorgeous view from Cardinale’s estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the barrels we tasted

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

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Silverado (credit: Inspirato)

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

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

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The castle (credit: visitnapavalley.com)

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

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

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Hess

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

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Historic vines at Hess

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

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

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

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

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Our tasting room

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

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

 

 

 

 

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Bigger, Badder and Better than Ever: Old Westminster Winery

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Old Westminster Winery was full of energy when I showed up, having just completed bottling a 2017 Nouveau, their first attempt at that style of wine. Nouveau, made famous by the French region Beaujolais, is a light style wine that by French law (when it is produced there) must be sold within the same calendar year that the grapes are harvested. Traditionally made from red grapes, this means as much aging as to mean very little. The wine ends up being a very pure expression of a red wine, something we consumers almost never experience as the reds we drink usually spend a fair amount of time aging in oak barrels that alter everything about the wine. It’s extremely difficult to find Nouveau wines from anywhere other than Beaujolais, which is to say for someone like me, a frustration. The winery’s crew was running around, the bottling truck humming on the crush pad, but here came Drew Baker, the winery’s vineyard guru and my host, sauntering across the lawn towards me as I got out of my car, a big smile on his face delivering a warm welcome. What a way to arrive. And that’s Old Westminster in a nutshell: “what a (fill in the blank)” said with great esteem.

Jumping way ahead to right before I left, Drew took me to a tank in the winery and poured a sample of a wine called Farmer’s Fizz, which will be sold in a 375ml can (the equivalent of half a bottle). As we tasted it, Drew’s sister Ashli, who runs the wine club (and many other things), came over and showed me the video that would announce the canned wine project. Both beaming with pride, they talked about how they had long schemed the project and were still a bit nervous about how it would do. “Do you think it’ll cheapen our brand?” Drew asked.

What a stupid question (sorry Drew). Old Westminster is developing a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the industry, and not just in Maryland. What Drew, Ashli and their sister Lisa (who makes the wine) are doing has drawn praise from every serious wine person I know who has tasted their wine or spent time with them. I’m clearly a cheerleader, as is nationally known wine writer Dave McIntyre, who has written about them several times in The Washington Post. Despite being more than capable of selling their entire inventory through their wine club and out of their tasting room, their wines are being distributed around the tri-“state” area of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as in Chicago and San Francisco. They may also be available further north up the Atlantic Coast in the near future. That’s what happens when distributors active in some of the very top markets in the country taste their wine.

Ring ring.

“Yes, hello?”

“Old Westminster Winery?”

“Yes.”

“Great, send me your wine.”

It’s not just the killer juice that sells people on the winery, it’s the fun and adventure they create for their customers by making things like a Nouveau and canned wine. And, oh, by the way, they now have a skin contact (a.k.a. “orange wine”) pinot gris available as well that is, of course, a complete joy to drink. Then there’s the expanding line of pet nat wines that sell out in no time. And, of course, there are the bottled still wines that are, as I’ve written before and will intimate again in this post, world class. Put all of this together and you have a winery doing a lot of things that a lot of people appreciate. I tasted Farmer’s Fizz, and no, Drew, your reputation won’t suffer. If anything, it will improve.

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Old Westminster has expanded; the second room is new.

How does all this magic happen? It’s hard to describe in one post how much thought these Baker kids put into each and every situation, each and every decision, they make. Here’s one example. The first wines we tasted were “two chardonnays done two ways” from the 2016 vintage. Hailing entirely from the home vineyard (their estate), roughly half the grapes were picked on the early side with the rest harvested five days later. Both were fermented with indigenous yeast. Although they had originally intended to make one blend, as the wines were coming to life in the winery, they realized they had two distinct wines, and so treated them differently and bottled them separately. One was almost entirely raised with stainless, the other a combination of 50% new French, 25% used French, and 25% stainless. The results were distinctively different wines that could be appreciated as coming from the same vines, and better than an amalgamation of the two would have been. Seems like an obvious choice, then, to do two different wines, right? Well, not necessarily. The amount of effort required by dividing the harvest into two separate wines is bigger in time and money than making a single wine. Most wineries would’ve stuck to the original plan. The Bakers made the choice to follow where the grapes were taking them.

Here’s a second example. The Baker family purchased serious acreage on a property called Burnt Hill a year or two ago where they will plant a large vineyard. They consulted with experts, did a ton of research, dug soil pits and tested the crap out of the land, and thought long and hard about what to plant there. The driving question wasn’t “what grape do we need to sell out every vintage?” It was, “what will grow best here?” And it wasn’t just the varietal, it was the clone. Or clones, because the plot is large enough with diverse soils and nutrients to benefit from a variety. Roots stocks are likely a question, too. Up until this visit, I had been told, it’s going to be all about cabernet franc, though different clones for different parcels. Fine, great, I love a good cabernet franc, especially if it’s grown where it should be. Their 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc is special, they know how to make the varietal.

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Not Burnt Hill, but Maryland is gorgeous, right?

But I love syrah more than cabernet franc, and Drew knows that, so when he told me that research on Burnt Hill had continued and that they now intend to plant parcels of syrah near the top of the hill, I got excited. I got excited because I can’t wait for an Old Westminster syrah – if anyone in Maryland is going to produce the best syrah, it’s going to be them (no offense to the current banner carrier of Maryland syrah). And it’s going to be them because, and this is really why I got excited, the amount of research and study that went into that decision is what produces the best wine. I’ve not known a single winery that puts this amount of time and effort into deciding what to plant, let alone what to produce, and does it seemingly purely from the perspective of ‘what can we do best?’ Most wineries, they’d buy the land, do some research, and lay down vines sooner rather than later; let’s get the revenue stream going. The diligence with which the Bakers are approaching Burnt Hill is going to yield amazing wine.

A final example: the canned wine project. To be fair to Drew, because I mocked him about this above, the consumer jury is still out on canned wine. The major projects already rolling in this category are decent but not serious wine. Old Westminster, for all the fun they have, only put out serious wine, even if it’s playful. When Ashli showed me the announcement video, it reminded me of the professionalism and thought they put into their marketing. The design of the can is beautiful, the production of the video as good as they come, and the themes of the video will resonate with consumers. Look at their Facebook page. Check out their regular Facebook Live #WineForDinner series and, I guarantee, you will learn something new about wine every time. Do yourself a favor, take the next two minutes to watch this video. It encapsulates what I think Old Westminster is namely about: an effort to make world class wine in Maryland in a way that people enjoying it understand why it’s so good and feel like they’re an integral part of it.

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Pet Nat capping

Drew and I talked a bit about how it is that Old Westminster gets to be so playful. The answer, he says, is their ability to “enjoy a unique position flexing experimental muscles” that is afforded to them by their direct-to-consumer sales model. Visit the tasting room and you may well be served by Drew or one of his sisters. This gives them the opportunity to explain why their wines are so cool, and why one should try a pet nat or an orange wine. It means they can convey to you why you shouldn’t be surprised that Maryland wine can taste this good. If Old Westminster was relying on other people to sell the wine, they’d have to convince “the trade” of these things, and then hope that their distributors and the retailers take the time to try the wines, let alone understand them and, and this is really a stretch, push them with customers. On the rare occasion a distributor wants to carry their wines, they know it’s because the distributor gets it precisely because selling Old Westminster in Illinois or California is going to take some perseverance. Distributors are about sales, and so will only take on something like Maryland wine if they’re true believers themselves and willing to hustle.

There has to be some wine geek elements to this post, and here they come. Since they were bottling the Nouveau, Drew and I spoke briefly about the 2017 harvest. He described it as a vintage he’d take again, but one that, while solid, will be forgotten in ten years. It began early and warm; Drew recalled pruning in March wearing a t-shirt. June and July were hot with sporadic thunderstorms, which is fairly common. August, however, took a turn for the worst, delivering unusually cold and wet conditions. At the end of the month, Drew felt very pessimistic knowing that there hadn’t been any growing degree days (meaning days warm enough to continue ripening the grapes). Thankfully, September was kind to the vintage and saved it. Temperatures warmed and no rain fell. Harvest came about a week earlier than normal, but the duration of it remained normal. We tasted a number of 2017 wines in tank, and of course, tasted the 2017 Nouveau from a bottle that had been filled and sealed no more than an hour earlier. I’m excited for the final products because the Bakers are making them and will give customers the best of the vintage can offer.

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On to the tasting, which I’m going to cover with formal notes below. I’ve now had probably twenty or more wines from this producer, and all have been good. More than a few have been great. As the family expands their projects, I have no concern that they can maintain the quality. The Bakers seem to learn and grow with every harvest, and I imagine the quality will only improve the more they experiment and experience.

When wines are provided to me for free because of this website, I note that. I wasn’t charged for the tasting or the visit. However, I did come home with eight wines that I purchased myself as part of my wine club membership. Old Westminster is a project of passion for the Baker family. I am all too happy to be a paying beneficiary of their work, and am honored to be allowed to spectate from time-to-time.

One note: some of these wines are yet to be released, and so retail price points are unknown. Wines that aren’t given a value rating fall into this category.

2016 Chardonnay – Aged in 85% stainless and 15% new French oak and harvested on the earlier side. The nose offers sparkling aromas of tropical fruit, florals, sweet cider apples and marzipan. The wine glides onto the palate with a glycerin sensation, but the acid doesn’t mess about and provides a wonderful balance creating a mid-weight wine. Flavors of green apple, lemon zest, starfruit and pineapple fill the mid palate as chalk kicks in on the finish and the acid turns twitchy. I really enjoyed this. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Premier Chardonnay – Aged in 50% new French oak, 25% once-used French oak and 25% stainless steel. The reticent nose is honeyed and slightly buttery but will fill out with some bottle age and oxygen in the glass. The body could be considered almost full, and delivers ripe apples, white pepper, honey drew and that wonderful, nervous, acid. 90 points.

2016 Greenstone – A blend of 58% viognier and 42% gruner vetliner fermented with native yeast, it was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Spicy and floral aromas jump out of the glass and are backfilled with big apples and banana leaf. The body is nicely in the mid weight category, offering baking spices, white pepper, stone fruit and a little bit of saline on the finish. The lovely acid and flavor profile suggests the viognier wasn’t allowed to hang on the vine for too long. This is a brilliant wine. 92 points. Value: A-

2016 Alius – Latin for “something a little different,” this is a semi-carbonic, skin fermented pinot gris with whole berries going into the tank that were allowed to ferment spontaneously. The nose requires air to bloom, but offers cider spice, apple and high-toned smoky pepper at the onset. The palate gives you honeysuckle, ripe strawberries, watermelon and huge amount of texture to ponder. I’ll take this wine in any setting. 90 points. Value: B+

2017 Nouveau – Predominantly cabernet franc, this wine was harvested five weeks before bottling and racked directly into the bottling line. The nose is unmistakably cabernet franc, offering huge doses of cherries, cranberries, baking spices, funk and smoke. The palate goes even further, delivering brilliant and thirst-quenching juicy acidity that makes the fruit shimmer while the masculine texture only briefly distracts from the svelte body. Tannins are light and finely grained. It bursts with cherries and strawberries, and delivers red currant, orange peel and black pepper as well. The question this wine poses is: do you really want to share it? 91 points. Value: B+

Tapestry Third Edition (non-vintage) – A blend of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages and consisting of 42% cabernet franc, 21% merlot, 21% petit verdot, 11% cabernet franc and 5% syrah, this is the latest red wine release. The nose is a bit meaty, and air develops red berries, plums, crushed cherries, huckleberries and hickory smoke. The palate delivers olive brine, smoke, iodine, and black pepper, but the beautiful acid really elevates the fruit, which is dominated by crushed cherries and blackberries. This will age gracefully and with purpose for many years. 92 points. Value: A

2014 Black – Consisting of 38% Antietam Creek merlot, 25% South Mountain cabernet franc, 25% Antietam Creek Petit Verdot and 12% Pad’s View syrah, you might as well call this a reserve wine as it comes from premier vineyards and is a brand-new release having spent a year and a half in oak before resting for another year and a half in bottle. The nose delivers bruised cherries, Acai berries, cinnamon, scorched Earth, hickory smoke and black pepper, and is utterly captivating with extended decanting. The palate is mouth-coating with round but firm tannins that will require time to fully release. Bright acid delivers a medley of red, black and blue berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, subtle olive and smoke. It finishes with a kick of cracked black pepper. This is just a baby, it stands to improve with your patience. 93 points now, likely more in the future. This is up there with the 2014 Malbec and 2014 Antietam Creek cabernet franc as my favorite Old Westminster reds to date.

California is Burning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napa 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mendocino

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

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

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

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

 

Zachys DC is Open and Raring to Go

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The new opening of a location of Zachys in Washington, DC is a big deal for the local wine market. Even though the location won’t have a retail storefront – at least for now – bringing one of the most influential names in wine to the District says something about the growing power and sophistication of the market here.

Zachys is bringing a number services to DC: wine storage; direct-to-consumer sales of wines otherwise not offered DTC to DC customers; tastings and classes; wine dinners; a customized corporate tasting service; collection assessment; other TBD events; and, for the first time in thirty years, a live wine auction. That last one isn’t an insignificant deal.

Wine auctions signal an opportunity to at least be around, if not acquire, the world’s best and often rarest wine. Putting aside for now the recent past proliferation of fake wine facilitated in part by wine auctioneers, including Zachys – a topic to be discussed in an upcoming Good Vitis review of In Vino Duplicitas – Zachy’s DC existence means a new and much higher level of access in DC to wines that likely wouldn’t otherwise be available to locals. While I imagine the best of Zachys’ lots will remain the purview of its New York auctions, Zachys wouldn’t have made the decision to enter the DC market if it didn’t think our market wasn’t craving a higher level of wine.

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Wine auctions are held in the biggest, most prestigious wine markets in the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Geneva, and Paris are the standards. Although the biggest general auctioneers like Christie’s and Sotheby’s haven’t visited DC in a while, within the world of wine auctions Zachys is among the very top and their decision to auction wine in DC – their appropriately named inaugural “Capital Collection” auction will take place on October 27th and 28th of this year – marks Washington’s entrance onto that top stage, something that shouldn’t go unnoted.

Last Friday, I attended a grand opening party at Zachys, which featured sixteen different tables pouring wine from California, Virginia, France and Italy ranging in price from $14 to $1,110. From top to bottom these were good wines, many hitting their price point with impressive quality. The ability to source such a lineup is indicative of what I think Zachys is going to bring to my local market: a large range of impressive wines where anyone – even those who will never lift a bidding paddle – can find what they want. Welcome to town, Zachys!

Before signing off, I’ll highlight a few of the wines I found particularly impressive:

2014 MacMurray Range Central Coast Pinot Noir: At $19.99 it’s the best $20 California pinot noir I’ve had.

2013 RdV Vineyards Virginia Rendezvous Red Blend: While many feign spending $70 on a wine from Virginia, it stood out among the domestic offerings as the most multidimensional.

2015 Domaine Leon Boesch Sylvaner Les Peirres Rouges: a Sylvander for Sylvander haters and lovers, everyone should try this pleasurable $16 wine.

2014 Domaine Blain-Gegnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru La Boudriotte: The best white Burgundy of the night for me, I placed an order. Hard to beat at $59.99.

2014 Jl Chave Selections Saint Joseph Offerus: Year-in and year-out, this is a classic from one of the regions of the Rhone valley producing some of the prettiest syrahs. The 2014 doesn’t disappoint, and is a real value at $32.99.

2008 Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emillion: Really popping right now, it has all the classic St. Emillion notes and is far from poorly priced at $64.99.

2011 Chateau Margaux: Yes, it’s barely crawling at this stage, but when it gets to a full gallop…

2004 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Rocche dell`Annunziata Torriglione: From a 3 liter. Dear God, this was the best wine of the night. The bittersweet cocoa that comes with age on a fine Barolo is out in force. What a pleasure and treat.

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2012 Antinori Marchesi Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino: Despite having attended the Consorzio del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino’s 2012 vintage tasting in New York earlier this year, I hadn’t yet had this marvel of a wine that is, for me, a standout wine in a standout vintage. I grabbed a few for myself.

For the Love of Wine

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Caught in the embrace of one of the Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge pinot noirs reviewed below

I’m far, far behind on uploading wine reviews so I’m doing Good Vitis’ first post focused exclusively on reviews to clear out the closet. What follows is an assortment of wines that have nothing other than cohabitation in my cellar as their commonality. These are not samples, but wines I’ve collected over the years, those I’ve shared with friends and a few that I received as gifts.

It is, I must admit, a bit exciting to share wines that I selected myself as opposed to most of the wines I write about on Good Vitis, which I receive as samples, drink at wineries and media/industry events. While I’ve many great wines through those means, I’m almost always happiest drinking wines I’ve collected myself because they are wines that are of particular interest to me. It isn’t surprising then that several of the wines below are likely to be among my top wines of 2017, notably the 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge, 2012 Cameron Clos Eletrique blanc, 2011 Domaine Fevre Montee de Tonnerre and the incredibly cool and impressive 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ, which is a white wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape that is normally used to make Sherry.

2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points. Value: A.

Backstory: Cameron’s Abbey Ridge means a few things to me. First, right now it’s the best pinot noir I’ve ever had. Second,I’ve had the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2010 vintages in the last year and they’ve been proof that high quality pinot benefits from extended aging. And third, they’re incredibly hard to find, so for a wine hunter/chaser like myself there’s an extra thrill earned by simply finding a bottle, especially older vintages. At the moment this is my favorite winery.

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2007 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill (Washington) – Smelling beautifully these days, offering aromas of cow blood, high toned cherries, red plums, soy sauce, graphite, smoke and a not insignificant amount of heat. The body holds an upright stature, it’s full bodied but the acid is strong and keeps it from becoming cloying. The alcohol is a bit hot here as well, though the tannic structure is gorgeous. The flavors are Earthy with a lot of iodine, graphite, smoke, garrigue, lavender, black plums, crushed blackberries and a lot of slate-y minerality. This is still a gorgeous, complex wine, but it was better a few years ago. The heat, which wasn’t there three years ago, tells me it’s starting to decline. I’d say drink up remaining bottles soon.  93 points. Value: B

Backstory: Delille’s Harrison Hill is the first great wine I ever had. For many years I would buy two of each vintage, age them 5-8 years before opening the first, and have one per year on my birthday. I still do this, except I stopped buy them in 2011 when the price shot up to $90 and I found myself gravitating away from Bordeaux-style blends. It may not be my favorite wine anymore, but it’s no less special.

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2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (France) – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: My favorite white wine, pound-for-pound, is Montee de Tonnerre chardonnay from Chablis. My favorite Montee de Tonnerre is made by William Fevre. I’ve finally figured out that extended aging of Chablis tends to lesson the nervous edge and wily verve that draws me to Chablis, and now I know how to maximize my Fevre investments. This 2011 was the final data point in that research project.

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2010 Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Vineyard (Washington) – Classic Red Mountain wine. The expressive nose offers scorched Earth, loads of graphite, a little cola, orange rind, cocoa and high toned cherries. The full body offers fine, dusty tannins that are developing some polish as they get close to full integration. The acidity is bright and plays off the barely sweet red and black fruit, which is led by cherries, plums and pomegranate. There’s a lot of graphite, some saline and just a bit of smoke and mushroom. This is drinking nicely right now, I get the feeling it’s just starting to emerge of a long slumber. It has the tannic backbone and acid to go for at least a few more years, though I’m not sure the concentration will hold pace. An impressive 2010 that winemaker David Larson told me “was a challenging vintage and required all of my skills to make.” 92 points. Value: A

Backstory: Soos Creek is one of the very best values in America wine, especially for someone with a cellar and some patience. Many of their wines are sourced from  the upper pantheon Washington vineyards, yet none go for more than $45. Comparable, bigger name wineries that source from the same vineyards are often priced at least $15 if $20 higher, if not double the price. They’re also built to benefit from short to medium term cellaring, a solid 3-8 years post-release from my experience, and so if patience is exercised, not only is the wine spectacular, but for people like me who appreciate value there is an added bonus.

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2009 Waters Syrah Forgotten Hills (Washington) – Opulent unami nose of bacon fat, venison jerky, saline, hickory smoke and green pepper. No real fruit to speak of and it’s nothing worse for the wear. The palate is medium plus in stature with fully integrated and polished tannins and well balanced, but quite prevalent, acid. Again, there’s little fruit here with really just hints of cherries, crushed blackberries and boysenberries. It’s the savory notes that speak the loudest: pork belly, venison blood, general iodine, saline, hickory smoke, thyme and soy sauce. What a masterclass in New World syrah. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: the 2007 vintage of this wine was my gateway to savory syrahs. I know for most that gateway is the Rhone Valley, but growing up in Seattle I owe Waters for that lesson. This 2009 was the first time I was able to revisit Waters’ wine and it brought back memories of that epiphany many years ago.

2011 Avennia Gravura (Washington) – This is in an interesting stage in its evolution. From the get-go, the tannins seem advanced in their textual integration. However, on the palate they are still binding some flavors up tight. The nose is a bit quiet, but has nice cherry, raspberry, wet dirt, black pepper, and orange zest aromas. The body is medium in weight with dense but polished tannins, juicy acidity and nearly integrated alcohol (just a slight bite). The palate offers cherries, blueberries and black plums along with a lot of graphite, some iodine and smoke. Overall a nicely-executed and satisfying wine, but fairly straightforward and uninspiring. This has a liveliness now that will fade with time, and I’m not convinced that it’ll be replaced by anything more compelling, so I’m drinking my stash in the next year or two. 91 points. Value: C-

Backstory: When Avennia came onto the seen I got excited because its winemaker came from Delille Cellars. I immediately started buying half a case a year to lay down and recently I’ve begun to test them out. Their syrahs are very, very good. This Gravura, a Bordeaux Blend, was a little underwhelming, but given the rough vintage it was enough to satiate my Avennia craving for another few months until the syrahs in my cellar start emerging from their developmental stage.

2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ (Spain) – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: A local retailer near me, Chain Bridge Cellars, introduced me to Silvia Puig’s En Numeros Vermells side project (executed in her garage) a few years back, and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. Each year the importer pours the wines and I enjoy tasting with him. This year he introduced a new white made from the Pedro Ximinez grape, which is used to make Sherry, and I was instantly captivated. It’s a wild experience and I took several bottles home. I’m not sure it’s going to benefit from any aging, but I don’t care because it’s that good right now.

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2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique (Oregon) – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points. Value: A

Backstory: Back to Cameron. I said above their Abbey Ridge is my favorite pinot noir. Their Clos Eletrique blanc is giving Montee de Tonnerre a run for it’s status as my favorite chardonnay. I’ve many debates with winemakers about whether it’s worthwhile to age chardonnay, and as I find my footing with aging Chablis I’m going through the same process with Cameron’s various chardonnays, which I’ve been stocking up on. This 2012 was really great when I had it last month, and I’m at odds with myself over how long to hold my remaining stash of the vintage. I’ll end up metering it out just to see, but that means exercising serious restraint.

2014 Drouhin Oregon Roserock Chardonnay (Oregon) – A generally pleasant and agreeable chardonnay, but a bit forgettable. It has evidence of oak on the nose and palate, and in the structure, but it doesn’t hide nice tropical and citrus fruits and standard chardonnay field notes. Solid and well made, but it won’t knock any socks off. Drinking nicely right now, the acid is solid but isn’t sufficient to suggest longer-term cellaring. 90 points. Value: C

Backstory: when this wine came out there was a rash of positive reviews in the professional wine media and blogosphere. I didn’t exactly rush out to find a bottle, but I kept my eyes open. While a solid wine, it just didn’t speak to me like it apparently did to many others. A good reminder that you shouldn’t put too much credence in others’ opinions when the topic is something as subjective as wine.

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2013 Bodegas El Nido Jumilla Clio (Spain) – Big briary nose: tons of black and blue fruit and barrel notes on this one. Crushed blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, sweet vanilla, toasted oak, baking spice and licorice. The full, lush body has nicely integrated chewy tannin and sufficient acid to balance the sweet fruit. There’s big alcohol on this one that is evidenced not in bite, but body, so it doesn’t detract. The palate offers a ton of black plum, blackberry, licorice, black pepper, graphite and cinnamon. I enjoyed this straight out of the bottle and over time, it’s ready to go now. Too big a wine for me on most days, but when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine this is near the top of my list. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: the review has the critical piece: when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine the Clio is near the top of my list. I had a 2006 El Nido (non-Clio) a few years back, which is their ~$125 flagship wine, and found it incredibly disappointing. It’s made by a very famous and respect Australian winemaker and it tasted like an Australian wine made from Spanish grapes, which to me was a real sin. The Clio doesn’t make this mistake, it’s entirely a big Spanish wine, and I love it for its authenticity. The Clio usually benefits from a few years of bottle aging, but more than that and it loses it’s most appealing asset: it’s outlandish youthful vigor.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullon (Spain) – Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: I was really taken with the comeback of the mencia grape in Spain when I was introduced to it through Palacio’s entry-level bottle, the Petalos. The Corullon is the next step up in that winery’s line of mencia bottlings and for $20 bucks more than the Petalos you get something really very special with many pretty notes.

2010 DeLille Cellars Syrah Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard (Washington) – Decanted for two hours, seems like a good first move at this stage with the wine. The nose is dominated by French oak, and offers macerated blackberries, black plums, iodine and lightly tanned tobacco leaf as secondary notes. The body is full and the acid is juicy. The tannin structure offers really well formed and grippy tannins that integrate seamlessly and avoid locking up the wine. The texture reminds me of a Cote Rotie in a very good way, it’s the highlight of the wine. Concentration is a bit lacking, though that’s a vintage liability. This is fruit forward with raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but offers substantial baking spices as well. Beautifully crafted wine from a tough vintage, this is enjoyable stuff. Modest depth and concentration hold it back from greatness. 92 points. Value: C

Backstory: I acquired this as part of a wine club shipment from a number of years back. The most appropriate thing I can say about it is that it’s an excellent example of the fruit-forward stylistic type of Washington syrah. Unlike the Waters mentioned above, it doesn’t offer savoriness as it’s focus is on the fruit and baking spice.

2012 Crowley Pinot Noir Entre Nous (Oregon) – Nose: quite reticent, even after two hours in the decanter. Dark cherry, plum, cola wet soil and graphite. The body is full with fully integrated polished, lush tannins that is evidence of the warm vintage. The acid finds a nice stride but is secondary. Concentration is a big lacking here, but the flavors include slightly tart cherries, blood orange, sassafras bark, and mild black pepper. It finishes a bit tart. Nice profile but the thin concentration really holds it back. A bit disappointing. 89 points. Value: C-

Backstory: essentially the same as the Drouhin chardonnay mentioned above. A few people in the blogosphere freaked out about this and I found it disappointing in that in a vintage known for full flavor and density it lacked concentration.

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2010 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Really benefits from a 2+ hour decant. The nose is classic Cameron Abbey Ridge: brooding red fruits, blood orange, wet dirt, underbrush, highly perfumed rose and petrol. The body is medium in weight and stature, offering bright acidity and light, chewy tannin. The fruit is just slightly sweet, but offers nice tartness: raspberry, cranberry, cherry, huckleberry and plum. There’s thyme-infused rose water, sweet rosemary, smoke and a big spike of orange zest in the mid palate. Not my favorite vintage, but still an upper pantheon pinot noir. This may have a bit more to unpack with another five-ten years, but it’s drinking nicely right now. 92 points. Value: C-

Backstory: I’ve said enough about Cameron already, but I’ll just point out that I drank this too young. It’s a very important piece of data in my research on how long to age Abbey Ridge pinot.

2013 J. Bookwalter Conflict Conner Lee Vineyard (Washington) – Better with some serious decanting. The lovely nose offers crushed cherries and blackberries, loads of dark plum, cassis, black currants and cracked pepper. The body is full with thick, lush tannin and good grip. The acid is bright while the alcohol is still integrating. There’s a solid amount of graphite to go with loads of plum and cherries and strong undercurrents of black tea, cocoa and cinnamon and a saline finish. A solidly enjoyable wine now, it stands to improve over the next five years. 90 points. Value: D

Backstory: this was a gift from a family member. Bookwalter is know for big wines, and when I want that, as noted above, I go for something more like the Clio. That said, the Conflict was very enjoyable with some decanting and it didn’t last long. Ideally, I think, this is consumed between 2019 and 2022.

2013 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (Washington) – A bit muted at the moment, the deliciously dark nose offers jammy blackberries, bark, stewed plums, licorice, spearmint and smoke. The body is full with dense, slightly grainy tannins and good acid frame a dense core of black and blue fruits, licorice, wet soil, pencil lead, burnt orange rind and mocha. The alcohol is well integrated, this has great balance. Very pleasing now, give it five years to unwind and it will be fantastic. 92 points. Value: B

Background: another family gift, it had been years since I’d had an Abeja cabernet. I was taken by Abeja years ago but as I developed a taste for wines typically more restrained that Washington cabernets I strayed. While this 2013 doesn’t have me begging to get back into Abeja’s good graces, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t start buying a few in the years ahead. It’s very, very tasty stuff with really nice complexity and depth.

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Sun setting over Mutiny Bay, Washington (I’m enjoying my summer vacation)

Taste Camp 2017: Maryland. Hits, misses and near misses.

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Taste Camp takes over Black Ankle

No one told me that what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp, but I can’t help but think that there are things that happen at Taste Camp that should stay at Taste Camp. It’s that kind of thing, essentially wine camp for fully grown adults where our basic needs are taken care of for us. We’re given the schedule, driven around in a bus, go where we’re told to go and taste what’s put in front of us. After dinner, people meet in the hotel to consume wine and stay up late. People who fall asleep on the bus get their picture taken and mocked (as I learned firsthand), inside jokes develop at supersonic speed, and practical jokes aren’t uncouth. So what happens at Taste Camp stays at Taste Camp seems like an appropriate rule.

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The author, asleep, on the Taste Camp bus

This was the eighth year of Taste Camp, but my first. Organized by Lenn Thompson of famed The Cork Report blog, each year focuses on a new state and its wine. This year’s locale was Maryland, which made life easy for me.  Informal activities began on a Thursday night while official programming kicked off Friday morning with the crew from Old Westminster. I was unable to join the group until Saturday, and so my coverage unfortunately does not include what I still believe is the best Maryland winery. If you’re curious to find out more about Old Westminster, you can read a prior post I wrote about the winery and the family behind it. As far as I’m concerned they remain the only “don’t miss” stop on the Maryland wine trail.

Throughout my Maryland wine adventures, not just Taste Camp, I’ve noticed a few things. First, Maryland can be the home to world class wine so long as, and only so long as, the wine industry embraces Maryland’s uniqueness. For example, Maryland does not get enough warm days to produce big wines. This means grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot turn out wine a lot less like California or Bordeaux than some wineries seem to desperately want. They end up more subtle, leaner and often with under ripe fruit flavors. To counter this they attempt to do things like age the wine in 100% new French oak and end up turning out wines dominated by the influence oak, which wipes out nuances and personality. Many of the Maryland reds I’ve had aged in French oak take on an overwhelming tannic structure that takes far longer to release than the underlying juice can survive without declining. I’ve tried a number of newly released and aged red blends from across the state that saw either full or close to full new oak aging that don’t have, and won’t have, any of the rich fruit characteristics inherent to the style they’re modeled after. That may be fine for the casual wine drinker, but they’re often priced well above the price point the casual consumer buys with any regularity.

Another example of the choice many Maryland winemakers make to produce grapes that aren’t the most comfortable in Maryland is creating white programs that don’t include vidal blanc. Many wineries produce a chardonnay, usually barrel fermented, and may focus on albarino, the grape many winemakers in the state feel can be its signature white varietal, or sauvignon blanc, and even gruner vetliner. The challenge in Maryland for any white production is again the lack of consistent patterns of sustained heat, and none of these varietals have a history of producing great wines under such a climate (although gruner gets the closest). This often shows in the glass with whites that fail to achieve a good concentration, which leads to simple wines. The grape actually made to work in such a climate is vidal blanc, and although it doesn’t carry the cache of these other white varietals or the ability to develop the complexity or depth of them (when grown where they thrive), when approached from day one as a meticulous winemaker would approach any other, it can be, and in several examples I’ve tasted, much better than the vast majority of these other varietals coming out of Maryland.

The final observation I’ll share is that the industry is incredibly young and has a ceiling it hasn’t come close to touching yet. It can get there, if my opinion matters, by embracing what the state can do well and then focusing on that. This means, in addition to taking a look in the mirror and questioning their varietal selection, going deeper into the ground and really, truly examining what their soils can offer and then align those with not only the best varietals, but the best clones. Maryland, especially like Virginia but really like every other wine producing region in America, has seen an influx of wineries that far outpace vineyard planting and production. This rush to produce wine means that the state isn’t yet producing enough fruit to satisfy its wineries, and in that rush wineries are purchasing out-of-state grapes, juice and shiners while planting vineyards without taking the requisite time – measured in years, not months – to do the necessary research and trials prior to committing to a crop.

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A Big Cork Vineyard

In winemaking there is often the unfortunate reality that there is a difference between what you want to produce, what you can produce, and what you should produce. I may be biased, but the winemakers behind many of my favorite wines from around the world usually begin with the belief that wine is made in the vineyard. From what I’ve seen in Maryland, I can count on one hand the amount of wineries taking that perspective. The best of these is Old Westminster, which Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post recently profiled as taking exactly this approach. I went into Taste Camp hoping to see more recognition of this, and while I got the impression from one or two wineries I hadn’t yet come across that they get this, it seems pretty clear to me that the industry as a whole has yet to acknowledge this reality.

I joined the group bright and early on Saturday morning as we boarded the bus to Black Ankle, one of the pioneers of the renaissance of the Maryland winery movement that began in the mid-2000s and since their first vintage considered among the state’s very best. They gave the Taste Camp crew a real treat: vertical tastings of their two signature red wines going back to the first vintage of each. We began with their Bordeaux-styled Crumbling Rock and tasted the 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages. The 2006 did not seem old at all, with a discernable tannic structure still in place. The fruit had mellowed and was slightly burnt, but still enjoyable, while there were fantastic herbaceous notes and some orange zest. It was my second favorite of the lineup falling just behind the 2012, which is a baby still showing primary fruit. It was quite smooth, well integrated and balanced. The 2010 was also  nice, my third choice, and featured very juicy red fruit, nice florals and a dense, grainy tannic structure. It is no coincidence that these three vintages were the only ones to receive less than 100% new French oak. The second vertical featured Black Ankle’s Leaf-Stone 100% varietal syrah. The youngest, the 2007, was my favorite as it hit on the savory side of the syrah slope: leather, hickory smoke, and maple syrup bacon. It was fantastic and one my top-five wines of the weekend. The 2013 stood out as well, though is a few years too young at this point. The profile of smoke, mint, herbs, saline and florals crowds out the fruit at the moment, but I imagine this will develop into a top-flight syrah.

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The Black Ankle lineup

From Black Ankle we ventured to Big Cork, who put us through a tasting of current releases. We began with the 2016 sauvignon blanc that offered sweet tropical fruit, florals and musty aromas and was full bodied on the palate with peach, apricots and some creaminess. I found it to be too clean and watery, lacking in personality. Up next was the 2015 viognier, which was aged in 70% stainless and 30% oak (which was fermented in the barrel). The nose was a bit reticent but offered some soapiness, lean tropics, citrus and vanilla. The body offered very nice acidity, citrus and baking spices. I wouldn’t have necessarily picked this out of a blind tasting as a viognier, which is neither a good nor bad thing, although I found it lacking an identity.

We moved onto the 2016 rose of syrah, an excellent effort with a gorgeous nose and lush body full of red, black and blue berries and rose water. Next was the 2015 Meritage red blend, which offered a skunky nose that suggested Brett. There was also a fair amount of cedar and dark fruit. The body was medium in stature with grainy tannins and restrained fruit. The florals were pretty and played off a little petrol and cassis on the mid palate. I found this to be neither good nor bad. They then treated us to their 2013 Reserve Malbec, which had a lovely nose of potpourri, red berries and black pepper. The medium body gave flavors of acai, raspberry and dark plum, lavender, wet soil, and pepper. All of this was very appreciated but unfortunately the barrel influence weighted heavily on the wine and overshadowed everything else.

The next wine was the 2014 nebbiolo, which was fantastic. The nose offered licorice, tobacco, red berries and leather while the palate at this point is an acid bomb with good tannic structure, meaning this is going to age gracefully and develop over time. There is huckleberry, salmon berry, cranberry, spice, leather and balsamic flavors at the moment. It needs five-plus years before uncorking. We finished with their Black Cap, a port wine made from raspberries. While enjoyable, it was myopically raspberry on the nose and palate, although it came off a bit medicinal at moments.

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The tasting at Big Cork

After our tasting of Big Cork’s wine, their hospitality extended to allowing smaller wineries to use space in the winery to pour their wines for us. I will say that I am incredibly impressed by the camaraderie and gentility Maryland wineries share among themselves. There’s a recognition that a rising tide raises all boats that engenders an honest effort to rally around this principle. The bigger names seem to enthusiastically pull heavy loads in an effort to assist the collective effort to improve the state’s reputation for wine.

We tasted a number of wineries in the back of Big Cork, including Knob Hall, Mazzaroth Vineyard, Antietam Creek, Catoctin Breeze and Hidden Hills Farm and Vineyard. All of these, I believe, were new to me and were a welcomed shift in our itinerary to smaller producers. Knob Hall poured three wines including their 2015 cabernet franc rose, 2015 chambercin and 2014 Reserve cabernet franc. The rose stood out among the three as quite lovely, offering a little spice, florals and very pure but not over the top red fruit. Mazzaroth was only pouring one wine as it had sold out of everything else (a nice problem to have), a vidal blanc that offered a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, cantaloupe and vanilla custard. The body was lush but leaned out a bit by crisp acidity that exposed honeydew, vanilla and some herbal elements. This is one of the vidal blancs I’d use to demonstrate that the varietal can be as good as, if not better than, any of the others.

Antietam Creek poured its 2015 chardonnay, which spent eight months in oak, half of it new, but was not put through malolactic. The result was a prototypical American chardonnay that offered notes like banana, vanilla, apricot and primary barrel flavors with a structure driven by oak aging. While not my flavor of chardonnay, it was a solid. The 2015 Antietam Reserve red is a clearly well-made wine that was medium in body and dominated by red and purple fruit, petrol, smoke and pepper. Their third offering was a varietally-labeled petit verdot that impressed. The nose was a bit reticent with its pepper and cherry, but the body was impressively smooth for a wine featuring 75% petit verdot (the remainder is merlot, which was the right choice to smooth out the edges and provide more body). It has nice cherry, hickory smoke and pepper.

The standout producer, not only at this stop in our itinerary but throughout the weekend, was Catoctin Breeze Vineyard. They presented three impressive wines that were all among my top-5 from the weekend. Their 2016 chardonnay was pitched as a Chablis-styled effort, and I was dumbstruck when it actually delivered a bit on that approach. Far too many domestic chardonnay producers boast about aiming for what is a particularly difficult style to emulate and utterly fail. Chardonnay from Chablis is racy, streaky, and nervous, not to mention layered with complexities. Catoctin Breeze ages some of its chardonnay in stainless and some in oak, 90% of which is second-year barrels. It turns out a ripe, round nose with classic tropical, vanilla and gravely aromas while the body achieves a very desirable balance with good acid and a deft leanness. It has nice minerality, limestone and lime notes and is just a touch creamy while it finishes with a Chablis-esque verve.

Their 2015 cabernet franc was equally great. The fantastic nose had high-toned cherries and huckleberries with petrol and pepper. The medium body featured elegant, polished tannin and penetrating red fruit including cherries, rhubarb and plums, plus that vegetal profile that most wineries unfortunately steer away from. Really awesome stuff. The last wine was their 2015 Oratorio barbera, which had a pretty nose featuring florals, orange zest and pepper while the body, quite full in stature, had wonderful leather, mint, cherry and rose. The tannic structure was substantial and will allow this to age for quite some time.

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Backroom Big Cork tasting

The next day we ventured to Boordy Vineyards and Winery, one of the biggest producers in the state. Again, we were graciously hosted as were several smaller wineries who were able to pour their wines for us. Boordy recently completed a winery makeover that is truly spectacular and would make any winemaker drool. The winery receives more than 80,000 visitors annually which as driven big growth in direct-to-consumer sales.

Boordy’s 2016 albarino showed why many believe it deserves to be Maryland’s signature white varietal. The Boordy rendition offered lime, peach, mango and flint on the nose while the medium-sized body offered sweet lemon, pineapple, green apple and marzipan. Their 2015 chardonnay, which saw 30% new oak and barrel fermentation, had a mineral-driven nose with a little chalk, lemon, lime and oak vanilla. The body is on the lighter end of the spectrum and featured bright acidity, good minerality, white pepper and reserved citrus, though the structure is clearly driven by its extensive relationship with oak. I found myself, however, wishing for greater concentration as the flavors were a little too lean.

We were then poured the 2016 cabernet franc rose, which was dominated by strawberry on the nose and palate, but also featured raspberries and huckleberries. The 2014 cabernet franc had a nice bloody nose along with cherries, smoke and pepper. The body was medium and had nicely polished tannins, but again the concentration was insufficient to establish a real presence and personality. We finished with their flagship Landmark Reserve, made in only exceptional years. This one was the 2013. The nose is quite young and hasn’t yet come together, but is promising. The medium body is very smooth and offers red and black fruits, iodine and saline, parsley, tobacco and dark cocoa. It is reticent and still too young, though the dense grainy tannic structure suggests it might improve with age. Again, however, I experienced low concentration in this one and a lack of distinction owing to the dominance of oak.

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Boordy’s new winery

Following Boordy, we tasted a number of smaller producers. The first was Chateau Bu-De whose consulting winemaker poured the wines. Bu-De sources grapes from Maryland, Pennsylvania and California and focused on vineyard-designates. Naturally we tasted their Maryland wines. The first was the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm sauvignon blanc, which had a reticent nose giving off elements from malolactic fermentation. The body is full and round, crisp but not particularly acidic. The palate is soft and features lychee, lime, slate, spearmint and vanilla. It’s a very easy drinker, I’d say a porch pounder. We then tried the 2015 Bohemian Manor Farm gruner vetliner. A majority of the wine was fermented in barrel, which is an unusual approach to producing the variety and showed in the final product. It is full and lush with low acid, which is not how one would typically describe gruner. It offered lime, apricot and white pepper on top of a chalky sensation. The structure is good but it doesn’t offer a ton of varietal character, making me wonder why one would take such an approach. I’d only recommend it for people who don’t like traditional gruner.

Next was their 2015 barrel fermented chardonnay, which was fresh and bright on the nose but full and creamy on the palate and dominated by zesty lime rind. This was entirely dominated by oak and uninteresting. We finished with the Bohemian Manor Farm cabernet franc, whose reticent, sweet nose belied what is a full bodied wine with blue fruit that pops. It also offers wet dirt and a nice green pepper spice. The tannins are big and this wine will improve with time, I found it to be the most compelling of the lineup.

I also tasted through wines from Dodon, Royal Rabbit, Harford and Crow Vineyards (whose vidal blanc I called a standout at the Maryland Wineries Association’s 2017 Winter Wine Festival). I’m not going to go through all the wines, but I do want to call out Dodon’s 2015 Dungamon blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot which is a wine to follow over the next 10 years, and Royal Rabbit’s Il Barone barbera which I found quite interesting with funky and fresh aromas and flavors and great concentration.

I owe some sizable and sincere gratitude for the weekend. Lenn Thompson, Taste Camp’s founder and organizer, is the man. Thanks dude. Visit Frederick, who helped facilitate much of the weekend, was a fantastic host, as was the city itself. It’s a great city to spend a long weekend, with or without the kids. If you live or are traveling through the Mid-Atlantic, I strongly urge you to give it some time. The Maryland Wineries Association, who helped organize many of the tastings, is doing a good job representing the state’s wines. And finally, a thanks to my fellow campers who made the weekend a lot of fun. And finally, a big thanks to those whose pictures I ripped off for this post.

Final thought: don’t skip Maryland wine, but as I’ve suggested to the state’s wineries, pay close attention to how you do it. Find those who are approaching wine production intelligently and you stand a good chance of being impressed.

Doing big things quietly: Rombauer delivers

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Picture credit: rombauer.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An optical sorter. Picture credit: rombauer.com

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

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

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