Merlot is Back

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Picture source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Decoy

Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

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


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

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

Other merlot reviews:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try This Wine: A $34 Rosé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rutherford Hill

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

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

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Marisa Taylor (second from the left)

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

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

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

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

Where to buy:

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

Try this Wine: Make Merlot Great Again

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Credit: giphy.com

I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” That’s a line shouted by a character named Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, in the exceptional Hollywood movie Sideways, a movie which came out around the time merlot sales began to tank in America. Because merlot bashing was a persistent storyline throughout the movie, many people believe it was responsible for merlot’s commercial failings.

While the movie condemned merlot, it promoted pinot noir in a parallel storyline. “Why are you so into pinot? It’s like a thing with you,” Miles’ love interest asked him mid-movie. He responded with a long, thoughtful answer that ends with “it’s flavors are the most haunting and brilliant, thrilling and subtle…” Sideways also came out around the time that pinot noir sales began to sky rocket.

“Merlot sales had nothing to do with Sideways,” winemaker Chris Carpenter told me not that long ago. Among many great wines like Lokoya and Cardinale that he makes, Chris makes some of the very best merlot. “It had everything to do with a lot of bad merlot being made at the time, and an over-investment in bad merlot vineyards by the industry in the decade or so leading up to Sideways.”

Chris and I were discussing merlot for an upcoming Good Vitis piece on the variety. The first (and only) wine I’ve made myself, from scratch, was a merlot. My mom’s go-to wine when I lived at home was merlot. And it’s a key contributor to many of my favorite red blends. Though it’s never been my favorite variety on its own, I do think that it gets an unfortunate shake these days and I wanted to understand why. Hence the upcoming piece focused on merlot.

Adam Lee, who I’ve written about in these pages before, has been producing pinot noir in California for decades, and I asked him what he thought of the Sideways theory. “I don’t buy it, but I’m not sure why,” he said. The more he thought about it, the more he saw parallels to what happened to merlot before Sideways and what happened to pinot noir after Sideways. “It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot,” he said.

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

Chris and Adam are two of many who I’m talking with for research on the merlot piece, so more on that in the future. In the lead up to that article, though, I want to suggest that people take another swing at merlot because it’s a great grape. One of the ironically hilarious nuggets of Sideways is that the pinnacle wine for Miles is Cheval Blanc, a wine from Saint Emilion in Bordeaux that is a predominantly merlot blend and among the most highly respected and sought-after wines in the world. The 2016 vintage, which retails for around $750 per bottle and received lavish praise from all the big critics, is 59.5% merlot.

The fact is that some of the most esteemed wines in the world have substantial portions of merlot in them, while many winemakers rely on merlot to make their best cabernet sauvignon. Though far more popular than merlot, cabernet sauvignon makes a less complete wine than merlot on its own. If not grown exceptionally well, cabernet feels like a donut in your mouth: substantial around the sides with a hole in the middle. Merlot fills that hole, and brings some nice flavors to the party as well. If I’m given the choice between a 100% cabernet and 100% merlot of equal caliber, I’m going with the merlot every time.

If I can motivate a few people to give merlot another try, then I’m going big with my pick: I want to suggest a bottle made by Chris Carpenter at the Mt. Brave Winery in California, which uses fruit from Mt. Veeder, a particularly great mountain site to grow red Bordeaux varieties.

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Mt. Brave’s vineyards on Mt. Veeder. Credit: Mt. Brave Wines

The 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot isn’t cheap at its $80 retail price, but it is worth it. You can find it for as low as $65 on wine-searcher.com (scroll to the bottom for some options). It is a substantial wine with layer upon layer of complexity. Give it a good two to three hours in the decanter now and it’ll sing for the following two days. This makes it contemplative wine as well, meaning that if you can nurse small pours over a long time and think about what you’re smelling and tasting throughout, then you’ll go through an intellectual exercise that demonstrates why wine can be magical: it’s a performance art just like ballet or an orchestra. It moves, it sings and it dances. Try this wine because merlot can be great, and this one is.

Tasting note:

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

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Where it buy:

You can order it winery direct here for $80. Check out wine-searcher.com for where to find it in your area, including stores that will ship to you. Below are a few shops around the country that carry it.

Fort Lauderdale, FL: Your Wine Cellars

Chicago, IL: Flickinger Wines

Greater Boston, MA: Wollaston Wine & Spirits

Wayne, NJ: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace

Bend, OR: RHC Selections

Nashville, TN: Cana Wine Company

 

 

2018’s Most Memorable Wines – and Moment

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

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

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

Vineyard of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

Try this Wine, Damnit!

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

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

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

Well-aged Wine is the Bee’s Knees

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

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

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

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

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The 2010 Copain chardonnay was also amazing

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

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

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

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

Bringing Back Real Rosé

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

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

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

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

Appreciating Value

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

Something Really Different 

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

A Story of Wine and Love

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It’s official. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

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

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

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

“The show-stopper, though, was the Proprietor Selection. Ultimately a selection of fruit from Green Acres, Buchli, Home Ranch and Brown Ranch vineyards, it includes only the barrels [winemaker] Richie [Allen] selected as the very best. The only note I wrote down was this: ‘Holy shit – more than the sum of its parts. The depth of flavor and concentration is flat-out off the charts.’ It’s one of those wines that in order to take it all in, you can’t really notice any particular element because the experience of the whole is too overwhelming.”

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

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

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

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Exchanging vows in Víc. Credit: Nikolaichik Photo

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

On Cork Report: Defining a New Region Near the North Carolina Border

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Rosemont of Virginia Winery

Note: this piece was originally published on The Cork Report on June 6th.

Rosemont of Virginia is located just four miles north of the State’s border with North Carolina, and that puts it well off any of the Commonwealth’s wine trails. While there are a few small wineries in the area, Rosemont is producing 6,000 cases annually, putting it squarely into the state’s mid-sized tier of producers. Because of its location, it may be one of the least well-known Virginia wineries of its size. Most of its foot traffic comes from tourists visiting Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Lake (two joined reservoirs), which allows it to produce at such a volume.

If you haven’t heard of Rosemont, though, you’re not alone. When a trio of samples showed up I had to turn to the Internet to make myself aware of the producer. Read more on The Cork Report.

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.

Consistently, and damn, good wine: Napa’s Ehlers Estate

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I have to admit to having not known of Ehlers Estate prior to meeting their Wine Club and Social Media Manager, Elizabeth Smith, at Taste Camp Maryland earlier this year. We had a BYOB night during the Camp and Elizabeth brought Ehlers’ sauvignon blanc and flagship 1886 cabernet sauvignon. Having had a small glass of the sauvignon blanc and a glass of the 1886, insufficiently decanted, Elizabeth offered to send samples for Good Vitis and I accepted with the caveat of setting up an interview Ehler’s winemaker, Kevin Morrisey, to round out my profile of the winery. My interactions with Elizabeth and Kevin have been fantastic and so it wasn’t a surprise when the wine lived up to the reputation.

Ehlers has been around for a long, long time – the late 1800s, actually; pretty hard to speak about Napa’s pioneers without referencing Ehlers. The building that is Ehler’s winery today is a stone barn completed by Bernard Ehlers, who bought the property, in, yes, 1886. One hundred years later, the French couple Jean and Sylvaine Leducq bought the estate and are absolutely committed to producing Bordeaux varieties that can stand up to the best in the Valley. To that end they brought on Kevin Morrisey in 2009 to make their wine.

Kevin comes with some pretty good pedigree, having interned at Chateau Petrus (yes, that Chateau Petrus) before landing at Stags’ Leap Winery where he became assistant winemaker. He was eventually poached by Etude Winery to take up the head winemaker position there before going to Ehlers because of the opportunity it presented to focus on terroir-driven, site specific, estate wines.

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Spotlight: Ehlers rose

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A rose fanatic, Kevin proudly takes credit for starting the rose programs at both wineries, a tradition he continued at Ehlers. He loves rose. Loves it. When I poured his rose the color was so impressive I didn’t want to consume it because then I’d have nothing but the picture left. The picture above doesn’t do it justice. It was, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t much care about the visuals of wine, one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. It looked like artificial watermelon coloring, but it glistened and gleamed in the sunlight and it was just one of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen. I asked Kevin about the color and he beamed through the telephone as he explained some of the geeky science behind the color of wine.

There’s something that goes on in the color of wine that isn’t fully understood by science. If you dilute red wine, the color change is not linear, but no one is exactly sure why. Further, if there’s not enough color in a wine it ends up being an unstable wine. For example, some older red wines turn brownish-orange in a way that doesn’t look natural for grape juice and is a sign that the wine is declining. Kevin really does not want his wines to turn those colors, so he aims to ensure long-term stability. He prefers low alcohol, high acid wines (meaning a low pH). When you have lots of acid and a low pH you can get a redder hew in a rose because deeper red colors come out at higher levels of acidity. Ehlers’ rose is indeed very high in acid, more than any other rose I’ve had, which explains why I’ve never seen one with such a brilliant color.

Selling rose has become easier over the last decade as there has been enough consumer education for people to reach the point where they no longer expect a sweet wine when it is poured for them. However, good rose remains the hardest wine for Kevin to make: you want the fruit and aromatics of a red wine with the great acid you get on a crisp white; or, put another way, you need the tannin and color of a red wine in a wine that shouldn’t be red. It’s a very tricky line to find, but Kevin has nailed it.

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Ehlers is a small producer bottling only 100% estate wines off their 40 acres of vineyards. Kevin and I discussed how he approaches the Leducq’s vision of creating best-in-show Bordeaux varietal wines from Napa and he begins the story with their vineyards. They do not source fruit nor plan to source fruit, which sets Ehlers apart from many, many other Napa producers, even some very good ones. Kevin named several reasons for this, but the one that caught my attention, that I found most interesting, is that he isn’t interested in dealing with subpar fruit. At first read that sentence isn’t surprising. If anything it seems like a ‘well duh’ line. However, vineyards known for producing a top-notch varietal will often require clients who want access to that fruit to purchase their subpar fruit as well, and so if your goal, like it is at Ehlers, is to sell only your best effort, you can’t get roped into a situation like that, and so to ensure his wines are consistently good he sticks with the one source he can control: his own vines.

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Ehlers’ terroir is entirely their own, the only winery producing from those vineyards. Farmed organically, the vineyards’ location is critical to Ehlers’ success as well. Located on a bench in Napa Valley and planted on well-draining soils with a good deal of cobbled rock, the vineyards sit at the narrowest point of Napa Valley, which creates a venturi effect (if I can apply that reference to wind) that whips the wind through the vineyards with regularity, helping to moderate temperatures. This doesn’t necessarily make it easier to identify an Ehlers’ wine in a blind tasting, but it helps Kevin and his team nail their consistency from year-to-year, which in turns helps build and sustain a loyal consumer following.

That consumer following comes also from the winery experience they receive. Kevin is known for spending a lot of time in the tasting room himself, which on its own isn’t likely enough to drive sales, but it is indicative of the amount of effort the Estate puts into its consumer experience. I’d wager that generally speaking winemakers avoid the tasting room, so when you have someone like Kevin eagerly making time for it you know there’s a real commitment to the constomer. That commitment is clearly shared by the rest of team, and is certainly something I’ve experienced with Elizabeth.

As someone with limited cellar space, I wanted to know why someone would purchase an Ehlers wine over the competition, and Kevin began by explaining that it’s because of the wholistic, hands-on approach that goes into producing a bottle of Ehlers. From the vines to bottling, Ehlers is entirely hand made by a small group of hard working and nice people dedicated to delivering their best in every bottle (he used the term ‘farm-to-table’ more than once). One of the most satisfying parts of the job is when he can authentically attach the wine to the place and the people for a customer. When you buy a carton of Horizon organic milk (his example, not mine), with the cute and happy cows on the carton, you think there’s a dairy somewhere out there with endless rolling hills where these cows churn out the best milk, yet that’s not the reality of Horizon’s operations. Kevin and the Ehlers team, however, deliver the wine version of that and helping people see that is of critical importance to everyone at the winery. With this in-house approach becoming less common in Napa, Ehlers is able to leverage their farm-to-table reality to earn a lot of respect among fine wine consumers who remain loyal to the winery because they are treated as though they are family.

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I asked Kevin the same ‘why would someone want Ehlers’ question a second way: why would a sommelier pull a bottle of Ehlers over a competitor’s wine? The answer is consistency. A sommelier can go to Ehlers because they know the bottle is going to be what it should be: a pure expression of a special part of Napa.  When Kevin was told this by a somm, it was a great compliment because that’s exactly what Kevin is trying to do: be true to the craft, be true to the vines, and deliver good, site-specific wine at a consistently high level.

The wines do speak for themselves, I can attest to that now. They showed dramatically high levels of quality across the lineup and each delivered great pleasure. I found the reds to be approachable now, especially with a few hours in the decanter, but I can see all improving with at least a few years of aging, especially the 1886. The consistently well-executed balance and structure of each wine seems to be a hallmark of Kevin and his team at Ehlers, and is a dead give-away that they know what they’re doing.

Now that I’ve spoken to Kevin and Elizabeth and tried their wines, I’m looking forward to visiting on my next trip to Napa to get that final, and key, Ehlers experience. All the wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2016 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc: The nose offers lemon curd, dandelion, Starfruit, limestone and chalk. The palate is medium in stature but well-structured with significant skin tannin and racy acidity. Big Meyer lemon, bitter spring greens, apricot, Granny Smith apple and a lot of white pepper spice. This is great stuff would be fun to follow over the next five years. 91 points. Value: B+

2016 Ehlers Estate Rose (of cabernet franc): 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+

2014 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc: The nose is dark and brooding with black cherry, black plum, smoke, teriyaki sauce, wet soil, black pepper and potpourri. The palate is medium bodied with slightly grainy tannins and plenty of mid palate grip. The alcohol is neatly kept, and balanced by keen acidity and a bit of sweetness on the fruit. It delivers flavors, dark and brooding like the nose, of dark cherries, acai, tar, sweet tobacco, soy sauce, black tea and graphite. This is a fantastic wine all-around, and definitely a cabernet franc for those who don’t like the vegetal profile the grape can produce. It offers a very appealing profile on the nose and palate, and a structure that is good for both solo drinking and pairing with food. This is drinking nicely now, but it has the stature to age and evolve for many years to come. It’d be fascinating to follow it over a good ten, fifteen-year period. 92 points. Value: C+

2014 Ehlers Estate Merlot: Not your typical full throttle merlot. The nose is refined with chocolate covered cherries, high toned orange zest, light cigarette tobacco and cedar. The palate is medium-plus in stature with thick, dusty tannins and crisp acidity. Flavors hit on cherries, strawberries, raspberries, graphite, tobacco, soy, orange, cocoa and Herbs de Provence. The alcohol is a respectful 14.2% but there’s a bit of a bite on the finish, though I can see it integrating better with a few more years in bottle. 90 points. Value: C-

2014 Ehlers Estate 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is a bit reticent at this point, but it offers a variety of aromas: cherries, acai, blackberries, blueberries, black currant, dusty dark cocoa and violets. In the mouth it is anything but heavy despite its full body. The tannins are tight but polished and balanced with good acidity. The structure is just gorgeous, giving it a real professional presence. The first hits on the palate are blackberries, cherries and dark chocolate, followed by a sweet orange zest burst, graphite, and thyme. It finishes with a big salty streak of minerality. It’s a clenched fist at the moment and while several hours of decanting does release a real fresh, juicy wine, I’d recommend giving this at least five to ten years in your cellar. 93 points now, but this will go up with time. Value: B

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.

Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B

World Class Wine is Made in Maryland

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Wine in the Old Westminster Winery tasting room

Really good wine can be made from Maryland grapes, that much is clear from visiting Old Westminster Winery. And when the Baker family does it, it can also be really special. Boutique wineries like Old Westminster often strive for a signature or house style that can attract a loyal following to ensure financial stability and a place in wine’s royalty. What seems in vogue these days is a focus on creating wines that are “expressions” of their vineyards or climates and thus the signature is something a little less specific to the winemaker than it is to the grapes and their sources.

Old Westminster does this, sort of, but after you try the wine you get the feeling there’s a loftier goal. Maryland terrior isn’t particularly acclaimed, and while the Bakers passionately aim to change its reputation for the better through smart varietal choises and meticulous vineyard site selection and management, they also aim to make the best wine they can with those grapes using a wide variety of vineyard management and winemaking techniques carefully chosen to coax the best wine from the grapes. The end results are wines that, if tasted blind, would likely be assumed to be from elsewhere while standing out for their quality and unique profiles. If another dozen or two wineries join Old Westminster and the other vanguard Maryland winery Black Ankle then perhaps Maryland’s terrior would gain enough attention to be recognizable. Given the newness of serious Maryland wine and the climatic challenges of the mid-Atlantic, the Baker’s wines are, at least to me, especially impressive because of where they are raised.

Drew Baker, one of the three siblings behind Old Westminster, met me on a Tuesday afternoon at their beautiful one-year old tasting room and over a low key tasting of eight wines introduced me to the Baker family’s approach to producing top shelf wine, which begins with smart site selection. The Baker’s estate vineyard sits on the mid-Maryland ridge on the Piedmont Plateau at an elevation of about 800 feet while its others sources are along the ­­­­­­­western foothills of South Mountain and range in elevation between 750 and 1000 feet. The family is expanding their own  vineyards into other areas as they invest significantly in finding the best sites. The family recently purchased the 117-acre Burnt Hill Farm on Piedmont Plateau after a long search in partnership with a renowned geologist. Drew is utterly jazzed about this new project.

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One of Old Westminster’s new estate vineyards

The Bakers are also taking advantage of the land around the winery, where they harvest some of the fruit used in the wine they’re currently selling, to experiment with new varietals. For example, in the vineyard across from the tasting room is a small planting of chardonel, a late ripening hybrid of the vitis vinifera chardonnay and the hybrid seyval blanc created in New York that can develop decent brix along with good acidity while still weathering colder climates. Though Old Westminster hasn’t committed to selling any wine made from the grape, Drew is excited to experiment with it next year when he’s able to harvest it for the first time.

The Baker family’s influences are significant. Between the siblings the family worked multiple vintages in Argentina (Ashli at a Micheal Rouland winery), New Zealand (Drew with Morton Estate) and California (Lisa with Patz & Hall and Bredrock Wine Company) in preparation for starting their own winery. The experience has paid off not only for what they learned about making good wine, but for what they learned about the kind of wines they wanted to make as well. Their wines aren’t an effort to replicate those of any of the wineries where they worked.

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Old Westminster’s tasting room

In the winery the Bakers are quite specific as well. Drew talked at length about taking only whole berries to tank and their meticulous efforts to ensure broken skins get removed. They use gravity to move must and ferment with native yeasts, and often times blend different press cuts to assemble wines that bear the characteristics the family is looking for in each wine. If you’re reading between the lines, you’re realizing that they spend a lot of time making their wine as these are not insignificant efforts.

The result is truly a Old Westminster house style: it has a set of particularities that combine the vineyards’ terrior and the Old Westminster processes to produce something unique. The whites showed consistently highly levels of acid that melded with ripe, round fruits and skin tannins to produce medium bodied beauties. With the reds I found myself noting meatiness and dark cherries across the range, each with nice concentration and enough acid to make the wines shine with food. Perhaps Old Westminster’s most impressive wines are their pétillant-naturel sparklers. It’s hard to be more wine geek than that these days. Every wine shows precision and cleanliness without losing personality.

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Drew Baker (L) and the author

My tasting notes and scores are below. The pet-nats, cabernet franc and malbec were standouts. Old Westminster makes a large variety of wines, and if the pet-nat made from albarino is any indication then the still version, which I wasn’t able to try, is likely a shining example of why it may be a leading contender for Maryland’s best white varietal. I highly recommend a visit to Old Westminster and the customizable wine club, which I’ve joined since the visit. Their wines can be purchased at the winery and through their website.

2015 Pét-Nat Albariño: First of its kind made in mid-Atlantic. Picked early at 3.0 pH and 19 brix (highly acidic). Very bright and fresh. A bit reductive at first but with a few minutes it begins to sing. Honeyed citrus on the nose. Really fun cocktail fruit/tutti fruiti aromas along with celery. Wonderful straw flavor notes along with strawberries, celery and mandarin oranges. Bit of baking spice. Incredibly executed vision, I imagine it would be great after a 20-30 minute decant. 93 points. Value: A

2015 Pét-Nat Gruner Veltiner: Like the Pet- Nat Albariño this was picked early September (especially unusual for the later ripening grape) and, also like the Albariño bottled at a density of 2 atmospheres of pressure, a full two-thirds less than the average Champagne. Aromas of honeysuckle, orange zest and white pepper. The palate is bigger and rounder than the Albariño and more fleshy and oily. Underripe oranges, big acid zip. Grassy notes along with artichoke. Would benefit from a 30-60 minute decant. 91 points. Value: A-

NV Greenstone White Third Edition: a multivintage of 2014 and 2015 it hasn’t been released yet. Blend of two-thirds viognier and one-third sauvignon blanc. The nose is initially a little skunky but it burns off quickly; by the time it’s released it may disappear. There are big pineapple and honey notes that do, thankfully stick around. Also a bit flinty. The palate is bigger than expected but the sauvignon blanc’s acidity keeps it from putting on too much weight.  Tropical with fresh pasture flavors and a big dose of white pepper. 89 points. Value: TBD

2015 Cool Ridge Viognier: aged entirely in stainless and aged sur lie. The nose is tropical and has a big dose of vanilla that comes, impressively, entirely from the fruit. With a bit more air it takes on a marshmallow note. It’s medium bodied and driven by streaky acid that I really appreciate. There’s a nice chili flake kick along with pound cake and mango flavors. This is leaner and acidic viognier and I prefer that style to the bigger and buttery California and Condrieu profiles. 89 points. Value: B+

2014 Antietam Creek Vineyard Cabernet Franc: extremely aromatic, this slams itself into your nose with huge density. Smoked meat with peppered beef jerky kick things off and intense glass swirling brings out gorgeous boysenberries. It’s medium bodied in the mouth and comes off quite fresh and clean. The acid is robust and the fruit just a little sweet, but it is far from cloying. Big black pepper and cherries along with flavors of tar, smoke and iodine. There’s just a touch of greenness in the background that I imagine will integrate with another year or two of bottle age. This is an unusual cabernet franc, neither what you’d in Chinon or California, it’s a savory delight. 93 points. Value: A

2013 Channery Hill: a blend of 85% merlot and 15% cabernet sauvignon. The nose is driven by meatiness and cherries but also has whiffs of crushed bedrock stones and smoke. There’s just a hint of mocha. In the mouth it’s fairly lightweight but has a good dose of grainy tannins that establish its presence. Classic merlot flavors of cherries, smoke and coca while the cabernet sauvignon adds sweet mint and tar. A nice sipper that I can see evolving over a few hours. 88 points. Value: B

NV Revelry Second Edition: 32% cabernet franc, 32% blaufränkisch, 16% merlot, 14% syrah and 4% cabernet sauvignon. Includes some free run and bled juice. The nose is again meaty with bright cherries, it also features cranberries. The palate is a bit heavier but its bright acidity and skin tannins keep it dancing. The fruit is dark and includes blackberries, cherries and plus. There is also some nice vegetal and black pepper flavors. With some air it takes on a really nice hickory barbecue sauce note. I imagine this would be a very versatile food and cheese wine. 90 points. Value: A-

2014 South Mountain Malbec: more than any grape I’ve experienced malbec reflects its terrior and this one is no different. It wafts sweet smokiness, cherries, raspberries, thyme and tar in a gorgeous bouquet. The palate is medium bodied and offers a delightful duo of fruit and acidity that balance out nicely with the still-softening tannins. The texture is fantastic. Fruit is red and sweet and plays off the black pepper note nicely. As it takes on air pomegranate flavors and astringency show up. 93 points now but with another few years it’ll be even better. Value: A