California’s Most Exciting Up & Coming Pinot Producer

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A few weeks ago I visited Napa Valley with two friends who had never been to the area before. The idea was to visit two wineries per day that would collectively give them a decent spectrum of what Napa and its environs have to offer. Wineries include Napa’s Rombauer, Failla and Chimney Rock, and Sonoma’s Carlisle, Arnot-Roberts (which makes wine from fruit from several parts of California) and Mojave, which is an Anderson Valley and Santa Cruz pinot noir project made in Napa.

Those wineries cover a pretty good diversity of styles, vineyard sourcing, business models and production levels. Next to Rombauer and Chimney Rock, Arnot-Roberts may stand out as a particularly niche and small producer. By all accounts that observation would be right, but if we want to think small in this context, Mojave is miniscule in comparison to all of them. Arnot-Roberts measures its production by the thousands of cases, at least; Mojave barely hits the second hand when counting barrels (figure roughly 25 cases per standard barrel).

Mojave is the side project of Becky George, who is the winemaker at Kelly Fleming Wines. I first met Becky in late 2017 at Kelly Fleming to taste those wines. It was my first winery visit on that five day trip, and I consider myself very lucky to have started the trip there. The wines are anything but the prototypical tannic fruit bomb that I expected to be inundated with during the visit. It was very helpful to start with Kelly Fleming’s reserved and elegant wines because it helped to calibrate my expectations and put me in a much better mindset to evaluate subsequent wines.

While on that 2017 trip, I was able to try Becky’s inaugural Mojave release, the 2016 Monument Tree Vineyard, and enjoyed it enough to buy three bottles when I returned home. My experiences with Becky on that trip were enough to name her one of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers, a distinction given to those individuals who changed how I thought about and appreciated wine that year.

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I still haven’t opened any of my 2016 Mojaves, so when I was planning this more recent trip and received the 2017 release email, I sent Becky and note and asked if she’d be around to taste it with me. When I arrived, she had opened the 2016 and 2017, and we were able to try the 2018 in barrel as well as a 2018 pinot from Santa Cruz that she’s making for the first time.

One of my favorite things about Becky is a seeming contradiction: her wines are exceptional – both Mojave and Kelly Fleming – yet she’s only really getting going as a winemaker. She is very open to others’ thoughts, and is very outgoing in terms of soliciting advice from more experienced winemakers. The amount of promise she holds is unusually high.

Another of my favorite things about Becky is her decision to focus her side project on pinot noir because it is a very different grape compared to those she makes at Kelly Fleming. Fleming wines are almost entirely Bordeaux varieties (the exception is the Big Pour blend, the current release of which includes 15% syrah), and have a classically constructed profile hedging towards the Bordeaux style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes.

Similarly, Mojave pinot also hedges towards the Burgundian style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes. Yet this pinot noir profile is, at least from my experience, rarer than the Fleming profile of its type in the context of California. I appreciate that in both labels Becky pursues what seems to me to be the same goal: make old school wines that retain their inherent Californian DNA, meaning all the natural characteristics of the grapes that get lost when pushed towards higher alcohol and tannin levels.

Monument Tree Vineyard is located in the northern end of Anderson Valley, which makes it notably cooler than Napa. Making it cooler yet, the vineyard is northeastern-facing and planted on a hillside, which protects the vines from afternoon sun. This location and orientation does all sorts of things for the grapes, namely that it slows maturation and prevents high levels of sugar development, which helps develop higher acid levels, lower alcohol and more non-fruit nuance and complexity than vineyards further south. Becky uses certain processes, like modest amounts of whole clusters during fermentation and significant portions of neutral oak, that highlight these cool climate eccentricities in the wine, which are readily apparent.

The 2016 vintage was, according to many winemakers in northern California, a near-perfect vintage in that it had desirable temperatures that were consistent, the right amount of timely rainfall, and no real weather incidents to speak of. It was a great vintage for Becky to launch her brand, allowing her to put a solid foot forward into the market on day one.

The 2016 Mojave has developed nicely since I tasted it roughly a year ago, and as good as I remembered it being. Mojave Monument Tree pinot noir is California pinot for Burgundy and Oregon pinot lovers, which means it is a bit funky. It is full bodied and ripe because even Anderson Valley has real warmth despite its cool California climate, but the acid is juicy and the wine remains agile. It has huckleberry, herbal and damp earthy flavors and aromas that harken me to the Nuits-Saint-Georges and Volnay regions in Burgundy. It is drinking well now, though I will try to refrain from opening the first of mine until at least 2020, if not longer, as I think it will get better with age.

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2017 was an entirely different and more challenging year. Heat spikes started in June and routinely lasted three to five days. Periods this long are enough for the vines to go defensive and shut themselves down, and this start-stop pattern prolonged veraison (the onset of ripening when the grapes turn from green to red and begin to develop sugar), which took up to six weeks depending on the location (an exceptionally long time).

Tasting the 2017 was challenging, not unlike the vintage, because it kept changing. Start the fruit! Stop the fruit, start the earth! Now, add the fruit! At first I called it more fruit-forward than the 2016. Fifteen minutes later, I changed my mind. Twenty minutes later I was returning to my initial impression. The fruit is darker in the 2017 regardless of whether it’s more prominent in the profile than the 2016 (I’m still undecided). I get serious plum and dark cherry. There is a spicy note that isn’t apparent in the 2016, and it does seem more brooding in stature and flavor. But the Burgundy funkiness is there, like the 2016, albeit it slightly quieter at this stage. I do suspect the wet forest and floral aromas and flavors will become more prevalent with age.

The 2018 barrel sample produced the most brambly of the three vintages. I also picked up a saline quality, though that could be residual carbon dioxide, and some tobacco and violet flavors. But that’s all you’re going to get from me because I don’t place much value in barrel samples, and I don’t think you should too, either. Especially when critics score them. I’m on my high horse here. Wines go through an incredible amount of development in barrel, so placing any credence in reviews based on barrel samples risks getting a wrong impression. Some wines get better in barrel, some get worse. It can go an infinite amount of ways. Here’s what I’ll say about the 2018 Monument Tree Vineyard in barrel: it’s good now, and I imagine it will get even better and I’ll like it even more after it’s been bottled if things don’t go wrong.

We also tasted Becky’s first non-Monument Tree pinot noir, a 2018 from the Hicks Vineyard in Santa Cruz. The site sits just five miles from the ocean, which puts it squarely in a maritime climate. If you like cold climate pinot, this is as legit as they come. One of her two barrels of this one is neutral, the other new. The neutral barrel has spectacular gamey and floral notes and a masculine structure driven by acid. The new barrel (medium toast) is rounder and softer with more apparent tannin. She is making the Hicks Vineyard in the same fashion as the Monument Tree because, as she described it, it’s like going on a first date: since you don’t know the person (wine), you stick with what you know in your interactions with them. I’m really excited to try this when it’s released.

Becky is a great winemaker, and will only get better. I imagine her wines will follow a similar trajectory. If you get excited by discovering something new on the ground floor, and if you like old school pinot noir, then Mojave is a great project to sign up for now.

Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers Part 2

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Last week I posted Part 1 of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers, which included profiles of three individuals in the wine biz who influenced, for the better, my appreciation and knowledge of wine this year. If you missed it, make sure you check it out now. They included two wine pros, Rick Rainey of Forge Cellars and Erica Orr of Baer Winery, whose wines have already appeared on top-100 lists, and another whose wine I’m sure will make one of those lists in the future, Lisa Hinton of Old Westminster Winery. This is Part 2, the final three, 2017 Tastemakers.

Richie Allen

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Where to start with Richie? I don’t think I’ve met anyone more obsessed with their craft than Richie is with winemaking, and I’ve been on the receiving end of many a winemaker’s epic winemaking rants. I think, maybe, it’s his Australian accent that makes it easier to survive his diatribes? I kid, honestly, because when Richie speaks about winemaking (and oenology, and vineyard management, and anything else), I listen as attentively as my brain will allow as it tries to process the unbelievable amount of interesting knowledge being dropped on me. There’s an academic book chapter worth of information in each sentence coming out of his mouth…

I’ve had the pleasure of talking and drinking wine with Richie in several settings, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely each and every time. Richie is laser-focused on constant improvement, and he and the winery are in it together. After exhaustive research, when Richie brings an idea to his bosses I imagine he gets a “yes” every time, either instantly or eventually, because he’s proven, over and over and over, that their trust in him is entirely well-placed. Consumers have thought of Rombauer wines similarly for a long time – they always deliver. I can tell you that’s because Richie makes it so.

Richie is also just a great guy. Earlier this year I wrote a post about why you should attend a winemaker dinner, and it came from a place of extreme skepticism. If winemaker dinners were typecast, Richie would be a leading man because he brings everything you could possibly imagine to the table. If Richie and Rombauer Vineyards come to a town near you, I suggest you take in the show.

  1. Winery and role: Rombauer Vineyards Director of Viticulture and winemaking
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 17
  3. Previous wineries/roles: Penfolds Magill Estate, cellar door, cellar, everything and anything; Oakridge Winery Yarra valley, vintage assistant winemaker; Church Road Winery Hawkes Bay, cellar; Vavasour, Awatere Valley, Assistant winemaker; Rombauer vineyards Napa Valley, Cellar, Enologist, assistant winemaker, winemaker, Director.
  4. What got you into the wine business: I got to taste different varieties as a 19-year-old and was hooked.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: I just followed the path before me to wherever it lead.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: If you are not constantly trying to improve, you are falling behind.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: I’m lucky to love what I do.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I love what I do and that can cloud your vision. Passion can lead you to make decisions that are not great business decisions, even though your heart tells you to do it.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: making wine.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Penfolds 1962 Bin 60A; Salon champagne 1996; Grosset polish hill 1999, screw cap.

 

Rebecca (Becky) George

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I met Becky only this month. Kelly Fleming Wines, where she is the winemaker, was the first stop in a 5-day trip to Napa I took in early December (several write-ups to come in 2018). Admittedly, Napa hasn’t ever been my thing. A few wineries, however, like Rombauer, Ehlers and Smith-Madrone, came onto my radar in 2017 and were enough to get me excited about exploring Napa in the hopes that I’d find more wineries making killer cabs gracefully packed with complexity, depth and savory notes. After the first sip of the 2014 Kelly Fleming Cabernet Sauvignon, I knew I had found another that delivered something intellectually stimulating while entertaining the taste buds as well.

Later in the week, I went back to taste Becky’s side project pinot noir, called Mojave, that was equally impressive as the Kelly Fleming Cabernet Sauvignon for similar reasons (grace, depth, complexity, balance, textual pleasure). We hung out for half an hour before I had to run off to my next appointment and talked about her history with, and love of, Burgundian varietals. We talked about her hope to source from (redacted) for Mojave, which I’m completely on board with because it’s my favorite California wine region. With demonstrable skills and similar wine loves, Becky is a winemaker I’m looking forward to following as she continues to produce and refine California wines more interesting than the average California grizzly bear.

  1. Winery and role: Kelly Fleming Wines, Winemaker; Mojave Wines, Founder/Winemaker.
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 15 years
  3. Previous wineries/roles: Enologist & Assistant Winemaker, Schramsberg Vineyards; Harvest Intern, Marcassin; Williams Selyem, Domaine Méo-Camuzet (Burgundy) Yarra Burn (Australia) and Artesa.
  4. What got you into the wine business: Growing up in the desert, I spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors with my dad. We would take wildflower hikes through desert canyons and did a lot of trekking in the eastern Sierras. I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors, playing in the dirt, and working with my hands. When I attended UC Davis as an undergraduate, my intention was to follow the biological sciences route, but curiosity led me to the Intro to Winemaking course with Dr. Waterhouse. The course intrigued me enough to take a quarter off and work a harvest in Napa. I loved working in the cellar, the excitement of harvest, and just being a part of this very specialized industry.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: My route has been one that has taken shape differently than I originally imagined. When I finished college, I was sure that I would follow the Burgundian varietals no matter what, and end up in Oregon or Sonoma or Santa Barbara. I have followed the Pinot track in some ways (with my own wine project), but opportunities in the industry have led me down different paths. When I was invited to come back and work full time at Schramsberg, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work with bubbles and some of my favorite people. When I found out about the possibility of working at Kelly Fleming’s small Calistoga estate, under the direction of esteemed winemaker Celia Welch, I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: I like to make wines that have a sense of style and grace, express the place where they come from, and perhaps most importantly, are delicious.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: Starting my own wine brand. Fear kept me from starting it for a long time, but it’s been a huge learning experience and it’s cool to be able to call this wine my own.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): In winemaking this would probably be getting stuck in ruts and not always staying on top of the latest technologies. Just because you have always done something one way, doesn’t mean that you should continue doing it that way. There are so many opportunities for experimentation in the vineyard and the winery. In regards to my own wine business, I could improve with that whole self-promotion thing. As a natural introvert, it’s not really in my wheelhouse, but social media is the new norm, so it’s time to step up!
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Oh boy. I think it would be great to continue making Pinot and Chard for myself, and hopefully for others too. I’d like to work with other appellations like Santa Cruz Mountains, Willamette Valley and Santa Barbara County. Perhaps making some method champenoise bubbles. And can I still do Napa Cabernet as well? All the cars will be electric by then so the commute should be easy!
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: 1982 Chateau Latour (birth year Bordeaux); early 2000’s Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Noirs; 2005 Domaine Méo Camuzet, Corton Clos Rognet

 

Lenn Thompson

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Wait a second, how did a wine writer get here? Lenn is definitely an outlier in both his place on this list and his place in wine writing. Lenn is famously (or notoriously, depending on who you talk to), known for his passion for spotlighting EBCOW (Everything But California, Oregon and Washington). Lenn started out with a focus on New York, but has since expanded his website, The Cork Report, to include New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and other off-the-radar states.

Lenn and I were introduced by a mutual friend and he subsequently invited me to join his annual Taste Camp, held earlier this year in Maryland. Since then, Lenn and I have stayed in touch, bonded over a mutual appreciation of Old Westminster Winery, and cross-posted content. (Okay, fine, he’s posted mine; I haven’t posted his. I’m a bad friend, I get it). A few months ago, he even treated me to an amazing night of Long Island wine over dinner with a few friends when I was nearby his home on a work trip, and has offered to guide me around Long Island for a proper introduction to its under-appreciated wine scene. In addition to expanding my exposure to domestic wines this year and offering thoughtful input on wine writing and blog management, Lenn been a champion of Good Vitis, friend and all-around mensch. His writing is superb, and I can’t recommend his blog enough.

  1. Blog(s), outlets and role: You’ll find me several places these days. I retired the NewYorkCorkReport.com site over a year ago, but it’s still live. I couldn’t throw away 10-plus years of content, but also didn’t want to migrate it all to my new site either. That new site is TheCorkReport.us where I’m writing about not only New York wine, but also wine from just about anywhere in North America that isn’t California, Oregon or Washington. I’m also the wine editor for a local newspaper (The Suffolk Times), their quarterly wine magazine (Long Island Wine Press) and their companion website (northforker.com). I’ve also written a few short pieces for Wine Enthusiast and Beverage Media over the last year.
  2. Number of years in the wine writing game: Almost 15 years.
  3. Stints in the industry – harvests, bottling, retailers, etc? If not, what would you most like to be exposed to?: I’ve dabbled here and there. Picked grapes on Long Island a few times and once in the Finger Lakes. I’ve also worked on a restaurant wine list here and there. Now I consult with a relatively new wine shop here on Long Island, picking the New York wines. I’d like to do more wine list work. There are so many restaurants in and around east coast wine regions who don’t serve local wines – and I think a big part of that is they just haven’t (or won’t) take the time to find the good stuff. I’d also love to get some hands-on winemaking experience.
  4. What got you into blogging: It started off as a creative outlet for a pretty boring day job writing about software. I had just moved to Long Island and was just starting to explore the wines here. It became an obsession rather quickly. Now, I can’t imagine my life without it.
  5. Side projects: The biggest one is TasteCamp, an annual wine conference that I organize for wine writers and members of the wine trade. Basically, I get 30 or so wine writers to descend upon a wine region they probably don’t know much about and we get as many wines, winemakers and vineyard managers in front of them as possible. I’m also planning to resuscitate a failed attempt at podcasting in the new year.
  6. One sentence description of your approach to wine writing: Be intrepid and open minded – but always be honest with your readers, even if it creates some friction with industry people who don’t want to hear it. Oh, and remember that it’s not about me, it’s about the wine, people, places, etc. – a lot of wine writers forget that.
  7. Areas of particular interest/expertise: I like to seek out the up-and-coming producers and regions. There are already so many people writing about wines from California, Italy, France, etc. – who will frankly do it better than I can. From the very beginning I wanted to carve out a niche as a guy who would explore the lesser-known corners of the wine world. There are so many people with so much passion doing such great things in these places, but for myriad reasons, they just can’t get the attention of most writers. Sometimes I think of myself as a champion and an advocate – but at the same time, I’m brutally honest too. Some people think I’m too much of a cheerleader. Some think I’m way too hard on East Coast producers. You can’t make everyone happy.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I’ve got a bunch of those. I need to make more time for writing – and for face-to-face visits with winemakers. I used to publicly mock writers who never leave their office – now I’m guilty of the same in many cases. I also need to give domestic chardonnay another chance. So much East Coast chardonnay is so mediocre that I largely stopped even tasting it, but a few examples I’ve had lately have impressed. That’s a goal I have for 2018. I also need to get more regimented with how I use social media to expand my reach and get the wineries I write about more attention.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: One of the reasons I have expanded beyond writing about only New York wine is that after 10 years of being one of the few people writing about them, a lot of people are today. It was time to – at least in part – move on to regions that weren’t getting the same attention. I hope that 10 years from now, I can say that Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Minnesota and beyond are all being covered the way they deserve. There is good wine – even great wine – being made in just about every state now. It just takes a little effort to find out who is growing the right things in the right places and handling them the right way in the cellar. Ten years from now, I hope all of those places are being written about by writers way more influential than I’ll ever be. I don’t know what I’ll be writing about by then, but my son will be in college, so hopefully someone will be paying me to do it.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my parents would take me and my sister to this great frozen custard place just outside of Pittsburgh. They always had vanilla and chocolate available, of course. They were staples and by far the most popular flavors. This was well before any sort of foodie movement, mind you. But at the bottom of the menu, they always had something a little different. Banana or butterscotch or peach. I always ordered whatever the “weird” flavor was, no matter it was. I’m still kind of that way today. I honestly don’t have a bucket list when it comes to wine. I guess I could list a rare vintage Champagne or exorbitantly priced First Growth Bordeaux, but the truth is that I get more pleasure of out of tasting and drinking wines that aren’t that. I’d rather explore. Try something new. Try something “weird.” Experiencing something new for the first time is what drives me.